Elena Rivera’s parents agreed to let him have the house in return for his labor fixing it up. An abandoned shack was what it was, with waist-high weeds in the yard. The door was padlocked, but Último looked through the jagged glass of the broken windows. Swallows had nested on the rafters, and the stuccoed walls were covered with graffiti—Venceremos! Viva Zapata! Anglos suck eggs. There were three rooms, one with a sink, but no running water. The outhouse in back was functional, but it leaned two feet toward the dry arroyo where cottonwoods grew. A barrel stove had heated the place, but the barrel was in the yard, and the stovepipe was gone. Último tried the outdoor pump and gave 30 pulls on the long, curved handle. Dirty water came out, but in another 30 pulls the water came clear.
Early mornings in October, before he went to the video store, Último cleared the weeds and burned them. He borrowed tools from the Riveras—hammer, saw, chisel, level, tape measure—and bought plaster, nails, window glass, glazing compound, and a stovepipe. At night he scavenged for plywood, warped two-by-fours, one-by-fours with nails still in them. He fixed the hole in the floor, repaired the damage to the clapboard outside, jammed rocks into the holes raccoons had made under the house. He scraped away the swallows’ mud nests, covered over the graffiti with fresh plaster, moved the barrel inside, and cut the stovepipe to fit. He propped two cottonwood branches against the outhouse to make it stand straight. The electricity was turned on. From his customers he cadged two lamps, two chairs, a mattress, and a card table. He saw no rattlesnakes—it was getting cold.
October 25, he moved in, and not long after, an unusual thing: one evening he stayed for steak and green chiles at the widow Obregón’s and drove home late on his moped. It was windy and dark, and when he pulled up to his shack he was chilled. The moon illuminated the tin roof with the tires on it, and the stones in the yard were silver. When he opened the door to his house, the moonlight came in with him, and there was Alba in the kitchen. She had on shorts and a pale blouse—he couldn’t see what color in the dark—and her face was conflicted with desire. “Let me make a fire,” he said. “You must be cold.” He turned on the light, but no one was there.
Último knew people claimed they’d seen Mary Magdalene and the Virgin Mary and even Jesus Christ, but this was Alba, an ordinary girl from Ricardo Flores. Despite the promise he’d made, he hadn’t thought much about Alba. In Deming he had written her several letters, scrawled on torn paper, and he’d received three from her, written on a lined school tablet, the last of which offered him more of her if he came home. But he was with Brenda, and he hadn’t written back.
The night after Último saw Alba, he came home from his last delivery with a keen anticipation of seeing her again. Perhaps she’d be at the table or lying in bed, or she’d be at the window looking west into the moonlight, but when he opened the door, the house was empty. He thought it might have been a difference in the clouds, or in the moon’s waning by a single day. Several weeks went by, each night getting longer and colder, and he got over his disappointment and wondered whether he’d ever seen Alba at all.
It rained. At the Goodwill he bought a coat and hat and gloves. With the dwindling light, people had longer evenings to fill up, and he hustled videos even harder because Señora Gaspar was always getting in new movies and his premiums were good money. But with the cold and the early dark, deliveries were more of a burden. Yes, he was familiar with the signs, the location of the poorly banked curve on Canal Road, the washboard gravel by Jaime Delgado’s adobe house where seven people lived, but Último couldn’t see the blue hills in the distance or the hawks circling or the silhouettes of the mountains, except as a jagged black line against the stars.
His solace was his house. Each day he became more used to it, more comfortable. The barrel stove was smoky, but it heated the rooms. He had built a platform for his mattress, and he slept well. For a couple of months, he sent money home to his mother and Lorena.
In December, Elena Rivera’s parents asked for rent, starting in the new year. “You’ve lived for free,” Elena Rivera said. “What you spent for labor and materials has been accounted for.”
“How much?” Último wanted to know.
“Two hundred a month. I’ve argued your case, but the dairy business is not going well, and my parents want what’s fair.”
“There’s no heat,” Último said. “No running water. I’m already paying the electric.”
“That’s why it’s not 400,” Elena said.
“I understand,” Último said. “I will pay the rent.”
At Christmas, Señora Gaspar went to Albuquerque to visit her son, and Último was left in charge. He opened the store, answered the phone, logged in the returned videos. He called the people whose DVDs were overdue and offered pickup service. Of course, Señora Gaspar needed someone in the store when Último was making deliveries, so at three her niece, Rosa, came in with a four-pack of wine coolers. When Último returned half-frozen from his pickups and deliveries, Rosa was sitting on the stool with a space heater under her, reading comic books.
The next morning the till was short $22. To avoid suspicion, Último made up the difference from his own pocket. The next morning, another $15 was missing. He didn’t know what to do. Señora Gaspar would be gone another 11 days.
Último was saved from one despair by another, because the next night when Rosa closed the store, she left the space heater on, and too close to the wastebasket. It melted the plastic and set fire to the computer tear-offs and then to the desk. It was three in the morning, and by the time the volunteer fire department arrived, the building was ablaze, the inventory destroyed, and Último’s livelihood gone up in flames.