For several weeks after the fire, Último sat by the barrel stove and looked out the window at the gray sky. He bought a cheap bottle of red wine and drank it, but felt no better. He slept. Only a week before the fire, he had sent money home, so when he paid his rent, he had no money left. His only possession to sell was his moped, but it was a mile to town.
He might have looked for his father in California, but where? Or, of course, he could have gone home, but in Ricardo Flores he could not do the great things he expected of himself. Then, on a dark morning, he was lying in bed, dozing, waking, pondering, when Alba came again. She was in the doorway of his bedroom, embracing the wooden jamb, hiding her breasts from view. He sat up and pulled his blanket up to cover his chest and shoulders. Alba’s expression was no longer conflicted, but wanton and eager. Último called to her softly. She wouldn’t come closer, so he stood up to go to her, and she disappeared.
He interpreted this vision of Alba as a sign to stop moping, and that afternoon he asked Señor Garcia for a job in the bakery. Último had to go in at 4 a.m., and each day he understood his mother’s desperation. How had she endured the long journey to Chihuahua to sell baskets? What had she thought, leaving her children behind?
One of the Garcias was there, Mercedes or Alfonso, and Último helped prepare the dough, knead it, and put it into the pans. He learned to make dulces and churros and cinnamon rolls, and at six, they opened the store. Último brewed the coffee. There were three tables for sitting inside.
At eleven, Mercedes or Alfonso, whoever was there, took a break for lunch and left Último alone for an hour. He was not allowed to sit at the tables, but he might drink coffee in the back room, from which he could watch the store. One day, as he was behind the counter gazing at the street, Isabel Garcia touched his shoulder, and he jumped. She had come in through the back door from the alley.
“Are you alone?” she asked.
“I am here where I’m supposed to be,” he said.
“They say you are a good worker and do what you’re asked. Would you obey me, too?”
“That depends,” Último said.
Isabel slid past him, and he smelled her scent. “You don’t come to see me anymore.”
“I never came to see you. I delivered the movies you ordered.”
“Hatch is the end of the world,” she said. “I can’t wait to leave.”
“For me it is the beginning of the world.”
She took a bite of a churro. “I’ll think of something,” she said. “Be ready.”
On the day Último left Ricardo Flores he had said goodbye to his abuelita, who was old, but not to his mother, and hitchhiked to Buenaventura, where he got a ride north to Las Palomas. In the evening, he hiked west into the desert, and a three-quarters moon led him into the mountains. In the morning he hid in a cave and the next night walked again. He followed animal trails, and in the morning he was in the United States, at the edge of an encampment of RVs. All that day he watched what the people did there, who was leaving, and at mid-morning of the second day, he saw a couple on their way out stop their small motor home at the restroom. Último ran from his hiding place, climbed the ladder to the roof, and lay down.
The ride was easy. He held on to a vent to keep from rolling off on the turns. Most of the time he lay on his back and looked at the sky, the same one that arched over Ricardo Flores, and he daydreamed of Alba—her bronze skin, her black hair, the shame and joy on her face as she revealed herself to him. Several times he raised his head to see where he was, but everywhere around him was desert and mountains.
Once they stopped for no reason Último could see, and he heard voices—questions and answers. Someone opened the back of the camper. Último didn’t move. If he couldn’t see anyone on the ground, no one on the ground could see him. Then the RV gathered speed again and kept going. A half hour farther on was a town with stoplights, where the couple pulled into a gas station. Último climbed down from the roof and ran.
One afternoon after work in the bakery, he was in bed, but hadn’t gone to sleep yet. He’d got a raise of 50 cents an hour and was calculating how much he could send home when he heard the door open in the living room. For a minute, he didn’t hear anything more. Maybe it had been the wind, maybe Alba. Then the floor creaked. He opened his eyes, and Isabel Garcia came into his room.
“I thought of something to ask,” she said. “Do you want to make love?” She walked to the bed and pulled her shirt up over her head. “Move over.”
He moved over—he had no choice—and she slid in beside him.
Isabel visited every few days, and it wasn’t punishment to feel her hands on him, her mouth, the weight of her body. He liked her sighs, the notes of pleasure she sang to him, the urgency she felt, but he didn’t feel love. He felt an uneasy peace, and he slept after, but he worried who had seen her car there, who might talk, and he knew his days at the bakery were numbered.
He went to talk to Elena Rivera. “I want to grow chiles,” he said.
“Everyone in Hatch grows chiles,” she said.
“That’s the idea,” Último said. “I want to be everyone. But I will grow the best ones.”
“Do you know anything about growing chiles?”
“I will learn.”
“And where will you grow them?”
“On the land around the house that has tires on the roof, on my land.”
“You want to buy it?” Elena Rivera asked. “I laugh at you. My parents will laugh at you. But in case they don’t, how much are you intending to pay?”
“Ten thousand dollars,” Último said. “The house is barely a house, and there are rattlesnakes. Two thousand now, and a little at a time over five years.”
“Will you be here in five years?”
“If I get the land.”
“The land is full of stones,” Elena Rivera said, “and the creek is dry.”
“More reasons for your parents to sell.”
“But how will you grow chiles there?”
“Magic,” Último said. “I am destined for great things.”