Fiction Fiction 2009

Alba

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. She had on shorts and a pale blouse, and her face was conflicted with desire. “Let me make a fire,” he said to her. “You must be cold.”

When the stones had been carried away, Último broke apart the clumps of earth with a hoe. That took another week. Then he borrowed back his moped and visited the widow Obregón and asked to buy manure.

“You can’t buy it,” she said. “I will give it to you.”

“Can I rent one of your trucks to haul it?”

“I will lend you the truck.”

“Thank you,” he said, and he listened to her complain about her son in Wichita who worked for Cessna but never came to visit her.

Último spread the manure with a shovel, 15 loads over 10 days. He hoed furrows three feet apart, ar­ranged a flexible plastic pipe to the highest point in the field, and irrigated the dry ground to the north so it could get used to moisture it had never experienced except as rain. He did the same thing from the highest point to the south.

He spoke to other chile growers he’d met when he delivered movies—to the Gallegoses, who marketed their chiles to Safeway, to Arnie Yellen, who grew chiles on an acre behind his house and sold them on the highway, to Alfred Saenz, who was the biggest grower in the Hatch Valley. He talked to Ned Cruz, the owner of the Chile Store, who sold chiles year-round as paste and in powder form, dried, fresh, and frozen. In the library he read in Spanish and English about green chiles and red chiles, their growing seasons, the ways to keep insects off the plants, how to make sure the chiles flowered. He called the agricultural extension agent of Doña Ana County for recommendations and learned that the less water chiles had, the hotter they were.

As the weather warmed, the bakery became busier. Locals shed their winter isolation and moved outside. Motels were full of spring travelers, and these people wanted dulces and coffee for the road. Último came in at 3 a.m. to make more bread, more cinnamon rolls, more churros. Even Isabel helped. She was at the cash register before school and came back for an hour at noon and complained the whole time.

Still, Último labored every afternoon on his land. He had carried the stones away but continued to find new ones; he broke the clumps of earth smaller and smaller; he irrigated the ground. Then, finally, in April, he was ready to buy seeds.

There were many choices—sweet or mild, hot, super hot. A habañero was 50 times hotter than a jalapeño. There were bird chiles, Bolivian chiles, Peruvian chiles, all undomesticated, plus bell chiles, Cherrytime, Hungarian Hot Wax, Hot Cherry, red, cayenne, and Serrano. And there were specialized versions of these too, like Cherry Bombs, Marbles, and Bulgarian Carrot, as well as hybrids like Ancho 211, Thai Dragon, Conchos Jalapeño, and Serrano del Sol.

He was pondering what to buy when Isabel came over and asked him to go with her to Las Cruces to find an apartment. “I’m moving as soon as school’s finished,” she said.

“Is it all right with your parents?”

“I’m not asking.”

“When do you want to go?”

“Now,” she said, “right after you fuck me.”

Isabel had read a newspaper ahead of time and had marked the ads, and by three o’clock she’d found a one-bedroom not too far from the university. The manager of the building wanted a month’s rent in advance, which Isabel supplied. “You can visit me anytime,” she said to Último, “and you’d better.”

“Since we’re here,” he said, “do you mind if I run an errand? I want to buy a hat.”

They found a hat store in the Yellow Pages, and Isabel drove him there and waited in the car. He bought a straw hat with a brim to keep the sun from his face.

“You look silly,” Isabel said.

“It’s a hat like my father’s,” Último said. “Now I have to go to the university.”

“I have a friend there,” Isabel said. “I’ll see if he’s home.”

Isabel let him off on the corner of Espina and Frenger, and Último found the Chile Pepper Institute of New Mexico State. He asked to see the director, and after a short wait was ushered into a small office. He sat down across the desk from a young woman. “I am going to grow chiles in Hatch,” he said. “I need magic.”

He set seeds in the ground in rows three feet apart, each seed 18 inches from the one he’d planted before. He marked every seed, fertilized it, and watered it by hand from a bucket he carried along. He moved on his knees from one planting to the next like a pilgrim crawling for miles to atone for his sins. It took Último three days to plant the seeds—the experimental ones the institute was paying him to grow.

Then he waited.

To make sure the water wouldn’t evaporate in the heat of the day, he irrigated after sundown, again at midnight, and a third time when he got up to go to the bakery. On his break at 9 a.m., he ran home and turned off the pump.

One afternoon he came home and saw two trucks parked along the arroyo, an old one and a new Dodge. He recognized Señora Obregón sitting in the shade with her hired man, Paco. Último came up, and they all shook hands.

“It was my turn to visit you,” Señora Obregón said. “I see how hard you’ve worked.”

“I have planted chiles,” Último said. “I can offer you a drink of water. It is a humble house.”

“I would like you to bring me chiles from the harvest,” Señora Obregón said.

“I will be glad to,” Último said, “but the harvest is far away.”

“Closer than you think,” Señora Obregón said. “That’s why I’m here. How would you bring me chiles without a truck?” She nodded toward the old truck. “The tires are worn, and it has 100,000 miles of use, but it’s a Toyota and has lived well.”

“I am honored,” Último said.

“The title is on the seat,” Señora Obregón said. “Here’s the key. Now you can visit me again.”

May 21, a long day. Último had hardly slept, because at two in the morning, something made an eerie, quavering sound in the cottonwoods. He stepped outside with a flashlight and heard the unmistakable buzzing of a rattlesnake. He found the snake in the beam of the flashlight, coiled, with its head raised, its tongue flashing. Último got to his knees and shone the light into the snake’s eyes. “I will leave you alone,” he said, “if you will leave me alone.”

The snake didn’t answer, but Último believed they had made a deal.

He heard the quavering again—like a saw blade being played—and he skirted the snake and walked to the arroyo. The sound came from upstream in dark billowy trees, but each time he reached the place he thought it was, it moved farther away.

The night was cool, but the stars were out, and as Último waited to hear the sound again, he urinated into the arroyo. Like every man in history who had done the same thing, Último felt the enormity of the sky, the deepness of space, and his own tiny greatness in the effort he had made in his field. Then the quavering came again from the trees nearby.

Último shone his light back and forth into the leaves until he found the shining eyes of a small owl. It was 30 feet away and a little above where Último stood, and Último made a deal with the owl, too, never to die.

Último lowered the light, and the bird flew deeper into the trees.

He set the water and went back to bed, but he still couldn’t sleep, because he felt the air move through the house, sweet air, humid with the earth’s smell. He got up when it was still dark and went to bake bread.

At nine o’clock he drove his new old truck home and cut off the pump and sat for a minute on the smooth stone he had put down as a step to his door. He was wearing the straw hat against the sun. The snake’s path was carved in the dust in the direction of the arroyo, and the cottonwoods chattered in the breeze. Because he hadn’t slept, Último felt part of everything that lived nearby. He remembered his mother and Lorena in Ricardo Flores, Marta in Buenaventura, his father in California, wherever he was, and wished they all could see him at that moment, tired and exultant.

He closed his eyes for a moment and leaned back against the door, and when he opened his eyes again, he saw tiny sprigs of green coming up through the soil. He stood up and ran into the field. The chiles were coming up, three feet apart in the rows and 18 inches one plant from another. He knelt down in a wet furrow between two rows and kissed the ground, and when he looked up again, Alba was a few feet away, gazing at him. She wore jeans and a white blouse, and her expression was dreamlike, as if she had believed in him all along and was answering his call.

Kent Nelson’s most recent novel is Land That Moves, Land That Stands Still. He lives in Ouray, Colorado.
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