Springer got applications from lots of meatheads in town for the job. Large corn-fed guys who could have knocked Springer out just giving him a good smack upside the head, the kind who stood outside the strip clubs he occasionally frequented with their bulging arms crossed over their puffed up chests, wearing the don’t-fuck-with-me look they had been working on since before puberty. Any of these guys would have done just fine. But then the right one came in. He was black. He was from out of town. He was perfect. His shaved scalp, the roll of muscle-fat at the back of his neck, his dark skin—he would make more of an impression than anyone homegrown.
“So what’s your name?” Springer asked him.
“Leroy Brown. Like in the song?”
Springer blinked once. Then he said, “I’m Springer. First name Avery. Like Tex Avery. He made the greatest cartoons. Watched them all the time when I was little. Can’t find them anywhere anymore.”
“The cartoons where a white dude would get blown up with dynamite and turn into a black dude, right?”
“Yeah, those ones.”
Always get the last word.
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Leroy laughed. He was impressed that Springer, who was hardly tall enough to reach his shoulder, didn’t even break eye contact with him during that exchange. The little dude had some balls. He would call Springer ‘Tex,’ after the cartoonist. No one in town knew where Leroy got the nickname, and Springer liked that. It set him apart, in a good way.
To clarify: Leroy’s real name was Douglas Jefferson and he was from Chicago, Illinois. He had a clean slash mark on the right side of his abdomen that had turned pink like the inside of a seashell as it scarred over, contrasting against the surrounding skin. Springer noticed the slash one day when Leroy’s shirt hiked up as he bent over to pick up something heavy. Springer said, “If anybody around here asks, you can tell them you got injured by farming equipment.”
“Yeah. Farming equipment,” Leroy said slowly as if he was trying the words on. Then both men laughed as if Leroy had just squeezed himself into a shirt that was hilariously too small.
URGENT—DATED MATERIAL—LAST NOTICE, the envelope threatened, in blocky red letters. The bright, blood-like ink of the stamp had been smudged by someone’s sweaty finger. Either the postman’s or whoever had pounded the dire words onto the paper. Louisa scarcely paid it mind. She threw it away without opening it. The last time she handed one of these envelopes to her husband with the suggestion that maybe he should take a gander at it, he did not take it well. There was, after all, the strange but real possibility that nothing might ever come of it. Sometimes problems went away when they were simply ignored long enough.
Her youngest said, “Ma, can I go outside?”
“Did you finish your orange juice?”
“The hell you always up to out there?” Bill snapped at the boy as he slid off his chair. The child didn’t answer, merely sidled outside without a sound, shutting the door carefully after him so that the latch wouldn’t click, a habit all the kids picked up because slamming doors were inevitably yelled at.
“Goddamn obsessed with being outside,” Bill mumbled into his coffee cup. “He’s going to grow up and pick grapes out there with the Mexicans.”
It was clear to the others around the table, Louisa and her two teenagers, that the humiliation was less in picking grapes than in doing so with Mexicans. It was that word, Mexican, that almost made Marjorie, a lanky seventeen-year-old girl with hair the same color and dryness as straw, backtalk. Shutting up was an effort. Suddenly she understood the strained look that was so often on her mother’s face. Louisa spent a lot of time working real hard at shutting up.
Marjorie thought of the casual ease with which the prettiest girls at school tossed out sarcastic zingers, because they could get away with it. They could chasten hopeful males with a simple Like, whatever. Marjorie would think of something more cutting. She would say: Dad, just because you lost your job doesn’t mean you have to be such an asshole. Or better—with wide-eyed, faked innocence: What’s wrong with Mexicans? The one I’ve been hanging out with really knows how to make a girl feel good.
How fast would her father’s hand be then? She might show up at school later with a shiner. But no. That would mess with her blossoming beauty, the one thing that might get her out of this town. She wouldn’t do a thing like that.
To clarify: she wouldn’t do a thing like that means that Marjorie wouldn’t push her father hard enough to make him smack the prettiness off her face. It does not mean that she would not have sex with a Mexican.
Marjorie had met her mestizo, a Mayan striped with Spaniard, at the secluded pond where she swam alone when she cut school. She was already halfway out of her clothes when she saw him there, chest-deep in the water, wearing nothing but a tiny gold cross around his neck, his dark eyes filled with calm curiosity. She let out a little yelp, covered her reddening face with her hands. She ran away because she didn’t want him to see her embarrassed. Not because she didn’t want him to see her naked.
She was back the next day in a polka dot bathing suit, while he had somehow managed to scrounge up a pair of tattered yellow swim trunks. By the end of the afternoon, these small nods to decency had been shed. She was completely overtaken by his rash tenderness. It somehow didn’t matter that his body was slight and an inch shorter than hers, though she’d previously only dated beefy Aryans from the football team. He was twenty-one. He spoke fragmented English with a thick accent. He grew his straight black hair down to his shoulders. It gleamed darkly like the fur of a healthy animal. He was the best secret she had ever kept.
Any time Marjorie closed her eyes when she was in her prison home or her prison school, she saw his tawny skin glittering with water beads. His wet hair streaking down the sides of his face as he bent to kiss her. His tiny gold cross gleaming in the oblique sunlight coming in mottled through the leaves. His eyes were uncannily large and black; they almost frightened her. His name was Alberto Esperanza. The name rang exotic in her dazzled ear. To her, it sounded almost like the title of a song.