Gilbert drove down the 5 toward Sunset Beach with a deep green 1967 Mustang on his roll-back tow truck, its grill crumpled like newspaper.
He was grateful to have arrived long after the paramedics and the cops and the ambulances and the firefighters. He was grateful only to have to wonder at what the carnage had been. All that remained was a police car, a cop guiding vehicles, and fire sticks keeping traffic at bay.
Even so, he had seen enough. There was blood, there was a stuffed animal, a dirty gray plushy, and he felt himself getting squeamish, getting upset. But the toy could’ve been in the back seat of any car. A toy didn’t mean a kid was actually in the car. People, kids, left things behind all the time.
He switched his playlist to reggaeton and blasted it. He was getting Amarisa into his music. And she was getting into his head. They watched crime shows together and she called what they were doing “cross-contamination.” It made him laugh. There was something sophisticated and dirty about it at the same time. Of course, she only said it when her son was out of the room, or over at his dad’s. That was fine with Gilbert.
“What do you mean, seeing someone?” his mother had asked last Sunday afternoon while dishing out chile verde with its chunks of tender pork and long strips of Anaheim chiles. The tortillas were already on the table, wrapped in a dish towel to keep them warm.
“If you want to know whether I’m sleeping with her, Ma, just ask.”
She pointed the ladle at him. “Sin vergüenza!” she scolded. “You know what I’m asking.”
He dodged the question with a shrug and went into his parents’ dining room to sit next to Valeria, his sister. Her hair was bright blue, and he told her he approved that message.
“Why do you gotta wind her up like that?” Valeria said to him, under her breath.
“I guess I just gotta,” he said, and shrugged again.
Amarisa was a little older than he was, with an eight-year-old named Ethan, who cracked Gilbert up retelling the plots of TV shows he had never heard of. Amarisa’s body was warm and welcoming, sexy in a way he hadn’t expected a mom’s body to be. She was funny; she was educated. She was a fucking college professor.
When he was in school, he hadn’t been much of a student, but he wasn’t a fuck-up or a clown. It wasn’t until he was out that he learned anything useful, and that led him to where he was now, owning his towing business. His parents, his family, they’d also done well for themselves. Valeria was a dental hygienist.
The thing was, he was always with the prettiest girl he could find. Even now, he kept himself up, he worked at it, and the girls he usually went for were tiny and smiling and funny, and good where it mattered. There was Yolanda who was crazy and hot; there was Sarita—
His mom had loved Sarita. Her parents were from Jerez just like his mom’s. His mom was so pissed when Sarita had ended it, saying, “Papi, why don’t we just make a baby, like everyone else? We don’t even have to get married, in the beginning.” This while she was breathing in his ear, her nipples firm and hard against his chest. When she whispered about marriage, he felt like he couldn’t breathe; his junk shrank; and that was the end of that.
Did he feel worse or better that Amarisa already had her own kid? He didn’t think it made a difference. Just thinking of marrying made his chest tight, made him anxious all over. It was like every day after he got married would be the same, over and over and over again. He didn’t like that feeling at all.
Like seeing that blood on the freeway.
It wasn’t like that, exactly, with Amarisa. First off, she’d already been married; second, she had a kid. He didn’t have anything against kids; he figured he’d have a son or daughter or two of his own one day. Heck, men could father babies into their eighties, right? He didn’t have to decide any of that just now.
Amarisa was sweet and kind and smart. So fucking smart. Too fucking smart. When they were together, she’d have to explain something she said, and it made him feel … not stupid, more like ignorant. Like when she told him Mexicans used to be segregated in schools in California, just like Blacks in the south. Blew his mind! There was a shitload of stuff out in the world that happened and was happening while he was working on towing cars and paying his bills and keeping his head down and everything up to date so the cops didn’t get any more fucking ideas in their heads about checking his licenses and registration and who really owned the business.
Yeah, it wasn’t gonna work out with her. You couldn’t hang with a girl who had to explain herself to you. He wasn’t gonna keep notes, and he couldn’t date a girl thinking there was gonna be a test at the end.
But he really liked her. She made him laugh.
It was weird, too, cuz she was definitely not the hottest chick he’d been with. That’d be Yolanda, but she, too, had wanted that fucking ring, which felt like a choke chain on his neck. Couldn’t do it. Could. Not.
This line of thought, it got him through the traffic on the 5, the denser traffic on the 55, and the maddening lane changes needed to reach the 405. He took the 405 exchange gently, followed his GPS through Fountain Valley, and ended up at the body shop in Sunset Beach. Cautiously, he pulled into the crowded parking lot. There were muscle cars in varying stages of disrepair, some little more than pastiches of primer-painted metal; others gleaming in shiny sparkling colors that reminded him of the toy cars he had put together as a kid. Cherry red, root beer brown, paint that shimmered with an underlay of stars.
Nobody stepped out to guide him, so he let his truck idle as he asked the head mechanic where to unload. Someone peered out of the alcove and held up a hand.
“I need to unload this,” Gilbert said, growing annoyed.
Huntington Beach made him nervous, and Sunset Beach was part of it. Lot of crazy white people who kept it on the down low until something or somebody got them riled and then out came the skinheads, the white bangers nobody ever called gang members, and the Confederate flag types. It reminded him of being a terrified kid.
But Gilbert was bigger now. He probably looked scary as hell to them. Big, frightening, brown stranger dude. Good.
After twenty minutes, he’d had enough. He began to lower the lift on his truck. If they wouldn’t tell him, he would unload the Mustang where it was. Block their drives. Let it be their fucking headache.
That brought someone out.
“Hey, you can’t drop it there.”
“So show me where you want it,” Gilbert said.
Finally, another mechanic pulled a bomb ass Thunderbird off a car lift and then at last Gilbert got to work. The guy kept shouting out shit, like he was guiding: “Left hand down, José, little more, little more, there, two feet, there you go, José.”
This gabacho was calling him José? What the fuck was that about?
Gilbert stepped out of his truck to release the straps. The hydraulics howled as he lowered the flatbed. What he was going to do when he was through here was to get in touch with Shirley, the girl he paid to take the calls, and take the rest of this day off. To hell with the stranded drivers, to hell with them all. Then he would text Amarisa, and if she was free, he’d take her out to lunch, or dinner, whatever worked. Take her son if he was around. He liked Ethan; he was smart, kind, a loner, nothing like Gilbert as a kid. Take her to Parker’s Lighthouse, get a beer and steamers while the day ended, look at the pretty people, look at Amarisa, and smile.
He stepped into the car, turned the key, moved the transmission from Park to Neutral. Then, he winched the Mustang back and heard the satisfying thud as two tons of American steel hit the garage floor. He scrambled underneath, unhooked the cable, and crawled out again, returning everything to its proper place.
“See this here,” Gilbert pointed to the florid lettering of his business on the side of his truck. “It’s Gilbert, for the record.”
The guy laughed and waved him away. “Whatever, homie.”
He didn’t take things personally, he did not take things personally, until in an explosion of emotion, everything was personal. He hated how these pendejos made him wait; he hated how this one talked to him.
“You are not my home boy,” Gilbert growled, getting into the cab of his truck.
He shook his head. If this was a movie like the kind he liked to watch, he would be the hero glaring at this moron, and the guy would be too dumb to know what was coming next. Then he’d rev the engine and reverse into this guy who would scramble for his life. He’d crash into the Mustang, pushing it through the supporting wall of the garage. Shifting direction, Gilbert would speed out of there, as the building collapsed into a heap of dirt and rubble, random car parts sticking out of the smoke and dust.
That was the movie of his life.
In the actual, not the virtual, version, he just sat in his truck.
He made a call. “Shirley? Never send me to this jack-off’s place again. Yeah, the one in Sunset Beach. I don’t care who wants this body shop. Look, I’m taking the rest of the day off, so you either call Nick or just pass, okay?”
He hung up and shot Amarisa a text. If she wasn’t available, he’d swing by that pie place he liked, pick up a boysenberry and take it to his mom’s. He’d have a slice with her.
Amarisa texted back. “I can’t today, wish I could!” with a frowning emoji.
He texted his mom; if that failed, he could always see his sister after work.
His mom texted, “I’m out with your sister,” with a dancing lady emoji.
He laughed. He’d just given himself the afternoon off, and now he had no plans at all. He’d feel like a fool calling Shirley back so he started his truck, pulled out of the body shop, and drove.
Things were great, and then they weren’t. His business was fine, made him feel proud and good, until it didn’t. Life was complicated: insurance forms, licensing, tickets, repossession, taxes, electronic devices. You couldn’t fix any of that with a thump of a fist. It was work. He tried to avoid complications; he’d seen enough wreckage. He tried to avoid problems in advance. A problem like, how long until Amarisa got bored with him? That gave him a pang. Unlike his previous girlfriends, she didn’t talk about marriage. Which was good, cuz then he’d feel all choked. She didn’t talk about the future at all, which made him feel spontaneous, but also a little sad. He wanted to ask whether this was just for fun. It seemed to him there could be more. Not to make his mom happy. Was it possible it would make him happy? Maybe they should talk. But he had always felt that if there was a point in the relationship where you had to talk about it, it was already dead and buried.
He ended up in Belmont Shore. He pulled into a long parking slot reserved for RVs, grabbed a serape from behind the seat, paid the parking, and walked down to the beach. Dockweiler, Manhattan, Huntington? Always packed. Long Beach? Always empty. Gilbert spread his serape down close to the waterline. He practically had his own private beach here. It felt later than it was, time change making the days shorter, sun heavier in the sky, wind kicking up the sand.
Gilbert sat still, squinting at the sea from behind his sunglasses. He watched the glint on the water, waves rushing forward and pulling back. Oil rigs, camouflaged as islands in the distance, downtown Long Beach to his right. In the water, a kiteboarder struggled patiently with his gear, kite down, surrounded by thick, black lines that looked completely tangled. In the distance, another kiteboarder zigzagged across the water, his hydrofoil skimming and sometimes leaving the surface of the ocean completely.
Gilbert was so intent on watching the second kiteboarder that he missed how the first one untangled himself, got up, and sailed again.
Sometimes the thought of all the days ahead of him, the same days over and over again, made him nervous. They stretched out like a repeated pattern, like a ribbon that began to wrap around him and coil into a snake. His heart would pound and he’d get all sweaty, like a workout, but not in a healthy way. He felt squeezed, out of air, like when Sarita had spoken of marriage. He saw all the days ahead of him, some happily pulling a truck, helping out, feeling useful, feeling fine, and others spent dealing with shitheads like today. The strangest thing was that nothing would change, nothing at all, and those feelings would just wear themselves out.
He felt cold. He saw blood on the highway.
A gull approached him, tentatively, and flew off.
But then, the kiteboarder went north, half out of the water, before turning and heading south again. The kite pulled him along, offering coordination and balance, making his movements look as effortless as those of a bird in the air. The other kiteboarder cut the water behind him, the two of them crossing along the coastline, up and down and back and forth. A rhythm that was stunning, soothing, that made him feel like there were possibilities ahead.
He had to show this to Amarisa. He had to bring Amarisa here.
As Gilbert watched the kiteboarders, his heart kept rising alongside them, as if they held a part of him aloft.