El Baile

By Karl Eschenbach

Sean stopped running and bent over, hands on his knees, trying to catch his breath. He had just finished a short sprint at the end of a long jog. His face was flushed and just a shade lighter than his red hair. Now that fifty years was in sight, he was trying to hold on to his past while dumping a few pounds.

Sean straightened up and began walking the last three blocks home. Wisps of cotton from the cottonwood trees, like restless spirits, floated fitfully in the hot breeze of June. The traffic on Rio Bravo Boulevard buzzed in his ears, and he thought he heard faint music, Spanish music.

He saw the viejito sitting on a stump on the corner ahead. Through the shimmering heat, distorting his sight, he saw a flash of color, bright yellow and green, in front of the old man. Then sweat stung his eyes, and he had to blink and wipe his face. When he looked again he saw only the viejito.

The viejito said "¿Como esta?" as Sean approached. His face was weathered with the arroyos of age and was the brown color of the earth.

"How’s it going?" Sean asked in return.

"¿Caliente, no?" the viejito said.

"Oh yeah, it’s hot."

"Lived here long?" the viejito asked.

"About five or six years now."

"You don’t live where the other Anglos live, up in the heights?"

Sean looked carefully at the viejito before answering. "No, we couldn’t find anything we liked up there, not that we could afford anyway. Besides, we like it here in the South Valley. It’s more peaceful and quiet."

"More and more Anglos are moving down here now," the viejito said.

Sean wiped the sweat from his forehead and face, then asked, "Is there a problem with that?"

The viejito stood up quickly. He was thin and wiry. "Oh no, I didn’t mean it like that. It’s just a fact." He paused for a second, looked to his right for another, then turned back to Sean. "I’m sorry," he said wiping his hand on his pants, then sticking it out. "I’m Tomás Gutiérrez."

Sean took the hand and replied "Sean Murphy."

"Irish, eh? I was taught by Irish nuns at Catholic school as a boy. That was a long time ago, no?" Tomás said with a laugh.

"For me too," Sean said.

Tomás paused, then said, "Someone told me that the Irish don’t like being called ‘Anglo.’ Maybe I should apologize again."

"No, don’t worry about it," Sean said. After a couple of seconds he continued awkwardly, "My grandparents came to the U.S. at the turn of the century. My grandfather died before I was born, and my grandmother died while I was still a kid. I never really got to know her." Sean paused. "I hardly remember what she looked like."

"Oh," Tomás said. "My family has been here since the Atrisco land grant. I was raised by my mother and abuelita after my father died." Tomás looked to his right again.

Sean followed his gaze to two small white crosses staked into the ground. A wreath of red plastic flowers hung on each cross.

"What are those crosses for?" Sean asked.

Tomás sighed. "Two young girls were walking home from dance practice, and two gangs had a shoot-out. The girls were in the way."

"Damn gangs," Sean said.

"The Anglos in the heights, they think it’s always been like this in the Valley—gangs shooting at each other over drugs and barrio loyalty. But it wasn’t always like this. Si, we always had the vatos of the neighborhood, and you could have called them gangs. Pero, they never killed anybody."

"Sure," Sean said. "My father grew up in an Irish neighborhood in New York. They didn’t like the Italians or Germans. Same thing."

The veijito nodded. "Y, and the drugs. We always had the marijuanos—I even smoked a little myself when I was a kid—pero, the cocaine and heroin, the gangsters kill each other over it."

"Yeah, and everybody’s got guns these days," Sean said.

"Si, y now when an argument starts, everyone pulls out their guns first thing. No chingasos, just killing." Tomás looked at the crosses again. "Pero, everything changes, new people and new ways move in. Even the trees and the bosque have changed. Mira," Tomás pointed at the stump he had been sitting on, "when I was a kid, this was a beautiful cottonwood, and big. Cottonwood…that’s alamo in Spanish," he added with a chuckle. "I bet you thought an alamo was where John Wayne killed a bunch of Mexicans, no?"

"Yeah, you’re right," Sean had to admit, but he laughed also.

"Pero, this alamo died after getting hit by lightning twenty years ago. Not right away, but slow. Then they had to cut it down, so only this stump is left. Now, mira, mostly Siberian elms are growing where the cottonwoods grew. And the Russian olives and salt cedars. I don’t recognize the bosque anymore when I walk there." He shook his head and sat back down on the stump.

Sean felt uncomfortable. He shifted his weight from one foot to the other and wiped sweat off his face again. "Well, I’ve got to get going," he said, then paused. "But maybe I’ll see you again later. I’d like to talk some more."

"Bueno," Tomás said with a slight wave of his hand. He rested his arms on his knees and looked to the ground.

Sean walked away, but before he got far he thought he heard music, Spanish music, through the din of traffic on Rio Bravo. He turned to look back at the viejito and saw him clapping his hands and tapping his right foot in time to the music. Before him danced two girls with dark faces and hair. They wore dresses of bright yellow and green, held the hems out with their small hands, and flourished them back and forth in time to the music.

Sean shivered in the heat.

Copyright 2000, Karl Eschenbach

About the Author

I was born in 1950, in the middle of the century, in the middle of the cold war. Raised as a military brat, I traveled across this land. I was educated in the radicalism of the 1960s and 1970s but now live the quiet life of a grandfather in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

I have had work published in The Martian Wave, The Fifth Di… , Asking the Question, Creatio Ex Nihilo, The Storyteller, Thresholds Quarterly, Happy, Left Curve, Earth Tones: Perspectives on Ecological Issues, and Free Focus. I have also had work accepted by The Legions of Light Magazine, Writers Corner, My Legacy, Alpha Beat Press, and an anthology. "El Baile" was first published in The Storyteller in 1998.

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