Monday, January 22, 2018

Grown-Ups These Days by Hector Luis Alamo

Grown-Ups These Days
by Hector Luis Alamo

"I still can’t believe we're going to see J-Lo tonight."
            "I know, crazy, huh?"
            Lily nods. She’s sitting on one leg folded underneath her, the other leg crossed over, back against the seat, arms on the armrests, like a young Spanish grandee lounging in her favorite chair, a glass of sweet red wine between her painted fingertips.
            She smiles. “When I was little, listening to her songs and dancing in my room with my sisters, I never would’ve thought, not even in a million years...”
            Her voice trails off.
            Sitting across from her at the table, Nestor, brown and stringy as a strip of jerky, slowly nods his shaved head. He picks up a half-emptied glass from the table and takes a smooth swig of wine. Actual clouds drift across the sky, thin and flat, making for a beautiful sunset above the Nevada desert. The air is warm, dry, smelling the nothing smell of hot sand, mixed now and then with a whiff of baked dog turds left on the patch of fake grass, flies swirling around them like tiny little buzzards.
            Glass in hand, Nestor swats at a stray fly, spilling drops of red on the patio table. He wipes the liquid with his hand, peeking up at Lily to see if she noticed, but she’s staring serenely at a little white dog chasing a buzzing winged dot, its head darting around like a squirrel’s. The dog stands still, firm, waiting, trying to look out of the corners of both its animal eyes, feeling for the slightest tickle, something to snap at. A fly lands near its tail and the dog whips around to bite it, chew it, eat it, swallow it, but the fly is too quick and zips away to live another minute.
            Lily smiles at the dog. “I think it’s hilarious how much he hates flies.”
            “That fucken dog is spoiled.” Nestor wipes his red-wet hand underneath the seat cushion, staining it. “'member the dogs in Mexico? They don’t give a fuck. Just laying out in the street, underneath somebody's car, with a whole gang of flies living on their face, a shit ton of people passing by.”
            Lily shakes her head, sort of listening. “Yeah, but pobres perros--roaming the streets, with no food, no owners.”
            Pobres perros nothing! They have owners! You don't think they have owners? They just don’t baby them like we do. Plus, even the ones that don’t have owners still find food. They eat!”
            Nestor relaxes.
            “You need to stop pampering this little motherfucker, I’m serious. If he bites one more person...”
            He kills the rest of his wine. A red stream slides down from the corner of his mouth and he clears it away with the brown of his hand.
            “He’s just misunderstood.” Lily grins at the dog. “He doesn’t like people--most people. He doesn’t like being touched or reached for, and I get that. I even sorta respect him for it.”
            Her one crossed-over leg is pumping, slowly, up and down.
            Nestor frowns at the dog, back at its twitching and chasing and pouncing. “We didn’t socialize him like we shoulda. We were supposed to bring him around as many people as possible when he was still real little. But time flew by so quick, didn’t it? And this girl, she said she’d help with taking care of it, said it would be her dog, her responsibility. We got the thing for her and she just bailed, stayed in her room, listening to music and YouTubing and Facetiming her friends, doing everything else instead of taking care of the dog she wanted so bad. She bugged us about getting a dog every day, and then, once we got him, every day I had to remind her to walk him and feed him. Every day. But, really, I’m the asshole. I shoulda known.”
            The sun sinks lower, pink and orange spreading across the sky like watercolors seeping through paper. The dog jerks violently as the outside air-conditioning unit kicks on, beginning its loud metal drone.
            Lily raises her voice a bit to be heard. “You gotta admit, though, she’s been a lot better with him now. She feeds and walks him; you don’t have to remind her anymore. He even sleeps in her bed.”
            Nestor looks over at her, but she doesn’t look at him. She looks everywhere else. The dog, the naked brown hills, the cotton-candy sky. She looks at her glass, then at the little dog again.
            Plus it’s been a tough year for her,” she says. “Starting a new high school? In a new city? With new friends? A new house?”
            “New dog.”
            She repeats his words in her same, relaxed tone.
            “But," he says, "she’s gotta stop being so fucken lazy. So--I don’t know--not interested in anything.”
            “Yeah, I know. But what are we supposed to do? As long as she gets good grades and isn’t acting up, what’re we gonna do, punish her for not being a perfect kid?”
            The dog prances over to Lily’s chair, its paws tapping and scratching against the cement, holding up its stiff crooked tail like a little furry flag. It places its front paws up on her bouncing leg, stopping it, and gives her the begging eyes, its ticket to everything. The moment Lily pats her thigh the dog leaps up onto her lap and starts licking her chin, desperately reaching for her face with its slobbery pink tongue, puffing and snorting, Lily’s fingers scratching, massaging, rubbing all along the side of his little hairy body. Then the dog stops and looks over at Nestor expectantly, as if he’d mentioned the dog’s name.
            Nestor exhales loudly, shaking his head, and, out of habit, takes a pretend sip from his empty glass.
            After about a minute he says, “These kids these days though...” Yawning, he stretches his legs and arms out straight, like long dry pieces of firewood, then relaxes again, slipping deeper into the patio chair. “I swear, man, we’re screwed, the whole world is done. Over. It’s all gonna be like in WALL-E, everybody just staring at screens and getting fat and dumb. It’s already happening. It’s already happened. This generation, Emily’s, I swear. They’re worse than we were.”
            The back door peels open and Lily hushes Nestor, focusing down on the dog which perks up nervously in her lap. The dog knows who it is but is always on alert.
            Gripping her phone, seemingly annoyed by everything outside her room, Emily drags her feet over to the two grown-ups sitting at the patio table. She’s hunched like a true teenager and wearing one of those ironic t-shirts, leggings and Adidas slides with purple socks. She’s as tall as her mom, with her mom’s dark eyes and hair, but lanky, like a fleshed-out stick figure, not a muscle on her.
            “You excited to see J-Lo tonight, boo-boo?” Lily asks.
            “I guess?” Emily stares at the dog staring at her as it receives another furious massage from Lily’s fingers. Part of their pet-sibling rivalry.
            Lily pretends to be offended. “What, you don’t like Jennifer Lopez?”
            “Yeah, but not that much. Now, if we were seeing Harry instead?” Smiling, Emily blushes.
            “Quit playing," Nestor says. "What she’s really excited for is the dinner, and the dessert.”
            The girl blushes again, deeper, a goofy smile spreading across her face. Since they’re grown-ups, she usually avoids laughing or even smiling at anything uttered by either of them. Why encourage them? she figures. She regains control of her face and, returning to her normal sour expression, asks, “Can we go already?”
            Her whining, complaining, begging teenager tone always pokes them under the skin.
            Lily looks at Nestor, passing the question with her eyes before she actually says it: “Listo?”

Nestor has one hand on the wheel, the other pressing buttons on the radio, as the car roars down the on-ramp to the freeway like a polished missile, reflecting beams of light from the lampposts that have just turned on. The sun is tucked behind the mountains now, but a bluish glow still illuminates the western sky. The mountains stand darkly against the horizon, their black silhouette looming over the city like the shadowy form of some monstrous, uneven tsunami. At the center of the valley, in a sea of short stucco buildings, glittery hotels rise up along the Strip, lit up as if by massive spotlights.
            At the bottom of the ramp, merging into traffic, Nestor almost sideswipes a rusted used-to-be-blue van. His fingers grip the flesh of the steering wheel at the last second and the car jerks back to the right. The other driver, her mouth wide open and twisted, leans on the horn, letting out a sound like a mechanical elephant blasting its trunk.
            “Hey, careful!” Emily says from the backseat. As always, white wires dangle from each ear down to the phone in her lap.
            Beads of sweat forming on his neck and shaved head, Nestor places both hands on the wheel and smiles stupidly, his brown face turning a bit orange. “Sorry, sorry! I’m trying to get the Bluetooth to connect.”
            “Maybe I should drive then.” Emily grins, eyelids half-open.
            “Ha! You wish!” say the two adults up front.
            “Why not? It’s not like I don’t have my license already. What’s the point of even having a license if I’m never gonna drive a car?”
            "Ay, que exagerada," Lily says.
            “Keep dreaming, boo-boo." Nestor returns to the buttons on the radio.
            Emily throws her stepdad a teenaged look.
            “Can’t you go one day without having to listen to your music in the car?”
            “Babe, lemme work the radio." Lily’s hand shoves Nestor’s out of the way. "Just concentrate on driving, with your ADD ass.”
            The strong bass of trap music starts rattling the car, along with everything in it.
            Rolling her eyes, Emily sighs loudly and turns toward the window, her face briefly lit up by the soft light of passing lampposts outside. She imagines herself driving, alone, somewhere, without embarrassing parents, without school and homework. Maybe California. Or London, England.

There’s a parking spot up on the top level of the outdoor garage at the Flamingo. With the engine still running, Nestor opens a little storage space between the driver and passenger seats. Inside, on a bed of loose change, are a plastic lighter and a little glass pipe stuffed at one end with marijuana.
            He speaks without looking up: “Care to step out of the car, little girl?”
            Emily rolls her eyes, sighs, gets out of the car. She stands by the trunk and, resting on one leg like a bird, one-handedly scrolls through her phone.
            Pressing one end of the pipe to his lips, Nestor lights the green end and inhales, the marijuana glowing orange as the small pipe fills with white smoke. He holds the smoke deep down in his lungs, chest out, his face wrinkled up, eyes tightly shut, cheeks puffed out to catch any smoke that might escape. Like this he passes the pipe to Lily, who copies his actions, though less dramatically and more reserved, ladylike. Nestor blows a cloud of sticky smoke that swirls up and out of the open sunroof, evaporating before his eyes like a daydream. There’s a strong, strange but alluring smell. Half-sweet, half-rotten. The weed is potent lab-tested stuff.
            The couple repeats the ritual a few more times before Lily, coughing, raises her palm. “I think I’m good.”
            It’s Saturday and the casino floor is packed. People flow like an audience filing into a circus of jingling, beeping, blinking, whirring, flashing, droning, colors, yelling, talking, laughing. The rushing murmur of a thousand separate voices. Too many sights and sounds and smells crammed into each second. Like a huge, fancy shopping mall, inside a gigantic pinball machine, disguised as a casino.
            On either side of the carpeted walkway are rows and rows of slot machines trimmed with flashing little bulbs. The people sitting at most of them look alike. Round, sloppy, bored out of their minds, the ghostly blue of electronic screens glowing in their blank eyes, their cheeks and mouths sagging off their faces. Some of them look like they're probably having a good time, but there’s a greasy mustiness on them you can smell. One really fat guy is wearing a Vegas souvenir t-shirt that’s already stained with red and brown splotches and covered with crumbs of ridiculous size.
            Like a safari leader, Emily treks a bit ahead of her grown-ups, maneuvering around slower pedestrians and oncoming foot traffic. Lily and Nestor both wear sunglasses to cover their puffy bloodshot eyes from the light and any long stares. They’re sitting inside their heads now, looking out the faces, allowing themselves be led by the girl like a pair of balloons tied to invisible strings held in her hand, just floating along. They need only work the legs and feet, flinging one after the other, baby-style, but quicker. Their walking is unsteady, like stepping across a trampoline, swaying right and forward and left and back.
            Nestor stops in the middle of a four-way intersection of streaming people, walkers flowing around him like water around a boulder in a river.
            “Hey, it’s this way,” he says, pointing to his left. Lily glances in every direction, wordless, calm, her hand in his.
            Emily, standing a ways in front of them, stares back with heavy eyelids. “No, it’s this way,” she says plainly.
            “You sure? How you know?”
            Annoyed, her whole body weighed down by her lack of patience, the girl tosses her hand up toward the sign above her.
            Nestor smiles behind his neon sunglasses.
            “Oh. Okay then. Lead the way.”

At dinner Lily and Nestor slowly get drunk. They max out at an open-air American-Italian eatery just off a promenade wedged between the Flamingo and the Linq. The promenade is lined with palm trees, bars, shops and other restaurants. Earlier there was an awkward moment when the hostess asked if they preferred a table or booth, and Nestor, not hearing her clearly, just stood there stupefied, seconds passing by in dumb silence, before Emily cut in and said “Booth.” The girls always ask for booths.
            Now their table is covered with plates of fried calamari, fried mac-and-cheese balls, seasoned Parmesan fries, a medium, thin-crust, pepperoni and jalapeño pizza, little plates covered with olive oil and Parmesan cheese for the table bread, and, because they’re watching their figures, an order each of the side Caesar salad. And since Lily and Nestor couldn’t decide between the red sangria or the sparkling white one, there’s also a big pitcher of both mixed together, “enough for five people,” the waitress said. All of this churns around in their stomachs like a kid’s chemistry experiment.
            Lily and Nestor laugh and laugh about nothing, high stuff too pointless to repeat. Here and there Emily laughs too, quietly; with them, yeah, but mostly at them. She sort of prefers them this way, much less fussy and anal, a lot more silly and goofy, though still annoying. Her stepdad thinks he’s so smart and funny, her mom thinks she’s “the cool mom,” and Emily thinks they’re both on the wrong side of thirty and secretly depressed about it.
            With one elbow on the table, she rests her head in her hand, using the other to pick up the last mac-and-cheese ball.
            “Those mac-and-cheese-ball things are amazing, huh?” Nestor is drinking is third glass of sangria. His mouth is big, he drinks fast, and there are reddish-purple spots sprinkled down the front of his short-sleeve dress shirt. He’s been wearing his shades the whole time.
            Don’t eat too many though.” He smiles down to himself. “Nothing but fried fat.”
            Emily glances at him. “Says the person who wanted to order every appetizer off the menu.”
            She smiles at the table in front of her, then shoots her big bright eyes at him. She hates how he's always pointing out how fatty certain foods are, especially right when they’re going into her mouth.
            Nestor stares blurry-eyed at the mess on the table. “Yeah, but this is a special night! J-Lo! Right, babe?” With his elbow he taps Lily’s arm. “J-Lo! Ms. Jenny-from-the-Block! Sah-LEE-nas!”
            Lily, turning to him very slowly, doesn’t say anything. She looks as though she’s just remembered a bit of bad news.
            “What’s the matter, babe? Eat too much?”
            Lily shakes her head, carefully, then nods the same way. Nestor takes the napkin from his lap and flings it onto his salad plate. “Guess there’s no room for cheesecake.”
            Something erupts inside Lily’s head and she makes a face like she has a mouth full of old, dirty pennies. Nestor recognizes it and looks away. Quickly sliding out of the booth, Lily fast-walks to the back of the restaurant, past the glistening circular bar, back by a glowing bathroom sign. A busboy clearing an emptied table slows down to study Lily’s face as she rushes by him.
            Now fully awake and alive, Emily looks over the table at her stepdad, his laughing and smiling finished, his head gesturing toward the bathroom. The girl slides out to follow her mom.
            When Emily comes back to the table, ten minutes later, she finds her stepdad resting his head in his hands, face down, looking pitiful and abandoned at the messy table. He smells like hot sour tea. Gazing up at Emily as she approaches, he turns orange, trying to smile behind his sunglasses. “We might not make it to see J-Lo tonight."
            “Why? What happened?” Emily’s eyes are wide, searching.
            “I went to the bathroom and--” He censors himself. “And now I’m just too full and too tired. Wouldn’t mind being home, in my pajamas, on the couch, watching Netflix.”
            Then he remembers.
            “How’s your mom?”
            Emily sighs. “She’s puking in the bathroom.”
            “Is she okay?” Nestor seems sort of surprised, sort of happy. Usually the tables are turned, and it’s Nestor, not Lily, with his face in a toilet bowl.
            “Yeah,” Emily says. “She said she’s fine and just to leave her for a bit.”
            Nestor is wiping his lap with a cloth napkin. “Does she still wanna go to the show or naw?”
            “Probably not, I’m guessing?”
            Emily watches her stepdad with the napkin and starts jumping to conclusions. Did he really just...? He couldn’t’ve. No way. Well, I mean, probably. With all that drinking...
            After a while Nestor looks up at her, and she asks, “Should I go get her?”
            “Yeah...” he says, hesitating. “Tell her--Tell her we’ll go get some fresh air on our way back to the car. We’ll go to another show some other time, it’s fine.
            Dropping her shoulders, rolling her eyes, Emily turns and shuffles back to the bathroom.

With one eye barely seeing, Lily stumbles back through the promenade, wobbly. She’s leaning against Nestor, who grips her in one arm and is trying to steady her with his free hand. She’s like a defeated, bruised-up fighter being helped back to the locker room. Nestor has forgotten all about the big, wet spot on his crotch.
            Everything makes Lily want to throw up. The lights, the music, the palm trees, the smell of hot food and hot breath, the people, their noises. Closing her eyes, she tries to sleepwalk, relying on Nestor to guide her and keep her from bumping into things. But walking with her eyes closed proves too nerve-racking in itself, only making her want to puke even more.
            Staggering through the Flamingo, the smell of cigarette smoke is unbearable. Nestor holds Lily with his two hands, walking slowly, carefully, hip to hip, as he escorts this fragile thing back through the casino. A fat middle-aged lady bumps into Lily and says, “Sorry,” quickly disappearing into the crowd.
            But the damage is done.
            Inside her chest Lily feels something surge up, like a fountain, unstoppable, from stomach to throat. She stops walking and, leaning away from Nestor, lifts her hand. Nestor sees her body ripple. Lily presses her lips firmly together, swallowing, thick and chunky. Her stomach twists around on itself, bubbling and groaning and hardening. Lily’s skin tingles, hairs stand on end, goosebumps appearing on her skin. A bitter taste on her tongue, like spoiled meat, something dead; her mouth hangs open, hoping to air itself out.
            In the elevator an older couple doused in cheap cologne and perfume stand in front of Lily and Nestor, their combined scent making every muscle in Lily’s body tense up in defense. Her brain goes into manual override as she tries to physically take control of every organ. She tries to shut off her nose, pretending it’s gone and thinking of something that won’t make her queasy. But her panic only invites more panic, panic on top of panic, stacking up and up and up, up to her throat, up to her mouth, up over her tongue...
            Two levels from the top the couple gets off the elevator and leave behind their smelly shadow. Lily’s done. Raising her palm to Nestor and Emily, she turns away and shakes her head.
            We’re almost there, babe.” Nestor rubs her back.
            Lily bends toward the elevator wall, still shaking her head, as if to shake herself unsick and back at home in bed.
            The elevator dings, a light signals the top floor.
            The doors part. Standing there, in a loose-fitting sandy-grey uniform, a police officer, tall and white. Nestor's eyes fall hard on the shiny seven-pointed star pinned to the man’s chest. Lily rushes out of the elevator, past the cop, and, both hands grasping the rim of a trash can, wrings her stomach out like a juice pouch. She pukes twice, making gagging and choking noises, followed by the sound of oatmeal poured into a plastic bag.
            The officer quickly turns back at Lily before examining the man and the girl still standing in the elevator. His eyes are confused, a bit angry. Nestor feels as in a dream, when the world seems normal but suddenly isn’t, the floor and everything shifts, melts away, becoming somehow not real, like a movie, or a movie about a movie. The feeling of falling though your feet are still on the ground.
            Only freezing for a second, and passing the officer as if he weren’t there, Emily walks to where her mom is bent over the garbage can.
            Sir, is this your girlfriend?”
            Nestor copies Emily and walks past the officer all nonchalant. “Yes, Officer, my wife. She isn't feeling well. Ate something that isn’t sitting right in her stomach.” He leans over to see Lily’s face, gently placing a hand on her shoulder. “You okay, sweetie?” he says softly. “Feeling better?”
            Lily has her head down, spitting, her eyes shut tight.
            “Where you folks headed tonight?” The officer stands facing the family of three huddled around the trash can. Behind him the elevator doors close, and the elevator makes its way back down.
            Nestor turns to the officer, straightening himself. The gun! he thinks, then tries to think of something else. “We were actually just heading home, Officer.”
            Nestor catches the officer’s eyes as they land on the dark spot on his crotch. The officer’s lip curls, disgusted, and he places his hands on his thick black belt, his heavy black shoes squishing as he shifts his weight. “Now, I’m only going to ask you this once: Have you been drinking tonight?”
            It’s written on his face; he already knows the answer.
            Nestor feels his ears warm. “Yeah, but--” Every possible lie goes running to the back of his mind, hiding just out of reach. The world not only comes back into focus but starts caving in on him, suffocating him, under a big black blanket of sky.
            Emily is staring straight at the officer, her face set.
            “I’m driving tonight, Sir.”

The cop watches Emily walk over to where the car is parked, her mom and stepdad shuffling behind her. Lily keeps her head down, moving slowly, Nestor still guiding her like a kid escorting an injured classmate to the nurse’s office. Only when Emily gets into the driver seat and starts the car does the officer turn back toward the elevator and light up the button.
            Lily knocks out in the back seat like a discarded mannequin, arm over her head, legs folded and body bent and twisted at weird angles. Nestor, riding shotgun, guides his stepdaughter down and out of the parking garage, through the streets, around corners, past swarms of partygoers, toward the expressway. He tries to keep his eyes open, for Emily's sake, to make sure. But at a stoplight he passes out too, all warm and comfy in the front seat. A minute later he’s snoring.
            Emily glances over at her sleeping stepdad, then, through the rearview mirror, checks on her lifeless mom in the back seat. She rolls her eyes and smiles, supremely satisfied.
            She turns off the main route through the back streets, deciding to cruise down the Strip instead. It’s her first time driving down the boulevard. She opens the sunroof and lowers her window, soaking in all the sights and sounds of Las Vegas on a Saturday night.
            Down past the Strip, where the street meets up with the freeway, Emily just keeps driving. She’s in no hurry. What’s the rush? Plus driving on the expressway is still scary, a bit too fast, too much changing lanes. So she takes the surface streets. She picks a radio station, the one she likes, playing it low so as not to wake the adults napping. Emily drives perfectly. She uses her turn signals and everything, stopping and accelerating smoothly, all the way home, like a grown-up.

Hector Luis Alamo is a Chicago writer and journalist now living on the edge of Las Vegas. He is the former deputy editor of Latino Rebels, where he was a regular contributor, and is a former columnist for the Chicago daily RedEye. He now writes a weekly Spanish-language column for Chile’s Prensa Irreverente, the English version of which appears on his recently launched blog, Enclave.

Photo Credit: Andrés Porras Nieto

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