Berta’s cure for everything is some old-school hip-hop, a bottle of Brass Monkey and a trip to the Cactus Club. Beneath the bleeding Jesus picture on the wall, the stereo is crackling out a song I can’t understand until Berta starts rapping along, party after party, same ol’ shit. She struts out of the bathroom with dark maroon lips and a pointy helmet of brown hair. She’s had the same hair-do since our sophomore year of high school. She’s had the same car too, a white ‘73 Monarch with green trim.
“Dee,” she says. “Andele pues.”
“I’m ready to roll anytime.”
“Uh-uh.” She points at me with a long purple acrylic nail. “Slide your white ass off that bean bag and put some more makeup on those bruises. No man is gonna want a beat-up bitch for the night.”
The last thing I want is a man. But I know Berta lives for her weekend lovin’, so I go into the bathroom and look at my neck in the mirror. The green and purple spots are visible through the orange makeup. Berta comes in with a bottle of her CoverGirl base and a compact. She starts dotting my neck with her nail.
“Watch it,” I say. “That hurts.”
“If you weren’t such a güera, we wouldn’t have this problem.” She points to her neck. “Dark skin conceals as it heals, baby.”
Berta is half white, half Mexican, but she doesn’t really claim the white part. Her dad was some redneck from back east who used to smash her mother into walls and break beer bottles over Berta’s head. Back in high school, Berta would miss days of school so she could hide her injuries. When we got to be close friends, she claimed I was her true white half.
“This ain’t working,” Berta says, examining my neck. “Can’t see the bruises no more, but now you got a neck darker than Denzel Washington.” She takes me by the hand and leads me over to her bedroom closet. I step over silk panties and cans of hair spray. She pulls out a sleeveless turquoise turtleneck and tosses it to me. “Here, this color looks good on blondies.”
I change my shirt and go out on the front porch. Berta’s inside guzzling the rest of a beer. The cold outside doesn’t bother me. Winter in the desert reminds me of Antonio: his cologne-soaked sweaters, Christmas lights on his grandma’s adobe house, mesquite smoke in his hair. I imagine him alone in our living room in Las Cruces, watching football and sketching tattoos.
“Hija,” someone says. Next door, an old lady stares at me through an open window.
“Hija.” She waves me over. I step off the porch and move closer to her house. She looks familiar, but in a déjà vu sort of way.
“Yes?” I say. “Do I know you?”
“Of course,” she says. “You’re my daughter.”
“Don’t listen to that vieja.” Berta walks out on the porch. “She’s cuckoo.”
The lady watches me until I get to the car. I wait for Berta to light a cigarette. She rummages through cassettes before starting the car. “Remember Gucci Crew?” She shoves a tape in the deck. Wild Irish Rose…Thunderbird makes me start to bleed from my nose…
We head down the road. I light my own cigarette and Berta gives me a good-for-you-girl look. I haven’t had a cigarette since last time I left Antonio. He thinks smoking is an invitation for men to pick up women. “Only sluts smoke,” he likes to say.
Berta pulls into a Circle K quick mart. High-schoolers stand around the parking lot, drinking out of Thirstbusters, slouching against cars. “Babies,” she says. “We used to be those kids. Hanging out, waiting for something exciting to happen.”
“Something did happen,” I say.
“Sure. I was always starting shit. That time I beat Connie Garza’s ass over by the dumpster—remember that puta was trying to mack on Manny?”
“Where’s Manny now?” I say. “See him around?”
“Doing time in Winslow. Big surprise, eh?” Berta smashes her cigarette in the ashtray and blows the last puff of smoke out her nostrils like a dragon. She gets out of the car and sticks her butt in the window. “Do I have anything on my ass?”
“Just a crack,” I say.
She smiles and makes a fist. “Oh yeah? I’m gonna crack you. Want something from Circle Jerk? Beer? Chiclé? Rubbers?”
Berta walks past the high-schoolers. One skinny guy with milky skin says, “Ooh, how much mamacita?”
Berta flips him the bird and the others laugh.
A short blonde kid with a T-shirt that reads EAT ME meanders up to my window. He makes a flicking motion with his thumb. I get the Budweiser lighter from the console and pass it to him. When he gives it back, he touches my fingers. “Never seen you before. New on the block?” he says.
“I used to live here.” I don’t look at him.
“Moving back anytime soon?”
“You will,” he says. “This place is like a black hole, man. Try to leave, it sucks you back.”
“You’re too young to know that,” I tell him.
He steps back from the car and takes a hard drag off his cigarette. “I’m seventeen, girl. Been on my own since I was fourteen. You think I don’t know what life is like?”
“Hey!” Berta shouts from the doorway. She runs over carrying a paper sack. “Leave my bitch alone. We’re lesbos. Got no interest in dick, especially baby dick.”
“Hell,” he says and grabs his crotch. “This here ain’t no baby dick. Once you see this you’ll never lick pussy again.”
“Get lost, peewee.” Berta starts the car. I roll up my window and laugh. Berta passes me the paper sack. “This will bring back memories.”
I open the bottle inside and take a swig. “Brass Monkey.”
“That funky monkey,” Berta sings.
“Damn,” I say. “That kid’s got ten years on us.”
“Ooh, girl, don’t put it like that. We’re in our prime.”
“Yeah, but we’re driving around Podunk, Arizona, drinking Brass Monkey out of a paper bag.”
“Just like those good ol’ times. Me and you—before we got ruined by putos.”
Berta hasn’t had a steady boyfriend since high school. Manny was the last guy she stayed with for more than a year. She can’t possibly feel ruined.
We head down Cholla Street and pass by my mom’s house. I get the urge to duck even though I know she can’t see me. A light flickers in the living room. No doubt she’s watching the twenty-four hour Soap Channel.
“Think she knows you’re in town?” Berta says.
“How? Antonio won’t call. He doesn’t want to hear her shit.”
“She’d give him an earful. Tell that boy, ‘you ain’t nothing but a dirty criminal like the rest of them Mexicans.’”
Berta never got over the time my mom said those words in front of her after we got caught shoplifting at Thriftee’s our freshman year. But she’s right. My mother hates Mexicans almost as much as she hates men. Which makes Antonio double-bad in her book. Before I went with him to Las Cruces, she told me never to call her or come see her again. She used to tell her own boyfriends the same thing, but she’d dial them up drunk in the middle of the night and beg them to come back.
She called me once in the middle of the night, but she didn’t ask me to come back. Antonio answered the phone. He said “What’s up?” three or four times. Dead silence on the other end. Antonio threw the receiver at me so hard, the plastic cracked against my shoulder. “Fucking Sancho,” he said.
Berta is quiet now. She’s probably thinking back to when we used to do crazy stuff like steal bottles of Maddog 20/20 and cruise Main Street in our bras. She’s reliving run-ins with the cops and the wild weekend we spent with those dudes from Morenci in the Palms Motel. Berta passes me a lit cigarette, then lights another one for herself. “Dee,” she says, “I want you to do a tea reading for me mañana.”
“Sure.” I laugh. Every time I visit, she begs me to do readings until she gets the prediction she wants to hear. I made extra cash in Las Cruces reading for Antonio’s clientele—mostly guys who wanted to find out if their old lady was true or not while Antonio carved the Madonna into their backs.
Antonio believes in my tea fortunes more than anyone, even Berta. He knows all the symbols, all the meanings. When I told him the leaves showed me a rat—a future betrayal—he knocked the cup out of my hand. The tea leaves scattered on the linoleum into the shape of a knife.
We pull into the Cactus Club just as I’m sucking down the last little bit of Brass Monkey. The place looks the same as I remember: a small brick building with no windows, like an adult video shop. Last time I visited the bar, on my twenty-sixth birthday, Antonio got kicked out for punching a wetback who asked me to dance. I stayed in the bar and danced until closing time. Next day, I assumed he’d gone back to Cruces, left me stranded like other times, but eventually he showed up at Berta’s. Told me I was the only part of this town he could love forever.
Berta tosses the empty bottle in the cotton field by the parking lot. “How do I look, girl? Super hot?”
“Yummy,” I say.
“Shit, no. You always look good.”
She hikes her shirt up and scrunches her hair. “Let’s do it.”
Everyone in the bar turns to see who’s coming through the door. The Brass Monkey’s got me all pumped up, even a little dizzy. I follow Berta to the bar duplicating her I’m-the-shit strut. A tall man with a white handlebar mustache grabs my hand and kisses it.
“Beauty has a name?” he asks.
A lady who looks like second runner-up in a Dolly Parton contest whacks him with her purse and pulls him out the door. Two women with hair bigger than Berta’s check me out, up and down. I stare back. Give a cool smile to six guys over by the dart boards. For the first time in a long time, I can look at strangers right in their eyes. I can smile and nod and wave to any wetback I want.
In an instant, three Mexican dudes close in on me. I look at Berta, who’s busy waving a twenty at the bartender. Two of these guys have cowboy hats. The one closest to me has long, straight hair that drapes over his shoulder like a silk scarf. He looks like the brown Jesus on Berta’s wall. They talk to me all at once and I can’t understand a single word.
Berta charges through our circle with two beers in each hand. She says something in Spanish and hands me two of the bottles. I recognize the word güera. The men laugh and step back.
“I told them you was really a man,” she says. Then she gives me a hard nudge. “Stay away from those mojados, sweetheart. You want dark meat, go back to Las Cruces with the puto grande.”
“What happened to our motto, white ain’t right?”
“Girl, I’ve been with white, black, brown, yellow and red. For you white is right. For me they are all wrong.”
A short cowboy with red scruff on his face moseys over and tells Berta she’s got an ass like Jennifer Lopez.
“Damn strait,” she says. “Hear that all the time.”
The DJ announces someone’s wedding anniversary and asks all the Mexicans to grab the whities and take them on the floor for La Cumbia. People iy-yi and woo-hoo. Without hesitation, Berta grabs Scruff Face to dance. I chug one of the beers and step back to the bar. Brown Jesus sets his beer on his table and motions me to the floor. I follow him.
I feel stupid rolling my hips and swinging my arms around, but the brown Jesus is patient. He steps forward, takes two steps back. He says something in Spanish. I step forward, two back. He smiles big, happy I’m imitating him.
Berta bumps me with her ass. “I see you got Sancho for the night.” She rolls her eyes. Scruff Face has his hands all over her. They lock lips. I see her tongue slide in his mouth. Brown Jesus points at them and laughs.
The next song is slow. He takes my hand and pulls me close. He’s a gentleman. His hand stays on the small of my back. I look for Berta and see her bee-lining out the door with her man in tow. I pull away, but Brown Jesus pulls me back, so I point to the exit. “Amiga,” I yell. “Vamanos.” He nods and we head outside. The quiet is deafening at first but also a relief.
The music inside picks back up. Another cumbia. Brown Jesus shakes his ass, nods to the door. “No,” I say. “Mi amiga.” I search for Berta’s car, but it’s gone.
“Thanks a shitload,” I mutter.
“Vamanos.” Brown Jesus walks to a black Ford pickup and opens the door.
“You take me home?” I say.
On the way to Berta’s, I feel the spins coming on, partly because Brown Jesus is driving like Mario Andretti. I roll down the window.
“Brrr,” he says.
I pretend like I don’t hear him. I need the cold air in my lungs.
I show him the way to Berta’s. Every so often he looks at me, smiles, touches my hair. We turn down my mom’s street. Her house is the darkest on the block. I feel like jumping out, banging on the door until she lets me in. I stare at the place so hard I see an orange dot glowing on the porch. “Mama?”
“Mande?” Brown Jesus asks.
“Shit,” I say. “I can’t go home.”
Berta’s place looks deserted. I hate to think of the nasty positions she and Scruff Face are contorting themselves into somewhere in the boonies.
We park. Brown Jesus turns off the headlights.
“Gracias,” I tell him. He scoots close to me. His breath feels warm, smells of minty gum. He kisses my cheek and pushes open the door. “Just for the record,” I say. “I’m not a man.” I hop out of the truck.
“Wait.” He pulls his shirt up to his armpits and turns around. A tattoo of a blonde lady in mid-wink smiles at me. “You,” he says.
I laugh. He probably does think that he met that woman tonight. I pull down the collar of my shirt, press a finger on the most tender, bruised part of my neck. “Me.”
The next day I wake up early afternoon to read Berta’s leaves, but she still hasn’t made it home. My head aches a little, but doesn’t compare to hangovers of the past. I fill a teapot full of water, set it on the stove. While it boils, I shake some tealeaves on to a saucer and murmur something unintelligible for drama’s sake. Then push the leaves around with my finger.
“Is this place my destiny?” I say.
I concentrate on the question. Sprinkle tea into my mug. The bits swirl around the water like autumn leaves in the first gust of a storm. I sip the tea. Think about Antonio, Berta, my mom, Brown Jesus, even Scruff Face. I think and sip. When I’ve finished drinking, I see the pattern of a fork in the bottom of the cup.
After I shove my jeans, makeup, and toothbrush into my suitcase, I head outside, lock the front door behind me.
“Hija,” the old lady next door calls out. “I love you. Come see me again real soon.”
“I will, Mama.”
She waves a yellow handkerchief. I pick up my bag and head towards the direction of the bus station. The smell of mesquite cooking all over town—so familiar. I take out my pouch of Indian tea and sprinkle it behind me until none remains. I imagine Antonio tattooing his legacy on someone, not me.