On the way to visit our grandfather, my older sister Jackie predicted my death.
“The cards don’t lie, boo,” she said, sliding the horseback skeleton across the tray table. “Do you want me to tell you how it’s going to happen?”
Her tarot deck was new, a Christmas gift from our father, and in the three days since tearing it open the cards had ruined my life by ending it at least ten times.
I pressed my head against the plane’s window and felt the turbulence trembling through my jaw. At ten, I was willing to believe anything Jackie told me: microwaving your socks kept your feet warm during winter; a dozen spiders were sleeping in your stomach at any given moment. The cards did not give her authority, but simply reinforced it.
Jackie pulled the death card away and slipped it into the deck. “Well?” She looked at me—eyelashes stretched and clumped by mascara—and I nodded.
“It’s probably going to happen while we’re in Mexico,” she said, thoughtfully touching her chin and gazing down at the Sea of Cortez. “So I see two options: you’ll either be kidnapped by the cartel and have your head cut off,”—she dragged a finger across her neck, leaving a pink disturbance behind—“or you’ll be torn apart by a pack of wild dogs.”
Dim shapes moved at the peripheries of my vision and I dragged a slow breath into my lungs to try clearing them. I didn’t want to cry, but felt that familiar heat start to rise.
“Don’t look so sad, boo,” Jackie said, pinching my cheek and sipping at her soda.
Beneath us, the scar of sea separating Baja California from mainland Mexico was replaced by blinding desert and, on the intercom, the pilot directed us to behold la maravilla of Cabo San Lucas.
Jackie crushed at the ice from her drink and spoke through chews. “At least you’ll die among palm trees. Plus, the cards might be wrong—who knows?”
* * *
Most of what I knew about my grandfather came from stories I heard from my father and Jackie. He hadn’t visited the United States in six years—here, apparently, for my third birthday—and there were few photos of him around the house.
I knew that my father hated him, that their relationship had been reduced to two or three phone calls a year, and I knew that my visit with Jackie was an anomaly in whatever turmoil still existed between them.
“I’m worried about this,” my father said on Christmas Eve, slowly stripping a napkin in his lap. “I just can’t imagine that he’s changed much.” When the napkin ran out, I watched his fingers fumbling against themselves, confused by the absence.
My stepmother scoffed and then fell into a staccato speech: “He hasn’t changed. You know that. I know that. He’s a prick. He’s a loser. He abandoned you—I mean, for goddsake, Honey, the man left you with nothing. You remember what you told me? You remember all those terrible things you told me?” This sent her into a strange, snorting giggle. She stood abruptly and grabbed our half-finished plates. “I want ice cream,” she said from the kitchen.
I knew they were high, even then. Whatever drugs they took seemed to soften my father’s bulb and brighten my stepmother’s. He always fixed his eyes and gave gentle attention to something innocuous; she never stopped moving or lifting or talking, to us or her sister on the phone.
Jackie picked at her nail polish. “I think I might go to Sid’s,” she said to no one.
My father rubbed his eyes. “It’s Christmas Eve,” he said.
After she left, I went to my room and played on my Game Boy. I’d followed Jackie into the night a few times before, tracking her route through the neighborhood’s yards and intersections, watching her grab hands with boys and sip from the same bottles my father had stocked beneath the kitchen sink. One night, she and a friend alternated slapping each other in the face and the delirium of their howling cries and laughter kept me from ever going again.
In the kitchen, my stepmother continued to clean while my father hummed a slow, melancholy tune. Ballad for the Albuquerque comedown.
* * *
Jackie tried to order a piña colada from the airport bar while we waited for our grandfather. I watched her pretend to scramble for an ID, feign disbelief, and then turn back toward me, eyes rolling.
“I didn’t realize they actually followed the law down here,” she said, pulling off her sweatshirt. “Maybe if I tie my hair up I’ll look eighteen.”
She was fifteen at the time, awash in hormones, acne treatments, and neon nail polish. Most of her friends were older, though, and she had figured out how to cloak herself in their suave apathy, often being confused for an upperclassman.
“You’ll get in trouble with Grandpa,” I said, sitting on top of my suitcase.
“I don’t give a shit about Grandpa.”
As if summoned, our grandfather emerged from a group of bridesmaids and held his hands out. “Mijos,” he said, crossing the small crowd. “What has the Good Lord done to you in the last six years?”
Looking at him, I remembered something that my stepmother had said once: that he hated being white, that he wished he were Mexican. His appearance didn’t refute her—skin tanned tawny, moustache thick and black above his lip—and as he continued to speak, it was with the intonations of a foreign speaker, where phrases ran either too long or too short and certain words were pitched to alternative tunings.
“Let’s hurry,” he said, grabbing our bags. “It’s hot for December, no?”
Jackie rolled her eyes at me as we followed him through the parking lot. “Do you live close by?”
“Cabo?” He laughed. “Not for all the world’s money.” After lifting our bags into the back of his truck, he grasped onto our shoulders and lined us up before him. “Dios mío,” he said. “Who let you get so old?”
* * *
For a few hours, we drove north. My grandfather lived in the center of the peninsula, equidistant from La Paz and Todos Santos, and the route was laid bare to true landscape. In the west, the Pacific Ocean came and went, breaking blue; and toward the east, arroyos lapped at the heels of mountains.
“Not bad, eh?” my grandfather said, rolling his window down.
Jackie coughed. “It’s dusty, close that.”
In response, my grandfather rolled Jackie’s window down, then mine. The sand-whipped air hit my throat, coppery and dry, but I couldn’t help laughing.
“See, he likes it!” my grandfather shouted over the roar of the interstate.
Jackie wrapped her arms around her head until he pulled the windows up.
“That’s how I wake myself up,” he said.
Jackie pulled a knee against her chest and rested against her window. “Amazing,”
she said, flattening her hair with her hands.
“What do you think, Joseph?” he asked, looking at me in the rearview mirror. “Nice place?”
I nodded so that only he could see.
“Looks a lot like New Mexico,” Jackie said.
My grandfather laughed. “This is nothing like New Mexico. This is nothing like no place in the US. This is the most honest desert on the entire continent.” As he spoke, his playful expression deflated and what was left behind reminded me of my father.
We continued in silence for a few minutes and then he abruptly pulled onto the edge of the highway, stirring a cloud of sand that left us briefly enveloped.
“Look at that cactus,” he said, staring beyond Jackie into the bordering wilderness. Though there were dozens of cacti in immediate sight, it was clear which one he meant: tall, brooding, physical against the bleached sky.
I leaned against my seatbelt to try and see closer.
“Do you see how its arms are pointing to the sky? This is what I mean: our cactus are reverent, alive; your cactus flex their arms like musclemen.” He shook his head. “Last time I walked through Albuquerque,” he said, quiet and calm, “it felt like a goddamned competition. This is why I hate America.”
We toured the house before eating the pozole our grandfather had bubbling on the stovetop. It was a small, modest home, with few decorations and a coat of beige through each room. Jackie would be sleeping in the den, which had a pullout bed and a single photograph of our father on his prom night. I was situated on the denim couch in the living room, which faced a sliding glass door opening onto the backyard.
“What’s the crime like in this neighborhood?” Jackie asked, tapping her nail against the door’s pane. She turned briefly toward my grandfather but then trained her eyes on me.
“No worse than where you’re coming from,” he said, slicing cilantro against the countertop in the adjacent kitchen.
Jackie scoffed. “Sure.” Then, to me, quieter: “I suggest you lock the doors before bed.”
Over dinner, we talked about our classes, our friends, and, for almost all of dessert, Jackie’s recent science fair project, which had taken first place.
“It wasn’t anything special,” she said, but as she went on to describe the biological processes involved in her research, her dispassion melted off, replacing itself with a fluid, articulate speech. It was one of my favorite things about her, no matter how much it aggravated her social identity, she couldn’t prevent herself from making pause for the animal kingdom.
My grandfather watched her with a similar admiration. “That’s the most I’ve heard from you in your whole entire life,” he said when she finished.
“Yeah, well,” she said, clearing her throat and blushing.
The night of the science fair was something I thought of often. Everyone—Jackie, my father, my stepmother—was at their best. After her win, my father cried; when the crowd dissipated, we went for celebratory milkshakes and laughed about some of the other projects. All night I watched that pride—so attentive, so aware—glimmer through my father’s eyes. I wanted to receive it myself, of course, but the mere proximity was enough to make me grin.
It took me several hours to fall asleep. The interaction with my grandfather was jarring, he was funny, intense, and different than whatever I’d conjured from my father’s stories. At the same time, there were words that remained stuck to him like small pins—drunk, prick, loser, abandoner—that made me wonder whether I should laugh with him, listen to him, love him, hate him, or ignore him altogether.
Then there were the sounds from outside: brief cracks that ripped through the AC’s whir—intermittent shouts and laughs, and, of course, the chorus of howls traveling through the air like famished gales. Reminders of Jackie’s promise: death noise.
* * *
“So, Joseph, what do you do?”
We were sitting at breakfast, eating a scramble of eggs and chorizo, and Jackie was still asleep in the other room. I already felt exposed without her, left open and vulnerable to an unnamable sense of potential error, and when he asked me this, I gaped.
“I don’t know,” I muttered.
“You don’t know what you do?” he said with television astonishment. “Who is living your life, then?”
He’d cracked the sliding door open and occasional drafts—cool, noncommittal—fastened around my ankles before letting go. I had an urge to leave the table and walk out into the yard, freeing myself from the strange pressure of an attendant gaze. It was like begging your way onto stage only to realize that you had nothing to say.
“Just normal stuff,” I said, shrugging. So normal, in fact, that my father had once described me to a neighbor as the most regular person in our lineage. “We’ve got eccentric blood,” he’d said, “and then we have Joseph.”
My grandfather pushed his plate aside. “I like normal,” he said.
Jackie emerged into the sunlight and shielded her eyes. “Christ,” she said.
“We’ll continue this talk later, eh?” he said, turning his eyes up to Jackie. “Mija, I see you have the same love of sleep as your father. We thought you died in there.”
“Nope, still breathing,” she said, settling in front of her plate.
“Lucky us,” my grandfather said.
In the backyard, a shepherd mix emerged from the foliage and sniffed around before peeing on the grass.
“He’s looking for you, J,” Jackie said, nodding outside. “Dogs need breakfast, too.”
“Don’t listen to her, Joseph,” my grandfather said. “Those dogs are completely harmless if you leave them alone.” He sipped his coffee and shook his head. “When you expect the worst from something, you’ll get the worst from it. This is why Americans are so unhappy.”
“Jesus,” Jackie said. “Come off it with the American thing.”
He stood, grabbing his plate and dropping it into the sink. “I won’t come off it,” he said. “And you shouldn’t either. Do you have any idea what your country has done to this world?
“It’s your country, too,” Jackie said, eyes kept down. I knew she was following the script of words we had heard from our stepmother, and her concentration was palpable.
What we knew of our grandfather and the United States was this: he was born in Tallahassee, Florida, but spent most of his life in the southwest—Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona. His adulthood went to teaching community college and protesting immigration laws, Joe Arpaio, and the Iraq war in Tucson, Arizona, and in 2007, he withdrew to Mexico, sending a letter to my father that said, I’m tired of white people. Who can breathe in such ugly history?
My father and stepmother were activists, too, albeit more halfhearted ones, and they always lauded the same critique against him. Jackie conjured it now: “Just because you gave up on the US doesn’t mean you’re any better than it.”
This proclamation cast through the air like a bottle rocket. Our grandfather remained still against the sink, fingers clenched on its porcelain. The wish to flee into the yard was stronger now than ever, but the shepherd was still out there, scratching its neck with a back leg.
“Do not speak to me like you know the first thing about my life,” he said, shifting one hip away from the sink and pivoting it toward us.
Jackie reddened but tried to muster a bored shrug.
“Just because you are from somewhere does not mean you cannot escape it. My blood does not belong to America.”
“None of me belongs to America.”
“I get it,” Jackie said, voice abraded in defiance. “Let loose.”
* * *
He spent the next hour in the yard, tugging at the weeds that sprouted from splits in the rosy rock and heaping them into a pile. Jackie read a magazine and I alternated between watching him and watching her, hoping to see the strain of their argument lift like steam. I was used to conflict leveling itself quickly—my father’s face contorted, mouth wet with saliva and anger, and then so quickly relaxed, simple, bored—but they both seemed intent on sustaining their friction, alive and dissonant in the air.
“What a pretentious asshole,” Jackie said when he disappeared around the side of the house. “He has no idea what he’s talking about.”
The front door pushed open and our grandfather entered, glowing with sweat. He clapped his hands together and smiled. “No need to let politics ruin a vacation,” he announced. “Let’s have ourselves a fun day, okay? Who wants to go to La Paz?”
We got ourselves dressed and followed him out to the car, listening for the next hour as he recalled the history of the city. There had been hunter-gatherers, a man named Hernán Cortés, another named Sebastián Vizcaíno, a fire, a failed colonization effort by the American William Walker, and more.
I tried to follow the account but found my attention irregular, a sputtering bulb. I was distracted by the whir of cars in the left lane, blinkers left on as a permanent passing message; by the heat waves blurring the vultures into the horizon; by the leftover embarrassment of having said “Just normal stuff” and having meant it. We’ve got eccentric blood, and then we’ve got Joseph.
“Where’s your head, Mijo?” our grandfather asked after parking.
“Didn’t you know?” Jackie said. “He’s brain dead. It’s a miracle he has his eyes open right now. You’ll pray for him, won’t you?”
Our grandfather glared. “Vámonos,” he said, opening his door.
First, he took us to his favorite zapatería, where he’d just had boots worked on, and then to la malecón, a seaside stretch of shops and restaurants.
“If you take a boat just a few miles north and west of here,” he said, pointing out at the turquoise vista, “you can swim with whale sharks.”
“Really?” Jackie asked.
“Yes!” my grandfather cried. “Amazing, right? When I first moved here, I took myself out every month of winter.”
“Is it scary?” I asked.
“No, no,” he said. “They’re filter feeders, so wouldn’t even think to eat me. Their mouths are big, though”—he stretched his hands apart as wide as they would reach—“up to five feet wide!”
“And each one has its own pattern,” Jackie said, “like fingerprints.”
“Smart girl,” he said, putting his hand on her shoulder.
“Everyone knows that,” she said, walking on ahead of us. The sun beat heavily but a breeze lifted Jackie’s hair from her shoulders in ribbons of shining black. People passing in the opposite direction navigated around her as though she were an arterial block.
Our grandfather put his hand on my head and shrugged at me. “If you had an extra day, I would take you to swim with them,” he said. “Then you could see them up close. You know that they never stop swimming? Alone they go”—he swerved his right arm in imitation of a tailfin—“on and on and on. It’s how they live.”
* * *
The next day, we drove to a beach north of El Centenario.
“You call this a beach?” Jackie asked, kneeling down and picking up a handful of the stones covering the shoreline. “I’m trying to tan and swim.” She pointed at the cloud-covered sky and then at the water, which heaved against the coast.
“This beach is very special,” our grandfather said. “Just start walking and you’ll see.”
We split in three different directions: Jackie to the north, me to the south, and our grandfather in the center. I was still thinking about the dinner from the prior night, when our father came up for the first time since our arrival.
“How is your father’s health these days?” our grandfather had asked.
“Same as it’s been,” Jackie said.
“That’s not good.”
I watched Jackie spiral herself up for a strike before slackening. “He’s getting by,” she said, quiet and earnest.
“Getting by in the way that the mouse in the cage gets by,” our grandfather said. “And would we say that that’s a way to live?” He looked at both of us and then shrugged. “I wouldn’t say so.”
For the rest of the night, something seemed loosened between the three of us—some tension, some throb. We cleaned the dishes, played a few card games, and then all read on the same couch. I hoped that it would survive through the morning, but Jackie’s diminishing silhouette was marked insolent again.
I wasn’t sure what to look for, so alternated my gaze from the ground to the sea. I imagined we might see whale sharks from here, breaching in the way of humpbacks, an impossibility in the sky.
“Come look!” Jackie shouted then, arms waving over her head.
I ran toward her, meeting our grandfather along the way. We arrived where she was standing and looked to her feet, where a half-eaten carcass was quivering with flies. Its top was mostly intact: a distinct dorsal fin, a stretch of khaki skin. Beneath that, though, was a dark mess of muscle and organs, sandy and spilled across the rocks.
“What do you think it is?” our grandfather asked.
Jackie stared intently. “It looks like it might be a dolphin,” she said. “But I think its head was bitten off.” She leaned closer and prodded the side with her foot. “If this is its back tail,” she continued, “then it’s a dolphin.”
“How do you know?” I asked, holding a hand over my nose.
“Dolphin tails are horizontal.”
“Very good,” our grandfather said, taking a few steps back. “Let’s keep looking. I call this playa de los muertos because there are dead things all over the place.”
In the next twenty minutes, we found a full dolphin corpse, reduced to a dry husk of leather with a jawbone, three eyeless puffer fish, and a hollowed out sea turtle shell. Jackie held what she could, pulled open mouths and torsos, and gave facts about each animal. I knew that her interest was making our grandfather happy and I tried to insert myself when I could.
The bodies were making me ill, though. I’d never seen animals so exposed, so used by their environment. Jackie’s death card, which had been intermittently haunting me, came back now in full. It promised not only that I would die, but that my body would come apart, too. I imagined being picked over by someone else’s hands. They would remark on my bones, on the parts inside me that I hadn’t even seen. They would turn me like a magazine and then they would lose interest, moving down the beach to the next interesting death.
“I wish we could see real animals,” I said as Jackie tossed a puffer fish into the crush of waves. “Dead animals are boring.”
“Don’t be mean, boo,” Jackie scolded. “These could be your new friends pretty soon.”
“Hey,” our grandfather said, “nobody’s dying. Not on my watch.”
Jackie looked at me with a deep pity. She was the one who knew, after all. And she was the one I trusted.
* * *
It was our final day in Mexico and our grandfather took us to the west coast, to a beach with smooth sand and swimmable water. The sky had finally sloughed off its clouds and looked pinned up like a blue tarp. Apart from us, there was one other family on the beach, some two hundred yards south.
“You can finally be a tourist,” our grandfather said to Jackie when we arrived. “And it’s nice to swim here, too. Just make sure to stay in this area”—he pointed to the frothing water ahead of us—“because there’s a bit of a rip current that happens near those rocks.”
“What’s a rip current?” I asked.
“It’s water that sucks you under and drowns you,” Jackie said.
“Your sister doesn’t know anything, Mijo. Rip currents pull you along the beach but not under. And they’re only trouble if you try to fight them.”
Jackie stripped down to her swimsuit and stretched her towel out on the sand. “I’ll let you know how it is,” she said, running toward the water.
We sat in silence, watching her dive beneath waves. It was still hard to know how to feel around our grandfather. Each time that I felt myself swept up by his humor and excitement, I remembered that he was the one who had broken our father’s heart.
“She’s very graceful when she wants to be,” he said, following my eyes. Then, after a minute, “You and her are very different from one another, no?”
I shrugged. “I guess so.”
“You guess so?” He laughed, slapping his hands against the sand. “Tell me more about what you like.”
“I don’t know,” I said with unexpected force. “I like video games and playing baseball. It’s not interesting.”
Our grandfather turned to me and pointed his finger at my chest. “You are interesting. If you like baseball, you like baseball. Viva el béisbol!” He laughed and it broke apart into a cough.
I found myself wanting to cry again—at how such basic words gave me such huge comfort. It was like stepping into the heated hallway of south campus after walking to school in winter, an immediate thaw. I turned away from him, embarrassed.
“Is Jackie near the rip current?” I asked. She was beyond the waves now, resting on her back and staring up at the sun.
“No, she’s fine. The rip current is right up against the shore. You see that sand over there, going out into the water?”
A peninsula branched from the beach, reaching out into the ocean like a thin finger. I nodded.
“That’s called a spit. And that happens when a rip current moves the shoreline and makes something new with it. Longshore drift is what it’s called. Amazing, huh? If you came back in a few years, you’d be able to walk out on it.”
Jackie was moving back toward the shore now, swimming with strong strokes and catching waves easily, as if they were there for her own use.
“Take a lesson from the ocean, Mijo,” he said, blowing sand from his sunglasses before putting them back on. “If you’re being pushed away, sometimes it’s best to let go. Would you rather drown in someone else’s water or have something that’s all your own?
When Jackie reached us, she threw herself against her towel, breathing heavily. The sound was ragged and lovely, decidedly alive.
* * *
We ate dinner at a taquería and walked back to our grandfather’s house slowly.
“I wish you had another week, another month,” our grandfather said. “There’s so much that we could do: visit Todos Santos and release baby sea turtles at sunset; swim with the sea lions at Isla Partida. It’s a shame you have to go back.”
Across the street, music played through a home’s open window and I lingered back a few paces, imagining what it would be like to live with our grandfather: the laughter, the swimming, the baseball. There were so many things that I wouldn’t have to think about any more, so many worries. Our grandfather had told us that he no longer dreamt in English and I wanted to know that feeling, too—handing what you’ve known over in exchange for something you’ve just recently found.
Jackie glanced back at me but her face was still, stretched linen. I watched for a crease, for any give that might tell me that she felt something like what I felt. But then I wasn’t sure exactly what that feeling was: some mix of shame and liberation, a hybrid creature that promised a new life just as it prided the virtue in staying still.
Her eyes widened. “Joseph,” she said, stopping and turning toward me. Fifteen feet separated us and only now did I notice shadow movement to my left. A dog—mid-size, black, growling—was parallel to us on the street. I stopped, too, and the dog cut in front of me.
“Mijo,” our grandfather said calmly, “don’t panic. Keep your eyes down and stay still. He’s just taking a moment to make sure we don’t mean him any harm.”
“Fuck that,” Jackie said, voice tuned like a siren. “Throw a rock at him.”
The fur on the dog’s back was raised into a startling range and its body moved low to the ground, smelling the asphalt and turning its face toward me. Behind it, I could see our grandfather moving toward us.
“Está bien, perrito, está bien,” he said. “We are just passing through.”
The dog turned toward him and a low growl crawled from its mouth. I wanted to run while its back was turned, but knew it would chase after me, thrashing my body in its jaws. How many times had I imagined this exact death during the course of our days in Mexico? I knew the way that my bones would crack, the way the teeth would feel.
“Keep still, Mijo. Let the dog relax and we will all carry on,” our grandfather said, his own arms held out as if to maintain balance. “Don’t listen to your sister.”
Though the dog had turned toward me again, my attention was suddenly pulled to our grandfather. Didn’t he see that despite his best intentions, I would always listen to Jackie? She held my life in her hands. She was the one who made me breakfast, who came to my room when our father and stepmother fought, tapping my forehead, singing.
All he had done was move to Mexico, to the reverent desert, to the place where he felt liberated from burdens that had landed elsewhere. I hated him for it. I hated myself for wanting it, for tasting the idea of leaving our home and finding the flavor sweet. Of course I wanted to swim in that sea forever, but what would I be taking if I actually fled into the night? I staved off tears again: that there was no fairness in departing; that there was no fairness to staying; that you had to choose regardless.
I lowered myself to the ground and clutched my hand into the rocks lining the sidewalk. Over the dog’s back, I could see Jackie’s eyes ablaze in the streetlight. My grandfather whispered my name but I let it remain meaningless, a sound subdued. Standing straight again, I wound up and pitched toward the center, making that dog move, making that space free.
Scott Broker is a writer originally from Colorado living now in Seattle, Washington. His fiction and nonfiction have appeared or are soon forthcoming from DIAGRAM, The Rumpus, CutBank: All Accounts and Mixture, Sonora Review, and American Chordata, among others. In the fall of 2017, he will begin pursuing an MFA at Ohio State University. He can be found at www.scottjbroker.com.