“Go ahead touch it!” shouted Travis.
“I ain’t gonna touch it,” said Neil.
Eighth grade’s a bitch, always tryin’ to crown the dumbass of the day. Travis and me, we the leaders of the group, so it’s a toss-up between Bow and Neil.
“Nep, you touch it!” yelled Bow.
“Fuck no!” I yelled back.
“That’s right. He believes in that Mexican voodoo shit,” laughed Travis.
Hell ya, I wanted to say. I believe in all that shit, but it ain’t voodoo. Maybe it’s Mexican. That was the line that crossed us every single day. I was used to it.
It was no biggie, to touch a tree, but I knew better, and they did too. I saw the postcards in my uncle’s drawer–Mexicans, us Mexicans, hanging from trees, that tree, a solid oak, strong enough to hold four people by the noose on one branch.
I wasn’t really allowed to spend time with them. My ma’ always said, “Cuidado, mijo. El papá de Tabis no quiere que andes con ellos.”
“Travis, ma’, not Tabis.”
“Lo que sea,” whatever, she would say.
Travis didn’t care. It was only his pa’ who thought like that.
Travis’s eyes were a steady blue and his skin was like onion paper, that old paper I saw in those por avión envelopes in my grandfather’s desk. You could see the veins in Travis’s neck, the scattershot freckles on his face. Some great-great grandad of his fought in the Alamo, but those folks with that skin, they were not made in the Texas sun. Not like our people, we been here when this was Mexico, hell, before this was Mexico. I have the skin to prove it.
This was not gonna end. Somebody was gonna have to touch that damn tree. Travis said we should go back down by the water, check that oak out again. I had a song in my head the whole walk down, the one my uncle always listened to, Los caminos de la vida, no son lo que yo pensaba, no son los que yo creía. It was like a silent movie on loop, I couldn’t shake that image on the postcard, four men dangling from one branch. And those old-fashioned notecards in between that pop-up saying, “Help, they’re about to kill me!” and “Those greasers deserve to die!” Cut to white swashbuckler smiling, fade to four men’s legs kicking and swinging.
Travis and his shitty-ass ideas.
We got there and I put an end to it. I touched the fuckin’ tree.
Travis would not be upstaged, so he touched it too. Bow and Neil just laughed, kind of an agitated laugh, like, let’s roll. Yup, I wanted out too. Something felt off.
Travis was no longer Travis. Same freckles and onion skin, but he was gone. Maybe he had the same silent movie on loop in his head, too, burlap sack over the head, blurred view of the hangmen, final last words, suffocation, sometimes broken neck.
I knew I shouldna touched that oak.
My ma’ was worried, kept asking why I was sweatin’ so much, why I kept walking around at night. My uncle told her that’s how teenagers are, always going to bed late. I’d look out my window, night after night, and one those times I saw Travis. I called out, but he didn’t look up. Kept walking straight toward the water. What’s he tryin’ to do?
Bow and Neil noticed and asked what was up: “Nep, you see Travis? Something ain’t right.” It was a helluva lotta wrong. We tried to sit with him during lunch, but he just got up and walked away. He had that look, that thousand-yard stare. We couldn’t crack him.
Two days later, Travis’s dad’s body was found in a ditch. The family said it was a tractor accident, sliced him right in half. My ma’ said it was the chupacabras. Neil heard they couldn’t find Travis’s dad’s right eye, just popped right out of the socket and gone, and there were marks on his body too, kinda like a zebra after a grown-ass cheetah’s had its fill.
It was an outdoor burial, a Texas noon sun. I kept thinkin’ more sweat more stink, ain’t nobody gonna feel right. They used that pulley to put Travis’s dad into the six-foot hole. Travis still had that stare—until he didn’t. He looked into me, straight into me. I saw he had a tooth missing, his left canine, and his hands and arms seemed dirty. It was like his freckles had connected the dots with a maroon sharpie. He put his right index finger up to his lips and smiled.
Gizella Meneses’s work has appeared in various literary magazines and anthologies, including Hostos Review (2019), Del sur al norte: Narrativa y poesía de autores andinos (2016) and Nos pasamos de la raya (2015). She is co-editor of an anthology of Latina crime fiction, Ellas cuentan: Antología de Crime Fiction por latinoamericanas en EEUU (2019, Sudaquia Editores) and co-editor of Argentine Cinema: From Noir to Neo-Noir (2018, Lexington Books).
A Song for Gizella