When Eddie’s sister Colleen first told him of Harold’s death, he’d pictured the old writer in a smoking jacket sitting in an overstuffed burgundy armchair, worn novel in his lap, a cigarette — or perhaps cigar — smoldering in a crystal ashtray beside him. As Harold drew his last breath, his soul, a grey version of his body if classic films were to be believed, would stand up and walk into the arms of one of Harold’s dark-haired damsels. That seemed the natural death of an aging, chain-smoking Western mystery writer. To hear a year after the fact that his friend had been killed by an insane man in a park, his face broken by a two-by-four, was to realize he’d been viewing life through a kaleidoscope. With the smallest shift what he knew to be a circle shrank into a dot and exploded into new patterns of nameless shapes and colors. Eddie began to suspect his favorite jacket had been stolen, not misplaced, and when Colleen said their father had sold the family home a few months before, she meant burned it to the ground.
Colleen told Eddie about Harold by mistake. Eddie called the café to tell her he would be unable to come home for Thanksgiving. He had papers due, plus the drive from Denver to their small hometown in New Mexico was too long. Colleen had changed the subject to the Marigold Parade that weekend, saying she was surprised that it would be held at the park after what had happened with Harold.
“Did they find the guy?” Eddie asked after forcing the story from her. “Was there a trial?”
He’d spent his senior year as Colleen’s first employee, and over the phone he listened to her steaming milk, waiting for her response as the steamer gradually changed to an almost hollow tone in the froth. He predicted the moment the sound would stop and be taken over by the clinking of cups and too many conversations to discern one voice. To someone who couldn’t visualize the mismatched chipped mugs and the shabbily dressed regulars conversing with one another on their lunch breaks, the noise on the other side could easily be a track on an ambiance CD of café sounds made to convince the listener that somewhere, life was reassuringly loud. His sister’s sigh blended with the slowly silenced steamer.
“He wasn’t fit to stand trial,” Colleen said.
“What does that mean?”
“It means if someone didn’t know what they were doing, they don’t go to jail.”
“That’s bullshit,” Eddie said. He’d called her from campus, and now he dropped his voice, as classmates and professors began to fill the pathway, heading to their classes and lunches. “Bullshit,” he said again, softly. “So he just gets away with it? You can’t just not punish someone.”
“He’s in the halfway house,” Colleen said, then added, “Or one of the mental hospitals.”
She gave no reason for not telling Eddie sooner, but this was the sister who, after a dinner of cereal, had announced that their mother was not coming home, and that Colleen was now in charge. She was twelve at the time, Eddie six. Their father didn’t dispute Colleen’s authority. He always left grocery money in a drawer for their mother and continued to do so for Colleen.
One winter when Colleen was sixteen and driving Eddie in their father’s Saab, they saw Harold walking from the grocery store, looking like a sad mule weighed down by plastic saddlebags. The trees were naked twigs and the cold seeped through the Saab’s broken window. They often saw Harold. He was a part of their scenery, his appearance varying slightly by season. In the spring he wore denim shirts. In the summer his sleeves were rolled up, his walk a little slower. He’d stop to smoke in the shade. In the fall a leather fringed jacket was added, even though most of the city was still in T-shirts and shorts. But on this day they offered him a ride home and discovered he lived a few streets away from them, across from the park.
Eddie shifted to the backseat and listened while Harold asked Colleen what she did. She didn’t mention school and said she was looking for work. When Harold told her Holy Grounds was hiring — as a regular he knew the owner and would put in a word for her in exchange for the ride home — Eddie became a believer in fate. Colleen was soon working after school for the old Scotsman who owned Holy Grounds, and she convinced him to hire Eddie when he turned sixteen. When the owner decided to retire, it was Harold who suggested Colleen, recently graduated from the town’s university, buy the place, and she did.
Colleen hung up, explaining it was their afternoon rush. On an outdoor bench in the school’s food court, Eddie lifted a cup of coffee in a silent toast. A professor wearing a fringed jacket walked by, and as the distance between them widened, his back became Harold’s. Every old man on campus took on his gait, his reluctant hero’s slouch. Eddie looked away, afraid their faces might turn into masks of bruised flesh and shattered bone. He had to glue down the fraying edges of his town before too much damage was done. If he could see the park, things might be okay. If he could find the man …
Las Cruces only had one halfway house. The older of a neighbor’s daughters had worked there.
Eddie dialed Colleen again. He ignored the irritation in her voice.
“I think I could come back this week instead. I’m pulling A’s. Now is the best time to take a break. Maybe crash with you guys.”
“The spare room is ready,” she said, her voice lighter.
“Cool. Hey, random question, but do the Vegas still live next to our old place?”
“You know Jenny is married, right?”
“Very funny. Yes, I know. It’s still a fresh wound. I was just thinking about the old neighborhood.”
“I think their mom is still there. I see her here at the café sometimes. I don’t know about the girls.”
With an overnight bag packed for the warm fall of home, Eddie drove through the mountains that made him feel like Denver was swallowing him until he was safe in the flat terrain of desert. His mother never saw the appeal of the southwest. Before she left, she often complained to Eddie and Colleen that she missed the changing seasons.
When Eddie told Harold what his mother had said, Harold told him every story he’d ever written was set in the desert and that people who didn’t see the changes just weren’t looking.
“You can’t see them until you’ve looked from every corner, every angle, and even then,” he said, trailing off and watching Colleen as she stretched her body across a table, scrubbing away a pool of honey.
“I guess she didn’t see anything worth staying for,” Eddie said.
“I bet she regrets that now.” It was cheesy, Eddie knew that, but it was something his father didn’t say.
Eddie called when he was a few minutes out of town. Colleen said she would be at work for a few more hours, and he asked for their father’s new address.
“You sure? You’re welcome to hang out here.”
He longed to, and to find the man who’d killed his friend he’d first have to find his old neighbor. The café was as good a place to start if Mrs. Vega was a regular. He could ask after her daughters and find out if Jenny’s sister still worked at the halfway house, but he was afraid of the table where Harold used to sit.
“I should say hi to the old man,” Eddie said, an endearment he’d never applied to their father before.
Their father had moved to one of three white stucco adobe duplexes near the town’s historic district. On the porch sat several succulents and cacti, Colleen’s go-to gift, all of which his father had managed to kill. Eddie knocked.
His father was a short man, with limbs that always seemed to hang in perfect symmetry. When angry, both hands were raised, and when at ease he kept his hands a few inches from his sides. He stood stiffly as though he had just been popped from a mold for fathers and had no muscle memory for hugs or high fives.
He motioned Eddie in and gestured toward an unfamiliar used couch. Its canvas slip cover had cat fur on it. Eddie perched on the edge of a cushion. Their family had never owned cats. The coffee table was gone and replaced with a slab of polished oak on cinder blocks. His mother had taken her books and although her white shelf was in the corner, it was now home to a lamp with no shade, a jar of peanut butter, and an open sleeve of saltine crackers. A red clock clicked loudly in the silence.
“That’s new,” Eddie said.
His father stared at the clock and then shook his head.
“We’ve always had that.”
His father spread peanut butter on a cracker before chewing it slowly, the tick of his dentures momentarily drowning out the noise of the clock. A half-finished puzzle took up most of the table. His father stood suddenly and walked to the woven rug tacked to the wall — another one of Colleen’s touches. His father ripped it down and draped it over the back of the couch.
“I don’t have any extra pillows,” his father said. “I go to bed at 9:30.”
“I’m staying with Colleen. I just thought I’d stop by, see your new place.”
“Just as well.”
A fat orange tomcat jumped into Eddie’s lap.
“Come here, boy,” his father said, suddenly chuckling in a way Eddie hadn’t heard before.
“I thought you hated cats.”
“No, your mother didn’t allow pets because of Colleen’s allergy.”
The cat licked a cracker crumb from his father’s stubble.
“School is going well,” Eddie said.
“You’re studying history?”
“Your mother said you’d be a writer.” He said this victoriously, as though he was the better parent for having foreseen Eddie’s failures.
“Not since high school.”
As a teenager Eddie wrote sci-fi stories about a world with several moons, stories he didn’t let his sister read about beautiful iridescent-skinned women and young space soldiers. He suspected Harold wouldn’t mind. When Harold stepped out to smoke and left his papers, Eddie often tried to read a few scrawled words, surprised by how sexual the women of Harold’s Old West were, but taking notes.
Harold was more of a constant than a regular. He was there when they opened for his first cup of the day, cigarette in hand and yellow notepad under his arm. They knew which coffee roast he drank and brewed it first. He wandered the downtown area, coming back every few hours for a refill and a sandwich or bowl of soup. Eddie took a certain pride in pulling the shades just right so that Harold had light to write by, but no sun in his eyes.
Colleen suggested Eddie show his stories to Harold, so he printed one at school and sealed it in an envelope for Colleen to pass along, suddenly too shy to do it himself. When Harold came into the cafe the next day, he handed Eddie a few sheets from his yellow legal pad.
“Not bad,” he said. “I’ve written some notes for you, my general reactions.”
He left Eddie with the papers and walked into the back where Colleen was working.
The lines and curves of Harold’s letters were tiny marks that rarely connected with each other, and a “k” could easily be an “l” and a “c.”
“I can’t read this,” Eddie said from the archway that separated the kitchen and dining area. Harold removed his hand from Colleen’s shoulder, and she turned back to the large coffee brewer to fill an air pot with a piñon blend.
“Sorry. Old hands,” Harold said. He motioned for Eddie to join him where he sat on the kitchen counter. Eddie hesitated. He didn’t want Colleen to hear them discussing his story’s faults. Harold nodded as though Eddie had voiced his concern.
“I need a smoke, let’s go outside.”
They sat at a bistro table on the café’s patio.
“I don’t write sci-fi myself, but some of the same rules apply,” Harold said. “You’re lacking sensory details. All I know is that there are several moons, nothing more about the place. You also don’t seem certain of your own world. Do they control the suns, or don’t they? No one seems to know.”
Colleen interrupted to bring coffee to Harold and a sandwich to Eddie. They fell silent. Colleen referred to groups of old male regulars as “the boys,” and Eddie felt he was now a part of them.
Eddie walked home with Colleen when she was finished closing.
“Did he help you?” she asked.
“He said maybe you can meet his editor someday. When you get out of this town, I want a dedication in your first book,” she said, punching his arm playfully, but a little too hard. “Or you can buy me a mansion when you have a bestseller.”
Eddie left his father watching the news, the orange cat curled beneath the man’s chin. He drove a few blocks away to the cul-de-sac where Colleen and her husband lived. It was a small two bedroom home, with three bright red steps and two windows peering out at the street from beneath matching red valances. Colleen greeted him at the door and pulled him close, mussing his hair.
“Blake’s still at the school. He always waits till the last minute to finish the parade float.”
Eddie’s brother-in-law often drove a float with a few students in the Marigold Parade.
“Isn’t it basically the same as last year’s?”
Colleen shrugged. “It fades. Come in, I have coffee.”
He wondered how much of his sister’s blood was pure espresso. She always moved quickly, high on caffeine and adrenaline. If a task called for a delicate hand, hers would undoubtedly shake, as it did now when she poured black coffee into a pottery mug. Her deep brown hair covered her eyes, and he noticed for the first time a thick grey streak.
“When did this happen, Grandma?” He lifted the strand, surprised by how coarse it was.
Colleen smacked his hand half-heartedly.
“Somewhere between you falling off the jungle gym and Blake quitting law school to teach.”
He noticed the small, almost imperceptible lines around her eyes. He wondered if she, like the desert, changed in only small, barely noticeable ways. Her lips were the same pale shade as her skin and fine lines ran through them as well.
He remembered when he was in elementary school, and their neighbor had a dog, a rescued fighting dog, that always lunged at Eddie. Colleen walked between him and the neighbor’s fence every day until someone left the gate open, and the dog was killed by a car. Colleen lived at home while Eddie was in high school, staying up when he was at parties and picking him up when he was too drunk to get home. She forced him to finish his college applications.
“I owe you a box of hair dye,” he said.
“A little more than that,” she said, but smiled. “Hungry?” She was already standing with the fridge door open, gathering a block of cheese, butter, and a package of corn tortillas. She fetched a pan and a blue plate. When the plate was filled with a stack of steaming quesadillas, she settled by Eddie on the couch.
“How old do you think he was?” Eddie asked.
“Sixties, I suppose,” she said.
He was surprised and glad his sister didn’t ask who he was talking about. He liked to think their minds were separate cars on the same train of thought.
“I always thought of him as older,” Eddie said.
“His face was old.”
Harold’s wrinkles were like deep cuts that never healed properly, wounds that seemed smoother when he spoke with Eddie and Colleen. Harold preferred Colleen’s company, Eddie couldn’t deny that, but he always made time to sit with Eddie as well. Sometimes Eddie would get to the café right after Harold had left and feel abandoned when he smelled the stale smoke and knew he had just missed him.
“Are you alright?” Colleen asked.
“It’s just strange I guess.”
“I know you were close.”
“You were closer.” He didn’t mean to sound accusing, but he thought she should still be mourning. At least upset. She should have called him crying when it happened.
Harold’s wife left him long before he met Eddie and Colleen. Eddie saw this as common ground. He imagined Harold’s wife and his own mother were the same type of women, women with bright fake nails and styled hair that took hours to fix.
When Harold asked what kind of women Eddie liked, Eddie appreciated that Harold said women and not “girls.” Eddie said without hesitation that he liked the ones that look the same in the afternoon as when they first woke up. It was something he realized on an overnight school trip. The bus broke down and the following morning half the girls’ faces were smeared with different colors of foundation, blush, and eye shadow. He liked the girls that didn’t transform themselves through a long process of creams on their face or strange tools for their hair.
Harold jerked his head toward Colleen, who was smiling patiently at a construction worker who often came in for a Pepsi but stayed talking.
“She curl her hair?” Harold asked.
Eddie had seen his sister braiding her hair at night so that it would have waves in the morning. “No,” Eddie said. “It just does that.”
“There’s nothing prettier.”
During the parade, the park was filled with lawn chairs and families holding umbrellas for shade. It was a cool day, but no guarantee you wouldn’t burn, even in October. A few children smelling of sunscreen ran by, spilling their cups of elotes. The corn pieces littered the ground like chili-flecked confetti.
Eddie had gone to bed early the night before, claiming fatigue from the drive and hiding in the pale yellow spare room. He’d listened to Colleen and Blake talk, their voices lulling him first into a dreamlike trance and then to sleep. He was glad to find his brother-in-law and Colleen already gone when he woke. A spare key with a note saying they’d left early to prepare the float was waiting for him on the table with one of Colleen’s home baked muffins, a staple of the café.
He walked to the park alone and watched the floats. Most consisted of trucks, and only a few of them pulled trailers of children behind them. All but two of the city’s Shriners had died, and the remaining pair forced themselves into every parade no matter the theme, struggling to make their zipping back and forth compelling. Children called out greetings from the bed of Blake’s old Chevy, racing to talk faster and louder than the kid beside them until their voices all joined in nearly incoherent screams and shouts.
He watched a woman standing near the edge of the park, grocery bags in hand. He was slow to recognize her because she should have changed more. He walked toward her, and began a light jog when he realized she was leaving.
“Hey!” he called. Eddie tried to hug her, but she angled her body so he was limited to an arm around her shoulder.
“Eddie,” she said. “New glasses?”
Now he felt worse for not remembering her name, but it was Jenny he’d watched swimming through the fence. Her sister was an aloof entity. The serendipity in finding her was overshadowed by his panic at not knowing what he’d wanted to ask.
“Here to watch the parade?” Eddie said.
“I’m trying to get home. The parking by my place was taken up.”
She was tall. They stood eye-to-eye, and he noticed the traces of acne scars she didn’t try to cover.
“We should grab lunch,” he said.
She bit her lip.
“Sure,” she said, after a long pause. “I can meet you at Pinky’s on my lunch break tomorrow.”
Pinky’s was a burger joint a short walk away. It changed owners every few months, so rather than keep up with the business’s rapidly changing names, everyone referred to it by its unfortunately bright exterior. She said the last owner had decided to actually name it Pinky’s.
“Wouldn’t you know he repainted it?” she said. Then walked away.
A child cried as his finger was caught in a folding chair. A float honked at a pedestrian who waved back and stopped traffic to start up a conversation with the driver. The parade had no decisive ending. After circling the park a few times, the floats began to drift off onto side roads, trailing like ellipses.
Eddie could see Blake waiting for parents to collect their children from his truck. A few stragglers with faces painted white were still by his side, standing among the husks of sunflower seeds and forgotten jackets. Eddie had been in the parade when he was a kid. He remembered Colleen waiting and walking home with him while other children were driven home by parents. She told him their dad didn’t like crowds, otherwise he would have been there. Sometimes people would offer them a ride, especially men as Colleen got older, but they always shook their heads and pointed to the nearest house, claiming it as theirs. If the car took too long to drive away, they would sit on the porch of a stranger’s house and pretend to be home.
Colleen invited Eddie to work with her the next morning, but he made an excuse about meeting friends and offered to help her close afterward. He’d remembered Jenny’s sister’s name as he fell asleep, and vaguely remembered Colleen’s dislike of Stacia.
He walked to Pinky’s. The yellow road running the length of downtown was faded to the greyish yellow of an over boiled egg yolk, and the mariachi band that wandered in front of the stores for years replaced by a young girl in a fedora singing softly and strumming a banjo. Eddie heard Stacia call his name and realized he’d walked past Pinky’s, not recognizing the new green umbrellas and brightly painted mural of the town’s history on the store’s otherwise white front. Stacia let him hug her this time, though she stood stiffly.
They ordered burgers and fries and drank shakes through straws that filled the silence with rude suction sounds. They sat across from each other at an outside table where Stacia could smoke.
“It’s good to see you,” he said.
She looked confused then shrugged.
“Thanks for meeting me. I realize now it’s weird, right? But there was something I wanted to ask you.”
Stacia leaned back, her blue eyes squinting, as though preparing herself.
“Did you know Harold?” Eddie asked.
“Old guy. A writer. He used to hang out at Holy Grounds a lot.”
“I never really go to your sister’s café.”
“He was killed. I mean, like, murdered. Attacked. I thought maybe you knew …”
Stacia held her cigarette a few inches from her mouth, as though forgetting to inhale, before putting it out. “I think I know what you’re talking about. I’m sorry, Eddie. If you’re trying to ask about a client, I can’t talk about that.”
“I just want to talk to him.”
Stacia shook her head and reached for her keys.
“There’s no way.”
“Then just ask him why —”
“Why? Jesus. You think my job is as easy as asking why? I have to go.”
Eddie followed Stacia to her car. She paused to light a fresh cigarette.
“I’m sorry, Stacia. Forget it. I missed the funeral. I thought maybe, I don’t know. I guess it’s right what they say about closure.” Eddie didn’t know what “they” he was referring to, but he was quickly realizing how unrealistic his dream of confronting a maniacal murderer had been.
“Do you hear from your mom?” Stacia asked.
Eddie frowned at the change of topic.
“She fakes interest every few years or so.”
Stacia leaned on the hood of her car and held the cigarettes toward Eddie. He’d never smoked. He realized the pack held toward him was his mother’s brand, and he was finally able to place the familiarity of Stacia’s smell.
“He was a regular at the café,” Stacia said. “The papers said he claimed he was protecting your sister. They didn’t name her.”
Stacia put a hand on his arm. There was more warmth in the gesture than the whole of their interaction.
“He isn’t a stable man, Eddie.” She opened her car door, and then turned back to him. “I used to go to the cemetery after the parade. My dad’s there. Your friend too. I think it’s better, maybe, to let the ghosts do their own thing. No one really knows what happened. There’s no witness. No reliable one anyway. You can’t ask the guy who did it.”
Eddie left Pinky’s and walked till he reached the path between the railroad tracks and canals. Desert Venice, Harold once called them, but others called them ditches. Eddie walked past the cotton fields and pecan orchards, the sprawling brick houses with iron fences distinguishing them as estates with family names. When he finally turned back toward town, he was exhausted. He reached Holy Grounds as Colleen was closing.
He washed up in the bathroom then picked up a wet checkered cloth and began wiping down tables.
“You have fun?” Colleen asked, emptying the day’s grounds from filters.
Eddie nodded and began to set the chairs upended on the tables. He thought they looked like enormous dead spiders, legs paralyzed. His world was shifting again — he saw broken cheekbones, stained pavement, and in the center, the tiniest focal point, he saw Harold’s hand on Colleen’s shoulder.
When they left, he noticed the Holy Grounds sign, a coffee bean beneath a halo, leaning against the side of the building. In its place was a new plaque with cursive lettering that read “Colleen’s Café.”
“You changed the name.”
“Seemed about time.”
They changed direction, heading to their old home. It was converted into an art gallery. The street was slowly being rezoned, foreclosures turned into law offices, all darkened for the evening.
Colleen leaned on Eddie for balance as she climbed over the gate. The yard was nicer than they ever kept it. Pecan mulch spread evenly beneath curated hedges and neatly trimmed trees. They sat there, watching burgundy leaves cling to branches.
“Sorry I didn’t send you the clippings about Harold,” she said. “I didn’t read them. I didn’t think you needed to either.”
He remembered his mother’s censorship of their TV. She would walk into a room, lower her glasses, and ask, “Now is that edifying?” He was free to watch what he pleased when she left. He loved the crime shows; he was terrified and unable to look away as victims had their arms wrenched backward, or detectives found bodies with fingers missing. Some of the shows sat the evidence right in front of you; you knew who to trust. Usually the old man gave the children a ride home, not the other way around.
“You think Holy Grounds regulars will be okay with the name change? Everything else is the same really, I suppose.”
Next door a new dog was barking from the yard.
“Did he do something to you?”
A few leaves in a tree surrendered, sighing to the sidewalk below. Colleen gave a soft shushing sound. The dog barked again.
“He said they were pretty good, the stories you gave him. You know, for a high school kid.”
Eddie rested his head on his knees. His fingertips touched the frayed hem of her pants, the denim bleached from the cleaner she used on the floors.
“I might start writing again,” he said. Earlier he’d sat on the banks of the canal, typing notes into his phone. He would make her a dark haired princess with a streak of white. A warrior.
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