In Houston, summer is an endless season of dark green, repetitive blue skies, and the languor of heat, sometimes scorching, always humid, as stifling as a slap across the mouth. Or so Carmen thought, standing on the corner that Monday morning, her thumb out, trying once again to hitch a ride to work. There was no relief; the heat was already rising from the pavement, the acrid stench of exhaust filled her nostrils and made her gag just a little.
Car after car rushed past and she wondered if today would be the day she was late one time too many. She tried to make eye contact with each driver as he approached. It was always a man who picked her up; the women looked away, ashamed, too scared to help, even though Carmen's white blouse and denim skirt were demure and unassuming. She walked half a block up toward the intersection where the cars had to slow down or stop for the red light.
She looked for the white Buick with the older man who drove it; he'd picked her up three or four times now, every time clucking and warning her that it wasn't safe, that everyone was not as nice as he was. She always agreed and thanked him gratefully when he dropped her off at another corner twenty minutes away, just a short walk from where she worked. She felt safe enough with him; he reminded her of her uncle when she was little, who had told jokes to make her laugh, complaining she was too serious. Her hope rose at the sight of every white car, then stuttered still; she must have missed him.
She didn't have a watch on, but the morning sky had lightened to a pale blue. She waved her thumb wildly. The black car that stopped, passed her by like the others had, then careened onto the shoulder like a question mark twenty yards beyond her. For a moment she thought he'd had engine trouble, but through the rear windshield she could see the driver turning around in his seat, beckoning her. She scampered to the passenger side door and he leaned over, unlocked it, and she got in.
He was about thirty, brown hair, a face pockmarked from teenage acne and built like an athlete, solid, not fat. He was wearing jeans and a denim work shirt. The ashtray was overflowing with stubbed out cigarettes and the radio was blaring the traffic report.
"Where you going?" he asked.
"Past Richmond. Near Rice," she answered.
"I guess I can take you that far." He glanced in the rear view mirror and jockeyed his way back into the flow of traffic. A blue sedan swerved and leaned on its horn.
"Fuck you!" he cursed and threw the other driver the finger.
Carmen winced but he didn't notice.
"What's your name?" he asked.
"Hey, that's pretty. You Mexican or something? You clean houses for those rich old ladies who live around the university?" He eyed her dark hair and darker eyes.
"No," she answered. "I work in one of the medical buildings." She didn't tell him she was a temp; it was none of his business.
"Don't they pay you enough for you to have a car or take the bus?"
"I just started." She shrugged uncertainly. "Actually, we have a car but it's not working."
He appraised her again. "You married?"
"Yes." It was easier to lie and, besides, one day Joel and she would be married. Anyway, she felt safer, invoking their relationship like a protective presence.
"And he lets you hitchhike to work? What a jerk!"
Carmen protested. "It's not his fault. He doesn't like it, but what else can we do? We're saving money to get the car fixed."
"I'd never let my wife hitchhike! He must be crazy!"
He drove through the Richmond intersection and angled into the merging lane around the art museum. The traffic slowed and broadened to four lanes.
"Which building do you work in?" he asked.
"About three blocks up. I can get out here if it's out of your way. I really appreciate the ride." Carmen had her hand on the door handle, ready to bolt.
"Nah, it's no problem. I work around here myself." He jabbed the button on the radio to switch the station and Carmen noticed it was six minutes to eight. With any luck she might be on time. The air conditioning blew cold on her knees even as she noticed she was sweating, her nerves jangling and on edge.
"You can let me out at the next intersection," she said.
"Sure." He pulled over. "Maybe I'll see you tomorrow."
She jumped out and slammed the door. "Thanks again," she shouted over the roar of the trucks going past. Then she crossed the street and disappeared into the crowd.
She didn't see him the next morning, or the next, but on Thursday, the black car slid to a stop as if he'd been looking for her.
"Carmen, my girl," he said, "where does that shiftless husband of yours work? He does work, doesn't he?"
"In construction," she answered, looking down. "He's not shiftless."
"Well, I've been thinking. I'm pretty handy with cars. Maybe I could help you out." He lit the interior of the car filled with smoke. I could stop by and see if I could get that car of yours running."
"That's very kind," she answered, "but I can't accept your help."
His face clouded. "Why not?"
She cleared her throat, thinking of her lie. "My husband wouldn't like it. He's a proud man."
"Really? Not too proud to let his wife hitchhike." Carmen was silent.
"'You ask him. Maybe he'd be glad of the help." And he let her out. "No strings attached," he said, leaning over and rolling down the window before he drove away.
"I don't know his name, but he wants to help," Carmen said that night at the apartment.
"You didn't tell him where we live, did you?"
"Well, good." Joel lit a joint and took a deep drag. "He just wants to fuck you, that's all."
"No, he doesn't." Carmen's eyes went wide with indignation.
"Yes, he does. And you've been leading him on."
"No, I haven't!"
Joel rolled his eyes knowingly. "We'll get the car fixed without him. I'll get paid tomorrow and we'll get it fixed. I promise." He pulled her close to him and kissed her, blowing smoke into her mouth. "But right now I'm going to do what he'll never get the chance to do, baby. Come on, I want you bad."
He led her to the bed and started pulling her top off. She twisted around, trying to cooperate, but he was in a hurry, and the thin fabric ripped as he yanked it over her head.
"Joel, my blouse," she said, but in answer he loosened her bra and cupped her breasts in his hands, kneading them like dough. Then he kissed her and with one hand undid his jeans and pulled himself out.
"Suck me off," he said, his eyes bright with desire, and he pulled her head down and she took him in her mouth, pleasuring him until he dug his hands into her bare shoulders, shuddering, and she gulped down his semen like a fountain erupting in her throat. Tears leaked out of the corners of her eyes from the effort not to choke.
They lay back and after a while, he kissed her again. "You're good," he said and his long sigh of contentment whispered in her ears.
The next morning no one picked her up and she hiked the four and a half miles to the gleaming office building where she told her co-workers she'd had car trouble.
Miranda, the girl she filed with, offered her a ride and gratefully, Carmen accepted. Usually she walked home after work since she didn't have to worry about being late.
"Do you want to stop for a beer?" Miranda asked on the way home.
Carmen hesitated. "No, thanks," she said finally, "I haven't cashed my check."
"That's all right. I'll stand you to a round." Miranda pushed her hair back as if it had been a long day. "You can pay me back Monday."
"Well, just one. I have to get back."
Miranda took a quick right and drove to a trendy little café tucked away just off the Rice campus. They parked and took a table outside.
"They have great margaritas here," Miranda said, and when they came the frosty glasses were rimmed with salt and deep as soup bowls. "So you've got a hot date, is that it?" she asked, sipping her drink, licking the salt.
"I. . . have a boyfriend," Carmen said, carefully.
"Is he nice? My last boyfriend was a pig. It's hard to meet anyone nice," Miranda complained. "All they ever want is - well, you know. That's okay, but a girl gets lonely, know what I mean?"
Carmen agreed, feeling lucky she had someone, and simultaneously, a little sad. "I miss my family sometimes," she said, "but I have Joel."
"How long have you guys been together?"
"Four months," Carmen gulped. It seemed longer.
"Are you from around here?"
"No, from Wisconsin." She pictured her mother and father, the tiny white house, how desperate she'd been to get away, to have a life of her own.
"Do you get back often?"
"No," Carmen said, wondering what her mother would say if she knew the truth about Joel and her. Another lie, but a necessary one.
"My mom is in Dallas," Miranda said. "My dad - well, I don't know exactly. I haven't heard from him in a while and he gets around." She tapped a cigarette out of an open pack. "I came down here with a guy, but it didn't work out. That was eleven months ago, holy shit, nearly a year, and I haven't been back once. The time, it does go by. Where did you say you live?"
"In the Montrose."
"Well, if you're sure you don't want another one," she lifted her empty glass and Carmen shook her head, "I guess I'd better take you home. He must be one hot guy."
When they pulled into the parking lot behind the apartment, Miranda wrinkled her nose at two men arguing, their raised voices angry and petulant at the same time. "Look at those queens!" she snorted. "They're everywhere in this part of town. You don't swing, do you?" Her eyes brightened with interest and a kind of avid curiosity.
"Swing?" Carmen puzzled.
Miranda gave her an assessing look, then laughed. "I guess not. Where?"
Carmen pointed to the second set of buildings and thanked Miranda for the ride. She would have invited her in, but they had so little furniture, she felt a little ashamed, and besides, she didn't know what Joel would say if she showed up at the door with a stranger. "I'll pay you for the drink on Monday."
"No problemo! Next time you can pick it up, if you want." She drove away with a cheerful wave and Carmen waved back.
The two men were Robert and Jordan, their next door neighbors, Carmen realized, and as she climbed the back steps to their apartment, she overhead Robert's anguished voice, "How could you? How? You promised me it wouldn't happen again! I thought you loved me."
She paused on the little landing and glanced over her shoulder before she opened the door. Jordan's face was red, furious, as if he were about ready to explode, and Carmen hurried inside before she could hear his angry retort. The bare apartment was empty, the breakfast dishes still dirty in the sink.
"Joel?" Carmen called. In the bedroom she saw evidence of a few extra cigarette butts, but it looked as if he'd been gone all day.
Outside a wild banging sounded, and as she went back into the kitchen to investigate, she realized Jordan was pounding on the back door of his apartment, cursing.
"Open the damn door!" he shouted. "It's my apartment, too! Open it, you little pussy!" He rattled the doorknob, then started kicking the door with his heavy work boots.
Frightened, Carmen started to run the water in the sink to block the noise. Still she could hear Robbie's high-pitched voice screaming, "I've moved the cabinet in front of the door, you bastard! Go away! Leave me alone!"
There was a moment's silence, then the bucking of the wooden steps as Jordan pounded down them. Carmen let her breath out, aware suddenly that she had been holding it.
Joel didn't come home for another two hours and when he did, he was high and drunk and singing old love ballads in his sweet tenor voice.
"Come on," he said to Carmen, trying to take her in his arms and twirl her around, "come on! We'll worry tomorrow, but tonight is for us." He turned on a little portable radio and lit a couple of candles. "I brought you wine and Chinese take-out."
He pulled her hair back from her face and tipped her head up, kissing her at the base of her throat. She was stiff and unyielding, but he cajoled her into sampling the moo-goo-gai-pan, then a bite of lobster that he fed her with chopsticks. He regaled her with stories, ignoring her stony silence, until, two or three glasses of wine later, she laughed at his rendition of Daffy Duck running for President, and even later, when he had her, he waited, quite tenderly, until she came first, and only then did he satisfy himself.
In the middle of the night Carmen woke to the sound of wood splintering and muffled voices shouting in the hallway by the front door. She sat up, clutching the sheet to her naked breasts. She nudged Joel awake.
"It's just Jordan," he said, sleepily. "Lover's quarrel. Robbie's barricaded both doors. Nothing to worry about."
He rolled back over, but Carmen lay awake long into the night, listening to the howl of the sirens in the city night. There were so many. She'd never noticed before.
In the morning they both had hangovers and while Joel showered, Carmen walked around the corner to the convenience store and bought eggs, bacon, milk, and coffee. They cashed her check to pay for the groceries and she carefully stowed away the remainder in her wallet.
Over breakfast Joel asked her for ten dollars.
"I'm a little short, babe," he said.
"But I thought you got paid yesterday."
"I did. But I owed Toby some and I had to pay him back, and I had to replenish our stash," here he patted a tiny bulge in his pants pocket, "a few beers after work, the wine and dinner, that pretty much used it up."
"All of it?" Her voice was shaky.
He nodded, swallowing another bite of egg.
"But you were going to fix the car!"
"And I am! I was talking with one of he guys and he thinks it must be something with the carburetor, so I'm going to look at it first thing."
Angry words rose in Carmen's throat like bile, but she choked them down, saying only, "What about the rent?"
He shrugged. "We have another week or two before it's due, and I'll be working next week again. Overtime, probably."
He started rolling a joint, and Carmen stood up, a sick feeling in her stomach. How could all his money be gone? She didn't make enough to pay the rent, she hardly had enough for food. She piled the breakfast dishes in the sink, the cheap china making a ringing noise against the stainless steel sink.
"I'm going to go out for a walk," she announced. Joel's head jerked up, startled, but she was out the door before he could say anything. Even through the sudden tears in her eyes she could see where Jordan's boots had splintered the double thickness of the apartment door next door, and with an equal clarity she understood the cold desire for destruction. Blindly she clambered down the stairs and across the parking lot, going, just going, to get away from the horrible feeling of betrayal she felt. How would they ever build anything together, how, if this was how he acted every time he had any money? She had wanted freedom and excitement and someone to love her and someone to love, but in her dreams, like in the movies, life had seemed, oh, she didn't know, larger than life. There was no shabby forgetting, no toilets to clean, cockroaches, broken down cars. She had always imagined laughter.
Her feet carried her from one street to the next, over broken sidewalks, past empty lots, small bungalows, a dusty church. She walked until the streets broadened and the houses sat back from the sidewalks with tended lawns and wrought iron fences before she turned back. Crossing an abandoned lot, she noticed nuts scattered in the grass. She picked one up, then another, the shells smooth and polished in her hand. Pecans. She looked up. A huge and stately pecan tree towered over her, showering the vacant lot with a bounty of nuts. With surprise, Carmen noted that the leaves were a pale green, almost an imitation yellow. She lifted her head to look at the horizon and saw the sea of green edged in brown, and some trees, like this pecan, attempting a subtle lightening of color. She breathed deeply and stopped. In the wind she heard a faint rustle. It was harvest time. She sensed rather than saw the quiet shifting of the season.
She stuffed her pockets with nuts, frugal as a squirrel, and suddenly alert, she watched for new signs.
When she rounded the corner into the parking lot behind their apartment, she saw Joel and another man standing next to their car. The hood of the car gaped open like the mouth of a man ready to have a tooth pulled.
As she drew nearer, she realized with a start she recognized both the black Tempo and the man Joel was talking to. It was the young man who had given her a ride and who had offered to help repair their car! Carmen stopped, and for some reason, felt unaccountably frightened.
Joel's face was creased in a hale and easy hospitality that somehow Carmen didn't believe, while the other man's pocked face was wary, but polite. Joel caught sight of her and motioned her over.
"Your friend, Nick, seems to think we have bigger problems than just the carburetor." His voice held an undercurrent Carmen couldn't interpret. She stood shoulder to shoulder with him, but he edged away.
"How - " she started to ask, but Nick interrupted.
"I was just cruising and I happened to see your old man here under the hood. Thought I'd take a chance." He smiled. "Besides, you always hitch from outside this apartment complex - I hoped I'd get lucky."
"I'll bet," Joel said, dryly, but the other man seemed not to notice, and added, "I'll be glad to take you to an auto parts store for those parts."
"Well," Joel drawled, "I reckon I can manage."
"Suit yourself." He turned to Carmen. "Any place you need to go?"
Simultaneously Carmen felt this stranger's interest as both dangerous and kind. She looked into his brown eyes and wondered why he was here, but she couldn't read his expression. Joel's hand tightened on her shoulder.
"I'm fine," she answered. "But thank you for stopping, and for the rides you've given me."
"Yes," said Joel, "mighty decent of you giving her a lift. ' Course she'll be driving after today."
"Sure," Nick said, his eyes on Carmen. "Well, I'll be going. Good luck." He hesitated, then added, "With the car." But Carmen felt the weight of his unspoken words in the set of his mouth and a kind of longing sympathy in his face, a sympathy she could feel more than see.
As she watched the Tempo turn out into the street, she felt inexplicably alone, and she lifted her head, looking above the roofs of the apartment, at the expanse of blue sky gone suddenly gray.
"Where'd you go?" Joel asked.
"For a walk."
"This is a tough city. You'll get yourself hurt wandering around alone." He slammed down the hood of the car.
She watched him, almost without interest. Her attention was drawn instead to the far end of the parking lot. Another pecan tree, its leaves merely hinting at yellow, had blanketed the ground with nuts, its bounty free for the taking.
A door scraped open and Robbie and Jordan stood on the wooden landing, embracing. She could see then kissing, their bodies entwined. She looked away.
"You coming?" Joel asked. "I'm hungry."
"You go on," she said, "I'll be along."
His face shadowed, suddenly worried, but she didn't notice. She was fingering the nuts in her pocket. It was the end of summer, time for the harvest, and what did she have to show for her efforts at love? She watched Joel walk away from her, the set of his shoulders, jaunty and unconcerned. The car sat like a silent witness, still not working.
A wind, faint, yet persistent as a cough, blew up and an empty McDonald's wrapper skipped across the gravel. With a shiver, Carmen closed her arms around herself.
Winter was coming.
Even here, she thought.
A long, hard winter.
Copyright © 2001 by Linda L. Rome