el paso

 

There was a song going through her mind.

“Out in the west Texas town of El Paso…”

Her dad used to sing it.  She could picture him leaning toward her, tweaking the tip of her nose and grinning.

“…I fell in love with a Mexican girl…”

She wasn’t Mexican.  This inconsistency bothered her, though he didn’t seem to notice.  He’d had black hair, hazel eyes, sideburns that came down into his full cheeks, the skin pockmarked by former acne.  When he was older, his nose broadened, even the pores, giving him a splattered appearance she would find herself staring at in fascination.

What was the Mexican girl’s name?

Across the room, the dog shifted and groaned.  He was showing his age.  Well, who wasn’t?  From her seat she stretched first one leg out, then another.  Felina.  That was the girl’s name.  Her dad leaned toward her, his green-brown eyes dancing.  She turned her head, as if he were really there, as if his lips could buzz her cheek.

He hadn’t been discriminate.  He’d sung the same song to her mother, whisking her away to dance in the small living room, bending her across his arm, kissing the pale skin on her exposed neck and making her laugh.  She’d watched from the kitchen, happy they belonged to him.  She’d thought him the tallest man alive.  She got up and went across to the bookshelf, pulled down an album.  He was there, on the first page, side by side with her mother, only an inch or so taller.  She blinked.  That made him, what?  5’8?  She flipped through the other pages, but he was sitting in all the rest of the photos.  She shut the book, opened it again.  Her mother’s face stared back at her, composed, serene.  Could she trust any of her childhood memories?  She closed the cover, put it back.

*

She was humming it again.  The sun was coming through the window, warming her arms.  There was a whole story to the song – a gunfight, an escape, a dying embrace – but she only ever heard the first line in her mind.  Was that the only line he’d known?  “I fell in love…”  She leaned her head back in her chair, watched the dog twitching in his sleep.  There was no use getting angry at someone dead and gone.  He was a romantic, she could see that now.  “I fell in love with a Mexican girl…”  She could remember dancing, spinning away from him, the twist of his wrist bringing her back.  No one ever danced with her like that again, innocent, kind, free of expectations.

She took out her phone, typed in the line she knew, waited for the lyrics to come up.  There was a video, so she played it.  Halfway through, she shut it off.  She didn’t want to hear the whole thing, didn’t want that other voice crowding out his in her memory.  The dog sat up suddenly, began barking.  A bad dream, maybe, or some distant sound from the street triggering his “alert!” response.  She called him to her and patted his head in her lap.  “Good dog,” she whispered.  A memory: her mother holding her hands tightly over her ears, forehead wrinkled, shoulders hunched.  “Your mother needs it quiet,” her dad saying and the little brown dog disappearing the next day.  Juno.  That was the dog’s name.  She took out her phone again, dialed.  A man’s voice answered.

“Do you remember Juno?” she asked.

“The dog?  I think so.  Smallish?  Brown?  We didn’t have her for long,” her brother said.

“No,” she said.  “She barked, I think.”

Silence.  Then, “You okay?”

“I’m fine.  Give my love to Charlie.”  She tucked the phone down between her leg and the chair.   The dog looked up at her with his soft eyes and she shifted to move him.  “Go lay down now,“ she said.

She’d never been to Texas, had her father?  West Texas meant nothing to her.  The whole state stretched out in her mind like one big plain, populated by cattle with long, curving horns broader than their shoulders, horses, improbably saddled, with their bridles hanging down, tumbleweeds, funnels of dust in the distance, the occasional sagebrush.  That wasn’t right, she knew.  There were cities, big cities, but her mind clung to the landscapes from TV westerns.  The kind of place where a cowboy and a Mexican girl might fall into tragic love.

There was a mirror hanging by the front door.  She stepped over the dog’s sleeping body, turned on the light so she could see her reflection.   From a distance it seemed her mother was walking toward her.  They had the same pale skin, the same heart-shaped face.  She pushed her hair back, tucking it away from her face.  That too, was her mother, the way her hands moved, the way the fingers traced the line around her ear.  She got closer, so close her forehead was pressing against the glass.  There he was.  The green irises, the flecks of brown, the circle of gold around the edge.  Kind eyes, good eyes.  She let her breath out and the glass fogged around her mouth obscuring her mother-face.

“Out in the west Texas town of El Paso….” she sang, breathing in, breathing out.  In the mirror her dad’s eyes looked back at her, steady, sure.

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