A week after Natalie’s opening, I get home from work late in the evening and the whole neighborhood is out in the street. Carlina is down on the corner in a bathing suit and shorts, her waist like the curve of a guitar. She’s fanning herself with a newspaper and talking to Julio, a short guy who watches over the corner. He’s got a big belly, an incongruous handlebar mustache. He’s always smiling but I don’t buy it at all. Now there’s music playing softly from someone’s open window. Julio and Carlina wave at me as I stand in the doorway shuffling through the mail. There’s an envelope that doesn’t belong here. It’s to “Hombre Cinco,” and it isn’t my address. I look closer. It’s dirty, the stamp is years out of date, the canceling marks are illegible now, there’s no way to know when it was mailed. It must have been rescued from the dungeon of a dead letter office.
I should give it back to the postman. But I don’t.
The address on the envelope isn’t far away. A few blocks, down by the canal. But it’s just off the industrial street where the whores walk at night. I go upstairs and look out the back window at the red moon rising over the decaying water tower.
By the time I get out the door the next day, Julio’s already watching the corner, under cover of the burnt-out store’s fiberglass awning. “Hello mami,” he calls out. “You go to work?”
“Just a walk,” I tell him. I don’t like to linger with Julio. He starts asking questions. Who is my boyfriend and do I need any help around the house. I hurry down the street that fronts the canal, the whores have gone home and it’s empty now, there’s only broken glass and the leftover stench of the garbage trucks.
The address I’m looking for is on a stub of a street, half a block long, cut short by the canal and a yellow diamond sign that says, simply, “END.”
There’s a sofa near the drooping fence that borders the canal. A man rises from it and staggers up to me. “Look at that face. I’m gonna marry you. I’m gonna buy you an apart—no, a house. Gonna get a job, go back to school. Okay?”
“Okay,” I say, backing away from the sour stink of him. There’s no one else around. Even Julio is too far away to help me. The man keeps walking, muttering to himself.
He lurches away toward the empty park. When he’s out of sight, I turn back to the little street. One side is the solid wall of a warehouse, casement windows behind cast iron cages. The other side has three little townhouses with ugly siding, dirty white, hospital green, mud brown. I count the house numbers. Where a fourth would be, at the end of the street, is an empty lot. That’s the one I’m looking for.
I go down and grab the big steel lock that binds the gates with a rusty chain, rattle it a little, hoping it might give. It holds fast. The lot is narrow and deep. The pavement is going to seed as grass and weeds push up through the cracked blacktop. Ivy snakes through the links of the cyclone fence and into the razor wire that crowns it. There’s a great sprawling Paulownia tree shading the back, and smaller ones pushing up all around the edges, growing out of the paltry, toxic dirt. Those trees grow fast, but still, the lot must have been vacant for decades.
Maybe that’s all there is to it.
I keep the letter in my pocket and head for the post office. My fingers graze its surface, feeling the grit collected in its limbo years.
The line is long and slow. There’s a man up near the front of the impatient crowd, rocking a sleeping baby back and forth in a cheap stroller. He’s got the blackest hair and his skin is rosy brown. Finally it’s his turn, and there’s something a little frightened in the way he approaches the window. He’s holding out a tissuey paper, a carbon of some kind of official form. His words are soft and incomplete as he says to the clerk, “I need a photocopy. Can I do here?” She shakes her head. “No?” he asks, still a little hopeful. “I can not do that here?” The clerk waves him away.
He turns the stroller around and wheels it slowly toward the door. He’s looking at the paper in his hand. He’s navigating strange territory, things don’t work the way they work at home. He’s almost at the door when a fat woman steps out of the line, clucking her tongue at the whole situation. “Over there,” she tells him, pointing out the window. “Across the street at the Arab store. They do it.” She pats him on the arm. “Just cross the street, honey.”
I would swear he is about to cry. The moment is frozen. I’m still six or seven people from the clerk’s window. I touch the letter in my pocket. I step out of the line. I’m keeping a secret I meant to turn loose. I hurry toward the door, just in time to hold it open for the man and his stroller. Up close I see it’s not tears he’s holding back. It’s rage.
The letter stays in my bag all day at work. At night, in my kitchen, I stare at the stove. It would be so simple. But a little steam and suddenly you’re a felon. I’m not sure yet. I slide the envelope between two fingers and feel the edges of something less pliable than the worn paper. It’s a rectangle with rounded edges. Thicker and smaller than a folded letter. A photograph.
My phone rings, and I pin the envelope onto the fridge with a tiny magnet, adding it to the haphazard collage of scraps and postcards. It works the wrong way, I always forget. Display a thing and it becomes invisible.