FALL 2013 (Issue 80)
 

Jill Logan

The Give-up

 

As Carlos walks down the driveway, Flip trails on her tricycle like a duckling. 

“Stay out of the street,” he tells her, gently sticking his boot in front of her wheel so she doesn’t roll off the curb.  He picks her up, trike and all, and turns her toward the house.   She wheels circles in the driveway, spinning in coils, hunched over the handlebars, tongue hanging out, a smear of blood on her knee where she skinned it on the sidewalk.  Carlos  wishes he could finish the fence so that Flip could run around in the backyard without him worrying about her wandering into the street.  He’s been waiting until the price of lumber goes back down, but now he has two mortgages and a half-built fence.  And the missing planks and gate stand out like a missing tooth, a sign of defeat that’s impossible for him to miss.

Carlos looks back at the house.  The day they moved in they arrived with armfuls of blue plastic Wal-Mart sacks in knotted little bundles, sacks filled with new beige towels and new plastic toothbrush holders, a dish set that included dessert plates, a dust ruffle to hide the box springs.  They bought Sesame Street DVDs for Flip and a dozen plastic pots of red geraniums.  They purchased the house new – brick with vinyl shutters, the lawn already quilted with neat squares of sod, a little redbud landscaped into the opening between the garage and front door, and a smooth driveway unblemished by cracks or oil stains or little green weeds.

But now: he looks at the garage, its door opened halfway like a gaping mouth that’s trying to cough – full of band saws and joiners and planers and equipment that should be humming and buzzing and making money, machines that now sit idle like rusted Chevys in a junkyard.

“Can I play in the truck, Daddy?”

“Why do you always want to play in that truck, loca?  You going to drive away someday?”

Flip jumps off the tricycle and runs over to stand on Carlos’ foot while he walks down the sidewalk, his knees locked like Frankenstein, her arms tight around his legs. 

“Oh, this is your game, is it?”

He reaches into his pocket for the keys. 

“Remember how to do it?” he asks.

“Yes, yes!”

She takes his keys and carefully points the little remote, then pushes the button and smiles as the truck tweets.  She runs to the passenger-side door and crawls up onto the leather seat with her grass-stained feet.

“Be careful,” he reminds her.

Across the street Mike Templeton stops edging his curb and walks over.

“How you doing, neighbor?”  Mike pulls off his cotton work gloves and, with the soft pink fingers of a salesman, shakes Carlos’ hand.  Mike’s dog follows him and sniffs circles around the mailbox until finally settling down and urinating on the post.

“Okay.”  Carlos smiles and pretends not to notice the dog.  “Just thinking about getting all that stuff out of my garage so I can park a car in there again.”

Mike chuckles and wipes his forehead with a shirtsleeve. 

“I haven’t seen you use that stuff in a while,” Mike says.  (Carlos tells himself that Mike didn’t mean it as an accusation.)

“Not this week.”  he laughs, trying to keep it light, as if they are talking about a Sooners game or the temperature.

“Yeah, it all just kinda stopped, didn’t it?” Mike says, leaning an elbow on the mailbox until the metal bends with a thunk.  “It was like this after the oil bust.”  Mike reaches down to rub the dog’s ears.  “Hard times.  When’s that baby due?”

“About a month,” says Carlos.  “We’re pretty excited.”  Carlos wonders how much is really excitement and how much is actually fear.  He adjusts his belt so that it doesn’t squeeze as hard against his stomach.

“A girl.  Nikki wanted to find out.”

“Doesn’t like surprises, huh?”

“You know, she just likes to be prepared.”

“Well, congrats.  That’s great news.”  Mike takes his dog by the collar and pulls him away from the mailbox.  “I’ll let you get back to your mail.”

Carlos waves and waits until Mike has crossed the street and started his edger before he sifts through the mail.  He has learned that bills cause him less anxiety if he opens them outside.  Maybe because he feels stronger in the open air.  Maybe because the negative energy can be left outside like a pair of muddy boots so that he doesn’t track it into the house.

Chingao, he says under his breath.  The one on top glares, Past duePlease remit. The other one is for his insurance, fortunately still up to date, although probably not for much longer.

His monthly payment on the truck is four hundred dollars.  He bought it a year ago, after they moved here from the old rental house across town – when it felt like they would be okay, when people were building, when houses were going up like dandelions, houses with enormous kitchens the size of Dairy Queens, with walls and walls of cabinetry, custom cabinets that stretched across bulkheads, for people to store their wine refrigerators and serving platters and high-dollar coffee makers – houses he was helping to build, houses he might one day live in.  When he bought the truck, he said he needed it to haul his tools, but Nikki had seen through him.  The truck has four doors and heated leather seats and XM radio and a DVD player.  A rhino-lined truck bed.  A chrome toolbox.  Nikki bought him some fuzzy dice as a joke and hung them from his mirror.  Then she kissed his jawbone and called him cholo, one of the few Spanish words he’d heard her use. 

But now: Did you hear back on the bid over in El Reno?  Is the lumberyard hiring?  These are the questions she asks every time she looks at the truck.  Carlos has tried to sell it, but the few offers he’s received would still leave him paying a couple hundred dollars a month for a vehicle he no longer owns.  It once made him proud to see it sitting in the driveway, but it is a waxed and polished reminder of a check not yet mailed. 

Mike Templeton’s edger grinds against the curb across the street.

Their other car is a minivan.  Nikki read the safety ratings in Consumer Reports and concluded that it was what a family car should be.  Roomy and safe, with a roadside assistance package, a tire pressure monitoring system, side-impact airbags.  A family vehicle, complete with crayon melted onto the carpet and stale fries under the seats.  Nikki and Flip even made an emergency kit for the van, with matches and band-aids and a jar of peanut butter, secured in a Tupperware container and tucked into a pocket in the back. 

Carlos returns the bill to its envelope.  They can’t afford either vehicle anymore.  Nor could he afford the cable he cancelled last month or Nikki’s trips to the salon or the hip-hop dance lessons they promised Flip.  Flip cried and pouted for an afternoon but then got over it.  They didn’t. 

He stumbles over Flip’s tricycle but steadies himself against the minivan’s mirror.

“Flip!  Come on, mija!”

He hears a bump and rustle come from inside the truck.

“Christina!  Stop hiding!” he calls.

Flip bounces up in the seat, pressing her face against the passenger window, her lips pushing against the glass like a catfish and her cheeks ballooning out as she makes a farting noise.  Carlos smiles and puts his hand on the glass against hers, fingers spread wide.

“Come on, Flip, let’s go get some supper.”

She pushes open the door and jumps out.

“Tater tots!  Can we go to Sonic?”

“No.”

“Where are we going?”

“Inside this house.  Don’t you want some mac and cheese?”

“No.  I think we should go out to eat.”

“What?  No mac and cheese?  Who’s gonna make me smiley faces with the noodles?”

She steps onto his shoes, her grass-stained toes curling for some traction.

“Okay,” she says, disappointed, reluctantly grabbing his legs so she can ride on his feet up the driveway and into the house. 

                                                                                    *

“I want the baby to be baptized at St. Luke’s,” Nikki announces, dropping salad onto Carlos’ plate with clear plastic tongs.  He notices a smear of cheese sauce on her eight-month belly. 

“Here, sit down, Nik,” he tells her, pulling out a chair as he goes to the refrigerator for salad dressing.  “When did we start using generic Ranch?” he asks.

“Cheaper!” she calls from the table.

“I know that.  I grew up eating Sugar-Coated Round Things instead of Cheerios.” 

“There’s no such thing as Sugar-Coated Round Things.”

“I promise you, there is.”

Flip is busy arranging elbow macaroni on her laminated placemat of the United States.

“You want to convert to Catholic?” Carlos says, sitting down. 

They haven’t had this discussion since they were planning their wedding and both of their mothers had been in tears, trying to decide between the Catholic church and the Baptist church, between the tres leches cake and the angel food cake, back when their decision-making process had been more about keeping the peace between two mothers who wanted better lives for their children.  But now they wanted it for their own.

“They’ve got a better choir and Flip likes the Sunday School more,” Nikki says.

“Flip said that?  Since when?”

“Since last Sunday when she went with your parents.  And we could go ahead and get Flip baptized too.  Christina.  Stop that.”  Flip is licking a noodle off the Gulf of Mexico.

“There!  I made a heart.”  Flip turns her placemat to show them, then slides from her chair and runs into the living room.

Nikki shakes the bottle of salad dressing and keeps talking without looking Carlos in the eye.  He knows this means she’s already decided something. 

“More people go there.  Might be good to see some new faces.  Might help you find a job.”

“Of course,” he says, rubbing his forehead.  “Every good Catholic has a lot of cabinets.  Keep all their sins in there.”

“You know what I mean.  And I think our girls need to be baptized.”  She finally looks him in the eyes – her cheeks flushed from pregnancy, her pupils wide from determination. 

“They’ll get baptized when they’re old enough.  The Baptists usually do it when they’re teenagers, right?”

“I just like the idea of us doing it now.  Then they can do the confirmation when they’re older.”

“You really think it makes a difference?”

“I don’t know.”  She tries to cross her legs but her belly interferes.  She squints and makes a little grunt.  “Yes.”

“So you really think that they’re going to Hell if they’re not baptized?”

“I don’t want to take any chances,” she says.  “It would make me feel better.”

“Okay, I’m hiding now,” Flip calls.  “Come find me!”  They look over to see the curtains behind the couch jiggle.  If a window had been open, Carlos might have mistaken it for a breeze. 

                                                                                  *

He watches Nikki getting ready for bed, unbuttoning her khaki maternity work shirt from Safeway, dropping it in the hamper.   The bigger she gets, the more stains she comes home with – tomato juice and blueberry stains, green smears from cilantro and spinach.

“Did you take off your nametag?” he asks.

She sighs and pulls the shirt out of the hamper, unpins her Safeway nametag, then pulls on Snoopy boxers and her Dallas Cowboys t-shirt.  She squeezes the remaining lotion from a tube that looks empty, twisting the end to get the last little bit.  They are both tired.  Tired of conversations about whether it’s more cost-efficient to run the dishwasher or to wash the plates by hand.  Tired of negotiating carpool routes to prolong each tank of gas.  Tired of the word enough.

“I guess they just laid some more people off out at the plant,” she says.

“That’s too bad.”  He wonders if she means Bar-J or Kodak, but he doesn’t feel like talking about it.  So he doesn’t ask.

“Do you know if the prison is hiring again?” she says.

It cuts him like a blade between the ribs.  He was hoping she’d never bring up the idea of him going back there.  Just the thought of it makes him grab the edge of his pillow like a rope he’s holding on to.

“I’m not sure.  I’m going to put in a bid for a remodel job over in Anadarko.” 

Working at the prison had been a temporary job, right after he got out of the army.  Carlos had a buddy who was a guard, and for a while the health coverage and take-home pay made it worth while, but those two years were long ones.  Dangerous ones. 

“I didn’t think you’d want me going back there,” he says.

He remembers the shanks made of combs and boot laces, of spoon handles and wooden rulers.  Innocent things suddenly made dangerous.  Paper hardened with toothpaste and sharpened to slice a man’s face.  Hair ribbons.

“I don’t,” she says.

Carlos reaches for the remote and turns on the TV.  Static.  Again he’s forgotten about the cancelled cable.  Still, he scrolls through several channels before turning it off, the sound of the static more comforting than no sound at all. 

“We got another notice about the phone,” he says.

Nikki is rubbing the lotion into her elbows.  She says nothing, but in his head Carlos hears, What are you going to do about it?  She turns off the lamp and crawls under the covers.

“It might be nice to be out of the Baptist church,” he says.  “Too much about saving.  Have you been saved?  Do you take Jesus as your personal lord and savior?  What are you being saved from?  He’s saving you from Hell?  Is Hell really worse than anything else?  Why just save us from there?”

“You shouldn’t joke about stuff like that.”

He reaches through the darkness and feels for Nikki’s hand.

“Why are you so worried about the baptism thing all of a sudden?” he asks her.

“I don’t know.  The baby coming.  I’m just worried.” 

She nestles into his armpit but stays there only a short time before putting her hands on her bump and turning over to face the wall.

“I’m serious about it though,” she says.

“I know,” he answers.  Outside the locusts buzz.  “Whatever you think.”

                                                                                   *

Carlos takes a minimum wage job at the lumberyard, where his thumbs are mashed by boards and peppered with splinters until they darken to shadows of purple and blue. 

                                                                                   *

And then: the baby arrives.  She is wet and tiny, with smooth feet that have never walked, their heels as sensitive as her thin pink earlobes.  Each night Carlos swabs an alcohol pad across the stump of her umbilical cord, keeping it clean until it finally falls off.   It is a purple and yellow little clot of tissue, like a tuber, a root, and he is as gentle as he can be, careful not to snag her skin with his rough hands. 

He’s about to take her diaper off to perform the nightly ritual when Nikki pads in in her bathrobe, Flip trailing behind her.

“Still sore?” he asks her, wishing he could heal her faster, for all their sakes.

She nods and holds up an envelope.

“The hospital bill came.”

He takes it from her before she can say anything else and kisses her hairline.  She’s shaking her head and the tears are welling up, but the crying has happened a lot since she came home.  He looks at the bill and tries to shake off the numbers, to slide them into a corner of his mind as he slides the bill back into the envelope.

“How are we going to do that?” Nikki asks. 

Carlos pulls the tabs to undo the baby’s diaper.

“Can you hand me the alcohol pads?”

“We can’t pay that,” she whispers.  “What are we going to do?  Is there someone we can ask for a loan?”

“It’s gone!” says Carlos.

Flip stands up from where she’s been crawling on the floor.  Carlos is holding the baby in front of him, staring at her tummy.  The umbilical cord is gone.  In its place is a blushed pink belly button, a sign of personhood, of reality. 

“Where’d it go?” asks Nikki.

They search the diaper, the changing table, the used onesie. 

Flip crawls around on the floor looking for it, and suddenly they hear her scream, the shrieking cry of a terrible discovery.

                                                                                   *

Flip and the baby are baptized at First United Methodist, in gauzy white dresses borrowed from their cousins.  The Methodist church is a compromise between the Catholics and the Baptists, between Carlos’ family and Nikki’s, and Flip endorses the church’s playground equipment.  People welcome them, shaking hands and inviting them to potlucks.  An elderly lady with a purple perm looks at them sideways, maybe suspicious that they are the kind of people who only come to church on holidays or when their kids are singing in the choir, maybe suspicious because Carlos is brown and his wife is white.  But Carlos is glad to be there. Expensive pictures of the disciples line the sides of the sanctuary, their tanned faces framed in gold, the light reflecting in their beards and hair.  It must hold some kind of wisdom, Carlos thinks; it must hold some kind of rightness.

After the christening, they sit down in the red velvet pew, and Flip leans over to Carlos and whispers, “Will God know it’s me?” 

“What do you mean?”

“The preacher said my name was Christina.  But nobody calls me that.”

“Sure, he’ll know it’s you,” says Carlos.

“How do you know?” she says loudly.  The lady with the purple perm turns around.

“Shhh,” he answers. 

He looks down at the dress Flip is wearing – her cousin’s dress, a size too small – tight around her belly.  The little bulge reminds Carlos of a jellyfish he once saw on a littered beach near Veracruz – the one time he returned there with his mother and his brother, Eddie.  Its white skin was dusted in sand, a dirty color he would always associate with the poverty of his parents’ birthplace. 

When the preacher asks them to bow their heads, Carlos puts his chin to his chest and closes his eyes, his purple thumbs clasped together.  He asks for a sign.

                                                                                   *
Outside in the church parking lot, as Carlos buckles the baby into her car seat, he feels a hand on his shoulder.  Carlos has only seen Jasco two or three times since they worked together at the prison, and it’s the first time he’s seen him in Sunday clothes, in a place where Jasco can’t say the word motherfucker.

“Hey Bubba, good to see you here,” says Jasco.

They shake hands while their wives talk about pre-school, and Flip climbs into the front seat of the minivan. 

“How you been?” Jasco says, slapping Carlos on the back with a fist the size of a palm sander.

“Can’t complain, can’t complain,” he says, nodding toward his family.  “How are things at work?”

“Ain’t been killed yet.  Business going okay?”

Carlos just nods, not wanting to have to explain things in the middle of the church parking lot.

“Hey, we should go out sometime,” says Jasco.  “Grab a beer.  Catch up.”

“Yeah, man.  Sounds good.”

They say their goodbyes and, once Jasco and his wife are out of earshot, Nikki nods toward them.  “You know he got in trouble for some kind of money thing,” she says, buckling Flip into the back seat. 

“Oh, he’s an okay guy,” laughs Carlos.  “Haven’t seen him in forever.  Maybe it’s a sign.”
           

Nikki glances at Flip in the back seat just before she slams the door closed.  “Watch your fingers.”

                                                                                   *
           

Carlos walks into a choking cloud of cigarette smoke and incense at the casino and looks around for the bar.  It’s like being inside a giant pinball machine with the slots pinging over and over in the background like broken doorbells.  On his way through the maze of flashing lights and people in wheelchairs, he passes a video poker machine flashing LAST PAYOUT: $427.  He stops in front of it, wondering if giving even a dollar to a machine with pink and blue bubble lights is ridiculous.  He reaches for his wallet but looks up to see Jasco waving from a barstool.
           

When they are both seated on stools, fingers wrapped around beer bottles, they begin to talk about friends from high school who left town and didn’t come back.  They talk about pretty girls who ended up in bad marriages.  Good athletes who fell on hard times.  Carlos takes a long pull from his beer and shakes his head.
           

“Just can’t find any work anymore.  Least nothing with benefits that pays worth a damn.”
           

“Yeah, it’s hit everybody pretty hard.”
           

“You guys got any openings?” he asks.
           

“No.  Wish I could tell you different.  You don’t want to come back to that shit anyway.  We had an escapee last week.”
           

“Oh yeah?  How’d he get out?”
           

“They was doing some work on the fence and he made it out.  Twelve foot walls.  Razor wire.  But motherfuckers find a way to escape.” 
           

Jasco scratches his thick sandy beard as the bartender interrupts them with another round.
           

“You don’t know anybody who needs to buy a truck, do you?” Carlos asks.  Several months ago he asked this jokingly, but not anymore.  Now it was one of the few things he had left to bargain with.  One of the few things he could afford to lose.
           

“Not unless they can get it for cheap.  And I mean cheap,” says Jasco.
           

“I just can’t afford to sell it that cheap.  Still got payments on it.”
           

“You selling some of your tools?”
           

“No way.  I’ll need them again.  Just got to find a way to get by in the meantime.”
       

Jasco clears his throat and slides a soppy napkin under his beer bottle.  He’s beginning to slur his speech a little.
          

  “People get pushed around in times like these.  I think I might know a guy who can help you out,” he says.  “It depends on what you’re wanting to do with the truck.  But I can get you Blue Book value.  Probably more.  And it shouldn’t cost you too much.” 
         

  “I need to do something,” says Carlos.
        

“Motherfuckers do it all the time,” says Jasco.  “And usually they get away with it.”
 

The bartender lays down two fresh white napkins.

                                                                                   *

Carlos slips into the house, the heavy glass door closing hard behind him.  Nikki is lying on the couch, watching PBS and waiting for him. 
           

“Baby asleep?” he whispers.  She nods.
           

“How’d it go?”
           

“What do you mean?”
           

“I don’t know.  You hadn’t seen him for a while.”
           

“No, Jasco’s okay.”
           

“Did you want to invite him over to dinner or something?”
           

“I don’t think so.”
           

Carlos sits down on the couch next to her, leans over, and puts his head in her lap.  She bends down, smelling of oranges, and kisses the part of his hair.  He wants to tell her about the conversation with Jasco but he can’t.  He has already made the decision without her and doesn’t want her talking him out of it.  Even more, he doesn’t want her to judge him.  He loosens his belt, which has been chafing against his middle.
           

“You smell like smoke,” she whispers.

                                                                                   *
           

His stomach feels like a wet rag that’s been twisted and twisted but never wrung out.  He has chosen a Saturday evening: a night when he and the family can convincingly be gone past dark. His mother keeps Flip and the baby, while he takes Nikki to Oklahoma City for barbecue and a movie.  But the nerves have caused him to throw up in the restaurant bathroom after only three pork ribs, and during the movie Nikki had to put her hand on his knee to stop the anxious shaking of his leg. 
           

But she doesn’t ask questions and she finally falls asleep in the passenger seat on the hour-long drive home.  As the green mileage signs flash by, Carlos does the math again in his head.  He weighs the years he could spend in jail against the likelihood of being caught, against the money he will get from the insurance company. The time.  The chances.  The cash.  There is something horribly intangible about them all.  Like storm clouds and ghosts.  The van is humming through the night as he tries to think about his business starting up again, fitting back into his life as a well-fitted tongue-in-groove.  He pictures a solid wood cabinet.  New business cards.  Name-brand salad dressing.  A finished fence.  When he thinks about the money, he finds himself feeling as if he’s won the lottery, as if it’s an inordinate windfall for him to put towards luxuries.  But then he has to remind himself that he’ll still barely be catching up.  That all that money is already allocated.  Spoken for.  He looks over at his wife, her head tilted against the window as she sleeps, the soft light of the dashboard showing him the slope of her cheek and the half-moon curve of her eyelashes. 
           

“It’s called a give-up,” Jasco had explained that night at the casino.  “And it’s pretty much the only way to go.”  He said, “No way they can catch you.  You get out from under the payments.  Insurance company settles up.  And you get some cash.” 
           

All week Carlos has tried to picture the guy who would do it, tried to picture him as a clean-cut businessman in a grey suit, like a banker.  A professional.  Tried to remind himself that this was just another business transaction, a way to make back some money that was his in the first place.  Isn’t that what insurance was for?
           

As he turns the corner onto their street, Nikki rolls against the window, bumping her head and waking up. 
           

“Ouch.”  Carlos hurts for her and wants to touch her forehead but he’s too nervous to take his hands off the wheel.  He has decided that if Nikki notices the truck is missing, they will call the police that night.  But if she doesn’t, he’ll pretend to notice it in the morning. 
           

He squints to see the road and his headlights don’t seem adequately bright.  He notices the shape of something ahead and wonders if someone has hit Mark Templeton’s dog, but it is only a brown paper sack of yard clippings.  He takes a deep breath, trying to calm himself, his palms so wet he can barely steer.  Finally they reach the driveway. 
           

But there is the truck, right where he left it, the dice hanging from the mirror like the still pendulum of a broken clock.  Nikki touches his arm and he realizes that she’s just said something he hasn’t heard. 
           

“What?” he asks.
           

“When we get inside.  Check my head to see if I have a bruise?  I think I do.”

                                                                                   *

That long, sleepless night he obsesses over the possibilities.  Maybe the guy chickened out.  Or had the wrong night.  Or had been unreliable from the beginning and was never even close to taking the job.  But Carlos is afraid to call Jasco to ask questions, afraid that if the guy does show up to take the truck, some insurance agent might trace the phone call.  Isn’t that what they do on TV? 
           

“This guy always burns,” Jasco had said.  “Some motherfuckers drive them into ponds or shit like that.  This guy just torches them in the woods.  Down in the canyon or somewhere.  I don’t know and I don’t ask.”
           

So Carlos decides not to call.  Maybe the truck will disappear when he’s not looking.  Maybe one day it will just be gone.

                                                                                   *
           

The next Sunday evening is his twenty-ninth birthday.  The family is there and Flip and her cousins are running circles in the backyard, chasing each other around the plastic lawn chairs and clusters of red geraniums, kicking soccer balls back and forth.  Carlos’ sister and brother-in-law have provided ice chests filled with Tecate and his mother has made tamales and macaroni salad.  Nikki’s parents are there with cupcakes and a bucket of fried chicken. Carlos sits next to the grill, leaning back in a lawn chair, surrounded by food and family.  His neighbors are introducing themselves, chatting, laughing, telling jokes about rival high school football teams.  His stomach feels better than it has for the past two weeks, like the wet rag has been wrung out and dried.  He feels as if a moral question has been answered for him – a sign.  God has interfered. 
           

“Daddy!”  Flip runs up behind him and puts her arms around his neck.  “We kicked the ball over the fence.  Can I go get it?”
           

“Yeah, be careful,” he tells her. 
           

“And can I stay up late tonight?”  She whispers into his ear, “Please?”
           

“We’ll see,” he says.  “Put your shoes on.”
           

The sun sets in a gentle orange and everyone is laughing, taking turns holding the baby, scraping the last bits of salsa and rice and macaroni salad from their paper plates.  In the darkness, they sit around the fire pit while the kids chase fireflies.
           

The door opens onto the back porch and Carlos’ brother Eddie comes out with his new girlfriend.
           

“Carlito!”  Eddie hugs him and hands him a birthday card.  “We have something for you, bro.  Bring it around!”
           

Carlos’ cousin and brother-in-law walk around the corner of the house wearing their leather tool belts and carrying a new white pine gate. 
           

“No way,” says Carlos, slapping Eddie on the back and laughing.
           

“Yeah, man.  We gonna finish it for you.  We all pitched in, and we’ll get it up tonight.” 
           

Carlos shakes his head and someone hands him another beer.  Nikki takes pictures and the kids stand entranced, watching the men plug in power tools that whir and buzz to life. 
           

“Where’s your truck?” Eddie calls to Carlos.
           

“I parked it in the alley to make room for everybody.”
           

“Not there now.”  Eddie pulls a beer out of the ice chest.
           

“Nah, it’s over here.”  Carlos points toward the alley behind the house.
           

“No, man.  We came around that way.”
           

Carlos stands up on his plastic chair to see over the fence.
           

And then a rush surges through him: confusion, then fear, then excitement.  He knows that it’s happened and his first instinct is to run to the alley, but instead he tries to stall.  He needs more time, more distance, between himself and the stranger who has stolen his truck. 

                                                                                   *
             
           

His father says, “Call the police.” 
           

His mother-in-law says, “Call the insurance company.” 
           

His brother’s girlfriend is talking about the time someone stole her dad’s minivan when they were visiting relatives near the Mexican border. 
           

They are all standing in the front yard.  Mike Templeton and some of the other neighbors are waiting in the street, are concerned about their own cars.  Mike Templeton’s dog is peeing on the redbud tree.  They are talking about car alarms and the sheriff running for re-election and the crime from the meth addicts outside of town.  They are sharing the Tecate from the ice chest, which has been brought around from the backyard.  Eddie and the cousins are finishing the fence.  The kids are eating cookies.  It’s almost festive.  Nikki is cradling the baby in her arms, looking around at the nieces and nephews and neighbors’ kids swarming the yard.
           

“Carlos,” Nikki calls across the grass to him.  “Carlos!” 
           

“What?” he yells back.
           

“Have you seen Flip?”
           

Carlos looks over at his wife, holding the baby tight against her shoulder.  He stops suddenly and listens for his daughter’s voice – listens for it to rise above the voices around him.  Holds his breath and waits for it.  A sound.  A sign.  A signal.
           

“Carlos,” his wife says.  “Where is she?”
           

He spins around like the spinner of a game board that has been struck by a finger. But he can’t see her.  And the night sky above him stretches out dark and deep and endless.  Across the lawn he hears someone clapping and the whine of a hinge and the metallic sound of a latch clanking closed.  The fence is complete.