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The Names of Things

Art by Santiago Uceda

He found a twenty-dollar bill once outside a bar they called Latin Village.

He found it in the parking lot. He imagined the night before, pictured a man stumbling to his car, fumbling for his penis in the dark, urine hissing warm and steady against pavement. Polyester flaps bend forward unzipped, pulled down by the weight of a belt, damp wrinkled bill falls from unattended pockets, blows away . . .

— flash forward to today, sitting here in the truck waiting again two three four hours and wandering back and forth across the parking lot making up stories in his head, talking to himself, and then bending down, fingers hesitate, interrupted by some signal of incredulity from the brain that says this can not be what the eyes tell him, saying fooled fingers will hit gray pavement, scrape empty against it.

Saying he has lost it finally, has begun to see and imagine things there that are not, that could not be.

Later, when his father emerges finally from the bar, he will brag shyly to him that he found a twenty by the truck. His father will smile and speak in Spanish. He will be filled with chemicals. He will drive his son home under dull orange lights that pick out the lines of straight clean streets. The streets are laid out wide between new sidewalks that can sparkle in the right kind of sunlight they are so white and clean. His father feeds the steering wheel from one hand to the other — the hands at 4 and 8 o’clock, the whole world seeming to move around them. The street signals are perfectly timed all the way home green yellow red green yellow red. They are designed to take you from one place to the next as smoothly and efficiently as possible. They are designed to make you feel safe.

In June, the hills that rise up out of East San Jose turn yellow with dead grass and dry earth. He climbed one once to a thicket of gnarled brown walnut trees. The trees sat hunched over a crease where two hills sloped in and met and crossed one another. Under the trees, on folded earth still damp with shade and morning, he found a pile of rusted farm tools. He imagined they were 400 years old. Then he imagined they were 50 years old, but they still looked as foreign, as otherworldly as before. There was a hoe, a pick, something that looked like a wagon, something he pictured being pulled by an animal — a plow, he thought, then wondered if that was the word for it. He wondered who might have farmed up against the side of a hill like this. He imagined half-starved oxen straining upward, trailing this tool, slashing vertical grooves into the hill’s face. Sweating. He walked up until it grew too steep, then sat there on the ground with black, rotted walnuts. There were plants around him under the trees, under the fallen walnuts. He knew they had names.

He knew he would never know them.

Below, the city flickering dull and silent against a gray sun.

Making love: in his car, parked just off one of the narrow unnamed switchbacks on the other side of the hills. Almost dawn, car slanted face front downward — anyone driving up would have turned a quick corner and seen his naked skin flash behind the windshield.

They were only 16.

— Aren’t you afraid somebody’ll see us? she breathes beneath him.

— Not with the windows fogged like this.

And inside, the air warm and thick with their groping, and moving over her in the dark, breathing her in, thinking There are so many parts of you I still have not seen, so many parts to find names for.

In the summer, when evening comes, you pick each other up while the sun fades and the wind cools and then you drive around and around while the air dances on your face. You drive from one end of the valley to the other. You carve a great oval around its edges, marking the perimeter of your hunting grounds. You stop, eat burgers and fries, drink sodas. You say hey, what’s up let’s go park somewhere and kick back. You make circles with your car in an empty parking lot that looks like every other empty parking lot. You call the circles donuts. The car moves around and around and your tires squeal hot black marks down into the pavement and you laugh and hit one another on the arm and feel alive. Later, parked: windows open, radio on, the air calm and dead with night’s last breath. The night glowing orange. Saying things to each other, saying nothing — clinging, until morning comes crawling back in, and the orange melts again to gray.

Somewhere beneath all this flat new pavement, these glittering glass walls, these freeway on-ramps that spiral and curl smooth and effortless around and around perfectly manicured landscapes and perfectly round bush trees held perfectly in place with straight sticks and wire — somewhere beneath, there is mud and clay and dirt, wet and black, stinking with rot. There are old rotted leaves that stink with blood and sweat, and old rotted fruit long fallen from vanished orchard trees and vanished hands raw and bloodied and brown. Beneath us, the maggots move blind and hungry in the dark. Patient.

Above them, there are police officers. Designed to keep the stink from rising to the surface, they watch you carefully to ensure that you are clean and smooth like the sidewalks and streets. They are everywhere. They have names for each and every thing.

Everything comes to him in bits and pieces now. That’s what they call them here in Silicon Valley: bits and bytes, and pieces of hardware to keep track of it all. He once imagined his life as a billion bits and pieces floating unconnected, unraveled and haphazard in black empty space — data lost, corrupted, viral. That was the world, that was what they learned. He wished there was somewhere he could store it all, back it up, organize it into something that made sense. He says to himself I will design a program to keep my life in order; it will remember things for me, it will look up the names of plants and farming tools I no longer recognize.

All around him, he sees the names of things fading. He reaches out, grasps at words that die as quickly as they are born, words empty and cold as the light of a long-dead star hitting his eye at last — an eternity too late, an illusion of infinite depth.

These days, he sees this moment, and this moment, and this other moment, and so on, and each is separate, each blips in and out of life independent of the others. They do not move from one to the next; they simply are — first here, then over here, then over here. They are not designed for efficiency. They are not designed to make you feel safe.

They are not designed.

They have learned to accept this. They have learned that if you try to grasp too many, if you try to connect them, name them, it is all too much, it is all a waste.

We are not designed for this he tells himself now. He pictures a straight path that goes from one thing to the next, and then the next, and the next, and each follows the last, each leads to the next — you are born you make babies you die. You are green you are yellow you are red. He is convinced we are designed for something else — something far more simple, far more safe —

— he thought once, We are designed for some other kind of world — some world that is nothing at all like this — then he thought something else, and something else again —

Rubén Mendoza is the author of the recently published Lotería and Other Stories from St. Martin’s Press. He lives in Elysian Heights.


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