Their mothers still slept even though it was late morning. Lydia’s mom worked at night and didn’t get home until after 3 a.m. Gary’s mom took pills. The cousins roamed free in Santa Fe; their favorite playground the warehouse district where they dug through huge trash bins and occasionally struck it rich with dented cans of Del Monte corn.
Today, they had a different plan. They stood near the train switching station where giant railcars were added or removed. Most of the nearby homes huddled together in a line apart from this stark area of gravel and broken glass landscaping. One small adobe house stood alone.
“That’s it,” Gary said, breathless, pointing across the rail yard. He looked up at his cousin. Lydia knew he was trying to read her expression.
“It doesn’t look so special,” she said.
Gary turned his good ear in her direction. His mother had blamed dodge ball for his burst eardrum. Her Aunt Frances had real strong arms from getting around in her wheelchair. Lydia heard her screaming at Gary on afternoon, and when he came outside to where she waited, the side of his face was red and some blood seeped out of his ear. He didn’t want to talk about it.
“You’ll see,” Gary said now. He’d bragged about finding treasure, and even carried his canvas bag with him just in case, but now he sounded less sure than before to Lydia.
Lydia raised an eyebrow and yawned. She was almost eleven, and Gary was only nine. She’d followed him out of boredom, but he shouldn’t get used to it. It was the way things were between them: she was the leader. Besides, she’d played her whole life in this area and never paid attention to any of the houses.
To reach it they had to cross a wide maze of railroad tracks laid out not only in the usual parallel lines, but with occasional diagonal rails. The heat rose off the tracks in wavy patterns that made them look soft and undecided in the distance. The hot smell of tar-drenched railroad ties baking in the sun was familiar and comforting to Lydia.
They balanced on the rails with their arms flung out, walking slow and then fast, backwards and forwards, eyes closed and open. First one to slip off is a rotten egg! Lydia always won, but Gary didn’t expect anything different. They arrived at the house. Shades covered the windows on either side of the front door.
“It’s never locked,” Gary said. He wiped his nose with the back of his hand. His nose flowed non-stop year-round. In the summer, his hands, and forearms when he really needed them, were covered with a crosshatch of dried, but still shiny, mucous trails. Lydia noticed new bruises on his upper arm, four perfect ovals on the outside just above the elbow. She knew that if she looked closely she’d find the imprint of a thumb on the inside of his arm.
“Well, open it!”
Gary did as he was told, took one step in and stopped.
Lydia stared down into a cavern filled with rubbish. The living room floor was completely gone except for a narrow ledge around the walls. The light from the open doorway sliced a narrow diagonal line through the trash. On top of the rubble was a rusted tricycle lying on its side.
“We have to walk around the edge like this.” With back and palms flat against the wall, Gary edged sideways, feet forward, toward an open doorway to their right. Lydia pressed her hands into the wall and followed him, right foot and then left.
They reached the solid floor of a sunny kitchen. The starched curtains covering the window over the sink were pretty, ruffled and trimmed in red, not the least bit yellowed or droopy. A stove stood along one wall and a small refrigerator hummed in the corner. The same ruffled curtains covered the window on the back door. Lydia turned the handle; it was locked from the outside.
The kitchen was clean and ordinary except for the wooden trunk in the middle of the room, where a table and chairs should have been. The domed lid of the trunk rose almost as high as Lydia’s chest.
“What’s in it?” Lydia asked. She wished for pirate treasure, but a rotting body or skeleton would have been okay.
“I couldn’t open it by myself.”
They lifted the heavy lid together. Nothing looked as if it had been disturbed. On the top lay an American flag carefully folded in the military three-cornered fashion Lydia remembered from old war movies on late-night television.
The drab, scratchy-looking uniform of some ancient soldier lay beneath the flag. It was just like the uniform she’d seen her grandfather wear in pictures from WWI. Below that she found a bundle of letters tied with a faded ribbon. The postmarks went all the way back to 1940. The one on top had no postmark. She set them aside to read later. A cigar box held black and white photographs of bare-chested GI’s smiling recklessly, their smooth, muscled arms flung around each other.
“It’s all war stuff,” she said. Lydia dug deeper, past more old clothes and some heavy leather boots. At the very bottom lay a heavy bundle of oily flannel. Gary wheezed like he’d been holding his breath. The cousins held the bundle between them, and unwrapped the folds of cloth as fast as they could. A gun fell to the floor with a thud. They gasped and stepped back. Gary picked it up and turned it over several times, rubbing the shiny metal with his fingertips as if it were silk.
“Put it back,” she said.
He gave her a wary look, like he expected her to snatch it away. “You’re taking the letters.” He wrapped the cloth around the gun and dropped it into his canvas bag. Lydia returned the letters to the trunk. Gary crossed his arms and wouldn’t look at his cousin. He didn’t put the gun back.
She took a deep breath, the kind she’d heard come out of Gary’s mom. Sometimes the sound alone was enough to scare him into doing whatever it was she wanted. Lydia studied the kitchen again. “I wonder if he sleeps here?” Her eyes came to rest on the back door. “Are there any other rooms?”
“There’s a closet.”
Lydia lowered the trunk lid, but at the last minute she reached in and grabbed the topmost letter from the bundle. She folded it and stuck it in her pocket. They walked along the edge of the devastated living room again, this time skirting the other side. She hadn’t noticed the door opposite the entry when they’d come in. They had to sidestep past the door. Lydia turned the doorknob with her left hand. The door opened easily enough, but then they had to swing around backwards to get in. The closet had a floor and a pole to hang things on and a shelf above. The cousins stood side-by-side staring up at the shelf where two shiny toasters and a bruised leather satchel were stored. Lydia was tall enough to reach the bag if she stood on her toes, but it was heavy and she dropped it with a loud clang. Inside was a mass of tarnished silverware.
Lydia and Gary didn’t touch the ornate silver. Colorful jewels were treasure and they would have taken advantage of a thief’s paradise if the bag had contained them. Their mothers would have been agog for years to come at Christmas when they opened their presents. Sterling service was another matter; it was serious grown-up business and not the work of a romantic pirate.
Lydia wanted to understand what they’d found. Her eyes traveled from the closet toasters to the silverware and back again. A tingly feeling started at the back of her neck. The hairs stood up on her sunburned arms and she felt cold. It was a mystery to be solved. She smiled down at her cousin. “This is interesting,”
Gary’s shoulders relaxed a bit. He smiled back, almost up to the worried edges of his eyes. He turned and looked out at the blighted living room. The sun was going down, and its light filtered through the drawn shades on the windows. “Something bad happened.”
“Yeah, and now he steals stuff,” Lydia said.
Gary nodded, looking like a whipped dog, as if it were his fault. Lydia hated it when he did that because then she felt sorry for him and that took away the fun.
“Let’s get out of here.” This time she led them around the edge of the living room. They reached the front door and ran as if they were being chased. They headed for their grandfather’s house several blocks away. Gary and his mother lived there, and Lydia and her mom had supper with the family every night. Both their mothers were divorced. On the way there, Lydia had to wait twice for Gary. He kept stopping to check on the gun.
They stood outside their grandfather’s house. Gary’s bag bulged, but he was always carrying stuff home, even rocks or broken toys he’d found. “What are you going to do with it?” Lydia asked.
“I dunno.” He touched it again, and they went inside.
“It’s about time,” Gary’s mom said. “Wash up.” Frances removed a pot of macaroni and cheese from the stove, wrapped it in a towel, and wedged it under the arm of her wheelchair.
“Hi, honey,” Lydia’s mom said. “Are you hungry?” Nellie worked nights at the only jazz club in Santa Fe. She’d be leaving for work soon.
“Uh huh,” Lydia said. “Where’s grandpa?”
“Lodge meeting. He won’t be back till late.”
“Never around when there’s work to be done. I could have used some help with supper,” Frances said. She wheeled herself to the table and set the pot down.
“I’ll cook tomorrow,” Nellie said. “We didn’t get out until 3:30 this morning. I got home and slept the minute my head hit the pillow. Next thing I know the day has blown by just like that.“ She snapped her fingers.
Frances grimaced. “Gary, get my medicine.”
“The pain ones?”
She didn’t look at him, just winced and rubbed her thighs. “Yes! Yes! Hurry.”
Gary ran to their room fast. On his return, still on the run, he tripped over his shoelaces and crashed into her chair. The pill bottle flew out of his hand scattering little blue and white pills all over the floor. Gary scrabbled around on hands and knees trying to get them as fast as he could, but the canvas bag on his shoulder slowed him down. Frances reached down and grabbed a handful of his hair. Her muscled arms were white and shiny with sweat. She shook him like a rag doll. Gary screamed and reached up to her hand. She let him go, and backed her chair away from him. She panted, still angry, while Gary collected the pills under the table, whimpering.
Lydia studied her mother. Nellie turned her face away from her sister and lit a cigarette. She had that tight-lipped sneer she got whenever someone’s behavior disgusted her. She said nothing. No one ever said anything to Frances, at least not that Lydia had heard, because she was the oldest sister, and crippled, and mean.
Gary handed the pill bottle to his mother. She took it from him with shaking hands and gulped down several.
“Go easy on those, Frances,” Nellie said.
Frances rubbed her thigh again. “You don’t know what it’s like.”
Nellie exhaled smoke across the table. “The doctor says— ”
“I don’t care what the doctor says. I feel my legs, the pain in my legs. All the time.”
“You shouldn’t feel anything from the waist down—” Nellie stopped when she caught her sister’s glare from across the table.
Lydia had only known her aunt in a wheelchair, but she’d heard stories of when she was young and danced. She loved hearing about the olden days, when her aunt was practically a movie star.
“Tell me about when you danced Flamenco in the plaza, Aunt Frances.”
Her aunt never tired of telling the story of how popular her dances were and how many boyfriends she had. This time she frowned and jumped ahead in the story . . . to the bad part.
“I was coming home from a party. Remember, Nellie, it was after I’d performed in the plaza.”
“I remember. You were a big hit. Everyone wanted more. You were dance crazy. Party crazy. Crazy crazy.”
Frances was quiet a moment, the serving spoon poised in the air, like she was listening to something only she could hear. She dropped the spoon into the pan and sat up straight, pulling her shoulders back and thrusting her breasts out. She pursed her lips in a movie star pout. “I had long, strong legs, didn’t I, Nellie?”
“I was sitting in the back seat of the car. There were about eight of us crammed into it, coming fast down Apodaca hill.” Her shoulders drooped, her torso caving in.
“Your back got crushed?” Lydia asked, though she knew the answer.
“Shh!” her mother said, tapping Lydia’s hand.
“It’s too hard,” her Aunt said. She covered her face with her hands and cried, her shoulders heaving.
Gary put his arms around his mother and cried with her. She smoothed down his hair and reached into the corner of her chair for a tissue. She wiped his nose. “I’m sorry I hurt you, sweetheart. Go sit down now. Let’s eat.”
They ate in silence. Frances barely touched her meal. She got out her cigarettes from yet another hidey-hole in her chair. Tapping out the cigarette from the pack was easy enough, and she got it to her mouth, but bringing the flame to it seemed hard. Her movements were slow and deliberate.
“Nellie?” Frances held her cigarette across the table for her sister to light. Her eyes glittered, unfocused. She sat back in her chair. She looked in the general direction of the children, but couldn’t seem to focus on them.
“What did you do today?” Nellie asked.
They told their mothers about the house, the trunk and the silver and toasters, and the stack of letters, but not about the gun. Lydia laid the letter she’d taken on the table.
“It was the one on top,” Lydia said. “The others were way older.”
“Probably the last one he wrote,” Nellie said. “You shouldn’t have taken it, Lydia. What if he’d caught you?” Lydia looked down at the letter. She heard a delicate pop, the sound her mother made when she snapped a cigarette away from her lips to speak. “Well, since you have it, what does it say?”
It wasn’t really a letter from or to anyone. There was one sheaf of paper folded in a plain envelope without an address. On the paper were four sentences written in pencil. Lydia read it out loud: "I got the Luger off a dead German. His way out was to use it on himself. It’s a ticket to heaven or hell. My treasure." She looked up at her mother. "That’s all." Lydia glanced at Gary hoping he would show the gun now.
“Did you get anything?” Frances asked her son.
Gary shook his head, but he looked down at his bag.
“Let me see what’s in there,” Frances said.
“Nothing is yours. Come here!”
Gary moved the bag next to her chair, head hanging down. Frances reached into it. Her eyes widened when she felt the gun. She pulled it out. Nellie let out a heavy breath.
“Put that thing away,” she said. “Lydia, did you touch it.”
“I told him to leave it,” Lydia said.
Frances rubbed her finger across the metal in the same way Gary had done earlier. She tucked the gun into a corner of her wheelchair. Gary watched, a hungry look in his helpless eyes.
Lydia and her mother cleared the table while Gary emptied his mother’s bedpan. It was one of his chores. She sent him out of the bedroom they shared for water. “Wash your hands first,” she screamed. “And don’t spill any.”
But he did. Lydia heard the glass crash and then Gary’s screams. “No, Mommy. No!” followed by a sharp thwacking sound. She was using the belt on him.
Lydia’s mother stood there and twisted her hands together. Then, she looked down at her daughter, and Lydia saw her fear. Gary screamed and begged and the beating did not stop. Finally, Nellie walked to her sister’s room and opened the door.
“Frances, please stop!” Lydia peeked around the corner of the door. Her aunt was sitting on her bed holding Gary by the hair again. His nose and mouth were bleeding.
She shoved him away, breathing hard. Gary fell to his knees in front of her wheelchair, and buried his face in the pillow she sat on.
“Get him away from me before I kill him!”
Gary hugged the pillow to his chest, crying and shaking his head, “No Mama, no Mama, no Mama.”
Frances wiped her forehead with the back of her hand. “Come here, baby.”
Gary got up slowly bracing his arms on the inside of the wheelchair under the pillow. He turned to her. He had the gun.
Frances smiled, but she was looking at the Luger not at Gary. She held out her hand for it. “Treasure,” she said.
He held the gun with two hands and pointed it at her. “My treasure.”
The gun clicked. It clicked again, and again, and kept clicking until Nellie reached around Gary and took the gun out of his hands.
“C’mon baby, let’s go in the other room.” She turned Gary away from his mother and guided him out of the room. “C’mon, Lydia.”
Her Aunt Frances stared straight ahead. She pulled her shoulders back and arranged her lips into a sexy pout. She smiled and bowed her head to an invisible audience.
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