Rubén smokes his last cigarette as he warms up the car. He’s blowing the smoke out the window cause he knows I hate the smell. It’s my car. His truck doesn’t work. He says something’s bad with the bearings. Rubén doesn’t work either. I guess I could say the same thing for my brother.
I lower the shade over the kitchen window. The car’s engine roars then drops through the trailer’s walls. Rubén wants me to hurry. The reservation smoke shop closes in twenty minutes. It’ll only take ten to get there, but when you’re down to your last, you want to make sure. Course he could walk to the store but the Indians sell cigarettes cheaper.
The rottweiler in the trailer next door snorts and charges the wooden fence. I throw a piece of dried bread in his yard, a little insurance in case it gets out again. The big dog snuffles as I step around the front of the car. Rubén reaches across the seat to unlock my door. He grunts when he settles back on his side.
“Otra vez, Yvette, put some anti-freeze en el pan. Eso sí, will take care of that sana ma biche.”
I don’t have the belt buckled when Rubén backs the car into the street. I used to complain but it didn’t change things so I don’t anymore. I just add it to that list I keep in my brain. Not having a job is number one. He had one at the casino, doing maintenance, but he quit three weeks ago. He says nine bucks an hour isn’t enough. I told him that’s more than none bucks an hour, but his mind was made up. That’s the way it is with Rubén.
Rubén moved in two years ago after Steve, my ex, ran off and I was having a hard time. That’s when my brother came back. He was in the Navy then wandered round the country. Now in his middle age he was feeling sentimental for the old town.
My brother made promises. He always does. He’ll pay half of everything. He won’t drink too much. He’ll hold a job. He keeps most of them some of the time.
First he worked on our second cousin’s roofing crew, but they had a fight, so that ended. He had two more jobs and then the casino hired him. But Rubén didn’t know when he quit he couldn’t go back for six months. That includes the smoke shop. The first time he went, the woman behind the counter told Rubén he was on the 86 list, but because he was such a friendly guy, she let the man behind him in line buy the pack. When Rubén came home, he told me about it.
“The muchacha said you could buy them for me,” he said, grinning, testing me out.
“Pues, entonces, Rubéncito, debes de ser nicer to me.”
His eyes narrowed.
“Aw, hermanita, you can be so dífícil.”
I don’t like smoking and I don’t let him do it in the house. He goes for a walk or sits on the stoop while the rottweiler huffs and paces behind the fence. Or if the weather’s bad, he’ll go in his truck. That’s another promise Rubén doesn’t always keep because sometimes I smell smoke when I come home although he swears it’s just on his clothes. Who does he think he’s fooling?
We are silent in the car. We got talked out at dinner. Rubén told me he checked the bulletin boards for jobs and called people he knows. He came up with a few maybes. He told me something else I already know, that he needs to get his truck on the road. I told him my oldest girl called about the kids. The middle one, her only boy, will be making his First Communion. The grandkids love Rubén. They call him Uncle Ruby and want him to play with them. It tickles him. Rubén should have had a family, but he says he didn’t find the right woman. Now he’s too old.
At the stop light near the plaza, Rubén clears his throat.
“¿Yvette, tienes any money contigo? No mas tengo two bucks. Didn’t get to ir al banco.”
“Creo que I do.”
I start digging through my purse for change that’s fallen to the bottom. I’m wondering how much money Rubén could have in the bank as I scoop up the coins. I have enough so I don’t have to use the dollars in my wallet. There’s even enough for a six-pack, but I’m not offering. It wouldn’t hurt Rubén to go one night without beer.
Rubén glances my way.
“Tú ’stás OK.”
He nods then puts the car in gear when the light turns green. There isn’t much traffic. The parking lots are empty except for the bars. When we pass Rubén’s favorite, he takes his eyes off the road. He shakes his head. He’d rather be inside sitting on a stool than driving his sister to the Indian smoke shop. My hands cross my pocketbook.
“Sí, José. Ese guy dijo that he’s gonna help me with mi troquita, pero él nunca está when I need him. Siempre con algún excuse. Sus kids are enfermos o él esta working overtime.”
“Pues, guess he won’t be ayudandote esta noche.”
Rubén curses. He’s been waiting two weeks for José. The truck broke down the week he quit the casino. He used some of his last check to buy parts and the boxes have been sitting in the living room so the neighbors don’t steal them. I know he wants me to say that we can stop on the way back to see José, maybe have one beer, but I keep quiet. Rubén makes the car go faster.
Inside the smoke shop, the clerk is straightening cartons on the shelves behind the counter. She’s got the heater going high, so the small room is dry and smells of tobacco. The woman smiles and says my name. She lives on the reservation. We went to high school together until she dropped out. She reaches for Rubén’s brand.
“How’s your brother?”
“Rubén’s good. How they treating you here?”
“Eh, you know. She doesn’t give me enough hours.”
I shake my head. It’s what we talk about when I come. I feel cold air on my back as the door opens. The clerk raises her eyes to the new customers as she counts the change. When she slides a dime and two pennies toward me, I put them in the jar. Our eyes meet.
“Say hi to your brother for me.”
I turn round as the door opens again and a man gets in line. The brim of his hat shades his face, but I see his mouth is set hard below his gray mustache. I know his heavy cologne. He stares because I’m staring. His eyes ask what I want, but I shake my head.
It’s not him. It can’t be, of course, but my heart skips like it used to when that other dark face came toward me. I can feel those rough hands.
I keep moving until the shop door clicks behind.
I walk through the white cloud of exhaust. Rubén thanks me and throws the pack on the dash. The headlights of a truck pulling into the lot shine on his face, picking up the old scar near his lower jaw and the thin lines near his eyes that make my brother look so sad. He makes the car go left, taking a different way past the dry fields nearly white beneath the moonlight. At the end of Indian land, he takes another left past the cemetery. Our mother lies next to our father and not the second man she married. He’s buried somewhere else. We made sure of that.
Cellophane rustles then there’s the click of a plastic lighter. Rubén inhales sharply as he rolls down the window. He watches the dark road. Maybe he’s waiting for me to say something, but I don’t. I can’t forget the day Rubén stopped being afraid. He wasn’t as tall, but that day his fist sent the man to the floor, and when he jumped up, surprised by my brother, Rubén did it again.
Rubén did it for me. He did it for our mother.
He yelled at that monster, “¡Retírate the hell de aquí!”
I covered my eyes until the front door slammed.
Rubén steps on the gas. Smoke comes from his mouth like he’s on fire. It comes from some place deep inside. I call my brother’s name. I tell him we can stop at that bar to see José. We’ll ask him to come. I’ll make dinner and buy beer. We’ll get his truck back on the road.
Rubén gives me a grin like he thinks I’m kidding, but he knows better.
“Bueno, OK, hermanita,” he says.
Then he flicks the butt out the window and makes the turn.
This short story was inspired by my first neighborhood in Taos but it is purely fiction. Thanks to the late Jerry A. Padilla for the Spanish.