In August in Rio Seco, California, the ground is too hard to bury a body. But Glorette Picard is dead, and across the canal, out in the orange groves, they’ll gather shovels and pickaxes and soak the dirt until they can lay her coffin down. First, someone needs to find her son Victor, who memorizes SAT words to avoid the guys selling rock, and someone needs to tell her uncle Enrique, who will be the one to hunt down her killer, and someone needs to brush out her perfect crown of hair and paint her cracked toenails. As the residents of this dry-creek town prepare to bury their own, it becomes clear that Glorette’s life and death are deeply entangled with the dark history of the city and the untouchable beauty that, finally, killed her.
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HER ROYAL HIGHNESS
When Sidney came out of the taqueria and headed down the alley, he saw Glorette Picard on her knees, her back to a shopping cart parked near the fence, her face held up toward the shadows made by two wild tobacco trees that grew along the chainlink. Sidney flattened himself against the wall, holding the bag of tacos like a school lunch, and waited for the sound of a man’s voice.
She must be on her knees waiting. The man would be against the fence, getting his money. Or the drugs. Glorette had been sprung for years, living here on the Westside, moving from apartment to apartment just ahead of the rent. She and her friend Sisia worked regular rounds near the Launderland because that’s where one crew sold rock from a dryer.
But he didn’t hear anything except the back of his shirt rubbing against the stucco, loosening a few rough grains. Glorette’s eyes were open. She was about twenty feet away. Her face was upturned, her lips parted like she was having trouble breathing, and her neck curved long and golden.
Her neck. That made his nature rise. How the hell was he hearing his father? Boy, when your nature rise, you gotta watch who you with.
Sidney had never been with Glorette. Why was it always her neck he’d wanted, when they were young? Who kissed her neck now? None of the men along Palm Avenue who stopped in cars and trucks or brought her back here to the alley cared about her neck. Throat was inside the neck. Sidney had danced with her once in high school and let his lips brush down along the side of her neck as if it were an accident when he shifted, and she’d shivered.
But she was with Chess then. After that, she met a musician from Detroit, an older guy named Sere Dakar, and when he disappeared, she was seventeen and pregnant.
Sidney stepped away from the wall, but she didn’t turn her head. She was focused on the shadows. She didn’t see him. Or she did, and she didn’t care. Hey—Sidney Chabert. Remember?
The alley lit up like heat lightning flashed, but it was August. It wouldn’t rain for months in Rio Seco. The silver flashes were from a huge SUV coming down the other part of the alley, behind the Launderland. The glare turned her into a small crouched figure behind the cart. Sidney slid around the corner of the taqueria. Those boys. The ones who sold the rock. They had a brand new Navigator, the sound system pounding so hard the drum shock collected in his sternum.
Spongy marrow inside. Sidney walked quickly around to the front doorway of the taqueria. Now his heart beat hard behind the sternum.
Surgeons cracked open the sternum to get to the heart. Back when he worked at the hospital, he listened to the doctors in the hallways and the cafeteria. The neck and the throat—the first time he’d thought of the difference, he was nineteen, a brand new custodian, and the words floated all around his cart. Inflamed throat. Broken neck.
His father-in-law had gotten him the job. Jinelle’s daddy had been in maintenance at County General for twenty years, since he arrived from Shreveport. Jinelle was already working at her mother’s beauty salon. She was good. But she’d never touched Glorette’s hair, not even in high school when all the girls cornrowed and braided during lunch. No one looked like Glorette. Long neck, perfect eyebrows, her waist-length black hair in a crown on top of her head. No one ever saw it down, and that was part of her beauty. They would pay for her hair. Jinelle always said angrily, “Hair is dead. Just keratin, okay? I can make every woman’s hair look the same. Just a lotta product.”
Had Glorette’s hair been down, just now?
The Navigator paused. The boys must have seen her. But then the car turned down the small cross street, away from the avenue. The man would be in a hurry, with the interruption. Sidney didn’t want to see that shadow move toward Glorette, where she waited patiently because she felt she had no choice.
Because she didn’t choose me.
The taqueria’s glass door was covered with hand-painted phrases.
Tacos de lengua. Tacos de cabeza. Tongue and brain. He didn’t want to see the man, but he wanted to wait for her. He pushed open the door.
Glorette was from Sarrat. It wasn’t even a neighborhood, like the West- side. It was another world—one long dirt road that led to a small bridge over the Rio Seco canal, and then a narrow gravel road wound through tunnels of orange trees to one white house and ten smaller wooden bungalows. Sidney had been there twice, when his father worked on a refrigerator for Mrs. Antoine.
The groves and houses all belonged to Enrique Antoine and Gustave Picard. Sidney’s father was from New Orleans—Treme—but those men were from out in Louisiana cane country past Baton Rouge, he told Sidney that day in the truck, bringing back a new coil for the refrigerator. Sidney’s father had come to California after he got out of the war, and in 1958 he’d met five beautiful girls at a church dance. The girls had just come from Louisiana, some place out in the fields called Sarrat. A rich white man was hunting them, some old woman told his father, and they were sent to live with her.
His father said, “Few years after that, here come Enrique Antoine.
I heard he killed that white man and headed out. He brought his brother—Gustave. He stay right there.” His father pointed to a small porch across the street from the yard where they’d pulled out the refrigerator, and Sidney saw Glorette on the steps, drying her hair.
Sidney sat at the table he’d just vacated. His plastic container of hot sauce was still there. A straw. He’d forgotten to leave her a straw that night, five years ago. He’d found her in the ER when he wheeled his cart past, collecting predawn trash. Glorette peered at him from the bank of plastic chairs. “Ain’t you—?” Her huge purple-brown eyes shimmered with fever, and she coughed so deep in her chest it sounded like cellophane crackled behind her ribs.
Lungs black from crack smoke and torn from coughing, Sidney thought.
He’d frozen there while she stared at him. Lungs didn’t weigh much, when the surgeon cut one out and left it in the medical waste bag. The red bag.
She’d said, “Sidney, right? You graduated, huh? I missed the last three months. Learned all I needed to learn by then.” She coughed again, then grinned up at him. Even with all the smoking and the streets, her teeth were still white as mints, her neck marked with only one creased line like faint jewelry. “Learned when a brotha say he got protection, that don’t mean he know how to use it.”
Sidney had looked away, at the old man in the wheelchair by the door, his foot hugely swollen and bare. At a Mexican woman’s braid hanging over the back of her chair, almost to the floor.
“You want to marry me?” Glorette had whispered then.
Sidney felt his forehead crease, tight and dry from the heat of the hospital basement and the incinerators. He was ashamed at what he carried in his cart. What he had to burn for extra money, down there in the basement with Raoul Moreno.
“That’s what all y’all used to say in school. You Westside fools. Just marry me, baby,” she murmured, and coughed again until her eyes watered.
She raised her face to him and said, “But you wanted to put me in your crib and then trip, like do I think about you all day while you at work, or am I studyin some fool. Right? Ain’t you asked me back then?”
Brothers had all asked her something—marry me, baby; come on over here by the lockers with me, baby; help me out with this pain I got, baby; take down that hair and let me see it on your back, baby. Gimme some a that, I swear I give you every dollar I got in the world.
But nobody had any dollars back then, because they were all teenagers.
In the ER now, he and Glorette were thirty years old. “I ain’t never asked you that,” Sidney told her, bending nearer so the intake nurses wouldn’t hear. They were staring at him since he wasn’t moving along. Glorette had never even looked at him, except sometimes in math class when she and her friends teased him about his name.
She coughed again, so hard her body bent like a question mark over her cupped palms, the admissions form sliding to the floor. When she raised her head, she said, “No. You asked Jinelle. You still married?” Sidney shook his head, and she stood up unsteadily, her hand slapped to the wall. “I always said, Hell no. Any a you fools be the same. Want to lock me in some house. Tie up my time. Always talkin bout Wrap that pretty hair around me, baby, I want to see how it feel. Shit.
Any woman same as me when y’all eyes shut.”
Then she’d fallen to the dirty linoleum floor, and Sidney didn’t even think before he squatted down and picked her up. Regulations. Call an orderly. No. She was longer and heavier than his daughter, but not dead weight like a sleeping child. The creases at the backs of her knees hot over his right wrist. The shoulder blades sharp from her halter top, digging into his own shoulder. Her hair fell out of the loose bun and draped over his arm. No, it didn’t. This wasn’t a damn movie. The intake nurses started yelling at him from the Triage window. “What the hell are you doing? You’re Chabert, right? Put her down!”
He pushed through the double doors and went down the gray tunnel of hallway through their voices until he saw an empty gurney. White and clean. He lay Glorette on her side and her eyelids trembled violently as if boiling water were underneath.
At the table closest to the register, three Mexican guys had beer and tacos. Their t-shirts and jeans were covered with slivers of palm frond. Guys working off the street. They looked up, then dismissed him. Must think I went outside to check my car.
He usually saw Glorette and Sisia from a distance, because Excellent Video was four blocks up on Palm. But he hadn’t had a car for a week now. The brakes had gone out on his old Cavalier and he thought that rather than spend a few hundred on new ones, he’d send the money to Jinelle in Shreveport. His daughter Sarena was twelve now, and she needed braces. Orthodontia, the doctors had called it when Sidney worked at County General.
At the video store, he had three-to-eleven shift. All this week he’d taken his break at nine so he could watch anime in the back room while opening boxes of new DVDs. He needed a break from the trailers blaring all night on the TV above him. Tonight he’d helped Mr. Jae close up, then picked out two new anime videos and walked to the taqueria. His apartment building was only six blocks from here anyway, and he figured he’d be fine walking until fall, since all he did was go to work, then go home and watch movies.
Behind the counter, the mop bucket propped open the back door to the alley. The taqueria closed at midnight. Sidney got up and walked toward the register, listening to the slice of darkness past the door. No Navigator. No voices.
The woman who worked in the taqueria came back to the counter and nodded warily at Sidney. He couldn’t think in here for free. But the man would leave. A car would start up. Sidney could go back to the alley and offer Glorette tamales. He’d heard she loved the taqueria. Someone at Sundown Liquor had joked that she would do you for shrimp tacos and a Coke, if she was hungry enough.
The woman frowned at him. He said, “Got hungry again. Two tamales. Por favor. Pollo.” Her eyes were shadowed with light blue. Eyelids like two baby oceans, but when she looked down to write, Sidney saw creases where the makeup had heated into crescents. Frosty second brows.
Before he could stop it, the vision came. Eyebrows and eyelashes on fire when the woman looked down at the order pad. The leg hairs burning, glistening purple-gold. Red fingernails when she handed him the can of Coke. Pure varnish. Nails would flare up intense in the incinerator. Flames shooting blue-hot from the fingers, like the hands belonged to some cartoon.
She paused and tore the sheet from the pad, and then said something in Spanish to the men at the table.
Sidney leaned against the wall, staring at the back door. It had been so hard not to look at Jinelle like that, when he came home from the hospital and saw her cheeks with downy hair on them, her neck where the hair grew into a point at the nape. When he saw their daughter Sarena’s boneless-looking body in the crib, legs bowed and soft. Be- cause that one time when he carried a red bag of medical waste from the cart to the incinerator, a finger had fallen to the floor from the tangled bundle of surgical bandages and needles. He saw hair between the knuckles. Raoul Moreno, his supervisor in the basement, had laughed and said, “Come on, carnal, you knew they lost some shit in there now and then!”
Sidney stared at the poster on the taqueria wall. Aztec gods. But they looked like the two gargoyles carved above the front entrance of County General. The hospital was so damn old the walls were stone.
“Quit playin. We ain’t got time.” The rough voice carried through the back door.
Sidney moved down the short hallway, closer to the rectangle of dark.
He heard the smudge of dragged heels in the gravel, someone walking toward Glorette. “Stop trippin, Glorette. Jazen and them looking for us.” Sidney glanced outside, feeling like a fool. Like a child, listening to some- thing he wasn’t supposed to hear. Sisia stalked down the dirt, wobbling in her heels, her extensions swaying, like a drunk model on a bad Tyra Banks special.
Sisia and Glorette had been sprung together all these years. Sisia was tall and built, opposite of Glorette. “Brick house,” brothers used to laugh, “and somebody done shut the window on her face.” Sisia’s cheeks were round and full and pitted like dark oranges. Her hair was jheri-curled back then, with those stray ends waving up in unfortunate ways, like horns, no matter how she tamped them down. Now she always had braids, even if her shoes were taped together. “Percy and Harry and Sidney,” Sisia had sneered at Sidney in math class. “All them old-time names. Like a old man.”
What the hell they do with all them hands? In the paper you saw them standing around in a courtyard, all the sentenced men. Who chopped off the hands, in a row?
Chess always said to him, “You seen Archuleta’s leg and you ain’t figured it out? Damn, Sidney, you that stupid? You sure as hell looked lost when your picture was in the paper right in front of the furnace.”
Sidney looked over at the men. They had finished eating. They were merely watching him now. Chess and them didn’t know. The cops had brought all that marijuana to burn in the incinerator. The smoke was heavy and sweet as magic fog in some slasher movie. No one knew the leg was in there until the bag fell away and they saw the thickness of the thigh. The round eye of bone.
He checked his watch. Eleven-thirty. Too early for Glorette and Sisia to quit Palm Avenue. When he had started working at Excellent Video a few years ago, after the hospital closed, he’d seen that all the women were as predictable as the older white security guards stationed in front of the drugstore. Strolling and patrolling were mindlessly the same. Guarding something inside, or looking for customers, they paced in patterns every night. Like the zoo. He’d thought he would see Glorette close up. Maybe she’d come into the video store. Twice or three times she passed by the front window—her back, her elbow when she kept walking. She carried a bag of what looked like paperbacks.
He didn’t want to get with her. He just wanted to see her, talk to her long enough to know whether she remembered that night in the ER. If she remembered him. If she’d ever done that to anyone else. Ever.
But why would she come to the video store? Chess said she didn’t even have a TV.
When Chess came in for videos, he acted like Glorette was still his girlfriend. Not like she’d ignored him after she met Dakar. Not like he’d had a daughter with some other girl. He’d come up to the counter and say, “Man, she stay at Jacaranda Gardens now, them gray apartments. Her and her boy. Ain’t a damn thing in there but a futon and a glass-top table. Her and Sisa let them sprung fools party up in there all the time, and they walk off with everything. Her son’s seventeen, and he can’t even keep a CD player or no shoes.”
“What you doin up there?” Sidney said, putting the videos in a bag.
Mindless shit like Xtreme and Fast and Furious. Chess didn’t even know what anime was.
Chess lifted his chin so Sidney saw his neck, where a thin green wash of Magic Shave remained near his ears. He still wore a fade. “I hang up there sometimes with her. Talk about the old days. Gold days.”
Chess looked out at his car, a Bronco with the hood crazed by the sun.
He leaned over the counter and said, “So you miss County General? They closed that shit down. After what y’all did.”
Chess laughed and lifted his chin again, and Sidney slammed the cash register closed. “Wasn’t just me workin in the basement, okay? Was two or three other dudes.” Really it had just been him and Moreno. They were the only ones whose names made the newspaper.
“Least I don’t take advantage of somebody like Glorette,” he said.
Chess shrugged. “When I leave, homegirl’s fine.”
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