Picking at pine needles by the side of the road
in the sticky heat of a Southern evening,
Tomás Cortázar wants nothing more than to go home.
Only—he isn’t sure he has a home anymore,
or where it would be if he did.
His last home was Washington, D.C. — a tiny dorm in the heart of the country’s capital.
o A shower. Warmest setting: “Almost.”
o The feeling of having bedbugs, without actually having bedbugs. Probably.
o A desk chair with enough stains to discourage its use outright.
o Stocked with five decades of Interesting™ Smells.
Given the room’s luxuries, it’s no wonder Tomás spent so much time inside. He was there so often, he hardly ever saw the city, enjoyed the nightlife or any daytime fancies. What did it matter? From his solitary island, he could hear everything—People laughing and shouting across the hall. Crushed cans, thumping bass. A voice nudging him to introduce himself. A stronger voice forbidding it.
From the safety of his room, Tomás came to know his neighbors’ daily schedules by heart. They laughed, sang, and fucked like clockwork. But Sundays were quiet, which troubled him. The silence magnified his thoughts, and his thoughts were never good. Sunday nights, Tomás would ruminate on whether getting up for class was even worth it anymore. Was he already a lost cause? As the year ground on, his deliberations took longer and longer. By spring semester, he was always late to class and the prophecy was fulfilled.
The room was garbage. Tomás imagined the other rooms on the hall were kinder places. He could hear it in the scents and sounds that came through his doorway, scraps falling from a family dinner table, forgotten amidst the din of pleasant conversation. His neighbors were all so close, but he couldn’t picture them. Their faces were blank, and canvas, and always behind a white wall.
Sweeping the dirt road with his hand, Tomás decided that his room in D.C. was a home in name only. He felt nothing last week when he turned the key for the last time, nor when he bid empty goodbyes to people he’d never met, nor when the building shrank to nothing in the rear-view mirror of Mrs. Olmos’ tiny blue car.
When he went back to school—if he went back to school—someone else would be living there. By then, Tomás was sure it would transform into a cozy little home for someone who would actually have guests over. Smiling, happy people would gather to remark on the interesting smells, and marvel at the mystery of whether or not there were bedbugs.
Meanwhile, Tomás would be in another dorm, missing out on more friendships. And with the events of this past month, he’d have a new burden to drag along with him through the school year. He’d wear it as a scowl—a warning to all who might consider approaching him to stop and reconsider.
So yeah. That was one home down.
A metal clang rings out into the night.
Tomás leaps out of his reverie and looks to Mrs. Olmos’ car, which lay silent on a patch of dying grass, under a tall lamppost at the road’s edge. A man stands hunched over the car’s engine. The silhouette of his head shakes from side to side as he looks at his work, troubled.
Overhead, white lamplight makes the pine-littered road look sterile and intimidating. It reminds him of a hospital. White light. The car’s chassis, an operating table. The old man, a surgeon. Tomás, watching an autopsy. Thin pine needles, syringes digging at this skin.
“Are you all right?” says a voice—Mrs. Olmos’ warm alto.
“Yeeeeahhh,” says the man. His is voice low, and southern, and old. “This is just gonna take longer ‘n I thought.”
“Take your time!” says Mrs. Olmos. “We’re not going anywhere—right, Tomás?”
Tomás doesn’t answer her.
Mrs. Olmos is beneath a pine tree, looking back and forth from the old man to her lap—she’s scribbling something in a notebook Tomás can’t quite see, sitting so perfectly that even on red Carolina clay, he knows her blue-green dress must be spotless. He wonders how she does it, manage to look so composed on a night like this…
At the funeral, Mrs. Olmos knew exactly what to say, even to friends and family she’d never met. She knew precisely how long to linger at the open caskets, calculated the exact volume of tears to shed during her eulogy, fine-tuned even the redness of her eyes. Meanwhile, they were Tomás’ own parents and his eyes were bone dry. What did that mean?
The old man steps back from the hood of Mrs. Olmos’ car; stretches up, back, side to side before fetching another socket wrench from his toolkit and setting back to work. He works hard, but Tomás can tell the old man’s getting impatient. It takes an awfully kind person to stop for strangers in the middle of the night, and a kinder one still to fix the car himself. How long before his patience dies out? Morbidly, Tomás searches for a soft pile of pine needles to sleep on—but after a moment, his thoughts return to reverie.
Besides his dorm room’s extra-long twin, there was another bed where Tomás once slept at his first year of college. But going there was unthinkable now, so he thought instead of a third bed in a Virginian house that always felt too big for just Tomás, his parents, and their cat. He still dreamed of that bed sometimes, even when he was at University.
There were no beds in that home now; perhaps never again.
The old man yelps. “Ma’am—what did you say your name was again?”
“Gloria,” says Mrs. Olmos. And again, “Are you all right?”
“Think me and your car’ll be just fine—for tonight, anyway! Would you be so kind as to get in the driver’s seat? Start her up when I tell ya to. We just might get you two home yet!”
Mrs. Gloria Olmos puts down her notebook, stands up without touching the ground, and pats down her dress—though Tomás is certain it’s never been soiled. As she walks toward the car, Tomás gives way to reverie and thinks of a theoretical fourth bed. He can’t picture it, but Mrs. Olmos assures him it exists, with fresh linen, in a house in the south of North Carolina. Her family’s home. Tomás’ father meant to take them all down to visit, but there were always other plans.
And then, with Tomás’ mother—
—“All right, turn the key on the counna three. One…”
But Mrs. Olmos was only sharing her home for the summer. Sure, her demeanor was perfection—but was her heart? He barely knew her. When the summer was over, whatever debt she owed the family might be repaid, and then Tomás would be on his own. So her house couldn’t be much of a home at all.
Just like his dorm, the other dorm, and his parent’s house. Just like his friends, his academic standing, even his own parents. All fleeting, all temporary, and all subject to vanish at a semester’s end.
“One more time! I know she can do it. Come on. One…two…”
Tomás grips the earth—his nails gather dirt, hit clay. What would happen when summer was over? He’d maybe have some money, from the estate. But it wouldn’t be much after bills from the hospital, the cost of the caskets, the companion graves, and the flowers. He had a scholarship, but that was probably fucked now.
Tomás chest tightens—a heavy ache comes on as his heart thrashes, slams itself against his ribcage. He tries to breathe deeper, center himself. But the thick summer air is hard to swallow, and it only feels like drowning when he manages to force some down.
He realizes he can’t hear Mrs. Olmos anymore. Or the old man. Or the car. And he can’t see anything but the white of the hospital light hanging high above the air, growing ever brighter, washing out all the other colors of the landscape. The deep blue of midnight slips off into the cosmos. The yellow stars fall at the feet of the lamppost’s radiance. Lost in a spiral, Tomás barely registers when the car mutters, sputters, shudders, and finally bursts into a triumphant roar before calming down and maintaining a steady hum.
It’s the old man’s victorious hoot that finally yanks Tomás back to the real. The car comes back into focus, and he remembers how to breathe. He does so slowly, until his heart calms. He swallows. Tomás looks down at his hand, realizes his fist is clenched, caked with dirt and red from prickly pine and Carolina clay. He wipes it off and carefully stands up to join Mrs. Olmos and the old man at the car. He finds them mid-conversation, smiling like old friends. Or maybe warriors, bragging about a hard-fought battle. Mrs. Olmos, the shapeshifter, has become a belle of the antebellum. Did she always have that accent?
“Oh no, no ma’am,” says the man, putting a hand on Mrs. Olmos’, stopping her from digging money from her purse. “Lord put me in the right place tonight. Bein’ part of that plan’s enough for me.”
“Fine, no money. But I have somethin’ else—and I swear, I’ll strand your ass out here if it doesn’t get in that truck with you.”
The man laughs as Mrs. Olmos takes the notebook she’d been scribbling in, tears out a page and gives it to him. He looks at it, confused, then holds the page up to the light. He takes a moment, cocks his head to the side, and whistles.
“Shit. You did all this just now?”
“Be weirder if I already had it.”
The man laughs, but shakes his head. “Can’t take this either—wife’ll laugh her head off. You make me look way too grand for a greasy old mechanic.”
“It’s just how I saw you in the moment. I’ve got two more youngins at home waiting on us,” Mrs. Olmos says, nudging Tomás in the rib. “You’re a life saver. Right, Tomás?”
Tomás doesn’t look her in the face, but he knows she’s smiling. He wonders again at how she does it, on this day, at this hour, in this thick, burdensome heat. It’s not like it’s been a pleasant day up to now, with their car troubles being a minor inconvenience on an otherwise smooth road. The week’s been shit from the start, for both of them. Its climax almost left them stranded on the side of the road in the middle of the night, somewhere between the quaint country towns of Bum and Fuck.
Tomás’ heart fires up again, this time—unexpectedly—out of anger. Mrs. Olmos was well within her rights to not to smile tonight. Tomás was certainly taking the opportunity to scowl, but Mrs. Olmos chose differently. Tomás didn’t understand how, or why. Maybe it was natural, what normal people did in the wake of tragedy. Maybe Tomás was the wrong one.
“Tomás!” Mrs. Olmos calls. He doesn’t know how long he’s been staring at nothing. “You OK?”
“Yeah. Just…” He pauses. “Just communing with Mother Nature.”
“Yeah? It’s a nice night for it!”
Tomas wants to protest. It’s not a nice night for anything, and his patience for her perfection has gone. But there’s no fight in him now, and the moment passes. Soon the old man is in his truck, and Mrs. Olmos is waving goodbye. Tomás wills his hand to wave too. The old man drives away—Tomás expects he and Mrs. Olmos will get in her car and do the same. But she just stands there watching the road, long after the truck is gone and there’s nothing to see but a few yards of light before an unknowable darkness.
Tomás thinks to touch her shoulder, get her attention somehow—but he doesn’t. She is somewhere far away. Finally, with the old man gone and no one else around for miles, Mrs. Olmos turns to look at Tomás. Her eyes are red and leaking above a strained and unstable smile.
She inhales, and squeezes Tomás hand; lets out a whimper, then a sigh, and gets into the car.