Osvaldo and his homies’ favorite party spot was a place they called The Edge, on the rim of the Río Grande Gorge. At The Edge, the flat sagebrush plain cracked and fell away to seven hundred feet of rough black basalt. The plain was like a sun-faded pool table that had split in two, and they raced their cars and trucks over it and slammed on their brakes at the last minute. Midway down the gorge hung the rusted hulk of a fifties pickup. Cans and broken beer bottles glinted on the rocks. At the bottom coiled the brown river.
Unless the moon shone, you couldn’t see the river or the hulk or much of anything down there. On one of those moonless nights in the summer between Osvaldo’s junior and senior years of high school, he and two carloads of his homies drove to The Edge.
They sat on the warm hoods and cracked cold beers. Every few minutes, a car or truck rumbled across the invisible bridge spanning the gorge. When they finished their beers they tossed the cans into the abyss. They listened for them to hit, and, as always, heard nothing.
“Hey, eses, where’s the bitches?” Manuel said.
“They didn’t want to come,” someone else said. “Not even Lola.”
“Maybe they don’t like black primer.”
“Black’s bad,” Osvaldo said. The week before, he had stripped his Isuzu Amigo of its pinstripes and pearls and painted it completely in black primer.
“But it scares them off,” said another voice.
“Maybe it’s just him that scares them off,” Manuel said, meaning Osvaldo.
Osvaldo’s nickname was The Bad. Lola had given him that placa a few months before, when they were watching The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly at the Starlighter Drive-In. He had planned to go to the movie with Lola alone, but Manuel managed to invite himself along. That was Manuel: always getting in other people’s mixes.
During the movie, the three of them had sat on the Isuzu’s tailgate, Lola in the middle, Osvaldo wondering how he was going to put the make on Lola with Manuel there. When The Bad appeared on the giant screen, Lola shrieked, “That’s you, Osvaldo!” Manuel laughed and said it was true. Osvaldo studied actor Lee Van Cleef’s slit eyes and sharp, beak nose and high, sunscorched cheekbones. Angel Eyes was The Bad’s other name. By the end of the movie, Osvaldo had learned to shift his narrow eyes badass like Angel Eyes, making Lola shriek some more, driving her into Manuel’s arms, who grinned and hugged her.
The Bad face was good for cruising the Taos plaza with his homies and scaring tourists. It was funny to watch a lumpy-legged couple in shorts pick up their cowlike gait after seeing his face. Mad-dogging a ranfla full of cholos was a different matter. It made his guts watery. They might cap a round between his angel eyes. But there was no other choice when his homies said, “Show them The Bad, homes.” Their lives depended on him making it good, on making the cholos not want to fuck with them.
The beers got shaken on the drive over the rough road to The Edge and foamed when they were opened. Primer stained easily, and Osvaldo suspected the beer cans were making rings on the hood of his car, though he couldn’t see them in the moonless dark. But it would seem joto to mention this to the others, and anyway where else were they going to put their beers? Anyway, maybe it was badass to have beer circles on the hood of your ranfla, like bullet-hole decals on your door panels.
It had rained that afternoon, and it looked like it would rain again tonight. The air smelled like chemistry class. A steady growl of thunder came from the mountains, as if there was a giant dog behind them. Then came lightning, which was like God zapping the dog with a taser to get him to shut up.
“What kind of dog would God have?” Osvaldo wondered.
“Pit bull,” Manuel said.
“Listen to these locos,” someone said.
“Well, I don’t think it’s gonna be no fucking Chihuahua,” Manuel said.
A couple of voices laughed nervously at this blasphemous talk of God.
“So what kind of dog you think Satan has?” said Osvaldo.
“You should know,” someone said from the darkness.
“Poodle,” said Manny, cracking everybody up.
The growling and the tasering got so mixed up that you couldn’t know if the tasering was making the dog growl or if the dog was being tasered for growling. As the storm approached, the growls exploded with the flashes.
People scrambled into the cars. Only Manuel stayed outside, dancing in the rain.
Sizzle-crack-flash, all at once, exploding around Manuel. It could easily be sizzle-crack-flash-dead-Manuel all at once too, a single event. Both cars honked their horns and flashed their lights at Manuel. But he danced away, out of the beams of the headlights.
“Somebody go grab that loco.”
They said the safest place in a lightning storm was inside your car. Osvaldo never quite understood that. The tires grounding it and all that shit. Maybe people believed it just because the lightning had just never happened to strike a car. Badass if the first car lightning decided to strike was his, right there. Badass, and fucked, too, as they all fried inside the black, electrified box.
“I’ll get him,” he said, forcing his door against the wind and ducking into the hail.
The others, under questioning by the police, would say that as Osvaldo approached Manuel, they saw, in the next blinding flash of lightning, horns sprout from Osvaldo’s head. One boy swore he saw Osvaldo’s arrowed tail lash the ground and his feet morph into cloven hooves.
Osvaldo told the police that he only reached for Manuel, but that Manuel danced away, laughing, into the darkness. Osvaldo yelled, “Fuck you, homes”—a couple of the others testified they heard those words too, faintly—and scrambled back to his car. The hail had coated the ground white.
“Let’s get the fuck outta here,” he told the others. He shuddered with cold. The hail was nicking the new primer. If Manuel wanted a ride, he could go in the other car. Another bolt of lightning struck.
“You didn’t touch him?” one of the detectives asked.
“I didn’t touch him.”
“So he just kind of danced out into the Río Grande Gorge,” said the detective, fluttering his fingers in the air.
“Maybe the lightning got him.”
“The lightning, you think?” said the cop in a friendly tone, leaning close.
Osvaldo said nothing more. He was booked and arraigned on an open count of murder. To get released on bond, Osvaldo had to hand the title of his Isuzu over to the bondsman, and his parents had to put up the deed to their house and apple orchard.
At the grand jury hearing, the prosecutor asked the other boys what Osvaldo’s demeanor was like. What was he acting like?
They told about the horns and hooves. All the boys, including the ones in the other vehicle, told about it. The horns and the hooves and the pointed tail, illuminated by a flash of lightning.
The grand jury handed down a true bill. That meant, Osvaldo’s lawyer told him and his parents that he was going to trial, unless she could get the case dismissed.
“Trial? When?” said his father. On the lawyer’s table, his father’s hands looked old and wrinkled as winter apples; he twisted and rubbed them together, as if trying to still their trembling.
“The date hasn’t been set yet,” said the lawyer, a skinny, Anglo Public Defender who kept brushing her hair from her face. “The prosecution is going want to continue the case—that means postpone things—until they come up with a body. Hard to get a conviction without a body. An indictment’s different. As they say, most grand juries’ll indict a ham sandwich.”
Osvaldo’s father stopped rubbing his hands and looked at her as if she were insane. His mother kept her eyes lowered.
“See, motive’s all they’ve got at this point,” said the lawyer. “Osvaldo Mondragón, a.k.a. ‘The Bad,’ sought revenge for Manuel’s having taken his girlfriend Lola from him. Osvaldo perceived that Manuel had made a cuckold of him, ‘put the horns on him.’ How does it go in Spanish?”
Now even his mother stared at her.
“Poner los cuernos, that’s it!” said the lawyer. “Right? Am I right? I’m sorry, my Spanish isn’t great. I’m working on it, though!” She turned pink and began to talk even faster. “The jury up here’ll be mostly Hispanic, of course, and prosecution is going to make a big thing of this horns thing, you can bet on it, have the witnesses say they saw actual horns sprout from Osvaldo’s head right before he shoved Manuel into the chasm, allegedly shoved. Exploiting people’s superstition. It’s racist. It’s so disgusting.”
“No body,” said Osvaldo’s father.
“I’m sorry? Oh, yes, no body. No body!”
Search-and-rescue teams had combed the sides of the gorge for Manuel’s body, though their dogs were too terrified of losing their footing to be of much use. The Sheriff’s Department dragged the Río several times, fruitlessly.
“He was a floater, wasn’t he?” the lawyer asked.
“Then they would have found him,” said Osvaldo’s father. “Floating.”
“Oh, no!” said the lawyer. She gave a kind of desperate, whinnying laugh. “I meant—a throwaway kid. He didn’t really have a home. Kept running away from foster care. Nobody reported him missing for three days.”
“So,” said the father, “he could be anywhere.”
“Anywhere at all! That’s right. Could’ve run away to Alaska for all anyone knows. That’s all we need to say.”
“And all my son has to say is that he didn’t push him,” said Osvaldo’s mother. “Under witness of God.”
“Oh, no! He shouldn’t take the stand. He shouldn’t testify.”
“Why shouldn’t he?”
The lawyer turned pink again. “It’s better not… Anyway, there’s no need to talk about that now. We’ll cross that bridge when we come to it.”
“But if he’s innocent.”
“Ya déjale, mamá,” Osvaldo murmured. He knew what the lawyer meant. After all, hadn’t Osvaldo’s grandmother said, when she was scolding him, that the Devil himself must have scratched those ojos rasgados into Osvaldo’s face with his three-clawed hand? Hadn’t an uncle once said how curious it was that Osvaldo’s parents had given the boy the same name as the satanic assassin of the great John F. Kennedy? Hadn’t his father called him, as a young child, mi diablito, until it wasn’t funny anymore? The lawyer was right: at the trial, he would have to sit quietly at the defense table, as far away from the jurors as possible. He could not bring his face to the witness stand, to be displayed and animated before the jury, have them see the evil yellow in those scratched eyes and the even, satanic red glow beneath his skin.
While out on bond, Osvaldo continued working at his summer job for the Department of Transportation, fastening netting on the slopes that rose above the highway and the river, downstream from the Gorge. DOT was eager to get the job done before the monsoon rains dislodged more rocks. Earlier that year, a boulder had loosened and bounced down the mountainside and crushed a Bible-school bus from Texas before rolling into the Río Grande. Several children on the bus had died.
Osvaldo’s fellow workers nicknamed the killer rock Baby Huey. Baby Huey was a great big clumsy comic-book baby who couldn’t help breaking things and wreaking havoc. Of course, being a baby, he was innocent and didn’t realize the damage he was causing. Just like the rock, which now sat guiltlessly in the middle of the river, creating a pleasant swirl for river rafters to whee over.
“You don’t know Baby Huey?” they asked Osvaldo. “Caspar the Friendly Ghost? Hot Stuff Sizzlers?” Most of these guys were permanent employees and older than him, and those must have been old comics.
They explained. Caspar was a wimpy ghost who had a ghost horse named Nightmare. Hot Stuff Sizzlers was a fat little devil with a pitchfork. All the men laughed, and so did Oswaldo. They got Osvaldo a pitchfork and had him pitch straw mulch over the newly seeded hillsides, and called him Hot Stuff.
But that teasing had taken place before Osvaldo’s indictment. Now the men gave him his space. Osvaldo concentrated on his work, pitching straw and moving rocks and fastening netting and thinking. Why did Baby Huey after all those centuries of just sitting there, decide to roll down the hill at that moment? Well, of course Huey didn’t decide anything. The rains had come, and the last molecule of dirt had released its grip, and there went Huey. And there just happened to be a church bus tooling along the highway below. Shit happened.
God’s will, his mother called it. Why would God will a church bus full of children get crushed? Osvaldo wanted to know. Just calling His angels to heaven, she said. Like Manuel, said Osvaldo. Yes, like Manuel, said his mother, looking away from him.
Osvaldo’s father told him he should thank his lucky stars Manuel had no relatives in the area to take revenge. Like if that rock had killed people with familia? The relations would have long since tied dynamite around it and blown it up, right there in the river.
Osvaldo’s brothers were both in the Army overseas, in Iraq. They sent him letters telling him to hang in there. Sober, formal letters, not like previous ones where they’d joked about his joining them in Iraq and scaring the enemy to death with his Bad face. They said they didn’t know if they could get leave to attend his trial, but that hopefully it wouldn’t come to that.
The judge told him sternly to not communicate with his homies, or he’d be clapped in jail until his until his trail. He saw Lola once on the plaza but she pretended not to see him and disappeared into a store. He could only hope that Lola would tell the truth, that she and Osvaldo really hadn’t been going out and she wasn’t his girlfriend, so how could he be jealous of Manuel?
“Don’t kill yourself,” one of the men murmured to him one afternoon as Osvaldo, thinking about these things, heaved straw furiously up a slope. The guy was trying to be friendly, Osvaldo supposed, break the ice a little, but what Osvaldo heard was, Do kill yourself.
Downriver, about half a mile from where Baby Huey sat, lived Osvaldo’s chemistry teacher. Osvaldo found this out one afternoon when, over lunch, the foreman, who’d spent the morning informing people who lived downstream that the netting project would soon include the hillsides above them, told about this one loco, a hippie with a bald top of the head and a ponytail, who told him that just because we always saw rocks roll downhill didn’t mean they always would; maybe one day they’d roll uphill; how could we be so sure they wouldn’t? Had we observed the movements of all the rocks in the universe? This loco’s house was a little blue one right on the water, with weird metal sculptures all around.
Osvaldo knew it had to be Gene. The dude was always saying crazy shit like that. He told the class that there was so much empty space in atoms that if you shrunk the world to where it was really solid, it would become the size of a ping-pong ball. If you got sucked into a black hole, like the one at the center of our galaxy, you’d get stretched out in a long line of atoms, feet first. Our bodies are made of so much water that you might as well think of yourself as just water doing its thing. The sun was a big hydrogen bomb, constantly turning mass into energy, and, by the way, each of your bodies has the energy equivalent in mass of thirty H-bombs, which is something you might think about whenever you’re having self-esteem problems.
Gene had been a scientist in Los Alamos. No one knew exactly how he ended up being a high-school teacher in Taos, but there he was, and the school was proud to have him. He had a PhD, maybe two, but he didn’t like being called Dr. or even Mr., so he was just Gene. He’d once brought to class a brownish glassy thing in the shape of a lightning bolt, about half an inch thick and a couple feet long. It was melted dirt from lightning: lightning came from the ground up, he said. It occurred to Osvaldo (maybe because lately he’d been stuck at home at night watching cop shows on television) that Gene would make a great expert witness at his trial. He could bring in the glassy thing—what was it called? Fool-something—and tell the jury that since lightning came from the ground up, Manuel could have been blown sky-high. Maybe even evaporated—after all, lightning was like eight times hotter than the surface of the sun, Gene had told them.
After work that day, he told the foreman he didn’t need a ride back to town; his father would be picking him up. The foreman looked relieved; since the indictment, those rides proved what Gene, quoting Einstein, said about time being relative—a minute’s not the same length when you’re eating chocolate ice cream as when you’re sitting on a hot stove. Since the indictment, riding with the guys had felt a lot longer for all of them.
At quitting time, Osvaldo sat on a rock on the side of the road until all the crew had driven off. Then he walked down the road to his teacher’s house. It was blue, all right, and perched right over the water. The sculptures were like strange windmills, their delicately balanced silver vanes in constant motion under the cottonwood trees. Gene was outside, in shorts and a Hawaiian shirt, peering at something in the water. Storm clouds billowed above the mountains to the north.
“Hey, Gene. Hey, we’re working on the road, I mean, the hillsides—”
Gene shielded his eyes from the sun. “So I’ve been told. Osvaldo?”
“Yeah, it’s me.” Teachers always remembered his name. “Oh, you already know?”
“I’ve been apprised. You working on that?”
It was always weird meeting teachers outside of school. At the movies or the grocery store, or like this, in shorts. Showing up at their houses—nobody did that. He realized he’d made a mistake.
“Okay, yeah, next week we’ll be up there.” Osvaldo waved at the steep hillside and started back to the highway, wondering now how he was going to get home.
“Want to come in?” Gene called.
They entered the little house. Books everywhere, and two computers, a big laptop and a desktop, that looked cobbled together from all sorts of parts. Gene rummaged in a groaning old snail back refrigerator and brought out two cans of beer.
A teacher offering a student a beer! But if any teacher broke the rules, it would be Gene. It seemed pussy to tell Gene what the judge had told him, that if he broke any laws, such as underage drinking, his bond would be revoked immediately and he’d be sent to jail. Osvaldo took a seat on a tatty sofa in the dim, low-ceilinged living room. Outside, the river rushed.
Osvaldo propped his elbow on the armrest of the couch and held the beer up to partially hide his devilish face from Gene, whom he felt observing him even as he pretended to straighten the books on one of the tables.
“So how’s your summer been, Osvaldo?” he asked at last.
“Not too good.”
“Want to tell me about it?”
Gene listened attentively, but Osvaldo got the feeling he knew the story. When Osvaldo broached the idea of Gene’s testimony, he pointed to the glass lightning bolt on the bookshelf. “You could bring that in.”
“The fulgurite?” He smiled at Osvaldo, regarded him for a long moment. Then he asked him if he’d like to smoke a joint. “It’ll help us think. Strategize.”
Weed did make you think. When he smoked, Osvaldo often pondered the weird things Gene said in class.
“Like what?” Gene asked, passing him the joint.
“Like about almost everything being empty space. Like inside the atoms?”
“How about at the trial I testify to that, too? Since everything’s mostly empty space, how can you say anything really touches anything? That should establish some reasonable doubt.”
Osvaldo wondered if he was being serious.
“I used to work in fusion, you know. Up in Los Alamos. The hydrogen bomb: now that’s really squeezing things so they touch.”
“Really,” said Osvaldo.
“The prosecutors could bring in a rebuttal witness and we could argue about force fields and shit.” Gene giggled. “The Uncertainty Principle.”
“The cat thing.”
“Schrödinger’s cat! Alive and dead at the same time.”
It was getting dark. Thunder struck, and lightning flashed in the dirty window.
Osvaldo wondered how he was going to get back home.
“Lightning, man,” said Gene. “Weird shit, all right. People think the lightning causes the flash. The lightning is the flash. No cause outside of its effects, right?”
Osvaldo nodded. Speaking of effects, this was pretty good dope. The couch felt like it was swallowing him up, but he found himself moving when Gene said, after another, louder bolt, “Come on, let’s go out and watch.”
They went out on the narrow, rail-less deck that overlooked the river. The water roiled and frothed at their feet—raining hard upstream. Crazy lightning split the sky. It seemed to Osvaldo dangerous to be standing out there, but he wasn’t about to pussy out by saying so. Gene appeared lost in thought.
“I think,” Gene said after a while, “that your best chance of winning is to dispute the motive. You say Lola wasn’t your chick, right?”
“We went out a couple times.”
“So no need to be jealous of her, ¿que no?” Gene was Anglo, but he thought using Spanish expressions was cool.
“Ever fuck her?”
This was one of those questions it was good to lie about, and the low, conspiratorial way the teacher asked it put him on alert. But Osvaldo murmured the truth, “No,” and felt his face get hot.
A quavering bolt lit the mountains like a fluorescent bulb going bad. A cold breeze blew off the river. Osvaldo shivered. Gene put his arm around him.
Osvaldo didn’t get touched much—his mother’s hugs were always fleeting, and his father only ever shook his hand. Gene’s arm felt good. But it stayed too long, solid and unyielding; and he sensed the heat of the man’s thigh next to his. He waited another moment for Gene to break the spell with a comradely jostle, and then he threw the man’s arm off.
“All right, now,” said Gene, backing up. “What are you saying? Are you saying I touched you inappropriately? Is that what you’re saying?”
The man talked too fast and too slick, as though he had been in this kind of situation before. Or maybe he just was scared. He should be scared, pinche joto, fucking with The Bad.
Osvaldo took a swing at him. But either he slipped or Gene tripped him, and he fell into the thrashing river.
The river dragged him over rocks, pitched him through the froth. He cracked his head on a boulder and felt warmth on his scalp. His work boots grew heavy with water, but when he managed to get on his back and going feet first he was grateful for the way they bore the blows of the rocks as he shot downstream. Without knowing how long or how far he’d gone, he found himself twirling gently in an eddy. His buttocks scraped coarse sand and anchored him. He pulled himself onto a tiny beach on the other side of the river.
In a panic to get away from the roiling water, he clambered up the rocky slope. From the safety of the flat plain, where the three-quarters moon silvered the sage, he contemplated the river below, his scalp and elbow and tailbone throbbing. He couldn’t make out Gene’s house, and it was impossible to tell how far the water had carried him. Fucking Gene! But with his mind now cleared by the shock of the water, he wondered if the dope hadn’t made him paranoid back there, hadn’t exaggerated the length of time the man had had his arm around him.
The closest place he knew of for crossing back to the other side of the river was the bridge over the Gorge, several miles—exactly how many, he had no idea—to the north. All he had to do was walk over the rocky ground between the clumps of chamisa and sage and grama grass, keeping the river on his right until he got there. He set out, his soaked boots squeaking. After a few steps, he caught a glimpse of flashlight beam sweeping over the water below, and heard Gene’s voice calling him, a hoarse, pleading voice: “Hey. Hey, Osvaldo. Hey, man.”
He walked on. The storm had receded over the mountains and the wind died down, but he was still cold. He stopped and took off his clothes and wrung them out. For a while he walked only in his boots and his underwear, so the damp clothes wouldn’t chafe his skin. The chasm to the river deepened.
Several hours along, when the moon was high and small, he lay on his side to rest. He couldn’t lie on his back, because his tailbone, which must have struck a rock in the river, hurt more than ever. The wound on his head had swollen and become tender all around. So things don’t really touch things, Gene, you stupid fuck? Maybe Gene could tell the jury that other thing he’d said in class, that just because you saw something happen the same way a million times didn’t mean it would happen that same way on the million and first. You just have faith that it will. One day a rock might run up a hill instead of down. Maybe Manuel had flown into the sky instead of fallen into the Gorge. Why not? Everybody now seemed to think Manuel was an angel anyway.
He shivered his way into a fitful sleep. He dreamed he was falling headfirst into a chasm, and when he hit bottom he hit just so, causing the atoms to fuse into a nuclear explosion. He opened his eyes to the first rays of the morning sun blasting into his face.
No more than quarter mile farther along, his body stiff and his clothes still damp and his stomach an empty hole, and there it was, the steel lace of the Gorge Bridge, bright in the early morning sun.
A single car, a beige hatchback of some sort, was parked in the viewing area, someone sitting on the hood. As he got closer, he saw it was a girl with short, glossy black hair, writing in a notebook. From what he could tell, she was alone. The car had California license plates.
Absorbed though she appeared to be in her writing, she sensed him. She slipped the notebook under the black jacket next to her and watched him calmly. Her lip rings glittered in the sun. She couldn’t have been much older than he, maybe twenty. Dressed all in black. The upper end of a red-and-black tattoo crawled from under her t-shirt and up her neck.
“What’s up?” he said.
She didn’t draw back at his approach, and no fear crossed her dark, sunlit eyes. A tough Goth chick.
She shrugged. “Sun’s up.”
“To you, especially. You’re wet.”
Osvaldo offered no explanation.
“You hungry?” Without waiting for an answer, she reached under the jacket and produced a foil-wrapped burrito. He took it. Chorizo and egg, the picante already in it, warming him from the inside as the sun warmed him on the outside. The gorge lay deep in morning shadow, the river a black snake.
He eyed the corner of her notebook and wondered what the writing was about.
He couldn’t help but think of the several people who had jumped from the bridge in recent years. The last guy, who’d driven up from Santa Fe, had brought his sack lunch with him and written the goodbye note on the bag. Before that, a couple had jumped, holding hands as they sailed into the abyss—their hands the last thing they touched before hitting bottom.
“They’re looking for you, dude,” she said.
“Down on the highway, by the río? Search-and-rescue big time. Divers and the whole shebang. Don’t tell me that’s not you.”
He waited a while before answering. “Yeah, that’s probably me. My chemistry teacher pushed me.”
“Your chemistry teacher pushed you. Okay.”
“Or I fell. I probably just fell. It’s complicated.”
He told the story from the beginning as best he could, his brain foggy from lack of sleep, realizing only afterwards that all the time his eyes had been on the pink and blue smudge at the Edge where people had placed plastic flowers to mark the spot of Manny’s disappearance. Miles beyond stood the dark mountains that birthed the lightning storms.
“Well, if you’re gonna skip bond, this would sure be the time to do it,” she said.
“What do you mean?”
“Because in about two days you’re going to be presumed dead. Unless somebody sees you. Here, get down.”
He crouched in front of the car. A truck went by, making the bridge tremble. The car’s license plate in front of his face read California, plain and simple. When the trembling stopped, she said, “Coast is clear.” He found himself gripping the chrome fenders of the car; but as she touched his hand, the lightest of touches, his grip loosened, and he rose.