“Hello!” He heard Julia Medina’s raspy voice.
He opened the door.
“Is that you Mando?”
“Yes, how are you? You look good.” He said.
“Yeah, sure, liar. You look good too. What brings you to Vegas?”
“Ah, just came to check on the place, you know. For old time’ sake.”
“Well, it’s still here. We keep an eye on it. Someone ripped the back door off, as you saw. I called Mario to come and board it up, but he hasn’t gotten around to it.”
“The house looks pretty good, Julia.”
“Well, it’s a sweet old place, Armando. Lots of good things happened here. It just needs some love.”
“We should just sell it, no?”Armando said.
“No one wants to live in Vegas, anymore.” Julia said.
“Oh, I don’t know about that.” Armando said.
“Really? You coming back?”
“Oh, I couldn’t come back.”
“Well maybe after you retire. You never know, right?”
“Funny you should say that…” Armando said looking at his mother’s friend, who didn’t look any older than the last time he saw her five years before.
“Bueno, pues, I gotta go. You know we’ve been lucky the place hasn’t been trashed. We had some cabrones from town coming over here to party for a while, but we called the sheriff and they’ve stayed away after a few tries. Just a place to party and all that. You know kids. Bored, drunk, stupid.”
She stared at him from head to foot. “How long you be around?”
“Not long. I’m leaving today. I was just too tired to drive back to Burque, last night so I spent the night.”
“You, okay?” She motioned towards the sleeping bag with her chin.
“Yeah, I’m okay.” He said.
“Bueno, let me know if you need anything. I’m always around.”
“Thanks, Julia. Really.”
Julia turned and walked down the porch steps. Armando went back inside.
When he got inside the house and closed the door, he noticed how still the morning was. He felt unsettled, like he should have said something else to Julia before she left.
“God,” he thought, “I should have been more polite, or asked her more about the house.” Now he felt guilty and weird. He went to the door and opened it to call out to her, but she was gone. There was no car anywhere and he thought that maybe it was because she didn’t bother to maneuver the heavy metal gate that he had moved yesterday, but when he took another look, he saw that he had not blocked the passage. He took the gate out of the way and left it there. There was no trace of Julia.
Armando walked into the kitchen. Even the kitchen cabinets, old as they were, were still in intact. The old gas stove was where it had always been. Looking out the kitchen window he could see that the propane tank was still there too. He looked down at the linoleum floor and noticed his footprints in the thick layer of dust. Were those his footprints? He looked at the sole of his boots. Yes, those were his prints, but nothing else? No other trace of what or who had escaped out of the house when he showed up?
He scratched his head. He shrugged. “Whatever,” he said again under his breath. “I talk to myself now, goddam it,” he said.
He was hungry and needed coffee. Had he been nicer to Julia, she might have asked if she could get him some coffee or invite him up to the house. He was so weird she got creeped out and left. She probably heard his tirade and the smashing of his water bottle against the wall.
With coffee on his mind, he got into his Explorer and drove into town. The Spic and Span was still there, like it had always been. He ordered black coffee and huevos rancheros, with both red and green chile.
“Christmas,” the waitress said.
“Christmas,” he repeated.
The huevos did not disappoint. “Why can’t they make chile like this in Burque?” He asked himself and sopped up the rest of the sauce with the sopapilla.
A middle-aged man with a beer belly wearing a black felt cowboy hat stood silently by his side until Armando looked up.
“Hey, Bro!” the man said. “Where you been?”
“Mario,” Armando said, recognizing Julia’s brother. “Long time no see, man.”
“I know, Mano. It’s been a while. Still at the lab?”
“Just retired,” Armando said.
“Really? Lucky! I’m never going to retire. I’m going to die working on some pinche house or another.”
Armando smiled and motioned Mario to sit down.
“So, I just saw Julia this morning,” Armando said.
“Julia? Are you kidding? Julia’s dead, Bro. She died last year.”
“What? I swear she came by to see me this morning.”
“Well, I don’t know what to tell you, man, but my sister Julia is dead.”
Armando raised his eyebrows.
“It was Violet, my niece. She looks a lot like her mom. Spitting image.”
Armando stared. “I called her Julia. I’m sure of it. Several times. She didn’t correct me.
“She said she called you about the back door. Someone ripped it out.”
“That was Violet, Bro. You just got confused.”
“It’s possible, man. Anything is possible right now.” Armando said running his hand through his hair.
“You, okay, man?”
“Yeah, sure.” Armando said. “Just some marriage problems, you know. It was a long time coming but here it is now.”
“I’m sorry man. It’s a drag. I’ve been divorced 3 times.” Mario broke out into a sinister cackle.
Armando grimaced. “My first.”
“You’ll get over it.”
“So how long you around for?” Mario asked.
“I was leaving today but maybe I’ll stick around, fix the door, you know, see what else the old place needs.”
“I’ll be by to board up the door today, if you want.” Mario said.
“You know what? Let me take care of it.” Armando said. “Might as well put myself to good use.”
“You got tools, Mando?”
“I’ll bring some by later.” Mario said.
“Okay, I appreciate it, Mario. It is Mario, right?”
Mario laughed, “Yeah, Bro. It’s Mario, but my sister’s still dead.”
Armando threw his head back and chuckled. When Mario walked out of the restaurant, Armando’s fingers felt as cold as ice.
“I must be going nuts,” he said to himself. “I am sure that was Julia.”
He went down to the market and bought a loaf of bread, instant coffee, some bologna and cheese, oranges and a bottle of whiskey. He then called Adobe Propane and asked them to deliver some gas.
When Armando drove back down the road and passed through the broken gate, he rolled down his window to take a deep breath. The crisp Northern New Mexico air was filled with the scent of a piñon fire and it smelled like home.