Joe Robles is born Joseph Miguel Robles in Bambrick, Texas, forty miles east of El Paso. His father works construction projects in distant cities for months at a time; his mother cleans houses on Diamond Avenue, in the wealthy part of town. As a newborn he spends most of his time next door, in a small house belonging to Flora Vasquez, a friend of his mother’s. When Flora moves to Dallas Joe is three; his mother takes him with her on days she is sure that the houses she cleans will be empty. He sits on white feathered couches that feel like clouds and watches her dust the kitchen cabinets, the picture frames, the armoires.
Dark hair sprouts from Joe’s head; light freckles stain his cheeks. On the rare occasions that he visits home, Joe’s father takes Joe outside, sits him on his lap in a white wooden rocking chair, and fills the dusty air with the thick, heavy smoke of Cervantes cigars. Look at how big you’re getting, huh? he says. He leaves before sunrise, while Joe and his mother are still asleep. Every time there are flowers on the rough kitchen table, with a note written in thick black cursive: Be Back Soon!
In the early morning, just after the sun rises before Bambrick, butterflies emerge from the gnarled knots of rotting logs, from the pink buds of bougainvillea, from the deep cracks in the stucco houses. They rendezvous above the small, hidden ponds of west Texas. And then, moving as one, they dip down through the hazy sunlight to wet their feet on the surfaces of lilypads, and spring up in swarms of red and blue and spotted yellow, buzzing around the ponds, beating their wings like fairies.
When Joe is seven his mother leaves to clean houses without him. For the first time in his life his thirst for adventure overcomes his desire for safety. He picks dogwood flowers from the Robles’ dusty backyard and places them in a pile on the kitchen table. Then he roams the wide streets of Bambrick in search of a snail. By the time he finds one the sun has gone down and darkness is beginning to settle over the land. He returns home to his mother on her knees in the kitchen, praying fervently. She runs to him and pulls him close. You never told me you were going anywhere, she shouts. He says: Didn’t you see the flowers?
As the years go by Joe grows taller and thinner, older and bolder. One of the clients of his mother is Willa Fredericks, a baker. She bakes cakes for Joe’s birthdays: a soccer ball-shaped ice cream cake for ten, a jersey shape with blue frosting for eleven, a football field for twelve. At thirteen Joe thumbs through his mother’s address book and finds Willa’s birthday: January 16th. Three months later, he goes to the grocery store on a Saturday while his mother is at work and buys flour, frosting, candles. When he returns home he thumbs through his mother’s cookbook, turns the dials on her ancient oven. Two hours later he walks across Jefferson Street through the railroad park to Diamond Ave. He checks the slip of paper in his pocket and comes to a giant golden house with a fountain in front of it. The columns that guard the front door are thicker than two of him and thrice as tall. When he rings the pearly doorbell Willa answers in a sparkling dress. She takes the sloppy cake quickly, says Thank you, thank you, this is so sweet of you, Joe.
Joe turns fourteen: he is five-foot-seven and ninety-nine pounds. On Joe’s first day of high school a pale boy with bright blue eyes takes a Ticonderoga pencil and holds it up in front of Joe, five or so feet away from him. He is going to stab me, Joe thinks. Instead the boy lifts the pencil between his thumb and forefinger so that it points directly upwards in front of his face. He squints one eye and says, Stand straight, Joe. Just as I thought. You’re thinner than a Ticonderoga pencil. The surrounding boys laugh. Joe thinks he should feel hurt but doesn’t. The nickname sticks: in high school Joe will be Ticonderoga, Tico for short.
At 9 a.m. sharp the schoolchildren of Texas rise in unison. White, black, brown, tall, fat, skinny, short, blonde, brunette, blue- and brown- and green-eyed, they turn towards the American flags in their classrooms, left hands behind their backs, right hands on their chests. I pledge allegiance, they begin.
Bambrick High School sits on eight dusty acres in the southern part of town, comprised of white stucco two-story buildings with teal labeling letters in their top-left corners. Nearly three thousand students attend. When the bell rings they pour out of the buildings like coffee overflowing and spilling out of a white mug. Most of Tico Robles’ classes have more than forty kids fighting for desks, chairs, and attention. There are seventy in his freshman gymnasium class: the instructor, a Vietnam vet, has the kids run laps around the perimeter of the school in the scorching late-summer heat. Five kids puke the first day. Tico’s slight frame gives him a great advantage: he runs the two miles in eleven minutes and forty-six seconds, best in the class. Coach, he says, standing alone with the bulky veteran at the finish line as the other kids trot in the distance. Look at these snails I picked up!
The pride of Bambrick High is its sports program. In middle school, Tico bats leadoff for the baseball team, is second on his basketball team in points scored, and captains his soccer team to an undefeated season. At Bambrick, he doesn’t even get past first cuts for basketball. He makes it to the final day of baseball tryouts and then loses three fly balls in the beating sun. The kid can’t catch, the coaches say. He’s too discouraged to try out for soccer. I can’t take three, he says to his mother. Getting cut twice, all right. A third time and I’d lose my mind. His father is home that day, smoking a Cervantes cigar at the kitchen table. That’s bullshit, he says. Tico’s mother has a different response: Why don’t you join cross country?
In no time, Tico can run a mile in less than five minutes. He begins running the three miles to school each day. When the yellow school bus pulls up in front of his house, Tico hands his backpack to George Stringer through one of the bus’s high windows. Running again? the driver asks. Tico nods. He watches the bus disappear around the corner before he takes off.
Each morning, when the small hand of the golden face of her grandfather clock hits ten, Sandra Clarke rises from her sofa to water the roses in her garden, behind her house on Diamond Ave. When this is finished Sandra draws from her pantry a large bag of yellow birdseed. The birdhouses in her backyard stand on wooden posts and hang down from green palo verde branches and they are shaped like windmills, with tiny wooden rotors that blow in the wind. Sandra places a handful of seed in each feeder and then steps back inside. And just as her screen door clicks shut, hummingbirds emerge from the trees. Full of curiosity, they hover in the mild morning air and lap up sugar water from the miniature windmills. Sandra watches them in silence, thinking, there goes another day.
Tico is quiet in class; he makes few friends his first year. On the weekends he runs to the houses that his mother cleans and helps her scrub toilets, wash windows, mop the hardwood floors. Or sometimes he talks to the wives and husbands that live in the nice houses, asks them about their lives, their dreams, their many travels. He thinks he is better at speaking with people older than him than he is at speaking with kids his own age. At school, he befriends a senior on the cross country team, the only other kid who can keep up with him in the one-, two- and three-mile. Isaac Shepard has been the fastest kid in the county for two years running. He’s also one of the most feared seniors at school—a brooding boy with an infamous mean streak and a string of angry exes. As they spend more and more time with each other, as they run ten, twelve, fourteen miles side by side, Tico begins to look up to Isaac, all while realizing his older friend is in a bad way. Isaac speaks of intense drug usage, of different webs of lies he’s built in his social life, of numerous people he’s pissed off. He’s been in two knife fights, has even had a gun pulled on him once. On his left temple he has a marble-sized tattoo that Tico mistakes for a birthmark before being told the story. Isaac says: He held the gun to my head for five minutes. I told myself if I ever got out of there I’d get the tat just to remind me how close it got.
Isaac’s father is dead; his mother waits at the finish line of each race, armed with a cheap Kodak and a couple bottles of Gatorade. After races Isaac takes the Gatorade and strides by her. Tico takes to talking with her: Hi, Ms. Shepard, he says. Good to see you today.
Bambrick comes in fourteenth in Texas for cross country, its highest-ever placement. Tico is eighth overall in the two-mile. The year ends; Isaac graduates and disappears. Tico’s sophomore year comes and goes with no word from him. Junior year passes the same way. Soon Tico meets new friends, finds one girlfriend, dates her for a bit until he finds another. He forgets Isaac Shepard, forgets his oversized bullet tattoo, his mother waiting at the ends of races. Eventually, inevitably, Tico loses touch with his own mother as well, stops accompanying her to the luxurious homes on Diamond Ave, stops showing up around dinnertime. Meanwhile, his father finally disappears for good—leaves for a job and never comes back. The checks he sometimes sends stop coming. When Tico is a senior, his mother says he best not think about college—she couldn’t pay for a tenth of it. But two weeks later a man calls her cell phone. She picks it up in the foyer of Willa Fredericks’ massive golden house. Yes, she says. This is Gloria Robles. The voice on the other end sounds like a melody: its tone goes up, and down, and up and down again. Hi, Miss Robles, it says. This is Lee Sherringham with the cross country team at Rice University. May I speak with your son?
As noon approaches, the homeless men and women of Bambrick gather in the town square. The square is paved with gray stone and flanked by several rectangles of yellowed grass. Surrounding the square are a few blocks of shops and restaurants, selling bumper stickers, t-shirts, coffee, fish tacos. In the square’s center stands an American flag hanging from a silver flagpole and a statue of General Alexander Holton, commander of the American forces that defeated the Mexican army in a small battle ten miles south, in 1833. The homeless men and women drag their carts and backpacks and smoke and shuffle their feet as the sun hangs directly overhead. The streets around the square are empty except for a plastic bag tumbling across the gravel in the wind. The fronts of the shops are old and white and dusty. As the time approaches twelve, the Bambrick homeless huddle around the statue. A homeless woman in a purple shirt and torn jeans examines the second hand ticking around the old leather watch on her wrist. Three, she says. Two, one, noon. All stare at the ground at the base of the statue. Wouldja look at that, they say. Not one damn shadow.
Tico accepts a full-ride scholarship to run cross country at Rice for four years. The day before he leaves he cleans houses with his mother. The next morning he goes outside before she wakes, picks dogwood flowers. He leaves them on the rough kitchen table with a note that says I Promise I’ll Come Back. He drags his bags outside and calls a taxi to the El Paso airport. It is the first time in his life he has been on an airplane. He grips the armrests until his knuckles are white as his plane knifes through the horizon, rising high over the desert floor in a great arc to Houston. When he arrives, life becomes like a movie to him, tinged in technicolor, over-saturated, like a picture with a heavy filter. The grass on the quad looks too green, too bright for Tico’s eyes. The red brick of the buildings, stark against the white-tiled designs around the doorways, call Tico back to the houses on Diamond Avenue, houses that could never be his home. His roommate is from the Czech Republic, a country that Tico has to pretend he’s heard of.
Tico trains every day, running fifteen miles in the leafy neighborhoods near campus, in the busy streets of Houston’s museum district, through parks bordering College Avenue. His favorite trail winds through Hermann Park, home to the Houston Zoo. He does laps around the fences that mark the zoo’s perimeter. He skips past snails that crawl on the concrete paths.
The old black Bambrick mailman finishes delivering mail to the houses on Diamond Avenue in the sizzling heat of early afternoon. Just as he raises the red flag on the final mailbox, the huge iron door of the grand columned house before him swings open, and Lilly Fredericks runs out. She zigzags around a tall stone fountain and waves a bottle of lemonade. Hi Mister Williams, she shouts, look what I brought! The mailman steps onto the cobblestone path that leads to the house, flanked by hedges brimming with ladybugs. He says: Lemonade, lemonade, just like Lilly Fredericks made! Lilly giggles. She tosses the bottle. When she’s back inside the mailman combs through his pocket and fishes out a quarter. He tosses it into the fountain in front of the golden house. I want freedom, he thinks.
It is the summer after his freshman year when Tico realizes he can’t run forever. Back in Bambrick, working for a store selling teacher supplies, he falls seven feet off a ladder and sprains his right ankle badly. The doctors tell him he’s out for the next semester at least. Tico knows he should be devastated, but he’s fascinated by the lines in his ankle that the MRI has revealed. The doctor arches his eyebrows as Tico asks question after question about the injury. Tico is staring at the monitor, examining the tissue, when a middle-aged nurse asks him what he’s studying in school. I don’t know yet, he says. What did you study to become a nurse?
In the fall, sidelined from running, Tico dives into a new set of classes: biology, chemistry, ecology, global health. He’s fascinated by the workings of the human body, its ability to create and recreate itself, its resolve to keep itself alive, its endless networks and neighborhoods. He takes up research in an oncology lab, and begins volunteering in the zoo on the weekends. He’s equally intrigued by animals and ecology: in his class on wildlife anatomy, he gives a presentation on the shells of snails. What did you eat and drink as a newborn? he asks. Perhaps few of you actually remember. Most likely, it was a combination of baby food, milk, and other soft, easily digestible materials. They need to grow their shells soon after they’re born to stay alive, and for that they need calcium. The eggs take around three weeks to hatch. Soon after the new snail emerges, it turns around and eats the shell of the egg that it came from. So the calcium from the eggshell is transformed into a source of calcium for the new shell, which grows around it as it ages. As this happens, its protoconch—or, the pre-shell material that it’s born with—becomes the center of the new, growing shell. Just like we carry our roots with us, just like we remain connected to our homes, the protoconch becomes the cornerstone for the great shell that will protect and preserve its life. As it continues to grow, the whorls of its shell increase—the shell gets bigger and bigger with age, and the spiral deepens, much like the rings at the center of a tree. A snail wears its own history right on its back. And in that history—in that shell—is embedded everything it is and everything it ever will be.
When his ankle recovers, Tico loses all claims to free time. He wakes at five, runs eight miles, goes to class, and then runs four more. He spends his evenings volunteering at the university medical center, following nurses around, speaking with patients. Tico watches surgeries, learns how to administer intravenous injections, follows pathologists as they diagnose. On some days he’s assigned to what the nurses in the mental health ward call acting. Tico, can you act today? they ask. On these days, he removes his scrubs and reads a set of files about each patient he will visit—mostly elderly men and women with dementia and Alzheimer’s, too sick to live in a home. Name: Mary Bingsley. Physical affliction: Pneumonia. Mental affliction: Severe dementia. Notes: Mary will mistake most men for her late son, Jeff. Actor is to ask about her husband, her teaching profession, and the dog, Scruffles. Jeff was a senior research analyst at the Brookings Institute in Washington, D.C, married to Julie (still alive) with son Mark and daughter, also Mary. Actor is to answer all questions from Mary accordingly. The golden rule of acting, Tico learns, is to always let the patient dictate the conversation, to never bring anything up that the patient has not already mentioned. He walks into Mary’s room late one evening; she is thinner than he is, with wrinkles all over, and nearly bald. Jeff, she says, I have waited so long for you to come see your mother. How are the kids?
After the lunch-time rush slows and the bakery begins to empty, Nico Povoni counts his remaining pastries and gathers the bags to take out the trash. He pulls a pad of yellow paper from his pocket and counts muffins, scones, cookies, danishes, croissants, panini, macaroons, cannoli. Then he opens the back door and walks out to the dumpster in the dusty parking lot behind his building. He squints in the sun. A black alley cat runs up to him as he reaches the dumpster and after he tosses the bags in he bends down and strokes it softly.
Spring of his senior year comes, and Tico is accepted to study nursing at the University of Houston. He graduates from Rice on a sunny June day. His mother looks older in a white sweater with her hair tied back. It is her first time at the university: she marvels at its emerald quads. Tico hugs her quickly, takes her to lunch afterwards, in downtown. Over pesto and salmon bruschetta, he runs through his carefully-rehearsed proposal: This is a great town, Mom. What will you miss in Bambrick? Those huge houses? Give me one good reason we shouldn’t live here together. He can tell by her body language what’s coming before he finishes speaking. She shakes her head, says she can’t leave, will never be able to leave.
Tico turns twenty-three, twenty-four, twenty-five. When he finishes nursing school he’s placed as a triage nurse at Houston Methodist Hospital, across the street from the green quads and red-brick buildings of Rice. Soon he is living in an apartment just off campus, running through Hermann Park around the Houston Zoo like he did as a kid. Kid, he thinks. I was a kid back then. I’m not so young anymore.
Three is when they feed the two black silverback gorillas at the Houston Zoo. It is always the same zookeeper who does the feeding and he always walks from the zookeepers’ shed by the stingray pond to the gorilla enclosure in a beige uniform and a blue Texas Rangers ball cap. By the time he reaches the enclosure the gorillas have emerged from the thicket to the large open space near the viewing rail, long arms dragging behind their feet. And I think the zookeeper must be a lefty because each day he tosses the food over with his left hand. The gorillas get one entrée each. The food is brown and solid and it looks like a wooden brick and it must be heavy because the zookeeper takes a couple steps back and gets a running start before he tosses it in. And when the food-bricks land with a thud a small cloud of dust rises around them. But the dust dissipates quickly as the bricks are taken into the sleek silver bodies of the gorillas. And as the keeper walks back to his shed I try to catch his eye so I can give him a nod and maybe even mumble a Go Rangers to him before he disappears.
On the weekends Tico drives over an hour to the state prison in Huntsville, where he offers free medical care to prisoners who have sustained injuries. He’s overwhelmed by the amount of injured he has to treat: men with broken noses, broken arms, gouged eyes. But the work feels fulfilling to him—like giving back, in a way. He becomes friends with one of the prison directors, a harsh ex-military man with a hoarse, raspy voice that never fills out. Frank, Tico jokes to the man upon arriving, did you lose your voice again?
It’s a couple months into Tico’s volunteer work at Huntsville when Frank asks about executions. He calls Tico into his office and speaks in his harsh voice with his hands folded on his lap. Tico, look, man, says Frank. We lost the nurse that used to do the executions. Now it’s real simple, I’m telling you. We’ll put you on payroll, you’ll get a couple hundred per. Now I don’t know your views on any of this shit. Me personally, I don’t like the penalty. But Texas likes it a whole lot. TX, man. Texas executes. Now I’ll tell you the way you’ve gotta look at it. These guys, they’re beyond saving. What’s done in the courts is done. They’re gonna die, one way or the other. So they could have a tough end, you know. I mean firing squad or electric chair. But you as a nurse, you can help us make it easier for them. Just a couple needles and that’s that. I mean these guys, most of them, it’s been so long since they’ve committed the crime, and they get family there, you know, and you want it to be painless. You can say no, no problem. But I just gotta ask.
Tico takes a few days to think on it. He runs laps around the Houston Zoo, dodges snails as they trudge ahead on the concrete paths. He thinks: if it isn’t me, they’ll just find someone else. He thinks: those men are as good as dead anyways. TX, he thinks. Tico executes.
The whistle is blown the minute the sun dips below the Texas horizon, and the twenty-two men stationed around the field are suddenly thrown into motion. The grass on the field is yellow and dusty. The men are simple men, ordinary men, mostly in large basketball shorts and light t-shirts and worn cleats. For the next ninety minutes they will forget about their work, forget about their wives, forget about yesterday, today and tomorrow. They are one with the field, one with the darkening sky, one with the ball that is already bouncing between them, like a silver pinball in an old arcade game.
The first execution is easy. Tico arrives an hour before its scheduled time. The process is simple: a huge dose of pentobarbital to anesthetize. Then a flush, to clean the intravenous line. Then bromide to relax the muscles. Another flush. Potassium chloride to stop the heart. A final flush after that. The room is small, painted white, with a hospital bed in the middle and a few chairs along the walls. There’s a window facing the bed that shows a room with around thirty chairs in four rows. Half an hour before the scheduled time, people start to show up in the room out the window: a few journalists, the family of the victims, the family of the prisoner. Tico doesn’t even know what this prisoner did to deserve his impending death—he doesn’t even know if it’ll be a man or a woman.
When the prisoner comes in, held by four guards, he looks calm, unworried. He declines the chance to make a final statement. A curtain drops over the window. Tico finds a vein, injects the contents of the syringes quickly, watches the eyes of the prisoner shut.
The second execution takes place two weeks later. Tico enters the same room an hour before the scheduled time. He watches people spill into the room through the window as the time gets closer. This prisoner is a tall and lanky man, dignified but visibly upset. He walks with his back straight, loosely held by the guards. He refuses to look towards Tico. As the prisoner lowers himself onto the hospital bed, Tico notices a marble-sized birthmark on his temple—No, not a birthmark, Tico thinks. A tattoo…
There is commotion through the window. A woman is standing up, pointing at Tico, trying to get the prisoner’s attention. Guards emerge from beyond the window and force her down. And then Tico knows, without a trace of doubt, the name of the prisoner on the bed, the man he is about to execute. And he knows that the woman in the window is his mother—Isaac’s mother—watching Tico prepare to perform this execution as she watched him and Isaac stretch before a high-school race.
As the evening deepens and closes in on Texas, millions of children around the state are striding onto their porches and surveying the streets. One by one, they emerge from their houses in Bambrick, in Houston, in El Paso; in Dallas and Fort Worth; in Amarillo, in Lubbock, and in Austin, the capital; in San Antonio, Paris, Arlington, Waco, Corpus Christi; in Plano, in Galveston and College Station; in Huntsville, in Killeen, in Wichita Falls. As their parents scrub the dishes and twist the knobs on their television sets, the children are sprinting across their landscapes, scanning the trees and cars and the tops of neighbors’ houses, searching for one of the only known forms of life on earth that can create its own light: the lightning bug, the firefly. They sparkle the sky. The flashes of light guide the children to their glittering prizes—not so much a bug in a jar, but the search for, and finding of, that kind of wonder that keeps us up at night, that makes us throw off our covers in the morning.
Isaac Shepard’s mother raises her fist just as the curtain drops, covering the window. Isaac’s eyes are closed. His head is down. Tico takes his arm, searches for a vein, thinks of places he could run.
Anthony Cardellini is a writer from Phoenix, Arizona studying creative writing at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina. He is the recipient of Duke’s 2019 William M. Blackburn Scholarship, which recognizes outstanding achievement in creative writing. His short stories have been published or are forthcoming in Silk Road Review and Duke Magazine and his flash fiction has been published in The Drabble.
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