By Ania Payne
In the house behind the chili factory, the living room hung heavy with aromas of poblano, manzano, serrano, and guajillo. A deep breath tickled lungs, nostrils. The house’s adobe-bricked floor cracked and parted, making way for desert grasses. I tried to plant wildflower seeds between the cracks of my bedroom floor, but the flowers never got enough light to bloom.
No amount of sweeping ever removed all of the dirt that blew in through open windows and piled beneath straw-braided rockers. I pirouetted across the cool floor, shedding the dirt from the tips of my toes to the melodies of Brahms and Tchaikovsky, practicing for my after-school dance classes. My mother followed the trails of my twirls with a broom and dustpan.
At night, I lay in bed and stared up at my ceiling, which was lined with a string of Christmas lights, each bulb covered with a decorative rubber chili that was purchased one at a time, in five-cent increments, from the chili factory. As I fell asleep, I counted chilies. For the springtime program at school, my classmates and I had to memorize a song, in Spanish, about the different types of chilies. Chilaca, Pasilla, Chiltepin we’d sing down the hallways. For the performance, I dressed as a habanero and stood on the stage next to a chilaca who got so nervous that he wet his pants, staining a section of his cardboard chili costume a darker shade of green. The urine dripped from the crooked tip of the chili and pooled between his lime-green roller-skating Sketcher shoes. If I’d been him, I would have popped the wheels out and rolled right off the stage.
After school, I often walked down our driveway to the chili factory, perched on a wooden stool in front of the check-out counter, and chatted about my day amidst floor-to-ceiling shelves stocked full of chili pastes and powders, chili t-shirts, plastic chilies that danced when a string was pulled, chili-patterned shoe strings – the types of gifts that always filled my grandparents’ stockings when they came for Christmas visits.
I used my allowance to buy sweet lollipops with ants, crickets, and grasshoppers embalmed inside, licking away their sugary coffins until the tip of my tongue reached the cuspate head of the insect, whose body I bit off in deliberate segments, head-thorax-abdomen-wings. Willy, the chili factory owner, put the University of Arizona basketball game on mute and listened as I proudly announced each freshly-bitten limb, the terms gleaned from my second-grade science class. I’d slurp on picante mango suckers and squeeze the gooey threads of pelon pelo rico tamarind through the top of the plastic tube until my teeth were heavy with orange coating, the foreboding shadows of future cavities. Willy never counted the pile of change I flung on top of the counter. He’d pull at the strings on his U of A hoody, then scoop up the pile and drop the coins into the cash register. Willy always sent me home with free chili pastes and sauces for my mother, calling them “extras” or “leftovers.”
Our front yard was a chili factory and our backyard was the purple Tumacacori Mountains, which were carved with roads and river tunnels. At night, the river tunnels came to life as people fleeing from Mexico crawled through to our Arizonan backyard on hands and knees, carrying children in backpacks to The Land of Opportunity. Sometimes when we were lying in bed at night, we’d hear a child’s shriek through our open windows, or a father’s yell, or a mother singing calming Spanish lullabies about twinkling stars, pretty horses, and amazing Grace. In the morning, we picked up discarded diapers, torn shirts or stained underwear from the yard.
During the day, I waded into the river tunnels with our dogs, wearing my favorite “The Chupacabra is Real!” shirt in an adult size that draped around my ankles. My mother sent me with sacks packed full of tortillas, chilies, beans, chips, blankets, and water bottles to hide in the tunnels and behind Saguaros and beneath desert willows, tasks that left me covered with layers of unforgiving dirt.
When the policemen inevitably pulled into our driveway, faces red, eyes squinting, drooping mustaches, and ponds of sweat stagnant in the folds of their backs, my mother sent me out the backdoor to run into the mountains. I ran barefoot on my callused, desert-girl feet. My shirt snagged as I dashed through bushes, eyes squinting as I tried to make my way through the dimming evening light. I crawled into the mouth of the river tunnel, its concrete walls reverberating with the thuds of the cars passing above, spiders to my left and Gila monsters to my right. I grabbed leftover cans, tied them up in blankets, and shoved them into our rickety metal shed. Unable to find what they were looking for, the policemen left, spitting I know you’re helping the illegals. And you’re going to regret it.
But we never regretted it, and I ran the supplies right back to their spots the next day. In the evenings, my mother and I ate our dinners on the front porch, yelling at our dogs to stop chasing the javelinas, listening to the crunching twigs and padding footsteps of immigrants walking through our backyard, watching the chimneys of the chili factory spew their acrid smoke into the sky as Willy toasted tomorrow’s batches.
Ella’s grandparents napped an awful lot. When we were playing fairyland or doggaland in her grandparents’ yard, dodging through beds of cilantro, heirloom tomatoes, wildflowers, and cacti, I’d try to peek into her grandparents’ windows and see past their thick, dark curtains, because after two years of Wisconsin Summertime friendship, I had never been invited into her house. I fantasized about her grandparents living with closets full of dead bodies, Frankensteinian experiments, or stolen children who came out only at night to plant and tend to their massive garden. I never shared these fantasies with Ella, who was easily angered and enjoyed killing off my dog fairies or magical kittens with sudden sinkholes or accidental falls whenever we were in play world.
One day we were sitting in my dad’s front yard, beneath a tall oak tree that kept dropping leaves into our drinks, as we argued about who the best Disney dog was. As we debated, her grandma leaned out of the front door and yelled, Ella! Come inside and talk to your mom on the phone! When she saw Ella motion I’ll be right back, just stay here, to me, her grandma yelled again, You can come inside too, sweetie! We’ll get you something cool to drink.
I remember resisting the urge to race to the front door. I tried to walk calmly through their front yard, making sure not to stomp on any flower or vegetable beds, worrying that an accidental step on a stem or leaf could get my golden invitation revoked. Outside, the sun was bright, melting the ice in our drinks and dripping strawberry LipSmacker chap stick down the corners of our mouths in a joker-esque fashion. As soon as Ella’s grandma shut the heavy oak door behind us, everything went cool and black. I blinked as my eyes adjusted to the lack of light. The outline of her grandma’s cherry-patterned dress, which hugged her curvy hips, disappeared into the dimness. Come into the kitchen and I’ll pour you some lemonade her grandma’s voice echoed from the other end of the house.
No matter which way I turned, I was surrounded by piles of newspapers dating back to 1944, loose photographs, books about gardening stacked on top of books about vehicles stacked on top of books about World War II, balls of yarn, expired coupons, new coupons, used coupons, fishing hooks, and more. Some stacks reached the ceiling. Something smelled, or, perhaps everything smelled. The air absorbed the smells of these items, and the air conditioner circulated the air through the vents, over and over again, as if deliberately adding to this cycle, as if the house was clinging on to these belongings just as much as its inhabitants were.
To make my way through the house, I had to follow a thin, cleared trail, like something the boy scouts would have whacked through overgrown weedy woods. I ran my fingers along the stacks as I walked, feeling the soft hair of the Asian dolls, knocking a few loose family photographs to the floor, scraping the dust from cassette tapes and old fans between my fingernails, feeling the textures of maps, empty rolls of tape, and wine bottles that appeared as if they’d started to be crafted into something new and potentially usable. I wondered if all of these items were meaningful in someway, like this was a museum of their lives; or if Ella’s grandparents just feared loss – of people, objects, trash, anything – or if these items were arbitrary, simply gathering into piles because her grandparents were too lazy to throw all the junk out. As I turned a corner and entered the dining room, I slipped the plastic tulip ring off of my pointer finger and set it on top of a stack of cracked handheld mirrors.
In the kitchen, Ella’s grandma chatted with me like normal. When she yelled for Ella to come down and sit with us, we heard an upstairs door slam. Her grandma and I sat on bar stools, surrounded by heaps of cookbooks, cooking magazines, phonebooks, babies’ dresses, junk mail advertising discount boats and blenders and dentures. She didn’t say excuse our messy house or sorry about the junk, we just haven’t had time to clean in a while. Instead, she said would you like some sugar with your lemonade? What about a cookie? Both of which I accepted eagerly, because I was always a very hungry child, and I remember the cookie tasting like sweet chocolate and oats, with just a hint of old newspaper, stains on dead babies dresses, and book dust; the lemonade electric on my tongue, with trickles of sweat, stale perfume, and maybe urine, was that urine?
The high school choir director wore pastel suits that stayed crisp, even in the wet heat of the Arkansas summertime. He was unmarried and drove a white Cadillac that always gleamed as if it was fresh out of the car wash, never a smashed bug on the windshield. Friends who took his choir class said they loved Mr. Winns, said he spoke in the most calming voice. He waved soft hands and well-maintained fingernails in the air, keeping the students’ crackling pubescent voices in time with beats of three, four, six, eight, and twelve. He sang the National Anthem at Friday football games.
Mr. Winns preached at the Revival Center Church of God, an African-American church that was known for its expansive Sunday potlucks of ham casseroles, potato salads, French fries, Cajun fries, sweet potato fries, fried chicken, spinach dips, roast beef, guacamole. At church, he spread messages of the Lord, of love and kindness and humanity and the importance of keeping romantic relationships within the range of Adam and Eve.
Bent over lunch hour meals of instant mashed potatoes, thawed broccoli, and rubber ham that bounced onto plastic trays, students often whispered Do you think Mr. Winns is gay? To which, some very devoted Baptist choir member always spat back No! Of course not, he’s just different. Geeze, do you want to go to Hell?
Mr. Winns didn’t drive a muddy pickup or wear tennis shoes with his khakis like Mr. Defir, the history teacher; Mr. Winns didn’t wear athletic shorts to school like the coaches or teach class with stained button-ups like Mr. Gramm, the biology teacher. Somehow, the sloppiness of these teachers made them manly, masculine, real Southern men. They ate messy, saucy meats in the teachers’ lounge, tossed their dishes into the sink without washing them, and talked about that game last night and that deer we shot.
We had a friend, Travon, who became the school’s first male cheerleader, who loved shopping and wearing tight Abercrombie & Fitch shirts and Hollister pants, who said he wanted to be a model when he graduated. He kept his afro short, combed, and fluffy. Travon dated girls from nearby schools one week at a time, changing his Facebook profile picture with each new girlfriend. Whenever we’d ask him why his relationships all ended after a week, he’d say I’m just not that into her, or I don’t know, she texts me too much and wants to go out all the time. Like, I need some space, you know? And, no, ew, I am not gay. You know, I just love that pussy, he’d say, then cringe.
Travon didn’t fit in with the guys who’d show up to class covered in flecks of mud from last night’s mud ride, whose pickups still had freshly dead deer in the truck bed when they rolled into the high school parking lot, who talked about new shotguns and fucking bitches and called each other gay when they were trying to be funny and insulting. He didn’t fit in with his cousins’ clique, who wore baggy blue jeans that pooled at their ankles and flat-brimmed hats with the price tags still on, who smoked Newports, blared the hottest hip-hop songs out of their vehicles. Travon sang Taylor Swift lyrics with my girlfriends and I. He went to our matinee chick flicks, because all Monticello offered for entertainment was a movie theater and a bowling alley. Travon helped us shop for sundresses at Wal Mart and It’s Fashion and Stage. When we got our licenses, he drove with us to go shopping 100 miles away in Little Rock, all the while slurping down Skittles and hot Cheetos, chasing them with gulps of pink lemonade. Travon taught us the great sin of pairing brown tops with black bottoms.
The year after we graduated from high school, Mr. Winns died alone in a jail cell. Mr. Winns had been a secret epileptic, suppressing his disease with prescription pills and sedatives for many years. We had no idea.
We also had no idea that he had been inviting male students back to his house after choir practice, luring them to his bachelor pad, a two-bedroom brick house at the end of a cul-de-sac, his own little House of God, with the promise of a heavenly oxycodone, hydrocodone, or propoxyphene high. The boys lied on Mr. Winns’ living room couch, beneath wooden “God Bless This Home” signs, crosses nailed to the walls, and prayers that had been printed and framed. In this house of Glory and God, Mr. Winns handed the boys each a painkiller that they popped onto outstretched tongues and slid past their braces, down their throats.
Once the boys were high, Mr. Winns slithered closer to them. He’d crawl a hand up their legs, then a tongue, ever so slowly, and take his Eucharist from the boys’ bodies. I don’t know if he loved them and fed them a sobering meal of steamy chicken noodle soups with warm bread afterward, but I do know he invited them over in the evening, close to dinnertime. I don’t know if there were mutual kisses or stolen kisses (the boys said they were stolen, but why did they keep coming back?) or if he lusted after them only temporarily, then sent them, disoriented, to walk back to their trucks with unzipped flies and crookedly buttoned shirts, swerving across the yellow lines back to their homes.
The boys kept this secret for many months. When they finally told their parents and friends, Mr. Winns was arrested and thrown into a jail cell where his cell mates, murderers and thieves who suddenly became holier-than-thou when a “child” molester was added to the cell, may have reached for Mr. Winns in a similar fashion, but took their hands to his body in a way that was not-so-holy, not-so-soft. Teachers who had been friends with Mr. Winns, members of his congregation, and parents of students who had loved Mr. Winns were horrified and they hated, they fag-ed, they spat, and they prayed for his eternal burning in Hell.
At the time this story broke, I was taking a creative writing course at college. The professor, a married man in his 30s, was known for wandering hands. Sometimes, in the middle of student readings at “Word Garden,” he rested his palm on one of his female student’s knees and left it there for thirty seconds or so. Students sitting nearby fidgeted awkwardly in their chairs when he did this, some pretending not to notice, others exchanging disapproving glances with each other. He never crawled his fingers up their legs any farther, and many of the girls were okay with this because they said he’s not harassing us! He only does this because he thinks we’re really good writers. It’s his way of showing affection and friendship. The girls bragged about it at lunchtime or while they were studying in the quad, as if his hand had welcomed them into some secret sexy writer clique. The professor never put his hand on a male student’s knee, or mine. He still works at the college.
When Mr. Winns told the jail wardens that he was epileptic, that he really needed his medications and painkillers, the wardens refused to give them to him. Mr. Winns died mid-seizure in a pool of urine and sweat in the jail cell, his head slamming against the concrete floor until he reached eternal peace, or eternal misery, or eternal silence and nothingness.
That same year after we graduated, Travon, who had moved out of our small town and to the capital city for college, group-messaged us saying that he had recently realized he was gay, and that he was having an affair with a 50-year-old married male doctor, who paid for his silence in Rolexes.
Ania Payne is currently pursuing her MFA at Northern Michigan University, where she is working on a collection of nonfiction essays. She has previously been published in The Rumpus, Foliate Oak, Gravel, Perspectives, Imitation Fruit, The Rusty Nail, and more.
Art: “Latin American Festival” by Michelle Johnsen
Michelle Johnsen (art editor) is a nature and portrait photographer in Lancaster, PA, as well as an amateur herbalist and naturalist. Her work has been featured by It’s Modern Art, Susquehanna Style magazine, Permaculture Activist magazine, EcoWatch.com, EarthFirst! Journal, Lancaster Farm Fresh Cooperative, and used as album art for Grandma Shake!, Anna & Elizabeth, and Liz Fulmer Music. Michelle’s photos have also been stolen by AP, weather.com, The Daily Mail, and Lancaster Newspapers. You can contact her at mjphoto717 [at] gmail.com.