By Luis Martin
“Here comes that white nigger.” My older brother Miguel kept his dark piercing eyes trained on the woman who walked past our car as we sat parked on Main St. by the courthouse.
I watched the woman walk by. She was white from what I could tell, but I now I wouldn’t be able to look at her without thinking that she was also black. In our little town of Neasbitt, Texas, right on the border of Mexico, I had only ever really known Mexican people and white kids at school. At 13, I couldn’t imagine what mixed race really meant. I wondered if she was white everywhere or if the skin we didn’t see might be black as night. She was beautiful and there was something about her that I felt drawn to; like neither of us fit in exactly. Like maybe she would understand how lonely I felt sometimes.
But then she looked up. Her car was parked next to ours and she caught me staring. I looked away. My face flushed with heat. I felt ashamed that she might think I was staring for the same reason my brother stared. I made a point to look straight ahead through the windshield. I prayed she hadn’t actually seen me.
Miquel leaned across me and whistled through the open window. “Hey, lady! You want to meet me later tonight?”
I wanted to crawl under the seat but I was practically pinned under Miguel’s arm. I wanted to tell the woman I wasn’t like him, but all I could do was look away.
When the woman ignored him, Miguel cocked his head and looked at me with his mischievous smile.
“You think you’re all that, don’t you?” Miguel asked.
I didn’t say anything.
“Just you wait, little brother. You’re going to mess up big time and when you do, I’m going to sit back and watch you suffer.”
He slid back to the driver’s side and leaned his elbow up on the side of the door. “Your day will come.”
I didn’t understand why Miguel said these things to me all the time. I don’t know why he would want to see me mess up and suffer. I was just a kid trying to get through middle school.
Miguel had been all over the world already. He was 21 and he had been in the army since he graduated high school. He had seen places and things I would probably never see. I could already see that my life wasn’t going to be nearly as exciting as his had been.
I braved a quick glance at the woman who had finished loading her groceries and had gotten into her car to drive away. I thought about how she had managed to ignore my brother when it seemed like no one else could. Silently I wondered how many children he had. I knew he had two sons who lived with their mother in the next town over. Miquel refused to pay child support and the consequence was that part of what he made as a Walmart warehouse stocker went straight to the mother of those kids. I knew this because he complained about it all the time—like it was the woman’s fault she got pregnant with those kids, so why should he have to pay her?
Miquel never worried so our mother did it for him. Ever since I could remember she seemed resigned when it came to my brother. He did what he wanted and other people had to adjust to him. This was a fact of our lives.
Mama told me that Miquel had never wanted to be held even as a baby. As he got older, his emotions grew colder. He would never come to Mama and tell her he was sorry for anything. She had to go to him and try to work things out.
Miguel’s warning rang in my ears. Did he know about the letter? If I could go back, I would not have opened it. It was addressed to him and I shouldn’t have even looked at it.
It came from the small town in Oklahoma where Miguel had been living before he came to live with us after another failed marriage. I tried to ignore it when I saw Miguel’s name written in feminine handwriting on the front. I knew I should not read other people’s mail. But it practically begged to be read.
I put it on Mama’s old television set in her bedroom. I thought I could ignore it, but it kept calling out to me. Miguel was at work and I knew he wouldn’t be home for some time.
Finally, I decided it was best for all of us if I knew what was inside. I knew Mama would never look and maybe she needed to know. Whatever the letter said, it might affect her too.
I held it in my hands and flipped it over to look at the back. Whoever had written it had kissed it with red lipstick and written SWAK—Sealed With A Kiss—next to the lip marks.
If I was honest, I knew nothing noble is what urged me to open that note. Curiosity was what drove me to it. It’s what pushed my conscience to one side. I thought because it wasn’t actually sealed well that I might be able to get it out, read it, and then put it back like nothing had happened. But it tore at the point where the woman had kissed it. There was no hiding what I had done and I was already in too deep, so I read the letter.
It was from a woman named Maria. She went on about how much she loved Miguel, as if he had somehow convinced her she was the only woman in his life. It was heart wrenching because she was so happy. She was pregnant with Miguel’s child. She was certain it would be a boy. She wanted to name it after his father, after Miguel. Then she wrote with sincerity of her hopes that he would come back to her soon. She was in love with Miguel. She hadn’t yet learned how he treated those that loved him.
I folded the letter and slid it back into the envelope. I sat for a while and tried to picture this woman in Oklahoma. I imagined her alone and maybe a little scared. I saw her as sweet and kind, like the Virgin María. By the time my mother came home from work, I had decided Maria would be a great mother and that Miguel had to go to her and make things work.
But then I saw my mother’s face when I handed her the letter.
“Qué hiciste, mijo? What did you do?” Mama asked me.
All my courage flew out of my stomach and I lied. “Nothing. I…I didn’t mean to open it. I was just opening everything like I do for you sometimes. I didn’t notice it was to Miguel.”
Mama stared at me for a long time. She had to know I was lying. She always knew when I didn’t tell the truth. She took the letter from me—her lips pressed together—but she said nothing.
I had never known what happened to the letter. I figured Mama had known what to do. I also knew that if she chided Miguel, it would be pointless. Even as we sat together in the car that late afternoon, I knew he would never care about Maria.
He leaned his head out of the driver’s side window and whistled at a señorita walking by.
“Mamacita!” He hollered with a smile.
The woman gave Miguel a sideways glance and a coy smile. She walked effortlessly in her high heels and touched her perfect hair as she walked by.
I wanted to jump out of the car and warn her that my brother was not a good man, tell her about the innocent woman in Oklahoma who was pregnant with his child.
But she was caught up in the attention of my brother.
She giggled and nodded when he winked at her and said, “See you later, baby?”
“How can that woman be white?” I asked.
Miguel looked at me like I was crazy. “That woman? She was Latina, man. What are you talking about?”
“The woman before with the groceries,” I said, tilting my head in the direction of the woman who had just driven away moments before.
Miguel nodded then shrugged. “The half nigger? That’s cuz she’s got more white than black. Dude, I don’t know.”
He sat looking out over the hood of the car. A serious, angry look came over his face and he said, “You know them niggers are trying to ruin all of us.”
I just rolled my eyes and looked the other way.
It surprised me when we got home to see the letter from Maria sitting on the kitchen table. It had been a couple of weeks since it arrived and I thought for sure Mama had thrown it away. I guess she was just waiting for what she thought was the right time, though.
“This came for you,” she said, handing the letter to Miguel while setting the table for dinner. She had made Miguel’s favorite enchilada casserole.
Miguel took one look at the envelope and threw it down on the table.
“That’s not for me,” he said. “Must be some other Miguel Sanchez.”
“You didn’t even read it,” Mama said, picking it up again and holding it out.
Miguel took two steps back, like the letter was toxic.
“I’m going out with Ace,” he said. “I don’t know when I’ll be home.”
Mama and I stood in silence in the kitchen. The front door slammed and moments later, I heard the sound of the car peeling out in the gravel driveway.
“You’ll have to help yourself to the casserole,” Mama said, rubbing her temples. “I’m going to bed.”
Luis Martin is a new contributor to Jet Planes and Coffee. He says he incorporates true stories from his life into his fiction so, “to protect the innocent,” he has dropped his last name.