Paul Van Sickle
There was the old joke: go to Artist road for canyons and Canyon road for art. Neither delivered; the only thing they had in common was too much money. A few statues gleamed, backlit overnight, from the galleries as I walked up Canyon road, wondering why for thirty years I always ended up at the same spot. I passed the cold, metallic front of a restaurant that charged sixty bucks for an eight-ounce steak. El Farol glowed beyond, music tinkling down the stairs. Old lanterns swayed above rows of red flowers and a man in a battered hat with long hawk feathers guarded the door. We’d been in high school together, though neither of us clarified whether the other remembered.
The interior buzzed, as if the last two hundred years of laughter still vibrated against the walls. Some tourists were limping through what had to have been a long trail of margaritas. A couple locals and a group of men in shabby suits sat at a corner table. They didn’t seem like tourists, but still, never trust a man in a suit. Two young city types next to me complained about someone I’d never meet. They looked like if you picked two clown outfits out of the worst parts of my high school yearbook: bleachy mullets and drooping color block nylon. They’d adopted some beat up cowboy boots and one had a chunky sterling belt buckle over his slung down overalls. I was lost in the other’s amber ring. It was the size of a golf ball, an ant cast perfectly in its center. I’d come home earlier to a row of white ants guarding my hall and I wanted to know if it looked similar. A hand rested on my shoulder. “Here he is now! Manny and I are the dream team!”
Dave always looked sunburnt, too wrinkled. Messy white hair and shaggy silver stubble. He was a drunk. He was also the voice of Zozobra, the man that howled through a tube into a microphone behind the giant marionette. It took thousands of hours, countless volunteers to bring the fifty-foot tall puppet to life each year. I oversaw it all. The puppet model, and its responsibilities, had been passed to me from my father and passed to him from Zozobra’s creator. Behind Dave were the suited men, who looked ready to leave. “I’ve got the growl,” he said, picking up their conversation, “but Manny here is the brains of the operation. Couldn’t happen without him.”
The businessmen—maybe politicians, if there was a difference—eyed me as they said their goodbyes. “High horses er what,” Dave said, nodding to them as they left.
Dave ordered us both a beer. The bartender set them down along with four shots of tequila. He raised a shot to us. “Que viva, burn him!”
Dave sat and clinked his beer against my margarita. One of the youngsters leaned over, a hopeful finger pointing at the fourth shot. “Hi, sorry, who’s that one for?”
Dave wheezed. “Manny did you here that? Who’s that one for? Will Shuster!”
The kid shook his head, bangle earrings jiggling. “Like from Glee?”
Dave hooted. “How long have y’all been in town?”
They chattered, counting on fingers. Was it so hard to tell? “Six months,” the closer kid said, “Ricky flew in three weeks ago. I’m Brambles. They/them pronouns.”
Dave took Brambles’s hand. “I’m Dave and that’s Manny.”
Brambles waited for our pronouns, dragging out the silence to see if Dave would notice. I didn’t particularly want to talk to Dave or Brambles, so I stayed quiet. Dave slurped down beer. “So you don’t know Will Shuster? He created Zozobra?”
“People keep mentioning that. It’s like Burning Man or something?”
“Y’all part of those new art collectives? I don’t wanna know,” Dave added as Brambles tried to speak, “but you gotta learn our history if you’re gonna sit at this bar. I’d tell you myself, but nobody knows it like Manny does.”
Oh no. I’d just wanted a drink. I came so I could stop thinking about the damn puppet. There was so much I had to do. We hadn’t received any of the fabric, I’d only just begun bracing his—no. There was no point thinking about it right now. No point thinking about the exterminator I might have to call if the white ants were termites. I looked back at Brambles’s ring. The ant did look similar. “I’ll tell you the story,” I said before thinking it through, “if you tell me about that ring.”
Brambles waved it about. “This thing? Bought it on the plaza. Thought it looked cool. This woman had a whole line of them on her rug.”
Damn it. “In nineteen-twenty Will Shuster came to Santa Fe to die,” I began, gathering my thoughts, “A cloud of mustard gas exploded in his trench during the Great War, and he developed tuberculosis. So Will travelled here, looking for his sunset. But mountain air works wonders on the lungs. He recovered. Started painting. The thing about paintbrushes though, is they hold onto a little of everything they touch. Every color leaves its trace, and certain things you can’t wash out. Soon enough it’s all muted. Soon enough, even the sun looks paler. See, the dirt’s also like a paintbrush, and our holy city’s been swamped with blood a few times over. The land was wasting away, dry as chile ristras swaying in the callous wind. Everywhere Will looked, people seemed shrunken. Lifeless. Dust to dust; the desert lays its claim. Even the river dried up.”
“The river always dries up,” Dave butted in.
I silenced him. “The piñon trees fell from the forests, the last yucca fell, and the heat of the summer sun scorched the brows of those it beat into submission. Santa Fe had been sapped of its holiness, the lifeblood of Christ running through the mountains sucked out by Zozobra. As the parched dirt cracked, he’d slipped out: plucking the rain from the clouds, weaving trees and boulders into adobe of his own. Warping the land. He made his home out beyond the horizon, gobbling up stars and twilight, shortening the days. He fed on our anxiety, waiting until we grew plump with dread to harvest for his autumn feast.
“The few who could resist him banded together. Will suggested they appeal to Zozobra’s pride and invite him to the annual fiestas in the plaza. Everyone had forgotten the fiestas were a commemoration of a massacre; Zozobra wouldn’t be able to resist himself. They drafted a letter, and Will climbed the mountain husks to deliver it. He searched the lightning stitching through the black sky, the scaly flesh of dead reservoirs. One night, as Will slept in the carved out socket of a cave, he heard grumbling. The grumble grew to an absolute roar of fury. Will gazed out, struck by what he had mistaken for moonlight. When he looked up, he was met with the sick glow of two incandescent eyes. Zozobra towered over Will, skin the color of cataracts. His ears curved to horrible points, his mouth wide enough to swallow the moon. His hair swirled like choking vines as he pointed down a finger thick as an obelisk. The fury of his growl swept the letter up from Will’s jacket, and Zozobra pinched it between two black talons. The awful yellow eyes scanned the document, and with a bellow Zozobra disappeared back to the darkness.
“The night of the fiestas arrived. There were no flowers left to wear, no crops to eat. People gathered what they could. Mariachis played somber dirges. Only the children ran through the square, too young to be affected by the decay. Up beyond the horizon, Zozobra was preparing. He fastened three colossal buttons into place on the fine robe he’d sewn from tarantula webs, adjusted his volcanic black bowtie, and snapped in cufflinks hewn from the oldest trees. He wanted to look his best as he harvested the destruction he’d wrought. Howling down the countryside, he pointed an accusatory finger at the city, the shadow of his hand shading the entire plaza. All who gazed upon him were trapped by his magic. He cast a spell over the children, changing them to mindless ghouls. Will and a small group of resisters faced the behemoth with torches. He cackled at the torchbearers, the boom of his voice forcing them to their knees. But a spark caught. Whether willed by the anger of the wind or summoned by Will and the torchbearers, a wisp of flame licked itself into existence. The flame grew, dancing to Zozobra’s white tarantula silk robe. His bellows turned from triumph to fear. The children were released from his spell. He grasped for the people, looking for gloom to gorge upon. Great skeletons of smoke hung in the air as Zozobra was swallowed by flame. At once the light returned to the sky, color came back to faces, and the mariachis struck up a joyous tune. All the city’s gloom burned away with Zozobra and the people rejoiced once more in their fiestas. But Zozobra’s ashes mingled with the desert dust. Every year, he gathers enough power to return, and every year we burn him away with our regrets and our sin.”
Brambles gulped down at Will Shuster’s ceremonial shot. Dave burst into nervous laughter. “Told ya! Nobody says it like Manny says! Really, Shuster just made this huge puppet. Sixty-feet! He’s filled with firecrackers and people write down things they want to disappear. Everyone gathers in Fort Marcy Park. That baseball field? It’s just past that church that looks like Pepto-Bismol. Anyways, eighty thousand people cram into the park and we light the puppet up. ‘Bout a month from now. Been doing it over ninety years.”
Brambles took out a wallet, put cash down, dragged Rickie towards the door. Dave sucked at his beer. “These new types prance around, no respect.”
“They’re just kids.”
Dave kept talking, drinking his beer. I sucked a little at mine, until Dave mistook it for his. The room started to empty. “Well,” Dave said, “guess we better mosey.”
We left and I started walking down towards my old Chevy. The only folks left on the streets now would be Texan tourists dipped in turquoise; trying their best to disappear into the memory of some cowboy film from their childhood. “Hey,” Dave called, “I’m good to drive yeah? You think? Hey Manny, you think so?”
Of course he wasn’t. “No Dave. Can you call a car?”
Of course he couldn’t. He followed after me like a stray dog. He did everything like a stray dog. Smoke from a dying forest fire clung to the city. A cuticle moon pressed down against it. The river was running; the old Santa Fe trickle. We got to my truck and he heaved into the passenger seat. Dave lived out on the south side, in a housing development that had been dirt fifteen years earlier. The houses were hideous cookie cutters piled about cul-de-sacs with names like Whispering Eagle and Sacred Tomato. Places for rich people from the Midwest to retire. I preferred the dirt.
He lived far enough out that it was faster for me to get on the interstate for a spell than deal with traffic lights or drag races on Airport Road. Dave never stopped talking, but I found if I nodded along I could focus on the road. I glanced out my window. It felt like every time I got on the highway there were more new buildings. They sprawled across both sides of the interstate now. I wondered if it would ever cease.
Dave prodded me. “Those men. Hope you don’t mind. I gave them your number.”
“Dave, I don’t care. Let’s just get you home and then—aw fuck!”
We were being pulled over. Of course we were. I instructed Dave to keep quiet. That shaking anger rose inside me, deeper than hatred. I got it every time I saw the police. The officer approached. He looked over my info, retreated to his car. We sat for what could have been five minutes or thirty. “I pulled you over because you were speeding,” he said, “now neither of you would have been drinking tonight?”
I knew we weren’t speeding. My truck bucked and made a noise if it went over seventy. I had yet to find a mechanic who could tell me why. I also knew the officer’s face. It brought the anger to my throat. “My friend has,” I said, hoping my voice was flat, “that’s why I’m driving him home.”
“And where’s that?”
“Those homes off Dinosaur Trail. Can never remember the name of the street.”
We went in circles. He kept asking the same questions in different ways, verbal karate trying to chop through something that wasn’t there. He returned to his car and came back, asked me to get out. “Am I under arrest or am I free to leave?”
Bad idea, but I knew my rights. He held up a breathalyzer. “Depends.”
I got out of the car. He had me walk along the line of the highway; kept asking questions he already knew the answer to. I wanted to ask if he knew who I was, if he remembered my brother. I wanted to kick him in his paunchy steroid-riddled gut. If I said no to the breathalyzer, he could arrest me without question. I blew all my hatred into the machine. “Ho ho,” he gurgled, slimy, “point O nine. Just over the legal limit.”
“Hey pendejo! You didn’t calibrate it,” Dave yelled from the car.
I admired Dave’s guts for maybe the first time. The officer, more out of surprise than anything, fiddled with the device and had me blow again. “Point zero seven. Get back in your car. You’re not free to go yet.”
Would he rather Dave was out driving? I swear, if he took me in… The officer returned. “I’m letting you go with a ticket for the speeding. You head straight home.”
I shot off back onto the road. “You weren’t speeding,” Dave said.
“No shit. You know who that was, right Dave?”
Dave shook his head. “Remember my brother, who got shot out in Albuquerque? Officer Baca back there’s the fucker that did it.”
“The permit’s going to look different this year. With all the pipes that bursted—”
City hall looked like a dingy penny. It was about as useful as a dingy penny, too. The meetings with park services felt like a bad sitcom. The councilors and commissioners fanned about like fat old turkeys, neck flaps wobbling above blocky ties. Every year it was more permits, a higher budget. They’d subsidized Zozobra for years so they could write themselves stipends. They didn’t care we ran a charity, that the profits went towards education. Zozobra meant more tax money they could suck the marrow from.
Every year sat through calls with uppity people just moved in from the east coast, explain that this was a tradition older than they were. Talk them down about the noise when I wanted to give them a solid slap. Authorities were always trying to reroute traffic, bottleneck the crowd. The city had killed more people through its incompetence than drunks at Zozobra ever might. But still I smiled, scratched at the mole on my back while staffers contradicted each other, filled out the forms. If it ain’t broke, I always murmured, don’t fix it. Not that they fixed the broken things either. The most the city ever gave was a bit of pandering followed by crocodile tears when we said it wasn’t enough.
When at last I was allowed to walk out into the smooth white gravel for air, we were still way behind. It was chilly, and a clotted mass of storm clouds burgeoned over the mountains. The wind had finally pushed the smoke out of the city.
I followed the black bricks on Marcy Street to the plaza. Pots of flowers swayed from thick iron streetlamps with lights like full moons. There was the pink and turquoise fajita cart. The square jammed up with people eating ice cream, ogling each other, shepherding children or members of their tour group. The cottonwood leaves were just starting to change and a couple chrome low-riders belched smoke from their exhaust pipes as they rocketed towards the cathedral. Teens ignoring the signs that said to keep off the dead, yellow grass whooped at the cars. Musicians unrolled cables in the bandstand. I wanted to stick around for them, but if somebody recognized me I wasn’t sure I could hold a conversation. City hall had more than filled my quota for bullshit.
I walked toward the chestnut columns of the sandy palace of the governors, where vendors from the pueblos sold jewelry laid out on woven blankets beneath the vigas. I usually didn’t pay them much mind; everyone I knew who used to vend had packed up and left. I also didn’t want to distract anyone from a potential customer. If I were looking for jewelry, I’d go to them before ever setting foot in one of the plaza shops. The same three crooked merchants owned half of them, and locals only knew these merchants for getting into gunfights and suing each other. Still, everybody said the town would fall apart without tourism. More and more I felt willing to take the risk.
Ants! I’d been so caught up in my thoughts that I almost missed the blanket of amber rings with their trapped insects. It took me another moment to remember Brambles’s name, though no doubt this was where they’d gotten their ring. I looked at a scorpion, a small mantis. A few centipedes. All the ants I saw were red. Behind the rings were kachina dolls. They looked Hopi. “If you want prices for anything, let me know.”
The voice came from behind me. Its owner was dressed in deep black velvet. Her honey colored eyes peered from big, blocky glasses. “Hi, I’m Manny,” I coughed, “someone I met bought a ring from you. It had a white ant in it.”
She nodded. “I’m Elva.”
“Are there more of those white ants? Or do you know where they come from?”
She shrugged and sat in her grey canvas lawn chair. “The amber comes from all over. I think I remember the ring you’re talking about. Big ugly thing.”
She noticed that her response surprised me. “I can talk about my art however I’d like. The tourists like big ugly things. Big ugly things cost more. Easier to make, too. Now, half this job is people watching and I’ve been doing it a long time. You’re no tourist and you’re not here to buy anything.”
“I’ve been seeing white ants in my house. I was hoping you knew what they were, or where they came from.”
“Sounds like a termite problem.”
I shook my head. “I put termite traps out. Dealt with them before. I’m telling you these are ants.”
She looked out on the plaza. “Termites eat from the inside out. Destroy the structure of a thing, then it crumble. Can you afford an exterminator, what do you do?”
“I’ve got a guy, yeah. I’m the Zozobra production manager.”
Elva spat on the ground. “Fiestas. Idiots celebrating the death of my ancestors.”
I was part of the team that got rid of the Entrada—the parade of conquistadors and fiesta queens reenacting the Spanish conquer of Santa Fe after the pueblo revolt. I’d also worn the crested silver helm and cape of Don Diego De Vargas in the Entrada when I was younger, so it felt moot to bring up. But Zozobra started as an antireligious protest against the fiestas. The whole point was to include everybody. “Will Shuster called it a scene from a fairytale of our own making,” I finally said.
Elva pouted. “Whoever makes the fairytales chooses the monsters too.”
“Well, Zozobra is the big ugly thing I make. And I can promise you you’re not my monster. These white ants though!”
“Can’t help you there.”
A tourist was looking at one of Elva’s kachina dolls. I took my leave. “Zozobra means anxiety in Spanish,” she called after me.
The exterminator held up a grain of rice. “Like this?”
He didn’t really think I’d been seeing rice all over the house? “No, they’re about that size though. More translucent. What’s the word, when they glow?”
He shrugged his shoulders, continued filling in holes I could have done myself. He was new to town. I’d tried to get in touch with my usual guy three times. No luck, so here we were with caulk and Spackle. He’d sprayed something around the house, checked the traps I set up, looked all over for termite damage. And now I was running late. He kept talking, trying to sell me clove oil. “Okay,” he finally said, “Well, I’ve gone through everywhere. We treated the lawn, sorry about the rosebush by the way. I’ve filled everywhere they might be coming from, but I don’t see evidence of termites. Now, here’s what you owe me, it’ll be more if you want a full fumigation of the walls. You should be thankful. I was at this place a week ago. Do you know what Jerusalem crickets are?”
Thankful? The bill was triple what it should have been, and he’d taken twice the time. “We call them children of the earth.”
I showed him out, locked up behind me. He was still talking about the children of the earth, how horrible their bites were. I looked over the rose bush he’d trampled. A hummingbird moth flitted by, all stripes and whirring. I hoped whatever the exterminator had sprayed wouldn’t kill it. I followed him out of the driveway, trying—as I had all week—to banish the ants from my mind.
Today was the first day we were accepting gloom from the city. We put out gloom boxes at banks and the schools. We even held a couple days where we took donations in person. Medical records, divorce papers, parking tickets, wedding dresses. We stuffed them all inside Zozobra, to be burned with the fifty-foot marionette. I was mad I’d left the speeding ticket and the exterminator’s bill behind.
A small tent was set up at Fort Marcy Park. I eyed the weird zodiac mural painted on the gym as I walked from my car. I was an Aries, according to an ex who’d gone to see Sister Rosa before we split up. It was hot, though the clouds were already threatening an afternoon downpour. Out on the grass, Gloria sipped one of those mega gulp soda cups from the gas station. She had a rusty, dyed ponytail. Her face was smooth, apart from deep lines below her lips and her cheap tortoiseshell sunglasses. She wore a wide denim skirt with a hoodie tied around it. I waved. “Is there coffee?”
Gloria held up her mega gulp and shook her head. Her sister was the fire dancer: a former ballerina who leapt and twirled torches in front of Zozobra before finally lighting the puppet ablaze. The role embodied hope, which also happened to be her name. Hope and I had been lovers once, before she moved to Albuquerque and starting fucking my brother. When Zozobra came around, I’d written both of their names on the wedding invitation they’d sent and added it to that year’s gloom. Zozobra went up in flames and six months later cops shot my brother in the back without explanation or charges and Hope and I avoided each other no matter how many times I scrawled Officer Baca’s name across Zozobra’s innards. Gloria, her sister’s opposite, seemed to be my punishment. She helped out sewing Zozobra’s robe, coordinated with the fireworks team. Everywhere I went she inevitably appeared. “Sorry I’m late,” I sighed, “exterminator.”
“Yeah,” Gloria snorted, “you look like crap.”
We passed the day in silence. The heat never let up and the clouds thinned back down to the dirt without so much as a thunderclap. Gloria leafed through a tabloid, something with glossy paper from a grocery store check out line. I didn’t recognize faces or names, but the headlines were always the same. Slim your belly in three weeks. Bikini stretch marks tell of secret divorce. Princess’s wedding ring found in valet’s stomach after submarine honeymoon. I wanted to chuck it into the gloom box on principle, but my phone buzzed. “Hey, Manny? This is Jesse Padilla. I saw you called a couple times.”
“Jesse, yeah. Why didn’t you pick up? I had to call another exterminator. Did a shit job and charged too much, so I might need you to come out anyways.”
“Oh, well I had to move. Back in Las Cruces now.”
I could almost see him slouching his shoulders. “Shoot, hope everything’s okay?”
“Got evicted. Couldn’t keep up on the payments for the business, started falling behind on rent. I was in one of Tio Coco’s buildings, right around Second Street. Fucker kept trying to raise the cost so he could start renovating for white people. Two years and I didn’t recognize a thing. Probably looks different now from when he kicked me out.”
I wasn’t sure what to say to the kid. Tio Coco was the nickname we’d given to one of the Santa Fe fat cats. His name popped up enough that it was hard to talk about what a jackass he was in most company. As close to the bogeyman as I’d ever met, just enough charitable donations that we all had to suck up and tell him what a good boy he was as he funded politicians to gerrymander and write up laws and appoint judges. If given the option, I’d chuck him into the gloom box too.
I let Jesse go. During the course of our conversation I’d walked to the edge of the arroyo separating the park from the baseball field where Zozobra was burned. No water in the ditch, just great evil roots thrusting from the dirt where dead leaves collected. Rusted out chicken wire strained to keep granite boulders in place above dried out weeds flattened by the last flash flood. Even this late in the summer, purple wildflowers grew between the rocks. I kicked an old bottle cap down to the riverbed. The shadows of branches flickered like oil in a puddle. This was where the ashes of the puppet ended up each year, this sorry ditch collecting the remains of Old Man Gloom once we were done shouting Burn Him! This gash in the park we stitched up with bridges, the dusty mouth of dread. “Hey Manny, you okay? News is here, if you wanna say something.”
The arroyo was calling. I had that hazy sense of something old, peripheral. Something my body regretted dismissing despite my brain calling me away at once. “Alright, I’m coming.”
A cameraman was setting up light boxes even though the sun still baked the faded grass around us. I peeped around the antennas and dishes of the news van. They looked like surveillance from a sci-fi movie, the people trying to cover up an alien landing. Once the chipper newscaster walked out of the van, it was the same boring questions they asked every year. All the things I wanted to say waited for me back in the soft black rocks of the arroyo. I focused on her coral lipstick, on the unblinking red eye of the recording camera, on Gloria’s jokes. Anywhere except the swelling moths dive-bombing my stomach, this churning paranoia. “Now Manny,” the anchor said, “we know this is your twentieth year handling Zozobra, a responsibility your father held before you.”
I could never find a good answer. “That’s right.”
“Family,” she emphasized, nodding, “so is there any advice you’d give for the folks who are new to town or the children who haven’t come before?”
My focus was still expanding, stretching over the sky and looking down on the city. Cameras made me feel ten feet outside myself. “Umm, yes. There’s been a lot I know we’d all like to burn away this year. Let’s hope that whatever remains is what we really need, what we cherish.”
The anchor turned her back on me. “Well there you have it folks. The organizers will be collecting all that gloom right until the day Zozobra goes up in flames. You can buy tickets and merchandise now from our sponsors…”
Someone pulled up behind the van, a rusted out truck that made my beat up Chevy look new. Elva hoisted herself down from the front seat and pulled a sack from the bed of the truck. She waited until the news van left to approach. “You done for the day,” she called, “I’ve got something I’d like to be burned.”
Gloria muttered something. Her tone sounded dismissive. My unease dissipated back to the riverbed as I waved Elva over. “Of course,” I called, “I would have chatted longer the other day but I didn’t want to keep you from your customer.”
Gloria slurped at the end of her soda, suction blotting out whatever Elva said as she reached the tent. “Have you gotten a lot,” she asked, pointing at the gloom box.
“Not as much as we need if we’re going to turn this year around. Usual loan deferrals and taxes. A guy came waving this stack of a thousand pages, said it was a novel he was giving up on. Don’t suppose you learned anything about the white ant?”
Elva shook her head. “Not unless they’re termites.”
Gloria had reached the end of her tabloid. “What tribe are you from?”
Elva either didn’t notice venom in Gloria’s voice or didn’t give a damn. “Hopi.”
Gloria slurped again at her empty soda. “Isn’t there a Hopi story about ant people? Learned about it on the history channel. That show about aliens.”
I massaged my brow. “Anything worth mentioning?”
Elva sighed. “My generation didn’t get a chance to learn much. Assimilation schools. I knew how to write in cursive before I even considered we might have a history. The ant people taught us how to build into the dust. They saved our ancestors when the world was reshaped by fire.”
Elva lifted her sack, and a dun colored robe tumbled out of it onto the table. One of the sleeves fell into my lap. I spied a blazing sun, surrounded by red maze patterns snaking around the cuff. I held the garment up, surprised by its heft, and saw three bullet holes and a large bloodstain browned by time. I threw the robe down and grimaced at Elva. “If my daughter were still alive, she could tell you more about the ant people. Most of what I know I learned from her.”
Why did I feel shame? I had no part in this. Gloria’s eyes were glued to her phone. The sound of the children playing in the park drifted between us as Elva and I stared at each other. “ Can I ask what happened?”
“She got in with some activists. Went up to North Dakota to be a water protector, felt we all had to do our part to fight against the pipelines. They’d formed a human chain around some tractor, all in clothing from their tribes, and the feds opened fire.”
My thoughts, of course, went to my brother. “Don’t they need this as evidence?”
Elva’s scoffed. “Your government’s never needed evidence to murder us.”
We both rolled the robe back into the sack. Gloria fanned herself. “I’m sorry. We may have to confer with the cops on this one. Don’t know whether we can add something like that to Zozobra.”
“How is this different than a wedding dress?”
Gloria looked out into the distance. “I’m just saying.”
Elva snatched the sack from the table and marched back towards her truck. It took me a second to follow after her. “Hey!”
She turned, jabbing a finger into my chest. “You said we weren’t your monster.”
“I…look. The police murdered my brother for no reason other than that he was present. Wrong place, wrong time. A daughter’s different but I know what you’re feeling. One of the laws of Zozobra is that we can’t disclose to anybody what goes into the puppet without their permission. You want this burned; I’ll make sure it happens.”
She clung to the sack and met my eyes. I knew that emotion. When the anger ran out there was sadness, and when the sadness was gone something hollow replaced it. But that was the beauty of all of this. We took those holes, all the vacant spaces our losses stab into life, and gave them to Zozobra. He was made up of the hollow, of lack. Zozobra returned a little bit of feeling to those moments we let shrivel before he was burned away. Elva winced over towards Gloria and then gave me the sack. “I do know one thing about ants,” she said, “there are more bugs in every square mile than there are people alive in the world. What I can’t decide is if that makes me feel bigger or smaller.”
There was nobody I had more respect for than truck drivers. It was a thankless, taxing job. I knew guys who drove for twenty straight hours, sipping energy drinks laced with amphetamines just to get a load delivered on time. It sounded unsafe to the casual ear, but the casual ear had no clue that this was the norm, that these drivers were taken advantage of and held to unattainable standards same as all of us. And the casual ear had no idea what it meant to drive for two days straight, nonetheless to drive thirty tons of steel and hazardous cargo through the unforgiving loops of city freeways, the mindless banalities of America’s crops. There were fewer drivers and more loads every year.
Ronnie had owned his semi for twenty-six years, and they had taken their toll. He’d been a pack a day kind of guy as long as I’d known him, joked the cigarettes kept him slim. He hobbled when he wasn’t in the driver’s seat, his neck as curved and stooped as a flamingo. He was the tannest person I’d ever met, with hair the color of a nicotine stain. Today he had a bushy mustache and a few days of stubble, but I’d seen him clean-shaven and I’d seen him with a ruddy beard down to his paunch. Ronnie was the only person whose company I never minded: the most genuinely calm, charming, and funny person you could hope to meet. “Thank god for that,” he’d said when I told him, “amount of time I have to spend with myself this job would really suck if I were an asshole.”
We were driving the hour back into town from Albuquerque with all the milled lumber, chicken wire, and fireworks that I needed for Zozobra’s frame. It might have been possible to fit it in my truck if I did a few trips, but I didn’t like driving with explosives and it would eat up so much time. Ronnie didn’t mind travelling with a light load. He took time off from his usual runs every year to help me out, and would stick around until the full fifty-foot puppet was strung up from his pole in Fort Marcy. “Oh, Budaghers,” Ronnie said, pointing at a sign, “you ever been out there?”
“No, what’s out there?”
He snapped along to his music. “Just a dusty old pillar to some Mormons who shot up the place during the Mexican American war. Small, as pillars go, but they probably modeled it after Brigham Young’s pecker so that makes sense. Funny word though, Budaghers. Woops, get ready!”
We passed a school bus and Ronnie tooted his horn the whole way past for the children flipping us off through the windows. “Ah, gets me every time. Did you see how angry their teacher got? That’s what does it for me when it’s a school bus. Gotta teach these kiddos to rebel while they’re still young.”
The whole trip was uphill. We passed a casino and I watched the thunderstruck mesas turn into a forest of dead, brambly trees in a dried out stretch of land flattened by glaciers. Ronnie cracked jokes; sipped from a large thermos I’d never seen him without. He knew I was okay with him smoking as long as the window was open, so there was a stretch of silence where he smoked as the wind flailed at the semi. We passed a blue radio tower and Ronnie started pointing out features again. It was strange: as often as we’d made this trip, he was never at a loss for new topics. “Hey,” he said, “Do you know when they stopped decorating all those little pine trees? Remember they used to have Christmas ornaments all year round?”
“Those were memorials, to people who got hit by drunk drivers.”
Ronnie frowned, and then regained his smile. “Well, my parents lied about Christmas twice then. Hey, at least there’s no gifts for your family’s holiday. How’s Zozo going this time around?”
We reached the outskirts of town, those ugly buildings that popped up further out every time you blinked. “Every time I try to start, there’s something else in the way. Three weeks out and I’m not even ready for half the volunteers who show up.”
“Well you know you didn’t have to come with me. I could’ve got everything myself and just dropped it off for you. Jerky?”
Our ride was the first part of the experience this year that felt right. I told Ronnie so and we both submitted to chewing beef jerky in silence. He made it himself, some secret spice blend he’d been perfecting longer than I’d been building Zozobra. Once we finished chewing, Ronnie slapped my shoulder. “Have you ever had puttanesca?”
I shook my head. “It’s this Italian pasta sauce. Means little prostitute, because it has capers. Or because it’s easy, I can never remember. It’s great though, really briny. Crushed tomatoes, garlic, hot pepper, capers, olive, and anchovies. Everything in it’s sorta pickled from the start, preserved. Like you’re bringing these long dead vegetables back to life. It’s Frankenstein sauce, is what I’m saying. People either hate or love these bitter ingredients, but when you put them together it’s magic. Anyways, this guy I used to date always made me puttanesca after a long haul. We started using it as a verb. Bring together a bunch of unlikely bits and bobs, and if it works they’re puttanescing.”
“Well all I can say is Zozobra better puttanesce fast.”
“The slow cook’s what makes it good. But you’ve done this a million times; it’ll be a piece of cake. Everyone always says starting is the hardest part.”
We rolled into town, rolled the truck into the work warehouse, and rolled the chicken wire through the service bay door. Of all the people I was expecting to be there, Dave was not among them. “Hey Manny, you should come to your office.”
Ronnie set down a bale of chicken wire. “What’s up Dave? Something wrong?”
Dave offered an uneasy shrug. I told Ronnie to keep unloading as Dave led me through the warehouse to the ramshackle walls that had been put up to constitute my “office.” There were two men wearing suits outside the open door, and I could hear voices inside. I thought back to the men Dave was with before I’d driven him home. Had he said he gave them my number? Dave retreated back to the service bay and helped Ronnie bring things in. Coward without his booze.
The suited men both nodded as I approached. A furious shudder worked from my ass all the way into my scalp as I saw who was inside. Officer Baca and the police chief were murmuring to each other, and behind them was Tio Coco himself: all smiles and hand gestures. He wore a turquoise ring on his left hand, creamy slacks, boating shoes, and a white linen shirt with a few of the top buttons undone to appear casual. There was no hair on his chest. I could tell he’d had work done on his face, but couldn’t place what. There was something too round about his cheeks, too sculpted in the tendons of his neck. Somehow his nostrils flaring above his thin little mustache were the only feature of his face that looked normal. The salt and pepper hair was definitely dyed. He brought me in for a handshake that turned into one of those awkward single-armed hugs and I smelled patchouli and sandalwood. “Here he is, the man of the hour. How are you Manuel?”
I crunched his smooth little hand right where the tendons connected to his fingers. “I don’t know you,” I said, though we both knew we’d met once or twice.
“I’m sure you’ve heard my name. I’ve certainly heard of you my friend.”
I glared at Officer Baca. What was their scheme? “My friends call me Manny.”
Tio Coco turned to the police. “Officer, could you wait outside while your chief and I talk things through with Mr. Torrez here?”
Officer Baca left. Tio Coco moved to take the armchair I’d found in the warehouse some ten years earlier instead of a beige fold up chair. I blocked his path with my arm and sat down. He chuckled, and I hoped that his bones betrayed his age more than his face as he crumpled himself into the folding chair. “Some of my associates have been talking with Dave about Zozobra. He said you were the man Mr. Torrez. The chief’s been telling me about how they set up their perimeter around the show. Since it moved back to Friday night, well Zozobra’s been getting bigger and bigger.”
“Rowdier,” the chief added with a nod.
Tio Coco shifted in the chair. I knew from experience how bad this batch was, more than ten minutes and you’d be walking funny for a week. I moved to my mini fridge and pulled out a beer. “More and more people keep coming to town,” I said, cracking it open, “more and more people are going to show up to city events.”
The chief fidgeted, watching my beer. I knew from a friend that he was a heavy drinker, and that it was just about his best trait. Tio Coco smiled. “Well the more the merrier. But that’s kind of our problem here. Zozobra’s getting a bit too merry. We—”
“Be weird if it weren’t merry. That’s kind of the point.”
The chief bit his lip. Tio Coco scratched his head and adjusted himself in the chair again. “Sure, well anyways. We have a plan to keep everything a little more in check. Just to make sure it’s safe, of course.”
I took a long drink and I swear the chief licked his lips. “You’re telling me you don’t want people to be happy?”
The chief stood up. “No, no. Of course not. We just want them to be…”
Tio Coco pressed his fingers to his temples, did some sort of breathing exercise. The chair was working. “My house is just up the hill from Fort Marcy,” he said, “on Artist Road. I watch with some friends if we’re in town. My neighbors get concerned. I own a couple buildings on the plaza and my renters…well they dread it every year. There’ve been stray fireworks in the past. We know that. People are starting fights. Everybody just gets so fired up. So we want to go over one or two changes to make sure it’s all as safe as can be.”
“And why didn’t the chief bring these changes up during our meeting last week? Why aren’t we talking about this over at city hall?”
I was halfway through the can of beer. Tio Coco had been sitting in that chair for more than enough time to feel it in the morning. We all knew the answer to my question was that whatever shady shit they were trying to pull here meant a bargain. I sipped my beer. “Okay, look,” Tio Coco blurted, “just hear us out. You really only have to change one thing. You can keep the whole show the same; it won’t affect you at all. We might even be able to cut you in on the receipts if you’d like. So here’s the deal: Less people, same profit. To cull the crowds, double ticket prices. The people who do come will be a little more civil. We’ll up the police patrols too, just to keep an eye on the riffraff.”
I exchanged a glance with the police chief. We both knew, to my chagrin, that their entire force worked the event. I was of the opinion there shouldn’t be tickets at all, or police. They only made everything people complained about worse. Tio Coco stood up. “Of course, Officer Baca informed us you were driving drunk the other night.”
So it was blackmail. Do this or get points off my license, maybe end up with a prison sentence. Tio Coco had enough of the courts in his pockets it was possible. I finished the beer, crushed the can between my hands and let it fall to the floor with a clank. I left the office and locked eyes with Officer Baca. He smirked, standing in that stupid cop stance with his thumbs in his belt. I summoned all the saliva I could and spat at his feet, walking over to the model for Zozobra’s frame. “Hey Ronnie,” I called, lifting the model from its stand, “wanna give me a lift home?”
“Sure thing, what’s going on Manny?”
I explained the situation I’d left behind in my office, noticing Dave sitting in a corner like a dog after it shat the bed. I grabbed Ronnie as I felt Tio Coco’s arm on my shoulder. “Listen Manny, we can—”
I jerked the arm away. “It’s my way or not at all,” I bellowed across the warehouse, “I am Zozobra and you fuckers deserve all the gloom you can get!”
The ants were nocturnal. As the nights spread into a week, I named them after my problems, yelled down searching for their reaction. They glowed against the ponderosa floors. Bugs, I decided, may as well be ghosts: floating around chandeliers, walking through walls, disappearing when the light switch flipped. Invisible in the shadows, they came sucking for blood, spoiling food, lurking in the drains. They brushed against us in our sleep, dragged corpses down the hallway. As they swarm through our periphery it’s easy enough to forget: bugs, like the dead, outnumber us all.
The voicemails piled up faster than the dishes. I silenced my phone, unsure if it had died or if it was still blinking its stupid little notification lights. I saw nothing on the news about Zozobra being canceled, which meant they must have been trying to do it without me. There were times—when my liquor cabinet began to run dry, right before I found a reason to get out of bed—that I considered giving in. Who was I to condemn the city to its anguish? How did that make me different from the police or the politicians, the transplants or Tio Coco? Was I not, in denying the city its pagan rite, causing the same evil they were? Then there was the other hand. What really made a tradition if not the people? The city had been showing me for weeks that it was all the wrong people, all the wrong reasons. After a hundred years where did this place me, his herald? Perhaps the only thing left to do was to let tradition die, let Zozobra live.
Dave came to apologize, wasted as a garden snail drowning in beer. Gloria did her best to break through my door, blow the house down, knock me on my ass if I didn’t come to my senses and help her. We could turn it around, they implored. The schoolchildren were still practicing to be gloomies, to dance as ghouls at Zozobra’s feet. The fireworks display was being finalized, if I wanted to express any concerns with the setup? Had I been working on the light design? Was it okay if the band used a different bass player because theirs was sick? By this point, I wouldn’t have had enough people to finish the puppet on time if I worked nonstop until the burning.
I unlocked the door once, for Ronnie, mainly because he’d brought a case of beer. I watched a team of ghost ants slither up the doorframe behind his ear as he told me to shower. I let him crack jokes and drink beer. I let him ask all his questions and I tried to answer. He told me they were building something, that everyone who’d seen it knew it wasn’t Zozobra. All the while the ants swarmed and he didn’t even notice their progress. I was still waiting for signs of damage, evidence of them carving their little mazes into the floorboards, messages in the vigas, warnings in the shadows. They never stopped working; I just had to catch them at it.
My anger grew the night before the burn. I’d dragged the gloom box that had been sitting in my truck bed to my living room. The night grew cold, and I set my first fire ablaze in the wood stove. Huddled in my father’s old Navajo blanket, I sorted through the gloom. The ghost ants sat still in the crisp air, sentinel to my sorting. They glowed even more with the fire than they did in the dark, luminous and inevitable. But then the pounding resumed at my door. “Manny? Jesus Christ, Manny open the door please. I know you’re in there.”
The banging stopped, then, “Manny, it’s Hope.”
I dropped the fire poker I’d been clutching, wrought iron slamming to the floor with an ashy thud. Hope, here? I slid back the deadbolt, thrust the door open and let that first autumn breeze spray in. Hope. There she was, knotted black hair and all, kicking her foot into the door as only a ballerina might before either of us could decide whether we had anything to say. It had been years since we’d been this close, since I’d seen her without the fire dancer’s two-foot headdress dancing in front of my effigy of doom. All the old shame and love and yearning sparked up as I looked into her blacker than black eyes, age settling in like a veil over that face I used to gaze into. “You look tired.”
She sighed and pushed me into the living room. My brother’s old wedding ring knocked against my sternum. “And you look terrible Manny. Look, I know you probably don’t want to see me…”
That might have been true. She told me I was foolish, that there was still time to turn things around, that everybody was waiting for me to set things right. That my stubbornness wasn’t worth neglecting my responsibilities, and that she had just as much reason to hate the cops as I did. “But I will still go dance in front of that monstrosity they’ve created and I will burn it to the ground.”
Hope put a hand on my shoulder. I recoiled out of instinct. The ghost ants whispered up all the words I wanted to say. Ants. Ghosts. They prattled on, Hope deaf to their offering. They too existed in the peripheral, that dark corner your eyes skipped over. Oh how we dwelled on them once we noticed, how all those forgotten spaces we swept to the side grew up to haunt us the moment we paid attention. No wonder Zozobra returned every year. He knew to look for the ashes swept under the rug, the chile seeds that never sprouted, the dust where a river used to flow. He grew because we brushed him aside, neglected until the problem grew too large to ignore. Zozobra puttanesced, bubbling up with the warped recollection of whatever we’d wanted to forget, whatever residue we were still stewing on from the year before. “Can I show you something?”
Only her presence made me comprehend the state of my living room. The ghost ants roamed between dishes and trash piled on the floor, empty beer cans and scraps of gloom I’d tossed about from the box. Dirty socks and dust bunnies, as if I were a teenager. I led her to the gloom box, grabbed slips of paper at random so she could see what dreads people had etched. “Here we go. Skateboarders. Homeless camps. Those damned Mexican aliens. Low-riders. The poor people clinics. They spelled it wrong but this one just says contraception. Are these the things you want burned? Look at this!”
I thrust an open envelope at her. “This is an eviction notice. I’d burn that too.”
I hoped the fire was casting good shadows across my face. “It wasn’t from the person getting evicted. This guy with a Boston accent handed me that, said he didn’t want to think about the ‘grubby family’ he forced out anymore.”
She grabbed another handful of gloom: frown turning to a scowl with each paper she read. “Oh my god, who are these people?”
“This is our city. Tell me, how much are they charging for tickets?”
“Twenty in advance, thirty day of. Twice what it was last year.”
I held up the gloom; let it fall between my fingers to the ghost ants snaking around our feet. We poured over the pile, trying to make these terrible things make sense. “It doesn’t matter,” Hope said, getting to her feet, “imagine what it would be like if we didn’t burn Zozobra, if we didn’t cleanse the parts of ourselves that think this way. Isn’t that why we do this?”
“I never got to say whether I even wanted to take over Zozobra from my father.”
“Yes but you did,” she replied, “you’ve helped it grow and you’re the one who can make change when it’s needed.”
Hope couldn’t see that the tradition itself had been corrupted. Our attention no longer fed the wonder. I shot to my feet, suddenly furious. “You’re the one who taught me to give up a losing battle,” I roared.
Hope bit her lip and left, slamming the door behind her. I caught my gaze in the mirror above my fireplace, tangled hair and eyes yellow with jaundice: a grimace painted across my pale face. The ants retreated, off to other purposes, as I realized it was dawn.
I spent the day with that swelling feeling, expanding back out towards the arroyo in Fort Marcy. The whole city was taut with apprehension. I saw the swell of traffic, the funnel of red, white, and blue lights guiding a faceless crowd up the hill towards their charlatan puppet. I saw the Sandias rot away into sunset in the distance. And I saw the marionette, something gamey about its glowing limbs. The wrong face, the wrong stature. The wrong angles for mobility in his arms. Disappointment steamed off the crowd, something wrong in the collective mob. Art failing to imitate nature.
The ghost ants returned, jittery. Nature adapting. I’d dragged the gloom box outside, made a bonfire to light up the few good ones. At the bottom of the box was the robe Elva had given me. The ghost ants were walking across it. I lifted the robe, brushed them aside, and slipped it over my shoulders. My hand slid to the bullet holes: one at my heart, one at my solar plexus, one at my belly button. I admired again the maze pattern zigzagging across the cuffs like flames. I took a match to the gloom in the kindling; let the fire grow up while I collected one last thing to burn.
The ghost ants followed me to my bedroom, a perfect procession. I dug through my dresser—past chewed up socks and the cape from when I’d been Don Diego de Vargas in the Entrada. Buried beneath it all, in a spot I’d almost forgotten, was my brother’s wedding bowtie. I’d choose him too, Hope, if we did it all over again.
My guides marched me back to the bonfire, glowing brilliant and white. A swarm of black ants had gathered behind them, stomping over each other like they were trying to drag a beetle back to the hive. More appeared every moment, armies and armies of small black ants. I tied the bowtie around my neck, once again hoping the flames were casting good shadows across my face. The impostor doll was howling down as the lights went out in the park. And in front of me, a red ant—a fire ant—was crawling forward from the crowd. I saw in its mandibles clicking closer all the gloom, all wonder life had to offer tempered in either absurdity or cruelty. I had felt the extent of both. I was ready for something different. And the crowd shouted, “burn him!”
I made to crush the ants, felt the heat rising behind me as I lifted my arms. Zozobra bellowed and I translated for the ants. Don’t mistake me for your martyr; I am a curse because you have made it so. A curse is the hope of the damned, and you condemn me here! And the crowd shouted, “Burn him!”
The red ant came closer. The white ants stood in a line around me. The first fireworks went off with an incendiary bang. Hope danced her torches towards Zozobra’a robe. I took a step back, unsure, felt the burning logs against my back. The fire ant bit. Hope raised her torch. And the crowd shouted, “Burn him!”
Paul Van Sickle’s work has appeared in Cagibi, New World Writing, and the Showbear Family Circus. He studied fiction at Bennington College, and attended Tin House’s 2019 Summer Workshop as a short fiction writer under Kelly Link. When not in a pandemic, he is a milliner at the Metropolitan Opera and the editor of Merde: a zine documenting modern dance and performance art.