De Nuevo by A. J. Rodriguez
A. J. Rodriguez’s “De Nuevo” is one of three winners of the 2021 CRAFT Flash Fiction Contest, judged by Robert Lopez.
“De Nuevo” starts like a runaway train and doesn’t let up. Here we have a torrent of urgent language that we are in the grip of immediately. What I look for in a flash fiction is the sound of a voice I’ve never heard before. I want it to feel like a punch in the gut. I want to feel like I’ve been someplace I’ve never been and I want it to stay with me after I leave. This story does all of this and more. This story is indeed like “squeezing a handful of sand” and all of the thoughts and feelings that image might provoke. —Robert Lopez
The blocks of the Westside development whipped by us. All the houses bled into one another, a single stroke of adobe beige. No veterinarian had settled into this part of Albuquerque—it was too new, plastic, hollow. If one had existed, it wouldn’t have breached Pops’s mind. This was his crusade. The vato had been banished from our home a couple months prior. If my father could save this street mutt sprawled across my lap, there’d finally be something solid for him to hold on to, but I wasn’t sure what that could even be. Having found myself typed into the-child-of-divorce statistic, the idea of permanence felt like squeezing a handful of sand.
Pops raged us through the labyrinth of avenues while heat oozed from the dog’s bloated and sunburnt skin, searing through patches of matted gray fur, melting my insides. The unbalanced rhythm between pounds in her heart and wheezes puffing out of her yellowed jaw had fused with the sprint of my pulse.
But my father was drenching my ears with praise, like I’d won a trophy, calling me, a six-year-old boy with arms wrapped around scabbed, blistered meat, his good luck charm. Cabrón kept saying this perrita was still clinging to the world ’cus of me—all to convince my ass of some imaginary bravery, all to swat away a realization creeping up my spine: death stands so close to life that the two hold hands. As he continued bulleting assurances, waves of confusion turned to tears behind my eyes, drowning my vision. But there was no need to worry. We were almost there. We would make it. This time won’t be like the last, m’ijo.
I never touched her again that day. Pops had ripped her from the truck, off my thighs, just as he had peeled her off the grill-like pavement on our way to get ice cream. My father fumbled with the keys, tryna unlock the front door to his duplex, causing her head to droop over his arms which, for a second, forced her eyes level with mine. They were as clear and as dull as marbles. Whatever life in them was fading like the embers of a neglected campfire. They didn’t see me, but I ingrained them into the map of my memory. The frozen lake in her iris, all the rivers of bloodshot veins.
Pops laid her on the hand-stitched colcha atop his blow-up mattress and grabbed the shoebox of curanderismo shit Abuelita insisted on giving him after she heard about her son’s second failed marriage. He didn’t own any other first-aid material—didn’t buy band-aids ’cus they never matched his syrupy skin tone. But the vato operated on this animal surgically, moving all fluid and without pause.
He started by massaging gel from an aloe leaf into the raw pink of her paws, then kneaded a tepezcohuite cream onto her exposed flesh. He stirred ground uña de gato and powdered ajo macho into a jar of agua espiritual, then sucked it up with a pipette and shot the mixture down her throat. When he finished, the sun peeked through the backdoor’s glass and furnished the almost-empty room with light, illuminating the moisture along my father’s cheeks and bronze scalp. The remedies he’d painted on her body looked all glossy and tinted like he’d cast the dog in amber. Her eyes were closed, and breaths whispered from her nose in steady beats.
Years later, after he moved outta that duplex into a legit home, Pops explained to me that he’d once killed a dog with his truck before I was born. He was driving all borracho on the dirt roads of the uninhabited Westside, back when that land was just a desert scattered by dusty shrubs and cacti, before anyone dreamt the idea of a housing development. He used to spend time there sobering up, doing donuts in the sand, watching the sun rise over the Sandias.
Pops said that first dog felt no different than any other bump in the road. Cabrón only found the carcass after he stepped out to take a piss. The grief of this shit, as he illustrated it, rested in the fact that he could only see this creature as a dying thing, that he couldn’t imagine anything but the death he’d created. There’s gotta be a balance to it all, he told me, there can’t be an end without a beginning. That’s what I’m looking for here, m’ijo, a beginning.
Born and mostly raised in Albuquerque, New Mexico, A. J. RODRIGUEZ is a graduate of Cornell University and resides in Eugene, Oregon, where he is an MFA candidate at the University of Oregon. He is the winner of Fractured Lit’s Anthology Prize and Gival Press’s Short Story Award. His work has also placed as a finalist in New Ohio Review’s Fiction Contest and CRAFT’s Short Fiction Prize, and was shortlisted for The Masters Review’s Short Story Award for New Writers. Find him on Twitter @SoyAjRodriguez.
Featured image by Thomas van der Vennet courtesy of Unsplash
Our Twitter microinterview with A. J. Rodriguez
— CRAFT (@CraftLiterary) May 4, 2022