After Patrick’s Pub closed, Leticia pulled all her curls into a thick rubber band and scowled at her reflection in the beer mirror. A large grease stain smeared across the middle of her green t-shirt. Damn potato skins. And the customer who ran into her. She wiped the worn wooden tables, fantasized about college in California. She’d rather be there instead of here under the growling yellow lights. But Dad couldn’t afford to pay another server right now. And she still hadn’t heard from the summer program or the financial aid office about her appeal. She saved her tips but worried her dreams were going to disintegrate like the cheap laminate finish of the bar’s ancient furniture.
Her cousin, Graciela, was lucky. Her parents could pay for college, encouraged her to leave Hatch and study business. Maybe because her brother had studied art, which Tio Lalo said didn’t count. Of course, they expected her to return and run their restaurant.
Dad burst out of his office behind the bar. “You really gonna leave me? Leave all this behind?” He yanked the receiver off the wall phone. “Fine!” He dialed and turned his anger to the person on the other end. “You sonofabitch! You know I can’t cover the over on that.” He pounded the wall. “The Bulls shoulda won the whole damn thing already. Now I’m gonna lose it all.” He slammed the phone against the wall too.
Leti wiped faster. She’d learned to ignore Dad when he was drunk. She’d wait until his anger turned to sadness and drive him home. She’d been doing that since she was thirteen. The last time, last football season, she had been out with friends, not working at the bar. He’d driven himself home and hit the tree out front. Blamed her for the dented fender and cracked headlight. But he’d laughed about it later.
This time, his blame was filled with rage. “It’s all your fucking fault, you know.” He walked over to the dart board and grabbed the darts. “Everything was fine,” he threw one, “until you,” he threw another, “started talking about college.” He threw the third. He never got close to the target. “Goddammit!” He kicked over the nearest chair.
Leti kept an eye on him while she moved toward the broom. Her shoes stuck to the spills scattered across the floor.
Dad left the darts on the floor and stomped past her. “What am I gonna do now?”
She stared at him. Didn’t blink. Knew not to answer.
He went around the bar and poured a large glass of top-shelf whiskey. He stared at her as he drank it. All of it.
She looked away. Swept quickly but carefully.
Dad set the glass down. Hard.
She heard him pour more as she crossed the room to retrieve his mis-thrown darts. Then she heard the crash.
Dad had thrown the expensive bottle of liquor across the room where it shattered below the Saint Patrick stained glass window. He threw another. Then another.
“That’s enough!” Leti yelled in her best imitation of him.
Stunned, he dropped his glass. “Clean this shit up!” He retreated to his office.
Leti knew she should call Mamá. Warn her about Dad’s condition. First, she stacked each chair on its table, strained to hear what was going on beyond the closed office door. She prepared the bucket for mopping, left the pile of broken glass for last. But she took too long.
Dad came out of the office. Quiet. Looked at her with ice blue eyes. Didn’t blink. He lit a cigarette. Watched the flame dance at the top of his lighter as he took the first puff, brought the lighter closer to his face and exhaled. He flicked the Bic again, squatted behind the bar near the last broken bottle where Leti could not see him.
But she heard him.
Heard the whoosh of liquor ignite. Smelled the alcohol fumes.
Dad watched the flames grow. “Now we’re talkin’.” He looked at Leti and smiled. “Let’s get outta here.”
Leti turned, slipped in the pool of alcohol. Hip hit table’s edge. She grabbed at the chair and brought it down on top of her. Cheek hit window ledge. “My eye!” she yelled as she landed in broken glass, colored shards sticking into her bare arm.
Dad ran past her out the front door. “C’mon!”
Flames devoured the wooden furniture. With one eye closed, Leti watched the blue liquid dance in its hot white light. She stared, mesmerized until chemical fumes from the layers of lacquer filled the air, choked her breath. She grabbed the window frame and scrambled to her feet. Saint Patrick glared back at her from the cracking, colored glass. Blood covered her hands and dripped down the side of her face. She barely made it out the door before flames followed the liquor trail behind her.
Outside, Dad fumbled through his pockets for the pick-up keys.
Leti had learned years ago to hide them when she got to work. “Go around!” She shoved him out of her way and climbed in behind the wheel.
He didn’t argue. He never had.
She grabbed his dirty sweatshirt off the seat to hold against her bleeding face. With one hand on the steering wheel and one eye focused on the road ahead, Leti drove away from the blazing bar, toward the only clinic in town.
From the passenger seat, Dad turned once to look behind them. “That oughta do it!” And he laughed in a way she’d never heard.
“Do what?” she growled at him. “Lose all our money?”
“Our money?” He laughed more. “You mean my money? The money I invested in my bar and I made with my sweat?” He pounded the dash.
“The money you were supposed to use to pay for my college. The money you lost betting on stupid sports.”
He laughed again. “Still all mine.” And he sang: “I fell into a burning ring of fire… I went down, down, down, and the flames went higher.”
Leti screamed at him: “You’re going to hell for sure after this.”
It took all her concentration to steer and stay on the road. She’d never driven this fast before. Gratefully, there wasn’t much traffic in Hatch at one in the morning.
Dad passed out.
At the clinic, Leti banged on the trailer next door where the on-call doctor lived. “I’m sorry it’s so late. It’s an emergency.”
But sirens from the fire truck passing on the highway behind her drowned out her words. She sat on the worn concrete step, leaned back against the thin metal screen, and passed out too.
When she woke up, Mamá and Tia Irene knelt nearby her hospital bed praying the rosary. Graciela, stood over her, chewing on her cuticles.
“That’s a disgusting habit,” Leti said, barely able to get the words out.
Graciela handed her a cup of water. “You almost lost your eye.”
Leti reached up with her IV’d hand to touch the gauze.
Graciela pointed her spit-covered finger too close to Leti’s face. “And that’s gonna be an ugly scar.”
Leti turned her head so she couldn’t see her prima at all. They were at Sierra Vista Hospital 40 miles away from Hatch in Truth or Consequences.
Mamá and Tia ended their devotion to the Blessed Virgen. “Amen.” They both stood slowly and stared at Leti. Mamá whispered, “The sheriff needs to talk to you, mi’ja.”
“I don’t remember anything.”
Leti repeated those same words through the entire interrogation.
Dad stayed away from the house when Leti was home in the evening, came in after he thought she was asleep. Even if she had been asleep, Mamá screaming in Spanish would have woken her. Dad responded in English, too quiet for Leti to hear. From Mamá’s sobbing response, Leti could tell she didn’t believe he would take care of everything.
Leti only knew he was there when she left for school because the truck was parked out front. She figured he slept all day. Wondered where he went at night with no bar to tend. But she never asked Mamá, knew it would upset her more.
For weeks, Mamá left earlier for her day job, picked up a few dinner shifts at Casa Gonzalez, the restaurant Tio Lalo owned. The same restaurant Graciela was expected to run when she finished college. Leti had always imagined that she would return to Hatch too, take over Patrick’s Pub. She and her prima would be the most successful businesswomen in town.
Now she had no reason to return. But she still had no place to go.
A few weeks later, after the first day of final exams, Leti got home from school early. No sign of Dad. There were two envelopes on the sticky, crumb-covered counter. Ignoring the mess, she opened the one from Los Angeles University carefully. It was an offer to join the Minority Summer Program and a partial scholarship. She called Graciela.
“Pack now,” her prima said. “I’ll call the airline and book you a seat on my flight to LA.”
Leti danced around the room with her letter until her eye hurt. She got a bag of corn from the freezer and held it to her face then collapsed in a kitchen chair. Her college dream was about to become a reality. And she didn’t need Dad’s money. She opened her backpack and slid the letter inside the manila envelope with her university acceptance packet. No more bar tables. No more parents fighting. When her pain was cold enough, she got up to make a snack.
The other envelope, thick and white, sat on the counter. Her name was written across the outside in familiar cursive. Inside there was a stack of cash and a note:
The sheriff took your father to jail. He’s in a lot of trouble. Gambling. Arson. I’m humiliated. I have to go. Here’s half my savings. Go to Los Angeles. Get a better life.
Amor y Abrazos,
Leti read the note again. Mamá left? Before graduation? Without saying goodbye in person? Without offering to take Leti with her? She sat back in the chair. Her eye throbbed again. Her empty stomach constricted on itself and sour snuck up her throat. She counted several thousand dollars. Enough for her plane ticket to LA. Enough, maybe, to get her through first year. She touched the stiches under her eye, wondered what Dad had told the sheriff about that night.
She took Graciela’s advice and packed. As much of her stuff as she could fit in the two old suitcases, a duffel bag, and her backpack. She called again, barely holding in tears and rage.
Graciela came inside and saw the letter. She folded it along its creases and put it back in the envelope. “You don’t know where she went?”
Leti shook her head. “Think your mother does?” Tia Irene usually knew where everyone was and what they were doing at all times.
Graciela shrugged. “She didn’t say.” And she picked at the edge of a tiny tear in the wallpaper of the dining area instead of looking at Leti.
Leti knew Graciela wasn’t finished, so she tilted her head and waited.
“But I heard my mother telling yours that Uncle Patrick set the fire for insurance money but he had none. And something about owing the worst people.” She turned to Leti. “Did you know about this? Working at the bar, did you see anything?”
Leti reached up to her injured cheekbone, inhaled deeply. She remembered the darts, the liquor, the flames. Dad’s laughter and Johnny Cash imitation echoed inside her brain. She exhaled. “I don’t know anything.” She put on her backpack and strapped the duffle across her chest. She handed the smaller suitcase to Graciela. “Except now, we can get the hell out of here.”
Chicana Feminist and former Rodeo Queen, Tisha Marie Reichle-Aguilera (she/her) writes so the desert landscape of her childhood can be heard as loudly as the urban chaos of her adulthood. She is obsessed with food. A former high school teacher, she earned an MFA at Antioch University Los Angeles and is an Annenberg Fellow at the University of Southern California. She was an editor at Border Senses, VIDA Review, and Ricochet Editions. She is a Macondista and works for literary equity through Women Who Submit. You can read her work at http://tishareichle.com/