Dalton's Luck: A San Diego Mystery

An unpublished novel about the Mexican border

Dalton and Nicolina watched the three men as they hustled down the walkway. “What’s that all about?" she asked.
“Beats me," he said.
  • Dalton and Nicolina watched the three men as they hustled down the walkway. “What’s that all about?" she asked. “Beats me," he said.
  • Image by Jack Yon

The assassins spotted Dalton Lee in the Miami airport. Later after it was all over, he'd remember that moment when they locked eyes and he smiled like he smiled at everyone. Often he would doubt that it had ever happened at all.

He'd been writing “local color" for the Boston Globe. His editor, was crazy for weirdos and bikers. Fancying himself a New Yorker writer, Dalton called the series “Annals of the Border."

He'd been writing “local color" for the Boston Globe. His editor, was crazy for weirdos and bikers. Fancying himself a New Yorker writer, Dalton called the series “Annals of the Border."

He'd lie in his bed beside his wife and reach out for her naked hip in the dark. Her curves fit firmly in his palm, cool and smooth as an apple. He'd squeeze her lightly, just to make sure she was there. He'd run his thumb into the hollow of her hipbone, that sweet-smelling spot he loved to kiss, and he'd feel the quiet thrum of her blood. He'd silently lean into her, hoping her body could reassure him that they had survived.

 “Don’t ever go away again." "I’m not ever leaving. Forget the house, I’m staying in the bedroom. Are you kidding?"

“Don’t ever go away again." "I’m not ever leaving. Forget the house, I’m staying in the bedroom. Are you kidding?"

Sometimes his hand would wander to the long scar that traversed his rib cage, and his fingers would travel it restlessly.

The assassins were waiting for the boarding call on the United morning flight to San Diego. They were seated at a far comer, away from other passengers. The leader of the group went to the small cocktail nook and ordered a Manhattan. The other two — one of them exceptionally tall and dark-faced, the other a small fat man — studied a short stack of Polaroids. All of them were in suits. Dalton Lee was dressed in white pants and a Hawaiian shirt. His ponytail hung halfway down his back. The short fat killer nudged the tall one and said, “Mira el maricon." Dalton happened to glance up from his journal at that instant.

He’d been writing an entry about his wife’s scent: “The smell of her belly pulls me into the tides of her body." He was getting hot thinking about her. His eyes caught the fat man’s eyes. He grinned his innocuous meet-a-stranger grin and nodded. The fat man glanced at the tall man. then flashed a gold tooth at Dalton. Dalton looked at the huge man to the fat man’s left. The man had no expression on his face at all. His eyes bored into Dalton's, and after a moment he raised his eyebrows, seeming to say, What are you looking at?

Dalton glanced back down at the page. His face flushed. In a moment, remembering Nicolina’s navel, remembering kissing a thimbleful of red wine from that small cup, he completely forgot the two men across the waiting room.

He was eager to get home. Visiting Miami was, for a Southern Californian, about as comfortable as being tucked into a giant’s armpit. There were moments of such close heat that Dalton had imagined the Atlantic had simply levitated and begun to boil around him. Each breath was a wave rolling in and out of his lungs.

He’d been in Miami to attend his first American Booksellers Association convention. His publisher, Magnum House, had given him an expensive floor pass, and he’d signed copies of his novel, Border Cop, at the company’s long booth. When he wasn’t being a famous writer, he hustled stories about the borderlands to the syndicates and various newspaper editors around the country. That, and Nicolina’s job and a small inheritance, kept them afloat.

Border Cop was a little embarrassing. He’d wanted to be a poet, and here he was writing potboilers. “It’s cheese," he told an interviewer, “but it’s delicious cheese!" This had earned him a scolding from his publicist.

“He’s a faggot." said the fat one. “Right, Gigante?"

The big man, known to his associates only as El Gigante, said nothing. His own brother was gay. He didn’t enter into such conversations. He shrugged, and the other, called La Mula for his stubborn refusal to surrender or give an inch in a battle, snorted.

“Just look at his hair!" Mula said.

El Gigante automatically took Dalton’s measure. He figured him for six feet — a half foot shorter than he. Dalton was sloppy, but El Gigante had noticed that many gringos were sloppy. When you’re rich, you don’t have to look good.

Dalton had broad shoulders, good biceps. Beer was obviously taking a toll on his gut. In a fight, stamina would be a question. You could definitely use the ponytail to yank the head back and draw a knife across the throat.

“He looks like a guitar player to me," El Gigante finally said.

“So?" La Mula said. “Rocanrol. They’re all maricones." “Maybe he plays football," El Gigante said, yawning. What the hell, it was a way to pass the time. The jefe was the only one allowed to drink.

La Mula said, “Football Americano? Or futbol? Because anyone knows that compared to one of our soccer players," he blew air through his lips, “gringo football players are pansies."

“Why don’t you relax?" El Gigante said.

“Relax! I’m relaxed! Don’t I look relaxed?”

“You’re hysterical."

“I am not!"

They heard a sharp snap. They turned in their seats. El Jefe had snapped his fingers at them from the bar. He pointed once with the hand holding the glass. They turned back around.

“See what you did?” El Gigante mumbled.

Mula nudged him and showed him the photos again. There were eight snaps in all. They featured the trussed and slaughtered members of the Ruiz family of South Beach. Six men and one woman. The men all lay facedown in varied carpet stains. The woman lay on her back, one open eye crazily reflecting the flash. Her skirt was hiked up too high. “You should have covered her up," Gigante said. “You’re such a moralist," Mula said.

He came to the picture of Artemio Ruiz-Casas, patriarch of the family. Mula had garroted him.

“Ack, ack-ack." Mula said.

“Jesus!” El Gigante said.

Mula giggled.

El Jefe appeared beside them. “Guarda eso, "he said. Reluctantly, Mula put the pictures away. The boss said,

“I should take that damned camera away from you." Mula ducked his head.

The boss straightened the cuffs on his raw-silk jacket. It was burnt orange, double-breasted; a cream hanky poked up from the breast pocket, forming a perfect tnangle. He spritzed a shot of Binaca into his mouth. Dalton had caught his eye, too. He liked Dalton’s ponytail. He was thinking about getting his ear pierced. Perhaps a ponytail of his own. Sort of a matador look. Currently, his hair was impeccably cut, and his sideburns were sharp, jutting slightly at the edges of his face.

He was in an Armani mood. Armani everything — Armani bags, socks, cologne. Armani underpants, even; a mesh sling with a thong firmly irritating the crack in his ass. The material was a shade of delicious lime green. He imagined himself tasting like a Life Saver. A flawless one-carat diamond sat tastefully on his left pinky. His right pinky had a long nail, tapered, buffed, and polished. On the right ring finger, a bloody ruby surrounded by glittering diamond chips. He looked down at his body. He imagined sliding his pants off before the adoring eyes of a gringa in California. It aroused him. The swelling felt good against the mesh.

“How do I look?" he asked.

El Gigante replied. “Fantastico."

He was uncomfortably tucked into a lightly striped blue linen suit. Wrinkles everywhere.

“You look," he said, “chevere."

Mula was barely crammed into a blue polyester suit with a diagonally striped tie wedged into the fat of his neck by a gold tie bar. He was used to comfortable guayaberas. At least in Cali, they knew how to dress.

In guttural Spanish, he said, “Boss, you look like a movie star."

“Really!” the boss said. “Which one?"

Mula looked at El Gigante. Both men thought, Oh-oh.

“Cary Grant?" the boss offered.

Just what they needed — one of the boss’s spot quizzes.

“Al Pacino," El Gigante said.

The boss smiled.

Mula, never the brightest gunman in the stable, suddenly blurted, “George Hamilton!”

The boss turned to him and stared.

“George Hamilton?" he said. Mula squirmed. “What happened to Andy Garcia?”

“I don’t know."

“What happened to Tom Cruise?"

“I don’t know."

“You don’t know!"

The boss marched off to get another drink.

“George Hamilton," he was muttering. “Cono!"

Mula turned to El Gigante and said, "Quien es Andy Garcia?"

It was Dalton’s first time flying first class. He felt guilty about it, watching the other passengers board. The fat man with the gold tooth got on. The tall one stepped aboard after him — he was taller than Dalton had thought. His head brushed against the ceiling. The fat man nodded at Dalton. A prim-looking third party boarded behind them and rattled off some very fast Spanish, pointing seats out to them. Dalton thought he looked like a Sunkist orange going to a Tijuana disco.

They took the row behind Dalton.

“I want the window," Mula said.

“I don’t care. Do I look like I care?" El Gigante replied.

“Look, you’re the one picking a fight over it."

“I’m not even irritated."

“You’re furious!"

Dalton grinned; they couldn’t know that he spoke Spanish.

“That is ridiculous," El Gigante said.

“You’re steaming."

“I am not!"

“Are too!"

The orange man sat across the aisle from them. He had paid for both seats on his side. He watched them for a moment, then leaned over and said, through the line of shuffling passengers, “If you continue bickering, I will cut out your tongues and mail them to your mothers."

Dalton turned and stared at him.

The man’s face was as placid as Miami Bay on a still morning.

Chapter Two: Elvis Speaks

El Gigante had thought about the Ruiz-Casas hit while the others slept.

He knew that Ruiz himself had been working out a personal syndicate with the Arellano Felix clan in Tijuana.

Colombia was not impressed with the Mexicans. They were less impressed with the Ruiz connection. As soon as the Mexicans had murdered the cardinal in Guadalajara, a bald-faced hit somehow covered up by the absurd claim that the shooters had ambushed the wrong car, El Gigante knew it was only a matter of time before the cleanup would begin. The cardinal had preached against cocaine and marijuana all through the diocese of el norte of Mexico. Everybody knew about it; Medellin didn’t mind at all.

The Mexicanos were strictly bush-league compared to Escobar and Colombian padrinos. What worried the businessmen was the border itself. The Arellanos had only to move the product a few yards, whereas the Colombians had massive shipping problems.

El Gigante didn't approve of killing a cardinal but business was business. He didn’t think much either way ibout Ruiz, though shooting the woman was kind of depressing. She was probably the wife or girlfriend. He never liked that part.

What kept him awake was this trip they were on now. Their charter had been strictly for Ruiz. He glanced over at his employer. He suspected they were now on a rogue mission, and he couldn’t guess what the plan was.

The plane drifted down over the San Diego backcountry. It was turning its ugly summer brown, the dry peaks east of town looking charred in spots. Dalton watched the city rush up at him—the jolly-looking old Cortez Hotel still had its effervescent-looking champagne bubbles in neon on its sides, even if the neon was dead. Ahead, in the harbor, aircraft carriers and tugboats seemed to slumber. He caught a quick glimpse of the Star of India resting at dock, and then they were on the ground and taxiing. Dalton could see the terminal doors from his seat.

She was in there somewhere. He’d been away from her for five days, and it seemed like a month.

He jotted some facts into his journal. He hoped they'd be of interest to his readers. Lately, he'd been writing pieces full of “local color" for the Boston Globe. Shannon, his editor, was crazy for weirdos and bikers. Fancying himself a New Yorker writer, Dalton called the series “Annals of the Border." One of Shannon’s bikers had called it “Anus of the Border."

A voice came over the intercom. “Folks, this is, ah. your first officer." Now what, Dalton thought.

“We have a service vehicle stalled in the docking bay. It’s apparently his brakes, so, ah, relax. We’ll be pulling in shortly."

Dalton rubbed his face and reopened the book.

He tried to include historical or trivial tidbits about “the southlands" in each article. His theory was that readers would enjoy traveling in time as well as distance, and it had worked so far. Besides, he liked disabusing those outside San Diego of the notion that San Diego had no history. His bags held three moldering history books and a half-dozen shadowy Xeroxes.

He’d been looking into fault lines — those East Coasters really got into California shake rattle and roll. Rose Canyon, one of San Diego s juiciest epicenters, was amazingly rich in history. He’d been thrilled to see that the freeway that ran along the fault was once a well-traveled Kumeyaay Indian footpath, linking the bay and Mission Valley areas with the deer and rabbit hunting grounds in La Jolla and points north. And he was fascinated to discover that an Indian village — Jamo — slumbered under I-5 right near the bland foot of suburban Clairemont.

He scribbled away.

El Gigante stretched out his leg into the aisle. He glanced over the top of the seat at Dalton. He shifted in his seat. The plane was taking a long time getting squared away. Cono, the suit was killing him. He cut his eyes over to his employer. He was serene, listening to Ruben Blades on his Discman. Cabron gave him a chill. La Mula, snorting like an ape beside him, was a moron, but at least he was Colombian. Colombians were real people, earthy people. But El Jefe, he was Bolivian. Goddamn Bolivians, El Gigante thought. They were too tidy, too strange for him. And El Jefe was part Indian to boot — and proud of it. Aimara or some such stone-age bullshit. The boss had a mystical outlook; this made El Gigante uneasy. He liked things reasonable. One hundred percent modem. Strictly business.

In the Community, they had started calling the boss “Elvis." He delighted in giving cars or diamonds to hookers and shoeshine boys. Now he wanted to be called Elvis all the time. Goddamn airplane, El Gigante thought. Is this thing ever letting us off? He had gawked in disbelief early that morning when Elvis had given a waitress a hundred-dollar tip at the coffee shop of the Fountainbleu. He sighed. Goddamn Elvis.

He rummaged in the seat pocket in front of him. He pulled out a copy of the airline’s mail-order catalog. He didn’t understand a word of it but found himself oddly taken with a photograph on page 11. A skinny gringa in a leotard was locked in apparently deadly battle with a chromium machine covered in pulleys. She stared into the camera with a demented smile.

The Americans were jabbering over the intercom, but to El Gigante, it all sounded like monkeys in a zoo.

They were at least 45 minutes late. Elvis — Angel Alvaro — flicked his wrist and stared into the Rolex for the 20th time. He always imagined the people around him catching a quick glance of the watch and holding their breath. He didn't want to be late. Time was everything in San Diego. Those idiots had killed the cardinal, and now the gringos had discovered one of their transport tunnels on Otay Mesa. If these Tijuana cowboys were as foolish as he suspected, the Community would have no trouble at all. The time was definitely ripe.

He signaled the stewardess with one finger. She smiled at Dalton as she passed.

Dalton was writing away; Rose Canyon would obsess him for a day or two until the next idea came his way. He was surprised to find that the canyon had been named after Louis Rose, developer of the Point Loma neighborhood known as Roseville. Rose had pulled into town in 1850, but the interesting touch of trivia that made the story leap out at Dalton was that Rose was the first Jew to come to San Diego.

It seemed strange and fanciful to Dalton. It was a tangible marker of time and culture shifting, ever shifting; the world seemed to wipe itself dear as it turned, and it started over in a new way every day. Dalton grinned. He loved this job.

The flight attendant bent down to Elvis. “Sir?” she said.

Cuando se estaciona el avion?”he asked. Her face

took on a glazed look. “Sorry," she said. “I don’t —" He said, “El avion. Cuanto nos hemos tardado?“She looked around. “I don’t speak your language," she said again.

In spite of himself, Dalton turned around.

“I speak Spanish," he said.

The man was clearly startled by the news, but he smiled.

“Perhaps you can help me, then,” he said.

Dalton spoke: Yes. they were late; the captain was doing his best; however, they would be docking only after the service vehicle could be moved; yes, there was a three-hour time change between Miami and San Diego; you’re welcome, my pleasure. He turned back around. He opened a copy of his Border Cop. Her name tag said “Susan." Why not. He wrote, “To Susan — Best Wishes. Your Friend, Dalton Lee.”

Suddenly, the prim one sat in the seat beside him.

Gracias,”he said.

“No problem," said Dalton.

Elvis thought Dalton’s accent was pretty good for an American.

“You were very kind," he said.

“Not at all."

Elvis looked at the book.

“May I?" he said He picked it up. He turned it over and looked surprised that Dalton’s picture was on the cover. “You wrote it?"

Dalton nodded.

Elvis turned in the seat and held it up for El Gigante to see. “Doltong Li," he said. “A writer."

Dalton smiled.

“Are you from San Diego?” Elvis asked.

Dalton nodded.

“How are Hispanics received in San Diego?"

Dalton thought about it.

“They’re treated all right, I guess," he said. “You know, there’s a large Mexican populace, it’s a very Mexican town But you’re not Mexicans."

“No," the man said.

“There are jerks in every city. San Diego is no different. But for the most part, it's quite friendly. You should be very comfortable there."

Elvis nodded.

“Well," he said. “Thank you again."

He went back to his seat. He winked at El Gigante as he sat down.

La Mula, waking from a deep sleep, said, “What’s Elvis up to?"

“God knows,” said El Gigante.

He was getting cranky. Under his trousers, his leg was hot and itchy. He had a six-inch hardened-plastic dagger in a nylon sheath Velcroed to his calf. The last two inches of its handle were tucked tightly into his sock.

Chapter Three: Nicolina, Mi Amor

Dalton was freshly married. Freshly enough to disgust friends who thought they knew better, enthusiastically saying “Thank God" when he was asked. “Just wait," they’d warn. “You’ll find out." But he’d already found out — his first marriage had collapsed into sheer disaster. It turned him into a creature he didn’t even recognize He had been an angry version of himself, a stressed-out pod-Dalton grimly marching through his days. The divorce was almost a relief.

Before he’d left for Miami, Nicolina had startled him by taking his hand in the dark and saying, “Dalton? Say a prayer."

“Out loud?" he said.



“Yes, honey. Now."

He’d thought about it for a moment.

“Dear God...thanks."

There was a long silence.

“That’s it?"

“Nico, what else is there to say?"

She had slept tight against him that night, her hand lightly over his heart. In the morning, she’d awakened him by taking his nipple in her teeth. He could put his arm all the way around her. It felt like he could tuck her into his own body.

He yanked his bag down from the overhead and waited for the doors to open. Just thinking about Nicolina made him jumpy. They would climb into their own bed tonight, recovering from Dalton’s interminable trip to Florida. Nicolina’s long hair would slide across his chest like water. It would form a dark curtain between their naked flesh. The years that had separated them and bound them would pass over them, too, as they made love — Dalton would feel them like the wind from small wings.

He met her at Marston Junior High. He’d just come from Whittier Elementary, and she had come from Cadman. She was a mystery in hip-hugger bell bottoms and a peasant blouse. He stared at her as he followed her into Mr. Dudash’s completely smitten. Dalton had never seen a prettier girl. Her long dark hair and dark eyes reminded him of the Mexican women he’d grown up around at his father’s house in San Miguel. Her cheeks were smooth and peachy looking. Dalton was fully aware that he’d never noticed a girl’s cheeks before.

As the kids made their way into the classroom, he drifted near her and stared into her face when he was sure she wouldn’t notice. Dalton would always remember the strangest sense that came over him that morning. It was almost an audible voice that spoke up unexpectedly within him. They made eye contact for the briefest flicker, and then they both looked away. That’s when the voice spoke. It said: That’s her.

Naturally, he raced Ricky Hilman to the seat behind hers, and he crashed into it a split second before Ricky. He sat with his hands folded exactly three-quarters of an inch from her hair. He could smell her Herbal Essence shampoo. He felt quite sophisticated because he recognized a girl's scent; then, he imagined her in the shower, lathering her hair. Naked!

He swallowed. He put out his index finger and touched her hair where it fell onto his desk. Dark silk. He glanced over at Hilman; he was staring at her, too. She suddenly turned around and smiled hesitantly. He recognized her shyness as his own.

Hi! he thought. Hi!

Mr. Dudash began calling roll. All the seventh graders — called “pea-greens" by the older kids — squeaked, “Present!" when their names were called. Dalton wondered what her name would turn out to be and listened for a name as uncommon as his own.

Sometimes he wished he'd been given a normal name, like Tom or Pancho. But his dad, an expressionist painter with a wild streak about ten miles wide, had insisted on the name. Dalton's mother Rose came from the Missouri Daltons, related at a slight remove to the notorious Dalton gang. This delighted Frederick Lee to no end (he claimed a branch of Robert E. Lee's bloodline). He demanded they give Dalton Rose’s maiden name. His son would be a gunslinger, by God! Besides, it made him sound like a great painter, possibly of the Pollock school. “Think," Frederick had said, “how good it’ll look on a canvas!"

They packed the infant Dalton off with them to Frederick’s adobe in San Miguel and lived the bohemian life until Dalton was ready for fifth grade. Frederick had agreed — after arduous combat with Rose — to settle in San Diego until Dalton was of college age. They found a small house in Clairemont for $18,000. The Lees paid in cash.

Dalton listened during first period roll, looking out for an eccentric name like his own. Normal-sounding names rolled by: David Thomson, Keith Brown, Lyn Niles. John French, Becky Speich, Steve Van Belle. Diana Casebolt, there was an interesting name. David Claypool — that one made Dalton think of the fabulous boiling pools he’d seen at Yellowstone last summer.

Now, it was second period. Mr. Dudash made his way through the list. “Dudash," in Dalton’s opinion, was itself fairly interesting. The kids all had the same names as the kids in first period. Then, Mr. Dudash came to her name.

“Nicolina Nardona," he said.

Dalton’s angel, Dalton’s mysterious dark-haired beloved, raised her hand and said, in a clear and to his mind perfectly musical voice, “Present."

“Did I pronounce that right, Nicolina?"

“Yes, Mr. Dudash. Nar-do-na."

Nicolina Nardona!

She had one of those hideously wide black watchbands on her wrist, a Hercules wristband. He watched the watch descend. He developed an instantly proprietary attitude toward her, as though he had invented the name himself. And he waited for his own to be called, so that Nicolina could hear that he, too, had a cool name. And Mr. Dudash made his way down the list: “Miss Herpick."


“Mr. Hilman."


“What was that, Mr. Hilman?"


“Thank you, Mr. Hilman.”

Here it comes.

Dalton cleared his throat.

“Mr. Lee."

Dalton opened his mouth, ready to let her hear his voice, honed by hours of yelling along with the Yardbirds and the Monkees. He was ready to let rip.

“Mr. Lee?"

And Dalton's voice cracked.

“Dalton Lee-ii-ee! Pre-iiii-sent!" he bellowed.

The whole class cracked up.

Dalton hung his head, studied his clenched hands. He could feel the blush burning in his cheeks. Beside him, Mr. Hilman gave him the finger and hung his mouth open like a real dork. Dalton fumed for half the class, not hearing a single thing Mr. Dudash said. He was imagining forming a rock band and astounding Nicolina at the first school dance. Maybe he’d ferociously sing “I Ain’t Your Stepping Stone" while staring at her. She would turn away from dancing with Ricky Hilman. Her mouth would drop open.... Her eyes would fill with tears....

Nicolina turned halfway in her seat and dropped a note on his desk.

He stared at it. He looked at the back of her head. He looked back at the paper. His first note!

He sniffed it —no perfume. Okay. He unfolded it.

She'd drawn a small mouse on the paper. She’d used her ink pen. and the lines were sketchy and somehow girly, but the ears were marvels. The mouse held a flower in its paws and was leaning a bit to starboard and gazing with huge wetlooking eyes. Nicolina had actually managed to draw her own eyes, Dalton thought. Under the mouse, she’d written: Smile!

Mr. Hilman was almost falling out of his chair trying to see what the note said.

Dalton waved it at him.

“Who’s the squid now, Hilman?” he whispered.

He folded it back up and ceremoniously took his cowboy-design cowskin wallet from his back pocket. He eyed Mr. Hilman and tucked Nicolina’s note in the compartment that held his silver MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E. I.D. card. Dalton carried her for the next six years, only losing it when he threw away a crowded box of his mementos and went off to college.

The passengers surged behind him. Dalton was alarmed that he was already thinking of them as riffraff. As if an expensive seat gave him some superiority.

The Latino Three Stooges were impatient to get past him, but he stopped for a moment at the door and handed the signed copy of Border Cop to Susan the flight attendant.

“For me?" she said.

He smiled.

“So long,” he said. Then, “Open it," and he was out as she gave a small gasp of surprise.

Hit and run, he thought. It was one of his favorite things to do. He liked to tell Nicolina, I do famous really well.

Behind him, Susan forgot about Dalton Lee immediately when Angel Alvaro “Elvis” Poma stepped up to her.

Gracias," he said. He reached out his hand. She took it, thinking, I hate it when they want to shake.

Elvis left a $100 bill pressed into her palm.

Nicolina waited away from the crowd. She hated to be jostled by strangers. It always seemed that one of the men in a crowd would find a way to brush an arm against her breasts. Or he’d move off to her side and stare at her, thinking he was sly.

Wanda, her coworker and best friend, had started carrying a package of bologna when she had to walk past a pack of construction workers in the Gaslamp Quarter. When they catcalled her, she'd engage in some guerrilla theater and throw slices at them, crying, “Women are not meat!"

Nicolina smiled. I’m not that militant, she thought. Yet. They'd always told her she was beautiful. Her husband, the photographer, had told her she was the most beautiful woman he'd ever seen. She had the most perfect body he'd ever looked at. He couldn’t imagine why she refused to be photographed cavorting in the nude.

Beauty. So what. Men thought they were offering her the tenderest compliment when they noticed that an accident of birth had given her a combination of bones and skin that they admired. It had nothing to do with her.

She'd often look at women they considered ugly and try to figure out what the difference was between them. Fat women, for example, looked angelic to her and full of life. The only thing she really didn't like was when women starved themselves, trying for the skinny adolescent boy look. Frankly, it pissed her off.

Why was she pretty? Was it her breasts? Well, they were exactly as old as she was, and she thought they showed it. Was it her “big eyes"? Her “bottomless" and “liquid” eyes? To her, they’d always looked like the eyes of a milk-cow. Soft and brown and kind of hopelessly trusting.

Nicolina had been approached for her beauty, rewarded for her beauty, and ultimately punished for her beauty. The photographer had found any number of excuses to leave her, all of them couched in new-age rhetoric of the “finding his inner child" variety. But his next “perfect mate" was a little hard-body he’d found at the Family Fitness Center. No crow’s feet on her.

And then there was Dalton.

She laughed out loud.

What a nut Dalton Lee


Sweet Dalton Lee — she always remembered his voice shattering into a coyote howl on their first day of school together. She fell in love with him that day. It only took 20 years for her to realize it.

Dalton, Dalton, she thought. You’re the only one who ever saw inside me.

She hugged herself.

She had felt alone in the world her entire life. She had felt her spirit locked inside a box, where no one could reach it. After these 20 years, she had resigned herself to her loneliness, her quiet Christmas Eves, her exhaustion with men. And now look. Nicolina had started to believe that Dalton Lee could listen to her dreams.

On their wedding night, she’d whispered, “Don’t let me down, boy. You’re my final bet."

He’d simply smiled.

He saw her. Her hair was loose; she wore a horizontally striped loose sweater in black and white. He dropped his bags and rushed to her. “My Sicilian!" he said.

She threw her arms open and pulled him to her, and they breathed each others’ smell. She smelled the hollow of his neck; he buried his face in her hair. They squeezed each other, slowly turning in a half circle. When her back was away from the crowd, he slid his hands over her bottom. Her black stretch-pants transferred the heat of his palms directly to her cheeks. She felt it in her stomach.

She gave him her mouth. He pressed his lips against hers and flicked the edges of her mouth with his tongue. She opened her mouth slightly and let her breath pour between his lips. He held his entire body against her, aware of her legs against his, of her belly pressing low on his abdomen. And he drank in the hot air coming out of her.

Sometimes, when Dalton looked at her, he began to cry.

They slowly pulled apart. “Wow," she said. “More!" he said.

“Soon enough, sailor." She smiled, put her hand to his cheek.

“I missed you," he said. “Oh God," she said. “Don’t ever go away again."

"I’m not ever leaving. Forget the house, I’m staying in the bedroom. Are you kidding?"

They laughed, and he leaned in to kiss her again, when the fat Hispanic from the plane stepped up to them with a camera and took a flash picture of them.

“What the — !" Dalton said.

The camera whined and a photo popped out.

In Spanish, the man said, “For our scrapbook,” and hurried away.

Dalton and Nicolina watched the three men as they hustled down the walkway.

“What’s that all about?" she asked.

“Beats me," he said.

Fifty yards from them, an older couple sat on the padded bench outside the restrooms. He was thumbing through a magazine. The woman seemed to be going through a huge straw handbag, looking for something. She actually had her hand on a tiny Minolta camera. When the fat man stepped up to Dalton and Nicolina, she raised it and snapped pictures of him photographing them. The small motor drove the film at a frame per second; the special lens would catch the smallest lines around Dalton’s mouth.

It had begun.

This is part one of an unpublished novel. Go to the Reader archives to read the rest of the novel in PDF form, starting with Sept. 15, 1994.

About the author:

Luis Alberto Urrea was born in Tijuana and raised n San Diego. He attended Marston Junior High School, Clairemont high School, and in 1977 graduated from UCSD. He worked as a relief-worker and translator for Spectrum Ministries, and as a bilingual tutor at San Diego Mesa College Chicano Studies department until 1962. That year, he went to Cambridge to teach Expository Writing at Harvard.

His nonfiction book, Across the Wire: Life and Hard Times on the Mexican Border (Anchor/Doubleday), won the Christopher Award and was nominated for a Hillman Foundation Award. He is also the author of the novel In Search of Snow (HarperCollins) His recent book of poetry, The Fever of Being (West End Press) won the Western States Book Award this year. Urrea currently lives in Boulder, Colorado. He is writing full-time.

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