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Story — From the May 2017 issue

My First Car

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She arranged for my lodging at a motel down the road called the It’ll Do. It had been around for some time and been known as the It’ll Do from its inception.

I had been caring for the babies to the best of my abilities for two days and there had been no obvious mishaps. In the evening I would return to my room and lie on the bed where I tried to do my thinking. I was not thinking reliably that evening, distracted by the sound of a radio in the adjoining room. A musician from a band I’d never heard of was being interviewed.

This is by no means a political album.

It isn’t?

No. But it is, among other things, a nostalgia album, a wartime album, a catastrophe album, and a recollection-of-innocence album.

A minty-green phone on the table began ringing.

“Shhh,” I said to the phone. I made that sound at Mrs. B’s. It was supposed to mimic the ebb-and-pull buoyancy of the womb when whispered correctly. Mrs. B had many theories about babies, like never ever vaccinate them, a vaccination’s nothing more than a tracking device.

But I picked up the phone finally and said nothing.

“Hello? This is Marilyn at the front desk. Cinnabar?”

“Hi.”

“I was wondering if you wanted to go to the Día de los Muertos parade with me. We’re going to have it every month now. Traditionally of course it’s the first two days in November but we all figured why wait, right, and why should just the Mexicans have it? There are floats and masks and altars on wheels and stuff. No bonfires because no wood, right. Tires are an unacceptable substitute.”

“A parade?”

“Yeah. People come from all over. It’s kind of addictive. Excuse me for a sec . . . Sir, this is the fourth key card I’ve swiped for you since you checked in and I won’t be permitted to do it again. Sorry . . . I’m back . . . hold on . . . It’s not that they’re worth their weight in gold, sir, it’s a security issue. Sorry, God, I can’t wait to get out of here. Anyway, you shouldn’t miss tonight.”

By the dumpster outside my window there was a cat with its head in a jar.

“You looked as though you needed a friend,” Marilyn said. “I don’t mean that in a bad way.”

“There’s a cat outside with its head stuck in a jar.”

“He’s been impossible to catch. Every effort has been made. I can put you in another room if you want. It’s sad, isn’t it? So I’ll pick you up in half an hour and we’ll drive downtown?”

Marilyn’s car was an immense faded Oldsmobile with a leaky radiator. She had to top it off with a hose before we left.

“You know how you can fix that?” I said. “You drop a raw egg in it.”

“In the radiator?”

“Yes, that’s right.”

Marilyn laughed. “I’m not going to do that.”

We parked outside a steel-shuttered bank and walked in the direction of drumming. None of the buildings were more than four stories tall but they loomed darkly over us.

“There are snipers up there,” Marilyn said. “Isn’t that spooky? They haven’t shot anybody yet though.”

We glimpsed the first grinning skeletons weaving among rolling altars, bearing flowers and burning candles. Huge papier-mâché heads, their faces locked in merry rictus, nodded atop wooden poles attached to the sides of marchers’ backpacks. There were coffins, and stuffed animals of every kind. The planet itself rolled by, fissured in red and plastered with Band-Aids, hauled by lean, glittering men on stilts.

“There’s Mother Earth,” Marilyn said, “which is pretty partisan, I’m surprised they allowed that in. You’re supposed to avoid making statements.”

Skeletons pushed strollers and towed wagons carrying sleeping children, their faces powdered white and their pajamas painted to express the cradle of ribby bones.

“There’s La Catrina,” Marilyn said, “with the hat of flowers. She’s death’s beauty queen.”

Skeletons bowed and preened. Some held aloft framed photographs of people posing beside giant sunflowers, dead bears, waxed cars, photographs of people embracing in waist-deep water, people amid rubble.

A skeleton carried a banner: the beginning is near.

For a while I allowed Marilyn to lead me but shortly we were separated and I walked alone. The crowds on the sidewalk started moving with the parade, passing empty lots sliced like slabs of cake from the windowless sides of buildings. A projector cycled some photographs of the dead against the walls. Some were younger than me. Had they died looking like that, spared the disturbances of time? Or was this just how those who loved them wanted to remember them? The older people looked less credulous and assured, but there was no impoverishment of spirit on display. I watched the projected images for a long time, the crowds streaming around me, so long that the images began repeating themselves.

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has published nine books of fiction, most recently The Visiting Privilege (Vintage).

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