Under the Arroyo (Pushcart Prize Nominee, SFLR 2019)

by Jake Bartman

Mama said not to go in the arroyo. She said a flood could come along any time, that it’d sweep me up and suck me into the tunnel. It happened to another girl three years back.

I said, But what if it’s not raining?

Mama said, Don’t be a smartass.

Only I wasn’t trying to be a smartass. Daddy used to say that it’s got to rain before it can flood. Anyway you could always tell when the monsoon was coming. The clouds would move in from the mountains at the same time every afternoon. First it’d cool down, then it’d start to rain, only a little at first, but then harder and harder. After a while it’d turn into hail. Then, all of a sudden, it’d stop. I figured if you were in the arroyo when the clouds came, all you had to do was hurry out.

TV was where I got the idea to be a detective. Sometimes when it was raining I’d watch PBS, and one time there was a Wishbone episode about Sherlock Holmes and a dog. When the monsoon stopped I went to the arroyo. I was looking at the sand and rocks and plants that were all bent one way, and the old Doritos bags and beer cans and tee shirts and other things that were there. I was thinking what Mama said about how Daddy went away. Then I started thinking, What if these are clues? What if they say where Daddy went? Maybe the Allsup’s coffee cup meant the bad guys kidnapped him, and now they were making him buy coffee for them. Or maybe the hat that said NEW YORK was to tell where they took him. Bad guys wore ski masks that made their mouths look funny, and they talked in loud voices. I didn’t know why they’d take Daddy.

Later, I was looking at a fried chicken bucket, thinking maybe it meant the bad guys kidnapped Daddy to the KFC, when out of nowhere a breeze came and kicked the bucket off down the arroyo. I went chasing after it, but before I could get to it, it went down the tunnel.

I never went so close to the tunnel before. Some afternoons Daddy used to take me and Michael to the arroyo. Daddy would go in the tunnel, but he always told us to stay away. He said it was dangerous. Once he said how he used to paint in tunnels, and how sometimes he still got an itch for it. He said that was why he went there.

From far off the tunnel looked dark. It made me think of someone’s mouth. Up close there were words and pictures painted on the outside of it. There was a zia, a whale, and a snake. There was another one, too, right where the tunnel started to get dark. It was of a naked lady. She had dark hair on her head and between her legs. It made me think of how Mama looked when she got out of the shower.

Maybe the picture said the bad guys wanted Daddy to do paintings of them. I tried to see if there were more pictures that looked like the kind Daddy used to make, but it was too dark to tell.

I wanted to stay and keep looking for clues. Then I felt a raindrop, and when I looked up there were big clouds overhead, so I went home.

It was Michael who told Mama I was going in the arroyo. Before that, Michael and me would go together. Mama didn’t want us to, but because Daddy used to take us we figured it was OK. Sometimes Michael would bring a shovel, and we’d dig up sand and make a Vantage Point to play stagecoach robbers.

Then Mama’s friend Gordon gave Michael an old computer. After that Michael would be in our room all day. Sometimes I needed him to open a can or get something from the top shelf of the pantry, and I had to knock on the door a hundred times before he’d open it. It always smelled funny in there, and he’d have that look on his face that Mama called a Shit-Eating Grin, that meant he was doing something bad. Then he started tattling on me about keeping Chips Ahoy! under my bed, or making a nest in Mama’s closet, or going in the arroyo. That was when Mama told me to stay out.

Michael didn’t know about the clues. I figured if he knew, then he wouldn’t have tattled on me. After he told I decided not to say anything about them.

At night Gordon came over. He had shiny hair and brown teeth, and he always smelled like leather. Mama told us she met him after Daddy went away, when she started going to church again, but I remembered him from before. He used to be Grandma’s neighbor. Whenever he came to see Mama I’d go somewhere else.

That night I went back to the arroyo. When I got to the tunnel I sat and looked at it, trying to see if there were other clues. Somebody’d painted CIELO Y INFIERNO right on top, in big red letters. I looked at the words, but if they were a clue, I didn’t know what they meant. It made me a little tired to think about. Only it must’ve made me more tired than I thought, because after a while I closed my eyes, and when I opened them again it was dark. There was some yellow light coming from a streetlight way off. There was a light inside the tunnel, too, a blue one that kept moving back and forth. I could hear voices in there. They were getting louder.

At first I wanted to run. Then I thought maybe whoever it was would know something about Daddy. Maybe they could say where he went. I sat up straight and watched the light come closer.

In a minute, two guys came out of the tunnel. One of them, the shorter one, had on a big backpack. The taller one had a flashlight. He was smoking a cigarette. Both of them had red bandannas around their necks, like they were stagecoach robbers. Only they didn’t have cowboy boots, and their pants had a lot of paint on them.

Hey, there, the tall one said when he saw me.

I watched him. I was trying to make up my mind if I knew him from somewhere.

I said hi, sister, the tall man said. Aren’t you going to say hi back?

I don’t know you, I said.

I think I know you, though, the man said. Wasn’t your daddy a painter? I saw him with you kids every once in a while. We used to do business here.

When I didn’t say anything, the man pointed over his shoulder with his thumb. He said, This is my office. I guess you could say we’re redecorating.

The short man started to laugh. Only it wasn’t a laugh, really, but more like the sound Uncle Rito’s pig would make when it was sniffing around.

The tall man said, It’s some pretty nice work we’re doing. Do you want to see?

It could flood, I said.

Now the tall man laughed, too. He said, It ain’t raining yet. There’s plenty of time.

I’m looking for my daddy, I told him.

Well now, baby, he said. I could be your daddy.

Something about how he said it, and about how he stepped forward, made me see that maybe I was wrong about the bad guys. Maybe I didn’t know what they were like after all.

I ran then. I could hear them laughing, and even though I didn’t think they were chasing me, I kept running until I was all the way home.

After that I stayed away from the arroyo for a few days. Instead I’d go to the park. There wasn’t much to do at the park, except there were a bunch of tall bushes at one end. In the back of them was a hideout, and sometimes I’d find stuff in there. Once I found an Almond Joy. Another time it was a top. There were other things, too, like a blanket and toothbrushes. But they weren’t like in the arroyo. They weren’t clues.

A couple times I tried to go to the hideout, but there were boys I didn’t know in it. Whenever I tried to come in they’d throw seedpods at me. I stayed away then.

One night I came home from the park, and Mama and Gordon and Michael were all sitting at the kitchen table. Gordon was smiling. He stood up and pulled out a chair.

Mama said, We have something we want to tell you.

I said, You’re getting married, aren’t you?

I don’t know how I knew it. But from how Mama looked at Michael, and how Gordon smiled a little more, I knew I was right.

I looked at Mama, and I thought of the painting of the lady. I went out the door and ran.

Outside it smelled like piñon smoke. There were clouds moving in, the wind was blowing, and the trees were shaking their heads. At the tunnel, the streetlight made it look like somebody’d dropped an egg over everything. I didn’t think too hard about going in. I did like jumping in a cold pool, and slid down the ramp.

As soon as I was inside, I could see something was wrong. All the paintings were covered with grey. The lady was gone. Instead there were words in big red letters, written in a way I didn’t know.

My throat hurt, and I felt like crying, but I kept looking. A little further in I saw a half-eaten chicken leg, a metal spoon, and a couple shots like the doctor gives. Then I found a can of red paint, the same kind Daddy would use. I recognized it from when he’d let me spray a piece of wood for him. He’d even let me wear his mask to do it. I picked up the can and pressed the button. It made a hissing noise, but nothing came out.

There were too many clues. I couldn’t make them all fit. It made me feel the way I did the time Michael and me got home from school and saw the police cars outside. Mrs. Gonzalez from next door came and told us to follow her. Then we sat on her couch, watching TV and eating Oreos until I felt sick. When Mama came she had makeup smeared all over her face, and she was holding one of Grandma’s rosaries. She said she thought Daddy quit, but he lied, and now he had to go away. But she wouldn’t say where.

In the tunnel I remembered watching Daddy go inside. I remembered trying to picture what he was doing, until Michael would say Come on, and we’d go play. It was only the bad guys who came here now. I thought how with the paintings gone, I’d never know where Daddy went.

The wind blew, and I could smell the rain. When I turned I could see it coming down in the arroyo. I watched until the water started to run around my shoes. Then I climbed out and ran home. I made it just before the hail started.


Jake Bartman’s work has appeared in the minnesota review and elsewhere. Formerly a denizen of Portland, OR, he lives in Santa Fe.