The Poor Side of Paradise
All I want out of life is to be the world champion slalom skier, and maybe a new string for my ukulele, on account of me smashing it into the dirt when my brother Fonzo lost his prize bull at the rodeo. But if my wants had a hierarchy, skiing would be at the very top, because even though my little mountain town has produced a bajillion and a half world champions, not one of them has ever been brown. I know it would make Papa cry and Fonzo holler, and maybe even Mama would stop frowning.
Papa bought me the ukulele for my eleventh birthday, and when I unwrapped it, I screamed Eeeeeee! like a coyote and made everybody but Mama crack up by pretend-strumming it to the mariachi music from Papa’s records. “You and I” by Ingrid Michaelson was the first song I learned, because the chords are easy, and I like to sing along to the part about giving folks nice sweaters.
I know all about nice sweaters. In the valley where we live, it’s summer for a millisecond, and then it snows and snows and snows. Mama gets annoyed because I have been growing so fast that she has to buy me a new coat every winter. We went coat shopping at Uplift last year, which is where I found the awesome retro racing suit and convinced her to let me go out for alpine skiing.
When I first showed up to practice, the kids laughed at me—in the polite way, behind my back. How can she be on the race team, they demanded, when she can’t even ski? I admit, this was a big obstacle to being the greatest slalom skier in the world. Luckily, Mrs. Linett took pity on me and taught me how to ski every evening after school for the entire winter. She told me that I was a “natural-born talent”. When I showed up this winter, the other kids gawked open-mouthed when I bashed gates for the first time, because I was already faster than all of them, even some of the twelve and thirteen year olds.
It’s really hard to describe, but when I leave the starting gate, my mind goes completely blank and I become the edges of my skis. That’s what Mrs. Linett taught me: trust your edges.
I can’t say that I hate losing, because I’ve never lost. Last week, my coach pulled me to the side and said, Marí, you keep this up and you’ve got a real shot at winning junior nationals in February. He said he can get me a scholarship that covers the race entry, but I’ve gotta pay for an airplane ride to get to the East coast. I looked that up on a map, and it’s two thousand miles from here. I wonder how many laundromats there are along the way.
When I asked Papa if I could go, he shook his head sadly and said, Mija, it is too expensive. You can race in all of the local competitions.
I know it’s not his fault we’re poor, but right then it felt that way. How am I going to be world champion if I’m stuck here forever?! I screamed, and stormed to my room and slammed the door. I threw my already-broken ukulele at the wall and collapsed on my bed, crying. Outside my window, little snowflakes were falling, accumulating on the glass like sand at the bottom of an hourglass. I made my mind go blank and tried to become my edges.
I was born on the poor side of paradise. My parents wanted me to get the GED, so I did, studying for those stupid tests while all of my friends were getting crazy rich pouring concrete. I got hired by a construction company, but quit on principle within two months after a huge gust of wind took down a four-story scaffolding and Tyler with it. He was paralyzed for life. A couple of us tried to sue, claiming negligence, but the company paid settlements for us to shut up, and I didn’t feel right about working there after that.
I came home, mostly to see my little sister Marí. Mama handed me a stack of laundry, but I shook my head hell no. I went to work at Joe’s butcher shop, making cuts and wrapping them in paper. I brought four huge steaks to Marí’s eleventh birthday party and grilled them while relatives danced, listening to the fat crackle. The next week, Joe fired me on the spot. He couldn’t prove it, but four steaks were missing, and I was a thieving Mexican. What can I say? I try to live up to others’ expectations of me.
After that, the only employer who’d take me was the manager of a ranch in the valley. He wanted hands who were young, strong, and eager to work, so I was hired on the spot. I couldn’t have guessed it then, but my natural grace in the saddle and firm way with the bulls would lead me into the rodeos and into an identity: that of a rough-edged, scorned individualist, that of a cowboy.
Even though our park is called Dream Island, I sometimes think we must be living in a nightmare, on account of all the staring. Kids roll by on super gorgeous mountain bikes that must cost five hundred thousand dollars, and as they pass our street, they look around at our houses like we live in mushrooms or something.
I told my friend Marty about the staring, and he said Fuck them, and I said Marty! That’s a bad word! He lives underneath the Elk Street bridge. I met him while hunting for crawdads last summer, and now I wave at him every time I walk over the bridge on my way home from school. Sometimes I bring him tamales. He is probably the dirtiest person in the world, and he’s got sad eyes. The kids stare at him a lot too.
Once, Papa was watering the lawn and I was practicing handstands on the sidewalk when a little boy pedaled by with his family. He skidded to a stop and pointed at us, but his mom told him to keep moving. Why are they staring at us, Papa? I asked Papa. Mija, we are like celebrities in this town, he replied. We own the only laundromat for a hundred miles.
Elk River Laundry belongs to my family. Mama runs the show, Papa does the money part, and I go around in the evening with my key and the collection jar and open up all the coin boxes and shake out the change. People pay extra for folding, so Mama folds linens all afternoon, just the way she wraps up my tortillas for lunch, tucking in all the corners. I watch her arms churn like pistons. The laundromat is a very soothing place to be, especially in the winter, with the whir of the cycles and the smell everywhere of warm cotton. Mama’s friends come by with their laundry and gossip in Spanish, and the room is filled with their tinkling laughter. In Sunday mass, the pastor talks about sacredness, and I think to a lot of folks, the Church is the most sacred place. But not for me. For me, it’s the laundromat.
I met the man who lives under the Elk Street bridge the same night I blew up at the rodeo. Holding my ribs in place, I tried to keep my breaths shallow. I gave up and sprawled out at the foot of a towering ponderosa, moaning with pain and self-pity. I didn’t see the bum because he was wrapped in a dirty camo blanket. The fuck happened to you? he said, and I jumped, and then moaned, having jolted my ribcage. None of your fucking business, I told the bum. Take a horn to the gut? he asked, and his tone was good-natured. More like two hooves and a horn, I groaned, and he reached over to offer me something. It was whiskey, and what the hell, I obliged—it was the worst night. We sat still and listened to the announcer’s voice booming indistinctly through the heavy dusk. A Mexican cowboy, huh? he said, and I might have socked him, if not for how lousy I felt. White people learned this shit from us, I retorted. And up until tonight, I was the top-ranked bull rider in the entire fucking state. He took a swig from the bottle. And after tonight?
After my no-score tonight, I would become irrelevant. I’d bought my bull, Thunderhead, with every penny I’d scrapped together in three years as a ranch hand. I told the bum how we’d rode to the top of the rankings. I tried to describe the extraordinary suspension of conscious thought that is those eight seconds. I told him how Lyle Dundy, a local cowboy, was going around talking shit, but I knew I was a better rider. I challenged him: best score at the Winter Series Rodeo wins. I win, I get his ‘06 Tacoma. He wins, he gets Thunderhead.
The chute opened and it was inexplicable, like being struck by lightning—I was on the ground before I even knew I was riding, one hoof and then the other grazing my chest. I squirmed as the crowd screamed and the rodeo clown drew the bull away. Hands dragged me over the cattle guard and then an EMT was in my face, but I pushed her away and fled.
Papa and Marí were in the stands, watching me for the first time.
He thought for a long moment, and then replied, From the top, one has so much to lose. I nodded. You gotta keep holding yourself to your own highest standard, he added. Spoken like an old man with many regrets, I ribbed him, and he said, Regrets, many. From the disgusting folds of the blanket, he produced a gold medallion, untarnished and glowing. What the hell’s that? I asked. Believe it or not, he said, I was also at the top of my game, once. I won gold in slalom at the 1984 Winter Olympic Games in Sarajevo. I was unstoppable. This is all I have left. He stroked the medal. What happened? I pressed him. I couldn’t smell bullshit, but it was hard to believe.
He sighed. It’s hard to balance on a pinnacle.
I lost friends and made enemies.
I spent decades chasing the high I felt on that podium. Look where it’s got me.
I whistled. That’s a long way to fall, my friend. He nodded silently. Why’d you keep it? I asked, indicating the gold medal. He shrugged. As a reminder. And that reminded me.
Fonzo surprised me last night with an airplane ticket to the junior championships! I ran around the house pretending that the furniture was a slalom course and tried to hug him, but he winced and said his ribs hurt too much, on account of his blow-up at the rodeo last Sunday. Papa clapped and danced and Mama tried to hide her crying by pretending to cook something in the kitchen. It was crazy to have all four of us under one roof, and everybody so happy.
I am a lousy cowboy and I miss my bull, but I am a good big brother. And Marty is a good friend. I pawned the medal and pocketed enough to cover airfare so my little sister can be the next slalom champion of the world. I returned to the trailer for the first time in years to give Marí her ticket. She was bouncing off the walls. Mama tried to fuss over my injuries, but I shooed her away. We all stood together awkwardly for a second, Papa and Mama and me, and then Papa quietly handed me a stack of laundry. I began to fold.