A Mack truck stopped for Nicki and daddy an hour after daddy stuck his thumb out, announcing itself with a wheeze and grind long before it jerked to a halt.
That’s how Nicki first arrived in Santa Corizón del Encendido.
She and daddy hitched from town to town and daddy bought food with money he made mowing lawns, pulling weeds.
One night Nicki was trying to sleep on the bed in the Sunset Motor Courts. Daddy was gone. She was so hungry she ached. The grimy chenille bedspread smelled bad.
Daddy came back rocking on his feet, smelling like whiskey. Daddy didn’t bring anything to eat.
Soon, the sheriff pounded on their door, and took them to jail in the back of his parole car.
Nicki slept with the jailer’s children, but in the middle of the night, shouting woke her.
When she and the other children searched for the sounds they found the cell where daddy was hanging, neck stretched by a bed sheet.
Everyone has a destiny.
A tall redheaded man leaned on the bars of his cell, watching the sheriff take the body down, watching the little girl wail, Daddy, daddy.
You keeping kids in jail now, Horace? Frank Kendall asked.
The red-headed man’s cell door gaped open.
The sheriff said, Shut up Frank, you’re still under arrest.
Is that his little girl? Frank asked.
The Frank picked her up in his warm arms, walked from the jail, dropped her into his convertible and drove them through the familiar dark flecked with stars.
Frank and Doña Paulita raised her.
Then she’s sixteen instead of nine, and finding Frank on the ranch was the first thing she did when arriving home. She knew he would never enter the house before the sun went down so she called her dogs, threw herself on her horse and rode out.
Spotting him from a distance, she sighed with pleasure; he was the handsomest man she had ever seen, his shoulders the widest, his legs the longest, his head tilted back on his arrogant neck.
That’s how she always thought of him, until the bitter end, the most handsome man in the world.
Most men either hated him, or cringed with fear when they saw him, sensing he was capable of anything.
Frank was a champion bull rider, he ran a ranch, he kept a seat on the Hondo County Commissioner’s Court: Physical power, political power.
And it was easy to see him coming, him with his red hair and freckles scattered under his eyes.
His maternal grandmother, Doña Paulita, was descended from the oldest family in Hondo County, Spaniards with an ancient rancho.
Frank hate greasers.
But, doesn’t that mean he’s part Hispanic, some asked.
Nobody dared say those words in front of Frank.
Frank’s mother left her part of the ranch to Frank when she died, not Frank’s father.
John L. Kendall, Frank’s father, was Anglo.
Maybe that’s why Frank and his father didn’t get along.
Greaser, Frank’s father said to his son.
Frank replied: If you ever say that again I’ll kill you.
Women ran after him, his mastery, his indifference, except when he was not indifferent.
And before he moved on.
The only woman Frank never emotionally abandoned was Nicki.
Until he did.
One night she came home from a high school Christmas dance.
A stick popped in the fire. Frank was still as he watched her and she suddenly knew she was facing something that had no limits, something she could not control. Her heart pounded: She turned to leave but he grabbed her elbow before she got out the door. She could smell the whiskey. He was big.
Where have you been? He slurred the words.
To a party.
Did he touch you?
He kissed me. I liked it.
She was triumphant.
His slap physically stunned her, her head rang, her cheekbones felt crushed. When she tried to break away he pulled her close, kissing her, holding her body so hard it hurt, pushing his thighs against her, pushing his knees through her locked legs, pushing her on the sofa, running his hand up her leg and she couldn’t stop him.
Soon, how she felt didn’t matter.
After all those months of longing, she ignited and lost her virginity by firelight with his jeans scraping up and down her legs while the Christmas tree lights flicked first red then blue and the radio crooned you’ll have a blue blue Christmas without me.
When David was a kid, Frank knocked him off the front porch.
David must have talked back.
Nobody talks back to Frank, especially if that person is Hispanic and claims to be Frank’s cousin.
David and his mother Duvalina were at the ranch because Duvalina was Doña Paulita’s cleaning woman.
David was Nicki’s best friend in high school, but Frank was her date for the senior class prom.
After high school, David asked the local insurance agency for a job.
They didn’t hire Hispanics.
So David went to work at the local mineral plant and bartended at night.
It was better than being sent to Vietnam, anything was better than that.
Frank kept coming in, mouthing off, harassing David.
One night, Frank came in at closing time.
Everybody else had left.
Greaser, Frank said.
David got a pool cue.
Frank took it away from him and David went to the hospital.
The Hondo Sheriff’s office charged David with assault.
Guess who was sent to Huntsville prison?
Now David’s back, looking for revenge, organizing a political party, planning to replace the Anglos in the town and county political structure with Hispanics.
Nobody is happy about this, particularly the elected officials; like Frank.
Really, the only thing you need to know about David is something he reveals himself, one night when David and Nicki drink together, late, in the dark.
David says: I’m gonna be the big man in Hondo County, and I’m gonna own things like Frank does. When I go down the street they’re gonna say buenos dias, Mr. Rodríguez, how are you and would you like it if I kiss your ass? All these white people are gonna invite me to their houses. You know, I always been wanting to go to one of them big New Year’s parties the big cheeses throw at the Palace. Just one time do something besides hang out with some lowlifes getting drunk in some dive. Me and you will walk in there together looking like a million bucks. Me in a black jacket, you know, a tuxedo. You could wear a real tight dress that glitters. Hey, we could dance by ourselves in the middle, just like in the movies.
You wouldn’t like those parties. They’re boring, Nicki replied.
Boring to you. David sighed. Corazón, marry me. I been loving you a long time.