Chapter One: Danny the Fish CHAPTER ONE DANNY THE FISH
No way was Danny Villanueva going to learn a thing. At least not sitting in art class. Danny fidgeted in his seat as his fellow Intro to Basic Drawing students scribbled in their notebooks. Danny’s most recent piece—The Hallway
—had been placed front and center of the room, propped on a big wooden easel for everyone to take in. He’d quickly sketched it the night before it was due and ripped it from his spiral art book before turning it in, the little perforated ends still dangling from its side. Danny couldn’t bear to look at the piece now, the hallway looking like it had been drawn by someone who’d never actually stood inside one before. There was no door at the end of the long, narrow passageway. In fact, there were no doors at all. On one wall there was a pair of tiny windows drawn side by side, and the other was bare. Danny wondered what kind of building this hallway could exist in—if it had reason to exist at all, other than to fail an art class. Danny looked out the classroom window. His car was only a few hundred yards away, illegally parked by a fire hydrant in front of the Student Union. Fleeing from class was a better choice than staying. He could avoid a ticket and
humiliation. Why stick around for that, other than the class participation points. Obviously
Pablo, his art professor, had made that a major part of everyone’s grade. He had broken the class down into two parts. Technique and critique. The first half was technique
, drawing exercises like sketching circles and cubes, pairs of hands and flowers. Pairs of hands holding flowers. These in-class assignments were almost always pencil-drawn, meant to develop shading techniques and crosshatching, detail work and tonal sketching—boring, easy stuff
—followed by a take-home piece. And after that was critique
, where the class discussed Pablo’s take-home assignment, which would end up as part of their end-of-semester portfolio. The Hallway
was Danny’s third, and last, piece of the semester. It was also his worst. Much worse than the hands and the flowers he’d turned in last week. But just by talking in class—discussing the work, as Pablo like to say—they could make up a third of their grade. All Danny had to do was remain silent as the class beat up his hallway and then chat the remaining assignments. Easy.
Pablo moved toward the front of the room, his arms folded across his chest as he studied Danny’s hallway. Way back on the first day of class, Danny thought his new art professor was going to be cool, him telling everyone, Call me Pablo
, like he was not going to be grading them. Like now, he’d been wearing a too tight T-shirt and ripped-up jeans, a pair of scuzzy Chucks. If only the Sarge—Danny’s father—could’ve seen him. He would have wondered what he’d just spent all that tuition money on. Why the guy couldn’t bother to wear a tie or at least a collared shirt.
Now in December and coming toward the end of the semester, that morning seemed like forever ago. As did Danny’s hopes of doing better in college than he’d done in high school. His report cards were routinely more down than up, but he’d always blamed it on being an army brat and bouncing around high schools, even after settling in El Paso permanently. He had promised the Sarge—and himself—that everything would come together when he started college. That he wouldn’t waste all the money the Sarge had forked out for his future.
Thing was, Danny had been sure that everything would
come together, was confident during student orientation at UTEP. He’d never found actual classroom work hard. Maybe not always interesting—sometimes boring as hell—but he never felt totally out of place, like if a dog had been enrolled in a cooking class and was expected to bake a cake. But he was screwing up pretty bad in biology and needed extra credit there, too. The class had hundreds of students and no way did Dr. A even know his name, which made requesting extra credit feel like asking a stranger to borrow underwear. And he was just hanging on in Econ and English.
“Last week we talked about having a focal point in our work,” Pablo was saying, surveying the room. “That our pieces should draw the eye, an observer’s attention.”
“This is like a hallway to nowhere,” Jason said, chinning toward Danny’s drawing. Jason was the guy in class who never raised his hand to talk but who talked all the time.
“Yeah,” Erika chimed in, her hand waving in the air. “But, like, in a bad way.” She pulled her hand down and continued. “I can see that he was going for, like, a minimalist thing, but it just doesn’t work.”
Pablo nodded as she spoke, considering what she’d said. “Let’s try to avoid words like good
and talk about what is on the page itself.” He now addressed the rest of the room. There was a silence. Truth? Danny had forgotten all about the hallway assignment almost immediately after it had been handed out. Lately he’d been having a hard time keeping track of a lot of things. He had two half-written essays open on his laptop, both due soon but he wasn’t sure when. Finals were coming, but he had the exact days and times confused. He’d also completely forgotten about JD’s—his best friend—birthday.
“The black-and-white tile floor is working,” came a voice from the back of the class. “The shading on those is well done.” Natalia hardly ever said anything in class, but her work was pretty dope. So maybe she didn’t need the points.
“I thought they were cliché,” Jason argued, turning to face Natalia. “And Pablo is right. There is nothing in the piece that draws my attention. My eyes don’t know where to go.”
How hard was
he supposed to bite his tongue? Danny wondered. And would his death be considered a suicide or an accident if he bit it off and choked to death? And that’s when he lost it. “You know what’s cliché?” Danny snapped. “How thirsty you’re being for this fucking art teacher’s approval. Like anyone even cares. He don’t.”
“Danny Villanueva!” Pablo barked. “What the hell?”
Danny could feel the room suddenly staring at him. He looked directly at his hallway. It hadn’t taken more than fifteen minutes to draw, all the lines slightly crooked and rushed. He could see where he’d been sloppy, where his hand had smeared some of the tiles along the bottom of the page. There was no use of any real skill. Of detail. Of give-a-shit.
“You know I’m right!” Danny said anyway. “He’s faking like some pretentious art critic. He’s doing that just for you, homes.” There was a collective gasp in the room, followed by another, more stifling silence. It was as if all the air in the room had been sucked away.
“No,” Pablo corrected. “Jason was participating in class, and you are violating the student code of conduct.”
“Whatever.” Danny slumped down in his seat. “The assignment was to draw a hallway, not a masterpiece.”
“Not another word.” Pablo jabbed a finger in Danny’s direction. “You are going to leave the class right now. You are going to walk to my office, and you are going to sit and wait until I get there. Do you understand?”
Danny looked at Pablo, the expression on his face stern and serious as fuck. So he nodded quickly, quietly packed up his stuff, and bolted from the room, not looking back as he closed the door behind him.
Danny’s art class was inside the same massive building where concert performances were held, where student art was also shown, a modern space called the Glass Gallery, with gleaming white paneled walls and a glossy tile floor. Danny often stopped by to check out paintings, the pieces expertly hung as if they were priceless works in a museum and not student projects. He sometimes felt guilty for not really wanting to see
the work, instead more interested in knowing why someone thought what was here was good enough for the wall space.
The complex also housed the depressingly named Beehive, where Danny was now heading. The Beehive was a collection of cubicles where the college kept its worker bees—the part-time adjuncts. At the entrance was a table with pamphlets spread across it, tri-folds with weird titles like Get It Up! How to Improve Your GPA, Is This Your First Time? A Freshman Guide to Campus Life
, and Friends with Benefits: Study Groups and You.
Danny—feeling shaky after what had happened in class—grabbed one as he turned the corner into a phalanx of cubicle dividers spreading across a large room. The Beehive could easily be confused for a call center or giant test lab where scientists studied the effects of sadness and boredom on people who once had dreams. Danny looked at his pamphlet:
TOP FIVE STUDY TIPS FOR THE STRUGGLING STUDENT
- Schedule time to study. Did you know actually studying is the number one way to get better at studying?
- Find a study partner. Make a friend, you loser. If you can’t make a friend here, can you even?
- Avoid distractions. Are you still dreaming about painting on walls? That’s a crime, not art.
- Have you tried trying?
- Always remember how hard everyone has worked for you. Remember that criticism is a gift. Remember all the gifts you’ve been given.
There was another teacher in Pod B2, hunched over her phone, tapping away. She was younger than Pablo, had punky blue-black hair and stylish big-framed glasses. Seeing her made Danny wonder how long Pablo had been teaching. How much cubby time he’d logged. There were two other desks with empty chairs neatly placed at them in the pod, the teachers somewhere else, but their little tchotchkes, coffee mugs with pens jammed in them, picture frames with smiling strangers inside, little daily calendars remained.
There was nothing on Pablo’s desk.
Danny grabbed an empty chair and nervously poked at his phone. He wondered what Pablo was going to tell him when he arrived. He’d looked pissed standing beside Danny’s homework, and that was before Danny’d said a peep to Jason. There was a good chance, Danny decided, that he was about to get tossed from the class. He vaguely remembered hearing something about the student code of conduct during orientation, a student volunteer saying it was online. He briefly thought about looking it up but decided nah. Pablo would just tell him. He seemed like the Sarge in that way. Probably loved giving bad news.
“Bro, why are you like that?” Pablo said, fixing a stare at Danny as he rushed inside the pod. He tossed his old-timey-looking satchel onto the empty desk and sank into the chair beside Danny. It was the kind of bag only a hipster artist—or a mailman from the Wild West days—would carry. Pablo shook his head in disbelief as he continued to stare, as if he hadn’t stopped thinking about the incident since it happened.
“Why am I like what?” Danny asked, knowing exactly what Pablo meant. People like Jason and Erika put him on edge. His entire senior year at Cathedral, a private Catholic school Danny went to after getting expelled from his old high school, was full of Jasons. The Sarge telling him the experience was finally going to prepare him for college—so much for that!
“An asshole,” Pablo answered. The other teacher in the cubicle stopped tapping on her phone and turned to look at Pablo, her big brown eyes narrowing on him like lasers. Pablo smiled apologetically at her until she turned her attention back to her phone. He then reached for his satchel and pulled out a sketchbook. The cover was worn, lots of trips in and out of the bag. Pencil lead stains marked the edges. He thumped the side and studied Danny. “Put your phone down.”
Danny had been holding it, an automatic habit. He looked down at the blank phone screen in his lap and then back at Pablo. He wasn’t acting like he was going to toss him from class, at least not yet. So he placed his phone on Pablo’s desk.
“Look,” Pablo continued. “I don’t want to waste my time on a kid who’s got it but doesn’t get it.”
“I’ll redo the hallway,” Danny said quickly. “I’ll do whatever. I need to pass, okay?”
“That’s the problem. You’re already doing whatever.”
Pablo opened the sketchbook and, half turning it to Danny, flipped through it, drawings of ordinary still lifes, of a murder of crows in the twisted branches of a huizache, jagged mountains cutting across the desert sky, a nopal in bloom skipped by. Pablo then stopped on an image of a boy. It was a portrait. The kid, maybe five or six, was facing away, his back at an angle, his shoulders raised like he was walking away but stopped, as if spooked and ready to suddenly spin around. The boy’s face was in profile, about to glance at what was behind him. His expression wasn’t quite scared, more the second right before fear, before realizing he was all by himself.
“Do you know what all these pieces have in common?” Pablo continued as Danny’s phone buzzed, the black screen lighting up.
“No.” Danny didn’t know what Pablo was getting at, but the motherfucker could draw. He looked over at his phone. MÁ MISSED CALL.
“I care about each drawing,” Pablo said. “It’s that simple. I care about what I’m making.”
“No one cares about hallways,” Danny said, knowing he sounded more defensive than he wanted to.
didn’t care about hallways. First, a hallway can be anything. Endless possibilities. You could’ve made the assignment anything you wanted it to be, and you simply failed. Second, you don’t care about other people’s feelings or opinions. You failed at being a decent person to your fellow classmates. Do you even get that?”
“Yes.” And he did, sort of. He felt embarrassed and desperately wanted to apologize, especially to Natalia, who was trying to be nice even though his work was trash. Erika and Jason still sucked, though.
“You don’t seem to care about this art class, and that
is why you’re failing.” Pablo closed his sketchbook and again tapped the cover with his finger. “You have the technical skills. I’ve seen them when we do our exercises in class. I know tons of artists like you, with all the ability in the world but not a drop of courage to make yourself, or someone else, care.”
Danny shifted uncomfortably. He was surprised to know that Pablo thought he had any talent at all. That he considered him an artist.
“Then let me do what I care about,” he said, the words escaping his mouth before he could think about them. Things Danny cared about had a way of vanishing on him. It made caring a gamble.
His phone started ringing again, his má calling for the second time, which was super unusual. But again he didn’t reach to answer it. Instead, he and Pablo looked at the glowing image on the screen. The drawing was one Danny had painted on his tablet, something he maybe wanted to make a mural of someday. The image was of a skeleton dressed as a cop, its uniform a crisp and deep blue, the bony face hidden behind a pair of mirrored sunglasses. The painting was a re-created Lotería card, La Muerte, standing out against a faded pink background. Death’s badge painted silver and shiny, exactly like its scythe.
is pretty good,” Pablo said, leaning forward. “Tell me about that.”
“I painted it on my tablet.” Danny hesitated, then added in a rush, “I did it a little bit after a cop shot and killed my friend.”
“That happen in Central, right?” Pablo asked, his face wrinkling, like a memory was coming to him. “Maybe a year ago?”
“Yeah.” Danny didn’t say more, didn’t want to.
Juan’s killing was all over the local news and online right after it happened. All the articles told the basic story. JD and Juan were trespassing at this old apartment complex in Central and that Juan had had a gun, the police killing him behind the building. None of the stories mentioned how Juan was on his way to see his father for the first time. That JD was helping him drive across the state in a borrowed
truck, Fabi’s—Juan’s mom. The gun had been hers, hidden under the seat. They didn’t want to get busted driving with a gun, so they’d gone to ditch it behind the apartment complex. The boys having no idea what would happen next.
“Do you play Lotería?” Pablo caught on, shifted the conversation. “Me and my family used to play all the time. The games used to get pretty heated. It’s a good time.”
“I’ve never played,” Danny said simply. “My friend’s mom gave the stack of cards to me. I just liked the art.”
The Sarge, Má, and Danny had gone to see Fabi a few days after Juan’s funeral, Má making a pot of birria along with corn tortillas for her. Má and the Sarge disappeared into the house almost as soon as they arrived, carrying the pot and all the extra stuff: salsa and diced onions, cut limes. Danny stayed on the porch and watched as Juan’s grandpa took inventory of the front yard, making a list of the car and washing machine parts. The milk crates with jars half-filled with random nuts and bolts.
Fabi joined Danny on the porch, carrying a cardboard box labeled DONATIONS. She put it down on the little table—two metal folding chairs pushed neatly underneath—beside the front door. Danny watched as Juan’s grandpa continued making notes on a scrap of paper. “I have a guy coming tomorrow to haul all that crap away,” Fabi told him. “We’re moving far the hell away and not taking a single screw.”
Danny had looked inside the box and saw the Lotería cards. La Muerte was on top. Number fourteen. He had seen this image of Death before. The reaper on shirts or hats being sold at the swap meet, though he wasn’t sure where this particular one came from. He looked back at Fabi, who was now smiling at him, and the look on her face made him want to cry. She was thinking of Juan, just like he was. Hearing Fabi’s voice. Smelling Juan’s house. Watching Juan’s grandpa count all the familiar junk that was going to disappear the next day was punching a hole right through Danny’s heart.
“Do you want them?” Fabi asked.
“What are they?”
“It’s a game. Kind of like bingo.” Fabi rummaged through the box, pulled out a tabla and a set of instructions with a description of all fifty-four cards. The tablet had sixteen images, four up and down, four across. “Someone shuffles the deck and then flips the cards over and calls them out. The person can say the little phrases or whatever. You get four in a row, you win. Not too complicated.”
“You ever play with Juan?” Danny asked.
“Nah. A bartender friend at the bar I worked at used these like tarots.” She grabbed the stack and motioned for Danny to take a seat as she joined him. Fabi began shuffling. “I never used them, but I liked watching her work.” Watching her shuffle the small deck with ease, Danny didn’t believe for a second that she wasn’t the bartender psychic. Fabi set four cards facedown in front of Danny and looked at him with a mysteriously grave expression. “My friend would tell whoever she was reading that the cards could not predict the future. Only the past.”
“What is that supposed to mean?” Danny said, trying not to laugh.
Fabi shifted in her seat, her posture straightening. She reached across the table and squeezed Danny’s hand. “It means the past is all anyone really cares about. Fixing it. No one gives a shit about tomorrow.”
Danny could feel a lump in his throat growing as Fabi smiled at him again. She seemed hollow, as empty as her home was now becoming, box by box. She sat back and contemplated the four cards. She slowly reached for the first and flipped it over. Number fifty, El Pescado. Danny gawked at the image, a fish being yanked from the water, a giant hook in its mouth.
“El que por la boca muere,” she continued, her voice softer but not comforting.
“What the fuck is that
supposed to mean?”
“Nothing.” Fabi stifled a laugh as she scooped up the cards without flipping the rest over. “She’s a fucking bartender. Her job was to get people drunk, listen to their sins, and hopefully get tipped like crazy.” Fabi stacked the cards, the tabla, and instructions neatly beside her box of donations. “Don’t pay any attention to that card,” Fabi continued. “Or to me. Juanito always said you talked crazy, but he liked that about you.”
Danny could see a lot of Juan in her face, in her expressions as she tried to make him feel better. Danny wasn’t so sure talking crazy would ever do him any good, but he also didn’t believe in Lotería card psychics. “Maybe I should get drunk” is what he said instead.
“Well, you’re not doing that here,” Fabi said, standing to leave. “But you can keep the cards.”
Pablo was rubbing his face like a game show contestant thinking over a doozy of a question. “I’ve always liked the art too. How many of these have you done?”
“Just the reaper cop,” Danny said. He’d finished it the same day he’d visited Fabi, actually. After thinking about her card reading and how, like pescado, his mouth had again gotten him into trouble.
“Okay, look. You don’t have a lot of time,” Pablo said, nodding as if coming to some decision. “If you want to pass the class, I want three new Lotería paintings for your portfolio. If you can do that and they’re good—if they look like you actually put heart into them—you’ll make it. You’ll pass the class.”
“But this is a drawing class,” Danny said.
“Like you said, it’s an art class.”
Danny’s phone buzzed again. This time it was a text message. Both Danny and Pablo turned to read it. It was from Má. I don’t know what you’re doing, but you need to get to Beaumont right now. Your dad collapsed. He’s unconscious. We’re in the ambulance.
“I gotta go,” Danny said, jumping to his feet, jamming his phone and the image of La Muerte back inside his pocket. “It’s my dad.” A sense of alarm grew quickly inside his body, his own internal sirens going off. Sirens of panic. Regret. Dread.