Scoundrel Time

Country of Under (Excerpt)

The following is an excerpt from Country of Under, a novel that tells the becoming stories of Pilar Salomé Reinfeld, raised by her undocumented father, a descendent of Bolivian Mennonites, in a Mexican-American community; and Carlos/Carla/Río Gomez, a gender fluid DREAMer raised by their grandmother in the same Texican bordertown—two intelligent, misfit teenagers carving out their place in the world.

Wandering through the library stacks during lunch weeks later, Pilar stumbled upon Carlos. He was hiding from two football players who’d shoved him against a locker after everyone had gone to lunch. Carlos had realized, as a Masters padlock lodged in his back, that he’d left his switchblade in yesterday’s jeans. His tormenters had leaned in close enough to kiss him, their breath on his butterfly lips when they spat, “Pinche maricón.” They would have done worse had they not been distracted by a fight between girls from rival gangs that broke out in the cafeteria. As a chant of FIGHT! FIGHT! FIGHT! spread through the lunch pit, Carlos’ bullies had craned their necks to get a look, and Carlos had escaped to the library. Still out of breath, he’d collapsed against the stacks opposite Pilar. 

Pilar thought, for a moment, that Carlos’ breathing was seeping from the books. Then she rounded the stacks to find him sitting on the floor, hugging his knees, eyes closed. The anima drained from his body, he became a stranger. Pilar fought an instinct to turn away. 

Carlos opened his eyes—dark and still like the resaca at night—and Pilar held this stranger’s gaze. She extended a hand, and he took it. 

Carlos dusted off his Rebel Without a Cause red windbreaker and walked dazedly over to the library’s windows, which looked out on the cafeteria. Students circled around the fight or stood on the stools bolted to the cafeteria tables, pumping their fists in the air, chanting. 

When Carlos turned to Pilar, the electric energy she thought of as him had returned. “If we slip out before the crowd breaks up, they’ll never notice,” he said. 

“Where will we go?” Pilar asked. 

“Trust me.” Carlos pulled Pilar by the hand out of the library. FIGHT! FIGHT! FIGHT! rose as they pushed through the glass doors. Through the crowd, Carlos and Pilar caught glimpses of the security guards struggling to pull the girls—thrashing on the ground, their faces scratched, scalps torn bald in patches—apart. 

They slipped outside unseen and made their way through the parking lot until they came to a brown 1988 Chevette with a rusted fender and a dent in the back door. It was freshly washed. 

“Meet The Bitch,” Carlos said with a flourish. 

“She’s nice,” Pilar said.

“You’re the first to call her nice.” Carlos moved a pile of CDs off the passenger seat. The inside of the car was otherwise spotless. He popped a CD into his stereo, and soon they were speeding past lopsided shacks, trucks on blocks, and rows of shriveled tomatoes, Lou Reed crooning through the scratchy speakers: Hey babe, take a walk on the wild side.

The Bitch had no air-conditioning, so they drove with the windows down, dust rising. Carlos sang and Pilar inhaled the words. Until then, she’d listened to her father’s Bolivian canciones. She had no interest in the sugary pop on the radio, but David Bowie, Patti Smith, and Lou Reed breathing angst into burning worlds spoke to her like an oracle. After listening to the choruses a couple of times, Pilar sang, too. Her vocal cords vibrated, but Carlos had the volume turned up so loud that only the sound of “Gloria” crackled from The Bitch’s speakers, so that Patti Smith’s voice became her own, the bass line thumping in her chest like a truer heart. 

Carlos drove through downtown San Jacinto, past the crumbling shops of Main Street, Farmacia and Costurera chipping from their hand-stenciled window-fronts, over the railroad tracks, and onto a nowhere road lined by brush, road kill, and a string of concrete warehouses so nameless that they called them what they held. They called them Ropa Usadas. Used Clothes. He parked in front of the warehouses and turned to Pilar, his face serious.

“I thought we could do something about this.” He waved his hand over her pleated black pinafore. 

Pilar looked at her dress as if seeing it for the first time. “My father buys my clothes…” She hated shopping. 

“My treat,” Carlos said. Pilar’s chiseled face and willowy figure, more like the models in Vogue than the curvy cheerleaders crowned Homecoming Queen, had not escaped Carlos’ eye. He couldn’t resist a makeover. 

Clothing hung on round metal racks, but Carlos led Pilar to the back of the warehouse, where there were massive mounds of clothing—men’s and women’s, fat and thin, summer and winter lumped together on the concrete floor. A forklift periodically rolled in and pitched more clothing onto the piles. Pilar pictured a long line of Ropa Usadas stretching from the nowhere-lands of northern Alaska to the nowhere-lands of southern Texas, each succeeding warehouse filled with the picked-over remnants of the previous warehouse. She imagined the piles of clothing before her had been shuffled through a long purgatory of increasingly dingy secondhand stores until they were laid to rest at this last ditch stop before Mexico, this unloved crotch of America. 

Carlos had picked his way through the piles and was now digging through the tallest mound of clothing on his hands and knees. “Come on in, the water’s fine!” he called to Pilar. He flopped backwards and waved his arms and legs, making ropa usada angels. 

Pilar hesitantly waded into the strange smells, stains, and souls of the ropa usada. 

Carlos held up a maroon gas-station attendant shirt with Walen stitched over the pocket. He put his ear to the name and listened. “Walen saved his gas-station pennies for a Harley he rode all the way from Alabama to Panama. When this shirt blew off along the way, he knew he’d never again pump gas for anyone but himself. What d’ya say, a little walk on the wild side with Walen?” Carlos cocked an eyebrow and handed Pilar the shirt. 

Pilar draped it over her arm and stared out across the foothills of clothing. The strangeness of never having chosen her clothes dawned on her. 

Carlos swept his arm over the mounds of clothing. “Who do you want to be, Pilar Reinfeld?” he called across the mounds as if she was out there somewhere. “Who? Who? Who?” he hooted, cupping his hands around his mouth. 

Pilar fished a pair of green corduroy bellbottoms out of the pile. She rubbed the corduroy between her fingers, inhaled the dusty, mothball smell. The lump in her throat loosened. She unbuttoned her collar. She reached for another pair of bellbottoms—jeans—and a white butterfly-collared shirt, sunflowers embroidered around its buttons. She tried the shirt on over her dress, her skin tingling at the synthetic slide of polyester. “Where are the dressing rooms?” she asked Carlos. 

“No dressing rooms. That corner does the trick.” He pointed. “I’ll shield you.” 

They made their way through the mounds to the corner, picking up clothes along the way. Pilar picked out several bold-printed 70s shirts and a faux-leather bomber jacket. Carlos handed her a turquoise sequin mini-skirt. “You should show off your legs,” he said. Pilar raised her eyebrows, but took the skirt. 

When they got to the corner, Carlos turned his back to Pilar and extended his arms. Shielded, Pilar pulled on the bellbottom jeans and sunflower-embroidered shirt. The jeans simultaneously held her body, as nothing she’d ever worn had, and a stranger’s body—a history curving around her ass, creasing around her thighs.  

Carlos was her mirror. He gave a deep nod of approval and Pilar took it in. She became a woman who stared back without blushing. She worked her way up to the turquoise sequin mini-skirt, which was short, stretchy, and tight. When she pulled it on, the surrounding world of the Ropa Usada fell away. There was only the skirt and her. She admired her long, sinewy legs like they belonged to someone else. A man’s eyes trailed her as she stepped through the piles of clothing. She saw him and knew those legs were hers. 

Carlos let out a wolf-whistle.

“What about you?” Pilar asked.

“Lil ol’ fabulous me? At 60 cents per pound, I wouldn’t turn down a treasure dive.” Carlos squatted and arced his arms over his head like a diver. “Whatever I come up with, I wear.” He dove into the mound and tunneled for several feet before his sleek head emerged like a seal’s. He held up his haul: a spaghetti-strap champagne-silk floor-length dress with gray eagle’s wings over the bodice. Pilar had never seen anything so beautiful. How that delicate dress could have survived beneath all those patched trousers, she couldn’t fathom. 

Carlos kneeled in the pile, bent over the dress like he was praying. He bit his bottom lip. 

“Shield me,” he said. 

Pilar turned her back to him and extended her arms. 

Carlos stripped off his heavy black work boots, snug-fit Lee Riders, red windbreaker, and white T-shirt. He shivered, though the air in the Ropa Usada was warm. The dress slipped over his head like a skin. Inside its silk, he felt newborn. Abuela’s all-seeing Ojo fell away, and lightness descended upon him. 

When he turned to show Pilar, she caught her breath. He seemed to swim toward her in slow motion, all that anxious, crackling energy fallen away to reveal grace. 

“Carla.” Carlos extended her hand, like he’d always held her. “Pleased to meet you.” 

Carla’s dark eyes glittered. The dress lifted when she twirled, her long neck and freckled shoulders so delicate it hurt to look. 

“It’s you.” Pilar held Carla’s gaze. 

Carla grinned. “Let’s get out of here.”   

They hopped a ride on the back of the forklift. The forklift driver kicked them off, but not before they’d drawn everyone’s attention. People stared at this boy in his eagle’s wings dress and this girl in her turquoise sequin mini-skirt, but their stares were a skin that Carla and Pilar had shed.  

In The Bitch, Carla pulled a deep red lipstick out of her backpack and ordered Pilar to pucker. She painted Pilar’s lips and her own, and they headed for the highway. As they ascended the overpass, rose from that cracked mouth of earth into the cloudless blue sky, they opened their blood red mouths and sang. 

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Brooke Shaffner (she/her) grew up part Garza, part Shaffner in Texas’ Rio Grande Valley. Her novel Country of Under is coming on April 9th, 2024.

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