Dotted Line Dotted Line

Fiction Winter 2014    poetry    all issues


Michelle Ross
Cinema Verité

Laura M. Rocha
Young & Golden

Shawn Miklaucic
Crepe Myrtle

Kim Drew Wright
The Long Road

Mark Sutz

Vincent Paul Vanneman
Aurora Borealis

Jyotsna Sreenivasan

Richard Herring

Rafal Redlinski
Are you an alcoholic? A self-test

Paul Pedroza
Motion Without Meaning

Jessica Walker
Dinner at the Twicketts

Rik Barberi
What Ever Happens Next

Matthew Shoen
Special Meats

Nicholas MacDonnell
The Long Way Home

ML Roberts
How You Won’t Go Back

Bill Harper
Eastside Story

Terry Engel
Childhood Revisited

John Mort
The Book Club

Paul Luikart
The Edge of the Known World

Paul Pedroza

Motion Without Meaning

1. Morning

He always waits until the city begins to glow with the sun’s first golden rays before he opens the door, honoring again his ages-old unofficial opening hour that changes with the seasons, a bit earlier in the summer, a bit later in the winter. He’s learned to like it that way over the years, even during the cold months when the biting wind penetrates his thin clothes. He knows that he needs a new winter coat, but he can’t take to the idea of abandoning the one that his dead wife bought him so many years ago, even if he allowed it a permanent spot in his now cavernous bedroom closet because he could never bring himself to get rid of it, even for charity. When once it was a vibrant forest green, now it’s almost gray and much of the fabric has been worn shiny. Today, it’s so chilly that his space heaters aren’t penetrating the cold of his grocery, and he longs for the warmer days that never disappear for long.

Given his vision issues, it’s getting tough for Martinez to know the exact moment when he should open for business, but being stuck in a niche amongst the buildings downtown has always made it difficult anyway. Despite not having an official opening hour, he hates to be late, and for good reason since many of his older clients count on him to be prompt so that they can get their daily errands out of the way. He calls them his clients because it always makes their transactions seem important, like he’s providing a necessary service to a city in need. He fumbles through his apron for his keys and drops them, his heart beating so heavily that he envisions himself having a heart attack right in front of his register- death bound imagery, like high definition movies detailing the various ways he’ll die, something that’s become an obsession over the last few years and haunts him all day long. He picks up his keys and unlocks the double deadbolt, which is a comfort and necessity that he splurged on after the last time he was burglarized, and though it hasn’t happened since, he still fears it vaguely. A gust of bitter cold wind brings tears to his eyes as he opens the door, and the crowd he’d expected materializes into a single elderly woman, bundled up and complaining that Martinez has made her wait. She pushes past him, and he laments having to wait to clean out the fruit stands that still sit outside of his store though the practice, he knows, has been out of fashion forever thanks to the supermarkets. He feels an undeniable urge to clean them though it’ll be a couple of months yet before he can use them again. It brings him joy when people ask when they’ll be full of fruit and vegetables again, those days when the sun will shine with renewed strength and they’ll all have long talks about nothing special again. He regrets opening already and letting this woman make him wait to clean them out, especially given her complaint about him opening late. How can one open late when one opens at various minutes of the hour every day? At any rate, the bins . . . There was a windstorm last night, and he’s sure that they’re full of dust and small bits of trash, how hard is it for the city to keep downtown clean? They should at least try . . .

The woman has disappeared into the store, and Martinez feels ashamed because he’s forgotten to turn on the rear lights. “How can I shop in the dark, Viejo Martinez?” He doesn’t recognize her, and he lets the abuse go because he’s afraid of losing a paying customer. Que lástima, he thinks, I used to get so much respect and now . . .

He heads behind the counter and flips the switches, and the lights dazzle his eyes. He blinks and blinks and listens as the woman criticizes his stock. She must be new to the area because I haven’t changed a damn thing in years, he thinks. He likes it that way, and people seem to like it, too—a dependable variety, nothing fancy. Who can afford fancy? The day fancy comes to Martinez’s Grocery is the day everyone abandons Martinez’s Grocery because fancy doesn’t come cheap. Martinez stands behind his counter, afraid to takes his eyes off the woman, but not for fear that she’ll steal though older women have been known to do it, but because he’s afraid she’ll find him inattentive. He follows her movements, judges the way she picks up items and decides against them though always in her favor. Maybe I need to look into new items, new tastes or trends, he thinks. Maybe.

From across the room, she asks for fresh sweet potatoes, but he’s out temporarily. Frustrated, she decides to bring up her scant items and check out. After all these years, he still takes notes by hand on yellow notepads, on pages grainy with sweat. He notes the items and enters them into the old register, and he must manually enter the tax, which changes every so often though it’s not a chore keeping up. She buys a batch of long green chiles, tomatoes, onions, cilantro, bread that Martinez hopes is still fresh, and a packet of oregano. He laments the lack of meat in her purchase, which is a bigger money item, and fights an urge to suggest this. Not with this woman, he thinks. She collects her bag and leaves the store, and sighing his relief, Martinez follows the woman out and starts to clean his bins.

The first burglary happened long ago, when Martinez and his wife still enjoyed life together, before cancer took her away. It took him by surprise, the crime, though he wasn’t sure why. His store has always been downtown, and downtown has always hinted an element of danger. The people are friendly, but these friendly folk disappear with the sunset, and who know what sort of element controls the streets then? He had no alarm system, no means of protecting his store except for deadbolt locks on the front and back doors. The lock on the back door was so shoddy that police said taking a crowbar to it was like a cold knife passing through a warm belly. When he came in for work that morning, the scratches on the door frame and chunks of wood on the floor disheartened him, and it took a while for Martinez to feel comfortable running his business again.

That first burglary was for the money. They took nothing else, and it made sense to everyone except Martinez. Sure money was tighter those days, he reasoned, but if that was the case, why not take some food instead? Committing a crime for food makes more sense to him than doing so for money, but all he could focus on was need, and when no one agreed no matter how much he argued, he decided to focus on his own need. He bought stronger locks and had a dummy camera installed in the alley, and posted signs warning would-be burglars about a security system that doesn’t exist. For weeks, all he’d talk about with his regulars was the crime and how the desperate man that committed it didn’t have the sense to take food instead of money. Sympathetic customers offered non-committal agreements, astonished by his insistence. Eventually, he stopped talking about it.

The next burglary didn’t happen for years, thankfully, and Martinez found he could be comfortable in his store again. Martinez had no choice but to invest in a small safe that he kept in the office next to the leaky toilet he reluctantly allowed customers to use. This burglary didn’t bother him nearly as much, but the experience gained from the first didn’t account for the sense of calm he felt as he dealt with tightening security. When he came in that morning, noticing how the burglar or burglars had broken out a window in the back door, ignoring or unconcerned about the dummy camera, he’d decided to install a full steel replacement. He walked through the store, going through the motions because he cynically believed that all the thief had wanted was his cash, when he noticed that the inventory of small factory produced and cellophane wrapped cakes near the register was undeniably smaller. He smiled, although the unhealthy tastes of the criminal cannot be condoned, at the least they thought about taking something to fill their bellies or those, hopefully, of their children. When he told customers the good news, they questioned why he could be happy about his loss, and he said that it showed a certain amount of need, and that made him feel a little more comfortable. Since he’s no fool, he had the steel door installed and bought a new dummy camera, one with an ominous blinking red light that warmed his heart every morning, a stutter-beacon in the early morning gloom.

After wiping out the bins, Martinez takes his usual break and pulls a small stool out from underneath, painted to look exactly like them. His knees pop as he crouches. It takes longer as time goes by for his body to cooperate, but soon he’s sighing and sitting fairly comfortably. He watches the city wake. It’s one of his greatest loves, to watch the city emerge from darkness and revive itself, the business of others going on monotonously, a devotion to finishing the small things and hopefully transforming them all into something meaningful. The trucks and vans from the post office along the way rev their engines and head out, loaded with bills and circulars and good and bad news. The viejitas are out, scamming for sales before any of the clothing and trinket shops are even open, they huddle in small groups sharing tips on discounts and new inventories. The café down the way, Buzz, is already open for business and has already attracted the career crowd, the movers, the shakers, the kids with their computers, the students with thick books sitting outside despite the cold, the books they hardly even read. Martinez had tried to compete by advertising by word of mouth his aguas frescas, but he learned quickly enough that they can’t trump a cup of overpriced coffee these days and gave up. He thought seriously for a while about making coffee himself, but he doesn’t know the first thing about the trend, and so now he just watches the café and tries to figure it all out. Nothing he comes up with tells him very much, and so he figures he should just make room for the both of them on the block. Buzz isn’t really stepping on his toes, after all.

He sits for a while, growing ever more impatient with himself, idle hands and all. He’ll usually sit long enough to spot the old homeless man, what’s his name? He struggles for a moment, staring into the brightest part of the street as if that’ll jog his memory, and then he finds it: Peter. He waits until Peter just barely turns the corner, and then he stands up and tries to head inside quickly, often resulting in a head rush and dimmed vision, and he’s got to understand some day that this just isn’t what he ought to be doing. He just wants a peek at the decrepit man, the man who entertains him sometimes with his wild stories and conspiracies, the way he hates the hustle and bustle, but Martinez knows he won’t be in today since his grocery isn’t the place to be in the cold months. During winter, Peter sweeps the sidewalk in front of Buzz like the boss asked him to for cups of hot coffee and stale pastries. As he sweeps he often tosses a bit of dust onto the shoes of the students, their receipts for the dirty looks that they offer Peter.

Back inside, he’s followed by a couple of customers, and after attending to their needs, he decides he’ll get started on the canned goods inventory, which will eat up the rest of his morning. From there, he’ll watch the clock and dread the moment when he must lock up and head back to his lonely house.

2. Night

By the time he arrives home the house is shrouded in darkness, and he regrets going off to work without leaving a lamp on. He opens the door and drops the keys on the counter by the kitchen sink, frantically reaching for the light switch. After a cursory check through each room for intruders, he decides to make dinner. He still hasn’t gotten used to cooking for one, so his measurements are off, either too little of this or too much of that, his recipes leave leftovers that he’ll never touch, and the food will be wasted because neighbors refuse to take it anymore. Tonight, he’ll eat canned ravioli because he doesn’t have the energy to cook a proper meal. After dinner, there’s never anything to do but stare at the television for a few hours until he can go to bed at a decent hour. He was brought up to believe that it’s wrong to go to bed too early.

He hates to watch TV because sitting still for hours makes him feel useless and useless always leads to restless, but because of his arthritis he can’t build anything anymore, and other hobbies never appealed to him. So he sits in his chair and watches program after program. Aside from the ten o’clock news, which is the last show he watches before bed, he loves to watch Jeopardy! He’s considered closing a half-hour earlier so that he could watch it as it airs, but the loss of business and the sense of responsibility towards clients settle the issue, so instead he sets his VCR to record and uses the same tape over and over. Once it reaches the end of the reel, he’ll watch every episode again before rewinding and starting all over again, and that night is his favorite night at home. After reliving those great contests, he goes to sleep with a smile on his face.

Tonight’s Jeopardy! is the second to last to fill the tape, and he laments that today can’t be tomorrow, though the thought chills him. The passage of time depresses Martinez, and he chews his still lukewarm ravioli without tasting it. He washes his dishes and sets them to dry beside the sink, watching as the desert breeze kicks up dust in his barren yard.

The routine continues: he eases into his chair with a deep sigh, and before he turns on the television, he looks around at each of his wife’s trinkets and vases, making a full circuit from right to left: the ceramic cat climbing a barrel and watching coyly over its shoulder, the faux-porcelain shy girl turned away from her faux-porcelain young suitor, the rugged wooden cross bearing the load of a gold-plated Christ, the plates boasting stylized names of cities around the world and tidbits of their respective cultures, the green tinted vases empty of flowers. Once he feels he’s spent enough time with each, he turns the set on and settles in. He can hardly stand looking at the few pictures of the happy couple scattered about the living room.

Shivering, he pulls back the blankets of his bed and climbs in. Fearing his next heating bill, he never turns the thermostat up higher than sixty. Instead, he piles on as many old blankets onto the same mattress he’s slept on for decades, as many as he can tolerate before he sweats too much, and it’s more luxurious than sleeping with the heater on anyway since the hot air dries out his sinuses. He pulls his blankets up to his chin and welcomes the inevitable hour spent thinking about his wife before he can finally drift into sleep. When the burglaries happened and Martinez spoke about his wish that food be taken instead of money, she called him crazy. She called him crazy in private and in front of friends, but she also offered ideas on how to secure the store, and she was always the one who knew just what had to be stocked and what needed to be pulled, according to tastes. She was the grocery’s public face, the one that people could open up to about concerns or just shoot the breeze and attract new clients. When she was alive and healthy enough to come in, the store thrived, but ever since it’s been a struggle, and so he always wonders if she wasn’t right about the whole burglary issue. All he wanted to know was that the people who felt the need to steal from him were doing it out of dire need and not selfishness. He tries, like every night, to push business out of his mind and focus instead on his wife, the feel of her hair, the narrow wrists that always amazed him with their strength, the round and small shoulders, the feel of her body that long ago was programmed into his memory, and as fresh as if she could be lying right next to him this very moment, curled together in each other’s warmth against the cold winter night.

3. Beyond

The phone’s ringing rips him from sleep, and he waits a moment as his heart pounds off-rhythm in his chest, the pause from one to the next like falling from a great dizzying height. He doesn’t recognize the ringing as such for a moment, then his sleep finally clears from his head, and he sits up. He reaches for the receiver. It’s 3:28, and he shouldn’t be awake for another hour.

“Bueno . . .” He listens to the grim, low voice on the other end of the line, asking him if his name is Martinez and whether he owns the grocery downtown. When the details are sorted out, the dispatcher informs Martinez that his store has been burglarized and he’ll have to come down and deal with the report. “Is my . . . my money okay?”

“Everything has been recovered, but you need to deal with the damage done to the store. They got the guy. He’s sitting in a cruiser outside of the coffee shop as we speak. Listen, you can talk to Officer Warren when you arrive.” The dispatcher hangs up, and Martinez gets out of bed and stands for a minute in the cold air, hoping it’ll wake him up completely. He dresses quickly, listening to see whether the heavy pounding of his heart will produce sound. He grabs his keys and locks the door behind him.

The lights of two cruisers light up the block, and Martinez hopes it doesn’t attract too much attention, though like always, downtown is deserted. The only ones out and about are the day laborers that cross the Santa Fe Bridge from Juárez looking for work and officers. Most of the criminals, Martinez assumes, have gone home to bed. He parks in the alley and rushes to the street, passing the darkened Buzz Café where the chairs and tables have been chained together, and he runs into Officer Warren who’s chatting with another officer. At the approach of Martinez, he stops talking and regards him warily. When introductions are made, Warren hands over a clipboard with his notes.

“Caught him coming out, in the alley back there,” Warren says. “He busted through that steel door of yours. Impressive stuff.” He clears his throat when he sees the way Martinez looks at him. “Anyway, he got into that little safe of yours. Might want to invest in something stronger. Also, he got into the register. Not a good idea to leave money in there.”

Warren watches as Martinez skims the report. Nothing much to add to what Warren has told him, except the name of the man now sitting in the cruiser. “Did he take anything else?”

Warren slowly shakes his head. “No, everything else in there is safe. Not a lot of small, valuable things worth taking, you know?” he chuckles. “Anyway, criminals know what they want and focus on it. Listen, we just wanted to get you down here to secure the premises and to give you a copy of the report—”

Martinez pushes past Warren and unlocks the front door of his grocery. Warren follows, holding out a copy of the report. “Listen, did he try and steal food from me?”

“Mr. Martinez, as I’ve said, all he wanted was money and—”

“But if he needs money, why wouldn’t he take food with him? It makes sense, que no? Then he doesn’t have to go out and buy food for himself, and maybe he has a family.” Martinez grabs paper bags from the counter and begins filling one with fruit, cereal, and both white and wheat bread. Finished with that one, he opens another by flicking his wrists, and to this he adds a couple of half gallons of milk and eggs on top. Warren follows him as he moves through the store, frowning at the way the cartons soak through the bag and asking him what he’s doing. “If that man has a family to feed, then I’m going to help him feed them.” He grabs both bags, but before he can head out the door, Warren stops him.

“Mr. Martinez, are you seriously about to take two bags of groceries out to the man who just burglarized your store?”

“I . . . If he needs it, then I’d like to help.” He doesn’t appreciate a strange man standing in front of him, preventing him from using his own door.

“But he’s a criminal. He stole from you and damaged your property.”

“But if he needs food, we should give it to him.”

“That’s—Listen I don’t mean to be disrespectful, Mr. Martinez, but that sounds kind of crazy to me.” Martinez, who’s focused upon his front door the entire time, finally looks Warren in the eyes. He looks over, and then he places the bags down upon the counter and sighs. Warren apologizes for his choice of words.

Martinez waves his hand. “No, no, joven. My wife—she said the same thing when it happened before. Before she died, she said I was crazy to care, that giving them food would be like letting them steal from me twice. I never saw it her way, like a lot of things. But when she was alive, joven, this store meant something more to this community. I meant something more, and now look at it. I don’t even know what to do with it, and here I am trying to give food away.” He drops his hands in defeat, his eyes teary. Warren nods and looks away. When he hears Martinez sob, he asks how long he’s been in business.

“I’ve been in the grocery business all my working life, since I was twelve years old. I’ve owned this store for over forty-four years now. This very store, in the same location,” he sighs. “Used to be the place to come, now it attracts drunks and the homeless more than anyone else.” Warren, clearly uncomfortable, hands over Martinez’s copy of the police report and says that they’ll take the burglar off for booking now. Before he can finish wishing Martinez a good day, Martinez asks whether he can see the man they’ve arrested.

“I don’t know,” Warren says. “Not too common for proprietors to want to see the guys that steal from them,” but he relents when he see the look on Martinez’s face. “Just mind your manners. In fact, I’d prefer that you wouldn’t say anything at all.” They walk out of the grocery, and Warren adds, “Might be good for you to get a look at him so if he ever comes back, you’ll recognize him.”

The lights have been turned off, and the cruisers sit in the gloom of the still dark morning. The lampposts on this block are scant, which probably accounts for why Martinez’s Grocery is targeted every so often. They approach the cruiser sitting just outside of Buzz, and from the distance, Martinez can see the way the man inside hunches down with his chin tucked against his chest. Warren stops Martinez a few feet away, opens the door and tells the man not to say a thing and keep his eyes on the street ahead. He beckons Martinez, who slowly approaches the open backseat of the cruiser. He looks in and sees a man just outside of childhood, his head shaved, nicks in his eyebrows, a tattoo of a crucifix set in the sun on his neck. Martinez leans down and introduces himself, much to the irritation of Warren. The handcuffed man doesn’t return the favor and keeps his eyes on the street ahead like Warren asked him to do.

“Listen, joven, I have only a couple of things to ask you.” When the man doesn’t answer, Martinez continues. “Do you have a family?”

The man doesn’t answer immediately, and yet Martinez remains at his side, waiting patiently. Finally, quietly, “I . . . I have a boy.” He shakes his head when Martinez asks whether he’s married.

“Did you steal from me out of need, a need to feed your son?” The man says nothing, has shut down, will refuse to answer any more questions, it seems. Warren gently grabs Martinez’s shoulder and informs him that it’s time for the man to head to the jail. “Please, just answer the question.” He struggles against the increasing strength of Warren. “I need to know if I could’ve helped.” The man finally turns to look Martinez in the eye, unblinking and scowling, “Leave me alone, you crazy viejo. Go back inside your fucking store, and leave me the hell alone.” Warren scolds the man for his disrespect before shutting the door. He signals to the waiting officer, and the cruiser disappears into the gloom. Warren pats Martinez’s shoulder and asks if there’s anything else he can do for him. Martinez shakes his head, his eyes trained on the street ahead.

“Listen, you’re not crazy,” Warren says. “I misspoke earlier.”

Martinez waves him off. “No, no, it’s okay. You don’t have to apologize. Listen, you can go and work now. It’s a bit early than every day, but I’m going to get ready to open.” Warren nods and tells him to take care of the door as soon as possible and maybe look into a real security system. Even though he can’t afford it, Martinez thinks that maybe his wife was right again, and the time is right to invest in one. He opens the front door and doesn’t move again until it’s closed behind him. He locks it and turns on the lights, prepares to finish the inventory he left over from the day before. The young man had called him crazy, as did Warren and his wife. Maybe they were right . . . or maybe for them, he was crazy, but if being sane meant that he had to doubt everyone and everything and be suspicious, well . . . Maybe crazy wasn’t too bad. Besides, he thought as he arranged the cans of fruit cocktail that would be on sale for the coming week since they were getting close to their sell-by date, he didn’t feel crazy. Thinking about that kid, the son that would be waiting that night for his dad to come home, probably unaware of where he’s been, that didn’t feel crazy. It’s a crazy world that doesn’t think about him. When he finishes with inventory, he finds the two bags still sitting next to his register, and he returns the items to their proper shelves. The sun isn’t out yet, but the sky between the buildings downtown is a rich, deep azure, and Martinez decides that today the grocery will open even earlier than before. Maybe a good idea would be to put out some hot chocolate or atole, for free, since it’s such a cold day. He’ll stock his shelves, greet his clients whether cheerful or cranky it doesn’t matter, and if he can he’ll look into that security system before the day is through. In the meantime, he thinks that maybe it’s time to look into products like healthier bread, homemade salads, expensive beers, or maybe it’s time to make some tortas from scratch and put out a table or two so the people can eat them out in the fresh air. He grabs one of his old register record books and turns it to a fresh page. Before the first customer, the woman from the day before who’s pleasantly surprised to find it open already and makes a comment about Martinez finally getting his act together, Martinez has the page full of ideas and plans, and all he can picture is his wife making her rounds after everything changes, the way her eyes light up, proud of her crazy old man.

Paul Pedroza was born and raised in El Paso, Texas. He received his MFA in Fiction from the University of Illinois. Currently, he teaches in the English Department of New Mexico State University. His work has appeared in Rattle, MAKE: A Chicago Literary Magazine, Palabra, BorderSenses, Confluencia, Inquiring Mind Buddhist Magazine, and the anthologies Our Lost Border and New Border Voices. His book, The Dead Will Rise and Save Us, is forthcoming from Floricanto Press.

Dotted Line