It’s a parking space, lady. Tomas mutters this under his breath, though his grandmother’s voice is immediately in his head, scolding fiercely. He is gripping the wheel and it seems to grip back, sticky under his fingers. His parallel parking skills are not great, especially in his dad’s truck, but defiance seems appropriate here. He scowls and lifts his chin, concentrating on maneuvering into the space, but his eyes blur a little when he realizes that the lady in the Audi has rolled down her window, her black sedan sleekly obedient. A man sits in the passenger’s seat next to her, too heavily dressed for Santa Fe in winter, bear-like in parka and some inexplicable rage. And yet the day is so brilliant that this morning, sprinting the Atalaya upper trail, Tomas stopped for a moment to tear off his hoodie, standing amidst a huddle of junipers dripping snow who also raised lanky arms to the sky.
The woman and the man are both shouting from the recesses of their front seat, mouths forming large, intentional circles like people trying to make themselves understood to a foreigner. They have attracted the attention of several people standing on the curb–horrifying to Tomas because now a small crowd is watching on as he wrestles with the wheel. The truck will not fit in the space, he sees that now, and struggles to shift to reverse, but the Audi pulls forward, blocking his escape. The man has thrown open the passenger’s side door. In some region of his brain untouched by panic, Tomas observes that the man has pulled on a mask as he approaches and wears it sloppily, under his nose. Tomas’s father, a doctor, has admonished Tomas for this same carelessness, among many others in recent weeks.
Tomas reaches for his own mask but it is not there–of course it is not there, not by the stick shift where he is sure he placed it when he got in the car and not anywhere else that he can locate with his unsteady vision. The bear-man is at his window, shouting furiously, and the cluster of people has grown, spreading ominously. Some of the words that come from the man’s mouth reach Tomas and even though his heart is thundering in his ears, his breath trapped beneath ribs, his mind turns the man’s words over with surprise, examining them like bizarrely weathered stones: “Thug-,” “stupid–little –Mexican–shit–”
Where is his phone? Last night, after another fight about college, he had sworn he would never seek his father’s help for anything, certainly not help in an emergency, not under any circumstances, not even if he was near death or found himself far from home, lost in a strange place where no one knew his name. Of course, he is not near death–Tomas hears his father’s steady voice now–and he is not far from home. In fact, this is his home, the place he was born and has spent his entire life; he knows this street and every other that rambles away from the Plaza’s stately square—there is a takeout sushi spot huddled in an old adobe at the end of the block where, before the pandemic shut everything down, he and his friends liked to eat; two doors down is a cafe where his Aunt Layla used to take him for ice cream; across the street is the public library whose main building– John Gaw Meem’s elegant take on New Mexico Territorial style–looks out on the Sangre de Cristo range, blue mountains streaked with snow that rise up this afternoon against an even bluer sky.
The cop car appears from nowhere, pulling up parallel to the black Audi with an urgency that makes Tomas dizzy. His mind is at war. His best friend’s dad is with the police department; perhaps Andrew Vargas will emerge from the patrol car, stroll over to the truck’s window with the same amiable ease that he uses when he enters his house after finishing his beat, greeting the boys where they huddle over their phones at the kitchen table. Yet Tomas is no fool; he knows the odds are against being rescued here. In spite of the frayed exchanges over college, school work, and the short dreads that give him three inches over his father, Tomas is in fact his father’s son. And his father has taught him well. Tomas knows that at this moment in time, he is three unfortunate things that have converged into a single very bad thing: Black, male and teenaged. He knows that, in addition to homework, college applications, and basketball practice, he has a job that requires staying out of the way of the police, any police, even the genial officers that walk these sedate streets. Having fallen down on that job, he must now compose himself. He must banish any outward indication of fear or defiance, make every gesture and response as strategic as if he were extracting himself from the wreckage of a burning plane.
The cop’s nameplate reads ”Officer Garcia,” and his mouth is set in a straight line, carefully expressionless. But his eyes are sharp, and he approaches Tomas cautiously, as though the pavement around the truck is unstable. The bear-man has thrown open the door of the Audi; he hoists himself out, ruddy with an effort that momentarily distracts Officer Garcia. Tomas cannot hear the bear-man’s words, but understands that the man is speaking urgently to Officer Garcia, though he appears to have tucked his anger away, behind the sloppy mask. Instead, the man’s eyes now wear an injured expression and he is stringing his words together–nouns and adverbs and conjunctions–in a construction that he offers up to the policeman as smoothly as the window that separates Tomas from the two men. Tomas rolls down the window and Officer Garcia turns his gaze on the boy in the truck.
“Sir, please put on your mask so I can approach your vehicle.”
“I’m sorry Officer, I’ve misplaced–I apologize but I can’t seem to find–.” Tomas leans forward, feeling around desperately on the floor at his feet. Officer Garcia’s gaze hardens.
“Sir put your hands down where I can see them on the dashboard–.” The policeman’s bark fills the street and the onlookers freeze. Over the officer’s left shoulder, Tomas sees the bear-man, radiant with vindication, but Tomas feels no anger, feels nothing in fact but the dull and sickening thud of his heart in his chest and the dashboard’s gritty surface where, with infinite care, he places his palms down.
It is at this moment that a tiny, dark-headed woman, fierce as a barn swallow, darts from the sidewalk and descends upon Officer Garcia. She is flapping her thin arms and she speaks in a furious tangle of broken English. Tomas recognizes her–she is the old Korean lady who runs the sushi shop. When he last saw her, months ago before the pandemic began, she was bent and listing as she shuffled from kitchen to cash register, reliably indifferent to the clusters of high school students who gathered in her shop after school. But she is unbent now and, before his panicked eyes, has become a magnificent winged creature, beating the air in front of the policeman with fury.
“No hands-on! No hands-on! Go away then! Go!” Officer Garcia suddenly blinks, as though awakened from some heavy spell. The bear-man braces for a moment, but then steps backward, a small man after all, swallowed in his heavy coat. The woman turns back to Tomas and meets his astonished eyes with her black ones, brilliant with life. “No parking space here! No parking!”
In another moment, after the men have made their separate ways to their vehicles, the old woman will thrust her tiny hands into her coat pockets and inhabit her body again. She will list awkwardly as she turns away and makes her way back to the sidewalk. Tomas will watch her climb the curb and, in this moment and at many moments in the years to come, he will picture her marvelous strength, consider the power that beats there beneath her tiny, folded frame. Only when she has turned into her shop, never once looking back, will he start the truck, back out of the parking space, and slowly drive, all the way home.