All the stalks folded low into the ground one night before you were born.
It was something I had wanted you to remember.
My grandfather and grandmother built their first home along a dusty, brown tract in Southern California, in a place where the houses careen all through the valley and into the hills.
Imagine: that dust rises, drifting toward the bright, jagged hole torn in the sky by the sun. Walls come up; then a door, sanded and painted. Their children find play and place atop sloping hills, shoes filled with pebbles and thorns. And at the end of each day, brown dirt clings to tired, brown skin.
Their home was finished one long afternoon in the daylight of that season negligent in its own passing, and they planted corn all along the front yard, loving and rewarding the land they suddenly owned in the way people do in Mexico.
My mom was embarrassed. Brown people in a white neighborhood with goddamn stalks of corn swaying above the rose bushes, complacent in their affront to those hallowed, green lawns. She learned to hide behind the steep body of that plant she resented most, afraid, knowing one day she would grow too tall.
Watch the photo: I sometimes wonder about the looks and thoughts of the neighbors beyond the frame. Are we a spectacle or another tired articulation of their fears? Brown stalks ready for harvest, brushing against brown skin...
Someone tell our neighbors they can stop worrying now; the sun has fled far beyond the hills to indulge old vanities, leaving our harvest to spoil. Brown unites in dust and rotting stalks, and in my dark palms...
At last they blend to the one color, scattered to the root.
II. The Hammer
The sun fell through its final arc across the vast, empty sky and my grandfather grasped a hammer in his right hand. He took a moment, after watching the kids run back inside, to admire its weight and its strength. Its metal head murmured a dull grey color, something like the clouds at dusk smeared above the hills. He had just finished building the window frame. He ran his fingers over the frame’s brown, sanded edges and sent my uncle to get some paint from the toolshed.
My grandfather looked down at his swollen hands and then over the fence, and found the neighbor staring at him.
He knew not to wave. He went back to watching his hands and counted the calluses, and he waited for my uncle to come back with the paint.
It looked like he might be able to finish the back porch by November.
My grandmother yanked the closet door open so quickly that a bolt slipped from its hinge. The door was left slouching sideways against cracked drywall. She hardly noticed or cared— he could fix it. He fixed most things. But she was looking for something he couldn’t fix. And just above the button-downs, on the shelf next to his cowboy boots, she found it.
The trophy was plastic and simply adorned, with only a small plaque reading, “FIRST PLACE”, and a microphone jutting from its gleaming top. He had won it at his favorite bar, the same place he was now. She flung it across the room, expecting a sound like shattering glass, but heard only a muted thud. Almost unchanged, the microphone’s round, gold precipice reflected and warped their entire bedroom. She saw their whole life wrapped around the tip of some cheap, ugly trophy, and condensed into that tiny reflection, it could almost be grasped. But no, it needed to be broken.
She swept past their kids playing in the backyard and found a long, heavy hammer in his toolshed. The weight was no burden. It stretched down, balanced over the brown handle and metal head, and gave her strength. She swung the hammer in a crooked arc onto his trophy, and left it in so many pieces that no form would ever again curve across its gilded walls.
And my grandmother knew when he returned home that he would only be silent.
I am a cowboy and a superhero, and every other good role in the world. I weave through the rose bushes and the cacti, and drift above a lawn where corn once grew. My cousin glides just behind me, maybe on my side but I know allegiances are uncertain in these fantastical timelines. Kids across the street watch our adventures unfold, and they will never try to play with us.
A thorn in my thumb! No problem, I have healing powers and these tears are false. But the cactus will need to be punished for the evil it inflicts.
My grandmother is asleep in the living room, her breath teetering between a snore and a whistle. We sneak past her and take a long, plastic rod from the window, the kind that twist the shutters inside-out. I return to face the enemy. My heart is steel and my skin is tough-brown.
The cactuses spill transparent blood and their surfaces split open like a torn envelope. We’ve almost finished destroying them when the regularity of the thuds from the backyard ceases. My grandfather finds us, and we are no longer cowboys or superheroes, or any of the good things in the world. He tells us we have done something bad. First they made him get rid of the maíz, and now his nopales are ruined.
But he won’t let us cry about it, he says. We wipe our false tears and follow him to the backyard. He brings us into the toolshed that we normally aren’t allowed in and my cousin gets a handful of nails and I get a long, heavy hammer. Its handle is pale, almost white, but I can see that at one point it must have been tough-brown.
He tells us he is making something for my grandmother, something he broke a long time before. And now we will help him. His hands are rough when he holds my own dark palms, and teaches me how to swing the hammer— how to build, he says.
I watch my hands and cradle the hammer’s weight. I don’t want to cry anymore, only do this task right for him and for my grandmother.
My strength and swings move to a place beyond me, into the wood, and I watch the nails vanish through the grain.
Julian Robles is a writer in New York City and contributing editor for We Do Culture.