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Also by H. Lee Barnes:
Candescent | Changing Hands | Hueco Tanks | Tunnel Rat | Stonehands and the Tigress | A Lovely Day in the A Shau Valley

Hueco Tanks

On a mild April day with no wind to speak of the bad news came about Henry's brother. It was a week before midterms, and at the time Bobby, Henry, Todd and I were lolling around the Beta Phi house waiting for a call from two Theta Mau girls, Ann Hobbes, Todd's steady, and her sorority sister, Elaine, who was quite plain, but could drink most of us under the table. Serious guys, by noon we'd shed our hangovers and done a solid day's work. We'd disrupted t.v. reception in the day room by running Bobby's magnet up and down an adjacent wall, and we'd spread catsup and mustard on Phil Hamber's sheets to teach him it was poor form to vomit hot dogs and pickle relish, no matter how drunk he got; to affirm our intellectual elevation, we'd recited selections from Bierce's Devil's Dictionary and cackled as if his acerbic quips were our own inventions.

Then a knock came to the door. The house mother said Henry's father was on the telephone with something important. As Henry got up to leave, Todd said something about the fine sense of balance it took to stand on a telephone. We laughed as we always did when Todd made a wise crack. Henry said he had to take the call since he needed the money and that he'd be right back. Henry's father was a dentist. When Henry reappeared, Todd asked what the call was about. Henry walked to his dresser and picked up the picture of his brother in a swimsuit and water polo head gear. He laid the picture face down, slumped down at the foot of Bobby's bed and gazed out the window. Bobby and I looked to Todd, who merely nodded. We remained silent and sat nearby and stared as he did. What one did we all did. That's how we were, especially if Todd led the charge. We tended to follow his lead.

We called ourselves the Four Engineers and fancied ourselves musketeers of sorts, mining engineers to-be, gentlemen who admired the harmony of equations, the symmetry and precision of a Cartesian universe. Our sabers were our slide rules upon which we calculated the maxima and minima of definite integrals. Though we sometimes disagreed, our arguments were never quarrels, but gentlemen's discussions. We believed mostly in what we found mutually agreeable. The universe seemed tidy and pleasingly designed for us. We admired the mathematical order of it, and although we toyed with French existentialism, order was what was most important, that and a keg of beer, trying to get into a sorority sister's panties, and our draft deferments. We had clear priorities.

But that afternoon as we sat gawking at the UTEP campus up the block, we didn't know we were staring at a universe changing shape.

His voice flat as ship's deck, Henry broke the silence, saying, "My brother's dead. Shot down over South China Sea north of the DMZ."

He informed us he had to fly home in two days for the service, that there would be no casket because the plane had disintegrated on its way down. He didn't cry.

"War's dumb," Todd said, "and this one's the dumbest."

Whenever the subject of Vietnam arose, as it often did in those days, Todd said it was a particularly senseless war. He'd argue the lesson of Hemingway's A Farewell to Arms, that all wars are bad, but worse when honor is lost. At its zenith war should be contested as the aces of WWI had fought, mano a mano. Men, he insisted, should embrace ideals even in battle. Vietnam was war's nadir. He was forceful in his argument and as always, very persuasive. We deferred to him. In many ways, he was the group.

Todd stood and placed a hand tenderly on Henry's shoulder. "Gone. Boom, and nothing," he said. "That's tough. I hope he lived fast." He set the tone. We were to take this silent and firm as Hemingway's code heroes. Bobby said we should cross the bridge over to Juarez and get drunk. Wasn't that how Hemingway would handle it? It was a call to action, something manly; it was time for some drunken mourning. Henry seemed a bit confused at first. I said it was a plan. Todd said it was a good idea. That made it absolute.

If only that was what we'd done.


Ann finally called and said she and some of her sisters wanted to have a beer bust with us before midterms, but we were committed to an evening at the El Submarino gulping twenty-five cent Mexican beer. First we needed to line our stomachs with menudo at Rosario's. We loaded into Todd's custom '65 Dodge big block and drove two streets over to the Mexican eatery where we kept a monthly account.

Standing behind the counter was Carmella, a quiet modest girl of nineteen, slight and sort of pretty with shiny black hair pinned in a bun atop her head. Her large black eyes took on a jeweled luster when she glanced at Todd. We noticed it, especially Todd, aware as he was of his disarming smile and clean-cut looks. He took the stool nearest her.

She poured us each a glass of water, lingering over Todd's. He said he wanted to take her dancing. At the time Todd was seeing Ann Hobbes, who occupied those moments he didn't spend playing touch football, getting drunk, or cramming for tests. I figured he was teasing Carmella, but he said he was serious. He offered up a mischievous smile and ordered our usual. "Four bowls of menudo and two plates of tamales. Hold the cockroaches," he said. We laughed. She blushed.

Carmella brought our bowls on a tray. As she placed his in front of him, Todd touched her hand. She jerked away as if shocked by a hot wire. The tray tottered. Her face reddened. Lisandra, who stood by the pass through, shook her head.

"She's a nice girl, Ingeniero," Lisandra scolded. "No molestla."

Lisandra, the owner and cook, was a stout, affable woman in her forties, but she tolerated no nonsense from us. We ate on credit the last week of every month, and she kept a ledger that was accurate to the penny. We respected her efficient if primitive accounting system and never questioned the bill.

Todd smiled ingenuously. "This is a bad day, Lisandra. Henry's brother was killed in Vietnam."

Lisandra crossed herself. "Madre Dolorosa. Oh. Lo siento. Ees terrible, muy terrible."

Carmella looked at Henry. "I'm very sorry," she said.

"We're going to Juarez," Bobby said.

"To get drunk," Todd added.

I forked a tamale onto my plate.

After that we were quiet. Henry didn't eat. Bobby helped himself to Henry's share. Carmella swept the floor pretending not to look at Todd, but all the while sending furtive glances in his direction. Toward the end of the meal Todd ambled over to the juke box and dropped in a dime. He pushed the buttons to play Johnny Mathis's "Quiet Girl."

"This is for you, Carmella," he said. He brushed his fingers through his wavy hair.

She looked down at the tiles.


It was Bobby's idea to return to the frat house for condoms. "just in case," he said though we didn't have funds to pay for beer and prostitutes both. Taped to the door was a message for Henry to call home. As Henry's mother had taken ill—no details, just ill—his father asked him to fly to Portland in the morning. Henry took this news poorly and predicted he probably wouldn't be coming back in time for midterms.


Carmella sat at the bus stop. Her hair, no longer in a bun, cascaded down her back. Todd pulled over and stopped at the bench. She seemed transformed, lovely, exotic, and even carefree. The looseness of her long hair and the absence of the apron changed her appearance. Todd was impressed. Looking squarely in her eyes, he said hello. His advice to us was to always look at a woman's eyes when you want her attention.

She met his gaze. "Hi," she answered.

"Want a ride? We've got time to drop you somewhere."

She blushed and instantly became the shy Carmella who waited tables. She kept her seat. "Oh, no thank you." Her fingers gripped the edge of the bench.

"Come on, Todd, you're embarrassing her," Bobby said.

Todd shot Bobby a glare through the mirror. "Relax."

"Let's go, " I said.

Todd looked at me. "We've got an obligation to be gentlemen," he said.

Henry stared out the windshield. He hadn't heard a word.

"It won't be out of our way," Todd said to her.

"No. I can't." She continued to sit.

"Sure you can." He stared at her. He had an insistent, expressionless stare, the kind that made people uncomfortable. "I've been meaning to give you a ride every time I pass by. You saw me wave, didn't you? Once in a while?"

She nodded. It was all the encouragement he needed. He told me to step out and let Carmella in. She looked up and down the street as if that might hurry the bus. When he smiled this time, she realized Todd wasn't going to drive away. With a sigh she succumbed to his stare and walked to the car.

"That's better, Isn't it?" Todd asked as she scooted next to him.

At a Circle K store Bobby, Henry and I sat in the car and watched Todd twirl the ends of her hair in his fingers while she held the phone to her ear and talked to her mother. We didn't need to hear the conversation. She was ready to please even if it meant lying and saying she was going to a friend's house. She gazed up at his face as she talked. Finally, she nodded twice, said something quickly, and cradled the receiver. Todd brushed her cheek softly with the back of his hand.

An hour later we drove east on Montana Street feeling fine about the universe again. We laughed and passed a quart of Pearl back and forth in a paper bag. On the floorboard in an ice chest lay two unopened quarts. Todd drove with one hand on the wheel, the other dangled over Carmella's shoulder. She couldn't take her eyes off him. Except for when the beer bottle passed in front of her from me to him and back. On those occasions, she glanced at me and smiled. Her smile seemed like an apology.

Montana Street flowed into the interstate where the dunes warp like an expanse of water-stained paper. Behind us the sun's coronet topped the Franklin Mountains. A few miles ahead on the eastern horizon Hueco Tanks materialized as hard rock burnished by the setting sun. For centuries the declivities inside the sandstone formations had served to preserve life by collecting water in times of rain—thus the name empty tanks. Indians and Spaniards watered horses there. Vaqueros did the same with cattle. Now it was a state park, a recreation spot, on weekends a place for young people to gather together in the dark, a place where empty beer bottles and used prophylactics were carelessly discarded.

As dusk approached, we turned onto a dusty back road. Todd grinned. We were roomies, had been for two years, so I knew that grin. It was more disconcerting than his stare.

We climbed through a crimped opening that led to a deserted cavity. Here and there the ground was damp where rocks had trapped moisture. Our voices echoed through the rocky passage. We plopped down by a dead campfire. Empty bottles and cans littered the dirt. Bobby wadded torn paper under the half-burned logs and flicked his lighter until the paper caught fire. The quick burst of flame sent embers skyward, and we thought we had a fire, but it ebbed. Bobby, Henry and I puffed frantically on the few glowing brands and gradually brought flames.

When we looked up, Todd was kissing Carmella, her head tilted back, her throat nicely curved. Though at first she tried to push him away, he kissed her insistently. The rest of us sat there too embarrassed to look at one another. When she and Todd separated, he popped the cap off the second beer. Foam bubbled over its throat and spilled on the hem of Carmella's skirt. She was concerned she might smell of beer, and if she did, what would her mother say?

Todd said it was just a drop or two and the smell would go away. She refused his offer to drink some. He passed the beer on and held her cheeks in his hands.

"You're divine," he said. "Isn’t she, guys?"

She held her skirt over her knees and looked up at the stars avoiding our eyes. He told her he wanted her to be his girl. She pressed her head to his shoulder to hide her face.

I said we should probably finish the beer and leave soon so Henry could catch his flight.

"Pretty, isn't she?” Todd asked none of us in particular.

I repeated what I'd said. He smiled into the fire and told me to be patient.

Soon after we were all feeling the beer. Bobby excused himself, walked to a dark comer and stood with his back to us to urinate. We heard his water splashing. Carmella pretended to not notice. I wondered what she was thinking. Wasn't this too much for her? Didn't she sense something? Todd rubbed his hand up and down her back.

“I have to go home soon," she said.

I felt relieved to hear her say it.

“Okay. We've got another quart left,” Todd said. “Then we'll go. So, you never answered. Do you want to be my girl?”

She lowered her head.

“Maybe you're too shy?” Todd said.

Henry who'd been quiet the whole evening said, “Maybe she doesn't.”

Todd winked at him. "We'll see.”

Bobby opened the last beer. Her eyes fixed on Todd, Carmella sat quietly listening to a story about cooked term papers. Every once in while she'd brush her hair back with her fingers, her long black strands glistening in the firelight.


There were recesses in the rocks and fissures and channels leading into more fissures, places to seek privacy. In the course of events Todd and Carmella drifted away. We tracked their whispers until the night was mute save for the sounds of crickets. We were bored, ready to leave. The beer was gone, the fire dying. Henry wasn't talking, and besides, we really had nothing to discuss.

Nearly an hour passed before Todd returned—alone.

“Where's Carmella?” I asked. He squatted by the fire as Henry paced behind him. Todd looked over his shoulder. "Feeling better, Henry?”

“I've got a plane to catch, Todd. We gotta go.”

"Portland, Oregon,” Bobby said, “He's got to go.”

“We'll go in a bit,” Todd said. “Don't I always come through for you?” He winked. “The money my parents send, where does it go? On beer for us. And who picks up the tab when someone else is broke?”

He waited for us to speak, but no one did.

"Follow me," he said.

"Why?" I asked.

"Never mind. Watch out for scorpions," he said.

"Scorpions?" Bobby asked.

We followed through a fissure so narrow we had to negotiate it sideways, and then traversed an incline that opened atop a table top ledge. Illuminated by moonlight, Carmella sat some thirty feet away, her legs folded beneath her, eyes downcast, hair flowing over her shoulders. The rocks were pale in the moonlight, and her skin seemed marble white.

Todd told us to wait, then crossed the ledge and sat beside her. He whispered soothingly and rubbed her shoulders, kissed her gently. She pleaded and shook her head. He held her by the cheeks and forced her to look at him. He nodded, saying nothing. That unrelenting stare again. Finally she lowered her eyes and nodded.

He called Henry over and told Bobby and me to go away.

We heard her last muffled protests and Todd's soothing tones, heard a sharp cry, then silence. Ten minutes later Henry came down. Bobby asked how it was. Henry wouldn't look us in the eye. He shrugged, said it was fine and that Todd wanted whoever was next to come, and we could decide it between us. I told Bobby to go.

Henry and I watched him scale the track. My mouth went dry. From above Bobby and Todd's muffled voices floated down. Then they ceased all talk. The silence drummed in my ears.

I told Henry I wasn't going up.

"You have to," he said.

"No, I don't."

It was light enough to see fear in his eyes. "We do everything together," he said. I didn't answer. I spoke no more and neither did he. The air was oppressive.

A few minutes later Bobby sent down an avalanche of pebbles and loose sand. He was breathing heavily. Between gasps he said, "Todd says you're next.” He looked at me and forced a chuckle.

"No," I said,

"Jesus H. Christ," Henry said. "What's wrong with you?"

"Nothing," I said.

"Go tell Todd," Henry said. "I've got to catch a plane."

They waited for me to move. I don't know how much time passed, but eventually I took that first step. As I mounted the footpath, Bobby reminded me to use my rubber.

Todd sat with his arm over her shoulder. He told her I was here. "It's okay," he said. "You like him don't you? He's my roomy, like a brother."

Her blouse was unbuttoned but held closed by her fist. She clamped her skirt tightly between her knees. She had been sweating. Her skin and hair glistened in the dim light. She stared straight ahead without speaking. He lifted her chin, forcing her to look in his eyes. He kissed her, then nodded and pried open the fist that clasped her blouse.

“Are you okay, Carmella?" I asked.

"Don't talk. She's okay," he said.


"No talking," he said and laid her back gently. She lay on the hard stone. He kissed her on the throat as he slowly hiked up her skirt and slid his hand between her knees to open her legs.

"What are you waiting for?" he asked.

I shook my head and reeled about. I bumped into Bobby on my way through the rocks. He asked how it was. I shoved him aside. Henry was already seated in the front of the car. He wanted to know if Todd was coming. It was getting cool, the dry cool that usually makes a spring night in the desert something sweet and special. But that night it was just chilly. I leaned against the fender and folded my arms over my chest.

Several minutes passed before the three of them appeared out of the shadows. Huddled together, Todd and she moved slowly. Bobby walked beside them. She was crying. Todd reassured her everything was fine, that she'd see it was fine tomorrow. When they reached the car, Bobby swung open the back seat and eased Carmella in. Todd handed the keys to Bobby, slid in beside her, and wrapped his arm around her, pulling her head to his shoulder. He kissed her forehead and whispered something in her ear.

As Bobby walked around to the driver's door, he called me a chickenshit. I nodded to him. Todd rolled the window down.

"You coming?"

I shook my head.

"What're you going to do?"

I shrugged. "I don't know."

"You're going to keep your mouth shut," he said. "That's what you're going to do."

I stepped away and watched them drive off, like bandits fleeing the scene, spraying sand until the car reached the asphalt. I stood for a long while just looking over the dunes at miles of sage and cactus and beyond the distant glow of El Paso at night. I glanced back over my shoulder at Hueco Tanks, then I began walking.

When I reached the highway, I walked west toward the city. I made no effort to hail a ride. Trucks and cars whooshed by making the ground tremble. I paid them no mind. I walked in that direction for about two miles before I stopped. I guess I knew the moment I stopped that I wouldn't be taking midterms, that there was nothing there I wanted to see again. I crossed the highway and walked east with no destination in mind, no plan, just walked.

A few miles down the highway an old Buick Century pulling a shallow-walled trailer packed with furniture stopped and waited for me. When I reached the door, I noticed its tires were balding. The driver, a Hispanic man perhaps forty with thick straight hair combed back, opened his door and asked if I needed a ride.

"My family and I are headed to Plano," he said. "How far are you going?"

I said I didn't know yet.

"Ah. Can you drive?"

I told him I could.

Inside were his wife, four children and a scattering of small suitcases and boxes. Three of the children were girls. He told them to make room for me. The nearest and youngest held onto a bean doll with a wooden head, its eyes and nose and mouth painted on. She looked up and smiled. Her father told her to climb up front. He told me to slam the door hard to close it.

It was stuffy inside and terribly cramped. The boy passed a valise over his sister's head, and I placed it on my lap. The man introduced himself as Gabriel and said I was welcome in his car, that his wife didn't drive and would be thankful for someone else to help with the driving.

The little girl looked back over the seat and grinned. She held up the doll for me to see. "She flies," the girl said.

The mother smiled. "She believes this is true."

I nodded politely.

The Buick lurched forward, its tires sliding on the pavement. It trembled until it gradually gained speed. Gabriel asked why I was on foot.

I said, "My friends left me."

"Hombre," he answered, "you have no future with friends like that."

The car jostled back and forth. The girls in back stared at me until they lost interest and in time they leaned against one another and quickly went to sleep. The mother stared at the windshield and hummed to the daughter with the doll. The boy paid me no mind.

Gabriel talked for some time about his new job in Plano as a welder building fences in a stockyard. Occasionally he would peek at his daughters and his somber-faced son. Gabriel rolled down his window, and asked if I minded, said a breeze blowing through the car made him feel like a bird. After that he was quiet. I listened to the whistling air and looked in the darkened window at the exaggerated reflection of my face and the shadowed landscape sliding past.

The little girl's head rose before me. She smiled. Her front teeth were missing. Her eyes were dark and shined. Gabriel looked over proudly.

"She's smart, this one. A man should have daughters," he said with conviction. "Daughters teach you things a son can't."

She stared at me, but I couldn't look in her eyes. She held the doll out for me. I smiled and shook my head. I had second thoughts, began to regret getting in the car. I should have kept myself away from others. I needed to think about what had happened, organize it in some way that fit with the universal order I had come to claim. I tried to tell myself I'd done nothing wrong. The girl whispered in her mother's ear, then held the doll out to me, this time insistently.

"She wants you to have her doll," the mother said. "She says you are alone."

It was a funny-looking little brown-faced doll with a red dress and limp arms. Its eyes were brown circles inside white triangles, and it had a red quarter-moon mouth that smiled at me. I looked at the girl, ready to thank her and shake my head, but I saw her round face, her almond eyes, rich, deep-brown eyes, expectant. My hand was shaking as I reached for the doll. It seemed small in my hand, fragile. I closed my eyes and tried to picture Carmella. She stood behind the counter of the cafe. She wore an apron and was shaking her head, and in the next instant she was a small girl.

I heard Gabriel asking me if I was okay, if I'd be able to drive, and I tried to answer him, tried desperately to, but my eyes wouldn't open any more than my mouth would. I pressed the doll to my chest and held it there as if by doing so I could breathe life into it. It wasn't that I had done nothing wrong; I had done nothing at all. Nothing. Gabriel asked again if I was all right. I felt a hot trickle run down my cheek, and I turned my face to the window.

"Yes,” I said, then to myself I said, no.

Printed in the Spring/Summer 2000 issue of CLR

H. Lee Barnes

H. Lee Barnes teaches English and creative writing at the Community College of Southern Nevada. His fiction has appeared in several literary journals, most recently in Clackamas Literary Review and Echoes, and two stories are forthcoming in Flint Hills Review. In 1997 he won the Clackamas Literary Review fiction award and in 1991 the Arizona Authors Association award for the short story. Gunning for Ho, his collection about Vietnam, has just been released from the University of Nevada Press.

You can find H. Lee Barnes on the web at:
—  Arizona State University Creative Writing
—  Printed Matter
—  Gunning for Ho
—  Boston Review
—  Amazon
—  Barnes & Noble

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