Mr. Romero’s pupils retracted into near-nothingness as he looked out into the beaming white of the snowy morning. His empty glance passed over the astroturf coffin lift and lingered on his wife’s chemically immobilized hairdo. His brother’s coffin sank into the New Mexico clay.*
“C’mon burro, let’s get going.”
Mr. Romero tugged on a withering rope tied to the bit of a withering donkey, and Mrs. Romero padded beside them, contentedly, down the tawny hillside. It was their very first donkey. The rest of his brother’s neglected menagerie would arrive early the next week.
The couple ran a small chile and piñon farm in Hatch and kept a few horses, though kept was a term to be used loosely, as the horses mostly came and went as they pleased. Mr Romero had been a good husband and a better business partner and the two were rather prematurely settling into the warm glow of the sunset of their lives. They still had all their teeth and Mr. Romero only used his glasses for reading the paper and watching the TV.
When spring arrived, Mr. Romero spent long days breaking up the frosted soil on the upper fields, and he was so exhausted when he came in that he tended to collapse into a somnolent trance immediately after eating. During the lulls of the evening, Emilia Romero would marvel at her husband’s widely open, snoring maw, sighing to herself in the knowledge that it could produce neither conciliatory words, nor songs, nor the playful banter of the formidable gin rummy opponent she had once known, under different moons and stars.*
The horses on the ranch were muscular and beautiful. They were Pintos, and a new colt was due in a few weeks. They could be seen in different corners of the property throughout the day, grazing and whinnying, flipping their shiny manes and generally affording onlookers satisfying glimpses of their bestial splendor. But the horses wouldn’t allow the donkey to graze with them. Though he seemed to wait deferentially, eternally, at the perimeter of their patience, he had learned to keep his distance. The only time Edgar ever got up to a gallop was when he heard the dulcet tones of his Emilia.
There was nothing for Mrs. Romero to can or mail that time of year, and with her husband so far out in the fields and the house to herself, she occupied most of her time by bellowing along to norteño records and drinking with the donkey. Or rather, drinking next to the donkey. She would make herself a Cuba Libre and go out in the pasture with a carrot and bray loudly into the dry air until he came running.
As he ran to her his path was lumbering and chaotic. His short, worn limbs seemed to strain under the percussive bounce of his trunk over the land. It had occurred to Emilia that she might have looked similar to the donkey if she were the one bounding through the threadgrass, and every time she watched Edgar’s desperate charge she felt his longing pulse though her rheumy joints. She could hear the panting, heaving breaths of dopey joy come closer and closer. The dusty burro would slow to a trot as he approached the posted fence, where she would sit and recount to him stories of her childhood.
“Edgar, did you know my father was a cobbler in Mexico?”
He didn’t. It seemed that Edgar never tired of hearing Emilia’s voice. She told him about visiting her father at the taller and how he and the other cobblers would work twelve hour days in a hotel boiler room, ripping up and nailing and re-glueing soles to their shoes then putting them under the heat press to seal their work. After so many years in the boiler room, she said, her father could not feel the heat. He never dropped a bead of sweat the rest of his life and he wore long pants and shirts in the summer like a lady trying to keep her skin white.
That evening Mr. Romero came down to the pasture and called out with the voice of an old man who had not spoken all day, “I should take him down to the glue factory with the rest of those damn cows.”
Mrs. Romero leaned in and patted the donkey’s coarse fur.
“Ah, don’t listen to this baboso. ¿Parece como mi papa con estas mangas largas, no?”
She gave a self-congratulatory chuckle for noting the comparison, and acknowledged Mr. Romero with a flick of her wrist.
“Me voy, me voy, old man. Hold your horses.”
That night over dinner Mr. and Mrs. Romero shared fewer words than usual. They turned on the TV and every once in a while Emilia tensed as Mr. Romero’s glances darted toward her over the top of his glasses. They made eye contact, and he gave her foot a playful jab with his.
“You better watch out, chapa, that donkey was dangling his carrot for you today.”
“Ah, ¡que te calles! You wouldn’t know one if you saw it.”
She sensed that she had struck a nerve. Mr. Romero stood up, as if to go.
“¿No?” He said.
The next day Mrs. Romero once again waited until her husband had gone, made herself a stiff drink, and plodded out to the field to summon her confidant. It wasn’t long after Edgar had joined her at the fence that she set in to talking.
“Edgar I want to tell you something but you must promise me to keep it to yourself. I have never told anyone before.”
She smiled and coughed up a little laugh at the thought of the donkey spilling her secrets.
“When I was a little girl I used to go into the shed where my father kept his supplies. You will think this is crazy, but don’t judge me, burro – I did it because I liked to stick my hands in his glue. He had these big cans of it, like paint cans, with different kinds of glue. I would go in there when he wasn’t home and pry off the lids and dip both of my hands in the different glues. I don’t know why, donkey, but it felt alive. And then I would sit in the shed until it dried and when I peeled it off it was like a mold of my hand.”
The donkey blinked his crusty eyes in a way that seemed to say, “Go on.”
As she continued Emilia’s breathing became heavier, and her tone of voice, sharper.
“But one day I had just done it and my father came into the garage. He could see that my hands were still wet with glue and he became very angry. Se volvió loco, Edgar. He grabbed my wrist and he rubbed my hand on my face and he took the glue and he put my hand in it and he put it all down my legs and feet. He kept saying to me that this was his work and he threw me down and poured the glue onto me until I couldn’t move my legs because they were stuck together.”
For a moment she was quiet, but soon Emilia began to cry. They were great big sobs, sucking in air and heaving it out loudly. She fanned herself and did not see the donkey’s eyes begin to bulge, his nostrils flare with heated breath. She didn’t hear his hooves clambering up the wooden lats of the fence. His braying and her braying got louder and louder and she turned at once to see that he had mounted the fence, that he was thrusting at her desperately with his horrible red organ.
She recoiled, and in the same second there was a shot.
The donkey held still for a moment, but suddenly looked very old. It staggered back onto all fours and fell where it stood, its chest continuing to flutter with itinerant breath. Mr. Romero came calmly to Emilia’s side, shot the burro once more in the head, and produced his handkerchief. He daubed at a spot of blood on his wife’s brow and asked her if she might make him a drink while he brought the truck around the back of the house.