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NO MORE US FOR YOU

Carlos is obsessed with red licorice candy; Isabel is haunted by the anniversary of her boyfriend’s death. One afternoon the two meet in an art gallery—introduced by Vanessa, a spunky, straight-talking mutual friend—where Carlos works as a security guard. Sparks don’t exactly fly, but there’s enough curiosity to promise the possibility of romance. The pair’s first double date with Vanessa and Carlos’s friend Snake, however, ends in tragedy. At its heart, Hernandez’s second novel is a peculiar one: It’s not exactly a page-turner, but it has enough simple appeal to thrill a broad readership. A complex patchwork of imagery, voices and allusions comes together easily, nearly mirroring one of the collages in the gallery where Carlos works. Death and the fear of it pervade the novel; both Isabel and her parents harbor a near-innate paranoia about their mortality. Meanwhile, hot brushfires scorch the California coast and the novel’s backdrop like a smoky, sunny afternoon in Hell. The smart, sophisticated, yet remarkably accessible writing melds everything together with slow-burn effects, and the characters are dead-on (so to speak). A smoldering read.” Kirkus Reviews (starred review)

“Hernandez, an award winner in poetry, puts his skills to work in his second novel. His blunt, realistic dialogue will lure readers into the world of Isabel and Carlos and the swift, poetic descriptions will keep them there....Through compelling characterization and stunning language, No More Us for You builds to a gripping conclusion in the gallery where it all began. In the process, it proves itself to be a beautiful, moving novel of tragedy and hope.” Pittsburgh-Post Gazette

“Hernandez builds Isabel and Carlos into characters that readers come to root for and love. It is a testament to his talent as an author that when he elects to put several characters into a car accident, the reader's response is a fine blend of grief and anger. But the event is a challenge these heroes overcome with style and aplomb, and the message is ultimately uplifting. This novel is very much like the red licorice Carlos always has on hand and which Isabel craves. It is a tasty snack that is quite enjoyable, but you might still be hungry afterward.” VOYA

 

Excerpt

Carlos

So there I was sitting on my folding chair, my first day as a guard at the Long Beach Contemporary Museum, when a man walked in and stood with his back turned to me, arms dangling at his sides. At first I didn’t know what he was doing, why he was looking down. I thought there was something on the floor that held his attention—a plaque that I hadn’t noticed, an air vent, some strange insect crawling silently across the hardwood. He spread his feet apart and lifted his head toward the ceiling, at the industrial pipes snaking up there, the light fixture angled at a large pile of bright green sand in the corner of the museum. He sighed. Then the urine came.
     “Hey!” I shouted. I stood up from my chair and walked toward the man, half confused, half afraid. Maybe he had a knife. “What are you doing?” I said, which was stupid. I mean, it was pretty obvious.
     The man ignored me. Urine splashed on the floor, his puddle growing bigger before him.
     “You can’t do that,” I said.
     The man looked over his shoulder and continued relieving himself. He was in his early thirties, with a goatee and a long, slender nose. His eyes were self-assured, sleepy, as if he’d been urinating in public all his life and was now bored with the act.
     “Who says I can't?” the man said.
     “I say.”
     “And who are you?”
     “I’m the museum guard.”
     It was the last day Sunday in January, and up until that moment I was thinking what an easy gig this was, how little foot traffic there was, that people were probably at home reading the paper, mowing their lawns, or at church listening to a sermon.
     And then this jackass walks into the museum.
      “Nice jacket,” he said.
     I had thought my suit and tie made me look professional, older and confident, someone who was doing things right. But after his remark I felt foolish, like I was playing dress-up.
     The man wiggled his hips. The scent of his piss was pungent, slamming into my nose like the breath of a Dumpster.
     “You’re going to have to clean that up,” I told him.
     “Says who?”
     “Says me.”
     “I’m sorry,” the man said, “who are you again?”
     “The museum guard!”
     “Oh, right, right,” the man said, zipping up. He tucked his shirt in and flicked my nametag that was pinned to my jacket. He patted my shoulder. “Good work,” he said.
     Ms. Otto, my boss, came running from the east wing of the museum, her heels clicking fast across the floor. She had a platinum blond bob and her bangs were snipped perfectly above her brows, ruler-straight. She was a small woman, petite, but her voice added weight to her presence. “What’s all this yelling about?” she demanded.
     The man turned around, surveying the museum. “Terrific exhibit,” he said, nodding. “That one right there is my favorite.” He motioned toward the giant rag doll Jesus sprawled on the floor. The artist had used brown yarn for hair, a heavy black thread to stitch two Xs for eyes. A pair of scuffed boxing gloves were fitted over the hands.
     “What’s going on here, Carlos?” Ms. Otto’s eyes darted to me, to the man walking away, to me again, to the puddle on the floor, then back to me. There was something accusatory about her gaze.
     “He did it!” I said, pointing at the man, who was now walking leisurely toward the exit.
     “Sir,” she called out. “Sir, come back here!” The automatic sliding doors glided open, and the man stepped outside into the bright sunlight. Ms. Otto made a grunting noise like there was a bear inside her throat as she headed toward the front desk, her bob quivering with each step.
     “I told him he couldn't do that," I said to her back.
     Ms. Otto began questioning the receptionist, who lifted the handset of the telephone and turned in my direction. I held my hands out and shook my head slowly as if to say, There wasn’t anything I could’ve done to stop that man from urinating.
     Ms. Otto stormed off, furious, her heels echoing throughout the museum.
     I put my hand against my jacket pocket where I kept my bag of Red Vines. Now wasn’t a good time. I was addicted to the red licorice, its sweet flavor and gummy texture, but it also kept me from biting my fingernails, a nervous habit I had as far back as I could remember. I was probably biting my nails inside my mother’s womb.
     Seconds later Ms. Otto returned with a roll of paper towels and aerosol can. “We’re going to have to clean this up.” She handed me the paper towels while she sprayed the area with Glade. Now the museum smelled like Tropical Mist and urine.
     “Do you have any rubber gloves?” I asked her. “And a trash bag?”
     “Yes, yes, I’ll be right back.” She set down the aerosol can and marched off.
     I unspooled the paper towels like a giant scroll, tore off about ten sheets, and let them fall on the puddle. I imagined myself in a commercial, testing the durability of one brand of paper towels over another. What’s this? I heard the narrator say. The camera slowly zoomed to the urine pond on the floor of the museum. Nothing Brawny can’t handle. So strong. So soft. Then there’s a shot of me in my museum guard uniform, on my knees, wiping. That’s triple-action performance. That’s Brawny.
     Ms. Otto came back with a plastic trash bag and a pair of rubber gloves that were taxicab yellow. “Here you go, Carlos,” she said. “I need to make some phone calls. Can you take care of this?”
     “Sure,” I said, trying to conceal my irritation.
     “Great. Thanks,” she said, then trotted back to her office.
     If someone had told me the week before that in seven days I would be wearing a navy blue suit and rubber gloves, mopping up another man’s piss beside an eight-foot stuffed Jesus wearing boxing gloves, I would’ve asked him what he was smoking.
     “Hey,” a voice said from behind me. It was the receptionist. She was about my age and had the same hairstyle as my girlfriend, Mira—straight blond that flipped up at the shoulders. The receptionist’s eyes were a dull blue, her nose small and pudgy. Beige freckles spotted her cheekbones.
     “Hey,” I said back.
     “That sucks.”
     “No kidding.” I lifted a clump of wet towels and dropped them into the bag.
     She scrunched up her face. “God, it stinks.”
     “It smells worse down here.”
     “I’m Vanessa, by the way.”
     “Carlos,” I said. “I’d shake your hand, but...” I raised my gloved hands.
     “Ms. Otto had me call the police,” she said. “They should be here soon.”
     “I hope they catch him.” I spooled out more towels and wiped again.
     “So this is your first day, huh?” she asked.
     “Yep.”
     “It could only get better.”
     “I hope so.”
     “You in school?” she wanted to know.
     “Junior at Millikan,” I said. “You?”
     Vanessa smiled. “I go to Millikan.”
     “I don’t think I’ve ever seen you around.”
     “I just transferred a week ago,” she said. “I was at Wilson. Millikan feels a lot bigger. Like I’m in college all of a sudden.”
     “How come you transferred?”
     Her smile dissolved, she dipped her head. “I had some problems with my last school.” She crossed her arms and leaned against the wall. “Long story,” she said.
     I looked up at Vanessa, her shifting eyes.
     “So what do you think about all this stuff?” She stepped away to the middle of the museum, her hands at her waist.
     “I don’t get some of it,” I admitted.
     “I hear you.”
     “I mean, I could’ve done that.” I pointed at the giant canvas hanging on one wall. It was completely black, as far as I could tell. “That’s not painting,” I said. “That’s covering.”
     Vanessa walked over to the pink neon sign on the opposite wall. In a script font it read:

     The sign buzzed softly like an old refrigerator and made Vanessa’s face pink. She tilted her head to one side. “I kinda like this one,” she said.
     “Me too,” I agreed.
     The phone at the front desk began ringing and Vanessa hurried off. “Nice meeting you, Carlos.”
     I lifted my gloved hand. “Same here.”
     I finished cleaning up and cinched the trash bag closed, then sprayed some more Tropical Mist around the area. Even though I was wearing rubber gloves, I washed my hands really well in the museum's bathroom before returning to my post. I pulled back my coat sleeve and looked at my watch. I had four hours left in my shift.
     Unlike my previous job at Ralph’s, bagging groceries and rounding up shopping carts, this was a pretty easy gig. All I had to do was sit on my ass and keep my eyes open. It paid a quarter per hour less, sure, but at least I wasn’t pushing a train of carts under the sun or running price checks. Besides, I just needed a little cash flow to fill my gas tank and buy Mira some nice things every now and then. If my mom and Ms. Otto weren’t in the same book club, had my name not come up when Ms. Otto mentioned one of her guards quitting without giving her a two weeks notice, I’d probably still be asking strangers, “Paper or plastic?”
     An hour or so later a police officer arrived and I told him everything about the man that I could remember. His goatee, his slender nose, his sleepy eyes. “He said the stuffed Jesus was his favorite,” I said. The officer glanced at the giant rag doll sprawled on the floor and scratched the side of his face. He flipped through his notes and thanked me for my cooperation. I headed back to my post.
     Late in the afternoon a family of four came into the museum. They seemed out of place, disoriented. I expected the father to pull out a tourist map from his back pocket at any minute. He had a belly like a globe and walked around the museum with his hands deep in his pockets, rattling his car keys. His daughter was thirteen, maybe fourteen, listening to her iPod, mouthing the lyrics and bobbing her head slightly while she wandered aimlessly around the room. The mother was heavyset and wore a T-shirt with a cartoon honeybee that had red and blue stripes instead of black and yellow. Above the oblong wings it said: PROUD TO BEE AN AMERICAN. Her son hovered close to her, timid. As they neared the neon sign, the boy said, “Mom, what’s coitus?” Except he didn’t know how to pronounce the word and added another syllable: co-eye-tis, like it was some kind of disease.
     “Oh, it’s nothing,” the mother said.
     “What does it mean?” the boy pleaded.
     “I don’t know.”
     “Yes you do.” He was practically yelling.
     The mother looked at me and smiled nervously. “Come on, Blake. Let’s go see Grandpa Joe.”
     I pushed a fist against my mouth, stifling my laughter, air wheezing out of my nostrils.
     Once the family had left, I slipped out my Red Vines and pulled a piece from the ripped corner of the bag. I took a large bite and chewed and chewed, the red licorice sticking to the back of my teeth. I wanted to be home already and out of my uniform and on the phone with Mira. I wanted to tell her about my first day.
     The neon sign continued to buzz.
     The giant pile of green sand sustained its conical shape.
     Jesus the boxer stayed put—knocked out, flat on his back, fragile as anyone.

 

 

 

 

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