Through His Bars Of Rage

I am the hunter.

He is the hunted.

He runs away from me with all his might. I chase after him with all of mine, but it’s never quite enough to reach his speed. My short, stubby legs are no match for his long, veiny ones.

He distracts me with false promises and steals the prey we agreed to share. He does so with a spirit of play, not malice. His essence is pungent and alluring to me as blood is to a predator. The scent trickles away from his face as the wind that crashes against his body disperses around him. His sweat drizzles on my nose, the sound of his laughter chatters in my ears. The faster I run behind him, the farther away he seems.

The adrenaline coursing through my drained child-body is the only energy source keeping my feet moving. I’m tired of chasing him, of feeling that he doesn’t want anything to do with me. I’m tired of knowing that this is what fuels his unapproachable speed.

Is he getting faster, or is it a combination of my reluctance to pursue him and his objection to being pursued? He runs away laughing.

And that’s how the dream ends.

*          *          *          *

I dug my face out of the pillow, and gave the nightstand a half-open, one-eyed look. My phone buzzed violently, nagging me to get up, so I tapped the “snooze” button and relieved it of the futile endeavor. I looked around the gray-lit bedroom. The fan I should’ve replaced years ago was still circulating tepid, dusty air into my wife’s asthmatic lungs, heaving gently under the covers. My one-year-old son was cooing a gurgled song in his crib. My dog Nala was deeply focused on giving herself a full-body tongue bath in the sun’s warmth slivering through the blinds.

It was 7:05 a.m. on a Saturday, and the sun itself had barely awoken. Getting dressed in my yellow Club America jersey— a team from Mexico’s capital— was a big step for me toward playing a sport that I’ve loved since infancy, but one that conjured the worst bouts of anxiety. The angst I felt was due to the mix of two bloods coursing through me—Izaguirre from my dad and Marion from my mom—and the bad blood between them. In this malpracticed alchemy, born of the love once felt by a teenage boy and girl, each side seemed to be trying to eliminate the other as if it were a bloodborne virus. It would have taken the synchronous work of a hematologist and psychiatrist to accurately diagnose the damage wrought inside of me.

I closed my eyes, and took a deep, slow, calming breath.

*          *          *          *

When my dad first landed in prison, my mom used to take us to visit him. It was her way of rescuing a shred of normalcy from the wretched situation she found herself at 22-years-old. She called it normalcy, I called it love. Hate. Acceptance, and revulsion.

My mom woke us up at 4 a.m., showered each one of us, dolled herself up, and took a Mexican bus from La Sánchez Taboada— a borough of Tijuana— to the Mexico-U.S. Border. After dealing with Customs, we then took the San Diego Trolley from Chula Vista, to Downtown and then walked three city blocks. My mom wouldn’t allow us to break the illusion of a cohesive family by talking or complaining.

“You’re not hungry,” my mom would say, licking her thumb and brashly gouging out an eye booger lodged in the inner corner of my eye. My siblings and I weren’t even allowed to rest our eyes, because we weren’t tired either.

At the prison, the surly, underpaid guards patted us down. We weren’t allowed to breathe audibly in there, let alone talk. Waiting on a long name list to finally dwindle down to our proud Izaguirre name, tribes of people stalled in a packed waiting room filled with horny women and insufferable children. Once in, my dad was ecstatic, he was the only one, hugging and kissing us all.

At the age of 8, I found it puzzling as to why my mom was always so pissed off at my dad. No hug. No kiss. When they did hug, it looked as though my dad was hugging a complete stranger, a broom, and not a woman he had been inside of, one who had carried his children on three separate occasions. She would give him a look of writhing disgust, of How could you have done this to us? This was her way of finding a catharsis from the misery, the curse of the Izaguirre men. Fighting with her husband was her way of finding normalcy. To us, she only wanted to see him to show him her anger and to let him feel her grief. That’s why she went through all that trouble. And he was perfectly fine with it. She did it out of spite, and he took it in spite of it.

“Don’t believe his bullshit,” she would pre-screen us. If she was really peeved, she wouldn’t even let us get close to him.

“How are you, mijo?” my dad would ask. He was surprised that I didn’t want to be near him. As I approached him, my mom would step in.

“Leave him alone,” she’d say, placing her arm across my chest, pulling me aside. “He doesn’t want to be with you. He’s embarrassed of having to come here, and being seen with you.”

This was the only normal thing about this minimum security display of visiting hours affection. Everything else was premeditated and staged. It didn’t feel real. It felt like going to church. We went because my mom threatened us, not because we loved Our Father.

That never felt normal. It would’ve been normal for my mom to divorce my dad and remarry. It would’ve been normal for her to stay single and live the asexual life of a brooding, abandoned wife. But she wasn’t seeking normal. She was seeking love. A love driven by hatred. She wanted to show my dad that we were still his. She wanted to provide normalcy for only one person, Him, only to shatter it right before his eyes as she used to break the porcelain china whenever they fought. Izaguirre men knew how to seduce a woman, how to get her in bed and how to please her once in it. They also knew how to place a baby deep in their wombs and a deep sense of comfort in their hearts. More than anything, they were experts at letting women down. Any woman. Girlfriends, wives, lovers and mistresses. All women, except their mothers.

*          *          *          *

Growing up in a suburb of Los Angeles simply known as “the Valley,” my dad often expressed that he felt like a stressed out teenager, not wanting to find employment or being capable of holding down a job, and leaving my mom alone to fend for herself and tend to their kids. These feelings facilitated his drug usage not only to escape this undesirable reality, but to spite my mom for trying to change him into a man he didn’t want to be. This led to the erratic and violent behavior that eventually landed him in prison.

In Uncle Ramiro’s eyes, mom’s older brother, not only did I bear my dad’s first and last name, I also bore the gene, the cancerous putrefaction, that made Izaguirre men so loathsome. So unmanly. I bore the mark of the beast. A bullseye of derision. He figured that a fatherless boy could use disciplinary guidance, but his ulterior plan was to ridicule the Izaguirre out of me, one flagellating insult at a time.

Soccer was a sport that required a high level of skill, one that required the support of your family. My mom was always busy working 18-hour shifts due to my dad’s absence. Uncle Ramiro was the only person who cared enough to take me to play. Through his rants, I learned that soccer was a man’s game and that you had to be a real man to truly excel as a player. Under that simple yet discriminating rule, I would never be good at it. I wasn’t a man because my dad wasn’t one either. My dad’s early filial departure technically made me the man of the house, but at that time I was only 9, with not enough hair on my balls, according to Uncle Ramiro, to make even the finest of paint brushes.

His cruelty wasn’t his fault. He was merely attempting to reverse the psychological damage my dad had inflicted upon my chances of becoming a real man. Based on Uncle Ramiro’s upbringing, it was customary to knock people’s confidence when they thought that they were better than what they should be, when they demonstrated any sign of promise. Any conversation between us consisted of him telling me what to do and how to do it. But as are all the people who give some of the best advice, my uncle never gave me the best examples to follow.

“It’s your damn job to put it all together,” Uncle Ramiro said. “Figure it out, cabrón.”

*          *          *          *

The conflicting messages from either side of my family always discouraged me from playing soccer. Even as an adult, I refused to play it, making up excuses such as I really don’t like soccer or it’s an okay sport, I prefer baseball. But I didn’t prefer baseball. I simply didn’t feel man enough to play the sport. A desire to u-turn away from the park, and a hyperventilating impulse overtook my hands and lungs the closer I drove to the field. It was a childhood reaction I adopted as a defense mechanism against Uncle Ramiro. Every time I set foot on a field, I could hear his name-calling, and immediately feel the air punched out of my gut. When he was watching me play years before, but especially now that he wasn’t.

*          *          *          *

“Run, you bow-legged cabrón,” Uncle Ramiro roared any time I touched the ball. He was hard on all of his nephews, but especially on me. It was as though he was holding a grudge against me for my dad’s treason— his breach of the friend’s code, particularly the clause prohibiting one from dating the other’s sister— and for my mom’s perjury— her running away from home and telling my dad that she would be sent back to Mexico if they didn’t get married within a week. I suppose he felt guilty for having inadvertently introduced them to one another in the first place. He was applying Deuteronomic law on me, Old Testament stuff, in which the kids paid for their parents’ sins, and bore those wounds for the rest of their lives. Even after my mom, dad, and Uncle Ramiro himself stopped speaking and caring about one another, when all of it became a distant memory to them, it remained a constant reality to me. “Run right, cabrón.”

In his severity, I knew that he did it out of responsibility and filial care, but it didn’t feel like love. He came from a culture where toughness bred toughness. One where you beat your kids so that they wouldn’t end up dead in the streets or rotting away in a prison.

*          *          *          *

Even as I bolted down the field, inebriated by a toxic cocktail of adrenaline, endorphins, testosterone, and lactic acids; feeling bulletproof, intimidating my opponent to a scowling cower, I still thought about my dad and Uncle Ramiro. How one didn’t want to play soccer with me and how the other did, but only under his stringent rules. When he was still around, my dad encouraged me, calling me his number 9— the team’s star-player— his Center-forward— the top-scoring player. However, he was never there to protect me or his claims. On the other hand, my uncle did nothing but talk down to me, never once giving me a compliment; however, he was there for every one of my graduations, elementary through college. I constantly heard their feuding voices rattling in my head, and in those of my teammates. In their Aw, come on, Jules or That’s it, that was a good play. During my brief stint in high school athletics, my coach angrily reminded me that I was a great athlete, but a bad player.

“Son, you’re too much in your head,” Coach Bonilla said. “What in God’s name are you thinking about so much?”

I thought about a lot of things. About how my mom lied to cover for my dad’s absence from family gatherings. How she used to send us to Tijuana to stay with my grandma for months at a time during vacations. Not to give us a taste of where she grew up, but because her low, single-earner salary wasn’t enough to afford a babysitter or a fancy sleepaway camp. But mainly, I thought about how I used to play soccer as a kid in the streets of barrio La Sánchez. Playing on those dirt-paved streets, we never cared about the rules of the game because we played for fun. All the kids emerged from their dilapidated, lopsided houses, sandwiching the people between the problems that came as a result of living in squalor. No score was ever kept. The ultimate goal was to shed who you were and be who you were meant to be. That version of yourself that you dreamt of being as you watched your heroes on TV battle each other every weekend to defend their team’s colors, and attain the glory of victory.

Sure, I wasn’t really a street kid. I had a mom who made enough to clothe and feed me, and I was a U.S. citizen with access to Medicaid and Welfare. But one thing I did share with those boys— who were constantly trying to sucker me out of money, not because they were bad kids, but because they were poor— was that most of them were fatherless like me. Bastards of fathers who never loved them. Children of men who were never taught the roles and duties of a man. Boys raised to be men by women overwhelmed with too much responsibility.

But all of that didn’t matter when we played fútbol. United as part of a big family, we felt unstoppable and became immortal as the ball rolled between our feet. Individually, we were defenseless, runty kids, but together, we had no need for fathers. We were a giant. We accepted nothing and rebelled against it all. All we needed was a ball that rolled, like a tennis ball or even a golf ball. Hell, those kids would’ve played soccer with a ping pong ball. These games were played endlessly, chasing the sun into the night, when the bright sphericality of a full moon would’ve given us enough light to play until our limbs gave out. We ran as if chased by a nightmare, or a pack of ravenous, rabic stray dogs. Faster than our lungs could oxygenate our depleted bodies, relying not on book-smarts, but animal wit and instinct.

These games blurred the lines: between play and ridicule, becoming astute to render your opponent asinine; and violence and aggression, getting our fill of fighting, and making up over chilled bottles of cane-sugared Coca-Cola. We went to bed tired, but unable to sleep. Our feet wiggly under the warm, knitted blankets, tossing and turning. On those long nights, my heart pumped like a drummer pounding a mallet against my ribcage ready for morning to rise again, so that we could start a new game.

My Tijuana friends were poor, but they were free to run and laugh until their ribs hurt so much that they didn’t feel hunger for the food that they couldn’t afford. And because they were free, so was I.

That was how we played the game.

That was who we were.

*          *          *          *

As a gangly 34-year-old playing at Clover Park in Santa Monica, I used the skills I learned in La Sánchez to coyly seduce my opponents, and lured them to lunge forward toward the ball. I shook my hips, crossed my feet over the ball, teased and entranced the opposing players, just as I did when I was a kid. During games, these solitary spurts of fun were the only times when I could despoil myself of my posttraumatic stress and feel good about being in my own skin. It was a dance meant to lull my opponent into believing that they could outstretch their foot and take the ball from me, but also one that helped me relax. This feeling was the reason I went through it all in my head. Vivid now as it was when Uncle Ramiro’s voice was exploding my eardrums. To feel fun doing something that I couldn’t stop loving, regardless of how he and my dad tried. The unbearable chemical burn consuming every muscle fiber in my legs— pain bathing my thighs, buckling my knees, splinting my shins—allowed my mind to cease its meandering, and tranquilize it numb.

As we chased the fleeting ghosts of youth, one of my friends yelled out Last goal as we all ran like a drove of wild horses after the spherical prey. Tiredness, a temporary itch as a child, was a chronic ailment on my grown-up joints. Love the game, and love the pain, I thought to myself as the game slowly ended. It was a loving that couldn’t be tamed.

We all began to walk off the field, leaving strewn on it our full strength and vigor. Everything that could be shed by the body and reaped of the soul. Nothing that the mind could comprehend or that could be taught. Not even by my dad or Uncle Ramiro. Something born within ourselves. A higher power.

*          *          *          *

Sunday was the Lord’s Day. Well, at least from 9:00 a.m. to 12:00 p.m. Not a minute over. After they came home from church, my family’s true religion commenced. They gathered around the cubical god whose warm, bulbous light and thundering voice filled the room and rocked the souls of the faithful. My uncles yelled angry mantras at the antenated oracle, hoping for a better outcome this week. The glow of the television broadcasted into our hearts the heroes we immortalized. Those that made us dream in our sleep and waking hours alike.

“Why do they spell it F-U-T-B-O-L, tío Ramiro?” I once asked while watching El Clásico, the biggest game of the Mexican League between Las Chivas del Guadalajara and their mortal enemies, Las Águilas del América from Mexico City. “Shouldn’t it be spelled: F-O-O-T-B-A-L-L?” I knew the spelling was wrong because it wasn’t spelled that way under the National Football League’s logo.

“It’s because we’re Mexican,” Uncle Ramiro replied. “It may be spelled that way in English, but in Spanish, it’s called ‘fútbol’, mijo.” He patted me gently on the head, never detaching his eyeballs from the screen. “Now shut up and watch what real fútbol looks like.” He took his hand off my head. “If your sorry-ass ever becomes a pro player, you’ll fit right in with the other sorry-asses that make up the U.S. men’s team.”

*          *          *          *

I walked to my car and waved at a few of my friends before getting in. The sour smell of my soiled jersey, soaked in pride and perspiration, filled my rejuvenated lungs. I reached across the passenger seat and pulled my phone out of the glove compartment. An impatient push alert from Facebook buzzed notifying me that my cousin had died. The banner appeared as casual as when someone posted a picture of what they had for dinner last night or a passive-aggressive comment meant to be helpful. Thumbing it led me to a GoFundMe page that was raising money for his funeral costs.

The dirt-laced sweat rolled down my forehead, past my brow, and burned salty in my tear-duct before it dripped of the tip of my nose and trickled into a small ripple on my screen. It wasn’t a tear. The pain felt distant. I pitied the fact that this young man’s life was trivialized, and the manner by which he was being disposed of. Not just by the State, but by the Izaguirres. How can I mourn someone I never knew? I thought. What was this feeling spasmodically beating in my neck? Was it the engrained reaction to feel pain for the misfortunes that befell family?

The picture’s graininess, and the boy’s careless and youthful way of holding and kissing the baby in his arms told me that neither the boy nor his family were prepared for his death. He was my Uncle Carlos’s son, my dad’s older brother, the segment of my DNA that carried the criminal Y chromosome, one that had more imprisonments than my mother’s X.

As I burrowed my bearer of bad news in my bosom pocket, I felt its sharp, intermittent vibrations stab at my chest’s nerve endings. It wasn’t a text or email. It was a call. An unknown number. Could it be a creditor, or a dialing machine? I answered. It was my dad.

“This is a collect call from Kern County Correctional Facility,” a robotic voice said, calibrated to sound like a woman because studies have shown that most people are less likely to hang up on a woman. “Do you accept a call from…” the voice paused, leaving an awkward gap for a poor wretch to speak his name.

“…Julian Izaguirre, hm,” my father’s defeated voice said. It was the voice of one tired of showering, shitting, and shaving in front of others.

“…an inmate at the Kern Valley State Prison?” the effeminate cyborg’s voice continued.
“Yes,” I replied, wiping the perspiration beading anew on my forehead. It was no longer sweat from all the fútbol, but rather a cold one. I was losing my high and slowly sinking into my abyssal headspace.

*          *          *          *

On one occasion, Uncle Carlos asked me to drive him to visit my dad at the Kern Valley State Prison. We were accompanied by my grandma, two aunts, and a cousin. Each person, including me, had a person to go visit at the prison. Uncle Carlos wanted to visit his brother, my grandma her son and son-in-law who was married to one of my aunts. My other aunt was visiting a prisoner she had taken as a lover, and my cousin was there simply to watch how the older women in her family visited their men. Something she herself would probably have to do in the future.

As we exchanged pleasantries, my dad told me that he was happy that the family was back together. The Izaguirres saw prison as unjust and as a temporary holding place for good people gone slightly astray. It was also a good way to reconnect with family.

“Come here, mijo,” my dad said. “This is my cousin Pancho.” It was a cousin who was also incarcerated. They would’ve never known that they were related had they not landed in the same prison. “He’s fast. Faster than you even.” I faked my laughter because Cousin Pancho kept staring at me. I found it funnier that when he was living at home, he never wanted to run with me, and now he was bonding with people whose existence he was unaware of. “Izaguirres are fast runners, huh, mijo?” Yes they are, I thought. They were great at running, especially away from responsibility, from blame. That’s why Izaguirre women liked prison, because it kept their rambling, wayward men in one place.

As beautiful as that family prison portrait was, this symptom masked the real problem, the root of the cancer befalling every Izaguirre man, the fact that Izaguirre men didn’t know or cared about raising good, responsible men. Izaguirre men were selfish, they thought only of themselves, of feeding their pleasure and stoking the fire by allowing their pleasures to feed on them, and their family’s hopes and dreams. They made the choice of allowing their vices to take precedence over the livelihood of their own blood. If they didn’t acknowledge the problems, they didn’t exist, and eventually they didn’t matter, and everyone forgot about them. However, they never disappeared. The people that caused these problems were imprisoned, but the problems never went away.

It was at that moment that my mother’s Don’t believe his bullshit started to make sense. The pressure to choose weighed heavy on me once again. I began to cry, tears that my dad confused with nostalgia.

“It’s okay, mijo,” my dad said, hugging me as if he had learned to do so from the security staff. “Daddy’s here. You’re here with you dad who loves you.” The truth was that he wasn’t really there; not when I was a kid, not at that very instant in the strange warmth of his emaciated arms, or ever. He had vested interest in me, I was his son after all, but it wasn’t love.

For the first time, I realized that he had never grown to love me, and that I’d grown up never loving him.

*          *          *          *

“Hola, mijo,” my dad said. “What are you up to? Is this a good time to talk?” His questions made me uncomfortable due to their obliviousness. Had he forgotten that we hadn’t spoken in over four years? He sounded like someone who wasn’t in prison, but merely calling me to chat.

“No, it’s okay. I just finished playing soccer with some of my friends.”

“Really? I play a lot of soccer over here where I’m at. I’m really good at keeping the ball close to me, but the rival away.” The way he was describing the process of ball possession, resembled the type of relationship we had. The love I had for soccer had always been linked to the love my dad never had for me. The memories of me spending time with my father were very few, but the ones spent playing, watching or talking about soccer were as sparse as the stars in the light-polluted L.A. night sky. “Do you play in a team?”

“No. I just joined a Meetup group with my friends.”

“Oh, that’s good. Do you guys wear uniforms?”

“Not really, just my fluorescent-yellow Adidas cleats and my yellow Club América jersey.” My dad scoffed at my reply.

“I hate that fucking team,” he said, followed by a moment of realization. “I didn’t mean to offend you, mijo. It’s just that I like Las Chivas.” Kids are normally supposed to root for whatever team their fathers root for, however terrible the team may be. This was news to me. I realized that I never had gotten to know my own father. “Didn’t Ramiro tell you that I liked them?” According to his question, it was everybody’s responsibility, but his, to tell me about my own father.

Uncle Ramiro did like that team, but like me, he knew neither the fact nor the man to whom the fact belonged. My dad and Uncle Ramiro were once very close friends, but the former was never around. He never allowed anyone to get close to him or get to know him. As far as my family was concerned, my dad was invisible. Solitary confinement and being forgotten began way before my dad landed in prison. Incarceration was merely the manifestation of the disease. Like a cancer, it consumed every aspect of the person and destroyed every aspect of who they were.

“No,” I replied. “He never talks about you.”

“Ha! That rat bastard has always been jealous of me.” My dad huffed and sighed, sucking air through his teeth. “He owes me big. I got him his first job in LA back in the ‘80s.” My dad’s voice carried the drama of one who had been betrayed, like Caesar prior to his stabbing or Jesus before the kiss. He expected his old buddy Ramiro to not only look after his family but to also put in a good word for him to keep his memory alive. Mexicans never allowed you to forget a favor that they did for you, no matter how minute the gesture or how remote the time it had been since it happened. “He’s stupid. Whatever. Anyway, I’m calling you because I just wanted to tell you that they killed your cousin.”

“They killed him?” I asked myself out loud. Who was this faceless they? It was the pronoun that allowed the Izaguirres to point the finger at a higher evil, one that took the burden of responsibility out of their hands, and handed it over to something they could lay the blame on and divert it from themselves. “Who killed him?”

“I don’t know. They’re still investigating.” They versus they. They investigating they. Nobody wanted to confess to the role they played in his death, not even his family. The shortcomings they had played in his poor upbringing were genetic and they spread onto the next generation. The boy was in prison as his dad had been before him, as well as his grandfather had in his youth. “He was murdered.”

“I’m sorry to hear that,” I said after I ran out of things to say. “What was he in prison for?”

“I don’t know,” my dad replied. It struck me as strange that my dad had no idea why his family members were in prison.

“What was his name? I couldn’t find it on the site where I donated some money for his funeral. Which one of tío Carlos’s sons was he?” I had a faint memory of us playing soccer as kids, perhaps a fake one. Something created by my mind in order to focus all of the raw grief I felt knotting midway between my throat and lungs. I felt embarrassed that I knew more about the guy who collected cans at Clover Park than someone in my family.

“You did that?” my dad asked surprised. “That’s good, mijo. That’s really good. I’m not sure what his name was. I’m going to ask Carlos’s ex-wife.”

“Why don’t you ask tío Carlos himself?” Were they not on speaking terms?

“I can’t because they put him in solitary confinement after the murder. They were in the same prison block when it happened.” Most of my dad’s brother’s had landed in prison at least once, and a majority of them were in prison still. The family had accepted it as another one of life’s intricacies. “How did you find out?” My dad knew the gossip, but not the news.

“Facebook,” I replied. Family was thicker than blood, but Facebook gossip was stickier than blood.

*          *          *          *

After I hung up the phone, I made my way home. It was 10:23 a.m., so I was certain that all of my roommates would be awake on the other side of my apartment door. My wife, my son, and my 5-year-old golden retriever Nala would be expecting me to walk in through the door. My blondes, as I liked to refer to them.

“Oh! Daddy’s home,” my wife’s muffled voice yelped as the keys jingled into the keyhole. “Here comes daddy!”

Opening the door, I was greeted by a furry rush of panting and tail-wagging. Nala was so excited that I nearly tripped over her.

“Look who’s been waiting for you all morning,” my wife Marie said pointing her eyes at the playpen in the living room. I walked over, and knelt down. Luca was outstretching his little hands through the nursery-white bars.

“Come here, mijo,” I said, taking him into my arms. As I looked deep into his innocent eyes, he took a deep breath and sneezed on my nose, giggling a toothless smile. The way that he was looking at me told me that someday I would have to explain to him why his eyes were blue and mine brown; his hair light, mine dark. Why the U.S. had one of the worst soccer teams in the world despite being the best at literally every other sport, and why his penis was circumcised and mine wasn’t.

However, the hardest conversation of all the ones we would have— including the one about sex— would be the one where I explained why there were so few Izaguirre men and why the rest of them would never be part of his life. Not only because they were bad men, but because I chose not to be like them.

This beautiful baby boy would carry the last name, but no longer the stigma that accompanied it for generations. I wanted him to be different, to be loved. I was here to put an end to the criminality created by paternal absence.

Luca wrapped his tiny hand around my gritty, dirt-spangled thumb, and tried to put it in his mouth. As I pulled it away, I thought about the game that allowed me to express emotions forbidden anywhere outside of the field. Emotions of appreciation, admiration, and love. A love for the game, love for myself, love for the feelings it made me feel, the longing it filled, and the sense of belonging that only its mechanics allowed me to witness. A game that I would pass on to my son, and encourage him to play. Always for fun.

With him in my arms, nothing would hurt him.

With him in my love, nothing could stop him.

Marie came over and kissed our son on the cheek. I looked at her and she smiled.

Then, I kissed her lips.

 

Artwork

Oseguera, Jose L. (2017). El Clásico [Painting]. Acrylic on colored pencil, Los Angeles, CA.

Never to Return

Traveling from San Diego to Los Angeles in the dry heat can be difficult. Doing so after your horse and provisions have been stolen, can be worse.

All that Joaquin Fernandez de Castro had left after the denuding incident were his guitar, his 3-year-old brown dog, Whisky, and the clothes on his back. To make matters worser, the theft had occurred only a few hours outside of the San Diego de Alcalá Mission. Sure, Joaquin could have simply returned to the Mission from where he departed earlier that day, and requested a new horse and provisions, but he decided against it because he was notorious for these kinds of situations. Hence, he decided to just keep trekking, and somehow find his way up to Pueblo de Los Angeles all on his own.

“Joaquincito, you’d leave your head behind if Our Holy Father hadn’t attached it to that thick neck of yours,” Padre Florencio would tease him every time Joaquin did something stupid.

Joaquin hated being treated as the village idiot. That was the main reason why he left the comfort and affluence of his parents’ home in Madrid, Spain. He was the youngest of six, the runt, as his mother used to refer to him, in tender motherese, but just as insulting, nonetheless.

Joaquin would rather be found dead somewhere between San Diego and Los Angeles than to have to explain to the Padre what really happened, and in turn, have the Padre write a letter to his parents about his imbecility. An imbecility he had planned to shed by becoming a priest and helping those that were in worse shape than he, and start a new life where nobody knew of him or of his ineptitude. An ineptitude that had somehow made its way into his luggage, snugly packed with his socks and underwear, and onto the boat he took from Portugal to Cuba. His flaws had somehow swum behind like a horde of evil mermaids, bobbing up and down in the waves that had made him so nauseous during the whole trip. It was as if God Himself didn’t want him to forget who he was. You’re worthless, Joaquin, he often told himself, and you probably should have been born a woman. However, those words weren’t of his own creation even though they were rattling inside his achy head. They were his mother’s. Joaquin wanted to put an ocean between his life as a failure, as a disappointment as his father used to refer to him after a binge of imported whisky, and his life as a benevolent priest.

As Joaquin walked on the side of the Camino Real, he soon began to create a new reputation, that of a wandering vagabond. Most travelers ignored him, something that hurt him more than anything his family or the friars in San Diego ever did to him. Rejection, in his mind, was the worst sin of all. Christ Himself was rejected by his own people. Joaquin couldn’t help but to sob at this rejection from his own Catholic brethren. It was a sin he should’ve brought upon himself when he encountered the injured man by the side of the road, the one who stole his horse and his sense of trust. His first case of charity. He should’ve just non carpe diem, as he had become known for in his circle of friends, and recently in the mission. As a person that never seized the day. His horse got stolen by a man pretending to be stranded. Joaquin lay the man on his stomach, draping his limp body over the saddle. The clip-clop, the horse’s soothing gait, placed Joaquin in a serene trance. He went for a drink and before he knew it, the man was seated upright and in full gallop toward the sunset. Joaquin yelled out at the hijacker that he was a priest and that God would punish him for having stolen from Him, but he kept on riding without remorse. So much for being a Good Samaritan, he thought.

Whisky, the dog, named after his owner’s addiction— one that had started as a game with his father and brothers to see who could outdrink who— helped to garner some sympathy from a few travelers, often receiving scraps of food and smiles that communicated, “Oh, you poor man.” Good, full-teethed, Catholic smiles. Smiles that communicated empathy, but expressed indifference. Whisky, the spirit, could be seen when the wealthy travelers opened their lavishly upholstered carriages to dump out their trash or charity of water and various foodstuffs at Joaquin and his dog. Joaquin wanted to be filled with the spirit, his black mistress and dark past, his drink of choice. What he wouldn’t give to have just a single drop of it spill off one of the gentlemen’s glasses, warmly permeating into the cracked earth that was his tongue.

“People scare easy,” Joaquin said to his dog. “Unlike you, they find it hard to trust other people.” Up to this point, that was all Joaquin had been doing, trying to garner people’s trust by doing what they expected of him. The only reason that he allowed the stranger to ride his horse was that the church expected him to do so. To be selfless. The reason why he was, presently, in the middle of nowhere was that his parents expected him to leave their house. To be a real man. “Jesus was a selfless, real, flesh and bone man and look where he ended up.” Whisky cocked its little head at Joaquin, furrowing its brow and releasing an ascending grunt. “Maybe this is where I belong. Nowhere. A place with no people to tell me what to do or guilt me into doing their bidding.” He turned over to Whisky for some sort of confirmation, but all he got was its breathy panting.

As he looked for a place to settle down for the night, a desert rose tree caught his attention. He walked over, lay down his belongings, and plucked a flower off of it. He brought it to his face, dipped his nose deep in its bell, and took a long deep breath. It had been one of the few moments of relaxation he’d experienced in years. He closed his eyes.

When he opened them again, the daylight had suddenly turned into a single-candled dusk. He pulled out a three-page letter from his coat’s breast pocket, unfolded it, and placed in it the freshly-cut rose, still wet at the base. Folding up the letter at the creases, he placed it back in his pocket. If something so small and delicate can survive in this climate, then so can I, he reassured himself.

Joaquin began to feel the accumulation of the stress of traveling and getting nowhere fast. That of not having slept on a warm bed and eaten a warm meal. He began to wonder if he’d ever feel the warm embrace of a woman or the warmness of other people again, even in the impersonal way they addressed one another as they passed by each other on the street. He pulled out his bible, opened it to Luke 10:25, and read the story of the man on the side of the road, and thought about how human kindness seemed to leave humans as soon as they left civilization. They despoiled themselves of civility and kindness and hung it like a dirty rag on a rack when they reached the town’s end. They behaved like naked savages outside of it, and before they returned home, they threw it back on, and acted as if they never took it off. He closed the bible and sighed at their hypocrisy.

“Out in the range,” he said to Whisky as he began to lay his body on the dusty, dirty ground, “we’re all just animals.” He called the dog towards him, and it burrowed its little warm, furry body in the nook formed between his chest and thighs. “What if I had married Dalila Gamero?” Joaquin whispered to himself. “What if I hadn’t folded like a bad hand of cards, and kept up the bluff like Gregorio did? Gregorio, the one I thought was my best friend, my true brother. Why did I give her to him? Why do I always do that?” But as he looked around at his surroundings and at the heavens above for an answer, all he got in response was darkness and silence.

Suddenly, Joaquin saw a beam of light emanating from the moon down onto what looked like a finely crafted couch off in the distance. He got up from the blanket-lined dirt floor and walked towards it. The couch was light blue fabric upholstered on dark cherry wood, decorated with golden buttons and matching tassels. It was an exact replica of the one found in his parents’ bedroom. Joaquin began to hear voices that sounded familiar, but not so much that he was able to instantly associate them with anyone he knew. The closer he walked, the louder the voices, their moaning and groaning, became. His sight was blurry, and he began to rub his eyes furiously, but the more he rubbed, they became blurrier still. As he approached the couch, he recognized a scar on what appeared to be a man’s back. It was Gregorio, his best friend. It was from the wound he sustained as a child after he climbed and fell off a big apple tree in Joaquin’s backyard.

Gregorio was thrusting his bare hips into what looked like a woman’s pelvis. Joaquin looked incessantly, circling the small couch, trying to see if he could find any physical characteristics that he could use to identify the woman. He couldn’t. He had a premonition of who it might be, but he didn’t want to believe it. It wasn’t until the woman white-knuckled onto Gregorio’s heaving buttocks that he realized that the woman that was screaming in ecstatic pain was Dalila herself. Her right hand, milky white from having always worn gloves, had three beauty spots, one on each knuckle of the index, middle, and ring fingers. Those delicate hands, the same ones Joaquin used to kiss right before they parted ways for the night, back when he was courting her, were now treacherously wringing sweat out of his childhood buddy’s flesh. How foolish he had been, referring to them as angel kisses when all she really wanted was sex. That goddamned whore, he thought.

“This one is for the Father,” Joaquin remembered saying after the first kiss. “This one is for the Son. And this one, for the Holy Ghost.” Each statement, each person of God, was punctuated by a long, warm kiss on each beauty spot.

Seeing the two people that had meant so much to him aiding one another reach orgasm showed him how cruel Dalila had really been and how she had ruined his life. Joaquin realized that she was the reason why he had left behind a life of comfort and wealth. That he would rather die as a nobody in the Californian wilderness than as somebody without Dalila as his woman. As his own.

“Do you like that?” Gregorio’s blurred face asked with a distorted voice.

“What?” Joaquin asked, shocked that these blurry phantoms of his past were acknowledging his presence.

“He asked if you liked what he’s doing to me?” Dalila asked, never once stopping her rhythmic lovemaking.

Joaquin fell on his ass, thrashing backwards, kicking up small clouds of dust.

“Do you like that?” Gregorio and Dalila continued to ask. The more Joaquin moved away, the closer he seemed to be to their passionate act of love. It was as if Satan himself was pulling his legs back towards the hell he was beholding. He wanted to yell, but he couldn’t. He couldn’t even breathe.

“Do you like that?… Do you like that?… Do you like that?”

“Do you like that?” a gruff voice asked Joaquin as a foot kicked him in the buttocks.

“What?” Joaquin asked looking up at the man, his face shielding Joaquin’s eyes from the blaring sunlight, casting a momentary shadow over his face. Although it was difficult to see what the man looked like, Joaquin could tell that he didn’t have the most enchanting face, based on the smell of his rotten-egg breath.

“Who the hell are you, and what the hell are you doing here?” the man yelled at him as the hammer on his long revolver clicked, long and silvery white in the late morning’s piercing sun. Whisky barked loudly as if rabid.

Joaquin looked around in a panic to make sure that he was no longer dreaming. He was still in the desert. He scooted back violently, and breathed a sigh of relief. When Joaquin’s eyes finally came into focus, he saw just how big and fat the man really was. His big fat body was furnished with a big fat hat and a big fat mustache. Everything on his body was big and fat.

“My name is Severo,” the man said, clearing out his nostrils, and spitting out a hearty hawker the colors of the Mexican flag. “Severo Macario, at your service, and this is my daughter Rosalinda.”

Severo threw him a leather canteen full of a mystery liquid. Joaquin popped the lid, and spilled a little on the dirt. It was clear. Joaquin then brought the lip up to his nose, and smelled it suspiciously.

“Don’t be a wuss, and just drink it,” Severo insisted. Joaquin took a swig. He allowed the warm liquid to reside in his mouth for longer than he should have, and upon tasting the gravity of its otherworldly bitterness, he decided to swallow it hard rather than spray it all over the kind stranger. The wince that invaded his face after doing so drove Severo into a playful cackle. “Yep, that shit’s strong, ain’t it? Just how I like it.” Severo reached down to reclaim the rancid concoction and drank deeply from it.

“Where are you two headed?” Joaquin asked, wiping the last bit of liquid off his lips, noticing that Rosalinda hadn’t reacted to any of her father’s commotion.

“We’re travelling north to Pueblo de Los Angeles for work,” Severo said. “Where are you headed, amigo?”

“It’s Joaquin, and I’m also headed that way.” He continued to look over at the girl. Her stillness filled him with unrest.

“These are dangerous roads, you know. You got to watch out for friendly people as well as strangers.”

Joaquin was dying to tell Severo about what happened to him a few days ago in said “dangerous roads,” but he couldn’t bring himself to admitting that he needed help. Not anymore. Not after having seen the worst side of humanity. Maybe the old Joaquin would have cried at Severo’s feet, thanking him for providing him with asylum, but not the new one. Not the one who was reborn in this harsh environment.

“I usually don’t like to help strangers, at least, not ones off the trail,” Severo said. “You could say that I help them by not helping them.” He laughed heartily and coughed up a cloud of dust residing on the surface of his brown coat. “Trust me, they don’t want my help, right? Mi Rosa mas linda?” Rosalinda didn’t even seem to be breathing. She was a statue sitting on a horse, veiled in white lace, like a figure of the Virgin parading down the crowded streets during Semana Santa. “Don’t mind her. She’s a damned mute.” Joaquin laughed out of respect, but like Rosalinda, he wished he was mute, as well, that way he wouldn’t be obligated to reply to Severo’s inane comments. “I was about to send you to your Maker, but you seemed like a good guy.” Severo explained to Joaquin that he encountered a bum who tried to hijack him and his daughter, but he shot him dead after he saw fresh horse prints going around a bush. A bush that seemed to be neighing like a horse. Joaquin noticed that the horse Rosalinda was riding was the very one that he had lost a few days ago. He wanted to tell Severo that it was his stuff that he had stolen from the bum, but it became clear to him that Severo’s brand of helping was rooted in helping himself.

“Here,” Severo said as he threw a small pistol at Joaquin. The latter fumbled the gun a few times as a virgin’s hands fumble a penis the first time she encounters one. “What? Don’t tell me you’ve never used a gun before?”

“I have,” Joaquin replied, almost indignantly, fully disingenuously. “It’s just that I’m not used to people being so careless with things that can blow my head off.” Severo huffed, brushing off his brashness, and mounted his big, fat horse.

“As a man that lives outside the law, I live by very few rules,” Severo said, turning his horse around. “If you’re going to join us, I ask that you follow just one, ‘Don’t fuck my daughter.’” Joaquin was taken aback by the simple, yet crass request. “If you do, I’ll cut your dick off and feed it to your fucking mutt while you watch, and then I’ll put a bullet between your eyes.” Joaquin wasn’t disgusted at the act of violence proposed to him, but at the fact that this man would speak that way in front of a woman, especially one as young as Rosalinda. “So, what do you say?”

Joaquin thought about Severo’s proposition. Riding with a man like him would guarantee him protection and a safe passage to Pueblo de Los Angeles. But could he really trust a man like Severo? How can a man this vile and disgusting be smarter and have sounder judgement than me? Joaquin thought. After all, Severo was able to snuff out a dangerous man he himself couldn’t. There was something dangerous and unstable about him. Something that told Joaquin to stay on high alert if he decided not to join him, but especially if he did.

“Wait, how do you know I’m not a dangerous killer?” Joaquin asked, feeling a little insulted.

“Because of the clothes you’re wearing,” Severo replied with a smirk.

“What do you mean?”

“You’re dressed in all black. I thought, ‘he’s either a priest or a moron.’ Who the hell would wear black in this heat?” Joaquin fell speechless. He didn’t want Severo to know that he was indeed a priest, because outside of a church, men like Severo considered men of God as weak and unmanly. According to them, priests didn’t have sex, children, or dominion over a woman. Therefore, they weren’t real men. Besides, his title as a Vicar of Christ hadn’t dissuaded others, like the horse hijacker, from treating him like dirt. In his travels, he found out that people only cared about religion when it was convenient to them. When the Word helped them to perpetuate the stolid state they were currently in. Not when it came to having a change of heart, and truly acting as Christ would.

“Well, I’m neither.”

“Very well, Mr. Neither,” Severo said. “Get on the girl’s donkey and join us on our trip to Pueblo de Los Angeles.” Joaquin couldn’t help but feel humiliated at Severo’s kind gesture. Everything coming out of his mouth sounded like an insult, even his benevolence. Joaquin tapped on his lap and Whisky jumped up. This was the first time he and his dog were able to travel off their feet.

After an excursion that felt like a week, a sleep-deprived Joaquin was startled awake by Severo’s rough mannerisms.

“Alright, big boy, it’s time to get up and set up camp,” Severo said. “I’d do it myself, tuck you into bed, and kiss you good night, but then I’d have to kill you.” Joaquin didn’t find the words coming out of Severo’s mouth particularly whimsical, but he appreciated the humor, mainly because he hadn’t heard a human voice refer to him personally in the past few days. He looked over at Rosalinda and a wave of pity washed upon his face.

“Don’t worry about her,” Severo roared. “She hasn’t said a word since her mamma died. And if she was able to speak,” Severo flashed his daughter a smile, “she would only speak when I spoke to her.” He walked over as he blew kisses at her, a gesture Rosalinda retreated from. He grabbed her arm, and yanked her toward him before she could get away. He gripped her neck, pulling her face toward his chapped lips. Joaquin could see blue-green veins arising beneath Rosalinda’s soft, delicate brown neck, her lips scrounging up, baring her teeth, and her eyes bulging out of their sockets, both from asphyxiation and disgust. Severo planted a big, wet kiss on her cheek.

“Can you believe this, Joaquin? She won’t even give her old man a kiss,” Severo said, slightly out of breath. “After all I’ve done for this ungrateful, little bitch.” Severo pushed her thin, neck violently against a rock, as if the neck of an empty beer bottle. This display of affection stirred something uneasy inside of Joaquin, something he tried to silence with all his might. He had just met them, and didn’t feel compelled to stand up for the girl just yet. Maybe Severo was right, the girl could have really been a spoiled little brat. He was right about the horse hijacker, Joaquin hated to admit.

As the men prepared the fire, Rosalinda’s sobbing could be heard emanating from her father’s tent. Joaquin kept looking over to the tent, but quickly stopped after his eyes crossed paths with Severo’s. They were lacking the glint of friendliness he had shone to him when he was calling him a moron earlier that day. So that’s what he looks like when he’s mad, Joaquin noted. After a few seconds of eye-tearing tension, Severo broke the ocular deadlock by pulling back his coat flap, revealing to Joaquin his .44 caliber Colt Revolver.

“Where did you buy your gun?” Joaquin said, attempting to defuse Severo’s hot head and swallowing what felt like the full contents of his neck.

Severo released the flap, concealing the gun he no longer planned to murder Joaquin with. He went back to building the fire.

“I didn’t buy it,” Severo said in a low voice, never once looking over at Joaquin. “I was in the Army back in 1860. It was issued to me.”

“The Civil War, huh? It must have been a hell of a battle.”

“It was hell alright,” Severo said. “It took my brother, and part of my hearing.” Severo removed a lock of his long, greasy hair away from his ear. The ear cartilage and the flesh around it looked as though they had been incinerated. “I’m deaf in this ear. Cannon blast.”

“I’m sorry to hear that,” Joaquin said, and immediately cringed, half expecting the cold, chrome barrel of the revolver land on his pulsating temple. He didn’t want Severo to think that he was trying to make pun a off of his misfortune. Severo remained unfazed.

“Now, I’m a damned bounty hunter,” Severo said. The fire began to consume the brush, twigs and branches and warmed a red glow on their faces. “I’ve only been good at two things.” He took a long swig from his canteen, settling back against a rock. “Putting booze in my belly and putting men in the ground.” Severo passed the canteen to Joaquin, a peacemaking gesture, but Joaquin only shook it, making a slushing noise, pretending to drink from it. He passed it back. “I’m on the hunt for a man heading north. At first, I thought it was you.” Joaquin looked over in arrogant puzzlement. “But after I realized how pathetic you looked, I knew he wasn’t you.” Joaquin looked down, past his shriveled balls, at the dirt between his knees.

Joaquin glanced over at his guitar case, and pulled it over towards him. He unbuckled the case open and pulled out the distuned instrument. Music always seemed to temper even the wildest of tempers.

“I was wondering when you were going to whip it out,” Severo said, laughing at his own crudeness. “Rosalinda, mi amor, come out. Joaquin is going to play his guitar.” The girl emerged from the tent slowly like the head of a desert tortoise emerging from hibernation. She walked over and took a seat next to her father just as Whisky had taken a seat next to Joaquin.

“Joaquincito, you play the guitar so fucking well,” Severo cheered, beginning to slur his words. “So well that you’re making it talk. Hell, you’re making it cry.” Severo laughed hysterically, halfway towards blacking out. Seeing Joaquin’s hard-hands delicately pluck and stroke the silver strings, partially oxidized by the day’s heat into a red rust, Rosalinda wondered how something so hollow and wooden could speak and cry, and sing so beautifully and why she could do neither. She felt like tumbleweed. Moving on and on, punished by life’s currents, following the blows of a man she hated. She felt empty inside.

Rosalinda wondered if Joaquin’s wonderful hands could heal her muteness. She remembered hearing in church about how Jesus’ hands had healed a man of his blindness. She wondered if he could heal the blindness in her voice. Maybe Joaquin’s angelic music could conjure the Spirit of God and heal me from this misery, she thought. Her misery’s name wasn’t muteness. It was named Severo Macario. The thought of a life without Severo brought a brief verticality to the permanent horizontality that were Rosalinda’s lips. It wasn’t quite a smile, but the closest gesture to one she had experienced in years.

Joaquin, having gulped a distasteful swig of Severo’s wrath earlier that night, didn’t dare look directly at Rosalinda. Instead, he was pretending to look at his hands as he played, even though he had no need to do so. From time to time, he would sneak in a look at Rosalinda, less to admire her fleshy lips and long lashes, but more out of morbid curiosity, as when you’re told not to think of something. Why does this man covet his daughter so zealously? he thought. Joaquin felt an uneasiness every time Severo interacted with her. He continued to play, Severo continued to drink and to sing out of tune, and Rosalinda continued to get lost in the moment, in the fantasy of a life without Severo, draping her eyes with her feathery lashes.

“Alright, mi Rosa tan linda, it’s time for bed,” Severo said. “Daddy’s sleepy. Real sleepy, if you know what I mean.” Severo laughed, patting Joaquin on the back, and knocking the guitar out of his hands. The shrill noise of the strings hitting the hard dirt, rubbing up against stones and twigs, playing cacophonous chords caused Whisky to bark at Severo. “Shut up, you fucking mutt.”

Joaquin called the dog over, and placed him in his bosom. As he kissed the dog’s musty head, he looked over at Rosalinda, whose eyes were red with welled-up tears. How horrible it must be for a young woman to have to live with an animal like that, Joaquin wondered. Severo went in first, and after a few seconds yelled at Rosalinda to get her ass in the tent. Although the tent obstructed what was occurring inside, it did nothing to conceal the sound. Joaquin found it difficult to sleep, allowing his mind to imagine the most deplorable things, his mind filling up with sounds of lips smacking, suckling, and shushing.”

“Shut up, and stay down,” Severo whispered heavily. “Stop moving.” Between Severo’s whispers, Rosalinda’s sobbing, and Joaquin’s morbid, incestuous fantasies, it was certain that nobody would sleep well that night.

When he opened his eyes, Joaquin heard a woman crying across from him.  He felt as though he had slept for a minute, but he had indeed slept for a large portion of the night. He palmed the blanket, invaded by red dirt, trying to feel where Whisky was lying. Rosalinda had been crying as she prepared Severo’s breakfast. The sun hadn’t yet risen, so the air was still chilly. Joaquin walked over to her and noticed that Whisky had been panting next to her this whole time.

“What’s wrong?” Joaquin asked in a low whisper. Rosalinda stopped crying and just sat there. He knew that she was mute, but he felt that maybe by asking her questions she could somehow signal to him the reason for her being sad. Her sadness, in Joaquin’s mind, emanated from something that happened the night before. “Did your father do something to you?” Without looking or flinching, a small voice came out of her, one coming from a distance, not in terms of longitude, but one that seemed to be buried deep in a hole.

“He’s not my father,” Rosalinda said. That was all she said. Joaquin was stunned by what he considered a miracle by the Holy Spirit. Before he could ask her another question, Severo came out of the tent more jovial than he had ever seen him. Soon after he let out a boisterous yawn that resonated in the surrounding range, Severo realized that Joaquin had been alone with Rosalinda.

“Rosita, go fetch me some firewood, please,” Severo said, as he gave her a peck on the crown of the head, and a spank on her buttocks. “Take the dog with you.” Rosalinda looked up at Severo and then at Joaquin, asking with her eyes what she couldn’t with her mouth. “I’m sure Joaquin wouldn’t mind.” She looked down at her fidgeting hands, awaiting for Joaquin’s permission.

“Yeah, go ahead and take Whisky with you. She loves to go on walks,” Joaquin said half smiling, half suspicious as to why Severo was so eager to be alone with him. Rosalinda motioned the dog over to her and the two of them walked away into the early morning light.

“Don’t go too far,” Severo yelled. As soon as the girl was far enough, he turned to face Joaquin. “Did she tell you anything?”

“Anything about what?” Joaquin asked, unsure of whether to lie to him or not. Severo took a seat near the dying embers and pulled out his revolver.

“I’m not Rosalinda’s biological father,” Severo said, pulling out a stained cloth, and polishing his gun. “I raised her from about the age of 5 after I married her momma.” That was 10 years ago. “I gotta tell you, she’s looking more and more like her. The face and the body of the woman I fell for.” The hairs on the back Joaquin’s neck became stiff like those on the back of a scared cat. “I wanted to wait to dip my dick into that sweet pussy until she was old enough, but I just couldn’t. I did it behind her momma’s back, of course. You know, out of respect.” Joaquin couldn’t believe what he was hearing. “I haven’t been completely honest with you, amigo.” Joaquin felt reviled by the notion of sharing a friendship with this man. “I’m not looking for a man to kill. I’m looking for a man to marry me to Rosalinda.” Joaquin wasn’t sure if it was the warm morning light or a monstrous shiver bathing his back from the neck down, but suddenly he felt a sense of relief. He was certain that had he told Severo that he was a priest, he would have forced him marry them at gunpoint.

“Why didn’t you marry her in San Diego?” Joaquin asked.

“The empty sack Padre, Florencio I think his name is, refused to marry us,” Severo said, pointing the gun toward the horizon. “He said it was ungodly. That fucker.”

Joaquin didn’t know how to react to all of the new information Severo had just dumped on him. Right as he was about to ask Severo why he would want to marry a girl that he raised as his own daughter, he heard Whisky barking nearby.

“There she is,” Severo yelled, waving down Rosalinda. Joaquin stood up to help Rosalinda with the firewood, but was flanked by a rushing Severo. Joaquin figured that Severo was such a jealous wreck that he didn’t want him to interact with his bride to be in any single way. Severo took the wood out Rosalinda’s hands and threw it carelessly onto an unsuspecting Joaquin. The sharp, dry branches scratched Joaquin’s face making him yelp in pain. “Oh, I’m sorry. I forgot that you’re delicate,” Severo laughed to himself and immediately grimaced.

As they ate breakfast, Severo kept going on and on about how when he found that sonofabitch robber he was looking for, that he was going to shoot him right between the eyes. As he mimed how he was going to shoot the fugitive, he kept pointing the gun at a flinching Joaquin and at an unflinching Rosalinda. I guess she’s too used to his erratic behavior, Joaquin thought.

The three of them finished packing and loading all of their belongings onto the horses and the donkey. According to Severo, it would be another four days of travel before reaching the pueblo. Because he didn’t want to listen to Severo’s singing or partake in his unappetizing topics of conversation, Joaquin kept pretending to doze off or be sun sick. Even so, Severo kept waking him up by yelling his name, and laughing as if it were a punchline to one of his cruel jokes, or asking him the same question over and over, until Joaquin acknowledged him and gave him a satisfactory answer.

By the time they settled down for the night, Joaquin was even more exhausted dealing with Severo than dealing with the severity of travelling on foot. Back then, he was carrying more weight on his back, but now, knowing what he knew and not having the ability to remedy the situation, he felt a greater burden on his shoulders. He had never known of a couple that were so wrong for each other as Severo and Rosalinda. Even the thought of Gregorio making love to his once beloved Dalila didn’t turn his stomach as much as picturing his two companions kissing on the lips.

The arid wind earlier that day had made Severo drink much more of his stinking elixir than usual. By the time they had finished setting up camp, he had passed out. He hadn’t even touched his dinner. Joaquin looked over at Rosalinda, who was quietly eating from her plate, chewing because she had to not because she was truly enjoying the meal swishing around in her mouth and swallowing into her belly.

“So, he’s not your fath—” Joaquin said as he leaned over.

“Shut up,” Rosalinda whispered. “He may be passed out and half-deaf, but he can still hear.” She took a bite of bread. “And the details that he can’t hear, he’ll make them up himself.” Rosalinda placed her plate down. “Bring out your guitar, and play as we speak.”

“Sh-sure,” Joaquin said, stunned at the girl’s ingenuity. He began to play random chords, fingerpicked in a random pattern. Severo suddenly began to slur an indistinct melody and unintelligible words. Joaquin looked in shock, thinking that this big, fat beast may wake up.

“Don’t worry,” Rosalinda said. “He’s gone.” Rosalinda began to tell Joaquin not to believe anything Severo told him. “He doesn’t want to marry me. He wants to sell me off to a whorehouse once we arrive at the pueblo.”

“Why would he do that to his own daught—,” Joaquin stopped himself before finishing. “Well, to his bride-to-be?”

“Because I had a miscarriage a few days before we found you on the road,” Rosalinda said, biting and sucking on her bottom lip. “He already treats me like one.” She took a drink of water and cupped her hands on top of each other.
“Like a wife?”

“No. Like a whore.” She looked down at her hands, fidgeting and picking scabs off of her hands. “I made her a promise.”

“Made who a promise?”

“My mamma,” Rosalinda said, sobbing as soon as the maternal word crossed the threshold of her lips. “I did it because I loved her so much. On her deathbed, she made me promise her to marry and bear children for Severo.” She let out a loud yell which made Joaquin fumble the fingering from one chord to the next. “He was raping me, and she knew it.” Rosalinda sniffled, ending the deluge of tears, and changing the tone of her voice from sorrowful to vindictive. “She knew what he was doing to me, but she just wasn’t strong enough to stop it. No one would help because she had been a prostitute. Not even the priest.” Rosalinda had become his concubine, at first behind her mamma’s watchful and soon after, directly under it. Her mamma had induced her first miscarriage when she was 12, just to keep up appearances.

Joaquin wanted to go over and comfort her, but he wasn’t sure how she was going to react. If he were to be completely honest with himself, he was actually afraid of Severo waking up and finding him embracing his woman, and having to see his own dog eat his penis. So, Joaquin simply kept playing and listening intently, something, he imagined, nobody had done for Rosalinda in years. Maybe ever.

“My mamma left home when she was 13, and was married off to a man who didn’t want her. She was recruited by a brothel because her papa didn’t want her back,” Rosalinda said, never once making eye contact with Joaquin. She was pregnant with Rosalinda when she sought the priest for shelter, but he too rejected her, and pushed her out into the streets. From there, her life spiraled out of control. Rosalinda’s mamma worked at a brothel on the Mexican side of the U.S. border where Severo and his friends solicited her services. After they were done having their fill with her, Severo took pity on her, given that she was the only woman who wasn’t reviled by his appearance and mannerisms. He never married her because she was “unclean,” but he just couldn’t deny her beauty and thrall attentiveness. Severo became a father to her bastard child. Her mother explained to Rosalinda that in spite of him being so mean to them and physically abusive, it was better than being alone, being without a man in a man’s world. “‘You take care of his needs, in the kitchen and in the bedroom. You hear? If you do, he’ll take care of you,’ she told me right before she died. That’s what I’ve been doing this whole time.”
Joaquin noticed how Rosalinda spoke without moving or showing any emotion. She was like a rose, beautiful and still. He felt a fire inside of her. A fire that had been suffocated, but not extinguished. Someone this beautiful, he thought, cannot be dead. I can’t allow it to die.

“He wants to sell me to a whorehouse because he says that I am not a woman, that I am a whore. A whore that is possessed by barren demon,” Rosalinda said with no emotion in her voice, as if she had cried herself dry. “He says that I am a whore like my mamma.”
For the first time, Joaquin realized that in the love triangle that he, Gregorio, and Dalila found themselves in, Dalila was the real victim. This whole time he thought he and his best friend had been but mere players in Dalila’s cruel love-game. How she pitted two friends, two brothers against one another, and how it was all in his head. It was, in fact, her family pitting her up against what they, the church and society wanted. He saw in Rosalinda’s dark, sulking eyes Dalila’s true feelings. They reminded him of the almost forced reactions he’d elicit from her after he kissed her hand. Did Dalila see me like Rosalinda sees Severo? he wondered with the taste of bile in his mouth. Even if Dalila’s parents wanted her to end up with the best match, in Joaquin’s mind, it was only a few steps shy from auctioning her off like a prized thoroughbred. Giving her away to the highest bidder. Selling her off like a whore.

“What are you thinking about?” Rosalinda whispered. Joaquin didn’t know. Something inside him may have wanted to do something, but he knew Rosalinda needed him to do something. It was time for him to finally seize the day, to stop thinking about what others wanted him to do, and start doing what he wanted to do. At the moment, he wanted to save this girl from the fate that was awaiting her in Pueblo de Los Angeles. A fate that she was living, and that was slowly killing her. One that Joaquin himself was an accessory to, by having done nothing, aiding and abetting it by lying awake motionlessly. He knew that Severo had been raping her these past couple of days, he could hear everything, but tried to drown it out with tears and nightmares. “Say something,” she insisted.

“We need to run away,” Joaquin said, part of him unsure that this level of tenacity had emanated from him. He had been called weak and delicate all of his life that he believed it without question.

“No. No, he’ll hunt us down,” Rosalinda said. “That’s what he does, and he’s good at it. No, that won’t work.” Joaquin knew that it wouldn’t work, he knew it the second the suggestion rattled around in his head, before he even suggested it.
“You’re right. We need t—”

“We need to kill him,” Rosalinda exclaimed. It was the loudest, most affirmative statement he had ever heard coming from her voice. Joaquin closed his eyes, took a deep breath, and snatched the canteen from a snoring Severo. He took a swig, not caring about the smell of rotten eggs mixed with vomit on the mouth of the canteen. He swallowed the liquid.

“Very well.” Joaquin set his guitar back in its case, and began to pace back and forth, away from the fire’s glow into the darkness and back into the light, scratching his head trying to devise a plan.

“You need to do it before he wakes up, but not tonight,” she said. “We don’t want to attract any unwanted wildlife.” Rosalinda proposed that she wake him up early and that he kill Severo with the gun he was given. Joaquin agreed. Rosalinda then walked over to Joaquin and gave him a big hug, wrapping her short arms around his, resting her head on his chest. He felt trapped, not by her embrace, but by the bind she had put him in. This is what Judas must have felt right before he betrayed our Lord Jesus, Joaquin thought as he regretted making his promise of delivering Severo’s head to Rosalinda.
“Alright, go to your tent, and don’t forget to wake me up before he does,” Joaquin said. He already knew that he probably wouldn’t be able to even blink that whole night, let alone shut his eyes to sleep. He saw Rosalinda go into the tent as he lay across a blacked out Severo. Joaquin placed the gun Severo had thrown at him under his bundled up coat, which he was using as a pillow. He wanted to be ready in case Severo woke up from his slumber. Part of him fantasized about what life would be like with Rosalinda after they killed Severo. Would she want to be his companion? His wife even? Would he be able to look past her history as an abused woman and see her for who she truly was?

Joaquin saw a candle light up inside of Rosalinda’s tent. He immediately grabbed the gun under his coat, rose to a standing position, and walked over to the tent. As he approached it, Joaquin noticed the silhouette of woman bent over, taking a man in from behind. At first sight, he thought the man was Severo, but when he rushed into the tent, he saw that the man had a svelte body, not a big and fat one like Severo’s. The woman turned around to look at Joaquin. It was Rosalinda. However, the face changed from Rosalinda’s to Dalila’s and from Dalila’s to his own mother’s. When he heard his mother moaning as he had never heard her, he ran toward the man pulling him off of her. Joaquin knocked the assailant down and turned him on his back to see who he was. It was Joaquin himself. He was the man fucking them all. All the women he cared about. He never wanted to become a priest or to live a life of chastity, but if there was ever a time when this lifestyle seemed alluring, it was now. Upon seeing his own face, the tent began to fill with smoke, then with hell fire, erupting around him. He looked around for his mother, but she was gone. He then looked for an exit, but he was surrounded by a burning ring of fire. His clothes began to catch on fire as his double began to laugh at him. The flames started to consume his flesh, but he couldn’t seem to put them out. The laughter got louder, gruffer, and phlegmy. It wasn’t his double laughing at him, it was Severo.

“How do you like that, motherfucker?” Severo yelled at Joaquin. “That’s what you get for trying to fuck my woman.” Joaquin jumped out of the burning tent only to be greeted by a rain of bullets shot at him by Severo. One of them hit his hamstring and another one his lower back. Joaquin rolled on the ground, from the pain and to put out the flames enveloping him. The gun shots stopped, and so did Joaquin’s rolling. “Stay down, you piece of shit.”

Severo reloaded his gun, keeping his eye on Joaquin’s charred body. Joaquin, on the other hand, felt like his skin was melting, sliding off his bones.
“She told me all about your little plan to kill me,” Severo said as he spun the gun’s cylinder, taking his time, sliding in each bullet into the chambers. “I may be deaf, but I’m not a fucking idiot.” Joaquin looked up at Rosalinda, her face looking away, a bruise forming around her left eye and blood dripping down her nose. “Disappointed?” Severo asked. Joaquin looked at him appalled and enraged. “Yeah, what did I tell you? She’s a first rate little bitch of a whore. She’s a fucking gossip this little mute. She really is.”
In spite of the rage he felt, toward Severo and a little bit toward Rosalinda, he understood why she had betrayed him and didn’t hold it against her. She had been trained, brainwashed to follow this man’s commands, however sick and twisted they may have been, like a dog who would chase a ball off a cliff only to please its master, or a woman who learns to become an obedient wife and love her husband in spite of his imperfections.

“I’m a decent man, Joaquincillo,” Severo said. “I married her whore mamma with the understanding that I’d be able to make her daughter my wife.” As much as it pained him, Joaquin believed what he was hearing. These past few days, he had grown to see Severo as a compulsive liar, but his words bore the gut-wrenching, cold, dead feeling that accompanies an awful truth. He lied about almost everything. But this wasn’t a lie. “I bet this little bitch didn’t tell you about that, now did she? Hell, she probably didn’t even know.” Joaquin almost forgot about his physical agony trying to reel from all of this psychological pain. “She miscarriages and that’s no good for me.”
Rosalinda’s small, huddled body became tight and shaky, like a fist that’s squeezed so hard that it’s too difficult for the muscles and bones to bear. The blood that ran out of her nose, down her upper lip, and around her lips soon diluted from a dark scarlet into a red rose when it came into contact with her freshly shed tears. She was crying so profusely that even her nose wept.

“Oh, just shut up, you fucking whore,” Severo yelled as he placed his revolver in its holster, and picked up Joaquin’s bundled up coat. He shook it open, releasing a mist of dust and the small gun Joaquin had stashed in it. “Ah, here it is.” Severo picked up the gun and stuck it in the back of his pants, between his belt and his sweaty ass cheeks. “Let’s see what else we can find.” He plunged his hand into every one of the garment’s crevasses, pulling out its innards and tossing its contents on the ground. When Severo pulled out the letter in Joaquin’s breast pocket, he flicked it open. “So, you are a priest, I fucking knew it. You fucking lia—”

Joaquin rushed Severo and tackled his thin knobby knees. Severo collapsed hard like a large boulder falling in a landslide. He hit the ground and Joaquin mounted him, landing random blows all over his body. A surprised Severo attempted to swat the pest off of him, but Joaquin had gone completely mad. He was finally able to slide a concealed knife out of one of his boots and slid it deep into Joaquin’s emaciated side, between his protruding ribs. Joaquin stopped his punching frenzy and twitched spastically as if suffering from epilepsy. He stabbed a petrified Joaquin a few more times, just to make sure he’s nice and dead, Severo thought. After the martyred priest flopped lifelessly on his chest, Severo shoved him off of him with disgust. It wasn’t that he didn’t like blood, in fact, the mere sight of it made him giddy, hard even, but he abhorred the warm feeling of another man’s blood on him. It made him feel dirty, like a murderer. In Severo’s mind, he killed bad people, which made him good. He was merely carrying out God’s will.

As he rocked from side to side, laboring to roll his big body over onto his big belly, Severo made his way to all fours and began to palm his holster, trying get a hold of his revolver. A rush of fear took over him, and he erected his torso, still on his knees. Before he could even turn his head to verify his worst fear, he heard the sound of the hammer click. A sound that he had enjoyed creating and listening to. One that he found to be so reassuring and sweet, almost melodic. Now, it was the sound of death clicking the door knocker, awaiting to escort him to his grave.

“Mi rosa ma—”

“Shut the fuck up,” Rosalinda said. The sound of her voice wasn’t menacing or emotional. Just loud enough to let him know that she was serious about blowing his fucking brains out if he uttered another word. “Don’t fucking move.”

“I…I…” Severo wanted to say the right thing to walk Rosalinda off the ledge, but he couldn’t even think. He looked over at Joaquin’s motionless body. It lay contorted and crusty like a bloodied shaving rag in the heat, flies already buzzing over him like angels.

“I’m going to shoot if you don’t shut your fucking mouth.”

“Buh-but why are you duh-doing this?” All at once, Rosalinda knew and didn’t know why she was holding a gun to the head of the man that was her father and husband. A man who had raised her and protected her all this time. Maybe it was the hate she felt toward him for having treated her mamma so poorly, or because he never gave the chance to another man of choosing her fate. The hate that she felt toward her mamma had migrated onto the person of Severo. He always seemed to bring out the worst in her. All that she felt for her mamma’s memory was love. But now, as she held the sweaty wooden handle and silvery trigger, Rosalinda knew it was her mamma’s fault as much as it was Severo’s.

Having seen Joaquin’s bravery to help her, something snapped inside of her. How could a complete stranger feel pity for her, and risk his life to save hers? Joaquin did for her what she herself would have done for her mamma. He did it out of love for her. Tears of joy rolled down her face as she laughed deliriously, wheezing and choking on her mucus. The percussive coughing soon morphed into sobbing. Sobbing for a lost love. One that was never meant to be in this world, but in the hereafter. Whisky began to howl next to her.

Rosalinda recognized the way Severo was on his hands and knees, begging with tears rolling down his hairy cheeks, clearing streaks of red earth and purple blood caked on his face. She recognized the way he begged desperately for his life as one begs a saint for a miracle, staring down the barrel of his own gun. It was the same position of penance that he manifested during the few times her mamma threatened to leave him, one hand on her belongings and one hand on Rosalinda. Those tears that would appear from nowhere, flowing interminably from his grey eyes. Like an oasis, they would always beckon her mamma to stay and as soon as he convinced her, the tears would dry up and disappear like a mirage and the harshness of a man with a heart of stone, his arid brand of love, would whack her upside the head back into reality.

     My mamma always fell for his false promises, she thought, men’s promises as her mamma would refer to them. She fell for them even as she understood that they weren’t worth a damn. In many ways, Rosalinda was like her mamma, they were both beautiful and they were both loyal to a fault. But one thing that they disagreed on was their affection towards Severo. Unlike her mamma, she would not fall for a man whom she hated. She wouldn’t willingly fool herself into trusting a man’s promise. If it was up to her, she wouldn’t let Severo lay another hand on her, and it just so happened that it was up to her. The butt of the revolver was nestled securely in her hands, so tight that she could feel the sweat reservoir and cascade between her breasts. The trigger was erect ready for her sweaty right index finger to release it, and release her from the animal before her. The one that had devoured most her life.

Her left hand was a little shaky, but steady enough to aim for the head— as Severo had taught her to do. Her head was swimming with memories, mostly ones too painful to think about, like the memory of her mamma’s bloodied teeth and nose. Rosalinda focused this pain on her hands, which were now motionless and ready. It was the last impetus for her to end Severo’s life and his pathetic begging and moaning. She pulled the trigger without batting a lash. She needed to see him dead on the ground, his brain matter spilling on the dirt, before she could ever close her eyes again.

Like dominoes stacked side by side, Rosalinda collapsed to her knees, then to her face after Severo’s big, fat body thudded a large puff of red dirt, landing face first. The adrenaline that had evacuated her body as the bullet had left the gun, left her body weak and feeling heavier than Severo’s. Whisky ran over to her licking and pawing her face, nosing and whimpering her hands to get up. When she finally did, she followed the dog toward an agonizing Joaquin. She carefully lifted his battered body, his clothes completely soaked in muddied blood, and placed his head on her lap.

“Are you alright?” Joaquin said in a breathy, small voice, gargling blood.

“Shhh…don’t speak, just le—”

“I want you to take—” Joaquin coughed out a spray of blood as he tried to swallow too much of it. “Take the letter in my bag and—” His eyes grew grayer and grayer, cloudy like the sky he was looking up toward. His voice slurred out of intelligibility and his thoughts out of coherence. The pool of blood in his mouth grew shallower, rippling with Rosalinda’s heavy tears. Joaquin was ready to go Home.

He died in her arms, and for the first time in years, she was able to cry to her pain’s content. Fully satiating the heartache that had been wringing her guts ever since her mamma said ‘yes’ to a life under Severo’s feet. Something she hadn’t been able to do even in her mother’s bosom. Don’t you dare shed a tear in front of a man, her mother would reprimand her, it makes them feel good when they make us cry. Don’t cry, my dear. Don’t cry. It was a strange feeling of guilt, the guilt that comes from having gotten away with something. It felt nice. The only memory that she could remember that even came close to this feeling was when she used to run downhill in the tall grass as a little girl. She ran and ran, without an end in sight, running faster and faster, feeling as though she would never stop. She would roll the rest of the way down after her legs gave out. Laying on her back, her heart pounding out of her rib cage, she felt eternal. Now, as she closed Joaquin’s sweet, dead eyes, she felt eternal again. Free.

Whisky came over and lay beside them, licking Joaquin’s bloodied hand, trying to slobber him back to life. Rosalinda gently slid Joaquin’s head onto the dirt and crawled over to the letter Severo had been twirling around before he killed Joaquin. She opened it and read it. It was from Padre Florencio Abello de Holguín, the very priest that had refused to marry her to Severo. It instructed the Padre Ignacio Salazar from the San Fernando Rey de España Mission to please receive Joaquin Fernandez de Castro as an addition to their effort to bring the Kingdom of Heaven to God’s people. Rosalinda knew that this letter was Joaquin’s last gift. Even in death, he was watching over her.

She flipped through the last two pages and noticed that something fell out of the last page. It was a flat, dried up desert rose flower. It had survived everything that Joaquin had gone through since he plucked it from its home. Rosalinda picked it up and smelled its sweet fragrance. If something as fragile as this flower can survive in the world of men, then so can I, she said to herself. She walked over to Joaquin’s body, placed the rose on his chest, and crossed his hands over it.

 

Artwork by Cory Bilicko

Bilicko, C. (2017). Sentered [Painting]. Oil and acrylic on canvas, Long Beach, CA.

Panis Angelicus

Panis Angelicus will be published in the upcoming issue of:

Meat for Tea: The Valley Review – Volume 11, Issue 4: Kid

You can purchase a printed or PDF copy by clicking on the following link:

Purchase Meat For Tea

 

Going Home

     When Julian looked into his little brother’s big brown eyes, his became glassy and itchy with tears. Thiago wanted to come along with Julian and his friends, but Julian didn’t want him to slow them down. Julian was embarrassed of Thiago, who was 2 years his junior, because he had short stubby legs and winced at the first sign of trouble. If something dangerous were to happen, Julian could imagine his brother getting hurt or even killed.  He would rather put Thiago out of his misery by leaving him behind rather than to see him get his body or feelings hurt by his friends’ rough play. Besides, their cousin Manny couldn’t stand him.

     “He acts like a little fag,” Manny told Julian once. “I just want to beat the shit out of him every time I see him.” It enraged Julian to hear Manny refer to his brother in that way, partly because he agreed with him.

     The tears rolling down Julian’s face were of impotence– that he wasn’t brave enough to abandon his brother or adequately strong to defend him against his older cousin, if Thiago came along. Julian knew what it felt like to be left out of things. On his last day of elementary school, all of the boys in his class were nowhere to be found. He was a leftover of a 5th grade apocalyptic rapture. As Julian exited his last class of the year, his ass numb from inactivity, he bumped into his other classmates who were all laughs and smiles. When Julian asked where they had all been, one of them boasted that they had been watching jungle porn at his house. They had all conspired a day before to do so and didn’t even think of inviting Julian. They had made a pact and drunk the poisoned punch. A mass deflowering. It didn’t bother Julian that they thought that he was a loser. It didn’t bother him that he didn’t get the chance to enjoy the exquisiteness of jungle porn. What bothered Julian was that they had thought that he was too young to understand.

     “Just stay the hell back,” Julian yelled at little Thiago as he descended the hill upon which his grandmother’s house was located. Julian hated excluding his brother, but he wanted Thiago to see him as his strong older brother and the other kids to see him as one of their own. From a distance, Julian waved to his brother, as a way of saying goodbye and telling him to go into the house. But Thiago remained, looking at his brother drifting farther and farther away from him, his sputtered whimpers drifting into the loud howl of an abandoned puppy. “Just shut up,” said Julian, looking at his brother’s distant silhouette. “Don’t make me go up there again.”

     The other boys were waiting at the bottom of the hill, impatiently for Julian to hurry up. Although he wasn’t the youngest in the group, Julian felt less wily than the rest. He hung out with them because they were tough and Julian wanted to toughen up. A menace by association. These street kids could rough you up and rob you blind without a moment’s notice. Julian liked that about them.

     Julian’s hiking party included his cousin Manny, who, unlike Julian– in Tijuana solely for summer vacation– was living in Mexico due to his parents’ finances. They grew up together, and being only a year apart, this meant that they were in constant competition for their family’s approval. Success in this gauntlet meant more to Manny than to Julian due to the former’s lack of parental affection. Manny’s parents had too many kids to care for and too little time to care about them individually.

     The youngest kid in the group was nicknamed Rabbit, but he also went by “El Sex” because his mother was one of the town’s prostitutes. Rabbit was never home, and nobody ever visited his house or even knew where it was located. He was always at other people’s houses, and the only time you could assume that he was home was when all of a sudden you couldn’t find him at anybody else’s house. For all they knew, Rabbit didn’t even have a hole to call home.

     The last kid’s name was Coco. He wasn’t really a kid though, he was way older than any of the other kids and looked more like a man than a kid. He was charming and had a smile that made Julian’s face fill with warmth until his temples began to perspire. That smile was the same he placed on Julian’s eyes with the grace of a dove as Pastor Emmanuel invoked the name of the Holy Spirit, dunking Coco into the local church’s baptismal waters. When he emerged from the small pool, Coco blew water out of his nose and took suffocating breaths. Once he found his composure, he stuck out his tongue as though he had just helter-skeltered down and out of a water park slide.

     “Guess who I caught fingering herself?” Coco asked as he hopped excitedly around his three companions.

     “Who? Who did you see?” Rabbit asked, wearing a big grin, its malice augmented by the length of his buck teeth. “Was it your mom?”

     “Ugh. No, stupid. I saw Dora. Dora was the one. I caught her dipping her fingers into her hole when I went to visit her brother.”

     “Was she all naked and shit?” Manny asked.

     “Yeah, pretty much,” Coco said with a chuckle.

     “So, you saw her big tits?” Julian asked.

     “How do you know she has big tits?” Coco asked.

     “Yeah, how do you know?” Manny asked.

     “Yeah, how do you know?” Rabbit echoed.

     It came as a surprise that Julian would have that form of sexual reconnaissance, given that he had such neatly trimmed and combed hair and a fresh, round face. The face of a cherub. He was deemed too cute to know of such things. To them, Julian was a larger version of his younger brother.

     “Well, you can see how big they are when she wears tight shirts,” Julian said.

     “Yeah, that’s true,” Coco confirmed with a smile.

     Coco told the others that when he saw Dora pleasuring herself, he froze. It looked as though Dora was trying to wedge her whole hand into her vagina.

     “Ugh, I don’t think I can shake her hand ever again,” said Rabbit, wiping his lips with his shirt sleeve, then spitting. Rabbit always punctuated all of his remarks with spit. Sometimes loogies, but even when he didn’t have any saliva to spit with, the mere puff of precipitated air expelling through his puckered lips was enough to satisfy his oral fixation.

     “That was like a month ago and she’s probably washed her hand a million times since then,” Coco assured him. “Plus, you shake a person’s whole hand, not just one finger, stupid.” Coco enjoyed calling everyone “stupid,” especially kids younger than he was, right to their faces, and to adults behind their back and under his breath.

     “So, what happened? Did you bang her?” Julian asked, allowing the sparseness of the town’s edge to loosen his tongue and start talking like an adult.

     “No,” Coco said, looking down sullenly. “I had the chance, but I was too chickenshit to take it.” As he led the way towards the surrounding hills, Coco told the story of a similar thing that happened to him years ago, when he used to accompany his mother to clean rich people’s houses.

     “Well, she wasn’t my babysitter,” Coco said. “She was babysitting the son of my mom’s bosses.” On one occasion, the babysitter was under the impression that Coco’s mom wasn’t coming to clean the house, so she decided to take a shower and walk around the house naked. “When she saw my mom and me in the kitchen, she freaked the fuck out.”  The sitter tried to unwind the knot on the towel wrapped around her head, but it was wound so tight that she had to reach for a small dish rag. “She had some big ol’ titties,” Coco said, jumping up and down. “They were just bouncing and bouncing. Boom, boom, boom.”

     “Did you get to see her pussy?” Manny asked. Manny was obsessed with vaginas. A few years back, Manny, Julian and their older cousin Stan, who had just turned 18, rented a couple of porno videos. Up to that point, Julian had only heard of porno movies but had never actually seen one. He was very excited, but he also needed to pee and he didn’t want to miss all of the loving, so he held it in. The nudity took longer to reveal itself than he expected and by the time the first woman revealed her silicone-enhanced body, Julian was about ready to burst.

     “Why don’t they show the girl’s pussy? They just keep showing her tits. Man, I wish she would turn around so I could look at it,” Manny said.

     “Just shut up and look at the girl,” Stan replied.

     “Um, I’ll be back,” Julian said as he jumped off the couch. “I gotta use the bathroom.” Julian ran past Manny and Stan, hunched over with a double-handed grip on his crotch. While the other two boys were under the laughing assumption that Julian’s testicles had spontaneously combusted, Julian was unloading his bladder, hosing the toilet as quickly as possible, trying not to miss the scene’s penetrating content.

     Coco said that he got a little glimpse of the sitter’s pubic region, but that she kept covering it.

     “Then what happened?” asked Rabbit.

     “My stupid mom started yelling at her, which woke her the fuck up, and the fine-ass babysitter ran with her big ol’ booty into the bathroom,” Coco said, licking his lips. “Man, if only my mom hadn’t been there. What I wouldn’t have done.”

     “What would’ve you done?” Julian asked.

     “Well, I would’ve jumped on her and fucked her, stupid,” Coco said, incredulous in the face of Julian’s naiveté.

     “Yeah, stupid,” said Manny.

     “Yeah, stupid,” echoed Rabbit immediately after, both acting as if they themselves knew what Coco was alluding to and would have taken a similar course of action.

     My cousin Manny and Rabbit had become inseparable ever since the former took a beating in lieu of the latter. Rabbit had the mouth to start fights and Manny the body to finish them. These two were so close that they used to masturbate in each other’s presence, covered in blankets, to Oliver Stone’s 1991 film, “The Doors.” The scene from which they drew the most inspiration was one depicting Nico, from the Velvet Underground, performing fellatio on Jim Morrison. When Julian met up with them after one of their “blanket sessions,” as they used to refer to them, they were practically holding hands. Even when it came to coming, Manny would come first and Rabbit would echo right after.

     Julian felt left out, as he had on multiple occasions. He loathed his baby face because of it. To make it up to him, Manny decided to treat his younger cousin to an all-American, fun-loving pornfest. Upon Manny’s pushing play, the video flashed a splash of illumination onto the dark wood paneling, consuming the room with light. The image of a brunette woman lying on her back, legs splayed open, and a man with the biggest penis Julian had ever seen, took over the screen. This thing protruding out of the man’s torso was inserted slowly into the woman, who was as surprised as Julian and Manny, to see how it kept fitting inside of her. She made it disappear completely. “But how?” Julian wondered. It was an act of magic, for all he knew. A miracle.

     “Where did it go, and how did it get there?” Julian asked. Manny and Rabbit snickered quietly.

     “It’s because chicks have three holes,” Coco said, stopping the expedition and turning around to face Julian. At an incline, Coco looked bigger and wiser than usual. “One of the holes is for shitting, the other for pissing and the last one’s for fucking.”

     “Oh, that’s where they stick the semens, right?” Rabbit said. “That’s what they call artificial cocks. Right, Coco? Semens?”

     “No, stupid. Semen is the shit that shoots out of your cock when the tip starts hurting so much that it makes you want to pee. Semen is pee that comes from your balls.”

     “So what’s the name for artificial cocks?”

     “Those are called dildos, stupid,” Coco said as he turned around and continued the walk.

     The hike brought the boys closer and closer to the hill’s summit. As they traversed its steady incline, they came across different types of desert creatures, such as lizards, butterflies, big cockroaches and rats, suicidal squirrels and intrepid gophers, all of which served as target practice for the boys.

     “Holy shit,” Rabbit screamed. “Did you see how I almost clocked that gopher on his stupid, pointy teeth?”

     “You almost did, gopher teeth,” Coco said, as he, Manny and Julian broke into laughter. “I actually dated a girl with big, fucked-up teeth. She was the first girl I did it with.”

     “Did what?” asked Julian.

     “Sex, you idiot,” Coco quipped.

     “Why do you always talk about sex, man?” Julian asked.

     “Because sex is everywhere,” Coco replied, spreading his arms like wings, palms facing up, twisting his torso from side to side. “The birds sing because they want to fuck other birds. We’re here because our parents fucked. Rats fuck like crazy. That’s why there are so many goddamned rats in the world. You see how the bees are buzzing around the flowers? They’re fucking them.”

     “Wait, really?” Manny asked.

     “Really?” Rabbit asked.

     “Yeah,” Coco said. “I want to fuck every girl I see because fucking feels so good. In fact, if Julian were a chick, I’d probably want to put my fingers down her panties.”

     Manny and Rabbit went into a teasing frenzy and started to push Julian around, poking him with the sticks they were using to mutilate all of the innocent creatures that they came across and weren’t smart enough to run away. Julian was the only innocent amongst them, or at least the only one who wasn’t afraid to admit it.

     “Alright, stop acting like faggots and leave him alone,” Coco commanded. “Yeah, so this girl was all up on my nuts. She kept telling her friends about me.” When they finally reached the top of the hill, Coco turned around to face the other kids. He planted his walking stick perpendicular to the ground, and they all took a seat on whatever they could find.

     “So, then what happened?” Manny asked. “Did you see her pussy?”

     “Yeah, did you see her pussy?” emphasized Rabbit.

     “Well, one day when I was walking by the bathroom I saw her walking out. So I pulled her into the guys’ bathroom and locked it,” said Coco. “After that, she started jerking my dick and I put my fingers in her pussy.”

     Manny’s mannerisms became jittery, manic. He was receiving the drug upon which his brain depended. Rabbit, who was sitting right next to Coco, couldn’t take his eyes off of the storyteller. Julian was worried. He was hoping that Coco and his girl didn’t get caught. He wanted to hear more but was afraid that an adult in the story would find out what Coco was doing in the bathroom.

     “Did you dildo in her pussy?” Rabbit asked, not blinking once.

     “Man, are you stupid or something?” Coco asked, exasperated. “I’ve told you a thousand times, dildos are fake cocks. Man, you should know. Your mom probably sticks a couple of them in her pussy when she’s not getting fucked by half the neighborhood.”

     Coco and Manny started laughing, coughing because of the amount of dust their giddy feet were kicking up. Rabbit laughed, taking his friends’ reaction as a compulsory laugh track he subconsciously needed to obey. Julian laughed under the same pretenses, but he could see that the remark had hurt Rabbit a little bit, his upper lip drooping slowly, draping over his chipper smile.

     “Yeah, so then she bent over and spread her ass for me and that’s when I shoved it in,” Coco said. “Man, she was so fucking tight that I busted a big-ass nut in her.”

     “How long did it last?” Julian asked. All eyes turned to Julian. How come I didn’t think of that? Manny and Rabbit wondered. This was the main reason why the boys hated and liked Julian. He was intuitive and sensitive. He thought of things they would’ve never thought possible, making them feel curious and stupid, all at once. After a second or so, all eyes went back to Coco.

     “I think it lasted like a minute,” Coco said, scratching the back of his head, the tingling feeling that accompanies nervousness. “It’s because once you stick it in you automatically come.” The boys’ eyes bulged in disbelief. “One time I had sex and held my come inside my balls for five whole minutes.”

     “Damn, that’s a long time,” Manny said.

     “A long fucking time,” Rabbit said, padding Coco on the back.

     “Yeah, I felt like my balls were going to blow u—” Coco said, suddenly interrupted by something he saw.

     “What happened?” Julian asked.

     “I don’t know,” said Coco, “I just saw something black run behind you guys.”

     “Yeah, me too,” Rabbit said.

     Manny and Julian turned to see what the other boys were so alarmed about. Coco stood up in one clean motion and pulled his wooden Excalibur out of the earth. He brought his index finger up to his face and formed a cross with the line between his lips, whispering, “Shut the fuck up.”

     The other boys rose up slowly and spread out around the bush Coco had motioned to.

     “Rabbit, when I tell you, you’re going to throw this rock at the bush,” Coco instructed.

     “Okay,” Rabbit whispered.

     When Coco mimed the stone throw, Rabbit launched the rock into the bush. The bush shook for a moment. Nothing happened. With a look of puzzlement, the boys took a step forward. The bush rattled once again, and a piglet, brown and hairy, bolted out as if on fire, past the four boys. Coco yelled out to follow it. As they sprinted downhill, right behind it, the piglet kept looking, unsuccessfully, for another place to hide, swerving left and right, jumping over rocks and fallen branches. The boys picked up rocks along the way and threw them at the fleeing animal, trying to injure it. The piglet veered away from the points where the rocks collided, gliding through the clouds of dust rippling around it.

     “Look, it’s going into that cave,” Manny said.

     “I’m not fucking going in there,” Julian said, curtailing his stride, falling behind the pack.

     “Yeah, you are, fucking pussy,” Coco yelled, trying to catch his breath.

     The piglet ran in, as did Coco, Manny and Rabbit. It took Julian a few seconds, but he reluctantly joined them. When he finally caught up with the other three inside the dark cave, Manny was shining a light on the creature.

     “It looks like a baby,” Julian said, alarmed by how small and defenseless the creature was. Its shivering vulnerability reminded Julian of the nights when he used to console his brother after he’d wake up from a nightmare.

     “You look like a baby,” Rabbit scoffed, poking Manny’s ribs with his elbow.

     “Let’s kill it,” Coco said as he began to gather several rocks. Manny and Rabbit did the same. The piglet was trying to burrow itself, digging desperately into the dirt.

     “Get him! He’s trying to get away,” yelled Manny.

     The boys began to hit the piglet with a torrential rain of rocks, eliciting ear-piercing cries from the animal, similar to those of a child. This was the very reason Julian had refused to bring his brother Thiago along. He could picture his brother being tortured in the same fashion by the gang. Julian closed his eyes. The boys laughed. The symphony of pain and play reverberated through the cave walls and through Julian’s tortured eardrums.

     “Coco, it’s running towards you,” yelled Rabbit. Coco kicked the piglet like a soccer ball, its little, broken body thudding off the wall and bouncing on the dirty ground. “That’s my boy,” Rabbit yelled, as he and Coco hand-slapped, echoing over the piglet’s dying whimpers.

     “Hey, Julian,” Coco said, “open your goddamned eyes, you little pussy.” Julian opened his eyes and saw the piglet heaving violently, its last breaths interrupted by spastic jerks. It looked like a run-over puppy. “Come over and kick it a little. Don’t worry. It’s almost dead.”

     “No,” Julian said turning his back to the boys. “It wasn’t hurting anybody.” Hurting things was fun, Julian thought, but killing was different. He imagined it felt like drowning, like being thrown from the third story of a building and not knowing whether you would survive or never open your eyes again. “Just do it without me.”

     “What?” Coco asked. “Bring his faggot ass over here.” Manny and Rabbit ran over to Julian, who was beginning to run towards the mouth of the cave. They dove towards him before he could exit and grabbed his legs, knocking him flat on his face. They flipped him over and dragged him by his feet towards Coco, who was standing over the piglet’s tenderized body. Manny and Rabbit picked Julian up and each held him by his arms.

     “Here, kiss your baby boyfriend,” Coco said, picking up the bloody pig from the ground and shoving it in Julian’s face. The piglet’s eyes were hanging out of its sockets like a landfill baby doll, and blood was gushing out of its baby snout. It was shrieking in pain. “I want you to kick me, Julian,” Coco mocked, snorting like a pig.

     Julian knew what he had to do. The piglet would never be the same. It would never run or play again. Even if he refused to torture it, it would die at the hands of his friends or in agonizing pain if he were to convince them to leave it alone and go home.

     With one eye opened and the other half-closed, Julian saw the piglet on its side, running in circles with the only leg that wasn’t completely broken. He took a deep breath, a big gulp of snot and closed his tear-lined eyes. With tears rolling down his cheeks like drops of blood, Julian let out a loud cry that filled the totality of the cave and jumped up in the air, breaking free from his captors’ grasp. As he landed back on the dirt floor, Julian crushed the piglet’s skull. The sound was similar to that of stepping on a raw egg, the bloody yolk bathing the ground adjacent to it. Julian’s shoes were spattered red with blood and muddy with purple brain matter goop and bone. He released it from their cruelty, just like he would’ve wanted someone else to do for his brother. To end his misery in the face of brutality. To send him to heaven instead of living in hell.

     “What the fuck?” Manny yelled, “What did you do, stupid?”

     “What did you do, stupid?” Rabbit yelled, or maybe it was just the cave’s echo.

     “That’s okay, guys,” Coco reassured them. “We were going to kill it anyway.” Coco began to unzip his pants and motioned the rest of the group to do the same. “Let’s pee on it now.”

     Julian was apprehensive once again, but he also knew that if he didn’t comply, it would take them even longer to head back home. As the boys whipped out their baby penises, Coco pulled out his large, over-developed one. Manny and Rabbit started to spray and splatter their urine on the piglet’s desecrated carcass almost on command, but Julian was having trouble starting. Manny and Rabbit were laughing and crossing streams and Coco kept tugging and jerking at his penis, which looked erect. Julian was first to finish.

     “Hey, Coco. What the fuck are you doing?” asked Rabbit.

     “I’m jerk—”

     “Aw, dude. Are you jerking off?” Manny interrupted.

     “Yeah,” Coco answered with a smile.

     Julian remembered what that looked like from the pornos he had seen, but it wasn’t until that moment, until he saw Coco release semen, that he figured out what had happened to him a few months back while watching Francis Ford Coppola’s 1972 film “The Godfather.”

     The scene where Michael Corleone undresses his Sicilian wife Apollonia, exposing her small, perky, olive-tone breasts. That sight gave Julian a strange sensation in the pit of his stomach, as if he needed to pee. After everybody went to sleep, Julian rewatched the consummation scene, and the sensation in his pants returned. The organ that had delineated his boyhood was slowly petrifying and cobblestoning the way into his manhood. The scene passed, and so did the feeling. Julian rewound again, and again the feeling returned, a little more intense each time. The rush that it elicited was an addictive feeling. Julian did it over and over. He was transfixed on Simonetta Stefanelli’s Barbie-doll breasts. Julian stared at her body for an eternity. The amount of time necessary for Julian to thrust himself out of childhood and come forcefully into manhood. When he reached the unbearable feeling Coco had mentioned, he felt a warmth emanating from his innermost being. Julian imagined that this was what Mary, the mother of Christ, must have felt when her body was inhabited by the Spirit of God. It was complete and utter envelopment. A baptism by fire.

     After the intensity of the moment allowed Julian to blink and move his limbs again, he found that he had soiled his white cotton briefs with the same substance that Coco was dripping onto the piglet’s cadaver.

     “This is the cave of dicks,” Coco said proudly. “And I’ll beat the crap out of you, like I did this pig, if you mention this to anybody.” They shook on it and zipped up their pants.

     They were greeted by a darkening sky as they emerged from the darkness of the cave. Everybody was quiet, even Rabbit. Julian wished he had stayed back, playing the stupid games his brother wanted to play. He knew that they had a long way to go before they saw any streetlights. Coco would probably run off before then, with one of his real friends. Rabbit would disappear like he always did. Manny would start acting as if he was Coco, talking about things he knew nothing about. And Julian would go back to being his brother’s older, chubbier twin. But he knew that even after he crossed the threshold of his grandmother’s house, he would never be able find his way back home.

Artwork by Cory Bilicko

Bilicko, C. (2016). Pee-Shy [Painting]. Oil on canvas, Long Beach, CA.

Till Moons Shall Wax And Wane No More

     It didn’t bother me one bit that he was in his underwear; only the boxer fly between me and his infamous, hyperactive, incorrigible penis. Having heard so many of his escapades, I felt like I had already seen him naked, stitching together in my imagination the graphic details in his stories. I had mentioned to him that I really liked his suit. It was dark blue with brown pinstripes. He completed the ensemble with a white button down dress shirt and a solid red tie. He thought I wanted the suit, when all I really wanted was for him to know that he looked good in it. Now he was proudly handing it to me on a hanger. Looking at his hairy, disproportionately skinny legs, I saw why my family thought of him as being inherently good. He would give you the clothes off his back. That’s the kind of guy my uncle Dario was. When it came to you, he came in second. That’s why he was a notoriously good lover. He was generous. Ladies loved him. His family loved him. And he loved them all. I counted 15 visible hearts patterned on his boxers, and wondered if the one in his chest was stronger than all of those combined.

     “A man needs to be like a dog,” Uncle Dario once told me.

     According to him, a man should have sex with any woman he can get his hands on. As practice. It was what the Lord commanded. As men, we needed to keep our wives satisfied. Even as a child of 12, he felt that it was important for me to know that. In his mind, he was the best example of this. He prided himself on being a ravenous lover and his topics of conversation always fell on the saucier side. They were usually followed by his wife lightly smacking his arm with a dissuading “Oh, you.” Her presence did little to deter his libido.

     “You know, Amado’s wife is quite the knock out,” Uncle Dario said. He liked the fact that she was big and robust. In heels, she was almost twice his size. The prospect of facing a wall of legs piqued his curiosity. What he wouldn’t do to that amount of woman.

     “If only Amado was a damn cuckold,” he murmured as Amado and his gigantic wife made their way from their car to a party Uncle Dario was hosting in the park. Amado and my uncle shared similar physical characteristics. They were both short, stocky and with a perfectly round belly that protruded at their sternum and bulged slightly over their belt buckle. Their upper lips were nonexistent, dense with mustache hair. Uncle Dario appreciated a woman who enjoyed the mild tickling of neatly trimmed love-whiskers. His mustache was bigger than Amado’s. This gave him a sense of pride, as if this fact made him manlier than his friend.

     Uncle Dario’s wife seemed unfazed by her husband’s sensual comments. There was something going on behind closed doors that the rest of us weren’t privy to. Maybe it was her way of occasionally loosening the leash and allowing her husband to sniff at another man’s marked territory. My uncle’s flirtation with extramarital romancing was on her terms, therefore she didn’t feel threatened by it.

     My uncle’s feelings for Amado’s wife went beyond the blinding delusions of lust. They borderlined the condition that all men with diminutive proportions seem to contract at one point or another. The desire to conquer large masses of stuff. Whether it be land or a woman’s body. As Amado and Nancy approached Uncle Dario, I could picture Nancy extending her hand towards my uncle and he extending his while holding his cock in it. Nancy’s hands were thick, her fingers adorned with gold rings set with large rubies and emeralds. To have such a large, strong grip constrict its coils around his manhood was akin to the snake of Eden slithering up and down the Tree. Sin from the source. Tasting the sweetness of the forbidden. Allowing its poison to disintegrate God’s Commandments. All my uncle wanted was five minutes with her. That would be all he needed.

     Uncle Dario was like a father to me, my model of what a man should be. He was always well-dressed, even in old pictures of his youth, taken in the early 1970s. In them he wore his hair long, to his shoulders, with a much thinner mustache under his nose. He liked to be well dressed because he liked to be complemented. It wasn’t necessarily vanity. It was simply a way of meeting chicks. A residual mode of living from back in the day when he was young. Any mention of women and Uncle Dario’s curiosity was soon indulged. For my 13th birthday, my mother posed the idea of renting a bounce house, and filling it with scantily-clad teenage girls, so that they could jump with me in all of their careless nubile suppleness. In other words, her version of what she thought my ultimate fantasy would be. Uncle Dario overheard this conversation and posed that for his 54th birthday, he wanted my mother to leave out the bounce house altogether, and instead have the teenage girls bounce on him.

     When Amado and Nancy finally reached my uncle, Amado outstretched his hand in an act of friendship. Uncle Dario did the same. His hand said friendship, but his eyes were wiping their ass with the Commandment that begins with “Thou shalt not covet your neighbor’s wife.” Instead, he wanted to bash his neighbor’s head in à la Cain and Abel.

     “Let me just take her for one ride,” Uncle Dario’s eyes fantasized.

     When it was time to welcome Nancy, he outstretched his hand to shake hers. In Latin America, it is customary to hug your male friends and to hug and kiss your female friends. We didn’t do that in our family. We were Christian. Only, we weren’t wholly Christians. We were Catholics turned Southern Baptists claiming to be Christians. We were fakes. As fake as my mother claimed Nancy’s breasts to be.

     We shook everybody’s hand. Men, women and children. It helped to stave off creepy pedophile interactions as well as deeply repressed homosexual ones. And in the current situation Uncle Dario found himself in, infidelity. One whose inception stemmed from erection-inducing hugs.

     As my uncle shook Nancy’s hand, his eyes were checking to see if anything else was shaking as a result. Call it the ocular Richter scale. He stared at her breasts for what felt like hours. Nancy’s bosoms were at the same height as my uncle’s head and almost as big. If they were supermarket items, the rack would be at eye level. Premium. Best sellers and leading brands with the highest markup. He didn’t stand a chance.

     “Those tits are fake,” my mother whispered to Uncle Dario’s wife. My uncle didn’t care. Nancy’s breasts could have been two flesh-colored, over-inflated helium balloons partially concealed by her lace brassiere, and they would have continued to elicit the same chemical reaction in his brain and in his trousers.

     “Other than her huge beach balls, she’s got nothing going on for her,” my mother added. “She’s hideous.”

     Nancy’s face was sweaty from all the thick makeup clogging up her pores. From a distance, a thick five o’clock shadow was easy to spot, even under the thick coats of foundation. She used it to conceal her stubble and vellus hairs on her chin, cheeks and near her ears. Her upper lip was beaded with perspiration as it was the area that needed the most concealment. It resembled the make up on Cesar Romero’s 1960s Joker more than the women on the television commercials for that very product. Her thick eyebrows were meticulously plucked into two black furry caterpillars, darkened further by brow pencil. Her eyelashes were drenched in tarry mascara, with small drops of oil-like substance miring on either corner of her eyes. She pressed her bright red lips together— as bright and red as the veins invading her eyes— to wipe the condensation off her upper lip.

     Anything from her chest up didn’t seem to matter to my uncle. Nancy could’ve been headless for all he cared. His mouth was watering from the scent of the meat grilling on the red hot coals and from the flesh bulging out of her push-up bra and hot red dress. She had thick legs, small ankles and a supple pair of buttocks. A horse’s ass, according to Uncle Dario. He was an ass man. When you come from Mexico— a culture that idolizes the round, fleshy parts that form a person’s lower rear area and has over 15 ways of referring to it— you really can’t help it.

     “She wears all of that mask of caked-on makeup because she’s truly a man,” my mother snickered to my uncle’s wife.

     “You guys are just jealous of her,” Uncle Dario later rebutted. “Besides, I think we’d be good so long as my mustache was thicker and she kept shaving hers.”

     As he disengaged from the prolonged handshake, my uncle’s eyes became transfixed on the gentle tremors that accompanied her buttocks as she trotted away. Her dress had the elegance you would expect to see in the first few minutes of a 1980s porno movie, prior to the female protagonist stripping naked. The kind of clothing meant to be ripped off, cummed on and flung to the floor. Disposable. Nancy’s heels kept burying themselves into the muddied grass as she walked over to greet the other guests. I expected Amado to pull out a hoof pick to clean Nancy’s stilettoes  once they found a seat.

     According to Amado, they were dressed up because he and Nancy were going to a discotheque afterwards. Uncle Dario loved to dance and this was a dagger plunging deep in his heart. I could see it in his eyes. The ones he inherited from my grandmother. Sweet and tender. His mind was falling victim to visions of Amado holding his wife— his thumbs pressing up against her hip bones and the other four fingers resting on the upper curvature of her equestrian posterior. My uncle’s eyes yearned to trade places with Amado, for his friend to stay at the barbecue flipping burgers, wearing an apron that read: “…and I can also cook.”

     Uncle Dario’s eyes welled up with tears. Not necessarily emanating from melancholy, or from the black smoke of the fire burning off the fat on the meat. But from yet another place. He wanted to be the one dancing with Nancy and have his head sandwiched by her. Him resting his head on her large breasts and she resting her head on his.

     Uncle Dario loved his wife. He prayed to God at night. But that day, Nancy left without saying goodbye.

     “Look, your girlfriend’s leaving,” Uncle Dario’s wife scoffed as she pointed to his dream girl walking away in the distance. She and my mother cackled heartily. Uncle Dario joined in with a forced chuckle. He turned around to face the roaring flame gently incinerating the meat. He pulled out a bandanna from his back pocket, opened it and wiped his whole face with it, leaving it in there longer than all of the previous times. He needed to forget Nancy, at least for the time being. To reset his thoughts.

     When he pulled his face out of the ornamented cloth, he looked over at me and smiled.

     “Hey you,” Uncle Dario said. “Wanna come over and help me with these?” I got up and ran over to him and he placed his hand on my shoulder. “Look, I’m going to show you how to cook a proper hamburger.” He exhaled the full weight of his arm on both my shoulders and I wrapped my arm around the small of his back.

     “You know,” he said, “that suit’s going to look really good on you when you get bigger.” I felt him inhale deeply and billow out a prolonged sigh as we stood there, staring quietly at the globs of meat change color, from strawberry pink to hickory brown.

     That day, my uncle showed me the signs of when a piece of meat needed to be flipped on a grill. He also taught me that even if you have the ability to ravage a battalion of women, beyond the point of depletion, requiring medical care via intravenous rehydration, you can still get your heart broken by a single woman.

     Sometimes, the wife of another.

 

Photo Credit

Oseguera, J. L., Jr. (2017). The Heart Needs [Photograph]. stripSearchLA, Los Angeles.

The Sweet Scent Of Garmonbozia

A Strangely Isolated Place

In Mexico, it is an honor to be the firstborn male of the family. It is an even greater honor to bear your father’s name. It is also a good way of killing two birds with one stone: honoring an ancestor and naming your kid. This ancient practice keeps cacophonous names in rotation for longer than they should be. It is a lesser crime against humanity, a misdemeanor at best. A branding. A form of physical, living, breathing graffiti.
*          *          *          *

The heist was all planned out. We knew what we needed to do and what we needed to take. My brother and I were own our way to Sacramento, California with one thing on our minds. Our mission was to take as many toys as we could carry. It was the strategy that we had devised while sitting in the backseat of my parents’ car, on our way to my Uncle Venus’ house. My cousin Jose and his brothers had troves of action figures— more toys than any eight-year-old could ever want. All of the ones that my brother and I drooled over while perusing the toy aisles at department stores. All of the ones that would elicit a firm ear-pull from our mom after begging her for them unsuccessfully.

We had already stolen some smaller items, like weapons and Happy-Meal-sized toys, but this was the big sting. The one that, if caught, could get us a leather-belt-on-bare-butt-cheeks spanking. This operation required pockets larger than those equipped on a pair of standard jeans. We needed to bring in the big guns. Taking a full-sized action figure would require a garment with additional cargo room. That was why we decided to bring our bulky winter jackets. These would aid our effort of concealing and carrying the contraband.

My cousins were very generous with their toys, which gave my brother and me a perfect in. As we played in their room, my brother and I would take turns slipping a toy into one of our many pockets. At first, my cousins were none the wiser to our slimy scheme. But soon my cousin Jose noticed that I was sliding something into my jacket. He was a smart kid and soon let out a loud yelp that brought our parents into the room. He told my uncle that I was stealing his toys. Our dads looked at each other and started to laugh. Some sort of brotherly inside joke. My uncle yelled at Jose to stop crying, that there was no harm done. I was pulled aside by my dad and told that he was going to kick my ass when we got home. I could already hear the sound of finely-crafted Mexican leather making contact with tightly squeezed flesh. That night, my brother and I came away with pockets full of threats. Enough to keep our kleptomania at bay. Well, until it was time for my cousin Jose and his brothers to visit us down in LA.

*          *          *          *

When you come from a culture where the scrotums are potent and the wombs fertile, you don’t simply get one person named ‘Little Bastard Jr.’ or ‘the III,’ you get a swath of ‘Little Bastards’ named after the grand master bastard— the grandfather that can never remember who you are. It defeats the whole purpose of even having a name. “Hey, you!” becomes a more comprehensive way of distinguishing you from the rest of your similarly named cousins. Any certified arborist would take one look at our family tree and deem its long branches ripe for firewood and demand that the rest of it be chopped down and interned in an insane asylum.

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His hair was long and silky, dark and lustrous. It draped down between his shoulder blades to his mid-lower back even as he wore it in a ponytail. The light mustache and goatee on his upper lip and chin, along with the sharp cheek bones still bore vestiges of his boyish face. Since I last saw him— ten years ago— it had blossomed into that of a handsome young man. I remembered the times when he used to curse out my other cousins and their mothers with anger in his eyes. Now those eyes, interlocking with mine, were deep and soulful. He had a timid smile and quiet grace. As soon as he became aware of my presence, he instantly remembered me. I didn’t really know how to approach him without looking weak or coming off as slightly gay. I wanted to mirror his calm and collected energy. I had to repress my feelings of admiration and longing for a cousin who, for all I knew, could have been dead this whole time. I was mourning my inability to express my true emotions in words. I wanted to tell him that I missed him and find out about what he had been up to.

The occasion for our meeting was the wedding of our youngest aunt in Tijuana, Mexico. My cousin and I were 22 and 21-years-old. She was two years younger. He was wearing a form-fitting suit that added to the elegance in his demeanor. Since we last saw each other, my dad had been imprisoned and we had moved a couple of times. His dad remarried and had a couple of kids with his new wife; Uncle Venus used to pick us up from school from time to time, maybe because he felt he owed it to my dad to take care of us while he was locked up. I think my siblings and I saw my uncle more often than Jose did. I didn’t want to make the same mistake of going years without hearing from my cousin, so I gave him my address. I figured that we could open up an avenue of communication by writing to one another. After a few letters back and forth, the silence between us began to set in once again.

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The tradition of genealogical nomenclature is meant to bring the family closer together. By having various reminders of the patriarch peppered in each of the extended family units, the children of the elder attempt to create an immortal bond. A man is not his song and his name should end when he does. It should be remembered only if he himself did something worth remembering; summoned by memory when his presence is craved for and not thrusted upon his descendants by means of filial guilt.

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Jose invited me to a local pastrami place in Seattle. It had been yet another long serendipitous 10 years since I had last seen him. As I was making my way there, I didn’t know what to expect. Was he the indomitable, incorrigible kid who used to nosh on bright red radishes as we fought and lusted over a young Sofia Vergara— bouncing around on the beach— kissing the warm, bulbous television screen? Or, was he the elegantly poised young man with whom I had a brief, dreamlike conversation about nothing in particular?

The closer I got to the pastrami shop, I kept looking around to see if I could spot him. Did he even wear his hair in a ponytail anymore? Nervousness began to set in. The thoughts in my head were barraging me with an infinity of questions. They were reeling a movie in which I once again was playing a character too cowardly to express his true emotions. Part of me wanted to turn around and run away from the situation. Maybe it was better that we didn’t meet. There was a reason why we hadn’t in the past decade. And out of nowhere, there he was, standing right in front of me. My cousin Jose. I could see in him the boy and the young man I met on two separate occasions, two lifetimes ago. He waved me down from the entrance of the place as I crossed the street. We instinctively embraced as if not a single day had passed since the time we saw each other last. As if we were no longer 32 and 31-years-old, but 9 and 8 again.

As we were ordering our meal and even as we sat side by side, few words were exchanged. I asked him about his dad, and he said that he hadn’t really heard from him in years. I told him that I was in the same situation with mine. The silence could be cut thicker than the sliced meat on our paper plates. It was the loss of words that came from the meeting of two lost souls. It wasn’t our fault that this deep and wide valley had developed between us. We were like two falling leaves, helpless in the air, ripped and flung by the torrential winds of our parents’ shortcomings.

My eyes were full of curiosity, but I kept filling my mouth with cured meat and bread. Sitting there with him, listening to him tell me about his wife and three children, I made the decision of breaking with family tradition. The age-old stipulation that our fathers needed to be around in order for us to have a relationship, as family or friends. I wanted to eschew all of that firstborn-namesake bullshit and reach out my hand to my cousin and be a family. I wanted to welcome my cousin back into my life. Our relationship— as children and teenagers— suffered, but that didn’t mean that we had to continue suffering. Before we departed from another brief encounter, I invited him to visit me in LA sometime. I felt that it was time to take charge of my relationship with my cousin.

My brother Jose.

 

Oseguera, J. L., Jr. (2017). The Sweet Scent of Garmonbozia[Painting]. stripSearchLA, Los Angeles, CA.