Mario J. Gonzales’s work has appeared in the Cossack Review, the Rio Grande Review, the Bacon Review and Red Ochre LiT. He was recently awarded the Hispanic Writers’ Award by the Taos Summer writers’ 2012 conference for his short story, “The Weeping Woman.”
We leave early from our house to see my father, taking our station wagon to the country. The sun is bright and even in the morning it feels like I’m under the hottest spot of a heat lamp, the kind used to keep hot dogs warm at Woolworth’s. My mom has nice clothes on. She ironed them for a long time before we left. She looks neat and has made her hair like the women on TV. She smells of hairspray and a lotion I like because she wears it only when we see dad together. I’m wearing my favorite pants: brown cords and I don’t smell like anything; which is good since my dog Oso recognizes me by my nothing smell. My pants are also good because I’ve worn out their newness. No more itch or rough are in them. I wear a white T-shirt like every day.
Today my sneakers are soaked. Last night I left them outside and this morning they were wet with rain. My aunt frowned at me. “You’ll catch cold in wet shoes,” she tells me as I tie my laces. It’s not my fault I tell her. I took them off to run races in the street. I’m ten times faster without shoes. It worked, too, since I beat David Aguilar for the first time all summer. He called me a cheater, saying it was unfair that Oso ran beside me. When I called him a sore loser David whined that he was born with a hole in his heart. That’s why he lost. Every time he loses at anything David cries about that hole. I said, “Why don’t you get it fixed?” He said he was going to Mexico to have special surgery but didn’t because his parents read that Mexican doctors aren’t real doctors. They’re fakes. They really just sell snake venom and old medicine. Even when they do operate, David told me, they use broken Coke bottles instead of real knives.
Before we leave, my mother messes with my hair. She says it’s too thick and shaggy and needs a cut. My mom combs it to the side but I want it straight back and parted down the middle, just like my friends. She looks at me all angry and says, “Why do you want to look like some mendigo cholo?”
We drive out to the country. All I see are grape fields. It’s a little cooler here, especially in the morning. In the city the heat is everywhere and your skin is always sweaty and slimy. But in the country the summer is different. In the fields and orchards hiding in the vines and branches are lots of bugs and birds. You can hear them and you can feel them peeping at you. But you never see them.
In the winter, the trees and vines become like skeletons. The living things of the summer become quiet. They are underground, my mom says, sleeping. I don’t think so. I don’t think anything sleeps out in the country, summer or winter.
While in the car I draw in my notebook, mostly Burbas, some Gizools. They are made-up animals with big purple orbs, gooey red feelers and round furry black ears. They are sometimes friends, sometimes enemies. When I was little I thought they appeared at night to say magical things, making trees grow and cooling the hot summer air. Back then I thought all kinds of stupid things, thinking that the moon was made from blue ice and that everything in the world was painted. And that if it grew too hot all the colors would fade, leaving the world in black and white.
The land is dusty since it never rains in the summer. The dirt in the fields becomes like baby powder and today hot winds are blowing. Sometimes, the winds pick up the powdery dust and swirl it around, spinning and spinning, forming small funnel clouds. Everyone calls them dust devils. I think dust devils are cool. Seeing one makes me run to its center. But my sister says they’re evil. Getting inside one, right in its middle middle, can make you disappear. Dust devils are really kids who are lost and will never be found, she says.
We keep driving and I recognize a house, its Mr. Bobullian’s. He’s an old Armenian farmer who owns the nearby grape fields. During the weekends we pick grapes here, laying them on paper trays to dry in the sun, making raisins. I like working because my family: my mom, my aunt, and my sisters, all work together. Everything feels right. Except I don’t like the heat, too much and I get headaches. I’ll lay in the shade of the vines, digging my hands into the earth, searching for the coolness hidden in the soil.
In the station wagon my mother is quiet. Her face has become serious and sometimes she moves her lips like she is talking to someone. I ask if I can change the radio station and she says no. After a minute I reach my hand toward the radio dial but before I can get there she slaps it away,
“What did I say? Sin verguenza, without shame you are.”
I don’t answer. I can’t. I’m expected to be silent so that her anger can cover me from head to toe. After a while she looks at me, her eyes not angry but a little tired like she would like to rest but can’t.
We go deeper into the country. Here, the trees are smaller. Their bright green leaves have yellowed. The grape vines droop in a tired and thirsty way. My mom turns onto a dirt road between two fields where giant Eucalyptus trees grow like monsters trying to poke holes in the sky. She stops at the end of the road, where my father’s truck is parked.
At the end of the dirt road near the trees are small wood piles made of stakes used to hold the grape vines. I can see my dad sitting in his green truck in front of the piles; smoking and watching two boys play. These kids are older than me, almost the size of my neighbors Peter and Ramon. I’ve never seen them before, but my father knows their names and calls out to them.
We get out of the wagon and my dad gets out of his truck. The boys stop playing and watch me and mom. I’m excited since this is the first visit with my dad this summer. He’s always the same in his work shirt, his cowboy hat and shiny boots. Today, a line of sweat goes down the middle of his shirt and he wears sunglasses. Like always, my dad has a small bottle sticking out of his shirt pocket. He takes a quick drink before he gets to us. He smiles his wrinkly smile and says, “Hi” to me. I’m a little quiet today. I don’t know why. My dad takes a dollar from his wallet saying, “Here, mijo. This is yours.” I look to my mother and take the money.
I watch his hands as he gives me the dollar. They are so big, full of veins that bulge like purple worms. His knuckles seem like steel bolts to me and I can almost hear the metal inside his hands crunching and crumbling together. I begin to think a strange thought: what if my dad were to hit someone with those hands? With his purple hands made of rusty metals, he could crush anyone and anything. Between his fingers and in the deep part of his palms he could smother, hurting whatever he touched.
And it wouldn’t hurt him because his skin is so thick and his body works like machine.
Everything within his grip is wide and strong. Except when he holds me and then it usually feels weak—like it’s only me that never wants to let go. And I start to feel like those kids at my school who are picked-on and then left alone in the playground to think about how tiny their lives really are.
It’s happened many times before, when we see him, me and my mom. My father will call to me. I will move fast toward him. I give him a hug. He kisses me on the cheek and I will smell the smoke stuck to his breath, feel his heart thumping in his chest. When we stop hugging, I want to hug him again. But I don’t know how to hold on and I don’t know how to let go.
And I keep wondering for days after—like I always I do—why he doesn’t live with us, why we have to meet in the country, like it’s some big secret and even if he is really my father or just some fake pretending.
One of the boys, the bigger one, wears a shirt with a large blue star and small red and white stars surrounding it. The other boy has a white shirt like me, but it’s dirty and is torn around his collar. The bigger boy throws rocks at the trees. One bounces off a tree and hits my mother’s car. They both laugh, whispering something to each other while staring at us.
My mom speaks in Spanish to my dad. I can’t understand everything they say but they mention my name and the names of the boys. While she speaks my mother’s voice gets louder, rising like she wants the grape vines, the crows in the fields, and the dusty hot blue of the sky to hear each word.
My dad calls the boys again and they walk toward us, kicking at the dirt and pushing each other. I look to my mom to see what to do. She takes my arm and we move closer to the boys.
The two kids are standing next to my dad and he puts his hand on the shoulder of the oldest and he says to me, “Come mijo, meet your brothers.” My face goes hot. Not the summer heat but a hot that bites with monster teeth from the inside. I look to my dad and he pushes me toward these kids who have white skin and freckles on their arms. Their hair is not black like mine but brown and dirty yellow. These kids look at me with hate. I hate them back. This is the heat I feel. Deep into my chest and deeper into my heart it lives like the hole in David Aguilar’s heart but mine is real.
My mother and father tell us to play and then walk far into the fields, leaving me alone with the two boys. I want to follow my mom and dad but I know they would get mad if I did. I look for something to do. The kids start throwing dirt rocks at our car. They explode sending dust like smoke into the air. I’m thinking that my mom will hear the small booms and come back but she doesn’t.
I stare at the boys afraid to say anything. The bigger boy throws a dirt rock at my feet.
“Stop it,” I say.
They laugh. The oldest says, “Let’s play a game. You stand there and we’ll throw dirt bombs at your feet. If you run away then you’re a pussy and we win.”
The smaller boy then gets a stick from the wood pile. He pounds it on the ground making stupid monkey sounds. They are both trying to scare me.
I tell them, “Stop or I’ll call my dad and mom.”
The oldest calls out, “What do you mean your dad? That’s our dad. He lives with our mom. Your mom is just his whore. Do you know what a whore is or are you too stupid?”
The oldest moves closer to me and lifts his fist, like he is going to punch me. I step back and tell them to, “fuck you.” I say their mothers are whores—big fat stupid ones. I run in the direction of where my mother and father went. I try not to cry but the blur in my eyes is burning like tears.
I find them behind an old building. They are kissing. My father has his arms around my mother. My mother is holding him close to her.
I yell at him, “Let her go. Those kids are not my brothers. They’re fakes. I want to go away. I want to go. I want to leave this place. I want to get away from here. I want to go home.”
My mother looks both scared and angry. My father walks past me toward where the boys are. I start to follow him but my mom grabs me by my shirt collar. She twists my hair, hard enough to know one of us has done something wrong.
When we get back to where the car is parked my dad is there with those boys. They hold in their breath while taking big gulps of air. My dad has just used his belt on them; small clouds of dust rise telling me that his hits were fast but painful. He yells, shaking the belt in his hand at them. He says something about their mother at home, keeping their mouths shut and being good to their new brother.
My mom drags me into the car without saying anything to me or my dad. We drive off. After what seems like a long time. I ask my mother who were those boys really. She twists her face, so that her eyes and mouth are not her own. She says,
“Didn’t you hear the first time? They are your brothers. Their names are Cesar and Michael. They are your father’s sons. They live with him. Don’t ask me anything about them again.”
Our car is going fast. But then my mother stops the car, gets out, walks in circles outside, gets back in and drives back toward my father.
We get close enough to see my father drive in his truck away from us with the two boys.
Before we reach my father, my mother stops the car, turning it around again. While she drives I’m afraid to look at her. I’m afraid to look her in the face. Because if I do I think I’ll see dust devils spinning in her eyes.
I take my notebook, the one with drawings of Burbas, Gizools and other creatures I’ve made up. In my notebook I draw something that I always think about when I meet my father. My hands are shaky but I draw anyway.
I draw my father’s face, trying to get it just right. But I can’t get it right since now I see those boys. I see their faces, always mean and dirty with hate.
We get home and my mother goes straight to her room and slams the door. I go into my room, sit on my bed, expecting to feel something bad. But nothing is all I feel.
Instead I think about what I’ll do later today when the sun goes down and the day’s heat cools.
Later, I’ll go play with my friends. I’ll be with my dog Oso. We’ll run together.
Afterwards I’ll be with my my mother, my sisters, my aunt. We’ll watch TV and then I’ll take a shower and let the cold water run through me.
Then I’ll get in my bed and it’s here, in the dark, I’ll think about the day. But right now, I listen to my mother inside her room. And in my middle middle, I’m afraid of what I hear and I wonder if this is the way it will be from now on.