Niños del Sol
by Jacob Teran
“¿Puede venir Guillermo?” Silence from his mother as Miguel rode shotgun and I sat in the back of his mom’s green 1996 Honda. I could never make out what she said.
“¿Pero, por qué mommy?”
Miguelito’s mom then went on a short rant on why the dark-skinned pocho with divorced parents who didn’t know any Spanish could not come over today. Sí, at this time of my life, I knew little to no Spanish. My parents, who were both Mexican-American, spoke perfectly good Spanish, and whose parents can be traced back both to Zacatecas and Michoacán, never spoke to me or my sister in Spanish. The story of my acquisition of Spanish will come later, but for right now, I was ass hurt because for one, I did not know why Miguel’s mom said no so often and two, I could not understand “why” because of my lack of Spanish.
“Pero, mommy…” Miguel would then go on a short rant of his own on why it was imperative that I come over to play soccer and PlayStation. I mean, after all, both of us were quite close, played handball and soccer during recess and lunch, and had a couple of classes together.
All throughout elementary school, if you played outside, you got recognized for your athletic prowess by the girls. You know how boys always wanted to impress the girls in the yard, at least, that was my conception as a youngster. Eventually, we ignored the girls, and the boys did what we did in the field during recess because it was fun. In first grade, tag was the game to play, if others were not playing hopscotch or jump rope, or reading outside their teachers’ classrooms. I remember that I was one of the “fastest” kids next to my Korean friend Benson. Now, Benson was fast as fuck. Every time I was “it,” I would go directly to Benson since I knew he would be a challenge. I almost never got him, but when I did, he knew it would be almost no different when he came after me. We would run through the play sets that were accompanied by monkey bars and slides and us elite tag players would use them like obstacle courses to escape our pursuers. This was the upper field where the younger kids would play at Wilcox Elementary School, adjacent to Schur High School. The lower lot of my elementary school is where the real fun was.
The lower lot was where the basketball courts, handball courts, and soccer field were. These were my stomping grounds, and I was now known for being one of the best handball court players. Throughout second and third grade, you could find me here hitting the side of a bouncy burgundy ball. Handball in my school was basically hitting the ball downward to where it would bounce off from the ground to the wall and back to the opponent. After the ball hit the wall, your opponent was only allowed to let the ball hit the ground once before they needed to hit it again. The challenge was to trick your opponent into missing their chance to hit it back or with trick shots.
This one trick shot called “slidies” or “sliders” everyone tried to master, and I was one of them who did. To do this trick, you had to bend your knees and spread your feet to shoulder length. From there, you then brought your palms together as if you were praying and positioned yourself as if you were about to bat a homerun but being very low to the ground. Timing was everything. Once it was your turn to hit the ball, you got in this position and if performed with precision and power, your iron palms became an instrument that would smack the ball like a speeding bullet leading you to sheer victory. The ricochet from the wall made this executed shot so difficult to hit back. Not for me and many like me though.
Some games would last for seconds to minutes (quite long when you are moving in all directions trying to defeat your opponent). This is the particular game where and when I met Miguel, my dear friend.
“Guillermo and Miguel are playing!!” Some kid screamed. An audience formed around us.
I knew of Miguel at this point but never got to know him. Apparently, Miguel would play handball from time to time too and won quite often but we were on different handball courts until now. He is on my court. A light skinned Mexican-American who had short buck teeth and a high hairline. He always wore a white uniform shirt with navy blue pants that complimented his dark blue shoes. He looked confident and ready. We were about to do battle.
Winners served the ball first and I won the last two games. Not everyone asked, but I saw it as a courtesy to ask if he was ready. He nodded. I served the ball with two iron fists.
I struck the ball as hard as I could to see if his eyes could grab the ball’s location on where it was going to fall next. He did.
He did the same! He made me chase the ball that almost escaped the reaches of the handball court line. A legal shot! The ball bounced on the ground, and I could not let the ball hit the ground again or I would be out! I got behind the ball with ninja speed and struck the ball back making the hit legal but barely. My opponent then hit the ball lightly, making me dash to the wall to save myself from losing. I crashed into the wall while simultaneously hitting the ball the other direction as the ball nearly hugged the wall. I anticipated his next move. He was clever but not as sharp as I was. Because he was ambidextrous, he swung both of his hands as fists, shuffled to the left, and struck downwards, causing the ball to fly backwards again, which made me sprint away from the wall again.
This guy. He was going to gas me out. A sheer skill that would guarantee victory. Not today in my court.
Because I anticipated his next move, I quickly recovered from running into the wall and back to the court line well before the ball hit the ground. I found the ball’s trajectory and awaited the ball’s return back to Earth.
“He’s going to do a slidie, watch out!” Some kid obviously on Miguel’s’ side screamed.
“Hey, no helping, shut up!!” Some other kids obviously on my side screamed back.
I spread my feet, squatted, and put my hands together to time the shot just right.
My slidie was virtually unhittable. But with the right kind of eyes and reflexes, you could catch it and hit it back. Miguel was one of the few who could catch my trick shot.
Miguel hit the ball, breaking the sliding trajectory of the ball. No time to stop in awe. The audience of our classmates “ooh’d” and “awe’d.” This time the ball landed in the middle, to where I was. I repeated my same position for a slider, but this time, rather than aiming straight to the wall, I aimed at a slight angle, an even harder shot to catch.
He caught it again! But how?! I muttered to myself.
Miguel caught my angled slider, but he slightly lost his balance. He was near beside me in the middle but to the left. I shot it in his direction to the left corner of the wall, giving him a very brief window of reply to hit back. As he did, and because of the angle, he backhanded the ball, making it a legal shot. This is my chance.
I struck the ball hard, making the ball go back to the end of the court just within the line. My soon-to-be friend could not make it, and I won the game. He dusted himself up as I approached him, and he gave me props for my angled slider shot. Nobody was able to hit that shot, but he did so; I gave him props for that as well. The bell rang and it was time to go back to class.
“That was a crazy game!”
“I know, I thought Guill was going to lose!”
“Guill got lucky!”
“Miguel is the one who got lucky!”
“You are crazy, Miguel took it easy on him.”
Our classmates spoke in admiration for both of us. But see, Miguel was not really a handball player like I was. His dad played soccer and in turn, got his son to play. Miguel was damn good too. As I was the fastest on foot in tag and in the handball court, Miguel was skilled in tricking you in the field with a soccer ball. The beginning of our friendship happened after that handball game we played.
“Umm, do I like football?” I always felt moderately embarrassed when someone talked to me in Spanish and I didn’t know how to respond back.
“Sorry,” he chuckled as he asked the same question but in the tongue that I first learned to speak.
“Do you like to play soccer?”
“Oh! I mean, I never really played, but I did play kickball a few times.”
“Nah dude, soccer is different. Picture it like basketball in a way, except you cannot use your hands and the point is to shoot the ball with your feet into a goal.”
I’m not an idiot; I knew what soccer was.
“I know all that. Dude, I thought you asked me if I liked football.” I chucked slightly, changing the subject with minimal embarrassment.
He knew I was one of “those” kids that was most likely Latino but didn’t know Spanish. He was kind though. Not prejudiced like other kids might have been who spoke Spanish and didn’t feel comfortable befriending a pocho who only spoke English. It was definitely vice versa where I grew up too. Most kids in my school spoke English and hung around the other kids who spoke English like themselves.
Many Spanish-speaking kids at my school stuck with themselves too. I don’t blame them either. I remember a lot of English-only-speaking kids making fun of the Spanish-speaking kids since they were placed in ESL (English as a Secondary Language) classes, and kids being as cruel as they can be, thought they were placed in there because they were slow and couldn’t speak the “right” language.
“Why don’t you speak English?”
“Is it too hard for you?”
“You sound so goofy when you speak Spanish!”
“You look like an Indian!”
These were just some of the common statements kids would say to the Spanish-speaking kids whose parents and grandparents spoke Spanish and practiced their custom diligently, not willing to be watered down by the Americanization that has been taking place for decades, if not, centuries.
Many Latinos y Latinas who grew up as Mexican American, especially in the San Gabriel Valley, were not only attacked for speaking Spanish, but were taught in their schools that Spanish was “bad” and that it would hinder the acquisition in learning English. I learned this as I got older.
Miguel invited me to play soccer with the other Spanish-speaking kids and they were mostly cool with me playing, just as long as they didn’t have to explain every rule to me. There was probably a handful of white kids in our entire elementary school, at least that I was aware of, and one of them would play with us. Everyone would shout out in Spanish when we were in the middle of our games.
“QUÉDATE CON ÉL!!”
“PASA LA BOLA!!”
“NO SEAS TONTO!!”
Slowly but surely, I began to understand what they meant, not the language itself, but the phrases. I was never as good as Miguel, Joshua, or Matthew, but I held my own. When I played defense, I covered whoever I was on like a fly on shit. When I played offense, I did my best to get away from the better players that could easily steal the ball from me and pass it to my teammates that were the shooters to make a goal.
That was the word that everyone from either team wanted to hear. This one time, Miguelito and I were playing a rough game with Jaime and his twin brother Jefferey. Jaime and Jefferey looked pretty much identical and were both tan like me. They each had a high hairline and had their hair combed to the side (almost all of us chicos in that time had our hair combed to the side in elementary). They were enthusiastic about soccer and would have conversations about soccer with Miguel and others when we all sat down for lunch.
But back to this epic game that I last remember. There must have been about eight of us on each team, including a goalie. Miguelito was as good an offensive player as he was a goalie and would switch with our other classmate, Joshua. Joshua was shorter than the rest of us. He was one of the few boys that did not comb his hair because of how wild it was. Josh must have had four cowlicks on his head that made it impossible to tame, even with the strongest hair gel. He had crooked teeth like me with a sharp pointy nose and small ears. As short and skinny as he was, the kid could run fast. When he sprinted, I swear, both of his legs would be exactly horizontal in the air when he took off. He always reminded me of a mouse.
Matthew was probably the second or third best player out of our bunch, including Jaime and Jefferey’s friends. Matthew was not as dark as me, but not as light as Miguelito. We knew each other from our earlier years of playing tag and handball. A humble friend whenever he won or lost a game, he’d have a smile that was instantly contagious. Matthew was known on the soccer field for running towards you if you were defending him and with the graces of his own abilities, he would grab the ball with the inner sides of his shoes and catapult the ball over his own body and the person in front of him, making the defender stop in his tracks to see where the ball was going, only to see the ball and Matthew were driving full speed to its destination.
The epic game we started was 2-2. Lunch was almost over, and we wanted to settle the score to see who was the better of our teams, Jaime and Jefferey’s, or Miguelito’s. Joshua had the ball in his possession and was ready to kick off to the field so that either of our teammates could safely receive it. We did! The only white kid with red hair on our team, John got it. John dribbled the ball down the field but a kid on the other team slid, tripped John, and stole the ball out of our possession. Out of frustration, John pounded the ground with his fist. Jaime and Jefferey’s teammates passed the ball to Jaime and faked Miguelito out, kicked the ball toward our goal, potentially ending the game. But our goalie Joshua saved the day. Josh dived for the ball, knocking his air out, as he landed hard on the dry grass field. His face was in the ground and looked up only to see that he caught it! We all shouted out in cheer on his defense as a goalie. But we only had a few more minutes left before lunch was over.
“Hurry! Do it now!” Miguelito commanded.
Joshua, with a red face from his goal save, kicked the ball, and Miguelito received it this time. Miguelito dribbled it right down the field. Jefferey ran right at him, making Miguelito pass it to John. John did not make the same mistake of losing our ball again and sprinted across the field into our opponent’s side of the field. John faked out one, two, three kids. John was on fire and his red hair complemented how fast he was moving. John then stumbled as his right foot landed awkwardly on the field causing him to lose his stride and almost the ball.
“I’m open, pass it now!” Matthew screamed as he ran behind him.
Three of our opponents were on John and he had to make a move, fast. He pretended to kick the ball, only to kick his foot forward without hitting the ball purposefully and with precision, kicked back with his heel passing the ball to the approaching Matthew. Jaime was now on Matthew, and they were elbow to elbow pushing and shoving, one trying to maintain the dribble down the field, while the other was trying to steal it.
“I’m open!! Pásala!!” Probably the first time I ever screamed in Spanish.
Matthew saw me and scooped the ball, directing his body toward the direction I was at. The ball shot from the right side of the field to the left, right where I was. I caught the ball with my forehead, giving me a slight stun of lights and stars by the sheer speed and accuracy of Matthew’s powerful kick. It felt like all of Jaime and Jefferey’s team rushed towards me like a pack of pissed off tigers and I was their prey. I was near the goal with the goal and goalie and a small army right behind me.
“Kick the ball! Now!!!” Everyone shouted from our side.
I did. But Jefferey got in front of his goalie and deflected my shot by mere inches. The ball shot back at knee height right in front of me. Jefferey sped like a jet to where I was, since he knew he could quickly take the ball away from me.
He stole it! My new friends were depending on me as they were not near Jefferey and me. I knew I had to act fast.
I learned this trick to slide and steal the ball in a scoop-like motion and I did just that. We were running right beside each other with elbows grinding against each other like two racecars trying to bump each other off the racetrack. Running as fast as we were, I dropped my left knee, twisted my entire body towards the left of where Jefferey was and scooped the ball with my right foot out of his grasp. He did not expect it, as he was about to kick the ball to his teammates on our side of the field. Miguelito was right by the goal post, and I had to make a split-second decision. I was to either try my “not-so-great kick” against a skilled goalie or pass it to my teammate who was wide open. Jefferey was right behind me, so I had to move fast.
I pretended to wind my right leg for an attempt to shoot at the goal, but I feigned the kick. I kicked the air as hard as I could, causing Jefferey to stop in his tracks to see the outcome, giving me an extra second or two. I retracted and planted my right leg down and tapped the left side of my shoe to the ball, allowing me to pass the ball right to Miguelito. Miguelito stopped the ball with his left foot and feigned a kick of his own. Jefferey’s brother Jaime was on Miguelito and aggressively covered any shots Miguelito attempted. I ran to the goal to anticipate a victory only to see something had gone very wrong. We were going to lose if they got possession of the ball!
Miguelito struggled and wrestled with Jaime while Jefferey and their entire team rushed in. I was the only player by our opponent’s goal at that very moment. Miguelito took one look up and saw me open.
Everyone’s attention was on Miguelito, including our opponent’s goalie. The ball streaked across the patched grass, and I made no hesitation to catch the ball. I timed the ball’s destination to my right foot and kick…
Miguelito raised his hands and arms to the clouds above like a bird and ran toward me. I had no idea what was going on. We didn’t do this prior to making the two goals before. I saw our teammates do the same, while the other team we were playing looked disappointed. The contagious and enthusiastic energy drew me in, and this sudden surge of euphoric joy permeated throughout the field. Suddenly, I was raising my hands and arms like the rest of our comrades as we soared across the battleground back to our side of the field. I soared along with my camaradas like proud Mexican eagles in victory and chanted in unison.
That day was a time I will never forget. I saw what a band of players from different homes, different skin colors, and different languages could do when we worked together as a team. I felt mighty for those last seconds before lunch was over, and it was that much better because I shared this feeling with my classmates and friend, Miguelito. After this, I began to play more and learn additional Spanish words so that I could communicate with the other Spanish-speaking kids, but they mainly taught me all of the malas palabras. But besides so many feelings of acceptance and comradery I felt that day, I began to feel like this was the beginning of my identity as a Chicano, even though I was not familiar with the word at that age. I knew I wasn’t one of the white kids, and I barely knew any Spanish – I was somewhere in between these two worlds and the bridge to my identity was built on this soccer field.
Miguelito then began asking his mom to allow me to come over after school so we could play soccer in his backyard. She did allow it from time to time. A beautiful light-skinned Mexican woman with gorgeous green eyes, she always smiled at me and in her accent always greeted me.
“Hello, Guillermo. ¿Cómo estás?”
I would always smile back awkwardly since my Spanish was pretty much non-existent. “Bueno. How are you?”
I had the innocence of a child with no full understanding of our mother tongue. She looked at me with sorrow, it seemed, when she learned that my parents were divorced. Until then, Miguelito and I would play soccer in his backyard, sometimes with his dad, who actually played in an amateur league. Miguelito’s papá was a tall, darker skinned-Mexican man whose head reached the clouds. He actually played goalie and always showed his son and me new tricks to use when playing against others.
When I was allowed to sleep over, Miguelito and I would always have a blast. We would stay up watching Dragon Ball Z movies that I brought over since I was a huge fan. Since Miguelito brought me into the world of soccer, I wanted to bring him into my world of Japanese cartoons, anime. We would watch Dragon Ball Z and then criticize who was better between characters, Goku and Vegeta. If we weren’t watching Dragon Ball Z and debating what character was stronger, we would play Gran Turismo or Final Fantasy 7 on his PlayStation console. If we weren’t playing video games or watching our favorite shows, we were playing Yu-Gi-Oh cards. We became really close friends, Miguelito and I. But then something terrible happened.
Miguelito’s family was Catholic. Their being Catholic was not the terrible part, as my family was Catholic as well; we just didn’t practice it. They moved to another city called Menifee, about 75 miles away from our hometown, Montebello. They converted to the religion of Latter-Day Saints, or Mormons. I was crushed. Not crushed because of their change of religion, after all, I knew so little about religion and the talk of God at that age. No. I was crushed because I did not have a friend to play and hang out with. No more sleepovers, no more debates on whether Goku or Vegeta was stronger, no more soccer playing in his backyard. No más de nada.
I already moved to my old barrio at around this time and the one guy who had a “normal” family without dysfunction like my own, was gone.
* * * * *
When I got in touch with Miguelito a few years ago when I was 25, I was shocked! He knew I got into smoking weed, however, he never knew about the barrio I lived in nor the things I did in my neighborhood throughout my teenage years.
“Hey Miguel! It’s me, Guillermo! Hope you still remember me, man. Wilcox Elementary, soccer, Dragon Ball Z? I’m sure it will come back to you. Anyway, I hope all is well, man. It has been many years. I tried reaching out to your mom and sister by email, but not sure if they got my message. Reach out when you can.”
That was my message to Miguel through social media. I was never really on social media, and at that time I was already planning on getting off social media for good, since I didn’t see the point to it. After the message I anticipated his response. One day passed, nada. Second day, still nothing. Third day, radio silence. Fourth day, he probably moved on. Fifth day…
“Hey, Guillermo! Of course, I remember you! You were my best friend…” I choked up a little reading that. “We had so many good memories. How have you been, dude? I tell my girlfriend about you all the time actually. I always tell her about my friend Guillermo and how close we were.”
He was right. We were. But friendship doesn’t just end, does it? I mean, friends are friends for a reason, right? All the time we spent together, it doesn’t have to stop even though we haven’t spoken in so many years, does it? But why? Why now? Why back then?
I shared what I accomplished over the years. Graduated from adult school, got my Associates degree at Rio Hondo College in philosophy. I also shared that I was working on my B.A. in both philosophy and English. I was proud of myself, and I think I was also proud sharing these milestones with my old and close friend. The friend that I played soccer with almost every day in elementary school. The same friend that shared our victory of that one game against Jaime and his twin brother Jefferey. I knew he was proud.
“That is so cool, Guillermo! I am proud of you, man.” I knew he would be proud.
But then I told him about my upbringing. Not everything. Not the time I was there when Iggy’s primo was shot and the homies thought he died after fainting from blood loss. I did not share all the drugs I did or the way I rebelled, nor the way I spoke to my mother. I would not dare tell him I used to borrow my mom’s car without her knowing to drive around East Los Angeles by myself or with my homies from the barrio. It would break his heart if he knew I used to go and steal beer from the local Superior Supermarket. He would bemoan it if he knew I used to sell half-pounds of weed when I was fifteen years old. And he would certainly curse me if he knew I had driven someone to kill a rival gang member in my black 1996 Explorer. So many more things in between that I could not tell him.
But I did tell him the time I went to juvenile hall. I figured he must know something about me, and well, going to juvi really affected me. I was sixteen years old, and I had to pay for all the shit I was doing. I did not tell Miguel what I did to get there but told him I went.
Why did I have to tell him?
¿Por qué? I wanted to. He was mi amigo after all, verdad? I wanted him to get a small glimpse of the troubles I went through but to then see the hole I dug myself out of.
He stopped replying to me right after that. I am not sure if juvi was too taboo for his new religious beliefs or if he thought I was some deranged lost soul. After all, my parents were divorced, he knew some things I shared of me witnessing how my parents would fight, and he also knew I smoked weed after he moved to Menifee. Maybe just knowing those things were enough. Maybe juvi was the final straw. Possibly, he just grew out of our friendship and did not want to know or remember his childhood.
Was he ashamed of me? Ashamed that I didn’t know Spanish. Maybe he felt that I was a dysfunctional person. I mean he wouldn’t be wrong on that last notion, but I had evolved, transformed. Haven’t I?
I waited for his reply for days to weeks. I decided to follow through with another message, but nothing again. As a few weeks passed, I stuck with what I wanted to do and deleted my social media like I had previously planned.
Why didn’t he reply back to me? Why?
¿Por qué?... ¿Por qué, mommy?... ¿Pero, por qué, mommy?
I can feel his words within me when I was in the backseat of his mom’s car. The same words that long to understand why his mom would say no to me coming over to hang out or sleep over. The same universal question that almost everyone asks when someone or something does not make sense: why?
Some truths we may never find out in life. I am coming to terms with understanding this in addition to learning to accept myself, my past, and my ever-evolving identity as a proud Chicano.
What I do know is this. That for those twenty-five minutes of playing soccer during our lunch break at Wilcox Elementary, we were good friends, we were champions of that soccer field, nosotros éramos niños del sol. This is a truth of a time and place that will never, ever, drift away.
Jacob “Jake” Teran is a proud Chicano living in the San Gabriel Valley, Los Angeles. Jake is a 2nd generation Chicano who was born in Montebello, Los Angeles, east of Los Angeles. He has published one short fictional story at his community college at Rio Hondo College and a master’s thesis for his graduate program, where he obtained his Masters Degree in Rhetoric and Composition. He is currently teaching composition to several departments in two colleges that include indigenous and Chicanx literature. Jake currently lives in the San Gabriel Valley where he is working on a novel based on his experiences growing up in his barrio that deals with gang lifestyle, drugs, violence, and finding one’s identity in a chaotic concrete jungle.
"CLAK CLACK CLACK CLACK"
I Fought the Goat and the Goat Won
Excerpt from The Nope Game and Other Stories by Javier Loustaunau
As all my fans should know, my biography came out last week, chronicling my early days as a line cook all the way up to owning a small chain of restaurants before the TV show and all the cookbooks. Still this book is incomplete without me leaking this unpublished chapter against the wishes of my editor and my publicist. They refused to let me put it in the book, as it would ‘harm my credibility’ and ‘ruin my image’ but I swear this story is true, it is the last thing I think about when going to bed and often the first thing that comes to mind when I sip my coffee in the morning.
It is the reason I became vegan, the reason I eventually opened a vegan restaurant, and the reason I am an ambassador for veganism as both as a lifestyle and as a political statement. This is a story about the last time I ate meat, and some of you will see it as a metaphor, a lark, a publicity stunt, or a strange flight of fancy. Some of you will think it is some punk rock burst of creativity, brought to you by the guy who created the ‘smoked vegan brisket’. On brand with my weird TV show and my weird sense of humor. “I wonder what he was on when he dreamed this up?”. However, you choose to view this, know that I believe it is the literal truth.For context, this takes place in the mid 90’s, when I was a fresh graduate from the CIA (Culinary Institute of America) and every day I was applying to and being rejected by some of the hottest or most prestigious restaurants in New York. Intellectually I was interested in French Cuisine, but my heart was not really into it, I honestly did not know what I wanted to do with my life beyond cooking. To make ends meet I took a job at a Mexican place, not a mom-and-pop burrito shop but an actual honest attempt at fine dining before anyone really knew what Mexican food was except for Rick Bayless and Diane Kennedy.
Shit, I had no idea what to expect. I only applied because I figured it would involve opening cans of beans and stirring big batches of chili con carne. I’m not embarrassed to say I did not take the cuisine seriously because back then nobody did. The place was actually very popular, and the Chef went on to have some success of his own. I will refer to him as El Patron for the remainder of this chapter. I know in a book full of name-dropping it is odd that I do not mention who he is; but he does not want to be associated with this story. It is the reason he fired me and has not spoken to me in years.
He did hire me for my first professional job though, to help out in his restaurant. After a month of washing dishes and performing menial tasks like carrying boxes and cleaning up, he said I was ready to do prep work. This involved showing up at the crack of dawn and breaking down and cleaning all our meats, peeling and chopping all our vegetables and getting several stations set up for the day. I had no idea how to make Mole or Pipian or any of the sauces that made this place popular, for now my job was just to slice and dice and clean.
One morning I nearly had a heart attack when I opened the walk-in freezer. Hanging from a chain in the middle of the tiny, refrigerated room there was a skinless goat, staring at me with two big round eyes. It was horrifying for some reason. I had gutted and cleaned endless fish, shucked oysters, broken down chickens and butchered sections of pigs but… God damn that goat game me a fright and it did not go away either. I looked away from it as I reached half my body into the freezer grabbing for a large crate of vegetables. I heard the chain creak softly and when I looked next to me the whole goat had rotated slightly, meeting my eyes with it’s own dead eyes again.
I shut the walk in and just felt sick and panicked. The adrenaline from being startled was not wearing off, it was instead intensifying, into a full-blown panic attack. My heart was racing, and I had to repeat to myself “it is just meat” in order to stop being paralyzed and start moving about the kitchen again. I had been successful in retrieving my first case of veggies so I started to prep them, trying not to cut my trembling hands in the process. Every few seconds I would get a flash of that goat’s skinless face in my head, with it’s deep dark eyes staring right at me. It had a ghastly smile, probably the result of being all muscle without lips or skin. The whole thing just haunted me.As I finished dicing up the last of the carrots, a certain dread overtook me… I realized I had to go back into that walk in. I laughed a little, it was silly how scared I was of the damn thing, and then I realized El Patron might be expecting me to break it down. I felt a sudden chill go through my body… there was no way I was butchering that thing. I reached into the walk in for another crate of veggies, barely seeing anything through my squinted eyes. My arm touched the cold flesh of the goat and I recoiled, then panicking I snatched the veggie crate and shut the door spilling several zucchinis and onions inside the walk in and on the floor of the kitchen.
As I sliced up onions, I felt my whole-body jerk in reaction to a loud thump in the walk in, surely a vegetable I had left behind rolling off the shelf and onto the floor. There were a few more loud thumps over the next minute, and then a loud CLANK of something hard hitting metal. CLANK! And I was startled again, almost cutting myself. It was unsettling, but I just really did not want to open the walk in unless I had to. A few more clanks interrupted my work, and I was finally ready to move onto cleaning chicken and trimming steak so I worked up the courage to open the walk in freezer again.
It took a couple of tries to actually move my arm, to actually turn that handle and get it open… and when I did there where vegetables strewn about the floor and a couple of sauce containers were on their side and leaking… but the goat was completely gone. Only the chain was left behind, swinging gently, reminding me that I really had seen what I had seen earlier. I just crumpled, sitting on the floor dumbstruck, staring into that walk in unable to do anything. A million explanations raced through my mind: it is a prank, I have lost my mind, my drink last night was spiked, somebody moved it while my back was turned, I am not alone here…
CLAK CLACK CLACK CLACK. I heard hooves on tile, somewhere near the restrooms or the front of the restaurant. I hid behind my prep station, with a knife in each hand. In my head, I was mocking myself for being so afraid of something so implausible, so surreal. The clickety clack would come and go, appearing and disappearing in different parts of the restaurant, but never in the kitchen. I steeled myself, and slowly peered from the side of my station.
My gaze was met by two deep black eyes, staring back at me from a skinless face. Its tongue hung limply from one side of its mouth, and it was perfectly able to stand on its four skinless legs. I freaked the fuck out; my knives went flying and by the time I heard them clang onto the ground I was already taking shelter inside the cramped walk-in freezer. This situation was not much better though, it was pungent with leaking chili sauce and cold and cramped and dark and I knew I could not last long in here. The smell made my eyes well up with tears and those tears felt cold, like they could turn to little icicles. When I heard the beast slowly clickety clack away into the seating area and I sighed relief.
I left the walk in slowly, surveying my messy surroundings but I saw no sign of the goat. Once again, I retrieved my knives and prepared myself to escape out of the back of the restaurant. My feet would slip and slide as I left footprints of chili sauce like dark drying blood. I was moving as slowly as I could, all the while clutching my knives and listening for any movement. I made it past the sinks and was almost out the back door, but I looked, and the goat was in the corner across from me. I screamed “What the fuck are you?!” at it. It made a grunt that turned into a sort of loud screech and it came at me, full force.
I held my blades before me, eyes closed, trying to swing at the beast. It must have leapt because I felt a strong punch right in the gut, and it sent me backwards falling and knocking over a trash can. It’s face was inches from my face, and I distinctly heard it say in a low growling voice “Yo soy el Nagual” before everything faded to black.
I would awaken at the hospital that evening, panicking until a couple of nurses held me down and one came running with a syringe. “No, stop, I’m OK now, I’m OK” I yelled and they backed off, giving me some space to breathe. Fragments of what happened that morning came rushing back to me, at least what I could remember, whatever I was able to jot down later would eventually turn into what you are reading now. At that moment, I was just experiencing an intense euphoria, of knowing I was safe. As you might imagine they said I had experienced some sort of psychological event, likely a nervous breakdown from stress and lack of sleep. I had been partying a lot, and I had been broke, but honestly stress never really factored in, at that age I felt invincible.Then El Patron came in and stared at me in silence for a minute as he composed something in his head. Finally, he said: “I’m glad you are OK, I really was worried. I also hope you understand that you can’t come back to my restaurant, I could forgive you but the doñas who actually make the sauces and tortillas would never feel safe again with some crazy person or drug addict around. I just pay the bills, the doñas really run things and they are scared of you. But I did bring you something, because hospital food sucks. It is birria.”
He poured some warm broth and meat out of an insulated container into one of the bowls we use at the restaurant and from a second container he added some diced onions, oregano and a couple of lime wedges. When chefs are concerned but do not know what to say, they communicate with food. I am the same way, even now. I slurped some broth and it was amazing, I instantly realized I had not eaten since the previous day. I devoured the food almost crying in gratitude and relief and sopped up the remaining chili tinted red grease with a tortilla.
“This is possibly the best thing I’ve eaten, what is it?” I asked. “Birria is goat stew, with chilies and clove” he replied. Just like that, I felt it coming back up, and for a second time that day I humiliated myself before el Patron by making a mess. That really was the last time we ever spoke to each other, even though we would often get booked by the same shows filming back to back episodes. I developed a revulsion and full on phobia to meat, and that fear and disgust fueled my desire to innovate in the space of vegan cuisine. It is why you have never seen me as a judge on shows; I tell them I have too many food allergies to be a judge. It is why I was able to ignore the bad reviews and bad press while I built up my career, those things never scared me. Bankruptcy never scared me. Scandal never scared me. The only thing that ever scares me anymore are the memories of having to take animals apart, and thinking of El Nagual.
Javier Loustaunau was born in Los Mochis, Sinaloa where he lived until his 21st birthday. Shortly after 9/11 he decided to move to the US to work for a while, taking a break in his studies as a biochemical engineer. Instead he worked his way up from restaurants to banking, from banking to operations and is now a data analyst in the HRIS and Insurance field. He is a published author of poetry and prose, specializing in short scary fiction. You can find his work on the NoSleep podcast and in the anthology Monsters We Forgot. Purchase The Nope Game and Other Stories.
Am I running away?
by Armando Gonzalez
Fernando was in the living room, sitting on the couch and watching T.V. He was watching iCarly, a show he knew he would get made fun of for watching if he ever admitted this to others at school. Although he had already seen the episode where Carly finds out the cool, hot kid likes to collect peewee babies, he wanted to watch T.V. because he did not want to get a haircut.
He had done everything that morning very slowly. He took a slow shower and let his thoughts wander. He did this often, and liked doing this because in part it was relaxing, but he felt there was some other reason why he liked doing it but he could not figure out the reason. Of course, that morning when he took a shower, he really let his thoughts wander so far beyond himself that it was as if his mind was slowly leaving his body, so that when his thoughts eventually returned back to him, he felt like he was in someone else’s body that just so happened to be called Fernando. He would annoy parents when he did this, most particularly his father, who wanted to avoid using too much water for the fear that the landlord would tell him something. Since he always locked the door, his father would have to pick the door lock with something that looked like a small metal cane.
When he went inside, he would tell Fernando, “Cuando no vas usar el agua, apágalo.”
Fernando would just say, “Okay.”
Fernando had done everything he had to do that morning. He had even brushed his teeth. Now he just had to leave the house, go over to the beauty salon that was about a block away, and get a haircut.
His mother, who was in the kitchen washing dishes, began to call him, “¿Fernando, qué hora es?”
“Son las tres.”
“Ya se está haciendo tarde. Vete a la peluquería antes que tu papá venga, o se va a enojar.”
He went into the kitchen where he knew the semi-wrinkled ten dollar bill would be, waiting for him on the kitchen table. He picked it up and looked at it. He looked at Alexander Hamilton’s hair, which was a wig, but Fernando was unaware of this. Although he didn’t really like the way Hamilton’s hair looked, Fernando was jealous because his hair looked longer than his. He wondered for a short time why it was that men back then were able to have long hair but now had to have short hair.
He said goodbye to his mother and started heading over to the beauty salon, slowly walking. But it didn’t matter how slow he walked because it took little to no time to reach the beauty salon. He stood in front of the beauty salon and hesitated to enter. He touched the tips of his bangs. It wasn’t long or anything, about medium length size to be exact, but it got long enough for his father to tell him to get a haircut. He knew that he would have to get a very short haircut and would be angry the whole day. He also knew that if he didn’t get the haircut, his father would get angry at him and would force him to get one. It didn’t seem like there was any room for compromise. He did not like fighting with anyone, especially grownups. He felt adults for the most part knew more than him, but sometimes he felt adults were just as clueless as him.
He finally went inside and went towards the glass counter. On the glass counter there was a yellow legal pad with a list of names crossed out and others that were not. It was the sign-in sheet. He picked up the black pen next to the yellow legal pad and wrote his name.
Fernando walked towards a chair and sat down. It was a Saturday, a popular day to get a haircut, and just after noon, so the wait was going to be a little longer. In the beauty salon were mothers who had brought their children to get a haircut, one that was presumably going to be short. He saw men there, too. They looked like they were by themselves and all had short haircuts. The men who sat in the beauty styling chairs were getting their hair cut and looked like they enjoyed having short hair. Some of the hairdressers, who were mostly women, had a variety of haircuts. Some of them had long hair, medium hair, and even short hair. Some of them even had their hair bleached or dyed another color like red.
There was one gay hairdresser, or at least he appeared so. Fernando noticed that most men, if they were not in any kind of hurry, did their best to avoid having their hair cut by him. His father told him once, after he had his hair cut done by the gay hairdresser, that he thought that that man was weird.
The beauty salon had gotten more packed since he walked in, and now every chair was taken. With so many people the hair salon had now gotten hotter. One of the hairdressers went to turn the air conditioner on, but it was going to take time for the place to cool down. Fernando decided it was probably better to wait outside, even if there was a chance he would not hear his name called out. He just wanted to get out.
Fernando got up from his chair and waited outside. There were two men standing outside, too. He leaned against the wall of the beauty salon and as usual began to get lost in his own head. Across the street was the field of the middle school he would soon attend next year. From what he understood from movies, middle school was usually not a great time for most kids. He wondered what he would be like when he was in middle school. He had typical middle school self-conscious thoughts: Would he be popular or unpopular? Cool or uncool? Outgoing or shy? Smart or dumb? Funny or unfunny? Interesting or boring? Mysterious or unmysterious? Handsome or ugly?
Regardless of these thoughts, Fernando fantasized about having a good time. He was also getting to that age when he started to notice girls sexually and how he liked being around them a lot more than most boys. He thought of having a girlfriend, but then he wished he had not thought of this because he did not know whether he was fit to get one. He felt boyfriends had to be strong enough to get into fights. He did not feel he was this kind of strong.
Maybe I am strong in other ways, he thought.
Just then a hairdresser opened the door.
“¿Está Fernando aquí?”
The two men looked at the hairdresser. Then the two men and the hairdresser looked at Fernando. Since he was lost in his own thoughts, it took him a couple seconds to register what was going on.
“¿Qué?” said Fernando.
“¿Usted es Fernando?”
He was about to say yes when the thought of being strong in other ways occurred to him. In the moment he was driven by emotions instead of reason.
The hairdresser said okay and went back inside.
Fernando immediately regretted what he had done. His heart was beating fast. He tried to calm himself down and thought of going back inside and telling the hairdresser that he had misheard, that he was in fact Fernando. But he was too ashamed to do even that. In reality, there was nothing to worry about. If he had simply gone back inside and told the hairdresser that he was in fact Fernando, she would most likely think nothing of it. But this was a big deal to him, as it was the first time he had ever truly done something for himself.
As if he was no longer in control of himself, Fernando’s legs began to slowly walk away from the beauty salon.
He was walking on a sidewalk, unsure of where he was going or what he was doing. He came to a crosswalk and pressed on the traffic light button. As he stood there waiting for the white walking man sign to come up, he began to think where he should go. All he knew was that he did not want to go back to the beauty salon or home.
Am I running away? Fernando thought. No, I can’t be running away. I have nowhere to go. I only have ten dollars…But it feels like I am running away.
The white walking man sign came up. Fernando walked to the other side of the street. While he thought about where he should be going, he mindlessly walked straight ahead, as if turning right or left would be wrong or be too much effort.
He arrived in a part of the city where there were many homeless people on the sidewalk. Some of them were either sleeping on a piece of cardboard or a mattress. Others were leaning against the wall of a dollar general store, thinking who knows what. It did not matter if one wanted to walk to the other side of the street because they would be there as well. Fernando had no choice but to walk on another street in order to avoid them altogether. He decided to take a right.
But even when he made a deliberate effort to avoid them, he saw one coming his way. He was a lanky homeless man with a blond and entangled, stiff beard. He had long blonde hair that looked like it had not been washed for days. Fernando wondered what his parents thought of his having long hair. He was shirtless but had a shirt hung around his neck like a shemagh. Fernando tried hard not to make eye contact with him. When the man finally got next to Fernando, he asked him if he had any change. He smelled extremely sour, so it was hard for Fernando not to make a disgusted reaction.
For a split second Fernando thought about giving the ten dollars to the homeless man because he felt sorry for him. He remembered what his father told him about homeless people, that they were all lazy people who didn’t want to work. He decided against giving the homeless man the ten dollars. Maybe if he had a dollar he would have given it to him.
Fernando shook his head. The homeless man, with a blank expression, said nothing and walked away.
Eventually the sidewalk ended and he was now facing a street divider, which to him almost felt as if it was demanding Fernando to make a choice, to either go left or right. Since he still had no idea where he should go, he thought it best to go somewhere where he can rest so he can think about it better. To his right he saw a McDonald’s. He thought McDonald’s would be a good place to rest and walked towards it.
In the McDonald’s he walked towards a table near a window and sat there. Once again, Fernando had to think about what he was doing.
Do I ever plan to go home? he thought. I know I have to go home at some point. But I still haven’t gotten a haircut. I know my father will get angry with me and probably force me to get one. There is still time to go to the hair salon to get a haircut. As long as I come back home with shorter hair I don’t think my parents will care too much if I come home late.
Fernando looked out the window for a while, staring at nothing in particular. He understood the simple fact that boys were supposed to have short hair and girls were supposed to have long hair, but at the same time he did not understand.
So what if I do have longer hair? It’s not the end of the world.
He touched his bangs.
Why does it matter so much to my father that what I am touching is a little long?
For some reason, Fernando had the strange feeling that someone was staring at him. He looked up and noticed that a woman, who was sitting with a man and two boys, and was a table away from Fernando, was staring at him. He assumed she was the mother of the children and the man sitting next to him was her husband and the father of the children. When Fernando made eye contact with the mother, she looked quickly away. Fernando thought nothing of this. But he then noticed other people, other parents, and even the cashier, were giving him stares too, as if he was strange looking. Their stares creeped Fernando out.
Do they know I didn’t get my haircut? he thought despite knowing how such a thought was nonsense.
Then he knew why. He was the only child in the McDonald’s who was all by himself. The other children were probably with parents or an older relative. Fernando thought maybe they thought he was homeless and was perhaps watching other people eat, although he did not exactly have the look of a homeless child. He felt his face grow a little hot. He wanted to leave as soon as possible. But, as soon as he got up to leave, he felt his stomach grumble. He was hungry. He remembered he had a ten dollar bill. His hands trembled as he took the ten dollar bill out of his right pocket. There was Hamilton once again with his long and white wig. This was the bill he was given to get a haircut, but now he was thinking of using it to buy something to eat at McDonald’s.
At first he was reluctant, but he realized that as long as he did not spend more than five dollars, he would still have plenty of money to get a haircut because it was exactly five dollars. But he wondered what his parents would think when he didn’t give them any of the change back.
I can say that after I got my haircut, I got the sudden urge to eat something at McDonald’s, thought Fernando. He figured it was such a simple reason that the worst that could possibly happen is his parents telling him he should have let them know before he went.
Fernando went to the cashier and ordered himself two cheeseburgers and a meal. It was $4.89. He now had $5.11. Just enough to still get a haircut. He ate his two cheeseburgers and fries and small coke without feeling too much guilt.
After he was done eating, he decided it was probably time to go home. If he still wanted to get a haircut, it was his last chance, that is, if he did not want to be dragged by his own father to the beauty salon. Images of his father yelling at him and grabbing him by the shoulders formed in his mind. He no longer hit Fernando, but nevertheless, he was still afraid of him. Even though he knew others would find this a little silly, to Fernando, yelling and hitting almost felt like the same thing. He asked someone in the McDonald’s for the time and she told him it was about to be three. He started to feel anxious again. He walked quickly out of the McDonald’s and planned on going back to the beauty salon.
He stood in front of the beauty salon. The place was much more packed with people since it was now later in the afternoon. He entered again, this time with shame, and avoided eye contact with any of the hairdressers that might have seen him enter the first time. When he walked towards the counter and looked at the names written on the yellow legal pad, he saw his own name was crossed out. He wrote his name on the yellow legal pad again.
He looked around to see if there were any empty seats. He saw one, but it was between two seats that were occupied with people, an older man with a grown out buzz cut to the left and an older woman to the right with a long ponytail.
When he went to sit down on the chair, he noticed how fast his heart was beating. He started to wonder what his parents were thinking. The thought formed in his head that his mom was probably thinking why their son was taking so long to get a haircut. He could picture his mother being worried at the moment and his father either driving home from work or having just arrived home. He could picture his worried mother telling his father that Fernando had not come home. His father would most likely get furious. “¿Cómo que no ha llegado? La peluquería está muy cortita.”
He was shaking now. He wanted to get his haircut right away. The walls to his right had pictures of men with combovers, tapers, undercuts, buzz cuts, short spiky hair, spiky quiffs, fades, etc. He didn’t even bother to look at any of them because he thought maybe if he got the shortest haircut that his father would not be so mad at him.
“Fernando,” a hairdresser called his name.
Fernando stood up immediately and walked over to the hairdresser that called his name. Luckily she was not the same hairdresser that called him the first time, or that would have been embarrassing. The hairdresser was a short, skinny Mexican woman who had a pixie haircut with highlights. She led him to the stylist chair. He sat down and looked at himself in the mirror. He had an overgrown hairstyle and, at most, his fringe barely passed his eyebrows. He secretly wanted to have long and flamboyant hair like a male anime character.
Only after the hairdresser put the hair cloth on Fernando did she ask him: “¿Cómo quieres tu pelo?”
Although he was feeling anxious before about his dad yelling at him if he arrived home late and without a haircut, Fernando did not respond right away. The hairdresser stared at him and asked him again.
Fernando told her to give him a short haircut, a number four on all sides.
Just then, his father came into the beauty salon. Fernando could feel someone staring at him, hard, to his left and turned to see his dad standing near the entrance. His father, while looking noticeably angry at Fernando for taking such a long time to get a simple haircut, at the same time had an expression on his face of approval. He walked over to where Fernando was seated.
“¿La lista de gente era larga?”
Fernando nodded his head.
“¿Qué tipo de corte de pelo vas a agarrar?”
“Un número cuatro en todos lados.”
“Eso está bueno.”
Fernando just looked straight ahead and said nothing.
“Voy a estar sentado. ¿Okay?”
Fernando nodded again.
The hairdresser reached into a counter drawer for the hair clippers and turned it on. As soon as he heard the buzz, Fernando went stiff, and suddenly he remembered once again what he had told himself earlier in the day which made him run away for a short while: Maybe I am strong in other ways.
When the hair clippers got near his hair, he moved his head away, which surprised the hairdresser.
From where he was seated, he heard his father yell “¡Fernando, quédate quieto!”
Fernando did not listen. Without having to think about it, he got off his chair and made a run for the door. When he got near the door, his father, who was so caught off guard by what was happening, had to register what was going on, and because of this, he had lost a second or two that would have enabled him to grab Fernando. This resulted in his father’s failure to catch Fernando, as he only managed to snatch the hair cloth off him.
He ran as fast as he could without ever looking back. His father kept calling out his name. Without looking both ways, Fernando ran across the street to the middle school’s chain link fence. Cars honked at him and the wheels of cars screeched on the pavement and people yelled things at him, mostly in Spanish. He did not have a second to think where he was going to turn when he got near the chain link fence. He turned right. Soon after he made the turn, he almost ran into a short Mexican lady selling flowers to cars. He kept running straight ahead. He no longer heard his father calling out his name. Either he was too focused on chasing him or he had stopped chasing him.
Now I’m going to get it, Fernando thought.
About an hour or so had passed since he last ran away from the beauty salon. He was back to running away, except now it felt much more official. Whereas before he was scared enough of his father to return back to the hair salon, now he was too scared to even go back home. He had no idea what he was going to do now. All he had in mind was to be as far away as possible from his home.
By now he was walking by the Santa Ana riverbed. He stopped walking and looked down at the riverbed, which was bone dry. He decided to walk down the riverbed, where he could hide easily and sit down in some shade under the overpass. There was a homeless person sleeping at the very bottom of the riverbed and using a black backpack as a pillow. He had a blanket, coated with some dirt, wrapped around himself. Fernando made sure to avoid stepping on any broken glass bottles or any sharp object. The place smelled like piss and shit. Fernando sat down on an incline. And once he did, he realized just how tired he felt. Altogether, he had been practically walking the whole day, and because he felt very tired, he thought of absolutely nothing. For about half an hour he simply listened to the cars pass him from above. Occasionally people on bikes would pass by him and some would look at him with a concerned face.
Despite how dirty and smelly the place was, just listening to nearby sounds and sitting underneath the overpass was extremely peaceful for Fernando. It was something he didn’t know he needed.
However, he got the sudden urge to take a massive dump. The McDonald’s had finally wanted out. He had about three options: he could go back home, find a nearby place with a restroom, or take a dump where he currently was. Fernando knew he was too tired to walk long distances, so the first option was out. Besides, he didn’t want to face his father, at least not yet. He wanted to do everything he could to avoid the last option so he tried hard to think of restrooms that were nearby. He noticed there was a park next to the riverbed, so he figured that was probably his best option.
He walked slowly to the park so as to not let the poop come out. He got near a lake in the park which smelled of duck poop and saw a young looking couple sitting on a bench and thought about asking them where the nearest restroom was. Once he got closer, he realized it was two women who were sitting very close to each other, almost like they could kiss each other on the lips at any moment. Fernando was slightly uncomfortable when he saw them, but at the same time he didn’t really care if it was two women who were sitting so close to each other, he needed help, so it didn't matter who it came from. Also, by this time he really had to go to the restroom and had no time to be picky. When he got near them, he said, “Excuse me.”
Both women turned their heads around to look at him. They appeared to be hispanic. The one on the right was wearing a septum piercing. Fernando noticed that they smelled like something but couldn’t identify what exactly the smell was though. For him, it neither smelled good or bad. He noticed their eyes were very red, too. He had never smelled marijuana before. They also didn’t look like those kinds of women, the kind to get close to other women. They had long hair, wore tight jeans and both spoke in feminine voices. In a few words, they basically looked and sounded like normal women.
“Hi,” the one sitting on the right said. Both smiled and laughed a little more than was necessary. They seemed pleasantly surprised to see a child, all by himself, approach them.
“Do you guys know where the nearest restroom is?”
Both had to think for a few seconds. Then the one on the right pointed with her finger in a direction and said: “If you keep going that way, you will see a dirt track. There is a public restroom right next to it.”
As Fernando walked over to the public restroom, he heard the two women talking silently and laughing. They were probably talking about him.
Once he saw the dirt track, it was easy to find the public restroom. When he entered the public restroom, he noticed there were no doors for the toilet. There was just a wall to cover yourself on one side and that was it. He was scared that someone might walk in on him while he was taking a shit, but he had no time to worry about that, so he walked over to the toilet and sat down and did his business. He wasted no time.
After he was finished, it dawned on him that, once again, he had no idea what to do next. He figured he needed to find a place to sit down and think for a little, just like he had done when he was at McDonald's. He saw a ledge nearby and walked towards it to sit down, which was in front of the dirt track. He watched people jog. When he noticed how golden the people’s skin appeared, he realized that it was soon going to be dark. It was going to be dangerous for an early adolescent like him to walk the streets during the night when different kinds of people came out. He thought about how this might be his first time ever walking in the dark.
Fernando’s stomach rumbled. He was getting hungry again. The thought of buying food with the five dollars he had occurred to him. If anything was going to force him back home, it was going to be food.
Suddenly, the idea of buying a bus pass occurred to him. He remembered that he passed by a bus stop near the riverbed. He knew the one-day bus pass cost five dollars from the times he took the bus with his mom to places like the pediatrician when his father could not take them. If he took the bus he would definitely be able to get home before it got fully dark.
He walked over to the bus stop. When he got there he noticed that there was no one sitting on the bus bench. He chose not to sit down because he did not want anyone to sit next to him, especially since it was getting late.
It didn’t take long for the bus to arrive. When he saw the bus coming he saw on top of it bright orange letters which read “Golden West Transp Center.” He took the five dollars out of his pocket before the bus pulled up next to him. For a second he thought how it was a little funny that the money he was given was used for anything but a haircut. Who knew what his father would do to him when he arrived home with no money at all? At this point though, Fernando was tired and hungry and just wanted to get home, so he sort of didn’t care what his father did to him anymore. It was a bit of an amazing feeling, to not care at all anymore, he thought.
The bus pulled up next to him, the doors opened, and he got in. He inserted his five dollars into the fare box. He felt like the bus driver was staring at him, but he chose to ignore this feeling. Few people were on the bus. He sat on the seat all the way in the back on the right side of the bus, which was right next to the window. When he looked out the window, his mind wandered. He had many thoughts, and they went deeper than usual, almost like he was at home showering again. He expanded on a thought he had earlier, which was why his father wanted him to get a haircut so badly. Of course, he was not a stupid child. He obviously knew that his father wanted him to have shorter hair so that he looked more like a boy than a girl. But what amazed him is the fact that this simple thing of having longer hair, which was really nothing to get upset over, was something that made his dad uncomfortable, like he was a child like him, who was uncomfortable with the dark.
Although he felt that he was becoming less and less scared of his own father, he still wanted to avoid a harsh clash with him, as hopeless as that sounded.
What can I say to my father? Fernando questioned himself. How can I convince him that there is nothing wrong with a boy who wishes to have longer hair?
The bus was getting close to Main street, where he knew he had to get off. He thought of staying on the bus until he knew what to say to his father. Fernando thought and thought, but it seemed like there was just nothing he could say to convince his father that long hair was just as good as short hair, regardless of whether you were a boy or a girl. He knew his father was a very stubborn man and wanted things his way. He vowed to himself to never be like his own father.
He pulled on the yellow string to get off at the bus stop on Main street. As the bus stop wasn’t that far away from his home, he decided to walk the rest of the way home.
The walk home was a quiet one. He did not walk fast. There didn’t seem to be any good reason to do so other than to make his parents worry one less minute. He couldn’t imagine his father being worried about him at the same time being angry at him. He just couldn’t for some reason.
As he walked home, he passed by a church called Saint Anne’s. He looked at the bell tower and wondered what it was like to ring the bell. Fernando was not very religious, but he was not entirely against religion either. He had some questions about religion, whether one needed religion to be happy. Anytime he had a question like this, his mother always insisted that you did need religion to be happy, as if this wasn't obvious enough to Fernando that any free moment she had, his mother would devote that time to praying. Or when his mother would be in the kitchen cooking dinner, meanwhile she would have her phone on the kitchen table playing loudly some YouTube video of a catholic priest giving a sermon. In stark contrast to his father, his mother was a lot gentler and timid. He remembered once he asked her what it was that made her want to marry his father. Besides some other characteristics, the first thing that came to her mind was that he was a very hard worker. Fernando wasn’t sure if being a hard worker was something he liked enough in a person to want to want to marry them, but he understood.
He was now standing below the green Old Mcfadden and Main street sign. In just a few more steps he would be home. He stood below the street sign for a few minutes, getting himself prepared for his parent’s reaction. It was eight thirty p.m. Once again, his heart was beating fast. All kinds of thoughts about his father were going through his head. It was easy not to care when he was away, but now that he was a lot closer to his home, all his worries came back to him and he felt the tension in his shoulders, as if someone were squeezing them.
He started walking. He was scared but he continued to walk. As he got closer to the front window, he saw lights coming through a gap in the curtains. They were home. He walked up the red steps towards the black steel door and knocked on the metal screen. He heard footsteps. The knob of the door turned, the door swung open and before him stood his father.
The next day he was at the beauty salon again, this time with his father standing by his side. His father did not say anything to him when he arrived home. But the next morning he gave him a short, but assertive and even threatening sounding lecture.
“Ese si quieres quedarte en esta casa, necesitas obedecer lo que te digo que hacer. No quiero que vuelvas a correr porque solo te digo que te cortes el pelo.”
“Pero nada más es pelo.”
“¿Ese nada más es pelo, por qué no te lo cortas?”
Fernando only nodded his head and said okay, making little to no eye contact. His mother stood by, saying nothing.
“Vamas ir al peluquería. ¿Estás listo?”
He nodded his head.
So there they were again, in the beauty salon. His father told the hairdresser to give him a number three on all sides of his head.
“Por fin ya se va a cortar el pelo,” the hairdresser said.
“Sí, ya era tiempo.”
Both the hairdresser and his father chuckled. Fernando did not chuckle.
The hairdresser took the hair clippers out of the drawer and started. It was an easy haircut and of course no scissors were needed. It didn’t really matter where she started. She started on the top. Fernando saw his father in the mirror, with his arms folded, and with a satisfied look. He could have killed his father right there and then. He had all the necessary emotions boiling inside of him.
Armando Gonzalez was born in Santa Ana, California and continues to live there. His parents migrated from Mexico and met here and married. He has no schooling in creative writing, and “Haircut” is his first published story. He is Mexican American/Chicano.