Beyond What is Required
“You’re going to walk straight into Mexico,” Daniel told his mother. His smile didn’t quite hide his concern.
“I just need to stay moving,” she told him. She grabbed her purse and didn’t bother to tell him where she was going.
I just need to stay distracted, she thought. Her walks had started out of necessity. Julio had been driving her car that night and the Riverside Police Department kept it for further investigation. The first few weeks, there were so many people around, that any errand she needed to run or arrangement she needed to make, there would be an available chauffer. It gave people something they could do to “help.” She could feel them being proud of themselves, while she sat in their passenger’s seat and sighed deeply, almost against her will.
But after the good intentions returned to their normal lives, she still had things to do and places to get to, so she started walking. Getting to work was almost a mile walk to the bus stop. The post office and the grocery store were a disappointing shortcut through an alley that ran behind several cul-de-sacs or a hike around the park that was perpetually under construction.
When the police returned the car, she continued to walk everywhere; trying hard to not even look at the vehicle.
She had taught Julio how to drive. Her voice was horse by the end of the first lesson.
“Ay Ma, I know what I’m doing!” Julio responded. He stomped on the gas and the brake at the same time.
“Dios Mio!” she said. “Sabes que? No. No. No. I’m not doing this.”
“No Mami! Please? Mami, please… please?”
No matter how angry he could make her, her son’s big beautiful eyes had a way of undoing her convictions. With a heavy sigh, she agreed and continued the lesson, circling the mostly empty grocery store parking lot.
“You look like an ad for toothpaste,” she said and laughed when he got his license. He was so proud, but all she felt was dread and worry. She tried to shake it off and kissed her son on the forehead and told him he looked very guapo on his picture.
Both of her sons were good looking, but different. Julio’s black hair and dark caramel skin were a polar contrast to Daniel’s light brown hair and fair skin. It was hard to tell they were brothers, except to her they were like a complimentary set. Julio’s soft hazel eyes matched his brother’s light complexion, while Daniel’s eyes were black, making his pupil nearly impossible to distinguish. Julio was two years older than Daniel and they were inseparable.
When Julio was three, he demanded to take his baby brother with him to his first day of preschool.
“He can’t, he’s a baby,” his mom explained and after the tenth time, Julio seemed to accept this fact. The next morning, however, she woke up early and found Julio in his brother’s crib, trying to get little Daniel into his Transformers backpack.
They also beat each other up. Julio’s upper hand as the bigger brother ended when Daniel turned ten and stretched two inches taller than Julio. This did nothing to discourage Julio from claiming he was king of the remote control or flushing the toilet while Daniel was in the shower or tackling him and trying to fart on his head.
No matter how bad the fights—bloody noses, loss of baby teeth, torn comic books—their anger never lasted. On more than one occasion, she had gone as far as to turn the water hose on them. But after everything settled, she figured they’re just young bear cubs and hoped all the sibling roughness would teach them to fight their way through this world.
She walked towards the grocery store, knowing there was nothing she really needed to buy. She used to drive miles down the road to avoid that grocery store because it was where she met her ex-husband, when he was a bag boy and she a shy teenager.
Her parents had just sent her to live with her tía. She never imagined her world would become so small when arrived in the U.S. When wasn’t sitting quietly in the back of her high school’s ESL class, she was babysitting her cousins or helping her tía clean old people’s large houses. She didn’t have any social life the first couple of years. Her Tia dropped her off at school and picked her up right after. Only her solo trips to the grocery store felt like daring adventures, and Renaldo, with his smile, his confidence in his English, and his large hands, was the príncipe azul of those adventures.
They married when she was seventeen and he was twenty-one. Since the moment she told him she was pregnant, Renaldo prayed every night for a boy. He picked the name Julio in memory of his abuelito.
“My son’s going to be el mero güey,” Renaldo would say, his gentle and stronger fingers smoothing her bare belly.
Only they didn’t have any idea how much everything would change. Their studio apartment was too small. The baby’s wails and the thumping of the walls from the drug addicts above them, sparked more and more tense arguments. Even with Renaldo’s employee discount at the grocery store, there was hardly money for diapers or the specialty foods when it turned out that Julio had severe allergies to nuts, eggs, dairy, and wheat. Renaldo took a second job and when she told him she was pregnant the second time, he couldn’t even manage a smile.
Julio and Daniel were never that joy that Renaldo wanted, just burdens. She saw less and less of him. Between his full time and the part-time job and drinking with his buddies that she never met, it seemed to her that he only came home to shower, sleep, eat and shit.
When he packed his bags and headed to Jalisco to visit his padrinos, she knew he wouldn’t be back.
He had found another woman, she thought. Before he left, he hugged her and the boys, but it wasn’t the hug of a husband or a father. It was that of a distant relative that had overstayed his welcome. She could feel the pain of his estrangement coming, even with his arms still around her, but she didn’t cry. Neither did Julio who was six. Only little four-year old Danny cried. He did the crying for all of them. He cried for three days straight, resulting in a slight rasp in his voice that never went away.
In Junior High, Julio began hanging out in the parking lot of that grocery store, skateboarding with other boys that made her nervous. Around that time, she noticed a switch in him. The light of his hazel eyes went cloudy and sad. He began to distance himself from Daniel, to ditch classes, and she slapped him across the face and yelled at him until one in the morning when she found cigarettes in his room. Finally one day, after he was suspended for fighting, Ms. Hunt, his English teacher, knocked on their door.
“Hi, Mrs. Rodriguez,” said a slightly pudgy, young woman with a beautiful clear skin and big brown curly hair.
Ms. Hunt was nervous and that made her nervous, but she knew how to hide it better. She knew to not fidget and or avoid someone’s eyes. She led Ms. Hunt to the tiny kitchen where she served her a cup of coffee.
“Um, well, I’d like to talk about Julio and the fight… Did he tell you what happened?”
“No… He doesn’t tell me anything.”
“You see Mrs. Rodriguez, he wasn’t so much fighting… but more like defending himself.”
“Three boys cornered him …and they just started teasing him, calling him names.”
Ms. Hunt looked down at her cup, then took a deep breath and answered: “They… they called him names like faggot, bitch, and um—”
“Faggot?” she asked almost under her breath.
“Yes, and um, they reached down to grab Julio’s, um, privates, and Julio threw a punch, and um, well its Beverly’s stupid, I mean, Principal Beverly’s policy that says since Julio threw the first punch…”
“But, I mean—they were trying to grab his… Does the principal know that?”
Ms. Hunt reached for the milk and pretended to concentrate on pouring a small amount into her coffee.
“Did they get suspended too?”
“Um,” she said after a slow sip from her cup, “no, they didn’t.”
“Mierda.” She was angry. She felt the whole of herself become violent. She wanted to break something, to hit the walls with her fist.
After a few minutes of silence, interrupted only by occasional slurping sounds, finally Ms. Hunt said: “I think Julio keeps cutting class because of those boys…and other people like them and well, I just think, that well maybe, it might help if Julio went to a youth support group…”
That evening, while Daniel watched television in the living room and Julio was in the shower, she ransacked through his stuff. Hiding in his underwear drawer, she found a manila folder full of pages torn from the Sears and Macy’s catalogues with men standing around in their underwear or bathing suits. Julio walked in saw his mother on his bed, holding the manila folder. He froze; his hair was dripping-wet. Then for the first time in years, Julio broke down and cried.
“I’m sorry Mami, I’m sorry Mami. I’m so sorry Mami…”
She wanted to be angry, in fact, she was sure that she wanted to slap him and ask him how he could do this to her. It’s not fair, she had thought. After everything, after all the graveyard shifts working as a janitor in that hospital, saving to buy this small house for them, after trying so hard…
Para que tu me salgas con esto? She could feel the words lodged in her throat, ready to burst.
But with her son standing before her with only a towel wrapped around him; his right eye bruised to a deep violet and his bottom lip swollen from that fight at school, the acid turned in her stomach. Her rage rose. How could someone do this to her boy? Shaking, unsure of what else to do, she extended her open arms toward him.
He fell asleep, whimpering, still only wearing a towel and in her arms. She had never heard Julio cry that way before, the depth of his pain so real, that she was terrified.
She walked through the automated doors and immediately spotted Omar waiting in line at the cash register. He was wearing a ridiculously tight gray sweater despite the heat outside. His hair was gelled, slicked back and his I-used-to-be-fat face (as Julio had once described it) was shaven meticulously and only a thin line of facial hair outlined his cheekbones and chin. Before he could see her, she quickly grabbed a shopping cart and sped away.
Omar had first called the house at the beginning of Julio’s sophomore year and the first time she met him, his exceptional politeness told her a lot about him. He wanted to impress her; he cared too much what others thought. When she told Julio this, he laughed.
“Wow Ma. You psychic?” At school, he told her, Omar avoided him like a plague. When they went to mall, Omar needed a cushion of three feet of space between them. Julio answered his mother’s unasked question when he said, “we’re just friends.”
“Que pajaso!” she said, “Mi’jo, don’t let people make you feel any less than you are.”
In the month that followed, she didn’t know what exactly had happened, but the phone ringing would be followed by a serious deep tone in Julio’s voice.
“Omar quit crying and stop being so damn dramatic!” she overheard her son sternly command as she eaves dropped.
When she and the boys had gone out to eat one Sunday, they came home to find one very long and awkward message from Omar, followed by seventeen hang-ups, on the answering machine.
Finally, she overheard Julio tell his brother: “Yeah, he claims to love me and all…but he won’t even sit and eat lunch with me.”
“Man, would you forget that dumb piece of shit?” Daniel asked. “Let me answer the phone next time and I’ll tell that puto that he best fucking leave you alone with his pretending-to-be-straight bullshit… Dumb-ass Drama queen.”
“Nah,” Julio laughed, “he’ll tire himself out eventually.”
A couple of weeks later, Omar showed up at their doorstep, drunk and pleading.
“I’m so, so, so sorry!”
“Please go home,” Julio said calmly, “You want my mom to take you back?”
“No! I want you…”
They dropped Omar a few houses away from his own so that he could sneak in without his parents finding out. Julio answered another of his mother’s unasked questions, “He cheated on me…I mean, it’s not like we were ever an official couple or anything, but he went out and messed around with this other ugly guy and whatever, but, you know, he’s all dumb and saying that I ‘have his heart’ and just dumb stuff like that.”
She didn’t say anything until they pulled into their driveway and although Julio was stoic, and nothing about him was asking for pity, she reached over and stroked his hair. “Mi’jo… there are hombres buenos out there, and maybe, just maybe, one day we’ll both find one.”
They both laughed. It took a while, but Omar’s calls became less and less frequent until they finally stopped.
She walked up and down each aisle, pushing the empty cart until she reached the produce section. She abandoned the shopping cart, grabbed a bag of green grapes, paid at the register and left. She suddenly felt very tired. She decided to take the short cut through the alley. Hundreds and hundreds of times, she had told her boys to stay out of the alleys, they’re dangerous.
Warnings, she thought, are so useless. Nothing is ever really safe.
The strong smell of urine distracted her from her thoughts. She covered her nose and walked faster.
Then, she saw a large bucket of paint. It didn’t have a lid on it and it was propped oddly on top of two blocks of wood. She slowed down as she approached it. She stopped directly in front of it and looked inside.
Floating in a half-empty bucket of beige paint, there was a small puppy. She dropped the bag of grapes and some of them, like soft green marbles, rolled across the alley. Her tongue shrank back with a heavy inhale. She closed her eyes, but she could not turn to leave. Slowly, she forced herself to open her eyes.
The puppy’s head was turned awkwardly, as if it was trying to float separate from the rest of the body; as if the neck had been broken when it was being held down. The puppy’s long eyelashes were bent down by the weight of paint and the eyelid seemed sucked in, glued shut by the paint that seeped under them. The puppy’s tongue seemed wedge between its teeth, all beige.
She started to cry, softly at first, but then, she cried without restraint. She dropped to her knees and cried the way she cried when she got the phone call; the way she had wanted to cry when she found out that they crushed his skull with a cinder block. She cried the way she almost cried when they told her that all of the fingers on his left hand were still missing. She cried the way that at the funeral, Daniel cried the black out of his eyes until they turned light hazel. She cried like the way she wanted to cry when a month later, in the mail, she got his college acceptance letter.
When she regained enough composure, she emptied the rest of grapes onto the ground and with the plastic bag, carefully scooped the drowned puppy out of the paint. She walked fast making it quickly into the garage, not noticing the trail of paint drops behind her.
Then, she placed the puppy in the mop bucket. She found an old can of paint thinner and poured it over the dog, knowing it might not do anything to remove the paint.
“Tomorrow morning,” she said. “I’ll bury you.”
She hid the bucket in the corner of the garage. The fumes mixed in her a strange calmness, and, light-headed, she went inside to the kitchen to wash her hands, to find Daniel and to start dinner.
Gil Zamora received his BA at San Francisco State in Creative Writing and his MFA from Roosevelt University in Chicago. He has had poetry and prose in Coe Review, Carnival and Verdad. Gil spent a large chunk of his childhood in Riverside, California and still manages a run with his cousin on Mount Rubidoux when he visits.