Category Archives: Fiction

Growing Up George: Ch. 12- The Etching

I sat kneeling there, with clumps of snow in both hands, with Jake yelling, “Any day now!” in some distant background from another dimension.

I felt myself struggling for air and pulled off my scarf. I just sat there kneeling, making air puffs with my heavy breathing, for an eternal moment in which time stood still, staring at the etching in the tombstone.

“Angelica Lara.”

‘Mother. Madre. I did not know you rested here. I did not know you at all. And this is how we come into each other’s acquaintance. Though you must have been acquainted with me long before now. Have you remembered me all these years? Or did you forget me, like my father? Forgive me if pride gets in the way of my embracing you. The last time we held each other, I was complete. Now I have wandered this earth like a lost puppy these last seventeen years. You were so beautiful in my mind. You were so comforting in my mind. You were so there for me without even existing. But now I find you here, lying in the cold hard ground, incapable of answering my most basic questions. Why did you bring me into this world? Did you know I tried to kill myself when I was ten? When I overheard Aunt Matty on the phone with the electric company? Did you know I found her rifle and tried to shoot it at myself that night Sancho died? Because she always said I overfed him and I spent too much time on my PlayStation. Mamá, why did Sancho die? Did you know he was dying alone when we were at church that Sunday? Did you need Sancho in heaven? Where are you? Is Dad there with you? Where were you the time my first grade teacher slapped my hand for mispronouncing “chair” and then gave everyone a Popsicle except for me? Were you even there? What about the time I rode my bike into the city and left it in front of a convenience store and it got stolen right in front of me? Did you see who did it? Why didn’t you stop them? When grandma baked me a cake for promotion, she said were the baker in the family. And I wanted to taste your cake, the one you would have baked for me. I wanted you to drive me to Youth Soccer, not have to get picked up and dropped off by Riley’s snobby stepmom every weekend. And last week, when Cindy took off her sweater while we were making out- I didn’t know what I was supposed to do next. So I just sat there and stared at her nervously, awkward as fuck- excuse my language- oh, Madre mía, I am such a moron, please forgive me if I’ve let you down. You deserved a doctor or an engineer or a history professor that tells it like it is, but instead you got this sorry-ass son who wants to fail at life because life has already failed him. Madrecita-

I leaned in toward the tombstone until my forehead rested on its gravelly texture. The warm December sun wrapped around my back and gradually penetrated me until I felt its flames warming my inside. I felt myself shaking. I was reaching the boiling point. I opened my eyes and wiped off the remaining snow from underneath my mother’s name.

“Beloved daughter, sister, friend and mother. May your smile remain forever. November 17th, 1978 – June 16th, 1995.”

Just then I felt a jolt at my shoulder.

“Hey Buddy. You ok?” It was Jake, who’d jumped the fence and crossed the street to get his football. “You look like you saw a ghost. You know they say this part of the cemetery is haunted.”

“Jake- I appreciate your good intentions-” I stood up. “But nothing can haunt us that we have buried in the past.”

“Right George-man. Don’t worry. I got your back.”

Words are to the deaf of heart what analogies are to the ignorant.

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Growing Up George: Ch. 11- The Catch

Cindy and mine’s transition into couplehood seemed like a natural and expected evolution in the course of Potato Falls High events. Meztli was apathetic to it all, at best. At least it didn’t seem to inhibit the authority she thought she rightfully had over me.

“I should go interview some of the inmates at Helado Flats who graduated from our school for our mid-term essay,” she said over breakfast. I had to stop by her house early that Sunday to return some equipment to her dad. “But Papi doesn’t want me to drive alone this time of year. Because of the ice I guess.” The only endearing thing left in Meztli at her seventeen years of age was her relationship with her dad.

“Why don’t you just write about feelings and shit, like the rest of us?”

“I find your slovenly use of words at the breakfast table rather prickling. You need to step up your vocab game when you’re in my presence.”

“Who died and made you queen of diction?”

She laughed. She seemed to laugh less and less these days.

“No one died, wiseguy, it was always me.” She poured me a glass of fresh orange/carrot juice. “Though to be honest- and I have not dignified anyone else on earth with the knowledge I am about to bestow on you- I am the goddess of diction, reincarnated into the humble being that is Meztli.”

“Unbelievable!” I said, taking a tortilla off the stove.

“Don’t be so incredulous. I have the secret power to fail your essay.”

“You very well can be the goddess of diction but that Meztli could be a humble being? That is beyond the scope of reality.”

She swatted me with the roll of paper towels and did an o.k. job at holding her laughter in. I guess she was rationing it for fear it would eventually run out altogether.

“So are you in?” she asked, slicing up fresh cheese and folding it into a warm tortilla she handed me.

“I don’t want to go.”

“Let me rephrase that. I am going up there as soon as Christmas break starts. You are coming with me.”

“I got plans. Cindy and I are going snowboarding.”

“Well cancel them.”

“Meztli, I can’t. Cindy is really excited. Her sisters and little brother are coming. Have you met Ponchito? You try saying no to that face.”

The truth was I didn’t want to go to Helado Flats. In fact, the whole essay reasoning seemed like a giant excuse Meztli was using for me to confront my mother’s presumed assassin. She would probably end up writing her essay about exploiting the psychological nuances of a friend’s sojourn into his gruesome past. That he largely preferred to ignore.

She looked lost in thought for some seconds. “You know, I’ve never been snowboarding.”

Oh no.

“I wonder if I’d be good at it.”

I created a monster. Or maybe not created it. Just gave it drugs to get high on.

The thrill of the rush now possessed her face. “Is it anything like jet skiing?”

“I wouldn’t know but I imagine that’d be more like ski skiing.”

“Is it like surfing?”

Mental flashback to last time I was at the beach off the Oregon coast and I briefly fell in the waves while I was jogging, nearly freezing my ass off. “You know, I can’t say that I’ve surfed much. Or ever.”

“I’ll just have to give it a try then. Hey! I wonder if Cindy would mind if I asked her if I can join you guys. You know, since it’s already a party and all.”

“Well- not really a party- mostly just a family… type… thing… that we planned… in a surprise sort of… way.”

“Great? Because I’m family, remember? Your words not mine.”

I knew what she was referencing- that first day back in English class- but that wasn’t exactly how I remembered that conversation unfolding. I picked up my plate and stepped backwards towards the back door. “Tell your mom I said it was delicious.”

“Menzo, yo coiciné.” Dummy, I cooked. “My mom hasn’t been out of bed in three days because of her back.”

I hadn’t even thought to ask. “I have to finish up shoveling the snow at the cemetery.” And I sprinted to my car for some reason.

I usually started shoveling from the front, but the stratus layer up above seemed to break half way into the grounds and I had always neglected that area all the way in the back.

I looked across the street at our school stadium. Some die-hard star athletes were already doing their daily rituals. I used to do something like that, when I was around twelve. I would tie weights to my calves and run around the block twice a day. Then I would run around the whole neighborhood. Then one day I ran all the way into the city. I stopped running there because there were too many traffic lights. So I started running up through the forest that grows on the hill north of Potato Falls. I can get very religious about things when testing my own limits. I did that until I got my license.

Anyway, now I was getting just about as much exercise a guy could ever need doing landscaping. My training wasn’t as glamorous as that of those jocks. But I was getting paid. Not enough- though, I feared- not enough to take Cindy and her siblings on a snowboarding trip.

Such were my thoughts when a football landed a few feet away from me. Jake Mitchum, quarterback, hollered at me, “Yo, Boy George! Throw that back, won’t ya?” I glanced over, past the blinding white ground reflecting the sun, trying to shield my eyes as I located him behind the fence.

“Sure.” I walked over to the tombstone that had “caught” the ball. As I picked it up, the tender snow broke away from the gray cement. The name “LARA” glistened behind frosty speckles of ice. I dropped to my knees, took off my gloves and removed the rest of the caked snow with my bare hands.

 

Growing Up George: Ch. 10- The Dance Lesson

That night, I couldn’t sleep. I had to ask Cindy to be my girlfriend early the next day, before Hugo got to me. If he beat me up after she started officially dating me, he’d look like a sore loser. I could hire a Latin trio and go serenade her at midnight. Except I’m not that great of a singer. Still, it’d be legend, so worth a shot. I called a group I’d seen at a couple quinceañeras. They charged $500 for half an hour.

On to Plan B. I pulled out my box of Cindy mementos from under the bed. There were a couple old gums in wrappers she’d given me long ago. A pencil I never returned. A USB Flash drive with pictures of her I’d downloaded from the computer in Journalism class. And a note she passed me once in SexEd asking what we were supposed to have read for homework the night before. Also, my leather bound journal, with an inscription on the inside cover:

“Tía Matty- If I die for whatever reason, please make sure this journal reaches Cindy Nuñez.”

Then her address and phone number underneath. I opened the journal to the last page- my “Cindy Likes” list page. Persimmons. Salsa music. Guys with beards. Bunnies. Also paella made with rabbit meat. But not bunny meat. Ponytails on Mondays. Cruz Azul (Mexican soccer team). Sensational celebrity news. And red roses.

If I were an artist, I could spread all the contents of the box onto a canvas in all of their aesthetic glory, from the wrapped gum to sleazy news articles, with printouts of her beautiful face overlapping all of it. But something in my gut told me that wouldn’t turn out well. So I decided to bring a red rose to her locker early the next morning and ask her to go dancing with me Friday night.

I knocked on my aunt’s bedroom door. I had heard her use the bathroom a few minutes earlier. “Tía Matty. I know you’re awake.”

“Go away. I’m sleeping.”

“I just need a favor.”

“Are you dying?”

“No…”

“Then you don’t need a favor.”

“Please? It’s an emergency.” I opened the door.

“Latoso.” Crybaby.

“I need you to teach me how to dance.”

Her face lit up. Or I imagine it did. Her bedroom had a nightlight but it was still pretty dark. “Well why didn’t you just say so?” She got out of bed and switched on the lights.

“I have to learn by Friday night. So that just gives us today and tomorrow.”

“Is this about a girl?”

I couldn’t conceive any other circumstances in which this would not be about a girl. So I played with her a little. “No. It’s about a boy. I-”

“¡Cállate!” Shut up. And her open palm hovered inches above my face, ready to slap down on it. …So I guess we know where she stands on that.

She pulled out her old Tito Puente and Celia Cruz albums and started jiggling around like a worm. As I tripped over myself I began wondering if it was even worth it. I just wasn’t the dancing type. But then I pictured Cindy dancing with Hugo and me watching from across the room with a patch over my black eye. My grandma had gotten up too and the smell of fresh coffee penetrated the old Victorian cedar walls. We kept at it til three in the morning. It was a good way to expend my nervousness.

Four hours later, I drove to the nearest supermarket to pick up a single red rose. Since it was late autumn and we lived so far north, they didn’t have any. I was going to have to drive into the city. Which meant I’d probably miss first period. I might as well hit my uncle up for breakfast, since I was heading in that direction.

I texted him and we agreed to meet at a coffee shop. He said he knew where to find red roses and he’d get one for me.

I drove in circles around the block til I was able to find a free parking spot and then walked for five minutes between hordes of men dressed in hunting clothes and people in office attire. Why would anyone want to live in that place?

My uncle handed me the rose at the cafe. “Who’s it for? Cindy?”

How did he know about Cindy? I shrugged. “How much do I owe you?”

“It’s nothing. I know a girl.”

Not sure what I was supposed to make of that. Did he steal a rose from some lady’s bouquet? Was he sleeping with a florist?

We ordered our drinks and he started talking about my uncle Pablo, the one in prison, and how he hadn’t made parole.

“Are you his attorney?”

“Well I’m not proud of it. But he’s kind of the reason I got into Law to begin with. My mom couldn’t afford to pay no one, and you know how the state-appointed counsels can be.”

I nodded, but I had no idea.

“So what’s he in for?”

He gave me one of his deep analytical looks. The I-haven’t-seen-you-in-years-but-I’m-going-to-figure-you-out-in-ten-seconds look. “You know I’m not supposed to tell you that.” He scratched his beard. “But he’s upstate by Helado Flats if you ever think you need to talk to him. There’s a reason your aunt asked me not to tell you these things. She knows as well as I that no one can stop you from becoming an hombre. A real man can handle the truth.”

“Did he kill my mom?”

His eyes widened as he looked at me and then they filled with pain. He put his hand on my shoulder and took a deep breath, then looked at his watch and finished his latte. Not another word about it. A real man can handle the truth.

His phone rang and I was about to leave but I needed a note from him on account of my tardiness. I sat through the conversation- something about motions to dismiss and a pretrial and the racist D.A. He covered the mouthpiece with his coat collar and leaned over. “This is going to be a while.”

“If I were you I wouldn’t say all that stuff in public.” I looked around at all the professional looking folk around us. The courthouse was only three streets over.

“I’ll have to call you back.” He hung up and got up from the table, and I asked him for the late slip.

Back at school I decided to wait for Cindy in front of her second period classroom. The bell rang and Hugo swung the door open with a couple of his buddies pushing into him. I clenched my teeth and looked at the ceiling. I should have taken Hugo’s whereabouts into account that morning but I was sleep-deprived, running on caffeine and endorphins, not to mention the fear of rejection. I tried to turn around and face the wall, but as the hallway began to shake all around me, I knew it was all over.

“Hey Punk, that rose for me?” Hugo’s friends laughed at his supreme sense of humor.

Whatever I replied, it didn’t matter. Any second, Cindy would come out the room, see me pinned against the wall, taking a beating. My life was over. I’d have to move away, out of state, and start from scratch.

“I was just- I was just-” Damn it. Why start stuttering again now?

“You were just about to hit on my woman, weren’t you, dip-shit?”

The whole class had formed a circle around us. His friends egged him on. “Do it Hugh-boss. Beat that mamón’s ass.” He grabbed my shirt collar into his fist as I calculated the pros and cons of running away.

Cindy stepped forward. “Leave him alone Hugo. He’s just my friend.”

Now, let me tell you, that hurt about ten times more than the beating I was about to endure. The girls in the crowd started giggling. Where was Meztli? At the the other side of the school, probably, casually wandering over to Journalism.

Mrs. Gutierrez, Cindy’s English teacher, stepped out into the hall. “Cindy, is this the boy you wrote about in your last essay? The one about repressed emotions?”

Jesus Christ!, I thought, could this get any worse?

The teacher went on. “George, let me take that rose from you before you poke someone with it. And all of you, off to third! You’re blocking the entrance for my next group.”

Hugo leaned in and whispered in my ear. “Mamón, watchatela.” Dumbass, you better watch it.

Cindy stayed behind everyone and straightened out my shirt. She took my arm and asked, “Was that rose really for me?”

“That depends. Are you holding my arm as a friend or the other thing?”

“What’s the other thing?”

“Cindy, I’m sorry, I thought you weren’t dating anyone-”

“I’m not. Dummy. Why would I be holding your arm- You don’t think I’m just a flirt, do you?”

I looked her in the eyes. Those eyes, like a pool of chocolate you could drown in. She looked at my lips, and so, I kissed her.

 

Growing Up George: Ch. 9 Tiramisu To Go

The weeks went by. Green turned to yellow, which turned to red, which turned to brown, black and then white. Cindy had gone to homecoming and a Halloween party with Hugo, one of my teammates. I was working for Meztli’s dad as a landscaper, mowing the lawn at the cemetery, among other things. You’d be surprised how fast grass can grow in the right type of soil. But as winter settled in, I turned to shoveling instead of mowing.

I don’t know what my excuse was for not asking Cindy out. She was there. All flirty and glittery like a glow-in-the-dark butterfly ready to go clubbing. I wanted to put her in a glass case and carry her around everywhere for the rest of my life. I wanted to be known as the crazy guy who went around with the butterfly jar. And everyone would be mesmerized by her. That would be my thing.

But after I heard she was going around with Hugo, I wondered if that was just the way she was and she wasn’t being particularly friendly toward me. Maybe I was just reading too deep into things. I tried to pay more attention to Hugo’s locker room talk. How serious were they? Had he gotten to second base with her? Whatever I overheard, I’d have to assume he was exaggerating. If a guy says he slept with a girl, maybe there was oral or maybe they just made out long enough for him to get stiff. Most of the guys who say they’re getting laid are mostly only in circumstances where they could have gotten laid. It’s the quiet types that usually have the most actual action.

Myself being the exception.

Hugo was more on the quiet side but he exuberated over-confidence. He was a forward, usually used during the second half of games. He’d messed up my passes on at least two occasions. But he wound up scoring on both.

After practice one day, the guys were talking about cup sizes, as in girls’ cup sizes- obviously- not men’s. One of the midfielders asked Hugo, “What about Cindy? Wait, wait, lemme guess. D. Or is it all fluffy fillings?”

“Well first of all,” Hugo replied, “You shouldn’t speculate on things ain’t got nothing to do with you. But to answer your question, no, Bro, they are real.

“So what are they then?” asked my buddy Riley.

I interceded. “Riley! Shut the fuck up. The man said, it ain’t got nothing to do with any of you.”

“So it ain’t got nothing to do with you either.” Riley tilted his head at me, squinting his eyes inquisitively.

I could feel Hugo staring a hole through the back of my neck. He felt compelled to loudly agree with Riley. “No, it doesn’t!”

I wanted to say it was up to Cindy, not him, but if a fight broke out, odds were he’d beat me up, not the other way around, Cindy would be flattered but not inclined to date me, both Hugo and I would be suspended, wouldn’t be able to play our next game, the team would blame me, and obviously my aunt would kick me out of the house.

I slammed my locker door, pulled on my backpack and walked slowly toward the exit. Aware I could outrun the guy but not out-punch him, I turned around and said, “I guess I’ll just have to ask her and see.” Then I ran out the door. Toward my car. Naturally.

I drove to Meztli’s martial arts place. I walked in while she was kicking some instructor in the stomach. I needed to ask her for a favor, but now that I was there, I figured she could just as well be my bodyguard. So strong women care about me. No shame in that.

Meztli finished her round, grabbed a towel, wiped her face with it, and threw it at my face. “What do you want? I’m busy.”

“Girl you’re looking fine in that.”

“Get to the point Georgy-porgy.”

“Let me buy you dinner.”

“Ok but nothing fancy. And you can’t blog about it.”

How did she know about my blog?

Over burgers I told her more or less what locker room life was really like. Not the glamorous sweat shots she lusted after on ESPN. All the stuff they shut the mics off for.

“Those impotent jerks,” she said, tearing off another bite.

I had her where I needed her. “Anyway, not to make a long story short, but if you could find out what Cindy’s deal with Hugo is, I would owe you like, a thousand favors.”

“Like a million.”

“Like 500,000.”

“Like slave for life.”

“We’ll work out the details later.”

“We’ll work out the details now. Slave for life.”

“Slave for a week.”

“Slave til June.”

“Ok but I gotta throw in that my life may be in danger. And you may need to protect your assets.”

“It would be my pleasure.” She held out her hand to me to seal the deal.

She finished her burger and shake, asked for tiramisu and got another one to go.

As we left, she said, “I just remembered I need gas and don’t have gas money.”

I reached into my wallet and handed her a five.

“Thanks.” I walked her to her car in the dark. She got in and I lingered over her door as we talked about what an ass our English teacher was.

“Oh that reminds me,” she said, turning on the motor. “Cindy is single. She just went out on those two dates with Hugo because you never got around to asking her and she didn’t want to go alone.”

“What? How did you find out so quick?”

“I tutor her for English.”

“And you never told me?!?”

“Slave til June!” And she started backing up while I was still leaning on her door.

 

 

 

Growing Up George: Ch. 8 The Password

It wasn’t that Tío Jorge wasn’t in a chatty mood- he welcomed us into his office, where he apparently slept most nights. He picked up a stack of binders from his desk, put it on the floor, and sat on the edge of his desk. He asked us about our classes and if I was working for the mechanic I’d told him about. He asked Meztli about her parents and if her mom was still having back pain. He offered us leftover pizza.

“I eat it cold. I don’t mind. It tastes the same, just cold.”

Meztli made a gross face.

“But I can warm it up for you.”

“I’ll take a slice. Cold is fine,” I smirked and glanced at Meztli out of the corner of my eye.

“We just came over to ask you about this article we found at the university library.” She pulled out the brown damp paper from her backpack.

“Oh. You kids are diving into the deep end. You know, they say that what you don’t know can’t kill you, but I say that what you do know can get me in trouble.”

“What?” I asked.

He took the paper in his hands. “I promised your aunt I wouldn’t talk about this.”

“Is it about my mom?” I really didn’t want to know the obvious answer. It was actually my first time in his office. Meztli walked toward a bookcase and pulled down a framed picture with a very young version of my mom and aunt on it, hugging each other, wearing Mickey and Minnie Mouse ears.

“Did you take this picture, or did they give it to you?”

“I took it.” His phone rang. “Oh, excuse me kids, I have to take that.” He opened the office door and asked us to wait in the lobby. The sofas were old, worn leather and seemed to absorb our bodies into them.

Meztli put her legs up on the armrest and took a deep sigh. “Is he always like this?”

“Like- nice but kind of an ass?”

“Yeah. That.”

“I can’t say I know him all that well.”

“Haven’t you two known each other your whole life?”

“I don’t know. Have I? I can count my memories of him on one hand.”

Meztli plugged in her headphones and I scrolled through my phone’s WiFi networks. The firm’s network was probably the one called “ProSniper,” as it had the highest signal strength. I took a wild guess and typed in my mom’s name as the password with my year of birth.

“Bingo.”

“Did you say something?”

“I got into his WiFi.”

“How?”

“Just did. Check it out.”

“Wait. Did you bring your laptop? Maybe we can hack into some of his legal files.”

“That’s probably a felony of some sort.” And No, Meztli, I do not have a laptop.

She took over my cell phone and I grabbed her headphones, turned the volume all the way up. “I was just trying to look at YouTube videos. Not get arrested.”

But whenever she got like that, I seized to exist. She was all passion and I didn’t even want to be her audience.

A song and a half went by on her phone when she pulled the headphones off of me. “He kicked us off!”

“You don’t have to yell.”

“I had been talking to you for like a minute. You didn’t hear anything I said. You never listen!”

Since when did I have to listen to girls I had no intention of ever dating?

“Good. We shouldn’t have been on there in the first place.”

“Don’t you want to know what happened to your mother?”

“Of course I want to know. But how’s hacking into his client files gonna help us?”

“He must have a ton of information on the murder case. Wouldn’t you?”

“Yeah. I suppose. Or I wouldn’t want anything to do with it. Besides, he’s a defense attorney. He wouldn’t have worked on this case. He wouldn’t have defended my mom’s murderer.”

“Sorry about that.” My uncle was standing right in front of us. “This guy ran over a homeless woman. She’s suing for 500,000. We’re trying to settle out of court but it’s going to trial this Monday.”

“Was he drunk?” I was curious.

“High.”

“So about the newspaper article…” Meztli kept pushing her case.

“What newspaper article?”

“The one we brought into your office a few minutes ago.” She stood up and put both hands on her hips.

“I don’t remember any article.”

“Can we have the paper back?”

“Are you talking about a paperback novel?”

Things were getting tense.

My uncle wasn’t very tall- about my height- but towered above Meztli, and watching her trying to stare him down, in her fuzzy boots and fuchsia cardigan, with her Sailor Moon messenger bag across her body… Him in his big tough black suit, with a pair of stupid designer sunglasses pulled over his head, and his stubble beard that you just wanted to punch… It was all quite humorous if you stepped back and looked at it.

“Hey Tío, we’re sorry we broke into your WiFi. Thanks for the pizza. We really should be heading out now. But if you’re ever in the mood to talk about this, feel free to call me, any time, day or night.” I extended my hand toward him as a peace offering.

He scratched his head, flustered. “Of course, Son. Just, uhm, hey you know what- Let me make a photocopy for you. You know, you have the same demeanor as her. Your mother. She was always so- Well your aunt and I, we’d always argue about everything. Your mom was always trying to get us to-”

We had followed him back into the office. He put the paper against the flatbed and changed topics.

“So if you’re not working for the mechanic yet, maybe you’d like an internship here? You can choose your own hours.”

“Uh- well it’s not really my field.”

“Right. Just tell your aunt I said hello.” He handed me the photocopy. “And never ever show this to her. She’d shoot me.”

So I was finally starting to get the hang of this “Uncle” thing.

The ride back was short and boring. Meztli kept complaining about missing that one waterfall picture and how I hadn’t kept my promise. As I dropped her off, she said, “Hey, my dad’s looking for someone to help him with landscaping. You know, if you want to work for him.”

“Well that depends. Do you take after him?”

“Haha. Very funny. Come in; you can talk to him about it right now.”

“I can’t just walk in and ask a guy I hardly know for a job.”

“Then maybe just fix his lawn mower. He’ll pay you.”

 

 

Growing Up George: Ch. 7 The Missing Drink

Autumn in the Potato Falls district comes more chilly than in most parts of the country. There were already patches of white lining the slopes beside the straight wide roads that seemed to disappear into a horizon of mauve ashes. Some of those shortcuts into the woods would be shut down in a few weeks. By then all the fires northwest of here would have been put out.

In order to test our research and collaboration skills, Meztli and I had been given the most unimaginative assignment in Journalism ever. She herself turned out to be highly developed in the aforementioned skill set, while lacking in the latter. I guess you could say we were like Lois Lane and Clark Kent, except I couldn’t fly, didn’t wear glasses and there was no chemistry between us. I picked her up one Saturday to head toward the campus library at the university, which she said had public newspaper records dating much further back than the ones at our small barrio library.

As I took the back roads to avoid traffic, she kept asking me to slow down to take pictures of the landscapes.

“What do you do with all those anyway? Instagram?”

“No. I just.” Then she trailed off into her own quiet world again. She was playing Coldplay off her phone speaker and singing all the chorus parts when we passed a waterfall, I’d say about two stories high, right off the side of the road.

“Hey! Slow down! I didn’t get a picture of it!”

“This is already gonna take us all day.”

“Why didn’t you warn me it was coming up?”

I hate it when girls raise their voice for no reason. “…I didn’t know I was supposed to warn you.”

“Well go back.”

“We’ll pass it on our way back.”

“Ok. But you better promise,” she whined.

“Or else what?”

“I’ll tell Cindy you’re in love with her.”

I felt myself blush. “What makes you think I am?”

The end of the song “Yellow” was coming up. She ignored my question and rolled down her window. The brisk icy breeze swept in and blew some strands of her hair against my right arm.

“It’s true,” she sang to the crop fields. “Look how they shine for you…”

‘Ok. Whatever,’ I thought to myself. But if Meztli, whom I’d only known for about a month, had noticed my crush on Cindy, I could just as well assume everyone else had noticed it as well.

The song ended. “Are you asking her to homecoming?” she asked.

“What’s homecoming?”

Meztli laughed at my reply. She had this contagious, heartfelt, warm laugh but rarely seemed relaxed enough to share it with anyone.

After proving we were relatively local high school students and being given access to the archives, Meztli took over speed reading and sorting, assigning me the menial task of photocopier. A couple hours went by like this when she asked me to go get her a latte.

“I don’t think you’re allowed to drink in here.”

“Just sneak it in your backpack. Here,” she pulled out a money purse with a scene from the anime Death Note printed on it. “Buy yourself something too.”

I ignored her generous gesture altogether, emptied my backpack and headed toward the elevator. As I waited there, I complained, “We’re gonna get kicked out. Watch, we’ll be banned and your college application’s gonna be rejected. With giant red letters. REJECT.”

She laughed again, but this laugh had more of an evil undertone. “What makes you think I’m applying to come here?”

I was still in line at the cafe when she texted me: “Hurry up. I have to show you something.”

“I’m still in line.” SEND.

“Make it a double,” she replied. “Urgent matter requires your immediate attention.”

“4 people ahead of me.” SEND

My phone vibrated again: “Ask them for the chocolate swirl thing. And HURRY.”

Our assignment was to collect statistical data on complaints about air quality. Even if she had found a lawsuit filed against the government in the 50’s, it could hardly merit the excitement she was ensuing.

I ordered her the latte, unaware that it was twice as expensive as the ones back home. I even asked them to put one of those chocolate graham straws. When they told me the total I had to cancel my own drink. There is this saying, that there is more happiness in giving than in receiving… I can’t say I always get that.

When I came out of the elevator, she walked up to me and held up an unfolded newspaper in front of my face. The date was July 27th, 1996. The headline read, “Lara Murder Remains Unsolved.”

I grasped the paper out of her hand as she pulled off my back pack. I tumbled over to the nearest seat. The article- I can still see the print now clearly as if it were right here before my eyes-  stated:

“Potato Falls sheriff Mark Credenza issued a statement yesterday in which he gave a timeline of the events that probably led up to the death and apparent murder of local Hispanic woman, Angelica Lara. The body of Ms. Lara was recently found in the county dump by a scavenger entrepreneur who has asked to remain unnamed. Her family reported her missing on June 16th after she did not return home from her high school graduation celebration events. Friends say they saw her enter a vehicle at about 9 PM that evening- the vehicle belonging to her ex-boyfriend, who is currently being questioned regarding the case. Ms. Lara is believed to have been sober and not under the influence of any other substance, but an autopsy has yet to prove otherwise. The body has visible marks of distress, though authorities anticipate the results of the autopsy will be mostly uninformative because of the time that has elapsed. Ms. Lara’s disappearance led some classmates to misinform investigators that she had ran away from home, while close friends have affirmed that would have been entirely out of character for her. She is survived by an older sister and son of six months.”

“You didn’t order a drink?” Meztli’s voice had some sort of out-of-body intercom type effect to it.

“Huh?”

“You didn’t get yourself anything at the cafe?”

“I drank it on the way over here. …Meztli, where’d you find this paper?”

“With all the other ones. Hard to miss. You know, cause of your last name and it’s the Sunday paper and all that.”

“You think this is about my mom?”

“Was your mom’s name Angelica?”

“Yeah.”

“So what’s the population there, like, 1000?”

“1,080.”

“So what are the odds of there, like, being two Angelica Lara’s murdered the same year in Potato Falls?”

I clenched my teeth and hater her. I hated Meztli with all my might that instant, but for reasons far beyond me. I didn’t want to punch her or anything, I just wanted to concentrate my hate and fear of my past and ignorance on someone, and right then and there, she was someone.

She must’ve noticed something in my face because she put her hand on my shoulder, leaned in and whispered, “You deserved the truth.”

Our eyes met behind my held-back tears, and the hug that followed numbed my hate, at least for a moment.

“Whoops.” She had spilled some of her latte on the paper. “We should probably take it with us anyway.”

“NO,” I protested, but she stuffed it in my backpack along with all the photocopies, and headed toward the elevator.

“Come on,” she looked over her shoulder, “Let’s go ask Tío Jorge about this.”

 

Growing Up George: Ch. 6 The Spanish Lesson

Classes started a couple weeks after the funeral and as I held my schedule in front of me, my eyes casually scanned the hallway for Cindy. I had auto shop first period and AP English next, followed by Journalism, so I probably wasn’t going to see her til way later in the day. I had gone with a new look that year, keeping my hair shorter in the back and combing the front forward. Shaving less often. Those were the only new things I had going for me. Same ol’ black backpack and Skechers I’d had since freshman year.

Auto shop was far from all my other classes, which was too bad because I’d really have liked time to wash up before I went back into the hallways. Since it was my third year taking the class, I was teacher’s aide, which meant I’d be walking around with elbow grease. But the way things went that first day was that I had to run to AP English, and wound up in the back, which would make it harder for the teacher to notice me. It was hard enough getting any positive feedback being brown in a room full of blondies.

I sat down as the bell rung and made myself at home while the teacher, Mr. MacArthur, passed role. He asked us to stand up and introduce ourselves, a pointless task indeed since we’d all pretty much known each other since grade school. “Say something new no one knows about you,” he replied to the groaning. I was glad I was last cause I’d have plenty of time to think about it.

Ten minutes later, I was coming up and still had nothing. Just then the door opened and a Latina girl whom I’d met after the funeral came in. She was my “uncle” Manolo’s daughter. They’d arrived to eat at Estefano’s just as my uncle Jorge and I had been leaving. I was trying to remember her name… Nestle? Messly? Leslie?

“My name is Meztli Carbajal. I was assigned to the wrong English class and had to fix my schedule just now at the office. Here’s my note.”

Mr. MacArthur pretended to look through stacks of papers on his desk. “Well, Messly, you’re not on my list. You’d have to have tested into this class.”

“I know I’m not on your list, that’s why I brought the note.” She held out her hand with the note facing the room so we could all see it was legit.

The teacher stood up and towered over her. He took the note, pulled up his glasses, and held it really close to his face, as if inspecting the ink quality used to write it.

“Alright, Miss Carbajal, I’ll pencil you into my list.”

“I’m not trying this class out. I’ll be here all year.”

“Yes, of course. Welcome. Class, why don’t we all welcome Miss Carbajal with a round of applause?” Some kids applauded awkwardly. “You see, Miss Carbajal, you can relax, you’re one of us now.”

“Yeah, I’m sure I’m blending right in.” And she marched toward the last open seat, beside me. I turned to look at her half way between utter amazement at the way she’d stood up for herself and also trying not to laugh.

As the role call/ introductions started up again, I passed her a note. “DANG GIRL. Can you be my bodyguard?”

She crumpled it and shoved it in her backpack, only to take it back out three seconds later, un-crumple it and write in purple ink: “What’d I miss?”

I replied in Spanish, mostly cause I wanted to test her bilingual skills: “Se estan presentando la bola de boludos.” The morons are presenting themselves.

She handed the note back to me with the letter “a” in the second word circled in red and an accent over it. Nice.

“George Lara,” the teacher seemed to holler.

Oh! I was up. Uhm. Still had nothing new. “Present! Uhm, my uncle died like last week.” That should merit some empathy.

“Nice to meet you Mr. Lara,” replied Mr. MacArthur.

“Please, call me George.” The class giggled. I wasn’t usually comfortable being the center of attention or anything, but I felt emboldened by Meztli’s presence.

“Take a seat, George. …Messly Carbajal? We already know you’re here. Tell us something about yourself other than you tend to run late.”

“I just moved here from San Jose and my uncle also just passed away.”

“Are you two cousins?”

Meztli and I looked at each other. It was weird, like I’d known her my whole life but definitely not in a cousin sort of way. We replied simultaneously. I said, “No,” while she said “Yes.”

“Well which is it? No or yes?”

I slowly nodded while Meztli shook her head.

“Well George and Messly, you have plenty of time to make up your minds. But not on our time.”

So I guess I got my English teacher to notice me after all.

After class, it turned out Meztli had Journalism too, so we walked down the hall together. I stopped at my locker, and it so happened that hers was near mine.

“Hey, I wanna ask you something,” she said.

“So ask it.”

“I wasn’t asking for your permission to ask the question.”

“Just ask already.”

“No. Now I’m not going to because you’re telling me to.”

“Loca.” Crazy girl.

Just then, someone standing behind my locker door knocked on it. It was Cindy, wearing a jean skirt and a bright pink strappy camisole with a white transparent cardigan over it.

“Hi!” she said, standing over her tip toes to peer over my locker door. Suddenly, I was embarrassed I still had elbow grease from homeroom.

“Hey Cindy. This is my cousin, Meztli.”

“Nice to meet you.”

Meztli replied, “Oh, so now I’m your cousin.”

I gave her the meanest look I could afford. She strapped her messenger bag over her shoulder and yelled, “Nice to meet you too!” as she skipped off.

Cindy went on talking about her schedule and soccer practice but to be honest I didn’t hear half the stuff she was saying. As I walked her to her class, my legs felt heavier and heavier and were somehow muffling her voice.

 

Growing Up George: Ch. 5 The Kid’s Menu

After the funeral, my uncle Jorge, whom apparently I had been named after, invited me to dinner at Estafano’s, the same spaghetti joint we’d gone to when I was a kid. I followed his Porsche into the city, texting Aunt Matty to meet us there. But I already knew she didn’t have data on her phone.

The waitress sat us in the patio and handed me a kid’s menu along with the regular one. My uncle asked if I’d gotten into the team. I had. He asked if I had a girlfriend. I hadn’t. What my plans were for college. The waitress brought over my scallop appetizers and I ordered tilapia. But suddenly I didn’t feel like eating.

“I’m just concentrating on the day-to-day stuff I got going on, you know. Not falling behind. Staying off drugs, outta gangs, that sort of thing. Takes up a lot of energy.”

“I’m not pressuring you, but I know kids just like you who’ve graduated from that same school who are making over two hundred ‘k’ per year. You just gotta get into the right schools. The right mentality.”

You mean the mentality where you ignore your nephew for years at a time and then try to make up for it with one meal? No birthdays, no Christmas, no nothing. Just be this figure on paper who shows up when his schedule allows him.

“Nah, I pass.”

“George, I’ve looked at your grades. You don’t have to settle. With the right connection, you can get into Princeton or Yale.”

I shook my head violently. “What do you think I wanna be? Some hot shot lawyer?”

My uncle bowed his head down but I didn’t pause. “Since I was twelve I’ve been fixing Tía Matty’s car. In fact I already have a job. That’s my future you’re asking me about. The stars already lined up for me. And you know what, I’m glad you weren’t around to help all these years, cause if you were, I might’ve never learned to do even that. I might be helpless relying on some letter of recommendation from some rich condescending sponsor I’ve only met once or twice. Not unlike yourself.”

I regretted the words darting out of my mouth but not in time to stop myself.

The waitress made her usual round. “Can I get you anything?”

“I WANT MORE LEMONADE!” I slammed my glass on the table not letting my eyes stray from my uncle’s.

He laughed. “I’m sorry, Miss. My nephew’s very passionate about lemonade.”

I turned to look at the waitress, all the blood rushing to my face.

“Oh man. I’m so- I’m so-” I hadn’t stuttered in ages.

“I’ll be right back.” The waitress turned around and left.

“Sorry!” The words finally made it out of my mouth. I stood there looking up at the sky, for what felt like forever, clenching my fists, wondering why the hell God didn’t just put me out of my misery.

Yes, I had made varsity. But now I wasn’t going to have time to work at the shop. I was never going to afford my own car, much less fucking college. My life would start eventually when I’d get a girl- Cindy- pregnant and her parents would force her to marry me. Then I’d be working 12 or 16 hour days, come home, yell at her “where’s my dinner,” have a couple beers and be too tired to have sex. She’d yell at me for never helping with the kids- we’d have five or six by then- and I’d turn the volume up on the soccer game on T.V. Pure bliss.

I sat back down and put my head into my arms. “At least I’ll be there. They’ll see me and know what I look like. They’ll ask me stupid questions like how come birds fly and what happens to light after you turn the switch off. I’ll make up the best answers any dad’s ever come up with. I’ll be a good dad. And when they go off to college I’ll take my wife to Europe and all that shit. And no stranger’s gonna come patronize them, cause they’ll be my kids, not yours or welfare’s or no one else’s.”

My uncle put his arm on my shoulder and didn’t say anything. I just sat there, head down, overcome by something utterly silent and much more powerful than me, not unlike tears.

Growing Up George: Ch. 4 The Funeral

“So, you’re seriously not going to the funeral?” I asked my aunt as she tried for the third time to fix the tie around my neck.

“I told you. I haven’t decided yet.”

“Well it’s in half an hour. So now might be a good time to decide.” She pulled the knot really tight around my neck, turned around and walked out the room. Grandma rushed to my rescue. She pulled the whole thing off and then walked me through the steps one by one.

“Así, ira, así…” Like this, look, like this. I looked in the mirror and she complemented my looks. “Ira no más que guapo.” Then she pulled the whole tie off again and made me do it myself.

The funeral I was going to was that of Tío Ben’s, my dad’s brother. I don’t remember ever meeting the guy. Supposedly I did for a few months when I was a baby. What happened after that, I’m sketchy on the details. I guess no one wanted to see me after my parents died.

“Tía Matty, I’m gonna get a ride from Tío Jorge so if you wanna show up later you can take the car.”

She yelled back from the kitchen. “Oh really? I can use my own car? That’s so nice of you George. Thank you for letting me use my own car.”

“Dude, that’s not what I meant.” A rubber chancla flew by my head.

“Pendejo, no voy a ir.” Dumbass, I’m not going. “And I’ve told you a thousand times not to call me dude.”

“Well I don’t like being called ‘pendejo.'”

“Did I ask you what you like?”

I rolled my eyes and ducked. I knew she swatted at me every time I rolled my eyes at her. “I’m just gonna wait for Tío Jorge outside.”

“Go do that.”

I waited by the curb so the Navigator wouldn’t push a cloud of dust all over me coming down the dirt driveway. I must have been standing there like fifteen minutes. Should I text him? Should I call because he’s probably driving? But then I’d have to talk to him and I didn’t know what to say. I looked at my phone. Ten minutes til. Zero messages. What’s the point of even going or trying to get to know my other side of the family if I was obviously not that important to them? I texted, “Hey, you coming for me?” but was deliberating on whether or not to hit send when my aunt’s station wagon covered me in a cloud of dust speeding down the driveway.

“Hey, I just came out here to tell you your uncle’s running late.”

“You couldn’t walk or call me?”

“I brought you the car menso.”

“I don’t even know if I wanna go anymore.”

“Listen, George,” she said getting out of the car, “I know there’s a lot of things I haven’t been able to explain to you over the years, a lot of gaps in your life I haven’t been able to fill. You didn’t have the childhood you were supposed to have and there’s been a lot of important people missing. But I did not pay for that suit rental just to have you skip out on that funeral.” She shoved me into the driver’s seat and slammed the door.

The church was on the classier side of the barrio. There was a police car there. A black Porsche. A green El Camino and a pick-up truck with a landscaping logo on it. I guess turn out wasn’t amazing. I wondered if my uncle Jorge was showing up or not. Maybe he hadn’t found the right suit to rent. Yeah, right.

But he was already in there, waiting for me. He fixed my tie and walked down to the front with me, saying “Sorry I didn’t pick you up. I had to stop by my client’s- it was an emergency-”

“Ah don’t sweat it, I’m here ain’t I?”

“These are your other uncles, Freddy and Manolo. Their wives and daughters.”

“Mucho gusto.” Pleased to meet you.

“How are we related?” I whispered in uncle Jorge’s ear.

“My grandmother had a son from her first marriage, your Tío Juan Miguel, who married a woman who was already the mother of Freddy at the time, and Manolo is his first cousin.”

“Sorry I asked.”

“Yeah, me too.”

There was another man I was not introduced to who wouldn’t stop staring at me. There was a cop sitting next to him. “Who’s that?” I whispered.

“The cop?”

“No, the other guy.”

“That’s your uncle Pablo.”

“Distant or blood related?”

“He’s my brother.”

There was an open casket and I went to pay my respects before the mass started. The guy was about fifty, though the pamphlet on the podium next to the casket placed him at thirty-seven. He had large eyes, I could tell, though they were closed. A skinny face and broad shoulders, kinda short, but a medium build. Black hair with silver streaks and a scar down the left side of his forehead. They had dressed him in a black shirt, ivory suit and gold tie. The dress shoes looked brand new. He emanated anger. At least that’s what it felt like to me. So much for rest in peace.

The pamphlet talked about how he’d graduated from Potato Falls High (that was my school), been engaged and had a son. Outlived by a son and two brothers. He was “friendly and charismatic, left a lasting impression on all who met him.” Well he hadn’t left one on me, that’s for sure. Lifetime: 1975-2012.

I looked around the people in the church. Some neighbors had trickled in and were kneeling, toward the back rows. Probably just religious folk who came there every day to pray for those of us who don’t. No kids though. Apparently, my uncle Ben didn’t leave a lasting impression on his son, either.

Growing Up George: Ch. 3 The Navigator

When I was seven, I remember a strange man came to pick me up from school once. He was wearing a gray suit with a red striped tie. We had parent-teacher conferences that week and I was supposed to get out early. He had a stubble beard and the librarian looked for me to tell me my uncle was there to get me.

I didn’t know I had an uncle. But if I did, I didn’t want to ruin my one chance to meet him by saying I didn’t have none. So I just asked what his name was. And I forgot what the first name was but I remember our last names were the same.

He had a really nice black ride, shiny like a mirror, with automatic windows and leather seats. It still smelled new. Back then I was barely getting into all that so I want to say it was a BMW but not a hundred percent sure. It was like an M3 Coupe and it was playing real loud Santana. I think he said his name was Jesús or José or Juan. It started with a “J.”

He asked what my favorite food was and took me to the best spaghetti joint in town. I ordered like three desserts that day- everything Aunt Matty couldn’t afford for me. He asked me if I was happy living with my tía, if I had my own bedroom, when was the last time we went shopping for clothes… pretty personal stuff, now that I think about it.

I didn’t have my own bedroom at the time because my grandma had come to visit for six months from Mexico, but I didn’t want to get my aunt in trouble, so I just told my “uncle” everything was as good as it gets. I told him I had my own bike (that was true) and we were setting up a game room with a 120″ television and a Play Station.

“You know how to swim?” he asked over a tall glass of beer.

“Yeah I took classes last year and this year we’re gonna build our own pool. With a water slide. We have a big yard, you know? It’s bigger than the kinder playground at school. I think we’ll get a trampoline too.”

He told me to order something else. Whatever I wanted. I wanted to order something for Aunt Matty but couldn’t decide whether I should lie and tell him it was for me and then give it to her. I didn’t want to order for my grandma though cause she was mean and would’ve just said she didn’t like it. Probably would have fed it to our dog Sancho, and he was fat enough.

(Sancho was an old dog we used to have. He had short brown fur on the bottom with black on top. We had him since before I was born but he died when I was twelve. Now Aunt Matty says she can’t afford to get a new dog).

So this man in the suit, he drove me home without asking me any other questions, not even my address. When we arrived, he parked on the street and asked if I had any questions for him.

I asked him for help on my math project but he admitted he sucked at math. He asked if my aunt was home and said he’d get out to see her.

I ran up the long dirt path to the front door to try to warn Aunt Matty that this really nice impostor was invading her territory. But she was already standing at the doorway when I got there.

Tía there’s a man here. He says he’s my uncle. He gave me spaghetti but he sucks at math. Do you know him?”

She hit me on the head with the weekly coupons newsletter and told me to get inside and stop asking so many questions. I hid under the desk behind a chair so I could listen in.

“Matilde. I brought you Strawberry Crepes. Are they still your favorite?” the man asked as he came up the porch. My aunt took the bag he handed her.

“NO. What are you doing here?”

“You told me to cover the conference for you.”

“It was just the conference, Menso. Why you gotta go taking the boy from me?”

“We just had lunch. That’s all. He’s home now.”

There was a long silence after that and I really wished I could see from under the desk.

“Well won’t you come in?”

The man sat on the sofa and my aunt pulled out the chair from under the desk. I covered my head with both my arms, expecting the worst.

Ah que chinga-” My aunt stopped mid cursing and turned to look at the man, rolling her eyes. “Very funny George. Get outta there. We’re trying to have an adult conversation here. Go to your room.”

She meant Grandma’s room. I obeyed. Grandma was sitting in my old bed reading a book. I told her in broken Spanish there was a strange man visiting and she went out to check up on it. I crawled out the window, went around the house, and crept under the living room window. The three of them were arguing in Spanish. Something about the boy- whom I assumed was me- and not having a father. Something about money. Grandma was cursing and someone shut the window.

A little while later, I watched from behind the corn patch as the man drove off in his shiny black car.

I don’t remember ever seeing him again until nine years later, after soccer tryouts. He was leaning against the fence, drinking a Gatorade like one of the coaches. Same stubble face. Same red tie/ gray suit. I wondered how long he’d been standing there, if he was going to say anything or if I should just walk past him and pretend I didn’t know him.

Well, a good lunch was a good lunch and I’m pretty sure I never thanked him back in the day so I directly approached him. “Hey man, what’s going on? My aunt call you?”

“George Ballesteros. You remember me.”

I did a 180°. Pointed at the back of my jersey.

“George Lara. My bad. Hey listen I’ve got meetings all day and have to run but there’s an issue I need to tell you about and I was writing you a letter but figured you’d think I was a coward if I didn’t deliver the news in person.”

The field was clearing out. Everyone was heading back to the locker room. The head coach yelled out he’d post the list on the gym door the next day.

My “uncle” handed me a Gatorade.

“Hey man, no offense, I don’t even know who you are. You took me to lunch way back when. Thanks for that. But as far as I know, you’re a distant relative. My aunt wasn’t happy to see you last time either. She won’t be happy if she knows you came out here today.”

“I understand.” The man pulled out his phone and checked the calendar. “A ‘distant relative’ has passed away and I think you ought to go to the funeral.”

“Who was he?”

“My brother.”

“Who are you?”

“I gotta run. I’ll call your aunt with the details. I’ll leave her a message. She never picks up.”

“Wait up, wait up, just call me.” I had managed to afford one of those prepaid smart phones from helping neighbors clean out their yards all summer.

The man stalled. “I legally have to run this by your aunt. But yeah give me your number and I’ll text you the details.”

As he saved my contact to his phone, walking backwards toward the parking lot, his SUV beeped open. Shiny black Navigator. But what was that prep’s name?