"San Armando" by A.J. Ortega
I was lucky to survive sixth grade. It was the same year the Plaza de Toros Monumental was demolished just across the border. It was a supermarket that muscled the historic bullfighting ring out of existence. Like the Plaza, I always had a target on my back. It was like I was being chased down the halls and classrooms and even at home to be taunted and trampled by vicious bulls. The teasing at school was especially ruthless. My mother didn’t help.
“I hate these shoes!” I told her.
“Raul, you don’t have a choice.”
My father stuck his head in the room. “Listen to your mother.”
I made the angriest face I could make. Stupid shoes. Torn laces. Too big for my feet. Bright ugly red. Like clown shoes. But I put them on, and my father left.
“You’re lucky Ernesto grew out of them, or you’d have no shoes at all,” my mother said.
I walked to school and met Jorge on the way, my only friend at school. He had his Chivas, white and red, regulation-sized soccer ball with him, as usual. We walked together, kicking the ball the whole way. We left a trail of dust behind us on the dirt and gravel road. The houses in the town where we lived, outside of El Paso in a place no one knows, were few and scattered across the dry landscape.
“You think I could play professional?” Jorge asked.
“If you practiced a lot,” I answered.
“I do. Watch.” Jorge kicked the ball up over his head and kept juggling it in the air with his knees, head, and chest. He finished with a kick that sent it two stories high and landed at my feet.
“That was, what, seven or eight? How many can you do?”
I was good, but never as good as Jorge and only managed two kicks before my left shoe flew off. I hopped on one foot, trying to avoid touching my barefoot to the dusty road. Jorge played with the ball while I put my shoe back on, as if he didn’t see it happen. He knew it was embarrassing enough for me to wear them to school. He never mentioned it.
We didn’t have the same teacher. I was on my own until after school. I sped to class and sat down first, so no one would see me walk in with my hand-me-down clown shoes. I had just covered my feet with my backpack when the warning bell rang. Everyone filed into the classroom and sat down. A jerk sat next to me.
“Give me some paper.”
I ignored him. I felt him staring, so I turned and said, “What?”
The jerk smiled and took my backpack out from under me. He planned to dump out my backpack and humiliate me, but then he saw my shoes.
“Nice shoes, freak,” he said and faked throwing my backpack at my face. I flinched. He laughed, took some paper out of my backpack, and dropped it on the floor.
I met up with Jorge after school. We walked home, kicking the ball like we had in the morning. We were almost home when Jorge stopped in front of the ranch owned by Mr. and Mrs. Chavez.
“I bet I can make it from here.” He motioned with his head to the fence in the front of the ranch.
Jorge placed the ball on the ground. He aimed and kicked, sending it sailing into the fence and hitting the sun-baked wood with a thud.
“I told you.” Jorge nodded with his hands outspread like he scored a goal in a big stadium.
“It’s not that hard. I can do it, too.”
I kicked the ball to the street, took a few steps back, aimed, and kicked the ball towards the fence. It hit the fence dead-on. It rolled back down towards us and Jorge kicked it again, hitting the fence a third time. I took another turn. And another and another.
“Alright, last one. Watch this,” I said.
I got a running start and kicked the ball, faking out no one in particular, like it was a penalty kick.. I watched as it flew towards the wooden fence. The rusted latch fell off and the fence flew open.
“Get my ball before the old man comes out,” Jorge said.
I walked over to the fence and retrieved the ball. I was ready to kick it back to him when a snorting sound startled me.
“Did you hear that?” I said.
“Bull,” Jorge said again, pointing over my shoulder.
I turned around. A big, black bull, framed by the open wooden fence. Without thinking about the ball, Jorge, or anything else, I spun around and darted down the road. Jorge was long gone by now. I could barely see him in the distance as I ran toward him. I was pumping my legs as fast as I could. I looked back, slowing down for a moment. The bull was right behind me. I faced forward and ran with my eyes closed. I could hear the hooves of the bull and its snorting. I’d been to a bullfight in Mexico with my family, and I knew the animal wanted revenge. I opened my eyes, but still ran with my head down. I looked down at my feet. Shit. My big red shoes.
I ran down the street and started hopping on my right foot, pulling off my left shoe. I tossed it over my head and behind me. I hopped on my left foot and pulled off my other shoe. I ran barefoot on the August gravel until I saw Jorge perched on the fence of his house.
“Hurry up!” he yelled and held out his hand.
I jumped up towards him, running up the fence, defying gravity. We both fell hard on the other side. It felt like I was breathing through a straw. My feet were dirty, bloody and blistered, stuck by a few splinters from the fence. The combination made bloody mud on my feet.
I limped home through the lawns of our few neighbors who had grass. The cool feeling helped, but not much.
My mother was asleep on the couch, in pile of socks and underwear. She had worked late again and fell asleep while folding laundry. The door slammed behind me.
“How was school?” She yawned and started folding right where she’d left off.
I walked past her, focused on getting to my room to clean myself.
“Raul! Your feet… and your shoes?”
I had left rust-colored footprints on the white tile. She got a washcloth and sat me on the couch, nursing my wounds.
“I lost them. But I had to.”
“Me and Jorge were walking home from school. We were kicking the soccer ball and hit the Chavez’s fence. It broke open and a bull came after me.”
“Please, Raul.” She tossed the washcloth on the coffee table.
“He was chasing my shoes!”
“I was running and I took off my shoes and threw them at the bull, I had to. He would’ve killed me.”
“Raul, your dad’s work has been slow. I’ve been working late just to make ends meet, and you still lie.”
“It’s not a lie! Look at my feet!” I raised them to eye level.
“What did you really do? Throw them in a trash can?”
“I told you!”
“Go to your room. No soccer. No Jorge.”
I went to my room and fell asleep with my feet hanging off the bed for fear of getting blood on the sheets.
The next morning, I planned to watch Saturday morning cartoons when my mother interrupted: “Your father called and said he needs your help at the bakery.”
“He said I didn’t need to help him today.”
“He needs you now. Ernesto left a few minutes ago.” She shrugged.
I rode my bike to my father’s bakery, wondering what he needed help with so much that he needed me and Ernesto to go. When I arrived, I put a chain through the frame of the bike and locked it to my brother’s bike’s front wheel and the gas meter on the side of the building. Even with the chains and locks, we couldn’t take our bikes to school after Ernesto’s last bike was stolen. We could only ride to work.
I walked in, went behind the counter, and to the back. The smell of the bakery was usually sweet, with a little sourness. I slid my sandalled feet on the floor, gliding over the invisible grains of flour accumulated over several years, the ones you can’t sweep up. My father and my brother were standing next to Mando. I always called him Tío, though he wasn’t my uncle, just my father’s friend since childhood. Everyone called him Tío if they were young, Primo if they were old. He sat in a chair hunched over. Drunk, probably.
“Dad, what’s up?”
“Come over here and help us.”
I followed my father. My brother and I helped him get a big wooden crate out of the closet. It was from a huge donut mixer my father had gotten delivered to the bakery a long time ago. Now we used it to hold a bunch of supplies. Flour. Sugar. Buckets of whipped topping.
Tiny weevils and other bugs scurried away as we emptied the crate.
“What’s this for?” I asked.
“Bring it around this way. That’s good,” my father said. We sat it next to Mando.
“Why doesn’t he help?” I pointed to Mando.
“He’s dead, Raul.”
Those words didn’t make sense for a while. His mustache reminded me of one of those hairy caterpillars. I remembered being there the day before and Mando joking around with me and Ernesto.
“You’re bullshitting me.” It was the only condolence I could think of.
“Found him like this when I came in this morning.”
“Shouldn’t we call an ambulance or something?”
Ernesto interrupted us. “What are they going to do, dumbass?”
“He’s right, Raul. We just need to get him into the casket and take him to town.”
“That’s not a casket. It’s an old crate.” I was pleading with my father. “We can’t put him in that.”
“It’s just until we get to the funeral home in town. I’m not going to have him ride in the front seat of the van, am I?”
“But why do we have to-”
“Because Mando didn’t have any family. He’s worked with me since I opened the bakery. You’d do the same thing for Ernesto, or even Jorge. Right?”
He was right. I took a step back. I had never seen a dead body before, never thought that the first one would be sitting in the middle of the bakery.
“We’ll lift on three,” my dad said.
I took a step forward.
This is wrong.