Authors: Gary Soto
ORUNDO AUSTIN NEW YORK SAN DIEGO LONDON
Copyright Â© 2008 by Gary Soto
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced or
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including photocopy, recording, or any information storage and
retrieval system, without permission in writing from the publisher.
Requests for permission to make copies of any part of the
work should be submitted online at
or mailed to the following address: Permissions Department,
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company,
6277 Sea Harbor Drive, Orlando, Florida 32887-6777.
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Facts of life: stories/Gary Soto,
Summary: Children and teens from all
walks of life deal with the dramas of growing up.
Contents: The babysitterâCapturing the momentâCitizen of the
worldâD in EnglishâThe ideal cityâIdentity theftâSeeing the futureâ
Where did I go wrong?âWise Uncle JoeâYou decide. 1. Conduct of
lifeâJuvenile fiction. 2. Mexican AmericansâJuvenile fiction.
3. Children's stories, American. [ 1. Conduct of lifeâFiction.
2. Mexican AmericansâFiction. 3. Short stories.] I. Title.
Text set in Minion Pro
Designed by Linda Lockowitz
C E G H F D
Printed in the United States of America
This is a work of fiction. All the names, characters, places,
organizations, and events portrayed in this book are products of the
author's imagination. Any resemblance to any organization, event,
or actual person, living or dead, is unintentional.
For Rita Rudolf
and Frank Valderrama,
teachers keeping pace with
the young people
Where Did I Go Wrong? â¢ 1
Capturing the Moment â¢ 23
Identity Theft â¢ 41
You Decide â¢ 52
The Babysitter â¢ 64
Citizen of the World â¢ 85
Wise Uncle Joe â¢ 103
Seeing the Future â¢ 124
The Ideal City â¢ 134
D in English â¢ 157
Selected Spanish Words and Phrases â¢ 175
TO ERASE THE MEMORY of an embarrassing strikeout in a slow-pitch game, Mickey Cortez entered Lupe's Super, Super Mercado and splurged on a soda and a bag of chili-flavored CornNuts. His baseball cap, which he customarily wore with the bill turned back, faced forward. He needed all the disguise he could find. His spirits had fallen to the level of his dragging shoelaces.
His mind played back the pain of his failure. He grimaced as he recalled hurling down his bat. Then he had irrationally blamed the swirl of dust that kicked up just as he swung through the third pitch and ended the game, 5-4.
"Stupid dust!" he had yelled. He scrubbed his eyes to make his point. But his teammates, who had been clinging hopefully to the chain-link fence, just groaned and began to gather their equipment.
Now, to make himself feel better, Mickey bought food and drink. The owner of the store was a friend of his father's, so the boy was allowed to ignore the scrawled sign above the magazine rack that read:
BUY THE MAGAZINEâDON'T JUST READ IT.
He was eyeballing the latest issue of
magazine when a man whispered, "
kid, you need work?" Mickey jumped, startled not by the man breathing down on himâand the fact that he was tattooed to his throatâbut by the word he despised most of all.
Work. As in pick up a shovel?
As in weed the flower bed? As in get an old towel from the garage and wash the car?
"What?" Mickey asked weakly. "Did you say ... work?"
The man's eyes were small in his large face, but that was the only thing small about him: He was barrel-chested, with muscle-packed shoulders and huge arms and legs. He stood just a few inches taller than Mickey, but much mightier.
"Yeah, kid, I'm looking for someone to help me move things. I'm paying goodâthirty dollarsâif you can spare a couple hours."
The man had to retrieve items from his grandfathers house. Old Gramps, the man quipped, had eaten too much
in his time and had suffered a heart attack. He touched his heart, and then the gold dollar sign that dangled from a large gold chain around his neck.
Mickey, seeing that this
was connected to a larger economy than the two quarters in his own pocket, became interested. At home he slaved for nothingâor next to nothing, just a dollar or two. Now this man was offering Mickey thirty bucks.
"How long will it take?"
"Not long," the man answered. "You're a strong-looking dude."
Mickey inflated his chest and held the air as long as he could before slowly releasing it. "Okay," he agreed.
He finished his soda and crushed the can in his fist, which made the man whistle and say, "You're strong, I'm telling you." Mickey smiled proudly and again inflated his chest.
Soon Mickey was in an old squeaky truck moving down Fruit Street. He noticed the radio was gone. "Your truck get jacked?"
Mickey pointed at the cavern full of loose wires.
"Yeah," the man muttered, head shaking in disgust. "These be bad times. People just taking what they want." He scratched a tattoo that read
BORN TO LOSE
on his bicep. "But you know what the worst theft is?"
Mickey shook his head.
"It's when someone steals your soul."
The dude sounds like my dad when he's kicking it in his recliner and complaining about the government.
The man introduced himself as Raul.
"I got a friend at school named Raul," Mickey said. "Him and me want to start a rock group."
"Is that right?" Raul asked. "What instrument you play?"
"Nothing right now, but we're going to learn."
"I'm sure you're gonna make it. And if not in music, then in sports. Bet you play ball, huh?"
Mickey beamed. "Yeah, actually, I play slow-pitch." His recent outing, he figured, had been a fluke. The stupid dust messed him upâdust and everyone looking at him from the dugout.
Mickey spied a car approaching from the opposite direction. It was his father's car. A zipper of fear ran up his back. What would his father think of his son in a truck driven by a total stranger? He was only thirteen. Or would his father be proud that he had found work?
"Is this place far?" Mickey felt nervous. "My mom likes me to be home by five." He caught sight of a tattoo in Lowrider script,
, on the guys wrist.
Which is it?
Raul or Carlos?
"Nah, it's just right around here," Raul answered.
The truck turned a corner. They were in a nice part of their small city, with flowers standing up in well-fertilized soil and sharing their pretty faces with passersby. Automatic sprinklers were spinning out water on super-green lawns.
"It's one of these," Raul said. He peered out the windshield splotched with the horrible deaths of insects.
Mickey was certain his widowed aunt lived on this street. Her husband had died while ordering a hamburger. This was just about all he remembered about his uncle, a baker who went to bed before the good television programs started and got up while it was still night.
Raul searched for a house, braked, backed the truck up a few feet, and crept into the driveway, cutting the engine and letting the truck roll until it stopped. The house was near the corner, and it's lawn sparkled from a recent soaking. A flag with smiling bunnies and turtles on it hung by the door.
"Your grandfather lives here?" To Mickey, the house didn't seem very Mexican, and Raul, dark as a penny, was
"That's right. You wait here cause I got to go around the back and get the key" Raul jumped out of the truck and disappeared through a gate at the side of the house.
Mickey wrote his name on the dusty dashboard, then leaped from the truck. Before he slammed the door, he noticed six or seven cell phones under the passenger's seat, maybe more. Was Raul a thief?
"Dang," he whispered. Was he, a tender seventh grader, being pulled into a crime that would send him to juvie until he was seventeen? By then, his voice would have deepened like a frog's.
Mickey didn't dwell on this question because Raul had appeared on the porch. "Come on, champ," he called with a wave. Somehow, Mickey couldn't disappoint this guyâhe was sort of cool with all his tattoos.
Once inside the house, he was greeted by cool air, a tidy living room, and bright artificial flowers in a vase. Raul closed the door behind them and pointed to a huge television. Mickey whistled. It could have been an altar in a church because a cross and a picture of Jesus sat on top.
"We're going to move this?" Mickey sidled up to the television and perceived that it was taller than he.
"Yeah, that's why I need you, champ." Mickey sensed Raul was trying to stroke him with a compliment. Still, he wasn't about to confront him and ask, "Hey, dude, you a thief? How come you got a tattoo that says Carlos?"
It was just too late.
Raul unplugged the television, tossed the cross and picture of Jesus onto the couch, and started to wrestle the TV from the wall. Together they moved one end, then the other, and walked the monstrous television across the living room to the front door. During this straining effort Mickey laid his eyes on framed photographs on the wall. One was of an elderly white couple, and below them were photographs of pinkish children. A flood of sweat sprang to his face. The zippers of fear went crazy on his back.
Face moist with sweat, Raul pulled at the front of his tank top and fanned himself. "Go get me a soda."
"In the kitchen. Grab me and you a cold one." Raul pulled out a white handkerchief and ran it across his face and neck.
The handkerchief belongs to the old man in the picture.
Raul was not the kind of guy who carried an ironed handkerchief white as snow. He must have cased the placeâwere the old folks on vacation?âand broken in, discovered a huge television on which to watch the Raiders in the fall, and recruited a naive soul in the shape of a thirteen-year-old strikeout king.
Mickey reminded himself. He did what Raul asked and fetched two sodas. "Your grandfather is he, like, going to get better?" A split second later, he wished he could pull in that sentence like a fishing line. Why did he ask it?
Raul leveled a mean, snakelike stare at Mickey. The moment was so quiet that he could hear a leaky faucet drip in the kitchen.
Raul softened and answered, "Yeah,
is gonna get better. The guy is strong, you know. He served in Nam and came back to pick grapes for fifteen years. Can you believe that?" He burped and added that his grandfather was a swell fellow who would give the shirt off his back.
"Times was hard then, huh?" Mickey thought of his own Mexican-born grandfather, who, according to family lore, walked five miles through a sandy desert to get to school. His grandfather, often lit with drink, reminded them every Christmas that hed only gone up to eighth grade. He wanted his grandchildren to study hard and get jobs in office buildings where the air conditioning was free.
"You got that right, homie." Raul downed his soda, tossed the empty can on the couch, and ordered, "Back to work. Got that twenty dollars waiting for you."
Miffed that Raul had lowered his pay, Mickey nearly braved correcting him. He would need the full thirty dollars to buy the aluminum bat he had eyed at Big 5.
But even more, he wanted out! He debated whether to sprint out the front door, screaming his fool head off, "Thief! Thief! Help me! Somebody help me!" He pictured himself running in slow motion, the way he did in dreams in which he was hauling as fast as he could to first base. He feared that Raul would chase him down. What would his headstone read?
STRUCK OUT IN THE FIRST INNING OF LIFE!
By the time they got the television down the steps and into the back of the truck, both were sweating. "Is that all?" Mickey asked. "You know, I could walk home from here." He pasted a smile on his mug. He spanked his palms together to portray a kid done with work.
"No, I need you to come and unload it. Wait here." From the porch Raul turned and pointed a warning finger. "Don't go anywhere! That ten dollars is going to be yours."
He's lowering my pay again!
Mickey's jaw dropped in disbelief. Raul
a cheap thief.
The smart part of Mickey's brain advised,
Run, sucka! Get your
He took off, his arms chugging away, but he could swear he was running in slow motion. He looked back: Raul was nowhere in sight.
I'll be good,
he promised himself.
I will, really!
He swore he would cut the lawn when his dad asked and take out the garbage without making a face. He would wash the car properly, not just run a hose over the windshield. He'd even go to church. Yes, church! He would go with his mother and grandmother and not complain when they stayed for coffee hour.
Mickey was cutting across the street when he heard his name. "Mickey!
" Confused, he slowed to a stop, sweat filling the folds in his neck. Who was calling him?
It was Aunt Ester. She was in her side yard holding a pair of hedge clippers. He scampered to her, grateful for his good luck. He leaned over, hands on his knees, and tried to catch his breath. He had always considered his sprinter friend, Miguel Sanchez, an overrated athlete since he only ran a hundred meters. But he could see now that he was wrong. He had dashed no more than fifty yards and he was exhausted.