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Authors: Gary Soto

The Afterlife (6 page)

BOOK: The Afterlife
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Nah, Mom,
I thought.
It's not me.

She answered the telephone. She listened, but didn't say anything until she hung up and then said to the crowd, to no one, really: "Mary's making a cake."

A cake for my funeral?

After I was buried, they were going to have a little gathering. There would be more than a cake, I realized, and a lot more crying than what was going on now. Carmen was dabbing her nose with a Kleenex. Carmen was always dabbing her nose with a Kleenex; her life's complaint was something about always having a cold. Maybe she had one now. Then again, she could be crying for my mom and dad, and me.

Uncle Richard went into and returned from my bedroom. He was holding up a couple of cross-country ribbons. All of them were second or third place. I was never good at track, just some lanky kid who ran for the fun of it. If I medalled, great. If I didn't,
pues,
I could at least get a T-shirt and a squeeze bottle for my Gatorade.

"Are these the ones?" Uncle Richard asked. He held up the ribbons like nooses.

My dad nodded his head.

The two examined the ribbons. Where was the neck that they hung from? Where was the body that brought them home?

"I can get them mounted." Uncle Richard rubbed the faces of the coin-shaped medals, and I
wiped my forearm against my eyes. But no tears would spring up. I broke away from the two of them and went into the kitchen, where someone had plugged in the coffeepot. The brown liquid was slowly filling up the pot.

I can't believe it,
I thought. I hadn't even lived long enough to drink coffee.

Then Mom appeared, pulling anxiously on Eddie's sleeve. Mom's tears were gone, and replaced by angry fire. It was the look she had on her face whenever I was bad and she'd step quickly into the bedroom for Dad's belt.

"I want you to do it!" she snapped.

Eddie looked away.

"Come on,
mi'jo,
you can do it."

Do what?
I wondered.

"I can't—it's wrong," Eddie answered. He flapped his arms at his side.

My mom let her eyes fill with tears. She pouted and produced lines around her nose.

"It won't solve anything," Eddie explained vaguely, looking up and challenging Mom with a hard gaze.

When the first tear rolled down her cheek, Eddie turned and left the kitchen by the back door. Mom, sniffling, glared at the coffeepot as if she hated it for not brewing fast enough. She brought out a coffee cup and, strangely, a single tear fell into the cup. Coffee and tears, plus a single spoonful of sugar. It was going to be one of those evenings. I had to get out of there.

IT HAD BEEN
an embarrassing year for football at our high school. By late October, we were 2–5 in our conference. Everyone, including our players—who hid their shame behind face masks—joked that our two wins came because the other team hadn't shown up. Luckily, basketball season was kicking in, and I was friends with some guys on the team—Jamal Baines, Jaime Rodriguez, Jonathan Koo, and Jared Mitchell. The four Js, I called them, and they called me Mr. Lean because I was a distance runner. There was not a pinch of baby fat on my body. God, if they could see me now! I was so skinny that you couldn't see me anymore!

On the court, my homie friends were fair, at best, and none of them was a starter. We were supposed to be good this year, or at least look
suave
because we had new uniforms. Maybe new jockstraps, too!

It was Saturday evening, and I knew that we would be playing an exhibition game against Sanger High. From my parents' home I strode, bounced, and flowed toward the high school. This took some effort because the wind worked against me. I almost gave up when I noticed my hands were gone, and one of my ankles, too. I was being erased right before my eyes!

"No," I murmured.

Unable to continue, I had to sit on a curb and bury my face in my arms. I tried not to picture my mom and dad, who in my mind were staring into their cups of coffee for an answer to my death. I was so mad at Yellow Shoes. I possessed the sudden urge to hurt him.

"How come me?" I cried. I knew some crackheads who needed to go. But why me? What trouble did I cause people? After a few minutes, I pulled myself together and continued toward school. I would see what I would miss—the start of basketball season.

Since it was an exhibition game, there weren't many spectators in the bleachers. There were cheerleaders and the band, and Coach Silva dressed in a black suit. He wasn't a bad guy, really, except I held it against him when he cut me off the squad. I wasn't tall enough. I couldn't make a layup, even with no pressure. So? I wanted badly to be with my friends, the four Js. I recalled how Coach pulled me aside and said, "Hey, track season's in two months, no?"

I scanned the bleachers. I recognized some of my classmates. I saw Jamal, Jaime, Jonathan, and Jared huddled around Coach. What would these dudes do except sit and chew their fingernails when the game began? I liked them a lot and was beginning to think of using the word
love.
Yeah, I loved my friends, whose eyes, I noticed, were red from crying. The skin under their eyes was dark. No doubt they had been up all night talking about me as they drove around Fresno, killing time.

Then I spotted a banner with my name on it. There were flowers pinned to the banner, and a lot of signatures and drawn hearts. Did people really like me? I wasn't exactly popular; then again, I wasn't exactly one of those nerdy souls that hug the hallways, looking down at their shoes as they shuffle from class to class. But flowers and hearts?

The clock read ten minutes before game time. Time was running out and, with it, my time on this planet, in this gym that was bright as a carnival.

I searched the meager crowd for Rachel, my would-be
novia.
But she wasn't the kind of person who went to football or basketball games. I looked for another girl that I liked, but she wasn't there, either. But there was my history teacher, Miss Escobedo, whom I'd had a crush on since I first saw her get out of her car in a short dress. Hers was the only class I really liked; that one and maybe English and lunch. Miss Escobedo was only twenty-five or so, and sweet.

"Dawg," I whined.

Miss Escobedo had her arm hooked in some guy's arm.

I sat in the bleachers next to Sara, a girl who had tried out for cheerleading. Like me with basketball, she didn't make it. But she was nice and had a nice smile, and used the word
nice
a lot when she talked. I got up when a friend of hers returned with a bag of popcorn.

"That's nice of you," Sara said, her face lit with happiness over the prospect of eating popcorn through the first half.

Her friend, too, had gone out for cheerleading. But she hadn't made it either.

"It's nice to see you," I breathed in Sara's ear.

Sara touched her ear.

"You can't do everything," I said, and left her side. I approached the vice principal, Mr. Laird. He was holding a clipboard and clicking his pen nervously. I would have reached over and touched the pen to make him stop, but my hands were long gone.

Coach Silva turned to Mr. Laird. He nodded his head.

Mr. Laird stood up, breathed in, and clicked the on-and-off switch of a handheld microphone.

"School," he began.

That single word echoed off the walls. Everyone grew quiet, even the visiting team. The mood became dark, as they were aware of what was going to be announced.

"School," he repeated. "Yesterday we lost one of our students in an unfortunate incident. It troubles me."

Mr. Laird did look troubled, looked like someone who had swallowed a dark cloud. I had always thought he was mean, but I could see that I had been wrong. His lower lip quivered as he held back from actually crying. I would have hated to have his job right then. A grown man crying in front of his school.

"May we have a minute of silence?" he asked. He scanned the gymnasium until everyone's head was bowed.

A kid I'd known since elementary school stood up, raising a trumpet to his mouth. I couldn't remember his name, but couldn't forget how a bully used to jack him up for his lunch money. And every day this kid—this trumpet player with thick glasses and more than his share of pimples—would bring out his money before the bully even asked. Now, years later, he was playing taps for me.

"Ah, man," I sobbed. When was the crying going to stop?

The kid from my childhood played beautifully. I felt terrible that I couldn't go back in time and try to beat up the bully for him. We could have done it together.

After the trumpet player lowered his trumpet, a last note hung in the air. Mr. Laird asked for silence and a moment of prayer. But I already knew silence. It occurred earlier when I stood before an open grave looking up at the October sky in midday.

Then the game started with an easy bucket for Sanger. That basket was followed by two more. With less than three minutes gone, Sanger was up 6–0.

Sapo
luck,
I complained silently as I remained an invisible spectator in the bleachers. I screamed: "Come on, dawgs—score!"

Chapter Five

Y
ELLOW SHOES
. After I left the basketball game, I found
another
dude in a set of yellow shoes hanging in front of a 7-Eleven. He was sucking the last of a cherry-flavored slush. His cheeks collapsed as he inhaled that sweet, meaningless drink. His eyes were roving in their sockets as he scrutinized the oil-stained parking lot. Let him blame society, school, and his deadbeat father. He could care less. He was trouble. His face was half-light, half-dark, under the glare of a sputtering neon sign. It was the dark side of his face that attracted me.

"Who are you?" I asked, face-to-face, as if we were two boxers right before the start of a fight. "How come you got the same stupid shoes on?"

It was trippy encountering another
vato
in yellow shoes. I wondered if that was the new style for gang bangers. But unlike the skinny guy who did me, this dude in front of the store was heavy as a sack of onions, fat and out of breath just sucking in his drink. He tossed his cup, looked left and right, and hiked up his loose and
huango
Dickies cut off at the knees. He approached a Honda with different-colored fenders and a spiderweb of a cracked windshield. The fat dude disappeared into the shadows and his hand wiggled the passenger's window, which was open an inch. The inch was enough for him to work his wormy fingers inside. He wiggled the window back and forth until it, too, cracked and cobwebbed. With both hands, he bent the window and unlatched the door.

"
Ay,
" he yapped. A finger, nipped by a sliver of glass, went into his mouth like a candy cane. He shook his finger and muttered, "Stupid glass."

This ride didn't have an alarm and barely any tread on the tires—they were shiny as a bald man's head. The fenders could fall off hitting a pothole. This was the kind of car that got you from one place to another in truly ugly style. It was a car even Hmong and Mexican gangs wouldn't consider stealing. Nasty junior high kids wouldn't bother to bend the antenna. The junk man would laugh, run a handkerchief under his nose, and laugh some more. As for organizations that search for donated cars? One look and they would drive away. The Honda was on its way to becoming scrap metal.

Maybe this dude was practicing the art of thievery Maybe he couldn't help himself. He opened the door, and jumped in quickly, the springs squeaking under his weight. He rifled through the glove compartment and found a can of hairspray and two Bibles,
nada mas.
He growled and fanned the pages of a Bible as if he were trying to cool himself. When he tossed it over his shoulder, he heard a whimper that startled him. He turned around and discovered a poodle.

"Stupid dog," he snarled. "You scared me, stupid."

Stupid, it seemed, was the main word in this
vato's
vocabulary.

The poodle whimpered. The little furry dude, all old with black muck running from its eyes, was the one who was scared.

When the dude reached to grab the dog around the throat, I shoved the stumps of my ghostly arms into his eyes. He backed off, rubbing his peepholes, and farted the winds of fear. He farted a second time, and I laughed, "
Fuchi!
" His hand reached for the door handle.

My power is the coldness of death. I'm invisible, yet present, and this bully was comprehending my power. I had no hands, and my feet were gone. But I could make people feel my presence. This is what I was learning about myself.

The guy scrambled out of the car and hurried away, one hand pulling up his pants as he let out another fart. I would have followed him for the fun of it, but I had had enough of his ugly face. Plus, I couldn't hold my place. The wind had picked up, and I was sent rolling like a tumbleweed. Luckily for me, it was in direction of
prime-
Eddie's duplex apartment, a mile or so away, in the part of town where Fausto, the bike thief, held court in his half-painted house. I rolled past the high school, where one of the teams was making a basket.
Let it be us,
I prayed.
Just this night, let us be winners.

The wind's push eased and I was able to stand upright on a dark street—kids had busted out the streetlights for the fun and the danger of it.

I got my bearings, and ignored a car alarm that was screaming. But no one stepped out of their houses to see. What was a car alarm when better action was taking place on TV?

I recognized my
primo's
apartment and prayed that he had left my parents' place and was home by now—what had he and my mom been talking about, anyhow? Lights were on. A radio was singing to itself, because when I went through the wall there was no one home.

Still, I called out, "
Primo?
Eddie?"

A moth banged against the bulb of the goose-necked lamp. The refrigerator kicked on, chilling the cold water even colder. I stood in the living room and was not in the least scared when a tree in the yard whistled its haunting tune.

I got comfy on the couch, my weight not even denting the cushion an inch. I noticed that both my ankles were gone, and some of my wrists. I felt a shiver blossom in my shoulders and wanted to cry. Instead, I lay on the couch and assembled in my mind something to smile about, something to remember from my crazy life. I giggled. I pictured Eddie and me crouching like frogs and playing with matches. Bad boys for a day, we were in an old lady's junky backyard, and Eddie, the brave one because he was seven and I was six, struck a couple of wooden matches at once. He cried, "
Ay!
" and tossed them over his head when the flame licked his fingertips. One match flared and caught the dry grass that was not lawn but something yellow as hay. We jumped up like frogs. I remember asking him, "Are we going to burn?" When Eddie bugged out his eyes, I knew we were in trouble. He was scared as me. We jumped and danced on the flames, but they spurted out under our little tennis shoes. The fire's great hunger began to feast on the quickly blackening grass.

BOOK: The Afterlife
9.98Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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