Third Place, Adult Fiction Category; 2010 Bethesda Magazine/Bethesda Urban Partnership Short Story and Essay Contest
“Why don’t you shave that little mustache. Only spics have little pussy mustaches like that in ninth grade. Oh wait, you are a spic.”
The voice came from two rows over on the bus, and when Pablo finally realized the kid was talking to him, he turned and was surprised to see that he, too, looked Latino. Pablo didn’t yet know every slur, but he knew that one because his cousin in Bolivia had come back from a vacation in America and told him to punch anyone who called him a spic. Pablo pretended he didn’t hear and nervously shuffled through his backpack.
On his walk home from the bus stop that day, his first in ninth grade in the U.S., he cut through the parking lot of a shopping center to check out what stores were there. He walked slowly, kicking a chipped rock as he went, trying to delay going home, where he would have to do laundry and help his little sister with her homework.
Pablo thought he’d make his way over to the 7-Eleven on the corner to buy a drink, but he stopped short when a painting in the window of a thrift shop caught his eye. He leaned in to get a better look, the rock still just a few inches away from the tip of his toe. It was a painting of a small village, and though the people’s heads looked too small for their bodies, the scene looked just like a country village Pablo had visited with his parents to see a great-aunt before his family left Bolivia. The women in the painting stood, their long skirts draped around their thick hips, as if they were waiting for something. It was signed “A. Galvino” at the bottom in large, ugly orange letters.
Pablo went inside the thrift shop and his eyes widened when he saw the endless racks of clothes, the shelves of shoes from floor to ceiling, the rows of rollerblades and tennis rackets and aisle after aisle of discarded furniture. He picked up the painting from the window and checked for the price tag. Luckily, he had the $3.28 he needed to buy it. He hadn’t been hungry at lunch and had just gotten chips and a soda.
“Do you want a bag?” the woman behind the register asked. Pablo knew he should avoid walking down the street with it in open view, so he did take the bag. His classmates might still be out, and the last thing he needed was to be made fun of for shopping at a second-hand store.
When he got the painting home, he lay on his bed, looking at every smeared brush stroke and thinking of home. He missed everything about Sucre. The white buildings and red tiled roofs against the dark blue sky, the mountains on the horizon, the smiling brown faces of the old men on the streets. He hid the painting under his bed in case his mom or dad came into his room and wanted to know where he had gotten it. They probably wouldn’t be mad, after all, $3.28 wasn’t a lot of money. But he wanted the painting to be his secret. It would be his window to home that he could look at whenever he felt lonely.
On the second day of school, Pablo went to his first Spanish class. His parents made him register for it to bring up his GPA because they insisted he take all regular classes, even though he could barely be considered fluent in English. They thought being in the ESOL program would lessen his chances of getting into college. Though he felt like he could only understand about every other word in Earth Science and was quite sure he would never understand The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn well enough to write a paper about it, he did relish the first 50 minutes of his school day because in Spanish class, he felt in control. He swallowed his laughter as the students all introduced themselves and told the teacher in Spanish what their favorite color was. Wendy Bridgestein stuck her chin out like a bulldog and tried over and over to get out the “y” sound as she pronounced amarillo.
Pablo went to the thrift shop that afternoon too, and soon he was going almost every day after school. It was time that was all his own — time that he could use to escape for a while before he had to go home. He would save up as much of his lunch money as he could to spend at the store, despite the fact that having a fair amount of lunch money was the only thing that garnered him some respect at school. The popular kids always bought lunch and the losers brought ham sandwiches and carrot sticks from home. Pablo learned, though, that if he bought only a hamburger or chicken fingers — no fries and no drink — he would still be full enough and have some money left over. If he saved all week, he would have something like twelve bucks to spend in one pop. For twelve dollars, he could buy almost anything he wanted.
There were two kinds of people who shopped at the store: the day laborers because they needed to and the white people because they wanted to. Pablo would watch as customers carefully considered each item. He needed no such consideration. He wanted all of it — every last dirty shred of linen, every battered chair, every fingerprint-stained, malfunctioning alarm clock for sale. Everything was sacred. The whole store was full of other people’s lives — lives that seemed better than his own.
Pablo would walk through the musty aisles and look closely at the shelves to see what had been added from the newest round of donations. The ladies behind the registers soon knew him by name, and they would speak to him in Spanish. His parents didn’t even do that anymore — something about assimilation. He wondered if there were other people who came in again and again to greedily snatch up smells, memories and thoughts.
The painting was joined by a flurry of things Pablo couldn’t resist: a broken brass pocket watch that he imagined was found in an old man’s dresser drawer after he died. He bought an Asian fan, painted with thin, gentle strokes of gold and black paint. He bought a sort of snow globe game with a golf ball floating in water that you had to try and balance on the tee. He hid everything in his closet for a while, but then realized there was never any sign that his parents were coming into his room. They were both too busy with their jobs to bother snooping through his stuff to check for drugs or whatever. After a while, he started leaving everything out where he could see it. If he had to be stuck in this new life where people didn’t respect him, he should at least be able to have comforting things in his room.
A lot of Pablo’s clothes came from the thrift store too. He bought plain T-shirts, perfectly worn jeans, a gray hooded sweatshirt. He knew his parents would have given him money for new clothes, but he liked the way the old clothes felt and he liked the stories they carried with them. He even liked the smell. It wasn’t a foul smell at all. All the clothes had to be washed before they were put up for sale, but they still each had their own distinctive faint scent, the way people themselves do.
Pablo found an old worn out Yankees hat at the store. Kids were always talking about baseball, though Pablo’s favorite sport by far was football. He tried on the hat but it was too tight, so he changed the back to the largest size setting and tried it on again. It was still a little too tight, but he bought it anyway and wore it to school the next day. It gave him a dull headache, but when he was standing at his locker the kid next to him asked, “Yankees fan?”
“Yeah,” Pablo said, forcing his enthusiasm. “Are you?”
“Yeah, but I’m from New York. I thought most people around here were more into the Orioles.”
“Yankees suck,” another kid said from across the hallway.”
“He’s a Mets fan,” the first kid explained. Not knowing what to say next, Pablo nodded his head and went back to loading his books into his locker.
One afternoon on the bus, two juniors started harassing Pablo. “Look at the Mexican with the Yankees hat,” the one with fat legs said. “Shouldn’t you be wearing a sombrero instead?” The other one laughed and laughed and all the other kids tried not to look over.
“I’m from Bolivia, not Mexico,” Pablo said. “I know you think we’re all the same.”
“Did that kid just mouth off to me?” the one with blond hair said to fat legs. “Is this guy kidding me?”
The bus pulled up to Pablo’s stop and he got off, but so did the two juniors, even though it wasn’t their stop. Pablo ducked into the thrift shop hoping to lose them. His plan worked. They didn’t even make it past the cash registers. The juniors wanted to give him a hard time, maybe even beat him up, but apparently not badly enough to go hunting for him.
Once the juniors were gone, Pablo spent more than an hour browsing through the post cards. One had a nice picture of the Washington Monument on a sunny day and another had a beautiful picture of the sunset over the Capitol. He thought about buying these and sending them to his two best friends in Bolivia with notes about how amazing his new life was. But he knew he’d be lying. He couldn’t fit the truth on the back of a postcard. He couldn’t explain what it was like to be stuck between two cultures in a couple of sentences. He wasn’t American, but he wasn’t fully Bolivian anymore either. Bolivia apparently wasn’t good enough for his family, so they had turned their backs on it. Even if they did go back, they couldn’t erase the betrayal.
After he got home, his mother knocked on his bedroom door.
“Can you come upstairs? I need to talk to you.”
“Now’s not a good time,” Pablo said.
“Well you better make it a good time,” his mother said sharply.
She told him she had taken another job, this one at a restaurant, and that she would not be home until very late three nights a week.
“I need you to cook dinner for your sister because papa doesn’t get home until after 8 and she can’t wait that long to eat. And you need to make sure she does her homework and takes a bath. Make sure she washes her hair. She tries to get away with not washing it, but you can tell. It should squeak when you run your hand over it.”
“Why are you taking a second job?”
“Because we need the money,” she answered.
“We have enough money. Don’t you want to see your family?” Pablo didn’t need time to get worked up. He was already yelling.
His mother took him by the shoulder.
“Don’t you ever talk to me like that again. You have no idea what I do for our family. No idea. You are too worried about yourself to think about what is going on with the rest of us. You will do what I say.”
“We are done talking,” his mother said. She left the door open behind her.
An hour or so later, his father appeared in the doorway. He said nothing about the second-hand items that were all over Pablo’s room. He was either oblivious or too tired to get into another fight. Instead, he sat on the edge of the bed.
“She wants you to have money to go to college, you know,” his father said.
Pablo didn’t know what to say. He stared at the painting leaning up against the wall, and his vision blurred with tears.
“We want you to have the same advantages as people who were born in this country,” his father said, this time in Spanish. Pablo knew his father was looking at him, but he didn’t turn to see his face. If he did, he knew he wouldn’t be able to hold onto his sobs. After a few moments, his father stood up slowly and walked out of the room, gently closing the door behind him.
A few days later, one of the juniors walked straight toward Pablo in the hall, looking for a confrontation. But the kid, with his big bunch of curly brown hair atop his head and his fat legs jiggling, veered a little to the side and Pablo thought for sure it was just a tease. As soon as he turned back toward his locker and hoisted his algebra book up onto the shelf, he felt himself lose his footing. He went down sideways, crashing onto his hip and then onto his shoulder. The pain hadn’t set in yet when he opened his eyes.
The junior was laughing. Pablo could hear it through the bubbles in his ears. He wasn’t sure how many other kids were in the hall or whether any teachers had seen what happened. All he could see was the untied laces of the kid’s shoes, knotted and dirty around his feet. Pablo reached out as the boy turned to walk away. He clenched his fist around one of the shoelaces and yanked as hard as he could. When he saw the kid’s body come flying toward the floor, he pulled himself up and stood over him. The kid had gotten the wind knocked out of him. Pablo’s hip and shoulder were beginning to pound now.
“Hijo de puta,” Pablo said between heavy breaths. When he finally looked to see who was still around, there was no one. The bell had rung several minutes before and the hallway had cleared out. He picked up his backpack and walked out to the parking lot.
When he climbed off the bus that afternoon into the chilly air, he walked to the same shopping center where the thrift store was, only this time he walked right by. Instead, he went into Foot Locker, where he pulled a brand new Ravens hat off the shelf and marched it up to the register. It took all the money he had saved the whole week, plus the $20 his mom had given him to get a few things at the grocery store, but he had birthday money at home to pay her back with. He had to have his own hat. Just one thing that was all his — not someone else’s. The Ravens was his favorite team.
When he got home, he grabbed a hammer and a nail from the garage and eyed the wall just above his bed. He kneeled on his mattress and hammered in the nail, then reached down and grabbed the painting by A. Galvino from the floor. When he was sure it was hooked into place, Pablo shifted his weight back and forth from one knee to the other. He balanced himself on the unsteady mattress as he fiddled with the frame until it finally hung just right.
This promising story is marked by an attention-grabbing opening and an engaging narrative voice. A young boy, new to American culture, hangs onto memories of home by collecting other folks’ discarded belongings. In the end, it’s an open question whether the narrator has learned meaningful lessons from his conflicts with family and peers.
Brooke Kenny, a Takoma Park resident, is the book reviewer for The Gazette Newspapers. She earned her master’s degree in creative writing from The Johns Hopkins University in 2008 and recently completed her first novel. Her short story, “Carol of the Bells,” was published in the anthology One Real Story, and her work has appeared in a variety of literary journals. Her nonfiction has been published widely, including in The Washington Post.