Fiction


Tuesday, Decemer 8th, 2009


Little Blue Box

By John Paul Jaramillo

 

            Lying on his back, Relles, the oldest boy of his Jefe’s crew, opened his eyes and saw the sloping ceiling of the back porch. The week’s work was through, and the boy, along with his brothers, was napping on the old couch, yawning and sitting around. ‘Doing nada’ as the Jefe referred to it. But really the boy was enjoying the back porch and yard and the late summer morning. There was rarely rest in those days after the field work and after the Jefe’s ‘side jobs’. The Jefita was restless, frying calabacitas with corn for the Jefe’s lunch. And the smell caught the boy’s dreams when the scream woke him.

That summer little Relles felt the whole neighborhood could hear his Jefita screaming for him. Everyone could see her stick her head from the screen door and yell for him to run over to Joe’s Grocery for her ‘little blue box’. And in those days he only half-understood why she needed such things or had him down there so early on a Saturday morning.

Relles, she yelled before handing them the money through the door. Don’t go to Marshall’s, hijo. Go to Joe’s. Are you listening?

Yes, Mama.

Then look at me when I’m talking at you, boy. Do as your Mama says and get going.

The boys walked almost everywhere in those days, especially when the Jefe and the Jefita had their ‘naps’. Those Saturday and Sunday afternoon when they went back to bed and made the boys walk for chores or for lunch. It was a treat for the boys after working in the fields or around the yard to take extra money for candy or comics. The Jefe would give the boys money and practically push them out of the yard. Most of the time they headed to Joe’s or sometimes during the week they would head to Marshall’s. Relles liked Marshall’s the most because the old couple took a liking to him and let him have whatever he wanted when he came in after school. Relles remembers the day the Marshall’s put in booths and a new jukebox. The boys sat and drank coffee and then listened to those old records. Mr. Marshall instructed the boys to dip their toast into their coffee mugs.

The way it was done in the Navy boys, Mr Marshall explained to Relles. Just like the Navy.

Relles liked those afternoons the best but on the weekends when the Jefe had his way there was only Joe’s Grocery.

            It’s because she’s opening up and bleeding, the cousin Tevo told Relles as he walked the ten blocks to the corner of Summit and Box Elder.

            Shut up, Tevo, Relles answered. If you don’t like it go back home.

When the boys arrived at Joe’s, the place was just opening and Joe Appleguese was stocking his shelves. The place was a tiny living room converted to two small aisles of food and toiletries. Relles was the only one to enter on these trips and all Relles had to say was ‘little blue box’ and the man had his brown butcher paper out. He’d cut the paper with a long blade stationary on the makeshift counter and wrap the box, sealing the package with tape. Maybe that’s why Relles chose to come to Joe’s or maybe it was because of the paper, but Relles handed Joe the money silently and pocketed the change before heading out. Why don’t your friends ever come in? Joe asked. He was wearing his coveralls and his apron that made him seem official even if the place was a broken down and converted home.

Those are my brothers, Relles said.

She puts them down in between her legs and keeps herself dry, Cabrón , Tevo continued out in the street.

Shut up, Tevo, Relles said. I’m trying to count the money.

Lolo was the youngest besides the crew of fosters and he had the most questions. What’s a blue box, Relles? he asked. Why does she put them down between her legs?

Shut up, Lolo, Relles answered.

No, I want to know, Lolo said.

A woman bleeds because she has pains, Tevo continued. She flushes her eggs out once a month and bleeds. Give me the box and I’ll show you—

Shut up, Tevo, Relles yelled.

What eggs? Flushes ‘em where? Down the toilet? Lolo asked.

The boys argued as they walked but Tevo was the worst with Relles. Tevo’s parents dropped him off from New Mexico at the Jefe’s just after Christmas. So far the mother hadn’t so much as written and that made him quiet and lonely. Made him angry and aggressive. Like un perro fighting for a bone, the Jefe used to say. Especially when it came to starting shit with Relles who he very much saw as the leader of the Jefe’s crew.

The boy needs to learn about things, Tevo said.

That’s enough. I don’t want to know about the Jefita’s eggs or her bleeding. Now shut up or I’ll tell the Jefe, Relles threatened.

You shoulda went to Marshall’s but the Jefe don’t want you there.

Why don’t the Jefe want us at Marshall’s, Relles? Lolo asked.

            Because the Jefe don’t like negros, Tevo answered. Not as much as Relles anyhow.

            Shut up, Tevo.

            What? You never do nothing, Relles. Everybody on the block knows the Jefe don’t like those negros or that store. I remember him asking you how you could eat those burgers from down there at Marshall’s.

            What’s wrong with them, Relles? Lolo asked.

            Nothing, Lolo.

            That old man Marshall and his wife are dirty and keep that place dirty, Tevo said.

            Old man Marshall was a war hero and your old man never even went into the Army—

Next thing Tevo had snatched the wrapped box from Relles’ arms and had the paper off. Relles was mad but then he was curious. After all these trips for the Jefita, he never opened or even peaked at the box. Never even thought of it until Tevo appeared. The moment before Joe put on the butcher paper was the only glimpse of the box he had ever known.

Come on, Tevo! Relles shrieked. Then the boys were wrestling around in the dust and grass of Tommy Aguilar’s empty lot. The crew of fosters laughed at first and then just watched as the boys rolled into a gully and then into the back fence. They punched and kicked at one another until the ground slapped Tevo hard on the side of his face.

As they wrestled over the box, the butcher paper ripped and tore into shreds and then the blue box with the letters spelling out “Kotex” was crushed beneath the boys. What looked liked rolled bandages ripped from the package and fell onto the dirt. One bandage was stepped on during the tussle and one unrolled. Lolo was the first one to pick one up and inspect it. It got more attention from the boys than the chingazos being exchanged between Relles and Tevo. Lolo held the pad in his fingers and marveled at the length and weight of it. The crew of foster boys just stared with their mouths open.

She must be bleeding to death, Lolo thought to himself. She must be ‘opening up’ and bleeding to death, he said aloud to Relles and Tevo.

Give it here, Relles said. He snatched it from the brother returning them to the box.

By this time Tevo ran laughing with the dirtied pad. Holy shit, Tevo said. Your moms must be bleeding to death. Her snatch must be broken down because of all the boys she’s pushed through.

Shut up, Tevo, Relles said, wanting to end it. As he watched his cousin run around the lot he began to think of how he was responsible for the box and how the Jefita would be angered. Tevo was new to Spruce Street and didn’t know the house rules. The boys did what the Jefe and the Jefita said—period. Tevo had not once caught a beating with the Jefe’s all purpose belt. Not once had Tevo witnessed the other boys’ beatings and that made Relles feel sorry for him, made him understand why the boy would act such a fool because he did not know.

Give it here, Tevo, Relles pleaded as Tevo ran with all the boys following. This was nothing more than weakness to Tevo. And that was when Relles tackled Tevo from behind and the two boys tumbled into the dirt alley behind Spruce Street. The dust and the dirt flew around until Tevo’s bleeding face was revealed. His bleeding forehead had caught a nail or a rock. The blood turned brown and the boy kept feeling at his head and temple searching for the blood.

            God, Relles, Tevo cried. I’m only playing with you and you gotta put my face into the floor—

            Relles grabbed the unrolled Kotex and replaced it back into the box with care and then he marched back to Lolo and the crew of fosters for the second lost Kotex. His face was red and he was breathing hard, like after a long day in the onion fields, after rounding up the clippers and extra potato sacks the Jefe used to collect the onions

            I told you not to mess with me, Relles said spastically.

            Fuck you, Relles and your putita mother! Tevo yelled making the other boys laugh and go on until the boys were tired and went back to walking home.

_______________________

            The hell happened here? the Jefita said. Relles handed over the little ripped blue box. There was silence from all the boys until Lolo cried: We’re hungry, Mama!

            The rest of you’s get outside and wait for your Jefe. Come here, Relles. Dammit, she said, first lighting a cigarette. I give you one job and you can’t even do that. I can’t even count on you to do one thing for me porque chingando. 

            I’m sorry, Jefita.

Oy lo! Sorry? she screamed. What happened?

I dropped it, Mama.

Come here, Relles. I want you right here. Your father relies on you when he’s gone and so do I.

            The boy dug the change from his pocket and dropped it to the table.

            Get over here, she said. And then the Jefita slapped Relles with an open hand. Tevo and the rest of the crew even little Lolo laughed from the back porch but then went into the backyard.        

            And quit your crying, the Jefita said, puffing at her Marlboro. I’ll give you something to cry about—

            For a minute Relles and the Jefita looked as if they would both cry. The muscles in her jaw moved.

Come here, she said. She sat down at the table and then she hugged the boy and kissed the boy’s forehead. She pushed the hair from his forehead. Your Jefe comes and goes but you’re the man when he’s gone. You hear me, boy? You hear me?

Are you bleeding, Mama?

Who told you that?

Nobody.

These are for women and you don’t need to know no more.

Yes, Mama.

            You don’t need to know any more than that. 

That night the rain came down earlier than expected and all through the house there was not a sound. Down in the basement the other boys slept undisturbed and little Relles sat on the back porch in silence and in the dark, staring out over the patterns in the grass and the back fence that led to the alleyway. He thought of the windows and how he might climb out through the screens of the enclosed porch and then he cried, not entirely from his father’s hand, when the Jefita finally called for him to return to his bed and place alongside his brothers.  

*****

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