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The Pen/O. Henry Prize Stories 2012 (Pen / O. Henry Prize Stories)by Laura Furman
In the morning, at his favorite restaurant, Erick got to order his favorite American food, sausage and eggs and hash-brown papitas fried crunchy on top. He’d be sitting there, eating with his mother, not bothering anybody, and life was good, when a man started changing it all. Most of the time it was just a man staring too much—but then one would come over. Friendly, he’d put his thick hands on the table as if he were touching water, and squat low, so that he was at sitting level, as though he were being so polite, and he’d smile, with coffee-and-tobacco-stained teeth. He might wear a bolo tie and speak in a drawl. Or he might have a tan uniform on, a company logo on the back, an oval name patch on the front. Or he’d be in a nothing-special work shirt, white or striped, with a couple of pens clipped onto the left side pocket, tucked into a pair of jeans or chinos that were morning-clean still, with a pair of scuffed work boots that laced up higher than regular shoes. He’d say something about her earrings, or her bracelet, or her hair, or her eyes, and if she had on her white uniform how nice it looked on her. Or he’d come right out with it and tell her how pretty she was, how he couldn’t keep himself from walking up, speaking to her directly, and could they talk again? Then he’d wink at Erick. Such a fine-looking boy! How old is he, eight or nine? Erick wasn’t even small for an eleven-year-old. He tightened his jaw then, slanted his eyes up from his plate at his mom and not the man, definitely not this man he did not care for. Erick drove a fork into a goopy American egg yolk and bled it into his American potatoes. She wouldn’t offer the man Erick’s correct age, either, saying only that he was growing too fast.
She almost always gave the man her number if he was wearing a suit. Not a sports coat but a buttoned suit with a starched white shirt and a pinned tie meant something to her. Once in a while, Erick saw one of these men again at the front door of the apartment in Silverlake. The man winked at Erick as if they were buddies. Grabbed his shoulder or arm, squeezed the muscle against the bone. What did Erick want to be when he grew up? A cop, a jet-airplane mechanic, a travel agent, a court reporter? A dog groomer? Erick stood there, because his mom said that he shouldn’t be impolite. His mom’s date said he wanted to take Erick along with them sometime. The three of them. What kind of places did Erick think were fun? Erick said nothing. He never said anything when the men were around, and not because of his En?glish, even if that was the excuse his mother gave for his silence. He didn’t talk to any of the men and he didn’t talk much to his mom, either. Finally they took off, and Erick’s night was his alone. He raced to the grocery store and bought half a gallon of chocolate ice cream. When he got back, he turned on the TV, scooted up real close, as close as he could, and ate his dinner with a soup spoon. He was away from all the men. Even though a man had given the TV to them. He was a salesman in an appliance store who’d bragged that a rich customer had given it to him and so why shouldn’t he give it to Erick’s mom, who couldn’t afford such a good TV otherwise?
When his mom was working as a restaurant hostess, and was going to marry the owner, Erick ate hot-fudge sundaes and drank chocolate shakes. When she worked at a trucking company, the owner of all the trucks told her he was getting a divorce. Erick climbed into the rigs, with their rooms full of dials and levers in the sky. Then she started working in an engineer’s office. There was no food or fun there, but even he could see the money. He was not supposed to touch anything, but what was there to touch—the tubes full of paper? He and his mom were invited to the engineer’s house, where he had two horses and a stable, a swimming pool, and two convertible sports cars. The engineer’s family was there: his grown children, his gray-haired parents. They all sat down for dinner in a dining room that seemed bigger than Erick’s apartment, with three candelabras on the table, and a tablecloth and cloth napkins. Erick’s mom took him aside to tell him to be well mannered at the table and polite to everyone. Erick hadn’t said anything. He never spoke anyway, so how could he have said anything wrong? She leaned into his ear and said that she wanted them to know that he spoke En?glish. That whole dinner he was silent, chewing quietly, taking the smallest bites, because he didn’t want them to think he liked their food.
When she got upset about days like that, she told Erick that she wished they could just go back home. She was tired of worrying. “Back,” for Erick, meant mostly the stories he’d heard from her, which never sounded so good to him: She’d had to share a room with her brothers and sisters. They didn’t have toilets. They didn’t have electricity. Sometimes they didn’t have enough food. He saw this Mexico as if it were the backdrop of a movie on afternoon TV, where children walked around barefoot in the dirt or on broken sidewalks and small men wore wide-brimmed straw hats and baggy white shirts and pants. The women went to church all the time and prayed to alcoved saints and, heads down, fearful, counted rosary beads. There were rocks everywhere, and scorpions and tarantulas and rattlesnakes, and vultures and no trees and not much water, and skinny dogs and donkeys, and ugly bad guys with guns and bullet vests who rode laughing into town to drink and shoot off their pistols and rifles, as if it were the Fourth of July, driv?ing their horses all over town like dirt bikes on desert dunes. When they spoke En?glish, they had stupid accents—his mom didn’t have an accent like theirs. It didn’t make sense to him that Mexico would only be like that, but what if it was close? He lived on paved, lighted city streets, and a bicycle ride away were the Asian drugstore and the Armenian grocery store and the corner where black Cubans drank coffee and talked Dodgers baseball.
When he was in bed, where he sometimes prayed, he thanked God for his mom, who he loved, and he apologized for not talking to her, or to anyone, really, except his friend Albert, and he apologized for her never going to church and for his never taking Holy Communion, as Albert did—though only to God would he admit that he wanted to because Albert did. He prayed for good to come, for his mom and for him, since God was like magic, and happiness might come the way of early morning, in the trees and bushes full of sparrows next to his open window, louder and louder when he listened hard, eyes closed.
The engineer wouldn’t have mattered if Erick hadn’t told Albert that he was his dad. Albert had just moved into the apartment next door and lived with both his mother and his father, and since Albert’s mother already didn’t like Erick’s mom, Erick told him that his new dad was an engineer. Erick actually believed it, too, and thought that he might even get his own horse. When that didn’t happen, and his mom was lying on her bed in the middle of the day, blowing her nose, because she didn’t have the job anymore, that was when Roque came around again. Roque was nobody—or he was anybody. He wasn’t special, he wasn’t not. He tried to speak En?glish to Erick, thinking that was the reason Erick didn’t say anything when he was there. And Erick had to tell Albert that Roque was his uncle, because the engineer was supposed to be his new dad any minute. Uncle Rock, Erick said. His mom’s brother, he told Albert. Roque worked at night and was around during the day, and one day he offered Erick and Albert a ride. When his mom got in the car, she scooted on the bench seat all the way over to Roque. Who was supposed to be her brother, Erick’s Uncle Rock. Albert didn’t say anything, but he saw what had happened, and that was it for Erick. Albert had parents, grandparents, and a brother and a sister, and he’d hang out only when one of his cousins wasn’t coming by. Erick didn’t need a friend like him.
What if she married Roque, his mom asked him one day soon afterward. She told Erick that they would move away from the apartment in Silverlake to a better neighborhood. He did want to move, but he wished that it weren’t because of Uncle Rock. It wasn’t just because Roque didn’t have a swimming pool or horses or a big ranch house. There wasn’t much to criticize except that he was always too willing and nice, too considerate, too generous. He wore nothing flashy or expensive, just ordinary clothes that were clean and ironed, and shoes he kept shined. He combed and parted his hair neatly. He didn’t have a buzzcut like the men who didn’t like kids. He moved slow, he talked slow, as quiet as night. He only ever said yes to Erick’s mom. How could she not like him for that? He loved her so much—anybody could see his pride when he was with her. He signed checks and gave her cash. He knocked on their door carrying cans and fruit and meat. He was there when she asked, gone when she asked, back whenever, grateful. He took her out to restaurants on Sunset, to the movies in Hollywood, or on drives to the beach in rich Santa Monica.
Roque knew that Erick loved baseball. Did Roque like baseball? It was doubtful that he cared even a little bit—he didn’t listen to games on the radio or TV, and he never looked at a newspaper. He loved boxing, though. He knew the names of all the Mexican fighters as if they lived here, as if they were Dodgers players, like Steve Yeager, Dusty Baker, Kenny Landreaux or Mike Marshall, Pedro Guerrero. Roque did know about Fernando Valenzuela, as everyone did, even his mom, which is why she agreed to let Roque take them to a game. What Mexican didn’t love Fernando? Dodger Stadium was close to their apartment. He’d been there once with Albert and his family—well, outside it, on a nearby hill, to see the fireworks for Fourth of July. His mom decided that all three of them would go on a Saturday afternoon, since Saturday night, Erick thought, she might want to go somewhere else, even with somebody else.
Roque, of course, didn’t know who the Phillies were. He knew nothing about the strikeouts by Steve Carlton or the home runs by Mike Schmidt. He’d never heard of Pete Rose. It wasn’t that Erick knew very much, either, but there was nothing that Roque could talk to him about, if they were to talk.
If Erick showed his excitement when they drove up to Dodger Stadium and parked, his mom and Roque didn’t really notice it. They sat in the bleachers, and for him the green of the field was a magic light; the stadium decks surrounding them seemed as far away as Rome. His body was somewhere it had never been before. The fifth inning? That’s how late they were. Or were they right on time, because they weren’t even sure they were sitting in the right seats yet when he heard the crack of the ball, saw the crowd around them rising as it came at them. Erick saw the ball. He had to stand and move and stretch his arms and want that ball until it hit his bare hands and stayed there. Everybody saw him catch it with no bobble. He felt all the eyes and voices around him as if they were every set of eyes and every voice in the stadium. His mom was saying something, and Roque, too, and then, finally, it was just him and that ball and his stinging hands. He wasn’t even sure if it had been hit by Pete Guerrero. He thought for sure it had been, but he didn’t ask. He didn’t watch the game then—he couldn’t. He didn’t care who won. He stared at his official National League ball, reimagining what had happened. He ate a hot dog and drank a soda and he sucked the salted peanuts and the wooden spoon from his chocolate-malt ice cream. He rubbed the bumpy seams of his home-run ball.
Game over, they were the last to leave. People were hanging around, not going straight to their cars. Roque didn’t want to leave. He didn’t want to end it so quickly, Erick thought, while he still had her with him. Then one of the Phillies came out of the stadium door and people swarmed—boys mostly, but also men and some women and girls—and they got autographs before the player climbed onto the team’s bus. Joe Morgan, they said. Then Garry Maddox appeared. Erick clutched the ball but he didn’t have a pen. He just watched, his back to the gray bus the Phillies were getting into.
Then a window slid open. Hey, big man, a voice said. Erick really wasn’t sure. Gimme the ball, la pelota, the face in the bus said. I’ll have it signed, comprendes? Échalo, just toss it to me. Erick obeyed. He tossed it up to the hand that was reaching out. The window closed. The ball was gone a while, so long that his mom came up to him, worried that he’d lost it. The window slid open again and the voice spoke to her. We got the ball, Mom. It’s not lost, just a few more. When the window opened once more, this time the ball was there. Catch. There were all kinds of signatures on it, though none that he could really recognize except for Joe Morgan and Pete Rose.
Then the voice offered more, and the hand threw something at him. For your mom, okay? Comprendes? Erick stared at the asphalt lot where the object lay, as if he’d never seen a folded-up piece of paper before. Para tu mamá, bueno? He picked it up, and he started to walk over to his mom and Roque, who were so busy talking they hadn’t noticed anything. Then he stopped. He opened the note himself. No one had said he couldn’t read it. It said, I’d like to get to know you. You are muy linda. Very beautiful and sexy. I don’t speak Spanish very good, maybe you speak better En?glish, pero No Importa. Would you come by tonite and let me buy you a drink? There was a phone number and a hotel-room number. A name, too. A name that came at him the way that the home run had.
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