Paloma En Fuego
Paloma Morales died during the summer when I was fifteen. Some pendejos were fucking around with firecrackers and flammable shit when she was walking back from her shift at the Blake’s Lotaburger on San Mateo. One of those pendejos thought he’d get a laugh out of his homeboys if he tried to shoot a red rocket at her. He missed Paloma just enough to hit the running car that happened to be parked a couple feet next to her. The car was Papa’s old work truck. It was parked outside the 7-11 where Papa was going to get a couple of those coke-flavored slurpees as a surprise for Jaime and me. Papa left the truck running ‘cus it’d only take a minute and he was itching to get home.
Papa would bring us slurpees after work from time to time when he was in a good mood. When we were younger we’d sit at the window waiting for Papa’s truck to pull into the driveway. We’d start jumping and screaming when we saw he had one of those bigass cups filled with sugar soaked ice in his hands. We’d scramble to the door and Papa would come in smiling through the sweat that gleamed on the creases in the leather of his face like sunlight bouncing off the grains of wet beach sand. He’d hand us the drinks, still covered with the dark smudges from his fingers, and we’d snatch them from him like some loco-ass beggars. We’d suck up all we could until one of us got brain-freeze. Papa would laugh and make fun of us and Jaime made sure to never show his head was hurting ‘cus he hated when Papa would joke around with him. I never got brain-freeze, which pissed off Jaime enough to sock me in the head. After a while, Papa brought home less and less slurpees. Even though we’d gotten older, I knew Jaime and I hoped to see him come home one day with plastic cups in his buckskin hands.
The day Papa’s truck and Paloma burst into flames was the first time in years he actually went to 7-11 for us. He didn’t have time to buy any slurpees before he heard the explosion. He called home and I picked up the phone. He told me he needed Mama to get down to the 7-11 store on San Mateo with whatever insurance papers we had and his flask. I asked him what was going down and he told me to just get Mama. I didn’t ask any more questions and waited at home looking up from a comic book from time to time expecting someone to come back. Jaime came home before Mama and Papa. He didn’t want to talk to me. He stared at the ground with a flat look on his face. He walked into the kitchen and I heard him open the fridge and the clanging of bottles and bins that followed. He yelled to me if pops drank all the beer and I asked him why he wanted to know.
“Because I want to drink a fucking beer stupido.”
“You know what pops would do to you if he saw you drinking that shit.”
“Pops can’t do shit to me. I’ll just go buy some.”
“You don’t have any cash cabrón.”
“Then I’ll go steal some.” He walked out the door with his brows scrunched together looking more hurt than angry. I expected him to slam the door, but he didn’t even bother to close it. I sat there for a while with the door still open, looking out into the street waiting for someone to walk in and close it. I wanted Mama’s voice to stretch out from the kitchen telling me to shut the door, but all I heard was the soft air of distant cars humming from the street.
I didn’t hear about the accident till a day later when Papa and Mama finally came home in Mama’s car. They were in the hospital all night with Paloma’s family praying at her bedside wishing she would make it out okay. It was the same hospital that Jaime and I were born in. The same one that had a plastic Jesus pinned up on a cross above every bed. Papa called them the absent mourners—heads wilting down, tiny paint-cracked eyes hovering above the people dying in those beds—never looking up to watch the living leave.
When he came back, Papa’s eyelids hung low and were haloed by dark rims and I couldn’t tell if they came from fatigue or ash or burns. Someone told me later on that he ran through the flames and the debris and the smells of gasoline and burning flesh to pull Paloma out from the fire. He had singed holes on the sleeves of his shirt and I could see the pink dermis of his skin. I imagined that was where he’d held her. Mama just looked tired with her eyes solemn and drifting downward. She retreated to the kitchen and made some huevos rancheros for me. The house was so quiet when the eggs sizzled in the pan.
I was waiting for either of them to ask where Jaime was ‘cus he still hadn’t come home, but neither of them did, and I didn’t feel like bringing it up to them. Mama placed my breakfast on the table and I stared down at the chile roofed eggs while she kissed me on the forehead. I asked where she’d been and she told me what happened. I put my fork down and told her I wasn’t hungry.
“I made this for you so you’re going to eat it.”
“I’m sick now. I don’t want to.”
“Ay mijo. I’m just sick as you are, but it’ll help me feel better if you ate what Mami made for you.”
“I’m not a child anymore.”
“Sí but you’re still living in my house, which means you’re still mi niño, and that means you have to do what I say.”
I looked at my plate again and felt a twist in my stomach. I looked back at Mama anticipating a raised, expectant eyebrow, but she just watched the plate with an aching face that made me feel responsible. I picked up my fork and took a bite. The eggs were colder than I expected. She curled her lips to form a drained smile and kissed me again. She walked out of the room. I stayed seated and poked at the food with my fork. I stabbed the yoke of the egg letting its yellow spill into the green of my chile. I ran the rakes through my food trying to unify the mess I’d made. I still felt queasy.
I didn’t know Paloma that well, but she went to my middle school and her abuela was real good friends with mine so our families were pretty tight. She was a couple years above me in Jaime’s grade. He always had a thing for her. He’d talk to me about her all the damn time. He’d talk about how she made his pito feel funny and how he always sat behind her in class, and how she was the first and only girl he didn’t hate. She gave Jaime the time of day too. Most girls were too scared or disgusted by him, but she accepted him enough for conversation. She always seemed nice. She had a good family too. Her pops once drove me home from school when Papa didn’t have time to pick me up. Those were the days when we’d get slurpees all the time. But Paloma went off to a private high school, and we rarely saw her after that. Jaime never talked to me about any other girl again. He said he didn’t care ‘bout no stupid putas.
I had a nasty fascination with the sickness I felt while stirring my food around. I’d never known a dead person before. The last time I saw her was at the Blake’s Lotaburger where she took my order at the register. She smiled at me and called me by my name. I ordered a shake and a green chile cheeseburger. She never wore makeup, and I think she pulled off that natural beauty shit real good. She looked good even in the ugly-ass pinstripe uniform she had to wear. Her olive skin shinned bright like a terracotta candle under the white shirt. The black hair she had to wear in a bun surrounded the back of her head like a halo. Her smile was real and I could see why Jaime didn’t hate her.
Jaime erupted into the room while I was still playing with my food. I could taste the tang of weed and Modelo from the table. He swayed over to me and started eating my breakfast with his hands. I asked him how his night went.
“How do you think it went puto?”
“I don’t know. That’s why I asked.”
He grunted, shot his middle finger at me, and took my plate into his room. Later that day, I was sitting on our porch watching the neighborhood kids play tag and other throwaway games in the street. Some boy fell on his face trying to chase after a girl who was too fast for him. He cried on the pavement like a paralyzed baby until his mom swept him up and took him home. Jaime came out to the porch rubbing his eyes and sat next to me. He pulled out a cigarette and offered me one. I declined. He took a long, drawn-out drag and exhaled the smoke slow so the wisps could dance around in front of us.
“You hear about Paloma?” he asked.
“Yeah I did.”
“Chingada esé…Real fucked up.” I nodded my head. “She was a real cool chica. The only decent hyna out there.”
“She was nice. Even to you.”
I waited for customary backlash, but Jaime kept looking away at something I couldn’t see. His face was a desert, the sun was setting, and the smoke was sliding in between us like clouds.
“We were tight.” He said
“Chale man, that’s Bullshit.” He was far away.
He snorted, “I ain’t shitting you puto. We talked a lot.”
I twitched a grin. “About what?”
“No mames güey.”
“I’m serious. I know more than you think.”
“I know how she got her name.” I looked over at him and watched as he tapped the end of his cigarette making the tears of ash float down to the porch. He stared out at the street. He took another drag and continued. “Her name is Paloma because when she was conceived—“
“What’s that mean?”
“It’s when parents fuck to make babies.”
“After her parents finished fucking they were staring out the window and a white dove smashed into the glass and died. Her father said that was a sign from God and the dove was their baby and its soul was inside her mami’s belly. So they decided to name her ‘Paloma’ because she’s—”
“a Dove.” I finished for him.
“Yeah. She’s a dove.”
“Seems pretty stupid to name your daughter after some dumbass bird who flew into a fucking window.”
Jaime looked at me absently, “It’s all about how you look at life, esé.”
I frowned. “I guess. It’s still fucked though.”
“Whatever man. It’s all chingada.” He took one last drag and buried the cigarette into the arm of the chair. The burn left a black hole on the wood. I stared back out at the street. I saw the girl, the one who made the boy fall. She was picking flowers. I looked up at the sky expecting to see something, but I couldn’t see shit. All that was there in front of me was the amber of the evening sky.