by Brenda Peynado
“Light me,” I tell Angel once we’re out in the back lot behind the Cuban restaurant where we both work after-school. I pull a cigarette out of my uniform apron. We get our smoking break once dusk falls, right before the eight o’clock dinner rush. We hate the job, except for the break. I only work here to try to pay the bills for the one-bedroom house where my Abuela and I live, the house she bought really cheap because next door a killer dog had mauled this little girl who wandered too close to the fence.
Angel reaches into his pocket for the restaurant matches he’d taken from the little plastic bowl at the counter. “Look,” he says. “Learned a cool trick from my bro.”
He bends the match over and with a flick of his wrist he’s lit it with only one hand. When the glow settles bright on our faces, I can see he isn’t grinning like he normally is. He doesn’t talk a lot about his brother, Jose, who joined the army. I don’t ask him if Jose taught him how to light the match before he left: Jose leaning back with his hands behind his head on the bottom bunk, and Angel on the top bunk leaning down over the edge, the blood rushing to his head. Maybe it was after, on one of their few phone calls when Angel would send his voice quietly to Iraq, curled up on Jose’s lower bunk where he moved after his brother left. I don’t ask. I lower my face to his fingers, take the light into the cigarette on my lips.
We sit there for awhile, passing it back and forth, watching the cherry grow and shrink with our breathing. Night air is filled with crickets from the trees behind the back lot. Lights from the Raymond James Stadium tint the night air orange like a false sun. Angel tells jokes and we wait for Bird to come with more cigarettes, until we remember she’s not coming tonight, and it’s not because she’s late listening to my Abuela’s stories about Dominican Republic again. Her Papi said she can’t come near the restaurant because he heard the Dominican Tigres are prowling around here, and Bird is a real pretty girl.
“You shouldn’t be alone,” I always tell Bird when we find her waiting for us, but she glares at me when I do, daring me to be like her Papi who tries to keep her in the house while her brothers are out making money, or beating up other kids from other gangs. Angel and I say Bird is our judge, the one that keeps the two of us honest, reminds us not to be like our Papas would’ve been if we’d known them. So I shrug, because I know she can take care of herself; she goes to watch every fight she knows about and nobody there messes with her, even while her brothers get hit. One time she had to hold one of their knife-slashed faces closed until the ambulance could get there and she could pretend to stop crying.
“Man, we should just quit,” Angel says.
“Yeah, that’d be nice.” We always say this. The smoke passes over my head in lines and seeps into the cracks in the wall, the cracks in the street. I always go home feeling sorry for myself. Abuela is usually sleeping and I go into her room to tell her I’m home. Her mind is almost completely gone, so I take care of her. I tuck her in. Sometimes she grabs my hand as I pull the thin sheets around her, and she feels all of its lines before she lets me go. Same way she held my hands steady over the knife when I was little and she would let me chop the limones. She tells me that I am going to be a handsome boy, she can tell by my palms, because her mother had taught her the magic of the curanderas. Abuela always asks me when Bird and I are going to get married, even though she’s not my girlfriend. Whether Angel is un buen muchacho. And at night when I come home to sleep on the couch in the living room, the house still smells like the coffee and food she’s made that is nothing like this shitty restaurant.
“Man, I can’t wait ‘til I turn eighteen,” Angel says. “No more school, no more job. It’s gonna be great.”
He wants to enlist when he turns eighteen. He wouldn’t go to college if he had the choice. “Not for me, man, you got that? You go for the three of us,” he said once. We say I’m the one that’s going to go to college; that Angel is our schemer, the talkative one, the one who makes the three of us laugh. Bird would go to college too, but her parents won’t let her. I see Angel’s face tonight, the way he looks when he’s remembering things. I know that Angel wants to enlist because he imagines the bunks in the barracks might be like the bunks in his room and he and his brother would talk again face to face.
Angel’s smoked our whole cigarette and he puts the butt out, pushing and twisting its ashes hard into the cold wall. It’s cold for March in Florida, really cold. He crosses his arms against the chill as we stand up to go back in before Cook starts yelling at us.
In the kitchen, the cook, all hairy and looking mean, fries his meat over the stove. Cook hates me, and he knows I know this. “Where you been?” he asks us. He looks at me. “Your pretty girlfriend’s looking for you.”
“Bird’s not my girlfriend.”
A nasty grin grows on his face, and then he says, “What’d you do? Her crying like that- maybe you knocked her up real good.”
I don’t even think of hitting him, I just think, oh God, one of her brothers is finally dead, and is she hurt. I run out of the kitchen into the dark restaurant and I can hear Angel banging out the door right after me. Bird’s leaning on the front counter, panting and sobbing, looking down into the glass at all the five-cent candies the customers can buy at the door. She doesn’t look hurt though, and she doesn’t look up when we grab her arm to pull her out the door, into the street where nobody can hear her.
“Is it Roberto?” I ask.
I don’t even see what her face looks like because there are no lights in the parking lot and we’ve turned her away from the neon “Pollo” sign, when she says, “Your Abuela, the ambulance took her, and they wouldn’t let me stay with her. St. Joseph’s. I ran all the way here.” She pushes her cell phone into my hand, the one that she was given for emergencies only, the only one in her family so they could always know where she was.
I dial 411 and then the number for St. Joseph’s, and when I finally get someone, the person tells me that my grandmother died around 6:30 of a heart attack. I hang up.
Bird is looking at me just how she would look at one of her brothers. She doesn’t touch me. Angel grabs my arm instead, pressing his fingers in deep. “Let’s go,” he says. “We’re leaving.”
Then I get blinded by car lights driving into the lot, until I see it’s Roberto, the brother I thought was dead, driving his beat-up, gun-holed Civic, a couple of baseball bats lying across the seat. “Bird called me. Get in.” He reaches over to push the door open for us.
I fall into the seat, with Bird and then Angel behind me. We pull out, and I can see Cook through the window, angry as all hell with his face twisted up at us pulling away.
“She’s dead?” Roberto asks Angel.
“Yes,” Bird says.
“Shut up,” Angel says to Roberto. “Tenga respeto.”
Bird’s hand is on my leg, holding me down from flying up into the air with the bumps from the stones on the road beneath us.
“You know you can’t go home, then,” Roberto says.
“What are you talking about?” Angel says.
“You still 16, right?” He looks at me through the rear-view mirror. “You can’t go back. They’ll send a social worker after you unless you got other family.”
“Back in DR,” I tell him, thinking of all the aunts and uncles I’ve never met.
“You can’t go back, then.” He heaves the gear into fifth and we go faster past the blurring houses. The bats push into my leg when we accelerate, and I see blood on my white apron where they’re touching.
“You can stay with me,” Angel says.
I don’t answer the rest of the way. I don’t want to mention my mom living in the states, because I don’t know where she is and she’s probably with some other idiot who beats her. I was maybe seven when she finally drove me to my Abuela’s. I was hot and I had my cheek against the car window. I remember thinking, If I could just eat strawberries, I’ll be okay.
“Vas estar bien,” she told me that day when my mom drove away. Her mind was already starting to go then.
“I don’t speak Spanish,” I lied, hating both of them, focusing on the way the tire tracks were already melting in the mud of the street.
“You okay. Love,” she said.
Roberto pulls the car up into Angel’s driveway, and we can tell by how the lights are all off that Angel’s mom is sleeping with the new boyfriend, otherwise she’d be waiting up.
Angel and Bird pull me out of the backseat and start walking with me towards the house.
“Where are you going?” Roberto tells Bird. “Get back in the car.”
She moves slowly to sit down. “I’ll see you tomorrow.” And then she lets her hair fall over her face. Roberto revs the engine, and they drive away, the Civic making an ugly noise all the way down the street.
Angel opens the screen door and then the front door. “Stay here,” he says when we make it into their small kitchen. He goes into his mom’s bedroom, and I hear a man’s voice say, “Get out of here,” and his mom’s voice murmuring something. The crickets outside underneath their voices. Angel and his mom come out of the room. She drags her slippers with a light flapping sound across the linoleum floor and she pulls her pajama dress closed.
She puts a plate of mangu in front of me. “Eat.” She grabs me a hot Coke from the pile on the floor next to the fridge. Puts that next to the plate. She looks at my face for a minute. “You can stay,” she says and then turns around to get out a fork. “It will be all right. We can take care of you.”
The new boyfriend leans naked and hairy against the door frame. He rubs his chest. “Come back, Elena,” he calls to her. She keeps looking at the fridge. He runs his hands through his hair, and then he goes back in the bedroom and comes out with a bottle of rum. Puts it next to the Coke. “Drink.” He puts his arms around Angel’s mom and leads her back to the bedroom.
“It will be all right,” she says as she is led away.
Angel pushes the plate towards me. “Eat.” He puts the Coke back. He pours the rum into a glass and hands it to me. I look down into the clear poured amber, imagine my face covered in an amber glass that would make this dim kitchen light look like a real sun.
“I can’t go back to my house,” I say. “I can’t go back.”
He puts his hand on the other glass he’s taken out, looks down into it. “You can have the bottom bunk. Jose won’t care.” He skims his fingers over the ridge. “I’ll tell him next time he calls.” He pours himself a glass, and we start tossing them back. We don’t say anything until maybe the seventh drink in.
Next day when I wake up, the afternoon light coming through the plastic slats on the windows grabs my eyeballs as soon as I open them. I am on Angel’s couch. I see a glimpse of Angel coming through the front door with one of his brother’s army bags, before I grip my eyes shut again. The TV is blaring out the news in the kitchen behind me.
I remember something in bits from last night, about sneaking into the country club pool that would never have let us in during the day. A hazy image of the pool being lit a brilliant turquoise from underwater and looking like a heaven, something that could engulf us into happiness. Splashing around in cannonballs and the water eating us up like it was happy to have us and to keep us. Forgetting I was underwater and almost drowning. I remember Angel pulling me up from the bottom of the pool by my hair.
“Your clothes smell,” he says now as he swings the bag and tosses it towards the couch. “I went back in and got them for you. I got your pictures too.”
I look at him, a silent thank-you that I can’t voice through the pounding in my head. I groan.
“Listen, you don’t have to go back. My mom says we can take care of the funeral. She already talked to the morgue. The funeral’s set for tomorrow.”
I know we didn’t have anything saved up. I hadn’t thought Angel’s mom did either. Maybe the new boyfriend had money.
Bird eats leftover mangu at the table. “Hey,” Bird says with her mouth full as she waves at me with her fork. “You all right?”
I don’t say anything, so she gets quiet for a minute, while I sink back down to the couch, before she says, “Come look. The news says we’re going to get a frost this year. The latest we’ve ever had one. The orange growers are gonna lose all their crops.”
I stumble to the table and she hands me a glass of water while the three of us look together at the tiny TV in the corner. Sure enough, the news interviews some dumb orange grower who is going to lose all of his crops if the frost comes through. Then they interview someone else, some tulip guy who sells his flowers from this big tent outside of the Target next to the church.
I remember Abuela used to say that one time La Virgen appeared to her, and she smelled roses everywhere, surrounding her. “I want flowers for her,” I say. “A lot,” but we’re all silent because we don’t know how much flowers cost. Bird picks at the chicken she’s eating.
“It’s okay,” I say. “I can’t go to the funeral anyways. What if there’s a social worker there or something?” I imagine myself on a hill, shivering in the frost, watching my grandmother’s coffin lowered, the dirt shoveled over the wooden paneling covering her face. “Besides, I don’t want to see her in a box or anything.” I don’t cry. Angel leans back in his chair.
We watch a little more TV, turned to some cop show, Angel and Bird glancing at me the whole time. When the phone rings, Angel picks up, listens for awhile, and then he looks up at me. “No, he’s not here. I haven’t seen him since last night… I dunno, he mentioned hitchhiking to some aunt he has in Tallahassee … Yeah, we’ll let you know, all right.” He hangs up with a crash. “Social worker. I think one of the people from church informed them.”
“They called me too,” Bird says. “Only Papi thought it was about my brothers and he yelled the lady off so bad, I don’t think they’ll call back.”
“Cool.” I say flatly. I get more water, and think of flowers and the frost.
We smoke a cigarette and then Bird leaves. Angel and I watch TV for the rest of the night. He thinks it will make me feel better. While the news is on again, we find out the frost is definitely coming, and I think of Abuela, how she might have been back in DR, whether she was beautiful or not when she was younger.
That night Bird drives up the driveway in Roberto’s car. She waves us in. “Hurry, he doesn’t know it’s gone.”
“What’s going on?” I ask.
Angel grins. “Listen, man. Those tulips from that tent on the news, they’re going to die anyways, if the frost comes, right?” Angel spreads his arms out wide, like he would hold the whole world up with what’s coming next. “We just steal them before they die. Bird stole some machetes from her brothers, and that tent’s gonna slice open like butter.” He runs his hands through a plane in the air. “Like butter, man.”
I imagine tulips, though I have no idea which flower they are, but fields and fields of the most beautiful flowers poured into my grandmother’s grave so that her casket would sink softly into them, and she would be surrounded by the scent of them.
“All right,” I say.
“Come on.” Bird waves us in again.
I smile for the first time that day.
We take off and Bird can’t drive worth anything, but she tries. She won’t let either of us drive; she’d rather her brother kill her than one of us. We get to the tent, on Dale Mabry and Fletcher, like the news said. There is a giant sale sign from earlier, trying to get rid of everything before the frost came. Angel hands us army bags in the parking lot. He pulls the machetes from the trunk, and they glimmer in the streetlights shining down slow and orange.
“Swing!” He yells.
We swing with a hunger. We swing out a hole that looks a little like a mutilated human, and then crawl through it. We stand up inside. The parking lot light barely comes in through the skin of the tent, shadowing the tulips and some roses in the back purple. The air is already near freezing. Bird bends low to one of the flowers and breathes a white fog over its head. I touch one waxy petal, and shiver in Angel’s too-small old jacket. Flor. I love the sound the word makes in my head and suddenly I think that God must speak Spanish and not English. Abuela would understand him then—no matter how many lessons Angel and I gave her, Angel every once in awhile slipping in a fuck and telling her it meant milk or something, and both of us grinning like little shits, she never knew any more words than when I first got there. Except for one. Family. She learned that one and she would tell it to me many times as I was tucking her in, forgetting that she’d already said it a minute before.
We cut as many flowers out of the pots as can fit in our bags, and it’s like surgery, cutting the stems away, opening up the center stems with the knives to show the naked wetness in the center. We fill the car with four more trips.
Driving to the cemetery, the cut flowers fill the car with a strange scent it’s never trapped before, so unlike the smell of blood. We breathe it in, and when Angel turns back to smile at me, it reminds me of once when we were hot-boxing pot behind the middle school playground. Tonight, we are hot-boxing death, heaven, flowers, ice.
We stop at the gas station because we’ve run out of cigarettes. After I get them, I hang around inside, seeing if I can steal some beer for us. Through the window, I see a car’s parked in front of the Civic and another car is pulling in behind it, blocking us completely. The guys in the car are getting out. Angel gets out of the car. The guys get up close to Angel’s face. I run outside.
“Punk, do you know whose car this is?” says one of the guys, who I recognize now as part of Roberto’s gang. Nestor.
Bird gets out of the car.
“Oh, it’s you.” Nestor says when he sees her. “Call your brother. He thought one of the other gangs stole the car, and he’s been threatening them if he doesn’t get it back.”
“Yeah, okay,” she says. “I’ll bring it back tonight.”
“No,” he says, pointing. “Now. Call him now before he gets himself into trouble. Call him on your cell phone.” He stares at her.
Bird crosses her arms. She glances at me. I look at the two cars blocking us in. “It’s okay, Bird,” I say. “Just call him.”
Five minutes later, Roberto drives up in Alex’s car with Alex and four of the other brothers in the back. First thing Roberto does is leap out of the car and grab Bird by the hair. “Don’t you ever steal my car again. That’s my car!” He yells one inch away from her face. Bird’s eyes are closed.
“Leave her alone,” I tell Roberto.
“Listen, we just want to borrow it for a night,” Angel says.
That’s when the police sirens start; the gas station guys must have called them as soon as they saw carfuls of Hispanic kids drive up.
“Fuuuuuuuck,’ Roberto says right before Alex grabs him from where he was slapping Bird and pushes him towards his car. “What is all this shit?” he yells when he sees the flowers. Everyone is piling into the other three cars and taking off.
“Don’t touch them!” Bird says she grabs his arm. He shakes her away, and it takes him maybe ten seconds to clear out the flowers. They fall silently, finally, into the oil pools on the black pavement.
“Get in the car,” he tells her.
I don’t want to leave her alone, and the sirens are close, so I get into the backseat, and Angel does too. I pull out a crushed flower from underneath me as the car is speeding up and shaking over the road. Bird’s eyes are puffy but they’re open.
When the sirens sound like they’re getting further away, Berto stops the car in the dark neighborhood. He looks back at Angel and me. “Get out.” He looks at Bird. “Some people get mad when you accuse them of things your pendeja sister did.” He picks up one of the machetes we’d used and fingers it like he’s seeing blood bright and furious on it.
“Fuck you,” I mutter.
When we’re out, Bird gets out too. “I’m not going this time.”
Roberto looks at her hard, like he’d bore a hole right through her eyes, and she would turn around blind with black holes as eyes. “Fine,” He says. He picks up one of the other machetes we’d used. “Stay.” He slams her car door shut.
When Roberto and his Civic are gone, Bird tells me she’s sorry.
“It’s not your fault,” I say.
“It was my stupid idea,” Angel says.
We walk to Angel’s house mostly in silence, and it feels like a rock is making its way down through my chest to the floor, grating all of the important organs as it goes. When we get there, Angel’s mom hasn’t come back from her nurse shift and the new boyfriend isn’t there either, so the house is dark.
Angel turns on the lights. “Man. Work.”
“Yeah,” I say and start to look for my apron.
“No.” Angel is holding the apron. He puts it down on the kitchen table. “You can’t go. Cook hates you, and he can turn you in.”
“Yeah,” I say. “I guess you’re right.” I wonder if I’ll miss the people at the restaurant, who eat there because they can’t help it, for one reason or another. The Abuelos who may or may not speak English, whose wives have died and they don’t know how to cook for themselves, so otherwise they’d go hungry. The moms with these little screaming brats that any other place would throw out, but they go to church with the owner and make eyes that say, Jesus, help me, Dios, and he leaves them alone. And I realize I am free, totally free of them. I can’t go to work, and I guess I can’t go to school either. Tonight will be the first night I really do what we always wish we did. I won’t go.
Bird opens the fridge and starts looking for the chicken she’d been eating earlier. “Stay with me,” she says with her face still in the fridge, probably using the chill to soothe the sting. “There’s no way I’m going home for a while.”
So when Angel gets dressed and leaves, Bird and I sit at the kitchen table, watching the news again. Bird’s face isn’t red anymore. In one of the commercial breaks, she pushes back her plate and says, “I’m sorry.”
I think about the flowers and how Abuela is dead and I tell Bird what would flowers change. Nada.
Bird tightens her lips a little, then she lies down on the kitchen floor, her hair fanning away from her head on the cold linoleum. Her hands are palm up. “You know when you and Angel are at work, and I come by late sometimes? When I listened to her stories, so I would get them all before she forgot them?” Then Bird tells me a story about when Abuela was young around the time of the revolution in Dominican Republic, and she would wear flowers in her hair to show how she was still alive, even though her friends were dying in the fighting, even though she had to bury them on Christmas day during the armistice. That the flowers were her way of fighting.
“Stupid Berto,” she says. “Stupid prison.”
I tell her not to worry, but I know that this means nothing, that the words slither away. And if Bird was trapped, no way to get a job and the money to go to college where she wants so desperately to be, then who was I to tell her not to worry. I tell her I’m sorry, that wasn’t what I meant. She shrugs her shoulders on the tile.
Then I realize that not going to school, not going to work isn’t freedom, it’s a prison. Hiding for two years until I’m eighteen and dropping out of school, that means I won’t go to college, and I can’t even help out Angel’s mom with what it takes to feed me. That’s when I realize I am going to call the social worker tomorrow and say where I am. I tell Bird.
“But what if you get sent to another city though?”
“Yeah,” I say.
I tell Angel after he comes home and Bird leaves. He lets me sleep in his bed for the night.
Next day at the cemetery, I am dressed in Angelo’s cousin’s suit and a sweater. The funeral is over. Some people from church who knew Abuela from the Spanish prayer group linger in the cold. Angelo sits on a soldier’s headstone that he found. Bird holds a bunch of wilted flowers, the best looking ones that she found in the corners of Roberto’s car and on the pavement at the gas station when she went back. The place is silent, except for the almost-frozen dirt the grave-diggers are shoveling, and I hear the sffft of the shovels and watch the dark hole eat the clods instead of flowers.
Earlier, I saw on the news that the tulip guy found almost all of his flowers gone, and the police made the connection with the dumped flowers at the gas station. They interviewed the guy again, and he said, “I just don’t know who would do something like this to me. Vandals— just to dump them, you know? I mean, who would do something like that?” Angel clicked off the TV when he saw what I was watching.
I inch over to the soldier’s headstone where Angel sits. Bird stands over him.
“So,” Bird says. Behind her there are no trees to sway in the cold wind, only the people standing beside white stones to feel the chill to the bone.
Angel pulls out a cigarette from his pocket. “Last one.” He lights it for me. I inhale and pass it to Bird. She hands Angel the cigarette. I look down.
Then, out of the corner of my eye I see Bird twirling. I look up, and there she is throwing out her bunch of ruined flowers one by one. Spinning, dancing, not the meringue, but something wilder and more fluid, something that looks like the sunlight coming down on all of us. Angel and I stay sitting, Angel on his soldier’s headstone and me on the ground. We watch Bird dance over the graves, flinging out flowers, her long hair held out by inertia away from her head. We watch her until there are flowers flung all over these sorry motherfuckers’ graves, sorry to be dead and to be reminded of it by this beautiful girl alive and dancing over their bones. Flowers which, when Bird and Angel are home and I am god-knows-where, will freeze tonight above their graves, after this girl having shaken the ground alive again.
Brenda Peynado is currently the fiction editor at the Southeast Review. She is finishing her MFA at Florida State University where she is a Kingsbury Fellow. Her work is published or forthcoming in WSQ: The Women’s Studies Quarterly, Storyglossia, and Brevity. She has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize and has been selected as a finalist in the Iowa Review Fiction Prize. She lives in Tallahassee with her dog, Raffy.