CREW OF BOYS
by John Paul Jaramillo
The summer and the beginning of the Jefe’s side-jobs took the boys out of town to work the fields of Avondale, Colorado. With his nasty black cigarillos and his thermoses of coffee, the balding Emeterio came along as an extra hand.
After sunset they loaded onion shears and buckets, and Emeterio warned, “Run, little Neto! Run before the Coco gets you!”
During the long ride home, whenever a poor squirrel or rabbit was found bloodied and dead-meat along the road, Tío Emeterio blamed it on the Coco.
“That’s from a car on the highway, Tío,” Relles said. Relles was oldest and less afraid of the spirits Tío Emeterio sold.
“Oh, no. The Coco doesn’t eat animals, Relles. One bite to taste the blood.”
“What does he eat?” little Neto asked. The rest of the crew listened intently with open mouths.
“The Coco eats little boys, Neto,” Tío Emeterio taught. “Their bones and clothes. Every bit off of them. So I hope your little legs and your sneakers can carry you.”
At home, the boys learned the Coco lived in the garage and inside cabinets. They learned he came out at night, as the wind howled during violent thunderstorms or hailstorms. When the crew of boys fetched lawn tools and dragged the Jefe’s trash bins, the boys learned the Coco rested in the basement and near the furnace, and in any dark and dank place. When the boys took down bags of potatoes or beans and the light switch seemed yards away from the stairs, the Tío yelled warnings for the boys.
With kitchen windows opened wide and the whole crew waiting for the Jefe and the Jefita to return from nights out at The Donahue with their compadres, or from the endless number of festivals and dances at St. Francis of Assisi, the stories came while they sat and played cards.
“A man has to learn poker,” Tío Emeterio instructed. “Your Jefe don’t teach you nothing you need in this world, mi’jos.” As they played they learned the Coco lived everywhere, outside of the house and down the street from Old Man Hernandez’. Down from the Vigil family house and even in the darkness of Minnequa School’s playground.
The boys were thankful for the advice. They jumped on Emeterio’s back as he ran up and down the stairs to the basement yelling, “Climb aboard, little mocos. I’ll save you. I’ll ride you out of town.”
The Tío drained his beer and smoked the Jefe’s cigarettes, never worrying about the consequence, and advised how to avoid any of the Cocos that existed in the world.
“Where do these Cocos come from, Tío?”
Emeterio paused solemnly before answering: “The fields of New Mexico, boys. They come from old haunts in Española and in Belen. Your Jefe has seen them. Your father has fought them and won.”
“The Jefe?” little Neto asked.
“Yes, your Jefe defeated them. We all ran from the lettuce fields but your Jefe burned them all down with the eyes. The looks that could kill. He tore them down with those dirty, awful looks of his.”
The boys all nodded and agreed. The Jefe did have masterful dirty looks.
“Tell us more, Tío,” they demanded, pulling the Jefita’s kitchen chairs and stools around the man.
“You see your Jefe was working the fields with the Abuelo, that was your Great Grandfather Ortiz. Well, you see that old man was a cabrón. You never knew him like I knew him, but I’ll tell you he was as mean as a damn ghost himself. He left his boys out in the fields all alone with no lanterns or lights or nothing. Left them in the moonlight to work and fight with whatever Cocos happened upon them.”
“Tell us more, Tío.”
“Well, su Jefe was scared. I was there and I know. I was afraid too but your Jefe called out to them. And it was a big voice for a little moco. He was no bigger than you, Neto.”
He stood up on his chair and re-created for the boys: “Cocos!” he says. “I am Santiago F. Ortiz and I fear no Cocos. I am a man and I have to work! So let me work!”
“Is that what he said, Tío?”
“I’m no liar,” the Tío reminded them. He sat to drain his beer and smoke. “Those Cocos threw down their tree branches and threw down their leaves. You see they look like trees and shadows. Oh, those Cocos are sneaky. They look like a damn night sky, but they were so afraid of the little Jefe they ran and never came back.”
“Whoa!” the crew of fosters said.
“Yeah. They let us get work done until your Abuelo came and turned on the truckito’s headlights. Until the workers returned with their lanterns.”
“Were you scared, Tío?” little Neto asked and all the foster boys nodded.
“No such thing as ghosts or monsters,” Relles answered.
“Ah, Relles. I was scared. You should be scared too. Those Cocos will go after the littlest of men. They like non-believers best. About your size. They know little mocos like you usually don’t put up much of a fight.”
“I won’t let them get me, Tío,” little Neto answered. “I can run.”
That season with Tío Emeterio the boys imagined baseball games and championship marble matches. Handball to the garage, stolen bases and line drives. Massive climbs and maneuvers over the back concrete wall and the Abuelo's shed. The Jefe’s tools made the best lances and weapons, machine guns from the wrenches and climbing tools from the hammers.
The Jefe paid no mind. He had the business of the Ford and the old truckito to deal with. He had the grind of changing oil, checking and changing the spark plugs, finding the right size wrench for oil filters. Keeping his vehicles moving for the work in the fields.
Even in Neto's day, there were Tíos to distract. Older men who hung out while the Jefe worked, men who filled the alley with smoke and drained beer cans. Men like Emeterio and his lazy way of treating the day. He stole smokes and shots of rum or whatever he could get his hands on.
Emeterio and his hipster dark glasses and white t-shirts. Sometimes a guayabera or a short-sleeved bowling shirt, cigarette behind his ear and a pack in the pocket over his heart. The Tío felt for the kids who had nothing but the alley. He brought them bags of marbles and bags of green army men, remembering back to his childhood days. He brought them RC Colas and sometimes he brought candy or gum, and if the kids were real lucky he had handfuls of baseball cards or bottle caps from the liquor store. Whatever change he held in his pockets was given up to the boys, quarters and dimes the boys saved for comics down at Bollinger’s Newsstand.
In his Ranchero, Emeterio brought cardboard boxes and empty buckets from job sites and from his work. For a time he worked as a plumber’s assistant for the State Hospital, and sometimes he had the remains of a day's work and let Neto and the fosters turn the cardboard into pirate or rocket ships.
“Why do you encourage them, Emeterio?” the Jefe complained.
They used his knife and wire cutters to turn small nail buckets into armored helmets and masks. The kids drew their own crests and family names with grease pencils. Neto drew a horse and made three lines that he said represented the llano of New Mexico where his Abuelos lived.
They dressed up Emeterio in a suit of cardboard and bucket armor. They transformed him into a robotic Frankenstein’s monster and the kids all screamed and ran around him. They dueled for what seemed like hours until he collapsed under the back tree to energetic blows and angry lashes.
“You have vanquished me, mi’jos. I have no more fight for you.”
The boys wore the scars. Neto found he had skinned his knees and ripped up his jeans. No-named Lucero ripped his lip, had blood down his already stained white t-shirt and was crying with laughter.
“Don’t cry,” Emeterio said. “It happens to the best of us. But don’t ever let them see you defeated, boys. Keep that shit deep inside.”
The Jefe ranted for his tools and for his wrenches, for some sort of basin he needed for his oil change. Poor Ricky was unlucky and wore the bucket as his backside armor. Emeterio had clipped a hole to tie the makeshift armor around and over the boy’s shoulders.
Jefe screamed at the kids and at his brother and ripped the bucket from Ricky’s back, called him names and paddled the boy’s butt.
“I need them tools to finish up,” the Jefe said. “I don’t want to be under this hood all damned day.”
It only took a mention of it. Every person in that house knew it.
“Pick up these clothes, hijo,” the Jefita said. “Or your father will get the belt. You don't want him to get the belt, do you?”
Thoughts of the belt kept the boys up at night and kept them running and hiding, worrying on how he drank and worked his side-jobs many nights of the month. They knew how it all made him quick to pull the belt, wrapping it around his hand and doubling the layers over his fist and knuckles scared the boys more than Principal Roberts at Minnequa School and the old paddles over his desk.
“No, Mama,” the boys answered.
The belt was used for minor things, unjust things, like when Neto burned the beans when cooking for the old man, or when Relles dropped the masa for tortillas the Jefita prepared.
The belt was used for rare occasions of mischief, like the time Neto jammed toothpicks into the locks of Jefe’s truckito. The time Neto piled too much paper into the toilet and flooded the bathroom and hallway. The night Relles stayed out in Bessemer Park field with the daughter of Joe Valejo. The time Neto dropped the Jefe's hammer off the roof and cracked Emeterio's windshield.
Neto swore the worst instance was when Relles was caught with marijuana cigarettes. Somehow the oldest boy found himself “holding” for a friend but he got the shit from his friend Mariano.
“I didn't raise you for this,” the Jefe said in his most official telephone voice. “I didn't raise you for any of this. I may not always be the best of fathers to you and your brother but I didn't raise you for this.”
Neto was surprised at the sympathy, and maybe it was all for the benefit of the Principal, as if the Principal listened and not Neto. As if the Principal rated the mistakes of the son as the mistakes of the father.
“I want to know who gives you these things?” the Jefe said.
The way he said “things,” Neto wondered what there was to those marijuana cigarettes Mariano sold around the neighborhood.
“They say you've brought chaw to school and cigarettes,” the Jefe continued. “They found these things on you, boy. Where do you get them? Do you steal them from me?”
“No, Jefe,” the boy said.
“Do you even know what you're doing? How this makes the family look?”
That night, while the Jefe lectured away at Relles and as Neto and the fosters did their nightly chores of cleaning dishes and folding the Jefita's loads of laundry, they all giggled as Relles got his. They grew silent as the boy cried and cried, the moans growing louder and more tragic.
Emeterio drove his Ranchero down to Ralph's or sometimes Chet's Market for his supplies, a loaf of bread and bologna. The Tío was a connoisseur of bologna. Of course, the best came from New Mexico but he settled for what they had at JJ’s Market.
“If a man is gonna fish,” the Tío said, “then the man has got to have his supplies.”
The Tío stopped for his beer, either Dogpatch or Loco Liquors on East 8th. He bought Miller High Life or Coors, whatever he could afford. He bought them six-packs of RC Cola or sometimes, if they were lucky, he bought them chocolate milk and big bags of pork rinds and taffy bars.
He drove over to the Mexican Music Store where he found his 45s of Tejano music. In those days it was Freddy Fender, Little Joe and La Latinaires and the Al Hurricane band, maybe the Stingrays or Ruben Ramos. “Puros clásicos, mi’jos,” Emeterio instructed. “A man has got to have music.”
Later, on the lake, Emeterio spent more time draining beer and sleeping, but eventually he taught them how to fish, to use a lure and bait. He showed how to keep a worm secure on a hook and how to keep a night crawler on a liter rig. How to choose a proper weight and how to respect your neighbor's line as you cast.
“Your Jefe is a good man, but he teaches all wrong. Most things aren't work, hijos.”
Inevitably when the boys pushed and shoved one another, the Tío taught them to share soda, not to fight like dogs.
“You must stand up for one another, mi’jos. Because all you got is each other. Take it from me, hijos,” the Jefe advised.
Tío cut his bread and cut his bologna and served up the best sandwiches filled with mustard and cheese for his crew of boys.
When the summer rain poured down, and the boys hid out in the Ranchero away from the water and mud of late afternoons, they studied their Tío closely. They watched as he stood bare-chested, casting his lure over and over, his portable record player becoming soaked. Soon the rain became so complex, the boys had to roll up the Ranchero's windows. Their Tío became a blur on the lake, no way of separating him from the rolling land.
On one occasion Emeterio took his nephews down a few blocks to Ralph’s Corner Store with his winnings from the dog track. He drunkenly joked with the seventeen-year-old girl behind the counter. “I want to speak to Ralph,” he said.
She was quick to laugh at first but he wouldn’t let it go, wanted to keep talking.
“I’m serious, girly,” he said. “I want to talk to Ralph about his sign out there. I don’t think Pepsi is best. I like my RC Cola.”
The boys sought out their gum and their candy in the distraction, running down through the aisles and grabbing comic books, magnet toys and Match Box cars.
“Go on get your toys,” Emeterio said. “Get them while we have the money porque tomorrow it’ll all be gone, hijos. Tomorrow you’ll be old like me and won’t have no time for play. Right, girly?”
Old man Woodbury watched from the back room, and when he put his hands on Neto, Woodbury caught Emeterio’s wrath. He flicked his cigarette into the man’s face, and the men tussled to the street and into traffic, causing a bus and old man Hernandez’ Lincoln to pull off the road. It was as if the entire neighborhood judged. Emeterio crushed the man’s face and his crotch. After a few final slaps Woodbury was down on his knees and almost in prayer to Emeterio, spitting blood and snot onto the asphalt.
“Them boys wouldn’t have been stealing if I was there with them,” the Jefe argued days later after the fight and the police report. “I’ll tell you that goddamn much.”
That next month the Jefe had errands for little Neto, had him around Routt Avenue and East Evans down to Chet’s Market for RC Cola. Down to So-Lo’s Grocery to peruse the toy section and the air rifles. Across Northern to Bessemer Park and across the immense ball field where he could watch baseball, dreaming of the day when he would have the height to play and catch up to “real” fly balls and line drives.
Down to Bollinger’s Newsstand and the yards of comic books and candy, old lady Guzman let him read and sit for hours no matter the warnings listed by the owner’s signs.
He rode on to a little bar and billiards room called The Klamm Shell across from the Veteran’s Bar.
The story is that after riding his bicycle for blocks and blocks Neto rode into the place and asked for his Tío Emeterio.
Usually Neto found Emeterio drunk and screaming madness into the pay phone or sleeping in his truck. One time he rode the man on the handlebars of his bike.
The men of the bars directed Neto to a woman named Loretta, somewhere blocks down on Routt Avenue. He wanted to find Emeterio, get him home to bed. He worried that the bar types, people so much like Emeterio, would take the man’s money from the government check he’d received that month.
Neto rode the neighborhood until he found Emeterio’s Ranchero. He found the door to the house wide open and slipped in, finding no one around even when he yelled his Tío’s name.
The place was still and cold. An empty bottle of Johnnie Walker Red sat on the card table and beer bottles littered the wooden floors and Indian rug, cigarette butts stuffed into ashtrays and thrown along the loveseat and chairs. There was no television or radio.
He found the couple in the bathroom, Loretta cradled in his arms and the two sleeping in the bathtub, a needle in the Tío’s arm. He finally shook the man, “They want you home, Tío.” The man grumbled and could only give a dead look.
“Goddamn disgrace, Emeterio,” the Jefe said after little Neto finally tore home and ratted. “I can’t trust you to even take care of your damn self. I brought you here for work.”
“The fruits of my labor, bro.” It was all the man could offer.
“Look at you. You can’t even say a word of sense.”
His boys washed the man’s forehead with a warm cloth and pushed back the man’s hair from his eyes. Offered him water and a warm blanket. The smell of coffee filled the air while the Jefe and the Jefita argued. Their voices filled the home and filtered through each thin wall into the bathroom and into the kitchen, wherever the boys and Emeterio managed to hide.
John Paul Jaramillo, born and raised in Southern Colorado, now works as a Professor of English in the Arts and Humanities Department of Lincoln Land Community College–Springfield, Illinois. His stories and essays have appeared in numerous publications, including Acentos Review, Palabra, and Duende. His collection of stories, The House of Order, was named a 2013 International Latino Book Award Finalist and the 2013 Latino Boom: An Anthology of U.S. Latino Literature listed him as one of its Top 10 New Latino Authors to Watch and Read.