by Mario Duarte
“Monkeys, time to go!” Papi yells in his firm but gravelly voice. I lag behind at the end of the K-Mart checkout counter, eyeing the Mars candy bars. Aleta, my younger sister, kicks my heels. I trudge forward almost bumping into a white woman pushing a cart who suddenly stops after hearing Papi. Her lips stretch into a worldwide oval, ruby red lipstick smeared on her cigarette-stained teeth.
Her gaze turns from Papi to my smirking sister and then strikes like stones at my eyes. The white woman winces her twitching hands adjusting the contours of her blue beehive hairdo. Under my stiff shirt collar, I shrink like a turtle into his shell. Papi, unaware, or ignoring her, collects the long rolling receipt and starts walking, humming.
Holding an oversized shopping bag in one-hand, Papi with his free hand waves us through the automatic door activated by an electric eye; the blue beam glows like something out of a spy movie. I picture a blue laser beam cutting me in half, leaving my legs and torso writhing on the black-and-white checkered tile floor.
“Race!” Aleta shouts, dashing through the blue beam. I push my dread aside and shoot off. We sprint to the parking lot and without looking both ways. No moving cars. Lucky us. Legs pumping, we pass a long row of cars to the old red Valiant. I am older, faster, and tear past her, tagging the shotgun door first, stopping to pant. When I open the door, she pushes past me, and climbs inside.
“I win, again, loser,” she sneers. When I shout I won, she shakes no, her long dark bangs whipping the defenseless air. From the back seat, I reach out to yank her ponytails, wound tightly with purple rubber bands, but drop back when Papi climbs behind the wheel. With eyebrows arched like hairy spider legs, he says. “Monos, don’t ever do that again!”
I start a monkey howl but stop when Papi says, “You wanna wind up hurt or dead? Always look both ways.” Aleta and I gaze down, speechless.
Papi clears his throat, a rough ear-catching grunt and my clammy hands scurry down the rabbit holes of my jeans’ pockets. “Buckle up, changos, you never know when an accident might happen.” I look up at the rear view mirror, and Aleta’s eyes, almond-shaped like Papi’s, squeeze into snake eyes.
“No!” Aleta says. She bounces her head against her seat and her belt buckle unclicks tossed aside. I strain to avoid smiling, which would only make Papi angrier. I buckle up, trapped in this unholy trinity; we just sit, waiting for Aleta. Papi’s face turns from his usual pale with a yellow tint to an increasingly reddish glow. His mouth twitches; his meaty fists squeeze tight. Aleta, the manipulator, has pressed him to the limit, and just as his hand is rising to smack her face, she buckles up with a satisfying click.
When he grabs the wheel, Papi’s eyes are shooting marbles. His foot stomps on the gas pedal but the worn out engine stammers. After several more stomps, the poor devil whines and grinds to a roar like a wounded beast, until finally the old red Valiant lurches forward.
While I wipe the sweat from my forehead, Aleta giggles, softly so that Papi cannot hear her. Papi is closing on retirement, his hearing ruined by working in a noisy railroad locomotive repair shop. My ears hear everything. I grind my teeth.
Exhaling, I roll down my window, the air blasts my longish hair, and my cheeks squish tight as if an invisible hand were squeezing them. When I peek in the side mirror, a smirk unreels on the edges of Aleta’s lips. I turn away, staring out the back window. Suddenly, I feel my body fall into the long trail of car exhaust twirling behind us like a monkey tail. When I close my eyes, monkeys high up in the trees pee a fine golden mist over us, while that white woman from the K-Mart laughs, the tiny bell hanging in the back of her mouth ringing like crazy.
Photo by Georgi Petrov on Pexels.com.