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The boy rode in the car with his father. It was late afternoon and they were on their way to buy fireworks. The father had worked a full day and was tired, but he had promised to drive his son to the stands. This was the Fourth of July. They had made the short trip to the edge of town for as long as the boy could remember in his eleven years. He had two older sisters, but they had never enjoyed doing this with their father. When the boy was little, his father lit the fireworks on the sidewalk as the boy watched from the porch with his mother. He would let go of his mother's hand and clap at each small explosion as if he had forgotten the one that had gone off only a minute earlier. Now that he was older, he lit the fireworks with other boys from the neighborhood and sometimes his father stood on the porch to watch.
The fireworks stands were just beyond the city limits sign for Brownsville, Texas. The long and narrow wooden structures were scattered along the dry edges of the highway like giant matches that had fallen from the sky. Behind the stands, the flat sorghum fields stretched for a couple of miles until they reached the Rio Grande. The father stopped next to a stand with a large sign that readmr. z's fireworks. The owner of the business introduced himself to the father and they shook hands. "Juan Zamarripa, para servirle," the owner said. Then it was the boy's turn to shake hands. "Diego Morales, sir," he said. The owner was an old man and he wore a red baseball cap with the words mr. z's fireworks stenciled across the front. His long white sideburns reminded Diego of cotton strands glued to brown construction paper. On his right forearm the owner had a faded tattoo of an eagle. The two men spoke in Spanish while Diego picked out fireworks. A teenage boy who worked behind the counter helped him. After his father paid for the fireworks, the owner motioned for Diego to come closer.
"I think you forgot something," the old man said as he dropped an extra bottle rocket inside the bag. "What do you say?" the father was quick to ask. "Thank you," Diego said.
The old man nodded. "How old are you, son?" "Eleven." "Eleven?" the old man said. "N'hombre, by the time I was your age I had a job and my own money. Are you good in math?" "Yes, sir." "Vamos a ver, let's say I buy three dollars and fifty cents' worth of fireworks and I give you a five-dollar bill. What's my change?" "One dollar and fifty cents," Diego said.
"Hey, you're faster than some people I know," Mr. Z said and glanced at the boy behind the counter. "You should come work for me, son. I don't pay a lot, but you get all your fireworks for fifty percent off." Diego looked up at his father.
"If you want the job, you can have it," his father said. "Bueno, I have enough help right now," Mr. Z said. "But I'll call you before New Year's and let's see what we can do." That night Diego popped his fireworks in the street with the other neighborhood boys, but he couldn't stop thinking about what had happened earlier that day. He thought of all the other jobs in the world he could have, and none of them were as great as working at a fireworks stand. His sisters didn't even have jobs yet. They were always asking for money to go out with their friends. And now he would be earning enough to buy his own fireworks. Who knew how much he could buy if they were only half price? He told his friends, and some of the older boys wanted to know if they needed more help at the stand. He told them he couldn't say, but he would let them know. The dark sky flashed before him in brilliant colors and New Year's seemed as if it would take forever to get here.
The summer and autumn months passed slowly until Mr. Z phoned Diego the second week of December. "Are you still interested, son?" "Yes, sir." "And you're willing to work hard?" "Oh, yes, sir." "That's good, because the boys I hired last summer were lazy. They started off okay, but they got lazy on me." "I'll work hard. I'm not lazy." "I didn't think you were. Your father doesn't look like a lazy man."
"No, sir." "Bueno, we're opening next week, a few days before Christmas, and going all the way to New Year's. My boys come in at noon and work late. How does that sound to you?" "It sounds good. All my friends, they wish they could work at your stand."
"That's good to hear, son," the old man said. "You stop by next Wednesday and I'll show you how we work at Mr. Z's. Tell your father I can give you a ride home when we close down." Diego spent the next few days wishing that he could be at work already. It was a good thing he didn't have to share a room the way his sisters did. He wanted to be alone. He heard his parents talking the night before he started. His mother thought he was too young to be working until the stand closed, but his father said Diego had already promised the man he would work. His boy was not going to back out now. He wouldn't let her treat him like a baby. They were quiet after that. Diego fell asleep wondering how different his life would be if tomorrow ever came.
His father drove home at lunch the next day. He wanted to take his son to his first day of work. Diego had spent some time getting ready that morning. After he showered, he brushed his teeth and put on his favorite blue jeans. He used a few drops of his father's Tres Flores to comb his hair. When they heard the car horn, Diego's mother kissed him on the cheek and told him to be careful. He said okay and ran to the car where his father was waiting.
They cracked the windows open at the top to let in the cool air. The sky was ash gray, as it had been for the past week. On the way to the stands they passed the cafés along International Boulevard, the panadería and its glorious scent of fresh sweet bread, the restaurant that sold barbacoa on Sunday mornings, the service station where the father had worked as a young man.
"You need to pay attention to Mr. Zamarripa," his father said. "Don't be playing around with the other boys. I want you to be serious. ¿Me entiendes?" "Yes, sir."
These were the only words they exchanged on the way to the stand, but Diego knew what his father meant. He wanted Diego to behave and not do anything to embarrass him in front of Mr. Z. The tone of his father's voice was serious. It was the same tone he used right before he got angry. Once, his father had told him to be careful with the orange soda he was drinking in the car and then a minute later, when the soda spilled on the cloth seats, his father slapped him. His father had hit him a couple of other times, enough for Diego to know that tone of voice. When they arrived at the stand, his father stayed in the car and waved to Mr. Z. "Pay attention," he said. Another boy was inside the stand with Mr. Z. His name was Ricky and he had also been hired to work. Although they were about the same age, he was shorter and huskier than Diego. Ricky lived in the projects near Diego's house, but they had never met.
It was warmer inside the stand and Diego put away the windbreaker his mother had made him wear. The old man handed each of the boys a red mr. z's fireworks cap. They thanked him and put them on. Diego was too busy adjusting the size to notice that his cap was bent and the brim was worn down and dirty.
"Bueno, I'm going to tell you what we got here at Mr. Z's. Black Cats is the most popular firecracker there is." The old man showed them the black and red package. "You got no Black Cats, you got no New Year's. It's my all-time bestseller. Nobody beats El Gato Negro." He raised his hands as if they were claws. The boys backed up.
"These are the Black Snakes. You light the fuse and it starts smoking and a tiny snake comes out - these are good for the little kids. Sparklers, too. If a man comes in alone, he probably has kids at home. And, Diego, what do you offer him?" "Black Snakes and sparklers." "That's right, son. Now you're using what God gave you," the old man said and pointed to Diego's head. "Over here are the smoke bombs, another bestseller. Who doesn't like smoke bombs?"
The boys stared at the old man. "Who?" he said. "Nobody?" Ricky said.
"Good answer," Mr. Z said. "The older kids go for bottle rockets, guaranteed. Roman candles are Roman candles. If you don't know what those are, you're in the wrong business. Silver Jets are new. They make a loud sound like a coffeepot when it's ready. Every pinche perro in the neighborhood barks when they hear it take off. It's for the big kids." The boys listened to Mr. Z explain how to sell some of the less-popular fireworks, place the money in a tin box under the counter, and bag everything the customers bought. He covered the stand from one end to the other. Diego already knew all the fireworks because he'd been buying them for years, but he didn't want to tell the old man this and be disrespectful. When Mr. Z finished, he left the boys in the stand and walked to his pale yellow truck. He had parked it a few yards beyond the stand, the front end pointed into the ditch. There was a camper on the bed that looked rustier than the ancient truck it was attached to. The old man sat in the driver's seat for a long stretch of time. He finally walked to the front of the stand to watch the boys help some customers. After the people drove away, he brought Diego and Ricky together. "Diego, what's the matter? How come you don't smile more? Who wants to buy fireworks from somebody who's got a serious face?" "I don't know."
"You need to smile, son. Right now you look like you're going to the rest room, making number two." The old man strained his face and pretended he was sitting on a toilet. Ricky laughed. So did Diego, but then he remembered what his father had said and he tried to be serious again. "Y tú, Ricky, what are you laughing at?" Mr. Z said. "Didn't I tell you to sell the Black Snakes to the men who come in alone?"
"Yes, sir." "¿Entonces? What happened with that last man with the red shirt?" "I forgot." "I forgot. You better not forgot next time." The boys did better with the people who stopped by the rest of that afternoon. Mr. Z kept walking behind the customers and exaggerating his smile to make Diego remember what he had said. Ricky sold three packages of sparklers and Black Snakes.
At four o'clock, Mr. Z said it was time for dinner. If they waited until five or six, there would be too many customers. He asked the boys what they wanted from Whataburger. "I didn't bring enough money," Diego said. "You don't need no money. I pay for all the meals my boys eat. You just tell me what you want."
Mr. Z brought back three cheeseburgers, fries, and drinks. They sat on the tailgate of the truck and looked at the passing cars and trucks. The boys wouldn't get paid for another week, so the meal was a small reward. Diego liked working hard. His father worked hard as a mechanic, sometimes taking side jobs to bring in a little extra. On those weekends, two or three cars would be parked in the backyard, waiting to be repaired. Diego took another bite. He thought this had to be the best cheeseburger he ever tasted.
The stand closed at ten o'clock. Mr. Z counted the money while the boys swept the inside of the stand and locked the doors and windows. Ricky had ridden his ten-speed bike to work, but Mr. Z told him to put it in the back of the truck because he was giving them both a ride home.
The old man used his hand to sweep the crumpled newspapers, used bags of chicharrones, soda cans, and Mexican lottery tickets from the passenger's seat onto the floor. Diego sat in the middle and Ricky leaned against the door. A tiny hula girl was glued to the dashboard. The boys watched her grass skirt swish around each time the truck hit a bump in the road. "You two remind me of my boys." The old man pulled out a black-and-white photo that was clipped to the sun visor. "Mira, aquí están, when they were still in the hospital." He turned on the cab light to show them the photo of the twin babies. Their faces were scrunched together and they were both crying.
"What do you think? Do they look like their old man?" "Kind of," Ricky said. "What do they look like now?" Diego handed back the photo and Mr. Z put it in his shirt pocket. "You have to ask their mama that question. She left to Chicago when they were still babies." The old man was quiet for a while, looking at the truck's headlights on the road. "But if they're my boys, they're probably some handsome men now," he said and laughed a little.
They were at the Four Corners intersection when the old man opened the glove box. Some receipts fell out and he grabbed a quart of whiskey. The bottle had a picture of a fighting cock on the label. Mr. Z took a quick drink and handed the bottle to Diego.
"Andale, you got to drink to your first day of work. It was a good day, we made some good money," the old man said. Diego winced as soon as he tasted the whiskey. He wanted to spit it out, but he drank it instead. "You too, Ricky. Today you're workingmen, hombres trabajadores." Diego was glad that the old man held on to the bottle for the rest of the ride.
His mother and father were waiting for him in the living room. His sisters came out of their room when they heard him walk in the door.
"How was your first day?" his father said. "Are you hungry, mi'jito?" his mother said. She reheated some tamales, and the family crowded around him at the kitchen table. "So, Diego, are you going to lend us money now?" his oldest sister asked and laughed. "You girls leave your brother alone - he's eating," his father said.
When Diego finished his meal, he told them about learning how to work inside the stand and eating cheeseburgers on the tailgate of the truck and selling fireworks to little kids and going to the rest room behind a mesquite and almost seeing a wreck between an 18-wheeler and a car that pulled out onto the highway too fast and cleaning the place after they closed. He told them everything, except the part about the ride home and the bottle with the rooster on it.
The next day Diego made it to work before Ricky. He took care of the few customers that came by early. Mr. Z kept looking at his watch and shaking his head. At one point, the old man wrote something in the little notepad that he used to record all the sales for the day.
Diego was rearranging the bottle rockets when Ricky finally showed up for work. His mother had driven him to the stand. Diego noticed she was a lot younger than most of his friends' moms. She wore large hoop earrings and her dark hair was in a ponytail. She apologized to Mr. Z for Ricky being an hour late. Someone had stolen his bike. Ricky's eyes were swollen as though he had been crying.
"It won't happen again," she promised. "No te preocupes por eso," Mr. Z assured her. "I'm sorry you had to bring Ricky all this way. I would've been happy to pick him up."
Excerpted from Brownsville by Oscar Casares Copyright © 2003 by Oscar Casares
Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
|I Thought You and Me Were Friends||1|
|They Say He Was Lost||69|
|Big Jesse, Little Jesse||89|
|Don't Believe Anything He Tells You||139|
Any reader - youngster, busy executive, working Mom, retired worker, or Grandparent - will relish this read. Having grown up in Brownsville, Texas, I can tell you first-hand that this book exactly portrays a realistic picture of the community's atmosphere and the color of the people who live in it. The short-story approach also makes this book a lively and quick read. You will just love this book!
2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted May 8, 2003
I read the book entirely and I was completely satisfied with Oscar Casares's work. Being hispanic, he vividly depicts our culture, our ways, our beliefs, and the way we go through life. It is a homage to his hometown and all the towns along the Rio Grande. I personally liked 'Big Jesse Little Jesse.' That short story in particular highlights the many hardships that we hispanics go through. In the short story, Little Jesse was born with a leg shorter than the other. It is the story of a couple who are separated after being together for several years. The mother over-protects the young boy while Big Jesse tries not to feel pitty for his son, thus making his stronger; he wants his son not to feel inferior or weak. The fascinating thing about his short stories is that they can all be applied in everyday life. No matter if you are white, black, or Mexican American, everyone can see their lives portrayed in his work.
1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted June 10, 2013
I not only read this book and loved it...I bought a copy for my dad, who was living in Mexico at the time the book came out. I found out a few months later, that he had given it to another friend of his who was an actual Brownsville native. I live in the Rio Grande Valley, but not in Brownsville. Still, the stories in this book are very true and resonant of the everyday life en el Valle. Kudos to Mr. Casares!!Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted May 6, 2011
The short stories were interesting. I live in South Texas and I believe that Mr. Casares caught the flavor of this region. I would recommend this book to anybody that wonders what it is like to live on the border.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted December 10, 2003
Author Oscar Casares breathed life, realism and morals into his fictional short stories of the men and women of Brownsville Texas in his book Brownsville Stories. Delightful, fanciful, and in living-color, every word brings a rush of memories and truth to any reader who has ever visited or lived in the lower Rio Grande Valley area of south Texas. This book is easy to read and fun! A must read for all to enjoy!Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted January 12, 2010
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