“Julio: Conqueror of the Crowbar” is a short story from Strays Like Us, a collection of ten standalone stories exploring life as a kid growing up in America.






2011


JULIO LEANS AGAINST a lamppost yards from where the rest sit, on a bench at the city busy stop. On the bench, beneath an awning, are two women and one man, the latter of whom keeps lifting the left sleeve of his suit jacket and sighing at the dial of his designer watch. As each woman takes their turn staring at Julio, they move their hands as if what’s between their fingers isn’t a purse strap, but a rosary. Twice now the petite blonde woman has stared and wondered if offering her seat to the child that has elected to stand in the rain would be the decent thing to do. While the heavy woman on the opposite end of the bench has only contemplated it once, of the two, she, ten minutes prior, was the closest to acting upon the thought, struggling to stand and plopping back down once the sound of the bench’s relief and the stares of her fellow public transiters forced her face to an anxious shade of red.

Needless to say, for the fifteen minutes they’ve all been waiting, none of the three adults have spoken to Julio. No one has asked why at 10:30am on a Tuesday, he is here, and not in the back row of Ms. Guiterrez’s sixth grade classroom, watching her squiggle the finer details of the Battle of Fredericksburg on the blackboard. He does fidget his hands every so often, as if he has yet to determine where they feel most comfortable: in his pants pockets, or when squeezing the straps of his tattered grey and scarlet backpack. A winter inside has rendered his skin even paler than normal.

“You got that way from your father,” his mother has told him before, as recently as Saturday, her Bajío dialect heavy as she broke open the steroid capsules and dumped their powder into the formula already sloshing around the giant metal bowl. “’Go outside for once, northerner, get some sun,’ I’d tell him. Light-skinned bastard.”

As he has for the past two days—as he tends to do with the few things his mother does say to him—Julio tumbles those words through his skull. Chin to crown, jaw to jaw, they bounce, and lag, like a glitching game of Pong with no goals or paddles, the only endpoint being an interruption such as the approaching bus. Its brakes wince its presence, its approach, its promise of Point A to Point B. The accordion connector wheezes hydraulic pressure into the air.

The man in the suit hurries to the opening door, the two women just steps behind. An automated voice says something a trailing Julio cannot discern. But he walks, eyes, neck, shoulders, everything turned left: a peculiar sidestep rather than a natural gait. His brother’s old, soaked shoes squish as he ascends the stairs. He drops in his pocketful of change after the heavy woman does so. Just as he is reaching for the ticket the fare box spits out, the bus driver, a tattooed white man of about fifty, grips his wrist and says:

“Hold up.” With his free hand, the driver reaches for the capless Coke bottle from his cup holder and deposits into it one more gob of tobacco spit. He works his dip around his gums and bottom lip, spits once more, then returns his gaze to Julio. “Where you headed?”

“A field trip,” Julio says.

“A field trip, huh, all by yourself?” The driver watches Julio nod. “Turn a bit, boy,” he says, “no, to the right.”

Julio hears a gasp from one of the passengers in the front seat of the bus—either the black woman head-to-toe in white, or from the white girl with caked black lipstick—and understands that it is no use. Despite what they see, none of them will stop this. None will interject. None will rise and unhand Julio from the bus driver.

When Julio does turn, the driver’s eyes grow wide at what he sees. Julio’s cheek has swollen to double the size of his right; he can open his left eye no wider than a pinky nail; there is a scabbing gash in the center, yellow and purple bruises orbiting. The driver loosens his grip, but does not let go.

“Jesus Christ, kid,” he says.

“Can we get this thing moving already?” the man in the suit says from the seat closest to the middle door of the bus, the seat best suited for his imminent leap onto the sidewalk nearest his destination.

The bus driver ignores the man in the suit. He finally lets go of Julio’s wrist. “Well,” he says, “how’d it happen?” There is a kindness to his voice now, a softness.

And Julio is taken aback by this. He cares not where this kindness is stemming from—whether the driver is a father, a brother, a cousin or uncle—but only that it is there, and that it makes him feel good. Worried for. Needed. It makes him think of his older brother, Oscar, and how, if he were to return home and see Julio’s wounds, how the compassionate side of him, once the majority, would ask questions just like this.

“My mother,” Julio says, “she hit me in the face with a crowbar.”

“Oh,” the driver says. The kindness doesn’t fade, but it does take on a new shape, evolves from something soft into something lumpy, somewhere between curiosity and knowledge. Like he has seen this before. Like he is conjuring images of Julio being punished for dealing weed, for stealing a quarter pound of sliced ham from the butcher, for spitting in a young lady’s hair.

“Drive the fucking bus, would you?” the man in the suit says.

The driver looks back. He grabs his Coke bottle, spits, then swivels into driving position. Before easing the bus into motion, the driver looks at Julio and says, “I guess that’ll teach you.”

Access restricted

Please use the following options to manage your account.

Create an account

Already have an account? Sign in