On the Streets of San Miguel
by Jeanne Gulbranson
Jeanne Gulbranson lives in Henderson, Nevada, and began writing short stories in 2010 after publishing three non-fiction books. Two of her books, Pink Leadership and Be the Horse or the Jockey address leadership and followership development. The third book, I Can Hear the Applause, is a memoir about the first nude showgirl in Vegas. Her short stories have been published byTreasureBoxTales (Fall 2010 First Place Winner), Our Stories (Runner-up, Gordon Award for Flash Fiction), Lucid Hills Press, and Praxis. Gulbranson's web site is www.jeannegulbranson.com
The four teenagers didn't notice Miguel crouched in the large garbage can in the alley. They couldn't see him, but through the small holes he'd cut in the side, he could see them clearly. He squeezed his eyes shut until he grimaced with pain when one of the boys threw gasoline on a small goat they'd stolen from the marketplace. The goat struggled to escape, but he couldn't stand; the boys had broken two of its legs. The biggest teenager fumbled with the wooden match; his movements were ragged after a long afternoon of sniffing gasoline. On the fourth try, when Miguel heard the harsh snap of the matchstick, his eyes flew open in fear and dread. He watched silently as orange-red flames appeared to erupt from the small animal's writhing body. Miguel could block the sight but not the sounds of the goat's desperate, high-pitched bleating mixed with the teens' laughter as they danced around the dying animal. He knew the smell of burning flesh would stay with him for many days.
Miguel stayed in the can long after the boys stumbled down the alley. The acrid fumes of spent gasoline and the heart-wrenching smell of the blackened young goat smothered the hunger that Miguel had carried with him since early that morning. The cramps in his curled-up legs told him he shouldn't stay much longer, but he couldn't bring himself to leave the protection of the garbage can.
While he sat silently, Miguel tried to force back the blanket of memories of the time before when he lived with his seven brothers on the outskirts of San Miguel. When Miguel first came to the streets, he spent many hours re-living his earlier life until he discovered that remembering what he had left behind made it harder to face what was in front of him. He would often wonder aloud, in the stillness of the sunrise, why he worked so hard just to wake up to another day that would be the same as all the others. It was not a good life for a boy who had just reached his twelfth birthday, but for almost two years now, it was the only life Miguel knew.
Miguel understood why his life was on these streets where his family was only a punishing memory; there had been no other choice. His childhood had ended the night his mother died giving birth to the ninth Gutierrez boy. Without her, there were too many growing boys who ate too much and laughed too loudly, and their father was not able to care for them all.
Miguel had to be the one to leave. He was not the oldest or the youngest, but he was not really a Gutierrez. After his birth, he had been abandoned in a ditch but was found and embraced by the Gutierrez family. For his first ten years Miguel had started each day laughing. He laughed at a spider teetering across its web, or his brothers' snoring, or a dirt devil whirling in the wind outside their window, or just because that's what Miguel did. He laughed in the morning, all through the day, and sometimes in his sleep. He laughed for the joy of his family and his life and, sometimes, just for the pleasure of hearing his own laughter. As each of the three babies born after Miguel was taken into the family, he would sit beside their wooden box and laugh as he inspected their little hands and their curly black hair and straight chubby legs. Miguel danced in delight when his father built a lean-to on the back of their small house, a sleeping room for some of the boys when they ran out of space for more pallets in the front room. The older boys had protested that there was only dirt on the lean-to floor, but Miguel had begged to sleep there. He laughed each night as he made up his pallet, pretending that he was going on a picnic—something he'd read about in a book when he still went to school. He laughed all the time, every day, until the night his mama died.
The first months after his mama was gone were a mist of gray to Miguel. His papa was there early in the mornings and most of the nights, but he sat without talking and stared without seeing. One evening, Miguel stood beside him for a long time, hoping for an embrace or even a quick touch, but he turned away when his papa looked at him. His father's eyes looked like the open grave just before they'd lowered his mama into it—black and empty and cold. Miguel left that night with only what he had when they found him ten years before: a thin blanket and a medal of his namesake, San Miguel Arcángel. If Miguel had looked back as he walked down the street, he would have seen his papa watching him from the window. But he did not looked back.
On his second day away from home, Miguel lost his blanket to one of the small gang of homeless teenagers who roamed the alleyways in the center of San Miguel. He had called out to them hoping for companionship and protection, but friendship was not their intent. He handed over the blanket without protest, knowing that he was no match for the much larger boys. Watching them leave with his blanket, Miguel learned his first rule to survive: trust no one.
Miguel learned many lessons quickly. By the third night, when the teenagers came back for him and stole his shoes, he knew to change his sleeping place often. He discovered that the limp from his shorter leg, which drew the attention and derision of other boys on the street, was an advantage when he was begging for pesos. He learned that his small size only worked against him when the older boys found him; the rest of the time, he was grateful that he could fit into spaces that others his age could not. He was easily able to hide in garbage cans, even if they were not completely empty, and he could squeeze in between most of the iron bars on the lower windows of shops. He could quickly drop into a sewer hole and stand on the inside ledge when he saw teenagers or policemen coming. He could even curl up like a cat on a deep windowsill to sleep. He learned to run and hide from the black cars that drove slowly down the alleyways at night after he found a bruised and bleeding boy, barely older than he, who had been thrown from one of the cars after the men raped him.
He saw things that he knew grown men should never see, and he was only a small boy. He saw a man lying in his own filth with puke tangled in his beard. The man was holding an empty bottle of tequila in one hand and had a woman's finger, with a gold ring still circling it, in his other. Miguel stared at the red polish on the fingernail for a long time trying to find the courage to snatch the gold ring. But he could not. He saw a young girl of maybe fifteen years on her knees in a circle of men. She was crying and gagging as they pulled her by the hair from one man to the other. He saw the older boys sniff gasoline they'd siphoned from unattended cars. After just a few deep breaths, they would go on loud rampages, throwing rocks at windows and cars until one by one they would slide into a deep stupor where they stood. One boy passed out behind the back wheel of a large truck and was crushed by the tires when the driver returned. Miguel watched as the dead boy's friends darted over to his body to strip off his shoes and take what little he had left in his pockets.
Miguel had been a street boy for many months when he was awakened by the scratchy tongue of a small brown dog that looked something like Miguel: thin, dust-covered, and alone. Miguel ached to keep the dog, but he knew it was foolish to try to feed both of them. He shared one piece of his tortilla but planned to chase the dog away the next morning. After one night with the little dog's warm body next to his, Miguel decided that he would not be the one to say when the dog should go. He knew the dog would leave him in time anyway. But day after day the little dog was next to him—running when Miguel ran, sleeping when and where he slept, and licking Miguel awake every morning, signaling that it was time to find that day's food. Miguel named him Perrito.
A few weeks after Miguel witnessed the burning of the goat, the town filled with people who came to drink and eat and dance at the annual fiesta honoring the town's patron, San Miguel Arcángel. Late in the afternoon, Miguel saw a truck speeding to get its wares to the dance area when it hit a hole in the road and a box fell out. Faster than a sparrow, Miguel grabbed the box and hid in the alley before the driver had even gotten out of the truck. When he saw that the box was filled with necklaces made of paper flowers, he held Perrito's front legs while they danced in a ragged circle around the box. Miguel sang a childhood song while Perrito's tail beat time on the dusty ground. He layered the necklaces up and down his arms and even wrapped a few around Perrito's neck. Miguel knew he could sell the paper necklaces for many pesos at the fiesta, and his stomach began to rumble at the thought of the dinner they would share. "We will eat well tonight, my little friend," Miguel told Perrito as he rubbed him behind his ears. Miguel was so intent on the necklaces that he didn't notice the teenagers coming up the alley, until Perrito growled a warning.
All that he had learned told Miguel to run and leave the necklaces behind. But he could not. He would not run this time. Maybe it was the dinner he could almost taste or the way Perrito continued a low rumble that was more attack than retreat. Whatever the reason, for the first time, Miguel stood his ground, prepared to defend his next meal.
The first blow split Miguel's lip and knocked him to the ground. He grabbed for the legs of his attacker, but a hard kick to his side pushed him out of range. He saw and heard Perrito lunge at the biggest of the boys, who grabbed the necklaces around the little dog's neck and held him in the air, squirming and choking.
"No, por favor," Miguel begged.
But another boy grabbed Perrito and pulled off his necklaces. Instead of dropping the little dog, he kicked him into the air like a soccer ball. Perrito landed with a flat sound on the street. The small dog's attack brought new strength to Miguel and he tried to stand and face the boys again, but the pain in his side was too great.
While the boys kicked Miguel and hit him with sticks, they taunted him. "You are nothing. No one cares about you. Stay in the dirt. You are the dirt. You are nothing." Just before the final hard kick to his left ear, Miguel heard Perrito's painful whimpers. Warm blood poured from his ear, and he heard the boys' laughter when he whispered "Perrito" before he closed his eyes.
It had been night for several hours when Miguel felt Perrito's tongue on his face. He could see but not hear him until Perrito limped slowly to his other side, away from the blood, and curled up beside him. They lay there while Miguel thought about what the older boys had shouted. They were right. He was nothing. He was the dirt with no one to care for him. He had been brave enough to fight but not strong enough. But he knew that he was both brave and strong enough to die. Miguel knew what he must do.
Miguel remembered the burning goat, but the animal's dying cries told him it was not a good way to die. As he looked around at the decaying buildings, hoping for a sign, he spotted a tattered rope hanging from a rooftop halfway down the alley. The week before, Miguel and Perrito had walked many blocks away from the city's center looking for new cafes that might give a small boy a meal. He'd found a construction site and had watched the men work for most of that day, wondering if he would see his father, but there was no one that he knew. Still sitting on the ground, gently stroking Perrito's head, he remembered the strong rope that the workers used to haul materials to the roof. The rope would easily wrap around a boy's neck and hold him in the air after he stepped off the high building frame.
Miguel staggered to his feet and began to throw rocks at Perrito, yelling at him to leave. He didn't want his friend to see what was going to happen. Miguel was surprised when he felt tears on his face as he kept throwing rocks at the little dog. He had not cried when his mother died or when he left his home, but the sadness on Perrito's face as he slowly walked away released the long-held tears.
On his way to the construction site, Miguel passed a small carnival that had come into town for the fiesta. He stood hypnotized by the bright lights and prancing horses on a merry-go-round that was close to the street. He watched silently as young children squealed and waved to their mamas and papas while they rode the horses up and down, and around and around. Miguel reached down to pet Perrito, his only family, before he remembered that he had chased him away.
A man taking tickets asked Miguel if he wanted to go into the carnival, but Miguel turned away quickly without answering. The man grabbed his shoulder and pointed to the blood on Miguel's mouth and ear. Miguel winced, but said, "I fell in the street. It is nothing." He tried to twist away but the man wouldn't release him.
"There is no charge." the man said as he pushed Miguel toward the open gate.
The flashing lights and circling ponies called out to Miguel, and he stepped inside to get close to the rainbow-colored carousel. Suddenly, a man dressed in all the colors of the merry-go-round came rushing to him, honking a horn, and spraying everyone around them with a water bottle. Miguel's eyes widened as he stared at the clown's bright orange bow, the green suit with the faded purple dots, and the huge red shoes. Miguel raised his head to see all of the clown's yellow hat that poked up straight and stiff into the night sky. It had a cluster of small silver bells on the top, and when the clown shook his head, they sounded like mama's tinkling laughter.
The clown began to spray Miguel and wiped at the dried blood with a large red towel that seemed to appear out of the air. The clown's arms and legs moved in a jerky, stomping dance that made everyone around them laugh, but his eyes were flat and dark as he rubbed Miguel's face. When the blood was gone, the clown shook his head again and Miguel smiled, hearing his mother's voice.
People crowded around Miguel and the clown, and soon there were more than twenty partiers laughing at the clown's dances and tricks. Even Miguel laughed as he watched and cheered for the clown. As his laughter grew stronger, the clown danced faster, and Miguel would laugh more, and harder. He laughed holding his aching side with one hand and wiping tears from his cheeks with the other.
The clown took Miguel's hand, and they walked the small area of the carnival together. The clown would spray and dance and throw his feet in the air, and Miguel's joy would spread through the crowd, and the people would press many pesos into the clown's big gloves.
When it was time for the carnival to close, the clown walked Miguel to the gate and bowed to him, bending low, slowly drawing the red bandana between them—like a toreador paying homage to his patron. The clown and the man at the gate exchanged a long look before the ticket man put twenty pesos into Miguel's hand. He said it was Miguel's payment for bringing his happiness to them.
As the men walked away, Miguel reached into his pocket and rubbed his medal of San Miguel Arcángel. He watched the lights encircling the carnival as they darkened, and a smile eased across his face. He slowly straightened his shoulders and lifted his head, standing taller than he was—taller than a street boy of only twelve years old.
His quiet was broken by familiar barks from across the street. Perrito. The little dog's ears flew straight out from his head as he raced to Miguel and jumped, with a short yelp of pain, into Miguel's open arms. Miguel buried his face into Perrito's neck while the dog squirmed and twisted, licking everywhere his tongue could reach. Pressing his arm against his side, and resting his cheek on Perrito's soft head, Miguel carried his small dog all the way to the tortilla stand to purchase their late-night supper.
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