Spring 2022, Volume 32

Fiction by Alfredo Franco

Blue Turning Grey

The boy is lying with his father and his father’s new wife, Pam, in the big bed, watching Pam’s Quasar TV in the dark. The mattress is fusty from Houston humidity, unchanged sheets, and the two dogs nestling with them. They are wearing their clothes in case the state trooper shows up again in the middle of the night, though the house has only one door, no back door they could escape through. The house, the boy thinks, is like those flatworms he’s read about, that have no anus.

The water and gas have been cut, but not the electricity. Knowing it might die at any moment, the boy devours every second of Gunsmoke, The Doris Day Show, and Arnie. Commercials for Wyatt’s Cafeteria and Pipe Organ Pizza make his empty stomach contract. He watches past the eleven o’clock news, all the way to sign-off, gazing intently into the test pattern and its enigmatic details: the Indian in full headdress, the numerals, grids, wheels within wheels, the flaring crosses. The sound of the sine wave frightens him, as if it is signaling a nuclear attack, the end of the world. But finally—only static.

Pam is snoring. Her black hair (with flecks of premature gray) is tucked into a white turban yellowed from grease and sweat. The boy smells her fishy-sweet aroma. Without money for tampons, she makes due with wads cut from some of his father’s old T-shirts and underwear; the boy has found them, saturated, in the dried-out bathroom toilet that no longer flushes and has peed a couple of times over them—like her, he only goes out to the latrine that his father has dug in the scorpion and snake-infested bushes when he absolutely has to. Only three weeks ago, Pam claimed that she was pregnant, and the boy had felt a stab of inexplicable jealousy, while his father panicked and spent some of their last precious quarters on bottles of Grape Nehi, her favorite drink.

In the gray TV light, the boy looks at his father, who, unusually, hasn’t touched his scotch all night. Maybe it is because he has promised to go out to with him tomorrow to the thickets behind the house to identify some of the flora—the boy can’t wait, and he’ll take along the Golden Guides to wildflowers and trees that his mother gave him last year. A real expedition! Just the two of them, at last. It more than makes up for the daily hunger. Perhaps, the boy thinks, he is lucky not to have gone back home to his mother after all.

His father is still awake but silent, head propped awkwardly on a dank pillow, stubbled chin distended like a frog’s. He stares blankly through smudged gold-rimmed glasses into the gray primordial snow on the TV screen.

“Time for you to go to your own bed, buddy,” he murmurs, without turning his head toward his son. “Turn off the TV on your way out.”

“Can’t I please sleep here, Dad, for one more night?”

Ever since the trooper’s visit, the boy feels afraid to be alone in his room; it feels so far away, though it lies just across the cluttered living area.

“I said scram.”

The larger of the two dogs, a black mutt named Tex, emits a low growl as the boy climbs out of the marshy bed and disturbs the animal’s sleep. How long will they be able to keep feeding him, the boy wonders, as well as the small Dalmatian, whom Pam has christened “Jersey Girl,” after her home state. There are only three cans of Alpo left. The father has warned that they might have to consume these themselves and slaughter the dogs with the machete.

On his way to his room, the boy, who will turn ten in two weeks, steps over empty bottles of Johnnie Walker Red, a mud-encrusted auger bit, the post-hole pincer his father used to open the latrine, rolls of wire mesh, and a pile of dirty clothes they no longer have water to wash.

“How come there’s money for whiskey but not food?” the boy dared to ask Pam one day while his father lay passed out in bed. Up until the trooper’s recent visit, they’d driven religiously, once a week, into downtown Houston to buy two fifths of scotch, the boy sitting in the back seat, queasy with hunger, longing to stop at a Whataburger.

“Your daddy needs his liquor,” Pam snapped.

Then, because the boy just kept staring at her, she explained about the credit card, the one from when she worked as a secretary back in Milltown. The local U-tote-M doesn’t accept charge cards, nor do any of the supermarkets downtown, but the liquor stores are happy to, and the gas stations, not to mention the Trader Vic’s at the Shamrock Hilton.

“It hasn’t been maxed out yet. Before we eat the Alpo,” Pam said deliriously, “we’ll stuff ourselves with cho cho and teriyaki!”

The boy clicks the light on in his room, bare but for an Army Surplus cot and an upturned wooden crate for a nightstand, on which his paperback Golden Guides are neatly stacked. He scans the pea-green walls for spiders. He knows they are harmless, having read about them in Spiders and Their Kin; still, they disgust him, viscerally. He might as well sleep with the light on, long as the electricity lasts, to keep the spiders and loneliness away.

“God damnit, do you want the trooper to see us?” his father shouts from the master bedroom.

The night the trooper came, they’d crouched in the dark at the edge of the front window, the only window in the house not completely blocked by mustang, passionflower, and greenbrier vines. Fuzzily, through a pummeling rain, they saw the rain-ponchoed officer, a shower cap over his Stetson, lift the hood of Pam’s blue Galaxie and check the VIN with a flashlight. Turning, he began banging on their flimsy door. That’s when Pam whispered to his father: “Get the machete!” To the boy’s shock, his dad actually reached for it. He knew his father was no match for the big, tall trooper. “Dad, don’t!” he exclaimed, and Pam slapped a hand over his mouth. Holding their breath, they’d pressed in against the wall as the trooper aimed his flashlight through the rain-specked window, the white, mottled eye of the beam scampering over the Murphy table and the junk on the floor. Finally, they heard the rolling crunch of the patrol car backing out of the wet gravel driveway. His father, glasses askew, dropped the machete from his trembling hand…

The boy flips off the light. In his stiff dungarees, reeking striped T-shirt, and frayed Keds, he collapses into the cot. Falling asleep, he dreams that he sees his mother, who lives in a small apartment back in Langley Park, Maryland. She is walking home from the Grand Union supermarket, laden with bags, hunching over from their weight, the grocery store neon glowing demonic red in the night behind her. He wants to help her carry the bags but cannot move, no matter how hard he tries, his arms and legs paralyzed, as is his tongue when he attempts to call out to her. He can only make growling, grunting sounds, like the scary old tongueless man, here in Texas, who lives in the house next door... The thumping in his chest wakes him up.

His mother had allowed the boy to fly down for summer vacation, not realizing that his father intended to keep him. Had the trooper come to take him back to her? But surely, then, he would have called out his name. Strange that his mother has not flown down herself. Achingly he remembers nourishing meals, fresh clothes, Hydrox cookies, visits to Weile’s ice-cream parlor, Aurora model-kits from the hobby shop, the latest Golden Guides and a hardback Rocket Ship Galileo with a magnificent finned spaceship on the cover. His dad insists that all this spoiling is intended to make a sissy out of him— “That way you’ll never get married and she’ll keep you forever.” He promises to toughen him up and take him hiking and camping, though in all the boy’s time here so far, the only expeditions have been to the liquor store.

  “Yes, I’d rather stay here, in Texas, with Dad, and become a real man.” The father forced him to repeat this to his mother over the phone—before that, too, was cut—and the boy did so, haltingly, while his father, looming over him, listened for any code word or plea for help. The boy is sure his mother heard the hesitation in his voice, the telegraphy of fear, and that he didn’t mean to hurt her. When he handed the receiver back to his father, he could hear her screaming...

The boy hears Pam moan in the dark and feels that stiffening between his legs that makes it hard to breathe and which he can’t control except by forcing himself to think spiders, think machete, think torn-out tongue...


The first thing that the boy sees in the morning is, as always, the grayish Neoscona Crucifera. The window screen is frantic with them—scrabbling, fighting, puncturing the heads of helpless flies wound up in webbing. He checks the walls and himself in case any of them have gotten through. He rolls off his cot. A first molar on his right side is throbbing; he probes for it with his tongue, pushes, feels it rock back and forth. He reaches down into his pants and scratches at the rash in his inguinal region; a smell of rotting cheese wafts up.

The house is still relatively cool in the morning. In the living room, he lowers the Formica-topped Murphy table from its wall frame for breakfast. He sets out three rubber tumblers, the plastic water pitcher, a half-empty fifth of Johnnie Walker Red, and whatever is left of the loaf of Rainbo bread and the bottle of Heinz ketchup. For breakfast, lunch, and dinner, each of them is allotted a slice to fold over a gob of the ketchup, as well as a tumbler of lukewarm water; two brothers who live in one of the neighboring houses allow the boy to fill the pitcher from their well every evening. The water has an iron tang to it, but beggars can’t be choosers Pam said when the boy complained. The brothers seem slow-witted and strange; the boy feels uncomfortable in their presence, yet they are preferable to their other neighbor, on the other side, that old man without a tongue, who, emitting horrible animal-like cries, once threatened the boy and his father with a .38 when they tried to tap into the gas main that lay on his property. The boy has to admit, though, that the old man is clean, always wearing a crisp white shirt and tie, finely creased pants, shiny black wing-tips, and that brown leather shoulder holster.

Without waiting for his father or Pam the boy prepares his slice and bites into it savagely, squinting from the sour taste.

One morning, before he’d realized that his father’s fence installation business had failed and their poverty become acute, he helped himself cheerfully to two slices, making a true ketchup sandwich instead of folding one slice over. Pam told him how selfish he was, and that that, now, would have to count for both his breakfast and lunch. His father said for the millionth time what a bad job his mother had done raising him. Another morning, the boy forgot to close the plastic sack in which the Rainbo came packed; by noon there were white worms crawling in and out of the bread. From the point of a Buck knife, the father dangled an undulating slice right in the boy’s face. 

The father emerges in a blue T-shirt, flip-flops, and blue Bermudas, a Marlboro pack jammed into the waistband. Despite the lack of food, he has the beginnings of a paunch. His toenails are overgrown and yellow; his matted, thinning hair sticks out at the sides; his glasses no longer sit straight and by noon will be slipping down his sweaty nose. He eats silently, with barely a nod at his son, and chases his meager breakfast down with a swig of Johnnie Walker.

“When are we going out, dad?” the boy asks hopefully. “I got my Golden Guides ready.”

“Maybe after breakfast.”

Pam is stirring in the master bedroom. The first thing she does is try the Quasar, switching through the channels. She turns the volume all the way up, blasting the theme music of Concentration throughout the house, a cartoonish rendition of the jerky noises of a computer. “And now, here’s our star, Bah-ob Clayton!”

“They haven’t cut it yet!” Pam shouts, joyously. She comes out, blue eyes wide and sparkling. “I’m gonna lie in bed all day and just watch my soaps!”

The father pats her shapely behind. Straightening her turban, she smiles what his dad calls her “slutty” smile—lower lip covering her upper teeth, upper lip drawn back, exposing large pink gums.

She sits down and begins eagerly to prepare her slice.

We interrupt this program,” a voice announces on the television set, “to bring you a special news bulletin.”

“Did you feed the dogs, buddy?” the father asks, his eyes narrowing after his second swig.

The boy blushes. He’s forgotten again. He’s been told to always do it first thing, before eating his own breakfast.

He lowers his head. “I’ll go do it now…”

“You can’t keep forgetting,” Pam says. “Those dogs are hungry as you are.”

But you’re thinking of slaughtering them...

“Next time, you don’t eat,” his father says. “No breakfast, no lunch, no dinner. You got that, buddy? And as punishment, no field trip today–you stack up those cement bags out front instead.”

“But dad!”

“You heard me!”

The boy’s eyes well up.

“Gonna cry like a girl?”

“N-no, sir.”

This is John Chancellor in the NBC newsroom. Louis Armstrong, one of the greatest musicians in the history of jazz, a legendary entertainer, and a man of incomparable cheerfulness and goodwill, died this morning at his home in New York. He was seventy-one.”

The father takes the Marlboro he was about to light up out of his mouth.

“What’s the matter?” Pam asks.

“Did I really hear that? Louis Armstrong died?”

“Yeah. So?”

“What do you mean, so?”

“Yeah, so what? Hello, Dolly. Big deal.”

The father lets out a long sigh.

“If only your brain were as good as your ass,” he says. He gets up with his bottle and walks, in a kind of daze, into the master bedroom.

A gravelly, guttural voice sings in a strange tongue the boy has never heard—mawww, zah-zah-zah-zee-zo-zo, baz-baz-zey-dee, zay-da-doo…Then a trumpet sounds, so clear, the boy, through his tears, has a vision of a diamond, luminous and pure, suspended in the air, shining down upon their unwashed world.

Pam swallows her bread with a sip of water, then says to him sharply: “Well? What are you waiting for?” Her allergies flaring, she sneezes, wiping snot away from her reddened nose with a strip of T-shirt.

The boy dries his eyes on his arm. He wants to listen to the music but gets up and heads into the gloomy galley kitchen, taking the water pitcher with him. The ancient refrigerator and stove, both gas-powered, are dead. He crouches apprehensively in front of the lower cupboard door, where the Alpo lives. Between the base of the cupboard and the rotting linoleum floor dangles a planetary system of brown, abandoned spider eggs in a dusty web. He is afraid to open the door and put his hand into the dark, in case it should make contact with something hirsute. He closes his eyes and holds his breath, extracting one of the three cans as quickly as possible. Opening his eyes, he is relieved to find no spider, but shudders nevertheless, certain that the can has been crawled over in the night.

The electric opener growls as it cuts along the rim of the lid, drowning out the TV. The boy wonders how he will open the cans once the power is cut. Maybe with a hammer and the Buck. The razor-sharp lid curls open, releasing a smell that is no longer unpleasant to him: lately, in fact, it makes his mouth water. He uses a plastic spoon to dole out equal portions into the dog bowls, making sure to leave half the can for their evening feed. He resists the temptation to steal a mouthful for himself. He pours some of the tepid water from the pitcher into a warped foil pie pan.

“Tex!” he calls out. “Jersey Girl! Alpo time!”

Usually, the hungry animals come scurrying. Where are they? The boy wanders into the back room. The adjustable drafting table is covered in rolled-up dusty blueprints, a T-square, a box of Microtomic pencils. His father had meant this room to be the nerve center of a great fence company, rivaling his own father’s, once the largest on the East Coast. In a shadowy corner, the boy espies Tex humping Jersey Girl. He watches, transfixed, as Tex thrusts into her from the back. When Tex is finished and pulls out of her, Jersey Girl clambers back onto her spindly legs and patters toward the kitchen, leaking a thin trail of blood-like fluid along the linoleum floor. The boy becomes conscious again of his throbbing tooth and presses his hand to his cheek.

“Where’s my trumpet?” he hears his father asking from the master bedroom.

“I haven’t the foggiest,” Pam replies.

“I wish I had my trumpet now,” the father says mournfully, “to play for Louis”.

“Well, what’d you do with it?”

“Oh, I remember now… I hawked it in Suwannee, on my way down here, to pay for gas.”

He sounds unspeakably sad, and the boy forgives him. 

You were still in Milltown,” his father continues, but now a caustic note has crept in, as always after a few swigs, and the boy, hardening, remembers the canceled expedition. “Yep, there you were, all safe and sound in Milltown.”

“Well, I came down, didn’t I?” Pam says. “Quit my job and everything—and to live like this!”

“I’m supposed to be so grateful, that it?”

“What you’re supposed to do, mister, is get us out of this mess! And send your son home. We can’t afford to feed him.”

“Go to hell.”

The front door slams.

“Sing it, Louis, sing it!” his father cries.

But Lord, you made the night too long…

The boy hears the swish of the machete as Pam clears her way to the latrine through the dense green vines that engulf the house. No matter how much of them they cut down, everything grows back overnight, luxuriant, twice as thick. The boy hears her stop at the latrine and drop the machete. Then the rustle of her slacks. Of her panties. Think spiders, think machete, think torn-out tongue…


On the screen, Louis Armstrong grins and wipes his shiny forehead with a handkerchief. He plays with a mute, quieter now, intimate. His father watches from the bed, mesmerized, not even sipping scotch. Pam and the boy watch too, sitting on the bed’s edge. Pam seems impatient, her lips pursed, her nose irritated and runny.

“I can’t believe I hawked my trumpet,” the father says, the Johnnie Red nestled under his left arm.

“Don’t think trumpet,” Pam says. “Think tampons.”

The father blinks, takes a swig, and swallows thickly.

“We haven’t got a dime…” he mutters.

“Then we’ll have to shoplift them, hon… Send your son. They’ll never suspect him.”

“Now I run my hands…through silvery strands…”

The boy bolts from the room and out of the house, running past the Galaxie toward the end of the driveway, which ends at a narrow, one-lane rural road. It is desolate in either direction for miles—the closest places are the U-tote-M, a Conoco station, and a Mexican trailer camp. In this sweltering heat, it will take him forever to reach any of these on foot. And even if he does, will anyone let him use the phone for a long-distance call? He returns dejectedly along the driveway, careful to avoid the mounds of fire ants, which had gotten into his socks the first time he came to the house and made him do a jerky, humiliating dance as they bit him, Pam and his dad just standing there, laughing at him.

Leaning against the front of the Galaxie, the boy gazes at the trucks on the browned grass in front of the house—a decrepit flatbed from the 1950s and a slightly more modern Chevy with a Knapheide utility bed. The trucks look like ships run aground, rotting away in the sun. His dad purchased them used, and they repeatedly broke down on the way to installation jobs, costing him several contracts.

The hood of the Chevy has been left open after one of the ragtag installation crew his father had hired—the ex-con who did time for murder and whose blank, impassive stare always unsettled the boy—tried and failed to repair the engine. A large yellow-and-black writing spider has spun a circular web, orbs within orbs, like planetary arcs, tautly between the radiator and the top of the propped-up hood.

The spider waits, utterly still, at the thick center of its two-dimensional orrery. The boy feels a sudden urge to destroy this cosmos. He searches along the grass and, in a cluster of gumhead, finds a weathered wooden plank with a rusted nail protruding from it. The boy picks it up and swings at the web, furiously, expecting it to simply give way. Instead, there is a horrible ripping sound, as if the nail has caught on some tough, resistant cloth. In a sudden spasm, the spider doubles in size, all of its thin legs jerking outward, like the fingers of a hand that’s been pierced through the palm. The boy screams and leaves the plank suspended in the web as he runs back toward the Galaxie, brushing himself off frenetically in case the spider has leapt onto him. He shivers in the heat.


The front door swings open. The father has put on his big, ten-gallon Stetson, which makes him seem even shorter than he is, the incongruity of the hat with the Bermudas especially ridiculous. He carries the almost-empty bottle of scotch in one hand and a fresh, uncracked one in the other.

“Now I’m going to do what I really want!” he says. “Not what you want, not what my son, not what my father, not what anybody!”

“Come back,” Pam says from inside. “You’re drunk.”

The father ignores her, lets the door slam behind him, and walks toward the flatbed truck, sitting down cross-legged beneath it. There is clearance enough, even with the Stetson. He is, indeed, a small man, the boy thinks.

“You’re going to get bitten by a snake or a scorpion!” Pam says, coming outside, tucking stray hairs into her turban.

“You’ve all ganged up on me,” the father shouts, lifting the bottle to his lips. “Because of you I lost my trumpet!”

“Leave him alone for a while,” Pam murmurs to the boy. “He’s just upset about Armstrong.”

She goes back inside: it’s time for her soaps, and she’s not going to miss them for anything, not while there’s still electricity. The boy is grateful she doesn’t command him to shoplift.

Pam is about ten years younger than his dad. She likes to tell the story of how she fell for him, instantly, the night he came right up to her at the Liberty Tavern in Fords, without knowing her, and said: “You’re going to be my wife.” And the next day in her apartment, how he’d serenaded her with the Carpenters’ hit “Close to You,” changing the words to “That is why/all the boys in Milltown/ Follow you/All around,” and playing those simple, pared-down Bacharach notes on his trumpet.

“Didn’t I tell you to stack those cement bags?” the father growls from under the flatbed. Then, he starts speaking in Armstrong’s tongue: za-za-bi-dee-za-za-baaay-oh…

The boy pushes himself off the Galaxie and walks toward the bags of Ike Cement Mix, which are lying haphazardly in the grass. He cannot lift them, only drag them closer to each other, and in doing so, rips one of them open against a half-buried rock, some of the gray powder spilling out. The boy stops, a long drop of sweat coursing its way down his spine.

“Dad, can we go have lunch now?”

“Get back to work! I’m staying right here, under this truck, for the rest of my life. This is my home from now on. The rest of you can just go to hell. Za-za-ba-doo…”

The father lifts the almost empty bottle and extends it straight out from his lips, moving the fingers of his right hand as if pressing down on piston valves. He sticks the tip of his tongue into the opening and blows, producing only a spittly raspberry.


At the end of Love of Life, Pam saunters out.

“How’re you doing down there?” she asks, crouching to be level with the father under the truck.

The father plays his voiceless trumpet again.

“Hey, that sounds terrific, honey. You oughta join the Tijuana Brass.”

The father lowers the bottle and looks at her, eyes glistening.

“You’re interrupting my riff! Just like everybody else, all my life. Trying to take my trumpet away. You bitch. You better remember that, boy—women are just stomachs full of blood and babies.”

Pam shakes her head and stands, wiping her arm across her dribbling nose.

“And you lied about the baby too!” he screams. “Just to get your hooks into me! Liar! You oughta go work in a fucking lie-berry!” He laughs hysterically.

“Come on, Dad,” the boy says, bending up from the heavy bags. “Let’s go on our field trip.”

Dropping the bottle, its last dregs oozing out onto the oil-stained grass, the father crawls, awkwardly, out from under the flatbed on all fours, looking like an overgrown infant. He rises, with much exertion, from his knees and pushes his glasses back up his nose and straightens the Stetson. “I’m gonna teach you!”

The boy backs away. He can smell the scotch sweating out of his father’s pores.

“Dad, I just meant—”

The father slaps him across the face.

“Hey now!” Pam says. 

“Field trip my ass,” the father says. “You just wanna defend this bitch here. Well, then fight-like-uh-man!”

“Gentlemen,” Pam says, mock-flirtatiously. “Puh-leese!”

Another slap. The boy is crying now.

“That’s how you hit sissies: open hand. Fists’re for real men. Aww, look at him. A crybaby.”

The boy has rarely fought, and when he has, has always lost to the other boys on the school yard asphalt. The father’s face is bloated and sweaty, with a bitter, taunting grin.

He cuffs the boy on the left ear. The boy presses both hands to the stinging pain, then, in a burst of fury, strikes out at his father. The punch fails to connect and only encourages the father to hit him again.

“That all you got?”

“My mother’s gonna get you for this!” the boy screams, shrill and powerless. He swings, flails, kicks, but misses.

Awwww, calling for his mommy!”

“That trooper’s gonna come back and shoot you!”

The father slaps him once more and the boy teeters, tripping backward over one of the cement-mix bags.

“I think that’s enough,” Pam says. “The kid gets it.”

Nobody’s gonna save you!” his father says, looming over him. “You know why? Because your mother’s got cancer and she’s gonna die!”

Pam’s mouth opens, cavernous, speechless.

“Liar!” the boy howls, though it explains, in a cruel flash, why his mother has not come to rescue him. His dream of her had been a warning. In blind rage he flings a palmful of cement powder into his father’s face. The father staggers back, yelping, the gray powder all over his glasses and the Stetson.

The father removes his glasses, shakes off the powder, and wipes his teary eyes on his left arm. The boy lurches to his feet and holds up trembling fists.

“You little shit!” the father says, lunging, hitting the boy, full force, with a left cross to the right side of his face.

You hit him too hard!” Pam shrieks.

The boy feels himself spiraling down into pitch darkness…


The yellow-and-black spider on the Chevy is repairing its web, weaving around—even incorporating—the plank and nail that are still hanging from it. The boy watches from the ground as the spider returns to its center and, once again, waits there, perfectly still.

He feels something rolling on his tongue. He reaches in with dirty fingers and extracts the molar, blackened with blood; it resembles a small meteorite. He bounces it in his palm, drops it in the dust. With the tip of his tongue, he explores the rugous gap left by the tooth, flicks in and out between the two neighboring teeth, tastes rusty blood. Patting along the contours of his face, he feels the swollen right side, which is pushing up against his eye. He rolls over onto his stomach and lifts himself with aching arms, clothes and face gray with cement powder. His underwear is damp and burning against his rash—he has urinated in his pants. He limps, painfully, toward the house and pushes through the flimsy door.

The hot air inside packs the boy’s nostrils as if with burning sand. He breathes through his broken mouth like a panting lizard. The TV is off—perhaps the electricity has finally been cut. Tex and Jersey Girl lie motionless under the Murphy table. For a horrifying second, the boy fears that his father has killed them with the machete. But Tex lifts his head weakly.

The boy staggers to the kitchen and starts scooping out the rest of the Alpo can into the dog bowls. About to faint, he closes his battered mouth over the plastic spoon, scraping off spongy, salty meat with his front teeth, savoring it, swallowing thickly, feeling it course down into his contracted gut. He sips some of the tepid water from the pitcher and refills the pie pan. He sets the bowls and wobbly pan under the table. The dogs revive and begin lapping and chomping, desperately.

Moaning comes from the master bedroom, grunting and sighs.

The boy covers his ears and lurches toward the house door, letting it slam behind him. Summoning all his strength, he runs right through a veritable sea of green ground cover large as lily pads, not thinking of the diamondbacks that might be lurking beneath. He finds the two brothers sitting in Kennedy rockers on the porch of their rickety house. They are fat, nearly identical brothers in their forties, wearing denim overalls and bell-shaped straw hats. Sucking at corncob pipes, they watch him impassively as he climbs the steps.

“Time for the water already?” one of the brothers asks.

“Please…” the boy says. It is hard to speak. Every word hurts. “Can…I…use your…phone…to call…my…mother? She’s sick…”

“Ain’t got no phone. Ain’t got no use for one,” says one of the brothers.

“You look awful funny,” says the other. “Somebody bust yo’ maw ‘n throw you innoo a tub o’ flour or somethin’?”

“N-n-no, I—”

“’Sides, ain’t yo’ momma at home, that gal with the real hot bucket?”

The brothers break out in laughter as the boy rushes back down the steps and through the ground cover, past his father’s vine-choked house, past the derelict trucks, past the Galaxie, through buckthorn hedge slashing his arms, leaping over the gas main, into the realm of the old tongueless man, who opens the door of his spruce, immaculate home, wide-eyed, reaching for the gun in his shoulder holster, cicatrized mouth agape, about to emit a guttural cry—but the boy is looking up at him, wordless and still.




BIO: Alfredo Franco's short stories have appeared in Blackbird, Failbetter, Pembroke Magazine, The MacGuffin, and other journals. He teaches creative writing at Rutgers University.