Fall 2022, Volume 33

Fiction by Christopher Smith Gonzalez

Choose Your Genre

Verse 1

I pull the razor down my cheek looking for tiny hairs that don’t exist.
One day left.
Choose, a voice in my head says.
I look in the mirror. Same brown eyes. Same smooth cheeks.
Choose, my smooth cheeks say. 
My dad has the radio at full volume in the kitchen. I hear him singing along to the song about not letting babies grow up to be cowboys.
“Hurry up,” dad yells over the noise of the radio.
Last week of high school. This is it. All I have to do is make it to tomorrow then choose.
Not today, though. Today, I tell my smooth faced copy, I’m getting invited to the senior bonfire. Amanda will be there. Amanda with the auburn hair and blue eyes. The sideways glances and whispered words to her girlfriends.
“Lets go,” dad bellows from the kitchen.
His volume is always set at 11.
“Am I dropping them off today?” I ask and nod at my two younger siblings sitting at the breakfast table. Milk is dripping off the table.
Drip, drip, choose.
My little brother sticks his tongue out at me. Such a little pop punk.
“No your mom is dropping you all off,” dad says.  “She needs the car today.”
Dad’s taller than me. Stockier too. He always reminds me. He’s a big bass. I’m a little fiddle.
“But,” I start before he cuts me off.
“No buts,” he says and straightens his tie.
Choose, is what his broad back is telling me.
The country music is still blaring.
Let 'em be doctors and lawyers and such, sings the radio.
My siblings are looking at me. Waiting.
“Sorry,” mom says and grabs the keys.
I look back at my dad, Xavier. The senior to my junior. His tie straight now, he picks up his coffee and waves it at us as we file out the door.
“Hey, Junior, can’t wait to hear what you choose tomorrow,” he says. 
Mom drives the back roads like a pro. She leans into curves with her slight body. We roll through stop signs except the one in front of the sheriff deputy’s house.
“Have you made your choice yet?” she asks.
She smiles and looks over at me. South Texas, flat as a pancake, a vinyl record spinning endlessly, rolls past us.
“No,” I say and look at the rows of cotton.
Somewhere out there, the river, the border, then desert, then who knows.
“Have you thought anymore about what we talked about?”
I know mom cares. So does dad. So do all of them.
I wish they’d stop.
“Just think about it ok. Your choice affects everything,” mom says.
I wish everyone would just stop talking about it – The Choice. As if I didn’t know how important it is.
Pick a music genre, just one, and the rest of your life you live on the themes of that kind of music. Easy, right?
Thousands of Critics Councils across the country would be meeting tomorrow to talk to every high school graduate. All I had to do was announce my genre and then it would be done. Flush all the other music sheets down the drain. Burn the instruments that don’t fit. Stick to your genre. 
Most of my teachers, they assumed I’d pick something in Country music like my dad. Family and faith, drinking and cheating.
Dad has been dropping hints about Classic Rock. Masculine, sexy, drugs, defiance. Mom wants Gospel, of course, even though that wasn’t what she picked when she was my age.
“I just don’t want you to make a mistake, mijo,” she says while I step out of the station wagon.
“I just don’t want you to end up like your cousins,” she shouts as I walk away.
She wants to say more but then my little brother and sister start fighting in the back seat.
Right, my cousins. Some in jail. Some in Mexico. Others who knows where.
Down here, they say you either end up in jail or depressed no matter your genre. So why does it matter?
Choose, my voice says.

Verse 2

“What’s up fucker!”
Over the sound of lockers opening and shutting, hundreds of teenagers talking and the intercom droning on, I can always hear Little Mike.
I punch him in the arm to say hello.
Little Mike was Little Mike because he was smaller than big Mike who had been a star on the football team and had graduated the year before. Little Mike was also my friend. Best friend I guess. Only friend if you want to get specific.
On the walls on the way to our lockers, posters tell us to listen closely and that music matters. A poster with a large set of headphones reminds us to Know Where You Come From. Know Where You’re Going.
Little Mike and I, we’ve been listening to music together since we were kids.
“Well, I guess this is it,” Little Mike says while I drop off books and pick up vinyl records from my locker. “We are growing up. You ready to choose?”
He punches my arm.
“Where’s the party going to be tonight,” I ask.
Weaving our way through the crowded hall, Little Mike leans in like it’s a big secret. Like he found Hendrix’s lost master tapes. Like he was going to hand me the secret right there outside English class. 
Before he can say anything, Tanner, in his shirt that is three sizes too big, bumps into me.
“Gross what’s that smell,” he says and waves his hand in front of his face.
His buddies laugh. I grab Little Mike and ask him again if he knows where the party is going to be.
“It’s going to be at Amanda’s,” Little Mike says no longer excited.
“Can we go,” I ask.
We push our way in to the class past the nerds with their head phones on. Still studying. 
“We’ve got to get invited,” Little Mike says and shrugs his shoulders as he sits down.
Eye of the Tiger comes on over the speakers announcing the start of class. The music stops and Mrs. Ringelskies stands up at the front of the room.
“Get your pencils and your headphones out,” she says.
The cool kids at the back of the class groan. I look back. Amanda is there rolling her eyes. 
“How many of you have made your choice already,” Mrs. Ringelskies asks.
The majority of the class raises their hand. I don’t. 
“Better make up your mind quick,” Mrs. Ringelskies says, “And I better not hear of any of my students choosing any of that Ganster Rap.”
She looked at me as she handed out the quiz and added “or Narcocorridos.” 
Everybody laughs but I ignore them and look at the quiz.
Basic music history and trivia.
What band has the single most sold album of all time?
How many of Hank Williams’ offspring write and play music?
Listen to track one. What are the major and minor themes of this piece of music? What genre does it belong to?
It’s multiple choice. Easy. Boring. I take my time to fill up the class time.
“It’s all bullshit,” Little Mike says at lunch about having to choose.
This is the same conversation we’ve had almost every day at lunch.
It’s stupid, to have to choose your future when you are only just barely an adult.
Like, how are you going to choose what you want to listen to all your life while you eat rubbery chicken and Donny who peed his pants when it was already way too late to be peeing your pants, is a few chairs down snorting peas out of his nose?
“You know what it is? It’s just a way to get all of us to shut up and live our little lives,” Little Mike says. “It’s so you do what they say. It’s so you can’t argue or hold it against anyone. No matter what happens, it’s already happened in a song. So they make you think it was meant to be.”
“Who is they,” I ask Little Mike.
He launches into a long explanation that involves the school principle, his parents, the asshole PE teacher. It starts to get hazy when he moves into the politicians.
“Yeah man,” I tell him. “I watched that same conspiracy theory video.”
I say and stab my spoon in to my fruit jello cup.
“It’s not a conspiracy if it is true,” Little Mike says. “They just want to make you think it matters.”
He flicks a piece of his jello at me for emphasis.
That’s when Amanda walked up.
They used to make fun of her, back in junior high. They called her ‘Man’ or look it’s ‘A Man, Duh.’
Nobody called her that now.
Right now, my mouth is hanging open. Right now, Little Mike is giggling like the little dumbass he is.
Amanda pulls the earbuds out of her ears. I can hear a smooth voice singing about tailgates. I wipe the jello off my face as quickly as I can.
Amanda, Little Mike and I. We all watch the purple blob fly through the air and land on the table in front of Amanda.
“Uh, you guys coming to the party?” she asks.
Just like that. She invites us. She only kind of looks like she regrets it even as she says it.
I look at Little Mike but he’s no help. He’s grinning and nodding.
I hear myself say something like yeah, totally, yeah, we’ll be there.
“Your pasture, right,” Little Mike said.
“Yeah, just come in the back way so my dad doesn’t see you,” she says. A couple tables down, one of her friends calls her name. Amanda goes to walk away but then stops and leans down on the table.
She’s so close I can smell the shampoo in her hair. I can imagine her hand reaching and touching mine. I lean towards her like a moon gets pulled in by it’s planet.
“Xavier,” she says and looks directly at me. I’ve seen cats look at birds in a cage this way. “Can you get some weed, you know, for the party?”
Weed, sure, right, because I totally have some.
Anything you ask, is what I keep myself from saying.
“Sure,” I tell her.
Amanda smiles and says thanks as she walks away.
It’s like I’m coming up for air once she’s gone. It’s like the grimy, loud cafeteria is a new world.
“Where are you going to get weed,” Little Mike asks.
He knows I don’t smoke. He doesn’t either.
“Aren’t all your cousins in jail or something,” he says. 
I nod but I’m smiling.
“You’re hopeless,” Little Mike says.
“But we are going to the party,” I say.

“Come sit son,” dad says.
I start sweating. My parents have that serious look on their face. How can they already know?
I look out the window but I don’t see Little Mike’s truck yet.
“We want to talk,” dad says.
I could say I’m sorry. I could lie and say it wasn’t me. I could just run out the door now.
My neck is so hot under the collar of my pearl snap shirt I’m worried my mom will see it turning shiny red like Rudolph’s nose.
How did your parents catch you, other kids will ask. It was my neck, I’ll have to explain.
Mom sits next to me on the couch. Dad sits in his rocker but he sits up on the edge of it. He’s leaning forward with his elbows on his knees. 
“Have you made a decision yet?” dad asks.
Mom pats my leg. I let out a breath like air out of a punctured tire. 
“No,” I say.
I look out the front window again. My mom scoots closer to give me a hug. Her sneaker taps my boot.
“That’s OK,” dad says but I can just hear him over my heart beat crashing waves in my ear.
“That’s normal,” mom says and gives me a little hug.
Crash woosh, crash woosh, goes my ear.
“I waited a while to make my decision,” dad says. “But it’s important that you choose something.”
I nod. It feels like they want me to nod. I tap my boot and feel the extra weight in it.
“Trust God to help you choose,” mom says.
I see a smirk bloom and fade on dad’s face. Mom has her big, this is the truth, kind of eyes.
Not for the first time, I look at them, my mom and dad, wonder what song could have possibly brought them together.
Just then I hear the crunch of tires on gravel
“See y’all later,” I say as I rocket off the couch.
“I thought you were coming to church with me tonight,” mom says.
Already, tears building up in her eyes. Already, she’s got the betrayed look on her face. 
“I told him he could go,” dad says.
“But tonight is a special sermon,” mom says even though she already knows she’s lost the argument.
“I said he could go to the party,” dad says.
I don’t wait to see how it will play out. 
My head is pounding when I jump in to Little Mike’s truck. It smells of cheap, heat cracked plastic and energy drinks. Drums and guitars blare from the stereo.
“Did you get it,” Little Mike asks.
I smile and pat my boot where a little baggie of weed is lodged next to my ankle bone.
“Your cousin?”
“Nope,” I say as Little Mike pulls out of the driveway.
Hank Williams died of a combination of alcohol, morphine and sedatives. Johnny Cash popped pills the way you chew on breath mints. George Jones was such an alcoholic that when his wife hid his car keys, he just jumped on his riding lawnmower for a trip to the liquor store.
“But my dad,” I told Little Mike as he drove to party, “he has always had a soft spot for Willie Nelson.”
Little Mike laughs and slaps the steering wheel.
“But still, how’d you find it?”
“The top shelf in his closet. Behind his whitey tighties,” I say. “It’s the same place he keeps his porn DVDs.”
Little Mike, he smiles and gives me a fist bump.

Verse 3
Cars, SUVs and trucks all crowd around a bonfire. Standing around the fire, most of our classmates are sipping from red solo cups.
Every dude there was trying to mark his territory. Music blared out of each set of shitty truck stereo at top volume. Those that already knew what genre they were going to choose tomorrow were flying their colors. Letting everybody know. Yeah, this is me.
I had a moment of panic. I wished we hadn’t come. The small plastic bag tucked between my boot and sock felt heavy.
Little Mike parked the truck. The knot in my stomach loosened when I opened the door. The heat of the day melted away as the last of the sun sank to the west leaving stars scattered amongst the haze of smoke from the fire.
Tanner, white kid in baggy pants and a wife beater shirt, was blasting gansta rap out of his parent’s white SUV.
“Who invited these lame asses,” he says as I and Little Mike walk by.
I grab Little Mike’s arm and pull him along looking for the beer.
The noise is crazy between all the stereos, the bonfire and the talking. Over  in the bed of one of the trucks, the kid who thinks he’s a DJ is trying to get everyone to turn their music off so we can listen to his stuff. No one is paying attention.
The butch girls are in their own group. The girl with the blonde hair in box braids nods at Little Mike. He nods back then turns to me and rolls his eyes.
It looks like our entire class is there. Even the nerds have taken their headphones off and are drinking beer.
I find the cooler and stick my hand in the ice. I’m fishing for a can when I hear her voice.
“Can you get me one too?”
I look up and there is Amanda sitting on a tailgate. Boots swishing in the tall grass. A yellow sundress as bright as a canary in a coal mine.
I turn back and smile at Little Mike and grabbed two beers.
Amanda patted the spot next to her as I walk up.
“So,” she says, dragging out the ‘o’ sound, as I sit down.
“You going to ask me about this,” I say and pull out the baggie of weed from my boot.
Amanda crinkles her nose and laughs.
The truck we are sitting on is blasting a mishmash of country pop. Dumb lyrics and drum machine beats. I know it’s not Amanda’s music. She’s probably going to choose Bubblegum Pop or maybe Christian Country if she wants to make her mom and dad happy, or, who knows. Maybe she’ll pick something crazy like Indie Folk or something. 
“No silly,” she says and takes the baggie from my hand. “I want to know why you’ve never asked me out.”
My ears feel like they’ve been set on fire. I want to jump off the tailgate and yell but I try to keep my cool.
What was I supposed to say here? I’d practiced a million lines in my head but none of them seemed to fit right.
So I shrugged my shoulders.
“You know, I meant to, I wanted to just it never seemed like the right time,” I said and took a large swallow of beer.
Like some sort of magic trick, she dropped the baggie of weed in her lap and then put her hand on my leg. Her painted nails stark white against the dark blue of my jeans.
“Well I was just thinking this week that I’ve dated a lot of the guys in our class but it’s never really worked out,” she said and smiled.
She was looking at me. Like, really looking. Her eyes looked in to mine.
I nodded. I looked in to her eyes but all I could feel was the little squeeze of her fingers on my thigh.
“I mean you always ask me to dance at the 4-H dances and you are always so nice,” she said. 
Like gravity, I could feel myself being drawn closer to her face. Blue eyes and pink lips that probably tasted like strawberries and cream. They were like a blackhole sucking me in.
It’s when I close my eyes that I hear Little Mike’s high pitched voice.
“Fuck you, mother fucker.”
His voice always got all high like that when he was excited.
I don’t want to but I open my eyes and there is Little Mike by the bonfire waving his arms.
I feel Amanda lean in and start to whisper something in to my ear but that’s when I see someone shove Little Mike. A beer can flies in the air. The shouting is getting louder.
“Just a sec,” I say and get up from the tailgate.

Verse 4

Already a ring is forming. I push my way to the middle. In the warm inner circle I find Little Mike and Tanner.
Tanner is waving his hands around and pointing at Little Mike.
“Ah look, here is the other beaner,” he says when he sees me.
Little Mike isn’t saying a thing but Tanner keeps talking.
How Little Mike and I probably swim the river to get to school everyday.
How we are just going to end up in jail like my cousins.
How we are probably both going to choose Tex-Mex.
“Or some gay narcocorridos,” Tanner says and looks back at his friends in the circle behind him.
That’s when Little Mike lunges. I go to grab him but I’m too late. It’s like slow motion and fast forward at the same time. Fire pops and jumps. Our classmates are yelling. A girl is already screaming. Somebody throws a beer can at them and pale beer streams over them like an albino rainbow.
By the time I can react, Tanner’s gotten up from Little Mike’s tackle. He flips Little Mike to the ground next to the fire and starts kicking him.
I feel a tug at my shirt from behind and that’s when I realize I’m already running toward Tanner. I’m not a fighter. I don’t have a plan. I just run into Tanner as hard as I can and we both end up tripping over Little Mike and fall into the bonfire.
Pain and heat are everywhere. It’s all I can feel until I roll out of the fire. I’m batting at embers on my pants and shirt. I’m reaching up making sure my hair isn’t burning. 
I guess people are still yelling because I can hear something.
But I look up and all I see is Little Mike. He’s getting up off the ground. He points towards me.
I feel the beer can hit the back of my head and then an instant later the cold beer running down my neck and back.
Next thing I know, I’m seeing gold specs in front of me. I don’t know how but I’m on the ground in a ball holding the back of my head.
The screams are louder now. I hear people yelling Little Mikes name over and over. I hear someone say ‘no.’
Next thing, Little Mike pulls me up and says we have to go. There’s blood on his shirt. I look at my hands and there is blood there too.
I look back but all I see are black shapes running back and forth.
Amanda. I look for her on the tailgate. For the yellow sundress. But I don’t see it.
We don’t say anything on the drive back to my house.
He pulls in to the gravel drive way and says, “you didn’t have to help me.”
“I know,” I say.

Verse 5

I wake up early because of the headache. The cut stopped bleeding on its own and I have little burn marks all over my arms. Some of my hair is singed and even after a shower I still smell like burnt hair.
Mom and dad, they don’t say anything in the morning. Dad doesn’t have his music on. Mom has her bible out. She looks like she hasn’t slept.
Dad says to get in the car so they can drive me to city hall to meet with the choice committee.
“I’ll ride with Little Mike,” I tell them.
“Michael is in jail,” my dad says almost like he’s happy to deliver the news. Like he’s excited to surprise me. “Assault,” he adds.
Nobody says anything after that. At least I get a quiet car ride to city hall.
When we get there, I see my classmates. Some being dropped off by parents or older siblings. Some drive themselves.
I see Tanner. He’s with his mom and dad. His dad is in a suit. Even Tanner is dressed nice. A cornflower blue polo shirt tucked in to normal fitting pants.
His mom hugs him when she sees me and my parents get out of the car.
I should feel bad but I smile when I see the bandages on Tanner’s head. The two black eyes and the plugs in his nose.
“Remember what we’ve told you,” dad says as he comes up next to me. “Make the right choice.”
“Is Little Mike going to be ok,” I ask.
My parents ignore me.
Mom gives me a hug and I can feel the tears running down her cheek and on to my shoulder.
I pull away. I want to ask about Little Mike again. I want to run to the jail to bail him out or something but I don’t know where it even is. I look around at city hall, the library. Some other dumb buildings.
“I know you’ll make the right choice,” mom says. 
So I get in line.
What else should I do? What else could I say?
So now I’m supposed to choose. Just like my classmates. Just like my parents. My teachers.
So I guess this is growing up, getting on with my life.
No matter what happens to you, it is your fault. No matter what happens to you it was meant to be. It’s all just part of a song.
Behind me and in front of me, my classmates are talking about Little Mike. About the two-by-four he pulled out of the bonfire. About how the cops dragged him out of his bed. How his mom cried as they took him away.
The line moves quick. I don’t look back at my parents.
I’m up the steps and in the hall and then in a chair in the middle of a large room. Five elder critics. Three men and two women, sit at a dais. Behind them, floor to ceiling speakers.
“Xavier Junior, son of Xavier Senior, Classic Country, and Linda, Bolero,” says one of the men.
A few more words about the importance of the choice and finally the words “Xavier Junior, what genre do you choose?”
These men and women, they watch me. There is an attendant at the door looking at his watch and then at the line still waiting to come in. To choose. To get on with it.
I wish I could help Little Mike. I wish I was in the jail cell with him.
I look at the old men and women. I tell them my choice. I tell them who I want to be.
I say my last word.




BIO: Christopher Smith Gonzalez is a Mexican-American writer living where the land is washing away faster than it is being built up.