Ray and I got suspended from school for a whole week and we were the only two kids around to enjoy it. To be honest though, I never understood why he did everything he did, or why I followed him all the time.
On Friday, just before he flashed his tilly, he dared me to spit on a girl’s head from the second floor balcony of the school building. Do it, Ricardo, he said.
No, they’ll know it’s me, I said.
Not if you hide as soon as you spit.
A short, black-haired, coolie girl from the Standard Four classroom downstairs stood still while she talked to her friend. I aimed and felt the saliva gathering in my mouth. I released it and jumped backwards. I heard her friend let out a cry of disgust, then the both of them. Everyone else gathered around to see what happened, then they all started laughing.
Who did this? said the coolie girl. She had her head down and she leaned forward and had her arm up with the foam of my saliva on the web of her hands.
It Ricardo, said the geeky Chiney girl pointing at me from where she stood on a mound of white sand.
Just then Ray ran downstairs and unzipped his pants and took out his tilly while everyone was still laughing. He waved it at all the girls who looked on with disgusted faces and the boys cheered him on with more laughter. A couple of teachers heard the commotion, and probably thinking it was a fight, ran over like hombres con machetes. The first thing they saw was Ray’s tilly and the saliva on the Coolie girl’s hand, God knows what they thought. The geeky Chiney girl standing on top of the mound of white sand began jumping and continued pointing at me on the balcony.
It Ricardo, she yelled. It Ricardo, it Ricardo, sah.
They took us to the principal’s office and she got so pissed that the sting of her two-foot white rope on our palms was not enough to make her satisfied. The entire scene put the two of us in equal trouble.
When I arrived home that afternoon, my mom called the house phone and said, te voy a dar un nalgazo when I get home from work. I wanted to call Ray but I wasn’t sure if he was being beaten or already had been. I called anyway and he answered, Bwai my ma isn’t at home. She went to the market.
My ma isn’t at home either, I said, but she called and says she will beat me when she gets home from work.
Don’t worry about her, she will forget by the time she reach.
I can’t count on that. What you think I should do?
Listen, put on a jeans pants over five short pants that have thick cloth. You won’t feel a thing.
That stupid, Ray, I said.
Better than nothing, he said.
I did as he suggested and tried to put five short pants on, but I could only get up to four without it looking too obvious. My ass still looked bulky and swollen before its time.
My ma arrived home and didn’t tell me anything when she walked in; the woman didn’t even look at me. She went straight to her room and put her purse down and then I heard some shuffling; the light clink of metal was banging against her wooden door. Then she came out holding a folded leather belt in her hands.
Vengate, she said, te voy a chingar!
I turned around and stuck my ass out to her, but she went straight for my back. Feeling the first bite of the belt, I arched my back and tried to run away but she grabbed me by the collar of my shirt and continued to swing the belt, aiming for my ass but getting me on my leg and behind my knee. Each time she hit, it came with a word, Next. Time. You. Want. To. Give. Trouble. pause. She switched to Spanish, which meant that each hit would come with a syllable. Re-cuer-da-te de es-te nal-ga-zo.
My mom had to work, so she left me at home by myself during the day. I prepared food, she said, it is in the fridge, if you want to eat you will take it out heat it in the microwave.
She left me with chores for each day: sweep and mop the house, dust and wipe down the shelves, water the plants, cut the grass with a machete, and clean out the shed at the back, the one with rusty zincs, old bicycle frames, and other smaller items that I had forgotten existed.
Ray came over first thing after my ma left on Monday, his smile gleaming in the heat of the sun. So did she beat you? he asked.
Yes, I said. She beat me bad. What about you?
I ran away before my ma hit me the second time. I hid in the backyard until dark, by then she was already calmed down.
I felt jealous of Ray. I wanted to be in that house. Ray’s chances of succumbing to consequences were slim. During every skirmish or deep hole he had dug for himself, he found a secret tunnel that led him to safety until everything cooled down, or he’d dig himself out of the hole. He wasn’t great at explaining things, but he was good at thinking up excuses on his feet. Once, when he got caught stealing sugar cane from Mr. Oye’s yard, he told the policeman that his mother’s diabetes pills made her sugar go down too low, so he had to run out and get the first sugary thing he could get his eyes on. The policeman saw the impossibility of Ray and gave up. No matter how you look at it, it was a score for Ray. What does your ma have you doing during the suspension? I asked. He looked at me like I had asked him something in some alien language.
Nothing, that’s why I am here, paisa.
Ray helped me finish my chores, which we finished before lunch. My incentive for cleaning out the shed was if he found anything he wanted, he could keep. For some reason the old bicycle frame excited him. He hung it on his shoulder, ran home and was back before I realized he had left. I noticed that he pocketed a few nuts and bolts from an old toolbox, and placed to one side a level whose bubble tube was broken.
After we were done I gave him a glass of water and a bowl of escabeche soup. He finished eating before I did and then sat on the sofa and watched cartoons.
Where is your pa? he asked.
In Honduras, I said.
When he coming back?
He said he going for a month. He left last week.
You get away then, he said, he laughed. I finished eating then sat on the sofa. I could tell he wanted to ask me something; his mouth kept opening and his breathing uneven. Finally he said, Don’t you feel hot?
You want me to put the fan on? I said.
No, I mean, it’s really hot these days, he said.
It better than the rain last two weeks.
I know so, he said, but it’s a good time to go swim at the river.
You’re crazy, I said, the river is too far to walk. Actually, I was scared. The river could be silent sometimes, like an abandoned house. It happens when there’s no one around. It could get more chilly than the water, and the wind carried with it a lonely and suspecting sound, the kind you hear nowhere else but at the river. And it boils a unique emotion in you, something you can’t quite pinpoint, like an itch that keeps moving around under your skin. Almost like a “you had to be there” joke. The mystery is only served at the river.
We don’t have to go to the river, he said. And I saw that he knew he had the conversation in his hand, manipulating it like clay.
There is a pool in the bush back there, he pointed in the direction of the forest not too far from my house.
Belmopan has no pool, I said. Belize has no pool. What do we have rivers for?
It’s not like the rich people’s pools or the ones you see on TV, he said. They dug it out with a backhoe and the rain filled it up.
I don’t know what made me want to go, but I could feel the desire swelling up in me. Maybe it was curiosity, or maybe it was boredom. I didn’t want to stay at home. I wanted to do something. The only thing holding me back was that it was Ray. I didn’t know what he was up to and I feared not knowing until it was too late, the very last second when you know you’re in deep shit but you can’t do anything else but wade in it.
Tomorrow I need you to come to Market Day with me, he said, like it was part of the same conversation.
Why do I need to go with you? I asked.
I have to go buy vegetables for my ma, and I need some help to bring back some of the bags. I helped you today with cleaning out, so you have to help me.
The fucker. I realized that I couldn’t say anything except that we would have to be back before lunch.
Don’t worry, paisa, he said, we will be quick.
The next day he came over with the same gleaming smile under the hot sun soon after my mother left. I put my shoes on and closed the door and we walked to the market. The mile was a long walk but somehow we never realized it. We passed the Chiney shop, a field of grass as empty as a tablecloth, the museum, which was one big lonely building in the middle of another field of grass, and then the telephone company’s tall tower.
Market Day was on Tuesdays and Fridays, and as usual it was busy with food and fruit vendors, people selling clothes, shoes, furniture, electronics, pets, and anything that could be sold from a stall. Buyers packed the parking lot worse than any fish market (fish was sold here too). Body heat, humidity, hot sun; multiple bright colors from fruits and vegetables and from the traditional clothing of the Mayas and Garifuna, and the not so traditional of everyone else; the scent of spices in the air mixed with smell of sweat and used clothes; voices in debates and laughter drowning out the sound of cars, trucks, and generators.
No one seemed to mind, but I did. This small world was overwhelming my five senses and I couldn’t think straight much less have any sense of direction. Ray grabbed my shirt and pulled me into the middle of the crowd. He looked at me seriously and said,
You see the rings stuffed in the big box by the Chiney? I looked and there was a Chiney woman with her hands clasped behind her back pacing around under the tent in her stall. Displayed at the front was the box with an assortment of silver rings and bracelets and earrings.
I am going to steal one of those rings, he said. I looked at him, puzzled, then angry. I knew that we wouldn’t be taking bags of vegetables back home.
It will be quick and she won’t even know, he continued. All you have to do is act like you are interested in buying something over on the other side of the stall.
No, I said. I could tell this simple act of defiance was new to him. He looked confused, dazed almost.
Why? he said.
Because no, I said. I started to walk away, but then I looked back. I later tried to tell myself that I looked back in hopes that he was following me, that maybe he knew his defeat and couldn’t help but go back home. But no.
He already had his back turned and walking towards the Chiney stall. I felt sorry for him, I really did. A small part of me wanted to stand from afar and watch him, see what he would do. But a bigger part of me remembered the nuts and bolts he pocketed and his excitement for the bicycle frame.
He was approaching the ring box and the Chiney lady was eyeing him. With a pep in my step I walked right past him and across to the other side of the stall where I began touching the yo-yos, whistles, and keychains, and saying things like, I like this, and, how much? The Chiney lady rushed over to me and scolded, No touch!
Admittedly I was mesmerized by a few of the items. So much so that I didn’t notice that Ray was already gone. I told the Chiney lady thanks, she didn’t say anything, and as I walked away I glanced at the ring box trying to find an empty slot.
I walked around for ten minutes before Ray found me and dragged me out of the crowd and onto the street. We crossed it and sat in the drain sharing a bag of shilling water.
You get it? I asked.
Yes, he said.
Can I see it?
Wait til we get home, he said. I insisted and then he pulled it out of his pocket. It was a shiny silver fish-shaped ring. It was light in my hand and the crevices in between the carved out scales had smudges of dirt in them.
What are you going to do with it? I said.
Let’s go with me, he said. I am going to the pawnshop.
The room on this side of the pawnshop was like an empty cave. I could hear my footsteps echo on the tile floor. The man on the other side of the glass and burglar-barred counter didn’t look up at us until Ray was in front of him.
What you want? the man asked.
I want to sell this ring, said Ray. He pulled the ring out of his pocket and showed the man.
Where you get that? the man said. You thief it?
Ray sucked his teeth and said, No, it doesn’t matter where I got it. You want to buy it or not?
Let me see it? the man said. He opened a little glass door over the counter, barely enough to fit two grown hands through. Ray hesitated and said, No, you want to keep it.
I need to see how much it worth if it real silver, the man said.
It’s real silver and I pay twenty-five dollars for it, said Ray, but I will give you for twenty. The man laughed and said he would give him ten.
While they debated, I looked around the room and didn’t notice that a little old man was sitting beside the entrance on a chair at a small and lonely table reading the Guardian, his head bobbing like if his neck didn’t have enough strength to hold the weight. He saw me looking at him and said, You no belong in school?
I thought about what Ray would say, something like, don’t you belong in a coffin? but I couldn’t muster the boldness to do so. Instead I said, No school today, mista.
He told me to come closer and pointed at something in the newspaper. When I got closer I saw that it was a picture of a bald-headed man with a big-lipped smile.
You have no school today, he said, but I still teach you something. You know who this man?
No, I said.
This your prime minister, he said.
I no care, I said.
Bwai, what wrong with you? You want I lash you? Ray was coming back from the counter and was headed for the door.
Who you want to lash? he said.
The two of you, said the old man.
I want you to try, said Ray, you’re not my pa!
The old man raised his voice and said, Come here! I backed away and held open the door while Ray yelled back, Fuck you, puto!
We shot through the door and ran in the direction of home, listening to the fading raspy curses of the old man in the heat.
When we got back to my house I asked him how much he got for it. I’m hungry, he said.
After lunch that afternoon, we watched TV then went to the pool. I was less excited about going to the pool and said as much to Ray. He scolded me and said that he would throw me in the water. I said if he did I would gouge his eyes out. I don’t know why I said that, but it was all that came to mind. He was surprised and didn’t say anything else. I felt ready to go.
The pool was nothing significant. In fact, it was muddy and hidden behind some bushes in an unrecognizable lot full of cohune trees, and it was surrounded by mounds of dirt that was dug out from the hole. Ray’s hands were in his pockets fumbling at pieces of metal I could hear clinking. We stood on the mounds of soil feeling our feet sink into them and our slippers sticking to the clay like glue.
The heat on my back felt like the pinch of a needle, and somehow the wind carried with it the same mystery that floats around the river. I didn’t want to swim, but Ray was looking at the water contemplating, probably hoping that the life that existed at the bottom of the water was nothing more than microbial. I asked him if he was getting in, Hold your horse, he said, I don’t want to get a nail in my foot.
Do you know how deep it is? I said.
Shut up, paisa, he said, if you want to know, why don’t you get in?
I didn’t say anything. He took off his shirt and pants but kept his red brief on. Without the bulge of the pants his legs looked like sticks we used for holding up clotheslines, and his ribs looked like a scrubbing board. He grabbed a long piece of branch and stuck it in the water, shifting it around waiting for something to happen. When nothing did, he pulled the branch out and threw it aside. Leaning sideways on a mound, he stretched his leg into the water feeling around for footing.
There’s a board in here, he said. He put his other leg in and stood up, the water reaching his chest. It’s a long piece of board, he said as he began rocking on it.
Come in, Ray said.
You crazy? I said. The water is dirty.
It’s hot and the water is nice. Come in. You could go shower after this.
My hesitation didn’t last long, but even after taking off my clothes it was long before I immersed in the water. The bottom felt slimy, and the water felt warm. Every time I lifted up, I could feel the silt run down my arms along with the water.
We were too scared to move about too much, or do the stunts we would have done at the river. Instead we just bounced on the board and splashed around the water. We got bored very soon, then sat on a mound, still in our briefs, waiting to get dry. My skin tightened with the heat, and some dirt was still stuck to it.
I feel sleepy now, Ray said.
Me too, I said.
Ray got up and put on his clothes, and then I did too. Then he just stared at the water, the same way he did before we went in. He stood on the mound with his hands in his pockets, staring down at the pool as if still hoping there was nothing in it. He was quiet, the way everything was quiet in the afternoon, with nothing but the hot sun beating down on you and the wind caressing the trees like invisible fingers through hair.
For a second I thought he was going to cry, but he didn’t. Instead he took something out of his pocket and fumbled around with it in his hand for a while. At first I thought it was one of the nuts he got from the shed in my yard, but it was too shiny to be rusted and greased up. Ray looked at it for a little bit, hardly enough for a good acquaintance, then threw it in the water, like it was just some small rock you’d throw in to see how the ripples move.
I don’t think he saw me looking at him; I don’t think he cared. Before we split ways to go home, I asked him what he wanted to do with the money from the ring.
Nada, paisa, he said.
Rafael Gamero is from Belize, Central America/Caribbean and now lives in Greensboro, North Carolina with his wife and son, and will be expecting another son in October 2017. He recently completed his MFA in Creative Writing from UNC-Greensboro and is now an Assistant Professor of English at Shaw University. His fiction and non-fiction have been published in The Caribbean Writer, Drunk Monkeys, Litro Magazine, and others. After writing this short story, “Ray”, Rafael has since been working on a collection of linked short stories exploring the relationship between the characters and their environment in Belize.