Edwin walked home from middle school. It was cloudy, but a threatening humidity hung in the air, making him sweat through his jeans. The Gulf brought a thick stifling breeze, not the kind that makes the heat tolerable, but the kind that just pushes the hot air around, spreading the stink that rises from the pits and the crotch of all the unfortunate who walk home in the afternoon. Edwin was used to it though. He had grown up in the Valley. Sweating was a natural thing.
He always thought of his dad when he walked home. He wondered about him, making him up in his head as he put one foot in front of the other, on the cracked and dilapidated sidewalks that led him home. He made up a new dad every time he walked. He often had to stay after school for tutoring, or detention and would miss the bus, so there were a lot of lonely walks and a lot of different dads. Sometimes his dad would be a lawyer, driving a shiny, black BMW. He would pull up right beside Edwin, and the passenger window would roll down, “Need a ride son?” He would take Edwin out to lunch, where ever he wanted to eat. Sometimes his dad was a construction worker and would pull up in a big raised up F-150 with dried dirt caked on the tires. Edwin’s mother said his dad was a bum, and was probably in jail, and he shouldn’t waste time wondering about him.
Edwin and his mother lived in a one-bedroom, in a part of town where if you didn’t lock your doors you deserved to be robbed or worse. As he approached the familiar façade of the apartment building, he cringed when he saw his mother’s underthings hanging over the side of the balcony, taunting him. Some of the guys at school would give him shit about his mother’s underthings. In the locker room, Eli Maldonado would always talk shit. “Hey, Edwin, tell your mom to put her chones away. Huele como panocha acá afuera.” All the guys would laugh their asses off. Edwin couldn’t do anything because Eli was a lot taller than him, he was good at basketball, and would probably kick his ass. Supposedly he had screwed three chicks at his school, and was dating a high school girl.
Edwin told his mom that if she didn’t stop hanging her underwear outside, he was going to throw all her clothes over the side of the balcony for the stray dogs and tlacuaches to tear up. She ignored his threats and continued to hang her underthings outside. Edwin didn’t have the courage to toss them over the balcony. He stomped up the cement stairs, the wrought-iron railing reverberating with every one of his angry footfalls.
“¡Amá!” he yelled as he forced the key into the difficult lock. “What did I tell you about hanging your chones on the balcony?”
His mother was at work. She usually was home from the hospital, where she worked in the cafeteria, for a few minutes before she had to go to the motel where she worked late nights as a chamber maid. He cursed under his breath, as he slid open the glass door to the balcony. He stared at his mother’s wet underthings with disgust, stains telling a history of her cycles and mishaps. He hated those pieces of clothing. He yanked them from the railing, one of the waist bands catching and ripping loudly. He continued bundling the thin, damp fabric in the crook of his left arm.
“Stupid old bitch. I already told her, the whole damn neighborhood seeing her nasty shit.” Edwin collected the underwear to take down to the laundry room his mother was too cheap to pay for. Edwin hurried out of the apartment, banging his elbow as he slammed the door shut. He stomped down the stairs, almost crashing into Mrs. Montemayor.
“¡Aiiiiy, hijo! ¡Asustaste!” The old woman’s wrinkles were dry, deep cuts that would never heal. Her eyes so wide, the wrinkles disappeared for that moment when she was scared. She looked so different when she was scared, like another person, younger even.
“Sorry, Mrs. Montemayor.” She laughed at her own silliness, the wrinkles coming back now. Edwin very badly wanted to inch past her on the stairs. She was a short heavy set woman, so it took some maneuvering from the both of them, but not before the old woman from Chiapas could eye the underwear in Edwin’s arms. Mrs. Montemayor began to ask Edwin about his mom, often times Edwin knew his mother was home when he heard the two women hashing out the day in their native dialect on the landing outside their door. Sometimes it could go on for almost an hour. It always concluded with “Bueno, bye.” and then the key would slide into the lock and the bolt would squeak before it clicked. This always made Edwin kind of jump and stop what he was doing, even though he was expecting it.
Edwin fumbled with the underwear and turned red, as he squeezed past saying, “Bye, take care.” and finished stomping down the rest of the concrete steps. Edwin stumbled on one of the loose stones that made up the path to the laundry room, dropping some of the clothing. As Edwin was picking up his mother’s things from the dusty walk, the sky grew dark. Thick, grey clouds ate up the sun. The hot air swirled up nothing but dirt, stinging Edwin’s eyes. He clenched them shut as the wind pummeled him with dust. The Gulf often made these threats, as if to make itself known, reminding the border that it belonged to the murky waters that crashed upon its shores.
When he got to the laundry room, he slowly inched in. No sounds of laughter or spray paint cans. He was glad to see it was empty. Eli and the other guys from the neighborhood would sometimes practice tagging on the walls, and he didn’t want to be seen with his arms full of his mother’s chones. He found an open dryer, and began tossing the damp clothes in. He finished putting all the underthings into the dryer, and reached in his pocket for quarters, but his pockets were empty. He rushed upstairs to the little turtle bowl where they kept all the spare change, cursing his mother all way up the stairs, the wrought iron rails singing with the vibrations of his frustration.
As he entered the apartment, he went for the turtle bowl on the kitchen counter. It was empty. “Shit.” He went through some of the pockets of his jeans he had, draped on the futon where he slept in the living room. They were empty. “Dammit.” He went to his mother’s room. He felt something wrong even before he went into the bedroom. A man stepped out into the hallway casually, as if he was just stepping out of his own bedroom. He was dark, and lean. He looked hard, as if carved out of driftwood; he seemed to be tensing all his muscles at once. He eyed Edwin carefully, holding Edwin’s disc-man in one hand; he stuffed something gold in his pocket with the other, looking Edwin up and down.
“Who’re you?” Edwin asked.
“¿Yo? Nadie.” The man said, sliding the disc-man into his denim jacket. His nails were dirty, black underneath. He had the shadow of a beard that disappeared somewhere around his neck. They both just stood there eyeing each other. The man stood, arms out at his sides, leaning on his right leg, like he was ready for something. Edwin reflected his stance.
“¿Tienes un problema?” the man asked as he looked Edwin up and down. Edwin just shook his head, avoiding the man’s eyes. He walked pass Edwin, and out the front door, leaving it open as he stomped down the stairs. Edwin peeked outside the door and down the steps. He was gone.
He closed the door with shaking hands, clicked the bolt lock and slid the chain. He looked in his mother’s bedroom. All the drawers had been overturned, and her jewelry box was empty on the bed. The smell of stale cigarette smoke and body odor hung in the air, another unwanted guest. Tears formed in the corners of his eyes and he furiously wiped them away. He threw his mother’s jewelry box in the corner of the room. He thought about calling the police, but no one in his neighborhood ever did. That son of a bitch! How could he just come in here and take our shit? He couldn’t believe he let him walk out of here. He went into the kitchen and made a sandwich. It had no taste. Edwin felt like he wanted to punch through the wall, through the brick on the outside, and reach out and grab the pendejo that was walking away with their stuff. He was pretty sure he had seen the guy before, probably around the neighborhood. Edwin spent the next hour laying on the futon, listening to the thunder threatening the whole region. He imagined what he would do if he ran into the man again, what he would say, how he would punch him, knock him to the ground and rob him. He hopes he will see him again.
When Edwin went back down to the laundry room to get his mother’s things, they were gone. He checked the other dryers and they were empty. He went back outside. It was raining so hard he could feel the raindrops deep, all the way to the bone.