Saturday, October 13, 2012

Weird Ronnie's fish guts


A short magic realism tale about a bilingual teacher and a strange kid from the neighborhood

by Rudy Ch. Garcia    

I saw Weird Ronnie yesterday, the third-grader who lives down the street and around the block from me.  As his rotundous, roly-poly shape closes the distance between us, I see he's up to his usual--kicking at a pit bull through a fence, snagging wasps to pull off their wings, and chasing first-graders whose legs he's threatening to pull off.  I take a break from weeding discarded whiskey bottles from my cactus garden and ask him what he's doing, 'cause he looks a little sad.
"Nuttin."
He says that a lot.  Like that time he was in an empty lot burying a pair of red shoes and pink socks and I asked him what he was doing, he said, "Nuttin."  I take that to mean he's thinking of things to keep himself busy.  Idle hands, you know.
Anyway, as I crouch there, yanking prickly pear needles out of my forearm, I ask him if he knows anything about the boy over on the street who was reported missing.
"Nope."
"You know the boy," I say, "the one that use to call you loco.  What'd you do, kill him?"  I say jokingly, before I can catch myself.
I remember too late that the last time I made a remark like that my car wouldn't start for days.  Whatever I worked on--the battery, plugs, wiring--when I tried starting it, nothing happened.  Except, Weird Ronnie'd be standing nearby, smirking his ghoulish little grimace.  Finally I told him I was sorry if I'd had hurt his feelings, and his beamy little eyes lit up and my car started--all by itself.
So I'm wondering now if I'm in trouble for joking with him about the missing kid, when he says, "Nope, he's okay.  I made sure he had enough air and water for a couple of days."
Since that kid's already been missing for four days, I get distracted, my hand slips off a rock, and I get a cheek full of cactus needles.  While I'm yanking those out, I decide to change the subject.
I also noticed Weird Ronnie looked a little thinner than usual.  If you've never seen him, well, he's definitely plump, though he wasn't always that way.  When he was real young he was pretty skinny, up until the time those kidnappers left that scrawled ransom note about getting his little sister back.  His parents never could read the note to figure out where to send the ransom, so they never got her back.  But Weird Ronnie did plump up.  Go figure.
Anyway, I say, "You're looking trimmer.  You been working out?"  I can't help giving him a nervous chuckle.
"Nope."
"What you been eating?"
"Nuttin."
"Nuttin?  Haven't your parents been feeding you?"
"Nope."
"Why not?"
"Ain't been home since Tuesday."
I'm worried again.  The first time this happened, it took the cops a week, a subpoena and two court orders to get them to come back.  I hoped this wasn't going to last as long because the neighborhood lost a lot of cats during that episode.
So, I have to ask, "Want something to eat?"
"Yup."  (He also says that a lot.)
"What would you like?  How 'bout some tamales?"
"Nope. Got any fish guts or chicken lips?"
I laugh and say I don't think I have either one, but I take him in and fix him a peanut butter sandwich, with a little tuna laid on, and tell him it's close to fish guts.  He gives me a big smile that shows his cracked, black teeth.  While I'm looking for something for him to drink, I ask how school is.
"Okay."
"How the sixth-graders treating you?"  I always hear they tease him something awful, for his weight, teeth, and all the rest.
"Fine."
We don't talk much while he finishes the tun-- ... uh ... fish guts sandwich.
Then he tells me, "You're always building things.  You got any extra wood?"
"Yup."  (Sometimes I say that.)
"You know how to build a cross, like a big crucifix?"
"Sure, that's easy.  What size you need it?"
"Big enough for a sixth-grader."
I manage to think up a quick lie and tell him I don't have the right kind of wood for that.  I'm not sure about the stare he gives me, but I can tell he's thinking.
As we head out onto the front deck, Weird Ronnie grabs my hand, jerking me so I have to look into his eyes.  "You know, I know that wasn't at all like fish guts, right?  It was tuna, huh?  My uncle Mario used to give me tuna."
I don't know if it's his clammy hand or his tone of voice that bothers me more.  Like the feeling you get in a nightmare about swimming, when something underwater grabs your leg and you can't get away no matter how much you try to shake and shake it off.
The tone of his words bothers me 'cause I remember his uncle Mario was never the same after he babysat Weird Ronnie one week.  Last I heard, the uncle had been transferred to a federal institution 'cause the state hospital decided they couldn't treat him.
"I'll try to do better than tuna next time," is all I can think of saying.  With that he lets go of my hand and strolls away down the sidewalk.  He seems to have given my wrist a rash, but I'm glad he at least leaves with a half-smile on his face.  I always try what I can to get along with him.
As I watch him turn the corner of the block, I remember the nice house that used to be on that vacant lot, before all the arsons.  But since most of the adults do pretty much whatever Weird Ronnie wants now, luckily the fires don't happen as often anymore.
Just before I go in for the evening, I'm thinking how much could real fish guts cost.  And what could it hurt to make him one measly cross?
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