Juanita’s Boy

“If I’m going to be staying here, Hijos,” Mitedio said, watching the crew of boys, their bare feet and stained t-shirts, “then we need to get the ground rules straight, no?” The boys marched through the living room to their beloved uncle and laughed at his wide, bald scalp, how he flattened across the last remaining hairs. “And, sabes que, Mihijos,” he said, “the rules are we must attend the dog track in the morning and earn enough money to attend the Mexican movies. Those are the rules.”

The boys, Relles and Neto, and even the crew of fosters, yelled and agreed. He told them their Jefe and Jefita had abandoned them for the week. He did not explain that their Abuelita in New Mexico turned up dead-meat and buried. Instead he pulled a bottle from his coverall pocket and took a long, passionate kiss. He called for the youngest Ortiz boy.

“What, Tio?”

“Are you getting smaller and smaller?”

“I’m growing, Tio,” little Neto said, and the boy held his arms up to show the tiny mounds that would one day be biceps.

………………………………………………………………………………………………………

The next morning the boys ate a breakfast of fried bologna and fried potatoes before climbing into the bed of the Ranchero. They headed for dollar bills owed from Joey Aguilar’s house. He wasn’t home, but a fat, ancient hand served the cash through a window.

Next, the crew drove out to the fairgrounds and the swap meet, and Mitedio had a conversation with a woman, her long, black hair parted down the center and eyebrows drawn in an arc. She stared and shook her head, threw her hand onto a corduroy hip. “Jesus. What you doing, Mitedio? You stealing kids now?”

“My brother’s kids.”

She asked, “Your mama?”

“Dead.”

“What happened? I’m sorry, Mitedio.”

“She’s just dead.”

………………………………………………………………………………………………………

“You see, Mihijos,” Mitedio explained from behind the wheel, “at a casino you bet against the house. And when you bet against the house, the odds are pretty bad. You know that? Any man has to know that.”

“Yes, Tio.”

“It’s all French. You know French? ‘Pari-mutuel’, Hijos,” Mitedio explained. “It’s French. It’s a wager and not a bet. What do they teach you in that school?”

The boys said nothing. Their mouths were open wide until the oldest, Relles, finally asked, “What does that mean?”

“Mean?” Mitedio said. “Well, it means you win better. It means you are not playing the house, but you are playing the betters. Los Agents. That’s what it means.”

Es eso Agents?”

“Agents. You know agents. Here you make your own luck. Here a man can know his numbers and know his runners and win. And we’re men who win, no?”

“The Jefe says you can’t win gambling. He says you should focus on a paycheck and earn your way.”

“Oh, Mihijo!” Mitedio said, grinning. “Your father has mouths to feed and cannot bet. But we have no children. Neto, do we have children?”

Neto shook his head, dumbly.

“We have no children, Relles. And that means we can take our risks,” Mitedio answered. “We can go to the daily double with our ten dollars and triple our money if we know the runners. I don’t have a house to take care of. I am independent and free from all of those, Mihijo. Once a man has a paycheck and a job he loses all his freedoms.”

“But a man needs to work, right? Tio?” Relles insisted. “It’s not right to do this in the middle of the week.”

“Oh, Hijo,” Mitedio answered.

………………………………………………………………………………………………………

The daily double started promptly at noon, and Mitedio and the crew were the first in line. Children must be supervised at all times, was what the ticket agent told Mitedio as he talked and talked. He purchased candy bars and sat to study his Race Program.

Mitedio explained: “Gotta find a runner, Mihijos. Gotta find the right one for us.”

And it took him nearly five minutes of study, but he found a runner called Juanita’s Boy. He decided to pass on another called Short Nothing.

“He’s won at this time slot every day last week,” Mitedio said. “This is the time for him. This is the time.” He grinned and ran to the betting agent with the boys. He waited and staggered across the betting lines, and he threw down all of his dollar bills, saving absolutely nothing for the day or for any amount of “in-cases” or “what-ifs.”

………………………………………………………………………………………………………

“The start don’t matter none,” Mitedio instructed, gathering the boys around. “It’s the stretch, Hijos, that matters. The stretch call is what matters. That’s when we’ll see if Juanita’s Boy is the closer we’re looking for. The last stretch.”

“I don’t think you picked the right dog, Tio.”

“Shut it, Relles. You’re just like your old man. You gotta trust the handicap. You gotta trust it. It’s about following the numbers, boy. It’s about watching the dogs and the races closely. Whether the dog is a closer or a breaker. It’s about watching positions and the first three dogs that cross. That’s all it is. Goddamn it. I’m wasting my words.”

The boys got the Tio’s buzz. They began whooping and hollering. They screamed out the dog’s name.

“What’s the stretch, Tio?”

“Shut it, Neto,” Mitedio said. “Shut the hell up when a man is concentrating and thinking. Go, son! Go! Now’s the time, son! Go, son!”

As he drained his beers and spit at his own feet, Mitedio did not confess to the crew of boys he chose Juanita’s Boy because his mother’s middle name was Juanita, and so he had to put the money down on this day of her funeral. That was his duty as a son.

“What happened, Mitedio? What happened?” the boys said in another minute after the booming voice announced a “no-race.”

“It seems,” Mitedio said, “the dog has done up and died, Hijos. Ran into the pinche rabbit and then the fence and had to be put down. That’s what it looks like. Sometimes it happens. The races are not for soft dogs.”

One of the fosters began crying over the dog, crying for lost Juanita’s Boy.

“Don’t cry, Hijos,” Mitedio pleaded. “No-race means our dollar bills will be returned to us. It means we’ll get our money and we’ll go to the Mexican movies. First, though, we’ll put more money down. A man always puts more money down so quit your damn crying. You want the money out there, don’t you? For the movies?”

“But what about our dog, Tio?”

………………………………………………………………………………………………………

After the third race the crew miraculously had money for the Mexican movies over on 4th Street. Mitedio weighed his bets more carefully, saving dollar bills for admission, hot dogs and RC Colas.

Mitedio liked the Riverside Drive-In or the Mesa Drive-In, but mostly he liked The 96 downtown because they allowed little mocos in the truck bed.
Mitedio directed Relles to place the speaker on the driver side window and control the volume, and the crew was jealous.

“Why does he get the front?” Neto and the fosters asked.

“Because I say,” Mitedio answered, “and because he is the oldest. Now, pay attention, boys. They show your people’s movies. You have to learn your language. Español? Tu sabes? It’s a damn shame in the garage you boys speak such shitty Spanish. Your great grandfather would be rolling in his grave to know his people couldn’t follow what he said.”

And that was how Mitedio saw the Mexican movies, as school for the boys.

“These movies are about life, Hijos,” Mitedio lectured. “You watch them close and you’ll learn a lesson about your lives.”

Mostly they liked the classics, puro classicos, the westerns of Pedro Infante with his singing, his partying and his womanizing, his charro crooning. The crew couldn’t follow the plot, but they liked the action of Los Hijos de Maria Morales. Mitedio liked the cornball jokes.

“You know I met him in California,” Mitedio said before he downed his hot dog and drained his rum and RC Cola.

Relles asked, “Who, Tio?”

“Pedro Infantes.”

“You never met him.”

“I swear I met him,” Mitedio claimed. “In California. I swear. I was with my Tio working in the fields and he came to talk to the workers. We all saw him.” Mitedio was in love with those songs and those movies, reminding him of growing up in New Mexico. Reminding him of his people and of his dead family.

The concessions saved the crew of boys, Relles and Neto. The foot longs and the hamburgers. Arms full of RC Cola bottles and hot buttered popcorn. Soft pretzels, sno-cones and pizza slices. Endless strings of rope licorice alongside boxed candies.

“Rich, flavorful and satisfying,” little Neto repeated from the intermission trailers.

………………………………………………………………………………………………………

After the first feature, just before the end of the second, Mitedio took off his boots and put his stinking feet up on the dash. His body ached like a cavity so he banished Relles to the back of the Ranchero with his brothers. And, finally, when the crew, wrapped up in Mitedio’s old horse blankets, had pulled off their sneaks and snuggled up next to the tire wells, Mitedio could think without bother or question. This was the time Pedro Infante crackled through the speaker and wailed Las Mananitas, and the time Tio sobbed for Juanita’s Boy. He held the speaker, turned up the volume to maximum, until the warm voices were all the boys heard.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

John Jaramillo John Paul Jaramillo

John Paul Jaramillo grew up in Southern Colorado but now lives, writes and teaches in Springfield, Illinois. He earned his MFA in creative writing (fiction) from Oregon State University and currently holds the position of Associate Professor of English in the Arts and Humanities Department of Lincoln Land Community College.

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