Hector came out of the gas station and saw that his date had driven off. Perhaps that’s it, he thought, perhaps it’s the Milky Way in my hand. Perhaps that’s the dealbreaker. Who eats these anyway, besides children? He stood on the curb and ran through the catalog of possibilities that could explain this development—a carjacking, a mother suddenly pregnant, a friend in danger, an urgent sweepstakes redemption, inexplicable vaporization, a loss of memory and sudden spike of initiative, a fit of embarrassment, a dysfunctional transmission stuck in drive—but knew simply that he had been abandoned—Occam’s Razor and all that—abandoned for the sake of a good story. The boy was proceeding farther away every second, windows rolled down, reggaeton up on the stereo, black hair flying, chuckling on his cell phone with his amigos while routing Hector’s calls straight to his voice mail and its cleverly worded greeting.
Part of Hector felt relief. Now he wouldn’t have to worry about the unfavorable way things would turn out—abandonment at a gas station was minor in the spectrum of potential humiliations, after all. He had experienced much worse. With a certain amount of detachment it was actually kind of funny—the way his car had broken down, the fact that the boy had to drive out to rescue him, the immediate disappointment on the boy’s face when he saw he was more beautiful than Hector. And now this.
The earlier lightheadedness was gone—replaced by adrenaline, or something. Hector slid the candy bar into his pocket and started through the gas pump area, head down. A white panel van was parked there with a green nozzle in its tank, fueling automatically. A bald Latino man with a handlebar moustache and a tattoo on his neck was in the front seat going through some papers. It was difficult to see past the overhead fluorescent tubes reflected in the windshield, but there was something familiar about this man. The right front tire was low on air and the tailpipe had a black crust to it. If Hector had been at work he would have run a check on the license plate.
The man spotted him, cranked the engine, and began to pull away with the fuel hose still attached. The hose stretched but the nozzle held firm in the van and a low, loud report come from underground. Everything was still connected, barely—the pump, the hose, the nozzle, the tank—but a widening circle of gasoline advanced from the base of the pump. A bell was going off—someone had engaged the emergency shutoff switch—but no one was coming out of the station. There was just this man, this neck-tattooed man standing outside now, surveying the damage and lighting a cigarette, arms folded. “The fuck you looking at?” he said.
Hector turned out of the station and headed north in search of a bus stop. Night was coming on, he was eighteen miles from home, and he had just three dollars in his pocket now—yet another long and embarrassing story. He pulled on the strip of facial hair that ran from beneath his lower lip to the tip of his chin—an extended soul patch—and wondered if it did in fact make him look more manly.
The sidewalk rumbled and he felt a blast of heat on his neck. His shadow appeared in front of him, shortening up as the fireball rose thirty feet into the air. Another explosion rocked the station; acrid black smoke billowed as the building settled into some serious burning. Behind him a van was falling out of the sky.
The counselor said that Hector had joined the military for all the wrong reasons. Mainly to stuff his awakening sexuality back into some hidden place. This according to the counselor. Hector did not argue. The sessions were more about the counselor unpacking Hector’s “haunting military experience” than they were about Hector. The truth was Hector had thrived in the army. He found great comfort in submitting himself to the pyramid of command and its endless bylaws of conduct. There was nobody from the barrio to remind him what a fairy he was, nobody to perpetuate the tradition of ridicule. He could reinvent himself however he wanted. The army was just as homophobic as the neighborhood, but Hector learned that he did in fact have a masculine side. He learned that he was a gifted marksman and that he could kill if he had to.
Though fifteen years out of the army, its regimented order still governed his life—in his security guard job, his tidy one-bedroom apartment, his sleeping habits, and his stilted and old-fashioned politeness toward elders. Hector never experienced actual combat—he had been kicked out right before Desert Storm—but he knew the randomness of it would have broken him in half. Similarly, he was still unwilling after all these years to dive into the thriving gay scene downtown, into those forbidden meat markets swirling with techno music, alcohol, and anonymous liaisons in dark corners.
He knew that coming down here was foolish, but he had done so—and probably would again—for of the possibility of love. Now Hector was stuck in what he had left behind: the barbed wire, the taquerias and roach coaches, the pirated DVDs spread out on the sidewalk, the check-cashing places, the men standing in circles drinking from paper sacks, the unreadable graffiti on buildings and the broken glass below, the awful ranchero music blasting from business after business, the cluster of day laborers around every hardware store, the counterintuitive marriage of poverty and obesity, ghetto birds and ghetto knocks, drug deals in the parks, wrecked furniture on sidewalks awaiting Bulky-Item Pickup, multiple families in one-bedroom apartments, automobile maintenance in the street, three dots tattooed to the fleshy part of your hand between the base of your thumb and forefinger, mi vida loca.
Hector felt the urge to vomit. He was six years old again, getting his face ground into the dirt and his pocket money stolen by the Carlos Gang. It was in southern Mexico, in Oaxaca, right before he and his parents came to the States to live with a distant cousin. Pinche maricon, they said, over and over, kicking him. They drew bright red lipstick all over his face. Chupalo. Chupalo, mariposa.
“Where can I catch a bus?”
Hector approached four men loitering outside of a corner store. Three wore painter’s hats and overalls speckled with white spots; the other sported a stained wife-beater and had bits of grass around the edges of his running shoes. They were drinking Coronas from a ripped-open half case at their feet. Some kind of literary mural rose up behind them—books by Marquez, Paz, Neruda, Esquivel, Allende and others floated in a starry blue ether, open to their title pages, connected by the scrawl of gray graffiti. Hector had read none of these authors though he certainly had heard of them.
“Into the city.”
The biggest of them had a sculpted beard comprised of quarter-inch wide strips of hair that intersected at two nodal points on his chin. He eyed Hector’s dress shoes and pressed tan pants. “¿Por qué no estas llamando un taxi, amigo?”
“Because I don’t have any money.”
The big guy was the leader but the sullen, silent gardener was the most dangerous. He was swaying back and forth while staring low and outside at a point off of Hector’s hip. There were four of them and one of Hector and no less-than-lethal munitions to implement a proper restraint and control strategy—no electromuscular disruptive tools, no chemical agents like tear gas or pepper spray, no blunt-trauma weapons like beanbag shotguns or stun grenades that would shoot hard rubber balls in a thirty-foot circular pattern, no diversionary devices, no flash-bang grenades.
If he had to, he’d dispatch the gardener first—slip his punch, grab the wrist, spin, snap the arm over his shoulder, and then shove the guy to the pavement. The big guy would be easier; he’d barrel in too fast, hunched over and simian. Hector would rotate judo-style—using the man’s energy against him—and hurl the man into the street, out in front of the maroon Lincoln speeding through the yellowing light fifty yards up. After that the other two would flee. If not, he could break off a beer bottle or resort to a throat chop or an eye gouge followed by joint locks and pressure point work.
“Go three blocks this way.” The big guy waved in the direction Hector was traveling. “Go to Hobart. Right on Hobart. Go two blocks and you can catch a bus there.”
“You happen to know what bus number it is?”
“Hey, ¿por qué no hablas en español?” The gardener lobbed his beer bottle over the chain-link fence and into the vacant lot beyond. “¿No eres mexicano? ¿Eh?”
“Thank you very much, you guys,” Hector said. He continued past them down the busted-up sidewalk. One of the men shouted after him and when Hector turned back to look, still walking, he noticed the neck-tattooed man from the gas station emerging from the corner store and joining the group. The man stroked his moustache and pointed.
A low whupping sound in the distant background became a roar as a helicopter elevated over some buildings and bore down on them. Palm trees pitched and convulsed in the downwash of air; garbage blew neatly into the gutter. Three were rifle shots further down the block and then something throatier and more dangerous that shook the ground under Hector’s feet. The bright follow-spot settled on them from above. Hector watched the group of men scatter in all directions, but the guy with the tattoo on his neck was slow to flee. There were two or three brief popping sounds—nearly buried under the white noise of the helicopter—and then the neck-tattooed man was reeling against a beat-up white Toyota parked at the curb. Blood squirted from his stomach, then from his mouth as he yelled.
Hector turned and walked away. Palm fronds crashed down around him.
This was the difference: Low explosives burned quickly whereas high explosives detonated. Low explosives usually utilized black powder, fire, and confinement to achieve an explosion. High explosives contained a volatile chemical composition that could go off many ways: via impact, fire, or sometimes even water. The nature of the composition and state of ingredients determined reaction rate, noise, flash, and the appearance of flame. Often they were used in tandem, with a low explosive acting as a propelling charge that launched the device and then ignited the high-explosive agent.
Blasting caps were another example of the high and the low coming together.
Hobart was filled with smoke. Ordnance flew past Hector’s head, striking one of the vandalized, broken-down phone booths behind him. He picked his way through the abandoned couches and mattresses blocking the sidewalk. The rumbling of explosions was constant. Faces lined the street, staring into it.
He grabbed his stomach and propped up against a palm tree. His blood sugar was perilously low—he would faint if he wasn’t careful. How many people have urinated up against this tree? he thought. His pants were caught on something—the springy part of a gutted mattress poked through his pocket. A deflated soccer ball lay off to the side and a grown man in a blue-and-red striped jersey gave it a kick as he ambled by. Hector watched the yellow writing on his back as he receded. “Ronaldinho” it said over a blocky number ten. Futbol, he thought. Futbol. He realized the mattress holding him was actually a makeshift soccer goal.
Hector frowned. There was nothing picturesque about it, not even the shave ice man with his shopping cart, big old-fashioned block of ice, and dozen dubious bottles of flavor. These people were poor and they were Mexican and this is where he was from: the tamale vendors pushing their carts and jangling their bells, the young women navigating strollers through broken glass, the teal-and-pink ninety-nine-cent store across the street, the disrespectful thump of tecno-cumbia (or whatever was blasting out of the apartment behind him), public urination, packs of unwatched kids running amok and breaking things, the spread of garbage and lack of civic pride that led to it, the total disregard for nutrition, the bars on apartment windows, the propped-open front gates and side doors undermining all notions of security, the machismo of Latino men and their brazen sexual overtures, votive candles and the not-so-effective yoke of Catholic guilt here in the barrio, the girls with dark outlines around their lips and too much eye makeup, the population density, the warbly car alarms, the culture of loiter, the grip of poverty , the idiot senselessness of vandalism.
He removed the Milky Way from his pocket and tore the wrapper. The chocolate outside was pale brown—nearly white—from melting and hardening repeatedly. The surface was fractured into a dozen tiny triangles. He shoved the entire candy bar into his mouth, chewed three or four times, and swallowed hard. It slid down a little and lodged itself midway in his esophagus. Hector inhaled but nothing happened. He tried to swallow again, but the candy bar was parked in his windpipe.
A red articulated bus pulled up to the covered waiting area on the other side of the intersection. People clambered aboard while traffic piled up behind and veered into the next lane. He had almost made it. Only forty yards to go. He could see angry drivers laying on their horns but all was quiet. All of the fireworks had stopped as well. When he turned around, though, he saw the air was filled with smoke and blasts of fire and color, just as before. A regular Fourth of July without the soundtrack. Something was going on with Hector’s ears. It was like someone had pressed the mute button.
He still couldn’t breathe but he wasn’t panicked. Two girls were drawing a picture on the sidewalk a half-block away, and though things were exploding inaudibly overhead, the squeak of the chalk against the pavement resonated. Insects rustled through the dried-out square of grass next to them. Hector felt faint. His legs were weak and spindly; his brain screamed. An Accord drove by and Hector locked on to its out-of-tune engine. Farther away a cat was crying, sounding everything in the world like a little boy. Hector knew he was going to die but still he didn’t want to be the center of attention. He failed about and tried to hawk up the thing lodged in his throat, but the springs of the mattress goal had him through the pocket and held him fast.
What now? he thought. Is this all there is?
Something pulled at Hector. One of the springs ripped through his pants and through the flesh of his leg and then he was free. Someone was grabbing him from behind; Hector’s feet flew into the air until they pointed across the street at the people watching from the third-story balcony. Hola, he thought. ¿Como estas? Then he was falling forward. His feet slapped down to the earth and the neck-tattooed man jerked hard on his abdomen once more. This time the half-chewed candy bar ejected from his throat and arced into the street.
Hector took huge gasping breaths. His head felt champagne fizzy. His face prickled. He could hear again.
“You’re blue! Your face is blue!” the man said. “Are you okay? What happened?”
“Blue,” Hector repeated. Like the sea. Blue like the sea. He held his stomach and sides. Tomorrow there would be dark bruises where the man had grabbed him. It was the closest thing to an embrace he’d had in a long time.
“Are you sure you’re okay?” someone asked.
“He’s fine,” the neck-tattooed man said. “Just had something in his throat, that’s all.” He grabbed Hector by the shoulder and pulled him over to a nearby driveway. A group of kids huddled around a giant purple-and-gold rocket awaiting launch.
The man pulled a silver Zippo out of his baggy jeans and held it out. “Here, you do it,” he said.
Hector reached for the lighter but his reflexes weren’t recovered and he nearly bobbled it. He held it in his hands, marveling. The lighter was smooth and warm and heavy in a good way. Down below, the fuse trailed off the rocket long and curly like a rat’s tail.
Hector kneeled in the carbon-blackened driveway and lit the Zippo. The fuse caught fire and crackled its way toward the rocket.
“¡Cuidado!” someone yelled.
“¡Cuidado, cuidado, cuidado!” the children shouted gleefully.
Hector stumbled backward.
The fuse ignited the powder in the cylindrical purple-and-gold casing. There was a strange, longish pause—not unlike the few seconds that pass between the moment you cut yourself and the moment when the pain actually arrives—and then the rocket climbed into the sky. It did not describe a safe, vertical ascent—it veered erratically and shot down the street in the direction Hector had come from. Everyone turned to watch, quiet and serious.
The volatile chemical mixture near the nosecone of the rocket would be robbed of its oxygen when it finally detonated. This is how it works. In effect, the beautiful explosions were intensified by this suffocation—by chemicals getting brutally choked out—just as Hector was moments ago. But he wasn’t thinking about that. He was trying to track the now-lateral flight of the rocket into the distance. He lost sight of it—as did everyone else—and just when he was starting to give up and feel responsible— preposterous, he knew, but he couldn’t help himself—just when the pause had grown long enough to make people suspect the rocket was a dud, it detonated up against the night sky, big and red and round, like a great, glittering strawberry.
There was a collective “Ooooo” and for a moment all the apartment buildings lit up pink. The crowd clapped and hollered and gathered around Hector, congratulating him. He started to object but thought better of it and just grinned. Everyone was patting him on the back now, patting him as if he were somehow responsible for this beautiful explosion. Which, in a way, he was.