tagGay MaleThe Heart is a Poor Judge Ch. 02

The Heart is a Poor Judge Ch. 02

bykidboise©

In one second, Miguel's eyes bore into me like those of a shark, and in the next, they flit around at passersby, whom I cannot see, but only feel when they move close behind me. He is analyzing them, taking notes, and this behavior is constant for him. He knows them all by name, I am sure, and most of them, I am also sure, consider him as their personal friend. No one would be capable of truly returning this sentiment to so many, but he is very good at faking it. Because of this, I had always believed on some level that he would be okay, but even so, it was impossible during that first year not to cry at night from worry.

Back before all of that, when he was just twenty years old, Miguel rented a small sunlight-flooded apartment several blocks from the warehouse. Marco had arranged it all. Miguel insists that after everything, after wading neck-deep through what he refers to as a series of bullshit events, he liked where he had landed. Five nights per week in the warehouse, an occasional meeting out in the desert? It wasn't an unpleasant life, nor was it particularly lonely.

Sometimes Miguel grows bored with me. I would never flatter myself that this isn't the case. Yes, he'll say, yes, of course that's how it was. Obviously. Or he'll tell me that I shouldn't be asking, for example, about the weather that day. Embellish that shit. Make it rain, make it sunny and hot as hell-whatever tells the fucking story, right? I always insist that he please try to remember, and he just grins and rolls his eyes.

Today, I round the last corner, trailing my fingers along the thick white rubbery paint masking a cinderblock wall. He is already seated at the table. He lights up when he sees that I have arrived.


I sit down and say, "I heard you are speaking with your mother again. That's great news."

Miguel corrects me: "My mom is speaking with me again. I have always left that door open."

I fold my hands on the table between us. "I'm sorry, that's what I meant to say. Are you happy about it?"

"There's a lot of shit left to work through. We might never resolve all of it. But yes, I am happy."

--

Eddie's promotion to president of the camp had been premature, a bizarre fluke that was hardly celebrated by anyone due to the circumstances—least of all by Eddie. Indeed, it was likely that each worker involved with the Delta Encampment had been quietly affected, each in his own way. As for Miguel, he had cried unexpectedly one night after receiving a delivery, couched alone in his tiny office at the back of the warehouse, behind the stacks, one week after the fact.

The death of Marco (Big Boss) brought about many changes, not insignificant among them being that Eddie (Boss Man) no longer had time to do the runs himself. Whatever was thought of Whitey and Sid and Dan and the others, none had been deemed appropriate as a replacement driver. It was around that time, Miguel remembered, that the kid started coming around, accompanying Eddie as a runner-in-training. Though it would be a long time before their walls came down, Miguel remembered Gabe's entrance as a curiously bright spot in a dark time. His face was friendly and comforting, and he was even younger than Miguel himself, which had been a surprise. Something extra had drawn Miguel's interest, though. There was something familiar about this kid's presence. At the time, Miguel could not have imagined what it was.

As for that first night, though: What day had it been—a Monday? Almost three weeks ago. Why did that specific night, more than a year after they met, feel like the first of all nights? Probably because, at Eddie's suggestion, Miguel had broken his long silence. He almost had to laugh now at how pointless it all had been. He liked to think that all that time spent with his mouth shut had made him seem mysterious, but other than that, he couldn't see any real benefit. It had simply been Big Boss's way of doing things. Keep the chit-chat to an absolute minimum, he had told him. Say hello, then get to work. No exceptions. It had always felt extreme to Miguel, but he had too much respect for the man to have ever questioned his methods.

What he remembered most vividly was discovering just how seriously the Gabe took it all, reacting to basic conversation, even small-talk as if it were risky behavior. It was clear right away that Eddie hadn't warned the poor kid. But what the fuck was he so worried about? Their work wasn't exactly complicated. There was even room for errors here and there. Maybe Gabe's duties could have been viewed as more hazardous than Miguel's, but that was up for debate. His route was sanitized; neither of them dealt with any of the risks met by their superiors, and it was likely they never would—at least Miguel was content (and probably bound) to stay where he was. Did this kid have some grand ladder-climbing scheme? It wasn't like Eddie was going anywhere, not for a long time.


On the second night, Miguel had once again fished Gabe from the car; on the third, Gabe had gotten out on his own, mumbling something about needing to stretch his legs. His face was attractive—there was no question of that, and he had some vague athleticism about him. But he was also very slim, with a small build, which did not normally appeal to Miguel. (Not that it mattered anyway, as it was unlikely Gabe was the sort who would return his interest.)

Also on that third night, he had seen Gabe smile for the first time. There had been a couple of forced expressions before that point, but they weren't the same: This was a beautiful, broad kind of thing that vanished immediately and would not return for some time. Miguel could tell that Gabe carried real anguish with him. Something in the kid's eyes told Miguel he had been through his share of tragedy. But then, that smile, breaking through it all like the sun through a storm.

On the fourth night, after performing hundreds of runs without fail, Gabe was gone. It had instead been Eddie and his brand-new Lincoln Navigator, black as death, rolling up through the cloudless night. Eddie, who had not made a single delivery in over a year. In fact, Miguel had become so accustomed to Gabe's appearances in the squat, dusty red sedan with the pop-up headlights that, at first, an anxious pang leapt through him. But then he recognized the car. Of course it was Eddie—who the fuck else would it be?

He remembered it like this: Eddie waited, looking solemn behind the wheel, as Miguel raised the garage door a little higher than usual. Once he had backed in and Miguel had finished securing the place, Eddie got out and they met behind the car. Eddie's presence was an overriding one in a number of ways, and Miguel remembered standing back, feeling odd and on edge as his duties were executed for him. The tailgate rose with a quick hiss of the support struts.

"Bad news. It's all class-A," Eddie muttered. "Do you want help?"

Miguel had assumed Eddie would explain the situation without being prompted, but then again, it was Eddie. So Miguel finally asked: "Where's Gabe?"

"Gabe's mom killed herself, so I am making the delivery in his place."

What the fuck? Leave it to Eddie to just say it outright like that. Just lay down the words like they were nothing. Miguel's mind suddenly buzzed, a million questions surfacing at once. He pulled himself together, pretending to assess the load. "I'm sorry to hear that. No, I don't need help."

Eddie, acting strange and distraught, seemed relieved to wait beside the car.

Class-A meant top-shelf snow dox, which was miserably heavy, but Miguel hardly noticed as he lifted the packages one by one and organized them on fresh pallets. He wondered how long it would take for Gabe to return to his runs. Would he ever come back?

"You have some exposed product on the back wall. I can see a little bit under the tarp. Do your best to keep it all covered."

Miguel looked up and realized, alarmed, that Eddie was crying. His cheeks were wet and glistening in the fluorescent lights. His massive frame had slumped entirely against the side of the car. "Okay," Miguel said, looking away in horror. "I'll take care of it." It wasn't until he had nearly finished emptying the cargo from the SUV, sweating, rushing around, that he worked up nerve to ask. "Eddie, is everything okay?"

Eddie no longer wept, but he paused so long before answering that Miguel suspected he wasn't going to. Finally he said, in his low, flat voice, "Yes, everything is fine."

"Did you know her?"

Eddie looked down at the floor. "Yes, I knew her."

By the next night, Eddie had recovered somewhat. He also brought some good news with him. "Gabe will be back in a couple of weeks."

--

Word of his family's return to America started as rumor in Miguel's home, not long before he turned thirteen. Rosa, the younger of his two older sisters, told him he should start saying goodbye to all his friends. She spoke in a vapid tone, twirling her wavy brown hair around her finger like the whole thing meant nothing to her. Rosa's friendships came and went with the sun and the moon.

Miguel pressed up against his mother's hip later that afternoon as she washed dishes in the kitchen. He could scarcely more than whisper the words to her. "Are we really going back to America?"

Apparently startled by his inquiry, she demanded where he got such a strange idea from. He told her from Rosa. His mother scowled and said it was a lie.

Miguel had assumed as much, since Rosa was always telling lies. But as he left the kitchen, his mother called after him. "Nothing like that is ever final until your father says it is."

Miguel stood still in the hot dining room. By this age, he was familiar with his mother's tendency to contradict herself. Could it be that Rosa was right?

He heard whispers in the coming days, at school and in seminary classes, straight from the mouths of his peers. Miguel's father, their respected and beloved Bishop, planned to relocate back to the city of his birth. It was the city of Miguel's birth, too, but that meant little to him. The ward had been his home for almost as long as he could remember. Most of the people of this molecularly-bonded community, occupying their tiny corner of San Justo (itself just a belt loop through which Greater Buenos Aires wound), were like extended family. And Sebastian, his best friend in the world, the only child of his father's favorite counselor and second-in-command, had been like a brother.

At least, until Sebastian had begun to go through those mystifying, fascinating changes. A sudden, deep voice crackled beneath the fleshy peak of a fresh Adam's apple. Hairs grew from his chin and under his arms. And as for the jet black hair of his head? A small white patch had suddenly appeared from nowhere, just above his left ear. It stayed put there, a permanent fixture, like the delayed deployment of a birthmark. Miguel's mother remarked one night that she had never seen anything like it in her whole life—and she didn't trust it, not one bit.

At the same breakneck pace of his bodily revolution, Sebastian began spouting ideas about the world that Miguel struggled to keep pace with. The boy stood one day in seminary during a lesson about marriage, the precious sacrament, the unification of man and woman. He asked: "What if the person a man wants to marry is also a man? Or what if a woman wants to marry a woman?" The teacher's eyes grew wide with alarm, and then she continued on as if he had said nothing.

It wasn't that these recent changes in Sebastian had pushed Miguel away. The two continued to accompany one another everywhere, still sat together at night in the mouth of Miguel's deep bedroom windowsill, talking endlessly. The truth was, Sebastian seemed like less of a brother to him now because Sebastian had developed a special pull, one that had caught Miguel at the waist and refused to let go. It coerced him to spend more time than ever with his best friend, to sit closer when they were together, to lean in slightly every time the boy smiled. He grew strangely curious to see parts of Sebastian that were normally hidden, taking advantage of rare moments in the school showers or in the changing rooms beside the public pool, blue and green tiles slick beneath their bare feet. His excitement at these opportunities manifested physically—a problem that became increasingly difficult to hide over time. After all, Miguel had begun going through changes of his own.

But one day, it was Miguel who caught Sebastian looking. The boy had paused conspicuously as he prepared to don his short pair of swim trunks.

"Yours is bigger than it used to be," Sebastian pointed out, "and you also have hair now." He spoke shamelessly, as if his observations were somehow mundane.

"Yes," said Miguel, "I know." He stole a quick glance at Sebastian before tearing his eyes away.

"It's okay. You can look. It doesn't bother me."

Both boys became erect.

As if his shame had finally caught up with him, Sebastian stepped back suddenly, stretching the faded blue nylon over himself. Miguel felt a jarring mix of relief and disappointment as he snugged his own swimsuit up around his waist.

One month after his mother's rebuttal, Miguel's father officially announced their return to the Las Sombras, the great American city.

Lucia, the oldest, folded her hands in her lap and said she was not going.

The bishop threw his head back and laughed at her threat. "You will go."

But that night, she sat at the end of Miguel's bed, reminding him in a harsh whisper that she would be eighteen by the time they moved, at which point no one could force her. Lucia did not live or speak frivolously the way Rosa did, so Miguel believed her. She demanded that he say nothing about it to their parents, and he agreed, waiting to cry until she left for her own room. His sobs came out low and rough as his voice reluctantly adhered to its new, gravelly depth.

It rained overnight. Miguel stepped alone among the quickly evaporating puddles until he reached the blue bars of the compact supermercado, owned and run by Sebastian's father the counselor, and above which they both lived. Sebastian hastily joined him down on the street and the boys set off together among the gray concrete houses and scraggly jacaranda trees, bound for school. When Miguel told Sebastian that the move was official, the boy stayed quiet at first.

He finally asked, "How much longer do we have?"

"It will happen after my birthday, so about two months."

Acres of silence lay between them.

Sebastian cleared his throat as they neared the school grounds. "It will be very difficult to say goodbye. I don't want to think about it now."

The intervening month held the date of the Bishop's annual barbecue, hosted each year in Miguel's family's cozy backyard, and the highlight of the year for many members of the ward. Miguel suspected that for some, the gathering warranted far more excitement than the piously structured Christmas party and Easter pageant—though none would ever admit to it. People eagerly planned and coordinated dishes ahead of time, and those who did not cook volunteered to string up lights or supply folding chairs, or contributed whatever else they could scrape together.

When the day finally arrived, Sebastian stayed late at school. Miguel had been instructed to assist Sebastian's father at the supermercado, as the counselor would be donating four fresh birds, among other items, and still had to carry out his regular shop duties.

When Miguel stepped inside he was met with the usual rush of children half his height. They swarmed the place at this hour, each day of their little lives, sweaty fists stuffed with small coins which they shelled out in return for pieces of candy.

"You can get these children out of my store," the counselor replied when Miguel asked what he could do to help. "I need peace today." But then the man rose up out of a giant box of produce. "I have an idea. There are only three birds in the refrigerator. Let's put the kids to work."

Miguel followed the counselor down the back hallway of the supermercado, both of them trailed by the noisy herd of children. They stepped out into the rocky yard. Miguel watched the counselor's dark, stoic form cross over to a small coop and, after some rustling, sling a white hen into the air with both legs caught in his fist. The hen flapped its wings like mad but the counselor was unmoved, calmly locating a length of synthetic orange twine, cinching one end around both its stick legs. He tied the other end around the dipping branch of a jacaranda tree that stood alone in the middle of the yard.

Suspended a few feet above the earth by the twine, the chicken continued a frantic clucking and beating of its wings. The counselor passed back across the yard and told the children to pluck out all its feathers. He knelt down, swiveling his head among their eager faces. "Don't you dare come bother me until every last feather is gone from this chicken, understand?"

The counselor shot Miguel an empty smile before stepping inside. "Keep an eye on them, will you? Make sure they don't get any ideas."

Miguel watched in horror as the children closed in on the bird. He turned away involuntarily as they began pulling the first feathers, and the bird started squawking in an odd way. A surreal feeling washed over him. Everything had happened so quickly...the counselor's actions had been so deft, so routine, that it all had seemed natural at first. But Miguel's emotions quickly caught up with him as the torture went on over his shoulder. It wasn't right—it just couldn't be—for any living thing to spend so much time in pointless agony. And yet, not only had the counselor allowed it, he had staged the whole thing. Had ordained it.

When Miguel finally turned back, the chicken hung eerily still and silent, breathing madly. Vast bald patches now spanned its body, speckled in blood, slowly rotating, golden eyes wide with fear. It knew death was near. One of the children turned back to face Miguel with a crazed look, a white feather stuck to her dirty brown cheek.

Sebastian arrived suddenly, shouldering past Miguel in the doorway. He took in the scene for an instant before whipping around. "You're just going to stand here and watch?"

"Your father said it was okay," Miguel stammered.

Sebastian grabbed up a large pair of pruning shears propped against the outer wall of the supermercado. "My father doesn't always know what is right."

For a second, Miguel thought Sebastian was going to cut the chicken down. But instead he snugged the pitted blades around the bird's neck and squeezed. Its head dislodged immediately and blood streamed so fast and thick from the fresh opening that it splashed onto the legs of the closely gathered children.

Sebastian washed a smear of red from the shears with a garden hose and leaned them back against the wall. Before reentering the supermercado he turned to Miguel and said, "We must give all God's creatures their dignity, especially in death."

Miguel felt the sudden urge to pull the boy close, to touch his hair, to run his fingers over that stunning, small white patch of it, but Sebastian went quickly inside.

Miguel followed. He expected Sebastian to return to helping his father (after, perhaps, protesting the handling of the chicken), but instead the boy trudged up to his home above the shop, the wooden staircase squawking noisily underfoot.

"I don't understand my father," he lamented as they passed through the kitchen and into his small, messy bedroom. "I don't agree with him."

Miguel sat beside him on the bed. "It was a mistake to let them pluck a live chicken."

"You think so, too?"

"Of course I do."

Sebastian stared at the floor. "I don't see things the way other people do. Inside my head, they are wrong about so much. The stuff they teach us...it's all wrong."

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