Homestretch Chapter One I’VE ALWAYS BEEN SMALL—the shortest kid in my class, from kindergarten through the end of my junior year in high school.
I never felt any bigger than five foot three inches tall, 105 pounds.
I guess it’s in my genes, because my dad’s small too. But he’s always been stronger than me. And whenever Dad drinks enough whiskey and beer, he acts bigger and meaner.
He started drinking a lot more after Mom died in a traffic accident. A sheriff’s deputy blew a stop sign and hit her head-on, chasing some beaner who’d jumped behind the wheel of a stolen car because he didn’t want to get deported back to stinking Mexico.
“Just two types who’ll work for less money than beaners—dead folks, and live people with less than a shit’s worth of pride,” Dad always told me. “That’s what keeps salaries here in southwest Texas so low. Those cockroaches will work for next to nothing. And if they ever got exterminated off the face of the earth, folks in these parts would have more, including us.”
But after Mom got killed, he wouldn’t even say “beaners.” He’d just spit on the floor anytime somebody mentioned either them or the cops.
I didn’t know who I hated or blamed.
I just wished to God that one bean-eating Mexican bastard had stayed where he belonged. Because when he sneaked across the border into Texas, he took more from me than I could ever put into words.
There are plenty of legal ones in my high school. Some of them are all right and never give me any problems. The trouble is you can’t tell a legal from an illegal without an immigration officer or border patrol agent patting them down for their papers.
One time around a lunch table at school, with other kids like me, somebody mentioned how you couldn’t tell them apart. Off of the top of my head I said, “If it looks like a beaner and talks like a beaner, it probably farts like one too.”
For about five minutes, while kids were laughing their asses off, it was the most popular I’d ever been.
I told that same joke to Dad.
He loved it and slapped me on the back.
But Mom overheard it, and she gave me a long speech about other people’s feelings.
“Think of the times you came home upset because somebody called you ‘shrimp’ or ‘shorty,’” Mom said. “It wasn’t a joke to you, because you knew it wasn’t one to them.”
About two weeks ago, right in the middle of a huge August heat wave, Dad got laid off from work again. This time from a job he’d had for more than a year at a riding stable. That weekend he was glued to the couch watching TV, with a mountain of beer cans growing at his feet. The first day Dad went out to look for a new job, he came home piss drunk, and I got blamed for the house being a total mess and all the dirty dishes in the sink.
“Animals live in filthy pens! Animals! Not human beings!” he hollered, with his eyes going wild, like they belonged to somebody else—somebody I’m ashamed to say he’d become more than once before.
It had been five months of living hell since Mom was killed.
There wasn’t a second in all that time I didn’t feel totally ripped apart. Every bit of my life had nose-dived—home, school, friends.
Some small part of me still hoped Dad would step up and be there for me, like Mom used to. But the truth was that he couldn’t even take care of himself.
It was mostly on my shoulders.
When I stopped studying last semester, that was all right with Dad because he wasn’t sure what grade I was in anymore.
If I didn’t go to the supermarket, there was no food in the house.
And if I didn’t do the laundry, we walked around like dirty bums.
“I’ll get my own job and you can clean!” I screamed back.
But with nearly every out-of-work high school kid hunting for a summer job too, that hadn’t happened yet. And now maybe even Dad, who didn’t have a high school diploma, was in line behind some of them.
“So now you don’t have any respect for me!” he exploded, pulling his belt loose from the loops of his pants. “But you’re gonna learn some, little boy.”
Dad took that leather belt to me, blabbering about money, bills, and how far he was on the bottom. And he kept calling out Mom’s name, “Maria.”
I can still hear the crack of it against my skin and feel the welts rising up.
The last time he’d smacked me around and then sobered up, he’d promised never to lay another hand on me.
“Gas, I’m sorry. I swear on your mother’s grave—may she rest in peace—it’ll never happen again. Never,” he’d said, with more tears in his eyes than mine.
I believed him.
When Dad passed out cold on the couch with that belt in his hand, I thought about sticking my foot as far up his ass as it could go.
But something inside me felt as sorry for him as I did for myself.
Only, I couldn’t let him break his word to me again, or have his lies cost Mom a moment of peace.
She didn’t deserve that, and neither did I.
So I emptied out what was left in Dad’s wallet.
Then I packed a knapsack and split.
I wasn’t about to call the sheriff and have his deputies ride me anywhere in one of those damn squad cars. I hit the side of the highway, walking with my thumb up to hitch a ride.
* * *
“Sure you’re not a runaway?” asked an older lady with silver blue hair who took me east. “I don’t need any trouble with the law over doing a good deed.”
“I just look extra young for my age, ma’am,” I answered, showing her the ID I’d doctored to make myself old enough to get a tattoo of a cross with Mom’s name on it.
“Gas-ton Gi-am-ban-co Jr.,” she read, one syllable at a time. “My, that’s quite a mouthful.”
“Most everybody I know calls me Gas,” I said.
“Well, Gas, you know exactly where you’re headin’ to, or you gonna find out the closer you get?” she asked.
I hadn’t thought about anything like that. I just wanted to get as far away as I could—from everybody and everything around me.
I probably wanted to get as far away as that beaner did after the deputy plowed into Mom’s car. And if I ever could get there, I’d even things up with that Mexican bastard for sure.
But I didn’t have an answer for that lady.
So I shrugged my shoulders to her question. And when I did, I felt the sting across my back where Dad had whipped me.
Two hours later I caught a second ride farther east, from a family in an SUV with two clear-skinned kids around my age.
They were coming back from a Bible meeting, and I even had to mouth a chorus of hymn music when the rest of them joined in with the radio.
Amazing grace, how sweet the sound That saved a wretch like me I once was lost, but now am found, Was blind, but now I see.
“You must be so excited to start college a year early,” said the girl, twirling a finger through her curly brown hair. “But having some pickpocket steal your bus ticket. I can’t imagine.”
“It’s sad, but there are all kinds in this world,” said the mother.
“All kinds,” I echoed, shaking my head.
“Won’t your aunt be worried when she meets the bus and you’re not on it?” asked the father as his eyes met mine in the rearview mirror.
“Somebody who’s getting off at my stop is going to let her know,” I answered.
Over the past few months I’d got real good at lying, explaining the reasons for all my bumps and bruises to people.
Slipping down stairs.
Crashing my bike.
Horseback riding accident.
I had a head full of them now, and they popped out of my mouth anytime I needed one.
“Well, we’re happy to take you as far as Tyler. That’s where we start heading in another direction,” the father said.
“That’s great,” I told him from the extra row of seats in the back they’d pulled down for me. “I can’t wait to catch up with my aunt again and settle in over the next couple of weeks before classes start in September.”
Half the time I was riding with them, I was watching the oncoming headlights in the opposite lane. I kept waiting for one of those big Mack trucks to come screeching across the double line and rip right through us.
And if that happened, I knew in my heart I’d be the only one to walk away. I’d keep heading right on down that highway with every part of me on fire.
The stars had opened their eyes wide by then, and that family dropped me off at a rest stop that had a service station and a bunch of all-night fast-food places.
The son got out of the car with me, clutching his Bible.
“Losing both of your parents in the same year, and still graduating before your class. You’ve been blessed with great strength, Gas,” he said, tapping the book. “I’ll pray for you.”
He was nearly a foot taller than me, and the glow from the fluorescent lights looked like a halo over his head.
“Thanks,” I said, staring straight into his chest. “But I don’t deserve it.”
Then I walked away, with the biggest part of me wishing I really were an orphan.
A sign read, WELCOME TO TYLER, THE ROSE CAPITAL OF AMERICA.
Only, the night air around me smelled of nothing but sweat and car exhaust fumes.
I went into a Burger King and filled my belly with a Double Whopper. I even took one of those cardboard crowns they give away, remembering when I was a little kid how Mom used to pretend with me that our apartment building was a castle.
But there was no use in pretending anymore.
When I finished eating, I parked myself outside on a curb, counting every pockmark on the face of the full moon.
A flatbed truck stacked high with cages of live chickens rolled past me. The air brakes let out a pssst as it settled to a stop maybe fifty yards from where I was.
I watched the driver go around back, pulling down cages from the center row.
That’s when four shadows hopped off, disappearing into the service station’s bathroom.
I had no idea on the walk over what I was going to say to that driver. But I was moving slow, trying to give my brain time to think.
He was leaning against the side of a big tire, smoking a cigarette.
Before I said a word, I heard those shadows jump back onto the truck, with the chickens making noise over it.
“I’m headed north, kid,” the driver said, looking at my knapsack. “But this ain’t a charity. It’ll cost ya.”
I fanned out twelve bucks for him to see, knowing I still had some singles and change stuffed down into another pocket.
“You’re a small enough package,” he said, snatching a pair of five spots. “That’ll do.”
I thought I’d be riding in the cab with him. But he took me around back and boosted me up onto the flatbed.
“Company’s coming, amigos,” he called out softly.
I started down a dark three-foot-wide alleyway with feathers and chicken scratch at my feet.
A flashlight shone into my eyes and I squinted to see.
I heard a voice say something low in Spanish, and my insides froze up.
I turned around quick at the sound of the driver putting those cages back into place, barricading me in. And I could see my shadow stretching tall on the floor in front of me.
“Un chico pequeño.”
Then the flashlight went dead.
I heard the driver’s door slam shut and felt the horsepower in that engine rev high.
The truck jolted forward and I nearly fell over.
I locked my fingers around the bars of a cage to keep my balance, when a chicken pecked at them so hard I had to let go.
All I could figure was that I was locked in with a bunch of border-jumping beaners. My legs folded up beneath me and I sank to the floor, with every bit of blood in my veins running cold.
I didn’t know who they were or anything about them. I didn’t know if they were factory workers, fruit pickers, or criminals. Or if any of them were related to that miserable beaner who’d got Mom killed.
They were just shadows in the darkness. But something inside me wanted to tear them all to pieces. So I pulled off my sweatshirt, down to a white T with the sleeves cut off, showing the tattoo on my right bicep and flexing whatever muscles I had.
Paul Volponi is a writer, journalist, and teacher living in New York City. From 1992 to 1998, he taught incarcerated adolescents on Rikers Island to read and write, forming the basis of his first young adult novel, Black and White, winner of the 2006 IRA Young Adult Book Award, an ALA Best Book Young Adult, and Quick Pick Award winner. His other young adult novels include, Rooftop (also a BBYA and Quick Pick winner), and Rucker Park Setup. Mr. Volponi holds an MA in American Literature from the City College of New York and a BA in English from Baruch. You can visit him online at www.paulvolponibooks.com.
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