On a Wednesday before we head to Grandpa Eugenio’s house, while waiting with arms crossed and wet lips for the red bell above Señorita Arcilla’s desk to announce that it is lunch time, Ximena Robaina, the one with the Cheeto curls who bites her nails as if she was hungry, this even though she looks fuller than most people in our town, tells me that Mama is a pupusa loca, and I think maybe she is the loca when she says it, opening her eyes and mouth so wide I could see straight through the dark sliver of her two front yellow teeth. I stare at her and then ask her what does that mean, and Ximena laughs. “Ay, mosquita.” She calls me little fly and turns around, just as the red bell dings and it is time for lunch.
later in the hallways and at the lunch table, everyone in El Centro Escolar Salvador Diaz reminds me that my Mama is a pupusa loca – dancing with her frijoles and shimmying her queso with a big grin. I ask the kids around me about the meaning of pupusa loca but no one responds. There are herds of whispers and murmurs in the long hallways with talk of “verguenza” and “the poor Velasquez Castro brothers.” I ask why, and what does that mean, and I ask why they cannot tell me, then they suggest I ask Director Somabarriga instead, whose name is really Somarriba, but because his stomach extends so far beyond his body he decided to incorporate his barriga into his name. When I was younger and the hairs above my lips had not yet started to prickle through like a cactus, they used to say at school that the disappeared children were actually hiding somewhere in Director Somabarriga’s belly because he ate them after school. But these children were too big, and el Director’s barriga seemed more like it housed 10 kilos of rice. I don’t believe this anymore because Kike said it was the stupidest thing he’s ever heard, and stupid is a bad word.
The Director has a nasally voice and a shiny gold watch that is just as conspicuous as his belly, but he drives an even shinier car and arrives to school, with his dark windows down, playing the loud, bouncy cumbia music Mama loves. I look for Kike in the halls to ask him about pupusa loca, and even decide to peer in the gaps between the metal bathroom stall doors to see if he is there, and this is not something I do often as I have been told it is bad. It is only when the school day is over and all the kids swarm to the dirt patio that I see my brother Kike sitting in the far corner with his head low.
Kike does not look at me even when I tap him on the shoulder.
“Kike, can I ask you a question?”
My brother does not respond.
“Kike, I have to ask you a question. Kike, they told me Mama is a pupusa loca. Is that good or bad?”
He does not like it when I ask so many questions, but I ask him again.
“Kike, can I ask you a question?”
Mama’s black wheels make a loud screech every time she hits the breaks, and they screech even harder when I ask her if she is as they say in school, a “pupusa loca.” Screeches and honks from the lines of cars around us scream like the school choir when I say this, and Mama’s black eyes dart to me through the rearview mirror. She asks me why I would say such a thing, and I tell her that’s what all the kids at school call while my hands are push my against my ears and the scandal of traffic. Grandpa Eugenio says I cover my ears to keep the lice from crawling in and nesting inside, but Mama tells him her children are no piojosos. Not her children because she keeps our hair neat and trimmed to keep our heads lice-free. I say, “Right, Kike?” but Kike doesn’t reply beyond rolling his eyes,” and still no one has answered my question. Now he is looking over at Mama’s red hair, today spiking out like the hairs of a battered broom, and I sense he too is awaiting a response, but instead today Mama agrees with Grandpa Eugenio says I am acting like a piojoso and that I should get my hands out of my ears. “¡Y callate! Que calladito te ves mas bonito.” Kike looks out the window to the other cars that drive by the avenida, and the very poor children we always run into when we walk to the kiosk around the corner, the ones whose eyes are coated in eye boogers and offer to wipe your windshields at the stop light, are standing at the meridian sprinkled with torn wrappers that sparkle in the sun, and papers, and cans. The children hold boxes of gum and candy in their hands, and in that moment I think I would’ve rather been eating candy too.
This amount of clanking and screaming is unusual in our drives on most Wednesday’s after school when we go to my Grandpa Eugenio’s house in my mother’s car and she switches between radio button ‘1’ and radio button ‘2’ every few minutes even though I can hear no difference, and she pulls up into his crooked, gray driveway, gives a honk, another honk, and my hands know to fly to my ears for protection, and Mama then always looks at me through the mirror because we sit in the back and tells me the damn hospital tubes and hospital machines cursed me after birth, and if only my father wasn’t such a lazy puto we wouldn’t have to be driving here every week. “Puchica! He should be out there en los Estados Unidos sending us money so we can be living in Santa Elena with a muchacha,” and she flings her arm to point beyond the mountains. Then she always sighs and says something about a man named Jesus Cristo, but I still don’t know who he is, and then we get out of the car and Grandpa Eugenio’s three little brown dogs, who I am not sure if are dirty or were born a mud color, greet us with barks and warm licks. They are not just Grandpa Eugenio’s because they roam the streets, and so they also belong to the rest of the town. I hurry inside where the dogs cannot be and I am safe. Even though Grandpa Eugenio is Papi’s father, Mama always tells us in a low voice before we arrive that this will soon be our house, but never should we dare mention anything to our Grandpa or she’ll staple our lips shut.
In Grandpa Eugenio’s house, there is always sheet of white dust covering everything from his house phone to the coffee table to the frames on the wall. It is a big house, bigger than our house, made up three different floors, that I think once belonged to three different houses. On the first floor, there are two televisions but only the small, white one with the antenna longer than my body works. It can only play telenovelas because that’s the only channel Grandpa Eugenio has. There is another television in Grandpa Eugenio’s bedroom, but you must first go up a set of creaking wooden steps, where you’ll find a pink bathroom, strawberry milk pink, and a bedroom where I once found a calendar of naked women with blonde hair underneath the bed. They were naked or wore metallic blue stars over their chests, and weren’t smiling for the picture but stared with mouths wide open instead. I told Kike about my discovery, who was downstairs eating a pupusa, and he ran up the steps in an instant with his backpack over his shoulder, ripped the calendar out of my hands, and stuffed the calendar of naked women in there. He cracked up saying something about how Grandpa Eugenio was dirty, which was a little true considering the dust in his house. To the third floor you walk up a metal staircase that is not rusty, and then you arrive at Grandpa Eugenio’s bedroom where there is another deep black TV, a bed, a mirror with perfumes and some watches, and a holy cross. I can only imagine that snow is this soft, as soft as the dust that sheets his home, and suddenly the possibility of living in Grandpa Eugenio’s house excites me! Even though I am upset, I flutter my arms and whirl a little while sitting on Grandpa Eugenio’s green couch, and when I do this my brother Kike sighs, “Mosca, quieto,” but I do not think I am a fly. He says that although collecting beetles is my favorite past time, I am truly most like the insect I don’t collect. The fly. He says this is because I am always buzzing around asking questions and being a general disturbance. The kids at school do a humming noise and buzz around me in recess, and giggle. Kike is younger but almost as tall as me. Kike is very good at humming and can hum to all the songs on the radio perfectly. And now, even though Kike tells me to be still, I don’t want to sit anymore, and I am excited, and so excited I get up from the couch on Grandpa Eugenio’s to go over to Grandpa Eugenio’s desk in the corner of his living room, also coated in the snowy dust, where there is a cemetery of clocks and screws and tools. Some of them are still alive inside with miniscule moving hands, and I reach for them to feel their ticks inside my palms. Mama does not pick things from Grandpa Eugenio’s pantry today, like the plain white rice and beans and the pinkish ham from the fridge, but instead collects the envelope and counts the cash inside, and before I know it Mama’s long red nails are upon me and sinking into my ear. She says that she’s going to have to tie my hands if I don’t learn to keep them to myself. “I’ll use tie wraps next time,” she says. I am ashamed for messing with my Grandpa’s work and his collection of clocks and watches, and so I shout that I am sorry. She’ll tie my manos largas next time, Mama says, that way I’ll never touch anything that’s not mine again.
It doesn’t bother Papi that Mama always goes to Grandpa Eugenio’s house and takes most of his food, or money for food – old people don’t eat that much anyway according to Mama. Most things don’t bother Papi, like the crack on our bathroom mirror or the leak in our roof that drips a cold, dark water onto the kitchen floor. The only things that bother Papi are the little holes in my socks, and that Kike and I don’t like playing soccer with the other boys from our block. “I’ve got two mariposones,” Papi grunts, but I think it is a good thing we are like butterflies for many reasons, one being their colors. I know Papi must like colors because what he loves most about Mama are her long red nails. I say they’re a lady bug red without the tiny black dots. Mama informs him her nails would be even nicer, maybe even have some diamond stones, if only he didn’t spend so much time at the gym. She says that Papi’s getting too old to attend these competitions where he looks like a glazed donut on a stage to flex his muscles for the crowd while nearly naked. The other day Papi told me me I’ll soon be old enough to start lifting some weights, and I too can be like him on stage holding big gold trophies. He showed me a blurry picture on his silver phone, which I am not allowed to touch, where Papi was smiling bright and I wondered if the glaze he wears is sweeter than the one of glazed donuts.
Papi is a math teacher at a school nearby, but it is not like our school that has a church with spider webs at the altar, and small nuns scurrying in black and a plastic playground and a bell that rings goodbye in the afternoon. It is a school for older kids where parents don’t pay, Mama told me once. Papi only comes back home in the evenings smelling of week-old, dirty socks and reminds me I should be doing homework instead of looking for bugs outside. Mama then screams at Papi says we’re both equally useless, and leaves us to go be with her friends around the block. She comes back even later than Papi and usually never says goodnight, and I hear her burping, sometimes singing her favorite cumbia and drumming on the walls as she walks to her bedroom, but that never changes my favorite thing about Mama. In the mornings before school, she stands behind me and we both face the cracked mirror. I look at the streaks and the fingerprints on the mirror as she tells me to stop fluttering my arms, and she runs her fingers through my hair with a clear and ice cold jelly that later turns my hair hard and flattens all my rebellious little hairs that can’t seem to find their place. This makes me forget the itchiness of my navy uniform pants and anything that came before. This is how much I love it. Once in a while, when Mama is rolling her hair around a hot wand that gives her perfect red slinkies and Kike is brushing his own hair, I’ll squirt some of the cool jelly on my palm, and lick it off slowly, like if it were spicy salsa Valentina, but I’ve learned it is not as good. Any day now I will stop doing this. Some of these mornings, after she’s run an old black comb with broken teeth through my hair, she tells me I’m so handsome and I smile. “Acuerdate que calladito tambien eres mas bonito,” she reminds me some mornings and then gives me a kiss.
It is unusual for me not to receive a response to my questions, even though I have been told that I ask a lot of questions, even the ones that are nonsense and of the kind that shouldn’t be asked. Mama says it’s because of the damn hospital tubes that they tied me up to at birth and the roaring of those hospital machines, but I cannot remember them so maybe she is wrong. Pupusa loca does not appear in the dictionary, only pupusa and it is defined as what I know it to be. It is food, a very delicious kind of food. A soft tortilla, a warm one, with cheese that strings apart inside with maybe some beans or chicken. My favorite pupusas are sold by the lady around the corner from Grandpa Eugenio’s house, who likes to stand by her cart and talk for hours in the hot sun of midday and she will lean in and offer him pupusas to take home because he is an old hunched man with three, wiry gray hairs on his head. Grandpa Eugenio says this woman is his girlfriend but Mama told us last week, as we watched him buy pupusas from car, that that is a cause for sympathy and to never believe Grandpa Eugenio. I want to know the meaning of pupusa loca. Being a loco or a loca is not a good thing, and I’ve heard around town that I am one of those on the loquito side, one of those with wandering hands and a dangerous imagination, but in these conversations Mama always adds that I am the harmless kind. “He wouldn’t even hurt a fly!”
I collect insects instead of doing homework when we arrive home from Grandpa Eugenio’s. We stop there first because it is on the way and I collect insects whenever I can, especially when no one is home and Mama cannot scream if she sees what I hold in my hands. They sleep and live and eat in a glass jar besides our bed, where a fish once lived but died. The insects speak to me with the twiddling of their antennae or the way in which they shake their legs. I hold the blue beetle that I saved last year during recess up to my nightlight, the one on whose shell I wrote “B” for blue with a white pen, and ask it about the meaning of pupusa loca. I do not see or hear a response. It is still. I place the blue beetle back in the jar, and speak to all the other beetles collected in my jar in a loud voice. There is a brown beetle no larger than a frijol, the green beetle that is bigger than all the beetles combined, three lady bugs, the blue beetle, and a short centipede. They lay in the sandy dirt and the grass that has now gone dry, and I go on repeating my question in a loud voice but they do not answer. Kike screams callate from the bathroom and I ask Kike why he cannot tell me! I plead to know the answer and I begin to bang on the wall, and Kike does not reply but I can hear the sound of water roaring from our bathroom and I know now that Kike cannot hear me, but I still bang on the wall and I ask. The water shuts off and Kike then storms out of the bathroom, walks over to our room and shoves me into bed and tells me to shut up or he will hurt me. He digs his finger nails into my arms, and then runs off back to the bathroom.
“Kike, tell me. Please.”
Kike is out of room and locks the door from the outside. The water goes on again.
I scream for Kike.
I scream. Again and again. I walk over to the door and cannot get out, and I call Kike but Kike does not reply. I scream in my room. Kike. Tell me.
Tell me, Kike. Tell me. Tell me. Tell me.
I ask until I fall asleep.
I begin Thursday and I think about pupusas locas, and realize there are only two more people to ask. I ask Señorita Arcilla at the beginning of our class about the phrase, and she quickly exclaims that I am a grosero and that I should be ashamed! She sends me to wash my mouth at that very instant, and I speed into the bathroom but do not use as much soap as the Señorita asks because she isn’t looking. I drink some of the sink water instead and walk back feeling refreshed and ready to continue with the day. Señorita Arcilla then asks for several volunteers to pass out materials for our next activity, hands shoot up into the air and my arm goes up too. I don’t get picked because my hands are not quick. I once told Papi that I never get picked, and Papi said the solution was basketball. Maybe if I did a little sport, like basketball, my hands could be the first ones to get picked.
We receive feathers of every color and stickers of frogs, cars, flowers, and rainbows to decorate our journals, and I decide to put wings on my journal in the event it needs to fly. I tell Pablo Salomon, the boy who sits next to me about my idea, and he tells me maybe if I put them on my head I would fly too. I am not sure if I should believe Pablo Salomon, but I do anyway and I stick a feather above each ear into my hair. They stick because Mama uses a gel called Moco de Gorila in my hair, and she tells me there’s nothing tougher than a gorilla’s snot.
The day goes by, I behave well without asking too many questions, and today Señorita Arcilla does not sit me in the corner and Ximena Robaina no longer reminds me that my Mama is a pupusa loca. In the hallways, I do not hear the whispers of my name or Velasquez Castro, and I no longer imagine Mama as a pupusa wrapped in aluminum foil like when we buy them from the Grandpa Eugenio’s fake girlfriend down the street from our house, but as my Mama. I was sure that only Director Somabarriga could give me the best response, being the director of our school. I had heard that he offered chocolates to his best students, and I was always a little hungry while I waited for Mama to pick us up after school. Señorita Arcilla announced to the class that I am very good at asking questions, even the bad questions, when she sent me to wash my mouth, and I think that maybe I might be among the best of the sixth grade class. This leads me to decide that today, Thursday, I will knock on Director Somabarriga’s office and receive a response to my question.
Our school is white on the outside, but it’s brick core is beginning to show through and the white that is left is streaked like tears on a face. Our school does not have a pretty face, and we, the children who wait for our parents, stand and run in front of it waiting for a honk or Mama’s red nails to appear through her window with the voice of the man from radio station button ‘2’. We are not usually among the last to be picked up from school, and the longer I wait the greater the urge in my arms and legs to roam the space. We are not allowed back inside the building once the bell has rung, but the rusty handles to the main corridor remain unlocked and occasionally some students will run in to do things in the bathroom, a boy and a girl, and I’ll walk by very silently and listen to loud breaths, screaming, and panting. The boy and the girl will then walk out smiling, sometimes with hands together, and so I never think much of it.
Director Somabarriga’s green car, the green of limes, is still parked in the dirt lot by the school even when there isn’t a soul around, and it is beginning to get dark. It is said because he’s up to no good there in his office at the end of the hall. Even though everyone hates Director Somabarriga, mainly for being ugly and the paleness of his fat white fingers, I do not hate el Director because I do not hate anyone, not even the roaches that sometimes run across my feet in the morning, or the saliva that lashes out onto my arms from the tongues of Grandpa Eugenio’s brown dogs. I decide to enter the school a little after our 2:15 PM dismissal, but not long before Mama’s typical arrival at around close to five o’clock. I wait for the clock to hit 3:30 PM, for the slicing of the arms along the 30 minute black mark to pull the rusty handle and run inside the school. As I walk down the hall, there is only the warm creaking and breathing of the walls, and the spin of the metal fans above my head, and I sing the morning anthem of our country nice and loud for the walls and for no one to hear. I raise my voice and run through the hall alone, and I flutter my arms, and the feathers still in my hair make me feel free! El Centro Escolar Salvador Diaz is transformed and the centipedes dance around my feet, and the moths spiral in the air as I turn into the corridor towards el Director’s office and sing the morning anthem in the heat of the afternoon alone. But faintly at the end of this corridor, behind the rusty red door, I can hear two voices both of which I recognize! I walk to el Director’s door quietly without singing now and stand alongside the door. I stand waiting for him to finish speaking to his visitor to prove myself a good student. But the other voice replies, and I push the door with my arms to discover a hand of fiery red nails wrapped around the Director’s hairless pink head. They are Mama’s red nails. Mama is naked, as naked as she was when we would shower together and I was a small child, and she is panting. Panting louder than the kids from the bathroom do after school. She is the pupusa loca. I watch the Director places his thin lips on Mama’s pale neck, something she never allows Papi to do anymore as she washes the dishes. Mama turns around and her black eyes meet mine. She quickly fumbles to grab a t-shirt and hurls around the desk to run after me, but I am off into the hallway. Mama is screaming my name, and I turn to see the shirtless Director scrambling behind her, but I know she will not catch me anymore. I am running as fast as I can, and I remember there are two orange feathers still stuck in my hair and my name is Mosca, and now with these wings, I can fly.
Itzel Basualdo’s work has primarily appeared in places few eyes have seen (like the “Documents” folder on her laptop). Her experimental short story, Saturday, did appear in Creative Nonfiction’s 2017 summer issue, however. She is currently struggling to keep warm as an MFA candidate at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.