The Nastybook Wars: Our Childhood Battle for Porn

Rebecca Solnit Introduces Jaime Cortez's Essay from the New Issue of Freeman's

By  Jaime Cortez

The first thing I remember is a pale blue angora cap floating in the crowds at the Galeria de la Raza in San Francisco’s Mission District many years ago, though how I became friends with Jaime Cortez is even fuzzier than that adorably fuzzy item. Some people arrive by osmosis or Brownian motion: you run in some of the same circles and then you orbit each other at events and then you talk and then you talk some more and then that talking becomes a plant you want to cultivate and you have a friend, but there’s no clear step.

Digging through my emails, his name first crops up in conjunction with a request to publish an image of an excruciatingly sardonic billboard in 2000, commemorating Ese—Last of His Tribe, about the eviction of Latinos from San Francisco’s Mission District. I know we were friends by the time I was writing Hope in the Dark in 2003, because he’s quoted in it in the chapter I’ve read aloud more than all the rest, the chapter that begins:

A friend, Jaime Cortez, tells me I should consider the difference between hope and faith. Hope, he says, can be based on the evidence, on the track record of what might be possible—and in this book I’ve been trying to shift what the track record might be. But faith endures even when there’s no way to imagine winning in the foreseeable future, faith is more mystical.

Friendship endures through mysterious forces;  you keep up, you lose track, you get back in touch, and I  hope to be in touch with Jaime forever. No one is remotely like him in his capacity for deep insight, profound kindness, and campy hilarity and mockery, often as intermingled as the ingredients in a cocktail. Also, in my gringo existence, I don’t know a lot of people who were farmworkers as children and grew up in campesino communities and who are also art world mavens and queer culture heroes.

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One of the funny things about Jaime is that he always presented himself as a visual artist and I always took him as one until one memorable dinner at my place in 2010. Various people performed and Jaime read his short story about “Reynaldo the Hairdresser,” a poignant, hilarious portrait of the guy who does up the Latina ladies’ hair  and has his inner life. I knew him as a visual artist, because he had been hiding from me that he was a writer, but when I pried out of him a collection of which “The Nastybook Wars” was one piece among many, I found out he was a great writer doing  something that no one else was. Something that was beautiful and that  mattered, something that reconnected the fragments of the world up in ways that they need to be connected and no one else could connect them. Something tender,  uproarious, and incisive and a case that comedy has its own poetries.

–Rebecca Solnit

I.

When you leave a grapefruit on a countertop for a couple of weeks, the membranes and fruity ligaments that hold together its pleasant rounded shape slowly weaken. Gravity insinuates itself, and the citrus’s bottom begins a relentless downward migration. The underside spreads and takes on the flatness of the counter, while the top thins out. That defeated grapefruit shape was precisely the shape of Primitivo Doblado’s head.

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*

Primi, as everyone called him, was a summertime fixture in the sun-blasted garlic fields of Gyrich Farms. No one knew how he first arrived, or how the lucky bastard managed to get hired as a garlic topper summer upon summer, when better workers, younger, steadier, and more sober, were turned away by the literal truckload.

Lacking a logical explanation, some of the workers attributed his good luck to forces from beyond the veil.

“How does he have the luck to get hired? I’ll tell you how,” my grandmother Tiburcia would rant. “In his wallet, that drunk, that stinking drunk, carries hairs from the ass crack of Satan himself. The luck of The Enemy is with him. You stay away from him, hijo.”

*

Hollister’s late summer heat was a dragon we feared and cursed daily when it swooped in around midmorning and hovered, heavy and relentless, till the evening hours. Because of the heat, the workday started early. Everyone was suited up by six. The men wore straw hats or baseball caps, and shirts with long sleeves they rolled down when their forearms began to roast around ten or eleven. The women were more covered up. They wore long-sleeved shirts and cotton gloves. Many of the younger women, protective of their skin, favored a sort of laborer’s hijab from the shoulders up: a bandanna tied just above their eyebrows and back around their heads; a second, bandit-style bandanna over their nose and cheeks; and a third one to protect the back of their necks. Some wore a fourth one into which they coiled and bundled their long hair. All of this was topped off with a straw hat or baseball cap and held together by an elaborate array of bobby pins.

For me, my older sister Sylvie, my cousins, and other farm-working kids, summer was a dreaded season. The worst day of elementary school was better than the best day in the garlic fields. The garlic had been pulled by its long stems out of the soil in early August. Heaped along the furrows of the field for a week or two, it would begin to dry out and release a powerful garlicky aroma. The arid heat did its work, and once the garlic dried, it was ready for topping, which involved us cutting off the roots and stems with curved metal shears. Bone white, the stacked bulbs resembled mounds of tiny skulls curing in the sun and stretched out towards the edges of the Gabilan Mountain foothills, gold with tinder-dry grass.

*

Getting out of bed at sunrise was hard for us kids, but fueled by sunrise cups of Café Combate, beans, eggs, and supple homemade flour tortillas, we were ready to go. For Primi, getting to work on time was a grave burden and interfered with his drinking schedule. He almost never made the 6 am start on time or sober. Didn’t have good hands, either. Shaky. His stubby fingers were clumsy, wrapped in filthy white medical tape to protect the many cuts he had given himself with the garlic shears.

*

But he had bulldog magic, did Primi, that charm of the grotesque-but-benign. Quick to smile, boisterous, funny, but no fucking neck. Nada. His head, jowly and big-lipped like an Olmec idol’s, sat squarely on his collarbones. To look to the sides, he had to turn his entire torso. Primi looked like what he was: a devoted beer guy. A riverine network of dilated capillaries marred his terra-cotta-colored cheeks. His beer gut jutted imposingly over his improbably scrawny legs. His voice was toad deep, loud, and gurgly, and the littlest kids out working in the field, the five- and six-year-olds, were visibly scared of him. I was equally scared and fascinated by his appearance, words, and almost aristocratic haughtiness and tantrums.

*

When Primi fell asleep on the toilet, a trio of young workers stopped their labor, grabbed a tow rope from their pickup, and wound it around the porta-potty, trapping him. Then they gathered around to laugh and throw dirt clods at the plastic walls. From inside, Primi began cursing in a stage voice. He was an improvisational prodigy, stringing together the most elaborate, rapid-fire passages of curses in English, Spanish, and Spanglish. In the torrent of invective, he bent “fuck” into every part of speech, firing it off as a noun, pronoun, verb, adverb, conjunction, and interjection. The madder he got, the louder he got, the more everyone laughed. When they finally let him out and he emerged, drenched in sweat, with his belt undone, everyone cheered. He looked about, bowed at the waist, and just like that, his anger evaporated.

He had no wife to enforce grooming. The more forensically inclined garlic toppers studied his queerly angled bangs and deduced that he had been cutting his own oil dark hair with his garlic shears or perhaps a bread knife. At lunch, he ate like a 12-year-old boy blowing his allowance—Laffy Taffy, Cheetos, pickled pig knuckles, Rainbo white bread sandwiches with triple baloney, double slices of government cheese, and peeking out from underneath the meatstuffs, representing the vegetable kingdom, what might once have been lettuce.

*

The days were long. To break up the monotony of topping garlic, I would rise from my stooped or kneeling position and treat myself to a long, luxurious, cone-shaped cup of water at the Igloo cooler. Others would gossip, joke around, or sing along to the lachrymose rancheras on their transistor radios. But of all the workaday distractions, none were so fascinating as the oracular musings of Primi. The workers would sporadically lob questions at him, and he would swat them back with élan.

“Primi, you wanna get married? Don’t you wanna wife?” He mulled over the question like an ascended guru.

“No, ese. I don’t have money, so I can’t attract someone better- looking than me. Imagine a woman with looks like mine. Sad, huh? Nope. Chale. No marriage. Besides, it’s cheaper to rent.”

“Primi, what’s the best beer?” “Whichever one is in my hand, loco.” “Primi, why do dogs love humans?”

“If you gave me free cans of meat and cleaned up my caca, I’d love you too, homeboy. Woof.”

*

When Ligo and noticeably pregnant Chelo announced a late August wedding, they invited Primi and scores of the garlic crew, including us. The weddings of the poor are rarely poor. They function as working-class Oscar nights, rare avenues for glamour. The young women were unrecognizable out of their sun protection gear. Their hair, curled or set in fancy buns and braids, cascaded about their pale, exposed shoulders. Their painted lips left red marks on the lips of the plastic champagne flutes. The men went the opposite way, covering their darkened arms and necks. Their thighs and privates bulged against the snug polyester pants of the day, entrancing me.

*

Primi splurged and rented a ruffle-breasted shirt and matching maroon Bostonians. When he stepped into the San Juan Bautista VFW hall with a female escort, everyone whistled and catcalled. He took it all in like the pope, bowing his head slightly to the left, the right, and the center of the hall. He had arrived a bit drunk and quickly finished the job at the bar. Then he danced with his lady. She was young and sparkly, laughing and drinking like a champ at Primi’s fevered pace. He was amped up with everyone’s attention, jerking and shuffling about the dance floor like a troubled windup toy.

*

My papi, possessed of a spiked, alchemical genius for transmuting physical defects into nicknames, would periodically break into laughter as he watched Primi shake his beer boobs, and gyrate the sad bit of protoplasm he alleged was his ass. At some point that night, papi named no-neck Primi “Head and Shoulders.” Everyone within earshot laughed. My mom, rosy-cheeked with champagne, halfheartedly checked my father. “Ai, leave Primi alone. That’s how God made him.” But it was too late. The name stuck. It had to stick, because it was perfect, slicing clean to the marrow of truth. Besides, papi had a christening reputation to uphold. He was gifted at nicknaming, almost synesthetic at times, able to come up with nonsense names that worked at the level of pure sound. Bucktoothed Chendo, with his voracious chewing patterns, became “Chaka Chaka.” Pretty chubbette Rosalia became “Globulina.” The Sinaloa shitkicker Gustavo became “El Quadrupero.” Why he should be a quadruped we didn’t know, but the name was undeniable, just like “Head and Shoulders.”

The Monday morning after the wedding, the garlic topper guys were relentless, batting Primi’s new nickname back and forth across the fields like a tennis ball. Some of the young men could barely pronounce his English nickname, but it was too delicious, too perfect, not to take a jab at Primi.

Head and Shoulders here. Head and Shoulders there. Head and Shoulders up.

Head and Shoulders down.

*

Until the novelty passed, it would have to be this way, and Primi knew it, so he just smiled through the ordeal, periodically insulting everyone’s mother the way a game fellow should. When I called him Head and Shoulders to his face by accident, he actually laughed, bending down towards me and releasing a great cloud of beer breath into my face. I liked him for that. Not for the breath, but because he kept his cool. I was nine years old and was showing disrespect. He could have cussed me out, probably even smacked me for my insolence, not on the face, but upside the head, with full-throated approval from my parents.

*

Head and Shoulders’ last day at Gyrich Farms came within a week of the wedding just as the garlic season was winding down.

Two olive Immigration and Naturalization Service trucks and one van descended upon the garlic fields just before midmorning. They braked hard, kicking up clouds of dust and dirt clods.

La Migra, La Migra!” shouted several garlic toppers. Six khakied INS agents exploded from the vehicles. It frightened me when several young workers bolted. The guys seemed so adult to me just seconds before, so full of bravado and that physical competence of young men, hefting heaping bushels of garlic onto their shoulders with thoughtless ease. In a moment, they had been stripped of that, and had been made into prey, fleeing to hide beneath cars or behind the garlic crates. I panicked and turned wide-eyed towards my mother.

“Should we run, mami, should we run?”

“What are you talking about? You’re a citizen, born here. They can’t take you away.”

“What about you, mami? You were born in Mexico.”

“No. I have my papers too,” she said. “Now mind your own business and keep on working.”

*

I watched the chase, and saw Head and Shoulders rise up slowly, calmly. He walked a few steps, then he began running. It wasn’t even ten in the morning, but he had already downed two Coors tall-boys, so he was wobbly. Dashing towards the cattails on the banks of the irrigation ditch, he tripped over a clod. Primi sprawled on the ground, arms and legs spread out like the Carl’s Jr. star. His beer shot forth a geyser of foam, but amazingly, he never let that beer can go. An INS agent stood over him, then bent and grabbed Primi by the shoulder to help him stand. With his free hand, Primi sheepishly dusted himself off. He exhaled slowly, shoulders dropping and eyes turning dirtward as he emptied his lungs. He cast his eyes up, and caught mine. He winked and smiled a lopsided smile at me. Primi raised his beer can to his lips, tilted his head back, opened his throat, and poured in the pissy remains. Conspicuously pregnant Chelo cried silently as Head and Shoulders bent his back and entered the rear mouth of the INS paddy wagon.

Ligo tilted his head, sucked his teeth, and intoned, “Oh well, at least he got to finish his Coors.”

*

The rest of the workday was somber and very quiet. The heat felt heavier than usual. There was hardly any chatter, and no one sang along with the transistor radio; there was just the metallic snip of shears slicing through garlic stems and roots, and the bonk bonk of the bulbs dropping into the bentwood bushel baskets.

II.

That evening, Doña Sara, the foreman’s wife, cleared out Head and Shoulders’ tiny rental room in the high house. It was the only two-story building in the Gyrich Farms laborers’ camp, with three little rooms on the ground floor, and three little rooms on the second floor. Tiny and identical, they all held mismatched, decrepit furniture: a wardrobe, a chair, a twin-size bed, and maybe a milk crate to serve as a night table. She packed his clothes into grocery bags in case he should make his way back across the border, but with it being so late in the season, she guessed he would wait a few weeks till the apple and pear harvests. She looked sadly at his undershirts, stiff and murky gray from bad washings with colored clothes, insufficient detergent, and not a whiff of fabric softener. “A man without a woman,” thought Doña Sara as she Ajaxed his hot plate for the next tenant, “is a sad animal. Sad. Don’t know how to take care of themselves. A wonder they know to reach around to wipe their own culos.”

*

From behind the big willow tree that fronted the high house, my sister Sylvie and I, and my cousins Chucho and little Lola, spied on the cleaning with particular interest. Doña Sara put his radio, Sunday Stetson, coin jar, and a few other valuables into a box for safekeeping at her house. His remaining items were stuffed into garbage bags and placed in the wardrobe. As soon as she left and padlocked the door, we circled around to the back of the house. We studied the window. She hadn’t latched it. Chucho punched through the rusted window screen and pried the window open with a screwdriver. We hoisted little Lola through the window and climbed in after her. We began rooting around, hoping to find a spare dime under the bed, or matches, or Mexican comic books, or candy, or maybe even cigarettes.

*

Sylvie opened the double doors of the rough-hewn wardrobe, and she and Chucho bent forward to examine the interior. They gasped simultaneously.

“Oooooooh! Oh my God! Oh my God! Oh my God!” squealed Sylvie.

“What is it?” I asked.

“Oh my good God!” added Chucho. Together they dragged out a grocery bag filled to the top with nasty girlie magazines. We swooped down on the bag, tearing it savagely as we reached in to pull out some porno. Each of us grabbed a handful and retreated from the others like a wolf with a deer leg.

“Ooooooh,” I chanted from behind my copy of Cheri, “you can see her guts.” I turned the centerfold around so everyone could see the eviscerated blonde.

“Thass not her guts, stupid,” snarled Chucho, “thass her pussy.” At twelve, almost thirteen, Chucho was the oldest, and our resident sexpert. Little Lola, aged only seven, was as confused as I was.

“How come iss all hairy?” she asked. Chucho had had enough. “Stupid, you are a bonehead, Lola. Get out of here! This isn’t for little kids.” Chucho shoved her towards the window. Lola became teary-eyed and pleaded her case.

“I was just asking howcum iss all hairy, you don’t have to throw me out.”

“GET OUT, MONGOLOID!”

“I’m gonna tell mom,” she threatened, her voice quavering. “And she, an’ she, she’s gonna hit you.” Lola was a master snitch, and her mom was quite a hitter, so Chucho backed off.

“All right, then,” Chucho agreed, “shut up and don’t ask any more stupid questions.”

“I’m just asking howcum it’s all hairy, that’s all.”

“Look, little baby,” said Sylvie with absolute eleven-year-old authority, “when women grow up they get hair. When you grow up, you’ll get hair there too.”

“No sir . . .”

“Yes sir. Matter of fact, your mom has hair down there. A big ol’ spider bush.”

“No sir,” said Lola in a tone that was half denial, half question. “It’s not something you do, it just happens. Your mom has all kinds of hair. Probably down to her knees. Like it or don’t.” The revelation was too much for Lola. She began to wail.

“All right, that does it,” said Chucho. “You girls get outta here. We gotta take these books and put ’em someplace safe.”

“They’re not your books, you know,” countered Sylvie. “I was the one who opened the doors of the closet.”

“But I saw them first,” countered Chucho.

“But I touched them first, so we found them together, so they’re everybody’s.”

“That’s a good plan, there’s thousands of them, and we can share,” I offered.

“God, what kind of sissy idea is that?” asked Chucho. “Don’t you get it, Jaime? What do the girls want them for? These books aren’t for girls, they’re for men!”

“You’re not MEN,” shrieked Sylvie, “You’re just BOYS, and the girls wanna look at the pictures too!” Teary-eyed Lola nodded her head in agreement.

“These books belong to the boys,” Chucho proclaimed. “And the boys are taking them.”

“Yeah, the boys!” I added, eager to redeem myself as a dutiful foot soldier in Chucho’s eyes.

*

Suddenly Sylvie grabbed an armful of magazines and made for the escape window. Chucho grabbed her by the pigtail and pulled her back into the room and they began to struggle, the two of them sliding on the glossy paper. Lola and I entered the fray and there ensued a tremendous ripping of paper, yanking of hair and centerfolds, and opportunistic biting. The girls were scrappy, but they were dramatically outmatched. I was a big beefalo calf of a boy, and Chucho, while on the small side, rained down painful rabbit punches. In short order, the girls fled through the window and we latched it behind them. Sylvie, with a bit of crumpled centerfold still in her clenched fist, rapped on the window with her knuckles.

“Open the window! Jaime you know we should get to see them too!”

Red in the face and panting, I shouted back at her. “These are for BOYS, Sylvie. Go find your own dirty books for girls.”

“There aren’t any. So the boys have to share!”

Chucho put his face up to the window and brayed his evil laugh. Sylvie flipped him off with both hands, repeatedly stabbing the air with her middle fingers for emphasis. Little Lola tried to imitate the gesture, but flipped us off with her ring finger instead, sending me and Chucho into paroxysms of laughter.

“We’ll be back, idiots! And we’ll bring help!”

Chucho closed the curtains on Sylvie, and we collapsed on the floor, rolling around on our spoils. Chucho humped the floor lasciviously, kissed the centerfolds, and intoned, “Yes, yes, yessss!”

 

III.

The giddiness passed. Chucho and I submerged ourselves in the pornography, oohing and ewwing and gasping as we flipped through the glossy pages. Dramatic tan lines, boobs of all sizes and shapes, masses of pubic hair, and out-thrust butts. It all seemed laughable to me, embarrassing to behold, until I saw a naked man in a couples photo shoot. I stared quietly, enthralled by his mustache and broad shoulders, alarmed by his pendulous pink scrotum and wild shock of ginger pubes. I memorized the cover of the magazine, knowing it would be my favorite. We finished our initial scan and organized the books into neat stacks. It was early evening by then. Tense and vigilant, I parted the curtains and peered into the encroaching twilight.

“I’m getting hungry, Chucho.” “You’re always hungry, fatass.”

“Time to eat, man. Let’s get outta here now.” “Do you see the girls out there, Jaime?” “Nope. I think they’re gone.”

“You know the plan, right?”

“Yes, Chucho. You only told me it a hundred times.” “Just checking. If you know it so good, tell me.”

I sighed, and began reciting the plan.

“We fill that cardboard box with some of Head and Shoulders’ junk. I go out the window with the box and pretend it’s the nasty- books. I hide the box under the front porch stairs. The girls will see me and think they know our secret hiding place, but really they won’t, because as a matter of fact, you’ll have the real books in those pillowcases, sneak out when it’s safe, and you’ll hide the books in the tractor barn and tomorrow, we can look at the books some more after church.”

“It’s perfect,” he hissed, shaking his head. “They’ll never figure it out. Perfect.”

*

I slipped out of Primi’s window and Chucho handed me the box. I made a big show of pretending it was heavy with magazines. I lurched to the front of the high house, opening the little iron grill gate that led to the space under the stairs. I pushed the box through the opening and crawled in after it. As soon as I had disappeared beneath the stairs, I heard running footsteps. Through a crack in the stairs, I saw Sylvie and Lola. Shit.

“Ooh, Lola,” said Sylvie theatrically, “there’s something under the stairs. I think it’s an animal.”

“No it’s not an animal, I think it’s Jai—”

“Shut up, idiot! It’s an animal. I think it was a pig. We’d better lock it in before it eats daddy’s cucumber plants.” Before I could scramble out from under the stairs, Sylvie closed the latch on the iron grill. She peered in and smiled as I struggled to force it open. “Que feo! It’s one of those big fat wild retarded pigs.” I tried kicking the gate to no avail.

“You see how wild the pig is, Lola?”

“You better let me out, fucker!” I growled.

“Ooh, the pig is mad, but he better not get too mad, ’cause mami is right across the way in the kitchen and she’ll come out if he makes too much noise, and she’ll wanna know what you’re doing down there, and we’ll have to tell her all about the nastybooks.”

I yanked at the gate but couldn’t crack it open. I glared at her through the grill. She smiled serenely.

“You boys think we’re stupid but we’re not. I said I’d get help and I did. I got Big Cookie and she’s on my team now.”

“So,” I said, “I’m not afraid of no Big Cookie.”

“You looked pretty scared when she smacked you with her elbow and gave you a nosebleed.”

“Well, I’m not afraid.”

“Well, you should be. Right now, Cookie is kicking Chucho’s ass and getting those books back. That’s what you get for not sharing with the girls. And by the way, you guys are the fuckers, not us!”

“Big Cookie can’t beat Chucho up. He’s tough.”

“She’s taller, heavier, and even meaner than Chucho.”

It was true. I had no retort. Sylvie turned and ran off towards the tractor barn. My heart was pounding so hard I could feel it in my temples. I lay on my side and tried to kick the gate open, to no avail. I crouched beneath the porch for what were probably a few minutes, but it felt much longer. Finally Sylvie returned and opened the latch. I sprang from the gate opening and tried twice to kick her, but she was rabbit fast and laughed at my failed efforts. I jogged to the tractor barn. There I found Chucho pinned stomach-down underneath Big Cookie, who was counting out loud, her fleshy lips slowly intoning each number.

“One hundred five. One hundred six. One hundred seven.”

Big Cookie’s ambush had clearly been rough. Torn scraps of nasty books were strewn about them. Chucho and Cookie were filthy from rolling around in the oily dirt of the tractor barn. Cookie had a little blood visible in her nostril. Chucho had a large scratch across his cheek and forehead. His shirtsleeve was torn. Big Cookie had thirty pounds on him. He never stood a chance.

“Get off him, Cookie,” I said. Cookie turned to me coolly and sneered.

“You wanna help your boyfriend, Jaime?” she asked. “Well then, come on, and I’ll smack you down too.”

*

An unruly P.O.W., Chucho remained defiant. “Those magazines are for men!” said Chucho.

“Not anymore,” countered Big Cookie. “I beat you fair and square for them, Bozo. They’re ours now, and we’re taking them.”

“You girls are stupid,” said Chucho. “What do you wanna see naked girls for?”

“That’s for me to know and you to find out. Now shut your hole and let me count to two hundred so I can finish your punishment and let you go.”

“Fuckers,” spit out Chucho.

“You guys are the fuckers,” said Big Cookie. “If you had just shared, we would all have magazines and I wouldn’t have had to rack you up. Now stop squirming, you idiot, or you’ll never get outta here.”

 

IV.

For the next few days, the girls demonstrated how far in advance they were in the realm of psychological operations and manipulation. They led Chucho and me on a series of ranging, dead-end excursions. We’d spy the girls gathering behind the chicken coops and moving on purposefully to some unlikely place like the garbage heap or the inside of the abandoned Chevy that rusted away on the edge of the fields. There they would huddle tightly and converse, their eyes turned inward, backs obscuring their actions. Chucho and I would descend upon them with an “Aha!” only to find them empty-handed.

“Looking for something?” “None of your business, Sylvie.”

“Then why did you say ‘Aha,’ retard?” “. . . just because.”

“You’ll never guess where we put ’em, Chucho. You know why? Because you’re dumb and we’re smart. We might wait fifty or one hundred days before we even look at ’em. We’re patience. Very very patience.”

Their mocking laughter lashed us as we retreated. Entire days passed, and we saw no signs of activity. I was rapidly losing morale and interest, but reclaiming the books had become a point of honor for Chucho.

“Jaime, no matter what happens, we have to get those books back. I have a plan to get them.”

“What’s the plan?”

“Secret. But you gotta be in the plan or it doesn’t work.” “What am I gonna do?”

“It’s a secret, stupid. Just do what I tell you, no matter what. Will you obey?”

“Umm . . . okay.”

“First we gotta find little Lola.”

“I think she’s over by the trailer.” “Good. C’mon.”

As we approached, we heard Lola holding court at an alfresco tea party near a worker trailer in the garden. Kneeling in the dust, she was serving up mud pies and tin cans of water to her motley collection of rescue dolls. With their missing arms, hollowed-out eye sockets, scalped heads, and mismatched clothes, the dolls seemed to have crawled out of some horrible toy apocalypse, but Lola was a stellar hostess, making chatty conversation with them, and even serenading them with one of her patented fucked-up songs.

“Conjunction Junction, what’s your fuck shuh? Lookin’ at worse, and raisins in closets. Conjunction Junction, how’s that fuck shuh? I got ants, button, or, they get you pretty far.”

“Get her!” snapped Chucho. I pounced and grabbed Lola from behind.

“Lemme go!” she pleaded. She squealed and squirmed but quickly saw there was no hope of escape. Chucho assumed the role of inquisitor.

“Lola, where are the nastybooks?” “I don’ know.”

“Don’t be stupid, Lola. Tell us, or we’ll make you suffer.”

Less convincingly now, she repeated her denial. WHAM! Chucho slapped her across the cheek. We were all silent for a moment, shocked at what had just happened, trapped in an unfolding landslide of events. Lola opened her mouth wide. She was one of those delayed howl kids who held their mouths open for eternities, sucking in great lungfuls of air before unleashing a deafening cry. I clamped my grubby hand on her mouth just as the prelude made its way up her throat. A fine thread of blood trickled from her left nostril, and I was quietly horrified.

“Chucho, this is too much, man. Don’t hit her on the fa—” “Shut up and stop being a pussy. She’s going to tell me where the books are. Now where are they?” I removed my hand from her mouth.

“My nose,” she cried.

“Where are they?” pressed Chucho.

“The books . . . the books . . .” she faltered. “Spit it out!”

“They’re in the old refrigerator,” she sobbed, “by the ditch behind the High House.”

“Let her go. Next time, you don’t take our stuff, Lola.”

“Maybe we will,” she countered in a quavering voice. We were impressed by Lola’s spunk but laughed anyway. The gods of war were with us again.

 

V.

The nastybooks were indeed stuffed into the meat and vegetable bins of the abandoned refrigerator. They smelled weird now, and many of the pages had tears, oily dirt, and footprints from the ambush in the tractor barn. Still, our joy was expansive as we repacked the storied booty into a burlap sack. We had only a few minutes to act before Lola rounded up the girls and found us. We grabbed a shovel from the tractor barn en route to the garlic field. There, we hid behind the mammoth wheel of a tractor and began digging.

“This plan is perfect, Jaime, they’ll never find our books now,” grunted Chucho as he shoveled.

“Yeah, perfect.” We buried the now thoroughly distressed books and headed back to the toolshed. On our way, the girls intercepted us but said nothing. They stared at us, disgusted. We retreated, checking behind us all the way for some unexpected maneuver. It was eerie, that silence, those glares. Nothing happened, but it felt so ominous. Any act of vengeance was possible now.

*

At home that night, I showered and drank my usual nightcap, chocolate Pancho Pantera mixed with milk. But I could not sleep. In the bunk above mine, Sylvie lay silent. I knew she was awake. I felt her contempt radiating through the bottom of her bunk cooking me from the inside out like a microwave.

“You asleep?” I asked. She said nothing. I lay in the dark and breathed as softly as I could and pondered how to fix the heavy damage I’d inflicted on my relationship to my sister, Lola, and Cookie. I drifted off to sleep, enveloped in the malignant, suffocating quiet.

*

The next day was a Saturday. Normally it was the best day of the week. Sylvie and I would watch early cartoons and wait for Mom to treat us to our weekly pancake breakfast. I asked Sylvie if she wanted to watch cartoons, and she said simply, “No.” I watched my favorite, Scooby-Doo, but it wasn’t much fun on my own. All morning Sylvie maintained monastic silence. By lunch, Mom had become curious.

“Why are you two quiet?” she asked.

“It’s nothing. Just don’t feel like talking,” said Sylvie.

“Don’t tell me it’s nothing. If you’re not chattering, something’s wrong.”

“I’m finished eating,” said Sylvie. “Can I go now?” “Yes, but if something happened, you should tell me.”

“No, nothing serious. Me and Jaime, we had an argument, that’s all.”

*

Our war had escalated and taken on its own momentum. I didn’t really care about the books anymore. I don’t know if anyone did.

It was now a war for the honor of the boys or the girls. I was a sissy boy, and that binary was excruciating to me. I wanted to tell Sylvie where the books were, but that would show Chucho I wasn’t a real boy. Surely he would sever my tenuous connections to the world of boys. Surely I would be exiled to the world of girls, and surely they would send me away too. Troubled for yet another night, I counted sheep in the dark. Then horses. Deep into a chicken count, I finally fell asleep.

*

For three days, we let the books lie in the soil of the fallow tomato field. Troubled though I was, I still found it delicious to exchange conspiratorial glances with Chucho, knowing the girls were baffled, knowing the dirty books lay in the soil like fleshy seeds. On the fourth day, shortly past 6 am, a tiller tractor made its first pass over the field and the box of nasty books. All morning long, it crisscrossed the field, its great steel disks cleaving the soil, breaking it into ever smaller clods with each pass. The dirty books did not fare well, and by the time we’d awoken and stepped outside, we could only watch helplessly from the edge of the field, knowing that the tiller had sliced the magazines into slivers. Late summer breezes kicked up dust and centerfold remnants.

*

My grandma Tiburcia emerged from her kitchen to use the outhouse. On her way there, she saw a pink scrap of centerfold.

She picked up the scrap of photo and looked at it with narrowed eyes. It took a moment, but she deciphered it. “Ave Maria por encima,” she whispered under her breath. She looked about in alarm. Scraps everywhere. The devil was hard at work, but she knew just what to do. Grandma got her neighbor Doña Paquita to help her round up all of us kids into her living room and quarantine us. Then she and Doña Paquita ran out like fussing hens, chasing down every scrap they could find and tossing it into a paper sack. The disposal of our pornography was perfunctory and largely unlamented by the kids. We were war-weary and ready for new diversions.

*

For weeks afterward, scraps missed by Grandma would appear in corners—bits of tit, snatches of snatch, hanks of hair, and bouquets of tightly clenched toes that skipped along the dusty labor camp. After Grandma threw out the bag of picture scraps, Big Cookie salvaged it, and she instructed the kids to grab all the scraps of porno we found and collect them in a weathered cigar box that would serve as a reliquary. Periodically, we would open the box, lay the pieces out on a tabletop, and study them with Talmudic intensity. We wanted to piece together an enticing nude, but instead we assembled grotesque Frankenforms with outsize lips, mismatched limbs, and demented eyes that elicited more giggles than gasps of wonder. We didn’t have all the pieces, but we were united again, a secret order of kids bent on piecing together an incomplete puzzle from the lurid, enticing world of grown folk.

The preceding is from the Freeman’s channel at Literary Hub, which features excerpts from the print editions of Freeman’s, along with supplementary writing from contributors past, present and future. The latest issue of Freeman’s, a special edition gathered around the theme of power, featuring work by Margaret Atwood, Elif Shafak, Eula Biss, Aleksandar Hemon and Aminatta Forna, among others, is published October 17th.

Jaime Cortez
Jaime Cortez
Jaime Cortez is a writer and visual artist based in Northern California. His fiction, essays, and drawings have appeared in diverse publications that include No Straight Lines, a forty-year compendium of LGBT comics (2012, Fantagraphics Books); Street Art San Francisco: Mission Muralismo (2009, Abrams Press); and Infinite City, an experimental atlas of San Francisco (2010, edited by Rebecca Solnit for University of California Press). Jaime is currently working on a short-story collection.





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