–Strange – 3 Pages –
Even with all the windows rolled down the air inside Frank’s ’88 Chevy was much like the traffic along the Chula Vista highway, stagnant and dead. He mopped the sweat from his face with a handkerchief and gazed ahead at the creeping line of traffic. Exhaust fumes and the intense humidity conspired to strangle him, Frank imagined, like a slowly shrinking straitjacket. Every time he took a deep breath it seemed to choke off somewhere in the middle of his throat.
Frank looked over at his wife, Louise. She fanned herself with the latest issue of Cosmopolitan while she toyed with the air conditioner. Her face bore the crumpled expression of a baby on the verge of blowing chunks. Frank recognized that look and didn’t like it one bit; it usually meant trouble.
“Jesus ‘H’ Christ,” she hissed. “The air conditioner don’t work, Frank. Do you hear me? It don’t work!” She threw him a threatening look. “I thought you were gonna’ take this hunka’ crap over to the Auto Mall last week and have it fixed?”
Frank stared ahead at the snaking line of traffic. “Sorry,” he sighed, “I forgot.”
“Well ain’t that just like you,” she muttered bitterly. “I reckon we’ll just hafta’ sit here and melt then.” She resumed fanning herself at a feverish pace, then stopped to glance at her watch. “Oh for heaven’s sake, it’s already a quarter ’til six. The fish fry started over fifteen minutes ago. Ain’t no way we gonna’make it in time for the early-bird raffle.”
“Don’t worry ’bout no silly early bird,” he said. “We’ll get there in time for the rest of it.”
“But the early-bird prize is one of them twelve piece Tupperware sets with all the fancy little accessories. Like what we saw in that commercial. Don’t you remember, Frank?”
“Big deal,” he muttered. “I’ll go to the store tomorrow and buy ya’ some.”
“But they ain’t available in regular stores.” She pressed close to his ear and said it once again, only louder: “They ain’t available in no regular stores, Frank!” With that, she slapped the Cosmopolitan into her lap and thumbed through it, nearly ripping the pages out as she went. “And to think,” she continued, “I coulda’ won it if you’d only taken the back way along 5th Street. But did you listen to me? Oh no! You just had to take the highway. Mr. hot shot Frankie Kaplan always thinks he knows the short cut.”
Louise continued hurling insults, but Frank wasn’t listening anymore. Something in the distance had caught his attention. Something very peculiar.
Weaving among the traffic up ahead was a pudgy Mexican boy dressed in a pink wrestling leotard with matching lipstick and earrings. A crooked, gap-toothed grin contorted his face as he performed a clownish tightrope walk along the centerline. There was something hideously enchanting about the boy. No matter how hard he tried, Frank couldn’t peel his eyes away, partially out of curiosity, and partially out of fear. He watched as the boy concentrated hard on the placement of his feet, raised his arms above his head, and arched his back. The boy held this pose while his eyes slowly scanned from one car to the next. And that’s when he noticed Frank watching him. Their eyes locked. The boy winked, blew him a kiss, and began a series of clumsy pirouettes toward the Chevy.
Frank turned his head just in time to catch the expression of terror on Louise’s face.
“Oh my god,” she shrieked, fishing a can of pepper spray from her purse. “Roll up the window! Lock the door!”
But before Frank could react, the pudgy Mexican boy had wedged himself in the window.
“Que pasa amigo,” the boy whispered. “I’ll let you wrestle me for five dollar.” He ran a finger along Frank’s forearm.
“No thanks,” Frank replied, brushing the boy’s hand away.
“But I thought we were special friends.”
“I ain’t interested. Now get the hell out of here.”
The boy stood there and stared at him, not blinking, not moving a muscle.
“Don’t you understand no English? I told you to get lost!”
There was a tense silence. Then, without warning, the boy slammed Frank in a headlock and planted several sloppy kisses on his forehead, leaving a cluster of lipstick halos. “Now give me my five dollar, Frankie, or I’ll tell the police you like to touch little boys.”
In a panic, Louise swatted the boy several times on the head with the Cosmopolitan. When that didn’t work, she unleashed with the pepper spray. The boy yelped and loosened his grip just enough for Frank to wrench free and roll up the window.
“But Frankie, I love you,” the boy howled as he kissed the window, streaking it with lipstick and drool.
“Step on the gas, Frank! Move!” Louise barked, gesturing wildly at the 300-yard gap that had developed between them and the rest of the traffic. Frank punched the accelerator and the Chevy peeled away, leaving the pudgy Mexican boy in a cloud of burned rubber and exhaust.
As soon as they caught up with the rest of the traffic, Frank snuck a peek in the rear-view mirror. The boy was still standing back there. From this distance he looked like a wilted ballerina.
“Frank?” Louise cleared her throat and choked back a tear. “How did that boy know your name?”
Frank stared at the line of traffic ahead of them, dabbed the sweat from his face, and shrugged.
Originally posted 02/06/2005