Sam Bloom is an emerging writer, storyteller, and standup comedian. He forgets he is holding things on occasion and drops them, which one can read in his writing. He has been published in Gone Lawn, Perpendicular Play, and Squawk Back.
It was in the desert North of a Southern country that Gabriel first smelled the sweetsour grapes of unrequited prayers. At first he smelled nothing, heard nothing; not the bus hurling itself along the highway, swerving around cracks that red ants saw as punctuated valleys. He discounted the heavy snores of the senora sitting next to him in the groaning bus with all the sadness she ever felt combed neatly like a horse tail, braided into her trenzas. The music emanating from the speakers near the driver fluttered about but couldn’t grasp his attention. While he imagined constructing bridges from the littered plastic, the sun regarded him in a fat, childish way. Smiling but incapable of happiness.
Without warning, the gut punch of being watched filled his belly, and for a moment he thought the bus was hurtling off a cliff. There was no cliff and as Gabriel scanned the bus and the passengers he didnt see anyone watching him. The woman next to him began moving in her sleep and her shin bumped against Gabriels knee. Thats when he heard the music. Lo que paso, paso, entre tu y yo, lo que paso, paso! The gargling of the bus engine and the loud reggaeton mixed in metallic waves and seemed to itch his scalp and ears. There was smell now, potent wine left out in the sun. He scratched behind his ear as his forehead began forming cabin pressure from the growing feeling of voyeurism. The bus jumped and the senora’s elbow jabbed his stomach. She smiled corn cob teeth, white and yellow and brown with a few odd kernels missing.
Perdoname joven, she said. Her voice was green tea steeped too long.
No problema he said, tongue stumbling.
Tienes los ojos de pozos azules que limpian los pecados mas monstrosos
Gracias, muchas gracias he said after a moment. He knew she said something about his blue eyes, Latina mothers always did.
He curled his cheeks attempting to transpose a smile where the exhaustion graffitied deep purple, nodded and closed his eyes for a moment to reassure her that it was okay. She turned to her brown leather purse that had once been an animal in her backyard, that ate grass and fell ill in a winter that wasn’t cold, fell over sending the bell around its neck into a solitary clang like the bells that signal the death of a pope
In her sandpaper hands she summoned a string of prayer beads the color of an orange creamsicle.
Padre nuestro, que estas en el cielo, santificado sea tu nombre ..she shuffled the beads between her fingers...venga a nosotros tu reino, hagase tu voltuntad en la tierra como en el cielo”
The spoiled fruit began to pervade Gabriel’s atmosphere, a swollen sweetness. Gabriel thought about the texture of smells and couldnt remember ever smelling something that bore weight but this strange scent was not light, it was chunky in the air. He sniffed it in harsh gasps but stopped, realizing he looked like a dog. Whoever was watching surely saw.
He felt the hands of strange eyes creep up his neck hairs.
The smell, that luxurious venom of crushed hope. It came from her crinkled skin he thought, her black braids hanging around the pink of her dress, with every transfer of beads, the smell intensified. And those eyes somewhere in the bus. The smell became putrid and stale in the air, invaded Gabriel’s tongue, his hair. He shook his hair wildly, no relief, only dandruff that cascaded like snowflakes that would never fall in that desert. Stifling heat. She huffed a short incantation and shifted the bead with her index finger. He inhaled.
“No nos dejes caer en la tentacion, libranos del mal. Amen.”
Gabriel examined the senora’s brown hands. On the side of her finger was an indentation, a crater molded to the contours of the round orange of the upcoming bead. He looked down at his own hands, stained yellow from cigarretes.
Wanting to ponder the odd indent in her fingers his heart beat a drum in his chest until thoughts were beyond him. The eyes nagged him, followed him home until he gripped his keys in the left pocket of his jeans, ready to plunge them into their throat. He exhaled, looked around. There they were.
The face was all eyes. Across the aisle, one row up, staring between the gap of the two vinyl head rests, next to the window, sat a boy, a young man that was rupturing the cocoon of youth and sprouting coarse black hairs from his lip.
“Padre nuestro, que estas en el cielo, santificado sea tu nombre…”
His eyes were waxen gaping things, asphyxiated on Gabriel with cartoon tenacity, his tongue creeping from the cavern of his mouth to his lips, slathering. His neck danced like a snake emboldened by the reggaeton rhythms. Gabriel felt the boy stripping him of his shirt, pants, piece by piece removing the layers of cotton and jean from his skin. The senora fumbled with the beads. The engine revved, sputtered, as they maneuvered the desert highway. The music blasted, giving rhythm to the smell and the beads and the prayers and the smell and the eyes. The eyes.
“Do you have a problem!” Gabriel erupted, recoiled, “Que pasa!”
The senora seating next to him started cooing like an injured bird. “Perdoname joven, im so sorry, he is my son," as she pointed to her heart, “Mi hijo, bendicido por Dios, tiene problemas, problemas mentales.” Her hand moved to her head.
The man seated next to the boy became his father, awoke like a hunter on alert from the birdcall of his wife, shoved the boy into his seat, “Sientate nino. Sientate por Dios!”
With guttural elephant panic, the boy fought for his backward glance, tears streaming from their watershed.
Mental problems he heard. Fuck.
His body heaved with guilt, contracted like a sea star grabbed out of a tide pool, as everyone in the bus shifted to watch the scuffle. The father began to whack the boy with an open hand on the head. Each slap resounded through Gabriels guilt, another slap and he huffed the smell, not looking for its source, smelling it hovering around him and the family in a palpable shroud.
“Te prometo!” said the man, “Quedate alli o Dios sera mi testigo!”
“Es nuestro nino Gustavo! Cuidado!” pleaded the senora. The man lowered his weapon. Resigning in his seat toward the window, the boy settled into a drizzle of whimpers.
She put her beads away, turned to Gabriel, "I am you sorry, Nuestro nino tiene problemas, nacio sin conocer el camino de Dios.” She lowered her voice, “Aveces, trata de hacerse dano. No podemos dejarlo solo por ni un minuto.” She cried, and the tears smelled so intense Gabriel thought he was going to puke.
“I’m so sorry, I…I had no idea,” Gabriel spoke, “Lo siento. Lo siento senora.”
He craned his neck to apologize, and the boy was stretching to see him too, but the father slapped his face. It wasnt a slap a pimp would apply to employee, but a slap an old lady might dole out to a screeching pig tied to the back of a motorcycle on the way to slaughter.
The bus engine cooled down a while after, assuming a noiseless pace. And the visceral singeing of the smell subsided, resting in the air as a dubious stickiness. The crags of the country highway were replaced by smooth concrete. Within an hour they were in town, at the bus station. The senora and her husband pushed the boy off the bus before Gabriel could unveil the apology he had been crafting from the labyrinths of his Beginners Spanish textbook.
Gabriel waited for his bag to be retrieved by one of the station attendants amongst the slouched bodies of the bus passengers. As he was handed his backpack he turned and saw the boy and his father pissing on the wall of the station. A security guard emerged from behind the gate, livid crimson and bellowing. Gabriel could see the piss forming a river in the dry dirt, emanating that sour stench of an aged misery. The father opened his arms to plead with the man as the barrage of yelling continued and the boy’s piss streamed unabated. The senora looked on leaning to one side, fumbling for the beads in her purse. Gabriel situated his backpack and turned to leave. He had to piss too.