I’m working the rubber band made from a long strip I cut from my bicycle tire’s inner tube. The black, powdery residue of the rubber leaves fingerprints on the surface where I’m doing the work. Trying not to get a tear in the rubber. This is the second time I try. I’m hiding in the back yard, by the sink and faucet where my mother usually does the wash, out of reach so nobody sees me, nobody bothers me. I’m thinking I’m going to have the meanest, bestest slingshot musket in the neighborhood. I’m going to shoot lizard’s heads off with bottle caps. Fermín, my black friend at school, showed me the original drawing of the thing itself. I copied it and now I’m building it back here by the chicken coops, using my father’s hammer, scissors, and a few furniture tacks I removed from the bottom of the sofa. Nobody will miss them, and nobody can see the flap of material hanging loose like a dog’s ear.
The rubber holds, dangles around my hands like a pair of black snakes. Fine rubber. The best, which I took from the front wheel of my bicycle. I put the tire back on so my father wouldn’t see the thing missing. Only a flat tire, and any bike can have that. I just won’t ride it, and if they ask me to I’ll say I don’t feel like it. My father’s been gone for two or three days now. The secret police, as my mother called the two civilian dressed men, came and arrested my father. I’m here in the house with my grandmother. I haven’t seen my parents in a few days.
The GDos, secret police, came for my dissident father. My father, the gusano–this much I know is true. Every time I glance over at my bicycle with its flat front tire, leaning against the gate that separates the chickens from the rabbits, I think of my father. He stands in line for days to get me this bicycle, and I know he’ll be angry if he ever finds out. My grandmother tells me he’ll be back home any minute now, but we haven’t heard from him or my mother. The neighbors keep coming by to talk to my grandmother, find out what happened. The next door neighbor, Miriam and her son Chichi, come by and I almost show Chichi my slingshot musket, but then I think better of it. If I show it around everyone will ask questions. They will glance its beauty soon enough.
It’s almost done, and I’ve collected enough bottle caps on the way home from school and back to have a real shootout war. Everyone in the neighborhood has slingshots, including Chichi, but nobody has this one. I hold the 2 x 2 piece of wood in my hand, feel its weight on my fingers. I sanded it down on the sides real smooth because I didn’t want to get any more splinters in the tips of my fingers. I plan to paint it red or black, like a real pirate’s musket I’ve seen on TV.
My grandmother, who cooks in the kitchen, keeps poking her head out of the kitchen entrance to ask if I need anything. I’ve been out here for a long time, long enough to get used to the thick, musky smell of the chickens. A rooster hops up to the fence and eyes me the way chickens do. Turns this side first, then the other. I aim the thing at it and pretend I slice its head off. One clean shot. I want to line up the trigger with the front muzzle. I’ve cut two feet of rubber for each side. I load one side, then the other. Each side holds three bottle cap backups, so that I could reload real fast.
Then Ricardito, my friend from the other side of the fence, shows up on top of the fence between his house and mine. I can’t hide the musket fast enough.
“What are you doing?” he asks and licks his lips. He always licks his lips when he’s nervous
“Hey, not much.” I want to tell him not now, that I don’t want to play. But he looks like he isn’t going to jump down and leave me alone, so I glare up at him. He’s older by two years, but everything we play I always beat him. My mother once told me the story of how when I was three I peed in my bottle and gave Ricardito it to drink from, told him it was delicious orange juice. I don’t remember doing it, but my mother says I did.
“Wanna play ball?” he says, his dirty hands gripping the cement at the top of the cinder block wall. His father always threatens to stick broken pieces of bottles up there so we won’t jump the fence so often. Ricardito broke his arm once when we used to walk it up and down, balancing ourselves up there like in tightrope acts.
“Not right now.”
“Has your father come back?”
My father, the traitor. My father the counterrevolutionary.
“No, not yet.” I feel the rubber band underneath my thighs as I squat over them so Ricardito won’t see them. He’s my best friend, but once he sees something of mine he can’t stop asking questions.
“My father says they can keep him in prison for good,” he says. I don’t want to think about my father, so I don’t say anything.
“They’ll make him cut sugar cane.” Once you get him going, he can never stop. There’s no way to do it unless you get his mind off on something else, I don’t because I don’t want him to start asking me questions about what I’m doing.
He sits there and dangles his legs over the side. His scuffed shoes scrape against the cement. I can see the worn sole on one shoe, and the crack in the other. He isn’t wearing socks and his ankles and calves are riddled with mosquito bites, whole constellations of them, some red, other crusted over with purple scabs. The sores never go away because he loves to pick off the scabs and look at them real close. He told me once he saves them all in a jar, and I believe him. I believe anything he says when it concerns his body.
One time when we were alone in the house, he called me into the bathroom where I had found him with a bloody mouth. He kept spitting up blood and saliva, and when I asked him what had happened he showed me his loose tooth. He’d pulled on a tooth long enough to jiggle it loose, and now his gums were bleeding. This was a permanent tooth too.
Whenever he smiles he’s got a gap right there. His parents refuse to take him to the dentist, and his father beat him silly because of it.
“What are you going to do if your father doesn’t come back?” Ricardito asked.
“He’ll come back.”
“Not if they don’t want him to. You think they’ll kill him?”
“My grandmother says he will.”
Ricardito hates my grandmother because she always chases him away with a broom. She calls him the little animal, the little pest. “Animalito,” she screams at him. “Salte de aquí! Vete ya!”
He sticks his big, candy stained tongue out at her.
Once he fell as he ran and scraped his knees, but he didn’t cry. I thought of him that night, in bed, waiting for the blood to dry, crust up into giant scabs so he could start digging his dirty nails underneath. He says that if you look at the underside of a scab, you could see the patterns of skin as it heals, like when you cut a tree down and count the rings to see how old the tree is. Except his never heal. He bleeds on to his bed sheets, and his mother never asks why, or where the blood comes from. His mother can’t see very well. She wears glasses thicker than the bottoms of bottles.
When I realize Ricardito isn’t going to go away, I figure I could ask him to get me something. I need a big nail for a trigger. “Does your father have a nail I can use,” I ask.
“What do you want a nail for?”
“I can’t tell you. Does he have one?”
“He might. It depends.”
“If you get me one I will tell you.”
He stares at me with his eyebrows furrowed, like he always does because half of the things I say he never believes, and also because he’s too used to my fooling him and pulling his leg all the time. Maybe there’s some truth to the bottle of my urine he drank.
No use. I see it in his eyes. He’s in one of those lazy moods. I can tell. He doesn’t feel like jumping down. What can I do?
“If I tell you what I’m doing,” I tell him, “do you promise not to tell?”
“I might, might not.”
He looks hurt because he never likes it when I called him shit. I feel sorry for him all of a sudden.
“Ok,” he says.
“Can’t you tell what it is?”
“Better than that.”
“Where did you get the rubber bands?”
I didn’t answer, just shrugged.
He jumps down now, his feet landing flat and square by the mound of bottle caps. He lands on it and crushes a few. Startled, the chickens flutter into a ruckus.
“Take it easy,” I say. “Look where you’re jumping.”
He apologizes, but it’s no use. I can tell. He wants to know more than ever what it is I’m building.
I show him. “See, it’s a musket, a rifle, a machine gun of bottle caps.”
I explain how I plan to shoot bottle caps at lizards, at birds, at anything I find.
Already he’s all hands. I hate that about him, his groping around with his dirty hands and fingernails. He’s about to pull on the rubber bands, stretch them for the first time, and I yank them out of his hands.
If I found the nail, and I put the thing together I could convince Ricardito to play firing squad. I heard one of my parents friends mention something about it once. One of my father’s friends, Guillermo, who rode the motorcycle he rode me around a few time, up and down the street, what a great thrill and he never came home one afternoon. Guillermo was a gusano, my parents always called him. Gusano means worm, maggot. I found out it means dissident, counterrevolutionary, the kind that could get you killed or disappeared in Cuba. When my father called Guillermo gusano, he always shot back: “It takes one to know one.” And both he and my father laughed real hard.
I can play firing squad with Ricardito, yeah.
We look around the chicken coop and rabbit hutches until I find the right nail, then I pull it out slowly. With one knee on the ground and Ricardito breathing over my head, I straighten it out. It has a wide enough of a head for what I need. The wide head holds the bottle cap under the pressure from the rubber band, and then I can flick it easy like flipping a coin up in the air.
I measure one last time, still making sure that Ricardito doesn’t touch any more of the bottle caps–I had them counted– and hammer the nail into place.
“It’s done,” I say and hold up my brand new musket. “Look how beautiful.”
“Can I hold it?” Ricardito licks his dry, cracked lips.
“No yet,” I say and turn away from him until I can load it properly.
The rubber bands stretch just fine, with plenty of tension. I imagine the bottle caps going fast and hard, easily lobbing off the head of any lizard, frog, snake. Great, I think and feel the excitement in my throat.
The rubber band hugs the first three caps, then I load the second one, another three. It’s ready.
I want to shoot it before my grandmother hears us.
“Stand against the wall, just straight like that.”
“Just do it,” I tell him.
He backs up against the dirty lime walls in the patio of our house in Habana. A little nervous, he fidgets. His shoulders slump, his hands flutter about in and out of his pockets.
“Move back more, right up against the wall.”
Then I think of the perfect idea. I blind fold him to make it look real enough. Then Ricardito can’t see, and he won’t know how the thing works, and he’ll be too scared to want to shoot it. I figure I could aim for his gut, or his hands.
I find a rag by the sink, take it and fold it over his eyes.
“I can’t see,” he says.
“That’s the idea.” I turn him a few times like he’s going to beat up a piñata or pin the tail on the donkey.
Then I back him up against the wall. I decide now that since his eyes are covered he won’t have to face the wall. He won’t know when I fire. He’ll only hear and feel the bottle caps bite into his skin, and if I miss, he’ll hear them buzz past his ears.
He stands there blindfolded, his head tilted upward as though he’s trying to sneak a peek.
I walk back counting twenty paces. I hold my musket between my legs, pull back on the rubber bands, load, and aim.
“What is this called?”
“Firing squad,” I say and close one eye.
I bite down on my tongue as I concentrate, all along thinking of the bottle caps as real bullets. The machine gun in my hand. Ricardito isn’t my friend anymore, but my father. I hear my father’s voice talking about how he wants to leave the country, take me out of it before the government brainwashes me into thinking my own father is my enemy.
My father, tall and thin, learns to study the bullet marks on the walls. He says they tell tragic stories. A whole calligraphic record of those who’ve been shot, disappeared, for telling the truth about corrupt governments.
An old fashion firing squad like the Spanish used with their shiny muskets. With their conquests. With all that rancor and rage in their hearts.
“What’s taking so long?” Ricardo speaks and breaks my concentration.
I take aim. My trigger finger trembles against the nail, then steadies, and I open fire.
* * *
Ricochet first appeared in Gulf Stream #18 (2002)
Virgil Suárez is the author of over 25 books of fiction and poetry as well as best-selling anthologies. He is also a translator and mixed media artist. His most recent book is The Soviet Circus Comes to Havana & Other Stories He is currently working on finishing his 9nth collection of poetry titled Indigo. He lives and works in Florida and spends all the time he gets on his Yamaha V-STAR 1100 Classic motorcycle cruising up and down the Blue Highways of the Southeast.