Freddy Gonzales had never before seen so many tangas in his life.
That is what Keeper Josh accused Freddy of, looking at the tangas, once they were seated for a while and the young man hadn’t said anything. Freddy had been staring all around at murals he’d seen plenty of times before, as a child. How long since his mother and father had last brought him to Don
Juan’s for home-cooked salvadorean food?
“I said, were you a kid the last time you were here, Freddy Guzman?” Keeper Josh was questioning him again.
“No, but after my dad got—wait, were you talking to me about tangas?”
Josh just smiled. He dressed the same when he wasn’t zookeeping. A polo shirt, cargo pants, hiking boots… well, his collar was popped up.
“You can’t say tangas, though—it’s weird on you!”
“Because I’m a zookeeper? You know, Freddy, deep in the Amazonian rainforest, there’s a rare species of golden frog, pretty endangered. As part of their mating call, they have to… wear thongs.”
“Tangas, whatevs, YOLO… I got you, son. I’ll even whip my hair back and forth if I have to!”
“What hair?” Freddy couldn’t stop laughing. Josh was a riot outside of Amazonia.
At the other end of the table, Freddy’s mom Moenna and Katie Lynn’s parents ceased their furrowed-brow conversation and lightened their mood. Katie Lynn had gone to the restroom.
“Freddy, you were saying something… your dad went back to El Salvador? Is that why you come here for all the home-cooked pupusas?”
“My dad is from Guatemala. He got deported when I was small.”
Josh put a hand over his water glass for a moment, “I’m sorry to hear that, man.”
“Pupusas are still good, though. This was his favorite place to get them. He used to work at the zoo, too. Did you know Eduard Gonzales?”
“Yeah? God, I know him—knew Eduard. He was the funniest guy—so you’re little Eduard? You were this whole time, and you never said anything.”
“Well, maybe… I didn’t know to say it… whether you knew him, really, because he was just a custodian.”
“You shouldn’t think like that, Freddy. That kind of stuff doesn’t matter. Or, it does matter, it does—your father was really good at his job, and he really liked Amazonia. Man, I didn’t know that’s why he went. But I guess, that’s good in a way… I didn’t think he’d just up and leave us. Well, Freddy Gonzales, I’m calling you Little Eduard from now on.”
“Aww, man, first you call me by the whole name and then…”
“Tell your dad I said that, too.”
Moenna leaned in. “I see my son’s not been getting in much trouble. At least, I hope he’s not been acting up.”
“Mom, I always say I’m good. I even get to carry all the heavy stuff, all the time, for Josh.”
Everyone at the table laughed.
Katie Lynn’s father was mostly quiet. Her mother, Anna, often spoke over him. “Josh… he lived in Mount Pleasant too, did you know? Katie told us that.”
“Yeah, I was over on Ingleside for a while…”
Katie Lynn returned. Freddy leaned over the table on his elbows. He tapped his sneakers fast at some bachata beat that always seemed to come to mind whenever he saw his girlfriend enter the room.
Katie had a nervous look, and she startled at all the beautiful women everywhere painted on the walls making tortillas, food that was deliciosa, rica. Tan rica que las tienen los manos llenos de tortilla y senos formado como platanos maduros.
She spied Freddy’s feet moving under the table and went to him instantly. Her eyes opened wide with her laughing smile. She danced a circle round the back of his chair, then slipped into the seat beside him and squeezed round Freddy’s middle with both arms.
“I’ll miss you…” she kissed behind his ear.
Freddy tried to relax and straighten up in front of their parents. He patted Katie’s back, for her to do the same. She really didn’t want to.
They all ate. Clearly, the parents decided earlier that they wanted to do something official after dinner. “Keeper Josh,” Katie’s father began over a row of empty tamarindo drinks. His voice boomed and Moenna flinched. “We’ve really got to thank you, Keeper Josh. You’ve been such a good influence on our daughter, and Anna and I hear you’ve been doing this for so many kids. Maybe a thousand summers…
“Es orgulloso… es lo que matado el perrito?”
Freddy tried to shush his mother’s whisper. “Máma, no—”
Katie Lynn went, “No, that was my other dad who killed the dog. And he’s dead.”
Everyone heard. Stopped.
Katie’s mother squeezed her husband’s arm. “Katie…”
“Mom, I don’t want to yell right now, so don’t embarrass me—Freddy’s right here, mom! And then that’s his mom, do you get it? This is so important, don’t embarrass me!”
“I’m sorry querida,” Moenna looked to Katie, “but it’s okay. It’s all fine. Freddy and I are fine. Just… listen to your mother right now, since she’s speaking to you.”
Anna snapped, “Excuse Katie. She thinks she’s getting married already, but you’re not her mother-in-law, that’s what I tell her.”
“Excuse me?” Moenna tried, but failed to recover from it, “Yes, my son could marry your daughter.
Why do you think he can’t? We may be on the other side, but we both do share Mount Pleasant street.”
Freddy leaned back in his chair as the parents argued. Keeper Josh had another long sip of tamarindo.
Freddy had been feeling beneath the back of his grilfriend’s shirt. Her face was flushed with anger.
Her heart was beating faster and faster. He bit his lip. The world around, Mount Pleasant outside, the women patting tortillas in here, on the beach, jungle trees, yes, tangas… titi monkeys, Esther the sloth, crickets. Their chirping raising… and frogs too… but Katie Lynn was screaming with them.
Freddy thought about his father. The picture of him on the beach at Monterrico.
“Ahorita, tenemos problema con el alma. Tu novia tiene una fiebre del espiritu—la necescita, de verdad, lo que constituta el bosque—su serenidad…”
“Katie,” though Freddy could barely be heard over the arguing, “You promised me that you would take your medicine today.”
“But you didn’t even hear her, Freddy—you hear how my mother is yelling at me, in front of you? And she thinks I took all those animals, but I didn’t. Josh, you found them all in the exhibit again, didn’t you?”
Josh drank even more from an empty tamarindo glass.
“K. L. , take your medicine, baby. It’s in your purse.”
Katie Lynn was red-faced.
Freddy put a glass of water in front of his girlfriend. Then, he swept his arm round to rest on her chair back after she sat down.
After a few trembling breaths, Katie sat, swiftly popped open an orange prescription bottle, placed a small white pill on her tongue then drank the water. She drank all of it while Freddy watched.
The adults got back in their seats too. Freddy leaned his chair on two legs.
The dinner ended gently. Somehow, they all got back to normal conversation while Freddy tipped his chair and held Katie’s hand under the table.
Where it was all going, and Moenna checked eyes at her son when Keeper Josh said he had to get going, was the silver wrapped box in a white plastic bag on the floor. Freddy ducked down near his mother’s purse to get it.
“Katie Lynn, before Keeper Josh goes… my son and his father and I, we wanted to meet you finally, before the summer finished, and this was always Eduard’s favorite place. So, he’s here with us too.
His dad and I both want to thank you for being such a good friend to our son. And, Josh too—Thank you, so very much, Mr. Braves. You have always been so good to the kids, I heard, from Eduard. You must have changed so many lives.”
Keeper Josh was waiting for the laughter, but it didn’t come. He nodded with genuine gratitude.
“Well, they didn’t squish too many crickets.”
Moenna continued over the kids’ laughter. “Katie Lynn, querida, you two have been very good to each other. Here, this gift is from the whole family. The end of summer may be hard, but there’s no reason why friendship between you and Freddy can’t continue. Though you’ll both be going away to college, we’re all still neighbors, aren’t we? We’re just on either side of Mount Pleasant Street, anyways…”
“Mom, you’re going on and on…”
“Yes.” Katie’s father stood another time. “We all have the pleasant mountain to share. And, the
Smithsonian’s National Zoological Park.”
Katie Lynn rasberried laughter at her smiling stepfather. Moenna clapped, charmed.
Freddy poked Katie Lynn with a finger until she finished opening the box. She brought out a black hoodie, a lot like the one Freddy used to wear. Embroidered across the hood were candied skulls, marigolds and the words “Cricket Queen”.
Instantly, Katie dropped it on the table. Like her fingers were singed.
“Does she like it?” Moenna worried loudly. “Freddy’s father did spend half the summer making it by himself…”
“No, I just… Mrs. Gonzales, this is so—” then, Katie screamed, “And it’s an NZP sweatshirt, an official one!”
Keeper Josh smiled big, cracked the knuckles of one hand. “Well, don’t get frog juice on that.”
“What are the crickets saying to you now, Katie, K.L. Killer? Are they still talking over at the zoo?”
Katie turned to Freddy, picked up the sweatshirt, smelled it, cried into it.
“Cheep, cheep, cheep.” Came her muffled voice. And, she kept saying that over and over. Freddy smacked his forehead while all the adults worried about her.
“No!” she stopped them. “That’s what crickets say. Cheep-cheep!”
1, Busdriver Marlin :: 2, The Quiet, Angry-Faced Girl :: 3, Love, After the Deer Apocalypse :: 4, Moises “Emperor Crush” Romero :: 5, Screaming in Spanish :: 6, His Hoodie :: 7, Amazonia :: 8, Behind the Waterfall :: 9, The Cricket Queen :: 10, Don Juan’s