El Cielo: Agua Caliente

Santos’ eyes were eager. Juan was in shock.

“Lower your window cabron.” The breath from his mouth pressed against the driver side window like a child leaning against a foggy glass pane. It was dark on the street but Juan knew those brown eyes. A scarf tightly wound around Santos’ neck and tucked into his black petticoat. Juan frigidly cranked his window down on the truck.

“Santos…What are you doing here?” The Chicago frost rode the breeze with a crisp sting as Juan’s eyes and teeth cringed, shielding his face with the backside of his hand.

“I need to talk to you. Come on, get out gordo.” Santos walked toward the front steps of the apartment building. As Juan gathered his wallet and cigarettes from the dash he slowly swung his legs out the truck door. Aida would be up ’til he came home. She was patient in that way, on the other hand Santos was not.

“Andale! Shit, man, mom moves faster.” Santos was keying the locks and was halfway in the doorway already.

“¡Ya, callate! She’ll be out here no soon as you shut up, carajo.” Juan replied.

“Yeah, that’s the last thing I want her to do so hurry up.” Santos shot back.

Juan steps on the concrete and ice with slight slips off the balls of his feet each time. The winter’s in the Midwest were brutal when they wanted to be. Weather was a bully here. One winter day could be sunny skies with light frost blowing through, making a dance floor of the streets with wisps of flakes. The next could be a blizzard where the highways and streets are packed with snow and the viejos are dying in their homes, frozen to death. One man in Indiana died because of an icicle falling on his head from the top floor of an apartment building.

As kids when it wasn’t so bad, they’d played on those streets: snowball fights, hide-and-seek, bike races, soccer matches, and Santos’ favorite being basketball. Not too many families were big on basketball so when the boys papa built them a hoop by nailing an old backboard and rim to an electric post in front of the apartment, the neighborhood shared it. When they weren’t playing soccer in the calle, they’d all congregate in front of the apartment complex at the one hoop and during hot summer days make mini tournaments. Juan played along with Santos but preferred more physical adventures. Beating up Santos was expected as every older brother does but Juan only showed true aggression when defending Santos on the streets. Every now and again kids would pick fights but mainly Santos’ trash talking during sport games got him into hot water. Some kids even called him that, Agua Caliente. He liked the nick name but never really liked the kids all that much, only the competition. Although most would be playing soccer, Santos preferred the opposite and opted for basketball. He was always different than the others.

Now the hoop was long gone and ice currently froze over the nails rusted into the wooden post. Juan stared at the post remembering their childhood. Shuffling up the stairs and into the foyer of the building, the two brothers made their way through the narrow hallway staircase that scaled the front right side of the building. The wall paper peeled a bit here and old mice caca lined the edges where wall met floor.

“Still with the caca, huh? Can’t shake your pest control, gordo? I’m surprised Aida hasn’t made you evict those pinche rats before they get too comfy around the baby. It’s almost here, yeah?” Santos looked back at Juan.

“Wait, I have to tell Aida I am home.” Juan quickly turned to run down to his first floor apartment and Santos grabbed him.

“No, hermano. I need to talk to you now.” His eyes were set and serious. Juan knew something was wrong. He hadn’t seen Santos since they last fought and never would he have imagined his younger brother arriving like this…calling him brother, not even mentioning the fight. Santos’ pride usually got the best of him, this was a first.

Now fidgeting with his keys, Santos was unlocking his second story apartment door. It was neat. Everything in place just like mama’s apartment on the ground floor, but emptier and cold. The only heat felt was rising from the first floor of Juan’s place. Not much to the apartment decor but the essentials. One wooden rocking chair with a sleek coat of varnish, a brown leather couch con un sarape draped and an old lamp next to it. The coffee table their father had built for Juan was in front of it. The stain had faded and the table top was nicked around the edges. An entertainment center sat alone against the far wall. With a few small picture frames on the shelves of the entertainment center, Juan couldn’t help but think it really hadn’t lived up to its name in quite some time. One photo was a glamour shot of their mama when she was a young woman, the other was an old wedding photo of their parents with their compadres. Their mother barely remembers the people in the photo. The last one was a wooden double frame joined by two gold hinges. Their papa had also made that. Juan and Santos as small boys sat on the apartment steps, the other was of them in their older teen years not yet twenty-one. This frame faced downward and had been pushed to the furthest depth of the shelf, collecting dust.

The lights come on with an echoed click and Juan remembers the urgency in Santos voice on the stairway. Santos is yanking open the fridge door, retrieves two beers and uncaps them.

Juan takes a deep breath, “So I’ve been meaning to talk to you about our fi-”

“That’s exactly why I’m here.” Santos cutting off Juan before he could finish was common. More common than Juan liked. In fact, in Juan’s opinion, if Santos listened to him more often the fight may never have happened.

“So, where do we begin?” Juan slumps onto the couch sliding his hands across the wooden coffee table, investigating the nicks and grooves on the top.

“We begin with a beer.” As Santos leans into the hard rocking chair, Juan eyes him curiously.

“Juan, I know we have gone our separate ways but I need to talk to you. It’s about what you did. You know, I’ve gone through this a few times and I can’t quite figure it out.”

“What’s there to figure out Santos? You were sleeping with a married man’s wife.”

Silence is heavy as Santos nods his head he takes a swig of the cold beer. After a hiccupped belch, he sets it down on the old table with a knock.

“I know what I did. But it’s about what you did.”

Juan listens to him but hasn’t taken his eyes off the beer. The foam travels from the bottom of the bottle upward.

Santos continues, “You’re my brother. If no one else, I have you— well, had. There’s more to the situation than you know. And when I told you what I had done, I said it in confidence and expected it to stay between us.”

The foam peaks at the tip of the bottle mouth and just then Santos swoops it up and guzzles down another drink, once again knocking it on the table top. The wet rings darken on the wood and small grooves press into the area where the bottle had hit. Juan’s eyes still on the table top and beer.

“Santos, you have to see it—”

“But did you keep it between us? No! You blabbed it to the whole neighborhood.” Santos wipes his mouth with his jacket sleeve and rocks in the chair eyeing Juan. Foam now meeting the mouth of the bottle again.

“Santos, your—”

“No, Juan. Listen. These past months have been…”

The foam begins to seep down the outside of the bottle’s neck.

“Santos, the bott—”

“…a complete hell for me. You don’t realize that!”

The heady foam moats thickly around the bottle base, soaking the wooden coffee table. Juan’s aggravation pipes through his veins and he shoots to his feet.

“Are you a fucking idiot? Are you blind??!” Juan’s grabbing the bottle and runs to the kitchen. He puts the bottle in the sink and snatches three towels from the roll on the counter. Now on one knee, he’s wiping the table top and looks over at his younger brother. Juan is pissed off forgetting the morosed guilty feeling he had earlier.

Santos is staring down at Juan, softly chuckling, his head leaning to one side,

“Al amigo más amigo, no le fíes tu secreto, y así nunca te verás, arrepentido o sujeto…”

Standing up,  Santos untucks his scarf that seems to be stained toward the frayed ends. He takes off his jacket, and sets it on the chair. To Juan’s astonishment, Santos’ shirt is deep red along the bottom and along his right sleeve.

“What the hell, Sant—”

“Juan, we were not speaking for quite some time and I know you’ve been in pain because of it. However, I too have been in pain. Now…” Santos makes his way to the kitchen where he places the trash can on top of the counter top, “if I make this, you have to promise you’ll help me.”

Walking back toward the entertainment center, Santos digs deep into the shelf where the old frame was. He blows it off, wiping the dust from the glass with his hand. Setting the frame upright on the old beat coffee table, Santos reaches for his scarf. Holding it in front of his face as it dangles to his knees, in a quick spin he’s balled it up.

“Santos, what have you done?” Reaching for the picture frame, Juan is staring into the old black and white photo of them as children.

“Ready, gordo?” Santos shoots.

Juan scans over to the picture of them as young teens. The faded sepia color of the old photo matches Santos’ eyes. Juan looks over to Santos as the blood tainted scarf floats through the air.

“Santos…answer me. What—”

The scarf bounces off the rim of the can going up in the air and sinking down to the bottom of the trash can with a soft thump.

“Agua Caliente,” Santos whispers. Meeting Juan with those brown eyes he says, “I am here today because of what you did. You were always there for me when I needed you, gordo. Now, one last time. And for starters…traime una mas cerveza, por favor hermano.”

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