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Jan/Feb 2013 Spotlight

Pablo, Pablito – a novella

Chapter One

by Steven Schutzman


Pablo is dreaming about frogs the color of dirty motor oil, black with a sick tinge of yellow. They are small frogs with typical wrap-around grins and bulging eyes, millions of them in the ditches flanking the mountain road he is walking on. The frogs are jumping to escape, looks like, but there are so many all they can do is jump on each other and belly slide down, no one ever getting out, just senselessly changing their order in the ditches. It's a bad dream, the pressure, and he wants it over.

Uncome, uncome, uncome, Pablo shouts.

It works. No more frogs. Some way, he's back, breathing fast and shallow, terrified and relieved in his bed.

Uncome? What a strange word. Uncome.

He'll have to remember it, though he knows somehow it's one he better not use too much or he'll wear it out.

All is good again. Normal. Pablo has his regular big appetite for breakfast. He goes to work early, and there's a post-it note on his screen for him to come see the boss first thing he gets in.

Pablo likes the boss, and the boss likes Pablo. The boss leaves Pablo alone, mostly, which is a good sign, a sign of trust. Pablo isn't worried the boss wants to see him early because the boss would sometimes do that in certain cases when he would ask Pablo to shut the door and wheeze conspiratorially that one of his fellow workers wasn't up to a job and would Pablo sort of, sort of, you know, cover for him and bring him up to speed, without the guy feeling bad?

Even as this makes Pablo feel good and trusted, it also makes him wonder if the boss ever does that with someone else about him, in certain cases, but after his other jobs with the lousy bosses breathing down his neck and not trusting him and making him hate going to work, what a cool boss the boss is.

When the boss wheezes conspiratorially, he sounds like Marlon Brando in The Godfather doing something behind the scenes to take care of a member of the family. That's the kind of boss the boss is, living by definite rules, protective of his own, not wanting them to feel bad.

Pablo worries about the boss because he is very overweight and does nothing but stay at his desk into the night drinking black coffee and eating thick meat sandwiches as he talks to clients on speaker with the door open so everyone on the floor can hear the money piling up while the boss just gets fatter and the sacks under his eyes droopier and his breathing wheezier and his skin grayer and his ears, nose, and eyebrows hairier, generally going to pot like he doesn't care about anything anymore. It isn't even about the money. The boss has plenty. It's about something else, sure, though Pablo can't figure what. Probably about the family, like it was for the Godfather. The boss takes the weight of the world on his shoulders when he doesn't have to. Or so it seems to Pablo.

Pablo wishes he could tell the boss to stop working so hard and get some rest and go for a walk and eat a vegetable and slow down on the coffee, but he doesn't want to say that stuff because it would be like bringing the word "death" into the room, and it just might kill the boss. That's how bad the boss is looking, like he could grab hold of his chest and drop dead any second.

The boss is behind his computer, early this morning, sitting in his rolling desk chair as usual, but he doesn't have a client on speaker this time. Instead he's on with the corner deli that makes meat sandwiches so thick a normal person can't finish one, but here's the boss ordering two for breakfast. When the boss is on speaker, he yells like he's calling to someone across a canyon, but when you're in the room with him, he speaks so low and wheezes so gentle you have to strain to hear him.

Two, the corned beef, how I like it, the boss shouts real loud so the whole floor can hear him killing himself, and something about this reminds Pablo of his dream, how the boss can't help what he's doing just like the little black frogs couldn't help what they were doing, jumping to escape but always belly-sliding down.

Then the boss is off speaker and asks Pablo to please close the door and have a seat.

Maybe he'll say something this time.

When he gets back to the boss's desk after shutting the door, Pablo sees a little black frog's head in the boss's one eyeball and another frog in the boss's other eyeball like two frogs in two little ponds, and then he imagines the boss's head is a pond full of little black frogs trying to get out. He shakes his head to make the crazy things go away, but when he looks again, there are more frogs poking out between the hairs thick as thorns in the boss's ears and still more out of his eyeballs and out of his nostrils and cheeks and neck...

He has to do it.

Uncome, uncome, uncome, Pablo shouts at the top of his lungs.

It works. Again, the frogs are gone.

As Pablo is trying to explain his behavior without mentioning frogs, the boss quick holds his hand up and yells at him like he's on speaker that he should take a week off or better two weeks, with pay, he's been driving himself so hard lately. Pablo stumbles blindly out, figuring he better go visit Little Grandmother.

What Pablo doesn't count on is Little Grandmother's new steady boyfriend being there under the blankets with her on the living room sofa bed so full of life and laughing like a horse at everything. It's past ten in morning and they are still laying around.

Pablo uses his keys to open the door locks to let himself in and this would be the last time he would do that because he figures those two could be making it anywhere at any hour of the day. He doesn't know why they're sleeping on the living room sofa bed anyway. That used to be his bed growing up.

The big, loud, new boyfriend must have heard the bolt locks thud back just in time to roll off Little Grandmother and be laying there with his big, shiny, red head half sunk in among her throw pillows while she rests beside him, her head propped on the white meat-slab of his arm, her face flushed and pulsing with blotches of lovemaking heat.

When the new boyfriend sees him step out of the small darkened hall into the light of the living room, he starts laughing like a horse at Pablo's blushing face, soaked hair and white shirt plastered to his skin from being caught in a downpour because he didn't want to take the subway uptown on account of the possibility of frogs. Pablo didn't feel like going through that underground.

The new boyfriend likes Pablo a lot and expresses his feelings by always trying to take him out to eat and calling him annoying, affectionate names and laughing laughs that could come out of a horse, sure.

You look like a little drowned dog over there, Charlie. Didn't you ever teach this guy to come in out of the rain, Josefina?

Pablo isn't sure about this new boyfriend.

When the boyfriend's laugh turns into a low growl in his throat, Pablo hears the screaming kids being let out for recess in the playground of PS 30 across the street where he went to school and was always the shortest in his class. All these feelings come up, like his past is being stomped on by bullies all the way to here.

We're going out to breakfast down the corner when the rain stops. Wanna come with us, Captain Charlie?

It already stopped, man.

Okay. That's good. We'll meet you down there but first we got some unfinished business to take care of here. Right, Baby? he says and kisses Little Grandmother's hair, a big loud smack.

The new boyfriend, who's seventy if he's a day, seems like one of those older guys who let it all hang out, definitely, like they have nothing left to lose and don't care what other people think anymore.

Little Grandmother, who is even shorter than Pablo, looks like a pile of kindling sticks compared to this huge log of a new boyfriend who is laughing like a horse again at Pablo’s burning red face. The guy totally enjoys life, food, and Little Grandmother, but the whole thing makes Pablo feel the possibility of frogs again, so he wants to split before frogs happen to the person he cares about most in this world.

Studying Pablo with her dark eyes, a new look washes down Little Grandmother's face like water down a window, changing her dreamy love-subsiding features to a look of searching concern while she breathes in the atmosphere of his inner world. She shimmies up against the pillows behind her, so her always beautiful breasts rise into view, big ones especially for a woman her size, breasts that once saved Pablo's life. They're not relaxed yet, he notices, because of what those two have just been doing, the flesh flaring red-tinged from being handled, the brown nipples bunched, ancient. The always smiling boyfriend looks down at her with a pride of ownership and says, Mine all mine, like he's thinking it's funny to say that about a person half his size, making Pablo's face burn even more.

You're not sick again are you, Baby? Little Grandmother asks, sweetly, with a love as big and calm as the sky, as she is little under the sky.

Now, I'm fine.

You look all flushed and feverish. Maybe you never got all the way over that flu you had.

That was too weeks ago, Little Grandmother.

It can rebound, you know, if you're not careful. You're sure you're all right.

Yeah, I told you.

How come you're not at work then?

I just took half a day off because of all the long days I've been putting in lately.

Liar. Something's wrong I can tell.

I'm fine. I'll see you down the diner.

Okay. Okay. We won't be long, Chico, Little Grandmother says. You go order yourself an extra large glass of fresh squeezed OJ and a pot of chamomile tea with honey and lemon for your flu and we'll be down.

Okay. I'll see you down there.

But what did you come by for, Baby? You never said.

The door slams like a gunshot in the hall. Pablo takes off down the stairs without double locking it.

Man, that guy.

But Little Grandmother really seems to like him a lot better than the others, enough to go steady, and he is real nice and generous to her.

Now that he has no job, maybe, and Little Grandmother to go to, Pablo decides to do what he usually did when he felt mixed up as a boy, that is wander around in abandoned places where something good or interesting or not that bad would always happen to divert him from his troubles and maybe change his mood. Just kicking through leaves or piles of junk, whacking sticks against tree trunks or chucking rocks at old windows seems plenty good enough to him.

There are lots of abandoned places in the old neighborhood where he used to live with Little Grandmother until he got his own place, last year: Shadowy construction sites with the work stopped on account of the area going downhill so fast the investors pulled out; the underneaths of concrete bridges void of derelicts hopefully; empty lots shining with broken glass; burnt out buildings; old warehouses without squatters; a closed down high school; an old mansion behind a high and beautiful stone wall with wrought iron gate chained and rusted shut, but the place is a wreck inside, charred by campfires and graffitied and looted; several small woods where people dump washing machines and tires and blue plastic shopping bags hang like party decorations from the trees; a graveyard so old all the people who might visit the graves are sure dead too; the banks of a no-name, no-account city river barely flowing over rocks and shopping carts, the water so dirty you couldn't expect anything to live in it but there are always fish if you look close, mainly two, swimming in slow love circles, gray fish, grayer than the water is.

Nowhere in the city is more interesting to Pablo than these abandoned, falling-apart places but then Pablo thinks, Frogs would fit right in, so he decides to go a way he never went before, up toward the better neighborhoods, instead of down to where all the ripe abandoned places sit like they've been thrown away as spoiled by the rich people living above. He doesn't want to relive his past anymore. He doesn't want to relive anything. He wants to forget everything.

He walks past the line of houses on Little Grandmother's block and the next block and the next and the next and then past a strange sight, a chain-link-fenced city storage yard full of other rolled up chain-link fences stacked three high like fat logs. Wow. This is one big mama fenced-in yard ready to give birth to a litter of fences long enough to surround the entire city. A whole fenced-in block of fences. And nobody.

Pablo's first thought is to climb the fence to get in the yard and then climb the stack of rolled fences to see how tight they are and springy. They look really springy.

No way. What am I, like twelve again?

Pablo was always a speedy runner and fast fence climber. He had to be on account of the kids who couldn't beat anyone else up wanting to beat little him up. But none of these loser freaks could ever catch him in the schoolyards locked for recess or wherever they got the idea to put an end to his life. Pablo would always scoot away and be over the fence in five seconds or zipped down the street, leaving them standing there like they were suddenly lost in space.

Being twenty years of age now, with a good job, maybe, he walks past the fenced-in fences, trying to feel all right about where his life is so far. Soon things get a lot quieter. There are more and more trees blocking the machine noises of the city and, up ahead, more trees and then another fence to keep people from sneaking onto a golf course without paying. Pablo doesn't feel like climbing this fence either, on account of the insane golfers, who braved the morning rains, being inside like gorillas in the zoo ready to come after him for trespassing. Better to keep a fence between him and them so he walks along it letting his fingers bump over the cold curves of the links, laughing to himself about gorilla golfers, feeling a little better.

It doesn't seem to Pablo anymore that his suicidal boss or Little Grandmother's laughing horse of a new boyfriend have the right to say anything about him. And if there are frogs, let there be frogs. He can handle them. He tries to make them come now on purpose but he can't.

The ground slants away from the fence so he has to hold on sometimes, what with how wet the leaves are, to keep from slipping down. It isn't much fun walking like this.

The smell of the wet rotting leaves and the red sleeping bag splayed out against the fence remind him of the blue dead guy he found once in the woods, sitting in a ditch like it was a bathtub or his own grave the blue guy didn't have time to finish digging.

Coming up slowly and stopping, eleven maybe, Pablo talked to him.

Mister. Mister.

And waited to see if he would answer. In Pablo's mind it went: If the guy's drunk, passed out or in a bad mood, he could decide to answer or not; or if he's asleep he could decide to answer or not; or if he's dead he could decide to answer or not. Like all those states were the same state, since the spirit of person was what really mattered and not their temporary physical state, like dead or sleeping or passed out people could decide to answer or not, same as anyone, and since Pablo was always nice, maybe this one would decide to talk to him, special, spirit to spirit. Being quick as he was, Pablo had no fear of a guy in that kind of shape. He waited, hoping to have a conversation with a dead man, looking at his blue face, fat lips and mouth hanging open. Nothing.

Nobody's that blue and still alive, Pablo thought and got the cops, a good deed that was mentioned in church the next Sunday. Because he was so small, people were always complimenting him when he merely acted his age. It made him sick. A few other short guys he knew lifted weights to get people to quit that stuff but Pablo hated lifting weights. He took up photography and the congas.

When Pablo reaches the end corner of the golf course fence, he looks down and sees something unbelievable to him, an expanse of beautiful, green grass stretching out below, with three or four soccer fields and a game happening on one. That such a place exists is not unbelievable but that he never knew about it so close to his old neighborhood is unbelievable. Maybe it's just that rich people always know how to hide their things. Shhh.

The clouds are coming apart in the sky and the clean sun pouring down making the wet field so bright it hurts his eyes to look at it. Looks like a big beautiful bowl of green liquid full of sugary sunlight, like if you drank it, it would be healthy and sweet.

Pablo charges down, letting the hill take him as the cool air divides pleasantly over his face and whistles past his ears. He walks toward the soccer game which is being played by high school girls in Catholic School uniforms, white shirts and short blue skirts with gym shorts underneath so no one can see anything.

Because he loves soccer, Pablo decides to watch for a while from sideline-out-of-bounds where he gets himself eyed by the gym teacher with a whistle in her mouth and a sweater tied around her waist. He waves to the gym teacher to let her know that, even though he's a grown man, with a goatee and moustache, watching Catholic School girls in short blue skirts play soccer at a time of day when regular people should be at work, he's no pervert and harmless. But the gym teacher doesn't wave back. Just blank-stares at him. Probably he isn't welcome.

Better split.

It isn't really soccer anyway. The girls are using only half the field and a player will move only when the ball comes close to her and the whistle is blown at her to go after it. Otherwise, the girls just stand around talking, looking at their fingernails or putting their hair back in place from the time the teacher made them chase the ball before. Pablo's presence has no effect on their disinterest in the game. He never has much of an effect on girls.

Still Pablo doesn't leave yet because hidden in the middle of the hair-touching, can't-be-bothered girls is a scooting, littler girl darting all over the place, avoiding the other girls' kicks like they are wearing work boots and stealing the ball from them with ease after which the teacher blows the whistle at her, makes her give it back and start playing defense again. What a gyp. She is so fast and good Pablo wants to see her dribble around the girl-posts to the goal posts and score. But the teacher, who has given up on trying to teach the hopeless girls about soccer, given up on language altogether maybe, blows the whistle at the littler girl, making her give the ball back, and not letting shoot one time. The other girls, when they get their pockets picked, look at their nails or puff their hair like cats lick themselves after a fall to pretend it didn't happen. They couldn't care less.

Pablo digs what the scooty girl is doing so much he can't help yelling out 'Yes' a few times which is maybe what inspires her to disobey the whistle and dart around the girl-posts like they are standing still, and they are, breaking loose to dart and juke and ziggle and zaggle around them and score. This marks the end of the game. The teacher makes the littler girl fetch the ball from where it wound up because the goal has no net while the other girls line up, slow as cows, to go back to the distant school which looks like it belongs in Europe, half castle, half cathedral, up on its hill.

That was great, Pablo thinks. The way she dribbled around them like that and scored anyway. To heck with people who don't care.

And he is feeling almost all the way better now.

The scoring soccer girl isn't feeling so good though and Pablo isn't either when he sees, as she gets in the line, three much bigger girls surround her and start shoving her back and forth, jarring her brains, and then they throw her down and kick mud on her, while the whistle teacher walks ahead oblivious.

Damn life sucks sometimes.

Pablo turns and walks back the way he came, looking down at his slow feet like this day will be a very long day for sure. Maybe Little Grandmother's boyfriend will be gone by now and she will be sitting alone at the diner, as breakfast becomes lunch, sipping coffee, waiting for Pablo. He knows she will wait a long time. Or maybe he should go back to his apartment and see if Miss Pamela is at crafts class and he can practice drums. Plus he has to figure a way to get his job back. Maybe he's crazy.

He is almost to the bottom of the hill ready to climb to the golf course fence when the scooty scoring soccer girl speeds up to him from behind and is suddenly at his side, breathing so hard all she can do is cough out Hi.

She's a mess with grit and grass stuck in the ringlet curls of her hair and her white shirt and neck splattered with mud and her face streaked with stains like a dirty-snow car, from what the others girls did to her or maybe from crying. Then she takes her skinny arm and wipes it under her nose just in case. The soccer ball stands out, egg white against her blue skirt, under her other arm.

Pablo looks behind her but the gym teacher and whole line of girls are nowhere in sight. They have already disappeared into the castle/cathedral school on the hill.

What're you doing still here?

Free country.

You better go back to school. Your class is already inside.

I hate that place. I'm never going back there.

What? Pablo says for no good reason.

It sucks. I just quit.

What?

Is that all you can say?

What?

What.

He doesn't blame her but he is having trouble believing she just up and quit her school.

Get going, girl. Or you're gonna get yourself in some big trouble.

Maybe I like trouble, says the girl.

Well, I don't.

Chicken. Midget. Runt.

Same old thing. Pablo starts up the hill to the golf course but doesn't make it ten feet before she says, Sorry about that stuff. You cheered for me. Thanks.

He stops, turns and looks down at the mud-spattered girl with the soccer ball under her arm looking up at him with sad, begging eyes like a young dog ever hopeful you won't kick it again.

Poor thing. Jesus. What a world.

Yeah. You deserved it, he says. You were great out there.

Thanks for saying that. I'm sorry I called you a runt.

It's all right.

No, really.

I'm used to it. I just figure it's the other person's problem.

Yeah, you're right. I'm no better than those idiot girls are.

At that, Pablo decides to go back down the hill and try to cheer her up about her school.

The girl is as short as he is but not as brown, more the color of the morning coffee Little Grandmother half fills with milk. She's a real mutt with three or four fathers probably, bright sparkly eyes and a head full of springy black curls stabbed by blades of grass like broken pieces of green light, a pretty face with a nasty red scrape on one cheek, a person life has scuffed up and not just today, you could tell, but it doesn't add up since she's going to an expensive castle/cathedral school up on its own hill.

Here, take it, the girl says and hands him the ball when he gets to her, smiling a smear of a smile she wets up with her tongue.

Now Pablo feels tricked without knowing quite why. That's three strikes. Making him stop, go back down and handing him the ball. He shoves it out at her and she takes it back.

How old are you? he asks.

I thought you liked soccer.

I do like soccer but that wasn't soccer. That was cows standing in a field.

Cows. Right on. I'll remember that.

Except for you.

I know. Watch this, says the girl. She punts the ball high and far onto the green field where it stops and sits like the blind eyeball of the world. Take me with you. Please. I don't care where you're going. Just take me with you.

Listen, your parents must pay a lot of money for you to go to that school.

I don't have any parents.

What?

No parents. I'm an orphan. A poor orphan. The state pays for me to go there. I'm a ward of the state.

You should feel lucky to go then. I would.

We have no boys so all they think about is boys. They're stupid cows, like you said.

They're just mean. You shouldn't let mean people get you down.

Take me with you. Let me go where you're going, please.

What grade are you in?

Tenth.

No way.

Uh huh. I'm just short like you are. You and me are two of a kind.

I don't think so. Better go back and finish tenth grade, girl. I've got to get back to work, anyway.

Before Pablo can turn and pretend to be going back to his probably non-existent job, the castle/cathedral school bell starts ringing out noon, ringing out so deep and dark he stands still in it, like he is posing for a photo the underworld is taking of the bright world. Even from across the field, that deep bell sounds up into his body and opens his head to the fullness of the sky and he realizes that he has heard this bell at noon many times before over all the years he lived around there and that the ringing is tearing time open now: Pablo feels he is standing still like he has always been standing still and will always be standing still in his broken down neighborhood, not far from a castle, eyes closed, listening, emptying and being filled. He feels level and even and good, lined up with himself like that in time. Strange it should happen on a day that sucked so bad.

The ringing goes on real slow. Pablo knows in his bones just when it will end and his head will close to the sky and the veil will go back down. It never gets that far because the soccer girl takes the opportunity of Pablo standing there with his eyes closed to start kissing him on his mouth like he's a water fountain in a public park. He doesn't recognize the kiss for what it is at first but then, when he does, he lets it go on in that suspension of time, because it feels soft and firm and good, that is until she slides her tongue into his mouth and he thinks, Frog. Her tongue is a little black frog moving its wet life in and out of his mouth. Wow. Man. All that kind of thing you can't do anything about but it's okay, he can take it, it's okay, even if it is a frog, funny but okay and starting to feel good so he lets her frog tongue play with his tongue some more. When the ringing is over the kissing is over and Pablo and the girl stand there looking at each other without seeing each other. They are like two ghosts who mingled their molecules and then separated back never to be the same again.

That's my first kiss ever, says the girl. I had it. I saved it up a long time. I gave it to you. The least you could say is, Thank you very much for your first kiss.

Pablo sees, past her curly hair, a big-bellied cop running toward them about halfway across the field already, his badge burning a sun hole in his chest, and because he doesn't know what the cop saw, he takes off up the hill leaving that strange and lovely girl without a word.

He's so fast, he knows the fat cop will never catch him. Pablo has always been a real fast runner.

 

Grateful Acknowledgement to Painted Bride Quarterly #76 and its print journal #4 in which Chapter 1 of "Pablo, Pablito" was published in a slightly different form under the title "Pablo and the Frogs."

 

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