The last of the great wetback poets

By Fernando A. Flores
Texas

In the morning they were there,
red circles on the palms of both hands,
blood dripping down to the elbows.
He walked to the kitchen to show Mom.
She gasped.
Told him to take a shower, scrub it
off. He should wrap something on
his hands so he won’t be late for work.
He showered, tore a white shirt in two
long strips, wrapped them both around
the wounds.
He looked like a boxer, ready for the
big fight, ready for the gloves.
On the drive to work the red circles
on his palms protruded, like smiling
round faces through the cloth of the
dismembered shirt.
At work he got his first evaluation.
It was not good.
But look at these hands,
he told them, these are a working
man’s hands!
They didn’t listen. They let him
go, hired a fresh college student
eager to climb the ladder.
Both pieces of cloth had turned
red, but none of his energy
dripped out with the blood.
He was young, ready to move.
At the gas station people stared.
At the library, too. Everywhere,
in fact, people stared at his
hands. Tiny red dots trickled
along the aisles, following and
annotating his every move.
At home, Mom lighted candles
to the saint that was supposed to
bring fortune and wealth.
Now he needed another job,
a job to carry with these
hands. Every morning he woke up and still
the same hands, the same blood, the same
sheets stained and vandalized with the need to
find work and earn a living.
Eating became a problem. Pissing, shaking hands,
writing, reading, using his hands for anything
became a problem. Words on a page turned
illegibly red. All his clothes appeared to have been
left out on a bench wet with paint; dark red paint.
But his dreams were never more pleasant.
Heads popped high with hope.
His hands kept bleeding and
Mom continued worrying.
He bled and he bled but he never felt younger.
The cloths piled in the trash every day.
The Catholic priest wouldn’t see him.
The man who owned the liquor store crossed himself,
told him to come again.
A restaurant with a painting of an ex-president
refused him and Mom service when he took her for her
birthday.

Blood crusted around his hands.
It was impossible to keep up with washing or
replacing the bandages which had to be thick and
very absorbent.
He undressed himself, stood before the mirror and
clenched bloody fists, paced around the room shadowboxing.
Punching the air, staining the wall with freckles after
full swings into nothingness.
The trailer shook to his feet shuffling about.
Then, there came the time:
Still without a job he and Mom started falling behind on
all the payments, with her working full time at the
day care and him going out there every day continuing
to look.
The cold weather had passed long ago. He could no longer
wear gloves to cover up his hands.
Mom started to cry every night.
He would be in his room, hustling over the old carpet,
punching invisible demons before him that lunged at
him one by one. They were never enough but he grew tired
and bored.

He refused to see a doctor. They could not afford one.
Finally, one day, a Tuesday, he had had enough, kissed
his mother’s cheek and stepped out the door.
He took the bus with the last bit of money he had to
the capital, away from her and the dark circles under
her eyes and worries for her only son.
In the city, when he stepped off the bus, his luck
appeared to have trailed him.
None of the floors he slept on lasted. Within a few
minutes of his presence they were stained. He left before
he was told anything every time.

It was the twenty fifth day after Lent. He was thirsty,
ended up at the park where he knew there was a fountain.
He dipped his hands into the water, brought freshness for his
lips to placate the ardor swollen deep in his chest.
A pink inky stream circled through the fountain.
The pigeons and doves cooed: they were everywhere,
pecking at the water gushing from the abstract centerpiece.
Slowly, he removed the bandages. His hands
had grown accustomed to them; to feel the fleshy center of
his palms was like responding to a long forgotten
language. It strained his knuckles attempting a fist.
Yet the wounds didn’t affect him: he poked at them with
his thumbs, which were the perfect diameter; he licked the
wounds with his tongue, then tried sucking out blood: it only
streamed out at the same pace, and the sound of the fountain
circulated in the hot afternoon. The birds stared
with their institutionalized eyes and stabbed at the water
with their beaks. He threw the bandages far away and
they squished over the drying green grass.
He got on his knees, leaned over the rim of the fountain.
Cupped his hands. The blood rose squeezing
out the cracks between his fingers. A dove landed on his arm.
Then a pigeon, a leper with swollen tumors over his head. Then
another dove with light gray streaks. They gathered at the
thick red pool at the end of his arms like a hot bowl
of soup. The water danced from the fountain and the blood
slowly oozed like thick magma from his palms. The leper pigeon
dove its beak into the blood first. Then the dove. Then the
other. The sun turned his brown face red and he no longer
felt thirsty.

Unemployed, without a place to stay. The birds were being fed.
Mom was crying eight hours to the south. His stomach ripped
with hunger. But, he thought, it will all turn out all right
if the birds are just fed.

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