a short story by Natalia Castells-Esquivel
FREDDY LIKED PINEAPPLE more than anything. He loved watching his mom cut the top off—it made him giggle. Dumb pineapple haircut, he called it when he was younger. Then she’d grab the big red knife, the one he was definitely not allowed to ever touch, and she’d cut it right down the middle, straight through the heart. She’d keep one half and give him the other one, placing it carefully on his gloved hands. They always wore mittens when they ate pineapple. “They protect your hands so you can sink your teeth into the sweet,” his mom explained in her thick Spanish accent. Afterwards, they’d sit on the cool kitchen floor, legs spread out in front of them. He liked scraping his tongue with his front teeth, picking at the burning the pineapple had caused. They did that for most of the summer of ‘98. Freddy was nine years old, his mother was in her mid-twenties, and his dad was long, long gone.
“He’s always been gone, mi amor,” she’d invariably tell him.
Freddy didn’t trust that because Javi, his best friend, had told him that a father had to touch a woman’s belly during a special night to make a baby.
“He can’t have always been gone. Your dad had to be there to touch her belly, Freddy.”
“Whaddaya mean a ‘special night’?”
“Haven’t you ever heard of werewolves? My brother says it’s kinda like that. Happens once a month.”
“During the full moon?”
And so Freddy didn’t believe his mom. Javi’s brother was smart, and he always got the best grades in his whole class. Freddy figured his mom didn’t know much about anything anyway. A couple of summers ago, he’d asked her why the kitchen floor was the coolest part of the house. She said that since most nights they ordered pizza—she wasn’t much of a cook—feet almost never touched the floor to warm it up. After that, Freddy started sneaking out of his bed at night and walking around in circles in the kitchen. Then, he’d get on his knees and touch the tip of his nose to it to feel the temperature—it never warmed up. That was the moment he stopped believing his mom. She clearly didn’t know much, and she was clearly wrong about his daddy being gone.
There were only a few things Freddy knew about his dad: 1. He was an asshole. He’d overheard Abuelita telling his mom she shouldn’t call him an asshole in front of Freddy. Mom said she was right, so she started calling him pendejo instead. 2. His name was Antonio. 3. He was good at baseball. Freddy was the MVP of his Little League Division team and once, after pitching a real good curveball, his teammate’s dad patted him on the back and said “You’ll be just as good as your viejo one of these days. Your old man sure had an arm on him!” 4. He liked pineapples, too. Ok, this he didn’t really know, but he assumed it was true because you obviously can’t dislike pineapples, being a Martinez.
His Abuelita and Abuelito (may he rest in peace) were born in Veracruz, Mexico, and grew up in a tiny, humid town known for one thing: pineapples. “Sweetest pineapples I’ve ever tasted,” Abuelito would say, “but not good enough for the pinches gringos.” Pineapples grown in Veracruz didn’t meet the requirements for the international market, so national market had to make do. It didn’t though, so after Abuelito met Abuelita at her 15th birthday party, he married her in the town church and took her on a honeymoon to never come back. That’s how the Martinezes first ended up in Atlanta.
No matter how many times Freddy tried to ask his mom about his dad, he never got much else than side looks and a scoop of helado de limón. The more he asked, the more helado he was given, and since Freddy wasn’t far behind Javi’s brother in the brains department, he’d learned how to milk this. His mom gave him helado pretty much every time she missed something important, like one of his baseball games (which happened more often than not). Freddy didn’t mind though. After games, he got to hang out with Javi, their teammate Pancho, and Pancho’s dad, Mr. Torres. Turns out, Mr. Torres and Freddy’s dad had played high school baseball together. This meant Freddy got to ask questions, which Mr. Torres tried to unsuccessfully avoid. Finally, one afternoon in April, after an especially easy game, Freddy got the most unexpected of clues.
“Look, Freddy, you’re a good kid, but if you have so many questions about your old man, just ask your mami.” Mr. Torres knew he wasn’t supposed to talk about him. Most people in the neighborhood did—Freddy’s mom had made sure of that. “I mean come on,” he laughed nervously, “it ain’t like the man’s in a different city.”
Curveball. Freddy’s mouth dried up.
“My dad’s here?”
Mr. Torres fell into a coughing fit while he pointed down the field.
“Look it’s your mama!” He slapped his son on the arm. “Time to go home Pancho, or your ma’s gonna be real mad at us.” They walked off briskly as Freddy stared at the grass around his feet, ears burning.
“Hola baby! Hi Javi!” Freddy’s mom called out. “I got you your favorite: helado de limón!”
Freddy nodded and got in the backseat next to Javi, silently. He looked out at the powdery sky the whole ride home. The sun and the moon were both out at the same time.
The next morning, Javi showed up early at Freddy’s house, which was odd, because on Sundays he usually waited until after church. Javi’s family was very Catholic, and Freddy’s was more Catholic-when-someone-dies, which made Javi’s mom distrustful.
“Hey, I don’t have long,” Javi stuttered, standing on the porch wearing hand-me-down slacks and a yellowing (but perfectly ironed), white button-up, “Mom’s in the car, and she said I only have until she finishes her prayers. My brother wanted me to give you this.”
He handed Freddy a small leather-bound book inside a plastic bag. Freddy rubbed his eyes and nodded as a thank you. It was too early to question anything. He wasn’t even out of his Robin Hood pj’s yet.
“He circled some stuff in it, but listen—” Javi was interrupted by his mom’s screeching. It seemed prayer time was over. “—maybe he’s not as smart as we think he is, y’know? Dad’s always saying he reads too many comic books. But anyway, see ya’ later!”
With that, he jumped off the porch and ran to the car, creating a cloud of dust around his patent leather loafers.
Freddy walked back into his house, letting the porch screen slam behind him, which he immediately regretted. He froze for a second, but the only noise to be heard was Abuelita’s snoring. Thankful to get some quiet time, he made himself a bowl of cereal and sat down on the kitchen floor, back against the fridge, book in his lap. The book was no bigger than his palm, and it was quite worn around the edges. Carefully, he pulled the long blue ribbon that divided it in half to open it up. It was a weekly planner. Freddy instinctively flipped the pages with his thumb until he landed on the current month: August. August 8th was circled with red ink, and under it, Javi’s brother had scribbled Tonight.
“How come you’re up so early, Freddy?”
Freddy stuffed the agenda inside the front of his pajama pants.
“Carajo, what are you hiding?” she called after him as he slammed the door to his bedroom.
Freddy plopped down on his Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles comforter and stared at the paper calendar tacked to his wall. The day was August 7th.
That night, Abuelita threw her 60th birthday party at the house. She had invited her five closest friends: Christina S., Josefa, Celia, Christina A., and Tania. Freddy couldn’t stand any one of them, especially neither of the Christinas who, despite not even being related, always wore identical pastel pink outfits. So he hid in his room for most of the party, rubbing Barbasol shaving cream on his baseball glove, the way Coach had taught him. The planner sat wedged between his mattress and the floor. As the night progressed, the women in the living room got rowdier and rowdier. It always went like this: first, they’d sit around the living room with their legs crossed, sipping on tequila and aguardiente. Then, warmed up, they’d heat up the tamales, arroz con pollo, and whatever travesty Tania had brought that day (Abuelita always said the woman’s food tasted like she cooked it with her feet). After eating, they’d bring out the Bailey’s and the cards—and that’s when trouble started. They became loud and obnoxious. Josefa’s vocabulary famously loosened up just as Celia’s pack-a-day cough would flare up. And the Christinas? The Christinas always found a way embarrass poor Freddy. That night was no exception.
“Frrrrrreeeddy!” one of them yelled, rolling her R’s way more than necessary.
He ignored her.
“Frrrrrreeeddy! Muñeco, be a doll and bring us the flan!”
He sighed heavily, stuffed the planner between his back and his pants (he didn’t want it out of sight), and walked out of his room with heavy feet. After handing them the flan, he slumped down on the kitchen floor, hiding behind the counter. He took the planner out of his pants and squinted at it in the fluorescent kitchen light. When he opened it to August 8th again he noticed a detail he’d missed: the planner had little moons printed all throughout, labeled with all the moon phases. And right under the circled August 8th there was a tiny full moon. “Like werewolves,” he whispered under his breath. Maybe Javi’s brother thought that was the one night he might be able to find his dad.
“Oye,” his mom peeked her head over the counter. “You hiding?”
Freddy looked up at her, holding his index over his pursed lips. She winked at him and walked away. Abuelita and the ladies were immersed in their chisme; chatter bounced off the walls rhythmically, following the cadence of their accents. Was it true? Freddy wondered. Did Javi’s brother really read too many comic books? Or was he on to something? He stretched out on the kitchen floor putting as much of his body’s surface area on the cold tile and pressing the tips of his fingers on the floor so hard that they turned pearly white. He stayed like that for an hour.
“Frrrrrreeddyy! Ven a bailarrrrr!”
Freddy turned his head to the side, touching his cheek to the floor. The temperature hadn’t changed one bit. After a moment, his eyes darted up to the counter, where the Yellow Pages lay next to the phone.
Freddy turned the doorknob very slowly—their house was old and creaky—and opened the door just enough to squeeze his body out. After closing the door with a faint thump, he clicked his flashlight on and tightened the straps of his backpack. Inside the house, his mom and Abuelita slept confidently. The moon cycle meant something completely different to them.
He had never been out of his house so early. The neighborhood was very quiet at five in the morning. All the curtains were drawn, the cars parked, the lights off. As Freddy made his way down the winding roads, hyperaware of the crunch of his footsteps, he wondered if the cicadas were loud enough to muffle his walking. He worried that he might wake someone up. But there was no possibility of that. Come breakfast time, his mom and Abuelita would realize he was missing and turn the entire neighborhood inside out. But for now, in this softest of hours, Freddy was a ghost.
Forty sweaty minutes later, Freddy finally reached the bus stop. A few people were already there, even though it was still dark out. Fearful that someone might recognize him, Freddy put his hood up and looked down. This, of course, made the nine-year-old stand out even more. It wasn’t long before a middle-aged man wearing a hat turned his head inquisitively. Quick on his feet, Freddy inched closer to a woman that was so sleepy she wouldn’t have noticed if a giant cicada landed right on her nose. She slumped against the side of the bus stop, eyes barely open. Freddy picked up the grocery bag by her feet and smiled at her like a helpful son. The woman took no notice, but thankfully, this seemed to satisfy the curious man. Freddy took a deep breath of humid air. It was gonna be a long day.
Abuelito passed away when Freddy was seven. He died of a heart attack, which was sudden, but also expected. “I’m warning you, mujer,” he’d say to Abuelita almost every morning, “se me va a cansar el corazón.” He regretted moving to the United States since day one. “Why’d you come here then, Abuelito?” Freddy would retort. That’s when Abuelito would slam down the newspaper, grab Freddy’s nose between his arthritic fingers, and wiggle it. “So you could ask me that every damn morning, cabroncito.” They’d both chuckle. Abuelita would grunt. Mom would sigh. When his heart finally did give out, no one was surprised, which was fine since Abuelito had never been big on surprises anyways. He died a happy man with his grandson in his lap, the one gift his own son had ever given him. And while Freddy didn’t cry at the funeral, he thought of Abuelito every morning, because that’s what he would’ve wanted. The morning of August 8th, 1998 was no different. Freddy’s saliva turned a bit acidic as he swallowed hard, looking out at the sunrise through the bus window. Thinking about Abuelito had triggered a bad feeling in the pit of his stomach. It had occurred to him for the very first time that his dad had never gone looking for his own daddy. But he figured there must be a good reason why. He nodded, furrowing his brow and immediately looking around to make sure no one had seen him nod to himself. The lady from the bus stop was sitting across the aisle from him, head leaned back, eyes shut. Everyone else looked busy. Relieved, Freddy pulled the planner out of his backpack and went over The Plan to calm his nerves: 1) Leave house before sunrise. 2) Take the bus to the train. 3) Ride the train to downtown. 4) Find the Martinez Construction office and ask for Anto—
“Where is your father?” the sleepy lady asked, eyes still closed. Her voice was raspy and calm.
Freddy’s mouth hung open as he studied her face swiftly. How did she know?
“A young boy wouldn’t be riding the bus alone, eh?”
“I…uh…” As Freddy stuttered, he noticed the silver necklace she was wearing. A long pendant of a hooded skull rested on her bosom. His eyes widened. “Um, I’m on my way to see him.”
She finally opened her eyes. Freddy blushed and looked away. He remembered Javi’s brother telling him that you’re not supposed to look a witch in the eyes. Better not to risk it. A tiny smile escaped the lady’s lips as she rested her head back on the wall and closed her eyes again. Freddy gripped the little planner.
“And what’s that book?”
“Nothing.” Freddy bit the inside of his cheeks. He hated lying.
After a few tense seconds, Freddy retorted.
“And what’s that necklace?”
“La Santa Muerte,” the lady replied calmly. The Holy Death.
Freddy felt a surge of anxiety go down his spine. He figured it was best to not lie to a witch.
“I’m supposed to find my dad today because of the full moon, I think. I guess he builds houses? I found him in the Yellow Pages, see?” Stumbling over his words, Freddy pulled out a wrinkled ad from the inside of the planner, showing it to the lady. The ad read “Martinez Construction. Mi casa es tu casa!” in bold letters next to the photo of a mustached man crossing his arms.
“I think that’s him,” Freddy pointed at the photograph. It felt good to talk to someone about The Plan.
Something in the lady’s expression changed.
“Ah. You look alike.”
This made Freddy’s chest swell with pride. He let himself look straight at her, throwing caution out the bus window. This time, she was the one who looked away.
“Are you a witch?” Freddy whispered as the bus came to a halt.
“You need money for the train,” she said, standing up and grabbing her bag.
Freddy pulled some coins out of his pocket and stretched his hand out, showing her. She nodded.
“And your mom?”
“What about her?” His stomach churned with either anger or guilt. He wasn’t sure which.
“Does she know where you are?”
Most mornings, his mom woke him up by stroking his hair and whispering his name. She always said it was important to be respectful of sleep; waking someone up had to be done with the utmost care. It was almost seven by then, and with a pang of, yes, guilt, he wondered if she was up yet. But he was also angry. He wouldn’t be on this adventure in the first place if she had been truthful about his dad. His eyes narrowed and burned as he realized something: it wasn’t that his mom didn’t know much about anything. She knew. She was just a liar. He wondered if she and Abuelita were worried.
“I don’t have a mom.”
The lady stared silently. Freddy didn’t like that one bit.
“What are you gonna do, huh? Send me home? Call the cops?” He couldn’t control his lashing out. Hot tears streamed down his cheeks, his voice quivering. “Say something!”
The lady exited the bus composedly and Freddy followed her, already regretting his outburst. He thought of Javi’s brother yet again. If looking at a witch in the eyes was bad, yelling was way, way worse. He knew he was in big trouble.
Once they were out by the entrance to the subway station, the lady turned to Freddy. He gulped, hard, waiting for something terrible to happen—a spell, maybe? But all she did was unclasp her necklace of La Santa Muerte and put it around his neck gently. He squeezed his eyes shut dramatically, fully expecting to drop dead.
“For protection,” she said, putting her hand on his right cheek.
Freddy opened one eye. He was still alive.
“Get home soon, okay? Southbound train is that way.”
As she walked towards the other train, Freddy wondered if Javi’s brother really did read too many comic books.
The train ride was quick. Freddy had only been on the train once before, when his mom took him to see the Olympics a couple of years back. They didn’t have money for tickets, but they had enough for the train and two sodas, so they rode downtown and sat on the sidewalk next to the stadium to watch people walk by. Even back then, Freddy already knew he wanted to be a baseball player. He’d taken a big gulp of his Fanta before standing up, sticking his chest out, and announcing to his mother that one day he would become the best pitcher in the whole city. The seven-year-old’s ambition made her chuckle. “You already are, mi amor,” she replied, pulling him down and kissing the side of his head. He believed her. But thinking about that made his ears feel hot, so Freddy tried to focus on his dad instead. He fiddled with his glove and ball while looking out the window at the downtown buildings. He squinted at the bright morning. Did the moon need to be in the sky for The Plan to work?
When the train announced Freddy’s stop, he snatched the top of his backpack and bolted for the train doors, leaving his baseball and glove behind. He flew up the electric stairs, zig-zagging around tired commuters and barely missing a man with a humongous suitcase. Finally, he stumbled through the subway gates and onto the bustling streets of Downtown Atlanta. He immediately shoved his hands into his pockets, holding his thumbs inside his fists. Abuelita always knew Freddy was anxious when he did this.
A white sign with black letters hung from behind a dirty, old window: Martinez Construction. He stared at the sign for a very long time. Longer than that one time his coach made him run around the field for being late to practice. Longer even than the telenovela marathons his Abuelita subjected him to. Finally, taking a shaky breath, he put his hand on the cold door handle and pushed himself inside. The office was smaller and darker than he’d imagined—the only window, the one with the sign, was mostly obscured by the moldy blinds. A few rusty file cases leaned against the side walls. And by the far back wall, a mustached man in a denim button up typed lazily on a whirring computer amid towers of paper. As the wind closed the door soundlessly, Freddy’s body went catatonic.
The soft buzz of the computer contrasted heavily with Freddy’s thunderous heartbeat. It was a miracle the mustached man hadn’t looked up yet. But he hunched over the tiny keyboard, unaware, pausing only to flatten his mustache every once in awhile. Even in the darkness of the cavernous office, his thick brow glistened with sweat. Freddy had never felt less brave or more queasy. When he finally spoke, the sound that came out was breathy and superficial. Cowardly.
“A-A-Antonio Ma-Martinez?” Freddy’s jaw bounced up and down.
At last, Antonio Martinez looked up. In the exact moment that their eyes met, Freddy tasted something familiar in his mouth. In an effort to stop the inevitable, he cupped his mouth with his small hands. This only served to direct his vomit downward, all over his chest, down his pant legs, and onto the floor. All he could do was stand there, watching his own body betray him. Even more unfortunately, his eyes decided to join in the humiliation. The tears came down so heavily that they blurred his vision and rolled all the way down to his chest and t-shirt. Freddy was a puddle. Antonio Martinez watched the spectacle with parted lips, resting the full weight of his rough hands on his keyboard—the screen of his computer screaming in a row of capital As.
“What the hell, kid!” Antonio stood up abruptly, hitting his knees on his desk. “Fuck!” He bent over and rubbed them.
“Are-are you okay?” Freddy whispered in the tiniest of voices.
“Me?! Are you okay?” He motioned towards Freddy’s soiled clothes and then looked around nervously, as if searching for help.
Freddy’s lower lip bobbed up and down, so he clasped both hands on his mouth and continued to stare through blurry eyes.
“Alright, alright. Stop crying. C’mon,” Antonio reached over and put his hand on Freddy’s shoulder, and then awkwardly lifted it again. “There’s a bathroom behind the desk,” he pointed at the door in the corner, “You can, uh, clean yourself up.”
Freddy walked to the bathroom and immediately peeled his wet clothes off his skin and threw them in the sink under hot running water. He held his hands under the stream and stood there for a long time, crying as silently as he could. His eyes stung from the salty tears.
“Uh…kid?” Antonio knocked on the door.
Freddy walked out soaking wet. Antonio rubbed his neck anxiously.
“You washed those. Uh, good. Great. Hey, uh, where are your parents?”
And that’s when Freddy noticed it, the Fernando Valenzuela poster hanging behind the desk. The Mexican pitcher—one of the best ever in Freddy’s opinion—looked up at the sky as his arm flung behind him wildly, ready to fire a historic fastball. “El Toro” was Freddy’s idol. And the fact that Antonio had this poster on his wall made everything better. Freddy smiled and pointed at the poster.
“You like him too?” he asked, his voice finally back.
“Sure. But, um. Your parents?”
Freddy sat on Antonio’s chair and swirled around.
“Do you like playing catch?” His mood had taken a very sudden turn.
“Look, kid. I was in the middle of something,” Antonio shrugged. “Do I need to call your mom? Are you lost?”
It was time, Freddy thought. It didn’t matter that the sun was still out. There was no need to wait for the full moon.
“You’re my dad.”
A chill washed through the hot office. Antonio stared at Freddy, his eyes narrowing little by little until, finally, a loud chuckle broke through the tension.
“Get the hell out of here!” he let out another wild laugh, “You’re a weird kid, you know that? ‘You’re my dad’! Ha! Who put you up to this? El Jaime?”
Every little muscle in Freddy’s body tensed up.
“El Jaime? No one put me up to this,” he said, raising his voice, trying to be louder than Antonio’s guffaw. “It’s me: Freddy.”
And with that, Antonio’s laughter came to a violent stop.
“You’re full of shit,” he roared. “I don’t have any kids.”
Freddy took a half step back.
“But-but it’s the full moon. You touched her belly!”
“What? I’m going to ask you one more time, kid,” Antonio slammed a heavy hand on his desk. “Where the hell is your mom?”
Between sobs, Freddy ran toward the door and out of Martinez Construction.
The summer of ’98 was one of the hottest recorded in the history of Atlanta. The wind didn’t blow as much as just hang in humid waves, distorting everything around it. And that muggy air stuck to every inch of Freddy Martinez, who was really wishing right now he had an ice-cold Coke in hand. Lying on the bed of a truck for hours, in the August sun of the South? You’d have to have a real good reason to be doing something that crazy. But Freddy thought he had the best reason of all: he was going to prove that Antonio Martinez was his dad. All he needed to do was follow him home. Work just makes adults a bit grumpy. It sure was the case with his mom. Lucía Hernández had worked at the same Mexican supermarket for all nine years of Freddy’s life. She was in charge of the produce section. Lucía wasn’t much of a cook, but she knew all about fruits and vegetables, yes she did. She knew how to pick the ripe avocados, how to best stack the tomatoes, and which limes had the most juice. Lucía would’ve liked her job if it weren’t for her bosses, three brothers who all took their frustration out on their most trusted employee: the produce lady. Lucía came home from work fuming, every single day. And every single night, Freddy asked why she didn’t just leave. And every single time, Lucía told him he was too young to understand. So every single morning, she went back to work.
Many hours later, Antonio Martinez locked all four locks of his office door. He put on his baseball cap, took out the car keys out of his pocket, and walked down the side alley to his silver pickup truck. In the bed of his truck, Freddy Martinez flattened himself into invisibility, pressing into his steamy clothes, holding the little planner tight to his chest and looking up at the sky. Finally, it was sunset.
And it was dark by the time Antonio parked the truck outside his house. They were somewhere in the suburbs again, and the neighborhood felt familiar—for all Freddy knew, they could’ve been right by his own house. He held his breath as Antonio got out of the truck. The New Plan was to let him have his dinner first, you know? “Barriga llena, corazón contento,” is what Abuelita always said. After dinner, Antonio would be full and content, and Freddy would knock on his door and explain again. Easy-peasy! “You don’t have to say sorry,” Freddy would tell him. “I caught you by surprise is all. Abuelito didn’t like surprises either.” “Wanna play catch in the morning?” his dad would say. And Freddy would show him his curveball. So as soon as Antonio went into the house, Freddy crawled out the truck and hid in the bushes by a window. With the faintest of clicks, the lights inside the house turned on.
Freddy could see everything happening inside. He watched Antonio take his cap off and throw it on the couch. He saw him kick off his boots and walk to the kitchen. He saw him open a beer and take a long swig. And then, with a little gasp, he saw him reach across the counter for a big, hairy pineapple. Freddy’s sweaty fingers curled around his thumbs.
Antonio opened the far left drawer and pulled out a carving board and knife. He put the pineapple down. First, he slashed the top off, giving the pineapple a dumb pineapple haircut. Then, he cut the bottom off.
And then, instead of cutting right down the middle, straight through the heart, Antonio cut it in fat slices, from the bottom down.
“That’s not how you do it,” Freddy heard his mom’s voice in his head.
Behind him, the full moon lit up the whole sky.
Natalia Castells-Esquivel is a writer from Mexico who now lives in Los Angeles with her puppy, Taco. Her work has appeared in publications like Santo y Seña, Loose Change Magazine, Real Pants, and Vivala. She’s currently a copywriter for The Axis Agency and cofounder of the nonprofit StoryDrop. Also, she makes really good scrambled eggs. Really.