by Dustin M. Hoffman
The smoke billowing from beneath the El Camino’s hood went unnoticed by the people driving past the Food Giant on Country Club Road. But even if they had seen it they wouldn’t have stopped because the sight of a car overheating and catching fire on a summer Tucson afternoon was not uncommon. Everyone had seen his share of burnt out shells on the roadside, the metal carcasses deserted by their dismayed owners, or cops spraying a flaming car with a fire extinguisher. As common as cactus.
One driver, Cesar Valdez, wouldn’t have stopped if someone had offered to pay him because the flesh on his arms and face and chest was still scarred from two summers earlier when his car had overheated in a Circle K parking lot and he had lifted the hood and pulled off his shirt and wrapped it around his hand, then used it to grab the radiator cap and twist, thinking at the last second that maybe he should’ve let the car cool a bit, having forgotten his father’s warning to always test the radiator hose first because he was rushing to get home to his new girlfriend who liked to greet him at the door dressed in skimpy black lace lingerie and a set of handcuffs dangling from one wrist, which still pleased and baffled him—the way he’d scored this sweet guerra chick—but remembering the danger of an overheating engine just as the threading on the radiator cap released from the lip of the opening and blew with such force that the bones in his right hand shattered when it hit the edge of the open hood, but Cesar didn’t feel it and couldn’t have screamed if he had because the white hot water that exploded from the radiator melted his skin on contact and blinded him, which was a good thing, he thought later, because he was glad he hadn’t seen the looks people gave him when he had tried to scream but only stumbled backward, skin sliding from his chest and arms, into the Big Block ice machine where he collapsed on the asphalt, convulsing and bleeding and gasping for breath. Three days later, when Cesar awoke in the hospital his first thought was to call his new girlfriend—just to tell her I’ll be home soon and wait for me and then we can do that dom/sub thing you like so much baby. But she never returned his calls.
So even if Cesar had seen the El Camino smoking in the food giant parking lot and the woman frantically ordering her kids out of the back, he wouldn’t have stopped for every dirty dollar in Tucson.
Across the street at Torchy’s several of the Latin Kings were loitering in the parking lot, their systems blasting, admiring each other’s lowriders, the murals painted on the hoods and the crushed velvet interiors, waiting on the bitches to get out of school and come strut their shit like they did every day so the Kings could choose the lucky few who’d get to be their rucas for the night. No one heard the desperate cries of the helpless woman across the street. The music was too loud. And the mural on Chuey’s car was too impressive to look away from—a nude Aztec goddess with tears in her eyes and two dark-skinned men groveling at her feet.
But Peanut smelled smoke and looked over his shoulder in time to see a woman pulling her children from the bed of the El Camino, then jumping into the back and thrusting recently purchased bags of groceries into the arms of her three frightened children who ran, trembling, to the sidewalk where they watched in horror as flames crept from beneath the hood of the car and their mother leapt from the back, her skirt billowing in the air. Peanut was happy he got a good look at the mommy’s skyblue panties. He wished he had been closer when she had jumped because he could tell from across the street that she had a fine ass body, even if her tits aren’t that big—he hadn’t been able to tell from the angle of her shoving groceries at her kids—but her legs were nice and she had a real sweet curve to her ass and the panties were stuck in her crack just perfect when she jumped out of the back of the El Camino, her skirt pulled nice and high and hanging there just long enough for Peanut to see her bottom half. The important half. He nudged Chuey and pointed toward the mommy. The moment Chuey turned to see what Peanut was pointing at, the front of the car erupted in flames and the woman jumped up and down hysterically screaming MY BABY’S IN THE FRONT MY BABY JESUS PLEASE FUCKING SHIT HELP MY GOD WHAT HELP I MY BABY PLEASE and Chuey shouted THA FUCK? and dropped his bottle of Mickey’s and ran across the road, ignoring the cars speeding toward him, a cab barely missing him as he reached the far side of the road with Peanut right behind him, Peanut having instinctively followed him, used to running from cops and niggers and bullets and not even thinking to stop running as he felt the bumper of a car graze his thigh, the pain failing to register because Chuey was just ahead so everything was fine. They always get away. Never get hurt.
Chuey reached the El Camino first and threw open the passenger door while the mommy screamed MY BABY’S IN THERE and held her children close to her. The door handle scalded Chuey’s hand and he turned to Peanut, nursing his hand, and they looked at each other, silently debating whether or not they were actually going to help this lady’s kid in the front seat. They had both seen enough cars overheat to know they only had a few more seconds before the whole thing blew up. Peanut told Chuey to wait, not feeling brave enough to go diving into the cab of a flaming car for a complete stranger, even if she is one fine ass piece of work. But Chuey knew if he stopped to talk it over with Peanut it would be too late, so he dove into the front seat and winced as the leather interior boiled beneath his body. The buckles on the seat were too hot for him to bear, but he tried to undo the babyseat from the seatbelt anyway, using his thumb to stab frantically at the silver release button in the center of the melting seatbelt buckle and pulling on the opposite strap. It wouldn’t give. Wouldn’t unfuckingclasp. He tried again. Again. Three. Four. Five times. No luck. Then he tried to undo the latches on the babyseat, but, having never put a child into one of these damn things, he had no idea how to work the straps and get the baby out. He tried pulling on the baby but only managed to choke the kid on the chest straps and all he could think was I’ve got about two more seconds and then I’m gonna have to bail, sorry kid. He yanked on the babyseat, trying to rip it from the seatbelt, but it still would not budge. And that fuckin kid won’t stop screaming. Chuey shoved his hand over the kid’s mouth so he could think without all the racket and he kept pulling on the carseat and fumbling with the straps but no luck—how do people figure these things out—the straps twisting every which way and only getting shorter and tighter and fuck it. It’s just too late for you kid. I’m sorry. He repositioned his hand to where it covered the kid’s mouth and nose so he could put it out of it’s misery and closed his eyes to wait for the car to explode and kill them both. At least you won’t have to burn alive little guy. I’ll snuff you out and take the burn for you. How’s that sound? Fair enough? He pressed harder, hoping to kill the baby before the car exploded—any second now—bracing his body, tensing every muscle for the pieces of metal that were going to come flying through the dashboard and puncture his body and maybe he’d get lucky and a cylinder will skewer his neck and take him out quickly. That was his only plan now. He knew that time was running out and the kid’s still kicking, maybe I should punch the little guy in the chest. That’d crush his ribs and probably smash his heart, but that’s better than cooking in here like a hotdog. He counted the seconds in his head, thinking bitterly of all the things he wanted to do that now he’d never get to do. Now it’s too late to go to NYC or Coney Island. Always wanted to see Vicente Fernandez in concert. Go to Vegas and gamble on some roulette. Then he heard the first explosion and thought at least I died trying. He lifted his hand from the baby’s face, his fingers stroking its soft cheeks. Then the baby slid away from him and Chuey lay down to die, at ease with his last act in life, happy he had tried to save the kid and at least spared him from dying of burns. He felt his body pulling away from the heat and was glad he couldn’t feel the pain of burning alive—seemed the pain just shut off and here I thought this was one of the worst ways to die—but suddenly his forehead struck pavement and he was breathing water and choking and Peanut was yelling GET THE FUCK UP MAN.
Chuey rose to his knees and looked around in confusion, wondering why he wasn’t dead and the baby in its carseat was sitting safely on the sidewalk where the mommy was unfastening the straps, trying to remove her child and hug it and kiss it at the same time. And what the hell is Peanut doing with his 9mm out? Dumbass trying to get arrested? Then it all came together and Chuey knew the explosion had been Peanut blowing the shit out of the seatbelt latch and that he’d saved both the baby and me, the crazy bastard, and the car hadn’t yet blown up. Shit. It’s going to right—
Peanut knew what Chuey was thinking and he turned and knocked the mommy down on the sidewalk and threw his body on top of her baby. Chuey got to his feet just as engine fire hit the gas line, erupting into a massive whoosh of flame, and tackled the three children who stood staring and screaming but fell silent as the heat of the flames overwhelmed them. And then the heat was gone.
Chuey and Peanut and the mommy and her kids and the people who had come out of the Food Giant to see what was going on looked up to see the El Camino that had finished exploding and now sat billowing huge plastic smelling clouds of black smoke and gushing flames. The worst of it was over. They all got to their feet and checked themselves for injuries. The only one hurt was Chuey, whose clothes had all but burned away and whose skin was red and black on his arms and face and parts of his back.
Everyone started clapping and whooping and smiling at the heroics of the two young men and the mommy came over to Chuey and hugged him and kissed him and wept on his shoulder. The pain of his burns was too much for Chuey to bear so he pushed the mommy away, raising his arms so she could see he was hurt and she turned to Peanut and started muttering thank yous and god bless yous and kissing his cheeks and mussing up his hair.
Peanut let the woman hug him, feeling her tits heaving with relief against the front of his body. He wrapped his arms tightly around the mommy and then let his right hand drift down her back—either she doesn’t notice or she likes it—feeling the bucking curve of her back as she sobbed in his arms. The rumpley elastic border of her panties pushed at the fabric of her thin sundress. Peanut traced her pantyline gently, his eyes closed while he enjoyed the firmness of the mommy’s ass and the way her body was so warm next to his. He wanted so badly to whisper into her ear for her to follow him back to his place so he could lay her down on his parents’ bed while they were at work and let her show her gratitude. He’d put on one of his dad’s romantic Spanish records and feel her soft ears while lifting her sundress slowly and kissing her flesh as it revealed itself with each inch the sundress crept higher and higher until it was finally over her head and lying on the floor. Then he’d lick her legs and make his way up to her sky blue panties and slip his tongue beneath the elastic rim until he felt her soft smooth wet lips and she’d moan and scream out his name and he’d climb on top of her while she continued to moan and writhe beneath his tender touch and scream and wail and WAIL and the wailing turned into the wailing of a fire truck, it’s horns and sirens growing louder as it neared, and Peanut opened his eyes, his hand still cupped on the mommy’s glorious ass cheek, her children looking up at him, the two girls confused and the little boy angry with his fists balled at his sides. Peanut released the mommy, who continued to thank him and Chuey, and then turned back toward Torchy’s, walking a jackleg walk with his hand in his pocket pressing his boner to his thigh so it would hopefully die down before he reached the other side of the street where the Kings stood drinking their beers and placing bets on who got fucked up worse by the El Camino.
This story first appeared in MAKE #1.
Born in 1976, Aaron Michael Morales is the author of Drowning Tucson, his debut novel. Morales grew up in Tucson and at age ten, he became a paperboy for the Arizona Daily Star. Since then his jobs have ranged from working in a car parts factory to bartending in Chicago’s Oak Park neighborhood. Now, with a BA from Indiana State University and an MFA from Purdue University, Morales teaches writing and literature at Indiana State University and is working on his second novel.