by Esteban Rodriguez

I stole a green ball from the ball pit at Peter Piper Pizza. When my mother asked me where I’d got it, I said at my cousin’s birthday party, that it was under our table when we—cousins, aunts, uncles, friends—all gathered at the table after eating and playing and gossiping and sang to my cousin Eloy, wished him another happy year on earth.

My mother bent over with the ball in her hand, thrust it in my face and asked again where I got it, and although I didn’t have a thorough understanding of lying, I knew that the green ball would no longer be mine if I told her I took it from the pit, that while Eloy and his brother Eddie were starting a side war that required at least three ball hits to the face, I saw the roundest and shiniest ball in that pit and stuffed it in my pocket. How no one saw it on me at the table or play area or in the car on the ride back home with the ball bulging from my shorts was nothing short of a miracle.

My mother looked at the ball, which was no longer round or shiny, and then handed it to me. “Next time put it back,” she said. “You should never take things that aren’t yours.”

I nodded and brought the ball to my chest. My mother, always the multitasker, went to the kitchen and stirred the pot of boiling chicken, then took the basket of dirty laundry resting on the kitchen table out to the clothesline in the backyard. I had one challenge, and that was to throw the green ball against the wall and try to catch it before it hit the floor. The bounces weren’t as bouncy as when I first started, but the ball still moved unpredictably off the wall, and there I was in the living room, jumping on the sofa, sliding on the floor, extending my arms like a baseball player, trying to anticipate such chaotic trajectories.

I had hundreds of points but wanted more, so I threw the ball harder and harder. It bounced into the kitchen. The pot of boiling chicken sounded louder, angrier. I threw the ball against the dining table chairs, the cabinets, the fridge, the microwave. I threw it against the faucet and it bounced on top of the counter by the stove where I couldn’t see. I was small. My head was barely level with the counter, but I knew it was by the cutting board or spices or knives.

I moved a chair to the counter, climbed onto the counter and began searching for my ball. But it wasn’t by the cutting board, the spices, the knives. I really couldn’t be sure where it landed or rolled to. I stepped closer to the stove, wondering if the ball was on it, and then I saw the dark space behind the stove, that hand-length limbo where erupting vegetable oil and chunks of pasta sauce and anonymous stew and Abuelita’s hot chocolate flew into, like shrapnel.

There was no counter on the other side of the stove, and I could have easily looked there, but I leaned over to look at that limbo and what grip I had on the cabinets gave way to gravity.

I screamed. I put my hands in front of my face. I twisted my body. I tried to break my fall with my shoulder, but my hands hit the pot of boiling chicken and with it I fell off the stove. The pot and chicken flew behind me, but I was left with the boiling water melting its chemistry onto my palms. I saw the skin bubble, like the tortillas my mother warmed on the comal, and then they began to turn purple, black. My hands were charred meat my mother burned when the wine coolers she sometimes drank while cooking gave her permission to imagine herself somewhere else, a beach, a bar, an apartment in a big city where she didn’t have to cook because people in big cities ordered in, especially if they had children.

I stopped screaming for a moment and brought my hands closer to my face. I could already see my future disfigurement, my nails melted, fingers twisted like tree roots, lumps on my palms, pus and blood oozing out of scabbed cracks and crevices that opened daily. I could see the kids at school staring at me, wondering why I let my sweater sleeves dangle past my wrists, why I never raised my hand in class, why I shielded myself at my desk when I was writing notes. I could hear them calling me Stevie Scissorhands, or Mr. Crab, or worse, Freak. And I could see myself falling for a girl who would fall for me just up to the point of discovering my deformity, of realizing she could never be with someone whose hands, although functioning, were frightening to hold, to look at.

I screamed and writhed like a cockroach on its back, then started to blow on my hands and hoped the panicked air from my mouth would somehow make the burning stop. And then my mother was at my side, just as panicked and just as hopeful that the air she was blowing from her mouth would relieve the pain. She got me to my feet, said words in Spanish that sounded like curses, spells, prayers, and then, because families like ours didn’t have first-aid kits, didn’t have ointments that weren’t a few years expired, she wet some paper towels and began dabbing my burns.

Skin started to peel off. My flesh turned pinker, and all I could see were black fuzzy dots that appeared, disappeared, appeared, disappeared, until the shock of my body had no choice but to place me outside of myself, than to see the boy I was being cared for by his mother in the only way she could.

I saw my mother dab a whole roll of paper towels on my wounds at the kitchen table. I saw her clean up the pot and chicken. I saw her make a phone call, pacing from the kitchen to the living room and back. I saw myself trying to rub the dry tears that had tightened the skin around my eyes, but crying with the slightest movement of my arms.

When decades have passed, and my mother denies ever having done what she did next, I will stick to the narrative I remember playing out, my mother telling me, “If you stop crying we can go get you a toy,” and the energy it took to hold back the new round of tears trying to crawl out of my eyelids. I will remember thinking that we were going to the hospital and then finding fresh paper towels wrapped on my hands and me thrusting my hands in front of my chest, as if I were serving a tray of finger food. I will remember that we went out the back door, crossed the yard, trudged down the alley, and made our way to the Wal-Mart located right behind our house. And I will remember seeing the faces of customers as we entered, their confused wrinkles and distorted mouths letting me know that I wasn’t supposed to be here, that the blood seeping from the paper towels clearly meant I needed medical attention, that this was the last place I should be, and that my mother, who took me here first before the hospital for reasons I didn’t know then and will not know in the future, should be ashamed for thinking this was the way to take care of an injured son, for walking me to the toy aisle and pointing at all the bright packages, asking me which action figure or gadget or spaceship I wanted, which shiny object I could already see myself assembling, coming to life in my hands.


Esteban Rodríguez is the author of six poetry collections, most recently Ordinary Bodies (Word West Press, 2021), and the essay collection Before the Earth Devours Us (Split/Lips Press, 2021). His poems and reviews have appeared in New England Review, The Gettysburg Review, Colorado Review, West Branch, The Adroit Journal, The Rumpus, and elsewhere. He is interviews editor for the EcoTheo Review, associate poetry editor for AGNI, and a senior book reviews editor for Tupelo Quarterly. He lives with his family in south Texas.

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