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Cracker.

Even the thought of letting my naked feet touch the ground made me feel dirty and guilty. Mama warned that bare soles attract the nastiest worms, whether round, hooked, or whipped, apart from the flesh-eating fungi and those little pinprick eggs of carnivorous spiders that are the blackheads of Beelzebub. She winced at the sight of americanitos running barefoot on the hot, sticky streets of southernmost Miami, especially in August when baby iguanas by the roadside get fossilized in hot tar.

"Tell me what separates us from the jungle?" she'd ask. "A sturdy sole of burnished Spanish leather, not bumpkin rawhide or gringo rubber."

Though being shoeless was expected from beggar boys, she'd explain, even the humblest farm horse gets shod, and thus barefooted McIvor, my best friend, represented the worst kind of annoyance: a paradox. While he did have the long delicate fingers, the corn-silk hair, and the rosebud navel of those Germans who visited Cuba during World War II, McIvor was more of a savage than an Amazonian or a Papua New Guinean. The eyes were too green, she'd point out, like the scum that proliferates in puddles of rain. His arms would take on the texture of curdled milk when he sweated too much. And, above all, his feet were so bruised and swollen they looked like mangrove stumps.

Whenever McIvor showed up at the front door asking if I wanted to play, his hand either clenching a BB pistol or a blowgun, Mama shooed him away with a broom or a feather duster, sometimes even sprinkling holy water in case he'd turn rabid. Because of the likelihood, more the certainty, that our association would cause my own regression, Mama had forbidden me to be his friend, and thus McIvor and I would play hooky right after lunch at school, riding out a couple of miles to his house on a pine bluff overlooking Biscayne Bay somewhere between Perrine and Naranja.

While I lived in a ranch house with Roman baths, an intercom, and a screened-in pool, Mclvors had been built by his great-grandfather with logs and posts of coquina and cement. There was little furniture inside, blankets for rugs, doors meshed with chicken wire, and a black-and-white television that sat on a wooden crate from one of those cucumber farms in Homestead. But mostly there were Dobermans raised by his mother, a huge woman ruddy as mahogany with the neck of an ox and the strength of a stevedore, evident in that she could hold an infant in one arm while the other hand docked a puppy's tail. She adorned her head with Spanish moss, and the tips of her tresses terminated in little bows made from orchids.

Unlike my mother who could not stop talking with gestures (even while dreaming), Mrs. McIvor never used her hands but instead relied on those long, flat feet to express her moods. For example, if her toenails (more like talons) scraped the wood floor it meant she was happy, but if her mood was sour she shuffled (actually skated) around the house, muttering complaints in her Southern drawl. While my mother buffed her calluses after a long day of wearing stiletto heels, Mrs. McIvor let hers turn wild with their corns, bunions, and tumors like galls on an oak.

I'd not seen a book or a magazine, not even the funnies or the sports section from the Miami Herald. Words were meant to be spoken not written, she'd say, except for the Bible whose words belong to God, so only preachers should learn how to read. The rest of us could get along with speech, dreams, and visions. Talking was in fact of little use to her home-steading ancestors, stern and silent pickers of coonties and pomelos who took on the names of Jewish prophets but would've been horrified at the thought of circumcising a newborn boy.

"Proud to be a cracker," she'd say, her fist punching the air or hammering the pockmarked kitchen counter. The word made me think of those saltines Cubans eat with guava paste or Spanish octopus canned in olive oil. But that couldn't be true because the Mclvors ate only potatoes and yellow grits, plus whatever meat they could buy or hunt with a .22 rifle.

"It's because our skin cracks in the sun," she said, "even if the light hits us through window glass. It's no curse but a blessing to be white as Adam and Eve."

Then she took my arm and rubbed it with her sandpapery fingertips, so hard that there was a hint of blood, and I felt like God had forgotten to make us in his divine image.

Years later I would learn that cracker had nothing to do with skin but with the whip these homesteaders used to crack on the scrub cattle that lived on the fringes of the Everglades, squalid beasts that foraged on straggly weeds, tough as their masters who killed gators with their bare hands and lived through droughts drinking well water thicker than milk.

"I kick my boy out, and you shouldn't stay home neither," she'd say. Men were made in the wilderness, not in living rooms with TV and a mom who bakes chocolate chip cookies. But among the raccoons and the snakes, the dirt and the scrub, the fire of the sun and the moon's womanly light. She'd drive us in her shriveled-up Chevy station wagon to the glade or the bay and drop us off, saying "Don't come back unless you have at least one scratch."

Our usual haunt was the woods behind the drive-in theater right next to Winn-Dixie. It had a mix of pines, shrubs, ficus trees. Like a bull picked apart by turkey vultures, an old Ford pickup rusted on cement blocks. Rats scurried around a dumpster of broken asphalt and semitrailer tires, whose water McIvor slurped straight from the inside. It was in those forays that I learned to eat without my hands, pee where the wind blows, pray to Jesus high in a banyan tree.

"Shoes are for pussies," McIvor would say, grinning, spattering, as he trampled fire ants, jigging from hill to hill until he couldn't stand the pain anymore, and then plunged his feet into a tire's mosquito water. Or he'd sprint through a pine ridge where rain-leached acids dissolve limestone to jags and crags sharp as glass.

More amazing still was when he treaded reckless on the breakwater rocks of Biscayne Bay, so many surf-splintered oyster shells to mangle one's feet. "Dare you," he'd say, pointing to sea wasps and nettles roosting on a spit of crumbled seashells. I chickened out as always and seethed with envy as McIvor sprinted, tramped, bopped into the breakers, scratching off stingers, taunting with shark faces, I'm a man, you're the pussy.

I hurled one of the spiny sea stars that litter the sloping concrete of the wharf, gloated as it spun through the glare, expecting that it would return as a boomerang if I happened to miss him, but the thing just wobbled in mid-flight and tumbled into the gutter of seaweed.

McIvor laughed, snorted, and then danced around me, and I got so angry that I grabbed two large brittle rocks and struck them together like coconuts, sputtering like the savage that I daydreamed of being every time he mocked me, every time he shamed me into silence. I dreamed of eating his liver with the stinkiest onions that I could fry with my mother's old lard. I was rancid with rage, my sweat burning, my earlobes gorged with blood. I wanted to drag the boy through the seashore and murder him in the boatyard where wrecks lie on their gunwales like humpback whales beached on rust sands. Had I been Queequeg, my kindred spirit who visits me in daydreams, I would've pierced him with a broomstick sharpened into a harpoon, smeared his face in the blackest mud, and then dragged him down into the depths of the ocean where there are no angels to weep for the dead.

But I did nothing and just walked home for miles in the dusk. I sulked for days after that, my face pressed against the pillow, but my fury would last only so long. I wanted to be strong like McIvor, a bone-crushing maniac, a stomper of wildflowers, decapitator of frogs croaking in a backyard pool. I wanted to be free like an indigo snake shimmering in the sun. But I liked his mother even more, a woman who didn't nag or fuss like Mama, who didn't perm her burlap hair or paint her fingernails, who didn't make just about every week (per my father's command) rabo encendido, oxtail stew with Tabasco sauce, whose gelatinous meat I loathed even more than a spoonful of cod-liver oil. So all I needed to hear was the cough and whine of Mrs. McIvor's engine, and I'd jump in, riding away to the wilds between US 1 and Monkey Jungle.

One morning as the fattest clouds I'd ever seen hovered like manatees, we decided to fish in a lagoon by some melaleuca shrubs but caught only rags of stinky seaweed. Then McIvor took out a knife with an antler handle. The blade was almost black with whitish spots like barnacles. "Blood will give us luck," he said, and cut the tip of his left thumb, swirling it in the green-gray water, his lips mumbling what seemed to be a prayer, yet done so fast it really could have been just gibberish.

No more than a few minutes had passed when McIvor hollered, "I'm a man, I'm a motherfucker," grabbing his balls, big as avocados, he'd say. The bone hook had snagged a fish with the head of red-eyed iguana and gumbo-limbo warts everywhere. It thrashed on the cutting stone, and I diapered the creature in some green leaves from a seagrape growing nearby. I made the sign of the cross with gummy fingers.

McIvor whittled a stick with his knife, then stabbed the fish, twirling the stick as if making fire. The head burped. Air whirred out of the purling mouth. McIvor sliced the belly and out came a blob of eggs that quivered in his deformed hand--all these those nicks, cuts, scars from torturing the reptiles of pine ridges, like those anoles he taught me to kill with a slingshot as they sunned on stalks of firegrass. How we tore them into bait for gators sulking in the weedy canals that steamed in summer.

McIvor put the eggs to his mouth and rubbed his gnawed lips, which then shimmered like a greased armadillo. "They taste like rock candy," he said, making a face because candy is for girls and retards, then he put the eggs in his right hand and began to shake them as if casting dice. I saw him scatter the eggs like salt on the rocks we'd broken up into crumpets. It was a sin to do what he did. Wild eggs of any kind were supposed to be respected. Holy as the Host itself, I thought, which cannot be chewed under penalty of everlasting sin. I wasn't sure if a priest had taught me this, or if I had just had a revelation, but it was then that I began in earnest to hate McIvor, this bony boy who stole my lunch money, who put spiders in my shoes, who scalpeled my wrists with cockles. So I smashed his talons with my right heel, smacked his face with some deadwood, snatched the eggs from his hand, and ran through the debris of limestone. McIvor grew more and more hoarse as his mouth frothed with cusses.

Days later Mrs. McIvor knocked on my front door with a Doberman at her side, the dog's teats long and swollen, her stumpy tail wagging, more like a twitch. This dog had given birth to a litter of twelve, which was huge, and McIvor had one of the puppies wrapped in a hand towel. We drove to their house where we had a lunch of beef jerky, Doritos, and root beer. She made us shake hands, swear to get along as brothers, which we were, she said, though opposites too, like the dawn and the dusk, but that didn't matter in the eyes of God.

Another boy would have slammed the door on them, so what made me such a forgiving friend? To put up with abuse, taking any suggestion as command? He was what I hungered to be: a real americano with roots in this land deeper than any tree, deeper than the water beneath the ground. I was the Cuban castaway that a storm had tossed ashore on Biscayne Bay. All I deserved from the world was words of shame.

Once I even ran away with him to Sappers' Ridge (of pines, that is), where we camped out for two nights in a pup tent with a kerosene lamp. Not really a ridge at all, five feet above sea level, but in marshy southern Florida this was high enough. Scratched with swear words, KKK , the old stenciled Keep Out sign lay buried in dirt and mossy needles. These were the pines that the old homesteaders milked for the sap that earned them good money from the turpentine distillers up in Jacksonville. Their old corrugated shed had sunk into a limestone sinkhole. Saws and hatchets and knives, plus adzes, hoes, and all sorts of cutting and scraping tools lay scattered on the leaf floor, the rusted metal indistinguishable from the leaves of the interloping hardwoods. A line of red ants freighted bits of wood like broken bone, and McIvor smashed them with a flat rock, but many survived to sting his feet.

We prowled those woods against a horizon the color of bull's blood. Cicadas, which we called cricket birds, buzzed in the brush. Among the cabbage-palm dwarves and saw palmettos, one pine stood out, its twigs spearheads, rows of bubbles, the bark flayed, burned, with many grafts, hammered pewter, thin as skin. In cold shafts of moonlight, like Fourth of July flares, we began to dig and quickly found eyeglasses, bent like a twig, inside a tin box. Some blackened molars too, plus bone beads and bullets flat as medals.

McIvor bit a tooth, spat on it for shine, and said, "Darky Brown's. One of my Grandpa's friends, a Klansman, saw him sticking his tongue out to white girls. The men got together one night and grabbed him in his shack, then hung the n****r right from this tree. Grandpa was there playing the guitar. I think it was his rope too."

"Holy crap," I said. "Show the dead some respect or burn in hell." Snapping the glasses, red-faced, he said, "Maybe you're a n****r too. Grandpa knew lynching good as butchering a hog with a steak knife." And he threw the box against a tree, dirt in my face, pine needles in my hair. Leaf scraps flew like moths. I threw rocks helter-skelter. Dust blew in my mouth. I grabbed a bladed splinter, stood up, aimed for his head, missed an ear, got pushed to the prickly dirt.

We continued to tussle by the lynching tree until I began to lose my breath, so dizzy was I that stars blinded my eyes, and it was then that McIvor began to shake me, yelling out my name, afraid that he had killed me with his rock-hard fist, that he'd lose me forever and never forgive himself. It was his liver not his heart that made him hate me, he said, that made the anger throb through his veins as water breaks through the rocks. He moped and trembled as he squatted on the dirt, calling out to God to make him gentle and loving, to forgive his ill will, to clean his bad blood.

I didn't say anything at all. Neither did I have the strength to move my body nor swallow the raindrops that had just started to fall through the lynching tree. The crackle of the cicadas soothed me, the ground warmed my bones, and the night was beginning to calm the sun. I stared at McIvor for what seemed like hours, perhaps in a daze of forgiveness, this boy with the greenest eyes, the whitest skin, who wept more for me than if we'd been born to the same womb.
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Author:Menes, Orlando Ricardo
Publication:Prairie Schooner
Article Type:Short story
Date:Jun 22, 2018
Words:2964
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