Oleander | Mary Camarillo

Eddie brushes his teeth with the bathroom door open, watching the television in the living room. “Sixth inning,” Vince Scully says. “Full count, nobody out.”

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Eddie brushes his teeth with the bathroom door open, watching the television in the living room. “Sixth inning,” Vince Scully says. “Full count, nobody out.” The Dodgers have a chance to clinch their division title if they win this game. It’s a school night though and his mother’s already told him to go to bed twice.

His mother calls herself a night owl. She watches movies into the early morning hours on a small TV that sits on a chest of drawers next to photographs of Eddie and his four older sisters. His father sleeps in shifts. He comes home from the Olive Garden just before midnight and showers off his bus boy grime. If there are too many sisters in bed with Mom, he lies down on the couch in the living room under the brown and black wool blanket Nana brought with her from New Mexico, when she moved in. Nana hardly sleeps at all. When the alarm goes off a few hours later, Nana gets up too and makes coffee the way Pop likes it, with cinnamon and warm milk, then he drives down Bristol Street to the Denny’s by South Coast Plaza to wash dishes. He’s back home around two in the afternoon, takes another shower, retreats to the couch and the blanket until it’s time to bus Olive Garden tables again.

“Eduardo Samuel Martinez.” His mother’s voice from her bedroom. “Why aren’t you in bed?”

Her using his real name means there’s no point in arguing. He spits in the sink, rinses his toothbrush, and sets it back in the cup next to the faucet.

“Don’t forget to say your prayers, mijo,” Nana tells him as he walks past her in the living room.

“Would it be wrong to pray for a grand slam?”

She smiles. “It never hurts to ask.”

He and Nana share the add-on room that Pop built off the side of the house behind the pantry when Nana moved in. Eddie was just a baby then, sleeping in a bureau drawer in his parent’s room, then in the crib next to his mother’s side of the bed and now in a fold-out cot that he’s almost too tall for. Although the add-on room is tiny, he doesn’t mind sharing it with Nana because it smells like spices and cereal and ground chocolate.

He puts on his pajamas and turns on Nana’s radio, keeping the volume low and picks up his baseball bat. He’s right handed, but sometimes he tries to swing left, like Reggie Smith, the best switch-hitter ever. He tests his swing a few times, then props the bat in the corner and goes to bed, falling asleep to Vince Scully’s voice.

He’s dreaming about the sound a bat makes when it connects with a home run ball when a moaning noise wakes him. The radio is off. Nana snores in her bed across the room, each inhale a soft cat purr, each exhale a tiny whistle. It’s two a.m. He hears the moaning noise again and sits up. Nana mutters in her sleep and rolls over on her side.

Last week, something got into Joe’s rabbit hutch next door and jumped over the wood fence between their houses. “Must have been a coyote,” Joe said, “the way it ripped the guts out.” Eddie couldn’t look away from the pile of brown and white fur left in the dirt behind the oleander bush. Now he tiptoes through the pantry, pushes the kitchen door open and walks up the hall. Pop snores in the dark bedroom, a rougher sound than Nana makes, more like sandpaper on wood. Eddie climbs up on the couch and lifts the front curtain.

An almost full moon sits above the palm trees lining Washington Street and the oleander bush scratches against the stucco on the side of the house. Eddie is sure the coyote is hiding there as a long shadow stretches out in front of the window. A huge coyote, he imagines, with giant bloody teeth and a belly full of the rest of Joe’s rabbits and all the missing cats in the neighborhood. But then the shadow lengthens into arms and legs which seem very human and Eddie sits back and swallows his breath as two people split out of the shadow, one his mother, the other a skinny man with slumped shoulders who looks a lot like the neighbor from down the street. Vincent, if that’s who he is, runs his fingers down his mother’s bare arms and holds her wrists for what seems like a long time. She finally laughs and pulls free and Vincent disappears in the darkness. She floats up the front steps in her white nightgown.

Eddie lies down on the couch and flips the blanket over him, convinced for some reason he should hide and equally sure his pounding heart will give him away. His father is still snoring. His mother opens the door and drifts past Eddie into the bathroom. He stays on the couch until he hears the toilet flush then he gets up and races back to his bed.

“You all right, mijo?” Nana asks.

“I thought I heard the coyote.”

“Go back to sleep. You have school tomorrow.” After a few moments she says, “The Dodgers won.”

“Good,” he says but he still can’t sleep, trying to remember what he knows about Vincent. He’s heard his mother make fun of the way he struts around the neighborhood like some rooster. He’s never understood what she meant.

He still has no answers when Pop’s alarm clock goes off a few hours later. Nana gets up and heads to the kitchen. Eddie smells coffee brewing, eggs scrambling in butter, flour tortillas warming over the gas burner and falls into a deep sleep. When Nana shakes him awake what seems like minutes later his sisters have already taken over the bathroom, jockeying for position in front of the mirror, plucking eyebrows, outlining eyes, layering on lipstick. He zigzags through their legs to the toilet, pees and goes to the kitchen to wash his hands. Nana scoops out a bowl of oatmeal from the pot, sprinkles brown sugar and raisins over the top. There is still no room in the bathroom when he’s finished eating so he brushes his teeth in the kitchen sink and runs wet fingers through his hair in the toaster reflection.

His mother leaves first to catch her bus, in her white uniform, dark shadows under her eyes. The sisters are right behind her, the older two head towards Centennial High; the younger two in the opposite direction to Dwyer Middle School. Eddie peddles his stingray over to Magnolia Elementary, his backpack loaded with books and his lunch burrito, his baseball bat and glove carefully balanced on the handlebars. It’s a terrible day. He gets in trouble in math class because he doesn’t hear the teacher’s question; he gets hit square in the face at recess from a soccer ball he never saw coming; he eats his bean and rice burrito and never tastes it. Whatever it was that his mother and Vincent were doing is supposed to be a secret, he finally decides.

He knows about secrets. The place where Nana keeps her red leather purse is one. Up on the top shelf in the closet behind her good shoes. Nana showed him right before Christmas, holding her wrinkled index finger straight up over her weathered lips. “Ssh,” she said. There is a wad of cash in that purse from selling tamales and recycling soda cans and hemming skirts and letting out seams for the neighbors.

His friend Andy likes Naomi, a girl in their class who is stuck up and prissy, but Andy asked him not to tell anyone, so Eddie hasn’t. He’s watched his older sisters climb in and out of their bedroom window and they grab his ear and twist hard, telling him if Mom finds out, he’s dead. He’s caught the youngest sister posing in front of the mirror, wearing the oldest sister’s favorite sweater. “Please don’t say anything, Eddie. She’ll kill me.”

His mother never tells Pop exactly how much anything costs. She’s really, really good at planning surprise parties. She hides his sister’s report cards and she doesn’t tell anyone that Nana smokes. And now he remembers that sometimes when she answers the phone, she lowers her voice, goes into the bathroom and closes the door.

 *

When the school day is finally over, Eddie slings his backpack over his shoulder and balances his bat on the handlebars of his bike. He can’t remember being this tired. He has a lump on his head from the soccer ball and extra math homework from not paying attention in class. The afternoon game is at Ryan’s house and even though Eddie called dibs on second base he almost doesn’t want to go. Andy is talking to Naomi by the bike rack and when he sees Eddie watching, he raises his chin and shakes his head slightly. Eddie nods as he gets on his bike.

The thing about secrets is that someone always says, “Don’t tell.”

He makes a U-turn towards Washington Street. Vincent’s yard is surrounded by a chain link fence. The grass is brown and bare, worn down to dirt and gravel next to the street. A Chihuahua lies in a spot of sun on the front porch, chained to a post. Eddie stops his bike in front of the house, curls his fingers through the chain links to keep his balance. The dog’s bulgy brown eyes open and he snarls, baring pointed teeth.

“I’m not doing anything,” Eddie says.

The dog stands and barks.

“Shut up,” Eddie says as the Chihuahua charges towards the fence. He backs up his bike quickly. The front tire whips around, his bat clinks to the street, and he almost falls over, catching himself just in time. The dog’s leash isn’t long enough though and he strains against the strap, barking furiously and shivering, his eyes almost bursting, his pointed ears worried forward.

“You can’t get me,” Eddie says and then he notices that the frayed strap is coming apart at the seams. The dog is still barking, pulling harder towards the fence. Eddie drops his bike to the ground, looks around in the dirt by the curb and picks up three small rocks. He throws one at the dog, hits his back leg. The dog yelps in surprise and is quiet for a half-second, then starts barking again. Eddie throws the second stone, misses completely and then the last one, which skitters up to the front porch. Time to go, he thinks as the door to Vincent’s house opens. He picks up his baseball bat from where it lies in the street. A woman comes outside, her hair pulled back in a scraggly ponytail, her hands cupped together under a round belly.

“Are you throwing rocks at my dog?”

“He wouldn’t stop barking.”

“So now you’re going to hit him with your bat? What’s the matter with you?”

“I wasn’t going to hit him.”

She raises one hand up over her eyes and squints into the sun. “Aren’t you Leticia’s kid?”

“No.” He doesn’t like the way his mother’s name sounds on the woman’s thin lips. “I’m not from around here.” He climbs on his bike and pedals down Washington Street as fast as he can.

The game has already started without him. He doesn’t even get off his bike. “I have homework,” he tells Andy, but he circles the neighborhood instead, avoiding Washington Street until it’s almost dark.

His mother’s purse is on the kitchen table next to where two of his sisters are doing homework. Nana stands in front of a pot bubbling on the stove. Eddie smells the yellow fat of chicken skin and sweet red onions. His stomach growls. 

“You’re in trouble,” the youngest sister says, looking up from her math book.

Nana adds a handful of oregano to the pot and turns around. “The neighbor down the street said you threatened her dog with your bat.”

“I did not.”

“I told her you’d never do anything like that.”

He looks down at the floor. “Is she Vincent’s wife?”  

“She’s going to have a baby soon,” his youngest sister says, importantly.

“Vincent’s dog is stupid. And his baby will be stupid too.”

Nana frowns. “That doesn’t sound like you, mijo.”

He blinks hard. He doesn’t want to cry in front of his sisters. “Does Mom know?”

“Not yet.” 

His sisters exchange glances. Nana takes a bag from the top shelf and pulls out two chocolate Easter rabbits, hands one to each girl. “Let’s keep this between us.”

“Where did you get these?” the second youngest sister asks.

“The Easter Bunny forgot them last year. Eduardo, come with me.”

He follows Nana back to the add-on room, drops his pack and the bat in the corner and throws himself on the cot, sobbing hard now. Nana shuts the door and sits down next to him.

“Vincent’s wife said you threw some rocks, too.”

Eddie sits up. “They were little rocks. I missed him, mostly.”

You missed?  Nana wipes his tears with her fingers and smiles. “The future second baseman for the Dodgers missed?”

He sniffs hard. “He charged the fence. I was trying to scare him away.”

“When you feel better I want you to apologize.”

“Are you going to tell Mom?”

“It can be our secret.” 

Saturday afternoon, Eddie wanders over to the sporting goods section at Sears and looks at baseball bats while his mother stands in line at the credit counter. She always pays in person, in cash, always reminds him not to tell Pop how much it was. He picks up an Easton Power Slugger. His birthday isn’t until February and he knows better than to ask for a new bat. His mother shakes her head when she finds him. 

“There’s nothing wrong with your old one. Let’s go.”

They stop at the Orange Julius stand when they leave Sears. She buys a small cup for him and they walk down to the carousel. “Just to watch,” his mother says. He’s too old to ride the carousel and it costs fifty cents. If he ever did ride it, though, he’d pick the elephant or the camel, not one of the girly horses. He presses the orange froth between his tongue and the roof of his mouth, tasting the sugar and vanilla, then sucks on the straw, until his mother says, “Jesus, Eddie, it’s empty. Go throw it away.”

He walks over to the trash can, tosses the cup, glancing up to the second floor. The mall is crowded with giggling teenage girls, roughhousing boys watching the girls, grandmothers pushing baby strollers. Vincent and his wife lean over the banister, also watching the carousel and the crowd. Eddie hurries back to his mother and steps behind her, but he’s too late, the wife sees him and points over the railing.

“Mom, let’s go,” he says as he feels her body go rigid. She pulls him in front of her and puts her hands on his shoulders. He can feel her tremble, her heart pounding all the way down to her knees. Vincent has his arm around his wife now, turning her, gently at first, then more firmly until he’s nearly lifting her feet off the ground and they head off in the opposite direction, towards May Company. Eddie looks up at his mother. He can’t tell if she’s angry or about to cry.

“Their dog scared me, so I threw some rocks at him.”

“What are you talking about?”

“That’s why she was pointing at me.”

His mother is completely still for a moment and then she starts laughing, something in her face Eddie can’t trust. He tries to laugh too, but his eyes fill with hot tears.

“Eduardo, honey! What’s wrong?” She kneels and wraps her arms around him. “You’re shaking.”

“I promised Nana I’d apologize. I’m sorry.”

“You don’t need to apologize to anyone.” She pulls him close. Her hair smells like strawberry shampoo. He can still taste the Orange Julius, but his tongue finds something bitter in between his back teeth. After a moment she stands and holds out her hand.

“Let’s go back to Sears.”

 *

Eddie spins the new bat like a top between his knees, watching the black and red paint spiral; tapping it on the coffee table; listening for the hollow aluminum ping. She’s already told him more than once that his father doesn’t need to know about this, but he’s waiting up to show Pop anyway. He stands and tests his swing a few times, gripping and releasing, watching his biceps for any sign of muscle. The new bat’s a lot heavier than his old one, a little too heavy to use right now. If Pop lets him keep it, he’s hiding it under the couch. Just in case that coyote comes back.


Mary Camarillo’s first novel will be published by She Writes Press in June of 2021. Her short fiction and poems have appeared in publications such as The Bookends Review, The Second Corona Book of Horrors and The Ear. She lives in Huntington Beach, California.


Photo by Rebecca Highley May.