by Angel Zapata
“Buzzards are supposed to only eat the dead,” Momma told me. “But we ain’t dead yet. Are we, son?”
We sat down together aboard the city bus. Inside the brown paper bag on my lap was a change of underwear, a printed t-shirt that read Kiss Me, I’m Puerto Rican, and my favorite stuffed animal: Ducky-Ducky.
“We’re not going back this time,” she said to no one in particular.
The window at her right was a mosaic of filth and fingerprints. On the horizon, black-feathered wings wormed their way through blotchy clouds.
I was so nervous. The Vulture Man always found us.
Momma was crying noiselessly. Her sunglasses slid down her brown nose. Sometimes she would let me wear them and I’d pretend I was Elton John. She liked when I sang “Rocket Man.”
I studied her profile and the black bruise coiled around her left eye. She kept snapping and unsnapping the clasp on her coin purse.
“You’re the one who’s gonna pay.” The Vulture Man’s voice buzzed inside my head. I recalled how he roughly shoved a handful of pennies into Momma’s palm. “Go on and stick ’em in your mouth.” His face was a mud puddle. “That’s right, suck on ’em.”
In my memories, they look like steamrolled butterscotch candies.
I stood beside Momma and stayed silent.
“Now spit ’em up,” he ordered.
One at a time, like spiders clinging to silk strands, they crawled over Momma’s bottom lip.
“You like that flavor?”
She shook her head no.
“That’s how your blood’s gonna taste.” The Vulture Man’s thick fingers curled into fists. “And next time it ain’t gonna be no pennies fallin’ outta yer face.”
The bus hit a bump and I heard Momma gasp.
“Oh God, I can’t do this,” she said.
She jumped up and yanked the bell cable. The bus gradually slowed and stopped.
“I’m so sorry, son,” she said to me.
The midway door collapsed inward and we disembarked. At the curbside, exhaust fumes enclosed us in a gray cocoon. It was too early for the moon, but the stars faintly teased.
“Wait here.” She parked me on a wooden bench.
I watched her drop a dime into the phone booth at the corner. After a while, she returned and sat near me. We held hands and waited for the Vulture Man to come and get us.
“There are two types of people in the world,” she said. “There’s the ‘carrion’ folk and the ‘carrying’ folk.” She spelled them both to teach me the difference.
“‘Carrion’ folk are people like me.” She wiped away tears. “The vultures come and feed on us till there’s nothing left but bones. But ‘carrying’ folk” — she touched the spot over my heart — “are people like you. You lift up people like me and carry us home.”
Momma was smiling when the Vulture Man pulled alongside us in his beat-up Chevrolet. “What’s she so damn happy about?” he sneered.
“Nothing, Daddy,” I said, and then helped my Momma stand.
Copyright © 2012 by Angel Zapata