Gabe knew the kid wasn’t really named after him, but he still liked to say he was. He was the padrino, after all. Oscar’s girlfriend’s father and at least two other relatives were named Gabriel though, and Oscar and Lynette felt it necessary to bring that up whenever Gabe tried to boast. After the baptism they’d gone back to Lynette’s house, where Gabe took off his tie and ate carne asada and chicharrones and drank the good Stone beer he’d bought during his last trip to The Stuffed Sandwich on Las Tunas. The sun set and the grandparents wanted the party to end, but Oscar wanted to keep it going. Before Gabe knew what was happening, the keg was sitting in the bed of his truck, a silent stowaway. Then Oscar and Lynette started fighting, as usual, Oscar finally waving Gabe off and sending a text message later that the keg was Gabe’s and could he just bring it back the next day.
Gabe didn’t have much desire to be the proud new owner of a keg of lousy lite beer. Still, it seemed important, that satiny silver barrel given to him so desperately, two guys hauling it up, Oscar urgently patting the side of the truck like one does to signal the departure of cargo or a criminal in a police car. Gabe knew he had to drink it to its dregs. There were a few places he could think to go with a full keg. But he could think of only one place to go with a partially full keg.
So he drove down Durfee, past the birds of paradise lining the street looking like propped-up, open-mouthed puppets. He drove past Golfland and the high school and back behind Legg Lake Park onto that small, two-lane road that was usually dotted with the furry, bloody carcasses of squirrels. He slowed down, just until he’d put some space between him and the cop car lying in wait for unsuspecting dumbasses.
He drove through Montebello and onto Whittier Boulevard, where he used to go see his idiot classmates race, into East LA, under the big sign saying so and past Baja’s, still orange and green, the famous fish taco place framed by palms and with the stone wall that made him think of 50s California. He made a right onto McBride Avenue without signaling.
He had to parallel park between a van and a gray Nissan. He unlatched the black gate and walked through the short yard to the porch and rapped on the door. There was some motion inside. Gabe turned to look out at the street. The yard and wrought iron table and chairs were strewn with the jacaranda’s purple, leaf-like blossoms. There was a streak of grainy mud on the white painted step, like someone had just watered.
This was Gabe’s old neighborhood. His family’s house had been the pink one next door before they moved to South El Monte when he was twelve. The kid next door, Joe, had been his best friend. Joe’s family was the only Cuban family on the block. His parents still owned the house, but they had retired to the desert of La Quinta. Joe now lived in the house on McBride with his girlfriend Sara and her daughter. He had inherited his mother’s botánica on Whittier Boulevard as well, where he had worked in the summers as a kid, selling love potions and making change at the beauty salon or the hardware store, depending on which girl was working that day.
When Joe answered the door, there was not a hint of surprise in his voice, and Gabe felt as though he had merely walked over from next door. “Hey, man. You gotta check out these goat hooves. Tell Sara not to give me a hard time.”
They didn’t want to haul the keg all the way to the back yard. “We’ll cover it and put it behind the tree,” Joe said, even though the thin trunk wouldn’t conceal it entirely.
Joe helped him take it down from the trunk bed and they rolled it into the front yard.
Gabe brought out the blanket he’d used at the brewfest. It was one of those cotton, Mexican ones sold everywhere, striped with zigzags and chevrons. This one was camouflage colors. He threw the blanket over the keg.
Joe looked the keg up and down. “All it needs is a sombrero and a moustache.”
Gabe lifted the blanket. “Or a friend named C3PO.”
“Is that a keg I see, Gabriel Romero?” Sara stood in the doorway. Her white tank top stretched over her ample chest, bright against her dark skin.
“Oh no, Sara,” Gabe said and stepped in front of the keg with his hands up. “There’s not enough foam for all of us.”
“Is it tapped out, dude?” Joe asked.
“You worry too much. How you doing, Sara. This fool treating you all right?” Gabe gave her a hug. Her wavy hair, stiff with gel and smelling of flowers, brushed his face.
She pulled away smiling. “Well, he cleaned the garage today.”
Gabe began pumping the keg and Joe brought out plastic cups. “I just want a tiny sip,” Sara said, pinching a bit of air with her fingers.
Sara took her cup and swallowed the beer like it was medicine, smiling at Gabe again and going back inside. Joe shook his head. “She doesn’t even like beer. She just wants it cuz I’m having it.”
“Look at you,” Gabe said. “With your old lady. Looks like I’m the last man standing. ” He stretched luxuriously and sat down in a chair.
“What are you talking about? I’m still free,” Joe countered.
“Joe, baby,” Sara called, sticking her head through the kitchen window. “Did you pick up my shaving lotion from the market?”
Gabe almost spurted beer through his nose.
“It’s in the bathroom,” Joe answered, not bothering to raise his voice. “You won’t think it’s so funny when it happens to you,” he said to Gabe.
“Last man standing.” Gabe raised his arms in triumph. "My life is just beginning.” He folded his arms behind his neck and leaned backwards. The chair stood on its hind legs a few seconds, then thumped back down abruptly.
“Someone wanted to say hi,” Sara said, stepping out again.
A pretty little girl emerged from behind her, two dark braids on both sides of her head. She stared coolly at Gabe.
“Naomi! Give me a hug!” He reached out to her.
She didn’t move.
“What’s the matter? Come here.”
Naomi only crossed her arms in front of her chest. Her pajamas bore a buck-toothed bunny and she wore them with an unexpected dignity. She drummed her fingers methodically on the pink cotton sleeve.
“You didn’t come to my party.”
“I’m sorry, sweetheart, I had to work. Did you get my present?”
“Oh, yes.” She frowned and put her finger to the side of her face, as though thinking very hard. “The ballerina Barbie.”
They waited for her to say more but she dropped her thoughtful stance and stared stoically at Gabe. “Good to see you again.” With that, she turned on her heel and disappeared into the house.
“Shit!” Gabe leaned forward laughing, his fist covering his mouth. “What the fuck was that?”
Joe shook his head with a smirk. “She gets it from her mother. Hey, babe, bring us some chips or something?”
Sara didn’t answer but copied Naomi’s departure so perfectly that they had to laugh again.
“So is she getting us chips?” Gabe asked.
“The fuck if I know.” Joe made a face as though he just realized he was drinking piss. “So uh, who was the padrino of this mofo?”
Gabe shrugged. “It wasn’t me, that’s for sure.”
“Hey, can you imagine if Mrs. Goldstein saw us drinking out here.”
Gabe evoked the old, Jewish lady. “Gabriel. I got the cookies with the macadamia nuts.”
Joe started chuckling.
“Have you called that nice girl? Call her. See what there is. But she’s a nice girl, Gabriel. You remember.”
“Nice girl, all right. Got knocked up by two different guys, right?”
Gabe hadn’t meant to invite that recollection. He puffed air out of his cheeks. “To Mrs. Goldstein,” he said and raised his cup.
Joe raised his cup to Gabe’s, then paused to look at a votive candle on the table. “What the …” Joe turned toward the house. “Babe, what did I tell you about taking the candles out of my shrine?”
“The porch light was out,” Sara called.
Joe shook his head. “What the fuck does that have to do with my tio’s candle?” He looked at Gabe. “She makes fun of my shit. Do you know she used to write ‘God’ every time she wrote anything down? Grocery lists, phone numbers. Before she wrote anything, first she would write ‘God’, on the top of the page. She said they learned that shit in school.”
“Whose number is she writing down?” Gabe teased.
Joe ignored him. “I finally got her down to a ‘G.’”
“I don’t think God’ll miss being a header on her to-do lists. Excuse me.” He picked up the candle and walked it inside. Gabe sat sipping his awful beer. He could almost pretend he was in his own front yard, looking out at the street and worrying about junior high, about moving away.
His phone vibrated in his pocket. The caller ID said “Lynette.”
Joe sat back down and caught him frowning at the phone. “Who’s that?” He tossed a bag of chips on the table.
“Oscar’s girlfriend. Their kid got baptized today.”
“She into you? Tap that, dude.”
“You’ve never even met her.” His phone buzzed again. “Maybe something happened.” He answered. “Hey, Lynette. How’s it going? Uh, yeah, Oscar’s right here.”
Joe gave him a pointed look and smugly drank his beer. He pulled open the bag of chips.
A baby’s frantic crying ebbed in the background.
“Is Gabriel okay? Yeah. No, I can’t wake him up. He’s…drunk. Look, I’m driving, I gotta go, kay?” He hung up. “Fuck.”
“He didn’t warn you? That’s messed up.”
Gabe checked his phone. There were no messages or missed calls from Oscar.
“Why does he involve me in this bullshit?” But he knew the answer before Joe said it.
“You covered for him, didn’t you?” The two circles of friends didn’t know each other. So Gabe could travel from one to the other and if something happened one place it didn’t affect the other place except that they heard about each other and loved it when the other guys messed up or did something stupid.
“You seeing anyone these days?” Joe asked. “Sara has a friend.”
“Is she fat?” Gabe didn’t mind a girl being a little on the heavy side. But his friends had tried to hook him up with some really unattractively huge girls in the past.
“Actually…no.” Joe seemed surprised.
Gabe gave him a look. “Does she have any kids?”
Joe sighed. “So what if she does.”
“I don’t do that.”
“How old are we now, man, and you want a girl without kids. Go look for a virgin while you’re at it.”
Gabe didn’t want to try to explain himself, yet again. How could he say he wanted something of his own, and not to feel like he kept arriving somewhere late.
“Joe,” Sara called from inside. “You gotta tuck Naomi in.”
“Maybe you got the right idea, man. I’ll be right back.”
Gabe didn’t move for awhile, just listened to the cars going by. A crack of light seeped out of the door and Naomi stepped onto the porch, all the resentment from earlier gone. She looked scared, and then he heard Joe and Sara arguing inside.
“Hi, honey. What have you got there?”
She was holding a cup of water in one hand and a napkin in the other. “You wanna stamp?” she asked Gabe.
“Hold out your arm please.”
He extended his arm and it was only then she came down the steps and set the cup on the table. She examined his forearm with the professional air of a nurse giving a shot. Humming, she dipped the edge of the napkin in the water and dabbed at a spot on his arm. She blew over it quickly, and the hair on his arms stirred. Then she placed the stamp firmly on his skin, lifting it in a peeling motion to reveal a green circle with the words “Jesus Loves You” in the middle.
She put the napkin and stamp on the table and stood there uncertainly.
“Let me show you something.” He took out his phone and pulled up a picture of Gabriel he’d taken that morning. The baby was wearing his baptismal gown and an expression of wonder, his eyebrows raised, his little mouth open. He stretched his arms wide, his chubby hands clenched into fists. Gabe could almost hear the gurgle he had made. “His name’s Gabriel like me.”
Naomi got close to the phone and looked up at him. “My mommy told me you don’t have a baby.”
Gabe put the phone back in his pocket. “He’s my godson.”
Naomi watched him, then relaxed and swayed her arms smiling. “He’s bald like you.”
Gabe laughed. “Yeah.”
“Who do you live with?” she asked him.
He smiled. It was a question he always hoped a date didn’t ask. “I…live with my parents. And my dog. And my record collection.”
“Maybe one day you’ll have a baby,” she said generously.
He nodded. “Will she be as pretty as you?”
Naomi giggled and put her fingers in her mouth, her eyes wide and looking to the side. “Uh...”
Gabe imitated her. “He’s saying I’m pretty, what should I do what should I do!” He put his fingers in his mouth and looked around nervously.
She giggled harder.
“Naomi,” Sara called sharply, “say goodnight.”
The little girl sighed as though it were a great chore to humor her mother. “See you next time, Gabe?”
“See you, dude.” Once she’d gone back inside, Gabe finished the beer in his cup. He pumped the keg again and was able to drain the rest of the beer. It must be lighter now. He hoped he wouldn’t need Joe’s help getting it back into the truck. Then he could just leave. He’d done it many times before, and Joe would think nothing of it.
The house was silent now and Gabe wondered if the fight was over, if Sara was soothing Joe or he was soothing her. Or had the argument merely turned quiet and still raged beneath the surface? Would Naomi fall asleep to the silence of reconciliation or of persisting unease? Gabe closed his eyes. His was the silence of one mind, one heart. Of one empty keg squatting in the shadows of a front yard, just waiting for the first rays of dawn to illuminate it.
Toni Margarita Plummer is a winner of the Miguel Mármol Prize and the author of The Bolero of Andi Rowe (Northwestern University Press, 2011). She has published short fiction in Kweli and PALABRA and is a contributor to the anthologies Wise Latinas: Writers on Higher Education and All About Skin: Short Fiction by Women of Color. She is a graduate of the Master of Professional Writing Program at USC. A freelance editor, Toni lives in the Hudson Valley with her husband and son.