The bicycle he had in Tijuana caught fire each time he rode down a steep hill. Ramiro had Frankensteined a bike out of discarded car bumpers, abandoned wheels and stiff plastic tubing. No metal bolts found dumpster diving through America’s waste, but he did find hundreds of discarded wooden chips throughout his neighborhood. He used those to rivet the bike together each time the downhill speed turned the wood into ash.
In Guadalajara, away from the overflowing luxury junkyard of the U.S. border, Ramiro bought a bike for 12 sterling pesos. A real metal melded bike. He pumped the petals to apprentice for his uncle’s construction company, molding blocks of clay and concrete to build houses. “Maestro” he called his uncle according to custom. The official title exempted Maestro from adhering to regulated work hours or child labor laws. Those laws only protected 9 year olds in El Norte.
Ramiro Rubio’s bike took him to the houses he was building and its handlebars carried his older sister Teresa to the houses she cleaned. Riding home on the dirt streets that burned orange at sunset they saw a man’s silhouette and heard it cough. The sticky sound of emphysema that tars the roof of smokers’ lungs was familiar. “I think that’s our dad,” Tere said.
Ramiro permanently released the plastic coated handlebars to help his Tijuana transplant dad find a job; he would stay longer if he had work. Ramiro’s dad complained about the lack of opportunity. His son would walk the final step of a three-mile journey home from work through the slanted wooden doorway.
“No hay nada,” his father would say and the little boy would kick away a copper cockroach and crawl onto his flat linty mattress.
Ramiro’s bike stopped carrying the Rubios to work. It was now parked outside the bar. Outside the drunken uncles shack. Outside el otro bar. Perpetually outside of the yard where Ramiro once carefully tied it with rope to a tree to protect it.
For light, Ramiro and his gang of dirt stained friends lit tires on fire and played soccer with aluminum cans. The wet season would turn his ashy discolorations into mud streaks across his already dark skin. Ramiro avoided drinking the local water as it hosted bacteria large enough to be kept as pets. He hated bathing in it even more, a trait he carried into adulthood, and showered only when the weather permitted. When it rained, they all smelled like earth.
Ramiro and his organic scented friends would use their burning tire lit evenings discovering ways to continually amuse and cripple each other. When the soccer got boring or someone sliced their fingers blocking a goal, an avocado pit was then turned into a missile, pebbles into ammo, pen tubes into pistols.
After enough blood and limbs were shed playing soldier, the unintentional engineers stomped on the aluminum beer cans to make tap shoes. They were crumpled up scraps of metal. Shiny and malleable. Twisted and deformed. If the second-hand shoes they wore were a size too big, they went barefoot. They stomped on the can to mold it to their arches, unaware they were a misstep away from slicing off their big toe.
In Vietnam, Ramiro and his new organic smelling friends dreaded stepping in aluminum cans. They all feared the same deformities and loss of blood Ramiro and his old gang had laughed at as chiquillos. They wore the same clothes Ramiro did; the jungleflage looked different on his skinny frame. They talked different than Ramiro did saying “y’all” and “shrapnel” instead of “jou” and “eskrapnel,” which led to the unanimous decision that the wetback with the gooky accent could never be the radioman.
They all feared stepping on the metal can claw filled with feces and the rains and oil and death. Not intended to kill, but to destroy. It would dig its metallic talons into an unsuspecting leg, cutting through the unifying fabric fatigues and into the calf of the soldier who didn’t know better and tried to pull out.
The dangers of Ramiro’s tap shoes were always well known and easy to kick off. Continually cutting their calloused feet made his and his gangs’ 9-year-old soles as hard as those of men. The familiar clinkity clinks of a Broadway show landed as heavy thuds on the Mexican dirt floor that burned orange at sunset.
Ramiro’s bike turned into a tin tap shoe when his dad DUI’ed it on the side of a neighbors house. The bike would’ve survived if it weren’t for the old mans rage that was unleashed through the scraped skin. He threw the little bike against the wall, grabbed it by the plastic handlebars and rammed it a few more times against the stucco perpetrator to silence it from sneering at his manhood.
The crashed bicycle became a rusted sculpture on the side of the cantina – the first of the Rubio outsider art pieces. Ramiro said goodbye to the backyard cemetery of projects his father started, goodbye to the empty glass bottles that finished the job. Said goodbye to the secrets of aluminum cans in the rain. He finally said goodbye to his dad as he lay in a soft cotton bed with plastic tubes running up his genius nose around his ears and through his stomach. Emphysema had finished building its house in that Rubio body.
The small stack of “Return to Sender” letters on the dining room table indicates all Ramiro’s dirt covered friends have rebuilt their houses or themselves somewhere far and unreachable. They stare out uniformly from the silver frame; the four White guys the Black man and the gooky looking wetback that posted his name and address on Internet ‘Nam Vet forums, pecking at the keyboard with one finger, double checking the screen for accuracy.
“Ramiro Rubio – 101st Airborne 67-68. Santa Ana, Calif.”
He hopes they have computers in their unlisted homes. He hopes they remember his name.
Marytza Rubio is a 2008 PEN USA Emerging Voices Fellow based in Santa Ana, Calif.