Roberto Ortiz


Glow, Little Monster, Glow


Born and raised in Puerto Rico, Roberto Carlos Ortiz is a New Orleans-based writer and independent scholar. His stories have appeared in Label Me Latina/oT/OUR Magazine and Educe Journal, among others. He is currently completing books about Latino icons and camp stardom (Intellect) and the female stars of Classic Mexican Cinema.

Back then I often dreamed of becoming one of those scary-looking English boys that could manipulate other people’s minds with their entrancing glowing eyes. 

In those dreams my hair’s color changed from black to an almost white shade of blonde and its unruly waves straightened into a pageboy style. My hand-me-downs became a stylish ensemble of short pants and long-sleeved shirt with vest and tie. And then my warm gaze would turn cold, making me ready to control the wills of others with my powerful stare.

In real-life, however, my dark brown eyes were powerless. Still, I decided to give it a try. But my cousin just kept going, even though I stood next to him and stared intently.  It didn’t matter how much harder I stared. He just kept banging that Frankenstein against the floor. 

“This piece of shit doesn’t do what it’s supposed to.  Maybe if I hit it with something…”

“You shouldn’t do that,” I said.

“Why not?  It’s mine. And I want it to work.”

My cousin spoke with that casual sense of entitlement of well-to-do kids, clueless to the fact that that his attitude could hurt others.  Of course, plastic figures have no feelings. But I did.  And it pissed me off to see him destroy what my mother had given to him only minutes ago. 

It would’ve been pointless to tell him again that he should stop banging that toy, to remind him that it had been a gift, and to let him know my mother bought it with borrowed money.

Explaining all that to him would’ve been as pointless as trying to convince my mother that she shouldn’t waste any money on my stuck-up cousin.

“We can’t show up empty-handed on Three Kings Day. Your aunt will have gifts for us.”

“But she’s got money,” I said as we left our place. “I thought you’d borrowed that for gas.”

“Don’t worry. That’s my problem. We’ll stop at that drug store where they always have stuff on clearance. You know I have a real good eye for finding cheap stuff that looks expensive.”

That was true. My mom had been mastering how to keep up appearances at very low cost.  At the drug store, she found a pair of elegant marked-down earrings for my aunt.  She also picked a nice-looking set of cheap cologne for my uncle.  And then, at the back of the store, my mother checked a shelf with seasonal leftovers.  That’s where she found Frankenstein.  

“I know it’s not Halloween but your cousin can still play with it.”

“He won’t like it.”

“Why not?”

“Because it’s cheap, that’s why.”

“This looks as good as any of the action figures you have.  And look, the box says it glows in the dark.  Check out the original price. That’s a real bargain. I won’t find a better deal here.”

The cashier gave us the evil eye when my mother said she wanted all the items wrapped for free. That offer was intended to attract good customers over the holidays, not cheap last-minute shoppers like us.  My mother then picked the fanciest looking wrapping paper and almost got into an argument when the cashier said she’d charge her extra for the ribbons.

“That’s part of the wrapping.  Show me where it says on the ad that they’re not included.”

I hid my face behind a comic book and wished once more that I could turn into one of those scary-looking English boys I’d seen on TV. However, I’m not sure whether I would’ve willed that nasty cashier into begging for my mother’s forgiveness or if I would’ve gotten my mother to take her money back and save it for something practical, like gas or groceries. 

I hated being reminded that we were poor, even though my mother said we really weren’t.  We had our own subsidized apartment. We wore high quality hand-me-downs. We rode a nice used car.  My mother had a steady job and I went to Catholic school on scholarship.

“Really poor people don’t have all these things we have,” she’d told me many times. 

I wondered if at least they had sense not to spend money on spoiled brats like my cousin. 

“Well, that stupid cashier did a great job,” my mother said on the car. “They look pricey, don’t they? I’m happy. I think they’ll like them.  You know, your cousin’s not really bad.” 

“No, he’s worse than bad.  I’m sure he’s got a 666 hidden under all that hair.”

“That’s ridiculous. You need to stop watching horror movies.  They give you wrong ideas.”

It really wasn’t that absurd to think I could be related to the Antichrist. I’d noticed my cousin bore more than a passing resemblance to the preteen Damien on the Omen trilogy. That was an actor and the movies were fiction, but didn’t they talk in school about the clever guises of the devil?  Couldn’t it turn into an arrogant Puerto Rican twelve-year-old? 

I hated that my cousin was the one who could’ve passed for one of those scary-looking schoolboys I’d seen on a late-night movie.  I had the fantasies, but my cousin had the looks.  He wasn’t blonde, but his hair was a very light shade of brown.  His facial features were much more streamlined than mine. And his skin was so pale he could’ve been a vampire. 

“I give up,” he said. “This piece of shit won’t glow or even break. What good is it for?”

“You can use it to play with other action figures.”

“Really? What’s Frankenstein going to do? Fight G.I. Joe? Plus I no longer play with those kinds of toys. I’ve got video games,” he said dismissively. “But I got an idea. Wait and see.”

His attitude reminded me of another Three Kings Day, when I really started to hate him. 

Our grandparents were alive and said that year we’d all get watches or clocks as presents.  I’d been hoping for a digital sports watch, but instead my cousin and I were given the same: a red wind-up clock that doubled as a music box. 

Despite my disappointment, I thanked my grandparents with a kiss. My cousin, however, cried after opening the gift. He pushed the clock away and yelled he didn’t like it. My aunt and uncle got embarrassed. They tried to convince him that it was a great present. But my cousin screamed that wasn’t true. He tossed the clock to the ground and started to kick it. 

“Calm down,” my grandfather said and picked up the clock.  “We’ll get you another thing.”

“I’m really sorry, papi. But he’s gotten too old for that type of toy,” my aunt said. “Abuelito will get you something else, like a sports watch. You’d like that, wouldn’t you, mi cielo?”

My cousin wiped his tears with his sleeve and nodded in agreement while my aunt caressed and kissed his almost blonde hair. Then he smiled, looking like little Damien in the movies.

My aunt was right.  We’d both gotten too old for that kind of toy.  Still, I didn’t throw a fit or complain, even though I was older and I wouldn’t be getting any replacement present. 

I didn’t want to, though.  My cousin’s reaction made me fond of that red wind-up clock that played children’s songs and I kept it displayed on my bedroom well into my teenage years.

I’d recognized the same disappointed expression when my cousin opened my mother’s gift.  But he’d learned his lesson. He thanked my mother and kissed her cheek before telling me: “Come on; let’s go find a place where we can make this glow.”

We tried a couple of dark spots around the house before making it to the garage. It was there that my cousin started banging the doll against the floor in frustration.  I got mad, but I couldn’t start a fight at my aunt’s house.  Instead, I tried staring at him coldly, to no avail. 

I didn’t care for monster dolls that glow in the dark, either, but at least I appreciated gifts. There had been moments of ingratitude.  One time at school, when I was much younger, parents were told to bring wrapped gifts for their children to open at the Christmas party.

Mine was a simple board game in a red and white box. I looked around the room and checked out what the others got: video games, remote control cars, talking action figures, building sets, fancy dolls.  I took another look at my board game and ran outside with it. 

I sat on a corner in the hallway, threw down the box and started to kick it, unable to hold back my angry tears as I kicked the box hard, pushing it further and further away from me.

But that had been different.  I’d felt humiliated after seeing all those other expensive gifts.  Plus by the time my mother came to pick me up I’d wiped off my tears and fixed up the box.  I smiled and thanked her for the board game. If she noticed I’d been crying, she never said.

My cousin, however, never seemed to like anything she gave him.  Year after year, he would look down on my mother’s presents. I knew he found them cheap, while I smiled gratefully at the expensive presents my aunt and uncle gave me, even though I rarely liked them. 

At least my mother always made an effort to find things she thought my cousin would like, even when she ended up making bad choices like that glow-in-the-dark Frankenstein doll. 

“There you go. How do you like that? Look! Now it glows.”

I got so lost in thoughts that I didn’t notice when my cousin got matches and set the doll’s head on fire.  And the Frankenstein did seem to glow as it slowly started to burn and melt.

As I looked, I wished my eyes would glow, too, and make my cousin move towards the fire. But I was no scary English boy with supernatural powers. I couldn’t rely on my eyes. I had to grab the flaming doll, throw it at him and wait and see. Would he start to glow too?

* * *

What happened next is somewhat blurred in my memories.  I know my relatives ran into the garage after my cousin started screaming.  And I know one grabbed my arm and hit me (most likely my uncle).  I heard a woman sob and say “I don’t know what’s wrong with him” (it had to be my mother, who else?) and another yell insults at me (must’ve been my aunt) while another male voice said: “Calm down. They’re kids. He’s alright. It’s just a small burn.”

Later, as I waited for my mom, I heard my aunt tell her: “That little monster needs help.  He’s so ungrateful. You know what his problem is? He can’t appreciate. That’s his problem.”

Maybe my aunt was right.  Maybe I had a problem and I needed help.  But she was wrong about one thing.  I did appreciate, which is why I felt the need to make that piece of shit cry, just like he’d made that Frankenstein glow.