Reine Bouton



Reine Dugas Bouton is of Mexican descent and lives in New Orleans, Louisiana.  She teaches English at Southeastern Louisiana University and is currently working on a short story collection. Additional stories from this collection have appeared in Deep South Magazine, Big Muddy Literary Journal, and Valley Voices: a Literary Review.

Saving the Day

            Hector sat behind the dumpster watching doodlebugs roll into little balls that looked like black armor. Always very gentle with them, he would hold them in the palm of his hand until they felt safe and open up slowly, flip over, and begin to crawl around, their feathery legs tickling him.  Today he brought a plastic bowl with him and made up a nest of grass and mud in the center, dropped the doodlebugs gently in and watched them explore their new home.  Meanwhile, the apartment complex where he lived was buzzing like always on a Friday afternoon—payday—and Hector knew it was safer to be outside. Even if it was dirty and smelly there in the parking lot, it was just better.    

            He kept his back to the apartments, hating how old they looked, but mostly not wanting to think about what was going on inside. Only when he was busy in school was it easy to distract himself. But Hector knew how it went around here. Since it was still early, there would probably only be a few people there right now. His mama, his step-dad Ramon, and maybe a couple of his friends from work. Mama would be making tacos and the men would be drinking beer and playing cards. The radio blaring the Spanish channel. The small room would be loud and hot, but later, he knew it would be worse.

            “Whatcha doin’?” Annalisa, the girl from around the corner, stood there watching him. He didn’t notice her walk over.


            “That’s not nothing,” she said and sat down, peering into the bowl. “Why you doin’ that?”

            “You ask a lot of questions,” Hector told her, but she was alright for a girl. Sometimes they would play out back or find something in the garbage to take apart or smash. Now that they were older, they didn’t do that as much.  He saw that she was wore baggier clothes and was slouched over. A lot of kids in his grade looked like that. Though he remembered that she had a nice smile, he couldn’t see it because of the long blonde hair that hung like a curtain around her face.

            Puberty! Mr. Marco told his class one day when two kids got into an argument over nothing. Puberty! Better hang on to your hats kiddos, it’s going to be a bumpy ride, he teased. He always joked with them and said things he probably wasn’t supposed to say, which was why Hector liked him so much. And Mr. Marco was Mexican, brown and round just like him. 

            “They having a party up there?” Annalisa leaned over and asked.

            Hector just shrugged. She smelled sweet, like strawberries.

            The apartment would be getting louder and louder. Ramon would be grabbing his mama around the waist and making her dance a bachata with him, even though she would rather hide out in the kitchen, cooking, away from them. He would make the dance into something dirty-- this Hector knew and did not like to think about. The smell of grease would fill the room as his mama fried tortillas, as more people would come through the door, carrying six packs of beer, cartons of cigarettes.

            “I gotta get back to studying,” he said, not moving.

            “For what?”

            “History test tomorrow.”

            She looked toward the apartment. “I don’t know how you’re supposed to get much done with all that goin’ on. ”

            He didn’t like her saying that and felt like he needed to defend his mama, only he didn’t.  Instead, he just stroked the doodlebugs and watched them investigate. Anyone watching the two of them might assume they were friends, their body language, the way they leaned in toward each other and away from the rest of the world. It was so ugly there. Rows of apartment buildings in dull shades of beige lined the parking lot, unkempt hedges rimming the bottom floors, the top ones marked by clutter and hanging laundry. Four big green dumpsters were situated, helter skelter, toward the back of the parking lot, and on any given day, trash would be strewn on the ground. All of this disarray barely concealed the violence that resided in each place.

            “I mean,” she said. “Does it ever quiet down in there?” Annalisa’s family was at the end of the end. A row of apartments in the distance where mostly white people lived. Hector never saw her parents, but assumed they were both white and quieter than his own.

            He shrugged. How could he explain? Her family must be so different than his—he was sure she’d think they were crazy.

            Annalisa pushed a lock of hair behind her ear so she could look him in the eyes. “You know, one time, somebody got shot in that parking lot.” She pointed behind him.

            That would be Jorge, Hector thought.

            “There was this big fight. Two guys fighting over some woman.”

            Ramon, my mama, he thought.

            “I saw it,” she went on, whispering. “This fat guy pushed this other guy down hard. Actually, they both looked like bad guys to me. And the woman—she was crying and screaming so much—she ran over to the one on the ground to see if he was alright.” She looked over her shoulder, though no one was there. “Then the fat one turned into some wild maniac, and ran over there, yanked that woman away, pulled out a gun out and shot the man.” Waiting for his reaction, she stared at him.

            This was a story he knew, only he’d heard a different version before. The calm of the afternoon was interrupted now.  Cicadas were starting to wind up their screeching song and the streetlights were flickering. He needed to go in soon, but all he could think about was what he was supposed to say to this girl.

            “I was right here,” she said, “in this same spot, so I saw it all. Everything. As soon as the shot happened, that man dragged the woman back into the apartment. She was cryin’ so much.”

            “What did you do?” he finally asked, but what he was really wondering was why his mama could never be without a man around. Especially a bad one. And how Ramon had found his way into their lives like it was his due—expecting everything and never speaking of his past, even though Hector was certain it was more awful than he could imagine.

            “What was I supposed to do?”

            “I don’t know. Call the police maybe?”

            She sat on her heels, rocking back and forth. “Nah, my pops says the cops are no good. Told me, we don’t do that, no matter what.”

            He nodded. They were the same in his family. “You stick to your own, or you’ll be sorry,” Ramon always said.

            “I gotta go,” Hector told her, and slowly emptied the bugs onto the cushion of grass next to the dumpster. “Bye.”

            “Bye,” she said, not moving, and reached out to pick up the doodlebugs as if they might break.


            The apartment was in full swing., vibrating with noise and music and voices. About fifteen people were loudly spilling into any free space in the room. Cholos, Hector thought, disgusted. Ramon was shirtless and sat at the table like he was a king, while he watched his mother put food in front of him. His hairy gut pushed into the table, so it looked as if it was cutting him in half. Seeing Hector walk in, his mama gave him a quick smile, before turning to make another plate for one of the men.

            A big screen tv dominated the living room, and a worn tweed sofa along with several lawn chairs crowded around it. People sat in the chairs or on the floor, or else stood by the counter doing shots of tequila. The dirty shag rug continued to take spills from carelessly held glasses. A meringue played from the kitchen radio, and suddenly Ramon got up and grabbed his mama around the waist, held her tight and moved with awkward movements to the staccato beat. Suavemente, besame, went the singer. Hector couldn’t wait to escape to his room.

            “Hey, ese, qué pasa?” Ramon’s voice sounded like rocks rubbed together.

            “Hey,” was all he said as he attempted to get away.

            But an arm hooked roughly around his neck. “What’s your rush little man? Too good to hang out with us?” The arm belonged to Juan, Ramon’s friend, and it held Hector too tightly for him to pull away. Juan reeked of old cheese and beer.

            “I gotta study,” Hector told him, and tried to pull himself free.

            “Study? You ain’t gotta study man. I didn’t study for no schools and looka me.” He spread his arms wide, made a muscle, sweat stains showing under his arms, and Hector was able to edge down the hall.

            Finally in his room, Hector leaned against his door as if, like Hercules, he was barring a teeming army from entering. Though small, his room was his alone and he kept it neat and uncluttered. One shelf contained all of his schoolbooks, the only books he had. An orange plastic desk that his mama found outside by the dumpster one day, was scrubbed clean and now held paper and pens organized neatly in the center. Ms. Dooley, the librarian at school who liked him, gave him posters for free from the Scholastic book fair, which now hung on his walls: a picture of Mexico, one of flags of the world, and one of the New Orleans skyline, a view he’d never seen even though he lived only ten minutes away. She also gave him a bright yellow poster with the word “Dream” written in big, fancy bubble letters, but he didn’t want Ramon to see it because he knew he’d make fun of him, so he’d hung it in his closet. It was his favorite.

            Taking a towel out of his hamper and making it into a roll, he shoved it under his door to try to block out some of the noise. Then, he pulled his history textbook and notebook down and sat on his bed, with as much purpose as someone much older might. There was a history test at the end of the week, which only gave Hector five nights left to study—not nearly enough. He had already reviewed for the past week, but was beginning to feel nervous that he was behind. It was 6 pm, so if he studied from now until at least midnight with only a short break, that would be six hours.  He’d have to turn the light out when it got late or they would know he was still awake, but then could use his flashlight to see after a while.

            No one knew how hard Hector studied. Like a miner, he chipped away at his schoolwork, a little at a time, and away from all eyes, patiently waiting for the treasure he might find at the end. He liked getting good grades, liked seeing his teachers look at him with approval, liked the smiles his report card brought from his mama. But it was more than that. It was a secret plan that Hector had, and if these textbooks served as the tools to get what he wanted, he would use them to do so. Aware of his disadvantage from a young age, he would be patient and work hard, he told himself, until one day he was smart enough and old enough to make money that would give him what he needed to protect his mother. To rescue her.

            Now he ripped ten handwritten pages out of his notebook, folded them in half, put them in a folder, and wrote at the top of a fresh page, “Chapter 14 Notes.” For the fifth time this week, he re-wrote the entire chapter by hand. It took some time and his hand began to cramp, yet still he continued on. He stopped paying attention to the muffled noise of the party and before long, Hector had made progress. When a knock sounded on the door, he didn’t even hear it.


            The door cracked open, and Hector’s mama looked through, putting her small heart-shaped face just barely in. She noticed he towel against the door, and hesitated.

            He shook his head to clear it and pushed the books off of his lap.

            “Mami,” he said, waving her in.

            She was a tiny woman, barely five feet tall and at one time probably pretty. Short black hair curled around her face, but what Hector always noticed lately were the dark circles under her brown eyes and how rarely she smiled anymore. She was exhausted—he knew that. But still, she continued to take care of him the best she could. In one hand was a plate of food—beef tacos, rice, beans with cotija, corn—and in the other, a big glass of horchata, his favorite, and a napkin. He jumped up to take it from her.

            “Thank you, mami,” he said, setting it on his desk.

            “How is it going, love?” She squeezed his arm.

            “I wish I had one more week.”

            “You always want more time, but you always do so good. You are too hard on yourself, I think.” She glanced back of the door, which was slightly open, letting the sounds of the party pour in again.

            “Yes m’am, you’re probably right.”

            “Mira. Eat, before it gets cold,” she said.

            He sat down and started eating, while she watched him with satisfaction.

            “It’s good, mami.”

            She looked at him as though he might disappear, and you could tell she would have liked to stay there with him for hours.

            “Celia!” shouted Ramon. He was always calling for her.

            “Don’t stay up too late, ok?”

            “Yes m’am, I won’t. Don’t worry.” He bit into the taco again, so she could see how much he appreciated it.

            She leaned over, kissed his cheek and left the room. Hector missed her the moment she was gone. Since Ramon had come, his mama was like a visitor to him.  It was as though Ramon was afraid that if they spent too much time together, Hector might reveal to his mama how awful he was, maybe even make her want to leave him. This was probably true, and if he could only see her a little more, he thought, just a little, he might be able to convince her. As a result, Roman made sure he was alone most of the time, which made him miss her as if she wasn’t even there. Since he couldn’t have her and though it was a poor substitute, what he tried to hold on to then, were her stories.

            Every night, his mama used to come and see him, sit on the edge of his bed and tell him a story. He could remember her in soft flannel pajamas, smelling of lotion, and curling his hair around her finger. That almost put him to sleep, until she began to speak—her voice airy and low. “Erase una vez,” she always started, whether the story was made up or real. Those moments, the very moment, when she spoke the words—Once upon a time—were the happiest Hector remembered feeling. It’s all he ever wanted, really, to feel her love and know that she was next to him and safe.        

            The story he most often requested was how she came to America by herself when she was only 14 years old. He knew it by heart, which was a good thing because she no longer sat on his bed at night or told him stories. The last time he’d heard it was a few years ago, but if he closed his eyes, he could recall it exactly.

            Erase una vez, she would whisper. She was just about the same age as he was now, which he could hardly imagine. He felt like a child, not even a teenager, but his mama left her home town of Guadalajara just after her own mother died. Unwilling to stay with her uncle, a man who beat her until she was blue with bruises, she left in the middle of the night with her cousin, Alma. They were trying to make it to New Mexico, when they were separated near the border.

            “Woosh,” she would say, waving her hand in the air. “Woosh, went the wind. I was so scared Hector. The darkest night, and I was all alone, more frightened than I’d ever been in my whole life. I had to make myself so so small and quiet. Muy pequeño, like an ant trying to get to the other side of the hill. It took me hours, but I knew there was no turning back. My hands and legs were all scraped, and I got lost so many times. When I finally got here, I cried and I cried. It was like a flood.” Her hands made waves in the air. “But then, it was like the sun came out again and like somebody was really watching out for me.  A nice family, the Ramirez family, took me in and gave me food and a hot bath. Aah, it was the best bath I ever had! The tub seemed as big as a swimming pool! And you know the rest.”

            “No, you tell it,” Hector would beg.

            “Well, the best part,” she said. “was that, a few years later, I came to Louisiana, a place that was as hot as Mexico almost, where I met your father, and the best thing that ever happened in my whole life happened. It was like a gift for all of the hard parts.” Her hands made a flourish. “I had you.”

            As he remembered this story, he finished the last of the food on his plate, and reached for the napkin; he found had something wrapped in it. A bunuelo. Smiling, he broke a piece off and dipped the sweet pastry into his milky drink. It wasn’t until 3 o’clock in the morning that Hector finally fell asleep, covered in a blanket of textbooks and papers and breadcrumbs.

            When Mr. Marco returned their history tests, Hector’s head dropped when he saw that he scored a 96. His teacher tapped the back of his head with the remaining tests as if to encourage him.

            “You all did pretty good. Pretty good for a bunch of kids!” he joked. “Keep working hard. History is important. Right? Cuz if you don’t know your past, what?”

            “How will you know your future?” the class said back.

            “That’s it,” he said, sitting on the top of his desk. He looked like a round bug, rocking on a desk that might not hold him. “You got it now people. Nice job. Nice job on the test. Highest grade, a 96, so not bad at all.”

            Kids looked around to see if anyone would claim the top grade but no one did. Mr. Marco glanced at Hector, and for a moment he felt better about that grade, felt like it might be enough to get him the scholarships he dreamed about. Then, Mr. Marco launched into a lecture, and everyone was entranced, for he was like an actor in a show. His voice boomed and dipped, hands motioned wildly with the story, and when the bell rang, no one moved until he finished.


            The next week, Hector had a day off of school because of teacher conferences. Usually, his mama would have left him home alone, only this morning, the living room had people still sleeping off the night and empty beer cans stacked on the table like a leaning tower.

            “You’re coming with me,” she told him. “Get your things.” She was afraid of what would happen when they woke if she wasn’t there to watch out for him.

            They had to catch a ride to the bus stop, and then took two buses to get to the city, to Ms. Rebecca’s house. His mama had been cleaning her house for five years now, and said she was one of her best clients. Even though it was hard to get there, it was worth it, she told Hector. He didn’t mind—he liked the days when he could go with her, which weren’t very many since he’d gotten older.

            Sitting next to her on the bus made him feel close to her, and he wanted the ride to last a long time. He felt the warmth of her shoulder next to his. They watched people get on and off the bus and sometimes she’d nudge him to notice someone being silly, and they’d smile at each other like it was their secret. When an old lady hobbled down the aisle, his mama gave him a quick nod and jumped out of his chair and offered it to her. Once they got to the big house, he knew to go find a spot at the table, do his schoolwork, and make himself small, in case anyone should come back. Most of the time, no one was there, but his mama said it wouldn’t do for him to come too often—people didn’t like that—so he should try to go unnoticed.

            Today, Ms. Rebecca’s daughter was home. Lydia looked like Annalisa, he thought, only prettier and cleaner, as if she was polished until she sparkled. You could tell she was rich. Maybe she was even a ballet dancer. She opened the door to let them in.

            “Hi Ms. Celia. Hi Hector,” she said. “I’ll be leaving later. Help yourself to something to drink, if you want.” She turned on her toe, her golden hair fanning out, and slid out of the room in oversized socks. Hector wondered if her life was as nice as he suspected. She seemed like a princess almost.

            Suddenly aware of what he looked like, he tried to suck in his stomach. He was afraid that his fat would not go away as he got older and grew taller as his aunts claimed it would. Except for at times like this, he usually welcomed his girth—it was like a soft coat, which kept him warm and protected. Plus, his size made him feel like if he ever had to fight Ramon, he might stand a chance. Classmates hardly even teased him any more. He was simply the chubby Mexican boy with a mop of curly hair, who was a smudge next to their whiteness they no longer noticed.   Hold your head up, hermano! Mr. Marco said to him once in the hallway. You got what it takes, he said, and don’t ever forget it!

            He sat at the table and started to work. Before long, the house smelled of Fabulosa and began to sparkle as his mama moved from room to room. Hector asked if he could help, and she waved him away with a wink.  From time to time, he’d hear her talking on her phone, telling her sister a story of something funny that had happened. While he spent some time working on his notes, he found himself distracted by the house, a place he would’ve never believed existed if he hadn’t seen it for himself. It was as quiet as a museum, and everything was so new and big. The table where he was seated had twelve chairs. Twelve! And each looked like a throne, with gold cushioned seats. A modern-looking metal chandelier hung down overhead and fancy tile floor ran through the whole house. They sure must like art, he thought, although he decided he must not understand it because they had paintings hanging all over the house that made no sense to him. The biggest one was made of red and purple splotches of paint in a big black frame—it looked like a child threw a lot of paint on it. No, he didn’t like it or this house really, for it was too big and felt empty—the opposite of his home. Neither place suited him, he thought, and it was only his mama’s presence that made either one bearable.             

            “Hey Hector, come here,” Lydia called from the hallway. He looked for direction from his mother, but she was upstairs. Peeking down the hall, he saw Lydia standing there waving him toward her.  

            Feeling like he was going someplace forbidden, he walked slowly that way, but seeing her face, which looked friendly and harmless, figured it was probably alright. He kept thinking of how much she looked like Annalisa, but as he got closer, he saw that she had brown, watchful eyes and seemed to be holding herself back from something.

            “Look,” she said, stepping into the room.

            The room was perfectly neat with expensive things covering every inch. Fancy bottles and candles, scarves and statues, flowers, and pictures. It looked like Morocco or someplace like that. She pointed to some boxes on the floor.

            “I was getting rid of these books. You want to look through them and see if you want any? Check them out. Take what you want,” she said and walked out of the room.

            Three big boxes had books stacked neatly in them, and to Hector, they looked brand new. He didn’t understand why she would be getting rid of them. Afraid to even touch the books, he leaned over and read some of the titles, but he didn’t know any of them. Honestly, he could care less about these books, and if it were up to him, he’d like to take them and sell them. However, he knew that’s not what the girl expected. She was trying to do something nice, and since he didn’t really read for fun, he would tell her thanks but no thanks and hope he didn’t get his mama in trouble. He felt like he was in another world for a moment, being in this room, this house, and wondered what Lydia would think if she could see where he lived. Probably the same way he did.

            He hurried out of the room so he didn’t get in trouble and saw Lydia in the kitchen, looking through boxes of tea that read organic, chai, green. She was disappointed to not see any books in his hand.

            “Nothing you liked?” she asked.

            “Your books were real nice, only I don’t read too much. I have a lot of school work to do, but thanks for offering.”

            “Sure thing,” she said, and going to the fridge, grabbed some grapes, then slid away.

            When it was time to leave, Ms. Rebecca came in. Maybe she came from a funeral, Hector thought, since she looked so serious, and was dressed all in black and wore really high heels. She towered over his mama. Around her neck, she wore a large purple stone on a chain. It was an amethyst, Hector knew, because he studied rocks. Although she was pleasant to him and his mama, Hector felt it was different from her daughter—fake was what he thought—and he was glad to be back on the bus, just him and his mama again.

            “It wasn’t so bad, was it?” she asked them on the way home. She smelled like bleach.

            “No m’am. I never mind going.”

            “You’re a sweet boy,” she said, and ruffled his hair.

            He watched the streets zip by through the dirty bus windows, all flashing yellow lights and green signs. New Orleans was a blur. They were moving so fast. He wished this moment would slow down, and his mama would tell him a story right now. He longed to hear the words, Erase una vez… But she was quiet.

            He blurted out, “When I’m older, I’m gonna get you a big amethyst necklace.”

            His mama peeked down at his face, laughing, “Oh you are? Que linda, amethyst! I will be all fancy then.” Though she was teasing him, Hector thought she was secretly pleased.

            “I will, mami. And then,” he paused, afraid to say the words. “Then I’ll take you away. Just you and me. We’ll get outta here. I’ll get us a place and I’ll have a good job so you won’t have to clean houses any more.” He held his breath and kept his eyes on the window.

            “You don’t have to go saving the day, mi amor. Just do well in school. That will be enough for me.”

            He felt her hand reach around his face to cup his cheek. As she leaned her head on his, she sighed and it was the saddest sound Hector had ever heard.  

©The Acentos Review 2015