Tom Gonzalez


Tom Gonzalez is the overly-anxious mind behind “Lost Around the Block,” a creative non-fictional blog that recounts his grappling with the ghost of his abusive father, his daily struggles with ADHD, and the fears and joys of becoming a father for the first time. He is a self-professed music lover, pop culture connoisseur, political junky, collector of uplifting and heartbreaking human stories and best friend to all dogs everywhere. The Chicagoland-based writer earned his B.A. in Creative Writing from Southern New Hampshire University. He is currently attending Mississippi University for Women where he is working to earn his MFA in Creative writing. Until then, Tom will continue striving to become a better writer, a great dad, and overall a well-rounded and less anxious human being.

By the old mango tree

Juana is ill. She has been for months. It started as a simple cold that lingered long after being a simple nuisance. Now her illness had progressed and ravaged her diminutive, young body. She’s bedridden and frail. Every breath robs her of her will. Her mother Perla, a local moonshiner and occasional prostitute, cannot afford to make the 65-mile journey to the American backed hospital in San Juan to get Juana the desperately needed treatment. Unable to count on modern science to cure her daughter of her malady, Perla resorts to rubbing alcolado on her daughter's bare chest and feet.

“Nena--nena, wake up mi amor,” Perla whispers into Juana's ear, nearly pleading. The little girl did not stir.

She had moved her daughters’ cot, in the coolest and driest corner of their cabin. It was important to protect her ill daughter from the still challenging autumn heat that still manages to get the mercury to rise into the mid-90’s, with humidity levels that made daytime activity almost unbearable.

“Mija, please. Open your eyes.” She pleaded again while placing her thin, callused hand on her daughter's chest.

She could feel the faint heart beating within her daughter's chest cavity. Feeling the meek heartbeat against her palm felt reassuring. It was the only proof she had left that life is still coursing through her daughter’s body. Perla leans in and kisses her on the temple. She then brought her index and middle finger up to her lips and kissed them gently, before bringing them down on top of two small statutes of the hobbled and sickly-looking St. Lazarus, and the armored clad archangel, St. Michael.

She stands up and walks outside where her son Macho is cutting wood to light their ancient stove.

 “Mira nene, do me the favor of going to Don Enrique’s house and ask if he has some West Indian Bay leaves and some Star Anise. I need to make more Alcolado for Juana, as I only got one bottle left.” Perla demands.

The 18-year-old Macho looks up at his mother, annoyed. “Mama I don’t want to go all the way over there. His farm is on the other side of the barrio. It will take me at least an hour to get there and another hour to walk back. Besides, the sun will be setting soon and look at that the sky over there,” Macho says while pointing to a cluster of angry looking clouds moving in towards them, “It will pour soon.”

“All the more reason for you to toss that wood inside and get that culo of your moving.” Perla demands of her son.

“I suggest you go now.  Unless you want to walk in the pitch dark and the rain? “Perla adds on, with her arms folded across her chest signalling that this is not something she cares to debate any further.

“But why Don Enrique? Can’t I go over to Manuela’s place across the street for that? Or Senora Pascual? I’m sure she has a gallon of alcolado already made” Macho asks, unable to hide his displeasure.

“Because Don Enrique owes me--that’s why! If I ask Manuela or Senora Pascual, I must give them something for it. And right now, I have nothing barter with them. That’s why!” Perla barks angrily.

Macho, resigned to his fate takes the chopped firewood into the cabin, and emerges shortly thereafter holding a brown army bag, given to Perla for services rendered by a Korean War vet stationed on the island. Perla watches her boy as he walks down the muddied slope leading off their small patch of land, toward the newly paved road that would take him to Don Enrique's farm.

Perla hears the high-pitched laugh of a child coming from a distance. Recognizing who the laugh belongs too she walks towards the back to greet her. Emerging from the narrow clearing that bordered the dense tropical canopy that surrounds the back end of her land, were her three healthy daughters, Elijah, Tonia, and her youngest Maria, returning from their trip of fetching water from the well. Maria was running head of her two older sisters, playfully trying to encourage her sisters to run after her. “You two are slower than a cold salamander. I bet you can’t catch me!”, teased Maria.

“What did I tell you about running through the vegetation like that?” yelled Perla.

Maria seeing her mother runs towards her. “Mama, mama, you will never guess what I saw.”

Perla first instinct is to scold the young Maria, for running through the dense rainforest, knowing too well that she cannot afford to have any more of her children injured or sick. But it was difficult for the mother to get angry at Maria’s uplifting cheerfulness.

 Maria’s silky blond hair that has never known the edge of a scissor, flows gracefully when she runs. She has the loveliest aqua blue eyes, a gift, her mother suspects from one of the American Servicemen that sought her comfort. They were cool and bright and reminded Perla of a picture of a frozen lake she once saw in a Time Life Magazine. Her skin, that was as pale as a fairy-tale princess, has a tendency of getting red as a hibiscus flower when she spends too much time under the brutal Puerto Rican sun.  Seeing the young girls excited whims forces motivates Perla to get on one knee and embrace her young child with open arms. Maria leaps into her mother's arm, her dirty and torn floral blouse, lifting to reveal she is not wearing anything underneath. They embrace a loving hug before the young girl interrupts their tender moment to pulling away from her mother to tell her about something miraculous.  “Mama, I saw him. I did.” exclaimed the youngest Feliciano daughter.

“Who mija, who did you see?” Perla asked, perplexed.

“An Angel. Mama. I saw an Angel.” Maria said enthusiastically.

Perla looks up at her two other daughters hoping that they might clue her in on what their younger sibling was going on about. Elijia and Tonya booth looked down at their mother and shrugged their shoulders.

“Don’t ask us, Elijia said.

“We were too busy fetching the water--while she was off playing by the old mango tree out back.”

Perla looks down at Maria with disapproval.

“What did I tell you about playing around that old three. Ancient things live there. Ugly, mean things. You want them to snatch you up? Perla asks rhetorically.

“There is nothing old or mean their mama. Just a tall angel. And he is nice. He even told me a secret. It was about Juana. But he said I couldn’t tell anybody. Not even you.”

“What did I tell you about telling lies, niña? Huh?” Perla said clutching her daughter by the shoulders.

“That liars go to hell,” said Maria sadly.  

“But I'm not lying. I was talking with an angel by the old mango tree. And he was beautiful mama. He had light all around him. And every time he spoke it sounded like music. But not like the boleros that Macho likes to play on his guitar. It sounded more like bells. But lots of them. It made me feel happy and warm. We talked to me about Juana too. He said he came down to take her. And that soon she would go home with him.

Pained at the thought of losing her beloved Juana, Perla angrily lashes out at the youngest Feliciano. “Enough! I won’t hear any more of this nonsense. Do you hear me! Now get inside and go sleep!”

“But it's still daytime, “Maria protested.

“I don’t care”, she said, before pushing Maria off, and giving her a hard whack on the rear end.

Maria, heartbroken, that her mother didn’t believe that she had made friends with an Angel went inside the cabin to lay next to her big sister Juana.

She walks over to her sister and climbs the rickety old cot. She positions herself as close to her sister as possible and placed her tiny head on Juana’s chest. Maria could smell the pungent smell of the Alcolado that her mother had been rubbing on Juana’s chest over the last 6 months, hoping that it’s revitalizing properties might work a miracle. The scent of the Alcolado at first is overwhelming, overloading her nostrils with the scent of rum, eclipses leaves, orange zest, vanilla extract, cinnamon, West Indian Bay leaves, and a loose assortment of roots left to ferment for 6 weeks. But after the initial assault, the scent of the homeopathic ointment is almost soothing, inspiring her lungs to open up and take in more of the scent.

Maria ran her slender fingers through her sleeping sister's coarse, short, dark hair. It had once been long and curly like wool, but it had been cut short during a prayer ceremony meant to appease the old gods of their ancestors and inspire new Catholic ones to spare Juana’s life. Maria studies her sister's sunken face and marvels at how little they resembled each other. She was petite and fair, and Juana was bronze and robust, despite her fragile condition. Yet, despite their physical differences, the two in life shared one heart. Although it was Juana that was sick, there were times when Maria felt it was her who was disappearing from this world.

The youngest of the Feliciano sisters understood that Juana was dying. Hector, a boy from a couple of hilltops away had told her as much several days ago when he and his mother had stopped by to pay her mother a visit. He told her that he had heard from his mom that her sister would be dying any day now.

At that point, she didn’t have a clear grasp on the concept of death. She pictured it as a nice little nap that people had to take before Jesus came down and invited you to go up to see his house. That was until the angel by the old mango tree clued her into what would happen to her sister. How her sister would be whisked away forever to a place far removed from this earthly plane. That Juana wouldn’t be walking with Jesus, but instead, be returning to where all life came from. Back to another world where there is no pain, but where the departing souls are stripped of all the memories of the life they left behind. Juana would be reset, and become part of something grander than the universe itself.

For the first time in her four-year-old life, death scared the young girl. She didn’t want it to claim her sister. She didn’t want her to go away and forget their time together. She wanted Juana to stay here with her and Perla, and Macho, and Elijia, Tonia. Maria is not too young to notice what Juana’s illness was doing to her mother. She was fearful of what would become of her mother once her sister was claimed by the angel.

The sun took leave and hid behind the mountains of Barrio Centro. The coqui’s serenade filled the rainforest with their song. Coqui, coqui, coqui” their song went. Maria woke up from her nap to find her mother Perla rubbing some of the alcolado on Juana’s chest and neck. She wanted to sit up and tell her mother about what the angel had said about Juana earlier, but before she could open her mouth, Perla brought her index finger up to her mouth and made a silent shush motion, not wanting Juana to be disturbed. Maria closes her mouth and swallowed the words she was about to speak back down. She crawls out of the cot. She stretches her tiny legs and spine and walks over to the front door and peeks outside. The storm clouds that Macho had noticed before had now reached their corner of the world, and it was unleashing a deluge that turned all the land surrounding the cabin into a muddy shallow pool.

Maria turned around. The cabin is lit by a singular candle on the table next to the cot. Objects all around the room are casting long, narrow shadows that seem to threaten to wrap themselves over everything. Especially the shadows of St. Lazarus and Michael the Archangel.  Macho and her two older sisters Elijia and Toñia, slept on top of a blanket on the other side of the floor. She hears a faint whimper coming from over where her sister Juana lies. Perla is kneeling next to the cot. She is praying, pleading to St. Lazarus. “Dear patron of the poor and sick. With this request, I plead for your help, and with the aid of the holy spirit, deliver my daughter from death. Protect her and bring her health. St. Lazarus please give her the strength to overcome this sickness. In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.”

Her mother delivers each word with a touch of desperation that her voice cannot hide. Maria looks on at the dimly lit scene. Her mother, Perla, reaches for Juana’s cold hand and kisses them so gently that Maria wonders if her mother is afraid that her sister’s hand will crumble into nothing if she is not too careful. It was then that she realizes that she would do just about anything to help her sister. She walks up to her mother and rests her little blond head on her shoulders. She then wraps her left arm around her mother’s back and rubs it. Her mother’s back feels tense, like a hardened wall. “It’s ok mama, don’t cry. Juana will wake up soon, you will see. I will pray to the angel tonight and make him change his mind. I promise.” Says the tiny Maria, with a confidence that she should not be able to muster at her age.

Perla turns to her youngest daughter and is touched. She reaches for her and brings her close to her bosom, hugging her in a manner that Maria never quite felt from her before and says,  “Thank you mija. Thank you.”

Perla lifts Maria and lays her next to the faintly breathing Juana. She brushes her blond hair from her daughter's face and kisses her on the forehead. “I have to go out to the latrine,” she tells her daughter between teary sniffles.

“It’s very late, and I want you to go to sleep. Tomorrow is another day.”

Maria smiles at her mother, before closing her eyes and snuggling next to her big sister.

Perla admires her two daughters for a moment, and it makes her loath herself. She hates not being able to give her children the life that they deserve. None of this seems fair. Soon her daughter would be dead, and the other will be left with a void in her heart for as long as she lives. She keeps asking herself if they had so little already, then why were good wants to so much. A cascade of tears flows down her face. She wipes them off with her stained blouse. She then walks out into the rain and cries herself in the latrine where she knows her cries will only be heard by God and the surrounding coquis.

Maria was asleep when the room lit up with the light of a thousand full moons. She opens her eyes, but the light overwhelms her. She covers her face with her hands but insists on peeking through the slits between her fingers hoping to see what was happening. The room dims and she is able to make out the details around her.  It was then she notices a man standing next to their cot. He was clad in ancient, majestic armor. His face is radiant, making it difficult for her to get a good look at his face. Yet she has no doubt he is beautiful. He was the angel that spoke to her by the old Mango Tree. Maria stood up, and smiled and waved to the man. And then she said, “Hi. Can we talk?”

The darkness was everywhere. It was all-encompassing. It filters through every ounce of her being. She could sense it pushing her down deeper into the bottomless void. It holds felt complete. All she could do was wonder if there would be an eventual end to the fall. How long has she been falling for she asks herself? A few minutes? Hours? Days, weeks, months, or years? She has no sense of time. The only thing that remains is the fall.  Then something. More than something a speck. A single solitary point of whiteness. It was tiny. Smaller than the point of a pin. But the dot contrast so harshly against the blackness that envelops this place of nothingness that it might have well been as large as the sun. She did everything she could to focus her attention on that point. That small point of hope. As she did so she notices that the weight that has been pushing her down was lightening. It no longer felt like she was in a free fall, but instead coming down like a feather caught in a gentle breeze. The white point, once a speck began to grow, and for the first time since she had been consumed by the void, she perceived light. It was coming through, like a trickle of water falling down a small opening. But as the light fought to push through the tiny opening, it tore at the opening, ripping at it, like a dog digging up a buried bone. The beams of light spread itself across the void, and it reaches her. It illuminates her arms and legs; and she remembers, that yes, she has a body.  How could she forget, she asks? “What else have I forgotten?”

The beams of light spread themselves across the void, and then as if sentient or at least control by some form of consciousness they turn like the tentacles of an octopus, and reach out to her. The rays of light touch her rediscovered body and then wrap themselves around her limbs, putting a stop to her perpetual fall. The light tugs at her, and she welcomes its pull. Now it felt like she was submerged in the ocean and the light was a rope pulling her back up to the surface, like a rope tied around her waist. Once a speck, the opening now looked like the exit of an enormous cavern. The light bathed her with warmth, and for the first time since she could remember, she took a deep, life-affirming breath. Then the darkness is replaced with a paralyzing light that consumes her.

Juana sat up gasping for air as if waking from a nightmare. Her brain felt foggy and she was having a hard time making out her surroundings. She felt something clumpy, and soft against her hands. She grabs a handful of the stuff and brings it up to her face. She has two handfuls of the most fertile, rich, dark soil she has ever seen. The dirt gave off a pleasant earthy scent that was familiar, yet there were hints of something else. Perhaps a hint of spice like cinnamon. She knew that wasn’t right. That dirt didn’t smell like that usually. Yet she was having a difficult time recalling ever having come across dirt before. She looks down and finds herself sitting on top of more of the stuff. She looks around and all she can see is a tall wall on all four sides, built of the same blackened soil. She turns her head up and sees a large rectangular shaped opening that reveals the sky. The sky was an ocean blue, and it glistens. Again, Juana was hit with a sense that the sky shouldn’t look like this either, but she couldn’t recall what it should look like. This frustrated her. She realizes that her mind was devoid of a lot of information she once knew. But she figures that if she had forgotten it, then those details couldn’t have been all that important in the first place. It was then she noticed that she was not alone. Standing at the opening, high above where Juana sat, she saw an old man on crutches. His face seems friendly, but his features were rough, and tired, like a man who had been ill since the first sunrise graced the earth with her warmth.

“Hello child,” said the elderly man.

“Hello,” said Juana politely.

“I see we are up. That’s good, very good. You’ve rested enough. We need to be on our way. We have a long journey ahead of us.” says the old man, apparently oblivious to Juana’s current plight.

Juana looks around hoping to find a way out of this hole in the ground. But all she sees is an insurmountable wall of dirt that surrounds her on all four sides. She stands up and wipes the dirt that covers the backside of her blue blouse. “I can’t sir. The walls are too tall and steep for me,” says Juana.  

The old man smiles a harsh smile that exposes a set of rotting teeth and bleeding gums. He takes one of the wooden crutches and lowers it down to Juana. “Here grab hold of this child, and don’t let go,” he instructs her.

Juana grabs on to the crutches. Suddenly, and without making any real effort the old man pulls Juana out of the hole. Juana’s feet touchdown on a bed of soft grass. The blades of grass sparkle like they are encrusted with emerald stones. She looks down to look at the whole she woke up in and his surprised to find that it is nowhere to be found. All she sees is a brilliant, green plain that goes out as far as her five-year-old eyes can see. She was relieved to see that the old man was still there, but was surprised to see that he was not alone. He is being accompanied by three malnourished, dogs. As the man stood there, propping himself up with two sets of wooden crutches that looked ancient, the three dogs sat by his side licking at the open sores that festered all over his legs. The man wore a tattered, soiled, robe. She could tell that it had not been washed in a long time.

“You might have questions,” said the old man to Juana, “but you will find that life will rarely give you a satisfying answer. So instead of wasting time to talk about things that you have no hope of understanding, why don’t we just get going? We have a long way to go before we get you home.”

He was right. Juana had a lot of questions. She wanted to know how long she had been in the void? What happened to the hole he pulled her up from? Who was he? Why was he allowing the dogs to lick his open wounds? Where did she come from? But someone had once taught her that good girls always listen to their elders, and she thought it best not to disappoint.

The old man, Juana, and the three dogs walk along a dirt path for some time. They were nearing a crossroads when Juana notices that there is a tall man in what appears to her to be a suit of armor waiting under the shade of a mango tree. As she drew closer to the mysterious man she notices that she can’t see his face because his heads shine like a miniature sun. Yet she senses that the man is smiling at them. As they reach the glowing man, Juana could sense his eyes are drawn to her. “Blessed be. It’s been a long while my friend. What brings you to these parts.” the old man asks the stranger.

“I was waiting to pick up your companion here and bring her back with me. But I see you got to her before I could.” said the brilliant man.

“I’m afraid I did.” said the old man, almost proudly.

“Well done old friend. Yet I can proudly proclaim that I won’t be leaving empty-handed. I made other arrangements.”

It was then that Juana noticed that the brilliant man was not alone. Standing behind him, hiding behind his armored plated legs, was a little blond girl.

Juana and the blond girl look at each other with familiar eyes. Something about the other, inspired feelings of warmth. But the memory that stirred those feeling remains buried right below the surface. They smile at each other and wave.

The old man looks down at Juana with pained eyes. “I see that you have.”, said the old man before taking a deflating deep breath.

“Well. I wish you a thousand-blessing old friend, to you and your companion. Deliver her safely.” says the old man before placing a hand on Juana’s shoulder to encourage her to start walking again.  

The brilliant man places a gentle hand on the blond girls head. The little girl, who could not have been older than 4, looks up at her deliverer with approving eyes. “You have my word, old friend.” says the brilliant man.

The two parties say their farewells, before walking in opposite direction. Juana feels compelled to look back at the little blond girl and finds that that the brilliant man’s companion was doing the same. Juana gazes into the girl's blue eyes, and it was then that it all comes flooding back. The illness, the cot, the void. She remembers it all. If she was the one that was dying, so then why, she asks her self it that Maria is the one walking towards the land of the dead?

Juana attempts to run after her sister, but the old man places a hand on her shoulders, inspiring her legs to cease moving. “I’m sorry child. It’s been arranged. These sorts of things can be undone. All we can do now is get you back home.”

Juana looks at the old man angrily and tries to protest, but before she can say a word, she feels herself falling down a deep crevasse. She reaches out all around her, hoping to grab hold of something, but there is nothing to grab onto. She is nothing but thought tumbling down a void. Then her eyes open, and she is sitting on her cot, gasping for breath. Juana coughs, and she spits a large ball of phlegm into a tin bowl that was at the side of her bed, on the floor. She is weak and disoriented, but she recognizes that she is inside their ramshackle cabin. She gets her legs to dangle on the side of the cot. But the effort takes everything out of her. She takes a couple of minutes to catch her breath. She is weak, but she can feel her strength trickling back into her body. She pulls herself up and tries to stand, but tumbles head first towards the side table. She catches herself, but not before knocking over the two statuettes that were at her bedside all this time. She stares at the old man on crutches, accompanied by three dogs that are licking the wounds on his legs. She doesn't understand why, but there is something familiar about the old man. It’s almost as if she has seen this man somewhere before. But she can’t recall where. She then sees the other statuette. It’s that of a blond, long-haired man, clad in gallant armor. He is beautiful, yet something about him repulses her.

She stumbles her way over to the wall and uses it to help prop herself up. She looks around hoping to see her mother Perla, or one of her siblings, but the cabin is silent. She continues walking, using the wall to help her hold herself up, her legs weekend from atrophy.

She opens the front door, and she is bathed in the warm, light of the sun. Juana steps out of the cabin, her blue blouse drenched in sweat, and barefoot. She hears some commotion coming from the back. She leans against the house and turns the corner. She sees her sisters and macho huddled together. Her Mother Perla is kneeling on the ground, clutching something tightly in her arms. As she steps forward she trips and stumbles forward, but catches herself when she crashes into two metal drums. The loud bang caused by her little body slamming into the drums causes Juana’s sibling to turn around. Juana looks at their tear-filled faces. She smiles, and waves at them, not fully grasping what is occurring. Her siblings can’t help but stare in shock to see their younger sister standing on her own. Macho places a hand on Perla’s shoulder and she turned around to see Juana’s smiling face.

“Hi, mama.” she says innocently. Why is everyone crying?”

Perla shifts her body to the side, and for the first time, Juana can see what her mother Perla has been holding in her arms. She sees little Maria, lying motionless in her mother’s arms. Her ice blue eyes are cold and devoid of life. Juana walks up to her mother and kneels beside her. Perla is in shock.  In one arm she is holding the lifeless body of her youngest child, and in the other, she miraculously finds herself holding her Juana, who was at death's door for so long but is now kneeling beside, her, with her lips, and cheeks, flush with life. Perla grabs hold of Juana and pulls both her daughter tightly while sobbing uncontrollably.

Juana glares at her little sister, before closing her eyes to wish her a safe journey.

The End.




© The Acentos Review 2018