El Imperio Azteca

El Imperio Azteca

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Or, The Day Raymon Cruz Becomes a Man

The football team lines up by the palm tree so Mariana can take the photograph.

“Ronaldo, get closer,” she says. “Get closer together, you guys.”

The air is hot and they all have sun lotion on. It smells like a beach, but really it’s the parking lot of the recreation center, a long warehouse, with a row of shiny Perspex windows near the roof, balloons and banners and miniature piñatas hanging from the window ledges, flapping when the door slams, but only then; there’s no breeze in July.

“It’s gonna be blurry you guys, stop it,” she says. Now the team is jumping with their arms around each other’s shoulders.

“Ronaldo, Totti, Raymon!” they sing. This is the old joke (the team has been together for a year now and has a bunch of old jokes), because when they’d all chosen their names, Raymon had decided to keep his own. Now the joke has become a word – “Ronaldotottiraymon, Ronaldotottiraymon.” To anyone else, it’s nonsense.

Mariana makes a pinching gesture at the team.

“Close, close. Say Go Aztecas! on three.”

Today, the Aztecas have won the under-12 league.

“GO AZTECAS!”

They have won it in magnificent style, with seven goals and calm, beautiful formations just like they’d practiced. They all agree that they wouldn’t have wanted to win it in any other way. It was beautiful football.

“Was it beautiful football Coach?” they had asked Coach Ramirez right after the whistle.

“Sexy football,” Coach had said and they had laughed their heads off and wiggled their hips from side to side.

As all the other kids are leaving the parking lot in team buses driven by their coaches or with their parents, the Aztecas are taking a few final pictures, of Luis with the trophy, of Gerard with the trophy, a funny-face one, and Raymon has already started to feel something. He is embarrassed, he thinks; in fact he finds blushes coming to his cheeks and when the old lady Mrs. Cruz buys twelve orange popsicles for them and hands them around, Raymon has no appetite, even though it’s so hot.

Is he sick? He wonders. He puts his hand backwards over his forehead like his mother does sometimes.

Or has he forgotten something important?

Around the palm tree bed, full of dry mulch, the boys replay the final moments of the game, when Ronaldo made a run right through the centre of two midfields and seemed to run in slow motion, but passed them anyway, and scored the unneeded seventh goal and lifted his skinny arms straight into the air.

As they replay the moment around the palm tree bed, Raymon feels all right, but then as they stop acting and are asked to tidy the mulch back into the bed, and the ends of their laughs trail off into the heat, then he starts to feel it again. He leans against the rough trunk of the palm tree and scuffs his feet into the mulch further and further away until he loses his balance.

Now Coach wraps the trophy in a towel and puts it in the back of the bus. Raymon is saved by having to scramble into the bus with the team. He chooses a seat near the front and they sit in the hot, dark bus as they wait for Coach to say goodbye to the referee. The team is quiet only for a second, as they watch Coach shaking the ref’s hand, and try to overhear any compliments he’s making that might single one or two of them out. Then as Coach wanders to the driver’s side, the team starts singing, almost in unison, a war song that they have appropriated for bus journeys. A long time ago, Raymon realized that he couldn’t sing; his mother had told him, in so many words, nicely but resolvedly. So he chants the words of the war song and knocks his fist on the arm rest.

The singing comes to an end as they’re pulling into a space at CJs. They always go to CJs for the post-game meal but now that it’s a celebration, they turn CJs into a fancy restaurant and say ‘amburgairs instead of hamburgers as they look over the menu.

This is when Raymon starts feeling it again, every time anyone says anything, and even as he looks down the list of milkshake flavors, which usually delights him.

Ronaldo is first to step up to the server, and she takes his order, with a smile, then one by one, the boys step up to the server, mostly ordering the same burger and fries. Raymon is next in line, and he wonders whether the server will notice what’s going on and ask if he’s all right. He hopes he won’t cry, because he can feel tears coming. He orders a chicken sandwich and a milkshake. The server nods as if everything is normal.

As Raymon heads back to the tables that Coach has reserved for them, clutching the warm chicken sandwich bag, he catches sight of a group of old men coming into the restaurant. There are only four of them, but they look like a team nonetheless, and they’re shouting – Raymon can’t believe it – just as loud as the Aztecas are. He can’t make out their shouting no matter how he frowns at the old men’s mouths, because it’s mostly laughter, but some words float out from the noise – “police”, “eggs”, “just like Mrs. Robinson”. Raymon laughs along with them. It must be a heck of a story. Through the big windows of the restaurant, the sun is setting in long drifts, red over pink over the highway and the fast food parking lots, and the old men’s faces are bright pink as if they’ve all been playing football too.

“Hey there, Soldier,” says Coach, forking a waffle out of the spray cream on his plate. Raymon sits in the booth opposite Coach and now it dawns on him.

Raymon knows that he can’t leave CJ’s without doing something. He has heard, when his mom watches movies at night, the decisiveness of movie stars. “We have to do something,” they say, and then they storm the castle or run after the woman getting on the plane. This is how Raymon feels. Something must be done. Otherwise he will leave CJs and go home, and he’ll be twelve years old next week, never to play in the under-12 league again.

Raymon waits for everybody to come back to the tables, all laughing and goofing around, holding their sodas. The soda cups at CJs are thin and you can’t hold a full one without it wobbling around like a water balloon.

Mariana and Coach sit next to each other on one side of the booth, and Ronaldo, Gerard, Totti and Raymon fill the rest of the booth, squirming and kicking each other, none of them wanting to change sides. It dawns on them that Mariana and Coach are like their parents, and they are by default brothers. To the boys who have brothers already, this interrupts them very little, but to the brotherless, like Raymon, the revelation solemnizes them. The booth has become a landmark as they’ve been sitting on it, the blue leather is perfect, blue like rubber balls and balloons for baby boys and their fathers’ off-brand razors.

They look at each other and laugh. Then they start scarfing their sandwiches and fries, noisy but not disgusting. Raymon laughs as Ronaldo starts counting the calories aloud as he eats. The pro football players eat thousands more calories than normal people, so it is no coincidence that Ronaldo is both the best player and the biggest eater on the team. But Raymon has been told to take it easy at CJs by his mom. He is big all over anyway, but if he eats burgers and cakes, he notices his belly and around his hips getting softer.

Mariana makes a little monkey face at him from across the table as if to ask if he’s okay. She’s a mom herself, with a baby girl who sits in a stroller at games either crying or sleeping. Sometimes when she brings the team’s laundry, they find a pink sock or a baby grow along with their shiny football shirts. But in the blue booth, sitting next to Coach, with a small box of chicken nuggets and a water, she looks barely older than he is.

Mariana is taking her time eating the nuggets, having a rest between each one and wiping her fingers on a napkin. Raymon is nervous that when Mariana has finished the last nugget, it will be time to leave. Let’s be honest with ourselves, he thinks. (This is something that his father announces every single day in the hope that it will stick with his child.) Everything is going to change. There will be no Mariana. There will be no CJs. He will start a serious diet before he has to go to secondary school and wear the starched white shirt tucked in. Most of all, there’ll be no “eleven”. There’ll be only twelve, and then thirteen and then the rest, and his grandmother will tell him that he’s a man now and his mom will make a joke about him driving her around in the Volvo. But it won’t really be a joke.

The table has fallen silent while everybody finishes their food. Coach looks happy eating his waffles. Raymon remembers that at around this time at the end of every season Coach makes a speech, to conclude the season and wish them a fun summer, that sometimes he has a blob of spray cream on his chin when he makes it, from the waffles. The speech is never too sappy and never lasts longer than it should. In fact, it’s one of the things Raymon loves most about Coach.

That’s when it occurs to him: he’s got to make a speech. Just like the movie star knows he has to storm the castle and run after the woman in the airport, Raymon knows he has to make a speech, now that he’s going to be twelve years old. Now that he’s going to be a man.

But it quickly becomes apparent to Raymon that he has no idea how to make a speech. He runs through the speeches he remembers, one from his father on his parents’ wedding anniversary, one made by his uncle at a wedding.

Coach forks up the last crumbs of waffle and cream and gestures for Mariana to shift out of the booth and let him stand up.

“Okay, guys,” he says. He stands in the aisle between the tables. There are other diners in some of the other tables, and waitresses mill around, but Coach doesn’t care. He stands with his hands in the pockets of his sweat pants and everyone goes quiet.

“Great job today. Seriously, this is what I like to see, everything from practice coming together and showing it out on the field. Good job,” he says. There is some hooting and foot stamping from the boys but they know that Coach has one more thing to say.

“And to you guys leaving us this season,” Coach looks at Raymon and two other players, Ramos and Muller, who are also turning twelve this summer. “Keep in touch and keep playing football. Good job you guys. Let’s give’m a hand.”

Coach leads the team in a round of applause and the boys add their own chants and jeers.

The problem is that their celebration has been nicely finished off, and now Raymon has to find a way in for his speech. He thinks he could pull Mariana aside, maybe tell her his plan. But before he can worry any further, he has caught Ronaldo’s eye, and catching Ronaldo’s eye is as good as catching everybody’s and then, Ronaldo has told everyone to shut up and listen to Raymon. The team and Coach and Mariana fall quiet and watch Raymon, still sitting in the booth with a bite of his chicken sandwich left.

He should have gotten out, he thinks, to stand in the middle of the floor as Coach does. But there’s no time. So he stands up between the table and the booth and leans with one hand on the blue leather.

“Team Azteca,” he says. His voice isn’t breaking yet but has a huskiness to it that he likes. One of the boys laughs, but Ronaldo shushes whoever it is.

“I just wanna say,” Raymon continues. The feeling of embarrassment comes back. Even his body feels strange; he is suddenly aware of all the ins and outs of his fingers. “We did real good. And I would like to say, to raise our cups…”

At this point in his speech, Raymon looks around the team and then at Mariana and Coach, who are looking at each other smiling, and wonders, though it must only be for a split second, whether he will remember this when he’s forty, or fifty, and what he could possibly say to make everybody remember this moment. But now they are all raising their cups just as he’s requested, so he raises his own.

“To football,” he says. “And to Coach and Mariana. To CJs and … to remember this when we’re forty years old,” he says. It’s not enough. He needs one more thing. Hearing friendly laughs from Mariana and Coach and Ronaldo, Raymon forces himself to smile, waits for a crucial second, and then raises his cup to the ceiling and roars: “El Imperio Azteca!”

*

Seventeen years later, at Raymon’s wedding, Raymon remembers that time in CJs as he’s slicing a roasted pear for his wife, who is scared of juice flying onto her dress. They’re laughing about the pear, but at the same time Raymon is thinking about CJs, about the blue leather couches and Coach’s proud face and overall, overpowering every other part of the memory, his goodbye speech.

He has become the man who makes good speeches. He knows that it is one of his biggest talents. One of his only talents. He did all right in school and he can still kick a football around with his nephews, weave past them and score goals, but he knows that his special talent is making speeches. Before the wedding, his fiancée would spend hours in the evenings making place cards and he sat in their bedroom practicing his speech. He has fallen in love with the preparation of a good speech, with note cards, with practicing aloud in the bathroom and with the now familiar feeling of his fingers when he’s nervous.

After they’ve finished the pear desert, it will be Raymon’s turn to make the speech. He has already folded back his shirt sleeves and reattached the cufflinks so that they won’t get in his way. He takes a slice of the pear for himself before handing the plate back to his wife. She is smiling as she watches all her family and friends eating. She knew they would like the pears.

Then as the room becomes quiet, Raymon dabs the sides of his mouth with his white wedding napkin and stands up to go to the podium.

“Right,” he says to his new wife. “I’m up.”

“Do me proud, Ray,” she says. “El Imperio Azteca.”

The phrase has become a word in its own right. It has come with him from the under-12 league and the Aztecas and Ronaldo and the hot days at the recreation centre, but now it means something different, something mixed up from everything in his life and with no definite meaning. Right now, it means something like “Good luck.”

Georgina is from Norfolk, England, and moved to Boston at the age of 19 to study English and Creative Writing at Harvard University. Her writing is inspired by the people and landscapes of both America and the UK. She has published fiction and features in The Atlantic, the Harvard Advocate, Plain China's Anthology of Best US College Fiction, and Unthank Books' Unthology No.6, an anthology of short fiction dedicated to the "unconventional" short story.

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