What the Mouth Knows by Amina Gautier
Amina Gautier’s “What the Mouth Knows” is one of three winners of the 2021 CRAFT Flash Fiction Contest, judged by Robert Lopez.
I would think most of us are exactly like the kids in “What the Mouth Knows,” looking for connections in the faces of strangers. The best fiction captivates and transports us into a different world, one that feels at once familiar and exotic. “We’re too slick to let them catch us as we take our fill of looking,” our narrator says. Whenever I read fiction I want to feel like I’m in the hands of someone in total control—control of voice, emotion, and craft. This story is a perfect example of all. When I get to the end of a story I want some kind of visceral feeling, something that transcends language, and this ending accomplishes exactly this. —Robert Lopez
We search the face of every old Puerto Rican man we meet, hoping to see our grandfather’s face looking back at us. The way to and from school is paved with old brown Boricua men. Up Riverdale and Rockaway, over on Thatford, Osborne, or Watkins, down on Newport or Lott Avenues, they sit outside raggedy shops, rocking back on rickety milk crates, smoking and listening to small radios at their feet blaring news in rapid-fire Spanish. They carry out folding chairs and plop down to whittle, bringing out knives and blocks of wood to carve little frogs with wide, wondering eyes. They yell in Spanish at everyone passing by, calling out to the morning workers on their way to the train and bus stops, to the men heading for the liquor store in the bright light of the day, to the women out to buy groceries at Key Food, and to all the kids who’ve turned the empty and abandoned lot at the corner junction into a place to play.
We’re too slick to let them catch us as we take our fill of looking. We slow down and retie our laces, or we wait for the light to turn before crossing, just to buy ourselves the time to check them out. Less than neighbors and more than strangers, the old Boricuas intrigue us as they yell at all the passersby in a language we feel that we should know.
We never answer, even when we hear “¡Mira!,” which sounds almost just like my name. Even if we knew the language we don’t dare talk to strangers. We know better. We know there are adults who like to snatch up kids and adults who hide razors in Halloween candy. We know how often kids go missing and end up with their faces plastered on milk cartons. We know people find newborn babies in dumpsters every single day. We know where we are from. We know where we live. We watch our would-be grandfathers, but we don’t ever get too close.
Because we’ve never seen our grandfather’s face, every old Boricua becomes a possibility. He could walk right by us and we would never even know. Our mother claims to have no pictures. When pestered, she asks, “Why in the world would I want to see his face?” But we would like to see it, to see if in her father’s face there are any hints of us.
With nothing to go by, any old man we see could be our grandfather come back from Puerto Rico to spy on us, to let us know he’s watching us on the sly, that he’s found a way to be near us without upsetting our mother. He knows she’s never forgiven him for leaving, so he lies in wait to watch us pass each day on our way to and from school. We want to believe that he is simply biding his time, waiting for the right moment to reveal his presence, to tell us that he never left, that he has loved us all along, that he has always been here, nearby, and that this was as close as he could get without giving the secret away. Maybe we’re old enough to know better and maybe—deep inside—we do, but this fantasy sustains us until we outgrow our craving for his love.
We are hoping for a signal, some way to know which old man is the one we want. We need a way to identify him, to sort him from the possibles, before we can bring him home, smooth things over between him and our mother, and become the family we never were but always could have been. We devise ways to give him a nudge, to let him know that we know and that it’s okay to come out of hiding. My brother, who has been watching too much A-Team, suggests kidnapping. “Let’s nab one,” he says. “I bet we can find ways to make him talk.”
Four blocks from home we cross at the corner and I point out the man who works the repair lot. “What about that one?”
Sandwiched between two abandoned buildings sits his lot with its orange-and-green corrugated fencing, behind which rubber car tires are stacked high, old cars and vans sit with shattered windshields and flat tires, and broken bicycles with dented frames, bent and missing wheels, are tilted drunkenly against each other.
As we near this old man, who is the only living thing on this dead dead street, who sits outside in front of his handmade Flats Fixed sign, listening to the radio and repairing a broken bike, my brother whispers, “Maybe,” before stepping on my laces to pull them loose.
Kneeling to fix them, I buy us time for a longer look. There is possibility in his watchfulness, in the way he sits still as a spy, his body rooted to the spot, while his hands glide from handlebar to stem of the broken bicycle, moving with the same tenderness our mother uses to comb my hair.
I loop my bow and pull it tight and when I look up the old man is looking right back at me. His thumb trips the lever and rings the broken bike’s shining silver bell. “Haha, I scared you, nena!” He laughs to see me startled, revealing a terrible mouth, a maw of crooked and rotting teeth. He rings the bell again and grips the handlebars as if he’s about to speed off into the sunset. “Vroom, nena!” He rings the bell again. “Come in!” he cackles. And again. “Sorry, nobody home!”
“Come on.” My brother yanks me to my feet. “He’s crazy as a loon!”
The sound of the old man’s bell follows us as we take off running. We race those whole four blocks, running all the way home, chased by his laughter as something more than language dies upon our tongues.
AMINA GAUTIER is the author of three short story collections: At-Risk, Now We Will Be Happy, and The Loss of All Lost Things. More than one hundred forty of her stories have been published, appearing in American Short Fiction, Boston Review, Callaloo, The Cincinnati Review, Glimmer Train, Gulf Coast, Kenyon Review, Latino Book Review, The Los Angeles Review, Pleiades, The Southern Review, and TriQuarterly among other places. She is the recipient of the Blackwell Prize, the Chicago Public Library Foundation’s 21st Century Award, the International Latino Book Award, the Letras Boricuas Fellowship, and the PEN/Malamud Award for Excellence in the Short Story. Find her on Twitter @DrAminaGautier.
Featured image by Maixent Viau courtesy of Unsplash
Our Twitter microinterview with Amina Gautier:
— CRAFT (@CraftLiterary) April 20, 2022