Her Sweet Dimpled Smile

By Julius Rios

THE FIRST TIME Agnes slipped away from herself she was eleven years old. She was at school sitting at her desk while her teacher was reading to her class their daily chapter from Robinson Crusoe. Agnes looked back to an empty desk where a boy named Juanito usually sat. That morning her teacher had told them that Juanito was very sick with the flu and would not be coming back to school for probably several days.

Agnes liked Juanito very much, but Juanito seemed to hardly notice her. Even when Agnes would give him her sweet dimpled smile, he would turn his head away.

The previous day she had overheard her mother talking to their neighbor about children in the city dying from the flu. Sitting at her desk, Agnes became very worried about Juanito, so much so that she stood up, slipping away from herself, leaving herself sitting at her desk with her hands folded in front of her.

She walked across the room and was surprised she was able to walk through the classroom door. She went down the hall, down the two flights of stairs, out of the school front doors and onto the avenue. She crossed the avenue and walked past her apartment building that was just across from the school and turned into the vacant lot beside it. She walked to the rear of the trash littered lot, right up to and through the tall rusted red corrugated metal fence of what was Juanito’s backyard and up to the back door of his house.

Agnes had never been in Juanito’s house, so she was shy about just walking in. But she gathered up her courage and stepped through the door which led directly into the kitchen.

She saw Juanito’s mother standing at the stove stirring a large steaming pot with a wooden spoon. Agnes could smell the savory aroma of chicken soup. Trying to get Juanito’s mother’s attention, she coughed politely. Juanito’s mother turned her head around in both directions looking right through Agnes then returned her attention back to the pot before her. She then ladled a small dollop of the soup into the cupped palm of her hand and slurped it into her mouth. As Juanito’s mother was sprinkling salt into the soup, Agnes walked to the other side of the kitchen and into a dark hallway.

She could see sunlight coming through an open door at the end of the hall. She walked to the door, peeked in and could see Juanito lying in bed with his eyes closed. She stepped up to Juanito’s side and whispered. “Juanito, it is me Agnes.” Juanito did not respond. So she whispered a little bit louder, “Juanito, Juanito.” This time Juanito opened his eyes for just a moment, seeming to look right through her, then closed his eyes again.

Agnes stood there for awhile listening to Juanito’s labored breathing. She noticed his sweat dampened curly hair plastered to his forehead. She reached down and placed her hand on his forehead and could feel the feverish heat radiating through her hand, up her arm and then throughout her body down to her very toes. She stood there for several minutes with her eyes closed feeling like she was drawing the heat out of his body. She opened her eyes and noticed that Juanito’s breathing had steadied and he now had a slight smile on his face.

Agnes then thought about herself that she had left behind at school and became anxious about leaving herself there, there by herself. So, she leaned over and lightly kissed Juanito’s forehead, turned and left the room. She walked through the kitchen where Juanito’s mother was ladling the steaming soup into a blue bowl. She stepped through the back door and traced her way back to and across the avenue, through the school doors, up the two flights of stairs, down the hall, and through her classroom door where she saw her abandoned self still sitting at her desk. She quickly slipped back into herself just as her teacher finished reading their daily chapter.

Two more days went by without Juanito returning to school, but on the third day there was Juanito at his desk and when her teacher began reading their daily chapter, Agnes looked back at him and gave him her sweet dimpled smile. But this time, Juanito gave her his own sweet smile in return.

AGNES AGAIN slipped away from herself when she was sixteen years old. She had not slipped away again since that first time. She and Juanito became good friends all during the rest of elementary school. She even told him about her strange experience, but he told her it must have been a daydream, and after awhile she began to believe that indeed it was just her imagination.

They wound up going to different high schools and did not see much of each other for a couple of years until Juanito began working after school at the pizza place on the avenue. Juanito swept the floor, bused the tables and made pizza deliveries. Agnes still liked Juanito very much and so she stopped every day on her way home for a slice of pizza. And to see Juanito.

Juanito still appreciated Agnes’ sweet dimpled smile and soon they were exchanging kisses every time he passed her sitting at her regular booth in the back of the pizza place.

Juanito really wanted to see Agnes more often, but Agnes’s big brother Doyle was the leader of the Saxons, an Irish-Italian street gang that was at war with the Latin Crowns, a Puerto Rican gang. The fact that Juanito was not a member of any gang did not make a difference to Doyle. Juanito was a Puerto Rican, so there was no way for him to see Agnes at her house without being beat up by her brother. So they could only meet secretly at the pizza place.

The conflict between the gangs came to a head when one night a Saxon boy took a short cut through St. Mary’s Park, well known to be a part of Latin Crowns territory. He was caught by the Crowns and so severely beaten he had to be hospitalized. The Saxons wanted revenge and set out with knives and broom handled stick ball bats looking for any Crown member.

They found a group of them sitting on a stoop around the corner from the pizza place. The Crowns spotted the Saxons charging toward them and they scattered, running into the labyrinth of alleys and backyards that they knew so well, leaving the Saxons behind and frustrated by not being able to inflict their vengeance. Then here came Juanito down the street with a pizza to deliver.

Meanwhile, Agnes was sitting on the couch at home with her mother watching TV when she had a premonition, a very uneasy sense of something happening that was very wrong, something to do with Juanito. So she stood up, slipping away from herself again, and leaving herself behind sitting on the couch.

She flew out of her apartment building and down the avenue as fast as the express elevated train rumbling and screeching along the tracks above her, past the pizza place and around the corner where she found the Saxons standing in a tight circle surrounding Juanito lying face down on the sidewalk, and her brother, Doyle, his foot on Juanito’s back and a baseball bat held hovering over his shoulder.

Agnes flew into Doyle, into his very body, thrusting her arms up and into Doyle’s arms and her hands into the hands gripping the bat and holding them back with all her strength. Doyle could feel a resistance holding him back from his downward swing. He could hear his fellow Saxons egging him on to hit the boy. But he could also hear a familiar voice, seemingly in his own head, begging him to spare Juanito.

Doyle listened to that familiar voice and put down the bat, looked around at his fellow gang members and said, “Let him go. He’s just the pizza boy. He’s no Latin Crown, he’s just a little punk”. The gang stepped away from Juanito and made their way back down the avenue to continue their search.

Agnes slipped out of Doyle’s body and kneeled down beside the dazed and stunned Juanito. She leaned down and kissed his lips causing Juanito to shiver. In just a few moments he raised himself off the pavement, stood and quickly looked around for Agnes, whom he thought he saw in a fleeting glance, but there was no Agnes to be seen. Agnes had flown swiftly back home, slipping back into herself sitting on the couch.

The next day after school Agnes went to see Juanito at the pizza place. She waited at her regular booth for him to return from a delivery. When he came in he went straight to her, and asked, “Do you know what happened to me?” “Yes”, she said. “I was there, and it was not my imagination.”

THE VERY LAST TIME Agnes slipped away from herself she was twenty years old. Agnes had not been able to convince Juanito that it was she who had rescued him from the beating. But she was convinced that she had a special ability. She tried several times to slip away again but was not able to do so. As time went by, she gave up trying and accepted that it was something that was beyond her control.

Peace had come to neighborhood as the gang members got older, married, began working or were drafted into the army. Doyle even began to accept Juanito as Agnes’ boyfriend. Agnes had a way of getting into her brother’s head, without having to slip out of her body, and convincing him to do the right thing.

After Agnes and Juanito graduated from high school she enrolled in college while Juanito went to a technical school to become an electrician. Even though they went to different schools they saw each other almost daily. In fact, they became lovers and soon were engaged to be married.

Unfortunately, Juanito could not afford to go to school full time so he did not qualify for a student draft deferment. And sure enough, he soon received the “Greetings” letter from Selective Service ordering him to report for induction into the Army.

Juanito did not want to go into the Army. He did not want to go because of the war raging in Vietnam. He did not want to take part in the horrors and atrocities of what he believed was an unholy war. He was not a pacifist nor afraid of being killed. Juanito was afraid of killing, for he knew he could and would to save a friend or himself.

He thought about fleeing to Canada. It was only a twelve hour Greyhound bus trip up US 9 along the Hudson River to the border. And he knew that if he fled, Agnes and his mother would lovingly understand. But from that moment on, he would be as if he were dead to his father. So he reported for duty as ordered and after four months of training was sent to Vietnam as an infantryman.

Juanito and Agnes wrote regularly to each other, sharing plans for when he would return home. Agnes said prayers morning, noon and night for Juanito’s safe return. But one night, as she lay sleeping in bed, she heard a soft voice calling to her. At first she thought it was her mother's voice calling from the kitchen. But then she recognized the voice as Juanito’s voice calling to her, “Agnes, Agnes.” She sat up quickly, slipping away from herself once again, and leaving herself behind asleep in bed.

She flew through the open wind blown curtained window, up through the the night sky following Juanito's calling voice. She followed and followed his fading call as fast as she could fly until she lost track of the very last remaining echo of his call. But then in a flicker of a moment, she found herself hovering over and looking down at Juanito, him lying flat on his back in a muddy rice paddy with his arms and legs askew and a mortal wound in his chest.

Juanito's eyes were closed as Agnes kneeled over him and whispered, “Juanito, it's me. I am here.” Juanito opened his eyes and in a whispery voice responded, “Agnes? Agnes please, please let me see you.” And, with his last labored breath, he could see a shimmering vision of Agnes, her looking down at him, with her sweet dimpled smile.
The End

This story is dedicated to the over 58,000 Juanitos killed as a result of the war in Vietnam. And to all of the Agneses and families who continue to mourn them.

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© 2015 Julius Rios