The youngest José was twelve. He was skinny and dark with a great big smile exposing rows of bright white teeth. In Spanish, the suffix in is added to boys’ names when they are young, or to differentiate them from an older family member with the same name. Thus, the youngest José was called Joseín.
Nobody knows who started it, and no one remembers quite when, but at some point Joseín slipped into Hussein. Then Hussein became Sadaam. So when the neighborhood boys came around yelling, “Sadaam!” from their bicycles, “Ven acá!” they were really looking for the good-natured, unassuming boy who could make a kite from a cartucho and peel an orange so the peel remained in one piece.
The barrel of water that we all used for bathing was enclosed by three palm-thatched walls that barely came up to my armpits. The open side faced the fields. There was once a thin, gauzy tablecloth hanging over the opening like a curtain, but the wind and rain and 5 men named José inflicted so much wear on the fabric that it was reduced to threads. I was bathing behind this ghost of a curtain when I heard Rufa yell for Sadaam to go cut a basketful of corn for chicheme. If Sadaam hadn’t been such an obedient child, if he had stalled or refused to go, or if Rufa had sent Chengito instead, I might have had time to wash the shampoo out of my hair and cover up with the towel I had hanging on a tree branch nearby, but Sadaam complied at once with his mother’s request and in an instant appeared, sliding under the barbed wire fence with his basket and machete.
I stood still. Sadaam walked down a row of corn a few yards away from me and cut several ears off their stalks. I was afraid of making the slightest noise because he was close enough to hear and turn in my direction. My nakedness itself was loud, and my racing pulse was deafening. I crouched down and covered as much of myself as I could. He whistled as he filled his basket. I trembled. My calf muscles burned from squatting. I noticed clumps of my hair on the floor. I saw the boys’ shaving mirror tucked into the palm wall, a triangular shard of glass, and it glowed pink with the reflection of my flesh. I tried to breathe quietly. He was whistling a song I recognized from the reggae romántica tape.
“¡Joseín! Hurry up!” called Rufa from the house.
“¡Ya voy!” he yelled.
He lifted his basket and slung it over his chest. I breathed a sigh of relief that was just loud enough to make him swing his head around, which terrified me so much that I closed my eyes. When I opened them, he was gone.
PEOPLE LIKED TO COMPARE the five Josés. In height order, from tallest to shortest, they were Chengito, Alvenis, Bladi, Chengo, and Sadaam. From darkest to lightest they were Sadaam, Bladi, Chengo, Alvenis, Chengito. And the most likely to succeed, that is, to become un profesional, was Sadaam, because he was still in school and still had time to make something of himself. Bladi could have been somebody, but he had failed English.
“If only Lorena had come sooner,” said his mother, “Bladi could have gone to college.”
Rufa told me what each José liked and didn’t like to eat (Bladi ate everything, and Sadaam was the pickiest), and all of their medical problems, like Chengo’s high blood pressure and Alvenis’ propensity to injure himself, which dated back to his birth. Yody told me their embarrassing secrets, like how Chengito kept a picture of a centerfold from the daily Critica in a book under his bed, and how Bladi wore a bandana over his face when he first met me in order to hide the horrible cold sore on his lip. Rufa told me that Chengo hit her once, when they were first starting out together, and she said, “I’m your wife, not your niña,” and he never did it again. One morning when I was up early, I saw Chengo pedal off on his bicycle, and heard Rufa’s voice cry out over the dawn, “¡Chengoooooooo!” He stopped and turned around, and she cried, “¡Tu pastilla!” He hurried back home to take his blood pressure pill, then pedaled off once more into the sunrise.
When I moved away, I left some things behind that I didn’t want to take with me. I left my machete with its brown leather sheath, and a pair of old running sneakers. I left some clothes, among them a stained orange T-shirt I had worn since the eighth grade. And I left a miniature pink gift bag with kittens on it that had come full of candy in a care package from my mother. As the bus waited, Rufa and Yody hugged me and cried. Chengo hugged me but didn’t cry. The other Josés stood around with their hands in their pockets, avoiding my eyes, until I looked back from the window of the bus and they waved. Not long after, I came back to visit and saw that the family had moved back into my house. The door was open and the black and white TV was on inside. Rufa was frying fish. Yody was washing clothes. Sadaam was wearing my sneakers. Chengito had on my shirt. And the little kitten gift bag was hanging on the wall, right next to the photos from their cousin’s graduation.