Joe reappears to announce the publication of his short story collection and read one selection, “Hero,” a flash fiction piece.
“Hero: 3rd Street and Yakima”
We stood at attention when the car drew close, and one of the nieces even saluted. I wondered who taught her that—if it was Maria. Someone said, “This is what you do at a Veterans Day parade, mija. Salute now. Your uncle is passing by.” Like he was Atticus Finch.
Salute Pedro Gutierrez. Pedro, the gangbanger whose dying was the only noble thing he ever did. Pedro, who joined the Army to hide. Another day on the streets and the cousins of someone he jumped would have stabbed him. Or worse: there would be a drive-by that killed someone who mattered, someone like Maria and her family. My family. Mi familia.
If Pedro had died here, stabbed or shot or beaten, the people that stood on curbs, the ones who saluted his poster-size picture—riding in the back of a 1950-something Chevy like a Cuban dictator—those people would have said it was justice: one less punk. The karma of gang life. Let them kill each other. But Pedro died in Afghanistan, in the last gasps of America’s longest war, and we saluted him as some lost American innocent in a shrapnel-shredded uniform. He was a hero. He was Maria’s hero.
Maria waved at the car, and she walked out to it and touched its waxed white door. One of the men inside, a Vietnam vet with a black baseball hat, gave her a little flag on a kabob skewer. Maria brought it back to the curb, and she walked to Javier, her father, and presented it to him. Javier held Maria like a son.