The Mexican boys’ father was a fire eater. Gustavo—Tragafuegos—the Eater of Flames, traveled in a small carnival that featured a troupe of pinto ponies, who performed by galloping in dizzying circles around a dark haired dwarf named Pineapple. Every night in questionable desert towns, Pineapple commanded the ponies to come to the center of the ring and they faded into a little painted formation with their brightly colored feathers that sprouted from the crown of red patent leather circus bridles, and as Pineapple cracked her whip, they all rose up and reared to show their white tummies for the audience of delighted children and drunken fathers. The finale featured Pineapple riding the ponies. She stood on one pony and commanded two others on either side of her as though she were a lilliputian gladiator. The ponies trotted politely for her as Gustavo lit an upright ring of fire. The flames were audible, streaking the night with a gassy orange pollution. As the children looked to their fathers, then back to the circus ring with unblinking bright eyes and their hands over their mouths, Pineapple and her painted ponies gathered terrible speed, orbiting wildly, turning gravity into some kind of black magic and the flames grew, pulling the little woman and her charges in like a comet collecting stars along its route. There was a great drum roll that seemed to come from a distance and then the bong of some kind of bell as Pineapple jumped her fierce horses through the flames. Upon landing, she always dropped her tangle of reins in a dramatic exhale, letting the ponies shake their heads, and as they returned to their original calm cantering orbit, she raised her little arms and the children squealed with delight, “Otra Vez!” But once a night was enough.
Gustavo met Jesus and Manuel’s mother in a tailor’s shop in Hermosillo. The carnival had stopped in the town for two days of rest before heading south to Caballito. Olivia was a quiet seamstress, the daughter of a seamstress and the granddaughter of a seamstress. Olivia’s eyes were like dark sea pebbles, reflective and deep all at the same time. Gustavo asked Olivia to repair two shirts, the shirts he performed in. She wrinkled her nose as he pointed out where the seams were worn and needed to be re-stitched, “What is the matter? Why are you making that face?” Gustavo asked.
Olivia giggled softly, “These are funny shirts. They smell of gasoline.”
“That’s because I am a fire eater. I wash them and wash them, but the smell of fuel is always living in the cloth.”
“I could wash them for you. I could make them smell much better.” Olivia took the shirts and wrote up a ticket for Gustavo. She handed it to him and smiled. “Come back tomorrow, they will be repaired and smell much nicer.”
Gustavo returned the next day. Olivia proudly brought him the shirts. They were pressed and hung starched and taut on their hangers. Gustavo put the shirts to his face and breathed deeply. They indeed smelled much nicer. They smelled something like horchata, sweet and vaguely vanilla. The bite of gasoline was completely gone. “I don’t know how to thank you! You must teach me how to wash the fumes from my clothes! This will make me a happy man.” Olivia came from behind the counter and stood close to Gustavo. She looked at his face carefully, she noted his strong hands, his dark Mayan hair and his bold nose. She smiled sweetly and pointed to a black and white poncho hanging on a hook by the door. “Do you want me to get your poncho Señorita?” Olivia quietly nodded. Gustavo walked across the room and retrieved the fine poncho. It too smelled of horchata. He helped Olivia put the poncho over her head. She pulled her long thick hair out from the neckline of the lovely garment and methodically twisted and rested her gathered tresses so that they lay across one shoulder and cascaded down her chest. Gustavo was suddenly overwhelmed by Olivia’s beauty. She gazed back at her little shop and then at the front door and took in just enough air to say what she wanted to say, “I cannot teach you how to wash the gasoline from your clothes—it is something my mother taught me and her mother before her. It is not something for a man, for a tragafuegos to do for himself. It is something I must do for him.” And that is how Olivia came to marry Gustavo.
Gustavo would not live long. Fire eating took him too soon, but not so soon that he couldn’t teach his young sons Manuel and Jesus the ways of fire. Olivia watched quietly and proudly as her boys learned to spin fire and dance with it as though it were a young girl in a cantina. Late into the night Gustavo would urge the boys to juggle fire and walk through fire. But he never taught them to swallow fire. He was determined to be the only tragafuegos in the family. He wanted his boys to play with fire, not let it take their souls.