Chapter 3: The Legend of Palito Joe
The corner house next door was a veritable fortress, with a tall wrought iron fence covered in layers of dead and living honeysuckle. To the casual observer it would almost seem abandoned. Tall grass grew in the corners of the yard, the windows were shuttered, and old newspapers were piled on the porch.
Legends abounded of the owner and resident, Joe, or as he was known, “Palito Joe,” which literally means Little Stick Joe. Some said he had been captured in a war and was starved to death for government secrets, others suggested that he only ate once a month during a full moon, or that he had been diagnosed with a tapeworm that was twelve feet long and lived in his stomach. He was an only child that had never married, so he rarely had visitors. Town kids harrased him as they passed his home on their way out to the Million Barrells, a giant concrete crater a little further on the outskirts of town.
He had lived in the same home all of his life, being a childhood neighbor and friend to their dad, even though he was much older. Now he was like an unofficial grandfather, keeping an eye on the kids when Gonzo was traveling or after school. The fence between their backyards had long been in disrepair, so they never entered through the front door, but had free access to the back and came over multiple times a day.
On Sundays Gonzo always made extra food and sent the kids over with breakfast. After they had all eaten and cleaned up he sent Fleetwood, Santana and Meatloaf next door and had his little talk with Creedence. The “talk” included his worn leather belt and a temporary ban on the bow and arrow.
The three each carried an item as they navigated their way over. From early Spring to Autumn, they rarely wore shoes, so they were adept at avoiding the dreaded goat head sticker patches. A trail had been worn from their fence through his backyard, which was mostly overgrown with random grass patches and tall weeds. The kids had claimed, and with Palito Joe’s guidance, refurbished his ancient childhood tree house.
The back door entered into the kitchen, which was dimly lit. The house was always a little stuffy since Joe rarely opened any windows. It had the smell of brewing coffee, Tres Flores hair oil and Absorbine Jr. Horse Linament, which Joe swore by for his aches and pains.
The older man came shuffling into the kitchen, drawn by the laughs of the children and the breakfast smells. He was very short and incredibly thin with leathery skin that was a light coffee brown. He wore high waisted khakis and a starched wide collared black dress shirt, buttoned to the top button. His shoes were black and polished to a shine.
He dressed impeccably, everyday. When Santana had asked him once why he always dressed nice even though he mostly just stayed home, Joe responded simply and matter-of-factory, “Why live in a castle, if you’re not going to dress like a prince?”
Santana quietly looked around the dim room they were sitting in, pausing at all of the family photos on the walls and shelves full of flea market nick nacks and random bottles and antiques, to the worn, but clean furniture, the polished wooden floor, the stacks of vinyls, and record player, and thought, “Wow, this is what a castle looks like.”
Joe stopped in the doorway and peered down at Santana with a critical eye. He placed his hand, palm down, on top of Santana’s head, turned it right then left while he looked him over.
“Hmm,” he intoned, “well,” he said, “there is something different about you this morning, Mr. Gonzales.”
Fleetwood smiled under his hand, while Meatloaf pulled at the old man’s pant leg. He looked down and she pointed at Santana’s forehead and said quietly, if somewhat out of character, “Cree killed him in the head with his bolder narrow.”
“That happened to me once,” Joe said gravely, a standard reply from their old friend whenever one of them was injured or had big news. “Looks like we need to change your, uh, bandage thing there.”
He went into the bathroom and brought out an old leather first aid bag, full of decades worth of miscellaneous medical items from band-aids to gauze, to old remedies and concoctions. It was also home to the most feared of all, “Monkey Blood.”
This was the cure-all application for any kind of skin wound. It was a dark red liquid called Iodine, in a brown bottle with a faded old yellow label. The stuff smelled terrible and stung horribly. As soon as Santana saw it he made a move to escape, but Joe had anticipated it, and caught him by the collar. He had “old man strength” as the kids called it.
“You sit right there, Mr. Gonzales,” while I get you taken care of. You don’t want to get an infection that close to your brains, or they might stop working.”
He looked at Fleetwood and they both said in unison, “That happened to me once.”