Catch the Moon
Judith Ortiz Cofer
Luis Cintrón sits on top of a six-foot pile of hubcaps and watches his father walk away
into the steel jungle of his car junkyard. Released into his old man’s custody after six
months in juvenile hall—for breaking and entering—and he didn’t even take anything.
He did it on a dare. But the old lady with the million cats was a light sleeper, and good
with her aluminum cane. He has a scar on his head to prove it.
Now Luis is wondering whether he should have stayed in and done his full time. Jorge
Cintrón of Jorge Cintrón & Son, Auto Parts and Salvage, has decided that Luis should
wash and polish every hubcap in the yard. The hill he is sitting on is only the latest
couple of hundred wheel covers that have come in. Luis grunts and stands up on top of
his silver mountain. He yells at no one, "Someday, son, all this will be yours," and
sweeps his arms like the Pope blessing a crowd over the piles of car sandwiches and
mounds of metal parts that cover this acre of land outside the city. He is the "Son" of
Jorge Cintrón & Son, and so far his father has had more than one reason to wish it was
plain Jorge Cintrón on the sign. Luis has been getting in trouble since he started high
school two years ago, mainly because of the "social group" he organized—a bunch of
guys who were into harassing the local authorities. Their thing was taking something to
the limit on a dare or, better still, doing something dangerous, like breaking into a house,
not to steal, just to prove that they could do it.
This was Luis’s specialty, coming up with very complicated plans, like military strategies,
and assigning the "jobs" to guys who wanted to join the Tiburones. Tiburón means
"shark," and Luis had gotten the name from watching an old movie about a Puerto Rican
gang called the Sharks with his father. Luis thought it was one of the dumbest films he
had ever seen. Everybody sang their lines, and the guys all pointed their toes and leaped
in the air when they were supposed to be slaughtering each other. But he liked their name,
the Sharks, so he made it Spanish and had it air-painted on his black T-shirt with a killer
shark under it, jaws opened wide and dripping with blood. It didn’t take long for other
guys in the barrio
to ask about it. Man, had they had a good time. The girls were
interested too. Luis outsmarted everybody by calling his organization a social club and
registering it at Central High. That meant they were legal, even let out of last-period class
on Fridays for their "club" meetings. It was just this year, after a couple of botched jobs,
that the teachers had started getting suspicious. The first one to go wrong was when he
sent Kenny Matoa to borrow some "souvenirs" out of Anita Robles’s locker. He got caught. It seems that Matoa had been reading Anita’s diary and didn’t hear her coming
down the hall. Anita was supposed to be in the gym at that time but had copped out with
the usual female excuse of cramps. You could hear her screams all the way to Market
Street. She told the principal all she knew about the Tiburones, and Luis had to talk fast
to convince old Mr.Williams that the club did put on cultural activities such as the Save
the Animals talent show. What Mr.Williams didn’t know was that the animal that was
being "saved" with the ticket sales was Luis’s pet boa, which needed quite a few live So last year they had sponsored their first annual mice to stay healthy and happy. They kept E. S. (which stood for "Endangered Species") Save the Animals talent show, and it had been a great success. The Tiburones had come in Luis’s room, but she belonged to the club and it was the members’ responsibility to dressed as Latino Elvises and did a grand finale to "All raise the money to feed their mascot.
Shook Up" that made the audience go wild. Mr.Williams had smiled while Luis talked,
maybe remembering how the math teacher, Mrs. Laguna, had dragged him out in the
aisle to rock-and-roll with her. Luis had gotten out of that one, but barely.
His father was a problem, too. He objected to the T-shirt logo, calling it disgusting and
vulgar.Mr. Cintrón prided himself on his own neat, elegant style of dressing after work,
and on his manners and large vocabulary, which he picked up by taking correspondence
in just about everything. Luis thought it was just his way of staying busy since
Luis’s mother had died, almost three years ago, of cancer. He had never gotten over it.
All this was going through Luis’s head as he slid down the hill of hubcaps. The tub full of
soapy water, the can of polish, and the bag of rags had been neatly placed in front of a
makeshift table made from two car seats and a piece of plywood.
Luis heard a car drive up and someone honk their horn. His father emerged from inside a
new red Mustang that had been totaled. He usually dismantled every small feature by
hand before sending the vehicle into the cementerio, as he called the lot. Luis watched as
the most beautiful girl he had ever seen climbed out of a vintage white Volkswagen Bug.
She stood in the sunlight in her white sundress waiting for his father, while Luis stared.
She was like a smooth wood carving. Her skin was mahogany, almost black, and her
arms and legs were long and thin, but curved in places so that she did not look bony and
hard—more like a ballerina. And her ebony hair was braided close to her head. Luis let
his breath out, feeling a little dizzy. He had forgotten to breathe. Both the girl and his
father heard him. Mr. Cintrón waved him over. "Luis, the señorita here has lost a wheel
cover. Her car is twenty-five years old, so it will not be an easy match. Come look on this
side." Luis tossed a wrench he’d been holding into a toolbox like he was annoyed, just to
make a point about slave labor. Then he followed his father, who knelt on the gravel and
began to point out every detail of the hubcap. Luis was hardly listening. He watched the
girl take a piece of paper from her handbag. "Señor Cintrón, I have drawn the hubcap for
you, since I will have to leave soon. My home address and telephone number are here,
and also my parents’ office number." She handed the paper to Mr. Cintrón, who nodded.
"Sí, señorita, very good. This will help my son look for it.
Perhaps there is one in that stack there." He pointed to the pile of caps that Luis was
supposed to wash and polish. "Yes, I’m almost certain that there is a match there. Of
course, I do not know if it’s near the top or the bottom. You will give us a few days,
Luis just stared at his father like he was crazy. But he didn’t say anything because the girl was smiling at him with a funny expression on her face. Maybe she thought he had X-ray eyes like Superman, or maybe she was mocking him.
"Please call me Naomi, Señor Cintrón. You know my mother. She is the director of the funeral home. . . ."Mr. Cintrón seemed surprised at first; he prided himself on having a great memory. Then his friendly expression changed to one of sadness as he recalled the day of his wife’s burial. Naomi did not finish her sentence. She reached over and placed her hand on Mr. Cintrón’s arm for a moment. Then she said "Adiós" softly, and got in her
shiny white car. She waved to them as she left, and her gold bracelets flashing in the sun nearly blinded Luis. Mr. Cintrón shook his head. "How about that," he said as if to himself. "They are the Dominican owners of Ramirez Funeral Home." And, with a sigh, "She seems like such a nice young woman. Reminds me of your mother when she was her age." Hearing the funeral parlor’s name, Luis remembered too. The day his mother died, he had been in her room at the hospital while his father had gone for coffee. The alarm had gone off on her monitor and nurses had come running in, pushing him outside. After that, all he recalled was the anger that had made him punch a hole in his bedroom wall. And afterward he had refused to talk to anyone at the funeral. Strange, he did see a black girl there who didn’t try like the others to talk to him, but actually ignored him as she escorted family members to the viewing room and brought flowers in. Could it be that the skinny girl in a frilly white dress had been Naomi? She didn’t act like she had
recognized him today, though. Or maybe she thought that he was a jerk.
Luis grabbed the drawing from his father. The old man looked like he wanted to walk down memory lane. But Luis was in no mood to listen to the old stories about his falling in love on a tropical island. The world they’d lived in before he was born wasn’t his world. No beaches and palm trees here. Only junk as far as he could see. He climbed back up his hill and studied Naomi’s sketch. It had obviously been done very carefully.
It was signed "Naomi Ramirez" in the lower right-hand corner. He memorized the telephone number. Luis washed hubcaps all day until his hands were red and raw, but he did not come across the small silver bowl that would fit the VW. After work he took a few practice Frisbee shots across the yard before showing his father what he had accomplished: rows and rows of shiny rings drying in the sun. His father nodded and showed him the bump on his temple where one of Luis’s flying saucers had gotten him.
"Practice makes perfect, you know.
Next time you’ll probably decapitate
me." Luis heard him struggle with the word
decapitate, which Mr. Cintrón pronounced in syllables. Showing off his big vocabulary
again, Luis thought. He looked closely at the bump, though. He felt bad about it.
"They look good, hijo," Mr. Cintrón made a sweeping gesture with his arms over the yard. "You know, all this will have to be classified.My dream is to have all the parts divided by year, make of car, and condition.Maybe now that you are here to help me, this will
"Pop . . ." Luis put his hand on his father’s shoulder. They were the same height and build,
about five foot six and muscular. "The judge said six months of free labor for you, not
life, okay?" Mr. Cintrón nodded, looking distracted. It was then that
Luis suddenly noticed how gray his hair had turned—it used to be shiny black like his
own—and that there were deep lines in his face. His father had turned into an old man
and he hadn’t even noticed.
"Son, you must follow the judge’s instructions. Like she said, next time you get in trouble,
she’s going to treat you like an adult, and I think you know what that means. Hard time,
"Yeah, yeah. That’s what I’m doing, right? Working my hands to the bone instead of enjoying my summer. But listen, she didn’t put me under house arrest, right? I’m going
"Home by ten. She did say something about a curfew, Luis."
Mr. Cintrón had stopped smiling and was looking upset. It had always been hard for them
to talk more than a minute or two before his father got offended at something Luis said,
or at his sarcastic tone. He was always doing something wrong.
Luis threw the rag down on the table and went to sit in his father’s ancient Buick, which
was in mint condition. They drove home in silence.
After sitting down at the kitchen table with his father to eat a pizza they had picked up on
the way home, Luis asked to borrow the car. He didn’t get an answer then, just a look that
meant "Don’t bother me right now." Before bringing up the subject again, Luis put some ice cubes in a Baggie and handed it
to Mr. Cintrón, who had made the little bump on his head worse by rubbing it. It had
GUILTY written on it, Luis thought.
"Gracias, hijo." His father placed the bag on the bump and made a face as the ice touched
They ate in silence for a few minutes more; then Luis decided to ask about the car again.
"I really need some fresh air, Pop. Can I borrow the car for a couple of hours?"
"You don’t get enough fresh air at the yard? We’re lucky that we don’t have to sit in a
smelly old factory all day. You know that?"
"Yeah, Pop. We’re real lucky." Luis always felt irritated that his father was so grateful to
own a junkyard, but he held his anger back and just waited to see if he’d get the keys
without having to get in an argument.
"Where are you going?"
"For a ride. Not going anywhere. Just out for a while. Is that okay?"
His father didn’t answer, just handed him a set of keys, as shiny as the day they were
manufactured. His father polished everything that could be polished: doorknobs, coins,
keys, spoons, knives, and forks, like he was King Midas counting his silver and gold.
Luis thought his father must be really lonely to polish utensils only he used anymore.
They had been picked out by his wife, though, so they were like relics. Nothing she had
ever owned could be thrown away. Only now the dishes, forks, and spoons were not used
to eat the yellow rice and red beans, the fried chicken, or the mouth-watering sweet
plantains that his mother had cooked for them. They were just kept in the cabinets that his
father had turned into a museum for her. Mr. Cintrón could cook as well as his wife, but
he didn’t have the heart to do it anymore. Luis thought that maybe if they ate together
once in a while things might get better between them, but he always had something to do
around dinnertime and ended up at a hamburger joint. Tonight was the first time in
months they had sat down at the table together.
Luis took the keys. "Thanks," he said, walking out to take his shower. His father kept
looking at him with those sad, patient eyes. "Okay. I’ll be back by ten, and keep the ice
on that egg," Luis said without looking back.
He had just meant to ride around his old barrio, see if any of the Tiburones were hanging
out at El Building, where most of them lived. It wasn’t far from the single-family home
his father had bought when the business starting paying off: a house that his mother lived
in for three months before she took up residence at St. Joseph’s Hospital. She never came home again. These days Luis wished he still lived in that tiny apartment where there was
always something to do, somebody to talk to. Instead Luis found himself parked in front
of the last place his mother had gone to: Ramirez Funeral Home. In the front yard was a
huge oak tree that Luis remembered having climbed during the funeral to get away from
people. The tree looked different now, not like a skeleton as it had then, but green with
leaves. The branches reached to the second floor of the house, where the family lived.
For a while Luis sat in the car allowing the memories to flood back into his brain. He
remembered his mother before the illness changed her. She had not been beautiful, as his
father told everyone; she had been a sweet lady, not pretty but not ugly. To him, she had
been the person who always told him that she was proud of him and loved him. She did
that every night when she came to his bedroom door to say goodnight. As a joke he
would sometimes ask her, "Proud of what? I haven’t done anything."
And she’d always say, "I’m just proud that you are my son." She wasn’t perfect or
anything. She had bad days when nothing he did could make her smile, especially after
she got sick. But he never heard her say anything negative about anyone. She always blamed el destino, fate, for what went wrong. He missed her. He missed her so much.
Suddenly a flood of tears that had been building up for almost three years started pouring from his eyes.
Luis sat in his father’s car, with his head on the steering wheel, and cried,"Mami, I miss you."
When he finally looked up, he saw that he was being watched. Sitting at a large window with a pad and a pencil on her lap was Naomi. At first Luis felt angry and embarrassed, but she wasn’t laughing at him. Then she told him with her dark eyes that it was okay to come closer. He walked to the window, and she held up the sketch pad on which she had drawn him, not crying like a baby, but sitting on top of a mountain of silver disks, holding one up over his head. He had to smile. The plate-glass window was locked. It had a security bolt on it. An alarm system, he figured, so nobody would steal the princess. He asked her if he could come in. It was soundproof too. He mouthed the words slowly for her to read his lips. She wrote on the pad, "I can’t let you in. My mother is not home tonight." So they looked at each other and talked through the window for a little while. Then Luis got an idea. He signed to her that he’d be back, and drove to the junkyard.
Luis climbed up on his mountain of hubcaps. For hours he sorted the wheel covers by make, size, and condition, stopping only to call his father and tell him where he was and what he was doing. The old man did not ask him for explanations, and
Luis was grateful for that. By lamppost light, Luis worked and worked, beginning to understand a little why his father kept busy all the time. Doing something that had a beginning, a middle, and an end did something to your head. It was like the satisfaction Luis got out of planning "adventures" for his Tiburones, but there was another element involved here that had nothing to do with showing off for others. This was a treasure hunt. And he knew what he was looking for. Finally, when it seemed that it was a hopeless search, when it was almost midnight and Luis’s hands were cut and bruised from his work, he found it. It was the perfect match for Naomi’s drawing, the moon-shaped wheel
cover for her car, Cinderella’s shoe. Luis jumped off the small mound of disks left under
him and shouted, "Yes!" He looked around and saw neat stacks of hubcaps that he would wash the next day. He would build a display wall for his father. People would be able to come into the yard and point to whatever they wanted.
Luis washed the VW hubcap and polished it until he could see himself in it. He used it as a mirror as he washed his face and combed his hair. Then he drove to the Ramirez Funeral Home. It was almost pitch-black, since it was a moonless night.
As quietly as possible, Luis put some gravel in his pocket and climbed the oak tree to the second floor. He knew he was in front of Naomi’s window—he could see her shadow
through the curtains. She was at a table, apparently writing or drawing, maybe waiting for him. Luis hung the silver disk carefully on a branch near the window, then threw the gravel at the glass.
Naomi ran to the window and drew the curtains aside while Luis held on to the thick
branch and waited to give her the first good thing he had given anyone in a long time.