By Oscar Casares
Published by Back Bay Books 
March 2003; 0316146803; 176 pages

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Brownsville by Oscar CasaresI Thought You and
Me Were Friends
Mr. Z

The boy rode in the car with his father. It was late afternoon and they were on their way to buy fireworks. The father had worked a full day and was tired, but he had promised to drive his son to the stands. This was the Fourth of July. They had made the short trip to the edge of town for as long as the boy could remember in his eleven years. He had two older sisters, but they had never enjoyed doing this with their father. When the boy was little, his father lit the fireworks on the sidewalk as the boy watched from the porch with his mother. He would let go of his mother's hand and clap at each small explosion as if he had forgotten the one that had gone off only a minute earlier. Now that he was older, he lit the fireworks with other boys from the neighborhood and sometimes his father stood on the porch to watch.

The fireworks stands were just beyond the city limits sign for Brownsville, Texas. The long and narrow wooden structures were scattered along the dry edges of the highway like giant matches that had fallen from the sky. Behind the stands, the flat sorghum fields stretched for a couple of miles until they reached the Rio Grande. The father stopped next to a stand with a large sign that read mr. z's fireworks. The owner of the business introduced himself to the father and they shook hands. "Juan Zamarripa, para servirle," the owner said.

Then it was the boy's turn to shake hands. "Diego Morales, sir," he said. The owner was an old man and he wore a red baseball cap with the words mr. z's fireworks stenciled across the front. His long white sideburns reminded Diego of cotton strands glued to brown construction paper. On his right forearm the owner had a faded tattoo of an eagle. The two men spoke in Spanish while Diego picked out fireworks. A teenage boy who worked behind the counter helped him. After his father paid for the fireworks, the owner motioned for Diego to come closer.

"I think you forgot something," the old man said as he dropped an extra bottle rocket inside the bag.

"What do you say?" the father was quick to ask.

"Thank you," Diego said.

The old man nodded. "How old are you, son?"


"Eleven?" the old man said. "N'hombre, by the time I was your age I had a job and my own money. Are you good in math?"

"Yes, sir."

"Vamos a ver, let's say I buy three dollars and fifty cents' worth of fireworks and I give you a five-dollar bill. What's my change?"

"One dollar and fifty cents," Diego said.

"Hey, you're faster than some people I know," Mr. Z said and glanced at the boy behind the counter. "You should come work for me, son. I don't pay a lot, but you get all your fireworks for fifty percent off." Diego looked up at his father.

"If you want the job, you can have it," his father said.

"Bueno, I have enough help right now," Mr. Z said. "But I'll call you before New Year's and let's see what we can do." That night Diego popped his fireworks in the street with the other neighborhood boys, but he couldn't stop thinking about what had happened earlier that day. He thought of all the other jobs in the world he could have, and none of them were as great as working at a fireworks stand. His sisters didn't even have jobs yet. They were always asking for money to go out with their friends. And now he would be earning enough to buy his own fireworks. Who knew how much he could buy if they were only half price? He told his friends, and some of the older boys wanted to know if they needed more help at the stand. He told them he couldn't say, but he would let them know. The dark sky flashed before him in brilliant colors and New Year's seemed as if it would take forever to get here.


The summer and autumn months passed slowly until Mr. Z phoned Diego the second week of December. "Are you still interested, son?"

"Yes, sir."

"And you're willing to work hard?"

"Oh, yes, sir."

"That's good, because the boys I hired last summer were lazy. They started off okay, but they got lazy on me."

"I'll work hard. I'm not lazy."

"I didn't think you were. Your father doesn't look like a lazy man."

"No, sir."

"Bueno, we're opening next week, a few days before Christmas, and going all the way to New Year's. My boys come in at noon and work late. How does that sound to you?"

"It sounds good. All my friends, they wish they could work at your stand."

"That's good to hear, son," the old man said. "You stop by next Wednesday and I'll show you how we work at Mr. Z's. Tell your father I can give you a ride home when we close down." Diego spent the next few days wishing that he could be at work already. It was a good thing he didn't have to share a room the way his sisters did. He wanted to be alone. He heard his parents talking the night before he started. His mother thought he was too young to be working until the stand closed, but his father said Diego had already promised the man he would work. His boy was not going to back out now. He wouldn't let her treat him like a baby. They were quiet after that. Diego fell asleep wondering how different his life would be if tomorrow ever came.

His father drove home at lunch the next day. He wanted to take his son to his first day of work. Diego had spent some time getting ready that morning. After he showered, he brushed his teeth and put on his favorite blue jeans. He used a few drops of his father's Tres Flores to comb his hair. When they heard the car horn, Diego's mother kissed him on the cheek and told him to be careful. He said okay and ran to the car where his father was waiting.

They cracked the windows open at the top to let in the cool air. The sky was ash gray, as it had been for the past week. On the way to the stands they passed the cafés along International Boulevard, the panadería and its glorious scent of fresh sweet bread, the restaurant that sold barbacoa on Sunday mornings, the service station where the father had worked as a young man.

"You need to pay attention to Mr. Zamarripa," his father said. "Don't be playing around with the other boys. I want you to be serious. ¿Me entiendes?"

"Yes, sir."

These were the only words they exchanged on the way to the stand, but Diego knew what his father meant. He wanted Diego to behave and not do anything to embarrass him in front of Mr. Z. The tone of his father's voice was serious. It was the same tone he used right before he got angry. Once, his father had told him to be careful with the orange soda he was drinking in the car and then a minute later, when the soda spilled on the cloth seats, his father slapped him. His father had hit him a couple of other times, enough for Diego to know that tone of voice. When they arrived at the stand, his father stayed in the car and waved to Mr. Z. "Pay attention," he said.

Another boy was inside the stand with Mr. Z. His name was Ricky and he had also been hired to work. Although they were about the same age, he was shorter and huskier than Diego. Ricky lived in the projects near Diego's house, but they had never met.

It was warmer inside the stand and Diego put away the windbreaker his mother had made him wear. The old man handed each of the boys a red mr. z's fireworks cap. They thanked him and put them on. Diego was too busy adjusting the size to notice that his cap was bent and the brim was worn down and dirty.

"Bueno, I'm going to tell you what we got here at Mr. Z's. Black Cats is the most popular firecracker there is." The old man showed them the black and red package. "You got no Black Cats, you got no New Year's. It's my all-time bestseller. Nobody beats El Gato Negro." He raised his hands as if they were claws. The boys backed up.

"These are the Black Snakes. You light the fuse and it starts smoking and a tiny snake comes out - these are good for the little kids. Sparklers, too. If a man comes in alone, he probably has kids at home. And, Diego, what do you offer him?"

"Black Snakes and sparklers."

"That's right, son. Now you're using what God gave you," the old man said and pointed to Diego's head. "Over here are the smoke bombs, another bestseller. Who doesn't like smoke bombs?"

The boys stared at the old man. "Who?" he said.

"Nobody?" Ricky said.

"Good answer," Mr. Z said. "The older kids go for bottle rockets, guaranteed. Roman candles are Roman candles. If you don't know what those are, you're in the wrong business. Silver Jets are new. They make a loud sound like a coffeepot when it's ready. Every pinche perro in the neighborhood barks when they hear it take off. It's for the big kids." The boys listened to Mr. Z explain how to sell some of the less-popular fireworks, place the money in a tin box under the counter, and bag everything the customers bought. He covered the stand from one end to the other. Diego already knew all the fireworks because he'd been buying them for years, but he didn't want to tell the old man this and be disrespectful. When Mr. Z finished, he left the boys in the stand and walked to his pale yellow truck. He had parked it a few yards beyond the stand, the front end pointed into the ditch. There was a camper on the bed that looked rustier than the ancient truck it was attached to. The old man sat in the driver's seat for a long stretch of time. He finally walked to the front of the stand to watch the boys help some customers. After the people drove away, he brought Diego and Ricky together. "Diego, what's the matter? How come you don't smile more? Who wants to buy fireworks from somebody who's got a serious face?"

"I don't know."

"You need to smile, son. Right now you look like you're going to the rest room, making number two." The old man strained his face and pretended he was sitting on a toilet. Ricky laughed. So did Diego, but then he remembered what his father had said and he tried to be serious again. "Y t?, Ricky, what are you laughing at?" Mr. Z said. "Didn't I tell you to sell the Black Snakes to the men who come in alone?"

"Yes, sir."

"¿Entonces? What happened with that last man with the red shirt?"

"I forgot."

"I forgot. You better not forgot next time." The boys did better with the people who stopped by the rest of that afternoon. Mr. Z kept walking behind the customers and exaggerating his smile to make Diego remember what he had said. Ricky sold three packages of sparklers and Black Snakes.

At four o'clock, Mr. Z said it was time for dinner. If they waited until five or six, there would be too many customers. He asked the boys what they wanted from Whataburger. "I didn't bring enough money," Diego said. "You don't need no money. I pay for all the meals my boys eat. You just tell me what you want."

Mr. Z brought back three cheeseburgers, fries, and drinks. They sat on the tailgate of the truck and looked at the passing cars and trucks. The boys wouldn't get paid for another week, so the meal was a small reward. Diego liked working hard. His father worked hard as a mechanic, sometimes taking side jobs to bring in a little extra. On those weekends, two or three cars would be parked in the backyard, waiting to be repaired. Diego took another bite. He thought this had to be the best cheeseburger he ever tasted.

The stand closed at ten o'clock. Mr. Z counted the money while the boys swept the inside of the stand and locked the doors and windows. Ricky had ridden his ten-speed bike to work, but Mr. Z told him to put it in the back of the truck because he was giving them both a ride home.

The old man used his hand to sweep the crumpled newspapers, used bags of chicharrones, soda cans, and Mexican lottery tickets from the passenger's seat onto the floor. Diego sat in the middle and Ricky leaned against the door. A tiny hula girl was glued to the dashboard. The boys watched her grass skirt swish around each time the truck hit a bump in the road. "You two remind me of my boys." The old man pulled out a black-and-white photo that was clipped to the sun visor. "Mira, aquí están, when they were still in the hospital." He turned on the cab light to show them the photo of the twin babies. Their faces were scrunched together and they were both crying.

"What do you think? Do they look like their old man?"

"Kind of," Ricky said.

"What do they look like now?" Diego handed back the photo and Mr. Z put it in his shirt pocket. "You have to ask their mama that question. She left to Chicago when they were still babies." The old man was quiet for a while, looking at the truck's headlights on the road. "But if they're my boys, they're probably some handsome men now," he said and laughed a little.

They were at the Four Corners intersection when the old man opened the glove box. Some receipts fell out and he grabbed a quart of whiskey. The bottle had a picture of a fighting cock on the label. Mr. Z took a quick drink and handed the bottle to Diego.

"Andale, you got to drink to your first day of work. It was a good day, we made some good money," the old man said. Diego winced as soon as he tasted the whiskey. He wanted to spit it out, but he drank it instead. "You too, Ricky. Today you're workingmen, hombres trabajadores." Diego was glad that the old man held on to the bottle for the rest of the ride.

His mother and father were waiting for him in the living room. His sisters came out of their room when they heard him walk in the door.

"How was your first day?" his father said.

"Are you hungry, mi'jito?" his mother said. She reheated some tamales, and the family crowded around him at the kitchen table.

"So, Diego, are you going to lend us money now?" his oldest sister asked and laughed.

"You girls leave your brother alone - he's eating," his father said.

When Diego finished his meal, he told them about learning how to work inside the stand and eating cheeseburgers on the tailgate of the truck and selling fireworks to little kids and going to the rest room behind a mesquite and almost seeing a wreck between an 18-wheeler and a car that pulled out onto the highway too fast and cleaning the place after they closed. He told them everything, except the part about the ride home and the bottle with the rooster on it.

The next day Diego made it to work before Ricky. He took care of the few customers that came by early. Mr. Z kept looking at his watch and shaking his head. At one point, the old man wrote something in the little notepad that he used to record all the sales for the day.

Diego was rearranging the bottle rockets when Ricky finally showed up for work. His mother had driven him to the stand. Diego noticed she was a lot younger than most of his friends' moms. She wore large hoop earrings and her dark hair was in a ponytail. She apologized to Mr. Z for Ricky being an hour late. Someone had stolen his bike. Ricky's eyes were swollen as though he had been crying.

"It won't happen again," she promised.

"No te preocupes por eso," Mr. Z assured her. "I'm sorry you had to bring Ricky all this way. I would've been happy to pick him up."

Mr. Z walked her to the car and he stood talking to her for a couple of minutes until she drove away. He was smiling when he came back to the stand. "Why didn't you tell me your mother was such a beautiful woman, eh, Ricky? And alone, without a man? I thought you and me were friends."

Ricky looked at the ground. "N'hombre, if I didn't have a business to run, I might have taken the afternoon off." The old man laughed. Diego tried to turn away, but the old man looked straight at him.

"That's a joke, son - laugh. I thought you were going to smile more."

Diego gave him a half smile, but Mr. Z only turned his back and walked to the truck. Ricky was quiet, and Diego felt bad for even trying to smile. He didn't understand why Mr. Z was talking about Ricky's mom. At school you didn't talk about anybody's mother or sister. There was a boy in class who wrote some bad words in the rest room about a girl named Letty, and her four brothers jumped him on the way home, near the canal by the church. The brothers took turns kicking him in the stomach and head.

Later in the afternoon, Mr. Z bought a family box of fried chicken and biscuits. "Is your mother a good cook, Ricky?" the old man asked.

"I guess so."

"Nothing like a beautiful woman who can cook."

"My father barbecues in the backyard," Diego said. "My tío Lalo, he's my uncle who was in the navy, he comes over and they make chicken and fajitas, and sometimes they throw beer on the fire to make it . . ." He stopped when he saw the old man glare at him as if he had a piece of food hanging out of his mouth. He realized that Mr. Z didn't want to be interrupted. No one said anything. They ate the rest of the chicken and listened to the passing cars on the highway. On the ride home, Mr. Z opened a new bottle of whiskey and turned the radio to a Tejano station. The old man knew the song and was swaying a little in his seat. Ricky looked out the window. Diego watched the hula girl's skirt. When they were in front of his apartment, Ricky swung the truck door open.

"Tell your mother good night for me, eh, Ricky?" The boy just walked away. The old man drove to Diego's house. "What do you think, Diego?" he said.

"About what, sir?"

"Is she a good-looking woman, or is a she good-looking woman?"

"I don't know, sir."

"That wasn't one of the choices, son." They stopped in front of Diego's house. "Thank you for the ride, Mr. Z."

The old man gunned the engine and took off. The next day, Diego and his father drove by Ricky's apartment and gave him a ride to work. Mr. Z looked surprised to see both boys getting out of the car. "Eh, Ricky, why didn't you tell me you needed a ride?" the old man said. "I would've stopped by your house."

"It's okay, Diego said his father could give me a ride."

"And who the hell is his father? You don't work for his father." The old man stared at the boys until they looked away. Diego thought he was helping out by giving Ricky a ride to work. Now he felt sorry that he had somehow made things worse.

The boys restocked the displays. They placed everything in the same position it had been in the past two days, the bestsellers in the front and the less-popular fireworks on either side of them. An hour passed before the old man stood in front of the stand to watch the boys work. Ricky was helping Diego sell more fireworks to a man who had driven up alone. "The best one for little kids are the Black Snakes," Ricky said. "They're safe because there's no popping and that way there's no chance of getting hurt. All you do is light the fuse and a little snake comes out."

"Yeah, they come out like the rattlesnakes do on the King Ranch," Diego said. He thought it was a clever way to explain what they actually did. The man added two packages of Black Snakes to the fireworks he was buying. Mr. Z walked inside the stand after the customer left. "Diego, how come you told that man a lie?"

"What do you mean?"

"Rattlesnakes," the old man said. "There no rattlesnakes on the King Ranch. I've hunted there, lots of times. I've never seen rattlesnakes."

"My father told me there was."

"Then your father lied. Your father told you some bullshit."

"He's never lied to me."

"You're calling me a liar?"

"No, sir."


"Nothing, sir."

"Bueno, you better watch what you say to people or you're going to turn out the same as your father, a bullshitter." Diego didn't know what to say. He wanted to be angry with Mr. Z, but he also wondered if he should apologize for arguing with him about the snakes.

Mr. Z walked back to the truck. He stayed there for the rest of the afternoon. When he left to buy dinner, the boys stood in front of the fireworks stand and threw pebbles into the ditch.

"I bet there are rattlesnakes at the King Ranch," Ricky said.

"That's what my father says," Diego said.

"Don't listen to the old man. He's just mad because my mom didn't bring me."

"My father doesn't lie."

"I know. You don't have to tell me."

Mr. Z brought fried chicken again. The boys each grabbed a piece with a paper napkin. They looked out at the cars driving past them. The sun was burning on the horizon and it would be dark soon. "How's the chicken today, boys?"

"It's good," Diego said. Ricky nodded.

"You know, people tell me that snake tastes like chicken," the old man said. "What do you think, Diego?"


"What do you think your father would say about that?"

"I don't know."

"Really? I thought your tío would come over to the house and barbecue snakes."

"No, sir."

"Ahh, I think you forgot, Diego," the old man said. "Maybe I should ask your father myself. He probably has some good ways to barbecue a snake."

A family in a white van stopped next to the truck, and Diego put away his food to help them. He stayed in the stand for the rest of the night. They were busy that evening and the old man didn't have time to say anything to him. After work he made sure to sit next to the passenger door, where he wouldn't have to hear as much of Mr. Z talking. His father was watching the late news when Diego walked in and sat next to him on the sofa.

"How was it today, mi'jo?" his father asked.

"It was okay."

"Good. Are you paying attention to Mr. Zamarripa?"

"Yes, sir."

"Are you going to college so you can study to be a businessman?"

"Maybe," Diego said. "But I'm kind of getting tired of selling fireworks."

"You been working three days, Diego. You don't know what tired is."

"But we're not even getting paid until the last day."

"It's only one more week. Just be glad you have a job. ¿Me entiendes?" His father was serious now.

"Yes, sir."

They watched the weather report for a few minutes. His father wanted to see if there was going to be a cold front. "Dad, remember last year when we drove by the King Ranch?" His father nodded. "And remember how you told me there were rattlesnakes all over the ranch?"


"Have you seen them?"

"No, mi'jo, but I can imagine there are lots of them. Why?"

"Mr. Z goes hunting there and he's never seen one."

"Pues, maybe he's right. I'm not a hunter." Diego had trouble sleeping that night. What his father had said about the rattlesnakes didn't sound like a lie, but it wasn't exactly the truth, either. He thought about how it might be possible to imagine something and for it to be true. Diego wished there were an easy way of telling his father what had happened. Explaining it to his mother wouldn't help. His father would find out and he'd have to tell him everything, straight to his face. Diego pictured himself trying to say what Mr. Z had said, and he knew he couldn't embarrass his father that way. Even if he was only repeating the words, it was still an insult. He hated the old man for saying his father was a liar. And he hated the fact that he couldn't quit his job.

Diego's father dropped him and Ricky off at work. Mr. Z met the boys in front of the stand. They watched Diego's father wave as he drove away. The old man was the first to wave back. "Come on, boys, say good-bye to the bullshitter." The words stung Diego like a fresh scab being torn from his arm. The rest of the day was filled with Mr. Z making jokes about Diego's father, about how he'd make a good politician, about how he could fool one of those lie-detector machines, about how he probably lied all the time, even to Diego's mother.

The old man left to buy dinner at the usual time. Diego told Ricky he was going to the rest room. Then he sat behind a mesquite and cried. He held the loose dirt in his hand and it slipped through his fingers. There was nothing he wanted more than to be older and be able to talk back to the old man. He didn't know what he would say, but he wanted to hurt him. Maybe he could set the stand on fire and ruin his business. Diego could see himself going to jail for this, and he thought it would be worth it. If he were bigger, he would've fought him and knocked him to the ground. He'd hit the old man hard, maybe knock out a tooth. There would be tears in his eyes and blood dripping from his mouth. Diego would keep kicking him in the stomach until he begged him to stop. People passing by in cars would laugh. And he'd slap him with the back of his hand one more time, just to make sure the old man knew he had done wrong.

Mr. Z and Ricky were sitting on the tailgate. Diego wiped his eyes and runny nose on the inside of his shirt. He walked to the truck and started eating his cheeseburger. All the crying had left a funny taste in his mouth and he wasn't that hungry. He was eating his french fries when two young boys came by on a bike, one of them sitting on the handlebars. Diego said he'd take care of them.

The boys were brothers and their hair was cut the same way, in a straight line across their forehead. Diego brought out the sparklers and Black Snakes, but they weren't interested in little-kid fireworks. One brother wanted bottle rockets and the other wanted Silver Jets. "Bottle rockets are stupid," the younger one said.

"No, they're not," the older one said.

"I'm sick of bottle rockets."

"Stop being a llorón. Bottle rockets is all we got money for. The Silver Jets cost more."

"You're the llorón. You're the one that wants bottle rockets. Those are for stupid babies. Give me half the money." They argued for several minutes, calling each other names. The younger one kicked dirt at his brother, which led to a shoving match the older one eventually won. In the end, they bought two packages of bottle rockets.

The boys were still arguing when Diego dropped four Silver Jets in their paper bag without them noticing. He did it as if it were the most natural thing in the world to do, as if he were standing in the middle of the street lighting the fuse to a long pack of Black Cats.

The brothers rode away with their fireworks, and Diego wished he could see their reaction when they found the Silver Jets. He felt himself kicking the old man in the gut. Later Diego helped a man wearing a black cowboy hat with a tiny horseshoe pin stuck to the front of it. The man bought Roman candles, bottle rockets, Silver Jets, and Black Cats. Diego put them all inside a paper bag and then slipped in two more Roman candles. If the man noticed, he didn't say anything. Diego charged him only for the fireworks he had asked for. The man nodded and walked to his truck. Diego gave away fireworks every chance he had. The packages of Black Snakes, smoke bombs, bottle rockets, Black Cats, and sparklers tumbled to the bottom of the paper bags for the rest of the night. It became a game for him, a challenge, the same way learning how to sell Black Snakes and sparklers had been a challenge. The trick was to figure out what kind of firework the customer really wanted and to stick it in the bag without anyone noticing. A heavyset lady with three kids almost caught him putting some extra smoke bombs in her bag. "¿Y ésos, qué? Are you trying to trick me, make me buy more than I want?"

"No, ma'am, these are two for one."

"¿Estás seguro? Because I don't like tricks."

"Yes, ma'am, they're on special."

"Pues, entonces let me buy two more de esos smoke bombs."

He had started by giving away the fireworks only when he was alone in the stand, but with the evening rush he became more daring. With Ricky working next to him and Mr. Z at the other end of the counter with a customer, he dropped the fireworks in a bag and then smiled at the old man as if he'd just made the biggest sale of the night.

Mr. Z told more of his jokes on the ride home. The one he laughed at the most was about how Diego's father probably never went to confession because it would take too long. Ricky ignored the old man and stared straight ahead as if he were on a long bus ride. Diego sat next to the door. It was colder now, but he rolled down the window because he didn't want to hear the jokes. He wondered what would happen in a day or two when the old man did an inventory check. It was the first time he had thought about it all night. Each time he had added extra fireworks to a customer's bag, he felt he was somehow covering up the last time he had done it, so that in the end it wouldn't be dozens of fireworks that had been given away but only one or two packages that could easily be written off as a mistake. It became less of a bad thing the more he did it. Now he was getting nervous that one of his customers would come back to ask Mr. Z for free fireworks, telling him that one of his boys had been loading up bags the night before. He was afraid Ricky might get blamed, and then he would have to come forward and confess the whole thing. Given the choice, he would prefer to get fired and not have to confess. He didn't feel bad about what he had done, because the old man deserved everything, maybe more. In the distance, fireworks lit up the dark sky, and Diego imagined they were the Roman candles he'd given away. He smiled as he watched the bright lights.

When Diego opened the front door, he saw his father drinking a glass of water in the kitchen. He had hoped that his parents might already be asleep. He wanted to go to bed without having to talk about his day, but as soon as he walked in, his father asked him to sit at the table. "How was work, mi'jo?"

Diego hesitated for a moment. He stared at the salt and pepper shakers on the table, trying to find an answer in the grains. "It was good," he said. "I think I sold more fireworks than anybody."

"That's the kind of news I like to hear about my boy." Diego smiled.

"Then you're going to keep working for Mr. Zamarripa?"

"Yes, sir."

"Qué bueno," his father said. "I knew everything would work out. Sometimes you just have to wait a little while for it to get better."

Copyright © 2003 Oscar Casares
Reprinted with permission.
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At the country's edge, on the Mexican border, Brownsville, Texas, is a town like many others. It is a place where men and women work hard to create better lives for their families, where people sometimes bear grudges against their neighbors, where love blossoms only to fade, and where the one real certainty is that life holds surprises.

In his sparkling debut, Oscar Casares creates a cast of unforgettable characters confronting everyday possibilities and contradictions: Diego, an eleven-year-old whose job at a fireworks stand teaches him a lesson in defiance; Bony, a young man whose discovery of a monkey's head on his lawn drives a wedge between him and his parents; Lola, whose stolen bowling ball offers an unlikely chance for change. The achievement of Brownsville lies in its remarkably honest portrayal of these lives-the lives of people whose dreams and yearnings and regrets are at once unique and universal.

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Oscar CesaresOscar Casares was born in Brownsville, Texas, in 1964 where he lived for his first twenty years. He received a Bachelor of Science degree in advertising from The University of Texas at Austin in 1987. For the next ten years, he traveled across the country writing and producing national advertising campaigns. But the farther he moved away from Brownsville, the more he tried to reconnect with his home. He quit his job in 1996, after writing two short stories, and enrolled in writing programs at the community college in Austin. In 1997 he met Dagoberto Gilb who helped him by organizing an informal writing course in his home.

In 1998, “Yolanda” became Oscar’s first published story when it was featured in The Threepenny Review. “Jerry Fuentes” was published a month later in Northwest Review. Since then, his fiction has also appeared in the Colorado Review and The Iowa Review. In 1999, Oscar was offered fellowships by the creative writing programs at Columbia, Cornell, Houston, Iowa, and Texas. He accepted the fellowship at Iowa Writers’ Workshop and spent the next two years writing a series of short stories based on his life in Brownsville. He received an MFA degree from the University of Iowa in 2001.

In May 2002, the Texas Institute of Letters awarded Oscar with a Dobie Paisano Fellowship, which includes a six-month residence at a 264-acre ranch just outside of Austin. That same year, the Copernicus Society of America presented him with James Michener Award, which provides financial support to a writer completing a promising work of fiction. This past January, BOOK Magazine designated Oscar as one of “Ten Writers to Watch in 2003.”

After being away for eighteen years, he has come back to live in his hometown.

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