Broken Chain


1. Read the short story below about the main character “Alfonso”
2. Download this Word Document and fill in the sentence frames to compare “Alfonso” from “Broken Chain” to “Eddie” in “Buried Onions.” Compare 2 characters
Standard: Common Core Standard: Reading Standard 9
Standard: Common Core Standard: Writing 9-10.1

by Gary Soto

Alfonso sat on the porch trying to push his crooked teeth to where he thought they belonged. He hated the way he looked. Last week he did fifty sit-ups a day, thinking that he would burn those already apparent ripples on his stomach to even deeper ripples, dark ones, so when he went swimming at the canal next summer, girls in cut-offs would notice. And the guys would think he was tough, someone who could take a punch and give it back. He wanted “cuts” like those he had seen on a calendar of an Aztec warrior standing on a pyramid with a woman in his arms. (Even she had cuts he could see beneath her thin dress.) The calendar hung above the cash register at La Plaza. Orsua, the owner, said Alfonso could have the calendar at the end of the year if the waitress, Yolanda, didn’t take it first.

Alfonso studied the magazine pictures of rock stars for a hairstyle. He liked the way Prince looked—and the bass player from Los Lobos. Alfonso thought he would look cool with his hair razored into a V in the back and streaked purple. But he knew his mother wouldn’t go for it. And his father, who was puro Mexicano, would sit in his chair after work, sullen as a toad, and call him “sissy.”

Alfonso didn’t dare color his hair. But one day he had had it butched on the top, like in the magazines. His father had come home that evening from a softball game, happy that his team had drilled four homers in a thirteen-to-five bashing of Color Tile. He’d swaggered into the living room but had stopped cold when he saw Alfonso and asked, not joking but with real concern, “Did you hurt your head at school? ¿Qué pasó?”

Alfonso had pretended not to hear his father and had gone to his room, where he studied his hair from all angles in the mirror. He liked what he saw until he smiled and realized for the first time that his teeth were crooked, like a pile of wrecked cars. He grew depressed and turned away from the mirror. He sat on his bed and leafed through the rock magazine until he came to the rock star with the butched top. His mouth was closed, but Alfonso was sure his teeth weren’t crooked.

Alfonso didn’t want to be the handsomest kid at school, but he was determined to be better looking than average. The next day he spent his lawn-mowing money on a new shirt and, with a pocketknife, scooped the moons of dirt from under his fingernails.

He spent hours in front of the mirror trying to herd his teeth into place with his thumb. He asked his mother if he could have braces, like Frankie Molina, her godson, but he asked at the wrong time. She was at the kitchen table licking the envelope to the house payment. She glared up at him. “Do you think money grows on trees?”

His mother clipped coupons from magazines and newspapers, kept a vegetable garden in the summer, and shopped at Penney’s and K-Mart. Their family ate a lot of frijoles, which was OK because nothing else tasted so good, though one time Alfonso had had Chinese pot stickers and thought they were the next best food in the world.

He didn’t ask his mother for braces again, even when she was in a better mood. He decided to fix his teeth by pushing on them with his thumbs. After breakfast that Saturday he went to his room, closed the door quietly, turned the radio on, and pushed for three hours straight.

He pushed for ten minutes, rested for five, and every half hour, during a radio commercial, checked to see if his smile had improved. It hadn’t.

Eventually he grew bored and went outside with an old gym sock to wipe down his bike, a ten-speed from Montgomery Ward. His thumbs were tired and wrinkled and pink, the way they got when he stayed in the bathtub too long.

Alfonso’s older brother, Ernie, rode up on his Montgomery Ward bicycle looking depressed. He parked his bike against the peach tree and sat on the back steps, keeping his head down and stepping on ants that came too close.

Alfonso knew better than to say anything when Ernie looked mad. He turned his bike over, balancing it on the handlebars and seat, and flossed the spokes with the sock. When he was finished, he pressed a knuckle to his teeth until they tingled.

Ernie groaned and said, “Ah, man.”
Alfonso waited a few minutes before asking, “What’s the matter?” He pretended not to be too interested. He picked up a wad of steel wool and continued cleaning the spokes.
Ernie hesitated, not sure if Alfonso would laugh. But it came out. “Those girls didn’t show up. And you better not laugh.”

“What girls?”

Then Alfonso remembered his brother bragging about how he and Frostie met two girls from Kings Canyon Junior High last week on Halloween night. They were dressed as Gypsies, the costume for all poor Chicanas—they just had to borrow scarves and gaudy red lipstick from their abuelitas.

Alfonso walked over to his brother. He compared their two bikes: His gleamed like a handful of dimes, while Ernie’s looked dirty.

“They said we were supposed to wait at the corner. But they didn’t show up. Me and Frostie waited and waited. . . . They were playing games with us.”

Alfonso thought that was a pretty dirty trick but sort of funny too. He would have to try that someday.

“Were they cute?” Alfonso asked.

“I guess so.”

“Do you think you could recognize them?”

“If they were wearing red lipstick, maybe.”

Alfonso sat with his brother in silence, both of them smearing ants with their floppy high tops. Girls could sure act weird, especially the ones you meet on Halloween.

Later that day, Alfonso sat on the porch pressing on his teeth. Press, relax; press, relax. His portable radio was on, but not loud enough to make Mr. Rojas come down the steps and wave his cane at him.

Alfonso’s father drove up. Alfonso could tell by the way he sat in his truck, a Datsun with a different-colored front fender, that his team had lost their softball game. Alfonso got off the porch in a hurry because he knew his father would be in a bad mood. He went to the back yard, where he unlocked his bike, sat on it with the kickstand down, and pressed on his teeth. He punched himself in the stomach, and growled, “Cuts.” Then he patted his butch and whispered, “Fresh.”

After a while Alfonso pedaled up the street, hands in his pockets, toward Foster’s Freeze, where he was chased by a ratlike Chihuahua. At his old school, John Burroughs Elementary, he found a kid hanging upside down on the top of a barbed-wire fence with a girl looking up at him. Alfonso skidded to a stop and helped the kid untangle his pants from the barbed wire. The kid was grateful. He had been afraid he would have to stay up there all night. His sister, who was Alfonso’s age, was also grateful. If she had to go home and tell her mother that Frankie was stuck on a fence and couldn’t get down, she would get scolded.

“Thanks,” she said. “What’s your name?”

Alfonso remembered her from his school and noticed that she was kind of cute, with ponytails and straight teeth. “Alfonso. You go to my school, huh?”

“Yeah. I’ve seen you around. You live nearby?”

“Over on Madison.”

“My uncle used to live on that street, but he moved to Stockton.”

“Stockton’s near Sacramento, isn’t it?”

“You been there?”

“No.” Alfonso looked down at his shoes. He wanted to say something clever the way people do on TV. But the only thing he could think to say was that the governor lived in Sacramento. As soon as he shared this observation, he winced inside.

Alfonso walked with the girl and the boy as they started for home. They didn’t talk much. Every few steps, the girl, whose name was Sandra, would look at him out of the corner of her eye, and Alfonso would look away. He learned that she was in seventh grade, just like him, and that she had a pet terrier named Queenie. Her father was a mechanic at Rudy’s Speedy Repair, and her mother was a teacher’s aide at Jefferson Elementary.

When they came to the street, Alfonso and Sandra stopped at her corner, but her brother ran home. Alfonso watched him stop in the front yard to talk to a lady he guessed was their mother. She was raking leaves into a pile.

“I live over there,” she said, pointing.

Alfonso looked over her shoulder for a long time, trying to muster enough nerve to ask her if she’d like to go bike riding tomorrow.

Shyly, he asked, “You wanna go bike riding?”

“Maybe.” She played with a ponytail and crossed one leg in front of the other. “But my bike has a flat.”

“I can get my brother’s bike. He won’t mind.”

She thought a moment before she said, “OK. But not tomorrow. I have to go to my aunt’s.”

“How about after school on Monday?”

“I have to take care of my brother until my mom comes home from work. How ’bout four-thirty?”

“OK,” he said. “Four-thirty.” Instead of parting immediately, they talked for a while, asking questions like “Who’s your favorite group?” “Have you ever been on the Big Dipper at Santa Cruz?” and “Have you ever tasted pot stickers?” But the question-and-answer period ended when Sandra’s mother called her home.

Alfonso took off as fast as he could on his bike, jumped the curb, and, cool as he could be, raced away with his hands stuffed in his pockets. But when he looked back over his shoulder, the wind raking through his butch, Sandra wasn’t even looking. She was already on her lawn, heading for the porch.

That night he took a bath, pampered his hair into place, and did more than his usual set of exercises. In bed, in between the push-and-rest on his teeth, he pestered his brother to let him borrow his bike.

“Come on, Ernie,” he whined. “Just for an hour.”

“Chale, I might want to use it.”

“Come on, man, I’ll let you have my trick-or-treat candy.”

“What you got?”

“Three baby Milky Ways and some Skittles.”

“Who’s going to use it?”

Alfonso hesitated, then risked the truth. “I met this girl. She doesn’t live too far.”

Ernie rolled over on his stomach and stared at the outline of his brother, whose head was resting on his elbow. “You got a girlfriend?”

“She ain’t my girlfriend, just a girl.”

“What does she look like?”

“Like a girl.”

“Come on, what does she look like?”

“She’s got ponytails and a little brother.”

“Ponytails! Those girls who messed with Frostie and me had ponytails. Is she cool?”

“I think so.”

Ernie sat up in bed. “I bet you that’s her.”

Alfonso felt his stomach knot up. “She’s going to be my girlfriend, not yours!”

“I’m going to get even with her!”

“You better not touch her,” Alfonso snarled, throwing a wadded Kleenex at him. “I’ll run you over with my bike.”

For the next hour, until their mother threatened them from the living room to be quiet or else, they argued whether it was the same girl who had stood Ernie up. Alfonso said over and over that she was too nice to pull a stunt like that. But Ernie argued that she lived only two blocks from where those girls had told them to wait, that she was in the same grade, and, the clincher, that she had ponytails. Secretly, however, Ernie was jealous that his brother, two years younger than himself, might have found a girlfriend.

Sunday morning, Ernie and Alfonso stayed away from each other, though over breakfast they fought over the last tortilla. Their mother, sewing at the kitchen table, warned them to knock it off. At church they made faces at one another when the priest, Father Jerry, wasn’t looking. Ernie punched Alfonso in the arm, and Alfonso, his eyes wide with anger, punched back.

Monday morning they hurried to school on their bikes, neither saying a word, though they rode side by side. In first period, Alfonso worried himself sick. How would he borrow a bike for her? He considered asking his best friend, Raul, for his bike. But Alfonso knew Raul, a paperboy with dollar signs in his eyes, would charge him, and he had less than sixty cents, counting the soda bottles he could cash.

Between history and math, Alfonso saw Sandra and her girlfriend huddling at their lockers. He hurried by without being seen.

During lunch Alfonso hid in metal shop so he wouldn’t run into Sandra. What would he say to her? If he weren’t mad at his brother, he could ask Ernie what girls and guys talk about. But he was mad, and anyway, Ernie was pitching nickels with his friends.

Alfonso hurried home after school. He did the morning dishes as his mother had asked and raked the leaves. After finishing his chores, he did a hundred sit-ups, pushed on his teeth until they hurt, showered, and combed his hair into a perfect butch. He then stepped out to the patio to clean his bike. On an impulse, he removed the chain to wipe off the gritty oil. But while he was unhooking it from the back sprocket, it snapped. The chain lay in his hand like a dead snake.

Alfonso couldn’t believe his luck. Now, not only did he not have an extra bike for Sandra, he had no bike for himself. Frustrated and on the verge of tears, he flung the chain as far as he could. It landed with a hard slap against the back fence and spooked his sleeping cat, Benny. Benny looked around, blinking his soft gray eyes, and went back to sleep.

Alfonso retrieved the chain, which was hopelessly broken. He cursed himself for being stupid, yelled at his bike for being cheap, and slammed the chain onto the cement. The chain snapped in another place and hit him when it popped up, slicing his hand like a snake’s fang.

“Ow!” he cried, his mouth immediately going to his hand to suck on the wound.

After a dab of iodine, which only made his cut hurt more, and a lot of thought, he went to the bedroom to plead with Ernie, who was changing to his after-school clothes.

“Come on, man, let me use it,” Alfonso pleaded. “Please, Ernie, I’ll do anything.”

Although Ernie could see Alfonso’s desperation, he had plans with his friend Raymundo. They were going to catch frogs at the Mayfair canal. He felt sorry for his brother and gave him a stick of gum to make him feel better, but there was nothing he could do. The canal was three miles away, and the frogs were waiting.

Alfonso took the stick of gum, placed it in his shirt pocket, and left the bedroom with his head down. He went outside, slamming the screen door behind him, and sat in the alley behind his house. A sparrow landed in the weeds, and when it tried to come close, Alfonso screamed for it to scram. The sparrow responded with a squeaky chirp and flew away.

At four he decided to get it over with and started walking to Sandra’s house, trudging slowly, as if he were waist-deep in water. Shame colored his face. How could he disappoint his first date? She would probably laugh. She might even call him menso.

He stopped at the corner where they were supposed to meet and watched her house. But there was no one outside, only a rake leaning against the steps.

Why did he have to take the chain off? he scolded himself. He always messed things up when he tried to take them apart, like the time he tried to repad his baseball mitt. He had unlaced the mitt and filled the pocket with cotton balls. But when he tried to put it back together, he had forgotten how it laced up. Everything became tangled like kite string. When he showed the mess to his mother, who was at the stove cooking dinner, she scolded him but put it back together and didn’t tell his father what a dumb thing he had done.

Now he had to face Sandra and say, “I broke my bike, and my stingy brother took off on his.”

He waited at the corner a few minutes, hiding behind a hedge for what seemed like forever. Just as he was starting to think about going home, he heard footsteps and knew it was too late. His hands, moist from worry, hung at his sides and a thread of sweat raced down his armpit.

He peeked through the hedge. She was wearing a sweater with a checkerboard pattern. A red purse was slung over her shoulder. He could see her looking for him, standing on tip-toe to see if he was coming around the corner.

What have I done? Alfonso thought. He bit his lip, called himself menso, and pounded his palm against his forehead. Someone slapped the back of his head. He turned around and saw Ernie.

“We got the frogs, Alfonso,” he said, holding up a wiggling plastic bag. “I’ll show you later.”

Ernie looked through the hedge, with one eye closed, at the girl. “She’s not the one who messed with Frostie and me,” he said finally. “You still wanna borrow my bike?”

Alfonso couldn’t believe his luck. What a brother! What a pal! He promised to take Ernie’s turn next time it was his turn to do the dishes. Ernie hopped on Raymundo’s handlebars and said he would remember that promise. Then he was gone as they took off without looking back.

Free of worry now that his brother had come through, Alfonso emerged from behind the hedge with Ernie’s bike, which was mud-splashed but better than nothing. Sandra waved.

“Hi,” she said.

“Hi,” he said back.

She looked cheerful. Alfonso told her his bike was broken and asked if she wanted to ride with him.

“Sounds good,” she said, and jumped on the crossbar.

It took all of Alfonso’s strength to steady the bike. He started off slowly, gritting his teeth, because she was heavier than he thought. But once he got going, it got easier. He pedaled smoothly, sometimes with only one hand on the handlebars, as they sped up one street and down another. Whenever he ran over a pothole, which was often, she screamed with delight, and once, when it looked like they were going to crash, she placed her hand over his, and it felt like love.


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