12

He says, They, Mami and Papi and Tía Pati, were arguing when I came to the window—yelling, all three. I watched. Mami pointed at Papi and then up at the ceiling, to indicate Nelson and me in the bedroom above them, where they thought we were waiting. Papi was in no mood to hear the news. At first he only sighed and picked up a newspaper, rolling it in his hand; with the newspaper in that one hand he slapped at the other hand as though his horse had just lost a race. But now his rage was growing. He walked into the kitchen. I was afraid: I knew what was to come since he had, in the past, used all kinds of things on me, sticks, belts—once he used the garden hose; he had punched me and he had kicked at my ribs. If I’d been smarter, I would have run off with Nelson wherever he went off to, probably to his woman on 18th Street, but I stayed to watch my tía protect me. Papi returned from the kitchen rubbing his chin, with a glass in his hand—beer, I think.

They kept arguing, their voices raising, rising, their bodies circling the room, the arms and eyebrows of both women making all kinds of grand gestures, but soon my tía had headed for the hallway. From there at the window, from that angle, I couldn’t see where she had gone to exactly—probably the bathroom. She held up a finger as if to say, Hold on, one moment, I’ll return soon. While I watched her leave, I prayed quietly, grateful to God for her. How many times had I seen her save me. How many times had she raised her voice for me, in my defense, or put her body between my father and me. How many times had he, my father, walked towards me, quietly, as in a trance, or else crazily, enraged, yelling, his hands always intending to grab and punch at me, and how many times, I cannot count, had she soothed that anger, by stroking his cheek, by touching his shoulder, by looking at him in the way of a sister desperate—demanding—to be heard. Even though she was so ugly, he had listened to her as though her words were this world’s most sacred law. When Tía Pati spoke to my father, when she whispered into his ear, no matter how drunk or angry he had been, no matter how enraged, he obeyed. And how I loved her for it. And here she was again, saving me. I prayed then, thanking God silently.

But now only the two, Mami and Papi, were left standing there, and at the moment Tía Pati left, my father’s back straightened, and he fixed the tuck of his shirt into his pants, and then, without warning, he struck her, my mother, across the face, which I had never seen him do, then he pointed at her in the face, his eyes open and round and dark. Of course, I knew it had happened, I knew he was violent with her, I knew he had struck her before—we had heard their fights—but he had never touched her where we could see them, and now it surprised me. It looked easy, as though it had become a part of one’s grooming: straighten your back, fix the tuck in your shirt, a hand raised, a hand come down. Easy. Mami, still pregnant then, the swell in her belly almost as big as the rest of her, covered her face with her hands where he had slapped her openly, palm first.

Do not get brave with me, you bitch, he said to her, and he returned to the kitchen for another glass of beer, leaving Mami alone to cover her face, to feel the sting, to pace the floor, moving her body this way and that, from here to there quickly throughout the room, with the anxiety of a very small bird. She did not object; she did not scream; she had received her punishment quietly, without crying, without complaint. I remained crouched in front of my house, looking through that window, waiting for my tía to appear again, waiting for her to save us all. My thighs and my knees, maybe tired from crouching, or perhaps because I was afraid, shook. And it was true, I was afraid of my father—of course—for he was brutal. Look what he had done to Mami. Remember his threats to me and Nelson. But it was equally true that I had faith in my tía. In a moment, my father, coming back out of the kitchen with a new filled glass of beer, raised it to drink—and, as he tilted back his head, I thought he spotted me. I saw his eyes—had they stopped on me?—and I stood still, hoping to have gone unnoticed. Then I saw that he did not finish his sip of beer before he lowered his glass, and I understood. Yes, he was looking at me now.

With his eyes wide, wide open, as just as round, as just as dark as when he’d hit Mami, and with his forehead hard and flat and smooth, he lifted his arm and motioned me to him, so I stood up and came inside. I passed Mami, who had stopped pacing around and now was watching me. Where had I come from?—she was probably thinking; after all she had herself put us up in the bedroom, and she had never known about our secret way down. I approached Papi. I was trying not to shiver. When I got close I did not look up, so that I did not have to see him raise his hand at me. Instead, I watched the floor. I thought about my tía—where had she gone? where was she now? where was her voice now to stop him?—and now I felt the space between hope and truth grow wide. When I fell to the floor I was still thinking about my tía, and I fell like I always did—my hands over my ears, my eyes closed tightly, holding my breath in my cheeks.

___

My father picks up, bites, and chews a bit of chicken wing. He licks his fingers. He swallows. I look at him, and I eat my own food. He says to me, You know, mijo, a very small child cannot comprehend his life as aimed at anything in particular. It is merely spread out before him to experience. To eat, to drink, to breathe. To laugh and to suffer. He shakes his head. He says to me, That name Purpose, mijo, whether real or imagined, is given to such things only in those years after.

He says that Tía Pati had still been gone, down the hall somewhere, and now Concha could only watch the spectacle, powerless—as always, stopped by fear, by cowardice—to demand anything of her husband. Sr. Moreno silently began to beat him, who also remained silent. But then suddenly she, Concha, was moving down the hallway, and she was yelling out, Pati! Pati! What is happening! Are you all right!

No, she was not all right.

Concha raced down the hallway and stopped at the closed door of the bathroom. Sr. Moreno’s attention moved away from his son, too, who remained on the floor for a long, long time before he moved any part of his child’s body. His Papi walked towards the bathroom door. By now Concha was hitting the door with an open palm, saying, Pati, Pati, Pati. Please, Pati. My father, that boy Nofrito, opened his eyes and closed his eyes, and he lay on the floor wishing only to fall asleep.

Chapter 1
Chapter 2
Chapter 3
Chapter 4
Chapter 5
Chapter 6
Chapter 7
Chapter 8
Chapter 9
Chapter 10
Chapter 11
Chapter 12
Chapter 13
Chapter 14
Chapter 15
Full Text

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