People play games. They cannot help it. They play them long after they are age-appropriate. They play them because they play them. No one knows why. Haven’t you seen old women playing Cat’s Cradle or Duck Duck Goose? Haven’t you watched grown men playing Dodgeball, Tug-of-war, Punch-the-target, the pen-knife game? The ones where they shout out dares and exact various punishments? People play games, and the boys were no different.
“When are you coming home? The boys keep asking.”
“Oh, I don’t know. I need another month or so.”
“Really? A month or more?”
“At least a month, but maybe more.”
“Do you have a good job? Will you send us some money?”
“No, bitch! Not a dime.”
The boys laughed out loud. Pedro always made their father into a cursing and vulgar man even though he had never heard his father curse or say a bad word to their mother. But this was Pedro’s version of their father, this man who called their mother “bitch.” Carlitos always laughed. He couldn’t help it. Pedro would laugh, and then he had to laugh, too.
“But we cannot make it much longer,” Carlitos said without even trying to imitate his mother’s voice.
“Well, that’s too fucking bad. I have things to do, woman. Important things.”
“But how will we…”
“Not another word, bitch. Not another word!”
The boys had tried many years ago to construct a telephone with two cans and string, but they had no string and used, instead, a wire hanger, pried apart and stretched between them and shoved into the small holes they had punctured in the Progresso cans. Within days, they couldn’t find the hanger. Now, the hanger had been missing for years, but they placed the cans to their ears and talked to each other out of habit, a strange reflex, as if the string was still stretched between them. They did this less now than when they were younger, but they still found themselves, every so often, in the basement playing phone call. To call it a basement was a stretch. Crawlspace was a better word. This space beneath the front porch was where phone call happened. Phone call could happen nowhere else. And this Sunday, like other Sundays, the conversation that took place was between their mother and father. The conversation was always between their mother and father.
“Look woman, I need space. I just fucking needed to get the hell out of that place.”
“But Ricardo. I have made up the garage so you can have your own space. Your own, no one else’s.”
Pedro was surprised to hear Carlitos use their father’s name. Usually, he would use “Papi” or “Great Vacancy” or “Chicken Head” or something else. That Carlitos used the name Ricardo bothered Pedro. It bothered him more than he could even explain. Their mother almost never said their father’s name out loud. Pedro stared. Carlitos knew he had gone too far. He had disappointed his brother. But he was tired of playing the role of his mother in the conversation. He wanted to be his father, Ricardo Blanco, even if he never spoke the name on the phone. It would be easier for him not to say his father’s name if he played his father in the game because folks don’t talk about themselves in third person. And then it would be Pedro’s job to leave the name unspoken.
In Church that morning their mother insisted they go to Confession. Carlitos hated Confession more than anything else. He hated it more than standing in line for Holy Communion or the repeated kneeling-sitting-standing-kneeling throughout Mass. Since there was only one priest at the Church, he knew who was behind the dark screen listening to him. He knew that Father Happy was in there, rolling his eyes or holding back a sigh. No one could remember Father Happy’s real name. Good old Father Happy, who wasn’t even old. But the Church would never send an older priest here. They always sent the younger ones. And Father Happy acted as if he were even younger than he actually was. Carlitos guessed Father Happy was in his mid-thirties, but Father Happy wanted to talk to the young people as if he were twenty. He would ask Carlitos if he listened to Snoop Dogg, if he had seen the new show on MTV. Father Happy was a pretty bad imitation of a twenty-year-old guy. And what twenty-year old guy would be a priest anyway?
Carlitos lied that morning in the Confessional. He lied because he was tired and didn’t want to think about his sins. So, he made them up. Kneeling at the screened window, Father Happy’s shadow shifting behind it, the first thing Carlitos could think to confess was about touching himself inappropriately and having impure thoughts. That was an easy sin to confess. What priest would doubt such a confession from a thirteen-year-old boy? But the reality was that Carlitos had not had impure thoughts. And he had not touched himself in that way, at least not in the past week. But the sins got more and more outrageous and ended with him telling the priest how he had beaten his brother with a switch, beaten him until blood ran from his neck. What impressed him most was the fact this beating required thirty Hail Marys more than the admission of masturbation. And in the end, Carlitos only said eight Hail Marys and a single Our Father. He was thinking ahead. He knew that by skimping on the prayers he would have something to confess next Sunday. And he couldn’t wait to find out how many Hail Marys he would have to say for admitting he hadn’t done the required amount of penance for his last sins. When he rose from kneeling he had to work hard to erase the smirk from his face before he stepped from the dark little box into the light filtered by stained glass in the back of the Church.
Rosa Blanco called out to her sons, and they dropped the cans and crawled out from under the house. She was tired. Her voice was tired. It had that sound, the one that made them worry. They found her in the kitchen with her head in her hands, sitting under the telephone. It hung there, that awkward yellow color that made no attempt to match all of the avocado-green things in the kitchen. It did not ring. It just hung there on the wall, its slim body like the body of an exclamation point. She told them the trees in the front yard needed pruning, especially the big one. She told them they needed to get that done soon and that she wasn’t going to ask them again. And Pedro watched Carlitos. He watched Carlitos staring at the phone.
The boys didn’t prune the tree. They went outside and stared at it. Pedro sat on the sidewalk trying to think of ways to get cigarettes from the corner store four blocks away. Pedro always wanted to smoke. He liked it in a way Carlitos didn’t. Smoking made Carlitos feel light-headed, almost dizzy. It made the muscles in his legs feel tingly and as if someone had stretched them.
“I can’t wait to get out of here. This place sucks hole.”
“Pedro, you’re sixteen…”
“Men get girls pregnant at sixteen!”
“Yeah, but how are you going to make money?”
“I can work in the fields somewhere. I can work in a store.”
“The corner store?”
“No, shithead. In a store far away.”
Carlitos knew Pedro was talking just to talk. So, he ignored him, which was something rare. Carlitos usually hung on every word his brother said. But all of this talk of leaving was just too strange. People in their town never seemed to leave. Except for their father. He let Pedro go on and on about leaving, about meeting lots of women, about how he would party and have fun. Carlitos knew it was all talk. Pedro didn’t know how to do anything except skip school, smoke cigarettes, and mouth off. Carlitos tried, hard as he could, to remember when Pedro had become this way. When they were younger, Pedro was always quiet. Their mother had worried he might have had a speech impediment or some kind of mental problem. The school had put him in a special class, but everyone knew that such a class was anything but special. And what Carlitos knew was that Pedro hated the class, even though he never actually admitted that.
“Let’s go back to phone call.”
“Nah. I don’t want to go down there.”
“You are such a loser sometimes. You know that?”
“Yeah, I know.”
“Loser with a capital fucking ‘L’.”
“Yeah. Capital ‘L’.”
“Bless me, Father, for I have sinned.” It had been two weeks since Carlitos had done the lesser penance, but he had forgotten to confess it last Sunday. He had confessed, instead, to stealing Twinkies from the corner store, to ignoring his mother, and, the old standby, touching himself. He had not stolen Twinkies, but he had jacked off, and he couldn’t remember if he had ignored his mother or not. So, now, he was excited to confess he had not said all of his Hail Marys. This was a true confession, even if it had not happened that week.
As always, Carlitos could make out the shape of Father Happy’s head even though all he could see was the shadow of it against the screen. Father Happy appeared to be desperately trying to hold still or maybe he was leaning against his hand with his elbow on a desk or ledge of some kind. Father Happy sighed and tapped at the screen, his one way of hurrying a sinner to spill it, to confess.
“It has been one week since my last confession.”
“Yes, my son, go on…” Father Happy sighed.
“You see, Father, I didn’t do my entire penance last week. I was tired, so I didn’t say all of the Hail Marys or Our Fathers.”
“But were you sorry for your sins? Did you want to say the prayers?”
“Yes, but I was tired.”
Carlitos knew he was lying, but now the lying had him even more excited. He knew he hadn’t been tired. He knew he had skimped on his penance because he wanted to confess that now. But now, in the dark musty Confessional, this new lie took more precedence. Yes, he had been so tired, so overworked. He went on and on, the dim light in the box staining the screen in front of him with Father Happy’s pudgy shadow.
“God understands how tired we become. But he also knows when we are truly sorry. So, for taking food from the store, you should say ten Hail Marys. For your inappropriate acts, fifteen Hail Marys and an Our Father.”
“But I haven’t even confessed to stealing or touching myself yet! How can you give me penances when I haven’t yet confessed these things?”
“Did you not steal from the store this week? Did you not touch yourself?”
“Well, yeah, I did, Father, but what about my being tired? My not saying the prayers?”
“God and the Church forgive you, my tired son.”
“Yes, but how many Hail Marys?”
“You wanted to say them, so your heart was true. You need not give penance for a true heart.”
Carlitos was outraged. No prayers for an incomplete penance? He expected Father Happy to give him the largest penance ever. He wanted fifty Hail Marys. He expected some Our Fathers thrown in and even a full rosary or two at the Stations of the Cross. Father Happy had confused him. The scale of penance seemed misaligned. But Carlitos said only a brief “Thank you, Father” and then promised to try harder in the coming week to avoid sin.
Pedro had stayed home that Sunday. He said he was sick and kept coughing whenever his mother had been nearby. Rosa Blanco told him to stay in bed, drink lots of fluids, and say some prayers. But when Carlitos and his mother got home, Pedro was not there. He showed up an hour or so later with a story of how he had prayed and then felt better within a half an hour. All that their mother said in response was “God is powerful” before going into the kitchen.
“Felix gave me four cigarettes. We should go smoke under the house.”“I don’t feel like it.” “Bitch, you such a baby.” “Yeah.” “Don’t tell me, ’yeah.’ Just come down there with me.”
Carlitos went down into the crawl space. He didn’t plan on smoking, but went just so his brother didn’t have to go down there alone. Of course he ended up smoking a cigarette. And, of course, they ended up playing phone call. And again, Carlitos let his father’s name slip.
“Shit, man. You don’t understand this game. You keep forgetting the rules.”
“I’m sorry, Pedro. I didn’t mean to…”
“You never gonna do that again.”
“I really didn’t mean to…”
“I don’t fucking care!”
Once again, their mother called them to prune the tree in the front yard. They dropped the cans. They crawled out from under the house, the smell of cigarette smoke in their clothes, their hair. The smoke itself still winding its way out from under the house. Pedro and Carlitos had no idea what kind of tree it was, just that it was the biggest tree they had in their yard and it got “messy.” It wasn’t very big, just slightly taller than Pedro, but still the biggest one. Carlitos called it a eucalyptus tree, but neither of them really knew if it was or not. Carlitos had seen the name “eucalyptus” in a book at school. Months later, he saw an article in the newspaper about how the eucalyptus trees were dying off, how they were slowly disappearing from the California flora. The only Flora that Carlitos knew was the old woman down the street who swept her driveway every afternoon at 2:00 p.m. It was always hotter than hell at that time of day. Crazy old whore, Pedro called her.
The big tree, without even a remote idea of shape, had straggly, thin branches sticking out all over the place. Pedro had pruned it before, but Carlitos had been too young then. Carlitos was worried about what to do. Pedro handed him the sheers and laughed: “You Mexican too, boy.” Carlitos started cutting the straggly branches. They snapped with each click of the sheers locking. Pedro was singing something about shooting gringos. The song made no sense to Carlitos, but the clicking of the sheers set up a drumbeat. Carlitos could see Flora out on her front step staring at them. But she wouldn’t come out. It was too late in the day for that. It was shadow time, the light throwing lines across the yards, the sun within an hour of setting.
“It’s been three years now.”
“He’s never coming back, is he?”
“That man dead. He as dead as deadly.”
“But suppose he’s not dead.”
“So? Suppose he’s not.”
“Then he might come back.”
“Bitch, he never coming home. Él ha desaparecido!”
Carlitos stopped the trimming and stood there with a blank look on his face. He had never heard Pedro speak Spanish to him. Not a single word. And why he understood it, not just what the words meant but what they really meant, was unexplainable even to his own mind. Carlitos cut the largest branch last. He held it in his hand. He felt the weight of it. He looked at Pedro. He looked at the back of Pedro’s head. Carlitos gripped the branch. Desaparecido. The word was lodged in his head. He gripped the branch. He gripped it tighter, felt the bark pressing into the lines of his palm. A splinter of the bark pierced his skin. But he didn’t let go. He gripped it with his left hand, the one Sister Mary Michael called “sinister.” Desaparecido. He gripped it until tears welled in his eyes. There was the viscous sensation of blood in his palm and the sun, now setting, heating his face. There was his brother’s neck, the back of it, brown and dirty, dirty and terrible. He gripped the branch. He gripped it as his hands went numb and his feet went numb. Desaparecido. He felt the weight of it. The branch, in his hand, was like a switch. He lifted his arm. He stared at Pedro’s dirty neck. He felt the blood in his palm, felt it sticky against the branch, and the branch was like a switch. As he stared at the back of Pedro’s neck, he wondered how many prayers he would have to say as penance for intentionally striking his brother. The branch was like a switch. It came down with incredible force.about the author