In Memory of Gods and Heroes (Chapter One Excerpt)
by Esteban A. Martinez
I'm in my apartment, sitting
at the table with my cousin Adam. He's a student at the community college
where I teach. I'm helping him write a research
paper about starving Somalians. We're looking at some photographs from Life.
Photographs of starving children. Skeletons with skin stretched over their
bones. The subject makes me seethe with anger, makes me want to hit someone,
anyone, in this godless world. Adam is the opposite. I can see in his eyes
that he'll never hit anyone, that he wants to touch the people in the photographs,
to hold them, to feed them, and that he sees God everywhere, in everything.
I sometimes become irritated by him because he always prays, gives thanks.
We've been best friends since we were children.
My phone rings. I think of not answering. I don't have an answering
machine and it keeps ringing. Its on it's fifteenth ring by the time
I answer it.
It's Laura, my sister, and her voice sounds like she's crying or has
"Santiago, Kootie's in
the hospital. She might die."
Kootie's real name is Chantel. She's a beautiful six-year old with big
brown eyes, full lips and an intelligent mind. In fact, she owns an IQ
of 152 according to some shrink at her school. She came from my other
I replay Laura's words in my head and don't feel anything. Maybe I'm
in shock. I wait for her to say something else. Then she starts bawling
and her voice sounds the way it did when she was a kid, lost and afraid.
I haven't heard that voice for a long time. It does something to me,
makes me feel like a child. I'm startled and speak fast.
"Stop. You're not making
sense. Stop crying."
She starts hiccupping and I become nervous, anxious.
I tell her to shut up.
The line goes quiet for about three seconds. Then the adult Laura speaks.
"Somebody burned Kootie's
head with a hot frying pan. She's in critical condition. We're at Denver
General. Robin and Tony are being
questioned by the police and social services. Robin has burns too. On
her neck and chin."
Then the child returns, sort of whimpers.
"Santi’. Come down
I don't say good-bye. I hang up and call my Dad. I tell him the story,
tell him I'll meet him at the hospital, that I'm leaving. Then I hang
up the phone again and sit on the kitchen floor. I've forgotten about
Adam until he touches my shoulder.
* * *
The road is bumpy. The hospital is ten miles from where I live. Adam
sits next to me, silent. I'm thinking of clues, clues I never should've
ignored, clues hinting that Robin's husband, Tony, beats her, that he
abuses his daughter.
I hope Tony burned Kootie's head on purpose so that he'll do some time.
I curse an old woman driving a Cadillac in front of me. She's going
too damn slow. I pass her and call her a name. Adam says my name.
"What?" I say.
"I was just remembering
"What do you mean?"
"I was thinking of when
we were kids."
Adam always calls to my attention his left-field thoughts, thoughts
that have nothing to do with the present. I look away from the road and
stare at him with irritation.
"Why were you thinking
"You're so different."
"Back then you seemed
so . . . so complete. I used to want to be you."
I'm thinking about what he's just said. Is he saying I'm not complete
I ask him. He thinks for about a full minute.
"No, that's not what
I mean. What I mean is that . . . that you're different."
I'm upset about why were driving to the hospital, about Kootie, and
give him another irritated look.
"Not now," I say. "Pray
to your god."
Then I begin thinking of Robin, of how she used to be.
* * *
A small town near Rapid City, South Dakota. A pond about a mile behind
our house. Eight years old. Looking for turtles and salamanders. Robin,
eleven, sits in mud at the edge of the pond, makes sure I don't kill
anything. Laura, thirteen, plays with the pussy willows behind us. Time
doesn't exist until a clump of mud splatters against my face.
I look at Laura, follow her gaze to Robin who is staring at two boys
I hate, Shane and Carol Stubblefield.
I'm not afraid of Carol. I've beaten him to a pulp plenty of times,
but Shane scares the shit out of me. Unlike his little brother, he doesn't
have soft round features. He has a pointy chin, sharp little teeth and
rat-pink eyes. And he's taller than any other kids his age that I know.
I want to tell my sisters to run, run like hell.
But when I open my mouth, Robin gives me a look that says shut up. I
obey because I fear Robin more than I do Shane. Not only can she beat
me in a fight, she can also make my life miserable by ignoring me.
Shane snorts and spits a mucous glob in my direction. Then he grins
with his sharp little teeth.
"What are you shit-eating
'Injuns' doin' here? This is OUR pond."
I look from him to Robin. I want her to give us the order to run. I
keep thinking, please tell us to run, please.
Instead, she scoots closer to the water and digs her hand into the muck,
makes a small pile of it. Then she looks at Shane and speaks calm, matter-of-factly.
"We're not Indians, we're
Staring at Robin, Shane takes a few steps toward me.
"I don't care shit head.
Din't you hear me? This is OUR pond."
My heart races. I'm terrified. And I'm angry because I'm terrified.
I look at Robin who is rising slowly. She motions me to her and calls
Laura walks to Robin and cries.
Robin holds her hand.
Another mud clump sails through the air.
It lands on Laura's head.
Everyone except the toads and crickets are quiet for about five seconds.
Then Laura sort of moans Robin's name and Robin screams a war cry.
Robin and I spend a lot of time with our father in bars. Have done so
since we were toddlers. He's an alcoholic, a damn good pool player, and
he likes to show us off. He never takes Laura. Damn near every word we've
learned in the bars, Robin includes in her war cry.
"DAMN, FUCK, SONOFABITCH,
COCKSUCKER, CUNTFACE, SHITHEAD, BASTARD, MOTHERFUCKER, ASSHOLE!"
Shane's eyes become wide.
Robin bends over, lifts some of the pond muck she's piled, runs to Shane
and smears his face with it.
Along with Shane, Laura and I stare at Robin in disbelief.
Backing away from Shane and readying herself for his move, Robin looks
like one of those all-star wrestlers I watch on Saturday nights.
Despite her confidence, the odds are against her. Shane stands at least
four inches taller than she does.
Carol looks utterly confused. Slowly, he's backing away from his brother
and Robin. I want to laugh because I know he's afraid.
Shane's face twists into a rattish snarl.
Then Shane kicks her in the crotch.
Carol runs to Robin and kicks her in the face.
I charge, fists swinging.
Shane picks me up and throws me into the pond.
The water is warm from the sun.
I don't know what to do; feel afraid. I look around and see that Laura
is pointing and crying.
"Help her, Santiago!
I look where she's pointing and see Robin wrapped around Shane's leg
biting his thigh. He's screaming.
She won't let go even though Carol is kicking at her.
I feel some rocks under my feet, rocks bigger than my hands, bend over
and pull a fist-sized one from the murky pond. Then I rush Carol and
throw it at him.
He falls instantly and cries. I kick him.
Shane punches me.
Robin stands and begins boxing Shane's face.
Carol pushes himself up from the ground, abandons Shane. I see his head
bobbing up and down through a swath of pussy willows.
Laura sits where she stood and continues crying.
Robin grabs Shane by his neck and wrestles him to the ground. He struggles
with her, but she pins him on his back by sitting on his chest and digging
her knees into his inner biceps. He tries to break her pin by bucking
up and down, but she won't let him go.
"Get a rock!" she
Quickly, I find one, one bigger than both my hands, and run to her side.
"If he moves anymore,
crack his head with it."
Shane becomes very still.
I begin thinking of the rules
my father gave us for fighting. At first they had been simple with
a lot a room for interpretation. "If someone
hits you, you hit them back. Don't let anyone pick on you." Then,
I accidentally broke a boy's arm in a school fight and our father changed
the rules. "Don't go overboard," he said to Robin and me (not
to Laura because she never fights). "Only use necessary force." The
way he said this, as if it were of the utmost importance, made me feel
like a student in a karate movie. I vowed never to forget and always
obey his new sacred rules. I can almost hear his voice.
"Hit him in the head!"
I drop the rock.
Shane bucks but remains under Robin's control.
"Get the rock. Hit him!"
I bend, grab the rock, then stand above Shane's head.
He quits bucking, stares at me, begins to stutter.
"Wu,wu,wu . . . wut .
. . wut you gonna do?"
He sounds like he's going to cry.
Robin juts her face toward me.
"Stay where you are, Santi’."
Then she looks at Laura sitting by the pond, whimpering.
"Come here, Laura."
Laura looks at Robin, confused.
Robin motions with her head.
Laura stands up shaking, makes her way over.
Shane looks at all of us, puzzled.
I keep thinking of my father's fighting rules and wonder if Robin remembers
them. She clears the phlegm in her throat and spits into Shane's face.
He starts to cry. She speaks. Softly. At first.
"You said you fucked
my sister. How come? Why did you say that? SUCKASSFUCKER! Laura, stomp
on his face!"
Laura doesn't move.
"Why? I don't want to."
My mind returns to my father's
rules. I don't want to be punished for "going
Robin shouts as loud as she can.
"STOMP HIS FACE!"
Then her voice softens.
"He said he fucked you,
Laura. He lied about you. Stomp his face and he'll never do it again."
"I told everyone you
have a lot of pussy hair."
Laura lifts her foot and stomps his face.
Robin gets off of him. I'm not sure why, maybe to give him a fair chance.
He struggles to his feet and grabs Laura by her hair which hangs past
Laura begins punching and kicking.
I start toward the two to help Laura but Robin stops me with one of
All I do is watch.
A bloody fight.
Shane's a good fighter but he's tired from fighting with Robin and myself.
Laura stands about as tall as Shane, weighs at least fifteen pounds
less and has never fought in her life. She's a quiet girl, uncertain
of herself. She usually walks around with bad posture, a slightly hunched
back. And she's always crying. About something.
But when she fights Shane, the Laura I know disappears.
I can't see her anywhere.
Instead, I see an animal fighting for its life.
With grunts and groans, she kicks Shane, punches him, claws his face,
bites him and spits on him.
He gets in a couple of licks that I know would floor me but they have
little effect on Laura.
If Robin and I don't stop her, I think she'll hurt Shane badly.
We pull her off of him.
Shane stays where he is, stretched out on the ground bleeding. His eyes
look like the eyes of Wile E. Coyote after he's been hit by a train.
Slowly, he gets up and limps away; disappears into the pussy willows.
I look at Laura.
She looks . . . like someone sprinkled her with magic. Even though she's
bloody and bruised, she's not crying, she's not hunched over and her
eyes have a bright intensity I've never seen before.
I think she'll never be the same.
I look at Robin.
I obey immediately because today I know she is some kind of magic person,
and I worship her.
* * *
We're pulling into the hospital parking lot and Adam spots my dad. He's
wearing greasy cover-alls and has grease smudges on his cheeks, forehead
and chin. I figure he was restoring one of his old cars when I called
him. Restoration is his passion. He sees us and waits for us to park.
When we reach him, he asks me what the fuck is going on. He clenches
his dirty muscular hands and hits a parked car.
We go to the emergency area and find out that the doctors put Kootie
in the intensive care unit on the third floor. They tell us she's going
to live, her situation is not life threatening.
The three of us walk to the elevators in silence.
In the elevator, I stare at my dad. He looks how I hope to look when
I'm his age. He has all of his hair and it's still black. His wrinkles
complement his face instead of destroy it. They make him look rugged.
And his body still looks solid, like he could probably take out two guys
half his age in a fight.
I notice Adam using the elevator mirror to stare at me. I get an urge
to laugh at his bald head and round spectacles. He looks like a well-fed
Ghandi. I think of where we're going and my urge dies. The elevator doors
open and, in silence, we follow arrows on the floor to the intensive
When we reach intensive care, I look for Laura but don't see her. Before
I can think about her absence, I notice Tony. He's hunched over with
his eyes closed, sitting on a chair. He smells like booze, cheap beer.
He has on dirty jeans, a shirt too small for his fat body. His long hair
glows with grease and his face looks as though he hasn't shaved it for
three or more days.
I want to kick him in his face.
I scan the room and see Robin in a far corner. She's talking to a woman
with a note pad who's nodding seriously and exchanging glances with a
tired-looking cop a few feet away.
My dad looks at Tony and hisses.
"What the fucking hell
The question assumes Tony's guilt. My dad bases the assumption on a
suspicion, a suspicion that all of my family -- from my teen-aged cousins
to my ninety-nine-year-old great grandmother -- has had for some time
and has never bothered to prove or disprove. Ever. Everyone has always
wanted to mind their own business. But we've all suspected. We've all
entertained the idea that Tony is a fucked up sonofabitch and beats the
shit out of my sister and does weird shit, crazy shit, to Chantel. We've
all suspected and none of us have ever done a damn thing about it.
The thought lingers in my brain and I begin to plot a murder, Tony's
I figure the fat bastard drinks way too damn much. He probably should've
died a couple of years ago from cirrhosis, although he's only thirty-three.
I think of a twenty-nine-year
old man I saw on the news pointing to his bare bloated stomach saying, "this is what booze does to you
kids." He was on the news because he made a video for kids about
the effects of alcoholism. He used himself as the objective piece of
evidence. A few days after he finished making the film, he died of an
exploded liver. I figure Tony probably should've died some time ago.
I mean, my god, Tony is older than that guy I saw on the tube. Maybe
I can poison his fat ass so that he dies of what seems to be cirrhosis.
Tony looks at my Dad and says nothing. My Dad kicks Tony's feet.
"Goddammit, I asked you
The cop crosses the room, hurries to my dad and squeezes his body in
between Tony's chair and my dad.
"Sir, would you please
sit over there?"
My dad doesn't like cops.
"Sure, yeah. Are you
going to arrest this piece of shit?"
The cop puts his hands on his hips.
"Sir, if you don't sit
down, I'm going to arrest you."
My dad snorts, then walks slowly to a chair on the other side of the
Tony closes his eyes, leans back in his chair and sighs.
I think, if only I can catch the fat bastard in the act. I'll eat the
motherfucker for lunch. Nobody fucks with my god. Nobody.
* * *
On the drive back from the hospital, I can feel Adam staring at me.
"What the hell you looking at?" I
"I'm trying to read your
face. How do you feel?"
"Read my face."
"You need to tell me."
Adam's the brother I never had. There's something between us, a connection
hard to understand, hard to believe, but I know it's there. Even though
we're related genetically, we share some other bond, a knowledge that
somehow our lives are meant to intertwine in the future. It's as though
we're waiting for some predetermined event to occur, an event that involves
the two of us. Because we want to believe in freedom, neither of us wants
to believe in this predetermination. But in our hearts we know it's true.
"Read my face." I
"Are you thinking about
I hiss at him.
"You know what I'm talking
"Man, don't start with that bullshit.” I say. “There's
no such thing. I don't want to hear that shit. You should be thinking
about your paper."
"Yeah." I say.
"Maybe they're related
to the thing."
"There isn't a thing.
Life is a series of random occurrences. Shut up and let me drive."
He obeys for about three minutes. During the silence, I force myself
to think of anything but the thing, the sense of some predetermined pattern
in our lives.
Then Adam clears his throat.
"Uh . . . Santiago, you
gotta tell me what you're thinking."
"I'm not thinking about
the thing. That's what I'm thinking about."
"But what about Robin?
What are you thinking about all that?"
"Well, I wasn't thinking
about it but thanks to you now I am."
"That's what you should talk about,” he says. “How
you feel about that."
"Okay. This is what I
think. I think if I ever had the opportunity, I'd kill Tony. If I could
get away with it, he'd be dead. If I ever see
him do anything to Robin, I won't care if I can get away with it or not.
I'll try to kill him on the spot. I hate him. He's a piece of shit. His
life doesn't mean shit."
Adam says nothing until I pull in front of his apartment.
"We'll work on your paper tomorrow in my office," I say. "Right
now I'm gonna go get fucked up at Mile-Hi Saloon. Maybe snag one of those
ripe kitties. Tell Brandy hi for me."
He looks at the ground.
I wait for him to say good-bye.
"Be careful," he
* * *
I'm sitting at my table where less than a month ago I helped Adam write
about starving Somalians. I'm shaking, staring at the phone.
I want to call Adam.
I need to talk.
But I just stare at the phone and think.
About the incident in the hospital that happened not more than a month
ago. About how social services stopped their investigation of Robin's
family because she convinced them it was an accident. About a news story
I read not too long ago which stated that each social worker in Denver
has a case load of one hundred per day. About how none of us who know
about the unspoken ugliness in Robin's life did a damn thing when given
the opportunity at the hospital.
About how my father, despite the intensity of his soul, seeming to forget
about it all, disappeared in his garage, his heaven of restoration. About
how Laura has changed, become an adult version of the child she was before
her rebirth at the pond. About how I keep teaching and getting fucked
up every night.
About how I said I'd try to kill Tony if I ever saw him do anything.
About how less than an hour ago I picked Robin up from her house and
took her to Safeway because she doesn't know how to drive. About how
Tony can't drive with all his DUIs. About how I asked Robin on the way
why Tony doesn't take the bus and shop for her and Chantel. About how
she changed the subject.
About how when I dropped her
off, Tony, looking pissed, opened the door to the house and said, "What
the fuck took you so long?"
About how Robin cowered before him.
About how I thought of Robin fighting and winning near the pond.
About how I worshipped her.
About how Tony said, "I'm
talking to you godamnit. Answer me!"
About how I didn't want to look at him when he said that.
About how, as I was staring at my feet, I heard the crack of a slap
and a scream.
About how I looked up and saw that Robin's eye was all puffy.
About how I froze; did nothing.
About how Robin looked at me and I could tell by the brevity of her look, her unwillingness to make real eye contact, that she no longer believes in herself, nor in me, and is ashamed of both of us.
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