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 been crying.

"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 sister, Robin.

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.

In control.

"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 here. Hurry."

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 you."

"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 about that?"

"You're so different."

"So."

"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 now?

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.
Shane is in Laura's grade and Carol is in my grade. I hate Carol because he calls me 'Cocheese' in school and I hate Shane because he told the kids at Laura's school that he fucked her. I'm not certain what 'fuck' means, but it doesn't sound good, especially because it made Laura cry.

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 Mexicans."

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 over.

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.

Robin tenses.

Then Shane kicks her in the crotch.
Robin doubles over. Laura screams.

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! Help her!"

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 says.

Quickly, I find one, one bigger than both my hands, and run to her side.
She looks at me.

"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.

Robin shouts.

"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.

"NOW!"

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.

"LAURA!"

Laura whines.

"Why? I don't want to."

My mind returns to my father's rules. I don't want to be punished for "going overboard."

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."
Shane's not very intelligent. The odds are against him. Robin on top of him, me with my rock and Laura, an unknown in the equation, should tell him to keep quiet. Instead, he glares at Laura and speaks with a laugh in his voice.

"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 her butt.

Laura begins punching and kicking.

I start toward the two to help Laura but Robin stops me with one of her looks.

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.
She looks as though she's thinking big important thoughts. Then she smiles, a slight and brief smile, barely noticeable, and orders us to begin our walk home.

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 care unit.

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 happened?"

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 murder.

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. Maybe.

Tony looks at my Dad and says nothing. My Dad kicks Tony's feet.

"Goddammit, I asked you a question!"

Tony sighs.

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 room.

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 say.

"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 say.

"Are you thinking about the thing?"

I hiss at him.

"What thing?"

"You know what I'm talking about."

"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."

"The Somalians?"

"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 says.

* * *

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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