After the Pyre
By Esteban Rodríguez
I wanted to kill my stepfather. I’d dream it. Daydream it. Imagine myself standing over Santos in the middle of a field, watching blood spurt from the punctured wound on his chest—his white wife-beater quickly turning red. I’d picture his cracked, inebriated lips struggling for breath, stammering a string of syllables that sounded like Why, ¿Por qué?, while I—clenching the gun or knife tighter in my hand—searched for an answer that would not only add a sense of closure, but would remind him that his life had always been beyond the boundaries of redemption.
Santos lived with his mother across the street from us. From what I knew, his mother was dying, had been for years: old age, diabetes, new bouts of what I could now guess was bronchitis, pneumonia, or some chronic strain of the flu that required weekly visits from a home-health nurse, further fueling her unwillingness to continue being spoon-fed, sponge-bathed, diaper-changed, spoken to like a child, and taken to la pulga once—perhaps twice if she was feeling up to it—a month, where she was wheelchaired through the labyrinth of veteran vendors that studied the nightgowned skeleton she had become.
Though it’s easy to picture her face—the strands of static-colored hair cascading over her forehead, temples, ears; the wrinkles and paper-mâché-like roughness of her cheeks—I’d only ever see her those afternoons when I’d sit on the porch steps and watch Santos carry her down the makeshift ramp my mother told me he had built, tilting her carefully through the sun-warped planks, pivoting when they reached the bottom, and then pushing her along the walkway of sunken, octagon-shaped bricks crookedly leading to the chain-link gate. “Don’t stare,” I can still hear my mother saying. “You should know better. It’s rude to stare.” But whenever I did stare at Santos and his mother, she was already walking over to help, to open the side of his or our van.
I should have been envious. I should have been committing myself to those predictable outbursts boys my age—give or take a few years—were known for when their fathers had left them early enough to retain only fragments of the moments they shared. I should have been that son sitting silently at the table, forking a plateful of spaghetti as protest for his stepfather’s presence, answering Alright, Okay, Good when his mother asked him how his day was at school. I should have been watching him with contempt, molding an Oedipal mindset reserved exclusively for stepfathers, while trying to figure out what this—this hand touching, this waist grabbing, this ear whispering, this hand in my mother’s back pocket—all meant. And although I can now include references as overused as Oedipus to help explain how it felt as though I were fulfilling some preordained prophecy every time I imagined myself standing over his dead or dying body, there was never any chance for me to embody an image of that son when our dinners together were merely outings at McDonald’s or Golden Corral.
“¿Por qué no?” I remember him asking my grandmother one Saturday afternoon, the palms of his hands tapping the barbed ends of the chain-link fence that extended from my grandparents’ house to ours. It was spring. The clouds were emaciated as always in south Texas, and despite the red and green blots on TV predicting a chance of scattered showers, the weather remained purgatorial.
“Sólo quiero hablar con ella. Sólo quiero ver a mi hija,” he told my grandmother. My Spanish was still in its infancy, and even if two decades later, at the age of 27, the double r’s, diphthongs, and adjectives placed after nouns still feel foreign on my tongue, I know what Santos was pleading for that day. I knew that his flaring hand gestures meant he wanted to see my half-sister, cradle the baby she was in his arms, and be the father he expected himself to be, at least before he proceeded to corner my mother and curse her out, explain what a bitch, whore, backstabbing woman she had become in a language I didn’t need to understand to see.
“Porque no,” reiterated my grandmother. “No quiere hablar contigo. Ya. Nunca.”
“But that’s not right, Teresa. She’s my daughter, too,” he protested, pointing at my grandparents’ house. I didn’t know how he knew we were inside, but he knew, and he pointed, and he stood behind that fence trying to reason with my grandmother, waving his arms unpersuasively.
He had the body of a construction worker, of a man who put in twelve-hour shifts six days out of the week; whose flesh emanated the faint scent of wet cement; and whose hands—his right one missing the pinky, ring, and middle finger—appeared to be well acquainted with decades of second-hand tools, wood, concrete, and with the ins and outs of a trade every man in his family had, at some point in their lives, entered into.
Despite his wife-beaters and white tees, his oil-stained Wranglers sagging from his waist, and his sole-worn steel toes with the hem of each pant leg tucked inside, he didn’t work in construction, never had. From what I asked and learned from my mother during a phone call we had regarding his life, he had been out of work for more than half a decade because of a burn injury he suffered when a bomb exploded at a gas station in Florida, disfiguring and scarring 45% of his body, so that every time I looked at him, I’d think of Liam Neeson in Darkman, minus the embarrassment to go out in public, or the sense that he needed to bring the world to justice. He told my mother it was a small bomb from a former, disgruntled employee who had placed it in the trash bins by the side of the store. One second he was walking out the front doors; the next, he was rolling on the concrete; the lot, patrons, fire and smoke were all blurring into one.
Of course, it was difficult to believe this narrative, to imagine a homemade bomb being planted at a gas station in the late-80s in Florida, to see him as a victim, a headline, a medically induced, comatose patient that despite years of skin grafts, would never look like himself again. Bombs were meant for movies. Bombs were meant for political retaliation, domestic terrorism, warzones in the Balkans or the Middle East, places whose mere names evoked thoughts of civil unrest, or for pictures in history textbooks with captions that described how night after night of them, reigning in clusters, destroyed a city, turned the landscape into ash and rubble. Bombs were not meant for Florida gas stations. They were not meant for my stepfather. They were not meant to be believable.
After hanging up, I felt the urge to investigate, learn how many people were wounded, how many dead, what the punishment for the bomber was, if he was ever caught. A simple internet search could have yielded news reports of a bombing or bombing-like incident within the past 20 years in Florida. But when I sat down and opened my laptop, typed the words Florida and bomb, I found myself quickly deleting the search. Who was I to challenge the story he told my mother? To undermine the claims she felt so inclined to believe? Even as my voice grew skeptical when I uttered, “A bomb? What do you mean ‘a bomb’?” My mother didn’t hesitate reiterating her initial response. “It was a bomb. A small one. How do you think he got all those burns? Don’t you remember the right side of his body? His arms? Remember he didn’t have three fingers? That’s why he had long hair, so it could cover his neck. It kept the sun from burning him up.”
Perhaps at one point she too had experienced doubt about his story, had felt that he was merely stretching his account in order to impress her, show that in spite of the explosion – the car shrapnel, the distance he flew, the burns that enveloped his body – he was still alive, a testimony to ‘some higher plan’ in which he had been included.
“No quiere. Ya te dije,” said my grandmother, shaking her head. “Déjala en paz.”
“Teresa, por favor,” he said. “I just want to see Iris. Es todo. Nada más, señora. I just want to see her.” He moved his hand up to his neck and, with his index finger and thumb, began scratching crab-like at his jaw.
I watched this from the half-opened window, my face nearly touching the mesh. My mother was in the kitchen talking to her twin brothers, Jaime and Javi. I could hear their voices. I could sense her urgency. I turned around and saw three silhouettes shifting back and forth. My sister, barely a year old, was in a baby rocker somewhere, but she wasn’t crying, wasn’t reflecting the mood that would have helped nudge the plotline along, guide us into a climax. No, she was the reason this was occurring, and she was cast offstage, not even an audience member.
Jaime and Javi were in their teens, still a year or two away from graduating high school. They were thinner then, had fades and mustaches and wore long shirts, cheap silver chains, and baggy black jeans with the belt buckled just above their crotches. They walked as though they were part of a gang scoping out new neighborhood territory to claim. But their vice was cars, cars that formed a small collection along the border of the empty lot next to my grandmother’s house; cars they worked on after school or on the weekends, adding hydraulics, swapping out the rims, gluing square or rectangular pieces of mirrors—which they themselves had measured and cut— along the dashboard and door, installing a chain steering wheel, or a black convertible top, or a new radio, or a pair of subwoofers that made my neck tingle every time they got me to sit in the backseat to listen to how badass the bass sounded. With money I could only guess my grandparents lent them, they’d buy cars from friends and shady dealers, then take them to shadier shops that repainted them the way lowriders were supposed to be painted, designing the hood with a tiger, a lion, a wolf, or some striped, feral animal that could only be tamed by a half-naked, green-eyed warrior woman I’d always make the mistake of staring at too long.
My uncles thought of themselves not as mechanics or body shop experts, but as artists, and that’s what they were when they were slouched over their incomplete canvases. But as they left my mother in the kitchen, moved out of their silhouettes, their faces—I remember—weren’t the faces of teenage boys contemplating creative projects. Jaime opened the screen door. Javi trailed close behind.
My grandmother turned around. She knew what this was about. Had my grandfather not been resigned to the bedroom in the back of the house, where he had been living horizontally for three or four years, nearly blind and immobile, getting up only to sit in the beige, sunken La-Z-Boy in the living room, he would have been out there in the yard, talking Santos down, convincing him to accept my mother’s unwillingness to negotiate the terms of his involvement.
My grandmother took a step back, her gaze lying somewhere between shocked and expected. “Jaime, ¿qué haces?” she asked.
“The fuck, man?” yelled Jaime.
“What the hell do you want?” joined Javi.
“She doesn’t want to deal with you. Get the fuck out of here!”
“This has nothing to do with you, Javi,” said Santos.
“It’s Jaime, maricón.”
“Sorry, sorry,” said Santos, backing away from the fence. He raised his hands to his chest, looked down in what appeared to be a quick surrender, and then looked up the way a man looks up when they realize they cannot sacrifice any more ground than they’ve already given.
“Jaime, por favor,” urged my grandmother. Jamie took a few steps forward, ignoring my grandmother’s pleas. Though she yelled for them to stop, she also began moving toward the porch, not because she wanted to avoid the chaos, but because she wanted her sons to carry out some sibling duty that required them to protect their older sister the way she protected them, even if— despite their fifteen-year age difference—all my mother had done in the past was lessen the trouble they got into around the house.
Santos leaned back and, with his crab hand, attempted to make his case. “Jaime, I was just telling your mother here que all I want to do is see Maria Elena and Iris. And Esteban if he’s there, too.”
“She don’t want to see you. Stop bothering her.”
“You’re gonna get your fucking ass kicked,” said Javi.
“Look, look. That’s between your sister and me,” said Santos, snapping his crab hand across the air. “Iris is almost a year old and she won’t let me see her. Think about it. I don’t get to see my daughter for a year. A year. Do you think that’s fair? She didn’t want to tell me. That’s not right.”
No one wanted to hear about fairness that day, and even as I, from time to time, ponder this moment again, sympathize with the fact that my mother was a few months pregnant with my sister before she decided to tell Santos about it, and that in some sense he was deprived of what also belonged to him, I too can’t let myself feel guilty for things he himself should have been more responsible for.
My mother and Santos were already separated, and her decision to leave him, as she later told me, came when she found a Ziploc bag full of marijuana in the console of her van, stashed, carelessly, beneath insurance papers, old receipts, and cassette tapes. Though he resisted the divorce, maintained that he was merely holding the bag for a friend and had no intention of smoking or selling it, my mother made him leave the house. “I couldn’t run the risk. I just couldn’t,” she said. “He was already drinking a lot and he had lied and if I got caught, I would’ve lost both you and my job with the state. I had had it with him. So I kicked him out.”
“He had it in the console?” I asked.
“Yes, and he specifically told me that he didn’t. So no. When I found it, I didn’t want anything more to do with him.” There was a pause on my end, hinting at my disbelief about the situation. Marijuana, however, was easier to accept than a bomb.
“I didn’t know that,” I said. “I remember certain episodes, but not everything.”
“Yes. That’s what happened. He wasn’t always bad. He had his good moments, don’t get me wrong. This one time, we had no money. We were down to I think five or six dollars and we went to the corner store and you got off with him and you said you wanted a chocolate milk and he bought it for you. He wanted to buy a beer or something, I don’t know. But he got you the milk instead and you were happy.”
“That was nice,” I said, trying to picture my three- or four-year-old self in the store with him, walking toward the freezers in the back. “It’s hard to recall a lot of things,” I said. “The moment that does stand out was when Jaime and Javi started fighting with him in grandma’s front yard.”
“Yeah,” said my mother. “I told them to do it.”
“You did? Why?” I asked, feeling as though I were coming to Santos’ defense.
“Because he wouldn’t leave me alone and I had had enough. He was always bothering us, and I just didn’t want nothing to do with him no more.”
“And they did it just like that?”
“Yes. They knew what was happening. They saw all the bruises and marks and that’s why they agreed. And I have no regrets about what they did. Why are you asking about all of this? You’ve never been interested in him before. Are you writing something?”
“No,” I lied. “Just got curious. That’s all.”
In the front yard that afternoon, I recall my grandmother dressed in what looked like a nightgown. She wore brown huaraches. She wore her hair in a bun. She wore a curious and concerned look on her clay-colored face. She shouted, “Javi! Jaime! Por favor. No quiero que hagan nada.” And there were my uncles shouting at Santos in Spanish, calling him maricón, puto, pinche güey quemado, pinche güey que no tiene verga, and sprinkling what I thought was the more intimidating English, the Get the fuck off our property, the Fucking leave you fucking asshole, the You’re fucking deaf or what? And there was Santos, unable to verbally respond to their comments, and physically unwilling to either, overcome more by his impulse to show that he was a man by all accounts, that he did indeed have a dick, a verga.
Santos moved around the fence, rolling his shoulders back, popping his neck. He was tall, lanky, clumsy with every step, and whatever toughness his body claimed lay more in the fact that when you faced him, you were facing a man who had already endured the beating of fire on his skin.
“Ya! The hell with you all. I’m gonna show you who you’re messing with.” He grabbed the end of the fence, where the gate should have been, and swung around. My grandmother moved closer to the porch as I moved forward, uncertain why I felt drawn to the way Javi took off his shirt, revealing a wife-beater that did little to cover the dreamcatcher tattoo I had sworn not to mention to either my mother or grandmother, or why I admired the way Jaime began lifting his jeans and squatting low enough to parody a karate stance.
Javi took a few quick steps to his right, causing Santos to hesitate. He looked at Jaime, then at Javi, unsure who he should go after first. He settled for Javi, the closest, and as he moved toward him, Jaime lowered his head and charged at Santos, swinging his fists into a series of hooks that struck him in the ribs. Santos swung, hitting Jaime on the back of his head, hitting Javi’s raised forearms, partially protecting his face. But his punches weren’t enough to stop Javi from gripping him by his shirt collar and pulling him down. Santos tripped on Javi’s leg. He hit the ground and rolled to his side, looking up just in time to see Javi lunging, hitting him twice: once in the jaw, the other between his shoulder and chest. Jaime turned around, lifted his jeans again, and as Santos attempted to grab Javi by the arms, to keep him from landing any more hits, Jaime swung his right leg and kicked him in the thigh, hips, ribs.
These were my uncles. This was the same Jaime who in second grade would pick me up after school one afternoon with his baby blue lowrider, becoming the center of discussion amongst my friends the next day; that half-disbelief, half-astonishment that I was related to the man inside that car, that I got to ride in the front seat with the windows down, the hydraulics slightly raised, the bass from some rap song spilling onto the pick-up lane. This was the same uncle I recall telling me to shut up if I didn’t know the lyrics to a song, because mumbling shit I didn’t know ruined the entire flow; a statement reiterated by Javi when, after challenging me to wrestle on my bed once, to show him what I was all about, pinned me to the pillow with his forearm across the nape of my neck, and repeatedly asked if I was going to continue slurring lyrics, interrupting his listening experience every time he invited me for a drive around the block.
Yes, this was Javi, my favorite of the two, the one I would later yell fuck you to when once, after waiting my turn for the piñata at my cousin Johnny’s birthday party, he’d come up with the idea to blindfold all of his nieces and nephews, starting with me. I protested. I said it wasn’t fair. I swung. I swung. And after a minute of missing that purple Ninja Turtle I so desperately wanted, needed to hit, I was told my turn was up, that I wouldn’t get another chance. So I cried, ran to the nearest picnic table, buried my head in my arms and raised it only to yell my fated words when I heard Javi laughing, making jokes about me with a group of blurry, tear-distorted family members seated around him.
These were the uncles I would sleepover with on Saturday nights, drawing velociraptors, T-Rexes, and invented creatures on lined sheets of paper, and waking up in the morning to go to church not because I wanted to be faithful, but just so I could sit between them, feel like they were brothers.
Santos fell and rolled onto his stomach. His legs began jerking as though he were trying to swim away. Javi punched harder, unconcerned if all he was hitting were the soles of his boots. Santos got to his knees and crawled toward the driveway. Jaime landed two or three more kicks to his stomach, ribs. Santos plopped on the ground, then got to his feet. But before he could turn around, Jaime lunged in front and shoved him back down. After every kick, my uncles took a few steps back for a better start, like punters, like soccer players, like men who felt confident in the force they knew their legs were capable of. Though I wasn’t sure why, they looked graceful, beautiful even if I ignored their sweat, their grunts, the desire in their faces that shuddered them out of focus, made it appear as though all of this was happening in slow motion.
I remembered feeling myself moving at that same pace when I kneeled behind my grandmother’s white van early one morning. It was summer. My mother was at work. My grandmother was picking lemons in the backyard, piling them into a large bowl, while my grandfather was in his room, still sleeping, still dying, still clinging to I wasn’t sure what. I was supposed to be watching TV, entertaining myself with The Price is Right. But I was outside, breaking the lowest hanging branches from the trees in my grandmother’s garden, stacking them inside my shirttail, and one by one stuffing each into the van’s muffler. I had seen my mother crying. I had seen Santos grab her by the forearm, leaving pink and purplish marks. I wanted to kill him. In my mind my plan was flawless, all it needed was execution, a steady hand, a willingness to stuff as many sticks into my grandmother’s muffler because I was convinced that when she reversed and took off down the street, the branches, unable to commit to tight spaces, would backfire and shoot out like bullets at Santos’ house. I had no idea if Santos would be outside at the exact time my grandmother went out and ran errands, but if he was, if he was lingering on the ramp like he’d linger before he walked over to our house, I knew it would have struck him in the chest, pierced his dark and burnt flesh.
I needed him to hurt, so I kneeled behind my grandmother’s van and jammed as many branches into the muffler as I could. I was in a groove, pushing my bundle deeper in, watching my hands become black until I heard the question, “¿Qué haces ahí?” I looked around, and there was my grandmother at the doorway, her arms akimbo, her head tilted in a sharp What-the-hell-is-happening angle. I dropped the sticks and ran to the middle of the yard, wiping my hands on my shorts. “Why are you doing that?’ she asked, her English choppy, harsh. “Why?” she repeated, but I didn’t answer. I didn’t know how to. “No sé por qué haces cosa así. I’m going to tell your mom. Take them out,” she demanded, pointing at the van. “Sácalos ahora.”
I ran back and began pulling them out. I shouldn’t have been so eager. I shouldn’t have stuffed so many. I wanted to turn around and look at Santos’ house, but I heard my grandmother approaching, her huaraches scraping the patches of parched Bermuda grass constellated on the border of her lawn. I stuck my tiny hands deeper into the muffler, pulling hard on the branches I thought would hit the hardest when they shot out. My grandmother came behind me and I stood up. “It’s not right you do that,” she said, crouching to inspect the muffler. “Lo puedes quebrar.” There’d be other moments when my actions wouldn’t be right either, when I’d break the springs on the screen door, be careless with her angel figurines, or place both of my hands on the bathroom sink and push my body up so I could get a better look at myself in the mirror, only to hear a sudden snap of enameled cast-iron collapsing beneath my weight. My list would grow, but never would anything feel this deserving.
Back in the yard, my grandmother continued shouting. I watched on, wondering if the fight would ever end. My uncles lifted Santos and began shoving him back and forth. He was spent. Blood blotted his white shirt. Blades of grass speckled his face. His hair was ruffled, exposing part of his neck, and he looked even drunker than he had earlier.
“Leave!” shouted Jaime, tossing him down and kicking the back of his thigh as he tried to crawl away. Santos stood up, stumbled a bit, placed his right arm on my grandmother’s van, seeking a semblance of breath. “Fuck you,” was all he could manage. My uncles moved closer. He coughed, wiped the snot that hung from his nose, licked his lips, and then turned around, backpedaling out of the driveway.
“Don’t come around again,” said Javi. Santos waved his crab hand incoherently in front of his chest and walked back to his mother’s house, looking at the asphalt the whole way.
My uncles stared him down. We all did. I don’t remember the discussion afterward, or if there was one. As soon as Javi picked up his shirt and shook off the dirt, my memory cuts off; I am in a funeral home, greeting people I don’t know, entering a heavy set of doors. The people in the pews turn around and stare. My mother is behind me, pushing me along, and at the far end, I see my aunt Rosa and my cousins Ricky and Johnny. They’re smiling, happy to see me. We sit down with them and the scene changes: I’m standing in front of Santos. He appears safe, respectable, decent in a white button-down. Though he’s dark-skinned, he looks pasty, like burnt candle wax, and I catch a glimpse of exactly what Johnny had whispered to me: half of his head is shaved. I bow my head, mouth an Our Father and look up, tiptoeing for a better angle. I am alone. My mother, my aunts, and the other side of my family are all by the door, talking, hugging, giving each other condolences. I place my hands in front of me. I look back, but they don’t. I circle around the casket until I see the line where his hair once was. I think of Two-Face from Batman. I think something seems off. And as I take a few more steps, bite the inside of my lower lip, I see the gash, the scar, the slither of stitched flesh measuring just as long as my hand. I study it, note how fresh it still appears, how forceful the impact was, feeling as though I was the one who caused this. My mother later told me that he was involved in a drug deal gone wrong, that he didn’t pay up, or tried to sell a product that didn’t weigh the right amount. Whatever it was, the investigation concluded he was forced to kneel, to face his executioner and the ax that struck the side of his head, made him bleed out. I back away and walk down the aisle.
In the reception room, small groups of adults are talking to one another, shifting their bodies, elaborating with hand gestures. Ricky and Johnny are laughing, running around a sofa just off to the side, playing tag or whatever game that seems acceptable for their age. People take turns carrying my sister, bringing her head to their shoulders, kissing her cheeks.
The day Santos is buried, we go home and pack a Styrofoam cooler with sodas, bologna, cheese, and bread into our van. I sit in the backseat, while Iris, now two-years-old, rests in the car seat next to me. With the windows halfway down, my mother seems somber. But there are no tears to complement the mood I think she’s feeling. Half an hour on the road and she tells us we are going to Six Flags. “What? In San Antonio?” I ask.
“Yes. Six Flags,” she says. “In San Antonio. You excited?”
Our eyes meet in the rearview mirror and I nod.
My sister turns to me and smiles.