The Trophies of His Decency by Jakob Guanzon
The bristles of my Ninja Turtle toothbrush came to a halt at the doorbell’s hollow chime. I cocked my head in the direction of the deck upstairs, cupping my ear in hope of some sign of movement, but I heard nothing save the close hiss of toothpaste pooling along my gums. It was ten o’clock on the Thursday after school had been let out for summer. While my 12-year-old half-brother Oscar’s curfew was a firm midnight, he always came in through the garage, slinking down the stairs of our split-level house to spend the rest of the night watching reruns of Family Matters and The Wonder Years. Oscar had no reason to use the doorbell, which now rang twice in impatient succession.
Still no movement from upstairs.
I gargled and rinsed, assuming this meant that I ought to answer the door and follow similar protocol to that of all phone calls to the house, telling the voice on the other end of the line that no, my father was not home, and no, I didn’t know when he would be.
Upon opening the front door I found Oscar with the scruff of his T-shirt wadded in a man’s fist, stretching the collar of his shirt tight across his throat like a leash. My eyes inched up the navy mass behind my brother, atop of which was the face of a white policeman, his lips pursed in sour self-righteousness.
“Folks home, son?”
Just as my tongue cocked in its familiar pose of negation, I heard the first clap of rubber against a calloused sole from the deck upstairs. The policeman gave Oscar a shove and the two shuffled inside as the dull pats approached the top of the stairs.
Wearing nothing but his ragged, embarrassingly high-cut Knicks shorts from the 80’s and holding a 32-ounce Slurpee cup, its 7-11 label faded after months of daily service bearing his rón-cola, the molasses of Papa’s face congealed into a sneer.
“What seems to be the trouble, officer?” he said.
The policeman began explaining how he had found Oscar and two of his buddies smoking weed behind the high school’s football stadium. Papa dug the knuckles of his free fist into his right love handle, that immense, brown belly of his a marvel of nature perched steady above his thin, knobby crane’s legs. Trapped between them, I stole a glance at Oscar as the policeman’s jowls jiggled, relaying Oscar’s offenses. Even at just seven, I knew it was not the weed but rather the thought of the ensuing onslaught that glazed Oscar’s eyes.
“Thank you for bringing this to my attention, officer,” said Papa. His mounting rage brewing with his acidic contempt for the entire breed of white policemen hooked and tugged at the strong consonants of his speech, giving away his otherwise perfectly acculturated accent.
“I’ll leave the citation with this one,” the policeman said. Only then did he release Oscar’s collar in order to tear a sheet from a pad. “Provisional court date is on the back.”
“Will that be all?” said Papa.
“That should do her. But I think it’s important tha—”
“Then I must ask you to get the hell off my property this very instant.”
The policeman’s face twitched in disbelief and insult before dimly realizing he had stepped inside our home without permission. Oscar slammed the door after him, suddenly giddy, triumphant.
“Yeah—fuck you, pig!” Oscar said to the shut door. “That was awesome, Papa,” he said, beaming as he turned to look up the staircase.
By that point Papa had already gone to fetch a belt. The two of us exchanged scared looks before fleeing to our respective bedrooms, I upstairs, Oscar down, his room situated directly under mine. I shut the door to my room and hurled myself into bed, burying my head under all the pillows and sheets. I pressed the mounds of cotton and down into my ears. I waited.
Smothered as I was, I still heard Papa lumbering downstairs. Though I couldn’t make out any of the words, I heard Oscar’s voice, pleading.
Then, the crack of leather against thigh. Oscar’s squeals.
I didn’t hear Papa’s voice—that is, if he had said anything at all.
That was the summer after his third wife had left him, the summer Papa took to killing squirrels. The departure of Belén Ortega—my mother, not Oscar’s—was followed by a showering of gifts. Having grown up hungry himself in a village outside of San Juan, Papa measured his merit as a father neither by guidance nor tenderness, but by his ability to provide for his sons. With the exception of playing the occasional role of disciplinarian, as any concerned father ought, Papa was as emotionally distant as our mothers were physically absent.
Under the halo-white glare of fluorescent lights on our monthly trips to Wal-Mart, Papa’s eyes hardly flickered from their million-mile, motor-oil gaze as he nodded in concession to whatever we plucked from the shelves. Plastic G.I. Joes and Ninja Turtles figurines. An armory of Super Soakers, Nerf pistols, a pair of B.B. guns, and a gallon jug chock-full of silver pellets. Snacks that made our pantry the envy of our playmates, a fallout shelter’s supply of Cheetos, Doritos, 24-packs of Mountain Dew, Double-Stuffed Oreos, and Dunkaroos. Alongside our toys and junk food in the shopping cart, Papa set the Clorox bleach, the Tide detergent, Bounty paper towels, and Betty Crocker powdered potatoes. All those less glamorous items needed to maintain a home, to sustain a family. Each of these purchases, from the fickle to the essential, were the trophies of his decency, each a token of evidence proving to that vacant half of the bed that yes, he was in fact a good father, if not a decent husband.
That mud puddle spring before Oscar got caught smoking was the closest I had ever been to him, owing largely to a wordless part of him that had been reassured to see my biological mother abandon me that January just as his had done during his infancy. Our now mutual wound—festering and never to be dressed—helped bridge the five-year rift between us. I was thrilled by this new proximity to Oscar, whom at that point I worshipped. I revered Oscar and his fuck-everyone-and-everything attitude, his tough-guy loogies and cursing, his pubescent omniscience. How from life’s proverbial lemons, Oscar made just acid. To me, his every word was law, his every jab grace.
After a third viewing of Enter The Dragon, we began to spar in the downstairs living room. The room was otherwise unfurnished besides a frayed loveseat coated in synthetic velvet and a television mounted on two-by-fours and stacked on cinderblocks. With a Bruce Lee yip, Oscar proceeded to kick out my two front teeth. Immediately he was on top of me, smothering my mouth in order to prevent my wails from reaching Papa on the deck. Even then, choking on thick threads of blood and gasping through his fingers, even then did I adore my older brother.
Every afternoon the school bus’s brakes whined to a stop at 3:38 on our corner. Oscar and I would hurry off as the boiled-egg musk of the bus gave way to the smell of freshly cut grass, the citrus of gasoline, and the brine of poured asphalt. The scents of May. We knew we had two hours of play in our backyard before turning our games indoors or taking to the neighborhood streets in search of mischief. Our right to the yard ended once Papa got home, his arrival announced with a guttural grunt from the garage door. At his call we would scurry in to greet him, but more importantly, to leave him his place.
The upstairs deck perched above the backyard was the one place I truly believe Papa found peace, or whatever semblance of peace a once proud man defeated can achieve. Once home from the courthouse, Papa went directly to the lonely master bedroom to shed his suit, starched shirt, and tie, changing into his Knicks shorts and rubber flip-flops. As soon as the thermometer broke seventy, Papa never wore a shirt at home. Armed with a pack of Winston’s and a tall cocktail fixed in his trusty Slurpee cup, he would head straight to the deck and assume his throne, a metal folding chair woven with tight lines of plastic, red linguine. Set beside it was an upturne Johnnie Walker crate, where sat a Folgers tin full of cigarette butts. There Papa would sit for hours, an ankle resting on his knee, clicking the rubber of his slipper against a yellowed sole in time with the slow thump of his thoughts, surveying his hunk of this country.
The only other sound that pierced those suburban afternoons was the shrill chirping of four robin chicks. Oscar and I had monitored their mother’s construction of the nest tucked in the slats beneath the deck throughout the course of that spring, and awe silenced us when one day we found five eggs, perfectly teal and perfectly vulnerable, arranged in a soft- edged pentagon.
Oscar plucked one away from her siblings.
“Oscar, don’t,” I pleaded. “The mama will smell you and leave them!”
“Want an omelette?” he said, pinching the egg.
“Put it back!”
Oscar hurled the egg at me. Instinctively, I dodged it. The perfect egg smashed against the siding of the house, some teal freckles plastered in place by the yolk. Oscar cackled with malicious delight. With all my might, I kicked Oscar in the balls, sending him to the ground gasping and cursing and writhing. Even though once Oscar had caught his breath and delivered the predictable retribution of a five-minute beating, he nonetheless left the remaining four eggs in peace. When they hatched, Oscar’s cruelty was momentarily muted when we first saw the chicks squeaking, hungry for their mother.
Truth be told, beyond the limits of Papa’s deck, that backyard was little more than a quarter-acre of dry dirt. The strands of grass were as few as they were resilient, fighting for the sparse shards of sunlight that cut through the plume of the maples or over the high edges of Papa’s privacy-ensuring fence. Nevertheless, Papa made Oscar mow his square of the Promised Land every Friday before he could go out to play. Occasionally Papa would rise from his chair and bark at Oscar over the growl of the lawn mower, ordering him to keep the lines straight and even. From under the deck, beside the robin’s nest and out of Papa’s periphery, I watched Oscar’s lips curl into curses inaudible under the mower’s roar, waiting for my playmate to be relieved of his weekly duty.
Things changed when a Nintendo 64 fell into the Wal-Mart shopping cart. The rest of our toys began to collect in corners of the yard and heaps on the living room floor, our trajectory from the school bus rerouted directly to the basement rather than the backyard. Afternoons fell from dusk to dark in the square of the window as we screamed at the television screen, empty junk food wrappers piling around us. If I was gaining on Oscar in Mario Kart, he’d reach over and cover my eyes or smack me in the nuts. I hollered and recycled the curses I’d learned from him, silently relishing his touch. While playing Goldeneye I screamed every time Oscar selected Oddjob, asserting that the hit man’s impish stature was the only reason he won with such regularity in countless rounds of multi-player massacres. In spite of Oscar’s questionable video game etiquette, I recall those afternoons fondly. I often wonder if Oscar, wherever he’s run off to, remembers them as well.
Oscar was playing Zelda, a single-player game, when Papa killed his first squirrel. In the pit of a volcano, a fire-breathing dinosaur by the name of Dodongo curled himself into a ball and crushed our blond, tunic-sporting hero.
“Oscar, let me try.”
“No way, bitch. I only got two lives left.”
His argument was sound.
I took a pause from begging Oscar for a chance to swing the sword at the ten-ton monster when I noticed Papa’s shape cross the frame of the window that faced the backyard. Extended before his bare belly was the orange wedge of a plastic snow shovel, the shadow of something that resembled a limp, upturned cactus swinging over the blade’s edge. When Papa reappeared within the limits of the window, he had the shovel slung over his shoulder, now unburdened. Suddenly he lifted his face and through the window he seemed to be looking directly at me. The fear that some trespass gone unpunished until this moment, only now dawning upon him, clutched my throat. His gaze held strong as he pinched the Winston from his lips, tusks of smoke curling from his nostrils. Some angry sense of accomplishment twisted the corners of his eyes. It was not until he slapped his stomach and readjusted his posture before ascending the pine steps of the deck did I realize he had only been sizing himself up in the window’s glare. Relieved, I turned my attention back to the Kingdom of Hyrule.
Then, just shy of a month after we had plugged the Nintendo in for the first time, the doorbell rang on a Thursday night. The morning after the cop’s visit and Oscar’s squeals, the Nintendo disappeared, likely stashed in the closet where my mother had left some of her more dated dresses that didn’t merit space in the suitcase during her quick, overnight escape.
Naturally, our games turned back outdoors. Oscar’s slight limp left by the lashings striping the back of his thighs granted me a new edge on him in our games. After losing a third round of 21, Oscar turned bitter.
“This is gay,” he said, slinging the basketball into the cool depths of the garage. Obedient as ever, I followed him to the backyard where he lit a pilfered Winston. With his kid lips puckered unconvincingly, he blew a tutu of smoke into the air.
“Papa gonna kill you,” I said.
Oscar emitted a dismissive hiss.
“Whatever, dick-hole.” I was the guinea pig of all of Oscar’s experiments with profanity. He checked to see if I had been adequately insulted then did his best to muffle a cough.
“You’re the diggle,” I said, turning away from him. As I did so, I noticed a mound of curving shapes circled by flies in the far corner of the fence.
I scurried to the pile, but Oscar’s interest wasn’t piqued until I shrieked. His footsteps came from behind me as I covered my mouth with both hands. Before us and under the darting dots of flies lay a pile of dead squirrels, about a dozen of them. Their gray torsos were draped across one another, stray paws crooked in rigor mortis poses. Those at the bottom were decaying, holes in their ashen pelts giving way to bones the same morbid white as Papa’s cigarettes.
Before either one of us could comment or speculate, the slamming of a car door cracked the air, stunning the flies above the mound of rotting vermin for just a hair of a second before resuming their anarchic somersaults. We exchanged glances then darted inside.
“Hi, Papa,” we said from the stairs. Oscar’s eyes stayed trained at the floor.
“Boys,” Papa said to the shoes he untied. When Papa went to slip into his shorts, Oscar slithered downstairs. He stole a glance up at me once he noticed I hadn’t followed him.
Instead I lingered in the kitchen, surveying the contents of the pantry as I waited for Papa. I wanted to ask him about the squirrels. I heard the shuffle of his approach, the rubber clapping with each step.
“¿Tienes hambre, hijo?” he said, passing behind me.
“A little,” I said.
With my back to him I listened as he assembled his beverage. The crack of the ice tray. The twist of a bottle cap. The stroke of rum against plastic and the pop of ice cubes bursting under its warmth. The hiss of soda and the sigh after his first sip. Upon passing me on his way to the deck he ruffled my hair. It had been weeks since I’d felt his touch, however fleeting. I closed the pantry door and watched him step outside.
Steadying his drink, Papa reached behind the grill and withdrew one of the B.B. guns he had bought us on one of our trips to Wal-Mart. He settled himself in his chair, rolling his neck to unknot the aches of the day. He set the toy rifle across his lap and lit a cigarette.
Among the high branches of a maple came a rustle. Swift, and therefore in absolute contrast to my father’s absolutely hasteless way, he dropped his Winston to the Folgers tin and pressed the butt of the gun to his shoulder, drawing a steady bead on the disturbance in the foliage.
A dull pop split the afternoon static, a pop not so different from the ice cubes splitting under the heat of the rum, just louder. For a moment all was still. A lawn mower roared to life in the distance. The robin chicks under the deck chirped. The rustle worked its way via a tangle of branches hidden behind the cover of leaves and into our neighbor’s yard. Stillness resumed. Papa unfolded the rifle and began feeding it tiny, silver pellets one by one.
For the first time since my mother had left him—us—I stepped onto the deck in the presence of my father. He had heard me, of course, yet he kept his eyes fixed on the task of reloading his weapon. I approached, a physical aversion to the B.B. gun heightening my sense of caution. On the March afternoon we had torn the rifles from their packaging, I made the mistake of shooting Oscar. He returned the favor, six-fold and at much closer range. To this day I have the tiny, white, leopard-spot scars on my lower back.
I remember holding my breath once I was beside Papa on the deck. He didn’t look at me. Instead he kept thumbing pellets into the rifle. Wrought with trepidation, I cleared my throat.
“What you doing, Papa?”
“Killing the ardillas.” Despite two decades of speaking and mastering English since moving to the States, there were some words he simply avoided. “Squirrel” was one.
“Why?” I asked.
“Look at my yard. Look what they’ve done. No grass. They piss on it.”
Even then I failed to see the logic of this, but I dared not question his line of reasoning. Instead I asked him if I could watch.
From his throne Papa eyed me, weighing my temporary intrusion with hot suspicion. He locked the barrel into place and cocked it.
“Quédate silento,” he said.
For half an hour I sat on the wood slats of the deck beside my father, my knees hooked in the crook of my elbows. It wasn’t just his order that had silenced me. I was simultaneously delighted and terrified by the gray thrill of Papa’s presence, all the more heightened by the anticipation of watching something die. At that point I doubt my seven-year-old thoughts sought to understand the complex silence of my father’s sadness. Even now in retrospect, I can’t decide whether I admire his angry resilience or just pity it. Mere inches from me, towering over me, the rift between us was staggering, nauseating. While I wanted to be like Oscar with his razor tongue and eager fists, all I wanted from Papa was his presence. Some affection wouldn’t have hurt either. I believed, back then, that an embrace could’ve helped me understand who Papa was, and maybe even why my mother, Oscar’s, and the woman before had all left him. Us.
These secrets, they died with Papa when he passed away last year, alone and likely drunk there on his deck. I tried calling the last phone number I had for Oscar, which I learned was somewhere in Arizona after googling the area code. Go figure. I wanted to let him know that Papa was gone, when the funeral would be, that I missed him, wanted to see him, could help with anything he needed, and—and there was no answer, nor answering machine to leave a message. Just the hollow, digital ring, endless, mocking.
Seated on the deck, I resisted all temptation of looking up at Papa, feeling to some degree united by the shared task of scanning the yard for squirrels.
Papa saw it first, a squirrel having materialized in the middle of the shaded dirt, gnawing on an acorn. Swift, Papa aimed the toy rifle at the trespasser, the defiler. He steadied himself and wheezed from his nostrils. He squeezed the trigger: a dull pop.
The squirrel arched its neck spastically, the acorn held frozen before him. I held my breath. The squirrel shuddered once then resumed its chewing. Papa cocked, aimed and fired again, this time striking close enough to send the squirrel scurrying under the fence. Papa muttered some curses, the gouging words much harsher in his voice than Oscar’s pubescent croak. He rested the gun on his knee and lit another cigarette. He took a long, contemplative draw of his drink, his gaze fixed and steady on his yard. Papa sniffed once, then asked me a question, one he would never repeat.
“Do you ever think about Mama?”
Papa left his eyes trained on the distance, as if giving me privacy to consider my answer. I scanned the yard, in hope that if I could focus on the same mysterious point in the distance as Papa, it would help me articulate an appropriate reply. As this search was hopeless, instead I simply repeated the question to myself: Do you ever think about Mama?
The truth was I did. A lot.
The truth is I still do. Maybe not as much.
But by that point I had already learned Oscar’s canned contention concerning his own mother and that the only acceptable answer was, “Fuck that bitch.”
So, for the sake of solidarity, I lied.
“No,” I said.
“You don’t miss her?” I felt Papa look down at me for the first time since I’d joined him on the deck. To this day I don’t know why I didn’t look up at him. I felt a quiver of insincerity in my chest, but I fought it. I chose my words carefully.
“Why would I?” I said. “I got you and Oscar.”
That pleased him. Papa reached down and hugged the nape of my neck with his free hand.
A sad and hopeful part of me believes that Papa was just about to say something kind, even tender. Maybe even, “I love you.”
But before those three syllables could fall from his lips, the robin landed on the wooden banister of the staircase, her flutter interrupting our exchange. She fluffed her proud, crimson breast, flaunting her fresh kill. A worm dangled from her beak, its wet skin glimmering.
Then, a dull pop.
She stiffened in her proud pose. The blade of her back slackened. She took one step in retreat, her little legs buckling under her weight. She turned her black eyes to us and stretched her sharp beak, as if posing us a question. The worm plopped to her feet. Then she tumbled back into the yard below.
I swung my gaze to Papa, the black barrel falling to his knee. He tipped his head back, draining the last offering of his cup. Ice cubes crunched between nicotine-stained molars, his stare granite. He swallowed, cold, then rose to fix himself another. As the pat of his footsteps left me soon came the chirping, hungry, from below.
Jakob Guanzon lives in New York where he is a student in Columbia's graduate writing program. His prose has previously appeared in Outside In Literary & Travel Magazine, BioStories, 5-Thōt and From the Depths. He is currently working on a collection of short stories and a translation of David Trueba's novel Cuatro Amigos.