By the Light of My Father's Smile (14 page)

BOOK: By the Light of My Father's Smile
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The First Thing
That Happens When
You Die

The first thing that happens when you die, is that you have a burning desire to urinate. You have nothing to pee with, you understand, just the desire to do so. Among my people, we are told this is what happens, and so I was not very surprised. It is understood that spirituality resides in the groin, in the sexual organs. Not in the mind, and not in the heart. It is while fucking that you normally feel closer to God. The other time you feel close to the Creator, of course, is when you create something.

The moment I felt the urge to urinate, I felt at peace. I felt at home. I felt I had successfully transited to the other world. I knew my people had truthfully insructed me, and that I was prepared for any adventure that might be mine to have. Right away I encountered the father of Magdalena, a sobbing vapor beside the bus.

It was strange to feel him there. He was utterly fixated on the mangled body I had left.

Señor Robinson, I said, I am okay. When I spoke to him, he became visible to me. He looked up, tears streaming down his face.

Oh, he said, Manuelito. You poor, poor boy.

Now that he had spoken to me, I also became visible to him.

I am not so poor, I said; I have made it to the other side, singing. Among the Mundo this is the best luck anyone can have.

He reached out his arms to me. For a moment we were one small motion in time. If Magdalena had looked where we were standing she would have seen perhaps a wavy pattern in the air. Then we separated.

Señor Robinson hung his head. I did not come here singing, he said. I knew your people said this was important, but I did not believe them.

How could you know, I said. You were raised among gringos who believe everything that is real is seen.

I could have had faith, he said. Faith in your people. They were so gentle, but they were so poor. When you see that people are so poor it is hard to believe they know what they are doing.

You mean if we had been rich, like the
, you would have believed us when we said dying while singing is lucky? But we believe there is something more precious than money; that is why we were always fleeing.

What do you mean, you were always fleeing? he asked. It was as if we had forgotten completely the broken body underneath the wheels of the bus. We had, actually. Now, as we swayed off to the side and out of the way of paramedics and policemen, my body there on the ground was of no more importance than a bag of trash. How it had suffered, though. But this wasn't even a thought, simply something I knew.

Don't you remember why you came to study us? I asked.

Señor Robinson screwed up his face. He had died of a stroke. What he looked like was a very, very old and transparent person, with just enough of his looks left to identify the space he occupied. I don't remember, he said.

It was because we were a mixed-race tribe, I said. And yet we managed to have some coherent social and spiritual beliefs. I chuckled. That's the way you described us when you were trying to get funding for the expedition.

Niggers and Indians, the funders had said, who cares whether what they believe is coherent or not. They're both on their way out. His face averted, Señor Robinson recounted this bitter comment to me.

Most of us are, too, I said, laughing. And boy, when we're gone, are they in for it.

I wanted to learn from your people, Manuelito, said Señor Robinson. I went to the best of my people's schools, but what I most wanted to learn my professors were unable to teach me. How to organize life in a better way than the white man has. How to live in a way that permitted others to live as well.

Well, I said, every Mundo person has one thing in common: exactly like the stars, each of us has a history of flight. And it is the periods of our worst suffering that cause us to fly in the same direction and be brought together. This is what disaster—disconnection from the stars—is for. Apparently. And because disaster is always happening, our tribe is always coming together. That is why the Mundo have not yet been destroyed. We are always being remade. Many of us even live in cities, now.

Is it true? he asked.

Yes, I said. We have studied our killers very hard, since the beginning. We believe we are destined, some remnant of us, to outlive them.

Do you know that the Mundo have always sent spies out to live among the conquerors? That this was always our highest form of sacrifice? The Mundo have always needed someone to sit among the killers and to come back and tell us how little mercy to expect. Your culture is very tricky, though, Señor. Sometimes our
people have not come back. Sometimes they have become who they watched. With the widespread use of television, we faced a crisis of major proportion.

How did you deal with it? Señor Robinson asked.

The Mundo way with television, I said, is to put it in a room by itself, preferably a closet, and to choose one person a week or month to go and watch it. Then to report back. We have noticed, I said, that some of these spies, too, never return.

Señor Robinson laughed.

Manuelito chuckled. Anyone with the proper spirit can be a Mundo. Gathering together for a moment before they find and destroy us is the hard part.

But how do you know all this? Señor Robinson asked.

Haven't you noticed? I said. After you die, you know everything.


Just like a proper Mundo wife, I found myself humming the initiation song, the same one he had been singing, as Manuelito's body was placed on a stretcher and carried away. I saw the police go through his pockets, read his bracelet—which specified the kind of medical attention he required if found collapsed in a heap—and knew they would contact Maria. The air seemed to shimmer before my eyes as I turned toward home. I felt the absence of my parents keenly as I squeezed through my front door. Sighing, I made myself an eye-watering martini and climbed into bed.

Looking at Susannah across the room from me, it is easy to see why she was always everybody's pet. There is a smallness about her, even though she is tall. She is very neat, and sleek. Even while sitting alone in a big chair she turns her body this way and that, as if a giant hand is stroking it.

How is the latest affair? I ask her.

Instructive, she says, and grins.

What is it this time? Man, woman, or succulent plant?

She grins wider.

And Daddy thought I was the tramp, I said.

Are you still angry with me? she bluntly asks, which she's never done before. It stops me in my tracks. The ones I am making toward a bucket of chicken in the kitchen.

Why should I be angry with you? I ask.

Oh, June, she says. Come on.

That you were loved and I was not?

But you were loved. Mama and Daddy loved you.

Mama loved me.

Daddy loved you, too.

He did not trust me. How can love exist without trust?

Do you think God trusts us?

Let's leave that troublemaker out of it.

You just never let Daddy forget what he did to you, said Susannah. I know he apologized.

I wanted reparation, I said, not apology.

Reparation! What are you talking about?

I wanted to be made whole again, goddammit! He'd taken the moment in my life when I was most secure in its meaning. The moment my life opened, not just to my family and friends, but to me myself. The moment when I knew my life was given to me for me to own. He took that moment and he broke it into a million bits. He made it dirty and evil.

Sex scared him, said Susannah.

Right, I said, a man who was fucking all the time, and when he wasn't fucking, thinking about fucking.

a hypocrite, said Susannah. It troubled him that he was.

Not enough, I said.

He tried to make it up to you. When he and Mama finally got some recognition for their work and some money from their
books, they sent both of us to good schools. We never wanted for anything.

I wanted for love, I said. For trust. For a father who wouldn't go ballistic just because I was having orgasms with a cute Mundo boy.

He thought you might get pregnant, said Susannah.

If he'd learned anything important about the Mundo, he'd have known that wasn't going to happen. And even if it had, would that have been the end of the world? He was an anthropologist pretending to be a minister. In neither of those professions is it advised to batter the people you want to engage. It is like the conquistadors who came to the new world and boasted that they introduced the cross with the sword. Well, the cross, Christianity, cannot
introduced with the sword. Just as love cannot be encouraged by the fist.

Oh, June, she said. How can you hold on to this stuff?

Do you think I enjoy holding on to it? The man wrecked my life, I said.

Well, you tried to wreck mine, she said, hotly.

What do you mean? I asked.

Don't try to be innocent, said Susannah, looking more flushed than I'd ever seen her. You know what I mean.

I did know what she meant.

I loved Daddy, she said. I always loved Daddy. I also loved you. But suddenly, because of that wretched day in Mexico, I had to choose between you.

Nobody forced you, I said.

You didn't force me, said Susannah, you just never let me forget.

It was something awful that happened to your sister; why should you want to forget?

But he was my father, she said, with vehemence. I loved him. You were the one who'd disobeyed him. Which is what you took pleasure in doing all your life. I never disobeyed him. We got along fine.

And because of my sluttish behavior, you lost him, I sneered. Is that the shit you're trying to tell me?

You never let me forget I was sitting in the lap of a monster, said Susannah.

Somebody had to remind you, I said. Otherwise, I added, you'd have just grinned and Tommed your life away.

She rolled her eyes at this. What business was it of yours? she said. He was never a monster to me! Because of you, I lost my father. One half of the love that was due me in this world. She leaned forward in her chair and wiped her eyes. And he was so pitiful, trying to win me back, trying to rekindle my trust. But you were always there to step between us, to say, at the most tender of moments between us, “No, I do not care for any.”

Of his bullshit? No, I
care for any, I said.

But he wasn't offering it to you, not after a long while, anyway, but to me. You made it impossible for me to accept that my father loved me, that he accepted and trusted me.

If you'd fucked around like I did you would have seen how little he cared about your love and trust, I said.

Well, said Susannah, believe it or not, I did have a love life that he knew about. While we lived in Sag Harbor and I was in high school. He never once scolded me. He never once said I was wrong. He took me aside and talked to me about birth control, just as any caring father would.

I had not known this. It hurt like hell.

But even this didn't ease the tension around sex enough for me to loosen up again with him, the way I'd been before that horrible moment in Mexico.

He was a brute, a hypocrite, a liar. And Mama was his moll, I said.

How can you say that? said Susannah.

She should have left him after what he did to me.

But June, she said, she loved him. We were a family. Where in the world would she have gone with the broken heart leaving him would have given her?

What about my broken heart?

As I said this, I relived the moments of being beaten by my father in the small white room in Mexico. It had been very warm, sultry. A limb of a tree arched across the open window, a bird had flown lazily across the sky. The silver disks on Manuelito's belt made dents in my skin. There was blood. I was thinking only of not crying. And of how much I hated my father for making me forsake, too soon, the recent memory of love.

I began to scream.

June, Magdalena, I heard my sister calling me. I had plunged headlong into the tunnel of my own throat. All that I was, was scream. I screamed and screamed and screamed. There was a hammering at the door. There were sirens. There were strange people in the room. I screamed. I threw my bulk about the living room, breaking everything with which I came in contact. I felt my sister's fluttering throat in my hands, felt her sleek head banging against the wall, breaking the frame of a photograph that hung behind her, a photograph of the two of us, our parents' arms about us, tender and secure. Her pretty face the color of ashes, she raised her arm to defend her face from my teeth and I bit it to the bone. There was a stinging sensation in my upper shoulder. I let go of Susannah's throat and dropped like a stone. Magdalena, June, MacDoc, Mad Dog had come home.

Mad Dog Behavior

When I woke up, groggy, in the hospital, I did not care about anything. I thought about my students. What sense did it make that I taught them for three or four years of their lives and they still did not know me? That I did not know them? That I might meet their parents only once or twice in my life? Perhaps at their phony-feeling graduation. How stupid this seemed to me. I helped them on their mad rush into adulthood and into a world that was steadily turning to shit. Had always been shit. Money was the god of the culture into which they were born, and would live to hustle and die; I wanted no part of it.

I thought about my mother. When she was dying I used to visit and read to her. She would doze, and then I would stop reading and stare at her face. I was trying to remember how it felt to love her. For I ceased loving her when she abandoned me. There were moments of tenderness between us, moments of affection. But I would not have taken a bullet for her, as I would have done before she fucked herself back under my daddy's thumb. The cancer ravaged her, made her lose the luscious body she'd worn like a flag.
A flag that said:
Nation of Woman Representative. Kneel, Male.
And yet, even as she lay dying, no body at all left to speak of, there sat my father, his hands cupping her flat breasts, his hands cupping her heels, his hands cupping her bony knees. His hands cupping her ass. It infuriated me.

BOOK: By the Light of My Father's Smile
3.19Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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