In the biting August morning, underneath a full black suit, my long curly hair tied back; I walked toward the courthouse. I’d been arrested for a few bits of weed years before my father died. In the square’s center, the shadow of a marble statue fell over me as I walked up the pristine, white steps that opened antique doors. Ahead in line, were public defenders—comically dressed in oversized suits, bulbous pants that covered the tip of their shoes, swallowing up their feet like bell-bottoms.
In front of me was a white woman with blond hair pinned in a bouffant-style bun. She wore an authoritative blazer with dress pants running to dark heels that clinked against the stone floors. The line waited anxiously, fiddling wallets and keys. The woman tapped away on her phone, but she too waited in her place. We’d emptied our pockets then stepped through a metal detector. The white woman dumped her phone and purse onto the conveyor belt and stepped through without incident. Gathering her items, she spoke to the security guard with a name tag that read ‘Holmes’
“Doesn’t he bother you?”
“Who?” The security guard asked, uninterested.
“The confederate general?” She jerked her head back toward the courthouse square. “You know, they’re tearing those down all over the country?”
The security guard’s eyes flickered to the window where he no doubt saw the statue each day. “Yes, I know. Try not to let it bother me.”
“Well it should bother you,” the woman said, handing him a stiff business card as if the paper was starched. “What he represents—oppression, slavery, racism. A monument to what’s still wrong with this country. I represent people like you. People who need a voice.”
I stared at the ground to keep from rolling my eyes; she wanted to own this man’s injustice. The line stood motionless.
The security guard explained, irritation blistered his words. “Ma’am I fought for this country. Army ranger, first battalion during the invasion of Grenada. Never got any special treatment there or here.” He looked tired and sighed. A few more suits entered the line. The woman continued tapping while he spoke.
“That’s exactly why you need my representation,” she said looking up when it was her turn. “Think about what you can do for the people.”
“I watch my people, innocent and guilty, walk in here, write their names on the clipboard. That statue you say I need to be bothered by what happens when I tell them I’m bothered?” Think they’ll say, ‘Oh yes, we’ll tear that thing right down for you. Thanks for bringing that to our attention. We’ll get right on it.'” The security guard glanced back; his eyes seared past the line of bodies as if they were puzzle pieces that didn’t fit the pattern he was working on.
“Well if you want to talk—”
“Next.” The security guard waved her past.
The woman huffed and walked past—the clinking of her high heels following her through the building. As I signed in with the security guard, I gave him an earnest nod.
“She wanted a statue of her put up,” I told him, trying a joke. He waved me forward unabated.
I appeared before the judge and received probation without having to serve time as long as I appeared once a month in outpatient drug rehabilitation, toured a local jail, and didn’t violate for the next year, but chemical anxiety grew in my spine. Being arrested is how they get you. Probation is how they keep you.
During my tour of the county jail, I felt as if everyone, including the inmates, had studied television, learned to play the roles they watched. The tour was a simulation. The correctional officers mimicked the booking process. We sat in holding cells, stripped naked, bent over, coughed, put on orange jumpsuits. The smell of testosterone hung in the air, feral and ubiquitous. I entered the maze; the metallic crash of cell doors behind me tandem with a shrill alarm. Prisoners stood in front of glass panes running fingers over their throats. Jeers and taunts echoed the halls like a brusque mantra. A trustee was brought out to tell his life story.
They brought us to maximum security where each inmate got their own room and a shower: a petty gain after forfeiting sunlight; the voice of another human. I looked up into one of the cells and saw a sloppy man masturbating. The man’s gut hung over his waistline; his stare blank as he tugged his flaccid penis. His eyes rolled into the back of his head—eyes like milk. Two floors and thirty feet separated me from the violent yanking. Then, as if film credits were about to roll, he whirled around, ran back into his cell.
After the tour, I went with my father to a franchise restaurant before he drove me back to my neighborhood. Lunch was our ritual; always the same. My father wore a full suit and treated the waitstaff with disdain. My brown skin next to his white, my curly hair next to his straight graying wisps—he joked people must’ve thought he was my agent and I was a musician; no one would ever guess we’re family. Our conversations were heavy.
My father was a psychologist, rarely joked, and thought in koan. I nodded and told him about the jail, my plans for the future. He ordered pipirrana over bread.
“When I was getting my doctorate, I worked at the state prison,” he said unemphatically, spooning tomatoes and onions away from bread he discarded. “I examined psychopaths. The F.B.I. donated confiscated pornography to the university. I placed a device over the inmate’s dick—measured their arousal. We showed them the films, started with normative stuff, gradually the films became more extreme—violence, child pornography, snuff. I recorded the point when they became excited. Lots of money in it but I couldn’t do it. Too dark.” He shook his head. “These were guys you wouldn’t mind sitting down with for a beer—charismatic, funny.”
“Why do you think sociopaths exist?” I asked.
“Well, the DSM-5 doesn’t list sociopath or psychopath. It’s called Antisocial Personality Disorder.” He shrugged. “We’ll call them psychopaths.”
“Okay, psychopath? I don’t understand why they break—” I searched for the right words. “Natural order.”
My father ran his lemon around the rim of his Diet Coke. I watched the acidic liquid fall down the sides, dripping pulpy strands.
“The Achaemenid Empire had The Immortals. The Japanese, the Samurai, who fought the Mongols who viewed killing as art. The more time spent devising the method of killing the opponent, the greater the joy for them. Think about Chichen Itza. There were times when the blood flowed from El Castillo like a river. I think only someone special can rip a man’s pumping heart from his chest with obsidian. We don’t have a warrior class anymore. Now, we’re civilized.”
He gesticulated his fork up and down like quotes with a sardonic grin. He loved conversation like this. When the food came, he attacked the plates, leaving the bread of his bocadillo dripping oil onto the ivory-colored tablecloth. We escaped into our food until the lunch was finished.
My father was diagnosed with Parkinson’s when I was in my late 20s. This was a good time for him to do it. I was finally financially stable, without kids of my own. So, the roles reversed, and I began caring for him. Most of these tasks were for his new wife—a Brazilian woman two decades his senior named Francisca.
When I was young, my father traveled six times a year to Brazil, fell in love with the culture, and apparently, Francisca. The formative years left us distant. His gallivanting went unnoticed. The family didn’t know he’d re-married until two years after the documents were signed. Distance grew like invasive lechuguilla between him and us. There was fighting over which household hosted family gatherings. He was often missing at Mass.
Francisca spoke Portuguese, Spanish, and broken English that improved each time I saw her. Various parts of her body were augmented. She was a cunning woman who shopped for a living. She’d return to Brazil with the latest fashions, selling the clothing to boutiques in Rio de Janeiro for a premium. She quickly gathered friends to fill their house. When I visited, the puissant smells of picanha, garnished with farofa and tropeiro beans quieted their guests’ roaring stomachs. Dinners grew loud, amplified with shots of caipirinha topped with cane sugar, filling my father’s now boisterous house.
“It’s different there,” I told my brother as we drove away.
“Yeah, I guess he bought a new one,” he told me.
“A new what?”
“A new world.”
When my father started shaking, I drove Francisca to her appointments. Her favorite appointment was the nail salon across the bridge where Brazilian and Argentinian women gathered to banter and network. The women helped new families assimilate, find work, and companionship—a cackling atmosphere I enjoyed. I would sit, waiting for her nails to dry, half-heartedly reading. The women showed me pictures of nieces, who just arrived in the country, on a volleyball scholarship or work-study visa.
“Beautiful, no?” They would ask, warmly using more nails than voice.
These women lived their beauty through the pictures. If I told them, “Yeah, she’s beautiful,” I was telling them they were beautiful.
In the nail salon, I overheard a story that began with a family in a tiny village in Honduras. The family was passing around a green slip of paper that meant in a few days, a package would arrive with a visa. If they rubbed the lucky green slip, this would grant safe passage through the land and bureaucracy. The issue for this family was that both parents had crossed the border illegally in 2014, two years into the second Obama administration. They would have to wait ten years to be able to cross again, this time legally. The family was waiting to hear the results of El Perdon—clemency from the U.S. Government if they could prove their extended separation was a hardship on their children back in the states. El Perdon meant the wait was over.
The family had five children but their two youngest girls were in Honduras. One was fifteen; the other, eight. The parents milked their cow into a bucket for anyone who could pay three lempiras, dreaming of unifying as a family on the other side of the wall where their older children lived with babies of their own.
In Honduras, each day brimmed with fear of Mara Salvatrucha, thieving politicians depriving the people of basic privileges, corruption. The girls were scared to drink the water that flowed from the village well. Stories that the bacteria growing in the water would infect your brain plagued their thoughts.
In the U.S., their older children sent money—enough to get the documents started. Soon, a new administration rose, powerful and avarice. The family began to worry. The father lost sleep. His left eye twitched uncontrollably. The mother would pray and clean their small house until it seemed hallowed.
As the family became desperate, they decided to hire coyotes who would help them cross the border. The first leg of the journey was by boat—a small fishing skiff that hugged the coast, stopping along the way for gas with three other families aboard—all huddled underneath blankets despite the tropical sun blaring down like a fever. Each time they stopped for gas they were expected to hand the coyote more money, though they had already paid $18,000 for the four of them to cross.
The father carried a backpack with $3,500 American. By the time they left the boat in Tampico, he had $1,700. Once in Mexico, they began an arduous three-month journey through this new country. Sometimes by sedan, driving up Highway-80, but mostly on foot. Riding in a car was expensive. Each time the family was passed to a different coyote there was an argument between the human smugglers that was only settled by giving the new coyote more money.
The family walked the hillsides, father and mother taking turns carrying the backpack that held everything they owned. Whoever carried it could not sleep. At night, anyone could steal everything from them. When they walked—the coyote led, followed by the families, the children in the middle—all regarding their peripheries like sentinels for banditos and narcos.
Exhausted, famished, and blistered they finally made it to the crossing point at Piedras Negras to cross the river into Eagle Pass, Texas. With one last push over the Rio Grande, they would be able to climb into a white van parked across the street—the first time the parent’s feet would touch U.S. soil in over seven years.
They were out of money and crossing would be another $300.
The Gamboa Family had installed metal poles in the water, below the surface, that could be used to pivot across the river’s deep section. They were told these poles were Gamboa property. The family would not be able to cross without paying the toll.
The coyote told them it was no problem. They would take the teenage daughter for the night. Either that or the father could take another backpack across the border—give it to the man driving the white van. The debt would be paid. The coyote would show them where they could find the poles. After, they could slip through a hole in the fence covered with branches.
The father took the backpack.
The family stripped down naked—told they would not be seen by the headlights without clothing and crossed.
Stories like this are swapped among immigrant families like generational recipes. Many believe horror like this won’t happen in America but El Chupacabra knows no borders—not even of the mind. This realization came to me after visiting my friend Samad who was celebrating a new job in D.C.
Samad’s father had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. I wanted to be there as he figured out a way to care for his father while balancing a new career. Even care for his father’s dog whose shit and piss now piled in the kitchen.
“Before the neighbors called and told us he was wandering, I think I already knew,” Samad said. We were riding the Yellow-Line Metrorail. To the east, was a golf course with sparkling grass. Westward, over a span of concrete highway, an equally manicured lawn held the Jefferson Memorial. In the train’s window, the Potomac River churned below us. Samad watched kayaks dotting the river as if they held answers.
“He’s still in the early stages?” I asked, wondering if he remembered how my father went.
“He’s like a talking bird that only knows one story. A war story about this guy, ‘Mad Jack.’ Apparently, in World War Two, Jack fought with a Scottish broadsword.”
“That big sword from Braveheart?” I lifted a brow and looked at Samad until he returned my gaze. “Faiz would love a soldier who fights with his ancestral weapon.” I smacked Samad’s shoulder like a brother.
“Swear to you,” he said. “My dad’s told me this story dozens of times so I’m getting pretty good at it.” Samad glanced at an elderly woman wearing a hound tooth duster a few seats down, probably gauging how loud he could get. “Jack was a savage, almost a psychopath. In France, he’d play the bagpipes and rode a motorcycle into the German enemy lines. My father said ‘Mad Jack’ bled out on Dunkirk beach. Held a machine-gun wound like a muscle kink.”
“Damn,” I said. “Glad he was an ally. Your dad helped with the evacuation?”
“No, he was in the East African Campaign—just heard rumors. Says “Mad Jack” went back to the town of Molina after his men scared the Germans by screaming like banshees in the night. Jack lost his sword there. Went back to retrieve it alone. A warrior.” I was glad he was smiling.
Outside the window, our view had turned from the river to the concrete of the city’s grid. The rail was nearing our stop just before Mt. Vernon Triangle. “At least your dad remembers a good one,” I laughed. “Sounds like someone Clint Eastwood would play.”
“What I don’t understand is how he can remember the war but forgets where he lives. Even to brush his teeth. He tells me about ‘Mad Jack’ with rotten breath.”
“Before my dad passed,” I said. “His nurse explained to me that it wasn’t that he’d forget where his keys were—he was going to forget what his keys are. I guess that old war story is lodged so deep he’ll never forget. He’ll forget how to walk and swallow, but if he can still speak, he’ll tell you about ‘Mad Jack.'”
“I think it’s time,” Samad said. “I need to find him a home.”
“We had a live-in nurse even though his wife was still all there.” I tapped my head. “We told the nurse he was Catholic. She began getting him to make the genuflection, to remember the steps marking Sign of the Cross. On good days, my father lifted his hand to forehead, then to heart, tagging his left shoulder before the right crossbar. Other days, he was confused.”
“How bad was it?” Samad asked. “I mean, this was the guy that raised you, taught you how to be a man. Now you’re the one changing diapers.”
“My father wasn’t a cool guy like yours,” I said. “He did his best with what he was given. His own dad was a drinker, used to beat the whole family. At least my dad wasn’t that—sure he’d get pissed. But we didn’t cower around him. Your dad’s a cool guy. It’ll be tough watching him turn into a baby, then a vegetable, but at least he raised you right and you’re the one doing it—not a stranger.”
“You think I should have him live with me?”
“I didn’t do it for my father.”
We ended up at a dive bar by his apartment. It was early on a weekday, quiet. The ideal venue to drink through Samad’s role reversal, now his father’s keeper. The brown liquor was still as I raised a shot glass.
“To Faiz,” I said. The rim of Samad’s glass met mine. “To a father who raised a boy strong enough to become a man.”
“And to our mothers who are stronger—” Samad said. “Because they endure us both.”
We smiled. We drank. A hockey game the bar half-watched entered the third period. The game had a true donnybrook, the kind of fight that breaks out after the away team loses, then turns senseless and starts pummeling so they can skate off the ice with pride. It wasn’t long until Samad took his turn to raise a drink.
“This one’s for your father,” he said. “May he rest in peace.”
“He’ll rest the way he lived,” I said, spilling. “In fury.” My words were coarse but the love was steady. Like the whiskey and my father’s memory.
We drank until we couldn’t see straight—shouting our affinities until our words slurred and the meaning behind what we couldn’t say was more evident in the way our arms slung over each other’s back.
As we left the bar, a man followed us. Three blocks turned to four before we tried to cross the street. When he matched our pace after crossing, my temple swelled, as if my pulse shoved all we had drunk into my head from fear.
The man stuck a knife in Samad’s lower back. I hurled my wallet at him; he ran off into the autumnal streets. My friend bled on the sidewalk like carved lechon while I held him.
When the ambulance arrived, they stripped Samad bare. He refused to lay down; he was in shock, disoriented, belligerent. Naked, Samad paced in the orange dusk yelling about the man with the knife, screaming to the whirlwinds of cherry blossom leaves that hovered over the concrete. When the paramedics finally wheeled him off the street, the delirious stir in his eyes faded.
“I swear to you,” he said. “I’m leaving this city.”
I told him to take his father with him.
Ian Lindsay is a candidate at the University of Central Florida’s program. In the past, Mr. Lindsay was a full-time Title 1 public school teacher and wishes to continue his work in the classroom. Ian lives in the sweltering heat and weirdness of Florida. He enjoys hip-hop music, NPR, and Vietnamese cuisine. As a first-generation writer, his work strives to find intersectionality through storytelling. Ian’s work can be read in The RavensPerch, The Eckerd Review, Neptune Poetry, and more.
© Variant Literature Inc 2021