Saturday, March 05, 2011

Papa Dies Many Times

This is one way Papa died.

We’re on the bridge and he’s telling me stories of his life.

You know. Uncle Roy, twenty dollar bills, true things and false things also. A kid approaches, black and poor like Elvis would sing about, dribbling a basketball. No -- it was a pink bouncey-ball like you’d buy for three dollars at a Rite-Aid, from a wire bin, only he didn’t buy it, he stole it, because like I said, black and poor.

Anyway. He’s bouncing it down the sidewalk and it’s giving him his only joy in life. He’s never even smiled before today. The ball hits a rock on the sidewalk -- the ball ricochets out into traffic -- but I spring into action to save the black boy’s happiness. I don’t even realize I’m flinging my own self into danger as I grab the ball and bounce it back to the boy. I have no regard for my own safety or future.

But Papa knows.

“Noooo!” he cries, leaping after me, grabbing me in mid-air, flinging my body back onto the sidewalk. He bellyflops onto the road, where is body is crushed by semis, giant vans, and a carriage drawn by eighteen horses. His body is pulped and destroyed.

I am orphaned. But I will revenge him, I swear it.

* * * * *

This is one way Papa died.

Same as the one where he’s crushed by horses, except there is also a hail of gunfire. Probably from gangsters passing in a limo.

I will revenge him, etc.!

* * * * *

One night at supper, he suddenly burst into flames. He burned down to ash, blacker than broiled crumbs.

* * * * *

This is one way Papa died.

He leaned on the bridge and looked down at the sick river. He had one knee up on the curb and both elbows rested on the railing. I tried to imitate his posture. He spit down into the water, releasing a thick clump of phlegm that he watched all the way down. I tried to spit too, but could only muster a thin streak of saliva that stuck to my lip. The wind blew it back into me, splotching my shirt. I wiped my chin and looked over at Papa, but it didn’t look like he saw me.

“What else about Mexico?” I say.

He doesn’t look at me, but he answers. “There’s a lot about Mexico. What do you wanna know?”

Sometimes when he asks that it means he’s willing to tell a story, but he wants you to pick it. Sometimes it means he doesn’t want to talk.

“I don’t know,” I say.

He shrugs his shoulders. He smirks but doesn’t smile. He arches his eyebrows down to the brown water beneath us. “I should tell you about your destiny,” Papa says.


He turns to face me, crosses his ankles, and leans one elbow on the railing. “I ever tell you I’m a merman?”

“No,” I say, trying to wrangle my lips not to smile.

“It’s true,” he says, holding his hands palm-to-palm, and wriggling his arms like a fish. “Breathing underwater and all that shit. You know what that makes you?”


“Half merman.”

“I thought I was half Indian.”

“You’re half all sorts of shit,” he says. He slips out of his leather jacket and rips his t-shirt right off of himself. He has tattoos most people don’t ever see. There’s a lady on his forearm, knees together and hands on her hips, wearing a dress. Farther up, on his bicep, there’s another lady, in swimsuit bottoms but no top. On his bicep, over his heart, written in small cursive letters, it says Rosa.

“I ain’t saying you should go jumping into rivers,” he says, “maybe not today.” He stands on one foot, and then the other, pulling off his black cowboy boots. He unbuckles his belt and his bluejeans fall down to the ground. His legs have gone scaly and silver. And when your mama and sister asked what happened here today, you make something up. If you tell ‘em I went back to sea, your mama’s likely to join the navy and go looking for me. And that ain’t what I want.”

He steps up onto the railing and his toes have all melded together, making his feet end in slithery fins. His legs have started to fuse together too. His chest and his arms still look the same. His head is still Papa. But by the time he hits the water he’ll be fish from the waist down, sliding and slithering through the water.

“What am I supposed to do?” I say. My face is getting hot and my throat feels scratchy. “Am I going to turn to a merman some day?”

Papa shrugs and smiles. He says, “It’s a mystery, man.” He leaps off the bridge and doesn’t a sound when he hits the water. It’s raging whitewater now, for some reason, and he’ll get away with the current in no time.

Son of Merman, I guess. That’s me.

* * * * *


Aneesa said...

I forget, did Papa really die or just run off?

Matthew Jent said...

He really died. Berto's there when it happens. I'm playing with putting one of these at the end of every chapter in the current rewrite.

Aneesa said...

Ooh, I like it!

Matthew Jent said...

Partially as a way to deal with the fact that I've cut out the first chapter, which is when Papa actually dies -- and I wasn't sure how to show it, or reveal the details.

So, Berto tells these false versions at the end of each chapter, and then a little over half way through, he tells the real version in dialogue to his cousin. They're on a road trip together.