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from the September 2017 issue

I Never Wanted to Sock You in the Face, Javier

In this short story by Juan Álvarez, a young man, forced to confront his Uncle Javier's violence, recounts its effect on his family.

Who has heard my voices? Is it Clotaldo?

Life is a Dream, Calderón de la Barca


I never wanted to sock you in the face, Javier, let’s just get that clear. Things happened the way they did because you left me no choice. Two plus two is four, and four plus two is six, simple as that, and if I’m feeling bad about it now, that’s another issue entirely. Grandpa may seem like he’s made of steel, sure, but he’s also old, and aside from that, you and the damn way you lose your head, the way you start snorting like a charging bull—man, you just left me no other option. When I went into the kitchen and saw you two all tangled up and bright red like scorpions fighting, I tried to make my hands into fists, but I couldn’t. “What the fuck is going on here?” I shouted, without looking either of you in the eyes. I was buying time to psyche myself up, because the mere fact you were in that house after we hadn’t seen you in years was enough to tell me something was wrong, that the tide of your sick heart had turned back on us, on the attack, and that my grandparents would again have to pay with their health. I stood there for a few seconds, it’s true, but not because I had doubts. I stood there because I knew that once I took the first step, there would be no turning back between you and me. Why didn’t you let the old man go, dude? Why didn’t you just let go of him when I went into the kitchen? It bugged you when you got there and found out there was a good-bye party for the star grandson, right? And that you—of course—weren’t invited. “What’s for dinner? Who’s here?” I bet you asked, and the old man, cagey as always, probably didn’t give you a straight answer. But he must have invited you in for some food, because seeing a son all skinny and dirty like that can’t be easy. Once you were in the kitchen, you must have threatened to go upstairs and say hi, and he must have forbidden it. You wouldn’t listen, and things got physical. That’s how the fight started, right? Yes, I’m sure that’s what happened, and if you want my opinion, you were right to be annoyed. But still, I’m telling you, I just couldn’t let you work Grandpa over again. When I lunged, and while I was punching you wherever I could land a fist, a bell jar of terror numbed my senses. At that moment, straining even my toes and filled with a drab anxiety that ground away at my teeth, with seventeen years under my belt and closer than ever to your dwindling weight, I had the feeling I could beat you to death. Because I understood that one day, you would be able to kill someone yourself.

I’m willing to accept that living with Pops and his stubbornness wasn’t easy. I know sometimes you wanted to hate him, and that it wasn’t just because he forbade you from playing soccer—there was more to the story. I know it especially pissed you off when they called you a dumbass and came at you with the whole lecture about school. But what do you want, man? I’ve told you before, haven't I? The folks feel weighed down, too, by the roles they have to play. If I really think about it, I’m sure his dream was for you to become a soccer player. He dreamed that soccer would be your life raft. Soccer as the means of placating the devil inside you. Seriously, the more I think back to those afternoons I went with you to practice, the more convinced I am it was only logical he would pin his hopes on that world of kicking and sprinting, on the mud that wrung out your energy and left you docile and content. Him too—when he saw you lunge without a trace of fear to block soccer balls kicked by guys who weighed over two hundred pounds, his eyes teared up and his chest filled with pride. “Son, don’t be an ass,” he’d say to you when you had trouble concentrating and making the grades you needed in school, and I know how furious that made you, but believe me, man, Grandpa only wanted to help you. He’d spend as many hours as necessary working his socks off at whatever absurd business came his way, on deals he always lost because he took people at their word. But still, he always made sure you didn’t lack for anything, not you or my mom or your brothers.

You know, one day Grandma spilled the whole story of those conversations you used to hallucinate—it was never really clear if you were talking to someone you recognized as a blood relative from another era, or if it was Great-Grandma Constanza, who you’d met for a few days when she was on her foul-smelling deathbed. Those mysterious pseudo-dialogues didn’t happen very often, Grandma said, and from the way she went into detail I had the feeling I was the first person in the family she’d dared to tell. Though most likely everyone else knew about it too, and they just didn’t say anything to her so she wouldn’t worry. Who knows. The fact is she told me that those conversations had happened ever since you were a kid, but that over the years they took on an unbearable crudeness. She confessed this to me a few weeks after the whole performance on Little Candles Day—remember?—when they threw you out of the house for good. When she told me, it was like she was trying to give me another kind of explanation; she was always so concerned about keeping people from hating you, from reducing you to some coarse animal. The meetings, she told me, happened in the yard, usually on cloudy days. You’d sit down and wait for hours, your back to the door to make it clear you didn’t want to be interrupted and had no desire to pretend otherwise. When the presence seemed to appear, you’d stand up to greet it and then sit down again. That’s how Grandma described it. She said you talked about all your sadness, the rage you felt when you saw how other people spent so much time and energy watching you carefully and walking on eggshells around you, everywhere from school to the barber’s. You talked about how you understood the need to monitor you, to keep you from getting mad and your head from getting hot, because when you were like that, you said, on top of feeling like you were about to explode, you felt like you couldn’t bear people getting close to you. In general, of course, people didn’t help, they kept coming closer and then you said the heat got so bad you turned red and you got that urge to raise your hand against anyone, whoever was closest. Yeah, man, Grandma heard all of that, but she could never bring herself to interrupt you. She told me every time she thought about it, she couldn’t help starting to cry. You talked about the need to get people away from your hot aura, and you even talked about some kind of bad-smelling aura, although this one, Grandma said, you mentioned less. I guess the hot aura emanated from an inner problem. The smelly one, to be frank, man, and no offense intended, was decidedly exterior. Shit, you could really smell bad. I mean, your room—there were Sundays when it smelled like the offal stall at the market, and Grandma got so embarrassed by it. Always, from my mom’s car window, parking in front of the house before lunch, I could see your open window and imagine the fight it had entailed. Because you’re stubborn, dude, obstinate as the ass they’ve always compared you to, getting you all riled up. Grams could let you keep the room closed up tight for a whole week, because she tolerated that and almost everything else. But when visitors came, things were different. If you want the truth, a thing like that could piss me off too, because it seems hypocritical, but you . . . I get the feeling that wasn’t even what bothered you. Your problem, man, had more to do with breaking that shell of strangeness you seemed tied to as a means of survival.

The image of the first broomstick I had to watch them break over your head, the day the whole truth came crashing down on me and I found out that your issues went back for years—now that’s a thing I’ll never forget. That day, I remember well, it all happened while you were yelling and my mom was trying to get me out of the house so I wouldn’t see the police come in and beat you with their clubs. I was really little then. What was I, maybe eight years old? You probably don’t even remember. That day, Javier, I somehow concluded that you had always been angry at me. Sick with rage. Don’t ask me why, but that’s how it was. As if you’d let yourself be convinced by all that hot air about the star grandson, the promising life with a future . . . I don’t know, Javier, but sometimes I think I’ve been especially cruel to you. To me you were an emblem of other possibilities besides being a winner, besides living up to other people’s expectations. It’s strange, I know, but what can I say. That day, you yelled at me with your eyes crazed, sick. You can’t imagine how devastated I was. “What are you just standing there for, you son of a bitch?” you asked, and something broke inside me. Right then, the toy train ceased to exist. And then came the rage because you were such a numbskull, so crude in your own way, that over-the-top, aggressive way of yours. You were such a brute that you could throw away the opportunity held out to you by soccer, all your tantrums that turned into attacks on the referees. That strength, man, that endless enthusiasm, that way of feeding off the game and giving your heart of hearts to every ball, it made me think, small as I was, that soccer was your thing. I thought, I guess like Grandpa did, that you had a choice because you had a path.

The fact is that on that day, once Mom and I finally got out of my grandparents’ house—and after they’d put you into the patrol car with a gesture that would be repeated many times—she tried to give me explanations. She told me: “Javier isn’t entirely your uncle.” I got furious, man, furious. She saw I was irritated and tried to go on explaining. I got the impression—tell me I wasn’t being a kid then—that out of the blue she was deciding that you wouldn’t be my uncle. As if the whole story she was telling me about the woman who’d worked in my grandparents' café years before, and who’d abandoned you there one afternoon, was something she was inventing to console me. Absurd, I know, but what do you want, buddy, I told you I was really little. Anyway, the thing is that once my mom was done talking, that whole spiel about how you weren’t my grandparents’ natural son was like a stupid caterpillar burrowing into my skull, trying to worm its way in, but there wasn’t any room. It wasn’t an explanation for anything, and my mother, of course, was the first to know it. Then I found out that you’d gone to several doctors, and that my grandparents and my mother had called in favors to get discounts from a specialist. What expert did they take you to? Why didn’t you ever tell me about those visits? I guess you were ashamed. That was before they kicked you out of the house, right? Yeah, it would have had to be before you moved into that rathole, the one where no one says you live but where everyone knows you live. I should clarify that no one calls it a rathole, of course, but that’s how I imagine it. The truth is I don’t know where you live. Not true, I do know. Now that I think about it, after the fight the day of my going-away party, Grandpa told me . . . Damn, I feel like crying when I remember it, because only now do I get the irony. You’re living on that diagonal that connects 63rd and 57th, behind the stadium, right? How shitty is that, stuck there just a few blocks from El Campín, like looking out of a cage and seeing that stadium we’d once dreamed of for you.

What an absurd mess. It’s incredible, man, but remembering you makes me so upset my bones start to rattle. How many times did you and Uncle Iván fight? He was always the one who talked about you least, as if he had you all figured out and he knew you couldn’t be fixed. Like he knew that you simply had to disappear. Maybe that’s why he always wanted to call the police. I realized that on Little Candles Day, when he not only called them immediately, but was also the only one who could keep calm while we were trying to knock down the bathroom door. I feel like I can see him now, man, I feel like I can see and hear him. No more than five minutes have gone by and I’m focused on all my fear and on how to help Pops and my mom with the door. “Never again, you son of a bitch! This bastard will never show his face in this house again!” That’s what he yelled, and he looked as stunned as the rest of us, yes, but there was also a certain pride that bloomed on his inflamed face, a pride that let him yell nonstop, yell those words over and over again, as though announcing that your time had come, as if telling my grandparents, really, that that’s what they got with all their goodwill and Christian charity, that now they had to see you can’t cage an animal. When the door finally broke in and we could get Grandma out, all soaked in sweat and tears, everything became a confused string of events. Restrain you, yell at you, listen to you, endure the presence of the police beating you and the paramedics treating Grandma . . . I don’t know, buddy, but at that moment, and though I was only thirteen, I knew everything had blown up, things had reached the point Uncle Iván had been waiting for, and you really wouldn’t ever return to the house. There are things you don’t come back from. That’s why you fought until you were unconscious, fought like a wild horse. What I remember of that beating is your face, like a sad blotch. You weren’t even clenching your teeth by that point. I remember my mother and my uncle shouting; yeah, I remember that too. Grandma was half-unconscious, and even so my mom and my uncle were scolding her, reprimanding her for trying to protect you when you’re all grown up and such a burden. They told her you were a sick man and that the time for explaining things to you was over, it would take a billy club to teach you, if anything could. Yes, that’s how it went: you were shouting at my mom, at Uncle Iván, and the police, and Mom and Uncle Iván shouted at Grandma, and then my mom yelled at you: “Son-of-a-bitch sick-o life-wrecker”—that’s what she said to you, in a kind of dry chant of pain and exasperation.

Once the police took you away, we found out what had happened. By then Grandma was on a stretcher and saying she didn’t want to go to any hospital (I guess she didn’t want to make your legal problems any worse, or it was just stubbornness, you know she’s got that too). And she told us it was all her fault. Imagine that—what a gal. She was crying while she explained, half-ashamed and seeming to want only Grandpa to hear her. She said she hadn’t wanted to make things worse, she only was only trying to find another way, and she was very anxious, please believe her. It seems she heard you, Javier. She heard you crying in the bathroom while you were showering and cursing God, she heard you swear you’d kill him. She got so nervous and that was why she opened the door and tried to keep listening. Lying on the stretcher, she clutched Grandpa’s hand and told him that when she realized you were talking about your own brother, about killing Uncle Iván, she felt so bad her muscles got all tangled up, and that was when she fell to the floor. I don’t know, buddy, I think a mother can tolerate a lot of things, but not the idea that two of her children want to kill each other. “I was lying on the floor when he opened the shower curtain, and I tried to explain,” said Grandma. Imagine, poor naive old woman—as if your tragedy lay in not understanding. But you know Grandma, always trying to get the better of bad luck. That must be why I get so mad at you. Because we even used to joke sometimes about how dumb you could be, remember? Like when I tried to explain the basics of set theory or how photosynthesis worked, but you didn’t understand anything and we ended up turning photosynthesis and sets into imaginary soccer players we’d take on trips to search for soccer fields we never found . . . Me, I never asked you to understand her, Javier; at most, just to look her in the eyes. Don’t play stupid, buddy, you know very well what I’m talking about. Look her in the eyes and realize she was suffering. You don’t have to be the smartest kid on the block to do that. You don’t have to finish school or understand photosynthesis. So she didn’t give birth to you—so what? She was your mother, man, and you know it.

When was it, buddy? At what point did they fuck us up? When did we let them turn us into the promise fulfilled and the promise failed? I don’t understand what happened. For me you stood for the possibility of something other than the path of intelligence, decency, and things done with care. I feel mean and cruel . . . loading you down with expectations, when I’m sure you’re just suffering from some illness that doctors have some hateful classification for and whose name I’d rather not learn. Although, still, if we went back in time and found out the name of what’s wrong with you, I’m sure we’d laugh. I’d make up where they’d gotten that bit about your angry temperament or tendency toward dissociation, and you’d ask me one question after another from the floor where you were stretched out and rolling with laughter, so overgrown, with a soccer or tennis ball in your hands that you’d bounce from side to side, until they called us to dinner.

How’s your face doing now? How do you spend your days? Only Grandpa knows—I found out that he still brings you leftovers to your rathole, on Sunday afternoons, at the risk of getting chewed out by the family. He told me himself that night after the fight, once we’d restrained you, gotten you out into the street and shut the door behind you. Poor old guy. When the whole thing was over and people went back to the dining room, he and I stayed sitting on the patio. We were exhausted. He started to cry real soft so no one could hear him. I hugged him and was quiet, not sure what to do. “I don’t bet on the horses anymore,” he told me after a while. I thought sadly that the women had won the battle, my mom and Grams and their whole endless lecture about the money you wasted on betting. But no, turned out it was something else. Turned out that he wanted to explain many things to me with that phrase. All of them very confused, like his own soul, because I’m telling you the old man thinks it’s all his fault, the way he educated you, the favors he still thinks he could have called in. He said he had to tell Grandma he was going out to bet and face whatever lecture came, all so he could go out alone and bring you the leftover food. He told me he’d been doing it for several months. That you still got thinner and thinner and your eyes were always grayer, resigned to your fate. Then he told me, as if he’d ordered his thoughts in the silence, that the thing that worried him most was that recently Grandma didn’t fight him when he said he was going out. “It must be because she found out you’re bringing food to Javier,” I told him, smart as can be, and then I even explained to him that it wouldn’t be hard to catch on, since after all, no one went to the ponies with a lunch box. The sadness vanished from his face, he looked up and fired off: “What do you think, son, that I don’t hide it before going out?! No, that’s not it,” he said, and after a pause: “Grandma doesn’t put up a fight because she’s tired, same as me . . . Tired, tired, you understand, son?”

We sat another while in silence. Finally he dried his tears and asked me to help him serve dessert. With two trays full of rice pudding and cottage cheese with syrup we went up and sat at the table. The family was talking about an aunt-in-law of the wife of a certain Enrique who knew the grand dame of the Obregón family. Impossible to follow the story. I looked at Grandpa. He’d chosen rice pudding and had slowly begun eating it. Grandma didn’t want dessert. I was leaving the next day, man, and all I could think about was your bleeding face and how narrow one’s path can be. 

© Juan Álvarez. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2017 Megan McDowell. All rights reserved.

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