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from the September 2017 issue

Lost Causes

In this short story by Óscar Collazos, two brothers whose parents consider them beyond redemption bond over unspeakable acts and their communal rebellion.

Alberto returned home and went to his room without saying a word, evading Mom’s eyes (What are you doing home? I thought you went to Confession?) and avoiding her questions. Then I thought: Something must have happened to him. I chose to continue on with the sports page, distracting myself by focusing on the photos and headlines though without really concentrating, thinking what Mom would be thinking, It’s your fault for setting a bad example. I got up off the couch and went to ask Alberto something, figuring he might be willing to confide in me (I remember that there had always been some sort of confidence between us) but it was all for naught. I remembered the first rule when it came to judging Alberto—He’s a stubborn one—and that was enough for me to give up the attempt. Later I tried again, hoping to draw something out by commenting on the Millonarios game against Cali, on how well the Millos striker played and how bad the defense was in the first half; Sure, but things got better when they subbed out that gimp Flores, Alberto said, and I felt more confident, figuring I had found the way: it would be easier now to earn his confidence because I was still insistent on learning why he came home so soon and why he was stubbornly refusing to talk about it.

Alberto lowered his head again, as if I were Dad and was scolding him, occasionally looking up and biting his nails (When are you going to stop doing that, you filthy little pig?), rolling his eyes back to expose a surprising amount of whiteness, like that of a void. Let him throw a tantrum, Mom shouted from her room. When he’s done, we’ll see what that little nonbeliever has to say, she continued, which I took as a direct shot at myself, as if she were saying, It’s your fault he acts like this, as if that little nonbeliever were an accusation, since she was always saying I set a bad example and therefore was responsible for the behavior of my brothers. Of course! They’re just following your lead, Dad said one night when my brothers started coming home after nine o’clock at night, one of them smelling of beer. If they’re doing this at thirteen, what’s next? Mom said then, piggybacking on Dad’s accusation.

I remembered a dream from months earlier: I was on my own, sitting on one of those stools you only see in comic strips and children’s books where a kid wearing a dunce hat sits while others laugh at him. There were many people all around me, among them, perhaps, Mom and Dad, shouting louder and louder while I remained silent, all of them watching me, approaching me, pointing at me without ever averting their swollen, bulging eyes. It was as if they were making me the target of some blame I could not identify during that moment of sleep, and the sensation it produced was not unlike having an unwanted weight pressing down upon my body. I remember the next day there remained only isolated images of the dream, of the vague accusations I could draw from it, and for several days they were repeated in greater and greater clarity until they became fixed in my memory. Upon remembering this, I associated the idea of guilt, the guilt that seemed to fixate on me day after day, with that of the You’re setting a bad example for those kids.

Something must have happened to him, I said to myself, thinking again of Alberto, for he was the first to recognize his religiosity, to remember the time he stayed with the priests, playing parish soccer and doing other parochial activities, even the Sunday strolls and surprise gifts, and—many years before—the prayer cards and medallions, things that once caught my attention but which later had ceased to interest me. I was indifferent by then, to the point where it created a real clash between my mom and me, she being the one who cared most about our behavior regarding such matters. I pressed forward with Alberto on his team’s scoring, fanning his passion and fueling his excitement, and I managed to draw out a few sentences of acceptance followed by sobs. Yes, what did you expect? he simply said curtly, before finishing his statement with feigned sincerity: Did you want us to lose?

I chose instead to leave him alone and go back into the living room where Mom was still ranting and raving, I wouldn’t be surprised if one of these days they take down the picture of the Sacred Heart of Jesus and light it on fire right in front of me, she muttered while cleaning the dining room. I opted for silence. Stretched out in an armchair, I listened instead to the music on the local radio station: exclusive music, lively up-tempo songs that couldn’t be heard on other stations because they had been banned: the latest records produced in Puerto Rico and smuggled here. I sat there for an hour or so until the broadcast was interrupted by the chords of the national anthem. I remember, when I was a child, I would stand up and salute every time I heard it. I smiled, looking at Mom.

Dad’s arrival—What’s going on here?—was what made me get up, go to my room, and pick up a book, pretending to study while making sure the title (Advanced Algebra) was clearly displayed for all to see, occasionally even pretending to take notes on a piece of paper with a serious, concentrated look on my face. I heard his voice first, and then his tone. He was speaking to me: Be careful not to get mixed up with those strikes. They’ve already killed several students; I just heard about it on the way home. It was a warning. Deep down, I rejected such advice: I figured Dad was just a conformist, that he didn’t understand our problems, and that it was best to pretend to be in complete agreement with all of his positions. If you get expelled, you’ll be the one paying for the fucking private school, he added, dramatically as always. Nobody’s getting kicked out, I replied. We often took the time to stop and talk, but the words never seemed to flow, there were long periods of reticence, as if there was nothing to be said. My silence was already a learned behavior; I needed only a handful of words to accept, suggest, or ask for something. I saw his embittered face and sensed the need to not displease him; in part, I even accepted his rationale without making it my own. This is really rotten, he said, before going back to his room, to his silence, to the table, to eat, always without a shirt, the beads of sweat rolling down his chest. His flesh had begun to grow fat and soft.

The sweating was constant: we all remained there, shirtless, in the house until drowsiness crept up on us, followed by sleep. The days blurred together; monotonous, the same events repeated themselves, the same phrases, the same sun, the same fervid perspiration. We took the newspaper and turned it into a fan, snorting as if expelling some air could make us feel a bit cooler.

It won’t be long before he asks about the boys, I thought when Dad first came in. I looked at the table and watched as he sat down heavily. Mom must be thinking that if she says something to Dad, he’ll beat Alberto with a switch, I figured. Things were as tense as ever: I expected Dad to ask about the boys, and yet the atmosphere of nervousness that wouldn’t allow me to concentrate on any one thing only seemed to increase. They’ll get us together at school tomorrow, I thought, looking away. Dad got up from the table; Alberto was still in his room, calculating the exact moment when Dad would be asking for him. After a while, Dad turned up the volume on the radio and listened to the nightly news. What a mess! Rojas Pinilla had been ousted and the station was broadcasting statements from all across the world. Yesterday, when it was being first reported that he had stepped down, that the dictator had been toppled by the people, they canceled classes and bused us to the parade, chanting Long live Democracy in a contagious celebration of flag waving and patriotic songs. This represents the salvation of our country and a return to civil liberties, the broadcaster announced in his nasal, pinched voice.

Dad coughed several times and shifted uncomfortably in his seat. I was still thinking about Alberto, but quite unexpectedly an image from the previous day’s parade came to my mind, along with the memory of Beatriz, a somewhat awkward—and guilty—memory, for just a week earlier (and since then I had not seen her) I kissed her madly, put my hand under her dress and felt her nipples, her eyes were closed and she said No, don’t do it, without letting go of me, as we sat there in a secluded corner of the park, and her eyes open before me, the movement of her body, the spreading of her legs, my hand sliding up now that her protests had gone silent, overcome by submission, an overwhelming yet gentle sigh, her body pressing against mine, her thighs tightening, my one hand held captive between them while the other working its way underneath her bra, the firmness of her breast causing me to suddenly imagine it was somehow swelling more than the other thanks to my caresses, something which motivated me to switch to the other side and alter the movement of my hand in her underwear. This memory seduced me for a moment, and I found great delight in fixating on it. I tried to draw out more, but it seemed fleeting, and eventually escaped. What remained was the image of the previous day’s parade. It was only after a while that I was able to return to Alberto’s problem. Hmmm, who does this boy take after? Mom once said to me, and when I remembered this, I again felt I was to blame for Alberto’s situation. I went to his room to talk more about the game, only to find him with angry, reddened eyes: he was sobbing now, and harder than before. Things have been heating up these past few days, Dad said, once the news had ended and before entering the room. There’s a military junta, he said in passing to Mom, who wasn’t quite sure how to respond. I hope this all gets sorted out, she replied with the particular note of patience she often ascribed to her words when it came to talking with Dad. A short while later, the other brothers arrived and began to change out of their school clothes. They would eat and lie down, but later that night they would argue, this time about a fight they had seen two blocks away between a man and a woman: she was venting to him, and he responded with violence. These fights between men and women were not uncommon in the neighborhood, and always attracted quite a crowd when they began. Word spread quickly through the streets, and the spectacle was met with both screams and cheers. What was also not uncommon was for the man to have been slashed with a knife and yet insist on fighting up until the very moment he collapsed. The boys were engrossed in their conversation until Mom poked her head in the room and interrupted them by saying, Your father has gone to bed. Everyone fell silent: there was a sickening fear of Dad. Respect, I now understood, was nothing more than the fear of his reaction. 

I couldn’t fall asleep. For a very brief moment I thought about trying to revive the image of Beatriz, but I avoided her by lending greater importance to the idea of talking with Alberto. I went over to his bed, leaving the light on as if I were going to read: because we all slept in the same room, my other brothers turned their backs to the light, perhaps even closing their eyes to evade it. You were right not to go to confession, I said to Alberto, trying to strike up the conversation. He looked at me for a moment before burying his head once again in his pillow. A short while later he got up and went to the bathroom. When he returned, he said as he climbed back under the covers, I was going to go to church, but I turned around. That was when I realized he was open to a conversation. I let him take the initiative. I am what I am, and I’m not going back to the church. I tried to nudge him along, but did not ask why. I’m not going back, even if they beat me, he insisted, clearly restraining his anger. 

When he continued on with the course of the conversation, I began to clearly understand his motives, which he more calmly explained, one by one, without any more pausing or hesitations. Alberto was eleven at the time, and for me it was nice to know that I had a brother who would confide in me. I was seventeen, which was old enough to garner me some respect: I was seen as worthy, the brother who studied hard and who, in his final year of high school, read and admired the words of Voltaire, which I made into my own when it came to the conversations (monologues, really) that I had with my brothers. I would come upon political pamphlets, and I read them aloud, distracted, so they could listen. Again: I was respected, and with every passing day I could see how they were undergoing a secret transformation despite the fact that at home they abided by the usual standards of respect. Don’t say anything to Dad, Alberto finally said. He’s a fag, he continued, and went on to describe the incident, kneeling on the prie-dieu, the beginning of confession, the solitude of the church, the voice of the priest sounding hollow in the background, and then his hand resting on Alberto’s thigh. He squeezed it, unexpectedly, for no reason whatsoever, and moved it toward his genitals, his brother told him. Then he said he stood up in the confessional and blurted out the only thing he could think of: Don’t be such a fag! 

Then we fell silent. I heard Dad cough in the next room and I imagined a lit cigarette flickering in the dark, him coughing again, his body convulsing as he lay there, always at the edge of the bed. I felt a great sense of relief and decided to drift off and let the memory of Beatriz, which had ceased some minutes ago, catch up to me once again. I felt that remembering her brought back the same sense of joy tinged with guilt, amplified and aggravated by several days of being apart. I’ll apologize, I thought to myself. Then I went back to the memory of the previous day’s vague events: riding the bus, many of us riding buses back and forth across the city, shouting and raising a terrible uproar, adding to the contagious enthusiasm, repeating the same words as the school bell rang incessantly: that cry of The dictator has fallen! lit a fuse in each and every classroom, though I still don’t understand why we joined the rally, why we repeated the cheers of names of people we did not know, swept up in the senseless euphoria that led us or dragged us to a state of exhilaration and madness.

Just as I was about to turn off the light, feeling the switch under my fingers, I thought again of Alberto: I hope he doesn’t go back, I said to myself. I associated his incident with Father Gómez with that of our situation with Don José Francisco Sánchez. And I thought the fact that these things were done by a priest made it a much more serious matter. As I switched off the light, I thought to myself that one of those days I would talk about what happened to my brother Alberto during Father Maldonado’s class, just to see the expression on his face.

The darkness was total at first. A short while later, a gentle glow began to filter in from outside in such a way that it revealed their three bodies spread out on their beds, along with the sheen of a painting of the Guardian Angel that my mom had hung there several years before.

"Causas Perdidas." © Óscar Collazos. By arrangement with the author's estate. Translation © 2017 by Ezra Fitz. All rights reserved.

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