And, fathers, do not provoke your children to anger…
Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians, 6:4
At seven I was small enough to ride standing up in the van,
Uncle Sonny and my father up front, me still in my party clothes:
white hat, white holsters, tin badge on my chest. One of the good guys.
Sonny drove. He and my father were best friends, wannabe wiseguys
who married a pair of Puerto Rican sisters. Still, they lived up to the wiseguy
style of the Bronx circa ‘66: the diamond pinky rings, the high Pompadours
and Sinatra singing about the summer wind on the radio that July afternoon
joyriding along Southern Boulevard. The three of us had left my cousin’s birthday
once Spanish took over the party, my mother drinking too much,
her Spanish rapid fire despite the alcohol, the music louder because of it,
her laughter raucous, like she was mad, mad at my father, taunting, defiant,
scaring me. I didn’t know what she and her sister were saying.
I didn’t wanna know. I was like my father that way,
though my mother and I were rarely apart, went everywhere together,
to her aunts in El Barrio, to her mother in PR, the bodega, the winged
cockroaches, the white beaches, my first time on a jet plane, her language
and the people she loved all around me all the time. In front of them, I
tripped over the Spanish words, but alone I spoke them with a perfect accent,
like I came from the same little hill town. So when Sonny asked my father
when was he going to smarten up, do like he did with my aunt, take my mother
to the bedroom and pull a knife, because that’s all these Ricans understand,
I turned to my father, watched and waited, the whoosh of the wheels,
the thud and rattle of the van rolling over each seam in the road
the only signs that time was still moving, that I was still moving.
I loved this man. Not in the same way as my mother. But he was my father.
My mother and father. They fought. He hit her. She wailed and cursed.
But they were my world. They must love each other if they loved me, right?
There I was, with my white hat, white holsters and tin badge,
and there was my father, caught in a standoff between the street and me.
Then he blinked: I gotta be more like you, he said to Sonny.
Maybe I looked like I was about to cry, maybe my eyes just got wide,
something compelled him to explain: He gets nervous, he told Sonny,
like his mother. I didn’t argue. I had no argument.
I was such a logical little boy, smart as they all said, maybe smarter,
and my seven-year-old logic came to a swift and frightening
new conclusion: he hated Puerto Ricans, he hated her, and I was scared
he meant to take her from me, never doubting his words, my imagination
careening past images of her body strewn, naked, and oblivious
to my cries, a red slit in her chest where he finally stabbed her…
I said nothing. Raised no alarm. Made no protest. I was a good boy,
a mama’s boy. Quiet, behaved and loyal. But there is no heart blacker
than that of a frightened mama’s boy. I buried him. I buried him alive
that afternoon, like the mafia does to a rat, breaking his arms and legs
so he can’t dig himself out. I buried my father deep, deep
in the rough open grave of my own black heart,
me in my white hat, white holsters, tin badge, one of the good guys.
I held on, kept my balance like a big boy, the van rumbling along
Southern Boulevard, the old cobble stones exposed like broken bone.
– Eugene A. Melino
Image: “Black Carousel Horse with Roses” / Original photograph taken by author