Geronimo Madrid
PROSE
 
No Bullets in the House

Near the end of the long dreary flight from Manila to Washington, D.C., Diego Ramirez turns to Cecilia and blows in her ear. Cecilia, in turn, shrinks from his hot breath and peels the sleep mask away from one bloodshot eye.

"You awake?" Diego asks.

She nods her head even as she starts snoring, and Diego laughs softly to himself, shakes his head, and inhales the fruity odor of her shampoo, a reprieve from the ripe airplane stench. Then he arches his cramped back and inspects the flight-grown stubble of his jaw. His fingers linger at the slug-shaped scar on his left cheek. A hairless patch.

After five minutes, Cecilia sits up in her seat. "I have to pee." She plucks her sleep mask off and stands. She is unsteady and places her palms on Diego’s shoulders. He pinches his big legs together so she can climb over him.

She gets one panty-hosed thigh across, and as she pauses to shift her weight, her pearl necklace bounces against Diego's cheek. He takes the cold, tasteless beads into his mouth and gives a puppy-like tug.

"Ulol," she says. Crazy.

Once in the aisle, she pulls down at the hem of her short, short skirt. When she makes for the economy class seats, Diego barks, "Bathroom’s the other way." He watches her skinny, twenty-two year-old ass go.

Hostess one day, jetsetter the next. That's what he's done for her.

* * *

At the arrival gate Cecilia heads off, finding the car Diego has arranged for her. She will go to the fancy hotel and wait. Over the length of his stay, Diego will join her when he can get away.

Bear-like in bulk and tall for a Filipino, Diego peers over the disheveled heads of his fellow passengers. He spots his wife, Marcela, and daughter, Abigail, leaning against the barricade, and waves. At forty-two, Marcela is still pretty, but she's put weight on around her middle. He can see this even through her loose-fitting clothes—the baggy jeans, the hooded sweatshirt. She's also cut her hair short like a boy's, and Diego stifles a frown at all this.

Standing to Marcela's right, Abigail towers over her mother. Abigail is seventeen and no longer gangly and hipless. A two-inch band of flesh shows between her pink wool turtleneck and the waist of her denims. Behind Abigail, an olive-skinned man in an ill-fitting suit—uniform of the limo driver—is gawking at her backside. An unsettling mixture—fatherly pride, fatherly possessiveness—works its way like a hot drink from Diego's sternum to gut, and he gives the ogler the hairy eyeball. The man lowers his gaze and half hides his face with his cardboard sign.

Diego and Marcela have not seen each other in twelve months and two weeks, and their first kiss is clumsy and fumbling. Diego doesn't know what to do with his hands, and when their lips touch, he ends up patting her on the hips. She drums her fingertips against his lapels.

Diego gives Abigail a bear hug, lifting her off her feet. "What’s the matter?" he says into her ear. "You couldn’t put on a dress for your Papa?" The milky smell of her sweater—fabric softener—fills his nose.

"A dress?" Abigail says. "Please, Dad. What am I, twelve?"

To Diego's ears, her American accent makes "Daaaaad" a never-ending sound. 

He glances benignly at Marcela… Girl's growing up. But Marcela takes it as rebuke and flicks her manicured nails at Abigail. "The girl wears what she wants. Never listens."

"You never complain about my clothes," Abigail says to her mother. "You’re just putting on a show for Dad." 

More like sisters, Diego thinks, scanning the busy terminal and ensuring that Cecilia has indeed gone. Then he massages a kink in his neck. "Well, you both look great anyway. Let’s go home. The flight’s a killer."

* * *

Diego and Abigail have lived apart since the attempt on his life ten years ago. Abigail was seven then and had a child’s loyalty to her father. In the hospital room where he convalesced—a leg in traction, his side bandaged, and the bullet graze in his cheek sewn up—Abigail had shrieked against his decision. Her cries filled the halls and corridors. Her small, cheeky face grew blister-red, and tears sprang from her eyes with surreal abandon. Hopped up on painkillers, he was amazed that such a small girl could cry so much. It was like a miracle—one of those weeping Madonna's in the knot of a tree.

Marcela, too, said she wanted to stay. She had bent low by the hospital bed and whispered in his ear, "What kind of life will we have? You here, us there." But in the end Diego’s bigger fear overrode their protests. He didn't want them killed in the endless feuds that cut across their province like the seasonal monsoons. He sent them to the American suburbs, to McLean, Virginia. Diego visits them once a year for two weeks at a time.

And now, as he stows his empty suitcases in the upstairs hall closet, he shakes his head once more at Marcela's choice of house. It is a modern house—built in 1983 by its architect owner. It has four bedrooms, and from the outside, looks like a conglomeration of geometric shapes. On the left, a tall rectangle for a turret. A slanted-roofed garage to the right. The whole thing is sheathed in gray cedar planks. Circular windows dot the second storey.

Inside, on the first floor, the tall, arched windows make Diego feel exposed. And the expansive entryways between living room, family room, dining room, and kitchen render privacy impossible. But Marcela paid 50% down and signed the contract despite his objections, which he voiced over the phone after she had sent him pictures. "Honey," she had said. "Abigail and I are going to be the ones living in the house. Not you. So maybe our opinion should count for something."

Nudging the closet shut with a foot, Diego yawns and cocks his ears. Downstairs the microwave hums—Marcela making him a snack. He's unable to hear Abigail, and a surreal notion, that she's fallen away to another dimension, grabs hold of him. He shakes his head. She must be in her room or the hall bath, logic says.

He won't be missed for a few minutes, so Diego pads into the office. He shuts the door, settles himself at his large oak desk and calls the Swede who is, more or less, a business associate. The Swede is an engineer who spent the latter half of his career working for the World Bank. Now semi-retired, he still consults for the institution. He resides full time in Manila with his local wife.

Diego and the man exchange the usual pleasantries--"How's your family?" "Everyone well?" "Long flight?"—and then they get down to the business they have in common: building roads.

Without Diego's approval, no road can be built in his mountainous province north of Manila. He and his partners own that patch of Luzon.

The Swede congratulates him on a just-completed project, a highway snaking around terraced rice fields. Diego grunts. In truth, there wasn't anything to the project. This section of highway, shoddily built, will wash away under the first serious rains. When this happens, Diego's partners will get the contract to build it again.

"There's no business," Diego says into the phone, "like repeat business."

The Swede's laugh happens at the back of his throat and sounds like choking.

But then the Swede brings up the Agorro Project, a World Bank-funded road that will climb steep, sheer hills to a fictional village of indigenous Filipinos, the Agorros. The road, the Swede told the World Bank, would give the Agorro access to hospitals and schools. The Swede even hired an anthropologist to write volumes on the Agorro.

… once a tribe of fierce headhunters… males earned the right to wear the dyed woven loincloth at 16… women made abo, an alcoholic drink, by fermenting wild tubers

"Maybe this not such a hot idea," the Swede says. "Maybe this is like pushing our luck, no?"

"Tsk." Diego is confident, figuring even if the World Bank uncovers the Agorro Road Project for what it is—an expensive highway to nowhere—the good old boys who run the place would keep things quiet. It is the last thing they need—another example of heinous mismanagement, of outright graft.

So he reminds the Swede that the proposal is in and that the first round of payoffs has been made. He tells the Swede to hold his nerve, to be a man, to follow through.

"The Agorro," Diego says, "are going to get their road, whether those goddamn savages appreciate it or not."
 
* * *

That night, Diego makes love to Marcela two times, to reassure her that he desires her still. She is noisy in bed, and because he doesn't want Abigail to hear, he places a hand over her mouth. Teasingly, Marcela bites his salty palm and stares at him in a way that's meant to be insouciant and sexy. But her unblinking gaze—like a corpse—threatens to make him soft. He muddles through, and after, he kisses Marcela on the forehead. She lies next to him, one arm draped heavily over his chest. And he drifts off to a fitful, jetlagged sleep.

In the morning, he pulls on tan slacks and a dress shirt and goes downstairs to the living room. It is 10AM but his body tells him different, so he cracks open a Bud Light from the mini bar before grabbing the cordless and falling ass-first onto the sofa. The mid-morning sun pours in through the gaping window behind him. The light warms his back and sends the wind-whipped shadows of trees flickering across the taupe walls, the dark furniture, the dead-gray widescreen TV. He dials the hotel and asks for Cecilia's room.

"Awake?" Diego whispers.

"Yes, but I’m still in bed. I’ve booked a massage, though. And a manicure, a pedicure. And a car will take me shopping tomorrow."

"What mall? I'll meet you."

"Diego, don't you think your wife will get suspicious if you go off all of a sudden? You just got there. Do you want trouble?"

He doesn't want trouble.

"But listen," Cecilia says. "Next week, do you think we can go to the Smithsonian? Or the White House? Or Georgetown? I want to do some sightseeing, and I've been reading about all these places…"

From the other end of the line, Diego hears the rustle of brochure pages. And of course we can go to those places is what he means to say next. But instead what comes out is: "I love life." He clears his throat. He doesn't know where this came from.

And then there is a long pause during which Cecilia, too, wonders what in the hell he is talking about. Has she said something wrong? Did she miss a turn in their conversation? She doesn't think so, and the non sequitur leaves her insecure, shaken. And her mouth dangles open before the receiver—a fish brained with a club.

Finally, she squeezes out a, "Yes. Okay," as the phone goes dead.

* * *

As Abigail comes down the stairs, her thudding heel-first gait resonates throughout the house, and without saying good-bye to Cecilia, Diego hangs up and chucks the phone to the other end of the sofa. He picks up a magazine—Martha Stewart Living—from the glass-topped coffee table. He opens to a recipe for rack of lamb and pretends to be reading.

It is a school day but as always, Abigail's stayed home for the first day of his visit. She strides into the room and stops on the other side of the coffee table. She is wearing the same jeans as yesterday and a short-cropped yellow shirt. Diego flinches at the tight pucker of her navel. Emblazoned across her shirt are the words: "Mountain Dew. Do the Dew!"

She has a finger tucked in a book. The title, Diego reads, is One Hundred Years of Solitude. It is a fat book.

"So, Dad. How’s business?"

"Business is good. It could always be better, but it’s good. So don’t worry, there’s plenty of money for whatever college you want to go to." He thinks of the killing he will make on the Agorro Road. Then he contemplates asking Abigail about school, but what a cliché topic to cover with his only child. He looks at her long legs, the way she stands with one hip jutting out. He feels very far away from her. So he gets up, goes to her and crushes her to him again, as he did at the airport. He hugs her with such ferocity that her book is squeezed out from between them, like a hotdog squeezed out of its bun. The books pages butt against his chin. It's as if he can feel every sliver of page against his flesh.

But the other feeling, that there are wide canyons of distance between them, persists. So he hangs on to her tighter and tighter until the warmth, weight and sheer reality of her closes the gap.

"Okay, Dad, okay," she says, and a little-girl laugh comes pouring out of her maturing body. Her laugh makes him smile.

And then he falls back onto the sofa again. Abigail stands there, flushed and giggling and shaking her head. But then she sees his bottle of beer sweating on the tabletop. A frown flickers across her face.

"Your mother," Diego says, "is sleeping in. Hasn't made me my coffee yet."

"You can't make your own coffee?" 

Diego smirks. His daughter, The Feminist.

Abigail's own mouth twists in displeasure. Then she opens her book and paces back and forth as she reads.

"Do you want me to take you shopping?" Diego says now.

"What? Shopping? No."

"Come on. We could head to one of the malls. And if you wanted, I could even get lost for a little while. You know, just sit at the food court or wander off by myself while you shop around. And when you're done, I could come pay. What do you say?"

"I don’t need anything."

"What about dresses, or makeup, or a purse? Or pearls." 

"Dad, I don’t use any of that stuff." She says this with a furrow in her brow. There is a harsh finality in her tone that is beyond questioning.

"Okay. Your loss."

Diego watches her read. Since his last visit, her personality has crystallized, taken its own unique shape. He is not surprised; this is what children do. But she is his only child. He bites his lip and finds the silence suddenly unbearable. To break it, he says, "Do the Dew!"

Abigail looks down at her shirt. "Dad," she says. "Hal’s coming to dinner tonight. Mom wants you to meet him."

"Who's Hal?"

"My boyfriend!" Abigail says. "Mom told you about him on the phone."

"Oh, yeah." The boyfriend.

* * *

The oxtail stewMarcela has cooked is so tender that tendrils of meat separate from the bone at the slightest provocation from Diego's fork. The broth itself is savory, thick. A broth for curing colds.

Diego is sitting next to Marcela and across the table from Abigail and Hal. He's lost his appetite, and his eyes are drawn by a morbid magnetism to Hal's nose, which is pierced through with a ring of silver, like the snout of a bull. When Hal laughs or chews, the ring trembles, catches the overhead light, and flings the light into Diego's face.

Diego chokes down some plain white rice. Why is his daughter dating this ugly, mutilated idiot? Hal's spiky hair is a dried-cornhusk blond, his chin covered with pimples and a rash from shaving. He is also slightly built and short.

"Hal, let me ask you. What on God's earth made you do that?" Diego points at his own flat nose, with its oily glaze and spray of acne scarring.

"Oh! That's why you've been staring at me!" Hal's voice is crackly and he issues forth a machine gun burst of laughter that makes Diego jump. "I don’t know why I did it, man. It just felt right. You know what I mean, Diego? It just felt like, yeah, man, this is what I'm going to do. Totally!"

"What?"

Abigail clarifies. "Hal's a nonconformist. He pierced his nose because he doesn't buy into what society says is, like, proper or beautiful…"

"Of course, he does. Of course, he buys into what's beautiful."

"What do you mean, Dad?"

"He likes you, doesn't he?" Diego flashes Abigail a smile. "You're beautiful."

"Oh, stop it…"

"You are."

Abigail rolls her eyes. "People think I'm pretty. But so what? Does that mean we should have a society that rewards pretty people? Like, look at models. What good are they? They're such tall, skinny freaks."

Diego sets his fork against the lip of his plate and turns to Hal. "But Hal, don't you want people to take you seriously? I mean, how can anyone take you seriously when you've got that thing through your nose. That's for farm animals…"

"Actually," the boy says. "Lots of cultures engage in ritualistic body art. In New Zealand, the Maori tattoo, and all across Africa…"

"You're not in Africa."

"Dad…"

"Honey," Marcela pipes in. "Don't be so closed-minded. They're just kids. They're doing what's uso. Like we used to." She looks at Abigail and then Hal. "I'll dig up some pictures of your Dad in bellbottoms. He also had this favorite polyester shirt. Brown paisley. He used to wear it every day, buttoned only to here."

"But Mom, it's not just about style. We're not just slaves to MTV. Like, take tomorrow. What we're doing tomorrow is substance."

"What are you doing tomorrow?" Diego says.

"We're going to the protest," Hal says. "We're protesting the IMF and the World Bank's Structural Adjustment Policies and the way Third World debt is crushing people who are already dirt-poor. Like in your own country, Diego-man. In the Philippines."

"Yeah, Dad. Like, Mr. Wilbur, our Social Studies teacher, told us how the World Bank and the IMF make Third World countries pay down their debt through these Structural Adjustment Policies. And so Third World countries have to sacrifice everything else—medical care for the people, education, fighting poverty—because all their money is going to pay off their debt..."

"Diego, man, you should totally come," Hal says. "So that those scumbags know that people of all ages are onto them."

The hairs on Diego's neck stand at frenzied attention.

"You were going to let her go to this protest?" he says.

"What do you mean, WERE?'" Abigail says. "I'm going with Hal. I have to stand up for what I believe in, Dad!"

Diego read about the protest in The Washington Post. The police were coming in riot gear; window-breaking anarchists were expected; there would be tear-gas and rubber bullets. And an image flashes in Diego's mind: of Abigail, bloody-mouthed and reeling from a police baton originally trained at Hal's pimply, pierced face.

"No way. It's too dangerous," he says.

Abigail doesn't look up from her plate. Her cheeks are red.

"They're going to demonstrate peacefully," Marcela says. "And look, I talked to a lot of other parents who are letting their kids go. Most of the protestors will be peaceful. There'll be a couple of whackos who'll make it look bad, but they'll be the minority. Abigail will be fine."

Diego looks at Hal. "Sorry, buddy, but if you want to go to this protest, you're going solo."

At that, Abigail pushes away from the dinner table, sending her chair juttering across carpet and the wood floor behind. She runs up the stairs. Through the landing above, Diego follows her booming and dramatic footfalls to her room. Abigail screams, "I'm going whether you like it or not," before her door slams shut.

Hal starts to go after her, but Diego clears his throat, freezing the boy. "Let the princess go cry in her room. Sit. Eat."

Hal looks at Marcela, wanting a sign—what should he do? But Marcela is staring laser beams into the side of Diego's head. When Diego scoops another huge knuckle of oxtail onto Hal's plate, it's decided, and the boy sits down.

"This protest," Diego says. "I understand it. I know where you're coming from. I was young once. I was idealistic."

Marcela snorts. But Diego remembers being young and idealistic. It wasn't a long stretch of time. It was perhaps in high school, before he'd realized what his father did for a living, before he himself took over for his Pa.

"As I was saying, I can see what this protest is all about. But in my old age…" Diego says, "I've learned you have to pick your battles. You have to take care of your own little patch of earth."

"Uh-huh. And how are you doing that?" Marcela takes Diego's plate and pushes its contents—bones and flecks of rice—onto her own plate. She does the same with Abigail's. She sees Hal quicken the pace for his eating and says to him, "Take your time, iho."

Diego flinches. Marcela's called this boy iho. "Son." It is a word casually and generously used back on the islands. But still, Diego thinks, she shouldn't be giving this small, defective American, this runt, any ideas.

Marcela now slips the empty plates under hers. "So, Mr. Idealist, you were going to tell us about your good deeds?" Her voice is playful, bold, drunk.

"Well, you know what business I'm in, right Hal?"

"Highways."

"Right. And earlier today, I was on the phone with a partner talking about a project that's going to benefit a lot of people who, you could say, have been overlooked by this whole globalization thing. There's this tribe in the mountains north of Manila, you see. And they're deep in the mountains. Far from roads and towns and hospitals and schools and culture…"

"Where 'north of Manila'?" Marcela interrupts.

"Far north. North even of Sagada." Diego turns back to Hal. "And these people, they're called the Agorro…"

"I never heard of these people,” Marcela says. “The Ifugao, the Benguet, I've heard of. But the Agorro?"

"Yes, the Agorro. They were recently discovered. In the 1960s."

"Then I would have heard of them, wouldn't I?"

"Well obviously, you haven't… Anyway, as I was saying, these Agorro, they're real savages. Dog-eaters. Loincloths. Spears. They'd probably still be hunting heads if they could get away with it. You understand what I'm saying…"

"I wouldn't call them 'savages'," Hal says, choking down a wad of oxtail. "They're indigenous people, and I bet in some ways, they're probably a lot more sophisticated than us…"

"Well, Hal, since I'm building them a road out of the goodness of my heart—I mean, I had to fight tooth and nail for the government and the World Bank to chip in—so since I'm doing this for them, I reserve the right to call them savages." Diego has resorted to the naked, hostile voice he uses when negotiations are going badly. It is a voice that says, "Don't fuck." It is a voice that says, "Terrible things could happen to you and yours."

Hal starts breathing tensely through his mouth.

"Wait, wait, wait," Marcela says, her voice thick with disbelief. "You're personally building them this road? You're paying for it?"

"Not the cost of the whole thing, Marcela. But I'm donating some. Okay?"

"How much?"

"A lot! Okay? If you'd let me finish the story, I could tell you about these amazing savages. About their religion. They believe…" And here Diego pauses, searching for the right color thread with which to weave this story. "They believe that the world began thanks to a parrot god named Itu. Itu, you see, wanted to have more than one mate, and because parrots are usually monogamous, his parrot wife, Ren-Ren…"

"Ren-Ren?" Marcela says. "That's the silliest name…"

"Anyway, Ren-Ren tells Itu that there's no way he can have more than one mate. Not allowed. And so what Itu does is dress himself in all these leaves and twigs. Sticking them all over his body. A kind of camouflage. So that his mate will go away and look for him. And that's what Ren-Ren does. She cries and makes all kinds of parrot sounds, and when Itu doesn't answer, she flies higher into the canopy to go look for him. Meanwhile, Itu comes out of hiding, undoes his camouflage, and attracts another parrot. And as he and this younger, prettier parrot are sitting on a branch mating, Ren-Ren comes back, and in her anger, attacks. Itu has no choice but to defend himself now. And without meaning to exactly, he strikes her dead with one blow from his big beak. And her body falls to the ground and is buried under the foliage and becomes fertilizer. And on the spot where she fell, a new tree—the tree of humanity—springs up. And that tree is the Agorro people. And Itu, the parrot god, being sorry for what he'd had to do to Ren-Ren, makes the Agorro polygamous, to get rid of the terrible bain of jealousy, which, really, if you think about it, is one of the seven deadly sins…"

Marcela cuts his little fable short. She openly laughs. At him and his story. She laughs and laughs, tossing her head back and giving him a clear view of her mouth, where the gaps of her wine-stained teeth are jammed with fibers of meat. "Don't believe him about this whole parrot thing, iho," she says, wiping at the tears that have come to the corner of her eyes. "He's pulling your leg. Thinks he can get you to believe whatever he wants about these Agorro. But you're smarter than that."

She gets up and goes to the kitchen with her load of dishes. Hal's eyes follow her. He waits for her to come back. But she doesn't. Instead, the kitchen faucet starts running, the dishwasher clicks open, and plates and utensils settle and rattle into the racks. Hal looks up at the second floor landing for rescue. But there's no sign of Abigail.

Diego sniffs at the edges of the fear now radiating from the boy. When Diego clears his throat, Hal jumps, and like a town on the edge of a hurricane, braces himself for whatever comes next.

"Hal, do you like your apple pie a la mode or plain?"   

* * *

After dessert, Diego goes upstairs and stands outside of Abigail's closed bedroom door. Through the door he hears music, the clicking of computer keys. "You're not going tomorrow, and that's that!"

Abigail lets out a high-pitched scream that jangles the innermost nerves of his ears. He gives the door a rap with a knuckle and then goes to his own room. He kicks off his loafers and digs his toes against the fibrous turf of the carpet. For fifteen seconds, he doesn't know what to do with himself. Then he grabs the white chair in front of Marcela's dressing table and pulls it to the open closet door. He climbs up and rummages through the top shelves of the overstuffed closet; he works his hands through the folds of an unused duvet, over a pile of winter hats and scarves. He paws through a dozen handbags, never used, that Marcela hangs onto for some unfathomable reason. Finally, he feels the heavy, polished wooden case. Inside is his old handgun, his nine-millimeter. He hops down from the chair with the case tucked under his arm. He locks the bedroom door. He goes to the edge of the bed, sits and opens the case in his lap. He lifts away the yellow cloth draped over his gun, nickel-plated and covered with a sheen of old oil. He breaks the weapon down—slide, barrel, frame—and with tissue from the mother-of-pearl dispenser that sits bedside, he wipes the old oil away. He takes the bulbous bottle from the case's felt interior, unscrews the cap and dabs fresh oil on the yellow rag. He works the parts with the rag.

He hears the clinking of more glasses and plates from downstairs. But he stays right where he is. Let his wife and Hal, if he's that kind of man, clean up after dessert.

He reassembles the gun, pops in the magazine and aims it at various things in the room: an off-white lampshade of stretched cotton, one of Marcela's white aerobics sneakers, the framed poster of Miss Saigon adorning the wall. Then he aims it at his reflection in the mirror backing Marcela's white, wooden dresser. The dresser sits by the wall adjacent to the door.

Diego aims at his own forehead in the mirror, but he imagines Hal's pimply, pierced face in the mirror. He smiles, and the scar on his cheek stretches, shines.

On the day of the roadside ambush, this pistol had saved his life. He lay in a ditch of malarial wash and manure, the water’s rank, ferrous odor etching itself into his sinuses. The sun was sinking into the glassy rice fields lining the road. Bert, his bodyguard and friend, lay next to his car, eyes watching the sky, limbs angled helter-skelter, a scarecrow knocked down by a storm. Alone, Diego held them off until help came.

This gun, resting heavy and balanced in his hand, brings luck and protection to those who keep it, like a witchdoctor's anting-anting, Diego believes.

* * *

"I hate this house," Diego says the next morning. "With all the money I sent you, you couldn’t buy something bigger!"

They are in bed, and he is lying on his back panting. Marcela's head is in the crook of his shoulder, her breath a hot wind across the desert of his chest. The sunlight shoots in through the circular windows painting discs of light on the opposite wall. Moments ago, at Diego's instigation, they made love. In truth, he could have skipped it, but he woke up angry at Marcela for having laughed at him the night before. And so he ravished her before she was even awake. Confused, she took his rough advance for ardor and started cooing in his ear, "Yes, Diego, yes." She humped against him in a desperate, robotic way, making Diego think with pity, she still loves me, she still has hope.

Now Marcela sighs. "Look, I know you think the house is small. But pesos don’t go as far here as you think."

"Don’t give me that. I sent you a lot of money."

"Hey! Can we just enjoy each other’s company for five minutes." She tweaks his left nipple chidingly.

Diego lies there for as long as he can stand it. Then, he gets up. He grabs his bathrobe and goes to Abigail's room, which is empty. She has gone to the protest just as she threatened.

Diego stands in front of her half-open door rubbing his temples. He looks at her posters. From Amnesty International and Greenpeace and something called Globalize This. The posters hold images of fists and globes. There are the words "Stop Tyranny" on one.

He replays the scene he imagined yesterday: The image of a police baton, originally aimed at Hal's ugly American head, hitting his daughter in her beautiful mouth. Abigail, bloody-mouthed, teeth shattered, crumpled to the ground, crying, confused and wishing he, Diego, were there.

He lets out a low groan. He trudges downstairs and drags his feet all the way to the living room. He digs in the sofa cushions for the remote and then jabs it at the TV. Midday programming has been preempted for the protest. A clip of a policeman shoving his baton cross-wise into a blond boy's head is being replayed, and Diego wonders whether he is psychic. The blond boy is dreadlocked and when the baton makes contact with his skull, his long limbs and narrow-shouldered body collapse to the ground and curl into the fetal position. The clip repeats over and over again.

The boy, Diego estimates, is sixteen, seventeen at most, and dwarfed by the black, helmeted policeman attacking him. But all Diego cares about is that the kid is not Hal. Thank God it isn’t. Because if it were Hal eating the baton sandwich, this would mean that Abigail was in the vicinity of the chaos.

But what if violence were the rule to this protest, not the exception?

Diego jumps up from the couch. His plan: he will fill his pockets with cash and the gun and then drive to the protest. But a dispiriting sight fills the screen: The sheer size of the protest seen from a helicopter. Thousands have rallied, filling the streets and plazas of the capital. So many termites laying siege to the world order.

Then the perspective switches. A cameraman is navigating the crowded barricaded street corners. The perspective shakes as the cameraman closes in on his prey: a group of teenagers with their hair dyed a rainbow of unnatural hues, all kinds of jewelry hammered into their faces. They are lying on the ground and have linked arms under stiff plastic tubing. The cameraman comes in tight on one young girl's face. She is white, but she's dyed her hair jet black and is wearing black eyeliner in such a way that makes Diego think she is trying to look Asian. A microphone is jabbed under her mouth, and Diego wonders if she can talk at all. Her lips are festooned with silver piercings, like the maw of an old fish trailing a lifetime of hooks.

American savage, Diego thinks.

From off-screen, a man's voice can be heard: "Why are you… Why are you doing this?"

"Because globalization is ruining the planet!" The girl screams. She believes every word she says. "Because the World Bank and the IMF are raping the Third World! Because corporations are running our so-called democracies!"

The camera pans away, and Diego's eyes scan the sea of white faces for Abigail. No luck. He mutes the TV; he pinches the corners of his eyes. He grabs the cordless. His finger hits the first digit but then pauses. The phone awaits his input. The silence fills his ears. And just as he thinks the phone will start its cloying busy signal, his finger races to finish off the remaining digits. The hotel. He asks for Cecilia's room.

"In a way…" Diego says into the receiver, his voice trailing off. He can't find the words for what he's feeling, what he's thinking. That his own daughter is somehow protesting him. He shakes his head, he barks out a forceful exhale. Not possible. Not true.

"What?" Cecilia says. "Diego, are you there? God, Diego! Just once I'd like to pick up the phone and hear, 'Hello.'" Then she starts to cry and tell him all kinds of things. Grievances she’s kept secret until now. She says she deserves better than the way he treats her. She deserves that simple and humane greeting, doesn't she?

"I'm coming now," he says.

Cecilia clears her throat, her mood turning foul. "You have to stay, Diego. You have to wait to see me until next week. Otherwise, Marcela will get suspicious. God! You're like a child! How many times do I have to tell you that? Marcela and Abigail are your family. And what kind of man doesn't spend time with his family?"

Diego is about to argue, but he hears footsteps coming down the stairs. Marcela. He stands there clutching the receiver to his chest, ready with a lie: "Business call," he will say, flicking his eyes skyward in exasperation. He will explain, "Things fall apart when I'm away."

But Marcela passes the living room's wide entrance without looking at him. She goes straight into the kitchen. Diego hears the fridge open and close, a sauté pan clang against oventop. Before long, the sizzling of oil and the scent of frying garlic travel throughout the house. She is making him tosino, eggs and fried rice, his favorite breakfast. But his stomach is roiling. "I'll call you later," he says, before hanging up.

On the muted TV, more scenes of the clogged D.C. streets. He's glad his wife isn't one for the news. He goes to the foot of the stairs and grabs the large, square knob of the banister. He launches himself to the second floor. In the bedroom, he once again retrieves his pistol. He wants to hold it, feel its weight in his hand. He sits at the edge of the bed and clicks the safety on and off. Then as he did last night, he aims at various things in the room. The lampshade. The closet door. A pair of Marcela's brown, leather pumps. He imagines each object is Hal's face, the nose ring a convenient bull's eye. He revisits each object again, imagining the protester girl, imagining how her pincushion face twisted itself into knots of hate, knots of righteousness, as she rifled off what she thought ailed the world.

But just as his finger touches the trigger, Diego sees Abigail's face in place of the strange girl's. He imagines his own daughter shouting with rage into a reporter's microphone. And like the balled-up fists of sleeping babies, the muscles in his back clench and hold fast.

He's watched Abigail grow up in a staggered kind of way—like seeing a plant bloom in stop-motion photography. From one visit to another, sea changes. Cookie-hawking Girl Scout one year, to miniature woman in mascara, short-shorts and Rollerblades the next. Her room, too, went from a warehouse for dolls to a shrine to effeminate boy actors to its current, rebellious state. And of course, there is this new development, this Hal. The boy-man who dragged Abigail to some protest and who, in all likelihood, has taken his little girl's virginity.

An image invades Diego's mind: Hal in his plucked-chicken nakedness, arms out and coming at a receptive Abigail, who is brown, beautiful, majestic. The image fills him with a profound sense of injustice. And also sadness. It's not that Hal is American. But he is so short, so ugly, so obviously naïve about the world.

And despite all this, there's nothing—no bribe, no threat—that will erase the reality of Hal.

An itch, small but intense, flares on Diego's cheek. With the gun's nub of sight, Diego scratches and scratches. He glances down at the barrel of the gun. In close-up, it looks like a big metallic finger pointing between his eyes.

He scratches some more. And then he slides the barrel into his mouth. His teeth click against metal. His jaw stretches snake-like. His throat gags at the taste of oil.

He turns his head and looks at the dresser mirror. He stares at himself for a long time. What is he doing? What the hell is he doing?

Clowning, he tells himself. He's clowning, of course. So he frowns. He smiles. He puffs out his cheeks and crosses his eyes. In the midst of all this, he squeezes the trigger, and his insides jump at the click of the hammer. He squeezes again and the same thrill courses through him, if somewhat diminished. Click! Click!

"What the hell are you doing?!" Marcela is standing at the door.

"Nuwwing. Jus pla-hing." His words warp and become unrecognizable around the circumference of the gun. He extracts the gun from his mouth and wipes the barrel dry on his sleeve. "Just playing," he repeats.

"My God, is that loaded?" she says. "Is that loaded?"

Diego laughs. "You're such a scaredy cat. Of course it’s not loaded. Your rule: No bullets in the house. Remember?"

"You're still lucky I let you keep that thing here. Guns are no game!"

He nods. "Yes."

"Now, put that thing away." She clutches her heart as if it is in pain. She gives him a long, hard look. What kind of life are they having? She says to herself. Him there, Abby and me here. She expels a sharp sigh through her nose. But those are the kinds of questions you have to answer early on. And they didn't, and here they are.

So she says the only thing there is to say: "Your food is ready,” and then she disappears onto the landing. Diego rises to stow the gun away. Before he follows her downstairs, he takes a detour into the office.

He stares out the wide, arched window. The noon sun pours down on the swaying branches. A pair of birds he's never seen before (large, blue and white …blue jays?) hop from branch to branch, following each other. And then they take off with a flutter that he more imagines than actually hears through the window’s glass.

The birds gone, Diego goes to his desk and rifles through the papers scattered across it. He finds his creased, wrinkled plane ticket. As the tangy film of gunmetal and oil lingers in his mouth, he squints and pores over the ticket. The digits are small, crowded and faded, and when he stares out the window to rest his eyes, a vise of pain squeezes his chest, because as he stared once more out the window at the pretty scene, he caught his ghostly reflection in the sunlit pane. His face was twisted, his eyes pinched, his shoulders bent in a vulture-like hunch.

With his free hand, Diego covers his eyes against the reflection.

It's just the house, goddamn it, he says to himself. The stupid house playing its tricks. He takes a minute to laugh at his own jumpiness. And with his heart still throbbing in his chest, he looks back down at his plane ticket and resumes his search for the time and date of his long flight home.

 

 

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