The house in Lewisville was made of brick, with white trim that glowed bright as a lucid dream in spring sunlight. It had three small bedrooms, a living-room with a long rectangular window, a kitchen at the back with marbled linoleum flooring, and an unfinished basement. A large oak tree stood in the front yard and cast intricate shadows on the yellow Sears Roebuck carpeting inside. My room, toward the front of the house, had a high narrow window, beneath which was a large green bush with a hollow spacious area between it and the wall, ideal for conspiratorial children. There was a backyard with a row of trees that divided it from a vast stretch of field where electrical transmission towers loomed like giants. All of the houses along Lewisville Road were outwardly identical; each had a path from its doorstep, like an umbilical cord, to the long, communal sidewalk.
I was a pampered only child when we moved to Lewisville. There, I discovered, to my surprise and initial disgust, that there were other children in the world besides me. There were the three Sinphis brothers, for instance, who lived five houses away—Herschel, the oldest, Rye (for Ryland), and Woody. Rye had a mushroom-brown birthmark on his cheek and the scowl and low forehead of a Lombrosian misfit. Woody was the same age as I, in first grade. And then there was Freddie.
Freddie lived across the street. His mother had either died or abandoned the family, and his truck-driver father looked after five boys, one of whom was drafted and sent to Vietnam soon after we moved in. Freddie’s father was big and brutish-looking but loved his youngest son to tears—I remember once when Freddie ran away for a day and night, how that man, with his boxer’s thick, flat nose and cauliflower ears, went crying door to door: Have you seen my Freddie? Have you seen my baby?
Freddie was no baby. He was two years older than us other boys. He was skinny and wild, with a hyena’s laugh, and his short blond hair stuck up at the back like the feathers of an Indian headdress. Some days he was your pal, others he beat you up. He had a particular way of tormenting kids. He’d knock them to the ground and stick his dirty bare feet in their faces; then he’d turn them over, pull their pants down, and stuff rocks in their butt. I never knew what school he went to or if he went to school at all.
There were others: bovine Billy Maxwell, who could swallow a stack of ten Ritz crackers and a chocolate malt all at once, grunting and burping, the brown liquid oozing out the sides of his mouth like diarrhea. There was Hot Shot, so-called for the deadly aim of his sling—rumor had it he’d taken another kid’s eye out. There was Pugh—we called him, of course, pee-yew!—whom I did not know very long before he dropped a lit match down a gas line. His body parts were scattered over a mile.
Freddie was the overall tyrant, but temporary leaders rose and fell. Even I had days when the gang followed my orders, not because of any physical superiority on my part—I was small and fairly weak—but because I could conceive visionary projects that sounded intriguing for a brief time. I suggested that we dig to the center of the earth; that we organize our own spy ring against communists; that we start our own orchestra to rival Lawrence Welk’s—so what if none of us knew how to play an instrument? The music would happen miraculously! A blond girl down the block, Marie Schubert, who was a little older, could be our Champagne Lady…
My name was Pete Kelly, a good, strong American name and that of a tough, jazz-playing private eye on TV. This was not my real name but the one I gave to the neighborhood boys. I was able to keep the lie up because we all went to different schools, except for the day my mother called me from the porch, in front of all the kids, proclaiming my Spanish name.
“Who’s Gumerzindo, Pete?Who’s she callin’?” they all asked.
I pretended not to hear her, but Freddie was quick to realize what was happening. He started howling Gumerzindo! Gumerzindo!, cavorting around me in some sort of ritual hatchet dance, until my mother, exasperated and not realizing what was at stake, came and pulled me inside. I was lucky, though: I kept low for a few days, and either the boys forgot and kept calling me Pete, or they just couldn’t put that strange Spanish name to my American-seeming face, no matter what Freddie said. I remained, nervously, fearfully, Pete.
We boys were the best of friends, the worst of friends. We had short memories: we could inflict untold cruelties on each other yet remain comrades. Sometimes we gathered behind the bushes and shared Hershey bars and traded tales of our exploits in the Civil War and Vietnam. (Our military equipment was a synchronicity of all historical epochs; I remember my uniform consisting of a Confederate cap, a Roman breastplate made of plastic, a rubber saber, a holster with a Roy Rogers six-shooter, and, slung over my shoulder, a Thompson submachine gun that fired caps.) But other times, I might be ambushed for no reason—once right in the presence of my father, in the backyard, while he was chopping some wood. Instead of interceding, my father handed me the axe and said simply: kill them. I took the axe, heavy for a boy of six, and began to run after Freddie, who, looking back and mocking my rage, leapt swiftly over the neighboring fence like a gazelle. My mother was aghast that my father had given me an axe. It was the first of many times that I saw her look at him as if she didn’t know him.
Following a custom among the wealthy Cubans of their childhoods, my parents, as if they were wealthy, hired a live-in maid, a young Honduran named Ermenegilda. She was thin as bone and had hairy legs, and her skin was coppery. She seemed very modest and quiet in her white uniform. To accommodate her, my father, who sold microfilm machines for Recordak Systems, moved his office, with all of his samples, from one of the bedrooms down to the basement.
At about the same time, we acquired a dog from a neighbor who was divorcing, and another Cuban family moved in further up Lewisville Road; they had a boy my age named Francisco, or, as he was called, “Paqui.” Paqui’s father was a silent, grim-looking carpenter with leathery, red-brown, sun-scorched skin, who never wore anything but denim overalls and crisp white t-shirts. My parents immediately labeled him “el guajiro,” the Cuban hillbilly, and though they were welcoming to their fellow Cuban refugees, it was with a clear sense of their own social superiority. My parents wondered how Paqui’s father could afford a house at all, being so poorly educated and lacking English, but he made good money in construction jobs, and he was thrifty. Paqui’s mother, a small, rotund woman, looked up to my fair-skinned parents and was especially happy that Paqui would have a blond angel like me to play with—he is like a little prince, un principito, she always said of me. Perhaps Paqui would learn better manners from me, not to mention English.
Everything seemed to converge—Paqui, the dog, the changes in my father’s behavior, Ermenegilda’s arrival… I’ll pick the dog for now. His name was Murphy, or just plain Murph. He was a black-and-brown American mutt, with some beagle in him, a touch of lab, and some distant Doberman. He was an independent dog, coming and going as he pleased, disappearing for days on end, then showing up as if nothing had happened. People knew him by name for miles around, as if he had told them himself. We wouldn’t have been surprised if he’d sent us a postcard from Las Vegas: “Having a wonderful time! Love, Murph.”
Murph scoffed at the very idea of sleeping in the doghouse in the backyard and preferred to curl up at the foot of my bed. There was a cool American elegance about him, the kind that I admired in private detectives and FBI agents on TV. If we left him to wait in the car, he would clamp the window crank in his mouth and turn it until there was enough space for him to squeeze through. Then he would saunter through the doors of whatever store we were in, casting contemptuous glances at the befuddled employees, his paws making a Fred Astaire patter on the floor. He’d find us, and his look seemed to say: “Did you boobs really expect me to wait in the car?” He had a stunning profile, a long, lean, finely chiseled snout with a nose that resembled a shiny black rotary phone. I would press my face to his to compare profiles, and his always seemed sharper, more handsome. The black pads of his paws had a wonderful sharp smell of urine or Fritos. I’d steal raw hot dogs from the refrigerator and share them with him, bite by slobbery bite, my arm around him, my best buddy.
I invented all kinds of achievements for Murph. I told people he was a Gemini astronaut; that he’d been a guest on The Andy Williams Show; that he was a champion race car driver; that he was a secret agent; that he was married to Nancy Sinatra. My admiration for Murph reached such a pitch that I wanted to be him; and indeed, I came to believe that I, too, was a dog and that Murph was my true, my American, father. After all, I saw more of him, almost, than I did of my dad, who traveled frequently. One afternoon the boys came running to my mother as she returned from work. “Mrs. Kelly! Mrs. Kelly! It’s Pete! He’s goin’ to the bathroom outside!” My mother, once she realized they were talking about her son Gumerzindo, rushed to the backyard and saw me squatting beside a tree with my pants down, defecating openly, happily, without embarrassment, as I’d seen Murph do.
Paqui, the Cuban boy, was a joy and a problem. We played peacefully together indoors with my folding Fort Apache set, speaking in Spanish, and petting Murph, toward whom Paqui was also very affectionate. But outside, in front of the other kids, Paqui was a liability. He knew my real name and could blow my cover as Pete Kelly. I made him promise never to say it in the presence of the other boys, or I’d put rocks in his butt. To make matters worse, he looked Spanish, was on the frail side, had huge, jug ears and a tremendous overbite. I knew instinctively not to side with him in public.
Paqui turned to me innocently once and asked me something in Spanish in front of the gang. I shrugged my shoulders and told the boys, “I dunno what he’s sayin’. I don’t speak no Spanish!” Paqui looked at me like a hurt, puzzled rabbit, but kept speaking to me in Spanish. I had to shut him up. The boys were getting suspicious. Since we were playing army, I declared suddenly and loudly that Paqui was a traitor, a Vietcong, and that he had to be put to death. The kids agreed. On episodes of Combat, I’d seen the Germans hang traitors. Although I considered myself a true American soldier, a hero, in fact, of the First Manassas and the Battle of the Bulge, I was secretly enthralled by the SS uniforms that appeared on the show, by the sleeker design of German machine guns, and by the hypnotic, graphic power of the swastika. Freddie went to find some rope, and I carried out a bright red stepladder stool from our kitchen into the front yard. We’d use the oak tree.
Herschel Sinphis, the tallest of us, slung the rope over a high branch and made a noose. Paqui watched our preparations for his execution patiently. Finally, the boys stood at attention, their rifles at their shoulders. I lowered the noose around Paqui’s neck and told him to climb on the step-stool, which he did obediently. “No te asustes, estamos jugando,” I whispered, so that the others couldn’t hear. “Don’t be scared, we’re only playing.” But I fully intended to kick the stool out from under him, to banish Spanish.
“You dirty communist!” Rye Sinphis growled. “You Vietcong!”
“Kick the stool!” Freddie commanded. “Kill the Commie!”
As I cocked my right leg back for the kick, anxious to be rid of this embarrassing boy forever and oblivious of the consequences, the ground flew up at me, and my lower lip oozed blood. Freddie’s father, happening to walk by, had tackled me just in time.
I spent a night once at Paqui’s house while my parents went to some late night party and Ermenegilda had the weekend off. Everything was different: the Cuban food that Paqui’s family ate had pungent smells of garlic and of plantains fried in heavy lard; their strong coffee was filtered through a brown sock and sipped from calabash jícaras; they munched on pork rinds and wedges of wobbly, smelly guava paste topped with cream cheese. Paqui called his mother “Mima” and not, as I, “Mammá.” There was no cocktail hour with easy-listening music on the stereo, as there was at my house when Dad was home. My father had two, three martinis before dinner, while Paqui’s father was a teetotaler. I wet the bed and pined to go home.
My father sometimes brought his latest secretary home while my mother was at work—he’d disappear with her down to his basement office, always locking the door to the basement stairs behind him. The secretary would always be straightening her skirt or tidying her flip hairdo as they came back up. My father would invite other neighborhood couples for the cocktail hour and dance and flirt with the wives. Though he looked anything but stereotypically Cuban, he played the Latin Lover role to the hilt. My mother was not very sociable and hated to come home from her job as a typist at USAID to find a party going on.
Yet I admired the ease and confidence my father had with women. How could they resist him? He wore shell cordovan shoes from Crotchet and Jones, English Trilby hats with grosgrain ribbons from Lock and Company Hatters, suits and ties from Brooks Brothers, colognes and aftershaves from Creed, Eau de Quinine hair tonic from Ed. Pinaud, and he lit their cigarettes suavely with solid gold lighters from Ronson.
Emulating my father, I decided that Marie Schubert would become my secretary. I lured her somehow to the door of the basement but I could not get her to go down the steps, no matter how hard I pulled on her arms and blouse. She scratched me and managed to run away screaming. Her parents confronted my parents, but what was most withering was when her poised, blonde mother, who looked like Doris Day or Patricia Crowley, said to me: Marie thought you were a nice little boy, but she doesn’t like you anymore. I felt banished,cheap, Cuban. “Daddy takes all his secretaries to the basement!” I said in my defense. That evening, for the first and only time, my father took off his belt, lowered my pants, and whipped me.
I subjected Paqui to my early, strange habits. I found it pleasurable, for instance, to make him withhold defecation for as long as possible; whenever he said that he needed to go caca, I’d make him cross his legs and hold it in. I loved to see his legs twisting and straining, until he soiled his underwear. I’d help him dispose of the underwear in the bushes, and we’d both gaze with fascination at the stinking pile of thick turds, at their curling architecture, soon quick with flies. Or I would show him my collection of snots on the wood-paneled wall hidden behind the living-room sofa and insist that he add to it— I loved to see his finger wiggle out a big, luscious, wet green snot—un moco— and stick it to the wall. I would also get excited to see Ermenegilda spray a white foam starch from a can onto the clothes on the ironing board. The foam was so white and tufted and creamy, and made such a sensual sighing sound when it came out of the nozzle, that it set off a mysterious hardening between my legs, a breathless stampede of the blood.I would command Paqui to spray the foam onto the ironing board, and I would just stand there, gasping for air, in irrational, inexpressible pleasure.
The fights between my parents began to increase in number and loudness. One night I awoke to hear them through my window at the front door. My mother was berating my father in Spanish, probably for getting drunk or for flirting with a woman at whatever party they had attended. You embarrassed me, I heard her say bitterly. I remember feeling a rising sense of terror in my dark room to hear them argue: as if, by fighting, they had abandoned me, and I was now alone in the night. How could they forget me? There was nothing to do but to forget myself, to stop being their son and become Murph. I went to the foot of the bed, pulled my pajama trousers off, lifted my right leg, and peed. My mother found the acrid puddle in the morning.
Another night I was in my parents’ room. My mother, wearing a semi-transparent peignoir and a mask of white cold cream on her face, sat at her vanity, a gold rococo affair that might have belonged to Marie Antoinette. My father ranted on drunkenly. My mother kept telling him to leave the room, but he continued mocking her, calling her a conceited bitch. He was wearing a blue serge suit with a heavy silk shirt, but the suit was wrinkled and there were lipstick smears on the shirt collar; his beautiful blue-black knitted tie was loose and also wrinkled. He pulled a gun from a shoulder holster under his jacket.
My father had taken to carrying a .38 Special on his road trips, just in case, he said, he were stopped by crooks on a highway at night, with all that expensive Recordak equipment in his company car. I thought it very exciting that my dad packed steel, like a secret agent. But this time he pointed the revolver right at my mother, laughing wildly. I, who watched TV, knew what a gun could do. “Mom, get down!” I shrieked in English. “Get down! Daddy, please don’t shoot! Don’t kill my mommy!”
I remembered seeing Murph leap to grab a ball out of my father’s raised hand, and now, instinctively, I did the same, sinking my teeth into his arm. My father let out a surprised cry, and I heard the revolver hammer click, but the unloaded gun—or did it merely malfunction?—dropped to the floor. My mother sighed, stood up, and slapped my father savagely across his face. Her eyes burned big and frightening from out of the cold cream mask. He fell sideways onto the bed, shut his eyes, and with a fat smile went into a deep, snoring sleep.
When the neighborhood boys weren’t fighting, it was blissful. We’d put on our military gear and pretend to gallop, as if on horseback, to the fields behind my house, with Murph racing beside us, his ears flapping backwards in the wind. We’d unite against the giant monsters that were the transmission towers, firing our caps at them and waving our swords. We played vigorously and passionately until dusk, possessed completely by our roles; I have never again breathed so deeply and joyously of the sheer air or felt so alive.
On Saturdays, if he wasn’t on the road, my father would take me to have a hamburger at the G.C. Murphy luncheon counter (which I insisted was named after my dog!), or to visit the Army Surplus, where I loved the rough smells and textures of military equipment. Or we’d take a drive with Murph in Dad’s company car, a white Impala, a big boat of a car. We’d drive at exhilarating speeds, with ecstatic, propellant jazz blaring on the radio. In the evening, we’d huddle, the three men, to watch Man in a Suitcase—a spy thriller whose title, secretly, made me sad, for I thought of a man actually trapped inside a suitcase, or of my own dad, living out of a suitcase on his long road trips.
But my father began to burn holes in the turquoise seats of the Impala with his Pall Malls; finally, one day, he rammed into a tree and totaled the car. Recordak gave him a second, but lesser car, a sober brown station wagon, and even then I knew it was a demotion. He started coming home early almost every afternoon. This time it wasn’t with a secretary; he would disappear to his downstairs office with Ermenegilda. He also took to defending Ermenegilda against my mother, who scolded her more and more often for not looking after me properly, and it was true that the maid had become distracted, nervous, and neglectful of her duties. The house was looking messy, and my mother was apoplectic when she found the wall of dried snots behind the sofa. One night, when my mother complained about unwashed dishes, my father, high on bourbon, insulted her right in front of Ermenegilda: “What makes you better than her,” he asked her swaggeringly in Spanish. “She’s a better fuck than you are!” My mother locked herself in the master bedroom as my father kept ranting on. I held my defecation for as long as I could, writhing and twisting nervously, then went and crouched, like Murph, in the middle of my room, leaving a pile of steaming feces.
One day Freddie, the Sinphis boys, Hot Shot, Paqui and I were in the fields. Murph followed us. Everything seemed to promise a wonderful game of soldiering or adventure, until Hot Shot fired a rock at close range savagely into Murph’s calf. The dog yelped and ran off. I could hear him whining behind some bushes. I wanted to rush to him but did not dare. Hot Shot was ready to fire another stone into the bushes when out of no-where, Paqui said: “Doan hert di dogg!”
We turned in shock.
“Doan hert di dogg!” he repeated, pointing a trembling index finger at Hot Shot.
“Wait a minute,” Freddie said, stepping forward and pushing Paqui’s arm out of the way. “It’s not your dog! It’s not his dog, is it, Pete?” he asked, turning to me. My body was petrified. I feared Freddie more than I did my father wielding a gun.
“Is it, Pete, or whatever your name is?”
“N-n-no,” I mumbled.
“So we can throw rocks at it if we want to, right?”
“Yeah, yeah… It’s…j-just a dumb dog…” I stuttered.
“Go ahead, Hot Shot. See if you can hit it in the head. Knock out its eyes. Kill it.”
“Yeah, kill it!” Woody said eagerly.
“Dile que no le de al perro!” Paqui shouted, turning back to look at me. “Tell him not to hit the dog!”
I did not recognize Paqui at all. He had felt the suffering of the dog, as I had, but it had awakened him, prompted him to action, while I had turned to stone.
“I dunno what you’re sayin’…” I said, my tongue dry with fear. “He’s nuts, Freddie…I…”
Hot Shot raised his sling and leaned in to take aim. Paqui dove into him, knocking the bewildered Hot Shot, a much larger boy, to the ground. But Freddie pounced on Paqui’s back, pinning him down. He buried his fingers in Paqui’s black hair, lifting the boy’s head and slamming it into the American earth several times.
“Eat the dirt!” screamed Freddie. “Eat it!”
“Ayúdame!” Paqui cried. “Gumerzindo! Help me!”
Rye Sinphis came round and kicked Paqui in the ribs, and Woody shouted: “Put rocks in his butt, Freddie! Put rocks in his butt!”
“Yeah,” the humiliated Hot Shot said, “push ’em all the way in.”
While keeping Paqui pinned to the ground, Freddie unsnapped the boy’s dungarees with his free hand, and Herschel and Rye helped scrunch them down to his ankles. Freddie looked back at me:
“You hold his hands down, Pete.”
Freddie tucked the underwear under the curve of Paqui’s buttocks while I went and stepped on Paqui’s hands with my Super Keds. Freddie gazed greedily at the exposed buttocks and inhaled deeply of them as if smelling the aroma of a favorite meal.
“Here’s some rocks,” Hot Shot said, laying a pile of stones within Freddie’s reach. Freddie took a long one and ran it slowly along the crack of Paqui’s ass. You could hear the feathery sound of the stone as it rubbed against Paqui’s smooth flesh. With a sudden jab, Eddie pushed the rock into the crack, and Paqui shrieked, “Mima!” with such bloodcurdling agony, like a maimed animal, that we panicked and scampered in crazed confusion. For the rest of the afternoon, I hid in the hot, mossy darkness of Murph’s backyard house, crouching like a whimpering dog.
My father sawed down the large oak tree in the front yard while my mother was at work and could not interfere. His plan was to build a brick-edged garden on the right side of the house; the oak tree, he complained, blocked the sunlight needed for the flowers he intended to plant. But he lost interest in the flower bed half-way through the project, leaving nothing but a mess of bricks and fertilizer, about which the neighbors complained. Now there was only harsh light coming into the house.
Another day a truck from Sears Roebuck came to repossess the living room carpet—my father had not sent in payments for months. The men from Sears walked in and just started shoving furniture out of the way and ripping up the carpet, using pry bars to untack the corners. When my mother got home and saw the bare concrete floor, she broke down.
Not long afterward, an elderly man from Recordak wearing a blue suede kippah came to collect all of my father’s samples. My father had disappeared. “He’s a charming young man,” the Recordak rep said to my embarrassed mother. “But he’s got no sense at all. I’m sorry for you, Ma’am.” Then a few weeks later Ermenegilda left in a hush of secrecy. It was only in my adulthood that I learned that my father had made her pregnant, and that my half-brother had been given to an orphanage.
My mother sold the house in Lewisville and used the money to pay off bills, instead of buying another house. She and I moved to a garden apartment several miles from Lewisville. We’d never live in a house again. We left Murph with the new owner of the house. I was told that it would just be temporary.
About two years later, my mother drove me back for a visit to the neighborhood. I don’t know why, but I thought I’d be greeted as a hero; after all, though our apartment complex was not that far from Lewisville, it was far enough to get different TV channels on UHF, and I couldn’t wait to tell the kids about the new and exciting Japanese science fiction shows that I had discovered. But the Sinphis boys just shrugged their shoulders and rolled their eyes. They were older now and not interested in TV, while I still clung to dumb shows.
Rye had had surgery for his birthmark and looked brighter. Billy Maxwell had lost weight and become athletic. Hot Shot and Freddie had moved away, as had Paqui. Paqui’s father had prospered, and their new house was, everyone said, palatial.
Finally, I went to our former house, the house in Lewisville, la casa en Lewisville, to see Murph. The failed brick garden had been cleared and a thin, rachitic tree planted where the oak used to be—it would take decades to grow. The new owner, a balding bachelor in his early forties, didn’t recognize me at first. And when the dog saw me, standing there at the door, it began to bark ferociously and lunge forward, its owner barely able to hold him back on its leash. In the past, we’d never put a leash on Murph.
“But Murph, it’s me, it’s me, Murph! Don’t you remember?”
The dog kept lunging at me, baring its teeth and barking wildly, so that the new owner had to pull back sharply on the leash, choking him. He was an overweight man, sluggish, and disliked being disturbed.
“Look,” he said irritably, straining with the leash, his double chin ballooning, “it’s an old dog. It doesn’t remember you. Go away now, before you get hurt.”
And then he shut the door.
Bio: Alfredo Franco’s short stories have appeared or are forthcoming in Midway Journal, GulfStream, Pembroke Magazine, Compass Rose, and Eclectica. A graduate of The Johns Hopkins University and New York University, he teaches Creative Writing at Rutgers University.