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Jonathan KirschRoley writes with assurance, grace and insight, and he plays expertly with our perceptions and expectations....explosive and illuminating.
— Los Angeles Times
Tomas is the son who helps pay the mortgage by selling attack dogs to rich people and celebrities. He is the son who keeps our mother up late with worry. He is the son who causes her embarrassment by showing up at family parties with his muscles covered in gangster tattoos and his head shaved down to stubble and his eyes bloodshot from pot. He is really half white, half Filipino but dresses like a Mexican, and it troubles our mother that he does this. She cannot understand why if he wants to be something he is not he does not at least try to look white. He is also the son who says that if any girlfriend criticized our mother or treated her wrong he would knock the bitch across the house.
I am the son who is quiet and no trouble, and I help our mother with chores around the house.
The client is some man from the movie business who is coming over any minute so that Tomas can help him train the dog he bought to protect his home. This morning I have been helping my brother wash and train his dogs, which he calls "guard dogs" to the people he sells them to, but which you should really call attack dogs since we use methods he learned from cop friends he knows on the LAPD. Each time I come to the cage, they clamber against the rusted wire, throwing themselves against the links and barking for my attention. All week I have been replacing the old wood boards, rotted and nearly broken from the dogs' thrown weight. Despite my efforts, the wood bends and threatens to buckle and snap under their weight. The door pushes outward as if the cage has inhaled a great amount of breath. I unlatch its aluminum bolt, then let it come open a few inches—and stop it with my shoe. The dogs nudge at the stopped door. My hand slips inside and meets their wet noses and warm fur and the warm wet feeling of their tongues and drool.
Cut it out, I tell them.
They do not listen to me. They are far too excited, though if I were to use a German word—one my brother uses to train them to attack—they would become instantly attentive.
I find the one I want, Heinrich, and grab his collar and tug him out between the other dogs. They look disappointed, and some even wail. I give Greta and Johan and Sigmund quick pets and hush them, then shut and relatch the cage. They bark at my back, though they soon realize I am not going to let them out and they settle down. It is all I can do to keep hold of Heinrich's collar as I lead him across knee-deep grass to the training area. He ignores my shushing until I finally get impatient and tell him to quit it in German. Las das sein! He immediately quiets and stands at attention, ears perked. Though it is easier this way—and he follows me obediently now—I prefer not to use these commands since he changes from an affectionate pet to an alert and serious guard dog. He becomes all duty.
We find my brother at the shed, pulling out the burlap and plastic armor which he wraps around his arms for protection.
Tomas looks up at us. The sunlight makes his pale scalp, shaved like a Mexican gangster's, glow through his black, three-day-old stubble.
What took you so long?
The dogs all wanted to get out.
They always want to get out.
I look down. Sorry.
He turns to the dog. Heinrich stands stiffly, pressed against my leg. His ears prick as he looks at Tomas.
Don't look so excited to see me, Heinrich.
As Heinrich senses that Tomas does not yet need him to be alert, the dog's muscles relax and he pulls away from me—his fur sliding gently along my jeans—and he hurries to my brother. Tomas reaches over and hugs him and scratches behind Heinrich's ear. The tattoo on the back of my brother's neck—a black rose whose stem is wrapped by vinelike barbed wire—emerges from beneath his stretched T-shirt collar. He always wears a sleeveless T-shirt so people can see the tattoos along his muscled arms. The tattoos are mostly gang, Spanish, and old-lady Catholic. As he leans forward, the thin fabric of his shirt moves over his Virgin of Guadalupe tattoo that covers his back from his neck down to his pants. She wears a black robe and has deep, olive eyes. Crushed beneath her feet are the Devil's horns.
My brother is bent over, tongue-kissing Heinrich.
He looks up from Heinrich and regards me. You better wash him. The client's coming soon.
I did wash him. I washed all the dogs.
He doesn't smell like it.
You know I did, Tomas. You saw me.
Well then maybe you'd better do a better job.
I grit my jaw. You shouldn't complain. It's not like you pay me.
Fine, he says. Don't help if you don't want to. Sit inside and watch TV all day for all I care.
He turns away, letting Heinrich trot after him. I do not want to follow him, but I do not want to go back into the house either. Finally I do come alongside the house, batting aside the overgrown old trellis vines, and emerge onto the front yard. My brother sits on the porch. He is waiting for the client, the dog scrambling around on the threadbare grass before him, chasing a worn tennis ball Tomas threw onto the street. With sunlight coming through dusty overhanging branches, the street resembles an ocean bottom beneath a sunny kelp bed.
I linger at the lawn's edge. He ignores me for a while, then calls out, Why you standing all the way over there?
I keep my mouth closed and my arms crossed.
I'm not sulking.
Sit down. If the client sees you standing there like that he's gonna think you're my houseboy.
This is a lie, of course, but my face goes hot, which is what he was after. I do not want to sit after what he has just said, so I stand there for a moment. But I feel foolish, so I walk past him and enter the front door, to see if our mother needs any help inside.
All morning our mother has been cleaning up the kitchen so she can look out the window as Tomas prepares Heinrich for the client's arrival. I know it is hard for our mother to imagine the quiet boy he used to be. Right now Tomas is playing around with a false canvas arm. The dog leaps on it viciously, shaking it like a white shark thrashing a tenderloin on a harpoon, and on each impact she flinches. The client finally arrives around noon. He is a screenwriter or a producer or something. Mom studies this man who wears ratty black jeans meant to make him look casual, polished wing-tip shoes, and a maroon silk shirt. He nervously eyes the dog that will soon go home with him.
Who's this man, Gabe? she says to me without turning from the window. Her finger touches the glass.
I don't know. Some producer or something.
Hmmm, she says suspiciously. Does he own a nice mansion?
I wouldn't know.
She wipes the countertop she has already cleaned three times, her finger still bearing her wedding ring even though my father left us a few years ago and Tomas and the relatives think she should not wear it. She touches her earlobe and sighs. Well, I don't see why such a man needs a dog to guard his house. He's not such a big celebrity. Who does he think he is?
Maybe he's married to one.
Of course not. You tell your brother to come in before your aunt arrives and sees this dog attacking him.
The first time the client arrived he asked why my brother named the dog Heinrich. Tomas always gives the dogs German names and trains them with foreign words. He tells the celebrities and rich people he sells them to that they have pedigrees that go back to Germany, and that they descend from dogs the Nazis used. He likes to tell them Nazi scientists did experiments in dog breeding just as they did in genetics and rocketry. He tells them this is a Teutonic art that goes back to the Prussian war states. All this is a lie, of course. But the clients seem to like the explanation, even this movie producer who has a Jewish name. He paid six thousand dollars for the one dog and it was not even the best in the litter.
The celebrities also like that Tomas wears tattoos that tell you he belongs to the Eighteenth Street Gang. Tomas is six-three and you can see the definition of his muscles through his shirt. Sometimes he takes his shirt off. Not too many young white people have a huge tattoo of the Virgin Mary on their back and a gold crucifix dangling from a chain against their chest. He never tells his clients he is not Mexican. Sometimes he buys pit bulls in Venice or downtown where all the black people have them chained in their alleys and when you drive through the alleyways you can hear them barking for miles. The sound echoes between the buildings. He can buy them for forty dollars there and then place an ad in a West LA newspaper like the Evening Outlook and sell them for a couple hundred dollars. Sometimes he gets them from Compton or East LA, but he never lets me go with him anywhere east of Crenshaw. They are cheap nasty dogs and not even the best guard dogs, but ever since they started killing children everyone seems to want one. Selling them is an easy way to get money; Brentwood and Santa Monica people will come with cash (our neighborhood is at the poor end of Santa Monica, bordering Venice, so it does not scare them) and they do not expect the pit bulls to be trained. You do not buy one to be a nice pet, or a safe one. You chain them to a tree outside your house and dare people to attempt to get inside. A lot of young white people from West LA come because they want to be cool and think owning one is like having a tattoo or being branded on a shoulder or arm. But celebrities do not buy pit bulls. They buy American bulldogs and Rottweilers and Tervurens and Bouviers and other expensive dogs that require extensive training. Purebreds. My brother used to sell Akitas, but after Nicole Simpson's dog failed her, people on the Westside stopped buying them.
Mainly Tomas prefers to breed American bulldogs—pedigrees—and he raises them and trains them and he pets them and sometimes he even has to feed the puppies from a bottle. The ones he keeps long enough he trains according to the Schutzhund method. Each time he sells a puppy he falls quiet and pretends he does not care about it leaving, that he will never see it again. He will not scratch its chin or pet it in front of a customer, but afterwards, he will go to the window and watch the customer carrying it down the steps. Sometimes he will stand there for a very long time.
The client—Rosenthal—stands at one end of the backyard as he waits nervously for Somas to fasten on his protective armor. The dog sits patiently now, wagging his tail. Tomas walks twenty yards across the grass and turns and nods. The man calls out a word in German and the dog sprints across the yard, barking viciously, and leaps at my brother and grabs his arm. I know it hurts even with the armor on. Sometimes you get bruises that trace the shape of a jaw. The dog will hang there on your arm, like a pendulum, until the client calls out for it to stop in German. Sometimes the clients get so mixed up and nervous they forget the word. Tomas cannot say it because he is being attacked and the dog is trained not to listen to him. Once a dog missed my brother's arm and caught him in the stomach, but fortunately I was there and called out Aus and the dog let go and sat down obediently, wagging its tail. It had love in its eyes again, longing for my brother's attention. Spittle still dripped down its gums and neck.
After our father left us, our mother started calling up her brother—Uncle Betino, who lives in the Philippines—for advice on how to deal with me and Tomas. They soon got into a dispute, however, over some jewelry and old statues of the Virgin Mary their mother owned before she died. Our mother had long, distressed conversations on the telephone, and Tomas (still small then) would hover nearby while she was on the line. Sometimes she would sob. Other times she simply wrapped a strand of hair around her finger. Mostly she worried about an old piece of jewelry, a silver pendant which had been with the family for over a century and had come to Manila on a ship from Spain. Grandma had added her own diamonds to it, and meant for it to pass down to our mother. But Uncle Betino was in control of the estate and decided to give it to his wife Millie, who had hated Grandma and treated her badly on her deathbed. For that reason our mother didn't want her to have it.
Tomas did not talk much then, and he would stand in the hallway most of the time so she would not know he was listening, though afterwards—after our mother calmed down—he told her not to give in to our uncle. He asked if she could get a lawyer, and she said it was the Philippines and you could not sue for something like that there from a man like our uncle. He lived there, he knew people, and anyway had more money than we did. Tomas thought there must be something she could do, but she would get so upset he would finally drop it. I knew he was mad by the way he moved around the house doing chores or building model rockets. Uncle Betino came to Los Angeles a year later and he took us out to dinner. Even though he and our mother had argued about the pendant on the phone, now they acted warm with each other, the way Filipinos have to even when they are angry, and our mother and Millie kissed cheeks in greeting. I shook our uncle's hand. It was dark and callused and firm. He touched the side of my shoulder as though he were going to slap it, but then gripped it warmly and looked into my eyes. It was all I could do not to lower them. It was hard to imagine him making our mother cry. After he let go, he looked around to greet Tomas. But my brother wasn't there.
Our mother found him in his bedroom, shades drawn. She made him come out but Tomas did not look into Uncle Betino's eyes and shook his hand loosely, though after feeling how hard our uncle's grip was, Tomas suddenly started clenching his hand harder. Uncle Betino's face changed and he squeezed down tighter. My brother winced, though he tried to hide it. Uncle Betino was very nice to Tomas the rest of the night. He ordered him extra spare rib appetizers. He addressed him often, though he made sure not to ask him questions Tomas could refuse to answer. In this way, my brother could just sit there quietly and not be rude. He did not say anything during that dinner, but Uncle Betino did not lose face, and neither did our mother.
That night Tomas stole our uncle's wallet but Mom found out and made him return it, and she told our uncle that Tomas had found it on the floor and was merely safeguarding it. Our uncle was not fooled, but he took it back smiling and thanked him.
Afterwards, Tomas would not do any chores around the house and barely talked to her for a week. He sat in his room watching TV and refused to do any homework, which is how he knew he could most hurt her. Two years later, our father returned from his station in Germany and Mom took him back in. On his third night home he got drunk and started smashing my model rockets and I tried to tell him to stop and he struck me. Mom tried to make him stop and it looked as if he would hit her too, but then Tomas came out of his room. He was larger than our father now. Dad stood over her making fun of Filipinos and her family and looked as if he was about to hit her, and my brother dragged him outside and tossed him onto the acorn-covered lawn. Our father picked himself up and stumbled towards his car, then leaned against the hood. He wiped his forehead and then looked up at my brother—Mom and I saw this from the front steps—and told him he only married her because he wanted someone meek and obedient, but had been fooled because she came with a nagging extended family. He said he never intended to come back to us permanently anyway and only wanted to sleep with her, and now he had gotten what he wanted and would leave and did not care if we wanted him back or not. I doubt he really meant the worst of what he said—there was, I remember, hurt in his voice—but Tomas came up to him and shoved a fist into his side and then slammed his head into the window. After our mother drove him to the emergency room, we never saw him again.
Today, Heinrich is pretty well trained—the man has been here four times already—and the dog always catches Tomas below the elbow. You have to know how to take it or you could dislocate a shoulder. Our mother pretends not to notice each time the dog leaps at my brother and digs teeth into his arm, but I always catch her staring out the window. She had not wanted him doing this, but Tomas finally managed to assure her it was safe. She relies on him to tell her how things work in America, and it has become easy for him to convince her of things. Now she likes the dogs as much as Tomas and me—in particular, Tomas's favorite breeding dog, Buster, the only one he did not give a German name since he refuses to sell her. She is a bitch, but he named her the masculine Buster because he had always wanted to name a dog Buster. Since Tomas often does not come home at night, our mother feeds Buster and so Buster no longer sleeps with Tomas but goes into her room and curls up at the end of her futon. At first she complained about the dog's smell and hair in the sheets. She still does complain, but actually she has become used to Buster's company.
Sometimes at night I will pass by her bedroom on the way to the bathroom and if the moon is out you can see Buster curled up at the edge of our mother's bed, on the sheet's wrinkled shadows; or at times even on the small edge of mattress by our mother's pillow, her hind leg hanging over the futon edge. Sometimes our mother has a hand on Buster's neck, as if she were her husband. It seems strange that our mother would like Buster so much considering what the dog did to Saint Elmo and Sister Teresa. Saint Elmo was our mother's white cat, who was sweet: everyone liked him because he would go up to strangers and rub his head against their legs, and his gums against their shoes. She called the girl cat Sister Teresa after some Spanish nun who founded the Carmelites, Mom's religious order. This cat was skittish and shiny black and liked to hide behind the couch. Saint Elmo and Sister Teresa got along with the dog all right if a person was around. But one day I came home and Buster had Saint Elmo in her mouth; the cat was still crying. Buster wagged her tail as she looked up at me, all proud, and was surprised when I kicked her and tried to get the cat out of her mouth. But it was too late.
Mom loved Teresa best of all because she was weak and skittish and afraid of things. At night our mother is afraid of the wind in the trees. She will not admit she is afraid of ghosts, but when the Santa Ana winds blow, she turns on all the lights and puts on the TV and then vacuums the house. The vacuum and lights drive Tomas crazy. He teases her, tells her she is acting like a maid fresh from Manila. Tita Dina says our mother is afraid their dead father will come back.
Why are you afraid of your dad? Tomas once asked her.
Outside the hot wind rattled branches against the house.
I'm not. She looked embarrassed and turned away from Tomas and focused on her dishes.
So why you turn on the TV and shit? You hate TV.
I don't know, she said. I don't like the sound of the wind.
So you're afraid.
Was Grandma afraid he'd come back?
She paused. She did not look at him although he was close behind her.
Yes, she admitted.
He shook his head. You would think you'd want to see your relatives again, he said.
She hesitated. She looked flustered and probably thought she should not respond. Finally, she did. But he's dead.
Wouldn't you want to see me come back if I was hit by a car? he said. What about Gabe? He said this glancing over at me with an expression meant to imply I was a mama's boy
Our mother did not like to think about this. She turned off the faucet and walked into the living room. Tomas followed her. So you wouldn't want me to come back? he said.
Come on, Tomas.
No you're not.
I am, he said. My own mother.
You're just saying that.
You wouldn't want me to come back, he shook his head.
Maybe because Sister Teresa was careful she lasted longer than Saint Elmo. Although Saint Elmo had occasionally bullied Sister Teresa, they usually got along and often curled up on the couch by the back window and he licked her face while she licked at his leg. After he died she would sit there alone, only occasionally jumping down to try to get you to lick her head like Saint Elmo had. After Saint Elmo died I could not get the sound of his cry out of my head, or the image of his panicked look in Buster's mouth. I wanted to give Sister Teresa away to our cousin Matt, but my mother and Tomas wanted her around. She lasted about four more weeks.
Now when the winds roar outside on hot Santa Ana nights, rustling through the dry brittle leaves and branches, on nights when your hair feels staticy against your pillow and your legs sparkle beneath the sheets in the dark while the window rattles in its pane, Mom has a special pork biscuit to entice Buster away from the windows. The dog thinks she hears animals and prowlers out there, her nose pressed to the glass, though it is only branches clattering in the trees. If our mother feeds her enough, Buster sleeps on her bed and keeps her company.
She has gotten used to seeing the dogs throw themselves at Tomas in front of clients. But today she is especially nervous because she expects Tita Dina and my cousin Matt for lunch. She has already patted on her makeup and used curlers to make her hair ends curl off her face, as though she were going to work. She imagines Tita Dina might think she is not the best mother.
She turns off the faucet and comes up to me where I am sitting at the Formica counter reading a magazine. Gabe, she says.
When will your brother be finished with this man?
I don't know.
Will it be in an hour?
I don't know.
She looks at me. Will you ask him?
Excerpted from American Son by Brian Ascalon Roley. Copyright © 2001 by Brian Ascalon Roley. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
|Part 2||American Son||55|
|Part 3||A Dirty Penance||131|
Posted July 25, 2005
Posted October 26, 2011
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