MY DAD WAS IN PAJAMA bottoms, a wife-beater shirt, and blue slippers. The last time I saw him his belly was out to here, huge, but now it was half the size. His hair was all messy as if a strong wind had been blowing inside his apartment. Black and gray whiskers bristled along his cheeks and chin. He looked old. It was as if we hadn’t seen him in ten years instead of just one.
What a wonderful surprise, he said. He held his arms out, but when he saw that neither Enrique nor I wanted to give him a hug, he put his arms down and stopped grinning. Come in, come in, he said, opening the door wider.
The living room was small and immediately made me feel claustrophobic, like if I turned around too quickly I’d knock over a lamp. There was a brown leather couch for two up against the wall with a framed painting of geese flying above it. On the wood-chipped coffee table was a fake potted fern, a bowl of empty peanut shells, TV Guide, and two remotes. A family photo sat on a doily, the one taken at Sears with the sunset backdrop and silhouetted palm trees—I looked like a dork with my banana yellow shirt buttoned up all the way to my throat. In the corner of the room, a small television was angled on top of a dresser and the gray screen reflected the entire living room in miniature.
I had no idea you guys were coming, my dad said. Your mother didn’t tell me anything.
We wanted to surprise you, Enrique said.
That you did! My dad put his hands on his waist, then down at his sides, then on his waist again. I can’t believe you’re here, he said, beaming.
I didn’t know what to say. Looking at his scruffy appearance, the new life he’d created for himself, I felt kind of sorry for him.
It’s good to see you, Pops, I finally said, which wasn’t entirely true. A part of me—a big part—wished we hadn’t driven up here in the first place. I would’ve been much happier spending the last two weeks of summer in Cerritos, hanging out with Oliver and Britt and getting wasted. But there was also this part of me that wanted answers from my dad, to understand why he always beat Enrique and never me, to hear him say that he was sorry.
Sit down, my dad said, motioning toward the couch. Can I get you guys anything to drink? You want some peanuts?
I sidestepped the coffee table and sat down at the end of the couch. I’m fine, I said.
Enrique sat beside me and dropped the backpack between his feet.
Enrique? my dad said, pointing at him.
Are you sure?
Yes, I’m sure.
Let me get a chair.
My father walked into the kitchen, his slippers skimming the linoleum and making that tsk-tsk sound that slippers make. The kitchen, from what I could make of it from the couch, was about half the size of the living room. Just enough space for a refrigerator, small table, wooden chair, and nothing else. He opened the fridge and peered inside for a while and then closed it. He grabbed the back of the chair and carried it into the living room and sat down.
So, how are you two doing? he said.
We’re doing okay, I said.
Are you still drawing, Marcus?
Good, good, he said. You’re going to be a famous artist one day.
Enrique picked up TV Guide and thumbed through the thin pages.
School starts again soon, doesn’t it? my dad asked.
In a couple weeks, I said.
Enrique turned the backpack over so the zipper was at the edge of the couch cushion where he could easily reach it.
You’re going to be a senior, right?
Right, I said.
He turned to Enrique. And you’re going—
A junior, Enrique said, cutting him off.
My dad smirked and shook his head from side to side. I can’t believe how fast you two have grown, he said. He lifted his hands and clapped the top of his thighs. Are you sure I can’t get you guys anything to drink? he asked. A Coke? Some orange juice?
I’m sure, Enrique said.
I’m fine, Pops, I said.
My dad smiled. It was hard for me to believe that this was the same person who did the things that he did. He looked like a man full of regret, the way his face slouched, the sadness behind his smile. We came here expecting to find the same dad that left us, a man who filled a room with his body and voice, who could make his own son bleed, but the person sitting before us was not that man.
I had to stop Enrique.
On second thought, I said, orange juice sounds good.
My dad clapped his thighs again and stood and went to the kitchen.
I leaned in to Enrique. Don’t do it, I whispered. It’s not right.
I knew you would puss out on me, he whispered back. You were always a pussy.
You’re off your meds, I said. You’re not thinking straight.
He knocked my damn teeth out.
I reached for the backpack and Enrique clasped my forearm tightly with his right hand. If you fuck this up, I will fuck you up. Enrique glared at me, his jaws clenched. You hear me? he whispered.
I yanked my arm away from him and leaned back on the couch. For a moment the imprint of his fingers was there on my arm, white on pink, then disappeared into the butterscotch of my flesh.
My dad came back from the kitchen holding a tall glass of orange juice and set it before me on the coffee table.
Thanks, Pops, I said. I lifted the glass to my lips and drank.
He sat back down on the chair, huffing. So, Enrique, my dad began. Your mother tells me that you have a girlfriend now.
Allie, is it?
Right, right, Ashley, my dad said. That’s a pretty name.
Yes, it is.
How long have you two been together?
She’s in the car, Enrique said.
Oh, my dad said, frowning. Why didn’t you invite her in? My dad turned to me, confused, then back to Enrique. I thought you guys would be here for a while. I thought we could catch up.
You thought wrong, Enrique said.
I set the glass of orange juice down on the coffee table. Dad, I said.
What is it?
I looked at the bowl of empty peanut shells and imagined my father breaking them open, twisting them in his hands. I looked at Enrique, his profile, the little muscle twitching along his jaw line.
I know, I know, my dad said, shaking his head slowly, side to side. What I did was wrong. And I apologize, to both of you. I should’ve never abandoned you guys the way I did.
Enrique chuckled and looked down at the backpack.
What? my dad said.
You don’t get it, do you? Enrique said. That wasn’t the problem. We were glad you left. We were never so damn happy, to be honest.
He leaned forward in his chair. Now, Son, I know I wasn’t the best father to you.
To say the least, Enrique shot back.
I’m sorry, I’m truly sorry.
I know you are, Dad, I said.
Enrique put his hand up in front of my face. Don’t, he said. Just stay out of it.
What’s going on here? my dad wanted to know.
What are you sorry about? Enrique asked him.
My dad opened his mouth, but nothing came out.
Tell me, Enrique said, his voice rising. What exactly are you sorry about?
My dad bowed his head and wove his fingers together and said something under his breath.
Hitting you, he mumbled.
Hitting you, he repeated. I’m sorry I ever hit you, Enrique. I was wrong and—
Are you sorry for all the times you beat me? Enrique said.
Yes, of course.
Like the time I went over a rock with the lawn mower?
And the time I scratched up the ceiling with the ladder?
How about when you kicked me in the leg after I spilled juice on your goddamn sofa chair?
And when I tracked mud into the house and got it all over the carpet?
I was barely nine years old, Enrique said. Nine, he yelled.
My dad fell silent. I could hear the clock on the wall behind him, softly breaking the seconds.
How about the time I came home late from a party and you punched me in the stomach and then pushed my face in my own vomit? Are you sorry you did that?
And the time I accidentally broke the aquarium in the living room?
How about this? Enrique said. He opened his mouth and ran the tip of his forefinger along his bottom teeth. These here are fake, he said. You knocked the real ones out.
My dad dropped his face into his hands. He stayed like that for a while and then he glanced up at Enrique. I’m sorry, Son, he said. Please, let me make it up to you.
Oh, yeah? And how are you going to do that? Enrique reached down and unzipped the backpack.
Stop, I said.
Stay out of this, Marcus, he yelled. The cords in his neck stood out and his face bloomed red.
Enrique, please, stop screaming, my dad said.
How are you going to make it up to me? Enrique asked again. How?
As soon as I move back into the house, I’ll show—
Move back into the house? Enrique said, jerking his head back. You’re not moving back into the house. I just told you we were happy you left.
But I haven’t been, Enrique. It’s been very difficult for me not having you two in my life.
Boo fuckin’ hoo.
My dad rubbed his hands together. He sighed. Look, he said. I’ve changed, I’m different now.
I can tell, Pops, I said. What I couldn’t tell was how long the change would last.
Oh, you’ve changed, have you? Enrique said.
I’m not who I was a year ago. I went and got some help, he said. A psychiatrist, like we did for you.
Enrique started clapping sarcastically. Bravo, he said. Bravo, Dad. He went and got some help. Brav-o.
I’ve been treated, Son. I don’t have those urges anymore.
Enrique stopped clapping. What kind of urges would that be?
My dad said nothing. He leaned back in his chair and folded his hands on his lap and closed his eyes.
What urges? Enrique repeated.
Violent, he said.
Really? They’re gone now?
My dad opened his eyes. Yes, Enrique.
Soon after you left, I beat the shit out of Chuck Phillips, Enrique said. Didn’t I, Marcus?
You should’ve seen me, Dad. You would’ve been proud. His face was like ground beef after I was through with him. Enrique looked at me and slapped my thigh. Isn’t that right?
I nodded again.
Hey, Marcus, remember that day when Scott Duval came to school with two black eyes?
Yeah, I said. I remember.
He looked like a panda bear, didn’t he?
I said nothing.
That was me, Enrique said. He turned to my dad. I did that to him. In junior high, he sat behind me in history class. He liked to smack the back of my head for no reason. I’d be writing notes or taking a quiz or whatever and then bam, he’d smack me. So, I guess you can call it payback, his two black eyes. But I had to wait until I was bigger than him. Smart move, don’t you think?
My dad kept quiet.
I took a sip of my orange juice and set it down. We should probably go, I said.
Say, Dad, do you think I’m bigger than you now?
My dad glanced over at Enrique. You’ve grown, Son. Both of you have.
I know, but do you think I’m bigger?
He glanced over at Enrique once more and rubbed his chin. Perhaps, he said.
You know, I’m not sure that I am, Enrique said. He studied his chest and arms, stretching them out before him. He turned both of his hands—palms up, palms down. Nope, I’m definitely not bigger, he said. Good thing I brought this with me.
Then he reached into the backpack and pulled out the gun.
My dad lifted up both of his hands and leaned back in his chair, startled. His body stiffened. Enrique, he said. What are you doing?
What do you think I’m doing? Enrique said.
My dad’s face went completely pale. Put down the gun, he said.
Don’t call me Son.
Enrique stood up from the couch and I stood with him. Okay, you’ve made your point, I said.
No, Marcus, I haven’t. Enrique stepped around the coffee table and kept the gun leveled, pointed directly at my dad’s face.
Don’t do this, he said.
Are you afraid? Enrique asked.
My dad swallowed hard. He looked as if he was about to choke on his own fear.
Are you afraid?
Yes, my dad said. I’m afraid, yes.
Good. You should be.
Come on, Enrique, I said.
Let me ask you something, Dad, Enrique continued. Did you think it was fair?
What are you talking about?
No, it wasn’t fair.
I mean, I was just a kid. I didn’t really have a chance, you know?
I was only this tall the first time. Enrique held his left hand out just below his shoulder.
My dad’s chin began to quiver.
I had no chance whatsoever, Enrique said.
I moved toward my brother from behind and gently placed my hand on his shoulder. He spun around quickly and his elbow jabbed me on the cheekbone. I dropped to the carpet. Pain sparked inside my skull and bloomed white. I turned over on my side and looked up at my brother, at the gun in his hand pointed between my dad’s eyes.
This is going to be messy, Enrique said.
Enrique, please stop, my dad said, his hands still up by his face, his eyes squeezed shut.
Anything you want to say before I pull the trigger?
I was lying there on the living room floor, the pain still pulsing in my skull like a heart, when I finally opened my mouth: It’s a starter pistol.
Shut up, Enrique yelled.
Dad, it’s a starter pistol, I said, standing up. It doesn’t even have bullets.
Yes, it does.
Marcus, shut the fuck up!
My dad looked at me and I saw the terror slowly vanish from his face. He lowered his hands and his body relaxed, settling into his chair.
It’s loaded, Enrique shrieked, the gun still pointed at his head.
But it was too late: My dad believed me. Whatever power Enrique had held over him was now gone. I saw it in my brother’s face, his trembling mouth.
My dad stood up and casually took the gun out of his hand as if Enrique were passing him a television remote. Enrique’s arms dropped to his sides, his chest caved. When my dad tried to hug him, he lifted his hands and pushed. Get off me, he shouted.
I forgive you, my dad said.
Enrique shook his head in disbelief.
I moved around the couch and opened the door and walked out.
I’d heard and seen enough.