'Fly Me' by Jim Davis-Rosenthal
Fly Me, Jim Davis-Rosenthal, 1999.

 

Death of a Hero
by Esteban Martinez


I'm in my apartment, sitting at the table with my cousin Adam. He's a student at the community college I teach at. I'm helping him write a paper about starving Somalians. We're looking at photographs from Life. Photographs of starving children. Skeletons with skin stretched over their bones. The subject makes me seethe, makes me want to hit someone in this godless world. Adam is the opposite. For him the world isn't godless (he always prays, gives thanks) and he doesn't like to hit. I can see in his eyes that he wants to touch the people in the photographs, to hold them, to feed them. We've been best friends since we were children.

My phone rings. I think of not answering. I don't have an answering machine and it keeps ringing. It's on its fifteenth ring by the time I answer. It's Liz, my sister, and her voice sounds like she's been crying.

"Esteban, Kootie's in the hospital. She might die."

Kootie's real name is Chantelle. She's a beautiful three-year-old with big brown eyes, full lips and an extremely intelligent mind. She belongs to my other sister, Robin.

I replay Liz's words in my head and don't feel anything. Maybe I'm in shock. I wait for her to say something else. She starts bawling and her voice sounds the way it did when she was a kid, lost and afraid. I haven't heard that voice for a long time. It makes me feel like a child. I'm startled and speak fast.

"Stop. You're not making sense. Stop crying."

She starts hiccuping and I become nervous.

I tell her to shut up.

The line goes quiet. Then the adult Liz speaks. In control. "Somebody burned Kootie's head with a hot frying pan. She's in critical condition. We're at Denver General. Robin and Luis are being questioned by the police and Social Services. Robin has burns, too. On her neck and chin." Then the child returns, whimpers. "Esteban. Come down here. Hurry." I don't say good-bye. I hang up and call my Dad. I tell him the story, tell him I'll meet him at the hospital, that I'm leaving. I hang up and sit. I've forgotten about Adam until he touches my shoulder.

The road is bumpy. The hospital is ten miles from where I live. Adam sits next to me, silent. I'm thinking of clues, clues I never should've ignored, clues hinting that Robin's husband, Luis, beats her, that he abuses his kids.

If Luis burned Kootie's head on purpose, the sonofabitch will do time.

I curse an old woman driving a Cadillac in front of me. She's too damn slow. I pass her and call her a name. Adam says my name.

"What?" I say.

"I was just remembering you."

"What do you mean?"

"I was thinking of when we were kids."

Adam always calls to my attention his left-field thoughts, thoughts that have nothing to do with the present. I look away from the road and stare at him, irritated.

"Why?"

"Back then you seemed so...so complete. I used to want to be you."

I'm thinking about what he's just said. Is he saying I'm not complete?

I ask him. He thinks.

"No, you're different."

I give him another irritated look.

"Pray to your god," I say.

Then I began thinking of Robin, of how she used to be.

A small town near Rapid City, South Dakota. A pond about a mile behind our house. Eight years old. Looking for turtles and salamanders. Robin, eleven, sits in mud at the edge of the pond, makes sure I don't kill anything. Liz, thirteen, plays with the pussy willows behind us. Time doesn't exist until a clump of mud splatters my face.

I look at Liz, follow her gaze to Robin who is staring at two boys I hate, Shane and Carol Stubblefield.

Shane is in Liz's grade and Carol is in mine. I hate Carol because he calls me 'Cocheese' in school and I hate Shane because he told the kids at Liz's school that he fucked her. I'm not certain what 'fuck' means, but it made Liz cry.

I'm not afraid of Carol. I've beaten him to a pulp plenty of times, but Shane scares me. He has a pointy chin, sharp little teeth and rat-pink eyes. And he's taller than other kids his age.

I want to tell my sisters to run like hell. But when I open my mouth to speak, Robin gives me a look that tells me to shut up.

I obey because I fear Robin more than I do Shane. Not only can she beat me in a fight, she can also make my life miserable by ignoring me.

Shane snorts and spits a mucous glob in my direction. Then he grins with his sharp little teeth.

"What are you Injuns doin' here? This is our pond."

I look from him to Robin. I want her to give us the order to run.

Instead, she scoots closer to the water and digs her hand into the muck, makes a small pile of it. Then she looks at Shane and speaks calm, matter-of-factly.

"We're not Indians, we're Mexicans."

Staring at Robin, Shane takes a few steps toward me.

"Didn't you hear me? This is our pond."

My heart speeds up. I'm terrified. I look at Robin who is slowly rising to her feet. She motions me to her and calls Liz over.

Liz walks to Robin and cries.

Robin holds her hand.

Another mud clump sails through the air. It lands on Liz's head.

Everyone except the toads and crickets are quiet for about five seconds. Then Liz sort of moans Robin's name and Robin screams a war cry.

Robin and I spend a lot of time with our father in bars. Have done so since we were toddlers. He's an alcoholic, a damn good pool player, and he likes to show us off. He never takes Liz. Damn near every word we've learned in the bars, Robin includes in her war cry.

"DAMN, FUCK, SONOFABITCH, COCKSUCKER, CUNTFACE, SHITHEAD, BASTARD, MOTHERFUCKER, ASSHOLE!"

Shane's eyes become wide.

Robin bends over, lifts some of the pond muck she's piled, runs to Shane and smears his face with it.

Along with Shane, Liz and I stare at Robin in disbelief.

Backing away from Shane and readying herself for his move, Robin looks like one of those all-star wrestlers I watch on Saturday nights.

Despite her confidence, the odds are against her. Shane stands at least four inches taller than she does.

Carol is confused. Very subtly, he's backing away from his brother and Robin. I want to laugh because I know he's afraid.

Shane's face twists into a rattish snarl.

Robin tenses.

Then Shane kicks her in the crotch.

Robin doubles over, Liz screams.

Carol runs to Robin and kicks her in the face.

I charge with swinging fists.

Shane picks me up and throws me into the pond.

The water is warm from the sun.

I don't know what to do; Liz is pointing and crying, "Help her, Esteban!"

Robin has wrapped herself around Shane's leg and is biting his thigh. He's screaming. Robin won't let go even though Carol is kicking at her. I feel some rocks under my feet, rocks bigger than my hands, bend over and pull one from the murky pond. Then I rush Carol and pelt him with it.

He falls instantly and cries. I kick him. Shane punches me. Robin stands and begins boxing Shane's face. Carol pushes himself up from the ground and runs. I see his head bobbing up and down through a swath of pussy willows.

Robin grabs Shane by his neck and wrestles him to the ground. He struggles with her, but she pins him on his back by sitting on his chest and digging her knees into his inner biceps. He tries to break her pin by bucking up and down, but Robin won't let go. "Get a rock!" she says. Quickly, I find one, one bigger than both my hands, and run to her side. She looks at me. "If he moves, crack his head with it." Shane becomes very still. I begin thinking of the rules my father gave us for fighting. At first they had been simple with room for interpretation. "If someone hits you, you hit them back. Don't let anyone pick on you." Then, I accidentally broke a boy's arm in a school fight and our father changed the rule."Don't go overboard," he said,"Only use necessary force." The way he said this, as if it were of the utmost importance, made me feel like a student in a karate movie. I vowed never to forget and always obey his new, sacred rules. I can almost hear his voice in my head until Robin shouts, "Hit him in the head!"

Startled, I drop the rock. Shane bucks.

"Get the rock. Hit him!"

I bend, pick it up, then stand above Shane's head. He quits bucking, stares at me, begins to stutter.

"Wu,wu,wu...wut...wut you gonna do?" He sounds like he's going to cry. Robin jutts her face toward me.

"Stay where you are, Esteban." She looks at Liz sitting by the pond, whimpering. "Come here, Liz."

Liz looks at Robin, confused. Robin motions with her head. "NOW!"

Liz stands up shakily, makes her way over. Shane is looking at us, puzzled. I keep thinking of my father's fighting rules. Does Robin remember them? Robin clears the phlegm in her throat and spits it into Shane's face. He starts to cry. She speaks. Softly. At first.

"You said you fucked my sister. How come? Why did you say that? SUCKASSFUCKER! Liz, stomp on his face!"

Liz doesn't move."Why?" she whines. "I don't want to."

My mind returns to my father's rules. I don't want to be punished for "going overboard."

Robin shouts as loud as she can. "STOMP HIS FACE!" Then her voice softens. "He said he fucked you, Liz. He lied about you. Stomp his face and he'll never do it again."

Shane's not very intelligent. The odds are against him. Robin on top of him, me with my rock and Liz, an unknown in the equation. Instead, he glares at Liz and speaks with a laugh in his voice.

"I told everyone you have a lot of pussy hair."

Liz lifts her foot and stomps on his face.

Robin gets off of him, maybe to give him a fair chance. He struggles to his feet and grabs Liz by her hair. Her hair hangs past her butt. Liz begins punching and kicking. I start toward the two to help but Robin stops me with a look. All I can do is watch.

Shane's a good fighter but he's tired from fighting with Robin and myself. Liz stands about as tall as Shane, weighs at least fifteen pounds less and has never fought in her life. She's a quiet girl, uncertain of herself. She usually walks around with bad posture, a slightly hunched back. And she's always crying. About something. But when she fights Shane, the Liz I know disappears. Instead, I see an animal fighting for its life. With grunts and groans, she kicks Shane, punches him, claws his face, bites him and spits on him. He gets in a couple of licks that would have floored me but they have little effect on Liz. If Robin and I don't stop her, she'll hurt Shane badly.

We pull her off of him. Shane stays where he is, stretched out on the ground bleeding. His eyes look like the eyes of Wile E. Coyote after he's been hit by a train. Slowly, he gets up and limps away, disappears into the pussy willows.

Liz looks like someone sprinkled her with magic. Even though she's bloody and bruised, she's not crying, she's not hunched over and her eyes have a bright intensity I've never seen before.

I look at Robin. She looks as though she's thinking big important thoughts. Then she smiles, a slight and brief smile, barely noticeable, and orders us to begin our walk home. I obey immediately because today I know she is some kind of magic person, and I worship her.

We're pulling into the hospital parking lot and Adam spots my dad. He's wearing greasy coveralls and has grease smudges on his cheeks, forehead and chin. I figure he was restoring one of his old cars when I called him. Restoration is his passion. He sees us and waits for us to park.

When we reach him he clenches his dirty muscular hands and hits a car we walk by.

"What the fuck is going on?" he says.

The doctors had put Kootie in the intensive care unit on the third floor. They tell us she's going to live. The three of us walk to the elevators in silence. My dad looks how I hope to look when I'm his age. He has all of his hair and it's still black. His wrinkles make him look rugged. And his body still looks solid, like he could probably take out two guys half his age in a fight.

Adam is using the elevator mirror to stare at me. I get an urge to laugh at his bald head and round spectacles. He looks like a well-fed Ghandi. Then I think of what's waiting for us in the intensive care unit. The elevator doors open and we follow the arrows. The first person I see in Kootie's room is Luis. He's hunched over with his eyes closed, sitting on a chair. He smells like cheap beer. He has on dirty jeans, a shirt too small for his fat body. His long hair glows with grease and he looks as though he hasn't shaved for days.

I scan the room and see Robin in a far corner. She's talking to a woman with a note pad who's nodding seriously and exchanging glances with a tired-looking cop a few feet away. My dad looks at Luis and hisses, "What the fucking hell happened?"

The question assumes Luis's guilt. My dad bases the assumption on a suspicion, a suspicion that all of my family — from my teen-aged cousins to my ninety-nine-year-old great-grandmother — has had for some time. We've all entertained the idea that Luis is a fucked-up sonofabitch and beats the shit out of Robin, and does weird shit, crazy shit, molesting-kind-of-shit, to his kids. We've all suspected and none of us have ever done a damn thing.

My Dad kicks Luis's feet. "Goddammit, I asked you a question!" Luis sighs. The cop crosses the room, hurries to my dad and squeezes his body in between Luis's chair and my dad. "Sir, would you please sit over there?"

"Sure, yeah. Are you going to arrest this piece of shit?"

The cop puts his hands on his hips. "Sir, if you don't sit down, I'm going to arrest you."

My dad snorts, then walks slowly to a chair on the other side of the room. Luis closes his eyes, leans back in his chair and sighs.

I think, if only I can catch the fat bastard in the act. I'll eat the motherfucker for lunch. Nobody fucks with my god. Nobody.

On the drive back, I can feel Adam staring at me. "What the hell you looking at?" I ask.

"I'm trying to read your face. How do you feel?"

"Read my face."

"You need to tell me." Adam clears his throat. "Esteban, you gotta tell me what you're thinking."

"I'm thinking about what I'm going to do tonight."

"But what about Robin? What are you thinking about all that?"

"Well, I wasn't thinking about it. But thanks to you now I am."

"That's what you should talk about, how you feel about that."

"Okay. This is what I think. I think if I ever had the opportunity, I'd kill Luis. If I could get away with it, he'd be dead. If I ever see him do anything to Robin, I won't care if I can get away with it or not. I'll try to kill him on the spot. I hate him.

Adam says nothing until I pull in front of his apartment.

"We'll work on your paper tomorrow in my office," I say. "Right now I'm gonna go get fucked up at Mile-Hi Saloon. Maybe snag one of those ripe kitties. Tell Brandy hi for me."

He looks at the ground.

I wait for him to say good-bye.

"Be careful," he says.

I'm sitting at my table where less than a month ago I helped Adam write about starving Somalians. I'm shaking, staring at the phone. I want to call Adam. I need to talk. But I just stare at the phone and think.

About the incident in the hospital that happened not more than a month ago.

About how Social Services stopped their investigation because Robin convinced them it was an accident.

About a news story I read which stated that each social worker in Denver has a case load of one hundred per day.

About how none of us who know about the unspoken ugliness in Robin's life did a damn thing when given the opportunity at the hospital.

About how my father, seeming to forget about it all, disappeared into his garage, his heaven of restoration.

About how Liz has changed in an odd way, become an adult version of the child she was before her rebirth at the pond.

About how I keep teaching and getting fucked up every night.

About how I said I'd try to kill Luis if I ever saw him do anything.

About how less than thirty minutes ago I dropped Robin off at her house after a ride to Safeway because Luis doesn't have a license because of too many DUIs and how he is too lazy to take the bus to shop for his family.

About how Luis sends Robin on the bus with the kids to buy food and how she sometimes calls me when she's tired and asks for a ride.

About how, when I dropped her off, Luis, looking pissed, opened the door to the house and said, "What the fuck took you so long?"

About how Robin cowered.

About how I thought of Robin fighting and winning near the pond.

About how I worshiped her.

About how Luis said, "I'm talking to you goddammit. Answer me!"

About how I didn't want to look at him when he said that.

About how, as I was staring at my feet, I heard the crack of a slap and a scream.

About how I looked up and Robin's eye was all puffy.

About how I froze; did nothing.

About how Robin looked at me and I could tell by the brevity of her look, her unwillingness to make eye contact, that she no longer believes in herself, nor in me, and is ashamed of both of us.

 

 

 

 

 

Text © 1995, 1999, 2001 by Esteban Martinez
"Death of a Hero" first appeared, in a slightly different version, in Many Mountains Moving, Volume 2, Number 1, "Burning Issues." The work appears here by permission of the author.


Original Graphic Image, "Fly Me" © 1999 by Jim Davis-Rosenthal


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