Julio: Conqueror of the Crowbar appears in the upcoming story collection Strays Like Us by Garrett Dennert.
Julio leans against a lamppost yards from the bench at the city busy stop. On the bench, beneath an awning, are two women and one man, the latter of whom keeps lifting the left sleeve of his suit jacket and sighing at the obsidian face of his designer watch. Each woman has only their purse strap filling their hands. And each woman takes their turn staring at Julio. Twice now the petite blonde has wondered if offering her seat to the child that has elected to stand in the rain would be the decent thing to do. While the heavy woman on the opposite end of the bench has only contemplated it once, of the two, she, ten minutes prior, was the closest to acting upon the thought, struggling to stand and plopping back down once the sound of the bench’s relief and the stares of her fellow public transiters forced her face to an anxious shade of red.
Needless to say, none of the three have spoken to Julio. No one has asked why at 10:30am on a Tuesday, he is here, and not in the back row of Ms. Guiterrez’s sixth grade classroom, watching her squiggle the finer details of the Battle of Fredericksburg on the blackboard. He does fidget his hands every so often, as if he has yet to determine where they feel most comfortable: in his pants pockets, or when squeezing the straps of his tattered grey and scarlet backpack. A winter inside has rendered his skin pale.
“You got that way from your father,” his mother has told him before, in Spanish (always in Spanish), as recently as Saturday, as she broke open the steroid capsules and dumped the powder into the formula already sloshing around the giant metal bowl. “’Get some sun,’ I’d tell him. Light-skinned prick.”
As he has for the past two days — as he tends to do with the few things his mother does say to him — Julio tumbles those words through his skull. Chin to crown, jaw to jaw, they bounce, and lag, like a glitching game of Pong with no goals or paddles, the only endpoint being a an interruption such as the approaching bus. Its brakes wince its presence, its approach, its promise of Point A to Point B. The accordion connector wheezes hydraulic pressure into the air.
The man in the suit hurries to the opening door, the two women just steps behind. An automated voice says something a trailing Julio cannot discern. But he walks, eyes, neck, shoulders, everything turned left: a peculiar sidestep rather than a natural gait. His brother’s old, soaked shoes squish as he ascends the stairs. He pays, drops in his pocketful of change after the heavy woman does so. Just as he is reaching for the ticket the fare box spits out, the bus driver, a tattooed white man of about fifty, grabs his wrist and says:
“Hold up.” With his free hand, the driver grabs the capless Coke bottle from his cup holder and deposits into it one more gob of tobacco spit. He works his dip around his gums and bottom lip, spits once more, then returns his gaze to Julio. “Turn a bit, boy,” he says, “no, to the right.”
Julio hears a gasp from one of the passengers in the front seat of the bus — either the black woman head-to-toe in white, or from the white girl with caked black lipstick — and understands that it is no use. Despite what they see, none of them will stop this. None will interject. None will rise and unhand Julio from the bus driver.
When Julio does turn, the driver is met with what he likens to a rotten peach: Julio’s cheek has swollen to double the size of his right; he can open his left eye no wider than a pinky nail; there is a scabbing gash in the center, yellow and purple bruises orbiting. The driver loosens his grip, but does not let go.
“Jesus Christ, kid,” the driver says.
“Can we get this thing moving already?” the man in the suit says from the seat closest to the middle door of the bus, the seat best suited for his imminent leap onto the sidewalk nearest his destination.
The bus driver ignores the man in the suit. He finally lets go of Julio’s wrist. “Well,” he says, “how’d it happen?” There is a kindness to his voice now, a softness.
And Julio is taken aback by this. He cares not where this kindness is stemming from — whether the driver is a father, a brother, a cousin or uncle — but only that it is there, and that it makes him feel good. Worried for. Needed. It makes him think of his older brother, Oscar, and how, if he were to return home and see Julio’s wounds, how the compassionate side of him would ask questions just like this.
“My mother,” Julio says, “she hit me in the face with a crowbar.”
“Oh,” the driver says. The kindness doesn’t fade, but it does take on a new shape, evolves from something soft into something lumpy, somewhere between curiosity and knowledge. Like he has seen this before. Like he is conjuring images of Julio being punished for dealing weed, for stealing a quarter pound of bologna from the butcher, for spitting in a young lady’s hair.
“Drive the fucking bus, would you?” the man in the suit says.
The driver looks back. He grabs his Coke bottle, spits, then swivels into driving position. Before shifting into drive, the driver looks at Julio and says, “I guess that’ll teach you.”
Julio’s mother taps the pup’s left shoulder with the curved end of the crowbar. The pup — a black and white pitbull with sad cerulean eyes — turns slightly, slacked chain dragging across his already-bulging shoulders, then bites the steel, and cringes before letting go entirely.
“See,” Giuseppe says. He stands feet behind Julio’s mother, next to Lance, a white man from east of Richmond that, if nothing else, is intrigued enough by the opposite end of the line he and others call poverty to mosey here, to the south side. He watches the dogs. Over the incessant growling, he strains to hear Giuseppe. Whether he’s on the same page as Giuseppe or not, he nods.
“See,” Giuseppe repeats. He straightens his slouch; he folds his arms; he widens his white-sneakered feet; he briefly juts his otherwise small, goateed chin: all alterations he is certain project confidence. “The steel keeps them in line.”
“Wouldn’t wood do the same thing?” Lance asks. He watches the pup leap onto his sister’s back and gouge her ears with his teeth. She yelps. Together, chains and all, they tumble into the makeshift border between doublewides — satellite dishes, taped together milk jugs, the occasional action figure and plastic fire truck with its cheap hose and ladder snapped off.
“No. No wood. Their jaws become so strong that they bite through. Like kiwi to us.” Giuseppe nudges Julio’s mother and tells her in Spanish to break the siblings up. It is the first time they have touched in weeks, and Giuseppe, at this moment, as well as any other, could care less. “Watch this,” he tells Lance.
Wearing her TACOS HERMANAS work shirt and a pair of knee-high rubber boots, Julio’s mother sidesteps through piles of shit and links of chain the pups have already worked off and left to shimmer like gems peeking out of the lawn. Her fake pink nails have been removed, as have the earrings she wore to the market this morning. Yet eyeliner and cover-up remain. A front jean pocket is slightly bulged by her balled hairnet. And she handles the crowbar like a poor, exhausted woman would: with haste, with urgency, shoving the point between the two pups and prying them apart. The boy, having learned moments before that he cannot defeat the object, leaps to his feet. He even backpedals a bit while his sister sees for herself what the steel has to offer. She gnaws on it; she stumbles elsewhere.
“You have to think of the steel as an extension of your arm,” Giuseppe tells Lance. “You want them to think — you need them to think — that you are indestructible. That you are alpha. That you cannot be fucked with.” Only now does Giuseppe look Lance in the eye. Only now does Giuseppe rub his face with his scarred right hand. Because Lance is no different than the others. A prospective buyer needs to see that the breeder himself is, and has been, a fighter, that he has stabbed and that he has been stabbed, that his broken knuckles were left unset for negotiations just like this.
But Lance does not look, not for a second. He strokes the entirety of his thick moustache with his index finger. “Can I tell you the truth, Gio?”
Julio’s mother walks back to the two men, in the center of her front yard, wishing that, somewhere throughout her nine years in America she’d mastered English. She has tried, several times, and has picked up tidbits here and there — slang, idioms — when she hasn’t been seasoning beef and chicken, or mopping floors, or serving hot lunch to charter school misfits. But rules. Hard Ks, Gs that sound like Js, I before E. Rules. Rules. Rules. Too many rules, and too many teachers saying too many different things. Too many men like Lance chasing more money when they already drive decked-out Silverados down potholed roads and into weed-and-thistle driveways expecting the poor and desperate to not key the tinted windows, or pawn the upgraded exhaust. She wishes she knew English because she doesn’t want Lance to fit this projection. She wants the truck to be a façade. She wants him to purchase the last two of this litter. To award Giuseppe enough money to leave, enough to wander and latch onto the next puta he can trick into giving him her coño. She wants out of this neighborhood, out of Richmond, out of this doublewide. She wants out of her skin but has not an idea whom else’s she would rather inhabit.
“Well,” Lance says. He adjusts the sweat-stained ball cap atop his balding head. “The truth is that none of ’em look like fighters. Not a one. Except for her.” Lance points at the pups’ mother, who stands erect in the shady corner of the yard, snarling, as she has been doing since Lance’s arrival. A thick chain digs into her scarred neck and shoulders. A fly bites at her jagged right ear. “She looks like she could take down a lion.”
“She could,” Giuseppe says. “She has. As vicious as they come.” He puts his right hand on Lance’s shoulder. “But she didn’t get that way overnight. I can promise you that.” Giuseppe, after easing his confident posture into something calm, proceeds to tell Lance what he has been telling men like Lance for a year now, that Lucina, that vicious bitch in the shade saved his wretched life.
THE LEGEND OF LUCINA
(paraphrased from Giuseppe’s account)
Lucina was born in a litter of six, each with gooped-shut eyes and tit-hungry mouths. From the moment they were born to the moment they were sold, never would she or her siblings drag heavy chains through the lawn. Never would they be deprived of their mother. Never would they attack their siblings’ throats over a steroid-sprinkled formula. No. The six played. The six ate. The six pooped. And the six slept. That was all. That was enough. Because Giuseppe’s Uncle Fabian didn’t raise fighters. He housed dogs. He showed them love and gratitude. He made sure generations of pit bulls under his watch weren’t thrust into the lonely life of independence, but that they felt like part of a family.
As for what happened to those loved pups after they were sold, Fabian didn’t care to know. He refused to picture the training. He refused to picture the men and women with their weekly earnings in their hands, shouting at the bloodied heaps of potential they’d ruined. He had too weak of a stomach. He was too weepy of a man.
Yet he sold them. Year in, year out, not only to make end’s meet, but to save space; he simply could not house them all. He sold all but one of Lucina’s litter, all but Lucina herself, who, by the time buyers came around, had come down with a cold he could not afford to have treated, with a lethargy that evoked phrases like, “She won’t make it a year,” and, “That’s all you have to offer?” Nobody wanted her. Nobody wanted her then-narrow shoulders, her then-miniature paws, her then-dry nose and then-exposed ribs.
And so once Fabian’s bitch became pregnant again, passed over Lucina became an unannounced gift to Giuseppe and Olga, a fracturing couple Fabian, knowing the tendencies of his nephew, didn’t think would last past winter.
“The only chance at revival was through common ground,” he would tell Giuseppe months later, when he and Olga were terminado. “Through something small, and cute, and in need of love.”
He waited until early one morning when he knew Giuseppe and Olga would be home. And, in the cage she would soon outgrow, Lucina cried for Fabian as he slid back into his station wagon and backed out of the driveway. In fact, she cried off and on for days, when Giuseppe would leave for job interviews and return with not only a bruised ego, but with pocketfuls of rum shooters he used Olga’s money to purchase. Only when he would let Lucina out of the cage and onto his chest would the crying stop. She’d lick his face, his fingers, his chin, and, though it in no way made Giuseppe’s struggles vanish entirely, it helped. It helped him focus not on what he couldn’t do, or achieve, but the impact he, if given the chance, could make on something, albeit a sickly dog. It helped him remember that legacy doesn’t start and end with employment.
It helped up until the moments when Olga — a chesty, trilingual (Spanish, Portuguese, English) secretary for a tobacco farmer named Evans — would come home, walk into the living room, interrogate what she desperately hoped was her soon-to-be groom, and, in discovering the day’s (lack of) results, lob harsh, linguistically-tangled slurs his way. To which Giuseppe would sit, and listen, and rub Lucina’s soft white ears. The one time Olga slapped Giuseppe during the climax of such a scenario, Lucina nipped Olga’s hand. Blood surfaced. And when Olga, her rage transferred to Lucina, reared back for another slap, it was Giuseppe who swatted her hand away.
Later that night, after Olga strayed to another man’s hand, Giuseppe brought Lucina into he and Olga’s bed and said to her, “I have your back, too.”
Within a week, a jobless Giuseppe and a still sick but somehow growing Lucina were living with cousins, with old friends, with any other San Salvadorian who’d mistakenly made their way to Richmond but found themselves in a slightly better situation. They slept on porches, in driveways, and on sofas that had been set on curbs for garbage men to hoist into the backs of their trucks. She lived off of restaurant scraps, and rats she either found hobbled or already dead. He lived off of twenty-five-cent cracker packs, and rum. Their persistence despite the conditions, Giuseppe justified each morning, could only stem from the anger that comes from being unwanted.
One night, on a Main St. bench, when he couldn’t take it anymore, Giuseppe held Lucina close and cried into her shoulder. He said no words. He sang no hymn of sorrow. He cried, and she let him.
Another night, Giuseppe, tiptoeing toward blackout drunk, plopped down by a rosebush in Monroe Park and passed out. He still can’t recollect what he dreamt of, or how long he actually slept, but he did wake, and when he did, Lucina, standing next to him, was growling. Fierce. Vicious. Something he’d never heard before. Giuseppe sat up to see the large silhouette of what he’d know moments later, when lying limp, was an eighty-pound German Shepherd. In an instant, without glancing at Giuseppe, Lucina leapt forward and tossed her adolsecent paws at the Shepherd’s face as if they were fists. The dogs rose on their back legs, a gap between them filled by night sky and dew-covered grass. They growled. They bit. They danced. And it all made Giuseppe ache. A hundred needles jabbed into his heart. A two-inch blade handle-deep and twisting.
He stood only when tufts of fur floated to the ground, and increased his pace only when the Shepherd chomped down on the tip of Lucina’s left ear. What halted him entirely was how Lucina let the Shepherd take the ear, how she let it tear part of the thing off, how she’d sacrificed it for position, yanking free, cranking her neck, sinking her teeth into the Shepherd’s exposed throat. The Shepherd cried; Giuseppe backed away; Lucina clamped her teeth tighter. And held. And held. Until moments later, the Shepherd bled out, bits of Lucina’s ear still between its teeth.
“This is my last dime, Uncle,” Giuseppe said into the payphone’s receiver. “My last one. I need advice, not judgment.”
“Advice for this moment, or the next?”
Giuseppe looked at Lucina, fur still bloodied a day after her first kill. Starving. Wounded, but satisfied, and standing tall. “Does it matter?”
Fabian sighed heavily, then said, “You feed her. Then, I guess if you’re telling me the truth — that you don’t have any other goddamn option — you fight her.”
“Uncle,” Giuseppe said, “It killed me to see what I saw, to see the teethmarks on her cheeks.” They were deep. It was painful for Lucina to chew. “I just can’t.”
“Don’t fight her then, what do I care? What do I know?”
“Uncle, don’t be like that.”
“Don’t be like you,” Fabian said. “Use your fucking head for a second. Just one second. Understand that you’re too stupid to make money off of yourself. Understand that you’re too dependent. Look around and then think: if I’m not willing to fight her, how else can I make money off of her? How else can I improve my life?” Fabian paused. “Think of anything yet?
He had, and said so.
“Now, think of that pedigree,” Giuseppe tells Lance. “You’ve heard of Makhai? And Segomos?”
“Hers?” Lance asks. “Makhai is hers? Jesus. I watched him rip the jaw off some terrier last month.”
Giuseppe turns briefly at the wincing of the city bus’s brakes behind him. He watches Julio descend the bus steps with his faded grey and scarlet backpack on, his brother’s old, ratty Adidas sneakers looking as if they, within a mere five steps, will fall apart, sole from foot, lace from tongue.
“Just think of what these little ones will be able to do for you,” Giuseppe says. He points at the pups. “Think of the money they will put in your pocket.”
“How do you explain that then?” Lance asks. He watches Julio’s mother, crowbar still in hand, scratch Lucina’s neck. The bitch’s tail does not wag, but the growling has stopped.
“Outside of me, she’s the only one she’ll let touch her,” Giuseppe says. As Julio merges from the sidewalk onto the lawn, Giuseppe notices a folded sheet of paper in the boy’s hand. With his free hand, Julio waves at Giuseppe, to which Giuseppe nods, surprised but pleased that the boy is intelligent enough to understand an interruption would be unwelcome at this time. “Let’s go inside, Lance, and discuss how you’ll be training them.”
Lance nods and, with Giuseppe, walks across the lawn and up the two green-carpeted steps leading into the doublewide.
Julio stops feet from the puppies’ chained reach and watches his mother stroke Lucina’s ears. Though he does not want his mother to stroke his ears — or his cheeks, or his hair — Julio wishes he didn’t feel a twitch of jealousy whenever he sees this scene beneath the magnolia tree, the tree he once loved. He remembers he and Oscar failing to clamber up the trunk. He remembers the two of them pounding thick nails on the northwest side so that they would have a route to the lowest-hanging branch, several shelves on which to place their feet. He remembers leaping from root to root.
“Hi Mom,” Julio says, loudly, over Lucina’s resumed growling. He speaks to her in Spanish, though, to her constant dismay, the tip of his tongue is not quite as flexible as hers. His mother does not turn, yet he raises the sheet of paper into the air as if she has, and is currently eyeballing it. “I need you to sign this.”
This is a permission slip. What it declares is that, three days from now, on Thursday, Julio and his classmates, supplementary to their recent lessons on the American Civil War, are to board a school bus and travel to Monument Avenue. She will not understand it, and he doesn’t need her to. He doesn’t need her to know just how interested he is by the conflict itself, by the causes, by the French assistance, by the resolutions, or the fact that gallons of grey and blue blood still taint the farmlands. All he needs is her crooked signature.
“What?” Julio’s mother asks, still turned. She cannot hear. The growling is too loud.
Julio says it louder.
She turns to him briefly, but only to say, “What?” again.
Julio carefully steps closer, looking down so he does not step on the pups, or their chains. This, Julio thinks, this, Julio knows — the failure to communicate — is not the pups’ fault. It is not Lucina’s fault.
“I need you to sign this,” he says for the third time. He takes his eyes off of his feet and looks at his mother, who is turning now, facing him, sidestepping her way back through the puppy shit as Lucina’s growling swells. And then there is a sharp pain in Julio’s right ankle. Then, the left. The pups are nibbling at him, their sharpest teeth not at all slowed by the fabric of his olive-colored pants. He tells them to stop. He moves his feet. He tells them once more, in English and in Spanish. And then, in one quick motion, he flings the pup from the top of his right foot. He watches the pup land on his shoulder, and is relieved to see him jump to his feet. But, seconds later, Julio is on the ground, holding his cheek. The blood will trickle to his neck when he stands, but not now, not when he is still coming to, when he can only make out his mother’s, blurry face, the muffled sounds of his permission slip being shredded by puppy teeth.
If there were anything to be learned from the crowbar, Julio feels as if the lesson has been lost, replaced instead by an overwhelming desire to blame. He wants all of the blame to go to his mother. He wants it to rest squarely on her shoulders. But he knows that the placement would be wrong, that, as she has alluded to, at least some of it should go to the shoulders of the father he has met but does not remember. The Seed-Spreader, his mother has referred to him as. The man who stayed put, in the chaos of Mexico City, while his wife packed not only her one allotted suitcase, but the two for their young boys. The man that, no matter where his family was — San Diego, Omaha, Evanston, Richmond — no matter how displaced they felt, no matter how desperate they’d become, never sent so much as a peso.
“He was scared. That coward was scared that all American women are as fat as me,” his mother has said before, to both Julio and Oscar. A statement spoken solemnly, regretfully. Infected with shame. “Fat and ugly, stupid women.”
But Giuseppe deserves blame too, for the pain still swelling in and on Julio’s cheek. He deserves blame for taking Lucina on that walk all those months back, for passing TACOS HERMANAS while Julio’s mother, who had bummed a cigarette from Clarita, took a rare smoke break. For letting the bitch approach, and sniff, and somehow, someway, defying Giuseppe’s myths, cuddle against the woman’s thigh and lick the chicken juice from her knuckles. For moving in. For running his operation out of their only yard. For never caring about his mother unless he is rum-drunk. And, more importantly, for driving Oscar out.
That’s it, Julio thinks, his swollen cheek pressed against the cool glass of the bus window. The straw that broke the camel’s back. Oscar. Oscar the Handsome. Oscar the Intelligent. Shades of him at seventeen nudged toward independence. To Michigan. To asparagus picking and lower back pain and, as he has written to Julio, “Hopefully hay once summer hits.” Oscar deserves blame also, yes, but Julio doesn’t want it to be so. Because Oscar is brave and Oscar is compassionate. He talked with Julio, not to him, or at him. At Julio’s request, he took the time to sketch their father’s portrait on a blank sheet of paper with a golf pencil. He gave Julio clothes. He sends Julio money. Not much, but some. He —
Two young women wearing matching red, white and blue T-shirts that scream, SAVE OUR UNION, hop onto the bus and raise their voices. They pass out fliers for some protest as the bus continues down the street. They shout that democracy is a codeword for dictatorship. Passengers take the fliers, yes, but they do not listen, resorting instead to the urban decay outside of their window, blurred at this speed.
Julio turns his attention to the man splayed on the seat across the aisle. A damp green bandana is stretched from eyebrow to scalp, containing the frizz of his curly blonde hair. He possesses a beard of wizardly proportions, a dark blonde base with the occasional smudges of brown and grey. His eyes are shut. He snores lightly, and when the bus goes over a pothole, or jerks to a stop, the man’s khaki combat boots swing. They just swing. Never to life, never to action. Just back and forth. What Julio finds most interesting, however, beyond the aforementioned, beyond the green army jacket that’s a few buttons short, are the bullet casing tattoos stretching from knuckle to nail on each finger of his limp left hand. Within each casing are numbers, or letters, something rendered illegible either by Mother Nature or Father Time. But, even if they don’t anymore, even if they have lost their luster, they once stood for something. They are a nod. An ode. A symbol. They once made a monument of his flesh.
Julio, standing in the center of Monument and Lombardy Avenues, gawks at a bronze J.E.B. Stuart. Stuart’s saber is drawn. The horse he sits atop is rearing, readying for movement, following the order to take charge, to sprint toward and, eventually, through wave after wave of blue-coated men and cannonballs.
Julio is not joined by his classmates, or by anyone, really, the only passersby being a trio of tourists with heavy cameras strapped around their necks. The only thing, then, that throws Julio out of his stare, out of his desire to hop the fence and climb Stuart’s granite pedestal, out of his desire to sit atop that horse and look down on Monument Avenue — its brick mansions, its elaborate churches — is the traffic. It is noon. Hungry Richmond workers honk at their inability to speed through a red light. Those at a stop gawk not at Stuart, but at Julio, at what he is convinced is his embarrassingly swollen cheek.
It’s enough to make Julio move, to ignore the crosswalk and beeline through halted traffic to the sidewalk, and up the street, northwest, past large brick buildings, some with skinny chimneys at rest, others punctuated by pillars, until the sidewalk veers further north, beginning the traffic circle in which Robert E. Lee has been erected.
Including the pedestal, Lee and his horse are sixty feet above the grass beneath them. Lying on the lawn, enduring the mist, are what appear to be college students. Some toss around a football. Others close textbooks and opt to chat, sliding their pencils behind their ears. Leaning on the fence surrounding Lee are three people in raincoats, none of whom, as Julio can’t help but doing as he proceeds northwest, stare at the tiered granite hoisting the statue and wonder if the tiers are meant to resemble steps. Steps that lead to Lee. Steps that lead to that rusting door beneath the statue, to Lee’s heart, to Lee’s soul. Because Lee is open. Lee is accommodating. And, though Julio someday soon wants to accept that invitation, now is not the time. He must heal before he does so.
He walks on, up the sidewalk, watching panting huskies and terriers brave the humidity and chase Frisbees across the grassy median. Of course, he thinks of Lucina, and wonders just how wrong Giuseppe has treated her, if any of his words can be taken as truth, if she really took down that Shepherd, or if those scars on his hand are actually from alley-way brawls over food or women. For a moment, Julio pictures himself leashing Lucina and bringing her here, not to fight, not to squabble over a territory she has just claimed, but just to walk, to wade amongst the normal.
Just then, Julio feels it. He feels it, and then he sees it: a red-haired woman staring at him, at his face. Julio squeezes his fingers around the backpack’s straps. Sidesteps. Seeks space.
Julio finds it beneath Jefferson Davis. Davis, he has learned from Ms. Guiterrez, served as president of the Confederacy and, for this reason alone, he finds his monument to be fittingly extravagant — Davis himself, when compared to the entirety of the sculpture, is small, rendered nearly insubstantial by the size of the columns half-surrounding him. But Davis, as if recognizing that he alone weren’t strong enough independently, has his right arm lifted and his hand open. “Rise, rise,” it says to Julio. “Join.” But join what? Julio wonders. THE ARMY OF THE CONFEDERATE STATES, as the inscription on the left-most column says? THE NAVY OF THE CONFEDERATE STATES? Join in numbers? Or, join the woman Davis seems to be lifting his arm to? Miss Confederacy perched atop the Doric column in the center? Julio doesn’t have an answer. But he walks, up the steps, back down, then around the monument, on the right side. He grazes his fingers over the Latin phrase he does not understand, but reads aloud, PRO ARIS ET FOCI, before the approaching family of three are parallel, their conversation a series of whispers. The family stares. Julio returns to squeezing his backpack straps. He sidestep until there is distance between them.
Julio walks past the statue of Stonewall Jackson, which is heavily populated at the moment, and thinks nothing else but that he, other than facing a different direction, looks like he is mimicking Lee. Atop a horse. Proud. Staring down traffic. Eyes down, Julio moves past, moves forward, maneuvers around the crowd standing before the statue of Matthew Fontaine Maury, past the bronze earth and sea that weighs so heavily on the man’s head. Off Julio goes, away from all, legs churning.
What causes him to stop, what completely and utterly confuses Julio, who had been led to believe that Monument Avenue was and is a place to commemorate the achievements of those who stood up to what they thought was tyranny, is what he finds when he walks upon Monument and Roseneath Avenues. Because there, twelve feet tall, stands Arthur Ashe. Gazed upon by no one. He has seen the name before, on street signs, but he does not know who Arthur Ashe is, what he has accomplished. But he is black. And he looks angry. Angry, in a wrinkled tracksuit and rimmed glasses. The marble children standing beneath him appear to be excited, anxious even, for the tennis racquet Ashe is about to hit them with, or the books he is about to drop on their heads. Not a saber, Julio thinks. Books, and a tennis racket. Not a uniform; a tracksuit, and glasses.
“Julio,” Oscar says. His hand is on Julio’s shoulder, shaking him awake. “Julio, get up.”
Julio rises and groggily looks at Oscar, at the clock, and across the room. It is 1:14am. His brother’s bed is made. Not a pillow or blanket missing, or in disarray. And Oscar, Oscar is in jeans, a blue jacket and orange stocking cap. On his back is a bulging black backpack. In his eyes is a look of certainty, of conviction, that what he is about to say, what he is about to do is pure, absolute, and moral. It’s this look that keeps Julio — who looks so young on this night, his hair much longer than what it will be on Monument Avenue, his own eyes just wet, fluttering blobs of miscomprehension — silent, eager to listen.
“I need your help,” Oscar says. As far back as Julio can remember, Oscar, reliant on the self, has never uttered these words. Not to him, not to anyone. But those eyes. Once more, those eyes. Unblinking. Like stone. “I’m leaving, and I need your help.”
“Okay,” Julio says.
He gets out of bed, slips on a t-shirt and a pair of pajama pants and awaits instruction. Which he doesn’t verbally receive. Oscar nods, then leads Julio out of their bedroom and alongside a sleeping Giuseppe on the living room sofa, stomach-down, face plunged into the throw pillow. An empty pint of rum rests on the floor, flanked by an empty twenty-ounce Coke bottle. The way Oscar stares at Giuseppe as he and Julio pass says that what Oscar really wants to do is climb atop Giuseppe’s back, grab handfuls of that curly black hair and shove his face into the pillow even further. He doesn’t want a fight; he wants a kill. There’s a rage in those eyes that Oscar is and has been struggling to contain. But he has: since the first night Giuseppe stayed; when he and Julio first heard their mother’s headboard clapping against the wall, he has; since Giuseppe pulled them both aside one Saturday morning and said, “I’ll be staying here some nights and you need to respect that.” The breaking point, it seems, occurred just two days earlier, when Giuseppe announced that he would be living here permanently, that he would be bringing his one prized possession, Lucina.
The night Giuseppe moved in permanently, Oscar paced around he and Julio’s bedroom. His hands were in his hair: “I don’t want that drunk fucker here, Julio. I don’t. I don’t want him on our couch. I don’t want him eating our food. I don’t want him in our father’s bed, with our father’s wife.”
To which Julio replied, “Have you told Mom?”
“At least ten times. And you want to know what she says?” Oscar sat on Julio’s bed then. “She said that I’m a burden. Said that she’d be primping herself up in some three-story hacienda if it weren’t for me. Said Giuseppe would take her there. That I have no say.”
Julio watched his brother shake his head and mumble something into his palms before asking, “Did she say that about me too?”
“No,” Oscar said quickly. Too quickly. His eyes sold him out. Lies. The first he’d forced himself to feed Julio. He brought his hands back to his face. Spoke into them: “Of course not, Julio.”
And now Oscar is sliding those same hands beneath their mother’s mattress. He squats and, backpack still on, quietly pulls the mattress off of its box spring, off of its frame. Only then does he employ Julio’s help, positioning him at the foot end of the mattress while he circles toward the headboard.
“What are you doing?” Julio whispers.
“Just lift,” Oscar says.
“No.” Julio won’t. “Not until I know.”
“I’m going to burn it,” Oscar says. “And then I’m going to leave.”
“Why? Why are you leaving?”
“You know why. And, once I make enough money, I’ll help you leave, too.” Oscar lifts his end of the mattress. “Now, will you help me or not?”
Most of Julio doesn’t want to. He wants to let Oscar do this all on his own. He wants no part in the destruction, in the chaos, not when Julio will have to deal with the consequences of their actions on his own, with Oscar long gone. He does not want to declare war; he wants to go back to bed. He doesn’t want to leave. He wants to be in Richmond, in what throughout the past three years has become something of a home. He likes his school. He likes Ms. Guiterrez. He doesn’t want to move again. Doesn’t want another Omaha. Doesn’t want another Evanston. He doesn’t want another environment to shove him back into his shell, to kill the lights and lock the door. Because here, in Richmond, he can feel that shell peeling away. He knows street names. He knows which buses will take him where. He is certain that this city can play a part in the story of himself.
“What if he wakes up?”
“He won’t. He’s drunk.”
Julio looks at the digital clock on his mother’s nightstand. “She’s going to be home soon,” he tells Oscar. And she will, after the last-call wanderers of Richmond have been fed. She’ll walk in with sore feet and hands, stinking of TACOS HERMANAS chicken, makeup smeared, dark blue shirt damp with sweat.
Oscar still holds the mattress in his hands. “That’s the point.” He sighs. “Julio, please, just help, or get out of the way.”
Moments later — after they, without so much as a nudged coaster or lamp, maneuver the mattress out of the bedroom, around Giuseppe and what will soon become his couch, through the front door and to the gravel driveway — Julio, though he wouldn’t know how to explain it if asked, feels the fear wash away and something new take its place. He feels both sad and oddly satisfied. His stomach is full, his heart heavy. He feels with Oscar, not for Oscar. He, too, feels as if he is stepping eerily close to independence, to success, to accomplishment. It’s pride. That’s what he feels. Pride.
“Thank you,” Oscar says to Julio in the driveway. He walks to Julio and gives him a hug. He even kisses his kid brother on the forehead. “I’ll get you out of here. I promise. I will.”
Julio nods. He wonders if he should cry here, in this moment. Because he doesn’t feel the urge to. The hug was too brief to be final. Oscar will be back, he thinks. Oscar just needs a break. He’ll be back soon. He will.
“Get inside,” Oscar says. “You tell her that I did this. Hear me? You had nothing to do with it. Understand?”
Julio does. He says so. He nods. And then, as instructed, he goes inside, directly to their room. He opens the blinds. He watches Oscar douse the mattress with lighter fluid, then drop a lit match. In a moment, once he’s deemed the fire before him satisfactory, Oscar will be gone, down the sidewalk and into darkness, reduced in Julio’s life to this moment, to the weekly handwritten letters that will follow. And, soon after, with the mattress still smoldering, his mother will park on the street and look around the neighborhood. She won’t touch the mattress. But she’ll shout. Oh yes, she’ll shout, and she’ll storm into the trailer, and Julio, still watching it all from the dark bedroom — now his dark bedroom — will jump into bed. He’ll pull the covers over his face. He’ll listen to her and Giuseppe yell. He’ll hide. And he’ll stay hidden like this for the months to come.
The rain has stopped. Brief as it was, the sun came out, and is now tucking itself beneath the quilt of night. With what light remains, Julio, looking down at the driveway, is convinced that he can still spot where the mattress turned to ash, where the flame blackened the gravel. But his eyes are deceiving him. Just as there are no cars in the driveway, there is no trace of the defiant moment that defined Oscar. Outside of the squealing tires of a neighbor gunning his rusted Trans Am through an oft-ignored stop sign, the only sound is Lucina’s growling. She cannot see Julio from the magnolia tree but she knows he is here. And she knows what he is capable of.
Julio walks to the edge of the doublewide and looks toward her. The pups are gone. Not one tumbles about, not one gnaws on a stick. Gone. To their new homes, their new lives. To cages. Julio grips his backpack straps and slouches while Lucina, despite the weight of the chain around her neck, stands erect beneath the magnolia, alert. Julio says nothing. Does not growl, like her, does not bark, does nothing but turn, walk across the lawn, up the two steps and into the house.
He walks through the living room — past the Giuseppe-stained sofa, past the empty bottles that have accumulated atop and beside the coffee table — to his bedroom. Days after Oscar burned her mattress, Julio’s mother took it upon herself to drag the two twin-sized mattresses out of Julio’s room and into her room, leaving Julio with only box springs. And this has gone unchanged, as has the placement of the box springs, Julio never having seen the point in stacking them, or rearranging them to maximize floor space, not when he thought Oscar’s return inevitable. But, since yesterday, since the crowbar, since this afternoon, since Monument Avenue, since Arthur Ashe, that perceived inevitability is fading in Julio’s mind. So much so that he flings his backpack at his brother’s box spring. The backpack ruffles rolls to a halt while Julio is slinking to the floor. He touches his left cheek and grimaces. He absorbs the pain. Runs his hand through his hair and listens to Lucina’s chain scraping the magnolia’s trunk.
And there is just too much, far too much colliding in Julio’s brian. Oscar, his father, Giuseppe, the bus driver, Stonewall Jackson, Jefferson Davis quarreling, dancing, twisting, melding to one another, into something sharp, something much sharper than that crowbar. It is that sharp point that continues to puncture the good memories Julio has of his mother. The way she carried him up, down and across the streets of San Diego. The way she would smother his, and only his Omaha steaks with garlic butter before pan-frying them. How, in Evanston, she had Julio read his thin books to her before bed. How empowered that made him feel. How important. But they’re oozing. The memories are oozing, solidifying. Until Julio finds a semblance of the clarity he seeks. Two options, he thinks. There are two options, he knows, has known, will always know. Run, or —
Julio walks quickly. The yellow beam of the old flashlight in Julio’s hands bobs across the yard. Lucina rises, approaches, barks, lowers the barking to a growl, stretches her chain taut. Julio slows. He sets the flashlight on the grass so that Lucina’s ears are swathed in yellow.
Julio, planted just feet outside of her reach, inches the curved end of the crowbar toward her. She sniffs the metal; her ears droop, from angry to anxious; she retreats. Julio advances. Steps his calves into the yellow light, then his knees and thighs. And it is far enough.
He stares at Lucina and grows sad at the way her eyes are now shifting from the grass to the crowbar, from the crowbar to him. His eyes water. He begins to rethink what he has come out here to do, what he has for an hour now been considering. He ponders dropping the crowbar, stuffing his backpack with underwear and socks, with non-perishable food, and hitting the road, finding his way to Michigan. Leaving what he wants to become home without so much as a wave. Conceding.
“I’m sorry,” Julio says. He can’t. He won’t. This is where he will stay. “I’m sorry,” he says again, and wraps his free hand onto the crowbar, gripping it now as if it were a baseball bat.
Lucina cries, barks, bites.
Julio swings. Again. And again. And again, growling his way through the sounds of the crowbar connecting with Lucina’s stomach, through the cries, through the cracking of ribs, through the physical surrender of what he knows is not his enemy.
Lucina is on her side. Blood has not yet reached air. She does not cry; she does not bark. Her tongue is on the grass. Her paws twitch.
Only when Julio catches his breath does he start sobbing. He buries his face into his shirt sleeve as he approaches her. He crouches. Pets her neck.
“I’m sorry,” he says. “I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.”
Moments later, Julio stands. He wipes his eyes, then regrips the crowbar. Rotates it in his hands so the pointed end is against Lucina’s fur. Julio’s hands are shaking. But they steady as he leans his weight onto the metal. The crowbar pierces Lucina’s skin. Strikes bone, until it is redirected by Julio’s pre-adolescent hands and shoved through the other side of Lucina, until Giuseppe’s trophy has been anchored to the ground..
He lets go of the crowbar. Backs his way out of the yellow light. Studies what he has done. This is how he will leave her. This is how he thinks they’ll remember him: in the dark, leaning against the magnolia tree.