Chuck Teixeira practiced law for many years in San Francisco, California. Now he works in Bogota, Colombia. Chuck’s stories have appeared in Esquire, Permafrost, Portland Review and Two-Thirds North.
Jo thought the knock on the door might be the police with news of her son. It was her son himself shivering and in tears. In the mountains, no matter how hot the days, August nights were cold. She knelt down and embraced him. Then she smoothed the dirt away from his forehead and cheeks.
¨David Ferreira! Are you okay?” she sobbed in relief.
Behind her, the boy´s father laughed, ¨Of course, he´s okay. He´ll be even better after a few licks of my belt. ¨
¨Jack, please!” Jo pleaded, “David’s not yet in the house, and you´re giving him reason to run away again. ¨
¨Next time he runs away,” Jack said, “He’d better not come back because he won´t be welcome here.”
“I’ve never been welcome,” David said.
“He’s finally figured that out,” Jack laughed. “Maybe there’s hope for him.” David was the fifth and weakest of Jack’s sons. And he had been conceived by accident late in Jack’s and Jo’s time together. The pregnancy had endangered Jo’s life more than once, the last time in the delivery room when neither the fetus nor the mother had detectible heart beats.
Lowering the mask from his mouth, the doctor had asked Jack bluntly, “If I can save only one, is it the mother or the child?”
“The mother!” Jack repeated several times, pausing once to be sure the right word was coming from his mouth and stopping only when the doctor repositioned his mask. To Jack’s amazement, the doctor’s efforts to rescue the mother enabled both the child and her to survive.
David could not fathom how he knew the drama of his mother’s survival during his own delivery. He did not remember anyone’s telling him about Jack’s unhesitating discard of his life. Who would say things to wedge a child’s heart away from his father?
“Jack, please give me a few moments alone with the boy.”
“So you can tell him not to listen to his father.”
“Not to listen when it’s the alcohol talking.”
“A man can’t drink in his own home?” Jack grabbed the front of David’s shirt and yanked him away from his mother. “Not while I’m alive,” he said then choked back tears, “Not for the short life left me.” Jack began to cough violently, released his grip on David and turned away, his hand over his mouth to catch the blood from his lungs.
David rushed to the door again where Jo knelt to huddle with him. David wasn’t sure exactly how much longer his father would live; how much more abuse his mother and he would have to absorb.
¨What happened that you ran away?” Jo whispered.
“There’s too much pressure on me.”
“You’re ten years old, honey. What pressure?”
“I have to be up before 5:00 most every day and walk to church to serve early mass. And Monsignor still calls the congregation’s attention to my mistakes in the Confiteor. And I have to be the holiest and smartest boy in my class. And I have to do all the basement and outside chores around the house because Dad is too weak and none of my brothers lives here anymore.”
Hearing his son refer to him as weak, Jack said, “He’s right, Jo, and I wish I could die right now and stop burdening you.”
Jo turned toward her husband. He had once been a powerful man with broad shoulders, a thick neck and muscular arms. He had declined to a shred of that incarnation. Nonetheless, he was her husband and had supported the family for many years in anthracite collieries. She had also done her part, cooking and cleaning for laborers who lodged in their house. “Don’t say that again, Jack,” she said. “Caring for you is not a burden. It is repaying a debt of gratitude.
“At loan-shark interest rates,” Jack offered.
“Close,” Jo said smiling, and Jack’s eyes softened as he returned her gaze.
Any moment of tenderness between his parents inflamed David’s hatred of his father. The man was a useless brute. What did he contribute to the family? For a while, after being forced from the mines, he earned a trifle, mostly around holidays, from lace and embroidery skills his sisters had learned in their native Madeira and had shared with him when he could no longer do men’s work. But now his hands trembled too severely to manipulate needles and thread. To be sure, his green thumb still wrested abundance from the plot that sloped down from the back of the house. In Madeira, he had cultivated banana, cork and figs. Here he boasted strawberries, garlic and onions to sell to neighbors in June; peppers, cucumbers and eggplant in July; and tomatoes and corn in August. But David had to do all the hard work and earned nothing but scolding and ridicule for his failing in tasks he would have preferred to avoid entirely.
Suddenly David heard his mother’s voice as she repeated, “Who said you have to be any holier or smarter than needed to get by? I didn’t.”
“I didn’t either,” Jack said. “Certainly not the holy nonsense. None of his brothers wasted time in church, and they did all right.” Then he added, “We should take him out of that Catholic school.”
“Please don’t,” David shrieked. “Sister Trixie says public school is the vestibule to hell.”
“Tell me, Jo, who is this Sister Trixie? And why do her words carry more weight than ours?”
“I think she’s Sister Mary Redemptrix, the principal at his school.
“I didn’t go to Catholic school,” Jack said. “Does that mean I’m going to hell?”
“He didn’t go to school at all,” David said.
“I’m going to kill this kid, Jo. Don’t ever leave me alone with him.”
It bothered Jo that Jack and David seldom addressed each other directly, that they had become selectively deaf to each other. But for David, things were developing in accord with the vision he had experienced while wandering for hours in the wilderness, the shale mounds near the tar-paper shacks where even poorer families lived. David would have to remove his father without committing a single sin.
Next morning, the ragman brought his rickety truck to the street where the Ferreira’s lived. He came up the steep hill only once a month to buy used fabric for pennies a pound. David rarely had fabric to offer the ragman. So seldom did the lodgers’ clothes, sheets or towels wear thin enough for Jo to release for sale. But this Saturday, she parted with some.
“Ask James how to get the best price,” Jo suggested.
James Kinsevej, their next-door neighbor, a few years older than David, always had a pillow case full of torn clothes and bed linen he had scavenged from different homes to offer the ragman. Jack had once said that James never shrank from any effort to make honest money and that David could learn from him. David was less sure because James had failed more than once to pass to the next grade. And ultimately James had been expelled from the Catholic school for sins he had committed in the cloak room with other boys and had tried to commit with David. James didn’t like David either. David was a favorite of the nuns and the priests. Worse, David had snitched.
“My mom asked me how to get the best price for these rags.”
“If you give me half, I’ll tell you.”
“Half of what?”
“The extra he pays you.”
“How will I know what’s extra?”
“Give me your sack.”
James held the bundle, closed his eyes and calculated. “Ordinarily this is worth about a quarter, thirty cents tops. If he gives you half a dollar, you owe me a dime.”
“I have to ask my mother.”
“Grow up,” James said, “Or forget it.”
Although James was probably damned, his energy stirred a desire deep in David’s body, close to one of the many entrances to hell.
“All right,” David said, “What should I do?”
“You can increase the weight a little by adding a few small stones, just a few and very small. Wrap all the clothes around them, so the ragman can’t feel them. By the time he finds out, he’ll be gone and not know who tricked him.”
“That’s cheating,” David said. “I don’t want to go to hell.”
“The ragman is trades people. He rips us off. You won’t go to hell.”
Sister Trixie had cautioned her pupils to beware of trades people because they engaged in something called sharp practices. But David didn’t remember her ever saying it was okay to cheat them. Maybe he had missed school that day.
David’s family had a history with trades people driving trucks. The egg man drove his truck into the neighborhood ever week or so. The egg man had promised David’s father that, if he paid a higher price for eggs now, higher than in the grocery store, the egg man would give him the same price even if the grocery store started charging more. David remembered his father’s storming into the house one afternoon because the egg man hadn’t kept his word even after Jack reminded him. There were tears in Jack’s eyes for having been made a fool. It was David’s closest brush with love for his father. David decided to ignore James’s advice about cheating the ragman. His father could work out his own revenge. And David could not risk any sins or distractions from the goal of removing his father immaculately. Then a sign from heaven to discredit James and fortify David. When the ragman hung David’s sack on the giant hook of the scale that he held in his hand, the needle jumped high enough for sixty cents.
That afternoon, despite the heat, Jo was baking a cake, as she often did on weekends – this time to celebrate a lodger’s return from the sanitorium for miners and the few months of easier breathing the treatment would likely give him. David was in the kitchen helping her until Jack came in. David had to go down to the garden to weed between the corn stalks and pick all the ripe tomatoes he could find.
“It’ll take a long time for the cake to cool,” Jo said. “You can help me frost when you’ve finished your chores in the garden.”
David hated the garden, all the spider webs that stuck to his skin as he moved among the plants. It was especially hot and sticky that day. So, David finished the weeding and picking as quickly as he could. He brought about a dozen tomatoes up to the house, then washed his hands in the basement sink and went back to the kitchen.
Jack was sitting at the table, covered in a beautiful lace cloth, the last one he had been able to fashion. His breath came with even more labor than usual as he examined the delicate squares in his trembling hands. “Jo, ask the boy if he has picked all the ripe tomatoes.”
“Yes, mom, I think so,” David said.
“Is he sure he doesn’t want to go down and check again? It’s going to be hot and sunny tomorrow and all next week. Any ripe tomatoes not picked from the vines today are likely to rot or become too soft to sell.”
Jo explained that to David and asked if he were absolutely sure he had picked all the ripe tomatoes, if everything in the garden was okay.
“Yes, Mom,” David said, “I’m pretty sure.”
“Okay,” Jack said and walked slowly from the room.
Awhile later, when they had finished frosting the cake and David was using a finger to scrape and eat what remained in the bowl, Jack appeared in the kitchen with a basket filled with at least twice as many tomatoes as David had picked.
“The boy is a liar, Jo! He will grow into even worse!” Jack shouted and, with shallow gasps, started hurling tomatoes at David, then dropped the basket and collapsed on the floor.
David helped his mother clean the splatter off the walls and floor before the ambulance arrived — at too great expense for the family, David thought, but probably not soon enough to revive his father.
© 2020 Chuck Teixeira