Spring Fiction Winner: “A Wartime Guide to Confession” by Michael Pesant

A Wartime Guide to Confession


“May the most holy, most sacred, most adorable,

most incomprehensible and ineffable Name of God

be forever praised, blessed, loved, adored

and glorified…”

The Golden Arrow Prayer




The girls call in their father like an air strike. Their voices are girly, ear-bleedingly high-pitched, but the word rolls like thunder through the fortress of brick and trees behind them, and we scatter before the lightning hits. I trail Bertie across the street, losing ground even at my wildest sprint, hurrying to the safety of our backyard.

We live under constant threat of him, the monster next door, but we wage our war against the girls anyway.

Bertie says it’s the rule, basically, growing up: your neighbors are either your best friends or your worst enemies. I believe him. For one, Bertie is always right. I mean, he lies, who ate the last pop tart and stuff, but he’s never wrong when it matters. Also, it just kind of makes sense to me.

Not that I want enemies, but I won’t call evil good, either.

He means the kids only, with the friends/enemies rule. He says most grown-ups pretend to like each other, even if they don’t.

Bertie’s my older brother. Alberto really, but since he shares that name with my dad, the nickname stuck. They didn’t name me after anyone; my parents wanted an American name.

Bertie likes to point out that he was born in an entirely different decade than me, which is technically true, even if he’s less than two years older. He often points out that, unlike him, I’ve never lived anywhere but this house on Seventy-third Terrace, which is also true. Bertie says he’s lived in two houses, and three decades, and Mom and Dad have lived in two countries, plus probably more houses and decades than we can count. I’m uniquely sheltered, he says, taking his time with the ten-dollar words.

He’s somewhat annoying with the whole wise man act, but like I said, he’s also always right.

Mom describes the girls across the street as roughly the same ages as us. Very roughly, if you ask me. Alyssa just turned eleven, and I’m firmly twelve. She acts nine. Vicky and Bertie are both fourteen. We’ve hated them as far back as I remember, which is probably when I was three or four years old, so maybe farther than that, from birth or something.

Alyssa has a crush on me, although it’s not as sweet as it sounds. She wields it like poo on a stick. I try to keep my distance, but she’s relentless, she taints me with her presence. At this point, I suspect the cooties to be a fictionalized plague, but if they ever found one rare case of the disease, I would not be surprised to learn it was Alyssa. At school she’s made it like a thing, Alyssa and Mikey, and even though I hate her, think she’s foul, somehow I’m guilty by association. Like I said, tainted. The worst thing is, when I deny it, I’m the mean one.

Vicky’s kind of hot, but I’d never admit that out loud. She looks almost like a grown woman, except I’ve never met a grownup who wears all black all the time, including nails and lipstick. Bertie doesn’t agree she’s hot, but then again Vicky doesn’t crush on him the way Alyssa does on me. Funny how that works.

I hate her, even if she’s hot, even if I can’t help picturing her black lips sometimes in the shower. On Christmas morning, she steals the controller to my RC car, practically from under our tree, and drives it up and down the street, taunting me. Alyssa taints and Vicky taunts; they’re quite a pair. Vicky’s a bitch, even if she’s a hot bitch. I try not to talk like that, but as Bertie puts it: war is war.  

“Have I been indifferent to God? “Have I considered Him and His plan for me in my daily life?”

In CCD class, we receive a guide of sorts, a series of questions to ask ourselves before taking the sacrament of confession. Our teacher says it’s a guide for teens, but we should read it, anyway, to be prepared. The neighbors come up in most of my answers; they provoke my sins – hatred, anger, impure thoughts, foul language…

I try to explain this to Father Mark, to justify my profanity, even as I cop to it in the booth, but he’s not buying it. Father Mark says Vicky was made in God’s image, and when I call her a bitch, to think about who I’m actually insulting. He says it just like that, uses the word “bitch” and everything, and then I feel really bad, because I just made a priest curse. I only tell him the bitch part, not about thinking she’s a hot bitch or anything about the shower. I’m not ready to talk to anyone about that, including God.

Especially God.

Father Mark assigns me fifteen Hail Mary’s and tells me to try and remember what Jesus said about loving our neighbors. I wonder if Jesus could have ever imagined having neighbors like this. Vicky and Alyssa’s dad Mariano is a contractor, a construction guy. It’s obvious because when you look across the street they always have a bunch of dusty pickup trucks and work vans parked out in front. The other thing is their house isn’t normal. It’s a perpetual construction site. Mariano is always adding on. My dad says he’s like an artist who doesn’t know when to put down the brush.

Like I said, Mariano’s house is not a normal house. During the few short truces in our lifelong war with the girls, they’ve given us guided tours of their place, presumably to freak us out. I’ve tried to describe it to friends who’ve never seen it, and always worry they can’t quite picture it from my words.

Basically, it is a normal house, yellow three bedroom type of thing, but no one would ever know, because he surrounded it on all four sides with a brick fort, and further entrenched that behind a dense and unruly forest of tropical trees. He built it all using materials left over, or scavenged, from his other construction projects, and every few feet the bricks vary in size and color, with the largest section towards the back made of limestone. In the front, the fortress extends all the way down the driveway, ending in a large wrought-iron gate, about the size of a garage door. Welded on the center of the gate was Mariano’s symbol, a weird circular M made from swords.

All of this on a regular suburban street, the houses aren’t all the same like some neighborhoods I’ve seen, but they aren’t so different either. Mariano’s castle sticks out, like the one petri dish in our class experiment that exploded with bacteria.  Dad says he probably moved to the area because the zoning laws are famously lax. He says in Italy, where Mariano’s from, you’re probably allowed to build whatever you want.

Mariano sometimes sends Dad invitations to political meetings he holds in the castle; he started something called a libertarian militia. Dad says libertarians think there should be a government, but only a very small one, and no laws except to arrest thieves and murderers. He says libertarians aren’t the worst, but that we do need some rules to keep people from doing whatever they want, like drugs for instance.

Zoning laws or not, people notice, and complain, although maybe not to Mariano’s face. He’s a scary dude. He looks like a construction guy, short but strong, with forearms thick as thighs, and a scruffy beard patched on his face to match the paint all over his clothes.

I wonder if the girl’s mom, Mariano’s wife Carla, worries as much as my mom does. She’d really have something to worry about, but I can’t tell, because she barely exists. Carla shrinks around the fortress, as tiny as Mariano looms large. When we do see her, occasionally venturing into the street or the yard to address the girls, she barely makes eye contact, staring down at the ground and speaking Italian so softly it looks like she’s praying the rosary.

Before going to sleep, I commit to finish reciting all fifteen of my Hail Mary’s, but I keep getting distracted after nine or ten, and force myself to start again. To stay focused, I concentrate on each of the words, on the prayer’s meaning, but inevitably, my mind wanders, and sometimes the places it goes feel as unholy as it gets. When I was little, and my grandmother Chichi taught me these prayers, I’d misheard the word sinner, thinking she said stinger. Chichi had an accent. Pray for us stingers, from now until the hour of our death. Even now, when I pray the right words, the old meaning lingers, and I can’t help but imagine people running around stinging each other like honey bees, dying after they sin.

Have I been violent or abusive either in action or in speech?”

Bertie hides the bomb manual like it was a dirty magazine, not under his mattress, but smarter, tucked away into the pages of a faded philosophy book no one ever reads. I think it belonged to my grandad or something; the author must be a Cuban guy, with a name like Descartes. Bertie says his friend photocopied the bomb pages out of something called The Anarchist Cookbook. I tell him I don’t think a cookbook is a very good guide to war, but he says I’m too dumb to know what anarchist means. It means chaos, he says.

I ask my dad what anarchist means, just to double check Bertie’s definition. He says anarchy is a political system, one where there isn’t any government, and people just do whatever they want. I ask him what’s worse, communism or anarchy, and dad says anarchy is dumber than communism, but not worse. He says nothing is worse than communism, not even abortions. Not even tattoos.

War is war, Bertie says, and war is hell. It feels like hell, in the August heat. In the summer ours is a kind of trench warfare, attack and retreat, quickly getting back to the safety of the air-conditioning. Summers in Miami are like winters for people up north, the air is something you can feel, it hits you in the eyes like a blow-dryer when you walk out the front door. Dad says we live two feet below sea level, and that’s why it’s so humid, because we’re technically underwater. I don’t get it. I can ride my bike to the canals, and we’re definitely above the water.

The sea level thing seems to be a major component of why everyone is freaking out over Mariano’s latest project. He’s digging himself a basement. Dad says it’s impossible; people just don’t have them here, but Bertie points out that Mariano has many things that people around here don’t have, like a rabbit pen, a gun cellar, and a weird rooftop deck with some kind of altar thing on it. With all the workers around, and most speaking languages other than English, Dad says Mariano’s new project is like the Tower of Babel, only headed in the opposite direction.

Dad’s pretty funny, but he never acts like he’s telling a joke, which is different from Bertie, who thinks everything coming out of his mouth should be followed with a rim shot. Like I said about Mom, she mostly just worries all the time, which is occasionally funny, like when her worries aren’t quite rational. A couple years ago, she wouldn’t let Dad go to a business conference in Memphis, because that’s where Martin Luther King got shot. As if Dad was a civil rights hero, instead of just a Cuban guy who co-owns a furniture store, as if there wasn’t already a bunch of crime in Miami.

When Mom’s not home, we go back behind the patio where we keep all the tools and stuff and experiment with the bomb manual. Bertie wants to make something we can plant under Vicky and Alyssa’s toilet, to cover them in their own pee and poo, but so far, everything we blow up has a pretty short fuse. When Bertie’s off with friends sometimes I go back there and experiment by myself, pouring out paint thinner in the grooves between the patio tiles, then lighting one end, and watching the flame catch down the line. Later I can smell the singe and fumes on my fingertips, no matter how many times I wash my hands, and it smells good but I feel a little guilty, too.

“Have I stood up for those unjustly accused, or am I merely a channel through which rumors pass, whether or not they are true?”

Since he’s started digging the basement, there is even more construction mess around Mariano’s fortress, more trucks, more piles of brick, more mounds of dirt, and more workers, too. At least some of the workers he imports, I guess from Italy. A new one shows up, skinny with tiny eyes and huge ears, who seems to be lurking around the house all the time. Vicky and Alyssa nickname him Nerdo. Or, maybe that’s his real name, Bertie says, maybe it doesn’t mean the same thing in Italy.

Vicky and Alyssa take a break from their war with us to torment Nerdo. They always lure us outside to watch the show the same way: a phone call, three rings, and then hang up. Occasionally, they stay on the line long enough to hear us answer and say look outside fags or something like that. I keep waiting for them to mess up and call Dad a fag or curse when Mom answers the phone, but they never do. We don’t call over there; neither Bertie nor I take chances with Mariano.

The first time we meet Nerdo, he’s sitting under a palm tree taking a break, from what I don’t know. Alyssa comes out the gate holding a plate in her hands, and tells him she’s made him an American sandwich. From our yard, we can’t tell for sure what’s in there, probably a bunch of ketchup and mustard, maybe hot sauce. I think he must be dumb, or really hungry, because I’d never eat anything Alyssa touched, let alone cooked. Nerdo takes a bite, and smiles widely, he’s eyes growing even tinnier, like two ink smudges on a blank paper. We look at the girls, and they look back at us, and then all four of us start to crack up, which at first gets Nerdo laughing, too, although after he few seconds he looks confused.

Later, we find out Nerdo is retarded. Vicky tells us about Mariano complaining on the phone, yelling at someone in Italy for sending him a retarded worker. Nerdo never really does any construction work, just hangs around the yard and smiles his confused smiles while the girls torment him. Bertie and I never do anything mean to him, only laugh when the girls put ketchup packets under his toilet seat, or change all the clocks in the house, or douse him with fart spray. While Nerdo’s around, we fight less with the girls, although Bertie and I still secretly work on the bomb.

With so many workers, almost every night is a party at Mariano’s. Sometimes we can spot them on the roof, or on the fortress’s back patio, drinking late and speaking loudly in Italian. The voices are all male, and I’m not sure where Vicky, Alyssa, or their mom go; I guess they stay inside. Vicky says Nerdo can’t drink because he’s already retarded, and she overheard her dad say it would be like giving liquor to a child. She and Alyssa work on a plan to trick Nerdo into getting drunk. Bertie and I have some experience with this, when we gave our Weimeraner Cleo vodka and watched her stumble around the yard. Vicky wants to sneak the booze into Nerdo’s thermos so he drinks it without noticing. Bertie tells her try mixing it with Cheetos; it worked for Cleo.

Bertie tells me they’ll never succeed though, even if Cleo is smarter than Nerdo. He says no way Nerdo doesn’t notice the booze in his drink, even if they mix it in with some juice or soda. He says Cleo probably did notice the vodka in her bowl, but decided to plow away at the Cheetos, anyway, on account of them being so irresistibly delicious.

A few nights later, the partying sounds rowdier than usual. It’s a weekend, and with Mom and Dad out to dinner, Bertie and I sit on the edge of their bed, trying to watch Mariano’s fortress from the big window in their room looking out into the street. We can’t see much. They’ve built a fire, the smoke rises up past the palm fronds, and we can see orange flicker through the limestone, or at least Bertie says we can. The same stones muffle the parties’ noise, and we don’t speak Italian, anyway, but towards ten or eleven at night, the voices starts to sound different from regular weekend nights at the fortress. They go from one big party noise to separate voices, chopped up, quick bouts of screaming like machine gun bursts.

Mom and Dad come home to chase us out of their room. I try and explain why we were in there but Bertie just looks at me with eyes shaped like stop signs and I drop it. Later we put socks on and plod slowly up to their closed bedroom door, where we think we can hear them still awake and Bertie says they’re probably watching out the window, whispering and spying on Mariano while we whisper and spy on them.

No one sees Nerdo again. The girls don’t come outside for almost a week, make no attempt to crank call or prank us. I think I overhear Mom say something to Nancy Castille about someone trying something with one of the girls, about them not being totally right in the head, drinking a lot. I wonder how they know how much Nerdo drank, if even Nerdo knew. Bertie spends most afternoons at the high school because he’s decided to go out for football this year; he either has practice or he hits the weights on his own, making up for lost time.

“Have I been uncharitable in my thoughts of others?”

I spend the last days of summer mostly on my own, burning things on the patio, trying to keep the bomb project alive. The cookbook is only so helpful; it must be missing pages. I rescue toilet and paper towel rolls from the trash, stuffing them with rags soaked in various flammable smelling liquids. My experiments smoke and flame like a space shuttle launch, but never really explode. When I see Vicky and Alyssa again, I don’t have the guts to ask about Nerdo.

On the weekend before school starts back up, Vicky throws a party and invites everyone in their grade except for Bertie. Kids float a rumor around that Vicky’s mom is out of town and her dad doesn’t care; he’ll let her have whatever kind of party she wants. I think these kids don’t know Mariano, but maybe her mom really is out of town. I don’t know where she would go, Italy, I guess.

Bertie claims he isn’t too shredded about the lack of an invite because not that many cool kids are going to the party. Mom invites the Castille’s to dinner, and Ricky comes to our house instead of the party, so at least Bertie has a friend. I want to talk to Bertie about the bomb, my new plan, but they go in Bertie’s room and close the door to have a push up contest or something. I sneak into Mom and Dad’s room and watch the cars drive by from the window, mostly parents dropping off, or older siblings, but a couple kids are old enough to have a license and drive themselves. Peter Conrack parks his mom’s purple egg van on our grass. I don’t think he realizes it’s our house.

Ricky Castille’s dad, Big Ed, is one of those experts on everything you didn’t know it was possible to be an expert in. He spends half the night giving Dad a lecture on the proper way to cook on a barbeque, and by the time the chicken is ready to eat it’s almost ten. Nancy Castille finishes the bottle of wine she brought as a gift to my mom, plus half of the one she brought the last time she came over. It’s understandable she’s thirsty, the overcooked chicken dries our mouths out, leaves my tongue feeling like a charcoal briquette. I’m nervous because I can tell my mom’s getting nervous, wanting to everyone to go home so she can put on her nightgown and clean the kitchen. She keeps making comments about the dinner in past tense, like we ate it a month ago, saying oh how delicious Nancy’s salad was, when most of us still have a heap of it on our plates.

While we’re still eating, we hear the doorbell, and the first of the party’s migrants arrive, two girls in jeans and t-shirts cut off at the waist. I’ve never seen them before but they say hi to Bertie and Ricky like they know them. The girls speak quietly and look stunned, only asking if they can use our phone to call their parents. Mom takes them to the phone in the kitchen, looking really nervous now. Within five or ten minutes, more groups of kids arrive at our door, including several that I definitely recognize, from school or even ones that have been to our house before. These new waves of refugees don’t bother with the first two girls’ quiet politeness; a few are so excited they’re practically flapping their arms.

They line up in the kitchen to use the phone, and while they wait, the story emerges, pops excitedly out their mouths in scattered details, loose beads for us to string together. The roof deck, Mariano, a friend, a threat, drunkenness, crazy house, stuck, lost, a gun, maybe multiple guns. No one is hurt, they think. They all seem more excited than scared to me, like a big bad thing happened, but emphasis on the big.

Vicky walks in just as we’re beginning to piece it all together. She doesn’t ring the bell; between the people flowing in and out, the door is more or less permanently open. She sees Bertie and me, plus a bunch of the kids who escaped her party, but doesn’t look at or talk to us, instead travelling almost instinctively through the living room and into the kitchen to find my mom. When she finally opens her mouth, we can all hear her, but she only talks to Mom. I can’t remember the two of them being together before, but they seem familiar, close.

It was just a flurry, Vicky says, not a big deal. She says it’s ok for everyone to go back to the party now; Mariano was only kidding, would never shoot anyone. My mom looks at her and I think she must be so nervous right now, all these people in her house, ruining her dinner party, and this emergency next door, but in the midst of it mom is looking at Vicky calmly, like a doctor examining a patient. Nancy Castille starts to say something about the police, but mom swivels her head and says just a moment, Nancy in a voice I’ve never heard. She says to Vicky that of course it’s not a big deal, and not to worry, but it’s late now anyway, and better for everyone to go home. Mom touches Vicky on the shoulder and for a second I think Vicky’s gonna cry or hug her, but instead she turns and runs out of the house like she was shot by a pinball plunger.

Have I appreciated my own good qualities, or do I constantly compare myself with others and become resentful or bitter? Have I been satisfied with what God has given me?

School starts two days later, and the story never really grows legs, at least not in my class, with everyone so breathless and jittery about middle school. We have an assembly the first day, and along with teacher introductions and announcements about lockers and stuff, the school police officer stands up to give a speech about drugs. Office Manley is shaped like a snowman, hairless and round: round head, round belly, round butt, bowlegged. I imagine if he ever came across a drug, he’d just open his mouth wide and eat it like a Pac-man, end of story.

Officer Manley says now that we’ve reached the seventh grade we need to be alert, we’ve officially become targets for the pushers. He teaches us a bunch of different ways to say no, and reminds us to be on the lookout, to watch out for each other. He says the whole city’s in the midst of a drug frenzy, and to be aware, some of the junkies could toss their dirty drug needle syringes into the bushes or the soccer field, and if we touch them we could get drugged, or AIDS. He says remember not to touch them but to tell an adult right away.   

A new commercial comes on TV almost every night now. It’s not even trying to sell anything. There’s a family watching TV, either in an apartment or townhouse type situation, and they can hear their neighbors through the wall, a man and woman fighting. They hear a loud bang and then the woman crying. The mom and dad from the family look at each other, and you think they’re going to say something, but instead the dad just walks over to the TV and turns the volume up. Sometimes I see mom looking over at dad whenever it comes on, but he just stares ahead and sips from his tiny little drink. I think if he tried to the turn the volume up, it would only make the commercial louder.

Everyone in my class is going crazy trying to get a girlfriend. One, the girls show up back from summer break wearing bras. We spot the twin outlines of the straps through their shirts, running down their backs like suspension cables on the Biscayne Bridge. The girls confuse and intimidate the hell out of me; they seem important now, older, but I can’t quite put together why. I wait excruciatingly for a glimpse through the rolled up opening of a t-shirt sleeve, their white skin beige against the bright circuitry of fabric and plastic. Through the first two weeks, I’m so distracted I forget to write down my assignment and get a missing homework note for the first time in my life. I figure dad’s gonna freak and mom’s gonna cry, but they barely say anything to me, waiting until they’re alone in their bedroom to fight about it.

It’s not just bras; suddenly, all the seventh grade boys obsess about panties, too. Although surely they’ve been wearing bottoms the whole time we’ve known them, now we’re greedy to see them, on high alert for anyone wearing a skirt. Joner Schmidt fits a hand mirror through the laces of his Nike Airs, and slides a foot under Abby Denunzio’s yellow sundress while pretending to mess with his locker. He advises everyone to buy the same one from the five and dime and he’ll show us how to attach them to our shoes. I tell Bertie but he’s firmly opposed. Bertie says think about how clearly can you really see through a set of shoelaces, and also to consider how nervous I’ll be, how hard it will be to concentrate on the mirror for the few seconds it’s under her skirt. He says, big picture no girl is ever going to want to hook up with a guy who does something skeevy like that, anyway.

In science class I sit right next to Abby, on account of the seats are alphabetical order. She’s nice and talks to me every day at the beginning of class, right up until Mr. G gets up from behind his desk, raises his fist like black power and tells everyone the hand goes up the mouth goes shut. On the very day he announces we need to pick lab partners, we’re sitting face to face in our chairs, and Abby is laughing like crazy because I’m talking like Apu from the Simpsons. I hear Mr. G say take your time and choose wisely, this is for the whole semester, and think I’m in, perfect timing. Before Abby even stops laughing long enough for me to ask her, Michelle Ruiz yells clear across the room, hey, Abby, it’s Mikey and Alyssa, remember? Abby goes redder than a bell pepper, then walks over to Michelle and agrees to be her partner. I end up partners with Joner.

I twist myself knotted thinking about it. Almost everyone in class couples up, after a few weeks they break up, enjoy a half-day or so in the spotlight in the hallway gossip circles, then recouple with someone new. Through the first few months of the semester I burn through a heartbreaking series of crushes, Abby D, but also Mary, Caro Sanchez, Chloe. I worry something must be broken about me, all those girls smile and talk to me, Mary even writes my name across my binder in bubble letters, but none take the final plunge into coupledom. Like Dad says, they come in to look but never buy the couch.

There are girls at church, too, other girls, girls who go to different schools. They yank me out of my usual mass coma. Except for Father Mark, all of our priests come from other countries, and when they warble through the Liturgy it’s impossible to follow word for word, they drone me into a sleepy trance. Now I sit alert, waiting for the offering of peace, scanning to see which girls are in range, stressing over whether to offer a hand or kiss on the cheek. I watch them intently as they take careful steps down the aisle towards communion, newly in heels, in makeup, in grown up looking dresses. I wonder at how suddenly their lives have diverged from mine; I still spend Sunday mornings lazily watching cartoons over a bowl of cereal or digging in the yard, not dressing for church until five or ten minutes before we load into the car, when mom’s worried reminders become unbearable.

I watch the girls so intently I almost don’t notice when Dad stops taking communion. He stands up when the usher releases our pew, but only to let the rest of us out before sitting back down, I guess to pray. I ask Bertie why but he seems uninterested in the question, says the Pope probably said something nice about Castro and Dad’s mad about it. I ask Mom if the Pope said anything about Cuba recently but she says no, not that I know of, but she doesn’t seem too interested in my questions either.

“Have I intentionally dwelled on and taken pleasure in impure, sexually-arousing thoughts? Have I tried to resist such thoughts when they have come to me involuntarily?”

Father Mark teaches our confirmation class, and I feel so guilty about spending the entire mass thinking about girls that I force myself to pay attention to every word, dig my nails hard into palms whenever I start to drift. He takes a break from quizzing us on the sacraments to discuss that morning’s first reading: the passage from Genesis when God asked Abraham to kill his son Isaac, only to call it off at the very last minute. Father Mark says the story is something called an allegory, referring to when God will later actually sacrifice his own son Jesus. I can’t stop thinking about how messed up it is, how God tested Abraham to see who he loved more, God or his son.

I try to bring it up with Dad, to start a conversation about church stuff that maybe will give some clues about him skipping communion. I ask Dad who he loves more, God or me, but he just says not to be ridiculous. I’m not sure which answer is the ridiculous one. I bring that conversation up with Bertie, who says not to worry, because blood sacrifices are like sending telegrams or something, people just don’t do them anymore. Except for maybe Mariano, he says, pointing towards that weird altar on the roof deck.

Bertie is wrong. Abby Denunzio decides to date Joner, even after she finds out about the mirror in his shoes. I find out before the seventh grade dance, when I ask Abby if she’ll save a dance for me, and she tells me about Joner. Instead of dancing, I hang with a couple other rejects near the punch table, playing volleyball with balloons. One of them said his strategy for the next dance is to go ugly early. Alyssa and Vicky don’t come to dances, I think they’re not allowed.

Bertie quits football, and, at first, I’m happy about it, thinking he’ll be home in the afternoons again, but instead he just hangs out with other kids who quit the football team, too. The worst is that sometimes these kids come over to our house after school, and instead of joining us in the war, they convince Bertie to go next door and hang out with Vicky. I work tirelessly on the bomb, building something big enough to impress Bertie, who now says making bombs is for kids, but I notice he still takes matches from Dad’s desk when he heads over to see Vicky with his new friends. I see thin waves of smoke rise up past the fortress walls, so they must be burning things, too, the hypocrites.

Have I caused others to sin?

I take advantage when they’re over at Mariano’s and I have the house to myself, getting the shower water running hot, and taking as long as I’d like, undisturbed. The bathroom door doesn’t lock, and when I hear the knob turn, I assume Bertie came in to pee or something. The shower’s window faces the patio, and, although it’s fogged, I can make out the shapes of people standing outside, and catch them snickering.

It’s me, Lyssa, I hear through the shower curtain, her voice high-pitched and froggy, nervous. She says she needs a shower and is going to get undressed and hop in with me. I freeze, standing silently under the running water, wondering how to escape without her seeing me naked, whether I can use the curtain as a makeshift robe. Alyssa names each article of clothing she removes, and I think I can almost make out her outline through the curtain, even though it’s a solid yellow plastic. Shoes, socks, sweater, jeans, shirt, bra… I remember Bertie saying something about Vicky giving Alyssa her hand me down bras, and knowing that pushes me from grossed out to sort of excited, although mostly I feel panicked.

Alyssa counts down to total nudity, and I stay behind the curtain, imagining all the clothes piling up at her feet, waiting. It’s easier to imagine the clothes pile than her actual naked body. I still hear the laughing outside, and I hate them for laughing, for being out there, for leaving me feeling trapped in every way, all while trying to brace myself for the reality that an actual naked girl is about to be in the shower with me, also completely naked. The water starts to lose pressure, cool down to lukewarm, and just as I think Alyssa is about to pull back the curtain, instead she opens the door, and runs out into the house.

Have I entertained impure thoughts or desires?

Bertie thinks it’s the funniest thing that’s ever happened. I never find out if she actually took her clothes off. Bertie says they watched her dart across the street in her undies, clutching a ball of clothes, but from his tone, I think he’s messing with me. I can’t tell. Outwardly, I say I’m furious about it, and vow revenge, but by myself, I can’t stop thinking about Alyssa. It’s so confusing. She isn’t pretty like the girls at school, or grown-up and fancy like the girls at church, but she is a girl, I think, scientifically and everything, and something more, too. Whatever is shiny and secret and wanted in these other girls must be true about Alyssa, too. Maybe. I go back and forth.

 I spend time reading the print on the bottles and cans of stuff in the patio shed, finding more and more labelled contents under pressure. On The Simpsons, Otto, the hippie bus driver, says he learned the hard way that flammable and inflammable mean the same thing. I think if I incorporate some these spray cans into the bomb, it really could explode. Too bad they don’t fit in the paper towel rolls.

If Mom is home and I can’t work in the patio, I sometimes ride my bike down to the park, and go hunting under the trees and bushes, looking for dirty needles, so I can turn them into the police and be recognized on the morning announcements. Joner gets a special citizenship award for finding and returning a twenty-dollar bill from the cafeteria floor, but Bertie suspects it was his money all along, that he just did it for the glory.

First semester grades come back and Bertie practically fails everything. I see his report card on the kitchen counter and gasp at the F in Biology. I’ve seen the grade handwritten on tests and assignments before but never in print, it rises off the page like a swear word. Like with my homework, and I expect Mom and Dad to go ballistic, but they say little, saving their discussions for behind closed doors or speaking in Spanish, which I can understand but not great. When they speak Spanish I get about eighty percent of it, but it’s always the important parts that evade me.

For Christmas, I ask for, and receive, a high-tech telescope. It comes packed in long cardboard cylinders, like how architects transport their blueprints on TV. I spend almost three days just trying to set it up, with no help from Bertie, who’s been more or less AWOL since Ricky Castille got a driver’s license. Once it’s working, I make a big show of locating Jupiter and Orion, invite my parents to come out to the patio after dinner and take a peak. The next afternoon, I rest the optical tube on the v of the wooden fence, and pull a patio chair under the tripod. I try a dozen different positions before I find anything beyond a blurry eyeful of brick and leaves, but eventually the lens lands on the girls’ bedroom window. They’re not home, but I mark my spot on the fence with a pencil.

Have I been envious of what other people have? Have I cheated?

Like every New Year’s Eve, we drive the few blocks along the canal to the Castille’s house. They’ve got a pool. When I was little, this was my favorite night of the year, better than Christmas Eve or even my birthday. I still like it, look forward to it, but I wonder if that isn’t because I can’t help thinking about how it was before, like when Cleo gets excited to roll over even though she hasn’t gotten a treat for it in five years. At the Castille’s, the adults all drink champagne instead of regular wine, and something about the bubbles makes everyone crazy. I’ve seen Big Ed put a lampshade on his head like in cartoons, and almost every year someone starts a Conga line around the pool. I know the bubbles make the difference, because the kids get sparkling cider, and we get wild, too. Bertie had his first kiss on New Year’s at the Castille’s party three years ago, with Ricky’s cousin Georgette, right after we counted down to midnight.

Nancy Castille thinks it’s cute to have me be the bartender, since I’m the youngest, even though we’re about five years past it being funny. I don’t really bartend per se, but every time Nancy catches me, she sticks an open bottle in my hand and says go see who looks thirsty. Dad is thirstier than Mom, who puts her hand, palm down, over her wine glass whenever I pass by and says why don’t I go find the other kids and play. A couple times, I fill my glass with the champagne instead of the cider, and they taste similar, sweet and fizzy, except the champagne leaves you feeling thirsty after every sip. When the conga line starts, Dad pulls Mom out her chair by her elbow, and forces her to dance. After a few laps, Ricky starts in with this crazy spin dance, trying to weave through the line. He doesn’t mean to, but he isn’t being very careful, and when he weaves between Mom and Big Ed. He accidentally steps on her foot, and she loses her balance and falls in the pool.

Dad laughs, then apologizes, then runs inside to get a towel and ask Nancy for a change of clothes. Mom tells him she’s leaving, and Dad walks her to the car, but I can tell they’re fighting the whole time, even if they wait until they’re past the Castille’s fence gate before they really raise their voices. Bertie and Ricky leave early, to go to a high school party, and Big Ed lends Dad his golf cart for us to drive home, since Mom took the Explorer. I think I want to stay until midnight, but there’s no one to kiss, and most of the adults are talking inside the kitchen, instead of dancing or doing anything funny. Dad lets me drive the golf cart home, since you don’t really need a license or anything. It takes four times as long to get home, and we don’t talk much, but I don’t mind. I pull the cart up to our lawn, and we can see into the window from outside, the bedroom light’s on, and Mom’s sitting in the bed reading, even though it’s late.

Dad glances towards the window, then puts his arm around me and says come on, let’s go to Mariano’s, he invited me to his party and it isn’t even midnight yet. It’s true a few more cars than usual scatter the street around his yard, and I can smell the fire, but I don’t hear much noise coming from Mariano’s house, especially for New Year’s Eve. I ask Dad what time it is and he says quarter til midnight, come on let’s go say hi and do the count down next door, then we’ll come home.

I can’t remember Dad doing anything spontaneous before, but I like him like this, think it must be the bubbles. I think about Alyssa and try to summon my own bubbles for a midnight kiss. She’s not so bad, I tell myself, thinking of her face, like Vicky’s but softer, her skin pale as paste under thick black hair, red lips not yet painted black, baby fat. I think about her wearing Vicky’s bra. Dad opens the gate without knocking, and we walk up the outside steps towards the back. I decide to be brave. Bertie’s all but abandoned me, and nothing else seems to be happening in my life. It’s now or never, I tell myself, now or nothing.

Have I been reckless in the pursuit of my desires?

We walk around the side of the house to the deck, and when the party comes into view it’s clear to me we’ve missed the best of it. A fire burns in a pit built into the stone floor, but mostly embers. An obese man snores loudly while he sleeps on the ground, his head less than a foot from the fire pit. The few guest remaining, all men, maybe five or six of them, sit around the coals, barely speaking, taking turns pulling a metal grate from the fire and rotating some brown balls. Dad sees me looking and pulls my sleeve. Roasting chestnuts on an open fire, he says, just like the song.

I wonder how this crowd would even know when to count down to midnight, if any of them wear a watch.

Mariano sees us approach and stands up. He’s let his beard grow, I guess for the winter, even though it rarely dips below seventy degrees. Covered in charcoal and soot from the fire, his beard looks dark grey even though I think it’s normally white. He smiles between puffs of a cigar stub, his teeth purple from the wine, speckled with bits of brown, chestnuts maybe, or tobacco. I notice his eyes for the first time, blue like the Gulf Stream, and empty; I don’t think I’ve ever been this close to him before. Probably I think of this because Dad mentioned the Christmas song, but he looks like a mean Santa.

I start to ask if Vicky and Alyssa are still up, but before the question escapes my lips, Mariano leans down and pulls me into a bear hug. He smells like fire, like the way my fingers smell when I burn things on the patio, but times a thousand, permanently baked in, a lifetime of burning things he shouldn’t. When he finally lets me go, he looks at Dad and says you’re so lucky you have a son, all I have is two bitches. He says one of those bitches, Victoria, told me tonight to go fuck myself. Mariano tells us God punished him with two daughters, then looks up at the sky, laughs, and says at least he gets a chance to dole out some punishment himself, says he’s God between these walls.

Dad doesn’t say anything; he just lets the comments hang in the air until they’re gone and it’s quiet and Mariano feels like he needs to say something else. I don’t bother asking about the girls again. I figure wherever they are is safer than sitting by the fire next to their dad. One of the still awake guys makes a big show of teaching me to eat roast chestnuts, but they’re covered in ash and taste like it. Dad takes a cup of wine poured from some weird jug Mariano has, and I sit silently while they spend ten or fifteen minutes talking, mostly Mariano rambling about so and so regulator or auditor who’s an asshole, who stood in his way, who didn’t believe he could build a basement.

Before we go to bed, I bring up what Mariano said with Dad. I’m upset and I think he can tell, but also think he’s tired and has dealt with enough upset people for one night. I ask if we’re going to do anything about it, and he asks like what, and I say I don’t know but maybe tell a teacher, or the police, or Father Mark or someone. Dad’s face turns from tired to hard, and he says telling on your neighbors isn’t something that we do. He says that people do it in Cuba; it’s why he had to leave. I know enough to drop it, but I don’t feel better.

Have I held grudges or tried to get even with others? Have I hated or failed to forgive someone?

Everyone sleeps in the next morning. I wake up like normal with the house to myself, the streets to myself, the world. I think I’ve figured out the bomb, everything except the fuse, but it can’t wait. Knowing Mariano and his workers sleep, too, I sneak my supplies piece by piece under the cover of Mariano’s jungle, the cylinders packed with flammables and contents under pressure. He’s built his basement, against all odds, and the only thing missing is a gate to the outside. He wants to weld it himself, so he can add one of his symbols. Like I said, I figured everything out but the fuse, but I can’t wait any longer. I lay my bomb gently across the basement floor, close to the entrance, and pray for some divine intervention, a cigarette butt, a stray spark from the welding gun.

Bertie wakes up. He doesn’t ask, and I don’t bother telling him about any of it. I’m hungry from being awake for the last few hours, and he’s hungry from sleeping I guess, so we toast a couple pop tarts and turn on the TV. We watch highlights from Dick Clark’s Rockin New Years Eve, and just when that band Kiss is getting started, the old guys with the makeup, the phone rings twice and then hangs up.

I follow Bertie into the front yard. He says let’s be careful and walk behind the Explorer, in case they throw eggs or something. It feels like old times, Bertie and me against the neighbors, before everything started to change. We hide behind the car and wait for an ambush, but instead Vicky walks across the street smiling, with nothing in her hands, and Bertie comes out from behind the car to talk to her.

Vicky says, look up on top of that work van and see Alyssa. She’s standing on the roof, by herself, a crazy look on her face. Bertie says, what the hell is she doing up there and Vicky says just keep looking, she’s going to perform a strip show. I come out from behind the car, and Bertie and I sit on the lawn, while Vicky goes back across the street and leans against the brick wall behind the van.

There isn’t any music or anything, but Alyssa starts to dance like there was, like Madonna was playing. She pulls her sweater off over her head, holds a sleeve in each hand, and then sort of runs the sweater back and forth between her legs, as if she was cleaning her butt. It’s goofy as anything, and we all laugh, except Alyssa, who still has that weird look, a forced smile and eyes like the end of my telescope. I notice she’s barefoot, and before we even finish laughing, she drops the sweater and pulls her sweatpants down. I remember what Bertie said about the mirror, and realize he’s at least right about one thing. I’m feeling so nervous while I watch her that I can’t really concentrate on what I’m seeing.

Still, I think, I’m seeing a naked girl. Alyssa starts to pull her t-shirt up, pulls it up almost to her armpits, and then changes her mind and lets it drop back down over her underwear. For a second, I think I spot the white of her bra, of Vicky’s bra. Then she rips the shirt off, quicker than the sweatpants, and right as I’m really seeing her just standing on the top of work van in her underwear, the look on her face completely changes, the smile drops and her eyes focus in on us. Alyssa throws her t-shirt down off the van, and it settles onto the street, forgotten, while she begins to scream deafeningly, her voice like a police siren, a plaintive loop, the same word over and over, as if possessed.

Have I received Holy Communion in a state of mortal sin?

I freeze, feeling confused, but then I look down and see my feet moving and I’m somehow running, my body’s taken over. I run towards our fence, towards our gate, towards the safety of our backyard, and in front of me, Bertie’s running too. He’s running, and I’m running, but I’m not following him really, not any more, just headed in the same direction at the same time, moving instinctively towards home.



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