I wrote this story for a creative writing class my junior year of college. The professor had given us two assignments: Write a short fiction story for the class to critique, then write another one for the professor to critique. For the first story, my goal was simply to write a humorous tale of mundane people in an unremarkable setting, but make the dialogue between them absolutely riveting. (I think I had been watching a lot of Tarantino films at that time.)
Well, I failed. The story was boring, the characters cheap and flat. My classmates were kind enough in their critiques, but I knew my story was mediocre, which is arguably worse than being outright terrible. At least terrible is invigorating and a magnet for passionate debate.
At the same time I was taking this creative writing course, I was also in my 4th semester of Spanish. Now, as much as I have tried over the years, I have never even come close to being able to say, “Hablo español.” (Although I can say, “Hablo muy pocito. MUY POCITO.”) So for my second assignment, the one only my professor would see, I decided to incorporate some of what I’d learned. Both to show off, and also because I’d noticed that stories featuring bilingual characters tended to be appreciated more. I guess they come across as literary and high-brow?
I was also religious at the time (I am not, now), and I wanted to write a story that sort of, kind of represented the tale of Judas’ betrayal of Jesus. So the characters in this story are *very* loosely based on the biblical characters Herod, Judas, Michael, and Jesus.
When I walked into my professor’s office to receive his feedback, he said, “Why didn’t you submit THIS one to the class?” He’d obviously written me off based on my other story, and was surprised by “Bridges.” He told me I should submit it to my school’s literary magazine, Persona. I did, and won the 2005 Gates-Thomas award for fiction (plus $100, which might as well have been $10,000 to a poor, starving co-ed.)
I’ve edited it a bit here, mainly to bring it up to date for the times we live in, and to, you know, make it better, but most of the content is the same, including all the Spanish. If you’re a Spanish speaker, please accept my apologies for all my ugly butchering.
Michael studied the ants carrying their food up the wall and into the crack in the molding. Cosas estúpidas. ¿Ustedes no conocen a su reina es justo cos les?
“¡Michael! ¡Tráigame algo beber! A beer!”
Michael sucked in his breath and pushed the rotting fruit to the sides of the fridge. A cockroach escaped from underneath the fridge and jumped onto Michael’s bare foot. He gasped, drawing in a breath of sour air. Quickly he grabbed the Tecate and slammed the door shut.
His mamá did not look up as he handed her the beer. She was wearing only her tattered robe and chipped, red nail polish. She laughed at the telenovela and pulled a long drag from her cigarette.
From the other sofa Gerald snorted. “Why are you laughing? I know you don’t get the joke.” He rubbed his bare, tattooed chest and stretched. When he caught Michael’s eye, he said, “What are you looking at, Holgazán?”
“I told you to call me Señor when you talk to me, Niño.”
“Lo siento, Señor.”
Gerald belched. “You need to teach that boy some manners, woman.” When he received no response, Gerald balled up some trash and threw it at Michael’s mother. It hit her square in the cheek. “Judy, you hear me?”
“¡Qué! ¡Yo mirando la telé!” She picked up the trash and hurled it back at him. “Let me drink my beer, damnit!” From the other room the baby began to wail. Judy rose from the couch. “There! You see what you did?” She returned from the bedroom holding Jesse on her hip, the cigarette pressed between her lips. She settled back down on the sofa and sat the baby in her lap so that they both faced the TV. The baby continued to wail and flail his arms.
“Dámelo, Mamá,” said Michael. Judy placed Jesse in his brother’s arms, and soon he was quiet.
She took a drag from her cigarette and snorted. “I think su hermano likes you more than me.”
Michael shook his head and returned the child to his mother’s lap. Jesse whined and kicked and stretched his hands out to his brother.
Gerald turned and glared at Michael. “Why don’t you go find something to do?” He buried the neck of his whiskey bottle in his mouth and took three strong swallows before murmuring something unintelligible. He fell back against the couch pillows and shut his eyes.
Michael turned to his mother. She looked at him from the sides of her eyes, then whipped them back to the television. She said nothing.
Michael slammed the screen door behind him as he left. He angrily stomped over twigs, plastic bottles, and brown cigarette butts. With his bare feet he kicked through piles of grocery-bag colored leaves, and when he came to an ant hill, he grabbed a stick and ran it through until all the ants were scattered about, frantically preparing for a war he was not interested in. “Soy su dios,” he said and walked on.
Finally he saw the three dogwood trees. He was at The Place. The ground dipped into a shallow valley, a trench really, just deep enough to hold a small pond when it rained. The grass was dry and brown, and Michael shuffled his feet through the blades, smiling as they tickled his soles. He carefully descended to the deepest part of the valley and sat next to his creation.
It was a bridge made of flat stones, crumbling concrete blocks, and branches held together with old rope. It stretched from one bank to the other and rose up to Michael’s knee. If he stepped just right, he could make it across the entire valley floor without it falling apart.
Michael looked around. Stringy trees and patchy bushes grew tall and wild, creating a barrier between Michael and the world. He knew that if he walked another ten minutes south he would find a mobile home community, and that to the east lay a burnt-out gas station where traficantes earned their daily bread. But here was The Place, and The Place was somewhere nobody but he could find.
But one day he would bring Jesse here and show him everything: the bridge, the animal trails and scat, the weird bugs and plants, all the peace and quiet. Michael scanned the valley’s banks. Moss and vines draped lazily across the ground. Chunks of dead trees rested on top of rocks and other dead trees. Together he and Jesse would make forts, dams, and bridges. They would carve out a world of their own, a world away from the cigarettes and las cucarachas and the booze. Jesse will love it here, thought Michael.
He decided to work on his bridge and looked around for sturdy tree vines. Crawling out of the trench, he spotted one curled around a tree stump a few feet away. He lifted the vine and stopped. A dove lay half-buried in a pile of brown leaves. Its beak was open and its wing was bent at an odd angle behind its head. Michael bent and scooped it into his hand. The weight of the bird’s cold, wet body made him shiver. Michael bit his lip and searched for a sharp rock. He knelt by the tree and chose a stone, then laid the bird gently on the fallen leaves. He smoothed a piece of ground, clearing it of twigs and stones.
Gripping the rock with both hands, he broke the earth’s surface, flinging up dirt and worms and bits of tree roots. When he was six inches down, he caught his breath and wiped his forehead of sweat. He picked the little bird up again and carefully placed it in its grave. Then he took a deep breath and shoveled the dirt onto the bird until the grave was filled. As he packed it down, he felt a cold drop of water on his head. Clouds were colliding in the sky above him. One angrily roared a warning to another. Michael stood and looked at the grave. “Resto en paz,” he said, crossing himself like he had seen people do in the movies. He turned on his heels and ran home.
“Why the hell were you out there in the rain?” his mother drunkenly cursed at him. “Look at you! Look at your clothes! Stupid kid! Do I have to tell you everything? Fucking…I mean…wet clothes?” She belched and spit and belched again. Her eyes rolled back in her head and she fell against the couch. She weakly raised her hand and put the can of beer to her lips. She let the liquid trickled into her mouth, then coughed on it. From her other hand a lit cigarette fell to the carpet and started burning a hole. Michael picked it up and dropped it in her beer can. He placed it on the coffee table and asked, “¿Dondé está Gerald?”
Michael looked at the ground and bit his lip. He left the living room and went into the bedroom he shared with Jesse. His brother was staring blankly up at the ceiling from his crib, but he smiled a toothless smile when he saw Michael. Michael placed a hand on his stomach and tickled him. “Hi,” he whispered. “Sorry I was gone so long. I was at The Place. I’m going to take you there one day. We’re going to build so many great things together, Hermanito. You’ll see. Prometo. Now go to sleep. I’m right here beside you.” Michael lay down on his pallet and curled into a ball. He fell asleep listening to his mother snore and the rain falling on the roof above. He dreamed about playing with Jesse in the valley.
The sound of furniture scraping across the floor pulled him back. Rubbing the sleep from his eyes, he yawned and tried to understand what was happening. From the other side of the house, he heard Gerald’s voice. “¡Perra! Show me some respect!” Michael heard a slap and his mother cry out.
“¡Bastardo! Get out of my fucking house!” Her voice was thick and sloppy. “I never want to see you again!”
“Oh, really, Judy? How you going to get drunk everyday without me to pay for all your beer, huh? I pay for everything. You need me, Judy.” His voice lowered. Gerald’s quiet voice was scarier than his yelling voice. Michael’s stomach cramped. “Well, if you want me to leave, then I will. But you can’t live without me, and we both know it.”
Judy screamed. Michael heard glass breaking. “Get the fuck out of my house, pindejo!” Her voice no longer sounded human; she was a wild animal. Jesse began to cry in his crib. Michael got up to comfort him.
“I’m already gone, bitch.” The front door creaked open, then slammed shut. Michael listened to his mother cry. Jesse wailed, and there was nothing Michael could do.
Suddenly his mother stumbled into the room. An unlit cigarette dangled from her mouth. Her robe was spread open and Michael could see her breasts. Wheezing and sniveling, she staggered across the room and pushed Michael down onto his bed. She jerked Jesse from his crib and, holding him at arm’s length, she began to shake him.
“Shut up, you! Just shut up! Why the fuck do you cry so much? You fucking drive me crazy, you little shit!” She shook him until his neck flopped loosely on his shoulders. Michael watched, horrified.
“¡Mamá! ¡Para! ¡Por favor!” He jumped up and grabbed Judy’s arm. She shrugged out of his grasp.
“¡Ay!” she slurred. “Listen, he stopped crying. It worked.” She put the baby back into his crib. She looked at Michael. “Go back to sleep.” Then she left and headed down the hall to her bedroom. Michael watched her fumble for the light switch, give up, and pass out face-down on the floor. He looked down into the crib.
Jesse was staring at the ceiling again. He wasn’t blinking. Michael placed his hand on his brother’s chest. He waited for the baby to take a breath. He did not. “O, mi dios…” He gathered the child in his arms, then ran out the door and into the woods.
The cruel sky poured sheets of rain onto Michael and his brother. Michael slipped several times on the wet leaves but he never let go of Jesse. The clouds now laughed at him, taunted him, screamed at him as he ran away. Roared at him as he sheltered the tiny, fragile body and strained to see ahead.
Then he was there. He slid down the banks of the trench, cradling Jesse in his lap. The valley had filled with rain water, which swooshed under Michael’s bridge and sped away. Michael sat in the water, letting the rain baptize him and his brother. He cried and heaved, and soon he didn’t know what were tears and what was rain. Finally he closed the baby’s eyes with his fingers and brought him to his chest, squeezing him tightly. “Lo siento, lo siento, lo siento…Perdóneme por favor…” He laid Jesse on the ground away from the water and yanked a stone from his bridge.
Filling each movement with his hate and his anger, he broke the earth. His shoulders and back soon ached, but he slowed only slightly as he scooped through the soft topsoil down to the cold, hard clay. The evil rain filled the hole continuously and when the lightning flashed, Michael could see himself reflected in the pool.
Finally it was ready. Michael crawled to Jesse. He unwittingly hoped that as he lifted him, the baby would giggle and come back to life. But already he felt cold and stiff and clammy. He felt dead. Michael placed him back on the ground, crawled a few feet away, and vomited. His body shook with the cold and the pain. His hands were bleeding. He looked back at Jesse. There was blood in the shape of two palms on his clothes.
Michael went and lay down next to him. He hooked one arm around Jesse’s stomach and curled his body to him. He smelled a little like their house – cigarette smoke and stale food – but mostly he smelled of good things – of earth and bread and the gentle, sweet warmth of pure innocence. Michael kissed Jesse’s soft hair and sat up. Then, holding Jesse in his arms, he knelt beside the grave.
The baby looked odd and out of place in the earth. You don’t belong in there, Michael thought. He looked to the pile of dirt he had saved, the dirt that had to go back into the grave and cover his brother. He shuddered and felt sick again, but he closed his eyes and the feeling passed.
There was a strange, peaceful look on Jesse’s face now. Michael took a deep breath. “You’re with God, aren’t you?” he said. He wiped his face and looked up. The sun was rising and it had turned the tallest clouds a deep blood red, wounds torn into the sky. Rain fell in Michael’s eyes and he turned away from the sight. He looked down at Jesse, small and wet with dirt sprinkled in his hair and on his body, blurry in Michael’s tear-filled vision. “I guess it’s your time to go to Heaven, brother. I wish you could have stayed with me longer. But I’ll join you up there one day.” He clenched his teeth and held back a sob. “Make a bridge for me, will you?”
Michael took the first fistful of dirt and placed it on his brother’s tiny, silvery-blue feet. He worked his way up, saving his face for last. He leaned down into the grave and left a kiss on Jesse’s forehead. Then he filled the grave.
The sun was in the trees and the clouds were sailing away when Michael finished. He lay down on his brother’s grave and brought his knees to his chest. No one had come looking for them. No one even knew what had happened. And, Michael thought, no one would ever know where his brother was buried. This was The Place and Jesse would always be there with him, like Michael had promised.