“Betty worried what type of conversations and memories might have bubbled to the surface in a bar in the hands of her stoic husband: those kind of stupid young men slights made worse as booze opened up old wounds.”
Back then not much was different about Joliet except the color. What later became the rust orange barbed wire gets to after an age outside was still shiny steel, guarding the power plant where my uncle worked and the harbor where the riverboats docked. Almost all my relatives, so I’ve heard, worked at the slate grey Com Ed power plant down the hill from where I lived, or on the flashy river boats that lit up in carnivalesque shades, or in the monochrome prisons or the jail. There were no other industries there but power and security and incarceration; that has mostly stayed the same. They hadn’t built that hotel yet, along the water, the one that blotted out the skyline and on some days hung its shadow over both the city hall and later the police station. Things hadn’t yet become water-stained from being right up against the river.
It was the heat of the summer 1985 that drew the Rios boys out of their houses. My father, Michael, had married to a white girl named Betty, and moved in with her in the squat red brick house at the bottom of a hill. His brother Cesar had just returned from the Marines, having been stationed in Turkey in a place that I would visit, later, as an adult. (There I would confirm that, outside of the bigger cities, not much had changed.) Michael wanted to take Cesar out and see how much the city they’d grown up in had changed: Michael was now a cop (and certainly had seen some shit himself); their youngest sister was certain to get married after high school, and it was a cause for celebration. Michael also (and here I’m guessing) was trying to re-introduce his brother to life outside the military.
Some said that things had happened to Cesar there, that he came home a little warped from his time in the service, but I had only semi-buzzed holiday party allusions and rumors to corroborate that. The Uncle Cesar I knew growing up was a considerably large man, excessively muscular in that way that turn-of-the-century strongman may have looked in my imagination. In contrast to this I remember him approaching everything gently, delicately, as if afraid he might break it with his mighty body. He talked so low that, as a kid, I had to ask him to speak again. At the time he had a girlfriend, Samantha, who later became his wife; once, Betty told me that Sam had been married before to a real shit of a man, and in the grand scheme of things Cesar was much better for her, whatever he had going on, whatever things I wasn’t being told about.
(In speaking to my cousins, I’ve discovered that we were all uniformly terrified of our fathers, though, when I took a survey of who had actually been beat (those who actually had a reason to be afraid, the results were this: Michael never hit us, Eddy never hit his kids, and Cesar had.)
Eddy was my Aunt Wendy’s new husband, an apprentice electrician at the power company and Cesar and Michael’s brother-in-law. This was years before Eddy took on the stentorian, almost Mongol-like build and facial hair of the other, older Chicano patriarchs: bellies distended over ornate and flashy belt buckles, walnut-colored, leathery skin. In pictures back then he seems wispy, with sharp features on his Don Diego De La Vega-like frame, for the most part, a warm and gentle man (like Cesar in that way), and also very quiet. My cousins tell me he was quieter still after he’d gotten angry; his punishments were always scary fair, as if justice was of the highest concern to him, more important than whatever was brimming under the surface. Wendy, too, was and is still capable of an intentional strongheadedness: so, for instance, if her two brothers were going to go carousing (men only), well, they’d better invite and be nice to a future member of their family: her boyfriend, Eddy.
So they did.
When Betty woke up the next morning, Michael was lying in bed next to her, face down, and snoring. Some of his clothes were still on, and, as she tried to wake him up, he groaned aloud and flinched away from her. The groan sounded like real, actual pain. Betty almost wanted to laugh.
“What the matter with you? Drink too much?”
Michael, unperturbed, a casual fibber, said, “I’m just tired, Betty,” he said. “Just let me sleep.”
Part of the reason they ended up together was that Betty could put up with him. Michael lied often, for no reason, rather than present complicated truths, admit fault, or feel any sort of shame. Often it took asking twice or three times to get something resembling the truth, so sensitive as he was to saying something troubling that might anger someone, make them think less of him, or start an argument. They worked, for the most part, because Betty didn’t let him get away with it. She jabbed him again, and again he winced, but this time gasping and glaring at her. “Betty,” he said. “Could you please not do that?”
Betty pulled away the covers. Michael was too tired to fight her, so she already had his shirt bunched in her hand and pulled away from his body by the time he thought to cover himself with the blanket. Their bedroom, the second floor of a three bedroom they hoped one day to fill with children, filled with the noise of his yelling. He was angry, yeah, but it had also hurt. On his stomach were large purple areas swimming against his skin. Bruises, swollen and pervasive, covered his chest and stomach.
He had been out last night with his brother and his brother-in-law and had gotten in late, after she had fallen asleep. She was more annoyed than anything. “Did you get in a fight with your brother last night?”
“No,” he said, turning into his pillow. “No. It’s nothing.”
She doubted that, and told him so, but he stopped talking.
Gaps like this, lack of communication, my mother would never have chalked up to a racial difference. She had older brothers too, who fought (hell, who’d do real damage to each other if they ever got loaded up). Why couldn’t he just admit it and be done with it? What was he so embarrassed about?
Michael turned to her, looking at her in the way he sometimes did: a stonewall glare excessive in proportion to whatever mistake had provoked it. Michael got what Michael wanted, and never did anything he didn’t want to do, including explain himself.
“Nothing happened,” he said. “Betty, let it go.”
She was on the phone to Sam, Cesar’s wife, within the next hour.
“Sam,” Betty said. “Serious need to talk.” The kitchen how I remember it: the curly wire of the kitchen phone usually dangling from the wall extended here like a tightrope to the cheap wicker chair that was part of the pinewood kitchen table set (inlay with white tile, discount), where Betty sat, trying to listen. The kitchen was a shade of pink that might have been better suited for a bathroom. The floor, a strange being linoleum pattern bought for its waterproofing, but seemed to accentuate dirt and stains.
“I know, Betty, what the hell?”
“What the hell right?”
They were both the wives of Mexican men, swimming in a sea of macho culture and Catholicism that was as out of their comfort zones as the Spanish their father-in-law spoke, the calls of weda that for the two of them were interchangable, at least in his household. White girl. After he died Betty always said my grandfather, Michael Sr., was a kind, big-hearted man; calling her “the white girl,” she realized later, might have been a bad joke with which she simply wasn’t comfortable. But this was the culture they were trying to manage, one that was as gregarious and warm as it was stormy and duplicitous. (The two women, even after my mom divorced my dad, still asked after each other, wanted to know how each other were getting along.)
Sam said that when Cesar stumbled in his face had been covered in bruises. “Two, three in the morning,” Sam said. “Wouldn’t even let me put ice on him or anything.” Sam got quiet: a cerebral, deeply empathetic woman. “I feel bad; he got angry that I was even asking.”
Of Cesar’s service there was little talk, save that it happened and that it was miserable. Whereas Michael joined the Reserves, became an MP, and then went right to the police academy after two years, Cesar enlisted as a Marine, but served two non-combat tours. Such a tour, I have been told by cousins, is often filled with the miscellany work of foreign aid and disaster relief: one day to perhaps be guarding a granary from bandits, the next to be dragging bodies away from the site of an earthquake. Betty worried what type of conversations and memories might have bubbled to the surface in a bar in the hands of her stoic husband: those kind of stupid young men slights made worse as booze opened up old wounds.
I don’t remember him ever drinking, Michael, not when I was a kid. My mom told stories about him trying to sneak in the house once after becoming a cop (and still living with his mother), stumbling up the steps to the small room he had in the attic. In my memory I envision him, skinny and dark, still wearing his police uniform, stumbling bootstep by bootstep up into his cell-like apartment. That whole memory is imagined, though; he would not have gotten knock-down drunk in his uniform, just as the house his mother lived in was a one-story, and had no attic at all.
I also don’t remember my mother smoking when I was a kid, though she said she had, and had simply hidden it well.
“Sorry Betty,” Sam said, over the phone. Her voice was wry, and troubled. “You know as much as I know.”
Wendy still answered the phone with the brightness of a young girl engaged to be married, who had gotten everything she wanted. Betty had heard the story, like the rest of them: Wendy, the youngest girl in the family, had been mercilessly teased. Around eight years old, unable to read what was written the school chalkboard, she was taken to the eyedoctor and returned home a monster. A pair of coke-bottle-thick glasses distorted and enlarged her eyes to double their actual size (sometimes the uncles’ joke that her eyes were as round and big as her head). They called her “Owly” for the next seven years. Eventually she became sick of it, started to wear contact lenses, and overnight (or so the story went) she went from being teased to gazed at. In high school she and Eddy had been the epitome of the perfect couple: the rugged, long-haired Eddy (looking like Barry Gibb of the Bee Gees), and his waif-like model girlfriend, Wendy. Those high school years, Betty said, had been very kind to Wendy, and helped her turn the tables on all the assholes.
(Obviously this wasn’t the whole story. Much had to have happened in terms of maturity for Wendy to stop being the butt of jokes. Maybe Wendy started to stand up for herself, or maybe it was that her father got sick that the ridicule of her siblings was muted? Betty’s story didn’t go into it.)
Wendy’s first concern, on the phone with Betty, was that there was some kind of emergency. Something had happened to her brother, the brave policeman.
“Just a little thing Wendy, no need to worry,” Betty said. “I was wondering if you’d talked to Eddy today?”
Wendy got quiet on her end of the line. “He’s still sleeping.”
Still in her kitchen, it was around noon. “Would you mind waking him up for me?”
“It’s for a good reason. I’m curious about something.”
Wendy made a sound–the bossy wife of Michael no doubt striking again–but did as she was asked. She came back, and the timbre of her voice had changed. “Betty? Can I call you back?”
Then Betty, on her day off, was sitting in the kitchen waiting for the phone to ring. Thinking what? That Cesar had come back from service screwed up and that Michael, in trying to talk to him about it, had stirred the pot and the two got into a fight? She wanted to damn Michael, who she loved, who sometimes convinced himself he was impervious to pain, that through dumb luck and grit could tough out any cold or injury, but who whined like a kicked dog when she changed his bandages that year he’d had to have his gallbladder removed. That Michael, who thought he was protecting her by lying to her, by explaining that he would never be able to explain.
Wendy called her back maybe fifteen sobering minutes later, and told her that Eddy had, when she jumped into bed to kiss him, starting wincing from the bruises all over his chest and stomach.
Eddy who’d never raised a hand to anyone in his life.
“He says they got in a fight with some guys at a bar downtown.”
What I know I know from the story Betty told me, which she heard from Wendy over the phone that day, as relayed to her by Eddy (who was there), sitting on their bed, confessing the whole thing as if it was his fault. He didn’t want to tell her, of course, but it was impossible for them to keep secrets from each other that early on and, it turned out, thereafter (every year on their anniversary Eddy makes a sanguine and sentimental speech in front of the entire family). It was Eddy, the maker of romantic speeches, the one most honest with himself and his wife, that finally let spill what had happened.
The three men had been drinking at a bar downtown. Usual, not too eventful. Eddy had felt bad, felt like he was tagging along, but Wendy’s brothers were of course nice to him. (Nice, in that case, as two older Mexican brothers could be to the guy that was dating and planning to marry their younger sister.)
It was one of the seedy bars on the East side of town, back when the whole family except for Michael in his little red brick house, lived on the East side. Cedar-wood paneling, neon Budweiser signs, a jukebox in a perpetual feud between blue collar classical rock and interminable disco. Michael had ordered a margarita, and then an amaretto sour when the bartender said they didn’t have a freaking blender. Eddy ordered a Miller, and it seemed as though Cesar wasn’t going to order anything.
“You gotta have something,” Michael said. “You’re back home.”
“Probably shouldn’t,” Cesar said.
“Maybe you wanna go get something to eat,” Eddy suggested, eyeing Michael. “I’m feeling kind of hungry.”
The bartender appeared, and sized Cesar up and down. “You gonna order something?”
Eddy said something strange passed between the bartender and Cesar, some sort of macho thing. “Yea, get me a tequila, neat,” Cesar said.
“We don’t have none of that shit in here.”
Cesar casually pulled a bench underneath him and sat at the bar. “Then give me whatever crap you do have.”
It continued like this for the rest of the time, the bartender giving Cesar shit, and Cesar giving the bartender shit back. At some point though, it went from funny to uncomfortable. Someone at another table had said something derogatory about Mexicans, and Cesar, the Marine, reacted. Eddy said Michael put out a hand to stop him, but before Michael could talk him out of it Cesar had crossed to the table, all vinegar now, and three drinks in.
At the time he was a couple of months out of the service. You did not let people disrespect you in the Marines. He hit the guy, who fell backwards onto the floor. Then, it seemed as though the whole bar stood up, and Eddy, Cesar, and Michael were looking out at a sea of white faces, all uniformly filled with hate and fury.
Eddy said he distinctly remembered hearing the deadbolt of the front door slam closed.
Betty has seen a lot. As I sit and speak with her she flicks ash into an ashtray by her left elbow, sitting on a high-seated chair in our garage. I have lots of questions, but they come racing into my head and flying out before I can take hold of them, and give to them my speech.
“So what happened?”
She takes a long drag of her cigarette, her mouth turning as if tasting something sour. “They got the shit kicked out of them.”
“They didn’t fight back?”
Betty laughed weakly at my response; she and I both knew I’ve never been in an actual fight before. Part of me wanted to believe that Cesar, a Marine, and Michael, my father, a cop, could have handled themselves. “Not against the entire bar,” she said. “Eddy didn’t want to fight, so they threw him out, and locked the door behind him. Eventually they did the same thing with your father.”
“So they were just beating on Uncle Cesar?”
Betty, for whom this incident probably represented just another thing that she could see but not get at, had a vague, resentful look on her face. It disgusted her to talk about. “He provoked it, so he got it worst.” Then, as now, I couldn’t tell if it was because the men had gone out looking for a fight and found one, or because everyone in the bar thought it was okay to be beat on them because of how they looked.
There is a conversation I had with my father, Michael, once, at a diner, after I’d come screaming through puberty. I had ordered two quesadillas with ground beef that dripped a greasy, red juice all over the tissue paper on my plate. My father ordered menudo, which he slurped noisily.
I told him, sometimes it felt like people were prejudiced against me once they found out I was Mexican. He nodded, still eating.
I told him, people didn’t like me identifying as Mexican because they said it made me seem like I was isolating myself from them, and that I couldn’t be Mexican, not really, because I didn’t look or act Mexican.
Michael nodded, sopping rice and beans into a corn tortilla with the ends of his fingers and stuffing it into his mouth.
I braced myself, took a breath, and asked him flat out: “When you went to high school, you know, downtown, did you ever have people treat you badly like that?”
“Like what?” Michael asked.
I took a sip of my lemonade. “I dunno, like, they didn’t like you because you were Mexican, or treated you different because you were Mexican.”
He shook his head. “Not really.”
At the time I had not heard yet about the bar fight, the beating. Sometimes now I think, if I had asked a different question would I have received a different answer? What would that better question have sounded like, coming out of my mouth? Sometimes I think it was my own lack of bravery that kept me from calling him out, from questioning him, from wanting to argue about it, wanting to fight.
I got no further than the how and what and where of it, which was just as useful to me as a yes or no answer. It almost convinced me there was nothing there: no reasoning, nothing deeper to uncover.
On the night Eddy’s daughter got married, I confirmed with the three of them that they had, in fact, gotten into a barroom brawl when they were young men. Cesar, Eddy, and Michael were all wearing nearly matching pinstripe suits that made them look like gangsters in the reception hall. Their broad chests and mountain-sized bodies huddled over each other, laughing loudly but speaking in low voices. They had their hands wrapped around each other’s shoulders, lost in intense, saccharine conversation, when I approached.
I was drunk by that point–having sipped my weight in whiskey sours–and waxing nostalgic with cousins over broken windows and nearly-taken-out eyes. There was loud rumba music that melded into the sudden entrance of mariachis with their carros and trumpets and oversized guitars. On the dance floor I saw my eighty year old grandma get spinned by my cousin Johnny, the Californian, who had once told me that his gelled hair stayed like that, perpetually, because he had used it for so long.
I had waddled past Michael’s sister, my other aunt, and firmly told her that I was going to convince my dad to move to California when he retired, as if the two of us, working together, could convince him of anything. I had drunk conversations about my writing (was it about them, they all wanted to know), and I told them it was always about them, always about Mexicans and macho men and race, and watched their faces turned ashen and quickly walk away. So maybe it was for the story that I walked over to the three huddled men standing at the bar and looking like they were going to cause trouble.
“So I heard something,” I said, “about all you old guys getting into a serious bar fight when you were kids and scaring the shit out of your wives.”
All three of them glanced between each other, but Cesar had already started grinning. “Would that happen to be true?”
Eddy said to Michael, “Your wife called my wife and she got into bed with me and I said, Ay ay ay.”
They were drunk, so maybe that explains the response. They laughed, looking at each other, still gripping shoulders and now standing in a sort of line facing me. They mumbled things and grinned hugely, filled with the day, with the celebration, in a banquet hall that seated hundreds and just barely seemed to be able to contain four generations–four–of our family, our brimming, rowdy, paradox of a Mexican family. I was embarrassed for a second for asking such a dark question on such a happy day, but they didn’t take it that way. They argued amongst each other in a teasing way about who had started it–definitely Michael or Cesar. Fingers were pointed, fingers grabbed, eyes rolled dramatically, and eventually agreed that yes, the entire thing had been Cesar’s fault.
Grinning and smiling, Cesar took hold of my shoulder, and with a sort of intemperate wisdom, said, “Sometimes, you know Joe, when someone insults you, well, you’ve got to fight them.”
There, right there, I had never wanted to be in a place so badly, as to be with them, in that bar, part of that line of shoulders in a sea of white.
Art by Hayley Thorton-Kennedy.