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“Victor” by David Hurtado

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“Victor”

written by David Hurtado

I prefer to believe that when my dad died he had seen an angel beckoning him home.  I prefer to think that as his spirit rose to leave, his stubborn body also arose from where he slept and tried to follow.  I imagine the ligaments connecting spirit and body stretched tight and then snapped like an old rubber band, his body crumpling to the hard floor, the institutional carpet marking his face and bruising his head.

I prefer to believe that as his soul shed its skin and bone, he rejoiced.  That the veil strained him apart like a sieve, allowing only the most heavenly parts to pass. That he stood, nobly, to heed the call home.

I prefer this image to the nagging thought that he just needed to pee and that being stubborn from birth he didn’t call a nurse for help.  (I had seen him do it the day before, attempting to stand on his own and pee into a urinal.  I’d had to hold him up, my arms under his arms, his hands trembling, his breathing shallow and fast.)  It’s entirely possible that this was the scenario.  That his congested heart simply couldn’t take the strain of standing to pee, so he collapsed and expired, apologetic and alone.

***

My dad was a sucker for the American dream. One time in Lima, I must have been about nine, he came home with a whole case of soap in his arms, from an American company. He was going to sell it on the side, and recruit others to do the same. He said we’d be better off and he wouldn’t have to work so hard anymore. He said his friend Manuel from the Mormon church was already making lots of money this way.

Mom was furious. But she calmly stubbed out her cigarette, sauntered over to Dad, and slapped him square in the face like a Peruvian Joan Crawford.  “Que ya te dije, Víctor. I warned you” she said, her lip curled, her eyes challenging. We all flinched, anticipating retribution. Dad’s eyes burned down at her and for a moment his fists clenched at his sides. But then, a calm spread over his face and down his shoulders. He simply said, “Ya veras. You’ll see”, and went back to the car for the other five boxes of soap.

This new church was strange, but Dad was a little different now. He still lost his temper from time to time, but he was clearly trying to kick the habit. For another thing, he quit smoking, a change he was more successful with. I think that Mom smoked more often around him, just to spite him. But he never smoked another cigarette.

He was the first to be baptized in our family. I didn’t really get it but I was there watching with my sisters. We made faces and exchanged carcajadas when the tall American missionary pushed Dad under the water.

In a few months the rest of us were baptized, even Mom, though I recall her lighting up on the drive home after the service. Those Elders really had something to write home about that week: five kids and their mother all dunked. I was last. The Elders had explained to us that baptism washed all our sins away, so I was surprised the water still looked clean when it was my turn.

Mom and Dad argued less violently, but more frequently. It seemed that almost anything could trigger a fight. Maybe that’s why Dad spent so much time helping the missionaries, or maybe it was the time he spent with them that made Mom so angry. Chicken or egg, I guess. In any case, he spent more and more time with church duties, driving the missionaries around, shuttling their investigators to and from church, and staying late after church on Sundays to help the leaders with paperwork.

It all came to a head the day Dad lost his job. Mom went into the bedroom and locked the door. Dad loaded my sisters and I into the car and took us to visit our Grandma and Aunt. My sisters ran in, excited to play. Dad and I went across the street to the Olivar and kicked a ball around. We pretended that the olive trees were defenders we had to pass, dribble and weave around to reach the goal. Some of those trees were over 300 years old, their misshapen trunks like giant cathedral candles still burning, and coated with centuries of dripped wax.

After playing for a while, Dad knelt and embraced me. “Carlitos”, he said, “I’m going to the United States. Elder Johnson’s parents have a job for me on their farm.”

I hugged him and cried, “No te vayas Papi! Don’t go!” He looked at me for a long time with tears in his eyes. He kissed me on the cheeks and forehead and hugged me more tightly.

“Be brave”, he whispered. “I will work very hard and come back for you as soon as possible.”

Dad stayed with his mother and sister in the house by the Olivar until the day he left. I stood on the airport observation deck with my sisters. We all waved as he walked resolutely across the tarmac and up the stairs to the plane. Just before entering, he turned and waved at us with both arms held high above his head.

***

Mom found a job sewing where her mother worked. We moved in with her parents. Her alcoholic father supervised my sisters and me. I learned to stay out of the house and out of sight as much as possible.  Whichever sibling was first home from school got the worst of it. But for my sisters, staying out late could be just as scary.  He treated all of us like his personal property, like Solomon’s concubines.

My friends and I used to get into all kinds of trouble.  We played a game with the discarded lids of tin cans.  We cut them around the edges like a circular saw blade, and put two holes in the center like a button.  Then we’d run a string through both holes in a big loop.  By twisting it up  and pulling on the loops from both sides, the metal blade would spin and we would challenge each other to duels, trying to cut each others strings.  This often devolved into trying to cut each other, or stray dogs, or smaller kids.

It took four years for Dad to save enough money to send for us. But he finally arranged for my sisters and I to join him in Utah. I didn’t understand, until Mom didn’t board the plane, that she wasn’t coming.

We were 5 unaccompanied minors from the slums of Lince.  We had no luggage, and even if we had, there was nothing worth putting in it.  After my dad left, the lights went out for me.  My childhood disintegrated, my innocence was terminated. Yet here I was on a plane, with stewardesses making sure I had water to drink and food to eat.  It remains my life’s most surreal experience; to fly, to land safely in Los Angeles, and there to be introduced to my Dad’s new wife, who I had no idea existed.

They took us to Disneyland.  I don’t know which was more impressive, the Sleeping Beauty Castle, Tom Sawyers Island, or the sight of people throwing away food; but that jarring juxtaposition, that suspension of disbelief that frays only at the edges, was our introduction to the United States.  From there we drove to our new home in Salt Lake City, leaving behind the Lima-like climate of Southern California, traversing deserts, vast open spaces, the perplexing anomaly of Las Vegas, and finally the snow-capped peaks of our new home.

***

Our stepmother was an English teacher.  She also spoke Spanish, having been a missionary in Argentina.  This came in handy, no doubt, as we acclimated to our new surroundings.  The next few years were a blur as my sisters and I learned to speak English and to present ourselves and our cultural background to our homogenous peers in a way that capitalized on the novelty and minimized the differences.

By the time I was a junior at Highland High School I had figured out where I fit in. I tried to emulate The Fonz among my peers, and Richie Cunningham in the presence of adults. I had an auto class and got the idea I could make my stepmom’s old Barracuda into a street racer. She got on my case for “tracking grease into the house,” but she let me mess with her car because she thought I was just giving it a tune-up. I told her it would help my grade.  It sounded pretty sweet with the headers and glasspacks I installed, but I wrapped it around a phone pole the next day.

Dad still struggled with his temper. He could sometimes lose it over late dinner or other minor infractions. But he usually kept his composure in major crises. Still, I wasn’t sure how he’d respond to the news that I had totaled his wife’s car.

He arrived from his first job each day with just enough time to eat dinner and put on his uniform for his evening job at the gas station. I stood and told him about the car as he was getting up from the table. Dad was furious, but he just stood and glared at me for a moment, then went to change.  My stepmom was frozen in her seat, her head bowed, her whole body shrinking.  “That went better than I expected” she said under her breath.

I awoke at about 1AM and found Dad seated at the kitchen table with two cups of hot cocoa and buttered toast . He motioned for me to join him. For a moment we sat in silence.

“I’m glad you weren’t hurt, Son,”

I poured out apologies. “I’m so sorry Dad. I’m sorry I messed up. I don’t know why I keep doing such stupid things. Why can’t I just be good? . . .”

It was one of those moments when you surprise even yourself with your grief. So much emotional baggage all suddenly unpacked itself, raw and incomprehensible.  He hugged me the way he had in the Olivar.  When I finally calmed down, he held my face in his incongruently soft, powerful hands and looked directly into my eyes.

“Son,” he said, “you are a child of God.”

“But so is everyone.” I replied.

“Son, YOU are a child of God. He doesn’t make mistakes. And in the same way an apple tree doesn’t grow peaches, you are the fruit of God’s tree. You are His child. All of eternity is for you to grow up to be like Him.”

***

Last weekend I sobbed the same way I did that night, as I brushed leaves and grass clippings from Dad’s headstone in a little cemetery just off of 45th South. I had gone to the temple that morning. By the third day I had fallen blissfully asleep, the same way my dad did the day he escorted me through my first endowment more than 30 years ago. I never thought I’d become so inured to that holy place.  But it isn’t born of disrespect. It’s just an awkward mixture of the miraculous and the mundane.

Either way, I woke up for the important parts, and I stood up when I was supposed to. I stood the way I’d prefer to believe that my dad did; that upon hearing a chorus of angels and ancestors he awoke and stood to join them. I’d prefer to think that he felt peace, like a long slow exhale, like water rippling on sand, like God himself had accepted all of his apologies once and for all and led him away by the hand.

That’s what I want to believe.

That’s my preference.

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