René Saldaña, Jr.
Benny’s dad called him on the cell, almost like he was crying, his old man’s voice crackly: “You need to get over here quick, son. Merla just showed up and took the kids.”
Benny was out on a date. Things were just getting good. But he cut the date short; he had to. “Sorry, sorry, bunnygirl, but that ex of mine is at it again. She just won’t leave well enough alone. ‘Ta bien loca. This time she’s taken the kids from my parents’ house, and it’s my weekend with them.”
His bunnygirl frowned, he kissed her on the forehead, then said, “You know you’re my only bunnygirl, right? I wouldn’t leave except it’s my kids she’s taken.”
Bunnygirl said, “That bruja. How can she kidnap your kids like that?”
Benny said, “I swear, I’ll make this up to you. I’ll call you in a little while. Maybe we can finish what we started? Later at your place?”
“Maybe, if you hurry,” said his bunnygirl. They kissed, and he pinched her on the backside. He drove like a maniac all the way to Merla’s, screeching to stops at red lights, punching the steering wheel when they didn’t turn green quickly enough for him, cursing Merla: “Bunnygirl’s right. It’s kidnapping is what it is. What would that judge think of this sweet, innocent mother of three now?” He skidded to a halt in front of the house.
This was his approach: stomping on up to the front door telling himself, “Just calm down, Benny. You’re in the right. Take it easy, chief,” over and over, but huffing. All he was here for was to get back his babies and warn his ex-wife that if she ever took their kids on one of his weekends without his permission, well, to expect the unexpected. “No matter that you don’t like me leaving them at my folks’ house while I’m out with a friend; according to the court papers, they’re in my custody for the whole forty-eight hours—
“And don’t think for a second I don’t know what’s really going on here, Merla-girl: you’re jealous. The kiddos love spending time with their daddy, they’ve said it to me themselves.” In the short few steps up to the house, he’d been practicing his speech to get it all right, not stumble, not make a fool of himself like in court when he had to defend himself to that judge.
He knocked, then rang the bell. Knocked again, and lost his patience. “Merla. Merla! I know you’re in there. Where’re my kids?” He screamed and pounded on the door, making it rattle on its hinges. “How dare you kidnap my babies! Who do you think you are? I should call the cops on you. The kids are mine this weekend. You kidnapper.” Then a few more choice words.
He heard her yelling something from behind the door, so he said, “Open this door, and say what you have to say to my face. Open it, or I’ll knock it down no matter the judge’s orders! He’ll be eating his stupid words when he finds out what you did.”
The door wide open now, she screamed, “I said, they’re yours every day, you idiot.” She’d been crying. “Now what?” she said. “It’s open, now what are you going to do? Come on in, and I’ll call the cops, hear what they have to say.”
“Go right ahead,” he said. “Wanna use my cell? I’d like to hear what they say about you stealing the kids from me like you did. It’s kidnapping, you know that?” He saw the kids sitting on the couch in the living room, all of them crying. “Kids,” Benny said, “everything’s okay. Daddy’s here now. Mommy just didn’t know what she was doing. Get your things, and let’s go.”
“I’ve never done anything more right in my life, Benny.”
“Come on, kids. We can go to the movies, but we have to hurry. Come on. Light a fire under it.” They didn’t stir. “Now!” he yelled. The kids cried harder.
Merla whispered, “Calm down. Don’t yell at them. They’re scared enough of you as it is.”
“Because you’ve poisoned them against me,” said Benny. “You better shape up, lady. I’ll file a report on you so fast, so help me. Now, get them ready to go.”
“Benny, calm down, I said. I’ll be right back.”
“Oh, you’ll be right back. That’s the way to hustle. They better be ready in five minutes, or I’ll make the call.” He make-believe dialed his cell and put it to his ear: “Chop chop, Merla-girl.”
She closed the door, and he said, “Can you hear me now? I know you can.” He imagined her bad-mouthing him to the kids: “See how evil he is, screaming at you and at your poor loving mother like he did? Hate him, hate him with all your might, kids.”
A few minutes passed, and the door opened. The kids had their little suitcases in their hands. “Take them, Benny,” she said. “But spend time with them. They need a father, not some Cassanova-want-to-be at the clubs all night with ‘friends.’”
“I knew it,” he said. “Still angry that I still got it and you don’t. You’ve been pretty sneaky, but I know how you work.” He took one of the girls’ hands in his and started for the car, then looked over his shoulder at Merla: “I do what I please. With whoever I please.”
She laughed and said, “Whatever, Cassanova.”
That stopped him. He told the kids to go wait for him in the car. He’d be right there. “That’s right,” he said. “I’m happy, and you? Jealous, jealous, jealous. It ain’t my fault you stay home sulking and crying about how lonely you are.”
Standing behind the partly opened door, she started up again with that whole business about what a good father is and isn’t. Yak yak yak.
But he raised his hand and put a stop to her goings-on. “I don’t buy it for one second I’m a bad father, abandoning my children.”
She tried breaking in: “Listen,” she said.
The entire time, he was standing just outside her door. “No, you listen. The kids are mine the two weekends a month. They’re mine. You got that? So next time you repeat this little stunt of yours, I swear—” He slammed his open hand flat against the door. He meant to give her the look, just the look: angry, hateful, to make the point: don’t mess with me, or else. He could tell the flat hand on the door had its intended effect. She looked scared when she slammed the door on him.
He wasn’t able to calm the kids that night, not with promises of two movies tomorrow, not with extra big bowls of ice cream as bribes. When he talked about going to the movies, they wanted to know if his girlfriend was coming. He said, “Of course she’s coming. She’s a great girl. She loves you kids, and I know you’d love her too if you gave her a chance. If it makes it easier for you, you can think of her as your second mommy.” At that, the kids cried louder: “Mommy’s our only mommy.” To the ice cream, they said, “You get the cheap brand that tastes like plastic.” He had to keep them at his place instead of at his parents’ because he didn’t want the kids to misbehave like this in front of his own mom and dad. He’d have to explain too much to them. His parents were confused enough by Merla’s actions that afternoon. Why complicate it more for them?
Eventually they cried themselves to sleep. He called his bunnygirl, who said it wasn’t too late for him to come over. “But what about the kids? They’re my children,” he told her. “I can’t just leave them. Why don’t you come over here?” She said she had already dressed for bed and wasn’t about to leave her house, that if he really loved her, he would find a way to see her. If not, well there were plenty other fish out there ready to take his place. “I’ll find a way,” he said. He asked his roommate, “C’mon, man, you owe me. I won’t be long.”
In his car, Benny shook his head in disgust. He was in no mood now for his bunnygirl. That Merla, he thought. She’s responsible if me and my bunnygirl break up. He drove out to Merla’s for the second time that night.
It was two-thirty in the morning. “Merla,” he shouted. The lights in the house were still on: in the bedroom, the hallway, the living room and out on the back porch. Benny looked up and saw what he thought was a man’s frame in the living room window, staring out.
“You got a man in there, Merla? In my house! Sin verguenza!” He yelled and punched the door. “You slut! I knew it all along you were cheating on me. Never had proof, but now I do.” He pounded on the door. More lights came on. “You open up this door right now, or I’ll tear it down.” Dogs started barking around the neighborhood. “Whoever you are, and I think I know who you are, dude, if you’re any kind of a man, you’ll open up the door and face me.”
He waited for a few moments to pass. “I knew it, a coward. Yellowbellied. No vales un jarro! And your mother isn’t worth a bucket of cow chips, either.”
Then Benny heard a man’s cough coming from inside the house, the knob turning. Benny swallowed, not knowing who was in there, and what if it turned out to be somebody who could beat the tar out of him and here he was talking tough. Well, too late now, so he spread his legs shoulder-width and rolled his fingers into hard fists.
The door opened, and Benny stepped back a bit. The guy was bigger than Benny had suspected he would be. Good thing he’d set himself. Benny craned his neck around the man’s shoulders and saw the couch made up for bed, the sheets crinkled, some notebooks and a calculator beside the couch.
“Benny, is it?” said the guy. “Listen, Benny, I’m going to let your crack about my mother slide this once.” Man, Benny thought. This guy’s got a deep voice, too, and gravelly, the kind of voice he’d always wished he had. The ladies he could bag with that. The guy continued,. “I’m not here to fight you. Merla asked me to come by, stay the night if I could. She was afraid something like this might happen. I would’ve stayed out of it, stayed quiet, thought it was between two adults. But hearing how stupid you were just being, Well, here I am. And here you are, screaming at three in the morning. What’s next?” When Benny didn’t answer, the man said, “Better for us all if you calm down, leave. You can call her tomorrow to clear things up.”
“This is between me and that good for nothing of an ex-wife of mine,” Benny said. “So step off. Get out of my face, dude.”
Merla was standing behind the stranger, crying.
“Hey, man, she’s the mother of your children. Watch what you say about her.”
“You threatening me?”
“Listen here, my friend.”
“Don’t tell me what to do and what not to do. Who are you anyway? Besides her stud. And what are you doing in my house?”
“It’s no concern of yours, really, how we know each other, but I’ll tell you anyway. Merla and I are friends and colleagues. That means we work together. What does matter here, right now, is that you leave.” The guy laid a hand on Benny’s shoulder, pushed him, tried to force Benny to turn around, away from Merla and the house. So Benny socked him good. The guy stammered backwards, collapsing into Merla, and the both of them went down heavy. Much easier than Benny thought it would be when he first caught sight of this guy. The bigger they are, Benny thought and smiled.
“Are you happy now?” Merla screamed from under her colleague. The two gathered themselves fully into the house, and the door closed on Benny.
“In my own house!” he said and walked back to the car.
He’d had to take on a second job three nights a week to keep up the payments on the house and still live his new life. He was huffing-mad, but happy because he had made a point. Right there at the end, looking down on the two of them, he’d wiped the smile right off his face then shot them both the look. Like the one the judge had given him in divorce court seven months back.
The divorce went down ugly. Spit-blood-ugly. Both parties dropped the gloves and came out swinging, rabbit-punching, low-blowing. Plain bad. And to top it off, Benny knew it from day one the judge had it in for him, for no good reason. Just did. The whole time in court, Benny felt he was fighting an uphill battle.
The right-honorable had ordered Benny not to set foot in the house. “Not even an inch. Am I making myself clear on this point, Mr. Romaldo?”
That fool of a judge, thought Benny, believing every word of what Merla said, how in Benny there was always the potential for violence, the threat of his losing control. “Sometimes,” she’d cried to the judge when she took the stand, “I sincerely fear for my children’s and my safety.” How a few times, at family gatherings, she’d seen him snap at his brothers and sisters, had turned into someone she didn’t know.
“Mr. Romaldo,” the judge said to him, “a real man need not strike a vessel of the weaker sex to prove himself.” The judge’s glasses teetered on the point of his nose, the old man shaking his greasy, fat head at Benny. “A man,” the judge kept on, “who touches a woman in any violent fashion, well lucky for him I’m an officer of the law; otherwise.” The old man went on and on like that, insulting Benny this way, calling into question Benny’s manhood.
All the while Benny stood there, on the judge’s orders, taking what the man was dishing out, everyone in the courtroom staring at him, thinking he was a bad husband. They had no clue how Merla really was. No proof, but still he knew it, felt it in his gut she’d been cheating on him. She denied it left and right, both to him and under oath, but it was there, in how she looked him right in the eye and told him she wasn’t seeing anyone else. But so what? He knew different. A husband just does. So several months before the divorce, he’d been hanging out at Daddy Oh’s, a favorite spot of Benny’s before he’d gotten married. The place hadn’t changed much in the five years he’d been wed: the same lighting, the same kind of music, and the same pretty girls, except they were younger now and wore shorter skirts, and Benny liked that.
Those nights, he’d come home late, the kids already asleep for hours. Late, almost three in the morning, and Merla always awake, waiting up for him, her eyes puffy from crying, supposedly. Part of the whole act, he thought. But she never let him go to bed without talking it out: “Benny, where were you? I’ve been worried.”
“Sure. I was out with Jimmy. You know Jimmy. Just out, to Daddy Oh’s, if you have to know. Played pool all night, had a couple beers.”
She stood there, always with her arms folded, staring at him, shaking her head.
“Sure, pool that whole time, nothing more. I can’t believe you don’t trust me. You trusted me enough to marry me, in sickness and health, thick and thin, rich or poor, and one night out with a friend from the old days, and you think I’m cheating on you.”
“Who said anything about—?”
“Well, I know you didn’t say I was cheating, but that’s what you mean. I see it in your body language. Listen, look at me in the eyes—I’m telling you the truth: I didn’t pick up any women tonight. I’m here, ain’t I?”
Usually she wanted to keep going about something or other, but Benny said, “Ah, I’m going to bed. Sure, sure, sleep wherever you want. See you in the morning.”
Same old, same old, one Saturday after another, he’d show up to Daddy Oh’s. One night he met a girl and bought her a few drinks, paid cash for them. They talked and danced, he whispered “my bunnygirl” in her ear on a slow dance, she invited him to her place, but he said, “No, no. I can’t tonight. I’ve got to meet some people who’re expecting me. Otherwise, I would. Maybe another time.” They agreed to meet the following Saturday. “Sure, if you’re here, you’re here,” he said, playing it cool, like when he was single and looking. “If you’re not, you’re not. No big deal.” Playing the game like he remembered the women liked it. Not in the least needy. With or without them, right: that attitude. Inside he was beaming-happy, though. He still had it. So they met the following Saturday, and the next, and the next.
But in court, this old fart of a judge pounding the bench, turning his blue eyes right on Benny, was trying to intimidate him. Benny was impressed by the coldness in the look, but the old guy was trying too hard to come across as mean and capable of putting a beating on Benny, so Benny smirked.
The judge glared and put it in writing that Benny couldn’t go into the house. All he could do was drive up. “Honk if you have to,” said the judge. “And if you have to, maybe knock on the door like a gentleman would, and take the kids two weekends out of the month. Can you do that, Mr. Romaldo?”
“Yes, sir, can do, sir.” Benny saluted at the judge.
Tonight, Merla’d shut the door to his own house on his face for the last time. One way or the other, it wouldn’t ever happen again. No wonder the kids hated him. This disrespect for him is what they saw 24-7. It’s gonna stop, he thought. He stood at the door of his car and thought some more. So what if I don’t spend all forty-eight hours with the kids? They’re being taken good care of by Mom and Dad. Merla’s convinced my babies I’m a bad dad. Back at the apartment, all they do when I have them over is complain how the place is too small, how back home they’d be sleeping in their own comfortable beds and not on the living room floor. “Mommy does this differently,” “Mommy this,” “Mommy that,” yak yak yak. Boo hoo, boo hoo. It’s no surprise I drop them off at my folks when they behave like that.
He dug in his pocket for his car keys. He was proud that he’d mostly kept his cool, kept it to just a punch, and he remembered about the look. That’s what was going through his head when he dropped the keys. He picked for them in the grass. The dew felt surprisingly cold on his fingertips. He saw she’d planted some new tree saplings in the front yard. What a joke, he thought, stomping up to the car door, wiping the wet cold on his pants. I hope they dry up and die in this heat.
He fumbled with the keys now. His hand was shaking so bad, that’s how angry he was. He thought, No one, not Merla, not no judge, not this punk inside, is going to keep me from going into my own house. This is America, man! So back he went.
There was a stack of bricks to the left of the door, and Benny grabbed one. He tried the knob stupid Merla’d forgotten to lock behind her, and walked right on in.
Benny saw them at the kitchen table, Merla’s back to him, a bowl of pinkish water between them, a cloth in Merla’s hand that she was using to sop up blood from the man’s nose. “Sorry about all this, Michael,” she was telling the guy. The guy’s eyes widened, Merla turned to look behind her, and Benny was already swinging the brick. “Mother of my children! Bringing strange men into my house!” Over and over like that, and blood splattering everywhere.
Driving away, he couldn’t get over all that blood. Like a flash, but so clear, so vivid.
Now, in the car, blood still caked into his hair and hardening like boogers in his nose, sticking like grime under his fingernails, soaked into his pants and shirt, Benny was crying, scratching his head with the barrel of his gun. A plain-clothes cop was trying to inch closer to the car, “Just to talk easier, buddy. You can see I’m not armed. I just want to talk, out of the reach of all the cameras. You don’t want your babies to see and hear you crying, right? I’m coming just a bit closer. This far, maybe a bit closer, okay?”
“Stay back,” Benny ordered. “Come closer, and your kids will see my brains splattered all the front of your clean shirt. You want your kids to see that on TV? Their cop-daddy causing another man to kill himself?” Benny dug the pistol harder into the side of his head, twisting it to threaten suicide. “I swear, I’ll do it, on national TV. Back off.” He almost laughed because the gun must have looked real enough to the cops since they hadn’t moved in on him all night.
After having killed Merla and Michael, Benny did a walk-through of the kids’ rooms. From the girls’ room, he took a photo of the two of them and himself at the beach, a pair of dirty pink frilly socks from the laundry basket, and a coloring book. From his boy’s room, he took a baseball glove and this toy gun. He avoided the kitchen. He turned on the TV in the living room, then left.
His plan was to cross the border at Hidalgo and head into Mexico, not turn back, just keep going, hide out for the rest of his life if he had to, send for his kids later when things had died down. By then he’d come up with a good story to explain what went wrong and how their mother had forced his hand. He’d say he was sorry, but it was over and done with and they should now just look to the future. Live one day at a time.
He was getting close to the bridge when he came to an intersection where enough light shone down on him from several street lamps so that he was able to see himself clearly in the rearview mirror. His face was so bloody that he’d be found out by Customs and arrested. He pulled into a gas station to wash off, but the men’s door was locked. He considered going into the station and asking the clerk for the key, but thought better of it. He’d get back to his car, find another rest room, and clean up some.
In the car, he reached into his pocket for the keys. That’s when he noticed two squad cars pulling into the station, one in front of him, the other behind. Then the bullhorn: “Step out of the vehicle, sir. Keep your hands where we can see them.”
Benny reached down for the socks bunched up into a little pink ball, saw himself behind bars for a long time, then grabbed the pistol.
“Hands where we can see them.” But it was too late. They’d either have to shoot him dead, or wait and see. They didn’t shoot, so Benny put the gun to his own head, rolled down his window and said, “You’ll have to take me dead.”
Several hours later here he was: surrounded, tired, hungry, cranky, and in a mess of trouble he couldn’t see a way out of.
The plain-clothes cop backed off: “Okay, mister. No need for any of that. We’ll take as much time as we need. No hurry.”
Another hour passed, Benny was thirsty, and he’d peed his pants. He took a look at the cameramen, who came to life with the possibility of something good happening, Benny thought. He made a face, like he was full of anguish and confusion. Reporters took up their microphones, patted their hair into place, smiled big for the camera.
“Mister officer,” Benny said. “I think I’m ready to end this.”
“Don’t do anything crazy. Remember, you got kids.”
“No, no. You got it all wrong. I’m coming out. I’m giving up, okay?”
“It’s for the best,” said the cop. “Now, you’re gonna open the door slowly. You don’t want to do anything jerky or my guy’s’ll pop you. You’ve got them on edge already.”
“I’m coming out.” Benny opened the driver side door, stepped out slowly, and bent to lay the gun on the ground. “No more gun, see?” He showed them his empty hands, palms up. “It’s a toy gun anyway. My son’s. But how could you have known? They make them look so real nowadays. No way to know. Sorry to keep you up all night.”
The cops, all of them pointing their weapons at him, approached ever so carefully. A whole mob of them in a circle inching their way, the guns getting closer and closer to Benny. When he saw a break in the circle, he made a run for it. He remembered playing “Red Rover, Red Rover” at recess when he was a kid. The boy or girl called by name to “come over” from the opposing team ran like mad and tried to break through the skinny, linked arms of other boys and girls. It was a simple game: break through, and you were safe. If you didn’t break the link, then you were out of the game. Had his kids ever played it at their schools? Why hadn’t he ever taught it to them? It had been so much fun when he was a kid, they’d surely enjoy themselves, too.
Benny didn’t break through, though. Before he’d even reached the line of blue, the crack of a baton on his head stopped him cold. Then he came to, cuffed, still groggy, and in the back of a squad car. He started crying: “What have I done? What have I done?”
The cop started with his spiel: “You have the right to remain silent.”
“I just lost it, man. She was cheating on me,” he said. “You know how it is. One minute you’re there, then you’re not there. It was otherworldly, you know.”
“Tell it to your lawyer,” the cop said. “If you can’t afford one, one will be appointed to you.”
Yak yak yak. Everybody always talking.
“I don’t know what came over me,” Benny insisted, the cop taking every word down in his little notepad. “I was there to talk to my ex, soft and easy. Next thing I know, I blacked out. I saw it all happening in slow motion, me hitting them over and over, but seeing it all from outside myself, from the ceiling, like watching a movie.”
Benny went on and on like this, the cop writing furiously, but at the same time telling him these words could be used against him in a court of law, and did he understand his rights?
“Yes,” Benny said. And he went on in more colorful detail, the little girl’s sock, the blood boogers, where he’d dumped the brick.
The cop reminded him one last time: “You’ve got the right to remain silent.”
Benny kept it up.
After all, what man in his right mind would confess to such a horrific crime in front of a cop, in front of all these cameras? He’d have to be crazy to do so. If even for an instant.
René Saldaña, Jr., is presently an assistant professor of Language Literacy at Texas Tech University in Lubbock where he lives with his wife, Tina, their boys Lukas, Mikah, and Jakob, and their animals ISBN, Cotton, Gordon, Zoe, and Sadie. He’s the author of various books including The Jumping Tree, Finding Our Way: Stories, The Whole Sky Full of Stars, and the upcoming The Good Long Way (Arte Público P/Piñata Books, October 2010).
“It’s not so much a porch that’s in my head but rather a makeshift stoop. More like a step up to my maternal grandparents’ bedroom, itself an add-on onto the house proper. The house proper did have a porch, if a 3×4 slab of cement can pass for a porch. But this step up was a few 2x4s nailed to two other 2x4s that served as foundations. And why I remember this more clearly than the actual porch of my childhood home is this one picture of my baby brother, Edwardo, when he was maybe 4 years old. He’s standing on the step, his back to the screen door. He’s wearing blue jeans, a multi-colored striped t-shirt, and a plaid jacket with two huge pockets at the chest. His hands are jammed behind his back, and he’s got the biggest smile on his face. Or is it a grimace because the sun’s hitting him full on the face?”