Words By Sam Simas, Art By Brian Demers
One day, when Ernesto was not yet a man, Pai told him to sit on the couch. Pai moved the bag of frozen peas and revealed a dark patch of gray fabric where the bag had been thawing under his back. Beneath his push-broom mustache, he gritted his teeth and grunted while shifting his overlarge stomach. Pai had called the pain in his spine fogo de diablo—devil’s fire—and said that, when he burped, the pain tasted like bay leaves, cumin, and garlic from Mamãe’s cooking.
Ernesto liked to believe that the memories he had of his father were accurate—that Pai had been guilty of coldness and also of suffering that sapped his willingness to do anything besides breathe the aromas of Mamãe’s caçoila, squint at the eight-inch black-and-white television, and cough until he died. There had been a time, Ernesto remembered, when Pai’s lungs were hearty, and he would sing along with the aftershave commercials in a high, honeyed voice. Pai joked that the jingles helped him practice his inglês, which was probably why he had spoken like a Portuguese immigrant until the end.
Ernesto, Pai said, escute, you’re a man now.
That was it? A man? He blinked at the swollen wrinkles on Pai’s forehead. Ernesto had not thought the blossoming of three curly chest hairs and newly fragrant underarms meant he was a man. Working at the mill, eating boring masa and butter sandwiches from a tin pail, and sleeping next to a round woman like Mamãe who smelled of cherries and took up too much of the bed—that was how Pai defined his own manhood. When Ernesto imagined this life for himself, the one Pai wanted for him, he saw a straight-backed man with strong arms and weak lungs, a man who would kiss his wife out of necessity instead of love.
Look at me, Pai said—his two eyebrows pushed together into a single black caterpillar. You’ll take my place in the mill, and…
He began coughing into the air. Spittle landed on Ernesto’s cheek.
Why couldn’t Pai go back? He didn’t use his arms to cover his mouth when he coughed, but at least he still had both of them—unlike Manny’s father, whose right arm had been plucked by the weaving machine like a fig from a branch. He’d had to bury his own arm in the garden himself, because Manny was too young to hold a shovel, and then he shuffled back to the mill only to have Mauricio, the foreman, tell him there was no work for him anymore. After that, Manny’s father had to learn how to eat, how to strike a match, how to love himself with his left hand, and their family struggled until Manny was old enough to take his place behind that same machine at the mill.
Ernesto remembered how beat up Manny’s shoes were after two days of working at the mill. He bit his lip to stop the tears collecting in his eyes. Before, sandlot ball wore holes in his friend’s shoes, but now the holes were from friction against unfinished mill floors. Manny complained that dirt under his nails, greasy and blue from the dye, smelled like smoke—that no matter how much he scrubbed, he couldn’t get his hands clean. Ernesto looked at his own hands.
Pai, I don’t want to, Ernesto said.
Pai chuckled. He placed his rough hand on Ernesto’s knee and said, It does not matter. You are twelve. Now, you are a man.
Ernesto brought his hand to his chest. The few hairs had not yet exploded into a forest of coarse brown fuzz, but his skin was beginning to smell of cinnamon, and his two separate eyebrows were creeping together to form one.
He didn’t argue, afraid that Mamãe would overhear and lumber in with her tea-towel twisted around her wrist to see who needed a reminder that the Carreira family did not argue. Instead, Ernesto sprung a leak, and his air began slipping away, stealing his happiness, too. He discovered that happiness had an opposite, and it was not sadness, or anger, but something so sugary and deep and disappointing that it turned bitter. He hoped that he would one day learn to laugh at that bitterness.
Pai had prearranged it. The next week, Ernesto would work his first shift.
Querido, he said, You are doing for your family.
That night, Ernesto locked his bedroom door, sat by the window, and listened to the river rushing beyond the mill. What more could he say? He had told Pai what he wanted, but wanting was not enough. Wanting did not heal Pai’s lungs or his back. Wanting did not meld the life he wanted with the one Pai envisioned for him, like two church candles dripping into the same pool of wax. If Ernesto could have what he wanted, then he would have floated through the window, across the rooftops and stove pipes, and disappeared into the roof of Manny’s house. There he would stay, safe and unchanged, under the disguise of a different roof. Ernesto prayed for this to happen. He would hide from his father. He would hide from God, who was watching, Ernesto knew, because the scent of oranges drifted in from someone else’s kitchen, and Mamãe always said that when God was watching, he would smell oranges.
After Pai died, Ernesto found his father’s musty blanket folded neatly on a shelf in the basement. Both Pai and Mamãe had held on for forty years after the night that Ernesto looked out of his window. It surprised Ernesto when Mamãe died first. Pai died not more than a month afterward because, Ernesto thought, he could not stand living alone. Until then, Pai had taken his time with dying and done it thoughtfully, so that everything in the house was well-organized for Ernesto to begin grieving. Ernesto placed the blanket into a plastic bag and put it in the corner with the other items that he, like his father, did not have the courage to throw away.
He pulled a small box from the back of the shelf and recognized Mamãe’s curlicue handwriting across the top: Ernesto—recordações—memories. Nuns would kill for those perfect circles, Pai had said. Every letter was uniform, perfect, exactly the same height. Unlike Pai, who had used the Bible to practice English, Mamãe had taught herself to read and write with cookbooks. She had been better at mixing spices and meats than praying, so she paid attention to what she liked: to meat temperatures and flavors and using each ingredient as a prayer itself. Bay-leaves were for her husband’s back. Cumin for his lungs. Her favorite was orange—because no fruit was more delicious. She believed them to be signs of God’s love and sprinkled every dish with a pinch of grated zest. Ernesto thought she was the perfect kind of Catholic—one who treated the Bible itself as a recipe book, picking and choosing the parts to use that caused no one else harm.
He opened the box. Turnip-shaped bodies, squat noses, and wide, still eyes looked back at him from family photos. The resemblance was irrefutable, unnerving, and these people—none of whom he recognized—had passed down their money problems, inexplicable drinking habits, and bad cholesterol. He flipped the photo over. His mother’s handwriting marked the photo São Miguel—1907. This was what his parents had been brave enough to leave behind. He returned it to the box.
Ernesto found the photo in which he made his debut. It was 1942. He was too young to stand, so he sat on Mamãe’s lap and looked into the sky as if dreaming. Pai clutched Mamãe’s shoulder. They were smiling, not knowing anything about Social Security or the neighborhoods and markets where it was unsafe to speak Portuguese. These photos were proof that, despite what the neighborhood women said, Ernesto took after his Mamãe, and that Pai really had been the least simian of all the Carreira men. It was something, at least.
He returned the photos to the box and noticed that, at the bottom, there was an envelope: Para Ernesto. He took the yellowed paper and tried to read it. There was a time he’d been proud of how well he had forgotten the language. If Pai had asked for a glass of water, Ernesto had brought him grapes. If he’d asked for port, Ernesto had brought water. Ernesto had made his father believe that they would never understand one another. And, if Ernesto could give the appearance of never correctly interpreting his father’s desires, then he was free to do anything he wanted. Now Ernesto was old enough to regret, and to know that understanding was not only about language. What else was it? He didn’t know. He scanned the letter. One phrase caught his attention. Written twice, underlined: feliz aniversário, nós te amamos. A birthday card.
Something in the basement whirred, and Carl came into view, riding the mobile chair down the stairs. Red and white Christmas decorations were piled on his lap.
We should get one of these, he said, grinning. His spindly legs dangled from the chair.
Ernesto waved the letter at Carl.
Your mother’s love letters? Carl asked.
If Mamãe had taken a secret lover, then Carl was the only person she would have told. No one had loved Carl like Mamãe.
Their uncomplicated affection began long before Mamãe understood the shape of Ernesto and Carl’s relationship. As for Pai, either he had never truly understood it, or he’d been unwilling to believe that such a love could exist between men. Pai had eventually, quietly accepted their friendship, and Ernesto knew better than to be suspicious of certain types of grace.
The night that Carl joined them for dinner, Pai had almost had Carl taken away in handcuffs. A black man had never before set foot into the Carreira household. He must have been trouble—that was Pai’s reasoning. Mamãe had convinced Pai to put down the phone, that Carl wasn’t a burglar; he and Ernesto were friends. Mamãe said, Come in! You like caçoila? Carl nodded—although he’d never heard of it—and sat, his large hands fumbled with the tiny glass of port that Mamãe set before him.
Pai’s eyes bulged and fixed themselves to Carl’s dark skin and wiry black hair. Ernesto kicked Pai under the dinner table, but the perpetual discomfort in his father’s spine had habituated him to pain. Mamãe never drank, but she poured herself port and left Pai’s glass empty. To him, she said: I will pluck out those eyes with the sugar spoon and offer them up like Abraham’s lamb if you don’t stop staring. This was all said in Portuguese. Pai fixed his eyes on her. She turned to Carl and said, You like caçoila? Carl, who had no idea what he should do while the tiny Portuguese man stared at his wife and shoveled food into his mouth, did what came most naturally—he laughed. He laughed, and Mamãe loved him.
Ernesto pushed his plate away and nursed his port to dampen the fear in his stomach. His father did not even know the truth, and still he held his spoon like a weapon.
Back then, when Ernesto and Carl were new to love, Mamãe’s fondness for Carl made it easier for Ernesto to love him. His mother had arranged a shelter under which his devotion for Carl could grow unnoticed by Pai. Ernesto could love him because his mother had first. Still, while Ernesto and Carl learned the texture and weight of love—how love was like a cat’s tongue, coarse but pleasant—they fought. After one year together, Carl threw the ceramic-cow creamer against the wall. It shattered like hope, and cream soaked into the yellow floral wallpaper before they calmed down enough to clean it. Ernesto understood why Carl had thrown it, and a part of him had believed the same lie—that men were not made to love other men. The thought always sounded gruff, like something Pai would say while running his thumb over splintered rosary beads.
Don’t breathe, Mauricio said. He pointed to the vat of blue dye with tiny wisps waltzing over its surface. A tarnished silver whistle dangled from his neck. All the foremen at Lippitt Mill wore them.
Deep blue, navy. Safira, he had called it.
Turn here, he said. He demonstrated with his hairy hand on the wheel.
New, eager to please, Ernesto placed his hand where Mauricio’s had been and turned it. He held his breath. The wheel inched forward and dipped long skeins of fabric into blue-black dye. The machine looked like a fat woman dancing with bedsheets on her arms. Ernesto didn’t share this with Mauricio, who smiled often, but only after calling someone burro or imbecil.
He is not your friend, Pai had warned.
Mauricio’s eyes narrowed on Ernesto.
Now you do it like a man. Faster, Mauricio said.
Mauricio leaned in. His mouth was too close to Ernesto’s. His breath sweet like plums. Ernesto pulled and his lungs wept inside him. Pai hadn’t warned him that it would hurt, that breathing would fill his lungs with lightning and set fire to his eyes. Ernesto hoped God was watching, but the scent of chemical dye was too strong to tell.
Mauricio tapped his foot.
I’m itchy, Ernesto told Mauricio. He was on the verge of tears. He wanted to claw away his outsides.
Mauricio blinked at the word “itchy,” shrugged his narrow shoulders, and laughed.
He pulled Ernesto away from the wheel to demonstrate changing the skeins. He instructed in soft, broken English, each sentence punctuated with laughter that Ernesto did not understand. Mauricio always gave himself a reason to laugh.
At the end of his first day, Ernesto filed out with men whose lunch pails clanged like church bells at their sides. Outside, the men enjoyed the clean air. They lit their cigarettes and shuffled home.
Manny had crept ahead and was kicking a stone. Ernesto ran up behind him, waving, calling his name.
Manny stood on the curb under a streetlight, and his greased hair shone black. He looked at the way Ernesto scratched his thin forearm and laughed at him. You’ll get used to it, he said, The itching, I mean.
You’re lucky, Manny said. In the looms, some people lose fingers or…
Ernesto kicked a rock into the street. It bounced against the pavement once, twice, and then fell into a roadside drain. He was standing on sore feet, holding Pai’s tin pail, and looking for his friend in the face of this young, joyless man. It surprised him how quickly Manny had become a man—a disappointed and rageful and impatient man. Ernesto knew he should feel lucky that he himself was not yet angry; that he did not squint at the world as if it were conspiring against him.
They walked in silence until the intersection of Perdu and Ames, where they separated and Ernesto walked home alone.
The house was warm like July, and Pai sat on the couch, listening to the radio. Mamãe prodded pork in the kitchen. She was singing, which meant that Pai had upset her. She’d once said that, when she was angry with him, he was better played low to the tune Ave Maria.
Ernesto placed his lunchpail on the floor next to the door.
It is so hard to breathe in the mill, Ernesto told his father. He sat down next to him.
The breathing, Pai said, This is not the worst thing. At least you do not have hunger.
He laughed and offered Ernesto a grape from the pile on his lap. Ernesto saw that it was amusing to his father—the grapes, the working, watching his son fumble with a role that he himself had failed to fulfill. How could he succeed when his father could not?
Pai ate a grape and began to cough. The sound gurgled like water sucked through a straw. Ernesto moved as far away from Pai as the couch would allow. His father closed his eyes, sipped port from a tiny glass, and sucked his teeth, from which, he had said, the wine took the ache. Pai loved port, and he loved Mamãe—port when he was in too much pain to speak, and Mamãe when she said something she’d learned from a cashier in the grocery store. As for Ernesto—Pai’s love for him, his only son, was reserved for the man he pretended his son would become, the man his father wanted him to be. But that transformation seemed to be as impossible as rain and work and God.
Pai ate another grape. A commercial for aftershave played in the background.
Filho, he said, will you do me one thing?
Of course, Pai.
Make it louder, he said, pointing to the television with a shaking finger.
Where do you want this, Ernie? Carl asked.
Carl held the taxidermied crow as if it would pluck his nose from his face.
Set it down there, Ernesto said.
Some things, he would not mind letting go. Carl placed it on the floor and scooted to the far side of the basement. He inspected cobwebs and the creepy door to Pai’s workshop.
When Pai had first fallen ill, he had taken it as a sign of imminent death and gone to Jenks’s Funeral Home. He asked Mr. Jenks to see his fanciest model, so Mr. Jenks showed him the Gomorrhan, which was a mahogany coffin that was much too expensive. Pai couldn’t shake the idea of his death and made one for himself out of Portuguese-immigrant-budget pine. He installed a frame into the velvet lining and nailed in a photo of Mamãe—the one of her in a wedding gown with up-done hair—certain that God would let him look at it all day while he sat on a cloud and ate grapes in heaven. That casket sat in his workshop for forty years, unused, collecting dust, and reminding them all that photos turn yellow with time.
One night, after two years of working at the mill, Ernesto found Pai writhing on the couch. His face was port-colored, and his right eye was wider than the left. Ernesto didn’t ask what happened. Mamãe wasn’t singing in the kitchen. She wasn’t even cooking.
Sit, Pai said.
Ernesto sat. His father was puffed up, bloated, enraged like a boil.
Through clenched teeth, Pai whispered the story of how Padre Costa had visited and asked if Pai would need the last rites soon, since he hadn’t been to church in months and there was a coffin in his basement. He had explained how he suffered, but Padre was unsympathetic.
What about your wife and your son? Padre Costa had asked. A man’s duty is to lead the faith of his family…
Pai continued, waving his hands, speaking of duty and faith—both of which, Padre had said, Pai lacked. Ernesto listened and stared at the wall as if he could see Mamãe in the kitchen, flipping through a magazine. Ernesto could only silently absorb his father’s rage and misunderstanding or risk having it turned against him.
Tomorrow, Pai said, we must go to mass and beg his forgiveness.
The next morning, Ernesto wore his father’s old black leather shoes, which were already too small for him. Mamãe pinned a plastic sunflower in her hair, and they left for Saint Miguel’s.
As soon as they sat, Pai moaned and shifted. The wood was hard on his spine. Mamãe fell asleep during Padre Costa’s long, lulling sermon, and then woke when the music began. She shouted Amen in accented English and then nodded off again, her sweet snoring masked by guitar and sonorous choirboys. Ernesto patted her gloved hand to assure her that he was there, suffering through it, too.
After mass, his father, clutching a wooden cane, approached Padre Costa.
Padre, he said, our filho, he is lost. Will you make him better?
His father’s statement was a surprise, especially to Ernesto, who did not believe that he was lost. He had given the mass as much attention as he could, and had done so without fidgeting, which was more than he could say for his father.
Padre Costa placed his hand on Pai’s shoulder, and the two men walked to the side, leaving Ernesto with his distracted Mamãe, who, examining the architecture, the lurid, painted statues of weeping saints, said nothing. She had already shown her disagreement with all the decadence by refusing to put money in the donation baskets and could not be troubled to fake guilt for Padre. But Pai had given double, and now he practically knelt before the priest. From a distance, Ernesto noticed how Padre Costa’s young face had the symmetry of a portrait, how his blue eyes were like drops of dirty rain.
Ernesto heard Pai say, Muito obrigado, Padre. Obrigado.
When Pai and Padre returned, they were smiling. What would his punishment be? Altar service? Selling sugary malasadas at the festa during the summer?
We must come to mass every Sunday, Pai said. As a family, we’ll come and help you.
Mamãe remained silent. She was already exasperated with the neat ladies in tall hats and pressed black dresses. Ernesto resisted the urge to embarrass Pai in front of the priest—to tell them that he was not lost at all. He had walked to the mill every day, bringing home his meagre pay, his lunchpail, and the burning in his lungs. He had been hiding all of the parts of himself that his father did not want to see. All that working, all that hiding, and it would never end. He would always be punished—and not because of his secrets, but because Pai couldn’t be the man he himself wanted to be. Ernesto finally felt the tremor and buzz of a man’s rage. He looked at the uncomfortable pews, remembered the pain in his father’s back, and sighed.
The following week, in the church’s basement, where faithful women scrambled from one room to the next carrying pans of chouriço, peppers, and spice, Ernesto learned about guilt, about being a man of God.
A woman sat at the folding table, smoking cigarettes, selling one-dollar tickets for the buffet dinner, and chatting with couples, Como vai você, senhor? The Lord is born only once a year, and the church must spare no expense…
Pai smiled and handed her three pristine one-dollar bills.
Padre Costa appeared behind them. He wrung his smooth hands and bit his bottom lip. He wore the white surplice and purple stole, in which he received the most compliments about his apple-shaped chin. The downward curves of Padre Costa’s cheekbones and quiet, graceful gestures made him handsome. Ernesto blushed. It couldn’t have been a sin, he thought, to think the mouthpiece of God was beautiful. He was no different than Mamãe and Pai, or the other parishioners who thought that no one was more humble than Padre Costa.
Senhor, he said to Ernesto, will you help me with something?
He placed his warm hand on Ernesto’s shoulder. Ernesto’s stomach fluttered. His mouth turned to cotton. He looked at his father, who was glowing. Pai nudged Ernesto forward with a hand on the small curve of his son’s back.
Claro, Pai said.
Ernesto squirmed at the thought of being close to Padre Costa, of being alone with him. If the priest could hear God, then he would know Ernesto had thoughts that did not make him a man.
Pai nudged Ernesto, who looked at his mother to say something. Her mouth crumpled into a frown.
Again, Pai was deciding for him, and Ernesto would have preferred to choose on his own. He still thought that being a man meant having the power to say yes or no when someone asked of him things he might not want to do. Ernesto narrowed his eyes at Pai and wondered how his father had gotten it so wrong. He wondered if Pai would be able to stand with the cane kicked out from under him. Stripping others of choice—was that what it meant to be a man?
Siga-me! Padre Costa whispered. He spoke to God, and he knew that He had an ear pressed to the roof of the church and was prone to headaches. Ernesto followed him.
Padre Costa’s office was tranquil. Light filtered through rose bushes outside the window. The room smelled nothing of the vase of lilies on his desk, but of cinnamon and of oranges. God watched them—and His mother, too, painted in oil, looking at the chubby baby in her arms.
When the door closed, the scent of oranges dissolved.
I need you take those boxes to the kitchen while I change, Padre Costa said.
He draped the purple stole over his desk. Ernesto saw no malice in his eyes, only a sincere desire to give a young man purpose. Then Padre Costa lifted the white surplice above his head. Underneath, he wore a cassock, which he unbuttoned and removed faster than Ernesto could turn away.
If Ernesto were the man his father wanted him to be, he would have turned away. He would have ignored the heat that erupted on his own cheeks when he saw the tuft of hair sprouting from Padre’s waistline. Ernesto’s failure to ignore, his desire to see, aimed bellows at a kindling fire within him. All that air and heat made it blossom. He could see the shadows it threw all around him like spokes on a wheel, each one casting him—with his pointed nose and weak chin—as a version of himself that he recognized but did not have the strength to love. He would lose his father. He might lose his mother. All of this for a few cumbersome boxes.
Padre Costa asked again if he would carry those boxes there, and he pointed to four of them near the door. He hung his surplice on a clothes-hanger and beat the wrinkles.
Yes, Padre, Ernesto said, but he did not move.
The dryness in his throat threatened to choke him. Ernesto thought of Manny—his slick hair sparkling under the streetlight. He had said, You’ll get used to it, but his voice sounded like Pai singing commercials in bad English. Pai, his father—the man of the house. Pai, the man in pain, who asked Mamãe to bring him a handful of grapes because he could not do many things on his own. Pai, who himself was so afraid of failing as a man, had decided that his son should be enough for both of them. But Ernesto could not look away from Padre Costa, and he did not want to. He was beautiful.
Ernesto imagined Mamãe bringing his father grapes. The fruit was heavy. Her arms shook. Her face, her arms, her roundness. His mind was not tamable. His mother dropped the grapes. She danced in a lush field fenced in with stone walls. Tea towels were draped over her arms, and she spun in circles singing Ave Maria, crying, laughing, shouting, Ave, Ernesto! Shouting because God did not have an ear pressed to the roof. He was not listening. God was never listening.
Ernesto’s eyes focused and he saw Padre, who was tilting his head as if Ernesto had projected his thoughts over the portrait of Jesus, and he was worried, worried, worried about the condition of Ernesto’s soul.
Ernesto, will you carry these boxes? he asked again.
Ernie, will you carry these boxes? Carl asked.
Carl covered his nose with his sleeve to block the smell of the dead crow he had found behind a box of family photos—its claws pointed toward the sky. Ernesto couldn’t smell the crow. He was preoccupied with finding space for the box of photographs and overwhelmed by the sudden scent of orange.
He looked from his husband to the boxes, some of which were musty and water damaged.
What is inside? Ernesto asked.
Carl opened one, and together they looked. Like Mamãe’s box of recordações, Pai had kept a box of things he did not want to forget: pink raffle tickets that were used each year at the festa, a delicate glass snowflake ornament that was too precious to place on the tree, and, among other things, a framed photo of Carl and Ernesto.
Ernesto did not know when or how the photo made its way into Pai’s hands, or into this box where it sat alongside other photos of ancestors and people Ernesto had never met but were important to Pai. He and Carl stood in front of the red rock mountains in Sedona. Carl’s arm was wrapped around Ernesto’s shoulder. He remembered that their car had broken down on the way to the Grand Canyon, but they were smiling. It had just started to rain, and an elderly couple drove past and offered to take their photo.
We don’t know how to help you, the old man had said, We can’t change a tire.
Pai knew that story, and he had laughed at the two of them. Two men! Can’t change a tire!
Ernesto opened the frame, hoping that Pai had written something for him to find. Towards the end, Pai was that sort of man—the kind who knew more than he let on and was afraid to say so. But there was nothing written on the back of the photo. Ernesto and Carl lifted the box, for it was heavier than one person could manage, and placed it on the shelf where water would not damage it if the basement flooded.