FICTION | Squatters
When I was sixteen my family made the eleven-hour flight to Argentina to spend a month visiting uncle Chocho and his family. My mother could hardly afford to take us, and that’s why we stayed for so long. She didn’t know when we’d get another chance to go back. Chocho’s house was overrun with kids, but Mama removed herself from the chaos by rooming with an old friend from boarding school. A few days after we’d arrived I came downstairs to find my uncle alone, finishing lunch and reading La Nacion. He looked up from his newspaper, white crumbs hiding in his gray, patchy beard.
“What’s the matter. Puppy get run over?” He eyed me over the top of his glasses.
I didn’t smile back. “I have something to ask you.”
“Okay.” He put down the paper. “What’s on your mind?”
“I want you to tell me about my father.”
Chocho took a deep breath and turned his head, cracking his neck left and right with the butt of his palm. I waited. His deformed ring finger poked oddly from his hand as he pressed and folded his paper flat. An old rugby injury. I always noticed it because my dad had the same injury.
“Did I ever tell you about the raja and the tiger?”
“The raja was a man of leisure. One day while hunting he killed a tigress, not knowing that her cub was nearby. He heard mewling, took pity on the creature, and brought it home. The foundling grew into a fearsome adolescent, yet remained loyal to him. Late one night the raja couldn’t sleep for the heat, and so sat on his veranda in his briefs to watch the stars, a cool drink sweating beside him. The tiger, laying beside the raja, began to affectionately lick the salt off his master’s ankle. A breeze came. The raja began to doze. The tiger swept over the entire lower leg and slowly moved higher, up to the owner’s thigh. The big cat’s tongue was so rough it chafed and scraped the skin. The raja felt pain and woke with a start; his inner thigh had started to bleed. When the raja tried to pull away the tiger emitted a guttural rumble, and closed his teeth around the raja’s groin to hold him in place. The raja knew he had seconds to live. A servant was nearby and heard the master calling for his rifle. His man saw the situation and acted quickly. He shot the tiger and saved the raja’s life.”
Chocho smiled, satisfied.
“Damn,” I said. “Cool story.”
“Yep,” Chocho said, getting up.
“Hey!” I said. “You didn’t finish.”
“Finish what? That’s the end. It’s just a fable.”
“No it isn’t. A fable has a moral. And what does any of that have to do with my dad?”
“How’s this for a moral?” he said, walking out of the room. “Those who are a pain in the balls end up shot.”
My grandparents on my dad’s side had only two boys, and Chocho was the youngest. Growing up I’d see him every once in a while. My early memories of him are powerful because of his voice. He sounded identical to Papa, and sometimes when he called from Argentina I’d pick up and start at the sound of my dead father’s voice through the crackling line.
I admired Chocho when I was a kid. He was big and loud and could fly a plane. He had a scar like the Andes across his face, arched from ear to chin, which he got one month before his wedding. He’d gone to a family property—a farm in Paraguay—to run off a pack of squatters. The man he found there smiled and chatted as Chocho approached. Once my uncle was close enough the squatter whipped a machete from behind his leg, “the edge singing in the air,” as I heard Chocho once say. The assassin aimed for the neck but Chocho ducked and the blade caught him on the side of his face, cutting him badly. Chocho scrambled and sprang up, pistol in hand, but the squatter had already run off. The scar probably wouldn’t have been so bad, but Chocho was vain. He didn’t want stitches in his wedding photos so he picked them out, way too early, and the wound flowered into the wide, angry reminder he still carries.
Chocho and my father were raised with money and status. They spoke Castellano, French, and English at home. They lived in Belgrano on Melián Avenue, the wealthiest street in Buenos Aires, right across from the Buenos Aires English High School, which both boys attended. They were athletic and played rugby. The similarities end there.
My father was tall and Chocho is short. Whereas my dad used his free time to design award-winning model airplanes, and to write the first Spanish instructional guide to Rugby, my uncle used his getting expelled from the University of Liège, in Belgium, for what amounted to kidnapping the Dean’s daughter, along with a group of girls that he and his friends had rounded up for a party. He was drunk and thought it all a wonderful joke. All my grandparents’ wealth and influence couldn’t get him reinstated, so he never finished his degree.
Chocho revels in shock and blush and swears like a carpenter with ten thumbs. He can be expected to offer unsolicited sexual advice at any moment. “Listen man,” he’ll say conspiratorially, “there’s only one thing you need to worry about. If the tip of your pecker hangs lower than your balls, women will be happy. But sooner or later, every man gets old. Time negates any cock to ball ratio. It’s a truth we all must face, God help us.” In Argentina chocho is slang for happy. But in many other countries chocho means cunt. Where people used the term to mock Chocho’s irritability, he saw an opportunity to self-aggrandize. “Yeah, I do get a lot of pussy,” he’d say.
Chocho and Aunt Clara have four kids, all of whom Chocho more or less gets along with except for Leandro, because Leandro is exactly like him. In his late teens Leandro sold pot and committed petty larcenies all over Buenos Aires. One scam he had in school was to siphon gas from people’s cars to sell across town. That ended the day one car owner came around the corner to find Leandro sucking on a hose shoved into his Renault. The man was walking a Doberman. He let slip the leash and the dog came boiling down, all teeth and spit and muscle. Leandro barely escaped over a fence. The dog latched onto his right ankle, biting through the soft divot behind his Achilles tendon. Luckily for him the dog let go and Leandro was able to limp to the train and get home.
Leandro was punching me in the stomach over and over. The moon floated higher as we grunted on the back patio. The couch pillow under my shirt wasn’t helping much; although Leandro was just four years older he could hit a lot harder. When we were growing up he was always doing things I wished I could do. “But now you’re sixteen,” he said. “You’re coming of age.” He threw a hook. I flinched and he caught me in the kidney. A searing flash shot to my crotch. “Damn, sorry.” He helped me stand up. “You gotta keep still. If you move, I’ll miss.”
I readjusted the pillow under my shirt and caught my breath. “Anyway, you have to come out for a beer sometime,” he said. I concentrated on not moving as he punched. You’re old enough to need a woman, he told me. He knew a girl that just had to meet me. His words distracted me from the pain. No one had ever wanted to take me drinking. And a woman needing to meet me? I was a virgin harboring a suspicion that something was intrinsically wrong with me. I feared no woman could want me. The idea he presented was intoxicating.
“Your turn,” he said.
We switched places. He pressed his back to the bare wall and pillowed himself. He began rambling about war and history as I flung a few tentative shots.
“That won’t do shit,” he said. I wound up and leaned into a punch. He said “good,” and continued with his monologue. He intermittently punctuated this lesson with “concentrate,” and “harder!” I was trying. I couldn’t stop thinking about needy women.
“You know it’s basically all the white man’s fault,” Leandro said. His hands were behind his back as he hunched and took my hits. “Every global war of conquest was the result of greedy white men.”
Even though I looked up to him, I suspected he was talking out his ass. He’d seemed impressed when I stood my ground for his punches, so I went for it, laying into him as hard as I could. “What about the Zulus in Africa, or the history of China, or the Middle East?”
“Nah, cousin,” he said, wincing. “I’m talking about significant wars, things that have actually (more…)
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