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 affected history.”
His cigarette smoke climbed the wall like it was breaking out of prison. The security wall, although fairly high, did not guarantee safety in that neighborhood. Just two months before I got there Leandro’s motorcycle had been lifted, literally lifted, by some guys who scaled the barricade one night and handed it over to several more men on the other side. The next day Leandro found half a sausage on the lawn. Apparently that’s how they discovered which yards had guard dogs. The theft was so well done that Leandro was inspired to copy it with his friends. He told me about it with a laugh, pointing to the new motorcycle in the corner. I noticed that this one was securely chained to a post.
“Seems kind of dumb,” I said. “Sounds like a lot of risk, with not much to show for it.”
He stiffened and cocked his head.
“I mean, how much money can there be in a few bikes, when it gets split between the eight guys needed to steal them? And if one gets caught there’s a lot of people he can rat out to save himself. Hardly seems worth it.” I don’t know why I said it. I guess I wanted to sound worldly—as grown up as Leandro made me feel.
“What the fuck do you know?” Leandro said. “Any business makes money if you do enough volume.” He twisted his cigarette underfoot and stalked off, dumping the pillow on the ground like an orphan.
Leandro’s room was so crammed there was hardly space to walk without stepping on someone or their luggage. I slept on his floor next to two of my younger brothers. Leandro left the night of our argument. He didn’t return for ten days.
While he was gone we toured the Colón Theater and the Obelisk with Aunt Clara. We even got dressed up to watch some choreographed tango over inferior steaks in a restaurant full of European and Japanese tourists. My uncle was absent during the sightseeing. I tried to corner him when I could but he deflected questions about my father with jokes, or talked with others to avoid me. He only said two things related to my dad. At breakfast one morning he told me, “You sound just like him when you snore. Kept us up half the night.” And the second thing he said after Mama had spent the day with us at his house. She was leaving. He leaned in the doorway, watching, his belly hanging over his belt. “He had good taste, I’ll give him that.” Chocho’s eyes followed my mother’s departing figure until the cab sped off with a methane putter. “Your dad married pretty,” Chocho said. He tapped a thick finger to his temple. “But I married rich.”
Leandro finally came back. We all sat around the table eating dinner and Clara made a big deal about how he’d gotten a job. “Where is the neighborhood again?” she’d ask, and “Is it true there are two kitchens in that house?” She dropped these questions anytime one of us changed the subject, trying to reinforce the idea of work in his head, demonstrating how gainful employment equaled family admiration. We listened politely. It didn’t sound like much. He’d been hired by an elderly couple to house-sit their mansion in Belgrano for a month. His new employers were old friends and neighbors of our recently deceased, and less-recently wealthy, grandparents.
At dinner that night Leandro didn’t seem mad at me anymore. He joked and bragged same as ever. After everyone had gone to bed I lay awake on the floor of his room while he packed clean clothes in the dark, his face softly orange in the glowing firebrand of the coiled mosquito repellent. The windows admitting a hot breeze, thick with the sweet-piss smell of purple jacaranda. My two younger brothers slept on top of their sheets.
“Heading to work?” I said.
“About the other night.”
“Forget it, cousin.” Leandro paused in the doorway, framed in light. He came back into the room and bent down, gently poking my brothers in the ribs. Enrique, the youngest, turned over, a shine of drool across his cheek. Convinced they were really asleep, Leandro turned to me and whispered, “Can you keep a secret?”
I dressed and followed him. We crept through the hallway, shoes in hand. We exited the courtyard and he locked the gate. The air was as hot as during the daytime. We passed the San Isidro Hippodrome on our way to the station. We found a bench not yet claimed by a bum and he passed his flask. We didn’t talk. We boarded the train and I pressed the tissue-thin ticket in my sweaty palm until we arrived in Belgrano. From there we walked to the mansion. The exterior was completely dark. The two closest streetlights were mysteriously out; shadow enveloped the exterior. We opened the gate and stole up the drive to the imposing garage door—nine feet of wrought iron and frosted glass.
The coolness of a cellar greeted us. Thick walls of stone insulated the interior. The blackness was complete. Leandro lit our way with a cupped match up the smooth steps to the main floor, toward heat and more light.
The place had been turned into a shanty. Oily wrappers and food boxes hid the shards of broken glass that seemed to be everywhere. Half a dozen sleeping bags littered the floor like ruptured cocoons. A small group sat drinking on an upended bookcase, glaring at me. Leandro nodded to them, handing over three bottles of Quilmes from his backpack. He introduced me as his cousin. They made a half-hearted display of giving a shit and then ignored me. We headed upstairs. Sheets of plaster dangled in strips, revealing the age-darkened guts of the walls. Brown tubes of copper pipe, shiny at each end from fresh cuts, lay stacked nearby like cordwood. The Italian and Portuguese marble had been ripped out. Balustrades, banisters, and stair façades—all gone. Where a gorgeous chandelier had hung, wires now sprouted like severed veins from a pulled tooth. Even the fireplace mantle had been taken. There were discolored patches on the tile floor, recently covered by antique furniture. Little islands of dust and lint were all that remained. I knew what the place had looked like because of the scattered photographs, torn out and discarded from frames already pawned. In one picture a couple posed on a rococo settee. In another toddlers bellied along a Persian rug. The mansion probably would’ve been the most beautiful home I’d seen, had I gotten there just two weeks earlier.
“See, we have it all planned in stages.” Leandro cast an arc with his arm like a tour guide. By day he and his friends methodically dismantled the house, conveying the valuables to the attached garage below. Everything was laid out in the order it would be loaded for transport. At two or three in the morning they carefully packed a truck in complete darkness. They wore dark clothes for this operation and nobody was allowed a word or even a smoke, in case one red ember should give them away. The mansion stood on the side of a slight incline, so they coasted to the house with the motor dead and set the parking brake. After loading they’d roll the truck to the end of the street, fire it up, and drive off with the goods. With these precautions Leandro was sure no neighbors would get wise. “We can fill the truck in fifteen minutes,” he said, manic and beaming. “I haven’t shown you the best part!”
The master bedroom was empty except for a mattress and a large metal cube, which I eventually realized was a safe. There were tools all over it: a hammer and acetylene torch, a drill, bits, chisels. Someone had been trying hard to open the thing, but it looked barely scratched. I felt lightheaded. People didn’t trust banks in Argentina then, most still don’t. Every few years some CEO embezzles or a bank goes under and everyone loses their savings. Many try to protect their assets in other ways. Considering the wealth of the owners, the safe likely held a genuine fortune.
“What’s inside?” I said.
“No idea.” Leandro’s eyes crinkled. “Money, jewels. Who knows. Exciting, right?”
“How long you been trying to open it?”
“All this time. I thought it would be easy but this thing is for real. I’ve gone through dozens of drill bits.” He scratched his neck idly as he stared at it. “Meanwhile, it just made sense—from a return on investment standpoint—to get the other stuff out of here and make a profit while I figured out how to open it.” He eyed me peripherally as he said that last part. I was overwhelmed. Prior to that night, my cousin had just been my cousin. For a laugh we used to pee off the roof of our grandmother’s apartment building in Almagro when we were kids, thirteen floors up, afraid to look over and see who we might have hit. We both had the same spark of mischief, but this wasn’t ordinary mischief.
“We spent a lot on these tools,” Leandro said, “but my baby here still hasn’t given it up. I have a backup plan. If I can’t open it before the owners return, I found a guy who specializes in this sort of thing. He said he’d do it but he wants half of whatever’s inside.”
I put one hand to the wall to steady myself. I hid my discomfort by speaking. “Well, half of something is better than all of nothing, right?”
“Maybe,” he said. “But I don’t trust him. He might just get it open and decide to keep everything. Or he might let me walk out with my half and try to roll me later.”
A photo I’d found on the ground, and still held, was now moist with the sweat of my hand. I dropped it, realizing my fingerprints were all over the house. I felt claustrophobic. I looked back to the stairs. Cops could show up anytime, or worse, the criminals he’d approached about the safe. They might be following him around even now, waiting for their chance. They knew he had a safe, or whatever was inside it, and robbing him would be easier than getting into another mansion on their own.
Leandro pulled aside his shirt as if he could hear my thoughts. The handle of a mangled revolver jutted above his waistband like a deformed phallus. The hammer had been filed down and the trigger guard was missing. The finish was worn off and bright metal gleamed around the blackened grooves. I doubted the thing could be trusted not to explode in his hand. A scene flashed in my head: Leandro walking, the bang of a misfire, red down his leg. I cringed. Again Leandro smiled.
“Don’t worry, Pablito,” he said. “I can take care of myself.”
“Man, Leandro.” I looked around, imagining what the owners would think. “This is too much, these people….” I sensed his pending disapproval and changed direction. “How do you plan to get away with this?”
“How can I not get away with it?” Leandro said. “The old folks are in Nice or Marseille or some shit. Not due for two weeks. Two days before they get back I’ll say a family emergency came up and I had to leave town. I’ll even drop the keys off at the neighbor’s—make it look all official. Then I’ll come smash the door lock at night, make it look like forced entry. I can’t help it if someone happened to break in and steal everything during the time that I wasn’t here.” He laughed, hand on my shoulder. He passed me his flask. I took a long drink, and another. He snatched it back. “Jesus, save some.”
He said I couldn’t stay and leave by daylight, so we went back to Chocho’s. I’d gotten so drunk he was able to convince me to help sneak the safe back to the house. On the train home we kept it between us, trying to look casual at 5am, our arms sweat soaking the wool blanket we used to hide it.
When I woke Leandro was gone. The safe sat hidden in the closet. Everyone else had gone to the park, leaving me in bed when I refused to get up, hungover for the first time.
Chocho was downstairs on the computer. I knew he didn’t work much, but what I didn’t really understand was just how rich Aunt Clara had been when they married and how, over the course of their union, he’d stayed idle by systematically selling everything of value from her inheritance—every house, stock, and silver fork. Like a leech he slowly bled her. And he had a lot of leverage, what with four kids to raise and the fact that Clara was devoutly Catholic. She’d never divorce if she could help it. After his wedding Chocho grew out his course facial hair to help cover the squatter’s memento. The comparisons sometimes made between him and Blackbeard the pirate took on new meaning when I realized how he’d gotten along all these years, holding his own wife for ransom.
My head pulsed. I needed water like a frog. Chocho must have heard me enter the room but he didn’t turn or acknowledge me. I was reeling from Leandro’s crime, and still I couldn’t get a word out of Chocho. I thought the trip was going to be about finding out where I came from. I expected to learn who my uncle was, and by extension, who was my father. But he acted like I wasn’t even there.
Maybe I was still drunk. I decided he wasn’t getting away without telling me something important, something I could keep. I confronted him. Chocho danced around the subject. He talked about how tall my side of the family was, unlike his kids. He blamed the Argentine government, which didn’t regulate vitamin fortification of bread and milk.
“What does any of that have to do with my dad?” The sound of my shout hurt my head. “Why won’t you tell me about him?”
He looked daintily affronted, like I’d accused him of sipping from the finger bowl. “Fine,” he said. “You look like him.”
Everyone knew that. “What else?”
“I don’t know. I didn’t know your father well, truth be told. He was a few years older. He went to college and then he moved with your mom to the States so I didn’t see him often. I really can’t say much.”
“But he was your brother! You can’t tell me anything?”
I was quiet, fuming. “Why are you holding out on me?”
His brow furrowed. He looked away. “What do you want to hear? Your dad was great? Everyone loved him? Well, that wasn’t my experience.”
“So what was your experience?”
He was silent so I stared until he finally muttered a swear and looked back, face hard. “My experience was that nobody gave a shit about me, alright? When he was given a new bike I got his old one. One day I come home and your dad has sold my bike to buy a model airplane. Did anyone say that was not okay? No! Your father got everything and I got nothing. My mother worshipped him, and treated me like his used diaper.”
“Seriously?” I cracked a smile. Chocho was over sixty, and he was still upset about a bicycle he lost when he was ten? My reaction sparked something in him and he got even hotter.
“You think that’s funny? That was my life. You want to know my experience? You got it. Your dad was an asshole. I hated him. I’m glad he’s dead. How’s that?”
I don’t know what came over me. Maybe it was nerves. I laughed. I did feel for him, but there was a part of me that didn’t get it. I didn’t know how to respond. Was he really pinning everything on a dead brother? My big brother Frankie knocked the snot out of my head almost daily, but you didn’t see me crying. If anything Frank made me tough. The more I tried to stifle my reaction the funnier I found it.
Chocho’s eyes twinged red and saliva dropped into his beard as he yelled. “Yeah. Hilarious. Your dad became a doctor and moved to the US and did all these wonderful things, and what happened? He was a terrible father, wasn’t around for his family, and was a bloody alcoholic. Then he died and left an army of kids for your mom to raise. Is that what a man does? If he really gave a crap about all of you he wouldn’t have smoked and drank and worked himself into a fucking heart attack. How do you like that, you little shit?”
Chocho stopped, suddenly realizing he’d risen to his feet. He sat back down, flattened the stray hairs on his bald head with the sweat from his brow, and settled his breathing. After several moments he spoke. “I should’ve known one of you would ask me these things one day. It’s not your fault. Of course you’re curious. But there’s no point looking for something not there. What he was to me isn’t for you.” He paused, scowling, dark eyes level with mine. “Why don’t you stop living in the past and come live in Argentina? Stay here. Experience having a real father.” He said this last part with a tight lip, as if preventing a grin, but a hint of satisfaction came through as he tossed one arm over the chair back, recomposed, triumphant. There was the clench of his jaw, the chest thrust out like a prizefighter. I swear I tried. I couldn’t help myself. He just looked so smug.
“You going to be a good daddy to me, Tío?” I said. “Gonna raise me right? Like you did with Leandro?” His facial muscles relaxed into a death mask. I couldn’t stop. It just came out. “Why don’t you go look in Leandro’s closet? See what kind of father you are.”
I phoned Leandro at the mansion and told him Chocho had found the safe and called the cops. Leandro began to curse and panic. He begged me to get his passport and more clothes, to try and get some money, to meet him at the port downtown. “Don’t forget the money,” he said. I found Chocho’s wallet upstairs, emptied it, and ran for the train to Retiro.
Leandro was waiting by the ferry, looking like someone had wiped the color off his skin with a sponge.
He would escape to Uruguay minutes before the police arrived at Chocho’s door. The cops found the still unopened strongbox in Leandro’s closet, right where Chocho said it was. My uncle saved himself by giving Leandro up. He feared the police might claim he was complicit in the mansion heist. From Montevideo Leandro caught several connections, ending up in Bangkok. For fifteen years I believed he was there but at some point he must’ve come back because some cousins say they’ve seen him, waiting tables at a bar.
Just before he got on the ferry I handed him his bag. He put it down and held his arms out like a dying man, like he’d never again see home or a familiar face. He’d been waiting for hours, thinking I can’t imagine what about his future. He embraced me like a brother, and even worse, thanked me for my help. I wanted to tell him what I did but I couldn’t.
He asked me if his father was angry. It seemed to me that Chocho cared less about what Leandro had done and more about whether it was going to get Chocho himself thrown in jail. I didn’t tell Leandro that.
“You want to know the dumbest part?” Leandro laughed. The sound was hollow and humorless, like a stick knocking against a tree. “I did it to impress you.”
I told him I didn’t understand.
He shook his head like nobody could be so dense. “It was for you,” he said. “I was trying to impress my American cousin.”
He left. He got on the boat and I waited there, watching. A fog was blowing in from the Atlantic and it thickened as the ferry idled. I watched him watching me, and the city, through the window. They set sail and the mist expanded until it engulfed him, the boat, the port and Buenos Aires—all of Argentina—just swallowed the whole damn thing up.
Andrés Carlstein is an Assistant Adjunct Professor at the University of Iowa and the author of Odyssey to Ushuaia, a Motorcycling Adventure from New York to Tierra del Fuego. He is a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, where he was an Arts Fellow. He was a 2012 and 2013 Yaddo Residency Fellow, and a 2012 MacDowell Colony Fellow. His short story, The Lindbergh Baby, was a finalist for the 2013 Doug Fir Fiction Award. He lives in Iowa City and is finishing a novel.