I was short three hundred dollars for my dad’s coffin and fresh out of ideas. I’d tried just about everything: listened to the insufferable lecture from the owner of the Boulevard Funeral Home about the durability of the most expensive coffins; begged for a payment plan to no avail; and finally picked the cheapest coffin they had. I asked for an advance from my editor, but he said no because I wasn’t a regular employee, just freelance. I looked through my phone and didn’t know who to call: no siblings; my mom lived in Orlando with her new husband; my aunts were old, like too old to be asking them for money; my closest friends studied literature or were underpaid to give classes in Catholic schools and Raquel had already abandoned me for someone else. I couldn’t sell my Corolla because it wasn’t even really mine; it was the newspaper’s, and they had me sign a contract that said I was responsible for any accidents, theft, fires, broken windows, or paint scratches. It even said I had to return it with a full tank or I’d be charged per gallon and then some. So, driving all the way back to the office wasn’t an option; I decided to stay in Levittown until I could come up with the money.
I opened a pack of cigarettes in the funeral home parking lot and lit one, leaning against the flower boxes, hoping an idea would come to me. By then it was probably ten, maybe eleven in the morning; the only thing I could come up with was to cuss out my dad for having died when he did, and not before—after fucking up our lives, mine and my mom’s, shooting every ounce of heroin in the whole world. While I stood there smoking, whether out of rage or resignation, I can’t be sure, his revolver came to my mind: an old magnum that he’d brought back from Vietnam. I thought maybe I could sell it or pawn it and with the money maybe I could buy him a decent coffin. I was sure that he still kept the revolver in the same place as always: under his bed in the same shoebox where he kept the pictures of him and my mom on their wedding day.
I tossed the cigarette butt in the flower box and went into the funeral home to tell the owner that I’d be back the next day with the money for the coffin. “You have until 7 o’clock tonight,” he said, covering the bottom of the phone with his hand. I guess he was talking to another customer. He opened his desk drawer, took out a calculator, wrote a figure on the paper, and asked that I give him a few minutes. I couldn’t help but listen to his conversation, it sounded like a child had died or something because he was talking about measurements and custom coffins that cost more than any of the adult coffins he’d offered me. He was good, I won’t deny him that: his voice sounded professional, slow and smooth. He used the same exact lines that he’d used with me when I called.
I’m not sure how long I was waiting but it was long enough to get bored of the framed bible verses and wooden crosses that get hung in the offices of funeral homes for decoration. As soon as he hung up the phone, he apologized, the way a fat, bald man who dyes his beard black every week apologizes. He explained that my father’s body had been there almost two days and that by law he couldn’t keep a body for more than three. I asked him if he could give me a discount and he said he already had. “Without a coffin there’s no burial,” he said, putting on a stern voice. I got up from my chair in a rage and accidentally knocked into his desk, knocking over a family photo that was next to his computer. I didn’t pick it up and before walking out he told me not to forget to buy clothes for my father’s body. “They should be new,” he said, “including the underwear.” Why the fuck does a dead person need new underwear? The law requires it, he said, or I read on his face, and I walked out thinking of the only thing I could at that moment: my father’s revolver.
My father’s house was two blocks away from the funeral home, on the side of Route 165. It’d been two or three years since I’d been there. The last time was when he called me sounding desperate. He couldn’t find his vein. Almost all the houses around there had been converted into restaurants or storefront churches. The only house with its original design was my dad’s. He was one of the first people to buy there. They gave him a good price because he was a veteran in the early 70s, when Levittown was being made into what it is today: a suburb for lower middle class families or for Nuyoricans that decided to come back to the island. My dad liked to joke that “rich” people didn’t like Levittown, and that was why they’d all left. “This is all ours now,” he would say. “We can go fishing in the artificial lake as many times as we want.” We never went.
The house was abandoned. The grass was overgrown and threatening to climb in through the window. The old Datsun, motorless and missing half the parts, looked like a cracked-open lobster that even God was too scared to eat. I always carried a key in my wallet, but this time I didn’t need it: the door was half open and when I went in there was a smashed up TV sitting right in front of the doorway; as if someone had dropped it while they were trying to open the door. There was water seeping through the ceiling. It had carved out a large hole in the plaster; the rusty beams looked like airborne tree roots reaching for solid ground. On the floor there were buckets to catch the leaks between scattered puddles of water.
In the living room there was a fish tank on the ground with little aqua colored pebbles and no water. Inside it there was a miniature scuba diver next to a plastic treasure chest filled with chipped gold coins. Next to the tank there was a speaker, Pioneer brand, a record player and some soggy vinyl records. The kitchen was a pigsty. The freezer was missing, the cabinets half falling off the wall, and in the sink there was an army of empty tuna cans. One now served as a tin bed for a rat carcass that had decomposed to mostly just bones. The last time I talked with my dad he was complaining about the rats, that there were too many, more than in Vietnam, he said, “They’re putting in too many businesses around here now. Fried food, pizza, oysters, clams, and the smell attracts the rats. The other day somebody called the police saying I was shooting at the rats … those fuckers. As if my aim were that good.”
I went into the bedroom to see if I could find the revolver. The bed was gone. In its place was a military cot, clothes on the ground, and a tall stack of records, in better shape than the ones in the living room, stacked up like a makeshift bedside table with a Jimmy Hendrix record as the table top. On it, a lamp with no lightbulb and an Elmore Leonard Western novel. My dad loved cowboys and I’ve never understood why. I can still see him reading in his hammock, looking like a hippie: a grey streaked ponytail and week-old stubble. Next to the cot I found some sneakers, old wet clothes, and a bag of Wilson baseball bats. Inside there were two bats, my old glove, and a baseball cap that said The Levittown Squids. I zipped it back up and moved it next to the door so I’d remember to take it with me. I put it there like I already knew it was the only thing that he’d left for me to inherit.
The shoebox was in its place under the cot. I was happy it was still there. When I was a kid and no one was around, I used to open the box to look inside it. I’d aim it at everything that moved. Frogs, lizards, flies, ants, cockroaches, windows, clouds, and God (in that order). My dad never noticed: the weed made him sleepy, the liquor made him snore, and then the heroin made him basically invisible. I never pulled the trigger, but now I think maybe I should have. Maybe then things would have turned out differently, maybe even things with Raquel.
But the revolver wasn’t in its box. Just bullet casings, pictures, papers in ziplock bags, and rat shit. I went out to the car to get some gloves; I always carried some with me in case I arrived to a murder scene or a fatal accident before the police did. I sat down on the cot to look through it. I didn’t want to get caught up looking at pictures; I didn’t have a lot of time. Of all the ziploc bags, just one had pictures in it. I opened it thinking I might find the paperwork for the gun. Instead I found newspaper clippings; yellowed and folded. They were all the articles and reports that I’d ever written for the paper. I hated to see my name repeated below those ridiculous headlines that I never have any say over. “Four people burned to death on Christmas Eve”; “Young mother found dismembered”; “The first massacre of the new year”; “Man kills family before failed suicide.” There were some others, but I put them back in the ziploc and started missing my dad calling me all proud because his son was a journalist. How the fuck did he get himself so excited over this shit?
I put the top back on the shoe box, grabbed the bag with the baseball bats, some records—the five that I could salvage—and the record player to see if I could get any money for it. I put everything in the trunk, got into the Corolla and drove towards Boulevard Ave in search of a pawn shop.
Some things hadn’t changed: the water tank hadn’t moved. The top of the tank still said “Levittown, Toa Baja.” I remembered my dad used to say the tank looked like a giant squid, like the ones in movies from the 50s that would eat part of a ship and the crew would cut off its tentacles with axes; and the tentacles would spew black ink all over. I kept searching: dental clinic, tire shop, Taco Land, Los Cerditos, Wah Lunng, Levittown Mufflers, Cariños Pizza, Laboratory Boulevard. I found a pawn shop between two closed down bars; one of which was abandoned. The owner was old and skinny, some might say emaciated. I’d guess he was around seventy. I took out the records and the record player and put them in the window: one Jimmy Hendrix, three Bob Dylan, and two Dizzy Gillespie. When he saw them he looked at me over his glasses: “Are you Manny’s kid?” he asked. I smiled and told him yes; it’d been ages since I’d heard anyone call him by his nickname. “Your dad tried to sell all this stuff to me a few months ago.” I told him that he had died and he didn’t believe me. He said my dad had swindled him a bunch of times and he wasn’t about to let it happen again. “I’ll believe it when I see him lying in a wooden box,” he said. I didn’t have the energy to prove it to him. I don’t know how I would have anyway, there was no funeral to invite him to. I gathered up the records and when I was about to walk out the door he stopped me. “I’m going to help you out. You, not your dad”, he said. I put the records back in the store window. For a second I thought about keeping one, maybe one of Dizzy’s.
I remember the day my dad bought us tickets to see Dizzy play. I agreed to go with him, but right before leaving I got a call from the newspaper. It was an emergency; they didn’t have anyone to cover a double homicide in a motel in Toa Baja. He understood. It wasn’t even really a double homicide, it was a married couple that died from carbon monoxide poisoning. They wanted to have a threesome but the woman they were waiting for took too long. I can still remember their bodies, the interviews I did, the woman who found them, and the fucking headline they wrote: “They planned for a threesome and wound up dead.” My boss wrote that. I told him he was an asshole and self-righteous and I can’t remember what else. They didn’t fire me because—I suspect—there is no worse job than being a freelance journalist. They printed the headline anyway. My dad didn’t call me when the article came out, like he always did; I called him instead. We drank a couple of beers at La Peseta and afterwards we went to buy weed at the old high school track. It was my idea and it was the first—and only—time that we got high together.
I left the Dizzy record next to the others because I needed the money. The owner gave me seventy bucks for everything. I took it because I felt like he was doing me a favor, even though I knew if I had taken them to a record collector they would’ve given me at least two hundred. Before leaving I asked him if by any chance my dad had been in to pawn a revolver. He said no, that he didn’t buy or sell guns in his shop, that for that you’d have to go to some other town: Sabana Seca or Candelaria, but he wouldn’t recommend it. I thanked him and left.
At three in the afternoon I was still short two hundred dollars. Not even counting the new clothes; I was thinking a nice white linen button up or a baseball shirt, not the Yankees, obviously. I drove aimlessly down the Boulevard because I didn’t know what else to do. I called my editor and gave him the sob story: that my dad had died, that I was in Levittown, that I needed money for the funeral (I didn’t want to get into the details), and that he please assign me something, anything, that I could write at that very instant. “Didn’t your dad die a while back?” he said. It was a legitimate question: my dad had been almost dying from overdoses for a few years now. “But this time it’s for sure; he’s dead for good now,” I told him. He was quiet and then he told me that he thought he had something for me. He said to hang tight, and wait for his call. Then he offered to publish the obituary, free of charge. I thanked him before telling him to go fuck himself. “I’m not fucking around, Vargas.” I said. “Neither am I.” He told me that when his dad died it cost him a shit-ton: “Five thousand dollars, Dani. I had to get an emergency loan from one of those shitty payday lenders. They only gave me the money because I was full time at the newspaper.” He offered me his condolences and told me to keep my phone on me, he was going to talk to the guy who did the police blotter, and he would call me.
I stopped at the Shell station at Lago Vista. While the gas was pumping I started to wish that something tragic would happen. I looked over at the car next to me and saw a guy filling a container up with gas and I wanted him to spray the woman in the front seat, after dumping it all over himself. I wanted him to take out a lighter and to light them both on fire. Then I started to imagine an assault, a fatal accident on the Boulevard, a whole family drowning in an artificial lake, a drive-by shooting. I shook the nozzle and decided it would be better to cover a massacre, because they pay better, because people buy more newspapers when things like that happen, and you can hear people on the street talking about how things are going down the tubes. That was the first time I felt different, like things would never be like they were before.
I screwed the top onto the tank, got into the car and thought about my dad; about death and about my dad. The first time I ever thought about death I was with him. It was a summer afternoon, a little before sunset, and long before he decided to get back together with my mom. I was seven or eight years old, and we were walking on the side of Route 165, the one that connects Dorado to Levittown. I don’t remember how we were dressed; I do remember grass on one side, and the ocean on the other. In one hand my dad had a thick red container of gasoline, and with the other he held mine. Still if I close my eyes, I can see my hand inside his, thick and calloused. I remember it because he was squeezing hard, like all the times he hadn’t held my hand had welled up in him, or like he never learned how to draw the line between love and harm. I didn’t care why his car ran out of gas, or how dangerous it was to walk on the shoulder of the highway, or how much further we had to go. All I wanted was for him to never let go. I just wanted the night to go on surprising us like that, with his hand squeezing mine.
Just when I was about to give up, I got a call from my editor. He said I was in luck, someone had been murdered at a new housing development, Camino del Mar, off Route 165. “I want good pictures, Dani.” I told him not to worry, I would take them on my phone and send them along with the article. I wrote down the house number and started driving. My heart was beating fast, fast enough to name each beat, and when I put on my press pass I swear my laminated picture was beating too.
It was easy to find the house because there was a police car in the driveway and a cop talking on the phone on the front steps. It looked like he was talking with a woman because he was smiling the way people smile when they’re trying to convince a woman of her own beauty. He let me in when he saw my pass. “It’s out back on the patio next to the pool. Don’t touch anything,” he said. I felt disappointed when he said “it’s out back” because I’d hoped there’d be more than one body. Just not a kid drowned in the pool. One time I covered one of those stories and afterwards I called Raquel half crying telling her I wanted to fill her with babies, but we should never get a pool. That was the turning point when everything started to go to shit.
The house was fancy, like maybe the owner was a doctor or an engineer, or a dentist. There was no trace of violence in the house but there were traces of a party. There were plates of food in the kitchen and living room; cheese plates, tostitos, guacamole, salsas covered with flies. As soon as I stepped out to the patio I saw a dead woman on the ground, face down, in a bathing suit. She was right on the edge of the pool, about to fall in, as if she’d dragged herself outside to try to hide in the water, or call for help, because there was a cell phone lying at the bottom of the pool. She was blonde and her eyes were open. Around thirty-five years old, maybe forty. Because her eyes were open, it seemed like she was looking at her reflection in the water. She’d been shot several times in the back and had her hand was stretched out over the surface of the water. A lot of blood ran down her arm and into the pool, but not enough to turn the water red. There was an inflatable dinosaur floating around in the pool, one of those long-necked ones that only eat plants.
I took some pictures; some close up, some from far away. I took a few steps back onto the grass to get the right angle, and tripped over something. At first I thought it was a baseball bat. But when I looked down I saw it was a shotgun. While photographing it, I thought about my dad, about his coffin, even about Raquel. I thought maybe I could get three hundred for it, maybe four, to be honest I didn’t really know. It would be too obvious if I just picked it up and carried it out, even if I covered it with one of the pool towels that were hanging on the backs of the pool chairs. Then I remembered my dad’s bag of baseball bats in the trunk. I went back in the house, crossed the living room to the front door, and saw that the police officer was still talking on the phone. I told him I was going to my car for a second to look for my tripod. I didn’t have a camera or a tripod, but it was the only thing I could think of in the moment to tell him. I opened the trunk and grabbed the bag. The cop wasn’t even looking, he was asking a woman to get ice cream with him or something like that. “Come on, it’ll be fast, no one will recognize us: I’ll pick you up in the squad car and turn the siren on for you. I know you like when I turn on the siren,” he was saying.
Quickly, I went back in, opened the bag, and stuck the shotgun in with the bats. I didn’t know if it was loaded, or really anything about guns. It was warm, that I knew, but I imagined that was because the sun had been beating down on it. I played it cool for a while, waited a few minutes, and left; the cop had his back to me when I passed by him. I put the bag in the trunk, turned right out of the driveway and got on Route 165. My hands were shaking so much I could barely hold my cigarette. I realized I didn’t know who to sell it to. It was 5pm and I wasn’t hungry. I turned at the light at Campo Mar Restaurant, got back on the Boulevard to head towards the track; I was sure the same guy that sold me weed the last time would still be there, and maybe he could help me out with the shotgun. When I got there it was just people exercising, and some old people out for an afternoon walk.
After driving in circles looking for someone to buy the shotgun, I ended up back at the funeral home. I didn’t park because there was a funeral going on, or so it seemed. So I parked up the road in front of Cano’s Pizza. Inside there was a t-ball team eating slices of pizza. The smell made me hungry. I counted up what I was still missing and knew that I wasn’t going to get the money in time: my dad would have to stay there, frozen in a freezer. The only thing I had left to do was write the article for the newspaper, but I didn’t want to, not after stealing the gun. If I wrote it I could incriminate myself. Or maybe not. Maybe that would keep me from being a suspect. What if I wrote it under a pseudonym? Would the newspaper protect me if somebody said the scene had been tampered with? What if I assaulted the guy at the funeral home? I could just go in with the bag and no one would notice. What if I asked the guy to just give me my dad’s body? I wouldn’t even have to point the gun at him, I could just open the bag, threaten him a little. Could I fit the body in the trunk? Maybe in the back seat. I could just bring him to another funeral home. But they’d know something was up, they’d call the police. I was still sitting in the car. Hadn’t even turned off the engine. Just kept smoking and thinking.
I kept looking at the boys inside eating pizza. It looked like they’d won their game. Their uniform was the same as it had been for years: blue hats with an L and an S, a white shirt with the symbol of a squid printed on it with its tentacles stretched out around a baseball. I remember when my dad wanted me to join The Levittown Squids; I was never any good at baseball, I liked it, but frankly I didn’t have the talent: I knew so because I would shut my eyes when the ball came at me. It was an involuntary movement. An excess of instinct, perhaps. I tried a bunch of times until one hit me in the forehead. Had to get seven stitches. I still have a scar on my left eyebrow that Raquel always liked; she said it went well with my face and she couldn’t imagine me without it. I had an urge to call her, but resisted it. Just then, something terrible entered my head; something God-awful, something beautiful.
I could see the headline: “Journalist mugs pizza shop to buy a coffin for his father.” I thought of the black ink letters on the front page; I imagined my life in prison, talking with the other prisoners about my articles in the paper, all the times their lives had been saved by them, because they were the only way to prove they had done their jobs. I imagined conversations with Raquel from prison. I imagined her visits and her promises: that she was going to leave the lawyer for me or maybe the lawyer would help me to appeal my case. I thought about my dad at the funeral home, frozen and happy. So I grabbed my bag, put my press pass around my neck, and felt—and I still feel—that the best part of my life was just beginning, and that nothing would ever be the same.
Translated by Heather Houde
Heather Houde is a Philadelphia based visual artist, writer, and translator. Her first book of short stories, titled Thin Skinned, will be published in Fall 2021 with Puerto Rico/Philadelphia-based editorial Antípoda. Her story “The Battered Madonna” was featured in A Gathering of the Tribes magazine. She is currently working on a comic book of poetry, slated to be published in 2022. She teaches English as a Second Language to adults at the Free Library of Philadelphia, where she is lucky to share her love of reading, writing, and language everyday.