Fiction / March 2015 (Issue 27)

Glory Be To The Father

by Kyra Ballesteros

The house at the end of the street stood between two empty lots; its three western windows forlornly looked out over knee-high grass. Behind it, a wall of solid stone leaned over the street, a single piece of rock so massive it looked clean cut from a mountain. Belts of white, red and black lay atop each other, a timepiece unflinching about its history and the centuries that built it.

The Santiago house had no windows or doors facing the east. The setting sun threw long shadows on the empty lot adjacent. Anyone who saw it in the cool, red-orange haze of sunset—even those who, like Emil, were most familiar with the trick of the light and knew enough to squint against the illusion—would see two different houses, mirror images of each other. The bare face of the mountain behind it, the rough white granite and black rock, twisted the light to produce the phantom house.

When by chance Emil ferried a member of the Santiago household from the village to the bus stop along the main highway, he would park his tricycle in front of the immaterial house by mistake. He liked to think his one silver eye, unseeing, was to blame instead of any fault of his memory; it was easier to trick one eye than two.

The Santiago's house was the only residence in the village whose brick and concrete wall was not decorated on top with shards of broken glass. All the windows were sealed behind thin, metal grills. But this did little to discourage Emil.

It was while Emil considered the Santiago house and its blind face that he finally decided he could rob no house other than it. It was a decision he came to gradually, like he had been led down a path towards it, like he had been driven up to that choice not out of his own volition. He rubbed the knuckles of his left hand to keep himself from twitching nervously. Even to look upon the house heavy with the knowledge of future violence tortured him.

He was a short man and therefore unintimidating. His arms had always been longer than his torso and he had adapted the nickname they tortured him with into an act punctuated by beating his small, girlish hands on his chest. Emil cried Kong until he coughed or pretended to choke. It was easier, by far, to pander and play along.

Never before had he felt himself capable of anything violent even though his father, Pedring, another tricycle driver, had inculcated in both Florente brothers a sense of their weight and body by thrashing them regularly, sometimes for the sheer enjoyment of the exercise. Emil had grown up afraid but not angry as Pedring intended. The only memorabilia Emil still carried from the time his father beat the brothers with a cane was his silver eye.

Emil waited in the shadow of the house for the eldest Santiago girl, the last in the household to leave. Her parents left together a little after dawn, and her younger brother and sister left earlier for school. Emil knew all this. He knew the family by sight. He would recognise them in a crowd, even half-blind. It was only a matter of looking, recognising a pattern. When he had finally decided which home to rob, it surprised Emil how much he knew already and how prepared he was. There were only a few trees to hide behind on the Santiago's street and even these were far apart. There was little chance of cover along the empty road, but it was a simple matter of choosing a time when even the few neighbouring houses were empty.

Becoming impatient, Emil honked twice; he heard the blunt syllables flatten out over the wilting grass. They were stranded in the first few weeks of summer during which the temperature rose steeply every day. The Santiago house crouched sullen in the long grass, looking ready to leapfrog over Emil's blue sidecar.

A girl ran down the gravel path in a white shirt and checkered pants, a uniform Emil vaguely recognised. The way she was dressed, he could see her behind a counter baking bread. She wore her long hair in a tight bun high on her head, and her hands were as rough as his. Emil was looking at her bag. Today, the girl had brought only a slim case, too small for something like a laptop. The homeowners did not speak to the tricycle drivers above what was necessary, and the girl in his cab ignored him on their way to the drop-off point where she could wait for a van or a bus into the city.

This thought buzzed between his ears: the Santiago house would stand entirely empty the whole afternoon. The family kept no dogs, and the noisy mutts in the neighbourhood would be lulled to sleep by the dizzying heat. When he pulled up under the tricycle shed, Emil pressed a lukewarm bottle of water to his forehead to keep one of his afternoon headaches away. He pulled up his sleeves as high as they went and rolled his shoulders. A couple of men looked up from the cement bench.

Pedring loped over from the opposite sidewalk where he had lined up at a stall selling rice and meat in knotted sandwich bags. Pedring, his twisted foot in a thick black sock, was in a good mood. At sixty-seven, he continued to ride the same black motorcycle he bought when he was forty and the sole breadwinner of a hungry, all-male family. A month ago, he installed a new sidecar painted orange with white stripes. It came with a radio and an upholstered seat, a steal from the repair shop and garage that his elder son, Joel, recently put up. He was fourteenth in a line-up of thirty-five other drivers, often taking shifts after midnight. He was also an irredeemable drunk; he kept bottles of cheap gin and whiskey under the seat in his cab.

As greeting, Pedring cuffed Emil hard on the back of his head, the smaller man cringing more out of habit than pain. He handed Emil a leaf-wrapped piece of chicken, oily and unappetising in a sandwich bag. Emil rubbed his head and tore open the plastic with his teeth.

It was Pedring who'd pushed Emil into considering the Santiago house as the debut to his own life of crime. Pedring had, himself, robbed four different houses in the village, all without being caught. The bum foot was a blessing in disguise, he often said. The best talent, a remarkable gift. It elevated him beyond all accusation. The village guards, in identical black slacks and yawning leather shoes, rode scooters to the burgled residences, drew up lists of names and conspicuous characters. Pedring slipped under the radar as an alcohol-addled old man with a club foot. He was considered practically an invalid. Still, to be safe, Pedring preferred the small houses, the bungalows. These were easier on his foot. They were his style, his mark. A good thief was not so ungenerous that he did not leave clues.

Emil inspected his father's cab. The upholstered seat was so new it had not been unwrapped yet. Beneath the plastic sheath and the animal printed leather was his father's alcohol tightly capped and diluted with tap water. Emil, himself, prepared it every evening. He used cheap whiskey to mask the measured dose of gasoline he daily mixed with the whiskey, sugar and honey. Shaken well, the liquid was a clear, deep amber. Pedring suspected nothing.

 "Your brother called again," Pedring said cheerfully. He sucked his teeth clean. "Asking for his money back. How did I manage to raise so many ingrates?" Pedring laughed. He liked to get his way and his sons owed him many, many favours.

The chicken meat and skin clogged Emil's throat. He took a swig of water, swirled it round his mouth and swallowed painfully. Pedring looked around carefully, wiping his face with blunt, fat fingers.

"I have one son who refuses to support me and another, here, who cannot." He clamped a hand tightly around Emil's forearm and shook him a little. He had an audience already. The other drivers lounged together under the shed when there was no line of passengers waiting. Pedring's two sons had become a running joke among the TODA members. For as much of a disappointment Pedring was, his sons' most famous atrocity was also their redeeming quality: Emil and Joel were like their father in neither temperament nor behaviour. Emil was best known for following his father around to make sure Pedring's perennial inebriation did not land him in trouble.

Pedring took trophies from the houses he burgled. Emil had wanted his father jailed since Pedring had taken from the first house he'd burgled several scented candles with names like pacific breeze and floral garden. There were a couple of heavy spoons and forks. He would have taken some tall glasses, too, but those he could not carry easily in one hand. From another house, he had taken an old radio, several pillows, a wad of cash. Pedring had no qualms about stealing even a little food, things from a stocked pantry. A discerning thief, he took a little of everything. Pedring stole as much for the pleasure of the excursion as for the profit. As a rule, he never stole merchandise Joel's garage wouldn't buy or things tiny enough that they were not easily replaced. In this, he was not an ambitious thief. To know that he was thieving was enough. The new sidecar had been paid for, in part, by a few hundred-peso bills and a pair of expensive leather shoes pilfered from someone's pale yellow bungalow.

Should Emil have been grateful? Gratitude was for children, and Emil had been providing for himself long enough. Emil decided he would take, from the Santiago home, a pair of ceramic cats he had glimpsed just within the doorway. Emil would take both as trophies.

It terrified him that he knew what to take and how to do the taking. The windows on the first floor were all barred by thin metal grills, all except one used as a fire escape. The grills on that window swung from a pair of hinges, like a door. Done in an old style with plaster and metal, it was an easy thing to pry the windows open. He would not need to worry about breaking too many windows.

Pedring looked him up and down, nothing else to do in the heat. Like him, Emil was deformed a little with his monkey arms hanging low and the uncanny silver eye. Even the highway was empty and long. No one saw far on hot days when the light played tricks on their eyes and distorted even the snaking asphalt and concrete. From a distance, the white stripes painted on the orange cab would blur into one wide strip, the "14" barely recognisable on its wide back.

"Have you slept at all this week?" Emil asked. He decided he would not tell his father about the Santiago house, what he had decided to steal or when he would do the thieving. It would be a surprise, Emil thought, delivered to Pedring complete and inescapable. But for this, he needed his father's cab.

Pedring had a habit of avoiding sleep. Emil's father preferred passing out drunk to rest. If he could help it, Pedring preferred not to sleep at all. If he took his whiskey and water in the morning, Pedring could find a way to entertain himself with the world at least until the mid-afternoon the following day.

"Ingrate, I am not so lazy as you. You're practically a woman. Cleaning and cooking for me. I don't remember cutting off your balls. But you do scream pretty womanish," Pedring said, grabbing Emil by the neck and shaking him.

The insults stung as they always did. A routine of this did not lessen the sting, only taught Emil to brace for the blow.

"I only meant that you should sleep more."

"You sleep enough for both of us," said Pedring. "I'm forever coming home to stale rice you sleep so much."

"Well, if you come home now I shall make sure to prepare something more exciting than stale rice."

Pedring had not slept for two days, and he was in a fantastic mood. He was happiest after three days of sleeplessness. He often said he felt he had cheated death, stolen some life he was not meant to have. It was the stealing that excited Pedring. He stood straight and still, and no one who did not know about his whiskey and water—every morning, with his meals, and especially on hot days when the asphalt cracked and the air smoked—could know how far he was gone.

"Did you want to try again with my motor, son?" Pedring asked. "Take it if you must." Pedring waved in a careless manner. "If you can ride it, son, of course you may." He winked at the other drivers.

Pedring boasted often and loudly about the motorcycle and how number 14 did not require a key.

"You have to stroke it here and here," Pedring demonstrated. He sat astride, gripped the handlebars and twisted until the engine roared to life. It was a trick he had taught neither of his sons. "Lovely purring. See? She recognises me." He pumped his hips suggestively.

"You don't need number 14," said Emil. "Everyone recognises you. Every bungalow reminds us of you."

The drivers chuckled behind their hands. Some lowered their chins and pulled their collars over their mouths to stifle their laughter.

"But only bungalows. Stairs seem to scare you, old man," Emil said. His father did not rise to the bait, but he had done enough. "What do they say about men who cannot climb stairs? What about he who had never climbed a flight in his life?" Emil asked no one in particular.

Pedring burped. "Had you, didn't I? Although that says nothing but insult me. Do you mean to prove something, boy?"

Emil wore a tight smile, his long arms hanging limp. People were tired of Pedring and his jokes. All the drivers in the TODA knew about the pair of tiny, round switches he flicked simultaneously to start the engine. The older ones could recite Pedring's jokes, and the younger drivers stayed away from the old man prone to picking fights if he drank his whiskey and water too quickly in the morning. Today, when Emil decided to steal from the Santiagos, he had also decided he could no longer rely on the slow death from liquor and accidents. He would have to manufacture his own miracle.

Emil held up his hands.

"You need more sleep this week, old man." Emil said, hovering over his father while the old man spread out on a bench. The drivers on the bench moved off to give them a wide berth, hoping not to rouse another story from Pedring.

"A little every night. More than enough! The sun and light enliven the buzzing flies between my ears." Pedring threw an arm over his eyes. "Heh, heh. You should be glad of that silver eye. It's so bright these days."

He swayed where he stood, forty-eight hours on his feet finally catching up. Emil arranged Pedring's legs such that his club foot was safely under the bench where he lay.

"I'll take you home now before the passengers come," Emil said.

Crouching next to the bench, Emil slipped a hand beneath Pedring's torso to help him up. Eyes half-open and groggy, Pedring delivered a savage backhand. He caught Emil across the cheek. Emil's face burned and his ears rang with the blow. He covered his silver eye and brushed away a fat tear. Pedring had been careless and had hit hard enough to bruise. A small cut appeared just beneath Emil's sightless left eye. The drivers in the shed, motionless, listened to their exchange. It was not that they had never seen Pedring abuse his sons; instead, they hoped that Emil might finally do more than turn the other cheek. Not yet, Emil thought, covering his eye until the stinging stopped. But soon, so soon.

"You don't need to carry me like an infant monkey!" Pedring stood and settled himself in number 14. "What are you thinking? What do you know? You be careful. I know where you live." Chuckling, the old man would not be quiet.

"Will you steal from me, too, eh? What are you thinking?" Emil asked. "You will steal from anyone. How fortunate we are that you cannot run!"

"To steal you need your hands, not your feet." Pedring closed his eyes.


Emil decided not to wait for dark. He needed a little light for the task. It was late in the afternoon, the roads still hot and the dogs still deeply asleep, when Emil drove his father's cab into the village. Emil was surprised at how little guilt he felt robbing those that were there for the taking. And anyway, Emil reasoned, he would take only a little. He did not need to take much.

Emil enjoyed the company of the village guards, especially the younger ones on their first year of rotation. Emil relied, in particular, on Rommel's persistent infatuation and flirtations with some of the older stay-at-home mothers. Rommel was a large, broad-shouldered man who learnt that his size could be and was often mistaken for strength. He seduced women with it. In uniform and in the right light—the same treacherous light that produced the second house from air and rock—Rommel would strut into another man's house, unarmed save for his smile.

Rommel had a routine, a schedule. At half-past four, he hitched a ride with a tricycle to one of his housewives. The village seemed to exist on an independent loop, a sliver of time complete in itself. It was a small community of people who lived apart. He would make his way methodically from one street to the next, deeper into the village, until he had collected kisses and given away some of his own. Twice or more every week, Rommel disappeared into another man's house; daily, the wheels turned in place.

Secure in the knowledge that his father was asleep and safely in their home, Emil waited on his father's motorcycle. He imagined this was what Rommel felt when he walked unabashed into another man's life to steal, not possessions, but valuable time and flighty affection. He stored it up in the body like new flesh, new muscle and bone. It was exciting to move with the secret inside him. Emil felt lighter, not heavier with the knowledge. He was lifted above the machine that ground hours and days into the mundane. For a little while, he felt the weight of his ordinary life disappear.

Rommel was careful not to keep the housewives waiting. He planned his walk through the village to correspond with the hour and a half of fading light and the half-darkness of twilight. Rommel liked to think he was a ghost.

From where he had ridden into the subdivision through an unwatched gate to wait for Rommel to hitch a ride behind another driver, Emil scanned the line of tricycles slowly filtering into the village. His own cab, number 23, was farther along the line, driven by someone else.

This will be easy, Emil decided.

He could see only with one eye but he drove well. Responsible, in part, for maintaining his father's ride, Emil had kept the brakes well oiled so that both motor and cab ran quietly even over the rough, gravel backstreets. Keeping off the main avenues, Emil drove number 14 to the Santiago's house. He would need to wait for Rommel to walk past and make sure it was Rommel who caught him.

Emil parked the cab where the phantom house often appeared. The uncut grass and barrels of trash concealed the motorcycle; the naked soil absorbed the heat. Emil walked slowly out into the open. In the fading light, Emil stood back and saw that the white number was visible amid the green.

Soon, he would get caught. He rolled his shoulders, flexed his fingers and walked purposefully through the tall grass, approaching the waiting house from behind. At the back of the Santiago house where their wall met the rock face, Emil found an easy foothold. Hoisting himself up with his arms, he climbed over the wall and jumped into the backyard. The backdoor was locked. No matter. Emil found the window designated as a fire escape. It was easy to pry the grills open. In any case, the Santiagos had no neighbours near enough to hear him break the glass and take his first step into the house. The place seemed almost familiar. It presented itself shyly, at first. Shadows crouched in opaque corners opposite brightly green walls. The Santiago house was a box lit on one side by the setting sun. Emil followed the light into the airy living room. On a table beside the front door, Emil spotted a pair of ceramic cats, each the size of his fist. Emil did not touch them until he was ready to leave. He sat beside a window to wait.

Though it was true other guards policed the neighbourhood regularly and without the distraction of its women, Emil needed Rommel in particular. Someone who recognised how Pedring drove fast and slightly to the left, favouring his uninjured left foot, and that Emil ran slightly to the right because he could not see from his silver eye. And Emil needed someone who was bound to run late for an appointment with someone else's missus. Should he recognise that it was Emil climbing out of the house, Rommel would choose, in his mercy and wisdom, to lie and protect him who had discovered his secret trysts with different women. If Emil was caught, he would trade one secret for another.

Rommel waddled into view as the Santiago's phantom house appeared. The cats were cool to the touch, and he could not decide to take one or both. He wrapped them in the hem of his shirt, twisting the cloth high up his belly. He carried the cats in a pouch this way, with one hand on the bulge.

In the street, Rommel pissed against a tree and watched the daily mirage emerge. The heat had dissipated into a fragrant, late afternoon haze. He always expected the air to crack, some fissure to appear or the sky to either blacken or unseal itself for the illusion to creep through, but when the Santiago's second house appeared, glittering, in the middle of the empty lot, in front of the cliff face, there was no change in temperature. During this cool early evening, while an orange-red light coloured the wall of stone, Rommel's thoughts quieted, the ridges and uneven tracks that rocked his conscience flattened and his mind blanked, watching the image slowly glitter in the air, transparent and rootless where the grass swayed.

That afternoon, Rommel visited two women, one much older than the other, but both determined and frightening. One had come at him, demanding to be kissed, each kiss always harder than the last until Rommel's lips ached. The other, the younger, had been frightened and comely. She ran out to greet him only to slap him hard enough to burst his lower lip. She was jealous, she explained, of all the other women. Her husband she suspected of keeping concubines, was never home to feel the brunt of her anger. When he did return, the wife spent their time together trying to win him back. She was exhausted, and Rommel was a convenient way to retaliate. He was also, as far as she was concerned, a walking target. She had cursed him and bitten him when she kissed. Later, she cradled his head in her lap while she wept apologising for wasting their half-hour this way. How she needed him, she cooed. How else would she need him, she asked insistently.

Leaning carefully against rough bark, feeling the wound with his fingers, Rommel watched through the glittering illusion in the bright twilight as a man climbed the Santiago's wall. From where he stood, he could only watch the burglar through the phantom house. The crook ran like a gorilla, body bent and with one long arm thrown protectively over its bulging belly. For a moment, as the shadow passed through pillars of light and in his slowness, Rommel asked himself if the thief had eaten glass, if it had swallowed its prize, or if it was a ghost pregnant with haunting. The mirage that was all light filled his eyes, and the thief transformed back into a thief. It was less than that, even. It was some formless shadow crashing through the tall grass to a tricycle, one that Rommel instantly recognised.

Shouting, he ran toward the lot. The number was easy to see, he did not even need to hurry. Number 14 roared to life, leapt into the street and moved off. The sleeping dogs barked at the motorcycle and the policeman chasing it down the street. It sped toward the sun on the horizon, and it did not escape Rommel how it rode a little to its left, moving farther away in a lazy curved line. Its number was a white blur burned into Rommel's vision. The thief turned in his seat to fling a porcelain cat at Rommel who, eyes trained on the speeding culprit, saw it sail in a low arc and miss him where it landed with a little explosion. It shattered on the concrete. Rommel gathered the shards that he could, turning the large pieces over to reconstruct the design.


When Emil left Pedring to sleep, it was one of the rare occasions the older man had allowed himself to pass out. Despite himself, Pedring was a dedicated driver. Other than his daily drinks and perennial exhaustion, nothing pried him from his seat on the motor or from inspecting his cab. When he woke, number 14 was outside and his son, Emil, had set out a tall glass of gin and water. He could no longer stretch his body but its weight, it seemed to him, had settled in parts he could no longer move and there was an ache that had settled deeper than bones and his old flesh.

Their house was cramped, and he often wondered how three men had fit within it, marked their territories and not killed each other vying for space or dominance. Pedring laughed at the thought. It was true he had almost killed one or both of his sons on at least two separate occasions. No matter. Pedring had fallen asleep in the narrow loft that served as his children's bunk. Built like a large cabinet from planks hammered into the wall above the kitchen, the narrow sleeping space was enough for one grown man to lie comfortably. Emil usually took the hard loft, the coffin-like crawlspace, so Pedring could lie on his back on the cool tiles below. The cold helped with his back, Pedring had always insisted.

Neither Pedring nor Emil could stand on the loft. To reach the space where the support beams were strongest, the safest place to rest, Emil crawled on hands and knees. He had helped Pedring do so. Emil had insisted his father take the loft instead of the kitchen where, he said, he would need the space to prepare their dinner. He had lifted Pedring up the ladder, pushed the body like a sack into the darkest corner. Pedring called for Emil, but he found, reaching over to push himself off his belly, that his feet had been tied in his sleep.

Bound in the dark, Pedring cursed aloud and called his son. He heard the voices below him quiet and still.

"Sounds like he's awake, Emil. Do you want to take him down?"

"I will when the police come to claim him. I've done as the sergeant said, and I want him to see how fully I comply."

Pedring did not recognise the stranger's voice, but it was not unfamiliar. He could not lift his legs. In the dark, he could barely find himself.

Pedring called again, saying he would piss all over the ceiling if Emil did not come to untie him. He threatened to bring down the loft or break his back. To make good on his threat, he bucked on the floor. He pounded with fists and knees until his head spun and he crawled nearer the wall to avoid a puddle of vomit.

"Don't listen to him, Rommel," Emil said. Pedring inhaled the smoke of toasting chicken innards and heard hot oil sizzling angrily in a pan. "Haven't you listened enough to him? I should have gagged the old man. If only the sergeant had requested that as well."

The clatter of metal on glass, plates on his table. Pedring cursed all the louder. He was ignored so completely that his noise did not interrupt the conversation.

"Listen to him. He can hear us. He's listening."

"You cannot talk to him, Emil."

"I know. Thank you for saying that. Father, listen well. I cannot come to speak with you. Rommel here has stayed to make sure of that. I have many questions for you, but they must wait."

"I would answer all your questions, if I can." Rommel said.

Pedring heard them move around each other. Rommel dislodged several hanging frames, unfamiliar with the geography of their tiny house. Exhausted, Pedring pressed his forehead to the wood and forgot to listen.

"I only have one more. After all, you've answered and repeated yourself enough at the station. And the police had gotten all their facts straight, as you said. I must ask you, Rommel, how you can be sure it was my father on number 14."

"I didn't know for sure, I told the sergeant, but who else could it be?"

"You mean you did not see him?"

"I saw someone who drove the way you described. But the damning evidence was the porcelain cat you found in his cab. Its twin, such that remained of it, has been returned to the Santiago family."

"This is enough evidence to incarcerate anyone?"

"I brought evidence and you submitted someone who fits the story. Unless someone bothers to come and speak on his behalf."



After Pedring had shouted himself hoarse, Emil climbed the ladder to watch his father squirm. Emil's silver eye reflected the light from below.

"Policemen have come. They have come for you, you understand?" Emil whispered into the dark. "But do not worry. You will not long last in prison. I will continue to bring your whiskey. It will ease your troubles a little."

Emil held his head tilted to one side to see his father better. All Pedring saw was a larger, darker shadow. Pedring had always been that shadow, himself. It was about time, now, that he saw it himself. It was cool in the dark.

"It was not a good idea to rob the Santiagos, old man."

"I do not remember," said Pedring. He cursed again, under his breath. He was still so full of curses and disoriented by the dark and what he had heard that when he spat he missed Emil's cheek.

"How can I not remember? What did I take?"

"Nothing important. Nothing you sold. Nothing I could not recover."

Pedring's throat was dry. He began to want a little drink, just a drop so he could speak easier. Emil climbed down and reappeared with a bottle. Emil tipped some of the drink into Pedring's mouth. He swirled it around, made sure the flavor coated his teeth and tongue. It burned when he swallowed, but the honey-sweetness settled the violent sting of the gasoline.

"Are you sure you remember nothing? You say that to them. You tell them so," Emil said.

"You make sure to bring me drink all the days I am gone, boy."

Pedring asked for another mouthful. Anxious to leave the dark, he manoeuvred his body toward Emil. Father and son reached towards each other, arms outstretched. Emil took a firm grip and pulled. Pedring pushed himself forward on his belly, heaving and trembling, tears in his eyes.

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