There was a bit of marinara sauce spilled out on the counter in a cluster of islands. Four blotches of red, decreasing in size and arcing away from the stovetop like Hawaii. The sauce was cold and was slowly drying up, and soon it would take a sponge and some stern scrubbing to remove the fiftieth state from the Formica. For now it curdled slowly like lava, stagnant though, not oozing, in little pools made from drips from a ladle that had spooned out too quickly the night’s meal.
Felipe wasn’t home, and this explained the spillage. If he had been there, the sauce would have been poured out generously, but with a deft hand. If he had been there, any droplets on the countertop would have been due to the carelessness of another, likely one of his sister Elena’s brood—four boys, each with black hair styled like sea urchins, who yelled and leaped and made havoc in a house made for quiet people. His sister had chosen the house because of Felipe. She had learned a little from him, and the ways he was different from her ex-husband, and had chosen the place in hopes that it would foster the same sort of responsibility, the same sort of dignity, in her own children. The experiment, still in its early stages, had thus far been a struggle.
The house was a small, brick thing in a grove of cul-de-sacs populated exclusively by small, brick things. The house still stood out though, because of a plot of peonies that Felipe himself tended to every morning before he left the place, which he was staying in until his sister got herself together. The flowers were a faint, feathery shade of lavender with swirls of petals that seemed to house within them the very essence of the man who cared for them. They thrived in a piece of earth much too small for their number, and the only likely reason for their continued survival was a sort of fastidiousness on their part, a determination to make themselves stand out amidst a two-tone world of brick and grass, a desire most definitely cultivated by Felipe. Every morning he would rise from the sofa bed in the living room and retrieve the newspaper from the sidewalk outside, wash and shave his face with a set of razorblades the way his father had taught him, dress for his job as a letter carrier in the city, and then quietly step across the lawn to his flowers, where he watered them from a green and yellow hose and made sure the earth around them was as dark and deep as black before he went on his way. On days when he felt he needed some sort of reassurance he would pluck a single petal from the most robust flower and put it in his pocket, and it would rest there all day until it was needed, when he was paused on a porch after an awkward exchange with the lady of the house and he needed to be told that he was good, and the petal was happy to oblige.
Felipe had to walk about a mile every morning to a bus stop by the entrance to the very first of cul-de-sacs, which when he looked back over his shoulder sprawled like cherry blossoms into nothing. That walk was one he made cheerfully, because he believed in mornings. He thought that they were like promises made by children to their friends, they were innocent and made about simple things, like offering equal time on a swing set or a partner to play catch with, and so weren’t the end of the world when they didn’t pan out. Felipe thought that this outlook on life, this sort of naïve optimism that came with living with his sister and helping her raise her four boys and taking a long, inefficient route to his job, helped him cope with things and be a decent person. He had no delusions of grandeur. He did not think himself a great man, only a decent man who cared about good things and did what he could to help those things flourish. In a lot of ways he was like his father then, and when he first made this connection, and then thought about it on later occasions, it made him happiest of all.
You can see Felipe’s father if you go into the living room where he sleeps at night and dig through his suitcase to the bottom. You have to go through about two dozen Oxford shirts to get there, but even then you’re seeing a bit of his dad, because it was him who told Felipe that a man should dress the way he sees his life. Felipe saw his life as something to be serious about, but only because he thought it was very subtle and very beautiful around the edges and in the seams. He wore lightly colored shirts—sky blue and pale purple and daffodil yellow and salamander green and his favorite, a washed out rose red that had needed its buttons reattached multiple times because it was the shirt that he had worn when his father first taught him to tie a tie, and the whole process had made him so anxious that he couldn’t help but incessantly fiddle with the buttons around his midsection until they fell off, one by one to rest in the palm of his hand and then his pocket, like the plucked flower petals of his peonies. But there’s a photograph there if you persist. His father’s only twenty-five in the picture, and his hair is oiled and slicked back and he’s got three cigarettes in the breast pocket of his pinstriped shirt and he looks something like a gangster except for his smile, which is a warm, sad, thoughtful thing that says to Felipe _I’ve just become a father_. And it’s true, because that photograph was taken the day he had his firstborn, a boy, named Jerome.
Felipe and Elena and Jerome’s father was called Oso because when he was ten and in grade school he was the first in his class to have hair grow on his face, and his mother didn’t want him to shave it because she insisted that the day he started he would _have to do it every single day my love and your face will never be as soft and sweet as it is now_ and Felipe’s father didn’t have anyone else to give him advice because his father was dead and both his parents had been the only children of their parents. So for three weeks Felipe’s father had gone to school, growing a dark, splotchy beard on his cheeks but not so much on his chin, and a thin mustache above his lip. He didn’t mind being called Oso much though, and when he came home from his school he would run around his house like an animal unleashed until his mother finally decided it was time to shave, not because her son looked something like a little black dog with its hair falling out, but because she wanted him to shut up and give her back her peace and quiet. She took him to a barber, a suave middle-aged man named Hector who mostly chatted her up instead of watching where he put his blade, and so while Felipe’s father ended up with a couple of nasty cuts on his neck and by his ear, his mother ended up with a date and then a husband. And he kept his nickname.
Oso’s father had died in the war, which really means _The War_—in the Pacific, getting shot at from all sides at Guadalcanal by Japanese men who surely butchered his name before they filled him with holes. He was a grocer who lived in Queens who volunteered for the marines with a pregnant wife because he thought it’d be good for business when he got home. _I don’t want to be the only pussy in the whole neighborhood_ he told his girl. _I want to be like everyone else._ When he got shot the first time he shouted _my wife!_—and the second time _my son!_—and the third _my shop!_—and then he bled out on the beach, making him different unto his last from all the Johns and Mikes and Sams who died beside him, crying for family and gasping like a carp and flopping around like his spine was a Slinky. The only thing that ever made him like anyone else was the flag they put over his coffin and the songs they played at his funeral.
Oso’s mother took over the store after the war, and things went well, or as well as they could, for the time after that. The barber she married turned out to be something of a drunk, but he was responsible and played with his wife’s son and called him his own because it turned out all the booze he had filled himself with made it impossible for him to get it up, even for a woman like Oso’s mother. Oso’s mother didn’t mind much though, because she still felt beautiful with her little son at her waist and the barber around her shoulder, and they stayed in Queens until their son decided to be like his father and volunteer for Vietnam, and the day he took off for Saigon they took off for Reno and he never heard from them again. Oso never really understood that. He thought ultimately it had something to do with the way he looked. He had inherited the alabaster skin of his father and not the cool, coffee-laced-with-cream colored flesh of his mother, and the barber was a black man with eyes like firewood and only the palms of his hands came close to the color of Oso. So he figured they had run away to be with people who looked a little more like them, but he really hoped they had just gone to find themselves and they’d be back before long. When his first letter home got returned many weeks later with a red stamp saying change of address, he redoubled his efforts and got the name of their new place in Nevada and then wrote them every single day that he could, and admittedly that wasn’t many because he was in Vietnam, of course, and his days were mostly spent choking on napalm and humid air and gunning down naked people darting between the fronds of their country’s seemingly endless forests.
And Oso was seventeen in Saigon, and all the shit that comes with that. He spent two weeks straight with three other boys in their twenties, all of them in a Jeep, all of them shooting numbly into the dark shadows made by the big green trees with their eyes as red as fire and their faces streaked with ash and dirt and god-knows-what-else. Later, he told his son Felipe that the worst part of it all was when the four of them got ambushed while they slept, and through the delirium of his dreams, which were really nightmares about dying in the forests of Vietnam, he could hear his friends’ throats being cut and their starving voices crying out towards the stars. But somehow the fronds stretched a little further over Oso and he was spared, and when he woke he saw the curdled blood on the necks of his friends and cried for a whole day, hoping that the Cong would find him and do the same to him, but they never did. And on his last day in that horrible place Oso hired a girl who said her name was Leah and he did it for the first time, and then he got on a plane and left. And Felipe said: _Dad, don’t you think it’s possible your friends killed themselves?_ and Oso replied to his wide-eyed son _of course, we all killed ourselves._
Felipe begins his route delivering packages to the artist’s village in the heart of downtown. He likes these people because they say funny things when they get their packages, and their small talk while signing is coated with exotic smells and it makes him feel like he’s in a candy shop. He likes watching as they put out their cigarettes and their joints and take the pen from his hand, sometimes their numb fingers dropping it to the ground at first and then he graciously stoops to pick it up and press it back into their palms, and then they sign for some oddly shaped package just out of sight and they say _oh great it’s here_ or _what the fuck is that I don’t remember ordering anything from there_ or anything in between. And he smiles and hands it to them just the same and they smile and then he’s on his way again, and his truck is rumbling along. Usually he gives the side a little pat before he starts it up again, as he imagines a man would give his horse back in the old days, saying _it’s just a little further, fella,_ don’t you worry. He feels in tune with his vehicle then, and that they are both dedicated to their cause, and they’re both looking out for each other, and they both want to come home safe.
On his route Felipe invariably thinks of Jerome, the first born, and of the three children the one most like their father. Jerome played baseball all through his youth and then starred in high school. He got the best grades and had the sweetest voice. Though his father never said so it was apparent to his other two that Jerome was his favorite, but who could blame him? He was a star and a self-made one at that, making his own name and his father proud. And he always came home from school and said to Felipe, _when you get to high school, make sure to become friends with the janitor_ or to Elena _don’t fall for the first nice thing a boy says to you, make him work for it_ and when Elena would ask him what it was because she was only eleven and didn’t understand her older brother’s euphemisms he would just draw a circle in the air with his palms and then say, laughing _another time, another time, another time_ and then head up to his room to study. When Felipe drives past the blacktop basketball courts after his route is over, he sometimes stops and gets out and then pantomimes a few of his brother’s best moves by the bench where he used to watch. There he fakes a dribble to his left and spins back to the right, and with a grin as wide as the horizon he drains a jumper beneath the eyes of the setting sun, just before they turn the big light towers on so they can play all night. And then he stops smiling and gets serious, and pulls a petal from his pocket if he has one, and he pushes it through the chain-link fence and onto the court in memorial of his brother, who’s dead. One day he was riding his bike in the middle of the city, and he poked his head around the corner and was hit head on by a taxi racing to beat a red. And he was out, just like that, not even flickering to death so he could say goodbye to everyone, but dead on impact, his face so smashed it looked like a jigsaw puzzle, and not even a puzzle of a face.
Felipe thinks it’s hard to believe sometimes that his dad and his brother Jerome are both dead. Oso couldn’t believe it when he got the call. Felipe was there, sitting in the living room flipping through afternoon cartoons, when his father started shouting like he had never shouted before in the kitchen a room away. _I’ll die I’ll die I’ll die! My son, my only son! I’ll die I’ll die I’ll die._
And Felipe never held it against his father that he had neglected his existence in that terrible moment. Because he knew that within every moment you can only think of so many people, and Oso was thinking of Jerome right then and how his face was in a hundred little pieces and so he needed to concentrate entirely just to remember how it all went together. And Felipe realized that within that same moment he was only thinking of Jerome, too, and his grandfather, Oso’s father, who had died on a beach somewhere, and the boys who took his dog tags from around his neck and kept them close and then brought them to his wife, Oso’s mother, and said how sorry they were for her loss and what a great man he had been and what a great cause he had died for, and then the cry that came from her soul and the stirring that came from all the houses nearby and how it woke the children and they all came and held her hand and said _we’re here for you_ and how she thought _we’re in, baby, we’re in_, we’re like everyone else and how that echoed so emptily through her heart and into a cold cold night.
How had he died, The great Oso, The romanticized Oso, The gangster Oso? Felipe didn’t like to think about that much. But it’s hard to forget about it sometimes. He hasn’t yet come up with a story that can take the place of the real story, of the rope and the kitchen chair and crash of that chair being kicked aside and into a coffee table—the last accident of a life—and the snap of the rope and Felipe dashing in to see his father hanging lifeless in the hallway. And Felipe didn’t hold it against his father, that he had given up, because it was hard to deal with grief, so hard, and by the time you reach the age that Oso was and had seen the things that Oso had, it was understandable to crack, understandable to crack.
Felipe isn’t so upset about his father’s death anymore because his mother came back into his life then and made things work. She was out of rehab and off the streets and she didn’t make money that way anymore, she worked in a laundromat and a diner and sometimes as a school janitor and she—_I just don’t have the time!_—for that stuff anymore. And she raised them well and they got the money from Oso’s life insurance and from the government in thanks for his service and this coupled with three jobs and some after school stuff by Felipe and Elena meant they were just fine. And Felipe thinks about this conclusion to a great ordeal, a life that is defined very much by other lives and even more so by other lives ending, and he thinks that it’s true, it is just fine, and it’s only a matter of time before things become very great, yes, very great indeed. Yes—
He’s driving one day on his route. He has a flower petal in his pocket, a long slender one that curls around his thumb three times before he runs out of flower, and he’s driving along happily, whistling a tune he heard on the radio the day before, taking Elena’s boys to the barber to get their hair cut. The sun is shining and the light seeps into every nook of the truck and every cranny of the streets he’s going on, and so everything seems ephemeral and full of life, but a higher kind of life, a faultless kind. He has a water bottle at hand and he drinks from it liberally, and a little water spills now and then if he goes over a pothole and it dribbles down his front. He feels it wet his collar and it doesn’t feel so bad because it’s an oddly hot day and so he smiles because of that, too. And his sea-green eyes, the one thing he had of his father’s that Jerome never got, are flickering all over the scene in front of him with a sort of boyish wonder. He feels good, no, he feels great, he would even say, and he greets the artists and their cigarettes with a hearty hello and they meet his joy not with sarcasm but the same sort of genuineness, and he can see he really made their day, really made them feel good about themselves. And this is good, too, this is great.
It’s a weird day, too, though, because Felipe forgot his sunglasses, and it’s awfully bright today, maybe even dangerously so. The sun comes streaking through the windshield like a fireball and his eyes tear before he swerves the truck around a corner and into the shadow of the next building and the next stop. By midday he’s thinking of the repercussions of blowing off lunch and going home to get his glasses, but then he notices how hungry he is and decides he better not. The sun will go down, or move behind the clouds, and then all will be well again. He’s thinking this while he eats a reuben sandwich, and what a good decision it is. His stomach snarls appreciatively.
The second half of his route is today mostly residential. He has been switched with another letter carrier, pivoting, they call it, so that neither of them will be paid overtime for what would likely otherwise take many more hours. There are a few apartment complexes, but he gets to big brownstone houses by the end with porches and lawns and sometimes dogs in the windows. Felipe has often found himself uncomfortable with residential work. He finds the people to be suspicious, uninviting and mean. He thinks they look at him as some sort of invader, and he finds it truly painful to have to ring the bell and get them to sign for a package, because then he has to meet their eyes and have them take him in, and see as they push their little children behind their legs to shield them from his glances. By now, the day is suffocating and his collar is entirely open. Beads of sweat drip from his forehead and down his face, like tears but starting from his scalp. He finds his palms are sweating so much that they are leaving stains on the mail he is dropping through the slots in the front doors and the mailboxes out by the front lawns, and this makes him painfully self-aware. He thinks about what he must look like, and he is conscious of his belly now and the sandwich within it. He thinks he should have gone home and gotten the glasses, at least to obscure his identity to those watching him deliver the mail in his current state. He gets to the last house and finds he has three identical packages to be delivered here. He rings the bell tenderly, as though hoping not to disturb anyone. He fails in this endeavor, as three identical blonde boys come bounding down the stairs, visible through the curtain, and open the door. They stare at him eagerly.
“Whatcha got there?” one asks, his finger in his ear.
“I’ve got three packages,” Felipe says, saying the words confidently.
“I don’t remember ordering any packages,” says the second boy, and then the three start to giggle. Their amusement crescendos into full-on laughter before their father comes by and pushes them aside.
“Sorry about them, man,” he says, and takes the pen and clipboard from Felipe, “a trio of crazies, you know?”
“Yeah, yeah, I know,” Felipe says, a little breathlessly now, almost wistful, “Take care, sir.”
“You too,” the man says, and he turns and closes the door behind him. Felipe hears the lock snap into place. He turns and faces his truck. The sprinkler on the lawn is peppering it with water droplets, and he wants nothing more than to run through it. He peers up and down the street and deems it deserted. He leaves his bag of mail on the porch and casually approaches the sprinkler until he’s close enough that the only thing he can hear is the spritz-spritz-spritz of the thing churning back and forth. The sound fills his head like a honeybee is stuck within his ear. And then the water comes over his face and down his front, and he can feel the tension release from his skin as though a thousand layers of hot flesh has been lifted from himself, and he feels light and strong and young and light and strong and young. And then the spritz-spritz-spritz of the sprinkler is drowned out by human voices. Felipe opens his eyes to see three blonde heads pointing at him and laughing. He feels suddenly very cold.
“Look at the mailman! Look at him he’s all wet!”
“Look at the mailman! Look at the mailman!”
“Look at the mailman! Look at him he’s all wet!”
The boys are shouting and laughing in a sort of demented unison, repeating each other’s phrases, gestures, movements, but just out of synch. Felipe is dazed for a few moments, but then pushes back to the house and pulls his bag over his shoulder hastily and then begins to head back to the truck. He feels stupid. Then one of the boys jumps from the porch onto his back, nearly taking him down. He latches on and his breath is hot in Felipe’s ear. The laughter is deafening.
_Get off of me_, Felipe hisses, _get off of me_, he pleads. The boy is clutching him very closely, intimately almost, with his arms around Felipe’s throbbing neck and his skinny legs around his waist. His hands are laced together with the strength of a vice. _Get off of me_, he begs.
Felipe’s body is crying to be free, and he cannot wait for the boy to listen. He grabs the boy’s skinny arms and pulls them apart, and then casts the boy off his back and to the ground. He hears the boy shout as he falls and the smack his cheekbone makes against the pavement of the pathway, like a smooth, flat stone on still water. He hears him begin to cry.
Felipe turns and sees the boy lying on the ground. His cheek is bloodied from a series of abrasions after rubbing against the ground. He’s howling with his face to the pavement, and the other boys are standing numbly to the side. The sprinkler goes spritz-spritz-spritz.
The boys’ father comes rushing down the steps. _Are you alright are you alright are you alright?_ he desperately asks the howling mass at Felipe’s feet Zachary _are you alright?_ the boy whimpers some more as his father picks him up and holds him against his chest. He turns to Felipe.
“What the hell happened out here? Who the fuck are you man? What did you do to my son?”
Felipe knows no explanation will be sufficient. He can see the man is reading his name tag, getting the number off of his truck, already rehearsing the complaint he will give to Felipe’s supervisor, who Felipe knows is a fat, spiteful man who would take great pleasure in seeing Felipe in a great deal of trouble.
“I’m sorry sir, I’m sorry,” says Felipe, and he stares into the suddenly spiteful eyes of the man as he slinks back to his truck and turns it on. The passenger seat is soaked from water getting through the open window. The man watches as Felipe starts to cry.
Felipe drives back to return his truck, still crying. He passes the basketball court where Jerome played and does not think about it. He passes his high school and the parks where he played with his father and does not think about them. He does not think about the slender flower petal in his pocket. All he thinks about is himself, in this moment, of himself crying because of the heat and his wet clothes and the bloody face he gave some boy in a neighborhood he usually never went. Felipe keeps his tears to himself as he takes the bus home, but it’s a struggle, and he feels like people can tell that he’s been crying. Felipe arrives home to an empty driveway, and he remembers his sister’s at the school watching her boys perform in a play. He’s thankful for this, that they don’t have to see him. Hooray for small victories, he thinks.
Felipe begins to dice tomatoes and chop herbs in order to make a sauce. He makes this sauce once in a while and it’s his specialty. He finds immense pleasure out of seeing the boys eat his sauce hurriedly because he knows it means they enjoy it, though they never say so. He sets the sauce on the stove to cook and goes to the bathroom to wash up.
When he’s done he looks in the mirror for a long time. He finds he is still thinking about the boy whose cheek he cut up. Felipe looks at his own cheek, still smooth from that morning’s shave. Felipe takes out a razor blade from his shaving kit and holds it in his palm. He feels its weight, and the long, smooth, polished handle in his hand. He feels its temperature, which is hard to notice because it is about the same as his own body. He runs his finger along the blade to feel its sharpness. Felipe finds himself staring at his unblemished cheek. He finds it bright and annoyingly shiny in the light of the whining fluorescent bulbs above his head. He runs the razor blade along his cheekbone and watches as it draws blood, as though he has written in red across his face. The blood begins to ooze down his face unevenly, some drips moving faster than others. He watches the blood ooze for a while, and then washes it off, feeling the sting from the soap and water reach deep within his face until he feels like its rubbing against his brain. He keeps himself from hissing in pain. He takes the shaving kit then into the hallway.
The hallway smells like his sauce. Felipe looks at the clock and realizes his sister will be home soon. The sauce smells delicious. Felipe lays his shaving kit out on the floor, and slumps down beside it, looking up at a vase of his peonies on a small table across the hall. The simmer of the pan in the kitchen reaches Felipe’s ears, and sounds like spritz-spritz-spritz. Felipe finds himself trying to stifle more tears, but he cannot.
When he was about to die, Felipe took the laces out of his shoes and tied them as bows around the boxes he had kept his razor blades in. He wrote on a card beside them, in a passionately graceful hand, a note that said his barber could have them, for they were unused. He decided not to mention the one that he was to leave lying to his right. It was apparent to him, even then, that no one would want anything to do with that.