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My first cousin Daniel liked to sleep with his penis between my thighs when we shared his mother’s bed while she worked a graveyard shift in the local hospital. I know what most people would think: what kind of 13-year-old slut lets her 14-year-old cousin do that night after night for a whole month of vacation? Well, the kind that lived in a Catholic orphanage with 60 girls and six nuns and was never told what a penis was. Even if such definition escaped me, I still had a hunch I shouldn’t tell my aunt about it. Besides, truth be told, I liked it. When he did it, I pretended to sleep. Sometimes I had an orgasm, rolled over and he spent the night scooting after me, all over his mother’s bed, until she came home. All day he had dark circles around his eyes.
It was winter break and I was there because the alternative would have been to spend the month of June in the orphanage where I lived or in the whorehouse where my mother lived. I suppose you could say my own whoring started young, bartering an exciting vacation for a penis between my thighs, but my idea of what a whore was never included people who bartered sex in exchange for something other than cold hard cash. Besides, it wasn’t intercourse, just “interquad”. I eventually learned that interquad was what most young people did because girls were to marry as virgins and blow jobs were for whores… or American girls.
Our days were as exciting as our nights were. I don’t mean we walked around with his penis between my thighs. No. I mean other kind of exciting things, such as egging people’s windows, starting fires, stealing from farmers, killing animals, and beating the crap out of other children. We were the kind of kids that if we were to kill somebody in the future a neighbor would say, “Yeah… I always knew they would do it.”
We stole watermelons and were pursued by rabid dogs and shot by BB guns with salt pellets. The back of my legs stung for days. We went to the morgue to peek at cadavers preserved in formaldehyde. We ate sugar out of the bag until the insides of our cheeks had open sores. I didn’t drink alcohol, though Daniel did when he could, until he looked retarded or passed out, whichever came first. Daniel was more than too “familiar,” he was family. And he reminded me of that when he wanted to convince me to do something I was reluctant to do.
Once he suggested we hunt for food and when I refused, he said. “Our ancestors were Indians, cousin!” He always called me cousin. “Indians hunted! Or do you think they fetched their food from a G.E. refrigerator?”
So I went along through a pasture, where we threw rocks at a bull until we got its attention. We had to run for our lives and crossed the barbed wire fence just in time, Daniel with only a gash on the back of his knees and me with a tear on my shorts.
We caught a duck on a small farm and once home we came to the flabbergasting conclusion that we had to kill the bird before we could cook it and we had no idea how.
“Maybe we can break its neck,” he said. “It’s the way people kill chickens.”
But the neck was too thick, so I held the duck’s body and he pulled on the ducks head. The bird fought, scratched my belly, looked a bit dazed, but was very much alive and charged Daniel when he let go of the head. I dropped the bird and it ran around the yard with us in hot pursuit.
Finally Daniel put the duck’s head on a cement slab and attempted to cut it. The bird got away and ran around with his head hanging from its neck at an awful right angle. It seemed to be not running from us, but after us, like in some scary B film titled The Vengeance of the Duck.
Eventually it lay on its side quivering until it died. We dipped it in boiling water, plucked its feathers, and cut it in small pieces. It was hard labor as the bird’s muscles were unyielding. We fried it, but it was too hard to chew on and Daniel lost a chip off a front tooth.
My aunt arrived early. I don’t remember the reason, except that we seemed destined to be caught. She said, “What kind of meat is this? Duck? How did you get money for a duck? Did you sell your marbles? No! Then, where does it come from?”
Faced with a direct question, I could never lie, so I told her the truth.
She was appalled. “Senhor Antonio and his poor family hardly have anything to eat.” She searched the garbage can, brought up the showy feathers, “This was their male duck, and he used it for breeding.”
My cousin said, “It’s just a duck.”
She slapped him on the side of the head, a couple of times. “Just a duck?” Slap .”Just a duck?” Slap some more. “A duck!” Slap. Slap.
She searched cupboards for a paper bag and packed the leftovers. She rolled the bag closed and said, “Go back there. I want you, Daniel, to tell him it was your idea, because I know it was. Tell him exactly what happened, that you stole his duck and then killed it and then fried it.”
“I broke a piece of my tooth,” Daniel said as if instead she should be mad at the duck.
“You broke a tooth?” Slap. Slap. “Go and ask how you can pay for it.”
We arrived at the little farm at sunset – the family was indoors. Senhor Antonio came out, a small-framed man, his old shirt clean and tucked inside his jeans which fell under his hipbone.
“Well…” my cousin started. “We are here to return your duck.”
“My duck?” he said. “I reckon it was missing, where did you find it?”
Daniel thrust the bag forward and took a step back. Senhor Antonio opened it and looked puzzled.
“I don’t understand,” he said.
I wondered if he was stupid, what was there to understand?
“We hunted it,” Daniel said, “then we cooked it, tried to eat it but it chipped my tooth.”
Sr. Antonio’s mouth opened, he was missing several teeth so it was obvious that a chip off my cousin’s tooth was no big deal. He stared at the fried meat as if he expected the duck to reassemble itself and fly across the yard.
A boy came out of the house wearing frayed, but clean and ironed clothes. He looked fresh out of the shower, his hair combed neatly. He craned his neck to see inside the bag.
“Oh, it’s Lucas,” the kid said.
Sr. Antonio came out of his daze and slapped my cousin on the cheeks very hard.
“My aunt said we should ask how to pay you back,” I said.
Daniel held his cheek, and looked at me like I was the stupid one now.
“Well, young vandals, delinquents, devil’s children and latent homosexuals,” the farmer said.
I had to fight the urge to tell him, “Yes, yes, yes, on all charges, but not latent homosexual, no sir! We have our nights.”
“For the next seven days, starting tomorrow,” he went on. “From 6 a.m. to noon, Daniel will toil the fields. That’s not enough payment, but I don’t think I can stand to see his fucking face longer than that.”
For the last week of my vacation, my cousin left very early and came back so tired, he napped most of the afternoon. However, at night he was his old self again, chasing me around his mother’s bed until my mother came to get me. The day of her arrival, she and my aunt were outside washing clothes together when Daniel and I came back from a trip to a bar where he had downed two shots of rum and I had a popsicle.
“Secrets are no good,” my mother was saying to her sister.
Daniel told them I had a secret. Of course he wouldn’t be fool enough to bring up our nightly interquads, but I was scared anyway and denied it angrily. He kept going, “Oh yeah, you have a secret!” The more I protested, the more I got angry and stomped my feet, the more he insisted.
Seeing my anger, my mother and aunt were curious. “Which secret?” They asked. “Tell us, Daniel.”
There was a broom leaning against the cement tank and I grabbed it and slammed him on the head so hard that he fell to the ground. I wanted to hit him again, but our mothers intervened.
We didn’t talk to each other for two days and when it was time for me to leave, Daniel watched us go from the porch, taciturn and stiff.
“You two better hug,” his mother ordered. “Indians have to stick together and you two are like siblings, you share blood. Don’t hold grudges against each other.”
We hugged awkwardly, but also tight. We shared the same blood, yes, and we shared a secret.
I did not see him for years. He continued to drink and on occasional visits I had to rescue him from sidewalks outside bars.
“Nobody loves me like you do, cousin,” he’d say. “You should have married me, before you got into girls.”
“You never asked me,” was my standard answer.
We never talked about those winter nights. Years later, he moved south to a beach town and was a chauffeur. I couldn’t imagine him holding his driver’s cap against his chest while he held the door for ladies getting in and out of the car. Of all the Indians in the family, he was the proudest. He always said, Indians died rather than be slaves, but like many Indians in our family, he had become an alcoholic. When you drink as much as he did you become someone else. When you drink and are followed by ghosts like he was, you die alone, as he recently did. You die alone and nobody finds you, until a man passes your little room and smells something terrible as the wind turns and lifts sand off the boardwalk and the seagulls scream and the man knows it’s not the smell of rotten fish. The man knows, it’s not the smell of rotten fish. The man knows it’s not the smell of rotten fish.