For a while our father kept this other woman in the Heights. It was tough luck seeing him most nights at best. He’d snatch his keys from the counter, nod at all of us at once, spit something about how he had business to handle, and of course he never thought to tell us what it could be but we figured it out. We adjusted accordingly.
This was back when Ma’s sisters still checked on her weekly: phone calls after dinner, drop-ins on Sunday. Before they finally cut her off for hooking up with a spic. And those first few weeks she waited up for our father, because she didn’t want to see it, and you know how that goes—kept Javi and Jan and I starving while she cleaned the place solo, wiping and mopping and washing the linoleum. Counting tips by the register. Refilling baskets of silverware. Then the four of us sat around bowls full of whatever’d been left in the kitchen—pots of chicken and chorizo and beans on the burners—and we’d stare at the plastic with our hands in our laps like they’d show us whoever kept Ma’s man out in the world.
She’s gotta be white, said Javi. He’s already got a niggar. Otherwise, there’s no fucking point.
She could be Chinese, I said. Or mixed. She could be like us. My brother waved that away. He didn’t even look up.
We spent whole days guessing. At what she looked like, where she stayed. Javi swore our father’s puta was a model. Or an actress. But for the longest time I held out for something more domestic. I painted her as a hairdresser. Maybe a dentist. A vet, although a year ago our father’d drowned the dog. These conversations usually ended up with Javi’s smacking me down, pinching the fat on my ribs. Wondering how I could be so stupid.
Whenever summer hit, Ma kept us in the restaurant. Her usual staff begged off, blaming the lack of AC. Houston’s sun had them out drinking 40s on Navigation, which left Javi and I sweeping, killing roaches, stomping the tile lining the doorway. Sometimes Ma just stood at the register, squinting, watching the two of us, and I’d wonder whether she saw her sons or replicas of her husband. But it only lasted a minute before her brow completely settled, and she’d point toward some invisible spot we’d missed right under the table.
Why the fuck would he be tripping over a mutt, said Javi, and when I didn’t have an answer for that he chalked it up to dumbness.
She’s definitely white, said Javi. She’s definitely pale all over. And she’s probably got a fat ass too, said Javi.
Eventually Ma spoke up. Called our father a bastard. A wetback. And the one night my brother finally opened his mouth over breakfast, asking Ma why she didn’t just drop him already, our mother reared back her elbow, crashed her palm into his cheek, before she settled her fingers right back onto the cutlery.
Javi slumped across the wood, crying into his knuckles. I sat beside him, kicking at the chair.
It was the last time Ma ever hit him. The one time I’d see him cry. But when our father saw the bruise in the morning, Javi told him he’d had a scrap.
We were prepping in the back. Ma was still in bed. We’d heard the shouts when he made it home, the fists smacking against the wall.
After enough time had passed that I’d forgotten about the lie, our father asked Javi if he’d won.
My brother curled his lips, testing the wound with his tongue.
Of course, he said. No doubt.
And our father cracked his wrists, staring into the sink.
Let me tell you a secret, he said. That’s all that really matters.
Nowadays you wouldn’t take her for one of those women who dupe themselves, but back then Ma wore it all on her face. at was the worst thing. You could spot it across the block. And not because he left us—that shit could happen to anyone—but for the years she thought she’d be the one to reel him back in.
My father was a handsome man. Wore his skin like a sunburned peach. He was someone who could sing, who actually had a voice worth listening to. He’d pace around the restaurant, beating his stomach like a drum, humming the corridos he’d never taught us way back when. He’d flip me over his shoulder if he found me at the sink, convinced that it was the last place a boy needed to be.
Es sólo para los mujeres y los maricones, he said, because the real men of the kitchen were out killing pigs or whatever.
But you, he said, you’re like your old man. Un hierba mala.
Then he’d flip me back to my toes, kicking my ass with the flat of his foot.
Ma said that kind of wildness put boys on the streets. But then our father’d grab her, too, snatching her up behind the knees. And back when things were still good you wouldn’t catch them again for hours, which left Javi and I up front, tending to the customers, counting receipts.
But the funny thing is, Ma actually had options—I can’t even tell you how many men coasted through the doors.
Bald and young and old and hooded and thick and loose and hard, they’d whistle me to their tables. Offer me tips if I reeled her over. Once Ma found out, she told me to always, always agree—free money didn’t get any easier. Sometimes she even slipped me a bill. Then she’d walk their way, beaming, asking if they’d enjoyed their ackee. Maybe setting a palm on a shoulder. Maybe laughing at a joke. And when the conversation turned toward her, and how she was doing, and how was my father, she’d wrap a hand across her chest, bringing the conversation to an end.
Ma shot all of them down. But never irreparably. Just enough to have them thinking they were always in striking distance. And if they’d paid me any more, I could’ve told them it wasn’t worth it—but tell someone they want an impossible thing and they’ll act like you’ve put out the sun.
Most weekends back then we caught the first bus to the market. Javi slept in. Jan stayed out. Ma and I rode through East End, past Wayside, over Main, until we hit 610 headed straight toward Airline. You never saw any other blacks on the line—hair aside, I usually passed. But Ma looked like the thing that didn’t belong.
All the poblanos stared like we’d touched down from Mars.
One time this guy in an Astros cap actually grabbed her shoulder, told her the route downtown was the other way, pointing back toward Fannin.
In case you mistake, he said, smiling. His teeth were yellow, chipped around the cheeks.
He clearly meant well. Ma returned the smile. She wrapped her fingers around his hand, squeezing at the wrist.
Sí claro, she said, pero no tienen lo que estoy buscando.
And the man’s face folded. He sat back down. The rest of the bus shut the fuck up along with him.
The market’d been around for decades, tucked way out in the Northside, where motherfuckers were born, lived, and died without coughing a word of English. The whole place smelled like rotten bananas and smog, and you couldn’t stretch your hands without brushing somebody’s junk. But through the elbows in our noses and the sandals stomping our toes, Ma wore a different face. The one she faked for her suitors.
Only now it was genuine. She really meant that shit. Whenever we hit the first tents, and the humidity kissed our cheeks, I felt her shoulders drop beside me like this weight that’d just slid off her.
She’d flirt with the little man hawking avocados. She cooed her peasant Spanish at the homeless kids guiding her along. We watched sons chop chickens in the shacks behind the tents, allowing the birds to pirouette before they finally snapped their necks, and the women at the bakery eventually called her doña, growing warmer once they decided we’d be regulars.
Mariachis shouted choruses to stragglers in the plaza. My father would’ve groaned, but Ma nodded along. Like she was the one who’d grown up with it. Bouncing in her flip-flops. Slapping at her thighs. And, once, this kid actually gave her his hand, and Ma’d smiled slowly, widely, before she reached out and took it—and then all of a sudden they were dancing, swaying, slipping and dipping across the sanded patio.
When her laughter finally came, it drenched the crowd. Some vendors on break clapped along with the bass. I sat on the clay, waiting for her to look back, and when the song came to an end she did.
We rode the bus home with the boxes of vegetables between our legs. Ma stared out the window while I slept in the aisle. The lights downtown glowed way beyond the highway, and the traffic clogging Shepherd blinked in and out like fireflies.
When we’d made it back to East End, shuffling through the door, Ma had me promise that I wouldn’t mention the dance.
I told her I wouldn’t. She pinched my arm until I swore on it.
I told her I’d keep it to myself.
My father was packing himself from our lives. at was his master plan. He could’ve been discreet, if he’d wanted, but he didn’t. So he wasn’t. His flaunting was a choice. The audacity made it deafening. Clothes disappeared from the laundry. CDs from the shelves. A handful of photos evaporated from the walls. Even the one I couldn’t help but look at whenever it jumped in my face: this half-torn Polaroid of Javi and I in the yard.
Someone must’ve taken it when we first bought the restaurant. Back when you could prop us next to each other without needing a Taser. He had me on his shoulders. My heels hit his chest. Both of us were glowing, smiling like we’d won something.
Ma only shrugged when I asked her where it went. She said everything left eventually.
And I opened my mouth to say that wasn’t what I meant, but I didn’t. I couldn’t. I just let it go.
One day, Javi asked Ma if the place was haunted. And it was, in a way. By our father’s other woman. Even if we’d never seen her she floated over our space. We walked and talked around her. Made room for her at the table.
But Ma still asked my brother if he was the one hawking her shit, and he laughed in her face. He told her garbage didn’t sell.
He’d started bringing his own girls back to the restaurant. The ones I’d seen around—leaning on windowsills, staring out at the road, slumping through dollar marts with their mothers. Ma raised a single eyebrow toward him, and our father only smiled, and neither of them said shit about it. It was just something that happened.
In the evenings, when the sun still had us grilling on our mattresses, Javi told me where he’d stuck it, and the noises they’d made when he did.
On your bed, he said, pointing above the headboard.
Right there, he said, shaking his head. Chuckling.
On slow days I heard the low squeaks through the walls. You could smell my brother in the hallway for hours. Javi never walked them out, but I’d wait until they finished, watching as his guests smoothed their skirts with their palms.
Most of his girls made a beeline for the door, but a few smiled my way, and one or two actually stopped to talk. They asked how old I was. Whether I got paid. They asked about my sister, where the fuck did she go all day, and I said I never knew, that sometimes I forgot she existed. They asked if the restaurant was hiring, and did I think they could get a job, and when I asked if I’d see them again you’d think I’d cracked the funniest joke. But when I told them I was Javi’s brother those smiles were as good as gone.
Some days, it looked like our father’d given her up. He’d join us for dinner. He’d beat eggs in the kitchen. He’d spice the pork with Ma, cracking jokes over her head.
Mijos, he said, wiping the last of the plates, tell me about your day. Tell me what’s been going on.
De veras, he said, when he saw we were low on rice. It’s running because it knows your mother is going to burn it.
Stop fidgeting, he said, settling his fingers into Ma’s shoulders, and they’d stand like that for hours, or maybe only a couple of minutes.
They actually looked natural. Like a thing that had developed. And Ma fought it at first, but of course she let him back in.
Still—none of us were used to having him around so often. It was this thing we all had to adapt to.
One night I asked Javi whether he was for real, whether our father was back. Or was he just bullshitting.
The AC had broken. It’d exhaled forever. We’d drag this busted fan around the dining room depending on where the customer sat. at left Javi, Jan, and I sopping wet back in our bedrooms, and the sweat stung my eyes, and our mattresses sank into shallow pools.
It means his puta’s left him, said Javi, which was a big deal since he never used Spanish.
He’d brought two girls back that day. Now he was barely awake. I brushed my toes across a pillow on the other side of his ear. When I asked him how he thought our father’d fixed things so fast, he kicked the side of my head.
You think that matters right now?
No, I said.
You learn anything in that crack-whore school you been going to?
Stop crying, he said. Shut your fucking eyes.
I asked Javi what did matter. He brought his hands to his face. Idiotas, he said. That’s what you and your mother have in common.
That’s how I know you’re her child, he said.
Our father loved Ma for the rest of the month. He mopped up behind her. Laughed at all her shitty jokes. He rubbed the tops of her knees when the silence overwhelmed us, and I wanted to drop a plate or throw a cup or crush his toes.
But after a while, Ma turned stone-faced again.
Her face changed. Whatever he’d shattered hadn’t been fixed. Or maybe she wouldn’t allow him to snap it again because she’d learned her lesson. So just like everything else, we watched it happen, we rolled with the punches, until one evening, after we’d set the table and closed the kitchen and settled in, our father looked at all of us, and he puffed up his chest, and he told us he was going out. Better we didn’t wait up.
When it was finally just Ma and me, and I wasn’t cruising Harrisburg, or stuck in the back room washing dishes, or out in Montrose fucking boys, I’d sit on one end of the sofa, and Ma’d settle into the other, and her knees would graze the edge of my thigh as she slept through the drone of the television. The AC was sopping. Our walls were still bare. Whatever bullshit we’d been watching hummed and buzzed across the room.
We filled the corners with our silence. It leaked into the hallway. If you didn’t know us better, you might call us content. They’d built the strip mall behind us, and the sounds of the drunks rang through the windows. But mostly we had silence. The kind that seals your ears.
Sometimes Ma’d jolt awake, gazing like I wasn’t there.
Sometimes Ma’d tell stories. Not to me, just to herself.
He was beautiful, she’d say, and I’d mute the television. Then she wouldn’t say anything else, or who she was talking about, or what she’d meant.
Other times, I’d nod off, and when I woke up she’d be reading my face.
And I’d close my eyes again.
But when I opened them up, she’d still just be staring.
He brought me with him once. Don’t ask me why.
Javi was out whoring, and Ma’d been saddled with the night rush, and my father’d stepped halfway out the door when he told me to grab the keys.
He looked just as confused as I did when I handed them over.
It was the same look he gave me when he’d watched me in the kitchen, or played dumb around Ma, or after Javi’d beaten my ass. Como un pato, he’d say, shaking his head, cracking his wrists, but now there was none of that. Now he was waiting on me.
East of 610 was clogged with commuters. It made the trip west more or less uneventful. He didn’t ask how I was doing, or whether the air was too much for my face, but after I’d started to play with the radio he stopped me at a slow bachata.
You like this kind of music, he asked.
Of course, he said, grinning. Your mother does too.
The block we pulled onto was cleaner than ours. It had alleys and potholes, but there were blancos too. They tinkered with their yards. Walked dogs and checked mail. Some of them sat on their porches like plants. I looked at my father, like maybe he had some explanation, but he sat choking the steering wheel. Eyes on the road.
We pulled in front of this little blue stucco. We stopped.
For a minute I thought we’d pull right back out again.
But then my father opened the door. He asked what the fuck I was waiting for.
Javi and I figured she’d be taller than Ma. Maybe a little slimmer. Blond, with curly hair. Javi said she probably had a condo by Reliant, and I saw her with two boys, brothers, just like us, and a daughter in the world, and a smile like nothing anyone’d ever seen in this life. And Javi called that stupidity—why would he leave home just to go home?—but eventually we decided that was a minor detail.
I guess that’s all to say that I don’t know what I expected. But when she opened the door, what I felt was disappointment.
She was darker than Ma. She wasn’t black. Her hair was too long. Her hips were too wide. She had this funny nose, and her arms were a little fat, and she was plain—plainer than plain, enough to leave me blinking.
But she looked comfortable. That’s the word for it.
That is what distinguished her.
When my father moved to hug her, she took him with one hand. She kept her eyes on me. She asked who I was. Before I could answer, my father called me his nephew.
He said he was babysitting. A favor to his sister.
I wanted this woman not to be an idiot, or to at least ask for follow-up, but all she did was smile.
She bent and touched my cheek. Asked if I wanted anything to drink. My father looked me in the face like I better not be thirsty, so I told her I wasn’t. She smiled at that too.
Her walls were bright yellow like she lived in a preschool. Candles of the virgin were all over the place. Nothing looked too expensive, but it wasn’t tacky either, and that reminded me of Ma. This was one thing that they shared.
They sat me in her living room, said they’d be back in a minute. But then an hour passed. Then another one after that.
Her dressers were cluttered: with empty coffee containers, with pencils. Plants hung in front of the windows, swaying above fans. The wood creaked beneath me as I stepped around the living room, and it was a familiar sound, and that didn’t make anything better.
I found a photo by the bathroom of what must’ve been her. Smiling in the arms of two other men. They could’ve been her brothers, but maybe they weren’t, and they stood in other pictures, too: smiling in a jungle, or hunched with a group in a parking lot, or huddled over a cake in a crowd at a restaurant, and that’s when I saw the one of Javi and I, the picture I’d been looking for for fuck knew how long.
I’d given up on it. It’d been missing forever. And I was just about to snatch it when I heard the door open.
The woman came out in a slip. She wasn’t hiding anything. She floated right past me, filled some glasses with water.
You look thirsty, she said. You should’ve said something earlier.
I thanked her, thinking she’d leave.
She settled beside me, crossing her legs.
She smelled like cinnamon. No makeup or anything else.
How is your mother? she said, and I fumbled with my tongue.
She thinks so, too.
I’m sure, she said, frowning.
It must be tough, she said. With you and the others. I made a face, and she smiled.
Your brother and sister, she said.
Oh, I said.
I sipped from my glass. She watched me, smiling, growing warmer in her cheeks.
You know, your father’s a funny man, she said.
Sometimes, I said.
Really, she said. He is. You’ll see it when you’re older.
It’s just one of those things, she said. You know someone as well as you can. And then they say something that surprises you. It catches you off guard.
It’s an easy thing to get used to, she said. You miss it when it’s gone.
I looked at this woman, in her slip, and her comfort, and I wanted to slap her. I wanted to hug her.
Then my father moaned from the bedroom, a sound I’d never heard before.
The woman set a palm on her face. Like, what could we do. She told me her house was my house. When I was thirsty, I shouldn’t hesitate.
Then she grabbed the other glass. She slipped out of the living room. I heard a lock click and I didn’t see her again.
When the door finally opened again, I’d fallen asleep. It was just my father. He shook me awake. He didn’t say a word, but he nodded toward the car, and I patted my pocket with the photo and then we were gone.
Ma was at the table when we made it back. My father stepped around her, and she didn’t even blink.
Mijo, she said.
I sat at the table beside her. My father opened his mouth, but then he closed it. He disappeared.
Ma asked me if I’d eaten.
I said I wasn’t hungry.
Ma asked if I felt sick.
I told her I didn’t.
She kept one hand on my forehead, rubbing my face with her other one, and I couldn’t meet her eyes. I couldn’t do that for anything.
Eventually she told me I should probably get to bed.
So should I, she said, but she sounded less sure.
Back in our room, Javi smoked with the window open. The breeze was the first one we’d gotten all summer. I had already tossed my shirt, and rolled onto the mattress, and willed my eyes to sleep when he sat on my head. He ground his knuckles into my chest.
So, he said, what’d she look like?
I shut my eyes a little tighter. I asked who he meant. He sighed, like what he wanted to do was break my legs.
You know, he said. The slut.
I squinted into his thigh. My brother was getting older. Had hair creeping up his cheeks and down the sides of his ankles. A few months later, one of his girls would end up pregnant, and I’d only find out after she came around looking for him. Of course she wouldn’t keep it, and he’d sulk through the house for weeks, but after that Javi was back to fucking whoever whenever.
She was beautiful, I said.
A real belleza. Just like you’d said.
No shit, said Javi. No fucking wonder.
White? he asked.
Like you said.
And her tits, said Javi. They were huge, right?
Fuck, said Javi. No wonder.
He sat on the mattress, kneading my shoulder. I could smell the smoke on his shirt. I tried keeping it in my lungs, but I couldn’t do it. It slipped out just like everything else.
Then Javi stood up. Grabbed his cigarettes by the window. Once he’d pulled one for himself, he waved the box at me.
I shook my head.
Pussy, he said.
After we left the woman’s house we didn’t say much of anything, but I would not see her again and my father would not go back. I don’t know where the fuck she went.
We’d made it out of the Heights but we hadn’t reached the highway. My father inched us from block to block, running every other stop sign. We drove by the bayou on White Oak and over the bridge on Westheimer, and halfway down the East End overpass I noticed he’d been staring.
Qué, I said.
No. Tell me.
I knew he might smack me for talking smart. He’d turn it into a lecture on respect, or minding the ones that brought you into the world.
But he didn’t do any of that. He kept his eyes on the road.
Then he let out a low whistle.
It doesn’t matter, he said. Estará bien.
Just remember that, he said. Either way, it’s all right.
And I didn’t know what that meant. And I didn’t ask him either.
We took the feeder down to Wayland. We slammed the doors in front of the house. The porch lights had been dimmed, but you could still smell the oil from the stove.
Estará bien, he said, and then one more time, and then we opened the door, and we were home.
This story first appeared in Tin House. See the other 2019 O. Henry Prize stories here.
Bryan Washington has written for The New York Times, The New York Times Magazine, The New Yorker, One Story, Catapult, and elsewhere. His first collection of stories, Lot, was published in 2019. He lives in Houston, Texas.