Because We Happen to Be Family
We’d just buried our grandfather that morning and already Pete was causing trouble. He peered in through the windows of the bar we were at, punching the glass and swearing. Taunting some kid out into the parking lot.
“He serious?” the kid asked me.
I shrugged. Finished my beer.
I remembered this kid from high school. We were never friends, but we had some classes together. That sort of thing. I could tell he remembered my face, just not my name. I didn’t take it personally.
“Listen. If you could convince him not to punch me here or here,” gesturing to his face and balls, “I’d appreciate it. We’re heading out to the city tonight and I’ll hopefully be using both, you know?”
I pretended I did just to shut him up.
Word soon spread that I was related to “that prick outside” (I imagine our matching brown skin gave us away). Prodded on by the stares, I headed out. I wasn’t exactly sure what I was going to say, so a part of me was relieved when Pete spoke first.
“I’m ready to throw, brown.”
Brown was a term of endearment in our family, our culture. I think it meant brother. It was something we heard our dads and uncles say to each other growing up, but Pete and I were never that close. Just two guys that happened to be family. Nothing more.
He paced, his eyes intent on the shadowed faces inside the bar. “That kid needs to learn respect. We were at the bar, right, and I was like, ‘Yeah, me and my cousin buried our grandfather today.’ He looked me right in the eye and said, ‘Fuck your grandfather.’”
I’d braced myself for bullshit and Pete didn’t disappoint.
He waited for me to say something. What, I didn’t know. I could tell by the look in his eyes that there was no reasoning with him. “You sure?”
“Swear on Papa’s grave,” he replied.
“But why would he say that?”
Pete looked away from me, watching the kid as he finally stepped outside and approached. All I saw was the friend that the kid brought outside with him. The friend was built like a fucking bulldog, all shoulders and chest. My heart sank because I knew that the bulldog would be mine if this fight went down.
“We cool?” the kid asked.
Pete made like he was going to lunge at him but nothing happened.
“Listen,” I said. “You guys are leaving soon, right? Let’s just head back in and stand at opposite ends of the bar, huh?”
The kid, whose name continued to elude me (Jimmy? Timmy? Shane?), nodded in agreement and started to walk back inside. He turned about halfway when Pete spit on him. The human bulldog threw a punch and Pete responded. I got in between, trying to separate them, pushing Pete back while not leaving him defenseless. Even when I had him pinned up against a car, though, he was throwing punches and kicks around and over me.
“Come on,” he taunted. “Come on, bitch. Do something.”
I remembered what the Priest had said at Papa’s funeral that morning: how Papa loved us all and what we did with our lives would be our show of love back.
I wondered how loved Papa felt at that moment.
We headed to another bar. Pete kept repeating what had happened, even though I didn’t want to hear it anymore.
“That guy,” he’d say. “I told him we were just trying to have a good time. I was like, ‘Listen, we just buried our grandfather.’ And he was like, ‘Yo, fuck your grandfather.’”
“Yeah,” I’d mutter back. Or: “That’s messed up.”
We got to some hole-in-the-wall establishment with the word “Café” in its name. We gulped down beer until our eyes watered. It was hard to believe it was only eleven o’clock. It had been a long day, beginning with the funeral and then the gathering afterwards at Grandma’s house. A luncheon/dinner that became a borderline keg-party.
“How you doing?” I asked.
He shrugged at me and smiled. His smile intensified when he saw the two girls across from us. “A lot better now. Yo, check out the brunette with the curls.”
I looked. I turned back around to agree with him, but he was already across the bar, talking up both girls, oblivious to their boyfriends close by.
The boyfriends wasted no time intruding. They stuck out their hands and introduced themselves: “I’m so-and-so, her boyfriend” or “The name’s such-and-such. You talking up my girl?”
They were hoping Pete would take the hint and back off, but Pete had other plans.
“Me and the girls are stepping out for a smoke,” he said. He wasn’t even trying to hide the fact that he was loving this, every single second of it. “You boys want to come with?”
I was sure this was going to escalate into a fight. There were two of these guys, after all, making their fight with Pete a two-on-one affair, a favorite of white boys who basked in the numbers game, especially since the numbers game frequently favored them.
Pete headed outside, the girls close behind. He even had his arm around one of them, not the “brunette with curls” but the other one, who was cute in an off-beat way. Like Ashlee Simpson before she ruined her face so she could be pretty in the same way everyone else already was.
The abandoned boyfriends remained at the bar, whispering. Plotting. They glanced at me and I toasted them. I went to follow them when they finally headed out, but I saw that I still had some beer in my bottle.
Pete returned to the bar before I could step outside, though. He took the seat next to me.
“You all right?” I asked.
“We should fight those guys,” he teased. “Two on two, you know? Fair fight.”
“Shut up,” I said, hating myself for playing it off as a joke afterwards. “So what happened?”
He scoffed. “Nothing worth reporting. Those girls are prudes.”
“Like you would’ve stayed if they invited to their place.”
He smiled suggestively at me. Pete was all suggestion, I soon realized: all stupid little smirks and meaningless winks.
“You’re about two hours from home,” I remarked.
“I’d find a way back, brown. I made it from Montana , right?”
That was true. He went missing a couple years ago after our last family gathering, his younger brother’s wedding. No one really worried because abrupt disappearances like this were typical of him. And, anyway, he always returned home, if only to beg for money in person.
“Besides,” he said. “We got Papa looking after us now. Doesn’t that make you feel better?”
I had to admit it did. I offered to buy the next round, if only to keep him from starting something. Just to keep him quiet.
We were done drinking before we finished the beers, though. To recoup my losses, I swiped the 8 ball from the pool table. Not to be outdone, Pete stole seventeen bucks and a pair of keys from one of the girls’ purse.
“Which one starts her car?” he joked.
He tried to open the first few we passed on our walk back. I heard a siren in the distance and then a second siren closer by. Pete pulled on a handle to an Escalade, kicking the door when that didn’t work.
“This isn’t Grand Theft Auto, Pete.”
He keyed the next car we came across. I guess to prove a point. We laughed and ran off into the night. I had to force it since I was starting to sober.
I made Pete give me his car keys so I could drive. Although I couldn’t legally, I was more than capable from a skill standpoint. More so than Pete, who stretched his legs across the backseat and started to doze off.
I looked at him in the rear-view. Family. That meant something, you know. For better or worse. We had to stick together while we mourned. But what about afterwards? What would keep us together in a month or two, in a year, for the rest of our lives?
I thought again about what the Priest had said: our lives being a show of love back to our Papa. And I could only hope that Papa stayed back at his and Grandma’s house, where he could watch over his sober and better-behaved grandkids. Our parents and our aunts and uncles, who had tried so valiantly to keep it all together, to keep everyone in good spirits.
Our Grandma, whose physical collapse in church and subsequent groans at the foot of his coffin sprung from us all.
I was about to address my Papa directly, apologizing for our behavior, assuring him that we knew better, promising to do my part to keep the family together, to keep the family strong, when siren lights flashed behind me.
“Help me, Papa,” I prayed. “I love you.”
by Francisco Delgado