An exemplary father

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Photo: Ulises Jorge, flickr

Photo: Ulises Jorge, flickr

CHAPTER V of “The White Shoes”

By: David Camacho Colón

Right after getting married to Ciprián, Gala went through two consecutive pregnancies, both of them nutritionally supported by a pathologic obsession with chicken broth.

When he was two years old, Pablo, the youngest, loved to run naked around the house. Ciprián forbade it. Gala was always scolding him, but in vain because Pablo would go bare as soon as she got distracted. He would stroll around the house, carefree, enjoying the wind flowing against his privates. Every evening, upon hearing Ciprián’s car as he arrived from work, he would run to his room in search of his pants. He knew what was coming if he was found pantless.

One day, Ciprián found Pablo with his pants up only to his knees. One end hung loose on the floor while the other one was beginning to tear. He was trying to put his two legs into one end, but he couldn’t manage to pull up his pants. He stood still for a moment, watching his father.

“No! No! No! I’m sorry! I’m sorry!” Pablo yelled. He threw himself on the floor to take his pants off and shot out to his room, running as he cried and screamed.

“How many times have I told you not to run around with your balls hanging in the air?” Ciprián yelled at him, having managed to get him after he took off his belt. He had no mercy for him.

 

Irma, the eldest, was daddy’s little girl. She loved to play under the house, which was raised a few feet over the ground to stop scorpions from going inside. She found a world of adventure under the house as she covered herself in mud from top to bottom. As soon as she was done exploring, the little rascal brought her muddy feet inside the house and, with a Midas touch, turned into muck everything around her.

Ciprián didn’t have the heart to give her the beating she deserved. She was his little girl. Gala had to do it. The weapon of choice: an electric cable. It was thick—one of those that hang from electric posts—durable, and reliable. It left her a nice red mark that burned till the following day. Good selection to impart discipline.

Irma spent months of her childhood battling against the cable that haunted her.

Gala would hide it, but she looked for it inside every drawer until she found it. As soon as she had it in her hands, she would run outside to the front of the house and throw it inside the trash can.

Gala saw it at the bottom of the trash can by chance. Naturally, she also had to throw things away every day. Irma was left incredulous as the cable reappeared to impart discipline every time. She didn’t give up. She kept trying to rid herself of the cable week after week, but her mother had grown wary of her intentions. Gala kept an eye on her so that she wouldn’t get her way, until one day she never saw the cable again. Many years later, Irma would tell the story of the day when she came out victorious. She went by the neighborhood’s septic tank. Once there, she found a small hole and dropped the cable inside. The damned cable would spend the rest of its days drowned in shit.

 

Those creatures gave me and Ciprián many headaches. God knows what would have been in store for them if we hadn’t corrected their bad manners!

It wasn’t all tough love, by the way. He came in early in the evening and spent time playing with his children. He was a master at Parcheesi, blocking and swallowing—cruelly and with no compassion—the pawns of his naive little ones. He would laugh at the witty jokes they learned in school until he couldn’t stand the pain he felt under his ribs any longer. He was amazed at how easily they could come up with tales and stories. Oh, and the questions they asked! They got more and more interesting with every year that passed.

“Dad, how do you earn money?” Irma asked during one of those nights when there was nothing to do.

“I own a warehouse with food. People buy food from me to cook,” Ciprián replied.

“Oh, then from where do you get the food you sell? Why do people buy from you?” she continued her inquiry.

“Well, what I do is to buy a lot from farms or factories, so that it doesn’t cost me a lot,” he said, holding her by her wrists and opening up her arms as wide as he could. “Then, people come to my store and buy some of that big lot. I sell that for a bit more than what it costs me,” he said, in a high pitched voice, putting her thumb and index fingers together until leaving only a hair of distance between the two. Irma couldn’t stop laughing.

“Oh. But why do you sell things a bit more expensive?” Irma asked.

“Well, because they don’t have enough money or they just don’t need to buy as much as me. If they want to buy only in small quantities and they decide not to go to a store like mine, then they would have to pay even more. I help to make things cheaper for them,” Ciprián replied.

“Do you sell the cheapest?” Irma asked.

“Well, almost. I sell almost everything cheaper, but if nobody else in the area is selling the same things as me, then I sell for a higher price.” Ciprián replied, as he scratched the tip of his nose. He should have told her he sold the cheapest.

“But if you said they don’t have any money, why should you sell things for a higher price?” Irma continued.

It was a very valid question to pose. It wasn’t easy for everybody to put food on the table. He remembered his own father whom, when Ciprián was a child, went to the market and purchased just enough to feed his family, nothing more. From his position, he could have easily set more accessible prices so that people could get by with less.

“The thing is: I buy a lot of everything. Some things sell more than others. If something doesn’t sell, I’m going to have to take the hit because I already paid for it. When I set a higher price to something, I’m pretty sure it’s going to sell because people need it. There’s no one else nearby selling it. That’s the income that keeps me in business,” Ciprián said. He wasn’t sure if what he had just said made any sense.

“Uhm… I don’t get it!” Irma said, after spending some seconds processing the slippery explanation that had just come from her father’s mouth.

It wasn’t an easy topic to explain. Those existential topics that arose from a life in business always kept me active, thinking about all sorts of issues day and night. In this case, when managing his business Ciprián looked to balance his needs, the needs of his family, and the needs of society. Whenever he ordered an additional container of goods for his store, what he was really purchasing was risk. His clients couldn’t have cared less whether he was making a profit or a loss because all they wanted was to get the best price for whatever they wished to purchase. Period. If he got too greedy with prices, people would go elsewhere. If he got too stupid or too generous by setting prices too low and something unexpected happened, he could go bankrupt. Bankruptcy wouldn’t have ruined just him and his family, but also his employees and their families.

There was no need to overwhelm her little girl’s head with so many things to worry about.

“Alright, time to sleep! The most important thing you need to know is that daddy is working very hard so that his children can have everything they want and there’s always food on the table,” he said, giving her a kiss on her forehead and taking her in his arms to bed. Fortunately, it didn’t take long for Irma to surrender to her sleep.

Yes, he was a good father. He made sure his family always had a good roof over their heads and food on the table. They never needed anything, a rarity at the time.

I kept in his head those same words he had said to his daughter the day before because, having just arrived at Irma’s school for a talent show that evening, he noticed the dress she was supposed to wear was stained with engine oil.

It was his fault. He had carelessly put the dress in the trunk. He couldn’t fail his girl whom, when seeing her dress, bathed herself in tears. Finding no other solution to the problem, he left the children with Gala at the school and hurried home as fast as he could to look for another dress.

Taking the twists and turns of a pitch-black road, he suddenly stumbled upon a pedestrian crossing the street, a poor bastard who was completely unaware of what was coming at him. This being one of the extremely rare occasions in which I’ve been able to control the body, I pushed Ciprián’s foot firmly on the brake pedal a few thousands of a second before he even realized what was going on.

Nevertheless, I couldn’t prevent the collision.

When the car finally stopped, Ciprián remained stiff with both hands still holding the steering wheel.

“Shit, I killed him,” Ciprián said.

Shit, he killed him. That’s what I thought.

From across the windshield of his car, he saw a man lying on the street. Only crickets and the coquíes could be heard from within the pasture. He got out of his car and approached the man. He wasn’t moving. He took his pulse. The man was alive but unconscious. His head was bleeding. He rushed to the trunk of his car, opened it, and grabbed the first thing he saw that could help him stop the bleeding: Irma’s oil-stained white dress.

He took a look at the damage to his car. How ironic! Not even a scratch. The steel bodywork built back in the day was indestructible, unlike the plastic crap sold nowadays.

As fast as he could, he carried him in his arms and put him in the back seat of his car. Just as he rushed home before the accident happened, he now rushed to the hospital.

“Can you tell me what happened?” the doctor asked, while the man was being laid on a stretcher.

He said nothing. His mind had gone completely blank. He had no clue what to say.

Amongst all the confusion and chaos, I never even considered having to answer such a simple question. I simply didn’t have an answer. I’d never gone through something like that before. Neither was there, inside Ciprián’s head, a memory that resembled in the slightest an appropriate reaction. I’d never even heard of anyone that had gone through something similar, nor had I ever even discussed the topic hypothetically. Nothing.

I showed him a lonely prison, a miserable life behind bars. I showed him a revolver being pointed at him. I made him feel the bullet going through his head and I made him see that same man he had just run over pulling the trigger. I showed him his wife and his children mourning his death. That was the price he would have to pay for not paying attention to the road.

“I can understand the gravity of the situation, but we need to know what happened so that we can give the patient the best and most appropriate treatment,” the doctor said.

I still didn’t know what to do. Showing him all the consequences of what had happened wasn’t much help.

I made him revisit the events leading to the accident. At the moment it occurred, he had before himself an unconscious man lying on the street. Everything was pitch-black. The poor man most likely didn’t even see it coming.

“Please sir, can you tell me what happened?” the doctor insisted.

“I don’t know, doctor. I was coming back from my kid’s school and I just found him lying down in the middle of the street,” Ciprián finally replied and then he paused for a moment and crossed his arms. “There are so many loose scoundrels on the street; they’re irresponsible,” he said, gesturing his disapproval with his head.
He eluded the question, which was the most sensible thing to do. Nobody saw him. The damage had been done. Taking on any blame would have ruined the rest of his life.

 

Hours passed and he still hadn’t left the hospital. He was waiting for news, walking restlessly around the hospital hallways and wards.

What if the man woke up and contradicted his statement? What if the man had seen him? He would recognize Ciprián because of his store. Identified by a common customer, the irony! Perhaps he saw nothing. That was the most likely possibility.

The headlights of Ciprián’s car would have blinded him before hitting him. But who knows what he heard? Perhaps he heard Ciprián moaning desperately as he put him in the back seat of his car, or a scream as he struck his fist over the steering wheel on the way to the hospital, or a sigh. Perhaps he had the misfortune of running over an expert in vehicle engine, brake, and wheel screeching sounds. No, that would have been too much. He probably just hit a jíbaro with no idea of what a car even was.

I’d had enough of this analysis. Ciprián’s feet were tired from all that walking around. His eyes ached. I made him remember Gala. Many hours had gone by since he left her at the school and he hadn’t gotten back in touch with her. Someone must have taken her and the kids back home, but she must have been extremely worried about him. Those days, the telephone hadn’t reached the countryside so he sent someone to let her know what had happened. Naturally, she would only ever get the official version of the story.

He sat in the waiting room resting his elbows on his knees and covering his face with his hands. Suddenly, one of the nurses came out of the emergency room.

“Is your name Ciprián?” the nurse asked.

“Yes. Has he woken up?” Ciprián answered. The moment of silence that followed felt like an eternity for him. The young nurse had no idea of the importance her answer would have for the rest of his life. “Did he wake up?”

“The lesion on his head caused a brain hemorrhage. I regret to inform you he has passed away,” the nurse said.

Ciprián couldn’t hold his tears. What a relief!

The nurse, under the impression that he was about to collapse after hearing such terrible news, covered her mouth, punishing herself for her role as the messenger.

“You shouldn’t be sad! You had no control over anything that happened! You’re a great man for doing what you did. You found him. You brought him here. Alive! It was God who decided to take him,” the nurse said.

“Thanks. It’s just that nobody deserves to die like that,” Ciprián said, wiping his tears away with a handkerchief.

“Do you want to go out for a drink somewhere so we can talk? You’ll feel better,” the nurse said, as she caressed the palm of his hand with her thumb. “I’m Rita.”

***

If you enjoyed this sneak peek, you can get your copy of The White Shoes and Los Zapatos Blancos on Amazon or your favorite online bookstore. You can also find it at the following bookstores in Puerto Rico: Beta Book Café, The Bookmark, La Tertulia, Libros AC, K&L Books, Paliques, and El Candil.

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David Camacho Colón was born in Puerto Rico and has traveled to more than 40 countries. He left behind a successful career (as an engineer and, after an MBA, a strategy consultant) to continue learning from the world and become an author. He calls ‘home’ to wherever he happens to be, carrying a backpack as old as it is dirty, but which can still take a beating.

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