Sparrows Falling from the Sky 2 страница

We went upstairs and Dante showed me his room. It was a big room with a high ceiling and wood floors and lots of old windows to let in the light. There was stuff everywhere. Clothes spread all over the floor, a pile of old albums, books scattered around, legal pads with stuff written on them, Polaroid photographs, a couple of cameras, a guitar without any strings, sheet music, and a bulletin board cluttered with notes and pictures.

He put on some music. He had a record player. A real record player from the sixties. “It was my mom’s,” he said. “She was going to throw it away. Can you believe that?” He put on Abbey Road, his favorite album. “Vinyl,” he said. “Real vinyl. None of this cassette crap.”

“What’s wrong with cassettes?”

“I don’t trust them.”

I thought that was a really weird thing to say. Funny and weird. “Records scratch easily.”

“Not if you take care of them.”

I looked around his messy room. “I can see that you really like to take care of things.”

He didn’t get mad. He laughed.

He handed me a book. “Here,” he said. “You can read this while I clean my room.”

“Maybe I should just, you know, leave you—” I stopped. My eyes searched the messy room. “It’s a little scary in here.”

He smiled. “Don’t,” he said. “Don’t leave. I hate cleaning my room.”

“Maybe if you didn’t have so many things.”

“It’s just stuff,” he said.

I didn’t say anything. I didn’t have stuff.

“If you stay, it won’t be so bad.”

Somehow, I felt out of place—but—“Okay,” I said. “Should I help?”

“No. It’s my job.” He said that with a kind of resignation. “As my mom would say, ‘It’s your responsibility, Dante.’ Responsibility is my mother’s favorite word. She doesn’t think my father pushes me hard enough. Of course he doesn’t. I mean, what does she expect? Dad’s not a pusher. She married the guy. Doesn’t she know what kind of guy he is?”

“Do you always analyze your parents?”

“They analyze us, don’t they?”

“That’s their job, Dante.”

“Tell me you don’t analyze your mom and dad.”

“Guess I do. Doesn’t do me any good. I haven’t figured them out yet.”

“Well, me, I figured my dad out—not my mom. My mom is the biggest mystery in the world. I mean, she’s predictable when it comes to parenting. But really, she’s inscrutable.”

“Inscrutable.” I knew when I went home, I would have to look up the word.

Dante looked at me like it was my turn to say something.

“I figured my mom out, mostly,” I said. “My dad. He’s inscrutable too.” I felt like such a fraud, using that word. Maybe that was the thing about me. I wasn’t a real boy. I was a fraud.

He handed me a book of poetry. “Read this,” he said. I’d never read a book of poems before and wasn’t even sure I knew how to read a book of poems. I looked at him blankly.

“Poetry,” he said. “It won’t kill you.”

“What if it does? Boy Dies of Boredom While Reading Poetry.”

He tried not to laugh, but he wasn’t good at controlling all the laughter that lived inside of him. He shook his head and started gathering all the clothes on the floor.

He pointed at his chair. “Just throw that stuff on the floor and have a seat.”

I picked up a pile of art books and a sketch pad and set it on the floor. “What’s this?”

“A sketch pad.”

“Can I see?”

He shook his head. “I don’t like to show it to anyone.”

That was interesting—that he had secrets.

He pointed to the poetry book. “Really, it won’t kill you.”

All afternoon, Dante cleaned. And I read that book of poems by a poet named William Carlos Williams. I’d never heard of him, but I’d never heard of anybody. And I actually understood some of it. Not all of it—but some. And I didn’t hate it. That surprised me. It was interesting, not stupid or silly or sappy or overly intellectual—not any of those things that I thought poetry was. Some poems were easier than others. Some were inscrutable. I was thinking that maybe I did know the meaning of that word.

I got to thinking that poems were like people. Some people you got right off the bat. Some people you just didn’t get—and never would get.

I was impressed by the fact that Dante could be so systematic in the way he organized everything in his room. When we’d walked in, the place had been all chaos. But when he finished, everything was in its place.

Dante’s world had order.

He’d organized all his books on a shelf and on his desk. “I keep the books I’m going to read next on my desk,” he said. A desk. A real desk. When I had to write something, I used the kitchen table.

He grabbed the book of poems away from me and went looking for a poem. The poem was titled “Death.” He was so perfect in his newly organized room, the western sun streaming in, his face in the light and the book in his hand as if it was meant to be there, in his hands, and only in his hands. I liked his voice as he read the poem as if he had written it:

He’s dead

the dog won’t have to

sleep on the potatoes

anymore to keep them

from freezing

he’s dead

the old bastard—

When Dante read the word “bastard” he smiled. I knew he loved saying it because it was a word he was not allowed not use, a word that was banned. But here in his room, he could read that word and make it his.

All afternoon, I sat in that large comfortable chair in Dante’s room and he lay down on his newly made bed. And he read poems.

I didn’t worry about understanding them. I didn’t care about what they meant. I didn’t care because what mattered is that Dante’s voice felt real. And I felt real. Until Dante, being with other people was the hardest thing in the world for me. But Dante made talking and living and feeling seem like all those things were perfectly natural. Not in my world, they weren’t.

I went home and looked up the word “inscrutable.” It meant something that could not easily be understood. I wrote down all the synonyms in my journal. “Obscure.” “Unfathomable.” “Enigmatic.” “Mysterious.”

That afternoon, I learned two new words. “Inscrutable.” And “friend.”

Words were different when they lived inside of you.


ONE LATE AFTERNOON, DANTE CAME OVER TO MY house and introduced himself to my parents. Who did stuff like that?

“I’m Dante Quintana,” he said.

“He taught me how to swim,” I said. I don’t know why, but I just needed to confess that fact to my parents. And then I looked at my mom. “You said don’t drown—so I found someone to help me keep my promise.”

My dad glanced at my mom. I think they were smiling at each other. Yeah, they were thinking, he’s finally found a friend. I hated that.

Dante shook my dad’s hand—then handed him a book. “I brought you a gift,” he said.

I stood there and watched him. I’d seen the book on a coffee table in his house. It was an art book filled with the work of Mexican painters. He seemed so adult, not like a fifteen-year-old at all. Somehow, even his long hair that he didn’t like to comb made him seem more adult.

My dad smiled as he studied the book—but then he said, “Dante, this is really very generous—but I don’t know if I can accept this.” My dad held the book carefully, afraid to damage it. He and my mother exchanged glances. My mom and dad did a lot of that. They liked to talk without talking. I made up things about what they said to each other with those looks.

“It’s about Mexican art,” Dante said. “So you have to take it.” I could almost see his mind working as he thought of a convincing argument. A convincing argument that was true. “My parents didn’t want me to come over here empty-handed.” He looked at my dad very seriously. “So you have to take it.”

My mother took the book from my father’s hands and looked at the cover. “It’s a beautiful book. Thank you, Dante.”

“You should thank my dad. It was his idea.”

My father smiled. That was the second time in less than a minute that my father had smiled. This was not a common occurrence. Dad was not big on smiling.

“Thank your father for me, will you, Dante?”

My father took the book and sat down with it. As if it was some kind of treasure. See, I didn’t get my dad. I could never guess how he would react to things. Not ever.



“There’s a bed, a clock radio, a rocking chair, a bookcase, some books. That’s not nothing.”

“Nothing on the walls.”

“I took down my posters.”


“Didn’t like them.”

“You’re like a monk.”

“Yeah. Aristotle the monk.”

“Don’t you have hobbies?”

“Sure. Staring at the blank walls.”

“Maybe you’ll be a priest.”

“You have to believe in God to be a priest.”

“You don’t believe in God? Not even a little?”

“Maybe a little. But not a lot.”

“So you’re an agnostic?”

“Sure. A Catholic agnostic.”

That really made Dante laugh.

“I didn’t say it to be funny.”

“I know. But it is funny.”

“Do you think it’s bad—to doubt?”

“No. I think it’s smart.”

“I don’t think I’m so smart. Not like you, Dante.”

“You are smart, Ari. Very smart. And anyway, being smart isn’t everything. People just make fun of you. My dad says it’s all right if people make fun of you. You know what he said to me? He said, ‘Dante, you’re an intellectual. That’s who you are. Don’t be ashamed of that.’”

I noticed his smile was a little sad. Maybe everyone was a little sad. Maybe so.

“Ari, I’m trying not to be ashamed.”

I knew what it was like to be ashamed. Only, Dante knew why. And I didn’t.

Dante. I really liked him. I really, really liked him.


I WATCHED MY FATHER THUMB THROUGH THE PAGES. It was obvious that he loved that book. And because of that book, I learned something new about my father. He’d studied art before he joined the Marines. That seemed not to fit with the picture I had of my father. But I liked the idea.

One evening, when he was looking through the book, he called me over. “Look at this,” he said, “It’s a mural by Orozco.”

I stared at the reproduced mural in the book—but I was more interested in his finger as he tapped the book with approval. That finger had pulled a trigger in a war. That finger had touched my mother in tender ways I did not fully comprehend. I wanted to talk, to say something, to ask questions. But I couldn’t. All the words were stuck in my throat. So I just nodded.

I’d never thought of my father as the kind of man who understood art. I guess I saw him as an ex-Marine who became a mailman after he came home from Vietnam. An ex-Marine mailman who didn’t like to talk much.

An ex-Marine mailman who came home from a war and had one more son. Not that I thought that I was his idea. I always thought it was my mother who wanted to have me. Not that I really knew whose idea my life was. I made up too many things in my head.

I could have asked my father lots of questions. I could have. But there was something in his face and eyes and in his crooked smile that prevented me from asking. I guess I didn’t believe he wanted me to know who he was. So I just collected clues. Watching my father read that book was another clue in my collection. Some day all the clues would come together. And I would solve the mystery of my father.


ONE DAY, AFTER SWIMMING, DANTE AND I WENT WALKING around. We stopped at the 7-Eleven. He bought a Coke and peanuts.

I bought a PayDay.

He offered me a drink from his Coke.

“Don’t like Cokes,” I said.

“That’s weird.”


“Everybody likes Cokes.”

“I don’t.”

“What do you like?”

“Coffee and tea.”

“That’s weird.

“Okay, I’m weird. Shut up.”

He laughed. We walked around. I guess we just didn’t want to go home. We talked about stuff. Stupid stuff. And then he asked me, “Why do Mexicans like nicknames?”

“I don’t know. Do we?”

“Yes. You know what my aunts call my mom? They call her Chole.”

“Is her name Soledad?”

“See what I mean, Ari? You know. You know the nickname for Soledad. It’s like in the air. What’s that about? Why can’t they just call her Soledad? What’s this Chole business? Where do they get Chole from?”

“Why does it bother you so much?”

“I don’t know. It’s weird.”

“Is that the word of the day?”

He laughed and downed some peanuts. “Does your mother have a nickname?”

“Lilly. Her name’s Liliana.”

“That’s a nice name.”

“So is Soledad.”

“No, not really. How would you like to be named Solitude?”

“It can also mean lonely,” I said.

“See? What a sad name.”

“I don’t think it’s sad. I think it’s a beautiful name. I think it fits your mom just right.” I said.

“Maybe so. But Sam, Sam is perfect for my dad.”


“What’s your Dad’s name?”


“I like that name.”

“His real name’s Santiago.”

Dante smiled. “See what I mean about the nicknames?”

“It bothers you that you’re Mexican, doesn’t it?”


I looked at him.

“Yes, it bothers me.”

I offered him some of my PayDay.

He took a bite. “I don’t know,” he said.

“Yeah,” I said. “It bothers you.”

“You know what I think, Ari? I think Mexicans don’t like me.”

“That’s a weird thing to say,” I said.

“Weird,” he said.

“Weird,” I said.


ONE NIGHT, WHEN THERE WAS NO MOON IN THE NIGHT sky, Dante’s mom and dad took us out into the desert so we could use his new telescope. On the drive out, Dante and his dad sang along with the Beatles—not that either of them had good singing voices. Not that they cared.

They touched a lot. A family of touchers and kissers. Every time Dante entered the house, he kissed his mom and dad on the cheek—or they kissed him—as if all that kissing was perfectly normal.

I wondered what my father would do if I ever went up to him and kissed him on the cheek. Not that he would yell at me. But—I don’t know.

It took us a while to drive out into the desert. Mr. Quintanaseemed to know a good place where we could watch the stars.

Somewhere away from the lights of the city.

Light pollution. That’s what Dante called it. Dante seemed to know a great deal about light pollution.

Mr. Quintana and Dante set up the telescope.

I watched them and listened to the radio.

Mrs. Quintana offered me a Coke. I took it, even though I didn’t like Cokes.

“Dante says you’re very smart.”

Compliments made me nervous. “I’m not as smart as Dante.”

Then I heard Dante’s voice interrupting our conversation. “I thought we talked about this, Ari.”

“What?” his mother said.

“Nothing. It’s just that most smart people are perfect shits.”

“Dante!” his mother said.

“Yeah, Mom, I know, the language.”

“Why is it you like to cuss so much, Dante?”

“It’s fun,” he said.

Mr. Quintana laughed. “It is fun,” he said. But then he said, “That kind of fun needs to happen when your mother isn’t around.”

Mrs. Quintana didn’t like Mr. Quintana’s advice. “What kind of lesson are you teaching him, Sam?”

“Soledad, I think—” But the whole discussion was killed by Dante, who was looking into his telescope. “Wow, Dad! Look at that! Look!”

For a long time, no one said anything.

We all wanted to see what Dante was seeing.

We stood silently around Dante’s telescope in the middle of the desert as we waited for our turn to see all the contents of the sky. When I looked through the telescope, Dante began explaining what I was looking at. I didn’t hear a word. Something happened inside me as I looked out into the vast universe. Through that telescope, the world was closer and larger than I’d ever imagined. And it was all so beautiful and overwhelming and—I don’t know—it made me aware that there was something inside of me that mattered.

As Dante was watching me search the sky through the lens of a telescope, he whispered, “Someday, I’m going to discover all the secrets of the universe.”

That made me smile. “What are you going to do with all those secrets, Dante?”

“I’ll know what to do with them,” he said. “Maybe change the world.”

I believed him.

Dante Quintana was the only human being I’d ever known that could say a thing like that. I knew that he would never grow up and say stupid things like, “a girl is like a tree.”

That night, we slept out in his backyard.

We could hear his parents talking in the kitchen because the window was open. His mother was talking in Spanish and his father was talking in English.

“They do that,” he said.

“Mine too,” I said.

We didn’t talk much. We just lay there and looked up at the stars.

“Too much light pollution,” he said.

“Too much light pollution,” I answered.



We’d skateboard to the park, and he’d take his tennis shoes off and rub his feet on the grass like he was wiping something off of them. We’d go to the movies and he’d take off his tennis shoes. He left them there once, and we had to go back and get them.

We missed our bus. Dante took his shoes off on the bus, too.

One time, I sat with him at Mass. He untied his shoelacesand took off his shoes right there in the pew. I sort of gave him this look. He rolled his eyes and pointed at the crucifix and whispered, “Jesus isn’t wearing shoes.”

We both sat there and laughed.

When he came to my house, Dante would place his shoes on the front porch before he came inside. “The Japanese do that,” he said. “They don’t bring the dirt of the world into another person’s house.”

“Yeah,” I said, “but we’re not Japanese. We’re Mexican.”

“We’re not really Mexicans. Do we live in Mexico?”

“But that’s where our grandparents came from.”

“Okay, okay. But do we actually know anything about Mexico?”

“We speak Spanish.”

“Not that good.”

“Speak for yourself, Dante. You’re such a pocho.”

“What’s a pocho?”

“A half-assed Mexican.”

“Okay, so maybe I’m a pocho. But the point I’m making here is that we can adopt other cultures.”

I don’t know why but I just started laughing. The truth is that I got to like the war Dante was having with shoes. One day, I just broke down and asked him. “So how come you have this thing with shoes?”

“I don’t like them. That’s it. That’s all. There’s no big secret here. I was born not liking them. There’s nothing complicated about the whole thing. Well, except there’s this thing called my mom. And she makes me wear them. She says there are laws. And then she talks about the diseases I could get. And then she says that people will think I’m just another poor Mexican. She says there are boys in Mexican villages who would die for a pair of shoes. ‘You can afford shoes, Dante.’ That’s what she says. And you know what I always tell her? ‘No, I can’t afford shoes. Do I have a job? No. I can’t afford anything.’ That’s usually the part of the conversation where she pulls her hair back. She hates that people might mistake me for another poor Mexican. And then she says: ‘Being Mexican doesn’t have to mean you’re poor.’ And I just want to tell her: ‘Mom, this isn’t about poor. And it isn’t about being Mexican. I just don’t like shoes.’ But I know the whole thing about shoes has to do with the way she grew up. So I just wind up nodding when she repeats herself: ‘Dante, we can afford shoes.’ I know the whole thing has nothing to with the word ‘afford.’ But, you know, she always gives me this look. And then I give her the same look back—and that’s how it goes. Look, me and my mom and shoes, it’s not a good discussion.” He stared out into the hot afternoon sky—a habit of his. It meant he was thinking. “You know, wearing shoes is an unnatural act. That’s my basicpremise.”

“Your basic premise?” Sometimes he talked like a scientist or a philosopher.

“You know, the founding principle.”

“The founding principle?”

“You’re looking at me like you think I’m nuts.”

“You are nuts, Dante.”

“I’m not,” he said. And then he repeated it, “I’m not.” He seemed almost upset.

“Okay,” I said, “You’re not. You’re not nuts and you’re not Japanese.”

He reached over and unlaced my tennis shoes as he talked. “Take off your shoes, Ari. Live a little.”

We went out into the street and played a game that Dante made up on the spot. It was a contest to see who could throw their tennis shoes the farthest. Dante was very systematic about the way he made up the game. Three rounds—which meant six throws. We both got a piece of chalk and we marked where the shoe landed. He borrowed his father’s tape measure that could measure up to thirty feet. Not that it was long enough.

“Why do we have to measure the feet?” I asked, “Can’t we just throw the shoe and mark it with the piece of chalk? The farthest chalk mark is the winner. Simple.”

“We have to know the exact distance,” he said.


“Because when you do something, you have to know exactly what you’re doing.”

“No one knows exactly what they’re doing,” I said.

“That’s because people are lazy and undisciplined.”

“Did anybody ever tell you that sometimes you talk like a lunatic who speaks perfect English?”

“That’s my father’s fault,” he said.

“The lunatic part or the perfect English part?” I shook my head. “It’s a game, Dante.”

“So? When you play a game, Ari, you have to know what you’re doing.”

“I do know what we’re doing, Dante. We’re making up a game. We’re throwing our tennis shoes on the street to see which one of us can throw his shoe the farthest. That’s what we’re doing.”

“It’s a version of throwing the javelin, right?”

“Yeah, I guess so.”

“They measure the distance when they throw the javelin, don’t they?”

“Yeah, but that’s a real sport, Dante. This isn’t.”

“It is too a real sport. I’m real. You’re real. The tennis shoes are real. The street is real. And the rules we establish—they’re real too. What more do you want?”

“But you’re making this too much work. After every toss, we have to measure. What fun is that? The fun is in the throwing.”

“No,” Dante said, “the fun is in the game. It’s everywhere.”

“I don’t understand,” I said. “Throwing a shoe is fun. I get that. But taking out your father’s tape measure and rolling it out across the street seems like work. What’s so fun about that? And not only that—what if a car comes along?”

“We move out of the way. And besides, we could play in the park.”

“The street’s more fun,” I said.

“Yeah, the street’s more fun.” We agreed on something.

Dante looked at me.

I looked back at him. I knew I didn’t have a chance. I knew we were going to play the game according to his rules. But the truth is, it mattered to Dante. And to me, it didn’t matter so much. So we played the game with our tools: our tennis shoes, two piecesof chalk, and his father’s tape measure. We made up the rules as we went along—and they kept changing. In the end, there were three sets—like tennis. There were six tosses per set. Eighteen tosses to make a game. Dante won two out of the three sets. But I had the longest toss. Forty-seven feet, three and a quarter inches.

Dante’s father came out of the house and shook his head. “What are you guys doing?”

“We’re playing a game.”

“What did I tell you, Dante? About playing in the street? There’s a park right there.” He pointed his finger toward the park. “And what—” He stopped and studied the scene. “Are you throwing your tennis shoes around?”

Dante wasn’t afraid of his father. Not that his father was scary. But still, his father was a father and he was standing there, challenging us. Dante didn’t even flinch, certain that he could defend his position. “We’re not throwing our tennis shoes around, Dad. We’re playing a game. It’s the common man’s version of throwing the javelin. And we’re seeing who can throw his shoe the farthest.”

His father laughed. I mean he laughed. “You’re the only kid in the entire universe who could come up with a game as an excuse to beat the holy crap out of his tennis shoes.” He laughed again. “Your mother’s going to love this.”

“We don’t have to tell her.”

“Yes, we do.”


“The no-secrets rule.”

“We’re playing in the middle of the street. How can that be a secret?”

“It’s a secret if we don’t tell her.” He grinned at Dante, not mad—but like a father who was being a father. “Take it to the park, Dante.”

We found a good spot to set up the game at the park. I studied Dante’s face as he threw his tennis shoes with all his strength. His father was right. Dante had found a game as an excuse to beat the crap out of his tennis shoes.


ONE AFTERNOON, AFTER WE’D FINISHED SWIMMING, we were hanging out on his front porch.

Dante was staring at his feet. That made me smile.

He wanted to know what I was smiling at. “I was just smiling,” I said. “Can’t a guy smile?”

“You’re not telling me the truth,” he said. He had this thing about telling the truth. He was as bad as my dad. Except my dad kept the truth to himself. And Dante believed you had to tell the truth in words. Out loud. Tell someone.

I wasn’t like Dante. I was more like my dad.

“Okay,” I said. “I was smiling because you were looking at your feet.”

“That’s a funny thing to smile about,” he said.

“It’s weird,” I said. “Who does that—look at their feet? Except you?”

“It’s not a bad thing to study your own body,” he said.

“That’s a really weird thing to say, too,” I said. In our house, we just didn’t talk about our own bodies. That’s just not what we did in our house.

“Whatever,” he said.

“Whatever,” I said.

“Do you like dogs, Ari?”

“I love dogs.”

“Me too. They don’t have to wear shoes.”

I laughed. I got to thinking that one of my jobs in the world was to laugh at Dante’s jokes. Only Dante didn’t really say things to be funny. He was just being himself.

“I’m going to ask my dad if he’ll get me a dog.” He had this look on his face—a kind of fire. And I wondered about that fire.

“What kind of dog do you want?”

“I don’t know, Ari. One that comes from the shelter. You know, one of those dogs that someone’s thrown away.”

“Yeah,” I said. “But how will you know which one to pick? There’s a lot of dogs at the shelter. And they all want to be saved.”

“It’s because people are so mean. They throw dogs away like they’re trash. I hate that.”

As we sat there talking, we heard a noise, boys yelling across the street. Three of them, maybe a little younger than us. Two of them had BB guns and they were pointing at a bird they’d just shot. “We got one! We got one!” One of them was pointing his gun at a tree.

“Hey!” Dante yelled, “Stop that!” He was halfway across the street before I realized what was happening. I ran after him.

“Stop that! What the hell’s wrong with you!” Dante’s hand was out, signaling for them to stop. “Give me that gun.”

“My ass if I’m gonna give you my BB gun.”

“It’s against the law,” Dante said. He looked crazed.

“Second amendment,” the guy said.

“Yeah, second amendment,” the other guy said. He held on tight to his little rifle.

“The second amendment doesn’t apply to BB guns, you jerk. And anyway, guns aren’t allowed on city property.”

“What are you planning on doing about it, you piece of shit?”

“I’m going to make you stop,” he said.


“By kicking your skinny little asses all the way to the Mexican border,” I said. I guess I was just afraid these guys were going to hurt Dante. I just said what I felt I had to say. They weren’t big guys and they weren’t smart either. They were mean and stupid boys and I’d seen what mean and stupid boys could do. Maybe Dante wasn’t mean enough for a fight. But I was. And I’d never felt bad for punching out a guy who needed punching out.

We stood there for a while, sizing each other up. I could tell Dante didn’t know what he was going to do next.

One of the guys looked like he was about to point his BB gun at me.

“I wouldn’t do that if I were you, you little piece of dog shit.” And just like that, I reached over and took his gun away. It happened fast and he hadn’t expected it. One thing I’d learned about getting into fights. Move fast, take the guy by surprise. It always worked. It was the first rule of fighting. And there I was with his BB gun in my hands. “You’re lucky I don’t shove this up your ass.”

I threw the gun on the ground. I didn’t even have to tell them to get the hell out of there. They just left, mumbling obscenities under their breaths.