The Tower Journal

Alfredo Franco

An earlier version of this story appeared in the print edition of Prick of the Spindle, Issue 4, 2013.


     Trentacost was a 61-year-old widower who, searching the Internet aimlessly one sleepless night, found the home of his childhood up for sale. His parents had lost the house when he was only twelve. The red brick starter home at 2210 Osterman Road stood in what had become, in the ensuing forty-nine years, a blighted Maryland suburb. He contacted the realtor the following morning. He made an offer based on nothing more than his memories and the thumbnail photo of the house on the website.
      The house on Osterman Road had devalued severely. His parents had paid $10,000 in borrowed money for it in 1957. To break even, it should have fetched at least $76,000 in 2012. Trentacost bought it for $40,000.
      Trentacost was a tall man, strong for his age, with a rugged, weather-beaten face, though his eyes were baggy and tired. By summer, he had sold the condominium in McLean, Virginia, where he had lived with his wife, Elizabeth; it was a modest apartment, but a young Iranian couple paid him almost half a million for it. Elizabeth and he had led a simple life there, especially after his early retirement from an administrative post in the CIA. Elizabeth had managed their finances soundly—Trentacost wondered what would have happened to him without her sturdy practicality. He’d have been homeless, for sure. He had inherited his father’s inclination to extravagance and an inability to handle money. Elizabeth kept their luxuries in check, limiting them to a monthly jar of Tiptree jam from the nearby Giant Food, and to Korbel instead of Veuve Cliquot on birthdays and New Year’s. Dinner out was only on Fridays at a small, inexpensive French restaurant on Old Dominion Drive, where the waiter was deaf and the merlot stale, but it was cozy, and they kept to their Friday ritual until Elizabeth was diagnosed with breast cancer and became self-conscious about her increasingly skeletal body, her thinning hair (it had once been thick and raven black), and the red welts that erupted on her scalp.
     Trentacost found life in his new, empty world without Elizabeth disorienting. There was no one to comfort him now when he woke up screaming from nightmares of his military service in Central America. Their apartment, and McLean as a whole, became intolerable. He hated the snobbish, comfortable local gentry; the horsey Virginians; the obscenely wealthy Middle Easterners; and the retired spies constantly reminiscing about the Cold War. Solitude began to eat him from inside like a parasite. He wished that Elizabeth and he had had a child, but they had been a self-enclosed, self-sufficient world unto themselves. Trentacost became addicted to the internet and began to spend money on absurd things he found on eBay—vintage Boy Scout equipment; an autographed first edition of John Mulholland's guide to magic tricks; Hubley toy airplanes, a Remco Mighty Matilda aircraft carrier that catapulted little plastic bombers. He realized that he was not only reverting to his childhood but, worse, to the prodigality of his father. It was a good moment, then, to sell the apartment and start over. He looked forward to the sheer physical work of restoring the house on Osterman Road.
     Trentacost was determined to live a Spartan life. His only furniture in the house would be his sleeping bag, a folding camp chair, and his battery-powered Coleman lamp. He discarded most of his other belongings, including the toxic computer and the recent immature purchases. He kept the photos of his wife and her copy of Les Fleurs du Mal, which she translated to practice the French she had studied in college. He kept his own favorite books: the journals of Lewis and Clark and of Robert Falcon Scott. He also kept his small Kel-Tec pistol; a pocket wire saw; his splendid scale model of Scott’s ship, Discovery.  He loaded his few things, and a supply of provisions, into his dusty but roadworthy 1998 Ford Explorer. He took a deep breath and, turning onto the Beltway, began his forty-minute odyssey to Maryland.
     Osterman Road had lost its tall, lush trees. There was nothing now to soften the light. The neat emerald lawns were gone too; in their place were mounds of dirt with patches of weeds. Trentacost particularly remembered the lawns, which used to give off invigorating smells of fertilizer and juicy cut grass in summer. There had also been the smell of pines, so that even in August you could thrill to Christmas. Now the street seemed barren except for battered cars, huge oil stains on the fissured asphalt, and an old aqua blue canned ham trailer mounted on cinder blocks, rotting away. Several brick house fronts were crumbling, the windows curtained with soiled bedsheets or blankets. Broken panes were stopped up with newspapers. As Trentacost walked up the fractured-concrete path, the house with its darkened windows seemed to ask: Why did it take you so long?
     He climbed the pitted gray steps to the door. He looked down at a square of rust—it was the footprint of the old metal Thompson milk box that had seemed so mysterious to him as a child, a place to hide toys and secret messages, to the irritation of the milkman. Standing there, holding the house keys in his hand, Trentacost felt a sense of recovery, of righting his parents’ wrongs, of bringing life full circle. His father had had good-enough jobs but was inevitably fired from each of them for his heavy drinking. His mother had done her best to hold onto the property, but after the divorce, eking out a living as a cashier at Woolworth’s, she had had no choice but to sell. Trentacost lived with her in a succession of shabby rental units, subsisting on a diet of TV dinners, until he joined the Army at nineteen. His father had died earlier, in 1971, his stomach exploding from booze, but under a comfortable roof, looked after by a much younger woman who adored him. The lucky bastard, thought Trentacost. His mother, by contrast, just faded away, a lonely ghost, consumed with memories of her carefree Cuban girlhood. She died while her son was “fighting Communism” in Central America and could not get word to her. He wished he could call them now, his mother and father, and tell them: We have the house again! I’ve earned it back! He wasn’t sure if he wished this out of love or revenge.
     Opening the door finally, he expected the aroma of strong Cuban-style coffee that his father prepared every morning; instead, he smelled wet, dirty carpeting, overheated old wood, and something rank, like sulfur, rotting eggs, or a decomposing animal. The house had two bedrooms, a living room, a kitchen, a basement and attic. Trentacost walked through the empty rooms in awe. In his childhood bedroom, he fell to his knees.
     Trentacost could not decide where to unroll his mummy-shaped sleeping bag, whether in the large bedroom where his parents had once slept, or in his boyhood room. He chose his parents’ room. He recalled too many long, terrifying nights in his childhood bed, hearing his parents argue, or his father rant on drunkenly. He remembered expecting, at any moment, to be abandoned, or for the house itself to come crashing down on him.
     The first days in the house were difficult. Tearing up the filthy yellow carpet was an exhausting task that made Trentacost feel his age; worse, he had remembered the house as enormous. True, he’d grown to be a very tall man, but where was that sense of joyous space he’d had as a boy, as if he’d grown up in a Gothic cathedral? How low the ceilings seemed to him now. He had a cramped, stooping feeling.
     The attic could be accessed only through a narrow hatch that opened at the top of a linen closet in the hallway. He tried going up, but with only his head through in the hot, spidery darkness, he pulled back, afraid of getting stuck. The basement was equally terrible: a damp, moldy cave with exposed, rusted pipes, in which the former owners had left a metal cot with a torn, soiled mattress and a rickety night table.
     He remembered metal cots…metal cots…screams from the castration shacks; men’s wrists and ankles handcuffed to metal cots, blood-soaked cotton wads where their penises and balls used to be… Knives purple, crusted with blood… The drunk soldiers mocking the castrated prisoners by masturbating in front of them… Plastic buckets full of severed testicles dumped into dung pits… And Colonel Menendez saying: “Tell Washington it has to be done…”
     Trentacost leaned back, nauseated, against a moldy pipe. He closed his eyes, taking deep-belly breaths, as the therapist had taught him. He opened his eyes and wiped them dry on his rough work gloves. Perhaps the former owners had hidden an illegal alien in this basement. He folded the cot and tossed it into the trash pile he was gathering in the backyard.
     Then there was the smell. He checked the gutters for a rotting animal. He hired a Guatemalan woman to help him clean the bathroom and the kitchen thoroughly. She smelled it too, but neither of them could pinpoint its source. “Perhaps it is the cadejo,” she said, only half-joking, in Spanish. “An evil spirit, a devil-dog. It always brings a bad smell.” She crossed herself, just in case. The odor would dissipate for a day and return to wake him in the middle of the night. He would rouse disoriented, thinking he was back in combat, in Santa Anna or El Pital, his right index finger pulling an illusory trigger spasmodically.
     The nights were the worst. The house felt especially small, and the sky outside the windows was a low, hard black, without stars or transcendence. In his boyhood the night had seemed vast, full of scintillating wonder and expansive hope—he would stretch his arms up to the cosmos, dreaming of becoming an astronaut.
     Trentacost lost sleep over the basement. He lay in his sleeping bag, wondering what might be happening down there, now. The basement had a door to the backyard, and he worried about its flimsiness; it was the house’s vulnerable anus. A stairway ran up from the basement to the kitchen. On several nights he thought he could hear sounds. He’d get up and take the Kel-Tec from under his pillow, expecting to surprise an intruder. Afterward, in the dark kitchen, he would calm his nerves with a shot of Navy-strength rum. Back in his sleeping bag, he’d try to distract himself, reading Lewis and Clark, or Robert Falcon Scott, by the light of his Coleman lamp.
     Perhaps he had made a terrible mistake in moving back. Several nights a week he’d hear gunshots and screams. There were reports of men cut down in parking lots by machete-wielding gangs. The neighborhood had one of the highest rates in the nation for rape and wife-beating. Trentacost could feel the hate outside closing in.
     Switching off the lamp, he’d try to lull himself to sleep, thinking of his wife, remembering their happiness together. Yet things he wanted to forget began to intrude: the bad breath, for example, that Elizabeth developed because of her illness, rising from her decaying organs. He was ashamed of his disgust. Then there was her unexpected cruelty in bed throughout their marriage. It was not a huge cruelty, but it would unsettle him for days whenever it happened. She would, when she was on top of him (it was her favorite position), look back suddenly and pretend that another man had surprised her anally. She would begin bucking ecstatically for the invisible assailant, gasping: “He’s coming in my ass!” It would make Trentacost ejaculate ferociously, but full of self-loathing, reduced to tears, so that she would have to cradle him and assure him that she loved no one else; that she just liked to tease him.

     One sunny Saturday morning, Trentacost wondered if perhaps a good walk would help. He decided to go to an outdoor market, just beyond what in the 1960’s had been the elegant Burdines shopping center. Dressed in khaki trousers and a Pendleton shirt, he joined a long stream of Central American immigrants lumbering up the lengthy dirt path that lead from Osterman Road. The women carried bundles and pushed baby carriages with two and even three children. Everyone eyed the tall gringo with suspicion and kept their distance. They did not know that he understood their whispered warnings to each other—No será de la Migra?
     The back of the former shopping center came into view: derelict buildings, crumbling chimneys, boarded-up windows, desolate delivery docks, bolted metal doorways with corroded fallout shelter trefoils. The towering, space-age style marquee of the shopping center still stood, but birds were nesting on its top and there were letters missing from its elegant cursive name, which now read ur ine. Trentacost followed the procession, passing rusted, overturned trash bins; skeletons of automobiles; ash heaps; and discarded display cases that in his childhood had exhibited the products of a more haptic, sensual world, such as leather Robinson Reminders, Kingsway Florentine chess sets in lustrous red and white plastic, Parker 51 pens ("Like a pen from another planet!"), Boy Scout pocket knives with bone handles, GE Vortalex fans...
     Along the path, vendors chanted hauntingly from makeshift carts: Horchata! Horchata! Trentacost could not believe his eyes when he saw loom up before him the old spiraling parking garage, its neon sign a series of multicolored chevrons coiling like a seashell into the word Parkarama. The colors still flickered, pale, washed-out, in the daylight. His father, to Trentacost’s joy, had sometimes driven them in his two-tone Plymouth at dangerous speeds around the whirligig ramps, as on a dizzying amusement park ride. That this had survived! It was more wonderful than coming upon a temple of the Lost City of Z, or the Ziggurat of Ur.
     Trentacost, drunk with memory, reached a large, open-sided canvas tent, beneath which stood grills steaming with Central American dishes—yuca frita, pescaditas, baleadas, pulique, chuchitos. There were long rows of picnic tables covered with checkered oilcloth. It was a hot day, but the grills and the concentration of bodies made it feel even hotter. All eyes were on Trentacost. Conversations fell to a whisper. He looked around him, self-conscious, and stuttered stupidly: “Buenos dias…” Several of the men laughed derisively. “Qué quiere el gringo?” Trentacost wiped his sweaty forehead with a handkerchief. He felt dizzy and had to lean against one of the tables.
     “Qué le pasa al señor?” he heard someone ask. “He looks ill. Enfermo.”
     The sight of so many Central American children made his vision blur. No, please, not now
     Children tossed in the air, impaled, on bayonets… A young nun, their teacher, buck naked but for her coif and wimple, made to go on all fours and fellate the officers while a corporal took her from the back… Later the corporal joked about how hard it had been to pry her cunt open, his hands mimicking a chisel and hammer… An old man thrown, head-down, into a well, followed by a grenade…Surprise mortar-fire…guerrillas charging from the bushes… The battalion, for all its American training, scurrying in all directions, panicking… Trentacost, the mentor, the model officer, the gringo adviser, also running, zig-zagging, his iron discipline giving way inexplicably… The squat but muscular colonel, Menendez, star graduate of the School of the Americas, held firm and fired pistol shots after him, screaming: “Stop, Captain Acosta! Cobarde! Coward!”
     After weeks of hiding in the jungle, Trentacost slipped into the city, taking refuge in the dank, dark cellar of an old house. He could not go to the American embassy—they would never acknowledge or admit him. Besides, a squad from ORDEN might get him first and shoot him for desertion or to keep him from reporting what he’d seen. Instead, two children found him, there in that cellar. Anna and Pablo were siblings who lived on the upper floors with their uncle. Their parents had been killed by a guerilla detachment in Morazán. The children brought him water, tamales de loroco, chocolate—anything they could steal from the kitchen. Once, they even brought him a crisp, clean shirt to replace the tunic of his badly shredded BDU. Another time, Anna came down alone. Pablo had been caught stealing food. Their uncle punished him by chaining his ankle to a wall. Trentacost promised to help set him free, but that night, as he prepared to go up the steps, his Ka-Bar knife in hand, the walls shook and roared inward. The National Army was bombing its own people. Trentacost clawed his way through the rubble, found Anna still alive, but the uncle and Pablo crushed under stones, Pablo liberated from his foot, which was still shackled to a chunk of wall on the other side of the room.
     Trentacost and Anna, with dozens of others in the neighborhood, found refuge in a funeral home that had been transformed into a makeshift shelter for the night. Around midnight, Anna had to go to the bathroom but was afraid of the coffins and cadavers. Trentacost accompanied her, carrying her over sleeping families, when a soldier stopped them and asked to see his papers. Trentacost put Anna down and hesitated. The soldier hit him savagely in the stomach with a truncheon. The soldier seemed proud that he had made a much larger man fall to his knees. As he raised his truncheon for another blow, Trentacost grabbed him by the ankles and flipped him, in one swift movement, backward down the shaft of the dumbwaiter used to transport cadavers. In the screaming chaos that followed, with other soldiers rushing in and shooting indiscriminately, Trentacost became separated from Anna. Eventually, he reached a safe house in Mexico City, where he was kept under medical care and debriefed for over a month.
     Perhaps Anna was here, now, among these immigrants. Perhaps she had survived, made it to America. “Anna, you can come live with me. I have money, lots of it, saved up! I have a house, mi casa propria, the house I grew up in. You’ll be safe there. This time I won’t lose you. Anna…Niña, donde estas? Anna!"
     Trentacost screamed, opening his eyes. He was lying on the ground. A worried crowd peered down at him. It was too risky for them to call the police or an ambulance. They were all undocumented.  A bony old brown woman knelt beside him.
     “Quien es Anna? Who is Anna, señor?”
     She lifted his head gently in the crook of her arm and made him drink a cup of cold, reinvigorating horchata.
     Trentacost returned to his home, embarrassed by his collapse, yet feeling more a part of his new community. He promised the old lady that he would return and eat beneath the tent often. Then, that night, he heard the basement door give way.
     Several days later, around two in the morning, he heard the basement door give way. Trentacost sat up in his sleeping bag. Perhaps he had only been dreaming. He became very quiet in the dark, holding his breath and listening with his whole body, like an animal. There wasn’t any doubt this time: someone was moving in the basement. He slipped the Kel-Tec out from under his pillow.
     In the kitchen, he crouched near the door leading up from the basement, waiting. He heard the slow, careful steps coming up the stairs, one by one, with small pauses in between, but the door didn’t simply open. It exploded outward with a ferocious bang, startling him. In that second of shock, a machete slashed his face and arms and opened a deep gash in his right side, just below his ribcage. The Kel-Tec went clattering across the kitchen floor.
     Trentacost, ignoring the pain, rolled and leapt to his feet, facing the intruder, a short stocky man in combat fatigues and a ski mask. Trentacost tried to remember his training--it was so long ago, and he was an old man now… From behind the mask a voice growled: “El dinero, gringo, o te voy a cortar! Give me the money, or I’ll chop you up!”
     Trentacost made himself as concave as possible, sucking in his stomach. The man swung the machete, the long arc slicing through Trentacost’s pajama top, grazing his navel. Trentacost let the man swing again, to get a sense of his timing. On the next swing, as the blade arced to the left, Trentacost rushed into him, clawing at the ski mask, using his greater height to bear down on the assailant, whose body felt hard, compact, and cruel. Suddenly, Trentacost was exhausted, winded. A numbness began spreading through him.  He was old, old… The other man sensed his weakness and struck him with the handle of the machete on the right temple.
     Trentacost fell and vomited. A darkness within the darkness opened up and seemed to be swallowing him. He heard the assailant’s voice far, far away.
     “Donde está el dinero, pendejo! El dinero! The money!”
     Trentacost forced himself to remain conscious and dragged himself to one of the kitchen cabinets. He sat up in a puddle of blood and puke. He closed and opened his eyes, trying to see. His Kel-Tec was being pointed at him.
     “El dinero!
     In a blur of eye and mind, Trentacost saw Colonel Menendez: That’s his squat, turtle-like body, and his voice, like greasy, frying bacon, that ordered the massacre of whole villages…
     The man in the ski mask kicked Trentacost in the face.
     “El dinero, ahora, o te voy a matar! The money, now!”
     “What did you do to Anna, Colonel?” Trentacost groaned. “You caught her, didn’t you, after I ran from the funeral home like a scared rabbit. And you let each of your men take her before you shot her, right?”
     The man, exasperated, extended the Kel-Tec, and fired above Trentacost’s head, demolishing the model of the Discovery on the ledge of the kitchen window. The fragments rained down over Trentacost, who lunged to the right, ripping away, as he did so, the pocket saw that he had taped under the overhanging ridge of the cabinet. (Even after leaving the service, he had kept up such paranoid habits of his training.) His delusion restored his strength, his rage; he sweep-kicked the man he thought was Menendez, making him topple face–down to the floor and lose hold of the gun. Trentacost leaped onto him, pinning and straddling him. He pulled the ski-mask off. It was a frightened, sweaty man of no more than 25, with a pitted, coppery face and MS 13 tattooed in Gothic lettering on the back of his smooth-shaven head. He was a gang member who had heard Trentacost speak deliriously at the outdoor grill about a cache of money and had followed him, but Trentacost saw Menendez. Finally, Menendez… He put his fingers through the two hoops of the saw and wound it twice around the young man’s neck. The gang member struggled, but Trentacost put a knee into his spine and with his last strength jerked the head back with the tightening saw. Trentacost felt the spine break and watched the razor wire sink into the man’s flesh in a ring of blood. After a while, the young man stopped gurgling. Trentacost let him drop.
     He recovered the Kel-Tec and staggered to the bedroom, where he knew there was a roll of gauze. He had to stanch the bleeding then call the police, or perhaps, even better, the Disposal Ops from Langley--they’d remember him, as if no time had elapsed since his service, and help him get rid of Menendez’s corpse. The phone was in the kitchen, next to his car keys. Trentacost groped through a box next to his sleeping bag and found the gauze. Blood speckled his wife’s Flowers of Evil, his photos of her, his volumes of Lewis and Clark, the diary of Scott. He removed his soaked pajama top and wrapped the gauze around his chest, but as he went to rise, collapsed, falling back into the wet, clammy sleeping bag.

As I drag myself across the splintery wooden floor, my body my vessel, I shall try to chart the past as if it were a new world, establishing the exact latitude and longitude of childhood with nothing but the faulty chronometer of the heart. I shall search for evidence that might have survived from my earliest days—perhaps the wheel of a toy car lodged under a floorboard, or a long-lost plastic soldier.
The expedition from this hot, tropical room to the arctic kitchen will be long and arduous. I have lost too much blood. I have nothing but half a canteen of water and the Kel-Tec.
Have dragged myself through the doorway of my parents’ room as through the Pillars of Hercules. On the threshold, to my SS, encountered a common house spider, Parasteatoda tepidariorum, under an inch across, therefore probably male. Body dull brown with spotted legs. We passed each other without incident.
Much time and energy lost by navigational error. Incorrect turn to larboard in the hallway, leading me SE, away from the kitchen. Found myself in boyhood room. Stopped for water. Decided, while here, to commemorate death of Floyd, my childhood rabbit (Sylvilagus floridanus). Left alone in this room to play with the rabbit, I, a mere five-year-old, tossed him in the air, delighted to see him somersault and fall on all fours on the hardwood floors. Once. Twice. The third time, the rabbit landed on its back, flipped over on its stomach, began to drag its hind legs. They seemed oddly disconnected from his torso, like lifeless sticks. Giggling, I shoved the legs back up, still oblivious to its pain, as if the legs could be reattached. The rabbit crawled under my bed. A loud, horrifying sound filled the room. BE-AAH! BE-AAH! BE-AAH! I had not known that rabbits could cry out. I began to sing a Christmas carol, though it was summer, to cover up the agonizing bleating, but my mother burst in, wide-eyed, her hand over her mouth. With barrel of the Kel-Tec have etched a cross into the floor to mark the spot where Floyd finally expired.
Have reached living room with great effort. Water almost gone. Much loss of blood. Along the way have noted fascinating dust clumps. Each one seems an intricate, self-contained universe. They seem to be made up of complex entanglements of spiderweb, lost hairs, fly droppings, sediment, and other detritus. Some extend horizontally like nebulae; others are more rounded, planetoidal. How old are they? How long did they take to form? Could any of their particles have been present in my childhood? Have named each clump: Galaxias Elizabetae, Galaxias Annensis…
In my childhood the living room was furnished with a Mediterranean-style coffee table that had a long, rectangular marble top. The frame was oak with a pair of brass handles on either side. As a boy, I loved to hide beneath it, pretending to be a corpse in a tomb that came suddenly to life. Once, to my mother’s horror, I overturned a fragile glass lamp as I tried to push the heavy marble slab from below with my small hands.
Against the wall stood the stereo console, a long cabinet that also held my father’s extensive collection of long-playing records: Ecstasy with Art Van Damme; Bobby Hackett’s In a Mellow Mood; Echoes of Paris by George Feyer; Jackie Gleason’s Music to Make You Misty; Doris Day’s Day by Night… The covers of these albums showed beautiful women holding cocktail glasses, or a jazz trumpeter bathed in lonely blue light. Next to the stereo was a wheeled cart that held crystal decanters of bourbon, scotch, and gin. One day mother had to work late; my father picked me up at school. Inside the car was a young brunette, Beth, his secretary. We drove home. Father fixed Beth a drink and put “Ecstasy” on the stereo. They thought I was playing outside, but I was lying under the marble table, forgotten in my tomb. From where I lay, I saw father take Beth in his arms and dance to the slow, exquisite, accordion music. They seemed so self-sufficient, outside of time, and without need of me. How softly she moved in his arms. His hand ran the zipper of her dress down to her ass.
Last of the water gone. Mouth parched. I am lying over the threshold of the kitchen as if stuck on a sandbar. Can already see the white refrigerator, a towering glacial mountain. I can make out to my SS the landmass of Menendez, dark and jagged. Who are those people waving to me from the shore? Mandans? Arikaras? And all about is the wreckage of Discovery.
Phone and keys to the Ford Explorer impossibly high on the counter. Will never reach them.
No further feeling in arms or legs. Have gun but have decided for a natural end. Everything white on white. Can no longer get my bearings. Where is childhood? Cold, raging winds.

Copyright © 2014 Alfredo Franco

Alfredo FrancoAlfredo Franco’s short stories have appeared in Blackbird, Euphony Journal (University of Chicago), Crack the Spine, Prick of the Spindle, Gulf Stream, Permafrost, Midway Journal, Pembroke Magazine, Eclectica, and other publications. He teaches creative writing at Rutgers University.

The Tower Journal
Spring/Summer 2014