An Appetizer of Autobiographical Fiction

From THE PRECARIOUSNESS OF DONE,
the upcoming (and first) novel by Tony Houck

 

PROLOGUE

Las Rozas, Spain
March 1996

     “Eres un subnormal profundo—You are a profound retard.”
     The insult had burst through Ethan’s door just minutes into the new year, as he lay propped against his pillow, ingesting the Spanish edition of Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea. The abuse had cut the eighteen-year-old, but it had not surprised him, despite his host mother’s resolution to “be more maternal.” He had given her an archaic smile and gone back to reading.
     But now, three months after slumping into bed with an old fisherman at twenty-two past midnight—for Spain, quite early but not retardedly so—Ethan wasn’t smiling. Anxious, the bright yet painfully shy teenager perched on the side of the bed.
     The bunk was designed to save space: a bookcase wall bed—the convenience of a twin Murphy bed, the storage of side cabinets with adjustable shelves. The unit had been a closeout, and it rocked slightly. Thankfully, it had never fallen on anyone, but no one had ever gotten a restful night’s sleep on the “mattress” either. Ethan didn’t blame his host parents for the miserable thing, tucking him into their house-rich, cash-poor lives however they could. Nevertheless, the room was a bedroom in name only.
     It was the tiniest space in a suite of rooms with parquet floors and stark white walls that occupied part of what Spaniards call the second floor but Americans call the third floor of the latest housing development. Regardless of the floor numbering scheme used inside the building, its anemic red brick exterior lacked style and grace.
     A walkway led from the buzz-in entrance through pea green grass watered and mined by Chihuahuas and a German shepherd, and then pierced a short wall separating the private lawn from the public sidewalk. The pedestrian-friendly street was typical of those in the burgeoning yet walkable town of Las Rozas. The name meant “clearings,” and though its origin was unclear (likely agricultural, as roza in Castilian refers to a place cleared for farmland), for Ethan, Las Rozas was home.
     The exception was his host parents’ apartment. It was the place where he disagreed most with the words of his exchange studies adviser: “Differences aren’t good or bad, just different.” She hadn’t been referring to an acrimonious couple but to general cultural differences (female nudity on broadcast television, for example), and he had agreed with her, for the most part. And though dealing with an adopted culture wasn’t always as pleasurable as watching a topless woman savor a spoonful of yogurt, Ethan did so like a trouper.
     He was a child of natural parents who were quietly living married yet separate lives under the same roof, so he was ill-prepared for the matrimonio’s biting words to each other. Ethan persisted through, fearing that someone would end his studies prematurely.
     Swallowing his complaints had done him little good, though. He sat back, heeling one of two large boxes his natural mother had shipped at great expense. God bless the woman for trying to buoy his withering waistline with non-perishable tastes of home: hot sauce, spray cheese, peanut butter, Triscuits, powdered milk.
     Or on second thought, maybe the Almighty should impose a little penance on her for turning a deaf ear to Ethan’s wish that she simply wire pesetas: “so many boxes” irritated his host mother, the caretaker of a Spartan kitchen with few cabinets. Where was he to put groceries in his postage stamp-sized quarters? Certainly not in plain sight, even if he stayed. And if he got the boot, he might simply trash them, although he hated the thought of tossing out good food almost as much as leaving.
     Ethan tucked his hands underneath him and stared at his host father’s mouth: Looking a person in the eyes was an ability that often eluded the introvert.
     “What’s clearer than water is that your behavior cannot continue,” the man who ran the roost declared, arms crossed.
     The walls closed in on Ethan. “I’m not sure what I’ve done wrong,” he managed to say with a Castilian accent that would be perfect if he hung on until June.
     “Not sure what you’ve done wrong?” the man asked, palming the greasy hair stuck to his scalp.
     “Not really,” Ethan said.
     The man leaned back in his chair and laced his nicotine-stained fingers behind his head. “I find that hard to believe.”
     Ethan caught a whiff of body odor: Soccer had been on the tele, and his host father had forgone his bubbly, weekly preening.
     Even the bathroom (tub shower, toilet, bidet—an odd fixture—vanity, linen closet) was larger than Ethan’s bedroom. At night, when his window and its rackety shutter were closed because his host mother “said so,” the room was claustrophobic. Only by the light leaking in under the door, which was also to remain shut, could he see the hand in front of his face.
     “Or maybe,” the man continued, “you’re just too much of a troglodita to see it.”
     As a child of a marriage disintegrating two thousand miles away, it hadn’t taken Ethan long to puzzle out his host mother’s behavior: Standing up to the rooster who strutted around his barnyard was an ability that often eluded her, so she brooded and pecked at her host son. But her husband’s demeanor had been apparent from the very start: Reveling in his own crowing, he was just an ecumenical cock.
     “Never in my life have I seen such an odd young man,” the old bird said.
     Ethan stared at the floor, wondering if he would still have somewhere to perch come dawn. “If this is about the Krispis . . .”
     His host father laughed at him. “This is about much more than cereal.”
     “I don’t—”
     “You weren’t the only student we could have chosen, understand? Do you know what I’m telling you? There were other choices, but we chose you.”
     Ethan’s slate blue eyes watched his wristwatch tick away the afternoon.
     “Of all the teenagers in Estados Unidos, we chose the one who doesn’t like cereal.”
     “I like cereal,” Ethan assured him yet again; “what I don’t like is the taste of the milk you buy.”
     “The milk tastes fine,” the cock said.
     “Brick milk is quite different from what I’m used to.”
     “What kind do you—” The man caught himself: “That’s right; you drink milk that’s sold in bottles.”
     Ethan nodded. “It’s perishable but doesn’t taste funny, at least to—”
     “We don’t buy that kind of milk,” the cock declared. “Don’t ask me again.”
     I didn’t ask you before, Ethan wanted to insist.
     “We don’t eat Krispis. I bought and paid for them for you.”
     Ethan had little doubt that his host mother had actually done the shopping. Besides, they were compensated for his day-to-day expenses. “If I had known the Krispis were so important to you, I would have eaten them dry. I’ll eat them dry.”
     “And could you check the gas bottle before you shower every day?”
     Ethan couldn’t believe the man was harping on the butane again. “I do check it,” he said, “and I only forgot that one time . . . way back in September. I apologized—”
     “But your apology didn’t buy a full gas bottle, did it?”
     Ethan felt like a puppy that had once piddled on the rug and was having his nose rubbed in the invisible stain.
     “The wife couldn’t make dinner; Burger King doesn’t give away Whoppers and patatas fritas, understand? You’re strange but smart. I know you know what I’m saying.”
     “I understand,” Ethan said faintly, “and as I said before, my house in Bir-he-nia (Virginia) has pipe gas, not gas bottles. Without a gauge or a scale, it’s hard to judge how much is left in one of those things.”
     “Didn’t you pick it up?”
     Ethan wanted to scream. “Again, it felt about half full.”
     “But it wasn’t,” the cock said wryly.
     “No, it wasn’t. Sorry.”
     Additional rebukes and apologies lasted until the door creaked open. A woman’s voice ventured through the crack: “I’m going to mass.”
     Her husband wiped the saliva off the corner of his mouth. “Fine.”
     “And don’t forget to have the late-afternoon snack, you two.”
     “Make it before you go,” the cock said, “and I’ll eat it later.”
     “I don’t have time.”
     The man glanced at Ethan’s watch. “It’s only six fifteen, and mass doesn’t start until seven o’clock. There’s plenty of time.”
     “No, there isn’t,” the voice insisted.
     The cock left oily fingerprints as he pushed back from the table. “Why not?” he asked, swaggering forward.
     “Because I’m taking a sanity break.”
     The cock clutched the doorknob, his knuckles reddening. “So you have the time, but won’t take the time.”
     “No . . . no, I won’t.”
     “What about the café?”
     “You’ll have to make it.”
     “Why haven’t you done it?”
     “Because God frowns at sinners who are late to mass,” his wife said. “There’s yogur in the refrigerator, behind the milk.”
     Dispirited and hungry, Ethan began to push back his cuticles, tending to each finger in exactly the same way as he gazed out the window. Outside, the light was turning soft, but inside the mood was already hard. He rocked forward and watched his host mother retreat. “And there’s cereal to go with that milk,” he said, thoughtlessly trying to lighten the mood. Or maybe he knew exactly what he was doing.
     The cock shoved the door open and chased after his hen. The two exchanged idle threats of divorce—nothing unusual—and then the front door thudded shut. The man locked and chained it, waltzed into the kitchen, and clanged together the makings of a small pot of coffee.
     After cursing his cigarette lighter, he lit the burner with a match as gas flowed plentifully from the gas bottle on the balcony. Waiting for the water to boil, he opened a package of fairy cakes and ate one of the light, spongy cupcakes as he stood at the stove.
     Minutes later, the aroma of stovetop coffee drifted on the silence. It was followed by the sporadic tings of a glass espresso cup settling into its saucer. Another fairy cake, a warmed cup of café con leche, the return of the opened brick of milk to the refrigerator, the rustle of a new pack of cigarettes. The cock strutted out of the kitchen.
     Kneeling on the bed, Ethan banked the memory of the mountains to the north silhouetted a deep reddish-purple by the sunset. After four tugs on the belt built into the wall, he was insulated by the roller shutter from the hominess of Las Rozas. He turned to face the starkness of the situation.
     The cock stood in the doorway, legs apart, hands on hips, a lit Marlboro pinched between his lips. “I have made my decision.”

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