I sat quiet in Alonzo’s bedroom closet. A few feet away, the TV played Dukes of Hazzard and I heard my brothers laughing. I’d left my newborn sister asleep on the couch downstairs, two wadded up blankets wedging her in so she wouldn’t fall. Alonzo’s older sister, Magda, was supposed to be watching the seven of us while our parents drank under the carport, but she’d been locked in the bathroom all afternoon.
I fingered the glossy pages, turning each one like it was no big deal.
“Where’d you get all these?” I asked.
“My dad.” Alonzo hunched over a stack of magazines. I could feel the pleasant warmth of his leg near mine. Alonzo was eleven, like me. He had his mom’s blond curls and his dad’s square Salvadorian jaw.
I flipped pages, skimming flesh and looking for text. I’d heard our dads talk—Penthouse and Hustler weren’t just about naked ladies; you could learn Leroy Irvin’s punt secrets, or how a cowboy actor made President.
“You’re holding it wrong—this way.” Alonzo grabbed the magazine and turned it, letting the center flutter open.
I didn’t want Alonzo to know I’d never seen a naked lady—not even my mom—but I found myself staring, trying to understand the mystery.
“You sure like dirty magazines,” Alonzo said, smiling.
“No, I don’t.” I looked at the model’s privates splayed out. Dirty seemed like the wrong word.
Mom said our bodies were for God’s eyes only. Once, when Bobby Kafka tried to look down my pants in our back yard, I told him so. In the morning there were two neat bullet holes in our back door. Dad said something must have got into Bobby to shoot up the house with a twenty-two. “Sixteen and dumb as dirt,” Dad said.
At Alonzo’s, our parents shooed us into the basement den to watch cartoons, but I snuck upstairs. I sat by the door to the kitchen, hidden by piles of clean-smelling laundry, listening to our dads tell jokes and stories of the strip club down on Mercury Boulevard. I spied our moms in the living room, talking low by the bay window.
“I got one,” I heard my dad say. “What's a virgin and a balloon have in common?”
I peeked into the kitchen. Alonzo’s dad waved me over, offered me bitter sips of Schlitz. He was tall and tan, sitting on that stool, a handsome man in a crisp, white shirt.
“All it takes is one prick and it’s over,” my dad said, crushing his can barehanded.
I loved Alonzo’s. A pool table took up Alonzo’s dining room and we ate standing—even the grownups. I was glad to be there, glad for the difference, for the oversized bowl of potato chips, the endless liters of orange soda Alonzo stole from the fridge. “Pure junk,” my mom said, frowning, but didn’t stop us. At my house, we stacked five-gallon tins of dried peas and powdered eggs in the cellar. We wore navy Christian school uniforms covered in tiny red flags and bibles. There were six of us kids. We didn’t have T.V.
At Alonzo’s, no one talked about tribulations. We played freeze tag in the back yard and no one called us inside. I felt something exciting in my gut when Alonzo tagged me.
“You’re it!” he grinned, and I chased him through the tall grass without getting tired. The front yard opened to the street, and beyond that, the muddy edge of the Chesapeake Bay.
Once, Alonzo’s dad drove their car right up on the lawn—a primer-grey sedan with dice and his laboratory I.D. badge hanging from the rear-view mirror.
“Let’s wash this cabrón,” his dad said.
While us kids washed the car, Alonzo’s dad stood shirtless and brown, swatting mosquitoes, lecturing us in astrophysics. “You can find God in the smallest particle,” he said, staring up at the sky. His accent made it like a question.
I scrubbed dull paint as if it mattered, as if I, too, could see his methanogens and archaea. A line of beer bottles collected in the grass. Alonzo’s dad swallowed the last of a beer and cracked the bottle against the curb, leaving just the broken neck. He put the shard in Alonzo’s fist and corrected his grip, then he lunged, wobbly, his off-center smile charming.
Alonzo stood frozen. “Pretend I’m a culero about to stab you,” his dad said. “Hold it higher. Get me in the eyes, son.”
Alonzo’s dad loved Magda, and so did I. She was beautiful, freckled and tan without the sun, and she slunk around the house, never talking to their mother. She was sixteen, and to me, she could do anything. She could be a Penthouse girl.
Magda let me play dress-up in her room.
I pulled off my brothers’ hand-me-down jeans and flannel.
Magda looked at me funny. “A pretty girl like you shouldn’t dress like a boy.”
“I’m a tomboy,” I said to Magda, repeating what I’d heard Mom say about me. At home, my brothers and I dressed the same. We played the same, too: smoking Dad’s cigarettes in a lean-to in the back woods and floating a skiff through Guinea marsh.
Magda smiled. She watched as I tried on sweater sets and skirts that flopped and dragged the floor. She patted the bed for me to sit down. I waited for her to start one of her funny stories, to make me laugh like usual. “One day,” she said, circling my eyes in powder and forcing my hair into feathered wings, “I’m going to London. I’ll ride the tube to work. I’ll marry a philosopher.”
Magda unplugged the curling iron and packed her makeup away in a quilted box. She dug out a blanket from under the bed and turned to me. “You’ll sleep in here tonight. You’ll lock the door.”
I wanted to spend the night downstairs, where Alonzo and my brothers had turned the den into an indoor camp, with sleeping bags and candy provisions, but I just nodded. At my house, I wasn’t allowed to backtalk or sass. I didn’t stir up trouble by talking.
Magda led me by the hand to show me off. Our dads stood laughing, zipping pool cues into long, leather bags, while our mothers waited stiff by the front door, ready to leave for the Officer’s Club.
Magda’s dad eyed her up and down, while I stood, uncomfortable, in eye shadow and heels. “Give your old man a kiss,” he said, grabbing her head and leaning in. It sounded like begging. Magda pushed him away, and I heard her say not now under her breath. Magda’s mother turned and disappeared into the kitchen.
I didn’t like what Magda’d done. She didn’t appreciate her dad’s attention.
I wished my dad would notice me. My dad, a Navy man who wore suits with vests, and shiny shoes—a show-off, Mom said, with too many kids. Once, I woke up in my bed at home. My dad was laid out drunk beside me, still in his suit and tie, snoring, his heavy arm across my shoulder. I poked him a few times and held my breath so I wouldn’t smell the stink of beer. “Daddy, this is my bed.” He just snored with his mouth hanging open.
At midnight, we sat in Alonzo’s darkened living room. I stared at the still life over the piano, the dead-looking fruit and strange flowers in a pewter vase, and the photos of Magda, lined up, kindergarten to junior prom. I held my baby sister close, smelling her neck and hair. I took the baby’s wrinkled hand from under her yellow blanket and showed it off to Alonzo. Her tiny nails were narrow and pale as glass.
“Can I hold her?” Alonzo asked.
“No,” I said, tucking her hand away. I looked over at Magda. I paused for too long.
“I don’t want anything to happen to her.”
My voice sounded strange to me, like it came from somebody else. I squinted my eyes shut until I saw atoms of color and light. I tried to push down a change inside me, but it came up anyways, like a sick feeling in my stomach. I didn’t want Magda’s life, or Magda’s dad.
When I opened my eyes, Magda was staring right through me. My own stupid words spun around in my ears, and I fidgeted with the baby, tightening her blanket, picking sleep from her eyes.
Magda got up and I heard her in the kitchen, warming milk for the baby.
Marley Andino is a Virginia-based writer and sculptor. She was selected as a 2014 Virginia Quarterly Review Nonfiction Scholar. She is currently at work on DRY LAND, a memoir.