Luis Alberto Chavez


Oscar was six when he began to realize Leo wouldn’t be his dad.  Cristina, Oscar’s mother, welcomed Leo into the small third-floor apartment on Valentine’s Day.  Leo swept the rooms and hallways with loud talk, made a beeline for the bedroom with the cold winter air still clinging to his suede coat, and he bounced a family pack of toilet paper in his brown hands.

Oscar was lying in his bed when Leo passed his open door and stopped at the sound of a question. 

“What did you get me?  A card too?”  Oscar had received many valentine cards at school that day.  The kind that said: ‘You’re my friend!’ ‘You’re great!’ ‘You’re sweet!’  None of them said ‘Be mine’ or ‘Be my Valentine.’  He hadn’t realized that there was a difference in the intentions of cardboard messages.  He had simply enjoyed the cold, open feeling in his palms when he reached out and took the flimsy pieces of paper, read them and quickly stowed them in the secret pocket of his backpack. 

It seemed to him that Leo, who had spent so many days and nights in his home, should begin to show his care for him too on this day of love.  He expected to get something from Leo—some proclamation of paternal affection—to store away in secret.  Oscar believed Leo would introduce him, in some conspiratorial way, to the world of men deprived him by a single mother.

“I bring you these toilet papers.”  Leo thumbed a beat on the family pack, chuckling with Cristina, her long hair and rolling hips shaking in the darkness.

“Toilet paper?  But that’s for everybody.” 

There came no answer.  Oscar’s mother and Leo had entered her bedroom.  He could hear Cristina giggling, and a small sliver of light shot across the hallway floor, peeking in through his door.  Oscar picked at his cuticles.  He turned towards his door, wrapping himself tighter in the blanket.  His stomach ached when the light went out.  Leo was making a new family; Oscar was sure.  One in which Oscar would be forgotten.


Oscar was an only child and his mother tried to gloss over the supposed loneliness by getting him tons of toys from her job at the factory.  All the toys had some minor, barely noticeable defect but were unfit for sale.  His floor was rolling in marbles and colored sticks that somehow tested logic, in a corner was his own quarry of Lego’s and blocks, and audiences of dolls and stuffed animals sat ready to watch any random antics.  He had stores of what he called“bored games” stacked like a monument to solitude because without any other players, he never got to play them—a fact that seemed to elude his mother, who kept adding more.  He also had piles of cars and trucks and G.I. Joes and wrestler dolls that he crashed together.

As car pileups tend to do, they lost their barbarous thrill after sixteen or seventeen incidents, so instead he found creative uses for the scrabble pieces.  He hid them in the VCR.  Would spell MILK next to the carton in the fridge.  Or FLUSH around the rim of the toilet seat when things popped up.  In the mornings, when his mother had gone to work, leaving him alone to dress and then walk to school, he sometimes put them in the microwave, crouching and looking about for witnesses although there were none and then watching as the pieces smoked at the edges.  They would swell up to a bloated B or L or E or W or if he left them in long enough they burst into flame as he burst into giggling hysterics.  But even these games got old after so many times of hearing his lone laughter.  What he really wanted was to play the keyboard, because that is what Leo played with his band at The Clubs.  He could be one of the guys, and when he was good enough maybe Leo would take him to play with them at one of their shows.  Then Leo couldn’t make a new family without him: then Leo wouldn’t even want to.  His mother though could never buy him an instrument.  “A keyboard!” she’d said.  “They cost too much, mijo.”

Although Cristina was unable to get Oscar his own keyboard, she persuaded Leo to teach Oscar on his.  The time together might bring the two of them closer and, in consequence, the three of them might become closer too.  If Leo had a chance, the two boys, as she had begun to think of them, would do well to have something in common.  Also, Oscar was growing up too “americanito” for her tastes—couldn’t dance and still wasn’t speaking Spanish—so if learning to play merengue on the keyboard also gave the boy some ritmo it would be no crime.

The weekend after Valentine’s, Leo sat Oscar down to teach him how to play.  Oscar tried to spread his hands across chords and scales, and soon found that endurance was lacking in his little fingers.  But there was something euphonious about Leo’s sharp tone and his many sighs that kept Oscar reaching for keys.  Leo vocalized little, his words restricted to a curt de nuevo and then, suddenly, Oscar would feel Leo’s fingers roughly adjusting his posture.  Yet, every time that he hit a wrong note, Oscar reveled in the rhythm of Leo’s hands, the impatient grunts that sounded like a gruff beat of percussion, Leo’s voice a short steady thrum of bass, building a beat that Oscar was sure no one else had ever heard before.  Toilet paper, while practical, had nothing on this.  Oscar could feel a swelling in his chest and cheeks and even suspected that if someone were to see him now, pressing the keys and sitting up so straight, that he might look taller, stronger, closer to the man he would become.

After nine minutes of Oscar’s rhythmless pounding, Leo announced the end of the lesson, put an end to Oscar’s goofy grin, and tucked his keyboard into the soft carrying case.  “That was quick,” Cristina said as Leo passed her to walk the keyboard down to his locked car.  “Aja,” Leo said holding the instrument in front of him like a shield.  In the car Leo passed a soft cloth over each key, wiping off the grease marks left by Oscar’s fingers.

Upstairs, Oscar jammed around the apartment pretending to be a merenguero in The Clubs.  He hit invisible keys, imitating the tones, a game his mother believed was sweet and motivated more by Leo than the keyboard.  Oscar was wild, his hair lashed like whips, his eyes shut tight and creased at the corners as he tried dancing in time to an inaudible güira.  He slammed the invisible keys roughly, making Leo cringe as he slipped into the apartment and quickly lay in Cristina’s room to watch television.  Soon Oscar’s excitement began to cloy and Cristina yelled, “Tranquilizate ya.” 

Cristina was cooking something in the kitchen and, after quieting down, Oscar could hear music from the television in her bedroom and Leo’s faint imitation of percussion instruments made by the popping of his lips and tongue.  The man was always making music.  Oscar walked into the narrow kitchen then and stood next to and looking up at his mother.  The smell of sofrito greased the air.  His mother looked down at him suspiciously.  Her eyebrow cocked, she waited.  “Sí?”

“Mamá,” Oscar whispered so she would lean her ear to his small, nervous lips.  “Is Leo my dad?”

“No, papito.  He’s not.”


She pushed his hair behind his ear.  “I’m making arroz con square carne,” she offered.

Can Leo be my dad?”

She straightened up.  Her eyes squinted and her lips pursed to the left.  “Ve.  Preguntale.”  The other night Leo had said raising a child wasn’t too hard.  “Les das comida, juegas un rato, y a dormir y ya.”  Oh?  Well, now he would prove it.  He had to learn somehow y ay de él que lo haga llorar.

This was not the answer Oscar wanted.  He wanted his mother to say yes or no.  If yes, then she was to set up all the details and Leo could start being his dad probably by the next morning or, at most, starting on Monday.  And if no. . .well, he expected that Leo wouldn’t last long after that.  Things never went as smoothly as he expected though or Leo wouldn’t be around in the first place.

The kitchen stretched out into a hallway, leading to a bathroom at the end, Oscar’s room to the right, and Cristina’s room to the left.  Leo lay there on the bed with his feet crossed watching the television.  As Oscar stepped into the hallway it seemed to lengthen.  The doors at the end swept farther and farther away.  The floorboards whined beneath his feet.  Shadows grew twisted, climbing the walls, the only light coming from the kitchen.  Leo’s beat-boxing in the bedroom was steady and menacing like the loud snoring of some beast in its cave.  Oscar looked back and saw Cristina watching him tiptoe as she poured rice into the pot, spilling grains over the stovetop.  He kept forward, finding no one to stop him.

When Oscar finally reached the doors he looked to his room and saw his trucks waiting for him.  They blew their horns at his arrival, his G.I. Joes saluted, but he had a mission and he’d made it this far so he turned his back to them.

The walls in Cristina’s dark bedroom were lit up in a flashing blue.  He saw Leo lying back on his mother’s bed, his arms resting under his lazy curls, his toes wiggling.

Oscar made long sneaky strides along the side of the bed, toes reaching, stretched out far in front of him like a cartoon burglar slinking around in the night.  In the carpeted room, his steps were silent and soon he was right beside Leo’s head, looking closely at his roughly stubbled chin and cheeks. 

Leo was young like Cristina.  She was twenty-five but he six years younger—though this was a secret of his.  He had told Cristina he was twenty-two because he knew she’d think him unfit for responsibility.  Oscar didn’t think him too scary up close.  Maybe Leo’s youth betrayed him and Oscar was just too intuitive.  Still, Oscar’s throat tingled at the thought of speaking to him—especially about this.

“Leo,” Oscar whispered, his voice still a bit shaky and slight.

Leo had a sudden fit of gasping and grasped his chest when he turned and found himself face to face with Oscar’s intent green eyes.

“Ah?  Que e’?”

“What are you watching?”

The kid had almost given him a heart attack just to ask what he was watching?  Leo didn’t think so.  He knew something was coming and that it would be tricky.  Normally he avoided these moments, the ones with talking.  He was only safe if he was making Oscar laugh at some silly joke.  Then the afrentoso would be too busy giggling to say anything too uncomfortable.

“Sabado Gigante,” Leo said.  It was a variety show that Cristina and Leo watched every Saturday.  At the moment, the most popular segment was on.  Contestants sang live and were judged by audience response.  If the contestants sang badly, a man in an executioner costume played the trumpet until the singer was booed off the stage.

“—I wanna ask you.  I wan— I wanna ask you a something.  I mean.  Can I ask you something?” 

Leo didn’t look at him.  He stared at the screen.  “Sí.  Ask me.”

Oscar poked Leo’s shoulder.  He needed to see Leo’s eyes.  He needed Leo to look at him and read his lips because he wouldn’t be able to ask again.  It was taking all the guts he had to form the words now.  Oscar cleared his throat.  Leo looked at him as Oscar clenched and released his little fists.  In that moment Oscar thought Leo seemed particularly safe, his eyes sparkling with the reflection of the television screen.  Oscar took a big breath.  “Doyouwannabemyfather?”  It was too late now.  There was no going back.

El diablo! Leo thought, no es lo mismo llamarlo que verlo venir.  It was always something with this kid.  His questions were too big.  And Leo never knew the right answers.  Leo kept his face as smooth as he could and his body and voice flat.  “Tató.  Sí, I’ll be your father.”  Leo’s feet twitched, tightening.  The executioner on the screen blasted his horn, the audience booed.  Bad performance.

Oscar felt a bubbling in his little belly, the stretch of his widening smile.  “OK,” Oscar said as he turned and ran back to the kitchen.

“Mamá!”  Oscar was shaking his head really fast, “Yes, he said yes!”

“That’s good, papito.  I knew it.” 

“You did?”

“Sí, claro.  I know everything,” she said, “that’s why I’m your mother.”  She reached for plates in the painted cabinet above the stove.  “Sit down now and eat.”  Oscar didn’t notice Cristina’s breath deepen and her shoulders relax.

Cristina served her son and then Leo.  Oscar was told to sit at the table and finish dinner and then brush his teeth before bed.  Leo did not go eat at the table.  Cristina took a plate to her room for him.

Oscar ate all the pieces of SPAM on the plate and then all the rice.  He dropped his plate in the sink and went to brush his teeth.

Walking by Cristina’s bedroom he saw her and Leo locked in a kiss.  He turned away and tried to ignore the pins pricking in his chest.  He thought they’d be gone once Leo said “yes,” but heat rose to his ears.  While he spread the sparkly toothpaste over his toothbrush he heard his mother tell Leo that she loved him.  Oscar looked at his reflection in the sink over the mirror: foam grew from his sharp teeth.  Maybe both the prickly feelings and the burning flush of red rising in him would leave once Leo was officially his dad.  Maybe then he could share his mother, once everything was clearly defined, once everything felt stable and secure, and once he had carved out his piece that no one could take.  There would have to be a wedding.  Yet the idea of a wedding did not bring peace. 

As he left the bathroom he saw his mother lying across Leo’s lap, looking up at his face.   Her long hair spread over Leo’s legs and the bed, like clear water that should nourish the world from high cliffs but remains stuck in a deep pool below.  Oscar’s sulky wishes for a bad night and sour dreams were drowned out.  Neither did Cristina hear the dragging footsteps of her son walking to his room and crawling into the black cave beneath the covers, nor did she notice the jeering of a trumpet in the background.


Soon Oscar heard a lot of talk about a baby.  There would be an addition to the family—perhaps the start of a new family.  But no one said anything to him.  Cristina spent hours talking on the phone or with friends who visited.  Oscar heard her say that she’d like a daughter.  But Oscar thought a sister would be no fun.  No one had asked him if he wanted a sister.  Besides, Oscar knew that a girl would never want to get into trouble with him.  She’d be too afraid to burn things in the microwave or steal quarters from his mother’s Ms. Piggy-shaped coin bank.  The girl would simply be competition, and Oscar, considering his mother’s excitement, was already beginning to lose.

Then it was as if Cristina could do nothing but talk about having a baby girl.  Her reasons were varied and extensive.  One day she’d say to her mother in Peru over the phone that she had always wanted a set.  “Mi princesita y mi principe.  Perfecto.”  Her index fingers touched her thumbs every time she said that.  Perfec-to.  The next day, she’d tell the neighbors that Oscar needed a companion because “it’s not healthy, tu sabes, for kids to grow up on their own.  They gotta learn how to share and fight for each other.  I, myself, grew up with two brothers and a sister.  I think Oscar needs that.”  Another day, she’d tell her friend Margarita that she needed someone to teach “woman things” because Oscar couldn’t or shouldn’t learn the things she had to teach.  Furthermore, girls were so pretty.  They were so sweet and so wonderful and smelled like rosebuds and candy.  How could you not love girls?!  This kept on and on and on.  Until one day, after listening to her give a particularly annoying exposition about having a baby girl, Oscar told Cristina to shut up already.  That earned him a slap.


Oscar knew he shouldn’t learn “woman things” as his mother had said, but that didn’t stop him from studying her whenever she got ready to go out dancing.  One night, he stared as she tried on little dresses with perky skirts and open backs, and he watched as she painted skies of blue and red across her face with makeup.  He exhausted his vocabulary to tell her she was beautiful: gorgeous, amazing, exquisite, so pretty, WOW.  She looked so happy.  So much like a queen, no, a goddess smiling at Leo, who watched from the bedroom door.  Oscar wanted her to know how much he adored her.  He hoped to create a stronger sense of loyalty, to somehow keep her.  He shot Leo a dirty look that went unnoticed. 

While his mother’s work-friend, who had agreed to watch Oscar, slept on the couch, Oscar passed the time by wearing his mother’s other dresses—his favorite being a short silver one with little beads on the hem.  He painted his face in yellows and greens.  He told an invisible friend how great she looked and then thanked her for her own inaudible compliments.  “Speak up,” he said, and then blushed as he relished in her repetition of praise. 

While he was in her clothes and in her makeup, his mother complimented his blending.  She danced with him in his room as he stumbled in the high-heels.  He threw down scrabble pieces to pay the tab and tip exorbitantly, and she’d laugh and tell him that he was the best company, a sparkling gold drink in her hand.  She’d push his hair back behind his ear, look him in the eye and give her full attention, the music drumming everywhere.  Their dresses would flash in the blinking colored lights.  They were fabulous, inseparable, eyes and marbles flashing all around them, and Leo watching from behind the piano on the stage—just close enough to watch Cristina have fun without him. 

Late, Leo walked in, stumbling over the wicker ottoman.  Cristina was close behind, holding back giggles and tugging at the back of his coat.  Oscar had waited all night for them to return but quickly ran to his room at the sound of them.  Cristina’s friend, who watched Oscar on these nights, startled awake, spoke little, and then left.

Oscar kept the covers pulled close to his painted chin.  While staring out into the dark hallway, he heard his mother and her lover stumble in the living room.  Leo hummed a tune.  “Shhh.  No quiero despertar a Oscar,” said Cristina.  Oscar waited for them to come to his room.  He would forgive them then for leaving him.  But their stumbling, muffled gasps and the smells of their night—cigarettes, sweat and sweet mixed-drinks—were the only parts of them that entered his room.  Oscar lay in bed, listening, waiting.  Soon he heard heavy breathing, laughter, the crash of something blunt hit the floor, a shushing sound, a slapping and the rhythmic groans of wood woken from a deep sleep.

Oscar shot up and stood at the doorway of his room.  He kicked off his mother’s high heels.  In the afternoons he was taken care of by a Puerto Rican woman with irreverent teenage children, so he knew all about the sex being had in the room across from his.  And he knew that the man in there with his mother was not his father because fathers don’t steal boys’ mothers, and they say goodnight to their sons.  And sons, he thought, can forgive their fathers—as he had already forgiven his poor mother.  But this man, this man was only a thief and a noisy one at that.

Oscar crept past the partially closed door where it seemed two animals growled and puffed into the night.  Luckily the apartment door was silent as he slipped out to the stairwell in his mother’s silver beaded dress and her paint and made his way down and out to the small parking lot behind the house. 

A chilled breeze lifted up the hem of Oscar’s dress as he scampered toward the front of the house.  There he saw a cluster of industrial buildings sitting vigilant, cold and grey, bathed in a false yellow light.  He saw a man in a knit cap walking around the dark corner of one of the buildings, a burning circle of fire gasping at his shadowed lips, a mystery of myriad dangers hidden in his hands. 

This was a bad idea.  The fact he was wearing a dress seemed suddenly very important.  He turned towards the back lot, disappointed that, somehow, heading out into the night didn’t seem to be making much of an impact on Cristina or Leo.  Oscar returned to the back door but found it had locked behind him.  He could feel pressure building behind his nose and tried to fight back the tears that rose.  Unless he found another way in, he would have to ring the doorbell to get out of the cold and be safe from the possibilities that lay beyond the house.  He’d just end up getting in trouble.  There’d be no guilt or pity. 

Then he remembered the fire escape.  He’d been wanting to climb it for a while now, but it was forbidden.  These seemed like extenuating circumstances, however.  The ladder was low enough to pull down with a jump.  His window was always unlocked.  It should be easy.  Then he noticed Leo’s keyboard wrapped in the soft carrying bag and standing up in the backseat of Leo’s car.

Leo had been playing with the band that night.  Apparently he was drunk enough to forget to lock the door.

After pulling the keyboard from the backseat, Oscar dragged it as silently as he could up the fire escape that led to his bedroom window.  He would hide it in his room, so Leo couldn’t find it.  Then Leo would get scared and, hopefully, cry, thinking it was stolen. 

The damn thing was heavy, but Oscar was persistent and ignored the pain of the carrying case’s strap digging into his hands, the whiplike strands of beads stinging his thighs, and he thanked God the soft case muffled the sound of the keyboard banging everywhere.  Oscar reached the top of the fire escape, which ended at a narrow but long landing.  Huffing and worn out, he sat and then decided to pull the keyboard out of its case and form the chords that Leo had taught him, making up noises for the silent notes he played. 

From this height he could see all the neighbors’ houses, all was silent and the sky was a dark blue, clear, all the way down to the horizon.  The moon watched from far above, dime-sized and bright.  Everything poised to hear Oscar’s bereft melody.

The hallway light then shined through the bedroom window behind Oscar.  Then the shadows of Leo and his mother flipped on the light switch to his room, and Oscar felt as if the curtains threatened to fall on his concert prematurely.

Oscar then had a new idea, a grand finale: he would share with Leo that loose feeling of rising from the ground, desperate for some ballast, and introduce him to the cold of a night ringing with the lonely sounds of fake music.  The next moment was filled with a hushed excitement, a defiant relaxation of frigid back muscles, and a mind clear as the crisp winter air.  Oscar pushed the heavy keyboard flat against the rusted uprights of the banister and using his hands and bodyweight inched the keyboard up and over the handrail.  The crunch and splintering of plastic was explosive and quick like a climax of cymbal crashes.  The silence that followed seemed taut, strained.  Oscar stood looking over the banister, at the pieces of a failed connection.  Then, before his silent captivated audience, Oscar tooted a melody like the singing of a trumpet announcing not the departure of an amateur but the entrance of the maestro.


Luis Alberto Chavez is pursuing an M.F.A. from Wichita State University. His roots are in Providence, RI, where he lives with his partner and a scarlet macaw. This is his first publication.