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Published on July 16th, 2013 | by Benjamin Alire Saenz

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Everything Begins and Ends at the Kentucky Club

An Excerpt of a Novel by Benjamin Alire Sáenz

About the Author
Alire Saenz Author Picture Benjamin Alire Sáenz is an artist, poet, novelist, and author of children’s books. He has penned five books of poetry, four novels, four young adult novels, and four children’s books. His most recent collection of short stories, Everything Begins and Ends at the Kentucky Club won the PEN Faulkner Award for Fiction and the Lambda Literary Award. His latest Young Adult novel, Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe, was the winner of the Pura Belpre Award, The Stonewall Award, The Lambda Literary Award and is a Printz Honor Book. He was a  Wallace Stegner Fellow at Stanford University and is currently the chair of the Creative Writing Department at the University of Texas at El Paso.

CHASING THE DRAGON

I have a black and white photograph of my mother and father sitting in a Juárez bar. My father looks like he’s drunk, his white shirt wrinkled, his striped tie loosened, his black hair tussled. It amazes me that even in a drunken state, my father retains a charm that could be captured by a camera. My mother, an ethereal beauty with piercing green eyes, is looking away, staring off into the distance. Neither of them appears to be happy.

My parents—in and out of photographs—were an arresting couple. People envied them. They walked into rooms and turned heads. I suspect they enjoyed their public performances. The minute they stepped out into the public eye, they were celebrities, the center of the spinning world. Their physical beauty aside, they lived tortured, miserable lives.

With an authority that only her voice could convey, my aunt Lucille once told me that the picture was taken at the Hawaiian. “Your mother loved that place. She loved the décor, the mai tais and the bartender. Your father hated that hellhole. He thought it was cheap and charmless.” Then she reluctantly handed me back the photograph. “Conrad, I don’t know what possesses you to keep that picture.” My uncle Louie, whose only regret in life was that he would never have the courage to divorce Lucille, the woman he married, pulled me aside and said, “Conrad, that picture was taken at the Kentucky Club. The Hawaiian closed years before that picture was taken.” My uncle Louie was addicted to pulling me aside and whispering his versions of family history into my ears. It was his way of making me his co-conspirator. Not that I ever trusted or believed him.

My other uncle, Hector, who was as unreliable as all the rest of the adults in my family, informed me that the picture was taken after my mother caught my father with another woman. “After that, she refused to let him step foot into the Kentucky Club.”

“Why?” I asked.

“It was his favorite bar.”

“Oh,” I said. I think it’s safe to say that everyone in my family was more interested in punitive measures than in forgiveness.

“She had an affair of her own, you know.”

“Was he at least a nice man?”

“Conrad, I’m not saying this to be cruel, but your mother didn’t know any nice men.”

“So they never forgave each other?”

My uncle Hector scratched his head and smiled. “Let’s just say that in this family, forgiveness has a statute of limitations.”

That made me laugh. “How long is the statute?”

Uncle Hector gave me a look. He had a sense of irony but he had no sense

of humor. “If you’re not on your knees within the week, it’s over.”

“Then why isn’t anybody in this family divorced?”

“I don’t have an answer for that.”

I think my uncle Hector did have an answer for that. He just wasn’t going to tell me. My own theory was that everybody in our family had the same phobia: they were all afraid of being happy.

Uncle Hector gently took the picture from my hands and stared at it. “It was taken in 1980, exactly one year and twelve days after your sister had been born. And it was taken at Martino’s. I should know—I joined them for dinner that night. Your father was drunk, as you can see. And,” he said as he pointed at the image of my mother, “Melissa was as untouchable and inscrutable as ever. She was always somewhere else—as if she was above being in the same room with anyone who resembled a human being. Just because she looked like an angel didn’t mean she was one.”

My uncle was a disappointed writer who read books “that didn’t deserve to be published.” He also had a penchant for dictionaries. It was a habit I picked up from him. He used to sit me on his lap when I was a boy and we would look up words. And he liked using all the words he looked up. Words like inscrutable. Not that his description of my mother was inaccurate. She was the most inscrutable woman who ever lived. She was a mystery no one ever solved. She admitted it herself. When I was eight, I was caught in the middle of an argument between her and my father. My father raged at her: “Who in the fuck are you, Melissa? Just who the fuck are you?

My mother lit a cigarette and calmly whispered. “I am unknowable.” She spoke the words slowly and with certainty. She blew out the smoke from her cigarette and added, “I thought that was why you married me, Octavio. And anyway, you don’t like knowing women—you just like owning them.”

My parents were theater. My sister Carmen and I were their audience. Even the photograph of the two of them that I am addicted to studying seems like a still from a movie.

My aunt Susan—who loved a man once but never married—said the photograph was taken at the Copacabana. “Loved that place. It opened up in 1979,” she said. “Your parents went there a lot.”

“Yes,” she said, “it was definitely taken at the Copa. 1981. I remember the dress.” My aunt Susan remembered dresses better than she remembered faces.

I didn’t believe any of them. My uncles and aunts were the kind of people who liked to conceal more than they liked to reveal. I even took the photograph with me to Juárez one night and decided to venture into all the places that were still there. That was in 1999. I was seventeen and the violence hadn’t erupted yet, and people still trafficked back and forth to have a drink and eat dinner. By 1999, the Hawaiian was long gone. I went into the Copa, studied the place and decided the picture had definitely not been taken there. I went to the Florida, a place that hadn’t been mentioned but it definitely wasn’t where the photograph had been taken either. I had a drink at the Kentucky Club and thought it was a possibility. I met my sister Carmen for dinner at Martino’s that night and it was then that I decided that Martino’s was the place. Definitely Martino’s.

“You’re probably right,” Carmen said. “I hate that picture.”

“Why?”

“Look at them, they’re miserable.”

“Yes, but they’re beautiful too.”

“You make a romance of them.”

They were beautiful,” I repeated.

“Conrad, they were as fucked up as they were beautiful.”

“I don’t need to be reminded of things I already know.” I smiled at her. We weren’t fighting. Carmen and I didn’t fight. “You have pictures of them too,” I said.

“Yes,” she said. “I have a picture of Dad with his shirt off, and he’s smiling into the camera. And I have a picture of Mom looking straight into the camera as if she’s daring the photographer to capture who she was. The camera lost the battle.”

“I know those pictures,” I said. “And it’s Mom who told the truth about

herself.”

Carmen laughed. “I knew you were going to say something like that.”

 

 

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“Everything Begins and Ends at the Kentucky Club” is available for purchase at Cinco Puntos Press.

 

 


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