I'm a pacifist at heart, Paco said. That's one thing my mama beat into me. Paco was limping along almost faster than I could keep up with on two good God-given legs. His hand-carved cane with the frog on the handle was tucked underneath his arm, as it often was, unused. The boy, Toby, trailed close behind me like toilet paper stuck to a shoe. Poor kid would be purple for a week. We could tell that as soon as he turned up clutching a pair of underwear to his bloody lip.
What you gonna do? I asked Paco. Reason with him?
What aren't I gonna do? Paco said. What I aren't gonna do is be unclear.
We'd seen Toby around the neighborhood before, digging for gold with a shovel and a tree branch or hunting squirrels with his rubber band gun, but we didn't know him much.
Who did this? Paco had asked when he found him hurting, and as soon as the kid had said, My daddy, we were off.
Paco never knew his own daddy, who'd lost his babymama's number as soon as he'd found out there were complications. Paco was born with brain damage due to his mother's Hennessy habit, which was a big complication, but at least she stuck around to see if she could make up for it. Paco's got a low IQ but a high everything else. Got a job at Wendy's as a Spongebob, at least that's what he likes to call himself. Been flipping square burger patties for minimum wage without getting fired for twenty years, which is more than you can say for most people. I never knew my daddy either unless you count Paco, who took me in the day my parents died in a motorcycle wreck.
See, Paco doesn't like to see people hurt. You'd think that'd be a sentence we could say about just about any one of us. But the truth is some people can’t bear it, some it doesn't bother too much. Most of us wouldn't hurt a fly but wouldn't help one either. Paco sees people’s broken pieces and gathers them in. All he was was a neighbor to me, but he saw me and he gathered me in. Over the years, he’s been that way with me, three other kids, four dogs, and a rabbit with only one leg. See, Paco does not like to see people hurting.
We found Toby's daddy in their trailer home holding a Natty Boh with a sweaty hand and red knuckles. We could see him through the screen door and he could see us standing there. The sun was setting tomato red and safety orange and Paco knew his wife was on the other side of the block cooking barbeque brown beans and cornbread, and some men would have issued a warning and gotten home to their dinner and their own people, their own blessings and messes.
Instead, Paco jabbed his cane at the aluminum door and rattled it like a snake. Paco has a certain moral code that allows for some violence in the service of peace or peace of mind, swift action over a wait-and-see mentality or a long boring trial period. He’d rather be doing something than figuring out what to do.
Found somethin’ of yours, he said.
Where'd he get to? Goddamn kid don't know how to stay put.
He got hisself the fuck away from you, just where he needed to get. Toby's daddy heaved himself up from the stained La-Z-Boy and had to grab onto a floor lamp to keep his balance. He had a small piece of coleslaw stuck in his mustache. The cicadas had started up for the summer and it felt as though they kicked into high gear, then, cranked the volume in order to fill the space where somebody was expected to speak. None of us were, not even Toby, who had lowered the bloody briefs to his side and was squeezing them tight in his little fist like treasure.
Finally Toby's daddy told him to get inside. Paco knelt down and grasped Toby by the elbows and asked him if he wanted to go and Toby shook his head. Don't you shake your head, you little retard, his daddy said.
I shouldn't try to say what Paco was thinking about—he doesn't like to be spoken for—but I guess I have a good idea. Paco used to get his ass kicked all the time, even as an adult. He was always big, but he was so skinny back before he got it into his head to start doing pushups out in the garage with me sitting on his back. Before he bulked up, some nights a group of the town kids would corner him by the dumpster behind the Wendy's. I don’t know this part for sure, because he’d never tell me about it, but I can make some educated guesses about the sort of names they might have called him. Some teenagers just hate a handicapped man even more than they hate someone like that of their own age. I do know that they’d force his head up against the leaky plastic bladders of ketchup or mustard. He'd come home with the stuff in his hair and he'd stick his head in the shower and I'd be peeking around the doorjamb from the hall and the water would run streaky orange and the bathroom would reek of corn syrup. It's not a smell I've ever forgotten, anyway.
You're not his daddy anymore, Paco said. He pushed the screen door open with his cane. I don’t know what you are now. Paco kicked Toby's daddy in the belt buckle and knocked him backwards, arms flailing for balance. His temple caught the lip of the kitchen counter and of course by then the cicadas had paused for a breather, left us too much silence, and nothing could drown out that noise. God gave Paco next to nothing to work with, but I haven't yet met what could stop him. We could have turned and walked away then, and I guess I should have made sure we did. But Paco went inside.
I took Toby a few steps out into the brown, weed-choked yard and asked if he knew the words to “Do Your Ears Hang Low?” and he said he did. I hate the sound of my own voice but I sang as loud as I could, a little scratchy and a lot wrong. Toby and I wobbled our ears around and pretended to tie them in a bow. It's a song Paco learned in the Boy Scouts, and it's what he used to sing to me when he first took me in and I was still waking up screaming and ripping my sheets off the bed.
Those nights Paco would comfort me just by existing nearby. There he was and he was strange but sure of himself. He was loyal, and I could feel that in nearly any action he took—wiggling his middle finger through a hole in a wool sock to make me look at him or lecturing me on the real causes of the Civil War. He’d take up some of the too-much space there was with an out-of-key song or the smell of Spam frying or one of his scratched-up CDs—usually Jay Z or Isaac Hayes, stuff he’d found at the Disabled American Veterans thrift store and fallen in love with. Paco took his mottos from his music, said things three, four, five, six times to make sure you were taking it in. Rather die enormous than live dormant. The size of that man’s life filled the room, filled the whole trailer, and left very few cracks for whatever force it was that’d been sitting on my skin like a dirty film and causing me to claw at my cheeks and thighs in the worst part of the night. You gotta learn to live with regrets, he always said, then said again.
Can you throw them over your shoulder….
Toby finally joined in. Like a continental soldier?
I feared that at any moment he might get bored of me and turn his back, turn toward this particular kind of love of Paco’s that I wasn’t sure he was ready to witness yet. I waggled my eyebrows at him, I showed him my teeth. I just kept doing whatever I could think of.
Paco came out of the trailer and saw us singing and smiled. His graying hair fell across his freckled scalp in thick uneven locks, heavy with sweat. He huffed gently and limped down the three steps. At the bottom he pulled an old-fashioned handkerchief out of the breast pocket of his button-down denim shirt and wiped off the frog on the top of his cane with it. Then he put the frog right up close to the kid’s face and let out a big, guttural ribbit; Toby giggled and glanced at his shoes. I felt then that Paco genuinely, to the bottom of his strange big heart, did not care what happened next, which was an attitude I’d never before known a person to have.
The sun was gone. The bugs were loud again. As we walked away, cutting through our neighbors' lots, we triggered their motion-sensor lights one by one. They snapped on suddenly as if to catch us in the act, but we didn't even startle, just kept on walking home.