“No Bullets in the House,” a Million Writers Award finalist written by Geronimo Madrid and published in Drunken Boat, is the story of a cool, confident crime boss, Diego, whose belief in his own facade is shaken when he visits his family in America. Madrid is a master of detail, and he makes the story work because he’s in total control of the subtle cues that signal the tenor of Diego’s relationships, and because he paints a full picture of Diego, showing him as sympathetic and repulsive, callous and loving.
When we first see Diego, he’s on a plane with his mistress, enjoying his sense of wealth and sexual control:
Once in the aisle, she pulls down at the hem of her short, short skirt. When she makes for the economy class seats, Diego barks, “Bathroom’s the other way.” He watches her skinny, twenty-two year-old ass go.
Hostess one day, jetsetter the next. That’s what he’s done for her.
But Madrid makes Diego’s alienation immediately clear in an encounter with his family in the airport (he sent them to America to protect them from his enemies):
“A dress?” Abigail says. “Please, Dad. What am I, twelve?”
To Diego’s ears, her American accent makes “Daaaaad” a never-ending sound.
He glances benignly at Marcela… Girl’s growing up. But Marcela takes it as rebuke and flicks her manicured nails at Abigail. “The girl wears what she wants. Never listens.”
Diego is a physical man. He calculates how to use his body–the night he arrives home, he makes love to Marcela twice “to reassure her that he desires her still.” He has a deep understanding of the posturing that shows superiority, the consequences of violence, and the gestures of romance. His interior world, however, goes far beyond that, as Madrid shows masterfully. The gestures Diego makes, however, aren’t understood by those around him. The story suggests that this is an effect of separation in time and space–these things may have worked for Diego if he and his family didn’t live apart so much.
The key scene, I think, which signals the beginning of Diego’s crisis, is here:
“Business is good. It could always be better, but it’s good. So don’t worry, there’s plenty of money for whatever college you want to go to.” He thinks of the killing he will make on the Agorro Road. Then he contemplates asking Abigail about school, but what a cliché topic to cover with his only child. He looks at her long legs, the way she stands with one hip jutting out. He feels very far away from her. So he gets up, goes to her and crushes her to him again, as he did at the airport. He hugs her with such ferocity that her book is squeezed out from between them, like a hotdog squeezed out of its bun. The books pages butt against his chin. It’s as if he can feel every sliver of page against his flesh.
But the other feeling, that there are wide canyons of distance between them, persists. So he hangs on to her tighter and tighter until the warmth, weight and sheer reality of her closes the gap.
“Okay, Dad, okay,” she says, and a little-girl laugh comes pouring out of her maturing body. Her laugh makes him smile.
And then he falls back onto the sofa again. Abigail stands there, flushed and giggling and shaking her head. But then she sees his bottle of beer sweating on the tabletop. A frown flickers across her face.
“Your mother,” Diego says, “is sleeping in. Hasn’t made me my coffee yet.”
“You can’t make your own coffee?”
Diego smirks. His daughter, The Feminist.
Abigail’s own mouth twists in displeasure. Then she opens her book and paces back and forth as she reads.
It was this scene that made me see that Diego is still reaching for the seven-year-old Abigail who cried endlessly at the thought of her father’s absence. The basic connection is still there between them, but he doesn’t understand the teenage girl his daughter has become, and he’s surprised that he needs to try.
The real victory of viewpoint here is that when Diego thinks, “His daughter, The Feminist,” I don’t get alienated from him. I hear the voice clearly in my mind, and I understand where Diego is coming from and even feel for him. The reader, however, understands the women in Diego’s life much better than Diego does. The difference between how these women see Diego and how he sees them and sees himself is the source of rising tension for much of the story. The crisis comes when Diego sees himself as they see him, though he thinks this moment is a trick of the house Marcela bought (which he never liked):
The digits are small, crowded and faded, and when he stares out the window to rest his eyes, a vise of pain squeezes his chest, because as he stared once more out the window at the pretty scene, he caught his ghostly reflection in the sunlit pane. His face was twisted, his eyes pinched, his shoulders bent in a vulture-like hunch.
With his free hand, Diego covers his eyes against the reflection.
It’s just the house, goddamn it, he says to himself. The stupid house playing its tricks. He takes a minute to laugh at his own jumpiness.
In this moment, everything is transformed for Diego. He holds his magical pistol, which protected him from enemies and which he’s given to his family to protect them in turn. He turns to it for comfort, but now this becomes a depressive gesture, one with which he contemplates suicide. Diego would never do this at home–it’s only in this strange house, with his strange almost-family that he could see himself as less than successful, and that the women in his life might dare to mock him.
Even with all my pickiness about endings, I’d say this story ends on the perfect note. It’s a bleak, muted moment in which the reader sees Diego seeing reality and turning away from it.
On the whole, the story is a triumph. I think there are a few slips with viewpoint, however, which is odd since Madrid generally handles this well. In the scene where Diego plays with the gun, for example, Marcela walks in and catches him with it in his mouth:
“Now, put that thing away.” She clutches her heart as if it is in pain. She gives him a long, hard look. What kind of life are they having? She says to herself. Him there, Abby and me here. She expels a sharp sigh through her nose. But those are the kinds of questions you have to answer early on. And they didn’t, and here they are.
In this paragraph, Madrid gives in to the temptation to show Marcela’s thoughts. He doesn’t need to. Her gestures and sounds are plenty, and the paragraph would be much stronger if it maintained the story’s usual subtlety. This moment breaks the spell that is the story’s greatest strength: Seeing through Diego’s eyes and understanding what is seen better than Diego does. To see the difference, compare the passage I quoted above–Diego hugging Abigail. There’s no need to see what she’s thinking explicity, and Madrid knows it that time. I think the passage is stronger for it.