MISSING IN ACTION

His hands looked massive holding her petite face, yet at that moment it was her gaze that kept him standing tall and strong…

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Antonio had never been what you’d consider a nice guy, he looked like everything but. He had a rugged look, broad shoulders, firm gaze and a handshake that let you know he could break you in half if he felt like it. Even with that, he was soft-spoken and had a way of patting me on the shoulder and messing my hair up that was as gentle as a warm meal after a long cold hard day. He was peace for my mother… that man made her feel safe even with all his pandemonium.

Antonio did marry my mother, he didn’t get on one knee, he bought her a ring, put her arm around her while she sat on the sofa reading and asked her to marry him and let him take care of her. She said yes right away and he made sure he did just that… every day of his life and sometime after he took care of her… and me.

Antonio loved my mother, he was a good provider and he had the ability to make her face light up each time he walked in through the door and an immense fear took over her eyes every time the door closed behind him. He wasn’t my real father of course, I never my real father but I’m ok with that, we had Antonio. I was old enough to know he hadn’t always been a part of our lives and grateful enough to figure out that he had been there when she had no one else. I don’t recall when my grandmother moved back to Cali, Colombia… back to her small neighborhood Floralia. It was small and as you can imagine, super crowded. It smelled like sewer and brown sugar fritters. I visited twice a year up until I was around 16, then grandma told us it was safer that we no longer flew over there and let her come visit us once a year on my birthday or Christmas. Grandma would do just that, once a year she’d come and stay for a week. During that time Antonio was either here or wasn’t. He’d either stay the entire week or be gone the entire time. Mom always told Grandma he worked a lot. I’m not saying it’s a lie but I sort of figured Antonio didn’t exactly have a set schedule to follow.

We lived in Texas, in a small town by the name of Beeville, located in Bee County; where there are more cemeteries than playgrounds. Mom worked at one of the three state prisons located in Bee County.  I believe this is where she met Antonio, no he wasn’t an inmate or an offender, as my mother still refers to them. Antonio only worked there for a few months, mom put up with it for 5 years until she was able to get her teaching certification and got a teaching job there in Beeville at the Elementary School. The Trojans … that was our mascot. Antonio got my mom to quit and stay home until she finished her online certification after she was assaulted by an offender. He didn’t rape her, he might have, had she not put up a fight and almost bitten his ear off. He did beat her up pretty bad by the time the picket noticed her struggling in the janitor’s closet. Mom stayed home due to the injuries for about 3 months, then her worker’s comp didn’t come through or they gave her the run around due to it being a mutual fight. I’ve always been big for my age, Antonio looked like you’d break your teeth if you ran into his chest. The man was a standing bull. My mother is a flat 5 foot tall, petite woman not an ounce over 120 pounds. I don’t know what her assailant looked like but I know she fought hard for her life and had it been a lazy picket officer she might have never come home that night.

I wasn’t allowed to ask what Antonio did for a living, I doubt mom ever did either. We had an idea, not in agreement because we never sat to talk about it but on the last day, we both knew. Every other day or for 2 days once a week he’d leave for the entire day or until late the next night. He’d say he was going to Mexico, they’d talk on the phone or text for the three hours and a half drive until he reached one of the 4 or 5 US/MEXICO borders that are located along Brownsville and Hidalgo, Texas. Then he’d return, looking like he hadn’t eaten or slept in those two days. Oily hair, dark circles under his eyes and the fire in his eyes burned a little brighter than when he left. Like an angry pit bull that got pulled off a dog fight too soon. Perhaps it was anxiety to finally be home and hold her again. I used to fantasize that my dad, Antonio, was in a fight club. I pictured him, a total bad ass, fighting in an underground club surrounded by a noisy crowd and corrupt politicians watching from above. Eventually I figured it had to be bigger than that and perhaps not as unsanitary. He did love my mother, I knew that. I also knew he was violent but never towards us. In fact I can’t remember ever hearing him curse. He never smoked or drank an ounce of alcohol, he never spanked me and he liked to cook for us.

– let him have all the meat he wants, it’s not gonna constipate him that’s nonsense, it’s gonna make him get big and strong, men are supposed to be big…

He’d tell my mother as he evened out my serving of vegetables and meat. He had no idea how to be a father but he did a damn good job at it.

One time a drunk tried to pull my mom around at the yearly town Easter event that the community college holds. I was about 8 years old when I saw Antonio drag the guy by the neck towards the wooded area behind the running track of the college after the dumbass tried to pull her towards him and then spanked her butt when she pulled away. I didn’t see the guys face on the news that night, nor did I see missing posters anywhere. About a week or so later someone reported the smell behind the bushes behind the baseball field; the college stray cats and coyotes had already chewed most of his face and torso off. No one suspected who did it, the police didn’t come asking questions. Beeville in Bee County was just too small to care about another drunk who might have been a potential pedophile.

Antonio played soccer with me ever once in a while but mostly he thought me to defend myself and stand strong and breathe through the pain of a punch. I eventually joined a boxing gym… well the boxing gym in beautiful Beeville, Texas. I still managed to get my ass kicked over a girl in middle school. Antonio wasn’t happy, he wasn’t mad either… he seemed sad. Mom cleaned up my face that night and gave me some strong Ibuprofen. Antonio came and shuffled my hair as I sat on the recliner watching TV that night… awkward silence as he stood behind me with his hands on his hips and looked up at the ceiling searching for words. I saw his reflection on the TV as a commercial for a device to help old people put their socks on played.

– Son… my only regret right now… the thing that just .. it just ticks me off that it was another dam kid your age and size and I can’t put my hands on him like I want to

-…..umm…thanks Tony
that was all my pubescent dumbass was able to stutter out

He was a beast, tamed by my mother. I was 19 the last time I saw him. Mom still looked radiant at 46. Antonio was about 5 years younger than her but still seemed older than her.  She was still teaching at the elementary school. He hugged us both separately before he left that morning.  He held her last for a bit longer than usual, kissed her forehead and then held her face petite face in his massive hands. No I love yous… nothing, because they both knew, she knew and he was just lucky to have her.
He kissed her again and whispered I’ll come back as he closed his eyes and pressed his lips to her forehead one last time as she wrapped her arms around his waist.
That was the last time.
It was I think two days later when a stranger in dark jeans, a black military like cap and a brown jacket showed up to our house. He handed her his jacket and a yellow envelope full of money. He shook my hand firmly with a hand full of callous and dirty fingernails. He squeezed my mom’s shoulder and left his number in case we ever ran into any troubles. I had never seen him before… she might have, or not. I’m not sure, but with his visit we both knew Antonio was gone from our lives forever. I started to ask her what happened and then I saw her face, red as tears poured down to her cheeks and she held her breath. I wrapped my arms around her and Antonio’s jacket with its faint scent of blood and gun powder. She let out a gasp and loud sobs, I squeezed her to me and immediately a river of sadness overtook me. He was gone.
Later that night I began to search his jacket’s pockets not sure what I was looking for. Inside the chest pocket I found a single fading picture of mom and me. We’re kneeling under the peach tree, I must have been 4 years old, shirtless, my red shorts and sandals, the chili bowl hair cut. A chocolate ice cream cone dripping down my bare stomach and the mess on my face. Mom is kneeling next to me, one arm around me and my eyes are fixed on the cone. Her black hair is shoulder length, wavy and loose, tucked behind her ears showing her entire face, no make up, just her. She’s barefoot in white shorts and a pink muscle shirt. She has that million dollar smile like when someone would say something funny and she wrinkled her nose and showed her perfect white teeth between her pink lips. My sweet mom and her million dollar smile, the one Antonio always said was the prettiest smile ever. The back of the picture doesn’t say anything, no year, no date. There’s a faint bloody thumbprint and other yellow stains, as if he pulled it out many times before… perhaps this was the last thing he saw. I took the picture and tucked it under my sock drawer face down, it hurt to think that he carried this with him every time he went away.
Mom never remarried, a year later I joined the Marines as a human resources specialist. Mom continued teaching. My contract took me to Missouri where she came to visit for a few days during her summer and Christmas breaks. I got into a bar fight once there with a civilian who was a bouncer or a bartender at one of the many bars surrounding the base. I got my ass whooped again of course. We were about the same size but I hadn’t been in a fight since middle school. The guy ended up stabbed and robbed behind an alley about a month later when I was given fire guard duty at the BOQ’s and couldn’t join my friends for beers and titties.
I guess they just wanted to rob him and he must have put up a fight
I said when I first heard the news as I scrolled down my phone and deleted the phone call to a cell phone in Mexico two weeks ago.

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