The following is the record of the life happenings of the one and only Oso Beñat, aka Tomi Beñat, as in Tomi Corp; grandfather of Stephanie Mirabel Beñat Gonzales, and one of the greatest men who’s ever lived—in Ms. Gonzales-Beñat’s most humble opinion. When Oso read the opening sentence, he snorted and informed her there wasn’t anything humble about her except her sorry braided flats.
Oso began his seventh grade school year attempting to beat the school bus home on his bike. It wasn’t difficult to do. And once home, he had chores until bedtime. The earlier he started on them, the better. That didn’t mean he wanted to do anything but continue riding his bike, past the subsistence farm with its old, scabbed-together shotgun house where he and his family lived.
He circled the block past the booger-eater’s house, Bernadette’s house, and crazy Agnes’ house, and then pedaled back around to his own dim, dirty dive. He slammed the door shut and flung his backpack and shoes on his own personal futon space. He only wore shoes when he had to, at school, as his feet were flat, and his knock-off Nikes uncomfortable.
The only person present was his mom, who was sitting in the corner, meditating. She didn’t open her eyes, let alone flinch at the slamming of the door. Soon, his older sister Alex would be occupying the beanbag chair in her own kind of meditative state, and ignoring the filth and clutter around her. And all five of his brat younger siblings would be running wild.
Alex was supposed to pick up and do laundry every day, but she rarely did, always giving the excuse that she had schoolwork. It was funny how, come grade time, she always had Cs. The truth was she spent all her time reading, leaving Oso to do everything. He kicked her beanbag chair across the room and started his own laundry, which consisted of a few decent pairs of jeans and t-shirts he’d purchased himself with the money he’d earned as newspaper delivery boy. Whatever the case, his siblings might carry the “smelly Beñat kid” label, but he refused to.
“Mom!” he screamed. “The house stinks!”
What a surprise. There was no response. He slammed back out the tattered screen door at the front of the house, and then kicked open his dad’s much sturdier workshop door. At least his dad worked. The man had many ventures, as part-time subsistence farmer, full-time carpenter, and all-year-round weed grower. What he didn’t smoke to calm his nerves, he sold.
“Whatever you break, you have to fix,” his dad said in a mild voice.
He had a joint dangling from his mouth as he sanded the arms of a rocking chair he meant to trade for a car engine he planned to sell for part of their rent. The rocking chair was worth triple the price of the engine, but nobody had any money in Socorro in those days. Sure, there were the college professors at NM Tech and the astronomers out at the Very Large Array, but somehow Oso’s dad hadn’t found his way into the hearts of the local Anglo scientists.
Not that his dad, with his Basque heritage, wasn’t as white as any Anglo American, but that wasn’t how it worked. The pseudo surname Beñat sounded Mexican, and Mexicans weren’t white. Aside from that, his mom was only kind of brown and was related to the Saavedras with two “a’s,” who were a well-established family in politics and business—but his mom had married the dirt-poor Jerry Beñat because she was a hippy and so was he.
His parents disgusted him. Above all, Oso was revolted by their poverty. If Oso were in charge, his family would have money, and a lot of it. It was all Oso could think about, to be honest. In last year’s middle school yearbook, when the ditzy yearbook girl had asked him what his life goal was, he said, “I’m going to be so rich Scrooge won’t be able to count my money.” She had pulled the quote and highlighted its profundity.
“Where’s the rake?” he yelled at his dad. “I’m trying to do my chores, and the rake’s not where I left it yesterday.”
“Oso!” he said, as if conjuring the real boy back from the rage demon. “Calm down, and maybe you’ll be able to find it.”
Oso narrowed his eyes, which was a reflex reaction to the cloud of wood dust in the air. The workshop, unlike the house, was tidy and clean, except for the dust. All the tools were stored in their neatly labeled drawers, and the gardening equipment Oso was looking for was off to the side in an ancient steel drum where it wouldn’t contaminate the carpentry space.
His dad could have enforced the same kind of order in the house, but he didn’t. And it irritated Oso that he and his sister Alex were expected to do it for the parental figures, just because they were the oldest kids. More than that, it irritated him that they expected him to do it because Alex lived in daydream land.
“My name’s not Oso,” he said with as much ferocity as he could muster. “Call me by my name, or I won’t answer back.”
His dad merely creased his brow at the declaration, set down his sandpaper, and sat cross-legged on his bench. “Son, you can’t fight destiny. You were born in a natural state.”
He hated it when his dad waxed philosophic. “That’s meaningless.”
“No, it’s not. Far be it for me to meddle with your fate.”
“Where’s the goddamned rake? Did the brats break it?”
“You might want to check in the yard, where they were using it yesterday to clean up.”
Oso refrained from growling, as it was in part his propensity for growling that caused his parents to change his baptized name from Tomi to Oso. The other part was his mass of dark hair, and his improbable height, always in the ninetieth percentile.
This year, as he was twelve and had his dignity to uphold, he’d instructed all his teachers to call him by what should have been his real name. That is, what should have been his real name, if his mom had actually given birth to her children in the hospital and filled out birth certificates for them instead of belatedly filing for birth certificates so they could go to school. After three years of unschooling, she found the process too tiring to continue. So they all ended up with birth certificates, and more marvelous than that, social security cards. But because she’d been calling her eldest son Oso for so long, she wrote it on the birth certificate: Oso Beñat, no middle name. She tried to pass it off as an accident.
For a few seconds, Oso stared at his father sitting cross-legged on the bench, like some kind of deranged biblical prophet, the wood motes floating golden in the sunlight that crept through the single window. Destiny? He would show his dad destiny.
He stormed back out of the workshop and ran like a hooligan around the yard, searching for the rake. One of his jobs was to rake out the chicken yard, scatter the feed, and collect all the eggs for the next day. If he didn’t do the job, they would all have to eat more beans. When he couldn’t immediately find the rake, he climbed the old apple tree that was at one end of the chicken yard. It was the oldest tree on the Beñat property, having long predated their family’s move there. It was also the only tree that was substantial enough to climb.
From his vantage point, he watched the school bus round the bend and drop off his youngest siblings. Just after it, the middle school bus came rolling to a stop. His sister exited, her nose stuck in a book and nearly stumbling down the steps. The boy behind her pushed her out of the way: the booger-eater, Gillilander. Oso scowled.
Gillilander was the only kid in seventh grade as tall as Oso, but he was a scrawny goober and wore glasses. Normally, a twit like Gillilander wouldn’t be much of a threat, but he happened to be the only boy who could beat Oso in math. Oso picked a still-hanging apple from the tree and flung it in Gillilander’s direction—for pushing his sister, of course. No other reason. The apple dropped near Gilly’s feet, and Gilly looked up and glared at the tree and did nothing. Typical of a booger-eater.
Finally, Bernadette exited the bus in her little short shorts and clingy shirt. She was the one Oso had been waiting to catch sight of. The girl flipped her hair and strutted, as if she knew she was being watched.
“Hey, Bernadette!” he yelled. “Nice—” He was going to say nice ass wiggle to humiliate her, but his voice was drowned out by a strange buzzing and shrieking coming from the opposite direction.
It was crazy Agnes, the neighborhood lady everybody avoided, just in case it turned out she was a witch who might cast spells on them. Outside her home, she’d put up two owl decoys. That said about everything the neighbors needed to know about her. The woman was riding an electric wheelchair and didn’t seem to know how to maneuver the vehicle. It was bumping in a beeline toward the Beñat property line, as if the brakes had gone out.
With one hand, the lady drove; with the other, she cradled her leg and caressed her face with her foot. What the—? Oso almost fell out of the tree at the sight. Instead, he jumped from his branch, grabbed a rotten apple from the ground and threw it at her to change her trajectory. His job was caring for the chicken yard, and she was about to run right into it. When the wild-eyed woman still didn’t stop, he threw another apple at her, which caused her to jolt and plow into the apple tree. The leg flew from her hand, landing in the chicken yard.
It was a prosthetic, a hideous plastic thing. For the first time, he noticed the lady was an amputee. The leg was the most obvious tell; generally, legs didn’t fly from bodies at the mildest impact. Also, she was wearing corduroy culottes today instead of her usual fluorescent colored bell-bottoms.
“What are you doing?” an indignant girl voice cried out behind him.
He turned around to witness Bernadette with her hands on her hips, legs akimbo, wearing the typical female expression of disgust on her face.
“What’s your problem?” he asked.
“Why are you throwing fruit at a poor, old lady? What kind of nasty beast are you?”
“She was going to run over my chickens.”
Bernadette, however, didn’t wait to listen to his excuses. She darted to the woman, who appeared trapped at the tree, the wheelchair miraculously still upright, the wheels spinning. Agnes was crying and babbling about having lost her leg.
Bernadette spoke to her as if to an inconsolable child, and oddly, she did appear as a child. She was barely taller than Bernadette and had smeared lipstick around her mouth. “It’s okay,” Bernadette told her. “Calm down, we’re here to help.”
Oso shoved her. “Get out of the way! You’re just making it worse.”
She shoved him back. “Sure, I’m the one doing that, not you. You’re such an idiot, Oso.”
Eventually, Oso’s dad emerged from his workshop, apparently drawn out by the disruptive noise, in a cloud of golden dust motes. He unemotionally turned the wheelchair off, before wheeling it around the opposite direction. If Agnes gunned it again, she’d end up in the clear, relatively speaking. She’d run over the same scrubby bushes she’d already careened over.
“My leg!” Agnes screamed. “My leg! My leg!”
Oso stared, speechless. The woman was crazy, crazier than he’d suspected. He silently fetched the prosthetic leg, which he then handed to her.
She yelped. “I used to have a leg. A real leg.” Tears dribbled down her cheeks. “I can feel it, but I can’t see it. How can I put this thing over it? It killed my leg; it was shut up inside.”
Before Oso could mumble a reply, a small old man with a wispy beard and glasses ran through the brush toward them. It was the strange man who lived with the crazy lady, a strange man who appeared to be twice her age, if not older.
“Agnes, I’ve talked to you about running off like this. You have to stop.”
Agnes looked up at him, her face wild with fear. “It’s there. I can feel it. You took it from me.”
“No, I did not,” the man said. “Let’s get you home and put your leg back on.”
Oso stared at the man-and-Agnes procession, his creep sensors blaring. The man had an old worn look, old brown pants and faded brown shirt, thinning hair. He’d never seen the man up this close before, as the couple rarely left the house, unless Agnes wandered off as she’d just done. Sometimes, the man climbed in a beat-up Oldsmobile and drove off, but mostly the car sat unused in the dirt patch yard.
“Guy’s a creeper,” he said.
“My mom told me he’s her stepdad,” Bernadette said. “She knows the nurse from Socorro Mental Health that visits them. I think it’s kind of a weird story. Like he’s a doctor of some kind who treated her as a child, that’s why he’s stuck with her now.”
“That makes no sense.”
“I think it would be better not to spread gossip,” Oso’s dad interrupted.
That, of course, irritated Oso, as he wanted to know more. “It’s not gossip to know what lunatics your neighbors are.”
“Be that as it may…” The elder Beñat’s voice trailed off as his focus went elsewhere. Jerry Beñat had no focus. He reached up to pluck an apple from the tree. Then he snuffed out his joint, put it behind one ear, and tested the apple. “Lots of good apples here still. Don’t let them go to waste, Oso. Pick them and put them in the kids’ lunches.”
More chores. Oso glared and kicked at a small creosote bush. “What kind of doctor?” he prodded Bernadette. “A psychiatrist? Because that’s what she needs.”
“Be sarcastic if you want, I think that’s what he is. A psychiatrist.”
“How’d she end up with him?”
From the house behind Agnes’, Bernadette’s family home, drifted the sound of a triangle bell. Bernadette’s mom used it when she wanted her stray children to come home. “I have to go. My mom’s calling,” Bernadette said.
She didn’t move, however. She did that a lot lately, hanging around with Oso when she wasn’t supposed to. He couldn’t decide if it irritated him or excited him.
“No, tell me the rest,” Oso insisted.
“The bell would be your cue, Oso,” his dad said. “Get your chores done. I want you to have dinner on the table by at least six.”
Oso glared at Bernadette’s feet and noticed she had holes in her sneakers. He sorely wanted to punch his dad in the face. It was one thing for him to expect Oso to be the family kitchen bitch; it was another for him to say so around Bernadette.
“Oso, I mean it. Stop giving me your attitude. I’m still in charge around here.”
He looked up. “Right, Dad, that’s so obvious.”
“Sorry, gotta go. Mom wants me to do my homework. Or something,” Bernadette said and ran off.
Of course, she would. She had a nice family. Why stay around to see what would happen at the Beñat home? Would Oso be whipped? If he kept it up, sure. Would the younger children be punished at all for their bad behavior? Probably not. They ran in a pack and were harder to catch. Would Alex be punished for sitting around reading instead of helping? No. Their dad never whipped her with his belt like he did Oso.
As she ran off, Oso suddenly realized her shorts were so short and tight, as she’d grown taller over the summer, not to mention growing a bigger butt, that he could see her underwear line. This brightened his mood a little. “Hey, Bernadette!” he yelled at her. “I can see your underwear.”
She stopped short, turned around and huffed, her hands clenched into fists. Then she ran off again, as her mom kept ringing the triangle. He laughed. Yes, that had definitely made his day.
“Bad behavior, son,” his dad said.
“What? I didn’t do anything.”
This time, his dad didn’t appear to have the energy to whip Oso. Either that, or Oso hadn’t pushed him far enough yet. The elder Beñat just shook his head and walked off.