Tatuajes by Rubén Degollado
Rubén Degollado’s “Tatuajes” is one of two essays picked as an editors’ choice selection for the 2022 CRAFT Creative Nonfiction Award. Our editors chose pieces that showcase the remarkable range of forms and styles in creative nonfiction.
While it’s not so unusual for a fiction writer to cross over into nonfiction, it’s unusual for a novelist to cross over into nonfiction flash. We’re honored to premiere Rubén Degollado’s very first flash. “Though this is the shortest piece I’ve ever had published,” Degollado says in his author’s note, “it took me about ten years to write it.” Gaps and omissions are often crucial to flash writing: action and backstory may be subtracted or compressed to maximum effect. In “Tatuajes,” the omissions are both the writer’s and his father’s. Degollado recalls a time in childhood when he and his brother watched their father working out on the heavy bag in their garage—circling and “sidestepping like he taught us to do.” When their father sidesteps a full answer to a question about his tattoos, “his silence was enough for us, each punch enough punctuation” for an unspoken history withheld out of love. —CRAFT
Indiana, in our cold one-car garage, motes of dust falling sideways, the sunlight diffused by the snow covering the ground outside, and we watched Apá working the punching bag, his untaped fists flashing with each swing. Behind my brother and I, a battered baby grand piano none of us knew how to play or the story of. “It’s a friend’s who will be picking it up,” Apá had said, but this friend never came. And later we would sell it for fifty dollars to a man who had seen the ad in the paper.
But that day, we sat on its bench, my brother and I, and it easily supported our weight, and we watched his hands that would never play this piano. Apá, a former Golden Gloves boxer, was working the punching bag, an army rucksack filled with sand, heavier than both of us, duct tape wrapped around it, keeping its insides inside. I thought of it as a beaten opponent, some poor pendejo who had the misfortune of being on the wrong side of Apá’s fists. He circled around the bag, sidestepping like he taught us to do so that we would never trip over our own feet in a fight. His breath in that cold garage ghosted before him and he danced around it. Even his breath was too slow for him. The garage shook, the chain to the ceiling twisted itself and twisted itself back. A jab, a jab, rapid punches to bloody the nose and blur the vision. The right cross then, or hook, or uppercut. Each of his bare fists connected in combinations and I tried not to blink against the thought that the bag could ever be me. Even though I knew only love was in those hands for us, manifesting in his hard work to provide, an occasional light cuff across our chins, or a mussing of our hair. He cuffed my chin now, and the knobs of his hands were like chunks of pavement. He moved back to his guard, and he again took his stance. And as he was still for a moment, contemplating how he would attack, I saw the tattoos. On the fingers of his right hand, below his knuckles, a clumsy green letter on each: G—A—T—O. GATO in tatuajes blurred from barrio years when I did not know him, the years we had heard whispers of from our uncles when we visited them down south, the years in the Río Grande Valley of Texas before my brother and I were born in this place covered with snow, far from our people, the only place our father could find work and escape the life he did not want for us.
“Why did they call you that?” my brother asked, he, braver than me, the little brother. “Gato, I mean. Why did they call you Gato?”
“Because I was fast like a cat,” he said, telling us the rest of the story with his ashen fists, three jabs connecting in quick succession. And we watched Apá some more, and his silence was enough for us, each punch enough punctuation for us then. Three jabs—an ellipsis at the end of a sentence he would not finish, a history he would not continue today or ever, one that he was trying to block us from, while still preparing us for it anywhere life would find us, here in this white land or back in the homeland only our blood remembered.
RUBÉN DEGOLLADO’s work has appeared or has been featured in The Common, Kweli Journal, Texas Highways, Literary Hub, The Rumpus, Gulf Coast, Image Journal, and elsewhere. His first novel, Throw, won the Texas Institute of Letters Best Young Adult Book for 2020. His literary novel, The Family Izquierdo, was longlisted for the PEN/Faulkner Award, was a Kirkus Reviews Best Fiction Book of 2022, and a New York Times Editors’ Choice. Rubén lives and writes along the southern border, in the Río Grande Valley of Texas. Find him on Twitter at @ruben_degollado.
Featured image by Yevgeniy Mironov, courtesy of Unsplash.