Arnon Grunberg
De heilige Antonio

These are the first words we write in English. We’ve written a lot of other words, but always in our own language, and there are not enough people who can read that language. Not the people we want to be read by, anyway. We are thinking of people like Kristin, for example, the Croatian girl. But there are other people we would like to be read by, too. Just so no one thinks we’re writing all of this only for the Croatian girl, because that’s not true.
Of course, we’ve written things in English before, compositions where you had to use at least ten difficult words from the previous lesson, lists of irregular verbs, stories about famous people from our own country, always those stories about famous people from your own country. Three days later you get them back with red marks all over them because you’ve used the wrong prepositions. Prepositions should be outlawed.
This is the first time we are really writing in English. This is not a story about a famous person from our own country, it’s not a list of irregular verbs, and it’s not a composition using ten difficult words from the previous lesson.
We would like to be able to speak in a way that doesn’t make people ask ‘Where are you from?’ or ‘How long have you been here?’ We would like to not stumble over the sounds anymore. That’s why we write. When you write, you can’t stumble over the sounds. You can mix up the past tense and the future tense, you can use one preposition where there’s supposed to be another one, you can conjugate a verb in the wrong way, but you can’t stumble on the sounds. A voice on paper is a voice that will never have bread crumbs stuck between its teeth, it’s a voice that will never accidentally spit while talking, it’s a voice of which nobody can tell if it’s badly shaven and nobody can stare at its teeth. You know, in a shameless way like that.
Our teeth - that’s our weak spot. We have other weak spots, but our teeth, they really stand out like a sore thumb. We didn’t brush our teeth for a really long time. We had other things on our mind besides brushing our teeth. Plus, we didn’t own a toothbrush. No toothpaste either. When you’ve hardly got money for bread, you’re not exactly in a hurry to get toothpaste at the supermarket.
The truck driver told us that women aren’t really interested in teeth anyway, they’re interested in whether God made you well-endowed. They’re really interested in that. God made sure we were well-endowed. Extremely well-endowed, actually. That’s one of the drawbacks of a voice on paper: you can’t actually show how well-endowed you are. Another thing you can’t do is stroll down the street with your hands in the pockets of your jeans, and then, when a beautiful woman passes by, turn around and kick up a pebble.
There are a lot of beautiful women in the world. That’s because of God. The beautiful women turn into ugly women, and that’s because of the devil. That’s what they taught us in our village. The devil transforms everything beautiful into something ugly, and everything alive into something dead, and everything shiny will turn dull after the devil has touched it.
We are Paul and Tito Andino. Paul is eighteen, Tito is nineteen. Our mother’s name is Raffaella Andino. We were born in a small village. We were smuggled across the border, and it took us four years to pay off our smugglers. We don’t remember much about our father. Our mother always says that what we do remember is a lie, or she interrupts us when we’re talking about it, or she stares out the window in silence and listens to music, but the truth is our father was a robber. That’s why he got beat up every now and then; people don’t like robbers. He beat us up too sometimes, and he beat Raffaella up sometimes, because when you get beat up a lot, you want to beat up someone yourself every once in a while. But one night he broke into a man’s house, and that man had a club made of eucalyptus wood lying next to his bed. The man got really angry at our father. He hit our father’s head with the eucalyptus club until it burst open. That was the saddest day of our lives. Tito was nine then, almost ten.
Raffaella cried a lot, because our father was the love of her life. At the funeral, Raffaella said that love was a flower in bloom, but a thorn as well. We didn’t say anything. They had dressed us up in nice clothes. The man who had hit our father with the eucalyptus club was there too, but he didn’t say anything either.
The people that had known our father, remembered how much he liked corn liqueur. So they drank the corn liqueur he liked so much. The liqueur was in red and yellow buckets. We had to drink it too. When the funeral was over, everyone was drunk. Single men were introducing themselves to Raffaella, but she didn’t want to be introduced to anyone. Of course, there were men too who weren’t single at all, but some of them introduced themselves to Raffaella anyway. Men don’t let things depend on whether they’re single or not, Raffaella says.
We don’t mind it that our father was a robber. He had to do it, because he had to feed us. They asked the man with the club why he hadn’t stop hitting our father when he was on the floor and had stopped moving. He said that the whole thing had been a blur. That year, he had been robbed four times already.
At the time we are writing this, we have been in America for six years, four months, two weeks and one day.
Our mother is a waitress. She was very young when she had us, that’s why she’s still beautiful. If she wasn’t our mother, we could fall in love with her.
Raffaella says: ‘Sooner or later, every man will make you feel dumb, cruel and ugly. Not in the beginning of course, but sooner or later it will come to that.’
We don’t understand this. If we loved a woman, we would make her feel kind, intelligent and beautiful. Yes, that’s what we would do. When we love a woman, we turn around slowly, and then we kick up a pebble so it hits her legs. And then, when she looks around at us, we call out to her: ‘You want to go for a walk, sweetheart?’ That’s our trick. It hasn’t worked so far. But you have to be patient, Raffaella says. Even though she’s not talking about pebbles when she says that.
We’re outside a lot, since our house is small and our mother takes up a lot of space. Not that she’s fat, it’s not that, but when she’s home, basically the whole house is full. There’s a playground right by our house. A jungle gym, a sandbox with worms in it and a rusty swing. There is at bench at each corner, four of them. Sometimes, mothers sit on those benches with their children. We smoke our cigarettes there. And we talk about life. The life that comes after. The kind of life you have when you’re not a delivery boy anymore. Real life, that is.
When Tito turned nineteen, Raffaella gave him a pair of sunglasses, and she promised Paul that he would get a pair just like it for his nineteenth birthday. Until that time, we share the sunglasses. One day Paul gets to wear them, the next day Tito. We always wear the sunglasses when we go outside, even when it’s raining. When people hit us, we hit them back. Of course, we run away sometimes too. One time, they pulled out bunches of Tito’s hair. Four girls. They jumped on top of him and pulled at his hair, all four of them at the same time. Paul couldn’t do anything because there were four of them. He hid behind a tree. We are small, but we are well-endowed and we have broad shoulders. The thing is, you just don’t fight with girls.
Tito shouted: ‘I bet you girls aren’t wearing anything under those skirts.’ That happens, you know. Some women go outside wearing nothing under their skirts. Then they shouted back: ‘You come over here, and we’ll show you what’s under our skirts.’ We approached them slowly. When we got close to the girls, they jumped Tito, the four of them, and pulled his hair out. They were furious. For no good reason. They even yelled, ‘Go fuck your mother, you creeps.’ The people in our street are so uncivilized.
Our father was the love of Raffaella’s life. But the love of Raffaella’s life was a thief. The love of your life will always be the love of your life, even when he beats you up and steals everything he can get his hands on. The love of your life will always be that one person, a little slapping around will never change that. Raffaella says that there’s only one love of your life, and that all the loves after that are just copies of that love. The older you get, the worse the copy.
Our mother has a lot of admirers. She is not old, but she’s wise. For example, she tells us that when we are older, we should do everything to make sure we get a house with a bathroom and a clean toilet. She doesn’t expect us to conquer the moon, or become lawyers, she just wants us to get a house that has its own bathroom and a toilet that works. She knows what it’s like to have to live in a house with no toilet, and we do too. She also says that in every man’s life, there’s a woman who has ruined his life. And she says that there’s probably a man in every woman’s life who has ruined hers too - but that you shouldn’t think about that too much.
Sometimes she isn’t wise at all. On occasion, she takes her admirers home. Admirers who are married, admirers who have a steady girlfriend, admirers who are totally bald, admirers who smoke big cigars. They’ve all been to our house at some point.
We met the Croatian girl in our English class. Of course, we have never taken her home.
We call our mother Raffaella most of the time, because she is still young and beautiful. We only call her mom when she has hit us, or when she puts out our cigarettes - even though she smokes herself - or when she curses for five minutes straight because we’ve supposedly peed on the toilet seat. Five minutes of cursing for a little bit of piss. Tito says that’s one of the first signs of madness.
We want to come up with a plan that will earn us a lot of money. A really good plan. A plan that we have to keep secret. If not, other people will steal our plan.
Mark our words: in the end, we will be living in a villa with an ocean view. And a garden that’s big enough to get lost and starve to death in.
From six in the evening till around eleven, we deliver food to people’s homes. We started working when we had just arrived here, because Raffaella wasn’t making enough money. She said she had found us a job. She went with us and introduced us to the boss of a Mexican take-out restaurant.
‘These are my sons, she said. ‘They’re smart and they work hard.’ The boss of the Mexican take-out is not smart, and he isn’t a hard worker either; that’s why he needs people who are smart and work hard.
We go to people’s houses on our bikes. Tito has a mountainbike and Paul has one of those old-fashioned bikes with a coaster brake. When we’re biking, we hang our chain locks over our shoulders - just so we can hit people with the chains, in case we get attacked and they want to take our money.
From eight to ten, it’s rush hour. Around that time, we deliver maybe forty meals between the two of us. We have some regular customers. The lady with the hat, for instance. She orders the same thing every single day. She always has dinner in front of the television. She says: ‘The television is my little friend.’ That’s why she talks back to the television.
For two years now, except on weekends, we’ve been going to English class from twelve to two in the afternoon. Mr. Berman says we’ll need a few more years before we speak English perfectly. We are inquisitive. Mr. Berman often says: ‘The Andino brothers are a couple of inquisitive fellows.’ Of course, we don’t like it much when Mr. Berman calls us inquisitive fellows in front of the Croatian girl.
In the beginning, the only thing we knew how to do in English was swear. We also want to know how to love in English. That’s why we are so inquisitive, but Mr. Berman doesn’t know that. We want to be able to do everything in English.
When we pray, we do it in our own language. We don’t pray from a book, we speak to our father. God must have fixed his head by now. And we ask him if he will go to God for us, and tell God: ‘Look down there, that’s Raffaella, and Paul and Tito. That’s my wife and children. Raffaella is the most beautiful and wonderful woman in the world, and Paul and Tito are the best sons a father could wish for. And I want to ask You if You will look out for them, because I am not there to look out for them anymore. Will you protect them, and toss some money through their window? Just so Raffaella doesn’t have to work in the coffeehouse six days a week anymore.’