The Biggest Dick in the World
by Nate Beyer
who ignores the other half, the half that can’t be redeemed, who lift their mountains of cement inside forgotten little animals and where all of us will fall.” “Hola,” the clerk greets me with a short, bored nod. “Checking in,” I say. We go about the normal pleasantries. The hotel goes on my card, though I’m a lowly restaurant manager and had to beg for time off. Not that Pop’s got any money either. I hear him behind me, his Spanish rising over the din of the other tourists milling around the lobby. “Uno momento.” I smile at the lady. Dad and the driver, former best friends, are apparently on the outs over the fare. Dad seems to think the guy is trying to rip us off. “I gave him twenty pesetas, but he wants more!” He’s getting red now, the spit flying. Our luggage surrounds him like a moat. The driver says something in Spanish. Dad glares at him. “Okay, okay, Dad. Let me handle it.” I turn to the driver. “How much?” “Seventeen pesetas. The old guy, he give me five. Then he yell, like I want to sneak him.” “So we owe you twelve?” I ask. Dad has a hard time with numbers these days. One afternoon, Mom told me, he had stormed into the house, phone bill in hand. “Five hundred dollars,” he had yelled at her. She looked at the bill; it was for fifty-five, past due. “Si, si,” the driver says, waving his hand in front of his face. I hand him fifteen pasetas. “Keep the change,” I say, but he seems not to understand. He pushes three crumpled bills towards me, and I push them back. He gets into the cab, mumbling under his breath. “What happened?” Dad asks as the cab drives away. “Nothing. Just a little misunderstanding.” “Did he rip us off?” He looks concerned, his lips pressed together. “No, no. We’re okay.” Finally, after struggling with Dad’s oxygen tanks, with their fiery red “flammable” emblem making the bell-hops standoffish and nervous, we make it to our room, large with a balcony only a thin strip of concrete between the sliding glass door and a seven-story drop. We chose one with two double beds, so Pop wouldn’t have to be alone. I plan to do the nightlife, but figure I can leave a note. My preference used to be a big topic for Dad, but that seems to have dimmed like everything else except Franco.
Dad sits on the edge of the bed while I put our stuff into the dresser next to the balcony.
“What’re you watching?” “Huh?” His eyes are still on the set. I ask again, and he doesn’t respond. Mom thinks he could be having petite mal seizures, but I’m not sure. I think he’s just obstinate. I walk out on the balcony and take in the view. Downtown Madrid spreads out, the buildings falling away into the horizon, a few smokestacks rising off to the south, mountains looming just beyond them. The air smells of exhaust, and I can hear the cars honking below. Somehow actually being here makes the trip seem slightly less insane, as if this is just want people do: go running off with a dying parent to fulfill some wish he made decades before when fighting on the losing end of a horrible war. Normal stuff. “Are you hungry?” I ask, closing the doors behind me. “How’s that?” “Hungry. Are you?” “Sure, yeah.” We go down to the lobby. I take a quick look at the hotel restaurant where a guy with a white shirt and red vest is running a vacuum cleaner over the dingy carpet. We hit the street. It’s cooler now, the sun dipping down, and a breeze blows grit into our eyes as we cross the street in front of the hotel. “Where are we going?” Dad asks. ‘Well, Pops, I’m not sure. I figure we’ll walk around until we find a place.” “A place for what?” “Food, Dad. Dinner.” “Oh,” he says, then falls silent again. Dad always hated small talk. Someone would ask him about the weather and he’d tell them to go look outside. But the first few months he was home he was like small talk central: the weather, something he had seen on sale at the store, anything. It was as if he was waiting for you to pick up the slack in the conversation. He’d bring up a ball game, but couldn’t remember who’d played, so he’d hem and haw around about it, eyes gleaming, hoping you’d jump in with the details. But now, it’s more silence: his odd, empty quietness. We wander through the streets. Trash blows down the gutters, and the smell of grease and smoke come up with each gust. It turns out no one is serving dinner now, at just after six. “Ah, that’s right,” Dad says. “It’s a Spanish thing. They eat late. Dog gone it.” “Well, we’ll look for something.” We get to a big plaza with a few statues of men on horses with water shooting up around them. It’s good to see that the city has a strong gay influence—it bodes well for my evening plans. The plaza is beautiful, with a half-circle of columns girdling the fountains. A bunch of old guys sit on benches underneath the pillars eyeing the woman that walk by and smoking cigars. Dad is not impressed. He walks off, his thin tan jacket and brown cap joining the people milling around the fountain, then stops and comes back. “Where are we going?” His eyes are wet now. “I’m not sure.” “I’m hungry.”
He looks small and shrunken. Finally, at the end of a narrow street, we see it, like an oasis in the desert: the golden arches!
“McDonalds?” I ask. “Yeah, fine.” It’s just like home, more or less, except the plants that hang from the ceiling appear to be real and the menu is mainly in Spanish. We take a moment. Dad seems to have trouble reading the offerings, and I’m lost. Finally, the guy behind the counter speaks up. “I am Ramón,” he says, rolling the r percussively. Ah, Ramón: dark eyes and skin, raven-black hair that feathers out from his paper cap, slim, good build—probably plays a lot of soccer.
“I can help you,” he says. I hope he can.
I let Dad go first. He places his order, alternating between Spanish and English. Ramón smiles at Dad, revealing large yellowish teeth. Well, you can’t have it all, I guess. I step up, smiling, and order burgers and a coke. Ramón smiles and rings us up. “Your English is very good,” I say as I hand him the money. “Thank you. I study, first in primary school, and now in university.” “Impressive. What are you doing working here?” “It’s for now. I can work, keep my nights free for other things.” He smiles at me.
“I’m here with my father.” He glances over my shoulder at Pops, who is making his way to a seat. “Visiting for a few days.” It’s hard to say for sure, but I think this dreamboat may be receptive. Worth a try. “I wonder, do you know any good places for going out?”
“For you and father?” He frowns. “No, just me, I was thinking. Dad usually goes to bed early.” “You are lucky,” he pauses as he readies our tray, “to have a father that goes early. My father is not early to bed. But I can show you good spots.” “Yes, I’d like to see some of your good spots.” “I stop here at eleven. Maybe then you can come...ah, you are named?” “Alan.” I extend my hand. “Ramón.” We shake. “See you in eleven,” he says. Dad and I eat without talking. Then he starts up. “When do we go to the hills?” “Tomorrow. I’ve got a car lined up, and we can drive wherever.” He nods. Then he starts talking, oblivious to the other customers, the ones with families, speaking in rapid Spanish, herding kids away from the row of trash bins, or the other tourists, a couple visibly listening. He talks about a valley and an ambush and taking cover in the bed of a small stream. He talks about heat and dust and a guy named Jose who ended up wounded and then tortured and thrown into a mass grave. He talks about blowing up a guy in horseback with a stick of dynamite. About this he laughs. It’s like that with all his war stories: you never know if it was the worst experience of his life or fun and hi-jinks. He stops and looks around, a murderous gleam in his eye. “Now do you understand why I made the promise – why I have to keep it?” “But Dad, the war ended a long time ago. Nothing’s going to bring those guys back.” “That’s not the point. A promise is a promise. Especially to the dead.”
By the time we get back to the room, the sun is down and Dad is tired. I help him with his oxygen mask and he settles down in the bed with the TV on.
“I might go out for a while later.” “Out?” He looks up at me. “Yeah, for a walk or a drink or something.” It sounds stupid leaving my mouth, like some dumbass lie I would have told in high school. But it’s not a lie. That is all I want—to see the city, a drink or two, maybe a man. I know there’s nothing wrong with that. Nothing at all. But somehow it feels like a betrayal. “You want me to come with?” “Aw, no, Dad. You look pretty tired. We got a big day tomorrow. You should get your rest.” “What about you? You got to get some rest.” “Don’t worry about me, Dad.”
The streets throb with life, people everywhere, talking, laughing. Women in short black skirts and high heels walk by with men in dress slacks and shirts with the collar open. Everyone is drinking. I leave the hotel in a near-gallop. It’s like a prison break. Fear wells up in me and turns to a kind of elation as I cross the street. Then it returns, in a coda of images: he’s on the tile, cold, sprawled out in the bathroom like Elvis, pants around his knees. I lose myself in the streets for a while. Fucking forget it. If he survived the past eighteen months at home with mom, he’s not going to suddenly croak here.
I make it to the McDonalds, and Ramón is waiting in the empty doorway. “Hola, my friend.” He smiles. He’s dressed in a blood-red leather vest and cream-colored shirt with black pants and shoes. He has slicked back his hair, leaving a little curl on his forehead. We exchange greetings and he takes me along the crowded streets. We walk along in silence for a few minutes. I know I shouldn’t force it—just let the conversation flow. But for Christ’s sake, who knows how much English this guy really understands. Maybe this isn’t such a good idea. Maybe I should be back in the hotel room with Dad, glazing over to the throes of CNNEspana. Finally, I say, “You know, I work at a restaurant, too.” And now I’m hoping he understands no English at all. “McDonalds?” “No, one of those Italian chain ones, next to a mall. I am the day manager.” I swear to God I’m not trying to impress him. I’m not. I mean, who would be impressed by that? “A mall? Like a plaza?” “No, it’s not that nice. More like a building with a lot of stores in it and a highway out front.” “That’s good.” “Oh, yeah, it’s great.” He stops in front of a bodega and motions me over. “We start here.” Inside the cramped building are rows and rows of green and brown bottles lined up on narrow shelves. Vermouth, about a hundred different kinds. Ramón and the proprietor speak in Spanish. We try a few kinds of vermouth, one smoky, one dry and sharp, accompanied by different kinds of sausage and a hearty, pungent cheese. We finish with a sweet vermouth and a sausage studded with orange zest. “Better than McDonalds, no?” He smiles over his glass. We toast. “To friends.” “So,” I say. “Do you live with your parents?” “Ah, only sometimes. And you?” “No, not anymore. I moved out when I was young—younger.” “Yes, that is good. Your father, he is sick, no?” I stop and look at him for a minute. “How did you know? “The way he moves. Delicato. Fragile. And his eyes, you can tell. My mother, she ways the same way. The eyes, always wet, nearing tears.” I look down at the glass. Words have left me like air from a punctured balloon. My ribs feel tight, constricting, as if that have turned into snakes, choking the air off. “You mind me saying?” “No, no. It’s fine.” I take a long sip of my drink. “Fine fine.” “Sometimes people don’t like to talk about bad things. Maybe they think it will go away, like a demon that will go if you never say its name, but life is not like that. I don’t think it is so.” “No, you’re right,” I say, like I’m agreeing to a forced confession. “I’m—I’m just not good at all that.” He touches my face and all I feel is skin and skin, mine, his, my eyes close for a moment, my lips trail over the fingertips. I murmur something, a noise, as if I have fallen out of language for a moment. “What does he have?” “He had a tumor. In his brain. He got dizzy, fell off the porch. So, after the tests and all, they operated, took it out. Benign, they said.” “You mean, no cancer.” “Yeah, we thought then he could go on. But apparently the brain—the cells sometimes keep dying. He’s got emphysema pretty bad now, too. And his mind. It’s shutting down. Slowly. He forgets. He gets mad. But sometimes he remembers stuff, just on a dime, bam, thirty years ago is right in front of him. Then gone, like he’s on some kind of tide, an ebb and flow.” My face feels hot now. I’m not looking at him anymore. I’m not sure he understands what I’m saying. I’m not sure I care. “Do you love him?” “Of course. Yes. I think. I mean, things haven’t been easy. This,” here I wave my hand between Ramón and I, “he doesn’t like. Gayety. He feels it’s—” “Shame.” “Yes, shame.” “It is hard to love. People think it is flowers and cards and walks on the beach, nice things together. But that’s... bullshit, como?” “Yes, bullshit.” He leans back. “It’s bullshit. Love is never easy, not so in time. It means to suffer a little, to realize that there’s in all of us, ah, a disaster, that we are broken. When you love a person, you are tied up in the world, and the world is—” “Otra mas?” the bartender asks. Ramón shakes his head and the man snaps away. “What is the world?” I ask. Ramón smiles and lifts his drink. “The world is the world.” He drinks the rest in one gulp. I try to pay, but Ramón insists. As we continue through the streets, I feel lighter, like I’m floating just above the pavement. Everything feels far away now, finally. At an intersection, he grabs my hand to point out a building to me. I want him to use his hands on me—roughly, now, here, but I hold back. He says that we’re going to the old quarter, to a Flamenco club he knows. Soon, the streets turn to cobblestone, and the streetlights get farther and father apart, eventually disappearing all together. Everything is made out of stone, rough-hewn and mortared. The buildings look conspicuously small, almost squashed, leaving a thin ribbon of blue-black sky overhead. Even the crowds start to diminish. “Are you sure that this is safe?” “Don’t worry. Americans always worry too much.” He takes my hand again, and I don’t care where we go. “Here,” he says finally, stopping in front of steps that lead down to a doorway in the basement level of an old brick building. I move towards the stairs, but he catches hold of my waist and pulls me into him. “Wait.” We kiss, and I can taste the vermouth on his tongue. The stubble on his chin is rough, and I feel our bodies heating up together. I grab at him, trying to get closer, but he starts down the stairs and I follow. A wood bar along runs along one wall, tables and a few couches on the other, and a dance floor in between. Candles ring the hall and cast a soft orange-yellow light, augmented by a few dim ceiling sconces. It smells of smoke. We order drinks and attempt to talk through the music and Spanish spilling over us like water. Sometime after midnight, the crowd quiets. An old man makes his way out from behind a red curtain at the far end of the room, carrying a guitar and a small stool. As he sits and begins to warm up, a woman emerges from the back, beautiful and lithe in a blue dress and streaming silk scarves tied around her wrists and neck. She is dark enough to look Egyptian or Indian, posing with her arms over her head, awaiting the music. It begins with his voice, frail, an eggshell in the air. The sound rises like a wave. The dancer sways, eyes closed. The scarves and the flowing dress float around her, then spin back like a pinwheel. The clack of the castanets is sharp and rhythmic in her hands. But as she turns in and out of the muted light, I realize she isn’t a woman at all, but a tall, delicate man with fine cheekbones and arching plucked eyebrows. The woman’s brow glistens with sweat. Dark lines become visible under her eyes. The guitarist’s fingers begin to gallop over the frets. His singing rises and breaks into a gravelly whisper. With his head down, as if sobbing, he ends with a flourish, and the dancer rests her hands on his back, folds down to him and wraps her arms around his chest, her cheek on his hair. There is silence for a moment, then the room erupts into applause, hooting and whistling. The next song is uptempo, and everyone dances, men with men and women with women. Ramón pulls me out and starts twirling me around the floor. He looks even more beautiful, his black eyes reflecting the light. We dance until I have to stop to catch my breath. “Oh, God,” he says, “it’s so hot.” “I know.” I fan myself. “Let’s go outside, for the air.” He takes me by the hand and pulls me out the door. He leads me further, around a corner and into an alley. Then his mouth is on mine, hands grabbing at me. I lift up his shirt and kiss his chest, the skin smooth and silken against my lips. He guides my hands to his crotch. His cock is hard, straining the fabric of his pants. I unzip him and start rubbing. My mouth is on his nipple. “Suck it,” he whispers, his voice little more than a moan. I drop to my knees and pull him into my mouth, struggling to take the full length. It’s as if there’s nothing else in the world now. Time has stopped—only this, now, his dick in front of me. I start slow, with long, deep strokes. He responds, his hands pulling on my hair, driving into me, and I speed up to match his pace. Then with a muffled groan, he pulls out, and my chin and shirt are suddenly wet. I stay on my knees for a few minutes, trying to collect myself. Ramón’s fingers are in my hair still, softly caressing me. I bury my fact in his crotch, inhaling him. A lump forms in stomach as the world comes back to me: dad, Madrid, Franco or whatever it is that calls us here. When I get to my feet, I notice that there are three other couples lining the alley, doing more or less the same thing.
When I get to the hotel room, Dad is gone. I call the front desk, but no one remembers seeing him. I do a lap around the building: nothing. I’m frantic, almost hysterical, envisioning calling mom, then screaming at the desk clerk, maybe suing the hotel. How could they lose my father, for fuck’s sake? How could I? Then I check the restaurant, and he’s there at the bar, drinking with a couple of old guys, speaking his halting Spanish. I make my way to him, and he smiles as if to say, “see, I can go out too.” He orders a Magno with his buddies before I can haul him away. The elevator doors close in front of us, and he looks over at me. “What’s on your shirt?” Days that begin with a telephone ringing are usually not good ones, in my experience. This morning, mom calls a little after seven. She asks about Dad and the trip, then tells me breathlessly about the wall—crowds of people tearing it down! For a moment, I think she means the brick wall by the garden, but no, the Berlin Wall, now nothing more than concrete. We sign off, and I lie still for a moment, trying to shake the fatigue that lies on me like lead. Dad stirs in the next bed. He moans and gets up and makes his way to the bathroom. Finally, he comes out again and I tell him about the Wall. We switch on the TV and watch the scene, kids jumping and dancing on the crumbling edifice. “Pretty amazing, huh?” I smile at him. “Amazing? There’s going to be another war. Best thing we ever did was break up the damn krauts. They’ll be invading somebody before you know it.” “Dad, give me a break. They barely have an army anymore. Besides, Germany is a sophisticated country now.” “Sophisticated?” He looks at me. “Berlin was sophisticated in the twenties too. People got soft, weak. Soft in the head.” He makes sure I’ve registered his disgust before he heads back to the bathroom. We take off after a light breakfast in the lobby. The car rental place delivers right to the hotel, which is great since I have no desire to drive in the city. We plan to head to the hills and take in a little scenery. Dad’ll tell stories, and I’ll hope he forgets about his promise. It takes a while, but we finally make it out of town. We turn off near a sign for a town that Dad thinks he remembers. We drive down narrower and narrower roads. After a while, we stop and ask on guy walking along the lane. Dad’s trying to find the creek where they were ambushed fifty-some years ago. We drive.
At noon we find an ancient wooden tavern that looks like it wouldn’t be able to pass a heath inspection anywhere in the states. The meal, though, is wonderful: a three course affair that ends with a cold beet salad and a glass of Muscat. I’ve worked in restaurants for five years, and this could be the best meal I’ve ever had. Our server is a woman older than Dad—she has patches of dark hair under her nose and on her chin. But Dad doesn’t want to enjoy anything here—he’s itching to get going. He asks the woman for directions, and we head out.
Dad repeats her directions to me. “Take the next right. Five miles down, the stream branches out and feeds Río Manzanares.” “Great.” We drive for a while, and suddenly there it is: the stream. I never thought finding such a small body of water would feel like a miracle. “I think this is it.” Dad walks along the bank as fast as he can manage. I follow him, pushing aside thorny branches. The stream bends as we go up, and I lose Dad ahead of me. I find him again in a clearing, standing next to the creek with his head down. “This is it,” he says. “It was here.” Birds flutter in the bushes around us. I try to imagine what happened here, what it was like. I close my eyes. Pop stirs.“No, Goddamn it, this isn’t it at all. This fucking thing runs east-west and it was north-south. We checked as soon as we camped. Shit.” He tromps off into the brush. When I get back to the car, he’s already inside waiting. “Are you sure it was north-south?” Dad just puts up his hand. “I want to see Franco. That prick can’t get away from me now.” I let him stew for a minute before I speak up again. “I’m sorry about the stream.” “Oh, Jesus, Ally, I don’t know anymore. Was it east-west? I thought…” He pauses. “Maybe Jose was killed that day. There were so many bodies.” We drive for the better part of two hours, weaving back and forth through the mountains. At last we come to a big sign advertising the highway to the Valley of the Fallen. We follow the road down into the crevasse. The first thing we see is the cross, rising up hundreds of feet, a drab tower of concrete. “Jesus Christ,” Dad says. “Would you look at that? That mother couldn’t get over his goddamn cock. Had to put a big monument to it, right here. That’s just what it is, too. The biggest dick in the world. Should tear it the fuck down.” We park in the nearly empty lot. The buildings spread out before us, columns and porticos like an overdone White House. There are two guards at the door, one of whom gives me a look as we pass. A long, dark hallway curves into the side of the mountain. On the walls are various coats of arms and plaques in Spanish. “Just remember, Ally, people died for this, lots of them. And not because they wanted to.” Franco’s tomb is behind the altar of the basilica that the hall opens into. On either side are arches with giant urns of flowers. An old woman in a yellow overcoat is leaving as we make our way up. “Well,” Dad says, “this is it.” “You’re really going to do this?” “What do you think? I came all this way for nothing?” He walks behind the altar. I stand behind him, my back almost touching his. “Keep an eye out,” he says. As Dad approaches the tombstone, I can hear voices coming down the hall, men speaking Spanish. The guard appears at the far end, the one that had given me the look when we came in. That’s when I notice the cameras. “Dad, hurry up. He’s coming.” “All right, all right.” I walk over to one of the paintings along the far wall, trying to block the guard’s view, but he goes past me and right up to Dad. He grabs Pop’s arm and jerks him away. Dad has his fly open. He says something to the guy in Spanish, and the guy sends him sprawling against the first row of pews. Dad grimaces when he lands. I launch myself at the guard, knocking him away from my father. “Leave him alone, fucker. He’s an old man.” The guard gets up slowly, looking at me. “Maricones,” he sneers. “Leave now, and you won’t be arrested. Do your filth somewhere else.”
I help Dad up and make sure he’s okay.
“I couldn’t,” he says when we are safely back in the car. “What?” “Piss, goddamn it. I couldn’t piss.” He looks out the window. The whole way back he stares out at the landscape, his eyes watering. That night I can’t go out. I think about it while we eat in the hotel restaurant, about Ramón, about the whole teeming city. But there’s no way. I see Dad grimacing against the pew, his face at the car window. We stay in and watch the news from Berlin. Dad doesn’t say much. He dons his oxygen mask, and we both drop off into sleep. “Oh God.” The room is dark. Dad’s voice is hollow and insistent. I stumble to my feet and turn the light on. He’s all twisted up in the sheets. “Dad, Dad,” I say. “What’s up?” “I had an accident.” I pull the blanket down and see the dark stain spreading around him. “I don’t feel so hot,” he says. I help him up and into the bathroom. The smell is awful; the diarrhea dyes his pajama bottoms a dark mustard color. “Goddamn, I’m sorry about this.” “You couldn’t help it, Dad.” I get the bottoms off him and dip a washcloth into warm water and wipe him. He’s so frail and shrunken. His dick is nothing; his pubic hair is white. “Are you really one of them?” he asks me when I’m done. “Maricon?” “Si,” he says. “Yes, Dad.” He looks away. “You used to know that.” “I did?” “Yeah. You nearly kicked me out of the house when I was sixteen, after you caught me messing around with Andrew, that kid from down the street.” “Really? No, I wouldn’t do that.” “You didn’t talk to me for months.” “No.” He looks like he doesn’t know whether to laugh or cry. “Yes, Dad, you did.” “Why did I do that? You’re my son. My only son. Christ.” “It was a long time ago.” My hands are trembling. “Maybe you should take a shower.” “Okay,” he says, stepping toward the door. “Ally.” He turns to me. “I’m going to die, aren’t I?” I look away. “Damn it.” His hand strikes the sink. “Damn it, damn it, damn it.” He leans into me, burying his forehead in my chest. “Shh, it’s okay, it’s all right. You’re alive now.” He takes a shower while I bundle the sheets from his bed and leave them in the hall. He puts on clean pajamas and we both crawl into my bed. He moves over to me, his head resting on my shoulder, my arm around him. I listen to his raspy breathing. Gray light shines at the edges of the curtains. I look at his ashen skin, his mouth, his face unshrouded and clear. Sleep begins to weigh on me, but I force my eyes to stay open, trying to take him all in, to burn his image into my brain, knowing that this too will fail.
NATE BEYER attended UMass Boston and the Boston University Graduate Writing Program. He lives with his daughter Zoe in the Boston area where he teaches high school English.