the short story project


Idra Novey | from:English

The Last Summer of Our Patriarch

Introduction by Gilad Jacobson

A Chilean family gathers for their annual vacation together at a spot along the seam between the Pacific Ocean and the Atacama Desert. In a languid atmosphere reminiscent of Fitzgerald’s Tender is the Night and David Vogel’s Facing the Sea, the family wakes to find half their shoes have gone missing. Without falling into the tropes of mystery or farce, the missing shoes lead to a fissure within the family, pitting the aging Socialist patriarch against his offspring and their desire to resolve the problem with money.

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On the third day of vacation, we woke in our rental cabins by the ocean to find half our flip‐flops were gone. One of the baby’s potato‐sized sandals was missing as well. By the door, out on the patio, wherever we’d left a pair of shoes, only one remained. From some pairs, it was the left shoe that had vanished. From others, the right.

Mystified, we searched in the sand and under the beds. We called it a prank and accused each other’s children. Surely someone among us was to blame. Between our five cabins, we were seventeen cousins, eleven aunts and uncles, and a stern patriarch we all called el Viejo. Every year we gathered at the same spot on the long seam between the Atacama Desert and the Pacific Ocean to watch our children wreck each other’s sand castles and sled together down the dunes. Over seven nights, we worked out our resentments of each other’s good fortune in long tournaments of dominoes and gossip. We carried on till midnight or way past it, fueled by vast quantities of chocolate and supermarket wine.

As with any attempt at upholding tradition, it was a delicate endeavor, requiring what felt like great feats of good will. If someone’s shivering child came up from the beach and the shower in their cabin was occupied, we said por favor, come use ours, held our tongues if that child used our last clean towel and coated every surface in our bathroom with sand.

But the situation with the missing shoes was entirely different as it happened to all of us and all at once, or so it seemed. One of the teenage cousins was the first to come through the cabins upset that she was missing one of her new red sneakers. Then in marched el Viejo in his bathrobe, demanding to know which of the grandchildren had the audacity to make off with half of his shoes. He demanded all the parents check under the beds again and in every piece of luggage. To look behind the grill and the garbage cans, in the ovens and in the trunks of our cars.

When all the checking led to nothing, el Viejo grunted and declared modern parenting a disaster, ducked into the nearest bathroom with a crumpled newspaper and locked the door.

By now the sun was cooking up the sand. It was almost nine. From the rows of beach cabins after ours, other vacationers were starting to emerge. A man stepped out barking into his phone in a pair of loafers. A woman wearing a baby in a sling clacked past us in a pair of clogs. The three sisters who played jump rope each morning with a long piece of crusty seaweed were at it again, each in a matching set of plastic sandals.

It’s only us, we said from the ever‐hotter tiles of our patios. Some of us improvised sets of shoes from our remaining flip‐flops and sneakers. But others saw this temporary solution as too passive. Within an hour, a band of holdouts formed, all of them men. All certain there was something noble about their grimacing barefoot over the scorching sand, as if their choosing to burn meant they were more in control of the mystery—as if their pain were certain to hasten the revelation we were waiting for.

But the hours passed and no children confessed. No missing shoes surfaced. The aunts who prepared the great spectacles of our twenty‐nine person lunches got to work slicing up their daily mounds of cucumbers and tomatoes. Even in mystery, they said, there must be sustenance, and no one disagreed.

To fill the time until lunch, the holdouts went on interrogating the children. Others of us searched farther from the cabins, climbing up into the dunes with binoculars to scan the desert. We saw dozens of fat rabbits. A fox leading a trio of cubs between the cacti. But there was nothing piled, nothing unmoving that could possibly be an entire extended family’s missing shoes.

By now, the most carnivorous of the uncles had several strips of goat meat smoking on the grill. A team of older cousins had lined up the plastic tables and soon lunch was under way. Gathered together, passing the cucumber salad and filling the juice glasses of each other’s children, we began to ask the questions we’d all begun to consider, if perhaps the person behind the prank wasn’t one of us after all, but someone who maintained the cabins and had all our keys. But if so, why our family and none of the others? Were we louder, was it all the dominoes? The eldest and most pragmatic of the aunts remarked that she’d always thought of us as a lucky family with good‐looking children and solid marriages. What bothered her the most, she said, was the futility of the crime, the waste of it. Why just one shoe from every pair?

And so our conjectures began.

One of the dreamier children declared we had been visited by a one‐legged demon of the desert.

The restless aunt who oversaw all the meals said that we had sinned and it was an act of God.

Ay, mujer, our grouchy patriarch said, and asked her to pass the pebre. She ignored his request as she had for years, pointing out instead that none of us had mentioned yet the possibility that our missing shoes were only the beginning, that maybe tomorrow morning we’d wake to some other incomprehensible robbery. The absence of half our socks or even something bodily—all our right hands gone, or half our toes.

I think we should pack up and leave, she said, a suggestion met with a crescendo of protests and guffaws. Most of us had saved for months to pay for our cramped overpriced cabins. And what about those of us who had taken off these days from work and would have no other vacation days the rest of the summer?

And what about the children, one of the other aunts said. They so look forward to sledding down the dunes together. What sort of message would we be giving them, if we panic and consider our family singled out for persecution over one curious incident, and because of something as easily replaceable as a shoe?

It was then that the ground trembled. Not strong enough to be an earthquake, but forceful enough to rattle the plastic tables and cabin doors—a tremor but a considerable one. Strong enough to make us all leap out of chairs and look down the winding path to the beach below to see if this, too, was something only happening to our family. But the bathers below were also up out of their beach chairs or swimming to the shore. And the gulls were cawing wildly and circling. They, too, had clearly registered the tremor and were awaiting the buffet of fish that always surfaced after a notable shift in the earth.

See? We didn’t sin. It wasn’t God. Nobody gets to be in the Bible anymore, the carnivorous uncle said, stuffing the last of the grilled goat into his mouth.

For the rest of us, however, it didn’t feel like the end at all. The tremor didn’t seem like proof enough that losing half our shoes in the night was no more than an isolated, inexplicable incident of persecution. All afternoon, we remained uneasy, not quite feeling entitled to our paranoia but unable to stop worrying that we might be fated for something else, and far worse. Over and over, we checked our i‐phones and lost our patience with the children. Prank or crime, we felt embarrassed and anxious about the oddness of what had happened to us.

Yet even more humiliating was the lack of explanation. How could we ever speak of it to other people if we didn’t know who had done this to us, and why? For the moment, we decided we better keep the incident among the twenty‐nine of us. We made all the teenagers swear they wouldn’t snapchat or text about it with their friends back in the city.

Only if we can go down to the beach, they bargained and we said fine, vamos todos, although the stares of the other families at our awkward mismatched sets of flip‐ flops and sandals made us feel even more vulnerable and on edge. We tried to feign a sense of ease by pegging our attention on the baby who laughed at everything. On the uncle who played the ocarina and went on playing the same three Victor Jara songs he played every year.

By evening, the effort to hide our anxiety had become exhausting. Two of the aunts offered to make the two‐hour drive to the nearest town to get everyone a new set of flip‐flops. Even some of the holdouts agreed it was time. But others stuck by El Viejo and said it had only been one day, that we should at least wait until tomorrow.

The aunts chose to ignore them and made the drive away. When they returned two hours later with dozens of flip‐flops and we all began trying them on, el Viejo crossed his arms and declared us weak in character. He said we had allowed consumerism to become our pacifier. He said we tried to buy our way out of every unknown and had no dignity, that we lived in a kind of permanent infancy. Don’t you want to teach your children how to inhabit their unease, he asked us, don’t you see that you’re raising them to be spineless capitalist peons, to be fools?

Por favor, Papi, one of the aunts said to him, calm down or you’re going to give yourself an aneurism.

But it was our own heads that started to ache as we put the children to bed. And as we set up the chairs for our nightly dominoes games, we looked away from the sight of El Viejo’s hairy toes and calloused heals under the table. After the first round, the aunt who’d brought up God and our possible sins began to weep.

Still, we soldiered on with our tournament, hoping once we’d had enough wine, it would feel like any other night of dominoes in the desert. But we couldn’t stop impulsively checking our phones, reading aloud to each other whatever news we found about the tremor, or about the endless drug war happening in the country north of us, the dozen homes there just ransacked by a group of masked men with machine guns. We read aloud the news of the latest violent crimes in our own country, spoke of the beloved great uncle who’d gone away recently for a wedding and come home to find half the contents of his home gone. And wasn’t there a second robbery of some boxes in his garage a week later, one of us remembered, and one of the uncles said it was true. The second thief had defecated on the floor of the garage, after which our uncle had stopped leaving his little house at all.

At the thought of that uncle reckoning with a pile of human feces in his garage, the reek of it in the summer, of a whole street ransacked a mere country away, it felt too indulgent to carry on about a few pilfered shoes. We had slept through it, had woken up unharmed. Given all the random crimes that could have befallen us, the eldest niece said, maybe we were lucky.

I don’t know if I’d call it lucky, her mother said, but we might as well finish the chocolate. And we agreed, ate up every Nestlé Sahne‐Nuss on the table. Sugared up, we resumed our tournaments with a new degree of focus and vigor.

Until suddenly one of the middle brothers rushed in with his youngest son’s missing sneaker, the match to a previously orphaned pair. I just found it under the mattress in his port‐a‐crib, he said.

All at once, we rose like a chorus from our plastic chairs. It was after midnight but we scavenged through our cabins again anyway and with renewed hope—our humiliation was over. We could reduce the whole mystery to an anecdote and post it on Facebook, reduce it to fodder. With an ending, we could stop questioning what it meant. It would just be an odd, isolated incident, and we could pack up our existential dread for something else.

But no other missing shoes reappeared. Only that one tiny sneaker of the big‐eared baby whose name no one could remember. After its discovery, however, we never forgot his name again. And when he cried for his mother, we wondered about her, too. And about her other sons, and her daughter, who’d always been a little difficult, hadn’t she? And sly.

Then Sunday finally arrived and we assembled our bodies and anxieties for our annual last day group photo. Before the year of the missing shoes, we always sought out someone from another family to document our tight‐knit clan. But this summer none of us wanted to ask and risk getting any awkward questions in return, not with el Viejo still barefoot and cursing his way over the hot sand. He’d refused to be in the group picture with us or to take it. You don’t really want to see who you are, he said, so what the hell is the damn picture for?

I don’t need any more of your judgments, Papi. Vamos, niños, let’s go, the eldest of the aunts declared and motioned for her children to skip the photo and follow her back to their cabin to pack their things. The rest of us turned and looked at each other, as if still considering whether to proceed, though we knew we would not.

And we didn’t: no group picture exists from the year of the missing shoes. On the long drive home to Santiago, we told each other we’d feel less anxious about the gaping lack of explanation for what had happened to us once we got away from El Viejo. On the ride home, the older cousins texted between the cars more than they had in the past and we joined them, sending jokes about spotting each other’s flip‐ flips on the highway or in the mouths of the gulls gliding overhead.

At the first signs for Santiago, we grew more tender but also increasingly nervous, ending our texts with ever‐denser forests of exclamations points. Yet in the weeks that followed, we answered each other less and less. We read the details of new random crimes with heightened compassion and dread. Some of us had more sex than we’d had in years. Others didn’t have any, and couldn’t fall asleep either. All they could stand to do until midnight was stare at the TV and wait for one of the smaller children to cry out for them, convinced the one‐legged shoe‐grabbing demon was back and had just crept into their room.

When el Viejo died ten months later of a cancer he’d revealed to none of us, the aunt who’d ignored him the most was the first to cry at his graveside. She was also the one who found, the following week, our missing shoes in his garage—stored like body parts in three large, unmarked garbage bags. The revelation caused a new fog of bewilderment to settle over us. We’re stuck in the Bible even now, the aunt who believed in God said.

As for the rest of us, who knew the Bible mostly by references made to it in other things, we said nothing, just stood there breathing in the dust floating through the garage, hoping we’d never become so judgmental of our grown children, so fearful of death, that we’d want to take something from our own offspring. When the most carnivorous of the uncles knelt to go through the bags, we did not know whether to object or say thank you.

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