After a fourteen-year estrangement, Maria Venegas returns to Mexico from the United States to visit her father, who is living in the old hacienda where both he and she were born. While spending the following summers and holidays together, herding cattle and fixing barbed-wire fences, he begins sharing stories with her, tales of a dramatic life filled with both intense love and brutal violence—from the final conversations he had with his own father, to his extradition from the United States for murder, to his mother’s pride after he shot a man for the first time at the age of twelve. Written in spare, gripping prose, Bulletproof Vest is Venegas’s reckoning with her father’s difficult legacy.
Chapter 1: Bulletproof Vest
(Chicago suburbs, 1987)
The first gunshot snaps me out of my sleep. I lie in bed and stare at the two blinking red dots of my alarm clock: 12:35 a.m. It’s Thursday night and my father has been playing cards with the neighbors. I can almost see the eye of the gun following its target, and then the second and third shots ring out. Something is different. Whenever he drinks and fires his .45, it’s always in rapid succession, four or five bullets following one another into our front lawn or out at the night sky.
My sister Sonia is the first out of bed. She hears someone coughing, as if choking, outside her bedroom window. She goes outside and walks around the side of the house, follows the red streak along the white aluminum siding. My father is leaning into the wall, just below her bedroom window. He’s covered in blood, his gun still in his hand.
“Escóndela,” he says, handing his gun to her. The gun is still hot to the touch. She takes it and helps him inside.
By the time I step out of my bedroom, he’s standing in the middle of the living room, slightly swaying forward and back. He’s looking right at me but his gaze feels as if he’s looking at me from a distant mountaintop. My mother is next to him, in her white slip, pressing a towel under his chin.
“You’re bleeding to death. You’re bleeding to death. You’re bleeding to death,” she says as the towel becomes saturated and thin red lines stream down her arm and onto her white slip. She pulls the towel away and readjusts it.
There is a gash under his chin that’s about two inches long. Thick blood flows from it and runs down his neck. His white undershirt is already soaked. On the hardwood floor beneath him, there is a dark pool forming and inching closer to my bare feet. He’s mumbling something about that pinche pendejo—how he knows someone put him up to this. But with him, all those culeros go in circles, like dogs chasing their tails. How he’s not going to rot in jail because of that son of a bitch.
“Salvador!” he yells for my brother as he pushes past my mother and stumbles through the dining room, bumping into the china cabinet and making everything inside tremble. He disappears into his bedroom, shouting orders for Salvador to pull his car around the back.
Salvador does as he’s told, and by the time my father emerges from his bedroom, red and blue lights are already flashing through every window in the house and dancing across his face. He goes out the back door, climbs over the chain-link fence, and crouches through the neighbor’s backyard. Salvador is waiting on the next street over, sitting in the car, engine running, lights off. My father climbs into the backseat, lies down, and Salvador drives off. There is a flurry of screeching car tires and police sirens all around our house.
“Dios nos tenga de su santa mano,” my mother prays out loud.
Soon, the sirens are fading in the distance, while out there on Route 45, Salvador is flooring the car, speeding through red lights, and swerving around traffic as a swarm of flashing lights and sirens is closing in on him. My father yelling the whole way for him to step on it, telling him not to stop, no matter what. But up ahead, a row of police cars is blocking the road, and officers stand behind open doors with their guns drawn. Salvador hits the brakes, throws the car into reverse, but before he hits the gas, a police car skids to a halt behind him. There’s a voice bellowing from a megaphone, demanding that he put his hands where they can see them. He lifts his hands from the steering wheel and raises them slowly, watching as four officers with guns pointing at him move in, shouting for him to step out of the car.
“I need to get my father to the hospital,” Salvador says, motioning to the backseat with his head. “He’s bleeding to death.” An officer shines his flashlight on my father, who is lying unconscious, his clothes soaked with blood. A police escort takes them to the nearest hospital, fifteen minutes away.
An hour later, my younger brother and sister and I are outside, leaning into the chain-link fence next to Rocky’s doghouse. Even though it’s nearly two in the morning, it feels like the middle of the day. Police cars with flashing lights sprawl from our driveway, lighting up the entire block, and all the neighbors are out. The Colombian woman who lives across the street stands on her stoop with her hands resting on her daughter’s shoulders. The elderly white woman who lives alone in the three-story house next to the Colombians’ watches from behind her screen door. The five little blonde girls who live next door are on the other side of the chain-link fence, still in their pajamas, lined up beside their mother, their fingers gripping the fence, and staring wide-eyed at us. A few officers scan our front yard with their flashlights, searching under the picnic table and around the mulberry tree near the driveway. Mateo and Julio, who live up the street and are in my class at school, stand on the other side of the yellow tape. Mateo waves at me, I wave back. Salvador ducks under the yellow tape and is stopped in our driveway by a man who has a camera strapped around his neck.
One of the officers makes his way over to us, pointing his flashlight along my mother’s zucchini and tomato garden, which sprouts along the chain-link fence that separates our house from the small blue house next door where six Mexican men live. The men are questioned by police, and we watch as they reenact the scene around their picnic table: how Joaquín lunged at my father with a knife, was pushed away, came at him again, swinging from left to right, finally lodging the knife under my father’s chin. My father pulled out his gun and shot him once. Joaquín stumbled back, fell down, got up, and lunged at him again. He was shot two more times.
“Hola,” the officer says when he reaches us. He gets down on one knee and points his flashlight into Rocky’s doghouse and peeks inside. Rocky starts growling. “What kind of a dog is it?” he asks.
“A Doberman,” Jorge says.
“Is he friendly?”
He turns off his flashlight and stands up.
“What’s his name?”
He picks grass particles off his pants.
“Is Jose your father?”
“Yeah,” we nod our heads.
He looks at us, presses his lips tight, and draws a deep breath. His nostrils flare.
“Is he nice to you?”
“Yeah,” we shrug.
“Except when he’s drunk,” Yesenia says.
“Yeah, then he can be kind of mean,” says Jorge.
The officer glances at him, at Yesenia, then back at me.
“Does he ever hit you?”
“No … yeah … sometimes,” we overlap.
“Only when we’re bad,” Yesenia says.
He looks at her, crosses his arms, and throws his head back, as if he’s counting stars.
“You wouldn’t happen to know where his gun is, would you?”
My brother and I both shrug.
“Sonia took it,” Yesenia says, “and…” I reach behind her and pinch her arm. She falls silent. The officer looks at her, then at me, and says that if we know where the gun is and don’t tell them, we could all be in big trouble. He follows us into the house, where other officers are in the living room, looking under couch cushions, behind the television, inside the china cabinet, and under the dining room table.
“No vayan a decir en dónde está la pistola,” my mother mumbles when we come into the house.
“Amá, ya saben,” I say.
“Ni se les ocurra decir nada de las otras pistolas,” she says under her breath.
“What did she say?” the officer asks.
“Nothing,” we say, making our way to Sonia’s bedroom.
He picks up her pillow and there is my father’s .45, black and heavy and resting on the paisley sheet. He pulls out his walkie-talkie.
“Murder weapon has been located,” he says into it.
Soon there are more officers in the room. One of them is wearing white latex gloves. She picks up the gun and drops it into a clear plastic bag. We follow them back into the living room, where other officers are standing around. “Murder weapon has been located” is leaping between the static of their walkie-talkies.
“Does your father keep any other weapons in the house?” one of them asks.
We tell him no, though inside the closet, behind the dining room table, there is a steel trunk filled with rifles, handguns, and machine guns.
The following day, Salvador is quoted in one newspaper and described as a neighbor, not related to Jose Venegas. The headlines read: ARGUMENT OVER BEER LEAVES ONE MAN DEAD, ANOTHER CRITICALLY WOUNDED. According to the papers, the whole thing had started over an argument about who would drink the last beer. I never trust anything I read in the papers after that. We knew it had nothing to do with beer. Joaquín probably hadn’t even finished unpacking his belongings in the house next door when already men at the local taverns were warning my father to watch his back, to not let his guard down with his new neighbor. Even one of the men at my mother’s church warned her. He was the manager at a photo-framing factory, and he had overheard the workers, who were mostly Mexican men, talking about how someone had hired Joaquín to kill my father.
Hard to know who or why as my father had left a handful of enemies back in Mexico. For all we knew, it may even have been the three brothers who had killed Chemel, my eldest brother, six months before. They must have known it was only a matter of time before my father went back down to Mexico looking to avenge his son, and so perhaps they thought they should strike first. Or maybe they had heard about the phone calls my father had been making, offering to trade one head for another—you do this one for me, and I’ll do one for you.
My father spends two weeks in the hospital in intensive care, and we go visit him after school.
“Your father is lucky to be alive,” the doctor says, explaining how the blade missed his jugular vein by a hair, and had that been severed, my father would have bled to death within minutes. I sit next to his bed watching dark fluids drain through the blue plastic tube that is attached to the gash under his chin, and I think that maybe he will die, that maybe he deserves to die. If I could trade heads, I would give his up to have my brother back. By then, there were rumors that my brother being killed had something to do with my father, an old vendetta or something. We heard that someone had paid to have Jose Manuel Venegas killed, and they had killed the wrong one. Even my mother claimed that it was my father’s fault. According to her, God had taken my brother in order to “deal” with my father—this would be the thing that would make my father surrender at the Lord’s feet, once and for all. My mother had already surrendered, had given up Catholicism and become a born-again Christian a few years back.
Not long after my father is released from the hospital, we start hearing new rumors. Joaquín has two brothers in the area and they have been asking questions around town: Where does Jose live? How many kids does he have? How many sons? Daughters? My father buys himself a bulletproof vest, and before leaving the house in the evening, he slips the heavy black vest over his undershirt and snaps the Velcro side straps in place. Then he throws on his cowboy shirt, and tucks it into his jeans.
“Can you tell I’m wearing a vest?” he asks us as he turns to one side, then the other.
“Sort of,” we say, pointing to his horseshoe belt buckle, which appears to be pressing on the bottom edge of the vest. “Maybe you should pull your shirt out a bit,” we say.
He retucks his shirt, making it a bit looser, and throws on a black leather vest over it.
“Now can you tell?”
“Not really,” we say.
He slips one of his guns into the back of his Wranglers, grabs his black cowboy hat and goes out the door: metal, leather, bulletproof—indestructible.
In early October he starts preparing for his annual trip to Mexico. He buys linens and a blender for his mother, Hanes undershirts, socks, and a small television for his father. We go through our closets and throw anything we no longer wear into the growing pile in the corner of the dining room. On the day before he leaves, he takes his guns from the trunks in the closet and lays them out on the living room floor. He covers each one in several layers of tin foil, then swathes each with a towel from the factory where my mother works. Each towel has a different bright design on it—yellow butterflies, red roses, or pink flamingos, and they all smell of the same chemical dye that my mother smells like when she comes home from work. Finally, he wraps each contraption tight with duct tape. He arranges most of the bundles inside the steel trunks, along the bottom, and covers them with clothes from the pile in the dining room.
His two friends come over that night and help him rig his gray truck. They drive it onto two red metal ramps in the driveway, pop the hood, remove the spare from the back, split the doors open by pulling away the inside panels, and load up whatever contraptions didn’t fit in the trunks. Carlos, the Puerto Rican man who is helping him drive down, shows up a few hours later with a duffel bag and a big grin. He’s excited, has never been to Mexico. He also has no idea that—on paper—he’s the legal owner of the gray truck with the red leather seats. They pull out of the driveway in the dark hours of predawn, and by the time we wake up and start getting ready for school, he’s long gone.
“Your father is never coming back,” my mother tells us, a few days later.
“How do you know?” we ask.
“Because God showed me in a vision that He has taken him away for good,” she says. “Plus he took all of his things.”
“Yes,” she says. “He didn’t leave a single thing, not in the closet or the dresser or anywhere. Nothing.”
What a coward, I think. He’s the one who created this mess, and what had he done? He had bought himself a bulletproof vest and left. He had run away, had saved himself, and hadn’t even had the guts to say goodbye.
After he leaves we begin noticing things, like the two men who park their black car and sit across the street from our house in the morning. We go out the back door, hop the fence, cross the neighbor’s yard, and catch the bus on a different street. At night we start hearing noises. Whenever I hear something outside my window, I roll out of bed onto the carpet and then drag myself by the elbows into the living room where, close to the cool hardwood floor, I usually bump into one of my sisters. They heard a noise too. We crawl to the phone, reach up and pull it off its ledge and onto the floor, dial 911.
“Nine one one, what is your emergency?” the operator asks.
“Someone is trying to break into our house,” we whisper.
Soon we hear police cars whizzing by on the back street, the front street, speeding around the house with their lights and sirens off. We watch flashlights make their way from the kitchen windows to the living room windows while we sit under the ledge, breathing into the receiver.
“Miss? Hello, miss, you there?” the operator asks.
“Yes,” we whisper.
“It appears the coast is clear,” she says. “There is an officer at your front door, please let him in.”
My mother wakes when she hears the knock at the door.
“¿Qué andan haciendo?” she says, stepping out of her bedroom in her white slip, bra straps hanging halfway down her arms. “You called the police again?” she asks, yawning. “Ay, no, no, no, next thing you know they’re going to want to charge us.”
“Mom, it’s nine one one. It’s free,” we say as we open the front door and the officer comes in.
“Where exactly did you hear the noise?” he asks.
“Outside that window,” I say, pointing toward the bedroom I share with Yesenia.
“What did it sound like?” He takes a few steps toward the bedroom door, shines his flashlight between the bunks. “Did it sound like someone was trying to open the window?”
“Yeah,” Yesenia says. “It was like a scratching noise.”
Other times, there had been a shadow standing outside the living room window, a gentle tapping at the back door, a strange noise on the front porch. He glances at my mother, then back at us.
“Where’s Jose?” he asks.
“In Mexico,” we say.
“When is he coming back?”
“Doesn’t he have a court date?” he asks. Even though it was proven to be self-defense, my father was out on bail and still had to appear before a judge for possession of an unregistered weapon.
The officer is looking at us as if contemplating something, and years from now Sonia will run into a retired officer from that town. “Oh, you Venegas kids,” he will say, “we used to talk about you at the station, we worried about what would become of you.” Perhaps what they worried about was that, once we grew up, we might keep them busy for years to come.
“Can you park a police car in our driveway and leave it there?” I ask, though we’ve made this request before, have told them about Joaquín’s brothers. But since they haven’t threatened us directly, since we don’t know their names, don’t even know what they look like—there’s nothing the police can do to protect us.
“Maybe you should move,” he says.
* * *
After my father leaves, news of his whereabouts always reaches us, and I’m certain it’s only a matter of time before he turns up dead—shot by the federales, killed in a bar brawl, in prison, or crushed under the weight of his truck after going off the road for the umpteenth time. I know that sooner or later we will get that phone call, and I assume I’ll be prepared for it. We hear he’s back in Mexico, then in Colorado, then back in Mexico, in prison. When he’s released from prison, he returns to La Peña, the old hacienda where he was born and raised. The house has been abandoned for several years and I imagine he arrives with nothing but the clothes on his back, a few pesos in his pocket, and the rope he made in prison slung over his shoulder. Perhaps he draws a bucket of cold water from the well and splashes some on his face before going inside to open the metal shutters, dust off the horse saddles, and reclaim his place among the scorpions that had infested the house.
This is where he is living when I go back to visit him fourteen years later. After the first visit, eventually, I return and spend summers and holidays with him, and between herding cattle and fixing barbed-wire fence posts together, he begins sharing stories. A lasso will remind him of one of the final conversations he had with his father. From there he will follow the rope further back in time to when he was extradited for murder from the United States. Then he’ll go further still, to when he was a newlywed and the federales sliced him open at a rodeo. Over the years, I realize that he keeps going back to the same stories, as if they had been prerecorded and he was the needle, stuck in a groove, running over the same old ground. He had identified the defining moments in his life, and though he could pinpoint the twists and turns that had shaped him along the way, he was powerless to free himself of his past.
In sharing his stories with me, perhaps he’s trying to explain why he lived such a violent and self-destructive life, or maybe he’s trying to make sense of what road led him back to the same dusty corner of the world where his life began, and so, too, would come to end. Twelve years after the ambush, the feds will find him near the same curve, at the foot of a huisache, his skull crushed in.
After he dies, his neighbors, relatives, and even my mother seem eager to share stories about him and, other than slight variations, they are the same stories he had been telling. It was as though he had already written his own corrido—the ballad of his life.
MARIA VENEGAS was born in the state of Zacatecas, Mexico, and immigrated to the United States when she was four years old. Bulletproof Vest was excerpted in Granta and The Guardian. Venegas’s short stories have appeared in Ploughshares and Huizache. She has taught creative writing at Hunter College and currently works as a mentor at Still Waters in a Storm, a reading and writing sanctuary for children in Brooklyn. She lives in New York City.