This is a picture I took of Bertram and Bene Torres last year at 20th Street Park in Chico. I used to baby-sit for these guys.
In this picture Bertram (the one in the foreground) is a few months shy of sixteen and his brother, Bene (standing in the background) is, I believe, twenty-one. When I first started babysitting for them in 1996, Bertram was eight years old and Bene was twelve. As a seventh grader, Bene was not thrilled about having a babysitter in the house, but Bertram was too young to be insulted by the idea. In fact, he thought I was the bee’s knees and I thought he was, too. Still do.
Their dad was from Nicaragua and died of cancer a few years before I met them.
Their mom played violin for the Chico Symphony and gave private music lessons in their home. They had a music room in their house with several violins in cases lined up against the wall, a piano in the middle of the room and a drum set off to the side. Their step-dad looked just like Doc from “Back to the Future.” He was a piano tuner and played the organ on Sundays at the Presbyterian church.
Bertram played the piano and later the trumpet and eventually the bass guitar. Bene played the drums and later the guitar, but mostly the drums, upon which he kicked much ass.
Bene would usually make himself scarce when I showed up since my presence was an insult to his budding independence. But Bertram and I quickly developed a weekly tradition of making popcorn and sprinkling it with paprika, playing chess and watching episodes of "The Wonder Years." We’d go into his bedroom and he'd show me his cds and play his favorite songs for me. I remember him making me listen to some Adam Sandler songs, Weird Al and Godsmack. Sometimes he would ask me to tickle him and I would comply until he begged me to stop. One time I didn't stop right away when he asked me to and he cried out, "I'm gonna crap my pants!" Then he ran to the bathroom.
Bertram’s mom also paid me to tutor him. I helped him memorize his multiplication tables. We made up a game we called "Military Math." I would pretend like I was an Army Sergeant and he was in Basic Training. "Up against the refrigerator!" I would shout. He would stand stiffly at attention with his back against the fridge. "What is seven times eight?" I would bark. "Fifty-six", he would shout back. "Fifty-six what?" "Fifty-six, Sir," he'd bark back. Before long my throat would feel raw and scratchy but he would beg me not to stop. If he got an answer wrong, I’d yell, “Drop and give me twenty!” But it was just for fun, I never made him do any push-ups.
Eventually I started taking him to the Barnes and Noble café for our tutoring sessions. He was too distracted at home, always wanting to take breaks so he could show me some new computer game or band he liked. The café was a more serious environment and it put him in a studious state of mind. I’d get him a soda and a café mocha for myself and we’d situate ourselves at a table and spread out his homework.
One time he pulled out a worksheet of fraction problems. My mind went blank. I told him I had to use the restroom and for him to wait at the table for me. Back by the restrooms were some pay phones. I fished some change out of my backpack and called a co-worker who I knew majored in math. “Dude,” I explained, “I’m tutoring a kid right now and he’s got fractions for homework. Give me a quick refresher course because I can’t remember when you need a common denominator and when you don’t.” The guy could be a jerk to work sometimes with but he laughed and saved me face that day. I casually returned to the café area, reviewed with him all the rules for dealing with fractions and walked him through each problem.
When I first started babysitting for him, Bertram would write short stories and read them to me. They were quite good and very funny actually. He told me he wanted to be a writer. I encouraged him as much as I could to keep writing, but this interest of his was soon buried in a blur of puberty, Mtv and video games. I hope he’ll pick it back up some day, he’d be good at it.
I used to read him lives of martyrs for bedtime stories because I thought he would like the gore and I wanted to instill in him the idea that human suffering is not meaningless. He was always perplexed by these stories. Why, he would always ask, wouldn't these saints just deny the existence of God and save themselves from torture and death? Because that would be a lie, I tried to explain and some things are worth dying for.
In his bedroom, high up on his wall, his mother had hung several icons, including an icon of the new martyrs of Russia. Several different scenes of people being tortured and killed formed a border around the main part of the icon. I stood on a chair to take the icon off the wall so he could see it up close. I pointed to each individual depiction. See, here is a man being tied up and thrown off a ship to drown, and here is a scene of emaciated prisoners in a chain of Soviet prisons called “the gulag” where people were beaten, starved and forced to dig canals. "This is horrible! He exclaimed. "Looking at this is torture!" He had never really looked at it before and was shocked by what I had just revealed. "It's okay," I said, hanging the icon back up on the wall, "there's another world after this one."
The older brother, Bene, was another story, in a book that had been tightly closed for many long, dry, northern California summers. I was certain the spine of this book would split if I tried to open it against his will...
~To Be Continued