Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe(9)

By: Benjamin Alire Saenz

My dad smiled as he studied the book—but then he said, “Dante, this is really very generous—but I don’t know if I can accept this.” My dad held the book carefully, afraid to damage it. He and my mother exchanged glances. My mom and dad did a lot of that. They liked to talk without talking. I made up things about what they said to each other with those looks.

“It’s about Mexican art,” Dante said. “So you have to take it.” I could almost see his mind working as he thought of a convincing argument. A convincing argument that was true. “My parents didn’t want me to come over here empty-handed.” He looked at my dad very seriously. “So you have to take it.”

My mother took the book from my father’s hands and looked at the cover. “It’s a beautiful book. Thank you, Dante.”

“You should thank my dad. It was his idea.”

My father smiled. That was the second time in less than a minute that my father had smiled. This was not a common occurrence. Dad was not big on smiling.

“Thank your father for me, will you, Dante?”

My father took the book and sat down with it. As if it was some kind of treasure. See, I didn’t get my dad. I could never guess how he would react to things. Not ever.



“There’s a bed, a clock radio, a rocking chair, a bookcase, some books. That’s not nothing.”

“Nothing on the walls.”

“I took down my posters.”


“Didn’t like them.”

“You’re like a monk.”

“Yeah. Aristotle the monk.”

“Don’t you have hobbies?”

“Sure. Staring at the blank walls.”

“Maybe you’ll be a priest.”

“You have to believe in God to be a priest.”

“You don’t believe in God? Not even a little?”

“Maybe a little. But not a lot.”

“So you’re an agnostic?”

“Sure. A Catholic agnostic.”

That really made Dante laugh.

“I didn’t say it to be funny.”

“I know. But it is funny.”

“Do you think it’s bad—to doubt?”

“No. I think it’s smart.”

“I don’t think I’m so smart. Not like you, Dante.”

“You are smart, Ari. Very smart. And anyway, being smart isn’t everything. People just make fun of you. My dad says it’s all right if people make fun of you. You know what he said to me? He said, ‘Dante, you’re an intellectual. That’s who you are. Don’t be ashamed of that.’”

I noticed his smile was a little sad. Maybe everyone was a little sad. Maybe so.

“Ari, I’m trying not to be ashamed.”

I knew what it was like to be ashamed. Only, Dante knew why. And I didn’t.

Dante. I really liked him. I really, really liked him.


I WATCHED MY FATHER THUMB THROUGH THE PAGES. It was obvious that he loved that book. And because of that book, I learned something new about my father. He’d studied art before he joined the Marines. That seemed not to fit with the picture I had of my father. But I liked the idea.

One evening, when he was looking through the book, he called me over. “Look at this,” he said, “It’s a mural by Orozco.”

I stared at the reproduced mural in the book—but I was more interested in his finger as he tapped the book with approval. That finger had pulled a trigger in a war. That finger had touched my mother in tender ways I did not fully comprehend. I wanted to talk, to say something, to ask questions. But I couldn’t. All the words were stuck in my throat. So I just nodded.

I’d never thought of my father as the kind of man who understood art. I guess I saw him as an ex-Marine who became a mailman after he came home from Vietnam. An ex-Marine mailman who didn’t like to talk much.

An ex-Marine mailman who came home from a war and had one more son. Not that I thought that I was his idea. I always thought it was my mother who wanted to have me. Not that I really knew whose idea my life was. I made up too many things in my head.

I could have asked my father lots of questions. I could have. But there was something in his face and eyes and in his crooked smile that prevented me from asking. I guess I didn’t believe he wanted me to know who he was. So I just collected clues. Watching my father read that book was another clue in my collection. Some day all the clues would come together. And I would solve the mystery of my father.


ONE DAY, AFTER SWIMMING, DANTE AND I WENT WALKING around. We stopped at the 7-Eleven. He bought a Coke and peanuts.

I bought a PayDay.