American Picaro

by Liz Hauck

I suggested a movie night to the boys at the House because I thought it would be something different and I hoped it might be something good. This was in the days before streaming, when watching a movie required planning and extra equipment. The group home had a TV the size of a carry-on suitcase in the common room, and it was almost always on. Usually, there was a video game console connected to it and some combination of residents attached to the station by controllers, playing against each other, shooting and running, or waiting turns to play the winner. There was a DVD player on a shelf that might, in a different family’s home, have also held miscellaneous stuff, but here it sat empty, without even a dusty sale DVD. I said that I could bring a movie, if the boys wanted. I was always trying to bring things that I thought would be helpful. Inevitably, those things got broken or disappeared.

I had recently learned that the House was closing. I knew that the agency’s funding had been cut and that all of the group homes were disbanding, but I didn’t understand why. The teenage boys who lived there knew they would be assigned to different placements soon, but nobody was talking about that yet. I was thinking that a movie night, complete with takeout and a little talk before and after, would be an opportunity to share a night together before everything changed. I wasn’t thinking about how movies, like food, become a way to talk about bigger things. At the school where I taught, I made lesson plans about stories and grammar; it was my job and I was deliberate about sequencing. But at the House, where I volunteered to cook dinner once a week, it was more of a show-up-and-improvise situation. The story arc was a circle that started and ended with empty plates.

Some kitchens are gourmet or ethically sourced—ours was makeshift. One of the burners didn’t heat evenly; nobody could find the second oven rack; people used sleeves instead of potholders; there were paper plates and plastic utensils because dishwashing patterns were erratic. The whole aesthetic was disposable. The meals the boys and I made together involved copious amounts of cheese and chicken, shredded steak, or pepperoni, and sometimes a combination of the three; we assembled more than we actually cooked. If someone had someplace else to be, he didn’t come to dinner. There was a lot of turnover. Almost all of the kids were between placements—foster homes, juvenile detention facilities, hospitals. As one of the kids reminded me almost every dinner he attended, this place wasn’t anybody’s home. It was hard to say what we were to each other, except that we were each other’s substitute people, the people you eat with when your real people are somewhere else.

“If we did want to do a movie night next week, I’d get pizza, soda, and chicken wings from Heaven,” I pitched. Maggie’s Pizza Heaven was a spot they liked a few blocks away; the boys just called it Heaven, which I thought sounded weird, except that it sort of made sense that heaven would be familiar and modest with a nondescript fry cook who nodded and agreed to make whatever you wanted. “So no one would have to cook. We’d watch the movie in the TV room and eat takeout.”

“Okay, but what movie?” Frank asked. Frank was quiet, with dark eyes and a space between his two front teeth that he covered with a fist when something funny caught him off guard. Sometimes, he laughed his open-mouthed laugh before he remembered to be self-conscious. Every week, he washed and cut and cooked whatever needed to be done. He was my best helper and he knew it but when I would thank him for helping, he would tell me to not be so loud about it.

When I asked the boys if anyone had any DVDs they liked, Frank looked at Joseph, his roommate. Joseph had a round face and small glasses and was usually wearing a short-sleeved tie-dyed T-shirt in neon colors and a blank expression. He said his father was “Dominican or something, but I never met him and I don’t speak Spanish or anything, so I’m pretty much white like her.” “Her” meant me. Joseph sometimes talked about what he called his “two diagnoses: bipolar and schizo.” Joseph was twenty, older than most of the other kids. Living at the House was a kind of experiment to see if he could live in more of a community setting than the restrictive facilities he’d been in before. He’d been assigned to Frank’s room because Frank had been at the House the longest and didn’t snore, steal, or start fights. Joseph was always watching movies on his laptop in their room. I would see him from the street as I unloaded groceries, sitting on his bed, laptop open, big earphones sealing in the sounds of another world. Joseph looked down at the table when Frank looked at him, there but not there.

I doubted anyone would be interested in my random collection of romantic comedies or the films in Spanish I’d acquired for use in my classes. But I’d recently purchased a new release for a unit I was teaching on the literary picaro in my Advanced Placement Spanish Literature and Culture class.

Picaro is translated as “rogue,” but it means a kind of antihero who hardens over the course of the story. A picaro is usually a boy but can be a girl, is low-born and poor, orphaned or given up, and faces a series of encounters with people meant to care for him who instead teach him to be worse. The stories can be funny and satirical and often feel both exaggerated and true. The running social commentary in the genre is that society is often harshest to those most vulnerable. The picaro is clever, and his story is usually told in flashback when he’s grown. Often it’s told from the picaro’s perspective, with him narrating the lessons he learned. There are places where he indicates that he knows the difference between good and bad and chooses bad. He survives, but there’s no redemption. American readers often have a hard time with these stories, one of my professors told me in a class. “You American girls are always looking for redemption.” She shook her head and tsked at our small, mostly female cohort of teachers of Spanish literature. “Look with your eyes and not with your hearts!”

“Has anyone heard of Slumdog Millionaire? I asked. I thought the boys might like the glossy grittiness of the British film. It’s the older brother, Salim, who’s more of a picaro—not Jamal, the main character, the hero who has the allegedly American good fortune of making it out. I likened the brothers’ story to the 1983 crime drama classic, Scar Face, a movie I knew the boys knew because it kept coming up, like when I brought a hand mixer one week to make whipped cream and someone shook it like a machine gun, shouting, “Say hello to my little friend!” and spraying sweet white foam across the kitchen.

“Yeah, I saw that one,” the new kid said. The other boys called him FNG, for “Fuckin’ New Guy,” which is what they called everyone who moved in until someone else moved in, but he told me the first time he came to dinner that I could call him Hayden. Hayden had round shoulders and an easy smile; for his birthday dinner he asked for caviar because, he said, he wanted to eat like rich people. One of his parents was from Barbados; he mentioned it once when he first arrived, when people were talking about wanting to go warmer places, but he never said more than that. “The girl in it’s hot.”

“Did you really see it?” I asked, narrowing my eyes like I do involuntarily when someone tells me something I’m not sure is true. It was an ongoing game for the boys, to tell me stories and see if I believed them, then laughingly tell me later that they’d gotten me again. About being cousins, about getting arrested or kicked out of school. About whoever was the last kid who’d moved out being dead. There was an inverse correlation between how forthcoming the boys were with details about a story and the likelihood that it was true.

“I’m serious,” Hayden said. “There’s two brothers and a hot girl, like I said. And a dance thing at the end. It’s kind of gay, but kind of cool.” He shook his hips and spun around, flipping his hands up with a flourish on the turn.

“She doesn’t like it when you say gay, dawg,” Leon said, shaking his head. He was always trying to translate me for the boys and the other boys to me. Leon was older than the other boys because of medical diagnoses that rendered him legally dependent for longer. Unlike Joseph, Leon was supposed to move into his own apartment when the agency closed.

For the two hours a week I was there, I tried to push back on how the boys called each other gay as the worst insult they could think of, which for them was less about sexuality than about weakness. For the most part, they indulged me in this censorship; I think they knew that it wasn’t even that I didn’t want them to say the word, it was that I wanted them to be kinder to each other.

“I wasn’t sure if you were messing with me,” I told Hayden. “When’d you see it?”

“This dude from a thing who takes me out like one time a month took me,” he said.

“He’s like your case worker?” Leon asked.

“No, it’s different than that,” Hayden said.

“He’s like your boyfriend?” Frank said, singingly.

I looked at Frank.

“Nah, he’s this dude from a program,” Hayden said. The kids were in all kinds of programs, or were assigned to them but didn’t go. This was one was a nonprofit that matched adult volunteers from the community with children whose parents or guardians enrolled them in a meaningful, monitored mentorship designed to be fun and confidence-building. “And besides, he’s old, like thirty or something.” He looked at me. “No offense.”

“None taken,” I said. I had turned thirty that March and I appreciated how everything older than twenty-four might as well be a hundred when you’re seventeen. “That program sounds cool,” I said. The kids rarely talked about the support they got and didn’t get outside the House.

“He picks the movies and I get to pick the restaurants, so it’s pretty cool. But he usually takes me to gay movies. No offense.” When pressed for clarification, Hayden said these included The Watchman, which the other boys agreed was “definitely gay” because they’d seen it, too, and you could see the superhero’s “everything” through his costume; and Milk, which I agreed we could actually call a gay movie because it was about Harvey Milk and gay rights. I told Hayden I was impressed that he’d seen something so serious. He told me it wasn’t that bad because they got good food after, and it was kind of cool because the guy got shot up in the end.

Leon looked at me for a response. What was and wasn’t cool was a constant negotiation.

I briefly considered grabbing a step stool from the pantry and going full Speakers’ Corner on the table, doing my best Sean Penn doing Harvey Milk’s hope speech about representation. I remember the lack of hope, and our friends can’t fulfill it. I can’t forget the looks on the faces of people who have lost hope, be they gay, be they seniors, be they Blacks looking for an almost impossible job, be they Latinos trying to explain their problems and aspirations in a tongue that’s foreign to them. I personally will never forget that people are more important than buildings. But I stayed on topic and Hayden agreed to watch Slumdog Millionaire again because, he said, “It’s not that bad, and the girl’s hot,” which was enough to get everyone else on board. Plus, of course, the promise of chicken wings, pizza, and soda, which were brands of manna we all could appreciate.

The next week, I brought the food and DVD and everyone who said he’d be there was there. I opened boxes and tore bags open and arranged them on the coffee table as the boys picked their seats in the TV room. There was technically enough seating, but it was close. I sat in the middle seat of the couch, assuming that we three sofa-sitters would revert to subway etiquette, contracting our bodies to avoid physical contact. But my neighbors, not concerned with such social niceties, expanded across the cushions as I crossed my long legs and folded my arms trying to find the smallest version of myself.

A skin care commercial came on while Frank was hooking up the DVD player and somebody said to Dean, “You need that Proactiv shit for your face, dawg.”

Dean was the FNG before Hayden. He had a red bike that he rode to the Y to play basketball and to the laundromat to do laundry, balancing a duffle bag of dirty clothes on his shoulder with one hand and steering with the other. He was thin with long eyelashes, ready-to-be-redone braids, and terrible acne. Dean agreed, smiling as if he wasn’t being insulted. “Yeah, I know. You can buy it for me, though. I don’t have money for that shit.”

The boys chomped pizza, slurped soda, and talked about other movies through the credits and opening scene. They got quiet when one brother locks the other in an outhouse and it becomes clear that his only way out is through. It’s the moment we realize the older brother is cruel and the younger brother is determined; it’s the scene when the life they share diverges. It’s a trap lesson that demonstrates the difference between a picaro and a hero. Being faced with adversity either makes you better or it makes you worse, in stories.

“Damn, is that all … ” someone started to ask.

“Is that really … ” someone else continued.

“It is,” I confirmed. I didn’t need to name what we all could see.

“You got to watch this shit scene,” Hayden told them. “It’s nasty, but so cool.”

The boys laughed and leaned closer to the screen. Somebody said, “No he didn’t … ” The boys sighed sounds of revulsion and awe, then leaned back into their seats.

“I think I read that they used chocolate sauce and peanut butter, and the actor licked it off of his arms when they finished the take,” I said.

“I can’t believe his brother does that,” someone said.

“I know, dawg,” somebody agreed, as if it was unbelievable that family could do terrible things to each other.

Later, when the young brothers started to run away from the impending danger of gangsters trying to capture them, the room got quiet.

“Are they gonna get out?” Frank asked. “They’re not, are they?”

“It’ll wreck it if I tell you now.” Hayden said, reassuringly. “Just wait, dawg. You’ll see.”

“He doesn’t, right?” Frank said, focusing on the younger boy. “Does he get out?” he asked again, really asking. “He doesn’t, right?”

“You’re forcing it already, Frank,” Dean said, a little disgusted by the whimper in Frank’s voice. “You got to watch to see what happens.”

I thought of how the house parent, Greg, had told me more than once that Frank kept thinking that his family would come get him. Greg had worked as evening staff at the House the whole time Frank lived there; on holidays, Greg took Frank to his house because Frank had no place else to be. When I asked Greg how it was going to go, when the House closed and the kids got assigned different placements, Greg shook his head and said, “I don’t know what’ll happen with Frank. He just doesn’t understand that no one wants him. His family had chances to come get him. And they don’t come.”

In the movies, being orphaned is the first step in a great adventure. In real life, that freedom feels more like hunger, and the lessons are more like punishment; any chance of a happy ending is coincidence. People don’t get what they deserve like characters do. “No father, no money, no house / that’s just how that shit goes,” Hayden had written in one of the poems he shared with me at the table one night while the other boys started chores.

“It doesn’t seem like he’s gonna,” Frank said, leaning closer and closer to the television as he watched the younger brother run, squinting like I do when I’m trying to figure out what to believe. “Just tell me, dawg,” he told me.

Everything from Heaven was gone; I stacked and restacked the plates, trying to reconcile how redemption arcs play out in stories versus real life. I couldn’t settle in for the rest of it. Movie night felt like a terrible idea.“He does, Frank,” I told him quietly. “The little kid is gonna get out and be okay.” That was my whole hope speech. I wanted it to be true.

Liz Hauck’s memoir Home Made: A Story of Grief, Groceries, Showing Up— And What We Make When We Make Dinner was published in June 2021 by The Dial Press.

Published on August 20, 2021