Writing Prompt: Papa

“So, ‘potato’ is ‘papa’ in Spanish,” murmured the boy to himself, as he copied the vocabulary list from his textbook into his homework sheet, punctiliously memorizing the accent of every word that he wrote. He turned to his back, to his grandfather, who was busy reading a broadsheet on the armchair. “Isn’t it funny, Pops? ‘Potato’ is ‘papa’ in Spanish. Did you know that?”

“Huh? Uh, yeah,” replied the old man. “Sure, I’ll have a hamburger. That’ll be great.”

The boy frowned. “You weren’t listening again, were you, Pops?” He walked to his grandfather and gave the back of the broadsheet a quick sweep with his eyes. “Same old news. Same old news. Boring. Why do you like reading newspapers, anyway, Pops? They’re so boring.”

The grandfather raised an eyebrow at the boy’s inquisitive-looking face and smiled. He gently folded the newspaper, put it on his lap, bent forward towards the boy, who was now seated on the floor before him, and said, “Alright. What were you asking me?”

“Why do you like reading newspapers?”

“No, before that.”

“Uhm…” The boy had almost forgotten. “Oh yeah. Did you know that ‘potato’ is ‘papa’ in Spanish?”

“Uh-huh. I remember that. You know, your grandmother, God bless her soul, and I had our honeymoon in Mexico. And ‘papa’ was one of the first Spanish words that we learned.”

“Really, Pops? That’s nice. Did you have a potato down there?”

“Well, no, but your grandmother wanted some hash browns. We were eating in a traditional Mexican restaurant and, for some reason, she suddenly wanted all-American hash browns. The waiter said there weren’t any, of course. So she asked for some potatoes, any potatoes, French fries, mashed potatoes, potato chips… And the waiter kept saying, ‘No. No.’ Well, apparently, the poor man didn’t understand what she was saying! I quickly consulted our little Spanish language guide book, and that’s how we learned how to call the crop. ‘Papa.’ I thought it was very funny.”

“I think it’s funny, too.”

“It is. And, it turned out, they had French fries. Only they called them ‘papas fritas.’ ”

“The ‘papa’ again!” the boy giggled. “I wonder why they called the potato ‘papa.’ It sounds so much like ‘Papa,’ like ‘father.’ Maybe it had something to do with fathers?”

“Pretty close, kid. So, thanks to that little confusion, we got to chat with some Mexican guy who was seated in a table near ours. He observed our little exchange and, realizing we were tourists, initiated a conversation with us. He spoke really good English; he had been working in America for almost ten years and was just visiting his relatives.

“Anyway, this guy — Miguel, his name was, if I remember correctly — was a linguist and knew the etymologies of so many words. Since I thought it was funny that ‘potatoes’ were called ‘papa,’ I decided to ask him.

“According to Miguel, in the 16th century, the Catholic Church had its first Spanish pope. He was Pope Alejandro the Sixth, I think. I forgot the exact details. Anyway, the Catholic Church was very powerful in Spain back then, and the local church was very happy to finally have a pope who was born in their country, since most popes until then had been Italian.

“Now, this pope, Pope Alexander the Sixth–”

“I thought he was called Alejandro.”

“Alexander is the English version of the name. I prefer it, much easier to pronounce.”

“But that’s not his name.”

“Okay, then let’s just call him Ale. Doesn’t matter if he’s Alexander, or Aleksandro, or Aleyandro, Ale would fit just fine. Is that okay?”

“Uh, okay. Whatever you say, Pops. So what’s the deal with Pope Ale?”

“Pope Ale, it turned out, was addicted to potatoes. He loved potatoes very, very much. He had them for dinner, he had them for breakfast, and lunch, and snacks in between. And he ate a lot of potatoes. The Vatican kitchens were at their wits’ end; he wouldn’t eat anything without a potato, but he also wanted variety in his meals. How many recipes could they make out of the humble potato? They had to figure it out.”

“Did they figure it out?”

“I don’t know. That’s not the point of our story. Anyway, the local church in Spain learned about Pope Ale and his obsession with potatoes. Now, back then, the word for ‘potato’ wasn’t ‘papa.’ It was, I think ‘potata,’ which sounded quite vulgar, since it sounded similar to ‘puta.’ From the way you’re smiling, I can see you already know the word.”

“Haha. Yeah.”

“Just don’t mention it in front your mother. Anyway, the local church, wanting to hit two birds with one stone — get rid of the vulgar-sounding ‘potata,’ and commemorate Pope Ale, their first native pope, of whom they were very proud — decided to rechristen the potato from ‘potata’ to ‘papa.’ ‘Papa’ comes from the Spanish word for ‘Pope,’ which is also ‘Papa.’ And that’s how Spain and its colonies got a word for ‘potato’ that sounds like the word for ‘father.'”

The boy whistled. “Wow, that was really interesting! I should write that down for my Spanish homework; it might be worth some extra points.”

“Uh, I wouldn’t do that if I were you, my boy.”

“Why not?”

The grandfather, already unfolding his newspaper, grinned at the boy and said, “Because I was just bullshitting you! Hah, gotcha!” He threw his triumphant old face at the boy, who squealed and stumbled backward in his startlement.

The boy pulled himself back up. The old man had already begun reading his boring news (that slithery old fuck!) but the boy wanted answers. He crawled on the floor, and through between his grandfather’s thighs, put himself between the old man and the newspaper, and said, “What? So the story about the potato and the Pope… were all not true?”

“Yep! And your grandmother and I never met a linguist named Miguel, on a honeymoon in Mexico, because we never honeymooned in Mexico! We were poor as fuck back then; how on earth would we have gone to Mexico? We had our first night in some rundown Motel 55 or something, somewhere in Arkansas.”

“So, how did you know so many Spanish words?”

“Like you, kid: From school. But I’ve already forgotten most of them. I still remember ‘papa’ though, because it sounds so funny.” The grandfather lifted the newspaper from behind the boy and shook it, and returned to reading. Without taking his eyes off the page, he asked, “But you liked the story, didn’t you?”

“Well, yes.”

“And you enjoyed it?”

“Very much.”

“Even though it was a load of bull?”

“Haha, yeah. Bullshit stories are the best!”

So the grandfather peeked from behind the broadsheet, looked at the boy, and said, “So now you know why I enjoy reading newspapers.” And he gave him a wink.

The boy chuckled and walked back to his desk to continue his homework. A few minutes later, his grandfather said, “By the way, I was also bullshitting you about your grandmother. She’s still alive.”

“What?! But she died of cancer years ago. I even held her hand before she died. And you and Mommy cried a lot.”

“No, that was just a stand-in actress. We needed the insurance money, so we pretended that she had died. She’s actually living in a beach house in California, under a new name.”

“Wha?! Really?”

The grandfather threw his head back in laughter. “Hah! Gotcha again, my boy! You didn’t really believe that story, did you?”

The boy gaped at his grandfather quizzically. “Well… almost. But I was scared someone might find out, and you would go to jail… So Grandma’s really dead, isn’t she?”

“Yes, she is. And she’s not coming back.”

“Yeah, the cancer had won.”

“No, it wasn’t cancer.”

“Oh… no… really?”

The grandfather stared hard at the boy, and said, “I killed her. I found her in bed with another man, so I poisoned her.”

“Oh my God!”

“And I was happy to see her suffering as she died, that filthy old whore.”

“I… I…”

“Gotcha again!” the old man cackled. He was now red in the face from laughter. “Jesus, kid, you need to work on your critical-thinking skills. You’re so hilariously easy to fool.”

The boy held onto his chest. “You… you got me again, Pops. Good one.” This ten-year-old looked like he would be dropping of a heart attack pretty soon. “That was really solid bullshit.”

The grandfather winked. “Or was it?”

(Inspired by First 50 Words)

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