Artie Finds The Right One—For Someone Else by Tommy Villalobos
I was sitting in my favorite easy chair, rocking back and forth to some firme rolas, thinking about the Dodgers, my next meal and the llantas my ’64 Chevy Impala needed. I looked over to Tío Juan who was sitting on the hardest chair in the house and in the same room, which is our sala. I share it with the old bato who helps pay la renta. I knew he saved a lot of money, only spending a lot of feria for books. In fact, he was reading one, lost in some thought from some writer who lived back before gente had TV, laptops and iPhones. Half the people now living would go crazy if they had to live only with those three toys. Me? I’m Old School. As long as I have my ranfla, the Dodgers on radio, Oldies, and decent menudo now and then, I’m happier than any one of them.
Tío Juan’s iPhone let out a few notes of classical music by some guy wearing a wig wrote before anyone could stop him. Tío Juan made a face because he was being taken away from his book just when he was going to make a juicy mental note, it looked like. When he said “Hello,” a voice roared from the tiny box that told me it was my Tía Rosa who talked as if she was trying to summon her dead marido, the first one, del otro lado. The viejo jumped like some malvado lit a cuete under his silla. His book flew out of his wrinkled copper-colored manos like a spooked gallina. The libro, a thick one, landed at my feet making a loud noise.
“It’s your Tía Rosa,” he said all serious as he walked over to hand me his phone and retrieved his fat book.
“Hello Tía,” I said, sounding all happy. She promised to leave me her ‘39 Packard. She hadn’t driven it since her viejo Richard died, the Indio from Washington State with the genio of a wart hog. The carrucha had under 40,000 miles. No dents or scratches. The clock even worked.
“You sound triste,” she shot back and I moved my ear the standard six inches when talking to the Mejicana bullhorn.
I had to think since I wanted to make her feel happy so she would call me her favorite sobrino y gordito.
“No, no, I feel happy like it’s your birthday.”
“Gordo, I want you to do something for me.”
There was a pause. I thought she would then follow through like always with her rapid fire of words like so many balas.
“Well?” the tía vieja then said. I guess she wanted some kind of reaction from me.
“Uh, what is it?” As much as I wanted to be there for her and live up to her expectations, her idea of favors tested my ‘tude.
“You don’t sound too enthusiastic for someone in line to inherit my rancho in El Monte and my 1939 Packard.”
“I’m trying to hold my ganas so I can talk.”
“I’ll do the talking. My brother Fulgencio’s son Candelario from El Paso is crazy over some muchacha. He is lavishing her with money he doesn’t have, buying her this and that. He’s up to his usual tonterías.”
“I say leave well enough alone in El Paso. They take care of their gente, we take care of ours in East Los.”
“Listen fat head. That other fat head, the flaco, isn’t in El Paso.”
“That, too, is your brother’s problem. Did he run down to Mexico?”
“I should disown you and then put out a contract on you, that’s what I should do. No, if you would listen, maybe you too can put your life together. That other sobrino without any common sense is in L.A.”
“Why?” My stomach began to churn the enchiladas Tío Juan made for dinner. He is the best cook in our familia although not officially a member but an honorary hanger-on. Showed up one day looking for yard work and sort of grew on me like a grano. But that’s for another story.
“For love. Or what his distorted thinking calls love. He fell for some muchacha in El Paso and proposed to her.”
“Yes, he collects these females like others collect botes.”
“It seems like he falls in love once a month. Like a novia-of-the-month club.”
“So now you can see why your Tío Fulgencio is concerned about his only hijo. Candy will spend all kinds of dough on her only to see it broken off by him and/or her.”
Candy was the family name for Candelario. I never thought it fit him since even as a chamaco, he had a sour look on his face like he was weaned on a pickle. I guess he eventually rearranged his face in order so he could hit on all these girls.
“Someone should remind him of all the other females he has gone through,” I said.
“His father did.”
“What did the loco say?”
“This is the one.”
“He said that with the first one, what’s her name?”
“Christina. She turned out to be married and went crying back to her husband from whom she was separated from for over two years.”
“Candy has that effect on women,” I said.
“So, I want you to track him down there in L.A. and pal around with him. Make him see he has no business chasing a woman in show biz.”
“Yes, she has aspirations of getting onto the stage or movies. I hear she is a looker.”
“I don’t see how I can help?”
“I do!” she said with a slam of the phone, a Chicana force unequaled by man or beast. I stood there, wondering what her next move would be.
“Did your Tía slam the phone on you again?” said Tío Juan from his silla.
“How can you tell?”
“The agitated look on your face, chubby cheeks and all. Did she say she was charging over like a mama bear after a biologist innocently swatting at butterfly specimens near her cub?”
“She didn’t get into that much detail. But that is usually her modus operandi. She’ll be rudely rushing into the house without a hello and a lot of do-this-and-do-that’s.”
“You better pull up the drawbridge because she can walk through walls by knocking them down if she is agüitada.”
“You can tell her that you have a bad muela that is dark, rotten and painful.”
“Even then, she will make my life very dark, very rotten and very painful.”
“What is she asking of you?”
“Part of my life.”
“She needs a transplant? One of your kidneys?”
“I’d take that over what she is demanding. She don’t ask. She wants me to babysit her nephew Candelario who, I hate to say, is also my primo.”
“Doesn’t he pass the time away in El Paso proposing to every other muchacha?”
“That was my reaction, a logical one. But you know Tía Rosa.”
“Like the bottom of my chanclas. How many names did she call you before she explained?”
“Just a few choice ones. She seemed in a hurry. Candelario is in L.A. chasing some loquita who thinks she is the next Eva Longoria. And, of course, he wants to marry her.”
“Why does your aunt care whom he marries. She don’t seem to care whom you marry, her favorite punching bag.”
“She says I got no worries. Women don’t like gordos who sit around listening to the radio, eating nonstop and letting out smelly pedos.”
“Your aunt is direct with you, isn’t she?”
“Yeah, but she wants me to be thin, happily casado.”
“Those are two demands for the ages.”
“Here’s the problem Tío Juan. I can’t stand being around the bato.”
“I knew you’d ask that.”
“For every action, there is a reason.”
“Yeah, you read all those books.”
“Actually, I got that from a fortune cookie at the Eternal Garden Chinese place on Soto near First. They went out of business soon after. No one cried. With good reason, like that cookie said. Their food was bound to kill their business if they didn’t kill a customer first.”
“I don’t like the way Candelario chews food, talks about himself and his love life nonstop, and sings those songs he claims he writes. Well, he can’t sing and he can’t write songs. And he always has something to say about the way I live, how much I eat and how much time I waste riding around and hopping my ranfla.”
“And he has the short list. Your Tía could give him the official list.”
“How come you’re always giving me patadas? You should be telling me stuff from all those books you always have your nose in. You know, how Aristotle, Casanova and them handled cosas.”
“I apply them and other minds I have absorbed in libraries and cantinas to your daily gripes. I guess you weren’t aware of that.”
“What do you say about the payaso Candelario?”
“An interesting case study.”
There was a pause. I was heaving as I inhaled and exhaled.
“Well, what should I do?” I said. “Should me and some homies jump him and FedEx him back to Tejas?”
“I take it you are trying hard at a chiste.”
“Your Tía Rosa would disown you, not to mention your other tías. They work as a team during a crisis. Like a herd of elefantes protecting a valuable water hole during a draught in the Serengeti.”
“Then tell me the way.”
“That is for another counseling. I will make a suggestion regarding your current pickle after I have my Té de Canela.”
“Yeah, get that egghead of yours on the problem.”
I went outside to sit in my ranfla. I knew Tío Juan would think of something with that oblong head of his once he had his canela. He has saved me from all kinds of trouble, including girls, money, bills, stomach aches, headaches, plumbing, neighbors, and, of course, my tías who can be pushy.
I went back inside like I needed to get something important. I walked past him and he didn’t stop his musing, ignoring me like I was a passing mosca on a hustle.
I went back to my Impala to play some firme rollas, the background music to my vida. The first rolla that came on was “You’re No Good” by Betty Everett. I took it personally. Felt like she was singing to me and no one else. I could see her dedo touching my nose, making me cross-eyed right there in my driveway.
I was in that pickle Tío Juan talked about. I saw no way out. My Tía Rosa had heard my standard excuses, several times. I had used a dolor in every part of my body. And every part of my ranfla. I was lucky to be living with a man like Tío Juan who had the mind of a master criminal. He always found a way to cheat fate. I’d bet Candelario’s right leg he would find a way.
I fell asleep. Then I heard a knock on the window as “Workin’ On A Groovy Thing” by Patti Drew was playing. Tío Juan was signaling me with his arms flailing sideways. Someday I have to tell him the signal for lowering a car window is down.
I rolled down the window but then he again waved his hands in that sideway motion. I guess he now wanted me to lower the music. I also have to tell him that he has to point to the music with one hand and make a downward motion con la otra.
When I shut off the music, he cleared his garganta with a lot of noise I didn’t think could come out of the human cuerpo. He didn’t say anything so I gave him my So? mirada.
“I thought of something. Actually, it’s multiple choice with all the answers being right.”
Then came another pause. I gave him another So? mirada, this time punctuated with my hands raised to face level and to both sides of my head, palms up. He studied my gesture for a few moments, like he found the gesture amusing. I guess that’s what happens when your only entertainment is libros.
“Here’s the deal. Listen up.”
I waited this time, poker faced. He studied my face for a bit then spoke.
“You can introduce him to someone more feasible.”
“He would find any jaina feasible.”
“Not a problem. Your aunt is also his aunt and would probably find any girl too good for him.”
“You’re right. Tía Rosa is funny.”
“Hilarious. Okay, the second option is to introduce him to a decoy.”
“Like a pato?”
“No, too risky. He is not beyond proposing to a duck, wooden or otherwise. I mean, a real good looking female with even odds and ends of intelligence who he would propose to on first sight.”
“Heck with him. I’d keep her for myself.”
“That’s the problem I see here. You have as many character defects as Candelario and any other bato with hanging tongue in the 7.47 square miles that is East Los. And there are over 125,000 folks trotting around those square miles. A whole bunch of those guys like you and Candelario, guys getting wide-eyed and tongue dripping at the sight of any beauty who smiles momentarily at you, even by accident.”
I calculated that 125,000 was two fair-sized Dodger crowds. Tío Juan had slipped silently away and back into the house while I was calculating.
The following morning, Tía Rosa was at the foot of my bed as I opened my eyes. She was like a fantasma lleno do corajes. Before I could say, “What The Fudge!” she started to evaluate my life.
“You’re going to sleep right through your existence.”
I looked at the clock on the rickety nightstand near my pillow. It said quarter to six.
“Who let you in?” I said.
“That skinny viejo.”
Tío Juan rarely slept past 5 a.m. He had his morning tea and one scrambled egg burrito, chewing serenely at the kitchen table.
“Oh, yeah,” I said.
“I have a plan. Join me in the sala when you get dressed and brush your teeth. You know I don’t like bad breath.”
She left with a slam of my bedroom door. Where is the privacy in East L.A., I said to himself. I dressed quickly and brushed my teeth even quicker, knowing my Tía to have no patience when anyone made her wait. I guess she always had to feel like the most important person in a room.
I headed for the kitchen in search of coffee, but like a mama grizzly annoyed by a mocking visitor to Yellowstone, she growled then waved a paw toward a chair opposite where she was holding court. I responded submissively by sitting right away where she had pointed to.
She stared at me as if I was a chunk of questionable pancita de res she was going to toss into a pot of menudo.
“Candelario is a tonto. The only thing that keeps him fed is his good looks. His family doesn’t have the money to sponsor his viajes of tonterías. But they are proud and want us to lasso him and send him back to El Paso. When he first texted his family, they were happy. He said he finally met a girl they would love, too. He followed that with more texts. The last one said that she was going to be a movie star and was dancing to support herself. He knew that they would understand.
“Well, they didn’t. They called me and told me they were sure she was a stripper in some barrio who knows where. Do they have strippers around here, Gordo?”
“I heard they might,” I said, trying to sound like I didn’t know.
She looked at me as if to say, Mentiroso.
“I’ll bet Tío Juan knows a few,” she said.
“Only if they have an exceptional reading room,” Tío Juan said as he had silently appeared, as usual, like a gato sneaking up on a ratón. He sat in a corner, stirring his tea, observing me since Tía Rosa had her back to him. She kept talking to me like he had been Hip-Hop coming from a passing car.
“From what the familia put together from his jumbled text, much like his mumbled speech, is that the girl’s name is Latina Destiny. At least her stage name. They’ve yet to hear her Tejas name. According to Candelario, she does something called a Banana Split on a pole. What that name means, I don’t want to know. He went on in his text to say that she had them all loco at Mr. Zapp’s. Who she or Señor Zapp is I never want to find out.”
For a person who knows everything, I found it hard to believe she didn’t want to know those things, too.
“It’s messed up, huh?” I said.
“More than that, payaso. He would be the shame of all the familia, both sides of the frontera.”
“Every family has one of those. We just have to take hold of our chones and still walk proud.”
“No seas ridículo, Arturo.”
“Tía, I remember hearing that Tío Fulgencio met his wife Claudia in Nogales, Mexico. He was stationed across the border at an Army base. She was a singer in a nightclub. So Candelario might have his father’s DNA and is attracted to women on stage. He can’t help it. His father grabbed his and took her home to El Paso. The familia worked on her and she became a domesticated Mejicana stirring frijoles on the stove. You could never tell she sang and moved her hips for a living. Mejicanas go with the flow since that one who whispered in Cortez’ ear and helped him jump our people.”
“What are you driveling about, Gordo?”
“Our history according to Tío Juan. He knows all that stuff about our gente going way back.”
“Well, right now we’re talking current affairs. And you are part of it. So, open up those oversized ears of yours. You will come to the aid of your primo.”
“It may be a family disorder or whatever it’s called. Maybe his chavalos in the future will be chasing and marrying ruckas like this Latina Destiny. We shouldn’t try to stop it.”
“The only disorder I see, Artie, is in your thinking. Wiggling around on stage while yodeling doesn’t make a good match for a man. Do I need to whack you on your chaveta to bring you back to the problem facing the family? This is a family crisis and you’re going to find Candelario and steer him to what is right.”
“Why do you even ask? You are too difficult, Arturo. What about familia? Your sangre. You are too flojo to accomplish something meaningful en esta vida. You should jump for joy to help stop Candelario from bringing shame on the family for generations to come. You will find your primo. Besides, you used to be pals when growing up. You are the only one on both sides of the family who has nothing to do but ride around in that jalopy and hang around with cholos on Whittier Boulevard.”
“My car is not a jalopy. It’s a classic bomba. And my friends are not cholos. Not full time, anyway. And I listen to the Dodgers on the radio. Good, clean fun.”
“My point. You’re just sitting around that radio, getting fat eating and doing nothing else. Besides, I’m asking you to do this as a favor from a person that can determine your future way down the line.”
I know she was telling me that if I didn’t go along peacefully, she would show me what a malvada she could be by messing up my life forever. Her eyes focused on me like a spider she was about to swat with a wave of her chancla. She reminded me of La Llorona on a bad day.
“So you will jump on this right away, right, Artie?”
I thought quickly.
Tía Rosa left like a drill sergeant, confident her orders would be followed. I almost saluted the rucka.
I looked over to Tío Juan who had his nose in a book like always.
“Tío Juan, we have to find Candelario and tell him what’s what.”
“Might have to slap him around some,” he said while slowly turning a page.
“I will text him and tell him to meet me on the corner of Sunset and Vine, like in the movies.”
L.A. can be confusing and if some bato gives you an address, even with GPS, it ain’t easy. And I didn’t have GPS.
I did receive his address in a text on Tío Juan’s phone from Tía Rosa. It was a bungalow on a residential street on the edge of Hollywood. I rang the doorbell, knocked on the door and pleaded with Candelario to open the door because I wanted to save his life. He didn’t come to the door and it sounded like no one ever would.
It was a letdown. I was in a strange part of L.A. and Candelario was nowhere to nail. Walking around, away from my ranfla, I couldn’t think smoothly. My Impala and me are a team, like a charro and his horse. I didn’t know where to go. I started to walk around and something told me to go to the front bungalow. There a sign said Manager, Knock First and I guess the same thing in a list of words below that in four other languages. I rang the doorbell not once but four times. Out of habit, I thought I’d see a Chicano brown face and had to step back when the pinkest dude I had ever seen opened the door. He was also one of the skinniest dudes I’d ever seen. He was tall and looked down on me as if I was an abandoned perro.
He grunted something. I said, “Huh?” He cleared his throat and said, “What you need?” in some accent from somewhere. I told him and he brought me up to date regarding my person of interest, Candelario.
He laid out Candelario’s schedule as if he had planned it himself. He said Candelario was like a trained something—I couldn’t make out the word—and did everything at the same time every day. It was a long schedule the bony bato had memorized. I remembered that he got home at six, stayed for an hour then went out. After that, he said he got back to his bungalow at all hours, sometimes after midnight.
The streets around here were full of fast cars and people walking like they were going to meet someone with lots of money. The buses were packed with Raza going to work in Westside restaurants and homes, working from morning till night.
I felt a strange new respect for My Gente as they travelled from East Los, Maywood, Downey, and other lugares miles away to provide for their familias. I couldn’t wait to get back to Tío Juan to see what his take was on all this. He always has something to say about everything I see and do.
Then something hit me like an electrical shock I once got when I plugged in a lámpara while I was desnudo and wet. I felt like Dios himself was smiling down on me and everything around me. Why? Because I was safely miles away from Tía Rosa, the big mandona.
Back to Candelario. Reminds me like when you’re looking for something and you start getting mad at everything and everybody but yourself. It’s like Tío Juan looking for his iPhone, he doesn’t find it until someone calls him. Could be days. I was hoping for something quicker in my search. Seeing the fine jainas walking and driving around, I didn’t care if I ever found Candelario, but then I saw the bato walking in front of me at a red light.
I honked but he kept walking and bouncing as if he heard music no one else did. And he did. He had ear buds on. I pulled over in a red zone, the only spot nearby that was open and saw him bouncing down the boulevard like he was rengo since, like I said, he couldn’t dance. I then saw him go into an office. It took me about ten minutes to find parking a block away. I half walked and half ran toward that office.
I tried the door but it was locked. I called out his name. The name on the door said Alphonso Bolinso, Agent For New Talent. From the other side of the puerta, I heard all kinds of voices, some in Spanish, some in English and one in some language that I never heard in the barrio.
I pounded on the door. Appearing in a small window was a face I didn’t like but had to look at. It was Candelario. My suerte was kicking in, the good kind for a change.
He unlocked the door after several turns, the last one sounding like an industrial strength bolt lock. “Artie, what do you want? How’d you get here? Did you make a wrong turn and finally make it out of East L.A.?”
“I went to where you lived and the manager and all those other things gave me your schedule. I didn’t remember most of it and I didn’t expect to see you hustling across a street.”
“I gave him that schedule but I really don’t have one.”
“Well, people around here are all nosey and want to know what you’re up to. Like they’re ready to call the cops. You feel like you’re being watched all the time from behind windows and from rooftops. And I have more reasons, ese. I might tell you later. No, I’ll tell you now, Artie. I fell for a girl. It was like Canelo hit me with his left hook. She is the finest jaina in any barrio you can name.”
The loquito looked at me like a bato who has just lost his mind, a hideous smile on his face, waiting for me to give him un abrazo. I had to tell him all he was telling me was already family chisme flying around Texas, and that I was sent by our Tía Rosa to slap him back to his senses.
So, I didn’t hug him or anything, but just gave him the standard Órale.
“Thanks, you’re true Raza from way back,” he said. “I may be jumping the gun, pero I think it will turn out right. Come in. I’ll give you all the happy details.”
“What are you doing here? It looks like a dump.”
“It’s part of the deal. Let me tell you how it is.”
He opened the door and I followed. There were people packed into the room like when you go to a firme party in the Hood. But these people didn’t look like they knew how to have any fun. They talked all serious. They were talking and talking, not even paying attention that I was watching them, like they were all high on a new droga going around.
Candelario saw my face, probably looking all confused so he gave me some details.
“Performers of all kinds,” he said, “waiting to see Alphonso Bolinso. It’s summer so clubs need people with even a little talent to sell drinks and demand a big cover charge. Summer is Christmas to club entertainers. All over this city, as June sets in, standups stand up, blood gushes in the veins of dancers, and hypnotists make their eyes big to make people believe they are dogs barking in a junkyard. It’s time to book your act and people are paying tribute to the legendary Bolinso.”
“What’s all this have to do with you, a flojo from El Paso?”
“Plenty. If you see a skinny bato who looks homeless come from that office, jump him because that will be Alphonso. The more money he makes, the more he dresses like he don’t have any. Years ago, they said he was mugged because of his flashy dress. If you do corner Alphonso, he might not remember me.”
“You said you’d tell me about some deal that brought you here.”
“Okay, man, I got into—”
Suddenly, Candelario’s eyes opened as if he just saw a twenty waving at him. He jumped and sprang at this frumpy-looking dude with hair shooting here and there. Candelario got to him before the others even turned their heads. The singers, dancers, standup comics, piano players and comedy teams had the look of defeat as they saw Candelario get into the face of Alphonso Bolinso as if he wanted to kiss him. Alphonso turned and Candelario followed closely as they walked by me.
Mr. Bolinso lit a cigar, sat then looked at us like he wanted to throw us back into the streets. “Let me tell you something Candel” he said. “And listen.” Candelario sat, then put a fist under his chin as if to signal he was hanging on every syllable. Mr. Bolinso studied Candelario for a few seconds then shot an imaginary basketball at an imaginary hoop.
“Let me tell you,” he then spoke again. “I saw you do your act as I promised La Destiny. You got a hint of talent here and there. You got a long way to go but you are on the road. I can get you into a club if you accept seventy-five per cent. I don’t have to offer you even that but the young lady kept texting me. It’s yours for the taking. Do I hear a ‘sure I’ll take it’?”
“You sure do, I accept,” he said in the deepest voice I ever hear come out of the bato.
Outside on the sidewalk, Candelario laughed all crazy and waved a hand for a high-five. I waved a hand sin ganas.
“Oh, yeah. I was saying when Alphonso came out that L.D.’s mother used to be in entertainment. She was from back in the old days but I think I heard of her somewhere from somebody. She sang but also danced. Muy sexy. I met her and I could see she must have been fine when she was young. But she says I don’t sing and then added that it doesn’t look like I do anything. She told Destiny that I didn’t look like I could support her for a week. Said no to our joining hands like she meant business.
“You remember how great I sing and write songs, so Destiny got hold of the sloppy viejo Bolinso and got him to say he would spare me a few of his precious moments and put me somewhere if I showed him. She can make him listen. He then said he would get back to me. Well, today, I made him get back to me. You heard him. I get to keep seventy-five per cent of what I make and he will find a place for me to sing.”
“He’s taking a lot,” I said, “but that’s better than the IRS if you win the Lotto.”
I felt weak at the knees. I could see Tía Rosa’s cara when she heard Fulgencio’s hijo was not only still chasing the loose woman but also was going to get on stage, too. Tía Rosa felt nothing came before familia, not even someone’s happiness, including mine. She’s always telling me that our family tree goes way back on both sides of the border and that we had all kinds of history that had important people doing all kinds of things everywhere. She tells me in detail but she talks so fast that I can’t remember everything. She tells me when I do something to make her agüitada so that’s why she says the family stuff so fast. What she would say when she heard this breaking news, I don’t even want to think about.
“Let’s go back to East Los, Candelario,” I said. “Tío Juan can fix us some comida to make you think right. I could eat a dozen of his tacos right now. And hold on while I call somebody.” I walked a few feet away.
I knew at the start that Tía Rosa shouldn’t have picked me to get this tonto away from someone he wanted to marry. I needed backup. I thought of Tía Rosa herself but that was like asking for problemas on top of all the current ones. I thought things out and thought I would text Candelario’s father and tell him he needed to show up as fast as he could.
“Who were you texting?” asked Candelario when we got to my car.
“Just Tío Juan to find out what he was preparing for cena,” I said. ֍ On the following Tuesday, Candelario appeared at a Mexican restaurant in Pasadena that had singing on a stage right next to where people ate, which was risky for the restaurant. He had practiced in his bathroom with a neighbor banging the wall after two hours. I drove around with the ventanas all the way up so he could let out his lungs. I was encouraging him, which encouraged me since he sounded worse with every mile. I wanted his first gig to be such a relaje that he would never again try to inflict his singing on anyone; and that would end his chances of being Latina Destiny’s marido. So, I stepped to one side.
But the bato was determined. On Saturday and Sunday, we almost lived in my Impala as I drove around while he sang all kinds of songs, all out of tune. He had a special CD with just the background music of songs I never heard of. The bato never got tired. It was like he would die if he stopped singing.
Candelario makes a strange noise with his tongue, then a stranger noise with his garganta and starts:
“There’s a streetcar at the corner.” CANDELARIO with a deep voice: “Why?” CANDELARIO in a high voice: “To take me to my destiny.” CANDELARIO with the deep voice: “To your destiny?" CANDELARIO with the high voice (staying with his goal): “To take me to my destiny.” CANDELARIO with the deep voice (not believing him): “No kidding?” CANDELARIO with the high voice: “I’m from the stars.” CANDELARIO with the deep voice: “I’m from Eagle Pass.”
He repeated those words over and over. I told him ya trucha, I’m going to drop you off on the corner. But the bato said this is what performers do, even in opera. This would get him Destiny. I said he needed all the getting he could get. And then the bato said to me, “So you have my back, ese!” And he sang on.
He then switched to some song about lovebirds. He told me that that was a song Destiny sang at a Hollywood club. It was like he was telling me a miracle performed by a saint.
No lie, but the restaurant expected Candelario to be there in time to start crooning at 12 noon for the lunch crowd. I said they had to be delusional since he was still snoring at that hour, but Candelario said if he was to eat while in L.A. he had to be there. I was nodding like what he said really made sense, until he made it plain that I was supposed to be there with him. I had expected just to go to his bungalow at night to see him all sad because he had bombed. But I never let a homie down. So, I had to drop plans to go to a Mexican restaurant I found on Cesar Chavez Avenue that has better corn tortillas than even Tío Juan’s. I followed Candelario, instead. They were playing soft instrumental Rancheras over an intercom for atmosphere, I guess. I sat down. It wasn’t much of a lunch crowd that ate in the atmosphere, which seemed to trigger yawns from one table to the next. I didn’t know if it was the bland décor, the food or the music. I was just going to order a taco till Candelario came on. I joined the yawns of some guy who looked like he’d rather be eating a hot dog with plenty of mustard as he forced an enchilada into his boca and down his throat. It was then that I noticed an hermosa for the ages sitting at the next table.
Órale. I don’t like lying. When I came in, I saw an hermosa sitting at a table, so I went a de volada to the one next to it. I began to check her out like I was shopping for hydros to put in my Impala. I wanted the lugar to have better lights so I could appreciate her curves and finish. She was small, with big Chicana eyes and the reddest lips I have ever seen. It was a wasted work of art that was sitting in the dark.
Then the lighting got better, and the speaker system began to blast a tune which sounded like I’d heard many times before, which I had. Then Candelario came out in a maroon coat down to his knees, pegged black pantalones tucked into high-top calcos, his chaveta topped by a burgundy Fedora hat with a white feather that nearly reached the ceiling or so it seemed to me. He bumped into a chair on stage, turned maroon himself and began to sing that destiny song.
It was messed up. The pobre loquito got scared that his voice came and went. Mostly went. He sounded like a bad cell phone connection going in and out.
I got relaxed. I saw that he was not going to be around that Destiny girl after today. I felt bad for the pobre, but it now looked like things were looking up. Nobody’s gonna pay good money or any money to see Candelario drive customers into the streets. This would be “one night only” appearance. He would have to sell chicle in the street. The vieja would say, “Lárgate and don’t think about my hija ever again.” And if things go like they’re supposed to, I could see me pushing Candelario into a Greyhound bus with the destination “El Paso Express” then getting an abrazo from Tía Rosa and then the keys to her ’39 Packard. Then I saw myself cruisin’ down Whittier Boulevard with all eyes wide, and fine jainas wanting a ride.
He finished his song sin ganas and dragged himself away with deafening silence, como dicen. I was hoping to see him sneak over to me, but he stepped onto the stage again.
I think I heard a gasp from a few people eating and that was with comida in their bocas. He started singing. I expected beer bottles and salsa to start flying. It was a normal song about walking under stars with a rucka by some river with a name that wasn’t the L.A. River, with some other words, pero Candelario sang it like it was about somebody dying and soon, leaving an esposa and all kinds of chavalos. Halfway through the song, I wanted to jump on the stage and hug the skinny tonto. It was like everything was messed up and nobody could do anything about it.
He got to a romantic part, then it got weird. The girl at the next table got up from her chair, stepped back, spreading her arms and began to join him. I say, “joined him,” but it really didn’t go down like that because as soon as she started Candelario stopped as if he was clotheslined.
I never felt so let down since I was born. I wanted to raise the collar of my Pendleton and lowride on my silla. It felt like everyone was checking me out.
All embarrassed and hunched in my chair, I saw Candelario. He looked different. He was standing there with an attitude. The chavala was singing pretty good, and it seemed to make Candelario stand straighter with a serious look. When she got to some words, he jumped in, and they sang the song like Johnnie and Joe. He left the stage like he was popular. The few people around told him to come back, and only quit when they piped in some girl singer like Arianna Grande or Lady Gaga.
I looked over to the girl but she had disappeared from my life like other girls. I sat up and made the walk toward Candelario behind a curtain. He was sitting on crate full of beer, looking like he just saw the Virgen.
“Isn’t she special, Artie,” he said like he was talking about the Virgen. “I didn’t think she’d be around. She has to dance this week somewhere in Montebello, so I think she will get there barely in time for her afternoon performance. She risked it all just to come and see me. She’s my special angel, Artie. My savior. If she wasn’t here, it would have been a disaster. I got rattled, I couldn’t think. I will make it through the next show easy.”
I was happy I had texted his father. He would come in handy. I was losing my grip on things. ֍ The following semana, I saw Candelario and got to meet the chavala. I also shook hands with her mother, a mean looking Mejicana of the old school. She had a real chingona look. She made sure I knew her name was “Mrs. Sanlego.” Then Candelario’s father rode into town. My Tío Fulgencio is the classiest old bato in the familia. He doesn’t have Tía Rosa’s tongue but neither does anyone else. Still, since I was a chamaco, Tío Fulgencio made me feel I was taking in too much oxygen that could better be used by moscas. He doesn’t mess with me like Tía Rosa, especially since he lives in Tejas and has his hands full with Candelario. The way they bother me is different. Tía Rosa blames all problems in the barrio and surrounding calles on me, while Tío Fulgencio just likes to blame me for being me.
I know for sure Tío Fulgencio sang Rancheras here and there years ago. He likes the stage himself. He couldn’t sing. So, it’s in Candelario’s blood to be on stage without a reason.
Tío Fulgencio is one bossy dude, always telling people to go here, do that and don’t do that. Even other people’s kids, which causes him problems in public. But he looks like a boss of something, no matter where he goes. At Walmart, they always mistake him for the manager even when he’s loading cerveza onto his cart. Still, like I said, I heard he was singing Rancheras and Norteño/Conjunto years ago in bars. They say he played the accordion sometimes but not good.
I can imagine a lot of things but I can’t see Tío Fulgencio singing anything in any bar.
I prepped for a long abrazo but he backed off as if I was the Diablo wanting his soul.
“What are you up to, Arturo? Why did you text me like someone was dying?”
“It’s complicated,” I said, “and goes on and on. Con permiso, I’ll tell you in slow, easy parts like a telenovela. Let me take you on a quick trip to a club in Montebello.”
The muchacha Latina Destiny was going on her second week at The Flyers club in Montebello. She was that good. And she just sang three songs while she danced around. And by dance, I mean she got a big workout matched by the men’s eyes and lungs. Her outfits and music selection were both thin. Tío Fulgencio just stared like he was watching a magic show up to the moment she dashed off the stage to whistles and howls.
“Han pasado muchos años desde que canté con mi grupo.”
That’s all he said even though he continued to stare at the stage as if he were watching himself in some kind of spooky flashback. The pariente was making me nervous.
Some dude then came out and asked everyone to give Latina Destiny a big applause, which they did along with the whistles and howls.
“What do you think, Tío?” I said.
He just went on staring.
“Muchos años. Did you say something, Arturo?”
“You saw her. Tell me what you think of her.”
“Who? Oh, the Destiny girl.”
“Yes. The muchacha your muchacho is engaged to marry.”
He looked away like he had to take in the news slowly, wearing a serious face. Like always.
The muchacha came out for more whistles and howls and she heard them with a big smile. The men wanted her to shake some more. Finally, she wiggled off stage and I looked at Tío Fulgencio again.
“What do you think?” I said.
“She can sing. And dance, although I don’t like the way she dances but she has the moves.”
“Okay, Tío, let me take you a few miles from here on the other side of East Los.”
I drove him in my ranfla to the restaurant where Candelario was going to get me in good with Tía Rosa after I got him back to El Paso. I could already see the `39 Convertible Coup Packard in my driveway. As soon as we sat down at a table, the bato came out.
“Next to solve your problem,” I said, “Candelario.”
I didn’t know what the uncle from El Paso was going to do, but what he did confused me—he just sat there, not saying anything. He sat there like a stuffed tío staring at Candelario as he went on about love and all its confusion. I was feeling for the old bato because it had to be a jolt shot through his cuerpo to see his only hijo in a red shirt and purple pants, but it was best he got the details of the problem with his own eyes. I didn’t want to explain to him what was happening to his son’s life and with just words and without living proof. With just words, he would just think that Candelario was marrying someone somewhere for whatever reason.
When Candelario shuffled out I couldn’t believe my ears. Candelario was sounding better. He found a singing voice from somewhere and was showing it off like a fine woman. It was like when he went to Garfield High and was wailing, “Let’s take a trip down Whittier Boulevard” over and over on top of the Garfield High School sign. How he got up there and back down is an East Los mystery to this día. He was using the same fuerza now.
After Candelario left the stage, my Tío sat squeezed into his seat like he was sitting between two fat borrachos. He then looked at me with narrow eyes like I was trying to trick him.
“¿Qué está pasando, Arturo?”
He said it in a low voice like juicy chisme, but it sounded like a threat of cachetadas if I didn’t give him the right answer.
“He got into show biz,” I said in a low voice, “porque, he wants to do what her mother wants him to do. He can’t marry her unless he does something on stage. Maybe you could talk to the woman. She’s old school with an attitude to match. She is more reason why you should crash this whole party. After you talk to him, I can lowride back to the Hood and let you take further action.
The Mother and daughter were living in a part of West L.A. in an apartment building that looked expensive but once you get to their little space in that building, you see it would be just survival space in East L.A. and with minimal rent. Here, they were paying way more than minimal anything. The madre answered the door and seeing me, she let us in, my Tío hidden behind my wide body. We only saw her back as she pointed to two wooden chairs in the middle of the room.
“Nice to meet up with you again, Mrs. Sanlego,” I said all convinced I was nearing the end of my journey. She turned at last and I heard a choking racket from behind me, like my Tío had a chicken bone atorado in his throat.
“¡Carmelita!” Tío Fulgencio said, then making a sound like air being let out of a llanta. He leaned on me like he was drowning.
The Sanlego woman stared at him, then she squealed and her arms went up like Fourth of July Fireworks.
“¡Fulgencio! You are Fulgencio, aren’t you?” she said as if she might be wrong.
But Tío Fulgencio himself looked like he was almost ready to cry. They hugged like they were never going to part again.
I need some kind of legal notice to deal with stuff like this. The look on Tío’s face made me feel like I was seeing him in some kind of altered state like you see in movies. The horror kind. He didn’t look like the all-knowing Tío Fulgencio who never said anything funny, never laughed. He was smiling and acting like a bato on a first date. I don’t mean no disrespect, but the old bato was riendo, like, for no reason. The Señora Sanlego, who always looked like she was ready to pull greñas, was now acting like a chavalita on Christmas morning.
“¡Querido Fulgencio! I never thought I would see you again!”
“I thought you never left El Paso for anything.”
I didn’t know what was going on, but I felt left out of something.
“My Tío wants to tell you something, Señora Sanlego.”
“I knew it was you right away, Carmelita!”
“Ya hace muchos años since I was around you, hombre, and you look the same.”
“¡Hay, Carmelita! ¡Soy un viejo!”
“¿Why are you way over here? I guess”—Señora Sanlego’s smile disappeared—“¿tu esposa está contigo?”
“She died years ago, Carmelita.”
Señora Sanlego looked at the suelo. “You should have stuck to your own kind, Fulgencio. I don’t want to talk about the pobre who is dead, you know her name, I forget it, pero it would have been better if you had gone after a singer. I still remember you made muchachas cry when you let out a grito then sang, ‘Me cansé de rogarle, que yo sin ella de pena muero...’”
“Qué guapa te veías Carmelita vestida, como una charra,” Tío said like he was choking again. “Do you remember the zapateados you did on the stage? I used to say that you did the sexiest zapateados in all of Tejas.”
“I wouldn’t even try now. Dios mío, Fulgencio, you knocked them out when you were on stage, even the bien borrachos,” said Señora Sanlego in the saddest voice I ever heard in a Mejicana, since my abuelita’s on Arizona Avenue who was always saying that the world was pitiful and was ending, which she repeated daily.
“Te acuerdas Carmelita how we let them have it at the feria in Luling? The Watermelon Thump Festival? I had to sing most of the songs in English, making up lyrics to keep people’s attention. I think even Mejicanos there didn’t speak Spanish too good.”
“We were happy.”
“Tell me Carmelita, how come you left Tejas?”
“I wanted to watch over my mija Dolores, make sure she is safe. But I shouldn’t worry. She is a strong girl. I heard through the chisme network that your son ran off chasing a girl. Then I heard through more chisme that my girl Dolores ran off to L.A. to act. Then I heard through even more chisme that you followed your son here because he was in L.A. I lied when I asked about your wife. I knew you were single. I had hoped you would look me up but when that never happened, I saw my chance to run into you here.”
Tío Fulgencio was looking at her as if he was looking at someone he had never seen before. The viejo still looks pretty good. I could see the dude when he was younger would have made jainas of his time lick their chops, grab their chones and check their hair. I saw uglier batos with good looking chavalas. I figured they had the feria to do that. Tío has that wavy gray hair, trimmed mustache, just as gray, and the right wrinkles to make him look distinguished, like women say they like. And maybe with a few bucks in his pockets they can feel for.
“You mean you had the hots for me, like I did for you?” he said.
“Por supuesto. Why do you think I let you sing most of the Ranchera and Norteño tunes? I was always around the stage even when I wasn’t doing any dancing or singing just to be near you. ¿Recuerdas how I often had a bag of pan dulce for you after a show? And I always bought extra puerquitos because I found out they were your favoritos.”
“And remember when I gave you my half of a burrito at the San Antonio Fair when we only had enough money for one. We performed there but they didn’t pay us right away.”
“And don’t forget the Tlayudas I made you from my family recipe from Oaxaca. Do you think I just did that because you looked hungry? I was working on your estómago until that hip-shaking chavala took you from right under my clay comal. That’s why I wouldn’t let Dolores marry a joven called Candelario, till he went on stage somewhere, anywhere. She’s a rising star—”
“Estoy en acuerdo, Carmelita. She has what it takes.”
“You mean, you saw her somewhere?”
“At the place in Montebello. Gordo there (pointing to me like a witness identifying the alleged criminal), I mean Arturo, drove me there. But if he loves her, Carmelita, you should let him love her. He is singing now just for her.”
“Mija tells me he sings at a restaurant that’s not very good with just a few people clapping for him.”
“We went through that, Carmelita, remember? We sang at a bar with only two pool players who never looked up from their game then there was pedo between them and they both got tossed. After that, we had no audience. So, don’t make Candelario feel like a pestoso. I can understand you feeling like your mija is going to marry an obstacle—”
“How come you want this Candelario sinvergüenza, to go after Dolores?”
“He’s my hijo.”
“¿No?” she said, sounding like a gato someone was choking.
“Así es, Carmelita. I just heard him sing. ¡Carmelita, me dio mucho gusto! He has what it takes. It was meant to be. He’s my son and could one day be singing the old Rancheras. He’s been a cabrón up to now. I really worked hard, almost breaking my back on some jobs. I did it so I had money to invest in him, so he could become something. I wanted to be an example to him. The hours were long and the sudor was constant. I had to eat right, cut out the cerveza, or at least drink less of it, and I was afraid to lose it on a job and be laid up for good. I did it for him so he would work hard, seeing how good we lived, but I, myself, really wanted to be singing on stages everywhere. That’s where I belonged.”
Señora Carmelita, not a spring chicken, leaped at him and fell into his arms like he had just won the lotería.
“Let’s get back together, like it’s supposed to be!” she whimpered. “Your esposa is buried and gone, your hijo might have some talent. Dolores’s father left one day and never came back. Return to me! Too many years have been wasted, so I am ready to jump back on stages donde sea. I still want to be with you like before as if no time has gone by. Like we’re still young and reckless. We belong singing and bailando together till we reach our sunsets.”
Tío Fulgencio made a weird noise with his throat or nose, I couldn’t tell which one, then stared at her.
He whispered something that wasn’t her name but something in Spanish that sounded like a pet name.
“Estás aquí, muchacho,” said the rucka like a girl. “You returned to me after all these years!...You are here. I’m not going to let you wander off this time!”
He fell forward and they fell into another major abrazo. I’m not sure if he was ready to faint or he just lunged at her because he got all worked up. “Ay, Carmelita, mi Carmelita, sweet Carmelita! Squeeze me tight. Tighter. Let me watch over you from now on.”
I moved slowly toward the door and snuck out. I felt funny. I can deal with a lot of things, but this was different. It was at another level. I walked like a buzzed bato to my ranfla.
Candelario called me at home while I was eating Tío Juan’s specialty, Pozole de Guajolote. Candelario sounded like he was now Number One on the Billboard’s Hot 10.
“Artie,” he said, “I’m going to be a big star.”
“We all feel that way, sometimes,” I said, and looked at a text message that had arrived ten minutes before from Tía Rosa. I had been reading it then re-reading it since it arrived.
“Destiny and me got to her apartment tonight. Guess who we found there? Apá! He was holding hands with Señora Sanlego.”
“Simón. They were sitting close.”
“He is going to marry her.”
“I’m going to marry Destiny.”
“No surprise there either.”
“Artie, foo, I feel like un hombre reborn. The fates are working overtime. Apá is twenty years older than her. He and Señora Sanlego want to get back together to sing and dance like they used to, even going all over Texas again with their act.”
I stopped chewing.
“Candy, ese,” I swallowed then said, “lemme think. I need my space. I think my brain is shorting.”
“Sorry, man. So, you are now going to lowride into the sunset?”
I looked down at Tía Rosa’s text.
He hung up and I read the text again.
“What have you done? I should go see you.” And she added a skull emoji that made me sit up, all three-hundred pounds of me.
I grabbed a Squeeze Ball in the shape of an aguacate Tío Juan bought me on his last trip to Tijuana, knowing I hate aguacates because I can’t eat them. They give me chorro. I then texted back. I didn’t know what I was going to say but the words came. Maybe that has happened to you, I don’t know. “No,” I texted, “don’t move. Everyone here is singing their cabezas off.”
Tommy Villalobos was born in East L.A. and also raised there. He thinks of the lugar daily and love the memories while remembering the tragedies of his neighbors and of his madre. Tommy’s mother had a great sense of humor and he inherited about ten per cent of it. She had a quick wit and response to all verbal attacks, whether to herself personally or to her Catholic religion that she loved. Tommy dedicates all his works to her, knowing she had him when she had no idea how she was going to feed him and his four siblings. She was a single mom until the day she died. He lives in a boring suburb now, outside of Sacramento, but his heart and soul will always be in East Los Angeles where his mother was always by his side to protect me.
Mamá is ripping weeds from vegetable beds, her focus deep between the stalks of the tomato plants—her trance, as Pablo calls it. I monitor her from the side of my vision, knowing better than to look at her directly, but she knows I am watching, perhaps because my hands do not move as quickly as hers do, not as deftly. I work faster to compensate, and not just because her brown eyes flash for a moment over mine in silent command; it is summer and every hour the jungle encroaches on our clearing, sending its tendrils into the garden, the wood pile, between the very boards of the house if it could. Mamá has completed her side of the patch and turns her attention to the soil in front of her while she waits for me to finish.
The dirt rises in mounds between her palms, and I don’t need to watch to know what she is making. She continues as I yank at weeds, the small stingers of the melon vines sinking into my fingers as they accidentally collide with one another in my haste. Mamá pinches the soil between her fingers, attaching a smaller mound and four appendages to each of the twin mounds. She pats their surfaces, smooths them.
“In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth,” she begins, and my mouth forms around the next verses while I work. We recite it together, our voices barely above a hush.
“So God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them,” she says, then rests her knees in the dirt. She doesn’t need to finish the story; we both know how it finishes. And we both know how she will finish it.
“God gave us a second chance,” she concludes, looking down at her creations. “He gave us a second chance.”
She smiles out at the line where the bare dirt succumbs to a wall of green, of fronds and vines and leaves alive with the hum of insects, of birds calling to one another through the gloom.
“And why you and Papá called me Edén,” I add for her.
“That’s right,” she chuckles, nodding. “That’s right.”
I have been expecting this ritual since just before dawn, when Mamá’s groans woke Pablo and me and stirred the younger children, and Papá had to shake her awake, rocking her in his arms.
“You’re safe, woman, you’re safe,” he whispers, and I can hear her sharp breaths ease into sobs. “We made it.”
“We made it,” she repeats.
“We crossed the wilderness,” he says.
“We crossed the wilderness,” she says.
“We crossed the sea,” he says.
“We crossed the sea,” she says.
“And we arrived in the promised land. We are in the promised land.”
Her voice is calm again. “We are in the promised land.”
Pablo and I see the whites of Papá’s eyes through the twilight as he returns our stares, and without a word we push the blankets off us, dress ourselves, and go outside to ready the firepit. He lights the lamps and the fire, and I fumble in the darkness to hang the pot over the burgeoning flames. Pablo’s eyes roll toward mine, and mine to his. And I think of Mamá’s cracked hands and dirtied nails, fashioning the soil after her own image.
These fits come like freak storms, but I learned early that they almost always come when I ask questions, when I invite the past to come creeping in from its hiding place just beyond the tree line. Suddenly, my vision fills with white light and I am small again, not much older than the twins, the top of my head just barely reaching Mamá’s hip. She has given up on coaxing me to help her shell the peas and instead smiles, allowing me to embrace and kiss her swollen womb. Juana. Pablo plays with something on the floor, barely able to walk.
“Mamá, do you got a mamá?”
“I told you: In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth…”
“But that was Adán and Eva. And they had to leave the Garden. And they had Caín and Abel, but Caín killed Abel, and then he and his family wandered the earth.”
She says nothing, her smile unwinding at the edges.
“How’d we get back?”
“Why you ask so many questions?” She’s trying to be playful, but there is a command behind her question.
“Are we the only ones here?”
“Go play with the doll Papá made for you,” she says as she gestures to the wooden doll on the floor with her knife.
That was the first time I remember her screaming in the night, Papá cradling her, chin atop her head.
The next morning, Mamá perches me in a chair beside her at the table and makes me watch while she makes bread with the flour she bought from the trader. She pulls at the dough, rolls and unrolls and rolls it again into a perfect orb. Finally, tearing off a handful, and then another, she makes two human forms on the table in front of us.
“In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth,” she begins.
I don’t understand, and wait for her to continue.
“Say it with me. ‘In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth…’”
“‘In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth…’”
We recite it all the way to when God sent Adán and Eva from the Garden, and cursed Eva with the pains of childbirth, my eyes roving over Mamá’s distended belly.
“We got back. And that’s all that matters. You understand?”
“Everything that happened before—it doesn’t matter.”
But still I find ways to ask my questions in the years that follow, sprinkle them in among the scratch while I help her feed the chickens, drop them into the holes she makes in the soil with her fingers when we plant for the new season.
“Mamá, why you and Papá got brown eyes, but I got green ones?”
“Mamá, why is Papá’s skin darker than ours?”
“Mamá, where does the trader get all our flour and seeds and…”
Mamá grunts and holds her back. She leans back onto her haunches. At this point Juana is about five, and her successor, Diego, four, and Mamá has begun to show again, her belly like a squash growing on the vine. I count out on my fingers like Mamá taught me: There are one-two-three-four of us, and this one will make five. Mamá blows air through her lips, but then leans forward again and returns to gardening.
“Is the baby coming?”
“No, it’s too soon. My back must just be cramping.”
But she wakes early in the night, in the grips of one of her bad dreams, and Papá carries out their ritual. But this time, it is not enough; her breaths continue fast and sharp in the back of her throat. Papá rises and dresses, then plops me into the bed next to her.
“I gotta go get help for your mother,” he informs me, “take care of her while I’m gone.”
Mamá pulls me into her, takes my hand into hers, but it is hot, sweaty. Pablo watches from our bed, his eyes shiny in the candlelight, and she opens her other arm in invitation to him too. We sit on either side of her, but soon she breaks free from us, screaming. Papá returns with the woman who delivered us. She strokes my cheek in recognition before handing me to my father, who returns Pablo and me to our own bed. But we do not sleep, cannot sleep over Mamá’s agony. By sunup, Papá orders us to feed the animals, and we do it in a rush so that we can return to our vigil. But he tells us to stay outside, shuffles Juana and Diego out with us. We sit on a cluster of stumps not far away, swinging and hitting their bark with our heels, stomachs empty and livid. Finally, the commotion in the shack subsides, and the silence is filled with the sound of insects. No one opens the door for a long time.
When Papá lets us back in, Mamá is sleeping while the woman still tends to her. Papá summons us around the table. A wadded rag is the only thing on top of it, wetted with what looks like dried water and blood. He removes a corner so that we can see the face, its unformed features.
“This was your sister,” he tells us. “We’re gonna give her a name before we put her to rest.”
“What about Mamá?” I ask. “She gonna make it?”
Papá looks at the woman, who glances back at him and nods. He relays her nod to us.
We named her Petra. Papá digs the hole extra deep so the animals cannot get to her and carefully places her inside. We place stones over the scar in the earth as we pray. I feel a hot tear wind down my cheek.
Mamá’s womb remained empty for years after that, but when it was ready to accept life again it was blessed twofold. Aurelia and Pía. It is slaughter season, and Pablo and I shadow Papá as he kills, drains, and cleans the pigs. Juana and Diego, still too young to help, play in the clearing. Papá disappears around the back of the shack to find something.
“Edén,” Diego calls out to me.
“What?” I reply.
“Why does Papá walk like that?”
“Walk like what?” I know what he means, but hope he will catch my disinterest.
“Like he’s hurt.”
Pablo’s eyes roll toward the shack, where Mamá is working, seemingly every part of her swollen with the new lives she is about to bring forth, then meet mine. I stomp toward the two of them and cover his mouth with my hand.
“Don’t ask questions like that.”
“Let me go!”
“You’ll upset Mamá.”
He bites my hand, and I send him backward into the dust. He cries, holding his bottom, and tears off toward the shack.
I think Mamá’s latest nightmare has something to do with the visit from the trader the day before.
He and Papá are standing outside the shack, arms folded across their chests and their voices low, as I bring in the water. Both regard me for a moment and stop talking as I make my way toward the front steps; for a moment, I note their curious differences. They share the same dark hair and dark skin, and yet Papá’s features are softer, his hair a net of curls while the trader’s sticks out in straight, jagged tufts from under his hat. I noticed the same differences between Mamá and the woman who delivered us, who is the trader’s sister or cousin or some other relation, her sheets of hair always wrapped round and round into a knot at the back of her head. I hasten up the steps.
The murmurs begin again as the door closes behind me. Mamá has propped open the flap of wood that serves as our only window, and stray words leak in. “War.” “English.” “San Agustín.” “Cuba.” I recognize only the first, think about Jericho and Josué and his trumpets. A sound disrupts my sprawling thoughts. It is a sigh, almost a whimper, and I turn to find its source. Mamá has been sitting at the table, taking a break from her work, and she stares at the wall—in her trance—as if she is looking through it, to the trees just beyond it.
Tonight, I think I have seen a spirit. It was only for a moment, before it turned away and slipped between the trees, but it was a man, his skin pale and translucent. But he looks like no man I have ever seen, that is, he looks nothing like Papá or the trader or the other men Papá says are the trader’s kin, who I see hunting from time to time in the forest. Papá and Mamá have taught me that spirits are as much a part of the landscape as the creatures who dwell in the forest and in the swamp that rings our patch of land, though this is my first time seeing one. They are from the time before we returned to Edén, they explain, people who never accepted God or who were condemned to purgatory for their sins. My heart thumping, I scurry up toward the path to the shack before the sun goes down for good.
The fire is still going, though dinner was more than an hour ago. Mamá sits off to the side, the flames illuminating her face. Papá is silhouetted, his back to Mamá and the fire, and he glowers out on the trees. He does not look at me as I approach.
“Go find your siblings and get them ready for bed,” he commands.
“I saw a spirit,” I mention, my excitement somewhat diminished by the shortness in his tone. His eyes drop to the ground, but he says nothing, does not move. He and Mamá remain outside some time; their whispers awaken me as they grope through the darkness toward their own bed, some hours after the girls and I fell asleep in a tangle on our mattress, Pablo and Diego on theirs. I smell the smoke on their clothes as they pass.
I lay awake afterward, too hot and my mind too restless. Papá has left the flap open to allow in the fresh air, but it is just as stifling and heavy as that inside the shack. It is furious with the sounds of frogs and insects. Twigs snap as something moves through the trees at the edge of the clearing. Perhaps it is a deer or some sort of scavenger, or maybe even a puma attracted to the smell of the animals tucked safely away in their huts. The ruckus continues, and I roll to my side, trying to bury one ear into the pillow, press my fingers over the other. I hear Mamá or Papá turn over in their own bed as well.
My body lurches upward, and I realize I had drifted off, for how long I do not know. Papá and Pablo are sitting up too, and Mamá grasps onto Papá’s elbow, asking him what is wrong.
“I heard a voice,” I whisper to them.
“Me too,” Pablo says back.
“Stay where you are,” Papá orders as he tosses off the thin blanket covering him. Mamá remains paralyzed in her spot on the bed.
Papá prepares a lamp and edges toward the flap. He lets the orange ring of light spill onto the ground just outside the shack, moves it from left to right, opens the flap as far as it will go to gaze further into the darkness. Suddenly, he startles and drops the lamp, breaking it. The flap slaps shut.
“What is it?” Mamá hisses. “What did you see?”
“Boy, grab a knife,” he barks at Pablo, who complies. He selects one of the machetes hanging near the door, next to where Papá keeps the knives he uses to kill the pigs.
“What is it?” Mamá repeats.
“It’s them,” Papá utters, and there is panic in his voice. “They found us.”
My mouth is agape, wondering who he means, but Mamá must know for she hurries to the knives and selects her own. The younger children are awake now and squeak like baby birds over having been woken, asking their own questions about what is happening, but Mamá shushes them and herds them into her and Papá’s bed. I at last rise to my feet and grab my own knife, one of the ones I’ve seen Papá use to cut through bone, and shuffle back toward the other children, feeling stupid and helpless as I hover next to the bed, not quite sure how to wield my new weapon.
We hear it again, a voice, but this time there is another, and another, and still yet another—a whole chorus. Suddenly, all four walls of the shack begin to clatter with the sounds of fists and rocks and sticks against the boards. It stops just as abruptly. Laughter. I can hear them talking to one another, but I cannot understand them.
A high-pitched whoop pierces the thick air. One of them calls out in a strange chant, one that sounds like when Papá summons the pigs to their slop. The banging and cackling begin again, until I think the shack will come down. Mamá is praying under her breath, the knife clutched between her palms. Papá and Pablo have barricaded the door with the table and chairs, and hold them in place as the boards rattle around us. Papá glances back at Mamá, who opens her eyes and stares back at him. It is like they are communicating.
“Come on, now,” Mamá says, and she starts pulling boards from their place in the floor, as if by some god-like strength. Papá nods at Pablo and he joins her. Finally, when they have removed about half a dozen boards or so, she gathers all of us around her.
“Pablo, Edén—take your brother and sisters and follow the swamp south. Just stick to the water, and you’ll find Cesar’s village,” she tells us, referring to the trader.
She pushes Pablo through the hole and under the house first, then me. Papá has built the shack up so high on its stilts in case of a flood that I can almost stand my full height under there. Mamá begins to toss the smaller children to us, who lay down in the dirt on their stomachs and wait for directions. I can feel spider webs on my skin and I am certain that their occupants have crawled into my hair and clothes. My skin begins to itch. All six of us in the hole now, we look through the panels; torchlight seeps from the front of the shack, and all of the commotion now seems gathered around the door. I crawl over and peer between the panels: there are one-two-three-four-five-six figures hovering just behind the torches. Their skin is illuminated, pale—spirits. I gasp.
Pablo carefully removes a panel on the furthest most corner from the noise and ushers us through it, and we run into the darkness. We stumble through the forest toward the swamp, tripping on roots and fallen branches and bushes, until we can hear the voices no more.
We drift so far into the forest that not even the slightest of light can pierce through the canopy, and we must wait until dawn before we can continue. The younger children sleep in the branches of a drooping old oak. Eventually, we follow the blue haze of twilight toward the water. My head floats with hunger. The sun has reached its highest point when we find a gathering of shelters near the marsh, and filled with a newfound panic, we shout and run toward them. Their inhabitants meet us as we approach, bewildered. We collapse at their feet, panting and sobbing and still shouting.
“Cesar,” I say again and again, hoping that we have found the right place.
It is some time before I see him rushing toward us, some of the other villagers having gone to fetch him. Some of the women have managed to calm us and now sit with the twins in their laps, holding food for them as they eat. The rest of us sit in the dirt, still shaking, partaking in our own meals. We tell him what happened, and he wipes a hand over his face.
Cesar invites us into his family’s home, and it is days before I am able to rise. Later, Cesar’s wife will tell me that I slept for some three days. Diego and the twins soon develop fevers, and they remain that way nearly a month, as the first illness begets another.
Some of the men, led by Cesar, go to look for Papá and Mamá. But the shack has been burned, the animals run off, our parents vanished.
A couple weeks after we fled, Cesar summons Pablo and me to his boat, but offers no explanation as he pushes off from the shore. Some half-hour into our journey, more shacks rise from the marshes, and surprise and dismay and even a sense of betrayal wash over me. The inhabitants look like us, and a few wave to Cesar as we pass. We disembark and he takes us to a home near the center of the settlement, where a man stands outside waiting for us, arms crossed. Cesar introduces him as Señor Padilla.
“Come on,” Padilla says, “We got a lot to talk about.”
Padilla invites us to sit on a couple of logs he has converted into seats around his family’s firepit, then takes his own. His wife pushes a couple of clay bowls into our hands, fills it with some sort of rice dish.
“I knew your father,” he tells us. “We served together, over in San Agustín.” He reviews the blank expressions on our faces. “But I gather he never told you about any of that.
“He still came here, once in a while. I told him he should move here with the rest of us, that it would be safer, that we could protect one another, but he refused. He and your mother thought they knew a better way to protect you.”
“From what?” Pablo asks.
“The truth,” Padilla snorts, “the past. Their past. I thought they were crazy.” For a moment, I remember Mamá and her dolls made from dough.
His eyes pass from my face to Pablo’s. They are sharp, impatient, yet read of pity.
“Look, I don’t know what all your parents told you, but we—all of us,” he gestures to the other shacks, “We were born into bondage. Up in South Carolina. That’s a colony up north, belongs to the King of England.”
I think about Hagar and Moses and the exodus and the destruction of Jerusalem and the re-enslavement of the Israelites…
“But the King of Spain, he said that if we ran away here to Florida, we’d be free, so long as we became Catholic and served in his military. That’s how I met your father—doing my military service, over in San Agustín. It was our job to defend the city against the English. He got hurt, during one skirmish. I’m sure you saw how he walked. But we did our job, and then we were free. And most of us, we came and settled out here, but your parents, they went out even further. They didn’t want anything to remind them of what they left, didn’t want you to know about a time we were anything but free. Not til you were older, anyway.”
He trails off, taken over by his thoughts. We continue to eat. Finally, he takes a deep breath, as though he’s been holding it this whole time, and shifts in his seat.
“The English. That’s probably who attacked you all. They made an agreement with the king: they get San Agustín, he gets Cuba. I’ve seen a few of them the last couple of weeks, sneaking around the marshes. Probably fixing to take us back up to South Carolina or Georgia. We don’t intend to stay to find out. We’re going down to Cuba. All of us. I think you all should come with us.”
Pablo finishes his meal and sets the bowl down beside him, and leaning forward, he looks into Padilla’s eyes as if it hurts him, as if he is starting into the sun. “Our people—we got any people here?”
Padilla pauses. “Not that I know of. Your father, he made the journey by himself. I don’t know much about your mother, except that she came here from South Carolina, too. They met at church, there in San Agustín.” He stretches his legs out in front of him, inspects his boots. “But we’d look after you. Make sure you all have what you need.”
I am hollow as Cesar takes us back to his village. I mull Padilla’s revelations. Renacido—that is our family name, we learned, one Papá gave himself after he crossed into Florida. And I think about Padilla’s proposal, about Cuba. Maybe Mamá and Papá escaped and are already headed there.
Or maybe they are out wandering in the forest, like Adán and Eva, exiled from their beloved garden. Maybe they have been taken back to South Carolina, like Padilla said would happen to us. Or maybe they are dead. And maybe the way to honor them is to return to their land, land they owned, and rebuild the shack and pens and gardens, or if not there, then in the jungle that surrounded it, feral. Or maybe it really is to go to Cuba, to tend our parents’ legacy like an ember until its flames are full. To not merely survive. I close my eyes, and I see Mamá’s hands forming figures in the soil. “God gave us a second chance.”
C.L. Martín is a descendant of farm laborers who first arrived in the United States from Mexico in the 1920s. During the Great Depression, her Arizona-born grandparents were forced to settle in Mexico as part of the so-called “repatriation” of more than one million people of Mexican descent, sixty-percent of whom are believed to have been American citizens. They permanently resettled in California in 1961, where Martín was born and raised. She went on to receive a bachelor’s degree in English and History, with a focus in creative writing, from Mills College. She currently lives in Washington, D.C., where she works as an attorney and continues to write short fiction. This is her first time getting published.
Old Simeón’s right hand was permanently clawed. His curled, yellowing nails converged towards each other in a longing gesture, as if he were trying to grasp the last strands of something long gone. Sometimes Vanessa wondered why such a particular fate had infested Old Simeón’s phalanges. She hypothesized that the clawing probably happened gradually, like the shrinking of a flower’s petals as water breathes itself out. But another, much more grim possibility had come to her one night as she was falling asleep on her unshared bunk bed. She envisioned that fatal agglomeration of blood obstructing Old Simeón’s left brain, and his extremities instantly recoiling at the evaporation of half a life.
Every morning, when Vanessa took it upon herself to massage Old Simeón’s wrinkly fingers, she felt a piercing worry that her body would betray her in that same way. She thought of all the inexcusable curses she had directed at her limited limbs when her feet couldn’t bear two days of walking after crossing the Venezuelan border. At the time, driven by impatience, she had collapsed on the side of a jungle-ridden highway, where only blades of dried grass had pierced her back into consciousness. She had asked God why none of the passing cars acknowledged her stretched out thumb, and jerking her damp sneakers out of her feet, she asked why her throbbing toes wouldn’t allow her to reach a couple kilometers further, where maybe she would find a hospitable town.
After many years, Vanessa found herself able to take pride in some things again. Small things. For instance, she claimed all credit for the slight tremble of Old Simeón’s fingers whenever his wife took his stiff hand in between hers. She took pride now, in his ability to juggle up a pair of dice and throw them on a parqués board, with the help of his left hand, which was spared by some impossible bifurcation of the brain’s connections.
The dice clinked against the glass board and showed a pair of six dots protruding from the white cubes.
“How much is that, Don Simeón?” Vanessa said, lifting his arm from the table to prevent him from accidentally pushing the pawn-shaped pieces off.
Old Simeón let out a brief growl and stared at the blank air behind Vanessa’s curls.
“Twelve,” she answered herself. She took Old Simeón’s red pawn and hopped through the boxed trail. “One, two, three, four…” Vanessa then took advantage of her turn and threw the dice on the board. They spun around until the odds settled for two and four dots.
A prolonged sigh coming from the other side of the room stopped Vanessa from killing one of Old Simeón’s red pieces. Doña Rosario’s glasses reflected the blue light coming from a box-shaped TV. The bulging screen showed footage of flooded streets and fallen palm trees, brown heads peering out of hills of roof tiles and window frames.
“Not one house is still standing, can you believe it?” Doña Rosario said, noticing Vanessa’s shared interest in the news report on hurricane Iota.
“The island will need a full reconstruction, they say,” Vanessa had been following the case from a blue radio that she kept in her room. The numbers were most astonishing. 1600 families, 98% of infrastructure. Still, she found it hard to sympathize with the victims. She couldn’t help but think that her people had probably gone through worse, just nobody had bothered to quantify it.
“Providence Island is a beautiful place,” Doña Rosario said, in her unusually high-pitched tone. “You know where my last name comes from? Abraham Robinson, my grandfather, immigrated from Britain to Providence Island.” The way Doña Rosario pronounced every one of those words with utmost pride kept Vanessa from coming up with any reasonable response.
Doña Rosario had a way of talking. When she had given Vanessa the keys to her recondite bedroom, Doña Rosario made it clear that she came from a long tradition of landowners who knew how to manage helpers in the household. “Your nursing title does not make a difference,” Doña Rosario had said. “I still expect obedience and respect in your care for my husband.” Throughout the many months that Vanessa had worked for Doña Rosario, she had come to realize that behind her harsh words stood her unconditional love for Old Simeón, but also her self-remorse for having married a man 15 years older in age. The old man’s life was coming to an end, and he was swallowing Doña Rosario’s own life along the way.
From beneath the open windows, not only moonlight leaked through the iron bars, but also the flickering lights coming from a neighbor’s balcony. Behind linen curtains, dark silhouettes danced to the congas in Rodolfo Aicardi’s La Colegiala. It was only late November, but the people of Acacías were already playing New Year songs over indecently loud speakers. At least in that respect, Acacías wasn’t all that different from back home, Vanessa thought. She had also noticed they had the same tradition of making a dummy filled with gunpowder and setting it on fire just as the clock struck midnight. Old Simeón and Doña Rosario never engaged in such activities though, because no matter what day of the year it was, they always went to sleep promptly at 8 p.m.
Old Simeón tapped Vanessa’s shoulder with a poignancy that disoriented her. He pointed at the color-lit balcony.
“They must be having a party, Don Simeón,” Vanessa said, assuming that was the information that Old Simeón was requesting.
“And you?” Old Simeón responded, his words as clear as they ever got, carrying the rasp of an underused voice.
Vanessa was not entirely sure what Old Simeón meant. Perhaps he found it strange that someone of her age was playing parqués with an old man instead of curling her hips to tropical beats, or he was wondering why the neighbors had not invited her. Vanessa smiled at the thought of these possibilities.
“None of us are supposed to be partying,” she said. “There’s a very bad virus out there, so we have to stay home.”
In some corner of the world inside Old Simeón’s mind, he knew it was the pandemic that had insulated his days so much. But Vanessa was not aware of this. She was rather excusing her situation, considering that maybe once it was all over, things would be different for her.
“You heard that, Simeón?” Doña Rosario said, projecting her voice to make herself audible to Old Simeón’s almost deaf ears. “Our last years of life, at home.”
By the time the news broadcast was over, Old Simeón had already fallen asleep on his wheelchair. His nightly routine consisted of Vanessa and Doña Rosario collaborating to strip him of his clothes and tie his diaper around his waist. The diaper was rather an ornament, since Old Simeón would wet his bed sheets every night, and every day Doña Rosario would replace them with a new set.
Vanessa had little to complain about. Her salary, although less than legal minimum wage, was enough for her personal expenses. Since Doña Rosario and Old Simeón provided her with a place to sleep and three meals a day, she also had enough money to send to her family in Venezuela every month. She planned to keep saving up to bring her mother with her too, away from a dictator’s injustices and a husband’s infidelities.
There was a catch to her living arrangement, though. Some days, Doña Rosario would wake her up particularly early and ask her to make breakfast. Vanessa could tell that Doña Rosario did not like her cooking, as she always complained that she put too much salt on the eggs, or not enough cheese in the arepas. Therefore, Doña Rosario’s request took place only when strictly essential, like when she had to go get fresh milk at the plaza on Saturday morning, or when she attended early morning mass.
This time, Doña Rosario had woken her up with a phone pressed against her ear. Doña Rosario had learned to pick up calls, but never to make them, so when some relative or friend called her, she made sure to catch up with them for at least an hour. However, when Doña Rosario had tapped on Vanessa’s door, her furrowed eyebrows and trembling lips suggested that this was not one of her usual bubbly phone calls. Instead, she was quiet, while a female voice at the other end of the line spoke in mechanical shudders.
As Vanessa walked up to the kitchen, Doña Rosario took a seat on the adjacent dining table. Old Simeón, his eyelids still struggling to stay open, sat on his wheelchair in front of the TV at the end of the room. In between the whisking of eggs and the patting of arepa dough, Vanessa managed to catch some slivers of Doña Rosario’s conversation—“What do you mean?”, “Hmph,” “God Bless,” “Why don’t you come over?”
Judging by Doña Rosario’s choice of the pronoun Tú instead of Usted, the person at the other end of the line could only be her daughter, Nadia. She was Old Simeón’s and Doña Rosario’s only daughter, even after 60 years of marriage. Less often than Doña Rosario would’ve liked, she took her Chevrolet Swift down the narrow road between Villavicencio and Acacías to visit them. When Old Simeón’s pension fell short, her teaching paychecks would pay for the house bills, as well as Old Simeón’s medicine.
Vanessa knew rather little about Nadia, but what she’d heard pushed her to garner utmost respect. She heard that Nadia had been in the house when Old Simeón had gotten his first thrombosis attack. He’d fallen on the floor, shaking and salivating as if being possessed by an evil spirit. Doña Rosario had stood frozen, covering her eyes away from the sight of her convulsing husband. But Nadia had been the one to pick her father up from the floor and place him on a chair, before calling every relative in town in search for an after-hours doctor. She was the reason he was still alive.
Once Vanessa was done helping Old Simeón eat his breakfast, Doña Rosario gestured for her to sit at the dining table.
“Nadia is coming later this afternoon,” Doña Rosario said, but she wouldn’t meet Vanessa’s gaze. “Vanessa, I need your full discretion on what I am about to tell you.”
Before making breakfast, Vanessa had tied her black curls into the shape of an onion. The pull of the low-hanging bun tugged at her hair as she nodded.
“Simeón’s brother Alberto passed away last night,” Doña Rosario said in a soft voice. “He caught that damned virus.”
Even though Vanessa had never heard of said brother, she made sure to state her condolences as politely as possible.
“You know he can’t know, right?” Doña Rosario briefly glanced at Old Simeón. “He’s not in the proper state to hear this.”
In spite of the prolonged coexistence of the three members of that household, Vanessa was the only one who made an effort to converse with Old Simeón. Sometime after Old Simeón had become speech impaired, Doña Rosario had lost all her patience, seeing that her only companion could no longer reciprocate her interactions. Now she limited herself to short words, and the warmth of touch. Vanessa, instead, would talk to him about the warm weather, the dogs barking outside; anything that crossed her mind. His answers consisted of low groans, unintelligible mumblings, and the occasional phrase that one could judge as either gibberish, or the enigmatic findings of a mind sorting through an extensive past. Vanessa liked to think it was the latter.
Whenever Vanessa heard Nadia and Doña Rosario talking to each other, she couldn’t help but wonder how it was possible that she sounded so different from them. She was puzzled by their ability to give every syllable a distinct tonality. They seemed to have every unit of sound recorded in a dictionary, that they would parse through in every uttering. They took no shortcuts, unlike Vanessa, who could not find the time to bring her tongue to the roof of her mouth swiftly enough to whistle her words—her ‘s’ sounds would descend into brief sighs. However, she had learned to minimize her vocal sloth during her time in Acacías. Doña Rosario had told her that not everyone in that town would be as kind to her people as she was.
Nadia and Doña Rosario sat on the dining table, their short coffee cups steaming next to their fidgeting hands. Vanessa glanced at them intermittently through the windows, as she pushed Old Simeón’s wheelchair around the house. She could tell that at one point Old Simeón had made a habit of walking around the house, because he seemed to have picked favorite spots to glance at throughout the perimeter. At the back of the house, he liked to look at one of the columns that held up the clay roof where the white paint had peeled off in a shape resembling a trail of mucus left by a slug. At the right side of the house, the edge that faced a living fence which separated their neighbor’s house from theirs, he liked to look at a patch of red ground where grass had refused to grow. From the turning of the soil, Vanessa could only assume that a tree had once stood there, and she imagined it to be as high as the neighbor’s balcony.
At the front of the house, Old Simeón usually stared at the plastic bowls filled with brown cat food that sat next to the front door. They owned three cats who spent more time on the streets than at home and would only let themselves be petted by Old Simeón. Today, there were no cats to be seen, and Old Simeón was instead looking through the window, towards where Nadia and Doña Rosario were sitting. Vanessa could tell by the disparity between Nadia’s age and the number of wrinkles that crisped around her eyes that she had a tough disposition. Her downturned lips were unphased by both the taste of black coffee and Doña Rosario’s slow tears.
“You must’ve been a really good man, Don Simeón,” Vanessa said, pushing the wheelchair into motion away from the window. “You raised a very strong daughter.”
The feeble white hairs on Old Simeón’s scalp trembled with the gush of the wind. Otherwise, he remained motionless to Vanessa’s words. She continued.
“I think that’s what matters. Knowing that you’re leaving this world having created something good,” Vanessa said. “Is that more or less right, Don Simeón?”
This time, Old Simeón let out a deep mumble and twitched his head in a manner that could’ve been a nod, or an attempt to shake away a mosquito’s itch. Vanessa noticed that Old Simeón seemed particularly light on the wheelchair today. One of the reasons why Doña Rosario had hired her was because of her big arms and thighs. She could manage the weight of pushing Old Simeón’s chair down Acacías’ unpaved roads and steep bridges.
“I’ve got a lot to learn from you, believe it or not,” Vanessa continued, ignorant to Old Simeón’s droopy eyelids. “I’ve been thinking about what comes next. For me, you know. I’ve been thinking that maybe after all of this virus thing is over, I could move to the city. Work for a retirement home, maybe? And meet some people. Build something of my own. Wouldn’t that be good?”
Old Simeón’s clawed hand suddenly stiffened around the wheelchair’s armrest. He sat with his spine straightened out, fighting against a decade-old hunch.
When the clock struck 2 p.m., the designated time for Old Simeón’s daily stroll was over. Doña Rosario and Nadia were still sitting at the dining table, but their urgent whispering had stopped and transformed into vociferous complaining about why the chicken delivery had not arrived yet. Doña Rosario instructed Vanessa to heat up some of the leftover rice from the day before, so she wheeled Old Simeón’s chair to the dining table and secured the brakes before walking up to the kitchen.
She had just struck a match alight when the squeak of sliding wooden chairs called her back into the dining room. Back there, Old Simeón was still sitting in his wheelchair, and Nadia and Doña Rosario were kneeling at each of his sides. His expression was twisted so that every one of the creases that time had encroached on his skin were sunken in, and dense tears were running down the labyrinth of his face.
“You told him.” Doña Rosario said, turning towards Vanessa’s newcomer presence. She took a step back and kneeled to Doña Rosario’s height.
“I swear I didn’t. It must be something else that’s troubling him,” Vanessa said, the sighs in her speech as heavy as ever.
Doña Rosario stood up and the folds on her long skirt swirled wind at Vanessa’s face. “He fought in the military, for God’s sake. He doesn’t just cry.”
Vanessa continued to excuse herself while she picked herself up from her kneeling trance. Behind Doña Rosario, Nadia took a pack of Kleenex out of her bag and handed it to Old Simeón. He folded his once clawed hand around the tissue and groaned into the white cotton. But all Vanessa could notice was the tightness of the tendons on Doña Rosario’s neck, which pulled her entire face into a murderous stare.
“You Venezuelans can’t keep your mouth shut,” she said.
That night, Nadia left without saying goodbye to Vanessa, but she found a funeral invitation wrapped in violet ribbons sitting on her lower bunk bed. After writing down an event reminder on her phone, Vanessa turned on her blue radio and pulled out the long antenna to tune in to the nighttime news broadcast. She fell asleep to the sound of a clinical female voice announcing the hopes for a successful vaccine against COVID-19 in early December.
Laurisa Sastoque is a student of Creative Writing and History at Northwestern University. She was born in Bogotá, Colombia, and currently resides in Evanston, Illinois. Her poetry work has been previously published in Somos en Escrito and the Helicon Literary & Arts Magazine. She is the winner of the Mary Kinzie Prize in Nonfiction for her essay "Contradicting Home; Anecdotes and Aphorisms." She is excited to make her short fiction debut with "To Grow Young," a piece about complicated family dynamics in rural Colombia. In addition to writing and reading, Laurisa likes to spend her time researching Latinx and Latin American history, and taking pictures of her favorite cities.
Cumbia Therapy is an intergenerational story told in three distinct sections, each exploring intimate relationships and la maldición put on four generations of women and meant to undo those relationships. Part I, Alzira, tells the story of Elena, a Mexican-American woman in her early twenties, and her Brazilian girlfriend, Alzira, as they meet in Italy, travel through Spain and Morocco and live for a time in Seattle in the mid-1990s. Part II, The Curse, explains the origins of la maldición, starting with Adela in revolutionary México and continuing in New Mexico. Part III, El Camino, explores how each generation of women questions the validity of the curse and deals with it in her own way. Cumbia Therapy has received an Illinois Art Council Fellowship. “Better a Bridesmaid” is an excerpt.
“Better a bridesmaid”
When Tío Freddy finally married Natalia, my sister Sofía and I had to be bridesmaids. We’d never been in a wedding and, as I had no interest in them generally and didn’t want to have one personally, I was not looking forward to all the hype. It didn’t help that Cristina, Natalia’s best friend and maid of honor, wasn’t thrilled about our inclusion and wanted to argue over every chingadita, including the scriptures Natalia had chosen for us to read at the cathedral.
Cristina barked at me, “El pasaje tuyo is longer and more dramatic.”
“Has leído El Anarchist Cookbook?” I asked. “If you want dramático, maybe slip in a paragraph or two from that.”
She moved on to the dresses. “Este no me queda bien. These dresses aren’t suited for a mature figure.”
Sofía said, “Ay, por favor. You’re just jealous because our figures are fifteen years younger.”
Cristina stopped speaking to her and that meant she wouldn’t stop chatting me up. In truth, I hated the teal taffeta dresses and thought they suited Cristina much better. With the exception of a few hours on Sunday that included Mass, she wore miniskirts and midriffs everywhere and, after getting her chichis done, she liked showing off her cleavage—which the dress definitely did.
By the second fitting I was tired of looking at dresses and hearing about Cristina’s date for the boda: a paleta man from Potosí. So, I decided to convince her to let me feel her chichis. The fitting area of Betty’s Bodas was crowded and stuffy and I whispered to her that we should step outside for some air. Then I slid around the corner, to the quieter side street, and as innocently as possible, said, “All this looking at women in dresses made me curious about your operation, Cristina. And I was wondering if I can touch them.”
She stared at me a moment. “If you give me one good reason for wanting to, I’ll let you.”
“I’ll give you two. First, I’ve never felt chichis other than my own. Second, I’ve never seen falsas.”
“They’re not falsas,” she sniffed. “They just needed a little lift.”
“Why not just get a good bra?”
“You’ll understand someday.”
I doubted it, but when she straightened her back and said, “Ándale,” I reached out and touched them. They felt like plastic baggies filled with Jell-o.
Cristina lifted her shirt and bra and quickly showed me the scars. “¿Qué piensas?” she asked.
“Pues...in my humble chichi opinion, the scars look painful, pero las chicas look nice and lifted.”
The day of the gran ceremonia toda la familia met at mi abuelita’s to pick up boutonnieres and corsages. Mi Tía Gisela had a summer cold, but she didn’t let it stop her from walking around snapping fotos of everyone. Her fotos always came out blurry, off centered and with our heads chopped off, so no one bothered to pose.
Abuelita was following Freddy around the house trying to convince him “to groom himself.” His reddish-brown hair fell to his shoulders in waves and he brushed it frequently and was careful about what he put in it. Women loved it, pero abuelita thought it made him look uncouth and insisted he tie it back, at least for Mass.
“Do it for me, hijo,” she pleaded as he went from room to room, inspecting himself in every mirror.
“Pero, mami, Natalia won’t recognize me.”
“Then, por lo menos, shave your face. Natalia should see what you really look like.”
“Oh, she’s seen me...”
“No quiero saber, Freddy. Listen to me, please. You’ll thank me years from now.”
We were just about out of time when abuelita and Freddy went into the blue baño and closed the door. When he emerged with his hair in a ponytail, without his mustache and forked-beard, we couldn’t believe it. Abuelita beamed and Freddy walked out of the house like a chamaquito forced to attend his big brother’s wedding.
We got to the church and smashed into the back room where everyone congratulated each other on how lovely they looked. Cristina was wearing a pair of aqua-colored contacts that matched her dress. Abuelita took one look at those eyes and said, “¡Ay, Cristina, qué susto!”
When the first few notes from the organ flooded the cathedral, I joked, “No turning back now,” and Natalia burst into tears. Sofía and I shared a we’ll laugh about this later look, then we grabbed our partners—Natalia’s cousins, shy as feral cats—and we headed up the aisle. After taking our places in the pews, we watched Natalia in her weeping moment of glory. When she got close enough to see Freddy’s face, she did a double take and Tía Gisela’s flash went off.
As soon as everyone settled into the hard creaky benches, the priest began the old New Mexican tradition of roping the novios together with a large wooden rosary that resembled a lasso.
I whispered to Sofía, “Ya vez, that’s what marriage is.”
When the novios knelt, we saw someone had taken Kiwi’s white shoe polish to the bottom of Freddy’s shiny rental shoes. The left said Help and the right said Me. While the congregation attempted to stifle their laughter, Gisela started a stream of squeaky sneezes. Her gringo-date kept passing her tissues as if they were love notes, not snot catchers. The novios got to their feet and the sin vergüenza Cristina began motioning for Natalia to look at the bottom of Freddy’s shoes. Instead, Natalia snuck a peek at her own and, finding no chicle or puppy poop, shot Cristina a watchale! look.
It didn’t take long for the ceremonia to lag. Prayers, preaching, promises to do this and not do that. I was ready for the fiesta. We’d already had a few, including an underwear party where we bought Natalia new chones, ate taquitos and played silly games for silly prizes. I knew that, in the hall adjacent to the church, kegs were being tapped, wine uncorked and champagne chilled. It was easy to imagine la cocina full of aromas and comadres arguing over who put too much salt in the frijoles and how picante the chile should be.
The wedding finally concluded with a big beso where Freddy bent Natalia back like they were doing the quebradita. Then we marched into the hall that Natalia’s friends had decorated with blue-green streamers and purple paper flowers. Tío Freddy let down his hair and I traded my heels for Vans.
The mariachis started with “Un rinconcito en el cielo.” They invited abuelita to sing a few songs with them and, after applauding louder than anyone, Sofía and I tried sneaking a beer to the bathroom. Tía Gisela, who should have been paying attention to her gringo-date, intercepted us.
I said, “It’s for Carolina.”
Our older cousin never drank, but Gisela just said, “In the baño?”
“Yeah, she doesn’t want anyone to see her taking a swig.”
I looked at Sofía and followed her eyes to Carolina, who was in a bright red dress talking to a group of people not far from us.
“Hand it over,” Gisela said, holding out her germy hand.
“¿Qué te importa?” I snipped.
“¿A ti te importa if I tell your mamá?”
We handed it over.
After dinner the novios knelt again for La Entrega, which must have been uncomfortable con panza llena. It’s supposed to release the newlyweds to their new life and, though some people stage it at end of the night, my familia does it right before the dance, to release the novios to their fiesta. As the band tuned up, los compadres roped Freddy and Natalia together with a sandalwood rosary and gave them la long bendición while people tossed money onto Natalia’s long white train. Con el último amen Gisela tossed a dirty green bill that slid down Natalia’s silky back.
As soon as the money was scooped up the band began to play. They waited about an hour for people to start feeling buzzed and generous before they started The Dollar Dance. I paid $4 to dance with Natalia and $3 to dance with Tío Freddy. He told me he liked my Vans, then he picked me up and spun me around. Sofía said it was dumb for me to dance with Natalia and I said what was dumb was her pinche statement. Natalia looked so stunning with her heavily outlined eyes and her blue-black hair pinned up that some men paid twice to dance with her, making The Dollar Dance nearly as long as the wedding.
Freddy’s best man pinned dollars on my tío’s tux, but everyone in Natalia’s line pinned the bills on her themselves. When her train was covered men began carefully pinning money on the front of her dress. It made Natalia’s mother nerviosísima and she told the band, “Wrap it up, chicos!” She probably cost the novios fifty bucks.
After all the bills were unpinned, one by one, Natalia danced with Freddy a couple of times before Gisela singlehandedly “stole the bride.”
To no one in particular, her gringo-date said, “Is that a Mexican tradition?”
I was standing next to him and answered, “No, it’s more of a Southwestern scheme to get more loot. One that happens to imitate the kidnappings latinos have become infamous for.”
He stared at me and excused himself to get a drink.
Gisela led Natalia to a coatroom at the back of the hall where she would voluntarily stay sequestered. Knowing everyone would just be removing more money from purses, pockets and wallets, when Cristina followed, I went too. It didn’t take long for Gisela to pop open a $200 bottle of champagne intended for the newlyweds’ private party and, while flattering Natalia and filling her glass, she snapped fotos.
In between songs we could hear the bandleader: “Oye, the bride is still missing! Come and make a contribution to Comadre Yolanda so we can raise enough ransom to bring Natalia back!”
The coatroom hosted more fotos, more drinks and, at last, the band announced, “Ya está. Tenemos el dinero suficiente and the novios are $453 richer!”
By the time Yolanda tiptoed into the room in impossibly high heels, Natalia couldn’t have subtracted five from ten and she just hiccupped uncontrollably when Yolanda handed her a wad of cash. She passed it Cristina, who started counting.
“What’d you do to her, Gisela?” Yolanda asked, nodding at Natalia.
“¿Yo?’ Gisela sniffled, ‘pues, nada...”
They argued, Natalia hiccuped and Cristina, who’d counted the money twice, asked, “What’d you do, Yolanda? Slip a fiver in your bolsa?”
“How dare you!” Yolanda glared at Cristina as if she were a cucaracha.
“We all heard the band say the crowd raised $453.”
“You don’t know what you’re talking about,” Yolanda scoffed. “I needed to make change.”
A new argument ensued that Natalia interrupted with her silence. Everyone stared at her.
“Hiccups are gone,” she giggled.
Cristina and Yolanda shuffled her back to the dance and the band said, “Let’s welcome the bride back! Let’s hear it for Natalia.”
The crowd cheered. But Natalia’s mamá took one look at her daughter and cried, “¡Válgame dios! Natalia missed half the dance and, look at her, she’s as clumsy as a cow!”
Natalia probably should have sat down and had some water, pero she fell into Freddy’s arms, in the middle of a Cumbia, and away she went. He had no idea his wife’s head was spinning like a top when, holding her hand above her head, he spun her halfway around so they both faced the same direction. He held her tightly for a few pulses, her back against his chest and his hand on her stomach. Then he gave her a media vuelta so she faced him again. Finally, he twirled her three hundred and sixty degrees with the left hand, a quick one eighty with the right, another with the left and, with two hundred eyes upon her, Natalia puked like a cat.
I turned to Cristina and said, “¿Sabes qué? Forget the dinero—better to be a bridesmaid.”
Marcy Rae Henry es una latina chingona de Los Borderlands. She’s lived in India, Nepal and Andalucía and now walks her rescue dog by the Chicago River. Her writing has been longlisted, shortlisted, honorably mentioned and nominated for the Pushcart Prize and appears or is forthcoming in The Columbia Review, PANK, Epiphany, carte blanche, The Southern Review and The Brooklyn Review, among others. She has received a Chicago Community Arts Assistance Grant and an Illinois Arts Council Fellowship. DoubleCross Press will publish a chapbook of her recent poems.
FlowerSong Press in McAllen, Texas, recently published Sonia Gutiérrez's novel, Dreaming with Mariposas, winner of the Tomás Rivera Book Award 2021. Read an excerpt below. Order a copy from FlowerSong Press.
Our Doctor Who Lived in Another Country
Whenever Paloma, Crucito, and I got so sick Mom couldn’t heal us with her herb-filled cabinets, an egg, or Vaporú, we had to wait for the week to hurry up, so Dad could take us on a trip to visit our doctor who lived in another country. We crossed the border to a familiar place called Tijuana, Baja California, México. Estados Unidos Mexicanos—the United Mexican States—said the large shiny Mexican pesos in Spanish. With her miracle stethoscope, our doctor’s Superwoman eyes and Jesus hands always found where the illness hid.
As our father drove into Tijuana, the city looked like an expensive box of crayons. Fuchsia and lime green colors hugged buildings. Dad parked our shiny Monte Carlo the color of caramelo on the third floor of a yellow parking facility, and we walked down a cement staircase and crossed onto Avenida Niños Héroes. Then, we went up peach marble stairs and entered our doctor’s waiting room.
On the weekends, patients from faraway cities like Los Ángeles and San Bernardino came to see La Doctora. Judging from the looks of some of the patients’ faces, they were there to see the doctor’s husband, who was a dentist. They made the perfect couple—the doctor and the dentist—for both their Mexican and American patients. The doctor, a tall woman with smoky eye shadow, looked directly into her patients’ eyes when she spoke. Not like some American doctors in the U.S. who didn’t look at Mom because she only spoke Spanish.
On one of those doctor visits, I heard the dentist, a tall, burly man with a mustache that looked like a broom, speak English on the telephone with a patient. “John, you need to come in, so I can take a look at your tooth.”
Another time I saw an elderly gringo, waiting for his wife, seeking the dentist’s services. That’s when I realized the other side was expensive for them too.
When we were done at the doctor’s office, our next stop was El Mercadito on the other side of the block on Calle Benito Juárez. Churros sprinkled with sugar and cinnamon in metal washtubs rested on the shoulders of vendors. Fruit cocktail and corn carts were closer to the sidelines of streets, so passersby could make full stops and buy their favorite pleasure bombs to the taste buds.
During summer visits to Tijuana, Paloma ate as much mango as she wanted because fruit was affordable in México. My weakness was corn. And even if I felt sick, I always looked forward to eating a cup of corn topped with butter, grated cheese, lemon, chili powder, and salt. Mexican corn didn’t taste like the sweet corn kernels from a tin can—Mexican corn tasted like elote.
Approaching El Mercadito, dazed bees were everywhere. Mother warned us about not harassing bees. Because according to Mom, bees were like us—like butterflies. “Without bees, our world would not be as beautiful and delicious. Bees are sacred, and without them, we wouldn’t exist. Paloma and Chofi, please don’t ever hurt bees,” Mom said as we walked by our fuzzy relatives and nodded in agreement.
The smell of camote, cilacayote, cajeta, and cocadas added to the blend of enticing smells at the open market, where we roamed with buzzing bees peacefully. Colorful star piñatas and piñata dolls of El Chavo, La Chilindrina, and Spiderman hung along the tall ceiling, and the familiar smell of queso seco filled the air heavy with delight. Wooden spoons, cazos made of copper, molcajetes, loterias, pinto beans, Peruvian beans, and tamarindo provided such a wide selection of merchandise vendors didn’t have to fight over customers. Politely, they asked, “What can I give you?” or “How much can I give you?” as we walked by.
In Tijuana, street vendors sold homemade remedies for just about anything imaginable. “This cream here will alleviate the itch that doesn’t let your feet rest,” and “For a urine infection, drink this tea,” vendors hollered. And then there were the funny concoctions, for which even I, a girl my age, didn’t believe their miracle powers: “For the loss of hair, use this cream that comes all the way from the Amazon Islands.”
Hand in hand with our familia, Paloma and I walked the streets of Tijuana with our sandwich bag full of pennies and nickels. We gave our change to children who extended their little palms up in the air. Mom would take a bag full of clothing and find someone to give it to, which I never understood, because most people on the streets dressed just like us, from the pharmacists to children wearing school uniforms.
Once, when we were walking in Tijuana, Paloma and I saw a man with no legs riding what looked like a man-made skateboard instead of a wheelchair. Our eyes agreed; the man needed the rest of our change.
Besides the rumors about Tijuana being a dangerous place, nothing ever happened to our car or Mom’s purse. In Tijuana, doctors had saved Crucito’s life because my parents knew, if they took Crucito to a hospital in the U.S., he might not come out alive because American doctors wouldn’t try hard enough for a little brown baby like my little brother. In Tijuana, our parents spoiled us with goodies and haircuts at the beauty salon. And I felt bad for Americans who couldn’t afford a doctor and didn’t have a good doctor or a dentist like ours in El Otro Lado—on the Mexican side. Pobrecitos gringos.
“. . . Girls--to do the dishes Girls--to clean up my room Girls--to do the laundry Girls--and in the bathroom . . .” —The Beastie Boys, “Girls”
Because we couldn’t afford a fancy steam iron, Mom was very practical. Instead of using a plastic spray bottle, she sprayed Dad’s dress shirts, including other garments with her mouth. She gracefully spat on each garment lying on el burro.
Ironing was always an all-nighter that seemed endless and agonizing. I hated ironing Dad’s Sunday dress shirts—or anything, requiring special care and Mom’s supervisory instructions.
There were two chores I hated most about being a girl: ironing and washing someone else’s clothes.
The piles and piles of Dad and Mom’s dress clothes on top of our clothes seemed endless. (Thank God Father worked in construction or else long sleeve dress shirts would have added more to the pile). As soon as Mom started setting up el burro—the ironing board—in what should have been half a dining room, but instead we used as a bedroom, I began my whining.
“Mom, but why do Paloma and I have to iron Dad’s clothes?”
“¡Ay Sofia! You’re so lazy!”
“It’s just that I don’t understand. I don’t wear Dad’s clothes. Why us?”
“Sofia, are you going to start? That mouth! ¡No seas tan preguntona! You always ask too many questions! You always talk back! That tongue of yours. Where did you learn those ways‽”
When I nagged, my mother’s facial gestures expressed her disappointment, and she turned her face away from me. What had she done to deserve such a lazy daughter like myself? With a cold bitter laugh, Mom responded, “Because he’s your father,” which I never understood.
Having to live in apartments also meant we needed to fight over laundromat visitation rights. If anybody left their clothing unattended and the dryer or washer cycle ended, Paloma had to spy to check if anyone was coming, and I’d quickly take out the clothing and place it on a folding table. I’d throw our clothes inside the washer or dryer, and then we’d run to our apartment; otherwise, we’d be washing and drying all day.
When we moved from Vista to San Marcos, that’s when I noticed chores strategically favored the man in our family. For instance, we girls never carried out the trash like Dad—just heavy laundry baskets mounted with dirty clothes. To me, mowing the lawn didn’t look difficult at all. It looked super easy and fun.
How to Mow the Long Green Grass By Chofi Martinez 1) Check the lawn for Crucito’s toys, Dad’s nails, and any other sharp objects, including rocks. 2) Add gasoline. 3) Turn the lawn mower’s switch ON. 4) Press on the red jelly like button several times. 5) Pull the starter a couple of times. 6) Push the lawn mower with all your human strength.
If I could mow the lawn like a boy, at least I could be outside and listen to the singsong of finches, watch white butterflies flutter through the garden, greet and wave at neighbors passing by, and stare at the endless blue sky. But instead of Paloma and me mowing the lawn, Dad dropped us off at the laundromat on Mission Avenue next to the dairy to wash and fold everything from heavy king-sized Korean blankets to Dad’s dirty and not so white underwear. Bras and underwear were the most embarrassing garments to dry, especially when red stained or not so new underwear fell to the ground, while we checked the clothes in the dryer. If an undergarment accidentally fell, it’s not like we could ignore it and just leave it there when it was clear we were watching each other. For us, if someone looked at our bra or underwear, it was as if they were looking at our naked bodies. It was equivalent to watching feminine hygiene commercials in front of boys or even worse—Dad. Oh my God! ¡Trágame tierra!
Sometimes, when we barely had enough quarters and single dollar bills to spare in our imitation Ziploc bag, I’d window shop at the vending machine with its snacks and cigarettes then stare and admire the package labels with the bright oranges and mustardy yellows.
While we waited for the washer to end, we sat on the orange laundromat chairs (bolted to the ground in case anyone tried to steal them, I figured). My eyes wandered—at the graffiti, the announcements, the tile floor that needed a broom and a mop, the Spanish newspapers with the sexy ladies with their back to the readers wearing a two piece—a thong and high heels and the constant drop off and pick up of wives and daughters.
Swinging my feet back and forth out of boredom, I stared at the dryer’s circular-glass door with the thick-black trim, where garments would slowly go round and round and round and round, painting a picture of a vanilla and chocolate ice cream swirl, which was like meditating in front of a TV screen. Another dryer gave form to a motley of colors from the palette of Matisse’s bright yellows, blacks, oranges and greens Ms. Watson, my art teacher, had lectured on. And then, the dryer came to a full stop, and the colors—the burgundy red and thorny pink roses and the stoic lion—on heavy blankets took their true forms in need of folding.
Our Dream Home
Mom and Dad were always working for our dream house. In his early twenties, dressed in slacks and a tie, José Armando, our real estate agent, came to our apartment and talked to my parents about becoming homeowners. He sat patiently for what felt like hours translating endless paperwork. José Armando, Tijuana born with Sinaloa roots, grew up in Carlsbad, “Carlos Malos.” He smelled like a professional, and the heaviness of his cologne and starchy clothes filled our small kitchen and living room long after he was gone. Our real estate agent felt like familia.
“Helena and Francisco, the contract states that if you complete all the renovations within a year, the bank will approve the loan. You can move in now, but the house is not in living conditions.”
“But Jose Armando, I’m sure you’ve heard stories--what if the gringo doesn’t keep his promise?” Mom asked our real estate agent.
“Helena, please trust me. Mr. Stoddard is a good man and will not back out of the deal because he signed the contract,” José Armando assured Mom the owner would follow through. “You know Francisco more than I do. Your husband is going to make the house look like a palace—like your dream home. Helena, the property even has a water well. You can add the roses, calla lilies, and fruit trees you’re looking for in a property. And, most importantly, you won’t have to commute from Vista to San Marcos anymore.”
Where Dad and Mom came from, waiting periods to build a house didn’t exist; people didn’t need permits to build a home made from adobe or blocks. In the U.S., however, my parents had to settle for a fixer-upper Dad could mend in no time with the help of family and friends.
When José Armando finally struck a deal with the owner, it took Dad a whole year to claim the house on 368 West San Marcos Boulevard as our own. After Dad came home from working construction all day, he’d work at home. Mom must have had sleepless nights when Father agreed to buy our first house. That’s because Mother didn’t see what Father saw. We would have a street number to ourselves, 368.
The first days at 368, Mom refused to eat in the kitchen, and how could she eat in there? How could her children eat in that thing Dad called kitchen? Yes, the house included a small stove, but cockroaches were baking their own feasts in the oven. Dad imagined a swing set for Crucito in the backyard’s green lawn. But Mother had heard the neighbors walking by say the backyard turned into a swamp during the rainy seasons. Dad imagined a one-foot swallow lined with miniature plants that would keep the water moving to the large apartment complex next door. But Mom saw the swamp at our feet. Dad imagined the pantry and mom’s new wooden cupboards. But Mom saw mice and cockroaches. Lots of cockroaches. Mom saw the faded dilapidated and peeling mint green paint. Dad saw a new wooden exterior and a fresh coat of paint.
Our new but old kitchen was infested with silky brown cockroaches—the thin kind that matched the plywood. Underneath the crawl space lived the critters, and at night, big roaches squeezed and welcomed themselves in through both the front and back door to drink water and eat crumbs. Paloma and I, in our superhero capes, made from black trash bags, became Las Cucaracha Warriors de la Noche and ran after the cucaracha bandits. We routinely turned off the lights, and then at about ten o’clockish, Mom turned on the kitchen lights, and Paloma and I charged at them. While they scattered everywhere, we all took our turns killing the horde of nightly visitors. The pest problem at 368 went away with endless nights of Raid attacks and hot water splashing. Paloma and I even conquered our cockroach phobia and squished cockroaches with our very own index fingers.
The master bedroom had seven layers of dusty carpets pancaked on top of each other. The wooden floor in our living room held itself together miraculously—we were always careful to wear shoes to prevent any splinters from pricking our bare feet.
When we finally settled into our new home, one Saturday morning Paloma and I still in our pajamas were arguing over who would have to sweep and mop before our parents got home from work when suddenly we found ourselves shoving and wrestling each other. And then with a big push, the unexpected happened. I flew through the wall.
“Oh my God, Chofi! Look what you did!”
“Look what I did? You pushed me, Mensa!”
Paloma and I had to reconcile immediately to cover up the crime scene.
When Dad got home later that afternoon and walked through the hallway to inspect our chores, he demanded an explanation, “¿Y este pinche sofá? ¿Qué está haciendo aquí?” Chanfles, we thought as our eyes placed the blame on each other. Dad gave us the mean Martinez Castillo stare with the white of his eyes showing that always worked, shook his head, and stormed out of the house because Dad knew he had to replace all the house’s old plywood with new drywall.
Our idea of placing a love seat in front of the hole to cover it up didn’t work. Our fear for our father’s punishment turned into giggles and then uncontrollable laughter. Poking at each other’s ribs and yelling at each other, “It’s your fault!” and “No, it’s your fault!” we almost peed our underwear. We laughed at the hole in the wall, the sofa that barely fit in the hallway that must have looked ridiculously out of place in our father’s eyes, and at our new but old house facing the boulevard.
Strangers driving by honked or waved and gave Dad a thumbs up when he worked on our house on the weekends. We were living in Father’s dream home, and we were happy. José Armando, our real estate agent, was right—Dad fixed our house, and Mother created her garden of dreams, where Dad and Mom planted hierbas santas. Orange, avocado, peach, cherimoya, guava, and purple fig trees. And native yellow-orange, deep-purple, and rose-colored milkweeds for our butterfly relatives who passed by and travelled south to Michoacán, our parents’ homeland. One day we would follow them if Mom and Dad worked hard and saved enough money. One day.
The Guayaba Tree
In San Marcos, our backyard smelled like Idaho. The familiar smell of manure from the Hollandia Dairy on Mission Avenue lingered in our backyard. Months before the guava tree joined us at San Marcos Boulevard, Mom took free manure from the dairy for our garden and prepared the earth with water. Even if we already had a few trees, Dad and Mom talked about the trees and plants with special powers that would join our family. Next to the guayaba tree’s new home, the apricot tree had already joined us, and now it was the guava tree’s turn to step out of its black plastic container and to spread its roots and branches. At the end of the week with their Friday paycheck, Mom and Dad’s eyes were set on an árbol de guayaba.
Right after work Dad drove us to the northside of San Marcos on the winding road to Los Arboleros, the tree growers’ ranch on East Twin Oaks Valley Road, to buy the perfect tree for our backyard. As we approached a dirt road leading to the Santiago property, Don José in his sombrero and red and yellow Mexican bandana tied around his neck waved at us. At his side, two large Mexican wolfdogs with imposing orange eyes barked at us as we approached the nursery next to their house.
“Paloma and Chofi, be careful with Don Jose’s dogs.”
“Okay Ma,” we answered in unison.
“Buenas tardes, Francisco and Helena. Don’t worry, Señora Helena. My calupohs don’t bite unless they smell evil. They scare off the coyotes that want to get into the chicken coop. Last week a red-shouldered hawk snatched one of my María’s chickens in broad daylight.” Don José’s dogs, Yolotl and Yolotzin, sniffed our stiff bodies while I prayed to San Jorge Bendito: “San Jorge Bendito, amarra tus animalitos . . . .” Yolonzin sniffed and licked my hand. Thankfully, Don José’s calupohs remembered us; we were in the clear. “If you need anything, holler at me. I’m going to water the foxtail palm trees on the other side.”
At Don José and Doña María de la Luz Santiago’s small ranch, Paloma and I were careful not to step on rattlesnakes. We walked through the rows of small trees in 15″ containers and played with sticks next to a large flat boulder with smooth holes. I filled the holes with dead leaves and dirt and mixed it with a stick. “Paloma, let’s ask Don Jose about the holes on this large boulder. How do you think these holes got here?” Paloma shrugged her shoulders and signaled with her head to get back. With the calupohs following us, we found Mom and Dad still deciding on a tree and a crimson red climbing rose bush.
“But Pancho, look how green the leaves look on this one!”
“Yes, Helena, but look at this one. It has a strong tree trunk.”
“Pancho, this one has ripe fruit! Smell it, Pancho. With time, this one will be strong too.”
“You’re right, Helena. We can take the one you want. Let’s pay Don Jose and get going before it gets too dark, so we can plant our tree today.”
“Yes, Pancho, it’s a full moon!”
“Paloma and Chofi, I’m glad you’re both back. Go look for Don Jose, and tell him we’re ready to pay.”
Paloma and I ran to look for Don José. On our way to find him, I remembered we needed to ask him about the holes on the boulder.
“Hola Don Jose. My mom and dad are ready to pay.”
“Let’s go then.”
“Don Jose, we have a question for you. We saw a big flat rock on your property, and we’re wondering how the holes got there.”
Don José cleaned his sweat with his bandana and gave us a pensive look.
“Those holes. Well, Chofi, as you may know, this land you see here from Oceanside all the way to Palomar Mountain and beyond was inhabited by Native people. Women sat and pounded acorns on metates like the one you saw and made soup and other foods. You can only imagine how many years it took for those indentations to leave their mark and to withstand time. Those women, Chofi and Paloma, left their mark.”
“Oh, wow, Don Jose. That’s why the road is called Twin Oaks Valley Road? It’s a reference to Native people’s trees, who lived in this area?”
“Yes, Chofi and Paloma. Native people still live on these lands—in Escondido, San Marcos, Valley Center, Fallbrook, Pala, and Pauma Valley and beyond. Ask your U.S. history teacher about the people who inhabited these lands. I’m sure they can tell you more.”
“Thank you, Don Jose. I’ll ask.”
Dad and Mom paid Don José, and off we went to plant our guayaba tree. With our guava tree sticking out of the window in the Monte Carlo and lying on Paloma, Crucito, and me in the back seat, Mom was all smiles and kept glancing back.
“Pancho, please drive slowly and turn on your emergency lights. Children, hold onto our tree carefully.”
“Don’t worry Helena. Two more stop lights, and we’re almost home.”
Dad agreed to Mom’s pick because he knew she loved guayabas—all kinds. This time they chose the one with the two guayabas with pink insides, which wasn’t too sweet and just about my height. I preferred the bigger trees at Los Arboleros. Why couldn’t we get bigger trees? Mom and Dad always chose the smaller trees because those were the ones we could afford, and plus we didn’t have a truck like our neighbor Don Cipriano’s, but maybe we could borrow it next time.
As soon as we arrived home, Dad cut the container down the middle with a switchblade, and Mom pushed the shovel down with her right foot and split the earth.
“¡Ay, ay! ¡Ay Pancho! Be careful with the tree’s roots. Here, grab the shovel. Let me hold onto the arbolito.”
Dad dug the hole, exposing the dark brown of the earth as two pink worms shied away from the light.
“Dad, can Crucito and me get the worms, pleaseee?”
“Hurry up Chofi and Cruz. Go ahead. Your mom and I want to plant the tree today.”
While I carefully took the worms from their home, Mom held the guava tree as if she held a wounded soldier and whispered to the tree, “Arbolito, don’t worry. You’re going to be safe here. I’m going to water you when you get thirsty and take care of you—we all will.”
“Pancho, one day we’re going to make agua de guayaba.”
“Sí, Helena, we’re going to make guayabate like the one my mom used to make. It was so good!”
“I bet it was, Pancho. To prevent a bad cough, my mom used to give us guava tea to fight off the flu.”
“Helena, did you know guava leaves are also good for hangovers?”
“Ay Pancho. ¿Qué cosas dices? Let’s get this tree planted.”
From the dried-up manure pile, Dad mixed the native soil and compost and pulled the weeds. As Mom placed the rootball above the hole, they both looked for the guava tree’s face and centered the tree on top of the hole. With the shovel, Dad poured the dirt around the tree. Mom took the shovel from Dad and pounded softly on the dirt surrounding the guava tree, making sure they left the edge below the surface.
Next to the apricot tree with a woody surface, the small guava tree with tough dark green leaves would be heavy with fruit one day for our family, our neighbors, and friends. Dad went looking for a canopy for the young guava tree to protect her from winter’s threatening frostbite, and mom stood in the garden, admiring our new family member.
It was time to return the worms to the earth; they were so tender but so strong. I made a little hole with my hand, placed the worms inside, said thank you to the worms, and covered them with dirt. The guayaba tree would make a perfect home.
Sonia Gutiérrez is the author of Spider Woman / La Mujer Araña (Olmeca Press, 2013) and the co-editor for The Writer’s Response (Cengage Learning, 2016). She teaches critical thinking and writing, and women’s, gender, and sexuality studies. FlowerSong Press in McAllen, Texas, recently published her novel, Dreaming with Mariposas, winner of the Tomás Rivera Book Award 2021. Her bilingual poetry collection, Paper Birds / Pájaros de papel, is forthcoming in 2022. Presently, she is returning to her manuscript, Sana Sana Colita de Rana, working on her first picture book, The Adventures of a Burrito Flying Saucer, moderating Facebook’s Poets Responding, and teaching in cyberland.