Una vez vi un documental sobre los gatos que viven por las calles de Estambul. No le pertenecen a nadie, pero todo mundo respeta y cuida de ellos. Se adueñan de cualquier espacio que quieran en la ciudad tal como mi gata lo hace ahora en mi apartamento, practicando sus estiramientos elegantes como si fuera una ávida yogui.
La encontré una tarde cuando oí un “miau” diminuto que venía del callejón detrás de los restaurantes de la Calle Principal. Al principio, pensé que estaba imaginando cosas ya que la noche anterior había visto el documental sobre los gatos turcos, pero al acercarme escuché los maullidos solitarios más claramente. Lo que descubrí fue una bola de pelo gris cuyos ojos, al acogerla en mis manos, me rogaron que la llevara a casa.
A la edad de veinte años, no sabía nada sobre cómo cuidar gatitos. Bueno, apenas sabía cómo cuidarme a mí misma. Acababa de solicitar admisión en la escuela de farmacólogos después de dos años de vagar por la universidad sin declarar ninguna carrera. Esa fue la primera decisión adulta que tomé en mi vida. La segunda, fue la de adoptar la bola de pelo que se acunaba en mis manos. La llamé Frida por la paz que trajo a mi casa.
Frida se convirtió en una hermosa gata de pelaje gris, ojos verdes y nariz rosada que vino a llenar mi apartamento de alegría y amor. Ella era todo mi mundo hasta que un día después de una reunión de grupo para la clase, Anna y Nina me pidieron que me uniera al club de lectura que estaban empezando. "No tiene que ser trabajo extra, Sandra. Solamente libros divertidos. ¿Qué dices?”
Quien unía a nuestro trio era Nina. Había nacido en Brasil y todavía tenía esa energía vibrante común en la cultura latinoamericana. Su felicidad era contagiosa y todos querían ser sus amigos. Por alguna razón, eligió a las personas más calladas de la clase para pasar el rato. "Me caen bien ustedes dos porque son serias en los estudios y la amistad. Cualquiera puede venir a una fiesta si los invitas, pero solo una persona especial viene siempre que la necesites, como ustedes dos que ahora son mi familia elegida.” Nina solía decirnos a Anna y a mí todo el tiempo.
Acepté la invitación al club de lectura sin muchas ganas al principio. Entre la escuela y ser barista en la cafetería local, no pensé que tendría tiempo para leer por diversión. Muy pronto me convertí en la principal organizadora de eventos del club de lectura enviando mensajes de texto sin parar en nuestro grupo de WhatsApp. Para las vacaciones de primavera, habíamos agregado tres miembros más. Lo que comenzó como una distracción de los estudios, se convirtió en un salvavidas para todas las involucradas. Teníamos ese tipo de amistad que mejora tu vida en todos los sentidos.
La escuela farmacéutica pasó rapidísima entre Frida, las clases y mis chicas, que no me di cuenta cuando pasar toda la noche en vela estudiando se convirtió en pasarla en vela buscando trabajo. Algunas amigas se casaron entre el último semestre y el verano después de la graduación. El resto, excepto yo, tenía relaciones serias. Sus estados de Facebook parecían interferir con nuestras salidas de chicas y sus relaciones prósperas eran un recordatorio constante de mi soledad.
Frida se acurrucaba conmigo un poco más después de cada vez que terminaba como chaperona en las citas de mis amigas. Quería tener una relación seria, pero aparte de la diversión ocasional de fin de semana, no había encontrado a nadie. Además, mis horas en la farmacia no eran precisamente propicias para tener citas. Pero a la edad de veinticinco años, la presión social de la pregunta recurrente en cada reunión familiar era inevitable: "Sandra, ¿cuándo vas a encontrar un novio?” Realmente no era que quisiera tener una respuesta para mi familia, pero me sentía incompleta. Tenía el título y el trabajo y ahora quería la próxima gran cosa para mí: el matrimonio.
Entonces conocí a Mike. Era la típica situación de estar cansada de tener citas a ciegas organizadas por conocidos cuando recurrí a una aplicación. Hablé con algunos chicos, con Frida siempre en mi regazo, antes de aceptar conocer a Mike en persona. Lo que comenzó con un par de hamburguesas y una canasta de papas fritas en una banca del parque, se convirtió en un sinfín de textos diarios, citas y muchas noches viendo Netflix oscilando entre su apartamento y el mío.
Frida no estaba muy interesada en mi nueva relación. Estaba celosa de que no pasara tanto tiempo en casa. Estaba segura de que ella podía oler el apartamento de Mike en mí, porque le siseaba cada vez que lo veía, lo cual hacía que Mike se sintiera incómodo y no demasiado entusiasmado de venir al mío.
Mike sólo tenía ojos para mí y eso me encantaba. "Quiero dedicar mi tiempo libre únicamente a nosotros dos, Sandra, cariño". Me lo había dicho desde las primeras citas. Cada vez que me recogía, me traía flores, regalos realmente detallistas o mi batido favorito, el verde con todos los ingredientes para quemar grasa al que Mike me había vuelto adicta.
Moría por presentarle a mis chicas del club de lectura, pero Mike era muy tímido, por lo cual me explicó que no había estado en una relación seria antes, a pesar de tener 35 años. Le pedí que viniera conmigo a algunas salidas, pero siempre declinaba: "Sandra, cariño, realmente no soy del tipo social. Sal con tus amigas como una hora, pero luego regresa que prefiero pasar tiempo contigo solos nosotros dos, sin mascotas ni distracciones.”
Al principio mis amigas estaban encantadas de verme tan feliz. "¿Es un bolso nuevo, Sandra? Realmente estás invirtiendo tu sueldo en ti, ¿eh?” Anna se burló de mí en un brunch después de que Mike me había dado un bolso precioso para celebrar nuestro aniversario el primer mes.
"Regalos de lujo para un mes de aniversario? ¿Qué te va a regalar para el primer año?” Nina añadió a la broma. Me di cuenta de que estaban tan impresionadas por cómo me cuidaba Mike y me alegraba poder presumírselos, especialmente porque aún no podía presumirlo a él en persona. Necesitaba respetar sus deseos, ya me lo había dicho miles de veces: "A los introvertidos, como a mí, no les gusta ser entrevistados por una pandilla de chicas ¿sabes, Sandra, cariño?”
Seguí excusando a Mike, pero todas seguían presionándome para conocerlo. "Has sido capaz de esconder a este misterioso hombre que te mantiene incluso lejos de Frida la mayoría de los fines de semana, pero tienes que venir con alguien a mi boda. ¡Eres una de mis damas de honor! Espero verlos a los dos allí ¿verdad, chicas?” Nina envió guiños alrededor de la mesa como una forma de sellar el pacto.
La gente en el documental de los gatos de Estambul dice que los gatos poseen un sexto sentido y es así como están tan sintonizados con las emociones humanas. Frida podía sentir que estaba nerviosa la noche en que había cocinado una cena especial para Mike y para mí. "Espero que le gusten los ñoquis caseros. ¿Cómo huele, Frida? Voy a contarle lo de la boda de Nina.” Le pregunté a mi fiel amiga felina parcialmente para convencerme de que podía pedirle a Mike que se enfrentara a su ansiedad social por un día.
Pero Frida no dejaba de pasearse por mis piernas y maullar una canción de quejas. Probablemente notaba lo nerviosa que estaba por pedirle a Mike que me acompañara a la boda. Nina era una de mis mejores amigas y había estado conmigo cada vez que me enfermaba, cuando necesitaba a alguien que llevara a Frida al veterinario cuando yo no podía hacerlo. Incluso caminamos juntas hacia el podio en la graduación, pero por alguna razón, Mike ni siquiera había querido conocerla, aunque fuera ella sola en mi apartamento ni en ninguna de las muchas salidas a las que ella y Yoshi, su prometido, nos habían invitado.
Quería que mis amigos conocieran al hombre que amaba, pero amarlo significaba aceptarlo como es. Me prometió que después de terminar con el contrato actual que lo mantenía viajando tan seguido, nos llevaría a unas vacaciones en la playa a un hotel con todo incluido. Cuidar de mí mimándome con regalos era su lenguaje de amor. Estaba segura de que me amaba tanto como yo a él.
Las llaves cascabelearon en la puerta, lo que hizo que Frida siseara porque sabía que sería Mike entrando. "¡Toc, toc! Perdón por la tardanza. Traje el agua con gas que te gusta.” Anunció Mike mientras pateaba con desdén algunos de los juguetes de Frida para poder pasar –siempre me sentía mal cuando encontraba el apartamento tan desordenado. "Algo huele muy poco saludable aquí. ¿Qué cocinaste?”
"Oh son ñoquis. Es una receta familiar. Has estado viajando tanto, pensé que te gustaría una comida casera. ¡Vamos a consentirnos un poco!” Luego señalé a la mesa iluminada con velas con una gran cazuela que emanaba un aroma a parmesano y albahaca. Pensé que todo se veía perfecto, pero algo en los ojos de Mike me hizo notar que algo estaba mal.
"Sandra, cariño, sabes cómo me tomo mi salud en serio. No esperas que pase por alto mi dieta para comer esto, ¿verdad?” Dijo mientras señalaba la cazuela que me había llevado más de tres horas cocinar. "Es como si no quisieras ser parte de mi compromiso con mi salud. Mejor vamos por una ensalada.” Y con eso sopló las velas en la mesa y agarró mi mano.
Estaba a punto de protestar cuando Frida saltó de la parte superior del refrigerador bloqueando el camino de Mike, gruñéndole directamente. "¡Esa gata es un demonio! No entiendo por qué insiste en hacerme sentir incómodo cuando estoy aquí. ¿Ves esto?” No podía defender el comportamiento de Frida. Normalmente era pacífica y amable. Salí del apartamento detrás de Mike.
Durante el trayecto para comprar nuestras ensaladas me disculpé. Me sentía fatal por no considerar su estilo de vida. Después de todo, habíamos estado saliendo durante unos cuatro meses. Con razón Frida estaba tan inquieta. Probablemente sabía que a Mike no le gustaría la cena. Ella había tratado de advertirme, pero no la escuché.
En el parque, cuando Mike estaba de mejor humor, tomó una caja de su sudadera. "Sandra, cariño, te extrañé esta semana. Pensé mucho acerca del proceso que comenzaste para mejorar, así que te compré este smartwatch. ¿Te gusta?” Me encantaba. Era algo que había visto antes pero que no me había animado a comprar. "¡Lo que sea por ti!” Dijo mientras me lo ajustaba en la muñeca. Así es como él demostraba que yo le importaba. Estaba segura de que vendría a la boda conmigo, pero aún no podía pedírselo.
Confirmé nuestra asistencia a la boda de Nina esa noche con un texto diciendo: ¡Allí estaremos!
El grupo de WhatsApp se estaba saliendo de control cuanto más nos acercábamos a la boda de Nina. Mike me había pedido que guardara mi teléfono cada vez que estábamos juntos para que no me distrajera con todos los chismes. "Hay tantos mensajes sin sentido en ese grupo, Sandra, cariño. Pensé que me habías dicho que eran tus amigas del club de lectura, pensaría que serían más intelectuales. ¿Ves? Otra razón por la que no creo que ir a esos eventos sociales sea una buena idea.”
Mike tenía razón: en un día, conté 225 mensajes sin leer. ¿No tenían vida? Los mensajes constantes distraían de las cosas que importaban de verdad, como él y yo. Dejé el chat pero mi ausencia no pasó desapercibida ya que dos semanas antes de la boda de Nina, ella apareció en mi apartamento, sin avisar. Le había advertido que no viniera así porque Mike se ponía incómodo con las visitas sociales y todo eso. Por suerte, no estaba aquí, así que no tuve que forzarlo a conocer a nadie.
Frida estaba encantada de ver a Nina en la puerta, saltó sobre su regazo tan pronto como se sentó en la mesa de la cocina. "¡Bolita de pelo! ¡Yo también te he extrañado! Desde que tu mamá ha estado con este hombre misterioso, las vemos a ti y a ella cada vez menos.” La pura mención del hombre misterioso me puso a la defensiva. Las indirectas agresivas ya me tenían harta.
"Bueno, él no es tan misterioso, ya lo has visto por todo mi Instagram," protesté.
"Esas fotos excesivamente curadas donde siempre lleva una gorra y lentes de sol? ¡Claro!”
"¿De qué se trata esto, Nina? ¿Por qué estás aquí realmente? ¿Sólo extrañabas a Frida o tienes algo que decir?”
“OK. Lleguemos al grano. Escucha, Sandra, estoy preocupada por ti. Todas lo estamos. Éramos tan cercanas. Teníamos un vínculo que todas pensábamos iba más allá del club de lectura. Nos confiábamos todo y hemos estado allí para todos los altibajos de los últimos años. Pero..." Y se detuvo allí como si esperara que yo fuera a sentarme junto a ella. Cuando crucé los brazos y la miré con incredulidad, ella procedió. "Pero desde que empezaste tu relación con Mike, has desaparecido.”
"Sabía que ibas a culparlo a él. ¿Por qué no puedes entender que es un hombre tímido con ansiedad social que me ama y realmente se preocupa por mí?”
"No, Sandra. Tú eres la que no entiende lo que está pasando. ¿Has notado todas las cosas que has abandonado desde que empezaste esta relación? Desde pasar tiempo con nosotros hasta dejar a Frida sola todo el fin de semana porque, como dijiste, lo hace sentir incómodo. ¿Una gatita? Eso no es timidez. ¡Te está controlando! Escondiéndote del mundo y él también se esconde. ¿Te has preguntado por qué?”
"¡Basta, estás celosa! Sólo piensas en tu perfecta relación con Yoshi. ¡No lo entiendes y no tengo que explicarme por elegir el amor en lugar de las salidas estúpidas!”
"¿Y Frida? Ella solía ser tu mundo y ahora la abandonas porque él te lo dice. Si ya no quieres ser nuestra amiga, dínoslo. Podríamos terminar el juego en el que entramos desde… desde que cambiaste.”
"Todo se trata siempre de ti ¿no? ¿Por qué no puedes entender que otras personas tienen diferentes necesidades e ideas? Tal vez quiero centrarme en mi relación y salud en lugar de sus estúpidos mensajes de texto..."
Me arrepentí de las palabras en cuanto salieron de mi boca, pero luego vi mi teléfono en la barra de desayuno, la cara de Mike estaba parpadeando en la pantalla y necesitaba tomar la llamada. Mike odiaba cuando no le contestaba.
La mirada herida en los ojos de Nina mientras colocaba el teléfono en mi oído anunció que nuestra amistad había llegado a su fin. Acarició a Frida en su barbilla mientras la colocaba en el suelo de la cocina. Luego, sin decir nada más, se fue.
Mike había tenido razón desde un principio. La amistad de las chicas del club de lectura no era más que una distracción. Eliminé WhatsApp de mi teléfono y en su lugar descargué algunas aplicaciones de entrenamiento para enfocarme en mi salud, como él había sugerido. Frida incluso se había interesado en mi video de yoga para tonificar, probando su propia versión de perro boca abajo debajo de mí en el tapete.
Solo había pasado una semana, pero mi ropa me lucía mejor. Decidí donar lo que ya no me quedaba bien. Estaba en medio del proceso hacia un mejor yo. Mientras organizaba mi armario, vi el vestido de dama de honor color ciruela que hubiera usado para la boda de Nina en unos días si todavía estuviéramos hablando.
En ese momento, Frida saltó sobre la cómoda a mi costado admirando el vestido por sí misma. Con su sexto sentido y su sabiduría felina me miró y ronroneó como diciendo: Ya lo compraste. Llama a Nina. Me cae bien.
Estaba tan motivada para llamar a Nina, como lo había estado para recoger esa bolita de pelo en el callejón trasero la noche en que Frida cambió mi vida. El tono sonó tres, cuatro veces. Cuando estaba a punto de colgar, escuché la voz dulce y perdonadora de Nina al otro lado.
"¡Sandra! Esperaba que llamaras para que pudiéramos arreglar este malentendido. Yoshi y yo realmente queremos tenerte en nuestro gran día. Nos conoces desde el principio de nuestra relación. Trae a Mike o ven sola, no importa, yo solo quiero que estés conmigo.”
Y con eso, volví a ser una dama de honor, perdonada como si nada hubiera pasado. Respiré un suspiro de alivio cuando Frida saltó sobre mi regazo como su signo victorioso de ser testigo de una amistad reparada.
Estaba segura del amor que Mike sentía por mí. Me lo demostraría siendo mi cita para la boda. Mientras caminábamos esa tarde, se lo pedí. Sin muchas ganas me dijo que sí.
Llegó la fecha de la boda de Nina y estaba feliz de estar con ella en su gran día. El hecho de que Mike aceptara acompañarme tenía a todas mis amigas muy emocionadas por conocerlo finalmente. Su única petición era que no me uniera al resto de las damas de honor en el salón de belleza para que él pudiera llevarme. "No hay necesidad de pasar incomodidades sociales antes de la boda, ¿verdad Sandra, cariño? Vendré por ti después de atar algunos cabos sueltos del trabajo.”
Frida se mantuvo atenta mientras me aplicaba las pestañas postizas y el lápiz labial color ciruela que Nina le había regalado a todas sus damas de honor. Lamía su pata derecha y peinaba su cara repetidamente como si ella también fuera parte de la boda –en cierto modo, fue gracias a Frida que terminé llamando a Nina, por lo que era parte de esta boda en su peculiar manera felina.
Las dos horas que Mike me había dado para alistarme habían pasado y él todavía no estaba aquí. No le gustaba cuando lo llamaba, pero necesitaba estar en la iglesia en veinte minutos o llegaría tarde. Le mandé un mensaje primero: Cariño ¿estás en camino? ¡Estoy lista! Y tomé una foto para corroborar que estaba esperando en la puerta.
Pasaron diez minutos y no había oído una palabra de Mike. Pensé que quizás estaba conduciendo o estacionando el carro y no había podido leer el mensaje así que lo llamé. "Recibí tu mensaje. Ya casi estoy", dijo apresuradamente antes de colgar.
Frida levantó la vista para encontrarse con mis ojos mientras esperaba junto a la puerta. Ronroneó por mis piernas y luego arañó la puerta casi diciendo: no lo esperes. Es Nina. Llama un Uber. Esquivé los numerosos mensajes de Anna que decían ¿dónde diablos estás? mientras pedía un carro. Tenía el tiempo justo para llegar a la iglesia antes de que comenzara la procesión.
Vi el CR-V blanco conducido por Katia que la aplicación me dijo que esperara. Estaba a punto de subirme cuando Mike empezó a gritar a través de la ventana de su coche, mientras que él se detenía detrás de Katia. "¿Qué es esto, Sandra? ¡No dejé mi ajetreada vida para que me abandonaras en el último minuto!” Nunca lo había visto tan enojado antes.
Katia me volteó a ver: "¿Vienes o te vas?” Mi teléfono estaba zumbando con mensajes de texto que seguro eran de las otras damas de honor. Si no salía justo en ese momento, no llegaría a la ceremonia. Mike seguía tocando la bocina y haciendo señas para que me subiera a su carro. Le di las gracias a Katia y cerré la puerta para dejarla ir a recoger otro cliente.
Corrí al auto de Mike. Después de ponerme el cinturón de seguridad, esperaba que arrancara camino a la iglesia, pero se estacionó y comenzó una pelea a gritos de proporciones épicas. Nunca me habían regañado como lo hacía él entonces. "Eres increíble Sandra. ¿Qué demonios hacías llamando a un Uber, no confías en mí?”
"Pero Mike..." interrumpí. "Esta es la boda de mi amiga. Me voy a perder la procesión. No pueden esperar..."
"¿A quién le importa esa boda y tu estúpido club de niñas? ¿Crees que les importas sólo porque compraste este vestido barato?”
"Mike, por favor, no me hagas llegar tarde. Vamos a la iglesia y después podemos resolver esto. Te lo prometo..."
"¡No me prometas nada! ¡Hemos terminado aquí! Sal de mi coche. No tiene sentido llevarte a ninguna parte, la ceremonia está a punto de comenzar de todos modos.”
"¿De qué estás hablando? ¡Me lo prometiste! Nina es una de mis amigas más cercanas y yo... yo debí haberme ido con Katia.”
"Ve con quien quieras o no vayas. Sal de mi coche.
"¡¡¡Ahora!!!” Mike rugió al salir del coche para abrir mi puerta.
No podía creer lo que estaba pasando. Mientras subía las escaleras de regreso a mi apartamento, revisé mi teléfono. Había veintiséis mensajes de mis chicas y un mensaje de voz de Anna cinco minutos antes de que comenzara la ceremonia: "¿Sabes qué, Sandra? Ni siquiera te molestes en venir. Olvídate de Nina, olvídate de cualquiera de nosotras. Espero que seas feliz con ese tipo.”
Sus palabras me rompieron el corazón, pero sabía que tenía razón.… ¿Por qué no había tomado el Uber?
Pasé el resto del día de la boda de Nina llamando a Mike. Quería saber por qué llegó tan tarde, por qué insistió en que fuera en su coche si no tenía la intención de llevarme. Todas mis llamadas se fueron directamente al buzón de voz. Estaba demasiado avergonzada para disculparme con Nina, con Anna, con cualquiera del club de lectura. Desecha en un llanto, me quedé dormida todavía vestida para la fiesta y con las suaves lamidas de mi leal Frida en mi mano.
A la mañana siguiente, aún no había recibido ni un mensaje de Mike, pero tenía muchos textos del club de lectura. Todos básicamente diciéndome que estaba muerta para ellas. Me lo merecía. Lo que no merecía era que Mike me abandonara así. Ignorándome como si no me conociera.
Todavía en mi vestido de dama de honor y con maquillaje chorreado en mi cara, me arranqué las pestañas postizas y me subí a un Uber para dirigirme al apartamento de Mike. Frida me había acompañado a la puerta aprobando mi decisión.
Toqué repetidamente en vano. No se escuchaba nada adentro así que cogí mi teléfono y marqué el número de Mike por la trigésima quinta vez desde nuestra pelea. "¿Hola?" la voz de una mujer respondió. Me congelé y revisé mi pantalla para confirmar que había marcado el número correcto. Era el de Mike. "¿Hola, hola?" la voz del otro lado de la línea insistió.
"Hola, estoy buscando a Mike, ¿este es su teléfono?”
"Ah, claro, un momento. Michael, mi amor, tienes una llamada... No, no me dijo. El identificador de llamadas solo dice proveedora".
No necesitaba oír nada más. Todos estos meses había estado bajo su hechizo. Controlada por sus deseos. Me daba vueltas la cabeza. No pude resistir el vómito que surgió de mi estómago para liberarme de mi estupidez y ceguera.
Nunca me quiso. Sólo me quería a su disposición. De repente entendí porque no quería que lo llamara, porque nunca salíamos en público a menos que fuera para una caminata o esa banca solitaria en el parque, porque siempre llevaba gafas y sombreros que lo cubrían. ¿Acaso se llamaba Mike Johnson de verdad? =^..^= Ese fin de semana lo perdí todo. Mis amigas, mi falsa relación romántica y mi dignidad. Al menos todavía tenía a Frida.
Mientras observo hoy sus elegantes estiramientos matutinos, siento el tipo de afecto por Frida que la gente del documental sobre los gatos de Estambul siente por sus gatos callejeros. Hay una verdadera conexión entre sus almas y las nuestras. Si tan solo nos sintonizáramos con ellos más seguido.
Originaria de México, Selene Lacayo es unaescritora y traductoraradicadaenelárea de Filadelfia. Ella obtuvounamaestríaeninglésenfocadaenescrituracreativa de la Universidad de West Chester enPensilvania. En el 2018 obtuvoelsegundolugarenelconcurso Write Michigan Short Story Contest. Sus ensayoshansidopublicadosenInCulture Magazine, Americans Resisting Overseas, the COVID-19 Community Stories of the Grand Rapids Public Museum y Alebrijes Review. Más recientemente, suficciónAmalgamformóparte de la antología The Best Short Stories of Philadelphia y fuepostulada para elpremio Pushcart 2022 porsuensayoImmigration.
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.
A chapter from the upcoming book Three Batos And One Chavala by Tommy Villalobos
Somos en escrito welcomes back Tommy Villalobos, one of the first budding novelists drawn to our cyberpages. After a long hiatus in a hideout in the High Sierra, he reappears with this chapter excerpted from a coming novel, full of broad swaths of barrio life and inimitable characters. Here's a quick glimpse, introduced in the writer's own words: “I’d like to give you a quick background of my story. It’s a novel, or novella, called Three Batos And One Chavala. It’s about a train trip from L.A. to San Francisco set in the 1930’s. I did research for that time period, including trains, terminology, dress, music, locations and geography. Three guys (los batos) compete for one Chicana beauty (the chavala) on the train ride. The story starts out in the East L.A. of that period and ends up in San Fran and Watsonville, with side trips back to L.A.. There’s a dominant tía involved, protectress of the girl, Samuela, who tries to trip up all suitors of her sobrina.”
Sandra made a twisted face because the encounter had ruffled her feathers and caused her great distraction, an interference of her concentration required to speak about meters and penta-meters in contemporary poetry. She sat down to review her lecture notes. The door opened yet again and Alicia popped in again.
“Señora, llegó otro.”
“This is outrageous!” wailed Sandra. “Hope you told him to go find another house.”
“No, también lo tire en la sala.”
“Is he a poetry critic from a magazine?”
“Not even close, Señora. He has shiny shoes, suit, tie and slick-back hair. He says his name is Alberto Pistillo.”
“Yes. He showed me something with his name, I guess, but I couldn’t read it since I left my lentes in the kitchen where I was cleaning the frijoles.”
Sandra walked to the door with the ugliest face she could imagine making, stopping at a wall mirror to look at herself. Satisfied, she continued on. Like she had just announced, this was outrageous to her. She recalled this apestoso, Alberto Pistillo. He was the hijo of Fred Pistillo, the one who was helping Joe Milago in trying to snag her little house overlooking the Pacific. He lived somewhere around here. This unwelcome visit could only have one purpose and that would be to talk about her house. She headed toward the living room determined to stomp out the Pistillo familia from her life once and for all.
Alberto Pistillo was skinny, appearing hungry for both food and love. He had dark, beady eyes and a pug nose, giving him the appearance of a desperate Pug Dog. In fact, he looked more like a Pug Dog than a Pug Dog did. He shocked diners in restaurants when he sat eating spaghetti and cream carrots. It seemed to them that he would prefer a small steak bone chased with a dog biscuit.
“Buenas días, Señora Westo.”
“Sit,” she said, keeping with the Pug theme.
Alberto sat even though he looked as if he would rather be petted. His beady eyes scanned the room, a wry smile on his mug, if I can use that word given his canine appearance.
“Señora, I need to talk with you alone.”
“You are talking to me,” said Sandra, waving around the room. “And as you can see, we are alone.”
“Where do I start?”
“I’ll tell you. No. The answer is No.”
Alberto shook visibly.
“Then you know?”
“That is all I know since I ran into Mr. Milago. He can talk about nothing but my humble casita. Your father talks about nothing else. And now,” Sandra raised the volume several decibels, “you show up to hammer my head some more. One more time, nothing doing. There isn’t enough money in circulation to let someone live in my home by the sea.”
“Then you don’t know why I am here?”
“You didn’t come to talk about my casita by el mar?”
“No, I didn’t come about that.”
“¿Entonces, por que diantre estás aquí?”
Alberto shifted his feet nervously. He moved his body as if were trying to get out of it.
“I like to mind my own business.”
“Really?” she said, to get him started again.
“I don’t carry chismes with just anyone.”
“I don’t make…”
Sandra was never a patient person. Or poet.
“Just let us accept all your character traits, and let us take it from there,” she said bluntly. “I am dead sure there are all kinds of things you don’t do. Let’s talk about what you can do about where you are now. What do you want to talk about, if I can make such a shocking demand upon you?”
“Your niece’s marriage.”
“My sobrina is not married.”
“No, but she is going to be. At The Little Chapel of Hope in Gardena.”
“I’m not happy either,” said Alberto. “I’ll tell you, and speaking for myself, I’m in love with her, too.”
“Nonsense as far as you’re concerned. But who is this other drip?”
“Felt that way for years. I’m one of those silent types, hiding in the shadows, liking a woman but never telling her or showing her my feelings…”
“Who is the snake who has ambushed my sobrina?”
“I have always been a man to…”
“Mr. Pistillo! Let’s also assume you have some good qualities. Tell you what, let’s not even talk about you anymore. You barge in here with a crazy story…”
“Not crazy. Facts. I heard it from a primo, who heard it from a prima, who heard it from an abuela, who heard it…”
“Will you tell me who the alley cat is who has tricked my niece or do I choke it out of you?”
“I agree that she is muddled, alright,” said Alberto, jumping at the opportunity to be agreeable, “and I think she should be marrying me. She is a fine catch. We practically grew up together and I loved her then and love her now. I’m sure she knows. But things sometimes don’t go the way you want them to. I saw a chance last summer but I lost my nerve. I am not a smooth and flashy man with a great line. I can’t…”
“Stop now!” said Sandra. “Hold your self-analysis for friends and family who would be somewhat interested. I want to hear the name of the worm my niece is NOT going to marry.”
“I thought I told you,” said Alberto, surprised. “Extraño. Guess I haven’t! Funny how you feel you’ve said something and haven’t. People know me as…”
“Whatever is the fool’s name?”
“Milago? Trimino Milago? The wild-haired son of Joe Milago I met at your father’s casa?”
“You have it. What a guess. You should stop it before it happens.” “Watch me.”
Tommy Villalobos, in his own words: “I am living a contemplative life in suburbia, which itself is something of a feat. Talk about an oxymoron. I am writing my silly novels and short stories about my working gente (and some who kinda work), and their sometimes entertaining attempts at love and living in our bicultural experience going way back before La Llorona, El Cucuy and them. I hope to make friends so I can steal more historias and chismes for my stories. I was born and raised in East Los, but I have wandered aimlessly since. I presently live near Sacramento in an undisclosed location known only to who knows who.”
“Ten years later, Elvis regretted their breakup more than anything in his life.”
An excerpt from Ballad of a Slopsucker, a short story collection upcoming next year
By Juan Alvarado Valdivia
Ballad of a Slopsucker
The parking lot at Horatio’s was packed for the ten-year reunion of San Leandro High’s Class of ’87 and Elvis Borboa—who had been voted Most Likely to Be on MTV his senior year—sat in his car near the back of the lot, sucking on a cigarette like nicotine was oxygen. An hour before, he had stood in front of his closet mirror wondering, Should I stay or should I go? He tried on shirt after shirt until he narrowed it down to two—a long-sleeve button-down shirt so it’d look like he had made something of himself, or a striped polo shirt that said I-don’t-really-give-a-shit-about-appearances-but-I’ll-look-presentable. No matter which one he wore, Elvis saw a twenty-eight-year-old straight-edge Latino reflected back to him—the cropped hair, fitted jeans, and a shirt that covered the flaming skull tattoo on his right shoulder. As he stared at himself, he couldn’t help but wonder if the teenage, fuck-authority version of himself would have hated who he had become: just another tool; another sellout working for a big bank.
While he sat in his new Honda Accord, he couldn’t shake the nervous, twisted feeling in his stomach. He popped the Eagles’s Greatest Hits into the CD player. He skipped to “Best of My Love,” which was totally un-metal of him. A long drag from his cigarette followed. It had been months since he had smoked. Oddly enough, the song soothed him even though it reminded him of Susana, his ex-girlfriend from high school. Ever since they graduated, he had occasionally daydreamed of playing and dedicating that song to her (which was totally un-metal of him).
After he flicked the cigarette out the window, Elvis flung the car door open. He strode across the parking lot. On his way to the entrance, he noticed a few faces that looked familiar. He couldn’t remember their names, but he knew they were smart kids back in school. Would they recognize him now? Would anyone recognize him?
Standing by the entrance, next to the part of the restaurant that resembled a kitschy lighthouse, was Joey Marchment. He was smoking a cigarette by himself. Back in high school he was a quintessential stoner-skateboarder. He had gone to a couple of Elvis’s shows. Shit, they even shared a joint at one of their high school parties. Joey had also cleaned himself up for the occasion. Dress shirt, pair of khakis, shiny dress shoes instead of his old Dr. Martens. His bleach-blonde hair—which used to be long and greasy as if he flipped burgers for a living—was now short, thinning, and slicked back. Like Elvis, he had developed a respectable beer paunch.
“Elvis Borboa?” Joey said.
“What’s going on, Joey,” Elvis said, shaking his hand. “Glad you remember me.”
“Of course, man. You were Elvis, the heavy metal god!”
Elvis used to be the front man of a thrash metal band he started at San Leandro High with his best friend, Dontae. The band’s name was Slopsucker. In high school Elvis sported long, curly black hair, torn-up jeans, and a black leather jacket his dad had handed down to him.
“You still play?” Joey asked.
“Nah, man.” Elvis couldn’t help but hang his head.
“That’s too bad. I remember you used to shred.”
“Yeah, well, you know, it’s one of those things. Hardly anyone can pay the bills playing a six-string.”
“Fucking A, man, fucking A,” Joey said, nodding and slowly turning his head like he was watching a thought gently bob away. Inside, Elvis heard a loud hum of chatter around the corner. Goddamn it, he thought. People were already asking about his former musical self.
A sign by the front podium read, “Class of ’87 Reunion!” An overly smiley Asian woman with a name tag that read “Annie Chow” sat behind a long table covered with rows of printed name tags. They exchanged pleasantries. Elvis remembered she was a major kiss-up in school. She parked her rear front row and center in their physics class so she could laugh at all the inane jokes from their teacher along with all the other voracious grade-grubbers. On top of being pretty, she had always been smart and driven. Once he saw the big glittery rock on her ring finger, Elvis figured she got just about everything she ever wanted in life.
He saw his name tag on the table. He scanned the remaining ones for Susana and Dontae’s. They were MIA. Were they coming? Were they already there? Would they talk to him, or tell him to fuck off? Would Susana be there with someone? A boyfriend? Husband? What if she was inexplicably free after all these years?
The classy restaurant overlooked the San Leandro Marina. The dining area around the bar was roped off for their reunion. All the tables had been cleared out so everyone could mingle. Seventy or eighty people convened throughout the room. Most of his old classmates had dressed up as if they were dining at a posh restaurant in San Francisco, the city he had called home since graduating from high school. Booming laughter from the patio startled him. There was so much happening around him. Before he realized what he was doing, Elvis beelined to the bar. He could’ve walked past Gandhi, Cindy Crawford, or Ozzy Osbourne and not noticed them. Man, did he need a drink.
As he leaned against the counter, staring at the bartender, trying to will him to look his way, Elvis scanned the bar as though his birth name was Cool Breeze. He locked eyes with a classmate whose name tag read “Mindy Roberts.” Her jaw dropped. She waved with such glee that he waved back, although he had never—as far as he remembered—had a conversation with her. Two stools down from Mindy was George, a wild-haired Samoan who had streaked across the football field during a homecoming game Susana had dragged him to. And then there she was: Susana. The woman of his sad and sorrowed dreams of unrequited love. She stood in a circle of women gathered at the other end of the bar. His heart bottomed. She was fucking gorgeous and cute as ever—the same big brown eyes, light-brown skin, and magnetic smile that drew people to her. Her black hair fell over the straps of her blue summer dress. Elvis thought she had never looked so beautiful—except maybe at the junior prom they had gone to together.
Once he spotted her, Elvis was done for; he couldn’t keep himself from stealing glances at her. After all those years they were actually in the same room. And to his complete and dizzying surprise she seemed to be alone. No possible significant other satellited around her.
While he watched her, Elvis couldn’t help but remember—as much as he didn’t want to—the last time they were together.
It all went down on a Saturday afternoon, less than two months before their senior prom. Elvis was in his bedroom restringing his black Jackson King V guitar. Venom’s classic Black Metal blared from his stereo. It was 1987, a year after thrash metal’s zenith when Metallica’s Master of Puppets, Slayer’s Reign of Blood, Megadeth’s Peace Sells . . . but Who’s Buying?, and Kreator’s Pleasure to Kill came out. Elvis’s dad was in the backyard, working in his shed, when his mom knocked on the door.
“Yeah,” Elvis shouted over the music.
“Susy’s here for you!” she yelled from behind the door where Elvis had taped a poster of Machu Picchu shrouded in mist. “Shit,” he said to himself. He took a deep breath as he lurched to the front door.
Susy stood on the other side of the screen door. She wore a black tank top, faded blue jeans, and the green Chuck Taylors he had doodled on with a permanent marker. (He had scribbled “Elvis lives!” on the back heel.) She was concealing something behind her back.
“Hey, you wanna come in?” Elvis said, creaking the screen door open.
“That’s okay,” Susy said. “My dad’s taking us out to lunch with one of his friends. I was running some errands and just wanted to pop in to give you a surprise.”
“Oh yeah, what you got?”
Though he was trying to play it cool, Elvis could feel his stomach knot. The night before, he had snuck out to hit up a party without Susana. Celeste White, the lead cheerleader at San Leandro High, had invited him. Celeste White, the hottest girl in school, had flirted with him. She professed to Elvis that she liked him. This was certifiable wet dream material. To boot, she kept putting her hand on his arm and brushing her blonde hair while they talked. After he stumbled back home in a fog of blissful drunken stupor, he woke up thinking about how good it would have felt to make out with her. To have his hands all over her. The only reason he kept his paws to himself was because he and Susy had been together for two years. Susy handed him a mixed tape. On the cassette case spine she wrote “Heavy Shit” and drew a smiley face. Years later, remembering those details slayed him.
“I really liked your last mix,” she said. “I think you’re right—the Scorpions are the best thing to ever come out of Germany.” Elvis combed his long hair to the side so it wouldn’t cover half of his face. He stared off at the front lawn. Earlier that morning he had convinced himself to break up with her. He just didn’t know when to pull the plug.
“You okay?” she asked. Elvis had not hugged and kissed her like he typically would when she’d come over.
“Yeah, I’m just tired. Wait—let me walk you to your car.”
Susy marched to her old gray car parked in front of his parents’ house. He followed. She walked with her head lowered, staring at the walkway like she knew something was up. Afterward, Elvis wondered if she could sense what was coming.
“Your mind seems to be somewhere else,” Susy said as they approached her car.
Elvis took a breath. “Susy, this is something I’ve been thinking about for some time. I’m just, uh—I, umm—I think we should date other people.”
Elvis never forgot the face Susy made—her mouth dropping, her eyes opening wide.
“Are you serious?” she said, staring up at him. She took a step forward. “You’ve been thinking about this for some time? Since when?”
“I don’t know. It’s been a while.”
“So why are you saying this to me now? You wanna go out with someone else? Is that it?”
Elvis took a step back. He thought she might try to slap him.
“Who is it, Elvis? Who is it?”
“It’s no one, Susy! I’m just afraid of this getting too serious. I’m sorry. I don’t know how else to say it.” “So what are you really saying? Are you breaking up with me? Is that what you’re trying to tell me?”
“No, Susy. I just—think it’d be a good idea if we saw other people.”
Susy crossed her arms. She glared at him until he looked away. “That’s bullshit. And I am not okay with us seeing other people. If all you want to do is break up with me, then grow some damn balls and do it.”
Susy brushed past Elvis and stormed to the driver’s-side door. Once she fumbled for her keys, she stomped back to him.
“Give it to me,” she said.
She snatched the tape from Elvis, threw it on the sidewalk, and smashed the case with her foot. She flung the door open and slammed it before she drove off with the motor roaring.
Broken cassette in hand with its tape dangling, Elvis walked back into his house. He bunched up the loose tape in his hand. He didn’t want his mom to see it and ask what had happened.
In his room, the door closed, Elvis flipped through his milk crate full of albums. He took out Metallica’s Ride the Lightning. The album cover had an electric chair floating in a dark sky with bolts of lightning. He cued the record to “Fade to Black.” He blasted it, all dramatic, then he lay on his bed, hands cupped behind his head, clutching the cassette as the opening guitar notes filled the room. He stared at the picture of his idol, Tom Araya—the Chilean bassist and lead singer for Slayer—taped on the ceiling above his bed. He felt shitty about what he’d done. They had been friends since junior high when he and Susy took Spanish classes together (the equivalent of Rob Halford taking beginner’s classes for heavy metal screeching). During sophomore year he walked her home practically every day unless she was working on the school paper, having soccer practice, or attending one of her Chicano-power MECHA meetings. Susy had lost her virginity to him. That was a big deal to him as well. And she was the first girl—and maybe the only one—he had ever loved.
By then Elvis was getting caught up in all his self-hype about their band, especially after Slopsucker blew away the other musical acts at their school talent show. He truly believed that part of his life was merely the beginning of something bigger. His bandmates, Dontae and White Trash Phil, talked about becoming the best thing to come out of shit town San Leandro, like how Metallica’s Cliff Burton had come out of neighboring Castro Valley to become the most badass metal bassist on the planet. Elvis didn’t want to be like everyone else. He didn’t want to turn out like his mom and dad, who never seemed happy—more like they were stuck with one another. He wanted a rock ’n’ roll kind of life: the thrill he’d get when he would thrash his head and flail on a guitar. The way he felt ten feet tall onstage in front of a crowd. The communion he felt playing with his bandmates. “It’s one life you live,” his father—a former bohemian—liked to tell him. Una vida. Susy was a way cool chick, but Celeste White—the girl every straight guy in the locker room openly fantasized about—was the Big Leagues. Susy didn’t fit in with the flashy, VH1 behind-the-scenes documentary Elvis thought his life could become. He was afraid that he and Susy would turn out like his mom and pop someday. He was afraid of growing up to become like his dad, living his dreams vicariously through one of his children since he was too chickenshit to have truly chased them when he was younger.
After “Fade to Black” ended, the turntable needle hissed on a constant loop. Elvis leapt off his bed. Fuck it, he thought, chucking the tape into his trash can. In that moment he practically thought of their breakup as some life lesson; he rightly figured life would have its share of difficult decisions he would have to make. Like dumping a sweet girl for the hottest chick in school.
Juan Alvarado Valdivia is a Peruvian American writer born in Guadalajara, Mexico, and raised in Fremont, CA. His fiction has been published in The Acentos Review, Black Heart Magazine, The Cortland Review, Label Me Latina/o, Origins Journal, and is forthcoming from Prairie Schooner. His first book, ¡Cancerlandia!: A Memoir, received an Honorable Mention for the 2016 International Latino Book Award for Best Biography in English.
This feature first appeared in Somos en escrito on January 11, 2017.
Guess who wins!
Excerpt from Outline for Love, a novel
By Tommy Villalobos
Mona Rinistor stepped out of her office for a breath of fresh air. Chava Absuena, likewise, stepped out of her office for one reason or another. She was not sure. Mona had been in the same office complex for several years, although it felt like only a few months. Chava had been working in her office for several hours, and it seemed like several years. The offices opened out into the second floor balcony and city smells and ruidos. Mona walked toward Chava. Chava, in turn, wanted to turn and dart back into her office. She thought Mona was some kind of dueña, for Chava had bad experiences with bosses and landladies. Her first job was at an ice cream parlor in Nogales, Méjico. Then a beauty parlor in Juarez. Then a poker parlor in Amarillo. Then the Sunshine Tattoo Lounge in San Diego. She also had to stretch her paychecks. When a landlady was close at her heels, Chava, a quick packer, hopped on a bus. Now Chava Absuena worked in a fashion parlor in Los Angeles. This time her dueña was a dueño, Max Lipiz.
A few writers in the past, Thomas Hardy dancing among them, have pointed the ironies of life. Here was one. Max was a barrio sort who, for some reason (his Tía Minstra Telamacundra said it was due to a good kick to the head he suffered when a boy at the hands of some primo), decided one beer-soaked evening at The Green Bar to become a women's fashion consultant. His friends said it was just to get girls. He said it was simply his chosen career path. His Tía Minstra reminded him that his whole family from his father's side going way back before the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo was a family of contented carpenters. The fact did not move him. “Hello,” said Mona, sticking a hand toward Chava before she could close the door. “Hi,” said Chava defensively, hesitating before sticking out her hand from the small space left by a nearly closed puerta. Mona had to reach for it and their fingers barely made contact before Chava withdrew hers behind her back as if to prevent Mona from grabbing it again. “Do you work for the Women's Fashion Consultant?” asked Mona looking at the sign on the door. Chava followed her eyes to the sign on the door as if to confirm that Mona had correctly defined the sign. “Yes,” she said with hesitation as she looked back to Mona. “Are you her?” “Not even.” “Where is she?” “She ain't anywhere.” “We all gotta be somewhere.” “Not her.” “Huh?”
“My boss is some guy.” “Now is he?” Chava nodded vigorously as if to latch on to stark reality. “Interesting.” Chava drew a blank. She then tried to phantom in her mind what was interesting. “So you just started working for him?” said Mona. “Uh-huh.” “How many people work here?” “Just me.” “Are you his partner?” she said while appraising Chava's purple abstract printed tunic and faded denim leggings. “No. I just answer phones.” “Oh.” On cue, the telephone rang. Chava stared at Mona as if wanting direction. “I better let you answer that,” said Mona, giving her some. Chava closed the door. Mona slowly walked back to her office, the office of a thriving accountant. Mona thought. Rules change. I deal with cold numbers and here's a homey who deals with warm figures. Go figure. Mona had spent her early life in and around East Los Angeles since birth. Her brain then took her to Villanova then to various parts of the world, including Houston where she obtained her first employment with an accounting firm that accounted for big perfume, little diapers and mediocre law firms. Tiring of endless parties and shopping sprees, she decided to come back home and account in L.A. “Welcome home, mija,” her mother had declared when Mona returned home. “We have your room ready and your father is inviting his best friend's hijo to meet you. He is a metal polisher and makes good money to support you and all the chavalos you're going to push out.” Mona had already secured a condominium along the beach at a good price. How does one tell amá and apá that the nest is even a tighter fit than before? Way Numero 1: Mom, dad, I have been to three colleges, two countries, four states and several republics of various political persuasions, if one interprets that word loosely, so home would be a lame environment. Way Numero 2: There are not too many big accounting firms in our Hood. Way Numero 3: I need my space which apá considers met by an 8 by 8 foot bedroom, dinner and a sala with plenty of boxeo and one or two telenovelas. Way Numero 4: One outing a year to visit parientes in San Fernando is not the social life I envision lasting until my dotage. Way Numero 5: I like my privacy, which is nearly non-existent with family, neighbors, and dad's ne'er-do-well amigos parading through the house at all hours. Mona, with a frowning father and a disappointed mother, set up homemaking by herself—and eventually one aquarium fish—in a roomy place with a great view of Pacific sunsets. The life of a successful accountant, certified, and daughter, not certified, pleased her. Therefore, Mona floated into her office every weekday morning, gathering accounting accounts as little girls gather daisies. She had a knack for selling her skills that she developed at nine when she made Christmas ornaments and sold them outside of supermarkets. From there, she began making little trinkets and selling them outside of bars where men snapped them up to give to girlfriends and even wives. Then she washed perros but no gatas because of one scratch she got on her forehead, which, to this day, she claims is a scar she will carry forever. No one has ever seen the scar but she claims, nonetheless, it is there. Back in her office, Mona went to her desktop and began in earnest an accounting services proposal for one women's fashion consultant. He has one employee, one office and seems to have no clientele in sight. She was witness to one phone call, which could have been a wrong number, or worse, from family. At the same moment, Max Lipiz was in front of his cracked mirror in a trailer he rented. The old, rusty trailer sat behind an iron works shop, which sat behind an auto paint shop that sat behind a pickle factory. This made for absorbing and enchanting noises and odors that floated into his trailer round the clock.
He dressed meticulously, spending nearly all his money on clothes and accessories that make the man, for who wanted an unkempt slouch advising them on fashion, especially women. His rent was minimal as well as his eating. He was slim, neat and eager. Only his nose gave away his gaunt figure as it protruded dramatically from the rest of him. Max's Smartphone let out a tune, “Sabor A Mi.” This was his only other luxury. “This is Max,” he said into the phone. “Maximiliano Rudolfo, this is your Tía,” said his Tía Minstra, her voice a foghorn of robustness. “Yes, Tia,” said Max with all due respect to the tía who looked over him like a guardian angel, who had slipped in other duties and, therefore, as punishment, had been given the assignment of watching Max. “Come over and eat. I made huevos con chilaquiles. You used to like them.” “I still do, Tía, but I've got to get to the office and make money.” “Money can wait. Chilaquiles can't.” Silence. “¿Me estás oyendo?” she then said as if Max were a fair piece down a country road. He moved the phone nearly half a foot from his ear. “I have to make a living. I'll eat them next time I'm there.” “It's been a week. My brother, your Tío George, offered you a good job in his landscaping business. He has clients from Beverly Hills to Thousand Oaks.” “I have my own business, Tía.” “Advising women how to put on and wear a dress? Men want to undress women, not dress them.” “I'm flexible.”
“Dresses and men don't go together.” The conversation ended because his aunt ended it with a slam of the phone. And Max took that slam with ringing ear to his office. Mona jumped out of her office to intercept him. “Hello,” she said. “Hi,” he said, rushing past. “Are you the fashion guy?” “Yes,” he said as he turned and stopped. “Funny.” “Sure is,” he began to turn and walk again. “No, I mean, you being a fashion advisor for women?” “Yeah, my aunt thinks it's hilarious.” “Does she?” “Reminds me constantly how silly I am.” He then took a few more steps and reached for the doorknob to his office. “I'd like to talk to you,” she said in her never-ending search for accounting clients. “Sure,” he smiled, looking for his first fashion client. “We'll be talking, I'm sure.” He disappeared. Then Mona did. The walkway was at rest once more, void of accounting and fashion folks. So went the days, then weeks. Mona did obtain two clients during this period. Max received phone calls but only two made appointments and only one showed up. She was a council member from a small city somewhere. When Lora Milinda wearing two-inch, black opened toed wedge heels walked through the door, Chava was going to tell her that the accounting office was next door, for she was dressed to kill men or numbers. Her outfit consisted of a black and white plaid knee-length body hugging dress, and a blue long sleeve tailored blazer that accentuated her small waste. Her dark brown shoulder length hair curled outward on the sides as if she had just stepped out of the celebrated Grove Salon. Her makeup had a professional touch. There was nothing wrong with her that Chava could see. Nevertheless, before she could tell her, in so many words, Lora Milinda, used to beating fellow politicians to the punch, spoke. “I have an appointment to see the fashion person.” “No kidding?” said Chava with genuine wonderment in her voice. “Is he ready for me?” “I'll check,” said Chava without taking her eyes off the woman while getting up. She walked over to Max's office and peeked in. Before she could say anything, Max also beat her to the punch by waving an arm from the direction where the female voice had entered his ears to the chair stationed in front of his desk. Chava turned around from where she stood and mimicked Max's wave, waving from Lora to the chair in front of Max's desk. Lora quickly and obediently followed the waving Chava to the chair. Max stood and extended a hand toward her. Lora touched it with three fingers then sat. Max, too, was impressed with her trappings, so much so that he, like Chava, stared. “I'm Lora Milinda.” “Hello. I'm Max. How can I help you?” A standard greeting for any business, but in Max's case, he meant it. He actually was wondering how he could help the woman who already looked much like the After photograph of any Before photo anyone could come up with. “It's not me. It is my niece. She is nineteen. She also has been hit by that worm that hits many chavalas in the barrio—she fantasies herself a Chola. She dresses more like one than acts like one. That's one saving grace.” “I see,” he said, without seeing. “I've taken her to beauty parlors and she looks okay for a day then back to the slouch look with a hairdo that maybe lasts another day. Can you do something?” “Something?” “Well, anything?” “Anything?” “For a poor soul who will never have a good man kiss her.”
“Good man kiss her?” “Can you say anything on your own?” Max considered. “Sure,” he said with delight, like a pupil answering a tough question from a tough teacher. “Go ahead then.” “How come you didn't bring her?” “I had planned to but she must have got wind of it and went to her welding class.” “She welds?” “Like a boilermaker. And she likes caballos. And baseball. And I mean, hardball with the guys. See, we're dealing with someone that if she doesn't watch it, will end up slugging beers with old veterano cholos in some dive, unmarried, unloved, smelly and unattractive. I want to make a grand lady. You know, a woman you guys can't help but want to carry off and spend your lives going broke over.” “I got the broke part down.” “What?” “I wish I could see her.” “Here she is,” said Lora while whipping out a photograph of a girl, a little one. “How can I work with this? She's little here.” “Picture her a few feet taller with the latest chola hairstyle, the same scowl, but stylin' like only cholas can.”
Tommy Villalobos, who lives somewhere in Northern California, has several e-books out, Lipstick con Chorizo, the story we serialized ala Carlos Dickens in Somos en escrito a few years ago, Love thy neighbor, Oro and Elo were Buddies, and Unos Marranos Plus Una Vibora Equals Romance. This excerpt is from his latest novel, a love story laced with his droll Chicano humor, Outline for Love. Look for this and his other works among the e-book sellers.