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.”
hTommy 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 him.