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Short Story

En el Nombre del Padre

 

ON THE NIGHT of our grandfather Papa Tavo’s death, Tío Gonzalo was watching the midnight replay of that week’s Lucha Libre, the only kind of wrestling he would watch. Like she did on so many other Saturday nights, our Tía Victoria had gone to bed early because even though the wrestlers were entertaining with their acrobatics, colorful costumes, and wrestling máscaras, it was still just wrestling. At least they don’t show women with their nalgas hanging out like they do with the gringo wrestling, she’d often say. Victoria, La Hallelujah who wore clothes almost as hoochie as anything you could see on American wrestling, had no place to say such a thing. Sometimes our young tía showed as much skin as those girls on the dance show ¡Caliente! On Saturday afternoons, Abuela would go outside by the fence to water her plants and talk to Señora Ramirez, and we would change the channel to watch the girls dancing in bikinis and booty shorts. We would take turns being the spotter, hiding behind the curtains and the huge aloe vera plant, calling it whenever Abuela turned off the manguera. Victoria was the kind of woman who wore short shorts, tube tops and flip-flop sandals that made us all stare at her legs and pretty painted toes, even though she was our aunt. Victoria was many things: a hypocrite Protestante who never said the rosary, a shameless flirt, and a bien buena sin vergüenza mamasota, though none of us would openly admit this because she was our aunt after all. She was all of these at the same time, a contradiction, but she was also a good mother to our cousin, Little Gonzalo, and a good wife to our tío. On this night, the night our grandfather Papa Tavo finally died after all of his illnesses, Victoria was about to prove that despite everything else, she was a woman any one of us would have been proud to call our mother or wife, a woman we would defend from any chisme or judgment or violence.

That night, Little Gonzalo was all thrown around on the floor, his Lucha Libre wrestling dolls under his legs and next to his cheek. Some of the dolls were tangled up in the rubber band ropes of his toy wrestling ring, the one Gonzalo and Victoria had bought for him on one of their trips across the border to Reynosa, just twenty miles away, back when it was safe to do that. We remember having these same toys, lying this same way. We remember the sensation of floating as our fathers picked us up and took us to our beds. Like Little Gonzalo, we also told our fathers we were just resting our eyes so that they would think we were just as chingones as them, that we could stay up late and not cry about it like little chillones in the morning.

This was where the certainty of Tío Gonzalo’s Saturday night ended. He sat there, watching the luchadores fly through the air, thinking how much better a job that would be than fixing commercial air conditioners on roofs with his feet all sticky from the tar which burned through his boot soles like summer asphalt on bare feet. Some of us have never figured out why he chose this work instead of owning Izquierdo and Sons Painting and Drywall with our Tío Macario and Tío Cirilo. Others of us, we know that you have to live your own life and not do what your father did, that you have to be your own man no matter how hard it is. He took a sip from his warm beer, the one he had been drinking with an uncharacteristic lack of enthusiasm. Gonzalo could not explain why or how, but he sensed that Papa Tavo needed him, that he needed to go to San Juan Nursing Home regardless of how late it was.

Our Papa Tavo was dying from cirrhosis of the liver. Our grandfather was not, nor was he ever, an alcóholico. Gonzalo and all the brothers made sure everyone knew this. The cirrhosis that was killing him was from the depression and nervous anxiety medication that he had been taking for decades. We remember those pills he had to take as if it were us taking them. In our memories, we see Abuela Guadalupe reaching to the top of the refrigerator and pulling down the Gamesa cookie box full of Papa Tavo’s prescriptions. Each time she pulled down that colorful box, we told ourselves she was giving us those cookies with the bright pink and white sugar marshmallow tops and not giving Papa Tavo his medicine. It should never have been that way. Those boxes should only have been filled with cookies, and we should never have heard the rattle those pills made.

It would be easy to say that Papa Tavo had to take all of those medicines, that the cirrhosis that killed him, was because of the evil caused by one man, a neighbor named Emiliano Contreras who had made curses against our family. Most of us Izquierdos will tell you that this man prayed to the devil for our sadness and destruction because he was jealous of the Izquierdos and the little success we had in the world. He hated us because Papa Tavo’s sons, our tíos, were hardworking boys who gave their money to help with the family when his two sons Emilio and Gregorio were without respect or aspirations. His boys would later die violent deaths, Emilio in the Vietnam War and Gregorio from mysterious causes, his body found floating in an irrigation canal. Our tíos were all relatively healthy and married and would provide many nietos to carry on the name, when Contreras’s name would die with him. So it is easy to blame our misfortunes only on Contreras. It is too much for us to believe that any of it could have been our fault: Tía Dina’s agoraphobia, our cousin Dianira’s rape or near-rape (none of us is sure), our Tía Marisol’s various eating disorders and diets over the years, our cousin Danny’s autism, our uncles’ depressions. Even though many in our family aren’t so superstitious about other things, they still cling to this idea that it was only Contreras’s fault and that he died a brutal, ugly death just like his sons because of what he did to us. Many of us know this is only part of the truth, even though we will never admit it. Yes, we believe that Contreras’s death was a result of the hechizos he made against us and other families. However, what many in our family want to ignore is that all that has happened to us started because of Gonzalo and what he did to one of Emiliano Contreras’s daughters, Iraís.

Those of us who have accepted that an Izquierdo is ultimately to blame also understand how Gonzalo did the thing that caused Emiliano Contreras to hate us. Our ways with women have gotten us into so much trouble, and this is why we can so easily forgive Gonzalo and forget the mistake he made. Somos perros. Our mothers and wives and girlfriends can attest to this truth that we are dogs. They know us Izquierdo men, how we have exactly the right words at just the right time to get what we want. We have heard what they have said about our touch, how it makes them feel. When they first saw us walking into a room, our women saw our confidence mingled with something like sadness. They knew there was no word, English or Spanish, to describe what they saw in us, but were equally certain they would try to find it anyway. At the nightclub or church where they first saw us, they were witness to other women squeezing our arms and shoulders in conversation, finding excuses to shorten the distance between us.

Our women also know our pasts, the things we have done that some of us are ashamed of. Being who they are, they have forgiven us and trust in us despite the things we are capable of.

If Iraís Contreras had not been the daughter of Emiliano Contreras, and if Gonzalo had been someone else’s son, she would have just been the wrong aguada to give it to. She was the one everyone on Ithaca Avenue and in Barrio Zavala had given it to, and she would have been only a regrettable mistake. But being who Emiliano was, how he hated us Izquierdos, Gonzalo was setting us up for something he could not have known the future of.

On the night it happened all those years ago, Gonzalo saw Iraís sitting with her friends in one of the orange booths at the Spot Burger on Old 83. Gonzalo was there alone like other nights when his only friend, our Tío Cirilo, was out with his girlfriend Blanca. If only Tío Cirilo had been free that night, he and Gonzalo would have done their usual thing. They would have bought their quarts and drove around town, looking for girls or a fight, avoiding the chotas. Unfortunately, Gonzalo is like us, and he felt a loneliness he could not get over and just had to go out wherever there were people, even if he was alone among them.

Gonzalo looked on Iraís and saw how the skirt she was wearing hugged her short little legs. Iraís’s feet did not even touch the floor. Like the rest of us, Tío Gonzalo had it bad for little women.

Knowing how poisoned her family was, he knew it was the wrong thing to do. Her father was an hechizero, one of those healers gone bad who got back at people by cursing them with powders, oils, and candles. Still, our uncle walked over to the table of girls, watched how they got quieter the closer he got. He liked it too much how they all looked at him, like he was the best-looking Mexican they had ever seen. We wish he had just kept walking, just happy knowing he was the chingón that he was, but we know how it is being an Izquierdo man. He could not resist those girls, or the way Iraís gave him the eyes. We cannot judge him for not moving on, because how many of us have let a woman leave her barbs in our hearts just because she was pretty and she looked at us the right way?

Sitting there on the couch now, he could not remember what it was he said that started all our problems. Tío Gonzalo could only see himself looking at Iraís the whole time, telling the other girls with his eyes that it was time for them to go. Iraís was not beautiful with her thick nose and round face, but the rest of her was not hard to look at. She was short like a southern Mexican, but she was nalgona like other indígenas are not with their flat asses. She had thick long hair all the way down her back. We can’t help what that kind of hair does to us, how we think about holding it in our hands, pulling on it softly.

This is the description of Iraís we have been given. None of us has ever seen her with our own eyes. We hope we never do. Maybe we have made her more of a bien buena in our minds so that we can accept what he did more easily. If we saw her and she was not worth it in our eyes, we are not sure we could forgive Tío Gonzalo.

So Gonzalo took Iraís driving around in his red Ford truck. It was a ’72, and she said how nice it was. He had bought the pickup with the money he made from Papa Tavo’s business, the truck he would later have to abandon to pay Papa Tavo’s medical bills. This troca only exists in our memory as a symbol of the way things were before Papa Tavo started dying from all the medication. Gonzalo has a new red Ford F-350 with running boards and a chrome grill, and in every way it is better than that old one, but we know he always thinks about the one he lost, the smell of it, the feel of its smooth bench seat beneath him. Así somos, always searching and searching for what we do not have.

Look in the glove compartment, Gonzalo said.

It was a bottle of Presidente. Iraís, like her father and the rest of the Contrerases, was a borracha since she was born. Something changed in her eyes when he offered her the brandy, and Gonzalo knew she was his. It was too easy, even for Gonzalo. This should have been a clue to him to forget about what he was thinking.

They drove and she drank the liquor straight from the bottle like the cantina whore she was, some of it dribbling out the side of her mouth when Gonzalo stopped too quickly.

They pulled up to the stoplight on Old 83 and Twenty-third, and Tío Gonzalo looked at a carload of boys in a car next to them. He made his eyes big, threw his chin up and said, ¿Qué pinche onda, bolillos?

They acted like they did not see him, even though there were four of them and only one of him. They knew our tío could have taken all of them. None of us can forget the stories about our uncle being outnumbered in bars and at dances, how he sometimes evened the odds with busted bottles, tire irons, and brass knuckles.

The white boys drove off, and his hand moved up and down her leg, and she did not mind at all. Iraís’s skin yielded to his touch like she had been waiting for him her whole short, sad life. Gonzalo knew this and still he did not stop, did not even think about the fact that she was going to hold him in her heart.

Iraís asked him to go to the Bronco Lounge so they could drink a few over there.

Gonzalo told her no. We know why. He did not want anyone to know he was with her. He told her he had another idea, and made a left turn.

They pulled up to the Red Carpet Inn in Pharr, a town over from Gonzalo and Iraís’s neighborhood.

Iraís giggled and swayed on the bed as Gonzalo pulled the dress over her head, admiring her brown body in the yellow lamplight.

Turn off the light, she said.

No, I want to see you, Gonzalo said. We ourselves have said the very same thing to women. We do not know why it is in us, this need to see.

As he got on top of her, she whispered, Gonzalo, ever since I was a little girl, and I used to watch you play outside with your brothers, I have always loved you. When he heard this, his first thought was to get off of her, tell her to put her clothes back on, but it was too late. Finally his instincts were telling him the right thing to do, but once a man begins and the woman is opening herself to him, he cannot stop himself.

If he had stopped, so many things would not have happened.

Iraís would not have come over to Abuela and Abuelo’s house all drunk a few nights later. She would not have scratched on his window like a vampira, saying, Gonzalo, why have you forgotten me? Let me come in to be with you.

Gonzalo would not have said, Vete, ya, puta. You got no business coming here. I don’t ever want to see you again. Maybe things would have been better if he had said something else?

Iraís would not have begun to wail, saying, Vas a verlo. You’re going to regret what you have done to me.

Iraís would not have gone back to her father, asking him to light a candle in the shape of Gonzalo so that he would burn for her. And when these candles failed to work, Contreras would never have started making curses against us, the Izquierdos, asking Satan to make us all afflicted with susto and madness like his own daughter. He would not have buried a rooster foot and goat hoof in our yard, the symbol of el diablo’s feet, dancing in our dreams, making our grandfather mad.

If Gonzalo had just stopped himself, Iraís’s cursed evil blood would not have passed through to him and our family. Papa Tavo would never have started dreaming of our tíos and tías and us, his nietos, dying slow, painful deaths. He would never have circled around in confused agitation like our cousin Danny. Papa Tavo would not have gone outside in the middle of the night to look for buried hechizos. Gonzalo would not have had to follow his father outside only to see him weep like a scared little boy when he could not find the buried curses, not knowing Gonzalo had already found them all and burned them. We would never have had to conceive of such a thing.

Our tío would never have driven off that Saturday night he watched Lucha Libre. He would have picked up Little Gonzalo in his arms when the wrestling was over and then gone to bed himself, sleeping peacefully knowing that he had a beautiful wife and a strong son. Gonzalo would have visited Papa Tavo the next day, at his home over on Ithaca Avenue where he was supposed to be, not at San Juan Nursing Home.

It is easy for us to hear this story of Gonzalo’s mistake and say all these things about how he could have avoided it, but there is no way our uncle could have known what would happen. Whatever he has done, we must give him this.

 

En el Nombre del Hijo

 

As Tío Gonzalo walked into Papa Tavo’s room at San Juan Nursing Home, the orderlies and the night nurse circled his father. He saw white sleeves moving fast, blurring to save our grandfather’s life, but they could do nothing.

When Tío Gonzalo first told the story of Papa Tavo’s death, we needed more than he gave us. We wanted him to say that he saw, heard, or smelled something unexplainable, some glimpse into the eternal. Our hope was to hear that for a brief second, just as the nursing home staff stepped away from Papa Tavo, he saw an angel of God enfolding our grandfather with his wings. We wanted him to say that there was the unmistakable smell of roses in the room, that for an instant, the windows of heaven had been opened and la Virgen was there comforting Papa Tavo, describing the world he was about to enter. We got none of that,  however, only the statement that Papa Tavo had died, that he was too far gone to be brought back to us.

Tío Gonzalo did not see any of the nursing home workers’ faces as he moved in closer to his father. He could not even look at Papa Tavo’s face. He only saw his pinstriped hospital shirt, his emaciated arms, the blue veins, the thin yellow skin and liver spots. His uncombed greña that Gonzalo and Tío Cirilo were always brushing was as long as ever. The smell of a dying man was thick in Gonzalo’s nostrils. This was the only thing he remembered smelling.

We’ll call the doctor so he can come pronounce him, someone said.

Gonzalo said, Good, that’s good, but he did not know why he said it because none of this was good. It sounded so funny to him: pronounce, as if pronouncing Papa Tavo could do some good somehow.

On the nursing home telephone he made two calls, one to Abuelita and the other to Victoria. We do not know what was said, or if Abuelita cried or said, No, no, no, like many of us imagine she did. Without Tío Gonzalo having to ask, Victoria then probably said, Don’t worry, viejo. I’ll go pick up your mother. No te preocupes, amor.

Victoria and Little Gonzalo and Abuelita got there together. What they saw, many of us do not believe.

Supposedly, when they walked in, Gonzalo was manic, looking through the closet, drawers, cabinets, and underneath the bed. He did not hear them come in, could not hear them as their voices grew louder, asking, Gonzalo, what are you doing?

Gonzalo kept on looking for Papa Tavo’s things, trying to stuff everything into a black garbage bag he’d taken from the custodian’s cart. His eyes were wild, his upper lip was curled back, and it made them both shake inside for fear of what they thought was beginning in him. Pobrecitas.

It has been said that he moved about the room crazily just like Papa Tavo used to on those full-moon nights when he was looking for black objects he believed were filling his house with an evil presence. A black shoe, a black cross, a black, decorative river rock: any of these things could have been a carrier of old man Contreras’s evil intentions.

Gonzalo said, Where is his white guayabera? The white one, I know it was here in the closet. Ladrones, they probably took it. ¿Y sus zapatos? Victoria, help me. Why are you just standing there? Amá, por favor, ayúdame. ¿Mijo?

Victoria did exactly what Abuela Guadalupe had done on those nights when Papa Tavo lost it. She did what Gonzalo asked her to, even though she knew how crazy it was. Victoria looked under the mattress, under and inside the nightstand. Of all the things she has ever done, what she did that night is all that matters to us.

Come on chiquito, let’s help your father find Abuelito’s things, she said to Little Gonzalo as if it were a game so she would not scare him even more than he was. This was the kind of thing she did when she took him to her church and people were yelling in tongues, and she said, Mijo, don’t worry. They’re just talking to God. Our little cousin got under the bed and looked in the cabinets beneath the sink, making her proud like he did the day he told her he wasn’t afraid of the people at church, and even understood what they were saying when no one else could.

Gonzalo was moving faster now, and Abuela started to get scared. She followed him around the room, trying to touch him on the shoulder so that she could calm him. Abuela was scared because she saw the sickness all over again, saw her strongest boy losing it. Tío Gonzalo had asked her for help, had looked into her eyes just like Papa Tavo had.

Not everyone believes Gonzalo was moving about the room like a madman. Many say he was just being practical, gathering Papa Tavo’s things so the thieving night orderlies would not take anything. He is our strongest uncle, el mero mero chingón. Gonzalo is the one who took care of all of his brothers and sisters when Papa Tavo got sick, the oldest son who sacrificed school, a possible career in boxing, and getting married at a young age like his brothers and sisters. He is the tío we used to watch working the punching bag in Abuela’s carport, wincing as the whole roof shook with each hit. The bag was so beat up it had to be held together with duct tape. In an old newspaper clipping we’ve seen, he is in the boxer stance, and the caption reads, Gonzalo Izquierdo, a Golden Gloves hopeful from McAllen. In the mirror, all of us would practice Tío Gonzalo’s gacho-cold look from that blurred photograph. He seemed to say, ¿Qué pinche onda, güey? I own you. We would box our shadows, praying someday we would be as strong and feared as our Tío Gonzalo. If Gonzalo did succumb to the mind sickness, none of us are safe.

We will never know for sure how he reacted. All that is important was that as soon as the doctor got there, he got hold of himself and started acting like the normal man he was.

Dr. Barratachea was nice, buena gente. He was the one who often gave us Chupa Chups lollipops from his white smock whenever we saw him at San Juan Nursing Home, which was not often.

He came in, put a reassuring hand on everyone’s shoulder and said in Spanish, I am deeply sorry for your loss, but I am sure he is in heaven. Octavio was a good man.

Dr. Barratachea saying that was a little kindness Abuelita always reminds us of whenever she tells the story of that night. It is something good for her to think about.

But at the moment, she focused on the word fue, Spanish for was. When Abuelita heard Dr. Barratachea say he was a good man she started to cry, and so did Little Gonzalo and Victoria. Gonzalo did not cry just like he did not cry at Papa Tavo’s funeral.

We had watched him the whole time while he sat in the pew at Ceballos Funeral Home. Tío sat there, and his eyes looked tired, yes, but dry. Our other uncles had wet eyes, each of them crying, and some openly weeping like Tío Macario. We boys looked to Tío Gonzalo, our oldest uncle, for one drop, something to tell us it was okay for us to cry too. Some of us wanted to find a reason not to be ashamed of our own fathers. He gave us nothing, and we tried our best to have the same dry face as Tío Gonzalo.

 

En el Nombre del Espíritu Santo

 

The women and Little Gonzalo looked away as the doctor opened Papa Tavo’s eyes to check the dilation of his pupils. Dr. Barratachea leaned over close to Papa Tavo’s face, but still he could not see. Since Papa Tavo’s eyes were so dark brown anyway, there was no way for him to know. He could have turned on the harsh fluorescent light above them, but out of respect, he decided to go to the nurses’ station to look for a penlight.

Dr. Barratachea said, Ahorita vengo, esperenme tantito.

Gonzalo held the doctor’s arm and said, No, doctor, it’s fine. Here you go. He handed Dr. Barratachea the small, black flashlight he always had in his front pocket, the one he used to look inside air conditioners at work. This was the same flashlight he lent us to go to his truck whenever he needed his bottle opener, the one he used to check the caldo de marisco, his famous seafood soup with crab legs, white fish, shrimp, and potatoes he made in a big pot each New Year’s Eve. Whenever we see this flashlight now, we think of what he and the doctor must have seen in its beam that night, the wide blackness of Papa Tavo’s eyes that the women and Little Gonzalo could not bear to witness.

The doctor pronounced him at 1:46 am. Dr. Barratachea again offered his condolences, then said he had to go check on a few patients. If there are any questions or concerns, I am here for you, day or night.

All of them, Abuelita, Victoria, Gonzalo, and our little cousin stood around the bed, not sure what to say.

Abuelita closed her eyes tight and began to pray in a whisper, sniffling back her tears. We do not know what she said, but imagine she was praying to San Pedro to let our Papa Tavo into the Kingdom of God. We know he did. She didn’t need to say that prayer.

Gonzalo—who had not been to Saint Joseph’s since he was a young man living at our grandparents’ home on Ithaca Avenue, who never showed up on time for the rosary at Christmas or seemed to care when his brother Tío Cirilo said grace over the meals we all ate together—cleared his throat and crossed himself. In a tired voice no one has ever heard since, Gonzalo said, Padre nuestro, que estás en el cielo, santificado sea tu nombre. He breathed in deep to finish the Padre Nuestro. Gonzalo spoke again, and his mother and little son repeated his exact words without hesitation.

No one in the room noticed that, at first, Victoria did not say a word. She looked at each of them, at their closed eyes, each of them with a hand on Papa Tavo. She did not pray the words, because she had quit saying the remembered Catholic prayers years ago, trading the repetitions for prayers in a language only Little Gonzalo could understand. Then she did what all of us will remember her for. When Gonzalo began again and said, Venga tu reino, Victoria said it too and continued, Hágase tu voluntad en la tierra como en el cielo, praying the prayer of her son, husband, and suegra, the prayer of every Izquierdo who wishes they could have been there. Now they were all saying it together. Gonzalo, Victoria, Little Gonzalo, and Abuela Guadalupe made that oración over Papa Tavo, and the words they spoke came out of that Ithaca barrio in our Izquierdo hearts, that place where letting go and relief and hope are all the same thing.


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