“The neighbors say that Don Eva has been living alone for almost a year,” Julieta told me the other day. “Whoever asks, he answers that Yolanda, his wife, went back to her town and will return soon. But they also say she abandoned him, or she committed suicide; and the old man, out of shame, doesn’t want to admit either. Others believe he has her locked up in the house, but more than one assures, and I do believe it’s the honest-to God-truth, that he killed and buried her in the garden, next to the bougainvillea.”
Oh Julieta! She’s full of nutty ideas. When I tell her about the gossip going around, that the old man is very cool, she challenges me to ask him about his wife. She talks carelessly. She doesn’t know him. The truth is that my wife doesn’t want to make friends with the neighbors because, according to her, we won’t be living here for long; our destiny is California, but that remains to be seen.
I liked the old man since I first saw him cleaning the front of his house. He wore a black woolen beret on his head and a brownish-black woolen jacket. He swept the sidewalk as if he had all the time in the world, starting at one edge and little by little taking the garbage with the broom to the other, raising a shitload of dust. He does it every day.
Don Evaristo’s house is different. The tall iron railing, about two meters, forest green in color and with figures of golden flowers, is just the wrapping. The two large windows upstairs, with cobblestones all around, avoiding the base, look like the lashes of enigmatic eyes, the kind that hook you upon a first glance. The two below, small, side by side and covered with black curtains, give the impression of two polka dots.
With a mahogany wood door in the center, adorned with beveled glass, the whole house looks like a distinguished woman with a discreet smile. And more because it is painted or dressed in vanilla-yellow, which I imagine will stand out with the pink color of the bougainvillea that will bloom in the summer. At the foot of the bushes on the left side, green, healthy, arranged in a line there are pots of various sizes, full of dry soil, waiting to be planted with vincas, daisies or geraniums, just as Don Evaristo waits for God knows what.
I have never told him, but for me, almost in his seventies, life has now settled: wife, children, his own house, and a pension for expenses. Oh, to be him! Reaching that age to do whatever you want with your time is a luxury. I know several men who at that age are still like me, with one hand behind and the other in front.
It was mid-February when I decided to speak to him for the first time. I got home from work, and since Julieta had gone to the gym and the children were playing Nintendo, I went out to get rid of the drowsiness. There was Benito, the neighborhood drunkard. I sat next to him on the edge of the curve and lit a cigarette.
“That old man is crazy.” He commented, asking me for a smoke.
“Why do you say so?” I asked, offering him the cigarette.
“Only he could think of tending the garden for a woman who’s not coming back.”
“How do you know that?”
“She is a woman, therefore, treacherous,” he assured me, and after taking the last smoke and returning the cigarette to me, he began to sing: “Hypocrite, simply hypocritical, perverse one, you made fun of me.”
As Benito continued to spoil the bolero, I caught sight of Don Evaristo leaving his house. He carried in his hand a digging bar; the kind used to make holes in the ground. I crossed the street. A few steps and I was in front of his house. He began to dig into the planter, very close to the entrance. He unleashed some blasphemies, setting aside the bar to rest from time to time. In one of those small breaks, I asked him what he was doing.
“Don’t you see?” he answered without looking at me.
I glanced out onto the porch. Next to the wooden bench I saw a tree in a plastic bucket. I asked him if he was going to plant it. He didn’t respond. He drank water straight from the jug he had on the patio table and grabbed the iron bar again with blistered hands.
“Let me help you,” I offered, trying at the same time to open the rail door.
“Who are you?” he asked, raising gray eyebrows and staring suspiciously into mine with his dry honey-colored eyes.
“I’m Ramón, your neighbor. I live there, across the street,” I said, pointing with my hand.
Reluctantly, wearily, he walked to the railing and took the key from his rolled trousers to open the padlock.
“Let’s see if it’s true that you’ve got piss and vinegar.” And he pointed at the iron bar with his blistered hand.
I grabbed it and started digging. Very soon I realized why the old man had been cussing; right where he happened to plant the tree was a stone about the size of a basketball.
“Why don’t we just make the hole here, next to the bougainvillea? It seems that here the earth is softer and…”
I couldn’t finish speaking. His petrified honey eyes turned to steel.
“Shut up! You don’t know what you’re talking about!” And he snatched the digging bar from me with shaking arms.
“But nothing. This is my house and here things are done as I say. Go away. I don’t need you.”
I took the digging bar from him. Before his angry eyes, I scrabbled around the stone as best I could, wiping the sweat from my forehead with my shirt sleeve, until I took a break.
“What the fuck do you say now?” he asked and he laughed, revealing his crooked, yellow teeth.
He grabbed my ass. I only wanted to help, and him kicking up a fuss. I took the iron bar back and buried it more eagerly around the stone to shut his mouth. I was digging up the dirt with a shovel under the mocking gaze of the old man, and although it was hard, I took out the fucking stone and deliberately dropped it near his feet. He looked at me flabbergasted.
“Well, you’re a tough motherfucker, there’s no doubt about it. Bring the tree and plant it, it seems you have a good hand. I am going to the corner store. Would you like a beer?”
“Good, you are a cheap date.”
That afternoon I planted the plum tree, although he always says we did it together. And yes, now that I think about it, he got grouchy when I suggested planting the tree next to the bougainvillea, but that’s not why I’m going to distrust or ask him about his wife. I’m sure he’ll tell me about her one of these afternoons. He doesn’t drink beer but brandy, like real men do, he says, trying to get my goat. And although he does not drink much, brandy makes his talks all the more quenching.
As I am beginning to trust you, instead of Ramón I am going to call you Món. My name is Evaristo, but be careful, do not call me “Eva.” It sounds straight-up queer. I broke more than three noses for men calling me that. Yes, I am quite a barbarian. I was born in Santa Barbara, a town way the fuck up north, full of starving miners. Among them was my father, Fermín Morán, even if he came from one of the most affluent families in the area. Although, as I told you, in that dingy town, made up of houses without windows, without doors, where the wind came and went like a ghost blown through a house, with only one room that served as a kitchen, bedroom, and bathroom, most of us believed any family that had more than beans on their table was rich.
Because he was an alcoholic and disobedient, from the Morán family my father only inherited his surname, and only because of this he managed to marry Ester Patiño, my mother, a skinny girl with sad eyes, and very silly for having married my useless father, according to what one of my aunts told me, despite the warnings of her brothers who could never stand to see her marry a simple miner, even if his last name was Morán.
And they were right, Món. As a child, I saw the suffering in my mother’s eyes. How could I not? There were seven of us children, two boys and five girls, not counting the three who died shortly after they were born, all with worms and with fucking hunger painted on their mouths. My dad didn’t see it, first, because when he arrived home, we were already asleep; and second, because he always arrived drunk. But most of the time, while I waited for my father to return, I heard the quiet cries of my mother, accompanied by the creaking of the chair legs every time she got up to look out the window. Often, I imagined carrying her, sheltering and lulling her, as if she were the daughter and I was not her child. That’s how my sleep was, Món, anguished at not being able to lessen my mother’s sobs.
Later, when I was older, a goddamned rage got into me, deep inside, that wouldn’t let me cry when sometimes my mother woke up with a bruise around her eye, one she said was caused by being a fool, by not seeing where the door was at night. You can’t imagine what a son suffers when his father hits his mother, it is more than a whack, it is a stab in the back. But you must know that, unlike Javier, my coward older brother, one day, when I was around ten, I straight-up tangled with my old man. Of course, because of how weak I was, he knocked me to the ground with a bang of his shoulder. But since then, I don’t know if out of shame or prudence, he never laid his hand on my mother again.
From then on, what can I tell you, I also bear that guilt because deep down, deep down, I loved him like any brat loves his father, even if he’s a bastard. Then came other misfortunes that made me flee from that fucking starving town, but I’ll tell you about those and others. Món, our talk went down well. You are not like the others; you do know how to listen. I’ll wait for you here tomorrow with a beer at the same time, if your wife lets you come, I’m just saying. It’s already ten o’clock. I will try to sleep.
You talk to yourself in front of the mirror, the one you look for in the gloom of the night. You are the one who whirls around and around in this bed surrounded by rats, covered with blankets stinking of your urine, with pillows on which your acidic drool and the wax from your deaf ears collect, and everything melts at night as you go up and down the stairs, counting the drops that fall from the kitchen faucet into the glass that little by little is filling with the water that reminds you that your hair is full of lice, and that fuzz sticks to hiding places on your body, because you no longer bathe, it’s scary, it horrifies you to think that the water reflects your imprisoned gaze, the one who insists on not being seen beyond your nose full of mucus hardened with the earth that you raise when you sweep the front of your house every day, empty of a woman, of the smell of boiled soap, and white clothes folded on the table, too empty, old, greasy and crisp like you and your conscience, the one that takes you to the garden every morning in case you might find in the earth the root that long ago accused and poisoned you, the one that holds your umbilical cord, the one your mother planted in that miserable land, with which you spread and drag the rage that you recognize in the mirror, hidden under the faint light of the candle that you light at night, the one that throws a blanket of gray insomnia over you, like the hair that you have left and makes you repeat that you’re a miserable wretch from whom hang two dry balls, so you are unable to open Yolanda’s dusty diary, the one you found days ago and the one you put away for fear of reading what her careful handwriting says, for terror at what she might have written locked up in her room four months before deciding she would leave, for doubt of something that might make you understand her desire for departure. But as much as you want to hide it, deep down you know it is time. Update the calendar. Adjust the fast hands of the wall clock. Come on, asshole, open that notebook. Man up, fucker, and once and for all start reading.
Evaristo doesn’t want me to go this year. Since he’s already retired, we have to be careful with money. I don’t know what for. As he passed his sentence, the food no longer had seasoning. What to do with the shoes, hats, bags, perfumes, and outfits I keep in the closet for my annual trip? My sixty-seven years will fall over them, and all will turn into moths, as I will turn into a skeleton if I stay to perish in this yellow-painted cage.
I have never really lived in this city, a precocious adolescent who likes to wallow in excesses: cold, heat, storm, drought. And this border wind, willful, pushing and hitting my southern body that tends to lean towards my town in Jalisco, where the alleys witness colonial kisses, where the town is a lady who knows how to set the table, where freshly fallen drops glaze avocado leaves, limes, and the bougainvillea in the hallway of my parents’ house.
What if I came back to stay?
Wash my mother’s blood spilled on the tile.
Tie my father to the leg of the bed and give him the guitar. Make him sing!
As I walk through the cobbled streets freshly bathed in the afternoon rain, following the watery sound of the church bells that call the souls to congregate in the center of the square.
Take my mother’s warm hand and go to the street corner, where the aroma of freshly baked bread whets all kinds of appetites.
See my slim silhouette in the seamstress’s mirror, my long black hair, my chest beginning to grow, and my confident gaze when I see my mother on the bench painting her lips to give my sister a kiss.
To circulate on my own, with a new dress, embraced by friends, walking in the opposite direction from the boys, and between sonatas, Alejo wooing me with a daisy. Give him the first kiss, without fear of being the focus of all eyes, and hug him while perceiving his smell of seasonal fruits.
But first, I have to cut away the fear that spins the silence, find once again my will as a girl, buried by forty years of marriage among the dirty clothes, accumulated in the aged baskets, hidden between the coldness of the discolored sheets, scattered among the boiling of the daily soups, camouflaged among the photographs of my children who have already left and, above all, inside the change-purse, where Evaristo keeps his kingdom.
Keep writing, Yolanda Montaño de Anza, set your first and last name free.
Translated by Johnny Payne