November-December 2014 … The Global Online Magazine of Arts, Information & Entertainment … Volume 10, Number 6
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Jose Antonio Rodriguez

Excerpts from the Memoir
of Jose Antonio Rodriguez 

 

Burning Garbage

Cada quince días, says Amá when I ask her how often we burn our garbage.  The cloud rises and covers some of the cacti in soot.  But the cacti are very hardy and they never burn.  They keep swaying slowly even in smoke.  Clorox bottles take the longest to burn and it’s dangerous to get the burning plastic on your skin because it becomes gooey and it sticks and you won’t be able to take it off and it’ll burn like nothing you’ve ever felt before.  But the leftovers of our burning aren’t interesting; we already know what was in there.

The neighbor’s, though, that’s fun.  They live in a pretty yellow house with potted plants in front, flowering plants at that, and toys strewn in the front yard, like the kids don’t even like them that much.  Sometimes I wonder if they’ve completely forgotten them, if the toys have become unwanted, unclaimed.  But Amá says you can’t just go around picking up someone else’s things.  The garbage they burn, though, that’s clearly unwanted stuff.  So when the fire is done, my sister Morayma and I go and sift through the ashes, look for things we can save.  Sometimes there’s nothing but the remains of Clorox bottles or half burnt cardboard boxes.  If the boxes were whole you could use them to fan yourself or to fold into something, but because they’re made of the same thing as paper, the fire eats them up before anything else.  And we come and ask Amá to rinse our feet that are the color of a cloudy sky.  And she gets angry sometimes, but just a little.

 Today though Morayma finds a coffee cup and I find a toy car wheel and a wooden block with a letter on it and those things we save, bring inside.  Morayma feels the smooth surface of painted clay, beige with little orange flowers that would form a circle if the cup was complete, and I spin the one tire from the wire axle like a top.  Then I place the tire on the ground and imagine the entire car.  It would be a truck actually, one of those yellow ones and the truck would be so complete, so like the real thing, that I would never get bored running it along the ground or just holding it.  I could place the wooden block with its perfect sides on the box.  It could even hold Morayma’s cup.

 When we’re done, we place the things in a corner.  Amá says we’re just collecting junk but she doesn’t throw it away.

 At the end of the day with the sky almost orange again, little black flakes start to fall from the sky, like singed leaves of grass, black and light as a baby chick’s feathers.  They feel like paper, like the paper of the big dolls hanging from shops in the city.  The frills in all sorts of bright colors adorn the large dolls everywhere and beautiful because the paper is thin and the light shines through.  Amá says the dolls are called piñatas but when I ask her what they are for, she keeps quiet.  Yes, this is what they look like but black.

¿Qué es?

Caña, alguien está quemando caña, says Amá.

Somewhere far away someone is doing something, burning sugarcane, and something other than smoke has risen to the sky.  It has traveled from far away because fire leaves only the light part of things.  The heavy part disappears.  The little flakes are falling over me and it makes the evening magical.  Now I know why we can burn garbage in the back of our house, why the neighbors can do it, and never run out of space, because the wind takes away the ashes, carries them and lets them fall far away.

 

Beans

After a long time of running around chasing after lizards I get a headache and go sit by Amá who’s kneeling outside in the shade by the house.

Te va a salir sangre de la nariz, she warns.

I stare at the pot of beans because it seems it should fall, tip over, as it sits all shaky on the grill that looks really similar to the corner of the box spring of a bed.  The coils are rusted.  They give under the weight of the pot.  Amá keeps adding water to the pot.  Next to the pot is a comal where she lays each tortilla that she makes perfectly circular with the tortillera.

Tengo hambre, I say and she takes a tortilla, adds a pinch of salt, and rolls it up into a perfect little flute for me.

I smell the tortilla first.  I love the aroma, but I’m scared of the fire pit in the ground.  The flames are always kicking up and the heat flashes out from the tips like sheets of hot wind against your cheek.  You have to stay away a little.  Also, the burning wood smokes up and leaves a layer of soot all over your face if you sit there long enough.  Amá always looks a little gray, her eyes watery, unless the day is windy.  If it is windy, having a fire outside is dangerous and so she has to use the stove inside, and that uses gas from a tank.

I wait until the beans are ready and she serves me a few in a plastic cup and I spoon them out and take bites from a tortilla.  And then I run off to chase after lizards, the only animals out in the noonday sun.  All the other animals stay under the shade in the hottest part of the day.  We don’t have any horses or cows but I see them sometimes by the side of the road when I have to go run an errand.  And if it’s very hot, they’re always resting under a tree.  I should learn from that but I don’t.

A little bit later I’m in bed with a nose bleed, pinching my nose to coagulate the blood that just pours out.  Amá is angry because she told me this would happen from running around all day under the sun in the heat and I didn’t listen.  I wonder if all the kids I see from far away under the sun are also bleeding now in their houses.  She says sometimes talking to me is like talking to a dog but who would talk to dog?  That’s just silly.

I can feel the blood running down my throat as I swallow but I don’t taste it.  And I think myself lucky that I don’t have to taste blood.  Then I must have slept because when I get up, the house is noisy with the voices of my brothers and sisters who are back from school or work.  I get up and go to the kitchen.  Amá is ironing, which means I have to be careful around the iron because once, it tripped over and the hot part of it landed on my foot and it hurt worse than a headache.  I was also running then.  She stops for a second, takes a wet rag and wipes my hands which are splotchy with dried blood and my face which I figure must also be splotchy.  I walk outside, play marbles with Juan.  It’s not a lot of fun because we only have a few marbles and so the game is over right away.  The best part is making the little hole in the ground for the marbles to land in because the dirt is cool just a little under the surface and it feels good on the fingertips.  Lizards skitter by but I don’t chase after them. 

Vengan a cenar, we hear.

There’s only like three chairs in the kitchen so most everybody stands.  She places a plate of beans before me, refried and the hint of lard grease makes my mouth water.  I take a piece of tortilla and scoop up a mouthful of beans, always careful to stay on one end of the plate because the other end has a hole in it and we shouldn’t be wasting food by letting it squish through the plate.  When I am done, I have another glass of water, then I sit under the door frame that faces the sun that is leaving.  The sky is turning shades of orange and pink and blue.  The weeds and the trees are already ringing with the songs of cicadas and the early chirping of crickets.  A goat is bleating but the sound is soft, like it is hiding behind all the other sounds.  It must be somewhere down the road in some other house.  Maybe it’s tied to a tree or sitting inside a pen.  When goats bleat up close it’s really loud.  I used to think they bleated because they were tied up or trapped in a pen but no, they’re always bleating, even when they’re out grazing on anything they can find.  Even when they are not tied or inside a pen.  Still, it always sounds sad, like they’re crying out for something.  And I wish I could ask them, but they wouldn’t understand me.

I tell Amá I need to go to the bathroom.  I’m scared of the dark so she tells my sister Aleida to go with me.  We go out behind the house, close to the ebony tree.  I pull down my shorts and squat.  Aleida stands a few feet from me.  We say nothing.  When I’m done I grab a corn cob within reach and wipe myself. 

I go back to the door frame.  Just as everything is becoming darkness, somebody nudges my shoulder and leads me to bed.

 

Chickens are Nosy

 I hate it when the chickens come around because they’re hungry too.  The tank for the stove is out of gas and so my sister Mari cooks potatoes out of a dirt-filled barrel outside.  It’s different to eat outside, exciting.  The kindling is mostly little sticks and torn pages from my older brother’s comic books, pages with so many big-chested women and angry-looking men lying in bed together and kissing but not how relatives kiss us when they come visit.  Amá is not here, she’s on the other side visiting Apá, who’s working hard.  The potatoes are half raw because we’ve run out of kindling or because my sister got tired of stirring.  I don’t know, but I don’t say anything.  I just keep eating.  The chicken’s run out of worms, I guess, and comes around wanting food, sneaking out from under the cactus bush.  Its white feathers look so pretty against the pale gray green of the cactus bush.  They ask with their beady yellow eyes, I know the look.  It remains just a little longer than usual on the thing it wants.  Then it moves on to other things, the look, but the chicken sticks around, walking in circles, pretending, like we’re not going to figure it out.  They walk but never leave, hoping for something to fall from our hands, slip out of our potato tacos.  I don’t think they like potatoes but they’re hoping they might.  The chicken zig-zags.  My brother Juan hits it with a stick, too hard, the chicken wobbles.

¿Juan, qué hiciste? shrieks Mari.

Nada.  No’más quería asustarla.

And it’s true he only wanted to scare it away.  I can tell he feels bad because his head hangs down a little and he eats more slowly.  We’ll have to nurse the chicken back to health or kill it.  And we don’t want to kill it, it’s too young, mostly bones, not enough meat.  That afternoon the chicken is still kind of wobbly, slow.  Mari crushes a mejoral in a spoon and dilutes it in a cup of water.  I wish the mejoral was for me because when Amá gives us one when something hurts, she mixes the crushed mejoral with a little bit of sugar.  It tastes a little mediciny but still kind of like candy.

Mari lifts the chicken from the ground and it doesn’t even flap its wings.  Mari dips its beak in the water.  I hold the cup but it’s not really drinking.  It doesn’t know the water has medicine that will make it better.  I wonder if the mejoral would help it anyway.  It helps me sometimes when I get headaches, like something is pressing against the inside of my head.  Amá says it’s because I’m too much out in the sun like a lizard, that I have to come in and be in the shade once in a while.  And I try to remember this but I always forget.  I think the chicken’s going to die because she hasn’t clucked very much today and she’s got sleepy eyes.  I think we’re gonna have soup, but not a lot.

  At the end of the day the train makes a stop and whistles loudly.  It always hurts my ears but it also means Amá may be coming so I run to the side of the road, wait for her.  The train is the only way in and out of this place where we live if you don’t have a car.  And very few people have a car.  When one of us is very sick and has to go to the doctor in the city, Apá has to find a ride.  Or he used to.  I haven’t seen him in a while.

Amá walks up the pathway with several fat bags.  She stops and hands me a little wind-up monkey playing a drum.  It’s ugly.  And it doesn’t matter that this is the first new toy I’ve ever gotten.  It’s still ugly.  She can tell I don’t like it.  She’s upset like ahh, forget it.  She walks past me, goes inside, lays the packages on the table in the kitchen and sits, slumps on a chair.

She says we’ll be leaving soon, far away to the other side, to a place called the United States.  I don’t know why it is the other side.  I imagine it’s somewhere on the other side of the canal that runs close to the houses around here.  But I’ve seen the other side of that canal and it looks the same as this side, with little houses and little potted plants and swings made of car tires. 

¿Y Apá? I ask.

Bien.

¿Lo vio?

Sí.

¿Dónde?

En el puente.

¿El puente que crusa el canal?

No, otro puente.

¿Cuál?

Uno lejos.

I’ve never seen any bridge other than the one that crosses over the canal.  But Apá is across another bridge, one that is far away.  Far away.

When you stand on the railroad tracks and look down at a wooden plank and then the next one and the next one, it gets so that you can’t count anymore and the planks keep going away from you in a straight line.  Then you just end up looking at the sky because far away it looks like it touches the tracks, the clouds not above anymore, just down there with the tracks.  I wonder if where Apá is he can see the clouds around him, he can touch the sky.

 

Mapas

I look at the sheets, see the splotches of dried urine, my urine, the edges always threatening to seep further across until they cover the entire surface of the bed.  Zorrillo, Amá calls me like joking but also a little angry or tired.  It’s hard to tell.  She says the sheets are covered in maps.  This means she has to clean the sheets more often, which is more work and she’s always cooking or washing, cooking or washing, cooking or washing.

I run outside because I don’t want to look at those maps anymore.  I’m not sure what maps are, but I seem to make them.  I run to the tall mesquite and climb it.  Then when I get bored of that, I go stare at the flowers of the cactus, one layer of yellow petals, simple flower, like the simple cactus that looks like huge thick leaves growing out of each other.  No trunk, no branches, but still managing to work their way off of the ground into pretty patterns.  Sometimes my sisters take the insides of the flowers and press them to their ears like earrings, but if I do that they get angry.  After that I go to the pig pen where a pig rolls in the mud.  I wish I could roll in the mud but Amá would get very angry cause I’d have dirtied my shorts.

After a while I get tired and go sit indoors.  Sometimes Amá bathes me – I stand on a rock outside and she pours water over me and it feels cool – but not always.  Sometimes she just looks at me, looks down at the dirt caked around my ankles humid from the sweat that trickles down my legs making odd shapes as it works itself over and around the layer of dirt that coats everything, everything that moves and everything that doesn’t.

Más mapas, says Amá and she means my body.

 

It Happened Again

She said it again, ya no te quiero.  I don’t know how it happened that I forgot that she could stop loving me.  But there it is, she’s said it.  I’ve really ruined everything now.  How could I be so stupid?  How could I forget to behave?  The dirt, the dirt everywhere is hard and oily from all the bare feet.  There is a hole in the ground in the corner of the room and a little snake pokes its head through.  It looks at me, sticks its tongue out and then dips below and disappears.

She comes around this time, bends down to me.  Anda, sí te quiero, she says in a soft voice.  And I am happy again.  But around her face everything seems a little out of place. The walls seem crooked, the sky peeking in through the door is not the right blue.  The chicken walking around stares at me too long, one leg suspended off the ground.  It should be looking at the ground for kernels of corn or rice or worms.  But it keeps looking at me.  Amá took pity on me, sure.  That’s why she said she loved me again.  But I don’t know if she really does anymore.  She confuses me with her threats, her words that change, her face soft one minute and hard the next.  She loves me though.  She loves me.  She loves me.

I run out and there on the ground is a lizard the color of dust.  Its neck expands and contracts.  It is breathing and its glossy eyes see me.  But it does not know where I have been.  It knows nothing, only that it runs and hides.  I tell myself, remember to listen, remember always to listen and obey.  Then I run away, climb the large mesquite tree behind the outhouse.  I hold one to a branch and close my eyes.  The tough bark scratches my thighs, irritates my palms, but right now I am only the swaying branch, like a lizard, green this time.

 

Refrigerator

One night I was in the house in my usual bed and the next I was here, in this house that must be what a palace looks like.  Amá says some friends crossed us over in the night, me, Morayma, Juan, Aleida and Mirella, that we were sleeping and so don’t remember.  And Apá is here and I can hardly believe it.  He carries me and kisses me and it is like he never left.  I feel bad though that I never got to see the bridge, the one Apá crossed, the one he never crossed back. 

I’d never seen Tía Ninfa before but Amá says she is her sister and so I have to be respectful.  She’s rich.  Her house has so many rooms I can’t count them.  We sleep in what Tía Ninfa calls the garage, which is supposed to be a room for cars.  Why would cars need a room? Why would they even need a roof?  The only concrete floor I’d seen up until now was in one little store on the other side and in the city of Río Bravo.  But here this house has concrete everywhere.  Amá and Apá sleep on a bed, and the rest of us sleep on the floor.  We sleep on sheets of foam with blankets but it’s still hard.  It’s like sleeping right on the concrete, which is way harder than sleeping on dirt.  But it doesn’t matter because it’s only at night and the garage is warmer than the house on the other side.  The coldest part of winter is leaving but it’s still cold outside.

The house has three rooms with beds and little rooms in them called closets.  A separate room for clothes.  Again, why would clothes need a room to themselves?  My tíos’ bedroom has the largest bed I’ve ever seen.  It’s gigantic, so big their bodies could move around all night and never touch.  My boy cousin has his own room too and my two girl cousins share another room.  There’s a large area at the center called a living room and it seems larger than our entire house on the other side.  Next to it is the largest table I’ve ever seen.  It has eight chairs around it.  And I count only five people in Tía Ninfa’s family and I don’t know why they have so many extra chairs.  And there are glass doors that slide open leading into what Tía calls the backyard.  The sliding doors though, I’ve never seen those, not even in Río Bravo.  You can see outside, see the sunlight, but you don’t feel a thing.

The strangest and best thing is that I’m not cold when I’m inside the house.  It smells great too, like perfumed because it smells different than outside and I’ve never been in a house that had a different smell then outside, except maybe for a kitchen or the doctor’s office.  This is where we’re staying now.  This is where, until we find a place to live here on the other side.  That’s what Amá said before she gave me the big speech about not being a pest, not hanging around the kitchen, saying no thank you if I am offered food, not playing with anything that is not mine, not touching anything, not asking for anything.

Why can’t we hang around the kitchen?  Because it’s not our kitchen, she said.  And we need to be nice and behave.  I asked her if I could ask for water.  And she said yes, you can ask for water, and I felt better.  That’s how it was, then she had to leave for something and we all stayed behind.

All the objects in Tía Ninfa’s house sparkle like they belong in a store, like I’m in a store.  A hissing noise comes on and off during the day and I know not to ask what it is.  These things called lamps sit by small tables next to a long chair for several people that has big soft cushions.  It reminds me of the long chairs at the doctor’s office in Río Bravo.  My cousins call it a sofa.  They have a television set in every room.  I don’t know why that is, why they need more than one television set and if the same show can be seen in all televisions.  The kitchen has a faucet with running water, indoor water.  I guess they don’t need a well.  The kitchen also has rows of little doors up high where I can’t reach and down close to the floor where I can but I don’t know what’s behind the doors or why they have so many of them.  It’s beautiful, though, like a little fort.

The refrigerator is huge and it has doors side by side.  I know what that is because I’ve seen something similar in the store on the other side, where they kept Cokes and chilled treats.  It is beautiful, white and tall with smooth rounded corners.  My cousin Criselda opens the thinner door and it is filled with boxes of treats and ice cream.  They’re practically falling out of little white wire baskets, even more treats than in the store on the other side.  And packets of frozen stuff that looks like meat.  She opens a box and pulls out a little plastic wrapped thing.  She asks me if I want one like she’d be happy to give me one, and I’m not sure what it is but I say no, thank you.  Okay, she says, then she open the package and reveals an ice cream popsicle shaped like a round face with big dark brown round ears.  I don’t know why but the face looks familiar.  The face is vanilla and the eyes and smile are chocolate and the ears are covered in a hard chocolate film.  She holds it from a smooth even little stick.  When she bites an ear I see the inside of the ears are chocolate too.  The dark chocolate film crackles between her teeth.  And she’s licking and biting and the popsicle is really thick and it seems like it’s too much ice cream for her.  It begins to melt down her hand, around each knuckle.  I think of telling her that it’s dripping but I don’t because I shouldn’t be staring.  That’s another thing I’m not supposed to do.

When she’s done, she licks the stick clean and the stick was smooth all the way up, rounded at the edges, no sharp corners.  She throws it away in the waste basket and walks away down the hall.  The refrigerator is silent.  No, the refrigerator is humming.  There is a motor of sorts, like the ones that make cars run, and it is keeping everything cold and everything else frozen.  It does not move.  I think of opening the thin door, taking an ice cream popsicle.  But I can’t, she offered and I said no and the offer is gone.  She should have insisted.  I’ve seen grown ups insist to each other.  Maybe if she would have insisted, I would have said yes, not knowing what I was saying yes to and thrilled to discover the surprise.  But Amá said nothing about people insisting and what to do in that situation.  And it doesn’t matter anymore, except that the door is there and it is not locked and not heavy to open.  I can reach the handle because it runs all the way down the edge of the door so grown ups and kids can open it, I guess.  And I am standing before it.  And it hums and on the other side of the door is something soft and sweet and cold.  And I start to pout and I don’t know why I’m pouting because nobody is laughing at me, nobody is making fun of me, nobody is chasing me with stones in their hands.  Still, my lips tighten and stick out and I’m glad nobody is watching me.  I walk outside, out back.  A chain link fence encircles the backyard, and I know not to ask why the house has to be fenced.

 

José Antonio Rodríguez is a graduate student in the English and Creative Writing program at SUNY- Binghamton and editor of the literary journal Harpur Palate.  He is the recipient of the 2009 Allen Ginsberg Poetry Award.  His work has appeared in Paterson Literary Review, Cream City Review, The Spoon River Poetry Review, Connecticut Review and elsewhere.

1 comment

1 Mary Rose Webster { 12.20.09 at 11:45 pm }

What a pleasure this essay is to read. And read again. We have such empathy with the young narrator. The writer makes this happen with the senses, the way the boy loves the aroma of the tortillas, loves the cool touch of the dirt when he plays his over-too-soon game of marbles, thinks the white chicken feathers are pretty. They are little windows of beauty in the hard, hard world in which he lives.