by Benjamin Alvarado
The door of La Senora Garcia’s living room opened and Gregorio walked in. She was sitting on the sofa in front of the television that was next to an antique turntable. He set the bag on the floor and sat next to her. She had been waiting for him with the same disheartened grimace as when she last saw him and that was one expression that never left him.
Gregorio remembered the child’s face as he hit him with the Nova after the supermarket robbery when he was twenty-two-years-old. The kid toppled onto the Nova’s hood. Gregorio’s first instinct was to slam the breaks but he did not. In his subconscious he wanted to kill the boy, to run him over and put the car in reverse and run him over again and again until there was nothing left to squash. He wanted the feel of death in his hands because he got in the way of his escape and later led to his arrest. The kid was tossed off of the hood and bashed his head against a fire hydrant. Gregorio fled and hid the gun under the insulation inside his parents’ attic. It was never found.
Thirty-one years had passed. He thought about his daughters. Were they married? Were they happy? Did they miss him? Did he have any grandkids?
He had many plans. He wanted to get a job and take his daughters to a movie, eat popcorn, eat ice cream, brag about their achievements, meet their husbands, drink beer, and maybe dinner in the end. He wanted to sleep late the first few days and perhaps drink a few beers under the carport and say, “Hi” to every pedestrian that crossed the house. He wanted to sleep late that summer and drink as many beers as he could and have an old friend over simply to help him fit in a bit into the modern times.
Nothing had changed except the color of his old house and the style of a group of young girls that chattered in front of the house where his ex-wife lived when he met her. They talked different and dressed different. As he had walked down the street to his mother’s house, he had seen people peek through their curtains but no one stepped out to say hello. Maybe they didn’t recognize him. He had already thought of the lies he would say if they had approached him. He doubted anyone cared, he was sure everyone remembered his crime. He bet they were all asking why he had returned.
“Gregorio, you are home,” she said, touching his cheek.
“Yes, I am free.”
“You have lost weight.”
“Yes, the weight is off.”
She touched his hand and cried. She resisted the courage to hug him as her hand trembled in mid air to tell him how much she loved and missed him but they never were the type of family to expose emotions to one another. She lowered her hand when he gave her a slight shove to stay away from him. He kissed her forehead as an apology and then he carried his bag into his old bedroom. He hated to see his mother cry and he was sure she lamented getting that close to him. Her expression carried shame and guilt. Gregorio unpacked on the bed; two pairs of pants, a pack of Faros, two shirts, and a toothbrush. On the wall next to the door hung a portrait of his parents and he approached it to look into his father’s eyes. His dreary eyes were a dark brown like the color of his skin from all of the summers under the Florida sun in the orange fields. Gregorio was absent when the cirrhosis took his life and he spoke to Gregorio on the telephone on the day he passed.
He bathed and set his photo by the lamp on the nightstand next to the bed. He lay in the dark and in the distance he heard the wail of sirens and a train horn. The shadows of the trees swayed against the window curtains like children’s scrawny hands casting shadow figures on a wall. He had left the door open and would not sleep until his mother closed it.
A dog started to bark, and then another, and another, and by the time his mother opened the backdoor Gregorio was covering his ears with his hands.
“Hush, Firulais!” He heard his mother say outside near the window. “Callate! Let Gregorio sleep! He is tired!”
His mother’s shadow passed across the curtain. He heard the crumbling of a paper bag and the pouring of pebbles into an aluminum bowl. The dogs stopped barking. Gregorio waited for the backdoor to reopen. He could not sleep.
“Are you awake, Gregorio?”
“Are you hungry?”
“No, but I’d like the door closed.”
“I understand. You need your privacy.”
He almost broke into tears. He had had enough privacy. He had lost that one ability to close the door for himself. Someone had to do it for him.
“This is a bigger bed. Is this where father died?”
“Mijo, don’t think about it.”
He asked with more authority. “Is this where father died?”
“Did he ask about me? You know, in the end?”
“He missed you.”
“I want to sleep now.”
She shut the door.
The door was ajar when he opened his eyes and the nostalgic aroma of fresh flour tortillas and brewed coffee conducted fond memories of his youth into the essence of his new confines. The house his father built had started to deteriorate and lightning bolt cracks outlined the white walls like giant spider webs. The Pancho Villa statue that his father won in a Nuevo Progreso Expo Fiesta stood next to the Virgen de Guadalupe image his mother prayed to every morning on the shrine that was decorated with Mexican candles. Gregorio rolled his eyes upward to see a crucifix above his head and his father’s sombrero. He put on the sombrero and had breakfast with his mother.
“You can have it,” his mother said. “The sombrero.”
Gregorio ate with the steadiness of a tired man. He ate forcibly, trying not to gag.
“Is the food good, Gregorio?”
He did not reply.
“I can make something else.”
“Don’t bother. It will take time.”
“Will you go out today to see your friends?”
“I have no old friends. I want to see Elizabeth and the girls.”
“I think you should know. Elizabeth remarried and the girls have bonded with Sebastian.”
“You know his name?”
“I see the girls sometimes. I am their grandmother. I have every right.”
“When should I see them?”
“Give it some time, mijo. Instead go to your father’s grave. Take some flowers.”
“I should have seen him alive.”
“Take a walk, mijo. You will feel better.”
“Is your backyard fenced?”
“I think I’ll walk in your backyard.”
The yard looked like the body of a dog with mange and the occasional spots of grass that decorated it were brown and needly from the summer heat. Gregorio lay on the hammock tied to the porch posts next to the doghouse under the Fig tree and smoked a Faro. The air smelled of dog feces.
After an hour he paced alongside the wooden fence and peered through the gaps of the boards to see the neighbors ignite charcoal inside a grill. Their children frolicked across the grass, sputtered water at each other’s faces with a hose, and two Chihuahua dogs scurried behind them. He sat on the grass, leaned back against the fence, and lit another Faro. The smell of the charcoal smoke infiltrated with sweet onions and the crackle of the mesquite twigs inside the flames evoked memories of his family. For a moment he felt in place.
He started to walk again, holding a twig, until his father’s tool house crossed his path. It had once been a beautiful maroon but as the years passed it started peel off. The latch was unlocked and he opened the door. He stepped inside to sit on an empty bucket of paint. Up on the third shelf were the wooden toys his father carved and on the second shelf, underneath a brand new bottle of whiskey, a folded newspaper article with Gregorio’s illustration on the front. An uncleaned paintbrush lay next to a can of paint thinner and an old radio that had run out of battery power was turned to on. Gregorio did not touch anything as he walked out. He closed the door and there he was; black, muscular, eyes like an owl’s, canines exposed in a cannibalistic grin, and a long, heavy chain locked around its neck with a brass padlock. The animal was huge. He could use the twig like a weapon or he could toss the sombrero over its eyes and run. Gregorio lifted the twig and the animal raised its right paw.
“That’s Firulais, Gregorio,” said his mother from the backdoor. “Shake his paw. It’s the only trick I’ve been able to teach him.”
“A pit bull?”
“He was a gift from Elizabeth and the girls. They said it would protect me after the house was burglarized. ”
“He is a beautiful dog.”
“All dogs are when they are young. He is seven-dog years-old.”
“How long has he been chained? How will he protect you?”
“Six months. But look at him, his physique alone will scare anyone.”
“You have to release him. You can’t keep the dog chained all of the time. He will become mean.”
“Release him sometime.”
“I can’t. He is destructive. Six months ago he dug a hole under the fence and killed the neighbor’s dog. He has been chained since. He is better that way. He is lucky he wasn’t put to sleep.”
“He is a good dog.” Gregorio stroked the top of Firulais head. “It is not fair, is it, Firulais? We should let you be a dog. It isn’t fair.” The dog licked the palm of his hand.
“No, mijo, he is a naturally mean dog.”
“Where did the barks come from? I heard many last night.”
“All of our neighbors have dogs and I don’t think they like Firulais, especially the Chihuahuas next door. It was their mother he killed.”
The Chihuahuas started to bark. Firulais ears stood up, but he remained peaceful. He never took his eyes off of them.
They sat together at the table adjacent to the window where the sun set behind the trees. The tortillas blistered over the hot comal and El Clasico between America and Guadalajara was being televised from Mexico City. The television channel had remained the same since the passing of Gregorio’s father and the coaster where he placed his last Tecate was on the center table under a pack of Faros. Gregorio would not pick at his food as he sat with the fork in his hand.
“Is the dinner better, Gregorio? I tried my best,” said his mother.
“It tastes the same. I would prefer canned food. Can you do that for me tomorrow?”
“Anything in particular?”
“It doesn’t matter.”
“I will go to the supermarket in the morning.”
“I love you.”
“I know, mijo.”
“Can you wash the spices off the chicken?”
“How are the corn tortillas? I made them by hand.”
“I would much rather have slices of white bread.”
“I am so sorry, mijo. I should have known.”
Gregorio cut a tortilla down the middle. He then put it back into the towel that kept the tortillas warm and instead ate the refried beans with the fork. “What will you do with the chicken bones?”
“They go in the trash.”
“Don’t. Set them aside.”
“Do you see the paper on the refrigerator door?” she said, holding the piece of chicken under the running water inside the sink. “That is Elizabeth’s telephone number. It is okay for you to call.”
“What about the girls?”
“It is up to her to let you speak to them.”
“Does she hold any resentment?”
“I don’t know, mijo. They never mention you.”
“Do you think they hate me?”
There was no answer from his mother for a few seconds. She pinched off some dough from a plastic bag and put it in the tortilla press. She looked down at the floor. “I’m sorry, Gregorio.”
“Did you ever tell them how I was? You and I spoke on the telephone every two months.”
“No, I never did.”
“Where do you keep the keys to Firulais’s lock? I will take him for a walk tonight.”
“They are on the key holder next to the door.”
“I will call Elizabeth tonight.”
That night he lay on the floor of the room and listened to the dogs bark with the ceiling fan light on. The telephone was by his right knee next to the plate full of chicken bones and a cigarette ashtray. He pressed the fifth Faro hard into the ashtray and thought about the happiest time of his life; about the house he remembered his father coming home in the last days of July carrying a rag bag that held his clothes and his burnt, tired face, under the shade of the old sombrero, forcing a half smile. They sat in the shadow of the Fig tree as Gregorio watched him drink whiskey, chew on pieces of sugarcane, and he told him stories about the migrants in the orange fields. Gregorio learned about the children that died from heat exhaustion as they worked the fields alongside their parents and of the illegal immigrants that were deported and were not paid after a month’s work. He thought of his earliest memory of his mother and of the day he met his wife and of the days his daughters were born, but he mostly thought of his father and of the stories under the Fig tree. He picked up the telephone, dialed, and let it ring three times.
He hung up. He admitted to himself that he was no longer the girls’ father. He no longer existed, to them or the world.
Gregorio opened his father’s tool house to get the bottle of whiskey. He sat in the dark under the Fig tree with Firulais by his side as he drank. He offered Firulais the plate full of bones but he ignored them.
“You can’t eat the good stuff? I figured. You need your dry food,” Gregorio said. “This is good whiskey, my friend, because my father drank it. These are good cigarettes, too, because my father smoked them. Do you know how many times I drank with my father?” Firulais wiggled his tail. “None. And neither did I see him die. I heard somewhere that you’ve been chained for six months. That’s three and a half doggy years. Are you still cruel? Will you bite me if I release you? Have you changed, Firulais? You have one ugly name, you know?”
Gregorio drank the whiskey under the Fig tree as the night passed. Firulais lay on the ground looking up at him. “You are an admirable dog. I have seen eyes like yours in the cages. I am an old man now, Firulais,” he said in tears, “and at this age I only want my old life back, but it’s not coming back and neither is yours if mom keeps you chained. The chains I carry are my past…just like yours.”
He freed the dog and slept on the grass.
The hole under the wooden fence was what Gregorio first saw in the morning. He swept the wet grass off of his back and peeked over the edge of the fence to see the two bodies. One was torn to pieces while the other lay by the dog house dripping blood from its snout. There was another hole under the fence facing the street.
He opened the door to the room where he slept and changed clothes.
“Will you pray with me, Gregorio?” his mother asked, kneeling at the shrine. “Don’t you want to change? La Virgen de Guadalupe always listens.”
“I will pray for you and I will call the radio station and they will pray for you, too.”
“Thank you, mother.”
“Don’t forget that I love you, mijo,” she said, stroking her rosary.
He felt sorry for his mother and her faith.
“I will try to be a good man, mother. Give me your bendicion. It is all I need.”
Gregorio kissed his mother on the forehead. He got the gun out from under the insulation and hid it in his pants. He stepped out into the street wearing his father’s sombrero.
He disliked the enormous new world and could not confront its rejection.
Firulais came running down the street with his snout full of blood. A speeding truck ran him over. He yipped. He rolled under the truck as it passed him completely. The tires did not get him. He got up and continued to run.
Gregorio followed him walking down the middle of the street inside a concert of barks.