by Benjamin Alvarado
Anita was happy once. She was married for twenty-one years and was a mother of two when her husband abandoned her for the manager of the apartment complex where he worked as the maintenance supervisor. They never divorced. Her children grew, moved out, married, and had kids of their own, leaving her behind in the three-bedroom apartment. After several years she moved into a single room rental and got the job of providing for her widowed father. Her dearest item was a photo on her nightstand of a young her and her parents having lunch at the Norteños Restaurant in Matamoros. It was a black and white photo taken in 1965; it was the happiest time of her life. Her kids rarely visited or phoned and failed to invite her to their kids’ birthday parties. She never found another partner and she never learned to drive a vehicle. She lived upstairs with her cat Lilly and every afternoon sat on the balcony at the table with the albacar plant she secretly took from her parents’ home when her mother passed away and two aluminum chairs, though only one was ever occupied, to drink a cup of coffee and read the Herald of the day before. She watered the plant every morning as she headed out to work; she refused to let it wither. On her last day of work, she did not water it.
She took the bus at eight in the morning from the bus stop across the street in front of an abandoned shoe repair business. She carried a morral on her shoulder and in it an egg sandwich for the homeless man that slept on the bus stop bench. A white dog gave him company under the bench during the nights and he shared his day’s adventures with it and half of the sandwich. He did not own the dog and when the sun rose they parted ways in the journey to survive another day.
The bus driver knew her by name and so did most of the people who rode the bus at that hour. Six drivers had been replaced during the twelve-years of her riding the same route.
There was neither beauty on her face nor luxury on her clothing. She was missing the two front teeth and wore thick spectacles over her tired eyes. Her features were that of an exhausted, old woman.
The bus stopped in front of her father’s house. A bus stop didn’t exist but the driver made the exception. Her father stood by the screen door wearing a blue beanie, warmers, and a sweater. He was staring sluggishly at the passing cars. Anita opened the door and passed by him. He did not remember Anita.
“Who the hell are you?” he said.
“Anita, father, your daughter,” she replied, removing the note that read, “Please Take The Pills That Are Inside”, from the refrigerator door.
“Where is your mother? She never came back with my goddam cigarettes.”
“Mom passed away twelve years ago. Why are you wearing all that? It’s the middle of the summer and it’s close to one hundred degrees.”
“I’m cold and it’s none of your goddam business!”
What do you want for breakfast?”
“What is that luggage for? Are we going on a trip?”
“Don’t worry about the luggage, father. What do you want for breakfast and how is that bruise on your forehead?”
“You slipped and fell in the bathtub a week ago. The doctors say you can’t be alone anymore.”
He spent the entire night inside the bathtub on his stomach, defecated, and whimpering. When Anita stepped out of the bus he was not standing by the door and she had to use to key to get in. She heard the shower running and ran into the restroom. The curtain was torn off and covering his body. The ambulance took him and he was released from the hospital after eight hours. From there on she posted a note everyday on the restroom door that read, “Do Not Take A Shower”.
He sat at the table by the window near the stove admiring the tree he had planted twenty years ago. The Alzheimer’s erased that memory.
“Did you know that one day all those leaves will fall off that big tree? One day it will have new leaves, all of them.” He smiled.
Anita was standing in front of the stove. “I’m sure it will.”
“What are we having for breakfast?”
“Refried beans with flour tortillas.”
“The last time you ate this was about two months ago. Don’t lie.’
“Did you buy the Herald?”
“Yes. I have yesterday’s.”
His hobby was reading the obituaries daily to see who he outlived.
“I beat ten people in Brownsville yesterday! There is one in here that was only forty-two years old! I’m how old?”
He laughed and slapped his hand on his knee. “I lived twice that fool’s age!”
“I went to the dance last night with Lupe. I got drunk and danced cumbias all night.”
“Who is Lupe? Then you must be hungover.”
“He is my best friend! He lives down the street in front of the grocery store and spends the afternoons with me. Yesterday we took the bus to Harlingen because he had tickets to the dance and we met a few ladies. I never wake up hungover.”
“I’m glad you had fun, father.”
She played along with the story for a year; Lupe didn’t exist and he had never downed a drink in his life. She felt tired of the same routine after twelve years, the walking, the bus, the cooking, the medicines, the doctor visits, the profanity, the washing, the mopping, but noting the luggage on the floor by the front door with his old hat and cane on top brought her to tears. Routine is a comfort, a refuge, a concealed joy, and when it is fragmented then life has been edited and it may not be for the best.
“What is the matter, Anita?”
“Where is your son Tomas? How are his kids?”
“Tomas has a new car and house. His kids are there.” Anita pointed at the photo on the wall.
He stood in front of the photo of a small boy holding a baby girl close to him at an amusement park. “You take care of your baby sister, Tomasito,” he said to the photo. “She will be the best friend you will ever have in the world. Don’t let anyone harm her because she will take care of you one day, too.”
“Sit down, father, and eat your breakfast.”
A few hours after Anita left a new car parked in front of his house and a younger man gave him company when he sat on the chair on the patio facing the street. They talked for hours daily but he forgot by the following day.
“Did you know that Tomas and I spent a lot of time together when he was younger? We watched the Mexican soccer matches together over coffee and sweetbread. He’s such a good kid, but one day he never came back to see me. Maybe that’s when he met Carolina. Young men tend to forget about everyone when they fall in love. In fact, everyone does. I know the feeling.”
He sat on the sofa in front of the television and whimpered. “I miss your mother. She was the love of my life. What are my suitcases doing on the floor?”
“You can’t be alone anymore, father, and I can’t be here all the time.”
“Where am I going?”
“To a new home.”
“Is your mother coming?”
“No, she is not.”
“She just can’t.”
“What about my things? How am I going to move all of my furniture?”
“We’ll take care of it, father. Family will help.”
“What family? No family has visited me in years but you. Will you say goodbye to Lupe for me?”
“Write it on a note. And don’t forget to water all of your mother’s plants.”
Anita stayed silent. She left him alone as she filled a bucket of water to mop. She put the leftovers in the refrigerator and then sat next to him. He watched television for a few hours; he watched a few shows and one soccer match. She looked around and started to spot things she had not over the years. There was a small crack on the ceiling above the television; behind her on the wall was a slightly twisted nail, one square of floor tile in front of the center table was not lined correctly, and then she stopped looking. She posted the reminder notes, bathed him, cooked his dinner and put it away in the microwave for him to eat at six as the note said. She kissed his forehead goodbye and touched his hand; it was the last time she kissed him goodbye in that house. The nurses took him early the next morning to his new home.
A smaller print of a young her and her parents having lunch at the Norteños Restaurant in Matamoros was inside one corner of her parents’ wedding picture frame with a handwritten note that read “I love Anita”. It was his handwriting. She left wondering how long it had been there.