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America DreamingA Roman à Clef
By Tonyo Meléndez
AuthorHouseCopyright © 2011 Tonyo Meléndez
All right reserved.
Chapter OneFather Hopes
Any minute now, Memo's father was going to walk in! It was 1956, and the 14 year old boy sat nervously in the living room of his godfather Ted. Seeing his godson in such state, Ted offered to give Memo something to calm him down. Memo refused, insisting he was alright and needed nothing. I'm a man. Girls need those things, Memo thought. It had been only ten minutes since Ted, hanging up the telephone, said: "Your father is on his way." Though Memo had traveled all the way from El Salvador to meet his father, now that it seemed it was about to happen, Memo wasn't sure it was such a great idea.
Memo had been walking out of one of the movie theaters his Tío Lalo managed when his uncle ran into him. Tío Lalo asked what Memo was doing for the summer. Memo had no specific plans but did not want to be seen as lazy, so he said, "I'm not sure, uncle."
"Why don't you come with me to Nicaragua?" "I am going there with my company. We'll tour around Nicaragua for ten weeks."
"That sounds great, I'll ask my mother."
"It's not for free," his uncle said. "You'll work as stagehand and also as the company's prompter. I'll take care of your room and board."
Within a week, Memo was on his way to Nicaragua. Traveling by land, the three trucks meandered up and down the mountainous Central American terrain. The narrow, unpaved roads reminded Memo of a French movie he had seen not too long ago: The Wages of Fear. In it, all the travelers including the hero, played by Ives Montand, died on a similar road as the one he was on. Was this an omen? The road was flanked on one side by the mountains and on the other by bottomless abysses. The dusty, rough roads were so narrow that whenever a vehicle encountered on coming traffic a decision would have to be made as to who was to back up until a bit of shoulder could be found where one of the vehicles would pull in to allow the other one to pass. Going forward was dangerous enough, backing up was even more so. The drivers, aware of this, obeyed some unwritten code and kept the famous Latin temper under control.
All the men in the company traveled in the back of the trucks, while the ladies and Tío Lalo rode in the cabins. Memo had the misfortune to be on the third truck and for three days and two nights a steady cloud of dust enveloped him and the men. The first day, when they stopped to eat by some roadside comedor, their dust-caked faces and gray hair were the cause of great merriment. Tío Lalo and the women were laughing so hard they were barely able to eat. By the second day no one, except Tío Lalo, found it funny. But even Tío Lalo, not known for his tact, did not dare laugh by the third day. The men were very grumpy that interminable day. The men's sense of humor returned when they arrived in Managua, the capital of Nicaragua, and they were able to take long, long showers.
Those three days not withstanding, Memo was having a wonderful time. His mother had mentioned many times how much she enjoyed traveling, which she had done for almost two decades. In fact, Tío Lalo had started it all when he had married Memo's aunt, Dahlia, many years ago. That was how the family had entered show business. Years of listening to his mother's travel adventures had planted a seed of desire in Memo to do the same. Even though, he gathered from his mother, the life of an artist had been hard; the good times outweighed the bad. Besides, his yen to travel, and more importantly, his wish to meet his father was the reason he had accepted his uncle's invitation. When he asked his mother, she seemed reluctant to grant her permission but perhaps she felt she owed her son that much, and somewhat unhappily she let him go.
Due to the dust, Gil, the lead tenor, was sick and the company had to wait until he could perform. In the meantime they all were free to do as they pleased. This was fine with everyone, except Tío Lalo, who was known as a tightwad. Having to wait was killing him. Memo had never felt so alive. Traveling was intoxicating and he was drinking it in great gulps. He seemed to be in tune with color, light and sound. Everywhere he looked, something new assaulted his senses. This feeling was to repeat itself each day. Memo promised himself he would seize every opportunity to visit foreign lands.
This morning, when he finally reached his godfather Ted on the phone and asked him if he could help him find his father, Memo's heart almost burst when Ted unhesitatingly said "Yes!" Not only that he could, but that he would do it that very day.
"Where are you? I come pick you up right away," his godfather had said.
Ted was a tornado. His motto seemed to be: Never leave anything for the next hour that you can do this minute, never sit if you can stand, never walk if you can run; which is exactly how he entered the cheap pension where Tío Lalo had the company stay. "Where's my godson, Guillermo Antonio!" He roared, giving Memo a bear hug. Guillermo Antonio was his given name. His mother liked to call him Memo, but to his Nicaraguan relatives he was known as Guillermo Antonio. "Let's get something to eat and then I'll take you home to meet my family and call your father." This is how Memo had hoped he would be received by his family. This bode well.
Memo longed to be accepted by his Nicaraguan family. His mother had told him that Ted, who was then only a teenager, had insisted on being Memo's godfather. His family owned a ranch and to show Memo's mother that he would take his duties as godfather seriously, he had a young cow selected to be used exclusively for Memo's milk. And so it had been, until Memo's mom took that decision which completely changed the course of Memo's life for the worse.
After lunch, and just as he had promised, Ted took Memo home to meet his family and immediately after that, he picked up the phone and made several calls until he found Elias. "He'll be here in a few minutes," Ted said, hanging up the phone. Everything was going well. It had been a perfect day. But, why was Memo suddenly filled with fear?
He could not understand it! He had wanted to meet his father ever since he could remember and now he felt like running out of his godfather's house, out of Managua, and into his mother's arms. She had asked him if he was sure he wanted to take the chance. Maybe his father would not want to see him. Was Memo sure he could handle the rejection? Why wouldn't he? Memo had replied. What father would not want to meet his son? His mother had told him that he was the spit and image of his father and that Memo had inherited from him, not only his good looks, but his intelligence. His mother had always praised Memo on both, never failing to say "You get those from your father." Memo was proud of that.
"My father will take a look at me, realize what a great kid I am, and accept me."
"Are you sure?" his mother asked in a tone that made Memo give her a second glance.
"Of course I'm sure," Memo said with the confidence only a teenager can have. At least, on the outside. On the inside he had not been so sure.
And now, a few minutes from that long awaited meeting, he was sure he was not sure. He could hear La Cheli's voice saying, "El tísico, (meaning he was tuberculous), skinny as a rail, I hope he dies from it." She never had much to say about Memo's father, but what she had to say was always bad. But La Cheli had nothing good to say about anybody. It seemed to Memo that his grandmother's philosophy was: If you don't have anything bad to say about somebody, don't say anything at all; which was why Memo chose not to listen to her rantings against his father. But repetition is powerful and now, as he awaited his father's arrival, all he could hear was La Cheli's angry voice. Reluctantly, he asked Ted for the pills he had turned down a few moments ago. He swallowed them quickly hoping they would do whatever it was they were supposed to do. So far, they had not. It was summer and Managua was very hot. Managua is always hot and so all the doors are left open to allow the air to circulate freely, including the front door. Another jeep went by and Ted sprung to his feet saying "That's your father's jeep." Memo did not know how Ted knew that because it seemed to him almost every vehicle in Nicaragua was a jeep. Ted stuck his head out the door and said: "Yeah, it is Elias." Memo's heart sank. This was not how he had hoped to feel when The Moment arrived. He would have run away if his legs would have obeyed him, instead he sat there frozen. "Elias, how are you man? I never see you anymore." "Busy," the voice said, "always busy."
Memo thought the occasion demanded he be standing when his father entered and somehow he managed it just before his father's figure filled the door's frame. He was bigger than he had expected, both in height and girth. And he was not skinny; not at all. He was not fat but rather powerful looking. His hairline was receding, which made Memo worryh is hairline would start receding too. Memo searched for himself in his father. The eyes! I have his eyes! He had suffered some ribbing from his friends because of his large eyes. Tecolote, his friends had nicknamed him. His father had owl eyes too. He was an impressive man and, without knowing why, Memo felt fear. He had felt this peculiar fear once before. A few years back, his aunt's lover had chased him around the beach one summer. The man was having fun watching Memo beg him to stop. The more he begged, the more the man laughed and chased him. Memo understood the source of his fear, it was the primal fear all male animals feel for the leader of the pack. It seems to say: "I'm stronger than you, don't challenge me for I can kill you if I wish." He was feeling it again, and he did not like it. It made him feel inferior, which is probably why he did what he did.
His father was looking at him, or rather, inspecting him. Much like a sergeant inspects a private; trying to find fault. Protocol for these occasions does not exist. Memo did not know whether to embrace the man, or shake his hand. His father made no attempt to do either. Maybe he too did not know. But at that moment Memo thought that whatever was wrong had to be his fault, and felt he was lacking something, though he didn't know what. His father sat on a white wicker armchair on the other side of the living room. Ted also took a seat, leaving Memo standing there waiting for something that never came. Self-conscious, Memo hastily sat down, and waited. No one said anything.
Finally, his father spoke. "So, how's your mother?" For some reason, this was not the first thing Memo thought his father would say to him. Memo felt disappointed. He had expected his father to say something memorable. His father's question sounded like the continuation of a conversation that never had happened. It seemed banal. It should have been something dramatic, like in the movies. Before Memo could answer, his father said: "Does she look as good as me?" Memo did not know what to make of that either. His mind raced for an answer. He sensed the question carried hidden meanings.
The marriage had ended quickly. He did not know the whole story, for his mother was not one to share intimate details about her past. She had told him, however, that the last time Memo had seen his father, or rather the last time his father had seen Memo, they were in the hospital where he was born and Memo was a few days old. His father had asked his mother what she intended to do with her acting career, but before she could answer, apparently his father did not wait for answers even then, he had said: "Surely you're not going to continue acting?" Before she could respond, he had said: "You're my wife now. No wife of mine is going to bounce from town to town and theater to theater. What is it going to be?" And again, before she could answer he had said the words that would change the course of Memo's life forever: "Me, or the theater?"
Memo's mother chose the theater. You have to understand that Memo's mother had been a professional actress for ten years by then, and had achieved an independence few women of her time had. She was what years later would be called, "a liberated woman" and, married or not, she intended to keep her independence. So, mother kept her career and Memo lost his father. Just like that the destinies of children are decided.
"Does she look better than me?" his father asked. Memo was still trying to figure out what his father meant by "good", now he had to decide what he meant by "better?" How am I to know that? La Cheli's voice rang in his head: "Vain, vain, vain. He thinks he's God's gift to the world; always dressed in white." He was dressed all in white! For the first time in his life, Memo began to consider the possibility that she might be right. Choosing the lesser of two evils, Memo said: "She looks good." His father seemed disappointed. "She's older than I am, you know?" said his father. Memo did not know that, and it shook him up. He had struggled, spite evidence to the contrary, to see his life as normal.
The phrase "dysfunctional family" had not yet been invented. I didn't have a father to bring me up, but everything else is okay. But this bit of news was not okay. The father must be older than the mother! That was the accepted norm. Why was his father telling him this? Why had his mother not told him? Somebody was guilty of something. What else had his mother not told him? Ah yes, his mother had not told him about sex.
Memo was still reeling from what a kid had told him a year or so ago about how babies were made. He was playing in the nearby park with a boy about his own age, and the conversation had turned, as it usually does with boys, to sex. The kid had asked if Memo knew how babies were made. Memo knew it was God who made them. He also knew that if he said that, the kid would laugh at him. Memo had questions about things that had been said to him about God that made sense once, but no longer did. This was one of them. He had not had the courage to ask his mother about them, afraid this might arouse suspicions in her mind as to what he was doing when she was not home, which was most of the time. He adored his mother and her approval was the most important thing in his life. Whom to ask? This was a time when having a father would have helped. An older brother would have done. No such luck.
Memo knew more about sex than his family thought he knew. He had gathered bits and pieces from the kids in school, but mostly from the neighborhood kids. A lot of them were sons of whores, literally. Memo's family was middle class. Lower middle class perhaps, but middle class nevertheless. He was one of the few kids whose family owned a home. Half a block from his house was a large meson. A meson, in its original meaning, is an inn, a public house. In his neighborhood it was public housing of the poorest kind.
The meson was a series of one or two room wooden shacks, with dirt floors and no hygienic facilities whatsoever. The tenants had to go to a common restroom, half lit by whatever light filtered through the boards that made its walls. Anybody could peek in if they wanted to, but only kids found it entertaining. Adults had long grown weary of that show. There were several deep holes in the ground over which the tenants squatted to relieve themselves. The stench was staggering. The tenants had to take a deep breath before entering and hope they could do what they had to do, before they had to breathe again. If they washed their hands, and most of them did not, they had to go find the public faucet where people gathered, much like people do around the water cooler in office buildings, and wait their turn to fill their pots and buckets which they hauled to their shacks to wash themselves and cook their meals. The only good thing about the faucet was that the tenants, mostly women, made the best out of a bad situation and used the waiting time to gossip. All liquids traveled in trenches that meandered through the shacks, reeking of the combined refuse, and emptied into the gutter and eventually reached the sewer system. That the meson owners charged rent for these shacks was a crime. The kid from whom Memo was about to get his sexual education lived in the meson.
Excerpted from America Dreaming by Tonyo Meléndez Copyright © 2011 by Tonyo Meléndez. Excerpted by permission of AuthorHouse. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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