Fiction. Latino/a Studies. It's the spring of 1978 and sixteen-year-old Antonio (Tony) McCaugh has just tried slashing his wrists. His mother arranges for her despondent son to spend the summer with his Uncle Jack in California as a sure-fire plan for lifting Tony out of his despair. The plan works, but at the same time Tony begins to discover that there is more to his uncle than the macho cliché of family legends. El Savador from 1870 though the 1930s is the setting for this sprawling populist mural of a novel ... Imaginative testimony on behalf of an entire people Publishers Weekly.
|Publisher:||Arte Publico Press|
|Product dimensions:||5.50(w) x 8.40(h) x 1.00(d)|
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I said nothing once Mamá told me that Uncle Jack had died of natural causes.
"Tony? Are you there? Hijo, talk back to me. Are you all right?"
I lifted the receiver back toward my mouth. "Yes, Mamá, I'm fine."
She whimpered. She had been crying while telling me the news. "Your uncle. He is dead. My brother, he is dead."
She wept. I shivered while listening to her sobs.
She turned the sobs off like a spigot. "Hey. What's the matter? Didn't you hear me?"
"Yeah ... Yes, I heard you, Mamá. What ... what did he die of?"
"They don't know. No gunshot wound. He wasn't beaten. No signs of poisoning. No one ran over him. Nothing. Absolutely nothing! He's just there, dead."
"In his bedroom here on Capp Street."
"But, was anybody with him when he died? Like, you know ..."
"No hookers. No pimps. No cholos. Not one pachuco or marijuano. Nobody. Chucho wasn't there, of course. They haven't spoken in years."
I had not heard Chucho's name in years; it was a Guatemalan nickname that meant "doggie."
"So there's absolutely no sign of an attack?" I asked.
"I'm telling you, hijo. He just died. I suppose I should see that as a blessing ..."
"My gosh, he wasn't that old, was he?"
"He would have been sixty-nine next year, Ithink. Yes, he was young!"
Sixty-nine, I thought. Appropriate.
"So," my mother asked, "will you go?"
"Go? To the funeral? I don't know, Mamá. San Francisco's a long trip. I've got my classes to teach. I don't have the money for the plane flight."
Though that was a half-truth, and my mother knew it, she did not contradict me, choosing not to comment upon what I did with my savings. Still, she was not the champion of poignant silence. She allowed for half a second before speaking: "I know it's been almost twenty years. But you haven't forgotten everything, have you?"
Ours was a coded form of communication, not one that hid anything, but rather relied easily upon mutually understood references. I knew exactly what she meant. I didn't want to believe I had forgotten.
"Mamá, you know I've got to teach."
"He died yesterday. They won't bury him until Saturday, or maybe even Sunday. Can't you miss just one or two days of class?"
Hers was a more logical voice. Yes, I could easily afford to miss a few classes, especially for a funeral. I had not missed any classes in my one-year career as adjunct professor at three separate colleges. In eight months I had put thirty thousand miles on my little Honda, zipping between the University of Tennessee in Knoxville, Jameson County College, and Wallace State in Morristown. I taught five classes each semester, all divided up among the three institutions. Each college saw me as a part-time employee, and thus didn't worry about trifles such as health insurance, benefits, retirement, or a parking space. In response to their forced asceticism, I had always arrived on time, sometimes sprinting through each campus in order to appear, sweating, before my class. Of course, I told myself, the reason I did not mind receiving three pauper's salaries that added up to one big pauper salary was because the students made the self-abnegation all worth it. I had never missed a class, not even when I had the flu.
"I can loan you some money," Mamá said, interrupting my thoughts. This was no altruism; it was a verbal slap of shame: poor Carmen McCaugh had to pay her son to go to her brother's funeral.
"No. I've got money. If I decide to go." Though it meant to be adamant, my voice trembled under those final words.
"Do you think Julie will come?" she asked.
I paused, too long for her not to notice. "No. I don't think so."
"Antonio, you can tell your mother."
She called me by my formal name, and not "Tony." I was trapped.
Then I was saved. The woman in question shoved her keys into the doorknob. I heard Julie open the door, jiggle the keys, then slam it behind her, no doubt with her thin hip. I could not see her from where I stood in the kitchen of our one-bedroom apartment. I clicked my teeth seven times, then tapped my forehead with the knuckle of my left index finger. Then I fell into the original language, "Ya viene, Mamá. Debo irme."
"Oh. She's there. And you want to speak Spanish. Well, that says it all, doesn't it?"
"Hablo más tarde."
"Vaya, pues. You call me if you need me."
"All right," I almost whispered.
"You're not happy, are you?"
Jesus, I would be happy if could hang up this fucking phone. "Oh, estoy bien, Mamá." I smiled, hoping she could feel her boy's grin over the telephone lines.
"I've not wanted to say anything, but I was never sure. She seems like a nice enough girl. And you know I have nothing against living together. But you all did seem to rush into it."
"I'll call you later."
"You don't want to talk to me about it, do you?"
"How did you guess?"
A pause, then, "Vaya pues. Te quiero, hijo."
"A usted también."
We hung up. I sighed.
Julie walked around the corner. She carried a small plastic sack of groceries from Kroger in one hand and her red purse in the other. She wore jean shorts and an old Sandinista shirt of mine, one that displayed a red and black painted heart (the color of that Nicaraguan party), with the words "Vamos adelante en la revolución" scrawled wildly over the front, resting upon her breasts. I used to wear that shirt quite often before I had met Julie. Somehow it had migrated, during trips to the laundrymat, from my dresser to hers.
Actually, both dressers were mine. She had taken the larger one six months ago, when we decided to have her move in with me. It had been a mutual agreement, one done out of both necessity and desire. Rent in Knoxville had become almost competitive with housing in such cities as Nashville and some parts of Atlanta. We both saved money, splitting the costs. That soon changed, however, once the summer months came on and her work-study job at the university ended. Julie could no longer pay her part. I had told her not to fret about it, that I could assume full payment. I remember the day we had talked about that: she had quickly taken me up on the deal, including not fretting at all. My landlady never found out about my live-in lover. Julie and I chose not to get the outside world involved in our private affairs.
As a graduate student in Political Science, Julie had few possessions such as furniture. It had taken little time to get her moved in with me. It had taken less time for items such as my Sandinista shirt to get folded into her clothes. The shirt seemed strange on her. I remember seeing numerous shirts such as those ten years ago on the shoulders of Nicaraguans back in Managua or out in the mountains of Nueva Segovia and Estelí. Darker skinned young peoplesome of them almost ebonyled marches and held rifles and books and, smiling, shouted out rhymed slogans concerning their hard-won revolution. It was beyond an anomoly to see the same shirt on the back of this white skinned, North American woman.
She was beautiful. Julie had dark brown hair that, in summers such as this one, she haphazardly tied up with a pinched bow. The strings of hair that hung to the sides of her face heightened the sexiness, giving her a slight whisp of wildness. Though Caucasian, she risked the dangers of melanoma just to acquire an even tan that now made the deadly sunbathing all worthwhile. Though I once jokingly told her that she didn't need to sunbathe just to please me, I was glad she did. The sun had yet to create wrinkles around her eyes, which were much darker than her hair or her skin. And her bikini line, I knew (though I had not seen it in two weeks) barely covered her nipples and pubis. She had begun work on that tan long before summer. I believe that was one of the prime reasons she had come south from her home in Minneapolis: it gets hot earlier here.
Tennis was her game. She played every day during the spring, summer, and fall. She was good. Everyone knew how good she was. Having played on her college team, she had never given it up. A group of her friends gathered together every week and chose who would play whom. She was so good that she had been picked to play against the top seated men in the group. No other woman could keep up with her.
I wondered if she had played tennis in my Sandinista shirt. I thought to ask her, though I did not want to sound offensive. I decided to wait.
"Who was that?" she asked.
"Oh. How is Doña Carmen doing since yesterday?" Julie nasalized the tilde "ñ" of "doña." I don't know why she did this. It sounded blatantly sarcastic.
"She's fine." I walked toward the kitchen to find a beer in the refrigerator. After opening the door and grabbing the can, I glanced at it, then placed it back in the doorshelf. "My uncle died."
"Uncle? I didn't know you had an uncle." Julie walked by me and placed groceries away: peanut butter in the shelves, fruit in a basket, yogurt in the refrigerator. She grabbed the beer that I decided not to drink and tore the top open. "What was his name?"
"Jack. Juan. Most everybody called him Jack. Except Grandmamá, of course." I glanced over at the Sandinista shirt. The apartment's loud air conditioning had worked on her. I could see her nipples through the cloth. Revolution never looked so good.
"Were you close to him?"
"When I was a kid. I spent a summer with him once. I was sixteen." I was about to tell her that I had a photo of him on my dresser, one that she had never paid any attention to. My lips opened, then my breath hesitated and fell back into the recesses of my throat.
"Did he ever come out here to visit you?"
"No. Mamá and I spent the summer in San Francisco."
"Oh. That's neat. So are you thinking of going?" She raised the beer to her lips and looked at me for the first time since entering the apartment.
"I'm ... I'm not sure."
"Could be a good chance to be with family, don't you know." She walked by me and toward the bedroom.
"Yeah. Hey ... isn't that my shirt?"
She looked down at the Spanish words. "Oh. Yeah. I guess it is. You want to wear it?"
"Well, no. But if you were going out to play tennis now, I didn't know if you were going to use it. It's kind of a keepsake from old times."
"No problem." She whipped it off her shoulders and above her head, then tossed it on the bed. "I was going to change for tennis anyway." She flipped off her bra, then turned toward a drawer. Her breasts moved with her, jiggling only slightly, yet the movement through the apartment's cool air puckered their tips more, as if an invisible baby sucked upon them. Then she turned and looked at me and spoke about other things: her summer classes, how she hated being cooped up in a classroom when all this beautiful weather was beckoning her outside; her tennis game last night with Bill, how it sucked to high heaven. I did not hear these things (except for Bill's name), I only saw the full of her figure from her navel to her shoulders. The thin muscles of her twenty-three-year old hips curved upward in light brown swirls, all the way to her breasts that just stood there, erect and cool. I could not help but look at them, and not look at her face as she spoke. She stood, half-naked, working on the strap of her bra before putting it away and snatching up her exercise bra. For a moment the analogy of a wife came to mind: a wife who, through time, has become comfortable with flinging off clothes before her husband. But I had been married before and knew that this was different, it was not to be confused with the ordinariness of a marriage. Julie and I had not touched each other in two weeks. I had taught both night and day, as the summer schedule was more demanding, my classes filling with older, working students who had to read Faulkner's Light in August in three nights so as to cover all the other material on the syllabus within the short semester. Then we spent one poorly constructed class on T. S. Eliot's The Wasteland and The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock. I knew I was doing damage to one of my favorite poet's works, forcing a fast, cryptic lecture over two of the more profound poems of the century, not to mention not allowing my students to explore the poems themselves in some meditative, Buddhist posture. But hey, who was going to complain? I got a shrivelled paycheck. My students were getting a required class out of the way.
Whenever I came home from one of the three colleges, Julie was never there. She either was at the library studying for her own classes or out on the tennis courts. Two weeks had passed without so much as a peck on the cheek. I knew it was a sign; and recently I had learned what the sign stood for. Now she stood before me, naked and distant. My hands could not push through the gap to touch those perfect nipples.
Our sex had been rational. Actually, it had gone from passionate to rational once she realized that I was nothing like the characters in my novel. She had read my first book before attending a signing of mine at a local bookstore on the west end of Knoxville. She, like most fans, knew nothing about the literary marketplace. She did not know that my publisher, though very prestigious, was literary, a term which, while meaning many things, does not always signify revenue. She also had never read Borges' perspective on how the audience makes a fiction out of the writer, the audience reads a work and expects the writer to be some sort of carnal symbol of the characters in the book. My novel, Ashes from the Fire, was based loosely upon my Salvadoran family's history. It had been the culmination of a seven-year obsession I had with the 1932 massacre, which my mother had survived. Ashes in the Fire had been one of the fundamental reasons why I, at twenty-three (Julie's present age) had moved to Central America and had stayed there throughout most of the eighties. I had found my roots and had written about them. Publication created a transient notion of success. The book had done fairly well in the world of reviews. Yet it was a first novel and had opened only a small hitch in the marketplace. I had yet to see one royalty check.
The excitement of having sex with a published novelist kept us going for the first few weeks. Julie had invited me out for a drink after the reading. We had talked in the quiet bar until closing. I learned that she was over a decade younger than I. She learned bits and pieces of my past, my life in Nicaragua during the revolution years of the eighties (this also added to the excitement: living in war zones can seem downright sexy to one who has never had the experience), my desire to write, and the recent beginning of my publishing career. As she was a graduate student in political science, she was able to refer to Central America and its history, though she always confused Nicaragua with Guatemala, and the Nicaraguan Contras with the Salvadoran Death Squads. I gave her some slack on that. Especially when she rolled her index finger into her loose lock of hair.
We had made love that first time at three o'clock in the morning. The following day I had received word from U.T. that they wanted me to be an adjunct professor. I was to return to Knoxville, the town of my youth. At first Julie did not understand my excitement over teaching; why would an established author need to work in the academic system? She soon learned that my excitement stemmed also from a need to eat and pay rent. Thus another chunk of Barges' fictitious image of the author came tumbling down: My financial concerns were not to be confused with those of Steven King.
Not that our sex was unsatisfying. There was a certain joy in making love with a woman so much younger than myself. Still, our movements were orthodox. Why, I do not know. Sometimes she would crawl on top of me, which made for a nice change of pace. That made me orgasm more quickly, which made her happy; she could jump off me earlier and fetch from the fridge a cup of frozen coconut yogurt with sprinkles, her after-fucking snack of choice. Whenever I was on top, it took longer. I have no idea why, except for that reason: age. Here I was, after having lived a fairly exciting life of tromping around Central America through my twenties and finally publishing in my thirties, now having the opportunity to lay out my first groupie who was just four years out of her teens. That should have been exciting enough to maintain a decent, perpetual erection. Yet after the first few months, I don't think the feelings over age difference were reciprocated; perhaps that was what kept me on the brink of flaccidity. I rarely considered using new moves or positions to lather up any excitement. I'm still not sure why. Living in Knoxville had its drawbacks, as it was my old stomping grounds. My Salvadoran mother and Appalachian father had left their East Tennessee home of Rakertown to spend the past half year with our Latino family in San Francisco. Yet Mamá called me as if she lived down the block. She always seemed to catch us in bed. Like most normal sons, my hard-earned, barely stable erection usually desiccated the moment I heard her voice over the phone. Like most disappointed fans, Julie started to see that I was more than a novelist, I was more than my books: I had three jobs, rent to pay, and a mother.
After the first few months we fell into schedules. She took classes at U.T. I taught and tried to work on another novel. The publication of my first book had created a dark, enigmatic writer's block. That was as difficult to explain as the lack of gumption in my underwear. I did a lot of staring at the computer screen. Though the screen was blank, I could see things: my rent bill, the books I needed to read for class, the last credit card statement showing how many times I had put gas on the Visa. I didn't see much of a story.
Julie and I made love at first four times a week, then three, twice, then once. Then passed the two weeks up to my uncle's death. We did not touch. She did not seem bothered by this. I learned why the night that I gave my literature class an exam that they all finished long before the two-hour time limit. I came home before sunset. I heard Julie making noises that I always associated with her backswing: she always let out a certain grunt whenever smashing the ball over the net after playing for an hour or two. It was exhausted yet complete, as guttural as those thin lungs behind those perfect breasts could get. So guttural were they that neither she nor Bill heard my key as I pushed it into the door and turned the knob. I did not have to look far down the short hallway toward the bedroom door to see Bill's long, loosened blonde hair, which was usually tied in a ponytail, falling over Julie's face as she opened her mouth wide.
That happened just two nights before my mother called, telling me of Uncle Jack's death. I had left the apartment and walked to a nearby bar. I drank two scotches. I ate nuts and watched reruns of "Mork and Mindy" and "Happy Days" on a television that loomed above the bartender. I paid and returned to my apartment. When I entered, I heard no grunting noises. I only saw Julie's face as she smiled at me. "How was class?"
That night, as she took a shower, I looked about the room, hoping to find a condom. I did not. Then I knew that they would not have been so stupid. It obviously ended up somewhere in the bottom of the trash or in my toilet. Julie's preferred prophylactic was a rubber; it was all that we used the past several months, even during the exciting first days. I figured I was safe.
I lay next to her and listened to her snore. I remembered what I had seen earlier, before the two scotches: Bill had been on top. His hair had fallen all over her face. She opened her mouth to it, as if wanting the hair to choke her. My hair was short, it had been short since my days in Nicaragua. I had no facial hair, while Bill sported a thick moustache. Other than that, I was not sure what the difference between Bill and me was, except that he was a decade younger. He played tennis. I abhorred the game. My daily exercise was three miles of running and a few sets of pushups and situps. The reps had diminished this past year with my busy schedule. Bill was white with a tan, while I was light olive with a tendency to stay out of the sun. His hair was blonde, mine black. He with piercing blue eyes the color of crudely cut gems; I the eyes of a shit-laden texture. But all he did was mount her, and yet she still grunted and sucked air. The evening I caught them, her tennis grunt metamorphosed into a wide mouth moan, as if in stretching her jaw, she could make for more room below. That was when the comparisons needed to end. I did not see what size member he had and did not care to compare.
The night of that discovery I rose from the bed, poured cheap scotch into a tall glass, and drank it down like medicine. I slept on the couch.
Two days had passed since realizing I was a true, practically card-carrying cabrón. Now I had just learned that my uncle had died. It all felt oooh so symbolic.
"So," Julie said, pulling the sports bra over her mounds, snapping them into place, "are you thinking of going to the funeral?"
"Yeah. I might. I'm not sure."
"I think it's a good idea. It's almost the weekend. You can be with family. They may need you." Then, as if an afterthought, she looked at me and her eyes turned deeper, an understanding that went beyond all comprehension. She held the counselor-like smile for three seconds, then snapped out of it. "You should call the airport as soon as you can." She walked by me and through the kitchen to the living room. She glanced over at the corner of the room where my computer's screen saver danced about, creating perfect images of flying books, pencils, and cute little terminals.
"Nothing to write about, huh?"