|Jul/Aug 2012 Fiction|
Tio brewed coffee in a bone-gray electric pot. As the water percolated, he watched a brown cockroach make its way across the adobe wall. The insect moved slowly, its slender feelers twitching as it went. Tio looked down at the blue plastic box sectioned into seven compartments. Each day of the week was labeled with a single letter. He opened the one marked W.
Three pills for the heat in his spine, two for the sourness in his belly, one for the ringing in his ears, two more for the gout in his toe, one to stave off dementia, and one to muffle the sad song the world sometimes sings... he dumped them all into his hand. The pills sat as colorful as a nest full of eggs—blue and green and yellow and red!—what a fantastic creature it must have been that laid them.
The cockroach moved across the wall searching for opportunity. It circled a spot of grease for some seconds before it stopped to feed. Tio looked to the pills in his hand, grimaced, dropped them down the drain, and ran warm water from the spigot. Shortly, Tia shuffled in, stooping over her cane as she came. She adjusted her glasses and gave Tio a stern look. He opened a pink plastic box. Like his, her pills were no less plentiful or colorful.
"Con agua por favor," she said. Tio ran the water until it went cold. She held her hand out to receive her pills, then quaffed them down and handed the cup back. The pills seemed to sharpen her eyesight before they even hit the bottom of her belly. She adjusted her glasses and squinted. With unexpected dexterity Tia went for the fly-swatter that hung on a hook by the refrigerator.
"There is a roach on the wall," she said.
"I see him," Tio said. "Let him be. He's dead anyway"
"I saw him move," she said.
"No, no you didn't. Do you want coffee?"
"Yes, please," she said and eyed the cockroach suspiciously. Tio gently took the fly-swatter from her hand.
"Go ahead. I'll serve it to you," he said.
"Okay. Mija is coming this morning. She told me in my dream. Make her a cup, too, please," Tia shuffled away, slow but determined. The cockroach sensed the danger had passed and wiggled its antennae as it repositioned itself to watch her go.
"We aren't so different," Tio said to the cockroach and hung the fly-swatter back on the hook. "We are not so alike, but we aren't so different, either."
Minutes passed before the coffee was fully brewed. When it was done, he poured three cups, put them on a tray, and took them into the living room.
"Is she here?" Tio asked and set one cup down on the low table in front of the couch.
"Are you blind? She is sitting right there," Tia motioned to a chair. "Don't listen to him, Mija, es un viejo que no se requerde nada."
Tio glanced to the empty chair and put the cup down on the table.
"Sorry. It's true. I am old, and I don't know much," he said. "Mija, you look beautiful today."
"All the men want to dance with her on Saturday night. And Tio, she can go around and around, and she never gets tired."
He nodded and joined Tia on the couch.
"What else does she say?" Tio asked, taking a sip of his bitter coffee.
"She wishes she could visit more often," Tia said. "But she's so busy with school. She says next year she might get married and have a baby."
Tio nodded. Out the picture window he could see the front yard—bare dirt, a few clumps of grass, weeds—now in disrepair, but once this yard was the talk of the neighborhood. That was years and years ago, before the hard times and the crime. The neighbors had built wrought iron fences, chained their brutish dogs in the front, and no one cared anymore about yards.
He could see the big round garden thermometer had already registered 80 degrees. It would be hot today, too hot to walk if he didn't do it now.
"Tia, I'd like to walk. Will you be okay visiting with Mija?"
"Si. Do you hear how he talks to me? Es como si yo fuera un nino."
Tio kissed Tia on the cheek. Soft and doughy, it smelled of cosmetic powder.
At least the colors had lasted through the hard times. Some houses were painted aqua-marine (to keep the witches away), others were bright orange, and still others were dull pink. Most wrapped in chain-link or wrought iron. It wasn't so long ago the front yards were open and full of lush grass, sunflowers loomed, and statues of the Virgin Mother were free with their blessings.
He followed the sidewalk, careful not to trip over the slabs of concrete that had been pushed up by tree roots. Someone had smashed a Coke bottle against the curb. Tiny black ants salvaged on the sticky green shards of glass. A stray dog, scrawny and threadbare as an old pillow, ran up. Despite its lot in life, it appeared to be overjoyed with its freedom. It sniffed at the toe of Tio's shoe before it became distracted by the noise of a motorcycle starting. The motorcycle took off, and all was silent but the birds—mourning doves—who cooed a familiar dirge.
A young man stepped out from behind what was left of an old tree. He wore a slick, black-leather jacket with shinny silver buckles and no shirt underneath. Dozens of blue tattoos were painted across his chest. His eyes were bloodshot and swollen, rimmed with violet. He sniffed deeply to suck a stream of snot back up his nose. They stared at each other for seconds. The man couldn't be more than 20, and clearly there was something terribly wrong with him. The man sniffed again and nervously picked at a scab on his cheek.
"Do you have any money? I need money," the man said.
Tio said nothing, nor did he move.
"Can you hear me, vejio? Or are you deaf?"
Tio became lost in 50 years of memories.
"Give me your wallet," the man demanded.
Finally, Tio found what he was looking for.
"I know you," Tio said. "You are Carlos' son. You broke the pinata when Mija turned eight. Her last birthday party. I know you. I held you on my knee, and I helped you unwrap your candy."
The man's breathing was deep and labored. He sniffed again. His hand came and went from the pocket of his jacket, and a knife emerged. Tio looked at it, then met the man's eyes.
"I knew your father," Tio whispered.
"You're crazy," the man said, and jabbed air with the knife. "Give me your money."
"I know you," Tio said.
The man sneered and shook his head. The blade slid into Tio's side just above his hip. It felt hot but otherwise unremarkable. The man pulled the knife back, and blood spurted. Tio calmly pressed down on the wound with the palm of his hand.
"You don't know shit," the man said, blood running down his hand and dripping from the knife.
"I know you," Tio said as a smile crossed his lips. "I know you very well."
The man stumbled backwards. He tripped over broken sidewalk. He got up and ran, but craned his neck around to look at Tio one more time. Distracted, he knocked his head on a low hanging tree branch. It slowed him down, but only by seconds. Then he continued to flee until he was out of sight.
Tia was not sitting in the living room when Tio came in. She was in the kitchen, the fly-swatter poised, ready to strike the cockroach on the wall. Tio still held his side, but the blood had soaked through and run down his leg.
"I saw him move," Tia said.
"Leave him be," Tio said.
Tia shook her head and swung. The cockroach may have sensed its final seconds had come, but wonders of all wonders, it opened the shell of its back and spread its wings. Not one pair, but three! The insect flew across the room with grace and dignity, then down the hall into the living room. Tia squinted and held the fly-swatter, confused.
"Where did he go?" Tia asked.
Tio let go of his wound.
"He's escaped, Tia. I guess he was alive after all. I'm going to go sit with Mija now. I miss her so much."
Tia glanced at the blood running down Tio's leg, nodded, and put the fly-swatter back on its hook. Tio touched her face with his knuckle, left a heart-shaped smear of blood, and then kissed her once on the forehead.
In the living room Mija was waiting for him, grown and beautiful.
"Did you know some cockroaches can fly, Papa? Did you know that?"
"Yes, Mija," Tio said. "Now I know. I didn't always, but now I do."
For Cheri, Aimee, Wesley and Renate