[FICTION] Stories Help
I stood next to my father as he instructed me how to close this door to control the heat and that door to control the smoke. He went on and on, his Budweiser never leaving his left hand as he messed with the doors that did this and that. I kicked at the dusty ground, pretending I was kicking at canyons. My worn shoes were the great winds that brushed over long dead soil sending up the last breath of a worn-out land. Ants scurried, the cracks got bigger, and still the weeds hung tight.
“Que estas haciendo? Paga attencion.”
He thinks I spend too much time with my mother. I know he does. That’s the only reason I’m out here. He thinks I’ll become more like him if I learn to barbecue, and change the oil of a car I won’t have for another six years, and cut wood, or do anything that happens outside. I don’t dislike outside. I dislike being with him.
He looks at me and knows I won’t talk. I only ever just nod my head and I become hopeful as I see him realize it is all he’ll ever get. He tells me to go inside and help my mother. I walk back over the dusty canyons and straggling weeds, making sure I don’t look to eager to get away.
When I open the back door the smell of toasted rice and cumin wafts against me. It is warm, not like outside that burns but like my mother who holds me. I could fall asleep on that cloud. My mother smiles as she turns away from the soft scratching of dry rice against the dry pan.
“Mijito, tu padre no necesitas tu ayudar?” She wants me to be out there. Only to help my father with his attempts, but she doesn’t press me. She waves me over and sets me in front of a cutting board and hands me a knife. She trusts me. Not like my father who tells me not to touch anything.
I dice up garlic, onion, and cilantro. My mother makes trips back and forth, scooping up what I meticulously chopped and dumps it into the soon to be rice. I like that she never hovers. Never to make sure I’m doing as she would, but letting me do as I like. She tells me to make the salsa and I do so with excitement. I like making it a little different every time. First question, green or red? Tomatillos or tomates? Tomates. I love a lot of garlic and onion. I use cerranos instead of jalepenos. I put cilantro, not because I like it but because everybody else loves it. Salt. No pepper. That I will not compromise on. I blend it up and taste it, making sure it’s delicious before I ask my mother what she thinks.
She dips a chip into the blender and eats of it. Her eyes light up and I’m seized with pride.
“Muy bien, mijito!” She licks her lips and breathes in and out. It’s spicy, but she dips in again.
“Quieres hacer la guacamole?” I nod and get to work. I like helping her. I know she doesn’t need it. Honestly, I probably slow her down, but I know she likes spending time with me. It’s easy for her. Not like my father, who never knows what to say. Always thinking silence needs to be made use of.
As I cut up and scoop out the aguacates I look out the kitchen window. My father sits on the white, metal rocking chair and looks up to the dry blue sky. I know he doesn’t think of anything. He just waits. Waits for the brisket and waits for the rain. He always sits quietly like that outside. Listening to the breeze through the trees. His ice chest sweats. The only water the parched ground will get for another three months. I wonder why he interrupts that silence by having me go out there. He knows it’s foreign territory to me. I know I’m foreign territory to him.
My mother calls out from the back door and asks when the brisket will be ready. My father stares into the azure world and tells her an hour.
“Mijo, go get your brother and call your sister.”
Our neighborhood has one entrance. Right off a country highway. It runs into the fields and bisects the five streets that make up Skyview. I know I’ll find my brother on the last street, behind his best friend’s house. I unlatch the gate of a chain-link fence and follow the echoes of their shots. I push past the rough brush and thin-branched trees that shoot up from the ground, down the little slope to the fields of yellow grass.
The scattering of hills are like stragglers, left behind by brethren who were quicker to run. The parched, golden hills provided the perfect backdrop for shooting practice. My brother and his friend stand with their backs to me. The remnants of past practices are lined up against the hill about thirty yards away. They shoot at old beer bottles and stolen county election signs. Some have bullseyes spray painted on, but they choose their target however they please. Glass explodes, wood splinters, and bullet holes declare if they passed or failed. The only test that they think really matters. I call to my brother and tell him dinner is about to be ready. He calls over his shoulder and says, okay. He’ll take his time. As he always does. Not because he’s in no hurry, but because somebody had told him something. I wait. I can’t come back without him.
They shoot some more, exchanging through rifles and handguns. I’m sure they’re all very different, but that hardly matters to me. Every shot makes me shudder. I know it’s not logical to think those bullets might find their way to me.
My brother picks up his largest handgun. It reminds me of those you see in western movies, carried by cowboys and sheriffs. In a similar land. In a different time. However, this one looks bigger. He calls to me to come over. I do. He asks if I want to shoot. I don’t. He says come on. I don’t want to. He says be a man. I don’t understand, but I know he’ll keep asking until I do.
So, I do. He tells me how to hold it. How to aim. What to be careful of, but none of it readied me for the kickback and deafening blast. I hand back the gun as him and his friend laugh. They sound so far away. I squeeze my hand and wonder if it’ll bruise. He gathers his stuff and we head home.
He laughs and asks me how it was. I shrug my shoulders. I don’t understand the question. We get home and my mother asks if I called my sister. I hadn’t so I go and call her. Mom was wondering if you would come over. I don’t know. Dad’s making brisket. She says they’re coming. She comes for the food. It’s all that calls to her.
I help my mother set up the table. I pour the salsa in the little black bowl with four little feet. I find something for the guacamole. My mother tells me to get a bowl for the tostadas as she rolls her eyes. My father hates digging into the bag. As we clean up and make sure everything is ready, I look out the kitchen window.
The dark blue of the night has filtered down into the air. My father stands in front of the barbecue pit, one hand around his beer, the other in his pocket. He stares down at the black metal as he quietly listens to the excited retellings of my brother. He nods like I nod. I wonder what he is looking at. Maybe he’s following the lines of welded and cut metal. Going through in his mind all the steps he took to build the pit out rebar and an old barrel. His eyebrows perk up. He’s surprised at something my brother has told him and even in the growing darkness of the night, I can see him smile.
The doorbell rings and I rush to answer it. My sister crosses over, carrying her son who swats at me as if I meant to bother him. My brother-in-law follows. The back door opens and my father enters with the tray of foil-wrapped brisket.
“Hola, mija.” He smiles when he sees my nephew. My mother rushes from the kitchen and pushes them back to the door where Mary holds up her holy water. My sister hands my mother her grandchild and my sister shakes out her arms. We make plates and we all sit down. There’s six of us and one child. Perfect for our size table and only one little kid. I wonder how much more will change if one more person it added to the mix.
My father sits at the head of the table. Head bent over as he scoops up rice and beans. Mixing in the salsa and guacamole. He tells my mother, without turning to her, that she did a good job. She smiles and nods her head, telling him that I helped. He only nods.
They all talk. My brother to everybody. My mother to my nephew as she feeds him. My brother-in-law to my father. My sister to my mother and father. Me, I just sit and listen. Responding silently to questions unasked.
“You shot the gun?” I look up, surprised. They look at me and wait as I process the question.
“Oh, um yeah.” They nod their head in approval, surprised. I don’t understand.
“How was it?” asks my brother-in-law. “Was it fun?”
I still don’t understand. I shrug my shoulders. “It was loud.”
“- and it hurt my hand.”
They laugh again. My brother and sister smile at me. My mother smiles at my father. My father smiles, not at me, but the story. They continue to talk amongst themselves about how I shot the gun. I eat, chewing and thinking about why it seemed important.
As I help my mother clean I start putting stuff into mismatched bowls and put them in the refrigerator. My father, with the help of my brother and brother-in-law, makes a bonfire out back. I watch from the kitchen window as I start dishes. My sister sits on a foldable chair, bouncing her child on her knee. My brother tosses in logs and cardboard, taking pride of a skill my father taught him. My brother-in-law speaks to my father, who stares in the flames and nods. I wonder what he sees in the fire. I wonder if memories play out in the shadows that dance in the embers of dried out wood. I wonder if he nods, not at what my brother-in-law is saying, but at the whispers of the crackling wood.
“Mijo?” I turn to my mother who leans against the counter. She has set down her beer, the clear frosted glass holding up the golden water. A rag that she used to wipe downs the kitchen and table hangs in the crook of her arm. I wash away the dinner’s remains and wait for her to speak.
“You know he loves you. You know I love you.” I turn on the scolding hot water and rinse the plates. My heart starts to beat. I don’t understand. I look to her, quickly. She seems exhausted, weighed down, and I wonder if I am the reason. I just nod. She wants to say something. Ask something. I wash. I rinse. I wait. I know she won’t say anything. I know she won’t ask anything. She only nods and continues to clean. I finish and we both go outside.
The fire is in full swing. My mother tosses in old bills and other mail that shouldn’t be lying around. My brother continues to prod the fire, explaining that every log and pile of ash is important. My sister and brother-in-law watch over my nephew as he becomes intrigued by the glowing heat. They talk amongst themselves. Laughing and drinking. The sky is now black, just the slightest tinge of purple lingers in the horizon. I look at the fire that has replaced the sun and watch as the light and shadows dance, following their sparks as they’re carried along the drifts of the smoke, rising until they’re lost in the stars. They never had a chance.
The sound of similar scenes filters from out of the darkness beyond our fire. Somebody lets out a grito from the direction of some cumbia, strobe lights blaze where a family plays reggaeton, and the croon of country music flutters in the background. I presume everybody in the neighborhood is drinking and I don’t think I would be wrong.
Somebody brings up the gun again. They turn to me and wait for a response.
“I didn’t like it.” My mother and sister nod. My brother rolls his eyes and begins to make a case about how great guns are. Nobody cares enough to add anything to his argument. His voice enters the background. My father is still looking at the fire. He only nods. This time the corner of his mouth snags.
They think they know things. I can feel it. I don’t understand. Yet, the shifting of their eyes and bodies communicate that they know something that I do not. Something important. I become annoyed.
I get up to go inside. I tell them I’m going to go get some water. I enter the kitchen and hike myself up on the counter and open the cupboard where they keep their liquor. They wouldn’t mind if I drank. I sit on the large tiles of the kitchen floor and take a few swigs. It’s my first time drinking, what is it, it says reposada. It’s golden, like the beer of my parents but it tastes like fire. Not water. I don’t mind the burn. It feels normal. It feels like what life should be like. A fire, a burning, a presence that says I am here. The back door opens and I hear my sister plop herself on the couch.
“Javier!” She calls out and I ask her what she wants.
“What are you doing?” I say, nothing. The couch crunches as she gets up and follows my voice into the kitchen. I look up to her and she laughs. She sits down across from me, Indian style, as they called it in school. I never liked when they said that. Surely, there were others who sat with their legs crossed. She asks what’s wrong. I say I’m fine. She nods. She doesn’t try to take the bottle away from me. She only sits there, leaning against the cupboard and waits for me. I take a few more swigs to show that I’m serious, but quickly grow tired of it. The warmth in my stomach radiates through my body. Even my vision seems to blur like the wavering air on any summer day. She gets up extends her hand. I take it and follow back outside.
We sit back down. My mother asks where my water was. My sister tells her that she caught me in the liquor cabinet. Tells her I downed half the bottle. My mother’s eyes exploded with anger and concern. My sister tells her she’s only joking and that it really wasn’t that much. It wasn’t. My mother wants to say something but doesn’t. My brother and brother-in-law laugh. My father smiles and shakes his head. I pull my jacket around myself and bask in the pleasing warmth.
The night goes on. Somebody lays the baby down to sleep. The parties in the neighborhood grow louder as does our own. The ground around the fire becomes a desert decorated with glass bottles. Some standing tall. Others on their side. All empty of long forgotten water.
My mother tells us stories of how it was liking growing up. In a town, not far from ours but further in the county. Her mother had eighteen kids. My mother was the twelfth. They lived in a three-bedroom home that was constantly bursting at the seams. They ate rice, beans, and tortillas. The girls made dolls out of mud and the boys made trouble in town. She tells us how her and a couple of her sisters stole candy bars from a nearby store and how their father gave them a beating she stills remembers. She tells us of her grandfather, she looks up to the stars as she does.
He was a curandero, a medicine man. She told us that everybody in town knew who he was. She said that he almost became a priest. She doesn’t mention why he didn’t. She recounts how he would come to their house and pray over them. White sheets, rosaries, covered mirrors, and others things that seem foreign. She speaks about him as if he were a saint. He knew things, she says. He knew everybody’s problems and exactly how to fix them. He knew what would heal people and what, and who, they should stay away from.
My father nods as he listens. He knows the stories well.
My father begins to speak and we listen. He tells us of his family. His mother who he knew little of, his father who he knew less of, and his grandmother who watched over him and his five other siblings. She was a curandera, a medicine woman, he tells us. Respected, he says. She helped every woman in their town give birth to at least one of their children. He spoke about her garden, filled with every color and shade of green that god ever made. She would make pastes and potions to heal people and their problems. She would council the councilman and was mother to all mothers.
“It’s in your bones,” says my mother to us three. Yet, she only looks at me. She tells us she didn’t get the gift, but that her sister did. Her prayers healed. We nodded. We knew the stories. My father nods as well. He tells us his younger brother had it. We nodded. We knew the stories. He had died, my father’s brother. The same month I was born. My parents turn to me and they both look heavy. I hug my knees.
“My brother, Jose, was a nadle.” It’s the first time any of us had heard of this.
“What’s a nadle?” somebody asks.
My father stares into the fire as he searches for the answer. I watch him as words and sentences rise and fall behind the ridges of his brows. The music in the background turns thunderous and the air begins to whirl. I see in him the faces of many men who have sat around fires, telling their children the stories of their blood’s past.
He began to speak and as he did so I began to see a world in the shadows of light and dark.
Beings of fire rose out of the shadows the blacked wood and held in their hands two ears of corn. One was white. One was yellow. Setting them down into the embers they laid a blanket over the two. The beings raised their hands and a great breeze blew through the fire. The flames danced and the blankets fluttered revealing the forms of two people. First Man. First Woman. My father said. It was them who all people came from.
I turned to my mother as she watched the fire, nodding as my father told the story. I wondered what she thought. She seemed enamored with his words. This wasn’t the story of the first man and woman I’d ever heard.
The swoosh of the fire whispered for me to return. So I did. My father spoke of how First Man and First Woman had a pair of twins. They were like neither of their parents and yet, they were like the both. They glowed brightly in the fire, shifting into the shades found in the fire. Black, orange, yellow, and white. My father said that First Man and First woman had a few more pairs of twins. They were sent to the mountains to learn the ways of those who created them. Magic, said my father as embers jumped into the night. After they returned the Twins who were like First Man or First Woman went out into the world to have more of themselves. The first pair, the twins that were neither, and yet both, went into the world alone. Helping the children of their brothers and sisters. Our spirits are like these children, said my father. One or the other. For few, both and yet neither.
The laughter, the gritos, the sound of the parties from nearby homes filtered back into the firelight. They all looked me and I think I understood, that the silence that framed the story was beginning to fall away.
Fernando Salas is a gay latino student who lives in central Texas.