In My House: Photographs
Tio Ernesto, leaning on an ambulance.
I make up lies about his life. Young, almost handsome in
a soldier's uniform, I make him out to be a Mexican Ernest
Hemingway. (After all, they shared a name--tocayos--
and that should count for something). I imagine him in
the middle of a battle, blood and bombs almost embracing him
as he fights for freedom and democracy in WWII--though
the only war he ever fought was the one he fought with
the bottle--a war he lost. I make up lovers, clutching at his
solitary arms. Women who would come and go, and take
the contents of his wallet leaving it as empty as his heart.
I see him sitting at a bar, the only home he ever knew.
I see him breaking when his brother died, his only friend.
He was in his eighties when a car (or a bus? Or an SUV?)
mowed him down as if he were nothing more than
a blade of Johnson's grass. Night, in the very middle
of holy hour. Night, and he was stumbling, drunk. Drunk,
I tell you. There is a kind of symmetry in this. A man should
die the way he lived. A bow--pretty--neatly, tightly tied.
One of those old photos (we all possess one): hand
tinted, a lost (if common) art. My mother who was not
yet my mother: seventeen, posed like the great beauties
of her day: Betty Grable, Rita Hayworth, Lola Beltran
leaning back in a sweater (tinted pink) that wraps around her
waist like a young man's hungry hands. Wavy hair, lips red,
everything in its proper place. Mexican?--you'd never guess.
And never guess the work that was her lot and legacy.
Heating water. Cooking, cleaning, ironing. Find a fraying
blanket, and then find what's broken--and then
mend it. Her life, a perennial Easter egg hunt. Search
for eggs all day. Come home, then crack them. Inside each egg
more work. Sing and pray instead of rest. Sing and pray, then
begin again--the taking care of brothers, sisters and a mother
who was ill. There is no hint of sacrifice or sorrows, no
clues of all the troubles she would know: the way her children--
seven--would stretch her body and her heart, the large
and calloused hands of the man she loved and married,
the man who cast a shadow on her heart, sometimes giving shade,
sometimes blocking all the light. The fiction of this picture
does not allow the living girl to speak. I saw her yesterday,
my mom. I stopped to search her face. I looked for her, that girl
she'd been, and I was almost sad to know her youth was gone--but
happy, too, that she no longer had a need to pose, no longer had
a need to please the shallow eyes of men, her face brimming
with loss and joys a girl of seventeen would never think to want.
The four of us. Though we began as five. The tree
in the background, crowded with green leaves, announces
that it's summer. By the slant of the light, I can almost
tell the time, the tired, western sun about to sink. Arms
around each other, the four of us. No longer boys, men
with separate homes and loves and lives. When I shared
a room with them, I'd thought that God, for some dark
and shameful sin I had committed, had tied me to them,
these strangers, so close and intimate and so unknowable,
so close these boys whose names I spoke with disdain--
God, for some dark reason had tied me to their joys and
sorrows with a rope so tight and strong, I swear
that noose grew tighter every day. God's penances were
harsh. I couldn't breathe. Their voices, all I knew. That world
was stifling, small. The air smelled like their breaths, the food
they ate, the cokes they drank, the cigarettes they smoked.
That air was mine. I was raised on their laments--of a father
who was hard, of schools that were a yoke. And lacks, so
many lacks, a lack of funds, a lack of room, lacks, the only
thing in great abundance in our house (except the lack of work--
well, work was all we had.) Each day, I woke to laughter,
angers, and their shoves. At night, I saw their faces
before the lights went out.
Richard was the first to leave
taking with him, all his loneliness and rage. I did not miss
his threats--and yet I took to dreaming summer days
when he played ball. I used to watch in wonder, and loved
and hated him. I wondered why those dreams would come
to me. I yearned to sleep, an only child. And then
my turn to leave. I chose a path where brothers would
not follow. I left with prayers on my lips. Adios. When
I returned, I felt a foreigner. The youngest two, they stayed
behind, Jaime and Jose. The house less crowded now--but
there are ghosts in lonely rooms. They learned to make
a quiet peace--and learned to work and learned to keep
their angers and their hurts in places older brothers
could not reach. We are separate now, we four. American
and individual. I write and teach and travel. Jaime
and Jose, they travel, too, in search of work. Ricardo lives
away--a wife, three kids, and work. And work. They keep
my books on shelves. I keep this picture on my desk--
of them and me, of us. I see the traces of my mother and my
father in the way we smile and speak and laugh. And look,
a mustache on each face. The one we swore we'd never grow
for fear of looking like the man who gave us life. We glow,
the four of us, angels in the dying light of just another day. Holy
for an instant. Men. Men, but we're still young. Ten
years ago, that photograph was new. We're older now
but we still smile the same. Arms around each other,
in my younger sister's yard, the pillars of my father's house.
My mother, father, wife, my nephews, nieces, sisters, watching,
their eyes fixed. On us, the four. Happy, at last, each of us
holding tight, brother, to that office we have earned.
Return -- Previous -- Next
Issue #31, February, 2003 :
Santa Fe Poetry Broadside.