Deep down in the Mojave Desert, along the Colorado River’s edge, the cicadas tell stories...listen.
In Loving Memory
Felicitas ‘Lelia’ Silva Drew
Gregoria Silva Almarez
Thanks for allowing me to play on your typewriter,
use up all your paper
and dry out the ribbon ink
and for turning off the TV
and telling me to read
It was 1976.
A gold Cadillac drove up and parked in front of my friend’s house on North ‘N’ Street, where I was staying, while I was trying to get my High School Diploma. A girl with long, gold, wavy hair, wearing a sundress, puka shells and sandal wedges, knocked on the front door and asked my friend if I was there, Mr. Claypool would like to meet me. “Me?” I asked, popping out from behind my friend in the doorway. “Yes, you,” she smiled back.
We reached the top of the stairs coming from the backdoor of Claypool’s Department Store on the corner of West Broadway and ‘E’ Street and entered Mr. Claypool’s office. There were large windows all around the room overlooking his entire store, and I could faintly hear and feel the busyness underneath my feet. Mr. Claypool was sitting his desk, he hung up the phone, stood up and shook my hand and told me to please have a seat. He continued, he’d been reading my poems and column in our class newspaper and an article I wrote for the Needles Desert Star. He told me he enjoyed reading whatever I wrote, but if I didn’t mind, he’d like to give me some advice. A successful businessman and community leader that helped build Needles, California nearly from the ground up on the famous Route 66, wanted to give me some advice? I wanted to laugh out loud, but instead I said a shaky, “Sure.” “Just always keep your writing simple Rose, so everyone can understand and enjoy it.” “I’ll try Sir, I’ll try,” was all I could think of to say, as we shook hands again and the gold Cadillac took me back to where it picked me up. I thought about what happened for a long time afterwards, and every once in a while, after so many years, I still do. The only thing I can come up with is, Mr. Claypool knew I liked to write and maybe I’d write a story about Needles someday, a town we both loved. He also knew there would be times that I’d be too scared or felt I wasn’t good enough to write anything. It was his way of encouraging me with my dream. He just knew.
When I move, he moves. When I talk to him, his ears twitch and he grunts back at me. I feel he knows me, like he’s known me my whole life, but how can it be so? I walk outside and sit on the white wicker chair on the front porch. He follows close behind me, whining nervously when he realizes he has to go down a step, then lays his head at my feet and lets out a long, exaggerated snort of contentment. I sit and watch him fall into a deep relaxed sleep, wondering what pigs can possibly dream of, if they dream at all. His rock-hard belly rises up and down to a beat of its’ own as he flicks his tail slightly and drops it slowly on the concrete floor. I run my fingers across his wiry forehead, then down his long, wide, gaping snout. His eyes open briefly, then close.
It’s a starry desert night in late October. The front door is wide open with the screen door locked, to let the cool breeze in, as the Dad leans back in his leather recliner chair after a long day of hard work, grabs the remote off the end table and clicks the flat screen tv on. A few minutes later, he yells over his shoulder, “Honey, come here, look at this!” The Mother quickly finishes loading up the dishwasher, walks into the living room and sits on the couch, drying her hands with a dishtowel, while Bling, Sushi and Blu, the family pet dogs, are lying on the area rug in front of the tv licking their paws after their own dinner of chicken, rice and peas. The Tv Announcer introduces a small pink pig wearing a pink tutu, named ‘Petunia’ before she begins plunking the keys of Mozart Concerto 20 with her snout on a miniature white baby grand piano. When she finishes, she curtsies, revealing pink glitter nail polish on her manicured hooves, as the audience stands on their feet applauding, with loud hoots and whistles. A Midwest farmer comes on the screen next and shares how his family always relied on pigs to predict the weather for generations. “If the pigs’ spleen is wide, then narrows, it means winter weather will come early, with a mild Spring…” He points to the location of the spleen on a pigs’ skeleton lying on his tile kitchen counter. “My family’s very own crystal ball for generations with a 99.9 accuracy rate, just like The Farmer’s Almanac,” he smiles proudly at the camera. In a large city hospital, a Surgeon wearing a white cap and mask is holding a pig valve with gloved hands on a long metal forcep. “Thanks to this pig part, my patient has a better chance to live a longer, fuller life…” he muffles matter-of-factly, while he bends over an operating table underneath a bright white light.
After Bling, Sushi and Blu take turns barking at kitty litter and dog food commercials, a room filled with modern machines and long glass tubes comes the screen on next. A Scientist in a white lab coat is looking through a microscope while the narrator speaks: “For over 30 years, Scientists have been using pigs in a number of medical fields, including dermatology, cardiology and more. Many of the pigs’ organ system are 80 to 90 per cent similar to the corresponding system of a human. Pigs are also used in byproducts such as water filters, insulation, rubber, antifreeze, certain floor wax, crayons, chalk, adhesives and fertilizer.” Pigs reappear dressed in uniform at an airport terminal somewhere in Europe, sniffing for drugs on a conveyor belt piled high with luggage. In the South of France, pigs are excavating the earth with their snouts, searching for mushrooms to be sold to fancy restaurants with twinkly lights in the front hedges and white linen covered tables on the sidewalks. A Maitre ‘D pushing a small metal cart, stops and lifts the lid off a silver plate of steaming truffles, pinches his fingers and says to the dining patrons with a black-mustache grin, “Bon Appetit!”
A plane is shown flying through the clouds, across oceans and continents. A Chinese businessman appears, dressed in a tailored suit and tie, sitting behind a large glass desk on the 50th floor of a Skyscraper. Behind him are assorted vases of bamboo plants with a framed Chinese calendar and a smiling Buddha on a shelf. He speaks in a soft, well-mannered voice how his people in his country believe anyone born in the Year of the Pig, or befriends a pig, is destined for happiness and prosperity, as he stands up, clasps his hands together, and bows his head.
WHEN PIGS FLY
Needles California, 1960’s
I was born in 1959, in the Year of the Pig, at the old Needles Hospital on West Broadway. The Doctor who delivered me offered to adopt me, he and his wife were childless, he explained to my Mother, after promising her I’d have the best of everything. Mom kindly replied, she’d tell Nana Goya to pray for his wife to conceive when she got home, but wouldn’t even consider adoption. ‘Thank you anyway, Doctor’, she added, unsure of the future herself, as she wrapped me tightly in a receiving blanket and took me home to live with the rest of her six fatherless children on Chestnut Street.
Mom nicknamed her hometown ‘Peyton Place’, after the drama sitcom she watched faithfully every week on our black and white TV, and joked, ‘where everyone knew her business better than she did.’ Yet, she’d defiantly defend the small Route 66 Mojave Desert town, filled with her most cherished childhood memories, to anyone who tried to put it down and knew nothing of the town’s history, except for being one of the hottest places on earth, besides Death Valley, California and the Lut Desert in Iran.
When Miss B dropped Mom off from cleaning motel rooms all day, Mom would ask any of us: Johnny, Priscilla, Esther, Eliza Beth ‘Lizzie’, Ruben, Billy or me, to go find her hairbrush and get the bottle of lotion off of her dresser to brush her hair and massage her aching legs and feet, as she sunk into the sofa and lit a Salem Menthol she never fully inhaled and when she did, she’d cough. She laughed, and said she felt like the ‘Old Lady that lived in a Shoe, she had so many children she didn’t know what to do’, then she grabbed a sofa pillow, stuffed it underneath her white uniform top, messed up her teased hair, crossed her eyes, stuck out her tongue and waddled across the living room floor like a duck, making us all laugh, but when she sat back down, she covered her face with her hands and cried.
I sucked on the juice of a yellow chile cortido hidden inside my bottle’s nipple and screamed, running in circles, fanning my mouth. It’s the only way, I was getting too old for the bottle, Nana Goya and Mom both agreed in Spanish, shaking their heads sadly at me. We were in the living room when Walter Cronkite suddenly came on the TV screen reporting the President of the United States had just been shot. Mom started crying. I took my thumb out of my mouth and I started crying, because Mom was crying and I wanted my bottle back. Nana slid to the floor from the chair and began praying, while images of the First Lady wearing a pink pillbox hat covering her husband’s limp body on her lap in the backseat of the open top limousine in Dallas, Texas, kept flashing on the screen. I run to the window and could see Molacho across the street standing outside of his store and cafe, smoking a cigarette, with his head down and his wife, Lupe, wearing a smock apron over her blouse and pants, standing next to him, talking to the neighbors that came out of their houses in disbelief. Walter Cronkite announced the 35th President of the United States, John Fitzgerald Kennedy had just died his eyes quickly filled with tears as he readjusted his thick, black-rimmed glasses and began to recount the Days of Camelot and the Bay of Pigs.
I loved following our oldest sister, Priscilla, all over the house. She sweetly called me, ‘My Shadow,’ as I watched her every move in fascination. She’d roll her hair up in Pepsi cans, then after she took the big clips out, she’d grab a clump of hair on top of her head and teased it real fast with a rat tail comb and smoothed it down real slow, then sprayed the biggest beehive I ever saw with a blue can of Aqua Net, while she danced the mashed potatoes across the floor. Priscilla’s skin was flawless, the color of a caramel apple with full valentine lips, high cheek bones and black cat eyeliner. When she sat in front of the dresser’s mirror, a Mexican/Indian version of Diana Ross stared back and blinked. Every day, she’d send me to Valenzuela’s to get her a bottle of Pepsi and take back the bottle from the day before, and she’d let me keep the change. Some days my friend Rita went with me, when our mothers were visiting each other, and we’d point at the little wax bottles filled with colored sugar water, wax red lips, candy necklaces and candy cigarettes behind the glass counter while Molacho waited patiently for our selections. Rita had long eyelashes that touched her cheeks when she laughed and said when she saw the pickled pig’s feet in a big jar on the counter, that she’d never eat that, even if she was starving and I told her neither would I. Molacho laughed and told us, “Yes you would, if you were starving” and shook his head. Priscilla got a bad kidney infection not long after that and stopped drinking Pepsi’s for a while and told me to bring her back a bag of chicharrones instead, and she still let me keep the change.
Our sister Esther showed off deep dimples when she smiled, with shiny, midnight hair that curled in ringlets around her face. Mom said everybody told her when Esther was little that she looked just like Shirley Temple, except with black hair. Esther asked me if I could help her pull up her zipper on her jean cut offs as she laid on the bed and sucked in her stomach, while I climbed on top her. There was a knock on the bedroom door. It was their friend Mary, dressed in a polka dot top and mini skirt. Her black hair was teased high too, with black eyeliner rimming her eyes and frosty pink lipstick. I rubbed my eyes, they become The Supremes in the flesh right there, between the beds and dresser. They sing together, Baby Love, my Baby Love, swaying back and forth, to the only radio station in town, KSFE, on the transistor radio sitting on the windowsill. Then they talk about boys, boys, boys and laugh, laugh, laugh, until Lizzie poked her head in the door. A perfect smile with perfect dark brown skin, wearing converse tennis shoes, 501 jeans with a white T-shirt and a pixie haircut. She asked us if we wanted to come see her beat up the guy they all liked and talked about so much, as we all run outside to watch. I hear them plead to Lizzie to not beat him up too bad, to watch his pretty face, as Lizzie playfully danced around him, then started swinging her fists with expertise.
On Mom’s days off, she woke up early to surprise us with homemade donuts she fried in a cast iron skillet on top of the white Westinghouse stove or turnovers she baked in the oven filled with jam. Her hair in big pink rollers and in her pink flowery robe and slippers, we’d all watch cartoons together in our pjs and at the end of every cartoon, a pig busted through a drum and waved, “That’s All Folks!” When it was time to go to bed, Mom told us to go get our blankets and pillows off of our bunk beds and spread them all over the floor and go get the flashlight out of the kitchen drawer, go turn off all the lights in the house. “Now, SSsshh! And listen to the story of the Illonara…” Mom always started by speaking slowly, in almost a whisper, “It happened a long time ago, deep in the heart of Mexico… in a small town… just like Needles…with a river running through it…” Her silhouette appeared on the wall while she held the flashlight in her hands and claimed she and the neighbors who lived on the corner, heard the Illonara late one night while they were playing cards with the windows open. ‘And we could hear her crying by the river and her cries echoed through the streets and she sounded like this…’ Mom cupped her hands around her mouth and made a long, slow, banshee-in-flight cry, making us all scream and hide underneath our blankets and pillows. She threw her head back and laughed, clicking the flashlight off making us all scream again, and told us to go to sleep or she’d take us all to the river right now. We’d hear her slippers flapping down the hallway with the flashlight guiding her way to her bedroom and hear the door click closed, leaving us in complete darkness, too scared to move, to say anything, but lay there wide awake, thinking only of the Ilonara and how close the river was from Chestnut Street.
The whole town knew Mom’s husband left her with their six children for someone else, but what they didn’t know was how he left her alone for days, without hardly any food or milk in Riverside, California where Billy and Ruben were born. Mom didn’t have a clue where babies came from when her Father walked her down the aisle in the church he and Nana Goya raised her in, but she quickly learned, giving birth to a child every other year. She borrowed her best friends’, Gloria’s, white laced wedding gown with a long laced veil, in a double wedding ceremony she shared with her brother Terene and his bride, Lucy. They lived in a mud floor house in the desert foothills, outside of Parker, Arizona, with a running creek nearby, where their first-born son, Ezekiel, age 2, drowned. Mom said it was the beginning of the end of their marriage. More children didn’t take away their pain, or feelings of guilt, and she’d never go back to the house by the creek, ever. She’d blot the memory of noticing the back door open when they woke up from an afternoon nap and finding their firstborn child lying face down in the shallow running water. Mom cried for days, months, years, until she couldn’t cry, think or talk about it anymore to anyone and kept Ezekiel’s framed picture hidden deep inside her closet.
When her husband started to make good money, they moved to Parker, Arizona and lived in the Valley on five acres. He bought new farming equipment, a new truck, flooring for the house, all new appliances for the kitchen. He drove to town to buy everything they needed, including her dresses, bras and underwear, even pairs of pants, knowing their church didn’t permit women to wear pants or make up. One time he brought her back a tube of red lipstick, threw it on the bed and told her, “Here. Wear it. You’re getting too plain to look at.” He started to come home late from a second job as a night bartender, wearing a turquoise ring on his pinky finger, with lipstick marks on his shirt, playing the record, ‘Please Release Me’ on the new stereo record player over and over again, until she finally did, with their six children.
The only thing I remember about my father was the shadow of his cowboy hat and the smell of his leather boots when he kissed me goodbye, while I was making mud pies in the dirt in front of our house. They said my father looked like the famous Mexican singer Vicente Fernandez and Mother told me once, she had fallen in love with his dancing green eyes, his sense of humor and style of dress. None of my brothers and sisters liked him, he was strict and made them stick their noses in corners for a long time whenever they misbehaved. He followed the Rodeo circuit and worked as a ranch hand across the river for a while but, all he left me was my last name Zapata, after the Mexican Revolutionary War Hero. Mom didn’t have one picture of them to show me, to prove their love even existed. She said they were too broke to pose for pictures. I think Mom was in love with my father and she didn’t want to be reminded of how another man had broken her heart. “Besides, you’re the proof!” she’d laugh and twist my nose.
Mom was naturally funny like Lucy, friends and family say she resembled Sophia Loren, she spoke Spanish and English, could play piano by ear, snapped her gum when she was lost in thought, loved birds, flowers and pretty melodies, and could sketch with a pencil for hours. When she turned 12, she tore a picture from a magazine of an Indian girl sitting on a rock, dipping her toes in a rippled pond and painted it on a cloth canvas with the oils and easel her father surprised her with on her birthday. Her teacher was so impressed when she brought it to school to show her, she entered the painting in a statewide school art contest, and it won first place. Mom received a blue ribbon with a savings bond and the bank downtown hung it proudly in their lobby for a while.
Mom thought she wanted to be an artist when she grew up, but she also wanted to be married, have kids and live in the proverbial white picket fence house, but things hadn’t worked out that way for her. She would sit underneath the tree in our front yard after we’d all gone to sleep, crying quietly to herself, contemplating suicide, she’d confess to me years later. She knew she never would, she loved us too much, but she felt she had been a good girl all her young life, and life in turn, had only been unkind and unfair to her, and the only sin she felt she ever committed was seeing someone get shot in an alley when she was walking home from school one day and never telling anyone. She ran home as fast as she could and when she wouldn’t stop crying, Nana Goya called the deacons of the church and they came and anointed her head with oil, and when she still wouldn’t stop crying, Nana Goya took her to see the Doctor and he diagnosed her as having a nervous breakdown at the age of 14. Mom had also overheard her Father and Nana Goya talking early in the morning in the kitchen when they thought she was still asleep, how her Mother had fallen into a deep depression after she had given birth to her and flatly told her Father that she was tired of raising kids and to go ask his sister if she could watch ‘Felicitas’ while she went back to work at the Needles Laundry. Her Father tried to make up for her Mother’s lack of affection or attention, and he would remind her that it was she that cried for Nana Goya’s arms when he brought her back home, until they all agreed it was only confusing the child, so they let her live with her Tia Goya, who in reality became her mother and her Tio Nueves and her new brother, Tuti.
Mom’s father, Pedro Silva, walked faithfully every morning to the small white house across from the train tracks next to the Santa Fe Housing, where Nueves was an iron worker at the Roundhouse. Their white three-bedroom house was so close to the wide and wild Colorado River, Mom could look out her bedroom window at tree stumps and large branches rushing by. Her Father kissed her forehead to wake her up and helped his sister get her ready, then walked her to school. He was of short stature and his skin was dark, mostly from the long hours of working in the sun as a carpenter. He dressed in suits and hats on the weekends and always carried a notepad and pen in his jacket sleeve. He was a deacon of the Church he helped build on Chestnut Street along with a Methodist church on West Broadway. He wrote Sunday school lessons and sermons and talked about God to anyone who’d listen, and was the kindest man Mom said she ever knew. Nana Goya and her Father taught her how to pray at a young age and to believe there’s an eternal life beyond the clouds. They’d walk down West Broadway, past Piggly Wiggly’s then to the Five & Dime store to buy more paper and ink and stopped at the corner Drug Store for an ice cream. “Look at the birds, Felicitas. If Our Heavenly Father takes care of them, won’t He take care of us, too?” They were sitting on a bench at the Santa Fe Park in front of the white Grecian pillars of the Harvey House and the tall, lush palm trees in the background, as they fed the birds with the birdseed he always brought in a small paper sack. Mom ran around the black cannon dedicated to all who fought in the World War and tossed a penny to make a wish in the marbled water fountain in front of the El Garces Train Station as they’d watch passengers arrive on the Santa Fe Super Chief Train from places they never heard of before, while Mojave Indian women sold their hand-woven baskets and jewelry in the desert sun.
On the weekends, Esther took me by my hand to the Dump, when I was big enough to walk that far and back, to the northest side of town, just underneath the overpass. Laughing along the way, we’d pretend we were headed to Las Vegas, to go shopping and do a little gambling while broken soda pop and beer bottles sparkled underneath our flip flops and cicadas buzzed in the bushes and trees. We’d walk pass motels with shimmery swimming pools, gas stations and restaurant parking lots filled with cars and hungry kids who waved at us through large glass-paned windows while they ate. Cars and semi-trucks whizzed above us as we’d search for buried treasures on islands of broken furniture, household goods, old toys and tires. A doll with no clothes on and one eye open kept staring at me, a pink rubber pig squeaked when I stepped on it, then squeaked again, when I picked it up and squeezed with both my hands. On the way home I looked down and notice a red ant stinging my toe when we stopped to wait for cars to pass. I start crying, running towards the direction of Chestnut Street while Esther runs alongside me. Nana Goya was standing there, holding the front gate open with one hand, underneath a white lattice arbor with baby pink roses growing through it, while holding a bottle of bleach in her other hand. She was dressed in a cotton gingham dress below her knees, wearing nylons and nurse shoes with a long apron tied around her waist and large pockets in the front that always contained: safety pins for torn zippers and for heating the tip to pull out splinters, a few bobby pins for stray hairs, a cotton ball she wound around the bobby pin to clean our ears and doused with olive oil for earaches, and a laced veil she placed on top of her head whenever she prayed. Her long gray braided hair was fastened with rhinestone combs in a bun that sparkled in the sun when she spoke. She told us in Spanish with big brown kind eyes, she could hear my cries from down the street while she splashed bleach on the ant bites and turned on the hose and put my foot underneath it to cool the sting, then coaxed me to sing the Kool Aid jingle she knew I always sung whenever it came on tv. “Kool-Aid, Kool-Aid tastes great! Wish we had some, can’t wait!” Nana Goya wiped my tears and dried my foot with her apron as we walked up concrete steps into a living room with shiny floors and a console tv with foiled rabbit ears in a corner. Sheer curtain panels moved slightly by the swamp cooler stuck in a side window. A long-sloped hallway led to Nana Goya’s kitchen her husband Nueves had built before he died. She poured us cups of Kool aid in ceramic white cups with big ice cubes and wiped my face with a cool washcloth. Johnny and Priscilla came through the back door telling us they won the best Twist duo at the after-school dance in the Needles High School gym as Johnny grabbed Nana’s hand and twirled her around, making her laugh. Esther and I laid on the couch with red stains around our mouths and watched TV. Jethro was asking Uncle Jed why they couldn’t keep a wild pig for a pet, “Aww, why not Pa?” while Ellie Mae started crying. Granny had an idea, snapping her fingers, jumping up and down, she said she’ll make a stew out of it instead, running towards the kitchen. Nana chuckled quietly, as she took the toy pig from my sleepy hand and the bottles Esther found at the Dump to the kitchen sink.
Ruben and Billy were asleep on the floor in front of the TV, waiting for Mom to get home. They were grounded after setting a mattress on fire in the desert. The neighborhood kids came and told Nana Goya that they’d seen the boys headed into the desert with matches, bb guns and canteens while they all turned and saw the fire truck passing by on West Broadway. They killed a rattlesnake in the desert the week before and wrapped it around my neck after they chased me all around the yard. I screamed so loud and for so long I turned purple, which made Molacho come out of his store and yelled at them to take it off of me right now. When Johnny came home from high school, he found a rope and hung them upside down from a limb of our front yard tree so everyone could see and hear them yell ‘Uncle.’ Then he made them kiss my little piggy toe and tell me they were sorry, before he untied them. But that still didn’t stop them from taking apart my Chatty Patty doll the next day and finding her batteries in the middle of the street.
There were baskets of laundry left on Nana’s doorstep every week from a family that lived on the hill for her to wash, hang on the clothesline and iron. She bleached Uncle Tuti’s white work shirts and pants by hand, soaked them in starch and wrapped them in a paper bag to chill in the refrigerator overnight. There were stray cats who waited patiently by the back door for her leftover creamy oatmeal sweetened with condensed milk, a yard with grass and flowers she watered every day, calls from neighbors that were sick and asked for her and the Church’s prayers. After her morning chores, we’d walk to town, down ‘K’ and Front Streets, and listened to her recite ‘The Lord is My Shepherd’ as we walked underneath the darken underpass, hearing the heavy trains clanging above us. She’d explain how we’ll walk through valleys of the shadow of death in life, but to fear no evil, our Lord God will always be with us as we walked out from underneath the underpass, into the shining sun. We’d wave to Uncle Tuti from the second floor at Claypool’s, and he’d smile and wave back up at us, while Nana Goya picked out nylons for church. When we started to complain about the heat on the way home, Nana Goya would find the nearest shade for us to stand under, open her purse, placed her veil on top of her head, said a quick prayer and a few minutes later a car pulled up and asked if we needed a ride.
Nana Goya’s house always smelled of freshly ground corn and roasted chilis she’d smash with a rock in a stone bowl. The kitchen windows were always clouded with steam from the big stainless-steel pots filled with tamales on the stove. She and all the sisters made tamales to help pay the Church’s mortgage and monthly bills, and when the tamales were done, Nana Goya grabbed potholders and asked the bigger kids to help her carry it, as we’d walk through the neighborhood streets and to the nearby Mojave Indian Reservation while Nana Goya told us to yell as loud as we could, “Beef Tamales! Pork Tamales! 50 cents!”
Nana Goya whistled a hymn through her teeth, while she rolled a ball of dough in a circle, then stopped to coat the rolling pin with more flour. “Gloria de Dios” she said out loud and wiped the tears with the back of her hand. Gregoria Silva Almarez was born in 1896 and at the age of 12, she washed and ironed Pancho Villa’s clothes and cooked for his soldiers. They’d come late at night with blood on their clothes and mustaches and paid her with the money they’d stolen from the rich, to let them eat, sleep and bathe in the mud floor house her parents left her and her little brother in Durango, Mexico, after they both died from illness. She married at 15, to a man she fell deeply in love with, named Esteban. One night when he was leaving a bar, he was in a gun fight and left for dead on the side of the road. Gregoria was pregnant and when she was told of his death, she miscarried. As the Mexican Revolutionary War progressed, grief stricken and now destitute, Nana Goya and her brother took what little they possessed and boarded a boat, paying a penny each, to Texas and then to California, to start a new life in the United States of America.
All the neighborhood kids used to throw rocks at the big, red, round metal sign with a smiling green elf with a twinkle in his eye, holding a bottle of Coca Cola, on the side of Valenzuela’s Grocery Store & Cafe. The loud clangs hitting the metal interrupted the hottest and quietest part of a summer’s day. The store’s front doorbells would ring angrily as all the kids would begin running, laughing, turning to look back at Molacho coming out half asleep, his shoes shuffling quickly on the sidewalk, throwing his cane around in his hand, cussing at them in Spanish. He’d stop to wipe his forehead with a hankie he kept in his pocket, saying how he’d remind himself to tell all their mothers the next time they come into the store asking for credit, then he’d spit in the sky, readjust his fedora hat and squint in the sun to get one last look.
Mom said Molacho’s name was Fidel, but everyone called him Molacho. He used to be the Ice Man when air conditioners weren’t invented yet and if they were, nobody could afford them, but everyone knew they could always count on Molacho to deliver big blocks of ice from the Icehouse on the eastside of town to their doorsteps. The best anyone could do on the hottest days when the temperatures reached 120 plus degrees, was wet sheets and hang them in their windows and porches with fans going in every direction in front of a block of ice and pray for a good breeze or a monsoon to suddenly come along. It’s been said that Molacho once was shot by a man who tried to rob his store. He fired the gun four times at Molacho, grazing his chest, but Molacho just stood there, he didn’t even open the cash register drawer and told him, “Chinga Di Madre and to get a job”, instead.
Nana Goya’s church was just a few doors down from our house on Chestnut Street. A small white building with double wooden front doors that shone in the sun when Sister Mollie wiped lemon oil over them. Honeysuckle grew along the fence surrounded by a small patch of bright green grass Brother Santos mowed every Saturday. There was a three-tiered drinking water fountain made of river rocks near the front steps leading up to the church, and a back building known as ‘the commodore’ with long windows that overlooked the courtyard, a big kitchen, a long u-shaped counter and little tables and chairs everywhere. The women wore dresses below their knees, no makeup and weren’t allowed to even to tweeze their eyebrows or cut their hair, and when entering the House of The Lord they placed laced veils on top of their heads. The men wore long sleeved white shirts and black slacks and black leather shoes. No facial hair, no long hair or ponytails, a man’s barber cut, no tattoos. They greeted a brother or sister with Paz de Cristo. They would break into song after they told a testimony or two and Nana Goya would stand up and recited the scripture she memorized all week and they’d sing songs like ‘I have a home Over the sun, Over the sun’, shaking tambourines, while Sister Molly pounded the piano. The Pastor walked up to the podium after all the singing and started preaching about a man with evil spirits, and how Jesus sent the spirits into a herd of pigs that ran themselves over a cliff. Walking home from the church service, Billy and I asked Nana Goya where does God live? “Aqui. Right here, tu corazón.” Nana Goya pointed to her heart. We didn’t know how we understood what she meant, we just did. Then Billy told me to jump on his back and he gave me a piggyback ride all the way home.
There were days Mom yelled at us for any reason, pulling at her hair, then slamming the bedroom door behind her. She blamed Nana Goya and the Church for her naivete, and the breakup of her marriage, and flatly told her, she wasn’t going to her church anymore. Besides, what did her love for God have anything to do with wearing make up and jewelry? And if there really was a God, where was He now when she needed Him the most? Nana was quiet for a long time while she swept the floor, then she replied softly, “I serve God the way I choose to serve Him. You serve Him the way you choose to serve Him, just serve Him, Mija.” I started to whimper and Priscilla put me on her hip and we went outside to leave Mom alone for a while.
Uncle Tuti was standing on our doorstep, jingling his car keys and change in his pockets, asking us if we wanted to go for a ride in his white Thunderbird with red leather seats. He took us for rides through town, around the Golf Course and stopped on River Road to skip stones on the sand bar and then to Leisure Lanes Bowling Alley at Rainbow Beach, to eat hot dogs and chips, and drink Shirley Temples in the leather booths and listen to live bands or 45rpms on the jukebox while he tried to teach us how to bowl.
Uncle Tuti stood barely 5 ft tall. His Mother died shortly after his birth from terminal illness, falling down a flight of stairs with him in her arms, crushing his spine and leaving a large mound on his back. She came early in the morning to her brother Nueves’s house to ask if he and his wife, Gregoria, would raise her son. It hadn’t been that long since they’d lost their own daughter, Lucita, age 2, from pneumonia and Nana Goya still had milk in her breasts. ‘What God took away He also gave back and more to me,’ she’d say.
Uncle Tuti never seemed to be bothered by his height, and after a while one didn’t notice it at all, by the way he always flashed his toothpaste commercial smile, and how he was kind and friendly to everybody, or the way he dressed on his days off: wing-tip shoes, pressed trousers, dress shirts, his black, wavy hair in a fresh, tapered cut with the faint scent of Tres Flores mixed with Aqua Velva, following him everywhere he went. He was a butcher at Claypool’s, and each morning Nana Goya would cook his favorite breakfast of over-easy eggs, fried potatoes and bacon, that he’d proudly say he sliced himself, with fresh homemade tortillas and chili. He would tell Nana Goya all about his boss, Mr. Claypool, how he owned practically all of Needles, and about all the people that came and shopped throughout the day, and the latest gossip customers shared with him and tamale orders over the glass counter to relay to Nana and the Church. He reminded her the pork and beef roasts were on special next week and gave her a kiss on the cheek and thanked her for another delicious meal. He’d wave to the neighbors outside that were watering their lawns and petted his dogs before he drove off to work. On paydays, he’d honk his horn as he slowly drove by, smiling and brought packages of meat wrapped in thick white paper to ours and Nana Goya’s freezers with a big bag of bones for his dogs. Uncle Tuti loved kids and dogs and named each one of us girls after a pooch on tv, or in the movies. Priscilla was ‘Purdy’, Esther was ‘Princess’, Lizzie was ‘Pongo’ and I was ‘Lassie’. On the weekends, he’d play ball in the street with all the neighborhood kids, and whenever there was a dispute, he’d take a whistle out of his pocket and instruct everybody to go to his backyard where he’d quickly tie sheets around the trees and brought out two pairs of boxing gloves to teach us to how fight fair and square. He’d time each bout with his watch while he slowly went over all the rules, then he’d make sure we all tapped gloves afterwards and told us, ‘Now be friends and go play.’
‘How can Santa come down our chimney if we don’t have one?’ I asked Uncle Tuti, not long before Christmas. Uncle Tuti stood there with his arms crossed and insisted there was a Santa Claus, and he was coming to Claypool’s this coming weekend, and for all of us to tell the man with the white beard wearing the red and white suit, what we wanted for Christmas. We knew Mom couldn’t afford to buy a real Christmas tree, so we woke up early, to go search the desert for a Christ Thorn bush, in between the washes and sand hills, to decorate with ornaments we made in school, tinsel and a string of lights Mom bought at the Five and Dime store.
On winter days, Nana Goya stirred Mexican Hot chocolate on the stove, while we listened to the cold wind outside and the whir of her sewing machine. I’d watch Nana Goya go to her bedroom at all hours of the day or night, no matter how busy she was, and kneel on the side of her chenille bedspread. A picture of Jesus praying in the Garden of Gethsemane hung on the wall above her bed. I’d listen to her pray for each one of us, as she’d mention each of us by name, to watch over and bless us all of our lives, and she’d ask God to find a good wife for Uncle Tuti and a good husband for Mom, and she’d pray for the neighbors and any of their kids that were sick, and her brothers and sisters in Church, and she’d thank Him for answering all of her prayers and for all the blessings in her life. She would talk to God like He was a real person standing there, as I looked around to see if I could see Him. I’d try not to let her see me peeking through the crack in the door as I watched her shake her head and smile as we both heard Uncle Tuti outside her bedroom window tell all the neighborhood kids to be at their house on Christmas morning for a surprise.
There was a pink bike with a horn and a basket I noticed downstairs in the Toy Department at Claypool’s that I loved sliding down the banister to stare at. I decided to test Santa to see if he was really real, like Uncle Tuti had insisted he was. There were pretty girl clothes hanging on racks nearby as I pointed at the clothes and the bike shyly, instead of telling Santa when he asked what I wished for.
When all the kids in the neighborhood appeared at 5 a.m. on Christmas morning at Uncle Tuti’s and Nana’s doorstep, Uncle Tuti was standing in his bathrobe and slippers, scratching his head, teasing, ‘Did I really say that?’ as he handed bags of toy trinkets, candy canes, popcorn balls, chocolate covered Santas, candy bars, fruit and nuts underneath the porch light. When the sun rose, there were brand new bikes for all of us that magically appeared in our front yard as I pointed and screamed with glee at the pink bike with the horn and basket. There was even a big box of pretty outfits, wrapped in Santa wrapping paper with a big red bow and a tag with my name on it, that read: ‘Merry Christmas! Love, Santa’ underneath our tree.
Uncle Tuti met and fell in love with a pretty Filipino woman with long hair, large gold-hoop earrings and gold-filled teeth, who sang, ‘The Girl from Ipanema’ at the bowling alley on the weekends. They married and she moved in with him and Nana, and brought her black, shiny baby grand piano into their living room with her. There was a silver tree with blue balls and a color wheel on the floor which made the tree and ceiling change colors that Christmas, as we all gathered around the piano, opened presents from ‘Santa’ and sang carols, then later went to Nana’s church where we ate warm, sweet tamales with raisins and pineapple, and pan dulce shaped like pigs, and talked and laughed more, in the commodore. Until one day, not long after another New Year had begun, Uncle Tuti and Aunt Jovie decided to move to L.A., where he’d become a chef in a fancy restaurant and liked to say, laughing over the phone with Nana, he was, ‘Cookin’ em instead of cuttin’ ‘em now.’ A year later, they had a beautiful baby daughter.
Rita and I were laying on the grass in front of Grace Henderson school after waving at cars going by. We were singing, ‘Going to the Chapel’ and looking at the shape of clouds. She pointed to a cloud that she said was shaped like a lion and I said the one above me was shaped like a pig. ‘See the shape of his snout, the pointed ears?’ We walked to Fosters Freeze and Billy and Lizzie were there, and they tried to teach us how to whistle the North side whistle with two fingers in our mouths, but we couldn’t do it. Billy put a quarter in the jukebox and played ‘Mrs Brown You Got a Lovely Daughter’ for Mrs. Brown who smiled behind a little wire mesh window. She wore a cap with a smiling ice cream cone on it and told the lady sitting by us that her BLT and French fries was ready. We decided to go take a dive and started walking towards the river through a patch of desert on the Indian Reservation when we found a dead Mojave Indian man laying half naked in the desert. His pants were below his knees and ants were crawling all over him, and the whites of his eyes curled from the sun. We run to tell Rita’s Mom and then police cars come in a hurry. Today there was smoke billowing from the Cry House in the Village. Ada, our Mojave Indian girlfriend, said we were invited to the man’s funeral. There were women wearing long dresses with colored ribbons on the bottom and men wore bandanas tied around their necks with gourds in their hands and shook them to a certain beat while a pig was cooking in a pit underneath the ground.
On Friday nights, Mom and Lupe were out searching for their daughters they said, didn’t know what the word ‘Curfew,’ meant. Neither Mom nor Lupe knew how to drive. Lupe asked Molacho to take them to look for them, Molacho said to call the cops and started cussing and said he was going to bed. They took flashlights to search for them, in the desert, getting stickers in their shoes, cursing in the dark, then praying, crying and hugging each other, then getting mad again, and finally deciding to go back home and call the cops like Molacho told them to do in the first place. Priscilla, Esther, and Mary were with their friends on the sandbar at First Beach when they noticed police car lights flashing from the road as Esther dove quickly into the ice-cold river. She knew she could make it back home before the cops got there and act like she’d been in bed the whole time. She lost her flip flops in the river but made it back to shore. Barefoot and freezing, she ran as fast as she could, through the empty desert lots, hopping over backyard fences, making all the dogs bark. She noticed a big pair of panties left hanging on a very obese sister’s clothesline that went to Nana Goya’s church. Esther yanked the panties off the line and wrapped it around her body and kept running. When she got home, she ran to the bathroom and dried her hair with a towel, changed into her pajamas and jumped into bed. She could hear Mom and Lupe talking to the police officer and Molacho smoking a cigarette in the dark and cussing underneath his breath. The next day after the church service while the Sisters were in the commodore kitchen, preparing for their after-church service meal, the very obese sister commented she thought she had a secret admirer, someone had stolen her panties off the line last night. Can you imagine someone wanting my cajones? She laughed. All the sisters laughed too, shaking their heads, as they took out the silverware and plates.
There were other days, after we all helped Mom clean the house and after she had a good cry in the shower, she’d look at us with her wet, red eyes and tell us didn’t we know there were people in mental institutions because they can’t cry? A good cry was good for the soul. Then she told us to comb our hair and wash our faces because we were going to visit Mr. Bert. She needed to talk to him.
Mr. Bert lived on the old River Road in a small green house with white trim. He always wore a knotted nylon stocking cap on his nearly bald head, and greeted each of us at the door with a big smile, and ‘How are you doing, Baby?’ Women from all over the neighborhood and Indian Village, flocked to his bright yellow kitchen with fruit decals on the cupboards for his free advice and a glass of his sweet, iced tea with lemon slices he always kept in his fridge. But there was one rule he strictly followed. Once the sun went down, everyone had to go home. No sleepovers, no exceptions. He knew how people liked to talk, he’d say with a smile and a wink. He was once a pimp in the streets of Chicago, but he put that life behind him and became a cook for the Santa Fe railroad. Out of habit, he always carried a big wad of bills with a gold clasp in his pocket and bought all the kids an ice cream cone from the ice cream truck whenever it came around, and he didn’t mind loaning anybody any money as long as they paid him back, he’d say. He lent this one woman some money and she took her time paying him back, until he confronted her about it and she called the police the next day saying Mr. Burke had molested her daughter. The police handcuffed Mr. Bert and took him to jail. When all the women in the neighborhood heard about it, they all walked to the Courthouse and told the Judge that the woman was a habitual liar, and how she never paid Mr. Bert the money he was nice enough to loan her, and how he never shown any disrespect to any of them ever, and the Judge let Mr. Bert go home that day.
There was always a pot of something cooking on his stove and today it was chitlins. “Because Popeye eats chitlins, he sho do!” Mr. Bert laughed his deep warm laugh, while changing the channel on his tv, so we could watch cartoons and he could play dominos with Freddy the Wino at his kitchen table and listen to Mom tell him all of her troubles. Mom told Mr. Bert how the boys were starting to come by our house whistling the Northside Whistle, but she never had to worry about Lizzie. She was either diving off the bridge, playing softball or beating all the guys at arm wrestling. ‘Please Mr. Bert, tell me, will I ever find someone to love me with all my kids? No man in his right mind would take on this kind of responsibility. But I’m still young. I still want to be desired by a man and someday remarry. Tell me, Mr. Bert, is there any hope for me?’ ‘Now, now, Child, you have a Nana that raised you like her own and believes in the power of prayer and with that kind of love and power, it can make pigs fly, sho can.’ and patted Mom’s hand.