Isidoro Acevedo has not been back to Olive Street in decades. The first thing he notices is that the tabby lingering by the front door of Apartment 1 floats in the air in the recessed alcove of a small patio. The patio is shrouded in shadows, and next to that rusted, wrought-iron chair where he used to sit as a child is Doña Lola’s ashtray with three mashed cigarette butts. Isidoro stares through the shadows. The cat’s paws step in midair, and its green eyes turn languidly at him, as if to say, “So, here you are again.”
As Isidoro pushes open the black wrought-iron screen door and the hollow wooden door behind it, he sees Don José snoring on the rust-colored couch, unshaven, molacho, which gives more prominence to his tongue in a playful way, because who won’t smile back at a mischievous, toothless old man who always seems ready with another joke?
“Isidoro, you need to leave the dead in peace, mi‘jo. ”
“I’m not disturbing him, Señora. I didn’t slam the door.”
“All of us, I don’t just mean ese viejo apestoso!” Doña Lola says a bit too loudly, which causes Don José to stir in his dreams. A silver sliver of drool dangles from one corner of the mouth to his leathery cheeks. “Come over here, next to the fireplace.”
Isidoro glances outside the window to the left of the fireplace, and he notices that the willow outside is swaying to a gust of wind. This is strange since he doesn’t remember feeling any wind on Olive Street. Thick gray clouds fill the limited horizon to the Franklin Mountains. Why hasn’t he noticed the weather before? When he approached los departamentos in El Segundo Barrio, no weather came to mind, not even the sun, whether it was morning or afternoon or evening, but now ominous clouds flitter in the sky outside and a chill surrounds the tenements, as if time is of the essence, as if seconds plop onto the desert floor and evaporate as soon as they appear. Isidoro slumps into his favorite armchair. His abuelita Doña Lola shuffles toward him, holding two steamy cups, but she places both cups on a small tray in front of her.
“So I found this special Mexican hot chocolate at Ben’s Grocery. I want you to drink it because it will help answer your questions, mi‘jo.” She slides one cup toward Isidoro.
“I haven’t asked anything, Abuelita. I miss you so much. How, how–”
“I know. It’s one of the perks I get from being on this side. I knew you were coming back, and that’s so sweet of you, of course. You are the only one who still thinks of me, even though I’m just bones in Mount Carmel Cemetery with that sleeping cabrón on top of me!”
“At least you are together.”
“Yes, at least that. He was a good man, even if he was lazy and drank too much.”
“Mira, mira! You’re just like me. As stubborn. As mean.”
“Well, at least you’re honest about it now.”
“We couldn’t have this conversation before. But now. That’s what matters. Let me tell you about this Mexican hot chocolate. You drink it, you go somewhere, but I don’t know exactly where. I’ll be right here when you get back.”
“Like a drug, Abuelita? Really?”
“It’s not a drug. It’s Mexican xocoatl. With special properties. Definitely not a drug, but it helps you push through, through …”
“Through … limitations. I don’t know exactly. What it does for me is different from what it will do for you, on that side. I can only guess. We are not even together, you know that, right, mi‘jo?”
“I don’t even know how I am talking to you now. In Apartment 1 again. I write about you all the time.”
“Isi, it’s memories. The past. It carries you backward but also forward, but only so far. It’s me in you. The chocolate will help.”
Before Isidoro’s eyes stop lingering over the soft wrinkles on his grandmother’s face, which as a child seemed chiseled in brown stone, the cup with the yellow sunflower is in his hands, his grandmother gone. The clouds hover just outside the window–Isidoro can feel the cold as if it’s crawling up his toes onto his legs–and he thinks he hears the patter of raindrops and smells the aroma of the earth freshly wet. Isidoro drinks the hot chocolate.
He is suddenly within the wall, part of the wall, and he smells the dust embedded there for decades. What is happening to him? In the wall, Isidoro is half in and half out of it. Where exactly is he? Strangely he keeps thinking of Moises Llamas, an undocumented Mexican immigrant his father would use in los departamentos for cabinetry and brickwork. Not exactly of him, but of his callused hands, and how Mo-ee, as Isidoro called him, would lose himself in his work. This wood now in front of Isidoro reminds him of Mo-ee, the smell of it fresh cut, its rough, rectangular shape. The wood and Isidoro’s bones and their blood.
After another moment, Isidoro is not with Mo-ee but with Manuel Lopez, who renovated his New York apartment decades after Isidoro left Doña Lola and El Paso. Isidoro is dizzy again, inside walls, seeing the metal frames Manuel uncovered after demo. Manuel found a decades-old 7-Up bottle hidden since the original construction of their Upper West Side co-op. An artifact from a worker of yesteryear found by today’s obrero. Is that what this Mexican chocolate is doing to his mind? Time travel? Connecting one decade to another, one undocumented with another? For Manuel was also undocumented, also Mexican, but Manuel was an evangelical Christian, unlike Mo-ee from El Paso. Manny, as the Irish contractor called him, had also spent time “envuelto en drogas,” but his wife had straightened him out with her religion. That was Manuel’s sheepish confession to Isidoro one day.
Isidoro smells the construction dust inside the walls. Where are these walls? Has he traveled back to New York? He is thinking of the time he painted walls for his father’s apartments in El Paso: Isidoro also became lost in the work, lost in the smoothness of the joint cement after he had sanded it as a boy. After he would fill each hole, wait for the joint cement to dry, and finally sand the wall, Isidoro would lose who he was too. Is that why now he is stuck metaphysically somewhere between these walls? There is a sense he is hiding in between these appearing and disappearing walls, his arm muscles and bones but also part of the sheetrock, his body embedded in the floor, a tile protruding strangely from his stomach … He can move, yes, but he also exists oddly inside the wall and floor. Isidoro remembers loving to hide as a child, and sometimes his parents would search for him for many hours. In that darkness, Isidoro the boy would discover a solace that would escape him as an adult.
Isidoro breathes, and he is staring at Manuel as he works on prepping the floor. But that staring is not in the past, but now, as if Isidoro is floating above Manuel, there and not there, like a phantasm trapped in his memories. Mansito, that’s the word that comes to Isidoro trapped in this netherworld above Manuel. “Gentle” is a close approximation, but not quite why Manuel seems a kind of lodestone in this time outside of time, wherever Isidoro is. Maybe more like “at peace,” as Manuel scores the bathroom tiles, breaks them precisely, and fits pieces on the shower floor as if he were arranging a complex puzzle. There was a purpose that Isidoro envied in Manuel, and also a connection to El Paso and los departamentos and Mo-ee, all of it prompted by Manuel’s work on Isidoro’s New York bathrooms, these remembrances and impressions of his personal history. Now Isidoro, the phantasm, feels none of that nostalgia at this scene. There is more of a coldness he feels, if he can feel anything at all, more like that joy at being invisible and embedded in the darkness he felt as a child. But this coldness is not off-putting in any way: it is as if he can see in a way he has never seen before. His arm moves within the wall, as if his finger suddenly separates from the sheetrock and becomes … a finger …
“Was I asleep?”
“Well, not quite. This Mexican chocolate is very potent. It took you somewhere. You are back in Apartment 1 in El Segundo, mi‘jo.”
“Abuelita, my head hurts. But you are not here either … I remember this chair. The one with the dark emerald cover and the frilly edges. Your favorite.”
“I’m still on the other side. But also still talking to you. It is this special relationship we always had. We could talk to each other even when we weren’t together, as I recall.”
“I know, I miss that so much, Abuelita. But why Moises, why Manuel, years later? I don’t understand. Help me.”
“Well, let’s keep talking. It’s in you. Not something I can impose on you.”
“I don’t remember you ever using a word like impose in El Segundo Barrio!”
“Well, you know, the privileges of being on this side. The hot Mexican chocolate. Who knows? Not everything can be analyzed. Some experiences must only be felt. What do you feel, Isi?”
“A great sadness, Abuelita. Mo-ee and Manuel. Once I was watching this show, This Old House, you would have liked it. And it has these men–I think they’re from Boston, or near Boston–with great Irish accents. And I’m thinking of Manuel’s Irish boss. He was a good man. Patrick. He treated Manuel very well, as far as I could see. And Manuel’s work is still around me. The tiles on the bathroom shower I use every day in New York. The marble so expertly arranged on my walls, exactly as my wife wanted it. I saw Manuel use a laser-level to do it. Mo-ee never used that kind of level.”
“It’s odd that you’re thinking of Moises Llamas. I remember him always with that smile and his crew cut. He was the one who used to be a boxer in Juárez, no?”
“Yes, that’s him.”
“Your dear father always thought he was a little lazy. Or a bit slow, anyway.”
“Well, maybe he was, but Apá also didn’t pay him much to work on his departamentos either.” Isidoro shakes his head as he finishes this sentence, finally clearing his vision, which has taken a few seconds after finding himself in Apartment 1 again. The effects of the chocolate wane, but he still sees a forbidding wind outside the window next to the chimney, a wind reminding him of Easter in El Paso, the desert world somewhat inhospitable and pregnant with the ominous. “Both my father and Patrick used these workers. Used me and my brothers.”
“Don’t we all? No one is pure in that way.”
“But that’s not why I was sad when I traveled–or whatever the hell I did–to see Mo-ee and Manuel again. I was sad because their work was all around us, in this apartment, in my apartment in New York, and they have this show on TV, and all of the people who talk about replacing a roof, or adding a bathroom, none of them are Mexicanos with broken English accents. None of them have dark brown skin. None of them are the ones who do the work. We are still invisible.”
“It’s an American TV show, what did you expect, mi‘jo?”
“And it’s not even that. I used Manuel in New York too, just like my father used Mo-ee in El Paso–bless his bitter soul at Mount Carmel. You ever talk to Apá on that side, by the way?”
“Haven’t heard from him yet. You know … white southerners used African slaves. And California growers and Hudson Valley farmers use Mexicanos to pick the frutas we eat. And even Mexicanos imported Chinese laborers and later slaughtered them, during my time of the Mexican Revolution. It’s a circle without an end.”
“Abuelita, you didn’t know this much, you know, when …”
“When I was on your side?”
“Yes. I’m sorry.”
“There’s nothing to be sorry about. You gather a certain perspective on this side, you become part of something greater, even if it’s just la tierra at Mount Carmel. There’s nothing wrong with becoming part of this earth again. It’s only a ‘defeat’ from your side of things.”
“Señora, but even all of that doesn’t explain my sadness. I know all of that: we use each other. We climb out of wherever we are however we can, even if it means using others. Even if it means brutalizing them. Even if it means using them only to help us feel alive. Yes, that’s awful and makes me sick to my stomach. But what saddened me when I saw Mo-ee and Manuel …”
“What was it? You can have more of the Mexican chocolate, if that will help.”
“What saddened me … it’s hard to express. What saddened me was this ‘work’ all around us, inside these walls, under our feet, above our head. The people who did this work, not here, sometimes invisible when they were here. Just like books.”
“Like books? You were always such a reader, mi‘jo.”
“When I read a book it’s similar to when I enter a house. I feel surrounded by the dead. It’s a voice from the dead, when I’m reading a book. I mean, not all of the authors are dead, but eventually … Just like not all the workers. But eventually …”
“That they’re dead bothers you? It certainly doesn’t bother them anymore. And well, I don’t know how you feel about–”
“No, it’s not that they’re dead, exactly. They are. Those who are. That’s a bit sad. But not quite what I feel. It’s … it’s … that they’re silent to the living. I think that’s it. Their voices, in these departamentos, inside the walls of every home, in between so many pages, in every library around the world–these voices are silent to so many of the living.”
“They’re not silent to you.”
“The voices are there, but often unheard. They are silent to many. Saying … but without listening … they become nothing. Reaching no one. A silence that saddens me.”
“But why does this bother you?”
“Well, I guess it saddens me because the living, they often don’t listen. They don’t seek out these voices around us. They don’t pay attention, at least to the echoes of these voices around us. In things. There’s this hubris in the living. Abuelita, you know what this word means?”
“Pride. Orgullo. Of course. I’m telling you, on this side, suddenly you are a part of what was, what continues … everything. So yes, even a few Greek words I know now. But I knew the word pride before I knew it in Greek. I know what it means to have pride in your blood, mi‘jo. I had it, and I always thought you had it. But wait … I still don’t understand why that saddens you.”
“It saddens me that the living don’t pay enough attention, that curiosity is overwhelmed by exhaustion, by stupidity. That they waste what they have. That they repeat the worst of their mistakes. A circle of sordid history. At least sometimes it’s sordid.”
“But why would you expect that they should ‘see’ as you want them to see? As you do? Is it the expectation, is that what makes you sad?”
“Gosh, Abuelita, what happened to you on that side? You’ve become better than some of my old philosophy professors. I envy you.”
“Maybe it’s time for more Mexican chocolate. Here, take another few sips and I’ll bring more from the kitchen. I have to check on your grandfather anyway, and I have something warming on the placa. I’ll be right here when you get back.”
Isidoro first takes a sip, and then gulps the rest of the Mexican chocolate down his throat. He thinks he hears a loud bang, and then a shuddering through the air, as if the air in front of him is a gigantic sheet of plastic that shakes, or is being shaken, by an unseen hand.
In front of him Isidoro sees himself as a ten-year-old boy, and he is wearing a white T-shirt in El Paso, his panza protruding from his too-tight jeans. On the T-shirt it says Lee’s Fleas in lime green, with a silhouette of a golfer in mid-swing launching a ball into the endless white, which is now somewhat dirtied by a churro he is holding. His father and mother are somewhere nearby, waiting, while a crowd disperses from a public golf course in Ascarate Park. Isidoro can see himself, that boy’s face, there is something magnificent on it–a heady pride at having just seen Lee Trevino at an exhibition, at the cool T-shirt he is wearing, which he begged his parents to buy for him, at seeing his father’s face so happy for once to be in the United States as a Mexican. As the boy Isidoro is walking up a slight hill to the green, an Anglo couple descend toward him. The man, with glasses and a sneer, says with a Texas drawl to the woman next to him, “That’s some fat flea.”
Isidoro the phantasm sees only black in front of him, but he remembers what happened next after that scene from his personal history. Isidoro the boy was consumed with a rage that lasted until they returned home to Ysleta, in the Volkswagen Beetle, all six of them jammed together, Isidoro elbowing his little brother’s head, which, after a yelp, prompted his older brother to jab him in the stomach, which in turn led to a shout from his sister to their mother … Isidoro wanted to throw the T-shirt out, and did fling it into the trashcan, but retrieved it and kept it at the bottom of his underwear drawer years after it stopped fitting him. He finally threw the yellowed rag away when he left for college.
It is unclear what this next scene is, whether it’s in the past or the future, and Isidoro is trying to make sense of it, trying to find where he is, what he is, whether he is. He is not there, but it’s as if he’s seeing the world through someone else’s eyes. It’s this Ms. Russell, and she has what Isidoro wants, a certain fame or acceptance or attitude. She has brown hair and wears round tortoiseshell glasses, her skin is whitish, with the slightest tan, and her eyes hazel, but it’s those eyes that see Isidoro in a way he has never imagined himself. Does he even know a Ms. Russell? Her eyes stare at him like a doll’s eyes, unrepentant, and in a way taking in the totality of him, as if to say, “Do what I do. Why can’t you? What stops you?” Her face grins at him hard, with big front teeth just the slightest bit too big for her mouth, which remind Isidoro of a rabbit, but also poised, with her big eyes, as if Ms. Russell wants to eat him. For Isidoro, as he tries to make sense of the wavery image of this Ms. Russell, what brings the image finally together in his mind is her hair, this well-to-do do of perfectly coiffed chestnut brown, like a banker’s, or an Upper East Sider’s. This face, a mystery he cannot have, a perspective that attracts and repels at once, a chasm too far from his own face and eyes. Why does this image of he-as-seen-through-Ms.-Russell’s-eyes make him feel so alone?
Isidoro is trying to gather himself, trying to get away from Ms. Russell’s eyes, or inside her head, or wherever he is. He cannot. He feels dizzy. What he feels is something very primal, as if he is leaping back in time, to the womb, and into what seems like a womb, a cave. Isidoro hears echoes only, certain rhythms and sounds. He can see nothing in front of him, but he hears what he thinks are his parents, their voices. They make him happy, and when they clarify, when he can hear complete phrases, that soothes him–they are the songs in Spanish from his mother–but around him he also feels this chill as if a bear awaits the baby, as if without his parents singing these songs an animal will pounce on him. Isidoro is terrified, but he doesn’t remember any fight with a wild beast from his deep past or his recent days. Why is there this fear beyond the present darkness? What is this fear? They lived in El Paso. They were Mexicanos from the border, leaving Mexico and becoming American. In El Paso, it was a there, but outside … beyond the border … what happened? He is nowhere.
Isidoro the phantasm still cannot see in front of him–maybe he gulped down too much of that chocolate–but he can feel what is around him. That bear. That animal menace. A certain eerie, fundamental displacement, with a touch of an awaiting, cascade into catastrophe. He is behind in a race he knows nothing about–that is what he feels. He was born behind. But no, that certainly isn’t it. He is in a race where he doesn’t know the rules and doesn’t know how to avoid mistakes and dangers. Yet he has no choice but to race. He chose to be in this race, and that’s the terror, that’s the bear behind him, that’s the fear around him, somehow. Isidoro, in this darkness, is stuck in a labyrinth of his choices, and the choices of those who came before him. This labyrinth is closing in on him, approaching from all sides … he can feel the walls breathe him in. It is next to him. Everything and nothing are next to him. He reaches out.
“I am waiting for you.”