The cold white particles fell to the ground and his tears joined. Juan stared as November pushed on and the slamming of the wooden front door echoed as his brother left. The aluminum screen crashing behind him.
They say the memory is the first thing to go with age. Juan welcomed that adage with wide spread arms. Sizzling a dissolve of sadness from his mind’s forefront to back. He hated himself more now than ever. He continued to feel pain in his heart and the snow continued to fall.
“You have to forgive yourself for what happened to Santos,” Aida spoke softly kissing Juan’s scruffy cheek. He hadn’t shaved since he and Santos had last seen each other.
“Amor, you don’t have to be so kind. I know where I failed. Leave me here… please.” Juan smelled of soot and sweat in a sweet Earthy way.
“But to beat yourself up, that won’t do any good. I made you some fresh tortillas de harina earlier. We’re having carne con chile tonight. Your hijo should be home later. He had texted me saying he was staying after school for a little bit. Maybe with some new friends, yo no se.”
“¿O si? Well, I hope he isn’t acting up and you shouldn’t have talked to him on that text thing. He gets in trouble with that you know, vieja.”
“Ay ¿quien es una vieja aqui?” Aida pulled Juan to the bed and hugged him around his pansa. “Mi gordo, you worry too much. He’ll be ok. He’s just adjusting. It’s new for him here.”
She loved her husband and it was a warm love. A smell good, kitchen cooked meal love; a chile rellenos and pollo con mole kind of love where the many small efforts and diligent work created something wonderful and rich. Where once you consume it, it betters you from the inside out. Like meals, not all love is great. Some can be bad. Put together so quickly and without care or consideration. Some are forced and the two have to find a way to enjoy it, like meals made from whatever’s left over in the pantry or fridge drawers when food rations are low. You’d choke down those meals with well water, sour juice, or milk few days past expiration. Those were the worst. But only the good couples knew how to make the best of those meals. Aida knew they had a great love. A love many of her comadres lit candles at church for. Some were jealous. The beaten, the cheated, the widowed, but no matter. They admired Aida and her strong, stubbornly stoic Juanito.
“I think I’m going to go see him, Aida, that may help.”
“The heart knows what the heart wants and if seeing his grave helps, then you should go. You weren’t wrong for what you did, you know. It was a noble action. Maybe you can go tomorrow since you’re off,” Aida sat up and gently swatted Juan’s hip, “I have to go start getting dinner ready. It’s already 5 o’clock! We’re lucky to get you home like this. Come on, parate. I’ll put your game on the t.v. Your beers are cooled in the fridge.”
“Gracias mi cielo.” Juan rose from the bed, his hands at his side, shoulders slumped. Aida loved that man, how she loved him. She was in fact his sky. Juan was a lost man before he met Aida. She opened his eyes to life, the world, and love. She showed him God and for that Juan swore she was his heaven on Earth. Now, with Juan working two jobs to afford the mortgage on the house he was tired. More so because of the death of his brother, Santos. Juan had named his only son after Santos. His brother never had kids and Juan made a promesa if he were to ever become a father, Santos’ name would live through his child.
Juan always prayed he’d have a boy. His first born was a loud baby. A lively one, even in his mother’s womb. Juan’s hands could feel the little kicks through Aida’s belly as their unborn child wriggled and squirmed.
“He’s happy, dancing. Miralo, Juan.” Aida had a beautiful pregnancy. She glowed. Her movements were graceful, a flow. My how God had blessed him ten times over. His cielo, he was truly living in. During the day she’d rest on the couch in their southside Chicago apartment with her swollen feet. Juan would kiss them.
“What beautiful tamales you have, mi cielo.”
“Oh shush, you. Vete.” She’d kick at him barely raising her feet off the ground. Giggling as she stayed in place, Juan would bring her a bucket with hot water and Epsom salt to soak. Later drying her feet with a bath towel while she’d watch her novelas.
The cozy apartment with one bedroom, a sala, and a bath on the first floor with an enclosed back stairway that connected all the floors. That first floor apartment was a shelter from the evils of the city outside, so harsh. They rented it from his mother who lived in the lower level. Owning the apartment building she had hoped to leave it for the family. It was her remembrance of Mexico. Family close, if not living in the home with you, then right around the corner close enough to call out. She never sought tenants for the upstairs flat. Juan’s brother Santos would come home every two weeks or so, so she had furnished the 2nd floor all for him. He’d leave her money and groceries on his trips back home and like the wind, he’d breeze right through and it was almost as if he had never even been there. He was just like his father, el jefe, Juan Rodriguez, Sr.
The Little Village neighborhood wasn’t considered the greatest place for a young family starting off but Juan promised Aida it was only temporary. He’d move them someday soon. But they lived happily in the confines of the complex. The little mercaditos along 26th Ave. smelled good with the Spanish spices and pan dulces stacked in glass and wooden cabinets where piñatas hung above. Never too far from the boutiques that housed quinceañera dresses of all colors. Shades of whites, bright pinks, turquoise to blues, even the canary yellow for those loud little Latinas who couldn’t wait to venture vividly into womanhood. By God, was Juan hoping for a boy—praying even!
Southside Chicago, before Santos’ Death
“Aye, Señor Rodriguez, you light more candles in this church and we’ll have to stop you from giving to our Sunday collections.” Padre Antonio would clap his shoulder as they’d smoke their cigarettes outside the church house.
“Si padre, pues just don’t judge me for not giving toward the second collection! You feed us the Eucharist then try to charge us for the wine, ¿no?”
“¡Jajajajaja!” the men would laugh in their smokers huddle. Eight months long, Juan found himself helping the padre out around the church during that time, growing close with the tall half bald Chicano man. A gentle soul, the padre would make time to talk to him outside, even share a beer or two in the church house living room as they were now.
“Padre, you got all this house and only you ¿Porque? No nuns or other priests live here?”
“Juan, it used to be that way, not with the nuns, but with the other priests. Times are different though. The Catholic church hasn’t continued to grow like it had when we were boys or when our fathers were kids. It was an honor for me to tell my mother I was going to be a priest. These days our communities are focusing on different things. Where we once were honored for integridad o rectitud, now-a-days it’s a selfishness or self preservation. Not many young people today are paying attention let alone thinking about God’s calling. If anything these kids are too embarrassed at the thought of being a virgin and having cool things. Their parents fail to remind them how strong we are within faith and community. The people lose sight of that and remain focused on material things, they idolize celebrities in the media instead of well to do community members like teachers, service workers, or doctors. They wanna be stars, famous. Pero, the t.v. don’t tell you that stars fade. Fame fades. It’s a hollow shrine. Today el Dios fue por la ventana y luego entró basura.” He took one last drag on his Camel cigarette and readied another to be lit.
“And that’s why you need me, ¿si? To help you sort out all your basura around this church house, ¿ah?” Juan gulped down the last of his beer while they sat back and laughed some more.
“God won’t fail the people, Juan. His love is hallowed not hollow. His flock can be lost but he’ll find them. It’s just up to us to remember to remain close to him and trust his will. Remember, your relationship with God is more than what you give to the church. It’s more than your attendance. It’s what you do once you leave those four walls de la iglesia.” Padre Antonio swigged back his Coors Light and let out a soft belch. “Oooh, excuse me. I could give a rats rear how many Sunday’s you sit in my pews. You being there is just a plus. There’s more to it than showing up, you must show out. It’s a duty that you carry out and teach to your little ones.”
“Believe me padre, if it wasn’t for Aida, I don’t know where I would be. But do you think God will bless me con un hijo?” Juan was leaning forward a bit more serious now, his bottom lip pulling the thin drips of beer from his mustache.
“God will bless you with all that you need and can take. God’s not a salesman, you can’t pay him off at our candle alters, Juan. But what you can do is continue to honor God, adore your wife, and show your child how to love himself….or herself, heaven only knows. And stop worrying about your past indiscretions. Children aren’t haunted by the sins of their fathers. I can see it in you. You fear having a daughter.”
“You say children don’t pay for the sins of their fathers, and they may not padre, but you can’t deny karma. And, a la chingada does God know my demons…Oh! Lo siento, padre. Perdoname.” Juan hung his head fidgeting his beer can in his hands. The padre looked at him and chuckled his little dry, breathy laugh.
“Heh, heh, heh! Juan, you shouldn’t worry about it. Trust his will and continue being the good man that you are.”
Juan nodded, stood up, and exhaled.
“Ok, padre, you’re right. I’ll think about what you said. My brother may be in town soon and I’d like you to meet him. I think he’d like having someone like you to talk with.” Juan was making his way to the door.
“Ok, Juan. I’m here. And you always know where to find me on Sundays. Now go see your wife, Dios te bendiga.”
On his way back home, Juan stared out the front window, his head leaning against his hand. He couldn’t stop thinking about Padre Antonio’s words,
“...show your child how to love himself….or herself, heaven only knows. And stop worrying about your past indiscretions. Children aren’t haunted by the sins of their fathers.”
Not realizing he’d zoned out the whole way home. As he pulled up to the apartment building he parked his car and stared at the sala light. Aida was still up waiting for him. He smiled and as he turned the key shutting off his ignition he was startled by three quick knocks on his driver side window…
“El Cielo” will be continued. Muchas gracias. Feel free to comment.