Continued from Chapter 2.
“Mama,” I said quietly, “How come no one ever talks about this Tío Emilio?”
She gave me her stern look. I could tell she didn’t want to talk about him. But I didn’t care. I wanted to know more about this new tío that no one talked about. So I just stood there, waiting.
By Richard Juarez
“Vincent,” my mother yelled, “Did you finish putting the wax on the floors?”
About the only time she talked to me lately was to yell about another chore to do around the house. Which was better than a few weeks before, when she was yelling at me all the time for the great Coke robbery, and for everything else she could remember I’d done lately.
“Yeah, I’m just finishing it now,” I yelled back as I glared at the floor resentfully. I must have been down on my hands and knees for at least an hour, putting paste wax on the floor in the dining room and living room. My parents were proud of those hardwood oak floors, and made sure they shined. Or, should I say, they made sure I made them shine.
“You girls come in here and wash up, and then change your clothes,” she called to my sisters over the squeaking sounds as she cleaned the bathroom mirror. “Tío Emilio will be here soon.”
I heard her tossing things into her white plastic cleaning bucket as she moved into the hall. She had been yelling orders all morning while she moved from room to room cleaning the entire house from top to bottom. I could see her through the living room doorway with the white bandana she likes to wear to keep her hair out of her face, scrubbing up and down the pale green wall with a big yellow sponge as she wiped off all the little black fingerprints.
I knew that Tony and the guys were probably playing basketball at Chicano Park. That’s where I should have been, but instead, I was doing housework.
“I don’t know why I’m the only one who’s gotta do this,” I said when she walked into the dining room. “I hate being stuck in the house, waxing these pinche floors.”
“You watch your language, young man—and quit complaining!” she snapped back. “Being stuck at home is your own fault. That’s your punishment for being so stupid. Robbing a deliveryman! I thought you had more sense than that. But, like I said, I’m not going to say anything more about it. And about having to help with the floors, do you think I love spending my time cleaning this house so that you kids have a clean and safe place to live, and so we don’t have to be ashamed of it when we have visitors?” With that she walked carefully over the newly waxed floor and into the kitchen, where she set her bucket down on the brown linoleum floor.
“Hurry and buff the floor,” she said loudly, even though I was just a few feet away. “And take out the trash before you wash up and change.” Then she started wiping the light pink walls.
While she usually made a fuss cleaning for visitors, she seemed to be going to extra lengths today. Without saying so, she was telling us that there was something special about this visitor.
“Mama, tell us again who Tío Emilio is?” Mona called out, with Gina at her side as they started to walk through the dining room into the kitchen.
“Hey, stay off the waxed floors!” I yelled. “I haven’t buffed them yet.” They looked at me and then stomped right through. So I threw the dirty yellow rag full of dark brown paste wax.
“Mama!” Mona yelled. “Ugh! He hit me with that yucky rag!”
I thought my mother was going to yell at me again for doing that, but she didn’t. She just glared, first at me, then at the girls. She probably wasn’t sure who to yell at—me for throwing the rag, or the girls for stomping on the newly waxed floor.
They weren’t so little anymore, Mona being twelve and Gina ten, but they still got away with not having to do much around the house, leaving me and Gracie to do most of the work. Gracie was seventeen, two years older than me.
I was about to turn on the buffer but held off making all that noise, because I wanted to hear her answer, too. It was not clear to me, either, how we suddenly had a new uncle.
“How come we ain’t never heard about him?” asked Gina.
“Stop saying ain’t,” my mother answered with her usual plea.
“Yeah,” Mona chimed in, laughing, “Ain’t ain’t a word.”
My mother just shook her head. “Your father and I just never had any reason to talk to you about him, I guess. He’s not really your uncle. He’s my father’s cousin.”
“If he’s a cousin, why do we have to call him Tío?” asked Mona.
“Because it’s a sign of respect. He’s your elder. Now, for the last time, go wash up and get dressed. Help each other with your barrettes, or ask Gracie. And put on some warm clothes. Your cousins are coming over and I know you’ll be running around outside tonight.”
I walked into the kitchen where she was quickly wiping the walls. I hoped that without the girls around she might tell me more about this strange visitor.
“Mama,” I said quietly, “How come no one ever talks about this Tío Emilio?” Since she mostly wasn’t speaking to me, I wasn’t sure she would answer. She gave me her stern look, then turned away and started wiping the wall even more rapidly. I could tell she didn’t want to talk about him. But I didn’t care. I wanted to know more about this new Tío that no one talked about. So I just stood there, waiting.
“Well,” she said finally as she moved on to wiping the cabinets, “I guess it’s because….” Now she had stopped wiping and turned around to look at me. “Because he is of the old ways, and people don’t like to talk about the old ways. Now quit asking so many questions. Hurry up and finish that floor. Your father and Emilio will be here soon.”
I walked back to the dining room and turned on the buffing machine, losing myself in thought as the buffing pads did their thing on the waxed floor, the noise drowning out all sounds from the rest of the house. I wanted more answers, but I knew she wouldn’t say more. She was keeping this secret inside. He is of the old ways. What the heck did that mean … of the old ways?
“Vincent!” my mother yelled above the noise of the buffer, yanking me out of my thoughts. “You’ve been polishing that last spot over and over. You’re done!” I switched off the machine so she wouldn’t have to yell. “Put that away and go take the trash out, wash up, and get dressed. Then I have one more thing. I need you to go to the store for me.”
She sent me to Mike Amador’s Market, two blocks away, for a few groceries. For the time being I was restricted to the house, except for these errands she sent me on. Amador’s was one of what my Nana called her tienditas, little stores that catered to their neighbors. My mother usually drove to the supermarket once a week for most of her groceries, but sent me or Gracie to Amador’s whenever she needed a few more things. Mr. Amador had the order in a bag waiting for me when I arrived. She often called ahead and told him what she wanted. I handed him a ten and he counted out my change.
“By the way, Mr. Lopez,” he said, raising his voice—he often called us by our last names when he wanted to lecture us—“I’m very angry with you and Tony and your little group. I don’t appreciate you guys putting your placas on my store wall!”
“I didn’t do it! I don’t know nothing about it,” I whined, raising my voice back.
“Don’t you lie to me, young man, and don’t you raise your voice to me either! You show some respect to your elders! I already found out it was Pablito who did it. But you’re always out together doing these chingasos. Why don’t you go write on your father’s house or your grandfather’s? See what deep caca that’ll get you into. And I don’t know why you guys still hang around with that kid Pablito. Hasn’t he gotten you into enough trouble already?”
I stood there silently, my eyes lowered. I didn’t want to talk with him or anybody about the trouble Pablito had gotten us into. He and Arturo could do some really stupid things at times, too often getting us involved with them, like the Coke heist.
“I don’t want to see that spray paint on my walls again. You understand?”
“Sí,” I said meekly and walked out the door.
I knew my father and Tío Emilio would arrive any minute and I didn’t want to be late. My grandparents lived on the same street as us. As I got to their house I saw Tata on the front porch, sitting there in the sun, watching the world go by. Tata was tall and thin, and even though he had been retired from the cannery for quite a while, he hadn’t put on extra weight from just sitting around eating Nana’s food. Although he was old and wrinkled and had a lot of gray hair, it was mostly black, which made him look a little younger than his seventy-five years.
“Hola, Vicentillo,” he called to me.
His voice brought me back. Slightly embarrassed, I realized I had been standing there staring at him, lost in thought. Just then, out of the corner of my eye, I saw movement down the block. My father had just pulled up in front of our house and I heard him honk.
“Mira, Tata, ya vienen,” I said, pointing down the street.
“Bueno, mijito. You go home,” he said in his halting English, waving his hand at me in that direction. “Tell your mamá we are coming.”
Slowly he got up out of his chair and in his slightly stooped, old-man walk, he started for the door. “Vieja! Están allí. Vamanos.”
As I walked quickly toward the house I could see my father and a stranger get out of the car. My mother walked up and gave our visitor a hug, and introduced him to my sisters.
“Y dónde está Vicente?” I could hear him asking as I got closer. In unison, my sisters and mother turned to look in my direction as I walked up.
“Vincent, this is Tío Emilio,” said my father, coming around the back of the car.
Tío Emilio stood next to my father. I could see that Tío was a couple of inches or so taller, about five foot ten or eleven. His dark tan, smooth skin, beardless face, and straight black hair made him look very distinguished. He looked older than my mother and father, maybe about fifty or so, but much younger than Tata, his cousin.
“Mucho gusto en conocerlo,” I said, using the formal introduction response.
“I am pleased to meet you, too,” he replied. “But while I know you do not remember, I met you a few months after you were born, when your parents and grandfather brought you and your sister Graciela to our town to introduce the two of you to our familia in Mexico.”
All that talk about his coming and no one told us we had already met him! Very strange.
“Tío Emilio,” said Gracie, “you speak English so well! I thought you would be speaking only Spanish.”
“Well, I can speak Spanish if you like, but I learned English in school in Mexico, and for a number of years I lived in Los Angeles. I travel around a great deal, so I have learned to speak both languages, like your parents. ¿Y ustedes muchachos, hablan Español?”
“Sí, Tío,” Gracie continued, “pero no muy bien. We all understand a lot, but we don’t speak it very well.”
“Let’s not stand out here talking, let’s all go into the house,” said my mother.
I took up the rear as the family began walking toward the door.
“Por favor, Vicente,” said Tío Emilio, “My travel bag is in the back seat of the car. Could you please bring it in? I have some things for you children.”
“Here, Vincent,” said my father, reaching for the groceries, “I’ll take those.”
I quickly climbed into the back seat of the car and closed the door. I sat there with his travel bag, wondering who was this guy, this “uncle” that I’d never heard of before. I looked closely at the bag. It wasn’t luggage, like my parents’ Samsonite. It was a beautiful, light brown leather bag, about the color of my baseball glove. I didn’t know much about leather or leather bags, but I had seen some expensive baseball gloves, with quality leather and fine stitching. This bag was better than any glove I’d ever seen. Plus, it had very detailed carvings on it.
I pulled the bag onto my lap to get a better look. Figures were etched into the top and ends, like Mayan or Toltec Indians that I had seen in books at school. On one broad side of the bag was a beautiful eagle in flight, sort of coming down right at me as I looked at it. It must have taken hours and hours to carve each of those little feathers into the leather. On the other side of the bag was a wolf, staring right at me, too. Pine trees were in the background. There was such detailed work on this side, too, with all the wolf hairs and the pine needles.
I ran my fingers lightly over the bag, feeling the fine work. The leather felt strong, yet soft, like a well-used baseball glove that has become more flexible with use. This was a well-used bag. He said he traveled a lot. Traveled doing what? And why was he here?
Tap, tap, tap.
The sound of little knuckles on the glass startled me. I looked up to see Gina and Mona’s noses pushed up against the car door window, their eyes staring at me questioningly.
“You gonna bring in the luggage, or what?” Mona asked. “I wanna see what he brought.”
“Yeah, me too!” added Gina.
I opened the door and got out slowly, being careful not to knock the bag against the car. I followed the girls into the house and placed the bag at Tío Emilio’s feet. He was sitting on the sofa with my father, with Gracie between them, and my mother in the chair at his side. I joined Mona and Gina on the floor in front of them.
“Mijitos, we have a tradition in our family. When we go on a special trip to see relatives, we like to give little gifts so that you will remember our visit. So, I have brought you gifts of folk art from Mexico, made by children about your ages who are being taught these skills by their mothers, fathers, grandparents, or someone else in their villages.”
He reached into the bag and pulled out three bundles of cloth, which he slowly unrolled. “Girls, these small blankets were woven by children living in the state of Oaxaca in the south of Mexico.” He showed off the designs woven into each as he handed one to each girl. “They not only wove these, they helped to spin the wool into the yarn, and helped to dye the yarn.”
“Thank you, Tío,” said Gracie. “This will look very nice on my dresser.”
“Thanks,” said Gina, holding a doll close, already wrapped up in the blanket.
“Yes, thank you very much,” Mona said, smiling as she ran her fingers over the weaving, quite pleased with her special gift. “So, are you friends with the people who make these?”
“Sí, the families of these children are my source for blankets. As I travel around and work with people, I sometimes use a small blanket in a ceremony, and then leave it as a gift.”
“What kind of work do you do, Tío?” asked Gracie.
“You kids ask too many questions,” my mother quickly interrupted. “Let Tío Emilio show you what else he has in the bag.”
Tío looked up at my mother, and I could tell by the look that he had wanted to answer the question. But he could tell from her look back that this was not the time or place to do so. For me, the answer would have shed some light on the mystery surrounding Tío Emilio. Perhaps the answer would tell us something about “the old ways.” But it would have to wait.
I knew my turn was next. Tío Emilio reached into the bag and pulled out a piece of leather, about the same color as his bag. It had a very detailed design, like his bag.
“This is a cover for a three-ring binder for your school work, Vicente.” He opened it up to show a single scene engraved across the front and back, with trees, roads, houses, and even what looked like little stores. A bird was flying above the village, like the eagle on Tío’s bag. Everything was so very detailed. I was astounded. I didn’t know what to say.
“Golly,” Gracie said, reaching across and lightly touching the finely carved lines on the leather. “What little kid could do this?”
“Oh, it was not a child. It was made by my friend and teacher, Don José.” He reached across and handed me the leather cover. “Vicente, when your parents brought you and your sister to Mexico, your grandfather and I carried you down the street to Don José’s house. As we stood outside talking, we heard it calling. We looked up and saw the águila, a little eagle, circling right over us, calling to us. It was an amazing sight. And even though you were just an infant, I saw that you noticed it, too!”
I felt strange as he spoke, and had quick flashes of images in my head. I had no idea what they were about, but something felt oddly familiar.
“Don José said this was a good omen and that one day we would learn its meaning. The leather piece commemorates that day. But he instructed me not to give it to you until you were becoming a man, for not until then would you be able to think about this event and find its very personal meaning for you.”
“He’s not a man,” laughed Mona, with Gina giggling next to her.
“No,” answered Tío Emilio, “but he is a teenager, and perhaps it is time for him to start thinking about the meaning of life, and about events and omens like this one.”
Just then we heard familiar voices, then greetings, as Nana and Tata came in along with Tía Rita and our cousins. Turning back to me, Tío Emilio said, “We will talk more later.”
I didn’t get to talk with him again that night with so many tíos and tías and cousins around. Tía Rita, Tía Paula, and Tío Marcos all brought their kids. Visiting with relatives continued the next morning at Nana’s and Tata’s and in the afternoon at Tío Pancho’s, so I didn’t have a chance to talk with Tío Emilio privately even though I had many questions. I wanted to know more about the leather gift, and what he meant about an omen. I wanted to know more about “the old ways,” and about him, and why he was even here. Certainly he didn’t come all the way from central Mexico just to give me the carved binder cover. But he was off to L.A. to visit other relatives and friends, and it would be two weeks before I saw him again.
Copyright © 2013 Richard Juarez
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