Pablo Tamayo is moving today, to stay with his brother-in-law on Nueces Street till he can find another house. “Don’t worry so much,” he told me over the fence. “I’m a beat-up man, my wife is an old lady, I always told you the roof was gonna fall.”
That’s wrong. He never mentioned the roof. He used to call on the telephone and say in a gruff voice, “Who’s there?” as if I’d called him. When I stuttered, he’d laugh and say, “This is me, I’m standing on your roof,” but he never mentioned it falling.
I want to give him eggs, a flannel shirt. I want to tell him this neighborhood will be a vacuum without him. To go back to the beginning, make a catalog of his utterances since the day we met over the bamboo that divides our yards. I was standing on a ladder with clippers, trying to tell the bamboo who was boss. In the next yard he stooped over a frizzy dog, murmuring Spanish consolations. He looked like he might once have been a wrestler. “So,” he said, looking up. “You’re pretty tall, I guess.” I told him I was his new neighbor and he said he was my old one. He pointed, “Look at how I put this eyeball back in my dog.”
Once his dog had a fight with a German shepherd. Pablo came running to find the eyeball dangling on its string. He called a doctor, the doctor said twenty dollars at least. “So I do it myself. Good job, no?” The eye was now glassy white. It looked like it had been put in backwards. “My dog goes with me to Junior’s Lounge,” he said, giggling. You don’t expect giggles from a man with tattoos. He told me Welcome to the Neighborhood, it’s a Nice Neighborhood, I been here Forty, you know, Years. Throwing his head back when he spoke, like somebody proud and practiced, or kicking up dust, looking down like a kid, a brand-new kid.
Later I found myself wondering about him. What made this man act so happy? His house tilted, his wife had no teeth. We invited them for dinner, but they wouldn’t come. “She don’t like to chew without teeth in public.” His car had not run in twenty weeks. Where was his history, what was his life?
“I was born in Mexico, like half the people in this town. They get born, they go north. Like birds or something.” One night he showed me their wedding pictures. Such devastating changes the years make! From a shining silken couple, a future of roses, to a house of orange crates and dead newspapers, a shuffling duet of slippers and beans. “I love another girl first, her daddy was rich. He told her never marry a baker.” His face goes dark for a moment. “Sometimes I still think of that. There was a rooster who rode on my shoulder but one day he changed, you know, he bit me on the leg.” When Pablo speaks of the village in the mountains south of Monterrey, he stops smiling, as if those memories are a cathedral which can only be entered with a sober face.
The next day I ask him when he bought this house. “Aw, I never did. They wanted me to, in 1939. But I didn’t like to pay so much money all at once, so I just keep payin’ forty dollars a month till now.” I want to shake him. Who is his landlord? “A bad, bad man. Once I had a good man but they change over the years. This guy, he won’t fix the pipe, he won’t paint the outside. I want to paint it, but he won’t let me. What color do you think I could paint it?”
We stand back to examine the peeling boards.
Three days later he knocks at my door. “I just want to ask you. Is that the color of coffee with milk in it?”
His wife speaks no English and loves to wash. She wears a faded apron, veteran of a thousand washtubs. I can imagine her getting up in the mornings and going straight to her sewing machine. In a cage outside her back door lives a featherless bird named “Pobrecito.” Pablo found it on Sweet Street, hobbling. She feeds it scraps of melon and bread.
Around her telephone she has pinned an arc of plastic lilies, postcards of saints, a rosary of black beads. Who is she hoping will call? If Jesus were to manifest for her in modern ways—Buenas dias! she would say. Mi casita, mi perrito, mi Pobrecito, mi Jesús. I have a garage sale and she buys my battered hiking boots. Where is she planning to go?
After much prodding, Pablo tells me they have three children. Two are in their fifties, live in Houston or some where, “Naw, I don’t see them, they don’t see me.” One is twenty. Pablo and his wife are more than seventy so that means she had the boy when she was fifty, at least. I ask him about this and he says he guesses it’s true. Months later I hear another story from the widow down the street. The twenty-year-old is a grandson. She says, “Pablo lies.”
When the boy comes home he turns on rock-and-roll so loud the candles quiver on our piano. His hair is longer than my hair. Pablo says, “He had bad luck. Got married too young, seventeen, something like that, to a girl born north of the border. That means she’s lazy. It’s true. If a Mexican is born north of the border, her husband will walk the road of tears. So they broke up. Bad luck.”
Months later, after numerous references to the road of tears, I ask Pablo for details. You mean to tell me all the smooth-faced innocent-hearted Mexican girls in local high schools are going to have husbands who walk the road of tears? C’mon Pablo, find your way out of that one. He looks at me, puzzled. And then his face cracks into its goofy grin. “I got it,” he says. “You get a boat.”
He asks what I do, why I’m always in this house chattering away on my typing machine. “I write things down,” I say.
“Like what things?”
“Like little things that happen.”
He looks around, shrugs. “I don’t see nothin’ happenin’.” Then he goes indoors to make me a perfect pie. Pablo understands pie crust, for him poetry is the fluted edge of dough. And Pablo is the only one who will ever understand the delicate grammar of the engine of his car. There was no fuel pump in the city, he said dramatically, which would fit it. So he was building a contraption of wire and soup cans, like a child’s telephone. He was going to communicate with his car.
One day, after nearly a month of tinkering, I heard the engine cough, choke, exhale a huge sigh. And there was Pablo passing my house, waving madly, his one-eyed dog perched in the back window. Ten minutes later he was back. There was a problem—the car could only go as far as the amount of gas the can would hold. But it worked now. That was the important thing, it worked. One night I dreamed that wings sprouted where the dented door handles were and Pablo went flying over the city, sending down lines of symbolic verse.
He said he would get another “Alamo seed” so I could have a tree like the one in his yard. He said he was tired of the mud out back, he had this plan for grass. “I used to drink more beers,” he said, “than any man with a mouth.” That was when he worked at the hotel, when he came home with cinnamon in his cuffs. Some days now he still journeyed out to work, dressed in a square white baker’s shirt, to cafeterias or hospitals to “fill in” someone’s absence. “I made 35-dozen doughnuts today,” he’d say, folding his craggy hands, shaking his head. “I don’t wanna be like the man who killed himself in your bathroom.” This was news to me. What man?
Then Pablo looked worried, he’d slipped, he’d said too much. “Aw come on, I was joking, let’s go hammer the fence, aye-yi-yi.” He got shy sometimes, his words blurred. What man? And he told me his name. Howard Riley. Spoken slowly, How-ard Ri-ley, as if the name had grown longer in Pablo’s head.
“He was an old man, kinda old, you know, oh what the hell, everybody’s old. You’re kinda old. He was old a little sooner than I was. He used to hit a golf ball in the yard, that end, this end, that end, this end. I hear this little tick, you know, like the clock, the little sound it made. But one day he went in your bathroom and shot his own head. Pow! (Finger to head.) I was at the bank. I came home with ten dollars and my wife, she said, Howard’s dead. In Spanish, you know. So I went over to see him and he was gone already. They came in a car and took him. I just went to the bank! I used to think of him at night when the nuts fell on the roof. Tick, tick, tick.”
“Why did he do it?”
A shrug. “I dunno. He was tired. He had nothin’ else to do.” Pablo stared down at his two big feet. “So let’s go hammer the fence, I get the hammer, you get the nails.”
Months later, on the same day I was watching him busy at work in his yard at 7 A. M.,wearing a blue and white checker ed jockey cap, dragging a tin pail of cilantro from one mud crease to the next, that day his faceless landlord appeared and told him they had two weeks to get gone. After 48 years, two weeks. Pablo came to me with the same expression my father had on the day he had to fire 12 lifetime printers from his newspaper because they were being replaced by computers,
“We gotta move.”
The little dog running in circles, sniffing the ground. Another fall, pecans splitting their dull-green pods in the grass. A pumpkin pie still warm in my hands. How many pies had Pablo given us? Maybe a hundred, maybe more. Lots of times we gave them away. We don’t like pie too much. But we’d keep them out on the table a while, on a small pedestal, like a shrine.
“This one’s good.”
He’d always say it. “This one’s good.” Forget any other one. Pablo in the yard with a ragged tea towel on his arm, hands outstretched.
“What do you mean, move?”
His landlord wanted to build an office. I was yelling about zoning while his wife unpinned the rosary from its wall, felt the cool black beads move again in her fingers.
“You know, he might make a parking lot here where the Alamo tree is.” This year the tree had had 18 leaves. From that seed Pablo found in a gutter. We joked so much when it came up, ugly stick. Not one leaf for months. Then he put small twigs around it like a barricade, tied them with string, little red flags, and it started doing things. His voodoo tree. Smack in the center of the yard.
I wanted to meet this goddamn landlord immediately. Where had he gone? What kind of office? With filing cabinets and Dictaphones and secretary’s shiny legs? Obviously they wouldn’t fit in this tilt-a-whirl house, they’d flatten it out, ‘doze it under. Pablo’s crooked stove. The ancient valentine heart tacked to the porch. From whom to whom? Gruff voice. “Me to the lady.”
He stood there in his yard which was slipping out from under him, he stood there with hips cocked, plaid shirt half-buttoned, his hair still full on his head, and said, “I wanna tell you somethin’.” That always meant, come a little closer, put down your groceries. “You know this world we got here?” He motioned with his arms, “Lemme tell you, this world don’t love us. It don’t think about us or pray for us or miss us, you know what I mean? That’s what I learned when my father died. I was a young man. I got up the next day and went outside, feelin’ sick, my face still fat from cryin’. And there was the sky. Lookin’ just the same. Dead or alive, it don’t matter. Still the sky. So that I started lookin’ around and there was still the flowers, still the bugs, I mean the bugs, who cares about bugs? My father was dead and the world didn’t miss him. The world didn’t know his name! Ventura— Morales—Tamayo—but I knew it. And I say to myself, That’s all we got! I know it, the barber know it, so what? This don’t make me feel more bad, you know, it make me feel—better. Aw, I dunno, I gotta go find a box.”
Hours later he’s coming down Sheridan Street pushing a box in front of him, a giant box, like the boxes washing machines come in. He’s done this before. I never knew what he did with those boxes. They went in the door and disappeared. He doesn’t have a fireplace. Inside his wife is taking down the sweaters. They have the smell of sunlight in them. She’s had them out on those poles and ropes so many times they’re a little confused today. Now they’re going someplace else. She’s shufflin’ around and he’s shufflin’ around, taking down calendars, rolling up the years. God knows where the boy is when they need him. Pablo probably rolls up his “Marijuana Boogie” poster without even reading it.
Once he said, “When you die, you die.”
“Oh yeah? That’s very interesting.”
Then we were laughing ridiculously on our two sides of the fence.
Can I translate this great philosophy so it applies to now? “When you move, you move.” Simple. Throw up the hands. Still we’re very upset in our house. The sky doesn’t know it, but we know it. The news comes on the television. I go out back. There is no other news.