I met Gómez on the day we buried our father. It was a Monday, the day after Easter, and we had just arrived home. Many of the guests had already come from the cemetery, and every parking spot on both sides of the street was taken. My mom double-parked below our house, and as we climbed out of the car she barked out orders.
“Rosa! Find Tía Carmen. Eddie! Do me a favor! Act like a man today and let your father rest in peace. Alex! I need you. Meet me in the house!” Then she drove off to find a parking spot.
My little sister Rosa hurried up the stairs to our house, but my big brother Eddie and I hesitated on the sidewalk, neither of us wanting to face the crowd assembling on our front lawn. There were six houses in our little villa, one on each side of three terraced lots, each house identical in shape and size to the others, each with a small lawn that bordered the stairs. Ours was the second house up on the left. Above us was the vacant Nuñez house—the old man had moved out a few months before—and below us, closest to the street, was Mr. Aguilar. Across from Mr. Aguilar was my Tía Carmen, above her was Mrs. Cortez, and above her, on the top right, were Mr. and Mrs. Sánchez.
Reluctantly, Eddie and I started up the stairs. We knew we’d be smothered by sympathetic guests—we’d been through it at the cemetery—and we dreaded it. To put it off, halfway up the stairs we sat down and looked out toward the street—pretending like we were waiting for someone. That someone turned out to be our mom, who came storming up the stairs, holding the hem of her black dress in her left hand as she waved her right like a mad conductor. “Alex! Nuñez’s house is open. Make sure the bathroom has toilet paper, and soap, and a clean towel. Eddie! Go down the street and see if there are any parking spaces on Carnegie. Hurry!” Eddie ambled down the stairs, I continued up to Nuñez’s house, and my mom, continuing her ascent, yelled, “Rosa! Where’s your Tía Carmen?”
I walked up to Nuñez’s with a roll of toilet paper and two hand towels. The front door was open so I pulled on the screen door and stepped inside. A large, white tarp was spread across the hardwood floor, which was odd—it wasn’t there yesterday; and near the back wall stood a ladder with a paint tray on it. Who was painting Nuñez’s living room? I heard a sound like a flute coming from the right and followed it to the bathroom door. It was open a crack. I pressed my hand against it and pushed.
What the—? The toilet paper slipped from my slack hand and rolled—in slow motion it seemed—toward the toilet where an old man sat, his pants down around his ankles. I looked up. There was a wooden flute near his lips.
The stranger looked at the toilet paper next to his feet and then gradually lifted his eyes, following the paper trail until our eyes met. He had eyes like a wolf: gray, deep, detached and yet entirely in the moment.
He lowered the flute and smiled. In a rough voice, like he’d smoked a million cigarettes, he said, “Thank you, lad” without a trace of surprise; like he’d been expecting me.
With his eyes holding mine, he reached down for the toilet paper. “Son, could you excuse me for a moment?” He cleared his throat. “There’s business to which I must attend.” As I backed away he added, “Don’t go away! I’ll be just a minute!”
I was in such a daze I forgot to close the door. Looking around the living room for somewhere to put myself, I saw an old record player against the wall and plopped down next to it. Soon I heard a flush, and a few moments later the old man appeared.
Except for his light brown skin, his head was dominated by shades of gray: bushy silver eyebrows arched above gray eyes; wavy silver hair flowing back from his forehead; and cloaking his jaw a Hemingway beard—silver with dark gray highlights. White overalls were pulled over his bare chest—also covered in silver hair—and his shoes, Jack Purcell’s, were also white, except for the laces, which were red, matching the red bandana tied around his neck.
Approaching me he smiled, and lifting his chin toward the record player, said, “There’s only one valuable thing in this house and you found it!” He gestured toward the towel in my hand. “Say, may I use that?” After drying his hands, he extended his arm. “Rise, my fortuitous friend, and let’s be introduced!” He lifted me up with one huge hand, then bowed his head slightly. “I am Gómez.”
The seconds ticked by. He waited expectantly for a reply, but I couldn’t find my tongue. Releasing my hand, he waved his arm toward the wall and said, “You’ve probably noticed I’ve been doing a little painting . . . .”
With his attention directed away from me I had a sudden urge to flee. Shifting my eyes to the door, I tensed my muscles, took one last glance back, and—damn! The old man was looking right at me! He nodded his head. “Perhaps later, son,” he said softly.
Slowly pulling myself away from his unblinking gray eyes, I silently backed out of the living room, through the open door—and ran.
“There’s a man in Nuñez’s house.”
“What?” My mom stopped slicing a cabbage and cocked her head sideways in that funny doglike way of hers. A strand of black hair slipped out of its tight bun. Still clutching the knife, she brushed back the errant lock with the back of her right hand. “Alex, what’d you say?”
“There’s an old man in Nuñez’s house. When I walked in he was using the bathroom.”
“Ayyy! What’s this world coming to? A bum just helps himself to Nuñez’s bathroom. On the most important day of your father’s life, a bum just moves into Nuñez’s house. What’s next, eh Carmen? When I go to the market, will I come home to find a band of gypsies in our house? ‘Oh, perdóneme señora, we thought you had moved out. The window wasn’t locked.’ Ayyy!”
My Tía Carmen was washing fish fillets in the sink. “I wish some gypsy would break into my house.” She wiggled her butt, stressing the threads of her jeans beyond the manufacturers suggested limits. “I’d punish you good!” She slapped a fillet with a loud whack. “What, Señor Gypsy, still not sorry? Then I punish you again.” Another whack! “You’re a bad man, but I’m more than you expected, eh, my love?” She turned sideways to my mother, mischievous hazel eyes glinting through bronze curls, and placed her hands beneath her large breasts, pushing them up. “Much more than you expected, no Señor Gypsy?”
“Carmen!” my mom hissed. “Don’t you ever stop thinking about men?”
“Of course: when I’m worrying about you.”
My mom let the comment drop, then put her hands on my shoulders and turned me around. “Alex, take me to the gypsy.”
We made our way through the crowd in the living room, my mom graciously answering each condolence as we passed by. “Yes, well, I don’t know if he was a great man, but he did the best he could” . . . and onto the porch—“The children are fine, thank you” . . . and into the yard—“No, there’s nothing we need, but thank you” . . . and finally to the stairs and up to the old Nuñez house.
Without knocking she opened the screen door. A song was playing on the record player —“Nessun Dorma” I discovered later—and Gómez was standing on the ladder, slapping the paint roller against the wall in time to the music, bellowing out words I didn’t understand.
I looked at my mom. She appeared to be deciding between righteous anger and good manners. Opting for good manners, she said, “Excuse me, sir.”
She stepped inside and I followed. “Sir! Excuse me.”
Still no response.
She spread her feet, planted her 5’3” and 125 pounds, and leaned forward. “Hey you! What are you doing here?”
Gómez’s head spun, wolf-eyes flashing. For a second my mom wavered, but righteous anger asserted itself and her brown eyes took on a dark, menacing look. When I turned back to Gómez I was shocked to see those hungry wolf-eyes had shifted from my mom to me. Instantly paralyzed with fear and just when I thought my legs might buckle, he changed. The wolf-eyes vanished, and suddenly he was grinning, looking just as cheerful and merry as a Mexican St. Nick. He hopped off the ladder and swallowed my hand in his giant paw. “Amigo!”
He shook my arm so vigorously I thought it was going to pop out of my shoulder. Then he turned to my mom. “Please excuse my bad manners, señora! You are this fine boy’s mother.” He extended his arm. “I am Gómez. It is a pleasure to meet you.”
“Yes, I’m sure.” My mom put her hands on her hips. “What are you doing here?”
Finding a sudden use for his dangling hand, Gómez gestured toward the partially painted wall behind him and said graciously, “I am painting, señora.”
“Yes, I can see that. You’re a painter, then?”
“At the moment, señora.”
“And when you are not a painter? What then?”
“Many things, señora.”
“Yes. Such as . . . ?”
“Sometimes I am a gardener; sometimes a carpenter, or a mechanic; many things, señora.”
“I see, Mr. Gómez; you’re a jack-of-all-trades. That’s fine. But what are you doing here, on the day of my husband’s funeral?”
Gómez began to answer, then stopped. He reached back for the ladder; it was too far away and his arm fell awkwardly, causing him to stumble slightly. “I—I am sorry, señora.” Regaining his balance, he looked at me, then turned to my mom. “I didn’t know. Now I understand—the people in your yard: guests—many guests.” He tilted his head to the left: “bathroom—extra.” Extending his arms he said, “Please señora, mi casa es su casa.”
Screech. “Your house?”
“Uh, no, it’s Mr. Johnson’s house. I am renting it.”
“I see.” Pushing aside that same pesky lock of hair, my mom gathered herself and said, in a voice less than contrite, “Forgive me, sir. Please, come over later; we’re having a barbecue. Alex can introduce you to your new neighbors. Good day, Mr. Gómez.” She turned and reached toward the door.
As the screen door banged shut Gómez whispered, “It is just ‘Gómez,’ señora.” Then he turned his gray eyes on me. “Well, I suppose we ought to clean up this mess, eh son?”
There were already more than fifty people at my father’s Memorial, with at least two dozen packed into our little house. Tío Julio, my mother’s brother, sat in one of two matching stuffed chairs; his wife, my Tía Estella, sat in the other. Whenever they came over the first thing they did was claim those chairs. They wouldn’t move for hours for fear someone would steal their chairs; and, with lots of kids around, they always had someone to fetch things. The only service a kid couldn’t do for them was relieve their bladders, yet I never saw them get up even for that. They must’ve had very large bladders.
There was one more chair in the living room—my father’s recliner. It was empty. Even in his absence everyone knew better than to sit in that chair.
On our lawn were two large round tables, each surrounded by eight white folding chairs. On Mrs. Cortez’s lawn were another four tables, and on my Tía Carmen’s lawn were two more. Even with seating for sixty-four guests my mom was afraid someone could be left standing, so she sent me up to Gómez’s for permission to use his lawn, if needed. He agreed. “Let’s get the chairs now, lad, so it’s all ready just in case.”
As we were pulling chairs from the truck, Gómez said, “Son, your father must have been a very popular person: so many people have come to honor him.”
“He knew a lot of people. He was a teacher.”
“Really? That’s a fine profession.” He stopped to rub his Hemingway. “What subject did he teach?”
“Math; at Our Lady of Guadalupe.”
“A math teacher,” Gómez mused. “I always liked math: precise, predictable, everything adds up.”
“He was also the Dean. If you got in trouble, you saw my father.”
“Math teacher and Dean. Uh-oh.”
With a chair in each of my hands and four in each of Gómez’s, we soon had his lawn filled. When we were done, Gómez sat down and invited me to join him on the retaining wall that separated our property. Together we surveyed the activity below us.
In our little villa, each house connected to the central walkway by a concrete path. The front door opened onto the path, and to the left, as you looked out, was a small patio. On ours, Mr. Aguilar had just begun grilling fish and carne on his oil-drum barbecue. On the lawn, perpendicular to the patio, was a long table covered in a white bed sheet. As the tortillas came off the grill, my cousin Mariano put them in a folded towel to keep them warm. Next to the tortillas sat a bowl of pinto beans with shredded Mexican cheese on top, a large bowl of Spanish rice, and another large bowl of green salad.
The scene absorbed Gómez. He rubbed his Hemingway, eyes moving from table to table.
“Bottled salsa,” he said at last.
He turned his head and looked at me intently. “Bottled salsa; on each of the tables is bottled salsa.” A grimace: “Why don’t they just pour ketchup on their food?”
He walked away a few paces and then returned to his chair.
“Alex—may I call you Alex?”
“Alex, a Mexican should never serve bottled salsa. In the old days, someone serving this bottled puke would’ve been sacrificed to the gods—if the gods would’ve accepted such a poor gift. No self-respecting Mexican should defile his body with that pico de puke. If the gringos want to eat it, well, I suppose that’s fine. But frankly, I think I’ll just ban it from my world altogether.” He waved his hand as if to make it so, and sat back down.
I think he wanted to sit there all night, unmoving and silent, just to make his point. Out of courtesy I was respecting his silence, but I was getting hungry, and I was just about to speak when he said, “Well, a feast like this should not be spoiled just because of one mistake. Besides, your mom has made a great effort to honor your father.”
He stood up and placed his hands on the small of his back, turning his head slowly left, then right, as if he were considering each side of an argument. Resolved: “There are two things we need here. First is salsa. Is there a taqueria nearby?”
“Sure. ‘My Taco.’”
He winced. “‘My Taco.’ Hmmm . . . well, está bien. The second thing is music. In my world there is music. I know,” he said as if anticipating an argument, “this isn’t a party. Still, there is music appropriate for every occasion. Would you please put my record player on my patio? When I get back I’ll put some music on.”
When Gómez returned we poured eight bowls each of salsa verde and salsa rojo and placed them on the tables. He excused himself to put on a record—Beethoven—then we went down to my yard to fill our plates. We ate in silence, our legs dangling over the retaining wall that divided our homes. Evening descended and the chords of “Moonlight Sonata” filled the air.
Eddie appeared on our walkway, walking toward the food table in that cocky swagger of his. Just as Gómez was about to swallow a last bit of taco he saw Eddie—and stopped. The wolf-eyes didn’t blink once as they followed Eddie’s progress from the stairs to the food table.
“Son, over there, grabbing a plate, who is that?”
“Eddie. He’s my brother.”
“Yes. My older brother.”
Eddie circled around some guests who were moving too slowly and went straight to the front of the line.
“What is he like?”
“He doesn’t take shit from anyone.”
Gómez seemed pleased by that description. He nodded to himself and smiled. “Yep. That’s what I thought.”
Drinking tequila out of Coke can and smoking a cigarette, Eddie joined us a short while later. After introductions, the three of us sat on the edge of Gómez’s retaining wall and watched the people below us, candles flickering in the gathering dark.
Gómez motioned to a table. “Who is the young woman cleaning up and chatting with everyone?”
“Her?” Eddie pointed with his chin. “That’s Tía Carmen.” Sounding like a TV Mexican, he said, “She’s a fiery one, señor, and worth one hondred pesos: that’s what all the soldiers say. But tonight, to honor my padre, you can have her for feefty pesos—feefty pesos! What a deal!” He wagged his forefinger at Gómez. “That’s tonight only. Tomorrow it’s back to one hondred pesos for the lovely Carmen Salazar!”
Gómez said nothing, and in the silence Eddie’s laughter sounded like a braying donkey.
“I like her,” Gómez said softly. He pointed to a table on Mrs. Cortez’s lawn. “Who are the three people sitting there?”
“That’s Mrs. Cortez,” I blurted before Eddie could answer. “She lives across from us. She’s with Mr. and Mrs. Sánchez. They live across from you.”
Gómez watched them silently for a few seconds, then said, “Mrs. Cortez is uncomfortable; she only speaks when she’s spoken to.” He leaned forward, resting his chin on his folded hands. “She looks at the children playing over there, but she doesn’t see them.” He turned toward me. “Alex, you said ‘Mrs. Cortez.’ Where is Mr. Cortez?”
Eddie, still speaking like a TV Mexican, pointed his gun-finger into his mouth and answered, “He blew his brains out, señor. Very messy.”
Gómez seemed to ignore Eddie’s answer. He continued looking at the table, and minutes passed before he spoke again.
“They don’t talk to each other.”
“Eh señor?” drawled Eddie, following Gómez’s eyes. “Oh, the Sánchezes? Ain’t you heard of telepathy, man? The Sánchezes don’t need no mouths to talk, they use their minds—like Spock.” I laughed. The comparison of the Sánchezes to Mr. Spock on Star Trek just struck me as funny. Gómez was silent.
Eddie fired up another cigarette and said, “Señor Gómez, lemme break it down.” He waved his hand towards the remaining guests on the lawns below us. “This is my kingdom, and these are my people. The man who lived in your house— Nuñez, was a drunk and a gambler. His daughter took him and his shit a few months ago. Señor and Señora Sánchez are aliens pretending to be peasants from the old country; it is obvious now, no? Mrs. Cortez I told you about; Tía Carmen too. Mr. Aguilar, the cook, is a bachelor—an old bachelor, and you know what that means, eh señor? And, for one night only my madre is playing the grieving widow. Do you understand now, señor?”
“Thank you, Eddie. I understand you well.”
The party was winding down; only a couple dozen neighbors and family remained. Even Tío Julio and Tía Estella had given up their chairs and departed.
Eddie stood up shakily. “It’s time, Alex; time to say goodbye to our father.” He raised his Coke can. “Dear father, there are so many things I never got to tell you, and now it’s too late. Even though you’re gone from this world, I hope you can hear me where you are now—in Hell, where I pray you roast, slow and hot, forever. For every time you hit Alex or mom, may Satan stick a pitchfork up your holy ass. As for every time you hit me padre . . . well, I’ll take care of that when we meet again.”
He drained the Coke can. Then he took a final drag on his cigarette, flipped the butt on our lawn, and jumped down from the wall.
Gómez and I looked at each other. Then we watched Eddie as he disappeared down the stairs.