by Victor David Giron
Maria sat smoking a cigarette on the wood deck of her friend’s apartment overlooking a dimly lit alley. The garage doors featured cryptic tagging in black and red spray-paint. All she could recognize was the shape of a crown. Latin Kings. There was a time when Maria could have deciphered all of the letters. Her inability to do so now reminded her of when she and Alex were little, living with their parents just blocks away, on the other side of the Logan Square circle, back when they didn’t know how to speak English.
Though she couldn’t see the white eagle column, she knew it was on the other side of the red-bricked building standing to her left, there in the middle of the circle, in between the intersection of Logan Boulevard, Milwaukee Avenue, and Kedzie. She could almost feel its presence, as if a hovering ghost that observed her from the corner of a room.
Maria and Alex had driven by the circle on the way back from the hospital after visiting with their father, Manuel, just about an hour earlier. In the silence of the early morning and murkiness of the street-lights, the place seemed eerily similar to when they lived there almost 30 years ago. Sure, it had a few cafes and restaurants now, and a bunch of white people who fancied themselves artists had moved there. But unlike the nearby neighborhoods of Wicker Park and Bucktown (that now looked like outdoor shopping malls), it still had the feeling of a place society ignored.
She also thought of how she vividly remembered details from their childhood that Alex didn’t.
Alex always said to friends when introducing Maria that they played in rain puddles when they were little, right in front of the building they lived in. But she knew those puddles were really in front of the Spanish-speaking church they went to that showed those awful movies of what it was supposed to be like to go to Hell.
Alex had asked their father earlier at the hospital to tell them once again where he met their mother. He always told people his parents met in some park. But Maria knew they met in an upholstery shop over in Pilsen, close to where their parents first lived after coming to Chicago, and that they got married soon after she became pregnant with Alex.
Their father answered Alex in his drug-induced state by not answering the question, and instead said in a professorial manner, “Some people, when they’re stoned, drunk, standing there looking at the ladies on the corner, some people, they just shouldn’t get married… But they do, yeah, they do… They get married right away, and they do it. You only live once, and so I guess you just do it … That’s all… That’s all…”
He then went on to some conversation he was having with someone not in the room about Limburger cheese, the kind you find in Wisconsin.
Alex also never seemed to remember the Latin Kings that lived in their building. The bastards would stand in front of the entrance to the building and stare at them as they would walk in through the door, especially the bigger one, who the others called “Dragon.” He had a buzzed head with a long black tail running down the back of his neck, a go-tee, and tattoos covering his arms. He would stand there almost glowing, the hairs on his chin vibrating, the blood-yellow of his eyes still visible in the aphotic bottom of her dreams. Maria remembered the night when their father pounded on the door, and after their mother ran to open it, he was down on the floor trying to protect his face with his torn hands while four of the gang-bangers kicked him. He had blood running down his face and onto his white under-shirt. Their mother screamed and took her shoes off and ran at them, swinging at their heads. One of them pushed her back so hard that she fell to the floor. Maria and Alex were crying as they held each other, while the gang-bangers yelled out, “Fuck you, you wetbacks, motherfuckers,” just before spitting on their father and leaving.
Alex never remembered any of this stuff, though he was always considered the smarter of the two. It was as if he lived in a state of denial. She, on the other hand, knew, remembered it all, and lived with these memories and others she never dare share with anyone else, not even with herself anymore. She carried them as scares etched on her very skin, and inside her nicotine- and tar-laden lungs.
It was no wonder she always ran away from home as a teenager. It was no wonder she could never complete any kind of schooling. It was no wonder she was always attracted to men who carried equally as massive scars. They would inevitably hit her, often because she begged them to. She didn’t care. She knew. She didn’t need a damn psychologist to tell her that. She stopped going to her Al-Anon meetings when they kept saying over and over that children of alcoholic parents tend to seek out partners that treat them similar to how their troubled parents treated them. She already knew that. That was her way of coping.
They had arrived at the hospital earlier in the evening and their father complained about how Alex had forgotten to get onions and cilantro with the burrito they brought him from La Pasadita, the dirty burrito joint over on Ashland and Division. Their father always made them go there after church on Sundays, after which they would go see a Clint Eastwood, Chuck Norris, or Sylvester Stallone movie up at the Logan Square Theatre. He loved those steak burritos, but only with the onions and cilantro. While he ate his burrito, he kept saying that everyone had taken the fun out it, and blamed his second wife, Alicia, saying that after 20 years she still couldn’t get this one thing right. Maria couldn’t handle it anymore and snapped at her father telling him that it wasn’t Alicia’s fault and that he shouldn’t be such a cranky old man, which made him smile as he continued to eat his burrito.
“Dad, how do you think you got hepatitis?” Maria asked their father later in the evening while they were sitting in the room. Alex shook his head in disagreement with the question as he watched the soundless television puke out its images, with the only noise in the room being that of the beeping medical equipment surrounding their father. It was a question she’d asked him many times before, but this time she hoped that he’d answer differently.
She knew hepatitis can be caused by severe alcohol consumption. But she also knew that the type their father carried was more likely transmitted through contact with infected blood. Their father would often be gone days, and would return in a daze, all shaky and sweaty, as if recovering from a severe fever. He’d probably done drugs like heroine, had sex with prostitutes, and other such things. Maria wondered whether he’d ever admit that, if not to them, then hopefully to himself, especially now.
“There was blood… I just remember blood… The car, it was the accident…” her father responded as he always did to Maria’s question, referring to some imaginary car accident.
Alex gave Maria a cold look, and then tried to change the subject by asking, “Hey Pa, how’s the Mexican national team doing these days?”
After ignoring Alex by staring at the television, their father broke the silence and asked him, “Man, what’s wrong with you? You getting fat again?”
“What? No. What do you mean dad? You always say that. I’ve weighed the same for a long time now.”
“Your face, it’s puffy, your head’s getting bigger,” he told Alex, as he started to laugh in a strained way, which made Maria laugh.
“What are you laughing about?” he told Maria, turning to look at her. “You, you’re still too skinny, way too skinny.”
“Well, it’s better than being fat,” she responded, laughing, making their father laugh harder, while Alex started to blush and told her to shut up. Alex had always been skinny like her, but over the last couple of years he had in fact gained some weight. His receding hairline did make it seem like his head was getting bigger.
After another brief pause, their father started to laugh again, really loud, making him cough, as he stared up at the ceiling.
Alex finally asked him what was so funny, and as he was getting teary-eyed, he answered, “The dog, the dog…”
“What dog, dad? What do you mean?”
“That dog… the one on the ice…,” he kept saying, still laughing, which made Maria, Alex, and Alicia also start to laugh. “It kept chasing her around, and around, and around. I kept telling her to stop, but she didn’t, she kept on running in a circle and so did that damn dog…”
“Oh, you mean up on the ice, on the lake?” asked Maria.
“Yeah, on the lake,” their father answered, continuing to laugh, with Alicia now by the bed saying in Spanish, “Calm down, old man, calm down.”
He stopped laughing, turned toward Alicia with a hazy stare, and said, “Hey, vieja, why don’t you go get me something to eat again, just something.”
“But, negro, don’t you remember? The doctors said you can’t eat until after the surgery,” responded Alicia, using all her tired energy to be forceful, looking at Maria and Alex for reassurance.
Manuel turned his head toward the television, shook it disapprovingly, and said, “Always, always, to this day, you’ve never helped me. You’ve always been against me. All I want is something to eat again. That’s all… That’s all…”
“What dog?” Alex asked Maria, trying to get back to the original subject.
“Don’t you remember?” she answered, and after letting him think about it for a second, she explained. “Remember how dad used to take us to see the ice-fishers up on that lake in Wisconsin, when we’d try to go skiing? Well this one time, we were watching some men fish, and this big dog came running and tried to play with me. I freaked out and started running around the hole, and the dog started chasing me. I wouldn’t stop, neither would the dog, and so we just ran around in circles until dad finally picked me up, and then he yelled at you for laughing.”
“Oh, yeah,” answered Alex, smiling. “Also, like that one time when it was snowing and we were all walking down the sidewalk, and you slipped and fell and started crying after we saw that you fell on dog-shit? Dad also yelled at me for laughing after that, remember?”
“Huh?” Maria thought to herself,” he actually remembered something.”
Their dad was smiling and laughing again, again talking about the dog, that damn dog. He suddenly stopped, and after a moment of heavy breathing said out loud in Spanish, more to himself than anybody else, “Oh, look, it’s just that maybe God, dear God, has let me at least laugh one last time, this one last time, here with my children.” Maria, Alex, and Alicia smiled, looked at each other, thought about saying something, but instead they turned and stared at the television.
The rest of the night they kept telling their father that he needed to sleep, but he couldn’t, and so they listened to him ramble on about things such as the fried duck he used to eat when he was in his 20s somewhere up by Foster and Lawrence. He became upset because no one had brought him one. He also kept going on about how the church people should have stayed overnight so they could have sang his favorite Jesus songs while following him down the hallway towards the operating room—he said that’s how it should have been done, but the church people just didn’t have the patience for it.
The surgery wasn’t going to be until around 5 a.m., and although Alicia thought they should stay, Alex was tired and didn’t see the point of staying. So they left and said they’d be back in the morning, possibly before their father went into surgery.
Alex told his father to be strong, that everything would be fine, and that they would go find that fried duck after he was out of the hospital. After Alex left the room, Maria walked over to say goodbye.
She stopped right next to her father and looked over his unnaturally dark skin that looked like worn leather, his little ruffled gray hairs, his inflated belly that looked like it could be punctured with a needle, his absurdly swollen ankles tightly covered by over-stretched white socks, and all the tubes that ran along his arms towards little holes pricked through his skin. She thought about how the holes in his veins were now the sole remnants of a desperate dream that started so many years ago. And this made her think of how we spend most of our lives growing, so much of it decaying, and when the end comes, it comes like this, if you’re lucky, on a mechanical bed with bleach-cleaned white sheets. She kissed the top of his forehead and put her hand on his chest. She told him that she loved him, and he grabbed hold of her hand. She kissed him on the cheek, leaned over, and whispered in a deathly low volume that only he could hear, “Dad, I know you’re sorry, and I forgive you.” His face tightened up, his dark yellow eyes became watery, a vein bubbled under the skin of his forehead, and instead of offering a reply he stared up at the ceiling to somewhere else.
Alex and Maria left the hospital’s parking lot and drove down Garfield Park Drive, going past Martin Luther King Drive. Maria stared at the 40-ounce consuming men stumbling along the sidewalk, coping with it in their own way. They turned onto the Dan Ryan and headed north towards Chicago’s sky-line that, in the past, had always comforted her.
She listened as Alex went on about how they shouldn’t be surprised if their father didn’t make it through the surgery because he was very sick, and that they all needed to be strong, especially for Alicia who never knew anything else except to care for their father. He said that Alicia was finally going to have to learn English, though, because he wasn’t going to continue doing everything for her. He also contemplated that maybe he and Maria should’ve stayed through the surgery, as Alicia had wanted them to. But then again, he said, it would probably be ok, just like last time. And that’s how he justified he would keep his plans for later in the day with this girl Linda he was going on about all night.
Maria could feel the cool wind hit her face as she lit another cigarette. Alex played one of his mixes that he seemed to be proud of. They passed Chinatown, Pilsen, and the upholstery shop district on Cullerton where their father worked for so many years, for a company owned by an Italian man who he simply referred to as El Italiano.
“Why did you have to ask dad again about his hepatitis?” Alex asked Maria as they approached the Loop, about to veer off northwest toward Logan Square. “Dad’s suffered so much already and he’s tried so hard in recent years to make amends for the way he was. There’s no reason for you to be so damn stubborn all the time and rub it in the poor man’s face that way.”
This sort of statement by Alex, on previous occasions, would have resulted in a viscous shouting match between the two of them, but this time Maria wasn’t in that sort of mood.
Sure, Maria knew their father had stopped drinking for a long time, and always went to his Alcoholic Anonymous meetings. She had even gone to see him get up and testify, after which they would partake in the evening’s assortment of fried chicken, mashed potatoes, green beans, pasta, and punch. She had gone with him and his family to the small church down in Calumet and heard him sing along to the church band’s songs about Jesus. And she was aware of how their father’s pastor had come to the hospital to pray for him every day, and how the pastor would always say that their father was a special man because every time he came to the hospital, he could tell their father was surrounded by Jesus and loved ones—and that’s special, to be surrounded by Jesus and loved ones.
But still, she kept thinking that despite these pleas for salvation from an omnipresent being, her father still had never directly apologized to anyone—especially to her—for what he did. She had given him one last chance there at the hospital, but he didn’t. Now, she could only hope that he had the courage to apologize on his own, in his own thoughts, with his God, perhaps there while staring off at the ceiling as she looked over him, or maybe on his medical bed while being wheeled down those miserable white hallways towards the operating room where he would fall asleep for the last time.
Instead of answering Alex, who kept looking at her for some sort of reply and preparing his comeback, Maria puffed on her cigarette and could feel the avalanche come sliding down her face. She couldn’t help her cheeks from tightening, and her throat from exploding.
Alex thought to ask what the matter was, thought that maybe now was the time to talk, wondered what an older brother should say in a situation like this, but instead he focused on the road and the cars passing by.
Maria was not surprised when 5 a.m. came and Alex never called to say he was on the way to pick her up. She was still sitting on the wood deck, and staring off at the alley, watching it turn lighter and lighter as the sun made its way over Lake Michigan and the roof-tops of the surrounding three-flat buildings. She thought about trying to find a way onto the roof of the building so she could see the metallic blue-green of Chicago’s sunrise, how it glowed off the buildings. But then she thought about the eagle-column again, about how it would still be standing there, and so she thought to just stay put and wait for the alley to fully turn yellowish gray.
During a few hours of fractured, uncomfortable sleep in the plastic deck chair she’d been sitting on, Maria kept seeing images from the previous night parade through her mind: Alex’s clear anxiety over wanting to talk to her in the car, especially before she left, and how he never said anything (like always) and instead just shook his head in silent disagreement. The way Alicia always looked at her when she tried to speak to their father. Their father’s thin, shattered, crazed-preacher-like dark face as he stared at the television and professed to an audience that was absent to everyone else in the room.
In a sudden moment, Maria came to full consciousness as she noticed a movement in the alley. She straightened up, grimaced at the pain in her neck and lower back, and looked again at what seemed like a shadow move between two garages across the way, both bearing the crown of the Kings. “It was probably a cat” she thought to herself, though didn’t really believe it. She definitely saw something move. She then felt the buzzing of her cell-phone in her jean pocket. After taking it out and seeing that it was Alicia calling, she thought maybe it would better to not answer and let it go to voicemail as she often did when anybody called. Seeing Alicia’s name continue to appear on the phone, though, she took a deep breath, hit the green talk button, and said hello in her broken Spanish.
White Hallways was also published this month at Rougarou, the literary journal of the University of Louisiana at Lafayette.
VICTOR DAVID GIRON is the son of immigrants from Mexico and Guatemala. He lives in Chicago with his wife Shannon and sons David and Desmond. Victor works as an accountant, enjoys art and independent music, and as a result of trying to find another creative outlet, discovered that he loves to write fiction. He is in the process of self-publishing his first novel in the spring of 2010. Victor can be found at www.curbsidesplendor.com.