So today as I wait for the total eclipse of 2017, I am reminded of the last Eclipse in my memory. The one I wrote about of my realization that my father would someday die due to his Tuberculosis. I was young maybe 10 or 11. Today I have three grown sons, grandchildren across the US and the world is just as advanced in technology as I believed it would be when I was young. Cars can’t fly as I believed from “Back to the Future” but the world is definitely different. Women hold jobs that once were only men’s and I am in a career that men dominated and still do. We are led by a president that somehow brings out the worst in some of the citizens and yet during this time you see the best in humanity. People reaching outside of their comfort levels and helping others, standing up for human rights, protecting the land, and trusting in their faith. It’s wonderful and frightening at the same time. When I look back to this day years from now, I wonder how things will have changed from today. I hope this eclipse will start the progression of a dark to light and lead to a softening of hearts where poor direction, unrealistic fears, and dangerous leadership has shifted attitudes of good men and women.
By Christina Rodriguez
(First published in 2009 “Cuentos del Centro: Stories from the Latino Heartland” Stories by Kansas City Latino Writers Collective)
Pop and I had a special bond. He was at home while mom worked and the one that put pigtails in my hair for school. Sometimes they were uneven, but he always called me “beautiful” after he was done.
The secret I kept about pop was that he spent the whole day in the local bars where they knew him by name. When he allowed me to come, probably because he planned to be away longer than normal, I had to sit in the car. Most times he would send me to the little restaurant next door, “The Flying Burger”. A nice lady would feed me hot dogs and sell me chips to pass the time. The bar named the “Blue Moon” was his frequent obsession. One day I walked into the ‘Blue Moon’ to coax my father to take me home. The bar smelled of smoke, thick and stale and the smell of ammonia which didn’t quite hide the smell of old beer made my nose wrinkle with disgust. I pinched my nose with my fingers as I walked through the bar continuing this protest as I approached my dad. I stopped a moment as I saw him sitting at the bar alone, smoking a cigar and drinking a beer. He looked small and weak here among the smoky haze and multicolored fluorescent lights. Strange how he enjoyed places like these when our home was so much nicer.
Pop really wanted a son and everyone in our family knew this. Men and boys in his family were prized. It wasn’t that the girls weren’t loved they just weren’t held in the same high regard or discussed and bragged on like a new muscle car. The girls in my family were more of the second car, handy in a crisis, functional and steady. When I was born, Pop must have understood that I was his last chance for a son. I came along 15 years after my two sisters. My parents were in their late thirties when I was born and by the time I was five, my sisters were already out of the house and married. I had brief memories of our times when we were all together. I missed my sisters and couldn’t understand when my cousins complained about their siblings. I felt like an only child and I acted like one.
Pop and I watched games together and I caught his enthusiasm for football and baseball at an early age. He always looked at me with love. I could see it in his eyes and hear it in his voice that for a girl I was not so bad and that possibly was a surprise to him. His eyes also held secrets that I didn’t understand and that he never divulged. This in contrast to my sisters who grew up with my mom at home, Pop was home for me. I felt like he was my mentor and I was his apprentice. Every day, he expected me to learn a lesson. He asked me questions that made me think. I was happy to be constantly challenged and he seemed to be tickled at my solutions. Mainly they were ways to get me out of his hair and busy with a project of my own. He prepared me for life and taught me all about the car and how to fix it. I could remove the carburetor and gap the plugs in no time. He taught me to drive when I was 11. He would say, “Here Mija take the keys and practice.” I would drive slowly forward and then back on our long driveway teaching myself the gears and learning the art of backing up. Pop would hand me four bucks to fill the car at the nearby filling station. Funny no one ever questioned that I seemed too young to be driving. Such are the joys of small town Kansas life.
The day of the eclipse was bright and warm like mama’s kitchen. It had been a long day at school. It was nearly 3:00 when the school bell rang and I ran out as if it were on fire. I jumped on my bike and sped home like the roadrunner on the cartoon. Head down, elbows high, skirt shoved high to avoid getting caught in the chain like that one day of scrapes, blood, and embarrassment.
Finally, at home, I sat outside and could hear the familiar noises of the neighborhood. An old wooden screen door slammed in the distance, hammering was heard maybe cousin Tito fixing his falling down front porch and the sounds of old lady Lopez with her paint peeled turquoise sedan with the shaky muffler had puttered by. Sound carried easily in this small town, on my south “C” street.
Much of my family lived up and down the street from my home. Like grapes, we clumped together on the south side of tiny Ark City, a small Kansas town a mile from the Oklahoma border. They stayed close to where my grandparents first settled in the early 1900’s. Like many immigrants, my grandparents were beckoned by the railroad with honest work and good pay. The railroad provided its workers’ section houses made of brick and where both my mother and fathers families lived.
Pop had left the house in his 62 Chevy Nova. He was on his way to bring my mom home from work where she put together meals for patients at the local hospital. Sometimes when he left my mom off in the mornings, he didn’t come back for hours or all day. I imagined he was drawn to the Blue Moon where women with wrinkled lips, high hair, and smelling of smoke, would fuss over him. Usually, I didn’t mind because I would lose track of time. I had things to do, like playing with my turtle, “José,” who lived in the sandbox that was actually an old tractor wheel my pop found and filled with sand for his Mija (daughter).
I decided to head to my Cousin Vincent’s house and persuade him to walk to the South Summit Carryout to buy malts. Pop always left money in a jar for me to buy food while he was gone. Emergency provisions if he wasn’t back in time to feed me. I had to dip into this many times. When he was home, he made interesting food like sardine sandwiches made with crackers. He made them once for my school sack lunch. I know now why my friends didn’t sit with me that day. Other times we ate the same thing, onions and bacon fried with scrambled eggs stuffed in mom’s homemade tortilla’s, reheated on the open flame of the old gas stove.
Mama wouldn’t be happy about my choice of food, or the fact that pop left me home alone many times while she worked. Mom worked long days for us but the times she was at home she made up for having to endure my pops cooking and her absence. Days with mom at home were filled with Mexican music playing from the record player while she cleaned the house. Sometimes she danced and sang along with her favorite corridas. Later she would make fresh tortillas, which grabbed my nose and made my feet run from anywhere close to snatch one from the pan covered with the white cotton dishcloth.
It was hard to concentrate on my playing when the windows were open drawing my thoughts to the food my mother was preparing. From the delicious aroma, I could tell something wonderful was cooking. My nose was so trained that I could smell the sweet peppers and tomatoes as they roasted on the old weathered plancha (griddle). I knew they would soon take a quick swim in cold water, then mom would caress them in a soft wet cloth before she carefully picked the shriveled skins with her delicate, but hardworking hands. Later, she would sit on the sofa, with me stuck to her side like a tumor. She tried to grab a quick breather by reading the town newspaper and half listening to my unending chatter.
I couldn’t find Vincent or any of my cousins. I jumped on my bike and as I rode back home, the bright sun began to fade. It seemed to darken as if thick clouds had suddenly surrounded the sun. The sky was growing dim, sucked of brightness by some unknown force.
It was dark before I arrived at my home. It wasn’t late so the darkness was scary. My kid internal clock knew this was not right. I felt alone and it seemed the noises of birds and people I noticed earlier had just stopped. It felt like something was about to happen. From my porch, I looked both ways along the uniform porches of bungalow homes on South “C” street. I noticed that no one was outside but me.
I sat on the porch wondering if the world was coming to an end the way I was warned in my Sacred Heart elementary class by Sister Theodosia. I am sure she didn’t mean to scare us with words of burning, hell fires, and torture as she read bible stories that should inspire, but our imaginations carried us away to a frightening world where our parents could not save us.
To make things worse, I had overheard just a few days before, my mother mentioned in conversation with someone on the phone that my pop had a disease that was robbing him of his life. I hadn’t allowed myself to swallow this information until now as I sat on the porch in the dark feeling abandoned and afraid. The secret I didn’t know was that Pop had been sick before I was born and he wasn’t expected to live long with his disease. Tuberculosis was what grabbed my pop and pinched and pulled at his lungs until he coughed and gasped for breath. Pop had one lung which survived his stay at the sanitarium that kept him from us for ten long years. I was born after he came home and following the stillbirth of his only son. Pop never got over that loss or the loss of his strength, his breath, and his family. My mother and sisters didn’t know him when he returned. Pop was the strange intruder in the house of women that had managed to survive without him. He and mother only displayed the facade of a family, their marriage seemed strange and alien due to the long separation, but they stayed together for the children, for me. How I would have loved to have seen Pop in his prime, with strength and vitality that I notice in his old photos. The photos before I came along.
I sat shivering in the dark and it wasn’t that cold. The night never came during the day and Pop was always home before night. I started to cry and worried about how dark it might get. The streetlights did not turn on making it seem darker than normal. At that moment I began to feel deserted and jealous of my cousins who had parents at home when they were scared and fathers that didn’t have a disease.
Soon the sun started to shine, peeking out of the sky as if held hostage. As I glanced up, through the clouds, the sun looked like a giant dirt clod in the sky and a shadow was crossing it like a villain in my favorite novella, “Dark Shadows.” It held my attention as I tried to understand what was happening. The wind started to blow releasing me from my trance and blew my curls into my face and tickled my nose.
Almost all at once as if God flipped the switch, the sun was bright again in the sky. The rays reached out and kissed my face with a warm touch. I could hear the sounds of people in the distance, birds chirping good news, neighbors running out on their porch, doors slamming and kids laughter. I saw my mom and pop driving up the driveway. They looked with concern at their tear stained child.
I had survived the darkness without them.