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In a small town on the Mexican border live two brothers, Don Fidencio and Don Celestino. Stubborn and independent, they now must face the facts: they are old, and they have let a family argument stand between them for too long. Don Celestino's good-natured housekeeper encourages him to make amends—while he still can. They secretly liberate Don Fidencio from his nursing home and travel into Mexico to solve the mystery at the heart of their dispute: the family legend of their grandfather's kidnapping. As the unlikely trio travels, the brothers learn it's never too late for a new beginning.
With winsome prose and heartfelt humor, Oscar Casares's debut novel of family lost and found radiates with generosity and grace and confirms the arrival of a uniquely talented new writer.
Copyright © 2009 by Oscar Casares
All rights reserved. Except as permitted under the U.S. Copyright Act of 1976, no part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed, or transmitted in any form or by any means, or stored in a database or retrieval system, without the prior written permission of the publisher.
Little, Brown and Company
Hachette Book Group
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First eBook Edition: August 2009
Little, Brown and Company is a division of Hachette Book Group, Inc. The Little, Brown name and logo are trademarks of Hachette Book Group, Inc.
The characters and events in this book are fictitious. Any similarity to real persons, living or dead, is coincidental and not intended by the author.
“Los Inditos” appears in the book
A Texas-Mexican Cancionero: Folksongs of the Lower Border by Américo Paredes, University of Texas Press, 1995.
ALSO BY OSCAR CASARES
The One With The Flat Face was taking her time coming around with the cart. She had stopped to visit with The Friendly Turtle and the two of them were talking and talking, as if it had been years since they had seen each other, as if it wasn't only a few hours ago that she brought out the cart, as if there weren't other people already hungry and waiting for their dinner.
He sat at the table closest to the side door, which he planned to use as his escape route once he finished his meal. The clock now read 5:05, five minutes past the time they were supposed to bring out the trays. Five minutes normally wouldn't concern him, but he had only picked at his breakfast and then later not felt like eating the turkey casserole they served at lunch, so instead he spent his lunch hour smoking out on the patio, sitting on the padded seat of his walker.
"You're going to get hungry later, Mr. Rosales," The One With The Flat Face had come outside to tell him.
"You think I have never been hungry?" he snapped at her.
"A man your age should not be smoking cigarettes."
"Leave me alone. I smoked my two cigarettes a day for most of my life, long before you or your mother and father were born, maybe even before their mother and father."
"Still, it's not good for you, sir. If you get sick with the flu, your lungs are not going to be strong."
"And what, you afraid I won't make it all the way to ninety-two?"
She finally went back inside and left him in peace. That had been more than four hours ago, though, and since his nap Don Fidencio had kept an eye on the clock. The first thing he did was search through each of his five shoe boxes for any cheese crackers or chocolate candy that he might have forgotten. He found everything but the snacks he was looking for — his five U.S. government–issue pens (two more were missing, most likely stolen by a miserable somebody with nothing better to do than torment an old man); his three Zippo lighters (only one of which still had fluid); his federal employee badge, made of brass and still worth the trouble of polishing; his can of Mace spray (just in case); his extra pair of suspenders (also just in case); his roll of lottery tickets, wound tightly with a pair of rubber bands; his slightly warped cassette of Narciso Martinez music; his baseball that had been signed by a famous pitcher for the Astros but whose autograph was now smudged and impossible to make out; his tiny Aztec calendar on a broken key chain; his spare keys to the car and house, neither of which belonged to him anymore, but just the same, he liked to rattle them inside his pocket; a few random pesos and centavos, along with the silver dollar that he used to carry in his wallet; and his rosary that one of The Jesus Christ Loves Everybody Women had given him when they were going room to room, tracking down innocent souls that had somehow survived this long without their help.
The hunger had hit him more so when he walked into the mess hall. He took out one of his ballpoint pens to jot down the hours that had passed since the last bit of food he ate at breakfast. After listing each hour, he numbered them all the way to eleven. Eleven seemed like a lot, but he was sure he had lasted longer in the past. He thought if he could make himself think of a time when he was hungrier, it might make him feel less hungry now. There must have been plenty of times; the problem was making his old head remember. His best guess was it had to be when he was a boy and they would work along one side of the river one year and along the other side the following year, then back again, so much so that he sometimes forgot they were two separate countries. And then again much later they followed the crops up north. Minnesota, Iowa, Wisconsin, Ohio, Indiana. He could remember picking beets. He could remember the onions. He could remember the cucumbers. He could remember the melons. He must have been hungrier then, he and his younger brothers and sisters crowded into the back of the truck, their mother and the baby in the cab with their father, driving all night so they could make it to the next job. He could see himself crouched in a corner, clinging to the wooden slats, the stars up above him like bits of cotton sprinkled across the dark sky.
He was still thinking about this when The One With The Worried Face rolled up in his wheelchair. The wooden table was tall enough for the armrests to fit underneath and let him scoot forward until his chest touched the edge. After locking the brakes, he placed his elbows on the table, then held on to his weary head as if he were trying to decide the fate of the world. A small monitor with a string attached to it hung from the backrest of his wheelchair and then clipped to his collar, ready to send off a piercing alarm if he were to move too far away and slip out of the chair onto the floor. Though the weather outside was predicted to be in the high nineties for the rest of the week, he kept warm with a green ski cap, a checkered flannel shirt, thick sweatpants, athletic socks, and woolly slippers.
The Gringo With The Ugly Finger was the next one to guide his wheelchair into the dining room, using his heels to spur him along until he reached the table.
"I could eat two horses," he said, which was what he had said at lunch and before that breakfast and before that dinner, and so on and so on. "How 'bout you boys?"
The question got only a half nod from Don Fidencio and even less from The One With The Worried Face, who obviously had too much on his mind to be troubled with something as trivial as feeding himself.
"Say," The Gringo With The Ugly Finger began, "I ever show you boys what happened to me when I worked for Pan Am?"
Only about six hundred times, Don Fidencio wanted to say. But he knew better than to acknowledge the question or to so much as look in the direction of the man's left index finger, which was snipped off at the end like a cigar about to be lit. Don Fidencio pulled his walker a little closer to make sure it wasn't sticking too far out into the aisle. His own hands weren't in such good shape either, with a patchwork of scars and splotches scattered from his knuckles to the crook of his elbow, most of them from bumping into this door or that fence or just about anything else that could tear his papery skin. He tried to remember why he had a bandage covering part of his right hand and when nothing came to him he went back to inspecting the rest of the walker. All four tires, front and back, were made of plastic, but he pressed his thumb into them anyway, same as the men used to do when he drove up to a service station. He rattled the wire basket, where he sometimes carried his #4 shoe box, the one with the chocolates. Then he fiddled with the extensions on the handgrips, first making them longer, then shorter, and finally moving them back to their original position, where they should have stayed all along.
"Now you wouldn't think the tip of a man's index finger would take so damn long to find, but when the rotor on that DC-3 caught me, I was lucky the darn thing didn't end up in Cuba. Wish I could blame it on somebody distracting me, saying, 'Hey, Phillips,' and me turning to look when it happened. But the truth of the matter is that the blame falls squarely on my lap. Just wasn't thinking, had my head somewhere else, in the clouds maybe, when it should have been down on the ground, concentrating on my work. The other mechanics went looking all over the hangar and out on the tarmac, since the doors had been wide open. That's what they told me anyway — I was out cold almost as soon as it happened. Had a chance to see the tip of my finger was gone, and it was lights out. I never was one for the sight of blood, most especially my own. That, I can trace back to my time in the war. Saw things that stayed with me, inside my head, no matter how I tried to get rid of them. Anyhow, I think it was one of the Mexican janitors who finally recovered the tip and wrapped it up in some aluminum foil left over from his lunch."
The finger, the finger, dear God, the bloody finger. Who asked him? Did he think he was the only one who had a story from his work? Don Fidencio had delivered the mail for forty-two years and had a few of his own stories. Lots and lots of stories, about working his whole life, about his eleven brothers and sisters, about growing up on both sides of the river, even about how his grandfather had come to this country with the Indians. Yes, real Indians! Indians on horses! Indians with bows and arrows! And if he could remember any more of it than this, he still wouldn't be sitting around driving people crazy.
A few months earlier he'd had a dream that had stayed with him. He was waiting in a long line at the bridge, driving back from Matamoros to Brownsville, but instead of the bridge being where it always was, they had moved it closer to his old house — either that or they had moved his house closer to the bridge. The point was, he could see his house from the other side of the river, which in real life was no short distance, but in his mind he saw his front yard, the grass nice and trimmed, the large orange tree that shaded most of the backyard and still produced fruit after so many hurricanes. He saw it all so close to him and he couldn't wait to get back. But when he reached down into his pocket for the toll what he found was the bloody tip of The Gringo With The Ugly Finger's finger. And what use did he have for a bloody fingertip when he was already a few pesos short? The tollbooth worker didn't want any part of the bloody coins he was offering him. He didn't care if Don Fidencio had to get home to watch the baseball game. Come back when you have more to offer me than a bloody fingertip, the man told him. Then maybe I let you cross over.
After that night he had gone to bed asking God to please not torment him with these dreams of The Gringo With The Ugly Finger. It was just one more humble request added to the short but growing list of things he prayed for every night: for the staff to stop pilfering his chocolates, particularly the ones with the cherries that he was partial to; for the gout to go away once and for all; for some rest from the aches in his muscles and bones each morning; for some relief from his constant need of having to go make water; for The One With The White Pants to stop finding new pills to give him; and most important of all, for him to find some way to escape from this prison where they kept him against his will; and for his freedom to come soon, even if it should cost him his life, so long as he didn't die here in this bed, surrounded by so many strange and unfamiliar faces.
He had given up trying to remember everyone's name. The night he had passed out in the front yard had left his brains scrambled up so much that it was difficult for him to keep things straight in his head. Instead he had come up with a special name for everyone, usually having to do with some dominant feature, but then kept these names to himself because he still had enough sense left to know that The One With The Flat Face probably wouldn't like being told she had a flat face. Really, it was more her nose that was flat, but once he came up with a name he rarely changed it, so The One With The Flat Face it was. Besides, there was already The One With A Beak For A Nose and he didn't want to get them mixed up. He might have remembered The Gringo With The Ugly Finger's name if he hadn't kept waving his crusty finger at him every chance he had. The One With The Worried Face had a name that reflected his disagreeable nature and yet was different from the strained and troubled face of the old man known as The One Who Always Looks Constipated. During mealtime there was The One Who Likes To Eat Other People's Food, who would scoot up in his wheelchair if Don Fidencio was taking too long to eat his Jell-O or some other tasteless dessert. "So are you going to eat that or not?" he'd ask, then wait around to make sure he did. Some of them Don Fidencio didn't see because they stayed in their rooms, like The One Who Cries Like A Dying Calf, who lived somewhere down the hall, but as loud as he was he might as well have been in the same bed.
The women residents he knew as The Old Turtles. There were so many of them he mainly remembered them collectively, though a few did have special names. The Friendly Turtle sat in her wheelchair near the front door and waved at all the visitors whether she knew them or not, whether it was the first or the fifth time the person had walked in that day. The Friendly Turtle's friend, who also sat by the door but didn't wave, was The Turtle With The Fedora because of the felt hat she wore, even if it made her look less like a Turtle and more like an old man sitting around with nothing better to do. The Turtle Who Never Bends Her Legs leaned back in a larger wheelchair with a cushiony footrest that extended out like a recliner on wheels. The Turtle Who Doesn't Like To Talk sat in her wheelchair next to her husband, The Loyal One, who came by every day to sit with her and massage her right leg and then the stump where the left one used to be. The Turtle With The Orange Gloves said her hands were always cold and took off her coverings only when it was time to eat. The Turtle Who Should Be An Operator sat in her wheelchair next to the nurses' station, yelling "¡Teléfono!" anytime the phone rang.
The Gringo With The Ugly Finger sat up a little straighter when The One With The Flat Face pushed her cart up to the table.
"The doctor plain-out told me, 'Sorry, son, there was no saving the tip of your pointer finger. But there is absolutely no reason in the world that you can't go back to work once you heal up and from then on live a perfectly normal life.'"
Don Fidencio pretended the chatter was no different than the mumbles and gurgles he could hear coming from The Table Of Mutes along the far wall, where no one did more than moan and hum to himself and then every so often shout "Macaroni?" or "Bunco!" He could hear his belly tightening and he was thinking that he might have been hungrier sometime between when the Depression hit and the year he went off to the CCC camps.
The One With The Worried Face finally let go of his cheeks so The One With The Flat Face could strap on the cloth bib that covered the entire front of his shirt. The Gringo With The Ugly Finger puffed out his chest as if she were decorating him with a medal.
Don Fidencio raised his hand when she came around with his bib.
"I already have one." He picked up the end of the paper napkin he had stuffed into his shirt collar when he'd first sat down, ready to eat.
The One With The Flat Face leaned in close to him. "Papi, you know you have to wear one of these."
"For what?" he said, shrugging. "If I have my own."
"That one isn't big enough, papi. Your shirt's going to get dirty."
"I'm not your papi."
"Yes, all right, but you still have to wear the bib."
"No food is going to fall on my shirt."
"How do you know that, Mr. Rosales?"
Don Fidencio looked away and shook his head. "How do you know?" he said, and in this instance wished that he could remember her real name — Josie, Rosa, Vicky, Yoli, Alma, Cindy, Lulu, Flor, whatever the hell it was — just to toss it in there for emphasis.
"All I know is you have to wear the bib. That's the rules, Mr. Rosales."
She brought the long white cloth toward him, but he pushed her hands aside.
"Already I told you to take it away!"
The One With The Flat Face stepped back, hands on her plump hips, and glared at the old man.
"I'll be back in a little bit, sir," she said, as if this were supposed to scare him.
When he turned around, the other men at the table were staring at him. The One With The Worried Face shook his head in a disillusioned sort of way; The Gringo With The Ugly Finger looked as dazed as if something had just happened to one of his other fingers.
"What?" Don Fidencio said to both of them. "What are you looking at, eh?"
The One With The Worried Face turned his attention toward the vase of plastic flowers on the table. The Gringo With The Ugly Finger stroked the frayed edge of his bib.
Don Fidencio tugged a couple of times on the paper napkin, making sure it was secure. He knew what he was doing; he didn't need some young girl telling him things. She must have been blind to think he needed one of those towels hanging from his neck. Maybe from now on he would call her The One With The Flat Face Who Is Also Blind.
He sulked back in his chair. His stomach growled as if he hadn't eaten in days. The memory he felt churning inside his belly had taken place in those early days of the Depression. He had found work close to the river, picking tomatoes with some other men, including a couple of hoboes from up north who spent their time complaining that it was too damn hot for a man to be working so hard. They were making so much noise that no one heard when the agents drove up. Before he knew it, they were rounding everyone up but the hoboes, who by then had put down their bushels and were taking a cigarette break. It didn't matter where he lived or for how many years. "Looks Mexican to me," the agent said when he protested. And how was he supposed to explain to the agent that because his parents had crossed over to look for work, he was born in Reynosa, just on the other side of the river, but almost all his life he had spent on this side? Another week and he would have been born in the U.S., same as the rest of his family. Yes, even if he had relatives on both sides, really he was American now and had been for many, many years. Later that same night he was crammed into a boxcar with the others — some Mexican citizens, some just unlucky enough to look it — until the train arrived down in Veracruz. It was his first time so far beyond the other side of the border. He and a few of the men stuck together as they traveled the more than six hundred miles back to Texas. None of them had much money. Over the next two weeks they walked and asked for rides when they could, but mainly walked. And if he could recall any more of this, he would probably say it was the hungriest he had ever been.
The metal doors to the kitchen swung open and two dining room attendants rolled out the food carts, starting at the far end of the room, where most of The Turtles gathered. Of the eighty or so residents eating in the dining room today, only two had guests. One was a tall man with a long stringy ponytail who was sitting with his mother while she chewed her fried fish. The second guest was a woman in her early fifties with slightly tinted hair and a pair of gold-lined teeth. She sat with her much-older husband at almost every meal, sometimes ordering a tray of food for herself.
Alongside the window that looked onto the patio, one of the aides stood in the center of a U-shaped table and uncovered trays for three residents, all of them twitching in their reclining wheelchairs that were more like upright gurneys. She took a spoonful from the first tray and fed a dark-haired woman not more than sixty, and then a second later the aide had to recover the yellowish dollop that had seeped onto the woman's chin.
Don Fidencio tried not to look around the room as much as he had his first two months. For what? He hadn't seen anyone he remembered or who might remember him, which seemed odd given that he had lived and worked in the same town for most of his life. Where the hell is everyone? he kept asking himself. Strangers, all strangers, they had taken everyone he knew and replaced them with strangers. This is where they had sent him to die, with strangers. The gray-haired daughter of one of The Turtles had said she recognized him as the man who used to bring the mail to her mother's house, a white one with light-blue trim that had a large banana tree in the front yard and that stood on the corner near the entrance to the compress. Don Fidencio didn't recall the house, though he remembered a chow biting him near the train tracks, leaving him with a dozen or so stitches on his backside. When the woman said it wasn't their dog, he lost interest in whatever else she had to say.
The other reason he preferred to not look around was that he didn't like thinking about his life, how it used to be, how it was now, and what it would likely become, if God didn't do him the good favor of taking him soon. No matter how much he had lost, or they thought he had lost, he was still alert and understood what was happening to him. How long could it be before they moved him over to the U-shaped table where the aides would be feeding him? When would he not be able to dress himself anymore and have to wear his pajamas all day? One of these nights would there really be a need for them to keep the plastic lining on his mattress?
"Is there a problem, Mr. Rosales?" The One With The Big Ones was standing next to the table. The One With The Flat Face lingered to one side of his wide frame.
"Yes, there is," Don Fidencio said, cocking back his head. "I'm hungry already. Tell them to hurry it up with the trays."
"The food is almost here, sir, but Miss Saldana tells me that today you don't feel you have to wear your bib like everyone else." The One With The Big Ones crossed his arms, which in his yellow polo shirt only formed a deeper cleavage. "This isn't true, is it?"
"For what?" he said, and then lifted his napkin. "Look!"
"That paper napkin is not going to be sufficient, Mr. Rosales."
"How do you mean, not sufficient?"
"We have rules and procedures here, sir. And the rules and procedures state that every resident must wear a bib during mealtime."
"Look what I have here," he said, holding up the napkin again. "Are you blind, like the girl?"
The One With The Big Ones glanced back at The One With The Flat Face, who only raised her eyebrows as she waited to see how he might respond to the comment. The dining room attendant, a younger man with homemade tattoos on his knuckles and forearms, had just rolled the serving cart up to the table. The One With The Big Ones signaled for him to hold off and then turned back to continue his conversation.
"There's no reason to be belligerent, Mr. Rosales."
"Don't you be calling me names."
"Belligerent means to be hostile, to be insulting, like saying someone is blind because they don't agree with you. Miss Saldana is only trying to do her job and follow the rules and procedures. Don't you want to follow the rules and procedures?"
Don Fidencio waited for him to finish. Not only was he forced to argue with the man about his bib but he had to do this in English, which for him meant stopping to think of the right words before he could open his mouth. A building full of old people who spoke mainly Spanish and no longer had any use for English, if they ever had, and this was the one they had sent to run the place.
"I'm just saying the truth. This is a napkin and it works just the same as that horse blanket she wants to put on me. Look at it, and if you don't see it, then maybe you both need to go have your eyes checked. Get in the van and go together if you want. What's so insulting about that?"
The One With The Big Ones squatted by holding on to the edge of the table and the handlebar on the walker.
"Mr. Rosales, the rule is that everyone has to wear a bib." He was now eye-to-eye with the old man. "What you have there is a paper napkin, not a bib."
"And who made the stupid rule?"
"Those are just the rules. It was like this before I started working at Amigoland. I'm just following the rules. Don't you want to follow the rules?" He motioned with his head, stretching his jowls to glance over his shoulder. "Look at how Mr. Phillips and Mr. Gomez are cooperating."
The Gringo With The Ugly Finger sat up when he heard his name. The One With The Worried Face shook his head as if he couldn't believe the misfortune Don Fidencio was tempting.
"Why do you want to cause such problems?" He dropped his forehead into the palms of his hands. He looked up a few seconds later. "Why?"
"I used to pack a lunch pail back when I was with Pan Am."
"Not now, Mr. Phillips," The One With The Big Ones said, keeping his eyes fixed on Don Fidencio. Then he told the attendant to go ahead and serve the two other men at the table.
- On Sale
- Aug 10, 2009
- Page Count
- 384 pages
- Little, Brown and Company