I don’t remember my grandma’s face when the INS came to take her away. I don’t remember how they got inside. When they knocked, I was probably watching TV or taking apart one of Yelina’s toys. I liked to see how things worked from the inside. Yelina was my rival and I hated her, but we were what we had.
This was fifty years ago in Los Angeles, in the fall of 1958, when I was four.
We spoke only Spanish back then. Dad was alive, and stronger than ever.
That day is a long-ago dream. I’m not sure which stories I’ve taken on as my own memory or which photographs have colored what which color. I think Mom let the men in. They were white men in uniforms, bearded, taller than my mother, but I knew that Dad could kill them if he were at home.
Grandma left for what felt like forever; a year, I learned later.
I remember looking at my shoes. Dad had made me polish them until I could see my hands. As the men came into the room, I watched them in my shoe leather.
Grandma is gone. She’d always watched Yelina and me, she played with us, she bathed us, she cut our hair, but she’s not here, and nobody watches us now.
Dad has a job pouring concrete, and he can’t work when it rains. To help save money, my parents take over the next-door store from our neighbors who want to go stay with family in Chihuahua.
My mom likes to dress me in my sailor suit. I wait by the store entrance by the milk crates where we sit together to eat Captain Crunch in the morning and sandwiches of tuna mixed with mayonnaise in the afternoon. Today I have a new buzz cut. My white sailor hat feels good on my scalp, in the sun, and my whistle hangs on my throat. I like to play “Popeye the Sailor Man.” I want swollen forearms like him, and I eat spinach when I can.
I’m trying the whistle when a tall young woman comes in, swishing her dress. She wears heels and her thighs are strong. I know her from church, Iglesia La Virgen de Guadalupe. It’s where the neighborhood gets together. The men watch her sway down the aisle, in the dresses she chooses. I’ve watched her too.
When she sees me with my suit and my whistle, she coos and bends over me to fix my hat, and I can see words that I can’t read yet tattooed on top of her breasts. Her hair has a smell like fresh peas.
My mother says I have the face of a man already. Women like to stare in it because I always remind them of someone they know.
I touch the woman’s wrist. “Wait for me,” I say to her. “Wait for me to grow up, and I will take care of you.”
At home I watch the door. I keep expecting them to burst in to get me. I take a knife from the cutlery drawer and hide it under my pillow. Outside in the yard, I stab an orange until it squirts in my eye.
I forget how to tie my shoes. Grandma had showed me but now I can’t remember, although I am old enough to know how, and I walk around with my laces dangling until Dad notices. He says tie my shoes, but I can’t, and he shoves me down the hall and sits me against the wall and explains that I won’t be able to watch Popeye until I figure out how to tie my shoes.
I can see Yelina in the front room on the couch watching Popeye. She knows I can see her. She laughs so hard she slaps her arms like bugs are on her.
Popeye grunts, “Wanna go to the rodeo?” Cartoony trumpets a belch sadly.
I turn the laces over themselves.
I poke at eyelets.
Olive Oyl warbles, “Oh, Popeye!”
My hands feel too big for the job. I can’t make anything get to the right shape.
Dad’s cheek rasps my cheek and he says, “This is how you do it,” and his hands move over my shoes and he unties them again and leaves.
Yelina laughs and glances slyly toward me. I punch my foot and the lower knuckle of the toe aches to the bone. Popeye’s song plays. There isn’t much time before the show ends. The laces won’t stay in their place. Yelina grins across the kitchen at me. I try to think Grandma over to me, to make her appear in the hallway from where she went.
It’s still long before our other brothers and sisters arrive. Yelina’s a year older, but I am the first boy, so each of us believes we deserve to be appreciated. Nobody stops us from hurting each other. Dad’s always out laying concrete and Mom has to stay in the store and Grandma’s gone.
Yelina and I fight in the backyard. We shout and slap and knock over the earth.
I grab her dress. It rips. She bites my shoulder. I grip her thick hair. I drool and I tumble over the grass with her elbows in my ribs and I bang my fist over her jaw, my wrist crumples, her elbow knifes my throat, and we are done, together on our backs, our faces at the sun. There’s a high-pitched tone in my ears. A muscle on the side of my throat throbs. The orange tree rustles in the wind. Yelina cries softly. I’m glad she’s crying. I must have really beaten her up this time. The top of my thumb is cut into a flap and my hand bleeds in the crotch between it and my forefinger. I hold my hand up to the sky to see. The sun shines pinkly through.
Something sprays my cheek. She spat on me. She’s already up flying toward the house with her torn dress hung off of her shoulder.
Dad points at the roof where the gutter sags because a tree limb broke off and fell in it. He parks his worn out blue truck by the tree and he climbs the bumper, hugs around the trunk, and pushes his boots down into knobs for leverage as he grabs the thickest branches to heave himself up toward the top. He scampers over the roof on his hands like an animal, and the way he moves makes me laugh. He kicks off the branch and I cheer. He grabs the trunk of the tree and slides down halfway, and he jumps the rest of the distance, bending his knees for the blow of the ground. He chops up the branch with a hatchet. As he gathers the pieces of wood, the muscles in his back bulge out in his shirt. He throws what he’s cut up into the bed of his truck.
I think about Dad on the roof, about Superman in the sky over the hills. I put out my fists and run around outside shouting flying sounds.
Dad’s truck sits in the driveway with the wood in the back. The door hasn’t been locked, so I climb in, buckle up, and I try to turn the steering wheel, but it won’t move, and I yank on the lever by the seat but it doesn’t shift. I slouch down in the seat to push at things under the steering column and the brake pops and the truck lurches and it is rolling backward, rolling slowly. I pull the wheel as hard as I can and the front of the truck swings left, rolling backward, quicker. I can see Mom through the window coming home from the store.
I shout, “Look, I’m driving!”
She screams, “Get out!”
I’m not sure what I did wrong. I am a hero. I’m a driving child.
She’s banging on the window but I can’t open the door. The truck’s rolling. I jolt forward into the dashboard. I hit the chain-link fence.
Mom drags me out. I start to cry. My shoulder hurts from the dashboard. She pulls me toward the house by the sleeve.
I see a new green ’57 Chevy outside, idling beyond the fence. It doesn’t leave. A woman and a man sit in it, talking, and it looks like the woman I love from church, but she gets out of the car and she’s someone else, although she is young and lean, in a dress. The man gets out, and it’s Dad. Why isn’t he at work? He looks toward the window, and I duck down. When I look again, the woman is kissing him over his eye.
I hide behind the couch, in the dust and the crumbs. I hear the door open. I hear my name. I hide my head. I make myself hold my breath. I hear Yelina’s laugh, the noise of my father running after her. I hear my name. I don’t allow myself to breathe until I have to.
Yelina starts kindergarten at a school about two miles from our house. I go with her to hang out. She shows me her friends, big-lipped Ernie who wears a red raincoat even though it’s hot outside, and Sandra who has green eyes and a tiny mustache that she runs her fingertips over while she whistles cartoon themes. We drink cartons of milk in the large cafeteria. I close my eyes to the mutter around. I feel like I’m getting older and older, every day, and I like it and I don’t.
One day after school, we are outside waiting for Mom, but she doesn’t come to walk us back. The buses leave. A high-school boy jogs by, shouldering a baseball bat longer than me. Yelina starts to cry. She says she thinks Mom’s dead. I look around at the big trees, the fields, the road full of cars and I know how to get back to our house, so I say follow me.
We walk up Mission by the carnecerias and Mexican pastry shops, past the barred-up window of the bar where Dad drinks after work. Yelina’s crying and I tell her stop, it’s okay, we’re okay. The exhaust from the road tastes metallic in my throat. A squirrel lies on the sidewalk, its insides ripped out, full of something yellow. We pass the browned field where gangbangers go to barbecue. We pass the store with the piano in the window. We are near our house when our neighbor Lupe slows his Volkswagen to ask what we think we’re doing. He drives us the block home. My mother is crying inside, on the rocking chair.
I knock on the door of the bar. “I’m here for my dad,” I say. I’m wearing my sailor suit.
“Get out of here, kid,” the man says.
I say, “Is my dad here? Castro.”
The door closes. Chairs shuffle around. Somebody laughs. The A/C window box rattles. I look back at Mom, waiting in the car. I knock on the door. I knock.
I’m on Mom’s lap on a wooden bench on a train. I hear the wheels clatter over the track. It feels good in her lap with the track underneath, the rattling walls of our car, the scrub outside, the plain and the hills, the shadows from the sun going down behind.
We’ve earned enough money to go get Grandma from Mexico.
We stay in Juarez with our cousins while the papers process.
My uncle’s a Japanese Mexican. I’ve never seen a Japanese person speaking Spanish. There’s no grass in the yard or cement on the roads full of ugly dogs and old Chevys and women selling fruit. My uncle says I have an accent, and he mocks how I talk, and I get quiet around him. My t-shirt has a skunk on it and the words “I’m a little stinker,” so my cousin Chayo starts to hold her nose when I walk into the room. Her legs are firm and round under the fabric of her shorts. She has a scatter of freckles beneath her eyes. I ask her if she’ll wait for me to grow up for her. I tell her I will take care of her.
Mom says, “You can’t marry your cousin.”
I flick marbles over the dirt through trails I’d carved. Chayo kicks a ball against the house. It makes a lonely sound. I taste the dust in my mouth and I don’t mind it. I’m swallowing the Mexican dirt, making it a part of me.
I can see Grandma at the table with my mother, playing cards. Her hair looks soft, but the way it frizzes out in the light makes me angry. I bend down to retie my shoes.
We can’t afford the train back, so we ride a crowded bus over the border, where Dad meets us in a black convertible he borrowed to impress Grandma. I sit on Yelina’s lap. Grandma asks me questions. I give short answers. She can tell I’m not feeling friendly toward her so she pinches my shoulder and turns to look out the window. I can sense on my skin where she touched me.
We go through the desert where the dust hangs in the air. Tire scraps litter the side of the road. Canvas bags of water slosh at our feet. We stop in a gas station parking lot to nap in the shade. The hot water tastes like canvas, but I drink it down. Mom and Dad are holding hands. Mom turns Dad’s hand over and looks into the palm, touching into it, tracing, like she can see something worth considering.
We unload our bags in a hotel room in El Paso. I sleep on the floor on a blanket, together with Dad and Yelina. It smells like moisture and rot, somewhere deep inside the floor, but I don’t complain, and I’m proud of myself. Grandma and Mom get the bed. Let them have it.
Later, I hear Mom and Dad whispering. They leave the room so quietly that I can’t believe the control they have over their bodies. When I look out the window, they are walking away into the night, leaning into each other like they’re wounded.
I quietly kick the top of my foot against the floor. The bug zapper flashes in the window, over and over. I hear Grandma’s nasally rattle. I forgot the noise she makes at night. I liked her noise. But it’s different. She left us. We are a year older.