Pops was a mechanic. He understood the workings of most things metallic. Especially cars. By most peoples’ accounts, he was a pretty great mechanic, though he never bragged about his work. He never talked about his work. In fact he never talked about anything. Not to me, not to any of my three brothers, I’m not sure if even he spoke to my mother very often.
I lived with a father who was a stranger in our homes (we moved around a lot, as poor people do, so we lived in many “homes”). Now that I think about it, more than fifteen years after his death, it does seem a little weird. At the time, however, it was absolutely normal. Well, mostly. There were those moments, that were uncomfortable almost to the point of fright. I remember him coming into the kitchen after I had made myself a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, he to get a drink of water. And we sort of froze there in that tiny kitchen he did his best to help keep stocked with luxurious amenities like peanut butter. I didn’t dare look him in the eye, he went to the kitchen faucet to get his water, he was from the craggiest parts of Mexico, where running water was a bit of an anomaly, so water from a faucet was at least as good as from a well. His kitchen. His running water. His son a little petrified, waiting for him to finish so he can finally pass. He filled up his plastic cup, kept from a convenience store purchase of a giant soft drink, that then became a part of our regular dish ware, looked at me for a moment that felt painfully long, made no expression, and returned to the bedroom. I was glad it was over.
Out of all my brothers, I have been told that I was the most like him. I looked like him, I sounded like him, I even have the same mannerisms he had. I freaked my mother out once, several years after his death with the simple act of scratching behind my ear. Evidently, I made a grimace, and passionately scratched my head while looking at her. Her countenance fell, as if she had seen a ghost. Indeed, in her mind, she had. While creeping my mother out is kinda fun, some of the other attributes I inherited, or perhaps, adopted, are not as great. I’m emotionally distant, I’m quiet, I’m shy, I hate being social. But I do love cars. He gave me that as well. My dad drove some real pieces of shit. Old Volkswagens and Toyotas, so past their prime, they looked like down and out prize fighters bundled with newspapers, on some cold New York street, begging for someone to throw money at them. Well, my dad did notice them, and he did throw precious little money at them. And he gave those once raging bulls another few moments in the lights to fight again.
He was also an alcoholic. But never a violent one. The only act of violence I actually remember him directing at me was him throwing a shoe at me. I was being an obnoxious little shit and kept making noise in his bedroom while he was probably trying to sleep off a hangover. I ducked, he missed, I quietly went outside. Even then, I knew I had it coming. I’m sure he purposely missed, he never hit us. He didn’t have to. His mere presence was enough to shut us up for hours. I remember once, playing with my little brothers, who were twins (yes that makes me the middle child, shocking, I know) arguing, wrestling as annoying little shits do, and we got louder and louder, again, as annoying little shits do. He arose from his crypt and lumbered into the doorway that led into the hall and just stood there. Instantly, we stopped. We sat down, staring at a television that had not been turned on, as afraid to make eye contact with him as Persues was of Medusa.
“Is he still there?” My little brother would ask, his vision blocked.
I, being the eldest of this particular trio, steeled my valor and slowly moved my head enough to get him in my peripheral vision, and turned back immediately, seeing the shadowy figure still in the hall doorway, “He’s still there.” Dude was scary. But never violent. It was almost like living with a bear that never attacked you. He never made any noise, never noticed you, you’d look past him if was in your way, but you never stopped respecting the fact that if he chose to, he’d swipe at you with his great paw and destroy you.
Oh yeah, my dad had huge hands. Physically, I remember that the most. His oversized fingers wrenching on cars. No bolt could have a hope with his somehow muscular fingers wrapped around a socket drive. Oddly, I’m taller than he was, yet my hands simply don’t measure up to my vision of his hands. Some of it may be legend in my mind now…
One day, he stopped drinking alcohol. Period. No meetings, no churches, just dry. I think the doctor told him he had to stop, because it was ruining his already ailing body. My father’s constitution was always rather weak, even as a child, my mother told me. Alcohol was somehow destroying him faster. I don’t really know the particular facts, because, well, I never talked to him. Also, I never talked to my mother about him. How do you open a discussion about the stranger that lived in your homes from whose loins you sprung? Odd conversation, to say the very least. Especially with mom. The absence of alcohol in his brain, evidently created a chemical chasm that made him epileptic. Or maybe he always was, but rarely had seizures, who knows? But nonetheless, they began. I was in my teens when it really happened a lot. I had to keep an eye on him at all times when he was driving us to school, or wherever, in case something happened.
But when something did happen, it didn’t happen in a car. It happened in a bathroom. Now understand, I am not proud of my actions in this next memory, but it was what a sixteen year old in my world did. He entered the bathroom, I didn’t really notice him, but I knew only he and I were in the house. I heard the shower faucet turn on as I was lacing up my bargain skate shoes, as I was to meet up with my ne’er do well, miscreant friends to, well, skate. Just as I was about to leave, I heard a series of thuds coming from the bathroom. For a moment, I stopped. In the next moment, I decided it was probably nothing. In the last moment, I moved towards the bathroom. The bathroom door was unlocked, as it always is in big families, you never know when someone else has to piss. As I glared through the steam, I noticed there was no telltale silhouette behind the sliding glass of the shower. Without a word, what would I say, really, I opened the door and saw his naked body prone on the floor of the tub, the hot water going around him like a body in a river. I did the only thing I thought to do: I turned off the water, and turned his head up, so that he wouldn’t drown, closed the glass door again, then I left the bathroom. And hoped what I did was right. I wanted him to be alright, but I also didn’t want to humiliate him, least of which in a nude state. A minute later, I heard the glass door open, then close. Five minutes later, he emerged from the bathroom. And I left to meet my friends. The bear would stalk again, thankfully.
Except for arguments, I never really remember my mother and father talking. Maybe that’s true for a lot of families, I don’t know. I suspect my father hated his life. I don’t think he wanted to live here in Los Estados Unidos. Back home in Sinaloa and Mexicali, he was a respected young man. He drove trucks, and he fixed them. Up here, he was just another wetback getting paid a fraction of what an american would get. Yes, america, he took a job away from a good white american. But if it’s any consolation, we lived in squalor. Hope that makes that pill go down a little easier. But I guess if any “naturally” born american wanted to work his job for slave pay, I guess he could have, and pops could have gotten a more Mexican job. Like gardner.
He also had to live with his mother in law. Yeah! You think you’re life is hard? Try living in a country where you barely speak the language, get paid pauper’s wages, AND have to live with your mother in law. My father was in hell. Don’t get me wrong, I loved my grandmother, but she was his fucking mother in law! Also, she was a little nuts (perhaps I’ll write about her one day). As I got older, I began to understand why he had an affinity for all things mechanical, and not human. Sometimes I think he was perpetually angry at my mother for dragging him up here so that his middle child (me) could be born a citizen of this country. I have the dubious honor of being the first Vargas born in El Norte. Whatever his feelings for my mother, love or disdain, I never really heard either one.
While he was, somewhat magically, able to kick alcoholism, he could never kick his addiction to Marlboro Reds. And in the closing chapters of his life, he spent his days infirmed, imprisoned in his bedroom, on a single bed. My mother and he had stopped sleeping in the same bed some time before that. In one instance, he emerged from his makeshift hospital room. I remember it was his 50th birthday. He came out of his cell to enjoy some cake. He seemed happy, he even smiled at me. I don’t know if you’ve ever seen a bear smile, but it’s something! I vividly remember him sitting on the easy chair in the living room, in full upright position. His elbows resting on his knees. He looked like he was concentrating on breathing. Like he was making sure to take in as much oxygen as his failing lungs would allow. And I remember thinking his life is over. When you have to concentrate on doing something autonomic, then it is over. You can’t will your lungs to breathe. You can’t will your heart to beat. The next day he was dead.
My grandmother called my mother at work frantically to tell her to come home immediately, being careful not to tell her why. I remember when she came in, for some reason, I can’t remember many sounds, only the images. She walked in, my grandmother said something to my mother, and she panicked and flailed at the news, and all at once, I heard her cry. It is the only sound I can remember now. And in that moment, I witnessed the love that she did have for this tacit man, this walking catatonic. Years of companionship, memories of courtship, memories of experiences only shared by them, feelings that were never expressed, but somehow, always felt. She finally lost him. The boy she liked, the man she loved, gone.
He had left the world the way I remember him in it: quiet.
I inherited a lot from my father. His emotional distance. His love of all things mechanical.
But I will never be as great a mechanic as he, because in spite of it all, I do enjoy humans, maybe a tiny bit more than he did. Because he didn’t understand us, he couldn’t enjoy us.
But then, pops was a mechanic.