My father never showed off his humanity. He kept it locked away somewhere, so no one could see it. My mother probably saw it for a while, after all, she fell in love with him… As far as I know… But the pops I knew, showed nothing in the genre of human emotion. A stoic man that went to work, came home and ate and talked to almost no one. And rarely smiled.
I imagine he suffered from an inner torment that made it impossible to show anything. A torment that was only compounded by his need to keep it inside. Always inside. Never to feel the warmth of the sun. Or the love of his family.
Pops and I had a connection. I think he thought me, his. Not just in the sense that I was his son, but in the sense that I was most like him. He might’ve sensed it early on.
My mother told me that as a toddler, he’d often sit me on his lap during dinner. An honor was only reserved for me, my older brother had no such place. That may have been why my brother hated me so much. Especially at that time, according to stories I’ve heard.
I think he saw in me an angry independence that he once had, but lost.
I was told that, at a very early age, I refused to allow my mother to dress me. Once I got the hang of it (I thought), I didn’t need her to button my pants, or even tie my shoes. I would angrily force my mother away, in an effort to wrest from her the freedom, she was not nearly ready to give me. There are a few moments wherein I remember her trying to get me to let her help, but I, in my infinite childish wisdom, would force her away, my dad angrily saying, Deja lo!
Leave him alone!
He wants to do it himself, he will, I’m sure he’d think. No matter how stupid I looked.
Mexicans are cowboys. At least the ones from Mexico are, and pops was from Mexico, and a cowboy. A bit less than my uncle Juan, for whom I’m named after, a tall man with an impossibly thick mustache and a big white hat. Always the big white hat. No. My pops was more of the grease monkey cowboy. Oh, he had boots that he wore once in a while, but mostly, he was in blue. Blue mechanic’s pants. Blue mechanic’s shirt.
I wanted to emulate the men in my life. Pops and tio. There are pictures of me wearing a felt cowboy hat and boots, that I would never show anyone, but wore these things I did, as if it was Halloween every day. But to me, I wasn’t dressing up, this is whom I was. I was a cowboy. I came from cowboys, and I am a cowboy.
Here’s the thing about boots… If you’re five, they’re a little more challenging than one might think. It’s difficult to a child’s eye to tell which is left and which is right, they both almost seem to point straight ahead.
One Sunday, after spending hours with pops, at an older man’s house simply known to me as “Salvador,” we came home. I never much understood what we were doing there. I only knew pops would be drinking and his scent went from axle grease to axle grease and Budweiser. I remember being bored. No kids around to play with. Just a tree to climb.
When we got home, my mother instantly looked down at my boots and was horrified. They were on the wrong feet! I wondered why my feet hurt all day. Climbing that tree was hard enough with cowboy boots on, imagine what it must’ve been like with them on wrong.
She quickly took them off, to my extreme relief, and chastised my father as to why he didn’t fix this, as she rubbed my feet, telling him that my feet must have hurt all day.
In Spanish, he growled, How else is going to learn?
Fair point, pops. Fair point…
He came from the old world, and in me, he wanted to instill his values from that world, I think.
I was his.
I’m not much of a mechanic. Oh, I like to think I am, and I have worked on my cars a bit. Even rebuilt an entire engine once with my friends. But I am… Not good. I’m constantly dropping wrenches and nuts, then having to crawl around under the car to find these pieces. I have no finesse. Affinity, I got. Finesse, I lack. But this love of cars, this want to be a mechanic, that’s from pops. Pops who always smelled like grease. Sometimes grease and Budweiser.
It’s cliche to say that fathers want their sons to follow in their footsteps. Maybe it isn’t as true as it once was, but pops was from the old world. He wasn’t a third or fourth generation Mexican, with barely any ties to Mexico, he was Mexico. He brought it with him when he crossed over. Yes, illegally.
His father had a very small ranch in Mexicali, and I’m sure he wanted my father to be a rancher like him. But he burned his own path and became a truck driver and a mechanic. Perhaps it was an act of rebellion. To rebel against the frightening tyrant that was my grandfather. I’m sure that tyrant felt a twinge of heartbreak every time one of his sons walked away from him. From that life. They all did. All nine of them.
But my father’s son. His son. Juan Manuel, the son who proudly wore his angry rebellion the same way he himself once did, surely he would follow in the path he burned.
At about twelve or thirteen, I wanted a new bike. A good one. A GT.
That cursed paper route was never going to make me enough money to ever buy that bike, so I sought elsewhere. I was about done with that fucking job anyway. I had one route that was a hundred houses big, I remember. A hundred! In paperboy terms, that’s half the state. That same fucking route had a pack of stray dogs that would chase me. A pack! They were vicious. They’d chase me for blocks, and somehow I still had to make the deliveries. I remember coming around a corner, and trying to be as quiet as possible, looking down the darkened 5AM street. Looking everywhere, hoping they’d be on a another street. Behind me, half a block away, I’d see them, but wouldn’t panic. I’d keep going, slowly quietly. Of course dogs have exceptional hearing and instincts. I’d look behind me once more, and see them down the street, paused. All looking my way. Their ears perked up. Then… In unison, they’d come after me. I had to pedal that cheap swap meet bicycle, loaded with an extra seventy five pounds of folded up newspapers and try my best to deliver and race away. I always had an extra one to beat the fastest one away.
I have no idea how I did that without suffering a horrible, mauling death.
For that terror, I netted maybe forty bucks a month, I think. A lot of deadbeats on that route. They’d pay later, they’d say. Ot just ignore me when it came time to collect. Oh yeah. It was our responsibility to collect. No wonder newsprint died out. Fucking monsters.
I’d never make enough money to get the things I want with that job. A lament that would sting me the rest of my life as it turns out.
Pops worked six, sometimes seven days a week, depending on the amount of work he may have at the shop. Or the amount drinking he wanted to do with his friends there. So it dawned on me that perhaps I could go with him on some Saturdays and help out. And get paid, of course. I really wanted that bike.
I dropped a hint to my mom, not really expecting anything, just an idea I created in my child-mind. Maybe pops could take me to the shop once in a while and I could work with him. It had to pay more than that accursed paper route.
While my father was an emotionless monolith of a man, he did have a few cracks wherein some humanity could peek through. Alcohol made those cracks open wider. Slightly.
I remember once, pops coming home with a six pack and a Cheech and Chong movie. A sly smirk on his face, his idea of a smile. The smile that I also adopted from him. That was a great night. One that my older brother and me silently enjoyed, one of the few times we got along well. We laughed and laughed. But we did not acknowledge the oddity of the sudden burst of emotion from pops. For him, this was the height of human emotion.
Alcohol did that. Alcohol gave me one of my favorite memories of him.
It’s late, past my bedtime on a Sunday night. Got school tomorrow. I can hear pops come home. From where, I have no idea. My mother angrily confronting him about his absence that day, as well as his obviously drunken state. She does all the talking. Some I hear, some I cannot. He utters not a sound.
Until he does.
He wants to hear no more. He’s done being admonished by this woman.
My mother again starts talking, more quietly this time. I don’t understand. The darkness in my room does not enhance my hearing enough.
Silence again. This time a long one.
Our bedroom door opens, letting in the yellow glare of the kitchen lights. A silhouette. Male. It’s my father. My eyes instinctively close. To shield me from the blinding light. To fool my father into thinking I couldn’t hear any of the argument that had just ensued. But I’m sure the light hit me faster than my eyes closed.
Pops sat on my bed. Grease. He always smelled of grease, as if it was no longer just a part of him, but it was within him. The smell of beer stung my nostrils, it was more potent than usual.
This was my nickname. I was the thinnest of all my brothers, and he started calling me that before I was able to understand words.
Flaco. This time he shook me a little. I knew I couldn’t pretend anymore. My eyes opened to a squint.
As my eyes got accustomed to the light, the rarest of sightings: Jose Ernesto Vargas was smiling. Not a smirk. A welcoming grin. It was alien to me. It was a face I didn’t recognize. Behind that emotion that must have been happiness laced with beer, was the father I knew. This mask he wore was at once amazing and frightening.
In Spanish, he said to me, You want to come work with your dad?
I wasn’t used to hearing sentences from him, let alone a question. About me.
I remember I panicked. My mind raced. How do I answer?
The light from the kitchen was like a spotlight. My father was like the entire world, waiting to hear a response.
I blurted out the most honest response:
Well yeah… How much am I gonna get paid?
The words took a few seconds to get through the alcohol in his system. But when they did, his smile disappeared. His gaze shifted away from my eyes. He looked at the wall above me. A frown replaced the smile.
Pops then got up and walked back into the yellow light, leaving only darkness as the bedroom door closed softly.
I didn’t hear anything else that night.
Even at that young age, I knew I had broken his heart.
I was his no more. I was not going to follow the path he burned for me.
I don’t think I ever remember seeing those cracks open up again, allowing those scant emotions out. That night, those cracks may have been sealed. By me.
I was the son he once felt was his own. The son he thought most like himself. To me, for a moment, he showed off his humanity. From me, he received a harsh blow.
I think now that that may have been the last time he showed any of us, perhaps anyone, that humanity. It stayed locked inside of him. Away from view.
Hidden from us all.
That’s where his humanity stayed until the day he died.