By Teresa Chacon
He just had another back surgery and his mom won't drive to Echo Park from the valley. She never has and never will, “no matter how many of our people move in,” He quotes her; I don't. I can't. I’ve never met her and I’m not one of his people. But, I am the one who visits, still, even after everything. He did the same for me during those years my mama and I weren’t speaking.
He’s sitting on the bench by the mailbox with the Our Lady of Guadalupe painted in brilliant acrylics. I run fingers across the praying hands that I painted with my own hands of worship. He pouts, “What? No love for a crippled?” He demands all attention at all times. I embrace him and he is warm. I look back once more, at my work and I miss it. My divided attention annoys and he urges, “Hey, you. Come on, you gotta see this restroom’s new addition.”
I let him win this one.
I reach and help him, this beautiful man’s body with a broken frame. We climb the ramshackle steps up to the 1920’s charmer that overlooks Elysian Park. I glance back at the hills and hope I don’t have to fight my way through if there’s a ballgame tonight. I slap my hip. I should've checked the schedule.
He catches it. “Hey now. What's that about?”
“Nothing,” I say, “let's get a look at this new bathroom.”
“Oh baby,” he laughs and strikes pain; he hurts. “You,” he pauses, “Babe, you're going to love it.”
I lead him by the elbow and we are greeted by the reaches of the sun filtered through stained-glass prisms floating in the windows. Colors and spiced incense embrace us as we enter the foyer. He struggles, but gives a slight bow and, tucked into his graying beard, he slips me a grin that’s as hypnotic as the Cheshire cat’s. He directs me into the restroom. We stand side-by-side in this tight space. And, there it is. He swapped out the modern toilet for something from the late 19th century. I point to the wooden box mounted eyelevel on the wall. “Seriously. Is this practical?”
“Yes. Of course it is. It’s a beaut. Come on, say it,” he nudges. “Just look at all the carvings,” his excitement evens and he switches to nostalgia. “Just restoring The Old Lady back to her original glory.” He takes his hand and rubs the wall. And I know what he’s thinking; this house, she’s been faithful, constant, broken but beautiful. “You have your projects and I have mine.” He adds this and it stings.
The hurt in him persists, still, he moves forward and massages the box of wood perched above the toilet. He talks to it and tells us about the words mingled with names etched into the dark wood. He’s on a streak with this story, as it becomes more and more elaborate. His fingers dance across one name carved deep. His story becomes a whisper, “Steven, just an innocent boy, orphaned after The Crash, taught himself to whittle wood practicing, right here, on this fine toilet box.” He pets the box, losing himself in this fictitious space.
I stop him and switch his hand from the box to mine; he balks but let’s me lead his broken body out of this space. “You’re right babe,” I say. “It’s a real beaut. Story and all, just gorgeous, seriously, a work of art.” We leave the bathroom and once more I breathe in the mix of him and his elaborate grooming station; all of him, all at once, from the moment we met.
“I was born with a fucking beard.” He was angling to punch a kid at the Botanica after a casual compliment and a how long ya been growin that? “Lumber-fucking-sexual,” he growled at the poor kid just working on his own Van Dyke. “That was all me,” he barked, “way before that was a fucking thing. Hipster-fucking-bitches.”
I smile with the memory’s review of that play, then I breathe him in deep to keep a small something for myself.
I walk him to the chess table by the window and he is settled. I nestle myself into the futon, scan for cat piss, and pinch the material to check if he still keeps the liner on the mattress. The unnatural shush of vinyl replies. I relax back into the space of his sitting room. We don’t talk. We sit and watch through windows that separate us from the day. The slow stirring lulls his street before the evening steals the quiet.
He ladles words into the silence, “you’ve had those shoes forever.”
I nod and move to pluck the cat hair that tickled its way into the eyelets and daisies cut through black suede. I put my feet on the stepstool before me. It’s one he made from an old pine trunk. His hands cracked and bled from the abuse of the craft and from that L.A. winter being colder than usual. There was one wound that wouldn’t heal. He used it to hide the pinpoint prick of the needle, for a time. My Maryjane’s survived that winter, a bit stretched out, but survived all the same. I wore them with thick gray socks.
“It’s like I’ve got my own little illegal alien living here.” He quipped once while securing a buckle over the wool.
“Fuck you, Whitey,” that was my go-to response for that kind of talk.
I open my bag, grab my camera and a few books. I move to shoot the new stretch of bookcases in the dining room library. I snap a few photos and leave Borges and Viramontes, eyelevel on his shelf, where they belong.
“I hope you bought me some Brujeria shit for my new shelf.” He booms from the chess table.
I ignore him and, with fingertips, I smooth the table, then chairs. It’s still my favorite spot in the house. He would sit in one of the black high-back chairs, like thrones askew, paying homage to the hierarchy of books from floor-to-ceiling. I’d curl into a large pillow at his feet like one of his cats. He’d reach down, stroke coarse hands through my black strands, while I sketched and he read words from Mahatma Gandhi, Mother Teresa, Yogananda. He was peace and I was quiet.
I return to the futon and sit, seeking a mindful return to the present. I reach to touch my toes, rest for a moment, head turned, watching him at the window. I am here, my conscious says. I rise slowly and fire burns restless through my body. I still the mind and speak silent, a meditative word, breathing in, I know you are there my sweet sadness; breathing out, I am there for you; I will take care of you. My eyes move and follow the curves that lick across coved ceilings so beautiful. I stretch and still, I ache from a place I cannot quite reach.
I stand firm and reach to a sky that is not there. My eyes follow his and his find rest midway, at this belly that was not there the last time his eyes caressed my cinnamon skin. That gaze meanders and his words float on an exhale, “such a babe,” he says, with a solemn shake of the head.
I reach for him, hands outstretched. He stands and through the unbearable pain, he brings himself to rub prayer hands on the round of my body. I lean in and lose for a moment. I squeeze his shoulders and it is time. I move him to see me to the door. We step back onto the front porch and there's a group of teenage conspirators in the street down below.
“Looks like trouble,” I say.
“Trouble. That’s how your people roll.” He does his best gangsta pose and nods with a hard Mafioso stare. His eyes move from me, down to the boys, then breaks character with a laughing cough. "They’re fine.” He dismisses them with one hand. “They know Old Whitey up here’s the craziest motherfucker on the block.” He puns with The Fighting Irish pose.
I can’t help but laugh and shake my head. He makes for the steps down to my car.
I slide in, between him and the first step down and hold his forearms, inked and beautiful with aged blue and fresh black. I scold him. “If you come down with me, I’m only going to help you back up.”
“I know it, baby. That’s my big plan.” He says, breaking one hand free to twist that small corner of his mustache, not a nervous quirk, more of a Mephistophelian tell. We step slow, down and down, then turn and move our way back to square one.
“Well, okay then Viejo. Move it.” I say and pat his forearm and fight the impulse, keeping my eyes on his honey-browns, staving off that circuitous reach for those arms, to check, to confirm and return, once more, like him chasing that speed and fire that burns and lives to touch and to taste the flesh and the sin. I don’t look. I don’t feel for fresh marks. I derail that train of thought and move to steal kisses on those honey-browns.
He closes his eyes and gold lashes tickle at my lips and he purrs, “Aw, baby. Now I’m never letting you go.” But he does and he will.
We make it back to the top of his porch. “You have to go.” My words are resolute, “I am not going until you do old man.” I give him a firm nod, then scratch the new gray on that chin.
He moves slow and it hurts. I look down to seek comfort in my Maryjane’s and my forehead catches his kiss. Another hit and miss in Elysian Park. He lets me go and I walk.
Asymmetric Magazine: Tell us about your piece.
Teresa Chacon: This piece is a part of a collection of stories I’ve been working on. It is has been a labor of love and her voice/character has become like a part of the family. In this piece, she is working on staying connected, redefining a troubled relationship, and moving forward.
AM: What inspires you most?
TC: Flow of language. I love reading or hearing great dialogue. I’m a total eavesdropper. I love listening for that beautiful nuance in words shared among family, friends, and (my favorite) strangers.
AM: What role does Los Angeles play in your work?
TC: Los Angeles has been a life-source for my creative process since I was a teenager. There has always been magic in the city’s communities hugging tight to mountain ranges, freeways and cityscapes. I love to lose myself in the beauty and craft that is present at every turn. Los Angeles is the only city that evokes this kind of connection for me, the structure of an abandoned or repurposed building or a work of art stretched down an alleyway. I appreciate the meditative process that is true of every work of art in the city and being in that space is a regenerative experience for my craft.
AM: What themes and/or styles do you typically pursue in your writing?
TC: I don’t know that I pursue themes or styles as much as I pursue voice. That’s really how it starts and ends (and everything in between) for me. I’ll catch a phrase, in passing, and it nags until I jot it down or type it up into my notes on my phone. But, if I went through and sought a common thread in my writing, it would be the female voice, seeking freedom, seeking the self.
AM: How much of your work is based on your own life? What in this particular story is based on your experiences?
TC: My main character is a badass woman of color. I’ve got the woman of color in common with her, and most days, I do an okay job pretending to be a badass. As far as life experiences, yes, this piece started as notes on my phone while stuck in LA traffic. I’m from up north, Central California, and work and life hasn’t afforded the opportunity to make LA a permanent residence. Still, I do consider a few neighborhoods my home away from home, while nurturing that spirit of creativity. Recently, while writing in the city, I tagged along with a friend who wanted to drop in on another friend who’d had surgery. We wound up visiting and bumping into quite a few friends that day and that sparked something. LA can have a bit of a bad rap; there’s the assumption that there’s a real disconnect, people don’t have time for human connection, consumed with the grind and such. I spent that weekend meditating on that flow of language between friends, stand-in surrogate families, ex-lovers showing compassion, staying connected because it is the human thing to do. It was a weekend of love and pain and healing. That, for me, is as real as it gets. And, in truth, the game that occurs when fear and sadness enters in, as love is coming to an end, it’s a reality that I am all too familiar with. In the end, for me, love always wins.
AM: What can we expect to see from you next?
TC: Love. Ha! Seriously, I’m winding down to the end of a three-year stint in a grad school MFA program, Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing. I’ve been working with some amazing and gifted creative minds up at CSU, Fresno. And, while the program has been this fantastic process of growing and learning, I spent the first two years of the program being really critical and hateful toward my writing and my creative lens. I’m healing that relationship, falling back in love with the writing and the lens. I graduate from the program in May and plan to take the next year off to work on getting my book out there. I’m also looking at different schools for a new CSU/UC teaching gig. My son and daughter-in-law (Dez and Em) have been super supportive of my writing and they, along with my girl (Liv, my daughter), are cheering me on as I pursue this next chapter. I’ve lived in Central Cali most of my life and, at this point, Liv and I are really ready for a change.
Teresa Chacon is a writer, teacher, lover, artist and badass who lives in Central California and loves in Los Angeles. She enjoys the good things in life like chilling with her kid and her dog or eavesdropping on your conversations.