Non-Fiction Finalist Celia Ruiz

Jan 27, 2018 by

Non-Fiction Finalist Celia Ruiz

The Visit

The road that led to my father was desolate and long. The late afternoon sun was muted by wispy gray clouds that cast shadows on the old one-story clapboard houses that bordered the road – old wooden hovels, crumbling, with their paint peeling – looking exhausted, and dejected. As child I lived in one of those houses.

Fairway Market stood in the middle of the neighbourhood – a bright green cement block, with its neon sign perched high on a metal pole, next to an alleyway swarming with the ghosts of my past: a child running, pennies in her hand, her mouth salivating at the thought of a Three Musketeer bar she would soon buy; angry guard dogs, tethered to outhouses, pulling and lurching menacingly, fangs displayed; my cousin Ruben darting across the busy street and hit by a speeding car, his blood staining the asphalt; my mother with her clipped coupons in hand, to buy a small piece of discounted round steak to cut into pieces and spice with cumin and potatoes to feed six of us for dinner.

I drove north on Dinuba Boulevard-beyond the Visalia barrio, into the vast expanse of the San Joaquin Valley – towards Patterson tract, an old Okie enclave, settled after the dustbowl diaspora. Fallow fields, dried dormant vineyards and orchard groves surrounded the road. Scattered clumps of Tule fog hovered on the ground between barren trees. Their branches brown, dead, pruned severely, leaving only the trunks to stand like silent witnesses to the pain, the hopes, the disappointment of generations of Mexican immigrants and workers who toiled those fields. Field workers like my parents.

A sadness lingered in those sleeping fields. I could feel the hate, the crushing weight of shame in being Mexican, of being poor, of not being seen as a human, but as a ‘dirty Mexican,’ a beast of labor, someone to serve the rich white growers, clean their houses, do their gardening, nanny their children, and pick their crops.

I parked my BMW on the loose gravel in front of a stucco mid-century house. I sat in silence. I had not seen or spoken with Dad for over eighteen years. As a child, after Dad divorced Mom, I spent nights, days, weeks, years waiting, hoping he would come to Visalia, that he would rescue me and take me away.

He returned when I was fourteen – but he was not the hero I had dreamed of. He was a drunk. He was disfigured. I was ashamed of him. For eighteen years I tried to deny that I was his daughter.

Dusk began to set in the valley. I took a deep breath, wrapped my cashmere coat tightly and got out of the car. A cold gust of wind, spiked with a trace of pesticide, blew in my face. What is there to say? I thought.

The houses around me had barren front yards with scattered patches of pale yellow grass; some yards had broken cars with rusty carcasses, sitting high on wooden piers. Dad’s house looked like a fortress: iron bars on the windows and a broken massive iron gate at the front door that groaned and creaked as it swung, pushed by its own weight, exposing a splintered and weathered front door.

I knocked. Silence.

I yelled out, “Papa, soy Celia, abre la puerta.” Silence.

I wanted to run, go back to the San Francisco Bay area, where I was invisible in the diversity of races and politics. Berkeley was so liberating; unlike Visalia, no one stared at me when I entered Long’s Drug stores, following me, profiling me as a potential shoplifter. I tested the limits of my freedom when I was in law school, studying late into the night, by rushing to the local 7-11 store in my bathrobe. No one even noticed.

I heard a sound of shuffling feet, slow, methodical, like a mechanical robot. The doorknob jiggled and creaked, and the door opened, exposing a dank darkness. The lights were off, windows and curtains drawn. He was alone, his second wife Lilia was not home. I’m sure if she had known I was dropping by, she would have been there, letting me know that I was not welcome like she did when she married Dad many years ago.

I had not let anyone know I was coming, not even Dad.

His hair was disheveled but still black with just a little grey; his white t-shirt was stained with food, coffee. I almost gagged at an overwhelming stink of urine. His baggy t-shirt hung below his sternum exposing a deep hole in his trachea, scarred from the tracheostomy of many years ago. A miasma of stale alcohol clung to his body.

He pushed open the metal door, his hands thin and his fingers long and tapered as in those El Greco paintings; his unclipped fingernails were dirty and stained yellow with nicotine. We have the same hands, I thought, remembering how, in my anger I had questioned Mom on whether this broken down alcoholic could be my biological father. “Mom, you have to tell me the truth. Is Dad my real father? ” Mom indignantly yelled back, “ Si, he is your father!”

But as I stood there, and saw his long tapered hands, and my hands, I thought, of course. Of course he is my father.

Dad stared, looking confused as if I were an apparition or maybe an alcoholic hallucination, then his face lit up, and he smiled and said, “Eres tu Celia?

Si papá, soy yo.” I responded.

Age had softened his deformity. When he retired from the Army at age 39, he looked like Batman’s arch rival Two Face: the left-half of his face was taut and young but his right side was missing; in its place were mottled patches of grotesque skin slapped on where his nose and cheekbone should have been. The grafts clung to his cheek and nose like layers of silly putty, dried and clumped to resemble skin. A glass eye hung, staring blindly at an angle below where his eye orbit had been. Two years before his retirement with the Army, a civilian accident with a Greyhound Bus had torn off his eye, nose, and right cheekbone leaving no bone or cartilage to reconstruct his face. He had spent one year, undergoing plastic surgery at Letterman Hospital in San Francisco but they could never put his face back together again.

Now the deep lines and sagging skin had softened his disfigurement balancing the incongruity between the left and right sides of his face. His glass eye had gotten worse, drooping halfway down his cheek, precariously sitting on the edge of what should have been bone, oozing white gooey stuff and yellow pus.

“I’ve come to visit, Dad,” I said.

He looked up at me, with his one eye, red, jaundiced with age, alcohol or lack of sleep and said, “Entra, entra,” reaching out, holding my hand, pulling me behind him, his feet shuffling as he maneuvered around piles of dirty clothing, boxes, junk strewn helter-skelter on the floor. The furniture was old, broken, stained, the walls streaked with grime, and stale smoke clung to the air. He held my hand tight, as if I were still a little girl that he took to a merry-go-round at a park in El Paso, Texas, afraid I might wander off and get lost.

Sientate,” he said to me, as we got to the kitchen table, pointing to an empty seat next to his. Dad hunched over the dirty chipped white Formica table. There was a half empty quart of Jack Daniels Whiskey, a cup of cold black coffee, and a pack of unfiltered Camel cigarettes next to an ashtray brimming and overflowing with butts.

He spent his days – no, weeks and years – alone in that kitchen, lighting one cigarette after another, lost in his memories, perhaps his regrets. I sat next to him. He looked up, stared at me and after a few moments asked, “Còmo has estado?

Before I could answer, he shook a teasing finger at me and said, “You’re getting old.”

“Me? What about you?”

We laughed and sat in silence in the middle of the rubble. For Dad, I was still his three-year-old “güera fea,” left behind when he went off to war in Korea. And to me, now almost fifty, Dad would forever be that tall, thin, dark skinned soldier in Army khakis, with a sergeant’s chevron on his sleeve, a perennial laugh and smile, his eyes brimming with light as he tickled and tossed me in the air, smothering me with love.

“How have you been?” I asked brushing aside the bottle of Jack Daniels whiskey.

He reached for his pack of Camel cigarettes and with trembling hands shook lose a cigarette.

Y tus hijos?” he asked, not answering.

“They are all grown now, two are in high school the others in college. Let me show you pictures,” I said.

He fumbled with his Flic lighter that was out of lighter fluid. I found a box of matches and lit his cigarette. He took a long inhale and stared intently at the picture of my youngest son, Joaquin. “Cuantos años tiene?” he finally asked.

“He is 15 and in high school,” I said. Joaquin’s hair coloring, high cheekbones and sharp aquiline nose, bore a strong resemblance to the face Dad used to have when he was young, before the accident. And I noticed that we had the same hands: thin, long narrow fingers.

“He looks like you, huh?” I said.

Si,” he said in a whisper.

The cigarette had burned down to his fingers, ashes dropping on the floor beneath his chair that had a mosaic of burn marks from the months he had sat alone, smoking in his dark kitchen.

My eyes fixed on an ugly redwood burl clock hanging on the wall. It was simple, unadorned except for military ribbons on the bottom right: the ribbon for the purple heart, a sharp shooter rifle, his master sergeant stripes and the baby blue ribbon with stars, representing the Congressional Medal of Honor, that only a handful of soldiers wear and most don’t survive to wear it.

“Where did you get that clock?” I asked.

“Washington D.C.” he said as went and pulled down the clock down and picked up a pile of pictures on a table. Dad and several Latino men were sitting at walnut table with President Ronald Reagan.

“What were you doing with Reagan?”

“Something about a Latino heritage stamp. They needed Latino heroes for pictures!” he said, laughing as he added,

“He got me out of jail! I was in court and the Judge told me to report to road camp for six months for drunk driving” and I said, ‘ Sir I can’t do that. The judge snapped ’why not?’ Well, I have to be at the White House that day, sir. I thought he was going to handcuff me and drag me away, when I pulled out my Presidential invitation showing that I had to be at the White House on the same day that I was to report to road camp.”

He jiggled the hour hand of the clock. “It’s broken,” he said, lighting up another Camel.

Yes, I thought as I smiled at Dad, Broken time, frozen time, lost time.

As the evening rolled into the valley, I could feel my Dad’s solitude. I could feel my solitude. I could feel the solitude of the dark silence of his kitchen.

“Let me make you something to eat,” I said as I touched his shoulder and took away the bottle of whiskey and spiked coffee.

He smiled back, “Si, mija, tenemos tiempo.

“Yes, Dad, we have plenty of time.”

Celia Ruiz is a retired lawyer who pulled herself out of extreme poverty and is currently writing a memoir.

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