Armando had no idea he was going to end up back at the old house when he started driving from Albuquerque. He just threw a sleeping bag into the Explorer and drove north, past Santa Fe and on to Vegas. He hadn’t slept well after Jill left the night before with all the suitcases she could get her hands on.
“I’ll come for the rest later,” she said, as she opened the front door. Troy, her friend, was walking up the flagstone path.
They had seen a couples’ counselor for a few months, and looking back, he honestly didn’t think it was that bad. So what she was bored. What else is new after 30 years of marriage?
But Jill didn’t look at it that way. She wanted more. To her credit, she had told him this many times over the years. He hadn’t paid that much attention. He might have shrugged a time or two, and asked, “What else do you want?”
She wanted to travel.
“Okay,” he agreed. “We’ll travel. Fine.”
But they never went anywhere.
What was he supposed to do, plan the frickin trips? He didn’t get it. She’s the one that wanted to travel. Shouldn’t she plan the trip? He’d go. It just wasn’t that big of a deal. He didn’t care if they went or if they stayed. It just didn’t matter that much to him, so maybe she was right. Maybe he was depressed.
Could he just be tired, maybe? He asked this during a counseling session when the word “depression” came up.
Maybe he was tired of working at the lab for 30 years doing the same boring shit. Whatever. He didn’t really know what Jill wanted, besides travel, and he didn’t know what they wanted at the lab either. He was competent. He showed up and did his job. Gathering soil samples had gotten old. What the fuck were they doing with all those soil samples, anyway? Didn’t they have enough to go on, already?
The soil was contaminated. What else is new? He didn’t really give a shit. The harm was done. Enough manitos had died of pancreatic cancer to know, as far as he was concerned, that something was very wrong. They didn’t need any more goddamned soil samples.
So, when Arsenio Archuleta told him they were going to shitcan him, Armando quit. Well, he took what everyone was calling “early retirement” and collected 75% of his pension. He was okay with that. He was tired of all those assholes anyway, and he was tired of Jill too.
Jill and her everlasting weird cheerfulness. It got old. Not to mention the frosted hair that didn’t look real anymore. And the bright orange nail polish? Who needs that shit? Why does a woman need bright orange claws?
So, she found someone new. Fuck it. Good luck, Troy. He had to admit he didn’t believe it, until the asshole showed up. You could tell he was one of those douche bags who goes to the gym.
“Is that it?” Troy asked, looking at Armando, while setting a giant suitcase down by the door.
Armando locked eyes with him and said, “She’ll come for the rest later.”
“Is that all you have to say, Armando?” She asked.
“What else is there, Jill? I think we said it all to the counselor.”
“Okay,” she said. Armando noticed her lip was trembling. “Take care of yourself, Armando.”
“Yeah, you too,” he said. He looked away as she walked out the door. He wasn’t the one leaving her. Why was her stupid lip trembling?
Jill was gone.
The shot of whiskey he drank before he went to bed did not help him sleep and Armando had a restless night. It was almost dawn by the time he fell asleep, and he didn’t make it out of bed until noon. He picked up the Journal from the front portal, made himself a cup of coffee and took a shower. He sat at the kitchen table and stared at the silly Felix the Cat clock that Jill thought was “sooo cute.”
It was a cold January afternoon and the Northern New Mexico hills had snow on them, but the highway was clear, and Armando kept driving north. By the time he passed Vegas and found the Old Ranch Road, the sun was down, and the late afternoon was brittle with cold. He drove down the long driveway, ½ mile long. He knew how long it was because this was the road that trained him for his 7-minute mile.
The metal gate to the front yard was broken and laying on the ground. The wind howled as he dragged the gate out of the way. Armando drove up to the front of the house, came to a stop and reached under the seat to pull his flashlight out. He illuminated his path to see that the screen door was broken but the front door was still locked. He took his key out and let himself in.
When he stepped into the living room, he heard the creak of the hardwood floor. It sounded like a person stepping across the room. He raised the flashlight and called out “Hello,” but all he could see was a large shadow going through the archway that led to the kitchen.
“Oh Fuck,” he whispered to himself. He stopped and carefully stepped aside to see if he could catch a glimpse of whatever it was that had been in the house. A mountain lion maybe? Certainly not a coyote; this had to be a large animal or a person. Not many homeless folks in this part of Northern New Mexico, he thought. More than likely, a large cat or a bear. No, not a bear. This thing was stealth and moved quietly. He felt the cold draft coming from the kitchen and saw that the door that led to the outside had been torn off.
Looking out toward the grove of junipers, he noticed that the clothesline was still standing. It even had a few clothespins hanging upside down. It was pitch dark now, but he waved the flashlight around to the perimeter of the back yard. He saw nothing but darkness.
He wasn’t in the mood for any more uninvited guests and looked around for something to block the door. He found an old piece of plywood and a steel drum that his dad used to burn garbage, and he propped up the plywood by leaning the large steel can against it.
He went around the front to the truck, pulled out his sleeping bag and went inside.
The house was dusty but not as bad as he would have expected. There was soot on the wall over the fireplace. Someone had built a fire there. That fireplace never really worked that good, he thought. The floor was grimy with time, but overall, the house was not in bad shape. He had expected it to have been vandalized over the years, but besides the missing door, it was surprisingly, okay.
Armando felt a sudden bone-chilling cold and he went to the front porch to see if he could find something to burn. He settled for the dilapidated screen door that the wind had blown apart on the front porch. He pulled off the disintegrated screen, took the door apart, found some newspapers and lit a fire. He sat up against the wall on his sleeping bag and watched the fire make shadows on the pale green walls that his mother had painted all those years ago.
When he awoke, huddled in a ball, it was morning.
He marveled at his own carelessness. Once he secured the kitchen, he didn’t even stop to think that there might be another open window in the house where he imagined the mountain lion intruder could have re-entered. He was so exhausted, he passed out. He now got up and walked around the house to inspect the rest of the rooms. There was a small broken windowpane in the bathroom but other than that, the house, dirty and abandoned had not deteriorated too much.
Standing in the hallway, he touched the fine smooth plaster of the adobe wall and it felt solid, impenetrable.
“These walls,” he heard his dad’s voice telling him and his brothers, “these walls that we are building out of mud with our own hands will last a hundred years or more. Nothing lasts longer than an adobe house.”
He looked around the living room; the walls were still the same light avocado color that his mother had liked so much. Julia, a long-time neighbor, and her brother, Mario, had painted it, a few months before his dad died.
Ed, Armando’s father, was 82 years old, and Stella, his mother, was 80 when Ed died. They had overstayed on the ranch, those two. Armando and his two brothers had agreed that moving them to Vegas would have been better, but they wouldn’t budge.
“I ain’t going nowhere, son. Forget about it. You’re wasting your time.”
Stella looked on through her thick glasses and smiled. “This is our home, Armando. Where would we go?”
“You could come and stay with us in Albuquerque, Mom. Or we could find you small house in Vegas, even. Anything is better than being out here in the middle of nowhere.”
“Ya, ya, Armando.” She said shooing him a way with her tiny, crooked hand, “Don’t be so pesado, Mijo.”
“Ha! You think you can boss us around!” Ed laughed with that wicked crinkly eyed expression he used so well. “I ain’t dead yet!”
“Okay, you are a stubborn old Viejo,” Armando said slapping him on the back.
“You take after me, Boy. You better watch it!”
There was not much use in trying to talk these two into doing anything they didn’t want to do. Even after his dad died, his mother refused to leave the house.
“Julita can keep an eye on me.”
“You need more than someone to keep an eye on you, Mama.”
“No, I don’t. There’s nothing wrong with me except for the arthuritis. And the doctor told me the other day that all of us sooner or later are going to get that. It is just part of living.”
Stella was a healthy old woman, not more than 5 feet tall. She had tiny hands and tiny feet and curly salt and pepper hair that she always cut short, close to her head. For as long as Armando could remember, Stella wore cat-eyeglasses, silver ones with engraved flowers on the edges of the frames. They were so outdated they were back in fashion again.
“Who is going to shovel the snow and get you out of here in the winter?”
“I told you, Julita said she would help me. She’s been helping us for years, son. You just don’t know it cuz you’re in Burque over there with your job. Why are you worried all of a sudden?”
“You’re going to be here by yourself, without dad?”
“For as long as God gives me vida y salud,” she said. “Where am I supposed to go? To some stinky nursing home that you can’t afford?”
Armando just stared.
“No siñor,” she said. She always said it like that — siñor. “I’m going to stay right here in my casita on the llano with my chickens and my novelas. Julita can take me to the store once a week and she can drive me to the doctor if I need to go.”
Armando remembered the drive from Vegas to Albuquerque after his father’s funeral. Jill was pretending to give a shit. He should have known then that it was over, but he chose to ignore it. When she finally spoke just outside Santa Fe, she said, “Look she’ll be fine. Those busy body neighbors she has will keep an eye on her and you can just hire Julia to come in every day for a few hours. It’s a lot cheaper than moving her to some assisted living place or her own apartment in the city. She would hate it. She likes her routine, her novelas, her once a week bingo.”
“Her chickens,” Armando said.
He gave in and he and his two brothers went back to their busy lives.
Stella died 12 months later; Julia found her one morning. She called Armando and sobbed softly into the phone. “I came in to make her coffee cuz it’s so cold, Armando. And at first I thought she was just sleeping.”
“I’ll drive up,” he said. “I’m leaving now.”
That was over five years ago. He stood there now, in his mother’s kitchen with the black and white checkered curtains blowing in the cold wind.
It was as though the wind blew in the memories…The three athletic brothers. How they won state that one time, just that one time. How proud his dad had been that they all made it on the Las Vegas Highs School football team.
There was no place to sit in the kitchen, so Armando went back to the living room and sat with his back against the wall. He lit a cigarette. He had started smoking again, right after he and Jill started counseling.
“Fuck it,” he said out loud, remembering Jill. She had gotten him to quit. Jill fucking hated cigarettes. Everything about them. The smell, the secondhand smoke, the worry that he would get emphysema or lung cancer or some other pendejada.
“Whatever, Bitch.” He surprised himself by hearing himself call his wife a bitch. This was new. He never called her names. He fucking hated her right now. “What the fuck,” he said. “Taking off with that little pendejo from the bank.” All these years married, in their late 50s now, and she leaves him for another man? Younger too. “Motherfucker, skinny little shit.”
“Are you pisst right now or what?” He asked himself out loud. “Damn right I’m pisst, goddam it. “
Whatever. He didn’t give a shit anymore and he didn’t know which was worse. His wife leaving him for a younger douche bag or getting fired after working at the lab for 30 years. Ungrateful sons of bitches.
“Fuck!” he groaned and flicked the cigarette across the room. He picked up his metal water bottle and flung it against the wall. It made a loud bang.
Slumped back against his mother’s green adobe wall, he looked out through the window to the stark back yard to the patch of frozen sage brush and chamisa. He thought of their daughter, Heather. He and Jill had not talked about what they were going to tell her. Luckily for them, she was somewhere up in Maine working at an old lighthouse or some stupid shit like that. That’s what happens when you go to Reed College and get a liberal arts degree, you end up in a lighthouse in Maine going through old papers.
He got up to pick up his water bottle and heard steps on the front porch.
To be continued tomorrow!