abuelo? is it too late to call?
Randy William Santiago
para Eddie, mi abuelo
a week since rigor mortis forced its acquaintance
yet my mind remains awake
recycling the dead tones you bequeathed me
generational heirlooms cast ashore by the Santa Maria or Isabella or
whichever saint was used to justify the whips that lashed your abuelo’s abuelo’s abuelo’s abuelo
echoes of infinite demise piercing our psyches
descended from a doomed tribe
we live to die
anticipate the day
erecting monuments for souls left hitchhiking to
lands never promised us
people of the dirt never
reach the sky
You always tried
shoveled a path to the streets
moved rocks and stones
pushing through the weight
never got You home
a month since you left, yet I’m still scrambling to finish this shitty poem. fumbling the words and clumped tears that linger about my cornea—isolated images of you.
reminders of bodegas con helado de coco, or jam sessions in the park, or endless reruns of abbott and costello, or john coltrane serenading the room as you talked about your transformation from drugs to holy man, family man, damaged man.
i’m damaged, man. i mean… abuelo? how am i supposed to smile at the past when you’re not present? scratch my forehead after a furry kiss? of all the people i left back home, you’re the one i truly miss. i should’ve called when you asked, yelled out your name. lately, i can only sob with shame. should i rhyme it out or talk it through? my heart feels pain when i think of you. abuelo, you ain’t a question no more. fuck blood, your spirit rests deep in the core of a heart i’m not sure i ever had before. there are certain people not meant for us, not meant for this world, those whose souls transcend beyond
the boundaries of dilapidated streets and luminescent skylines and insecure borders and crumbling atmospheres. there are people who live to die so that they might finally discover a purpose elsewhere. i would say you never existed here but, aside from its falsehood, it would be too painful to imagine. like the news of your premature death, greeting me on a facebook newsfeed.
had i called like you asked, i might’ve known that your foot infection had gotten worse. that the cirrhosis overcame your liver. that yours and death’s acquaintance became more comfortable than our own. but, again, any such knowledge would’ve been too painful to imagine and i didn’t deserve it anyhow.
i still remember the day i got an ear infection in high school, sophomore year. after we left the hospital, ma left to work and i chilled at your crib. one minute we were prepping sandwiches, the next you popped a technicolor porn into the vhs. a few people were fucking on a boat, over some random body of water, their bodies flowing in a manner ma warned me against. don’t tell your mother, you said, it’s just between us men.
you were trying to bond, but i was uncomfortable. not with the video but with the notion of connection. i never had an abuelo and i wasn’t sure i wanted one. men only seemed to hurt me, my mother, my siblings and accepting one into my life would’ve rendered my demise inevitable.
pseudo-abuelo, that’s what i called you until the news broke. pseudo-abuelo was the precursor of a lengthy explanation as to why you couldn’t be my real abuelo. pseudo-abuelo was the armor i wore every time you stocked our empty pantry with groceries, illegally ran cables across buildings to keep electricity in our apartment.
pseudo-abuelo was the stratagem i employed to dodge a furry kiss, to deny connections to the man who lost a toe one morning after getting too drunk the night before. pseudo-abuelo was the ruse i used to refuse the love i had for you. pseudo-abuelo wasn’t you.
typhoons overwhelm my tear ducts when i think of you. so i reserve such thoughts for the night-time, when i can close the shutters and sob into a pillow, which i imagine to be your shoulder accepting the 140 lb apology that is me.
i’m sorry is all i can say before my lungs begin their descent into my stomach. swallowing air, the words never show.
i like to think you’re shoving a stopgap through my trachea before i can finish, reminding me that your love wasn’t so fickle. i like to think that we’ll meet again in a dream or two and find ourselves in a madrid cafe, bebiendo una caña. i like to think that, someday, i’ll forget to wake and spend the rest of my days floating amidst the stars with you—at ease.
i don’t really want to go but i also don’t want you to leave. spend one more night with me and tell the story of how you met bucky, your tightest homie, on that rooftop, straps pulled, domes in the cross-hairs. spend one more night with me and remind me how you pushed enough weight to register as a millionaire. spend one more night with me and declare the magnificence of abuela’s arroz con habichuelas. spend one more
night with abuela, she yearns for you. spend one more night with ma, you’re the one good man she knew. spend one more night with us, i promise the love’ll be true. abuelo?
are you there?
is it too late to call?
One Town Over
My dead grandfather, I was told, was almost killed one night while descending from the sierra, plodding over the bumpy lomas to get home. It was very late and it was particularly dark, barely able to make out whatever markers—a certain tree, a crumbling fence—would guide him through the dry slopes leading to the clothes line and chicken coop behind the house he tried to spend as little time in as possible.
He may well have been drunk. Up in the sierra, you can get all kinds of agua ardiente, sold to you in emptied-out soda bottles, stoppered with a thumb of sugarcane. And up in the sierra, if a man chose to, he could do some things that might never be known to anybody in town. He was trying to steady his pace, resisting the lunatic urge to let gravity whoosh him down the steep dirt paths and fly into a gloriously delirious run and be done with all the mincing steps and finally be in his bed, his desolate marital bed. And that would mean eventually waking up to an empty pantry, stony looks from his teen son, his little daughters’ frantic glee, the unimpeachable presence of his wife—so what was the rush? Take your time. And that’s when he saw him. The man was blocking the path. His face couldn’t be seen, not just because of the dark but because he was wearing a wide-brim hat. He appeared more shape than person.
You’re going the wrong way, the man said. Where you’re going there’s a ravine. You won’t see it till it’s too late. But how could that be? What ravine? Yet the sierra could be treacherous. You think you know all its caves and waterfalls and deep pools but there’s more out there than you’ll ever know. Some are hidden things that when suddenly revealed you’ll think, Of course, of course, and then you’re no more.
Go that way, the man said. His voice alone pointed where to look and yes, where the yerba fronds bowed and where fist-sized rocks clumped the ground, their dimensions clear even under the drizzle of moonlight; there was a footpath, familiar yet alien.
Te lo agradezco, primo. What’s your name? The man told him, but he didn’t recognize it. Que le vaya bien, the man told him. My grandfather took the path, and though it proved to be an unfamiliar route his instincts told him he was going the right way and soon enough he saw the silhouettes of the clothes-line poles and the rhombus of the coop and made his way to the back door, his shoes dust-coated.
I had to find out who that man was, he told his family two days later. They all sat around the oval table in the kitchen, a dwindling stack of tortillas in its baggy husk of butcher paper as the centerpiece, cold coffee in a dented percolator on the tiny stove. When he woke up the next morning, and after eating whatever meager leftovers he could find, he ducked out and went to ask after the man. You could go to the plaza to do that, or to the tendajo, where a mortifying tab was being run, same problem, too, with visiting the butcher. But if you wanted to learn anything about a man the cantina was best. So he had a shot and asked some cuates. No, don’t recognize the name. But they were intrigued and got a cozy feeling drinking with their friend, puzzling out who might know. Some more men came in, but they never heard of the name, either. Soon, the baraja comes out and a round of Carta Blancas appear and the investigation precedes. Hand after hand is dealt, and with the sunlight slanting through the row of narrow rectangular windows atop the high cinder-block walls, a jolliness pervades. Así es que nadie conoce ese nombre? No puede ser, ‘mano. This is a small town. Someone must know him. Somebody has thoughtfully brought a bag of cacahuates, exquisite in their saltiness as coupled with cold beer after cold beer. Somebody has to know. A hard pack of Marlboro, procured in Brownsville, materializes. That American tobacco, nothing like it. A large wreath of smoke drifts to the corrugated-metal ceiling, nearly a thing of reverence as held in the reddening beams of the dwindling day.
My grandfather has been standing while telling his story, but now he takes a seat at the kitchen table. It took me a while, but I found out, he tells his family. It was deep into the night, the cantina’s windows panes of black, but he was steadfast. A neighbor came in with another man, who it turned out lived one town over. Oye, conocen el nombre de tal y tal? The neighbor didn’t, but the visitor asked him to repeat the name. I know who that is. Did you know him? I told him that man saved my life the other night. If not for him, I would have walked off a cliff. Then you know what he told me? He said, I don’t know who you talked to out there, but that name belongs to a dead man, friend. Can you believe that? Dios le mando a salvarme!
His daughters gasped, his wife was expressionless. The dead-eyed stare of his son confirmed that it was indeed unbelievable.
Randy William Santiago:
My abuelo, Eddie, died in 2018. It was all so sudden and I wasn’t home, in Chicago, for any of it. Oddly enough, my abuela, Elba, just passed in a similar way and I also wasn’t present. Life’s cruel that way. I was preparing to move to Madrid, Spain, to teach when Eddie died. Back when I was a shorty, Eddie introduced me to John Coltrane. After he passed, I obsessively listened to In a Sentimental Mood by Duke Ellington and John Coltrane. On my first night in Madrid, I walked to Tirso de Molina for tapas. The restaurant was packed, so I put my name down and went for a stroll. Suddenly, I heard In a Sentimental Mood playing and searched frantically for the source. It was spilling out from someone’s balcony - beyond my reach. I immediately hopped on the metro and went straight to Lavapies. There, I stopped at the obnoxious Carrefour, bought a mediocre squid ink paella and wrote in the closet my Airbnb host marketed as a room. In a way, it felt like I was being called by Eddie to respond to his death. Why else would I have picked up that song after he passed? Why else would it have played at the exact moment that I walked down that street in Tirso de Molina? Call it fate; call it a coincidence. Who cares, really? I’m just glad he called.
Randy William Santiago is an Afro-Puerto Rican writer from inner-city Chicago. He’s been a Fulbright Scholar, a PERIPLUS Collective Fellow and a Michener Fellow in Fiction at the University of Miami. His writing has found a home in Craft, Kweli, Litro Magazine, Lunch Ticket, The Masters Review, Pleiades, and Storm Cellar. Tweet him at @hoodliterati. Read him at randywilliamsantiago.com.
Oscar Villalon is the editor at ZYZZYVA. His writing has been published in Stranger’s Guide, Freeman’s, The Believer, VQR, Literary Hub, and elsewhere. He lives in San Francisco.