The crisp linen folds tore at Eliza Yniguez. Fluffy towels rasped against her leathery skin, cracked and rough against the stark white. Government funded fabric had no place in her home. She could hear her mother rolling in her grave. Hija, she would say, why do you let yourself accept the charity of el diablo? It had seemed strange, her hatred for the government. If anyone was to have the animosity, it would be Eliza herself. Her mother had loved what she had called her “ideal America.” It was why she had moved them there, her fierce patriotism. People must change after death.
Slow breezes wafted through her curtains, the early September chill settling deep into her bones. It stirred the piles of fabric as she folded and refolded each one, pressing the lines deeper and sharper. It was too early for the leaves to fall.
“Oliver is playing outside again,” she called to her husband, slumped on the fraying tweed couch. His shoe still was laced onto his foot, like he hadn’t had the foresight to take them off before he tracked the dew from his morning walk into her home. Sighing, Eliza pulled herself from her laundry and moved to his side. Dust swirled in the slanted light cast through her sheer curtains as she kneeled slowly to the thinning carpet. She hoisted his foot up and began to pick at the laces with rough fingers. His eyes were always clouded. The early-onset arthritis in her hands and elbows flared up as she wiggled his ankle until she could pull the shoe off and toss it into the basket by the door, filled with every shoe he had for different occasions. Not that he went places, regardless. Oliver took up enough of her time. She couldn’t always wheel her husband where he wanted.
Giggles floated in through the empty window as Oliver raced around outside, trying to catch the falling leaves before they hit the ground.
“It’s good luck, mama,” he sang as he skipped in the front door, flushed with the excitement. Freshly skinned palms and knees hadn’t slowed him down. She could still feel his fingers in hers. Eliza left her husband as he sat lamely on the couch, staring straight through Oliver as he ran to his mother and showed her the leaf he had snatched.
“Very good, mijo,” she smiled softly at him. “Now you get to make a wish.”
Before he could respond, Oliver caught her attention as he wandered in from the kitchen and plunked himself down in the overstuffed armchair, handsome in his new fatigues as he bit into his sun-ripened peach. Juice dribbled down his chin and Eliza tsked as she turned away from the leaf that had drifted in with the breeze, grabbing one of her carefully folded napkins as she crossed the room to clean him up.
“You’re always getting into messes,” she scolded gently as she mopped up the drops on his skin. He ducked out from under her hand, scrubbing his hands across his mouth.
“I’m not a kid anymore, I can wipe my own face,” he protested weakly as she ignored him and kept on with cleaning him up.
“Big boys don’t need to learn how to eat a peach, mi amor. Be careful, or you’ll drip on your new uniform.” But indeed, his ruddy hair was now cropped short and his beanpole body lean with muscle. His sturdy frame pressed against her as he stood to hug her and whispered a “Thank you, mama,” as she rested her cheek on his shoulder. She had forgotten how tall he was getting.
A hand tugging on her long blue skirt made her break the hug, and she looked down with a smile. Oliver’s chubby toddler hand grasped the folds of fabric as he yanked on it, his face tilted up like a flower searching for his sun. His carefree smile was like a gulp of freshwater, lifting her above even the pain in her old bones as she leaned down to scoop him into her arms.
“How’s mi guapo hijo?” she cajoled, bouncing him lightly on her hip to his amusement.
“Papa,” he whined as he twisted in her arms, arms outstretched for a father that didn’t look up.
“Papa can’t hear you, Oliver,” she chastised lightly, though her eyes betrayed her dark storm of emotions. Resentment had taken hold like a dark flower once he had been discharged, watered by his silence and fed with Eliza’s long-suffering mother’s disapproval.
Él no hace nada, Eliza. He just sits there. Why didn’t he help when Oliver was around? Why wasn’t he present when mi hijo was?
“Su nieto, Mamá. Not your son.”
Her mother was always making that mistake, it seemed. People must change after death.
Nevertheless, her mother’s ever constant presence had eaten away at Eliza, and her dark garden had flourished with time. She was so tangled in weeds, she wasn’t sure if she would ever find her way back to the light. Sighing heavily, she turned back to her laundry, any child’s complaining having disappeared along with its source.
She picked up a lone pillowcase, its brother having disappeared some time ago. Her house was full of mismatched fabrics and other things besides, each a remnant of their own time. Eliza snatched another cloth, her posture harsh and unforgiving as she cast a glance over at her husband, still on the couch.
“Do you want anything to drink, mi amor?” Her voice grated slightly, and her hands twisted in the fabric with the term of endearment. “Anything to eat?”
It had been hours since he had eaten last, and her mother screamed at her with tight fists and venomous words.
You don’t need to to take care of him hija, he can do it himself.
“But he can’t, Mamá. I must.”
He wasn’t there to take care of Oliver. Sent him away, directamente en servicio al diablo. Qué pena, mi pequeño hijo.
“Nieto,” Eliza snapped, her sudden outburst triggering the smallest of flinches from her husband. She had used to rush over, stroking his sweaty hair off his forehead and murmuring sweet words of solace as he relived the gunshots over and over. Now, however…
The laundry needed to be folded. She shook her head, and turned back to the pile of worn textiles. She creased the napkin she had used to wipe Oliver’s mouth, tucking sharp corners into the spotless white. In a flash, she couldn’t stand it, the calming action when she felt anything but. Filled with a fit of rage, she slammed the cloth down on the table with a bang, turning quickly away from her husband cowering on the sofa, eyes vacant. Everything was bad, it was all bad, it was all just so incredibly terrible. A scream stirred inside her, pleading to be set free, but she swallowed hard, stomping down violently on the words of anguish and horror and pain and grief.
So, so much grief.
Her slippers slapped against the warped linoleum floor as she crossed the room to the window, letting the whispering wind caress the lines deep in her skin. Her heavyset eyes, sheltered under thick brows thinning with age, peered ruefully at the houses across the way, so vibrant and full of life with their stucco walls awash in cheerful colors. Her home was starkly out of place, though her walls were just as bright.
Oliver must be sleeping. It was the only reason why she had the peace to fold the laundry, her usual pastime during his naps. Perhaps she shouldn’t have so vehemently denied the offer of aid once her husband had been discharged, but she couldn’t stand the thought of those government pendejos coming in, disturbing her Oliver. They had no right to help, not after they had so callously made him run through her house all day. She could take care of her husband. And even when she filled with anger as she gazed upon his slumped form, seethed quietly as his foot rested upon the ground without its brother, or had to grit her teeth as he just sat there when he should have been taking the blame for Oliver’s constant presence, for inspiring him to be “brave like his daddy” when all she saw was a sad, broken man that should have done better for his son—still, even then, she took care of him. And it was fine.
Oliver was still there, the not-yet-20 versions of him running around her house with silent footsteps. There was only a little dust gathered in the corners, and her cracks were held together.
Yet somehow, even then, Eliza’s mother raged. She wept and screamed and broke into pieces again and again, as Eliza watered her plants and folded her laundry and loaded her husband into his bed each night, all the while thinking about how it seemed so unlike her dear Mamá, who had been kind and loving and oh so gentle. People must change after death, she supposed.
And while her mother now felt all of the things Eliza hid inside, she outwardly filled her days tending to Oliver, nursing him to bed and watching him run wild and admiring his skillful watercolors. Some days she left to get food from the store, only going out for necessities when she could tear herself away from her lovely son, but she couldn’t stand the stares and whispers she would receive. Hisses of “Pobre señora Yniguez”, “What a shame”, or “I thought she didn’t leave the house since her son’s…” followed her everywhere, and she scowled with every step.
They never mentioned Oliver by name, though he thrived inside her home.
Fading light outside pulled her out of her stupor and she turned away from the sinking sun. It was time to set the table. Eliza padded over to the cabinet, pulling out the ceramic bowls and plastic cups made to look like glass. She brought two of the bowls over to her kitchen table, the linen tablecloth pilling from use. A crock pot of chicken soup sat simmering on the stove, filling the air with the smell of garlic and good broth. Oliver’s favorite soup. Suddenly she was drowning, the air became thick in her lungs and her heart solidified inside her chest, each beat thumping painfully. The bowls shattered on the ground, shards scattering over the floor as Eliza’s hands trembled and she clenched them into fists.
Why isn’t he there to eat? Why isn’t he here? Ah, pobrecito. Where is my little Oliver?
Eliza took a deep breath and stilled her shaking hands.
“He’s fine, Mamá. Not to worry–Oliver is just playing outside. He’ll be back any minute, I know he will.”
She carefully ladled the soup into the fresh bowls that she set out, her slippers casting the ceramic splinters aside. Straightening the spoons next to the bowls, she brought one bowl over to her husband, still silent on the sofa. She held it out to him, the steam rising in lazy curls above the rim. When he didn’t move, Eliza set it on the side table and without looking over her shoulder, turned her back on him. Oliver must be hungry.
She set her son’s bowl across from her, placing a piece of crusty bread on a little plate for him and pouring him some lemonade, a special treat. Eliza sat down heavily, her joints creaking, and picked up her spoon. The steam danced in the late September light, whirling like the most beautiful of ghosts.
Fool, idiota, desesperada.
“Not to worry, Mamá. Oliver will be in any minute.”