Read The Weight of Shadows Online

Authors: José Orduña

The Weight of Shadows (9 page)

BOOK: The Weight of Shadows
11.03Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
La Soledad de Octavio

To live is to be separated from what we were in order to approach what we are going to be in the mysterious future.

—Octavio Paz
, The Labyrinth of Solitude

“Chhhht, cabrón.” Octavio swats at my head because we're three cans of Tecate in, and I've forgotten to speak quietly again. He lives in a small, single-family home with his wife, her mother, his brother-in-law, his brother-in-law's wife, their infant son, and his wife's widowed cousin. One overweight Yorkie named Cookie yips incessantly while looking out the window, and another one, an emaciated, seventeen-year-old male named Coco, bumbles about in a diaper, drooling, until he finds himself in a corner and freezes, at which point someone turns him around so he can get stuck in another corner. In a small office past the kitchen, an African grey parrot sleeps standing on his perch.

I'm home for the weekend, visiting from graduate school in Iowa, which feels like being stuck in a tiny aquarium that never gets cleaned. The displeasure of being perpetually surrounded by graduate students and academics gets to be unbearable, and cooking meals for one and eating them in
a silent apartment shaves away at the psyche. I've recently taken to setting my laptop across from me while eating meals and playing a YouTube video that simulates dinner conversation with another human. I've gone so far as to set two place settings, one for me and one for the laptop. I serve my food, sit down, and hit play, and for twenty minutes the cleavage and lower face of a young woman with an English accent makes noises and produces brief interjections that make it seem like I'm a charming and intelligent conversationalist. The prerecorded video tells me how great I look, how it looks like I've lost weight, how my taste in clothing is perfect. The woman's voice is soft, eliciting a vaguely sexual tingle in my ears and scalp.

After about a week of eating meals like this, I decide it would be best to go home.

Everyone's asleep at Octavio's house except the two of us and Cookie, who's staring out the window at a group of hipsters drinking beer in the park. Earlier that day I'd texted Octavio a picture of a frozen Iowan cornfield from the Megabus.

My text read, “La soledad es el hecho más profundo de la condición humana.”

“No mames guey, tan chidas las flores. Salgo a las doce. Doble,” he'd responded.

He usually works six dobles a week: a lunch shift bussing tables at one restaurant and an evening shift bartending at another because his employers have leverage. They're well aware that his green card wasn't issued by USCIS but by some fulano on Twenty-Sixth Street, so his shifts are six hours each. He hits magic number thirty-six on his weekly paychecks, which means part-time. No benefits. No overtime. He gets pissed, but he's also happy to get hours.

Reaching the middle of beer four means it's going to turn into a long night. If we stop before “getting white-girl wasted,” as he likes to say, it's at beer three. This is four, we
haven't seen each other since I left for Iowa, and tomorrow is his only day off, so we won't stop until someone tells us we have to. The wet crack and sizzle of popping beer five brings that warm boozy blanket feeling, and things get loose. Octavio recounts how a woman walked in wearing the tightest dressy pantsuit he's ever seen.

“Cómo le dicen a esa madre?


“Eh. El dedo del camello!”

He's just a hair shorter than I am, maybe five foot five, but tonight he gets a couple of inches from his speckled wingtips. He dresses the way my elementary school nuns said a man should: a crease down the legs of his pants, no sneakers, a shirt with a collar, and if it's cold out, a sweater, sometimes a turtleneck. He does this every day, despite the fact that after his morning or afternoon commute, he'll get to his first job and change into a uniform. He'll put his clothes back on for the five-minute drive to his second job, and change into a uniform again.

He's not exactly muscular, at least not like the symmetrical bros who pack into gyms to simulate work, carefully examining themselves in the mirror, and deliberately building aesthetic muscles, but when you slap his back it's hard, and so are his arms, especially the right one. I tried to count how many times he lifted bus pans full of everyone's dirty dishes one shift but lost count at around a hundred.



He proposes a toast to Profesor Orduña, raising his can, spilling some beer on the floor. Cookie, who'd been wandering around our feet, rushes to lick it up. Octavio reaches out and tugs on my beard. He says he knew I would show up with a beard because I'm a professor now, and professors all around the world have beards. “It's true,” I tell him. I've tried explaining that I'm a lowly teaching assistant, nothing like a
professor, and that I have this beard because I'm too lazy to shave, and I can't afford razor cartridges, but he insists.

“Profesor Orduña, cabrón. No mames.”

He revels in it, laughing, asking what the güeritos think when their teacher walks into the classroom and it's me. I tell him that sometimes I'm the first brown person these young people have ever seen in person, let alone spent meaningful time with, and that mostly, I think, the güeritos, güeritas, non
güeritos, and non
güeritas don't think, unless I expend inordinate amounts of energy forcing them to. Anyway, he gets a real kick out of it, and I guess I get a kick out of telling him.

Octavio tilts his head back, letting the last quarter can of Tecate rush down his throat, and then he jumps out of his chair with his index in the air.

“Tengo algo que enseñarte.”

Last time he jumped out of his chair like this, brow tight, and the ends of his smile curling just a bit harder than usual, he retrieved a jarana made out of an armadillo carapace. This time it's a lime-green tin gasoline canister. He holds it out and motions with his head for me to take it.


When I met Octavio he was in his early twenties. It was the first time I'd gone back to Mexico since my mom and I moved to Chicago when I was a baby. I remember the first long walk down the stone corridor that led to my grandmother's front door, the same corridor pictured in photos I'd seen of my mom holding me as an infant. Every couple of feet another teary-eyed stranger embraced me and told me how long they'd missed me.

“Hola, mijo. Soy tu tía Mica.”

“Hola, mi amor.”

“Hola, mijito.”

One after another, faces I'd seen but couldn't remember kept coming, shaky-voiced and sobbing. It felt wrong I'd never heard of people so closely blood-related, or even worse, that if I had I'd completely forgotten them. I didn't know their names or the names of their children. I wasn't sure how many cousins I had. I didn't know the first thing about any of their lives.

At some point, an old woman with curly brown hair knelt before me, and I recognized her as my grandmother from a photograph. As she squeezed me, her warm tears soaked through my shirt and I remember feeling something I didn't understand at the time, the secondary emotion of shame at the nothingness I felt toward my grandmother, my father's mother, guilt, and a little anger at the strangeness of being held so tightly and missed so dearly by this weeping woman I knew nothing about, for whom I knew I
feel but couldn't.

This infant they'd once held came back to them as a nine-year-old, but the absence belonged only to them.

The languid, tropical evenings saturated in the hum of countless cicadas, the sun disappearing behind a white-tipped Citlaltépetl, this collection of faces were the things my father spent nights longing for while strumming his cracked guitar in our kitchen in Chicago. He'd been severed from what he was, and his once-mysterious future quickly became a trudging present of wage labor—the self-perpetuating cycle of hand to mouth. Even as a young child, I recognized a quality in his voice when he sang certain songs on some nights, the tones of a deep and abiding solitude. At the time, for me, the words he sang held no weight, but when I listen to them now, I remember my young father, younger than I am now, wailing about everything that had been taken from him.

At dusk, the evening of my homecoming, a band set up in the small courtyard next to a coffee tree and a wall of fuchsia bougainvillea. One of the musicians introduced himself as
Octavio and began playing a variation of “Noche Criolla,” up-tempo for a bolero, and virtuosic—the Javier Solís version. The plinking of three men at a rosewood marimba and the chorus of voices behind Octavio made the song a celebration of a beautiful place and stripped it of the melancholy I liked and with which I had come to associate it because of my dad's version. Solís, who wasn't born in Veracruz, sings it with affect. You can sense the imitation of suffering in the smoothness of his voice, so it doesn't contain that quality of genuine woundedness some singers have when they sing certain songs. The version I'd always heard from our kitchen in Chicago was the version of Agustín Lara, the original composer, who sat alone at a piano, smoking unfiltered cigarettes while he sang it. Lara, who was born in Tlacotalpan, a sleepy town two hours from my grandmother's house, was sent to live at his aunt's hospice in Mexico City after his mother died. Unlike Solís, Lara's version ends on the image of staring into an expanse of darkness, and his voice comes to sound like a captured and wounded beast thrashing against its cage. That's how my dad sang his version, and that's how I liked it.

“Ábrelo, cabrón.”

There's something swishing inside the canister, and I know it isn't gasoline. Mezcal, which is not a type of tequila, but is its own spirit, is neither my friend nor my enemy. It's more like someone who'll always be a friend despite the fact that he's stolen your significant other and wrecked your car. When I pop the top off, the smell of smoke and the shadow of a burning piña makes me nostalgic for the moments before blackout, when apprehension happens through a fine sieve: a pastiche of glittering lights, everything reduced to sensation, incredible levity, laughter, and the anticipation of that smooth darkness, the lost moments where the mind is jettisoned, at rest, quiet, and alone.

“Qué tal, guey?”

We're heading there tonight, and this mezcal will be our vehicle. Octavio retrieves two snifters from an armoire where he houses all of his best bottles. The mezcal, he says, is from Oaxaca, sent in the care of an old truck driver who carries things from southern Mexico to Reynosa, where his partner from the States picks them up and drives them to the Midwest.

“Como un FedEx mexicano.”

“Pero FedEx existe en México, guey.”

“No mames, cabrón. Como un FedEx

He fills both snifters with the golden liquid, and in the dim room they catch the light and look like twin suns. He tells me to drink it slowly because it came a long way and deserves to be savored. He says it's what the güeros refer to as artisanal: that the guy who made it, made it from start to finish, one palenquero in his backyard. He explains that at one point there were hundreds of palenques in Oaxaca, little old men and women with backyard stills cultivating a diversity of maguey on their small patches of mountainside.

I take a sip of the liquid. It tastes like smoke and earth. It's similar in many ways to a Highland Scotch, intensely peaty, but sweeter, with a vague flavor of overripe fruit.

Octavio raises his glass and looks at it in the light. He says that the liquid that will take us a few seconds to drink took over a decade to make. He proposes a toast.

“Pa' las viejas.”

I can tell he means our moms because he's getting more and more melancholic as the night goes on. Las viejas would be pissed if they saw us now. Mine would remind me that she hadn't worked so many hours in uniform rooms and restaurants, and that she and my father hadn't left home for me to drink swill until my throat is pink and raw in the very early morning. My voice mail is always full on weekend mornings, and it's always her, urging me to be careful, to eat well, not
to drink so much. “And why don't you answer the phone, cabrón?” Even though she's often yelling, her voice sounds infinitely small and full of distress because she knows her son, knows what's usually going on when I don't answer for days. She's seen me at the end of a weeklong bender, and we both wonder how many more of those I can take. She says I'm melancholic like my father, but that seems like too calm a word, like a vessel with a small hole that sinks quietly into darkened water. More often than not, I feel on fire and am prone to destructive and self-destructive behavior. Sometimes, on the tail end of those benders, I manage to unmoor completely from reality.

Octavio Paz wrote in
The Labyrinth of Solitude
, “Man is the only being who knows he is alone,” and he asserted that “nostalgia and a search for communion” is what we are. I'm not so sure. I've seen apes at the zoo that seem to know better than most of my students and peers that they are utterly alone in the universe, and I've known many people who are giddy in and oblivious to their ultimate solitude. I'm also not convinced that the nostalgia everyone says is a looking backward isn't a look into an alternate future, one that's always better than the miserable present, a necessary and necessarily unreachable place to make the soul more able to withstand the brutality of the real. The Octavio sitting across from me pours another mezcal and says he misses his mom. For him, the knowledge of his solitude is not the result of bookish ennui. It is not an ontological consideration. This is his life, the condition and sensations of exile in which he finds himself. His solitude is not an abstraction, and it renews itself every day. There's a happy narrative, a myth created by others about immigrants, and even by some immigrants themselves about “the Immigrant experience.” It's a story of upward mobility that starts once we cross the border, and it never properly addresses the ways prosperity in the United States is intimately tied to misery elsewhere. I've known several people
to go back, to leave this supposed dream because it becomes miserable for them. It's difficult to establish happiness and a necessary sense of communion with members of a society that allow for you, in actuality and in representation, the space of a maid, a nanny, a janitor, a day laborer, or a landscaper, and nothing else.

BOOK: The Weight of Shadows
11.03Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

Other books

An Antarctic Mystery by Jules Verne
The Face of Scandal by Helena Maeve
Night Train to Memphis by Peters, Elizabeth
Henry Franks by Peter Adam Salomon
Solaris by Stanislaw Lem
The Silver Sphere by Michael Dadich