TUESDAY: Driving Uphill

BY DARLENE P. CAMPOS

Copyright is held by the author.

AUNT TERRY called me on my first day of summer vacation and asked if I could help her take care of Uncle Efrain. He always had trouble with his eyesight, cholesterol, sugar levels, and blood pressure. Uncle Efrain had just turned 76 and his health didn’t seem like it was going to get any better.

“Me? But you’re a nurse,” I said to Aunt Terry.

“I’m an about to retire nurse,” she answered. “Lorenzo, can’t you come be with us for a couple of weeks?”

I made the trip to San Antonio the next day. Since I didn’t know how long I would be staying, I packed nearly my entire closet. After college, I got a photography teacher position at a Catholic school in Galveston, so I only went home for holidays, but never during summer.

As I approached Aunt Terry’s house four hours later, the road dipped sharply. I pressed my foot down on the brake pedal, feeling my heart pump harder. Unpredictable roads were part of the reason why I left San Antonio. The street appears tame and then it drops before you notice, giving you a major stomach flop. For years, I went through stomach flops and no matter how many times they happened, I never got used to them. Aunt Terry stood on the lawn, sweeping up fallen leaves. She dropped the rake she held and ran to my car window.

“Thank you for coming, Lorenzo,” she said as she squeezed my hands tightly. “I was so desperate for company, I considered getting a cat. And you know how allergic I am!”

Aunt Terry led me inside the house. Uncle Efrain sat on his battered recliner, watching a soccer game and stuffing potato chips in his mouth. I never knew what Aunt Terry saw in him. Ever since 1980, Aunt Terry worked 12 hour shifts at the Children’s Hospital. While she worked, Uncle Efrain stayed home playing his harmonica or acoustic guitar, though he wasn’t very good.

I sat down next to Uncle Efrain. He turned his head to look at me. Uncle Efrain’s baby brother was Alejandro Perez, my dad. Alejandro died when I was 10 and Mom married Ramon Guillen a few years later. Uncle Efrain never forgave her for finding love again because he believed she should have stayed in mourning for life.

“Renzito,” Uncle Efrain said after he was finished observing every piece of me. “It’s so sad how you still look like your mother.”

After dinner, I lied down on the bed in the guest room. I placed a blanket over my legs and began reading a photography book I brought from home. A few minutes later, I heard Aunt Terry urging Uncle Efrain to get some sleep. He answered he would rather die than sleep with me in the house. She told him to keep his voice down and he refused.

“Lorenzito?” Aunt Terry said and knocked on the door around 10 o’clock at night. I threw myself off the soft mattress to let her in. Her scrub uniform was covered with tiny pictures of teddy bears. She shut the door and leaned to me very closely.

“Uncle Efrain is asleep now,” she whispered. “If he wakes up, give him some chamomile tea. It always puts him into a slumber.”

“What if it doesn’t?”

“It will. Trust me,” she said and walked to the door. She turned the knob, but she didn’t leave right away.

“Did you hear what he said, Lorenzito?” she asked. I nodded. Aunt Terry gazed down at the floor. She assured me it was only Uncle Efrain’s medication talking.

“He’s always talked like that, Aunt Terry,” I said. “I don’t let it get to me anymore.”

“You’re right,” she said. “He’s always been a big grouch, like the green puppet on that children’s show, the one who lives in a trash can. Maybe for Christmas this year, I’ll get your uncle his own trash can.” I laughed and complimented the teddy bears on her uniform. She never liked wearing solid-colour scrubs.

“Thank you, they’re for the kids,” she said as she opened the door. “Your uncle used to say such nice things about my scrub designs. I’ll see you in the morning.”

I fell asleep a little after eleven, but I woke up before dawn because I heard Uncle Efrain rattling pots in the kitchen. When the noise grew louder, I went to the kitchen and asked if he wanted me to fix breakfast. He grabbed a large pan and slammed it down on the stove.

“You think I don’t know how to fry an egg? I do! I wasn’t raised by your mother!”

“I thought you might want some pancakes,” I said. “Whatever you want, I can make it.”

“That’s hilarious,” he said. “You think you can do anything.”

For the rest of the morning, Uncle Efrain sat at the kitchen table, reading a five year old newspaper. I asked him if he wanted a newer copy since I was getting ready to step out.

“A new paper?” he said. “That’s ridiculous.”

“Why do you say that?”

“Because,” he continued with slow panting. “News is always the same, no matter what the year is. Somebody famous dies, there’s a natural disaster, and San Antonio needs rain.”

“Your call, Uncle Efrain. I’m going downtown,” I said. “Going to do some sightseeing. Aunt Terry should be back from work any minute now.”

“The longer she stays out, the happier I am,” he said and stretched his newspaper wide across himself so I couldn’t see him anymore.

I got in my car, but I wasn’t going downtown. I headed east towards New Braunfels to see Mom and Ramon, whom I called Dad because I saw him as my real father. Alejandro had been dead for years and he hadn’t really done anything for me before his death. He worked a lot, 16-hour days, five times a week. On Sundays, he rested on the couch, usually watching a sports game or an old movie. I liked watching soccer with him, but whenever I asked him to play soccer with me in the backyard, he would strike me on the head with the television remote.

“Can’t you see I’m busy?” he’d say. “This game is about to get better.”

“After the game, can we play?”

“No! When the game’s over, I take my fibre supplements and you know how long that can take me to finish.”

Alejandro was hit by a car in 1993 while walking in downtown San Antonio. Mom told me a drunk driver killed him, but when I grew up, I found out it was an angry husband. Alejandro had been in a secret relationship with the custodian at his workplace. They took a stroll together, hand in hand, during their break. From what the custodian told the police, Alejandro didn’t notice the car until he was pinned under it.

The drive to New Braunfels was less than an hour, but since traffic was abnormally heavy, I made it in double the usual time. I knocked on the door of Mom’s house. She opened it with Esteban, my nephew, lying asleep in her arms. Upon first sight of me, she stood on her toes to kiss my right cheek.

“Lorenzo!” she said, but quietly, not to wake Esteban. “I didn’t know you were in town.” I walked behind her inside the house. She placed Esteban in a bassinet close to the couch and sat down next to me.

“Angelina’s been so busy with work,” she said. “She was spending over a thousand dollars on daycare every month. so I thought I could help her out since I don’t have much to do ever since I retired. How have you been with your job?”

“Good,” I told her. “My students were great this year.” She couldn’t stop smiling.

“Angelina and Tony just bought a house in Alamo Heights,” Mom said as she rocked Esteban’s bassinet. “I never thought Tony would get a good job, but he seems to have finally grown up. You remember how much I hated him when Angelina brought him home.”

“I remember,” I nodded. “Listen, Mom. I can’t stay too long. I’m staying with Aunt Terry right now and the drive here took me way longer than I thought, so I should get going soon.”

“With Aunt Terry? You mean you’re living with Lucifer?” she said.

“Aunt Terry called me and said she needed help taking care of him.”

“Does he need help sharpening his pitchfork?”

“Mom, he’s really old now and I thought it would be the right thing to do, I’m only doing it for Aunt Ter—” I said, but she only kept on comparing Uncle Efrain to the devil and honestly, I understood why. It was amazing Aunt Terry even married him and stayed with him for so long.

“Lorenzo, you let that old demon go to the hell where he belongs, you understand me?” Mom said. This time, she didn’t watch her tone and Esteban woke up in tears.

“See? Speaking of the devil makes this boy cry,” Mom said as she cradled Esteban in her arms. “How long are you here for?”

“I’m thinking three weeks, but I could be here longer,” I told her.

“Dad works part time at the hardware store now,” she said. “He gets home around five o’clock during the week. I serve dinner at six, if you’re ever hungry.”

“I’ll keep that in mind, Mom,” I said and gave her a hug.

“Don’t be surprised if you lose your appetite while living with Lucifer,” she said as she walked me to the door. “How do you think Aunt Terry has kept her figure so slim?”

“She’s a nurse, Mom, she’s always on her feet.”

“Nurse shmurse,” she said, clicking her tongue against her teeth. “If I was married to Lucifer, I’d throw up every time I saw him.”

Aunt Terry woke up from her nap when I arrived. Uncle Efrain stood in the kitchen, washing the dishes by banging the plates together.

“Stop it, Efrainito, you’ll break them all!” Aunt Terry said over the noise.

“Good! That way Lorenzo won’t eat any of our food!” he shouted. Aunt Terry twisted her lips. She brushed a hand on my right arm.

“You know, I think I saw some trash cans for sale at H-E-B,” she said. “Christmas should come early for Uncle Efrain.”

As the days passed, I either got used to living with Uncle Efrain or I didn’t care about him much anymore. I wasn’t really sure. Every morning, he refused to let me make him breakfast and he would not sit next to me during dinner, no matter how much Aunt Terry pleaded him to do so. For almost anything I said, he brought Mom into the conversation. During one afternoon, as I attempted to help him dust the furniture, he snatched the polish can from my hand. He threw the polish across the room and it landed on a small statue of a cherub, breaking the poor little angel’s head off.

“A can of polish!” he shouted, waving his arms in the air. “Like your mother! Half Mexican, half Polish, what an imposter!”

“No, Uncle Efrain, she’s half pole-lish, not pah-lish,” I said.

“It’s the same damned thing, you idiot!” he shouted louder.

While Uncle Efrain took a nap, I tidied up the bedroom since Aunt Terry asked me to before she left for work. He was on new medication that made him very drowsy. He slept eight hours a night, woke up to scream at me, and then fell asleep once more after breakfast. I folded his clothes, arranged his pills, and wiped the musty windows until the glass shined. Uncle Efrain snored heavily against the dirty pillow under his head. A picture frame rested next to his nose. I picked it up quietly. It was a photo of Alejandro when he was around 18 years old.

Aunt Terry took a couple days off from work, so I finally had the chance to visit Angelina and Tony in Alamo Heights. Mom and Dad were there to drop off Esteban for the evening. Dad put an arm around my shoulders. He tugged me by my ear.

“Mom says you’re taking care of a demon.”

“It’s Uncle Efrain, Dad.”

“Close enough,” he said. “You’re very brave.”

My sister Angelina was only five when Alejandro died, so she didn’t remember anything about him. Pictures of Alejandro were plastered all over her house, including a large portrait of him above the leather couch in the living room.

“This is a great house,” I told Angelina.

“It was expensive,” Tony butted in. “You have no idea how screwed up our debts are now. I wanted to live in my old neighborhood, but your sister says the school zone over there isn’t nice enough for Esteban. If Esteban goes to my old elementary school, he’s gonna learn math, reading, and how to beat the crap out of a bully.”

“Tony, shut up,” Angelina said as she picked up Esteban from his rubber play mat. “Thank you for the compliment, Renzo. We are not screwed up, this was an auction house and since nobody bid after us, we got it cheap.”

“Not as cheap as you think, Renzo,” Tony said and Angelina shooed him away. Mom and Dad sat down on the couch, drinking glasses of lemonade. Dad motioned his head around, looking at all the pictures of Alejandro.

“How’s work, big brother?” Angelina asked me with a whimpering Esteban in her arms.

“Same as always,” I said. “Teaching kids to stop dropping their cameras. I’m living with Aunt Terry and Uncle Efrain right now. It’s only until Uncle Efrain’s not so sick anymore.”

“Who the hell is Uncle Efrain?” Tony said, stirring his drink with his finger.

“He’s the guy who crashed into your wedding cake,” I said. Tony cleared his throat. He stared at me, blank faced.

“Is that the same guy who played the harmonica during the reception?” Tony said. “His playing was so terrible, it sounded like someone farting into a megaphone.”

“Tony, don’t talk like that in front of the baby,” Angelina said, pointing at him.

“What that kid does in his diapers is dirtier than my way of talking,” he answered. Mom twisted her lips and pulled on her ear, which was her way of telling Dad she wanted to leave. Dad didn’t notice her though. His eyes were still focused on the pictures of Alejandro.

The next morning, I took Uncle Efrain to his doctor’s appointment in Alamo Heights. The medical office was close to Angelina and Tony’s house, so I mentioned this to him during our drive. Uncle Efrain hadn’t seen Angelina or Tony since their wedding nor had he ever met Esteban. He muttered something to himself and then spit on the floor of my car.

“They bought a house in this fancy neighborhood?” he said. “I always knew that husband of your sister’s was a drug dealer.”

“Tony’s a math professor, he doesn’t know anything about drugs.”

“Well, he’s got to count the money he earns from selling all those drugs on the streets, doesn’t he?” Uncle Efrain said. “Angelina looks exactly like your mother. She’s lucky to have a husband with a face like that.”

I waited for Uncle Efrain for over an hour in the waiting room. All the doctor did was prescribe him another batch of medications. The side effects included drowsiness, lethargy, and increased sleeping, which I was grateful to hear.

In the car, Uncle Efrain insulted every pedestrian who passed by. I felt a little hungry, so I suggested we go grab something to eat before going home. Uncle Efrain shook his head repeatedly as he mumbled, “No, no, no, I can’t eat with you in my face.”

“Let’s go to that place you used to take me when I was little,” I said. “Mi Tierra, right? I haven’t eaten there since my dad died.”

“I haven’t either,” he said with strain in his voice. He shook his head more, but eventually he agreed to go with me. The road we were on abruptly plunged. I hastily slowed the car down, making Uncle Efrain fly forward in his seat.

“You idiot,” he said. “You were born and raised in San Antonio and you still forget about the damned hilly roads!”

At Mi Tierra, we were seated at a table by the window. We shared a plate of chicken fajitas with rice and beans and some sweet bread for dessert. Uncle Efrain was silent for most of the time. When he did speak, it was only “pass me the salt” or “stop eating all the guacamole, you giant jerk.” I sat back in my chair, chewing on some rice and observing his face. If Alejandro ever had the chance to grow old, he would have looked like Uncle Efrain. They had the same telephone pole legs, floppy bellies, and thinning hair. He finished his part of the skillet, tossed his napkin across the table, and reached over to me.

“Why couldn’t you look like him, Renzo?” he asked. “I wish I could see him in you.”

It had been over a month since I temporarily moved back to San Antonio. I missed my house in Galveston, despite its cramped design. The house was mine. I was free to leave the dishes in the sink all day if I wanted to. I didn’t have to clean up after a grumpy old man. I could sleep in my own bed without hearing Uncle Efrain complain about me or anyone else who breathed. Aunt Terry begged me to stay longer, but I told her to at least let me stay with my parents or with Angelina and Tony.

“I know your uncle is tough to handle,” she said. “I’ve been married to him for 40 years, believe me, I am certain of it.”

“He’s not getting any better,” I admitted. “He goes to the doctor, gets new pills, and as soon as we get home, he yells at the ceiling’s paint for being too bright.”

“Renzito,” Aunt Terry said and patted my back. “You might think your uncle hates you, but he’s just not very good at showing his true feelings.”

“This morning, he told me he would rather throw up all day than eat breakfast with me,” I said. “I’ll stay here one more week and that’s it.”

Even though I only planned another week, I stayed in San Antonio much longer. It wasn’t that I cared about Uncle Efrain, but because Dad needed surgery. He went to the doctor for constant short breath and he found out his arteries were clogged. If he hadn’t gone to the doctor, he would have been dead by the end of the year.

Dad’s surgery went well. He stayed in the recovery area of Santa Rosa Hospital. I visited him with Aunt Terry four times. Uncle Efrain refused to come with us. He said Dad was nothing but a home wrecker and he would never change his mindset about him.

In order to be closer to the San Antonio hospital district in case something else happened, Mom and Dad temporarily moved in with Angelina and Tony. I split my time between Uncle Efrain and Dad. I didn’t mind taking care of Dad, but Uncle Efrain had his own strong opinion about it. When Aunt Terry came home from work, I headed towards the front door, and Uncle Efrain never failed to shout “Home wreckers don’t need to live.”

Dad was doing well, much better than Uncle Efrain. I helped Mom prepare meals for him and he gladly ate all of his food. He wasn’t allowed to lift anything, so whenever he wanted to hold Esteban, I placed him in Dad’s lap. Dad rocked Esteban from side to side using his legs. He liked leaning down and kissing the top of Esteban’s head. Dad never had any kids of his own before he met Mom and when they first got married, Mom let him know she was done having children. I never asked if he regretted not having kids that were biologically his own. I have a feeling he didn’t mind.

In late July, after two months of living with Aunt Terry and Uncle Efrain, I told Aunt Terry it was time for me to go home. Dad recovered quickly and fully and he was back home with Mom. Uncle Efrain remained the same. His blood pressure spiked every day, his cholesterol was out of control, and his grumpiness got worse with his new medications. Aunt Terry begged me to stay for one more week. I shook my head vigorously, but then she dropped down to her knees. She held my hands to her cheeks. They felt frozen against my palms.

“Renzito,” she said with her voice breaking. “He’s dying.”

“What are you talking about?” I said. “I take him to the doctor all the time and they haven’t told me anything.”

“He has heart failure,” she said. A few tears rolled down her face. She licked them away once they reached her mouth. “The doctors can’t do anything but give him pills and the pills don’t really work, they only make him more comfortable. At this point, surgery won’t help and neither would a transplant. I don’t want him to die alone, Renzito.”

“Do you think he wants to die with me? Look, Aunt Terry, I’ve always loved you, that’s why I did you this favour. I can’t stay here anymore. I need to go home.” Aunt Terry rose up from her knees. She focused her eyes on the floor before looking up at me.

“A week is probably all he has left in him,” she said. “I have a month off from work so I will be here when it happens.”

“Then what do you need me here for?”

“I need someone to help me through it,” Aunt Terry said. “Your uncle and I never had children. He didn’t want them. I don’t have anyone else to talk to when he’s in a mood and with him gone, who will I have?”

Uncle Efrain didn’t seem afraid of death. I was certain he knew about his condition, but he appeared unbothered. He still sat in front of the television eating potato chips, except now he sprinkled them with bacon bits he fried in lard. He did not sit anywhere near me during meals nor would he let me give him his medications. Whenever I handed the bottle to him, he grabbed it and threw it across the room. He said he didn’t want them anymore.

To Aunt Terry’s surprise, Uncle Efrain lived past his death date. She went out to the pharmacy to get him some cough drops for his dry throat the following Monday. Uncle Efrain did not seem any weaker. In fact, he threw a bottle of his cholesterol medication from the living room couch all the way into the kitchen sink, a new record for him. Aunt Terry tried to get him out of the house, but he turned her down over and over.

“Your time is coming up and you want to sit in this house until it happens?” she asked.

“Yes! Where are you planning on taking me anyway?”

“I thought you might want to see the Alamo one last time or maybe we could finally get on a boat in Riverwalk. We’ve never ridden on the boats together, Efrain.”

“I’m not stupid. You’re planning to throw me overboard, aren’t you, woman?”

“Uncle Efrain, that water isn’t deep enough to drown you, it’s only three or four feet,” I said. “If Aunt Terry pushes you off the boat, you could stand up and climb back in.”

“So you know how deep the water is?” he asked. “You’ve been researching! I should have known. I never believed a mad husband killed your father. Your mother must have done it or she must have hired that Ramon to do it for her.”

Uncle Efrain lived on another week. Now it was almost the middle of August and I had to go back to Galveston in a few days for employee workshops. I began loading up my car so I could easily take off when the time came. On my second to last day in San Antonio, Uncle Efrain spotted me pushing my backpack into my car. He tapped me on my shoulder three times.

“What do you say we get some lunch?” he asked. It was the softest tone he ever used during my stay with him.

“I thought Aunt Terry was cooking something,” I said.

“That’s not for us, it’s for your stepfather. She’s going to visit him so we men have the day to ourselves. What about Mi Tierra?”

“Sure, Uncle Efrain,” I said. “Give me about 15 minutes to make a place for you to sit in this car and we’ll go.”

At Mi Tierra, Uncle Efrain didn’t eat much. We shared a skillet of fajitas once more, though I ate most of the meal. I ordered two sides of guacamole so he wouldn’t shout at me for eating too much, but he didn’t bother to touch his portion at all.

“I used to bring your dad here all the time,” Uncle Efrain said when I was almost finished eating. “Breakfast, lunch, dinner, we came here. His favourite thing to eat was the bean and cheese breakfast taco. It didn’t matter if it was t10 o’clock at night, he wanted his taco.”

“He bought some of those for me when I was a kid,” I said. “He got them because I made honour roll in second grade. But he ate them all before I could have any.”

After we were done eating, Uncle Efrain and I sat on a bench in front of Mi Tierra. A statue of a mariachi stood next to us. The statue was covered in heaps of Christmas lights despite the summer season. Uncle Efrain bent himself over to pick up a penny next to his foot. He grabbed the little coin and tossed it in the air, asking me for heads or tails.

“Heads is fine,” I said. The coin landed in his palm. It was on tails.

“Can’t even win a coin toss,” he said. “What did your father teach you? You never call heads. You always call tails. Tails is the lucky side.”

“It’s 50-50, both sides have the same chance.”

“Of course they don’t,” he said. “Two sides mean nothing. You hear the saying, there’s two sides to every story. That’s crap. Every story has way more than two sides. You’ve probably heard a lot of stories about how your father died, haven’t you?”

“I figured it out eventually,” I said. “I know it wasn’t a drunk driver.”

“No, it wasn’t,” he agreed with me for probably the first time in my life. “I’m not going to bore you with my version, but I will say it was mostly his fault. If he hadn’t been doing certain things, he would still be alive. He would have come to Mi Tierra with us and gotten his favorite taco. He screwed up, Renzo. That’s what killed him.”

I took Uncle Efrain home before it got dark. Aunt Terry was still in New Braunfels and she left a note for me in the kitchen. It said she wouldn’t be back until late and if Uncle Efrain wanted dinner, I could cook him a fried egg with rice. I waited two hours before asking him if he was hungry. He declined a meal, saying he was still full from lunch.

“When is your aunt Terry coming home? She’s been wiping Ramon’s ass all day long. Doesn’t she know I need her here with me?”

“Aunt Terry loves talking to people, she’s probably telling them a story.”

“That woman talks so much,” he said, easing himself up from the couch. “She dragged me to San Fernando’s Cathedral a week after we got married. She grabbed one of the whatever you call them guys, priests, I don’t know, and she said, ‘Efrain, ask him to bless our marriage.’ I said to him, ‘You wanna bless us? Make me deaf and make her mute.’”

“I don’t think they have magical powers, Uncle Efrain,” I said.

“Oh, they do. Before you go to church, you have a full wallet. You leave with nothing. Those guys make your money disappear.”

I woke up early the next morning to visit Angelina, Tony, and Esteban one last time. We were going out for breakfast and later in the day, I planned to stop by my parents’ house on my drive back to Galveston. After telling Aunt Terry goodbye, I went into the kitchen for a quick breakfast. Uncle Efrain was awake, stirring his coffee with a toothpick. I offered him a spoon and he grunted heavily.

“I made you this, Renzo,” he said and pushed a mass of aluminum foil to me. I unraveled the foil, seeing it was a large bean and cheese taco.

“I bet you’re happy this is the last time you’ll ever see me,” he continued.

“That’s not true,” I said, though I wasn’t sure if I was lying to him or not. “I hope when you go, it doesn’t hurt you.”

“If I die tonight, it will be because your aunt talked me to death,” he said.

“Goodbye, Uncle Efrain,” I said. “I’ll see you later.” He shook his head many times.

“Watch out for the unleveled roads,” he said. “Don’t slow down so damned fast either, you could get yourself killed. Oh, and thanks for never calling me Lucifer to my face.”

I went out to my car as he watched me from the front window. I waved to him and he waved back with his coffee cup tight in his hand.

4 comments

  1. JAZZ

    I found the story line here highly improbable. I kept reading it hoping it would become interesting — it didn’t.

  2. Wizard

    Interesting story. I liked it. Though I was expecting some earth shattering revelation from Uncle Efrain. It felt like it was building up to something but it didn’t. it was just like real life and that’s fine.

  3. Katy Martinez

    Very interesting story. It caught my attention. Very realistic of the Hispanic culture.

  4. Joyce Schachter

    Skillful story telling. I was waiting for “something” to happen, and when Elfrain does change, we don’t know why, only see a subtle shift in his behaviour and how he holds his cup tight. The only thing he has to hang on to. Darlene superimposes our expectations in life and in art and made me question mine.

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