Hard Hearts and Hard Heads
Can love and be wise at the same time?
Humberto Gill?ín was riding out the gran l?ístima--Gladys Letesmo, once his unceasing enchantment, was now a severe X. He sat in Belvedere Park amid forsaken benches, uninspired flowers while hearing soft voices in particular breezes. He reflected on dancing spirits among the shade trees, grassy slopes, and love goddesses who come down to men, stretching out their hands while offering consoling sighs. Time was lost. Mid afternoon, he offered up his lunch at the foot of an impressive tree, looking up in supplication to the tree that stared down in the arrogant indifference of madera.
Published on LatinoLA: January 11, 2011
It was a warm day--June 6--he liked to be certain regarding dates. He even remembered ages, locations and weather of principal events. First fallen tooth, bout with mumps, first pimples intermixed with first chingasos, first love, and first night in jail. They were markers of time that the gods use to change caballos, making vatos like Humberto whistle a different tune at intervals down the river of life. He carried on, knowing dictators, celebrities and sports heroes are also puppets on strings held by those malicious puppeteers, the gods, who leave not much behind in their wake save Time, El Healer Famoso, the dude with the scooper.
Jerks, Humberto thought--in reference to these gods--and the caballos they rode in on.
"You know," Humberto said to his camarada and confidant Miguel Cinama, "I was hoping to call her 'Vieja' and her call me 'Viejo' well into the future as we wrinkled together in our sala, sipping on canela and chewing on prunes while exchanging coughing fits."
Humberto and Miguel were buying each other the cheap beer at the Pit N' Bull, a tiny bar located in a remote corner of East Los Angeles. Humberto was doing most of the buying, for he considered Miguel one of the finest vatos to ever slide onto a bar stool or fall off one.
"No kidding?" Miguel said.
"Why are you looking at me en ese modo?"
"The one on your face."
"Well, I didn't think you planned beyond the next party."
"That's how I knew it was her, bro. My whole future began to flash before me every time we were together. It was creepyÔÇªlike out-of-body stuff."
"I'm convinced. You fell hard."
"Like a sack of papas. I see her face instead of the food on my plate. She flattened me and tore out my innards. Now I feel like road kill with the vultures pecking at my heart and liver. She is a mean-souled chica and a ninny."
"What happened anyway?"
"Nothing. A reasonable woman would have paid little mind to it. I only said that I didn't know why I loved her. That was it. She then proceeded to turn all kinds of colors like that lizard that lives somewhere. Then she turned as pale as Michael Jackson. How could any girl, except fathead Gladys Letesmo"--for that was her name without the "fathead"--"take offense to telling her how I felt?"
Miguel scratched his head briskly as if rearranging the grey matter. "Women having funny ideas about words. You got to be careful hombre when you string words around them. Women will throw their morning toast at you while it's still in the toaster if the words don't come out right."
"She won't get the chance. If I would see her drowning, I would throw her a cement block. Make that two."
"How does she feel?"
"She told me to go the tallest building in L.A. and flap my arms then take a leap toward Long Beach."
"Sounds like it's over."
"Over and buried nine hundred feet. She also said she never wanted to see or smell me again. She added that I should go to a big wide street then dash in front of as many beer trucks as I could find."
Two blocks north on Dangler Avenue and one block east on Hammel Street rested Gladys Letesmo in her bedroom. Her face looked as lifeless as a Latina Barbie. The once sparkle in her lustrous eyes had faded. Now her eyes matched those of a frozen halibut. She was caught in that zone of torture where a woman wants to erase a man from her memory bank then has his face come floating in with a ridiculous grin on it. To further her torture, she had always considered herself a one-man woman. She and Humberto were joined at the lips. They had grown up in the same sandbox, throwing sand at each other and pulling each other's pelo. A forlorn smile came to her. She erased it with a smack to her forehead with the palm of a hand. Humberto was no more, she told herself. She was then vowing never to think about Humberto again, when her doorbell rang which made her think of Humberto again. She suspected he was coming to grovel, getting down on knees and elbows. She would land patadas on key points of his cuerpo then tell him to get himself and his trailing slime off her porch.
She ran to a mirror, brushed her hair, checked her makeup, then smoothed her blouse. She rushed to the door, a smug, toothy smile decorating her face. She flung the door open to her friend Rosa Mientral.
"You look funny," Rosa said as she rushed in, "like you swallowed a mosca."
"It has to do with a mosca, but I didn't swallow one."
Gladys had met Rosa when both worked as waitresses at El Gallo Amarillo restaurant on south Alvarado. Rosa left when she secured employment in the banking industry, being keen with figures. Gladys left "Just because," as she told anyone who would ask.
"Why you look like you lost something?"
"Good thing it wasn't Humberto or you would be very sad."
"It was Humberto and I'm very happy."
"?íNo! ??De veras?"
"On a stack of Biblias with a roomful of santos around me."
"Pero, you and he were like chorizo con huevos."
"We ended up like a cata y un perro. I hope he falls down and breaks his back in three parts."
"I cannot believe my years. Are you sure it was Humberto?"
"It was him--same shark eyes, pointed nariz and vanishing pelo."
Gladys invited Rosa to ice tea with Biscotti.
"You know what the dingo said?" Gladys continued.
"Tell me," Rosa said snipping at her Biscotti.
"He said he didn't know why he loved me."
"He say that?"
"He might as well have said he doesn't know why he even bothers with me."
"You weren't listening to a telenovela at the same time, were you? Maybe you confused one pepino with another."
"His mouth was moving. And he was smiling."
"Why do those pescados always smile when they think they have said something reel cute. I could kick them all in the teeth," Rosa said reaching for another Biscotti.
There followed moments of silence while Gladys thought of various ways she could afflict Humberto while Rosa worked her way to the next Biscotti. Before their breakup, Humberto had always been a cheerful thought away. Gladys now felt at odds with her feelings. It was as if someone had just informed her she had a twin in El Paso. Or she saw her mother hoofing it on Dancing with the Stars.
"You're looking funny again," Rosa said, working on that third Biscotti, "like when that customer at El Gallo Amarillo said he was from some planet long ago and far away and wanted to take you there to live with him."
"I always thought I would bury Humberto, him dying in his bed with his children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren and a few vecinos looking on. I was looking forward to visiting his grave."
"You can still do that but you have to wait until after he dies."
"I don't ever want to see him again, alive or buried. You know what I want to do to him, Rosa?"
"Kick him to Yan Beaver's lap in Arizona?"
"I want to pull his remaining hair from the roots, twist his nose in several directions, and then boil him in oil."
"And you and the calabaza were together, like, por a??os."
"Talk about wasted years." Gladys's voice then melted into a series of sighs sounding like slowing escaping aire from two llantas. It was too late for helpful conversation, Rosa thought. Tears were seeping out of Gladys's eyes. Rosa wished she were not crying then thought who, alas! Can love and be wise at the same time?
Gladys truly did want to be done with him. She thought of him then felt miserable. "I don't love him!" she said while thinking, "I love him."
As she worked on her fourth Biscotti, Rosa committed to helping Gladys who had helped Rosa with four cumplea??os, two quincea??eras, and one baptismo. She had never met Humberto but she knew that Gladys and Humberto had been together since both were mocosos. The heavens above and the smog below decreed their union. Moreover, Gladys knew Humberto like the back of her cell phone. According to Gladys, Humberto was aware what she wanted him to say before he said it. He knew what to think before she told him to think it. Were they not married in spirit? Rosa asked herself. She went home to scheme.
Her line of attack was to bring them together one more time. With solid refereeing, they could have a no holds barred verbally abusive conversation. They could vent like two neighborly volcanoes then dive into each other's arms vowing never to do whatever again. ?íHijole! she said to herself. She might have a career writing lusty novellas. Her eyes sparkled with visions of d??lares leading to showy carros and an overpriced casa. Maybe a casa along the beach in Baja, listening to Juan Gabriel while sipping whiskey sours into the night. Who needs love? she asked herself, when you can pawn it off on others and get rich from their gloom. There is big money in love, she concluded, as long as you stay out of the lucha. She would visit Miguel. Although they had never met, Gladys had pointed out his house to Rosa several times, smiling each time.
A few hours later and fewer miles away, Miguel and Humberto were marinated with beer. Both were leaning to and fro, making it hard for the casual observer to determine who was propping whom.
"I yam' na' goin'," Miguel said.
"Na' goin' wher?" Humbeto said, reeling on his barstool like a sapling in an Arctic wind.
"I don' wan' youÔÇªyou brek up," Miguel then said with no little emotion.
"Bud ah like been free. 'Specially from a fadhed. I fel' like somethin' lift fro'--hic--ma' univerze. Ged me?"
Miguel nodded his head vigorously as if it were being pumped by hydraulics. Nevertheless, he had no intention to see his friend's romance wither on any barrio vine. He said, "Yez, I ged you bud you an' er' belon' widÔÇªwidÔÇªAw'll 'av 'er eating out of ma' manoz."
"You mean my manoz, don' you?"
"An' shull appreÔÇªappre--" Miguel's words trailed off but he had displayed enough empathy to leave Humberto feeling Miguel was, indeed, a pal for the ages. Or at least for one more cerveza.
The owner of the Pit N' Bull, seeing after his investments, drove them home. Miguel and Humberto were two of his best customers. Humberto fell into his bed to a formidable sleep, confident his camarada would arrange it all. Then morning attacked and his head felt as if Vulcan and associates were forging it on an anvil. That is when a series of rapid knocks on his door resounded in Humberto's head like a troupe of crazed Taiko drummers. He was hoping it was part of the obligatory nightmare following a night of pistiando.
"It is me," the feminine voice said, "I come to explain."
The voice was chimerical to him, so he turned over to find another dream. The knocking resumed. He raised his head, not sure if the knocking was within or without his coconut.
"I wone go away. Might as well open up and face the music."
Although it took every effort for Humberto to sit up, he did. That did not solve his problem--the knocking continued.
"I'll be there. Hold your britches."
"I don't have breeches. I have on un vestido."
His stomach wanted to run to the restroom, with or without him. He haltingly made his way to the door. He opened just as Rosa had wound her hand into a compact fist for another go at it.
"Who are you?" he greeted the petite and enchanting woman before him. She smiled as she whizzed right by him into the room. He turned and closed the door, hoping to catch another glimpse of this fantastic fantasma before it disappeared with the rest of his hangover. Her lengthy jet-black hair waved around as if she were a submerged mermaid in the deep blue. Her dress was of a flowered pattern that graced and outlined her body as if no other woman could or would ever wear the same dress. Then she turned and Humberto laid his tired, red eyes once more on that most exquisite face with wide brown eyes, full lips and gracefully aquiline nose. He waited for her slow vaporization but she stayed put.
"I am the hope of your love," she said.
"You're staying," he said to confirm vaporization was not on the program.
"For just a little bit. You look terrible. Like someone dug you up after years of being enterrado."
"Are you my Guardian Angel? Are you in the wrong house? Are you an exceptional hangover?"
"None of those. I am here to make sure you get married with my friend."
"Sure, bring her over, and if she is breathing, I'll take her."
"This is no time for jokes. This is serious."
"Speaking of serious, have a seat, I--" Humberto began but his stomach demanded that he trim the speech. He sprinted to the restroom.
Rosa did not sit down but wandered about the room, hoping to find hints, clues and inklings of this man her friend had once described as a caballero on a white horse but now considered him un pestoso on a mule. His apartment looked like a morgue holding room. The walls were bare of fixtures, the windows without curtains. There was a firm drabness she would give a week's pay to undrab. She would start with the TV, which looked as if should be hanging in the Smithsonian. The furniture appeared post-something. She was about to peek into his kitchenette, when she heard Humberto's unstable footsteps.
"Excuse me, but I'm not very happy," he said upon his return.
"I can tell by the way you decorate."
"It's not one of my interests."
"It looks more like one of your hatreds."
"I didn't catch why you were here."
The thought of Gladys moved Rosa who pictured the vacant face, the disconsolate state. "Did you know," she said at length, "that there's a bird, I can't remember what kind, but it lives by the ocean--"
"--and when it mates, it swells its neck, opens its beak and spits out globs of undigested comida. Do you know that?"
"No, but I'm behind in my bird literatura."
"Adem?ís, did you know that there's this scorpion in Sur America that when you molestar it, it gets so mad, so frustrated, it stings itself to death?"
"You don't say?"
"I do say and have always said and will always say."
"My head hurts a la fregada."
"?íEso es! My very point!" Rosa beamed proudly as if just winning a round at The Daniel Webster Debating Society. "You are like the bird and someone else, I'm not saying qui?®n, is like the scorpion."
"Did Gladys send you?"
"Ni modo. She would kill you if she found out I came."
"Why would she kill me? I didn't tell you to go anywhere."
"No matter. What counts is that I'm here, hombre. The here and the ahora. Jennifer and whoever. Like you and Gladys."
"I have parted ways with La Llorona."
"You know, she really cares for you. You should run to her house and give her a big abrazo."
"I don't like hugging blocks of hielo."
While Rosa was debating with Humberto, Miguel was taking a shower while nursing his Pit N' Bull headache. He had a strategy to convince Gladys that, overall, Humberto could be fun. Sure, he could say uniquely stupid things in uniquely stupid ways, but so do other people. Look at all the politicians walking around with a foot in their bocas, sometimes two.
"What do you want?" Gladys told Miguel when he arrived at her door. She had met Miguel when he helped Humberto fix her leaking kitchen faucet. She admired his tall stature, chiseled, handsome face, and respectful demeanor, although his demeanor was a bit bleached now. He was also presently a feo to Gladys since she suspected he was here on behalf of the arch feo of L.A. County, Humberto.
"For you to jump into Humberto's arms."
"I'll jump into El Cucuy's first."
"I had a serious talk with him last night."
"Translation: You both got pedo."
"We had a few."
"Did he send you?"
"You'll have to take that up with him. In the meantime, I want you and him to run off somewhere. You know, wrap yourselves around each other, sob, laugh, sob some more then get tired of the moaning and admit breaking up takes too much energy then plan the wedding."
"I rather plan his funeral."
"The man is tearing his hair out over you."
"He doesn't have any to tear anywhere."
"I meant that figuratively."
"However you mean it, he can't do it. But that's not the only thing the banana can't do. He can't be gracious."
"He bought most the beer last night."
"I don't like beer."
"Forget the beer. I mean, he'll be nice to you while you both sit around farting and getting old."
"He said something like that. You should have been there. You would have cried like a muchacha and leaped into his brazos."
"You need to find an asylum."
Back at Humberto's, Rosa gave up, jumped in her car, ready to inform Gladys that maybe she had wasted all her life on Humberto after all. At the very same moment, Gladys ordered Miguel to leave and to tell Humberto to keep looking for beer trucks, the bigger the better. Rosa pulled up and dashed up to the gate. Miguel dashed toward the identical gate. With heads down, they both were mumbling proclamations to the effect that one should never interfere with empty-headed lovers and their quarrels. Rosa mumbled inches from the gate as Miguel did the same from the opposite side. Then Rosa and Miguel met for the first time--bumping heads like two solid cue balls, with nearly identical resonance. Rosa went backwards, her bottom kissing the sidewalk passionately. Miguel reeled, holding his head as if to keep it on his shoulders.
"How come you walk without seeing?" Rosa philosophized from her strategic position.
"Let me help you up," Miguel said extending an arm.
Rosa looked at him as if he was eager to knock heads again. She cautiously extended an arm. On the upward swing, they caught a good look at each other. Nothing else mattered. They had each gone to patch love only to find it. And only after one solid cabezada. After proper dusting off, they strolled together to the botica to buy aspirin.
Rosa did not return to Gladys's to nibble on Biscotti sticks. Some people wander in and out of lives, Gladys reckoned. She wondered if Humberto took a leap or found a suitably large beer wagon.
Humberto returned to the park. A disinterested summer moved on. He looked for that lovely fantasma, the one from his hangover. He hoped to see her fluttering around the trees. And he missed his beer pal Miguel who was AWOL from his barstool. At dusk, he was sure he saw Gladys riding away on a caballo ridden by one of those gods, grasping his long hair.
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