The wife brought the old man into the kitchen holding him up by the arm and steadied him as she reached for a chair. Having placed the chair behind him, she pushed him down gently, and he quivered and shook as he descended slowly into the chair. She took his hat off and threw it on the chair next to him.
“Be careful with my hat,” he said in Spanish. “It cost a pretty penny.”
“I don’t see why he needs a hat,” the wife said to me, completely ignoring him. “He never goes anywhere. Never even goes outside the house. Why the hat? I’ll never know.”
He remained silent, looking out the window. He was old and useless and could hardly walk.
“Get me some coffee,” he said, rapping on the table with a little authority. “And some crackers,” he added.
She took her time heating the coffee, and it seemed to irritate him. Finally, after much waiting and nervous anticipation on his part, she brought the coffee and a cracker and placed them before him on the table. There was an air of defiance on her part, and I couldn’t help but think that it was an odd type of behavior after such a long marriage. I would have thought that, by now, she would have forgiven him for any pain that he had caused her.
The cup rattled as he picked it up from the saucer. He shook the cup as he brought it to his lips. After sucking mostly air, he said, “This coffee is too hot,” and he placed the cup back with difficulty.
“He always complains,” the wife said. “The coffee is too hot! The coffee is too cold!” She was standing behind a small counter that separated the kitchen from the dining table.
He ignored her and looked at me with more intensity than I had seen during the day that I had been there. His one good eye (the right one had a cataract) seemed to penetrate through me, and after a while it seemed to water excessively. Little did I know at the time that he was trying to size me up to be sure I could appreciate an event that had left a terrible impression on him.
“I must tell you what happened to me in 1900 when I was ten years old.”
The wife stood up straight and went over to the sink. “He’s going to tell the wedding story again. I’ll bet my life he’s going to do it.” She looked at me and raised her hand and pointed to her temple with her index finger and made a circle in the air. “He’s a little crazy from old age,” she said aloud.
“The story concerns a wedding that I attended at a ranch near my childhood home. It was a typical ranch wedding. We, the children, were having a good time riding horses, throwing rocks at birds, and all the things children our age will do. But I’m ahead of the story.” He took a drink from the cup, spilling a good deal. “The coffee is much better now. At least I can drink it.”
He took a small piece of cracker and placed it as gently in his mouth as if he were taking communion. He followed with another sip of coffee, and then he chewed slowly, ruminating.
“In those days people were very mean,” he said. It amused me that he made that statement. After all, it didn’t seem to be logically connected to what we were talking about. “I don’t know why they were. We don’t see meanness like that very often anymore. Oh yes, one could say that our neighbor here on my right is not good, is lazy, but he is not mean.”
“Don’t talk about the neighbors. Don’t you know any better?”
“He’s always been a bad neighbor, very lazy and a scoundrel. But that’s not important. I know he’s lazy and a thief. Didn’t he steal my rake?” he asked me. I didn’t know.
“Your rake is in the garage underneath all the pile of garbage that you never cleaned in forty years of living in this house. Don’t accuse the neighbors of anything. You’re the one who is lazy and a scoundrel.”
“The neighbor to my left is just as bad. He beats his wife until the poor woman comes running to us for help. But what can I do at my age? I’m ninety-two years old. I’ll be ninety-three in eight months. If I were younger I would show him that to hit a woman is a sin against the natural order, besides it’s against the law.”
His wife was now sitting in a wooden chair across the counter. She was rolling her sleeves. “You certainly did a lot of hitting when you were younger, and I have the scars to prove it.”
He looked past the woman as if she were not there. “To hit a woman as he hits her is against all the laws of man. But what can you do? They say she goes out on him, and at night, I seem to see a car go slowly by. I may be wrong. But I do notice that the car slows down in front of the house, and it always passes by when the husband is not around. What do you make of that?”
“He hit me many time when he came home drunk,” she said to me. “But what could I do? I had children to think of. If it hadn’t been for them, I would have left him years and years ago. Now the children are grown, don’t like him, and don’t come to visit him. I’m here stuck with him not able to see my children. I’m not sure they appreciate what I did for them. It was hard, very hard. And then he would take after the children and almost kill them with blows. He would be so drunk that he wouldn’t remember, but I’ll tell you this, the children never forgot, and they never forgave. Right now he could die, right where he sits, and they wouldn’t care. This is the legacy that he has left behind. What is cruel for me is that, in his old age, he had no remorse. How can he? He doesn’t know what day it is.”
I had the feeling that I was being brought into the conversation, and I didn’t want to become involved. The woman wanted desperately for me to agree with her. The old man was ignoring her.
“One night she came in running and had blood all over her clothes. The other neighbor, of course, could care less. When I asked him about it, he said it wasn’t any of his business, that he was having trouble with his wife also. To think that this is where we wound up living, among these savages. But they aren’t as mean as the brothers I was going to tell you about. Do you want some more coffee?”
I replied that I had enough.
“If you need some more, just ask,” he said. “Just as if you were in your own home.”
“They were three brothers, mean as wolves, and they delighted in creating trouble wherever they went. Never was a person at peace when they were around. Let me tell you that they one time killed a young calf in front of his owner and asked him if he was going to fight about it. The poor man said no. Who would fight someone like that and especially when there were three?” He pointed three raised fingers at me.
“The week before the wedding they had had an altercation with the bride’s father. Nothing serious by anyone’s standards. The old man happened to be drinking beer at a tavern, and he said something about another man, an acquaintance of his, an innocent remark in any case, except that the brothers were there, and they took exception to the man’s remark. They claimed the man being talked about was their uncle. Can you imagine that? They probably didn’t even know the man. The man apologized and left, or tried to leave, I should say. They accosted him, tore off his shirt, and slapped him around. The man begged to be left alone, and they released him, warning him to be careful how he spoke from now on.”
He cocked his eye at me again and held it open until a tear rolled down his face. He wiped the tear with a crooked brown finger as he continued to study me. He took another piece of the cracker and placed it on his tongue. He chewed for a while and then swallowed the cracker with some coffee.
“In any case, there was bad blood between the two parties. The man’s sons, upon learning what had happened, were angry and had to be restrained from going after the three brothers.
“I remember as if it were yesterday that the wedding was on a hot August Sunday. We were in the middle of the dog days of summer, the so-called canicula, when even the wind will burn your face—the type of weather we had when we blazed the road from San Diego to Freer. It was so hot then that the snakes would hide under the hollow roots of the older trees. All we had to do was go to the old tree and throw gasoline at the trunk and the snakes would roll out in a tangled mess, some so angry they would strike at each other and would fight to the death locked around each other. We would take a shovel or a grubbing hoe or an ax and kill them. But the more we killed, the more there seemed to be. It was like the tale that has no ending.”
He took a handkerchief from his shirt pocket with a very shaky hand and wiped drool from the corner of his mouth.
“The wedding was beautiful. All morning long people had arrived—on horseback, and wagons, and even one old car. Who brought the car?”
The woman was caught by surprise. She seemed to wake up to the question. “There were no cars in 1900. You’ve got your stories mixed up. The first car we saw was in 1913, 1914, somewhere around there.” She returned to her thoughts.
She struck me as having a very poor attitude, and then again she had been with him so very long that she didn’t care for him or his conversation. The most I could say about her was that at least she didn’t constantly interrupt the old man while he spoke, only occasionally.
“The wedding itself was at about eleven o’clock that morning. There were bridesmaids and best men, and all one sees at weddings. After the ceremony, we ate barbecue. The father of the bride—Antonio was his name, Antonio Briones—had killed a calf, and his friends had barbecued it in earthen pits all night long. Needless to say, they had been drinking all night long. This is not good, for men to drink all that much.”
“Look who’s talking now,” she said. She looked at me and made a motion like a man drinking a beer and pointed at him. She laughed. “They used to call him ‘hollow leg’ because he drank so much. How quickly this man forgets. I cannot believe this.”
He completely ignored her. “Let me tell you why it is wrong for a man to drink a lot. After a while, he abandons his family—his wife, his children, everything dear to his heart.”
She got up and left. “I can’t take any more of this,” she said. She walked out of the kitchen and through a door to the side of the stove. It hadn’t occurred to me that there was a room behind the kitchen, but apparently there was one, for this was where she went.
“You understand that we children were not allowed in the wedding ceremonies. We were observers, and we were fed last. Each with his plate, we went to the woods to eat. We could hear the laughter of the celebrants as they ate and drank. We were happy also, but not for long. From the woods we could see three men riding across the corn field towards the house, trampling the corn as they came. You understand that to injure a man’s crop is to insult him gravely. At that time we didn’t know who they were. They were, in fact, the three brothers, the troublemakers, and we were to remember them for the rest of our lives.
“Remember that this happened some eight-two years ago, and I have difficulty remembering names. The father’s name was Antonio Briones, and he had two sons, Adolfo and Octavio. Two of the men that had been drinking all night were the brothers Juan Garcia and Julian Garcia. The troublemakers, the mean brothers, were Juvencio, and. . . .” He couldn’t remember.
“Eusebio and Carlos,” came the voice from behind the kitchen.
“Eusebio and Carlos,” the man repeated as if he had thought of the names himself. “And their last name?”
“Gonzales,” she replied. “And quit bothering me. I’m in the middle of my rosary.”
“Juvencio Gonzales rode to the long outside table where the wedding party was eating. His two brothers remained behind by the house. I could see him ride almost to the table, almost touching it, and the startled people looked up and saw him. Antonio Briones, the father, was up immediately upon seeing the man on horseback.
“‘What do you fellows want? Why do you trample my crop?’ The wind was blowing in my direction and I could hear their voices as if I were standing behind them. ‘I thought that I had passed the word that I didn’t want you at the wedding.’
“‘That’s the word we received,” Juvencio replied. ‘And it sticks in our craw that anyone would insult us, my brothers and me, in this way. After all we did you no real harm.’
“‘I have already forgotten that,’ Antonio said. ‘And as for my sons, they have also. You were not invited, and I’m asking you in an amicable way to leave.’
“By that time the men in the wedding party were standing up. The bride was being led quickly away. The women were almost carrying her to the house. The groom, Pablo Garcia, stood (I could see very plainly for I was directly behind a mesquite tree and hiding my body from everyone) and he, Pablo, walked to where the conversation was going on. Upon seeing Pablo approach their brother, Juvencio, the other two rode their horses up. It was then three against two.
“Antonio’s sons, Adolfo and Octavio, had been in the house, and when they saw what was going on, they reached for their rifles and came out running.
“‘There will be no violence,’ Antonio shouted to his sons. ‘This is a day for celebration and joy. Let us not destroy it!’
“I can still hear the man say those words right now as if I were still hiding behind the tree. The other children that I was with had scattered, and I could see them hiding much the same as I.
“From here on, my mind becomes very vague, as if I had seen this in a dream. The reality did not strike me until I was a young man.
“I had been looking around at my friends, when suddenly I heard a shot. By the time I looked up, (and it was almost instantaneously) all I could see was a puff of smoke rising from the barrel of a pistol held by one of the terrible brothers. My first instinct was to look at the group—who had fallen? No one! The I realized he had shot into the air. Juvencio, the oldest of the mean ones, dismounted. He had a smallish bay horse—smallish but fine looking. He pushed the father backwards, and I could see the old man trying to push back. Again he was pushed back, and I could see the men coming closer.
“‘Let them fight!’ shouted Eusebio, the younger of the malos. He knew it was not a fair fight. ‘Leave them alone, and I mean it,’ he said. He had a menacing look to him as he spoke to the man. ‘Anyone interferes, and he has me to deal with!
“Mean Juvencio struck the father on the head and the poor man fell to his knees. Blood started flowing from the top of his head. He had been hit with some sort of instrument. Immediately I saw that it was a long barreled pistol, the same type that the Rangers used in the old days. God help you if you are ever hit on the head with a pistol such as that one. The barrel was thicker than my thumb.”
He showed his thumb, a worn out wrinkled digit brown with age.
“The sons seeing their father bleeding, could not restrain themselves. Who would? Your father is bleeding profusely and on the ground, his enemy standing over him ready to shoot. They opened fire. The confusion was great as you can imagine. Juvencio fell dead but not before firing several shots into poor Antonio, the father of the bride. He also died immediately from what I could see. Now everything becomes a blur to me for the action was so fierce, so intense, that I could not follow it. There were too many things going on at one time. The women were crying and screaming in the house. They could see exactly what was going on, but they were powerless. But it seemed to me that Pablo Garcia, the groom, was the next to fall. There was no cause to kill him. But he fell by his father-in-law’s side. The two surviving mean brothers, Eusebio and Carlos, were shooting at everyone, and Adolfo and Octavio were shooting at them. The women had broken through the door and were running toward the scene. The brothers Juan and Julio Garcia, unarmed, did not have a chance. Both fell as they tried to intervene.
“The thing is that Adolfo and Octavio, the old man’s sons, apparently were enraged when they witnessed the father being attacked. Who wouldn’t? Wouldn’t you have done the same?
“After it was over, and it was over quickly, although at that time it seemed an eternity, there were eight men killed. Most children never experience the violent death of one single person in their lifetime, but here I was, on that day I had seen the death of eight men. Let me tell you who they were: Antonio Briones, the father of the bride, and one of his sons, Adolfo. Octavio survived the onslaught and had a very prolonged recuperation. He was maimed for life. Pablo Garcia, dead. He was the groom. Killed defending his father-in-law’s honor. That’s three. The three brothers who would cause no more problems. That’s six. And the brothers Juan and Julio Garcia who had been drinking all night.
“The aftermath was horrible, even more horrible than the shooting itself. The women were on the men as soon as the shooting stopped. They were screaming and crying and could not contain their grief. They were running from body to body screaming. The bride’s dress which had been white and beautiful shortly before, was now spattered with blood. She tried to hold her husband’s head on her lap, but she jumped up and ran toward her father, and thus she went, torn between the two men. The bride’s mother, Antonio’s wife, was in a rage, and she picked up a revolver that belonged to God knows who and began firing at Juvencio, her husband’s killer, even though he was already dead.
“You can imagine what an episode like that does to a child my age. I have lived with that memory for most of my life.”
He was silent for a while as he looked at me with that crooked eye. He took one last piece of cracker and a drink of coffee. Then he reached over and picked up his hat by the crown. He placed it straight on his head and I noticed how large his ears were.
“Are you through?” came the voice from inside the room.
“Yes,” he answered.
She came out, grabbed him by the arm, and led him away. He tried to say something, but she told him to hush. “You’ve talked enough already.”
“Wait a minute,” he said, forcefully removing her hand from his arm. “I have more to say.”
“No you don’t,” the woman replied. “You’re going to bed.”
“Leave me alone!” he shouted. “Can’t you see that I need to say one more thing? God damn it, why must you bother me so?”
He braced himself with his hand on the counter and swayed gently back and forth. (He didn’t need her after all.) “When I was a child,” he said, and a tear came down his face, “my father would take us to a small lake near where I was born. And on the surface of the lake you could see the salt as it collected and floated to the shore. We would go there and pack salt, and in the winter, we would kill the ducks that had migrated from God knows where. We would take the dead birds and wash the lice off them in the salt water, skin them—skin, feathers and all and clean them to take home. My father loved the tails. He ate them raw. He would chew the tails off the ducks just like one chews the end of a loaf of bread. My brothers and I, we would laugh and feel like vomiting, but mostly we would laugh. No one knew why the lake was salty, but you could float almost anything in it. We bathed in it during the summer, but we were never allowed to go to the deep end. Someone had told my father that it was very deep. Later on, in my older years, when I was operated on in my head for a tumor, I dreamed after the operation, while in a coma, that we were cutting large slabs of salt and loading them on mule-drawn wagons, and it seemed the dream went on forever, the salt went on forever. But,” he said turning toward the woman and extending his arm to her, “those were the good days when I was like new.”
I could hear her scolding him in the back room as she put him to bed. “Do you need to go to the toilet?” she asked. “No,” came the meek, childish reply.
“Tomorrow maybe I can tell him about the snakes,” he said.
“Shut up and go to sleep,” she said. “You’ve already talked enough for two days.”
This story originally appeared in Dialog magazine and is reprinted in The Best of Dialog.