Most folks don’t know about Bruna Montoya and Relles Ortiz’s first date out to the old City Park Zoo. When Relles died it was as if the memory had died; no one would speak of it. I’ve seen old home movies shot on Abuelo’s Instamatic camera. Neto showed me. We used to sit in the basement and set up the projector to watch the two films Abuelo had labeled “The Mummy” and “Dracula starring Bela Lugosi.” We happened to load up a roll of film into the projector, and there was a grainy Bruna and Relles up on the screen, him in his full dress uniform standing next to her, both staring down into the bear pit. Bruna wore a red coat with a fake mink collar and her hair was done up, her features tender and pure and her skin fair-colored, smiling shyly at my father and at the camera.
The day of Relles’ death my Abuela wouldn’t stop screaming. She was in with her laundry and it was one of the few times the woman did not own her temperament. Neto joked she screamed for days before the funeral and before the body was laid in the ground. In my mind this all stood true:
She screamed in Sunday service. She wailed through the night as a steady stream of aunts and cousins and nephews came through the house with their dinner dishes and desserts. She screamed when Father Dwyer came to the house for prayer and for his own personal condolences. Her muscles shook and strained as she cried and the tears fell large from her eyelids and face. At first the family, including Neto, thought they might lose the woman to grief as no amount of consoling kept her quiet. Later she even screamed as she cooked meal after meal for visiting familia and visiting nuns. As the Abuelo sat and smoked and drank his beer and whiskey from shot glasses, the Abuela screamed the way she did that November morning when she gave birth to her oldest son.
The night came and the Abuela went mad and got it into her head to burn up all his belongings. Every scrap of clothes and every object of memory. As her family slept and while her nieces and nephews dreamed, in just her housecoat she grabbed an old lettuce carton filled with her husband’s tools and dumped them onto the front porch. She began with clothes and letters. She piled on strips of paper from grade school and middle school, Christmas ornaments and school photos. An old leather book cover made in high school. She found his wallet among Neto’s possessions, under his cot while he slept. She pulled the footlocker and duffle bag with her son’s uniforms and every object from his army life. She pulled his tools from the garage and his coveralls off the hook on the side of the garage door.
She found the gas can among the chaos of lawn tools, hand tools and rusted machine parts. She held her Rosary beads and poured the liquid into the footlocker and onto photo albums and the duffle bags of clothes and linens. She sprayed the lighter fluid.
Neto woke to black smoke and ran in bare feet and Levi’s to the back door, thinking the worst for his home. “Cabróna,” he called out to her. “What are you doing?”
She didn’t respond. She sat and wailed. Neto pulled out the footlocker and the boxes of clothes and bedding. He yelled for the garden hose and for his neighbors to bring shovels of dirt.
The Abuela’s housecoat was singed and burned. Her skin was red with blood rushing to the surface and her screams reached down the block.
“They all talked of it in Mass,” Neto told me later.
The family seemed to scream for their lost son and war hero but they all knew the Abuela Ortiz suffered each hour and each day. The whole family suffered. All except for Neto who spoke plainly and coldly about his brother.
I can speak this way about the accident because this is how Neto has always spoken of it. I can speak this way because I never knew the man. Never spent a day, never had one conversation or shared one beer. My relationship existed merely in photos and albums, solitary moments on my knees with the plastic smell of Polaroids and aging plastic sheets covering the pictures. Mildewed school yearbooks and wedding photos half burned and bruised with smoke. An old driver’s license and letters written from a naval station in Guam. Dog tags and one footlocker filled with burnt dress uniforms and old clothes, an old letterman’s jacket with paint stains and wallet-sized photos of his Bruna.
The first I ever knew of my father’s death was a newspaper clipping I found in Neto’s wallet. My stepbrother Romes and I were looking for money for video games and the dollar movies when we came across the faded clipping with the name Relles Ortiz. “That’s your father’s name,” my stepbrother Romes told me.
“8th and Abriendo was where your grandmother placed the descansos,” Neto would say but I was too young to understand. “Your old man never drank. Not like that. Not like the family might say. Ain’t nothing like it appears, Manito. I can promise you that.”
My father had been driving out to work. He was working at the old state hospital in the x-ray lab. They had him running back and forth between labs, cleaning out chemicals or some such thing, Neto would tell me. That was one of about three jobs he was holding on to.
The County Sheriff told me that the official report listed a sanitation truck had pulled out from an alley and the old Chevy broadsided. The driver was dead on impact is how the news articles read.
“You know sometimes the people would say I killed him,” Neto said. “They get the fight arrest and the accident mixed up in their heads and say he died because of the fight we had. Can you believe that shit? How fucked up is that. A man killing his brother. People fuck all the stories up.”
On that corner I have sat and thought countless times about that afternoon and what he might have thought or seen, a large grey truck coming out of the alley and him with no way to turn. The racing in between jobs with a woman at home and a child about to come into this world. “My poor, poor brother,” Neto said. “Found his way out of a war but not the neighborhood.”
I heard the rain fell all day and night the day after the funeral and Bruna’s hair was covered with plastic when she found her way to the Abuela’s basement. She pushed her way through the door.
Neto was sleeping one off when Bruna pulled the string on the bare light bulb and had a seat on the mattress. She rested her hands around her stomach and rubbed the belly that was Relles’ child. “I can’t make rent, Neto,” Bruna said.
“Don’t worry about that,” Neto said.
“What do you mean?” Bruna stared at the concrete floor and for a long while Neto didn’t say a word.
“You didn’t come to the funeral, Neto?” she said.
“Been laid up with a cold.”
“You weren’t here, Neto. I asked your mama and she said you weren’t around.”
“Went out for work,” Neto said. “Man’s got to work.”
“Your daddy says you haven’t worked in weeks. Your mama says she hasn’t seen you eat in days. Are you having pains?” She patted Neto’s cheeks and put her cool hand to his warm forehead. “You don’t feel too warm. Where is the pain? Is it your stomach or your back?”
Finally Neto told her straight: “Lost my brother.”
“We all lost him. We’re all sick, Neto, but you got to come and grieve with the family. You know? I mean don’t you think I’m not sick? You don’t think I got to be sick over this too?”
“Needed some days,” Neto said. “I don’t have a thing to do with you anyhow. You my brother’s girl and I have nothing to do with you.”
“Listen, Neto,” Bruna said. “I got no more work. I can’t work at Newberry’s. I mean I can’t waitress.”
“They fire you?”
“I’m pregnant, Neto,” Bruna said. “I have to have the baby and need my own place. I can’t live with my mama and Jeri no more.”
“My mother will take you in,” Neto said. “You can live here.”
“I need to live on my own,” Bruna said. “To show them.”
“That I am doing for myself, you know? I’m sick over all of this too.” Bruna put her face in her hands and she wept.
Bruna kept the studio apartment and cooked for Neto, the fake husband who slept on the hardwood floor. He woke in the middle of the night hurting for his brother, breathing hard with guilt and staring at his new surroundings.
One night he sat up in his bed thrashing while Bruna showered and hummed. When he finally woke he knocked the foldout over and across the room. He staggered over to the window and looked at parked cars. His t-shirt and pants were wet with sweat and his lips hurt from thirst.
On the next night he walked the streets of Abriendo Avenue. There was a coating over his tongue that tasted of mold. He walked into bars and ordered drinks for people and watched them drink with a silent satisfaction. One man he fought with over a stool and on another night a fight with a man went out into the streets, nearly to the front door of the apartment. The building woke up to the sounds of thumps and screams.
Finally, he stopped working and sat in the dollar movies over at the Chief Theatre. He rode around on buses and slept in the public library. He paid the rent for half the month, then not at all, until the landlord, Mr. Archuleta, had no choice but to padlock the door. At Archuleta’s apartment he argued and pounded at the walls. The landlord had no choice but to call the cops and so Neto left without Bruna’s clothes or photo albums.
The day was ending when Bruna caught up with Neto. He had been sleeping in the backroom of The Klamm Shell, sometimes working as a dishwasher. He had just drained two doubles and felt warm and sleepy.
“You living here now?” she said.
Neto struggled to recognize her then turned away to stare at a viejito who kept calling the bartender “nurse” and laughing out loud. Neto said, “I haven’t seen you.”
“I tried to make you more of a grown up. I tell them all I tried, Neto.”
“For Christ’s sake.”
“You’re as dead as your brother, Neto,” she said pushing and slapping at his chest. He wouldn’t raise his hands to her. He just sat back in his favorite stool and hunched over a fresh glass.
John Paul Jaramillo, born and raised in Southern Colorado, now works as a Professor of English in the Arts and Humanities Department of Lincoln Land Community College–Springfield, Illinois. His stories and essays have appeared in numerous publications, including Acentos Review, Palabra, and Duende. His collection of stories, The House of Order, was named a 2013 International Latino Book Award Finalist and the 2013 Latino Boom: An Anthology of U.S. Latino Literature listed him as one of its Top 10 New Latino Authors to Watch and Read. His novel in stories, Little Mocos is forthcoming from Twelve Winters Press.