When I first met Elizondo, he lived in the small house at the back end of my abuela’s property. Ana Ortiz Camacho, my grandmother and the only grandparent I had the opportunity to know, had died the week before, a life of cigarettes and Mexican food and hard work and not a little beer finally catching up with her. My mother, abuela’s only child, died seven years ago when I was in my senior year at Reed College, so it fell on me to make the funeral arrangements and then begin the arduous task of emptying out abuela’s house and selling it.
It is at a time such as this that I realize how solitary our lives have been. Abuela’s husband disappeared so long ago no one felt the compunction to even mention him by name anymore. And my biological father was some unknown male who sold his sperm to a bank—we know he was (or is) “Hispanic” (the terminology used on the form he filled out) with a college degree and no known cases of cancer or other dreaded diseases in his gene pool. Oh, and he had (or has) an I.Q. of 136. And me, I’m perpetually single despite being what some might call a good looking youngish woman with a dream job of assistant professor in the Chicana and Chicano Studies Department at Cal State Northridge where I teach Queer Latina/o Poetics. I can’t seem to keep a woman in my bed for longer than six months. Loners, all of us. And now that abuela has passed on, I am more alone than ever.
Anyway, I’d thought the back house was vacant, used more as a storage space than anything else. I hadn’t been to that part of the property for years—no reason to—and abuela always kept me in the main house whenever I paid a visit which was about every month or so. But when I walked down the driveway the day after the funeral, passing the side of the main house, I could see signs of life in that little house in back: a worn but serviceable brown couch on the porch, three small planters set perfectly along the porch’s wooden railing filled with what looked to be peonies, a classic Schwinn Men’s Cruiser—in beautiful shape—painted a bright, shiny red, its two large tires fully inflated and ready for a ride. And the small house itself had been in better shape than I’d ever seen it. That old wood framed structure had never been anything but in need of fresh paint, and here it was, gleaming white with dark green trim.
As I approached, the gravel under my old Converse high tops seemed to grow louder as my apprehension level elevated. It was almost noon and the Valley heat was just getting started. I tightened the grip on my backpack—heavy with two Norton anthologies and a binder full of student papers needing to be graded—getting ready to swing at this mystery man living on abuela’s property. But then he appeared, slowly opening the screen door, drying his hands on a dishtowel, smiling, nodding at me as if in recognition. I had twenty-five pounds on him, easy, so I relaxed. He couldn’t have stood more than five feet tall, very thin, a full head of white hair cropped close to his skull. A handsome man with beautiful, brown skin, probably sixty or maybe seventy years old. He just stood there waiting for me to come up to the porch. I stopped about three yards from him and waited.
“Ah,” he said in a soft, almost sing-song voice. “¡La profesora!”
“You know me?” I asked as my stomach tightened.
“Your abuela bragged and bragged about you,” he said, not losing his smile. “She showed me your photos many times, especially that one of you with her when you finished your Ph.D.”
I knew the picture, one of my favorites. Abuela usually never smiled, especially for photos, but this time she displayed a huge grin and hugged me so tightly for the camera, I thought she was going to break one of my ribs. We’re surrounded by other graduates in caps and gowns, excitement all around. She was prouder at that moment than when I graduated from Reed with a double major in Gender Studies and English. Abuela couldn’t figure out how I could make a living wage with that. But when I finished up graduate school at UCLA, she realized that I was going to be just fine when I told her that I’d landed a tenure track position at CSUN the week before I was awarded my doctorate. A steady job at a major university not too far from her home. It didn’t matter that her granddaughter’s focus was queer Latina lit…she loved me and we just didn’t discuss it. What did matter was that I was educated and I had a great job, and she showed it in that picture.
“You know me,” I said. “But who are you?”
“Elizondo,” he said, his smile slowly disappearing. “Your abuela never mentioned me?”
“No, and I didn’t see you at the funeral. Were you there? Did I miss you?” I asked more as a challenge than wanting to hear the answers.
With this, he eased himself onto the couch which let out a groan of ancient springs giving under his weight. Elizondo shook his head and averted his eyes.
“Why not?” I pressed.
He sighed. “Because I am just a tenant and…”
He turned back to me: “And I could not think of seeing Ana in a coffin.”
I shivered though I’m not certain why. I seldom heard abuela’s name mentioned…she was simply abuela to me. But when this strange man said her name, it carried a meaning beyond anything I knew about her.
“Have you eaten lunch?” he asked.
I wondered if he could hear my stomach rumble. I shook my head.
“Ah!” he said, standing and smiling again. “I’m heating up some lengua in a delicious soup, not too spicy, with little, sliced potatoes. There’s plenty.”
His description of the beef tongue soup made my mouth water and I could feel my stomach do a flip. And I then noticed the wonderful scent of the soup emanating from the little house. I nodded and walked toward him. I figured he was harmless and I needed some good Mexican food right then in honor of abuela and to sate my hunger.
He had me sit at the small table in the kitchen. He kept the house very neat with little adornment. Pure efficiency. He moved back and forth, setting my place, filling a large glass with lemonade, ladling soup into my bowl. After he served himself, he sat, smiled and commenced eating. I did the same.
“This is so good,” I said, and I meant it.
“It is Ana’s favorite.”
He didn’t correct himself to change the “is” to “was.” And that was fine. I smiled back at him and continued eating as I formulated questions. We ate in contented silence.
When we finished, he refilled our glasses with lemonade and directed us back to the porch. We sat on the couch with about two feet distance between us and sipped our cool drinks.
“How long have you lived here?” I finally asked.
He thought for a few moments. “It will be ten months tomorrow.”
“Do you pay rent?”
“Por supuesto,” he said sounding a bit hurt. “I pay $300 each month, always on time. And I will pay you tomorrow because it is due.”
I thought for a moment. Tomorrow was Saturday, the day I figured I would do the actual packing and organizing of abuela’s things. So, I could come by and pick up the money and figure out what to do about Elizondo later. I mean, I did not want to become a landlady. I figured that I could sell abuela’s property and use it for a down payment on a condo for me so that I wouldn’t have to be a renter anymore. But today, the goal was to survey abuela’s belongings, try to figure out what needed to be packed up for storage, and what should be sold off. I nodded, said that tomorrow was fine, and for some reason, laid out my plans for the next two days. He asked if I needed help, but I declined. This was something I wanted to do in private. I finished my lemonade in one big gulp, handed him the glass and thanked him for the wonderful lunch. I headed back to abuela’s house to begin the task. I’d done the same for mom’s apartment when she died, so I kind of had a strategy for making it less onerous. I charted out each room, making lists of this and that, and then prioritized. I was always good at planning, turning big projects into manageable bite-sized jobs. Before I knew it, it was almost midnight. I wondered if Elizondo were still awake, but it would have been rather rude to bother him just for another good meal. So, I hopped in my car, found a McDonald’s drive through and ordered a chocolate shake and Angus Deluxe for the drive home.
The next morning, I pulled up in front of abuela’s house. My trunk and back seat were filled with dozens of flattened packing boxes. But I first wanted to visit Elizondo, let him pay his rent, and maybe accept his offer of help. I could have used the company that day, the finality of abuela’s death finally sinking in. I walked toward the little house in back, my Converse crunching along the gravel. Elizondo really made it a nice little place, I had to admit. Even though this area of Van Nuys had not felt the full force of gentrification in recent years, it was getting there, and this property would likely bring in a tidy sum. I went up the three stairs to the porch and knocked on the screen door. I didn’t hear anything. I tried to peer through the screen but couldn’t see anything except shadows.
“Hello?” I said. “Elizondo?”
No answer. I opened the screen door slowly and entered the tiny living room. Everything was in place. I called out his name again, checked the kitchen. Nothing. There was only one place left to search, the small bedroom, so I made my way there in a few steps. The door stood ajar. I called his name again. Again, no answer. I slowly pushed the door open.
Elizondo laid in bed, fully clothed on top of a green bedspread, head nestled in a fluffy pillow, arms crossed. His eyes were opened a bit, lifeless and staring up at the ceiling. An empty, diminutive brown bottle sat on the nightstand. As I approached the body, I bumped into a small table to my left. I looked down and saw three, new hundred dollar bills neatly lined up, waiting for me. There was a small piece of yellow paper near the bills with some writing on it. I picked it up and read:
And then I noticed them: three women’s rings and a small, gold wrist watch, set neatly by the money. I sighed and looked over to Elizondo. To say he looked peaceful would have been untruthful. In fact, his expression was one of mild surprise—the kind of surprise you experience when you walk in on a parent getting dressed, or happen upon two strangers kissing in public. The kind of surprise that is small, commonplace, but in the end, significant beyond its size. The kind of surprise I felt just then.
Daniel A. Olivas is the author of seven books including the award-winning novel, The Book of Want (University of Arizona Press, 2011), and Things We Do Not Talk About: Exploring Latino/a Literature through Essays and Interviews (San Diego State University Press, 2014). He is also the editor of the landmark anthology, Latinos in Lotusland (Bilingual Press, 2008), which brings together 60 years of Los Angeles fiction by Latino/a writers.
His fiction, poetry, and nonfiction have appeared in PANK, Fairy Tale Review, Exquisite Corpse, New Madrid, Pembroke, Bilingual Review, and many more literary journals. He has also written for The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Jewish Journal, El Paso Times, High Country News, Los Angeles Review of Books, and La Bloga (where he blogs on Chicano and Latino literature), among other print and online publications.
He earned his degree in English literature from Stanford University, and law degree from UCLA. By day, he is an attorney in the Public Rights Division of the California Department of Justice in Los Angeles.