Oscar Villalon on the Many Ghosts We Call Family
“You might as well be a ghost. But yet, the dead have come to you.”
The dead come to you, but not to everyone. I have yet to see them—those who were here but left us, never to return.
Yet there they are, at the end of a hall terminating at the closed door of a bathroom, or standing outside a living room window, looking down upon you as you watch cartoons on TV. Night or day, it doesn’t matter. They try to announce themselves, waiting for you to see them.
This happened to my father when he was very young. He would’ve been in his early teens. He was on the small, covered patio in front of my grandmother’s house. It was late. It was dark. My grandmother may or may not have given me the specifics on what my father was doing on the patio (these things are impossible to recall perfectly), but let’s say he was in a rocking chair. Or he may have been sleeping out there, lying atop a couple of thick blankets, folded double for a cushion against the tile floor. But there he was, in the evening, nothing but quiet around him, the stars all easily visible as they are in that part of Mexico in that time some 60 or so years ago. Then my grandmother heard a crash (a rocking chair bowled over? A shoulder slammed into the closed front door before a hand could turn the knob all the way?), and then she saw her son in the sala, babbling and crying, his face drained of color.
I spent nights—scores of them—on that same patio. I was just a boy. Eleven, twelve, then thirteen, then once more when I was in high school, and not again till I was a junior in college, and nevermore since. (At first, the circumstances of work and life kept me from returning; then the evil of the drug war, which envenomed my father’s hometown, extended that absence and does so to this day.) Stretches of summer were spent penduluming on a rocking chair, reading a novel, a Robert Ludlum or a Stephen King, doing “nothing.”
Between the time my father had to leave home, barely out of his teens, and when his sons roamed around his mother’s house, bored and homesick, the view from that roofed patio had changed little if at all. Set into the foot of a hill, my grandmother’s house slightly rises above a rocky dirt road. Below that road is an asphalt one leading, eventually, to the town’s main plaza, and in between them is a steep wedge of tangled and desiccated greenery. Look into the horizon and there are rows after rows of flat rooftops, and mint and rose and lavender facades receding all the way to another set of hills in the distance, a gleaming reservoir smeared across its base. When the deep darkness falls, the tops of the streetlamps—ten-foot-tall, creosote-coated logs rigged with powerful light bulbs and metal shades—mark the distance like glowing buoys.
But way back then, those streetlamps might not have been there, especially not the one some yards to the left of the patio that allowed us to make out each other’s faces and bodies as we stretched out on thick cobijas, trying to fall asleep on hot nights, desperate for the air to finally cool. The darkness would have been near perfect. Yet my father could make out his grandfather. He could see him as if illuminated. And he could somehow hear him. And my great-grandfather spoke to him urgently, with terrible news, and that’s what my father was trying to heave out, beyond “I have seen my grandfather!” He was trying to convey to his mother a message freighted with the authority of the dead returned among the living. Is it any wonder he was overwhelmed? To cry and to lose language is the purest response to witnessing a breach between the mortal and the immortal. It is awful. It is awesome. It is the stuff of myth.
Parents tell their children complicating facts in dribs and drabs, if at all. Sometimes, they do so judiciously, meaning they’re ready for the ensuing questions a disquieting bit of family history will stir. More often, they do so unthinkingly, meaning they hope the child will not think too hard about the peculiar revelation, maybe just offer a “really?” and leave it at that. The hope is the child won’t exacerbate a father’s recklessness: thinking aloud.
Once we were driving in northern San Diego County (I think we were on the 5 or the 76), about 20 miles from home. My dad gestured to the landscape beyond the driver’s window and said something like, your grandfather nearly died around here. He’d been hit by a car. Or was he thrown from one? I don’t remember clearly. But that it was a car-related accident I do recall. I had tried writing about it when I was in college—a fiction redolent with descriptions of an unnamed character lying by the side of the road, legs ruined, the sun burning his face, his eyes closed and teary as car after car zooms past him, their black-and-yellow license plates rattling in their wash. My father’s father could pass for Anglo, meaning he looked plenty American, and would cross the border as often as he pleased, working in the States, making his nut and bringing it back home, sometimes promptly blowing it. He came home once with a brand-new pickup, a treasure that made his oldest kids beam. It augured better things to come; no more wanting, a lot less suffering. Days later he lost it in a coin toss. Flipped a thick peso, and it came up wrong. Handed over the keys and that was that.
My grandfather woke up in a hospital in Oceanside. This would have been in the 50s. I can’t help but think that his being tall and fair-skinned, with light-colored hair and eyes, may have had something to do with his being plucked from the road and placed in a bed. (Because being Mexican in San Diego has never been an easy thing. In 1983 Tom Metzger founded the White Aryan Resistance in Fallbrook in northern San Diego County. And the first successful school desegregation case in US history—in 1931, Roberto Alvarez vs. the Board of Trustees of the Lemon Grove School District—ruled that Mexican kids in San Diego didn’t have to keep going to separate schools; tellingly, it’s a proud civic moment you might never hear about there.) My father tells me my grandfather was in the hospital for a while. Tells me one day my grandmother received a postcard from the hospital letting her know her husband was recuperating there, a way, I presume, of telling the family not to worry that they hadn’t heard from him for so long. I strongly suspect my grandfather never kept his wife and children in the loop about anything, so his long silence wouldn’t have meant much. Still, the postcard came as a relief. For now they knew my grandfather was out of danger. They had been anxious about his well-being since the night my great-grandfather appeared on the patio with the news that his son—my grandfather—was dying.
What a strange world. You’re in a beat-up white van with your son, still a child but barely, driving by the place where your father was laid up so many years ago. And now you live near there, getting up at 4 am to push a broom. Dinner for your family is sometimes eggs, or two frozen pizzas for 99 cents a box. What do you have to show for your life? You’re raising your kids in government housing. There are things you see in the neighborhood that you can’t do anything about. You might as well be a ghost. But yet, the dead have come to you. And they do not come to everybody.
The preceding is from the Freeman’s channel at Literary Hub, which features excerpts from the print editions of Freeman’s, along with supplementary writing from contributors past, present and future. The upcoming issue of Freeman’s, a collection of writings on California, featuring work by Tommy Orange, Rabih Alameddine, Rachel Kushner, Mai Der Vang, Reyna Grande, and more, is available now.