Last night I met people I didn’t know were my family, and I saw old faces from the past, older men and women who held me in their arms and made funny faces just to get me laugh when I was a crying baby. I’m twenty five years old now, and I was surprised that I remembered them. I was awake, four-thirty in the morning. I usually wake at four, no reason. I’ll read, write, play some music, or have a smoke on the patio enjoying the dawn. This time, however, I had nothing to do. I was in my grandparents’ sleepy home stuffed with too many people. My mother and father slept on the couch in the office and my little brother snored on the living room floor with my younger cousins. I locked myself in my great-grandfather’s room. He died long ago, but everything’s still the same in there: a bed, a desk, a drawer, and an overcrowded closet in which I used to hide from the adults when I was a boy.
Last night my family celebrated my grandfather’s 75th birthday and I’m not sure when the party ended but I was asleep when the children fell asleep. I was the designated caretaker. I’m not sure if I was supposed to care for the adults too, but on my way to the toilet a few hours past midnight, I saw a fumbling, mumbling, and stumbling old man in the kitchen, and so I carried my sixty-seven year old uncle to the couch where he lost conscious. He wasn’t there this morning. Someone must have taken him home.
It was five in the morning, the children were sleeping. The oldest children slept upstairs on my grandparents’ giant guest bed. The youngest, who were practically still babies, slept in the room next to mine, and I was happy they had no nightmares, hunger, or need to use the toilet that night. I quietly walked around the house. I wanted no surprises and I wanted a head count. Who knew what went on last night after I ended my night, I thought. The old folks were dancing on the lawn, my father was playing his guitar on the patio, an uncle and an aunt were singing while the rest of them played drinking games, my mother was bartending, and someone was in the garden yelling something about a soccer game. I think that someone was either my brother or godfather, but a soccer game did happen here because I saw garbage cans and bags of fertilizer set up like goals and the mud marks of a ball on the fence.
On the second floor, my grandparents snored in their room, Uncle Carlos and his wife took another room, and my godfather Francisco slept on the floor of the children’s room. Five children and five adults, ten people occupied the second floor.
My parents were locked in my grandparents’ office. My little brother Frankie and three cousins slept on the living room floor. My big brother Jimmy and his wife took the convertible sofa. Eight people, plus me, and two babies makes eleven on the first floor. Twenty-one people in my grandparents’ home. I wondered what happened after I went to bed.
My favorite time of the day is dawn. I went outside to watch it and, hopefully, the sunrise would be visible. The patio smelled like beer and it was decorated with brown and clear bottles. I sat for a long time. I watched my grandma’s birds; she had lots. I thought about nothing, nothing important: about having a drink at that moment, how horrible it would be, about a television show I saw the other day, what if I was a policeman, what if I was a father, or grandfather. I needed some music and brought out the radio. It was perfect, besides the stench of beer.
“What are you doing?” my father asked. He was shaggy headed, wide awake, and unshaven in wrinkled clothes.
“What are you doing? You should be sleeping. What time did you go to bed?”
He looked at his watch as he took a seat next to me.
“Three hours ago, but I heard a song I liked playing, so I wanted to see where it was coming from,” he said and smiled.
“Yeah, I guess, but that’s the most sleep I’ve gotten in a month, so I’m fine, I guess,” he answered, squinting his eyes.
We sat quietly for awhile but I couldn’t wait to ask him about what went on last night.
“Last night,” he said, “was really fun. The most fun I’ve had in years. It reminded me of when I was in my twenties. Before I married your mom when we would do nothing at all some days but talk and play music, and sometimes drink. We even played soccer.”
I laughed and pointed at the garbage cans and the ball marks on the brick wall. He laughed and shook his head,
“My team won. Me and Santiago versus your mom and nino.” Santiago is my dad’s best friend, my brother Jimmy’s godfather. “Is mom asleep?” I asked.
“No, she’s just pretending she is.”
It went silent again except for my grandma’s birds. We watched the sun break.
“Do you know what happened to my uncle Ray? I carried him to the couch.”
“His wife took him home.”
“How?” I asked. I wondered who carried him out.
“Your cousins helped carry him. He was passed out.”
He sat back, stretched his arms and legs and smiled, then started humming the songs on the radio. Old songs. I knew them because that’s all I listened to when I was growing up. My parents’ fault.
“Francisco is a really good goalie, not that I think of it,” he said. “I remember I thought he was horrible when we played years ago. Your mom too. They always teamed up against me and Santiago. We always won, of course. Except for once, when Santi and me weren’t playing our best. They took the lead and the game was gone. They won. I remember that day. We were in Sinaloa, we played in the back of a restaurant. You grandpa sent your mom and Francisco there to check on the restaurant. This is when your grandpa bought anything he could afford. It was a weird day. That’s the day your grandpa’s brother died. Your uncle Benjamin.”
I was named Benjamin for him. I was told the story once. It was sad, I never asked anyone to repeat it again, but I think my dad was about to.
“He was your mom and Francisco’s favorite uncle. I met him twice. He was a big guy, but very funny. You would have liked him. He was a policeman, and you know what happened.”
My dad looked at me, and I looked back. I nodded my head.
“Now, Santi and Francisco tell me that that was the day your mom fell in love with me. I don’t know if it’s true, but I loved your mom from the first time I talked to her. I never asked her because I don’t want to ask her about that day.”
I began to think my father was drunk. Still drunk from last night. He only slept for three hours. He’d never be saying such stories if he wasn’t.
“It was a weird day.”
The sun began to rise, and I heard a baby cry. I quickly got up to check.
“Yeah, papa? I’m going to check on the kids.”
“You’d be a great daddy,” he leaned back and smiled.
I was confused but thanked him. When I got to the room, the baby had gone back to sleep. The other was peacefully asleep as well. I went back to the patio with a cup of coffee for my father.
“I don’t drink coffee,” he said. He did. I don’t know why he said that.
“Take it, yes you do.”
He took it and drank it.
“Last night I saw people I hadn’t seen forever. I saw Roberto. I don’t know if you remember. He used to live next door right here. He was good friends with your mom. He used to play guitar. We recorded a song once. I don’t know what happened to it. Well he has a son now who plays football for a college. I forgot which one, somewhere north.”
I listened to the man whose hair began to stand up.
“I saw Cesar Castro, the guy who introduced me to your mom. He’s still a history teacher, and he’s got a kid working in Washington with senators. You know, a lot of people like your grandpa, and he likes them all too. Who knew Cesar and him were good friends?”
“It’s the restaurants and the big house. And grandma’s newspaper friends.”
“Yeah, I know. I like him though. He bought me a guitar.”
My dad smiled. The sun was up and no one was awake.
“Well, I guess I’ll go back to sleep. My head hurts. Thank you for the coffee. When I wake up, we’re playing soccer. So be ready.”
“Ok, good night.”
My father is a strange man. I’ve never understood his creative mind. He’s never talked before, not like that. I guess that usually is locked in his guitar and his music because that’s the only time he’s talked about love and family and the past. Yes, he was drunk.
Last night, apparently, was a good night. No one was awake now, only me. And no one was asleep then, only me, and the children. I sat on the patio, listened to the birds, and wondered how my uncle Ray was doing, poor old fool.
nino = short for padrino which means godfather
mijo= contraction of mi hijo, which means my son