by Daniel A. Olivas
He was pretty much alone except for us. When he would visit, he was about thirty-five or maybe forty years old. It was hard to tell. He stood six foot even -- I'm sure he's still tall but with an inch or two missing from age -- and he was very skinny with long legs that ended at two large black shoes with very thick soles. He always wore the same black shoes. And he always wore very clean, ironed khakis with a shiny black belt and a white long sleeve shirt. His dark skin pulled hard and tight across his face and he always had a grin -- or a grimace -- showing his teeth, and his eyes squinted from the smoke from his cigarette. His nose slid down sharply and then curved under like a spatula and he kept his sparse, black hair neat and slicked back. His eyes glistened a blue-gray like my real metal Gunsmoke pistol. If it weren't for the mottled chocolate hue of his skin, he could've been confused for a Brit. And when I hugged him, my nostrils filled with a mixture of tobacco and Old Spice. He would pronounce my name with a heavy accent so that "Claudio" became special and faraway and ancient.
I called him "Uncle Tío" which Mom thought was absolutely the cutest thing ever said by a six-year-old. Because, as you know, "tío" means "uncle" in Spanish so the name I gave him was redundant. Sort of like the La Brea Tar Pits west of the mid-Wilshire area near Hancock Park. You know, where they have a great collection of fossils excavated from the huge pool of bubbling tar that still gurgles, as noxious gas is created from beneath and slowly emanates in the form of large and small domes that eventually pop under their own weight. "La Brea" means "the tar" so when Pop would say that we were going to the La Brea Tar Pits, Lizzie, my older sister would say, "You mean we're going to the Tar Tar Pits?" Anyway, it sounded right, for some reason, so everyone in my family called him "Uncle Tío" even to his face and he smiled and showed very straight but stained yellow teeth and he laughed a smoker's laugh. His name was actually José Flores Novas and before I dubbed him with the redundant appellation "Uncle Tío," he was known as "Uncle Joe." Actually, he wasn't exactly an uncle in the strictest sense. He was related to us, somehow, on the Ramirez side of Mom's family. But I could never get a straight explanation as to his true lineage.
Uncle Tío would visit from time to time completely unannounced except for a phone call made a few minutes before he appeared at our doorstep. I often wondered how many times he called when we weren't home and if he kept on trying, calling from a phone booth a few blocks away, hoping that Pop would answer so that he could come by and give me and my two sisters presents and have a nice visit with Pop. He always had presents. As I said, he always would arrive a few minutes after calling and he carried a large brown Safeway bag and he would smile and know that I was dying from curiosity about what was in the bag for me. I would think, Forget my sisters. They could wait. What was there for me?
At the time, I had no idea where Uncle Tío lived but I later learned from Mom that he had a little apartment in downtown L.A. about six miles from our house. So, he had to take the bus on Pico Boulevard and get off by the laundromat that we had to go to every so often when our dryer broke down and then walk down Ardmore Avenue to get to us. Back then, in the mid-1960s, the neighborhood was mostly Mexican immigrants or maybe, like my parents, the children of Mexican immigrants. Though these days, the area is mostly Central American and some of the Mexican old timers now call it "Little Managua" just to make the point. And in 1970, the L.A. City Council put up a big sign off the 10 Freeway at the Normandie exit dubbing the neighborhood "Koreatown" which just kills my Pop because he fought in the Korean Conflict. He was a Marine. He enlisted at age eighteen to prove that he was as American as the next guy, and saw action and was decorated. And now he lived in a large woodframed house built in 1910 in a neighborhood called "Koreatown" which drives him nuts especially because most of the people in the area are Latino. Pop has a remarkable capacity to accept other people and all their differences, but he also knows stark irony when it knocks on the door and introduces itself.
Uncle Tío worked at a gas station for many years and earned a good wage. He came up from a small town in the Mexican state of Jalisco called Ocotlán when he was fifteen, all by himself, and settled in Los Angeles. Mom says he was married once but his wife left him.
"He wasn't a bad husband," Mom told me later. "He never hit her. Your Uncle Tío just had a few problems."
And I remember how he would show up and say "¿Cómo estás, Claudio?" with a very thick voice and then, after a momentary hesitation just to rile me up, he would pull out a Tonka Truck or a Pancho Villa puppet from Olvera Street or a Bugs Bunny coloring book. Uncle Tío would hold the gift just out of my reach smiling with a lit cigarette tucked to the side of his mouth and then he would ever so slowly lower it into my hands. He then gave me the bag to take to my sisters.
But I would wait around a bit -- my sisters wouldn't be going anywhere soon anyway -- and watch Uncle Tío say hello to Pop and sit down on our vinyl dark green couch and cross one of his long skinny legs over the other and ask for a cup of coffee. Pop would go to the kitchen and talk to Mom about the request. Mom always stayed in the kitchen when Uncle Tío came by. Anyway, Pop would eventually amble back -- with the hardwood floors creaking beneath the worn linoleum -- and give me wink as I hid behind the couch. Pop would very slowly put the coffee into Uncle Tío's outstretched hand and then, after this well-rehearsed routine, the visit would begin.
I remember asking Mom many years later why she stayed in the kitchen during the visits.
"Oh, I don't know," she began. "I guess that I really didn't have anything to add to the conversation." I eventually understood what she meant.
Anyway, the visit would begin and Uncle Tío would start speaking in Spanish. I didn't understand very much of what was said because he spoke so fast but every so often I could pick up a word or two. "Gobierno" -- government -- was one of his favorite words. And he would wave his long hands up and down and laugh a little nervous laugh and talk about the government. I remember watching his cigarette burn dangerously low and close to the long fingers of his left hand as he spoke but he always knew to put it out in the big lemon-yellow ashtray that Pop set on the coffee table next to him. But before he smashed it into a little ball at the bottom of the ashtray, he used it to light yet another cigarette. And then, after an hour of Uncle Tío talking and my Pop not saying much of anything except for an occasional "Hmmm" and "Claro" punctuated with a stiff nod, the visit was over and he would thank Pop so much for listening and then he would leave with a smile.
Last year, Mom told me that she got a letter from Uncle Tío.
"How is he?" I asked.
"Oh, wonderful. He's living in Mexico, in his old town. He rents a nice little house by the main boulevard. He gets Social Security checks forwarded to him and he has enough to live on and he's very happy, now."
"Now?" I asked. Mom has a way of getting to things pretty slowly.
"Well, mi hijo, Uncle Tío had a lot of problems when he lived in L.A." Mom pronounces "mi hijo" as is done in Spanish as if the two words for "my son" were only one: "Mee-hoe." Her English is quite good though she speaks with a slight accent.
"I know his wife left him soon after they got married," I said. I was intrigued but I could see that Mom wanted to tell me the truth slowly. She spoke very carefully.
"You know when he would visit your father and talk on end about the government?"
"Of course I remember. I loved the toys he would bring."
"Well, mi hijo, he was very generous. He loves all three of you so much. I give him credit with all his problems that he never forgot about you and your sisters."
Now, I couldn't wait to hear what Mom had to say. I remember that it was hot out -- I think it was August -- but the house stayed cool with all the downstairs windows open so that the thin curtains blew up away from -- or sucked tightly onto -- the window screens with every cross-current. I'm sure the house was once magnificent with its vast rooms and curved staircase and grand closets but it was in great disrepair and already rasped with age when my parents bought it in 1962. The intervening thirty-seven years didn't help. Anyway, I finally asked: "What was wrong with Uncle Tío?"
Mom sat there, on the same green couch that Uncle Tío used to sit on almost thirty years before except it had been recovered several times and now had a heavy dark chestnut fabric covering it. Linoleum no longer covered each floor of the house. Now, thick rust colored wall-to-wall carpeting cloaked the living and dining rooms liked the autumn leaves we seldom get in Los Angeles. And then she said: "He used to tell your father that the American government had put a black box into his head and was monitoring his thoughts. He said that if he smoked a lot, that would make it difficult for them to decipher his brain waves."
My God, I thought. Poor Uncle Tío was -- or is -- a classic schizophrenic. I shifted in my seat trying to allow this new information to settle into me. "So," I asked. "How is he?"
"Like I said, he's living back in Mexico. He says that life is good and simple. Every day, he wakes up, shaves and dresses, buys a paper and drinks coffee with his friends at a café. That's all." Mom smoothed the front of her thick cotton dress -- too thick for the weather -- even though it looked fine. She didn't look at my eyes.
"What else?" I couldn't resist. I needed to know. I could read Mom's body language pretty well and I knew there was a little more to the story but she was creeping up on it like a skilled hunter eyeing his prey.
"Nothing much. Just that your Uncle Tío says that the government can't hear his thoughts anymore. That's all." Mom looked up to one of the windows as its peach colored curtain was blown up with a flap! and just as suddenly sucked down cheek-to-cheek with the aging screen with a muffled thwap!
"And?" I wasn't going to let Mom off the hook. She started this.
Mom sat there for about ten seconds in silence with her ample figure settled comfortably on the couch like a content and patient hen warming her eggs. Then she finished: "He says that he removed the black box from his head with a knife a few years ago. That explains why his thoughts aren't being monitored anymore."
I looked at Mom trying to find something -- anything -- in her expression, but her face revealed nothing but a slight smile. Suddenly, she stood up and said, "Oh, mi hijo, I forgot about the coffee. Do you want a cup?" And before I could answer, she had scurried out of the living room towards the kitchen.
Did you like this short story?
"Black Box" ©2000 Daniel A. Olivas. Used by permission
of the author.
Raven Electrick ©2000 Karen A. Romanko. Clipart by Corel®.