The Red Butterfly, Part Thirteen – He Looked Hungry, He Looked Happy
After the Civil War ended, my mother and I fled to the United States. New York City was the golden jewel, and we arrived there first. But finding that it reminded her too much of Madrid, we eventually settled in St. Louis.
St. Louis was an odd choice for someone like my mother. She was like an exotic bird in the quiet mid-western town known more as the birth place of Yogi Berra and Chuck Berry than for the grand palaces, old museums and long dead renaissance artists of Madrid. A newly met friend took her to see the Mississippi river. The friend gestured with a grand wave of her arm and said, “Mary, this is the largest river in the United States!” My mother looked out at the muddy, slow moving water and said, “At least it’s wider than the Manzanares.” The friend asked, without irony, if a Manzanares was a type of apple.
Maria had morphed into Mary, but not without some work. Like most Spanish speaking women in the U.S., Maria was employed as a house keeper; I should say maid. First in small hotels near downtown St. Louis, and later in the bigger houses of college professors in University City. In the evenings, she attended classes, learned English, earned a diploma and enrolled in a local community college. She was like a stranger to me then, her face unformed. I went from babysitter to babysitter and only saw her on the weekends. Although I don’t remember it, it was during this time that Chip appeared. There are photographs of us, myself, no older than one or two years old, in the park, at the Loop, in a house. There we are, at a picnic, Chip in his starched Air Force uniform, my mother in a flower dress, and me in a tiny red white and blue singlet. A picture of the perfect American family.
My mother became a teacher. She taught third grade at a primary school in University City and also gave private Spanish language lessons to the same professors and children whose homes she once cleaned, only a few years before. “Just like your father,” She let slip once. What did that mean? Chip, my father, fixed airplane engines in a giant hangar at the air field. I had never heard him utter a single word of Spanish in my life.
My own Spanish was terrible. The Spanish R’s and double L’s were like treacherous mountain roads where you could easily lose control if you went too fast. My mother tried to teach me, but I would grow frustrated when she corrected my pronunciation. Chip laughed at us, “Mary, you can’t teach him, you’ll just end up fighting,“ he said.
“Why don’t you speak Spanish,” I asked Chip.
“Well son, because I ain’t Spanish.”
“Neither am I!” I announced.
He thought for a moment, then said, “You’re at least half Spanish, and you should learn it.”
When I was fourteen, I took lessons from a man from Argentina named Alejandro. “I like him, he reminds me of your father,” my mother said. Alejandro was tall, like Chip, yes, but thin and blond, with a naturally tan complexion. He looked like he could have been a California surfer instead of a language teacher from South America and certainly bared no resemblance, that I could see, to the paunchy man sitting in front of the TV watching football in grease stained overalls. “They look nothing alike,” I said.
“Yes, you are right, what am I thinking, he‘s nothing like Chip,” she said, as we pulled out of Alejandro’s driveway in our small VW bug. She pronounced “Chip” like “Cheap.”
I found an old photograph, in my mother’s study, on her desk, late one evening. What was I doing in her study, I can’t remember. She was at the Community College where she taught a Spanish course to bored evening students looking to gather the necessary requirements for graduation. Why had she left the photograph out on top of her un-graded papers I cannot say. My only guess is that she must have wanted me to find it.
At first, I thought the man in the photograph was me, but I could not remember taking such a picture, I couldn’t have. It was black and white and very old, frayed on the edges and the image yellowing. There was the man standing on the side of a talus covered mountain, a valley with a stone bridge far below, a sliver of a river underneath, the sun directly over head. He wore a helmet and his eyes were obscured in shadow and he had on what appeared to be military fatigues. An old rifle was slung over his left shoulder and strapped on to his back was a giant rucksack with a bed roll secured on top with rope. From the edges of his helmet, strands of light colored hair were visible. He had a smooth, clean, youngish face and a cigarette hung jauntily from his lip. The man was me, mirror image, but slightly older, closer to the full bloom of manhood than I was. But otherwise, everything was there. The tall slender build, the Y shaped divot on the chin. He was smiling, we shared the same dimples on the cheeks-two on the left, one on the right. He was gaunt, he looked hungry, he looked happy.
previous chapter: The Red Butterfly, Part Twelve – Chip
more by SERGIO REMON ALVAREZ