Rodrigo is about to pitch a ball to his son when he feels his phone vibrating. He throws the ball and pulls the phone from his back pocket.
"I need to borrow some money," says Berta.
"Mom, we've talked about this. You know that Lena and I can't send you anymore money."
"Can't or won't? No one wants to help me. Not even my own son."
"I'll be in Houston next week. We can talk some more then."
"Why are you coming?"
"To move Abuelo to another unit. His aide called. The dementia has gotten worse. Haven't you been to see him?"
"Someone stole the plates on my car. How am I supposed to get there to see him?"
"When? Did you file a police report?"
"The police? What are they going to do? I need money to replace them. Are they going to give me money?"
"I was planning to visit you after looking in on Abuelo. We'll go to lunch. I'll see you in a few days, alright?"
Rodrigo squeezes his lanky six-foot-two frame into a middle seat on the plane. After take-off, he closes his eyes. In a cocoon of engine whir and white noise, he considers his life in New Haven where he lives in a tidy Dutch colonial with his writer wife and son. There are Lena's book parties and his son's baseball games. The martini lunches at Mory's with the other professors in his department. The long walks he takes across the Yale campus to remind himself of how far he's come. This world, so placid and satisfying, is all he ever wanted.
It's not like what he had growing up with a single mother and her revolving door of lovers, among them the occasional sycophant with fatherly aspirations. She was a high school dropout, raising a child without a roadmap to success, leaving him for weeks at a time to be with a boyfriend, chase down a job opportunity, or convalesce in a city psych ward. His grandfather had been the family's only source of stability, a widower whom Berta inexplicably loathed, though he was the one who cared for Rodrigo during her long absences. Later, Rodrigo had been the one to leave, putting thousands of miles between him and his mother.
It's early evening when the plane begins its descent over Houston. Rodrigo drinks the last of a vodka and tonic, the ice clattering in the plastic glass as he fixes his eyes on the downtown skyline, a series of skyscrapers in the distance that push from the earth like a cluster of crystals.
"It's so good to see you, Abuelito." Rodrigo buckles his grandfather into the backseat of the rental car. He's decided to bring him along on the lunch date even though he knows it will upset his mother. His grandfather sits quietly in the backseat, a bored look on his face as though he's already seen every tree, every combination of people, every formation of cloud. Rodrigo drives cautiously, navigating the ribbons of freeway that wrap around the city as he makes idle conversation with his grandfather.
"Abuelito, are you comfortable? It sure is a hot day. Is the air reaching you back there?" Rodrigo looks at his grandfather in the rearview mirror. He is leaking like a tree losing its sap; his eyes shed steady tears and silvery drool trickles from one corner of his mouth. "We're going to see mom. You know, your daughter. Berta." Rodrigo looks for a sign of recognition in his grandfather's vacant expression but sees nothing more than a twitch in one of his watery eyes.
Traffic along the inner loop is rush-hour heavy though it's only mid-day. Rodrigo reaches the exit and drives north on a suburban artery. Spun-out strands of strip mall on both sides of the road gradually give way to vacant lots and run-down apartment buildings. The summer sun is unrelenting, bending the road ahead into a mirage of melted tar. At a traffic light, Rodrigo cranks up the air and turns around to wipe his grandfather's mouth with the collar of the guayabera the old man wears, adding a fresh smear to the discolorations that spatter the front of the shirt.
"We're almost there, Abuelito," says Rodrigo, bearing right onto Harvard Road, a street whose culture is as far away from the Ivy League as a distant galaxy from Earth. Rodrigo drives through the gates of the Harvard Apartments and takes a quick inventory of the place. There are out-of-work men roosting on a second-floor balcony and teenagers huddling on one corner. Blinds hang crooked in lonely windows flanked by ivy dying on the vine. A recent drought has sentenced the grass to death.
Just as he expected, his mother is outside her apartment door waiting for him, checking an imaginary watch on her wrist.
"Stay here, Abuelito. I'll be right back," he says, pulling into a parking space next to a truck without tags and leaving the engine idling.
The heat envelops him as he exits the car and walks toward her. She comes into focus as he approaches. Time has etched wrinkles into her face like pencil strokes in a drawing. A spray of silvery roots on her head betrays a drug-store dye job—fuchsia, this time.
"Hi, mom," he says, bending down to kiss her hello and recoiling slightly when he smells cat piss on her clothing.
"You're late," she says. His mother wears a strange expression on her face, like the one where a parent fakes a serious face to make her child laugh. Rodrigo is sure that's not the game she plays now, however. His mother is masking an emotion. Whether it's happiness or irritation, he can't tell.
A man stands close by. He is thin with ash-white skin and sunken cheeks that frame a toothless smirk.
"This is Jerry, my boyfriend," says Berta, digging through her purse for something.
"Hello," says Rodrigo, nodding. Jerry nods back, hocks a loogie on the doorstep, and closes the apartment door behind him.
"Are you ready?" Rodrigo asks Berta.
"Yes, but I can't find my lipstick. Ah, here it is," she says, twisting the tube and coloring her lips coral.
As they walk to the car, Rodrigo considers putting his arm around his mother's shoulders but senses her vexation like a force field and changes his mind.
"He's in the car, isn't he?" asks Berta.
"Yes, I couldn't leave him. He was all alone."
Berta rolls her eyes as Rodrigo opens the car door for her. She lumbers in, backside first. He notices the skirt she wears is made of fabric too heavy for a summer's day and her legs, former movie-star gams, look like stalks of prickly pears growing out of two old shoes. He figures she feels the scrutiny because she looks at him with a sideways glance and says, "You look like shit."
"Thanks, Mom. It's nice to see you, too," he says to himself, closing the passenger door. He feels her hot stare as he crosses in front of the car to the driver's side and gets in.
"How old are you now, Rodrigo? I've lost track of the years," she says, buckling her seat belt.
Rodrigo knows she hasn't forgotten his age, that she's needling him. Still, a part of him wonders if she's headed for the same future as his grandfather. He imagines her robbed of speech, staring into the ether, crying empty tears.
"Forty-five this August. Goes by fast," he says, releasing the brake and turning the car back toward town. "The restaurant isn't far. I thought we'd eat Mexican, so that Abuelo can eat something he likes. You, too, of course."
"Where are we going? I thought you were taking me for sushi. You know how much I love sushi."
Rodrigo clenches the steering wheel. "Is there a sushi place nearby?"
"There's a place in River Oaks."
"What? By the looks of that watch you're wearing, I think you'll be able to afford it."
"It's not that, it's just a bit far. I'm not sure how long Abuelo will hold up."
"I don't know why you brought him in the first place."
"Is there anything closer?"
"There's a place near the freeway, but it's not very good."
"I'm sure it'll be fine."
An aquarium in the center of the room contains a lone lobster and reeks of fermented water. The dining area is damp with condensation. There's no one else in the dimly lit restaurant other than a waitress who appears tired, unsmiling.
"What do you think we should order for Abuelito?" asks Rodrigo, reviewing the menu. He shares the banquette with his grandfather who is slumped in a corner and preoccupied with a cigarette burn in the vinyl.
"He won't eat anything. Just let him sit there."
"I'll order him some soup. That's what I'll have, too," says Rodrigo.
"You should try the spicy tuna roll."
"I don't like raw fish."
"I'll order some so you can try it." Berta looks at the menu through reading glasses held together with Scotch tape.
"Mom, you need new glasses."
"No, I don't. They work fine. I'm not vain anymore. I've changed. Except my lipstick. I still need my lipstick."
"You need license plates, not lipstick."
"And look at this," she says, holding an oversized bag like a baby in the nook of her arm. It's patterned in trios of bright red cherries that remind Rodrigo of pictures in a slot machine. "My neighbor bought it for me at the Dollar Store. Not too bad, huh?"
Rodrigo nods and manages a smile while tucking a napkin into his grandfather's collar.
"Rodrigo, I'm different now. My doctor has changed my medications. I don't fight with people anymore."
"That's good to hear," he says, flagging down the waitress.
He watches her order enough food for a party of four and realizes she's planned her meals for the next couple of days. Afterwards, she talks about her modest life, her miserable disability checks, her addict boyfriend. Rodrigo listens, portraying calm though his nerves are roiling inside him. When the food finally arrives, Rodrigo offers his grandfather a spoonful of miso broth. He feels Berta watching him while she eats slowly and deliberately like a hedonist on the eve of her execution.
"I wish someone would find me a nursing home to move to," says Berta, looking at Rodrigo over the tops of her broken glasses.
"Mom, you're sixty years old and you don't need to be in a nursing home. They wouldn't even take you," says Rodrigo, wiping his grandfather's mouth with the edge of a napkin.
"Everyone is willing to help my father but no one will help me," she says. Berta looks at the mound of food in front of her, slowly chewing each bite. "If only you knew the truth about your abuelo."
Rodrigo feels his muscles tighten. He imagines getting up and walking away, leaving her there alone with her massive plate of food, her mouth too full of raw fish to tell him to stop. But he also wants to know what she means.
"What truth? What are you talking about?"
"Your abuelo. You know."
"Know what, mother?"
"Pass me the soy sauce," Berta says.
"Mom, what about Abuelo?"
"You know, you were always such a sensitive boy. So emotional. And now look at you. You're as cold as an ice cube."
"I'm not cold."
"As an ice cube," says Berta, "You've never wanted to see what's right in front of you."
"Didn't you ever wonder why Abuelito took care of you all those years?"
"Because you were gone, remember?"
"Maybe I'll just keep it to myself."
"What is it that you want to tell me?" Rodrigo asks.
"Let's order some dessert first."
"Oh, fine. Your abuelo isn't your abuelo."
"What do you mean?"
"He's your father, Rodrigo."
"Oh, come on. Don't pretend like you didn't know. Look at the two of you." Berta wraps her hands around a mug of green tea and leans toward Rodrigo. "You're tall like him. That's from our Spanish side, you know."
"I don't believe you."
"It's true, we have Spanish blood going all the way back to—"
"You know that's not what I mean."
"Believe or don't believe. Es la verdad, mijo."
Rodrigo stares into the bowl in front of him, stirs the soup, and nudges a cube of tofu in the broth. He doesn't want to look at Berta. He's sure she'll have a smile on her face when he looks up at her. This is the game she enjoys, the one where he is the loser.
"Look, I know I failed you in a lot of ways," Berta says suddenly.
Rodrigo lifts his gaze, focusing on her mouth, the way it moves as she speaks, on a faint trail of soy sauce that lines the corners of her lips.
"I came from nothing. But I made sure you had things, a good education, a chance at a future."
He doesn't correct her version of history or remind her again that she was rarely there, that Abuelo was the one who made sure he stayed in school. That he worked his ass off to get into a good college. That his hard work landed him a career at Yale, of all places.
"I didn't tell you about your abuelo until now because—"
Rodrigo's fist lands hard on the table, jolting the dishes. "Because why? Because now he can't defend himself against such a vile accusation? Because now he's too sick to have you committed?"
"I'm just trying to explain it all. Why I've always hated him. Why I am the way I am."
"We're done," says Rodrigo opening his wallet and dealing several twenty-dollar bills on the table. "Abuelito, it's time to get you back home."
"But what about my dessert?" asks Berta.
"Haven't you had enough?"
An early-morning storm has trapped the sun's heat beneath a gauzy cloud cover. The humidity is getting to Rodrigo and he's anxious to get to the airport, but can't bring himself to leave without saying goodbye. She's always making ridiculous claims, he tells himself as he turns onto Harvard Road.
Over the last few days, Rodrigo sat with his grandfather for hours, reading to him, telling him stories about New Haven, talking about books, sports, politics. While the old man slept, he rummaged through his personal effects, old letters and photographs, yellowed documents tucked away in a dresser drawer, a dog-eared diary he once kept. Rodrigo found nothing indicating his mother might have told the truth. Still, he can't stop searching his memories for clues.
He parks the car, takes a deep breath, and looks around. Like extras on a movie set, the men still roost on the balcony above, the teens loiter on the corner.
Rodrigo knocks on Berta's door and Jerry opens it, welcoming him into a rabbit hole of a room like the Mad Hatter of Poverty. Rodrigo's eyes adjust to the dim light and he sees that the tiny living space leads to a tinier kitchen where dirty dishes are stacked in the sink and a magnum of vodka sits opened on the counter. The fan above the stove is on but nothing is cooking. Rodrigo wonders if this is to capture the smell of cigarette smoke and dirty cat litter that curries the air.
"She's in the bedroom," says the Mad Hatter, settling into the sofa to watch Judge Judy, "Through the other door."
Rodrigo enters a dark hallway, his footsteps tacky against the linoleum floor. He taps on the door and slowly pushes it open. Berta is asleep, lying prone on a platform bed under a frayed comforter. Watching her sleep with her mouth wide open makes him want to cry.
He moves into the room and sits on the bed, taking care not to disturb a cat that lays curled at her feet. He places an envelope with cash on the bedside table and touches her lightly on the shoulder. "Mom, it's me."
Berta closes her mouth, tamping down a snort. Her lips move and she mumbles something unintelligible. Rodrigo imagines a mini version of her inside this shell of a woman, moving levers and switches, trying to get the equipment to work. Machinery that will lend a spark to what was once young and beautiful.
"I've come to say goodbye," says Rodrigo.
"No, I don't want you to go," she says, rousing from sleep. Her eyes still closed, she lifts her head and reaches for Rodrigo like a blind woman searching for the landscape of a face. He takes her hand and holds it tightly as she sinks back into the pillow, her breath morphing into another series of snores.
BIO: Dini Karasik is a Mexican-American writer and lawyer. Her work has appeared in Crack the Spine, The Más Tequila Review, Zombie Logic Review, Kweli Journal, and Red Savina Review. She is currently working on her first novel.