I was teaching at a little community center here in St. Paul. A sort of leftist, communist, subversive place where we were mostly volunteers. Sometimes we had lights, sometimes not. A place where the volunteer teachers were instructed that if ‘la migra’ (INS) ever showed up, we were to take all the class up to the second floor where Centro Legal was located. That was a law office and therefore the migra couldn’t touch any of our students who happened to be illegal.
I loved almost all of my students, but there were some I grew especially fond of. Ramon and his friend Samuel were two of those. Ramon was very quiet, very serious and very smart. He was in his forties. Samuel was an artist, he sketched while Ramon took notes. He was younger than Ramon and not quite so serious. He was tall and thin with light brown hair, light eyes, fair skin, bad teeth and freckles. Neither one of them spoke a lick of English. Ideal students.
Once or twice they disappeared for a couple of weeks. I missed them. But they came back. Once they disappeared for months. I didn’t know their legal status, but I assumed they went or were sent back to Mexico. When they showed up after almost a year, I threw my arms around them, I was so happy. I don’t know what my deal was. I just got attached to them. Especially Ramon.
His profile is just like pictures you’ve seen of Aztec gods. His nose is beautiful, hooked like the beak of an eagle. Even when he smiles, he still looks sad. He’s a small guy, around five feet, but barrel chested and substantial. His skin is dark. Black glossy hair with just a handful of silver strands is swept straight back from his forehead.
He walks with more than a limp. One of his legs is maybe 6 inches shorter than the other and is atrophied from a childhood bout with Polio. His gait is more of a halted rocking than a stride, a barely controlled teetering. He refused to apply for a handicapped permit until my mom got sick. Watching him walk is hard. It looks like so much work.
I have not once heard him complain about being left behind in my family of frantic-paced fast-walkers. Never heard him complain about something being a long way to walk. Never. It doesn’t seem to occur to him that it isn’t fair.
I can’t remember what made me give my phone number to Ramon. But I must have at some point, because he eventually called me when he started having trouble with his new American wife. A healthy-helga-behemoth of a woman who married Ramon after they had known each other only a couple months. This was her third foreign born husband. It was Ramon’s first American wife.
When she kicked him out of the house in January without a coat after scratching his face and neck, he slept in his car. They made up eventually. But not for long. She got mad again and after she clawed at his neck drawing blood, he headed for the door. When wanted his coat and he tried to get back in, She shut the door on his hand and blackened his thumb. The police were called, they convinced her to let him in to get a coat, his keys and some clothes.
He slept in his car again, but this time it was in front of my house. He called in the morning and asked if he could sleep on my front porch for a night or two while he figured out where to go. I told him no way could he sleep on my porch in February, but he could sleep on my couch for a couple nights. He looked terrible. He said he wasn’t going to go back with his wife, “I thought she was good woman, but she is bad business.”
He went a back a couple more times, we did research to see if he could find a shelter for abused husbands. There was not such a thing in the Twin Cites. After a few arguments about whether he was serious about leaving her, something finally tipped him over. He decided to leave for good. But he needed a place to stay. My couch with the kids, the dog and the cats, was just not a good long tern solution.
He stayed a couple days with my in-laws. They played chess and chatted. Everyone who meets Ramon is charmed. He’s a sweet, diffident, intelligent guy. They were charmed. But they lived on the other side of Minneapolis, and had their own livestock and family to attend to. Ramon needed a place where he could settle for a while.
It just so happened that my mom had an empty nest after a divorce and various kids had come and gone and come back and gone again. Her house had 5 bedrooms. My sister was still living at home off and on, but that left 3 empty bedrooms. Sure, Ramon could come and stay for a while. He even paid rent, he helped around the house.
My sister started saying things about maybe there was more going on than boarder, and landlord. She lived there, so we siblings listened with interest. She didn’t have details, because she worked a lot and my mom was always sneaky. You never knew with my mom if it was because she had a package of raspberry zingers in her closet, if she was drinking, if she had found a lump in her neck, if she had a boyfriend or if there really were onions in the stuffed cabbage.
One cool day in the fall of 1996, Ramon came over. One thing about Ramon. He can’t get to the point. Depending on who you ask, this is really a problem with me, because I’m happy to chat with you, but I want to do it after we establish why you’re really calling. And Ramon didn’t just come to visit. It might seem like it, but he always has an agenda. Sometimes he’ll leave and have not fessed up to whatever drove him to you, but the next day or week he’ll be there again, passing time amiably while he works up the nerve to talk about whatever is weighing down his mortal soul.
Such was the case when he passed by my house on that cool day. We sat on my front stoop, soaking up that kind of sun that is just enough to tempt you, almost enough to warm you, but not quite.
We chatted about the neighbors around my mom’s house. How they had been there forever and were always peaking around the shades and trying to figure out what was going on. My mom had a sort of cold war of the window shades going on with the Johanssen’s next door. Einar and Randi (while she was still alive) would always pull their shades, bust sometimes they’d mess with them for a suspiciously long time while they watched into my mom’s dining room, kitchen and back door.
They had shades AND curtains. They kept the doors to the bedrooms on our side of the house closed, so even when the shades were up, there was no way to see people walking around in the house. And they had built a privacy fence for their deck on the side facing our back door. This drove my mom crazy. Never mind that she kept binoculars stashed all over the house and was not a bird watcher.
They played it cool, but once, when the Mister Kitty had climbed up the mulberry tree and gotten himself stuck on the roof, (he usually waited to be let in through the upstairs window, but this was another battle of wills we can address later) and he was perched just on the gutter above the back door, the phone rang. “Sooosie, dis iss Randi. I tink yer keety’s gonna yump!”. So they were watching.
Ramon said he was a little worried about my mom’s reputation in the neighborhood as a “Good woman” since he was living there. Maybe he should find somewhere else to stay. I sat there and wondered if this guy’s machismo was for real. Nobody cared about what was going on there. My mom was twice divorced, anyone who wanted to pass judgment had done it long ago. As long as he was helping my mom out, I wasn’t concerned about her reputation. “You don’t care if people is thinking I am her boyfriend?” I didn’t at all.
We sat and watched the cars go by for a minute or so, side by side. He looked down at the steps between his feet. “Jenny and Patrick doesn’t care?” I told him no. “Ramon, my mom has been very lonely and unhappy. All we care about is that she’s happy.” He sat for a while longer, and I could tell he was really uncomfortable. “You don’t care if is true?” He looked down at his hands.
Ahhh there it was… Why he had stopped by twice that week, why we chatted about the neighbors, about him moving out, about Erin and Jenny and Patrick. They had become a pair! I assured him I wasn’t mad, and that none of the siblings would be mad. He heaved a sigh of relief, gave me a hug and left.
It is entered in my mom’s calendar like this:
October 6th in blue ink
Ramon very upset over rumors about us.
Ramon went to talk to Lisa. Shit.
(Then in black ink, added later)
She assured him he was not degrading my reputation!
And although he can play chess, draw a hell of a schematic, paint, wire (Mexican style) a light in your closet, change your brakes or your oil, he is completely unable to manage his life alone. In my mom’s calendar it says he used to cook dinner once or twice a week. Last time I visited him , he asked if I wanted all the pots and pans, because he doesn’t cook anymore since my mom died. No one does. He was washing dishes when I walked in. We talked a while about bills and budgets. He’s lost. My mom did all that. There was Spanish music on the stereo when I came in. We had been sitting in the dining room for about 20 minutes when I realized he had the disc on repeat. It was the same crooning sad song over and over and over.
He saw me realize we were listening to the same song repeated, and he went to turn it down. He started to explain the lyrics and how they talked about “if only I could just hold you once more. If I could see you once more. That’s all I dream about…” His eyes got red and welled up. He needed to tell me about my mom putting her arms around his neck, when she knew she was really, really sick and it was just the two of them. She’d put her face on his shoulder, hang on him a little and start to cry, “Ramon, what are we going to do?” We sat at the dining room table and cried and held hands. He’s very, very sad.