Claudia C. Rodriguez
When the police found his body his hand was clenched over his chest.
Mother and I barged into his room looking for signs. Signs of foul play. Signs of someone being responsible. A sign of something that would absolve us of the burden. The chair was pushed back in place under the table. There were blood drops on the floor. Tissues and cans spilled out from the waste basket. His flip phone was open. A long- sleeve black shirt hung from the back of the chair, still smelling like Dad. One part Zest soap, one part drug store cologne. He had $8 in his wallet. The makeshift bookshelf was filled with photos. A grainy shot of my smiling face, my cheek against his, and mother, still his wife on paper, standing beside us. Photos of his grandchildren when they were babies sat on the second shelf. There were plaques and awards from the San Antonio Fire Department. For 25 years of service, they read. The AC was set to seventy-two.
I found spiral notebooks. Red, yellow, blue. Some with scribblings of a pseudo agenda. Pay insurance. Pick up medicine. He wrote. I found four citations under his mattress from the Police Department. For open container in a business district, they read. I found pounds and pounds of mail. Opened and unopened. From the Law Office of Such and Such. From the IRS. From the courthouse. Words like “seize, levy, judgment, imminent, final notice, last opportunity” jumped from the page. Dad opened all his mail by making a vertical incision from top to bottom on one side of the envelope— a task that took patience to reveal the disturbing news inside. This apartment was supposed to be a placeholder after retirement. An Independent Retirement Community, they called it. A place where his 76-year-old neighbor called him bebito, Spanish for baby because he was the youngest resident in the building.
It’s the middle of the day. My cellphone rings. I answer.
“Are you at work?”
“No I’m working from home.”
“Oh.” She breathes loudly into the phone.
She tries to speak calmly. “They already found your daddy dead.” Already. I hold the phone away from my mouth. I think of my father dead. I think of him lying in the street near the bus stop. I imagine him taking his own life. Holding the rifle from Vietnam between his feet with the barrel in his mouth. I think of the times I ignored his phone calls. The times I couldn’t tolerate being on the phone with him. I think of the time I forgot to call to wish him happy Veteran’s Day. I cannot contain my agony. I sob into the phone.
“Don’t do that. We knew it was going to happen, we knew it,” she said. I cannot speak. I just stare, holding the phone to my ear. Listening to my mother repeat, “Come home, come home today.”
We turned down the A/C and opened the window near the table where his body was found. It looks out onto the San Antonio River. I sat in the chair and imagined what he saw before he died. I hoped he saw tourists laughing on the river barge, children holding hands with their mom, couples leaning in for a kiss. The sun spilled into the window. The wind blew in, erratic, knocking beer cans off the table and photos to the floor. It sent cool air through the two-room apartment. This must be Dad. Standing there watching. I knew he must be watching, pouting, stomping, hating every minute of us going through his belongings. Watching as we negotiate the new owner of his possessions.
“I would have tidied up if I knew I was going to have company,” Dad said.
I called the medical examiner. She answered the phone on the first ring.
“Hello, how may we assist you?”
“You had my father there.”
“What’s his name?” I offered his name. “I’m going to put you on hold and I’ll be right back,” she said. I thought of Six Feet Under. I thought of Forensic Files. I thought of her coming back to tell me there’s been some kind of mistake. Oh dear, I’m afraid we’ve goofed, your dad’s not really dead. He can’t be gone. I thought to tell her I’m having conversations with my dead father.
“Because of his lifestyle, we concluded an autopsy would be unnecessary,” she said.
“I told you,” I said to Dad.
“Don’t worry so much about me,” he said.
“Well what did you think was going to happen?”
“I told you I have angels watching over me.”
“I believe you, but you pushed them too far.” I wanted to tell him I couldn’t live without him. I wanted to scream, but I couldn’t be mad at him.
There’s a sign in the tiny kitchen. It used to hang in one of his restaurants. A tiny placard made of faux wood, it reads, The kitchen is closed due to illness, I’m sick of cooking. He spent half his life standing in kitchens. I remember him standing in my kitchen years earlier. His stocky build, shoulder length wiry black hair, unkempt moustache, he stood taking blueberry muffins out of the oven. His appearance was more suitable for wrestling drunks out of a bar than baking. I remember walking into the kitchen laughing. “What’s cooking, good looking?” I remember wrapping my arm around his waist. I remember taking in the smell and the sight of his chapped hands tending to the muffins delicately. I remember his signature blue apron he wore at his restaurants. I remember looking at him from the other side of the counter into the kitchen, standing over his stainless steel pots, stirring his creations, savory dishes, garlic and cumin abundant. I remember his Spanish rice. I remember his menudo would cure any hangover. I remember the smell of pancakes at dinnertime.
I pulled the police report. It cost 10¢. Under offense description it reads Apparent sudden death. Just the facts. Upon arrival I met with respondent 1. He stated he had a tenant who may have expired inside an apartment. Respondent 1 stated he was alerted by neighbors to Victim 1’s residence that they had not seen him in two or three days. Respondent 1 said he then unlocked the door and found the chain still attached. Said he noticed the odor of something that died. Said he cut the chain and made entry. Said he observed Victim 1 lying on the floor of the living space next to the table on his back. No obvious signs of trauma. His hand was clenched over his chest as though he was experiencing pain there.
I imagined Dad being wheeled down the narrow hall by the paramedics, wrestling with the straps of the gurney. He’d shout at the rubberneckers and looky-loos. “What are you looking at–– what are you looking at?”
“They watch everything I do,” Dad said.
“The old-timers, bunch of gossips.”
“Well you didn’t disappoint them.”
“They don’t know where I’ve been.”
“The coroner wouldn’t let us see your body, they said it was gruesome.”
“What do they know?”
We’ve been cleaning for hours, Mother and I. Stopping to admire shirtless photos of Dad from Vietnam, his haunting eyes stared back at us. We stopped at times to laugh. We laughed at the plush Scooby Doo dolls he collected, stuffed animals who’d earned the right to wear shoes. Odds and ends littered the apartment, things he found while walking the streets, or riding the bus on his voyages to get his medicine, as he called it. We laughed at the upright freezer in the corner by his bed. The kind of freezer one could hide a body inside. We picked through his VHS tapes. Among them, his favorite movie, Platoon. We fiddled with the knobs on the boom box. I wondered if he got to listen to his favorite song, “Dock of the Bay,” one last time.
Mother found $55.00 at the top of the closet. He couldn’t have known it was there because it wouldn’t still be. I found almost a full 12 pack. He couldn’t have been feeling well because he hadn’t run out of beer. Everything out of sorts except for the manila folder that sat in the middle of the dining room table turned catch-all surface. Discharge papers from the Army, papers about his pension benefits, a State Farm life insurance policy. If he’d been organized enough to label a folder, it could be called “In Case of Death.”
I sat to write the obituary. He was affectionately known as Chino, I wrote. He served in the fire department for twenty-five years. He was called home by the Lord to rest in eternal peace. I wrote these words uncertain of a better place, uncertain of eternal life and Heaven.
“You helped all those people,” I said to Dad.
“And you couldn’t save yourself?”
“You’re the only one who worries so much about me.”
“That’s not true,” I said.
“Remember when I saved you from the fire?”
“Dad, you know I don’t like to talk about that.”
“I did it. Me. Your daddy.”
“I know you did.”
“By myself, when everyone else gave up on you,” he said.
“I know you did. I tried to help you too, but you didn’t listen.”
“Don’t worry about me.”
“Daddy, are you happy now?”
A reporter from the San Antonio Express News read the obituary. She called the funeral home, wants to write a story about Dad. Dad’s been in the paper before. For being the only one in his family to graduate high school before entering Vietnam. For dragging an officer out of harm’s way during a gun battle in front of his restaurant. For teaching children fire safety at my elementary school. I called the reporter. She asked what he liked most about serving in the military. She asked when he started cooking. I told her he cooked at the fire station. She called this “firehouse cuisine.” She asked when he retired from the fire department. She asked how he juggled family, a career, his restaurants. She asked how he coped.
I wanted to tell her we all make mistakes. I wanted to tell her he accomplished superhuman things. I wanted to tell her he drank. He drank when he returned from Vietnam and his mother died of cancer. He drank when his first wife left him for his best friend. He drank when he tried to forget all the things he saw on the job. He drank when he fought with his second wife. He drank when his daughter was addicted to heroin. He drank when he realized he had no one to care for but himself. But instead I told her he was Superman.
We were almost done packing when Dad’s grandchildren, my niece and nephew arrives. Their little voices spilled into the apartment. They ran about, fighting over dad’s treasures, asking to keep random objects that catch their attention. I looked at my niece, Natalia. Her wide- set nose and olive skin reminded me of Dad. In her short life she had one adventure with Dad she talks about. “Grandpa took me on the bus.” I remember the way he described that day. He said it was the best day he’d ever had. Natalia was scared at first, but held his hand as they walked to the bus stop. He liked the way people paid attention to him with her on his arm. People stared as they got on the bus. He said they found two empty seats. He sat next to the window and she in the aisle seat. The bus started to move and her eyes got wide. He wrapped his arm around her. He said she crawled onto his lap and looked out the window. I imagined his arms around her tiny chest, her heartbeat on his palms, his head partly buried in her soft curls. He is describing the landmarks as the bus drove on. I imagined him before he died, smiling, his eyes filled with tears, remembering the scent of Natalia’s hair, the image of her face in his head.
I visited the funeral home the day before the service. It was quiet and still. I got to see Dad before anyone else. I got to decide if we should have an open casket. This prize came with strings. The funeral director said they couldn’t dress him yet because of the condition of the body. He said the words decomposition and fragile.
I walked down the rose-colored carpet toward the back room. I stepped slowly, my legs unsure. I reached the room. Opened the door. The light was on and Dad was twenty feet away. He looked just like Dad from that distance. Sleeping, draped from neck to toe by a burgundy blanket. Closer. His physical flaws surfaced. His eyelids were sealed. His lips, unnaturally pressed together. His face, swollen. His olive skin, discolored. The makeup had been applied heavily and poorly. His moustache had more grey than when I saw him last. I stared at Dad. My eyes, my hands were in denial. Hesitant, reluctant and shaking, I thought Dad might open his eyes and stop my heart, I reached down to stroke his hair. I stared at him, willing him to blink. I wanted him to raise his head. I wanted his hand to come out from under the blanket and scratch his nose. To sit up and tell me it wasn’t real. But he doesn’t. He never moved, he never blinked.
I leaned in toward his ear. “Daddy. I hope you’re not alone anymore.”
“If I knew I was going to die, I would have gotten a haircut,” he said. “That’s the way the cookie.”
Claudia C. Rodriguez is a born and raised Texan living in Phoenix. She’s a graduate of Arizona State University and supports the Arizona Cardinals even through their rough seasons. “Heartbeat” is her first publication.