Small Bright Beads
By Gabriel Carlos Lopez
One hot April afternoon, Gabriel Carlos Lopez was born. The nurses told Jane his mother than a sniper had opened fire at the Battle of Flowers parade downtown, but such was her joy and grief at the red, wrinkled thing that she nursed that their words meant little. As Gabriel grew, though, she told him the story often, and in his infant mind those deaths balanced his birth, with fiesta queens looking over his crib like fairy godmothers. Life for him was bright and green and full of dread and cicada songs.
Gabriel and his parents lived on Chinaberry Street at the straggling margin of San Antonio, a city big with secrets and decay. A fence followed the cross street at the end of their block, and past that the sweltering thickets stretched on and on, around and beyond the garbage dump, out into the country. Gabriel's father Manny, a science teacher, had the key to a piece of school property there. Sometimes Gabriel went walking with him, when Jane needed a nap, and he saw a pond carpeted with duckweed, and collapsed footbridges, and javelinas and prickly pear and rattlesnakes and mesquite trees.
The community park had fallen into ruin, its swimming pool filled in with dirt and hidden behind grass waving long beneath lines of Mexican palms. The neighborhood mall closed by stages: every few years the fence blocking off the abandoned parts moved a few storefronts up, the space beyond it dusty and dark and post-apocalyptic. The Sidewalk Cafe held out the longest, a dingy little restaurant with sticky plastic gingham tablecloths and sticky red plastic cups and a red-and-white striped awning next to a former clothing store full of shadow and ruin. Something had happened to that part of the city, something had blighted it. It hadn't grown like it was supposed to.
Their church stood a little past the mall, one in a row along the frontage road. Its nave filled Gabriel with dread. Candles flickered at the margins, exuding melted-wax warmth as they cast a throbbing glow on the gold box of the tabernacle and the crucifix with its corpus mounted like a insect and writhing. There were banners and flowers, too, but for Gabriel the mass was something dark and exalted. Outside, the church was a blur of green grass and white-painted mesquite trees and Easter eggs and old men in guayaberas. The children made ojos de Dios, God's eyes, and the spiraling diamond shape gave him a creepy feeling, for to him it was the blank, infinite eye of God inscrutably watching him.
Dread hung like clouds also around his grandparents' house on Loquat Street, a place pregnant with forgotten things, a place that kept its secrets. Only once did he go into its backyard, a jungle labyrinth haunted by a vicious pit bull named Girl. Nor did he ever venture upstairs – not once! – even though he lived close by and visited often, spending days or nights.
You had to enter through an iron-barred ivy-dark porch. The front door was like a jail door, and the heavily curtained windows were barred as well. Artifacts from their years in the Far East filled the tiny living room beyond. A green porcelain dog sat on the floor like a nightmare Pekingese, bug-eyed and grimacing, its tongue sticking out between white tusks. A staircase twisted up to the right, piled with phone books and catalogs. On the nights Gabriel stayed over he slept on the overstuffed couch, beneath scowling Noh players, with Buddhas smiling serenely at him out of dim corners. For a while a white pigeon named Bonita lived in there, too. His granny, Clara, loved little animals.
Clara always wore black and kept her arms covered to the wrists even in the hottest weather, encircled with jingling bracelets, her beautiful long white hair gathered behind or caught up in a clip. Her nose was short and wide and her eyebrows were sharp and her skin was golden brown. She didn't like to emerge from her dark house, and over the years it closed in around her.
Newspapers lined the dining room floor for Clara's pack of terriers to pee on. Only half of the massive, claw-footed table could be reached because the furniture around it was too big and too crowded with knickknacks. Every room was like that, as though she wanted to fill all empty space. Also, she hated getting rid of things. She spent days and nights in an armchair beside a folding screen and a Kermit the Frog telephone, watching a television wedged up against a hutch, with a Cookie Monster cookie jar goggling ominously down from the dark corner above. Her stuffy boudoir lay past the kitchen, its big bed cocooned within a yellowed lace canopy, its tiny bathroom aglow from a barred window opening on the hidden backyard, the green light turned roseate as it filtered past fussy rugs and covers. Gabriel's grandfather, Manuel, worked as a hardware store manager and then a locksmith. He had his own room upstairs. The other upstairs room remained unchanged years after their daughter, Edelmira, moved out.
Gabriel spent long days there. Manuel sat with him out front under the loquat trees, making grass blades whistle and catching anoles and pretending to eat them and doing magic tricks with bits of rope. He wore western shirts with bolo ties and kept his dark gray hair slicked back with little waves and ringlets behind. He always wore Aramis and to Gabriel the smell of Aramis was the smell of his grandfather. Both he and Clara were big, soft people. They said nasty things to each other in Spanish so that Gabriel wouldn't understand. Accusations ran under their exchanges in English. Their lives were full of secrets.
Aunt Edelmira was ten years younger than Manny and very beautiful. Gabriel envied her enormous, dark, long-lashed eyes and her jean skirts and jewelry. He knew that makeup and dresses and long hair were forbidden to him as a boy, but for as long as he could remember, he had secretly coveted them. Edelmira liked to take Gabriel out. But one night they got back very late and Jane was angry, and Gabriel never went out with Edelmira again. He felt guilty whenever he thought of her. Later on, Manny and Jane sat their sons down and told them that Edelmira was going to prison but that no one outside the family must know. They didn't see her for a long time after that.
Clara and Manuel were from Puerto Rico. Manuel was born in Cayey to family listed as mulatto and trigeño, brown. But his father took him to New York when he was young, where he lived with his infant cousin Julio Cesar Lopez, later known as Perry Lopez, a film star who got his start playing a nameless native killed by the Creature from the Black Lagoon. Clara moved from San Juan to New York to marry Manuel during the war. She told Gabriel tales of Puerto Rico, and he thought often of its green hills and valleys, and its tree frogs singing in the night. Clara's mother's maiden name was Colon, and she said they were descended in a long line from the brother of Cristóbal Colón. She feared many things, but water most of all, and she hated to see seashells in Gabriel's house. "What is taken from the sea, the sea will take back," she said.
Chinaberry Street ran downhill to the city's edge, one of many parallel streets just like it, lined with little houses all built the same but with differences that had crept in over time. The neighborhood was a mix of Latino and Black and White. There was crime, like the crack house across the street and the occasional burglary or assault, but it wasn't gang-ridden. Just run down, gone to seed.
The gray brick wall in front of the house taught Gabriel fear twice. First, when he watched a solar eclipse, seeing crescents multiplied in the green shadows of leaves on its bricks, warned by his mother against looking at the transfigured sun in the tenebrous noonday sky. Second, when they came home at night to a rabid black cat hissing malevolently from the ivy behind. The cat was dead the next morning, its body cast off after delivering its message. The universe in which Gabriel lived was animate, irrational, inscrutable, and out to get him.
They had a big ash tree in the backyard. Manny once put a cow skull in a crotch between two branches and over the years the growing tree crushed it to smithereens. The spool that served as the back patio table had once been the dining room table. Gabriel liked to drop chinaberries down the hole at the center, but it troubled him to think of them trapped forever in that black abyss. Manny and Jane were compromised bohemians. Every other photo of Jane shows her wearing a baggy house dress, smoking a cigarette at a table hidden beneath clutter and a floral tablecloth protected by a plastic cover, with a couple of garbage bags at the back of the kitchen, and an avocado green refrigerator. Manny had a second refrigerator with a faux wood veneer devoted to beer and a big Budweiser beer mirror on the wall and a Budweiser beer can plane hanging from an AC vent and a row of mugs and steins hanging over the sliding glass door. When he was little, Gabriel liked to eat the roly polies from the track of the door.
These fragments are bright beads that Gabriel threads on a string. Individually they are nothing, but together they spell the secret of existence. He adds bead to bead, hoping to make his meaning clear, unable to utter it aloud, for, if words sufficed, then he would never have had to live all this. Breathlessly, he says: Look at what I have seen! The listener sees a stream of details. The secret hulks like a monstrous spider in the shadows, silently brooding, many-eyed.
Gabriel had two rooms: a bedroom and a playroom, the playroom really a combination museum and laboratory, with plaster casts, a rattlesnake skeleton, a tree trunk section with a woodpecker hole in it, birds' nests, turtle shells, cicada shells, a bioscope for projecting pond samples on the wall, insect collections, display drawers for minerals and fossils, and a tarantula in a terrarium. When he was very little, Gabriel liked squashing caterpillars, but one day he had a conversion, and thereafter killed nothing willingly. He loved catching small animals and studying them, and cried whenever one of them died.
Manny taught physics and chemistry and biology. His classroom was a place of wonder and fear, with its dangling human skeleton and rows of chemicals and saltwater aquariums and gleaming silver Van de Graaff generator that made Jane's hair stand up when she touched it and shot sparks into her head. Sometimes Gabriel accompanied his father on collecting expeditions to Redfish Bay, catching hermit crabs and pipefish in the saltgrass meadows.
Manny was always teaching Gabriel about science. Gabriel soaked it in. They went on nature walks and fossil-collecting expeditions. They went to a racetrack out past the dump early one morning to see Halley's Comet go by. Gabriel thought of history in terms of geological epochs. Sometimes Manny told him that God had made the world like a watchmaker making a watch, that now the world just runs of its own accord, obeying its own laws, and that God would never interfere with such a perfect system. Gabriel accepted this implicitly, but it conflicted with his knowledge that God sat in the trees, watching him.
Sometimes Manny’s words had an effect on Gabriel far beyond what was probably intended. Once, for instance, Gabriel asked why their dog liked to sniff people, and Manny told him it was so the dog could tell whether they were good or bad. Gabriel pondered this for years. The new fact didn't seem to fit in with what he knew about the universe. How could such information be conveyed through smell? Finally he asked his father how dogs can use their noses to tell good from evil. Manny simply said: "They can't."
At other times, Manny deliberately tricked his gullible son. Like when he told Gabriel that he had some turtles for him in the backseat of the car. They were traffic turtles, but he didn't say that. Gabriel rushed out to the car with joy. He cried and cried when he found out the truth, and his father laughed and laughed and laughed. Another time Gabriel found two chicken bones by a pond and showed them to Manny, who said they were allosaurus toes. He kept them for years.
Manny was quick to reprimand his son for any perceived effeminacy in the way he spoke, or pulled his pants up too high, or shook men’s hands. Shy, small, and quiet, hating boyish activities like sports, Gabriel felt he was very far from his father’s masculine ideal. He became extremely sensitive to any insinuations about girlishness, and once flew into a tearful rage when two girl cousins sprayed him with perfume.
Gabriel hated buttons. He hated the very sound of the word. Buttons on his clothes filled him with shame and rage and fear. Each was a tiny emblem of iniquity, a badge of boundless foolishness and futility, a spotlight to attract every eye in the world to his utter inadequacy. Over time, by force, he became acclimated to a certain type of button on a certain type of clothing. But there were so many shapes and sizes and styles of button that he was constantly tormented by other people's clothing. Tormented, that is, or uncomfortably enthralled, for he loved the look of buttons on some blouses and dresses.
Certain other stimuli – sights, sounds, textures – pierced Gabriel's senses. Clothes that were too soft or that clung the wrong way, the slimy-crunchy mouthfeel of cooked vegetables, jangling metal, voices on loudspeakers, eyes, grins, holes too close together. He had no shelter from it all.
At church Gabriel would sit in the pew during communion and watch the women go by, ranking in his mind which of them he would most like to be. Where this confusion of mind or body came from he never knew. Not from any experience that he could remember. But every night he lay awake in bed, dreaming of being someone else.
Nightmares plagued Gabriel. The color yellow predominated. In one his house was yellow, and he wanted to go into an even-more-yellow sitting room that didn't exist in his real house, where there was a candy dish on a coffee table beneath a picture on the wall. The picture knew he was there and very much wanted him to go into that room to get some candy. It wanted him. He would watch himself ask his mother, who was reading at the table and smoking a cigarette with her back to him, if he could get a piece of candy, and she would say yes without really listening. He always woke up as he went into the yellow room.
The waking world held nightmares of its own. At the shopping mall – the big one, not the one falling into ruin – a shoe store had a little grinning mannequin with a big bristly mustache. Gabriel knew it was happy to see him. He would look across the mall as they passed it, pretending it wasn't there, but still he could feel its eyes in his back. Other inanimate objects terrified him, too, like a certain mug of his parents', and Manny's old Taíno head carved from a coconut.
Gradually, Gabriel became aware that he inhabited a different plane from the people around him, parallel to their world but distinct from it, like layered overhead transparencies. He had strange habits. He liked to stack things and put things inside of other things. He ate Froot Loops one color at a time in the order of the rainbow. When he played with plastic dinosaurs they had to be to scale and come from the same geological period. He memorized taxonomic tables for insects and reptiles and the genealogical tables of Greek mythology. Adults called him the little professor.
He had a hard time talking to people. This wasn't just shyness: he could talk about his interests like a speaker giving a rehearsed lecture. But small talk required mental agility and insight he didn't have. In the presence of background noise or movement, he wasn't able to form sentences or understand what other people were saying. Often he withdrew into himself, not because he didn't like people but because interacting with them was fraught with danger. Objects were safe and reliable and always glad to see him.
As he got older, and life closed in on him, he began to notice that of all his family he most understood Clara, his granny, and was most understood by her. This was long in coming, for when he was young she grew impatient at his quirks, at his sensitivity to noises and textures, for instance, or his shameful effeminacy. Later, she disapproved of things he did. But their souls were too congruent not to find common cause.
Like Gabriel, Clara was both intelligent and oddly credulous. Despite not having known English until adulthood, or perhaps because of it, her speech was formal and articulate, employing unusual words with careful precision. Her mind was very literal and metaphors invariably confused and outraged her. She loved small animals, as did Gabriel, and felt safest with inanimate objects. She hated any change to her environment or her routine. In large groups she withdrew into herself, or retreated to another room to sit silently in a corner. Gabriel's parents said she did so to "receive visitors," but Gabriel just went and talked to her. They talked as peers, for in a way she had never really grown up, and she loved to see his pets in their cages. They laughed at the same things, at jokes that Gabriel's parents never understood. And they both knew that the world is the big blank back of a God who may not even have a face, and were terrified by it.
The Lopezes had by then moved off Chinaberry Street, out into the country, to a town that lay past the dump, where the spring was fresher and greener, the sky bluer, the air juicy with growth and promise, with insects of all kinds abounding.
Clara and Manuel stayed on Loquat Street, year in, year out. When he grew up Gabriel moved away and tried to escape from the prison of his brain, which set him on a path to a doctorate in mathematics. He returned often to San Antonio to visit his grandparents.
One day Manuel had a stroke. Gabriel's parents kept this a secret from him because they didn't trust his mental stability, perhaps with good reason. Manuel survived, however, and was expected to recover. Then a nurse ran a food tube into his lung instead of his stomach, and he drowned. He was put on life support, brain dead. Now Gabriel was told.
The family all gathered at the hospital: Gabriel and his parents, Edelmira and her husband, and Clara. They watched Manuel breathing mechanically for a while, then regrouped in a waiting room. It was decided to take Manuel off life support. Clara was terrified. She refused to go back to the room. No one had patience for her. They left her behind.
But Gabriel remained. He told her that her place was at her husband's side, and that she'd regret it for the rest of her life if she wasn't there to see him die. She said she would go if he held her hand, and he did so. He walked her down to the room. Once there, she let go his hand and took her husband's. She just kept repeating, "Mi Dios, mi Dios."
It took about forty minutes. The bed swayed as Manuel's corpulent body rocked back and forth, galloping, trying to breathe, trying not to die. It was like watching a machine run down. Finally it stopped. The monitors went flat. Manuel's mouth hung open, frozen in a gasping snarl.
For years after that, Gabriel dreamed of his grandfather. He'd be at a family gathering, and Manuel would arrive, and sit silently in a corner. No one but Gabriel would notice him, but Gabriel would be able to think of nothing else, because he knew that his grandfather was dead, and oughtn't to be there. These dreams recurred so many times that he finally told his father about them. Light a candle, his father said. When Gabriel's great uncle Carlos, an alcoholic San Juan air traffic controller, had died, Manuel had had the same kinds of dreams about him. According to custom, the way to end the haunting was to burn a candle at your bedside while you slept. That was how Manuel brought peace to Carlos's ghost. But Gabriel didn't burn a candle.
He got closer to Clara. He'd go visit her whenever he was in town, spending hours talking to her, taking her out to lunch. She said that Manuel visited her in the house, spoke to her when she was alone. Things were as they had been long ago, before their marriage had grown cold. She told Gabriel that he was her spiritual guide, clinging to his every word because of his having convinced her to go to Manuel's side at his death. He kept his own haunting to himself. God haunted him. God haunted him with his absence.
The house closed in around Clara. She hoarded. She stopped letting Gabriel farther in than the living room, which was where she slept and ate now, watching TV on a tiny screen. He had to use the bathroom upstairs, a place he had never been. He didn't know why, but later he found that the downstairs bathroom simply could no longer be reached. Upstairs he saw his grandfather's room, left untouched a decade after he died, with clothes strewn over the furniture and the floor. He saw his aunt Edelmira's room, also untouched but for far longer, a shrine to a little girl who had gone away, filled with faded books and stuffed animals and warm salmon-tinted sunshine. The bathroom was full of dead beetles and flies. The house stank of death. Cockroaches rustled in the shadows. Memories grinned from the corners. Once at night when he dropped Clara off he saw lights on upstairs, where no one lived and no one ever went, like the sealed-off yet very active second story of her disordered mind.
Clara confessed to Gabriel that the house preyed on her. She knew she needed to get out but she was too afraid to make a start. A tsunami a lifetime in the making had crested and come crashing down on her, and she was lost in its surge. It would have broken her mind to have had a reckoning forced on her. In the end her mind broke anyway. She started seeing a man with a red bandana, and had to be locked up in the psychiatric ward downtown.
Gabriel visited her there. She complained of being surrounded by crazy people all day, but as he spoke to her she went in and out of strange fugues, playing games with children who weren't there, or talking about how the hospital was built on a cemetery and how "creepy things" would come out of the walls at night. The facility was as bleak and bare as only a mental ward can be. It overlooked the Riverwalk, a thread of life and color far below, a distant irrelevance to that silent prison suspended in the bright South Texas sky.
In time she was moved to another care facility and there became obsessed with Dr. Kevorkian, speaking of him as though he were a saint. She died soon afterward. The staff said she'd simply stopped breathing in the night.
The reckoning with the house on Loquat Street had already begun, and went on long after Clara's burial. The rooms reeked of decay. A winding path led into the dining room, where Clara had been defecating in a bucket in a little clearing surrounded by tottering stacks of old newspapers and junk and packaged sheets and shirts and appliances she'd gotten from mail-order catalogs and never opened. Rats had made nests in the piles. Their skeletons lay curled in dank hollows, like prehistoric bones in a peat bog. Dirty dishes filled the sink and counters, undisturbed for years. And there were thousands upon thousands of cockroaches. Their feces had stained the walls and cabinets like brown rain. Dozens of them filled a coffee pitcher, soaking like jumbo shrimp.
It took weeks of work just to reach the downstairs bathroom. Gabriel assisted when he could, helping Manny haul tons of junk to the dump past Chinaberry Street in a flatbed trailer. For every new horror, an eye-winged angel accused Gabriel: Why didn't you? Why didn't you? When he was alone, he thought about it. Now both his grandparents haunted his sleep, sitting there silently, staring at nothing.
Gabriel's family reached the backyard like an expedition burrowing its way through a dark continent. For the first time in decades Gabriel intruded upon that forgotten patch of earth. Sheds filled to bursting enclosed the patio, buried in aggressive South Texas growth.
Gabriel pressed into hidden recesses, searching for the secret of his dreams. There, in a bed of ivy in a dark corner, he saw a funnel spider's web, a model in silk of the black holes he had studied for his doctoral work, from beyond whose event horizon nothing, not even light, can escape. A moth struggled feebly in the web, beating its soft gray wings. Then the spider rushed out and seized it and dragged it down into its lair, and feasted in solitude.
Looking up then, Gabriel saw another spider, a garden argiope hanging head-down on a vast spiral web like anojo de Dios strung with dew-beads against the sky, its eight legs extended pairwise in a dangerous X, its big black and gold body bulging with a surfeit of life. A zigzag of silk led up to the spiral's center, a path winding into the hazy morning clouds that would dissolve soon beneath the lens of the sky.
Gabriel stepped beyond his body and climbed that path with Clara, guiding her, hand in hand. Diamonds gleamed from the rot-softened ruin that formed the gravid, groaning, entropic universe below. The bright beads were pinpricks letting in light from somewhere else. Fortunate people lived in climates that were cool and green. They inhabited homes that were clean and fine and smelled of cinanmon and nutmeg, with thick carpets and plenty of space. Clara and her grandson, denied such havens, fought through the jungle. But salvation, and not horror only, lay in the details. The bud, the lichen, the insect, the dewdrop: these things are what they are, no matter where they are, and the world is strewn with them like the silent night sky dusted with stars and comets, that speak no words since their speech is themselves, hard to see sometimes in the city, but really you just have to have eyes, and a knowledge of where to look.
Gabriel left Loquat Street. He drove down Chinaberry Street, and saw the old house with the gray wall that had taught him fear. He drove past the park, now an urban jungle with only a line of palms to mark its old purpose. He drove past the old mall, which had been torn down and replaced with other stores, and so to the church, where he parked and went inside.
Someone had lightened and brightened the nave, trading its dark carpet and wood for pink tiles and white walls. Feeling strangely out of place, like a partisan from a war whose sides reconciled long ago, Gabriel went to the rows of candles flickering in cups. He lit two, and knelt and tried to pray.