The Hillside Casita
Manuel and Junior
Creak, creak, creak. Manuel’s ancient throne rocked back and forth across the weathered wooden porch of the old house. His grandfather had built the meek ranch house and it was there Manuel was raised. And when the time had come, it was there that Manuel and his love, Ofelia, had raised their family. Now Manuel Senior cleared his throat and placed the cold glass of lemonade he had been sipping from on the porch, while squinting at his youngest son. Manuel Junior and his daughter, Lisa, stood in front of Manuel Senior, all baking in the hot Texas sun.
“Junior,” laughed Manuel, “I’m so glad to see my little Junior and my granddaughter are here at the ranch house! How are you mijo? It has been too long.” Junior grunted and picked up Lisa. Manuel could tell his son was suffering a great battle within. “Father,” began Junior, “we need a place to stay. Sylvia has left me. Estoy solo, papá.” Manuel stood up from his rocking chair and placed his hands on his Junior’s shoulders briefly before embracing him and Lisa. “Son, you are always welcome here. This is your home. As much as it is mine. We are family mijo!” Junior grunted once more and walked past his father into the house carrying Lisa with him.
Manuel sat back down in his throne and looked over his kingdom,- a yellow front yard underneath a seemingly never ending orange sun- watching the small wooden fence that encased it all behind the old dirt road where Junior had parked, and smiled. He had never known a more perfect life. Inside, he could here Junior and Ofelia talking and he smiled again. How great it was that his youngest son, his Junior, was here, and his little nieta, Lisa too! How did such an old man get so lucky? Thinking of all these things, the old king rocked slowly in his throne, sipping his lemonade quietly, and watched his kingdom till the sun began to dip behind the dry Texas mountains.
Later that night after Junior had put Lisa to sleep in his old bed, he overheard his parents speaking in hushed tones inside the kitchen. “Ofelia, I know my children,” Manuel’s whispers sounded urgent but wise, “Junior needs this, mi amor! He is not the same, a darkness has taken over his heart, and he has hardened it to make sure it does not happen again. He is thirty-three now, he has no wife, and one daughter, now is the time for him to forget his knowledge of the world and seek understanding, to find wisdom, and to know God.” Junior’s mother was skeptical, “Manuel, he is my son, let him spend his time here with his parents. With you and I, here in the ranch house. Time will heal his wounds and bring back the love in his stone heart.” There was a long silence and even though Junior could not see the two from behind the kitchen door, he knew his father was playing with a pink plastic rosary with his right hand and closing his eyes. And when the silence continued Junior could tell Ofelia understood Manuel, and that the two were looking at each other to confirm this. Junior knew his parent’s silence and how it spoke volumes, but he could not tell what was understood, or what his father thought he needed. There was nothing more to hear though, so Junior stumbled in the dark living room and collapsed onto the couch. That night he dreamed of ranch houses, cold lemonade glasses, his beautiful daughter Lisa, and his wife Sylvia’s warm lips against his, beckoning him to stay asleep forever so that he would not have to wake up without her in his arms.
Junior was woken up by the sound of frijoles, tortillas, and huevos sizzling on stove, their warm aroma stoking a forgotten nostalgia in his nostrils. As he walked into the kitchen, Manuel and Ofelia both greeted him with kiss on his check. “Buenos días, mijo!” Shouted Manuel, he rubbed his large stomach and sat back down at the table where Lisa was already eating at her seat. “Hurry hurry, mijo! Eat, eat! Today we are going to the hillside casita. I have some things to do there and I want you and Lisa to come.” Junior stared blankly at his father who continued eating and joking with Lisa as Ofelia cooked their breakfast.
“Father,” Junior was carrying Lisa and dragging his feet in the dirt road, “why couldn’t we have driven? The walk is at least three hours by foot. Lisa is tired and you are old. This is silly father!” Manuel was walking next to Junior with a big walking stick. The father put his big hand on his son’s back and looked him in the eye. “My son, my son, today I look to teach you patience. Look around you, embrace the earth our loving Father has given us.” Junior swept his eyes over the landscape and saw red dirt and yellow grass all around him, a parched Texas field here, a few tumbleweeds there. “There is nothing to enjoy here father. The grass is dying. The fields are destroyed. The only things that grow here are the small dry plants which have no roots.” A short silence followed and then Manuel cleared his throat and looked ahead. “My son, you must learn that even in the driest place on earth, God is working there. He not only created this red dirt but the yellow grass too where little bugs and creatures hide and crawl. His hand is even at work in the rootless plants you see. They carry seeds so that new plants will be planted as they roll along. Even my walking stick, which was a branch before, has now found use in my possession. Everything we have, even this dry place, comes from Him, mijo, and comes from Him for us.” Junior grunted and shook his head in response.
Manuel glanced at Junior and wondered. How had his son become so cold? “Tell me, mijo. Why did your wife leave? Where is Sylvia?” Junior readjusted Lisa against his chest so that she could rest her head on his shoulder. The hot sun laid directly overhead creating waves of heat on the long dirt road. Junior gulped. “I miss Sylvia, father. I miss her very much. My family needs money and I am the only one who works. She would yell at me to spend more time with her and Lisa but I could not because we will have nothing if I cannot work. A few days ago I struck her in anger during an argument. I woke the next day to find her and all her things gone. I am ashamed of what I have done to her but I cannot go back to her because of my pride.”
Manuel cleared his throat again and if not for his walking stick would have probably gotten out his plastic rosary to play with. “My son, my son. You must learn patience! True love, as you know, is patient. I remember when you married Sylvia, you told me you were in love with her. Love is above all, my son, even your strong, strong pride. Let your love break the pride you have and go back to Sylvia, apologize to her, show her you have learned patience, listen to her, understand her. God forgives all, mijo, but the first step is to make an apology.” Manuel’s words sunk deep into Junior’s mind as the father and his son walked down the red dirt path, “Do you understand this son?” Junior could not answer because of his dishonor and instead of replying he coughed and continued to walk beside his father. The father realized his son was still in pain from his loss and did not prod him for an answer. After another half hour of walking however, Manuel glimpsed his son wiping tears from the corners of his eyes and muttering noiselessly to himself. Manuel smiled and wondered how an old man got so lucky.
Manuel’s hillside casita was a shack hidden between two yellow hills that he had built for hunting as a young man. There was one large living room at the entrance that held a stove, a refrigerator, a couch, and a circular dining table with four chairs around it. At the back of the casita were two crowded bedrooms, a bathroom, and a gun closet. The son and his father sat inside the hillside casita watching the sky turn dark purple in the fading golden light of the sun. Manuel sat across from his son who read a book, occasionally sipping from a coffee mug. The old man pulled out his pink plastic rosary and began to pray under his breath. Lisa sat playing with a yarn-headed doll on the couch, giggling to herself.
Manuel finished a rosary and put the beads down on the table. “Son, tell me something.” Junior marked his place in the book and set it flat on the table. “Why is it me and your mother have not heard from you in five years?” The father saw straight through his son’s relaxed posture and could tell the question made him uneasy. Junior picked the book back up, trying to focus his eyes on anything but the old man. “I have been busy, father. Work takes a lot of time. There is Sylvia and Lisa to take care of, it has been a lot, father.” Manuel cleared his throat and far off the two could hear coyotes barking. “Son. Do not hide things from me. It was five years ago when you first missed the family’s Easter celebration. You have not been to one since then. Tell me son, how is your faith? Do you still believe? Have you gone to mass?” Junior set his book down once more and stared into his father’s immense brown eyes. There was no judgment there that he could see, only understanding, only love, yet still the boy refused to give into those eyes and began to reply. “No father, I have not been to mass in a long while. There is no time for it in my life. I am too busy all the time, besides,” Junior picked his book back up and began reading, “God has not helped me when I needed Him most. When Sylvia left, I prayed for Him to send her back to me. Nothing happened. Those who put their faith in a God who does nothing for them are fools.”
The pink plastic rosary found its way back into Manuel’s hands where it circled between his knuckles over and over again. “Mijo, your words make me sad. No time for God? Remember the red dirt and the rootless weeds in the road, everything we have we owe to Him. We are forever in His debt. He has given you the most sacred gift of life and all He asks for is an hour of your time once a week. Even the busiest man can make time for something he cares deeply about. Recall all the joys and experiences in your life and understand they come from our Father. Once you do this it will make more sense why you should want to make time for Him. Even if you do not go to mass, my son, you must try to thank Him for all that He does. God is nothing without man and man is nothing without God. And when you pray you cannot beg for something to happen like a child who wishes on a star. God cannot help those who do not wish to help themselves. When you prayed for Sylvia to come back, God saw that you remained too prideful to seek her on your own. He is waiting to help you but cannot do so until you are willing to admit your wrongs and do what you know in your heart is right. It is then that His aid will appear to you in ways we cannot imagine.”
A bead of sweat had formed above Junior’s eyebrows and now his focus was far from the book. His father’s words were pulling at his heart till it was sinking deep into a pit of guilt and humiliation. “Come, Lisa,” Junior had put down his book and began walking towards the couch, “we must go to bed. It is getting very late.” Manuel had begun another rosary by the time Junior was carrying Lisa to their bedroom, “Goodnight son.” The slam of the bedroom door was Junior’s only reply.
There in the silence of the living room, the old man remembered his age and thought for a moment that perhaps he had forgotten how to be a good father. Then the man remembered how his son’s lip had quivered when the old man spoke about God and how his son had stared into the old man’s eyes and hesitated before speaking. Manuel chuckled softly at the thought of his son’s stone heart slowly cracking away and knew that Junior would soon be free of the darkness that had seized his heart. The father thought of his wonderful son and looked out the window into the dark hills that surrounded them. He played with his pink plastic rosary and drank the rest of his son’s coffee. In the distance, coyotes barked and howled at each other or some other creatures of the night. Manuel thought of his son and his granddaughter asleep in the small bedroom of his hillside casita and smiled.
Early the next morning Manuel knocked on Junior’s door and woke him and Lisa up for breakfast. Junior opened his door with red eyes and a deep sleepy voice, “Yes?” Manuel kissed his son on the cheek and wished him a good morning, “Hurry and get dressed, son. We shall eat breakfast and then go for a walk with Lisa to the creek.”
After breakfast, Lisa, Junior, and Manuel walked side by side towards a large hill to the right of the casita. The hill was bigger than those around it and cast a great shadow over a small group of shrubs. This was where a small stream of water coming off of the hill met the ground, making this hill slightly less yellow than the others. On that day, the creek was dry but there were still many little creatures there scratching around for moisture. Lisa stopped to look at a lizard resting on a rock. Manuel found a hare hidden between a few dry shrubs. And all around the dry creek were insects buzzing to and fro preparing for the day’s work.
Lisa went off to chase the hare from its hiding spot. Manuel found his son sitting down on a boulder with his face in his hands. “Tell me son, how did you sleep?” Junior grunted from behind his hands. “Did you think about our talk last night son?” The son dropped his hands into his lap and sighed deeply. Nature’s symphony played around them, bees buzzing, Lisa laughing, a few birds chirping. “Father,” hesitated Junior, “I think I will go see Sylvia, you are right. I love her and I cannot leave her, I don’t want Lisa to grow up without her mother, I don’t want Lisa to grow up without God. I will admit I was wrong,” Junior hesitated one last time, “my pride is broken.” Manuel smiled and looked into his son’s eyes, the darkness had let go of his heart and the father could tell he had his son back. The old man laughed and grabbed his son by the shoulders before completely embracing him in his arms. When the two had finished hugging, Manuel saw that Junior had been weeping and the father brushed back his son’s hair and pulled his chin up. “You are a true man now, son. You know love. You have crushed your pride.” The son and the father squeezed each other once more and Junior wiped his tears on his father’s sleeve. Manuel and Junior stood up. Both were drunk on the emotions of the moment, snickering quietly at themselves. Their laughter was being added to the symphony just as a shrill scream cut through the air.
In the hillside casita, Lisa was laying down on the couch with a cold rag on her forehead with her eyes closed. Junior knelt besides her, holding her hand, whispering into her ear, while Manuel made hot tea at the stove. Junior’s hushed whispers and the boiling water were the only noises in the shack. Outside, the night was pitch black and this time there were no coyotes or barks to break the stillness. Manuel walked over to the couch, “She has quite a fever, son, and her poor leg has swollen up very badly. It looks like the snake bite is slowly spreading up her leg and she just starting to feel the effects of the poison. The bite does not look serious, she will get better soon but her body will need rest to fight through it.” Junior was speechless and frightened for his daughter but felt comfort by the presence of his wise father. “I want you to go to bed Junior,” Manuel was walking back to the stove to retrieve the hot tea, “it is already very late and the both of you need your rest, especially little Lisa. I will watch over her while you sleep and try to make sure she does not get worse in the night.”
He was reluctant but knew that his father knew best and headed towards his bedroom. He stopped short and then turned around. “Father.” Junior let the stillness fill the air before he continued. “You have always given and given and given, is there anything you have ever wanted?” The old man looked at his son and laughed. “There is one thing I have always wanted, a big shady tree to grow tall and strong in front of the casita so I can relax there when it gets hot.” The old man laughed again. “But that will never happen here in the heat.” Junior smiled and kissed his father on the cheek before going into his bedroom and closing the door.
Manuel let himself smile but only for brief moment before he turned his attention to Lisa. The father had lied to his son, he knew the bite was serious and the poison in the snake bite was moving fast inside Lisa’s body. He knew she would die by sunrise unless she got an antidote soon.
The old man turned off all the lights and closed the shades so that the room was nearly too dark to see and walked over to the couch and kneeled down next to Lisa. Manuel pulled out his pink plastic rosary and wrapped it around his hands and began to pray. “My dear Father, I thank you for such a wonderful time here with my son and my granddaughter I could not have asked for a luckier life. You have given me all I could have asked for and more: a loving wife, a beautiful family, three sons and a daughter, and many grandchildren. I am eternally grateful for all these great gifts yet I have a favor to ask of you once more, my old friend. My granddaughter, little Lisa, has fallen ill and needs your help. I am old and tired. I am ready to meet you, Father, I am ready to be in your presence. Please, Father, take what you need from my body to help little Lisa. Cleanse her poisoned blood with mine and take me to your kingdom. Amen.”
After he had finished, the old man stayed kneeling and let a few tears drop from his eyes on to the ground. He said a rosary and kissed Lisa on the cheek before standing up. As Manuel walked to his bedroom he felt his feet becoming heavier and his knees becoming weak. His head spun and he started to feel a pain in his stomach. Manuel collapsed in his bed and felt his breath getting heavier. In the darkness he could feel himself being pulled away as if he were being lifted out of the bedroom. The father smiled one last time and wondered how such an old man got so lucky.
Junior woke up late around noon and wandered over to the couch to check on Lisa. He bent over her chest and heard her breathing more regularly, touched her legs and saw that her swelling had gone down, looked at her forehead and saw that she was sweating. “It’s a miracle!” Junior exclaimed. He woke Lisa up and hugged her tightly; stroking her hair and telling her how much he loved her. “We’re going to go see Mommy, Lisa. We’re going today.” He let go of Lisa and told her to get ready for breakfast. “Father?” Junior was ecstatic to share the news with Manuel. When no answer came, Junior went into his father’s bedroom and saw him lying down. He reached down to wake him up but stopped when he felt his hand touch his father’s cold skin. In panic, he listened for a breath, felt for a pulse, nothing. Junior kneeled down and asked once more, “Father?”
Hot tears came rushing from Junior’s eyes as he took up his father’s cold hand and began remembering all that his father had told him over the years, over the past few days, and thought that he would never stop crying. Junior cried until Lisa came in and asked what was wrong. The father picked up his daughter and carried her out of the room while wiping away his tears. “Nothing, Lisa, nothing.” He couldn’t let his daughter see something so heartbreaking at such a young age and he decided he should be strong for her. The father walked into the living room, when something caught his eyes in between the shades covering the front window.
Junior rushed to the front door with Lisa in his arms and swung it open in excitement. The father held his daughter in his arms and gazed up in amazement and what he saw. Lisa gasped in her astonishment and the two stood there for a many hours beaming at the sight. There, right in front of the hillside casita, was a big shady tree, tall and strong, looking over the small shack and on the longest branch dangled a cheap pink plastic rosary that swayed back and forth in the wind.