by Julian S. Garcia
“¿Me Escuchas? Viejita,” the voice said.
La Vieja turned in the direction of the voice.
His tone was dark almost threatening, like a flickering snake.
“Are you listening to me?” the stranger asked.
She was wearing new bifocals and disliked them. She could barely see the blurry image of the stranger. The lenses were bottle-thick. But her hearing aids were keen to all sounds.
Jose, the barkeep, placed her cold beer on the counter. She was a regular.
Again the persisent stranger vyed for the old woman’s attention. He had walked in unnoticed like dark smoke—not even the regulars saw him.
“Why are you ignoring me old woman? I know you can hear me,” the stranger said, his words spraying aerosol droplets in the smoky air.
But La Vieja stayed focused, clutching her cold beer a safe distance from the menacing stranger at Jose’s Bar and Grill. Jose’s bar was not a place for the timid. Few young people rarely stopped by. They’d scan the place and leave as quickly as they walked in because Jose’s Bar was not place for those just learning the art of drinking, nursing past histories or plainly wanting solitude and refuge.
The young man lurched closer to La Vejita and asked, “Do you know who I am?”
La Viejita turned to him, sizing him up, and eyeballing him with her catarat eyes, grinning a map of wrinkles revealing long scars from young punks.
“No. I don’t know that I have,” she lied.
These young wannabes feared coming across La Santa Muerte. These hoodlums knew the Southside was divided by sections, all trying to control areas for the distribution of heroin and mota (the cheap weed mixed with fentanyl), a deadly combination. They knew in these places someone was always dying. And Jose’s Bar and Grill was not a place for college punks either, who thought they were better than the locals.
La Viejita continued staring deep into stranger’s eyes, who was now asking personal questions. Questions she never entertained. Questions hidden from the light of day. Questions long dead, and long buried in her memory. This time, la Viejita replied, “La muerte has long been after me.” She took a sip from her beady, cold glass and then snickered. The young man’s eyeballs did not detect the slightest tremor or fear in her eyes. She had seen young men shit in their pants. Women, not one-year-older than twenty, crying out desperately for their mothers’ comfort as la muerte came for them. She had seen boys and girls in body bags, who would never see America again. She’d seen hundreds of young soldiers in Normandy get their heads blown off by grenades, and howitzers-bombs, ripping and splattering guts in all directions. And always the stench—the unbearable stench.
Her eyes had seen so much death that la muerte was just a mirage to her.
She was old but still looked solid. A retired Medic, she had once been a young man who quickly transitioned into a woman back in the states. Most of her life, la Viejita had been a cagy hard-core woman, and she liked her space clean and well lit. She didn’t like unwelcome company by her side.
The barkeep opened one of the shades, and the setting sun pierced through the window hitting the old woman directly. The barkeep looked at the old woman and said, “Mira, Juana, el sol te esta donde la luz, como si fueras un angelita.” The locals understood that the sunlight was projecting an aura around somebody’s head making that person look like an Angel.
One of the patrons asked, “What angel Jose?”
But Angel was a misleading term because La Viejita was an Angel of Death. She liked the smell of rancid blood. She had become one of America’s killer elite. She was a medic who saved Americans and killed Nazis. She knew she was violating the Geneva Convention but she didn’t give a rat’s ass. Juana Gallo (“la Juana Gallo because she’s like a rooster,” as Jose had christened her) didn’t respond at first.
“So, today’s your birthday, Juana Gallo,” the stranger smirked.
“Do you know me or what?” La Viejita was pissed now.
“What’s your business anyway Chavito?”
The old woman was wondering if this young buck was one of her dead husband’s relatives who were out for revenge. She had married after her transition and her husband grew angry when rumors surfaced that she was a trans. She knew they were watching her, and waiting for the right moment to catch her off-guard.
No one in the bar knew la Viejita’s real age. Even her sex change. She had always lied about it. She had lived a long time to keep her lies in order. And those who did know were long dead and buried. Buried like all those vato locos who bullied her, and tried to touch her privates.
And now this young stranger appeared poking around asking questions that were none of his affairs. In her mind, the old woman knew exactly who the stranger was. But in the real world, like in all realities, it was best not to volunteer anything. Because nothing completely goes away. The dead in Germany were buried. Buried and gone, like the dead in San Antonio.
“The dead stay dead!” she raised her voice in the stranger’s direction. The locals in the tavern turned around and looked at Jose trembling, scratching their heads.
“Nothing stays dead and buried, particularly memories among the living,” the stranger said. The old woman ignored the stranger gulping her beer without recalling anything of her past. But memories are resurrected like midnight dew on gravestones of the dead. It was getting hot on her side of the bar. She had not a single shred of Christian remorse. She had outlived four physicians who predicted her demise. Two esposos, (two husbands) who survived nine-years of chemo-therapy.
She buried body pieces of her common-law-husband, whom she justly submerged into the Guadalupe River. Her other live-in parasite was three-decades-younger than she. And he too had disappeared without a trace—gone like all her memories.
The barkeep came over and asked the old woman if she wanted another cerveza. His interruption was received with a cracked smile.
She sipped and then tapped the counter as the barkeep turned around.
“Tell this guy next to me to keep his business to himself,” the old woman said. The barkeep grimaced and shook his head because there was no one sitting next to her.
“Drink your beer. And keep quiet!” Jose whispered at her. The barkeep added, “I’m getting a little tired of your chingaderas.”
“The one right there Jose.” She pointed to the empty space.
“He’s standing next to me. Don’t you see him?”
Jose, shook his head looking puzzled, cleaning the counter and shrugging his shoulders. Jose had been a barkeep for over twenty-years and often told customers when to stop drinking. Although the old bluzzard was a regular, Jose was starting to get worried. She had been one of his favorites because she never asked for credit. In fact, Jose knew her because she’d served in the 90th Infantry Battalion and he’d seen him many times although they never talked to each other. He was a young kid back then and she far older. Jose kept her secret hidden.
He wiped the counter, turned around, and out of curiosity got very close to la Vieja, and whispered, “Is this a joke? Viejita. Let me in on it.” He was afraid she was frightening the regulars and driving away business.
“Mira, pendejo, Look you fool,” La Viejita said.
“No aye nadien! Viejita!”Jose uttered.
“There’s no one here but you and me, and the regulars.”
The regulars were mumbling and joking and ribbing Jose. They thought it was hilarious that Jose was giving out beers like crazy, and he was drunk out of his mind. The stranger looked directly at the old woman and said, “Nobody’s gonna believe you. It’s just you and me. You already know me. But you don’t remember me.”
“Who are you?” the old woman asked.
The regulars guffawed and then suddenly felt a cold draft because they too feared one day they’d might become old, insane, and perhaps inching closer to death.
The stranger uttered: “I was there when you killed that young Nazi boy begging for his life.” She turned and her eyes widened. And then the stranger said, “Look at me and behold the horror of your ways.” In his eyes, La Viejita saw passing images of long, lost comrades dead in battlefield, young men crying for their mothers, and boys with their throats slit and guts strewn like rotten meat.
“I was also there when you watched Billy, your Army buddy, raped that German girl. And you laughed when he slit her throat.”
La Viejita felt a coarse rash around her throat and then got pissed off and reached for a switch blade hidden in her sleeve. She calmly push aside her glass and then uttered: “That’s life. I didn’t ask to be there. They were just there. It was their time to die. Collateral damage, the Army says. Everybody has to die sometime.”
“Tell that to their love ones,” the stranger said.
The barkeep had a close eye on La Viejita, even though she wasn’t showing signs of going loca. It was all rather amusing for the patrons and for Jose seeing La Viejita moving her hands in every direction and muttering nonsense. She was inching closer to an explosion. Just as Jose was going to put a stop to all of it, the front door suddenly opened and all eyes went toward the door’s direction. The hinges screeched like the legendary Lechuza. Making the bar crowd jittery. They relaxed went they saw Jose’s stray cat sneaking in with the gush of wind.
Clutching her blade, she smirked.
“Antigua, you lie and you know it.”
She asked, “What’s a lie?”
“The diary you keep and write about things you’ve done. Stuff about men and women you’ve killed, particularly your last cheating chavalo?”
She took another swallow, wiped her mouth and said, “Es puro fiction!”
La Viejita had sweat trickling down her temple. And the stranger was closer to the edge of intolerable.
The stranger snapped his fingers remembering something.
“You know and I know, you’re lying. I know you like no other one can.”
“I never killed anyone who didn’t deserve to die!” she screamed.
The patrons stopped chattering and look at Jose. At that moment, the old woman flipped out her switch-blade and began jabbing at empty space, everyone saw Jose’s shiny, sharp object. Jose grew nervous and then blew it off, telling the customers, “Por Dios, she’s old and harmless. She just buried her husband several weeks ago.” The patrons all shrugged.
“Keep the beer coming Jose,” a regular said. They all laughed.
After Jose finished his judgment about la Viejita, she shouted in rage, “Tu eres el damn pinche vato!” (The regulars heard “tu eres” and thought Jose was talking about them). Her words sprayed in all directions.
She swung her knife again and jabbed from side to side, saying, “Ya no! No more from you. Stop it!” She retreated a little bit catching her breath muttering something. Nothing moved for a few seconds inside the bar. Not even the cucarachas who were crawling over Frito crumbs. She slipped her knife back into her sleeve pocket. Everyone relaxed and got back to their business, wondering what the hell Jose was talking about?
“Leave me alone! No mas!”
The stranger floated, three-feet off the floor and glided toward the front doors, and back again to the counter next to her. It was uncanny.
La Viejita was controlling her fear. But she felt goosepimples crawling around her body.
The stranger said, “You killed the chavala who was your husband’s sancha!”
“Si, la pinche puta!”
“You stabbed her many times. And then sawed her body into pieces, and buried her out in the woods.”
La Viejita, sweating plentifully said enraged, “She had it coming for some time.”
”She was younger than you—and better looking”.
“Era puta la cabrona!” la Viejita yelled.
She adjusted her bifocals and said “You’re, like every man. Carbrones and sonofabitches! You hate independent women like me. You hate me carbon, because you can’t reduce me to a simple bitch!”
She added, “I don’t take shit from men—much less you.”
La Viejita pulled out her knife again and started stabbing, slicing, ripping into an abyss of nothingness. Jose intervened, waving his arms with a knife he kept in his pocket, trying to help the old woman fight against an unseen intruder. Everybody spread out.
“I don’t need your fucking help, Jose.”
In her mind La Viejitas had cut out the stranger’s head, walked to the front door as if holding the scalp by its hair. And in her fury, tossed it out into the street. All the patrons saw Jose, coming and going, back and forth, as if holding something. She went back to
the counter to finish her beer. She cleaned her knife with a rag. She sat down as if nothing had nothing. Jose’s wife, including the regulars, watched Jose struggling with an unseen intruder. They watched in disbelief. Their eyes bulging in terror for a few discomforting moments. Everyone calmed down when Jose said, “la Viejita is just having one of her flashbacks. C’mon, today is her birthday. Let’s celebrate, and everyone have a beer on me.” Jose was trying to cheer the crowd.
“More beer will calm our nerves, Jose,” someone shouted.
As soon as Jose finished his forget- about-it-speech, Jose escourted la Viejita out the bar and onto the street, not saying a word.
All the regulars scrambled to the windows to watch Jose walk away from the bar. They heard strange screams and Jose poke his knife at whatever was annoying her.
Jose returned to his customers, “I’m gonna pray I don’t catch whatever she has.” He continued wiping the counter while his wife came over to say a few words. Guadalupe turned to Jose and said, “Pa’ ya vamos todos. We are all heading that way mi amor.” And Jose afraid that La Vieja might have frightened the regulars added, “Let’s drink these phantoms away, compadres.”
The patrons cheered at Jose. One of them, sitting with a strange looking man asked, “Jose, what Viejita are you talking about? You had us laughing like crazy.”
Jose turned pale and said, “Orale, la Viejita? You all saw her? Are you all crazy or what?”
Julian S. Garcia is the author of La Fantasica Curandera (Chicas Patas Press) and former Associate Editor of ViAztlan: International Journal of Arts and Ideas. His fiction and essays have been published by Saguaro Review (University of Arizona),
Southwestern Tales (Colorado State Press), Puentes (Texas A & M-Corpus Christi) and Op-Eds in the San Antonio Express-News and Associated Press.