My grandfather passed away recently. I hadn’t seen him in years. Nor had I spoken with him in over a decade. Suffice it to say, we hadn’t been on the best of terms since I was old enough to have a mind of my own. That was when I figured out a few upsetting things about the old man.

              Pop, as I referred to him, was once my favorite person alive. There wasn’t a soul on this planet I loved more. But all that changed.
              “Dust in the wind.”
              My grandfather always used stupid idioms in his speech. I know it’s cliché, but that was how he talked. If he were waking me up in the morning: “Early bird catches the worm, Everett.” If something was lost, like my mom’s car keys: “Leave no stone unturned, kiddo.”
              Pop didn’t always do a very good job of explaining his little sayings. I had to figure out what many of these things meant on my own. Not just individual words, but how they pieced together. For instance, when I was little, I’d never seen a bird eating a worm. I knew they ate bugs and chips and popcorn or just about anything you tossed at them in a grocery store parking lot. So I figured worms must be on the menu too. And as far as stone flipping goes, I kicked over my share in my adolescence, and I don’t recommend it so much. Most of the time, it was just soggy dirt and a heap of pissed off fire ants ready to retaliate.
              But sometimes I couldn’t readily figure his sayings out.
              “Cooler heads prevail.”
              What the hell did that mean?

              The first time I ever visited a butcher shop with my mom, I wandered about the space, half-blind from the awful flickering florescence lights, gagging on the sickening stench of rotting flesh. Rushing up to spy into one of the refrigerated displays, like some voyeuristic window-shopper, I saw grotesque faces peering out at me behind the glass. Looking closer, I saw three pig heads. Naturally, I asked myself if that was what Pop had meant.

              Being that I was still just a kid, I also couldn’t help but cross associate that image with the tale of the three little pigs and the big bad wolf. Except that in my version of the story, the three pigs ended up slaughtered, beheaded, and put on display at the butcher’s. And the wolf? He was shot and stuffed and housed in a glass case of his own at one of the local high schools. A fine mascot he made.
              Another saying that left me dumbfounded: “Heads will roll.”

              I always imagined this to be some sort of stretching, yoga-type exercise, like this one videocassette workout my mom tried when she had gone on a diet after she hit forty. Drop your right ear to the your shoulder. Exhale. Now roll your chin down to your chest. Now keep going till you drop your left ear down on the other side. Reverse. Repeat.

              Why would I ever have thought about a guillotine? I lived in South Texas, not revolutionary France. The closest I ever he came to hearing anything that sounded remotely akin to the word guillotine was the name of my childhood best friend, Guillermo. He used to roll his head whenever I made stupid jokes. Which was often.

              Pop was always rude to Guillermo, who I had to introduce as William so he’d ease up. You see, Pop was a racist. There was always this predilection on his part for ethnic slurs of just about every kind. I never met anyone else who could go from saying something profound to something completely prejudice in a matter of seconds. Pop once sat me down and said: “Everett, it’s important to be honest and true in everything you do. But most of all, be kind to everyone, because you never know when you’ll need a friend in this world. But stay clear of—.” I still can’t abide that word.

              When Pop first found out from my father that he was marrying a “half-breed Mexican,” he was horrified and ashamed. But when he actually met my mother, and saw that she was pretty fair-skinned, he could somewhat forgive her mixed heritage and my father’s betrayal. And when I was born, he was “beside himself” to find I had green eyes.

              Granted, Pop was less forgiving when I started dating. It got to be such an ugly thing between us that I stopped talking to him altogether after a while. In high school, when I brought home my first girlfriend, he had the audacity to accuse her of being a “wet back” to her face. That comment cost me my relationship, and it killed off the last bit of affection I felt for Pop. “Bridges were burned.”

              But those damn idioms stuck with me still.

              Once I started dating seriously, and finally began fooling around, I would sometimes be reminded of Pop’s frequent promptings growing up: “Don’t beat around the bush, kid” That inspired more than a few inopportune laughing fits. Just imagine me and some girl in the back of a car, and there was Pop to ruin the moment. And anytime a relationship ended badly, I’d hear Pop in my head saying: “Went down in flames.”

              I wish that I could disassociate Pop’s idiomatic wisdom from his general bigotry, but I simply can’t. I know now that he’s gone, I should forgive him. That’s a hard thing to do. Guillermo, back before we went our separate ways, used to say Pop couldn’t help himself.

“Just let it be. Let sleeping dogs lie. He’s just a viejito.”

              “He asked you if you were going to mow the lawn the last time you came over.”

              Guillermo laughed. “He’s just fooling. I know he doesn’t really mean it.”

              “Doesn’t he?”

              “Hell no.”

              “I think he does. And even if he doesn’t, it’s insulting. And embarrassing.”

              “Nambe. He’s funny. My dad says shit about you that’s worse.”

              “Yeah? Like what?”

              “He calls you a gap-toothed, turd-faced, sister-layer. The Spanish equivalent.”

              “He does not.”

              “Well, I wish that he had said that.”

              “Well, I wish that you had a sister.”

              “No mames guey!”

              After high school ended, I moved away from Texas, and I lost touch with Guillermo. It happens. He’d never gone to college. His family couldn’t afford it. And so he had never left home. From what I had heard, he ended up getting into trouble with the law a few years back over something dumb, like possession.

“Caught red-handed.”

Whatever the case, he spent some time in jail over it, but nothing serious.

              I often wonder what might have happened to Guillermo if I would have stuck around. Would it have turned out the same, or would it have gone down differently? Pop used to say, “You’re no better than the company you keep.” If that’s true, then perhaps I would have ended up in jail myself. But what if the reverse is true? Maybe I could have had a positive influence on my friend.

              I’m inclined to believe that that last idiom is a falsehood. Pop used to always spend time with this older woman that was a sister-in-law, or some such position. Pop made me call her Auntie, even though I hated her guts. I don’t remember her too well, because she died long ago, but I remember that she smelled like an unholy trinity of mothballs, rose perfume, and urine. When I questioned my parents about the ghost of that latter stench, my mother admitted that Auntie suffered incontinence, which she went on to explain: “It’s kind of just like with a baby. She has accidents.” My point, however, is that Pop hanging out with Auntie didn’t encourage her to take up smoking a pipe too, nor did it turn him into a piss pants—unless Pop was just better at hiding it than Auntie was.

              When I flew back down for the funeral and went home, I spotted Pop’s empty chair out on the front porch. That was the spot he spent most of his days, smoking that nasty old sweet tobacco, staring off across the yard. The silence and stillness of that wooden seat inspired yet another of Pop’s idioms: “He’s off his rocker.”

              After the service and burial, and after I’d escaped the family, I went out for a drive around the old town. It was then that I realized how much things had changed in my absence, so much so that I hardly recognized the place. I went searching for my old haunts, but either found them replaced or torn down. Settling instead on a corporate coffee house, I stepped in and ordered something warming and ended up bumping into an old classmate working behind the glass counter as a barista.

              Truthfully, I couldn’t remember his name, but thankfully he had a nametag that spared me my sense of guilt. After a few minutes of perfunctory catching up, I was stricken by the sad news that Guillermo had passed away recently.

              “How did it happen?”

              The barista made some mumbling comments and then eventually revealed through elusive hints that Guillermo had gone missing for a few days, and that when he was finally found, he was dead.

              “Spill the beans. How did he die?”

              My old classmate behind the counter couldn’t elaborate further, because just then a large order came in and he was too busy to talk any more. But he said it was in the news. If I wanted to know more, I just needed to look it up. It sounded mysterious, and also distasteful. Digging for chisme.

              Maybe it’s just Pop in my head after all this time, but I couldn’t help but imagine the worst. The only stories I’d heard about this area were gruesome accounts of gang violence, torture, and murder. Had that befallen Guillermo?

              “You play with fire, you get burned.”

              I imagined the macabre possibilities. Guillermo involved with the wrong type of crowd. Crossing the wrong person. Used as a scapegoat to set an example for others. In the wrong place at the wrong time.

              I tried not to envision this, but my mind ran wild with nonsense. I imagined Guillermo done in despicable ways, like those God-awful stories I’d heard. I imagined my friend dismembered, severed limb from limb. Not even a person anymore. Just discarded chops of meat.

              I fought not to imagine any further horrors. But then Pop’s stupid sayings kept coming back. Maybe it was just a defense mechanism, gallows humor, but there it was again: “Pull yourself together.”

              Good God, I thought, what’s wrong with me?  
   
              I felt stupid. Racist even. The media made it seem like there were gang wars happening out in the middle of the street. Yet another reason to keep away. My own sort of prejudice.

              But Brownsville was as peaceful as ever.

              Those damn stories. I can’t lie anymore and say that’s why I stayed away. The real reason is because I don’t like who I am in this place.

              I’m not afraid of Brownsville. I’m afraid of myself.

              I don’t feel like me when I’m here. I feel just like a dumb kid. And any moment there will be Pop to lecture me with some more pseudo wisdom, followed up by a dose of racism. And there will be mom and dad not saying a damn thing, like it is all okay.

               That’s the real reason why Guillermo and I stopped being friends. I didn’t want to be who I was anymore. Even if it meant giving up my best friend.
“So I got the hell out of Dodge.”

              When I finally looked it up, I learned the truth about how Guillermo passed. Car wreck. There were pictures of Guillermo’s truck, which had once belonged to his father, now a mangled wreck. We used to drive around in that truck smoking cigarettes, pretending to be big shots, looking for chicks. Now it was just twisted metal and broken glass. The article didn’t explain the whys and hows. Nobody can explain what the hell he was doing driving around that time of night, on that side of town. Or how it was that he managed to veer across the road, plow through a chain-link fence, skate across a huge empty lot, and then wrap himself around an old ebony tree. But the toxicology reports said he’d been drinking.

              That was the end of my friend.

              There was a painted picture on the side of the truck, which I could still make out, even in the pixilated photo online. It was the logo from his father’s business. Cartoony. It had nothing to do with the profession. It was there because Guillermo had drawn that picture when he was a kid, and his father had loved it. The only time my dad ever put anything I drew on display was when he made fun of my one attempt at drawing a Thanksgiving turkey, which he said looked like a hand attached to a scrotum. Guillermo’s logo was an aviator pig piloting one of those old-timey Wright Brother planes, waving hello, or goodbye, as he zipped past.
“When pigs fly.”

              I don’t know what saddens me worse, the loss of my old friend, or the fact that these idiotic idioms keep popping into my mind. Why can’t I separate the two? I’ve tried to get Pop out of my head for years, and he’s there more than ever before.

              “It’s all in your mind.”

              And now I’ve got all these mixed feelings.

              I’m confused and ashamed and angry. I should have made an effort to keep in touch with Guillermo. I was a piss-poor friend. Even if it couldn’t have altered a damn thing, at least I could have been there for him.

              But I wasn’t.

              I just let Pop’s talk infect my head. I understand why Pop was the way he was. I know what he was doing. All those quips and cute quotes, it was just a way to keep himself safe from the reality of every situation. Sure there was wisdom in some of those sayings, but there wasn’t any real commitment. All those idioms were just a wall.

              And I know all about walls. I had to put up one four states wide just to feel like my own man. But look at me now. I don’t feel any different.

              “Wrap your head around that.”

              Pop went peacefully when he passed. My parents said he’d asked about me, the night before. Like if he knew he didn’t have much time left.

              I should have tried to talk to Pop when I still had the chance. Maybe we could have worked things out. Maybe.

              They said Pop had said that he missed me.

              I miss him too.

              It’s the damnedest thing.
Nathan Wade Calley is an educator living and working in Brownsville, TX.
Back to Top