Mario J. Gonzales

Tia Mama

Luna and the Bear

“Who let the Devil in?”

Tia Mama, her head still buried in dreams, not knowing yet what is sleep real and what is real real, will cry this first thing in the morning. She’ll then order me to check for cobwebs on the windowsill or under the kitchen sink. “Cobwebs are the Devil’s confusion,” she claims. Once the house is cleared of webs Tia Mama will cough out a list of the day’s chores and—this is what kills me: a list of rules, too.

Tia Mama has many rules, too many to know them all. One, for instance, is about watching dogs shit. “You’ll get pink eye,” she says, “your eyes will water and itch and you’ll look like a conejo.” 

Another rule, one that I’m reminded of daily, is to stop asking whether Tia Mama is my mom or aunt. But I can’t help but break that one.

“So which is it, Tia Mama?” 

“Shut-up,” she barks, “or I’ll knock you into next Tuesday. I’m your Tia Mama and that’s all you need to know. Understand.”

And then, of course, she’ll get me to rub her feet while she watches videotapes of Tim Ambo who uses his powerful lungs to shout, “Turn your pennies into gold by believing in the power of miracle money.” 

“But I want to know,” I beg over the big TV voice of Tim Ambo and I dig at her large dress with pink flowers all around. She’ll pinch me on the back of the knee and then demand a bottle of beer and if we have none, and we never do, she tells me go to my father’s and get some.

But before I do she’ll take me aside, straighten my uncombed hair with her chubby fingers and bless me with small oily kisses while repeating, “Don’t forget that your father’s name is Rogelio Canales Trujillo, and when you’re twenty he’ll give you a job and the keys to a used car.”

Rogelio lives close by. He denies being my father but sends us avocadoes from his tree and has me walk his bulldog, Rockstar, almost every day. Each time before I go Tia Mama says. “I don’t want no conejo-eyed boys in my house. So close your eyes when Rockstar takes a dump.”

Rogelio visits Tia Mama while I’m with Rockstar. He brings bottles of warm beer (just the way she likes it) in a rusty metal bucket. Usually they’re laughing when I leave but when I come back they’re clawing at one another like two old bears.      

I can’t tell whether they’re making love or fighting but whatever they’re doing Tia Mama always wins. Not because she’s stronger but because she plays dirty. “The only way to get ahead,” she will say, “is to cheat.” Oh sure, Rogelio is no angel. He gets sneaky and even once knocked Tia Mama’s front tooth clear from her mouth. But don’t let that fool you, Tia Mama is a sly one.

Once, when we were fishing, I asked Rogelio, “What kind of animal do you think Tia Mama is?”

“In my hands,” and he looked at his fingers like they were dipped in pure gold, “she is a small kitten.”

I told him that Tia Mama is more of a bear--loud and full of gruff. But what I didn’t say is how in the evenings, when the sun is tired of its heat and tiny flies have quit trying to suck vision from our eyes, Tia Mama will sit on the porch and talk about Luna.

“I begged on the streets in Mexico with the other children until a crippled woman took me in. For years I pushed her around in a shopping cart throughout the marketplace selling prayers for the dead and that’s where she died one day. I collected dandelions, put them in her crooked hands and left her in the dump since there was nowhere else to put the body.” 

“What was her name?” I’ll ask although I’ve heard this story many times and so know the answer.


“And where is she now, Tia Mama?”

She’ll point to the moon or where it should be in the sky and say in her non-bear voice that the moon is made of blue-scented dreams.

“What does that mean, Tia Mama?” I’ll ask since it sounds pretty but meaningless.

And she’ll crag up her face and say, “How should I know what Luna was talking about? She was a crazy drunk.”  

The Laughter of Grieving Children

That Rockstar is getting so fat. He eats yellow goat lard and bone-shaped flourless biscuits given to him by Rogelio (don’t ask me why); so many that his tongue falls to the floor whenever he takes more than two steps.

And close behind is Tia Mama. She is also getting fat or fatter. Not too long ago Rogelio, who is as thin as a poor man’s coat, told her to stop drinking so much beer, get off the couch, quit watching Tim Ambo and get some exercise. She laughed, cracked her knuckles as if she were breaking black walnuts and spit into their beer bucket. “There, I have exercised,” she said and downed another bottle.   

They began kissing, so I left with Rockstar. I pulled him across a series of dirt roads to a field where rough-looking guys played soccer. We stopped to rest and a goon-headed boy with tear-shaped eyes threw a shoe at us. Me and Rockstar didn’t move, so he puffed his muscles to a bulge and then left. Afterwards we watched the soccer game, thick marijuana smoke clouded our sight but I could hear, through the chilled violent air, the laughter of grieving children pretending to be men.

“You know, Rockstar, life is a blue-scented dream.” I said this not knowing what it meant. But Rockstar seemed to know since he turned on his back, closed his eyes and stopped biting at the colony of fleas that made his belly their home.

Rules that Bring Misery

When she’s in a sour mood Tia Mama threatens to call the cops. This happens mostly when I break a rule. And she would do it too, if she didn’t fear the police arresting her. This is because she once grabbed my school principal’s beard when he called me, ‘a soggy bowl of oatmeal.’  She’s not sure Mr. Haskins reported the grab to the police (he shaved the next day); still the whir of a siren makes her jumpy and much more likely to accuse me of a rule-breaking crime.

But listen to this, after she claims I broke a rule she’ll squawk, “Tim Ambo believes that without rules we would all be cannibals living in caves.” Ha! I want to say because I think rules bring misery--or at least Tia Mama’s do.

I get tired of her lectures and sometimes change the subject by asking why Tim Ambo always wears big dark glasses. This question works since it stops her endless squawking. She’ll make her curious face and whisper out the same whisper, “You know, it’s said he has no eyes. And he still sees better than most of us and that’s the God’s honest truth.”

St. Dimas and the Black Wooden Guitar

On Saturday afternoons when Tia Mama is fast asleep me and Rogelio go fishing. There is a big pond near the woods and we take night crawlers and worms as thick as a spoiled baby’s wrist. Rogelio likes to tell me stories of Mexico and how he was a stud there. “The women were in heat when I was around,” he boasts. I ask him each Saturday if he is my real dad and Rogelio shifts his eyes so that he can’t be accused of looking at nothing and out of the side of his mouth says, “Hell no! Is that what that bitch of a woman is telling you? You tell her it’s Rogelio that wears the pants.” 

Later I catch Rogelio talking to himself, ‘I got to let her know who wears the pants.’ He says this when he’s pissing or when we’re sitting waiting for a bite from those terrible catfish that seem to tease and taunt us from the muddy water. Still, I know for a fact that Rogelio is afraid of Tia Mama, maybe more than me. And for the record, it was a lucky punch when he got to her old bony tooth.

One Saturday when Tia Mama was snoring like a grumpy sow, me and Rogelio went to a different fishing spot, one where you paid to fish. A strange-looking grey man took our money. He wore suspenders over his thin shoulders and had only three fingers in one hand. “I bet he lost them playing dice,” Rogelio said. But the man corrected Rogelio saying war took his fingers. “Fuck,” I said under my breath and Rogelio gave me a quick one that stung down to my toes. Tia Mama said he should whack me if I ever say fuck, damn, or shit.

I say it anyway. And sometimes in my prayers I’ll say it too. Just in my head to see if God is truly listening. So far He hasn’t smacked me like Rogelio or Tia Mama but He did give me lice last year and Tia Mama had to scrub my scalp with a root that burned and turned my hair white for three weeks.

While we were fishing Rogelio asked me if I like guitars since I’m always drawing guitar pictures in my school notebooks; “Shit yeah,” I say. Rogelio either forgave me or was too busy fishing to give me a smack. “Good,” he said. “I got something for you at home.”

We caught nothing and complained to the grey man as we left. “You win some and you lose some,” he said huffing on a cigar that he held between his three fingers. His others were in Vietnam, he told us.

“The gooks used them to plug their dykes.” He began laughing; almost falling off the puffy chair he sat on. Me and Rogelio didn’t get the joke and still don’t by the time we arrived at the small white house me and Tia Mama call home.

At home we’re back to smiling and telling jokes of our own about fish farting in ponds and the size of Tia Mama’s puna. But the smiles on our faces shouldn’t fool anyone because we’re still ticked-off about having no catfish. Anyway, we were eating mulberries on the grass, staining our lips purple when, without warning, Rogelio jumped up, got in his truck and took off--zoom. When he came back he had a dark wooden guitar in his hands. “Here,” he said, “this is yours for only ten dollars, que barato.” When Rogelio talks of getting money his eyes shine a little bit and mine must have shined too, since I was happy to have a guitar missing only two strings.

Right there I thought to ask, “So, you’re my father?”  But I figured that only a father would give his kid a guitar for ten dollars.

I had the money. Or rather I stole it from Tia Mama’s savings. She has a bunch of bras in her clothing drawer where she hides money and pictures of St. Dimas holding a cross. I think St. Dimas guards the cash. Anyway, she doesn’t know that I know where her hidden things are kept. But I can be just as sneaky as Tia Mama

After I paid Rogelio he left. I went inside and began playing the guitar. I didn’t know how to play so I just posed mostly, brushing the strings wildly. All the noise must have woke Tia Mama from her coma in the other room. She walked in and said “What is my rule about waking me up?”  I lied, saying I didn’t know. “Don’t,” she said and then became interested in the guitar. “Where did you get it?” she asked. “Rogelio gave it to me,” I said worried about her reaction. “Did he?” was all she said and then left.

Tim Ambo’s Rules

As far as rules go, Tim Ambo has ten and Tia Mama has posted them on our refrigerator and right above the toilet. They are:

  1. Never wear wrinkled clothes.
  2. Never eat food made from pigs or devour chocolates.
  3. Never curse.
  4. Save your pennies.
  5. Wash your feet daily.
  6. Never hold playing cards or roll dice.
  7. Do math problems every day to keep your mind strong.
  8. Never munch on ice or spit.
  9. Never have impure thoughts on a Sunday or while watching Tim Ambo speak.
  10. Always believe in the healing power of money.

Tia Mama breaks all Tim Ambo’s rules, in one way or another. She says she watches him because he has nice legs like a luchador--a wrestler, but I don’t believe it for one second and think something else is going on.  

In fact, I know something else is going on and see this on the day I caught Tia Mama reading this book sent to her by the Tim Ambo Institute for Spiritual Love and Money.

“What are you reading?” I asked.

She turned away and pressed her face deeper into the book.

I sat in silence watching her take forever to get through one page. Finally I said, “You never read anything, Tia Mama, so it must be important.”

She took an orange from the bowl of oranges, had me peel it and then said,

“It tells you how to meet Tim Ambo and hear him speak.”

“And how do you do that?” I asked, waiting to hear her bleat “mind your own business.”  But instead Tia Mama’s face settled on a kind of sunshine and stayed there.

“Next year he’ll come to the Saladin Casino and if you pay one thousand fiver hundred and ninety-five dollars you can hear him speak over a weekend and have him personally give you the secrets to love and money while you eat fancy soups and people bring you special sweet breads to snack on.”

“Jeez, that’s a mountain of cash, how you going to get it?”  I said, thinking she would ask her best friend Celestina for the money. She owns a hair styling shop in town called Nicks and Cuts, with her husband, Nicholas.     

“I’m saving my pennies,” Tia Mama said with a voice as soft as butterfly feet.

When I finished peeling her orange she gave me a dollar to buy the salted plums we both like to eat before bedtime. I took the dollar and planted it under my pillow in the hopes of growing another. Tia Mama says this is foolish but each time the next morning there are always two dollars there.

The Bitch that Yowled like a Demon

Rogelio and I went fishing. This time on a Friday and he tells me more about his village in Mexico.

“There are celebrations every week and we pray to a river god---one that lives in the caves nearest the sea. His name is Onemyebo and people tell stories saying he created all men first as fish and that the devil played a trick and made the fish walk on land, turned their scales to skin and made their hearts bad.”

Rogelio said in his village all chairs are made from cow bones and all music comes from women who were once jaguars. Half of what he says I don’t believe since Tia Mama says that Rogelio is born liar. But I like his stories anyway.

“How is the guitar?” he asked.

“I’m learning to play.”

“You should have it blessed or else ghosts of failed troubadours will steal the strings and replace them with catgut. This happened to a man I know--Ulbaldo Jimenez. He was a musician from Coycoyan and one night at a pachanga he strummed his new guitar--just a little tickle to clear the rust from his fingers, and that bitch yowled like a demon caught in a churchyard. He had to pour mezcal over the strings to calm its nerves.” 

Spilling Barrowed Salt

Tia Mama has a rule Z, the last of her rules, I guess, since she attaches a Z to it. It’s this: don’t cross Tia Mama (and this includes stealing).

I have broken the stealing rule, which she figures out after a week when she goes to count her savings and finds ten dollars missing. I come home from school and she is sitting on the porch eating from a jar of pickles and watching a tape of Tim Ambo talk about how money is the next best thing to god. Her first words are “What’s Tia Mama’s rule Z?” I say I don’t remember--a big lie since I do know this rule above all the others.

“It’s don’t steal. You took ten dollars. You have stolen from Tia Mama and lied about it, too. You spend too much time with Rogelio, your father, catching those catfish no one wants to eat.”

“He says he’s not my father, and I needed the money to buy the guitar.”

Hearing this made her explode, with the veins in her neck popping out, looking like snakes crawling under her skin.

“I knew it. I just knew that man would give nothing for free. He has a price just like Tim Ambo says all men do. Well, I have a price, too.”

She walked in the direction of Rogelio’s house. When she returned, it was almost dark but I could still see the dried and fresh blood under her nose and the scratches on her face. Her eyes were red with a rage I’d never seen before, even for Tia Mama. She went into the house and came out seconds later with my guitar. Right in front of me she pounded it to bits on the rocky floor of our yard while screaming, “Puto! Puta!” along with Celestina’s and Rogelio’s name. After that she cried herself to sleep on the couch, tearing a pillow to bits by the strength of her angry dreams. I went to my busted guitar, beat it some more and then took the broken pieces and chucked them over the Concho Bridge.

The next day was no better. When Tia Mama woke her anger was still as thick as a bull’s and she kept saying she would show Rogelio and Celestina what it meant to be screwed.   

She left the house and I followed close behind. To show her irritation she kept swatting at me as if I were mosquito buzzing around her ear but I kept buzzing,

“Tia Mama, I’ll pay back the money. I’ll rub your feet and fix the TV so that Tim Ambo’s head doesn’t look like a space creatures.”

She just walked on with bear steps until she reached the bus stop. When the bus came she forced herself on. She had not a dime in her hand and instead gave the bus driver pebbles, which he counted as if they were coins and drove off.

I went to Rogelio’s to warn him that Tia Mama was not done. Once there I saw that two great bears had battled the night before: a chair hung from the roof of the house, tree limbs and fence posts were twisted, some shattered like glass, and holes the size of Tia Mama’s fist had punctured Rogelio’s walls.

“Hey Rogelio,” I called out. I heard a motor running and when I looked into the window there was Rogelio sitting on a small motorcycle, the kind a clown at a circus might use.

Seeing me through the broken window, Rogelio turned off the engine and asked weakly, “What are you doing here?” Tia Mama had really messed-up his face and not even the morning’s flies dared touch it.

“She is still very angry,” I said. “What did you do?”

“She saw me with…” Rogelio was forced to stop speaking as shame put its claws around his throat.

“I have to leave,” he finally said. “Last night, before she nearly bit off my ear, she shouted, ‘Tomorrow morning I’m going to the city, right to the office of the migra and tell them you are here mojado. See how fast they send you back to that hovel you call a village in Oaxaca!’

“You have no papers?” I asked.

“No,” he admitted.

Small clouds of fury spun among all the broken scattered things in the room. It made me dizzy. To feel better I sat on the floor. From there I watched Rogelio stare into nothing and thought the color of his arms, the curve of his ears, the moles on his neck were just like mine.

“Do you have any money?” Rogelio asked and I immediately thought of Tia Mama’s stash and said I did. I went back to the house knowing that she had probably moved her savings to the pickle jars hidden away behind the many VCR’s that have been used-up while watching Tim Ambo. These were kept in the shed and I was right to figure she had moved the money there. I took one of the five jars and gave it to Rogelio. He thanked me and left on that funny little motorbike. But before he did I asked where he would go. He said Chicago, and I gave him a picture of St. Dimas looking hungry and tired next to a cheery Christ. And then I asked, for the last time, if he were my father. He admitted that he couldn’t have children since his own father had angered the southern river spirits by maliciously spilling borrowed salt into their waters. Their curse was to remove the seed from every Trujillo male.

“I am the last of my kind,” he said before leaving me with a final goodbye.

I didn’t go home right away. I went to the fishing spot first and threw stones at the catfish. I collected as many dandelions as I could find and filled my pockets. I ran very fast toward the bridge thinking I would jump and land in the rocks below. But then I went home and saw Tia Mama sitting on the porch watching Tim Ambo on TV. I walked in circles around the house. Tia Mama didn’t even look my way as I passed her one hundred times or more.

The sun got tired of my heat and went down. When it did I sat next to Tia Mama. I asked her to tell me about Luna. She said Luna had no teeth but loved green apples and so Tia Mama would chew apples and put the mush in pickle jars for her to drink. I thought it was sad and said so. Then I asked what Tim Ambo thinks about sadness. Tia Mama laughed and said she usually watches Tim Ambo while sad. I thought about this for a while, gulped very hard and finally was able to say, “I’m sorry I stole more of your money, Tia Mama.” She slapped me across the face, promised more later and said that without rules we’re animals. And for once I agreed.

Mario Gonzales

Mario J. Gonzales lives and works in Northern New Mexico.  His short fiction has appeared in the Rio Grande Review, decomP magazine and the Cossack Review.  He is the recipient of the Hispanic Writers award presented by the Taos Writers summer conference, 2012.  His work has recently been translated into Arabic and will be forthcoming somewhere in the Middle East.