David Santiago

When We Wander

It is a gray, musty day in 1986. We are traveling from San Juan to Guaynabo in a red Ford Escape hatchback, dented and rusting around the sills and floor pans. My father is arguing with my mother up front. He has sweat trickling down the back of his neck, and his black hair is damp and curling from the humidity. My mother is clutching the grab handle above the passenger seat window, her knuckles white with tension.

“You’re lost,” she cries as we drive down this street for the third time in 30 minutes.

My father flips through a Rand McNally atlas of Puerto Rico, and settles on an intricately detailed page of the San Juan area. He traces his finger along a line on the map.

“I missed a turn,” he mumbles.

A car horn blares, and my father swerves back into his lane.

We finally make it up the mountain. My sister is four years old and fast asleep. I’m two years her senior and trying to stay awake. Everything is different here. It had been snowing at home in Chicago when we left for Puerto Rico, the day after Christmas. My father had managed to get us discounted tickets on standby through his job at FedEx, but we had to stay overnight at O’Hare Airport to catch the next available morning flight, and everyone is tired.

We turn into a narrow gravel road and pull up to a white, concrete block house surrounded by palm and banana trees. A white chihuahua slips through the iron bars on the porch and runs up to our car, yapping at us like we’re intruders.

“That’s Blackie,” says my dad.

My sister rubs her eyes and peers out the window. A woman steps out of the house, wiping her hands against her apron. She is petite, smaller than my mother, and wears shoulder length light brown hair and a broad smile.

“Bendición, mamma,” says my father as he steps out of the car next to the barking dog.

“Dios te bendiga.”

The next day, I am with my cousin Jason. He is twelve and speaks only a little English, but we get along just fine. We are taking a shortcut down a hill through an overgrown dirt path to another cousin’s house. He is expertly swinging a machete to clear away ferns and low-lying shrubs. As a Boy Scout, he knows how to navigate the forests around our families’ properties. Last year, he showed me how to tie a fisherman’s knot, but I can’t remember how to do it.

We come to a two-story house sitting on the edge of a cliff, held up by stilts on the downslope side so that it rises high above the forest canopy below. The ground around the house is wet, and my gym shoes are caked in mud as we approach. He has something to show me.

Under the foundation of the house there are all sorts of things: bicycles, pieces of wire fencing, plywood, old car tires. A weathered, tannish mongrel stares at us through one open eye from on top of a cardboard box, as he battles sleep.

Jason points his machete at a three-foot by three-foot cage in between two car tires. Inside the cage, a black-breasted red bantam swivels its head towards us. Its red comb and wattles have been removed so that it looks like an angry pheasant.

The bantam seems to get more agitated as we approach, bobbing its head as it struts back and forth in the cage. It reminds me of a Bengal tiger I saw once at the Lincoln Park Zoo that paced back and forth in its cell, its large head weaving from side to side, dreaming of its native home in the jungle.

Jason and I crouch down beside the cage to get a closer look. The bantam backs away, but continues to strut and puff out its feathers. I notice the bird has a hooked-shaped, razor-sharp steel blade attached to its right leg. It doesn’t look comfortable, and glares at us as it moves about the cage.

El campeón,” says Jason, flexing his biceps and then jabbing the air a couple times. “Come.”

Jason stands up and beckons me up around the back entrance to the house. He has more to show me. I try to stand, but can’t take my eyes off the bantam. It looks miserable, angry, and proud all wrapped in one. Its long black tail feathers give it a regal air.

This bird is the Bengal tiger.

I hear Jason calling me again, and as I stand to leave, I notice a rusted padlock on the front door of the cage. Its lock hasp is in the staple, but it isn’t secured. I glance over my shoulder to see if Jason is in view, and seeing that he isn’t, slowly open the gate of the cage.

It’s the last day of our trip to Puerto Rico. My sister and I are lying on our stomachs on the concrete floor of the porch next to Abuelo, drawing with chalk. Abuelo is much older than Abuela, and is dozing off on a rocking chair to the sound of a telenovela playing inside.

A little while later Abuela comes out, bringing us orange juice. She kneels down beside us to examine our artwork.

My sister has drawn misshapen hearts of different sizes and colors. She has chalk dust all the way up her elbows.

“It is good to share your heart,” says Abuela.

My sister beams while sucking orange juice through a straw.

My drawings are a little less abstract. My favorite is the yellow iguana.

Abuela glances at the drawing of the blue-and-red bantam next to Abuelo’s feet. “Daniel Narvaez came over last night looking for his prizefighter. He said it was lost,” she says.

My eyes are fixed on the floor.

“I offered him my condolences. I hoped to see him at church.” She places her hand on my shoulder and continues. “These men, what they do is no good. Birds are meant to wander. Nothing is lost.”

I am ten years old. We pull up to Abuela’s house and a brown chihuahua slips through the iron bars on the porch and runs up to our car, yapping at us with mock ferociousness.

“That is Blackie,” says my dad.

Abuela steps out of the house, her hair now dyed auburn.

“Bendición, mamma,” says my father as he steps out of the car next to the barking dog.

“Dios te bendiga.”

We are all sitting around the dining room table for supper. We are having arroz con habichuelas and pollo guisado. I can smell the recao. It is the smell of Puerto Rico.

Abuelo is sitting in between Abuela and me, barely eating. He wears a blank expression.

A telenovela is playing softly in the background. My mother tells me it is Tú o nadie, a Mexican soap opera. In this episode, Antonio is told that he has amnesia and must return to his wife, whom he doesn’t remember.

I wonder what such memory loss is like, not recognizing your family. Without memory, who are we? All the moments and feelings gone.

“Our memories are the ingredients of this dinner,” says Abuela. “They become part of us, sustaining us, even if later we don’t remember having them.”

The next afternoon I am coming back from Tía Cusie’s house with Jason. It had just rained, one of those heavy downpours that last not much longer than a game of HORSE, especially if you’re playing against someone good, like my cousin. We are soaked, having decided not to stop the game during the rain shower, but the sun is out and we are fine.

Jason is dribbling the basketball around puddles as we walk up the road to Abuelo and Abuela’s house. At the turn just beyond Julio’s lenchonera, we hear a great rustling in the woods. Jason approaches a thicket of bamboo, and reaching in, pulls out a man by his wrist.

The man, wet and covered in grime, stumbles to the side of the road. His feet are bare, his tank top and pants are torn, and he has a 9th Infantry Division baseball cap on his head. In his hand is a bottle in a wet paper bag. He is nodding affirmatively.   

“Ellos estan aqui.”

Jason, still gently holding the man’s wrist, looks into his bloodshot eyes. They are the eyes of a man with a type of pain that clouds his vision.

“Se acabó, Don Ruiz. Se acabó.”

It’s over.

I am eleven and sitting on our living room couch. On the floor beside me is Burberry, our next-door neighbor’s Dalmatian, who we watch when they are away. My dad calls him Blackie.

The phone rings and I hear my dad’s voice.

“Bendición, mamma.”

“Dios te bendiga.”

My mother steps away from the kitchen and joins my father. I think of Guaynabo, the green hills, and the call of the roosters each morning. I can smell the recao and feel the dense, damp air on my skin.

It is June in Chicago and the dandelions are out, poking their yellow flowers through the cracks in the sidewalk. I want to take a machete and chop my way through the weeds and grasses in the alley behind us. Maybe the bantam I freed is here, keeping the street clean of rats.

When my father comes out, he tells me about Jason, how he waded into the water after the other Boy Scout who was drowning. They were attempting to ford the river, but the one scout wandered too deep and was pulled under. Jason tried to save him, but was pulled in too.

Jason is a memory now, and my eyes are burning. I can’t see or think, and I bury my head in the couch cushions. I have never cried in front of my parents like this.

I am miserable, angry, and proud all wrapped in one. No, he is not lost. He is el campeón, the bantam. He is a part of me.

I am seventeen years old and with my aunt as we come to Abuela’s house. A gray chihuahua slips through the iron bars on the porch and runs up to our car.

“That is Blackie,” says my aunt.

Abuela steps out of the house, her hair now gray.

“Tía Cusie. Why do I always see different dogs here?”

Tía Cusie pulls up the parking brake and stares at the dog.

“There are many reasons. The last one wandered off and was hit by a car. The dogs here are always wandering.”

Later that week, I am working for my aunt’s new husband, Orlando. We are building a fence.

I am mixing cement with sand, stone, and water in a wheelbarrow. My face is red, and I am drenched in sweat.

Orlando hands me a bottle of water, then scoops a shovelful of the cement mixture into the wooden fence post forms. He is strong and lean, never slowing down as he chats to the other workers.

I still don’t know much Spanish, but we get along just fine. When the cement mixture runs low, I prepare new batches. Orlando and I are a team, and the money for the job is good.

That evening, I am finishing dinner with Tía Cusie and Orlando. I am tired and sore from the fence building.

“I will take you back to Abuela’s,” says Tía Cusie.

“No, I can walk,” I say. “I will not get lost.”

Before I leave, I give Orlando a hat. I had bought it after the job with the money I had earned. It is a camouflage-colored baseball hat, and will keep the sun out of his eyes.

Orlando gives me a big smile and lightly punches my shoulder. We all hug, and I wander up the road back to Abuela’s house.

It is night, and I hear the coquis chirping and a donkey braying. Blackie is snoring by my feet on the bed. There are many pictures on the wall of the guest bedroom.

I see a picture of Abuelo next to a red fire station in Ponce. He is younger, like my dad, but darker. His memories are our memories. Not the exact memories, but contours of memories that are passed from generation to generation. I can feel them all around me, even though he is not here anymore.

I see another picture, of Tía Cusie and Jason. These memories are sharper. Jason is standing behind Tía Cusie, who is sitting on a chair. He is wearing his Boy Scout uniform and is the same age as me. The photo must have been taken just weeks before the accident.

Jason is a Boy Scout, and never gets lost. He may have wandered, but he is still here, a part of me, a part us. He is the Bengal tiger, now free to roam the jungles of India. He is the bantam, now free of his cage. He is Blackie, all the Blackies, now free of the callousness of men. He is me, and I am as much Tía Cusie and Orlando’s son as the son of my mother and father.

We are family, and our memories live on even when we wander.

David Santiago is a writer, technologist, husband, and father of two girls, who lives and works in northern Virginia.