Rated: PG-13, for harsh memories not one’s own.
Life in Stone, Glass, and Plastic
by José Pablo Iriarte
Cleaning up graffiti was an everyday job for Sergio, pero esto . . . Could you even call this graffiti? Graffiti normally was spray-painted. Wait — that wasn’t true. Indoor graffiti typically was done in permanent marker. Or gouged into wooden surfaces with pocket knives or keys, so the only way to remove some gang symbol or racist slur or throbbing penis was by sanding it down.
Come to think of it, if anybody was an expert, he was.
And he’d never heard of mosaic graffiti.
But there it was, on the side of the Westchester Building. Marbles, reading glasses, fichas de Monopolio, a key, all cemented onto the crumbling old plaster, maybe eight feet across. Only when he took a step back could he see it formed the shape of a woman and her two kids, carrying suitcases away from a house while a grim police officer stood by with his arms crossed. Probably not the image the tenant behind that wall — AAAfordable Lending, Inc. — would want to be associated with.
He pushed back his USS Oklahoma City ball cap and wiped his brow with his sleeve. Carajo, this must have taken hours. Days. No windows peered into the shadows between this building and the next, but Sergio himself walked this alley once a night, dragging a full garbage canister to the dumpster out back. How could he possibly have missed it?
He inched closer to the vent for the Dominican panadería inside the neighboring building. The alley between the buildings was poorly lit and a favorite spot for rats and winos, but when the neighbors baked the next day’s treats you could take a deep breath and imagine you were in heaven. He closed his eyes and let the scent transport him to better days. Before Carolina had to stop working. She used to make magic like this in her kitchen.
Estúpido. They paid him to work, not to stand around reminiscing. He shook his head and blinked. Time to do his job. He headed inside, to the custodial closet, and searched for an appropriate tool. He dropped a narrow putty spatula, a chisel, and a hammer into his tool apron, and grabbed a drill too, just in case. He picked up a heavy duty flashlight as well, since the sun already hung low in the sky when he came in for the equipment.
Back in the alley, he dragged a trash cart over, leaned the light on it, and directed the beam at the artwork. What were the odds the plaster or whatever would still be loose and come off quickly? He reached into the pocket of the tool apron and closed his right hand around the handle of the spatula. He’d only used it once before, when the building’s management decided to retile all the bathrooms. By the time he finished that three-week job, his hands ached constantly and he’d hoped never to hold the damn thing again.
Ah well. Así era la vida.
He raised his left hand to the mosaic to feel the objects on the wall, get a sense for how firmly they were att —
— he stands on the street holding a woman’s hand she is his mother she pulled him out too fast for him to put his shoes on and little rocks in the sidewalk are digging into his feet he looks up and mommy is sobbing why are you crying mommy Frankie come out she says don’t do this a police officer speaks into his cb and the words blare from the speaker on top of his car don’t make this any harder than it needs to be mr giuliano his daddy opens the door and the gun from the nightstand drawer the one he isn’t allowed to touch but he took it out one time just to hold it in front of the mirror he’s got the gun in his hand and he says nuh uh i’m not leaving i’m never leaving i paid into this house for ten years and i’m not walking away with nothing no way no how the policeman shouts drop the gun drop the gun but daddy points it at him instead and they are firing and firing and the air smells funny and daddy dances in the door red spots appearing on his chest —
Sergio fell against the trash bin, knocking the flashlight to the ground. He followed it down, tumbling slowly to a prone position, his elbow banging into the pavement.
He lay on the ground for several minutes, his skin tingling. ¿Qué . . . what had just happened? A seizure? A stroke? His heart took an eternity to stop pounding. Shakily he rolled onto his knees. Climbing to his feet felt like scaling a mountain, and he wobbled a bit as he approached the mosaic. He shone the light on the artwork and reached his hand toward it but stopped short of touching it.
Once when he was little he’d clambered atop his dresser drawer in the night and stuck his finger in an empty socket in his lamp. He’d been fascinated by the metal tab he saw inside and wondered if it could be pushed in. The jolt he got threw him to the floor, knocking the air from his lungs so he couldn’t even cry. He was afraid to touch the lamp again for months afterward.
He hadn’t thought about that in . . . he couldn’t remember the last time. But he felt the same now. He played the vision from the mural back in his head. Where had it come from? Who were those people? Had he created their story out from his imagination? No — why would his mind imagine such a thing?
He forced himself back to the present and inched toward the display again . . .
He couldn’t bring himself to make contact. This wasn’t like him. The shock or the fall or the stroke or seizure or whatever must still be working his way through his system. He was normally the sort to grit his teeth and do what needed to be done, but bringing his fingers anywhere near the art made his bladder weak.
Well, it was dark outside now. And he was sore from the fall. The graffiti could wait. Now that he knew it was there, he could make a point of tackling it tomorrow before the sun set. That made more sense than working by flashlight anyway.
He finished work in a daze and rode home with his head against the bus window, not bothering to read or pay attention to the streets outside. When he got to his stop he realized he couldn’t even remember changing buses, though obviously he had.
At home he chatted with his wife’s “nurse” — a middle-aged neighbor lady who didn’t mind watching Carolina for a few extra bucks a week — for what seemed like an eternity. He didn’t want to be rude, but he could barely follow the thread of the conversation. He really just wanted to take off his work clothes, put bactine on his scrapes, and collapse in front of the television until he thought he was ready to fall asleep. Why was she being so chatty tonight?
Then it hit him: it was Friday. She was waiting to be paid.
“¡Ay, perdóname!” he said, grabbing the checkbook off the organizer on the kitchen counter. Behind the plastic rack was a box of Galán Realty pens from his wife’s business days. The pens would outlast the both of them.
He tried not to grimace as he filled in the amount. It was a bargain compared to real at-home nursing care. And really all Carolina needed was somebody to keep an eye on her and keep her from accidentally hurting herself.
Once the nurse left, he took off his shoes, poured a finger of Brugal, and dropped a single ice cube into it. He carried the glass into the living room, where his wife sat in front of the television. “Buenas noches, mi vida,” he said, kissing her on the head. She smelled of shampoo. She smelled like home.
She blinked up at him. “Carlos?”
“No, mi sueño.” He cleared his throat. “It’s me, Sergio. Carlos is in Florida.”
“Ay, sí, cómo no. I’m sorry.”
“It’s okay,” he said, picking absently at a newly-forming scab. On the end table beside her, a portrait of their son taken when he was three grinned at both of them. That explained why her mind was on her son right now. Sergio had gotten the portrait reframed for her when she knocked the old frame on the floor last month, shattering it and scratching the photograph inside. He’d paid for a fancy one, with Carlos’s old baby spoon glued to the metal below the picture, but only a week later he found the spoon lying on the end table, broken off.
He sank into his chair and took a sip, savoring the burn of the liquor in his mouth for a moment before swallowing. What had happened tonight? Some sort of dementia episode? Was he starting to lose his own grip on reality?
If he slipped, how would he care for his wife? He didn’t want to imagine the two of them becoming a burden on Carlos and his young family.
No. No era nada. He was tired. Overworked. His sugar was low. He’d slipped and fallen. He needed to forget about it and move on.
It was nothing.
Sergio tried to put the mosaic out of his head all weekend long, but he could think of little else. And at night, Jesus, the dreams. Over and over the man with the gun — not his father, no, but he couldn’t stop thinking of him like he was — staggered out the front door. Over and over he waved the weapon around and the bullet holes exploded from his chest. Again and again his mother’s — that woman’s — screams pierced his soul as her husband crumbled to the stoop. Sergio had never seen that man. Where had the experience come from?
By Monday afternoon, the vision of the shooting felt more real than the graffiti itself. But then he got to work and the mural was still there, waiting for him to do something about it. He kept putting it off . . . let him get the sweeping finished first, the trash cans emptied, the bathrooms disinfected. Those were his priorities, and people would complain if they weren’t done. Then he would scrape off the display. But first, some fluorescent tubes were starting to burn out . . . Before he knew it quitting time was just a half-hour away and anyway it was much too dark outside — it could wait until tomorrow.
On the ride home his stomach cramped like he’d eaten some bad arroz con leche. He should’ve done something about the artwork, because then at least it would be gone and over with. He’d been stung by wasps before, but that didn’t keep him from removing nests when they sprang up around the building. It was his job, and he always did his job. And his reward for shying away this time was it would hang over him for another night.
He leaned an elbow against the empty seat next to his own, rested his head against his hand, and watched the lights go by. Were the people from his vision out there somewhere? Did that little boy live in one of these buildings zooming —
He sat up with a start, jostling his elbow off its perch. Another mosaic, on the side of a big chain auto repair shop. A different scene, but the style was unmistakable.
The skin from his back to his neck tightened. Almost without thought he reached up and tugged on the cord to get off. The bus pulled over and he stumbled out. Only as it roared off, bathing him in a cloud of exhaust fumes, did he realize he had no idea what street he was on. Part of the blur of his commute, one of the neighborhoods he saw through the window every night without actually paying any attention. Was he even safe here?
He hurried to the fenced-in parking lot and stared at the mosaic. A woman, or maybe a teenager, behind the wheel of a red car, her mouth an O, her hands up. An overwhelming urge to touch the mural filled him. He glanced left and right, but of course he found no gaps in the barrier.
He curled his fingers around two of the links, the rough metal surface grounding him like a lightning rod. The sounds of traffic faded away until nothing seemed to exist except him, the fence, and the art on the other side.
Jesus, what was he thinking? Forget about this mural. Go home. Go back to work tomorrow and get rid of the other one first thing, before sweeping, before finding an excuse to let it linger there. He needed to get off this sidewalk and go home to his wife.
His fingers squeezed around the links, as if under their own control.
Carajo. He was too old for this shit.
He jammed his work shoe into one of the tiny wire diamonds, barely getting more than the tip in. He used to climb fences like this all the time back en el barrio. Okay, that was fifty years ago, and he was wearing tennies at the time, but still. He tugged himself up, step by step. The twisted wires at the top of the fence scratched and stabbed his palm, his knee, his shin, but finally he was over, standing on the other side and panting like a marathon runner.
He limped toward the display and then froze, cemented to the ground. He spent the entire night hiding from the artwork at work, like a kid taking the long way home to avoid the class bully, and now he wanted to touch this one?
He needed to know, though. Needed to know what had happened to him at the other mural, and he felt, all the way down to his bones, that this mosaic held the answer.
He’d come this far. Might as well go all the way.
He put his finger on a string of imitation pearls set into the —
— he checks his reflection in the rearview mirror wait he is not a he he is a she and she is wearing the pearls and red lipstick she is on her way to a job interview and she is late and traffic is heavy she accelerates when she can changes lanes and slows down when she gets too close to the car in front she gets back in the right lane the light turns yellow and she speeds up wait she’s not gonna make it she stomps on the brakes but nothing happens what the hell she just got them done she glances down but there’s nothing to see but a brake pedal jammed all the way down she looks up just in time to see the light turn red as she enters the intersection and oh my god it’s a pickup truck right in front of her —
He pulled away with a gasp and staggered against the chain-link fence. He tasted fear in the back of his throat. Jesus, he really had been working too hard — now all the murals were talking to him.
But that wasn’t true, was it? He’d gotten off the bus in the first place because he knew something was different about this mural, and now he’d confirmed it. Something about the mosaics themselves caused the visions.
He straightened. He felt weak, tired, but . . . satisfied? He laughed out loud at himself — what kind of lunatic was happy to get a hallucination from some street art? The laughter racked his body, but he couldn’t seem to stop. Viejo loco.
He was still laughing when a flashlight beam hit him in the face.
“Sir, please step away from the fence and hold your hands away from your body.”
The giddiness left his chest, replaced by a tight tingle. Dios mío, what had he done?
No buses were running by the time they let him go. He paid for a cab because he’d already kept Carolina’s nurse obscenely past the end of her shift. His bones ached with weariness and his movements were stiff and jerky after hours on an uncomfortable plastic bench. Time to put this madness behind him. He was a foolish old man, but Carolina depended on him. He needed to do better.
Carolina was asleep when he climbed into bed. He lay on his side, watching her chest rise and fall as she snored gently.
“Did you have a good day, mi sueño?” he murmured. “Seems like I hardly spend any time with you. I’m so sorry.”
She mumbled in reply, something from her dreams, no doubt, but he could tell himself she understood and accepted his apology. He leaned over and kissed her forehead before turning off his lamp. He hoped she was having good dreams, dreams where she was still the formidable woman who’d once upended his life in all the best ways.
Sleep would not come no matter how he folded his pillow or twisted his blankets. He only dropped off in time to be jarred back awake by the muted beeping of his alarm. He longed to snooze it, but he had work to do. He shambled to the kitchen, filled the espresso pot with Bustelo, and fished the stove dial out of its hiding place above the fridge. A few minutes later he had sweet, hot caffeine to substitute for the restful night he hadn’t gotten.
In the mornings before work, he did small repairs around the apartment building. It didn’t pay money, but they gave him half off the rent, which was the only thing keeping the two of them in their apartment on a single income. Today he felt like a robot from a movie, moving stiffly and mechanically.
His upstairs neighbor, an elderly shut-in, tried to chat with him as he tightened a leak in her faucet, but his mind kept wandering off. To make matters worse, she kept apologizing, sure their misfiring conversation was her fault. Twice he went to the shed and forgot what he was there for. On the way back the second time, he stopped to deal with a red ant infestation, losing track of his original task until Emmett, the resident whose screen he was supposed to be replacing, came by the walk to check on him. Sergio mumbled his apologies, staring at the bushes lining the sidewalk.
Finally it was time for work — or time to leave home, anyway. He said goodbye to the nurse, but called in sick on the bus. He’d sworn to put this behind him, but somehow he couldn’t. He needed to find out who the artist was. Sergio had to meet him.
He spent the afternoon and evening riding around the city, staring through the windows at side walls, hunting for graffiti, looking for street art that was just a little bit more. Sure enough, now that he knew what to look for, he found other pieces. Each time he got off the bus, made his way back to the new mural, and ran his hand along the surface.
Each mosaic came with another slice of life; each one told another story. Beside a boarded-up house he touched a glass vial and died of an overdose while the junkies around him did nothing. Next to a hospital downtown he learned after touching an ID bracelet that he didn’t have cancer after all — but that the unnecessary treatments doctors had subjected him to due to the misdiagnosis had taken years off his life. By an all-night diner he brushed his hand against a plastic nametag and he found himself — she found herself — shoved against a wall by her manager, who ran a finger down her face and whispered that there were plenty of girls who wanted this job if she didn’t.
Sergio shoved himself from the wall, breaking the spell. He staggered to a bus bench, sobbing and wondering why he put himself through all this death and horror. He didn’t lack for sorrow in his own life — why was he seeking out more?
He lost track of how long he sat there before he realized he was not alone. He couldn’t say what tipped him off, but he looked up to see three figures surrounding him, far enough that he couldn’t get a good look at their faces in the darkness.
“I don’t have any money,” he said, standing up.
“We don’t want your money, old man,” said one of them, a short woman with an English accent.
“What’s your business with the mosaics?” asked another, the tallest of the three, from Long Island by the sound of it.
He glanced over his shoulder at the last artwork and shuddered. “Nothing.”
They stepped closer, and he weighed his odds of running away from them. Where was that damn bus?
“We followed you, old man,” said the Long Islander. “We know what you been doing.”
“Are they yours?” Sergio asked, edging away.
The third figure stepped into the glow from a streetlight, blocking his path. He reminded Sergio of his son Carlos, with his wiry black curls and thin goatee. “They might be.”
“Why are they all so terrible?” Sergio asked, blurting out the only thought that came to mind.
The woman laughed at this. “Look who’s an art critic, then!”
“I mean, not bad as art. Carajo, I’m no judge. They’re all amazing, but every one I’ve found is about death, loss, horror. Why?”
The tall man shrugged. “Life is about loss. And about remembering the ones who have suffered and naming the ones responsible.”
“I don’t need you to tell me about loss,” Sergio said. “But . . .” He rubbed the back of his neck. “You wouldn’t have anything to lose if that was all, ¿entiendes?”
He laughed. “So go paint some flowers and leave us alone, old man.”
It seemed like an invitation to leave, so Sergio stepped away from him. He could find another bus stop, but who knew what these people might decide to do — or what they were capable of. They seemed to have some kind of power, the kind Sergio’s mother used to say she didn’t believe in but still respected.
After just two steps, though, he turned around. “Can you make one for me?”
The tall man laughed at that. “No commissions,” he said.
“Not a commission,” Sergio said, holding his hands out, “ ’cause I already told you I don’t have any money.”
The woman snorted. “That’s a right generous offer then, mate.”
He ignored her. “I can get you a wall where nobody will take your mosaic down,” he told the man. Could he really? He wasn’t sure, but now wasn’t the time to worry about that. “And I can give you the stuff to use. The memories of a lifetime, good and bad, all of it. Please. There are other lives that deserve to be remembered.”
The tall man waved a hand, dismissing him. “Nobody wants your old junk.”
At the same time, the woman cocked her head. “Who are you trying to remember?”
He turned to her, frowning. Wait — which of these people was the artist?
“Vita?” the shorter man asked. “You seriously thinkin’ ’bout this?”
Sergio met her gaze. “It’s not me that needs to remember.”
At dusk the next Saturday, he stood with his wife in the lot behind his apartment building, admiring the new mosaic. It was loosely based on a photograph he gave Vita, of Carolina grinning as she bit into a strawberry, a dribble of juice running down her chin. It bore about as much resemblance to the photo as a thoroughbred did to a merry-go-round mount, though. Somehow Vita had looked beyond the old black and white image and sensed the spirit of the woman inside. He was hardly in charge, but this mural would stay up as long as he had anything to do with maintenance here.
Sergio took a step closer, admiring the proud woman he remembered, her face lined but her back straight. Closer in, he could see how Vita had worked in the bits and pieces of Carolina’s life that he’d given her, making each item serve the larger whole. He reached out instinctively but stopped himself short. This wasn’t his story.
Instead he took Carolina’s arm. “Come,” he said. “I want you to see something.” He pressed her fingers to the wall and traced sections of the mosaic with her hand. One of the Galán Realty pens. A piece of lace from her bridal veil. The watch he’d given her when they first started dating. It died long ago, and they’d always meant to repair it but never did. Carlos’s baby spoon.
Carolina’s face softened as she relived all these experiences, as they became her experiences again. She beamed with delight, and he willed himself to soak every bit of this moment in, to miss nothing and hold it in his heart for the rest of his own days.
A half-dozen feet away, Vita and her companions leaned against the brick of the building next door. Vita lit a cigarette and took a couple puffs. “This isn’t a cure, you know. She’ll forget again.”
Sergio nodded. “Life is about loss,” he said softly.
She smiled. “But that’s not all it’s about, is it?”
“Nope.” He turned back toward his wife. When had he last seen her eyes light up this way?
“Vamos, mi sueño. Let’s go back inside.”
He took his wife’s hand and the pair strolled off toward their apartment, reminiscing with each step about the good times and the bad, the people they’d cared about and lost, and all the little things that didn’t mean much individually, but added up, when you stepped back and took a broader look, to a life.
About the Author
José Pablo Iriarte is a Cuban-American writer, high school math teacher, parent of two, and, as of 2019, Nebula Award finalist. José’s fiction can be found in magazines such as Lightspeed, Strange Horizons, and Fireside Fiction. Learn more at www.labyrinthrat.com, or look for José on twitter @labyrinthrat.
About the Narrator
Karlo Yeager Rodríguez is from the enchanted island of Puerto Rico, but moved to Baltimore some years back. He lives happily with his partner and one very odd dog.