By mid-morning, news of the forgery reaches the attentive ears of a Felix Echeverria in Los Banos, California. Felix is a man of both questionable fortune and exquisite taste — a man who, at the start of his seventy-first year, has washed up on the rocky shores of life only to languish in a stagnant pool. Inside the cinder block apartment that he shares with his 19-year-old nephew, the heat is stifling. He rests in a threadbare armchair to relieve the pain in his legs, watching through the broken window as a skinny, pregnant cat prowls along the wall outside.
Atop a small side table next to him is a souvenir ashtray he picked up at an airport gift shop in the early ‘80s. It is a tableau of sorts, a miniature oasis of racial reductionism with a man whose face is hidden beneath a sombrero, wearing a striped serape and napping under a palm next to a tiny bottle of tequila. The little figure’s legs are parted and his head is tilted to one side suggesting that “siesta” is code for “passed out drunk by noon.” Felix Echeverria brings the ashtray with him everywhere he goes to remind him of the many forces that conspire against a man of his age with gout, a forty-year run of rotten luck, and far too much education.
Under the ashtray is a list. Felix is weighing his options. Despite his diminished circumstances, something he still considers temporary, he has been collecting Chicano art for decades and even has a few pieces from the famous Self-Help Graphics that might be worth a few dollars by now. The collection is in storage in East L.A. but this does him no good; he possesses neither car nor gas money and Los Banos is the epicenter of nowhere. Still, the collection could be sold. Felix draws the curtains in the stuffy living room.
On the back wall hangs a painting of Mictlantecuhtli, Lord of the Dead, walking on a crowded city street. The water stains and a small tear give the painting little value on the art market, but it is, if only as metaphor, perfectly suited to the wall of his current dwelling. He found the painting at an estate sale in Santa Monica and kept it as a reminder of some important life lesson he has forgotten.
Between the painting and ashtray, Felix mourns for a missed opportunity – an ascension – that is always anticipated, yet never arrives. If he were a phoenix, and sometimes he imagines himself this way, the smoldering cinders from which he is supposed to rise are electric briquettes.
Felix’s nephew Hiram enters the room carrying two Styrofoam cups of McDonald’s coffee and the L.A. Times. Hiram is a book smart but foolish young man who has already served a brief sentence for being in the wrong place at the wrong time when his friend got the brilliant idea to knock over a gas station down around Mercy Hot Springs. Hiram was pumping four dollars worth of gas into his maroon Saturn when his friend, an idiot, ran out of the station convenience store waving a black water pistol, jumped into the car and yelled, “South!”
“That’s all the proof you need that crime doesn’t pay,” Felix reminds Hiram regularly, hoping his nephew will heed his warning without judging him by the reduced standards of his own life.
“Unless you’re good at it, like bankers,” says Hiram, who also reads the L.A. Times since he has nothing better to do at the moment, and like Felix, he’s a reader.
Felix knows that Hiram is trying to get back on his feet after the incident. This nephew of his isn’t dumb, only inexperienced. Hiram found a farm job the previous summer and then nearly died of Valley Fever. His lungs have not yet recovered, and with no income to speak of, they struggle daily just to keep a roof over their heads. Hiram possesses both a sense of irony and wit, which means he is capable of nuanced thinking. Felix recognizes his nephew’s potential even when the rest of the world does not.
… to be continued.