Monday, September 01, 2014

The Fabricator

Speculative fiction by Daniel A. Olivas

            Rigoberto sat on the large, cold boulder.  His eyes rested upon the lake’s calm surface discerning no more than a ripple at the base of the partially submerged tree twenty or so yards from where he sat.  Probably a happy family of waterbugs enjoying the safety of the root, he thought.  He noticed another ripple in the middle of the lake and imagined that a Loch Ness-type monster would languidly rise out of that small aquatic disturbance once Rigoberto had walked away, out of sight.  But this was not the Highland region of northern Scotland.  No.  This was a carefully planned, gated community in the suburbs with a man-made lake carved out in the middle of it all, for the recreation and esthetic enjoyment of its residents.
            Rigoberto rubbed his hands together and then cupped them before blowing warm breath into his palms making an almost whistling sound.  The lake made him remember Mrs. Lewis, his favorite English teacher in high school, who once lectured on Virginia Woolf.  He recalled how he chuckled when she described how Woolf committed suicide, filling her pockets with heavy stones and then walking slowly into a lake.  Which lake?  Someplace in England.  Right?  He couldn’t remember.  Time dims memory.  And Mrs. Lewis had lectured to him over twenty years ago.  But Rigoberto remembered the odd look Mrs. Lewis threw his direction when she heard him chuckle.  It wasn’t an angry look but it stopped him in mid-chortle and his face had grown hot and red and he’d felt stupid.  At the time, he didn’t know how to describe that look.  But now, as he sat on the boulder, with the stone’s coolness seeping through his thick woolen slacks, he finally could describe it.  It was a look of disappointment.  Nothing more.  But it was enough.  Just enough.  Too much.
            “Mi cielo,” were the words that pulled him from his reverie.  “Mi cielo,” she said to Rigoberto.  “What are you doing here?”
            Rigoberto didn’t turn around.  He blew into his hands again.  She walked over to him making a crunching sound on the well-raked gravel.
            “Sonia,” said Rigoberto still not turning in her direction.  “Hola, mi amor.”
            Sonia lowered herself onto the boulder, almost leaning into Rigoberto, but not quite.  He could feel her warmth travel the quarter-inch of empty space to his shoulder and arm.  Rigoberto took in Sonia’s scent, a whirling mix of cigarettes, coffee and lemon shampoo.  He thought of Mrs. Lewis.  Her face.  White, perfect complexion.  Six months pregnant at the end of the school year.  Beautiful, peaceful face.  Except for that one look of disappointment.  A willet appeared out of the shrubs and walked gingerly to the lake’s edge.  Its gray-brown feathers reminded Rigoberto of his favorite tweed jacket, the one he wore when he and Sonia first went out on a date.  He couldn’t believe that this remarkable woman, this published poet – an award-winning poet – would agree to go out with him.  Even for coffee.  But she did.  After a reading at the Barnes & Noble.  After she’d read from her second book of poetry.  He’d sat in the audience because his girlfriend asked him to go.  Arlene.  Poor Arlene!  She had dragged her boyfriend to a poetry reading and he ended up asking the poet out for coffee afterwards.  And the poet had said yes.  And Arlene didn’t know what to do so she slinked away, into the New Releases section.  Six years ago this September.  And he couldn’t believe it when Sonia said yes to his marriage proposal a mere five months after their first date.  This beautiful, brilliant woman.  And he wondered if Mrs. Lewis were still alive.  And whether the child she had carried was now a young man or woman, in college perhaps, falling in love, living a separate life from the lovely, disappointed Mrs. Lewis.  And he wondered if he and Sonia would ever decide to have children.
            “Catherine called,” said Sonia.
            “My sister?”
            “No,” she said.  “Kabayashi.”
“She needs you to come a bit early this morning.”
            The willet pecked at something hidden under the water’s surface.  Rigoberto finally turned to his wife.  He caught his breath, forgetting how exquisite this woman, this poet was.
            “Why?” he whispered.
            Sonia leaned into him.  “Several last minute bodies.”
            “Oh,” he sighed.  “Oh.”
            “She said you’d be happy.  The artist in you, and all.”
            “You’re the only artist in this family,” he offered.
            Another willet appeared from the shrub and approached the first willet.  The morning’s sun began to warm Rigoberto.
            “You should go,” said Sonia.  “Catherine sounded a bit panicked.”
            “Yes, of course,” he said.
Rigoberto stood and his movement startled the birds.  They looked up suddenly, in unison, but didn’t fly away.  Then Sonia stood.  This time the willets could take no more and took flight.
“I’m surprised there aren’t more birds here,” she said.
Rigoberto reached for Sonia’s hand and kissed it.  Without a word, he turned and headed toward their house.
                                                *                      *                      *
“You should be able to finish them,” said Catherine as she scratched her left ear with long, gleaming, red nails.  “So, don’t start panicking.”
“I never panic,” said Rigoberto.
“I know, I know.”
Rigoberto walked to the first table and lifted the sheet.  Perfect, he thought.  Wonderful job.
“Castro Brothers?”
“Of course,” said Catherine in a calmer voice.  “They do beautiful work.”
“Makes my job easier.”
Rigoberto dropped the sheet and scanned the other three draped tables.
“Four in one day,” he said.  “All Castro Brothers?”
“Don’t tell me.”
Catherine sighed.  “Sorry.  One is from Gretsch Mortuary.”
She pointed to the table at the far end of the room.  Rigoberto went over to inspect.  He lifted the sheet.
“I know,” said Catherine.
“No life at all.”
“I know.  I’m sorry.”
            “Forces me to use too much imagination.”  Rigoberto dropped the sheet.  “Sam Gretsch embalms the way I cook.”
“Yes.  Sorry.”
“Do you know what I wish?” said Rigoberto.
“I wish I could make a mold.  Just in the hard cases, you know.  Just once.”
Catherine walked over to him.
“Don’t even think of it,” she said.
“I know.  I just….”
“We’d be prosecuted if anyone found out.  That’s in the statute.  This has to be a hands-off process.  Artistic.”
“You don’t have to lecture me,” he said.  “I helped write the damn law.  Testified before Congress, you know.”
“I know, but you make me nervous when you talk about making molds.”
Rigoberto rubbed his hands together.
“Well, I guess I have to get started.”  He looked around the room.  “I’m in a grandmotherly mood.  Any sweet abuelitas here?”
Catherine looked about the room.  She pointed to a table.  “I have a nice, old aunt for you.  But no grandmother.”
“Good enough.  Let me see the file.”
Catherine clicked over to a large, metal desk across the room and riffled through a pile of files.  She said, “Ah!” and plucked out a manila folder.  She brought it to Rigoberto who already perused the aunt.  Without looking at Catherine, he took the file and flipped it open and scanned the several pages’ worth of information.
“Looks good,” he murmured.
“Yes.  It’s an easy position.”
“Yes,” he said looking at Catherine.  “Sitting.”
“On a living room couch.”
Rigoberto smiled.
“Dear, old Tía Raquel will never leave us,” he said.
“Yes.  Never.”
“How much time to I have?  Before they pick up the bodies?”
Catherine looked away.
“How much time?” asked Rigoberto, this time a bit louder, a little tenser.
“Well, they all have to be picked up tonight.”
“That’s why I called you at home,” said Catherine trying to keep her voice from trembling.  “We’ve never had this happen before.  It must have been that interview you did.”
Rigoberto shook his head.  “I told you we shouldn’t have let them in here and ask me questions.  I told you.”
“But it’s a lot of money, getting four in one day, don’t you know?  A lot of money.”
Rigoberto walked over to his workstation and grabbed a camera.
“Then you should hire another fabricator.”
“There aren’t enough to go around,” she said through a forced smile.  “The state only gives ten licenses a year, you know?”
“I know,” he said as he took a few shots of the aunt.  He removed the sheet completely and continued to take pictures.  Catherine turned her head.  “Remember, I help write the law.”  He lowered the camera and admired the aunt.  “Pretty good body for sixty-seven, eh?”
Catherine didn’t respond but she turned to look at the aunt.  He was right.  She did look pretty good.  Rigoberto took a few more shots.
“That should do it,” he said.  “Now for some sketches.”
He walked to his workstation, returned the camera, and searched for a sharp pencil and a new tablet.  He found them, pulled a chair over to Tía Raquel, sat down, and started to draw.
“All of their personal effects here,” said Catherine pointing to a stack of labeled, plastic boxes by the desk.  “Clothes, jewelry, everything.”
“You can start the fabrication tomorrow,” she said.  “Just focus on the pictures, sketches and measurements today.  The bodies will be picked up around 6:00 or so.”
“Who’s going to fabricate me when I die?” said Rigoberto as he penciled in more detail.
Catherine admired Rigoberto’s easy strokes.  The aunt’s face already took shape.
“Sonia might not want such a reminder of you when you leave this world,” she said as she patted Rigoberto’s shoulder.  Catherine could feel his muscles tighten under her touch but she didn’t remove her hand.  “Memorial fabrication isn’t for everyone.”
Rigoberto stopped sketching and looked up at Catherine.  He wondered why she got into the business in the first place.  She had little stomach for the bodies, she possessed paltry compassion and even less artistic sensibility.  But Catherine saw the opening.  A way to make money once the memorial fabrication law passed.  But was she only about making money?  Didn’t she want to fall in love?  Maybe get married?  Anything romantic?  Rigoberto never felt comfortable enough around Catherine to ask.  So he’d probably never know.
“I need to work alone,” was all he said.
“Yes, I’m sorry.  Yes.”
Catherine lifted her hand from his shoulder and stood there for a moment.  Rigoberto turned back to the aunt.  With that, Catherine clicked out of the room.  When she closed the door behind her, Rigoberto stood with a crack of his knees.  He walked to his workstation and turned on the ancient CD player, the one his father bought him when Rigoberto graduated from middle school.  You can’t buy a new CD player anymore.  But he refuses to give up his old CD collection.  Sounds better than the new technology, he likes to say.  Nothing beats the warmth, the depth of a CD.  John Lee Hooker’s “Boom Boom” came on.  Rigoberto smiled, got into the beat, and returned to his seat.
                                                            *                      *                      *
The hours passed.  One, two and then three bodies were completed: photographed and sketched with measurements put into the computer for Sylvia to start designing the basic body structures to be refined later by Rigoberto.  He stretched and rubbed his eyes.  He noticed that the CD player was silent, for how long he didn’t know.  Rigoberto wanted to push on.  Finish well before the 6:00 deadline.  He walked to the last body and pulled the sheet.  A boy.  No more than eight, maybe nine.  What a shame, he thought.  Rigoberto pulled the file and opened it.  Fernando Torres.  Age nine.  In the personal information all that was written in a tight, controlled hand was the name of the boy’s favorite book: My Friend Fernando.  Rigoberto opened the personal effects box.  A red shirt, blue shorts, a pair of Nikes and white socks.  And the book.  Rigoberto picked up the book, pulled up a chair and sat down by the boy.  On the cover was a smiling, playful, floppy-eared, brown and white puppy.  The pages curled at the edges like the boy’s tousled hair; it had been read and re-read during his short life.  He turned the first page and saw the copyright year: 2003.  So long ago.  Before the boy was born.  Before Rigoberto was born.  The pages were not quite brittle.  He turned another page and read aloud: “My Friend Fernando by María Elena Menes.”  Rigoberto touched the boy’s hair.  It didn’t feel real: too soft, not of this earth.  He sighed, looked at his watch, and sighed again.  Rigoberto cleared his throat, turned the page and began to read the book in a soft bedtime voice: “This is the story of my friend Fernando who is the best friend anyone could ever have.”
            The book was not long.  It had bright pictures on each page.  When he reached the end, Rigoberto closed the book and said, “The end.”  He looked at the boy.  Of course this was his favorite book.  A book with his name in the title.  A silly little story about a talking puppy who becomes friends with a butterfly.  But it was his favorite.  Rigoberto stood and walked over to his workstation.  He plucked a fresh pencil out of a smudged, ceramic mug and picked up a drawing tablet.  He walked back to the small body.
            “So,” said Rigoberto.  “Let’s begin, my boy.  Let’s begin.”
                                                *                      *                      *
Rigoberto swirled the cream in his coffee slowly, with calculation, as Sonia read the newspaper.  Yesterday had sucked his energy; he hurt and each movement took great effort.  His eyes fluttered up to Sonia.
“Why?” he asked.
“Why here?”
Sonia put down the paper.  “What?”
“Why do we live here?  This state?  It’s not home.  It’s not L.A.”  As Rigoberto said this, he kept his spoon moving steadily in his coffee.  The morning sun came in brightly, happily into their kitchen.
“Well,” she ventured slowly, “you went to college here.”
“And then you stayed.”
“And then you met me.”
“And I’m from here.”
Sonia pulled her chair closer to the table with a squeak.  “¿Por qué?”
“I mean, you know, this state.  This state.  It’s hot.  Hot.  Too hot.”
Sonia scratched her nose.  “This is about weather?
            Rigoberto put his spoon down on the napkin.  He watched the cotton soak up the coffee creating a small but steady bronze stain.  “Never mind.”
Sonia looked at him for a few moments.  Her eyelashes fluttered and she took a deep breath.  “Okay.”
            “I mean,” said Rigoberto, “I don’t have to be here.  We don’t, I mean.  You know?”
            “But California hasn’t passed the fabricator law.”
            “I know.”
            “My state has.  This state.  And MassachusettsTexas, too.”
            “Yes,” he said.  “I know.  And New Hampshire.  But I’m not from any of those states.”
            “Yes,” said Sonia.  “Why?”
            “California almost passed that proposition.”
            “Proposition 40859.”
            Sonia frowned.  “You remember the number?”
            “Yes.  It was easy.”
            “Odd number,” she said.  “I mean, strange.  Hard to remember.”
            “No,” said Rigoberto.  “It’s my grandfather’s birthday.  So I remember it.”
            Sonia’s eyes widened.  She coughed, a forced cough.
            “What?” he asked.
            “You,” she said.
            “I what?”
            “You never mentioned that to me.  About your grandfather.”
            “April 8, 1959.  His birthday.  I told you.”
            Sonia stood up.  “No.  No you didn’t.”
            Rigoberto wiped his forehead.  “Yes I did.”
            “No.”  She walked to the sink and looked into it.
            “I know I did.”
            “Because it’s important to me.  That’s why.”
            Sonia turned on the water and rinsed a cup.  “I know.”
            “To me.”
            “I know,” she said.  “Forget it.”
            “Yes,” said Sonia.  She turned off the water and looked out the window.  She saw a bird, not a willet, by the lake.  It pecked at something in the grass.  “Forget it,” she whispered.
            Rigoberto gazed at Sonia’s back, his eyes moving slowly from her short, black hair, to sharp shoulders, and then small waist, sliding around pleasant, wide hips, down long legs and finally resting at her small feet.  He didn’t want to talk about yesterday.  But he had no choice.
            “One of the bodies was a boy,” he said.  “Young.”
            Sonia turned, not quickly, but she moved with a deliberation that startled Rigoberto.
            She walked back to the table and sat down.  “Who would want to have a child fabricated?”
            “Actually, you’d think children would be the most common,” he said softly.
            “I don’t know that.”
“But they’re not,” he said growing more animated as if he were lecturing.  “Usually older people.  People grown used to so that it would be hard not to have uncle so-and-so sitting on the couch with everyone else while the TV buzzes away.”
            “Yes,” said Sonia.  “I understand that.”
            “Yes.  Me too.”
            They sat in near silence for a moment with the hum of the air conditioner offering a constant white noise.
            “What position?”
            He looked at her but didn’t answer.
            “Position?” she asked again.
            He cleared his throat.  “Standing.”
            He cleared his throat again.  “In the backyard.  With a ball.”
            Sonia reached out and touched Rigoberto’s arm.  “Outside?”
            “Yes,” he said.  “Yes.”
            “Outside?” she said again as she moved her hand from Rigoberto’s arm to her lap.  “More coffee?” she finally said, reaching for his cup.
            “No,” he said.  “Tomorrow.”
            “Tomorrow I begin the fabrication.”
            The air conditioner clicked off.  They sat staring at his empty cup.
                                                *                      *                      *
Though he missed L.A., Rigoberto appreciated the night sky here.  The heat of the day had ebbed into a comfortable, slightly breezy evening, and the stars—God, those stars!—almost frightened him with their brilliance.  He stood, frozen, at the beginning of the red brick walk, head angled back, admiring the celestial bodies, ignoring the bustle of partygoers coming and going from the two-story house.  Sonia slid her arm around his waist.
            “Ready, mi cielo?” she asked.
            Without turning away his gaze from the sky, he said, “Funny you call me that.”
            “Am I really your heaven?”
            Sonia pulled in deeper and leaned her cheek on his shoulder.  “Cómo no.”
            “¿Verdad?” Rigoberto said, now turning to her.
            “Of course.  Time to go in.  Meet some of my friends.”
            “But it’s so beautiful outside.”
            Sonia lifted her head and started to lead Rigoberto toward the house.  “Yes, but we agreed this would be good for me.  For us.  To get out.”
            Rigoberto let Sonia lead him towards the house.  “But I’ve met these friends of yours before.”
            “You don’t meet people once so that you can be done with them.  This is called socializing.  And when you get some friends of your own, we can socialize with them.”
            Rigoberto stopped walking.  “But you’re my friend.”
            Sonia patted his chest.  “Yes, of course, I am your friend.   Y tu esposa.  But it’s nice to get out.”
            “If these fun folks were dead, well, it’d be more fun.”
            Sonia laughed.  “Don’t talk about dead people all night.”
            “What else can I talk about?”
            “Yeah,” said Sonia.  “When I was about twelve or so, I’d argue with my father.  I wanted to see all kinds of scary movies.  Like The Birds.  I wanted to see The Birds.”  Sonia reached into her jacket pocket and pulled out a pack of cigarettes.  She lit one expertly and blew the smoke away from Rigoberto.
            “So, he rented it for me.  After I bitched and moaned for a whole week.  And then we watched it.  And, it scared the hell out of me.”
            “The Birds?  Almost a hundred years old.  Pretty tame stuff.  Compared to now.”
            “No, not really.  Watch it sometime.”
            “No, really,” she said.  “I couldn’t even get to bed without my father staying close by in the study.  It really freaked me out.”
            “So, he was right.”
            They stood in silence as happy people walked past them.  Sonia nodded towards the house.
            “Time to go in,” she said.
            “One question first.”
            Sonia let out a little groan.  “Yes, mi cielo, what is it?”
            “How much do you love me?”
            Sonia laughed and leaned into him.
            “I don’t love you.  I hate you.”
            “Oh,” said Rigoberto.  “I thought so.”
            “In fact, I hate you more than I’ve hated anyone else.”
            “Wow.  I’m pretty important.”
            Sonia closed her eyes and slowly puckered her lips.  Rigoberto responded, slowly, and let his lips rest on hers.  After a moment, they pulled away.
            “I hate you with all my heart,” said Sonia.
            Rigoberto grinned.
            “Yes,” he said.  “I thought so.”
            Once inside the house, Rigoberto scanned the scene for the bar.
            “Mi cielo, get me a white wine,” said Sonia.  “I’ll find Barbara.”
            “Okay,” said Rigoberto as he headed toward the kitchen.  “I smell booze coming from over there.”
            Sonia let out a little grunt as her eyes landed on the hostess, Professor Barbara Klein, at the far end of the living room holding forth with other members of the English department.  Over the past fifteen years as department chair, Professor Klein had recruited most of the professors and assistant professors who stood around her laughing at each little joke she made.  With a toughness that did not match her petite frame, she had turned an average department into one of the highest ranking, most prestigious in the state.  Though approaching sixty, she smiled and moved with the exuberance of a high school girl.  Her eyes met Sonia’s and she threw out her arms.  She wore a Guatemalan poncho so that she resembled a multicolored, exotic bird flapping its wings.
            “My favorite poet!” exclaimed Professor Klein.  “Give me a hug!”
            Sonia almost skipped over to the Professor who immediately encased Sonia in her wings.  The other instructors pulled back a bit, almost in unison.
            “Barb,” said Sonia.  No one in the department called Professor Klein “Barb.”  “You look so goddamn good!”
            Professor Klein pulled back and grabbed Sonia’s cheeks with her left hand.  “You can afford to gain some weight, young lady!”
            “My own private Jewish mother.”
            Professor Klein let out such a loud guffaw that she startled even herself.  “Where’s that handsome husband of yours?” she was finally able to get out.
            “Getting the booze,” said Sonia nodding in the direction of the kitchen.  “He’s so good at that.”
                                                *                      *                      *
            The kitchen bustled with so many people Rigoberto had trouble getting to the makeshift bar by the sink.  Professor Klein believed in good alcohol and plenty of it.  She had hired a pert brunette student to act as bartender but she seemed overwhelmed.  Perspiration covered her clear, almost glowing face, and her green eyes widened in panic with every new person who entered the sweaty, noisy kitchen.  Rigoberto reached over the counter had patted her hand.
            “It’s okay, it’s okay,” he cooed as if trying to calm a baby.  “They’re all too drunk already to notice if you make a mistake.”
            She smiled and her eyes sparkled at Rigoberto.  “Thanks,” she mouthed.  “Thanks.”
            “So,” he said feeling good about himself.  “I have a simple order: a glass of Chardonnay and a bottle of San Miguel.”
            She smiled again and turned to get the order.  Suddenly, Rigoberto felt a small, sticky hand slide into his.  He turned thinking he’d find a child who inadvertently wandered into the kitchen but, instead, his eyes rested upon a diminutive woman who could have been anywhere from twenty-five to forty years old.  She kept her eyes averted, looking down.
            “I’m Kimberly,” said the woman as she squeezed Rigoberto’s hand.
            “Hi,” he answered hoping the drinks would come and he could excuse himself.  He pulled his hand away.
            Kimberly leaned into him.  She stank of smoke and booze.  “I don’t usually dress this way.”
            This comment made Rigoberto notice what Kimberly wore: a tight, one-piece mini dress, black stockings, boots.  “Oh?” was all he could offer.
            “Someone made a bet with me,” she explained.  With this, she looked up.  Rigoberto almost jumped.  Kimberly’s eyes resembled two empty, black holes.  The bartending student suddenly put Rigoberto’s drinks before him with a clink.
            “God bless you,” smiled Rigoberto.  He reached into his pocket and pulled out a twenty-dollar bill and stuffed it into the tips glass.  “Here.”  The student smiled and nodded.  Rigoberto grabbed the drinks and started to move away from Kimberly.  “Gotta’ go,” he said.
            “Wait,” said Kimberly.  She pulled in close, too close.
            “You can hit me if you want,” she whispered.  “If that’s what you like.”
            A chill ran through Rigoberto.  Who was she?  What was she?
            “My wife is waiting for me,” he said as he slid past Kimberly.  “Bye.”
            Out of sick curiosity more than anything else, Rigoberto glanced back at Kimberly as he left the kitchen half thinking that she’d be looking back at him.  But she had already found someone else’s hand to hold and ear to whisper into; this time her new friend was a surprised, older woman who reminded Rigoberto of his Tía Anita.  He let out a sad sigh and turned his attention back to his mission.  Avoiding several collisions with the odd mix of young college students and older faculty—all of whom had been enjoying the well-stocked bar—Rigoberto finally made it back to Sonia.
            Professor Klein clapped her hands when she saw Rigoberto.  “Ah, your handsome husband is here!”
            Rigoberto tried to smile and was half-successful in his attempt.  “Happy juice,” he said as he handed the drink to Sonia.  “Drink up.”
            Professor Klein placed her right hand on Rigoberto’s shoulder.  “I am so happy to see your face.”
            Rigoberto now had no problem smiling.  He had forgotten how easy it was to be in Professor Klein’s presence.  “And I am delighted to see your face.”
            Professor Klein let out a guffaw.  She turned to Sonia.  “Do not lose this beautiful man, do you hear me?”
            “I promise,” said Sonia.
            Professor Klein pulled back her hand.  “So, Rigoberto, how is business?”
            Rigoberto didn’t answer for a moment.  He stared at the Professor’s sharp, gray eyes.  He imagined sketching that fine, lived-in face.  “Things are busy,” he finally offered.  “So many bodies, so little time.  And how is business with you?”
            Professor Klein let out another loud laugh.  “The education business?  Well, the laws of supply and demand don’t really affect me.  Tenure, you know.”
            “I was thinking the other day about one of my favorite teachers,” said Rigoberto.
            “Ah!” said the Professor.  “Someone who influenced you?  Someone who changed your life?”
            Sonia quickly turned to Rigoberto wondering what this was about.
            “Well, sort of,” he hesitated.  “Something about one of her lessons.  About Virginia Woolf.”
            Professor Klein clapped twice and grinned wildly.  “Virginia Woolf?  How wonderful!”
            “Yes,” he responded.  “Tell me: where did she do it?”
            Rigoberto coughed.  “You know.  Kill herself.  With the stones in her pockets.”
            The Professor grew serious.  “Well, around noon on March 28, 1941, she walked down to the River Ouse, near her weekend house in Sussex.”
            “Yes,” said Rigoberto.
            “To the River Ouse.  She put stones in her sweater.  They didn’t find her body for about a month or so.”
            Rigoberto sighed.  “Yes.  That’s it.  I remember it now.  Ouse.  Strange name.”
            Rigoberto closed his eyes and breathed deeply.  He could detect Sonia, her smells, the smells he knew so well.  And he took in the other scents around him, of Professor Klein and the now-silent, timid junior faculty that hung in an insecure circle around them.  Too many different perfumes.  Booze.  Cigarettes.  Too much.  And he remembered Mrs. Lewis’s scent.  Clean.  Soap.  Zest, he believed.  And some kind of gentle perfume.  Rigoberto opened his eyes.
            “The River Ouse,” he whispered.
            “Yes,” said Professor Klein.  “It’s the main waterway to York from the Humber and North Sea.  It provided the main access to the city for the Vikings and Romans.”
            “Vikings,” mused Rigoberto.  Sonia looked at him carefully.
            Professor Klein grew animated.  “The name ‘Ouse’ comes from the Celtic word for water.  The river bisects the city of York.”
            “What else?” asked Rigoberto.
“The Ouse Bridge is the central bridge, and spans the river in York, joining Ousegate and Micklegate.”  The Professor smiled remembering something.  “I love that part of the world, you know.  Samuel and I honeymooned near there.”
“He was a fine man,” said Sonia.
“Yes,” said Professor Klein without hesitation.  “He wasn’t perfect.  But he was indeed a fine man.  And I loved him.”
“El amor quita el hambre,” whispered Rigoberto.  Sonia’s eyes narrowed.
“What?” asked the Professor.
“Love takes away hunger,” said Sonia before Rigoberto could answer.
“Yes,” said Rigoberto.  “An old Mexican saying.  A dicho.”
“Ah,” said Professor Klein.  “So true.  So true.”
“I think it’s time to go, mi amor,” said Sonia.
“What?” said the Professor.  “You just got here!”
Rigoberto studied Sonia’s face but he couldn’t figure out what she was thinking.  He didn’t have the energy to argue.
“Yes,” he said.  “I have a lot of work to do.  Must get up early.”
“What a shame,” said Professor Klein.
“Yes,” said Sonia.  “It is a shame.”
            They said their good-byes and then left the party in silence.  Sonia unlocked the car and got behind the wheel.  Rigoberto glanced back at the house before getting in.  Without a word, they started the drive home.  Rigoberto couldn’t read Sonia’s face.  Just when he felt ready to ask her what happened, his phone beeped.  Sonia glanced at him for a moment, neither frowning nor smiling, and turned back to the road.
            “Hello,” said Rigoberto.  He listened for a bit.  “Must I?”  Sonia looked at him again.  “Okay, Catherine, okay.  Don’t worry.  I’ll get there in about an hour.  Okay?”  Rigoberto slid the phone back into his coat pocket.
            “Tonight?” asked Sonia.
            “A body came in and Catherine has to catch a plane tonight,” he said.  “They need to get the body back by the morning for the services.  Last minute decision to fabricate, apparently.  Besides, we’re not doing anything now, right?”
            “Sorry about that,” said Sonia.  “I just suddenly lost the mood to party.”
            “That’s okay, mi amor.  That’s okay.”
            “Want me to drop you off?  I can pick you up when you’re done.”
            Rigoberto looked out the window to the brilliant night sky.  So many stars, he thought.  “That would be great,” he finally answered.  “Gracias.”
                                                *                      *                      *
            Though he had been around bodies for years, Rigoberto preferred not to work at night when no one else was around.  At night, his imagination could play tricks on him.  Nothing big.  Usually just some kind of movement caught in his peripheral vision that would make him jump and jerk his head around to see what it was.  And it was always nothing.  Just a moth or perhaps a fly.  He entered the workroom and immediately turned on every light he could find.  The body lay on a table at the far end of the room.  “Coffee and music,” he said to himself.  “Coffee and music.”  Rigoberto trotted to the coffee maker and spooned great mounds of French roast into the filter, quickly poured distilled water into the machine’s back, and flicked it on.  As hot gurgles started to fill the otherwise silent room, he riffled through a precarious stack of CDs and found what he needed.  Within seconds, Coltrane joined the coffee maker’s symphony.
            “Perfecto,” he whispered.  Rigoberto pulled two rubber gloves from a dispenser and snapped them onto his hands.  He turned to the draped body and walked over to it.  The embalming fluids let off a pungent odor, more so than usual.  “Okay,” he said.  “Let’s see what’s what.”  Rigoberto pulled the sheet back.  His eyes jumped when he saw the familiar contours of the body’s face.  “What?” he mouthed.  “It can’t be.”
            But he knew the face.  He knew it well.  Rigoberto had touched that face, each day of his life.  He had shaved it carefully since he was fourteen.  But it wasn’t quite his own face.  It was older, had more wrinkles, hair thinner and grayer than his own.  But Rigoberto knew that he looked upon himself.  There was no question.  He looked for the personal effects container, but found nothing.  Rigoberto walked back at his workstation.  He touched the camera but quickly pulled his hand away.  No pictures.  Rigoberto reached for a new pencil and slowly sharpened it.  He then retrieved a fresh drawing tablet.  The coffee smelled good so he filled a large mug almost to the brim.  Rigoberto eventually got himself settled in front of the body, perched on a metal stool, steaming coffee nearby.  “Let us begin,” he said.
And as he started to sketch, Rigoberto remembered how his grandfather, shortly before he died, lost his ability to speak anything but Spanish.  That is when Rigoberto first heard the dicho, “El amor quita el hambre.”  His grandfather had whispered this to him late one afternoon, after waking up from one of his many daily naps.  He had said it to Rigoberto apropos of nothing.  But Rigoberto had appreciated it.  It was a little gift from a grandfather to his grandson.  “El amor quita el hambre,” Rigoberto said aloud as his face began to emerge on the sketching paper.  “El amor quita el hambre.”

[“The Fabricator” first appeared in Anywhere But L.A.: Stories (Bilingual Press, 2009). Photo credit: Benjamin Formaker-Olivas.]


Anonymous said...

You can be a creey author, Sr. Olivas. Keep on.

Daniel A. Olivas said...

Creey? As long as I am not creepy.