M. Blake Sanz

M. Blake Sanz holds an MFA from Notre Dame.  His stories have appeared or are forthcoming in Xavier Review, Medulla Review, RE:AL, and The Bend.  Additionally, he is a writer-in-residence at RedLine Arts Gallery in Denver, CO, where he works to create partnerships across the written and visual arts.  He currently teaches writing at the University of Denver.    

M. Blake Sanz

A Fine Guard

‘If I go,’ I said, ‘I will bring you something.’

—James Joyce, “Araby”

Annunciation, though residential, was generally a busy street except for the rare times when the hospital at the end of the block wasn’t taking in the wounded.  Adding to the atonal symphony was the foot and car traffic from a K&B pharmacy on one end and an upscale Cajun  restaurant on the other.  But sometimes at the day’s dying hour, soaking in long shadows between sirens, during gaps in the pedestrian traffic of diners and pill poppers, I could steal perfect, thoughtless moments from fleeting, nervous silences.  Veils of sunlight would shine through the darkening live oaks across the street.  The beams would stretch out like thin, translucent curtains pulled tight across the thick humidity, hovering above the asphalt and between the undisturbed houses.  The sky would yawn and show the pink back of its mouth, ready to consume the light, and I would revel in the childish fantasy that no one else had ever seen the street this way. 

At the end of such long days of summer, I’d sit atop Mom’s old green station wagon beneath the carport.  I’d stay for hours before the stop sign at the corner slowly became too dark to read, its red washed out by dusk. The heavy air slackened my shoulders, and I wouldn’t move until my arms were sticky with sweat.  If neighbors came out to their porches to take in the setting sun and gossip, I’d withdraw farther beneath the carport.  Eventually, Mom would call me in for supper, and I would retreat inside.

That evening, like most, I walked from the carport to the kitchen by way of the corridor of rooms in between.  Along the way, I looked at furnishings and adornments, wondering where they came from.  Even from the front, I could hear Mom in the kitchen clanking a spoon against a boiling pot, tapping the last drops of a sauce back into the mixture. Our house, a narrow, four-room shotgun with high ceilings and hardwood floors that creaked when you stepped on certain boards, echoed home to me with every footfall.  As a child I tended to remember not the things that evoked its age, but rather the signs of renovation: air, for example, gushed forcefully through the newly replaced vents with an empty newness that seemed devoid of any associative memory of prior owners.  It was only later, as an adult visiting my mother after the storm, that I would experience it as a palimpsest of lives—ours, those who’d come before us, those who’d come after.

Walking through the living room, papers from Mom’s teaching and tutoring cluttered the coffee table and the sofa and gave it the feel of being lived in.  The cat meowed softly from behind the étagère.  From the walls hung garage sale antiques and framed pieces of dime-store artwork, like the two brass Mardi Gras masks and the picture-poster of a peacock.  Its brightly-colored wings spread wide with pride and I could feel it gazing down at me, indifferent to my presence.  Candles and a replica of Michelangelo’s detail of the Sistine Chapel gave the room a reverent air that demanded cleanliness, but one item stood out: a sketch of a woman’s face rendered in charcoal.  Her pale complexion made her seem gentle, a profane echo of the Virgin Mary.  I remember thinking then that it could have been Mom when she was younger, maybe when she was single.  By the time my eyes came around to that frame, the smells from the kitchen propelled me forward. 

Walking through my room, I rarely noticed anything because it was so familiar, but this time, I saw a new piece of paper attached to my bulletin board, a schedule of summer basketball games at the Y.  I understood that my mother had put it there so I wouldn’t forget to remind her.  Walking then through her room, I noticed the books by her bed (The Child’s Construction of Reality by Piaget, The Road Less Traveled by M. Scott Peck, M.D., The New Revised Catholic Catechism), the carefully arranged, framed pictures of me on the nightstand, the absence of anything misplaced, the cross on the wall opposite the mirror and dresser, the white doily upon which a silver tray of tinted perfume bottles rested.  Then as always, from somewhere inside I felt a summons to respect; then as always, I didn’t speak as I passed between those doors. 

In the kitchen she’d pulled out an empty chair, which waited for me, but before I was served, I had to do my chores.  I cleaned the cat’s litter box beside the sink and I took the garbage to the back door even though it wasn’t going to be picked up in the morning.  I went back to my room and gathered sweaty clothes for the wash—shirts and shorts dusted over from bouncing a ball in the dirt—and when I was done, I washed my hands, feeling the erasure of all those smells from my body.  I took a seat at the table and sipped on a Coke while Mom finished cooking.  During the school year, the table was usually a mess of papers and grade sheets, but since it was summer, these were now replaced by textbooks and notebooks of the children she tutored.  The counters were strewn with an assortment of bills and receipts and other tedious scraps of an adult life I could not yet imagine.

I watched her movements solemnly.  She leaned over the old gas stove to make my plate from the steaming pots of roast, rice, and butter beans.  Quickly and easily she sliced the meat off the bone.  She turned down the heat on the rice, waited patiently without taking off the lid.  She opened the oven and put in a pan of brownies.  As she walked across the room to place the food-filled plate in front of me with red eyes and a sniffle, I wondered for the first time what I would do without her.  She patted me on the head and asked quietly if I’d done my chores.  I said yes, but all I could think of was that my spot at the table was cluttered. 

“What’s that?” I pointed to the papers. 

She mimicked my surprise with raised eyebrows and a smile of pleasant surprise.  “Why don’t you look and see?”

It was a letter and a picture from my Dad. When I looked down and saw the funny-looking handwriting, the sloppy way in which the words “Dear Son” were written across the top of the page, I instantly forgot about Mom and became engrossed in the yellow tatters of lined paper that trembled in my hands as I read them.


                        Dear Son,

How are you?  This is your papa.  I love you very much and I always want you to remember that.  I’m sorry I haven’t been around for you.  I wish things had worked out better but I know your mama is taking good care of you.  She loves you very much.

How is school?  What subjects do you like?  Your mama tells me you’re a guard on the basketball team.   That’s great!  I bet you make a fine guard for a basketball team.  Maybe one day I can see you play.  And I hear that you play the guitarra.  Well, so do I.  Maybe we can play when you come.

Right now I am living in a town called Cuernavaca.  It is near this bigger place where I have to work, called Mexico City.  Your abuelitos (that’s your grandparents) live close by and I see them all the time.  They always wonder how you are doing. 

I have talked to your mama about both of you coming to visit me for a week this summer.  I don’t know if she told you yet, but I gave her two tickets for you to fly down here and meet your papa.  I can’t wait to see you!

I have so much to say, son.  I know you have questions too.  It’s only two months before you’ll be down here and then we can get to be amigos.  See you soon, and don’t forget that I’ll always love you. 

Love Your papa

I lay the letter beside my plate and acted like I was beginning to eat.  I looked up at her to see if I could ask a question.  Her eyes were calm, but red, so I decided to wait.  We ate in silence.  After dinner she began to rinse our plates and put them in the dishwasher.  As I watched her busying herself, I knew I needed to try.

“Mom, when did you and Dad get divorced?”  The word “Dad” sounded funny when I said it.

She paused for a minute, a dish dripping water from her hands.  She came behind me and started brushing back my hair.  She knelt behind me and draped her hand around my neck.

“When you were just a baby,” she answered softly into my ear.  She waited for another question.  The cat brushed against my feet, purring loudly.

“Why did y’all leave each other?”

“It’s complicated, sweetie.”

“Is he a nice person?”

“Yeah, he’s a pretty nice guy.  I think you’ll like him.”

“Can we stay longer than a week?”

“It’s only a visit.”

“How does he know about my basketball?”

“I told him.”

“How does he know I’m a guard?”

“I told him that, too.  Then he asked me what guards do, so I said, like you told me, that they pass the ball.  They try to get their teammates to be a part of the game.  And then I told him how good you are.”

“When did you talk to him?”

“He called the last night. We talked for a while.”

“What else did you tell him about me?”

“All kinds of good things.”

“What’s he like?”

Mom told me that he was an airbrush man who also sold his own art on the side.  I found out that it was he who had done much of the artwork that hung in the living room, including the one of the Virgin; I found out that I had six aunts and five uncles and countless cousins I had never met and who had never been to this country.  I found out that I had other grandparents who did not speak English, and more than anything, that he asked about me.

She also told me not to think that this visit meant that he would continue to stay in touch, but I was too excited then to be sobered by the warning, and even into my early adulthood as I waited for another encounter with him, her gentle advice did not resonate.  I tacked the picture and the letter to the bulletin board in my room, and every day before I left the house to play I read his words and looked at his face. He was always waiting for me there, his brown figure defined against the brilliant white of a stucco wall.  In my eight years, I’d never seen him, and yet wherever I went I kept that face in my mind. 

Even in my pre-suppertime rituals I found room for him.  In gathering dirty clothes and the stinky garbage and the cat’s litter before dinner, I imagined seriously that he could see me taking on those banalities with dignity and honor, that he was smiling down on me from somewhere above with pride and satisfaction.  That word, “papa,” leapt to my consciousness at odd moments during games and chores in ways I never understood.  My eyes were often full of tears (how explain I missed a man I hadn’t met?), and at times a flood from my heart seemed to pour itself out into my chest.  I thought at every moment of that coming visit.  I did not know what I would say to him, if anything at all, or how I could tell him of my confused adoration.  I was like a sponge, and the picture of him and the words there on the wall were the gentle hands that wrung the feeling out of me.

My impatience for the trip grew rapidly.  The time was drawn out even more by the listless days of summer that guaranteed no distractions that might have sped up the interminable waiting.  At night in my bedroom staring at the ceiling, by day on the playground passing the ball to myself against a wall, his words and his picture drove my actions.  I stared at the letters of his signature over and over again on the bulletin board. Sometimes I knew Mom was looking in on me from her room and I didn’t mind.  In fact, I hoped that she could see my excitement to see him. The image of him hovered over every move I made, invaded every thought that crossed my mind, and for those weeks, I never stopped feeling like he was watching me.

I doubled my practice on the guitar, which I wanted to bring to Mexico to show him how I could play.  I wondered what kind of guitar he had.  I imagined it was like mine but bigger, with a stronger sound.  I had only just begun lessons and all I knew were scales, but I wanted to perform them perfectly.  I sometimes fell asleep with the instrument in my curled hands.

The morning of our flight I planned and waited with reckless energy.  I considered my attire: a basketball practice jersey and a pair of athletic shorts. Papa would know me right away.  I put a record on the turntable in the living room and bounced around wildly, making up new lyrics about Mexico to the melodies of old psychedelic songs from my mother’s youth.  With my dancing, I scared the cat into hiding.  I nearly fell on top of the glass table.  The pictures of Mom and me on the living room buffet vibrated with my every stomp and shriek.

Early in the afternoon we took a cab to the airport, and the ride there seemed longer than the weeks since I’d gotten the letter.  I folded my hands in front of me and tried to be good, in case he was watching.  I rolled the window down and watched New Orleans inch by.  Mindless radio jabber filled the space of the backseat while Mom looked out her window pensively. 

I held a guitar pick tightly in my hand as I skipped down the airport terminal.  People bustled about quickly and I was only loosely aware of Mom’s hand over mine, and only then when I strayed beyond the reach of her arm.  After a long delay we boarded and then waited even more for the plane to take off.  Finally, it sped down the runway and lifted up off the ground and above houses and trees that, I thought, must have been near where we lived. Just that fast, they seemed so far away.  I remember the flight only as one long thought encased in a humming silence that might have lasted for seconds or days, I couldn’t have said.

As we stepped into the terminal of the Mexico City Airport, I could feel the cold air seep through the tiled floor and chill my feet.  I darted out fast, way ahead of Mom, but soon found myself immersed in a thick entanglement of slacks, jeans, and skirts. I caught glimpses of people waiting for loved ones to arrive and I strained to recognize a face from the picture.  The frantic sound of the intercom spitting forth announcements in a foreign language disoriented me. 

“Welcome to Juarez International Airport,” the voice echoed, repeating itself in English.

Luggage carriers went back and forth beeping and TVs blinked with flight information.  It was like a bazaar at the zenith of its activity, complete with calls for service and shopkeepers on either side taking money and handing out objects.

Then I saw him, waiting for me.  I saw him before Mom did and before he saw us.  He was taller than I could have told from the picture.  His skin was dark and his thick black hair had cowlicks that made him look younger, less weathered than he’d looked in the picture.  Lean, wiry arms extended from the tight sleeves of a self-made, white T-shirt he wore, which read simply, “Papa,” in an airbrushed royal blue.  His arms were folded across his chest and he was tapping his elbows nervously as he watched for any sign of our arrival. 

Just then my mother emerged from the tunnel, and I saw him recognize her instantly and smile with a raised eyebrow of semi-surprise.  I saw him mouth “Hey!” from across the lobby as he walked up to greet her.  He couldn’t contain his grin.  As he came closer, I stepped out into the clear and looked up at him.  Finally, he looked down and our eyes met.  His eyes grew big and he picked me up and hugged me for the first time. 

He smelled funny, new.  I discovered the same smell later in a visit to his T-shirt shop.  It was a metallic, oxidized smell that reminded me of the way the brass pieces of artwork in the living room smelled after Mom made me clean them.  His stubble rubbed roughly against my face as I looked out into the terminal.  I wrapped my arms around him tightly.  It was twilight in Mexico City, and as I turned my head to the side, I saw in the darkened pane of the terminal window what was going on behind my back.  He was looking at Mom intently, smiling a different kind of smile than I had seen before.  And Mom was blushing and smiling, too, even as he swayed me back and forth in his arms.  It was then I saw that she was the Virgin of the painting at home.

He put me down gently and patted me on the head the same way Mom always did.  I knew he and Mom were about to greet each other.  Despite myself I stole a glance up into their faces.  They looked like different people and when their lips met, I saw their eyes close and their arms wrap gently around each other.  I heard my mother sigh.  I quickly turned away but it was too late.  All I could do was look down at the floor awkwardly and fiddle with the snaps on my jacket.  I felt his hand pat me on the head and looked up to see him smiling at me.  Like we were friends. 

Outside, a cab stopped in front of us and we got in.  They sat together on the right side and I sat on the left, behind the driver, and folded my hands in my lap.  The cab left the airport, and I heard them whispering to each other, flirting maybe.  I didn’t want to know what was going on, but I heard her.  I heard her laugh at something he said, like no way she’d ever laughed before.  And then, without wanting to, I looked over and saw them holding eyes again. 

I tried to look away.  I focused on the floor mat beneath my feet, but it was dirty.  I tried to gaze out the window at nothing, but in the darkness all I could see was my own reflection in the pane.  All I could see—all I wanted to see, I realized, was myself: the cluttered moment thickened into a lump at the base of my neck.