Chucherías  (Knick-Knacks)

Graciela Batista
→ BFA IL 2024

He felt la llovizna first. It landed on his eyelids like a mist before it turned into the trickling of light drops rolling down his cheeks, towards his nose, and then the pillow. This is what awoke Tato, not the soft thuds of trees falling or the incessant swoosh of the wind. He was used to these things. At times he would comment to his concerned family members in the States that he had learned to enjoy the storms. Rain landing on the ceiling made of zinc was therapeutic, the pitter patter of each drop was soft until it was palpable to the ear, firm and near. It reminded Tato of his presence there, in his room, in his home, on his island; he had not abandoned it. The rain made him feel small in comparison. On the frequent nights he struggled to fall asleep, Tato wished for a storm, or for the songs of the coqui to be louder, or, more often, for the voice of Catalina, narrating nonsense about her day. Sound brought comfort and tranquility to Tato because it calmed the restlessness of his mind. However, he particularly enjoyed thunderstorms for how they paved the way for the community to find something new in common: a palpable boredom that provoked childlike manners of entertainment and an inexplicable urge to support one another.

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The night before, the power went out early. It hadn’t even started raining and the sun was waning. The sounds of people starting up their generators in the neighboring communitie were faint. No one on his street could afford such technology so they collectively accepted fate in stillness. When times seemed dire, Tato, like his neighbors, would drive down to the city to recharge portable battery packs in the nearest strip mall, pick up some ice to keep the meat from rotting and gas to keep the stovetop run-
ning. They didn’t need or have much, so the storm could never take much.

After Tato wrapped up his evening game of sudoku by the candlelight, he peeked outside, spotting a small group of his neighbors gathered around a lantern. Some were chatting and others had their own flashlight striking the dom-inos table as they intently moved the pieces. He watched them laugh through the window and grinned. He felt great joy to see his people
experience this fleeting delight. They deserved it after all. His people are why he stayed, why Tato hadn't given up like the rest of his family. His eyes were radiant but simultaneously held space for longing. He ached for the times he felt as they did, what buoyant innocence, the kind that comes with blissful ignorance.

Before easing into bed, he thought of his neighbors once more—their chatter still seeped through his walls. He worried for them like a dad would his children and decided to step out into the garden. The night was breezy, and he noticed how the wind had begun to pull at the leaves of his plants. They had started to scatter across the dirt along with a few of the weakest flower petals. The mangos, tomatoes, papayas, avocados, and parchas, however, he trusted to be resilient. They had survived enough wind and rain to still be alive then and wouldn’t fail him now. Slowly plucking a few of the ripe and slightly unripe mangos, he thought about how much the plant had grown. Ever since he started trimming down the branches to give to his neighbors, family, and friends, it had doubled upon regrowth and flourished. As if the generosity had reached the heart, soul, and core of the plant. Taking the fruit to his nose and gently pressing into their skin, he singled out the most tender ones.

Now stationed en la marquesina, the group outside sat in darkness, solely illuminated by a bright flashlight that reflected elegantly against the empty beer bottles that surrounded them. Tato went one by one: un mangó para don Pedro, Lala, Maria, Quique, y el Goldo. They sang praises of his kindness and implored him to stay, as they always did. And Tato, as he always did, politely declined, excusing himself for being too old for their youthful discussions. Instead, with a handful of his favorite fruit, don Tato offered a smile and “Dios los cuide” before calmly returning home.

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The tile this morning felt cold and damp on his feet as he sat up in bed. The white T-shirt and the pair of cotton shorts he wore last night clung to his body uncomfortably and he wondered if it was the sweat from under the sheets or the rain sneaking through the window. He just realized the rain was sneaking in through the window. Tato looked down to find his feet submerged in at least an inch of water and released a long sigh. He wondered how these things still took him by surprise. Why did he expect anything different when the house had been disappointing him for decades? It had cracks and crevices in walls, paint chipped away feebly, appliances that could not last a month without needing some sort of repair and floors that he felt to be sinking; but it was the roof over his head that he was grateful for. As he went room by room assessing the level of damage, he thought of his dad. “Cuida lo que tienes,” he would say. He wanted Tato to grow up humble, not forget his roots, and most importantly, take care of what he had, in every sense. Because of him and this lesson he had wanted to teach his own children, Tato and Catalina attempted to buy the house. Over the recent years, they had tried to get a mortgage for their home. They wanted it to be in their hands, permanently. They wished for it to stay in the family, maybe even serve as a home for their grandkids, the garden forever nourishing them. However, the bank was relentless, si no es Juan es Pedro, the excuses, disputes, and requests for all sorts of paperwork were endless. There was still a stack of letters that sat on the kitchen counter that reminded Tato of this—couldn’t those be washed away with the flood? he wondered. Cata would never know the sentiment of relief that having a home brings; a home would be free of the anxieties and threats of it being taken away. Tato dreaded this constant thought; he missed his sleep. All he could do was keep going.

This is why he had prepared the home for the worst-case scenario. The tablecloths were folded up, shoes stacked on top of the dresser, carpets rolled and placed on a few chairs; this had salvaged the articles he cared to save. He had even preemptively put out the bucket that usually collected the water from the fissure in the ceiling, which was now overflowing and begging for backup.

What he could not protect by folding up or placing in a shelter was his garden. The only moment he was authentically surprised by the effects of the storm was when he had a glimpse out the window that overlooked his yard. A large branch from his neighbor’s tree had been knocked down, falling directly on his fruits and vegetables. The growing fruits were dispersed on the ground as if it was nature’s intention to pick them off the plant, unripe. Tato paced towards the door that led into the garden only to realize the wind had knocked down a few of the potted flowers, a ceramic piece shrieking against a couple tiles below it as the door screeched open. The abundance of water on the tile and grass drowned out any plans of salvaging the plants. In the brown liquid, Tato spotted the same leaves he noticed yesterday, now muted and further displaced from home. During his trudge back inside, he noticed through a cluster of leaves a single mango stuck in a corner beside the fallen pots. Ignoring the sensation of coldness that overtook his hand as it met the water, Tato reclaimed the mango from the current. He took the fruit into his palm and examined its injuries: it had a bruised side and pierced lower corner but otherwise was in the ideal state to devour. Amidst the chaos, he turned to enjoy this mango.

He sought out the cutting board, a knife, and a plate from the kitchen. Methodically, Tato rinsed and sliced up the fruit: the skin peeled and flesh cut in strips. He remembered the first time his dad taught him how to cut his now favorite fruit. Tato stood on his toes and placed his hands between the knife handle and papá. He still heard his father’s jubilant laugh as he, now, picked up the plate and placed it on the only free corner of the table. It had been filled with the items he had worried would get damaged in the storm. So, by the old dolls, Cata’s jewelry box, slippers, the cardboard box of pictures that spanned generations and countless other chucherías of sentiment and memory, sat his mango now. The fruit, a trinket of former life as well. The nostalgic scent of its sweetness now overcame the pulsating odor of soiled water that kissed his feet. 

Graciela Batista misses her abuelo’s mango tree out back.