Chile, Wood Smoke, Masa

What I miss most is the smell of my hometown. The mix of chile guaco, wood smoke, and masa seared into every cell of my body. On hot August days I miss the torrential afternoon storms of the wet season. Sometimes in my dreams I hear the click-click of beetle wings and see the steep hills covered in ten different shades of green banana leaves. Other recollections are this immersing but not ones I want to remember, however. Not very often now, but I still have pesadillas of my country that wake me drenched in fear. And it is this mixta, of yearning and that which I long to forget, that holds me captive to the place of my birth.

There are las cruces everywhere. On the tops of headstones, engraved in them, all shapes, sizes, and styles.

I know I will never visit again. There is nothing left for me there and I am forever tied to this place, the city of the angels. It is true that no matter how long I am here, part of me always feels alien. I have no papers. They call me illegal. A name that makes one afraid to live here, work here, have a family here. Except it’s better than what we left behind. I’ve been through worse. Much worse. I had no choice then. I don’t really have a choice now.

I won’t leave because of the woman beside me, and because of my son who lies here at Calvary Cemetery. Today is the anniversary of his death. His two best friends, his mother, and I journey here for a small reunion. Perhaps the last.

These two boys have grown into young men. Chris in a lean, athletic body, short brown hair and wide smiling eyes; Raul with black curly hair, studious look, so tall and broad he towers over the rest of us. Seeing them is painful. What would my son look like, what would he be doing with his life at this age? It is a small consolation that they too remember him. I hope not a once-in-a-while memory but the carry-with-you kind; like chile, wood smoke, and masa.

Angela wears her Sunday best: a black cotton skirt that flows around her ankles and a white top she embroidered with traditional Salvadoran flowers. She clutches my hand, startled at the rustle of birds in the bougainvillea that adorn the entrance. I don’t think she’ll ever get used to coming here, though the way is familiar. Straight to the second left, then up the hill to the first marker and across the grass to the fourth grave.

Benjamin Javier Castillo Sanchez, 1999- 2014.

The boys started the annual tradition that one of them brings tequila. We don’t question how they get it. Raul pulls a small bottle out of his jean jacket and opens it. Standing in a semi-circle, we toast Benjamin, each taking a drink and passing it on.

One shot gives my wife a jolt. Her eyes brighten and her shoulders straighten. There I glimpse the woman I fell in love with, who mothered my son. The past years without him have worn her down so I don’t even know who I sleep next to every night. We sit on the grass, Angela watching the boys intently. She is starved for her son and for this short time they become the one she lost.

There are las cruces everywhere. On the tops of headstones, engraved in them, all shapes, sizes, and styles. Reminds me of the one in the hospital chapel. The light wood pews, rose-colored walls, and slender stained windows were a silent sanctuary against the busy, clinical world we lived in once Ben was diagnosed.

We walk back the almost six blocks to the tiny place we rent. They call it a housing project in el barrio de East LA. It is crowded and noisy on the street, but when you walk the path to the back, it quiets down to Azteca America and K-Love.

First there is silence, but only seconds. Then the boys tell the stories we’ve all heard a dozen times before. The day they met at the playground when they were six or seven, each racing to be the first up the jungle gym. They don’t really remember but have heard the story so many times from their mothers it is as if they do. Chris laughs over the suits they hated wearing for their First Communion and Raul reminds us of the school performances they had to do. Of course Angela and I were so proud to see Ben up on stage, but he was tímido. Smart, but shy. He loved the science fair projects they had to do. I never understood much what they were about, but I loved the light on Ben’s face when he got the prize. The boys argue over who won the mission project contest in fourth grade, and so on.

These stories are like the song of the Motmot bird, sweet to the ear but quick to fade as it flies away.

Raul gives us a play by play of the goals Ben made, each pass or kick that saved the championship game. I tease them about the girls mentioned over the years, Blanca, Iris, Jenny, though we met not one.

We walk back the almost six blocks to the tiny place we rent. They call it a housing project in el barrio de East LA. It is crowded and noisy on the street, but when you walk the path to the back, it quiets down to Azteca America and K-Love. To own a house is called the American dream. But my 10-hour workdays as a gardener and my wife’s sewing job will never get us there. It was all for Ben, anyway. So now, what would it be for?

Chris and Raul are ready to say good-bye.

“I found this. I want you to have it.” Chris pulls his wallet from his back pocket. He hands over a photograph of three laughing boys looking at the camera, their chests bare, their cut-offs ragged, a garden hose at their feet. “I printed it for you. I know you don’t have many pictures, so…” he shrugs, handing it to me.

“We, ah, won’t be able to come next year.” There is apology in Raul’s voice. “Chris is going to Cal Poly and I’m moving with my family to San Jose.”

I’ve heard of Cal Poly, la Universidad, from one of my nieces, and San Jose is far north, so I was right. This is the last time we will see these boys. My wife nods, tries to smile, but can’t. She hugs one, then the other, “Dios te bendiga,” she whispers. I shake their hands. Say nothing.

Little by little, the rest of my wife’s family shows up with tamales, arroz, frijoles, plantanos fritos, horchata and cold cerveza in a big plastic tub. We sit in folding chairs in the courtyard and everyone eats with gusto. Someone puts on Celia Cruz but pretty soon Selena is coming out of one of the kid’s Galaxy phones. There is teasing and laughter, children running in and out of the apartment yelling, playing hide and seek and tag.

This is the time I miss him most, when I can barely swallow food or take part in conversation. Two beers in, I just watch and listen. Most of my nieces and nephews will never know their cousin Benjamin. He was the first-born, so only the older teenagers, busy with texting and tossing good-natured insults back and forth, have memories of him.

My wife is surrounded by her sisters and sisters-in-law, who’ve kept up a steady stream of gossip and news about cousins, aunts, and uncles, even the latest on J. Lo. They’ve all made a life here because of Angela. She is their center.

I imagine Benjamin standing next to me. Fuerte y guapo like he was on his fourteenth birthday. An ordinary kid, but to us full of promise. Angela and I kept him close, sheltered him from hardships as much as possible. The kind we’d grown up with. We wanted a different life for him.

We had so much hope. We were told his chances of beating the leukemia were good. It buoyed us, kept us afloat.

I was six when la policia took my father one Sunday on the way to church. Gun shots that night had us shaking in nauseating fear. A few days later we found his body in a ditch near our house. It broke my mother. At fourteen, I hid daily from Barrio 18 gang members knowing if I was caught, I’d end up either like my father or worse, being one of them. At fifteen, with my mother’s blessing, I walked the 1800 kilometers from my home in San Salvador to Mexico City. By the time I arrived, the soles of my shoes had worn to nothing and I was skin and bones. Small jobs took me months to earn my way from there to Tijuana. Finally, the day came when I climbed into the trunk of el coyote’s old blue Chevy and waited, boxes and blankets piled on top of me, to cross la frontera.

Angela came at an even younger age with four younger sisters and brothers, sneaking under barbed wire, trudging thirsty, starving, across el desierto. They had nada when they finally made it to Los Angeles, taken in by an aunt.

I was nineteen, learning the language, picking up work wherever I could, when we met at the bus stop at Soto and Wabash. I looked into her deep brown eyes, at her shy smile and that was that. It was a struggle to start a new life together in this country, with little money and only floor space for our wedding bed. I got lucky and found full-time work. Then Ben came along. We were so happy to have him that we didn’t realize Angela’s hemorrhaging and other complications at his birth meant she couldn’t have any more children. So we consoled ourselves with him. He was all we needed.

As inevitably happens, this day ends in a storm of images from those last five months with him that I cannot stop. I returned home from work one evening and found nobody home. No music playing, no simmering pot on the stove, just silence and an emptiness that shouted bad news. Benjamin’s persistent cough and headaches, and unbeknownst to us, his increasingly frequent weak spells had come to the attention of one of his teachers. A trip to the nurse’s office, una llamada, and Angela and Ben found themselves at County Hospital.

We had so much hope. We were told his chances of beating the leukemia were good. It buoyed us, kept us afloat. But it was tested as we watched Benjamin’s body transform from athletic to gaunt to swollen in a matter of weeks. We never gave up hope, right to the very end. But as I looked at Ben’s body the morning he slipped away, I saw my father’s again, bloody and torn, and my wife’s cries were as my mother’s. My faith fled that day too, never to return.

Twilight has come. I have been lost in my thoughts too long. The music ends abruptly and clean up begins. The women clear the remaining dishes, the adults direct the kids to pick up the trash and the men take down the tables and fold the chairs. Everyone comes to say goodbye. We are engulfed in the warm embraces only family can give.

We watch Angela’s favorite telenovela. When it is over, I check that we are locked up for the night. I pause in the hallway outside the small room that was Ben’s. The light casts a sliver of illumination across the bed, desk, and bookcase. We left a few of his things on the top shelf. A soccer ball, a couple of awards from school, a framed picture of Ben, Angela, and me when he was nine or ten. I step in and close my eyes. Listen. The darkness holds the boys’ laughter, Mario Brothers’ game music, creaking floors, the clanking of the furnace on rare cold days, and bits of conversations. All of them, Angela and Ben.

Mijo, it’s time for school!
All right, I’m coming!

Did you finish your homework?
Yeah. Well… almost.

Try some caldo; it’ll make you feel better.
Just sit with me, Mami, okay?

Buenos Noches, papito. Sleep well.
Te amo, Mami.

The words of his life are mezclado in my head. With the muted voice of the TV and the dark of night moving onward, I try to think of advice or comfort I gave him but cannot. Sadness and anger lie sleeping, but always there. Denial, guilt. These I know well.

I reach for the picture on the top shelf and look down only to discover I am still holding the one Raul gave us hours ago, completely crumpled. I smooth it out, set the two photographs side by side.

Angela calls for me. But it is Ben’s voice in my ear.

Papi, tell me again how you met mami.

Aren’t you tired of hearing it?

Nunca papi, nunca.

The bus stop story was Ben’s favorite. At the end, he would always say,

You loved her the way you loved me, from the first moment, right?

And I would say,

Papito, you were squinting, stretching, making little noises, but you settled right down when the nurse put you in my arms.

This once-in-a-while memory closes my throat.

Then I can breathe again, his words gone.

I am here. He is not.

Except he is.

He is my carry-with-you; like chile, wood smoke, and masa.

I lay the photograph on the desk for Angela to find. I close the door and head to bed.


Michele Wolfe calls Echo Park in Los Angeles, California, home. The city and people, art and culture, are her inspiration for writing. Her debut novel, The Three Graces, published in 2014, is a contemporary fantasy that blends the history of the statue of the goddesses at Hearst Castle with a modern-day coming of age story. Her memoir piece “View from a Park Bench” was published in “LA Affairs” in the LA Times in 2016. Her short stories include “The Wednesday Student” and “72 hours.” Michele is currently working on her next novel.