when they brought andres back from russia where he had just graduated as a medical doctor, he had no memory, was mute and unable to do anything without assistance. i had very feint recollections of him because he had left for further studies when i was quite young. andres, twenty-eight, is the second. i am twelve, the last.

six months after andres was brought back he had started to speak – as he would say, like he had water in his mouth, but i had learned to understand him. even now as he ‘sings’ along with frank sinatra – swinging the cards in his hand like a dancing partner:

life is a … beautiful thing … as long as … i … hold the string

i’d be a … silly so and so … if i should … ever let it go

i’ve got the … world on a string … sittin’ on a rainbow

got the string … around my finger

what a world

what a life.[1]

         “your cards are upside down.” andres smiles, adjusts his thick-framed glasses that make him look like malcolm x. i can see the ‘singing’ and ‘dancing’ has taken something out of him.

                “was trying to … see if … you can read.”

                “i am twelve.”

                “how do you … even know they … are upside down … did you … mark the cards?”

             “no. please turn them the right way up, andres.” andres smiles but does not do as implored. i look at him and notice a certain vacant look in his eyes. as frank sinatra sings:

three coins in the fountain,

each one seeking happiness.

thrown by three hopeful lovers,

which one will the fountain bless?[2]

            “are you in pain?” andres does not respond. but i sense the song has affected his mood. i get up and take the stylus off the vinyl. a new lp catches my attention, nina simone’s pastel blues. it is the first nina simone album i have seen – it doesn’t look like something andres would collect. i wonder what message mom is trying to pass on to us with this album. she did that often – leave a record in the gramophone for teaching purposes. she thinks she is smart. i take the vinyl out of the sleeve, go through the track listing – the last song catches my attention. i put the vinyl on the gramophone and cue the last song.

              “you didn’t answer me, andres.” andres looks at me as i take my seat beside him and pick up my cards. suddenly andres shudders, he breaks out in sweat. the sunlight coming through the window is hitting his face at an astral angle. he inhales, and i can hear the wetness in his inhalation. then andres drops his cards on the table and with difficulty pulls me close into a trembling hug. he pulls me closer. i inhale the woody whiff of his quorum. as andres turns to give me a peck, i feel the wetness on his face on my neck. composing himself:

                   “does mom know … you have cards?” breaking the hug.

          “no. please don’t tell her, andres.” just as quickly as the vacant look appeared in andres’ eyes, it was gone – he has a very short-term gloom memory. he has been teaching me not to let anything put me down for more than five minutes – but i am struggling to learn that. he is looking at me with a twinkle in his eyes.

               “i won’t.” andres smiles. he didn’t have to say anything, i understand what the smile means. i know he is also smiling because nina simone is singing:

well i run to the river, it was boilin’

i run to the sea, it was boilin’

i run to the sea, it was boilin’

all along dem day

so i ran to the lord

i said, lord hide me, please hide me

please help me

along dem day

he said, child, where were you

when you oughta been prayin’?

i said, lord, lord, hear me prayin’

lord, lord, hear me prayin’

lord, lord, hear me prayin’

all along dem day

sinnerman you oughta be prayin’[3]

            “i see you … haven’t learnt your … lesson with mom’s tricks.” we both laugh. nina is getting on my nerves doing mom’s preaching. i get up and take the stylus off the vinyl. i return to my seat with a collection of andres’ albums.

silence.

               “strange how she doesn’t beat me all the time. sometimes, i do something wrong she just talks. then i do some things and she whips me hard when i am enjoying my sleep. what kind of parent beats their children while they’re sleeping? she’s strange.” we both laugh. i continue rifling through the andres’ music collection.

              “you know why?” he is trying to hide the smile on his face.

             “no. she is strange. sometimes she says ‘no more of your mischief,’ and that’s it. then other times, she really let flip ‘you want to bring shame on the family?’ they should go check her in bellevue.” andres laughs, and pulls me into a hug again, ruffling my hair.

            “certain behaviors are … pranks you grow out of … mr mischief. but pranks also … make people interesting.” andres proceeds to explain to me the difference between a mischief and a character flaw. to our mom, certain mischievous actions are only given a mild reprimand because they hurt no one, but an action capable of ‘shaming’ our family is one that she claims can become a part of our nature if unchecked. an action embedded, andres says, in our psyche – a character flaw.

             “like the cards?”

            “yes. because playing … cards … like this … is ok … but when you … become … addicted … start to play for … money … you bet … and lose things … from being a responsible … family person -” i look at him and can see he is struggling to breathe.

            “you ok?”

            “yea.” i know he is not telling the truth.

            “remember, god gives his hardest battles to his strongest soldiers.”

silence.

exactly twelve months to the day he was brought back, i skip to andres for inspection as jimi hendrix sings: “there are many here among us/who feel that life is but a joke/but you and i we’ve been through that/and this is not our fate/so let us not talk falsely now/the hour’s getting late.”[4] andres has taught me music appreciation to go with mom’s lessons on how to dress like a gentleman. i did not know what to make of the song he is listening to this morning. each morning i give andres a peck on his cheek, say goodbye and leave for school – with the song he was listening to playing in my head all day at school. this morning, as andres looks at me and nod approval i notice he is holding something in his left hand. he takes my right hand, slips his watch on to it and clasps it. i feel like i had won the lotto – i feel warm inside. my heart is pounding furiously.

             “time is important … remember … everything in its time.” i nod, unable to contain my excitement.

       “but give this to mom … you can’t wear it … to school.” i am giggling uncontrollably, twirling the gold link watch around my wrist.

             “have you prayed?”

            “yep. prayed for god to make you better, and keep you well till i return from school.” i smile and hug andres, my gold watch brushing against his neck.

         “good.” he holds me at trombone distance and i notice he looks weak, has that look in his eyes i saw six months previously and his breathing is rackety like someone holding a piece of paper in front of a fan.

            “you ok?”

         “yea … now off you go.” i kiss him again on the cheek and hug him muttering a quick prayer in his ears.

late afternoon. i dash into the living room, see my mother standing by the window. she turns toward me, eyes red as coal, her left hand extended in invitation. i look around, the rocking chair where andres always sits when i return from school is vacant. there is no music playing. a warmth runs through me. my mom walks over to me, pulls me gently to her – i have never seen my mother cry. my father walks in, his eyes replicas of my mother’s. i feel my mother’s entire body tremble and i go numb.

[a recall of a real-life loss. dedicated to my dear friend, Riniq Makobo, who passed on suddenly and tragically recently. may God rest your gentle soul.]

fkregie 2017.

[1] Sinatra, Frank. I’ve got the World on a String. This is Sinatra! Capitol Records. 1956.

[2] Sinatra, Frank. Three Coins in the Fountain. This is Sinatra! Capitol Records. 1956.

[3] Simone, Nina. Sinnerman. Pastel Blues. Philips Records. 1965.

[4] Hendrix, Jimi. All Along the Watchtower. Electric Ladyland. Reprise Records. 1968.