"-//W3C//DTD HTML 4.01 Transitional//EN"> Frigg | Fall/Winter 2023/24 | Recuerdos | Laura Zapico
artwork for Laura Zapico's short story Recuerdos

Laura Zapico

Everything smells like urine. Overnight, Lola’s father has torn his diaper off and now the damp bedding is tangled—suspended—over the bed rail. He is frailer now than only a week ago but when Lola guides him to the bathroom, he catches her ponytail in a determined grip and shouts, You’re hurting me! when she pries his fingers loose. She washes him on the toilet, soaking a hand towel in soapy water and wringing it out over his lap.

I’m cold, he says, though the heater is blowing, and Lola says, I’m going as fast as I can.

Ana arrives at lunchtime. She offers him a puree of butternut squash but when he feels the spoon at his mouth, he purses his lips and turns his head away.

Why won’t he eat? Ana says, setting the bowl on the bedside table, and Lola tells her sister, He can’t taste anything.

Lola has been coming every day, riding the 232, retrieving the key from under the mat and letting herself inside. She’s been away for years but the house is the same, the carpet still a mud-colored shag, the twin plaid sofas sagging, side by side, in the living room. Her mother has been gone so long there’s hardly a trace of her. The washing machine is always running, laundering a succession of soiled housecoats, slipper socks, towels, underpads. Lola’s hands are dry from the folding. When the bed sheets come out of the dryer, she and Ana stand in the kitchen bearing opposite ends, drawing them together, pinching the corners, passing them to each other in silence.

Lola’s father has stopped recognizing a straw and she’s started using a dropper to give him water. Sometimes he he doesn’t swallow and she winds up sponging it out with a lemon-flavored swab, sweeping the wand over a charred-looking spot the size of a penny that’s appeared in the middle of his tongue. He calls out for his cat, and an orange tabby with a crooked tail pokes its head in the door, but when it sees Lola, it flattens its ears and slinks away. Lola pulls a plush bear from her backpack and sets it on her father’s chest.

Here’s Kitty, she says, positioning his hand on the stuffed animal, guiding it down the bear’s wooly back, and he whispers, My gato.

While her father sleeps, Lola roams the house, opening drawers, sifting through stacks of old papers. In a wood box marked Recuerdos, she finds his wedding ring, his green card, a black-and-white photo of him as a boy, standing with his brother and sisters at the gates of the family’s avocado farm, chewing the end of a sugarcane shoot. In the bedroom she once shared with Ana, some of her sister’s clothes are still hanging in the closet: a frizzy black faux-fur coat, a lizard-printed dress, a pair of patchwork jeans. One of Lola’s old leather bags is hanging, lopsided, from a hook on the door. She reaches into its pockets to see if there’s anything left inside and when she pulls her hand out, she finds her fingertips covered in tobacco flakes.

* * *

When Lola and Ana were young, people mistook them for twins. They had the same heavy-lidded eyes, the same kinky, black hair. They spoke pig Latin and Gibberish, dared each other to swim the length of the YMCA pool without taking a breath. Summers, they spent the night in a makeshift clubhouse in the backyard, and when they were teenagers, they used the fort to smoke and drink and entertain. The girls had furnished it with a cast-off couch and easy chair, dragged off the sidewalk, down the block, through the alleyway.

Lola had been in love with an older boy with greased hair and a low-rider bicycle, and he and his cousin came over almost every night. In anticipation, she lined her eyes and applied red lipstick. Lola was a different person when the boys were there: clever, adventuresome, beguiling. She and the boy would disappear into the dark garden, and the cousin would stay behind with Ana. The cousin called Ana his ruca, his hyna, and she was afraid to tell him no. Pinning her with his weight, his hands went everywhere. Lola would return home late, flushed, smelling of Tres Flores, and collapse into the chair. Breathlessly, she’d recall how the boy had kissed her earlobes, her fingertips, the arches of her feet, and Ana would sit across from her, hugging her knees to her chest.

Don’t you want to hear everything? Lola would ask, lighting a menthol cigarette, and when she got no answer, she’d say, You’re just jealous.

* * *

Ana calls to Lola, He needs to go to the bathroom! and Lola pads down the hall. Ana holds up the back of the housecoat while Lola does the wiping. Lola has discovered a trick: if she wears two latex gloves, she can pull off the outside one when it’s dirty and use the fresh glove to apply diaper cream. Ana looks away while Lola pulls the diaper over her father’s loose skin and asks him, Are you ready to go back to bed?

He’s started to forget how to walk. Lola and Ana loop a bedsheet under his armpits and lift him, sharing his weight, pushing his feet along when they drag behind. They’ve learned to use the underpad to move him along the length of the bed: they each hold two corners, count to three, and slide. When Lola’s father cries out in pain, she retrieves a morphine syringe from the bathroom cabinet and plunges it into the side of his mouth. She watches as the liquid pools in the space between his cheek and gums and then dissipates, leaving a shimmering film behind.

Lola sits by her father’s bed while he sleeps. He’s dreaming—laughing—and he waves his arm and shouts for her mother.

Esperanza! he cries, and then he’s quiet, his eyes welling with tears.

There was a time he had good days and bad days, but now Lola thinks she’s put too much faith in the illness’s power to wax and wane. Months ago, when he was lucid, he’d wanted to talk to his brother and she got him on the phone. She could hear her uncle through the receiver, and listening to the men talk, she was struck by the ease of their conversation. Alternating between Spanish and English, they completed each other’s sentences. Lola’s father remembered everything.

* * *

Before her mother died, Lola visited her up north. Lola had told her father she was going to tour a college in Oregon, but really she went because she couldn’t imagine what was keeping her mother away. The directions were rambling and disjointed, and Lola barely found her way there. From the address, she had expected an apartment, but as she drew closer, she saw it was a room on the second story of a motel. She knocked and her heart raced waiting for an answer.

A man with a shaggy mustache opened the door. With his free hand he crushed an empty can of malt liquor against his thigh and pitched it over Lola’s head into the parking lot below.

You’re Esperanza’s daughter, he said. I seen a picture.

The room was dark except for the flickering TV. Lola’s mother sat cross-legged in bed, wearing a man’s yellowed undershirt. Her cheekbones were more pronounced than Lola remembered. She patted the bed and said, Come sit.

She lit a cigarette and asked how Lola was doing. She asked about Ana and then about her own parents, who were both still alive, but barely. She recounted, in too much detail, her courtship with the mustachioed man, and asked if Lola had a boyfriend. On the way up, Lola had rehearsed all the questions she’d wanted to ask, but in the end, she didn’t ask any of them.

After a while, Lola’s mother shuffled into the bathroom. The soles of her feet were nearly black. Lola sat silently on the edge of the bed while her mother’s boyfriend chuckled at a game show. Each time the host made a joke, he huffed and repeated the punch line under his breath. When it had been nearly 45 minutes and Lola’s mother still hadn’t emerged, Lola walked out of the room without saying good-bye. The sun was warm on her face, and she stopped at the liquor store next door and bought a bottle of lemonade, which she drank in hard gulps on the sidewalk. She called Ana from the pay phone outside.

How’s Mom? Ana asked, her voice quivering.

She’s fine, Lola said, and then surprising herself, continued brightly, She’ll be home soon.

* * *

Lola calls out for Ana. Her father needs to go to the bathroom again, and they pull him up with the sheet. They sit him on the toilet but instead of straightening, he slumps to the side, and Lola hooks him under the arms and lifts while Ana pushes him back by the knees.

He’s falling, Ana says, and Lola says, I can see! His body goes rigid, and the back of his head knocks against the toilet tank.

You’re letting him hit his head! Ana cries.

What am I supposed to do? Lola says. He’s vibrating—convulsing—and Lola can’t bear his weight anymore.

We need to lay him down, she says, and they lower him onto the ground. His eyes are half open, drifting, and he’s urinated on the floor.

Are you awake? Ana asks him, and after a moment, he says, I am.

* * *

Lola’s mother never did come back. Letters arrived from time to time, and then after a while they stopped. Lola left home when she turned 18, and Ana stayed behind. Their father retired, spent most days in his workshop. There was a bench with a vise, a radial saw, and a pegboard wall, on which hung an array of hand tools. There was an old AM radio and he listened to talk shows. He woke up early and worked until sundown, stopping only to drink black coffee and eat bologna-and-American-cheese sandwiches. Growing up on the farm, he had learned to take advantage of the daylight hours.

He made furniture. He made shelves and bookcases and chests of drawers. He stained or varnished them, and when they were finished, he gave them away. Once, Ana asked why he didn’t sell them, when she had wandered out into the garage, looking for a bottle of glue. She was standing in the doorway holding the broken base of a lamp, kicking wood chips across the floor with her bare toe. Her father took off his glasses and rubbed his eye with the heel of his hand. He was bleeding from a cut on his knuckle, and the hair on his forearms was covered in shavings. He said he wanted to leave something behind. He wanted people to think of him after he was gone, when the only thing left of him was dust.

* * *

The nurse comes in the evening, a Filipina with an armful of jangling bracelets. She tries to rouse Lola’s father, but he sleeps through the exam. She pulls up his housecoat and points to his shins.

See these purple marks? she says. The blood is being shunted away from the extremities. The body is trying to preserve its vital organs. When the marks move up toward the knees, she says, it usually means we have only a short time left.

How short? Ana says.

Might be a few days, the nurse says. Or a few hours.

Ana covers her face, and the nurse squeezes her shoulder.

When the nurse is gone, Lola pulls the blanket back and takes one of her father’s hands. His skin is smooth and thin, the veins raised up on its surface like a mess of purple yarn.

His fingernails are dirty, Lola says, and Ana disappears into the bathroom and returns with a bowl of warm water, a nail brush, a washcloth. Lola balances the bowl above her father’s chest while Ana dips his fingers in and out of the water, passing the brush under the brittle nails, drying them, pressing each one, in turn, against the hem of the towel.

It’s late, and Ana has gone upstairs. Lola sits by her father’s bed, watching him sleep. His breathing has grown ragged. Every few minutes, there’s a long pause and Lola holds her own breath and leans closer, listening.

The cat, who’s been outside all day, appears at a hole in the window screen and jumps onto the edge of the bed. It freezes and stares at Lola, its yellow eyes dilated in surprise, and then gingerly steps across the blankets and settles between Lola’s father’s feet. It washes itself, drawing its tongue down the length of its back, licking its paws and circling them across its face. Lola reaches her hand out and the cat inches toward her, curious, its white whiskers grazing her fingers like a whisper, a secret, a memory.

Laura Zapico’s Comments

I began this story in a state of shock, following an intimate encounter with dementia. Later, I returned to it to explore memory beyond just the forgetting: remembrance as a way to keep the dead alive.

Table of Contents

Frigg: A Magazine of Fiction and Poetry | Issue 62 | Fall/Winter 2023/24