The 12 Rules of Survival | Episode 22: The Old Chicano

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Nicholas Belardes is a dual-ethnic Chicano writer. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in the YA-themed edition of The Latinx Archive: Speculative Fiction for Dreamers (Ohio State University Press), Southwestern American Literature (Texas State University), Carve Magazine, Pithead Chapel, Barrelhouse, and others.

He illustrated map drawings for the New York Times best-selling novel West of Here, and is the author of the first twitterature in novel form, Small Places, which has been studied as part of digimodernism in literature by scholars who seek to discover the fusion of art with digital technologies, in specific, electronic fiction as a new literary current.

Sometimes a ghostwriter of contemporary fiction and YA, he currently lives in San Luis Obispo, California with his wife Jane. The 12 Rules of Survival is his first MG novel. You can find him at nicholasbelardes.com or on Twitter @nickbelardes

Artist: Timothy Banks timothybanks.com or on Twitter  @teabanks

The Old Chicano

Before we get to Grandma Benita’s house we stop at a hospital for the sick and elderly. I have no idea why we’re here.

Mom grabs a bag of clothes from the back seat and motions for me to undo my seatbelt. “I have to run inside for a couple of minutes. Come on.”

As soon as we’re inside, I notice strange musty smells, pee smells, smells of cleaners, decaying things. I see old people in wheelchairs, some with walkers. Most of them smile as we pass.

“Look at you,” says one Mexican-American old-timer wearing a Korean War Veteran hat.

“Handsome and young,” says another. He’s got a white shirt and big chomper teeth.

An ancient grandpa in a flower-print Hawaiian shirt says, “Go long!” He pumps his arm like he has a football though he doesn’t even have a ball to throw. “Fooled ya!” he says. “Don’t worry. You’ll get it next time! Just remember, always go for the TD!”

“Who are they?” I whisper to Mom.

She’s walking fast. I do my best to keep up with her.

“Just old people,” she says.

“Where they from?”

“Everywhere.”

She turns a corner, then another. “Are we going to see someone?” I ask.

“Just briefly.”

“An old person?”

 We stop at a nurses’ station. Mom writes on a piece of paper. “I’ve brought some new clothes for Mr. Gonzales.”

The nurse has a long braided ponytail. Her white uniform seems a bit greyish. “You dropping them off here or taking them to his room?” she asks.

“I’ll take them to his room.” Mom motions for me to follow her again.

Further down the corridor she tells me that the man we’re about to see is my grandfather.

“I didn’t know I had a grandfather,” I say.

“He used to be married to Grandma Benita,” Mom says. “But that was a long time ago. He’s an old Chicano who volunteered with the farm workers way back during the 1965 Grape Strike in Delano, California. He drove worker buses mostly but he did a little of everything during La Huelga.”

I don’t tell her that I don’t know anything about any grape strike or union. I think how sometimes old people seem to come from another time and place, that they’re rooted in a distant time we could never know except in the evidence left behind and history books.

“He’s way older than Benita,” Mom adds. “And just to warn you, he suffers from dementia. His mind isn’t all there because of his illness. Some days are better than others. Let’s see how he is today.”

I trail her into the room. In bed sitting up is an elderly man with wrinkles crisscrossing his old forehead and cheeks. His eyes seem from another universe. They don’t shine from a dark place, rather one full of wonder, one not completely forgotten as he turns them toward us. He’s got white hair with little streaks of black at the top as if long ago every strand had been jet black and bushy.

“Daddy,” Mom says. “I brought you some clothes . . . Daddy?” she says when he doesn’t answer right away.

 “Marina?” he says, turning toward her. His expression is curious, then blank, then curious again. For a second I think he’s smiling.

  “No, Daddy. It’s Sophia.”

He stares at her and lifts a frail hand to her face. “You look so much like her.”

“I know, Daddy.” Mom takes his hand. “Look, I brought someone for you to see.”

 “You did? Is it Marina?”

 “No Daddy. This is your grandson. Cameron.”

“I have a grandson?”

“Yes, he’s right here, look at him. Touch him.”

Grandfather touches my arm. His fingers shake. He feels so weak but there’s still a warmth to him. I wonder what he grasped when he was young and strong though I can’t picture him any other way than he is now: frail, skin hanging loosely, arms thin, eyes roaming across me as if trying to focus on distant time rather than me in the present.

“Hello,” I say.

Then he surprises us both and lets out a cackle.

Mom starts laughing.

“This is beautiful,” he says. “Beautiful.”

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