Lee Byrd
Lazy Heart of Mine


I am cranky because Ofe and her shadow Titi—who had quit coming to see me for over a year—came visiting at 6 a.m. one morning last week, when Bill and I were still lying sound asleep, our feet hanging out the end of the bed. Believe it or not, I’d often imagined the two of them walking freely and sin vergüenza into our bedroom like that—one of the doors to our bedroom opens outside to a little patio, which you can get to just by walking in the side gate—and standing at the bottom of our bed like a vision, holding hands.

I am curious why I am surrounded by these particular people. Why didn’t I get the everyday companions other people seem to have?

In a book of mediations I read every morning, the author says, “Watch the kind of people God brings around you, and you will be humiliated to find that this is His way of revealing to you the kind of person you have been to Him.”

Ofe et al

I was looking out the door this morning, just around ten. Just a peek. Just a hair so the neighbors don’t think I’m spying. I see Ofe bracing herself against the edge of her porch’s stoop with her hand, her daughter Titi holding onto her other hand. Ofe’s a short old woman—I’m 78, Annie!—made shorter—and shrinking—by bad feet, long toenails, knees that buckle, and legs that bow. Maybe a giant in her day, who knows?—we didn’t know her then. She’s been our neighbor for 25 years—Ofelia Negrete. And she is coming to visit.

My husband and I talk. Do we have it in ourselves to offer her coffee, maybe breakfast? After all, she is heading our way. Many minutes later—the minutes it takes her to walk down her driveway, along the sidewalk past Nora’s house next door, and up my front steps—I look out the front door and there she and Titi are, no surprise, holding hands, perched on my porch step, ready to come in. There is no stopping Ofe once she comes down off her porch. Even if you were to yell out, I’m busy, or run ahead to meet her and tell her—in the style people used in New Jersey where I grew up—that you weren’t receiving visitors right then, or stop her at the front door and say you were just about to go out to the store, she would say, No, no, I know you busy, Annie, I just gonna sit down here on your front porch. What I gonna do at home? And she would sit, whether you were there or not, as if her lack of things to do were your responsibility. You would feel terribly guilty for having made excuses with her sitting there on your front porch.

And, of course, it is no good whatsoever to implore Titi—who you might assume to be the more responsible party—she’s 39 years old—to have some understanding of your situation—I want the morning to myself!—and reverse directions. Her understanding is—to say the least—extraordinary, oblivious to the niceties of protecting your Saturday order. No. It is much better to get yourself completely prepared the minute you see Ofe and Titi coming.

Ofe’s been ready to visit since last night because many things, according to her, happened in the nighttime, things to last a lifetime, just between the time we went to bed and the time we woke up. Gilbert, her son who lives at home, now just 27, had a heat stroke, though—as my husband pointed out— there is no heat at night. It is close to fall: the cooler weather has already arrived. But no matter. It was a heat stroke as Ofe reported it. Rudy, another son, came over in the night when the news broke and he took Gilbert to the county hospital, and they said that Gilbert—no news to any of us—needed to stop drinking and start eating. Otherwise, heat strokes would be common. But Gilbert, Ofe’s son, says that he wants to go to be with his father, Nacho Senior, who is now dead. His way of getting there is to drink from the minute he rolls out of bed and to continue on through the day and into the dark night, with only a brief hard nap or two in between to sustain him and no food — absolutely no food: an impeccable plan.

In addition to Gilbert’s heat stroke, Ofe reports, Cesar Fonseca went to jail, same reason as Gilbert going to the county hospital, a sort of neighborhood heat stroke in common. Someone in Ofe’s family appealed to a female member of the Fonseca family, possibly Cesar’s soon-to-be-separated-wife, to see if she wanted a ride to the jail to get Cesar out, but—Ofe reports—the soon-to-be-late wife doesn’t care about Cesar. Let him rot there, she said. Also Mickey Diamanti, another Fonseca primo who had also had a heat stroke, is going to lose his legs. They smell. Been scratching and scratching them. He won’t go to the doctor or take care of himself.

We look out the front window in the dining room, where now all four of us sit around our old table at breakfast: Ofe, Titi, Bill, and me. Everything is quiet, calm. It doesn’t seem like anything at all could have happened in the night. We went to bed late, too, around midnight, and everything then was like it is now: perfectly quiet. So somewhere between midnight and the dawning of this new and remarkable day, the neighborhood cracked open and spilled out. Or so Ofe says.

Ofe has fixed Titi’s pancakes and then her own while she talks—a production worthy of Andy Warhol with its painstaking detail. First Titi’s pancakes and then her own must be separated and spread out flat all over the plate. Each one needs a smear of butter and then lots of syrup. They must be cut in tiny pieces, but that takes a long time and they dry out a little in the process, so once that is done, they must be syruped again. Then three heaping teaspoons of sugar in her coffee, a few obscure instructions barked at Titi, and a big smile up at me and Bill who are watching—staring! agog!— in true writerly fascination and—soup’s on!

Just exactly who is Titi?

Titi is the third child of (the late) Nacho and (the current) Ofe Negrete and she is—from some points of view—retarded, though she has been given many talents and abilities to compensate.

One is the ability to smell out a party. She also speaks both Spanish and English — though it’s hard to make out what she’s saying in either language. She can do a number of things that most regular folks would find impossible—she can come to your house and park herself in one place for a long time, watching you and smiling and unsmiling in a regular rhythmic pattern, especially if you are talking to her mother Ofe. She can come to your house and sit in a chair all day and look at a book, and—though she can’t read it or make sense of the pictures — she will be perfectly content. She — 39 or thereabouts—can come to your house and squeeze up in a chair with your granddaughter Naomi who is midway between 2 and 3 years old and pass the morning away without a care. She can run with little tiny steps and giggle at the same time. If she has something on her mind—her birthday—an intense consuming preoccupation for her—or if she is excited or worried about something—Ofe has a cold or the police came to somebody’s house the night before—she can come to your door and knock a dozen times a day to let you know about it. She can arrive at your doorstep or your bedroom door as early as 6 a.m.—like she did last week—or as late as…one night, truth to tell, Titi and Ofe came over at 3 in the pitch dark morning because they felt the need — right then — to visit.

Someone is Peeing on My Couch

It is hard to know for certain what’s going on in Ofe’s house because the information about it comes from Ofe herself—or from Titi, worse—and Ofe and Titi don’t recognize the minute-by-minute structure of the reigning universe. Instead, they float in time—two orphans floating on a leafy boat in the great wide river of time. The only thing they cling to is each other’s hand. They rest in Time. It has no names nor divisions. It is just there. Maybe it is Wednesday, maybe not, they don’t know. Maybe it is 1960, maybe it is yesterday or tomorrow. Ohhh. Who knows? Maybe Ofe just had her first daughter Ogla—the one she had before she met (the late) Nacho Senior—or maybe Olga’s daughter Vicky is having Ofe’s great-grandchild what’s-her-name or what’s-his-name. Maybe Titi is 9 or maybe she is 39. I don’t know, she giggles. Who cares? 9:15 or 12:15 or I’ll pick you up in a half hour? Just honk, Annie, I only just got to put on my dress. The only thing that matters is the egg and chorizo burrito they just ate. Mmm. It was good.

News from Ofe about this morning, then, could be stale—at least a year old—or it could be only the stuff of her imagination or her hopes or the paranoid fears brought on by her occasional breakdowns, as her family calls them—or it could be as real as the man next door falling down his steps drunk, which he is doing right now.

Today I’m on Ofe’s porch and I, of course, came here really truly believing that I was only going to talk to her about sweeping her sidewalk: it is a mess, all dirt and rocks and old paper and beer cans—evidence of some dreadful activity the night before—swirling winds, drinking men, dark and unaccountable things. The whole street, in fact, is just rock and rubble and silty dirt and, in my righteous imagination, I am going up and down sweeping it clean, but Ofe wants to tell me things. Though not at first. She doesn’t start out telling me things, only just passing pleasantries, like how am I and how’s Bill and how’s Elise and how’s Arnie and how’s Roy?

Then the flood gates open. Do I know who spent the night on her couch? One-armed Piano’s girlfriend, the one who is pregnant with Piano’s child, the one whose two little girls—not Piano’s—wander up and down the street like orphans. Suddenly the girlfriend is the neighborhood’s excess baggage, just the kind of baggage I will soon be at the currently-being-reengineered-gas company where I work. It seems obvious to all of us who keep our eye on the street that Piano doesn’t want this girl any more. The two little girls came to Ofe’s too, and spent the night with their mother. And did I know what the one did? She peed all over Ofe’s couch.

Ofe’s eyes get big. What you think of that, Annie? she whispers and winks her left eye very slowly at me. That’s not right.

And then comes Mickey Diamanti and he spends the night too, just like it’s a flop house or something. That’s not right either. And she says that her other sons Nacho Junior and Rudy and Johnny and her daughters Olga and Josie and Ricky are mad at her son Gilbert because he has for his girlfriend the big fat Consuela.


Consuela!

Consuela comes there this morning, after that long night Ofe had and Ofe not getting much sleep, and Consuela wants her car fixed and then she starts to fight with Gilbert and Ofe tells Gilbert to just leave Consuela alone, to not fix her car, just to get away from her. But Gilbert and Consuela go into his bedroom instead and close the door and they tell Ofe and Titi to go out on the porch, go out walking, go down and see Annie! Get out! Go see Mr. Fonseca. But Ofe, she doesn’t want to go down to Mr. Fonseca’s house because he has two bathrooms and there is one that is near his bedroom and when she was in that bathroom one day, he was peeking in at her through his window while she was peeing. And he told her once when she was down there, What about now that your husband Nacho’s dead? Who do you sleep with? And she says, I sleep with Titi. And he says, What about one night if I could come down and come in your window and sleep with you?

What you think of that, Annie? Ofe’s eyes get big and she shakes her head back and forth very slowly. That’s not right.

Ofe Might Move

Gilbert, Ofe’s son, is back in the hospital with another heat stroke. Ofe is sitting on her fold-up metal chair in the corner of her front porch and crying. Nacho Junior, her oldest son, has declared that he is going to sell the house and give the money to Ofe and Titi and they are going to take it and move away from Gilbert and his reckless and hard-drinking friends to Brownsville to live with Ofe’s sister. The question remains: What right-minded right-thinking person will buy her house, that house that smells of peed-on old couches, that is falling apart, that Sabbath the horrible devil dog has crapped all over the yard of, that years and years and years of men and boys drinking with abandon have made to crumble into ruin?

I didn’t go to church again. I went down after a while to see Ofe and ask her if she wanted to take a walk. She says yes and takes Titi’s hand, fastening herself up with Titi in this fashion: they grab hands, then Ofe holds Titi’s hand up and puts each finger of Titi’s between a finger of her own so they are neatly and perfectly laced together. On the other side of Ofe, she and I hold hands, but she doesn’t care if I am laced up like Titi, she only just grabs on tight and pulls hard, she being so much shorter than me. And she is very strong. It makes my hand hurt bad. She is crushing my wedding ring against my fingers.

As we walk along, Ofe reports that Gilbert is waking her up in the night, knocking on her door— Mama! Mama! she cries out in imitation of her son—and says his dead father Nacho Senior is calling to him saying, Come with me, Gilbert, come with me. I want you to come with me. One a these times, he going to kill himself, says Ofe, peering up at me. What I gonna do, Annie?

Mission Unaccomplished

I have before me at this desk where I write a bulletin board filled with photos I have taken. Many of them are of Ofe. She is my muse. She is a good one to get to sit for you because she does just that—sits. And never moves. And never smiles—sin sonrisa—unless you tell her a story or a joke that has a little edge or shade of meaning in it that puts another person in a difficult light—which I never do! I can take ten pictures of Ofe in the same amount of minutes and she will not have shifted a muscle unless I ask her to.

I have been taking pictures of her during the last year since Nacho Senior died. If I had had the courage, I would have taken pictures of her at Nacho’s funeral—a perfectly gray overcast day, drizzling, tiny shrunken Ofe in black under an enormous black umbrella, her daughters surrounding her with their long black hair, her sons in black shirts and leather jackets, their black eyes like saucers under more black umbrellas—and me with black and white film in the camera! But no one in their right mind takes pictures at a funeral.

In all the pictures I have taken otherwise, she is pensive. She doesn’t have Nacho Senior anymore to help her ignore Gilbert’s drinking or to pretend not to notice the way Gilbert and Rudy and Johnny sometimes sell drugs—all those fancy cars pulling up in front of their run-down house!—or to sit inside while all of Gilbert’s many friends curse the night away on her front porch—those guys need a thesaurus!

No, now that Nacho Senior is dead, Ofe has to ignore those activities all by herself, and it must be hard work, it must be taking its toll, because Ofe has lost her zip. She’s shrinking even more, too. And now instead of getting dressed, she just wears house dresses. My Elise says she came to our house yesterday and showed her the sort of things you can easily show people when you’re only wearing a house dress: first her knee brace, then some other scar further up her leg, and finally the thin line on her stomach that marks a C-section.

She’s at the height of her visiting powers, Ofe is, and she always comes bearing the most dreadful news. Men are sleeping all over her house, peeing on her couches, fighting until all hours of the nights. One of them has even tried to crawl into bed with Titi. All her living room windows are busted out from people—mostly men, though there are occasional women—falling and crashing through them, and the swamp cooler doesn’t work, the part they need would make significant inroads on Gilbert’s beer money, so she sits on her front porch almost all day to catch a little bit of cool air. She has a fly swatter poised in her hand—a foolish job—in the dense summer heat. What I gonna do, Annie? she asks me. And as always—lucky people they are who live near me—I have the solution.

In my mind, all her problems stem from the fact that Gilbert drinks. If he would stop drinking, everything would change: he’d chase his friends away—no one to drink or pee or flop in the house anymore—he’d fix the windows, he’d fix the house, Ofe would be happy. But—another daydreamy leap—he’s not going to quit drinking until he sees that he’s an alcoholic and he’s not going to see that he’s an alcoholic until Ofe tells him he is and Ofe’s not going to tell him he’s an alcoholic until she sees it first and she’s not going to see that he’s an alcoholic until I show her. Me! I’m the one who’s going to show her! Hallelujah!

So. The first step is to drag her to that place of understanding and then everything will tumble into place. Meanwhile, I have done some masterful supplemental research. I happened to be out walking on Piedras and I passed by this door and on it was written the West Texas Council on Alcoholism. It seemed like a sign—of the portent variety—to me. It was so close—we could walk!—and everything and all roads—at least for Ofe and her son Gilbert—seemed to lead to it. We’d walk in the door, he’d be cured, we’d walk back out the door into the bright light of sobriety.

So one Thursday I made an appointment with a counselor at the West Texas Council on Alcoholism and I took Ofe there—and, of course, Titi too because you can’t take Ofe anywhere without taking Titi.

Here is what I told Ofe: I told her we were going to go and sit down and talk to someone about her Gilbert and his drinking, but she didn’t really seem to understand at all what my intentions were. Or maybe she did, and she just thought she’d go to be polite, or to humor me, or to give me just enough rope to hang myself, which is about how everyone in the neighborhood is with me.

Anyway, I was late getting off from my job at the gas company. Our appointment was for 2:30 and I didn’t even leave downtown until 2:15 and then there was the train blocking Piedras and people and cars in the way, all sorts of obstructions—as if God was telling me to stay out of Ofe’s business—and then I had to go get her at her house and she and Titi weren’t ready, are never ready, have no conception of late—or early—for that matter.

When we finally arrived, the counselor said that he couldn’t meet with us—his supervisor had told him that he had another emergency appointment.

How could that be? I asked. We are an emergency! And we had an appointment even if we are late! Can’t you see—I pointed in Ofe and Titi’s direction—what sort of an emergency we are? This woman’s son is drinking himself to death, we don’t have a lot of time to waste here. Then I got mad. I said I wanted to talk to his supervisor. And I yelled at that poor man and harangued him in as irritating a New Jersey style as I could muster. Finally, the supervisor said he would cancel another appointment and he would see us himself. By then it was nearly 4 o’clock. I was terribly upset, while Ofe and Titi—oblivious to time and insistings—had hardly moved a muscle except for that ongoing grinning and ungrinning that Titi does with her face.

The supervisor took us to his tiny room—a room with a door and walls but no ceiling, just space enough for him and his big desk facing Ofe and Titi and me sitting on brought-in metal fold-up chairs.

The supervisor was in his mid-forties, with dark protruding eyes. He reminded me of those leering villainous people that Brueghel painted leaning against Christ while He sat at the supper table—though they fawned over Him, their every pop-eyed glance showed that they were as willing as anybody to see Him dead.

But this man before us was kind. He himself, as he said during the course of our interview, had had a nervous breakdown and was a former alcoholic.

He began the interview by asking Ofe what the problem was. She didn’t head directly for the issue, particularly since she didn’t quite know what the issue was. After all, this was my deal more than hers.

First she gave a little talk about her dead husband Nacho Senior—how she met him down on Durazno Street at a funeral, how he said Hello, how you doing and she said, Hello, how you doing, back, how he said he didn’t mind that she had already had a child, he would marry her…

That speech lasted close to five minutes.

Then she talked about Titi—how Titi hangs the wash every day and how she sweeps the floor in the dining room and in the living room and in her bed room and in the kitchen and in the basement and on the porch… Another five minutes, during which she kept tapping Titi on the chest and Titi smiled and unsmiled and wrinkled her face up so you could see her teeth.

Finally the counselor said to Ofe, Vamanos, would you? Let’s go, let’s get to your son Gilbert. So then Ofe told the supervisor her Gilbert was a good boy and that he cooks chorizo and eggs in the morning and for lunch he makes the sopa and that Gilbert’s friends come over to her house all the time. She leaned forward and knocked on the desk three times in imitation of the way they knock on her front door. The friends say, Hello, Mrs. Negrete. Then she says, Hello, how you doing?

Vamanos, said the counselor again.

Then she told the supervisor that Gilbert’s friends call him on the phone all the time. They say, Hello, Mrs. Negrete, and then she says, Hello, how you doing? Who you want to talk to? She has to tell them that Gilbert can’t talk on the phone because he’s in the rest room.

Vamanos!

Then they say, Ofe continued unconcerned, Okay, Mrs. Negrete, I call him back in ten minutes…

Is there a problem in your house? said the counselor finally.

She looked at him and squinched up her face and gave a big smile and a little laugh. On no, she said.

Your son doesn’t drink?

Only beer, she said, putting her hands up flat in front of her. See? Empty! No problems!

They were talking in Spanish, so I missed all the innuendoes and most of the point, but I think he was saying, or maybe yelling that Ofe reminded him of his own grandmother, who was always protecting him and always saying that he never did anything wrong, even though he was always always always doing something very wrong. You’ve got to realize, he told her, that your son is an alcoholic and there’s not a thing we can do until he figures that out and until you do, too.

No, she said, he not an al-co-haul-i-co. He’s a good boy.

And with that sentence the interview ended—as did—though only temporarily—my campaign to straighten Ofe’s life out.

Same Old, Same Old

My husband Bill and I went to Austin to live for six months and then we came back, but nothing seemed to have changed, at least with Ofe. As soon as we pulled up at the curb in front of our house, Ofe and Titi came down to visit. Ofe reported that Nacho Junior had come that morning early. He was knock, knock, knocking on her door—here she knocked on my window sill to prove that fact—and he was telling his little son Nacho the Third to hide down low so Grandma couldn’t see and then Nacho Junior came in the house and was giving orders to Gilbert—his brother—saying this can’t happen anymore, no more drinking in the house and he was telling Mickey Diamanti to get out—get off the couch!—and he was telling Ofe that he was going to send her and Titi for a visit to Brownsville.

But, of course, it was Nacho Junior himself who said nearly a year and two months ago that he would fix the 17 busted-out windows in Ofe’s house and now this long later they are still busted out and it is very likely, very possible, that Ofe only dreamed this early morning visit of Nacho’s. But it was such good news about Nacho’s triumphant straightening out of the house, I wanted to believe it—and I’d been away so long—and then—like the icing on the cake—Ofe declared that her Gilbert is an alcoholic. The doctor has said so. At last she understands!

She also said that a man and his wife and their two kids had moved in to live with her for three months while we were gone. I was instantly very curious about this. I wondered what sort of people would want to move in with Ofe.

I asked her where they were and she said they were not there any more, and that she didn’t like the woman because she was very very fat—as fat as Gilbert’s Consuelo—and always bossing her around and she didn’t like the man because he was drinking drinking drinking and Nacho Junior had come and thrown them all out.

Where did they come from? How do you know them? Ofe’s hands went up flat in front of her—she shrugged her shoulders and puckered up her mouth. I don't know, Annie, somebody told them to come to my house, but I don know who it is. But they’re not there no more.

She also reported, as usual, that there were men drinking and peeing all over the house.

But, later, when I talked about this to Nacho Junior, he said that it was Ofe herself who was leaking leaking leaking on the couches and her children had told her she better wear some diapers, but she said no, she didn’t need no diapers.

Then the next day early—our first real day back from Austin—I am out on my front porch and I hear men’s voices somewhere, but where I’m not sure. So I go stand out on my sidewalk and look over across the Fritze’s yard to Ofe’s house. It sounds like Ofe’s son Gilbert with some of his friends but I can’t see him or them, so I am craning my neck and peering over and suddenly a somewhat shortish man jumps into my vision, leaping from behind Alberto Fritze’s house, a man who looks impish and clever like a monkey. He smiles and waves, and he has curly hair and from where I stand he looks a little like Mickey Diamanti, so I think it is Mickey, and I wave back, but I realize it’s not Mickey.

Later I find out from my daughter Elise that it is the man of that couple who had lived in Ofe’s house. Now that he has been thrown out of Ofe’s house, it has been reported that he sneaks back to drink with Gilbert Negrete late in the night and that he has set up an office of sorts at the phone booth in the parking lot of the Quality Super Market on the corner of Wheeling and Alabama, standing in that very spot all day and taking and making phone calls—conducting business in the open air!

I go back up on my porch so I won’t be staring so shamelessly and I peer over at the Negrete’s house again, this time under the cover of the various potted plants on my porch. Titi is out in the early light standing in the middle of her side yard, still sleepy, her hair uncombed and sticking up—a new day, and she to her task. She heads toward the back of her house. Going to hang out the ropa? No. I hear the sound of beer bottles clanking. Did those men, those men who drink with Gilbert all day and all night—one of whom just popped into my vision—just get up from their place on the curb in the driveway between the Fritze’s and the Negrete’s? Did they just finish their beer drinking at seven in the morning? Or did they just start? Did Ofe send Titi out to clean up the beer bottles?

Nobody should have to live like this, I conclude, especially not an old woman like Ofe—sitting on her porch without a thing to do all day—all those drunks congregating around her, cursing and fighting—no one at all taking care of her.

Clearly I’ll have to resume keeping my eagle-eye on her. Good thing I’m back in town. It would be perfect if all those drunks would sober up, or—barring that—get thrown in jail. This life must be really getting Ofe down, making her terribly depressed, so what she needs is…something to do…some entertainment…

I’ve got it! She could spend the day at one of those senior citizen centers, dancing with guys her age and playing bingo and making crocheted dolls to cover the rolls of toilet paper that Titi comes down twice a week to borrow from us. Doing a little chair aerobics, eating a free lunch, meeting and making new friends. And, of course, Titi—though she is somewhere in the vicinity of 39 and clearly not a senior citizen—could go with her. Everyone would understand —senior citizens are very kind.

So I make a few phone calls and it turns out the closest and the newest senior citizen center is up Piedras about two miles in Grandview Park—the Sacramento Senior Citizen’s Center. And I call ahead and ask if Ofe can come and what’s required and then I explain a little bit about Titi and how Titi is a little slow, retarded actually, and how Ofe and Titi can’t be separated and how Titi is about 39 years old though she thinks she’s nine or ten and then I ask if Titi can come and this guy—with the usual density of guys—says he thinks it’s okay, bring Ofe up and see if she likes it.

So I go over and sit on Ofe’s front porch with her and explain about this place and how it will give her something to do all day instead of sitting in the very spot where she is now glued and ask her does she want to go and she says yes. What I gonna do here all day? she asks me, as if she’s been waiting for me to take her to the senior citizens’ center forever.

Ofe and Titi agree to come over the next morning so I can drive them up to take a look. If you like it, I tell Ofe as we drive along, you can spend the day there and just call me when you need a ride home. If you don’t like it, you can come home with me.

No, Annie, I gonna like it, Ofe declares.

This man who runs the Sacramento Center is in his mid-40’s and is new at the job. He doesn’t yet—and from all appearances, will never—have the senior ladies under control. They run things, always have and always will! He takes us around for a little tour. We go to a very brightly lit room where a bunch of ladies are sitting around painting ceramics—Virgin Marys and little Dutch girls carrying flower baskets and sugar jars and creamers. This is really where Ofe wants to be, putting a blue wash on some ashtray in the shape of Texas, but the man persuades her to come look at the rest of the place first. There are rooms where you can sit and visit and there is a big lunchroom with here and there some women talking, arms folded up over their chests, and in this room ensues a discussion with the supervisor about lunch.

Lunch, he says, is free to people who have been approved but you have to get on a waiting list to get approved and the waiting list—as with all government things—only opens up every October and October is two months away and otherwise lunch is $3.25 a day. Or you can bring your own. Ohhhhh, Ofe says, looking at me.

You and Titi can bring your lunch, I tell her. And we’ll get you on the waiting list.

And then the guy shows us where the bingo room is and then another room where someone from the community college is talking about something or another—taxes, maybe, or social security, or making a will—but there’s only one old lady in attendance, probably the only one in the Sacramento Senior Citizen’s Center who has any disposable income.

What do you want to do? I ask Ofe when the tour’s over.

I wanna stay here, she tells me.

Where do you want to go then?

I wanna paint the dolls.

So I take her back to the room where the ladies are all sitting around the very big table and painting ceramics. A lady at the end of the table says, Come in, come in, pasale, señora, and Ofe and Titi come in and sit down as if they’d been coming to the Sacramento Senior Citizen’s Center all their lives.

I remind Ofe to call me when she is ready to come home. I have already written my phone number down on a piece of paper which she has crumpled up in her purse and I have given the same phone number to the man who runs the place.

Well, sounds like a good plan, no?

And it would have been a good plan—a great plan—if Ofe wasn’t Ofe and if Titi wasn’t Titi and if Titi was clearly a senior citizen and if the women at the center —bossy classless class-conscious types, reckoning that Ofe was a cut beneath them—had realized somewhere in their old pitiless hearts that Titi and Ofe can’t be separated any more than a hand can be cut off from its body. It would have been a good plan if Ofe had brought money for lunch or if Ofe had brought a whole and satisfying lunch from home and it would have been a really great plan if Ofe hadn’t cheated at bingo.

Although there were a number of other things that contributed to Ofe’s leaving the Sacramento Senior Citizen Center after just a month or so. Assuredly, her not getting a free lunch was a big factor. The business about the waiting list and getting on the waiting list in October was not a thing to be understood or remembered or taken into consideration—just one more thing in the list of things she chose to freely ignore. Every day there was a something she did to provoke the incumbent senior citizens, who carefully guarded their rights to government food, to look down on her in regard to that precious free lunch. If she brought her own lunch—always not quite enough, a couple of burritos packed up in a lunch box that belonged to her grandson—she would try to take some iced tea and cookies from the food line. If anyone called her on that—and the women always did—she would claim that she intended to pay, though all she ever brought in her crumpled up cloth purse was a few pennies for bingo. I pay tomorrow, she’d tell whoever her accuser was. After all, everyone else was getting a free lunch. Why not her? Were they better than her or something? Why did she have to wait on some list when everyone else was eating like there was no tomorrow? But all these remarks she kept to herself.

Or if she didn’t bring her lunch, she sat in the lunch room with Titi anyway, the two of them as motionless as the desert air in summer, until the supervisor or one of the cooks finally relented and gave them a plate. And then there was hell to pay among the gossiping old women that afternoon.

Another thing that Ofe cited as a reason for leaving the center was her inability to get a ride home. Now, the city had a special bus that could have picked Titi and Ofe up in the morning and brought them home in the afternoon. But once they signed up for the bus, they would have had to stick to a schedule. They couldn’t have continued in the time-less pattern Ofe had always had in all her doings. Some days she decided to go to the center at 8 am and other days to stay home and sleep in bed and other days to go at 11 and then to leave whenever she felt like it or when one of the ladies said a cross word to her.

So the bus and its relentless timetable was not an option—at least not until Ofe stopped being Ofe.

Instead, I would take her when she came over to my house in the mornings and pick her up when she called for a ride home in the afternoons. Her son Gilbert couldn’t take her because he didn’t have a car, and his friends, who did have cars, couldn’t take her because they only came to his house to drink and not to carry his mother anywhere and her son-in-law, Josie’s husband, Big Beto, who lived close enough by, couldn’t take her because even though he did have a car and didn’t have a job, he was busy busy busy with other bodily transferences he had to perform (his wife to work, his kids to different schools and/or to baseball practice and part-time jobs) and Ofe’s trip to the senior citizen center didn’t count for much.

But, Ofe said, she could never get me on the telephone, even though—since I got laid off at the gas company—I was always there. And that was because, she said, she had lost my phone number or because, she said, she could never find the Sacramento Center supervisor to ask him if he had it or because she hung up if anyone but me answered or because she decided I wasn’t home if the phone was busy.

One day—for all those very reasons—she and Titi decided to walk home hand-in-hand, creep, creep, creeping the two miles down Copia Street to Louisville in the hot afternoon sun. Six o’clock and Ofe’s family comes over to my house wondering why Ofe and Titi aren’t home. They thought I had picked her up and I thought they had picked her up. I rushed up to Grandview Park but the Sacramento Senior Citizen’s Center was locked and bolted. I pictured Ofe and Titi chopped up into little pieces in some alley—still laced together at the hands—when Big Beto who was driving around on his way either to or from picking someone up—happened to spot them near the corner of Copia and Altura and brought them home. And that incident—and the excitement it generated among her children—made it easier for Ofe to say that she couldn’t go to the center anymore because I was always busy and couldn’t give her a ride home—without ever referencing the fact that she could have gotten the bus if she were willing to come and go according to someone else’s schedule. Or that her own son-in-law Big Beto, if he’d worked it into his busy busy schedule, could have driven her up and back quite nicely.

But really it was the bingo that ended Ofe’s career as a senior gadabout. When looked at in retrospect, it seemed like Ofe had agreed to go to the center in the first place because of bingo. Maybe she liked painting saints and little Dutch girls and maybe she savored the artful dodging that came with trying to get a free lunch, but it was really bingo that she was after.

According to Ofe, you had to pay a penny for each card. And then if you got a bingo on your card, you won all the pennies that had been paid into the pot for that round. If there were a lot of people there—and there usually were—you could win fifty cents, maybe even a dollar.

Well, Ofe did with bingo like she did with lunch—moved ahead on credit. She took her cards without paying. I don have no money, she’d tell the person in charge of the cards. I pay you later, she’d say lightly—because she had no intention of paying. What was a penny? She had to save all hers just to buy a pack of cigarettes. When she’d win on her free cards, she’d go collect the kitty. But she’d never pay up—she couldn’t remember how many cards she’d taken anyway!

Well, this went on for a little while. The women—naturally—had their collective eye upon her—and one day, they called her on it. She got a bingo and the lady in charge of the kitty—she’d had enough!—wouldn’t let Ofe collect.

This made Ofe mad. Why not? she wanted to know.

Because you didn’t pay for your card, the woman told her, tapping the table with her finger.

I pay for my card, Ofe insisted.

No you didn’t, the lady insisted back. She knew, she’d been watching. I did, Ofe said. And then, in a sudden burst of antagonism, she called the lady one of those cruel curse words that Gilbert and his friends when they are drinking fling about with such abandon.

And the lady was horrified, and gathered all her friends around to witness Ofe’s abuse. And then Ofe called them all the same thing she had called the first lady and the supervisor, that poor man, hearing the fight, rushed over to get them to come to an agreement, but neither side was willing to give in, not an inch.

Understand, these weren’t big stakes—pennies, a dollar at the very most if there happened to be 100 people paying into the pot. Unless you consider—like maybe Ofe does—that triumphing over the ladies at the Sacramento Center, even at the cost of cheating—which in Ofe’s book doesn’t count for much—was a prize worth shooting for.

And so she quit. Or they told her to leave. One or the other—same result.

And instead she sits on her front porch from early in the morning until late at night, staring at the street, watching us all pass by.

Nothing new under this hot sun!