Chato by E. Nolan
My wife and I named Chato after the diner we ate at once on the outskirts of El Paso, Texas. We both fell in love with the name and decided it was time to have a baby. What I remember most of the moment was the smell of the dust, how it seemed so old. I knew that in those dry dust particles were hidden secrets from eons ago, drifted down from the heavenly bodies that hung low overhead. Where we had spent our rocky relationship torturing each other looking for answers that simply were not there, now I was at peace with the unknown, reconnected to my troubled, dear wife. Chato was conceived in a motel on the other side of town that same night. When he was only two months old, my wife ran away.
Some from our families think she might have fled to Mexico. Some think that she was killed but they’re being irrational. Some nights I get phone calls with emptiness on the line, and into this emptiness I say, “Everything’s fine. The boy’s fine. I’m fine. Go back to sleep.” It's been twelve months. If she wanted to come home, I know she would. Sometimes I think Chato will have trouble accepting this as easily as I do.
What we have is a mutual understanding, Chato and I. I pay the bills and while I’m at work opening bags of cement he goes drooling on one of the part-timers at Child’s School. When I come home, I’m all his. We do whatever he wants. If it’s a nice day, we walk around in the backyard or play baseball, but he’s still way too young for that. Other days we sit on the couch and watch movies. On bad days, it’s little else than getting him to eat something. I do this by imitating something from one of his movies, like, “remember this?” He laughs, and sometimes he breaks down and eats, but I don’t know if he remembers the movie. At those moments I hope he does, would give anything in the world if it were true, but I don’t think so. Not yet. He won’t remember this at all.
I wouldn’t ever want him to run away from me. The way I see it, until Mommy comes home, we have to lean on each other.
This night, when I came back in from having a smoke on the back porch, Chato had been up and screaming, for who knows how long, alone in the dark. God, how I wanted to take away his suffering! I turned on the lights and ran to his crib.
“Tell me who you love,” I said.
“Do you want to watch a movie?”
I asked this as I picked him up, but by the time he had his head on my shoulder, he was asleep again. I put him down and saw his cheek covered in dusty cement mix from my work shirt. I turned off the lights and his star-covered room glowed in the dark.
My mind went toward that lonely night in that empty, dirty landscape. Those stars. Liars, each and every one of them. My manic wife, blindly suggesting sharing a baby with the universe. And the abandonment that followed.
She'll never know what a real connection is.
I grabbed him up again and decided that we should call her. It was time. I didn’t have her number, but I thought dialing star-six-nine might work. The last time she called was about five or six days ago, and I didn’t think anyone called since. I pushed those buttons and put it on speakerphone. The quiet was enveloping. Chato perked up and stared at the machine. The phone rang six times, and a woman whose voice I hardly recognized, out of breath, answered. "Yes?"
I looked at Chato. He totally got it. “Ma-ma!”
The silence came back on the other end in the form of heavy breaths. I listened closely.
More breathing, but now more controlled. I wondered if I should say something, or pretend that Chato called her on his own.
“Chay-toe,” she said. It was her. I got so angry that little flashing stars crowded my vision. Why would she not speak to me? All this time she only wanted to speak with the baby.
“Chay-toe. Did you call mommy?”
I hung up right then. She was about to figure out that Chato was not the one who called her. I did not want the burden of being the one to destroy their celestial, electrical connection. Chato did not like this, and for the first time, I saw anger in his eyes. It was 12:15. I knew that this was to be his first memory.
E. Nolan lives in New York with his wife and two children. He has an MFA from the University of Florida. He also writes songs under the name normanuniform.