The old man took the long way home, passing by the rundown church. The steps poked out from the curb and invaded the street, the edges crumbled, and the last stair hung off the sinking road. Los nichos—the graves—were built alongside the church, stacked one on top of the other forming a wall. The old man would not go inside, but would walk passed it; only glancing when he had the courage to.
They called him Viejo, which meant “old man,” and he would greet everyone politely. His house was at the top of the hill, and always he would stop at the bakery for bread. The owner, Sandra, would not let the old man pay because she said it was good for business. She put a baguette and rolls in a bag and he took them home.
He unlocked the door from the bottom and slid it open. Maria was standing in the yard hanging wet clothes on the line. Her eyes shrunk behind the wrinkly skin and she smiled.
“Did you get bread?”
“She gave me a baguette,” he said. “And threw in some rolls.”
She smiled, putting a hand on her hip. “Sandra likes you.”
“Hmph,” he grunted.
“I’ll go make coffee.”
“No, let me,” he insisted, but she had already crossed the yard to the door. She did not want to fail the old man, and he knew this. She did everything for him, which saddened him because he could not count the things he did for her except love her.
She put the water to boil over the stove and they sat at the long table in the foyer. The chairs were empty between them as they sat facing each other on the ends.
“He called,” the old man said. “In the morning.”
“What did he say?”
“He said no.”
“He always says that.”
“He wants more money.”
She groaned and turned away.
“I’ll speak with him, and we’ll see.”
“Arturo,” she shook her head. “How much has he asked us for? You can’t do it.”
“Of course I can. I’ll go to him—today.”
“He carries that knife around… Who knows what he uses it for.”
“He has a tree in his home. I’ve seen them—Mangos, big red ones. He uses the knife to cut them down.”
“He isn’t eating those.”
“Don’t be foolish. Of course he does.”
“It’s just I haven’t seen him at church, and he doesn’t pray.”
“He must practice his prayer in private. Or he’s joined the new congregation on the corner. I hear them every morning—”
“You don’t know that.”
He scoffed and threw a hand in her direction. The water on the stove foamed over the edge, dripping and sizzling onto the iron. She got up, and wafted the steam with a rag. The smoke cleared, and she leaned on the counter, letting her head fall between her shoulders. “Just don’t let him have the house.”
“Okay,” she said, and turned around.
“I won’t do that.”
“Okay,” she nodded, and he smiled.
The old man carried with him his phone, because she made him. He didn’t understand why it was necessary but he didn’t bother arguing and he brought it with him as he went out. The pale light of the moon colored the whole town in a ghostly blue, and at night the streets were quiet and unsafe. He let most of the day pass because he knew Mauricio was busiest during the day.
Mauricio’s home was at the far end of town and the gate was made of several rusted panels. When he got to his house the dog barked behind the gate, and the screen door creaked open shortly afterward. He didn’t much like the dog because she was half-wild. She grew up on the street and she would fight with the other dogs until Mauricio took her in. Then, not only did she fight harder, but she became wilder. The gate hinges squealed softly and the stakes at the bottom skidded along the pavement.
Mauricio was a dark young man who wore a thin mustache over his lip, and he had cryptic, hazel eyes. “Linda!” he shouted back at the dog, and she stopped barking. Mauricio looked up. “Viejo,” he said. “Come inside. Please, come inside.”
He followed him to the house.
“There’s a fucking cold wind blowing, and I don’t want to get sick. That’s how death travels, you know, in the cold. You shouldn’t be outside, Viejo. You already have one foot in the grave,” he chuckled. Then he bent down, picked up a mango near the dog, and tossed it into the black garbage bin. “Be careful with the mangos,” he said. “She’ll try and eat them.”
The old man nodded and looked at the mango tree, which Mauricio had planted by the steps of his veranda. It had grown since the old man had last been there. Rising to great heights, the leaves flowered over the roof of Mauricio’s home. The bright red and orange mangos grinned with sharp, green, teeth, and wobbled freely in the wind. He went up the steps and pulled the screen door open. They sat at a small table in the dark as Mauricio lit a cigarette. “What can I do for you, Viejo?”
“I had a feeling that’s what you wanted to talk about,” he puffed on the cigarette. The smoke swelled up around him. “And I remember giving you an answer.”
“I don’t have any more money.”
“Well,” he said. “Then we have a problem.”
“Maybe there’s something else I can do?”
“Tell me something, Viejo, and I want the truth. I heard something interesting in the street the other day. I heard another man offered you a space for much cheaper. And you said no. Not even a maybe or I’ll think about it. Just no. Between him and me, I think we might be the only people who own a space in Los Nichos still… All the other graves are full.”
“I’m old,” he said, folding his arms on the table. “I get up surprised nowadays, got this feeling like I shouldn’t wake up anymore. But they open, my eyes, and I shrug because I guess that means I got another day ahead of me. I don’t know that I’m afraid, but I don’t want to die during the day. I want to go to bed one night, and fall asleep. Maybe I’ll be dreaming then.”
Mauricio laughed, “And if you have a nightmare?”
The old man shrugged.
Mauricio nodded and reached into his pocket. He pulled out a silver blade. The metal shimmered as he placed it on the table. He snorted and leaned back in his chair. “What did Maria say about the knife?”
“She was worried.”
“Hmm,” he hummed smiling. “Your vieja is very mistrustful, but I guess with good reason. You know something? I bought this knife on the street off a bum—I liked the handle. You won’t find anything like this here. I offered the bum a fair price, and he said no. He pinched out a pretty penny from me before he finally agreed. I was angry with him, but I wanted it, and now it’s here.” He tapped the table with a finger. “I don’t blame the bum, because it’s business. Nothing personal. Don’t take this the wrong way, Viejo, but you will never buy the grave unless you have something I want. You have to start thinking about what I want.”
“I don’t have money.”
“Don’t beat around corners,” he said, and the smoke followed each word from his mouth. “You have a nice house… I would settle for something like that.”
“I can’t do that.”
Mauricio frowned, and dipped the end of his cigarette into the ashtray. “Then we don’t have a deal. You have nothing to trade, and I have nothing to lose by not selling.”
The old man nodded and stood up. “Okay.”
Mauricio escorted him to the gate, but paused, looking out at the dog as she napped. “She’s beautiful, isn’t she?”
“Linda,” he said.
He opened the gate, shook hands, and the old man made the trek back for his home. Maria called him halfway through his walk, but he didn’t answer the first time because he couldn’t figure it out. She called again and he answered.
“Are you okay?” She asked.
“Yeah, yeah, I’m on my way home.”
“What did he say?”
“It doesn’t matter.”
“What did he say?” She sounded more agitated.
“He wants the house.”
She hung up, the receiver cutting off with an echoed clap.
The lights were off when he got back and Maria was not home. So, he sat on the bed waiting for her. He waited an hour before he turned in, and shut the light off; but even then he could not sleep without her. He laid in bed until he heard the gate scuff the pavement and Maria opening the door. Then he felt tired enough to sleep.
The next morning he got up early to make breakfast, but Maria was already stirring in the kitchen. Beans bubbled in the pot and she sat at the table cutting a mango.
“Good morning,” he said, and sat down at the other end of the table. “Where were you?”
“Something happened in the night,” Maria said.
“Mauricio called, he changed his mind about the grave. He said it’s yours.”
“How did that happen?”
“You were right,” she said. “He is a godly man, and he prays.”
“Mmm,” the old man mumbled. His eyes searched for hers, but she didn’t look at him. She only looked at the mango.
“Will you see them now?”
“But I need you there with me,” he said, and she looked up, startled.
He grabbed her coat from the side of the chair and they went out the gate. Going down the hill toward the lake at the base of the hill, the orange glow of the sun was just coming over the mountains. The smell of the sweet bread baking wandered in the streets. The people were out, buying goods in the market, and there was chatter, which came with the morning buzz. They walked arm-in-arm and people said good morning to them as they passed. Sandra stood by the door of the bakery and waved.
“Good morning,” the old man said.
“Good morning,” Sandra answered, and she leaned in and spoke in a low voice. “Did you hear what happened to Mauricio’s dog?”
“No,” they said in unison.
“She swallowed the pit of a mango and choked in the night. He lost a lot of money… because… of the dog fights. He made too many forward bets.”
The old man squeezed his wife’s hand. “I didn’t know,” he said.
Sandra shrugged, and promised them bread on their way back.
The cross of the church poked out from behind a tree before the whole church came into view. The rugged walls were cracked and the white stone had faded into gray. Los Nichos were no better—the graves were scarred, and some caved in. The names were scratched off or unmarked in places and the paint had mostly withered away. He went down the walls searching the graves until he found his. Maria held him tightly by the arm and he sobbed. He sobbed, and reached out his hand toward the grave next to his, and he let his fingers run over the rusted plaque.
“Papa,” he said. The old man fell to his knees, and Maria bent down next to him, holding him up. It was his father’s grave, and next to his father there was his father, and so forth, lined up along the wall. Their last name traced the wall until it came to the empty grave he had bought. El nicho was waiting for him, and he would join them all, one day, in a dream.
Ronald DeLeon is a former Chicago resident who is currently in his junior year at FAU. On his writing, Mr. DeLeon says: “I’ve always been making stories, ever since I was very little. In the privacy of my room entire worlds would come to life. I carried that piece of me in secret until I started writing things down. And then they weren’t worlds but stories.” Mr. DeLeon, in particular, loves stories that explore the world, and its infinite capacities.
“El Nicho” was inspired by Mr. DeLeon’s grandfather. He says: “It is very much his story… He was reaching a point in his life that calls for preparedness, and all he really wanted was to be buried amongst his family. There’s something about the generations of a bloodline being buried together that reveals death to not be something that separates but shows rather how it connects.”
At present, Mr. DeLeon is an English major but is in the process of making the transition to his second passion, Criminal Justice.