Alfred Longoria died at 17.
Nobody knows why he escaped the rest of his life—with all its complications, its heartbreak and lack of love, its twists and turns and disappointments.
But he managed it. Somehow, he managed it.
From that day on, he became a distant observer—detached, but ever present; watchful, but untouched; concerned with what would happen next, but more out of curiosity than emotion; content with the cocoon that death provided him.
For many years, he had watched Maria Gonzales bathe each night, and it became a ritual he continued even after his death. He had started when he was eight, climbing onto the roof of the house. He would walk toward the back of the roof and then onto the roof of the shop—if you could call it a shop; it was more like a collection of dilapidated boards that served as a wall and half a roof. It was the place his father would go to fix things. But that half-roof provided enough space for Alfred Longoria to sit, just high enough to be able to look across the yards and see the outside shower Maria Gonzales used every night.
Maria Gonzales had a fine body: smooth and wet and brown to the point of bronze. She had the whitest teeth (though of course he never looked at them when he was watching her from the roof) that smiled completely across her brown face. Her face was beautiful. But most of all, it was the firmness of her body that held him captivated, eternally bidding him to climb from roof to roof.
She would bathe slowly for him—or so he thought at eight, and then at 12, and later at 17. And as she bathed, Maria Gonzales would slowly rub the soap across her flat stomach a stroke at a time, looking toward the sky as she stroked her neck, her long elegant fingers bubbling the soap over herself.
She was Maria Gonzalez, and the way she bathed brought the boys and young men to the rooftops. They would gaze at her in the darkness, unaware of each other as she bathed. And in the middle of the afternoon, when she wasn’t bathing, they would gaze at their own shoes, at the rocks in the middle of the caliche roads, at the shrubbery in front of her mother’s well-kept home, and at her windows—waiting, yearning, and aching for Maria Gonzales to get dirty once again.
For many years—even after he died—Alfred Longoria was no different. He waited as patiently and as religiously as any other. One time there was a brief, quiet murmur among the boys: Mrs. Gonzales, her mother, wasn’t bad either. She too had her daughter’s body. In fact, Alfred Longoria once spent an entire evening fantasizing about this or that and watching soapy hands rub over a firm, youthful midriff, until he realized it was the mother he had been watching. He made the same mistake one time after he had died. He could still recall the first time that it happened—the red embarrassment of his face as he quietly climbed down the side of the building.
One night, having caught him climbing down the side of the house, his father asked him what he was doing up there. Another time, it was his mother who caught him. Both times, without pausing to think about it, he said he had been looking at the stars and at how the moon, in its creamy whiteness, looked against the darkened sky. Then he added, without much afterthought, that he liked to watch the clouds at night because they didn’t look like cotton the way they did in daylight. Instead they looked like silk threads spread across a blue-black, velveteen table.
“They look like brushed strands,” he said. “Like someone had brushed them as if they were hair and had left them spread out across the table.”
Days, even years later, whenever they heard him on the roof, his mother and father would tell visitors that one day their son would be an astronomer (according to his father) or a poet (according to his mother). From the roof, he could hear his parents repeat the words, almost verbatim, that he had used when they caught him coming down the side of the house.
He felt guiltiest about having had lied when he heard his mother repeating those words. The guilt would wash over and encompass him, not wanting to let him go. But along with the guilt came a warm feeling of pride: She actually believed that someday he would become a poet.
He could tell how deeply she believed it by the way that she spoke to the women who came to visit. She hadn’t read many books, except for the short Mexican novelas that the women at work camps passed from one to the other—mother to daughter, neighbor to neighbor—the heirlooms of the poor. But whatever it was—a novela or the family Bible—she would clutch it and press it against her heart when she uttered the final word: “No, no. He won’t be an astronomer; my son will be a poet.” Her words would be followed by a pause, which from his high distance he would imagine was a barely audible sigh: “He will be a poet.”
She seemed to relish the idea. They were all workers, with calloused hands. And most of the men didn’t read a word of anything. Nor did she, for that matter, at least not regularly. She looked at La Biblia and occasionally read it, but she had never read a pictureless novel or a poem. She liked the thought of it, though, and whenever she looked at the comic-book-like characters in the novelas, she would dream of someday reading a real book without pictures. And the sound of her voice, whenever she spoke of him becoming a poet, would take on its own quiet reverence: “He will be a poet.” As if, even before it happened, it meant escape. Not just for him, but for all of them.
They lived in a small town called Alvaro, which they jokingly referred to as the village. The town had been there forever, but most of them had arrived just the year before, field workers who came and left as soon as frustration overcame them. The women came with men who left before the relationships had settled in (usually they left with younger women who wanted to make their own escape).
His father, too, had his own romantic streak, although he refused to admit it. “He will be an astronomer,” he told the other men, as if somehow that was less of a dream than becoming a poet. It had never occurred to anyone, except to Alfred Longoria after he died, that perhaps his father had thought that it would be more practical and logical to base his dreams on science; there would be more reason to hope that those dreams and wishes might actually come true.
Mr. Longoria, his father, had met Mrs. Longoria like that: with a romantic flair disguised by practicality. She had been quietly working the cotton fields several rows away from him, her ponytail dangling across the side of her face as she leaned forward. He peppered her sack with cotton bolls until she finally acknowledged him with a smile.
It began like that and lasted that way too. He would bring her flowering onion plants from the fields, under the pretense that he wanted to eat onions that night. Or he would bring some other plant, saying that he just wanted to show her how healthy it was. But he always chose at least one or two with a bloom at one end so that she could see it: a flowering onion, with its long stem punctuated by the white-yellow flower, or early blooming broccoli, with yellow- or pink-flowered edges, or anything else he could find in the fields.
The men who walked home with him after work never commented on the budding flowers. Years later, Mr. Longoria and his wife wondered if that was because the men had seen only the practical end of the plant—the onion, the broccoli, the radish—or if they just chose to keep quiet so he would never have to explain what he was really up to when he brought her all those plants.
Whenever he walked home, Mr. Longoria always went directly home. He never stopped for a drink, never noticed any of the small, weather-beaten homes on the side of the road, never noticed anyone who spoke to him along the way, except to acknowledge a greeting. He would pass the homes of the women who were considered the most beautiful in town. They would notice his mature good looks, his slim frame, and his still-muscular build—and no one would say anything about it. He loved his wife, and they all knew it.
Among the houses he passed was the one where Yolanda Gomez lived. He never would have given her any thought, except he always remembered that his son, who hardly ever spoke to him about those things, had once mentioned her late one evening. Mr. Longoria responded with a light laugh, what could have been described as the beginning of a chuckle, and made no further comment. His son, he had noted, was becoming a man. But beyond that, Mr. Longoria never gave her any thought.
Yolanda Gomez, indeed, was a beautiful woman.
And Alfred Longoria, throughout that short, hormonal part of his life, had always liked the thought of being close to her. It was only after he died though that he got a chance: he would sit in her room while she undressed; he would watch her strain, in her tight clothes, to reach behind her and try to undo the zippers of the dresses her first husband had bought her.
Her first husband had had money, the women said, not because he had been born rich like the few white men in town, but because he had settled a lawsuit against the railroad company for an accident that cost him his leg. After the money was spent, Yolanda Gomez left him for someone else; he, in turn, had left her here in Alvaro. “Un poquito de justicia,” the people had said. “A little bit of justice.” But they said it as an afterthought, as if it didn’t really matter.
Alfred Longoria liked to watch her after his death.
He liked to sit in her room, not just to watch her undress, but to see her sit and walk, to hear her laugh when she spoke to whoever had stopped by to visit (interestingly enough, mostly women). He liked to sit and watch her smile when a thought came to her. He never learned to read her thoughts, though he had heard that others who had been dead many years could do it. Nor did he learn how to deduce them from the progression of her expressions, which some who had been dead many years and—and even some of the living—could do.
She was 22, or so it was said around town. She had wonderful legs, and the flatness of her midriff revealed to the world that she had never “been with child,” as the priest referred to it. And she slept on her stomach, with her arms and legs spread, to ward off the heat of summer and to heat up the room in winter. And Alfred Longoria, who inexplicably had begun to observe women at a very young age, enjoyed every minute of it.
He lay beside her once. He waited until he was dead, of course. But even then he continued to wait, biding his time for days, night after night, month after month, watching her patiently.
The morning after he’d lain with her, the indentation beside her on the bed made her take note. As she pulled on her jeans, comfortable and loose except when she slid them up over her hips, suddenly she paused.
She seemed somewhat disturbed that someone may have actually lain beside her throughout the night without her knowledge. After a moment, though, she dismissed it as just a coincidence; it was just the way the pillows and sheets were placed. Perhaps her own movement during the night had caused the definite impression of a man lying sideways next to her on the bed. Satisfied with that conclusion, she pulled the sheets taut until the impression on the cotton mattress was gone, and then she forgot all about it.
Later, whenever he lay with her—now older and wiser—he was careful to leave no sign of it. After that first time, he was afraid that he might scare her into moving out of town. He knew that if she left he would miss her. And though he might have been dead several years by then, he could never follow her. He knew his limitations. Above all, he knew that he would stay in Alvaro for eternity.
As much as Alfred Longoria enjoyed watching women, that didn’t occupy all of his time. He also liked to listen to men: the way they spoke to each other when they confided about their wives; the way they yelled at each other before one of them pulled out a knife or a gun; the way they quietly talked in the evenings about work; the way they talked about cars and engines, drinking and bars, and women. Always women.
“Two houses down from where Señora Alvarez lives. Man, have you seen her daughter? Jesus, it’s a sin to look at her.” “La mera verdad, es un pecado.” “The truth is, it’s a sin.”
Or, “Two blocks from the old lady’s house, the one with the missing front tooth.” Or, “The house where widow Alvarez lives; her husband died in the war, may God bless his soul.” Never anything sexual or obscene about the widows.
After he died, Alfred Longoria became a better listener. He liked to listen to the night, the day, and particularly to early mornings. He liked the sound of dishes gently tapping against each other when people tried to wash them or make coffee without waking everyone else. He liked to listen to couples whispering before sunrise, out of respect for their families and out of respect for the dwindling moments of the night. He liked to listen to children snoring lightly under their sheets and blankets. He liked the sound of women walking on wooden floors in their bare feet.
Alfred Longoria also learned to watch old women talk. He liked to watch their teeth as they spoke (the ones that weren’t missing), even though they tried to cover their mouths whenever they laughed or spoke. And he liked to watch them push their gray hair away from their foreheads when they cooked or washed dishes. He liked to watch them laugh, looking like shy schoolgirls when they walked away from each other after a particularly humorous episode.
Alfred Longoria liked to listen and he enjoyed it all: the sounds, the feelings, the sights, the voices, the lights—the eternal wonderfulness of it all.
But when he was alive, he had never really enjoyed it.
Alfred Longoria died at 17 to escape from it all. No one ever knew why he shot himself on a Sunday afternoon, what he was missing the day or even minutes before, what was lacking that made him want to enjoy it after he died.
And so Alfred Longoria died at 17. And he got away with it.
Ruperto Garcia is a former Observer staff writer. He practices law in San Antonio and is working on a book of short stories.