The Great Conviction of Tia
by M. Thomas
Tia Inez once beat the ghost of our
grandfather at checkers. She did this to bring Tio Roberto
back. You won’t remember it. You were very little then, and
you never paid attention to the important things.
We don't know why
Grandfather came to haunt
our porch in the States. He died in Mexico, and nobody cried
for him because he was a bastard. Sometimes Mom said to Tia
Inez, "Maybe he is trying to tell us about Roberto." She
usually said this after you’d gone to bed, and I was hiding
around the corner, listening.
We stopped going to the truck stop down south
on Saturdays, because we heard about an old, abandoned gas
station farther outside the city where the men waited for work.
Little Blanca told us about that place. She said her brother
told her he’d once seen Tio Roberto there. There, they weren’t
as likely to be bothered by police asking for green cards. But
there was no electricity or plumbing.
The men sat in the back offices on old crates
and blankets, going in and out through a broken door, waiting
for the construction bosses to need more workers. They played
cards, and drank those big milk jugs of water all day. They
peed outside, where bullnettle crept up to the edges of the
building with its razor-leaves and big, white, stinging blooms.
That summer they sweated in the airless room, and stank and
smoked, and learned to recognize us. They were teachers and a
man who had owned a shop, a pharmacist and husbands and
brothers. One man was an artist, and when he got bored he
twisted all the old wire shelves into animal shapes in the back
lot, then tried to get the bullnettle to grow on them like those
ones at Disneyland. They liked to teach you card games. They
asked us to mail letters for them, counted quarters out of their
pockets for stamps.
But they did not know about our
One day we came, and there weren’t very many
of them. We’d noticed their numbers growing fewer. A man named
Jorge followed us out to our car. He fidgeted with his cuffs
and tugged on his shirt buttons, like this. I didn’t like him.
“I seen that guy,” he said. “Couple weeks
ago near El Paso. We shared a hotel room, working construction
up there. He said he’d been in California before that for a
long time, and needed to get home. He left with a pocket full
of money, but he was sick. Nail went through the bottom of his
boot, his whole leg was red. When I first came here, I asked
about him. Some people said he’d made it back.”
Tia Inez said, “He did? He made it back?”
Jorge nodded. “You know why nobody hangs
around the old truck stop no more? Lotsa guys weren’t coming
back. They got in these cars. Not construction trucks. Nice
cars, small, with air conditioning. Big pay, lots of money.
They say, those people in the cars, it’s for construction. But
I never seen a boss drive up in an air conditioned car.”
“Inez,” Mom said, hurrying you into the back
seat. “Inez, let’s go. He doesn’t know anything.”
But Tia Inez was frozen there, listening to
Jorge, and so was I. You squished your face up against the door
window and rolled your eyes at me, but I ignored you. You were
like that a lot back then.
“They don’t come back,” Jorge said. “The
bosses tell them they have to take a health test first.” He
shrugged. “Who’s going to say no to a free check up?”
Mom started the car. “Inez, come on!”
“Where do they go?” Tia Inez asked.
Mom gunned the motor then, and I couldn’t
hear what Jorge said. You reached out and yanked at my arm, so
I slid in beside you. Sometimes you were afraid Mom would drive
off without me. I saw Tia Inez’s hand go to her mouth. Then
she ran from Jorge, slipped into the car, and slammed the door
Mom said, “You shouldn’t have listened to
Tia Inez said, “You knew about this before
and didn’t tell me.”
They didn’t talk for the rest of the ride.
* * *
Tia Inez believed her husband was alive somewhere
in the States. She missed Tio Roberto so much she paid a coyote
to get her through the desert to come looking for him, after
he’d been missing two months. When you were little, you thought
it was a real coyote, like the one on cartoons. Those scars on
her leg are from when she ran into a cholla cactus in the dark
and didn’t get all the thorns out. When she got here, she put
Tio Roberto’s picture up on the fireplace. You didn’t notice
that either, how his picture covered up Dad’s. Mom said we
should put somebody’s picture up who might actually come back.
You know, each night Tia Inez still looks at his big face and
says, "Berto, tell me where you are, and I will come to you." I
guess if you can cross the desert with a leg full of cactus
needles and two jugs of water in the middle of the night, you
figure you can go anywhere.
When we were really small
(I know you don’t
remember this) and visited Mexico at Christmas, Tio Roberto
would take me and you into the bedroom where he and Tia Inez kept
a box full of coins and bills, which they were saving for us.
Saving Mexican coins for our United States education, because
they had no children of their own. We would count them for
hours, and make stacks of them, and small villages on the floor,
and think we were going to be rich someday. Tio Roberto would
tell me, "Listen, Celia, you study hard. To get a United States
college degree would be best, so that you have something to
defend yourself with in this life."
When she came looking for him, after there
was no work in their town and Tio Roberto came to do day labor
in the States, Tia Inez brought all the coins with her that the
coyote didn’t take. Mom didn't say, but it was only enough for
half a month’s rent and a few tanks of gas to get them back and
forth to the hotel where they cleaned rooms, before Mom got the
nice job at the Wag-A-Bag.
Every Saturday we went together, three women
and one small, pesky boy, to the truck stop. We showed his
picture. "Have you seen him? He used to wait for work here."
But the men shook their heads.
Tia Inez weathered it all very well, until
the ghost of her father showed up. This was some time when you
were six, I think. Then she became furious, especially when Mom
said maybe he was there to tell us about Roberto being dead.
She would stand on the porch watching his shade slip in and out
of the dusk, glaring at him as he waved to people on the
He only showed up just before night, and he
brought his own checkerboard with him. He made no sound, and
you could move the checkers with your fingers, but not feel
them. Your fingers would come away moist and cold, smelling of
mold. You remember that? He tried to spank you once, when you
made him angry, but he couldn’t touch you. Your britches came
away with wet hand prints on them. I don’t know why wet. No,
he didn’t drown. Maybe that’s just how ghosts are.
After a while Tia Inez forbade us from playing
checkers with him, and she tried to make him move to the back
porch, but he wouldn’t go. She even got the next-door neighbor Remedios to come and make one of her special recipes for feeding
the reluctant dead. Grandfather ate all the spirit mole she
made for him, then jumped two of Remedios’ checkers. Remedios
shrugged. “Sometimes, just feeding them isn’t enough,” she
said. “The dead don’t always keep themselves here.”
I don’t know what Remedios puts in the mole
for the dead. She won’t let anyone taste it.
* * *
I got up in the middle of the night because a
sound kept nagging at me. Tia Inez wasn’t in her bed, in the
room we shared. I crept up to the door, opened just a crack,
and saw candles glowing in the living room. Tia Inez and Mom
were at the table, and they had big, black shadow-grooves on
their faces that were their wrinkles, both of them no older than
I am now.
“It’s a stupid story,” Mom said. “It’s been
going around for months. They tell it to scare each other.”
“You should have told me,” Tia Inez said.
“Why? You need one more horror story to add
to your life? Crossing the desert wasn’t enough? Your missing
husband? You clean hotel rooms and have to worry someday
they’ll send you back, and it’s not enough?” Mom said.
“But the cars,” Tia Inez said. “If we could
see one of the cars. We could read the license plate. Find out
where they go, who they are–“
”And who would care?” Mom said. “Who would
you go to, Inez, who would say, ‘Oh, yes, we’ll look into that
for you, mysterious cars picking up Mexicans. Yes, we’ll find
your husband, because we care that much.’”
Tia Inez grabbed her hand. “He was so
strong. He had good lungs, that he laughed with. His stomach –
he could eat anything. He never drank, so it was a good liver.
He had such a good heart. A strong heart, so big, enough room
for everyone, he used to say. Who wouldn’t want his heart?”
Then she started crying again, quietly into her own hand so you
and I wouldn’t hear, nearly strangling herself with her enormous
to me,” Mom said. “If Roberto is still alive, then he is
somewhere far away, working. But if he’s dead – no, listen
– if he’s dead, and Papa’s come back to tell us that, then he’s
been stabbed or shot somewhere for his money, or couldn’t get
help for his leg, not had his body parts sold. And we will
never find him. And you have to accept that.”
But she could not. Tia Inez’s conviction was
stronger than Mom’s reality. It always has been.
* * *
That was when she began to watch cars. At
the truckstops, at the gas station, outside our house. She and
I sat on the porch in the evenings, ignoring Grandfather, who
played checkers for us and always won.
“That one,” she’d say, pointing to a shiny
new Mazda passing by. “That one’s gone around twice. You
see?” She had a great fear of nice cars back then. Still does.
When she showed Tio Roberto’s picture around,
she would say, “He might have gotten in a car. A nice one, with
air conditioning and tinted windows.”
“Lady,” one of the men said. “Nobody gets in
those kinds of cars.”
“Have you seen one?” she asked.
“Oh, sure,” he said. “I got a big fancy one
at home. I keep it in the garage of my mansion.” And he and
the other men chuckled, and sweated, and smoked, and waited for
work, and pissed out the back door on the wire animals the
artist had made.
“I had a dream, Celia,” she’d tell me, when
we were alone. She’d begun talking to me more and more, Mom
less and less. “I dreamed I was lying on a table, with a big
light over me. A man came and cut me open, here.” She drew a
line down the front of her chest. “He pulled back my skin. He
took out my stomach and put it in a dish. He took out my heart
and weighed it, like in one of the scales at the grocery store
for fruit. He said, ‘Not as good as Roberto’s.’ But he took it
I looked up the thing about body parts on the
school computer, but everything I read said those stories were just
legends. For a while I stopped talking to Tia Inez, because I
didn’t like hearing the story. Then I found out she was telling
the story to you, because you used to come to me in tears in the
middle of the night from nightmares. So I went back to Tia
Inez, and listened to that story over and over and over, and you
were able to get through a night by yourself again.
Jorge disappeared. Tia Inez asked about him
sometimes. Some of the men said he’d gotten in a car. But no,
it wasn’t a fancy car. Just an old pick-up.
That was when things got bad. She started
approaching hotel guests at her job. Asking them about cars,
and places where people sold body parts. Did they know where
she could get a good heart? she asked them. She had money saved
up. She needed an operation. Did they know anyone who could
get her a heart, without having to go through a hospital? Maybe
a heart you could buy from someone else?
The hotel guests complained, and they fired
her, and she sat on the porch all day, watching cars.
Then one night, she played checkers with
Grandfather. You and Mom were out somewhere. I was alone, and
I found her on the front porch, huddled over the board. She was
talking to Grandfather. I watched from inside the screen door.
“I had the dream again,” she told him. “They
took out my intestines, attached them to a lightbulb, plugged
them into the socket, and the light came on. The man cutting me
open said, ‘You know why Roberto won’t come back? Because your
bastard father is keeping him away. He got no right to that
soul he haunts your porch with. That’s Roberto’s soul he’s
She moved her red checker forward a space.
She had fewer pieces than he did. Grandfather had his eyes
narrowed, studying the board, tapping one hazy finger against
his chin, thinking.
“You listen to me, you old bastard,” she
said. “You listen to me. You never once gave thanks to God
your whole life, not for Mom, not for your children, not for
nothing good that ever happened to you. Now you want to come
back here and sit between worlds like you have the right to a
He jumped one of her last two checkers. Now
she only had one left, but it was a king.
She took her last piece and jumped. One,
two, three, four, five times. She jumped all Grandfather’s last
checkers, she jumped from black squares to red, and when she was
finished she kept slamming her king down on the squares of the
board, one after the other, faster and faster. Grandfather got
angry, and jumped up and down, but neither he nor the checkers
made any noise.
Then he stood very still, staring at her. He
took his hand, reached into his stomach, and yanked out his
intestines. Tia Inez made this sound, this little sound, but
she didn’t move. I think I started to cry. Grandfather waggled
those intestines in front of her, and grinned, and stuck out his
tongue and danced around. He put them around his neck like a
shawl, and they dripped on his shirt. He reached back inside
himself, and ripped out his liver. There was no noise, but you
could see all the meaty parts of him straining, then snapping
away. That part he just threw over his shoulder, and it
disappeared off the edge of the porch. Then he grabbed his
chest with both hands, ripped it open, and spread his ribs so
they tore out of his skin and stuck out the sides and some fell
out on the checkerboard. He took out his heart, but it was Tio
Roberto’s face, all twisted up, slick and purple in the dusk.
That part he ate, little by little, Tio
Roberto’s eyes and nose and big, broad chin.
Tia Inez didn’t move, and I knew then that
her conviction was stronger than any I had. She faced down her
father and said, “That is my husband’s soul, and you don’t get
to keep it anymore.”
Finally, he turned away from her and went
down the porch stairs still wearing his lumpy intestines around
his neck, fading little by little into the dusk until, near the
end of the sidewalk, he was gone.
Tia Inez turned and saw me watching from
behind the screen door. She held up her hands, and water
dripped from them, from the checkers. She said, “You’ll see,
Celia. Now Roberto will come back.” From that day forward
she’s sat on the porch morning to night, counting fancy cars,
waiting for Tio Roberto. Grandfather never returned. I’m
telling you, she does it every day, even when you’re not here.
Look, things don’t stop happening just because you’re away at
No, I didn’t sign up for those night classes
with the money you sent. Mom needed to have a tooth pulled. I
already told you what Tia Inez does out on the porch all day.
She plays checkers with herself and scratches her cholla scars
and waits for Tio Roberto.
Every now and then I have a dream about
watching some men take out your insides and weigh them. Don’t
laugh. I don’t have anybody to run to at night, so that’s why I
call a lot, just to make sure. Tio Roberto was a nice guy. You
would have liked him, and he would have been proud of you.
Okay, sure, I’m proud of you too.
Sometimes, in that dream, I’m one of the
people taking out your insides. I always get to weigh your
heart. And in the dream I say, “This one is heavy. It can
defend us all.”
About the Author:
M. Thomas is an
author and teacher in Texas. Her work has appeared in Strange
Horizons, OnSpec, and Fantasy magazine, among others.
She is currently a fiction editor for Chiaroscuro ezine. You can
visit her website here.
Story © 2006 M. Thomas.