I’m not here.
by Austin Medina Diaz
The definition of a guest room: a bedroom in a house for visitors to sleep in.
I am not, however, sleeping here. It is four in the morning, and I have not slept. Also, it is unclear if I am still a visitor or if I ever was. Two of the four criteria, then, are not fulfilled. It is a bedroom, and this bedroom is in a house, specifically Grandmother’s house.
A weekend in Amarillo on the way down to the Permian has stretched to three months. The rig called and said I’d failed my drug test. I could take it again in six months.
There was no place in Omaha to drive back to. Dad said no. Mom said she was disappointed – and also no.
A short description of the guest (?) room: There is a bed and a nightstand with a lamp, a picture on the wall and a grandfather clock.
That’s it. No chest of drawers, no closet, no window, not even an overhead light dangling from the ceiling.
Staying here sent me into a bit of a spin and I spun until Grandmother brought the cops around on me.
They wanted her to press charges, but she said she was taking me home and they listened to her because Grandmother is regal. She is not a grandma or meemaw or oma or nana. She is Grandmother. One of my earliest memories is sitting in the highchair while she led me through the three distinct syllables of what I was to call her. Grandmother.
Now one item at a time:
The bed – a twin bed in a wooden frame dominates the room. A glyptic sun shines on the short headboard, the feet are wrapped in polished gold. Thrown over the bed is a quilt, a patchwork. Many of the patches ripping at the seams. The quilt has covered many children for many generations. In a corner of the quilt the colors have faded, as though it began to slink out under the Texas sun and paled with fear.
Beneath the quilt, unseen, is a beige sheet tucked in with hospital corners that do not give way to even the most restless thrashing of legs.
Roberta makes the beds. Roberta is Grandmother’s Mexican maid who comes every day. Roberta also cleans the kitchen and the bathrooms, dusts the bookcases and vacuums both the furniture and the thick carpet.
One day I made the bed myself. Roberta unmade it and remade it. The corners have, since then, felt tighter.
I kept my suitcase at the foot of the bed for a while but watching Roberta heave it out of the way to vacuum and heave it back in shamed me into unpacking my clothes into the hallway linen closet and stowing the suitcase in my car.
Every day Roberta takes out all of my clothes, along with the sheets, and refolds them.
The nightstand – it is also made of wood. Like many other wooden items in the house, it is fashioned from rosewood, polished and stained. The legs are slender and curved, two-toed claws that dig into the thick beige carpet. There is a narrow drawer with a golden handle that rattles when there is any movement in the guest (?) room.
This drawer sticks whenever I try to slide it out. Anything of consequence hidden inside would rattle loud enough to call even Grandmother into this space. Whenever we go to the restaurant, Grandmother has to ask the waiter to repeat the specials three times before she orders the same thing she always does, but squeak and rattle this drawer and she hustles down the hallway.
The lamp – its porcelain base stands on a white doily that droops its frills over the sides of the nightstand. The lampshade is a deep velvet inlaid with gold filagree and hanging with gold tassels. A gold collar holds its light bulb.
Whenever I switch on the lamp it bathes the guest (?!) room in a dim red light, save for the beam of white light shooting naked from the top, throwing the fragile shadow of the wire casing on the ceiling. It is not a light to read by and it is the only light in the room, even when the sun is up.
The painting – a barn in the snow at nighttime. The snow from the eaves sharpens into icicles. In front of the barn leans a wagon with a broken axle; the snow is piling high upon its empty bed. The ruts in the gravel path leading to the barn are disappearing beneath the snow; snow gives definition to the naked trees retreating into the darkness. The flecks of white paint in the black sky above everything are not stars, but snowflakes winking into existence.
My aunt painted this. She only painted scenes smothered in snow, though she grew up in Abilene where there’s a dusting every twenty years or so and she never left. The last ten years of her life she rarely left her house. Grandmother blamed it on my aunt’s ‘weight problem’. When my aunt died, they had to cut out part of the bedroom wall to lift her out.
The house my aunt left behind was filled with paintings, leaned in neat rows in all her rooms like an oversized record collection. She did not have a guest room.
I asked her once where she got her ideas for her paintings, if she copied them from photographs or was inspired by the books she had delivered in the mail.
“It’s just what I see in the reel spinning next to reality,” she said, as though this made perfect sense.
I guess it did.
There is only one painting of my aunt’s left in the world and it is hanging here on the wall.
The Grandfather clock – stretches from the floor to almost ceiling. Fashioned likewise from rosewood or something stained to look the same. A golden pendulum clicks back and forth beneath a golden clock face described with black Roman numerals bordered in white gold.
It double chimes the quarter hour, a slow crescendo as it approaches the hour.
The number of the hour it proclaims with tolling howls that shake everything in the room: the filaments in the lightbulb, the handle on the narrow (empty) drawer. My aunt’s painting rattles on the wall, the headboard above my head knocks against the wall.
Between each tolling I hear the gasps of the whirring cogs and widgets, the torture of the springs winding and tightening.
The Grandfather clock is always chiming, always gasping. Only Roberta has the tiny key to the sanctum. She opens the glass-faced door, stills the pendulum and dusts everything before winding up the clock and re-locking the door.
The door – white like the walls
The door does not close. It whispers along the thick carpet and shudders to a stop a full hand’s width from the door jamb. There is no use shouldering it, no use throwing my weight against it. The ground in the panhandle has shifted – maybe it’s all the fracking. The door will never fit again.
Is a room a room without a door? Without the ability to seal itself off from the rest of the house?
Through the gap I can see Grandmother shuffle to the hallway bathroom every hour on the quarter hour. After she flushes, I hear her loop into the kitchen where the stove light hums to life. I hear her fill another glass of water.
There is a bathroom attached to her master bedroom, but the toilet no longer flushes. The other day Roberta pulled me into the bathroom and pointed at the toilet. She said something in Spanish that I assumed meant fix it. I tried because she had acknowledged me. I jiggled the lever and lifted the lid. The machinery of toilets is deceptively simple. A rod, a plastic bulb, a chain and a stopper. I moved all these things, but the water stayed stagnant. It had started to smell.
Roberta rolled her eyes and said something again in Spanish. I pretended to understand and apologized in the Spanish I knew. I wanted to tell her that I, too, was Mexican – or half. That my father was born here to illegal immigrants and forbidden to speak Spanish and that when my mother married my father Grandmother refused to speak to her for three years, until I was born. I came out pale and my baby blues stayed blue, and Grandmother was back in everyone’s life.
I did not have the language to tell Roberta these things. She would have been right not to really care. I couldn’t fix the toilet.
Even if the grandfather clock and the stove light and Grandmother shuffling down the hall in her silk underthings were not conspiring to keep me awake, I would not sleep. I cannot sleep here because I am not here. The door does not close so when I am in this room I am in the whole house. I am everywhere and if I am everywhere, I’m not here.
Austin Medina Diaz, though originally from Texas (yes, Austin, Texas), has lived in Basel, Switzerland, for eleven years where he works as a Latin and English teacher. His novel-in-progress, The Courtyard, was awarded a grant by the Abteilung Kultur des Kanton Basel-Stadt in 2019.