Tío Nefta stayed with his four children and wife in Zacapa for years, eking out a living running his small tienda, selling gum, chips, beer, anything that many of the neighborhood children would raid, and doing agricultural jobs that didn’t pay well. When his mother and brother offered to sponsor a visa for him to come to the United States, he applied and got it. I lost track of Tío during these years until he popped up in North Carolina, began living in the trailer next to grandma and doing long shifts at the local chicken plant. He’d come home late at night while I was in grandma’s kitchen doing homework. I knew he talked to himself then. I heard him all the time in an endless monologue punctuated only by “¿Carol, que hora es?” What time is it, Carol?” Since I was always obsessed with keeping time, I would tell him exactly what time it was by the atomic-clock settings on my new cereal box watch.
For years it was like this, and then one day his small two-door gray hatch-back Datsun with the caking paint and the Wash Me, Por Favor on the back windshield was gone. I stared out our window late in the evenings waiting for his car to pull up and then the loud knock at our door that was Tío coming for his black beans and platanos fritos, fried plantains, for dinner. The knock never came, but I imagined a toy car moving along the monopoly board and Tío’s moustache blowing in the wind.
A week later grandmother was told by her brother that Tío Nefta was in Miami and he was taking the plane to Guatemala, to his wife, to his children. He was going home. The problem, I didn’t find out until later, was that his wife had already moved to Los Angeles and filed for divorce and his children all resented him for leaving. When I ask his eldest if he’s interested in contributing to a house for Tío in Media Luna he tells me, “I am saving money for my future.”
Over the years I sent Tío money, adding what I could to grandma’s monthly $100 remittance to keep him alive in Media Luna. I didn’t know what Media Luna, this Half Moon place, was, except that it was where Tío lived, somewhere nestled between banana trees that provided a canopy of shade from the sun. From time to time I heard his voice, ever more distant over the telephone, like a long tunnel I had to get through to find him.
A few weeks before I left Oakland, California, with boxes packed and ready to be loaded into the car that my husband and I were driving to Guatemala, I dreamed about Tío. I walked alone on a country dirt road surrounded by thick bananas leaves on both sides, the path lit brightly by the moonlight as I made my way towards a small town. I was calling out his name at every house I passed. One responded. I stopped at a small store where I could see an arm dangling from a hammock, straight down like it was 6 AM on a clock. I moved closer. In the uneasy quiet of this empty, desolate town I saw the face of mi Tío, asleep, dead, his face shining the gray of a moonbeam.
He sleeps there, like a cocoon made out of tattered hammock that is rolled up under the tin roof of Doña Juana’s neighbor during the daytime. At night, when the last person has eaten, the embers are exhausted, and the generator has been turned off, Tío unrolls it. He gently crawls in, like he’s climbing a cupped palm that holds him through the waters of the night when the storms come during rainy season. The mosquitoes buzz in his ear like a drone of night.
We make it past Finca Las Vegas and the road gets narrower, divides. I think we are lost, until I see the small sign to Finca Media Luna which points us right. We drive past the moat and swamp yard of my third uncle, Santos. Santos is an Evangelical preacher who still lives here. It is something my grandmother revealed to me. “Find Santos,” she told me, “he can find Nefta.” So I find him. I tell him who I am, my Aunt Luz gets out of the car and cautiously makes her way to hug him and my husband doesn’t know where to park. Santos is a thin, tall, mousy man with kind eyes and skin like brown leather. His back curves from years of hard labor. After we make our greetings he hops in our car and we go looking for Tío, whom others call Poporropo or Popcorn. In part it is an insult, in part it is play. It always makes my grandmother angry to hear people call Tío this name. I follow Santos when he steps out of the car and languidly makes his way across tall grassy fields and to a small house where men are sitting outside under the shade. In the corner, from under three layers of baseball caps piled on his head, and a tattered white tank top loosely hanging over a couple of long-sleeves and then a sweater, my uncle’s eyes and smile emerge, alive and dancing as ever. He fans out his clothes and his arms.