Now that aunt #6 was dead, we could be a hand. If we are a hand, my grandmother is the cupped palm at the center of her five remaining children. If we are a hand, my mother is the thumb, and the other fingers are her brothers and sisters. They hold themselves rigidly so as not to touch, and my mother, the thumb, must handle the emotional intricacies around which the other four digits are not equipped to maneuver. The thumb must cross two state lines to facilitate the distance between the fingers and the cupped palm.
They are not quite aunts/uncles, not quite tíos/tías, these other fingers, pulled between English and Spanish, post-colonial and post-Chicano. Aunt finger #3 maintains a spectacular koi pond, does consultation work for dairies, and wishes she were a private investigator. Uncle finger #2 is a tall, mustached cowboy with one eye squinted, works as a mechanic, and has lived in a trailer ever since someone drove into the side of his house. Uncle finger #4 died for eight minutes and came back to life, converses with angels, and is married to a natural blonde. Aunt finger #1 hadn’t spoken with the others for two years, but she swooped in upon hearing of the death, a phantom of the opera, her heroics unsummoned.
My mamá, the thumb, is not only opposable, she is opposed. She is always in trouble with the rest for things like—in semi-chronological order—reading, making art, going to college, having a nose-piercing, marrying another Mexican, going to Abuelita’s second wedding, and escaping the slow swallow of her agricultural hometown.
Mamá is the thumb, and I am her fingernail. I am the only granddaughter whose first language was Spanish, and who still speaks it fluently. Respected, I serve proudly as ceremonial weapon to our matrilineality, yet, having transitioned from female to male, I am a granddaughter by office, not gender. I am The Good Kid whose voice has suddenly deepened, whose chest has gone flat, who grows stubble, who lives with A Good Friend. When I visit my extended family, I shave off my sideburns and wear a baggy shirt. To serve them as matrilineal weapon means not to tell. And to honor the nail on the thumb means for them never to ask. No one decided this. It just is.
When aunt #6 was found dead in her residential motel room, the other fingers waited a week to tell Abuelita. Aunt #6 had lived alone, had struggled with mental illness, and had been homeless for a time. She had been nice to strangers and mean to her family. According to aunt #3, the police never released a cause of death. She said the police wouldn’t say how she died, couldn’t in fact prove it was her without an ID—which had not been found at the scene. The ashes were released to aunt #3 in the end. On her way home, she stopped by aunt #6’s motel room, and then called the thumb to say that someone else would have to clean because she refused to look at the place again.
“They never found her purse. #3 says they can’t prove it’s her until we find an ID.”
“Then who did we just bury?”
“I’m sure it was her. #3 got the ashes somehow. You know how she is.”
Mamá had been upgraded to a minivan for free. “They asked if I’d take the Prius or the van, and I said the van because it might come in handy. Watch this,” said the thumb, clicking buttons. The side door slid open by itself. I nodded slowly, impressed.
Mamá drove her minivan upgrade through the desert while I looked at pictures of the room on her phone. I backward-pinched my fingers over a dark, narrow space illuminated by flash, zoomed in on a bunched blanket, a yellow glove turned inside-out, stacks of boxes going up on all sides, and a pile of curly hair.
“You think that’s a wig?” asked Mamá.
I shook my head. “I dunno. But looks like we’re going to need a shovel. Like, a wide shovel.”
We were about to pick up Abuelita, after which we would not discuss the room. She would stay with my great aunt, “Tía,” for the day.
“I’m pretty sure your aunt #6 was a hoarder,” said Mamá, birthing the word into the world with caution. “But I don’t think we’ll need a shovel.”
I stayed quiet, embarrassed, the fatalistic nail on an optimistic thumb.
“#3 said she threw away all the clothes she was wearing after she went in the room, even her shoes. She said it was life-changing.”
Now we laughed together. It was our cultural superpower to laugh when the others wouldn’t. Life was hard and absurd, and while the others couldn’t deal with these realities, we laughed. We, superheroes, smiled at each other all the time, our delicious secret language of delighted irony and shared understatement. If you couldn’t contain the complexity, it meant you were weak, unspecial.
I had been thinking for a few minutes. “Do we know how she died yet? Should we be worried about that?”
“Don’t worry, I brought sage.”
We could have been in an episode of Hoarders, but it felt more like a forensics-themed telenovela, the Chicano takeover of Bones. I would play the steel-stomached cynic so she could play the open mind that puts all the pieces together.
I drooped my brow as directed and said, “Sometimes sage isn’t enough.”
Bakersfield, California, is dead from a broken heart. Eyes glazed and crossed, the buildings itch, stacked chunky against the sky. Littered, empty lots are connected by bulging pedestrian bridges that knot tightly with the roaring freeways. If you want, you can watch Bakersfield’s young shuffle across the busy street, honked at between high school and the mental-health-services trailer. It’s a short walk to juvenile hall.
Baggy jeans gave way to zip offs, which gave way to cargo pants, which gave way to skinny jeans, but I swear that same cholo kid in the black denim Red Kap shorts was standing on that exact same corner the last time I was here, more than sixteen years ago. He is the phantom of Kern County: shaved head, crisp white A-shirt, gray Dickies jacket, Vans with the socks pulled up. He could be Mexican or he could be white, but he is probably both. All I know is you can’t get those shorts anymore, not anywhere in the Central Valley. This is how I know he’s a ghost.
We pulled into the Plaza Motel in the mid-afternoon. Red letters on yellow, no logo. From the street, the building just looked to me like someone with their eyes shut tight. From inside, the place was like the aftermath of a spaghetti Western, the blood dried and crusted—hungry, thirsty, dusty, and all messed up in the head. The rooms of the motel were arranged in a horseshoe shape around a rutted parking lot and four dying palm trees. The windows of the office were behind thick bars, silent. People stood around, gaunt, not looking at each other, pushing busted strollers full of babies and/or bottles and cans. Johns and dealers rolled past in nice, slow-moving cars, coming and going behind dark-tinted windows and yellow-tinted glasses.
“This is it,” one of us said unnecessarily as we parked in front of the only door with missing numbers. I put gloves on and handed a pair to Mamá. She left them on the dashboard. We got out of the van and stood in front of the flimsy door. A sticker with the coroner’s seal across the doorframe had been split in two, presumably by aunt #3. I pulled the key from my breast pocket and unlocked the loose doorknob.
Mounds. Lumps. Towers. Before us was a room filled with a single object made of hundreds of little ones all welded together with shadow and grit. There were layers and layers and layers, like some kind of awful cake. We wilted in the doorway. I started sweating immediately, warmed by the must of death. Alive with decomposition, the room was reanimated, little animals running from daylight, from us. I tried the light switch, but the bare bulb crackled, sparked, and stayed off. “Water in the walls,” I concluded, nodding at the warped, mildew-stained boards. I unplugged the furnace.
I thought to myself, I’m in a fucking point-and-click adventure game. It’s a type of computer game my brother, my partner, and I enjoy playing together. The narratives of these games often revolve around hauntings and supernatural occurrences. The player clicks around the environment, gathering clues and solving puzzles in order to advance the plot. But without the right music, some things are just matters of fact. The fact of mold across a wall, the fact of water dripping somewhere in the dark, the fact of infestation—roaches, spiders, and mice. The fact of disowned objects filling a room, expectant. The fact that a dead body must stink because it is calling out to be alchemized into earth.
Imagine a room like this:
- A space about ten feet by twelve feet
- A bed, a chair, a TV, and a bureau
- A bar mounted across a corner to serve as coat rack
- A narrow bathroom with a toilet and shower stall
Now unplug the TV and turn it to face the wall. Push the chair into the corner. Pile shopping bags on the chair. Fill the room with boxes. Pile the new things on top of the old things. Wrap them in plastic bags, or the mice will ruin them. Buy food that doesn’t require preparation or refrigeration. Keep it in boxes and plastic bins. When that food is contaminated by roaches, buy more food. Wrap today’s purchases inside of plastic bags. Pile these on top of the old things. If the piles won’t stay, put them on the bed. Don’t put anything under the bed. Now sleep on the floor by the door. Keep a path open to the bathroom. But don’t use the shower—the wall is falling in.
We must have been standing on the spot she died. A comforter and stained pillow lay there, and when I stepped in to move it aside, my foot slid in something. The tuft of curly salt-and-pepper hair was not a wig. Aunt #6 would have been mostly fluid by the time she was found, the hair tumbling off on its own. I imagined the coroner staff: overworked, tired, closed-faced people struggling to gather up the decaying body, stuffing her into a bag. Went in, got out. No shiny charisma, not the cast of CSI. They would have been silent, not cracking jokes or feeling exuberant over tiny evidences, not seeking out the stories of the woman or the place. None of that.
In my mind’s eye, per the mythology of us, the border-crosser is incomplete without plastic bags full of food and objects with which to seed their new life. But aunt #6 must have crossed this border hundreds of times without ever beginning. Nothing in the room was displayed or arranged for daily use, nothing but a sliver of soap, a slim roll of toilet paper and an empty bucket in the empty bathroom. All the things in the room were wrapped, bundled, and massed in plastic shopping bags, all roughly the same size, heaped on every surface like carefully lain insect pupae.
Thumb said, “We need to find her purse and her documents, so if it looks like a purse or papers, open it up. Aunt #3 wants to keep some things too. But if it looks bad, throw it out.” I nodded, and started stuffing a garbage bag with the things on the floor. Blanket, plastic glove, hair. Bed, bath, beyond. We began opening the plastic-wrapped bundles. They were mostly filled with clothes in their original bagging, tags attached. I lifted a box near the spot where aunt #6’s body had lain, and a writhe of maggots came to life. Flailing their rotund bodies, they looked like miniature versions of the bag bundles, piled high and teetering.
I felt myself picking up speed, just throwing away and throwing away and throwing away anything that wasn’t what we were there to find. Moving too fast, I imagined Mamá thinking. Too heartlessly, too recklessly, too much a weapon, too much a shovel, too much the nail of her thumb.
When I was a little kid, papers covered the floor of my play area. Coupons, expired checks, train and airplane ticket stubs, punch cards and index cards. They symbolized a kind of ordered materialism to me, objects charged with a peculiar fantasy of office and organization. There was a children’s book I read all the time about an accountant, and there was a picture of him—he was a dog—with his ledgers, receipts, bonds, bills, and checks laid out before him. I remember miming a kind of digging at the page with my hand, coveting the stacks of paper.
Besides that, I couldn’t have told you why the papers, scattered, littering our house, mattered so much to me, why it was such a big deal when my mamá, the dexterous thumb, true to threat, took a black plastic bag and started throwing them all away. How could I blame her when wildfires are the thing one worries about in rural California?
When our parents divorced, I became the Thrower-Away. First, I threw away all of my sculptures. Then I threw away my brother’s old toys. And finally, I threw away my mother’s art supplies, gave away the cast-iron pans. I don’t think my brother ever missed anything, but I haven’t lived down what I did to my mother’s things. And every time she mourns her matte board and pans, I am confused. Am I not her nail? Wasn’t I meant to learn the art of ruthlessness?
What was aunt #6 thinking? Was it the having or the finding that compelled her? Had she thought she would sell it all someday? It didn’t matter. In this place, in this world, the way we do things around here, they were pieces of her, and I was throwing them away. The clothes she never wore, holiday decorations she never strung up, notebooks in which she never wrote, emaciated purses she never filled, rotting junk food she never ate. “This is really mouse-y,” I’d say, holding up, for instance, a bag of new clothes that bled mouse pellets and tiger-striped rayon out of small, round holes. Mamá would wave her hand, pushing the thing away from her. “Then get rid of it,” she’d say, and I would.
At one point, a cardboard box began singing in my arms. Horrorstruck, I looked inside and found a pink doll with an open mouth. It had been chewed on.
“I guess she felt she couldn’t openly be who she was,” said Mamá, showing me a leopard-print velvet miniskirt. We were in the abandoned dressing room of a diva, a star, her name in lights, the lights burnt out. I forced myself to slow down, openly respect the thingness of the things. Now we took turns holding clothes up for each other, a ritual pageantry of queenly delight: sequins, rhinestones, faux leathers, animal print, velveteen, satin, and chiffon.
“Look at this!”
“Oh my god!”
“Wild or what!”
Aunt #6’s belongings were a resplendent pastiche of color, texture, and mood. She owned cute things, happy things, glittering things, glamorous things. Party food, bright food, easy food, instant food. Swiss Miss, Cheetos, Kool Aid, Mott’s, Lucky Charms, Pop-Tarts, Snickers. Halloween stuff and Christmas stuff: a set of pink snowman dishes, a teddy bear in a pumpkin costume, a crazy straw topped with Oscar the Grouch in a Santa hat, Jack Skellington printed on T-shirts, plastic dishes, and crepe ribbon. Some of the bundles were perfect sets, with a color-matched belt, skirt, lipstick, and blouse. Objects curated, assembled, and protected with a discerning eye and incisive care, or perhaps with mad, haphazard impulse.
“Her purse could be in any of these.” We pulled the bundles apart for hours. The sun set and the room went dark, and we still hadn’t found it.
Something about the repeating gesture of collection made me want all-you-can-eat buffet.
“I’m starving!” I said. “Aren’t you?”
“No,” said Mamá.
We found a Sizzler, parked in the lot, and changed our clothes in the back of the van. We washed our hands, arms, faces, and shoes with industrial wipes and I dragged my soles through the restaurant’s lawn. Thumb treated nail to dinner, and I mounded salad, fried chicken, and potato wedges high on my plate.
“How far would you say we got today?” asked Mamá over her soup.
“A third, maybe? We need to get the garbage out so we can get to the stuff on the bed and in the other corner.”
“Is the bathroom full already?”
“I can’t believe we still haven’t found the purse,” she said.
“You think someone took it? The police didn’t find it, right?”
She shook her head.
“#4 said it was a green bag that she always carried with her. No one has seen it since she died.”
I punched my ice with the straw. “You know where that pillow was? There was a box of food with black widows in it. There was a lot of roaches in there too, so the widows were there to eat them. You know, an ecosystem. But if aunt #6 slept there, if her head was right there …”
“…Maybe she got bit,” finished the thumb.
That night Tía asked me, “¿Y que piensas de nuestro pueblito, Migueltzinta?” She has lived in Bakersfield almost as long as she has been in the USA, refuses to leave the pretty house with all the mold, the structural and electrical problems, the beautiful yard with its fruit trees and barking neighbor’s dogs.
“Pues me gusta que toda la gente tienen flores y arboles en sus jardines,” I replied mildly, and she smiled.
Abuelita asked us how it was going, wanted to know about her daughter’s room, which had strategically not been described to her. Abuelita used to work as a housekeeper, describes frequently the trophies and recognitions she has received for her excellence in the field. It seemed imprudent to tell her about the slippery, greasy carpet, the eddies of mouse pellets, the peeling, buckling, mold-fuzzy walls. We just nodded, said, “Ay vamos, poco a poco,” and mentioned casually that we hadn’t found the purse. Even so, she read the trouble in our evasion and pursed her lips.
We stayed up too late that night. Tía shouted out stories about growing up in Mexico, competing with Ocean’s Twelve playing loudly on TV. Although it was clear that we would rather listen to her than the TV, she did not turn the volume down. I didn’t turn it down either. It was the orchestral score for Tía’s movie, urgent and cool. Gesturing grandly with her short arms and small hands, the stories made her chair shake. She told us about the complex process of wooing, the unreliability of buses and their drivers, and explosive diarrhea in the workplace.
You would get off the bus and there would be nothing as far as the eye could see, not house nor person nor dog… Seven men came to ask for my hand! They filled the living room. My mother had to come out and yell, “Alright! Which one of you is the suitor?” And they all pointed to a man in the doorway… I was working at a resort that day and I had to take the baby with me…
The shuttle to the dialysis place arrived before sunrise. I had slept on the floor by the door, and I listened as Tía gathered up her purse and keys. She paused, and a moment later I felt the weight of a blanket thrown over me. For a moment the blanket was comforting and warm. But then I started thinking of the blanket and pillow lying soggily in the empty space by the door in aunt #6’s room. Was it so strange to sleep on the floor by the door? Wasn’t it something that could just happen?
The breakfast menu at Denny’s featured some kind of Hobbit-themed special, equating piles of bacon, eggs, and hash browns with quests and burdens to be shouldered. The captions instructed me to savor the riches of the dragon’s hoard. Being a nail, a claw, I couldn’t help but enjoy myself.
“You know, we’re really good at this.” I was savoring the efficiency of the day before.
“Yeah, well, we’ve had practice,” said my thumb. “After all, we’ve been to hell.”
“Yeah, remember when we moved? Remember the rats?”
“The ones that got cooked in the oven?”
“Yeah, and remember the boxes so heavy we couldn’t figure out how they got there?”
“How could I forget?”
We talked about when we died. When we died, we would leave clear indication. When we died, we’d have everything burnt. We finished breakfast and went to the van. We were doing that thing where everything happens in unison, in silence. Like mother, like daughter. Like nail, like thumb. My grandmother would allow herself to be protected this time: we were Ocean’s Two. We unrolled plastic sheets and tied them around the van’s seats with snug, identical square knots. The car doors slid closed, clicked shut seconds apart. We drove back to finish the room.
A neighbor dragged out her lawn chair around midday and made herself comfortable in the shade of the van, content to watch the pile of garbage grow in the parking lot. I couldn’t blame her—watching the roaches flee in all directions was highly entertaining—but Mamá was offended.
We carried out the plan as discussed: I piled salvageable clothing, mail, documents, and purses for Mamá to look through. I threw out everything else. There was nothing under the bed or in the bureau. I stabbed at dark corners with the end of a broom and the dashing of mice made us twitch.
“Do you feel changed?” asked Mamá.
“Remember what your aunt #3 said? That seeing the room changed her? That she was going to go home and clean out her garage?”
There was something deeply moving about the intense consolidation of a person, of a personality, something far more meaningful than the waxed dramas held at arm’s length in Hoarders. I imagined aunt #6 going out daily to forage for glamour in Bakersfield, imagined her overwhelmed by the pleasure of these objects. To her, this had been oxygen and medicine, a dosage, a fix. I imagined my aunt’s coming and going, a cell mid-vein, caught in pulse, from store to infested room and back to store. She had subscribed to kitsch out of aesthetic necessity. Cheap and shiny: a kitsch for surviving the third world amidst the broken promises of the first.
“Do you like any of these clothes? What size shoes do you wear?”
I found myself desiring the things. I felt skittish about taking the clothes, partly because I was afraid of botulism, plague, and asthma, partly because I was hesitant to adopt the fabulous ghost. But I could already imagine myself wearing the clothes at a dance party, could feel the animal print and sequins stretched across my boobless, transmasculine chest. I accepted my role as a vulture of fashion, not pirate nor parasite but an officiate of thing-death, an undertaker of possessions.
I said, “I’m really into purses right now.”
“Here, have this one.”
A smart little clutch purse with tiny beaded rosettes.
I dusted off a pink and orange jungle themed fabric bag and began to fill it.
In the last fourth of the stuff, we found three things.
First, Mamá found the purse, well worn and made of lima-bean-green faux alligator skin. All the documents were inside, along with little papers covered in aunt #6’s loopy, squiggly handwriting. We didn’t read any of it, just set it aside to give to aunt #3.
Then Mamá found a Ghostbusters sticker. “How perfect is that?” she said, setting it in the little alcove beside the bundles of sage. We regarded the sudden altar in silence. It was too perfect. I clapped my hands, head flopping back with irreverent, crow-like laughter. Beside me, the thumb also bared her teeth, as together we consumed the carrion of circumstance.
Later I found a picture of Marilyn Monroe, which at first I threw aside, but which I then felt compelled to revisit. The picture was printed on a plastic canvas stretched on an eight-by-eleven-inch frame. Monroe’s face is laughing against a pink-and-white floral backdrop. Written in a cursive font are the words, “Beneath the make-up and behind the smile I’m just the girl who wishes for the world.” In the original quote, it’s “a girl,” but someone must have changed that to avoid copyright issues. The price tag is still stuck to the back, says “Made in China.” “$8.00” is crossed off in red, “$4.26” handwritten above. Aunt #6 never put it up. The frame was still in the DollarPlus store bag it was purchased in.
I could feel the throb of dystopia beating in my chest, could feel this shitty kitsch stinging on my own existential wound. I remembered all the makeup my aunt used to wear, how thick she wore it, how blue her eyelids were, blue enough to scare me as a kid. I remembered my partner saying how worn Monroe’s skin was by the end of her life, ravaged from the daily putting-on and taking-off of face. The steep price of queendom and glamour, undiscounted. Yes, I had to keep it.
When uncles #2 and #4 arrived to haul the garbage, they walked up to the door slowly, stiff from the three-hour trip between Hemet and Bakersfield. They didn’t say much. Maybe uncle #2 said, “Damn.” Uncle #4 said he had something for me and gave me a beanie and a baseball cap from his irrigation job, telling me to wear them at my irrigation job.
“So everybody can see,” he said. He put his head through the door and shouted, “That’s mold! That smell? That’s just mold. I’ve worked in lots of houses that smell like that. It’s mold.”
We showed them the Ghostbusters sticker. Uncle #2 chuckled and helped me pull sticky plastic off the floor while uncle #4 went to fill the truck bed with garbage.
It took two trips to the dump to empty the room. A half-load of salvageable objects was packed, war trophies for aunt #3. We handed the key through the bars to the hotel manager who took it back without a word. My uncles followed us to Tía’s house. They stared while I ate my leftovers from breakfast, shaking their heads when I offered them toast. They hugged me, told me to take care of myself, girl, and drove off. I put on the baseball cap so everybody could see, and then thumb took nail to the train station.
Mamá cleared her throat. “Did you throw out the hair?”
“Yeah. First thing. Sorry.”
“Well, we threw a lot out.”
“That stuff was all eaten through. We didn’t have a choice.”
“We didn’t have a choice.”
When the thumb checked her phone for the time, she saw she had a message and her face wrinkled up with silent laughter.
“There’s a storage unit,” she managed to say. “#3 hired a private investigator who says #6 had a storage unit.”
I figured that somewhere between Bakersfield and Oakland, I would regret bringing aunt #6’s things with me. But on the train, I was disturbed to find that what I really wanted was to smell the room again. I prodded the jungle bag, full of accessories and clothes. Soon, the smell would go out of the things, and, without the smell, I worried they would just be things. On the other hand, would anything ever just be a thing? Had it Changed My Life? In fact, what I regretted was not keeping more of aunt #6’s things. But this was just part of being that nail on a thumb. Something else was out of place, was fizzing in me, a more complicated hybrid of regret.
Watching the conductor half-carry, half-drag a drunk man off the train, I realized what the feeling was about. The room I had just emptied was actually inside of me, full. It was the room where my artistic ideas and creative motivations lay unused, overrun and molding. It was the room where I shut away my queerness when I went to visit family, and where I shut away my creativity when making money seemed more important than self-expression. I saw myself coming and going from this room, shuttling a bounty of dreams, inspirations, education, and fine art in plastic bags. I saw myself hiding, hoarding the perfected outfits out of sight of the rest of the world, refusing to wear them, inhabit them, use them. Refusing to be my full self. This was the kind of room people died in. The room in which you would find me dead. Unless.
A few hours before arriving in Stockton we texted:
Nail: you know I already kinda miss that room
Thumb: What do you miss? The immediacy?
Nail: The company jajajajaj!
Thumb: The challenge? It probably changed your life!
Nail: No I think it did but because of what you were saying not because of what she was saying. You know it’s like anybody could have that room INSIDE them! There’s some kinda queer futurity mixed up in this.
Thumb: Excellent. You are getting somewhere now. It was an honor in a way—to see her. Thank you I am proud you are my