New Year’s Zeppelin
Tomás awoke. Outside, there had been a noise not unlike the crashing of a zeppelin. He looked around the stillness of the bedroom. The alarm clock next to his bed read 5:12. His wife Lucia was still asleep. Elsewhere in the house, the baby Julián was asleep. The ghost of his Tío Osvaldo was still asleep in the guest bedroom. The idea of having a ghost living in the house had not sat well with Tomás at first, but Osvaldo’s ghost explained that it was a temporary situation until he could “pass.” Osvaldo’s ghost had taken to drinking as he waited.
Tomás trained his eyes on a smudge on the ceiling and accepted that he was no longer dreaming. The noise rumbled into his bedroom again.
“You hear that?” he whispered to the smudge. No answer.
Tomás rose and pulled on his old bathrobe. He decided to put on a pot of coffee. Walking through the hallway to the kitchen, he saw his reflection in the framed pictures hanging on the wall. He stopped to look at these vignettes — there was him and Lucia as children; him as a child in San Juan, barefoot, holding a can of Coco Rico; her as a child in Pasadena, shrouded in the soft peach glow of a ballet tutu. There they were on the beach last summer, and also in the forest after their first hiking trip. There were pictures before the baby, after the baby, with their parents, with their families. There was Tío Osvaldo with a ponytail, long before he became a ghost.
At the end of the hallway was the picture Tomás disliked the most. There he was as a twelve-year-old, standing inside of a museum gift shop holding up a poster of the Hindenburg Disaster. The camera’s flash reflected off the poster as though the airship, encircled by electric flames, would burst into reality right there in the museum.
Tomás had been intrigued by the disaster, by the static image of the Hindenburg exploding against the steel mooring mast. He hung the poster on his ceiling directly above his bed. Staring at before he fell asleep, he would often dream he was a passenger on the doomed airship. Sometimes he jumped. Sometimes he went down in the flames. Most kids have girls up there, his father said of the poster. His mother said it was morbid the way he looked at it. She took the poster from him eventually. She said he should not worry about disasters.
His mother was the one who took the photograph all those years before. She had sent it framed, as a New Year’s present. Tomás could not understand why his mother sent it. Lucia hung it with the other hallway pictures regardless. Looking at the photo, at himself as a child delighted by fury, Tomás realized it had been the New Year for two weeks now and nothing in his life had changed.
Tomás continued down the hallway. He passed the door to the guest bedroom and heard Osvaldo cough. Tomás drew his bathrobe close to his neck and tried to will the old ghost back to sleep or silence or whatever it was ghosts did in the early morning. Some days, Tomás wanted to kick down the door and scream at his Tío’s ghost, scare him away, perform an exorcism, anything, but he knew Osvaldo would have to pass on his own accord.
Osvaldo was awake, regardless. The temperature always dropped in the house when he awoke. Padre Fernando, the authority on such matters in their parish, said this would be common. He said they should set the thermostat to change in the morning. The Padre came to visit Osvaldo the week he arrived at Tomás and Lucia’s home, as he had been the one who oversaw the burial. He had offered to perform an exorcism and help Osvaldo pass along. Osvaldo had declined, nor did Tomás want an exorcism going on in his guest bedroom. But Tomás toyed with the idea of calling Padre Fernando himself if this passing did not speed up.
Tomás heard the noise again and forgot about his Tio’s ghost. He decided to investigate. The sound grew louder. He opened the front door to find a crowd of firefighters and men with hard hats and emergency workers standing on the neighbor’s lawn. This was the neighbor that he never saw. This was the neighbor who never mowed their lawn or raked the leaves. This was the neighbor that rarely had a guest, never went outside, was dead, a hermit, or possibly a pedophile.
An ambulance was parked in the driveway and a fire truck parked on the street. A crane with a wrecking ball towered above this scene. The crane was slowly moving the wrecking ball away from the neighbor’s house. As the ball swing, the retching noise echoed into the still morning air.
This was what an actual disaster looks like, Tomás thought.
The neighbor’s wall closest to Tomás’s garage now bore a yawning hole. Tomás guessed the hole was two or three times the size of his front door. He realized he had never seen the neighbor’s front door open.
A construction crew cleared out the rubble from the hole with their tools, swinging and shoveling and passing stone from hand to hand. When the crew finished clearing away the rubble, four emergency workers rolled up stretcher as wide as a sedan.
Then, like birth, a large man with a wet crimson face appeared at the edge of the hole. The full width of his body filled in the gape. The man’s bright, open face and long blonde hair seemed to perch atop a loose black tee shirt. His black shorts slicked to his pale purple legs.
The neighbor, as Tomás understood, was obese. He had seen a science program about people with this condition. There was one living next door for years, Tomás thought, doing whatever he did without leaving the house. He had lived next to a man cut off from the world for years, he thought, but had done nothing to help him escape.
In his left hand, the neighbor held a heavy black cane that was lodged into the ground. He held the edge of the wall with his right. His hands were flush in the morning sun. The man swung his right leg out onto the yellow lawn. He released the wall and grabbed out until he caught the hand of one of the medical workers. Now his black cane, moved forward, led his other leg. He stood partially out of the hole.
“I’m doing this,” he said.
The neighbor followed this pattern until he was fully outside his home. His gray eyes fluttered. He stood beyond the hole for a time, looking around his yard, at the fire trucks, at the construction workers, at the crane, at Tomás briefly.
Watching him, Tomás thought of placenta, his child Julián, his wife’s vagina, birth.
Then, the neighbor stabbed at the ground with his cane, planting it firmly ahead of him, and slowly shifted his body to the lowered gurney. He sat with a great sigh. He was wheeled to the ambulance by the emergency technicians, two on each side of him. “I’m doing this,” the neighbor repeated until he was gone with the flashing sirens.
Everyone clapped. Tomás too, cheered. Everyone needs to hear about his neighbor, he thought. They needed to know about how this man made it out of his house. Tomás would tell everyone.
“Look at that,” someone said. Tomás turned. Behind him, Osvaldo was standing by the garage door. He might have been leaning against it. He had a lit cigarette in his mouth. This too was a new development in his physical negotiation with the afterlife.
“What do you think about all this?” Osvaldo said. He motioned toward the neighbor and the crane. “You’re out here smiling,” he said. “Does this sort of thing entertain you?”
“No,” Tomás said. “I’m just— “
“Okay mijo,” Osvaldo said. He tossed his cigarette. “Don’t have too much fun,” he said as he disappeared into the wall.
Soon, Tomás went inside as well. He went to the master bedroom first, but Lucia was still asleep. He could not tell Julián and he refused to speak with Osvaldo any more than necessary. Instead, Tomás went back to the hallway. He snatched the picture of him with the zeppelin poster from the wall and then tossed it in the kitchen trash can. Two weeks was not too late to turn things around, he thought.
Tomás made himself a bowl of cereal. Between spoonfuls, between chewing, he announced changes he would make. “Teach the baby Spanish,” he said. “Meet the neighbor,” he said like a mantra, “introduce him to my family, and kiss my wife more.” He stopped, shoveled cereal in his mouth. “Call mom,” he said. “Help Tío move on,” he said
When Tomás finished his morning ritual, he got into his car and drove to work. At the stop sign at the end of his street, he parked, left the engine idle, and got out to look at the looming crane once more. It reminded him of his childhood poster, the famous airship catastrophe. Back in his car, as he drove, the crane grew small in the mirror.
“It was an accident,” Lucia said. Tomás dropped the phone onto his desk. It then fell to the floor. He did not pick it up when he ran out of his office. As he sprinted to the parking garage, his car keys jingled in his shaking hand.
His car whipped around the corner like a pinball. He thought of Lucia crying on the other end of the phone. “But were okay,” she had said over and over again. Now on his block, Tomás saw the crane, slightly rotated. The wrecking ball slung over what he soon understood to be half of his house.
He slammed on the brakes, parked, and tore through the fathering crowd.
“Lucia where are you?” he screamed. “Lucia!” He ran up to the edge of the yellow police tape and tried to push through. A police officer grabbed him, the broad hands clutching his shoulders.
“That’s my house,” Tomás said. “My wife — where is my Lucia? She has our baby.”
“Calm down,” the officer said. “This is a police scene.”
Tomás strained his muscles as he tried to push past him. He pulled Tomás to the ground. “I live here,” Tomás screamed.
“You need to calm down,” the officer said.
“Tomás,” Lucia said. “We’re okay.”
“Lucia?” he said.
“Please,” Lucia cried. “Tomás, it’s all right.” And even though his head was locked between a bicep and tricep, he struggled to look for her. He saw her at the edge of the lawn. She was wrapped in a gray blanket. She held Julían. “Please,” she said again, crying now. “Please.”
“That’s my wife,” Tomás said. “Let go.” He twisted until his chest felt like it would split open and empty onto the asphalt. Then, he laid his head on the ground.
“Do I need to count to ten?” the officer said. He brought Tomás to his feet and counted to three before releasing him.
Tomás ran to Lucia. He pulled her close to his chest and kissed her head. He smelled the dry shampoo that she left in her hair some afternoons. Her face was wet against his shirt. He softly stroked her cheek and then that of the baby. He took Julián from her arms. Julián stirred and moaned.
“Kiss the baby more,” Tomás announced. With that, the baby let out a soft cry.
“What?” Lucia asked. “Me? I kiss Julián all the time. You’re the one—” She took Julían back from Tomás and rocked him until he fell asleep again. She kissed him and placed her head against his, his feathering hair brushed up against her own.
“No, I’m sorry,” he said. “I mean me. It’s my resolution.”
“New Year’s was two weeks ago though,” Lucia said. “Why is that important now?”
Tomás looked at his wife and with their baby. He felt he was the thread in this intimate connection that did not belong. They had survived disaster without him. “It’s just —” he said. “Lucia, look at our house. This was our house.”
Lucia continued rocking the baby. “But we’re alright,” she said in a whisper.
“The house,” he continued, before looking up to see the crane and then to the construction workers in their orange hard hats. The workers stood in small circle. Without thought, Tomás marched toward them, shouting. His movements were foreign, alien to him. Lucia called out for him to stop. The baby cried.
“Who did this?” Tomás said. The men turned to him. “Who did it?” He grabbed the person closest to him, a boyish young man with a flesh-colored mustache. “Was it you?” Tomás demanded. The teenager opened his mouth but said nothing. Tomás shook him, and the hard hat fell from his head.
“It was an accident,” the teenager said and started to cry. Tomás picked up the orange hard hat and handed it to the young worker. The teenager took it and pulled the brim down over his brow. “I’m sorry,” he said. “I hope everyone’s alright.”
“We are,” Tomás said, and went to find his wife and child.
Tomás stood with Lucia and Julián at the edge of their lawn. His arms were wrapped around her. Hers held the baby. She leaned her head against his. She still wore the wool blanket. The baby stared at them both, making noises, smiling to himself, seeing what they could not. Their garage had collapsed; a pile of rubble in its place. Pipes and rebar jutted out from the wreckage like rogue fingers. Next to the remains of the garage, a single wall was all that was left of the kitchen. The granite counter on which Tomás made coffee that morning, gone. The wood table where he sat and made his declarations, now splinters. The picture he threw away that morning was buried beneath the wood and tile and wires and insulation all borne together in a smoldering mound. That captured moment of his life, age 12 in the museum gift shop, was gone.
“This was a disaster,” Tomás said. “And you weren’t even hurt.”
“They were in the backyard,” Lucia said, pointing to Tío Osvaldo and Padre Fernando, who were having a cigarette. “So, I went out with the baby to talk to them.”
Padre Fernando gave Osvaldo the sign of the cross. A thin line of smoke followed his hand gestures.
“Hey, stop that,” Tomás said to them. “Why were you out back?”
“We didn’t want to wake the baby,” Osvaldo said. His rosary hung from his bathrobe pocket. “In case the lights started to flicker, or the house shook — does that actually happen Padre?”
“It really depends on the soul’s willingness to leave the physical realm,” Padre Fernando said.
“But why an exorcism?” Tomás said.
Tío Osvaldo shrugged. “I guess I’m ready.”
“Damn it that’s cheating,” Tomás said. “You have to go the right way. We worked hard for all of this,” he said, gesturing to the yard, to their house, what was left of the house. “I don’t need you turning it into a horror movie.”
“Well the crane interrupted the whole thing,” Osvaldo said. “And besides, we might all be dead if we did in the guest room.”
“You’re already dead,” Tomás said. “And you don’t pass if it’s an exorcism. You have to do a good deed, or something, right, Padre?”
“God’s will operates as a mystery,” Padre Fernando said.
“There you go, mijo,” Osvaldo said. “A mystery. Well I’m going back in to get my death certificate. The Padre is going to send it to the Cardinal, so we can see what my options are.”
As they spoke, Osvaldo’s translucent face caught the blooming red lights of an ambulance pulling into the neighbor’s driveway. A second ambulance quietly arrived. The emergency technicians set up a metal ramp outside the rear of the first ambulance. They opened the doors and the neighbor emerged in a wheelchair. He wore newer, lighter clothes. His hair was now short and slicked back.
Tomás looked at Lucia and Julían, Padre Fernando and then Osvaldo. “I have a New Year’s zeppelin,” he said.
“What are you talking about dear?” Lucia said.
“We’re two weeks into the new year and nothing’s changed. I’m embarrassed for all us. “Wait here.” Tomás ran up to the neighbor and thrust out his hand, “Excuse me,” he said.
The neighbor looked at Tomás, at his extended hand, beyond him to the destruction. “Jesus Christ, is that your house?” he said. “Are you all okay?”
“Well, yes, that was our house,” Tomás said, “but that doesn’t matter now.”
“God, I’m so sorry,” the neighbor said. “This is my fault.”
“No, thank you, seriously, thank you,” Tomás said. He looked up at the steel crane then back to his neighbors bemused face. “I’m Tomás,” he said. “I’m your neighbor.”
“Robert Ruthie,” the neighbor said. “Bob, actually. I’ve met all kinds of people today; can you believe that? And hey, a baby. I haven’t seen a baby in ten years. How did it— how did you — God, this whole day has been some kind of disaster. I just wanted to get out. I had to punch a hole in my wall, you know? But Jesus, I’m so sorry.”
Tomás took Bob’s hand. He covered it with his free hand and shook fiercely. “Honey,” he called to Lucia. “Osvaldo,” he said. “Especially you, Osvaldo. We love and care about you. Come meet our neighbor. Come meet Bob. He’s waiting for you.”
And with that, ascension.
Michael Tesauro holds a MFA and MA from Chapman University. His work has been published in KCET, USA Today, Zócalo Public Square, Inlandia Journal, Wilderness House Review, Crack the Spine, and others. He also writes about food and culture for Life & Thyme.