Read a Chapter is *NEW* added feature at As the Pages Turn! Here you’ll be able to read the first chapters of books of all genres to see if you like them before you buy them. Today we are featuring the literary short story collection, The House of Order Stories, by John Paul Jaramillo. Enjoy!
The House of Order, the first collection of composite stories by John Paul Jaramillo, presents a stark vision of American childhood and family, set in Southern Colorado and Northern New Mexico. Manito Ortiz sorts family truth from legend as broken as the steel industry and the rusting vehicles that line Spruce Street. The only access to his lost family’s story is his uncle, the unreliable Neto Ortiz.
First Chapter Excerpt
“Rabbit Story” from The House of Order
“You can’t tell a man’s story unless you are for sure about the facts, Manito.” In the narrow length of the backyard my Tio Neto puts out his cigarette with the tips of his fingers and throws the vacha. Since the Abuelito topped the tree there is not much shade so Neto slaps at the pocket on his chest for sunglasses. “I was eight,” he tells me. “No, nine. Hell if I know.” He licks at the burns to his fingers.
Neto has just come to the Abuelita’s from his work laying tar on the old highway, the first job he’s held in months. His work shirt hangs open out over his jeans, bare chest exposed.
“I’m tired of telling you these stories,” he says.
He goes over to the truckito and pulls a lawn chair from the bed. Neto’s thick, middle-aged body slams down and he scrapes his cap from a sweaty head and brow. I imagine Neto sits and talks the way his Jefe sat and sold similar stories.
“I don’t have time to tell such things,” he says. He reminds me he is not my father; he reminds me my father is dead. “I was just a little moco. The story goes I was out here at two a.m. sleepwalking.”
Or maybe pretending and then his father caught him. Maybe Neto happened on the old man sobbing. Even now, decades later, this part I’m not too sure about. What is clear is that he expected to find one of his Jefe’s girlfriends.
There was the young Martinez girl with the lisp and the flat ass. Or the older lady married to Tio Freddie who lived on the east side and carried a clip loaded .45 pistol in her Buick. Maybe the teacher from Goat Hill who lived with her parents. Neto knew of them all.
“I busted him with a girl all kinds of times. He was always with some fine young thing from the neighborhood,” Neto says. “You can’t blame him too much, you know.”
The old man hustled his girlfriends where he kept his tools and where he kept his truckito, out near the alley. I know this because Neto knows this.
“I saw everything. The old man right there in the garage throwing palo. It was something for a boy.”
I ask, “And he never saw you before that night, Neto?” “No, Manito. Never once caught on.”
At one time it was all Neto thought of. Probably became the reason to walk and listen.
“The old man needed his sex. I ain’t no pervert but I needed to see, you know,” Neto says. “For myself.”
That particular night, the night Neto was caught, the “fine young thing” ended up dead-meat and gone and so the man was deserted.
“He always drank when he was deserted,” Neto explains.
He gets away from the story to remind me how around Huérfano County “deserted” means losing a ride out to the lanes for work in the onion fields. Quitting school to work and contribute to the mortgage. Ignitions that won’t fire and friends who won’t come around. Cousins dropped off from New Mexico to share beds and food. Half fixed televisions for Saturday morning cartoons and radios smashed before the World Series. Couches and chairs dropped onto back porches gone un-mended and machine parts and tools sacrificed to the rust of ear- ly winters. Here it means CF&I Steel picking up and closing offices, union negotiation talks breaking down. Husbands who aren’t faithful. Fathers dying. Lies and stories half-told and then forgotten unless pressed and pushed.
“‘Complications of childbirth’ is exactly what I read, Manito,” Neto continues. “That part is God’s truth and factual. You can show the people if you want.”
Years later, sitting in the public library, I read it too on page one of the Pueblo Chieftain from July 18th 1963:
“Woman Dies During Childbirth, Family Alleges Negligence by Doc”
That night the old man was crying and “disoriented.” Made Neto beg and promise, squeal with pain.
“I mean my Jefe was a cabrón when he drank,” Neto explains. “We all are. You know.”
After he caught the boy, my Abuelito made the young Neto work picking up leaves. It was late but the Abuelito made Neto “police call” the area. That’s what the old man named it. From sad Army days, I imagine.
He made him clean up the chicken and rabbit cages the family kept. The whole neighborhood raised them. It was all about him being real flojo and saving dollar bills.
“It was all different back then. Not like today with kids all spoiled and shit. You wouldn’t survive a day back in the old neighborhood,” Neto says.
So there was little Neto, police calling. The Abuelito watching him and becoming more and more drunk on his beer or his rum and RC Cola. Or maybe he was drinking his wine. Abuelita called him a wino later and so I imagine the Viejo from those old photos standing in his bare feet and drinking from a bottle.
“Don’t be so stupid, Manito, and listen to the story,” Neto says. “You always getting in the way of the story with those little things.”
I ask, “Is the story the girl?”
“No, Manito. The story is me and them rabbits.”
Abuelito found his rabbits missing and became enraged. Any other night the old man wouldn’t have even noticed. He would have walked right past those cages and fucked his little chingita in the garage and afterwards pissed on the side of the house.
But his woman had died in a bed at St Mary Corwin giving birth to a daughter, to Neto’s sister. To be precise, another young Martinez girl, but he keeps that from the family.
“That’s the way it works, Manito. That’s what it is to be a man. You’ll find out,” Neto says. “Some things you got to keep inside. But like I say the story isn’t about the girl.”
I imagine the Abuelito was repeating over and over, “You want to go under the house, Neto?” In his white t-shirt and this little cap that made him look like Marlon Brando’s character in The Wild One, he asked the boy again and again to get under the house.
“No, Jefe,” little Neto said. “I’m sleeping.”
“What the hell do you mean you’re sleeping, Neto?” he said. “Wake your ass up. Get in the Goddamn crawl space and get those Goddamn rabbits.” Abuelito had little Neto’s neck in one hand and his bottle in the other. “I’m not asking you, Neto,” he said. “I’m fucking telling you.”
“I don’t want to, Jefe.”
“Goddamn it, boy. I’m telling you to do it. Do you want to be a man, Neto? Do you?”
Neto didn’t want to be a man but he didn’t want to wake the Jefita, either, and so little Neto fell to his knees and entered the crawl space. The entrance was only a 16” wide black hole. And somehow he found strength and fire from deep inside.
“Hurry you ass up, Neto,” the old man said through stained teeth and dirty moustache. “I ain’t got all night.”
Neto had never seen such darkness, a thousand years of ghosts for a boy. And in that moment Neto became a horrible thought. He never wanted to scream so loudly. His legs trembled and his pajama top was soaked through and dripping.
I ask, “Were you scared, Neto?”
“The Jefita, Manito. Think of your Grandmother. She was sleeping. My poor, poor mother.”
So Neto crawled and struggled to the darkest corner of his mind past black widows and ratones. The fear and yellow bile built in his mouth and in the corners of his lips.
“Big ratones, Manito,” Neto says. “You’ve never seen such in your life.”
“Goddamn it, Neto,” the Abuelito said. “Don’t let those ratones get to them rabbits. Them rabbits are sold.”
I ask, “So what did you do, Neto?”
“I grabbed and held them in my hands, Manito,” Neto says. “I was bit and everything.”
“And then there was nothing. What do you want to hear, Manito?” “How could a boy do that?”
“I did it for the Jefita. My poor mother. I had to protect her. So don’t ask me no more, Manito. Let me sit in peace.”
I ask, “What did my father think of all this?”
“Well, I say Goddamn. Now I know you’re growing, Manito. Now I know you’re nearly what a man should be. A man has got to know about his family.”
Then he ignores me. Escapes my questions for cartons of cigarettes stored in the Abuelita’s Frigidaire and endless cans of RC Cola mixed with rum. Neto’s father dead for years now and the family story going the boy killed rats with bare hands, how he mangled and smashed at whatever he could touch.
And later I’ll go to sleep with it all deep inside of me. Down in the basement the old man dug out. The same one that took three loads of earth moved to create. That took Tio Freddie’s truckito and cases and cases of beer.
“That part,” Neto swears, “is God’s truth and factual. So you better get that down in the story.” And I promise him I will.