Tabula Rasa

Es mejor mancha en la frente que manchita en el coraz?n

By Daniel A. Olivas
Published on LatinoLA: December 30, 2004

Tabula Rasa

?I shaved my mother?s head yesterday.?

Yesterday. That was Sunday. Elena let her words just hang there between us as I watched her clear the desk of extraneous matter ? black Sharpie markers, Scotch Tape, rulers ? so she could make room for the new posters that we just picked up from Kinkos. I observed her small, brown hands maneuver quickly, without a wasted movement, intent on a purpose. I wanted to grab her hands, stop them, squeeze them, and make her look at me while she told me what she did yesterday. But I didn?t because she?d pull away, tell me not to be so macho, a typical male. A typical Mexican male. And then I?d say, No, I?m Chicano and almost done with college. I?m no Neanderthal. So, instead of getting into a stupid fight, I stood silently and let her finish cleaning the desk.

When she put the last desk-thing away (a plastic paper clip holder), she leaned back and rested tight fists on her narrow hips. Elena wore her favorite baggy khakis with a skintight black T-shirt; the words CHICANO MUSIC AWARDS hovered over her left breast. An unruly, black curl bobbed happily across her forehead and I again had to keep my hands to myself, not reach over, fix it. I think Elena knew it bothered me and let another curl find its way down. She stared down at her handiwork. Now every nick, scratch and ink stain sat exposed on what was once an expensive piece of mahogany furniture that probably graced some high-priced lawyer?s office back in the ?60s. ?There,? she finally said. ?Bring the posters over so we can take a good look at them.?

I obeyed. I walked over to her neatly made bed and grabbed posters. I laid the pile of light green cardboard on the desk. Elena tilted her head to the left, and then to the right.

?Beautiful,? she said.

I nodded. We stood in silence for about a minute.

?Mom had been warned that the chemotherapy would probably do this. You know, her hair,? Elena continued as she flipped through the posters to see if there were any misprints.

?Yeah,? I said. ?I know.? I couldn?t read her expression and this bothered me. We?ve been together since freshman year and I figured I could decipher every look that crossed her beautiful face.

?I was cooking breakfast and I heard her scream. I ran upstairs, to her room, and I found her in bed, sitting up, with a clump of white hair clutched in her hand.?

?Damn,? was all I could offer.

Elena pulled a reject out of the pile and handed it to me. ?I just ran and put my arms around her.? She continued to thumb through the pile. ?I calmed her down, finally, and decided to make it nice. As nice as I could.?

I put the rejected poster back on her bed. I figured we could go back to Kinkos and get a refund for each one that didn?t come out right. ?What did you do?? I asked.

She let out a sigh and looked at me. ?I ran a hot tub, helped her in, and then very slowly clipped her hair with scissors.? Elena?s eyes flickered down towards the posters and she quickly pulled out another reject.


?Then I lathered her head real gently and shaved it, slowly, while humming a little song she used to sing to me when I was little.?

I didn?t know what to think. First, the image of Elena shaving Mrs. Montes?s head was almost too much for me. Second, I couldn?t figure out why Elena was even here today. The posters didn?t have to go up until closer to the demonstration against the Townsend project. A huge luxury housing development got city approval despite serious environmental concerns. Basically, the Townsend Corporation was going to clear-cut over a thousand acres of trees, shrubs and tall grass to supply homes to the wealthy. We were willing to get arrested before our foothills were destroyed. We had almost eighty students and faculty ready to converge at the site this Friday. So, we could have waited until tomorrow to put up the posters.

?The rest of these look fine,? Elena announced. She straightened them out. ?Where?s the staple gun??

?I saw it in Thien?s room,? I said as I started towards the door. Elena shared this small, but very functional, three-bedroom house with two other female students.

?What were you doing in Thien?s room??

I stopped in my tracks but didn?t turn around. ?She needed some help in calculus.?

Elena let out a little cough. ?She has her eyes on you.?

I didn?t hear a hint of a laugh in her voice. ?Mi amor, I?m a one-woman man,? I said and started walking again.

?And don?t you forget it,? she answered in an almost whisper. ?My love for you is pure.?

I stopped again and laughed at this overly-formal pronouncement but Elena stood there without a even a shadow of a smile on her face. We stood there, frozen, for a few moments.

?So is mine,? I finally answered.

?Are you sure?? she said, still not showing any sign of levity.

?Of course,? I snorted. ?I might not be perfect, but I?m sure of that.?

?Es mejor mancha en la frente que manchita en el coraz?n,? Elena said, this time with the left corner of her mouth rising up in a half-smile. One of her favorite dichos: It?s better to have a stain on one?s forehead than a stain on one?s heart.

I now felt that I could go and get the staple gun without looking like a jerk. Just as I left, she raised her voice: ?Thien?s room is a pigsty! How can you find anything in there??

Elena was right but I knew where to look and went right to it. Walking back, all I could think of was Elena humming softly as she used a razor to make clean rows of smooth skin down the back of her mother?s head, and in her heart, wishing that with each gentle stroke, a bit of the cancer was being stripped away.

* * *

The sun shone brightly through the oaks. More people showed up for the demonstration than we had expected. The TV camera crews set up across from the bulldozers and we stood on the other side, behind the chain link fence. My roommate, Darius, had already cut a large flap in the fence but he held it down until I gave the signal. Elena breathed heavily by my side. She carried a sign that said TREES, NOT HOUSES! Someone blasted an old Bob Dylan song on a boom box. Several men and women in dark suits milled about. I didn?t know who they were, but they scared me just a bit. The Townsend work crew hadn?t shown up yet so the bulldozers sat motionless. It was noisy, like a carnival but without the rides and cotton candy. I finally gave the signal by yelling, of all things, Charge! and Darius lifted the flap of chain link to let us in. And in we came, chanting, screaming, singing, clapping. The camera operators went into action. Within seconds, we had swarmed the bulldozers like insects in search of sustenance.

The cops finally arrived ? six patrol cars in all ? and surrounded the area. I lost sight of Elena but I figured she?d be safe. Our plan was to cover each of the five bulldozers with bodies and there were more than enough of us to do this. One of the officers got on a bullhorn and told us to leave the premises because we were trespassing. We just cheered, almost in unison, and packed in closer to the bulldozers.

Then it happened. Someone, I don?t know who, threw something. It flew over the fence and hit the hood of a patrol car with a metal thump so loud, we all suddenly became quiet. We heard one loud Disperse! come from the bullhorn. Then one of the officers tossed a small, metal canister over the fence. Smoke! That little can let out so much of the stuff, I couldn?t believe it. And then another can came sailing over and then another. Finally, we were engulfed in stinging, white, thick haze. I tried to find Elena. Our group became frantic, people started to push, and fall, and run towards the flap. I heard screams. Where was she?

?Clear the area!? the officer yelled through the bullhorn.

Though my eyes stung, I finally spotted Elena. She had climbed to the very top of one of the bulldozers. She had wrapped her nose and mouth in a red bandanna. I could hear her screaming, see her fist pulsating in rhythmic jabs into the smoky air. I froze. I didn?t recognize the look in her eyes: wild, angry, like an animal. At that moment, I was no longer a part of her. Elena became a different person, speaking a different language, seeing a different world. I heard her voice pierce the chaos. She chanted, ?A life for a tree, a life for a tree!? A strong wind blew the smoke higher so that, for a moment, I couldn?t see her at all. But I could hear a voice, ?A life for a tree, a life for a tree!? But I didn?t know the voice anymore. I just stood there, not knowing what to do next. Not understanding what was happening.

About Daniel A. Olivas:
"Tabula Rasa" is featured in Daniel's new short story collection, "Devil Talk" (Bilingual Press/ASU). Visit his Web site for more information: www.danielolivas.com

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