Don José

Don José

I was walking down a quiet street. Each house was painted a different bright color, a stark contrast against the looming grey skies. A dog began to bark. The alarm alerted every other dog in the neighborhood, causing each to run to the fences, joining in the chorus.

Puerto Chacabuco is a small town, home to a little over a thousand hardy residents living in a windy, rainy, and relatively remote location. The town was created as a replacement port for Puerto Aysen, a larger settlement upstream. Puerto Aysen suffered irreparable problems from erosion after fire based land grabs destroyed the soil stability on the banks of the silty blue river. Larger boats that were once able to make their way upstream were forced to unload supplies outside of town. As a result Puerto Chacabuco was formed. Chacabuco remains off the beaten path, serving mainly as a port drop off point for supplies headed upstream. Houses and businesses share a thin divide, as living rooms flow into restaurants. A few not so super supermarkets, stores selling trinkets and clothing, and a dog food factory fill pockets and time. 

Freshly laid pavement under my feet, I breathed wood smoke billowing from metal chimneys, hanging low over the tin roofs. A man power washed his car, just minutes after a rainstorm. A yellow haired dog sat behind a white fence surrounding a small yellow house. I stopped for a picture. The dogs still barking behind me made the man in the yellow house grow curious. He peeked through his shades before coming out the front door. He told me to take a picture of him, posing awkwardly, before asking questions and telling me about his family. He invited me inside for a drink. I hesitated. He shook as he spoke with a look of anxiety on his face. Sure, I said. Why not?

Once inside, he poured me a shot glass of coca-cola before showing me around, pointing at different things in his house. Pictures of Patagonia that looked as though they’d been torn off the tops of calendars lined the wall of his bedroom. A photo of his daughter and her birth certificate pinned next to it on the wall of the dimly lit room, hung over his dresser like a small shrine.

His wife had recently died, he told me, and his daughter was far away in Santiago, leaving him alone in Aysen. Looking into his eyes, I realized I had mistaken his loneliness for anxiety. I sat in his living room on a blanketed couch, trinkets on a shelf above my head that his daughter had given him. In between his mumbled words and behind his thick patagonian accent were questions and curiosities about what had brought me here.

When the pauses in conversation grew longer, I thanked him for his hospitality. I was headed to the store if he needed anything. “Pollito” was his only request. Excited for the advent of someone to speak with, he insisted on following along.

Inside the store, my suspicion that my Spanish wasn’t as much the problem as was his accent was confirmed when the cashier looked at me wide-eyed after he spoke. ”Como?”, she said, before turning back to me with a laugh. I took two chicken legs out of the deep freezer and a coca-cola from the shelves to replace the thimbles he’d given me earlier.

As we walked out, he told me how he was going to cook it. “Una sopa, con tomate, y papas”, potatoes being the only vegetable in this area with a consistent presence and quality. When we returned to his front yard, I thanked him again for his hospitality and he thanked me for the company and the chicken. He turned around and pushed at his door, his body stopping against the wood as it refused to move. He pointed his finger up, as if an idea had just come to him, and walked to the side door. He turned the knob but the door wouldn’t open. He felt around in his khaki work pants for the keys I knew weren’t there. He had shown me them earlier, remarking on a keychain that his daughter had given him from Santiago, and hung them back up on a hook over the stove. 

I walked around the house, hoping for an open window to crawl through, but each was either locked or screwed shut. There was a patch on his side door where it looked like he, or someone else, had broken through before. Secured by only a few screws, I asked for a screw driver. ”Sí, adentro.” Of course it was inside. He lifted a bag of kindling at his feet revealing a wood file underneath. I tried to pop out the hinge pins, but only the middle came loose. The lower was rusted in place and the upper was made of one continuous piece. I told José I would go talk to his neighbors to see if I could borrow some tools. 

The man power washing was still outside, despite the rain cloud slowly approaching. “Lo siento, no tengo uno.” "Who owns a power washer but not a screwdriver?", I thought to myself. Confused, I kept walking down the street towards a large stocky man who was repairing a metal fence, throwing sparks with a grinder and whaling at stubborn pieces with a sledge hammer. He smiled when I explained the situation. He explained this wasn’t the first time this had happened. He suggested I go to the police, as they were the ones who had dealt with it in the past. They were probably responsible for the patch on the door, I thought. I shrugged and headed towards the station, my last resort.

When I arrived at the station and described the situation, they told me they would be there in a few minutes.  The sarcastic look of concern on their face made me wonder why I even came. 

Back at José’s house I followed the sound of quiet cursing to the back yard, where he had begun to chip apart chunks of his door. With the end of the file between the hinge plate and the door, he splintered the wood piece by piece, using a log as a hammer. I pleaded with him to please wait and not rip apart his door, but he refused. “Todo bien todo bien. Estoy cerca.” 

I turned away to the street, taking a breath, hoping that the police would motivate themselves to show up with tools to get this man back inside his home before the storm came. Feelings of guilt overcame me. This was my fault. This man is locked out of his house because of me and now he’s ruining his door. I took a deep breath.

In the middle of my exhale, a beam of sunlight broke through the thick black sky, illuminating a rainbow over the street. Right underneath its arch, a little boy opened up the front door of his house. His dog followed close behind. He waddled to the curb, scratching his butt, pulling down his pants, turning around and squatting. I couldn’t seem to pull my eyes away as a turd landed on the sidewalk. He stood back up, pulled his underwear in place, and turned around to admire his work before the dog came in for a sniff. There must have been something in that Coca-Cola.

The rainbow faded and the boy went back inside. I snapped out of my trance and went back to José, who had now removed sizable chunks out of his door and was well on his way to the third and final hinge. He was now using the log as a wedge, pulling the screws from the door and splinters of wood with it. “Fuck it” I said quietly to myself. I put my hands between the door and its frame. My feet planted firmly, I ripped the door clean off its hinges. I put the door aside and José strolled right in and sat down on the couch, exclaiming how good it felt to be home, as if I hadn’t just torn his door clean out of it’s frame. 

He went to the kitchen and began loading wood into his stove, continuing to tell me stories about his past as I sat on his kitchen floor with the door. The tool box he had showed me contained a stripped screw driver, a random assortment of screws, a rusted hack saw, a dull chisel, and a couple pieces of wood he had lying around. About an hour later, I had the door back on its hinges, swinging open and closed as it should and latching cleanly. 

I said no thank you to staying for dinner, as it seemed my impact had been great enough. Instead, I shook his hand and thanked him again for the hospitality. He thanked me for the visit and for fixing his door.