Whatever you believe, know this: Teodoro Ramirez’s dog could see into the spirit world. Teddy, as he was called by everyone in barrio La Zavala, never shared this with anyone. Of course, the only people he could have shared this with would have been his co-workers or his tíos and tías, who only came by his house occasionally now that his mother, Josefina, had died, que en paz descanse. He probably could have told la Señora Izquierdo, the nice old lady who lived alone next door and brought him tamales every year when it was close to Christmas. She may not have believed him, but she would have listened.
Teddy believed lots of things his mother, Josefina, had told him and sometimes heard her voice even now that she was gone from this earth, the diabetes she’d had trouble controlling taking her too soon, que en paz descanse. Like if you went outside and got either your head or your feet wet, but not the rest of your body, you would catch a cold. If you ate hot flán or cake, your stomach would get sick. “Mi hijo,” she would say, “don’t eat that or you’ll get empachado.” If you pointed at a rainbow and then touched yourself without washing your hands, you would get pimples wherever you had touched yourself. But the one thing that helped Teddy comprehend how his dog was different was Josefina’s teachings about spirits. She had often said that any place—a house, a church, even a whole barrio—was imbued by either good or bad spirits that had influenced the events there. Teddy had even accompanied his mother on several limpias of homes, where she and the comadres from church anointed doorways with oil, waved bundles of burning sabio in hallways to clear the home of bad memories or mal espíritus that had plagued the families therein.
Teddy knew that his mother, who also taught that certain weeds could make you feel better or worse or in love, would have believed him about what the dog could see. She would have loved the dog, spoiling him like he’d seen her do with other animals. When she was alive and her feet weren’t in pain and she could still walk, she had kept a bag of cat food by the door to give to any stray gatito that climbed over their fence. Teddy had even seen her be nice to a possum by trying to hand-feed it, despite its hisses and bared teeth, even naming it Cantinflas because, she said, its whiskers reminded her of the Mexican comedian’s mustache.
Now that Josefina was gone, que en paz descanse, and despite hearing his mother’s voice at unexpected times, Teddy was all alone in their casita. So, because he heard his mother’s voice tell him and because it was a good idea, Teddy had adopted a dog from the Humane Society.
Outside the house, Teddy did have his work friends in the pressroom at The Town Crier, one of those newspapers that had coupons and circulars and nice little articles about local personalities and new building dedications. He liked to laugh with his camaradas on the graveyard shift, men with nicknames like El Playboy, the clubfooted vato who managed to have a different girl bring him dinner every night, or El Beetlejuice, the short dude missing his front teeth with one eye a little lower than the other, or El Viejito, the old man who could work twice as fast and hard as anyone half his age and never spoke or complained when one of the machines broke down. All El Viejito would say in Spanish was “More hours, more money. I got no complaints.” All of them had real names, but Teddy didn’t know what they were. Teddy’s nickname was El Catrín. He did not mind that they called him that, because, for vatos like him, a nickname, no matter how cruel or ironic, meant they cared about you and you were part of the crew. The reason they called him El Catrín—the well-dressed, monocled gentleman on the lotería card—was because, on the first day of work, Teddy had shown up wearing a tie he’d bought at the flea market, pleated dress pants, and penny loafers he’d borrowed from a primo. When Teddy had applied and interviewed, he had only seen the business office, where the manager, account executives, and editors worked, and they had all been wearing ties. He had figured this was the dress code, not knowing he was applying for the pressroom, where the crew mostly wore T-shirts, Dickies, and steel-toed boots. When the manager had walked him to the pressroom on that first day, El Beetlejuice had yelled over the clamor of the printing press and paper hopper: “Oye, vatos, get out your frijolitos and cards, because El Catrín is here!” When Teddy looked around for someone fitting the description of El Catrín with his bow tie and fancy striped pants, and then saw that El Beetlejuice was pointing at him, Teddy knew the joke was on him, but he laughed with them and smiled at their newsprint-blackened faces. Josefina had taught him that when others made fun of him, or when he didn’t get a joke, the best thing to do was to laugh along and not get frustrated or take it personally. El Playboy had then lent him some spare overalls, and Teddy had gotten right to work, showing them he could play along and was not a llorón who couldn’t take a joke. Since then, they had all been friends, sharing their midnight lunches buffet-style, drinking cheves in a panel truck in the parking lot if they finished early, but Teddy would go home and none of them would be there.
Most nights, he drank himself to sleep, traguitos with Topo Chico mineral water and Oso Negro vodka—Presidente brandy if he had gotten more hours. He would think about his mother, Josefina, try to hear her voice, and think about joining her as the darkness and the susto covered his whole body. It was on one of these nights when he actually heard her voice whisper to him, “Mijito, why don’t you get a dog so you’re not so lonely, so you don’t have so much susto all by yourself?” Her voice had come from the corner of the room, from one of her three rocking chairs she had collected over the years. Josefina had loved to sit in them, a different chair for each show. She and Teddy used to watch her telenovela Corazón Salvaje and the Spanish variety shows Sábado Gigante and Siempre en Domingo sitting in those chairs. And if she were still with him, and they were watching the shows, Josefina would have put the TV on mute, and she would have gone on to again explain susto to him like she had when he was feeling sad and anxious but could not explain why. She would have told him how a small amount of it was natural, and everyone had it to some degree, this fear of life and how bad things that happened before might happen again, or the fear that you could experience some new tragedy at any moment. And if her consejos didn’t work, she would have then prayed over him, waving burning sabio to expel the bad spirit.
A day after one of the panel van pachangas in the parking lot and more drinks at home, bleary-eyed and crudo but hopeful, Teddy went to the Río Grande Valley Humane Society, looked at all the puppies and kitties, and kept asking, “Don’t you got one smaller or younger or with two good eyes?” He pointed at the dog he would eventually take home, the one with the milky left eye.
“No, sir, we don’t. The small dogs are very popular. I’m sorry.”
“Don’t you got something in the back?”
“No, sir, this is all we have,” she said, sweeping her hand past the mangy dogs with matted fur and the dog with one eye cloudy, one eye good. “This one has all his shots, and he’s been neutered.” Teddy’s face registered nothing with this last part she said, so she made a gesture: one hand like they were cupping the dog’s huevos and the other like they were doing the snipping. Teddy nodded, because he finally understood.
She said, “He won’t cost you a thing.”
He was not much to look at, just some sort of part-Doberman the nice gringa lady called Lucky. He had the color, head, and ears of a Doberman, but his tail was long and thick, not a little stub like the other ones he had seen. His body was thicker than a Doberman’s too. She said he really was lucky, because some Border Patrol agents had confiscated him from these mejicanitos who were caught walking around with the dog, trying to look casual. After they used these dogs to make them look like they belonged, as if they were out for a nice afternoon walk, they abandoned them to roam the streets of Texas border towns like Hidalgo or Progreso and then made the journey north.
“He’s also lucky because the people who brought him said he had probably been abused at some point, the way it looks like there’s been trauma to the eye, which is completely blind.” Teddy looked into this milky left eye. Later, he would convince himself that it was destiny or God that brought them together, that there was some sort of connection when their eyes met. But in this moment, he only thought about what a bargain the dog was with all his shots and no huevos to get him into trouble.
That first day with Teddy, the dog sniffed around the house with his not-Doberman tail between his legs. This was normal, Teddy thought, something dogs did when they get to know a new place. But was the skin over a dog’s ribs supposed to shake like that? Finally, the dog lay down by the door and went to sleep. This went on for days, the dog afraid of him, getting up and hiding whenever Teddy came near. The dog would not eat either. Teddy thought it was not going to work out, until he got the idea to mix the Ol’ Roy dry dog food with ground-beef drippings. Teddy talked to him the whole time he mixed the food, saying, “Is the perrito hungry? Does he want to eat?” The dog wagged his tail for the first time and ate all his food, and everything was better between them after that.
On his nights off, Teddy would let him out into the backyard and watch his shadow moving like some black ghost out by the metal fence. If dew was already in the air, he would leave the dog outside all night, because his mother had taught him that the night dew carried evil spirits in the droplets that you could inhale. Once this happened, you could get sick or possessed. Teddy was not thrilled with the thought of either thing happening.
On one of those dry nights, Teddy let the dog (whom he had renamed Milagro, because it was a miracle and not luck that had kept him alive day after day) stay inside with him. This was when he learned that the dog had one eye on this world and his milky, dead left eye on the other. The sadness of missing his mother was so strong that night that Teddy went to the cupboard to find one of the bottles, wanting to drink himself to sleep again to ward away the susto and the tristeza. But Milagro jumped in front of Teddy’s legs and tried to block him from going to the kitchen. When Teddy moved past him and grabbed the bottle, Milagro let out a low growl. The fur on his back stood up like a brush, and Teddy said, “Tranquilo, tranquilo,” so that he could drink his traguito until he passed out, but Milagro would not calm down. With his bad eye turned to one side, Milagro moved his head back and forth, as if he were tracking something flying above the gabinetes. Then Teddy tried putting him into the bathroom with the door closed. Milagro whimpered and scratched at the door and yelped as if it hurt him to be alone in there. Teddy sucked his teeth, said, “¡Qué perro tan necio!” and let Milagro out. But the barking and acting crazy did not stop. Finally, Teddy closed the cupboard and grabbed himself a glass of milk. He said, “¿Qué pasó? What’s wrong with you, perro loco?” Milagro finally calmed down, but he sat on his haunches, his dead eye pointed at the liquor cabinet, growling and baring his teeth from time to time, as if a stranger was trying to get close to Teddy. Teddy started understanding what it was the dog had been barking at, some mal espiritú in the liquor cabinet.
Nights later, the sadness and fear visited again, and Teddy’s thoughts were darker than usual. His house was so quiet, with no sound of his mother’s laughter at her shows or how she would talk to the ladies from the telenovelas, telling them to leave their cheating husbands, saying, ¡Vete ya, dejalo! Teddy got the idea to put Milagro outside, and then he could grab a bottle and drink and try to forget. Teddy managed to get him outside, lying to the dog that he was just letting him out for a little bit. “No más por un ratito,” he said. As Teddy moved to the kitchen, Milagro howled and scratched at the back door and would not stop. Teddy could not get into the drinking mood with Milagro barking like that. Teddy sometimes felt attacks of that católico guilt he used to get as a little kid, like the one time when he was a teenager and got caught putting water into the decorative tequila bottle his mother had put up on the top shelf of the gabinetes, and she had spanked him with a wooden spoon. Maybe he needed prayer to get over this thing, because he knew that’s what his mother would have told him to do. Light a candle and pray, mijo, she would have said. Teddy could not even bring himself to go to church, because this would bring back too many memories of his mother, so he did the next best thing: he would go to la Señora Izquierdo’s.
The next day, he knocked on her burglar door and could see past the open inner door, the pictures of all of the Izquierdo children, now grown, and the painted reproduction of a faded portrait of Octavio and Guadalupe Izquierdo, el señor and la señora, when they were first married and before they had all of the children and he got sick from his nerves. Teddy looked away from the young Octavio’s handsome face, as if looking at him could make the Izquierdo sadness pass through his eyes. The Izquierdo family was nice, but they did have their problems too. Teddy had too many of his own to take theirs upon himself as well. The only difference between them was that they had each other and Teddy was alone.
She came to the door drying her hands on an apron and said, “Buenas tardes, Teddy.” Like his mother taught him to do in one of her lessons about people and the ways of the world, he looked at Señora Izquierdo’s mouth and eyes and saw that they were both smiling. If the mouth is smiling, but there are no wrinkles around the eyes, mijo, it means they are just being polite and not really happy to see you, she had said.
“¿Cómo está, Señora Izquierdo?” Teddy then told her that he had a sin he needed forgiveness for and asked her and her family to pray for him, and because she was smiling for real, he gave her a hug he had not planned on. She was surprised but hugged him back. He thought of telling her about the dog, how it reacted like it saw invisible people or creatures moving past it whenever he wanted to drink his traguitos.
Señora Izquierdo did not seem bothered by Teddy walking in without permission or by his lack of small talk, how he got right to the point.
“Whatever it is,” she said in Spanish, “it is going to be fine. You must have faith.” Teddy liked this about la Señora Izquierdo, how she always knew when someone did not feel like saying more. He could smell the aroma of cumin and cilantro, flour tortillas burning on the comal.
Teddy told her that he did have faith and that he felt better already. She offered to give him lunch, a guisado with beef and papas, and tortillas she was making for her son Braulio, who came on his lunch break almost every day.
Teddy was hungry for la Señora Izquierdo’s carne guisada, and he needed to be around these people who almost everybody in the neighborhood respected for their goodness, their delicious tamales, and their willingness to feed and take in anyone they could. All except the Brujo Contreras down the block, the jealous neighbor who made curses against them and who his mother always told him not to trust.
When Braulio got there, drywall dust all over his white pants and T-shirt, Teddy did not know why, but he started talking about how he needed to be prayed for because he feared so many things: the night dew, being alone in that house where his mother was not, hurting himself, getting hurt at work.
He looked down at the speckles on Braulio’s boots and said, “There was this one time when El Beetlejuice—they call him that because he’s turnio and one eye’s así, bien crooked—when El Beetlejuice brought the pallet jack behind me and almost lowered a pallet with a ton of newspapers on my foot.” He managed to pull his foot out from underneath just in time and was thankful, but even Teddy knew that the bones would have been so broken that they would have had to cut off the foot. What would he have done then? Teddy knew he needed to stop talking, but he could not. The susto was on him now, and Josefina was not there to burn sabio, give him a cleaning with the egg while she recited the Apostle’s Creed over him so it would go away.
“I been drinking until I fall asleep,” he said in English so that la Señora Izquierdo would not understand. “You know what I’m talking about, right? You ever feel that way?” Teddy thought to tell him about Milagro’s spirit-seeing dead eye, how he was sure his special dog could see ghosts, evil spirits, and maybe even angels. The way Milagro acted—the fur on his back standing up like a brush while he growled at the gabinetes, barked at corners of the house where there was nothing visible—Teddy was sure about this. And just as he was about to, Braulio spoke again.
“Sí, Teddy, I know. I know. You don’t have to drink anymore. I used to drink, and it almost killed me, and it destroyed my marriage. You can ask Jesus to come into your heart, and you can be delivered from it. Did you know that? Just open yourself wide, so the bad stuff can leave and He can come in. If you want, I can pray with you.”
“Oh, yes, that would be good,” Teddy said.
“I mean I can pray with you right now,” Braulio said.
Teddy said thank you but shook his head no politely. He said that he had to go feed the dog and asked would they forgive him for eating and leaving like that.
When Teddy got home, he fed Milagro, petted him, and took him outside in the backyard. He felt a peace come over him and thought he needed to go to la Señora Izquierdo’s more often. Upon leaving, she had made sure to tell him that he could always come for comida, that her table was his table, that his mother would have wanted that, que en paz descanse.
That afternoon, feeling peaceful from a full stomach and his visit and the prospect of future visits, Teddy was able to take a nap before he had to start his night shift at The Town Crier. When he woke up, Teddy felt like what he was about to do was something suddenly remembered very clearly, like his mother had just told him five minutes ago. Teddy felt he could finish this little job without his fear or uncertainty slowing him down. In the first few months after she was gone, Teddy walked around the house trying to hear Josefina’s voice, the way she told him what needed to be done. Mijo, she would say, please mow the lawn. Wash the dishes. Mop the floor with Fabuloso and water. Now that she was gone and he had to take care of the house by himself, without his mother’s voice to constantly guide him, her consejos coming only in spurts and short phrases, it was like he was underwater, panicking and thinking real hard about how to stay on top of the water. Somehow, Teddy still managed to dust the TV and polish all the wooden furniture, especially the three rocking chairs she had collected over the years, the furniture she loved the most.
Teddy gathered the things he needed while Milagro wagged his tail and looked up at him expectantly, like he thought he was going outside.
He put mesquite branches into the barbecue pit, a homemade one made from an old water heater. Teddy had bought it from the man who sold them on the corner of Nolana and McColl for only sixty-five dollars and was proud of it. He pulled all his bottles out, the Oso Negro vodka, El Jimador Tequila, and the fancy Presidente. After he lit the mesquite, he stepped back, and one at a time until all the bottles were empty, he sprinkled the flames and watched the fire jump, making sure to do a little at a time so it would not explode in his face.
Teddy did not feel the relief he had thought he would, and Milagro just sat there and looked at the flames with only a little interest. This was when Teddy tilted his head back and opened his mouth so wide his jaw popped. With all that bad coming out, and Jesucristo coming in, he hoped there was room.
Teddy still did not feel complete. But then, he found the answer, like it was a five-dollar bill that had been hiding underneath the couch the whole time. And he had come up with it on his own, without Josefina’s past or otherworldly wisdom coming to him.
He gathered the rocking chairs one by one into the living room. Teddy put each of the three side by side, moving them just right so they were evenly spaced. He turned on the TV and turned the channel to one of Josefina’s telenovelas. Milagro was in the room with him, and he did something Teddy had never seen before. He jumped up on the rocking chair on the end and sat down. Milagro looked up at Teddy like he was waiting for Teddy to sit down too. Teddy eased himself into the chair on the other end. Milagro continued to wait for someone else to sit down. After a moment, when Teddy heard the middle chair creak with someone’s invisible weight between them, and the chair started rocking by itself, Milagro turned in a tight circle, settled down, and started snoring.
Rubén Degollado’s work has appeared in Beloit Fiction Journal, LitHub, Gulf Coast, Hayden’s Ferry Review, and Image. Rubén is the author of two books: Throw, named the Texas Institute of Letters best YA book, and The Family Izquierdo, a PEN/Faulkner nominee.