Arturo pulled a clunky wooden wagon along the creek. Its wheels bounced on every rock and ridge. He went out early in the morning before the sun moved high overhead and the temperatures heated to the 90s. The wildflowers from spring had withered, replaced by yellowed grass that stood almost as tall Arturo, which is to say almost as tall as a man of small stature.
He stopped once in a while with his bright, red litter stick to pick up trash before it fell into the waterway. He didn’t think of himself as an environmentalist. He was just used to spending his days this way.
He had walked along the creek with his grandson for years when the boy was small. As a toddler, Jacob clutched his hand and squealed with glee at the sight of tadpoles and minnows in the clear water. He looked back at Arturo when they walked to the water’s edge, for assurance, unconditional love in his eyes. The kind of love Arturo hadn’t felt in quite some time.
In the quiet moments, he missed his wife’s scolding voice, love hidden underneath her words of irritation.
“Art, stop eating the chicharrones and chorizo tacos,” she chided him in their later years, her lips pursed. “They’re not good for your heart. Eat some of this grilled chicken.”
“Eh?” he said from the table, his failing ears an excuse to pretend he didn’t hear her. He faced away from her as he put another salty snack in his mouth.
Luisa was la sana, slim and small, and constantly on the move. His wife was supposed to live longer. She didn’t suffer from chronic illnesses and bad habits like Arturo.
He remembered their first day in the Miller Street house, when the paint was still fresh and they were newlyweds. Luisa flipped on the brown radio on the back counter in the kitchen and tuned it to a Spanish station. She danced around the shiny linoleum and circled the hand-me-down table in the center of the room. She tried to take his hand, to draw him in, but he was too tired from moving boxes all day.
“Dance, mi amor,” she said, her brown eyes twinkling with happiness, her face smooth and soft.
“Not today,” he said. “Maybe tomorrow.”
Luisa continued to dance in their thirties. She twirled around the kitchen with their babies on her hip. Whenever she tried to take his hand, he resisted.
“Long day, today,” he said. “Maybe tomorrow.”
He smiled when she held their daughters’ hands. He watched from the corner of the room as her hair lightened from brown to gray across the years and as the girls slowly grew taller than their mother.
Their baile alegre, he thought to himself, but never said it out loud.
At sixty, Luisa still danced, but by then she moved more slowly with their grandson in her arms. Ally brought the baby over on Saturday afternoons. Luisa twirled him around the new table his youngest daughter gave them as a thirty-fifth anniversary gift.
“The table has another scratch in it,” Arturo said. “Emma and her husband paid too much.”
Luisa clicked her tongue.
“It’s a lovely gift, Art,” she said and held out her hand. “We’ll have so many family dinners here. Come dance with us.”
The baby giggled and smiled a toothless grin at Arturo.
“I have yardwork to do,” he said and shuffled out to the garden.
In a blink of an eye, Jacob was a teenager who didn’t want to dance with his abuela anymore or walk along the creek with Arturo. That’s when Luisa fell, as she danced alone across the kitchen floor while Jacob and Arturo ate a bowl of homemade soup.
She crumpled against the oven door and hit her head on the counter.
“Grandma, are you okay?” The color drained out of Jacob’s tan face. Arturo helped his wife up into a chair. He wrapped ice in a flour sack towel and held it to her head.
“Did you slip on something?” he asked. “Are you okay?”
“I’m fine, mi amor,” she said. “Just a little sore. I think it’s the start of arthritis.”
Cancer, the doctor said a few weeks later, and his daughters swooped in to handle her care.
“Dad, you can’t hear the doctor and your English isn’t that great,” Ally said.
“And you won’t understand all the medical jargon,” Emma said in a voice so low he could barely hear. “Let us take Mom to the appointments. We’ll decide how best to proceed.”
Arturo threw his hands up and walked out of the room.
The oncologist confirmed a Stage IV diagnosis and no one even told Arturo where it had originated, just that it was widespread across his wife’s fragile frame. The girls booked appointment after appointment with specialists and drove his wife hours away to Palo Alto and San Francisco in search of a miracle.
After one of those days, Luisa sat still in the recliner in the living room, dark circles under her brown eyes. Her hair had always been thick and shiny, but now the gray strands thinned from the treatment and fell limply around her face. She looked away from him, out the window, at the lavender she had planted as a tiny sprout when they first moved into the house. The bush was taller than both of them now, dry and brittle in the center.
“Mi amor, I can’t fight it,” she said. “I want to stay home with you.”
He called Ally on the phone and told her to cancel the next appointment.
“It’s too much,” he said.
“Dad, come on,” she said. “We haven’t even finished the first round of chemo. Emma said they can pay for anything not covered by insurance.”
“No,” Arturo said in the stern voice he used when the girls were small. “Basta! No more.”
He let his daughters blame him for ending the treatment. They turned their silent fury on him and refused to talk when they visited their mother. Once Luisa passed, he thought they would forgive him, but instead their anger turned into a resentment that was always on a low simmer, ready to scald him if they spent too much time together. So he spent most days alone, along the creek.
The sun started to move upward over the treetops. A man walked a dog and waved in his direction. A woman in a neon orange jacket glanced at him and looked away. Most days he was invisible, an elderly Mexican man with silver hair in a faded pair of Levi’s and worn sneakers, hunched forward slightly as he pulled a wagon full of trash. When people saw him, they probably assumed he was homeless or lost. All those people were right. Without Luisa he had no home.
As he approached the trash can where people discarded bright colored bags of dog waste, he noticed a pile of junk outside of it.
“Idiotas,” he said under his breath. People snuck out in the middle of the night and left broken couches and appliances at the end of the road. That day’s discards included a broken vacuum cleaner, one of the old-fashioned ones that used disposable bags. The frame of the appliance was purple and the bag was missing. He lifted it and added it to the trash in the wagon.
He wondered if he could repair the vacuum. He didn’t need one, but it would be a project to fill his time. He’d always been handy around the house. He’d almost been an electrician once.
When he was thirty-seven, Arturo saw a flier on a bulletin board in the corridor of city hall with “Electrician Apprentices Wanted” in bold letters across the top. He took it down and folded it in half and in half again before stuffing it in his back pocket. Then he drove the city truck out of the lot to the nearest park where he emptied trash cans, unlocked the restrooms and cleared up debris from a recent storm off the trails.
He’d forgotten about the flier when Luisa placed it in front of him at the breakfast table a few days later.
“I found this in your pocket when I did the laundry,” she said.
Arturo folded the paper up and put it aside.
“What is this, Arty?” she asked as she sat next to him.
“Another city department is hiring an electrician’s apprentice,” he said. “It’s full-time work, but requires some college classes to move into a permanent position.”
“Is it something you want to do?” Luisa said and put her hand over his.
“I don’t know. The money for the courses could go to the girls, for when they go to college.”
“Why don’t you apply and see if you get accepted?” she said. “Te amo.”
He applied and the supervisor selected him. He enrolled in night classes and drove twice a week in the dark over the hill to Cabrillo Junior College while Luisa put their daughters to bed alone. He sat at the kitchen table with the girls on Sunday afternoons and did his homework.
He liked the math and science courses, but he never fit in with the men in the new department. From his first day, they hazed him relentlessly. The other men were tall, with thick beards and light hair. They sat together on their lunch hour in a cluster on the curb near the parking lot and ate hoagies out of Igloo lunch coolers. Arturo sat alone at a picnic table with the leftovers Luisa packed him.
“That shit’s so strong you can smell it all the way over here,” one of them commented as Arturo dripped homemade salsa onto his tacos.
Inside the workshop, they were worse.
“Mouse can’t reach the tools,” one of the men said when Arturo pulled up a stepladder to reach the drills and screwdrivers stored on the top shelf. “Bet you’re small enough to fit inside the walls, though.”
“If we have a job for a mouse, we know who to call,” one of the other men said. They called him Mickey instead of by his real name.
At first, he took it as good-natured hazing and thought it would fade as his skills increased.
“Just learned about alternating currents in class this week,” Arturo said.
“Who knew you could teach a dumb mouse new tricks?” one of the guys laughed.
Another shoved Arturo into table corners in the workshop, so he learned to give a wide berth to his coworkers. He shrugged it off and focused on the work.
Then one day, the tallest guy pushed Arturo into a supply closet and wedged it shut with a doorstop from the outside. He pounded on the door.
“Okay, that’s enough,” he said. “It’s not funny anymore.”
After ten minutes, his chest started to constrict, and his breathing became uneven. He took deep breaths and imagined the diagrams he was studying in class to pass the time. The light of a bare bulb hung over his head. His bladder started to ache as it neared the three-hour mark, and he finally heard footsteps in the hall outside.
“Hey, can you let me out?” Arturo said. “Help. I’m stuck in here.”
The supervisor opened the door and found Arturo standing among the paper towels and commercial-sized cleaning supplies.
“What happened?” the supervisor asked.
Arturo didn’t answer, but he hung his head.
“Art, don’t take those guys seriously,” the supervisor said. “They’re just mad you have seniority and will get all the overtime as soon as you finish your classes and get licensed.”
Arturo walked to the bathroom. His weak frame glared back at him from the mirror as he washed his hands. He tamped down his anger for the rest of the workday, but it tumbled out when he got home.
Ally lay on the couch with the TV blaring.
“Turn it down,” he said. He wanted to sit in his recliner and read the newspaper.
She ignored him.
“I said turn the volume down,” he said. He slowed the pace of his words and enunciated each syllable with care.
She still didn’t move.
He slapped his paper down on the end table and Ally flinched.
“If I ask you again, I’ll turn it off for you.”
Ally stood up and sulked away to the kitchen.
“Why are you so mean,” she said on her way out.
Emma came in and started up with knock-knock jokes. He stomped his foot, but the carpet deadened the impact.
“Callate! Can everyone just be quiet?”
Luisa walked in from the kitchen, her mouth set in a thin line, her eyebrows arched downward. She took the girls by the hand and left the house. Later, the girls came home with smiles and Happy Meal prizes.
After the girls were asleep, Luisa folded down the quilt on their bed and asked, “What is going on, mi amor? Is school too stressful? You don’t have to do this if you don’t want to.”
He let her believe it was the classes. He went back to his old city job in parks maintenance. Arturo still had the old report card from his one college semester hidden in his workshop, where Luisa hadn’t ever found it. He received “As” in both his classes, but his pride forever mixed with the shame of letting men bully him out of a job.
The day he found the vacuum cleaner, Arturo arrived back at his house by nine a.m. He made a cup of coffee in the kitchen before he pulled the wagon through the side yard to his workshop in the back. The neighbor’s cat trailed him and jumped up on his worktable. The damn cat was always in his yard, hiding from the grabby hands of the young children who owned it. It used to sleep under the azaleas, but in recent months it had taken to following him into the shed.
He reached out with an absent-minded hand and scratched behind the cat’s ears. He took some comfort in hearing the cat’s broken purr, the low hum interrupted by a squeak in the middle as though the cat had a whistle stuck in its throat.
He pulled the vacuum off the pile. It wasn’t a Dyson or a Bissell, or any brand he recognized. It had writing on it that looked foreign, squiggly lines like Thai or Arabic words. It had a stopwatch logo on it. The wheels worked as he rolled it toward an outlet. He plugged it in. He turned a switch and it sounded like a blender full of rocks.
Arturo looked at his phone to see what time it was and saw he had a missed call from Ally. He made a note to call her back and drove to the old appliance store on Main Street. The owner Hank was a widower, too. The shop often stood empty except for a couple of old-timers who sometimes set up a chess set on top of one of the washing machines at the front of the store. He didn’t know how Hank made any money—that washing machine had been in the same spot for the last six years. But like Hank, Arturo understood the draw of being outside a house filled with memories when there was no one left to share them.
Hank looked up when the bell from the front door chimed.
“Art, what can I do for you, sir?” Hank said.
“I found this old vacuum cleaner on one of my walks,” Arturo said and squinted at his phone as he tried to find a photo that he’d snapped of it. “Have you ever seen one like this?”
Hank held the phone out at arm’s length, his glasses on the tip of his nose.
“I’ve never seen writing like this before,” he said. “Definitely not a brand I know. Give me a minute, though.”
Arturo stayed at the front of the store and watched the afternoon light reflect off the hubcap of his truck, while Hank went to the storage room. Hank came back with a dusty cardboard box.
“I have all these old manuals for every model I’ve sold over the last four decades,” he said and handed the box to Arturo. “Maybe one will help.”
At home that night, Arturo sat on the couch and flipped through the documents and looked for something that might be close to the model in the workshop. He found an old German one from the 1960s that bore a resemblance. He fell asleep on the couch like he often did.
In the morning, he showered and ate a bowl of cereal in the kitchen. He washed the dishes in the chipped porcelain sink and put them in the dish rack to dry. He never ran the dishwasher, the one he’d installed for Luisa ten years ago, the one that ended decades of fights about the right way to do dishes. She got so mad when he left things in the sink overnight.
“Aii, Arty, that doesn’t need to soak,” she said often and ribbed him with one of her bony elbows.
He followed all the rules she’d wanted now. No chicharrones or tacos in sight these days. The dishes washed as soon as they were cleared. And he walked miles every day so the potbelly he’d had for most of their marriage disappeared.
He picked up his phone as he headed out for the park and saw he had another missed call from Ally. He’d have to call her when he got home, maybe on her lunch break.
After his walk, he went into the workshop with the vacuum manual. He pulled pieces of the machine apart to shake out the dirt that had collected in it. There were rocks inside. He tossed the gravel out into the garden and the neighbor’s cat wandered in when he left the door ajar.
He tinkered with the machinery a bit more and found a twisted belt inside. Once it was back in place, he reassembled everything and plugged it in just as the cat walked past it. The cat screeched and disappeared. A cloud of dust filled the room. Instead of sucking in debris, it had blown a mess everywhere.
As the grime settled, Arturo heard a mewling sound. Under his workbench, next to the vacuum cleaner, he found a tiny orange kitten. He scooped it up and saw that it had the same stripes as the neighbor’s cat. Maybe the cat had had a litter. Arturo turned on a flashlight and looked under the table, but he couldn’t find any other kittens around.
The kitten mewed again and licked his fingers. It had the same white diamond on its forehead as the adult cat. He scratched the cat behind the ears, and it started to purr, a squeak breaking the hum in two. He brought the kitten into the house and poured a saucer of milk for it. He would have to return it to the children next door when they got home from school.
He left the kitten in the bathroom so it wouldn’t get lost in the house and went back out to the workshop. He disassembled the parts of the vacuum cleaner again, this time removing the electric motor and the fan.
For the first time, he noticed dials on the side of the handle, like one of those old padlocks for luggage where one set a three-number combination. The handle had eight slots that looked like they would rotate, and instead of numbers, each had a series of characters that looked like the handwriting on the other part of the machine. He turned one dial and it began to glow. He stepped back in shock. The engine was unattached and the vacuum was unplugged.
“Dios mio,” he whispered to himself and sat down on a wooden stool. He stared at the vacuum cleaner until he heard the neighbor’s car door shut.
He rushed out to catch the mother.
“Your cat was in my workshop,” he said.
“Again? Sorry, Mr. Gonzalez,” she said. “Did you shoo him back home?”
“I think the cat had a litter of kittens. I found a kitten that looked just like it in the shed,” he said.
“Our cat is a boy,” the six-year-old piped up. “Boys don’t have babies.”
“Maybe it was another neighborhood cat,” the mother said. “Do you need help finding homes for the kittens?”
“No, no. There was just one,” he said.
Arturo drove to the grocery store and bought a bag of kitten chow, a few cans of food, and a bag of litter. At home, he pulled faded Spiderman bowls from the back of the cabinet, a remnant of the days when his grandson was young and visited every weekend. He hadn’t seen Jacob since Christmas when the boy stopped by on his winter break from college to watch football with Arturo. Ally said he had a summer internship and might not be home at all until the holidays again.
Arturo put two bowls on a dishtowel on the linoleum floor that was now scuffed and worn, and he filled one with water and the other with food. He didn’t know if the kitten was old enough to eat dry food yet. When he carried it out of the bathroom and placed it on the floor near the dishes, the kitten quickly started eating. He filled up an old cardboard box with the litter.
The kitten curled up next to Arturo as he fell asleep on the couch, it’s quiet purr vibrating against Arturo’s chest. That night Arturo dreamt of hills like the ones along the edge of his town, but instead of the natural green and golden hues, everything was gray. He saw a beacon at the top of the highest hill, flashing white. He walked toward it, unable to look away from the light.
When he reached it, a high-pitched sound emitted that brought him to his knees. His dream-self reached hands up in a reflex to cover his ears and in the night sky the stars aligned into ten squiggles like the writing on the vacuum cleaner. He looked at the characters, but he had no cipher to understand their encryption. The squiggles rearranged into a pattern of eight characters.
Then he woke up back in his living room. He sat up abruptly, forgetting about the dozing kitten on his chest, and knocked it to the ground. It mewed as it tumbled and landed upright on the floor.
Arturo searched the junk drawer in the kitchen for a piece of paper and a pencil. He wrote down numbers 0 through 9 across the top of an old notebook. He wrote down an approximation of each squiggle he had seen in his dream under one of the numbers, then below that he wrote the pattern of eight he’d seen just before he awoke.
He tore the paper off the pad and walked out to the workshop. He looked at the squiggles on the vacuum cleaner dial, and they matched what he had seen in his dream. He converted the squiggles into digits—61023250. He didn’t know what the numbers meant, but he was sure now that the squiggles represented numbers.
His mouth went dry and his head ached. Instead of thinking more about it, he got out the wagon and headed toward the creek for his daily walk.
As he headed up the sidewalk an hour later, the mother next door stopped him.
“Have you seen our cat today?” she asked. “He always comes home for dinner and he didn’t come home last night. We’ve got to find him or the kids will be distraught. We’ve had him since Jerry was a baby.”
Arturo thought of the kitten he had at home, then the numbers flashed in his head.
“When did you get the cat?”
“Jerry was six weeks old, and we got the kitten to help Anna with adjusting to a new baby in the house. So must have been May 2016,” she said.
“I’ll let you know if I see him,” Arturo said.
He found the scrap of paper and wrote the numbers down in reverse order. 05232016. May 23, 2016. When the neighbor’s cat would have been a kitten. He didn’t let the words on the edge of his brain form into a full thought. It was too crazy, too wild to believe it might be true.
Arturo couldn’t put the idea down. He searched through the boxes of old DVDs the kids left behind in the garage. There was an old movie the girls used to watch with Tom Hanks, where a kid magically becomes an adult overnight. He put it in the player the girls had given him for his last birthday, the one Jacob set up for him.
Arturo fell asleep during the scene with the toy store. He dreamt of the beacon again, but this time when he reached it, instead of the unnerving sound he heard the night before, it emitted the Banda music Luisa danced to all her life.
He woke with a plan. He punched some holes in the metal lid of an empty spaghetti sauce jar and put it in his wagon. He stopped at a spot along the creek that had a bit of water and filled the jar an inch. He sat on a log and waited patiently for a frog to hop by. When one finally did, he scooped it up into the jar and secured the lid. He continued up the creek, passed the man who walked the dog and the woman in the neon shirt.
Back at the house, he went into his workshop and checked that the engine and fan were reattached to the vacuum. He got out his scrap of paper and found the squiggles he thought would correspond to the numbers 02-01-2021, a date in the recent past. He placed the jar in front of the vacuum cleaner and stepped back to plug it in. The machine made the same horrendous noise as before and spewed out the same dust cloud. When it cleared, he picked up the jar. The frog was gone and in its place a tadpole.
Instead of feeling relief, Arturo’s skin went cold and his lips quivered. He sat on the edge of the stool and thought about calling Ally or Emma just to have their voices ground him. But at midmorning, they both would still be at work. And he never called Jacob on the phone—the boy only texted occasionally.
For months the girls had been hounding him about becoming more scattered—forgetting his phone when he went on long walks, forgetting to call them back when they left a message for him, missing a doctor’s appointment if they didn’t remind him about it. They thought he was losing his mind and for the first time, he thought they might be right. That machine in his workshop couldn’t be doing what he thought it was doing. It was impossible.
The kitten crossed his path and Arturo scooped it up.
“What’s that old saying? Youth is wasted on the young,” he said out loud to the animal. “Or on a cat.”
He closed his eyes and thought about his younger self, when he stood a few inches taller and straighter, when his hair was jet black and his skin bronzed instead of wizened. When he’d first met Luisa, or just before. But youth wouldn’t matter without Luisa.
The dream continued when he fell asleep. That night when he reached the beacon, he heard an engine revving and a horn honk. He woke up with the thought that if he could somehow connect his truck to the vacuum cleaner, he would not only grow younger but could travel back in time.
He had no idea how to do it, but he spent weeks researching how to install a stereo or replace the air-conditioning unit in his Tacoma. He thought if he could somehow connect the motor and fan from the vacuum to the truck, it could work. He needed it to work.
He’d already picked the date he wanted to set on the dial. Not his wedding day or the day he first met Luisa or when their daughters were born. Not any of the hundreds of times he had ignored Luisa’s requests to dance. Or even the day he decided to quit the electrician’s program. No, there was only one hour in his life he wanted to live again.
On September 18, 2018.
The doctor had given Luisa less than six months without treatment. She was fine at first. She dozed on the couch in the middle of the day. Ally brought fifteen-year-old Jacob by once a week, and the poor boy didn’t know where to look, his face like stone as he leaned down to kiss his abuela’s cheek.
The girls cried every time they visited, and Arturo saw how it wore Luisa out to cheer them up.
Luisa made it a year, but then Arturo noticed her wincing whenever she stood. He dipped into their savings for a hospital bed that would make it easier for Luisa to sit up without using her waning strength and hired a hospice nurse.
He sat next to Luisa all day, every day. They watched telenovelas and old romantic comedies she liked. He read from her favorite stories, his reading glasses perched on the end of his nose. And then at night, he slept in a cot by her side, a shabby blanket pulled over his frame so that she could have the heavy quilt comforter that had adorned their bed for decades.
He stepped away for a five-minute shower three times a week and on Tuesdays for an hour to buy groceries. On the morning of September 18, Luisa sat up and placed her cold hand against his.
“Mi amor,” she said, her eyes closed against the early morning light as her breath came out in a ragged exhale. “Dance with me.”
“Of course,” he said.
He turned the radio to the Spanish station and held her hand. He hummed to the music and swayed his head in rhythm to the song.
“Te amo, Luisa,” he said. He turned his face away when he felt tears burning his eyes.
The hospice nurse arrived at nine a.m.
“She’ll be fine,” the nurse said. “Go get your groceries. You’ll be back in an hour.”
Arturo rushed through the store with a small notebook and pen. He marked off items as he went to keep on track and on time. He picked the line with the least familiar grocery clerk to forego any small talk that might hold him up.
In the parking lot, he loaded the grocery bags into the back of the pickup truck and climbed in. He turned the key in the ignition and the truck sputtered. He tried again, but the engine wouldn’t turn over. He slammed his hand against the steering wheel and the horn honked by accident. A customer pushing a shopping cart stopped abruptly at the sound, then kept moving along.
Arturo checked his pocket for his phone and then looked across the seat of the truck to see if he placed it there without thought. He didn’t have the phone. He pulled a couple quarters out of his glove compartment and walked halfway back to the storefront when he remembered the pay phone was no longer there.
He locked the truck and left $100 worth of groceries unsheltered in the warm fall sun. He crossed the busy street and walked in the direction of his house, two miles away. Sweat collected in the creases of his T-shirt and his feet ached by the time he got home.
The scent of lavender filled him as he approached the front of the house. As soon as he opened the door, the nurse waited for him in the living room, her face more pale than normal and a tremble in her chin. He knew Luisa was gone.
“I tried calling you, but you didn’t answer,” the nurse said and reached out to take one of his hands. “She went peacefully, I promise.”
Arturo walked back to the bedroom and took his wife’s hand.
“I should have been here with you, mi amor,” he said and kissed Luisa’s dry hand. “Next time I won’t leave your side.”