Through My Fault
Matias stepped into the family room to wake his son. Mateo was sleeping on the sofa, where he slept every night.
“Mateo, wake up,” he whispered, careful not to wake his wife and daughter.
But the boy didn’t stir.
“Mateo,” Matias said in a loud whisper.
The boy groaned and turned over on his stomach.
“Mateo,” Matias said again. “It’s time to wake up.”
“Five more minutes,” Mateo mumbled.
“Okay,” Matias said. “I’ll make your coffee.”
He went into the kitchen, put two slices of bread into the toaster and poured coffee into two mugs and a stainless steel thermos. When the toast popped up, he buttered both slices, putting Mateo’s on a plate.
He sat down at the small kitchen table. He bit into his toast, sipped his coffee and, as he did every morning, silently said a prayer for the well being of his family.
When he had finished his toast, he stepped back into the family room to wake Mateo. This time, he tapped him on the back.
“Go away,” Mateo grumbled.
“Mateo, we must go,” Matias said. “Your coffee and toast are ready. Get up.”
Mateo rolled over.
“I told you I hate coffee,” he said, finally sitting up.
“You’ll get used to it,” Matias said.
Mateo got up and walked down the hall to the bathroom. With his son finally awake, Matias went to his bedroom to get dressed. He went to the side of the bed where his wife was sleeping. He felt for her face in the darkness, bent down and kissed her cheek.
“Good morning, Gabriela,” he whispered in Spanish. “We will see you tonight. I love you.”
She reached up and touched his face.
“Te amo,” she said softly.
Matias went back into the kitchen. Mateo was sitting at the table, eating his toast. He hadn’t touched his coffee.
“We must go,” Matias said.
Mateo got up, his toast still in hand.
“You don’t want your coffee?” Matias asked.
Matias opened the refrigerator and pulled out two paper bags, stuffed with food for lunch. He handed one to Mateo, who said nothing.
They left. Matias locked the door of their apartment behind him. They stepped out into the street, into the damp, warm air. Under the street lights, they walked a few blocks to the Dollar General store, where they stood in the parking lot, waiting for their ride.
“It’s going to be very hot today,” Matias said.
“It’s hot every day,” Mateo said.
“You’ll want to drink lots of water,” Matias said.
They stood there, shifting on their feet, saying nothing more. Finally, a large, white pick-up truck pulled into the dusty parking lot. It was pulling a flatbed trailer, loaded with lawn care equipment. Matias and Mateo stepped up onto the back bumper and got into the bed of the truck. Two men were already sitting there.
“Buenos dias,” Matias said.
“Buenos dias,” the men mumbled.
Matias sat down next to one of the men. Mateo wedged himself into the corner, behind the cab of the truck, and said nothing.
The truck took off. They were heading to The Woodlands, a wealthy suburb of Houston, about an hour away. That would be their destination all week. They would cut and take care of at least 15 lawns a day, working from sunrise to just before sunset, breaking only for lunch.
This was Mateo’s second day on the job. His muscles ached from the work he had done the day before. As the new guy, his job was mainly to trim around mulch beds and along driveways and sidewalks. The trimmer wasn’t heavy, but leaning down and twisting all day wrenched his back. He wasn’t used to such physical labor.
Now as the truck bumped along, Mateo’s back pain was throbbing. I wouldn’t feel this way if I was working at McDonald’s, he thought. That’s where he had hoped to work that summer, with his friends. Easy work, easy hours, lots of free time for relaxing and partying. But his father had insisted he join his lawn care crew for the summer.
“Do the math,” Matias told his son. “You’ll make $7.50 an hour at McDonald’s and work 20 hours a week. With me, you’ll make $10 an hour and work at least 50 hours a week. By the end of the summer, you’ll be rich.”
But the real reason Matias wanted his son with him that summer had little to do with the money. He was concerned that his son was allergic to hard work. He never worked hard at anything, including in school. He hoped that working on his crew that summer would teach Mateo what hard work was really like and help him understand the importance of getting a good education.
It fit with Matias’ goals. He left Mexico for the US to give his family a better life. They had come to Magnolia Park in the East End of Houston, one of the oldest Hispanic neighbors in the city. They rented a small, two-bedroom apartment. It was modest but clean, and the neighborhood was relatively safe. People watched out for each other there.
Growing up in Mexico, Matias went to grade school, but not beyond. He was smart and learned enough English to get by in his new country. He took a job on a lawn care work crew. In Houston, where the grass grows through the year, there’s a lot of money and fewer and fewer people cut their own grass, men on a hard-working lawn care crew can make a decent living. Matias’ life was simple but, for him, being able to provide for his family in a place that was free and safe was a dream come true.
But he wanted more for his children. He wanted Mateo and his daughter, Lucia, to go to college, an opportunity he knew he himself would never have. Matias saved everything he could for their education. He didn’t trust banks, so he kept his money—$10,000 in cash—locked in a safe on the floor of his bedroom closet. Only he and Gabriela knew the combination.
Lucia, still in grade school, was an excellent student. Mateo, now about to become a junior in high school, was barely passing, and Matias worried that his son wouldn’t have a shot at college. What’s more, he seemed lazy. On a lawn care crew, everyone works hard. Matias hoped working with his crew that summer would break Mateo of his laziness.
Just as the sun was rising, they arrived at The Woodlands and got to work on their first house. Four of them hopped out of the bed of the truck and two got out of the cab. They slid two mowers off the ramp of the trailer, grabbed trimmers, rakes and pruners and descended on the yard like a small army battalion. Less than half an hour later, they were finished, the last blade of loose grass blown neatly into the street.
Mateo’s back was already hurting worse than it had the day before. He hated this work. Even worse, he hated the way he had seen his father and the other workers treated by homeowners.
The day before, Matias was raking grass clippings and leaves out of a flower bed when the homeowner opened her front door.
“Make sure you get all of those clippings out of there,” she said. “Last time, there were clippings all over my flowers.”
Matias said nothing.
“Can you speak English?” she said.
“Yes, ma’am,” Matias said, extending his rake into the flower bed and carefully dragging out the last clippings there.
Mateo had never seen his father at work. All his life, he knew only that he left early and came home late, looking tired. Now he understood what he really did for a living. It was dirty, mindless, back-breaking work. Watching him do it, and cater to the whims of haughty people who spoke down to him, made him feel ashamed for his father.
That afternoon, the crew was wrapping up its work in an especially large yard. Mateo was trimming around the patio when he spotted movement. He looked up and saw an older man. He had slid open the patio door and was standing inside, saying something.
“Pardon me?” Mateo said.
“You missed a spot, boy,” the old man said.
Mateo stood up straight and took a step forward toward the man. Matias saw what was happening and rushed over, stepping in front of his son.
“He’s new,” he said to the man, smiling. “Still learning.”
“Well, he’d better learn fast, or we’ll get a new crew,” growled the man.
Matias turned to Mateo.
“Let’s finish up here,” he said.
They finished, tackled three more yards, then headed back to Magnolia Park. When they got to the Dollar General store there, Matias and Mateo jumped out of the truck.
“Buenos noches,” Matias called to the driver.
Sometimes it bothered Mateo when his father spoke Spanish. It reminded him how very different there were.
As they were walking home, Matias said, “Never make a move toward a customer like that again.”
“He called me boy.”
“I’m not used to being spoken to that way.”
“It’s not right, but you learn to live with it,” Matias said.
“Maybe you’ve learned to live with it,” he said. “I never will.”
The boy shoved his hands in his pants pockets and picked up his pace, walking ahead of his father, without speaking, the rest of the way home.
When they got home, Gabriela had dinner waiting: chilis rellenos, picadillo and tacos dorados. Thanks to Gabriela, Matias ate well. Thanks to all his hard work, he was still lean, even at an age when many men begin to put on weight.
“How was work?” she asked over dinner.
“Good,” Matias said.
Mateo said nothing.
“Mateo,” Gabriela said, “how was work?”
“It sucked,” he said.
Gabriela raised her eyebrows. Lucia giggled. Matias looked at Mateo and said, “What was that?”
“I said it sucked,” he said.
“Young man,” Matias said, “we don’t use that kind of language in this house.”
Mateo looked down at his food.
“Sorry,” he mumbled.
“Do you like the work, Mateo?” Gabriela asked.
“It’s okay,” he said. “But my back hurts.”
“Well, you should take a hot shower tonight,” she said. “I’ve got some ointment I can rub on your back, if you like.”
“Thanks, Mom,” he said. “I’ll be okay.”
They made small talk the rest of the meal, with no other questions or comments about lawn care. After dinner, Matias and Mateo took turns taking showers. Lucia went out to meet up with friends at a nearby ice cream shop. As usual, Matias and Gabriela sat on the sofa in the family room and watched the news.
Mateo wanted to go out, but it was getting late, and he knew he’d have to get up early. So he sat in the recliner, put on his headphones and listened to music.
When his parents went to bed, Mateo sprawled out on the sofa and turned on ESPN.
The next morning, Matias made coffee and toast. Once again, he tried to wake Mateo and let him go back to sleep for five minutes. Once again, Mateo grabbed his toast but skipped his coffee. Once again, they walked out in the darkness, bagged lunches in hand, to the Dollar General store and took the truck to The Woodlands.
The crew moved fast that day, tackling 17 lawns in an older subdivision with slightly smaller houses and yards. When Matias and Mateo got home, it was almost dark.
As soon as they walked into the apartment, Gabriela asked Mateo if she could talk with him for a moment in their bedroom. When they came back out, Mateo had a stern look on his face, and he was carrying a pint of whiskey. He walked toward Matias, who was sitting on the sofa, and held it up.
“Mom said she found this today under the sofa,” he said. “Is it yours?”
“Yes,” Mateo said. “It is.”
“What in the hell are you doing drinking whiskey?” Matias demanded.
“So I take a sip once in a while,” he said, looking at the TV. “It’s no big deal.”
“Mateo!” Matias yelled. “It is a big deal. You shouldn’t be drinking at all, and you know I have a rule against anyone bringing alcohol into this house.”
“All right,” Mateo said. “I’ll get rid of it.”
“No, Mateo,” Matias said. “I’ll get rid of it, right now.”
He walked into the kitchen, uncorked the bottle and poured the whiskey into the sink.
“Aw, Dad, what did you have to do that for?” Mateo said.
“Mateo,” Matias said, “don’t test me.”
“You mean like you've been testing me all day?”
Matias turned around and stared at his son.
“What do you mean?” he said.
“Dad, I know why you’ve got me on that crew. You think I’m lazy, and you want to toughen me up. Well, guess what? I am lazy. I’m not a hard worker like you, and I don’t give a shit about doing yard work, especially for rich people who treat you like a dog.”
“Mateo,” Gabriela said. “Don’t talk to your father that way.”
“I just want you to work hard and make some money this summer so you can help pay for college,” Matias said.
“But I don’t want to go to college,” Mateo said.
“What?” said Matias.
“That’s what you want, Dad. That’s not what I want.”
“How can you say that?” Matias said. “Don’t you want to be successful? Don’t you want more than this?”
“I don’t know what I want, Dad, and I wish you’d stop telling me what it is you think I want.”
“Mateo,” Gabriela said loudly.
“Well, it’s true, Mom. He thinks I want this lousy job. I don’t. He thinks I want coffee in the morning. I don’t. He thinks I want to hang with him all summer. I don’t. I don’t want any of it.”
“Okay, Mateo,” Matias said, sounding weary. “That’s enough.”
“Supper is ready,” Gabriela said.
“I’m going to eat mine in here tonight,” Mateo said, turning his back on his father.
Matias felt like ordering him to eat with the family, but he didn’t want to keep fighting. So he, Gabriela and Lucia ate in the kitchen while Mateo had his dinner in the family room, watching TV.
After dinner, Matias and Gabriela came into the family room to watch TV. Lucia went to her room and shut the door. Once his parents were sitting on the sofa with their backs to the kitchen, Mateo went into the kitchen, got a plastic shopping bag and went down the hallway to the bathroom to take a shower.
After his shower, he quietly slipped into his parents’ room with the plastic bag. He went to their closet, opened the door and knelt down. He moved a pile of dirty laundry aside, revealing his father’s safe on the floor. His mother had told him the combination to the lock years before. She wanted him to have it in case he ever needed to get into the safe.
Now Mateo turned the dial back and forth until he heard a click. He opened the door. Inside were stacks of cash, sectioned with rubber bands. He pulled the money out and stuffed it into the plastic bag. Then he closed the safe, put the laundry back in front of it and shut the closet door.
When Mateo came back out to the family room, his parents were still watching TV. He went into the kitchen, opened the pantry door and stuffed the plastic bag behind some cereal boxes on the floor.
Several sets of keys hung from pegs in a wooden board on the wall of the kitchen. Mateo grabbed the keys to the apartment. They made a scraping sound against the wood. Gabriela heard it and looked around as Mateo was coming out of the kitchen.
“Where are you going?” she asked.
“Out,” he said.
“Where?” she asked.
“Nowhere. I’ll be back. Don’t wait up.”
“Don’t be out late,” Matias said. “We have an early morning.”
Mateo mumbled something and left, slamming the door behind him.
“I hope he’s okay,” Gabriela said.
“Me too,” Matias said.
When the news was over, Matias and Gabriela got up and headed down the hallway to their bedroom. Gabriela knocked on Lucia’s door.
“Come in,” she called.
Gabriela opened the door and looked in. Lucia was sitting on her bed, reading a book.
“We just wanted to say good night,” Gabriela said.
“Good night,” Lucia said, smiling.
“Good night,” her parents said in unison.
Gabriela closed her door, and she and Matias went into their bedroom. He took a shower while she changed into her pajamas. When he got out of the shower, she was in bed.
“I wish Mateo was more like Lucia,” he said, slipping beneath the covers.
“Oh, Matias. You know Mateo is nothing like Lucia. He’ll find his own way. You’re doing a good thing for him this summer. He’ll appreciate it in time.”
“I hope so,” Matias said.
He leaned over and kissed his wife.
“Good night,” he said.
“Good night,” she said, turning out the light.
As Gabriela fell asleep, Matias lay there thinking about Mateo. He could understand him not liking lawn care work. But how could he not want to go to college? How could his son be so lacking in ambition? I must have done something wrong, he thought. Somehow I have failed as a father.
Not that he had a good role model himself. His own father was lazy, abusive and not really committed to his family. When his father finally left, Matias resolved to be nothing like him.
Matias had tried hard to be a good father and husband. Coming to the US and leaving everything he had ever known certainly wasn’t easy, but he did it out of love for his family. He had assumed his children would go to college. How could he have been so wrong about Mateo?
Mateo came back to the apartment about midnight. He quietly stepped into the kitchen and retrieved the bag of cash from the pantry. He thought about leaving a note. But what would he say? So he simply left, quietly locking the door behind him and slipping out into the night.
He walked about a mile to the Magnolia Park Transit Center, where he caught a bus to Houston. From there, he took a light train to Galveston.
Matias woke up the next morning and couldn’t find Mateo. He was worried but had to leave for work, so he told Gabriela and asked her to let him know when Mateo showed up.
But there was no sign of the boy all morning. By noon, Gabriela called the police to report he was missing. They began a search that afternoon.
Gabriela kept Matias posted by text through the day. When he got home that evening, the police were still searching for Mateo, and Gabriela was crying.
“All will be well,” Matias said, holding her. “He’s bound to show up soon.”
That night, Gabriela cried herself to sleep. Matias lay next to her in bed. This is all my fault, he thought. I drove him away. I forced my own opinions on him and didn’t listen to what he wanted.
Matias didn’t sleep that night. Instead, he prayed for the safe return of his son.
When he got to Galveston, Mateo had breakfast at a cafe near the train station. He asked his waitress if there was a department store close by. He had left his cell phone at home so that no one could track him, so he could not go online and search for himself. His waitress told him there was a Target store a few miles away.
Mateo took a taxi to Target. He bought a backpack to carry all his money more securely as well as anything else he might need to buy. He went into the restroom and transferred the cash from the plastic bag he had been carrying to the backpack.
Mateo had asked the taxi driver where he could find an inexpensive motel on the island. He suggested the Ocean Inn, just across a road from the beach along the Gulf of Mexico. Mateo called for a taxi at the customer service counter. It arrived a few minutes later. He got in and rode to the Ocean Inn, just a few miles away.
Other than running away to Galveston, Mateo had no plan. He had no idea how long he might stay at the Ocean Inn, so he got a room there for just one night. The clerk could see Mateo would be paying in cash, so he didn’t ask for an ID.
That afternoon, Mateo explored the beach, careful to keep his backpack with him at all times. He had dinner at a seafood restaurant on the beach. He wanted to order a beer but didn’t want the waitress to check his ID. So he bought a six-pack at a convenience store down the street, stuffed it in his backpack and went back to his room at the motel. He watched TV and drank beer until he fell asleep.
He slept late and had breakfast at a nearby cafe. He sat outside on a covered patio, where there was a cool breeze from the water. He thought about his father cutting grass in the hot sun at that very moment. How lucky Mateo felt to not to be working on that crew.
Mateo still had no plan, but he realized he would eventually need a change of clothes. He found a Ross Dress for Less store within walking distance and bought a few shirts and pairs of shorts, socks and underwear and a pair of sturdy, leather sandals.
He explored the beach again that day, going out farther this time. He came upon a tiki hut. He had a hamburger and a beer there for lunch, then took a nap on the beach, using his backpack for a pillow.
When he awoke, he sat up and looked out over the water. He knew he had been to Galveston as a boy, but it was a vague memory. For most of his life, Magnolia Park had been his whole world. He was tired of it. He was tired of going to school, of living in a small apartment with his family, of not having his own room. He was tired of listening to his father tell him what to do. He was glad to be away.
That afternoon, he kept walking down the beach. He found a Mexican restaurant and had dinner there. He had the chilis rellenos and thought of his mother. He hoped she was okay.
In Magnolia Park, the police continued searching for Mateo. His parents thought he might have gone to Houston, so the police broadened their search to the city of Houston. They pursued a few leads, but none panned out.
Gabriela and Matias were in agony, though for different reasons. Gabriela missed her son and worried for his safety. Matias felt guilty for having driven him away. They began going to church every evening to light a candle for their son. They knelt in front of it, prayed and cried.
On Sunday, they went to Mass with Lucia. During the Confiteor, Matias loudly recited the refrain “Through my fault, through my fault, through my most previous fault,” striking his breast hard three times. After that, he would bury his face in his hands and cry.
Mateo decided he would stay at the Ocean Inn for a while and started paying for his room by the week. Every day, he would walk the beach, going out farther and farther until he had covered all 27 miles of it.
All his walking made his body strong. His muscles no longer hurt, even though he was exercising far more than he ever had. He stopped drinking alcohol because it made him feel sluggish and unhealthy.
He bought fishing gear and taught himself to fish by watching fishermen along the beach. Sometimes he would fish on the beach. Other times, he would go out on a pier. He caught a lot of fish, but he had no way to clean or cook them, so he would give them away. There was always someone eager for free fish.
Mateo was surprised to see so many children scavenging along the beach. They looked ragged, wandering aimlessly, and never seemed to be with an adult. Most of them spoke Spanish but little or no English. He wondered what would become of them, and he began to give them money.
Soon, these poor children would watch for Mateo and run to him when they saw him coming. Mateo knew he had become an easy mark, but he didn’t mind. It felt good to do something for someone else.
As the summer wore on, he thought more about his family, especially his father. He remembered how angry and disappointed he was with Mateo the night he left home. He remembered how angry he was at father, swearing at him under his breath as he left. He had blamed his father for driving him away, but he knew in his heart that the choice to leave was entirely his.
He began to realize his father was simply trying to give him a better life. He began to understand the sacrifice his father had made for him, working so hard all those years to save enough money to send him and Lucia to college. Now he carried that money on his back, spending it down, stealing it, little by little each day. He began to feel ashamed.
One day, sitting on a pier, fishing, he asked himself what he really wanted to do with his life. He could hear children speaking Spanish below him on the beach. He thought of his parents still struggling with English. He knew both languages well. Maybe I can get a degree in education and teach English to Spanish-speaking children, he thought.
The very idea electrified him, like nothing ever had in his life. I must go back home. I must finish high school.
He imagined his life again in Magnolia Park, going back to school, strong from all his days of walking on the beach, living with his family again.
But then he thought of the pain he had caused everyone. He thought about the money he had stolen from his father. He wondered if his father would take him back. It was a chance he would just have to take.
One Friday morning, he took a shower and packed up his gear. He looked in the bathroom mirror. His hair had grown so long that he now combed it with a brush. He pulled it back and tied it in a ponytail with a rubber band. His hair was streaked blond from the sun, and his skin was bronze. He had been slightly pudgy but was now lean. He wondered if his family would recognize him.
Mateo paid his bill in full at the motel desk, had breakfast and walked six miles to the train station on the bay side of the island. When he had arrived in Galveston, he would have taken a taxi to travel such a distance. Now it felt right to walk and feel the earth beneath his feet.
He took a train to Houston and a bus to Magnolia Park. He suspected the police would be looking for him, so he wore sunglasses and a hat the whole way.
Mateo knew his father was working and would be dropped off at the Dollar General store that evening. He walked through the streets of Magnolia Park until 6:00, then headed for the Dollar General store.
He sat down on a bench in the shade in front of the store, his backpack beside him. He had spent half of the money he had taken from his father. He hoped to repay him by working with his crew the following summer. He would give everything he made to his father.
That was, of course, if his father would take him back. Sitting there, Mateo wasn’t sure. “That’s enough,” was one of the last things his father had said to him. Mateo could feel his weariness, and he knew he was the cause of that weariness, and in that moment, he worried about whether his father could ever accept him again.
A dusty white pick-up truck pulled into the parking lot. It stopped, and he saw two men climb out of the back. The sun was getting low in the sky, and he could make out his father’s silhouette against the light.
Mateo wanted to get up. He wanted to go to his father or call to him, but he couldn’t move. He wasn’t sure his father could even see him in the shade. Maybe he wouldn’t see him and he would walk home, and Mateo could go home some other time, when his father was gone and only his mother was there.
The truck pulled away. Mateo watched his father’s co-worker walk away and saw his father standing still in the parking lot. He was looking his way, shielding his eyes from the sun with his hands. He took one step forward.
“Mateo?” he called.
But Mateo couldn’t speak.
“Mateo?” his father called again, taking another step closer.
Finally, Mateo got up.
“Mateo!” his father cried, running toward him across the parking lot.
Mateo stood frozen, as his father ran to him, his arms wide open. When Matias reached his son, he gathered him in, kissing him on the cheek and lifting him up, as he did when he was a boy.
“I am sorry,” Matias said, crying.
“Forgive me, father,” said Mateo, holding him tight.