On a little wooden altar on our living room wall, there sits a photo of Facus. He’s staring out at something a long way beyond the camera, his large beak of a nose pointing proudly towards this invisible object. I never met the man myself – he died before I was born – but I know this picture well.
The late Facus, or Juan Jose Radillo Aviles as most people called him, was an enigma. He was a tall man and had a mustache, and he smoked a pipe. He was a pharmaceutical salesman. He hardly ever talked. He died when my dad was 32, of what was probably a heart attack, after pacing up and down the hallway all night.
That’s about all I know.
The rest of the family isn’t sure about much more either. There are many stories about him, but there is no consensus as to which ones are true. The ones I’ve been lucky enough to hear I’ve snatched up and secreted away. Various myths include:
He escaped Mexico City and familial obligation to Puerto Rico whenever he could, partying his way across the island.
He was a spontaneous cheater who only had a fling here and a fling there. Probably in Puerto Rico.
He had a “casa chica,” a whole second, “off the record” household.
Such conjecturing is woven into the fabric of my father’s family. It’s as real to me as any verifiable information I have about him — Facus really didn’t leave us much to work with.
The same cannot be said of my other grandfathers. This summer, I was watching my mom and grandmother argue about my maternal great-grandfather.
“He was a drunk!” my mom said.
“No, he had a whopping vocabulary!” my grandmother said.
“He never did anything for you and your siblings!” my mom said.
“Well, he paid for my college!” My grandmother said.
They went back and forth for a long time, each conjuring completely different versions of the same man. I suspect both of them were exaggerating, and that each had their reasons for it. Nevertheless, it was clear he had left behind real, tangible pieces of himself for them to dispute. There was discourse surrounding the man where Facus had none.
The things I’ve heard about Facus sound more like rumors. They don’t breed dispute because there’s nothing tangible to hold on to. People don’t argue at the dinner table about whether he was a drunk or an angel because they can’t, and besides, it would be crass. Instead, they slide quietly into one ideological camp or another – he had a secondary household or else he just liked to let off steam when he traveled. People don’t much discuss their theories of choice. They have their evidence and their memories and those are enough for them. My cousins and I are left scrambling for purchase. A foothold. A handhold. Anything.
Most everyone in the family has a story or a few about coming suddenly face-to-face with some unnerving part of Facus’ hidden life. Three of them follow:
A strange man approaches my dad and uncle at a party, claiming to have known their father years ago (he’d have recognized that Radillo nose anywhere!). “We used to party together! Real hard!” the man says, and sends them home dumbfounded and with a bottle of gin that Facus is none too pleased to receive. Facus makes no comment about this old acquaintance.
My grandmother goes to pick up my dad’s diploma from the UNAM and is inexplicably handed paperwork belonging to a Juan Jose Radillo who is not her son. The name Radillo is a very uncommon one.
Three weeks after Facus dies, a strange man visits my grandmother. He offers his condolences, hands her $10,000 in cash, and explains he’s paying off an old debt he had owed Facus.
I heard about two of these three encounters for the first time this summer. It took no little amount of prying. People don’t talk about Facus much – they certainly don’t argue about who he was. And yet Facus manages to remain oddly corporeal, even for me and those that never met him. All these pieces of memory create a shadowy Frankenstein. He’s hewn from the roughest, farthest flung, most contradictory parts. You only catch glimpses of him when the light catches him just right, and then suddenly you see. When I see him he looks nothing like the photo on our altar. There’s an ear where his nose should be. Fingers wiggling on his feet. His beak-of-a-nose rests proudly on the top of his head like a rooster’s comb.
For my dad’s family, the pandemic has had a silver lining. Presumably because they are all stuck at home, or maybe because they all suddenly realized they missed each other, they’ve started Zoom calling every few weeks. For the most part, they share stories they’ve written – they’ll settle on a theme together, like “horror,” or “family vacation,” each write down a memory or a few and read them aloud for the others. In the process of sharing their pieces, they compare memories of the same experiences and realize just how much their respective memories disagree. They disagree on the places they went 50 years ago, about who did what, and about who their dad was (though they’d still never argue about it). Despite how differently all Facus’ children remember the man, they all seem to agree on one thing.
Somehow, all their memories coalesce to form this one image of Facus. He appears most vividly in a vast, ancient, Mexico City cemetery called the Panteón Jardin.
Whenever Facus would return from one of his six-month business trips, the family would visit the Panteón to pay their respects to their dead. They’d all pile into the car, stop at a flower market to buy three bouquets, and head off to the Panteón. At the Panteón they’d trim the stems, place the flowers in fresh water, and set one bouquet on each grave: my grandmother’s grandfather, Facus’ mother, and Facus’ father.
My dad imagines they probably said some prayers or something of the sort, but he doesn’t remember. What he does remember, though, is that Facus always would stand to the side and puff his pipe.
Last year my grandmother’s house in Mexico City was robbed. The thieves broke the urn that held Facus’ remains. They probably expected to find something valuable inside and instead found a little plastic bag full of dust. His ashes were strewn all across the living room carpet.
My grandmother says she was able to scoop up every last bit of Facus. My dad says most of the ashes got sucked up into the vacuum cleaner.