My parents worked hard, but only when they could. Ate usually only worked temporarily, and Ina had a regular job that didn’t pay much, anyway. Not long after Ate got a steady job with good pay, Ina lost her job at the superstore.
“They said I used too many sick days this year,” Ina told us during dinner on the day she got fired. “But truth is I ain’t been absent since the day I gave birth to Nimo.”
“I still got my job, and Nimo’s got change in his piggybank. We’ll be okay,” Ate promised.
“What about your surgery, Ate?” I asked as I picked at my broccoli. “It’s next month.”
“Don’t worry about that, son — I’ll cut myself if I have to,” he said.
“Jay Eagle!” Ina cried and slammed her fork down on the table.
“What? I cut myself with my razor all the time. I think I can cut my chest open, too.”
Ate was born with aortic valve stenosis. It means his aorta doesn’t open as big as it should. He had surgery when I was three, but the doctor said he’d need surgery again, eventually. Now I was thirteen, and Ate was still alive, even though he could die any second. I didn’t like it when he took naps on the couch after dinner. I thought he might never wake up.
“Ate,” I said one night as he napped during an All in the Family rerun. “Wake up.”
“Not now, Josie, I still got all my clothes on for crying out loud,” he groaned.
I nudged his shoulder with my hand, and he turned to his left side.
“Josie, last thing I wanna do is knock you up after you’ve lost your job,” he went on.
“Ate, it’s Nimo!” I called out, and he jolted up from the couch.
“Nimo! You could’ve given me a heart attack! But hell, if I had one, I wouldn’t need to pay for surgery after all.”
“Sorry, Ate,” I said. “It’s past midnight, though, and Ina’s in bed waiting for you.”
“Is she wearing lingerie?” he asked with a big smile.
I shrugged my shoulders, and Ate ran to the bedroom. I stayed on the couch for a few minutes, relieved.
After two weeks, Ina still didn’t have a job, and Ate wanted to cancel his operation. They fell behind on the bills, and we were back to eating peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.
“You’re not canceling your surgery,” Ina said at breakfast one morning. “Don’t you have benefits at work now?”
“They don’t kick in for another couple months, Josie,” he informed her. “I can live until then.”
The phone rang, and Ate got up to answer.
“Hello?” he said. “No, you can’t talk to Josie, she’s dead. You can’t talk to Nimo either ‘cause he’s in prison for killing Josie.” Then he hung up.
“Who was it, Ate?” I asked.
“Your grandmother,” he said, and Ina pulled on his ponytail.
The day before Ate’s surgery, Ina took me to the cash loan office just outside Pine Ridge rez. We waited in the lobby next to Ray Firebird, who wanted a booze loan.
“Hey Nimo,” he said. “I thought you was in the slammer for killing your mother.”
“He is, I need a loan to bail him out,” Ina said.
Ray Firebird nodded and pretty soon, he passed out on the floor, so we got to take his place when the clerk came out.
“I’m not sure we can give you a loan, Mrs. Thunderclap,” the clerk told Ina after they talked for a minute or two. “The computer says your credit score is substantially low, and your household has 15 unpaid credit cards.”
“Jeez Ina, what did you need that many credit cards for?” I asked.
“To raise you,” she said.
The clerk shook his head and said Ina was better off paying for Ate’s surgery with money borrowed from family.
“All of my family’s broke, why the hell do you think I came here?” she said.
The clerk grunted and gave Ina a sheet with the word DENIED in big letters.
“Ina, what about Leksi Gray Mountain?” I asked as we walked to the exit. “He’s a doctor. I’m sure he’ll lend us the money.”
“You’re right, Nimo,” she said, nodding. “But Ate doesn’t like asking his brother for cash. So I’ll do it for him.”
I waited in the lobby with Ray Firebird snoring next to me while Ina called Leksi Gray Mountain on the pay phone outside. She came back inside after about ten minutes, smiling. Leksi Gray Mountain said he’d send us a check, but not to tell Ate about it.
The next day, I sat in the hospital waiting room with Ate and Ina. Ate squirmed in his seat, so Ina whacked him on the head with a magazine.
“I’m about to get cut up, and you’re hitting me?” Ate protested.
“Yeah, to knock you out so we won’t have to pay for anesthesia,” Ina retorted.
Ate slouched in his seat, quiet and sweating from his forehead.
“Nimo, Josie,” Ate said after a few minutes. “In the worst case scenario, after this surgery, I’ll be dead. Nimo, you can have whatever I own, which is nothing. Josie, if you meet another guy you really like, marry him.”
“I already did, he lives in our basement, and he won’t come up until you croak,” Ina said.
Ate shook his head. Ina took hold of his hand, and she didn’t let go for a long time.
After Ate got called in, we all waited for the doctor inside a hospital room. Ate wore a big paper gown and wiggled on the bed so much that it rattled.
“Stop it, you’ll break the bed,” Ina scolded.
“If I wanted to break it, I’d bring you up here and make Nimo a sibling,” he said. “I’m starving, I ain’t eaten since yesterday. But I guess it’s good practice for how broke we’re gonna be after this damn surgery.”
“I’m hungry too, Ina,” I said.
“Okay, I’ll run down to the deli to get a sandwich for you,” Ina told me, patting my head. “If the doctor comes while I’m not here, tell him to wait until I get back. I’ll only be a few minutes. Okay?”
I promised I would, and she kissed Ate on his cheek before she left. I stayed at Ate’s side, watching the presidential debate on the TV with him.
“Turn it off, Nimo,” he said. “If I wanted to hear an idiot talk, I’d call your grandmother.”
I shut the TV off, and Ate slid further into the hospital bed. He was shaking, but he probably thought I didn’t notice.
“Nimo,” Ate said. “If I go, your ina will take good care of you. She always has.”
“Don’t say that, Ate, you’re gonna be fine,” I told him. “You survived the last surgery.”
“I’ve also survived a 15 year marriage, but I think I’m running out of strength,” he said. “Just promise me two things if I don’t make it out alive.”
I asked what he wanted, and he was quiet for a few moments. He put his hand on my shoulder to make sure I was paying attention.
“First, keep my wedding ring and do only that. You pawn it and I’ll come back from the dead and take you with me,” he said.
“I promise. What’s the second thing you want me to do?”
“Every single time your grandmother calls, heckle her.”
I laughed, and we did a pinky swear. He sat up in his bed and tugged me by my arm.
“You know something, son,” he remarked. “I’m still paying the hospital bill for your birth. I told your ina to go to the backyard and squat when you was coming out, and she hit me. If she had squatted, we wouldn’t have a bill for you.”
“Really?” I said, and he nodded. He admitted he and Ina couldn’t afford to have a baby when I came along, but did anyway because they felt like taking a risk.
“And everything went okay,” Ate pronounced. “Except for the bill. But you turned out better than we thought.”
Not long after, Ina was back with my sandwich, and the doctor followed after her. He wheeled Ate away down the hall. I poked my head out the door, watching him leave.
About five hours later, Ate was brought back into the hospital room, woozy and high on anesthesia, but alive. He saw me first when he opened his eyes, and he waved at me. But he didn’t recognize Ina.
“Hey son,” he said. “Who’s the burning hot nurse standing over there?”
“I’m your wife, you bonehead,” Ina told him. “And this is our son, Nimo.”
“We got a son?” he murmured, half awake. “So, you mean, we’ve done it?”
“Yes, that’s how we got our son,” Ina responded.
“That’s so awesome,” Ate announced. “Man, you’re the hottest nurse in the world. I should get surgery more often.”
He fell asleep right after, and Ina adjusted the blanket so that it was covering all of him.
“Nimo,” Ina said, turning to me. “Go home and tell my second husband in the basement to get lost.”
Darlene P. Campos is an MFA candidate at the University of Texas at El Paso’s Creative Writing Program. In 2013, she won the Glass Mountain magazine contest for prose and was awarded the Sylvan N. Karchmer Fiction Prize. Her work appears in Prism Review, Cleaver, Red Fez, Bartleby Snopes, Elohi Gadugi, The Writing Disorder, Connotation Press, Word Riot, Plain China, and many others. She is from Guayaquil, Ecuador, but has lived in Houston all her life. Her website is www.darlenepcampos.com.