Green Chile Chicken Enchiladas by James Griego

“Don’t be scared; use both hands!” roars my boss, who also happens to be my father, Mr. Jimmy Griego, and to my 14-year-old mind, also my warden, slave driver and nemesis.

“I’m doing it,” I reply, then under my breath, Asshol

“What’s that boy?” I hear in Jimmy’s all too threatening tone.  I cringe, did he really hear me?  My delinquent, rebellious, suicidal mind roars in my head, Tell him he’s an asshole!  Respect or fear, I know not which, wins out and I say, “I got it, Dad, I’m doing it.”  Pussy hisses my inner suicidal mind, though I feel I made the right choice.  My reply will keep me employed or at least more comfortable with my ass in God’s given place and not kicked up between my shoulders by a size 11 worn cowboy boot caked with roofing tar.

Jimmy Griego is a roofer with 30-plus years in the biz, known through the tri-state area for excellence and hard work.  His hands bear perpetual calluses, older than me at the age of fourteen.  No doubt they are still present to this day, though he hasn’t roofed in over ten years.

I’ve learned you can tell a lot about a man from his marks and scars, and my father has plenty.  To look at him you instantly know this is a hard man.  Skin grafts cover 60 percent of his body, Freddy Krueger-style from neck to waist, but somehow not gruesome.  They only add to his hard, attractive features.  You know the rugged, dangerous, handsome type.  Though you would have to endure that hot, penetrating gaze of his that leaves you feeling completely naked to really learn anything about Jimmy Griego.  You would be left feeling you were definitely more analyzed than analyzing, and that your own secrets were stripped away than anything learned for your efforts.  Yes, that diamond hard gaze can cut right down into your soul.  It was not always this way for Jimmy though.  His unnerving leer is the product of much experienced horror and hardship.

My dad is the middle child of a brood of ten borne by my beloved Grandma Cruzita, whom my father and I loved dearly, and my Grandpa Monico who left them all long ago.  A young Jimmy was kidnapped at the tender age of five on his way home from school by some lonely degenerate, only to be abandoned a week later in the frigid winter snows of Flagstaff, stripped down to his shorts and tied to a tree.  This was his punishment from the degenerate for having a speech impediment and not being able to speak fluently or enough to keep this lonely bastard company.  May he die slow.  But young Jimmy endured and was rescued by a couple of alert skiers. 

It was not Jimmy’s fault the kidnapper appealed to him with the ruse of needing help fixing his car.  See, Jimmy has always been a hard worker.  At the age of fourteen he left school to help provide for his brothers and sisters.  Sacrificing his education so they did not have to.  This is how Jimmy loves.  To this day he does not read or write much, but he is a mathematical genius.

At the age of eighteen when most find themselves graduating and thinking of college, Jimmy found himself leaving his small hometown of St. Johns, Arizona for the fast growing metropolis of Phoenix.  What a shock that must have been, but he took it in stride like everything else.  He found himself under the tutelage of a fine man by the name of Jim Carns, who would become like a father to my dad.  And my dad, that hell-raising, green-eyed, handsome man with a killer smile and money to burn dazzled all the women around him.  I count myself lucky to possess even some of his charisma, charm and wit. 

He soon found a young, single mother at a brawl, of all places.  A brawl where Jimmy, his older brother Pat (who the family says I take after, and sadly was murdered at too young an age by cowards from this very brawl) and another friend found themselves facing twenty members of a prominent East Side gang whom they bested.  The twenty did not forget since the papers printed the aftermath.  If a young Jimmy had ever had an idea of the fallout of this brawl he would have taken a defeat eagerly rather than face the loss of his brother and role model.  I know that still haunts him to this day.

The brawl birthed more than death though; it also birthed love.  A love and strong bond between my mom and dad.  My mother was with the bested twenty and was awed by the dark, handsome, good-time, small-town devil, and in turn, she birthed him two daughters and two sons.

Sadly, in February of 1977, when I was six months old and my brother four months in the womb, while visiting St. Johns, my father drunkenly splashed kerosene out of a five-gallon can into the woodstove of my Grandma Cruzita’s house.  This sparked a flame that hungrily ate a trail back into the can, causing it to explode and engulf my father in flames.  The result was that 60 percent of his body suffered third degree burns, some places to the bone.  He had four heart stoppages and spent 21 months strapped to a hospital bed in St. Joseph’s burn unit.  Amazingly, my dad found the strength to climb into his car, arms aflame, and drive up the road a bit to seek help from my Grandma Cruzita, all the while begging forgiveness for burning the family home.

Until my grandmother’s death, my father paid most of her bills, I believe as much out of loyalty from son to mother as regret for burning her home.  I believe the loss of the home matched the personal loss he endured following the fire, one being my brother.  My brother, upon birth, was adopted by my dad’s eldest brother, Cel, a great man, and my dad’s closest sibling.  I still don’t know if the adoption came to be because my dad was laid up, unable to provide, or a decision made by my mother on her own.  If I could muster the courage to ask I would, but the pain that is endlessly present in my dad’s eyes whenever my brother is around deters me.  Any challenge to Jimmy Griego comes at great risk.  Plus, I have no desire to bring pain to this already overloaded man that is my father.  I have caused him quite enough already as you will see.

Back on the roof working with both hands trying to keep my first tattoo from being Ol’ Jimmy’s worn boot print on my ass.  Jimmy’s guttural commands have spurred me back into the old routine of doing whatever it takes to please the man who has ridden and whipped me physically my whole life.  Hating myself the whole time for wanting to do so, but seemingly unable to stop doing so, I can’t help but desire his praise, forever chasing my first “Good job, son.”  I continually forget I am dealing with Jimmy Griego, and praise does not come easily.  Being too young and ignorant to see the lesson, I would only try harder, usually pushing myself to failure.

With the sun growing higher in the sky, the warnings start to fly.  “Don’t scuff the shingles!” which would elicit the norm from under my breath, I’m not Dick! which would activate his radar-like father hearing, “What’s that!?”  Here’s your chance to tell him what you think.  “Nothing, just the shingles are starting to stick.”  Coward.  I tread lightly, foot and tongue knowing with the sun growing higher, our day is almost at an end. 

Jimmy makes the call “Let’s break down and roll up.”  “Hell, yeah!” we boys exclaim, my older stepbrother, Damian, already wearing a smile on his face and story on his lips of the beer and fine women he will be enjoying that night.  I know I will be free to do the same provided I can make it out of the house and past the many dogs without them sounding the alarm, “Jimmy, wake up, the little bastard’s trying to sneak off again.”  I swear they are against me.  I watch my dad closely in dealing with them, hoping to learn his secrets so I can gain favor with them.  My efforts never come to fruition.  Jimmy demands complete loyalty, and they seem to never waver from the coined phrase never bite the hand that feeds you.  Bastards!

On the way home Dad cracks a beer and lights a joint, watching me out of the corner of his eye, no doubt waiting for me to carelessly reach for the joint in one of my many juvenile brain-farting impulsive moments so he can put that tar-caked, size 11 boot in my ass.  In an effort to kill two birds with one stone, knocking the tar out of me and some off his boots.  “They could use a cleaning after all,” I’m sure he’s thinking.  In reality my dad hadn’t punished me physically since I was twelve, and I had hit him back.  Ol’ Jimmy had received word my brother and I were slap boxing in church, and I cuffed him good.  Between my brother and me it was all in fun, but to Jimmy I hit my lost brother.  I believe he felt he was defending my brother in some way.  I understood; I just didn’t believe I deserved the beating.  Either way I was never whupped like that again.  Yet the threat forever remains. 

As they’re toking up on the drive home, I also suspect Jimmy’s contemplating whether he should deliver one of his token threats, “I don’t want to ever see you doing this,” but he knows it’s past that for me.  So he stays with the threatening glare that says either, “This is only a two-man joint” or “I know you’re stealing from my stash anyway, puissant.”  Nothing gets by Jimmy.  My hopes are that he is letting up because he knows I am off with my mother soon, and he doesn’t want to ride me too hard.  I know he will miss me because he is distancing himself already.  It goes this way for the next few weeks ‘til I am to depart.  So by the time the day comes, the blow of me leaving shakes him little or none, and I am sent off with an extra hundred dollars and a quick hug, married with the perpetual warning, “Stay outta trouble.”

Dad knows I am on parole for a previous heinous crime ‘til I am 18 years old, and me returning to “kiddie prison” eats at him.  I ponder during my bus ride if, in fact, he will miss me.  See, there is never any talk of how I would be better off with him or have a higher chance of staying out of trouble in St. Johns, or hell, that he even wants me around.  Contrary to my then belief, I knew so little about Jimmy Griego or life.  And in fact, it killed him to see me go, but Jimmy never learned to share any softer emotion than anger.  That made for an easy excuse to hate him then and an even bigger reason to hate myself later for misjudging him so gravely.

I am only with my mother a short time ‘til Ol’ Jimmy gets the call and learns of my arrest.  He’s there at visit with some clothes, hygiene and a grim look on his face with venom in his words to match.  “So you’re back here ‘til you’re eighteen this time.  Way to go.”  He lets that sit in for a minute, then follows up, “You know after you’re eighteen and you make it to the ‘Big House,’ don’t expect me to come see you.”  I had little awareness of how much this statement would affect me or that its coming to pass will be a pivotal moment in time and life for me.

The next two and a half years go by much the same with visits from good Ol’ Jimmy.  Hygiene, clothes, threats.  Hygiene, clothes, threats.  And I the same as well, ignoring the threats, refusing to see the reason why he is there, that it’s good for me, and not just so he can let off steam and threats while he has me vulnerable and caged.  The day finally comes for my final counseling session, and Dad’s there, just twenty days before I am eighteen, my mandatory release looming, and Dad’s there.  I think it odd he would make the four-hour drive just for this session.  Probably wants to lay down a few threats before I am free, but no, it’s because Jimmy has a few cards to play.  He has agreed to take me home with him and put me to work with promises I will not have any time to get into trouble.  I am floored the ol’ man got me out early.  All I hear is “Don’t be scared, use both hands.”  Even then I gave him so little credit and he just freed me.  All I thought was that I would be eighteen in twenty days, an adult and free to return to Lake Havasu to pursue the partying and dealing opportunities that awaited me.  The ride home was awkward.  Jimmy bought me a pack of “Marlboro Reds” after he asked me what I wanted from the store.  At first he only looked at me in silence, eyebrow raised at my request.  My breath caught in my chest.  His, too, I guess because when he spoke it was with an exhaled rush of breath sounding like one word.  “I’m not going to be buying them all the time for you.”  I smiled inside at my small victory.  I thought I was so tough and adult smoking in front of Jimmy.  I’m sure he was thinking, “This kid has no clue.”  And I didn’t.

I spent the next three weeks working hard and living with my dad.  He even spoke of buying me a truck.  I am now sure he would have had I stayed.  I know, because when I ended up back with my dad after some trouble a year and a half later, he did give me a truck in which I seized the motor shortly after.  A pattern was emerging that even then I did not see.  When I was faced with trouble or needed an out, good Ol’ Jimmy was there to help hold me up.  And I ate it up, always bouncing back like I was a man on fire, not even realizing I could so only because I was backed by a real man’s strength.

In 2000 I did make it to the “Big House” for the first time.  When you come to prison you are scrambling to keep your connections with family and friends.  At the top of my list were Mom and Dad; they were there for me too.  Lectures and love from Jimmy, weekly calls, a TV.  He even had me put him on my visiting list.  I waited and pushed for that visit for seven years.  It never happened.

When I paroled seven years later it was to my dad’s.  During this seven-year prison term I got to enjoy speaking with my dad on the phone, to laugh with him.  I even began to understand him and also learn and understand myself.  One thing I did get to learn is that I am a lot like Jimmy Griego.  The day of my release good Ol’ Jimmy did not disappoint:  my favorite dish was ready made by his own hand, green chilé chicken enchiladas.  We feasted, tried not to be awkward, and talked.

During our first talk I had to ask my dad about something that was bothering me.  “Dad, why all this time did you not come see me?” I asked. 

He answered in true Jimmy Griego fashion:  cool, direct and matter of fact.  He said, “I told you when you were in ‘Kiddie Jail’ that if you ever made it to the ‘Big House’ I wasn’t going to come see you.” 

At this my temper flared, emotions ran wild, and with my impulsive follow-up question, I fell into his trap.  “Well, then, why did you have me put you on my visitation list?” I asked.

His response was confident and swift.  “Because I wanted you to know that I could come visit you, but that I wouldn’t.”  I was floored, stunned into silence, a very rare occurrence.  In that silence I experienced much confusion, anger and hurt.  But looking into my dad’s eyes, slowly clarity started to set in, and in that clarity I started to feel an immense love and sadness.  That my dad would sacrifice seeing me for so long in hopes of teaching me a lesson that seeing his sacrifice and the pain it caused him plain on his face right now would drive me never to make the same mistake.  A far too infrequent event followed my stupor and revelation.  My dad and I hugged.  An even more unthinkable happening followed; the old man shed a tear.  I had never seen my dad cry ever, and here he was doing it for me.  It pains me that I could not grant him that wish.  That I did not, because once you ran afoul of Jimmy Griego, there was little or no chance of being in his good graces again.  Son or not.

I would like to be able to say I felt the exceptional weight of Jimmy’s tears and sacrifice that night and turned my life around.  That seeing how my life of crime had brought such a wise and hard man to such a foreign place to him where he was open and willing enough to show me something to my knowledge no one else had seen, at least none of his other children.  His tears and pure naked love of me, but I cannot.

I lasted free almost two years with my dad, but have returned to prison three more times since then.  Good Ol’ Jimmy has been there for me upon every release, more standoffish, but there for me.  Angry, but refusing to let go.  And me?  Well, I am still trying to figure it out.  Figure out how to tell my dad¾no, words are only wind to the likes of Jimmy Griego¾show him that I heard every lesson.  That I never took my eyes off him when he was working or showing me how to complete a new task.  That I know all that anger wasn’t meant for me.  He himself was never taught patience, nor did he ever have the temperament for a hyperactive, accident-prone, smart-mouthed, devious child.  That I know he never had a childhood, and that’s why I got all the motorcycles, go-carts and good times.  But when it came time to work, I was expected to work as hard as I was allowed to play.  And even though he never had his father extend a loving hand, only ass-whuppings, that I believe he did great with us.  I want him to know my foolishness and crimes are not a reflection of any shortcomings of his.  That I see you, Dad, yes, you, Jimmy Griego, I see you.

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