Four years ago, Dennis vanEngelsdorp and his husband, who used the name Hermán G. Carrillo, bought a Victorian-style abode just outside the District — it had been a railroad ticket house in the 1920s — and Carrillo, a novelist, thought a garden would be nice, a big one. VanEngelsdorp, a professor of entomology, said wonderful, yes, but it shouldn’t be ordinary. He dreaded some backyard palette out of a glossy magazine, conventionally pretty.
“I told him it needed to be biodiverse and as attractive to insects and pollinators as possible,” vanEngelsdorp recalled by phone last week.
He was strolling on the garden’s figure-eight path in the morning sun, alone since Carrillo, 59, died of complications from covid-19, the illness caused by the novel coronavirus. “I told him I wanted flowers every day of the year,” vanEngelsdorp said, but mainly what he insisted on were native plants: spiderwort, aster, bee balm.
Robins sang in pockets of the yard, in Berwyn Heights, Md., as he walked past the riotous flushes of colors Carrillo left him.
“I studied gardening,” vanEngelsdorp, 50, said. “He broke all the rules,” delightfully eschewing any semblance of botanical choreography. Carrillo (“Hache” to his friends, and H.G. Carrillo to readers of his kaleidoscopic fiction, in which he plumbed the meaning of Cuban American identity) created an oasis of asymmetry that vanEngelsdorp lately realized is a metaphor for his lost partner’s peripatetic existence.
And this weekend, in his grief, he suddenly learned that his husband (true name Herman Glenn Carroll, it turns out) was not the childhood Cuban immigrant he claimed to be — that Hache’s personal origin story, which he shared publicly and with those close to him throughout his adult life, was an extension of his fiction, a product of imagination.
“It was a story he told me,” vanEngelsdorp said Saturday. He sighed and said: “I mean, he was a storyteller.”
Even before Saturday, though, he had sensed that something undefinable about Carrillo remained a mystery to him. Last week, in the splendid disorder of the garden, vanEngelsdorp said: “Now that I’m looking at it with the eyes of someone who has to take it over, it really is an artistic expression. . . . Somehow, it exemplifies him. At first, you’re confused by it. Then you look at it, you watch it, and you get to know it — I mean, Hache was always a hard guy to know — and when you take it all in, it’s beautiful chaos.”
After this profile of Carrillo, who was chairman of the literary PEN/Faulkner Foundation, first appeared Friday on The Washington Post’s website, his sister and a niece contacted the newspaper and vanEngelsdorp to correct the record.
The story initially said that Carrillo was 7 when his father, a physician; his mother, an educator; and their four children fled Fidel Castro’s island in 1967, arriving in Michigan by way of Spain and Florida. It said he was something of a prodigy as a classical pianist when he was growing up, and, by his late teens, was performing at venues in the United States and abroad, before he lost interest and stopped abruptly.
He had repeated that piece of biography so many times over the years to his professors and academic colleagues, to his husband and fellow writers, that “he probably believed it himself,” said his sister, Susan Carroll, 58, who lives in Michigan.
In fact, he was born in Detroit to parents who were native Michiganders, both teachers, according to Susan Carroll and her daughter, Jessica Webley. They said no one in their family is Latino. As for the piano, he was self-taught and not a widely traveled performer. “My brother was very talented,” Carroll said. “He could see something, watch something, hear something, and do it.”
Evidently, that was how he became fluent in Spanish, she said.
In Carrillo’s 2004 novel, “Loosing My Espanish,” a Chicago teacher, Óscar Delossantos, is being fired, and he tries in his final weeks to instill a love of cultural history in his middle-class, U.S.-bred Cuban American students. But the teenagers don’t care a whit about their ancestral homeland or the terrors of revolution and escape. Unlike Óscar, none ever dangled “from a little piece of twine over the Florida Straits,” with sharks circling below.
Nor are they moved by Óscar’s familial memories of Miami detention, the “concertina wire, dogs with vicious teeth and feet and yards and cubic miles of forms with thousands and thousands of blank spaces to be completed; English, and being made to feel stupid and like a hero and unwanted and saved all at the same time.”
After he became a writer in the 1990s, adopting the name Carrillo and a fictitious backstory, “we never saw him much,” said Webley, 36, who lives in Detroit. His loved ones had always called him “Glenn,” his middle name. “Glenn always kept his family and social life separate,” she recalled.
VanEngelsdorp, who was in a years-long relationship with Carrillo before they married in 2015, said that after the story appeared online, he learned the truth about his husband’s early life from Susan Carroll, whom he barely knows.
“At first, I was just so downcast,” he said Saturday, in a quiet voice. “I’ve only met his family by text. I never understood why he would never introduce me. Now I do.”
He added: “I’ve been on a long walk this morning, and I’ve come to peace with this. I think that in any other century, there were storytellers, like jesters, and in African culture, and in First Nations cultures, and when they told stories, people never expected the truth to be the reality, you know? There was another truth there. And I think that speaks to Hache.”
Webley and her mother took no issue with the rest of his bio.
Living in Chicago in the 1980s, working in human resources for HBO, he fell in love with an architect, David Herzfeldt, to whom he would later dedicate “Loosing My Espanish.” On a September afternoon in 1988, Herzfeldt, 27, died of an AIDS-related illness. In his grief, Carrillo was at loose ends, wandering in search of himself.
He found an aspiring novelist.
“Hache was brilliant from the beginning,” said author Anne Calcagno, who was teaching creative writing at DePaul University in the mid-1990s when Carrillo, in his 30s, enrolled. Close in age, the two formed a friendship that lasted the rest of his life.
She recalled a dedicated student, much older than most, for whom “the stakes were high,” and “he knew it.” Carrillo was a starving artist-in-tutelage, his drifting years of self-discovery behind him, Calcagno said. His fiction pieces, which she described as “wildly experimental and deeply political,” were far more ambitious than his classmates’ work, and she read them with the special thrill a teacher feels.
“He was an arrow pointed dead center,” Calcagno said. She loved him, and gave him a care package of Trader Joe’s groceries as he set off for Cornell University, where he would earn a master of fine arts degree.
His adviser there was novelist Helena María Viramontes, who, before meeting him, read some of “Loosing My Espanish,” a work-in-progress that Carrillo had submitted with his application to the MFA program. “I just about died,” she recalled. “I thought: ‘Whoa! This is an incredible storyteller!’ . . . I was astounded by the voice, by the challenging work he was committed to doing. No one here was writing like Hache was.”
After Pantheon Books published “Loosing My Espanish” in 2004, to mixed reviews, Viramontes, who considered Carrillo “a son,” and others, including his agent, Stuart Bernstein, awaited a second novel. While Carrillo went on to produce an oeuvre of short fiction that appeared in such high-end literary journals as the Iowa Review, Conjunctions, and the Kenyon Review, his next book stayed in his laptop, percolating.
It’s still in there.
Bernstein sighed. “I can’t tell you much about it, because I don’t know,” except that initially its fulcrum was the death of Castro, who was alive when Carrillo began writing it. The old dictator’s actual death in 2016 apparently threw the story for a loop.
“Hache was someone who held onto his work — he held onto a lot of things about himself — until I could find a way to get it from him,” the agent said. Devastated by the loss of his close friend, he added: “Honestly, I remember getting the first novel from him. I felt like an obstetrician using forceps. I practically had to do a C-section.”
In Michigan, meanwhile, relatives of “Glenn” were aghast and bemused after the book came out as they began to read online literary praise for H.G. Carrillo, a Cuban-born novelist. Webley said, “We were all, like, ‘Wha —?!” Most of his loved ones eventually shrugged it off — “Glenn was always eccentric,” Webley said — but his mother took offense.
“She was really, really hurt by the whole facade, and I confronted him about it,” Susan Carroll recalled. “Our mother was thinking: ‘What did we do wrong? Did he have such a horrible childhood?’ But he said nothing much back to me. He said he loved me and always would.”
Viramontes, at Cornell, said Carrillo’s stories, dealing with the Cuban emigre experience in a motley, rancorous America, centered on “profoundly lonely cultural misfits, striving and striving, in whatever crazy situations they were in, to find a sense of belonging.” And as he labored, he also gave novice writers the same sort of nurturing attention he had received at DePaul and Cornell.
At George Washington University, where Carrillo taught creative writing full time for eight years, until 2015, a half-dozen students once asked him to lead an out-of-class critical reading of Gabriel García Márquez’s “One Hundred Years of Solitude.” He was happy to do it, giving up many of his free hours for weeks, said colleague Jennifer James.
“I loved him; we all loved him,” said Maria Frawley, the English department chair. “He had a quality about him that made me trust him. He kind of invited you to put aside the superficial and connect with him in a way that wasn’t inhibited by any surface similarities or differences.”
On the phone, walking figure-eights in the garden, vanEngelsdorp, who teaches in the University of Maryland’s College of Agriculture & Natural Resources, said he also is in the dark about the novel in Carrillo’s computer.
Strolling past the roses and peonies, past the milkweed and goldenrod, vanEngelsdorp sighed, too. “Hache lived in his head a lot” when it came to his work and to memories of his childhood, “and that was okay with me.” But now, “it’s amazing how many blank spots you suddenly see when you know you can’t fill them in anymore. You just assumed, ‘Well, one day we’ll fill them in.’ And then he’s gone.”
After they married in 2015, and Carrillo quit teaching to do more writing, they moved into the vintage ticket house with their aged pooch, a Jack Russell terrier-basenji mix named Huddy. Carrillo wrote in the mornings, scribbling drafts with a fountain pen. After lunch, as he practiced on the baby grand piano in his home office, blind old Huddy would limp in next to him and howl along to Rachmaninoff.
In September, he learned he had prostate cancer. Radiation weakened his immune system, exposing him to a raft of ailments. “Hache was in and out of the hospital” all winter and into the spring, vanEngelsdorp said. He went in April 5 for the last time. The virus found him in MedStar Washington Hospital Center and killed him April 20, a week before his 60th birthday.
He leaves a husband and a garden.
And, finally, the truth, borne by the scourge of a pandemic.
“We have over 70 species of bees on the property,” vanEngelsdorp was saying, traversing the path in the sunshine.
He said, “There are, indeed, flowers every day of the year.”
Pinks and yellows, reds and oranges.
He said, “I’ve seen 12 species of butterflies.”
In the afternoons, around piano time, Huddy often lifts his ancient head, puzzled by the silence. VanEngelsdorp thinks the dog is depressed.
He will lead Huddy to the garden.
“The robins, we have nests in three corners of the yard,” he said.
“Can you hear them?”
And he stopped to listen.