Good morning/afternoon, you wonderful internet people.
Today we have another chapter from my work in progress, The Genealogies. As always, comments are welcome.
Every Sunday right before July 20th—or July 20th itself if it fortuitously fell on a Sunday—Marcelo and Carlos and Lexie would gather at Mamá’s house early in the morning. They would all bundle into one car and drive the few blocks to her church. There was always a debate as to who would drive. As Lexie usually had the worst car, she mercifully was excluded. Carlos preferred larger SUV’s, so the family normally decided on his car, which he took with a resigned equanimity, being used, as the oldest child, to doing the yeoman’s work in the family. Marcelo never understood why there was such a hubbub every year. Oftentimes he would offer to drive, just to keep peace; their mother, however—who had never owned a car nor in fact had ever learned how to drive—always preferred going in Carlos’ truck, both for the roominess, and because customarily he drove slowly and carefully when she was in the car, figuring that the path of least resistance led to Paradise, or at least to calm with Mamá. Marcelo, also customarily, though he never drove more speedily than normal, also never changed his driving habits simply because one person or the other was in his car. This included Mamá.
“You’re going to give me a thrombosis,” she would say almost always when she would get into the car with him. Marcelo would meet that with the frustrated grunt and the eye-roll he had perfected as a teenager.
On that day, or near about it, they had their yearly appointment to hear a Mass for the dead. Every year Mamá would arrange for Papá’s name to be mentioned in the Spanish 10 a.m. Mass when the priest asked the congregation to remember the recently and not-so-recently departed, dear or otherwise. Carlos—father, ex-husband, all-around decent fellow despite his torture of Marcelo when younger—would bow his tall, slightly stooped frame when that portion of the Mass would arrive—not so much out of religious conviction, but out of filial duty. Lexie always glanced discretely at Mamá to make sure that her eyes were cast down, and then allow her gaze to wander, taking in the parishioners, some dressed in Sunday finery, others in backwards baseball caps and shorts reaching down below their knees. Mamá would let out a phantom sob at the point in the Mass when the priest read Papá’s name. Marcelo would stare straight ahead throughout most of the service, normally not glancing left or right, his eyes fixed on the priest, the altar-servers (no longer altar boys as they had been as recently as his youth, no, girls could now serve the Mass, which, while he considered it to be commendable, he also considered it to miss the broader point of sexual politics in the Church) the altar, the looming, bloody crucifix that seemed to always exude a pain and suffering that taunted the worshipper, diminishing him or her to the kind of insignificance one sometimes feels upon considering the vastness of the universe and the paucity of the self. That morbid iconography always left an impression on him that nothing anyone ever did would quite measure up to that sacrifice on a gnarled tree, and he resented the fruitlessness it suggested. Of course, that was the point, wasn’t it? He had concluded that any religion which posited that salvation was available only through adherence to a beaten and bloodied figure was not one for him. Yet, every year, there he would be, in the pew, kneeling, sitting, standing, genuflecting, even going up to receive the Host. As with his driving, it was a hard-wired habit.
Marcelo looked over towards Lexie. She was dressed more for the lunch after church than for church itself. She was dressed in nothing outrageous, but nothing that bespoke of the sacred and solemn either. As he looked at her, he heard Papá’s name, squeezed in quickly amid the roster of the missing, and began to remember Lexie’s 18th birthday party. That birthday wasn’t quite the affair her 15th had been, which Papá always joked would have to take the place of a wedding with all the money he had spent on it. There had been a cake—chocolate, of course—and streamers around the house, and salsa music. Mamá couldn’t stand salsa; her heart always went for Spanish crooners of love songs depicting situations so unbearable they bordered on the unbelievable. Carlos shared her dislike for tropical rhythms, and tended to listen to music to which no-one could possibly dance. Marcelo and Lexie usually held the floor, dancing with each other as they had since they had been children. Papá always had a smile when the music played. He no longer danced, but it reminded him of when he was younger, dressed in dapper suits, wearing a fashionably thin moustache, escorting this or that lovely to a club somewhere near the Malecon. He would imagine how his father would look as he would swan into a dancehall, greeting friends with hugs and pats on the back, greeting women with pecks on the cheek and a tight grasp of their bare arms, the rum flowing, the music playing, perpetually warm breezes wafting in off the harbor, the air redolent with the possibility of rain but just holding off until the next time, maybe later, a downpour when people were ready to stay at home and listen to the drops fall on roof and palm.
The party had been small—family, a few of Lexie’s friends, assorted significant-others. Abuela sat in a corner, alternately having Mamá hover over her like a worried hummingbird and being left alone, always casting an exasperated look over at Abuelo as he grabbed another beer from the cooler, seeming older as her annoyance took over, only to appear suddenly younger, years lifted off whenever Lexie or Marcelo or Carlos visited her shunted-off perch. Carlos’s wife Brigit flitted about, helping Mamá get more food out, picking up after everyone, always knowing how to get into Mamá’s good graces. The party spilled out into the backyard, the sound of music and smell of food curling around the gray, swaying oak tree and the rose bushes, the smell of the food mixing with the scent of jasmine and eucalyptus from neighboring yards and from the street. It was all laughter beneath a full, bright moon, and Lexie held court, always in the middle of friends, giggling, gossiping, swaying her hips to the music. The summer night was hot, and she wore a short dress, her long dark legs matched by her long, thick black hair. She was Papá’s little jewel, and Marcelo saw him look at her the way he always did, unsure how in his creeping dotage he had managed to produce something so beautiful.
A bolero floated out of the speakers, and all the kids began groaning. That was old people’s music, stuff they wouldn’t listen to ever. It was slow, sad music, invariably speaking about the pangs of love and the losses one suffered because of it.
Papá left his post by the door and walked over to Lexie in her knot of friends.
“Dance with me, mija.”
Marcelo looked at his father. The air was hot and humid, more like a night in Havana than in L.A., and grasshoppers chirped all around, lending accompaniment to the slow guitar strumming. For years he had seemed frail, worn down after the heart attack that almost killed him. He had given up the barbershop, had resigned himself to living out long drawn-out days at home, listening to the radio, reading the paper, studying the Bible. Taking Lexie out, leading her to a clear space on the patio and dancing slowly with her, cheek to cheek, languid steps marked out on the pavement, he, like Abuela, seemed years younger, time lifting off of him; his frame stood more erect, his step was surer, and Marcelo could again glimpse what he must have looked like all those years ago walking along the sea-wall. They danced like that for the entire song, and everyone watched, smiling and giggling. It was the type of moment that would have normally galled Marcelo if he had encountered in a film or book. In those settings it would’ve struck him as merely maudlin, pulling at heartstrings for no other purpose than achieving a cheap effect. The schmaltz would’ve made him groan. But even he couldn’t help from smiling, acknowledging that this ordinary-seeming moment held meaning and import for both dancers, indeed for everyone in that backyard, and he clapped for the dancers as the bolero ended and a salsa song took over.
Papá kissed Lexie’s hands and let her get back to her friends, who immediately engulfed her again, taking her into their wake. He wandered around the patio, slapping backs, talking in that animated yet reserved way he had about him here and there, basking in being in his own home, celebrating his daughter’s second, more American coming-of-age. He saw Marcelo standing in the doorway and went over to him.
“See, mijo, it doesn’t take much to be happy.”
“Things are simpler for you, Pop.”
“And what’s so difficult for you, huh?”
“Your people were happy when they were able to get a fridge.”
“And your people are happy when you’re being smart-asses.” He cuffed Marcelo lightly on the side of his head.
“I think I’m really too old for beatings, Pop.” Marcelo sighed slightly and chuckled. If anyone had been looking in their direction, one could’ve been forgiven for thinking that Papá looked like he was in his 20’s, while Marcelo seemed to have world bearing down on him. “It just takes more to make me happy than a nice house and a V-8 engine.”
“Speaking of happiness, where’s Elizabeth?”
“Oh, doing some research for her summer job. Or something.”
Papá grunted. “Always some excuse with that one.”
“Ok, ok. Your Mamá does enough of that anyway, eh? She doesn’t understand your obsession with gringas.” He laughed, and leaned in and kissed Marcelo on the forehead.
The party lasted late into the night, or early into the morning. Time, as always, depended on one’s perspective. Friends and family latched onto any excuse for a celebration, no matter how flimsy, and one as momentous as this one wasn’t released easily. Carlos and Brigit sat in the corner, away from the heart of the festivities, speaking quietly as they usually did. Mamá’s sister, Tia Evelina, and her husband Roberto made repeated trips to the bar, every trip having the effect of making them kiss Marcelo and Lexie and their children Anna and Art. Art loomed over everyone, high-school football star turned engineer, hulking protectively over his wife and two kids. Marcelo flirted desultorily with a few of Lexie’s friends, just because it was expected, and nothing was expected to come of it. People milled around, drinking countless toasts to Lexie and her quasi-adulthood—to most there she wouldn’t be considered a real adult until she had her degree, a husband, and a child—reminiscing about incidents from her still flowering youth, embarrassing anecdotes of inopportunely raised skirts and innocuous questions. It was too good of a night to let go of it.
Everyone knew it was time to go home, however, when Lexie disappeared into her room for some time and then came back out dressed in her silk pajamas. People filtered out to their cars, kisses and promises of phone calls were exchanged, and the darkness quietly took them in.
Since Marcelo had moved out only recently, his room was more or less as he had left it, minus his bed, which had been replaced by a day bed for overnight guests, which he would now be, as neither his parents nor siblings would let him drive home after a night of drinking beers and rum. He had expected it and preparedly had brought a pair of shorts in which to sleep. Neither Brigit nor Carlos were drinkers, so they bid farewell and headed for their home in another Los Angeles suburb. Lexie yawned, stretched, kissed everyone, and retired to her bed.
As Papá settled next to Mamá he felt a happiness he couldn’t describe. It washed over him as he thought of the evening, the love that suffused that house, enveloping everyone who entered it, unconditionally, unquestioningly, giving as it received. Most days, time seemed to rush by, morning suddenly becoming night, and the intervening hours vanishing into nothing, into a blackness, an inaccessible ether that was penetrable, perhaps, by God only. As Lexie’s birthday approached, as his youngest child began to grow older, to become a woman, he had felt that iron vise of time close about him, grip him firmly in its insistence. Oh, he had been happy about her impending birthday, had been happy that finally she would start the path to adulthood, make her own way in the world. No, he didn’t begrudge her that. But could God just delay it by one more year? One more year to enjoy life with her, before her it took her away to other places, other adventures? On his recliner, as he would read the paper or some book that Carlos would regularly provide him, he would have often put down his reading material, there alone in the house, and stare out into the yard, the summer sun casting everything in brilliant hues, and he could feel that river of time rushing by, could almost see it, a current that took everything with it. But that night, as he lay down next to his wife, he felt as if he had captured it, stopped time, had dammed the river, if only for that night, for those precious few hours, had arrested the flow and gathered a pool of memory, images which would stay with him for the rest of his life, of happiness, of a life’s goal achieved.
Marcelo left early the next morning, before anyone awoke, wanting to get home and shower and start his weekend. He arrived to a ringing telephone. He answered the phone, and the voice on the other end of the line said “Hey.”
He couldn’t place the voice for a moment. He rubbed his stubble, trying to place the voice with a face, knowing he knew it, and knowing he would be embarrassed once he realized who it was.
“Oh. Hey. Elizabeth.”
“Who did you think it was?”
He began recovering from his slowness and the uncomfortable night he spent on his mother’s daybed.
“My other girlfriend. You know, the one who doesn’t pass on almost all family events.”
“That’s not fair. You know how hard law school is.”
“Yeah. So I’ve been told.”
Marcelo could hear her chew her bottom lip, worrying it in the way she did when felt put upon.
“I’m sorry. I know you’re stressed.”
“I want to make it up to you.” Her voice was low and throaty.
“In the afternoon? What a libertine.”
“I meant a late breakfast, maybe. And I have a present for Lexie. We can stop by afterwards and drop it off.”
“Well, thanks for getting her something. She’ll appreciate it.”
“Am I forgiven?”
Marcelo laughed. “Of course, but you’re still buying breakfast. And you’re driving.”
“You’re really going to make me work for my penance, aren’t you?” She giggled in a disarmingly girlish way. “And I shouldn’t have to do it. I’m not Catholic.”
“If you were Catholic you’d know penance is hard.”
“We have Yom Kippur. We find that to be enough.”
Marcelo laughed again. In the early flush of love, or mere attraction, forgiveness comes easily.
“Well, get over here. I’ll take a shower in the meantime.”
They hung up, and Marcelo slowly shuffled to the couch. He sat down, feeling the clamminess from not showering, and the lack of air-conditioning in his former room at his parents’. Just a few minutes’ rest, he thought, and then hit the shower, get clean, meet Elizabeth, maybe end up back at her place, spend the day with her.
By the time he woke up, he realized he had no time to shower. Well, he thought, this’ll be a new side of me for Elizabeth. He quickly lumbered off up the couch and went into the bathroom to wash his hands and face. As he did so, Marcelo frowned at his hands. He had always thought them to be small, tiny, dainty. They were barely bigger than Lexie’s, and Elizabeth’s were slightly larger. It was the one physical trait he knew he inherited from his father. His hands were small and delicate, finely chiseled and dark. But his hands were able to wield scissor and comb, clipper and pomade, turn a mess of hair into something smooth, sleek, and if not currently fashionable, at least always classic. Marcelo always went to his father for a haircut, partly because it was free, and partly because Papá would be hurt if he went anywhere else. Only he could give his sons their haircuts, just as he had done so all their lives.
Marcelo looked at his hands again under the flowing water. He saw his fingers as short, his palms small, his hands stumpy and useless, unable to dribble a basketball, strum a guitar, finger a clarinet. He wished that when he saw his fingers arrayed against a keyboard, that they didn’t look so sadly puny. He balled his hands into fists and sighed.
Just as he finished drying off, the doorbell rang. He went to the door, opening it to find Elizabeth standing there, sunglasses pushed up against her face.
“Good timing,” he said.
“I have you trained well.”
He smirked in response. He grabbed his keys, closed the door and followed her to her car.
“I just can’t get over what a crappy car you have. I always think of law students as being rich. This car isn’t going to last you much longer.”
“Thanks, Marc. I already feel deficient with all those legacy children.”
After they were seated in the car, he leaned over and kissed her cheek.
“You’ll be a rich, rich lawyer soon. Your car will be much nicer than mine.”
She turned the key in the ignition and set off for their breakfast place. Marcelo settled into the worn passenger seat, watching streets and avenues glide by with a warm familiarity. He liked riding in a car like this, a passenger, not driving, knowing the destination but not in ultimate control of the journey. He liked to let the physical geography of Los Angeles wash over him: the parade of stuccoed, red-tiled houses on patches of grass; mini-malls crammed with shiny cars, waves of heat rising off of their just-turned-off engines; luxurious and gargantuan gas-stations; seedy, oil-slicked auto-repair shops; bakeries putting out fresh bolillos; taquerias fronted by a snaking line of people waiting for their orders to be cooked up; botanicas selling candles of the Virgin, rosaries, crucifixes, everything to placate the supernatural world in this precarious natural one; palm and eucalyptus trees baked a pale green by the sun; the homeless man with one pant-leg longer than the other pushing a creaky, world-worn cart stuffed with recyclables and blankets; young girls and boys without cars walking to the bus stop, walking to the store, walking to friends’ houses, walking and talking and running around each other, oblivious to the vastness of the place, just accepting that they were young and at freedom for the day with no-one to answer to. He sighed, his eyes taking it all in, relishing it, not really knowing why, as if the city had an interest in endeavoring to keep him entertained, engaged, enraptured.
They arrived at the restaurant in Santa Monica. The line was mercifully short, and they were soon seated at a table on the outdoor patio, surrounded by potted trees, a fragile wooden lattice serving as roof, filtering the strong summer morning light. As they went about ordering their breakfasts—they always ordered the same thing, knowing what was good and what left something to be desired—customers came and went, the conversations serving as ambient music, amidst a cross-section of care-free Los Angeles: mostly white, mostly well-off, mostly unaware of how lucky they were.
Elizabeth quietly sipped her juice. She concentrated with an intense focus on her glass, not looking at Marcelo. He took gulps of coffee, feeling the warm brown liquid coat his throat.
“You’re not that talkative this morning,” he said.
“Is everything okay?” He reached out a hand to cover her wrist. She flinched reflexively at the contact, but didn’t break it.
She sighed, the breath barely making a sound as it passed her lips. Marcelo pulled his hand away.
“It’s hard to offer half-assed advice if you don’t confide in me.” He smiled at her.
Elizabeth finally looked at him. She had recently cut her hair short, and he thought it framed her lean, angular face well. Her light blue eyes always seemed mired in some private sadness, and her thin lips broke into a crooked, unpracticed smile.
“I just really hate law school,” she said. She shook her head.
“Is this more than your regular hatred of it?”
“It’s more. It’s like—ok, I’ve wanted to do public interest law ever since I first thought about the law as a career. But now, I don’t know. I’m starting to feel selfish. I’m starting to feel like I should do something else, do something that will make me secure. I mean, I can only rely on myself. I’m not like you—I don’t have a family like yours.”
Marcelo arched an eyebrow.
“What do you mean a family like mine?”
A waitress arrived with their food. Elizabeth looked up at the latticework as she set their plates down. Marcelo thanked her then started digging into his breakfast, waiting for Elizabeth to explain her remark. She grabbed up a fork and started picking at the omelet, bringing small bites of it to her mouth and chewing slowly, almost thoughtfully, grinding the eggs and vegetables and cheese into a fine, easily swallowed mash, leaving nothing that could get stuck in her throat.
“My family’s not rich, you know,” Marcelo prodded. “I couldn’t rely on them to support me.”
“Yes you could.” She looked at him. “You could go home and tell your mom and dad that you need to move back in, or that you needed money for the rent, and they would do everything they could. They wouldn’t just leave you twisting.” Her face was wistful. “I don’t have that.”
“I don’t think you give your family enough credit,” Marcelo said, casually chewing on a piece of sausage.
“My family is very self-centered, very cold, and very Scandinavian. That’s all from my father. But somehow my mom bought into it; she became an honorary shiksa.”
“I think your mom’s great.”
“Of course you do. She likes you. Or more precisely, she wants you to like her. If you had a nephew or a niece, they’d like you more than their parents because you’d be big Uncle Marc, always fun and never nagging.”
Marcelo sighed. “Fine. I really don’t know enough about your family, aside from the fact that your sister has an unhealthy attraction to spoken-for men. But what does this have to do with law school?”
“Don’t you see? I went into school thinking I’d do some good, fight to right wrongs, help those who wouldn’t get help otherwise. Do something for other people, maybe change things. But, Marc, the pay is awful in that. And I’m on my own. No-one’s going to help me pay all these loans, no-one’s going to help me do anything. I just don’t think I have it in me to be selfless, and I’m trying to convince myself that it’ll be okay if I do something else with my degree, something more lucrative.”
Marcelo took a sip of coffee. He stretched as the sunlight crisscrossed through the latticework and warmed him.
“I think you give your family too little credit, and mine too much. My family’s no different from anyone else’s. You should know that by now. It’s extraordinarily ordinary. Nothing that special about it.”
“That’s not how I see it, Marc.”
He shrugged. “Well, whatever. As far as school and career tracks go, just do what you think will make you happy. Follow your bliss.”
“That’s just it.” She looked down dejectedly at her half-eaten omelet. “I don’t think this is what I want to do anymore.”
Marcelo didn’t know what else to say. He often wished he had a pithy, pertinent comment for every sort of situation. More often he found himself at a loss. He smiled and took Elizabeth’s hand again.
“You know everything will be okay, Liz. You’ll make the right choice.”
Elizabeth looked at him, and he thought he could faintly detect a look of disappointment, as if his manner of consolation were the wrong one.
Marcelo changed the subject, and started telling her about the party, and Papá’s dance with Lexie. Elizabeth smiled at his recounting of it, and they finished their breakfast in a lighter mood. They left the restaurant, got into the car, and made their way down Lincoln to his parents’.
They pulled up in front of the house. The street was quiet for a Saturday; no children played in their front yards, with perhaps most families opting for the beach on such a hot day. The driveway was empty: Lexie was at work, and Papá’s car was pulled into the garage. Mamá walked the few blocks every morning except Sundays to where she was a partner at a bridal shop.
“We should’ve gone to her work,” Marcelo said.
“This’ll be a nice surprise,” Elizabeth said. “She can even use it tonight.”
“I haven’t even asked you what it is.”
Marcelo fished out the key from his pocket, putting it into the lock. He pushed open the door and let Elizabeth pass in first. The living room was empty, but he could hear the television going in the den down the hallway.
“You know where her bedroom is. Just leave it on top of her bed. I’m going to go back and say hi to Pop.”
Marcelo walked down the hallway, and he could see his father’s easy chair, and his father’s bald head resting on the back of it, watching Chespirito on the Spanish station. Whatever episode was playing he was sure his father had seen it several times; however, he was if nothing else a creature of habit, and he watched the same shows at the same time every day, often falling asleep to them.
Marcelo walked up behind the chair, leaned down and kisses his father on the top of his head.
“Hey Pop,”he said. He briefly took in the antics parading across the screen.
“Hey, Pop, what are you doing taking a nap this early.” He was still standing behind the easy-chair, resting his elbows on the back. Papá didn’t respond.
Marcelo walked around to stand before Papá’s chair.
“Pop?” His father’s eyes were closed. “Pop?” He reached out a hand and laid it on his shoulder, shaking it gently. “Pop?” he said again, louder, shaking his father’s shoulder harder. Papá’s head lolled over to the side. His eyes remained closed.
“Pop? Pop? Pop?” He repeated the word over and over, a bit louder each time, until at last he was screaming out. Elizabeth had rushed into the den at hearing him.
“Marc, what’s wrong?”
Marcelo looked up at Elizabeth, but barely saw her, as he continued to shake his father, trying to waken him. Elizabeth went to where he stood, and looking down brought her hand to her open mouth. She reached a hand out and touched Marcelo’s back.
“Oh, Marc. Marc, stop. You can stop now.”
The rest of the afternoon imprinted itself on him, every action clear and delineated, every action’s outlines finely and surely traced out. He shook his father a few more times, not out of real hope, but more out of a sense of duty, as if that’s what one should do upon finding a parent slumped dead in his chair. He went to the phone and dialed 911. He was very calm as he talked to the operator; Elizabeth sat on the couch beside where he stood, limply holding his free hand. He looked at his father as he explained the circumstance to the operator—no, he hasn’t responded, yes, his body is limp, no, I didn’t check his pulse, no, he’s not breathing as far as I can tell. Papá appeared not quite Papá, certainly not Papá as he had been the night before, dancing with Lexie, holding her tightly, almost as if trying to pull her back to the day before her birthday, when he could still call her his little girl and not have it be redolent of sadness for time past. That Papá was gone; all that was left was a faint shade, cooling flesh, brittle bones, saliva trickling out of his mouth, his body relieving itself of any final obligations. The air in the den crackled strangely; everything seemed moved over one inch, seemingly the same yet not, as if the world had shifted just slightly, just barely perceptibly, askew.
He hung up the phone with the assurance that an ambulance had been dispatched and would arrive shortly to confirm the death. He next dialed his mother’s work. He stood still as he told his mother what had happened, again calmly. He heard his mother gasp on the other end of the line, then break into sobs. Her partner, Elena, picked up the receiver and asked him to repeat what he had told Mamá. After he had done so, she told him she’d drive her mother back home right away and hung up.
He sent Elizabeth to wait outside and watch for the paramedics, while he continued to make calls. He called Carlos, who hung up hurriedly to rush out of work; he called Tia Evelina, but got his cousin Anna instead, who knew where her mother was and promised to come as soon as she’d tracked her down. He thought about calling his best friend, but decided to go to her house instead; he knew he’d need to escape soon, once the crush of relatives arrived. He called Abuela and Abuelo, who lived just a few blocks away, and he could imagine them slowly collecting themselves for the walk to the house. He couldn’t think of anyone else to call, except for Lexie, and he didn’t want to call her, more so because he was likely to get her boss, who had always struck him as a particularly cold-hearted sort, who wouldn’t be moved by even such an event as a father’s death. He wanted to grab Elizabeth and drive to the mall and collect Lexie, daring her boss to say something, just so that he could raise his fist and bring it crashing down on his temple and release the odd, unnamable pressure building up right behind his eyes. He felt disoriented, woozy, and sat down finally, slowly dialing the numbers, hearing the phone ring and thankfully hearing Lexie answer on the other end, something choking in his throat as he told her to come home, that something had happened to Papá, that she had to come home right away. Lexie wouldn’t hang up until Marcelo told her exactly what happened, the precise situation, breaking him down finally as he haltingly told her that Papá was dead and that she had to come home right then. She went silent for a few moments, then quickly said “Ok” and that she’d leave. Marcelo sighed as he set down the phone, tiredly hanging it up, feeling as if he’d been awake for two days straight. He sunk into the couch, staring off down the hallway, not looking at his father, his ears straining to hear the sound of the ambulance, of cars arriving bearing family, disgorging their contents onto the lawn and into the house, all to join in the mourning that had begun the moment Papá had given up finally.
The paramedics arrived at last, bustling into the house with their bags and oxygen. Of course, it was unnecessary. A police officer had been dispatched as well, to give Papá’s death a further official imprimatur. As the medics declared Papá deceased, a small crowd had gathered in the parlor. Only Marcelo and Carlos were in the den; off in the distance they could hear Mamá’s sobs and moans, wailing over the now gone years. Tears trickled down Carlos’s cheeks, although he stood still, unmoving as the large empty vase in the corner. Marcelo just looked on, watching the paramedics pack up their gear, listening to the officer give his condolences, looking after them as they vanished back down the hallway and out of the house, to be replaced by Mamá, supported by Elena. She kneeled down next to where the paramedics had laid Papá out on the floor, the top buttons of his shirt loosened, his sunken, gray-haired chest exposed. She cried over him, kissing his forehead, cradling his head in her arms, holding onto him tightly. It seemed so natural, this loud mourning, so practiced, as if recalled from past experience and utilized again in the present, although she had never mourned anyone like she now mourned Papá. All this was new, or seemingly so.
Marcelo’s attention turned back to the service as the time for communion arrived. He looked around, his memories suddenly as fragile as gift tissue. It was his row’s turn to queue up for the wafer. Normally he would abstain from the ritual; however, he wasn’t in the mood for those baleful, disappointed looks from his mother. At least he was comforted in the thought that none of her children were particularly religious. This was a special day, though, so they all followed Mamá without protest, joining the procession up to the altar, the white-haired priest standing next to his lay assistant, his bright green vestments hinting at a joy not to be found in her dour grey skirt suit. Mamá and Carlos and Lexie accepted the host as it was offered; Marcelo merely crossed his arms over his chest, seeking a blessing from the priest, like those who were extra ecclesia, or in the Church but, because of whatever reasons didn’t feel like tempting God by taking his body. Yet even this gesture by Marcelo was done grudgingly; he felt no blessing, no alighting of grace upon him. Much like the entire service, it was empty, and he felt nothing save for a nagging resentment.
After the service, there was the visit to the cemetery. Papá was interred not in the ground but in a mausoleum. He was on the row second from the bottom, a very choice spot, as flowers could be left there easily. The mausoleum was bigger than many apartment complexes, the crypts stretching to the left and the right and reaching eight rows up to the top, both outside in a covered atrium where Papá was, and inside behind a clear glass wall under a roof. Papá’s name was on this crypt-cover, along with his years, and the usual boilerplate of “devoted husband, loving father.” Why could it not be “loving husband and devoted father,” or “loving and devoted husband and father,” as if the modification of one noun by an adjective precluded its use by the other noun? It made it seem that even though Papá was devoted to Mamá, he didn’t quite have the proper amount of love for her that he should have; and while he loved the kids, perhaps his attention and dutifulness towards them was less than it should have been. It was a diminution of his life, in some way, even if unintentional. And the font on the crypt was the same font found in lettering at post offices, airports, train depots, public buildings of all sorts: spare, clean, utilitarian, dull, that pale, listless Helvetica that professors preferred for term papers. Death, Marcelo thought, was dull. That was the reality. Death brought nothing but bland, homogenized, institutional dullness, from the hospital to the mortuary to the final resting place. Everything was designed not so much to ease the mourners’ pain, but to harmonize everyone’s experience, to give the impression that death was orderly, placid, routine. And it was.
Mamá had bought three bouquets of flowers at the cemetery’s flower-shop for a steeply inflated price. Abuela and Abuelo were interred near to Papá, and she always refreshed all their flowers when visiting. Each of the children took a bouquet of flowers and placed them at each of the crypts. Mamá sat down on a bench, looking from Papá to Abuela to Abuelo, her head slightly bowed, mouthing whispered prayers. Carlos sat a bit apart from her, a fist dug into his thigh, running his other hand over his round, shaggy head.
Marcelo wandered off with Lexie, performing their traditional exploration of the mausoleum.
“She hates it when we do this,” Lexie said.
“It’s just too much.”
“It’s really not too much for us. She comes here every Sunday almost. We only have to do it once a year.”
“You and me, maybe. Carlos’s almost always here with her.”
“Ah, yes. Well, he’s the good son. And he’s sloughed off, anyway. She usually comes with Evelina.”
“Where did she go wrong with us?”
Lexie giggled and squeezed Marcelo’s hand.
“Let’s go out to the graveyard,” Lexie said. “All the people here died too recently.”
“We’d better tell her. I think she’s pretty much used to us doing this.”
They approached Mamá and told her they were going for a walk. She nodded her head a bit sadly, and then kissed each of their cheeks.
Marcelo and Lexie crossed the road fronting the mausoleum and found themselves on the green sward of the cemetery. It stretched on for acres, old, drooping shade trees interspersed at random intervals. Older as they were now, they still took a sort of ghoulish pleasure in this exercise. There was an aesthetic enjoyment to be had in walking among the gravestones of the long-dead that the mausoleum’s sterile environs didn’t provide. Some of the tombstones rose out of the ground; some were planted horizontally in the sod. Flowers dotted some of the gravesites, some freshly laid, some wilted and brittle.
“Marcelo! I found Lawrence,” Lexie cried, almost giddily.
Marcelo walked to where she was, standing over a little gravestone rising up out of the ground, dark charcoal in color, the edges rounded off by seasons of rain and smog.
“Hey, Lawrence. How are you, buddy?” Marcelo bent over and tenderly rubbed the top of the gravestone.
“Lawrence Jenkins, Born Dec. 2 1899, Died Jan. 23 1907. An Angel has caught you up to God’s embrace.” Lexie read the inscription on the stone solemnly.
They lowered themselves, sitting down on the warm green grass, the long blades tickling Lexie’s legs through her thin dress. They sat quietly for a few moments, letting the sun sink into them, wispy clouds floating overhead, the place quiet save for the sound of the occasional car rolling by, or of visitors off in the distance. They looked towards the mausoleum. Carlos had disappeared. Mamá was still sitting on the bench.
“We didn’t bring him any flowers,” Lexie said.
“I don’t think Mamá would’ve understood,” Marcelo replied.
“You worry too much about what Mamá thinks.” Lexie reached out and traced the engraving on the tombstone with her finger.
“I wonder how different this place was when Lawrence died,” Lexie said.
“Bean fields. Orange groves. Farmland and ranches surrounding little towns with general stores, hardware stores, postal offices, a schoolhouse or two, saloons serving hard liquor and restaurants offering much simpler fare than we have now. It would’ve been so different for Lawrence. Getting downtown from Inglewood would’ve been a day trip.”
“It still can be.”
“Don’t be facetious, Lexie. You asked.”
“Ay Marcelo, you’re always so serious.”
“I’m just trying to answer your question. I always wonder it myself when I’m off hiking, except I wonder how it was before the roads, the freeways, the malls, the hip restaurants and dark bars and mansions gaudily perched over the ocean. When the haze passing sailors saw was from campfires, not exhaust pipes and smokestacks.”
“Like I said, you’re too serious.”
Marcelo reached over and flicked her nose. “Then you should stop asking serious questions.”
“I wonder what he died of.” Lexie stretched herself out on the grass, sighing as the coolness of it dug into her flesh.
“Measles, chickenpox, flu. A cut that got infected. A fall from a horse. There were so many more things to die from then. And it wasn’t even that long ago. Death was more constant, but less routine, because it came in so many ways. We’ve reduced death’s palette considerably.”
Lexie said, “But families had a dozen kids back then, just because there was a chance they’d die young. Can you really miss a child when you have so many?”
“Maybe he was their first son. Maybe he was an only child. Maybe they missed him as much as Mamá would miss one of us.”
“I don’t think she’d miss me much.”
Marcelo sighed tiredly. “Lexie, don’t start this again.”
Lexie flipped her hair back. “You don’t know, Chelo. I know. I can feel it.” She shrugged. “You and Carlito are the successes. I’m just coasting.”
“She’d cry. She’d mourn. She’d have another hole take its place alongside the ones for all the others she’s lost.”
Lexie laughed, rose up and reached over, giving him a kiss on the top of his head.
“You really are too dramatic.”
Marcelo shrugged with his eyebrows, then leaned back on his forearms, the grass tickling his bare skin.
The sky above them was a clear blue, and the sun was growing hotter, baking the grass, heat waves rising up off of the pavement. In the distance Marcelo noticed an old woman, in a flowery dress, black, thin arms and legs poking out, wearing a purple, broad-brimmed hat. She was moving quite methodically from grave to grave. In her hand she held a white plastic bucket stuffed with peonies, all pink and brilliant in the sunlight. At each gravesite she laid a flower, leaving it with care. She seemed to be choosing only those graves that had no flowers, which had probably seen no flowers in months or years, long untended and forgotten. Her motions were repetitive, practiced, fluid despite her age. She would walk over to a grave, stop, facing it, pull a flower out of her bucket, bend down and lay it either where the tombstone met the earth, or on top of the grave-marker, stand straight again, then make a sign of the cross over the grave. She’d move to the next grave and begin the process over. She didn’t slow down in her progress, as if she had set herself a quota that she had to fill by a certain hour, probably before her children and grandchildren were to gather at her house for Sunday dinner.
Lexie joined Marcelo in looking at the peony lady, and noted somewhat alarmedly, “She’s coming this way.”
She was indeed heading their way, her advance steadily drawing her closer to them, leaving a trail of pink peonies behind her, each as a benediction upon the dead. Marcelo and Lexie looked at each other, unsure as to what to do. They’d never been disturbed like this before. Lawrence had no visitors. Anyone who had cared about him had been long dead, so long dead that their existence itself was in question, the boy’s tombstone the only testament that anyone in the world had ever thought of him. And yet here was this old lady in her purple sunhat and red print floral dress, with her sensible shoes, hoisting a white bucket full of flowers almost upon them, and they couldn’t move. They just watched her approach, grave by grave, the peonies close enough now to be distinct, the golden anthers bursting out in the center, close enough to catch their dying scents, as if they had just been freshly cut. Of course they had been freshly cut; she didn’t look like the type who would go to all this trouble to leave supermarket-bought flowers on the graves. It was doubtful that she cut them herself, but she certainly had bought them from a good florist, one who knew her, who had a standing order with her for such and such a day.
Lexie turned to Marcelo. “Should we move?”
He scrunched his face perplexedly. “It might be advisable,” he said hesitantly.
They arose and moved just out of the peony lady’s path. They continued to watch her, every grave visited bringing her closer to them. They could have just walked back to rejoin Mamá, prodding her to end her vigil and leave for lunch. Instead they stood where they were, observing, not sure what to make of the old woman so determinedly leaving flowers on all these untended graves.
At last the peony lady reached Lawrence’s grave. She looked at them, nodding and smiling a greeting. Marcelo and Lexie nodded and smiled back in response, trying to mask their curiosity. The woman followed through on her routine, laying the flower at the base of the tombstone, making a sign of the cross, and was about to move off when, to Marcelo’s surprise, Lexie cleared her throat, asking in an almost timid voice, “Why do you do that?” Marcelo was surprised not because Lexie was timorous, but because she had an almost preternatural disregard for other people’s motivations, or at least those of strangers. Her world was circumscribed by her experiences, and those of her friends and family. Any other experience was not only beyond her ken, but beyond her notice.
The old woman turned to look at them, her lined face creased more by a smile.
“Everyone deserves to be remembered. You have got to remember the past, or the present is broken.” She smiled again, bidding them a good afternoon, and moved on to the next row of graves, seemingly determined to exhaust her dwindling supply of flowers.
“Marcelito! Lita!” Their mother’s shout pierced through the cemetery’s murmuring birdsong, the sound of the wind blowing through the leaves of the trees. They looked over towards her, and saw her waving at them, beckoning them over. Carlos was already in the car, the engine idling. They spared a final glance for the peony lady, watching her as she moved in a time of her own devising, laying down remembrances for the dead. Marcelo shook his head sharply, like an actor doing an exaggerated double-take on the stage. He took Lexie by the arm, and together they walked back to the truck, getting in the back seat. He closed the door behind him. Carlos gunned the engine, slowly rolled to the exit, and pulled into the oncoming traffic, emerging again into the world.