We left Imelda in the past, and now, pulling back ahead to 1931...
"Speak for yourself," Imelda muttered, and this time, Hector blushed. But she didn't kiss him -- not then, that would be later, as the moon rose, and they danced a slow waltz under its soft light, and they would never look backward from then. What she did do at that moment was get Ceci's nearly finished charro jacket. It was only missing two designs on the back that needed careful embroidery. She pulled it around him and
carefully buttoned it up to her throat. His trousers were a bit tight around her hips, but she kept herself slim, so it wasn't too bad. The jacket was broad-shouldered and padded, and changed her feminine form quite effectively. Her hair would be the giveaway, but if she stayed to the shadows and kept the sombrero tipped back, no one would notice the tell-tale upsweep at the base of her neck, and the crown was big enough to pile a large bun into. She had a low voice for a woman as it was, and she'd been mistaken for a man in the past.
She looked at herself in the mirror, in Hector's clothes. She did not imagine that they smelled like him. He'd sweated into them often enough, but he always kept his things meticulously clean. Still, there was something of him here, in the way the elbows were slightly worn on the inside, lower than where her own elbows rested, or in the tiny frayed spots where the jacket used to rest against his guitar. There was something heavy in one pocket, and she pulled out a little leather folder, wrapped carefully in a ribbon.
The letters. So Coco was hiding them here, of all places. Imelda undid the ribbon. She didn't know why. She remembered the letters well enough without looking at the damnable things. They had been addressed to Coco, but Coco hadn't been reading then, and Hector had intended them to be read together, often putting gentle teases in that only Imelda would catch.
At least at first.
The early letters were long, written from hotel rooms around Oaxaca. He often put in the poems he meant to turn into songs. Coco's lullaby was in the first one -- "Remember Me." Imelda knew it by heart, because Coco had sung herself to sleep with it every night (and might still; Imelda usually stayed in the shop until after Coco was asleep), but still, Hector had sent it to her, even with a little drawing he'd made of her. Coco had very carefully drawn a picture of him as well, and Imelda had dutifully sent it along to their next stop. It had gotten a thank you… "but I don't know that we'll be able to trust the mail system following us around… Tío Nesto keeps finding little places to play along the way, and we may not get to every place when we thought we would…"
That was the first clue that "Tío Nesto" was extending their three-month tour. "Six months, my love," Hector had written in a side note to Imelda. "I know it's not what we planned, but Nesto says we're very close to breaking through with a recording studio. I told him, six months only…"
More songs. A quirky one about how Imelda had once told him that he made her a little crazy ("I miss your mamá; tell her I hope I am not making her more than un poco loco now. I think I may be muy loco if I don't see you both soon…") A little one about Coco dancing. One lovely ballad about a beautiful woman who became even more beautiful as a mother. A few very silly cantina numbers that were probably just written for Ernesto to get laughs. There were dozens, all of them looking half-finished as poems, but Imelda knew that somewhere, his songbook was growing, and the tunes he set the words to would make them live.
The letters got shorter as the tour got longer. Imelda at the time had thought she sensed some anger at Ernesto for continuing to add venues. In one of his side notes, he'd written, "I will put my foot down soon, Imelda, but the money is good, and if we really do find a contract, it will mean being secure forever." This had, in fact, come with a fairly healthy sum, which Imelda had immediately put away for safekeeping.
There was some kind of reconciliation when they got to Mexico City. First, Hector had sent a funny letter about the pair of them auditioning together for a movie studio. Just like old times in Santa Cecilia, he'd said. Nesto would have to either succeed or call it quits soon; it's not like there was further to go than the capital. He'd had to spend money just to have a silly picture taken of himself in order to show the movie's casting director -- "Who knows why?" he wrote to Coco, "As I was standing right there and they could see how handsome I am?" This time, the side note to Imelda had been full of humor. After all, the thought of skinny, awkward Hector as a movie star was absurd in itself, and he couldn't imagine why Nesto wanted to do it. "Why would they want musicians when films are silent? But Nesto is convinced that this is the future, so I thought I'd give it a try. It was a laugh, anyway, pretending to be an actor. I rode an imaginary horse, and waved a prop sword around, which is always fun. Also, I met a very silly actress named Lupe…"
And, after that, there was a change in the tone. At first, Imelda had convinced herself that the "silly actress" was the cause, but she read an article about the actress, who did not appear to be having affairs with ridiculous musicians. But suddenly, Hector was enthusiastic about the tour. Nesto had procured a typewriter somewhere, and Hector loved playing with it (Imelda imagined him liking the clacking sounds, like little castanets). "See this wonderful new toy Tío Nesto bought! He was put in a picture. Papá was not so lucky. He will have to keep trying…"
If Ernesto had been cast in a movie at the time, it was one that had never made it far out of Mexico City, if it had been made at all. Now, ten years later, he was finally starring. Hector apparently wasn't, unless what was on the poster the twins had spoken of was Hector, performing under a different name.
There were five letters on the typewriter, each shorter than the last and with a longer space between them. He left Mexico City and went on to the northern border towns. The tales were mainly the deeds of Tío Nesto, who was heroically trying to find Hector more work. The last, from Tijuana, had included a check for a decent amount of money, and the cryptic note, "I must be who I was born to be, Imelda. Someday, I will find my place."
And then, silence. Imelda could read a map as well as anyone. He'd probably crossed the border and was trying to "find his place" in Hollywood. Hector… who had thought the whole scheme ridiculous at first.
So you believe that he is following Ernesto around like a little puppy and that he's trying his luck in Hollywood and that he died fighting with the Cristeros? Imelda, do you really, honestly believe any of this nonsense?
All right, so it was one of the other or the other. Did it matter? He was gone. She and Coco had not been worth coming home to when he could chase his silly fantasies. The money he'd sent had gone into the business, and Imelda had made it back five times over. Shoes were forever.
She shook her head and shoved the letters back into their leather binder. Coco must have made it just to keep them in, from scraps down in the shop.
Throw them out, Imelda. And take off this ridiculous costume, and get back to work. Throw the costume out. Both the maker and wearer hate you now. Leave alone whatever the twins learned in the square. Sew shut that empty place Hector left, like it is a sprung seam on a shoe. Make it watertight again. Don't leave these things here, letting the rot inside. Coco will get over it.
But Coco would not get over it. And since Imelda preferred not to let her daughter know that the trunk had been opened, she couldn't very well discard things that had been hidden there.
Instead, she took a deep breath and shook herself out, as she always did before a performance. Then she pocketed the letters carefully where they had been and went downstairs. She couldn't leave through the front, but there was a quiet area in back, where the twins were building out the hacienda. It was full of broken boards and tools, and it was open to a tiny back alley that ran between the baker's shop and the butcher's. Imelda made her way through it, and emerged onto the sunny side street that ran to the square. No one saw her until she was in a crowd, just one more mariachi on the way to the square.
"Eh, boy, did you forget your guitar?" another musical asked easily as she passed a bench.
Imelda shrugged, adopting the loose, easy stride of a man. "Taking a break for the day," she said, pleased to hear no tremor in her voice. "Broke a string. I thought I'd go to the pictures."
The musician laughed. "Go to see our local boy make good, are you? Do you think you will be the next de la Cruz?"
"Do I want to?" Imelda asked.
"Who wouldn't?" The musician jumped up onto the bench, placing his hand over his heart and adopting a melodramatic pose. "We, too, could solve the world's problems, woo its finest women, sing our way into the heart of a nation! We could have our lovely custom guitar and our perfect teeth…"
"Ay." He got down. "He says he found it in the garbage and restored it himself, but I'd guess the studio had it made for him. Who would throw out an instrument like that?"
Imelda tried to smile and act like he'd said nothing of consequence, but something was starting to dawn on her, an awful idea, something the twins might have seen.
She couldn't make the smile work, and covered by spitting on the cobbles, pretending it expressed her feelings only about how someone could discard a good guitar.
"You all right, muchacho?" the man asked. "You look a little green around the gills."
"Something I ate," Imelda muttered. "I'm going to the movies."
"Have fun. Wait until you hear him talk. 'The music isn't just in me, it is me!'" He laughed. "The whole world should be written by movie writers, don't you think?"
"Maybe they wouldn't make such a mess of it," Imelda muttered.
She shuffled on down the street, toward the grand old building that was the movie palace now. It had been a normal theater when she was a girl, and she had sung here so often that her feet carried her to it almost by instinct, her toes itching inside of her botines, wanting to find the boards of a stage that was now hidden behind a giant silver screen. Earlier this year, she'd seen the first talking movie made in Mexico, about a girl who was married to an unfaithful soldier, who wound up in a brothel for some reason. Imelda had found it ridiculous. A woman who refused to develop any skill she couldn't do on her back was not, to her mind, an interesting woman.
And already, they had started making singing pictures.
Well, at least she could be fairly certain that she wouldn't see Nesto end up in a --
She stopped as she rounded the shallow corner toward the ticket booth and saw the poster.
The twins were right. There was no missing it.
Ernesto de la Cruz dominated a huge poster. He was giving his smarmy old grin, the one he used to seduce stupid girls here in the square.
And in his hands was…
"You okay?" the ticket girl asked. "Eh, chico… you look like you're sick."
"I just need to sit down," Imelda said, and now her voice was trembling, but it wasn't high or feminine. It wasn't anything.
"I can let you in the lobby…"
"No. No, give me a ticket." She jerked her chin at the poster. "I'll see this while I sit. And think." She pulled out the money and handed it over.
The girl gave her a mistrustful look, but gave her the ticket. "You should have some water. But no food. I… I don't want to clean it up."
"I'm all right," Imelda snapped.
She crossed into the dark lobby, pausing to let her eyes adjust. The great doors, framed with wooden carvings and flanked by brass posts, yawned open in front of her. The rows of seats, unchanged since long before pictures moved, were mostly empty this early, though one couple was hiding up in a balcony. Imelda could feel the ghost of her girl-self here, running up and down this aisle, laughing as Hector chased her to the stage. She could hear herself belting out La Llorona for the soldiers who had come through town while Hector played. Ernesto had never played here. He thought the money was in the square, and he was right about that, but the acoustics in here were too beautiful to skip, and she and Hector had come here night after night, while Ernesto was in the cantinas and it was here behind the curtains that she had first really known him and…
The wild echoes of her childhood rang silently through the room, and she suddenly wanted to leave, to go outside and rip away her disguise and scream, and scream, and scream.
Instead, she sat down in a shadowy corner and pressed her hands over her face. She didn't know how long she stayed like that. She heard people coming in around her for the matinee, and it was when she was nudged that she finally pretended to wake up.
The movie began.
With Coco's song.