"I don't want to hear it, Socorro." Mamá led the way out of the theater, not exactly pulling Coco, because Coco had no strength to resist. She was shaking from head to toe, not sure what she wanted, or what she meant to say. She was simply swept along in Mamá's wake, as helpless as a leaf caught in a whirlwind.
They pushed quickly outside, ignoring the looks from the ticket girl, who would probably be full of tales about how Mamá Imelda's little girl left the theater with a shady-looking mariachi. Mamá led them through the narrow alley, past the baker's shop, past the carpenter, into the courtyard of the hacienda. Tío Oscar and Tío Felipe had left their tools around from the room they were building, and Mamá kicked them out of the way. She opened the back door and went into the parlor, sitting Coco down on the ancient lavender chair.
"Wait here," she said, and stormed upstairs.
It did not occur to Coco not to wait, though she could have left freely. There was time for her to make it halfway into town, maybe all the way -- Mamá was upstairs for what seemed a long time, slamming drawers and doors and occasionally making a furious kind of sound that wasn't quite a snort or a sob, but resembled both of them. Coco might have made it all the way to school and begged the sisters to intervene for her, as they had when they'd told Mamá that she was required to learn sacred music. Maybe she could have asked a saint or two to intervene as well. It couldn't have hurt.
But she could not have done any of those things, not really, because in reality, she was still flailing, trying to grasp what was happening, what she had seen on the screen, and worse, what Mamá had seen on the screen. What it had meant.
Mamá finally came downstairs. She had taken off Papá's suit, and was wearing her work dress now, though she hadn't put on her shoemaker's apron. Her hair was down and loose around her shoulders, which it almost never was. Coco could see the bends of the usual braids.
She was forcing herself to be calm.
She sat down in the chair across from Coco and said, "All right, Socorro. I've calmed down. It's time to talk. Are you ready
to see your Papá look very silly?"
Coco giggled and poked at the make-up Papá was wearing. It was almost like Day of the Dead, but he was painted up as a silly clown instead of a skeleton. Other people were painted as monsters, and some people were wearing animal masks.
"To scare away the evil spirits!" Papá had told her this morning, while he painted her monster face on.
"For a bit of fun before Lent," Mamá had said. She was dressed up to be part of a feather dance. She had already done that this morning, and Coco and Papá had clapped and danced themselves on the sidelines.
Mamá said that Coco had done this last year, but she was only three then, and she didn't remember. She was a big girl now, and she was very good at remembering. She could sing whole songs from memory -- not just the middle parts, but the verses, and she never forgot a dance step Mamá taught her, or where her fingers went on the toy guitar. She had even memorized a whole little book about a monkey and a crocodile.
Snap, snap, snap.
She laughed. Papá's hand was by her face, his fingers snapping playfully, and he was wiggling his head back and forth. "Where is Coco's mind? Are you ready to see Papá and Tío Nesto look very silly?"
"Very, very silly," Mamá said, coming back to their blanket in the square with a pitcher full of fresh water from the pump. "And do you really want to teach her to laugh when boys snap their fingers at her?"
"He's not a boy!" Coco said. "He's Papá!"
Papá stuck his tongue out playfully and snapped the fingers on both hands in front of Mamá's face, grinning until Mamá finally laughed and pushed his hands away, weaving her fingers through his to stop the snapping.
She kissed his knuckles and rolled her eyes. "Héctor… you're sure this show is all right for her?"
"I made sure of it. No wrong jokes. I told Tío Nesto that it was Papá Héctor he'd answer to if he tried to sneak one in."
"Good." Mamá kissed him and he squeezed her hands. "I haven't seen your show in months. I'm looking forward to it."
"To the Carpas?" Papá teased, looking around at the tents the showmen had set up for the Carnival show. "You hate the Carpas."
"Why?" Coco asked, interested in this question. Everyone loved the Carpas, the silly shows that played up and down the country. All of the other children were happy that Tío Nesto had gotten some of the famous families to come to town and do shows. Papá said that they were going to have a festival every year for all the Carpas to come to Santa Cecilia from now on. ("Oh, I don't know about from now on," Tío Nesto said . "We will have to go to other places if we mean for everyone to keep coming here.")
"I don't hate them," Mamá said. "But Tío Nesto gets to look very grown-up and important while Papá has to be a silly clown."
"I like clowns," Coco offered.
"You see?" Papá said. "My favorite audience likes clowns. I will be a funny clown for my Coco today."
Mamá laughed and kissed him again, then reached into her purse for the makeup kit. "I've smeared you," she said. "Tío Nesto will not be happy."
"Well, don't fix it yet. I'm holding out for more smearing." He leaned in and rubbed his big nose against hers, smearing his make-up over hers, then he picked up Coco and did the same to her. "Do you love your silly Papá? He loves his silly Coco!"
Coco nodded and laughed, then squirmed away and tried to stand on her head. It didn't work. She fell over.
"What are you doing?" Mamá asked, righting her.
"I'm a clown, too!"
"A grand ambition!" Papá said. "Shall you come up with us? What do you think, Mamá Imelda… they would love her! And you can come, too! Wouldn't everyone love to hear Mamá sing? All the best Carpas are run by families!"
Coco nodded enthusiastically, but a shadow fell over her.
Tío Nesto smiled. She couldn't see his eyes, because the bright sun made it dark under his hat, but she could see his teeth. "Héctor… it's a little late to change the line-up for today!"
"Oh, they would love it, Nesto!"
"I haven't rehearsed," Mamá said. "Go on. Get up there and be a clown."
"His make-up needs repairing," Tío Nesto said.
Papá sighed. "All right."
"Wait," Mamá said, and grabbed hold of Papá and gave him a huge, long kiss. Under the hat-shadow, Tío Nesto made a funny face. Mamá pulled away, grinning, then began to dab at the make-up around Papá's mouth, which was almost gone.
"You're pretty messy, too, mi amor," Papá said.
"I'm not going up front. Go on, now."
"As always, your wish is my command." Papá bowed, and marched off like he was going to a battle. He waved backward, and Coco could see Mamá's lipstick mark on his hand, right over where his wedding ring sparkled.
Tío Nesto looked at Mamá and said, "I'm surprised you came at all, Imelda."
Mamá's smile disappeared. "You'd best get up on stage, Ernesto. You wouldn't want to be late for your own show."
"Well, I'm glad you came." He smiled more broadly. "You'll see how much the audience loves him when you kindly allow him to perform."
He walked away, and Coco frowned. "Why is Tío Nesto angry?"
"Tío Nesto wants to take a long trip with Papá. I want Papá to be home with us. Don't you?"
Coco nodded hard. Papá sometimes went away for a whole week at a time, and she didn't like that at all. She liked it when he played his guitar to her to sing their lullaby and told her stories and held her and sang to her until she fell asleep. She liked his funny games, and she liked the way Mamá laughed when they were together, and the way he sometimes whispered in her ear and it made her giggle and blush. She liked the way Mamá would sometimes almost jump into Papá's arms, and he'd swing her around the same way he swung Coco, though the kisses he gave her afterward were different.
Mamá sighed and looked up at the stage, where Papá was talking to a band leader and Tío Nesto was waggling his eyes at a pretty lady. "What if we went with him?" she asked no one in particular, then looked at Coco. "Do you want to go away from home?"
Coco frowned. Go away from home? Where else would she be?
Mamá shook her head. "Ah, never mind. It is too late for me to be wandering around in a tent show, and that's no place for a little girl, anyway. Papá knows that when he's thinking straight. We can't be wild children anymore." She watched the stage fondly now, but looked a little sad, too, as Papá showed a marimba player a melody he'd written. "Papá still is wild when he plays his music."
"Wild?" Coco asked.
"Very free," Mamá said. "Like a wild animal."
"Like a rabbit? I like rabbits."
"Why not? A rabbit."
Coco imagined Papá as a rabbit, now that he was jumping around on the stage, setting things up. It was funny. She would make him rabbit ears later.
He had climbed up on a ladder to check something above the stage, and he did a back flip to get back down. He landed on his feet, but made a show of jumping around and pretending to trip over a Xolo dog who'd wandered up on stage. The dog barked merrily, and Papá offered it a hand, like he was asking it to dance. It gave back a paw, then stood up on its hind legs. Papá put its front paws on his shoulders, and danced a little tango.
"Perro está bailando," Coco sang. "Y mi papá está cantando…"
Mamá laughed. "Oh, you're going to be a songwriter too now, like Papá?"
"I will teach you to read music while we learn your regular letters," Mamá promised. "How will that be?"
"I will write Papá a song to sing!"
"Your papá will be so proud his head will blow up like a balloon and he will float around on the ceiling."
A few minutes later, Papá and Tío Nesto started their part of the show. Everyone else used all the same songs, but Papá had written new things for their act. Tío Nesto sang a pretty song called "The Mountains and the Marigolds," then they did a funny act where Tío Nesto was a barber and Papá couldn't decide how he wanted to have his hair cut (and kept stopping Tío Nesto before he could close the scissors). Then they sang "Poco Loco," which everyone in Santa Cecilia always liked. The new people with the other Carpas seemed to like it, too. Then they had another funny scene about something called a "census." There were jokes about someone called Obregón, who Mamá whispered was the president. Tío Nesto was going around and asking questions, like "What sort of person are you?" He meant, Are you Spanish or are you an Indian or are you mixed or a foreigner? But Papá pretended he didn't know what the question was, and kept saying he was things like a bird, or coyote, or a fish, and then acting like those animals. The Xolo dog wandered back on stage during all of this, and Papá worked it right in, announcing that he was a Xolo dog himself, and that was his sister. Tío Nesto looked annoyed at this, but maybe that was just his part.
Coco thought this was very funny, because Papá had said the same things in the kitchen at their house when he read a story about the census in the newspaper. ("How can I tell them what I don't know? I'm of the blanket-in-the-plaza people!") He and Mamá had tried to look at each other and guess what sort of parents they had. Mamá said she was a princesita, obviously, and her mother was the queen. ("Mi amor, you are an empress," Papá said.) Papá decided he was one of the Zapotec Cloud People. His father was a stormcloud and his mother was a jaguar. ("It must have been an exciting courtship," Mamá said. "But your mother should be something musical. A songbird. Maybe something with a very big beak." Papá had stuck his tongue out and they had laughed.)
The skit ended with Tío Nesto pretending to weep in frustration at not being able to get a straight answer out of Papá. Papá took his census paper and started asking him questions instead. They finished it all up by singing "The World Is My Family" together, and then they sang another of Papá's serious songs, "My Beautiful Town," which everyone from Santa Cecilia clapped for. Tío Nesto went up and bowed, and they threw flowers at him. Papá picked the flowers up, and after he disappeared backstage, he came out a few minutes later and poured all of them into Mamá's lap. Tío Nesto was still up front, talking to the crowd.
Mamá kissed Papá, but shook her head. "You write the songs, he takes the bows?"
"He can have the bows," Papá said, scooping Coco up, and then sitting down neatly with her in his lap. She cuddled up. "I have Coco and Mamá Imelda." He showered kisses over Coco's face until she laughed. "Did you like Papá's clowning?" he asked. "Did you laugh and laugh?"
She nodded. Papá was full of fun and energy now, almost dancing again, even though he was sitting down. She wasn't surprised when he stood back up, picked her up again, and swung her around to a tune that was playing in his head.
"Shall Mamá dance with us?" he asked. "Shall we bring her up here into the clouds with us?"
"The clouds, is it?" Mamá asked, reaching her hands up. Papá pulled on one and Coco pulled on the other, and she came up gracefully. She let go of Coco's hand, and twirled around, her hand spinning in Papá's. "Go on, Héctor. Sing whatever cloud song you're hearing. Share it with the rest of us."
"I've been thinking of it since we talked about Cloud People," Papá said. "I'll play, you dance." He passed Coco over to Mamá and picked up his guitar. The song was a pretty one, with light runs of notes and words about wisps of spun sugar around the mountaintops, and how they had all stepped down out of nothing and become humans together. Coco didn't have to ask to know this was a family song, not a Tío Nesto song. Mamá set Coco down, and they danced together, hand in hand, making up soft little steps like clouds climbing up the side of a mountain.
Papá had been singing for two whole verses when Tío Nesto came over with a little man who wore round, shiny glasses that flashed in the sun. Tío Nesto was waving his arms wildly, as if they wouldn't notice him otherwise.