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.
"Héctor!" he called. "I have good news! This is
Papá's song," Coco finished, willing her voice not to shake. "I heard Papá's song. I wanted to hear it more."
"So you saw the guitar, and you heard the song, and you skipped school for four days to go to the pictures." Coco didn't answer. She'd been over her entire transgression. It was up to Mamá now. Mamá stood up from her chair and went to the window, absently winding her hair up into its usual bun, though with no pins, it fell back down when she let go and put her hands on her hips. "And what, exactly, were you planning to tell me?"
"I don't know." Coco bit her lip. "What were you going to tell me?"
Mamá glared at her, then turned to the window again, resting her clasped hands wearily on the back of her neck. "I won't pretend this isn't your business."
"Thank you, Mamá."
"Don't imagine that you'll get away with skipping school. We will come back to that." Mamá looked out at the garden for a long time, then said, in a quieter and gentler voice than Coco had expected, "What do you want to do, mija?"
"About all of this." Mamá rubbed her head. "De la Cruz is singing your father's songs, and I didn't see Héctor's name. Did you see it?"
"No." Coco bit her lip and looked down at her feet. "And I was looking. I'm sorry, Mamá."
"Sorry for what? Of course you were looking. This is the first sign I've seen of him since that last letter. I was looking, too."
"You're not angry?"
"About that? Of course not. It's natural. He left a lot of questions behind."
"You're not angry that I… that I care about the questions?"
This didn't get an immediate answer. Instead, Mamá picked at the sleeves of her dress for a minute, and wound her hair up again, holding it still at the base of her neck with her laced fingers. She took a few breaths like that, then let it go. It fell in a clump this time, staying in a loose knot. "I can't be both mother and father to you, Coco, no matter how much I try."
She held up her hand. "Of course you want answers. I want answers."
No, you don't, Coco almost said. You don't want answers, because you know the answer, as much as I do, and you don't want to know it. You don't want to know it because… because…
But that answer had always eluded Coco. Oh, she understood about the fear and the grief, but there was something else at play, something in Mamá, something about the truth that was outside what Coco could see.
"The point is," Mamá said, "that you have decisions to make, haven't you?"
"I am his wife. I could become not his wife. The priest has suggested annulment. Moving on."
"Marrying someone else?"
"I'm sure that's the padre's thought. Have lots of children. I'm still young." She shook her head. "I don't want to marry again. That's why I've never bothered."
It crossed Coco's mind that, in this mood, Mamá might not argue that she didn't want to stop being Papá's wife, either. But she didn't quite dare bring this up.
"But you," Mamá went on, "can't stop being his daughter, no matter who decrees what. So he will belong to you, Coco. You choose. I will abide by your choice. What do you want to do about this, mija?"
"I don't know," Coco said.
Mamá looked like she'd expected this. She nodded, still looking out the window. "I can think of three things we might do. We might ignore it."
"Don't sound scandalized, Coco. We knew Papá left. This isn't news. So we've seen his guitar. So his old partner sings his songs. Does it make anything different? For what it's worth, even I won't pretend to believe that your papá would have ever written that awful movie. That is purely Ernesto. But does Papá leaving behind his guitar and his music make it worse that he left us behind? Or is it only… proof that he…" She stopped short of saying what Coco was certain they both knew. "Proof that he shed his past completely, which we already knew, as we are the snakeskin he shed and left behind in the first place. For all we know, he's behind the scenes, letting Ernesto do all of this. For all we know, he is laughing at me… at all of it."
"Don't, Mamá. Please."
"The second thing," she continued, "is to press the studio for money. I think I could prove those were Héctor's songs, if I had to. We have the lyrics, dated before he… left. There are still some people in town who remember hearing him. Not as many as there once were, of course. But they exist. If Papá isn't there with Ernesto, then he's using the songs without permission, and we never saw a peso of money for them. We could ask for money."
"I don't want money," Coco said. Blood money, she did not elaborate.
"But money may attract de la Cruz's attention," Mamá said. "Which is the third idea. That man was with Papá at least as far as Tijuana. He may know where Papá was headed, and why he decided not to tell us. Or send for us."
"Maybe he meant to send for us…"
"Did his letters sound that way to you? The last ones?"
They didn't. Coco couldn't argue otherwise. She'd read them hundreds of times, trying to find clues. They were easier to read, on the typewriter, but it was like the machine had been a curtain, and it hid all the little things. She wished Papá had just written them in pen. Maybe she could have seen a tremor in his hand, or looked at little doodles along the side. Sometimes in the old letters, there would be a weird up and down kind of scrawl that Coco had later realized was his shorthand for a melody that was in his head. But he'd been enamored of the technology, and that was true enough. Coco remembered when the shoemaking tools had first come out, before Papá left, when Mamá was just trying to make Coco a new pair of shoes. Papá had played everything like a drum or a castanet, and flipped leather around to make funny noises. He would have played a typewriter like it was the piano he always said he wanted to learn.
But it had hidden him. The letters after Mexico City were all about his career, and how Tío Nesto was trying to help him. He never made little jokes to Mamá in them, and while he dutifully wrote "I love you" to Coco, he didn't call her his precious angel or make little kissing symbols on the note. He just talked about shows and auditions. The easy answer was that he'd been jealous of Tío Nesto's success and was determined to succeed for himself now. He didn't even add his poems anymore, let alone the little shorthand music scrawls.
But the ones just before those had been so full of a desire to come home! He'd talked about Christmas, and said he was writing a new song for Coco, and he'd tried to guess how much she had grown. He thought the movie auditions were funny, not serious. He wanted to show Coco the silly picture he'd had taken, not to deliver it around to movie people. There was no hint of anything else. He'd had a few stomach aches ("Poor Tío Nesto had to take a meeting all by himself, which he hates, because Papá had a sad stomach again! He says I owe him one next time he has too much fun at night"), which seemed to be the extent of drama in his life, other than missing Coco and Mamá. He even said that he thought the two things were related -- "I miss you both so much it seems to be making my stomach hurt!"
She didn't say anything. Mamá had read the letters at least as often as she had, and she'd known Papá longer. Maybe she saw something in them that made sense of the change.
What she said was, "I want to talk to Tío Nesto."
Mamá nodded, as if she'd expected nothing else. "Then that's what we'll do. Though it may not be easy."
It wasn't. The next three weeks were very difficult, and Mamá was on edge. Coco was nervous and frightened, but she decided to approach it like a girl detective. She studied the letters to find clues about where Papá and Tío Nesto had gone together, and she read the poems carefully for any references to what he had in mind. She went through newspaper articles about the movie to try and find out how to reach Tío Nesto, but found nothing. She asked the sisters at school how to get Ernesto de la Cruz's address, and they treated her like a little girl with a crush. Finally, Sister Elena took pity and found her fan address. She wrote a letter, and got back a signed photograph two weeks later… with no answers. Mamá threw it out and grimaced. She spent the rest of the day muttering at the work bench while she made a pair of cowboy boots. Coco finished a plain, but perfectly well-made, pair of sandals.
"Tomorrow," Mamá said as they headed back inside, after the uncles had retired. "You will stay home from school. We will pay a visit to Señora de la Cruz."
On the one hand, she looked about as enthusiastic about this idea as she would about driving an awl through her fingertip. On the other, Coco could also feel her loosening up around the edges. She had committed herself to solving the problem of Papá at last. She was preparing herself for the truth. Coco wasn't sure how she knew this. It wasn't any one thing. But there were a lot of little things. She had taken the picture out of the trunk, for one thing. She had to fold the guitar over to put it in a pretty frame, but they were all there together, and now it was sitting on the mantel above the fireplace. A few times, Coco had awakened in the night and actually heard Mamá singing. It was quiet and sad, and once, Coco had tiptoed out to the living room, where Mamá had the picture in her hands. She was tracing Papá's face with one finger. Coco had left her alone and not asked about the song, which she hadn't recognized.
No one other than the two of them -- not even the uncles -- knew anything was happening. Mamá continued to run the shop with an iron hand, and Coco continued to be a good student at school. If Coco spent more of her evenings in the workshop, they seemed to accept that it was because Mamá was teaching her to make better shoes… which was true, she wasn't allowed to let her mind wander on that subject, but of course, the real subject of their late night conversations was Papá. Technically, it was de la Cruz, but they both knew what they were talking about now.
Coco played sick for the uncles in the morning, and after they finished doting on her and left for the day's errands, Mamá presented her with a very nice dress. Not the sort of nice dress one went dancing in, but the sort that Mamá wore when she went to the bank to ask about a loan for new shoe leather. Coco dressed in it, and considered putting her hair up like Mamá's for the day, instead of her usual trenzas. In the end, she compromised, making one single, tight braid down her back, which pulled her hair back severely from her face, other than her bangs. She thought this made her look a good deal like Papá, even, rather unfortunately, in the nose. She thought she might never be as pretty as Mamá in the end, but for today, she thought her looks were perfect.
"All right," Mamá said when she came into the kitchen. "This is a business visit. There will be no tears, there will be no pleading."
Mamá smiled faintly, and Coco could almost hear her say, I am reminding myself, silly child. Coco smiled back.
Together, they left the workshop, heads held high and shoulders straight. Coco felt proud to be at Mamá's side.
They reached the de la Cruz house just before lunch, and a young girl in a maid's uniform -- a black dress with a frilly apron -- opened the door. Mamá gave her an incredulous look. "Is the family at home?" she asked.
"Who is calling?"
"Héctor Rivera's wife and daughter," Mamá said firmly.
"The man who wrote all of the songs in Ernesto's new movie."
"No, ma'am," the maid said. "I'm quite sure Señor de la Cruz wrote his songs."
Coco was about to say something, but Mamá reached back and grabbed her wrist, giving it a quick but firm squeeze.
"Nevertheless, tell Señora de la Cruz who I am, and what I said."
The maid disappeared.
A moment later, Tío Nesto's mother came down from an upstairs room. She was smiling, and she held her arms out to Mamá. "Oh, Imelda," she said. "How good of you to come! I keep inviting you."
"We need to see Ernesto," Mamá said.
"About my Papá's songs," Coco added, keeping her voice as cool and level as Mamá's.
"Oh, dear, that," Señora de la Cruz said. "I'm sorry. Please come in. Have a seat." She led the way into the parlor, which was full of new furniture. She rang a little silver bell, and the maid stepped forward. "Constanza, fetch us tea and a snack, will you?"
Coco thought she caught a bit of a glare on the girl's face, but Señora de la Cruz didn't notice. "Now, Constanza told me you sounded upset. I can't say I blame you. When I visited Ernesto in the capital last month, I told him, Imelda will know those songs. You really must give Héctor credit."
"What did he say?"
"Oh, legal things," Señora de la Cruz said dismissively. "The studio wants to promote him as a great star. They own the songs now, I think, and they can treat them as they like."
"I'd like to speak to Ernesto about how the studio came by those rights," Imelda said.
"Can you reach him?" Coco asked.
"Of course I can! I am his Mamá, after all! But I don't need to right now. He is here." She leaned forward with a conspiratorial smile. "Don't tell anyone. He does not wish to advertise his presence. He's trying to talk his Papá into moving us all to the city. He says he will buy us a fine house." She shook her head. "I don't know why he started thinking of that now."
Coco sat up straighter. "May we see him, Señora?"
"Coco," Mamá said, and nodded stiffly. Be patient, the nod said. Let this ridiculous woman prattle.
"Oh, he is in the back with Jorge. They are having a conversation. Men's business, I suppose. Though I suppose you might understand," she added generously, nodding at Mamá. "I always said you were halfway to being a man."
She clearly meant this to sound like a compliment, but Coco didn't think really was one, and judging by the look on Mamá's face -- like she'd just found a dead mouse in a pile of leather -- neither did she.
"I'm sure they will be in soon." Señora de la Cruz rang the bell again. "Constanza, please tell the gentlemen that we have company."
Constanza looked a bit happier at this directive. She straightened her apron and puffed up her hair, then went out a back door.
"Do you plan to go to the capital?" Coco asked politely, forcing herself to be calm by sipping her tea.
"Oh, I don't know about all of that. Nesto gets wild ideas sometimes. I'm sure you remember, Imelda."
"Very well, yes."
"So full of dreams, my boy. He was always such a talented thing. How people loved him."
"And my Papá?" Coco asked.
"Yes. What a pair they were! Ah, yes, here they come!"
Indeed, there was a thunderous pounding of feet as the men came inside, stomping dirt from their shoes. Señor de la Cruz seemed to be in the middle of a serious scolding. "There will be hell to pay, Ernesto. You were always willful, and disobedient -- "
"Papá, this is why I never come back. You don't understand me!"
"I understand you all too well, devil-boy, and that is why you never come back!"
Señora de la Cruz looked pained. "I wish they wouldn't fight."
The parlor door swung open from the back, and Señor de la Cruz stormed in, tripping over a new footstool.
Tío Nesto caught him. "Be careful, Papá. I wouldn't want you to have an accident."