"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."
Mamá stood, squaring her shoulders. "Ernesto. I see you've had some success."
"Yes. It's been a long road from Santa Cecilia." He looked at his parents. "Mamá, Papá… if I could have a moment with Señora Rivera."
"You watch your mouth with a lady," Señor de la Cruz said, but he stomped off. Señora de la Cruz got up and scurried after him.
"Where is my father?" Coco asked.
"I have no idea," Tío Nesto said.
"You're lying. You have his songs."
"You must not spread such things around," Tío Nesto said.
"It's the truth!"
"I will speak to your mother alone. This is not a child's business."
"I'm not a child."
Tío Nesto looked at Mamá.
Mamá looked back at him, and something seemed to pass between them. "Very well. Coco… go make your manners with Señora de la Cruz."
Coco felt all of their solidarity slide away, and she turned on her heel and left the sitting room. As she closed the door, she heard Tío Nesto say, "It's
not forever!" Papá said again. His voice was low, but it wasn't quite a whisper. Mamá wasn't whispering either. They both thought that Coco was asleep by now -- she had been in bed long enough to tell herself three stories and remember the words to four songs -- so they were just being quiet, the way they sometimes were at night, when they were loving each other.
Only it wasn't quiet like when they were happy. It was a different quiet, and Coco didn't like it. When they were happy, she could fall asleep. But this… this was different. This was frightening quiet. This was angry quiet.
"It will be forever," Mamá said. "Oh, you may come back, but you won't… it won't be…"
"It won't be what?" Papá moved somehow -- Coco could only hear them in their room -- and something was shoved along the floor. A chair? The bed? She couldn't tell. "Imelda, what do I need to do for you trust me? I don't know what I've done that you don't."
"It's not you, Héctor. It's that crazy business."
"You were in that business! You loved that business. I remember how you used to be!"
"Now, who's not trusting?"
There was a long pause, and Coco imagined Papá taking deep breaths. When he spoke, it was softer, gentler. "Imelda, please. I love you as my wife, as Coco's mamá. It's beautiful. It's even more beautiful than you as a musician. I only meant… it didn't turn you into… whatever it is you think it will turn me into."
Another pause. A lighter sound, and a creak. Mamá sitting on the bed. "The girls throw themselves at you."
"They throw themselves at Nesto." Mamá didn't say anything, but she must have given him a look because he went on. "All right, yes, they throw themselves. But I don't catch them, Imelda. Why would I? I already caught the one I wanted."
"Don't be cute."
"I'm not being cute. I'm being honest. I made you a promise, up in front of the church and God and all and sundry. I plan to keep it until I die. I'll keep it afterwards, if there's a way to do it." Another creak of springs, a bit louder. Papá had sat down beside Mamá. The anger wasn't as much now. But when Mamá spoke again, she sounded sad.
"They used to grab at me," she said. "The soldiers. Just because I was up front singing, they thought they could treat me like a fancy girl."
"Did someone hurt you?" Papá asked, his voice low and protective.
"No. Not like you're thinking. I can defend myself. And I did. A lot. Against grabby drunk men who'd mostly made promises in front of priests and God and everyone else. But they were away from home. And I was just a singer, so it didn't count."
"I'm not them. And that's not what you're worried about. You know I'm not like that."
"Yes," Mamá said reluctantly. "I know it, all right? But this business… look what it makes Ernesto do. He's so obsessed with fame that he signed contracts for both of you without even letting us talk about it!"
"Ernesto is ambitious," Papá admitted. "And maybe I am, too, I don't know." He sighed loudly enough for Coco to hear him through the wall, and the bedsprings creaked again. There were footsteps. He must have gotten up to pace. "I want to know if I'm good enough," he said. "All right? That's my confession, Imelda. I want to know if I'm really as good as you always say I am. I want to know if the people would love my music. Is that so terrible?"
"Of course not," Mamá said, like she didn't want to say it. "But how much of the music business is about music? And how much is about going to parties and impressing the right people? And God knows how they'll want you to impress them. I don't think Ernesto got that contract by proving that he's a brilliant musician, because he isn't."
"A talented enough performer. But you're the musician. And you wouldn't have gotten them. Because I don't even know what they made Nesto do."
"Nothing he didn't want to."
"All right, the woman tonight, Wittington --"
"Yes. She offered to finance this little tour. To give us experience to write songs about, if I don't want them to have the real ones."
"Us?" Mamá snorted. "Since when has Ernesto written a note?"
"Well, we can also build a name for ourselves so they'll have something to work with. That's what she was going on about. Nesto told me just before the show that he was… working on it."
"And you weren't planning to tell me this?"
"It's Nesto she's pestering, not me. I wasn't really thinking about it."
"And if she starts 'pestering' you?"
"Then I will get on a train and come home." Another pause. "Imelda, it's not just women who don't want to be putas."
Coco did not know the last word, and had a feeling it would not be smart to ask her parents what it meant.
They didn't say anything for a long time, then Mamá said, "We need, air, Héctor. Let's go outside."
Coco sat up in bed and looked out her window. Mamá and Papá came out of the house a moment later and walked to the well. Mamá sat on the edge of it, holding the well housing. Papá sat on the ground in front of her and reached up to take her hands. Coco couldn't hear them anymore.
Mamá was in her night dress, but Papá was still in his white charro suit, the one he'd worn for the show with Tío Nesto earlier tonight, for the end of the Carpa festival. The little man in glasses, who they said was called "Señor Esquivel" was sitting with Mamá and Coco before the show, and he kept going on about how good the show was, and how he was going to turn Papá and Tío Nesto into stars. Coco tried to imagine him pasting them up into the sky, and she didn't like the idea. It sounded very far away. Mamá hadn't spoken much. Tío Nesto had made an agreement with Señor Esquivel to do a lot of shows, and then after the trip, he would make them stars.
There was also a lady with yellow hair who had a very funny way of talking. Mr. Esquivel spent a lot of time saying thing with her that Coco didn't follow, and she laughed a lot. She wore a very short dress with sparkly fringe, and had a lot of make up on. Coco had been introduced, but she couldn't make her mouth say the lady's name, even though the lady kept trying to make her say it right. "Wittington… no, no, like if you said 'Juan'.. .can say 'Juan'? So 'Ju-eett…' Oh, there's no -ng in Spanish, is there? Well, there is, but it doesn't sound the same…" Finally Mamá had rattled off something that Coco didn't understand, and the lady had said, "Oh, I didn't realize you spoke English, Señora."
"Really?" Mamá asked. She was smiling, but Coco didn't think she was happy. "I assumed you knew, since you and Señor Esquivel were speaking it in front of me and I didn't ask you to translate."
The yellow-haired lady blinked and smiled in a kind of frozen face way that Coco didn't understand. Then the show had begun. It was more serious than the afternoon show, just music instead of funny skits. Papá had written a special song just for the beginning of Lent. The lady didn't seem to like it, but everyone else did. It was soft and low and pretty and sad. Then Papá and Tío Nesto sang a duet about the men who never came home from the war, and Tío Nesto sang one alone that was about a man who did come home, but found out that his village had burned. There were people crying during this. Papá brought the mood back up with a pretty song about birds and children and laughing and sunshine. The lady passed a piece of paper to Señor Esquivel that looked like was practicing her alphabet on it, like Coco sometimes did. There were about ten S's, all of them with lines going down through them, and a few exclamation points. Señor Esquivel looked at it with approval. Maybe he was teaching her to read.
When the show was over, everyone went back to the make-up tent. Coco loved the smell of the make-up tent, and liked to fuss in front of the mirrors and pretend that she was pretty like Mamá, and everyone had come for her. Tonight, she had sat on Papá's lap and played with lipstick while everyone talked. Some of the talk was in the language Mamá called English, but most was normal. Coco still didn't understand it. Tío Nesto had signed something and it was about songs. Papá said he didn't have enough songs to go along with it. There were words in English then, and Papá, usually the softest of people, sounded angry, though Coco didn't know what all of it was about. Tío Nesto laughed and said, back in Spanish now, that Papá was being modest, and he had a million songs in his head. "And I've already signed!"
"You don't sign for Héctor," Mamá said.
"No, of course not, but we are a duo. And this is our chance. They want me on stage, of course, but… we must have Héctor's songs. No one else sings them. They make us different from the rest."
"They aren't yours to sell," Mamá told him. "We do not agree to this."
Señor Esquivel smirked at Papá, then laughed and said, "Ah, we know who wears the trousers in your family, don't we?" Coco knew that something was very wrong, though she didn't know what; she had only seen Mamá in trousers a few times, working around the house, but she couldn't think what was wrong with it. But her parents had fallen as silent as a cloud, and Tío Nesto was wrinkling his nose. The only one who didn't seem to be bothered was the yellow-haired lady, who had laughed merrily until she realized she was breaking the silence.
Coco had felt Papá tense, but it was nothing next to the way Mamá's face turned bright, furious red. "If you…"
Papá reached across and took her hand. "He was joking, Imelda. Poorly." He looked at Señor Esquivel. "My wife is a brilliant woman, whose insights I trust in all things. And she is very much a lady." He stared, unsmiling, at Señor Esquivel, who finally backed down.
"My apologies, Doña Rivera," he muttered.
They went back to talking in complicated words that Coco didn't understand. Papá kept saying that he needed to think. Tío Nesto made a few jokes like, "Héctor has to think for a week before he decides which socks to wear." But it was late, and the sky was getting dark, and Coco was warm in Papá's arms, and before anything was decided, she started to go to sleep. Papá had said that it was time to take her home.
"Surely, your wife can do that," the yellow-haired lady said.
Coco yawned. "Papá sings to me."
"Oh, how precious!" The lady reached out and pinched the tip of Coco's nose. "You are an adorable little thing! But surely, you wouldn't mind your mother singing to you!"
"Papá sings to me," Coco said again.
"We're through tonight, anyway," Papá said. "My wife and I need to talk about this, and give it thought. It's a very good opportunity, and I'm grateful for it, but it's a big decision."
"And it's your decision," Tío Nesto said, leaning close while Mamá got their things from the costume area, and the other two talked quietly. "Dammit, Héctor, this is it. I know it doesn't come naturally to you, but try to be a man for once."
Papá tightened his arms around Coco and said, "I have been a man for more than four years now. You should try it."
And with that, he had turned around, and they had found Mamá getting their blanket to wrap around Coco.
Tío Nesto had left with Señor Esquivel and the lady. Mamá and Papá had walked home, passing Coco back and forth between them as their arms tired, but neither of them had sung. Mamá had started to say something about not going, but Papá had cut her off, saying, "Imelda, we have to think about this." Mamá, furious, had walked on ahead of them, and was already turning down Coco's bed when they got inside. Papá hadn't even sung Coco's song before tucking her in, but she didn't dare go ask for it, not when they were angry.
Coco didn't know how long ago it had been. She was completely awake now, like she always was there was anger in the house. There was a clock in the living room, but she couldn't see it, and couldn't tell time very well, anyway. She'd heard the little bird come out and make its cheerful sound three times, and the sky was very dark, aside from the full moon, which was clear and close, shedding a silver light over Mamá and Papá at the well.
They held one another's hands very tightly, and Mamá kept shaking her head, making a twisted up face like she might cry, even though she was Mamá. Papá kept talking, and finally laid his head on her knee. She let go of his hands and stroked his hair, but they both looked miserable.
Mamá looked up, and she must have seen Coco in the window, because she stopped stroking Papá's hair and said something. He looked up.
He stood up, and he offered his hand to Mamá. She took it, then he just swept her up and carried her inside. It wasn't a happy thing, like it usually was when he picked her up. It was more like she was too tired to walk.
Coco slid down from the bed and went to her door. She opened it just as Mamá and Papá came in. Papá set Mamá down on her soft purple chair and kissed her cheeks softly, then found a smile somewhere in his face and gave it to Coco.
"Did we wake you up, querida?" he asked.
She shook her head.
He nodded, like he'd expected it. "Come on," he said. "Will you feel better if we sing your song?"
"All right, then." He picked her up and carried her back to her room, setting her down on the bed, then went out quickly and got his guitar. There was a little oil lamp on Coco's play table, and he lit it, filling the room with a soft, reddish glow. He started to play. The guitar was soft and Papá's voice was sad, but every word seemed to wrap Coco up in a warm blanket. She could feel her sleepiness coming back by the time she joined him at the end of the song. She put her hands on his face and leaned up against him so she could smell his good, solid Papá smell -- a mix of sweat and stage make-up and smoke from the audience's cigars and other things she couldn't name, things that made her feel safe and loved.
He set down the guitar when he finished singing and picked her up, cuddling her very close. She opened her eyes and looked over his shoulder. Mamá was standing in the door, with tears running down her face. She turned and left.
"Mamá is sad?" Coco asked.
Papá nodded. "And we will take special care to make her not sad, won't we? I may be away for a little while soon --"
"Yes, Coco. Maybe not, but Tío Nesto got us a good job. Good jobs aren't easy to find. When I'm gone, you'll be good for Mamá, won't you? She's a precious gift. Promise you'll be good to her, and love her so very much?"
"Good." He put her down and tucked her in again. "I'm sorry I didn't sing to you earlier. Are you all right, angelita?"
He kissed her forehead gently, then tucked her tightly into her sheets. He stayed by the lamp longer than he usually did, just looking at Coco, then he lowered the wick and plunged Coco's room into the dark.
She heard her parents speaking again, being soft and kind with one another, and finally, she fell asleep.