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.
In her dreams, she heard her father playing, and her mother singing. Her feet danced in the clouds, and for the moment, all was well.
In the morning, Papá and Mamá were especially nice to each other and to her, and they counted blessings together for a long time. But Mamá still looked sad and tired, and Papá was working very hard to make her happy.
Coco kept talking and singing and dancing, trying to make everything like her dream, but it was
not anything you want to hear," Ernesto said.
"Isn't it?" Imelda sat down, watching the door warily until it clicked shut, and she heard Coco's footsteps receding down the hall. "Here is what I see: You are making a great deal of money singing songs my husband wrote, which he never intended for public consumption. The opening song is my daughter's lullaby, which you've turned into a cheap cantina number about girls in flouncing skirts. I've seen you take credit for those songs."
He made a dismissive gesture with one hand. "Ah, Imelda. I would have given him credit, of course, but the movie studio… they own the songs, now, and they want to promote me as a musician. They are… quite strict about it. I wouldn't recommend challenging them, or spreading around the idea that, well, perhaps Héctor was the original source of the song."
"You wouldn't recommend…"
"Oh, they are, as I said, devoted to a particular view. I wouldn't want to see them press a lawsuit against you for slander. You have a business now, as I understand it."
"If they sued me, it would still come out that I said it. Héctor's friends would remember."
"What friends? You and I, Imelda. We're the only ones left who knew those songs. Ceci, bless her soul, is not in a speaking position."
"Coco knows them."
"Yes, and of course, they will take the word of a child who was four years old the last time she heard the song. I thought about answering her letter with a lawyer's note, but I decided to come back and be more reasonable instead. I would have come to you tomorrow had you not come today. The songs are no longer Héctor's. And be fair, the new arrangements that the studio musicians have done are significant."
"So, the butchers cut up the carcass you gave them and shredded it into small pieces, so now they own it?"
"If it was sold to them first… use your own metaphor. You have a business. Do your shoes still belong to the rancheros who owned the cows?" He sighed, as if taking the burden of the world onto himself. "And Imelda, do you really wish to risk everything for Héctor at this late date? Or force me to tell you -- and the child -- how I came by the rights?"
Imelda wove her fingers together, pressing them tightly enough to cause pain, which canceled out a small wave of fear. "Héctor would not have given you the rights. Or that guitar. Do you want to tell me what in the name of God you're doing with Héctor's guitar, saying you fished it out of a rubbish pile and restored it? I made that guitar. As a wedding present."
"Don't force me to hurt you, Imelda. Go home. Make up a story for yourself. Say that Héctor is dead. Tell yourself he died on the road and I didn't tell you for some reason, and I stole his guitar and his songs. Don't tell it to anyone else, or I will sue you myself, but tell it to yourself. It's better for you than the truth, and no one will argue with a wife remembering her husband well." He shook his head. "I want you to remember Héctor well. He was my best friend. Of course I want him remembered well."
"I don't think you give a damn how he's remembered. Where is he?"
"The last I saw of him, he was on a train going north."
"I know you were with him as far as Tijuana. There's only one place to go north from there. He crossed the border."
"Yes. He sold me his song book for train passage to New York City. They wouldn't want Spanish songs there, anyway. He'd been writing in English."
"Héctor barely spoke English. I translated for him sometimes."
Again, Ernesto affected an expression of deep pain. "Imelda, Héctor was… learning English. Studying it… intensely."
Imelda recognized his innuendo. He wasn't subtle. "That," she said, "is a lie. That woman was pestering you, not Héctor, and he promised that he would go home if she started."
"And he may have meant it when he said it."
"There was nothing in the letters, not even about learning English!"
"Well, he wasn't going to tell you, was he?" Ernesto shook his head in disbelief. "I watched him write those letters. He laughed, trying to figure out how to explain all the time we were away. I told him to blame it on me, if he had to. He was my friend. It wasn't the first time I'd covered for him."
"Imelda, please, don't make me tell you more."
"Oh, go ahead, Ernesto. Finish your lie. I'm sure you have it well-rehearsed. I wouldn't want to deny you the performance."
"It's not a performance. I wish it were. I should not… Héctor is my friend… but what he did to you…" He wiped his hands over his face, and kept his eyes closed. "He would have told you anything to get you to let him out of that door. He was twenty! You'd had him cooped up since he was sixteen."
"He… he loved Coco."
"Oh, yes, of course. And you, I'm sure, in his way." He opened his eyes and leaned forward, taking her hands. "But Imelda, men have needs. Women don't really understand them, even women like you."
"What does that mean?"
"Mannish women. I'm sorry, but it's true, you know it is. You are a woman who wishes so badly to be a man that she takes over legal dealings and finances that really are a man's domain. You'd already started that shoe business of yours before Héctor even left! How do you think it made a man feel to see his wife providing for the family. What was he meant to do? Be a nursemaid?"
Imelda felt as though she had been slapped repeatedly. "I… Héctor was the head of our house. He knew that…"
"How would he know that? You inserted yourself into conversations that weren't your business, and you scooped up all of the money--"
"I did? You took home three quarters of the money for Héctor's songs!"
"And you made it your business to remind him of that! To remind him that you thought he was second rate!" He patted her hands. "Oh, I know you didn't mean it that way. You can't help who and what you are. But I believe Héctor was halfway to being a woman by the time he finally got away. Annie Wittington… she was a woman. She let him be a man with her."
"It's a lie," Imelda said, but her voice sounded soft to her, almost shaky. "It's a damnable lie. I'll find that woman, and I'll ask her."
"You'll have to wait for the Day of the Dead," Ernesto said. "I had news a few years back. Annie was taking opium and seems to have taken too much of it."
"Very convenient. So he sold the songs to pay for passage to New York. For what? For this woman?"
"No." He shook his head. "Imelda, please, just let it go. He went to New York for auditions. He probably changed his name to something Anglo; they don't like Spanish names up there. He was thinking about 'Hank Rivers,' if you really want to go searching. Don't ask any more."
"No, you brought this woman up. She was with him?"
"Not when he left. There had been a parting of the ways. I…" He looked down. "That was how I got the guitar. He needed the money badly, and I had always wanted it. It is a beautiful instrument. So I bought it from him."
"What are you talking about?"
"He'd been trapped once. He wasn't about to be trapped again."
This time, the sense of being struck wasn't just in Imelda's mind. It was so strong she actually reeled backward on her chair. "That… is…"
"A lie? Again?" He shook his head. "I wish it were. He was a mess for a while. He was finally getting things back together in Tijuana. I hope he didn't fall in with another bad crowd up north."
"He would never… not just sell the guitar… he wouldn't…"
Ernesto stood up, his hands clasped behind his back, and sighed deeply. "I wish you hadn't pushed me into telling you that. I wish you could have gone on believing… Héctor was a great performer, Imelda. You know that. And he tried very hard to play the part you cast him in."
"That was not a performance…"
"I knew him longer than you did. I knew him on the road. Men are… more real in one another's company. I'm sorry to have to tell you that, but it's the truth. We all perform for women. And I think he really did want to make you happy, if that helps at all."
Stop it, Imelda tried to say, but the words stuck in her throat.
"But Héctor… he was put on this earth to do two things: Write his songs, and play his guitar. You tried to stop him from doing either. He couldn't keep up his pretense any longer."
Imelda swallowed and tried to control her voice. She made a reasonably good job of it. "So, he left me for auditions, and because I am too mannish, and because it was all a fake, and because I got in the way of his musical career. And because of this woman, and he sold you his guitar to pay for… to take care a problem. Which is it, Ernesto? Which lie do you want me to believe?"
"Why would I lie to you?"
"To keep me from screaming from the rooftops that you stole Héctor's songs!"
"You don't want to do that, Imelda. Your little business is successful enough for Santa Cecilia, but you stand no chance against the studio's lawyers." He held up a hand. "It would not be my choice. I am as owned by the studio as the songs are."
"They weren't yours to sell."
"I have a contract with Héctor. I can show it to you. The guitar was a private sale for private reasons, but I needed clear ownership of the songs. I had a lawyer draw it up, and we both signed it."
"With witnesses?" Imelda asked, her mind struggling to make sense of it. "Witnesses who saw both of you sign?"
"It wouldn't be legal otherwise, would it?"
"I'll want to see it."
"I'll have it sent to your shop."
"And talk to the witnesses."
"Again, it will have to wait for the Day of the Dead. Annie was one of them. The other was a tavern keeper who went to war."
"We've had violent times." He went to a roll-top desk and pulled out a thin folder, then sat back down, leaning forward. "When I got Coco's letter, I made a search for everything I could find. I thought you might want to know what I know. It's not much. You can see here, the hotel he stayed in at Tijuana. The receipts. Bar tab." He pushed a few bits of paper at Imelda, and she took them, almost in self-defense. "I even talked to friends I have who work at the border. They have him crossing the day before Christmas. He had an old guitar, a suitcase, and his publicity photo."
"He would have had a picture of Coco, or her drawing."
"But he didn't." He shook his head sadly. "Think about that, Imelda, when you try to judge what I've told you. He didn't have her picture, or yours. Only his own. Is that the man you thought you knew?"
"It doesn't mean the other things… the guitar… I won't believe that."
He nodded. "I think it's well that you don't. Let us both say I made that up for some nefarious reason of my own. Your life will be better if you believe that. It's better to remember him well, for all the good he tried to do."
"You are such a liar…"
Ernesto stood up. "I have tried to be gentle with you, out of respect to my friend. But I will not continue to take these accusations. You want to know what else he sold me?" He reached into his pocket and flung something small and shiny.
There was no way Imelda could have seen it, not really, before it rolled under the couch, but she knew what it was.
Héctor's wedding ring.
She didn't go after it.
She stood up as slowly as she could, straightening her shoulders, refusing to bend her head. "You will never speak to me or to my family again. And your mother can get her shoes repaired somewhere else."
"I'll gladly oblige, but you -- and your family -- will keep your silence."
"Or what? Another threat of a lawsuit?"
"Or I'll tell everyone in earshot why your husband couldn't stand the sight of you. Does your bastard daughter really want to know that her papá was a prisoner in his own home?"
Imelda took a step toward him. "If you ever come near my daughter, for any reason whatsoever, you'd best learn to sing soprano."
With that, Imelda turned on her heel and opened the door. She could see Coco in the garden with Ernesto's parents, making pained conversation. God, but she looked like Héctor with her hair like this.
Imelda took her by the elbow and pulled her up. "We're going."
Coco tried to put her teacup down, but missed the edge of the table, letting it shatter on the cobblestones.
"Clumsy girl!" Señora de la Cruz said. "That's my good -- "
But Imelda didn't bother staying. She would send over a new teacup. She didn't want to be in their debt.
"Mamá!" Coco said. "Mamá, what is it? Did Tío Nesto --"
"Señor de la Cruz will not be talking further to us." Imelda steered her out onto the street, not paying attention to where she was going. "Not today and not ever. He is full of lies, and I don't know if there was any truth buried in them, or what it might be if there was. Performers are always full of lies. I should have remember. They all lie. And if you ever call him 'Tío' again, I will wash your mouth with soap."
"Where is Papá? Why didn't he… what did he say?"
"Nothing we didn't already know. At least nothing that counts." She pushed blindly through an alley, somewhere around the plaza now. She could hear the guitars, and she wanted them to stop. "Coco, you promise me that you won't try to contact him ever again. Promise!"
"Promise!" Coco squeaked. "Mamá, stop. You're hurting my arm."
Imelda stopped and took a big, gulping breath. "I'm sorry, mija. I'm not a good mamá today, am I?
Coco squeezed her hand. "Mamá, what did he say?"
"He told a lot of dirty-minded lies." She took out the papers, which were still crumpled in her hand. "But this is true enough. He crossed the border. Here's the record. Whatever became of him, it became of him in a foreign place, far from us. Because of his damned ambition. The damned guitar."
"Why does Tí… why does de la Cruz have it?"
"I don't believe any of his whys," Imelda said, starting to walk again, mostly because she couldn't stay still without hearing the lies bouncing around in her skull, trying to be true. "But the how seems to be… to be that Papá sold it to him. To pay passage. Along with the songs. I can ignore everything else. Just Ernesto being a bastard. But I can't ignore that."
She nearly ran into the back of a mariachi who was belting out La Llorona (very badly), and she swerved into a crowd of waiting musicians.
"Out of the way," she said.
"Hey, beautiful," one of them said. "You're crabby today."
"I think she's hungry," another one said. "I got a chorizo for you…" He started to reach for his nether regions, but she grabbed his hand and pinned him against the wall of a building. He was too surprised to fight.
"If you don't want to be playing your guitar with broken fingers, I suggest you move along," she said. "As soon as you apologize to my daughter."
"Mamá, it's all right…"
"I'm sorry," he muttered. "My mistake."
"Yes, it was," Imelda said.
She lowered her head and charged through the square, meeting no one's glances. She could hear Coco behind her.
This had been a disaster, as she should have known it would be. It was time for them to put the past away for good.