January 13, 2018
Dear Mamá Coco,
It's been pretty busy the last two weeks. Papá and I went to Mexico City last week, and we stayed at the Zócalo, which was built in the 1890s. I kept wondering if it was one of the ones Papá Héctor stayed in with de la Cruz. Or if it was… you know. The last one. I dreamed that it was, but it might have just been a dream. Papá says I need to get back to right here and now, but it's not like that. Papá Héctor was my friend before I knew he was family, and I want to help him, like he helped me. That's all.
I had a meeting at the national conservatory, so that someone can teach me over the internet. Professor Moreno introduced me to some of his students. They all say I have to learn to read music before they can teach me much. And to know how to write it on a proper staff, and with guitar chords. Papá bought me my own music notebooks. I'm starting at baby level. Just writing scales. But I'm going to get them right. I set one of them aside to be my first song book. I have one that’s starting to come into my head. It starts with the dream I had here. But I don't know exactly how it's going to work. I think a lot of people would think it's crazy! I know Papá Héctor never had lessons like I'm going to take, but I don't think he'd be angry at me for learning this way. I think he would have liked Professor Moreno, actually, and some of the other people I talked to.
I've never written a new song before -- not a whole one, anyway, just little riffs, like I made for Frida -- have you met Frida yet? I saw some of her paintings in the capital -- but I really feel like I'm going to be able to.
There's something else we started there, but I don't want to write about it, in case it comes to nothing.
I still miss you, but I'm keeping busy. Your room is our practice room now, and when I play there, I play for you.
Enrique had never felt quite as unsophisticated as he did walking around the grounds of the Conservatorio Nacional. There was a neatly trimmed green lawn leading up to a wall of windows, with statues above the door. The statues seemed to be native musicians playing old and simple instruments, but they were the only things that seemed familiar. The professor had listened to Miguel with great delight, assuring him that this wasn't an audition, only a sort of evaluation to find him a remote teacher. "The conservatory is for when you're older. But your mamá is right. You'll need lessons to catch up on the things you've missed, so when it does come time to audition, you'll be ready. And I very much want you to be ready! What a grand gift you have…!"
It had gone on in this vein for twenty minutes, and Enrique could tell that Miguel was uncomfortable after a while. He'd pointed this out.
Moreno had looked quizzically at Miguel. "What is it that makes you uncomfortable?"
"I don't want to have a big head."
"Then I will whisper." He put his hands over his mouth and whispered -- loudly -- to Enrique, "He's a smart boy, too. That's a danger a lot of the best students don't see coming."
Neither Enrique nor Miguel offered an explanation of how Miguel had come by this wisdom. They had agreed not to discuss the land of the dead or any of the other things people would reject out of hand. Moreno had wrapped up the private meeting, and started walking them around the campus. They'd passed practice rooms where stressed looking students seemed to be melting into their instruments. They'd seen an organ with its pipes arranged artistically on the wall, and explored the various performance spaces. Miguel had tried playing a grand piano. As far as Enrique knew, he'd never touched a keyboard before, but once Moreno showed him how the keys worked, he managed to plunk out a pretty little melody. Only one line, using only one finger, but Moreno had laughed and said it wasn't bad for a guitarist. Then they'd sat in on a composition class, where the teacher was going on about chord theory. Miguel didn't know some of the words, but once he grasped them, Enrique saw a kind of light go on in his eyes, like he was putting together things he did know or had seen, and was understanding what the class was about. It was kind of frightening, as Enrique had no idea at all.
After the class, they'd come back outside, and Moreno had asked Miguel to play for a group of older students who had all expressed interest in taking students of their own. Enrique had taken contact information from eight of them. One, upon discovering Miguel's interest in ranchera music, promptly started to dissect its history and how it related to Spanish music and the Islamic rule, and Greek influences, and how the style was a political statement about the country, and it was especially important now to embrace Mexican pride, given developments north of the border, and…
Moreno had finally interrupted him, but by the end of the rant, even Miguel had looked a little confused. Enrique thought he might not be the best choice. But it seemed that, rather than finding someone who might be willing to teach a twelve year old and settling for whoever would consent, he and Luisa and Miguel might well end up being able to sort through their options and find the one they liked.
Once they'd packed up, Moreno had announced that he had a class to teach, and Miguel and Enrique headed back for the parking lot on the south side of the building, where the shop's truck looked very rural and out of place among the shiny cars.
Miguel climbed in, chattering in an excited way about his potential teachers. "… and that girl, Sesasi, she wrote a whole opera about Moctezuma and Cortes, and they put it on last year! And I told Carlos about Papá Héctor --"
Enrique frowned as he started the truck. "What?"
"Not the land of the dead things. He asked who my musical hero was, and I said it was Papá Héctor. He asked -- well, who that was that was first, then why he was my hero and I said because he really wrote de la Cruz's songs. And Carlos said that he wrote a whole paper about why he thought de la Cruz had another songwriter. He said it was because when de la Cruz talked about music, he didn't sound like he even understood what he was saying. That everything he talked about was performing, not writing. So he wants me to tell him why I think it was Papá Héctor. Maybe he can even help us prove it! He knows a lot about what makes composers unique."
They pulled out on the fancy street outside the conservatory, and Enrique kept a close eye out on the street signs. Getting across town made him nervous. He was used to Santa Cecilia. "Do you like it here?" he asked.
"In the capital?"
"I was thinking about the Conservatory."
"I could like it for a few years. But I'd come home, Papá." He smiled, then he looked back out the window at the passing streets and started again, about how the students had known a lot about musical history, and how they said he was right about whatever it was he'd noticed in the class. "It just clicked, I always knew those chords went together, but I never knew why! And Nadia says that I have a really good ear for harmony and…"
And he was off again. Enrique only understood about one in three words -- and suspected he would understand even less as Miguel learned musical language -- but it was nice to see him happy. And not understanding meant that Enrique could just nod and make interested sounds while he made his way through the capital, from the winding, tree-lined streets near the conservatory (with apartments that probably cost more than the whole hacienda and shoe shop combined in Oaxaca), through a confusing tangle of freeways, and down into a sketchy neighborhood with graffiti on the walls. Thoughts of gangs and disappearances ran through Enrique's head at a constant pace -- Oh, yes, my husband and son went to find a long dead body and disappeared without a trace when the old truck broke down under the highway… and then there was an earthquake, and the whole structure caved in, so who knows if it was criminals or just Mother Nature… -- but Miguel didn't notice. He was now looking at a big pile of sheet music that he said was the Moctezuma opera, and trying to hum the tunes.
The kids on the street didn't actually seem hostile, though they pointed and laughed at the truck. Miguel put the score down and fiddled with his phone for a few minutes, then put it back in his pocket, looking satisfied. Finally, the nasty nest of buildings came to an end, and they came out into a kind of office park. It wasn't exactly upscale, but Enrique felt like he might be safe parking the truck here, though he told Miguel to bring his guitar with them.
The office they were looking for was on the sixth floor of a nondescript building. The glass door reflected the flickering fluorescent light above it, and the letters said "Dionisio Calles Shaughnessy, Investigador Privado." Enrique didn't want to take a guess at how to pronounce the materno; obviously, his mother had been a foreigner. Through the glass, they could see a young man with short-cropped red hair. He had a kind of military look about him, augmented by a tattoo of a stylized war plane on his upper arm, which was visible because he was just wearing an undershirt with his jeans.
"I don't know about this," Enrique said.
"We don't have to keep him if we don't like him," Miguel reminded him.
Enrique nodded, then leaned in to open the door.
Calles stood up and indicated a pair of cheap looking plastic chairs. "The Riveras?" he asked.
"I’m Enrique Rivera Hernandez," Enrique said, shaking the man's hand just if he didn't look like a child playing at being a noir film. "This is my son, Miguel Rivera Saavedra. It's good to meet you, Señor Calles…"
Calles grinned. "It's Sha-nes-see," he said, pointing at the door. "Well, more or less. It's Irish. No one knows how to say it, and everyone seems to think they can't ask. Keep it short form."
This put Enrique a little more at ease. "Thank you."
"So," Calles said. He picked up a thin folder and sat down at the table across from them. "Your e-mail says it's a missing person. Cold case. How cold?"
"It was 1921," Miguel said. "My great-great-grandfather disappeared. Only we found out, when my great-grandmother died, from his letters…" He looked at Enrique to finish the approved, official version of the story.
"My grandmother's letters changed abruptly after her father was in Mexico City. Then they stopped altogether less than a year later, and he was never heard from again."
"Suspicious," Calles said doubtfully, "but not entirely conclusive."
"The letters had the lyrics to most of Ernesto de la Cruz's songs," Miguel said. "A few weren't. They were older. I asked the studio if I could see de la Cruz's songbook, but they said I couldn't."
"Are you telling me that you think Ernesto de la Cruz had something to do with this man's disappearance?" He gave a snort of laughter. "If you told that to the studio, all they heard was 'We're about to be sued.'"
"We're not going to sue them," Enrique said.
"If the songs were stolen, it could be a good amount of money. Copyright is long over, of course, if your ancestor died almost a hundred years ago, but if you can prove theft and malfeasance…"
"We don't want money," Miguel cut in, horrified. "We just want to find Papá Héctor."
"You want to find a body from a century ago?"
"We thought maybe one had been found and not identified, and the papers would be somewhere. Someone must have buried him." Enrique put a hand on Miguel's shoulder. "Miguel, we knew it would be difficult."
"I can think of a few places to start. What do you have?"
Miguel bit his lip. "His name -- Héctor Rivera Esposito. And he was born in 1900, in Santa Cecilia. We found records that he was an orphan. Like my Mamá Imelda. He was very skinny, and he told funny jokes, and wrote good songs, and he and de la Cruz did a show together, playing guitar."
"Do you have notices of the show?"
"Then how do you know?"
"My grandmother talked about it," Enrique lied. Mamá Coco had told them many stories, but they had been about Papá Héctor's life a family man, not as a touring musician. "But I'm sure there's something if we look hard enough. They toured enough that it was a point of argument between my great-grandparents. His wife died believing he'd just abandoned his family for the road. It's been somewhat difficult."
Calles was quiet for a long time, then said, "Obviously, something changed your mind, and you are just as obviously not going to tell me what it was."
"You wouldn't believe it," Miguel said, sinking into his chair and crossing his arms over his chest.
For a moment, the detective looked like he might probe this, then he said, "You know what? If I wouldn't believe it, no one else would, either. Stick to what you think I'll believe."
"Mamá Coco's papa wouldn't have left her," Miguel said. "And everything we have says he was with de la Cruz here in the city."
Enrique nodded. "They'd been touring for months, and his letters said that he wanted to come home. He kept talking about how de la Cruz kept adding shows and he didn't want to do them. How he hated the meetings with studios so much that he kept getting stomachaches every time de la Cruz set one up."
"Stomachaches?" Calles repeated, leaning forward.
"Yes." Enrique paused to think about how to phrase this, as he couldn't very well say that the idea of poisoning came from a movie scene and was confirmed by a ghost. Plus, Miguel was looking at him strangely. For the first time, it occurred to him that he and Luisa had put together something that Miguel hadn't even thought about. Of course not. Miguel was twelve. He was a gifted musician and a smart boy, but he was not an adult, and often didn't think many steps ahead of the moment. He sighed. There was no turning back. "If it was once, it could have been a coincidence. If he'd come home safe, I'd think it was just a funny story about how nervous my bisabuelo was about big meetings. But it was every meeting after the first one, and he never came home. My wife and I have talked about it."
"You're thinking of poison," Calles guessed with no fanfare. "That de la Cruz was trying to keep him away from the meetings for some reason -- "
"Because he wouldn't sell the studios his special songs," Miguel said. "Which de la Cruz ended up singing. 'Remember Me' was a lullaby for my Mamá Coco."
Calles nodded and sat back. "That's a lot of fame and money. Murder has been done for less."
"At any rate," Enrique said, "the letters changed after they were here. They started being typed, for one thing, and he wasn't talking about coming home. He was talking about how much fun he was having, and how de la Cruz was trying to help him. It doesn't make sense. As a family man, there's no way I'd write letters like that back to my wife and son after promising to come home and not doing it. So de la Cruz wrote them for some reason."
"And," Miguel said, "we can prove that the guitar de la Cruz played belonged to Papá Héctor. We have it in a photograph."
"We thought maybe a detective would know someone who could analyze the signatures on the typed letters and…"
"And figure out whether or not they were forged?" Calles shrugged. "It's possible, since you have the old ones. And you said there were marriage papers? Did he sign those?"
"All right. I'll need the originals, maybe we can date the ink." He saw Miguel recoil. "Don't worry, chamaco. I'll guard them with my life, and get them back to you as soon as someone has had a chance to work on them. If you'll have me?" He looked at Enrique.
Enrique nodded. "Miguel… I saw a bodega down at street level. Will go pick us up some supper while I finish up with Señor Calles?" He fished for his wallet and handed Miguel a five hundred peso note.
Miguel looked at without much interest, then grinned wearily and held it up, to show the woman on the back. "Frida," he said. "It's a sign."
"It's money. Bring change."
Miguel nodded and left without argument.
"A fan of Kahlo?" Calles asked.
"Part of the longer story," Enrique said. "We saw her paintings at the Museum of Modern Art yesterday. What are the chances of finding Héctor's body?"
"Slim to none," Calles said, not trying to extend the small talk. "You were right to come to a detective. I'll have to use every contact I have to get that deep into the cold cases. May I ask why the boy is so adamant?"
Enrique sighed and looked at Miguel's guitar case, which he'd left leaning against the plastic chair. "My son is a musician," he said. "For years after my great-grandfather disappeared… the family… we thought he abandoned us for music and… it sounds so stupid, but we… we banned music. We…" Enrique stopped, embarrassed at the admission.
Calles nodded. "My mother's father was a taxi driver in Chicago. Until a fare shot him in the head over thirty dollars and change -- that would be a little over six hundred pesos. Maybe more. Maybe a thousand, once you adjust for inflation. Nothing that mattered. My grandmother started drinking, and let her whole family fall apart. My mother spent her childhood learning to fight, to aim guns, to make sure no one could hurt her. It served her well enough in the army, but she's a hard woman sometimes. Her little brother went off to the country and won't let his children near the city, because he's convinced they'll die. So they can't take lessons or really think about any decent colleges, or anything. Whatever talents they have are going to waste. Her sister disowned her when she married a Mexican because the man who shot my grandfather was named Ortega. They haven't spoken since."
"The point is, murder… the actual body is maybe the one that gets least twisted by it. It's broken my family, and I can't see it being fixed any time soon. So, banning music? I give your family credit for keeping it together enough for that to be all you're worried about, especially if you weren't even sure he was dead. That had to be horrible."
"It was. I think Mamá Coco had it worst, because she knew her father would never leave her, but…"
"But she couldn't talk to anyone, because they were so busy being angry?"
"I'll find him. It's rash to give a promise, but I promise. Somehow. I'll find out what happened, anyway. We'll call this a flat fee." He gave Enrique a piece of paper with an absurdly low price on it. "I have other cases to make money on. But you fix your family. Your musician son, let him prove this business about the songs. I'll get him technical things, like handwriting and ink age, but it will be up to him to prove the musicality. Let him feel like he has brought back, full circle. And the feeling will be right. The body is incidental. The theft is the crux of it. And I think your boy knows it."
"I wish he'd move on and think about something else."
"Your family didn't move on for almost a century, Señor Rivera. It takes more work than a single revelation. So let me do this unimportant part for you. Your family will need to do the rest."
Enrique thought about it, then nodded.
He signed a contract with Calles (promising himself that, if they did sue the studio, he would give a substantial bonus, whether Calles found the body or not), then picked up Miguel's guitar and went down to street level, where he found Miguel coming out of the bodega with a bag of groceries. Enrique put an arm around him, and they walked together to the truck.
They didn't spend the night talking about Papá Héctor's body, or stolen songs. Instead, they stopped at a music shop and bought a dozen staff notebooks, and an introductory book on music theory that Professor Moreno had recommended. Then they settled into the hotel room for their last night in the capital, and tried to teach one another to read music.
Miguel fell asleep smiling. Enrique watched him for a while before turning out the light.
The next day, they drove back to Santa Cecilia.
Miguel spent the trip with one of the new notebooks on his knee, holding a pencil as steadily as he could with the truck bouncing along. He wrote scales, over and over, changing keys and marking flats and sharps on the lines. He learned to draw the flagged notes that he said were shortest ("Basically, the more ink you use writing it, the shorter it is"), and how to draw bass and treble clefs ("There are more, but Professor Moreno said to let those wait"). As the pulled into Santa Cecilia, he drew three stacks of notes that were apparently chords.
"The problem," he said as they climbed out of the truck in the late afternoon, "is that I don't know how to put in the measures. I know where the beats are supposed to be, but..." He frowned. "It's hard. There's a measure at the beginning before the first real beat happens, and..."
"Do you have a song in your head?"
"Not yet. I'm trying to transcribe one of Papá Héctor's. Just for practice. I think I need to look at it to see how it worked."
"I thought I'd have this part."
"In one afternoon a shaky truck?" Enrique shook his head. "Give yourself a break, mijito. Let's go in and have supper."
Everyone wanted tales of the city, and the conservatory. They were excited to hear about a trip to visit a detective. Rosa announced that she knew her way around the library, so she would go in search of proof of the duo act ("It's got to be somewhere!") Mamá wondered if it would be useful for her, as Papá Héctor's closest relative, to take "one of those tests where you spit on something and they can tell you who you are," but of course, with nothing to compare it to, it wouldn't help Papá Héctor. ("Still," Papá said, "you don't know much about half of your family, mi alma. Why not do it and find out? We can leave it on the ofrenda, and then they'll know, too.")
For a week, it became almost a game for everyone except Miguel, who seemed the only one in the house who remembered that there was no happy ending to be had. He buried himself in the music theory books, coming up for air only to sit with Luisa and Enrique and read the teaching proposals that Moreno's students had sent. He chose the boy Carlos, who had written the paper about de la Cruz being a poser, and asked if he could get a copy of it. Carlos sent it, and asked if he had any record of Papá Héctor singing without de la Cruz, as a point of comparison. Since Rosa still hadn't found a record of him singing with de la Cruz, it didn't seem likely.
Miguel was to begin his lessons in February, when Carlos would have made up a curriculum for him. In the meantime, he was instructed to practice, to sing, to have fun, and to read as much music as he could.
So Enrique was used to the sound of the guitar coming from Mamá Coco's room, and from Miguel's own room late at night, after he was supposed to be asleep. He was getting used to poking his head in to tell Miguel that it was time to turn off the lights. So he wasn't surprised to get up in the night and see a spill of light coming from under Miguel's door at one-thirty. He sighed and went in.
There was another letter to Mamá Coco sealed on the desk, put in a box with the first one. But Miguel hadn't fallen asleep over the letter. His head was resting on one of the music notebooks, his somewhat swollen fingers grasped around a pencil. And on the staff was new song. Enrique couldn't read it, but he knew instinctively that it wasn't just a transcription. It was a single line of melody, with a single line of lyrics underneath it -- Dirás que es raro lo que me pasó. You'll think that it's strange, what happened to me.
It looked like nothing, but Enrique thought that Miguel had paid a lot for the breakthrough.
Carefully, he nudged his son up, and guided him, sleepwalking, to his bed.