March 2, 2018
Dear Mamá Coco,
Rosa found an amazing thing -- a nun saved a recording of Mamá Imelda and Papá Héctor singing together! Tía Carmen drove Rosa and me back to the capital, and my tutor, Carlos, found a way to play it and re-record it digitally. That's on the computer. I don't know how much of that you know about. But he needed to use a special record player that we couldn't get in Santa Cecilia (though I guess you must have had one once), and we didn't want to mail it to him. So we made the trip up. Carlos says it will be part of his doctoral thesis. He's going to write about how de la Cruz's songs had a different songwriter, and he knows who it was. We listened for hours, to the same song, and Carlos taught me about phrases to listen to in the music. Now I have to listen to the de la Cruz versions (which doesn't feel really good, you know?) to see where I can spot the phrases.
Carlos is going to say I helped with his thesis, but I don't care about that. I'm really doing it! I'm proving it! We have your letters to prove the lyrics, and this record to prove the music. It has an older version of Poco Loco on it! Mamá Imelda sings her verse, too, about how Papá Héctor makes her crazy. It's really exciting, and now the whole family has heard them sing.
That's pretty much all I've been thinking about. But I'm doing other things, too. Papá wants me to keep up with my running, so I joined the team at school. It's probably good to stay healthy. And I took a math test. Do you want to know something strange? I did better at it than I ever did before! There's a lot of math in music writing… I guess I've been getting practice.
Socorro is bigger now. She grows really fast. She can hold onto her own toes and I sometimes see her trying to dance, even though Mamá says she's really just trying to get rid of gas. Abel says dancing's good for that, so maybe we're both right! I'm making her a lullaby about how everyone in the family loves her. Your verse will be about how you listen better than anyone else. Mine will have dragons in it, I think. I'm her big brother, so I have to save her from something. I'm almost done with the other song. I just have to do the accordion part for Abel.
I am feeling happier. I still miss you. But I am almost happy enough to go out and sing in the plaza. Maybe I'll do it for my birthday next week, if they'll let me. I have one fancy shirt, and my botines. I guess it will have to do. I did perform in a hoodie and jeans in the Plaza de la Cruz. I really hope they've changed the name now! Of course, I don't even have the hoodie anymore. Oh, well. At least I won't just be in my undershirt!
All the best to everyone, and let Papá Héctor and Mamá Imelda know that they have a fan club now.
The children were in bed, though Enrique could hear the scratchy sound of the old recording playing from the open window in Abel's room again. This had surprised him at first. Of all of the children, Abel was the one he'd considered least likely to take an interest in old-fashioned music sung by dead ancestors. He had revealed during the family's first awkward conversations about what music they'd pretended not to be listening to that he admired hip-hop and something called "death metal" -- no one really wanted to know what that was -- and was generally more interested in sports and girls than any of the family history that had come up recently. But when Miguel, Rosa, and Carmen had come home from their weekend trip to Mexico City, bearing the digitized version of the old record (as well as the record itself), Abel had listened in utter fascination. He said he was going to make a video of it, and was certainly spending a good amount of time with a scan of the old family photograph and an animation program on his computer. He might even be working on it now, just as Miguel was certainly working on Socorro's lullaby and Rosa was up reading the trashy novel everyone pretended not to know she owned.
But they were in bed, and they wouldn't be coming back out, which meant that certain things could be discussed more freely. And that Enrique could get some work done on Miguel's birthday present. He'd already applied the fabric to the hat form, which he'd made in a shop on the far side of the plaza, where an old school friend had the equipment. ("Hey, the Riveras aren't going to start cutting into my business, are they?" he'd asked anxiously.) It was the same fabric Luisa was using on the suit, so it would be a perfect match. Velvet would have been more like the other mariachis, but it didn't seem Miguel's style.
"This is going to be a hornet's nest," Berto said without preliminaries, as he came into the workshop and sat at his usual station. "He's got fan clubs all over the country. People fell in love over his songs. They've been playing at abuelitos' anniversary dinners for decades. No one is going to like this much, other than us. I think we'd better prepare for broken windows, slashed tires, graffiti… it could get ugly fast. If we go public."
"I don't think there's an 'if' anymore," Enrique said. He spread out the pants Luisa had made and studied her embroidery. He was planning to echo the motif on the brim of the hat. There wouldn't be a lot of overdesigned elements on it. Like a Rivera shoe, this would be a clean design. A gold band around the crown, and the echoed element on the brim. And it would not be glued on applique. He planned to actually stitch it. He started with a fabric pencil. Better to plan first.
"There is an if," Gloria said. She was at her usual spot at the storefront window, though it was shuttered for the night and she was facing into the room. "I know you've got your head in this, Quique, but we don't have to do anything. What do we owe him, anyway?"
"After almost a century of slandering him? When it turns out that he was murdered?" Enrique said. "I don't know, Glorita. Maybe everything?"
No one suggested that they didn't know he'd been murdered, not for sure. If there had been any lingering doubts about Miguel's story, the newspaper clipping and the record seemed to have quelled them. An email from Dionisio Calles had confirmed the date of the ink on the letters, and Héctor's signature from the marriage record, which no one had doubted, but which certainly solidified the claim, at least on the lyrics. Proving the music would be a bit harder. Proving the murder and the theft of the guitar… on that, they were no closer. Calles had spent three days in the deep and dusty archives and found no unidentified cases in Mexico City that fit the profile. The signatures on the typewritten letters were still in analysis. ("My expert is pretty sure they're forgeries, but if it was de la Cruz, they were long-time business partners, and if they were like any other business partners, they probably signed a few things for one another. It's a dubious practice, but a common one. The signature is slightly off by size and the accent over the 'e' is in a suspicious place compared to the known signatures. There's also an oddity in the 'o,' but there aren't hesitation marks or blots. We're hoping to get some samples of de la Cruz's writing to compare the e's and o's.")
"I'm just saying," Gloria went on, not quite meeting anyone's eyes. "We didn't do it. We didn't make up the stories. And we're the ones who are going to have to put up with vandalism and angry de la Cruz fans if we do this."
"We let it go on, mija," Mamá said. "I did, especially. And even if we don't owe my abuelo -- which we do -- I owe Miguel."
"Miguel forgave you for the guitar," Luisa told her, putting her free hand on Mamá's arm. (The other arm was cradling Socorro, who was having an evening snack.)
"I'm going to get the real one for him. To make up for what I did. I know how much work that was for him."
Carmen, who was usually even quieter than Luisa, cleared her throat and said something that Enrique didn't quite hear.
Berto leaned over and whispered to her.
She took a deep breath and raised her voice a little bit. "I said, it doesn't have to be us." She looked around. "We do the work," she clarified. "We make sure it happens. But at the Conservatorio, I talked to young Carlos while he was making the recording. He could break it as his thesis. Moreno could leak it to the papers. Do it entirely separate from us. If we do it, it could look to de la Cruz fans like we're trying to get money or fame or something. But if he does it, and then people just ask us questions and we answer them, not like we're trying to prove anything…"
"I feel like we should take whatever consequences there are," Mamá said. "I don't like backing off from a fight."
"Me, either," Berto said.
Luisa smiled. "I don't think anyone will accuse you of cowardice, Mamá Elena."
Mamá and Berto both grumbled under their breath. Enrique smiled. If there was a back-to-normal in the family, this was it. Mamá was gearing up for righteous war; Berto was preparing a defense.
"I think it's a good idea," Enrique said. "From what Miguel said, Papá Héctor wasn't looking to be a glory hound. He just wanted to be remembered. If Carlos releases his paper and we answer questions, we'll look… well, it will seem less predatory to people determined to see the worst. And I don't know about you, but I'm not after fame for him. Just the truth." He copied the pattern around another arc of the hat. "And, if you want a practical reason, Carlos will sound more disinterested. We have a hearing in three weeks, against the historical society. If we go in as shoemakers who found some old letters, they'll balk. If a doctoral student at the national conservatory says that his student presented him with reasonable proof of a theory he's been working on for years, it will go over better."
"Meanwhile," Gloria said, "Berto's not wrong. We need to brace for this. We need to check all the locks on the outer doors, and be ready to paint over anything -- "
"Preferably before the children see it," Luisa said.
"And what about school?" Berto asked. "Are they going to get any backlash at school?"
"Probably," Enrique said. "We should prepare them for it. And we should also prepare them for people who are just curious, and people trying to take their pictures, and… and I want to talk to the police about keeping an eye out for the crazies."
No one argued with this, or even seemed surprised, so Enrique guessed that they'd all done a little bit of reading over the last few months.
"All right," Gloria said. "For the hearing with the historical society, we need to get someone to prove that the torn picture all fits together, and it's not a fake. That's enough to prove the de la Cruz didn't randomly find the guitar somewhere. And I'm willing to bet there's no bill of sale. That may be enough."
"Don't count on it," Berto said. "People flock to the tomb. It brings in money. They're not going to want to give up the tourist dollars."
Gloria ground her teeth. "I could do a sales job on it for them if we could prove everything. We could… I don't know, put up little museum here." She knocked on the shopfront window cover. "If it were all proven, and it was in the newspapers, then the tourists could all come and see it. They'd still be in Santa Cecilia, and so would their money."
"I think you're underestimating the town," Luisa said. She had apparently fed Socorro all she had, and was now wrapping her in her blankets. "Our people are good people. Even if the old women in the historical society are wringing their hands about the money, I think they'll want to do what's right. Maybe we shouldn't go into this with our fists up. Maybe we should just tell them what we've found out."
"Yes, I'm sure they'll accept word from the land of the dead," Berto muttered.
"Not that," Luisa admitted. "I think we need to keep that in the family, or they'll just call us crazy. But no one was more bitterly disappointed than Miguel. He idolized de la Cruz more than any of them. When he found out… well, let's say, when he found de la Cruz's guitar in a photo, and Mamá Coco showed him whose face belonged there…" She shrugged. "I think that if we tell them about that, then they'll understand that it hurt us to admit it, as much as it will hurt them. And finding out that it was Papá Héctor that he stole things from…"
Enrique could tell that Mamá didn't like the idea of asking for sympathy and talking about having been hurt. Luisa was probably right, but it would take time to convince the more belligerent members of the family to play it that way. And he didn't think he'd ever get Miguel himself to admit how hurt he was by the news that de la Cruz was a fake; he considered it the least important part of what he learned. He wanted to prove the murder and the theft, not admit that it was painful to lose an idol.
But he wasn't the only one who'd lose an idol in this business in the long run, and the rest of the country would find much less comfort in proving Papá Héctor's murder. If anything, they'd be even more hurt. Enrique thought of the old women who'd had fond schoolgirl crushes on de la Cruz, or who had discovered their first loves to the tune of his guitar, and he thought of Mamá Coco waking up that morning as she heard its chords. For her, it was the truth of the guitar, but the music was a powerful undercurrent. What about the millions whose lives had been wound through with the songs, with the voice, with the guitar… the ones who would wake up to a truly horrible truth? It wouldn't be redemptive for them. It would just be a blow to the heart. If the family went in swinging, they would defend themselves like trapped animals.
And all practical concerns aside, he wanted to soften the blow to them as much as he could. They weren't responsible for any of it. De la Cruz had lied to the world, and they had believed the lie. His fans were victims, too.
He didn't say this. Luisa would understand, but he couldn't see Berto and Mamá caring much about such a triviality. Not because they were hard-hearted, or because they wouldn't understand how much of a person's self was tied up in memories, but because they simply would never really have a grasp on how central music was to most people's memories. Attacking the songs, attacking de la Cruz… they would feel it as an attack on their very selves.
The pencil in his hand snapped, and he realized he'd been getting progressively angrier at de la Cruz. What had he thought he was playing at? What had he done to the people whose hearts he'd coveted so much that he'd killed for them? He had hurt the family directly in the past, but he'd also hurt Miguel with the ongoing lie, and Enrique couldn't think how to heal that hurt, not least because the world treated it like it wasn't important. Why hadn't he just been the decent person he pretended to be? How hard was it to just be a relatively decent human being? Why hadn't he just commissioned Papá Héctor to write him some new songs, and given him credit? He could have even sounded magnanimous about it -- Ah, yes, my songwriter… I would be nothing without him!
Luisa passed him a new fabric pencil with no comment.
He carefully rubbed out a smear on the hat brim, took a deep breath, and said, "I'll talk to the police in the morning, and see what they think." He smiled bitterly. "Hopefully, the police aren't de la Cruz fans."
They talked a while longer without reaching any conclusions. Enrique stayed up after most of them had gone to bed, working on the golden designs around Miguel's new hat.
The next afternoon, he went to the police department and talked to a young woman named Sarita about security. She told him that he was worrying about nothing, and no one would care about such a very old scandal. "But of course, if there are incidents, you should call us."
This did not entirely set his mind at ease.
When he finished up, he checked his phone and found another message from Calles.
No word yet, my friend. I think I've gone through every unidentified body from 1921 in Mexico City, at least the ones that the police picked up. Nothing looks like your bisabuelo. I'm going to expand the search to the outlying areas. But we knew it was a long shot. Don't tell your boy, but I'm starting to wonder if de la Cruz found a way to dispose of the body that would have left it unidentifiable. It's not a nice thing to think about, but if your theory is true, then the man was a sociopath, and nothing is out of bounds. If I find out anything really unpleasant (other than the murder; often with this kind of murder, the most unpleasant things happen afterward), I'll tell you first. You'll know better than I how to talk to your son about it.
Meanwhile, do you have anything else about their tour plans? I didn't spot a real pattern in the letters. It looks like de la Cruz was just adding any performance he could, even if it was just yanking the two of them around the country in random directions. If anything, he seems to have been trying to get here to the capital -- he keeps returning to the region -- but that doesn't seem to be leading us anywhere useful.
I'm trying to get into the studio. You mentioned that Miguel's birthday is coming up, and if I can, I will find film from the audition the letters talked about. That would be happy for him.
I have a few other cases needing attention right now, but I am working on yours still. Let's call it my passion project. I hope to have something for you soon.
Dionisio Calles Shaughnessy
Enrique sighed. He hadn't expected anything else. There was nothing more in the pattern of the tour. Rosa had found a few more notices in the paper, but by then, de la Cruz was apparently more careful. Héctor was still with him, but the songs were referred to as "their" original songs, not Héctor's.
They needed new information. Something to open up a new path.
He sent a quick reply: Thank you for all of your work. We're doing everything we can here; I'll send you anything we find right away.
He checked his watch. School was almost out. On a whim, he turned away from home and headed across the plaza. The statue of de la Cruz cast a shadow over the path, and he deliberately walked out of his way so as not to pass through it. Stupid, perhaps, but he felt better having taken even a stupid concrete action.
The school was no longer connected to the church, but it occupied the same building it always had, just beyond the church's dusty parking lot. Everything was still quiet. Five minutes until the doors opened and released children in every direction. And the church itself was weekday-afternoon quiet, with only elderly women coming and going to light their candles and confess their sins.
He looked up. Luisa's father, who kept the church grounds as well as looking after the cemetery, was looking at him over the top of a little shrub. His clippers were held steady.
"Papá Isidro," Enrique said. "This is a nice surprise."
"I'm where I belong," he said. "I think I should be surprised. How is Luisa?"
"Stronger every day."
"And the baby?"
"Healthy and loud."
He smiled and nodded. "You came to meet Miguelito?"
"I was out doing other things. I thought I'd walk home with the children."
"Well, they'll come by here. They usually do." He grinned and held up a bag of sweets. "I bribe them."
Enrique laughed. Isidro wasn't an old man. In fact, he was as close to Enrique's age as Luisa was -- twelve years in either direction. His dark skin was weathered from a lifetime outside, but his hair was still mostly black, and he kept it long, tying it at the base of his neck with a leather clip. He wore a cowboy hat, and had little silver-framed glasses that flashed in the sun. He didn't look especially like Miguel, but his sly little grin about the sweets was almost exactly the same as the one Miguel flashed when he was trying to get away with something.
"You'll be at the birthday party next week?" Enrique asked.
"It's the biggest social event on my calendar." He poked at the shrub. "Miguel has been asking me about my ancestors. He wants pictures for your ofrenda."
"Do you have any? They'd mean a lot to him."
"I'm putting together an album for him from what I have. Pictures. Stories I remember. I talked to my parents, too."
"How are they enjoying their travels?"
"They're too old for camping trips." He rolled his eyes. "But at least they have their phones. Mamá is going to send a letter with everything she ever heard anyone say about her ancestors. We don't have many pictures, though. We didn't have a lot of handy cameras up in the hills." He glanced toward the line of hills where he'd grown up. "We put other things on ofrendas. I have my grandfather's teponaztli. I thought he might like that, with this new music business."
"I'm sure he would."
"Now that it's allowed." He flashed Miguel's sly grin again.
"Your nephew -- the big one?"
"Yes. He plays with these computer graphics a lot. Maybe we can make a picture from what I remember of my grandparents."
"I wonder if that would work."
Isidro raised his eyebrows. "Work?"
"For ancestors crossing over."
He nodded wisely, and Enrique wondered if Miguel had told him everything. It was possible -- the man was his grandfather, and, as a gravedigger, was well-versed in the tales of the dead. But he didn't think so. They were fond of each other, but not especially close.
A bell interrupted the conversation, and the doors to the school flew open, children running out gleefully. Enrique looked into the sea of school uniforms (white shirts, gray slacks or skirts), trying to find Miguel and Rosa. It didn't take long. Miguel had his guitar case over his shoulder, and he was following the little knot of girls Rosa played with. Rosa was laughing madly at something one of the girls had said. Miguel, though a year younger, looked more serious. He had the far off look on his face that Enrique was learning to associate with trying to work out some musical problem. He didn't have a group of his own friends, which was troubling. Enrique remembered going everywhere with his friends at the age of twelve.
But before he could get too upset about it, three other boys ran down the stairs, one leaping a bush like a hurdle, and jostled Miguel. Miguel smiled, and they talked about something (Enrique couldn't hear what), and parted on reasonably good terms. They were other runners, he thought. The team. Miguel was involved in his school life. At least a little bit. And he didn't seem unhappy, just a little bit separate.
Miguel spotted him before Rosa did, and raised his hand in a surprised wave. He reached through the crowd of girls (one of whom gave him an unmistakably flirtatious grin; Enrique thought he'd have a few more years before needing to worry about that) and tapped Rosa's shoulder.
They swerved to change course, and made a beeline over to the church. Isidro gave them both candy. Miguel gave him a little hug.
"Papá!" Miguel said, coming over to Enrique. "What are you doing here?"
"Oh, I was out, and I thought I'd come walk you home, if you don't have any other plans."
"No, that's…" Miguel's voice trailed away, and his gaze went to the church. A skinny xolo dog was slinking around the corner. A little stray cat that Enrique had seen around town for years was right beside him. The two seemed friendly, which was, in Enrique's experience, not the normal order of the world for stray animals.
"Miguel?" Enrique prodded.
Miguel frowned deeply and took a step toward them. "Dante?" he called.
The dog bounded out and jumped on him, covering his face with kisses. In the sunlight, Enrique could see something red tied around the dog's neck.
Miguel collapsed under the dog's assault, and fell to the ground, laughing. "Dante! Boy, what are you --" He stopped. "What's that, boy? What… PAPÁ!"
Enrique ran over, alarmed. Miguel had steadied the dog, and was tugging at the red thing around its neck.
It was a hoodie, Miguel's old one, the one he'd lost on Día de Muertos, but it was mangled. The white stripes had been torn from the sleeves, and the drawstring was gone from the hood. The sleeves had been used to secure it to Dante's neck.
"What…?" Enrique began.
Then Miguel managed to get the knot undone, and he laid the jacket on the ground.
For a moment, Enrique didn't understand what he was seeing, even though it was completely plain.
The piping from the sleeves had been repurposed, cut up into new shapes, and sewn back onto the wide back of the jacket, using what looked like thread unraveled from the drawstring, as if…
As if they had to use only materials that came from the jacket, because nothing else would make the crossing.
The shapes weren't random.
They were letters. Words. There was one large word, and beneath it, made with thinner strips, three smaller ones. And there was an arrow, pointing up.
Beside the arrow was the larger word: TRÉN.
And the smaller words, put on there with tiny strips of the remaining piping, sewn on even though they must have been running out of their improvised thread: ESTOY BIEN MIJO.