June 4, 2018.
Dear Papá Héctor,
There’s an envelope attached to this. It’s sealed. You can open it if you want to. Papá says it should be your choice, not mine. It’s got the coroner’s report and a lot of news articles. A lot of it isn’t very good. I’ll send newsy things to Mamá Coco this week, but I’m sitting with you right now, and I wanted to talk to you especially.
I had a dream last month, and you told me I should be normal again, and I’ve been trying to be. I went to a track team party (we got into a little trouble for painting the mascot on the side of a building; I got grounded, but I think Papá was happy to do it, if that makes sense), and I went to one of Abel’s wrestling matches. Rosa and I have been reading stories about kids whose parents are Greek gods (they’re pretty funny), and I’ve been playing in the Plaza once a week. I played one of my new songs – not the one I taught you in the dream, if you were really there; just one I made for the plaza, about a girl named Julieta and her bicycle – and everyone liked it. If you weren’t really in my dream, and I didn’t teach you my real song, it will be an offering for you on Día de Muertos, along with your guitar. I’ll be singing and playing for you then. I hope everyone likes your new songs, too. Wish I could hear them somehow!
The reason I think the dream was real was that Dante came the next morning. You sent him, didn’t you? He’s been staying really close to me ever since. The house is pretty crowded right now, but Abuelita’s being really nice about letting him be there. There’s also a cat who keeps coming back, and I’m pretty sure I know who that is, too. I gave her lots of treats, since she kind of saved my life in a big way. Twice.
The reason everyone is here is for you. We brought you back here this morning, and all day, we’ve been sitting vigil with you. My Tía Meche (Papá Isidro’s sister; Mamá Coco can tell you a little bit about her, probably) brought a blanket that she’s been weaving for you especially. We can’t put clothes on you, because… well, we can’t. If you read the stuff in the envelope, you’ll know why. Anyway, Papá and I put the blanket around you. The mariachis from the plaza were coming and going all day. I asked them to play for your procession tomorrow, but they also all wanted to come here and sit with you and play your songs, since a lot of them learned by playing them in the first place. They’re gone now because they’re all doing a special show in the plaza with all of your music (except “Remember Me”; I let them play that here, but not there).
I was playing for an hour or so after they left, but now my music teacher, Carlos Navarro, is playing for you. He’s really good, and he’s the one who used his thesis to prove that the songs were yours. There are still some people arguing, especially at the movie studio, but most people are really mad that songs got stolen from you. As soon as we get the songbook, we can take it to court. Carlos came down with Dionisio Calles, the detective who found you. He’s a nice person.
There are a lot of reporters, but we told them they couldn’t come to the funeral, no matter what. I’m not really sure how we’re going to keep them away, since Abuelita is too busy to take a chancla to all of them. She did put a scare into one of them, though.
There are in-laws and cousins helping out, and the historical society is running the little museum Tía Gloria made. Papá Franco took care of all the special details about taking care of you and getting a place for you, and had them put your name on the stone with Mamá Imelda’s. There’s a picture of the stone in the envelope, too. I didn’t know if you wanted to see your own grave or not. But it’s a proper one, finally.
I guess it’s the best we could hope for. But I sure wish I could have saved you instead of just finding you. Maybe Rosa will invent a time machine someday. That would be nice.
This is a pretty long letter for something that just started out as a note to clip on the envelope. And there’s still gossipy stuff for Mamá Coco’s letter, so I guess you’ll know a lot about June.
I hope that you’re not too sad about the things in the envelope. Papá says the only important part is that you’re home with us at last.
PS: June 5: Something amazing happened, and I’ll put in the articles about that, too. But I know how my song ends now. Maybe I always knew.
Enrique looked into the ofrenda room, where Carlos was sitting on a low stool, partly illuminated by weak candlelight. He wasn’t playing one of Papá Héctor’s songs (Enrique was now heartily sick of “Remember Me” and “Only A Song,” and was getting to the end of his patience with “The World Is My Family”), just some bit of classical Spanish guitar that sounded like a gentle sunset and a warm breeze in a rose garden. Miguel was on the bench with a clipboard, writing what looked like a very long letter. Dante was stretched out on the floor beside the bench, and the cat Miguel had dubbed “Pepita” was in the window. On the floor, surrounded by low-burning candles, was the slight, blanket-wrapped form of Papá Héctor.
There had been almost nothing they could do for him, other than wrap him in a blanket. Washing him would have led to fairly disastrous results, and they couldn’t move him into a more comfortable position, or even close his mouth. But he and Miguel had taken Tía Meche’s blanket and wrapped him in it like an infant might have been wrapped, covering his wasted limbs and making a sort of pillow for his head. Miguel had cried a little bit, but he was bearing up well. He seemed to be glad for something that he could do. He’d spun a little fantasy about Rosa inventing a time machine, so they could go back to that hotel room and make Papá Héctor not drink the poison, but he seemed to understand that it was just a fantasy, and he didn’t dwell on it.
The university hadn’t even contested the reclamation of the body. In fact, the medical college had made an announcement that it was happy to have been a part of reuniting El Viejo with his family. They had done every conceivable test at least twice in his tenure at the lab, and he was permanently preserved in computerized scans. One of the techs had even done a 3D reconstruction of his face, which she’d printed out and given to Miguel. It was now framed and on the low table behind Papá Héctor’s head.
Enrique took a deep breath and went back into the workshop. It had been closed for two days, just as it had been when Mamá Coco passed. It would probably be closed for another two while they straightened everything out and the crowds left again. It was still a gathering place, but at the moment, the family was scattered around the hacienda. Gloria and Mamá were in the kitchen, keeping track of the food they were making for the visitors. Luisa and the baby were with Berto and Carmen. Rosa was hovering near the ofrenda room with her violin, probably daring herself to play for Papá Héctor (and in front of Carlos, who seemed to intimidate her). Abel and Papá had gone into town to watch the mariachis and, though they didn’t say it, look intimidating if any of them dared to play “Remember Me.”
Enrique didn’t think they’d need to worry about it. The musicians had been respectful bordering on worshipful all day, and had kept up an informal guard on the three entrances to the hacienda, keeping the press out. They’d smiled and joked and played songs, but they hadn’t budged, and not one reporter had managed to get a toe onto Rivera property. One in particular, who Mamá had made a point of apologizing to over some chancla-related incident, had kept vigil by the front gate all day, except for the few minutes he’d gone inside to play for Papá Héctor.
The workshop should have been deserted, and Enrique had a vague thought of getting started on an order for an English businessman, but instead, he found Dionisio Calles browsing rows of women’s shoes.
“Did I miss something in your resume?” he asked.
Calles turned and laughed. “Those are for flamenco, aren’t they?” he asked, pointing to the top row of the display shoes. Most of the shop’s business was in special orders, but they did supply some over the counter. “That would be new.”
“They are, and it is,” Enrique said. “I think my brother Berto had been dying to try those for ages, given how fast he started putting them together. He and Miguel have been doing experiments to see what has the best tone on the cobblestones.”
Calles smiled. “You have a good business here.”
“Maybe I should learn something about business from you. I could use a better one than a couple of plastic chairs in a cheap office.”
“It takes time.” Enrique shrugged. “I expect the publicity here will help you a little bit. You did good work for us.”
“I’ve been keeping my name out of it.”
“That’s bad business, my friend. And if you don’t put your name into it, I will the next time a reporter corners me.”
“All right, I will, but give it a month or so. I finally got my Tío Kevin to let my cousin come see me next month. Better it’s not a circus… or, um… sorry.”
“No. I’m starting to feel very sympathetic to Papá Héctor’s plight myself. I feel like I’m in a fishbowl.”
“Can I bring her down here?”
“My cousin. She’s Rosa’s age. She dances. Irish dancing. She’d love to see how your brother makes flamenco shoes.”
“Irish dancers wear flamenco shoes?”
“Not exactly.” He frowned. “There are two kinds. Hard and soft. And that’s pretty much all I know about Irish dancing shoes.”
“Well, tell her to bring both kinds, or Berto’s heart will broken to know there are shoes he’s never seen.”
“I don’t know shoes or music. I feel little out of place here. But I don’t know what to do with her. I want to make sure she still worships me at the end of the day.”
“You can come visit us any time, and bring anyone you want. You brought Papá Héctor back to us. You are family, and there’s no need to feel out of place.” Enrique shrugged, then sat down at his usual spot, pulling out the specifications for his order. “And maybe you should have her teach you about Irish dancing and music. It belongs to you as much as this does.” He nodded back toward the ofrenda room, where they could still hear Carlos playing.
Calles shrugged. “I don’t know how much any of us know anymore, other than leprechauns and shamrocks and green beer. I don’t know if it matters.”
“It matters. If I’ve learned anything from all of this, it’s that it matters where you come from.”
“I don’t know all that much about my father’s family, either. I asked him. He only remembers up to his grandfather. Everyone was from the city. His grandfather was a pilot, though. He told me that when I joined the Air Force.” He ran his hand along the shoes. “The city has a short memory. At least for things as unimportant as the people who once lived there. I went looking when I first took this case. And it’s like we just disappear. Nothing in the papers, some faceless graves, a few papers lying around. No one remembers.”
“Maybe you should do one of those tests where you spit.”
“It won’t tell me the kinds of things I wish I knew.” Calles sighed and sat down across from Enrique. “I can work on organizing some barriers against the press tomorrow. I’m not sure how yet. The mariachis all want to play along the procession, so there goes the army.”
“You don’t need to work the funeral,” Enrique said. “The family wants you with us.”
“I’m just worried that the vultures will come in to feed.”
“Me, too. But if they do, they do. We can’t control for it.” He shook his head. “I told Miguel that it may come to that. He doesn’t like it. He doesn’t want this to be an even bigger circus. But it seems better than all of us trying to chase them off in the middle of things.”
Enrique looked up. Miguel was out of the ofrenda room for the first time in hours. He was sweating pretty badly (the candles probably had raised the temperature in there by ten degrees, and it wasn’t cool out to start with) and had pushed his bangs off his face with a piece of cloth. He’d been wearing his mariachi clothes earlier, but he’d long since shed them, and was now in old cut-off jeans, an undershirt, and pair of sandals he’d made for practice (and gotten right enough, at least, for them to be wearable; he’d worn them often and with inordinate pride for the last three weeks). Dante, as he had been for the last month, was at his heels. The little cat he called Pepita wound around his ankles, then came into the workshop and settled herself comfortably on Gloria’s high stool at the window, looking down imperiously on the room.
“Are you ready to get some sleep, mijo? I can take the vigil for a few hours.”
“I’m not tired,” Miguel said. He sat down at Berto’s station and pulled out a few of the experimental flamenco heels. A large cobblestone was set down on the table, and Miguel started playing a quick little rhythm on it. This seemed to be largely unconscious, something to do with the energy in his hands. “Are you talking about the reporters?”
Enrique nodded. “Señor Calles –”
“Denny,” Calles said. “If I’m going to be at a family funeral, you may as well call me what my family calls me.”
“Denny, then, was going to call out the national guard and maybe lead a charge against them…”
“I was not.”
“But I told him what I told you. Whatever they do is on them. We aren’t going to take our attention away from where it belongs in order to start a battle with them.”
“I don’t know,” Calles said. “There only six roads or so into town. A good concentrated force, maybe a tank or two, it shouldn’t be too hard.”
“We’re all out of tanks.”
“Well, there goes my plan.”
Miguel laughed. “Maybe we could build you one. Out of leather and nails.”
“I’ll get Rosa on it right away,” Calles said. “The girl’s smart. And Carlos can turn his guitar strings into garottes!”
“No tanks!” Enrique said, rolling his eyes. “And no guitar garottes, either.”
Calles gave a dramatic sigh. “You spoil the best fun.”
This got a bigger laugh from Miguel, who liked the occasional high-octane action movie.
“You’re all right then, chamaco?” Calles asked.
Miguel thought about it, then nodded. “Yeah. I’m okay. My Papá Héctor is home. I’m okay.”
The three of them settle into a lazy talk that wasn’t about the body, or about the funeral, or the press. Carlos joined them after a while, when Rosa found the nerve to go in and play for her Papá Héctor.
Miguel told them about some of the songs he’d been writing. “They’re just plaza songs,” he explained. “My good stuff is for the family.”
“It doesn’t have to be,” Enrique said. “You can write good songs for your people, too, you know.”
“Your father is free with business advice tonight,” Calles said. “And it’s not bad advice.”
“It’s good advice,” Carlos amplified. “Don’t give the public junk. They have enough junk being pushed at them.”
“But what if I say something personal?”
“Then people will love it. And it doesn’t have to be so clear that they know what you’re talking about. For instance, I wrote a song for my wife. I mean every word of it. But part of a songwriter’s job is being able to say things that everyone means, but can’t say. Now, my song is part of other people’s lives, helping men say things that they kept stumbling over before.”
“And your wife doesn’t mind?” Enrique asked, genuinely curious about this, as he couldn’t imagine Luisa being thrilled to hear someone else shouting his private affections across the plaza.
“She loves it. Sometimes, if she hears someone singing it, she will say, ‘That’s my song!’ and give me a kiss for it.”
“I didn’t even know you had a wife,” Miguel said. “You never said. How come she didn’t come with you?”
“She’s a lawyer. Her clients wouldn’t be happy if she skipped their court dates.” Carlos looked up at the stars. “The point is, being a songwriter, your heart is going to be on your sleeve for everyone to see, even when you think you’re writing doggerel. Or when you are writing doggerel about Julieta and her bicicleta… you’re better than that tripe, Miguel. Don’t give anyone a half-effort. And don’t turn in doggerel like that to me.”
“I like the bicicleta song,” Calles said.
“Back to the point, even in that unworthy garbage, I could hear your voice. I can hear it in the words – it’s the way you tease your cousin Rosa. And most of all I hear it in the way you make the guitar laugh when you laugh, the way you make it cry when you cry. Music for the public isn’t meant to be something to hide behind. Your Papá Héctor’s public songs were good songs, too. They were good because they were real and they were specific, and by being specific, they said things that no one else had ever said, and everyone wanted to be able to say. Do you understand?”
“Do you think my good song should be for everyone?”
“Yes, I do, when you finish that crescendo. I think it’s a true song. And Miguel… I’ll say something to you about ethics in music, too. If you start looking down your nose at the audience, if you don’t love them and you give them only the scraps of your genius, then you’ll be as much of a fraud as de la Cruz. All of the reporters ask me about how I knew, and I make up technical sounding nonsense, but the truth is, you could tell listening to him that he loved himself, and thought of his audience as expendable.”
Enrique was about to shut this down, to yell that Carlos had no right to lecture his son on ethics and twist the thumbscrews and insist on anything… but Miguel didn’t look insulted. He looked thoughtful.
“How can I love people I don’t know?” he asked.
“Because to be an artist, you need to know people. You need to understand this insane species that you’re part of. And understanding, you love.”
“Really?” Calles asked. “You think understanding people makes you love them?”
“Well, maybe not broke detectives. They’re a different story.” Carlos rolled his eyes hugely. “Seriously, Miguel. Music, at its heart, is love. Art is love. Don’t be a cheap flirt.”
Enrique changed the subject before the metaphors got any more explicit, and they spent the next half hour talking about the press and the funeral, and what steps were coming up next in the prosecution of de la Cruz. Rosa came in after a while, and Miguel realized that no one was playing for Papá Héctor, so he went back to begin his concert. Carlos took a nap for an hour and asked Enrique to wake him up so he could spell Miguel. (“I promise, I’ll make him sleep for at least three hours afterward.”)
In the end, once Miguel was coaxed to sleep on the bench, no one woke him up. Luisa came in when Carlos was ready to drop, and she and Enrique sang together. Not with any polish at all, but it felt nice. Papá Isidro picked up with the ocarina at around two, and Enrique and Luisa went to bed. They heard Abel start to play his accordion (badly) before they fell asleep. Papá and Berto weren’t musically inclined themselves, but Gloria said they came in with her when Papá Isidro was finished, and sat with her while she hummed. Just before dawn, Enrique pulled himself out of bed, and walked silently with Mamá, who bent and kissed her grandfather’s head, then, in a low and lovely alto voice, sang a few verses of La Llorona to him.
That was what woke Miguel, and he went to get dressed, then picked up his guitar and played until it was time for the procession to the church, where a funeral mass would finally be said for Papá Héctor. He strapped the guitar across his back while he carried the front of the coffin, balancing it with Papá. Enrique and Berto carried the back of the coffin. They had agreed to ask Calles and Carlos to carry the center. The women put on black rebozos over their beribboned hair. Luisa carried Socorro along beside Miguel, holding her up so she could see her ancestor pass, and touch the century between them.
In the church, the local mariachis lined the walls for the short mass, and the priest gave Papá Héctor his blessings. Mamá spoke briefly, asking both his forgiveness, and the forgiveness of the town for her haughtiness.
Enrique looked over his shoulder, expecting to see reporters beating on the church doors, but none appeared.
When the mass was over, they carried the casket out, and the mariachis began to play as Papá Héctor took the last steps of his long, hard journey on earth.
The town seemed strangely empty, and no one was coming up to the casket, or watching the procession. It seemed strange to Enrique, but he didn’t know what to make of it. Maybe the deceased had been gone for so long that only the family and the musicians cared.
The reporters were still not present.
Before they lowered the casket into the ground beside Mamá Imelda, Miguel opened it one final time and looked into Papá Héctor’s poor, wasted face.
“Te quiero, Papá,” he said. “I’ll see you. In a long time, but I will, because I’ll never let anyone forget you. And we’ll sing together again.”
He closed the coffin and nodded.
The mariachis played as the coffin sank into the ground, the trumpets calling out into the gray day, celebrating the forgotten man, now remembered.
Still no reporters.
Enrique looked curiously at Calles, who also seemed baffled. Carlos didn’t say anything.
The family made its way home through those curiously empty streets. The baker’s shop was closed, and the plaza was deserted.
Miguel retreated to his cave behind the sign, and emerged onto the roof a moment later.
Then suddenly, he shouted, “Papá! Papá, look!”
Enrique had never liked climbing around on these tiles, never felt comfortable with it, but there was no other way to see whatever Miguel was pointing out.
He pulled over a ladder and climbed up. When he got to Miguel he started to ask what he was looking for, but then he saw it.
There were six roads into Santa Cecilia, and he could see all of them from the rooftop.
At the edges of town, news vans had gathered. The sunlight flashed off of lenses.
But every road into town was blocked off. The people were gathered there, probably fifty on route, maybe more. They sat quietly, but not silently. Enrique could hear them, distant but clear, singing “Remember Me.” All six groups were at different spots in the song, but he would know it anywhere at this point.
“Canten a coro,” Miguel whispered, then put his arm around Enrique’s waist. They listened to the distant song until the town’s whistle went off, and all six groups got up in unison and, singing, came back to town, leaving the reporters to enter as the pleased now that there was nothing left for them to intrude on.
Miguel led Enrique back through the window into the attic, then down through the old house.
Carlos was waiting for them there. “I told them what you were worried about,” he said. “They came up with the solution on their own.” He looked at Miguel. “These are your people, Miguel. Don’t give them leftovers.”
Miguel nodded. “I understand.”