September 20, 2018
Dear Mamá Coco,
The law is really confusing, and I don’t understand everything that’s going on. There can’t be a trial for de la Cruz here. Is there one where you are? Because everybody is dead, the only thing we can do is make the studio pay. Papá says it feels dirty, but we’re going to donate the money to help musicians who are in legal trouble with their copyrights and bad contracts and things. We’ll only keep what we figure might have been reasonable royalties (though Calles says we should assume that Mamá Imelda would have made good investments with it, whatever that means). My tutor, Carlos, is working on the historical rates. It’s going into his thesis.
A reporter grabbed me outside school and tried to talk to me. I told him no, but he kept after me until a few of the mariachis in the square pulled him away and kind of made a wall around me and Rosa (we always walk home together, which you probably remember now). Papá and Tío Berto pulled Rosa and me both out of school until things calm down, and I'm staying with Tía Meche in San Pedro and Rosa is with Tía Carmen's family.
Papá had to go to the capital last week to testify, and Mamá Elena went with him to show the court the ledgers from all the years after Papá Héctor disappeared, to prove we never got money from the studio. It looks like de la Cruz did send one check, but since we can prove he’d already killed Papá Héctor by then and there was no agreement about the songs, that doesn’t count. At least that’s what Tina says. She’s Carlos’s wife. She’s pretty and really smart. She’s a lawyer, but it’s different law. She says she usually helps criminals get away. I guess they’re not criminals if they get away, but you know what I mean.
By the way, we can completely prove it. They know what train he was put on, and exactly when it left. So the suit is about wrongful death. There’s a kind of law called “moral damage,” too, which is kind of a way to punish people more than the actual money would add up to. Basically, if we win, we could end up with everything that de la Cruz left the studio, which was everything. Papá didn’t want to. I don’t want to act like it’s about money. But it’s the only way to hold someone legally responsible for murdering Papá Héctor, or at least that’s what the family decided. And we didn’t tell anyone, but I thought it might help over there if we could change people’s memories.
Only a lot of people are really sad. I saw someone’s bisabuela on television, crying and crying because “Remember Me” was her favorite song and she always listened to it after her husband died and it made her remember him, and now she didn’t feel like she was supposed to listen to it. I want to do something to help—it’s like I was watching you cry!—but I can’t think of anything that would be all right for everyone.
Maybe it just needs time. Or maybe I’ll think of something.
Enrique didn’t drive the shop truck up to San Pedro. Berto had deliveries to make, and besides, driving something with the family name on the side wouldn’t contribute to keeping the vultures away. Luisa and the children had gone up with Papá Isidro. In the middle of a school week. He didn’t like how much this trial had already interfered with their lives. Children needed routines.
At any rate, he’d ended up borrowing Abel’s motorcycle. It had been years since he’d ridden one, though he remembered having enjoyed it. The enjoyment was still there as he sped out of town and started up the winding roads. For the first time in weeks, he felt completely anonymous, and completely free behind the helmet’s face mask. The bike roared beneath him as he made his way up toward the village, cutting him off from everything but his own thoughts.
The day he’d testified in front of the judge, the studio lawyers had sat across from him, trying to trip him up, trying to find some ulterior motive… anything would have done. Of course—they were fighting for their legacy as much as he was fighting for his own. They’d kept coming back to why the family had been at the house. Miguel’s disguise had been useless once the story had broken and someone who’d been on the tour with them had said, “Oh, yes, we saw the boy. He was acting strange.” Where had Miguel gotten any knowledge of the estate? Had Carlos fed him information from confidential documents to which he had no rights?
It was a pointless argument, of course. There would have been no benefit to anyone if Carlos had fed them information, and, as the judge herself pointed out, the studio had already been forced to give up the documents in question. It was all a desperate ploy to sling as much mud as they could at the family in the hopes that a protective instinct would make them give up. The studio’s mudslinging had been less of an annoyance than the media’s intrusion in their lives, mainly because no one believed them.
And what the studio couldn’t know was that the family was circling its protective wagons around Papá Héctor as much as anyone else. That it mattered to him in a real way.
One of the finds in the de la Cruz mansion had been the silent film reels of the two of them auditioning for the studio. De la Cruz was obviously the movie star for that time. He performed everything with a kind of exaggerated machismo that would have seemed funny if he hadn’t been a murderer. But Papá Héctor performed alongside of him, and seemed entirely real to Enrique. The lawyer who was handling the case had decided to make a production of it for her closing number. A deaf man who read lips made dialogue cards to fit in, as if it were a silent movie in final production.
While de la Cruz had oozed around the ridiculous sets trying to look like a leading man, Papá Héctor had played the clown, falling off rocking box that was supposed to be a horse and then giving a wild bow, laughing even though he clearly didn’t feel well. When he was supposed to kiss an actress who was auditioning, he made a show of falling over his feet. The cameras kept rolling as he told the actress, “I hope I didn’t spoil that for you, but my wife wouldn’t like it if I kissed you. I’m just here as moral support for the big star.” In another clip, he and de la Cruz were supposed to be dueling with swords that were obviously made of foam. De la Cruz “won” easily. Papá Héctor was sweating at the end of it (the medical examiner said he was probably feeling ill from the repeated low doses of rat poison), but he laughed and said, “Look at me, the swashbuckler! I’ll be white knight yet!” Then he’d caught a case of the giggles. In the final shot, he was supposed to be giving a soliloquy about something, but before it started he said, “What am I supposed to say? Oh… make it up. Wouldn’t I have a script? Oh…. Anything? All right.” He adopted a deeply serious expression, appropriate to whatever the scene was supposed to be, but what he said was, “I have a little girl. She’s four. She wears her hair in twin trenzas, and we sing together every night. If I could have any wish, anything in the whole world… if a genie came here right now and said, ‘Héctor, you can have three wishes,’ all three of them would be to go home.”
The lawyer had made this the final thing that the judge would see. The studio would try to argue that this man had then sold his songs and run off—or that they had reasonably believed he had—but no one would buy it. Someone had known. Someone had known what kind of man Ernesto de la Cruz really was, and someone had covered it up, leaving Papá Héctor’s family twisting in a cruel wind for a century.
But that wasn’t all Enrique had seen. Watching this living man frolicking around on a sound stage, laughing and making jokes, talking about his wife and daughter… Enrique had returned to the hotel the night after he’d first seen it, and he’d wept. The man on the screen was much closer to Miguel’s age than to Enrique’s own. His body had gone through the changes that the late teens bring to a man, and his face and words showed that he’d gone through a lot of maturing early on, but in the end, he was barely more than a boy, a boy whose life was being snuffed out even as he made absurd jokes and prat falls. Enrique looked at him and saw not his great-grandfather, but his son, needing help that would never come to him.
Unless it’s coming now, he thought, steering the bike up through the low clouds. And if it is, it’s not better late than never. It’s just too damned late. Why didn’t anyone help him then?
And that was why he would push on with this, no matter how the studio gnashed its teeth, no matter how the press harassed him. Because people had to know. And because he wanted the world Miguel was entering to be kinder and more compassionate than the world Papá Héctor—and too many other musicians and artists to mention—had ever known. They would use the money to make a safe space, a protective sphere, for all of the Papá Héctors of the world. Maybe then, at least, it wouldn’t have been in vain.
He forced the trial out of his head and just felt the power of the bike as it took him around the turns, driving away from the setting sun, so he seemed to be rolling into a pile of red silk. Finally, he saw Papá Isidro’s truck in Tía Meche’s front yard, and on the porch, there was Luisa, feeding Coco and reading a tattered paperback while the little street cat Pepita perched on her shoulder. Pepita had arrived abruptly a few weeks ago, and had not left. Enrique wondered if she was somehow planning to report on the progress of the trial. Luisa and Mamá took special care of her, and she’d attached herself firmly to the baby. Leaving her behind had not been an option, and she was apparently getting on reasonably well with the local cats. Maybe they knew she wasn’t actually a rival for their territory. Or maybe they knew they would never win.
She grinned when he came up the porch steps. “Ah. Who is this dangerous biker? Have you come to steal me away?”
“Well, a beautiful girl like you doesn’t belong on the arm of a mere shoemaker.”
Luisa grinned playfully, and he guessed she meant to start teasing him, but the door burst open and Miguel came out and said, “Pa duixi, Papá!”
“Hello to you, too. I see Tía Meche has you practicing.”
“Total immersion,” Luisa muttered, rolling her eyes.
“She’s teaching me songs, too,” Miguel said, unruffled. “And now I know why Papá Isidro used to call me ‘Migu’ when I was little. It means monkey. I thought it was just a really weird thing to be short for my name. Do we know anything yet? I haven’t had any bars on my phone for two hours.”
“I’ve been on the road for about that long,” Enrique said. “But it’s Friday night. I doubt anyone’s making legal decisions. And can we move up here? I could live with no bars on my phone for a long time.”
“When are they expecting a decision?” Luisa asked.
“I don’t know. Soon. The judge is reading everyone’s statements, and going over the evidence. I think it’s all pretty clear-cut. So does Tina. But that lawyer, Martinez… he says not to count any chickens. The studio is rich.”
Miguel sat down on the porch step and looked out at the late sunset. “Are people still crying on television?”
Luisa looked up sharply. “Miguel, what did I tell you about watching that?”
“I haven’t been watching it.”
“And reading the news.”
“I haven’t been reading it, Mamá, really.”
“And you haven’t been asking Carlos when you can get through?”
Miguel bit his lip.
“Miguel!” Enrique said. “You promised Mamá that you’d let it go.”
“I tried!” He picked up a pebble and started tapping it on the step in a steady beat. His foot tapped in counterpoint. Enrique wasn’t sure he realized he was doing it. “Carlos wouldn’t tell me and said he promised you he wouldn’t let me dwell, too.”
“And who else have you been trying?” Luisa asked.
He looked down, then sighed and said, “I texted Bridget to see if anything was on Telemundo. She said they’re not covering it up north. Then she said I shouldn’t think about it and it wasn’t my fault.”
“I never wanted anyone to feel bad.”
Luisa sighed, then stood up and handed the baby to Enrique. She sat down beside Miguel and tucked her skirt neatly under her legs. “Of course you didn’t. And we’ll make things better.”
“I don’t know. But we will.” She put her arms around him, and they leaned their heads together. Their faces, so like one another, rested peacefully side by side.
Enrique held the baby closer, and for a moment, he felt the force that bound them together as a single thing, the family force that had its own power, its own existence separate from any of them as individuals. It was a thing outside of time, capable of touching Papá Héctor and Mamá Imelda, able to reach forward to children not yet born, grandchildren and great-grandchildren who would see more than Enrique had ever dreamed of. All of it was there in that moment of looking at his wife and son.
Then Coco started to fuss, and he realized that she needed a change, and the door opened, and Tía Meche came outside to say hello. Miguel’s melancholy broke—or at least he covered it—when his cousins Chayo and Nico came out with a board game, and Luisa started fishing for fresh diapers.
They spent the rest of the afternoon and evening not doing much of anything. Papá Isidro was spending the night in town at a boarding house, as he claimed to have no patience for a house full of children, though Tía Meche implied that the woman who ran the boarding house was a greater attraction for him. (“She was his sweetheart when they were children.”) Miguel played children’s songs for his cousins, who were eight and nine and apparently had decided that Miguel was a cross between a big brother and a famous luchador. After supper, everyone gathered around to watch a brainless action movie. Miguel made an effort to pretend this was educational—apparently, Carlos had told him to listen to movie soundtracks to see how music worked within a narrative—but he wasn’t very committed to it. Enrique doubted he was analyzing orchestration techniques when he and Nico teamed up to shoot invisible laser guns at Chayo, who was pretending to be the movie’s villain. Well, Miguel had the laser gun. If Enrique was reading the play right, Nico was shooting spider webs.
“It’s good to see him playing,” Enrique said, plunging his hands in the sink to take care of the dishes before Tía Meche could tell him that he didn’t have to. “Thank you for letting us come up here. It’s a little crazy down the mountain.”
“It’s always crazy,” Tía Meche said. “Why do you think I stay up here and don’t go into town?” She picked up a towel and started to dry the plates as Enrique finished rinsing them. “The boy has his moods, but he’s fine. Yesterday, he and Luchi and Chayo built a pillow fort and held off a whole invading army. Which was Loli and Nico and that cat that came with you, but still, a valiant battle.”
“That’s good to hear. Thought I don’t know about challenging Pepita. She’s pretty tough.”
“I’ve been grateful for his help. Luisa has helped with chores. She fixed every squeaky door in the house! But Miguel’s been watching the little ones for me. I’ve had so much free time, I feel almost sinful.”
“He was always the baby until the twins were born. By the time they were old enough to play with, he was already pretty deep in his secrets. Now, I think he’s realizing that he’s good at it.”
“It’s a thing boys learn from their fathers. He’s got a good teacher.”
Enrique smiled. “Thank you. I always thought you didn’t quite approve of me.”
“You always think Isidro doesn’t approve of you, either, but I’ll tell you something—the night you asked him if you could propose to Luisa, he called me before you even got around to doing the asking, to tell me about it. He was excited for her. He always thought you were a fine man.”
Enrique could think of no answer that wouldn’t either minimize the importance of what she’d said or sound self-congratulatory, so he said nothing.
Tía Meche dried a few plates and put them away. “You worry too much about things, but that’s not a bad trait in a man with a family. Better than worrying too little. But Miguel worries too much, too, and he’s too young for it.”
“I know. I wish de la Cruz had cared half as much about his own fans as Miguel does.”
“If he were that sort of person, we wouldn’t be in this situation.”
And of course, that was where everything ended. It took a thousand good people to undo the harm of one evil one.
They finished the clean-up, then Enrique helped put Chayo and Nico to bed. Apparently, Miguel had been singing to them at night, and they had a whole list of requests, which Miguel obeyed faithfully. He’d need to learn to put a limit on that. Bedtime was still bedtime at their age, and they needed to have the door closed.
But Enrique didn’t interfere. He sat with Luisa, who was rocking Coco, and Tía Meche, who seemed to just be reveling in having adult company. She told stories from her childhood with Isidro in the sixties, when the world had always seemed ready to turn upside down. She asked Enrique about the capital, and world politics, and whether Juarez had seemed as violent when he was there as it seemed on the news.
Finally, the music upstairs stopped, and Miguel tiptoed down, setting his guitar up against the wall. He came to the table and grinned proudly. “They’re asleep.”
Luisa smiled back. “When Coco starts playing games with us, I’m putting you in charge of getting her to bed.”
This seemed to please him. He pulled out his phone and scanned it. “Two messages got through, but nothing about the trial.”
“I told you it wasn’t very likely tonight,” Enrique reminded him.
“Rosa has a lead on Mamá Imelda’s people.”
Tía Meche rolled her eyes. “Don’t tell me. Mostly Spanish.”
“We knew that. She remembered having had a nanny. She told Mamá Elena stories about before she was an orphan, and she lived in a big house, but then her nanny took her away in the middle of a fire. Another nanny tried to shoot the twins.”
“When did we find this out?” Enrique asked.
“Mamá Elena always knew. Rosa started asking. She’s looking for hacendados who got murdered before the Revolution.”
“Could we not have another murder?” Enrique asked.
Tía Meche raised her eyebrows. “Not wishing that they weren’t exploitative landowners who most likely made their workers’ lives miserable?”
“Yes. But mostly, I wish no one had been murdered. I wish they had changed their ways instead and been good bosses and maybe let some of their workers earn enough to buy their own bit of the land.” He poured himself another cup of coffee. “Is it too much to ask people to think of some solution other than murder?”
“Most people do think of other solutions,” Luisa said gently. “Think of how many days you’ve gone since the last time you murdered someone.”
“I’m not entirely kidding. We keep tripping over murders, but most people aren’t like that. It’s easy to forget that when it’s all you keep stumbling over.” She touched his wrist gently when he sat down, then looked to Miguel. “What did Rosa find?”
“It wasn’t a very long message. She said she’s following a few of uprisings up in Guerrero. And I don’t really know what she’s talking about. I think she thinks I know.”
“You should know,” Enrique said. “I’m fairly sure that’s in your history class. Which you need to pay attention to as much as your music.”
Enrique considered just letting Miguel go back into his ponderings of ancient murders, but decided to bring him back to the present instead. “Which brings us to your homework. Are you caught up?”
“Your school work, Miguel. This isn’t a vacation. You’re supposed to be doing your assignments.”
“Um…” Miguel seemed to sense the purpose of the change, and offered his best winning smile. “I’ve been studying Zapotec, Papá. It’s very important.”
“Mm-hmm.” Enrique reached over and ruffled his hair. “I’ll help you over the weekend, how would that be? We’ll do math and history and science.”
He gave an exaggerated groan of misery, but he was still smiling, and when he took a cup of hot chocolate from Tía Meche ,he let the subject drift to more current gossip about Luisa’s cousins here and Carlos and Tina and Calles in the city. He was apparently up to date at least until the beginning of the week, because Calles and his mother played along on some internet game that Bridget had gotten him into, and he wanted to know whether or not Señora Calles had gone along with some dare he’d made about strategy. Enrique, who hadn’t realized they had been playing the game, didn’t have an answer.
Miguel eventually fell asleep at the table, and Enrique tucked him into the bed beside Nico, who rolled over happily and cuddled.
Over the weekend, they did manage to catch up Miguel’s homework, which wasn’t as far behind as Enrique had feared. Luisa went over the book he was supposed to be reading. Papá Isidro came back for lunch on Saturday, and was persuaded to stay. He and Tía Meche bickered their way through teaching Miguel a song in Zapotec. They managed a semi-stable internet connection for a little while, and Carlos listened to a few of the songs Miguel was working on, but they lost it before he could really give much feedback.
By Sunday night, Enrique relented and allowed Miguel to watch exactly half an hour of the national news. There was coverage of the trial, and of other discoveries in de la Cruz’s home.
“So far,” the pretty young reporter said, “there is no indication of the more outlandish theories that have been proposed. There are not, contrary to rumor, human remains anywhere on the property, or trophies of any other discernable murder. Several pieces of art, however, have been removed from the property, and there is rampant speculation that it came from the black market in stolen art. Experts from the National Museum of Anthropology are currently examining artifacts…”
“Art theft,” Papá Isidro muttered. “It wasn’t enough to kill. No. He had to steal national treasures, too.”
“He was a thief before he was a murderer,” Luisa said.
Miguel watched this with distaste, but didn’t say much about it. To Enrique’s great annoyance, they showed a clip of the old woman again, as part of a montage on the subject. This, Miguel responded to with a physical wince.
Later, Enrique sat alone with him on the porch (well, alone except for Pepita, who was curled up on the porch rail). He had his guitar and was playing it lazily on the steps, not even really paying attention to it.
“Are you all right?” Enrique asked.
“If we win, we’ll give all that stuff back to whoever really owns it, right?”
“Most of it doesn’t have real owners anymore. But we’ll give it to people who’ll take proper care of it. We won’t keep anything we have no more right to than he had.”
“Good.” He played a little bit more, then set the guitar down. “Papá, I’ve been thinking. About that woman who cried about ‘Remember Me.’ And the others.”
“I know, but—”
“I know it’s not my fault. But maybe there’s something I can do. Maybe…” He sighed. “I wish I could talk to Papá Héctor. I wish I knew what he’d want to do about the music.”
“But I can’t. At least not that I can be sure about. So… I need to figure out the right thing. And… I want…” He bit his lip. “Papá, I want to give the music back.”
“To the studio?”
“To the people.” He looked over and bit his lip. “Can we find out how to give it back to them?”