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The Phantom Librarian
Spewing out too many words since November 2003
The Road Home (Coco): Chapter Twenty-Five

Chapter One
Chapter Two
Chapter Three
Chapter Four
Chapter Five
Chapter Six
Chapter Seven
Chapter Eight
Chapter Nine
Chapter Ten
Chapter Eleven
Chapter Twelve
Chapter Thirteen
Chapter Fourteen
Chapter Fifteen
Chapter Sixteen
Chapter Seventeen
Chapter Eighteen
Chapter Nineteen
Chapter Twenty
Chapter Twenty-One
Chapter Twenty-Two
Chapter Twenty-Three
Chapter Twenty-Four

Chapter Twenty-Five

November 1, 2018
Dear Mamá Coco,
I’ll wrap this around the outside of your letters. We’re putting the last things on the ofrenda now, though Abuelita hasn’t decided which picture you should have yet. I guess you’re in the old picture anyway, but, you know… we thought something more recent might be nice! I’ve got Coco here with me, and I’m going to introduce her to everyone later.

I miss you a lot right now. I haven’t thought about you being dead for a few months. I’ve been thinking of you sort of as being away on a trip. But now we’re making a space for you on the ofrenda and I’m getting ready to leave these letters as an offering. I’ll do it again next year. I’ll try to make sure I always write something to you, though Mamá says I shouldn’t over-promise because I might not be writing a lot of letters when I’m a grown-up. Which Papá says is coming way too soon.

Anyway, I guess you’ll see me when you come, but I won’t see you. If you read this before I know, can you ask Dante to let me know when everyone is here?

Papá Isidro is coming, and he’s bringing pictures from his ofrenda, so maybe you’ll get to meet Mamá’s people, too. Maybe you could all be friends!

I love you, and I hope you like the letters, and the dress Mamá fixed for you, and your dancing shoes. I fixed those myself! I’ll see you later! Well, I guess ‘You’ll see me later’ makes more sense. But I’ll talk to you later.


Enrique was almost finished with the tortillas, and Luisa was chopping vegetables at the table beside him. Gloria was in the kitchen, working on a mole, and Manny and Benny were running wildly around, as usual. Berto and Carmen were apparently working at cross-purposes, as she was spreading marigold petals and he was sweeping up. Rosa was hanging papel picado on the wires over the courtyard, and somewhere, beyond the closed workshop, they could hear the rise and fall of the tour guide’s voice. They all knew her patter by heart now, because she came by three times a day with her groups of tourists, usually speaking Spanish, sometimes English (Enrique presumed it was the same patter, since her inflections were exactly the same). “…the home of the esteemed songwriter, Héctor Rivera…”

Gloria had made a very nice little display area, with Papá Héctor’s guitar usually in place in the center, surrounded by the prettily framed letters. Tourists took pictures of these, and posted them around the world. Some of them had been passed around among people who had never been here and knew nothing about Mexican music, because Papá Héctor’s story had spread like wildfire among people who felt like the world had treated them unfairly. Enrique had absolutely boggled when Papá Héctor’s doodle of Mamá Coco—a little girl in trenzas—had surfaced as someone’s profile picture in Surabaya, Indonesia. What a world, as Luisa had mused when he showed it to her.

At any rate, the family could hear the speech every time she came by. Gloria closed the work window when she heard them coming, and they mostly worked quietly behind the scenes until the groups passed, though once a week, Miguel would meet them and talk to them about the history of the music, and play a few bars on the guitar.

Miguel had played in the square earlier, this time, in honor of the day, doing Papá Héctor’s songs (excluding “Remember Me”). He’d only gotten back about half an hour ago, so the tour guide must have waited to see him return the guitar.

Yesterday, he’d helped Papá Isidro and Maurcio clean the cemetery and clear all of the weeds, taking special care to look after the ones who seemed almost forgotten. He said he was looking for the grave of a man called “Chicharron,” but since he didn’t know the real name, he hadn’t had any luck at all. But the three of them had done a great deal of backbreaking work to get things tidy.

Except for the de la Cruz crypt.

Everyone in town seemed quite content to let it be covered in graffiti. Someone had even hung a sign around the bust’s neck that said, “Forget you.” Papá Isidro had confided that the town was considering moving the body to someplace less prominent, so they wouldn’t have to keep such a constant watch for desecration of the tomb. The lock on the front was now much sturdier than the one Mamá Coco had broken every year to tune the old guitar, and several windows had been replaced with plywood and steel strips.

But the rest of the cemetery was clean and festive-looking, and Miguel was proud to have been part of his grandfather’s team for this. He’d also helped put up the wires for the papel picado, and set out little mementos for each of the ancestors he’d met (“Just to say hello”). He didn’t currently have a task—though Luisa meant to have him help put out chairs and benches soon—and so was doting on Coco. He had her in the ofrenda room, and Enrique could hear him introducing her to the various photos.

Rosa hung the last banner and climbed down, looking pleased with the effect, then came over to the table and snagged handful of chopped tomatoes. “It was a good show today,” she said. “Do you think Papá Héctor is already here, and saw it?”

“I think we’ll know,” Luisa said. “Wouldn’t Dante and Pepita come with them?”

“Oh, right!” Rosa grinned. “We’ll completely know this year! I wonder if Tía Rosita will want to see me!”

“I’m sure she will,” Enrique said. “Where’s your big brother?”

“Practicing his accordion part for Miguel’s song. Over in Mamá Coco’s room. He doesn’t want to play badly in front of Papá Héctor. Or Miguel.”

No one said anything about this. Abel was applying himself, but was turning out to be a mediocre musician, for a shoemaker. Still, he wanted to give this gift. Enrique personally thought the gift of the music video was more up his alley, and had noticed Miguel giving it a rather professional-looking evaluation. Abel had finished it yesterday and shown it to the family. It was beautiful piece of animation, and he’d done very well at cleaning up the scratches and distortion in the old recording, though he said there was only so much that could be done about the slightly tinny quality of the sound.

Mamá slipped into the kitchen and showed something to Gloria, who nodded, then came to the table. She was holding a picture of Mamá Coco, in an oval-shaped wooden frame. It had been taken only a week before she died, but she’d looked better in those last days—right up until her final sickness—than she had in years. The music had brought the light back to her eyes, and she’d sat in her wheelchair, telling story after story about the old days. She always had listeners. Papá had snapped this picture of her while she was telling Mamá the exciting tale of a time Mamá Imelda had chased robbers away from the shop, brandishing an awl like a sword. She didn’t have the energy to act it out, but she’d had a soft, fond smile on her face.

“Is this the right one?” Mamá asked.

“It’s lovely,” Luisa said. “I think she’ll like it very much.”

“Are you sure it shouldn’t be when she was younger? Maybe with Papá?”

“I think this has her whole life in it,” Enrique said.

“Do you think I should add a newer one of Mamá Imelda, too? Maybe the one where she was holding Berto?”

Enrique considered it. “I think Mamá Coco was the one to pick out the picture that meant the most to her mother, just like you did.”

“And what will you and Berto and Gloria choose for me?”

“I think there are a lot of pictures still to be taken,” he said.

Mamá sighed. “Well, promise you won’t fight about it. Maybe I should choose one before I go.”

Enrique laughed. “Yes, Mamá. That would be the most fitting thing I could think of—you laying down the law on the subject.”

She kissed his head, then went back to the kitchen to consult with Gloria about the mole. A moment later, she went into the ofrenda room. Enrique looked over his shoulder and saw her put an arm around Miguel, who leaned against her in a mutual comforting gesture.

He smiled and turned back to his tortillas.

Guests started to arrive at around four o’clock. That was new this year. Mamá always threw open the gate for the dead, but the family’s odd practices had kept most of the in-laws and cousins away before. Now, Luisa’s grandparents were trundling up the road in their RV, Papá Isidro and Tía Meche were headed down from the mountain (possibly with Prima Leti and her children), and Carmen’s three maiden aunts were in the kitchen in the new house already, bickering about pan de muerto recipes. Gezana Avalos, the plaza stage manager, was also some degree of relation to Carmen, and she was planning on dropping by as soon as she could get away from work. (“I never miss a chance to hear Miguel Rivera play!” she had crooned. “Especially now that he’s actually got a guitar.”)

But the first to arrive were Carlos, Tina, and Calles, who must have left at the crack of dawn to get in this early with the holiday traffic.

They’d taken Calles’s little sports car, and they all seemed very glad to get out and stretch their legs. When Tina stretched her arms up, her blouse pulled tight against her belly and Enrique realized that their family was about to get a little bigger. Carlos grinned manically when he saw that this had been noticed.

Calles got out and looked around eagerly. “Thanks for the invitation,” he said. “I don’t honestly usually do this. I just never… I didn’t really… I usually ignore the whole thing.” He shrugged awkwardly and pulled two photos out of his pocket. One showed a laughing young man in a Mexican military uniform. The other was a pale, broad-faced redhead with freckles, who wore a little cap and leaned against a yellow cab. “My father and my grandfather,” he said. “Do you think they could find their way to Oaxaca from Mexico City and Chicago?”

“Can’t hurt to try,” Enrique said. “Come on, let’s put them in the ofrenda room with our family. Is there anything they liked that you’d like to put out with them?”

Calles seemed very nervous about putting the unframed photos on a little bit of spare table (along with a pineapple for his father and a pair of fuzzy dice for his grandfather), but Miguel arrived—now in his freshly pressed charro suit—and helped him get them propped up, spreading some marigold petals around them and putting a candle in between.

“Papá Isidro and Tía Meche are bringing their people, too,” he said. “So everyone will get to meet someone new. I hope your abuelo can speak Spanish.”

“I never thought about that,” Calles said. “I guess he drove a cab in the city in ‘80s. He probably has enough of the basics. If, I mean…”

“They’ll be here,” Miguel said.

Calles pulled out his phone. “Come on,” he said. “Selfie.” He pulled Enrique and Miguel into frame, all of them squatting down so the men looked out over their heads, then snapped the picture and sent it to his mother and his cousins.

Tina and Carlos had been buttonholed by Berto, who was extolling the joys of fatherhood, and Carmen, who appeared to be giving Tina a litany of pregnancy advice. As Enrique and Calles came outside, the RV rolled up the side street and there was a great production of getting Luisa’s grandparents settled in. By the time it was over, Papá Isidro and Tía Meche were walking up from his little place. Leti and the children had actually managed to come along, and Luisa ran out to greet her cousin with a joyful hug. Loli and Luchi came running to find Miguel, who introduced them to Manny and Benny. Gezana showed up and immediately fell to talking to Luisa’s abuelos (something about their travels, as far as Enrique could tell), and the maiden aunts had appeared from the kitchen—still bickering with each other—to talk to the newcomers. Papá’s older brother, Tío Danilo, had already started flirting with one of them out on the sidewalk. Papá Isidro distracted the oldest one, who was wearing a shawl wrapped dramatically around her head, and was talking to her about some kind of church business.

It was all a little overwhelming.

Enrique wandered through this unprecedented crowd, greeting people in a dazed way, trying to remember their degrees of kinship. He finally found Miguel, who was standing by the main gate, staring down the marigold path toward the cemetery.

“They’ll get here,” Enrique said. “Maybe they’re here already.”

“I feel like I should know,” Miguel told him.

“Maybe you will.”

“I’ll know for sure when Dante and Pepita come.”

Enrique nodded. “Maybe you should go ahead and start playing. I think a lot of people are waiting to hear you.”

“You don’t think I should wait for them?” He nodded down the path.

“I think,” Enrique said, “that it would be a very joyful thing for them to approach their house and hear music coming from it, and laughing, and to see dancing feet. After so long, don’t you think that would be a nice thing for them to find when they get here?”

Miguel considered this, then smiled. “Yeah! I think that’s the best idea ever!” He ran over to the little door that led to the “museum,” grabbed the guitar from the wall, and came back. “Love you, Papá,” he said cheerfully as he passed, and a moment later, he was strolling among the guests, taking requests and playing beautifully. People danced and sang along with the tunes they knew. Miguel looked happy, grounded, and connected to the people here with him as much as to the ones he might be imagining. Watching him, Enrique thought of him a year ago, withdrawn and angry the night before his voyage, nervous and isolated in the weeks afterward. He’d grown during the year, not just physically. He would never be a little boy again, but for the first time, it didn’t make Enrique sad to think of it. Instead, his heart was huge with pride in the man his son was becoming, and love for him that was beyond anything he would ever be capable of expressing.

He found his way to Luisa, who handed him the baby. They stood together, watching Miguel fondly as he wound through the crowd.

Finally, Miguel sat down on the edge of the well, and asked if people wanted to hear his new song. He nodded to Rosa and Abel, who had gotten their instruments out without Enrique’s notice, and said that his primos would be playing, too.

“This song is for my family,” he said. “Maybe I’ll play it in public later, but now, it’s for everyone here. And it’s especially for my Papá Héctor. I’m not sure if he’s here yet or not, but this is an offering. I hope you like it!”

He smiled nervously and waited for the quiet. Into it, Rosa played a soft, high note on the violin, and then Miguel came in on the guitar, starting with a story about a dream.

Somewhere in the middle of the second verse, just as Miguel’s music swelled into the crescendo of the chorus and he got up to stroll through the crowd, Dante and Pepita came dancing into the courtyard together, and Enrique could feel everyone now, like the crowd had just become vastly larger. But instead of feeling claustrophobic, he felt elated and complete.

Berto appeared beside him, grinning broadly as Miguel jumped up onto the well, treating it like his own personal little stage, engaging his audience. “Think he needs to be up higher?” Berto asked.

Enrique laughed, and the two of them swept Miguel up until his head was nearly brushing the banners overhead, and somewhere in the village, fireworks burst into the sky, framing him. He didn’t miss a single beat, despite the unplanned choreography. He hit the top of the last chorus from the highest perch Berto and Enrique could provide him, and as the crowd applauded him, handed the guitar down to Carlos so that it wouldn’t be damaged as they let him down.

“Thanks,” he said, laughing. “But maybe some warning?”

“Oh, what fun is that?” Berto asked, ruffling his hair. “You need to be able to improvise. At least that’s what I’ve heard.”

“And,” Carlos said, handing the guitar back, “you should have planned that. It was a great bit.”

“It’s like when I was playing with…” Miguel bit his lip. “Well, the first time I did Poco Loco. I got picked up in the middle of that, too. Go with the flow, I guess.”

Carlos gave him an incredulous look. “Tomorrow,” he said, “you are telling me a story. Denny wants to hear it, too. It will be long and detailed.”

Miguel looked at Enrique, who said, “It’s up to you.”

“Ask again in the morning,” Miguel said.

Carlos rolled his eyes, but didn’t push. Abel had hooked up a large-screen television, and was showing his music video, which caught a lot of attention. Enrique imagined Mamá Imelda and Papá Héctor standing nearby, watching it and (hopefully) enjoying it, but maybe thinking it was a bit more magical than a marigold bridge.

Most of the local guests left at around ten, and Coco and the twins were put to bed (Coco had been sleeping on various shoulders for two hours already, and Manny and Benny were yawning out their protests about being big enough to stay up). Miguel took time out to sing Coco her lullaby, and again, Enrique imagined his bisabuelos following along, listening and watching. Certainly, Miguel seemed to feel something. He kept smiling and glancing around, as if he’d sensed some movement out of the corner of his eye, though he had assured Enrique that he still didn’t see anything in the real world. Pepita stayed close through this, then hopped into the crib to sleep in her favorite spot beside the baby.

The remaining family, along with their friends from the city (Carlos and Tina would be sleeping in a spare room; Calles had brought a sleeping bag and said he meant to sleep outside), went back out into the courtyard, taking various benches and chairs. Miguel, back in jeans and his white shirt, was sitting on the ground, leaning on the well, Rosa chattering beside him and taking occasional pictures. (“I’m wondering if maybe I can catch a ghost at the right angle,” she said wisely.) It was their first year staying up with the family. It was Enrique’s first year actually believing, in his heart, that their conversations about the year’s events were being heard by anyone he couldn’t see.

Mamá began, as she always did, by lifting a drink, waving it around vaguely at the shadows, and saying, “Salud.”

Everyone raised a glass in turn and returned the toast.

There was nothing formal about the family conversation. There wasn’t even any effort to act like they were filling in their invisible guests. But this had been Mamá’s way for as long as Enrique could remember.

“So, how was your trip down from the city?” Papá asked Calles. “Must have been an early start to beat the tourists.”

Carlos snorted. “Denny drives like a maniac. We started at the normal time, but I swear we were airborne sometimes.”

“Did you learn to drive in the Air Force?” Miguel asked.

“No. I learned to drive in the city. It’s harder than flying a jet. But it turns out to be a much handier skill as a detective.”

“I never thought we were the kind of people to hire a detective,” Papá said. “But it turns out to be a good thing we did…”

And that was the bridge. As simple as that. They rehashed most of the year’s events, looking at them from new angles. Enrique hadn’t realized that Mamá’s DNA tests were turning up quite as many cousins—albeit distant ones—as there were, or that Rosa had narrowed down her research on hacendados to a handful whose fates she hadn’t been able to ascertain. Papá, whose own grandfather had also been an orphan, had found out that he had been housed in the same dormitories as Oscar and Felipe when they were small children, though there was no way to find out whether or not they’d known one another at all well. “It’s no wonder the whole town’s full of Riveras,” he said. “There were thirty kids in there, half of them named after the same padre.”

Miguel brought out his ocarina and played it a little bit. Berto and Carmen hadn’t heard much about the visit to San Pedro. Carlos asked to give it a try, and, like Miguel, picked it up very quickly. His book was set to hit the shelves next week, and Tina hoped it would pay enough to cover a few months of maternity leave. “Or maybe a few years,” she said. “I’d kind of like to stay home a little bit.”

“Hey!” Carlos said. “So would I! I was counting on you to make money.”

“I recommend a home-based business,” Berto said. “It solves all kinds of problems. But you need a bigger family to keep the baby watched over.”

“They’ve got me!” Calles said. “I’ll watch the baby.”

“Someone needs to actually work,” Mamá reminded them. “And running a business is work. We don’t keep up with orders from Australia and Finland by arguing over who gets to play with the baby.”

“We have orders from Finland?” Miguel asked.

“Yes,” Luisa told him. “You want to take an interest in the business?”

“Yes, I do! No one told me we had orders from Finland.”

“You made quite the show of not being interested last year at this time,” Papá reminded him.

“I’m a Rivera,” Miguel said primly, striking a superior kind of pose, “and a Rivera is…?”

“A shoemaker through and through!” the family responded, then laughed together.

“I think we may have to revise that,” Mamá said. “I think it’s just possible that you won’t be a shoemaker.”

“I’m still going to make my own shoes,” he said. “Every year. And I’ll teach my children to do it, too.”

“I think you’re getting a little ahead of yourself, Miguel,” Enrique said.

“I saw his last try,” Abel said. “I think he better find someone else to teach them.”

Miguel made a face at him, then smiled. “What about you? Are you staying in the workshop, or are you going to keep making music videos?”

“I’m staying,” Abel said. “But I think I’ll fix up our website and make some fun videos for it. And put in a decent order system. It’s silly that Tía Gloria still has to take everything over the phone.”

“I like the phone!” Gloria said. “It’s a human touch.”

“It’s keeping the orders down.”

“And we’re barely keeping up with the orders we’re getting,” Mamá reminded him. “And there will be more after Carlos’s book comes out. Unless we want to turn ourselves into a sweatshop, there’s a limit to how much we can do.”

“Plus, I’m starting the dance shoe line,” Berto said. “Flamenco, tap, ballet, and I’m going to go ahead and make those Irish ones, too. Those soft ones are fun to make. All the lacing.” He held up the ghillies he’d made last week.

There was a lull, then Mamá said, “I liked your song, Miguel. It was pretty. Will you teach me to sing it? I like the idea of singing together.”

Miguel smiled at her, then got up and gave her a hug and a kiss on the cheek. “I’ll teach you, Mamá Elena. I’ll make shoes, and you’ll sing. I think we’ll be okay.”

“I think,” Mamá said, “that we’re okay already.” She looped her arm around his waist. They were more or less the same height now, and they leaned their heads against each other.

There was more talk. Enrique didn’t feel a need to add much to it. He was calm and at ease, and as the talk wound down, he could feel the invisible guests, and the threads that stitched them together, as fine and comfortable as a good shoe, as vibrant and alive as a melody on the wind.

They finally drifted off to bed at midnight. Miguel was yawning ostentatiously, and Enrique guessed he planned to sneak out again later, if the alebrijes were still around. Enrique had no plans to stop him.

He followed Luisa back to their room, where they changed into nightclothes (for the first time, it occurred to Enrique to be self-conscious… were there ghosts watching them change?) then lay down together in the gentle autumn night.

“Your mother’s right,” Luisa said. “We’re okay already, you know.”

“I know.”

“And Miguel is okay. He made it through.”

“I know that, too. We have a good son,” he said. “I’m not worried about him anymore.”

“And how are you? Still worried that you’ll be old someday?”

Enrique thought about it. “No. I’m looking forward to being old someday with you. And middle-aged. And… the rest of whatever I have left of being young. Forty-four is still young, right?”


“So we have plenty of life left. And who knows what will come after that?”

Luisa smiled and cuddled into him.

He fell asleep holding her, a deep and restful sleep in which he visited with all his family, and was held to their hearts.

He didn’t even hear it when Dante scratched on Miguel’s door forty minutes later, or when Miguel opened his door and headed back out into the night.
2 comments or Leave a comment
From: (Anonymous) Date: September 24th, 2018 02:23 am (UTC) (Link)
Great sense of things reaching full circle on this side. Including how the property is much more warmly welcoming to outsiders. And how Miguel finally has become at peace.

Considering how Coco's picture went all the way to Indonesia, I don't think there will be any concern in the near future of Hector outlasting her.

It does bear wondering if the living do recover information about someone forgotten, can the process be reversed.

“I’ll watch the baby.” Cue shifty glances from Carlos and Tina. :P
Completely unsurprised that Calles has a tiny sports car and is a speed demon.
It will be interesting if his grandpa did make it through, which I bet the deceased Riveras would seize upon considering how much they've been musing about bridging cultures.

Definitely not having trouble with their business. And it's reasonable that they don't sacrifce quality or ethics in the process.

fernwithy From: fernwithy Date: September 24th, 2018 04:58 pm (UTC) (Link)
I'm not sure Coco's story went with her picture (might just be one of those weird viral things), but I think Miguel's efforts and plans to tell stories will definitely keep the family together for a while.

I don't think the process can be reversed, at least by the Chicharron scene; the stories have to be passed by the living; Miguel can't just go back and say, "I met this guy named Chicharron," no matter how much he wants to.

I have a feeling that the waiting list for Rivera shoes got very long this year...
2 comments or Leave a comment