how is Miguel’s life in the Conservatory? He’s not just another student? PhantomD
Mamá Elena had insisted on a decent apartment not too far from the Conservatory. The settlement with the studio had left enough wiggle room for everyone to go to school, and to not live in squalor in the process, and Miguel had also been making some music money in the plaza—which had been invested and had grown decently—and, during his final year of high school, he’d written a song called “En La Sombra,” mostly about all of the things whose shapes fell over his life, and how he wouldn’t want to get out from under them. Santa Cecilia had hosted a music festival, and he’d played it in the Plaza. The lead singer of Las Lechuzas, a metal band from Chiapas riding their first solid hit, had heard it, and approached Miguel about the rights. At first, he hadn’t been sure. The idea of one of his songs going into someone else’s hands and being re-done in a new style was more than a little frightening.
But Chimo, the singer, was also a songwriter and understood the fear, so he’d played his metal arrangement before Miguel actually agreed to anything. It had been amazing—somehow blending the band’s signature heavy electric guitars with the recognizable ranchera melody Miguel had written. It sounded fresh and modern without sacrificing its identity, and it was like hearing his own song for the first time. Miguel had been tempted to just let Chimo have it to see how the audience responded, but good sense had prevailed, and, with the help of one of the lawyers from the Rivera Institute, he’d made his first real sale.
The song had gone to top of the charts, and Chimo had bought four more for the next album. He’d only ended up using two of them, but while Miguel had been on road with Papá last year, one had gone gold and the other had gone platinum. Miguel’s name was small on the album credits, and he’d asked not to use his story in selling anything, so he thought he’d avoided the freak show.
Until he started at the Conservatory.
The apartment had been the mistake. He lived alone in a one-bedroom place in Polanco. No one believed the family was paying for it with shoe sales, and the few visitors he’d had eyed it with barely disguised annoyance.
The fact that was coming in as a viral meme hadn’t much helped. It had seemed funny and harmless, but it meant his face was known, his name was known, and the old news stories had been re-hashed across the internet. A site called Chismes had made the connection to Las Lechuzas, and by the time Miguel had been on campus for a week, everyone thought he was independently wealthy and famous… the things they were struggling just to get a taste of. Some admired him for his supposed achievement, others called him a sell-out. No one cared that most of the money had been carefully saved and invested over the years, that almost nothing came in from the meme, and that his cut of the Luchezas songs was fairly small. All they saw was that he had a career ready to be picked up at will, and that he lived in a nice (if small) apartment in a fairly spectacular neighborhood.
It hadn’t made it easy to participate in most of the school’s productions, let alone make friends on them.
“Don’t sweat it,” Carlos said over a working lunch in a practice room. “They’ll get over it. Every time I have a book come out, I get it from the faculty. I should be publishing serious articles in respectable journals, not seedy tell-alls about the golden age of Mexican cinema.”
“Seedy tell-alls?” Miguel repeated. “It’s all researched! I know, because I helped you do it.”
“And yet.” He reached over and pointed at a marimba passage. “You’ve got way too much ornamentation there.”
“I like ornamentation.”
“And a soloist would love you for that, but you’ve got it competing with the brass, and it’s just as heavy.”
Miguel frowned at it. “I like the brass, too. Couldn’t it be, like, they’re trying to compete for the audience’s attention?”
“I think you’ll just get a cacophony this way. Maybe a call and response? Or you could do it as separate movements, you know. You don’t need to put every trick in your bag into a three minute song.” He nodded. “You do the trumpet. I’ll hit the marimba on the piano. You’ll see.”
“I can do the piano…”
“You wanted to learn a brass. Don’t fall back on your strengths. Be daring.”
“Piano used to be daring. Remember, I’m a guitar player!”
“Who took to keyboards like a fish to water. When you step up your keyboard game and start playing harder pieces than this, it will be daring again.”
“Fine.” Miguel picked up the trumpet and managed not to make an awful job of his own melody line, but Carlos was right. There was too much going on at the same time with the marimba part. He sighed. “All right. I’ll make it another movement.”
“Try it as a four-movement symphony,” Carlos said, smirking. “You know you want to.”
“I don’t know the form.”
“That’s why you need to take my class.”
“Next term. I will. I like classical music. It’s not like I’m sitting around plotting to avoid it. I just wanted to get some German under my belt so I could do the operas.”
“That’s actually pretty practical.”
Miguel bit his lip. “I was playing some Mozart the other day. Just practicing in the auditorium.”
“And someone said that I should stick to the guitar. That I shouldn’t… I don’t know. They said I should only play ‘my’ music, whatever that means.”
“Mozart is everyone’s music. So is Segovia. So is Rivera, for that matter. Music is everyone’s music. I’ve been trying to drill that into your head for years, because I knew you’d run into this bullshit when you got here.”
“So, what’s the problem?”
“Someone else said I sold out. Because of the Luchezas.”
“And someone else saw me in my charro suit and sombrero and was… weirdly mad about it for some reason.”
“It made me mad. It’s like insulting me, Papá Héctor, and half the people I know.”
“And then I have all of these people who saw me on YouTube, and they’re always telling me, ‘Oh, you should do this song or that song.’ Someone said I could be the next Ritchie Valens, and I should do ‘La Bamba.’”
“It’s not a bad song.”
“It’s a good song, but I don’t want to do it.”
Carlos sighed. “And what do you want to do about all of this?”
“Honestly? I want to play heavy metal Mozart in a sombrero, just to annoy all of them.”
“Metallica did a cover of Symphony number 40. It’s pretty good. But, alas, no sombreros.”
Miguel laughed, then sighed and put down the trumpet. “It’s just… I guess I figured I’d meet people like me here. Have…”
“Musical friends to play with?”
“Well… kind of.” It was more than that, of course, but Miguel figured Carlos knew it. For the last six years, he’d been playing in the plaza in Santa Cecilia, and he loved doing it. He loved the old mariachis who cheered him on, and he still loved the old ranchera music that had first cast the spell over him. But every time he’d tried to expand on it, every time he’d tried to share some new discovery, most of them hadn’t cared. They hadn’t been actively hostile, but they hadn’t taken a lot of interest in the things Miguel thought of as amazing discoveries. He’d been looking forward to the Conservatory because he’d assumed that everyone here would love music like he did, that they’d have been listening to everything and trying everything for years, just like he had. That every sound would have fascinated them, that every style would have entranced them. Surely, one of them had created Mexirlandesicano dancing on a lark, or tried to set K-pop to African drums, or spent a few lazy Sundays trying to translate English songs into Spanish and get the right rhythm and rhyme while still making sense (and at least approaching the same topic as the original).
Wasn’t that part of being crazy about music? Just wanting it to be in every corner of your life, and to explore all of its strange little by-ways?
But if there were such people, they seemed to be keeping their heads down. Miguel had found himself publicly shamed for his musical tastes on more than one occasion. Different people had different axes to grind, but it all boiled down to the idea that he wasn’t serious. They had clearly thought so when they recognized him from the meme, but learning that he considered Papá Héctor to be a fine songwriter, or that he respected Billy Joel, or that he’d only been playing the piano since he was thirteen, or… for all he knew, maybe that he was from Oaxaca and knew how to shine his own shoes… All it seemed to pale next to their experiences, playing piano since they were toddlers, some of them having written extensive political histories of ranchera music, others refusing to acknowledge it in favor of “superior” traditions. One girl had written a complete symphony at ten. Her attitude toward Miguel’s story of teaching himself guitar on an old beater by watching de la Cruz movies had been one of utter contempt.
Carlos tapped one long finger on the closed piano, then said, “Miguel, if you’re looking for a lot of people like you, there may be some disappointment in store. In all my life, I’ve only met one person like you.”
“Well, I don’t mean exactly…”
“I know what you mean. And what I say still stands.”
“I just wanted to meet people who love music. Maybe even”—Miguel dared himself to both think and say it—“meet someone who loves it like I do and who I could… you know… maybe…”
“You’re looking for someone to fall in love with?” Carlos grinned. “Chamaco, you better just let that happen, instead of trying to shop in your classes.”
Miguel rolled his eyes and made a vaguely obscene gesture in his teacher’s direction. “I don’t know,” he said. “I just thought everyone would have fun with music. But it’s like they use it to hit people with instead.”
“They aren’t all like that. There people who have fun on stage, too. I think you’ll meet more of them if you do some group performance classes. Or start a band. You’ll find the regular musicians when they show up to rehearse.”
“And if they don’t show up to rehearse, I’ll know what kind they are, too.”
“That’s an absolute truth of life.” Carlos ran his finger along the brass line of Miguel’s project again. “Okay. Back to this. If you really want this ornamentation, I think you should do it as a call and respond between the trumpet player and the marimba…”
And you know what would have been amusing/disturbing? If Ernesto ever attended any of those traveling display things that Hector ended up in Bookwormgal
Ernesto didn’t want to be anywhere near the Carpas.
Aside from the fact that he didn’t want to run into anyone he knew back when he’d had a partner—there could be awkward questions—he just felt that, having done supporting roles in a dozen movies, he really should have shaken the donkey-excrement-laden dirt from his boots years ago.
But the new one was about Carpa family. He was supposed to be the tightrope walker. He didn’t know what the dialogue was meant to end up being, although he’d been told that his character was in love with a beautiful young singer, and he and the actress had batted their eyes wildly while discussing the horrible weather they’d been having lately. The dialogue cards would go in later.
The Americans had put out a talkie last year. With singing in it. How long would it be before they came across the border? And as soon as they did, Ernesto was ready to pounce. The leading men he knew were very good at swashbuckling—not better than he was, but good—but they had horrible speaking and singing voices. And one was practically a soprano. He joked about it, but it would kill his career as soon as films started talking.
And Héctor had thought it was a fad.
But for now, everything was still silent, and they were supposed to be selling the idea that they were a real Carpa troupe to the fine citizens of… wherever they were. Somewhere near Hermosillo. So they had made a deal to perform live.
So Ernesto de la Cruz was singing in the Carpas again, even if it was only for the length of time it took to get some newspaper articles written.
His pretty co-star, who was actually playing the singer, couldn’t carry a tune in a bucket, so she was wandering around in a skimpy skirt, selling cigarettes. She’d made no secret of the fact that, should he be so inclined, she would raise the skimpy skirt a bit higher. But she was just an actress. For the moment, he was entertaining a wealthy socialite named Lupe Vigil, who thought she was going to single-handedly create Mexican cinema. He intended to go right on entertaining her until the talkies came. She was a big believer in them. And when that happened, he would happen to find her with her husband, and mention how much he’d like to try acting in one of them. And she would pull the strings to make it happen.
And there was no reason to deviate from the plan.
Which was why he turned left into the sideshow instead of going straight down the midway. He had no interest in dealing with soon-to-be-scorned actress.
He walked the center aisle without much interest, giving big grins to audience types who’d heard him yesterday and pointed at him. Off to one side was a woman swallowing fire. A pair of sisters who shared a leg between them sat on a specially designed stool, wearing short skirt to show off their freakishness. There was a tiny man in a military uniform, and a woman who was nothing but skin and bones (the picture beside her was a photograph of her a fat girl; she claimed to have been cursed for her gluttony). A man swallowing swords. A strongman (Ernesto’s practiced eye with props told him that the barbells were fake). A fat man. Some poor soul dragged in from the jungle and pierced all over.
Same old sideshows.
And, as was all the rage, at the end of the row was a tent with a mummy. Ernesto hadn’t gone to see it. He’d seen a mummy in the last show he’d toured with before settling into the movies. They looked like stuffed leather sacks with bones stuck into them.
“Two pesos! Step up and see the Bandido de la Bahía, terror of the high seas!” a huckster called. “Set adrift after his crew mutinied, and turned to leather right in his rowboa!”
“Can we see him, Papá?” a little girl asked.
The huckster, sensing prey, leaned in. “Oh, he may be too terrifying for a little girl like you!”
“Why, a man like that, even in life, was too frightening. But cursed in death? Oh, I don’t know…”
“I’m brave enough! Papá, tell him I’m brave! I fought a coyote away from the hens all by myself!”
“Well, I’m sure you’re brave, but if something were to happen to you… why, I could be in trouble. I don’t know. Maybe for a few extra pesos…”
Ernesto rolled his eyes. These shows never changed. He slipped behind the huckster and into the tent. There were several wooden boards telling the daring story of the Bandido da la Bahía, who, they claimed, had pillaged his way up the coast and finally double-crossed his crew one too many times.
More likely, he was bought for a dime from an undertaker across the border. Maybe embalmed.
Ernesto wandered further into the tent. There were ridiculous paintings of the Bandido, swashbuckling around. He had a mop of black hair and darkly tanned skin. In most of the paintings, he was wielding a saber, though he had a gun in some of them. Other items in case were claimed to come from the rowboat he’d been found in. There was a gun (an ornate stage prop), a saber that no one seemed to have noticed was round and had ball at the end for fencing practice, and a few old doubloons that might actually have come from a wreck. Plus a lot of garish scarves and jackets.
He paused, looking at these “pirate” clothes. They were cheaply embroidered and cheaply made. And, unless he was mistaken—and experience suggested otherwise—they were charro suits. They’d had some mud thrown on them, but they weren’t at all sun-bleached. Apparently, the show knew perfectly well that the rubes would want to see colorful clothes and not question how sun strong enough to make a mummy would fail to bleach out his spare clothing. Or why the deposed captain was sent out to die with half his wardrobe and…
Why were the clothes familiar?
Well, that was a stupid question. You could get knock-off costumes anywhere. Probably with fringed sombreros. He’d seen lots of them in…
In the train car where Héctor Rivera had died.
He’d been lying on top of them as he vomited and gasped and finally, after three false alarms, stopped breathing for good.
Ernesto had been rifling through the pile, looking for something that wasn’t quite as readily identifiable as the ashes-of-roses suit Héctor had actually been wearing. Something that at least sort of fit. He’d finally found a thin purple jacket and a pair of striped pants. The pants had been too big, but Héctor wasn’t about to stand up, and with the puke that would be all over them, people would just assume he’d drunkenly grabbed the wrong ones. The jacket had been just a little bit too small, and Ernesto had heard a suspicious sounding crack (accompanied by a whimper from Héctor; that was about all he could manage by then) when he’d jammed one arm in. He’d finally stopped breathing while Ernesto was scraping the enamel off the gold tooth. No one who had seen Héctor since they’d started traveling would think of the gold tooth. Ernesto had insisted on covering it up. Once he was sure Héctor was gone, he’d scrubbed out the mouth completely, then wrapped the body up and buried it in cloth, hoping that would slow down the discovery until the train was far away from anywhere Héctor Rivera belonged.
Then he’d grabbed the chorizo. He must have left to get it at some point, but he didn’t really remember doing it. He’d tried to gently push a piece of it into Héctor’s throat, to make a cause of death, but it wouldn’t go. So he’d pushed it a little harder. And harder. Until it stuck.
He’d taken the old suit back with him, and shoved the wedding ring into one pocket. It was under a false bottom in his trunk, along with the songbook. He didn’t know what he meant to do with it. It just seemed like it might come in handy someday. Maybe if the woman ever got around to asking about him, he’d say that Héctor had shed her like an old snakeskin. And…
And why was his mind back in that train car?
He came around the last row of ridiculous exhibits into the inner sanctum, where a shriveled mummy was standing in a glass case.
He walked up to it.
A pirate hat with a huge feather had been jammed onto the head, and an eyepatch was fitted over one eye. There were about a dozen gold chains hanging over a purple jacket. A sash tied around the waist, covering the top of the striped pants.
The mouth was pulled up in a rictus grin. The eyes were closed. Was there anything behind them?
Did you close the eyes?
Ernesto shuddered. He couldn’t remember. Héctor had been unconscious for a while, though. His eyes may have been closed anyway and…
No. Ernesto had closed the eyes. After wrapping him up but before burying him in the cloth, he’d closed his friend’s eyes. He remembered, because it had been interesting, the way there was nothing there. He could touch Héctor’s eyeballs without even causing a flinch. He’d closed Héctor’s eyes and his mouth and said, “Goodbye, amigo.” The mouth hadn’t stayed closed, but the eyes…
No, this was not Héctor. Héctor would have been found, assumed to be a vagabond, and buried in a pauper’s grave somewhere up north, maybe even across the border in Texas, years ago. The train had been headed that way. There was no way this could be…
“Like the bandido?” Ernesto looked over his shoulder. The huckster was grinning. “Don’t worry, we don’t usually charge in the company.”
“I’m not in your company,” Ernesto said, and tossed two pesos down. “Where did he really come from? And I’m not a rube, so don’t bother with the bandido story.”
“No idea. And the rubes are on their way, so the bandido story stands.”
Ernesto smiled faintly.
He thought about the Bandido during his performance that night, a part of his mind wondering if, once upon a time, that withered thing had stood beside him, cracking jokes and trying out his apparently unending run of new songs.
But it couldn’t be. It just couldn’t.
Maybe it would be safer to burn it, just in case.
Or maybe that would just draw attention.
The question ate at him for the rest of the sojourn in the show, overshadowing even his disgust at being forced back into this.
It followed him back to Mexico City, and through the premiere of the film.
Burn it. Burn it now.
He got as far as looking up the show, but it had gone back across the border, and no one was asking questions.
It would never make it to Oaxaca, and even if it did, they’d probably forgotten what Héctor looked like anyway, and even if they hadn’t, even Ernesto couldn’t be sure it was him, and he had information that Imelda and the brat wouldn’t.
So he let it go.
There was no way, after all, that it could hurt him.