Miguel had made his first guitar in secret. He’d seen a broken one at the plaza, after a drunken fight in mariachi plaza when he was eight. The musician had started it, flirting with someone’s wife—though Miguel hadn’t really understood that part at the time, and had only gotten the whole story later—but the retaliation had been entirely out of proportion, taking the man’s livelihood and smashing it on the cobblestones. The fight had been pretty spectacular, and almost everyone was paying attention to it, but Miguel had been there, shining shoes, and all he’d been able to think was, “What does it look like on the inside to make such beautiful sounds?”
So he’d gone to the smashed guitar and seen the inner structure, the little supports that kept the tension in the wood, the beautifully curved pieces that no one ever saw.
It had taken a lot of experimenting over the next two years, starting with a wooden box and fishing line and eventually progressing to careful trials with wood he scavenged from the dump. There’d been long hours when he’d pretended to be out with friends, not to mention a few late nights in the shoe workshop, using clamps and saws to get the shapes right. He’d learned how to shape wood—Papá Franco had made patio furniture, and Miguel had helped him—and he knew how to be patient with the gluing and cutting, and he knew that precision on the functional elements was more important than the final decoration, no matter how much fun the outside was. You couldn’t grow up around Rivera shoes without understanding that much. If the inside of the shoe wasn’t right, it would never matter how pretty the outside was, because the customer wouldn’t be able to wear it. He’d guessed—rightly—that the same was true for guitars.
He wondered if Mamá Imelda’s talent for shoemaking had come from the inside-out approach she must have had to making guitars.
Getting the shape right had been the hardest part, and he hadn’t learned until later that he should have made two thin pieces for the top instead of a single one. He’d drawn and measured and was still glad that he’d made the back and front of the sound box larger than he’d intended, because he’d ended up having to cut them down, which he suspected wasn’t how it was meant to be done. And the sides… even with the shaping with soaking and draping over a brace made of two coffee cans and chip tins, it had still been off kilter and needed cutting. But as he’d worked, he’d learned, understanding from the guts out how each move would affect the sound, even he wouldn’t understand exactly why until Carlos started with the physics lessons.
Even so, that first guitar had sounded like what it was—mostly garbage—but he had loved it, and he had carefully used as much of it as he could salvage to rebuild it. It was hanging on his bedroom wall now, more a piece of abstract art than an instrument he would actually play.
The second guitar had been more deliberate, made with the assistance of a book on the proper way to make a classical guitar, and he’d been able to make it in the open (well, except where Coco could see). It had been a scaled-down one, a fifth birthday present for Coco. He’d bought good cyprus wood for it, and spent most of a year on it after she’d first tried playing his guitar when she was four. It was bigger than she was. And the thought had come from nowhere: I can make her a better one. And he had. It was much better than his first one for sound and stability. Of course, it was also pink with a big, stylized rose on it, and the rosette around the sound hole was made to look like a pair of curved unicorn horns. Just because the inside needed to be right, it didn’t mean the outside couldn’t be a lot of fun.
Coco had loved it. She hugged it like a stuffed bear and kissed it goodnight and insisted that Miguel teach her to play. And she showed it to everyone, including Miguel’s tutor, Carlos Navarro, interrupting their lesson to say, “Tell Gabi I have a guitar now, too! Miguel made me my very own guitar! It has flowers! And there were maracas for baby Teto and Miguel is teaching me to play! I love brothers!”
Carlos had stopped the lesson clock and asked Coco to show it to him up close, showing much more interest than Miguel thought strictly necessary.
Two weeks later, after the lesson clock ran out, he’d said, “Miguel, I spoke to someone about you.”
“The guitar. The one you made for your sister. It’s beautiful. Much better than the toy I gave Gabi. I showed the video from our session to a man named Bonifacio Dominguez. He’s the one who made my guitar. He makes the best guitars in the city—or the country, as far as I’m concerned.”
“You showed it to a real luthier?”
“I did. I don’t know if this is anything you’d be interested in, but Dominguez was impressed. He’d be willing to take you as an apprentice this summer if you’d like. Well, not a full apprenticeship, that would be years, but you can study with him. I think it would be good for you. It’s something you’re good at that a lot of musicians aren’t. And you could stay with Tina and Gabi and me. Denny Calles moved out of the apartment over the garage.”
“He bought the house across the street.”
“Oh.” Miguel bit his lip. “I don’t know what my parents would think.”
“I wouldn’t have brought it up to you if I hadn’t run it by them first. I imagine they’ll have some ground rules, and so will I, but they said it’s up to you. I hope you don’t think I overstepped. I just… I never had a student who could even begin to do that before, and I’d love to see where you could take it. And as you father pointed out, you’ll need a new guitar to take to school. And on your road trip. Dominguez is more than happy to let that be your project, though you’d be helping him in the shop as well.”
Miguel had been frightened—he couldn’t imagine spending all summer in the capital, even though it was only a year now before he’d be going off to the Conservatory—but in the end, the draw of learning from a master luthier had been greater than the fear… and greater than the ground rules, which had increased by a factor of about a million when all parties involved found out that Denny Calles’s cousin, Bridget Shaughnessy, was spending the summer with him in the house across the street, doing her own apprenticeship by helping him with his private investigation business. There was now a whole subsection of the contract (and it was a formal, written contract) involving not having guests in the apartment unless the door was open and the blinds up. After supper, there would be no visits without chaperones.
“You’d think they don’t trust us,” Bridget said as she unpacked a picnic lunch onto a blanket, ignoring the rickety old table behind Dominguez’s shop.
“Or that they think we have a lot more time than we do,” Miguel added, checking his watch. Most of the work at the shop was doing repairs, and he had two bridges to sand, a custom tuning peg to replace, and an intricate rosette to finish for one of Dominguez’s pieces… and that was in addition to the work he was doing on his own instrument, with Dominguez checking each piece to make sure it was perfect. Bridget was taking a break from hours at the library, going through old census records for one of Denny’s cold cases. On the rare occasions that they were both home before supper (or even for a couple of hours after it), Carlos’s four-year-old daughter had turned out to be a very effective security alarm any time she noticed a closed blind. (On the occasion that she’d spotted one when Bridget was over, Carlos had issued what he referred to as “your only warning before the ticket back to Santa Cecilia.” Which hadn’t been fair, since it had been an oversight and nothing much had happened anyway.) If it hadn’t been for Dominguez—an old romantic who believed that only passion could create art—they wouldn’t have been able to get a moment all summer, and brown bag lunches by a rusty picnic table in a garbage-smelling alley didn’t exactly create a romantic atmosphere.
Not that this had stopped them from giving it what Bridget called “the old college try.” Miguel doubted they’d film great movies about it, but he had a feeling that, for himself, he’d spend the rest of his life remembering the long, rambling walks they’d found excuses to take, the kisses stolen under the tree in the park near Carlos’s home, the acrid smell of her sunscreen, and the warmth of her body leaning against his as they shared cold chicken and iced tea and pretended not to notice the smell from the dumpster behind the fast food place next door to Dominguez’s workshop. When someone asked, “What does it feel like to be in love?” he’d think of this.
Hopefully, he’d also think of whatever was going to come next, because they both knew this summer was the end of the line, but he wanted to hold onto it in his heart for as long as he could.
“How’s your guitar coming?” she asked, pouring another cup of tea from the thermos.
“Good. I’m working on the headstock now.”
“Are you going to make it a skull, like your Papá Héctor’s?”
“Maybe. I’m more in construction than decoration mode right now.”
“Well, yeah. I guess.”
“How about you? Catching any bad guys?”
“Denny won’t let me near the bad guys. But I was the one who found the address for the guy who’d been sending little hate notes to the college professor.”
“Yeah. Denny got him before he could really do anything, but the threats were enough to put him away.” She sighed. “I just want to be out there. I want to bring down these bastards myself.”
She shrugged. “I just want to make the world better. I’m going to study forensics when I go to college in the fall. But I don’t just want to solve crimes. I want to stop them before they happen. Or at least before they get all the way to… you know, murder. Or other things.”
“It’s a good thing to do. How does your dad feel about you leaving home?”
“He’s scared. But Penn’s got a good forensics program, and a kind of club where you can get some real practice in. And… well, I’ve been looking at the FBI. Maybe I’ll train as an agent after I finish my degree.”
“Working for the government.”
“Is there something wrong with that?”
“No. I just… well, it does kind of kill this fantasy I have where you decide that there are criminals in Mexico that need catching, too.”
“Surely, you jest.” She took his hand and kissed his knuckles, then pulled it over her shoulder and settled into the crook of his arm, leaning against the shop’s wall. “We’re about two incidents away from a civil war, querido. They don’t talk about it on the news. They stick everything under ‘random violence’ and shootings and arsons. The stuff I’d be working on. But it’s not random. I mean, it’s more West Side Story than Gone With The Wind right now—stupid kids with guns—but it’s real. There are people trying to tear my country apart, and I’m not going to stand there and let them. I have to do something.”
He kissed her head. “I know.”
And he did know. They’d been over the same territory three times this summer, and last winter when he’d gone up to Minnesota for Christmas. (When he’d unpacked upon coming home, he’d found the little plastic mistletoe decoration they’d spent a lot of pleasant moments under hidden among his tee shirts.) They’d even brought up the idea of him coming up to join her someday, but they both knew it wouldn’t happen, even in this brave new world of open and easy travel. His soul belonged to his family and to Mexico. He loved the sweet-smelling fields of Minnesota and even the icy beauty of winter in the north country, but it didn’t belong to him, and he didn’t belong to it.
He stroked her hair for a while, then said, “Soy tuyo.”
“Yo también,” she whispered, then shook her head sharply. “No, no. That’s not right. We don’t belong to each other…”
“I don’t mean it like owning. I mean it like—belonging to my family or my church or… you know what I mean. We have this space between us, and we belong to it. It’s ours.”
“Somos nuestros,” he agreed.
“It’s good to love a poet.” She cuddled closer to him. “You should make a song of that.”
“I’ve been working on one for a week.”
“I get to hear it first.”
Then she turned her face to him, and there were no words, just the quiet tea-taste of her lips and the soft roundness of her breast under his hand and…
They broke apart.
Dominguez was standing in the back door, shaking his head. “You’re taking advantage of my good nature, Rivera. Lunch is over. Let’s get to work on that rosette.” He looked at Bridget. “And your cousin called. You are, shockingly, not at the library. Again. He’s on his way.”
They went into the shop and Miguel went to his station. The tiny, interlocking pieces of ebony and mother of pearl were as he’d left them, the round frame waiting for attention. They would eventually form a pattern of stylized stars, with a bit of pearl dust in the lacquer for luster. The work was fine, and Dominguez said it was better for younger hands.
The woman who commissioned it was an astronomer who only played as a hobby. Miguel had met her. She was nice, and he wanted to give her a nice instrument, but it was definitely not a design he’d have chosen.
Of course, the one he’d chosen was purple and orange on black—and he’d created the pink one—so he supposed he shouldn’t talk about taste level.
Bridget understood the work well enough to try not to distract him—which she could do pretty much by being in his line of sight—so she waited quietly at the service desk, sorting braces for Dominguez until Denny showed up, grinning.
“The two of you know,” he said, “that rules are not meant to be ‘those things we spend all of our time getting around.’”
Miguel blushed, but said, “Hey, Denny. You’re one to talk.”
He shook his head at Bridget. “You’re going to get me in trouble with his family.”
“My family loves her. And you.”
Bridget rolled her eyes. “We’re not doing anything,” she said. “And I got the sister’s name for you. She disappeared because she moved to Los Angeles. I picked her up in the city directory in the 1950s. She was naturalized in 1961. There’s a grandson still there. Do you want his number?” She smiled and pulled a slip of paper from her jeans pocket.
He took it. “I’m telling you. Give up the FBI. I’ll take you on as a partner in the business.”
She looked across at Miguel and gave him a slow, sad smile, then said, “Who knows? But not now. Maybe something will change.”
But Miguel knew it wouldn’t.
She kissed his cheek, then left with Denny.
Dominguez bent down to examine the rosette. “It’s hard work,” he said, “but you’re doing fine, you know.”
“It’s always hard to give them up, though. When it’s time to let go.”
“That’s what we do, though. Right?”
He nodded, then started sanding the peg holes on his project. “While you were at lunch, I had a look at the design you made for yours. It’s interesting.”
“You don’t think the orange and purple clash too much?”
“The black setting will calm it down. I recognize the marigold petals. What are the purple spots?”
“Oh. Flowers from home.” Miguel decided not to elaborate on the lie. The truth was, they were stylized forms of the marks around Mamá Imelda’s eyes, but Dominguez wasn’t close enough in his circle to know that. No one really was.
“Flowers all around, then. Interesting. Do you have one for your young lady?”
He shook his head. “I won’t finish before she’s gone. And then people would ask why there’s a forget-me-not, and I’d have to talk about it.”
“So, put it on the inside where you don’t have to explain it.”
“You’re making this for yourself, Miguel. You can keep your secrets and your heartaches inside of it. They’ll always be a part of your music.”
“I don’t need forget-me-nots in the sound box for that.”
“Nomeolvides,” Miguel translated. “They grow on her farm.”
“With a name like that, I feel it should be on a Rivera guitar. Maybe your logo.”
“I’m not going to have a business. I promised not to compete with you.”
“Trust me. I’ll be long dead before you’re good enough to cut into my business.”
“True. It’s going to take a lot longer than the summer to learn everything.”
“I’m still learning,” Dominguez agreed. “But you keep working at home. Check in with me every month for a while. I’ll get you through to journeyman level.”
“Yes, really. Strangely enough, I don’t have a lot of students. I should have had children.”
“Why didn’t you?”
“Just never got around to it. It’s a little late now.” He set down the headstock he’d been sanding and came over. “It’s all right for you to use what I’m teaching you in business. There are few enough hand-crafters out there that we don’t cut into one another’s business very much.”
Miguel smiled. “No. I... I made the one for Coco because I wanted to make her something. And I want to make my own. And someday—don’t tell—I’m going to make one for Carlos, because he’s always so happy that I do it. But mostly I just…” He ran his finger over the smooth bits of ebony. “I just really love guitars. I really wanted to make them just because… you know… they’re guitars. They need to be made.”
“I understand.” Dominguez leaned over the rosette and examined it. “But you know, there’s no law against making a living with what you love.”
“That’s why I’m a musician.”
“I need to hear you play someday. Are you playing anything while you’re here?”
“I’m going to do a little recital at the Conservatory in July. Professor Moreno wants to see how I’m progressing. You can come if you want.”
“I’d love to. Just let me know when, so I can close the shop for a couple of hours.”
Miguel spent the rest of the afternoon bent over the rosette, doing the patterned inlay with small, delicate tools. As the day wore on and he started to squint, Dominguez gave him a magnifying glass that strapped around his head and fit over one eye. It helped, but he didn’t think it would ever make the hot fashion tips for the year.
It was almost seven when Carlos came from the Conservatory to pick him up. Miguel hadn’t noticed the time—the long June day was still quite light—but apparently, Tina and Gabi had dinner ready. Carlos, who spent more time at home writing and teaching his private students, usually did the cooking, but Tina said she enjoyed his Conservatory days, when she could pretend to be a chef.
Tonight, she’d cooked an Ethiopian lentil stew, though she’d bought flour tortillas instead of making the right sort of bread to eat it with. It was spicy even by Oaxacan standards, and very tasty. They ate at the picnic table in back, and Bridget and Denny came over to join them, which was usual as far as Miguel could tell. Denny brought groceries over as often as not, and no one talked about it, anyway.
“I learned about Africa,” Gabi said. “In my day care. That’s why Mamá made African food. It’s much bigger than Mexico.”
“It’s a whole continent, mijita,” Tina said. “Remember the difference between countries and continents?”
“Like rooms in a house!” Gabi announced proudly. Miguel admired the way they taught her in every single conversation, without it ever feeling like they were forcing her to learn—he wanted to try that with Coco and Teto when he got home. “I have my room, and you have your room, and Miguel has the garage, and that’s an island!”
“Right! And Tío Denny has a whole new continent,” Carlos said. “He should have more people living on it.”
“I’m working on it,” Denny said.
“No you’re not,” Bridget said. “I’m going to find you someone before I leave.”
“What are you going to do? Look up ‘Wives for my primo’ at the library?”
“Hey, Ti, do you have sisters or cousins?”
“Well, there’s my cousin Lea… or how about Sara? What do you think, Carlos? I think Sara would be perfect.”
Carlos laughed. “Your Tía Meg would love it. Mexican and Jewish.”
Bridget rolled her eyes. “If he’s out to shock Aunt Meg, do you have any brothers?”
“I spent enough time living with men in the Air Force, thanks,” Denny said.
“Personally, I think he’s holding out for a Rivera,” Tina said. “Miguel… do you have any older cousins for Denny? I mean, your aunt would probably think he’s too young.”
“I have lots of cousins. None of them are the right age. Maybe some distant ones up in San Pedro. What about that opera singer you rescued from her crazy boyfriend? She’s pretty.”
“And there’s a man with clear and important priorities.”
“What can I say?” Miguel said. “I love the prettiest people.” He grinned at Bridget.
“It’s that depth of sentiment that makes him such a good lyricist,” she said, then reached across the table and mussed up his bangs. He grabbed her hand and wound his fingers through hers.
Carlos made a show of gagging, more or less like the twins would do at home, and Miguel laughed, letting go of Bridget’s hand (but not until he ostentatiously kissed her knuckles and she batted her eyelashes and fluttered her hand over her heart, just to annoy Carlos).
Gabi, bored with this talk, climbed up on the bench beside Miguel. “Is it Coco time?” she asked.
“Gabi,” Carlos said, “sometimes Miguel might want to call his family on his own. You don’t need to talk to Coco every night.”
“No, it’s okay. If I call from the apartment, Coco will just make me go get Gabi, anyway.” Miguel pulled out his tablet—it was ridiculous to try and call on the tiny phone screen—and let Gabi get settled on his lap while the daily call went through.
“You’re a little early,” Mamá said. “We haven't cleaned up from supper yet.”
“Us either,” Gabi said. “Is Coco there? We had lentils.”
“Lentils, you don’t say.” Mamá shuffled things around—Miguel could see a large meal still laid out on the table, and Abel and his girlfriend were feeding each other dulces at the far end. Rosa was going through her college textbooks, and Abuelita was trying to clear things around them. Papá over from the workshop and tried to say hello, but Coco and Gabi were talking over most of it (about the extremely important subjects of Coco’s brand new red hair ribbon, and why Africa was like a big house). Miguel didn’t mind. He’d call Mamá and Papá later, and they would talk, and Papá would ask—in an overly casual way—about Bridget, and Mamá would tell him to let Miguel alone about that, and he would ask them about Santa Cecilia.
But for now, it was the bigger family that mattered. He wished he’d thought to invite Dominguez.
Somos nuestros, Miguel thought. We are ours.
Sometime next month, or in August, this temporary world he lived in would fade, and the little apartment would become Tina’s office or Carlos’s file room. Bridget would head north and Miguel would head south, and they’d both figure out how to let go. Coco and Gabi would find other little girls who they just had to talk to every night.
But it wouldn’t all go away.
Because they belonged to it.
To each other.
Miguel cuddled Gabi as she giggled and laughed with Coco, and smiled at Bridget, while Carlos went to get his guitar for the night’s singing, and Denny helped Tina clear the table.
Soy tuyo, he thought, not to all of them, but to each of them, and to Mamá, and to Papá, and to Coco.
Soy tuyo. Por siempre.