“Even your arm bone is too damned long,” Chicharrón said, trying to work Héctor’s bound-up ulna into his thigh. “It’ll make me lean over like that tower in Italy.” He made a show of tipping over, one-footed, into his pile of newspapers.
Héctor looked at the femur, which was a little short for his forearm, and felt weirdly thick and solid. It didn’t feel like a part of his body, either, and it kept trying to sneak back to Cheech, but it only needed to hold up for a few minutes. He watched Cheech fumble for a few minutes, finding an old pipe to attach to his kneecap for balance. “You don’t need to do this, Cheech. I’ll think of something else.”
“What haven’t you tried? Flying?” He rolled his eyes. “Look, this is probably the last year you can do it. Juanita’s brother used to put up my guitar, but his kid started playing it, and last year, he just put up the pick, and said, ‘Who was this guy anyway?’ You know what Juanita’s brother said?”
“Some friend of my sister’s?” Héctor offered, as he’d heard the story a few times now.
“Some friend his sister’s.” He sighed. “Honestly, if you can get through to Imelda, maybe tell her to put something up for me, too. At least she knows I sold you the house.”
“You gave it to me.”
“You paid the price I asked.”
Héctor shook his head. He knew better. Singing “Juanita,” was not, as far as he knew, a fair price on the real estate market. But Cheech’s Juanita had died in the war, and he’d been feeling sentimental. Cheech’s other people—his parents had died fairly young, and his sister had died not long after her marriage, and his sister’s husband—the old shoemaker, Santiago, whose tools Imelda had wanted to keep—had gone off to another version of the war and never come back. Cheech, never one to sit still, had decided to ride the rails to some other town and had—like many of the mariachis in the square—felt kindly toward Héctor, so he had made up the ridiculous “price” to give him a home when he and Imelda had needed to marry abruptly.
“Maybe you could across and see them and get them to put up my picture…” he offered, but didn’t bother to finish.
“I tried last year. Honestly, I’m not sure they’ve got an ofrenda. I got as far as Santa Cecilia, but I couldn’t find my way to the hut. Or they’ve moved or something. But they’re your wife and daughter. I bet you could find them once you get across.” He shrugged and pulled himself to his feet. The pipe was a better fit than Héctor’s ulna, so he let it fly back. Héctor put it in his bag.
“All right,” Cheech said. “Give it a try.”
“Aren’t you coming?”
“What, so I can watch a complete stranger wonder who I was? Juanita’s gone. Her brother barely remembers her, let alone me. And his kid is completely clueless. I’m surprised I’m still here.”
“Don’t be silly. Imelda remembers who gave us the house, and we always told the story to Coco.”
“Hmph.” He considered it. “Fine. If they catch you at Family Reunions, it’s probably better if I promise them you didn’t steal the damn thing.”
They got the Department of Family Reunions only twenty minutes after the line opened, but it was still least half an hour’s wait.
“If it does work, won’t it just trip my spot?” Cheech asked. “I mean, they’ll think it’s weird.”
“I thought of that. It’ll be a guitar or a guitar pick, right? That’s all their paper will say. In the same town.”
“What are we going to do if they’re switching to photographs? They keep threatening.”
Héctor frowned. “Does anyone have a picture of you?”
“I never saw a camera in my life. What about you?”
“Imelda has one we took for Coco’s fourth birthday. And there’s this!” Héctor held up the picture that had been against his skin when he died, only because he’d nearly forgotten it and had shoved it quickly inside his shirt for safekeeping. “Maybe Ernesto gave them the one in the world.”
“Right. Then he donated all his money to a home for orphaned puppies, and next week, he’ll open up that mansion of his to everyone in Olvidados. Also, he’ll tell everyone all about how you wrote his songs.”
“I don’t care about that,” Héctor muttered.
“Don’t yank my chain.”
“There are more important things. Like this!” He pointed at the bridge, which was glowing in the dim sky as the first travelers of the night made their way across. “If Coco and Imelda remember me, then I really don’t care if everyone thinks Ernesto wrote Poco Loco. As long as Coco remembers that… that the other one… is hers, not his.”
Cheech just raised the part of his eye socket that seemed to have taken the place of an eyebrow.
“Really! I don’t care. I don’t. Just… well, if he’d said something, maybe… I’d…”
“Be on someone’s ofrenda?”
“Well… I guess Imelda’s still mad at me. I left. I guess she doesn’t want to risk me coming back. I mean, she probably doesn’t care if I’m dead, I was already dead to her, but I… I want to see Coco. I want them to know I…”
“Know you what?”
The line moved a bit, and Cheech moved with it, limping a little bit on the metal pipe leg. “Héctor, you care as much about the music as anything else. That was a crappy thing for him to do.”
“Ernesto has his lousy side. But I’m sure it was someone else’s idea to do that. Probably big movie people.”
“He is a big movie person.”
Héctor couldn’t think of anything to say to that. Ernesto had arrived two years ago, and had assiduously avoided any chance of running into Héctor. Héctor guessed that someone must have made Imelda and Coco keep their mouths shut about the music, and since Ernesto was already here and their mouths were still shut, it had to be someone else doing it. Didn’t it?
They got to the desk ten minutes later, and Cheech went to one station while Héctor went to the other. Cheech got through right away, the clerk examining the arm bone (the easiest one to offer), getting an ID, and flipping through her files. Héctor, paying attention to this, almost offered the wrong arm.
He smiled sheepishly, then offered the one with Cheech’s femur in it. “Sorry,” he said. “Superstition.”
“Mm-hmm,” the man at the desk said. He scanned the bone. “Looks like a pretty thick bone for your arm.”
“I work out.”
This got a suspicious look, but a moment later, the clerk pulled a file from his cabinet. “Your name?” he asked.
Héctor was prepared for this, and promptly said, “Santiago Gomez.”
The file, indeed, listed this as Cheech’s real name.
“Fine. Guitar pick in Guanajuato.”
Héctor moved on. It was the furthest he’d gotten so far. Cheech waved to him from the foot of the bridge, then started up.
Héctor started to cross the plaza. He looked over his shoulder.
The two clerks were looking after him, each with a file in his hands.
“Stop!” one bellowed.
Héctor ran, but a guard barreled into him from the side. Cheech’s femur, never exactly secure in its place, popped out and made a wild leap for the bridge. He was too far up it to hear what was going on.
Another guard came running in, and his foot caught the femur, kicking it along the cobblestones, With horror, Héctor saw it headed for the edge, now skittering along on its own, but being shot off course by moving feet.
“Rivera!” one of the guards groaned. “What are you trying this year?”
“The bone up there… you need to…”
But they were already dragging him away. He hoped the femur would find its way on its own.
He’d try again next year.