Misunderstanding was the rule in my family. While I did my part to contribute, I mostly observed – the misheard words, the misread signals, the misremembered moments that were supposed to have been unforgettable.
When the call came that Danny was finally coming back to Kimball Park, I anticipated the miscommunication that was bound to ensue, even welcomed it in a way, because I believed with my thirteen-year-old heart that I was destined to escape it. It was Danny himself who led me to believe such a thing. Hadn’t he singled me out the last time he visited? Somehow, though, I overlooked the fact that the reason Danny was coming was to bring his new bride across the ocean to meet us, our large, loud family that took up so much of the dry air in the dozy confines of Kimball Park.
The news that Danny was married had crackled long-distance from Germany in Lupita’s old ear.
“No me digas,” she wailed, even as she begged him to repeat his message after each wave of static, hoping it would reshape itself into something ordinary and unobjectionable.
Danny is my uncle, and Lupita my grandmother. I referred to all adults by their first name – except to their faces. I communicated my adolescent rebellion by not communicating. I harbored an unoriginal catalogue of unspoken impertinences. My looks of derision were directed at people’s retreating backs. Only my sighs, heaved with the force of Connie’s late-model Hoover upright, were obvious. Connie was my mother and the most frequent recipient of my noisy exhalations.
But with the news of Danny’s marriage, my sighs were lost in the collective moan. Danny was ours no longer. Lupita lamented the loss of her youngest. Connie and my aunts shook their perms at the intrusion of Teutonic stock into our family. He should marry his own kind, they grumbled of their only brother, their fingers twanging the telephone cord as they called each other over morning coffee. None of the sisters, though, had married her own kind, having introduced Filipino, Polish, Irish, and Caribbean genotypes into Lupita and Sergio’s Yaqui-dominated Mexican bloodline. Lupita liked to emphasize the fierceness of the Yaquis, their resistance to enslavement by other tribes, even their murderous attacks on trains when they sliced the wrists and ears of passengers for speedy acquisition of a silver bracelet or pearl earring. Then they were crushed like the rest, Sergio always added as epilogue, the heel of one hand grinding into the palm of the other. Let’s face it, even at thirteen I knew, as a family, we were a hodgepodge of conquered peoples.
But then there was our Danny, conqueror and hero. Since Danny had been stationed in Europe, we had boasted to our friends of his sampling of the culture. That he had carried baguettes under his arm in France, clinked steins of beer in Frankfurt with the locals, revved mopeds around fountains in Italy. Only Danny had ventured so far from our corner of the world. From Lupita and Sergio’s modest one-story on Palm Street, the clearinghouse for news of Danny’s adventures, we celebrated his triumphs, invested him with hero status even before he became one. The commendation and scarred hand he received for saving his buddy in a barracks fire proved his place in the world and in our family. Until we learned the news.
While there was no mistaking the fact that Danny had a bride, details about her suffered in the transmission. “She stands stiff as a salute, you know,” reported my aunt Lyla who had relayed the tidings of that first phone call to Petra. By the time Connie got the call from Millie, Danny’s wife was antiseptically clean and carried germicidal sprays in her purse. She was obsessively nationalistic and concealed a tattoo of the German flag between her vast breasts. She was brawny, a former athlete who handled a steak knife as if it were a javelin. She smoked cigars.
“I hate to say this,” said my mother who strove to maintain a semblance of fairness in the midst of such satisfying gossip, “but your uncle seems to have married a … ”
“Visigoth?” I offered.
Connie thought I was making the word up and ignored me. “An invader,” she shouted in triumph. “Magda is an invader.”
But Magda was not the invader.
What we gradually sorted out from a spate of phone calls was that Magda was Mercedes, Spanish not German. “Well, he was calling from Germany,” Lyla said to defend her initial dissemination of the particulars about the origins of her new sister-in-law. As for the details of the tattoo, javelin and cigars, there was silence all around.
The truth was less exotic but more intimidating.
“She speaks Spanish.” Millie pointed out. “We have that in common.”
“It’s different, though,” Petra said.
“Castilian,” confirmed Lyla darkly. “With a lisp.”
The women were seated around the dining room table, talking across the dregs of Sunday dinner before them, the tripe curling in the last of the menudo, tortillas stiffening in the uncovered basket, the gnawed corncobs becoming skeletal as they withered under the bulbs of Lupita’s cracked chandelier. The men played poker in the living room, scowling at their cards through eddies of cigarette smoke. My cousins and sisters were in the bedroom playing records. The Supremes were ooh oohing through the plaster walls and I knew my cousins Bonita and Rica, the pretty ones who already had boyfriends, were taking turns being Diana Ross. I should have been in there lip-synching back-up. But I sat in the corner of the dining room and listened to the meditations on Mercedes and the plans for a homecoming reception, wondering what they would get wrong and who would be blamed.
Rosa, Lupita’s old friend and so much a fixture in the house she was often mistaken for furniture, cleared her throat. When she was still ignored, she stirred the air with her napkin.
“Qué quieres, Rosa?” Millie said, probing a molar with a toothpick for some impacted hominy.
“The Spanish look down on Mexicans because we eat corn.” Rosa leaned toward Lupita as if she were telling a secret, although she spoke in her normal baritone. “You should feed that daughter-in-law masa.”
Lupita was silent as the women turned to look at her. “We’ll have duck,” she said. And we knew we were to treat Mercedes the way we had always treated Danny – like royalty.
So the preparations began. Connie and my aunts did the shopping and cleaning and, in the process, some refurbishing as well. Whenever they dropped by with a bag of groceries or to take their turn at scraping crust from the kitchen tiles or sweeping cobwebs from the porch ceiling, they also settled some new accessory onto the faded décor of Lupita’s house. Petra planted freshly crocheted doilies under ash trays, Lyla draped serapes over the backs of chairs which clashed with the floral pillows Millie tossed artistically against the worn seats. Connie donated a large plastic fuchsia and Frannie sprinkled knickknacks like confetti.
My mother and my aunts had a common decorating scheme – nouveau kitsch – a blend of Early American and 1960s colored-glass-doodad ornamentation. They coveted patchwork quilt cushions on maple rockers, as if they had crossed the plains themselves on Ward Bond’s Wagon Train with their heirlooms, muslin skirts, and Calamity Jane spunk. They accented their colonial trestle leg tables with Montgomery Ward accessories – ashtrays and vases blown from purple, green, or orange glass in sleek shapes that lifted upward like flower petals or curled like an ocean wave.
Even with this shared décor, their living rooms were distinguished one from the other by some particular detail – Grecian statues for Millie, stained glass coasters for Petra, cuckoo clocks for Frannie, mirrors for Lyla, and for Connie a profusion of artificial plants. My mother cultivated a plastic garden of ivy and fern, not from pots or vases, but from the head of a shepherdess or the belly of a troll – ceramic figurines she painted and glazed herself at the community center adult craft classes.
When I was young I was completely taken with this world my mother had created with the fake greenery springing from fake waterfowl, gnome, or other creature of the woodland. My sisters and I rotated dusting and vacuuming chores, and every third Saturday it was my turn to take a rag to the week’s accumulation of dust on the imitation flora and fauna. My aversion to housework found an exception in this chore. I was meticulous in the grooming of each plastic leaf, each ceramic curve, and when my mother said “good” and slipped an extra quarter in my hand, the callused tips of her fingers in my palm were as good as the hugs to which she was not often given.
“Woolworth’s in Tijuana,” was my cousin Leonard’s assessment of the aunts’ embellishments of Lupita’s living room. He was in high school, a cheerleader, and on the spirit committee responsible for festooning hallways with posters and streamers prior to football games. He had credentials, so when he recruited us kids to make decorations for the reception, we placed ourselves in his apprenticeship.
We met at Lupita’s house every day after school, which annoyed me. I had been in the habit of spending afternoons alone at Lupita’s, biking over after lying to Connie that I had no homework. I wasn’t fitting in at school, stymied as I was by the social rules and customs of junior high, and at home Connie misinterpreted my every grunt and glare. It was relaxing to be with Lupita because it was clear why we didn’t understand each other.
Lupita didn’t speak English, even after over forty years in this country. The only Spanish I knew came either from the elementary textbooks at school or the pejoratives, endearments, or exclamations that flecked my aunts’ conversations. So aside from a trite comment on the weather, I had little to say to Lupita, since a context for bursting out with hay que pendejo or maldito sea seldom presented itself.
I generally just shadowed her at whatever she happened to be doing. Sometimes I sat with her on the couch, she watching a telenovela and I watching her twist her knuckles over the black and white melodrama until Sergio came in to claim the TV for the news or the fights. Sometimes I leaned against the kitchen sink while she slapped tortillas between her rough palms, or I trailed her around her rose bushes as we both pinched off brown petals, massaging the scent into our fingertips. Throughout, Lupita chatted in Spanish, a soothing murmur. Perhaps she was talking to herself. Still I responded, simulating conversation as I alternated nods and small laughs with something mumbled and incoherent.
But now because of Mercedes, my afternoons alone with Lupita had turned into a quilting bee of sorts, with many of my cousins showing up – even Tony, the budding family Romeo – and Rosa and Leonard vying for queen bee status. Rosa was teaching us to make paper flowers and we were piecing them together to make assorted frills and flourishes – bouquets, trellises, window hangings – supposedly to offset the Woolworth effect. Rosa demonstrated the technique she had learned as a girl in Mexico, though it was hard for us to imagine this plump, mustached woman could ever have been a niñita. “Se hace así en Acaponeta,” she instructed us, her fat hands threatening the tissue paper into shape.
But most of us imitated Leonard as he experimented with shapes and sizes, and Rosa paid us false compliments on our reckless handiwork to show that she didn’t care. We paid her back by stealing drags from her cigarette when she wasn’t looking. She would wobble on chubby legs to the bathroom and return to find her Camel smoked to the butt.
“Ay, qué molesto,” she would scold the smoldering stub.
We took turns lighting a fresh cigarette for her.
Once, Tony nearly set fire to Bonita who had the habit of trying on all the flowers she made. They adorned her hair, hung at her throat, twined around her wrists, crisscrossed her newly sprouted breasts.
“You look like a piñata,” Tony told her. We always laughed at Tony’s jokes because he was handsome and we could practice our flirting with him. But then Bonita almost went up in flames and he had to douse her with Rosa’s tamarind water. Besides Bonita, well over a dozen flowers were among the casualties.
“You could have killed me,” Bonita screamed, flinging bleeding tissue paper from her drenched blouse and running to tell Lupita. It didn’t matter that Lupita understood little of Bonita’s hiccupping denunciation. She understood tears and within seconds came her sharp, “Ven aquí, Antonio.”
Tony picked his way around the ruined flowers to face Lupita’s reprimanding finger and the cannonade of Spanish negatives. Being scolded in Spanish was always comical to us. We tittered among ourselves at the table and when Tony came back in wearing a grin, Rosa pronounced us veddy bad shildren, which completely broke us up.
Leonard recovered first, sputtering a final guffaw that gusted some unfastened flowers off the table, reminding us of the work yet to be done. We started up again, and because we were tired, of paper flowers and each other, the only sound in the room was the rumpling of tissue paper and an occasional belch from Rosa as we crimped and creased blossoms for Danny and his bride.
After a while Bonita said, “I wonder what Mercedes thinks of his hand.”
Our hand, we all thought, possessively. Our heroic Danny’s hand, its deformity something only we could rightly cherish.
Tony made a claw with his hand as he reached for a piece of tissue paper and we let escape an appreciative giggle or two. But Rosa shushed us, having decided to take credit for and maintain the quiet that had slumped on us before. We obliged Rosa, because sometimes we just did.
Danny was our favorite uncle, though we rarely saw him. We knew him from pictures and from the scant memories of his visits on leave from the army. He was trim and athletic, performing pushups on our command, and his laugh resembled a riot of crows. But the best thing about him was his burnt hand, which we learned about the summer I was seven.
We were at the dinner table when Millie called with the news of Danny’s deed. My father always made us ignore a ringing phone at meals and we all dutifully continued chewing until the caller gave up. But when the ringing persisted, my father leaned over and grabbed the receiver from the wall with the intention of slapping it back on the hook. But Millie’s voice could already be heard calling for Connie who, though frowning at the interruption, nevertheless, hurried to the phone.
Now we all stopped chewing so we could hear better.
My mother’s two-word exclamations gave us the story in abbreviated form.
“A fire? His hand? A medal?”
But it would all be embellished as the story was retold over Sunday dinner at Lupita’s, and when we finally read the account in the Stars and Stripes that Danny sent, we were appalled that they hadn’t got the details right.
“That’s the military for you,” Millie said.
And everyone nodded, confident of the truth.
Danny earned leave for his heroics and we got to see the fresh scars. The women fussed over him and the men patted him on the back, hesitant to shake the newly healed hand. For us kids, he would contract the tendons and then offer the deformed pincers to one of us. “Wanna kiss it?” he’d hiss. And we’d scream, even though we always felt honored to have the ugly hand thrust in our direction.
But none of us was so favored when Danny came home, his arms for once empty of the European chocolate we were accustomed to expect, too full were they with Mercedes whom he carried over the threshold of the Sunset Inn. A misunderstanding about the flight schedule resulted in no one meeting the newlyweds at the airport. Their arrival apparently unheralded, Danny hailed a taxi which delivered them to the best Kimball Park could offer – a two-star motel by the bay. So Mercedes could be awakened by the sound of gaviotas, explained Millie with a laugh to Connie and Lyla as they sipped lemonade on our front porch a day before the reception.
“What are gaviotas?” I asked from inside the screen door.
Lyla made a squawking sound.
“Seagulls,” Millie translated.
“Did you do your homework?” Connie asked, squinting to see me through the screen.
I opened the door and joined them on the steps. “I think the sound of gaviotas is romantic,” I said. I meant the word and not the actual bird, but I knew they would get it wrong.
“Listen to the expert,” Lyla said, winking over her cigarette at Millie. This affront allowed me to rise and stalk off. Performing my adolescent tantrums in front of an audience served both me and my mother. Her admonitions were more subdued when subjected to the arched eyebrows of her sisters. But at least my huffy, stomping exit left her with sympathetic company.
I took my bike and headed to Lupita’s. On the way I thought of Mercedes’s fondness for seagulls and twice aimed my bike at a gaviota roosting by the side of the road. I sprinted the last few blocks and arrived in Lupita’s living room with my hair in a snarl and sweat sucking my shirt to my armpits. I was about to flap the hem of my shirt for ventilation when I noticed the man on the couch grinning at me, a familiar sight, altered, though, by the fact of the woman next to him.
“Hey, stranger,” Danny said, getting up to hug me. He smelled like limes and cigarettes and something else, something new and foreign. Then Mercedes stood and Danny introduced us. She was small, her streaked-blonde bun level with my nose. Though I knew the Magda image had been a figment of our imaginations and ill will, I felt that somehow Mercedes was an impostor in her petite frame and mousy face.
“Mucho gusto,” she said, which I mumbled back at her.
They sat down on the couch again, and I perched on the arm of Sergio’s easy chair. I watched Mercedes cross her legs so that her sandal with its painted toenails touched Danny’s trousers. Danny draped his right arm around her shoulder and fingered the strap of her sundress with his burnt hand. Or what was supposed to be his burnt hand. Confused, I checked his left hand for signs of damage, but it was unblemished. My eyes went back to his right hand and I realized the scars had faded. The mottling and discoloration, the ridged skin were still there, but now were barely noticeable, and in a certain light, at a certain angle, they were nearly invisible.
“Well, what do you think? I’m a married man now.”
“Great,” I said, studying the daisies on Mercedes’s dress which were overly large and bright, an annoyingly welcome distraction from Danny’s practically normal hand. “Congratulations.” I looked at Mercedes, who answered “grathias.”
“Did you hear that?” said Danny. “It’s Castilian.” Then he talked in his jaunty and meandering speech about how they had met. He was on leave in Madrid, buying a round for his buddies when Mercedes began her shift at the sidewalk café.
Mercedes interjected something in her high-speed Spanish.
“You could see the opera house across the street,” Danny explained. “A Puccini opera was running.”
As Mercedes nodded to confirm, I wondered when Puccini had become part of Danny’s vocabulary.
“I had a bet with the guys that I could get a date with her,” Danny said. “She didn’t like Americans. But I surprised her when I spoke Spanish to her. That won her over.”
He patted Mercedes’s leg with his once-burnt hand and her toes arched inside her sandal.
We sat there smiling at each other for a minute until Danny excused himself to go to the bathroom. Then it was just me and Mercedes smiling. When our smiles went slack I could see that she had an overbite. She was on the cusp between pretty and plain. I pictured her serving tapas to my uncle and his buddies on a Madrid sidewalk, their leering faces lit by neon, and all of them ignorant of the baroque opera house across the street bathed by golden lamps, strains of Puccini issuing from its stone walls, and it occurred to me that maybe Danny had not necessarily conquered worlds – only Mercedes.
Mercedes gave a little sigh and we both looked in the direction of the bathroom. I searched the ceiling for something to say. “Las gaviotas,” I began stupidly. Mercedes smiled, waited. “Son interesantes,” I concluded lamely.
“Sí,” nodded Mercedes as if I’d said something original and profound.
Now I wondered if she was the stupid one. Or was she being nice? Either way, her response embarrassed me. I folded my arms and, still balanced on the side of my grandfather’s chair, I swung a leg back and forth, the heel of my sneaker banging the frame beneath the worn upholstery. I resumed my study of the daisies on Mercedes’s dress, wordlessly daring her to make conversation. After a few moments, satisfied that I had bullied Mercedes into silence, I stole a glance at her, and found her occupied the same way I was – absorbed in the daisies on her dress. I could tell her preoccupation was different from mine, though, and I looked away, not wanting to feel sorry for her.
Lupita came in wiping her hands on her apron. It was time for her telenovela and even her new daughter-in-law could not prevent her from her daily episode of Amor de Mi Vida. She turned on the set and adjusted the antenna for the best reception of the Tijuana station. Mercedes had stood up when Lupita came into the room, and I stood up now, too, and greeted my grandmother with a kiss, laying claim to her and to my place in the family.
But Amor was about to begin so Lupita patted me aside and took a seat on the couch, motioning for Mercedes to join her. I dropped back into my chair and placed myself at its edge to demonstrate my interest in the wretched life of the beautiful Gabriela de los Santos. I watched Gabriela’s perfect eyebrows rise in disbelief, her full mouth inflate with denial as the treacherous Ramón planted rumors of her lover’s betrayal.
“Mentiroso,” denounced Lupita under her breath.
“No le crees,” Mercedes warned Gabriela.
I felt my feigned anxiety for the soap opera characters turn to real concern as I realized their wretched lives were bringing Lupita and Mercedes together.
During the commercial break, Lupita filled Mercedes in on previous episodes and Mercedes gasped at the perfidy, clucked at the misery, and they patted each other’s hand in commiseration.
Danny came in with a beer and stood by my chair. I looked up at him ready to exchange looks of friendly exasperation. “Ramón is scheming to win Gabriela,” I informed him with a roll of my eyes.
“Oh, yeah?” he laughed. But then he sat down on the couch with Mercedes and Lupita.
I left them to their soap opera, left them to fret over the passionate and impulsive lives of others. I went to the kitchen and scanned the refrigerator, considered swiping a beer but took one of the bottles of orange soda bought especially for Mercedes. Out on the back porch I tossed the bottle cap in Lupita’s rose bushes and surveyed the yard. There was Sergio’s dilapidated shed that, though off limits to us kids, once served as our secret clubhouse. There was the rectangle of crabgrass where my cousins and I had spent so many Sundays playing Red Rover and tag. There was the cracked sidewalk that led to the rental that had housed Rosa and her husband Camilo since the beginning of time. And there from the gnarled branches of the lone tree hung the long-undisturbed wooden swing that we used to fight for turns on. I went over and sat on its worn plank, pushed off gently, my feet lifting slightly off the ground and I could feel that it was only a matter of time before it broke loose.
When I got home I told Connie that I had met Mercedes.
“What did you think?”
“Nothing special,” I said, but then I realized how satisfying my answer was to my mother, so I added, “just one more member of this whole entire stupid family.” And I was on my way to my room before Connie could send me there herself.
A few years after the burnt hand incident we saw Danny again. He had been assigned for special training stateside at Fort Huachuca in Arizona and when he finished he hitched a ride on the back of a buddy’s Harley-Davidson to Kimball Park where he arrived dusty and helmetless. Lupita fussed and scolded, chastised the buddy who, after depositing Danny and his duffle in my grandmother’s geranium bed, revved his motor and roared off, popping a wheelie before turning the corner. Danny waved with his scarred hand until the Harley was out of sight and Lupita, clutching his other hand, pulled him inside the house. We had him for only a few days before he would head back to Europe for missions he could only allude to with tight lips and lidded eyes.
When the family gathered for Sunday dinner, Danny laughingly recounted the journey on the Harley, its wheels skimming the westward ribbon of asphalt, the desert spreading out on either side, then the climb up the mountains, the twists and turns, and then the race down again. Finally, there was the stretch of highway pockmarked with warehouses, dying shopping plazas and used car dealerships that led to Kimball Park and us.
After dinner we kids played tag in the backyard, louder and giddier than normal because Danny was home. We still thought of him as being home, even though he didn’t live here anymore, hadn’t for a long time, and wouldn’t ever again, we knew. When Danny came out to the back porch for a break from the poker game, I went to sit beside him. I was sweaty and out of breath. Danny lit a cigarette and in the twilight, the flame from his match made the scars on his hand dance. He wasn’t talkative, so I stayed quiet too.
Every so often, Danny would be called upon to resolve a dispute over whether someone had been tagged or not.
“I’m neutral,” he would say. “Like Switzerland.”
Just his reference to a foreign country made us respect Danny. And I liked the word “neutral,” as if he was above the commotion and strife of the world and the squabbles of our family.
I didn’t know anything about Switzerland, except that it was the home of Heidi and it was famous for its clocks. Though neither of these things interested me, I wanted to go to Switzerland because Danny had been there.
“What should I see first when I go to Switzerland?” I asked as if my trip were imminent.
Danny leaned back on his elbows, the cigarette in his scarred hand growing a long cylinder of ash. He thought a long moment, looking up into the darkening Kimball Park sky. “You should see Berne. It’s medieval.”
I nodded, picturing serfs and plague from the pages of our encyclopedia at home, and I heard an invitation in those words you should see and I answered, “I will.”
He handed me his spent cigarette and I stamped it out for him.
When I came out of my room for dinner, the table was not set and my mother was lying on the couch. “What’s wrong?” I asked, wondering more about the lack of food on the table than about my mother’s well-being. She had an arm draped over her forehead, which she lifted halfway to peek at me with one eye.
“Your father took you kids out for Kentucky Fried Chicken.”
I gaped at her, waiting for her to acknowledge that I was there in front of her and not feasting on a drumstick and slaw.
Connie sighed heavily. “Why are you here? Why didn’t you go, for heaven’s sake?
“No one told me,” I fumed. “What am I, invisible?”
“Well, you’re very moody.”
“I’m very hungry.”
“You’ll have to make yourself something. I have a terrible headache.”
Connie sank back into the couch and I sulked to the kitchen to make a peanut butter sandwich. The peanut butter was too stiff and the bread too soft, so my meal resembled a child’s art project. More fuel for my resentment. Even though I was not fond of KFC chicken, there was still the issue of my having been left behind and I was prepared to make the most of the slight.
The phone rang and I grabbed the receiver off the kitchen wall. Millie’s voice reached my ear before the receiver did.
“Is your mother there?”
“Yes, Auntie, but she has a terrible headache.” I probably shouldn’t have put such an emphasis on terrible, but it went entirely unnoticed as both my aunt and my mother seemed anxious to talk to each other.
My mother called from the couch, “I’ll be right there.”
While I waited for Connie to shuffle her headache to the phone, I attempted small talk with my aunt.
“What’s new?” I chirped.
“Well, that Mercedes, I tell you. You just won’t believe –”
“What?” I prodded. But Connie was next to me now and I had to surrender the phone.
I sat down at the table and tore bite-size pieces off my sandwich, chewing slowly as I listened to my mother’s half of the conversation. Even though Connie was primarily the listener in any conversation with Millie, she could be counted on to repeat at intervals Millie’s annunciations and so suggest the gist and spirit of the story.
This was something that was baffling about my mother and her sisters. They never talked behind closed doors or in whispers, yet they harbored a delusion that their conversations were private and confidential. In a matter of minutes, I had pieced together that Mercedes and Danny had had an argument, after which Mercedes had gone for a walk and not yet returned. Connie and Millie were speculating on which one of Mercedes’s shortcomings was responsible for the fight.
I abandoned any further pretense of eating my sorry sandwich and mimed to Connie that I was going to take a bike ride. She nodded, absentmindedly, her face and body attuned, despite her headache, to the unmodulated trill of Millie’s voice on the line.
I pedaled quickly, as if on a mission. I actually felt as if I were on a mission, though it wasn’t clear to me what sort.
When I arrived I could see through the screen door that Danny was in the living room watching Perry Mason. As usual, Millie and Connie seemed to have got it wrong. If Mercedes were missing, Danny would not be sitting in front of the TV.
Danny beckoned me inside. I stood just inside the door, where I could see though the dining room and beyond into the kitchen.
“I’m alone.” Danny said.
The words sounded sad to me the way he said them, but, oh, so familiar.
“Where’s Mercedes?” I asked.
Danny shrugged. “Aw, she’ll turn up,” he said, as if she were a misplaced sock. He explained that Lupita had gone to the church and Sergio to the corner grocery in search of Mercedes.
I didn’t say anything, just stood there. Finally, he took his eyes from Perry Mason and I could see embarrassment. Confusion too. “We had a little fight,” he said. Then he looked around at the decorations tacked to the walls and streaming from the ceiling and gave me a feeble grin.
Leonard had come by earlier and worked his magic with the paper flowers we had made. The reception for Danny and Mercedes was tomorrow.
“What about?” I asked.
“Aw, married people stuff.”
“I’m never getting married,” I vowed. As I said this, I realized I saw Danny’s marriage as a betrayal, that Connie and my aunts did, too, and I didn’t want to be aligned with them. I sat down next to Danny on the couch.
He lit a cigarette. “You’re still young,” he said. “You don’t have to worry about any of this stuff yet.” He sucked in some smoke and then released it to the ceiling where it curled itself around some paper flowers. His words felt dismissive. We sat in silence while he smoked.
When he was done he held out the smoldering butt to me for old times’ sake, but I got up, leaving Danny to put out his own cigarette. I headed to the back porch, stopping at the freezer where Sergio kept a stash of Eskimo Pies. I claimed one for the rest of my dinner. I went outside and sat in the old swing, rocking gently back and forth, my feet skimming lightly against the ground so as not to stir up any dirt into my ice cream. I was facing the back of the old shed, staring at its sun-bleached planks and sagging roof, thinking about Lupita knocking on neighbors’ doors in search of her Spanish daughter-in-law, and Sergio at the corner grocery checking the aisles for Mercedes and picking up a box of cigars and a bag of salt water taffy while he was at it. I couldn’t imagine Mercedes from Madrid roaming the streets of Kimball Park.
I was down to the last bite of Eskimo Pie when I suddenly stood up, the swing thumping the back of my knees as if prodding me toward the shed. I rounded the corner to the front and saw the door slightly ajar. I pushed it open and came face-to-face with Mercedes. Though she sat precariously on the edge of an old wooden chair to avoid too much contact with the dust around her, her posture was prim, her arms were crossed and her chin firm with determination. But her eyes were scared and I was sure that I was not entirely the cause of that.
“Hola,” I said. For some reason I whispered it.
“So,” Mercedes said. “You find me.”
“Sí,” I told her, suddenly finding my little Spanish words ridiculous and her efforts at English touching.
I persisted in this bilingual communication and, trying not to sound like a cartoon, I said, “Qué pasa?”
“Oh, we have a fight.” Mercedes’s eyes began to leak tears and a reflex I was unaware I owned made me want to dab at them, but all I had was the ice cream wrapper in my hand. Another reflex took over and I told Mercedes to wait, stay there and I put my fingers to my lips to indicate a secrecy between us. I ran back into the house and grabbed an Eskimo Pie from the freezer and ran back to the shed, breathless with this gift of solace, and I was relieved when it made her smile.
I sat cross-legged on an old trunk and we talked, our conversation fractured and hobbling, a mixture of my elementary, unconjugated Spanish and her travel dictionary English. I learned that Mercedes loved Madrid and missed it fiercely, as she pressed her hand to her heart, in case her English did not properly convey her meaning. I wondered what it would be like to be in love with the place where you lived, thinking fiercely that I could never miss Kimball Park.
Then Mercedes said she was afraid no one here liked her.
“Not true,” I told her. “No es la verdad,” I said, a phrase I had heard too often on Amor de mi Vida. I was concerned it had a melodramatic ring.
“Sí, es true.”
“No, ees not,” I countered, and we laughed at the muddle we had made of our languages.
After a while, Mercedes asked, “Why you no ehspeak ehspanish?”
The words stung. I wanted to ask back why she didn’t speak English. But then I saw there was no malice in her face, just curiosity.
“Only the grown-ups speak it,” I said, which was no explanation at all, merely an anthropological fact, but Mercedes seemed to accept it. Or she didn’t know how to question it further.
“Mañana, tomorrow,” she said, “I want say something in English. Words to Danny.”
“Like a vow?” I didn’t know the Spanish word. “Una promesa?” I ventured.
“Maybe, un poema,” Mercedes said, hopeful, suddenly taken with the idea.
I didn’t know any poems except for the refrain from “The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere,” which we had been required to memorize at school. I did know songs, having spent countless Sundays lip-synching back-up to my destined-for-stardom cousins, Rica and Bonita. We were the Supremes, the Marvelettes, Martha and the Vandellas. I had the perfect song – one that admitted confusion and confessed love.
Mercedes was a quick study, memorizing the lines I gave her in minutes. Then we scrounged around the shed and found a dirty crayon and a bit of paper, and I wrote the words down so she could practice on her own.
“Grathias,” Mercedes said.
“Grathias a ti,” I said, saying the word back at her, replicating her Castilian accent, pleased at how nearly authentic I sounded.
I walked her to the back porch and then ran off to round up Lupita and Sergio.
The next day the family assembled in the house on Palm Street for the blessing of the couple. Father Silvio, a nearly deaf, retired priest who lived down the street, positioned Danny and Mercedes at the wide threshold that separated living room from dining room. Garlands of paper flowers cascaded around them. Lupita and Sergio and my mother and aunts formed a semi-circle behind the newlyweds, close enough to touch the couple if they wanted, or push them apart. The rest of us stood behind Father Silvio, me and my sisters and cousins jostling with Rosa for the best view. My father and uncles hung back, restless for the poker game that would follow the ceremony and meal. Leonard, holding a clunky, important-looking camera, darted in and out among us all.
Mercedes stood composed in an ivory, A-line, chiffon shift with a hemline that invited go-go boots, but instead was coordinated with matching stockings and pumps that lifted her to my height. Her coral lips were closed against her overbite, which gave her a demure, flattering look. Danny was solemn and confident in his suit and his military posture. He was not a tall man, though he had always seemed larger than life to us. Now with Mercedes at his side, he was both more and less familiar. More and less ours.
I saw Bonita stare at Danny’s hand which hung at his side, the faint mottling a pretty abstraction against the dark of his trousers. I stared, too, and I tried to remember if we had really been scared or if we had just pretended to be when Danny used to thrust out his hand and hiss at us to kiss it. Father Silvio took Danny’s once-burnt hand and put it in the small white hand of Mercedes. He delivered a blessing, his Spanish made more unintelligible by the scouring thickness of his voice, which added to the mystery of his words.
When Father Silvio finished, we clapped almost as much for the newly blessed couple as for the end to the old priest’s droning, but he held up his hand to shush us.
“First,” Father Silvio said, “Señora Camacho – Mercedes,” he clarified, lest we all thought he was referring to Lupita, “has a few words to say.” He beamed at Mercedes, though there was a hint of uncertainty at the corners of his large smile.
We stood still and silent. It was possible to hear the rustle of the paper flowers caused by our breathing. My hands were sweating as I watched Mercedes take both Danny’s hands in hers. She looked at him shyly and began,
I can’t explain it
Don’t understand it
I ain’t never felt like this before
It was the word ain’t that set off the twitter. Where had she picked up that word? That bad grammar?
Mercedes seemed more intent on getting out her full declaration than in the reaction that was beginning to make a low whine around her, the way a mosquito sounds as it swoops in search of exposed flesh. She seemed oblivious even to Danny’s puzzled expression. I felt my face and neck go hot, and I closed my eyes as Mercedes continued.
Now this funny feeling has me amazed
I don’t know what to do
My head’s in a haze
“Is she all right?” one of my aunts whispered loudly.
“Qué dijo?” Lupita asked.
“It’s the excitement. She might be feeling faint,” said another one of my aunts.
Mercedes, determined to finish, spoke louder, more emphatically, her accent more pronounced.
Ees like a heat wave
I feel it
Burnin’ right here in my heart
Ees like a heat wave
With these last few lines, Mercedes had dropped Danny’s hands and placed both her own at her heart, which prompted Millie to shriek, “Get some water, quick!”
Millie’s outburst, rather than spur us to action, fixed us in place as Mercedes turned to stare in confusion at all of us. I felt that I should say something since, after all, I had been the one to put those words in Mercedes’s innocent lisping mouth, words that had seemed perfect for the occasion, but which now I realized had only been perfect for me and my befuddlement with the world and the hope to one day be out in it. But I kept quiet. Our nerves were straining with the silence, our mouths dry of saliva. Something was surely going to implode.
But then suddenly everything clicked, a collective light bulb radiated understanding above the heads of my hyperventilating family. Danny grinned his big grin, let loose the crows in his laugh and wrapped Mercedes in his arms, accepting the gift she had made him – English words spoken by heart, from the heart. It was a noble and sweet intent, never mind that she had little clue of the meaning. Bonita and Rica, having finally discovered one of their favorite songs lurking beneath Mercedes’s accent, began to warble, one of them assuming the role of Martha and the other channeling a Vandella.
In the commotion that followed, I tried to catch Mercedes’s eye to exchange winks or a thumbs-up or some other sign of team spirit, but she was engulfed by family. Lupita and Sergio hugged their new daughter-in-law, clung a moment to Danny, then the other grown-ups crowded behind to do the same.
Lyla and Millie handed around champagne in stemware redeemed with S&H Green Stamps and poured Dixie cups of Fresca for the minors. We raised our glasses and cups over and over, toasting the couple’s happiness, their health and prosperity, their fecundity, Puccini, sidewalk cafes, Danny’s burnt hand, Mercedes’s Castilian lisp, gaviotas, (my toast), America the beautiful, España para siempre (Mercedes’s toast). And then a reluctant final toast – a safe trip back to Europe. Our glasses were empty now and we were reminded that a taxi would take Danny and Mercedes to the airport in a few hours.
“Pues, vamos a comer,” said Lupita, herding the couple to the buffet laid out in the dining room. It was a feast we set upon greedily, as if it were our last. Still there were leftovers. Duck meat glistened in its gelled fat, rice fastened in perfect mounds to serving bowls, carnitas lay unskewered next to a brimming bowl of salsa. Though we wanted to, we couldn’t eat any more, couldn’t hoard against future hungers. There was a brief lethargy when forks ceased to rasp against plates, when conversation lacked the shrill one-upmanship of my aunts, when we were in danger of saying something cruel or stupid simply to avoid descending into silence.
Frank Sinatra saved us or rather Father Silvio did when he set the phonograph spinning. It was Mercedes who coaxed Danny to his feet, but then he took over, steering her left or right, back and forth, then finishing by dipping his new wife to a daring angle as Frank crooned the last notes of “The Way You Look Tonight.” Mercedes’s squeal was matched by our applause. Then Sergio and Lupita danced to Pedro Infante, Leonard led Lyla in a cha cha, and soon we all wriggled to the Beatles.
Enlivened by the music, we faced Danny’s departure like overworked puppies, jostling one another as we slapped his back a little too hard, rumpled his thinning hair, shook his once-burnt hand. We kissed Mercedes European style, bumping noses as we moved from cheek to cheek and even then it seemed I was lost to her amid the blur of faces. We formed a gauntlet down the porch steps and heaved paper flowers as they ran for the curb to escape in the taxi. I aimed especially for Mercedes and saw my flower catch in the crook of her arm.
I stood on the front lawn next to Connie, who closed ranks with Lupita to wave goodbye as our Danny left home again. They were silent, but I understood them both perfectly. Before the taxi pulled away, Mercedes leaned her head out the window, and even though I was in the crowd of my family, I knew it was me her eyes searched for, me to whom she blew a kiss. For minutes after the taxi disappeared around the corner, we stood there watching the traffic pass. Then we all went back into Lupita’s house, no one willing to go home right away.
I sat in the kitchen for a while listening to Lupita and Rosa converse in Spanish, not trying to understand, not pretending to.
I walked through the dining room where my mother and aunts were dividing the leftovers and trading gossip.
Then I joined my cousins in the bedroom just as Leonard was sliding a stack of 45’s on the record player. When the needle hit the groove, I was already in place beside Rica and Bonita to sing back-up. Not for the last time, but not forever, either.