Maybe someone left the phone in the kitchen, which would be convenient. I could stand a cup of coffee. As I’m grinding the beans for a stiff espresso, a-ha! I spot the receiver in the bowl of bananas on top of the fridge. Of course, by now it’s stopped ringing: my goal all along. I have no more desire to know who wants to pester me this early than I’d want to coochy-coo that goddamned rooster—a one-legged veterano rescued from the cockfights—next door that started shrieking its brains out just before five while I wadded my pillow into my ears. I’m up for good, now, and kind of enjoying the warmth of the linoleum on my bare feet. Summer mornings, this little rental house in Sylmar almost feels like a living body, pulsing with mild heat, expanding and contracting with the sleepy breathing of its occupants. But by afternoon, forget it, it’s hotter here than inside a casket hurtling deep into the caverns of hell. Luckily, my back yard abuts the Angeles Crest Forest and corners of it, shaded by fruit trees and deep in the shadows of the piñon-covered foothills, stay as dark and cool as it is inside a well.
I’m humming a little to myself, even smiling, when the phone starts in again. I grab it and affect my hoarse, who-the-fuck’s-bugging-me tone. “What is it?”
“Marina? Marina, is that you?” a sort of familiar male voice says.
“Yeah, who’s this?”
“It’s Nestor, Nestor Pérez, Rudy’s friend.”
Ah, yes, Nestor, my ex-boyfriend’s old buddy, a cubano, some kind of Santeria priest, a babalawo, who moved to Florida a few years ago. But he must be seriously out of touch with the spirits if he thinks he can find Rudy at my house these days. “Rudy’s not here. We broke up in February.” I pour the ground coffee into the filter and fill the chamber thing from the tap. “Are you in L.A.?”
“Nah, I’m in Miami, and I ain’t looking for Rudy. I want to talk to you.”
“Yeah, what’s up?” I press the “on” button and make my way back into the living room because the espresso machine roars like a diesel engine once it gets going, making it impossible to hear a goddamn thing in the kitchen.
“I want to do you a limpieza, you know, clean the evil spirits out of tu casa.”
I’ve heard about this shit before, so I’m wondering if he’s lost his mind. The ceremony involves some kind of domesticated animal sacrifice. I picture sticky goat blood puddling my linty green carpet. And don’t limpiezas cost a fucking fortune? Nestor used to brag about what he charged, and I remember thinking it’d be cheaper (and more worthwhile) to have the house painted professionally. “Um, no thanks, don’t need one,” I say. He must have fallen on serious hard times, if he’s reduced to telemarketing ex-girlfriends of friends.
“Nah, man, listen, everybody needs a limpieza, or the evil spirits just keep on accumulating and bringing harm and shit.”
I glance from Kiko, stop-and-start snoring on one couch to my kid sister’s ex-boyfriend Reggie, passed out on the loveseat with his hairy legs dangling over the armrest. And I think about my neighbor Carlotta, who has run away from her bruto of a husband and four ignoramus teenage sons, to lay claim to my guestroom, after her baby—the thirteen year old—gave her a black eye. “To be honest with you, Nestor, that kind of thing’s not part of my culture, and no way do I have the money for it.” Carlotta’s head of coppery curls emerges from the hallway, followed by her girlish body clad in yellow baby dolls. She’s hauling a basket of laundry, but she sees me on the phone and freezes.
“Absolutely free. You understand?” he says, sounding like one of those radio announcers offering discounts on used cars. “I’m not going to charge you nothing.”
Maybe I’m not hearing too well. “Let me get this straight—you want to do it for no money. I don’t pay a penny.”
“You got it.”
“Why?” Knowing Nestor, as I do, or any of Rudy’s friends for that matter, I have no doubt there’s a catch of some kind, a scheme behind this.
“Es que, I had this dream about you, mujer, a nightmare with fiery lizards and poison toads. I can’t tell it all. Me dío tanto susto that I woke up with two gray hairs in my moustache. I could see, in this dream, that you’re facing una tragedia, a terrible loss, so I says to myself, Nestor, you got to do something. I threw the cowrie shells, and you don’t even want to know what I saw—”
“You can do something like that long distance from Miami?”
“Nah, man, I’ll fly out there, and I ain’t going to charge the airfare neither ‘cause I’m heading there tomorrow for my cousin’s wedding, so it’s totally free.”
“Who’s that?” my nosy-ass neighbor wants to know.
I cup the mouthpiece, as Nestor explains all he plans to do in order to perform my limpieza, punctuating every sentence with “free of charge.” “It’s Nestor, Rudy’s friend, the babalawo,” I tell her. “He wants to do a limpieza here at the house.”
“Ugh.” Carlotta curls her upper lip. “Goat blood.” She lugs the basket into the kitchen where I keep the washer.
“Look, Nestor,” I say when he finally pauses for breath. “I don’t want a limpieza, not even a free one. I’m good the way things are.” I figure evil spirits aren’t so bad. At least they’re quiet. They don’t break up with people on fucking Valentine’s Day or lose their jobs and come running to my house to stay for months. They never smell like foot funk or leave deep body impressions on my sectional cushions and smear hair gel on my throw pillows. They have yet to use up all the hot water or borrow my major appliances, and they have not once disturbed my deep, delicious sleep. Even the wickedest evil spirits would be a major improvement over that rooster across the street.
Nestor assures me I will change my mind, and I say I have to get ready for work.
“I thought you teachers were off in the summer.”
“Ever hear of summer school?” I say, vaguely wondering how Nestor knows I’m a teacher now. He probably called Rudy earlier, made him the first offer of a free limpieza. To be polite, I cast about in my memory for Nestor’s wife’s name and reel it up. “Hey, how’s Dixie doing? And the kids?”
“You mean Daisy? Ah, you know women. They see someone has something, and they want it. She’s bugging to get a job now, put the girls in preschool. She got all these gabacha ideas from the television.”
“There are worse ideas to get,” I say, thinking of my ex Rudy’s former wife, Dolores, whose body was found around Christmas time, slumped on a bench in Echo Park, both arms so riddled with needle marks she looked like she had a flesh-eating disease. “Listen, I’ve got to go, or I’ll be late.”
“A’ight, that’s cool. I’m going to give you my cell number, so call me when you change your mind. Just remember, this offer expires in a few days.”
“I don’t think I’m going to change my mind.”
“Write it down anyway, okay? And I’m going to give you my website too, so you can check it out.”
Amazed that Nestor has a website, I pretend to write everything down and finally hang up, replacing the phone, for once, on its cradle set upon a wooden bookcase near the loveseat. The bookcase is dust-furred, and the plum-colored loveseat looks faded under its fine sifting of grit. Carlotta rattles the dishes piled in the sink, no doubt searching for a coffee cup to rinse out. Far be it from her to fill the basin, squirt in some dish soap, and actually wash a few plates. If Nestor could do a true limpieza on this house—one that involves Pine Sol, scouring powder, and furniture polish—then, no problem, I’d certainly be down for that. I would even pay.
Here at the middle school, these people, my students, are at their best, the best they’ll ever be. They’re fresh-faced, strong, healthy, hopeful, and eager—even the fat and pimply kids have such promise. I want to take each one aside and say, Hey, stop and enjoy this before it’s too late. You will never feel so good in your lives. It is total bullshit about life experience and wisdom making up for what you will lose from here on out. Of course, they’d never buy it. No one wants to believe that kind of thing. So I have to content myself with reveling vicariously in their great good fortune, however brief it is, here at the middle school.
This summer, I’m teaching a reading class weekday mornings, and I picked out a book I thought would appeal to the students, a little novel called The Incredible Journey. It has a picture of a cat and two dogs on the cover, and I figured, hey, kids like animals, so I ordered a set, not realizing how hard the fucker would be. The vocabulary is what’s really incredible about this book. I’m lunging for the dictionary at least half a dozen times with each chapter. Words like sybaritic, somnolent, and hermetic are all over the place. I guess my vocabulary’s improving, and that’s something, but in the meantime, I’m sweating all over again, just like I did in college, trying to rewrite the freaking book, so I can crack the code for the eighth graders and translate this shit into plain English.
Today, after wrestling the high diction all morning and getting my ass whipped, I slink over to the office to pick up my mail and messages before heading home. I’m planning to cruise by Stop and Shop for a six-pack of beer, as I’m craving some Kirin or Asahi, one of those clean, potent Japanese beers with my nice solitary lunch of leftover grilled salmon out in the back yard. But, there’s a yellow slip in my cubby hole—until now I hadn’t even noticed that I’d left my cell at home—a missed call from Leticia, my ex-boyfriend’s daughter. Come to the hospital right away, the secretary has printed in the message box. Oh, shit, I say, but silently because I’m in the office, and now that I’m a teacher, I have to cut back on the audible cursing while on school grounds. Wish I could moan it out loud though.
But after four weeks, the baby wasn’t moving too much or gaining weight. It’s shitty to say, but I secretly blamed Letty for returning to manage the food counter at K-Mart too soon and leaving him with old Rosaura, Miguel’s alcoholic mother, without a second thought. Failure to thrive, the doctor said at the six-week visit. Drunken bruja probably kept him locked in a closet all day, I thought, but I was also noticing his crooked crying, the left side of his lip dipping down, like it was being yanked by some unseen hook, and he cried all the time. Back and forth to the clinic and then to the hospital, they went—usually hauling me along to talk to the doctors, translate the medical jargon into words they could understand. Again, I was sweating, papayas this time, and trying to copy everything down. Cystic fibrosis, they first said, then, after the salt test, no, not cystic fibrosis, but hypocalcemia, diabetes mellitus, renal insufficiency, neurodegeneration. I looked each word up twice—Google and then Yahoo—hoping to come up with different explanations or newer articles with groundbreaking discoveries, but nothing I found changed what I’ve known for weeks, what the doctors know, what Letty, Miguel, and even Rudy—wherever he is—don’t want to know.
At the hospital, I find Letty at the nurses’ station, pecking her car keys on the counter. “Can’t you do something?” The nurses move about uneasily, shifting file sleeves around and trading glances. Letty, with her stringy, unwashed hair, blemished face, and dark-ringed eyes, looks like a mad woman, a runaway from an institution for the criminally insane. “He’s all bloated. He can’t even move his head. There’s got to be something you can do to drain him out.”
“Letty,” I say, and she rushes at me, almost knocking me down.
She’s squeezing me so tight it’s hard to breathe. “I can’t stand to see him this way.” She pulls away and searches my face, her eyes wild, her fingers digging into my upper arms. “You have to help me!”
Hearing this, I remember the time I had to drive to the courthouse in San Fernando to pay Letty’s bail after she was caught shoplifting a silk blouse from Neiman-Marcus. She’d just turned eighteen and was terrified her father would find out, so I was the one she called from jail. “You have to help me!” I thought it was one of the worst times we’d ever face. Until now, I had no idea how easy it was to stroll into the courtroom, put a serious look on my face, listen to the judge, and afterwards, calmly write out a check. I actually could help the girl. But that was nothing, nothing like this.
“I’m here now,” I say, stupidly, because I can’t come up with anything apart from that obvious fact. “Let’s go see the baby, okay?”
As we leave the nurses’ station, I give them a look, draw out my tablet, and say, “Please call the doctor.” I’m gratified when the pudgy one at the desk lifts a receiver.
Manzanita Vista Hospital is kind of a dump since the last earthquake. Overhead, you can see aluminum ducts, wires, and pink tufts of fiberglass insulation where the plaster has fallen out in chunks, but at least the children’s wing is repaired and freshly painted with bright murals of circus scenes. Dancing elephants, balloon-bearing clowns, and flying trapeze artists scroll past as we make our way to Little Rudy’s room. The baby shares a sea-green room with a nine-year-old girl who has leukemia and a big family of mustachioed men and plump women who sit around her bed, talking quietly whenever I come to visit. I have the idea they’re always there, eternally ringed around that bald kid, speaking in hushed tones like they’re in church.
Poor baby Rudy has to take what he can get, visitor-wise, as Letty continues to work though she’s cut back on her hours. Miguel has a full-time job laying pipe for the city, and he’s doubled-up on his Narcotics Anonymous meetings in his free time. My ex, the freaking namesake, forget about it. The jerk can’t be bothered with anything the least bit difficult or even unpleasant. He hopped a plane to Santo Domingo as soon as we knew the baby’s condition was serious. No one knows when or if he’ll be back.
“Buenos dias,” I say to the quiet folks and the dying girl.
“Buenos,” they murmur in unison without lifting their eyes to meet mine.
“Look at him.” Letty points to the baby flat on his back in the hospital crib. “He can’t even move.”
Edema, I remember this from my previous notes, fluid retention. His stunted body looks inflated, like some grotesque balloon, the hospital band biting into his swollen wrist, but he’s not crying. His face is calm, his puffy eyelids fluttering, as though he’s wavering in some twilight sleep. “He looks peaceful.” I touch his bunched fist, silky as a puppy’s belly.
“Don’t say that.” Letty wheels on me, her sour-smelling hair whipping her cheeks. “That’s what they say at funerals.”
The door swings open and I’m impressed with the power of my writing tablet in summoning the doctor, until I see that it’s Rudy, my ex, deeply tanned from the island, even wearing new sunglasses. And my heart starts pitching against my ribs in a crazy way. Arrhythmia? I fold and then refold the extra crib blankets, not daring to look up.
“Where the hell have you been?” Letty asks.
“How is he?” Rudy says, ignoring her question. His gently accented voice whooshes me back nearly two decades into the past, when he first told me, deep in the shaded dell of my back yard, that he couldn’t stop thinking about me and he asked me, real quietly, if he could kiss me. Con permiso, he’d said, and my eyes traveled to his lips, ripe as persimmons—full and sweet and sun-warmed. I lifted my face to his for a taste.
“Well, look at him,” Letty says, now, hands on her hips. “What do you think?”
“Hi, buddy,” he says in that high, tinny voice people use when they have no idea how to talk to babies, and he stoops over the crib. “You get big and strong, so we can play some baseball, a’ight?”
Letty cuts me a look. “Like he ever played anything with me.”
“Why don’t you take a break, honey,” I tell her. “Now, that we’re here, you can go downstairs, grab something to eat or go freshen up, if you have to.” The toilet in here has been plugged for over a week, an out-of-service sign hangs on the door knob.
“I’ve only had to pee for like three hours,” she says in a loud voice, and the family nearby glances over. She glares back, grabs her backpack—they don’t carry purses anymore, these girls—and stalks out like an offended queen.
As soon as she’s gone, I’m wishing I wasn’t alone with Rudy, Rudy and the quiet family, that is. What can we say to each other? Sounds corny as something straight out of a telenovela, I know, but what is there left to say?
Rudy lifts his shades, clears his throat. “I heard you got a call from Nestor.”
“Yeah, what about it?”
“He’s offered to do a limpieza for you, and you didn’t want it.”
I shrug. “What do I want with a limpieza?”
Rudy waves a hand over the crib. “Don’t you think it would help?”
I shake my head to clear my ears. “What?”
“What is this, if not evil? How else can this happen to an innocent, little baby? The limpieza will expel the evil causing this harm.”
Now I remember why we broke up: Rudy is an idiot. “Are you out of your mind?” I ask rhetorically. “The baby has a congenital disease, meaning he was born with it. Will a limpieza in my house, of all places, reverse time, cram him back in the womb, so he can be re-born without this disease?”
“You know what, forget it,” Rudy says. “I should know by now. You’re so cold; you won’t do nothing to help no one.” He pretends to shiver. “Fría, fría, tan fría.”
“Have him do a limpieza here in the hospital or at your house, if you want it so bad. That’s closer to the source,” I say, meanly.
“He didn’t offer us.”
He shakes his head. “Because we don’t carry no weight.”
“What do you mean?”
“Pues, I ain’t even got a G.E.D, but you, you’re a teacher. You know children, what’s best for them. A judge will listen to you, pay attention to what you say.”
“What judge? What the hell are you talking about?”
“The divorce, mensa. Nestor is divorcing Daisy. She’s acting all gabacha now, wants a car, wants to work, everything. She don’t care about him, so he’s cutting her loose, but he wants to keep the kids.”
Gooseflesh rises on my arms like I’ve experienced this precise moment before, but from another angle. The odious truth sinks in, what I have suspected in some dark corner of consciousness and must now embrace like a long-lost psychotic relative who’s too eerily familiar to ignore any longer. I know exactly what I’m going to say and how Rudy will answer. “Let me guess, Nestor’s met someone else, and he’s in love.”
Rudy nods. “Real nice girl, just come from the island. She understands him.”
His knowing frown reminds me of Valentine’s Day, when he told me in the waiting room of this very hospital, the first time we brought the baby in, that it just wasn’t that much fun to be with me anymore. I don’t know how he thought it would be fun to have his gravely ill, newborn grandson admitted to the hospital. How on earth did he expect me to make this more amusing—crack some jokes, make funny faces, tickle his feet? Back then, though, it stung me, like I was caught not doing something I should be doing, like I’d just received some huge overdue bill, threatening legal action, in the mail. But now, it plain pisses me off.
“You are so fucking stupid,” I say in a low voice, so as not to disturb the quiet family, but I can hear sharp intakes of breath in the background all the same.
“You know what?” Rudy tells me. “I’m leaving. It’s no good being around you no more. You’re so negative, Marina. All the sacrifices I make, and you won’t do nothing for me or my kid. You can’t think of anyone but yourself, huh?”
I squint at him, thinking, boy, he’s lucky there’s no avenging angel of irony hovering with a flaming sword, or surely he’d be split in two—Pffft, just like that.
“At least think it over—for me, for us, for him.” Rudy glances into the crib before shuffling toward the door and muttering “adios” to the assembled members of the quiet family, who mumble back, again, like parishioners responding to a priest.
I push the plastic scoop visitor’s chair up close to the crib and lower one side, so I can put my arm in and sort of hold the baby. I imagine him trying to nuzzle my arm, and I wish I could pick him up. If not for all the monitor wires and intravenous tubing, I sure would. After all the stuff I’ve read on his condition, I can’t believe how strong he is, how he fights for his scrap of this world, however bleak and tormenting it is. It’s his, and he’s not about to let it go, no way, not right now.
Before Letty returns, one of the doctors finally appears. He’s the young one, the borriqueño, who always seems nervous, like a great twitching rabbit in his white smock coat. “How are we doing?” he says.
“Well, he’s bloated,” I tell him, again stating the obvious.
“That’s from the meds.” He lifts the infant gown and puts his stethoscope to the baby’s chest. Little Rudy flinches. The doctor, then, checks the monitors and makes notes on his writing pad, attached to a clipboard. “I can prescribe a mild diuretic.”
I pull out my tablet, thinking I should get a clipboard. “Where are we at?”
He shakes his head. “It’s a matter of days now.”
I hold my pen steady, but the blue college-rule lines on the notepad wobble, go blurry. “But what do I tell them?”
“What we’re dealing with here is an infant who has multiple endocrinopathies with fatal neurodegenerative disease.” He scribbles all this on a prescription pad, tears off the sheet, and hands it over, so I don’t have to copy it down. “We’re just trying to make him comfortable. That’s all we can do.”
The door bursts open once more. This time, a noxious gust of bourbon fumes ushers in Miguel’s mother, la boracha herself, tottering on cracked patent leather heels and clutching this fake leopard-skin coat about her as though it’s thirty below, instead of in the upper eighties and smoggy as hell. Rosaura scans the room with an expression on her face like she’s accidentally stepped into an outhouse. Then she looks me up and down, pinches her nostrils together, and says, “It smells like a skunk died in here!”
Meanwhile, Kiko’s finally unveiling his action plan for changing his life’s direction after getting fired from his job as a janitor six months ago. “Yeah, I’m going to meet me some fine, rich babe, with tetas out to here, pop her the question. She’ll be so happy, she’ll be all, like”—here, he affects a syrupy falsetto—“‘honey, what kind of car can I buy you?’ ‘Cause chicks, they’ll do anything to get married, know what I mean?”
“Got that right,” says Reggie, despite the fact that not that long ago my sister chipped his eyetooth, trying to cram the engagement ring he gave her down his throat.
I put my beer to my cheeks, my forehead, letting the condensation trickle down my face like icy tears. “Where’s Carlotta?”
“I ain’t seen her.” Kiko drags on the joint noisily. He’s a heavy, pasty-faced kid, who’s not too thorough in his personal hygiene habits.
“I think she went back home again,” Reggie tells me. “She borrowed some harina de maiz. Said to tell you she’d pay it back.”
“Talk about sufridas, this is a textbook case.” I gulp my Japanese beer. It isn’t the first time old Carlotta has snuck home to fix food for that houseful of ungrateful babosos. I can almost see her flipping corn tortillas on her comal and shooting furtive glances at the door. She’ll scuttle back here before her husband and sons get home, leaving behind a plate of steamy tortillas at the center of the table and a bubbling asopao on the stove. Maybe Kiko’s plan is not so far off the mark if attractive and otherwise intelligent women like Carlotta can take over twenty years of mistreatment and still scurry home on the sly to fix hot meals for their abusers.
“Eh, I think she took some paper towels too.” Reggie relights the roach, sucks at it. “By the way, we’re almost out of toilet paper.”
“You ever hear of the goddamn store?” I say, picturing my paper towels tucked under the chins of those five wolfish louts next door, my masa in their bellies.
“I’m just saying—”
I jump out of my chair, nearly spilling my beer. “I know what you’re saying. You’re saying, Marina, go buy some toilet paper, since you’re buying all the groceries all the time anyways. You two fucking lazy parasites sleep all damn day, sit on your asses the rest of the time, smoking dope and hatching stupid plans, and then when I get home from work, from seeing that poor baby in the hospital, you tell me we need toilet paper!”
“Jeez,” Kiko says, gathering up his stash box, rolling papers, roach clip, and lighter. He’s been around here long enough to know what’s coming.
“Hey, hey, take it easy,” Reggie tells me.
I turn on him, fierce enough to shove his skinny ass to the dirt and trample it with my bare feet. “What are you doing here anyway? Whoever heard of getting dumped by your girlfriend and then moving in with her sister?” Sure, I felt sorry for him when he showed up at my door all depressed and weepy when my sister kicked him out. This wasn’t long after Rudy and I split up, so looking at Reggie’s moping face was a little like glancing in a mirror for me, but that feeling’s wearing mighty fucking thin these days.
“We better go,” Kiko tells Reggie, whose red-rimmed eyes bug out with surprise.
“A’ight,” he says and rises from the table with a shrug.
“We’ll be back later, tía, when you’re feeling better, okay?”
“Later, ese,” Reggie says. “We’ll bring some toilet paper.”
They head for the side gate, buzz-cut heads lowered like they’re leaving a funeral. Kiko tosses me a look over his shoulder. “Hey, tía, can we like borrow your car?”
A half hour later, my hands are still shaking when I pick up the ringing phone, after I manage to locate it, this time on the edge of the bathtub. “What is it?”
“Hey, you okay? It’s Nestor. Listen, I just got off the phone with Rudy. He says you’re thinking it over, about the limpieza.”
“Does he?” I lower the toilet lid to sit until my breathing slows down and the hot pounding in my temples subsides. The tub is sooty with filth, and some fuzzy green shit is sprouting around the fixtures.
“Yeah, and like I said, I ain’t going to charge you nothing.”
I’m gazing now at the framed black and white photo of Gandhi hanging near the towel rack. Wearing no more than a dhoti, he stares back with such bony seriousness that it feels like a challenge to be peaceful. “You do what you have to do.” I’m thinking, what if this thing can work? How can it hurt anything?
“Like I said, this is totally free, no charge to you. Rudy told you the situation, right? You’ll just give a deposition in an office. My abogado’s firm has a whaddayacallit—a relationship with a firm in Reseda, so you don’t have to fly to Miami. You don’t have to appear in court nor see Daisy nor nothing like that. It’s an I-scratch-your-back-you-scratch-mine kind of thing. Are we straight? So you know the deal.”
The last time I saw Daisy, she was packing boxes for their move across country. She had her girls helping her, wadding newspaper to jam between the dishes. She blew a strand of honey-colored hair from her face and grinned at me, looking like a little girl herself. Now Nestor wants me to help him do to her what Rudy did to Dolores years ago when he met me. “Believe me, I know the deal,” I say, thinking this is how it can hurt.
After work the next day, I head straight for the hospital, not even bothering to check my cell phone messages or my mailbox. All that Asahi last night and I’m hung over, my head throbs and my chest burns, like I just ate a double helping of molé rico, though I haven’t eaten a thing all day. I keep taking these scorching gulps, acidic belches bubbling up so painfully, I’m afraid I’ll have to pull off the freeway to throw up, but somehow I keep plugging ahead, and soon I’m pulling into the visitors’ parking lot.
This time, both Miguel and Letty huddle around the baby’s crib with Miguel’s mother and a cluster of people who look like they belong in a motorcycle gang. After a confused moment, I recognize these as the cristianos from Miguel’s church—ex-junkies and ex-cons, who’ve given over their scarred, tattooed bodies and depleted souls to Jesus. They’re bowing their heads, as the pastor—wearing black leather, chains, and a red paisley do-rag over his skinhead—leads them in prayer. No one notices me but Miguel’s mother, who pulls a sour face and puts a finger to her lips to silence me.
The prayer is about what you’d expect, with so many references to our sins and all of us being sinners that a person could get the idea that the guy holds everyone in the room personally responsible for the baby’s condition. At long last, he wraps it up, with a string of loving references to Jesucristo, and they all hug Letty, who looks stiff enough to break. At last, the group shuffles out, leaving Rosaura, Miguel, Letty, and me, standing before the baby’s crib, as the quiet family beside us murmurs at the doomed girl.
Little Rudy is less swollen, but his skin’s gone gray. His cheek feels as clammy as potting putty. His eyelids jerk open, and he focuses on Letty, his eyes round with recognition. She leans in like she thinks he’s going to speak to her. And his chapped lips part, but he emits a soft, soft sigh, like the whisper of a butterfly’s wing, like a puff of breath on a dandelion’s head. He blinks a few times, closes his eyes, and his entire body sinks into the crib. I hold my breath, watching, waiting for his chest to rise.
Voices spill over the backyard fence. No doubt, Reggie and Kiko have bestirred themselves to smoke with Rudy out back, so I don’t bother to go inside. Instead I slip through the side gate and up the stone path where I hear a weird squawking mixed in with the voices. Standing with Rudy beside my diseased grapefruit tree is Nestor. He’s holding onto the one leg of my neighbor’s rooster, the cockfight survivor. The bird’s flapping its reddish wings, shrieking, and twisting to peck Nestor’s hands like the thing’s never been more purely pissed off. But old Nestor beams at me like he’s arrived for a party. He’s sure spruced himself up since the last time I saw him, no doubt prompted by new love to do some overhauling. He’s trimmer now, wearing a light blue Oxford shirt that looks like he just tore it out of the cellophane wrapper this morning, and he’s got a new haircut—stylish spikes twisted into creosote peaks that crown the closely-shorn sides. His hair gel glints, his sunglasses glitter, and the rosy tips of his ears practically twitch with eager pride. “Where do I set up?”
But it looks like he’s already started setting up. At the foot of the tree, he’s removed my folding chair and cleared away some of the cankerous fruit to arrange about half a dozen apples, a red cloth, some big old leaves, and a planting tray with blood-colored vines in it. Plus he’s got some stones in this wooden bowl and a silvery dagger thing on my table. I don’t yet trust myself to talk, so I glance over at Rudy who sneaks me a shy smile and a begging look, the same face he pulled when he asked me to call the IRS last spring and explain to them why he didn’t pay taxes for four years straight.
The rooster strains its neck and manages to pierce Nestor’s hand with its beak. “¡Cabron!” Nestor shifts the leg to his other hand, and brings the torn flesh to his mouth. The rooster squalls, flapping crazily.
“Let it go,” I say.
“Nah, man, you have any idea how hard it was to catch this thing,” Nestor tells me. “We need it for the limpieza.”
I fold my arms over my breasts, shake my head. “I changed my mind.”
“Aw, come on, querida,” Rudy says, his voice like honey. “This will give us a new chance, a clean start together. Don’t you want that?”
I hesitate, recalling that first taste of his lips, nectar-sweet, but sharp with salt—persimmons rinsed in the sea. “No,” I finally say. “Not any more.”
The rooster rips off a scream that sounds almost human.
“Fool, let that thing go,” I say. “That’s my neighbors’ rooster.” I shoot a look at the blade on my table. “They’re not going to be too cool if anything happens to it.”
“Relax, I paid them fifty bucks for it.” Nestor gives the bird a shake.
“Hey, don’t you want the baby to get better?” Rudy asks.
“Rudy, the baby is not going to get better.”
“Listen to you, you’re so negative, mujer, always looking to the bad—”
“The baby’s dead.” I step close to Rudy and put my hands on his forearms. “Do you hear me? Little Rudy died this afternoon.”
Rudy’s face goes blank, he jerks away from me.
“Then we got to do this for his spirit,” Nestor says, not missing a beat.
I ignore him. “Rudy, you’ve got to go to see Letty. She’s sleeping now, but you should be there when she wakes up.”
Nestor advances on me with the rooster. He’s clutching the breast and wings, and he tries to rub the thing on my arms.
“Get that off me! You know what, Nestor? I don’t believe you’re a real babalawo. You’re just some fucking con. I looked on the internet and the babalawo doesn’t go for shit like this, like using up one wife to change her for another.”
“Hey, watch out,” he says, holding the rooster over my face. “I can do limpiezas and I can put the evil eye.” He snaps his fingers. “Like that.”
“Give me that.” I snatch the bird away. It’s a hot, quaking thing, the heart thudding in my palms like a bomb ticking. I dash to the fence, but not before it razors a knuckle. “You stupid thing,” I say, dumping it over the chain link.
“This is your doing,” Rudy tells me, shaking his head. “This is what you’ve done to me, to my family. You have such bad energy.”
“You’re going to regret this shit,” Nestor says.
“Get the fuck off my property—both of you!” If I’m going to regret shit, I want to be sure it’s purely regrettable, so I grab a few lumpy grapefruits from beneath the tree. These are hard with tumors but also somewhat squishy with rot—perfect! I aim one right at Nestor and hit him square in the chest.
He buckles with the blow. “Hey, that hurt!” Nestor brushes off his new shirt. There’s a dark stain where I imagine his heart would be.
Then I land another on Rudy’s elbow.
“You know what? You’re crazy,” he tells me, rubbing his arm.
The third one strikes Nestor’s hip. “Get out of here or I’ll kill you with these things!” I hammock my skirt and gather more damaged fruit in it, throwing it as fiercely as I can. Let them think I’m raving, if it scares them, let them think I’m combustible with rage. It’s not too far from the truth. My cheeks burn, and the blood pounds in my ears like a summons to war. “In the name of Obba,” I shout, remembering this from my internet search, “In the name of Santa Rita of Cascia and all wounded women and forgotten wives, I demand you remove your fucking asses from my yard!”
At the mention of Obba, Nestor’s face goes white. He grabs Rudy’s arm, whispers in his ear. They scurry around gathering his shit while I chuck grapefruits at them as fast as I can scoop them out of the grass.
Inside, I kick off my pumps, step out of my skirt, and unbutton my blouse. I slip on some gym shorts and an old T-shirt. I find my tablet and scribble out a list, bearing down so hard I nearly rip the paper. Then I make another and one last one before heading to the kitchen where I fill a bucket with hot soapy water. As the tap rushes, my throat thickens. But I shake myself hard—not now, not yet—and grab a mop from the pantry. “Kiko,” I holler over the rush of the tap. When he doesn’t reply, I stomp over to the couch, bearing the mop like a rifle. Unbelievably, after the racket in the backyard, he and Reggie are snoring away at four in the afternoon, sounding for all the world like I keep a pig farm in my living room. I thunk the handle on his meaty shoulder a few times until he sits up, rubbing his eyes.
“What up, tía?”
“You’re up, that’s what up. You’re up, and you’re mopping the floors. Got it?”
Reggie snorts with laughter from the loveseat.
“Glad you think that’s funny.” I head to the kitchen for my lists. “‘Cause you’re going to have a hilarious time scrubbing out the toilet.” Sometimes you have to write things down for people, spell it out for them to get the point, so I hand each of them a list.
I pull open the door to the guestroom. The bed is empty, neatly made. I yank the closet door wide; the empty hangers rattle like bones. “Where’s Carlotta?”
No one bothers to answer.
I set the third list on the dresser, weight it with a candle, for when she comes back. In the living room, I clap my hands, hollowing my palms for that explosive sound. “Now, get up! Get to work, or get the fuck out of my house.”
Of course, they grumble, and Reggie mentions something about PMS under his breath, but they roll off of my living room furniture, and soon, sharp disinfectant smells fill the house. I rumble the vacuum over the living room carpet, dust the woodwork with an oiled rag, and lug the furniture cushions out front to air them in the sun. Rain streaks, grime, and smudges cloud the picture window, so I tiptoe across the wet kitchen floor to fill another bucket with steaming water and a cup of vinegar. Just as I begin to swipe the glass clean with my block sponge, Reggie calls out, “Hey, Marina!”
“What?” I sink the sponge deep in the hot, bitter water, soaking it through.
“Rudy called, I forgot to tell you. Said he was coming over, something about a limpieza. I didn’t get the whole thing. You should probably call him back.”
“Nah, I don’t need to because I’m doing it myself,” I say this loud and plain, then translate, “Lo hago yo misma,” just so it will be clear.