“Grace & Beauty,” published in Parousia, June 7, 2019
“Grace & Beauty,” published in Parousia, June 7, 2019
“Kyle Mayhue, My Virginity, and Other Losses,” published in Halfway Down the Stairs, Coming of Age issue (December 2018)
“The Garden of Cats: On Heroism,” published in Millennial Journal, October 10, 2018
“Uncle Alfredo,” published in The Maine Review, Issue 4.2 (Fall 2018)
The first time Uncle Alfredo came to visit, Elaine couldn’t take her eyes off him. It was as if he’d been made with age-progression software: Lisandro in ten years, talking, drinking, all in 3D. Lisandro and not Lisandro, for there was a magnetic quality about Uncle Alfredo that her husband lacked.
Money, Elaine thought.
The first time Elaine saw him, he was standing outside one of the tías’ houses, the second of four men. There was nothing to set him apart from the others; he was neither more nor less handsome than Lisandro and was an inch or two shorter, but even so. Elaine couldn’t unhook her gaze from him even under threat of her mother-in-law’s notice. That night when Lisandro asked, “I look like my uncle, huh?” her only answer was an inarticulate hn, like air squeezed from a rubber ball.
The tías had all wondered aloud to each other por qué chingados Alfredo married Roberta, with Mexico full of beauties—soft, obliging women who rolled out tortillas by hand, any one of them worth fifty of his hawk-nosed, waspish wife. When he went to Paris on business, alone, they nodded knowingly at one other over their atole. No one goes to Paris, on business, alone.
With Elaine, Roberta spoke English. “I need to call and check if the pool boy’s been. The house is such a lot to keep up. Six bathrooms,” she sighed languidly, pulling out her cell and flashing through pictures. Elaine had trouble taking the house in. She was staring at Roberta’s acrylic fingernails, longer than any she’d ever seen and clearly meant to convey a message to the women of Mexico: Unlike you bitches, I don’t have to lift a finger.
“How did you meet Lisandro?” Roberta had asked the first time she met Elaine, sliding out of the grim smile she’d managed at Timoteo’s rendition of “Silent Night.”
“Oh, we met in the States. I was his teacher, adult English at the community college.”
“He speaks English then.” She sounded surprised.
Lisandro called germs Germans and women womans and toes fingers, but Elaine said, “Yes.”
Then Timmy pulled his pants down and tore his diaper off, shouting, “Pee-pees!” When he threw the diaper at Roberta, the look on her face said that she’d been expecting something just like this to happen.
It was Elaine’s mother-in-law who told her that Roberta hadn’t let her son learn Spanish. “I called Alfredo once. My nephew picked up the phone, shouted, ‘I can’t understand you! I don’t speak Spanish!’ and hung up on me. Now you tell if that’s any way to raise a child.”
Just then Fifi walked in and asked, “Abuelita, ¿me das un mango?” Elaine looked at her daughter as if she were someone else, someone she didn’t know. The slope of her nose, so like Lisandro’s, with her own pale skin and green eyes. What a beauty she was going to be. Elaine thought of the slogan from the Inglés sin Barreras commercials: “He who speaks two languages is worth two people.” Or she, Elaine thought, squeezing her fists into tight balls.
The money had come as a complete surprise.
“My mother told him I was saving to open a corner store,” Lisandro told her. “It’s to help me get started.”
“To help you?” Elaine repeated, her brow furrowed.
“I didn’t know anything until after the deposit was made. My mother gave him the account number.”
“It’s a lot of money,” she said.
“I know. I’m going to try to pay him back once the store gets going. In the meantime, it means you don’t have to work.”
Elaine closed her eyes and smiled. “He loves you,” she breathed softly.
“Don’t mention it to Roberta. Apparently she doesn’t know.”
That night Elaine lay chewing her bottom lip in the dark bedroom, thinking back to their next-to-last farewell. “Fiona, come and tell Uncle Alfredo goodbye. He’s going back to New York tomorrow morning.”
“Bye, Tío.” She held her hand out shyly.
“Beautiful,” he murmured in English, the hint of a wistful smile playing about his lips. But he wasn’t looking at Fifi.
“My brother has everything but happiness,” Elaine’s mother-in-law was fond of saying. “The boy, of course, is entirely her creature.”
If externals were any indication, this was surely, almost comically, so. He had the same round, overlarge face and sharp nose as Roberta and was even named after her.
“Robbie, be a love and go get me a Coke,” she said plaintively, and the boy, seventeen and too big for his body, lumbered sullenly off to the kitchen without looking at either woman. He plunked the unopened can down on his aunt’s coffee table and turned back to the television with a protracted sniffle.
“His allergies are acting up,” Roberta told Elaine in a pained voice. Then, lower, she added, “It’s so dusty here.”
The words lay glittering between them: an indictment. An invitation.
“You ought to come down for the fair,” Elaine returned blithely. “It’s one of the best things about Mexico—and that’s a long list.”
On Uncle Alfredo’s last visit, there was a quince años party and everyone drank too much. The salón was decorated with garish tangerine balloons, and the quinceñera, done up in a matching dress, was round and festive as a pumpkin.
They stayed until the waltz. Because Timoteo lay sleeping, mouth wide open, in his father’s arms, Lisandro went out first, waving to the family members at each table he passed. Fifi, laden with the baby bag and party favors, followed a few paces behind. Elaine lingered, thanking their hosts and giving hugs and air kisses. When she came to Uncle Alfredo, he remained in his seat and looked up into her face through drink-bleary eyes. Then, taking her white hand in both of his, he pressed his half-open mouth to her fingers in a gesture of such tender sensuality that Elaine’s knees weakened and her heart knocked at her chest.
“Good night, Elaine.” Roberta’s voice came to her, as clear and jagged as a shard of glass.
“Good night. Good night.” Elaine cast a quick glance back at Uncle Alfredo, whose eyes were closed, then stepped out into the warm night.
From somewhere nearby she heard the splashing song of a fountain, and along the stone wall, bougainvillea bloomed like a thousand red mouths. Elaine hugged herself, rubbing her palms up and down her arms. The best part, she thought, was what it was that united them. That was what made her happiest: how much they both loved Lisandro.
“Too Beautiful to Be Believed,” published in Four Way Review, Issue 13, March 2018
“I Didn’t Email You on Christmas Eve,” published in Plural, Issue 6 (July 2017)
I Didn’t Email You on Christmas Eve
… like I said I would, I know. Here’s what happened: I got a little drunk. I even nursed the baby like that, then woke up in a panic about what it might do to her. I got up four times and watched her breathe. She looked normal, but you never know.
The thing is that Jay and Rosy had bought vodka, just for me (Smirnoff, which is not my brand, but still), and I drank a couple shots too many, to show my appreciation. Then I fell on Rosy’s nativity scene when my dancing got out of hand. It wasn’t so bad, just the roof and the manger, and when I sobbed all the way home it wasn’t even mostly about that. Nativity scenes can be restuck with wood glue.
Seeing the shards of wood all sticking out at jagged angles like that reminded me of the time Eric fell coming up our front porch steps when I was in the sixth grade. Mom was at work—that was when she worked at the Quick Snack, before she married Jim, and she was on the supper shift—so nobody but me was home when Eric smashed the jar he was using to catch lightning bugs and cut his hand up. I couldn’t get the bleeding to stop. I held his hand under the tap, but the blood just kept pouring out, splashing the sink all red, bright as Kool-Aid. Finally I grabbed a kitchen towel and wrapped it around his little hand. Hold it up, I told him, but he kept forgetting. He was clinging to me, his warm body trembling and jerking against mine. He got my neck all snotty from crying, but I didn’t care. He was so little. I kept whispering to him, It’s going to be okay, it’s going to be okay. Like a magic spell, a charm. As if my words had the power to make it happen.
Somebody was shooting off fireworks all night on Christmas Eve, and I remembered all the memes about how for the love of dogs you shouldn’t do that, but do people care? But it wasn’t that or the humiliation or my skinned elbow that kept me awake; it was really something else all the time. (Another thing it wasn’t was that Jay once hugged me at a wedding reception. Close. And breathed all hot on my neck. We were in a dark hallway outside the bathrooms, back behind the ballroom. But we’ve both acted normal since then, and I know he loves Rosy, just like I love Sam.)
What it really was, was Eric. You remember how crazy he always was? Like jumping off the shed behind the Gas & More, and eating thirteen hotdogs that time at Joey’s? He was always that kind of crazy, but now he really is crazy, B. He really is. Listen to this: he thinks Casey’s cheating on him with the train conductor. I mean, not a coworker or a neighbor or anybody normal; the train conductor. You know the train track that runs right by their house? He says the conductor uses a code, and Casey knows by the way he blows the whistle—long or short, with an echo or not—where to meet him and what time and all that. He even says he saw Casey’s initials scratched into one of the train cars, with a heart around them.
It’s probably better I didn’t email you on Christmas Eve, because I would have just ended up sniveling about how lonely I am here. I was kind of getting to feel like my ob./gyn. was the only friend I had, then the baby was born and now I don’t even see her anymore. And it’s not like you can make an appointment and then just walk in and say, hey, you’ve seen my privates four ways to Thursday; wanna hang out some time? I can’t see Rosy as a friend, either, not since the time she made fun of me putting on weight and blew her cheeks out all fat like a blowfish in front of everyone at the fourth of July picnic. That was bitchy. (What she didn’t know was that I was pregnant, we just hadn’t told anybody yet.) Plus I can’t get used to this weather. I mean, who wouldn’t hate cold and cloudy every day?
I have to say that I think it’s to my credit that when Jay’s hot breath was on my neck, I wasn’t thinking about how bitchy Rosy can be. I wasn’t thinking anything, and that’s the truth. Sometimes you can do that, a Zen thing, I guess: a total blank. I kind of wish I could do it now, just so I could sleep at night and forget that the one sibling I have in the whole world is crazy. Mom and Jim had to lock him away, B. He was crying when they took him. Doesn’t that break your heart? That he was crying?
So that’s why I didn’t email you. It didn’t even feel like Christmas to me, even if I did dance, and then when I cried all the way home, Sam said we’d get some eggnog and watch It’s a Wonderful Life, which was nice of him because Sam hates It’s a Wonderful Life. I kept trying to think of some time when Eric saved my life like George Bailey saves Harry on the sled, but I couldn’t come up with anything. All I could see was when he was small and used to wear those footed pajamas, and he’d play my recorder and get the dogs howling. His eyes were so big and round and blue. It kind of makes you want to stop the clock and send time spinning backward, like there might be something that if you could just find it, just catch it, would stop your only brother from going crazy in twenty years.
(I don’t even know if Jay was hitting on me. Maybe to him it felt like that, but to me it didn’t. If you want to know the truth, it just felt like strong arms around me. Brotherly, even. Like he knew that I felt out of place and wanted to tell me that I wasn’t, not really.)
The thing is, he was eating glass—Eric, I mean. He had it all smashed up into dust and rationed out in a bunch of zip-loc sandwich bags with numbers on each one. Not even sequential numbers, just strands of nonsense numbers. He said it gave him powers. Powers, B.
So here’s what I wanted to ask you… I wondered if maybe you could go visit him one day? I mean, Alaska to Alabama’s no hop skip and a jump, so I know I won’t be able to go any time soon myself. But I can’t really stand the thought of him sitting up in Broughton Hospital alone either. I took a tour back in Mr. Jamison’s psychology class, and I can tell you, it’s institutional. But you could go for me, B., and hug and hug and hug him and tell him it’s going to be okay. I know it might not help, but how could it hurt, B.? You tell me that: how could it hurt?