“Scapegoats,” published in Cleaver, Issue 16 (December 2016)
aprilvazquez on My Grandmother’s Last… Matthew Lavin on My Grandmother’s Last…
“Scapegoats,” published in Cleaver, Issue 16 (December 2016)
“Tepeyac,” published in Ghost Town, Issue 9 (December 2016)
“I’m Not from Here,” published in Manifest-Station, October 23, 2016
“Blessed Are They that Mourn,” published in East Jasmine Review, Issue 4, Volume 1 (October 2016)
My parents still live in the house I grew up in, and when I go visit, it’s hard for me to believe we ever all fit in there. I guess me and my brothers spent most of our time outside; at least that’s how I remember it. The streets weren’t crawling with perverts back then. I won’t let my own kids out of the back yard, and even then I like to keep an eye on them. The fence ain’t padlocked, after all.
They’re out there now, playing a game of Simon Says, and every new command is putting them closer to the tree with a wasp’s nest in it at the far end of the fence. A hideous thing, all mottled, with designs on it like the skin of a Gremlin. Looks like a cocoon for incubating aliens. I’ve mentioned it to Dale, but he hasn’t had time to knock it down, not yet. School’s out, and Charlotte Street Burgers is on the summer schedule, open an hour later than normal every night. I told the kids to stay away from it before we came out, but they get into their game and forget.
“Y’all watch out!” I holler into my hands, cupped megaphone-like. They don’t answer, just go right on with their game as if I hadn’t said nothing.
“I’m gonna have to take a stick to them, it looks like,” I tell Bree lazily. I’m two beers into a buzz, the yard smells like fresh-cut grass–not because of Dale; he has a high school kid from down the street do it–and it’s that perfect time of day, late afternoon-slash-early evening, when the sun’s turned down from hot to warm and the bugs ain’t out yet. Bree laughs. Two of the kids are hers.
“Now, where was we?” she drawls.
Me and Bree are from the same town, a hot, flat place at the bottom of the Appalachian Mountains that’s not worth naming–you wouldn’t know it–but Bree’s accent is a shade more Southern than mine. Her family’s all from around there, where mine were from up farther north, mountainward. We grew up in the same housing development. Small houses with wide, blank lawns, each rectangle like all the others in the essentials, like patterned wallpaper. Not on the wrong side of the tracks, but no one mistook us for preppies either. We had enough. Enough to eat, though more Hardee’s burgers than Sirloin Stockade. Enough to wear, maybe not designer clothes, but not from the Family Dollar either, which is more than I can say for some of the kids we knew. The highlight of our week was professional wrestling and pork rinds on Saturday nights, and we both had a mama and a daddy at home. There was no tragedy in our lives, unless you count the overall blandness, which I now look back on as a blessing.
“We were talking about how ‘rich people are different from you and me,'” I prompt.
“Oh, yeah,” she remembers. “Fuck right. They got money.”
I raise my eyebrows, pretending to be shocked by her language. “Easy, Bree. Getting cheesy, Bree.” The fact that I’m generally the cheesier of the two of us is not lost on me, but it’s an old standard, jokes about her name. This is what passes for humor where we’re from; say something enough times and it starts to be funny. The lines are from a conversation I read somewhere, two famous writers, though come to think of it, they must not of been all that famous, since it don’t sound like they had much money.
I shift a little on the hammock, trying to reach the styrofoam cooler underneath us and get me another beer. I barely make it, jostling Bree as I pull myself back in. I wouldn’t try this balancing act with any other adult that I’m not amorously involved with, but since it’s a big hammock, and since we’re around the same weight–both on the chunky side; we like our Sundrop and honey buns (I get iced, she gets glazed)–we can pull it off. I’m on one side, Bree’s on the other, and there’s a little space between, so we’re not touching.
“You want another one?” I ask, popping the top on my can.
“Nah,” she says, holding her can up as if I could see into it. Then she hollers, “We’ve done said to get away from that tree! Y’all wanna go home?” but unconvincingly. The kids know Bree’s not looking to go home any time soon. She turns back to me, rolling her eyes. “Anyway, rich people.”
We’re just getting warmed up for our favorite topic of conversation, my sister-in-law Sasha. Sasha’s my guilty pleasure, like how some people use chocolate or wine. I’m always nice to her. I go out of my way to be nice to her; that’s part of it. The more I hate her, the nicer I am. And then I get to take it out on her later, when I’m alone with Bree and can be myself again.
“Did I tell you what covered dish she showed up to the shower with?” I ask, pausing for effect. “A Zen garden.”
“A Zen garden?” Bree looks confused.
“A Zen garden,” I repeat with relish. “According to the box,” I add loftily, “it came from Harry’s on Park.”
“Hahry’s on Pahk, my my,” Bree says in a fake British accent.
“It was this rectangular tray with graham cracker crumbs, chocolate candies, and dried fruit, with a rake in it, I kid you not, designed to look like those Japanese dirt garden things. I reckon we were supposed to rake around in it, get our stress out.”
Bree’s laughing so hard now she’s dribbling beer out onto her chin. “God help us.”
“Amen,” I concur, taking a swig of my beer.
She wipes her chin with the back of her hand. “Did anybody there even know what it was? I can’t imagine the Calvary Baptist women are much into Zen gardens.”
“That was the beautiful part. Nobody knew what to do with it. The thing just sat there, untouched. The older women were bewildered–I don’t reckon they understood that it was food–and the younger ones didn’t like being shown up. Everybody just passed it right by in the buffet line.”
“Hilarious,” Bree snorts.
I was the one that invited her to the baby shower. I always make a point of going over there and inviting Sasha personally to whatever’s going on, be it a Southern Living party or the Super Bowl. Then she’ll look at me with her big doe eyes and say, “Yes, Jean, I will go. Thank you very much,” all formal, how she talks. She can’t hear the other layer to my voice, the sarcasm, the spite. It’s not her language.
As an afterthought, Bree asks, “Was the shower nice?”
“It was arright. Poor Maddie looks like she’s about to pop.”
Maddie’s my other sister-in-law, Derek’s wife. There are three of them, Dale, Derek, and David, in that order. The Anderson brothers, in 3-D, their running joke. I met Dale after college, when me and Bree moved here, to our state’s biggest city-slash-capital, looking for jobs. He was doing construction work then–subcontracting–but his real dream was to open a restaurant, and eventually they did, him and Derek. They got a prime location downtown, and it’s really taken off, but it’s a lot of work, too. Sometimes I feel like Dale’s married to Charlotte Street Burgers and I’m the other woman, the one he sees when he can get away. Most nights, especially in the summer, I’m already in the bed when he gets home.
I’m a kindergarten teacher; Bree’s a nursing assistant. She’s also on her second marriage. I don’t say that to be bitchy or anything, it’s just the truth. Things haven’t gone as good for her as they have for me. Her first husband went through a bunch of jobs and about as many women before she finally left him. Now she lives in one of those new developments that are popping up all over the place, anywhere there’s any land left, boxy houses with cheap fixtures and small yards. That’s why Bree likes to bring the kids over here. Me and Dale have got an older house–older, not old; from the 1970s–and better-built, in a neighborhood of big yards and full-grown trees. All three of our boys have got their own rooms.
Bree’s like a shabbier version of me, a little fatter, with cheaper clothes and worse teeth. She ain’t quite as quick on the draw as I am. That child ain’t got brain one, my mama used to say, but that’s not exactly true. Bree’s got some sense, it just takes her longer to catch on. Here’s the thing about Bree: she’s a good audience. I reckon that’s why she figures into my guilty Sasha pleasure the way she does.
Sasha is David, Dale’s youngest brother’s, wife. David’s the baby and the golden boy of the family. It’s always kind of irked me, how easy he’s had it. Because he was so much younger than the other two, he got everything handed to him. Dale and Derek worked their asses off in construction for years, saved their money–we all went without at times, I can tell you that–then by the time David was old enough to go to college, his brothers were making enough to be able to put him through school. A private university, mind you; he didn’t want to go to one of the state schools. That’s where he met Sasha.
Dale came home one night and said, “David’s got a girlfriend,” which kind of blindsided me, because I thought he was gay, to tell you the truth. Good-looking, twenty-one years old, and never had a girlfriend, at least not that anyone knew of; something didn’t add up. But sure enough, the next Sunday he brought her round the restaurant–we always eat Sunday lunch there, all of us–and introduced her to us. She said, “Nice to meet you” in a soft voice, not too much of an accent, and then she went around the table shaking everybody’s hand, even the kids. You could of heard a pin drop as they walked away; we watched them out the front glass till they drove off in David’s Jetta. She was probably the most gorgeous creature any of us had ever seen that wasn’t on the television. When I got my voice back, I said, “I thought she was supposed to be a Mexican.” That got everybody going again.
Turned out she was from one of the richest families in Mexico, big into manufacturing electronics, and the whole family had just moved here. She looks the part, too. Lord, the way she dresses. I mean high end, fashion magazine brands. And the clothes actually look right on her, because she’s about a size two, legs a mile long, and sticks out in all the right places besides. Pale skin, big black eyes, pouty Angelina Jolie lips. Hell, maybe David was gay and she converted him.
The truth is, I’d like to of been that young once. That pretty, that skinny, that rich. But I never was, and I sure as heck never will be now. I got to console myself with what I got, and chief among my pleasures in life is Bree.
“I hate I missed it,” she says regretfully after I’ve told her about the baby shower. “If me and the kids hadn’t of had to go to Tony’s game…” Her new husband plays on a baseball team with a bunch of other middle-aged men with beer guts. “And then Brady got stung by a bee, to top it all off.”
While Bree tells me all about her weekend, I kind of let myself drift off. I’m half-listening, enough to nod at the right places, but what I’m really thinking about is David and Sasha’s wedding. It’s something that I can’t seem to quit thinking about, even though I been trying to for the last two years. It was at one of these fancy Catholic churches downtown, statues of bleeding Jesuses everywhere and stained glass in a great big circle behind the altar. The train of Sasha’s dress was about eight feet long, held up by a little girl on one side and a little boy on the other, both of them brown as peanuts. The girl had her hair in ringlets, with a little wreath of flowers on her head that matched the bride’s bouquet. The boy was dressed all in white, right down to his patent leather shoes. After the couple said their vows–the ceremony was in English and Spanish–two of her people got up and wrapped them in this flowerdy lasso-thing. Nobody was standing up there with them, just the priest, but in the pews–Lord, they must of flown half of Monterrey in for the occasion. You never saw so many people.
Then came the reception. In a ballroom at the Ritz-Carlton, with not one but two live bands. The first of them was about twenty mariachis in black embroidered suits–guitars, mandolins, trumpets, trombones, you name it. The other one was just a normal band, American guys singing crowd-pleasers like “The Y.M.C.A.” Lobster, caviar, little baked potatoes, pastries, fruits with all kinds of dipping sauces, more food than an army could of ate. The cake took up half of one of them school tables. Four stories, with columns between each one, decorated with live flowers to match the bouquet. Open bar, it goes without saying. They even had ice sculptures–a dove, a swan, I can’t remember what all., besides a great big one with their names on it on the cake table, SASHA & DAVID in swirly letters.
I was just setting there minding my business, listening to the band, drinking me a Big Texan and counting the gold balloons in the arch closest to us when the bride herself showed up, with her parents in tow. She wanted to introduce them to our table, which consisted of me and Dale, Derek and Maddie, and my in-laws.
That was the moment when my night went sour, right quick.
I had already noticed the two of them at the wedding. Hard not to, not only because they were right up front but also because they were both what you’d call imposing. He was a great big tall man, broad-shouldered, with a slightly receding hairline and a thick moustache. Jowly. The kind of man that looks like he’s used to telling people what to do. But the one that really caught my attention was the mother. From what I’d seen, she hadn’t smiled once throughout the whole thing. Severe black eyes, all made up like Liz Taylor, hair pulled back slick and knotted at the nape of her neck. She wore a backless black dress, above-the-knee, with sheer black stockings, and had a necklace glittering round her throat that looked like it cost about a million dollars. Big rings on several fingers, long dewdrop earrings. She looked at our table like we were a bad smell assaulting her nostrils.
Sasha just stood there beaming like a picture out of a magazine. She’d changed into an ivory cocktail dress, and it was all bunched up around her tiny waist. “I would like to present my daddy and mami, el señor Rodolfo Guadalupe Rodriquez de la Torre and la señora Leonela Guadalupe Garza Guzmán.” Then we all had to stand up, one by one, and shake hands. I was the last one at the table, so I waited for everybody else to reach their hands across, then I stood up. I guess as long as I’d been sitting still, I couldn’t feel the booze, but as soon as I got up, it went right to my head. I’ll just tell it like it happened: I got a little tripped up. Maybe my foot got caught under the base of the table, I don’t know. Long story short, I fell into Sasha’s mother, stomping on one of her jewely stiletto-heeled shoes and catching at one of her gauzy sleeves. It tore, just a little–she probably had a half-dozen servants on hand that could of sewed it back up in a jiffy–but you should of seen the way that woman looked at me. She drew herself up, eyes flashing, and stalked off, saying something in Spanish to Sasha, who threw a frightened glance back as they walked away. I didn’t even get to shake their hands.
Fury rose up in me. I tried to soothe it back, but it kept clawing at my insides, struggling to be let out. It was as if I’d seen myself reflected in those black eyes, and the person I saw there embarrassed me. I wanted her to pay for making me see myself like that. Which is why I’ve hated all of them ever since, including Sasha.
Even after two years, I can feel my cheeks getting red as I think back on it. Fortunately, Bree’s not paying a bit of attention. She’s smack dab in the middle of a story about how a fly ball came down and busted some kid’s toy drum at the game. I make an appropriately impressed face. “Lucky it didn’t pop him in the noggin,” I say, chugging the last of my beer. I’m glad for the distraction; I don’t want to think about the wedding anymore. Or how Sasha’s father gave David a high-up job in one of his factories or how him and her both drive convertible Mercedeses–his black, hers red–or how they don’t have any kids to keep them from going out every weekend and living it up, or any of it. I really don’t. Some people get life handed to them gift-wrapped, but that don’t mean I got to set around thinking about them. Specially on a summer evening when the yard smells all sweet and grassy and I got a nice tingly buzz going. The kids are even cooperating; they’ve moved over toward the house where the horseshoe posts are, away from the wasp tree.
“Darrell, turn the deck lights on, son.” Under the lights, everything takes on a warm, goldish glow. I take a deep breath, shut my eyes. “Man, I love the summertime.”
“You ain’t lying,” Bree says. Then after a pause, she adds, “Course, some of us has still got to work,” and we laugh.
Once the sky’s passed from orange sherbet to a bruised purple, Bree hitches herself up off her elbows and scoots over to the edge of the hammock. “I reckon we better mosey.”
We call the kids in–it takes a few threats to round them all up–and I send my three galloping up the stairs while Bree ushers hers through the house towards the front door.
“Mama, look! A lightning bug!” her little girl Brianna shouts as we walk out to their car. We all stop and wait, and sure enough, there’s another brief glow from the trees at the edge of the driveway. It’s like the first item on a scavenger hunt labeled Summer: lightning bugs, beach trip, fireworks, Camp Powhatan, Darrell’s birthday, back-to-school sales.
“Bye,” Bree calls out the window once they’re all installed in her Chrysler.
“Bye, hon. Y’all be careful. I’ll call you tomorrow.”
The boys are already in their pjs, lined up at the bathroom sink brushing their teeth when I hear the front door open and Dale call, “Jean!” There’s an urgency in his voice, and I think, Oh Lord, what’s happened now? He ought not be home for another two hours, at least.
I meet him on the stairs. His face is ashen. “Get the boys ready, we got to go.”
“Why? What’s going on?”
“There’s been an accident. David’s down at Mercy, they got him in surgery right now.” He looks at me, his eyes helpless, lost. When he speaks again, it’s in a whisper.
The day of the funeral dawns, hot and muggy. The humid air seems to crouch menacingly, a tangible presence. I put on my black dress with tiny white polka dots, three-quarter sleeves, a ruffle at the neck. This is what we do, I think. Put on the appropriate clothes, slip on the right face, pretend. Look the part.
The funeral’s at the same church as the wedding was, though the priest is different. Older, fatter, as if better suited to weightier occasions. Maybe they switch them out on purpose. Behind him there’s a big banner swooping down, a picture of Jesus–not our golden-haired, smiling Jesus but a suffering one, all haunted-eyed and gaunt–with the words Misericordes Sicut Pater in an arc above him. Spanish, I reckon, though the priest speaks English, only English this time.
David sits in front of us, his shoulder in a sling. His face has the bright, mangled look of raw meat, and there’s a bandage on his head. His hair sticks up in a little tuft above the bandage, 1980s-style, and before I catch myself I think, “He’ll laugh about that later, when he sees the pictures.” I watch his body shake, hear his wet, ragged breaths. Their mother puts her hand on his and pats him. Like a small child, or a pet.
Her parents are farther down, but on the same pew. No divisions, in death; no his side-her side now. They look shrunken by grief, colorless, like dried out plants that have got past the stage where they can be revived. They’re not how I remember them, and the change is so great that it can’t have happened in the past three days, or even two years. I see now that I’ve made them bigger than they ever were. More important. Scarier.
The casket is closed, but Sasha’s represented by her bridal portrait on an easel in front of the altar. She smiles blithely out of it, unaware of what the future holds. It occurs to me for the first time that she was shy. She let that smile stand in for the words of a language not her own. She hid behind it, sending it out first like an ambassador or a white flag.
When the priest has chanted his last, we file out, soundlessly almost, just the odd cough or scuffle of feet. Even the kids are strangely silent. My boys shuffle out listlessly, as if they’ve been drugged. We reconvene in the cemetery, and I’m surprised to see a pared-down version of the mariachi group arrive, only four of them this time. They wear brown now, or maybe they’re different ones. The music is like the grief around me–not mine. Foreign, something I can’t make out the meaning of. I catch Bree’s eye from the other side of the grave. She’s hanging back, a hand on Brady and Brianna’s shoulders. Tony’s beside her in a gray suit. We both give a little nod of recognition, but her features don’t alter. Like me, she’s got her serious face on. Her sympathy face. Though we both know that later we’ll laugh about how tight the mariachis’ britches are, the aunt who blubbered loudly through the whole service. Or we’ll complain about the heat, the stifling humidity. We’ll turn it all around, make it ours. Maybe we’ll take some home-cooking over to David’s condo, pour our energies into him for a while. But we just as likely won’t. After all, he’s got more money than we’ve got.
It’s finally over. Just as I’m turning to go, I feel a hand on my arm. I turn back and see Sasha’s mother standing there. For one wild second, I think that she’s going to bring up the dress, her torn sleeve. Or the things I said afterward that night, once the alcohol overtook me; how I made fun of them both, husband and wife, being named Guadalupe. How I asked if she was related to the cartel leader El Chapo Guzmán.
I lower my head, not meeting her eye, but she clutches at my hand so that, startled, I look back up into her face. She’s not wearing a dab of make-up, and the face that she looks at me out of is sallow, wasted, old. Honest.
“Jean,” she says. My name sounds strange coming from her mouth, like a foreign word. “I want you to know something.” Her accent gives odd weight to the word something. An American would have emphasized the word know, the verb. The action.
“Sasha was very grateful for everything you did to include her, to make her feel welcome in your family. She counted you among her closest friends.” She squeezes my hand–she never had let it go–then without another word she drops it and turns away. I watch her go. There’s a hobble in her step; you can already see what she’ll look like as a very old woman. When she gets a few feet away, he enfolds her to him on one side and they walk off together.
“Blessed are they that mourn,” I say suddenly, aloud but softly, to myself. The phrase pulses for an instant in my mind. For one shining moment of clarity I feel like something’s within my grasp, something’s been given to me. I stare in front of me. The mourners in their dark clothes, the flowers, as luscious and multicolored as candies, the rows of tombs, all seem to come into sudden, sharp focus. It’s as if I’ve been standing too close to one of them pictures that’s all made up of dots and I’ve finally took a step back and can see it how it’s suppose to look. Then, almost as quickly, it starts to recede. I squint into the crowd of mourners as they disperse. What am I looking for?
“You as hungry as I am?” I hear Bree at my ear. Her voice sounds mischievous, full of delicious promise. I want to slide into that promise, take a bath in it, swim around in it like a fish in a pond.
“Starved,” I say. The beginnings of a grin pull at the corners of my mouth.
“Let’s get outta here, take the kids to McDonald’s.”
I turn around. “I ain’t never in all my life heard a better idea. I’d trade my grammaw right now for a Big Mac, and that’s the Gospel truth.”
“Summer Falling,” published in The Harpoon Review, Issue 24 (September 2016)
“Donald Trump’s Supporters and the Banality of Evil,” published in Millennial Journal, September 8, 2016
“What’s Going on in the Minds of Trump Supporters?” published in Elephant Journal, September 8, 2016