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Coming November 2019 . . .

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Southern Music Issue & CD

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SOUTH CAROLINA

 

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The OA is thrilled to pair our South Carolina Music Issue announcement with an exclusive premiere of a new song from Ranky Tanky, the acclaimed Charleston band reviving the Gullah musical tradition of South Carolina’s Lowcountry. “Beat Em Down” is the title track from the band’s new EP, due out on Friday, and will be included on their upcoming album, Good Time (out July 12, 2019), the band’s first to include original compositions written in the Gullah tradition.

Check out the exclusive premiere of “Beat Em Down” from Charleston’s Ranky Tanky: 

The Oxford American’s South Carolina Music Issue will celebrate the unforgettable stories, songs, and artists that convey the deep history and continuing vitality of South Carolina’s music—including icons like Dizzy Gillespie, Eartha Kitt, and the Marshall Tucker Band, as well as contemporary voices, such as Iron & Wine, Shovels and Rope, and, of course, Ranky Tanky.

As always, the music issue will come with a sampler compilation of songs spanning the 78-rpm era to the present (in CD and digital download formats), with accompanying liner notes included within the magazine.

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Paterfamilias

By  |  September 3, 2019
“Untitled” (2013), by DM Witman “Untitled” (2013), by DM Witman

 

A

 hot breeze, heavy with the smell of pine, and earth, and herbs—basil and rosemary from Dad’s garden—streamed in through the sliding door’s screen. 

I tried to wedge one more foil tray into our refrigerator. I paused, letting the chill hit my face. I couldn’t get my father’s face, that is my father’s brother’s face, out of my mind. It seemed impossible to have gone through my life not knowing there was a weird mimeographed copy of my father out there. 

He’d shown up at the funeral that morning. I’d spotted him out of the corner of my eye at the church and felt my knees go weak. When I realized he was a real person, not my dad’s ghost, I didn’t know what to think.

He approached me as I tried to climb into the back seat of my brother’s hulking rental SUV on the way to the cemetery. He leaned in to kiss my cheek. “Magdalena, do you remember me, your Uncle Bernardo? You’ve grown since I saw you last. You look so much like mi madre, your abuela.”

“Why are you speaking Spanish? We’re Italian.” I knew Spanish from our restaurant’s bus boys, of course.

“Your mother’s Italian. Your father’s Nicaraguan.”

“We’re Italian.”

“Son Nicas,” Bernardo said. He looked at me sternly as if to say, can we move on? But I couldn’t stop repeating to myself, I’m Latina? 

The rest of my family approached the SUV. “Hablaremos más tarde,” Bernardo said and disappeared.

 

“Mags, get your head out of the fridge and look at what Mom is doing!” my brother Scotty hollered.

I blew my bangs out of my face, searching for free space. I pushed in the last casserole tray and slammed the fridge door before it could slide out. Through the screen door, I saw Mom’s black dress crumpled on the brick patio. In the corner of the yard, in Dad’s garden, Mom was digging a hole, in her slip, purple garden gloves, and matching Crocs. 

My sister walked up then. Her height always took me by surprise; she was a head taller than us all, more in heels. While I had immediately gone to my room to change into cutoffs and a tank top, she hadn’t so much as kicked off her shoes. Mom called me and Scotty polpette as kids; never once had anyone called Antonia a meatball. She was too beautiful and serious to ever have a food nickname. 

“What are y’all looking at out there? Are there eggplants already?” Antonia said.

We said nothing, entranced by Mom’s brown, wrinkled body, digging.

“Jesus Christ.” Antonia grabbed a blanket off the couch and ran to Mom. She covered her shoulders, but Mom threw it off. 

Scotty and I ducked away from the screen door so Mom couldn’t see us. We got the giggles.

“She won’t come in!” Antonia yelled. “Call an ambulance!” Scotty and I didn’t move, but we did stop our nervous laughter.

Antonia paced. She picked up the phone and put it down again. “I don’t know what to do.”

“I don’t need this right now.” Scotty rubbed his hands over his head like it was a worry stone. Suit jacket off, his broad back muscles stretched his dress shirt taut; his black hair curled as he fretted the gel out. This must have been what he looked like late at night at his law firm’s office.

“We should just make sure she doesn’t wander off or do anything too crazy. She’s just gardening . . . naked,” I suggested.

“‘Too crazy’?” Antonia scoffed. 

I grabbed three forks, the leftover chocolate sheet cake, and a nearly full bottle of wine and plunked myself down on the floor by the sliding glass door. “Sit down, Antonia. Don’t be such an old lady.” 

“You could take the time to get glasses.” Antonia sat with her panty-hosed legs straight out. 

“Drink, drink, drink.” Scotty chanted and handed Antonia the wine.

Antonia took a swig from the wine bottle, wiped her mouth, and smiled. Then she chugged half the bottle in one go. Half a chocolate cake and two wine bottles later, the three of us were sound asleep under the dining room table, curled up on top of each other like a litter of kittens. It had been a long time since we’d all been under this roof. 

The morning sun woke me. I uncoiled myself from Scotty and Antonia and crept outside. I could hear Mom’s snores coming from the yard.

I walked toward Mom’s familiar thunder. I couldn’t believe she’d slept outside all night. I’d pictured her tiptoeing inside and smiling and shaking her head at us, passed out among the wine bottles the way we used to fall asleep in piles of wrapping paper each Christmas. 

Instead, she was asleep in the garden in what looked like a shallow grave. Still almost entirely naked. Covered with soil and green sprouts. 

“Mom!” I shook her. “Mom, wake up!” 

I grabbed underneath her arms to lift her snoring body and heard the sound of tiny roots ripping, as soft as a skirt seam being pulled apart.

“Magdalena, don’t you dare move me.”

That’s when I realized her position was no accident. She had dug a garden plot and settled herself into the ground. And now, overnight, green sprouts threatened to root her to the soil permanently.

“Mom, what is this?”

I’d heard of spouses who followed each other into death by days or weeks. As a twenty-nine-year-old married to my dad’s restaurant, I couldn’t imagine how anyone could bind themselves so tightly to another. Gone were the days a widow must throw herself atop a funerary pyre. 

“I’m not discussing this with you,” Mom said.

Typical. 

She shut her eyes and didn’t speak again for some time. 

 

Mom always had a nervous energy, but she hadn’t gone nuts in forever. I recalled the Spring Cleaning Incident of ’99, when for two weeks she cleaned her way through a detailed list she’d found in Ladies’ Home Journal. She was a madwoman, dusting at 7 A.M. and vacuuming curtains at midnight. One evening we came home and instead of dinner on the kitchen table we found possessions we’d assumed were well hidden. 

“These need organizing,” she said and left it at that. 

At my place at the table was a crumpled test over fractions with a glaring red C-. Scotty’s baggie of pot was sitting at his place. Antonia’s pink diary lay open, the heart-shaped lock nowhere to be seen. Her retainer case was also open, but instead of her gross plastic retainer lay a diaphragm.

We never saw exactly what was at Dad’s place: It looked like a bunch of old letters. He threw Antonia’s diaphragm and Scotty’s pot in the garbage disposal and flicked the switch. He handed my test back to me and then he scooped up the handwritten notes and put them in his jacket pocket. He handed Scotty a twenty and told us to order a pizza for ourselves. 

The disposal grated and then clunked and finally died. We didn’t see our parents again until the next morning. From then on Mom was never much for cleaning. We took care of our own dust bunnies.

 

I woke up Antonia and Scotty. We sat at the dining room table and looked at each other with hungover half-slit eyes. We brewed the last of Dad’s coffee.

“What are we supposed to do now?” Scotty said. 

Antonia disappeared upstairs, then came down in her neon-green bikini from high school. I don’t know how she found it. I thought Mom had gotten rid of all of Antonia’s stuff the year she stopped coming home for Christmas. 

I laughed, remembering the last summer she’d worn it. We styled our hair in poofed bangs and big ponytails. We were so tan after a summer laying out in the backyard that the neighbor across the street who didn’t realize Italians lived in North Carolina asked if we had some Cherokee in us. 

“Your name would be Princess Lays with Jocks,” I told Antonia later.

“At least I’m not Princess Wind from Her Butt.” She gave it right back for once. And then I teased her with my rendition of a Backstreet Boys hit that Antonia listened to nonstop that summer. “You are my fire . . . I want it that way,” I sang and humped a lawn chaise. My sole purpose at ten was to make Antonia huff into the house and call her boyfriend so I could eavesdrop.

I still knew the lyrics by heart, but Antonia’s midriff hadn’t seen sunlight for over two decades. My eyes were drawn to her pale, soft tummy and the C-section scar peeking out over her bikini bottoms.

The next summer everything had been different. The days were hot and endless, but the chaises had rusted shut in the rain.

Antonia had come home from the hospital in sweatpants, even though it was July. Her face was puffy and swollen, and my seventeen-year-old sister walked slow as an old woman. With her pregnancy, our six and a half years apart had become more like eons.

“What did she look like, Antonia?” I snuck into her room to lie next to her in her twin bed. 

“She cried. She was crying.” 

I threw my arm around her and she turned over with effort and went back to sleep. I stared at the ceiling not sure how to feel. I rested my head against her back. She smelled of cherry bath spritz and something I couldn’t identify, a sweet milky rot. A cereal bowl left out on the kitchen counter all day.

 

Scotty and I sat on the couch, shoulder to shoulder, staring at something on Netflix.

“Hey, do you remember ever meeting Uncle Bernardo, before yesterday, I mean?” I said.

Scotty grunted a reply.

Before I could ask him more, Antonia walked past us in that old bikini out the back door.

She went to the shed, unwound the garden hose, and watered Mom. She kissed her on the forehead. She sat there for a few minutes stroking Mom’s thick wavy hair that lay across the dirt like black ivy. She patted the dirt firm, blanketing her. She took a trowel and dug. After a few minutes, Antonia disappeared into the shed and came back with a shovel. She thrust it into the ground and stomped. Deeper and deeper she dug. When she deemed it complete, she lay down, burying herself neatly with dirt. 

We didn’t stop her. We didn’t say anything. It was too private.

A few hours later, Scotty’s wife, Melissa, showed up and yelled at him for not coming back to the hotel the night before. They were supposed to be on the road home. She was five years older than him and pregnant with their first child. She ran a primate sanctuary in northern Virginia and didn’t like to leave her staff and the recovering monkeys for more than forty-eight hours at a time. The macaques, she reminded Scotty, had terrible separation anxiety. The chimpanzees would be looking for her. I briefly wondered if the infant they were expecting was my brother’s or a monkey’s. 

I didn’t understand her. A grown woman who spent her life making baby talk to monkeys and scooping their poop. She worked for hours smearing paper towel rolls with pumpkin puree and peanut butter and seeds, all to keep the monkeys’ brains occupied. She even showed the monkeys pictures of babies and other animals. Last visit she had said, “They need to see faces. Just like anyone does. They get bored. But stay in one place long enough and who doesn’t?” She’d laughed and added, “I mean, except you. I’d seriously kill myself if I was still living at home.” 

“Seriously?”

“Well, no,” she had said. “Well, you never know.”

That morning, even with her seven-month-pregnant belly in its yellow Ann Taylor sundress practically thrust in our faces, Scotty and I barely looked at her. We couldn’t stop staring out the screen door at our sister and mother.

Melissa quickly assessed the scene and took charge. She hoofed it to the shed and pulled out the weed whacker, yanking the cord twice before it whirred to life. Mom and Antonia lay in the dirt as though sunning, slowly becoming overgrown with herbs. They didn’t even turn their heads.

Scotty rushed out at Melissa and wrestled the weed whacker from her. 

“What are you doing? That’s my family!” he yelled.

At least, that’s what I think he said. Their fight was drowned out by the buzz of the engine. This was the most I’d seen him talk in years and I couldn’t even hear him.

 

“Say you’re not cheating on Mom,” Scotty had yelled.

I was in the living room when I heard Scotty and Dad in the kitchen. Scotty’s face was red and, for the first time, I noticed that he had finally grown taller than Dad. They didn’t seem like my brother and my dad but two men who happened to be in our kitchen arguing.

“You can’t even say it,” Scotty said.

Dad was silent. Of course he was silent. He shouldn’t have to tell Scotty something ridiculous!

“Look, in the photo, you have your arm around her. Your faces, your cheeks are touching. You’re on a city street. There are no buildings like that anywhere near here even. Where’s this taken?”

“You don’t know what you’re talking about, son.”

“Then tell me.”

“It’s your job to take care of your mother, not work her up. Do you not see that telling her and not me was wrong?” Dad walked out of the kitchen. Discussion over. 

I turned up the volume of the TV and watched my brother sit down at the kitchen table, a photo scrunched in his fist. He leaned his head back on the wall hard and then did it again. A third time, the noise was so loud it could not be ignored. I didn’t go to him—I don’t know why—and he disappeared upstairs. 

I snuck into his room later to look at the crumpled photograph. There was Dad, a much younger version of Dad, I guess, hugging some woman. I didn’t know what to think when I saw myself in the washed-out background. My back was turned to the camera and my head tilted up. That was my ponytail, I was sure. What had I been looking at? 

A tower flashed into my brain. A memory of a skyscraper. It was true what Scotty had said: There were no buildings like that around here. I didn’t know what to make of it. So I let it go. 

I never said it to Scotty’s face, but he was mean after that, mostly to Mom and Dad. He grew quieter and more serious until he left for college. That fall, I started my freshman year at Piedmont High, wondering what it would do to me. With my brother and sister no longer around to bug, my main after-school activity was eating cheese puffs in front of afternoon talk shows. Until Dad put a stop to it. 

“Basta,” he’d said and turned off the TV. “Don’t be lazy.” And he dragged me to the restaurant to help. That was fifteen years ago.

 

A half hour later, the weed whacker was back in its corner in the shed and Scotty had finished digging a space big enough for him and Melissa. Melissa gave an apologetic look to my mother for her rash weed-whacking idea and then lay down. She and Scotty helped pat each other with dirt. 

I broke my gaze. I avoided the backyard. I had nothing to feel guilty about. I had been my dad’s right-hand man for over half my life. My mom and I watched movies together late into the night. I did their laundry and they did mine. 

Let Scotty and Antonia feel guilty for leaving Dad and Mom, for leaving us. My conscience was clear. 

“Bunch of nuts,” I could hear Dad say.

I picked up the family phone, the old tan rotary unit that Dad would never replace. I thought for a second about calling Uncle Bernardo. I longed to see my dad’s face again, but there was no forgetting that it was on the wrong body. Instead, I let my fingers slowly dial Andrés, finding comfort in the click and whirl of each number. I felt better already just waiting for him to pick up.

“Hello?” he breathed into the phone.

“Andrés.”

“Shit, Maggie. Your father shows up on my caller ID—”

“And you think it’s his ghost calling?”

“No, I just, well, I never expected you to call from home. It feels so—”

Andrés and I had been dating for a couple of years now, but he’d never visited me at home, the house of his employer. We acted casual at the restaurant, joking around with each other the same as we did with anyone else, and Dad was none the wiser. And, okay, I lied before. Andrés is why I know Spanish. I liked having a shared language of our own. I knew Dad. He was okay hiring an undocumented immigrant, even making him a manager, but he would never be okay with his daughter dating one. Or speaking like one. 

“Will you come over?” I asked.

“To the house?”

“Yeah.”

“On the day after his funeral? You sure?”

“No one’s around, exactly. Just come. Please.”

Twenty minutes later I saw Andrés pacing back and forth in front of the doorstep. I called down to him from my open window. 

“Babe, what are you waiting for? Just come in. Come upstairs.”

I heard the front door close and him pause. 

It wasn’t until he was standing in the doorway that I realized two things: I had never actually had a guy in my bedroom (Mom and Dad wouldn’t allow it, not after what they went through with Antonia) and my floor was carpeted in a Pepto-Bismol shade that only appeals to six-year-old girls before they realize there are other colors in the world besides iterations of pink and purple. 

“This was not how I pictured it,” Andrés said.

“My room?” I asked, suddenly embarrassed about the weird collage of my life plastered around me. I had never changed my décor so much as added layers.

“No, this is exactly how I pictured your room. Though I am hurt that you do not have a picture of me above your bed with your other heartthrobs. Coming into your home. Meeting your family. I wanted to do it right.”

“Please, don’t worry about that. But I can’t explain here.” I dragged him to the backyard. 

In the garden, the late afternoon sun beat down on us. We stood in silence so long my cheeks started to burn under its rays. Sweat stung my eyes. They weren’t tears, but Andrés wiped them away.

Scotty was the one who had been crying, though he’d never admit it. The wispy shoots growing out of his rumpled shirt and unshaven face were much bigger than Antonia’s. Antonia had never been a crier. A measly spray of rosemary grew out of Melissa’s round stomach. She appeared bored out of her mind. Her eyes were wide open and she alternated between checking email on her iPhone and turning her head to lick up soil.

“What?” she said, when she noticed our stares. “Lots of animals eat dirt. It’s like a prenatal vitamin. Hey, what filter do you think would look good on this?” She handed me her phone, on which she was editing selfies to send to her monkey-babies. I didn’t know whether to laugh or throw the thing. 

Her face no longer shoved in front of a screen, she noticed Andrés. “Oh my God, do you have a boyfriend?”

Andrés kneeled down and gently picked a few of the herbs that had sprung from my family and held them to my nose. I breathed in Dad’s sweet basil, his rosemary, and parsley. The tomato plants and stalks of eggplant were thick as ever.

“You’ll stay, right?” I asked him. 

 106 feat Curry Witman2“Untitled” (2013), by DM Witman

 

I left my family where they had buried themselves, in Dad’s kitchen garden, letting them root deeper into the ground; even Melissa burrowed peacefully after her phone died. The truth was I couldn’t bring myself to go near them. Day after day, Andrés was the one who noticed when the earth became too dry, when the herbs drooped. He collected fresh herbs and the ripe tomatoes and eggplants every morning and brought them to the restaurant. I worked nonstop, just as I always had. Dad’s dream was my dream. I loved our kitchen, the restaurant, its espresso bar, and even the cloistered feel of the back office.

“You don’t have to do that,” I said one afternoon, when I saw Andrés attaching a sprinkler to the hose. We had headed home for a quick shower after the lunch rush, but I found myself upstairs alone and went to look for him.

“No, no, I think I do,” he said.

“Well, I’ve got to get back to work,” I said.

“Momentito, amor,” he said, but I was already walking to my car. 

I didn’t take any time off. I ran the restaurant and cooked, sometimes forgetting Dad wasn’t standing next to me chopping or in the back office paying bills. There I could smell his Irish Spring soap, a touch of scotch, and his signature spaghetti sauce, though every time I brought a spoonful to my mouth it tasted off. 

One afternoon, I looked up from the tray of tiramisu I was arranging and thought my dad had materialized next to me. My bowl of freshly whipped cream clattered to the floor. 

“Magdalena,” Uncle Bernardo said. “Mi sobrina, I’m hoping we can talk now.”

I waved my spatula in the air, part gesticulation, part threat, and all show. “My dad’s family is dead,” I said. “I only have family on my mother’s side.” I didn’t mention that Mom’s parents never talked to us.

Bernardo sighed. “There’s a lot about your father you might not know.” 

A leggy teenage girl walked in the kitchen door scowling and snapping her gum.

“Dad, when are we going to eat?” she interrupted. 

He handed her a five-dollar bill. “Amalia, why don’t you walk to the gas station next door for a snack?”

She rolled her eyes and left. She looked dead-on Antonia. I quickly did some math.

Bernardo saw me watch her leave.

“Is she—?” I said. 

He nodded. “Your father was a coward. He had many secrets,” he said. 

This girl had to be Antonia’s. Did my sister know? I wanted to drive this man from my kitchen. But I also wanted to hear the story. I picked up a knife to do prep work. I minced garlic into thumbnail slivers, giving him permission to continue. 

Bernardo started his story, “In the seventies your father was working at the paper back in Nicaragua.” It took some time for me to understand just this part. There were so many pieces of that one sentence that couldn’t be right—Nicaragua? Dad a journalist? Bernardo didn’t seem to think details were important, but I wanted all of it. 

I got out the mortar and pestle and fresh basil, pine nuts, and parmesan. Grind away, Maggie, grind away.

So here’s the story. As I understand it.

Dad had been a runner at the paper. Mostly, he spent his days getting coffee and delivering mail. His favorite part of the job was when he could drop everything to sprint from one floor to the next to deliver corrections and updates from the writers to the typesetters and down to the machinists. After he’d been there almost a year the editor-in-chief finally noticed him dashing everywhere in his pressed white shirt and ushered him into his office.

“I have a job for you. It’s important.”

“Of course, anything,” I imagined Dad would have said. 

The task would have been risky, so why did he agree? Did he think one day he would get to be a journalist for the paper, that one day he would have a byline? Did my father, whom I’d never seen vote or go to church with my mother, actually believe in this? My uncle would not say.

For three months, Dad helped the Chief play out the charade that the paper was abiding by the government’s rules of censorship. Every day another radio show or paper was shut down, but their paper endured. Each morning Dad delivered the main body of the next day’s newspaper to a military board that scoured it for anything that might be construed as controversial or against the regime. At noon Dad delivered the redlined pages back to the Chief along with the daily pro-presidente column that was “requested” for placement on the front page. For three months straight, the Chief ignored the red lines and the press release. The paper was older than the government, after all. He had to know it would all come to a breaking point.

Was Dad an expendable starry-eyed kid to the Chief? Or was he knowingly part of the resistance? Bernardo told me that he never got a straight answer from Dad when he asked years later. All the family knew at the time was that Dad was the Chief’s new special assistant. 

One evening Dad didn’t come home. When word spread that the Chief of the newspaper had been murdered, they assumed the worst, that Dad was desaparecido. Bernardo’s mother begged her younger son to stay inside, but he was insistent on going out to find his brother. It was nearing dark and she could see plumes of smoke rising in the city center. Bernardo told his mother not to worry. He headed toward the newspaper offices only to find himself in the middle of a crowd that was part funeral procession and part riot.

The blocks leading to the paper were ablaze, flames leaping as high as Managua’s tallest buildings. Smoke spread across the sky in thick blankets. Ash rained down as though the whole downtown were an erupting volcano. In the middle of the chaos, Bernardo spied the cavalcade. Thousands of mourners streamed down the avenue carrying the coffin. The mourners hummed a dirge, loud as a swarm of locusts. Then one person would call out, “Who killed the Chief?” And another farther down the block would echo him. 

Bernardo joined the procession until it stopped in front of the newspaper building. Hundreds of soldiers stood side by side with riot shields, creating a human wall around the building. The mourners pushed against each other, determined to bring the Chief’s body back to his office before continuing on to the cemetery. The soldiers launched tear gas into the crowd, and people ran into alleyways and banged on the doors of cafés to get them to raise their corrugated metal fronts so they could slip in. Bernardo along with a few hundred others broke through into the building. 

They carried the Chief’s wooden coffin through the cavernous floor that held the printing press and wound their way upward to the newsroom. The rising sun cast a celestial light over the silent typewriters—the news was alive in the streets. The paper went to print with only its masthead and date. The writers took Flor de Caña out of their desk drawers, took swigs, and let the bottles of rum loose into the tide. 

Bernardo joined in the drinking.

Dad was nowhere to be found at the paper’s offices. Bernardo learned later that Dad took off after overhearing the military board’s plan. He threw the mock-up copy into a trashcan near the Parque Central and caught a ride in a pickup headed north.

For months he didn’t stop running. Not even when he reached the United States did he stay put. He circled Florida and Georgia. He picked oranges, Vidalia onions, cantaloupes, blackberries, and blueberries. In the winter he mucked stalls and hot-walked horses. Every few weeks, he sent his mother and Bernardo an unsigned postcard. When he could, he attended English classes in church basements, never removing the baseball cap he wore pushed down nearly over his eyes, until one day a young, pretty girl asked him to remove it so she could see his face better.

Soon after, he called home and asked for his mother. He’d met a beautiful Italian-American girl, a Catholic girl, he added, and wanted to get married but he needed to be able to support her. He’d been working in kitchens lately so he could stay in one place, and he dreamed of being his own boss and proudly supporting a family. His mother, my grandmother, was so overjoyed to hear his voice she sent him all her savings, not even saving one córdoba for Bernardo’s inheritance. 

“Open your restaurant, niño,” she said. “Just think of us as you work.”

Bernardo skipped over the part where he was pissed off. He must have been, taking care of his mother all on his own, instead of living his own life.

But that’s not the whole story. 

Bernardo finished, “After our mother died he helped me move to Chicago, niña. He did that for me. But when he leaves he says not to call him. I write him letters but he never writes back. But we’re family so I keep writing. This time I am the one to leave them unsigned, since that’s what he’s asking for . . . that I don’t exist.

“But out of the blue, he calls. There’s a child. He asks me to care for her. And I say, yes of course, we are family. And he brings me Amalia, your sister’s newborn, and I never hear from him again. Your mother though, she writes me letters every year, and I send her pictures. Years later we start texting. Now we text almost every day. Tu madre es muy querida para mí. I know it’s—”

“Inesperado,” I choked out. Nothing would have been more unexpected.

“She’s not answering my texts.”

I wanted to faint, to exit from the conversation. But of course, I didn’t. I’ve never been delicate—that was Antonia’s job. At least, that’s what I had thought, that she couldn’t forgive herself for giving up the baby. 

I looked out into the empty restaurant at my new teenage “cousin” Amalia’s serious face as she ate Cheetos alone at a booth. I saw that it was not herself that Antonia could not forgive. Did she know what Dad had done or did she think the baby was forever lost to her?

Dad had simultaneously given the baby away and kept her in his orbit. He was as cruel as Saturn, who swallowed his children to keep them contained, a myth from my childhood storybook that I had never forgotten. 

When I first discovered it, I went to Dad in his armchair and pointed at the picture of Saturn looking like a giant ogre.

“Read it to me,” Dad said.

“Yikes!” he said, after I told him the tale. “I need a Tums thinking of you kids in my belly.” He tickled me and Scotty with his small, strong hands and pretended to eat us. “Ohh, ewww. Eating Scotty’s stinky feet, ugh, and Maggie’s stinky feet, makes my stomach turn.”

Antonia had sat in a chair studying, unmoved. She had a big test the next day and she’d have Dad to answer to if she didn’t do well. 

I saw now how badly Dad wanted us all to ace this American life. He would protect us, even if it meant covering us with bile.

 

“Mom’s . . . umm, traveling. She probably forgot her charger,” I told Bernardo. 

Andrés had his arm around me and I was glad for it. 

“It’s late,” he said to nudge me out the door.

I swallowed. “Come home with us,” I said to Bernardo. “There’s plenty of room.” Inviting Bernardo home felt like asking in a ghost.

 

That night, I took Bernardo and Amalia home with me, making sure to go through the front door and avoid the back.

I told Amalia to take my room. It was perfectly laid out for a teen girl, after all. I set up Bernardo in the guest room, and Andrés and I tentatively entered my parents’ room, half expecting something to pop out from under the bed. What other surprises were in store for me?

We lay down, still in our clothes, on my parents’ faded sheets, I on my mother’s side, Andrés on my father’s. I grabbed my mother’s flannel robe from the bedpost and wrapped it around myself. The nights were growing colder.

“Did you know?” I asked Andrés.

“No, never.”

I looked at him.

“Well, never this. But once, it must have been when I started working at the restaurant, we were lugging these gigantic bags of onions out of his van and he barked at me in perfect Spanish to hurry up. And then any other time I spoke to him in Spanish he wouldn’t respond,” Andrés said.

“Do you remember that one time, what was that guy’s name, Roberto, called him jefe? He went ballistic,” I said.

“He did more than that. He fired him. After that we spoke English or didn’t speak,” Andrés said.

I cringed. That made my dad sound like a terrible man.

“Did you know?” he asked.

And for some reason I thought of gas station Hostess CupCakes, two to a pack, with their perfect curlicues. Black and white and round, Dad called them penguins, which I thought was the best. I remembered the wrappers on the floor of the car, drinking Pepsi out of a Big Gulp, sitting in the front seat for the first time, just me and my dad singing to the radio and watching the dirt change colors with each state we passed through. 

I went with Dad to give Mom a break. That’s what he’d said.

We drove for five days. North Carolina to Texas and over the border to Juarez (he bought me a popcorn ball out the window) and to Chicago and back home and all I had remembered was all the sugar I got to eat, collecting all four Happy Meal toys in one week, and the easy happiness of hanging out with my dad.

But in my memory, if I looked into the rearview mirror, I saw my uncle Bernardo and a woman, his wife, asleep in the backseat. Exhausted. Did Dad get them IDs? Did they hide in the trunk across the border, Dad sweating the whole time and me eating my popcorn ball? I would ask Bernardo someday. 

Maybe.

If I craned my head skyward, I could see the Sears Tower. The four of us looking at the biggest building we had ever seen. People in gray suits with briefcases sidestepped us and Dad took a photo of Bernardo’s new life in America.

 

Andrés squeezed my hand. He repeated his question. 

“No. I don’t know, maybe some part of me knew,” I said. 

“Get some sleep. Okay?”

But I couldn’t. I thought back to my mom’s bizarre cleaning frenzy and how she always knew all our secrets, and how strict Dad could be, all in the name of keeping us out of trouble, and how Antonia and Scotty couldn’t forgive our parents—until Dad was dead and Mom had buried herself—and how I was so angry that I had never bothered to be angry at all. 

Worse, I had been happy.

I let them all stay in the ground for a few more days, but finally, worried about frost, I dug into the earth and broke up the soil and roots. I was careful of fingers and toes. “Basta!” I said, sounding like him. “Enough’s enough.” 

I poured red wine in the ground to wake them and then took another bottle over to the firepit. I tossed wood on and watched it smoke and then glow.

They woke slowly, stretching, cracking, squealing, grief and guilt popping out of them. They padded over to me and wrapped themselves with blankets. Melissa looked dazed. I tried to place what was different about her when Mom walked up. She nuzzled a little one in her arms. The baby yowled and stretched his neck toward his mama. Mom handed him to Melissa, who took the baby to her breast. Scotty’s eyes grew big and shook free of sleep. Bernardo and Andrés fed the fire more wood, and Antonia and Amalia stood at the edge of the fire and watched the flames shadow-dance back and forth over each other’s faces. They reached for each other.

We looked up at the oak tree and its orange fall leaves. We breathed in the smell of the pine trees at the edge of the yard. The crisp smoky air. We watched the fire as it tossed sparks into the air. We leaned into each other, to the light. 


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Sarah Curry’s stories have appeared in Nimrod and Best Debut Fiction 2019. This year she was the recipient of a PEN/Robert J. Dau Short Story Prize for Emerging Writers. She has an MFA in fiction from Virginia Commonwealth University. She lives in Lexington, Kentucky.