The Seven Deaths of the Family Contreras
Here is the truth: everyone has but a single death to give to God, even his holy son whose second life stretches on without end. This is also the truth: Roque Contreras and his family died seven times in three years, with only one lone grave to show for it. Roque and his pregnant wife lived in a cold-water cottage in Mexican Hollywood with their three sons, their only daughter on the way. This was 1930, the year the girl was born, and thus far not a member of the family had been closer to the afterlife than was usual. Roque was under the impression that they were happy.
The oldest boy claimed the family’s first death, as was his birthright. His name was Steve, and he was possessed of tar-black eyes, a sullen Spanish mouth, and a beautiful red bicycle, almost new. Roque had given it to him for his tenth birthday—the realization that a whole decade had gone by startling him into generosity. Steve loved that bicycle the way he had loved nothing else in his short life, not even his brothers, or the roller-coaster at the Long Beach Pike, not even his silent but beloved mother. The bicycle shone red like a gleaming heart, and rode smoother and better than the ancient tin and wire skeletons the neighbor boys rode around on, and Steve had never felt more sure or more calm than when his hands were on those black rubber handlebars, his feet pumping away at the clean new pedals.
It was a great tragedy, then, when Steve slid directly into the path of a taxi on Harbor Boulevard, and the red bicycle was crushed under the wheels of the car. The taxi driver leapt out of the vehicle, as did his fare, a blonde from San Bernardino.
“What have you done!” the woman cried, one pale hand pressed to her mouth. The driver ignored her, busy as he was getting down on his knees to look underneath the car. There was a body there, all right. He had not seen it stir with breath, and there was blood on the ground.
“Somebody call for an ambulance,” the woman implored to the crowd gathering from the nearby storefronts and surrounding cars. “He may still be alive!” A man was sent running to the fire station, only a few blocks away.
But the driver shook his head. “Está muerto,” he said unsteadily. “Oh God forgive me.”
One of the gathered crowd suddenly announced that it must be the Contreras boy under the car, because that distinctive bicycle could belong to none other. “We’d better call Roque,” someone said—and believe it or not, those words were enough to rouse Steve from death itself.
We’d better call Roque. What would his father say if he knew Steve had allowed himself to be hit by a car? What would his father do if he knew Steve had gotten himself killed, when Steve knew they had no money to burn on funeral arrangements? What would his father do if—God help him—he knew Steve had destroyed that perfect bicycle? No power in heaven or hell would save him then.
The sirens were howling down the street when Steve opened his eyes and saw the black machinery of the taxi-cab above him. Painfully he scraped himself off the street and rolled onto his belly. His legs and back burned like fire, but Steve’s heart was pounding with fear, not pain. He could see the crimson wreck of his bicycle just a few feet before him, and allowed himself one second to mourn.
Then Steve wriggled away on his belly with agonizing care, inching backwards over the asphalt until he was out from under the car entirely. It was a lucky thing for him that the crowd was focused at the front of the car, where the woman and the driver were now both weeping. (“You’re a monster!” cried the woman. “I am ruined!” cried the driver.) In all the confusion, Steve was able to clamber up to his feet and run all the way home.
It was the middle of the day, which meant that his parents were at the cannery and Julio was at school, so only five year-old Esther should be at home. Steve burst through the front door. They would have called Roque from the cannery already. By now he had been to the scene of the accident. By now he had seen the red bicycle.
Esther screamed as soon as she saw him, and Steve told her to shut up, racing into the bedroom. He had to get rid of his clothes before Roque made his way home and saw the blood.
“But your back!” Esther said, starting to cry, and for the first time Steve truly felt how badly it hurt.
The skin was scraped cleanly away. Steve had been flung off the bicycle and under the car when the accident happened, which certainly saved his life, but his back was a bloody ruin, as were his elbows and the backs of his calves.
“You can’t tell anybody,” Steve said fiercely, grabbing Esther’s chin to force their gazes together, squeezing so he could feel the bone of her jaw. “Nobody knows about this. It never happened.”
A few stray tears leaked from Esther’s eyes, but she nodded.
“Good,” Steve said, shaking slightly from the pain of bending over. “Now help me get this shirt off.”
Fifteen minutes later, when Roque and his wife burst into the house, the bloody clothes had been shoved into a paper bag, Esther was sitting calmly in the kitchen, and Steve was dressed in his nightshirt, lying wrapped up in bed.
“Steven!” Roque thundered, slamming the bedroom door open. “Did you get into a fucking accidente del coche?”
Steve shook his head, and did his best to look ill.
“He’s been home sick,” Esther said. “Feel his forehead, Ma. He’s hot.”
Their mother came over at once to feel Steve’s forehead, which was indeed very hot.
Roque was still suspicious. “So that was not your bicicleta maldita I saw smashed into Harbor Boulevard?”
Steve explained in a croaking voice that he hadn’t left the house all day.
Roque looked at his son for another long moment, and then turned away, muttering about those fucking pendejos, deliberately sabotaging a man’s peace of mind, deliberately ripping both a man and his wife away from precious hours of work. He was going to smash that hijo de puta driver’s head in the next time he saw him. Telling a man his son was dead!
And if Steve’s mother saw the droplets of blood that had fallen onto the gray sheets beside him, she didn’t say a word, but followed her cursing husband out of the bedroom, outside of the house, back to work.
“I thought you were dead meat for sure,” Esther said when they had gone.
Steve almost laughed.
Esther was the second to die, but only just. She had a lingering death—nine months in the making—but in the end it was of natural causes. Esther’s mother, the exhausted Irené Contreras, had three sons in a row. Each was born barely a year ahead of the next. Steve was the first, Julio was second, and Albert was her third. Albert was a difficult birth, born breech with the cord wrapped around his neck. The doctor had to do surgery, and the midwife informed Irené that she was unlikely to have any more children. Irené was twenty-five, and she had already been disappointed by so many things––by her parents, by her stepfather, by the unions, by the back-breaking days at the cannery. But the one thing she had always held out hope for was a daughter.
When her mother wove taut braids into Irené’s hair, Irené told herself that one day she would have a daughter, and wind those same braids into her hair. When the floorboards outside her bedroom creaked with her stepfather’s weight, Irené reminded herself that one day she would have a daughter, and she would protect that girl from all harm. She could imagine her daughter’s face: a pale girl with delicate curls and dark lashes, a girl too beautiful to hurt. A girl deserving of all the love in Irené Contreras’s guarded heart. When Roque first kissed her, it was her daughter’s face she saw. When Steve first spoke to her in English words too advanced for her to comprehend, she shut her eyes and saw her phantom daughter, and promised that girl that they would speak in a secret language no one else could learn. The name Esther came to Irené in a dream, and she knew that one day God would give her Esther in the waking world.
So at first Irené hated the infant Albert. Only a day old, and Albert had already killed his sister. She was inconsolable, weeping for long hours, tears like Roque had never seen. “It takes some women like this,” the midwife advised. “You must give her time.” But time is not a resource the poor have in great measure, and Roque needed to return to work at the cannery.
“Stop crying,” Roque had begged, “Please, mi corazón, please, or I will have to put you in an asylum and marry some other woman. Is that what you want? You want to be locked up like a lunatic while some puta raises your sons? Just hold the baby, okay, mi amor? Just take a look at the little chingado.”
Finally Irené was persuaded to look at the baby, and she was so shocked by what she saw that she stopped weeping. The baby had the face of her daughter Esther. Yes, sure, the baby also had a little banana and a set of huevos, but there was no mistaking it—the pale skin, the soft curls, the long dark eyelashes.
“Thank you,” she whispered, reaching out to take the baby, finally. “Dios es misericordioso. Gracias a Dios.”
“Fucking Christ,” Roque said.
Irené did not stand firmly for much in their marriage. But she fought her husband bitterly until he let her have her way. Roque didn’t want fucking nothing to do with the kid until he was old enough for school, so Irené could do whatever she fucking wanted until then. But the name on his birth certificate was Albert, and the devil take him if Roque was going to call his son anything but Albert, and Steve and Julio better do the same.
What this meant, in practice, was that Irené got to call her son Esther, got to grow her son’s beautiful hair out as long as it would go, and braid pale ribbons into it as she willed. She sewed Esther beautiful dresses, she bestowed on Esther all of the love and sweetness she could not give to anyone else. And if Esther was sometimes Albert when her father remembered, it made little difference to either the child or her mother.
In 1930 Irené got pregnant again, despite the warnings the doctor had given her. As her belly swelled, Roque began to remember that Albert would start school soon. “You can dress up the new baby, if you want,” he told Irené magnanimously. “But let your girls be babies. Your sons must grow into men.”
Esther was torn. She had often looked forward to the day when she could be a boy—Steve and Julio had much more freedoms than she did, and she wanted very much to be like her brothers. But she had not reckoned on losing her mother. Irené was drifting slowly away, everything in her focused on the life growing in her belly. When she was seven months along she told Julio to cut Esther’s hair. Julio hesitated, the scissors stalled at Esther’s neck. Her hair had never been cut before. “How short, Ma?”
“Like yours,” Irené said. Julio’s hands shook as he cut clumsily at her locks, and Esther could not help herself—she cried. Her mother did not even stay to watch. Next Irené took all of Esther’s dresses back, and returned them to her as shirts, or short pants. The ribbons and small white buttons were not given back at all, but stitched onto smaller, tiny dresses, in preparation for the child to come. Even with boy’s hair, even in boy’s clothes, even without her mother’s special regard, Esther held onto life—but she was fading every day. Her brothers reintroduced her to the children of the neighborhood. She was taken for the first time to the boy’s side of the public swimming pool. Steve forgot himself and cuffed her hard over the head, as he would never have done when her hair was long.
She died on the day her mother gave birth to a healthy girl. “Albert,” Irené said in a horribly familiar voice, all devotion and private wonder, “I want you to meet your sister.” She was an ugly little baby, brown-skinned and flat-nosed. Totally bald. Her name, of course, was Esther. On the birth certificate and everything.
Perhaps all would have been well if the first Esther had died in truth. If she had been hit by a train, or eaten by sharks, or pushed out of a tall building. God might have accepted that balance: an Esther for an Esther. But instead there were two births that day, and only one death. Such debts must always be repaid.
The third death was purely metaphorical, and belonged to every one of them.
It occurred because Roque had come into an unexpected windfall. His estranged brother Faustino, the politician, had unexpectedly died back in Veracruz. As his brother had no other family his wealth reverted to Roque, much as the old bastard would have hated the idea. Despite the damage the conversion rates had taken, Roque was now in possession of a small fortune—enough for a single night of the nicest whiskey at the Schooner, and a business venture.
Roque was determined to purchase Danny’s Egg and Waffle Shop on Gaffey Street. Restaurant management was an easy job, particularly when you had sons to act as labor. Roque would thereby free himself from working in the canneries, and the seasonal paychecks that came with factory work, not to mention the dues paid to the union. And it was known that the owner of Danny’s Egg and Waffle Shop needed to sell quickly and leave Los Angeles, due to certain problems with the Greek element—a more fortuitous sign could not be asked for. What a beautiful yellow bar it had! What a stunning tile floor! And the menu—so simple, so cheap. Why, Roque himself could cook the food, if he needed to. And to know that it was being sold for half the asking price, as well—he found it irresistible. Roque set his heart on possessing that diner, and approached the owner’s son forthwith.
The son assured him that he would like to sell, but his father would not sign over a title to anyone with a Mexican last name, no matter how dire his circumstances. “Ideally,” the man told Roque with an apologetic look, “He would prefer to pass the business on to a man named Danny. You know how old men can be.”
So it was that all seven members of the family Contreras rode the bus together to the Los Angeles City Courthouse downtown, thick sheafs of English paperwork proclaiming their strategic linguistic suicide in their hands. Irené and Julio could read none of it, Steve and Albert only a little more, and of course baby Esther understood nothing. Roque did not try to read the paperwork, but focused on laboriously spelling out his new name, the letters unfamiliar in his hands.
Many papers were signed. Many papers were stamped. Esther wailed. Despite her mother’s enchantment, she was a nasty, noisy sort of baby. Steve wandered away during the long wait in line, and was found an hour later eating a discarded tamale in Olvera Street, and had to be dragged back to the courthouse and the line by the collar of his shirt. But finally the act was done: the family Contreras was no more.
Instead, Irené Carter and her new husband Roque Daniel Carter walked out of the courthouse with their four children: Steve Carter, Julio Carter, Albert Carter, and Esther Carter. They looked the same as before, only a little hungrier and sweatier and more exhausted––but the plain facts of their existence had changed. The boys were uneasy. Even Esther was still in her mother’s arms. Tell anyone who has lost a name that it is not a death.
“Tell su padre everything is fine,” Mr. R. Daniel Carter said to the son of Danny the restaurant owner. “Do you have a pen?” Very carefully, he signed his new name and smiled.
And so Danny’s Egg and Waffle Shop passed into the hands of Roque Carter, who poured all of his brother’s fortune into the sale and the salary of the line cook and nothing at all into buying a boiler to replace the sputtering wood-burning stove they used at home. Nothing at all on gifts, although Steve was collecting nickels from gutters and smashed pennies from the railroad tracks in the hopes of purchasing a new bicycle. The excuses he continued to offer for its absence were growing thin. Soon enough the money was entirely gone, even the roll of bills Roque had specifically set aside for use at the bar. Roque was a poor restaurant manager, but a stern overseer. All of his sons worked at the diner, before school and after, all day on the weekends, seven days a week in the summer. They set the yellow bar, they washed the chipped white dishes, they swept the tiled floor and mopped the booths. Albert regularly entered the wrong bathroom by mistake, scandalizing the female customers and developing quite a reputation as a macho. Steve scoured frying pans as big as his chest, grinding his teeth together whenever he hand to bend over and stretch the regrown skin of his back. Julio did what he could.
He was by far the sweetest of Roque’s children—not so angry as Steve, nor so bitter as Albert, nor again so entitled as the darling Esther, who was by now a toddling horror in beautiful dresses. He was kind to spiders, carefully scooping them up to carry out of the bath where his sister cowered. He had two sweet dimples that made certain older women nod knowingly when discussing his future—a guapo, for sure. But he was not a clever child. His handwriting was shaky and nervous, his numbers unsteady unless he could find them on his fingers, his English lisping and his Spanish stilted. It was, of course, the death of him.
How could he have such a stupid, slack-jawed son, Roque wondered. Roque was very proud of his own intelligence. He could read, he could write—in Spanish, of course, but so what? He could write plays in Spanish, and sometimes did, which was better than anything his American sons had attempted. He had gone to school in Veracruz, and he counted every hour of his studies an incomparable blessing. He had hung on his teacher’s words. He had been exhausted from work, but he had made himself learn, and he had been grateful down to his bones. To think of the waste of Julio’s American education, dribbling in one greasy ear and out the other! It made Roque sick, right down in his gut.
“Julio!” he barked one day, his son jumping at the sink in the back of the restaurant. “Recita the nine times tables!”
Julio froze, looking to his brothers for help. They averted their eyes.
“Nine times one is nine,” he said, and then paused. Roque picked up the new orders and stacked them on his arms with a dangerous look in his eyes. “Give me nine times three,” he said sharply before sweeping out of the kitchen. “And then nine times four, and all the way to the end, or I swear to Christ I’ll kill you.”
“Twenty-seven,” Albert told Julio quickly, from his spot by the fryer.
“Now quick, the next one,” Steve prompted him from where he stood peeling waffles out of their molds with tongs. “Nine times four is thirty-six, okay? Just remember that. Thirty-six, for when he asks you.”
“Thirty-six,” Julio repeated helplessly, fumbling with the jug of industrial dish soap, getting the blue liquid all over his fingers.
“But twenty-seven first,” Albert cautioned. “Twenty-seven, then thirty-six.”
Roque swept briefly back into the kitchen. “Well?”
“Twenty-six,” Julio said, then blanched. “No, Thirty-seven.”
“You fuckhead,” Steve said.
“Just concentrate,” Albert said.
The kitchen of an egg and waffle shop is no place to be flustered. Julio fumbled the large container of dish soap, forgetting that he had just poured a generous volume into the sink. The jug slipped out of his already soapy fingers, and fell on the floor, leaking blue liquid everywhere.
This, of course, is when Roque came back into the kitchen, a stack of dishes in his arms. He slipped immediately on the soap, falling hard to the ground with a shout of surprise. Dishes flew everywhere, shattering against the ground, a few slicing into Roque’s bare arms. And there was Julio, mute with horror, the bottle of dish soap in his hands.
Roque did not speak—he just moved, grabbing the closest implement to hand—an iron skillet—and brought it down on Julio’s head with a bellow of rage. Julio dropped like a stone.
Albert let out a scream. There was more blood on the floor. Roque stood there for a second, skillet in one hand, both arms bleeding, breathing heavily through his mouth.
Steve lurched forward, falling to his knees at his brother’s side.
“Está muerto,” Albert said in a choked voice.
Without bothering to clean himself up, Roque turned and went back out into the main part of the diner, where people were still and curious behind their plates of food–their hamburgers with hash and their baked apples with cream and their fifteen-cent stacks of crispy waffles. “Get out,” Roque said in an even voice, bloody and soapy and still clutching the murder weapon. “We’re closed.”
After Roque had ushered every customer out of the diner, all their checks unpaid, he very carefully placed the skillet on the yellow counter, by the cash register. After cleaning out the contents, Roque walked right out, too. Who knows where he went. Not home, that’s for sure.
Back in the kitchen, Albert was sobbing. Steve was checking for Julio’s heartbeat with thin fingers.
“He’s breathing,” Steve snapped. “Stop acting like a girl and get me something to put on his head.”
Albert handed his brother the dishrag he had tucked into his own apron, trying to stop the hitching of his breath.
Steve pressed the dishrag to Julio’s scalp. It bled freely, but head wounds do, even mild ones. Let him need only a bandage, Steve prayed. Maybe a row of stitches, which could be done at home.
“Thank Christ,” Steve said.
Julio’s eyes fluttered open, and he instantly squinted with the pain.
“We thought he killed you,” Albert whispered.
The fingers of Julio’s right hand convulsed once on the floor, like a spider curling up to die. “I think I’m okay,” Julio said, before turning his head abruptly to the side and puking.
“He tried to murder you,” Steve told him, keeping the rag pressed to his brother’s skull even through his convulsions. “That bastard thinks he has murdered you.”
Julio spat a last time onto the floor. Albert made a soft sound in his throat.
“He tried to kill you,” Steve repeated, staring at the yellow bile on the floor. His eyes were hard, harder even than they’d been the day he’d dislocated a boy’s jaw in the parking lot of his middle school. “We have to do something.”
“You could run home for a needle,” Julio suggested, swallowing something viscous and coppery. “Maybe whiskey.” Their mother had sewn their hurts away before with dental floss stitches and heavy swallows of cheap bourbon.
But Albert was slowly shaking his head. “He means about dad.”
The silence drew on, until finally Steve came out with the obvious solution. “Let’s kill him,” he said.
After lengthy debate, the Carter sons were all in agreement. Julio held out for a long time—as the injured party, shouldn’t he get to decide how his father should be punished?––but even he was persuaded after Roque finally came home from his bender. “So I guess your head is hardier than I suspected,” his father said gruffly, brushing against the dental floss stitches crossing Julio’s brow with thick fingers. “You’ll do better next time, won’t you?” Steve let out a short bark of laughter from across the room, and Roque’s fingers dropped away. Days had passed since the injury, but Julio still could not recall the alphabet, or the names of all the basic numbers, or the names of certain colors. The shapes of men blurred and doubled before his eyes, and his head ached violently without relief. There could be no next time.
Their plan, in the end, was simple. Every morning at five o’clock Roque entered the restaurant through the back door. The first thing he did was light the pilot of the vast industrial oven. The second thing he did was turn on the gas. All they needed to do was arrive at the restaurant at four-thirty in the morning, and turn the gas on first.
It was a beautiful plan, Albert reassured them. Without flaw, Steve agreed. Julio briefly forgot the word for “yes”, but gave his brothers a jerky nod. It was the best he could do.
At three-thirty am, Steve quietly woke both of his brothers. They stole into their clothes, leaving the shoes until they were outside in the street, gently shutting the front door behind them. The early morning was blue with fog, and each of them was very cold as they rode their aluminum and wire bicycles past the fire station, past the cliffs of Point Fermin, past the bathhouse at Cabrillo beach, all the way to the dark shops on Gaffey Street. Julio fished the spare key out from the nook in the drainpipe, and they let themselves into Danny’s Egg and Waffle Shop. Steve turned the gas on.
By silent agreement, they stayed to watch. They huddled in the alley behind the diner, hiding their bikes behind the trashcans, waiting for five o’clock to come.
“Do you think there’s time to sneak back inside for some coffee?” Albert asked. Steve cuffed him hard over the head.
Finally Julio heard the sound of footsteps. A lock turning. The door opening. They scrambled to the single dingy window that looked into the kitchen—a horizontal sliver mostly designed for letting out fumes. Three sets of dark eyes peered into the kitchen, now lit with electric light.
Roque stepped away from the light switch. He reached for the box of matches, and as he did so he sneezed.
Steve’s breath caught. Albert’s hand suddenly gripped Julio’s as if he were still Esther and in need of comfort. Julio gripped tightly back.
But Roque did not so much as pause—he went right over to the industrial oven, opened it up, and struck a match.
Albert let out a shriek, and the Carter brothers ducked under the window as the room exploded. Immediately they leapt back up, looking frantically through the window for the corpse—but there was no need. An agonized howl came from inside the kitchen, and they saw that Roque was alive and standing, although the kitchen was burning around him, the walls and counters sparking with flame. All the hair on his head had been burned away, and his hands were held out stiffly like claws.
“Fuck,” Steve said in terror, because Roque had heard Albert’s cry, he would know it was them. “Why did you scream, you maldita chingada,” he screamed at his brother, and Albert started crying like always, just like a fucking girl. “I’ll kill you, maricón, I’m gonna fucking kill you.”
Roque howled again, and that startled them all into action, tripping towards the bicycles on shaking limbs.
They pedaled than any of them had ever pedaled in their lives, lungs gasping, legs burning, sweat and horror trickling down their bare arms and the wet backs of their knees.
When they got back to the familiar houses of Mexican Hollywood and the ramshackle door that was their own, they dropped their bikes panting in the street, and shot inside. It was only five-thirty in the morning, and Irené had not yet left Esther with the childless grandmother down the street so that she could begin her day of work. So when her sons burst in, all out of breath with petrified faces, screaming instructions and curses at each other, she was startled enough to drop the toast she had made. Esther started crying, as if to join in, an attention-seeking wail that Irené ignored for the first time in her daughter’s life.
“Who is chasing you,” she demanded, grabbing Albert by the shoulders. Steve and Julio started ransacking the kitchen, stuffing white bread and peanut butter into their pockets. “Tell me!”
Albert was weeping with fear. “We killed him,” he said between hiccupping breaths. “We tried to kill him, but maybe we only burnt down the restaurant instead.”
“Dios,” Irené swore, because already she could hear sirens from down the street. “Stay. Don’t you dare move a muscle. They’ll catch you if you run. Stay, and I’ll tell them you were all here, sleeping.”
With a final fierce glare at her children, she ran out into the street. If she could only find Roque first, and speak to him!
“Even if we don’t go to jail, he’ll pay us back,” Steve said with fiery certainty. “We’re getting out of here.”
As soon as their mother was out of sight, running towards Gaffey Street, the three brothers leapt back on their bicycles, clothes stuffed full of food, and pedaled as hard as they could in the opposite direction.
Terror fueled the boys out of San Pedro, over the bridge, all the way to the Long Beach Pike. There they rested, walking hollow-eyed under the boardwalk to escape the sun, dropping their bikes in the sand. They looked hopefully for fallen pennies, the bright lights and colorful rides at the pier beckoning them. But they found no pennies. For two whole days they remained at the Pike, sleeping on the beach, eating fingerfuls of stolen peanut butter. “Do you think we’re cursed?” Albert whispered under the shade of the Ferris Wheel, and although Steve told him to shut up, they all believed it might be true. But the year was 1933, and many families suffered many misfortunes. The Carter boys were not the only brown children looking for pennies at the Long Beach Pike, not by a long shot.
On the third day, the police caught up with them. They were taken back to San Pedro in a squad car, and escorted to the hospital burn unit by a white man in a blue uniform.
They entered a ward to find their father lying in a hospital bed, their mother sitting on the floor beside him. Roque jolted upright as soon as he saw them, wincing at the movement. He was swathed in bandages, hands wrapped so tightly it was as though he wore mittens, and his skin was raw and hairless. Even his eyelashes were gone.
“Gracias a Dios,” Roque whispered, his eyes a painful red. “Venir aquí,” he continued hoarsely, and Albert took an involuntary step forward. Roque reached out and took his son in his arms, and to the astonishment of all, he wept.
“Are these the children you described to us, Mr. Carter?” the policeman asked, one pink hand gripping Steve’s shoulder.
“No,” Roque said through his tears. “No, those were my other sons.” He nodded absently as the policeman informed him of their delinquency, as though he had expected it. He did not let go of Albert even as the policeman promised to return with further questions.
Steve had only one. Why was his mother still on the floor? Irené sat with her back against the wall, staring at nothing. She had not blinked when they came in. She looked straight through them all, as if they were phantoms, and she could see things they could not.
“You boys,” Roque said eventually. “You foolish boys.” Thinking only of their own terror, their own murders, their own plight. They had gone to the house and frightened their mother. Irené ran frantically down the street in one direction, the boys pedaled madly in the other, Roque screamed in the diner. The three-year old was left alone in the house.
Irené was not gone for very long. But it was long enough for Esther to stumble out of the front door, astonished that for once in her short life, nobody was paying her the slightest bit of attention. She wandered right out into the road, wailing with rage. How dare they leave! How dare no one comfort her and explain why everyone was running, how dare no one pick her up, rest her on his handlebars, take her with him?
The taxicab never saw her.
It was two deaths for the price of one, Roque told them, gesturing to their mother sitting motionless on the linoleum. As soon as Irené saw the body, her heart shriveled right up, black ash drifting through her ribcage, and she collapsed in a faint on the street. Roque, in the meantime, had been taken to the hospital to be bandaged. While arguing with the nurses in the emergency room, he witnessed his wife enter through the double doors, silently trailing a white man with a small bundle in his arms.
Come on, mi vida, Roque had whispered to her, when Irené was led silently to his bedside. A nurse had found her standing outside the morgue, staring blankly at the closed doors. Come on, mi corazón. We need to go home. Those stupid chingados your sons burned down the fucking restaurant. But she did not wake.
“It was our fault,” Albert said, and his voice came out high and trembling like a girl’s. He slipped away from Roque, sinking down to his mother’s feet. He touched the side of her hand with the barest tip of his finger. She stirred very slightly, her eyes focusing for an instant on Albert’s soft brown curls.
“It was his fault,” Steve corrected, aware of Julio at his shoulder. His hands balled into fists, and his back ached horribly. “He’s still an attempted murderer. He started this, all of it.” But who among them had not attempted murder? Who among them was not a ghost?
Roque held out his hand, but could not touch, not with his bandages. “There are worse things in the world than murderers,” he told his son through his raw mouth, and it sounded like a benediction. A holy father stretching out his wounded white hand. “Rapists. Pedófilos. Those who cross picket lines.” For this––just this––surely they could forgive each other. Even God could forgive them, poor dead souls. There were fees to be paid, and so many dark years left to go.
But the boy stared at his father, red-eyed and still. He did not take his father’s hand.