Cucuy threw flowers and lovesick verses on Mamande’s lawn and then ripped up the grass when they weren’t collected. It stole shirts off the clothesline and set Mamande’s front porch rocker in the street. It scratched the front door, left angry bites in windowsill pies and forlorn smudges on the window. Amid these explosive campaigns, the four of them—Alma; her little brother, Lorenzo; and their cousins, Carlos and Mike—plotted booby traps, sleepover séances, and flashlight search parties through the back lot and the alley. Even after its rages melted away, none of them ventured into the unused part of the house alone. Cucuy’s aura lingered in its smallest sighs: the sinister clink of ancient liquor bottles at the bottom of the pantry, a furtive tapping on the ceiling, a shadow in a dark bedroom mirror; reminders that Cucuy would return, like some avenging spirit on the anniversary of its death, with the cold fogs of December.
That winter of 1983, Alma was in fourth grade and every day for a week before Christmas break, she sanctified her eyes with holy water from the baby-food jar at the feet of the terra-cotta Virgin in her parents’ bathroom. The twins were coming down for the first weekend of holiday vacation and she and Lorenzo were to stay with Mamande, too. They had all pledged to bless their eyes in preparation for hunting Cucuy.
The night before the sleepover, her parents fought so badly her father ripped the kitchen phone out of the wall and threw it in the sink. The next day Alma’s mother didn’t go to work and kept Lorenzo home from kindergarten. When Alma got home, he was asleep on the living room floor next to a bowl of soggy cereal. Fraggle Rock was almost over. Her mother had a magazine on her lap, but Alma knew by the pert way she sat on the sofa—right on the edge, half-turned toward the front door—that she’d been waiting for Alma to get home.
“Can you take Lorencito’s bowl to the sink? Thanks.” Her mother’s voice was soft and shivery. She had been crying. The tears collected in her lashes made her eyes look like sorrowful flowers.
Alma opened the hall closet door wide enough to block the view of her mother. She tucked her bus card into her backpack and set it beneath the dark fringe of coat sleeves, between the vacuum cleaner and her father’s motorcycle helmet. Crouched in the closet, the cool scent of her father’s leather jacket on her face, it was easier to answer. “Sure, Momma.”
The torn telephone cable hung like a skinny tongue from the middle of a square of wallpaper brighter than the rest. The handset was still in the sink. Alma tipped the bowl against the stainless-steel side, so the milk wouldn’t splash it. Alma checked the time on the microwave on her way into the kitchen. Mamande would call soon, when Tío Miguel got in.
The television cut off and her mother came into the kitchen after her. “He won’t answer me, but you’re home now. Come on.”
Alma dialed her father’s pager number from the phone in her parents’ bedroom, punched in 5*21, her birthday, so her father would know who called. Then she sat on her parents’ bed to wait.
When he called, Alma said, “Momma wants to talk to you,” and handed the phone off. The things her mother’d been waiting all day to tell him made her face blotchy and full of spit. Last night she’d yelled and yelled and when he just sat there eating his dinner she’d snatched up the telephone receiver and cracked him in the head with it.
Alma’s father hung up. Her mother curled up on the bed and hid her face in the crook of her arms. Alma closed her hand around the arch of her mother’s foot. It was cold and twitched beneath her palm. Alma rubbed her fingers back and forth, trying to warm it. She shut her eyes. Her mother’s tantrums fatigued her.
The phone rang again. It was Mamande calling to say Tío Miguel and the twins had gotten into town. “Sweetheart, put your mom on. Miguel went across to Acuña real quick, but the boys are asking when you’re coming over.”II
This was the seldom-used part of the house. Mamande had her sewing machine and a six-foot bureau of saved fabric in one room. The other was for extra furniture, Alma’s mother’s high-school albums, baby toys, and Tío Miguel’s old weight set.
When the four of them spent the night, Alma and Lorenzo slept in the room off the kitchen and the twins slept in the room adjoining Mamande’s. Cucuy’s lair was the large, musty bedroom at the back of the house. It was next to the junk room and so isolated that standing in it one could not hear sounds from the kitchen. Most horribly, there was a square wooden door set high above the closet. A gnomish little door with a handle thin as a cat’s-eye. It led into the crawlspace inside the wall.
That night the twins said Lorenzo was old enough for the ultimate dare: only a real chingón sat in that room all night and faced the windows overlooking the yard, where Cucuy liked to leave its sentimental offerings.
“You can hear it in the grass,” Carlos told him, “and if you’re real quiet and peek behind the curtain, there it is.” He leaned close to Lorenzo’s face. “Right. There.”
“But watch out you don’t look in his eyes,” said Mike. “Or your hair will go white.”
“Yeah, and stay away from the Cucuy door or he’ll drag you in the wall and eat you.”
Lorenzo clutched his Snoopy blanket. “I’m not ascared.”
They were on the big bed in the twins’ room, making monster faces with Mamande’s green flashlight. Mike was on the floor with Alma. Carlos sat with his back against the headboard. He had a sharp, white grin and small, teasing eyes. He shook his curly brown head at Lorenzo. “You are. You’re gonna cry like a little girl.”
Mike patted her on the back. “No offense, Alma.”
“You never made it all night,” said Alma, flicking the flashlight beam into Carlos’s eyes.
“I did! Last year me’n Mike sat out there ‘til like four in the morning.”
“That’s not by yourself, stupid.”
“It doesn’t count for twins, stupid.”
“Two is two, not one.”
“We still did it.”
Carlos threw a pillow at Alma. She blocked and kept it.
“Look,” said Carlos, putting a hand on Lorenzo’s shoulder, “are you a man?”
Lorenzo curled his toes in the bedspread. “I’m a man.”
“All right. Make a fist.” He pressed his knuckles against Lorenzo’s chubby hand. “Puro hombre. Say it.”
“Puro hombre.” He swiped at Carlos’s fist once more and ran out of the room, a corner of blue and white blanket flapping over his shoulder.
Carlos slid down and scissored his legs across the mattress. He and Mike high-fived. Alma whipped the pillow on his head, held it down hard, but he just rolled over. “Get out.”
“Alma. I don’t want to see Cucuy.”
Lorenzo was sitting on the space heater next to the bedroom door. She could not see his face, only the silhouette of his cowlick sticking up.
“It’s okay. C’mon back.” She felt him creep in beside her. He smelled like hot dogs. “If we wake up first they won’t know you didn’t do it.”
Outside, the wind made a chilly susurrus through the brittle leaves. Down the street, a car backfired. The house filled with night noise: subtle wood shifts, incessant clocks, undulating hum of cicadas. Dim yellow light outlined the trees against the sloped ceiling. Lorenzo let out a hitched sigh.
A squatty black shadow blotted out the pattern of branches. It was standing outside. It was pressed against the window.
Alma edged out of bed, trying to move slowly. She felt Lorenzo’s feathery breath on the back of her arm. A fingernail clicked on the glass, and then something thumped the window hard enough to rattle it and shuffled into the bougainvilleas.
Alma hollered for Mamande. She came in, huffing, followed by Tío Miguel, shirtless but still in jeans. Carlos and Mike crowded in behind him.
Mamande put a hand on Alma’s back. “What’s the matter, mi’ja?”
“Oh my God,” said Carlos. He pressed himself against the wall.
Mamande twitched the curtain aside and peered into the yard. In the dark, her hair was like Alma’s mother’s: long and heavy, swishing against the back of her nightgown. “What happened?”
“Something came to the window. It’s in the bushes.”
“I’m gonna go out there,” said Tío Miguel.
Everyone else waited in the room with Alma while he went outside with the flashlight and got the piece of pipe he kept in his truck. They watched the light bobble around the lawn.
Tío Miguel came up to the window. “Mamá, I don’t see anything. I’m gonna walk up the block a little.”
Lorenzo whimpered and almost woke up. Mamande hoisted him against her shoulder. In his sleep he twined his fingers in her hair.
“You kids go back to bed. I don’t think there’s anything. It’s probably just the wind making funny noises.”
The boys filed out of the room. Mamande pulled the door half-shut behind her. Alma crept to the window and lifted the edge of the curtain. Tío Miguel stood on the corner across the street, in front of Bodega Toluca.
Tío Miguel was speaking to someone outside the throw of street light. His back was to her, shirt slung over his shoulder. Under the yellowy street lamp he was skinny and shaggy-haired. He pulled his shirt on and walked down the cross street, where it was dark and Alma could not see him anymore.III
Alma’s mother pulled up in front of Mamande’s house in a little blue Volkswagen.
“Let’s go to San Antonio, mi’ja.” She had on big white sunglasses and her hair was swept back with a sparkly red headband. She looked like a high schooler.
Mamande lowered her newspaper. “Who’s car is that?”
“It’s a rental,” said Alma’s mother. “Hurry up, Kiddo, I have your bag already packed.”
“Give her a chance to change at least. Look how dirty her clothes are.”
Her mother shook her head. “We have to be somewhere. Let’s go, mi’ja.”
Alma looked at Mamande, but she only shrugged. “If you’re ready to go, just go.”
Alma got in the car. As her mother pulled away from the curb, she settled into a corner of the front seat, conscious of the clean beige leather and her dirt-stained jeans. They were on the highway ten minutes later.
“Let your father call around looking.” Her mother wrinkled her nose at Alma. “He’s always doin it to me.”
Her mother checked them into a hotel on the River Walk. It was huge with salmon-pink domes instead of a regular square roof. A South American band played holiday carols on wind instruments in the lobby. The entire front wall was glass and Alma could see the green San Antonio River winding like a narrow ribbon between the cobblestone walkways, and the restaurants and boutiques strung above it, bright and lavish as Christmas ornaments.
That evening her mother took her on the boat ride all the way down to the Market Square. At the amphitheatre they saw a baile folklorico and a jazz band from New Orleans. When they got back to their room, her mother ordered herself a cactus margarita and said Alma could have a taste. She painted Alma’s nails with her going-out polish, Eternal Flame.
It looked good on her mother, but Alma’s nails were short and blunt. The red didn’t seem to make them sleek like it did hers.
“They’ll look real nice if you let them grow,” her mother said. With her hair back, her eyes were big and sweet like Lorenzo’s.
“Yeah,” said Alma. She was tired and nervous and the cactus drink tasted weird. “But Daddy’s gonna get mad.”
Her mother’s face drew up. “Well, scrub it off then, party-pooper.”
Alma’s mother opened her suitcase and pulled out a silvery, open-backed blouse that tied at the nape of her neck.
“I’m going out for a little while. Watch some TV. HBO is free.”
She didn’t come back for a long time. Alma went down to the lobby after midnight. Through the glass wall she saw her mother beneath the sidewalk awning of the cantina across the river. She sat on a long-legged chair, a frosty umbrella drink and a magazine on the small round table next to her. She stirred her drink and the movement was slow and unconscious. The pages of the magazine trembled in the breeze, but she did not reach out to smooth them. Her face was cocked toward the bend in the river, like a feral animal considering the terrain.
Her mother’s hair lay sleek as a sable pelt over one bare shoulder. Enormous white sunglasses covered most of her face. The plump wedge of her mouth, shiny and coral, stayed fretful, stayed downturned.
Above the awning, Christmas lights glinted like tiny shards of blue metal. When her mother got up to throw away her drink, they made her bare back glow like an unsheathed blade. Seeing it, Alma knew to her heart roots she would never get into touching range of her mother’s beauty.
They came home in the dark the next night. Her mother did not speak to her until they pulled into the driveway. “The polish remover is in the cabinet above my bathroom sink.”
“Okay,” Alma said, and stuck her hands in her pockets when she went inside.
Lorenzo and her father were in the living room watching The A-Team. Her father’s black cowboy hat—his Friday night hat, her mother called it, but tonight was Sunday night—was on the arm of the sofa. Lorenzo had a bitten hot-dog wiener stuck between two fingers, like a cigar. “Hey, Alma, lookit. I love it when a plan comes together.”
Her father reached out and tugged the end of Alma’s ponytail. “You do some Christmas shopping with your momma?”
Alma’s mother answered for her. “We skipped that. Went downtown.”
He didn’t say anything else and after a moment her mother stomped into their bedroom. Alma sat down on the couch next to her father. On the television, Mr. T knocked down a brick wall. Her father put his arm around her shoulder. His western shirt was scratchy with starch.
“Hey, you two go to bed after this ends, right? I’ll be back in a little while.”
Alma leaned in to his hug, but made sure her hands were deep in her pockets. “Okay, Daddy.”
“I love it when a plan comes together,” Lorenzo said again, with the wiener clenched between his teeth.
Her mother’s screams pealed through the house, every word stretched six feet long. Her father’s truck coughed awake, drowned her out, but only for a breath. They were outside.
The noise swelled, truck engine echoing, her father’s boots clomping inside, then out again. The door slammed. Alma slipped out of bed and onto the floor. She wormed her way to the threshold of her bedroom. The tiled floor beyond her room glowed pale and cool. Lorenzo lay in his own doorway across the hall, his fingers curled into the grooves where the carpet and tile met.
“Daddy’s leaving,” Lorenzo whispered.
She ran to the front door. Her father’s red and white Ford was halfway in the street; the driver’s side door open, wide open, because her mother’s arms were looped through the truck window. She was in her nightgown. She had one slipper on. He stood in the street yelling, Leggo, leggo a the fuckin door! Her mother would not let go of the door.
Alma spit his name out hard enough to roll over every other violent noise: Daddy! Daddy! Daddy!
They both went silent. It was just the truck rumbling and the cold cement under her bare feet and the colorless strains of the street light on the corner.
“I’m sorry, baby,” her father said, huffing like something was biting up his insides. “I’m sorry, sorry, mi’ja.”
Her mother rushed him. She scratched at his face, knocked off the hat. Her voice was strident, ugly. “Don’t tell her you’re sorry! Not her!”
He grabbed her mother by the arms and hurled her to the asphalt. She landed on her stomach and while she choked out a breath, he sprinted to the truck. He revved it hard. The truck tore out of the driveway, door still open.
The taillights flared briefly at the intersection. She heard his door slam and the truck turned right and was gone.
Her mother stood up, coughing. She turned on Alma, wiping little white fingers across wet eyes. “God damn it. It’s always you. Always, always you.”
Alma glared at her mother in the sallow light. It occurred to her that in the dark houses across the street the neighbors were watching them, seeing her mother with one slipper still on her foot and gravel in the folds of her nightgown.
Alma clutched her arms about herself and broke out jagged sobs. “I’m tired of you. You’re so stupid all the time.”
Her mother brought her head up, nose flaring, hands bunched into bony fists. Alma thought she was going to punch her. Her mother just stalked over the grass to the front door.
“Well, go on then. You’re so tired of me you go on, get out too.”
Her mother walked inside and shut the door behind her. Alma heard her slide the bolt into place.
It took a good hour to walk to Mamande’s house. Alma crossed the intersection and went up to Main Street because it was bright, lined with orange street lamps, and a straight shot to Mamande’s neighborhood.
Her feet hurt for twenty minutes and then they numbed over. A low-lying fog settled at the hem of her nightgown, blurring the cold street. On each lamp post, tinsel and wire candy canes glittered in the milky orange haze. Alma was not afraid. Her father was out here in this night, someplace where her mother’s frenzies could not reach him, and so was Alma. And after all, it was not so dark.
Alma reached the train tracks. The sharp rocks between the ties hurt her bare feet, but she was almost there. Mamande’s street was just after the fork in the road beyond the tracks, past a line of little Mexican grocery stores and open-air cantinas.
“Ojitos,” called the musician smoking outside the Nuevo Leon Bar, “where are your shoes?”
He was little fox-eyed man in suspenders sitting on the curb, a dented brown hat between his feet and a suit jacket over the black guitar case next to him. He had a pencil-thin moustache and thick white hair raked back from his brow. It was darker here and the fog did not obscure him.
“I couldn’t get my shoes,” said Alma. “I got locked out.”
“Locked out,” the musician said and shook his head. He tilted his head back and rings of smoke floated through his lips in small, perfect curls. “What is your mother thinking?”
Alma did not have a polite answer. She said nothing.
“Do you know it’s after two in the morning?” He frowned at her. “I hope you have a better place to be.”
“My grandma’s house is just over there.” Alma pointed to the end of the street.
“That’s good luck, Ojitos.” The musician put his hat on and stood up, offering her his jacket. “I’m going the same way. Let’s walk.”
The jacket smelled like smoke and flowers, and she liked the way it swung, loose and flapping, when she took big, jumping steps. The sky was clear and full of stars. Even the warped shotgun houses, with their corrugated-tin roofs, gleamed in the blue night. The musician walked slowly. The guitar case seemed to weigh on him.
At the corner house on Mamande’s street, the musician set his guitar case on the sidewalk. He stole four pink roses, cutting them off the bush with a penknife. He held the roses out to her and winked. “Give them to your grandma, but say they’re from you.”
He smiled. His teeth were very white and crooked. “She never likes anything I give her, but I think tonight is different.”
He made Alma stand at the bottom of the steps while he knocked on the kitchen door. He rapped hard and insistent on the door. Mamande turned on the kitchen light. She looked sleepy until she saw them. She opened the front door, slipped the latch off the screen door, and then hesitated.
“What are you doing with her?”
“Hello, Renata.” He reached back for Alma. His fingers were hard with calluses. “Look what I found in the street.”
“Give her to me.” Mamande kept her grip on the screen door latch.
“Of course,” he said. He did not let go of Alma’s wrist. “I want to come in. I’m hungry.”
“Fine. You eat and then you get out.”
While Mamande hustled Alma into a robe and socks, the musician dug through the refrigerator. Alma heard him shuffle back and forth on the kitchen linoleum, opening the cupboards and taking out dishes.
“Come back and sit for a while, Ojitos.” he said. “You too, Renata.”
Mamande sat across from him, mute with fury, two lines puckered on either side of her mouth. Alma put the rosebuds on the table and sat down. Together they watched him eat an entire pumpkin pie.
He ate unapologetically. In the light Alma could see his dissipation, his flattened jowls, the grizzled white hair sprouting in the folds of his neck. His shirt was stained. The hand that held the fork did so unsteadily.
He finished and tossed his fork in the pie tin. “Your grandma is an excellent baker, but God damn if she isn’t a hard-hearted woman.”
He picked his hat off the back of his chair. On his way to the door he leaned down, kissed Mamande on the side of her face, high up near her hairline. “Thank you.”
Mamande’s mouth twitched, but she did not look up. After he walked outside Mamande got up and locked the door.
“Why did he say that to you?” Alma asked. She did not ask what she wanted to ask—why Mamande had allowed these liberties.
“Sometimes you have to pick who needs love more. It’s hard. But sometimes you have to.” Mamande picked up the dishes and set them in the sink. “Throw those flowers away. I know he stole them.”
A few nights later, after it was clear she wasn’t going home but before she got used to being away, Alma woke to the weepy trill of a bolero rising in the dark. She thought it was her mother crying, but when she opened her eyes the ceiling was different—higher and sectioned in broad white squares—and she remembered that her mother was at home and still angry with her, and anyway, no one cried in the night at her grandmother’s house. It was Cucuy skulking around outside.
Alma pulled the thin cotton curtain aside. Her bedroom window faced the front yard. Except for Raul Martinez’s dented green Nova parked along the opposite curb, the street beneath the street light was empty from the stop sign all the way to the dim glass storefront of Bodega Toluca across the street. Alma dropped the curtain. Somewhere outside, a romantic Cucuy was fingerpicking the opening chords to “Mala Noche,” but if she got up Mamande would say someone was drunk at the Martinez’s house.
Outside, the voice of the guitar was close enough for Alma to hear that it was fast, but labored. Her mother had a Los Panchos tape with that song; it was in the cassette player on top of the microwave. She could see her mother’s rocking half steps in front of the stove, how she rapped the edge of the serving spoon on the rim of the rice pan to keep time. She thought of Cucuy standing outside the circle of light, strumming out songs and waiting for what never came. She knew why he hurled curses and stones before dawn.IV
It wasn’t her father. The caller was a young woman, the office manager of the Laguna Azul apartments. The woman asked for Doña Renata Elizondo, which was both familiar and formal, and puzzled Alma to no end.
Mamande called Alma’s mother and for the first time in weeks there was no shouting between them. Alma’s mother came over after lunch. She stayed in the kitchen with Mamande. Alma played Connect Four with Lorenzo in the living room and let him win every time.
After a while, her mother came into the living room. She sat down in the recliner next to the phone nook. She wore no makeup. She was crying, but composed. Drained of its fury, her mother’s face resembled Mamande’s.
“Do you think you want to come home?”
Alma shook her head. She felt she could not open her mouth.
“Leave her be,” said Mamande, from the kitchen. “Just leave her be right now.”
“Yes, all right. I was just asking.” She stood up. “Lorenzo, honey, I think we better go. We’ll come back tomorrow.”
Lorenzo wrapped his arms around Alma, brief but hard. She felt his sturdy sweetness.
“It’s okay, Alma,” he said. “I’m comin back tomorrow.”
“See you later, mi’ja.”
Alma watched her mother go into kitchen. “Bye, Momma.”
Tío Miguel and the twins arrived that afternoon. He went up the block to one of the cantinas beside the railroad tracks. Alma imagined it as the same one where she met Cucuy. He got very drunk. He came home and broke both fists and a tooth on the pecan tree in Mamande’s back yard. He sobbed and bled and beat the tree and finally passed out beneath it. The twins dragged him inside and dumped him the bathtub.
Mamande swabbed the scratches on his face with cotton balls dipped in hydrogen peroxide, but he didn’t wake up. He stayed there all night, his open-mouthed snores smelling of blood and Wild Turkey.
“Too drunk to feel it,” said Mamande, handing Alma the used cotton balls. “Throw those away, please.”
“What’s the matter with him?”
Mamande looked at her once. Alma didn’t ask again.
In the morning Tío Miguel took his truck and the twins with him. They came back that evening hauling a horse trailer full of boxes and mismatched furniture.
After they parked the trailer by the shed, Mamande said, “Thank you, mi’jos.”
Carlos ducked his head and Mike shrugged. They crept over to the back steps where Alma was sitting, but they didn’t sit with her. Tío Miguel cried again, his head tucked against Mamande’s bosom. He hugged her hard with his wrists, the hands wrapped in gauze sticking out.
“Somebody beat the shit out of the TV in that apartment,” Carlos said.
“Shot it.” Mike frowned at his knuckles. “There were bullet holes in the wall.”
He shut himself up in the back bedroom, wouldn’t come out until it was time for them to go home. That was how she knew Mike had seen Cucuy too.
Mamande took a box of records out of the trailer, played them all that night. Music spilled out of the house so loud and constant that when it stopped, Alma woke up. She crept to Mamande’s room. The door was half closed. She peeked in the space between the door hinges.
Mamande was sitting at her bedroom vanity. Her black hair swept across her shoulders, the ends trembling softly. One hand clenched and unclenched on the cherry wood.
Mamande reached into a drawer and pulled out the scissors. Began to snip and snip, close to her skull. Her face was still, eyes closed. She left swaths of black hair around the vanity stool. After that, she wore it like an old woman. It was just a little black helmet, burred with curls, for the month before the dye washed out.