Beth Alvarado

Maldiciones

 
When I opened my front door to let the detec­tive in, I saw them imme­di­ate­ly. They were hang­ing around her, some right there on the front step and oth­ers, a few feet off in the yard as if they weren’t sure they were wel­come. There were at least eight of them, some fad­ing in, some fad­ing out. My Tommy was not among them. And that man they’d found dead, that Dr. Fremont, he did not seem to be among them. I won­dered if the detec­tive knew she was sur­round­ed. Some peo­ple knew; some didn’t.

I hadn’t want­ed to meet with her or to have any­thing to do with the case, but Stella had insist­ed, pain-in-the-butt Stella, who was my Tommy’s ex and who seemed to think she could still boss me around—like we were Mormons or some­thing and I was sec­ond wife. Sorry, Stella, I had told her once, divorce means we can put you on mute when­ev­er we want to.

But evi­dent­ly, now that Dr. Fremont was dead, Stella was afraid her doc­tor boyfriend had actu­al­ly killed him and so she want­ed him put away. Or may­be she was just try­ing to cov­er her own ass. Stella. She thought she was all that, just because she was a lawyer. Like she hadn’t grown up in the same bar­rio as the rest of us, hadn’t been mar­ried to Tommy, hadn’t got her very own DUI, hadn’t been indict­ed on pre­scrip­tion drug charges with that doc­tor boyfriend. Like Oxi was no prob­le­mo. Like she could erase her past and become Ms. Latina Up-and-Coming.

And she had the nerve to call me names.

But real­ly, if you want to know the truth, before Tommy died, I had been com­plete­ly out of it. A pen­de­ja. A wom­an walk­ing in her sleep. I could lie and say I was dif­fer­ent than Tommy, that I knew a drug run was not busi­ness as usu­al, but I didn’t, not then. Back then, it was just a busi­ness trip. Of course, if we were going to Nebraska any­ways, to pick up the baby in the ICU, we may as well take anoth­er load. That was the way I thought, just like Tommy told me to think. As if he were the CEO of some com­pa­ny and this was just anoth­er fam­i­ly vaca­tion.

First of all, in my defense, things had not been going so good between me and him when the baby was born, and then she was born pre­ma­ture and in Nebraska and then there were the signs of drugs in her sys­tem which, okay, that was not good and, I’ll admit it, my fault. I had slipped a lit­tle, but it wasn’t like I was strung-out. Still, they took her away, just like that, so fast it made my head spin, right there in the hos­pi­tal room, they took her out of the lit­tle plas­tic bed, and I had to go vis­it her in the ICU.

Visit her, my own baby. Maybe that was the first chink in the wall of my real­i­ty, the nurse telling me how the baby was doing like it was her baby instead of mine. As if the nurse had to pro­tect my baby from me. Like I was some dis­tant, shamed rel­a­tive from the wrong side of town.  Sure, I couldn’t speak the lan­guage, hos­pi­tal lan­guage, that is, biliru­bin this, biliru­bin that. English I could speak and per­fect­ly well, thank you, they didn’t have to talk so slow to me, enun­ci­at­ing every word as if I were deaf or stu­pid. My English was way bet­ter than my Spanish, but this was Nebraska where they thought if you were Mexican you were some guacha. Or a drug addict. Which I was not—I had quit as soon as I found out I was preg­nant, but I’d been a lit­tle stressed those few times, right before I went into labor. It was all those fights with Tommy. Wouldn’t you be stressed, if your fiancé want­ed you along on runs because you were preg­nant and there­fore a good cov­er? That’s how messed up things were between us. Anyways, for what­ev­er rea­son, I was not some­one the nurs­es want­ed to know. If I’d been a rag, they would have put on rub­ber gloves before they picked me up and dropped me in the trash. Their faces, I could read them. Disgust. They didn’t try to hide it.

In the Neonatal ICU, the Nick-U, that’s what they called it, you had to take all your jew­el­ry off, you had to wash your arms all the way up to your elbows, you had to scrub with a lit­tle brush, and then you had to put on a gown and then you went in there and the babies were so tiny. Gigi, that’s what I called her, short for Gabriela Garnet, was four pounds, one of the big ones, real­ly, but she was jaun­diced and she had drugs in her sys­tem and she couldn’t suck right and so they fed her with a tube down her nose. A tube.  It was taped to her face and her lit­tle brow was fur­rowed, she was just bones in a bag of skin like a Shar Pei pup­py, and when I held her, she was so small, she hard­ly ever opened her eyes, and her neck was so thin, her head bob­bled around if you didn’t hold it just right, and when I fed her with the bot­tle which was as lit­tle as a baby doll’s bot­tle, the milk drib­bled out of her mouth. Oh, Gigi. She was so lit­tle, such a frag­ile thing, so pre­cious. What had I done? That’s when it hit me, you know, about our lives.

Tommy didn’t like to go in there, I could tell. He seemed so big, so noisy, so some­thing. Sometimes I felt like I could see him dif­fer­ent, like the nurs­es saw him, may­be, you know, hand­some but cocky, tat­tooed and full of his own damn self. I could see how angry he was, how Mexican, brown, brown in this qui­et place full of pink and white faces. A thug, some­one had whis­pered, a thug, with his bling bling, his gold chains, the rings he refused to take off even though you were sup­posed to and I could see the fear on the nurse’s face when she said, Sir. Sir? He just looked at her all blank, like he didn’t under­stand. Like make me. Something I might have found fun­ny once, as in who did the­se peo­ple think they were, any­ways? Better than us? But in the Nick-U, I just felt embar­rassed. And he could tell I was embar­rassed and so he got pissed off about that, what? are you ashamed of me? of me? and he was already pissed off, real­ly pissed, that I had done the drugs because, accord­ing to him, that’s why we were in this mess.

That’s what he called it. This mess. As if it didn’t have any­thing to do with the baby or her health, as if it was just the incon­ve­nience, the wait­ing to take the baby home that was the prob­lem. As if it were all my fault, not his, even though he’d done the drugs, too, hadn’t sup­port­ed me for one min­ute. You’re the one who’s preg­nant, not me. As if he’d nev­er heard the term code­pen­dent, had nev­er watched Oprah or Dr. Phil or gone to court-ordered coun­sel­ing with Stella.  As if his father hadn’t been the worst black-out bor­ra­cho I’d ever met and his moth­er hadn’t had to lock him in his room when his liv­er had swol­len up as big as a mel­on and the can­cer had gone to his brain. I told you, Tommy said, I told you not to do any. Not even a taste. Te dije. But, no, you didn’t lis­ten. You nev­er lis­ten.

So after the first few times vis­it­ing the baby, he’d just drop me off out front and he’d dri­ve around and around the hospital—this was before he got killed, of course—and I’d sit by myself in the dim light in the Nick-U, Gigi in my arms, the beep­ing of the mon­i­tors, the blink­ing, the nurs­es com­ing and going in their scrubs, whis­per­ing to the oth­er babies, the gray light com­ing in through win­dows so high they were too dirty to let in the already weak sun. This was Nebraska, land of pigs and corn and over­cast skies, heart­land of America where they couldn’t get enough pot or coke or meth or smack and yet they looked at me with their pinche faces as if I were the only one, the dirty one, la pri­eta, the one who had hurt her baby, where they looked at Tommy as if he were a mon­ster instead of, sim­ply, a per­son who gave them exact­ly what they want­ed, as if he were respon­si­ble for their hunger instead of only for feed­ing it.

This was Nebraska, and I was alone, I mean, real­ly alone, my moth­er and sis­ters far away, ashamed of me because no one in my fam­i­ly had ever come to this, and he was dri­ving around and around the hos­pi­tal, curs­ing me every time he passed the front door and I was not stand­ing in it. But all I want­ed to do was hold my baby, feel her breath­ing, keep her breath­ing, watch her flut­ter­ing eye­lids, her skin­ny tiny fin­gers with their per­fect lit­tle nails. Gigi.

 

So when the detec­tive came to my house that morn­ing and I let her in, she paused next to Gigi who was asleep in the pack-n-play. How old is she, she asked and then, not wait­ing for an answer, she perched on the couch and the oth­ers hud­dled in around her.  If I’d had a cam­era capa­ble of tak­ing such a pic­ture, it would have been a good group shot.  It was weird. All those spir­its arrang­ing them­selves just so, as if they were a vol­ley­ball team. Go team! Let’s solve this one! But I knew it didn’t work that way. Obviously—at least from my con­ver­sa­tions with Tommy—spirits don’t under­stand any more when they’re dead than they did when they were liv­ing.  If you were a sin vergüen­za in this life, chances are you would be a sin vergüen­za in the next.

Besides, the detec­tive didn’t know they were there. She brushed her hair back from her fore­head. She was as blonde and bland and Midwestern as any of the nurs­es in the Nick-U and, from the way she perched there, as con­de­scend­ing as they had been.

As you know,” she said, “I’m here because of Dr. Fremont’s case.”

I watched as a rip­ple, excite­ment, may­be, went through the detective’s entourage.  It was as if they were reflect­ed in a large plate glass win­dow and the light had changed so they all wavered and then they set­tled down again when the light passed. Or, think about it this way, it was as if they were reflect­ed on the sur­face of a pool of water or were lying just beneath it and I dropped a stone in: they wavered, they came back togeth­er, and when they did, a man who might have been Dr. Fremont was stand­ing among them. But Tommy was not there. No, I could feel Tommy buzzing angri­ly, some­where behind me.

I get it if peo­ple think I’m crazy. I have not always been able to see the dead, believe me. And if they’d been hov­er­ing around me like they hov­ered around this detec­tive, like her, I had not been aware of them. You know, I had felt the hair rise on the back of my neck some­times or I’d passed through a cold spot of air every now and then, I’d heard some­one whis­per in those moments right before I fell asleep or right when I was wak­ing up, so yeah, I’d expe­ri­enced all those signs that meant they were near. But I’d always thought it was super­sti­tion, those old sto­ries, the things my nana believed and my mom had told us, because I’d been raised in this world, in America, with tech­nol­o­gy and sci­ence and MTV and cell phones, like every­body else. You could believe those old sto­ries if you want­ed to, but what were you doing but try­ing to scare your­self or make your­self feel bet­ter? Like there was a God who was pay­ing atten­tion. That was for old wom­en. I love my nana, don’t get me wrong, but I didn’t want to be like her, sit­ting at home, pre­tend­ing that every­thing hap­pens for a rea­son.

So no, I had nev­er seen a spir­it or a ghost or a soul or what­ev­er you want to call them until the moment when bul­lets explod­ed the glass from the pas­sen­ger-side win­dows into the car in Nebraska and dumped the back of Tommy’s head into my lap.  In that explo­sion, what­ev­er it is that sep­a­rates this world from the next one was gone. And the real­i­ty of this one, the sticky, bloody real­i­ty, the bone frag­ments and the brain tis­sue, they splat­tered all over me. Believe me, I will nev­er have any illu­sions again. This world is phys­i­cal and there­fore tem­po­rary and there­fore dan­ger­ous.

He was gone. And so was Mario’s old lady, Bianca, who’d been rid­ing shot­gun. Blood was every­where: Tommy dead beside me and Bianca dying in the front seat and what was that noise? Was it Bianca? Was it my own voice? That no no no, a gut­tural sound, an ani­mal sound, or was it Mario? Or was it the squeal­ing of tires as he hit the gas? I was deaf, a ring­ing in my ears from the explod­ing uni­verse, all the noise and blood and all I want­ed was to get out of that freak­ing car, get back to the Nick-U, where, thank God, Gigi was safe in her lit­tle plas­tic crib, but we were mov­ing, mov­ing so fast away from the oth­er car, away from imme­di­ate dan­ger, but not away from death, and that’s when I first saw them. They were calm. They seemed to be float­ing in the space where the win­dows used to be on Tommy and Bianca’s side of the car. They were shak­ing their heads as if they couldn’t believe it, our stu­pid­i­ty. They were as thin as the tis­sue between the worlds that had let them in, and the whole time, even when the car stopped and the red lights and sirens came and the cops dragged me out of the car and I couldn’t stand for the shak­ing of my legs and my insid­es were shak­ing, I could see them.  I vom­it­ed all over the cop’s feet and they were watch­ing.  And they were watch­ing when the wom­an at the hos­pi­tal gave me that warm cloth and told me to clean myself and then, when I couldn’t, when she wiped away the blood from my face and arms and dressed me in clean clothes, they were still watch­ing. I was soaked in blood, I had wet myself I was so scared, and they knew. Even after the nurse gave me that shot to stop me from shak­ing, they were still watch­ing. I thought they might go away, dis­ap­pear, but no. They were there and they are here. They come and they go.

Living with the dead is like liv­ing in a for­eign coun­try.  Their lips move but you can’t always under­stand them. Their voic­es, they can sound some­times like the hum­ming of the refrig­er­a­tor or like sta­t­ic from an old radio, inde­ci­pher­able, real­ly. You can under­stand some ges­tures, but not oth­ers.  And try­ing to tell them some­thing, that is like send­ing trans­mis­sions: like think­ing to them, but from your heart instead of your head, so believe me, they don’t under­stand us any bet­ter than we under­stand them.

And so I felt, at first, like I was con­stant­ly dis­tract­ed, watch­ing them, try­ing to learn the way their world works. Nothing is the way it used to be for them—like Tommy, he looks per­plexed when his hand goes through the side of the bassinet. He’s final­ly given up on try­ing to pick up the baby or touch me—other than a quick stroke in pass­ing, which feels like a move­ment of air, like breath. He doesn’t try to use ordi­nary objects any more. Once he lift­ed a knife from the coun­ter but it clat­tered to the floor before he could threat­en me with it. It was like it lev­i­tat­ed from the coun­ter and then hov­ered before falling on the floor.  Of course, that’s what it would have looked like to some­one who couldn’t see him, like a knife spin­ning in mid-air, but to me, the one he could no longer threat­en, what I saw was his utter pow­er­less­ness and then the anger on his face. He was a man who’d had some con­trol over me when he was alive, but now, noth­ing. Nada. No con­trol. He could buzz behind me all he want­ed and I would have this con­ver­sa­tion with the detec­tive if I want­ed.

 

I told her that in January, I was sure it was January because the Christmas tree was still up, and Tommy and Dr. Silver were sit­ting at the table behind me drink­ing beers but then they stood and went just around the cor­ner and so I turned the water off so I could hear them. I was still preg­nant then and I didn’t like Stella’s boyfriend, that Dr. Silver. He was always try­ing to get Tommy to do things for him, things that could get him in trou­ble. They were about six feet away and Dr. Silver asked Tommy, I heard him, if he knew any­one who would take care of anoth­er doc­tor for him.

Take care of?” the detec­tive asked. “That’s how he asked?”

Yes.” I nod­ded, and behind me, the buzzing grew and, across from me, a tit­ter­ing in the crowd.

And you took it to mean he want­ed Tommy to find some­one to kill anoth­er doc­tor?”

Yeah. He said the guy had threat­ened to hurt TJ and Grace—Tommy’s kids with Stella. And Dr. Silver’s kids, too. That’s why.”

Did he say what had hap­pened?”

I shrugged. It hadn’t made sense, even at the time. Plus that Dr. Silver lied every time he opened his mouth. He thought he was real smooth, a crim­i­nal mas­ter-mind or some­thing, too smart to ever get caught, but I could see right through him. I remem­ber think­ing, even at the time, that if there was any truth in it at all, and there’s usu­al­ly some truth in every­thing, it must have had some­thing to do with Stella. Maybe this oth­er doc­tor, Fremont, was in love with Stella? Or may­be Stella had slept with him. Or may­be this oth­er doc­tor had threat­ened Silver, some­how, but not his chil­dren, and cer­tain­ly not Stella’s children—that was just mar­ket­ing for Tommy, PR, some­thing he knew Tommy could use to ratio­nal­ize any­thing, even mur­der. I had an uncle like Silver, one of those peo­ple who lied to him­self so often that he knew just which lies would work with oth­er peo­ple.  All Silver had to do was plant the seed in Tommy’s head and then Tommy would believe it because he want­ed to, because then he didn’t have to think about it, if it was right or wrong. If his chil­dren were in dan­ger, how could it be wrong to pro­tect them? Killing the dude, then, was not a sin but some­thing any good father would do.

But why would Dr. Fremont do that? Threaten the chil­dren?”

I shrugged again. “Maybe it was a lie. Maybe he just want­ed Fremont dead.  Maybe Fremont was mov­ing in on him, tak­ing over his ter­ri­to­ry? You know. Maybe it was real sim­ple.”

This is the thing, Dr. Silver didn’t want any com­pe­ti­tion, that was for sure. Not pro­fes­sion­al­ly, not with the ladies. He slept around all right but he didn’t want Stella to sleep around on him. He was a chap­ar­ri­to, a lit­tle guy, full of him­self, but guys like that are scared. You can see it. And the more scared they are, the more they talk. And he talked. He would come over to the house back then and he would talk and talk and talk and it was all about him. His moth­er should have told him he was not the cen­ter of the uni­verse, she should have told him that the first time he snatched a toy out of anoth­er kid’s hands, but evi­dent­ly she hadn’t, and so he had grown up stuck on him­self, mal­cri­ado, some­thing inside him twist­ed. And so he talked: I I I. And Tommy lis­tened.  Because he want­ed some­thing, too.  And then they would leave, they would go places, I didn’t know where. I didn’t ask. You didn’t ask Tommy things like that. He came and he went. Punto final. Tommy made it very clear that he was his own man and where he went and what he did and who he saw was his own busi­ness.

I asked him, you know, lat­er, I told him I’d over­heard the con­ver­sa­tion. I asked him if it was about killing a doc­tor and he said it was. He said he was going to get Mario to find some­one.”

Behind me, buzzing, then a noise, a thud not a crash. If the detec­tive noticed, or was sur­prised, I didn’t see because the baby had start­ed cry­ing and so I got up and lift­ed her up from the pack-n-play. She was fret­ting.  Ssshh, and she opened her eyes.  The detec­tive was look­ing down at her notes, but the dead seemed agi­tat­ed and, over on the enter­tain­ment cen­ter, on the shelf above the TV, a pic­ture frame had slid into anoth­er and knocked it over.

And you know,” I vol­un­teered, for there Tommy was, sud­den­ly, his hand mov­ing furi­ous­ly through objects on the shelf, “Dr. Silver rent­ed the car for us, the car that we took to Nebraska. He was grate­ful. He want­ed to make things nice for us.”  I couldn’t help it, I smiled at Tommy as the detec­tive wrote every­thing down. “And he was going to give Mario eye care. Eye care for life. That was part of the deal, I think.”

Did you ever talk to Mario about Dr. Silver?”

A few of the dead start­ed cry­ing, but the oth­ers were get­ting ready to leave. Even they want­ed to keep their dis­tance from Tommy, it seemed.

Oh, no, no, no. I didn’t have noth­ing to do with Mario.”

If you were smart, I knew, you stayed away from men like Mario. He was in pris­on now. Again. It was a good thing for me that he was in pris­on because Tommy was dead and Bianca was dead and so I knew exact­ly what Mario would want to do with me.

But one night, they thought I was asleep on the couch, and Tommy showed Mario a picture—I didn’t see it—but he said, you know, this is the guy.  And then Mario told him to put the pic­ture away. He said, don’t be stu­pid, show­ing peo­ple pic­tures and talk­ing about it. That is not the way things are done.

But lat­er, when Tommy was in the show­er, I sneaked a look. It was that Dr. Fremont. So Tommy kept it. Even though Mario said he was being a ben­de­jo and that Silver would get him put in pris­on. And then they both went to Silver’s office for him to look at Mario’s eyes.”

Do you think Dr. Silver had any­thing to do with Tommy’s death?”

Oh, no. That was about the drugs, just a mis­un­der­stand­ing. Tu sabes. It hap­pens. They thought we were try­ing to take over their ter­ri­to­ry.”

I turned my back on Tommy. What does it mat­ter what any­one thinks of you, I want­ed to ask him, you’re dead. And then the buzzing grew so loud, as if he could hear my think­ing, it grew so loud, I had to say, “Ya, bas­tan­te. Cálmate.” And then I jos­tled the baby as if I were speak­ing to her instead of her father. Would he nev­er grow up?  Or at least get used to the idea that I no longer had to do what he want­ed.

You know,” I told the detec­tive, “it’s for sure that Silver want­ed that oth­er doc­tor dead. I bet that pic­ture is still in Tommy’s wal­let. They kept his things in Nebraska, you know, like evi­dence, but you could ask for them. You could talk to Mario him­self. At the pris­on.”

And just then, for some rea­son, I could pic­ture Mario in his pris­on garb, in the visitor’s room, a cage all around him. He would be sit­ting shack­led to a table and the blonde detec­tive would walk in and she would be as close as he could ever get to a wom­an again.

Tell him,” I said, feel­ing Gigi’s skull in my palm, how thin it was, how like an eggshell, how it could be so eas­i­ly cracked, “tell him I wish it had been him who had died. Him, instead of Bianca. Him, instead of…” but then I stopped, this real­iza­tion, it stopped me, it made me feel so bad to know I wouldn’t go back. I wouldn’t undo that night because, if Tommy were still alive, as much as I some­times want­ed him, if he were still alive, what kind of a life could I make for Gigi? “Dile que lo maldiga,” I said.You know. I curse him.”

~

Beth Alvarado is the author of two books, Anthropologies: A Family Memoir, University of Iowa Press, and the short sto­ry col­lec­tion, Not a Matter of Love, which won the Many Voices Project Prize from New Rivers Press. “Maldiciones” is from a sto­ry cycle based on the mur­der of a doc­tor in Tucson, Arizona; anoth­er sto­ry, “Vessels of Light,” is told from the victim’s per­spec­tive and was pub­lished in The Collagist. Beth lives in Tucson for part of each year and in Bend, Oregon, where she teach­es at the OSU-Cascades low res­i­den­cy MFA pro­gram. Her essays and sto­ries have been pub­lished in Guernica, The Sun, The Southern Review, Western Humanities Review, Necessary Fiction, Ploughshares, and The Drunken Boat’s Librotraficante Portfolio. She is the fic­tion edi­tor of Cutthroat: A Journal of the Arts.