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.