I parked behind the Cadillac. Miranda followed my stare.
"That's your friend?"
We walked between grave markers—most of them flat plaques, mirrored gray granite that reflected the sky perfectly. The mottoes on the tombstones were trilingual— Latin and Spanish and English. The decorations were something totally different—somewhere between ancient Aztec and modern WalMart.
Ralph turned toward us as we walked up. His thick round glasses looked cut from the same material as the Mylar balloons and the tombstones.
It was difficult to tell whether he looked at Miranda or not.
" Vato," he said.
We waited for a while, not saying anything else while Mama Arguello completed saying the rosary over the grave.
At first I didn't realize where we were, what part of the cemetery.
Then I noticed how close together the grave markers were, that each space was no more than two feet wide. They went on like that, row after row, for what looked like a good half acre. Nearby was another marble Jesus, this one surrounded by kids. The Spanish inscription: Suffer the Children.
The decorations around us were sprinkled with Halloween candy, toys, flower arrangements shaped like lambs. Mama Arguello finished her prayers and then took the cluster of balloons from Ralph and tied it on a stake in the grass. The engraving on the marker said: "Jose Domingo Arguello, b. Aug. 8, 1960, d. Aug. 8, 1960. In recuerdo."
The hook on the stake had frayed knots from past years of balloons—all babyblue ribbons, some perhaps decades old.
Mama Arguello smiled and gave me a hug. She smelled of marigolds—a pungent scent like perfume from a jewellery box buried for a hundred years. Then Mama Arguello hugged Miranda, telling her in Spanish that she was glad we could come.
It didn't really matter that Mama Arguello didn't know Miranda. Mama A. had stopped caring about things like that about the time she stopped being able to see. Her glasses, Ralph assured me, were just for show. With or without them, the world for Mama had long ago become a series of blurry spots and lights. It was now mostly about smells and sounds.
"Come with me," she told Miranda. She dug her pudgy brown fingers into Miranda's forearm. "I have some tea."
Miranda looked uncertainly back at me, then at Ralph. Ralph's grin couldn't have made her feel any easier. The old woman led her back to the Cadillac, where she started unloading things into Miranda's arms—a thermos, a picnic basket, two pots of flowers, a large wreath.
Ralph made a small laugh. When he looked down at the tomb marker his smile didn't waver at all.
"My older brother," Ralph told me.
I nodded. Jose Domingo. An old man's name.
I wondered how many hours Jose had lived, what he thought up there in heaven of the thirtyplus years of infant's gifts and balloons he'd been receiving at his grave site.
"You got more family here?" I asked Ralph.
Ralph waved his hand toward the east, like it was his real estate.
"Take us two days, me and Mama. Start here and work our way around. Yvette's right over there. We have lunch with her, man."
Yvette. Kelly Arguello's mother. I exchanged looks with Ralph, but he didn't have to tell me about Kelly not being here, or about what he thought of her defection.
He watched Miranda struggling with the ofrendas Mama Arguello kept handing her.
Mama was giving her directions in Spanish, telling Miranda stories she couldn't understand.
Miranda began smiling. At first it was strained, grieved. Then Mama told her about who a particular bottle of whiskey was for, a real cabron, and Miranda laughed despite herself, almost spilling a plate of cookies balanced in the crook of her arm.
"The chica's in trouble?" Ralph asked.
"I don't know. I think she might be."
I told him what had been happening. Ralph shook his head. "Pinche rednecks. Pinche Chavez. You don't see him out here today."
"Can you help, Ralphas?"
Ralph looked at his brother's tombstone, then reached down and yanked out a piece of crabgrass at the edge of the marble. He threw it behind him carelessly. The weed landed on one of the unadorned graves, behind him. "This lady mean something to you?"
I hesitated, tried to form an answer, but Ralph held up his hand.
"Forget I asked, vato. How long I known you, eh?"
From another person, it would've irritated me. From Ralph, the statement was so honest, the grin that went with it so blatantly amused, that I couldn't help but crack a smile. "A long time."
Miranda came back, burdened down with gifts for the dead but more at ease now, smiling tentatively. She followed Mama Arguello as she led the way to the next ancestor. Miranda looked back at me and asked, "Coming?"
We went to visit Yvette, about half an acre away. Her tombstone was an upright piece of white marble, rough finished around the edges. The stone was almost engulfed in a large pyracantha bush that hung its branches down in the shape of an octopus. Each branch was thick with red berries the size of bird shot.
Across the drive from her grave, a new hole was being dug. The riderless backhoe had scooped out a perfect coffinsized trench in the lawn and was now standing there, abandoned.
I stared at the backhoe.
Miranda helped Mama Arguello spread a blanket next to the grave and set out some paper plates of cinnamon toast and cups of steaming tea that smelled like lemon.
The cold air swept the steam from the tea. Mama set out a plate and a cup for Yvette's grave, then began telling the tombstone how well Kelly was doing in college. Ralph listened without comment. Miranda was shaking her head, looking across the cemetery at similar scenes here and there, at different grave sites. There were tears on her cheeks again.
"Today is better," Ralph told her. "Tomorrow—loco.
Worse than Fiesta."
Miranda brushed her hand under her eye, dazed. "I've lived in San Antonio my whole life—I never—" She shook her head.
Ralph nodded. "Which San Antonio, eh?" A few feet away, a family unloaded from a long black town car. The grandmother had wraparound sunglasses and walked stiffly, like this was her first time out of the nursing home in a long time. She was escorted by a woman with orangeandbrownstreaked hair and a pink sweat suit and lots of jewellery. A couple of teenage girls followed, each with an expensive warmup suit and a smaller version of mom's hairdo and jewellery ensemble.
They walked to a grave where the colours were white and green, the wreath a flowery Oakland A's logo. On the tombstone was a flowerframed picture—a teenage boy in an open coffin, his face the same colour as the white satin, his A's jersey on, his hair combed and his pencil moustache trimmed and a look of pride sculpted on his dead face. Gangbanger. Maybe fifteen.
"Ralph has a rental house nearby," I said. "I've used it before."
Miranda looked beyond the cemetery, into the surrounding neighbourhood of rundown stores and multicoloured oneroom houses. The tears were still coming.
"Is it safe?"
Ralph started laughing quietly.
"Nobody you know would ever look here," I said. "That's the whole point. You stay with Ralph, you'll be safe."
Miranda thought about that, then looked at Mama Arguello, who was offering her some lemon tea.
"All right," Miranda said. And then, like her timer had run out, she curled her head against her knees and shivered.
Mama Arguello smiled, not at all like she knew what we were talking about, then she told Yvette's tombstone how nice it was to have visitors, how fresh the pan muerte tasted this year.
When I got back to 90 Queen Anne a gold foil package the size of two glass bricks was sitting on the porch. The card said: This will look perfect on your desk at UTSA. Good luck today. Happy Birthday.
Mother's writing. She made no mention of my failure to come to her Halloween/bythewayit'sTres'birthday party the night before. Inside the wrapping was the Riverside Chaucer, new edition. A seventyfivedollar book.
I took it inside.
I stared at some tentative notes I'd made two mornings ago for the demo class I was about to do. After last night, the whole idea seemed absurd, trivial—and oddly comforting. Students were going to attend classes today. Assistant professors were going to yawn and drink coffee and stumble through boring routines and most of them wouldn't even smell like house fires. They wouldn't see blackened bones every time they closed their eyes. They wouldn't catch themselves humming songs by the recently murdered.
With a kind of dread, I realized I wanted the class to go well.
Robert Johnson was of course sleeping on the outfit I needed to wear, so I did the tablecloth trick. Robert Johnson flipped, got to his feet, and glared at me. It took me five minutes and a full roll of Scotch tape to remove the black hair from the white shirt.
Five more minutes to tie the tie with Robert Johnson helping.
After that it's a blur.
The demo lesson did go well, I guess. I chose "Complaint to His Purse" and did the most radical things I could remember from graduate seminars—break the class into small groups, ask them to read the poem aloud while holding their wallets, ask them to write a modernday interpretation. We had a few laughs comparing Chaucer to a phone solicitor, then trying to find a Middle English phrase that was the equivalent of
"suck up." Most of the students didn't even fall asleep.
Despite my dress clothes I probably looked like I had slept on the floor the night before and spent my morning in a cemetery, but that was okay. Most of the students looked that way too.
Professor Mitchell shook my hand a lot in the hallway afterward and told me how he was sure I'd get the job. The other professors filed out without saying anything. They frowned just as much as they did during my earlier interview. Maybe tracing the etymology of "suck up" had been too much.
I drove out of the UTSA visitor parking lot feeling tingly and hollow. I was halfway down I10, doing an impossible seventy miles per hour, before I even realized I had gotten on the highway.
I took the first exit, pulled the VW into a strip mall parking lot, and shut the ignition.
I tried to get my heartbeat under control. I didn't have much luck.
I couldn't place the feeling right away—sort of like an electric generator spinning in my intestines. Not going anywhere, not hooked to anything, just making useless electricity. It was a few more minutes before I recognized it as shock. I'd felt this way a year ago, after I'd killed a man. I'd woken up a few nights afterward with this same feeling—disconnected inside, like someone else had just vacated my body and left me the shell. I told myself this was only a college lesson, for God's sake.
I started the car again. I decided to take comfort in the mundane and drove next door to Taco Cabana for enchiladas to go.
When I got back to 90 Queen Anne my favourite car was parked conspicuously across the street. Deputy Frank had the window down on his black Ford Festiva and was rubbing a finger along the top of his moustache while he read a magazine.
He might've been a little more obvious if he put wavy hands on his windshield wipers, but only slightly.
I parked the VW and walked across to his car. Frank pretended to ignore me.
In his passenger's seat was your normal stakeout gear—junk food, a camera, bottled water, a tape recorder and shotgun mike. He had his suit jacket off so the shoulder holster was in plain view. There was a black briefcase between Frank's knees.