Fall 2007 Vol 5.2
Feliz Compleaños
Eric Gabriel Lehman
No one can say my sister has it easy.” Luz’s Aunt Dolores pulls a thick drag of smoke from her cigarette. The filter emerges from her mouth ringed with crimson and she stares into the cloud that billows as wide and high as her hairdo. “Her husband runs off, then someone shoots her maricon son—”

       “Don’t say that about Rafael.”

       “I didn’t mean it bad, but it’s true, isn’t it?”

       Just above Dolores is a picture of a beach and a palm tree and Mi Boricua done in shells. The Virgin and child peer down from the opposite wall. Luz studies her aunt’s tube top, heavy earrings, tight jeans, the narrow black line tracing each eyebrow. No question about it, she looks pretty good for forty-three, pretty thin, too. Mami’s body is thick and close to the ground. She is three years older than Dolores but might have been ten, with an old face like, hair pulled back with a rubber band, no highlights, no waves, nothing. There is a picture of Mami as a teenager singing at Lupo Garcia’s wedding in Aguadilla wearing a purple chiffon dress with a sequined belt and she looks beautiful, but that was a long time ago. Mami and Dolores don’t really get along that well. Mami thinks someone should tell Dolores that she is no quinceañera anymore.

       “That makeup, those pants she needs a pump to get into,” she says. Dolores says that her sister should never have left the Island and Luz secretly agrees: Mami lives in a world with palm trees and dirt roads and people who take the whole morning just to have coffee. Luz was born in the Bronx, which is dirty and rough but makes sense to her.

       “I love your mother, don’t get me wrong,” Dolores continues. “But sometimes…” She examines her nails, fresh from the Korean lady. “Well, maybe if all that happened to me I’d believe in ghosts, too.”

       Not ghosts. Spirits, Luz silently corrects her, hearing Mami’s voice. Everyone in the building knows about Mami’s herbs and candles, her special baths. People say things about her, and Luz worries that they might be true. Luz’s eyes return to the Virgin, whose pained, beautiful eyes, red lips and perfect complexion resemble something from Amores Prohibidos on the Spanish cable channel. Luz hasn’t been to mass since Rafael was killed, even if she tells her mother otherwise. She is angry at God for what happened to her brother, and at Jesus, too. Mostly she’s angry at Jesus, since wasn’t he supposed to watch over kids, especially strange ones like Rafael?

       “Is your mother still taking those baths of hers?”

       Luz would rather not answer, since this will only give her aunt more about Mami to talk about: how she stays in the tub for an hour, how the herbs clog up the pipes so the super has to call Roto-rooter, how she talks to herself when other people are around. Luz gives a noncommittal nod, checks her watch. She has come to borrow silverware for tonight’s party but instead has been listening to Dolores talk about her new boyfriend, a Jewish guy from Brooklyn whom she met in Macy’s on the Returns line. Dolores has had several boyfriends since her divorce. Her son Roberto is several years older than Luz, who is secretly in love with him. Roberto has just started Baruch College and is due home any minute, another reason Luz has prolonged her visit. But it is almost five and the party is supposed to start in a couple of hours. “I should get the stuff and go,” she says.

       “Just use plastic.” But Luz explains that Mami wants everything to be special. “How come she’s making this party anyway? No one’s having a birthday.”

       Luz holds her breath. “Rafael is.”

       “What?” She gives a match an irritated scrape to light her next cigarette. “My sister is the only person I know who would have a birthday for a dead person.” She goes on about how Mami needs to get real for once in her life, how she should stop living in some fairy-tale dream world, how she should start using makeup and get her hair done once in a while like normal women.
Luz has heard all this before. “So can I get some silverware?”

       Dolores gestures toward the drawer, a tangle of emery boards, a corkscrew, an empty pantyhose package. Mami’s kitchen is neat, her herbs in glass jars lined up on the shelf above the sink, always fresh window curtains, the plastic tablecloth wiped clean.

       Luz doesn’t tell her aunt that the birthday party idea had been her idea.

       Mami hasn’t been the same since Rafael’s death two months ago. Once she played cards with her neighbor Rosie and tended her patch at the Abizu Campos community garden, where she’d sit barefoot on summer nights wearing her straw hat and talking with the other ladies. Now she comes home from her job at the fabric store and walks around in her own silence, blaming herself for Rafael’s death, even though everyone has told her that it wasn’t her fault that a cabron like Danny Garcia’s prowled the neighborhood waiting for kids like Rafael. But when Mami caught him in lipstick and mascara and that purple chiffon dress, singing to his Celia Cruz records, she beat the living shit out of him. “Not once in the two months since his death has he visited me in my dreams,” she laments to Luz. “He going to punish me forever and I deserve it.” She takes her herbal baths, lights her candles, and late at night Luz hears her crying in her bed on the other side of the room. Luz feels sorry for her, but Rafael is dead and all the crap from the botanica Mami wastes her money on isn’t going to make a difference. The party is Luz’s last-ditch effort to bring Mami back to the land of the living, and for all she knows Rafael might even appear in some form or another, since if food didn’t tempt him back, nothing would. But even if Luz didn’t believe in Mami’s mumbo-jumbo, she figured the party would give her something to look forward to. They were going to have Rafael’s favorites: fried chicken, yuca, yellow rice. Plus his beloved Devil Dogs. Mami insisted on a cake, although Luz hadn’t meant this to be a real birthday party, just a symbolic one. But the cake was ordered, Rafael’s name on it and everything.

       Luz collects the silverware. “Do you think Roberto will be there tonight?” Something sharp pricks Luz’s fingertip: the tip of a steak knife.

       Her aunt gives her a sideways smile. “He’s eighteen, you know.”

       Luz brings the wounded finger to her lips. “So? He’s just two years older.”

“He already has a girlfriend.”

The cut is surprisingly painful. “Any more teaspoons?”

       The phone rings. “Oh, hello, Elliot,” Dolores croons as she gives Luz a narrowed-eyed wink.

       It’s beginning to snow as she steps into the street. Her mother considered snow a bad omen—alien, harsh, American. She believed that the cold made people hard, not the way it was back in PR, nice and warm all the time. Luz is glad she didn’t grow up there, a place she imagines full of people floating around in a humid, Saturday-afternoon blur. A police car’s siren wails around the corner and splatters slush at her ankles. Earlier that year the city planted trees in Crotona Park just ahead, but a week later someone hacked two of them down and just ahead are the stumps. Beauty rarely endured in this part of the Bronx if it wasn’t behind security gates. When she was a little girl the neighborhood was mostly Jewish and Italian. There were butcher shops with funny writing on the signs and white girls who put on patent-leather shoes and anklets to go to St. Gregory’s each Sunday. It was nice, even if she remembers people in Baumohl’s clothing store keeping an eye on her and her mother when they went in. But from one day to the next the Jews and Italians started moving out. The area became dangerous. Your throat might be cut for a couple of dollars. Girls still wearing gold confirmation earrings got pregnant, and boys with whiskers you could count individually carried knives. Most of the kids at Sacred Heart High School where she goes are Hispanic or black; her best friend Geraldine is one of the few white ones.

       She passes the botanica where Mami buys her oils, herbs and candles. Wooden shelves lodged against the front window belly under the weight of colored candles in tall glass jars, each for a different purpose: health, happiness, love, or longevity. Rows of Marias press their hands together in prayer, and Jesuses with flaming hearts wear uncomfortable-looking crowns of thorns. Since Rafael’s death no windowsill or shelf in the apartment is without several burning candles. The living room flickers with a secretive, yellow glow and the whole apartment reeks of dusty wax. Luz fears coming home to find the place up in flames.

       “She only get something to stop hairs growing so much in her nose,” the botanica lady says when Luz asks what Mami has been buying. She is so tiny that she barely reaches the counter. The store smells like old lipstick, sweet but sharp.

       “Nothing else?”

       The lady shoots a glance toward the Virgin Marys, asking permission. “She want to fix Danny García’s ass. I told her I don’t have nothing for that, she should go to the Haitian lady around the corner. But your mother say this herb mixed with that one do it, she know the recipe from her mother. I know what she want; she know I know, but I ascared to sell, is very powerful. So I don’t give her nothing. Then she call me a dumb Dominicanita.”

       “You didn’t sell her anything?”

       She avoids Luz’s glance. “Yeah, finally I do. I not gonna let her say I stupid. But listen, you PRs gotta learn some respect—”

       “The stuff you sold her, what does it do?”

       The lady gives a closed-mouth you don’t want to know shake of the head.

       Luz is about to leave when her eyes fall on the candles, asks for a red one marked Amor Verdad.

       Luz doesn’t really believe in this kind of stuff, but it can’t hurt, can it?

The morgue called in the middle of the night. Mami handed the phone to Luz; her telephone English was halting. Someone had to come identify the body. Luz asked which one, fingers locked, even if she knew whose it had to be, since Rafael hadn’t returned that night. The kitchen’s bright light tore at her eyes. The voice on the other end apologized: the police should have called first. Luz leaned against the refrigerator’s ominous hum. A morgue was a refrigerator, too, wasn’t it? “What they want?" Mami asked, house shoes flopping as she paced. Luz studied the many lines on her mother’s face—tired roads, dirt paths, dead ends—and hardly knew what to say.

       Mami gripped Luz’s arm as they trudged in the snow through the dark streets to the subway, her wide feet sloshing unevenly in rubber boots. Even after years in New York she had never learned to walk in snow. The city looked mean and empty at that hour and the fronts of the buildings pretended nothing had happened. But her brother was dead.

       “He no junkie!” Mami banged a heavy fist against the desk at the Bathgate Avenue police station. “He finish high school, he have a job at Alexander’s department store until they fire him.”
The young, white cop avoided Mami’s eyes. “What about those little plastic bags they’d found on him?” he asked as gently as he could.

       There was a video taken from a store’s security camera. A scramble of black and white appeared on a monitor, then the interior of an Intervale Avenue bodega. The camera panned from the cash register to the frozen food case to boxes of Pampers stacked to the ceiling. Luz recognized it, the place she went to before they opened a C-Town. Two men swung into view. Mami gripped Luz’s arm as if seeing Rafael’s ghost. He huddled in a corner, eyes nervously darting back and forth like an actor in a silent movie. Luz remembered a time-lapse film from biology class showing how flowers open up, only here it was her brother’s tragedy unfolding. A few seconds later the first man appeared to be giving something to him. The video was paused. Walk away, Luz thought. Throw that shit down and get the hell out of there. This was how God felt watching people wreck their lives but powerless—or unwilling—to intervene. The video continued: the frozen food again, laundry detergent, shelves of Goya beans and Cafe Bustelo, guava paste in shiny plastic packages, bins of knobby yautía and yuca, the dirt still clinging to them as if just dug up, rough and heavy beside the pristinely green Granny Smith apples. A guy behind the counter who sold cigarettes one at a time. A woman with a housecoat sticking out from under her winter jacket buying a can of condensed milk. People came to the bodega after the big stores closed for the night, a diorama of her neighborhood, grimy and cramped and slapped together.

       It was beginning to grow light by the time they boarded the el. Mami stared at the clay-colored sky, searching for Rafael’s soul. Luz knew it wasn’t in the sky, but the puffy grey clouds might have been Rafael’s pudgy face. Mami’s boots sloshed through the snow as if she’d forgotten how to walk.

Joey, thirteen, two years younger than Luz, three years younger than Rafael, started turning bad right along with the neighborhood, around the same time Mami and Luz started discovering stiff spots on Joey’s sheets whenever they changed them. “This place smells like a cheap whorehouse,” he’d say, making fun of Mami’s herbs and candles, which he blew out. His swagger left Luz seasick, he wore his Adidas unlaced and his pants baggy, and he took on that unmistakable South Bronx kiss-my-bad-Rican-ass attitude. Mami boiled his underwear in a special tea to curb his urges, but he just made her buy him new ones because of the ruined elastic.

       The whole time growing up Rafael had been Mami’s favorite, an angel, true to his name, right down to his doughy face and arms. Luz might have loved Mami but Rafael truly understood her. He clung close to the fragile, sentimental world she left behind on the Island, even if he had never set foot on PR. He drank her slimy manzanilla tea and didn’t turn his nose up at the yuca and platanos and worst of all the chicken she brought home, blood still crusted from the vivero’s knife. Mami and Rafael. He became an altar boy. When other kids were playing in the lifeless dirt of Crotona Park, Rafael sat with Mami and watched her soap operas. Other kids started going out with girls, but he preferred dancing in his room by himself to his records. He got the shit kicked out of him often, and Mami found him in the bathroom, crying and sore. She gathered the heavy boy into her arms, the two of them a lumpy Pieta. She knew in her heart what he was on his way to becoming—or already had—and cursed the pendejo who ran off and let his son grow up without a father. But there were times her patience wore thin. “Why you gotta be like that?” Mami shouted, enraged at the pudgy problem of Rafael, whose biggest fault was being too much like his mother, so no wonder she raged against him.

       Helping to move Danny Garcia’s drugs was dangerous, even stupid, but it earned Rafael respect, as well as Danny’s valuable protection. And he was in love with the slender Danny; how else to explain the smelly undershirt Luz found stuffed beneath Rafael’s mattress, way too small to be his? “Danny Garcia is garbage,” Luz tried to tell her brother. But she saw the glaze in her brother’s eyes and knew nothing was going to change. Secretly she envied him, so able to give himself over to passion. All the other girls she knew lived for their boyfriends, but until Roberto Luz had no patience for boys. Maybe her mother was right: the cold Bronx was beginning to make her hard.

       One night when Rafael didn’t come home Mami pulled a jacket over her housecoat and went out and found him in Crotona Park talking to a man twice his age. She dragged him back to the house, took a belt to him and raised welts the purple-black of licorice on his milky thighs. The next day he was gone, and he stayed away a day, another, a week, longer. Mami prayed for him to return by his birthday. She wouldn’t say a word if he stayed in his room and danced to his records at all hours. She would have a cake ready for him and all the food he wanted.

       Then the call came from the morgue.

Two distinct aromas hit Luz when she walks into the house: the sweetness of chicken frying and something bitter, something dark: Mami is having one of her ritual baths. It smells extra-strength that evening. A row of candles burn on a little table beneath the smiling face of Rafael’s confirmation photo, an altar that’s been there since the night he died. She sets the groceries and the silverware onto the kitchen table. Her mother sings in the bathroom, her voice fringed with a trickle of water. Joey sprawls across the couch in gym shorts and a tank top, TV remote balanced on his stomach, sneakers on the cushions, watching a police car chase a beat-up Chevy. Luz punches the TV shut.

       “You crazy?”

       “Get off your ass and help me get the house ready.”

       “I ain’t staying for this shit tonight.” The sound of singing grows louder. “I cannot wait to move the fuck out of here.”

       “Where are you going?”

       “To my people.”

       “You mean that slime on Simpson Street? You mean Danny García who killed Rafael?”

       Joey bolts up. “Who said he did?” He crooks a thumb toward to the bathroom. “No one but you and her. But you don’t know. And she don’t know, either. She only thinks she know. She just can’t cope with the fact that her sweet little Rafaelito might not have been so sweet after all. That junk she cooks up is turning her brain cells into shit. “Yo,” he shouts toward the bathroom door.

       “I gotta pee.”

       “Go next door to Rosie’s.”

       “Why I gotta go somewhere else to pee? Just because I got a zombie for a mother? It was bad enough with the Pillsbury Dough Boy around and his corny music and his faggy-assed dancing.”
From the bathroom comes the sound of water of water sucking down the drain. “If Mama hears you talking about Rafael like that she’ll slam you one.”

       “And he wasn’t just a maricon, he was an old-fashioned maricon, he was a lame-assed maricon. He was like an old man. You ever hear the music he listened to—”

       The moment the bathroom door opens Joey makes a break for it, but Luz pulls him back.

       “How come you never said what you know about Danny?” she whispers, grabbing hold of his wrist.

       “Get off me.”

       She releases him with a shove. “You started hanging out with him after Rafael died. He must have told you things.”

       They grow silent as Mami steams past, face and arms pink from the hot water. “Hello, my children,” she says dreamily on her way to the kitchen. Joey darts toward the bathroom and the door slams shut.

       Cuño, Luz thinks, hearing Joey’s bullet stream in the toilet. Above her Rafael beams a perpetually innocent smile. Joey had been just like him when he was little. All those Jesuses and Marias in the botanica looked innocent, too, but they never had to face the Bronx.

       Mami stoops over a large pot of water bubbling on the stove. Her damp hair has been pulled back and gleams in the overhead light. The water swirls in currents of brown and dark green. Luz recalls the botanica lady’s warning. “Some kind of magic potion?” She jokes but Mami remains serious.

       “I no believe in magic. I Catholic. I believe in holy spirits.” She plunges a large wooden spoon into the pot and stirs.

       “I got all the things on the list except the bread because they didn’t have the right kind at C-Town.”

       “Last night he talk to me.” Mami speaks in a chalky voice.
       “Just as I was falling asleep. Finally.”

       Luz’s lips harden. “What did he say?”

       “He have terrible headaches.”

       Luz plays along. “Anything else?”

       “He say not to forget the cake. Chocolate with coconut frosting, just the way he like. And don’t forget candles.”

Who do you expect to blow them out, Luz wants to say. “You really believe that Rafael’s going to come tonight?”

       “He comes if he no hate me.”

       Luz touches her arm, which is damp. “He doesn’t hate you.”

       “Maybe if I no beat him—”

       “You beat him because you loved him.” Luz would prefer to think that this is true. She had rubbed ointment into the welts that creased Rafael’s delicate skin and held the weeping boy. It was hard to feel those hard knots of tissue without hating Mami, even if Luz knew that all of her mother’s confusion and disappointment were compressed in them.

       “What are you going to say to Rafael tonight?” Luz asks cautiously.

       “I ask if Rafael talks to God. I ask if he seen my brother Luis who die in a car crash. I beg my Rafael to forgive me.” When she thinks Luz doesn’t see she reaches into a housecoat pocket for a bit of powder that she pinches into the pot and the water swirls up, looking ready to inundate the kitchen.

       Joey tramps into the kitchen, pulls open the refrigerator and grabs a liter bottle of Coke that he puts to his lips.

       “I don’t need your germs,” Luz says.

       Mami speaks without turning from the pot. “Your brother say he don’t like how you lie on his bed with your sneakers.”

       “It ain’t his bed any more,” Joey says. “And Rafael’s dead, or haven’t you noticed—”

       “Joey,” says Luz.

       “Dead, chica. Real dead. The worms have already eaten half of his Pillsbury doughboy belly.”

       Mami continues stirring calmly, as if she has heard nothing. Joey finishes the soda, belches, arcs the bottle over Mami’s head into the garbage pail. Luz grabs him as he steps into the hallway.
“You going to that Danny?”

       “It’s no one’s goddamn business where I’m going!”

       “You going to that piece of shit who killed my brother?”

       “I be careful tonight if I was you,” Mami calls from the kitchen.

       Joey looks at Luz, frightened. “What did she say? Yo, what do you mean?”

       “You heard what she said.” Luz flashes him a chilly smile. Joey throws open the door and runs out, leaving behind heavy echoes in the hallway as he rounds the stairs.

       Luz begins straightening up the living room. She thinks about the police video and tries to reconstruct the night her brother died. She imagines Rafael running out of that bodega into the street, desperately trying to remember where Danny told him to go with the dope. Rafael never had a sense of direction and got lost if he left the subway by the wrong exit. She imagines him in some dark, filthy hallway. Guys jump out at him from behind the stairs and pull a knife to his belly, shake him until Danny’s packages fall to the ground like ripe fruit. Meanwhile Danny’s connection is waiting somewhere else for Rafael. When he doesn’t show, the guy goes after Danny, who goes after Rafael, easy enough to find as he wanders through the streets, lost as a tourist, leaving behind a trail of torn-open Devil Dog packages. Rafaelito, she thinks, removing a soda can Joey wedged between the sofa cushions. The Bronx swallowed you.

       When she finishes cleaning, she sets the candle onto the little table between her bed and Mami’s, lights it and utters a prayer. She takes out the dress she wore to Geraldine’s brother’s wedding. She shuts the lights and stares into the candle. Of all the things Mami does, sitting in the dark freaks Joey out the most, but she says that everything feels soft in the dark. People from the building across the alley are talking. Some are shouting. The window gates cast diamond-shaped shadows onto one wall. A fire engine clangs by. Luz waits for things to grow soft but they don’t. The flame looks helpless in its glass, ready to sink into the ring of molten wax. Why would it produce something that might destroy it?

       Joey doesn’t return.

The many candles gleam beneath Rafael’s picture. The kitchen table has been moved into the living room and is piled high with food. A mountain of pernil the color of mahogany rises above the yucas, rice and the pollo guisado made by Rosie from next door. Luz can imagine Rafael filling and refilling his plate. Mami has all of his favorite music ready: Perez Prado, Tito Puente, and, of course, Celia Cruz. People start coming over around seven. Strings of Luz’s cousins arrive from Jersey and Queens, as well as friends and two ladies from the fabric store where Mami works. Dolores shows up with Elliot, who has a thin face and reminds Luz of her science teacher. Except for his glasses he is sort of cute. Dolores’s expression says I got the best this time. By nine the house is full and the windows are fogged up.
Roberto isn’t there.

       Mami seems strangely young that evening, her face especially smooth. It brings to mind that picture of her singing at the wedding. She sits with her friends, smiling but saying little. Mostly she seems to be watching, waiting. Luz catches up with her cousins. Daisy is going to Hunter College and Mercedes is taking a course at the Bronx Botanical Garden because she wants to open a florist shop. Rosie displays a purple-splotched arm after a procedure at Bronx-Lebanon Hospital. Except for Elliot and one cousin, everyone there is female. This Elliot had better like being around so many women, Luz thinks. The men come and go in her family. They play their dominos and wear cologne and gold crosses around their necks. Some are good dancers or sharp dressers, but sooner or later they die or take off. It’s the women who do most of what gets done. They work and grow fat and sing and cry. They stay put.

       “Where is Joey?” Dolores asks rather loudly. The party quiets down around her. Mami looks up, as if she has just noticed his absence.

       “I don’t know,” Luz whispers, hinting for her to say no more. The moment of silence hardens, but soon everyone is back eating and drinking and dancing to Rafael’s music. Rafael loved it best when the apartment was crammed full of people eating and shouting and dancing on the sticky linoleum, the bathroom full of women smoking and checking their makeup. He liked it when the world pushed close around him, thick as a big woman’s arms.

       Luz asks Mami how she’s doing. “I good,” she says, but this worries Luz, since if Mami were happy, she would have answered in Spanish. Rosie is worried, too. “How come she keeps smiling?” Rosie asks.

       It’s after nine when Roberto shows up and surprises Luz in the kitchen. “Hey, little girl,” he says. A very pretty white woman is with him.

       Luz drinks in his cologne, the dark waves in his voice. She checks out the woman, whose name is Jess. “I’m no little girl, if you hadn’t noticed,” Luz tells Robert after Jess goes off to find the bathroom. “I’m a woman.”

       “Okay, okay, Ms. Encarnación. How come Joey’s not here?”

       “He can go to hell.”

       “Is that any way to talk about your brother?”

       “What’s with the girl? You seeing her?”

       “You mean the woman?”

       “Jess sounds like a guy’s name.”

       “Short for Jessica. So what’s eating you?”

       “At Christmas you said you would take me for a ride in your new car.”

       His eyes lower. “The weather’s been bad.”

       “Put on snow tires.”


       Luz’s girlfriend Geraldine pops into view. She looks a little out of place in her jeans with everyone dressed up.

       “I’ll leave you two ladies.” Roberto slips out of the kitchen.

       “He’s cuuute,” says Geraldine.

       “His girlfriend has no butt.”

       “Your mother looks like she’s in another world, Luz.”

       Luz has never been able to tell Geraldine about her mother’s potions and teas. “She’s tired.”

       Mami calls for Luz to bring out Rafael’s cake.

       “Help me with this, will you?” Luz says to Geraldine. The cake sits in its box atop the stove and must be transferred onto a platter.

       “Feliz Compleaños Rafael?” Geraldine reads. A fat, pink-bellied angel with wings outspread flies above the cake’s inscription.

       “Wait, I forgot the candles!” Luz ignores Geraldine’s puzzled look, slips through the crowd and walks into her bedroom without bothering to switch on the lights. A pale face emerges from behind the coats, then Robert’s. Luz’s botanica candle colors their faces with garish light. Luz grabs the paper bag with the birthday candles and leaves, heart pounding.

       “What happened to you?” Geraldine says back in the kitchen.

       “Nothing!” Her fingernail won’t pierce the candles’ cellophane wrapping so she grabs a knife but nicks her finger for the second time that day. “Fuck!” she says, sucking at the tiny, sour-tasting wound. How many candles? Rafael would have turned sixteen but Luz decides to put them all in and with each one imagines plunging a tiny knife into Roberto’s heart. Here! she thinks. Take this! and this!

       The room grows silent as Luz brings in the cake. Someone shuts the lights, cuts the music. People see what’s on the cake and turn to Mami for explanation.

       From inside Luz’s bedroom come moans and sighs.

       “What’s that?” Geraldine whispers to Luz.

       “Rafaelito,” Mami murmurs, face bathed in candle flame.

       More moans, more sighs.

       “Knock it off in there!” shouts Rosie.

       “Okay.” Mami closes her eyes. Everyone waits to see what will happen. Geraldine looks at Luz apprehensively and Luz’s face grows hot, worried at what Mami will do.

       “Rafaelito,” Mami repeats.

       “Who wants to blow the candles out?” Rosie says to break the uncomfortable silence. Mami motions for quiet. Luz feels increasingly anxious, but Mami looks ready to sit there for the rest of the night, waiting.

       “Enough,” Dolores says. “Will someone get a knife—”

       The telephone rings.

       Dolores picks up. “What?” She puts her hand over the receiver. “Hey, Luz, you take this!”

       Luz rushes over. “Hello?” she breathes into the phone. “Who? The police?”

       Mami’s head turns toward the phone and everyone’s glance turns with her.

       “Who?” Luz shouts into the receiver. “Encarnación? . I mean, yes. What? Ay, Dios mio—”

       “What’s the matter?” Aunt Dolores shouts from behind.

       “What is happen?” Mami asks.

       “We’ll be right there.” Luz hangs up. “Joey and Danny García were driving a stolen car that skidded on the ice on the Cross Bronx Expressway. They’re in North Bronx Hospital.”

       “No!” Mami brings a fist down onto the table and pounds. The candles before Rafael’s picture topple like bowling pins, sputtering and streaming wax. “No!” she cries once more and flings a plate, then a glass, then some silverware, anything she can get a hold of to throw at a world that has confounded her. Elliot tries to grab her arms but she pushes past him onto her feet, ready to battle whatever demons her herbs have brought forth. She stands up too quickly and teeters like one of her candles, falling and landing face down onto the cake.

       “Help me!” Luz says to her aunt. They get Mami to her feet, and she wears a mask of frosting.

       “Let’s get her into the bedroom,” Elliot says. He and Dolores maneuver Mami’s lopsided form through the crowd. Luz goes ahead of them, switches on the light. Roberto and the woman bolt upright. Roberto’s shirt is opened to the waist, revealing a dark patch of hair.

       “Playtime’s over,” Luz says, avoiding Roberto’s glance as she begins pushing coats to the side.

       “The cops want someone to come down to the station,” she tells him sharply. “Can you take me?”

       “Okay, okay.” Roberto hastily buttons his shirt. The woman smoothes down her clothing as she rises.

       “Easy does it,” Elliot says as they lower Mami onto her back. Geraldine comes with paper towels.
“How are you doing?” Luz strokes Mami’s hand. The Amor Verdad candle flickers beside her head.

       “I go too far,” she whispers.

       No, Luz thinks. Everything else does.

“Why did she flip like that?” Roberto says as they pull onto Crotona Parkway.

       “She didn’t flip.” One half of her mother’s magic worked: Rafael hadn’t returned, of course. But she’d fixed Danny—except she might have fixed Joey as well. “Hurry,” she says.

       The bare trees in Crotona Park huddle close to each other in the cold, anxious at being left alone in the dark. Rafael would have liked the cake, Luz thinks. The icing, especially. He and Mami would have danced. He would have grabbed a spoon, pretended it was a microphone and lip-synched along with Celia Cruz, performing like her mother at Lope Garcia’s wedding. They pull through the cold streets of the Bronx. What was it like growing up where it was warm all the time? Mami said that being cold made a person hard, and maybe she was right. Maybe one day Luz would go down to the Island and see for herself.

Amane Kaneko -- NY Apartment