When I got back to the apartment, Sofi was sitting in the living room with the lights off, and I could tell she had been crying. I asked what was wrong.
“It’s my brother,” she answered.
Junior was still in the Army and had been stationed in the Philippines, and I had no idea what he did there, because like a lot of career military guys, he didn’t ever really talk about it. I shuddered to think that something had happened to him, especially knowing how Sofi and her parents doted on him.
I let the word hang on the air for a moment, unsure exactly what to ask, because as far as I knew, Sofi only had one brother. I was mistaken.
“My other brother, Guadalupe.”
I still didn’t have words to say.
“The one who ran away when we were kids. We were all so ashamed because we thought that he hated us so much that he left and never came back. So we never said much about him, even to ourselves. He’s been gone for more than ten years.”
She took a deep breath. “Well, I found him.”
“Where is he?” I asked.
“He’s dead.” She sobbed as the words came out. But I stayed in the dark.
“OK, Sofi, you’ve got to let me know what this is about. I’d like to help, but I’m so confused, I don’t know what to say.”
“Just let me cry for a few more minutes, Ok Miggy?”
I sat next to her and cradled her against my shoulder. She shuddered inconsolably as she wept into the sleeve of my sweatshirt. This was a deep secret, and it seemed as if these were tears that came from deep inside, as if they had waited to well up and be cried. I had known Sofi more than ten years and had never heard a thing about it.
It took nearly an hour before she could speak, and the voice came from somewhere so low and far away that I almost didn’t recognize it.
“Lupe was my baby brother. He was three years younger than me and he was my parents’ favorite. But I could live with that because he was a special boy. He wasn’t real tall and he wasn’t real good looking—none of us are, you know—but he was good at sports, especially baseball, and my father always thought he played well enough to get a college scholarship. We thought it would be him instead of me who would be the first person in the family to go to college. I think I probably only went myself because somebody had to pick up the responsibility.
“He was good at school, too, and when he helped out at the restaurant, he would always charm the customers. He knew how to shake hands with the men and flirt with the ladies, especially the old ladies—God, they loved him. You know, he knew how to make a customer feel good even if the food didn’t come out just right.”
What could I say? “He sounds wonderful,” is what came out, and as a heartless cynic, I wondered how much he had been aged and perfected with the passage of time. But Sofi was talking about a brother, and knowing how she felt about her family—her sister Tina, Junior, her parents, they could do no wrong. And not just them: She would slug anyone who said anything bad about me--I took her at her word.
“So what happened?”
“He fell in love.”
I didn’t know where this was going and let her rest a few seconds until she could explain.
“He had a girlfriend, and it worried my father. Oh, I don’t know if she was a bad girl or anything. I don’t think we ever even knew her last name, and if we did, I’ve forgotten it, and I couldn’t tell you where she is today.
“But Lupe started cutting baseball practice to spend the afternoons with her, and no one would have known except that one day, the girl’s mother called my mother to say that Lupe and her daughter were having sex. She had found a receipt or an appointment card or something from Planned Parenthood, and when she asked the girl about it, she admitted that she had gone to get a pregnancy test because she was worried.”
“Was she pregnant?” I asked.
“No. But Lupe was just 15, and my parents, as you know, are so traditional and so conservative, my father, especially. But forget for a moment how Catholic my parents are. It wasn’t that my father didn’t want Lupe to date, it was more like he didn’t want Lupe to be one of those teen parents in the neighborhood, kids who had to drop out of school to support a baby and a marriage that was doomed to fall apart by the time they were 20. He didn’t want Lupe to be one of those cholos bragging about his “baby mamas” and the children he had fathered here and there. I can’t blame him. He had other plans for Lupe.
“But Lupe was in love, and when my father said he couldn’t ever see the girl again, he ran away. He didn’t go far the first time, just to my Uncle Tony’s house and my father went to pick him up the same night. And then the next day he ran to the girl’s house, but her mother wouldn’t let him stay there so he slept in the park. We found him there at about two in the morning.
“He and my father fought about it for a few days, and then Lupe seemed to come to his senses, and he settled down. But my father started to leave the restaurant in the afternoon to go watch Lupe at ball practice, mostly to see if he actually went. And he did.
“But then about a week later, when my mom went to his bedroom to wake him up in the morning, she found his bed stuffed with clothes and pillows to make it look like he was sleeping. But he was gone.
“We looked everywhere: we went to the girl’s house and she said she hadn’t seen him. We called all the relatives, even in Mexico. And of course, we filed reports with the police, though they didn’t seem all that interested in looking for him when they heard the back story about him running away and having a forbidden girlfriend and all that. The girl never heard from him either, and that worried us the most.
“We called other states, checked into accidents, asked if there were unidentified dead. He was gone. Just gone.” She shuddered a moment. “Gone. How can someone you saw every day of his life just suddenly be gone? Disappeared?”
She coughed. “I always held on to this silly idea that one day he’d come home, all apologetic like the Prodigal Son in the Bible. And like in the Bible, I would sure forgive him. I thought maybe he’d have a kid of his own that he’d want us to see and know. And then he’d remember that we weren’t all that bad, and that maybe he was a little bit to blame, too, that he’d been a dumb kid with a girlfriend and an early taste of forbidden fruit. But he was dead the whole damn time.”
Now she sobbed hard and had to get up to go to the bathroom to throw up. When she came back, she refused to sit on the couch, and instead paced the room with a tissue in one hand and the other clutching her shirt tail.
“So yesterday, the ambulance brings this kid into the ER who was found nearly dead with his head caved in, in the basement of some abandoned building on the South Side. Kid couldn’t have been more than 13. But he had no identification, and the cops figured he was a homeless kid who had been living there. We checked his vitals, hooked him up to an IV, started fluids and antibiotics, and then basically just watched him die before we could ever get him into surgery.
“I wanted to call his family, but there was no way. It really hurt me, Miggy, and I wasn’t sure why. Well, yeah, I knew why: Here was someone’s kid, someone’s brother, someone’s grandson. Someone must miss him somewhere. And I asked the cop who came with him what was going to happen to him now. ‘We’ll take him to the morgue and wait a few weeks to see if anyone claims him. And if not, then we’ll give him to the county and they’ll find a cemetery that will give them space to bury him.’
“So I’m already getting shivers, you know, like there’s something uncomfortably familiar about all of this. Like this dead kid is telling me something, and I asked the cop if there would be some sort of record kept, in case people came looking for him after he was already in the pine box and buried and disposed of. And when he told me that they had file cabinets full of those records and photos of the dead down at the station and that they just kept getting fuller all the time, I knew what I had to do. I told my boss I was going home sick, and I made the cop take me downtown to see the files. I almost really did feel sick, worried about what I was going to find, and my stomach fluttered all the way there in the cop’s car. I think maybe I scared him by how pale I looked.
“The station was a hole, one of those old, old buildings, and the ‘John Doe’ files filled three little rooms, cabinet after cabinet spilling thin manilla folders. They were arranged by date, and out of the blue I remembered that Lupe disappeared two or three days before my 18th birthday, so I started there. In fact, there was one with that exact date, but when I read the label on the outside, it said the person was ‘Mexican/Indian, age 25-35.’ I thought that couldn’t be Lupe, because he was only 15. But I opened the file anyway, and found a horrible photograph of a face. The man’s face had been badly swollen, and it didn’t look like my brother. But there was something about the eyes that caught me, and begged me almost not to close the file.
“I looked at ten or twelve more files without finding anything. But I kept thinking I needed to go back to the first file. It still wasn’t Lupe. I read the text: same weight, more or less, same height as I imagined Lupe might have been. The body, according to the fact sheet, had a birthmark on the lower left leg—and I seemed to remember that Lupe had a birthmark on one leg or the other. But I wasn’t sure, and besides, it wasn’t his face. I had to go home.
“So I stopped by my parents’ house and started pulling out photo albums looking for pictures of Lupe. I got three or four of the last we ever took of him, and I started feeling more and more sick to my stomach. Then, I saw the baby book my mother had saved for Lupe, and inside there was a baby foot print taken at birth. And better yet, a card with a thumb print that they’d had made at some promotion at school—you know, one of those programs to identify kids while they were teaching about “stranger danger’ or some shit, I don’t know. I went back to the police station this morning.
“I went to the same file, and this time, instead of looking at the face on the photo, which was clearly swollen from whatever killed the guy, I compared the hairline and the eyebrows of the file photo with the ones I brought from my parents’ house. Yeah, it was looking more and more like him. I showed the cop the thumb print, and it took them a couple of hours to confirm that it was Lupe. My baby brother, and I’m looking at his swollen dead face. I don’t know how I kept it together.
“So in the meantime, I got the cop to pull the incident report connected to the body. And damn it all, he got killed the same damn day he left home, and it was only a few damn blocks from his girlfriend’s house, so he was probably just sneaking out to see her. Some drunk veered off the street and into a bus stop, and just ran Lupe down from behind. He never knew what hit him. And no one even saw him. The first witnesses who ran to the crash found the driver passed out at the wheel. They woke him up and he bolted, ran clean away. Then when the tow truck pulled the car off the sidewalk and out of the bus stop, they found Lupe underneath. Who knows if they could have saved him if they knew he was there?
“He didn’t have any ID on him, and they obviously never matched him to the missing person’s report my parents filed—maybe because they thought Lupe was older than he really was. Or maybe because he was just one more West Side Beaner and who cares anyway? They buried him somewhere on the South Side—I got the directions to the grave. But even if they didn’t bother to track down who he was, they sure as hell went after the guy who killed him. They arrested him that same night, took him to trial, convicted him of vehicular homicide and sent him to prison for 15 years. Whoopee, we put one more Mexican in prison—who gives a good damn about the other Mexican he killed?”
Sofi stopped and took a few deep breaths as if to fight back her anger, her fear, her grief. I’m sure she couldn’t separate one from the other herself.
“So here I am, not knowing what to feel: I’m relieved that my baby brother didn’t actually hate us so much that he ran away forever. But then again, he’s dead, isn’t he? And that feels like shit. And you know what gets me the most? The fact that they prosecuted the Mexican who ran him over, get one in jail, you know? But they couldn’t care enough to connect this poor dead kid with the people who adored him. And we did adore him.”
I didn’t know what to say, but she had collapsed onto the sofa again, and I knew I had to hold her, had to be strong for this woman who was always so strong for me.
You live with someone for ten years and you think you know them. But how much do you really know? I wondered.
It took me years to notice, for example, that when she was really delighted, Sofi smiled not only with her top teeth, but with her bottom teeth as well, which made her look as if the delight were stretching her entire face. It was beautiful.
What else did I learn? I learned to love the feel of her ample body after we made love, while I was still trembling, with one leg straddled over her lower body, and my head on her breasts as if they were pillows. Those breasts: I’m sure that Mexican women did not invent breasts, but they may well have perfected them. And isn’t that just the sort of piggish thing that a man would think? God forbid I should ever say something like that out loud, because it would be met with a punch in the stomach and a cry of ¡Cochino! “you pig.” Still and all, that would not necessarily mean that the utterance was completely unappreciated.
The things I learned: Yeah, well I probably shouldn’t tell you this, but Sofi liked it when I bit her lower lip while we made love; of course, it took me years to figure that out, too, and I have no idea how I did because I never would have wanted anyone to do that to me and she was certainly never going to ask me, either. One day I just knew she wanted me to, and from her reaction, it was as if she had always been waiting for that moment, too.
It was a paradox. She was always so conservative, but she would surprise me with sudden brazen acts. Once she made me pull over to the side of the road while we were driving at night, and she practically raped me in the front seat of the car. Of course, we never mentioned the event again to each other, because it was understood that certain moments should be experienced and not explained. Likewise, there was a time we were jogging in Lincoln Park at dusk, and she suddenly pulled me off the trail and into the trees and kissed me like she might never see me again. To my astonishment, we made love standing up against a tree that shielded us from the view of the jogging trail. I’ve never forgotten the moment, though we never talked about that again either.
Certainly, since Sofi came to rescue me in Peru, we spoke Spanish more and more frequently—not all day long, mind you, just when the emotion demanded it. When things were funny or tense or maddening, we shared it in Spanish. Business and everyday conversations could be conducted in English, but anything that demanded conspiracy or camaraderie was in Spanish.
So not surprisingly, we usually made love in Spanish, which was kind of ironic, because it seemed that the things we did in bed didn’t have words in Spanish, at least none that I ever learned even when I asked her. But the pillow talk was somehow more intimate and more sheltered in Spanish.
As the joke would have it, she should have been becoming more guera “by injection,” if you take my meaning. But the reality was that I was becoming more and more Mexican by absorption, and it showed in my voice, so much so, that when I spoke to strangers in Spanish they could never figure out where I came from. They knew I didn’t come from where they were from, they knew I had an accent, but they didn’t know what kind.
From my gabacho face they’d assume I was Spanish, and when I said no, they’d ask if I were Argentine. When they finally asked, “Where are you from?” I would answer, “From here,” but they wouldn’t have it.
“What about your parents? Your father? Your mother?”
And if they were smart-assed, they’d ask, “Y Sancho?” because in Spanish, Sancho is the guy who’s screwing your wife or your girlfriend when you’re not around, sort of like the old American jokes about kids resembling the mailman or the milkman instead of their fathers.
No, I would tell them, I’m puro guero, and when they told me I didn’t look like one, I’d say that was because everyone’s father or grandfather came from some other country and they just didn’t know what real gueros looked like anyway.
But they’d keep speaking Spanish to me, even if they spoke fluent English. It was like being the member of a special club and speaking Spanish was the price of admission.
The more I knew, the more the language fascinated me, especially the purely Mexican expressions. Mexicans from the northern Mexican states, for example, say “Mande” when they didn’t hear or understand what you just said. It’s not even a question. Instead of meaning “what?” it’s more like “give me an order,” and though I haven’t researched the origin of the word, I’ve always assumed it was a relic from colonial times, when the mestizos had to serve the Spaniards. Elsewhere, in other Spanish-speaking countries, you might say “¿Perdón?” whose meaning is obvious, or “¿Cómo?” which means “how?” There were other words for asking questions, not all of them well regarded: for example, if a Mexican kid said the abrupt “¿Qué?” meaning “what?” to his mother, she just might smack him across the mouth for being so damn blunt and churlish. The problem with “mande” however, was that no other Spanish speakers used it, or even understood it. I remember once that when it popped automatically out of my mouth during a conversation with a Cuban, it derailed the conversation, and the Cuban switched right back to English, which he spoke badly.
I was the Spanish teacher, remember, but I myself had an unwilling tutor. Speaking Spanish was one thing, but analyzing the crap out of it was quite unnecessary as far as Sofi was concerned. When I would ask her questions about pronunciation, for example, why the word for “I” sometimes came out of her mouth as “yo” and sometimes came out sounding like “Joe,” she would never understand what I was talking about, or why it mattered since she couldn’t hear the difference anyway. And then she would shrug off my attempts at finding a linguistic reason and tell me I thought too much.
Even if she spoke to me in Spanish to show her love and affection, she would also address me in Spanish when she was really, really angry, because in addition to its facility for slipping into a more intimate gear, it also had some very effective built-in devices for pulling yourself away to a frigid distance. Instead of the familiar “tú,” I would be addressed with the formal “Ud.” As in “¡Que tenga Ud. buena noche!” “Have a good night, sir,” which of course, meant the exact opposite.
“You’ve made sure I won’t have a good night, haven’t you?” I’d say.
“I’m not responsible for how you feel,” she would snap back.
Oh, but she was. And I would squirm and chafe all day long until I finally found some reason to get my arms around her and kiss her and then she would give in and everything would be all right again in my world.
But she never, ever apologized. Oh sure, she would say “I’m sorry,” but that only infuriated me because she once admitted that she felt that Americans used the phrase so easily and so frequently that it didn’t mean anything and that when she used it, it meant that she wasn’t the least bit sorry at all, but was just saying it to end a fight.
How do you say you’re sorry? “Perdóname” might be what you say when you fart or bump into someone, “Permítame” when you need to pass by. “Discúlpame,” means “forgive me,” but not necessarily in so drastic a context as it sounds in English. It could be only that I forgot to mail the letters this morning—Discúlpame-- or maybe so serious as that I’m sorry that I ran over your dog by accident. Discúlpame, por favor.
Then there is an even more vague phrase, “lo siento,” that literally means “I feel it,” but runs a range from “I’m sorry,” to “I feel bad,” to “I really, really feel bad and I’m on your side with this.” Context and intonation are everything, and the meaning expands and contracts magically to fill the sorry space. And that was what I needed at that moment. So I did know what to say after all.
“Lo siento, mi amor,” I said. “I’m so very, very sorry.”
And with that, I felt her body relax. “Te adoro,” she whispered, and then she fell asleep in my arms. And I sat there all night weeping for a young man I never knew and for a woman I thought I knew but didn’t. Even now I wonder if I ever will.
Sofi called her sister Tina in the morning and broke the news about finding Lupe, and the two of them decided to go together to tell their parents. So, late in the morning, Tina and Pauly came by the apartment. Tina and Sofi left in our car, and then Pauly told me that we had work to do.
“We’re going to put a marker on Lupe’s grave,” he told me, matter-of-factly. “It’s not going to wait another day. The poor kid’s been lying there, all alone and unknown for too fucking long already.”
As we got in the car, I asked Pauly if he even knew that Sofi and Tina had a brother named Lupe, and if Tina had ever told him.
“Yeah, well, but she don’t talk about it much. The whole family is pretty much freaked out by it, always has been. I heard about it before me and Tina married, but that’s about it.”
“Well, I never heard a thing about it,” I said. “You could have knocked me over with a feather when she told me. All these years we’re married, you’d think she’d say something about it.”
“Yeah, well women are goofy,” Pauly responded. He gave me a dumb-shit sidelong glance and a snort as punctuation. “So how old are you now Mikey, and you haven’t figured that out yet?” He snorted again. “Check this out as an example of everything you need to know about women: Just the other day, me and Tina are in the kitchen cleaning up after lunch, and suddenly she’s standing there making this nasty snoring noise and holding her hands up to her throat.” The word came out sounding like “troat.”
“I’m not any frickin’ rocket surgeon, but I figured out pretty fast that she was choking, so I go up behind her to do the hiney lip mover…”
“Whatever. What the hell? So I put my arms around her from behind and squeeze her right under the tits, but nothin’ happens. She just keeps making sucking noises like a vacuum cleaner, and her eyes are all wild. So I did it again, grab her around the front, clasp my hands together and give it the one-two, like a backwards punch in the stomach, and whaddaya know, this piece of hard candy pops out her mouth into the window sill so hard I thought it might break the window. I’m all like, whoa! dude!” He paused for dramatic effect. “So whaddaya think she does?”
I waited, knowing he’d answer anyway.
“She turns around and smacks me, right in the bread basket. ‘What the hell was that for?’ I says, and she goes, ‘You did it wrong.’ ‘What the hell do you mean I did it wrong? I says, You were choking, I did the hiney lip mover, the candy pops out your mouth. That’s what’s supposed to happen. How did I do it wrong?’
“‘You hurt me,’ she says. ‘It’s not supposed to hurt.’ And guess what? She’s pissed at me the whole damn day because of that.”
Yeah, go figure, I thought, but I sat silently as Pauly pulled off the freeway into a neighborhood that I wouldn’t willingly go into with a police escort and in an armored car. But Pauly never seemed to notice those things—the bombed out buildings, the bums on the sidewalk, the graffiti—and so I squirmed and tried not to look as uncomfortable as I was.
We wove up and down blocks until we found the cemetery, which was named Morbid Acres. But what we couldn’t find was a way in. So we circled the tall wrought iron fence for a half hour, having to cut around blocks where the cemetery did not abut the road. And when we finally found the main gate, and got out of the car to push on it, it was locked tight with a big old chain and a padlock.
I’d never heard of a cemetery being locked before this, but given the neighborhood and how old and overgrown the graveyard looked, there was a good chance that it had been full so long that anyone who remembered the people buried there was probably dead too. A sign on the gate listed a phone number for visitors, but the last two numbers were scratched out—and this was in the day before cell phones anyway, so we had two choices. My preference was to go home and think of something else. Pauly was in favor of plan B.
“All right, as always, we’re going to have to do this the hard way,” he said.
Then he yanked open the back door of his car and pulled out a three-foot tall wooden cross, stained a light wood color, with the bottom sharpened into a stake from the back seat. As homemade artwork, it wasn’t half bad. He’d used a wood burner to free-hand engrave the name, “Guadalupe Delgadillo” and the date he died. Then underneath he had burned the words, “Lupe, lost and found. We never forgot you, bro.” Even if the epitaph was unconventional, the marker had soul, and you could see that Pauly had put his blue-collar neighborhood heart into it.
Then Pauly took a big sledge hammer out of the car, and hoisted it with a ceremonial flourish. I followed him to the fence and watched him look up and down and study its height.
“You’re kidding,” I said, when I realized he planned for us to climb over the fence.
“You see any other way?” he answered.
The fence was easily nine feet high, with points on the end of each of its Gothic iron bars. Pauly slipped the cross and the hammer between the bars, then cupped his hands together as a step for me, looked up at me and said, “Let’s go, Mikey.” I stepped up as he lifted my foot and I managed to grab the top rail of the fence with his push, struggled to get one foot on it, then the other, and delicately maneuvered the family jewels over the points on top. Then I did the same for Pauly, putting my arms through the rails so that he could step on my hands and hoist himself over.
Given the neighborhood, I should have felt that we were safer on the inside of the fence than we were on the outside (and I was pleased that as long as we had to leave a car there unprotected, that it should be Pauly’s car and not mine). But now I worried about being somewhere we weren’t supposed to be, and besides, we had to find an unmarked grave in an overgrown graveyard that spread over several acres. We started walking across and between plots until we found a road. Pauly put down the cross and the hammer for a moment to pull a piece of paper out of his pocket. In his clipped handwriting he had scribbled, “plot 324west, 18north-a,” the number that Sofi gave him, whatever that meant. We wandered among the stones until we realized that there were numbered markers on the roadside and at the far end of each row. We were at 90 east, and we could see that if we went straight, the numbers dropped and then started up again with “west” designations. Ok, now.
Then we heard a voice. “Hey, you guys! What are you doing?” It was a fat, middle-aged black man waving his arms at us from across the lawns. He was running in our direction.
“Ignore him,” Pauly said. But in a minute, the man was upon us, huffing like a tenement radiator in January. Apparently he’d never run so far or so fast in his fat life.
“You can’t be here,” he said.
“Says who?” Pauly shot back. “Obviously we are here. Did you think you were just dreaming about us?”
“Says me. I’m the caretaker here.”
“Caretaker? Nobody’s ever taken any care of this place, from the look of it.” He paused for effect. “Oh wait, I get it, it’s like a job with the city, where you don’t actually have to do any work, right? Nice work if you can get it.”
“I don’t need no bullshit from you buddy, you got to leave.”
“Can’t you go cut the grass or something?” Pauly snapped back. “Oooh, never mind, from the look of you, you don’t even take care of yourself, let alone take care of this place.”
“I don’t appreciate that mister, but you’ve got one minute to get off this property, because I’ve already called the police.”
Pauly didn’t even look around. “Look, we’re busy,” he said. Then he kept following the numbers. “We’ll leave just as soon as we find our brother-in-law and take care of a little business,” he said. I felt like an innocent bystander. Maybe not all that innocent.
“Aren’t you listening to anything I’m saying?” the man asked.
“As a matter of fact, I’m not, and I can’t work while you’re hoovering over me.”
“That’s ‘hovering,’” I said.
“Mikey, don’t correct me right now. I’ve got a sharp stick and a big fucking hammer in my hands. I can’t be held responsible.”
“Is that a threat?” the caretaker sputtered.
Pauly stopped for a second and turned. His voice took on fire.
“Now that I think of it, yeah. Yeah, it’s a threat,” he said. “So how come you’re still bothering me?”
“Gonna be the police bothering you in a minute,” he said. “I already called them.”
“Good for you,” Pauly said without seeming to care. The caretaker followed behind as we paced down the numbers: 300 west, 310, 320, 324, then turned north. Whereas most of the cemetery had standard headstones on the graves, or old-style plaques mounted on iron stakes, this area, obviously a potter’s field, just had simple iron plaques laid right on the ground. The grass had grown over many of them and the letters of the names and descriptions were clogged with dirt, so we got down on hands and knees and scrubbed the metal with our shirt sleeves. After a few minutes, I found it: at least I found a plaque that read “Unknown male, Rest in Peace.” The date matched Lupe’s death. We both stared for a bit. Pauly took the cross and pounded it into the ground over the grave. Then Pauly shocked me.
“Let’s pray, Mikey,” he said. I’d never imagined Pauly praying, let alone seen him do it, but he grabbed my hand and squeezed it.
“Jesus,” he started. To be honest, it sounded like he was taking the Lord’s name in vain by the way he pronounced it.
“Jesus, you know I’m not too good at this, but this is our brother in law, Lupe, who didn’t deserve to die that way and didn’t deserve to be buried this way.
“But we’re going to make it right, Lord, as God is above us. We’re going to give this boy a proper burial with a mass and all that crap. Sorry, Lord, I shouldn’t say crap. We’re here for him now, Amen.”
“Amen,” I echoed.
“Oh shit,” Pauly said. I saw what he was looking at. One of Chicago’s finest was halfway to us from the gate, hand on holster as if he were expecting to make a big bust. Pauly turned back to the grave and stood with his hands folded. When the cop reached us, he called out, “What’s going on here?”
Pauly didn’t even turn around.
“Who are you?” he asked. “The fucking Prince of the City?”
“Look,” I said. “Um Officer… what’s your name?”
“Yeah, Officer Farkus. This here is our brother in law buried here. He was lost for 10 years, and my wife found out where he was buried, so we came to put a marker on his grave until we have a chance to get him reburied.”
“They threatened me,” said the fat caretaker, “and they ain’t allowed to be here. This here is trespass, don’t you know?”
“That so?” the cop asked.
“No, not exactly,” I said.
“All right you guys,” the cop said, “get this stick out of the ground and get the fuck out of here before I run you in.”
“No,” Pauly said. “The cross stays. It’s only right. Why do you have to be an asshole?”
“Who you calling an asshole?”
“Do you see any other assholes here?”
“I see a couple of them, and they’re soon-to-be arrested assholes.”
“You know,” Pauly started slowly. “I’ve never been stupid enough to hit a police officer, but in this case it might be fun, and I know for sure that I can beat the shit out of your fat ass.”
With that, Officer Farkus pulled his gun.
“Go ahead and put a couple of warning shots in my back,” Pauly said. “We were just leaving anyway.”
We started the long walk toward the cemetery gate, which was now open. I didn’t like having a drawn gun behind me, obviously—unlike Pauly, I knew full well what a bullet felt like. But we kept walking. And we almost got to the sidewalk before two more squad cars pulled up, spilling out four more police officers. I looked back to the grave just in time to see Officer Farkus pull the cross out of the ground and head in our direction.
We were under arrest: handcuffed behind our backs, pushed into the back of one of the squad cars. As the car pulled away, I turned to Pauly.
“That prayer was fucking beautiful,” I said.
We couldn’t call Sofi or Tina because they were with their parents—that was what we told ourselves; the truth is that we were ashamed--and so I used my one phone call to call Rudy. He was startled when I told him what happened, but promised to come get us as soon as he finished rodding a toilet for some tenants on the second floor. There was too much information on the way…
“I keep telling them not to flush rubbers inna crapper,” he said. “This the fourth time. I tell the guy to throw them inna garbage can or keep his little dick in his pants, ‘cause I don’ wanna come back no more to fix the toilet.”
As I pondered the poetry of that thought, Officer Farkus wrote us out citations for criminal trespass and vandalism, and he argued with his sergeant about whether he could charge us with aggravated assault on a police officer, a major felony, because Pauly called him an asshole and said he could beat him up, but the sergeant took him to task.
“Farkus, you jackass, he shouted, “You want to send these guys to prison for carrying a cross around a South Side cemetery? You think a judge and jury are going to put up with that? I’ve got half a mind to kick your ass myself.”
Nonetheless, as a testament to how dangerous we were, we were left handcuffed to chairs in the squad room until Rudy could come and get us. Pauly was so angry that he couldn’t even talk. There was a definite “Alice’s Restaurant” feel to the whole thing. Or maybe it was more like an afternoon in the principal’s office in junior high. I could almost hear the scolding: “You know that this may be a mark on your permanent record.” But mostly, I was too struck by the absurdity to think, so I watched the shadows lengthen through the windows and then dozed in the chair for what must have been at least an hour.
I heard Rudy before I saw him, though I couldn’t make out everything he was saying. He seemed very animated—not that that was peculiar—and his voice came and went as if he’d gone outside and come back in.
“I’m alla time tell those guys to behave,” he was saying in a loud voice. “I’m sorry but I try to keep them under control and I promise they won’t cause no more trouble,” he was saying.
What the hell? Whose side was he on? When he came into view he had the cross and the big hammer, and when he saw us, he pantomimed a big mug of exasperation when he saw us handcuffed to our chairs in the squad room. “Look at you guys!” he shouted accusingly. “I’m talk to nice Officer Fuck-us here and he say he gonna let me take you home if you say you don’t cause no more mess.”
Farkus seemed to wince at Rudy’s pronunciation of his name, but he didn’t say anything, perhaps assuming it was part of Rudy’s thick accent. I myself wasn’t sure.
“So, ok, you tell Officer Fuck-us that you sorry and let’s go.”
We signed some papers and shuffled out to Rudy’s big old car in the parking lot. Pauly sullenly got into the back seat without saying anything. I rode shotgun. Rudy fired up the old machine, and when it stopped whining, he let it lurch into gear.
“Looky there,” he said pointing out one of the squads. “That there is that nice Officer Fuck-us car. I know this ‘cause he let me get you stuff out of it.” Then as a seeming side thought, he suddenly said, “You know what, little brother? I’m think I got a low tire on you side,” and he braked the car hard so that it stopped right next to Farkus’ vehicle. Then Rudy rooted around in the glove compartment until he found a tire gauge. He left the car running when he got out of the car on the driver’s side.
I had my window open and watched as Rudy bent down to check the air in his front passenger-side tire. Simultaneously, surreptitiously, he reached in his other pocket and took out the three-inch switchblade that he always carried, popped it open and sunk it into the front driver’s side tire of Farkus’ car. I could hear the whoosh as the air rushed out through the gash. Rudy got back in the car.
“My tire fine,” he announced happily. “But that tire on Fuck-us car look low. Somebody oughta tell him. Too bad, we gotta go now.”
Rudy drove us back to the cemetery where Pauly’s car was hopefully still parked.
“You know what, my little brother?” he said. “This a gift from God.” At first I thought he meant him bailing us out, but then he continued. “Inna war, people alla time disappear. My mother: Where she at? My cousins? Where they at? I cry at night ‘cause I’m never gonna know these things. Maybe they got bury, maybe not. God, he come to you wife, and he tell her, Mischa, he tell her where her brother is at, and that, my little brother is a gift. You gotta know it.”
We reached Pauly’s car at the cemetery, just as it was getting dark, and Pauly and I started wearily toward it when Rudy suddenly asked, “Where you think you go, you guys? We got work to do.”
He was rooting in the trunk of his car, his rolling tool shop, tossing aside shovels and hammers and tool boxes and took out a long pair of bolt cutters. Then he walked directly to the front gate of the cemetery and quickly snipped the chain that held it shut. He threw the bolt cutters back into the car trunk and then took the cross and the hammer from the back seat.
“OK, show me where to go,” he said.
We pulled the gate open far enough to slip through, closed it quietly behind us and walked back to Lupe’s grave in the dark. Rudy looked a moment, then, as if he were performing any other daily task, he set the point of the stake on the ground and quickly pounded it in with a three deft stokes of the hammer. He closed his eyes and put a hand to his forehead and muttered something in Magyar—a prayer, I could only imagine. And when I saw a tear streak down his cheek, I started to cry myself, and to my surprise, when I looked over to Pauly, he was wiping away tears, too. There was nothing else to say, so we solemnly walked back to our cars, slipped out of the gate and shook hands with Rudy.
“Mischa-batchi?” he said.
“You cut the grass tomorrow for me?”
Pauly drove us to Sofi’s and Tina’s family’s main restaurant. The old man was behind the counter, looking pale. I figured he went to work to keep from thinking about what he had learned that day. He was surprised to see us, grunted a greeting and shook our hands.
“We took care of it,” Pauly said.
Then he smiled for a quick moment and hugged us both, slapping us roundly on the backs. He brought us beers and bowls of menudo, which we ate without speaking, and then we just we went home. Sofi was already asleep when I got there, so I slipped into bed and put my arms around her and fell into an uncomfortable sleep.
I was pleasantly surprised at how quickly things happened in the next few weeks. Rudy’s shyster lawyer uncle got Pauly’s and my criminal charges dropped, free of charge. And of course, Rudy, the ultimate handyman, the quintessential neighborhood guy, had a cousin who owned a funeral parlor and had his gravediggers exhume Lupe’s casket, also free of charge, though I expect it got tacked onto the bill of some other poor grieving customer.
Sofi’s father purchased a plot in a West Side cemetery and the family gathered for a small mass to be said in Lupe’s name at the church where Sofi grew up. Rudy was there, with his wife, Nadia, as were a handful of Sofi’s aunts and uncles and cousins and close friends of the family. But the whole idea was to keep it small and intimate, and other than the immediate family, who really cared anyway? As I listened to the priest pray in Spanish, I compared the words and the cadence with the sermons and recitations of my Sunday school past—I had not spent much time in church in the last decade. I wondered if I should be there more, or just let my soul lay where it was, stuck between cultures and between the hell I dreamed at night and the paradise I felt in Sofi’s arms before I fell asleep.
Sofi seemed tranquil, almost happy, a welcome contrast to the tenseness and shock of the days after she found Lupe. After the priest had finished, Sofi’s father stood up to eulogize his lost son: He talked about his ball playing, his good heart, the love that cost him his life, and about his own hopes that God would forgive him for being a harsh disciplinarian when after all, the worst sin his son had committed was to fall in love. I wept, like I always weep at funerals, lost in the old man’s grief. I cry at weddings, too, and even if I try to read aloud something that is very beautiful. I had to memorize the Robert Frost poem, “Stopping by woods on a snowy evening” when I was eight years old, but every time I recite it, my voice cracks and my eyes water by the time I get to the last lines, “The woods are lovely, dark, and deep/ But I have promises to keep/ And miles to go before I sleep/ And miles to go before I sleep.” The lines were running through my head at that very moment. “And miles to go before I sleep.” Nothing brings those words home more than the untimely death of a young man.
We met the body at the cemetery—the remains had been sealed into a new casket, and we prayed again as it was lowered into the ground at the Catholic cemetery.
Afterward, we all reunited at Sofi’s parents’ favorite Mexican restaurant down in the Pilsen neighborhood on the near South Side. Even though we had reservations, there was a short wait. The hostess fretted over Sofi’s parents, knowing full well that her father owned the number of restaurants he did, and she promised that we would have the very next table that came available.
Pauly fidgeted and tried to flag down a waitress to get a margarita. Behind us was a gaggle of fat white folks, three couples, it seemed. And when I say they were fat, I say it because it was pathological. They were all fat, not just one or two of them, and I suspected that they were related—or else belonged to some perverse club with a name like Overeaters Anonymous.
Pauly got his margarita and winced as he took the first gulp, though I don’t know if it was because of the strength of its tequila, or because of the inane patter of the fattest lady, as she rambled on about all the people she disliked.
The hostess came up to us and told us that our table was ready, but as my mother- and father-in-law started to follow her, the loud fat lady pushed in front of them.
“I’m sorry, but we’ve been waiting longer. That’s OUR table,” she said crossly as she grabbed the menus out of the hostess’ hands. Then they rushed to the cleared table.
My mother-in-law, who would never in her life have thought to touch another person in a public setting the way she had just been jostled, had a frozen look of horror on her face after being pushed so rudely.
“Don’t ever get between a fat lady and her lunch,” Pauly quipped.
My father-in-law suggested we all go someplace else. The hostess was mortified and apologized profusely for the rudeness of the gueros gordos.
“Look, look, we can wait,” I said, trying to be conciliatory. I turned to Sofi. “I’ll be damned if we’ll act like those people.” She squeezed my hand in response, then calmed her parents. Pauly sipped his margarita.
And within minutes, the hostess had recruited a couple of waiters to set up a table for us by the window. We settled in and ordered drinks. Sofi’s mother was still mortified; her father seemed pacified. Rudy was smiling broadly and was already studying the menu and asking questions about the food, and Pauly was ordering a second margarita. Then I noticed the mariachi band.
There were four of them: two guitarists, a bass player, a trumpeter, dressed in their elaborate costumes with the big sombreros and all the metal buttons. I flagged them over.
“Alguna canción para Uds., amigos?” the leader asked. “A nice song for you, my friends?”
Not for us, I explained. But here’s five dollars, I said in Spanish. See that table over there? I want you to go over there and play the most offensive, nasty and mean-spirited song you know. Can you do that?
“A la órden,” he answered with a hint of a smile on his face. “At your service.” Seconds later he was tableside with the piggies and his conjunto launched into a filthy song about a Venezuelan beauty queen who fucked her way to the top. All the Spanish speakers in the restaurant turned to look, their mouths open with surprise that turned to smiles. The piggies had no idea. They clapped happily along with the cheerful music without realizing what was being sung. Tables of people began laughing. Sofi kicked me under the table, but I was smiling broader than anyone.
After lunch, we took Simon, the dog, down to the lake. Sofi held my hand all during the half-hour walk there. She was quiet, but she seemed at peace with herself and at peace with me. I still had a bit of a lazy-afternoon margarita buzz going, and I assume that she did too.
Lake Michigan sparkled playfully just beyond Lake Shore Drive. Even today, every time I see it, I’m struck by its vastness. It rolls and heaves like an ocean at times, then lies quiet and foreboding at other times. But Chicagoans have always used it as a bearing. The lake is east, always east, and if you know where the lake is and can read the numbers on the street signs, 2400 north, 600 west, you know exactly where you are.
I loved the lake. I was one of the few and the crazy who visited it in the winter, too. Even if it was deadly cold, the water only froze 20 to 30 feet offshore and coated the pilings with ice so that they looked like igloos. To fall through that ice would mean quick death. But the water was frigid even in the summer, too cold to swim until late August, then after a few weeks when the nights turned crisp again, the temperature would drop too low for a body to stand.
I’d seen the lifeguards pull kids from between the rocks and then pump on their chests and breathe into their mouths to bring them magically back to life. Once I experienced a mini seiche, which is like a tidal wave; I was standing dry-footed on a piling about a foot above the waterline. An instant later, without seeing anything change, I was suddenly standing in water up to my shins.
On the day of Lupe’s mass, it was late August. I still carry an image in mind from about a year later, the next August, when Sofi was very, very pregnant with our first son. We’d had a sweltering heat wave and had fled to the lake to cool down. She wore one of those old-fashioned pregnant-lady bathing suits with a flap of fabric to cover the belly, and I remember she was treading water on a blue-sky perfect Saturday afternoon, hanging on to a piling so that only her head poked above the water, with that big lovely belly floating like a beach ball just beneath the surface of the water. I’ll carry that memory to the grave with me. So the lake was the perfect place to go that afternoon, and Simon the perfect distraction from the day’s drama.
As always, Simon carried his own ball, excited about what was to come. I’d taught him to swim when he was a pup. Dogs don’t really swim instinctively: they thrash and paw at the water with their heads straight up and their hind legs straight down and have to be taught how to move on a level keel. When he was real little, I would take Simon down to the harbor where there was a shallow little back water and entice him with a stick, holding it in front of him over the water. He would go after it, but I’d always keep it just out of reach until he was in over his head and didn’t even realize he was swimming.
He was a natural retriever, ball-obsessed like most Labs, and when he had grown a little larger, I took him to the beach at Fullerton Avenue and tossed the ball into the shallows. He’d jump through the waves to get it, then surf back to shore, shake vigorously, scattering a rainbow of drops, and then charge back to where I stood ready to throw it again, leaving a wake of sand flying behind him.
I first let him swim in the deep water off the rocks at Diversey Harbor on a warm day in March, and he didn’t care how ghastly cold the water was, then or since. I threw the tennis ball about 15 feet out, and he launched like an athlete, leaping fearlessly and headlong to a mighty splash and swam out to the ball. Unfortunately for me, when he got to the ball and grabbed it in his teeth, instead of turning around and swimming back toward the rocks, he kept swimming straight out to sea, headed toward the state of Michigan, if he could make the 60 or so miles to the other shore. I called him several times, but he was on a mission, and I had no choice but to jump into the frigid snowmelt water and swim after him—much to the amusement of the people watching from shore. I’m surprised I didn’t have a heart attack from the temperature drop, but I was younger then, and I loved that dog. I did not much love the laughs of the sunbathers as I sat shivering and gasping for breath, trying to dry out in the sun after Simon and I climbed back onto the rocks.
But Simon learned from his mistakes, even if I never did. And as he got better at retrieving from the deep water, he’d leap into four-foot seas, then effortlessly glide back and pull himself up out of the water to return the ball at my feet. It was so beautiful to watch that he often drew a crowd. And there was something very relaxing about the thoughtless rhythm of throwing and watching him jump and swim and throwing and watching him jump and swim.
Sofi and I spent an hour at least that day, hardly talking, but enjoying each others’ company and drawing energy from the dog’s pure joy at doing what he was bred to do. He launched himself joyously into the water over and over, and we laughed as hard as we needed to laugh. Then, because neither of us wanted to go home, we started to walk up the lakefront while the sun dropped lower and lower in the sky. It was a perfect evening, up until that point. Other strollers passed by, apparently in the same mood as us.
But the crowds thinned up by Belmont Harbor where the sailboats tie up to the docks, and our bliss overshadowed the city street smarts that tell you that when it’s too calm and too quiet and too lonely, things can quickly get too scary. Sofi pulled me along down the steps to the piers so that we could walk among the yachts and fantasize about taking one out to sea. I didn’t even hear the kid sneak up on us.
“Whassup?” he said. We both turned and there he was, looking like the dictionary definition of “punk ass.” Why kids wore ski caps in the summertime, I’ve never understood. His was pulled low. His pants hung halfway down his ass, and his shoelaces were untied—which also made no sense to me, because if you’re going around jacking people, as he was, you’d think you’d want to be ready to run away in a gangbang second. I imagine that would be pretty hard to do in untied loose shoes and with your pants hanging down around your knees, but I’m just an old guy and what the hell do I know? And he had asked me a question.
“Excuse me?” I asked.
He pulled out a little gun and pointed it at us. “No, excuse me, mister. I want your money.”
Another little man with a gun; I marveled for a moment at how tiny the gun was, and then got that sinking feeling that things were starting over again for me, but I did take the $15 or $20 I had in my front pants pocket and handed it to him. He turned to Sofi and said, “Now you.”
“Mande?” she said. The kid looked to be Mexican, but he didn’t seem to understand Spanish, and she was pretending not to understand English. Simon clearly didn’t understand anything except that he wanted to move on, because he walked up to the kid and licked his free hand and then stuck his nose in his crotch. The kid jumped back.
“Get him away from me,” he shouted. “I don’t want to have to shoot no dog!”
Not to be discouraged, the dog picked up his ball and stuck it in Sofi’s hand, and she took it.
“Give me your fucking money,” the kid shouted at Sofi. She nodded, acting, as if she understood this time and started digging in a pocket, but as she did, she started moving closer to the pier’s edge. The kid seemed somewhat pacified that he was getting what he wanted, and he sidled in the same direction with her. I didn’t know what she was going to do, but it didn’t seem wise to me. Then the ball just kind of, sort of, dribbled right out of her hand and rolled between the kid’s legs.
The dog bolted to chase after it, and when the ball passed between the kid’s legs, so did the dog. The kid fought to keep his balance, but Sofi was on him, with a quick shove, and she caught him when he already had one foot in the air. The push moved him completely off his feet and he splashed backwards into the water. He went under for a second and then coughed his way to the surface, flailing wildly.
“Help me!” he burbled. “I can’t swim!”
Silly me, I looked around for a pole or something to extend his way and pull him out, but Sofi let out a piercing shriek. “¡Pinche cabrón!” she shouted—“You fucking bastard!” The dog, oblivious to all of it, brought the ball back to her, and she angrily grabbed it and drew a bead on the kid, throwing it hard and true and hitting the little fucker right in the forehead. It knocked him briefly back underwater. He flailed more, coughing up mouthfuls of frog’s eggs and brackish harbor water.
But the dog was thrilled to see the ball thrown, and before I could grab him, he had leapt off the pier, bouncing the ball off his nose, and in the process, pawing the kid and pushing him underwater again.
Sofi was still screaming obscenities, and she seemed to looking around on the ground for something else to throw. I managed to grab her just as she picked up a small anchor from one of the sailboats. She pulled on it hard and carried it toward the water, then jolted back when she reached the end of the line that tied it to the boat.
“My God, you’ll kill him with that,” I said.
“¿Y eso?” she answered—basically meaning, “So what’s your point?”
The dog had swum around to shore and dropped the ball a second to shake off water before running back to us. I grabbed Sofi’s hand and said, “Let’s go.”
She held back for a second and then followed me. We ran laughing all the way back to our apartment, hand in hand, and we made love all night long.