The phone rang 10 minutes before his alarm was scheduled to go off, followed shortly by Blanco the rooster’s energetic crowing.
Perfecto Jones groaned, pushed the button on his battery-powered alarm clock to the off position, and tried to shield his bleary eyes from the brilliant blue sky that shone through what was left of his roof overhead. Somewhere in the back of his still waking mind it occurred to him that the tarp he’d previously covered his roof with must have shifted or blown away during the night.
Jones carefully adjusted his weight on the hammock that he used as his bed and ran his fingers along the floor until his hand closed on his phone. He groaned again after he’d brought the phone to his face and saw who it was that had called him. It was the captain.
“Hello?” Jones said after pressing the answer button. He was wide awake now.
“Jones!” The captain’s voice practically exploded from the cell phone’s tiny speaker.
Jones winced and held the phone a little farther from his ear. It was obvious that the concept of an indoor voice eluded the captain. Blanco the rooster treated him to a hostile glare before hopping off the waterlogged nightstand and wandering off to another part of the ruined home to continue his crowing undisturbed.
“Jones! Are you there?” The captain yelled again.
“Yes sir,” Perfecto replied, trying to keep the annoyance out of his voice. “I’m here.”
“Good, that’s good,” the captain stated in a much more modulated tone of voice. “I need you to go down to Cabo Rojo, there’s been a murder.”
Perfecto Jones, homicide detective with the Puerto Rico police department, showered and dressed in record time (a task easier said than done since his indoor plumbing had slowed to a frustrating trickle since the hurricane). He tapped the location the captain had given him into his GPS, and drove at near reckless speeds to the crime scene, avoiding fallen boulders, trees, broken asphalt, and other debris that had been recklessly deposited onto the roads by the hurricane.
When Jones arrived, the local cops had already cordoned off the area and were holding the crowd of locals and tourists at bay. Thankfully, there were no reporters in sight, probably because they were all still reporting on the hurricane’s recent devastation.
Jones, who was now walking past the ubiquitous yellow crime scene tape after having parked his vehicle well away from the crime scene, turned towards the voice that was hailing him and spotted a rotund officer from the local police trudging in his direction.
“Sergeant Acosta,” the officer introduced himself as he shook the detective’s hand. “Your captain called and told us to expect you.”
Jones nodded towards the crime scene, “Were you the first officer on the scene?” He asked.
“Oh no,” Acosta replied. “That would be Officer Rivera. He’s back there still working on his report.”
“Any other witnesses?”
Sergeant Acosta shook his head, “Just the two surfers that first discovered the body,” he said. “They’re the ones who reported it to Rivera. We already have their statements, and no one else has been allowed near the crime scene.”
“Good job,” Jones acknowledged, relieved to know that no one had tampered with the crime scene. “Have you had much experience with homicides, Sergeant?”
“Not really,” Sergeant Acosta answered breathlessly as he and the detective ducked under the crime scene tape. “I’m actually with the Stolen Vehicles Division.”
Jones wasn’t surprised. The chaos created by Hurricane Maria forced a lot of cops (him included) to go home, if home was more or less still standing, in order to take care of their family and property. Some went so far as to abandon what was left of their home to get their family to the relative safety of the mainland U.S.A. So vital services, including law enforcement, were scarce on the island right now.
Jones squatted carefully by the body, shooed away the flies, and took a look at the corpse. The most obvious thing about it was that its head was missing. Behind him, the sergeant made the sign of the cross and muttered a quick prayer.
Detective Jones ignored him and continued his cursory examination of the body.
“The victim appears to have been a pretty big guy,” he said. “So I’m guessing that the killer or killers either caught him by surprise, or were at least as big and powerful as the victim.”
Sergeant Acosta nodded, and covered his nose and mouth with a handkerchief. Jones noticed that the Sergeant’s complexion had paled somewhat. Then the sergeant mumbled something into his handkerchief.
“I couldn’t understand you with your face covered like that,” Jones said as he stood up. “What did you say?”
Acosta removed the handkerchief from his face and repeated what he’d said, “I said that it looks like the gargoyle got him.”
Jones gave the sergeant a look that started out as incredulous, but that then quickly changed to annoyance.
“A gargoyle? Next you’ll be blaming it on a chupacabra,” he said. “Try to remember that you’re a police officer Sergeant, we don’t have time to waste on superstitions.”
“Yes sir,” the sergeant said, sounding chastened but not totally convinced. “But ever since the hurricane, people say that they have seen a gargoyle flying around at night.”
“People say a lot of things,” Jones said. “Has the Medical Examiner been notified?”
“There is no Medical Examiner,” Acosta replied. “His home and his lab were destroyed during the hurricane, so he relocated with his family to the U.S. mainland.”
“Damn,” Jones said as he searched his brain for a solution. After a moment he turned back to the sergeant. “Get a doctor, any doctor,” he said. “He’ll have to be our temporary M.E.”
Sergeant Acosta nodded from behind his handkerchief.
“And find a refrigerator truck, commandeer it if you have to,” Jones continued. “We’ll load the body into the truck and park it somewhere with a big generator—like a hotel parking lot, or a hospital, whatever.”
The sergeant nodded again and, once reasonably sure that no other orders were forthcoming, hurried away to carry out the ones he’d been given.
Jones stood there with his hands on his hips, backlit by a beautiful blue sky that merged almost seamlessly with the sea. A sailboat serenely plied the distant waves, while even farther out, a charter fishing boat ferried tourists out for a day of deep-sea fishing. It all seems so beautiful, so peaceful, Jones thought as he let his eyes follow the gulls and terns that wheeled about over the azure waters. In the distance stood the reddish cliffs and salt flats that gave Cabo Rojo its name. Yet, even here, violence and death seemed to intrude with impunity.
“First the hurricane, and now this,” Jones sighed. Maybe he should forget about what was left of his house and belongings, pack up his family, and head to Florida…or New York.
A faint smell of death and decay broke into his reverie, and he immediately blamed the body at his feet as being the culprit. He dismissed that idea as he realized that he had not smelled that level of putrefaction while he was kneeling closer to the body, and so even in the subtropical heat and humidity, the body in question had apparently not reached the extent of decay that would have been responsible for the acrid smell that had just assailed his nostrils.
Jones turned back towards the beach—a breeze from that direction usually carries the salty tang of the sea. A Capitán bird, its yellow epaulets contrasting sharply with the glossy black feathers on the rest of its body, flashed by, reminding Jones of the proximity of the wildlife refuge. He looked now at the greenish line of trees and other shrub-like vegetation a little over 100 yards away that marked the entrance to the area’s lowland forest. Another faint breeze from that direction, a breeze that would normally carry with it the scents of bougainvillea, hibiscus, and green, growing things, instead accosted his senses yet again with the smell of death…and rot. With one last look in the direction in which Sergeant Acosta disappeared, Jones headed towards the forest.
Detective Jones trudged up the slight incline that led to the forest, his shoes gouging deep prints in the sandy soil. He was almost at the forest’s edge when he noticed other tracks in the dirt. He stopped and looked back in the direction he’d just come from, taking note that those other tracks seemed to diminish before abruptly disappearing entirely about 10 yards away. It seemed to Jones that someone may have tried to hide their tracks.
Jones turned back towards the forest and crouched down, brushing dead leaves and other debris from a spot where the ground appeared recently disturbed. He could make out what may have been a handprint, but otherwise there were no discernable foot or shoe prints. It might be nothing, but he used his phone to take several photos from several different angles anyway.
Then—there it was again—that smell of rot and decay…
Jones stood up, brushed off his hands, and looked around. The hairs on his arms and on the back of his neck were standing on end. Slowly, almost without realizing it, he brought his hand to his gun. He felt as if he were being watched—it was the same feeling that had saved his life more than once in Afghanistan, only it was different this time…this time it was not just a feeling of being observed, but also an unmistakable feeling of malevolence, of pure hatred, that also carried with it an otherworldly sense of sadness, loss, and madness.
The cascade of emotions almost overwhelmed the detective, and he staggered slightly as he shook them off. Jones then unholstered his weapon, and walked into the forest. Jones noticed almost immediately that the air in the forest was hotter and dryer than it was closer to the beach, with cacti and several species of succulents growing at its fringes. The hurricane had stripped away most of the forest’s canopy, and the unfiltered sun glared unrelentingly at the detritus of its passing. Broken tree limbs, fencing, wooden boards, roofing tiles, plastic bottles, and a multitude of other odds and ends littered the area and blocked his path.
As he detoured around a battered washing machine that was lying on its side, a wad of colorful clothing spilling from the shattered glass of its door, the stench of decomposition hit him again, this time accompanied by the loud buzzing of flies. For a brief moment he’d almost convinced himself that the smell and the flies were the result of livestock or pets that had been killed by the storm. Then he saw them…arms akimbo, legs twisted in broken, unnatural positions, they were tangled up in the brush as if tossed angrily or carelessly away. More bodies.
Jones turned away as his stomach violently emptied itself of his breakfast.
Later that day the bodies were removed and meticulously placed in a refrigerated truck provided by Sergeant Acosta. The truck was then driven to the parking lot of a nearby hotel where it was hooked up to one of their two working generators and isolated from the other vehicles in the parking lot by a perimeter of traffic cones and police tape. Sergeant Acosta acted as security after being temporarily reassigned by the superintendent himself at Detective Jones’ request.
The next day, Doctor Carmen Rivera, a pediatrician from the nearby town of San Germán, was the only doctor they could find that was willing and able to perform emergency autopsies on the bodies. Unfortunately, many other doctors, including those certified as medical examiners, had either fled the island or were overwhelmed with the task of caring for the thousands of victims of Hurricane Maria.
Now, with the autopsies over, Detective Jones, Sergeant Acosta, Captain Fuentes (Homicide), Superintendent Ramirez (Major Crimes), and representatives from the mayor’s and governor’s offices sat in a conference room of the hotel and listened as the doctor divulged the results of her autopsies.
“Four of the victims were male and one female,” the doctor said. “They all appeared to have been in general good health prior to their demise and in the case of the female victim there was no indication of sexual assault.”
“Please hurry this along,” the representative from the governor’s office interrupted while looking at his watch. “I still have a lot of work to do related to this hurricane and the recovery efforts…for all we know these so-called ‘murder’ victims are simply just more victims of the hurricane!”
The mayor’s representative, as well as the other people in the room, glared at the man from the governor’s office before turning back and looking at the doctor expectantly. “Well,” Doctor Rivera said while straightening her glasses. “All of the bodies exhibited varying degrees of blunt force trauma, some of which could certainly be attributed to the hurricane, but I’m not an expert…”
The governor’s representative threw his hands up in the air in a dramatic show of exasperation, “That’s the problem right there—she’s not even an expert!”
Dr. Rivera straightened her glasses again, and continued. “I may be a doctor, but forensics is not my area of expertise,” she said, a hint of anger adding an edge to her voice.
“We understand, Doctor,” the superintendent said diplomatically, “And we appreciate your assistance during these very trying times. Please continue.”
“Very well,” the doctor said. “Even though all of the bodies suffered some sort of trauma, my opinion is that the massive soft-tissue damage incurred is consistent with the victims having suffered a particularly savage beating prior to their deaths, rather than just having suffered the kinds of injuries consistent with damage caused by the hurricane.”
“I –I’m confused,” the mayor’s representative spoke out. “A beating? Are you saying that these poor people were attacked by some sort of gang?”
“There is no way for me to ascertain the number of assailants involved,” Dr. Rivera answered. “However, some of the bruises do appear to have been caused by a fist or fists, but due to lividity issues, and the various stages of decomposition, not to mention the lack of proper equipment…it’s impossible for me to be sure. As it is, I’ve taken photographs, along with calibrated measurements, and forwarded them to the F.B.I. field office here in Puerto Rico.”
Jones, having already read this in the preliminary reports, waited to see the reactions of everyone else in the room when they heard what the doctor had to say next. “And then there is the matter of their heads,” the doctor finally said. “They’re missing.”
The majority of those gathered in the room immediately erupted with shouted questions and accusations. Perfecto Jones and Dr. Rivera, already aware of the headless condition of the corpses were the only ones that remained relatively unfazed. The governor’s representative jumped to his feet and pointed an accusatory finger at the doctor, “I am tired of your unprofessional theatrics!” He yelled. “You’re no doctor, you’re a charlatan!”
The shouting continued unabated until Jones slammed his hand down on the conference room table. The resultant sound was as loud as a gunshot, and had the desired effect of shocking everyone into quiet.
“I think it would be prudent of us to listen to what this kind doctor, who has done us a great favor during this very trying time of tragedy and uncertainty, has to say,” he said evenly. Then after looking around the room, he gave Dr. Rivera a nod. “Please continue, Doctor,” he said.
The doctor, somewhat flustered, nevertheless cleared her throat and after readjusting her glasses, continued.
“As well as the trauma inflicted on each of the patients, uh, victims,” she said. “Each of the victims had also been decapitated.”
A collective gasp went around the room.
“So we’re basically looking for a deranged man armed with a machete,” Captain Fuentes said, turning in his chair so that he could address Perfecto Jones directly. “Has a murder weapon been found?” He asked.
“No sir,” Jones answered. “After the bodies were removed there was a thorough search of the area, but no murder weapon was found—nor any of the missing heads.” “My God,” the mayor’s representative said quietly.
“I don’t think you’ll find a murder weapon,” Dr. Rivera said, capturing everyone’s attention again. “At least not in the sense that you’re thinking, the victim’s heads were not cut off…they were literally torn off their bodies.”
The room threatened to erupt into pandemonium again until Jones held up a hand and called for quiet. Although he had read the preliminary reports, he had been under the impression that the heads had been cut from the victim’s bodies.
“Torn off?” He asked. “How is that possible?”
Dr. Rivera nervously adjusted her glasses again. “It should be impossible,” she said. “As far as I know, it is beyond the physical ability of anyone to forcibly remove someone’s head without the use of some kind of tool. It’s simply not human.”
“Oh my God—the gargoyle!” Sergeant Acosta blurted out as he made the sign of the cross.
Jones was surprised to see several others in the room follow suit in making the sign of the cross. He shook his head slowly, “Well,” he said. “I don’t have the luxury of believing in gargoyles, or any other myths or superstitions. I have a killer or killers to catch.”
After the meeting, Dr. Rivera approached Jones so she could speak to him alone. “Detective Jones,” she said. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to imply that there was anything supernatural going on. It’s just…well, you saw the bodies.”
Jones dismissed her concerns with a wave of his hand. “Don’t worry about it, Doctor,” he said. “And you’re right, I did see the bodies, but I assumed that the heads had been hacked off of those unfortunate folks—probably with a machete like the captain said earlier – but now this is something completely different.”
“I imagine that it must be,” the doctor agreed quietly.
“Dr. Rivera,” Jones said. “You’ve done a fine job; in fact you’ve done us all here a great service, especially in light of this national emergency. Thank you. Thank you very much.”
“I wish that I could more,” she said sincerely.
Jones thought for a moment. “Actually, there is something more that may help my investigation,” he said. “Earlier, you mentioned that a person lacks the physical strength needed to have torn those people’s heads from their bodies. You said that it isn’t humanly possible, right?”
“Right,” the doctor agreed.
“So could maybe a tiger or a lion have the power to do something like that?”
The doctor thought it over. “In the sense of raw power, I suppose so,” the doctor replied cautiously. “But there were no claw or bite marks on the bodies…and why remove the heads?”
Jones tossed these questions around in his head for a moment before answering. “I’m not sure,” he said. “I’m not an expert, but I know where I can find some.”
The next morning, Blanco the rooster woke him up bright and early with several rounds of overly exuberant crowing. Jones groaned, shut off his now unnecessary alarm, and dialed his wife at the hotel room where his family had taken refuge after the storm had nearly demolished their home. After a few minutes of small talk, he gave the boys his blessings, and got ready for work.
The otherwise uneventful drive to the town of Mayagüez was complicated by a huge sinkhole that had opened up in the highway, causing traffic to slow down to a crawl. Luckily, cleaning crews had cleared away much of the debris that had been deposited on the road by the hurricane.
Perfecto Jones pulled into the nearly empty parking lot, where a lone security guard informed him in bored tones that the zoo was closed. Jones flashed his shield, and the security guard directed him to the main building and gave him the name of the person he should see.
As Jones walked to the main building, he noticed that all of the animal enclosures he passed were empty except for a few stray strands of hay. The main building was dim and cool inside, and he suddenly realized that despite being born and raised in Puerto Rico, he’d never been to the zoo before.
“Hello?” He called out, his voice echoing slightly in the cavernous room.
Jones was startled by the sudden appearance of an overly cheerful young lady in the uniform of a zoo employee.
“My name is Carmen! Welcome to El Parque Nacional Zoológico de Puerto Rico,” she continued effervescently. “May I help you?”
Jones quickly regained his composure and looked around in an attempt to figure out where she’d come from.
“Unfortunately we’re closed right now,” Carmen said jubilantly. “But if there’s anything I can do…?”
“Uh, yes,” Jones replied, producing his shield again. “I’m detective Jones, and I’d like to speak to the person in charge please.”
“Of course!” Carmen chirped happily. “That would be our general manager, Adriana Ruiz-Cordero. Follow me please!”
Carmen then led the detective to a nearby door and knocked twice before opening it just wide enough to stick her head through.
“The police are here to talk to you Adriana,” she said cheerfully, before ushering Jones inside and shutting the door behind him.
General Manager Ruiz-Cordero sat goggle-eyed behind a modest desk cluttered with books, papers, pens, pencils, coffee mugs, animal figurines, and an open laptop computer.
“The police!” She said.
“Yes, indeed,” Jones acknowledged with a flourish of his badge. “Detective Jones of the Homicide Division.”
Ruiz-Cordero paled. “Oh my God! Homicide! Was someone hurt? Is everyone okay?” Jones gestured for her to stay calm. “No, no—I mean yes! But as far as I know, nothing has happened to anyone at the zoo.”
“Then why are the police here? What’s wrong?”
“May I sit down?” Jones asked, motioning to one of the chairs positioned across the desk from Ruiz-Cordero; who nodded her consent.
Jones sat down, took out his notepad and pen. “I’m going to take notes,” he said. “Nothing to worry about.”
Again, Ruiz-Cordero nodded her head.
“I’m investigating several deaths that may have been caused by a large animal,” he said.
“But you said that you’re a Homicide detective,” Ruiz-Cordero said.
“Yes, well, this is an unusual case,” Jones admitted. “I noticed on my way here that there are no animals in the enclosures. Did any of your large animals, like tigers or lions, escape from the zoo during the hurricane?”
The zookeeper shook her head. “No, none at all,” she said. “In fact, due to budgetary reasons, the zoo had already donated all of its large animals to other zoos or institutions. The hurricane destroyed the aviary, so all we currently have left are some small to medium-sized animals, and the butterfly exhibit.”
Jones leaned back in his chair and snapped his notepad shut in disappointment. This had turned out to be a dead end.
“Okay, well,” he said. “I’m not accusing you or this organization of not being truthful, but I’d like a list of the animals you donated and where they were sent.”
“Of course,” Ruiz-Cordero said as she got up and walked over to one of several file cabinets. “At one point things got so bad that we could barely feed the animals,” she said as she rummaged through the files. “There were unflattering articles in the newspapers and even protests! At first that’s what I thought you were here about.” Ruiz-Cordero retrieved a file and brought it back to detective Jones. “You know,” she said reflectively as she returned to her seat. “We did have one unusual case—a chimpanzee.”
“A chimpanzee?” Jones asked doubtfully. “Yes. He was donated to the zoo after being rescued from a lab. He was already an adult when we got him, and quite belligerent—even dangerous. We tried everything we could to rehabilitate him, but his condition was made even worse by all of the drugs and chemicals flowing throughout his bloodstream. Finally, for the safety of our employees and of the chimpanzee himself, we in turn donated him to the primate research station at Cayo Santiago--Monkey Island.”
End Part I
Arnaldo Lopez Jr. was born of Puerto Rican parents, and raised in Brooklyn, NY. He’s sold articles to Railway Age magazine, The Daily News magazine, Homeland Defense Journal, and Reptile & Amphibian magazine; scripts to Little Archie and Personality Comics; and short stories to Neo-Opsis magazine, Lost Souls e-zine, Nth Online magazine, Blood Moon magazine, The Acentos Review magazine, Feed Your Monster e-zine, Fangs and Broken Bones horror anthology, Swallowed by the Beast horror anthology, Trembling with Fear horror anthology, Monsters Attack horror anthology, Mythic horror & Sci-fi anthology, and the A reflection of Me: An AAMBC Anthology. He was also editor of Offworld, a small science fiction magazine that was once chosen as a "Best Bet" by Sci-Fi television. His first novel, Chickenhawk, is the winner of two International Latino Book awards.
Cumbia Therapy is an intergenerational story told in three distinct sections, each exploring intimate relationships and la maldición put on four generations of women and meant to undo those relationships. Part I, Alzira, tells the story of Elena, a Mexican-American woman in her early twenties, and her Brazilian girlfriend, Alzira, as they meet in Italy, travel through Spain and Morocco and live for a time in Seattle in the mid-1990s. Part II, The Curse, explains the origins of la maldición, starting with Adela in revolutionary México and continuing in New Mexico. Part III, El Camino, explores how each generation of women questions the validity of the curse and deals with it in her own way. Cumbia Therapy has received an Illinois Art Council Fellowship. “Better a Bridesmaid” is an excerpt.
“Better a bridesmaid”
When Tío Freddy finally married Natalia, my sister Sofía and I had to be bridesmaids. We’d never been in a wedding and, as I had no interest in them generally and didn’t want to have one personally, I was not looking forward to all the hype. It didn’t help that Cristina, Natalia’s best friend and maid of honor, wasn’t thrilled about our inclusion and wanted to argue over every chingadita, including the scriptures Natalia had chosen for us to read at the cathedral.
Cristina barked at me, “El pasaje tuyo is longer and more dramatic.”
“Has leído El Anarchist Cookbook?” I asked. “If you want dramático, maybe slip in a paragraph or two from that.”
She moved on to the dresses. “Este no me queda bien. These dresses aren’t suited for a mature figure.”
Sofía said, “Ay, por favor. You’re just jealous because our figures are fifteen years younger.”
Cristina stopped speaking to her and that meant she wouldn’t stop chatting me up. In truth, I hated the teal taffeta dresses and thought they suited Cristina much better. With the exception of a few hours on Sunday that included Mass, she wore miniskirts and midriffs everywhere and, after getting her chichis done, she liked showing off her cleavage—which the dress definitely did.
By the second fitting I was tired of looking at dresses and hearing about Cristina’s date for the boda: a paleta man from Potosí. So, I decided to convince her to let me feel her chichis. The fitting area of Betty’s Bodas was crowded and stuffy and I whispered to her that we should step outside for some air. Then I slid around the corner, to the quieter side street, and as innocently as possible, said, “All this looking at women in dresses made me curious about your operation, Cristina. And I was wondering if I can touch them.”
She stared at me a moment. “If you give me one good reason for wanting to, I’ll let you.”
“I’ll give you two. First, I’ve never felt chichis other than my own. Second, I’ve never seen falsas.”
“They’re not falsas,” she sniffed. “They just needed a little lift.”
“Why not just get a good bra?”
“You’ll understand someday.”
I doubted it, but when she straightened her back and said, “Ándale,” I reached out and touched them. They felt like plastic baggies filled with Jell-o.
Cristina lifted her shirt and bra and quickly showed me the scars. “¿Qué piensas?” she asked.
“Pues...in my humble chichi opinion, the scars look painful, pero las chicas look nice and lifted.”
The day of the gran ceremonia toda la familia met at mi abuelita’s to pick up boutonnieres and corsages. Mi Tía Gisela had a summer cold, but she didn’t let it stop her from walking around snapping fotos of everyone. Her fotos always came out blurry, off centered and with our heads chopped off, so no one bothered to pose.
Abuelita was following Freddy around the house trying to convince him “to groom himself.” His reddish-brown hair fell to his shoulders in waves and he brushed it frequently and was careful about what he put in it. Women loved it, pero abuelita thought it made him look uncouth and insisted he tie it back, at least for Mass.
“Do it for me, hijo,” she pleaded as he went from room to room, inspecting himself in every mirror.
“Pero, mami, Natalia won’t recognize me.”
“Then, por lo menos, shave your face. Natalia should see what you really look like.”
“Oh, she’s seen me...”
“No quiero saber, Freddy. Listen to me, please. You’ll thank me years from now.”
We were just about out of time when abuelita and Freddy went into the blue baño and closed the door. When he emerged with his hair in a ponytail, without his mustache and forked-beard, we couldn’t believe it. Abuelita beamed and Freddy walked out of the house like a chamaquito forced to attend his big brother’s wedding.
We got to the church and smashed into the back room where everyone congratulated each other on how lovely they looked. Cristina was wearing a pair of aqua-colored contacts that matched her dress. Abuelita took one look at those eyes and said, “¡Ay, Cristina, qué susto!”
When the first few notes from the organ flooded the cathedral, I joked, “No turning back now,” and Natalia burst into tears. Sofía and I shared a we’ll laugh about this later look, then we grabbed our partners—Natalia’s cousins, shy as feral cats—and we headed up the aisle. After taking our places in the pews, we watched Natalia in her weeping moment of glory. When she got close enough to see Freddy’s face, she did a double take and Tía Gisela’s flash went off.
As soon as everyone settled into the hard creaky benches, the priest began the old New Mexican tradition of roping the novios together with a large wooden rosary that resembled a lasso.
I whispered to Sofía, “Ya vez, that’s what marriage is.”
When the novios knelt, we saw someone had taken Kiwi’s white shoe polish to the bottom of Freddy’s shiny rental shoes. The left said Help and the right said Me. While the congregation attempted to stifle their laughter, Gisela started a stream of squeaky sneezes. Her gringo-date kept passing her tissues as if they were love notes, not snot catchers. The novios got to their feet and the sin vergüenza Cristina began motioning for Natalia to look at the bottom of Freddy’s shoes. Instead, Natalia snuck a peek at her own and, finding no chicle or puppy poop, shot Cristina a watchale! look.
It didn’t take long for the ceremonia to lag. Prayers, preaching, promises to do this and not do that. I was ready for the fiesta. We’d already had a few, including an underwear party where we bought Natalia new chones, ate taquitos and played silly games for silly prizes. I knew that, in the hall adjacent to the church, kegs were being tapped, wine uncorked and champagne chilled. It was easy to imagine la cocina full of aromas and comadres arguing over who put too much salt in the frijoles and how picante the chile should be.
The wedding finally concluded with a big beso where Freddy bent Natalia back like they were doing the quebradita. Then we marched into the hall that Natalia’s friends had decorated with blue-green streamers and purple paper flowers. Tío Freddy let down his hair and I traded my heels for Vans.
The mariachis started with “Un rinconcito en el cielo.” They invited abuelita to sing a few songs with them and, after applauding louder than anyone, Sofía and I tried sneaking a beer to the bathroom. Tía Gisela, who should have been paying attention to her gringo-date, intercepted us.
I said, “It’s for Carolina.”
Our older cousin never drank, but Gisela just said, “In the baño?”
“Yeah, she doesn’t want anyone to see her taking a swig.”
I looked at Sofía and followed her eyes to Carolina, who was in a bright red dress talking to a group of people not far from us.
“Hand it over,” Gisela said, holding out her germy hand.
“¿Qué te importa?” I snipped.
“¿A ti te importa if I tell your mamá?”
We handed it over.
After dinner the novios knelt again for La Entrega, which must have been uncomfortable con panza llena. It’s supposed to release the newlyweds to their new life and, though some people stage it at end of the night, my familia does it right before the dance, to release the novios to their fiesta. As the band tuned up, los compadres roped Freddy and Natalia together with a sandalwood rosary and gave them la long bendición while people tossed money onto Natalia’s long white train. Con el último amen Gisela tossed a dirty green bill that slid down Natalia’s silky back.
As soon as the money was scooped up the band began to play. They waited about an hour for people to start feeling buzzed and generous before they started The Dollar Dance. I paid $4 to dance with Natalia and $3 to dance with Tío Freddy. He told me he liked my Vans, then he picked me up and spun me around. Sofía said it was dumb for me to dance with Natalia and I said what was dumb was her pinche statement. Natalia looked so stunning with her heavily outlined eyes and her blue-black hair pinned up that some men paid twice to dance with her, making The Dollar Dance nearly as long as the wedding.
Freddy’s best man pinned dollars on my tío’s tux, but everyone in Natalia’s line pinned the bills on her themselves. When her train was covered men began carefully pinning money on the front of her dress. It made Natalia’s mother nerviosísima and she told the band, “Wrap it up, chicos!” She probably cost the novios fifty bucks.
After all the bills were unpinned, one by one, Natalia danced with Freddy a couple of times before Gisela singlehandedly “stole the bride.”
To no one in particular, her gringo-date said, “Is that a Mexican tradition?”
I was standing next to him and answered, “No, it’s more of a Southwestern scheme to get more loot. One that happens to imitate the kidnappings latinos have become infamous for.”
He stared at me and excused himself to get a drink.
Gisela led Natalia to a coatroom at the back of the hall where she would voluntarily stay sequestered. Knowing everyone would just be removing more money from purses, pockets and wallets, when Cristina followed, I went too. It didn’t take long for Gisela to pop open a $200 bottle of champagne intended for the newlyweds’ private party and, while flattering Natalia and filling her glass, she snapped fotos.
In between songs we could hear the bandleader: “Oye, the bride is still missing! Come and make a contribution to Comadre Yolanda so we can raise enough ransom to bring Natalia back!”
The coatroom hosted more fotos, more drinks and, at last, the band announced, “Ya está. Tenemos el dinero suficiente and the novios are $453 richer!”
By the time Yolanda tiptoed into the room in impossibly high heels, Natalia couldn’t have subtracted five from ten and she just hiccupped uncontrollably when Yolanda handed her a wad of cash. She passed it Cristina, who started counting.
“What’d you do to her, Gisela?” Yolanda asked, nodding at Natalia.
“¿Yo?’ Gisela sniffled, ‘pues, nada...”
They argued, Natalia hiccuped and Cristina, who’d counted the money twice, asked, “What’d you do, Yolanda? Slip a fiver in your bolsa?”
“How dare you!” Yolanda glared at Cristina as if she were a cucaracha.
“We all heard the band say the crowd raised $453.”
“You don’t know what you’re talking about,” Yolanda scoffed. “I needed to make change.”
A new argument ensued that Natalia interrupted with her silence. Everyone stared at her.
“Hiccups are gone,” she giggled.
Cristina and Yolanda shuffled her back to the dance and the band said, “Let’s welcome the bride back! Let’s hear it for Natalia.”
The crowd cheered. But Natalia’s mamá took one look at her daughter and cried, “¡Válgame dios! Natalia missed half the dance and, look at her, she’s as clumsy as a cow!”
Natalia probably should have sat down and had some water, pero she fell into Freddy’s arms, in the middle of a Cumbia, and away she went. He had no idea his wife’s head was spinning like a top when, holding her hand above her head, he spun her halfway around so they both faced the same direction. He held her tightly for a few pulses, her back against his chest and his hand on her stomach. Then he gave her a media vuelta so she faced him again. Finally, he twirled her three hundred and sixty degrees with the left hand, a quick one eighty with the right, another with the left and, with two hundred eyes upon her, Natalia puked like a cat.
I turned to Cristina and said, “¿Sabes qué? Forget the dinero—better to be a bridesmaid.”
Marcy Rae Henry es una latina chingona de Los Borderlands. She’s lived in India, Nepal and Andalucía and now walks her rescue dog by the Chicago River. Her writing has been longlisted, shortlisted, honorably mentioned and nominated for the Pushcart Prize and appears or is forthcoming in The Columbia Review, PANK, Epiphany, carte blanche, The Southern Review and The Brooklyn Review, among others. She has received a Chicago Community Arts Assistance Grant and an Illinois Arts Council Fellowship. DoubleCross Press will publish a chapbook of her recent poems.