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Authors: Patricia Engel

Vida

BOOK: Vida
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VIDA

VIDA

P
ATRICIA
E
NGEL

Copyright © 2010 by Patricia Engel
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means, including information storage and retrieval systems, without permission in writing from the publisher, except by a reviewer, who may quote brief passages in a review. Scanning, uploading, and electronic distribution of this book or the facilitation of such without the permission of the publisher is prohibited. Please purchase only authorized electronic editions, and do not participate in or encourage electronic piracy of copyrighted materials. Your support of the author’s rights is appreciated. Any member of educational institutions wishing to photocopy part or all of the work for classroom use, or anthology, should send inquiries to Grove/Atlantic, Inc., 841 Broadway, New York, NY 10003 or [email protected].
This is a work of fiction. Any resemblance to actual
persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.
Portions of this book have appeared in slightly different form in the following publications: “Lucho” in
Boston Review
, “Refuge” in
Story Quarterly
, “Green” in
Sycamore Review
, “Desaliento” in
Boston Review
, “Paloma” in
Fourteen Hills
,“Cielito Lindo” in
Driftwood
, “Vida” in
Harpur Palate
, “Día” in
Guernica
, and “Madre Patria” in
Quarterly West
.
Published simultaneously in
Canada Printed in the United
States of America
eBook ISBN: 978-0-8021-9618-7
Black Cat a paperback original imprint of
Grove/Atlantic, Inc. 841 Broadway New
York, NY 10003
Distributed by Publishers Group West
www.groveatlantic.com

Everything is for my parents

CONTENTS

Lucho

Refuge

Green

Desaliento

Paloma

Cielito Lindo

Vida

Día

Madre Patria

In each life, particularly at its dawn, there exists an instant which determines everything.

—Jean Grenier,
Islands

LUCHO

It was the year my uncle got arrested for killing his wife, and our family was the subject of all the town gossip. My dad and uncle were business partners, so my parents were practically on trial themselves, which meant that most of the parents didn’t want their kids to hang around me anymore, and I lost the few friends I had.

We were foreigners, spics, in a town of blancos. I don’t know how we ended up there. There’s tons of Latinos in New Jersey, but somehow we ended up in the one town that only kept them as maids. All the kids called me brownie on account of my permanent tan, or Indian because all the Indians they saw on TV were dark like me. I thought the gringos were all pink, not white, but I never said so. I was a quiet kid. Lonely, and a hell of a lot lonelier once my family became the featured topic on the nightly news.

That’s how I took up with Lucho. He moved to our block with his mom when she married the bachelor doctor who lived in the big house on the hill. Lucho had a Spanish
name because his mom was living with an Argentinean guy when she had him, but Lucho’s dad was someone else. Some other guy who came and went with the sunrise.

He was sixteen and I was fourteen, which meant we could be friends on our block but had to ignore each other at school. He had squishy lips and a small round nose, smooth shiny skin, and greasy dark hair. All the girls checked him out. But Lucho was kind of dirty for a town like ours. He always wore the same thing: faded jeans with holes around the pockets and a white button-down shirt that looked like it only got washed in the sink. He was sort of tall, taller than me at least, and skinny the way boys are till they discover beer. He smoked cigarettes and sat around on patches of grass on the school grounds, sort of taking it all in. The other guys didn’t talk to him, except the loser kids who are always the first to befriend someone new. Lucho wasn’t interested though.

He discovered me without my knowing it. One day he came knocking on our front door. My mom never answered the door or the phone. She went into this depression with the whole trial, was always crying, seeing the shrink, talking about how we should just move to Italy so we could go to museums all day instead of having to deal with people calling us immigrant criminals all the time. Usually when the doorbell rang it was a reporter wanting a statement, or
a neighbor with the newspaper wrapped in a paper bag. Our maid didn’t answer the door anymore either because Papi said the last thing we need is people coming down on us for hiring illegals.

So I answered it and Lucho was standing there, looking bored on our front steps. I saw him once or twice on the block, knew he moved in and that he made some people nervous. He looked at me like we knew each other for a while already and said, “Why don’t you come for a walk with me by the river?”

“Do you even know my name?” I asked him, which I guess was a dumb thing to say, but you know how it is when you get caught off guard.

He gave me that look, like I was a silly kid and he was just going to endure me. He didn’t say anything, just stood there and waited. I shouted to my mom upstairs that I’d be back later, and she didn’t respond, so I walked out the door. It wasn’t until I stepped on the concrete that I realized I was barefoot, but I kept walking and followed him to the river in the woods at the end of the block.

When we were there he started smoking like an old pro, which I thought was impressive because, around here, they card you to buy smokes and nobody has the nerve to break any kind of rules. It’s a town full of wusses, a polo-shirt army of numbnuts.

“This town fuckin’ blows,” he said, and I was kind of scared of him because my mom always told me that when you’re alone with a guy, he could totally kill you. I mean, look at my poor tía who got strangled by her own husband.

“I think I’m gonna go,” I started to say, and Lucho looked at me like I was a waste of time.

“Don’t be such a baby,” he said. “I’m not gonna do anything to you.” Then he started to crack up.

“Besides, you’d be the wrong chick to mess with. I hear your uncle’s a killer.”

That was the first time anyone ever said that to me, and I felt a little pride in it. I smiled. Can you believe it?

“So whatcha gonna do when you get out of this place?”

“I don’t know,” I said, because it was the only place I knew. “College?”

“College is for pussies. You gotta get out there and live, Sabina.”

I don’t know who told him my name. Probably the same people who told him about my family. I didn’t say anything and he stopped talking, just sat there and smoked while we stared out at the shallow river. This river used to be full of trout. Now it was just a stream of sludge and mud. My feet were covered in the stuff, and there was a huge beetle crawling up my leg. I let it hop onto my finger and showed it to Lucho. He smiled at the little green creature, took it onto his
fingertip and stuck it in his mouth, crunching down. He stuck his naked tongue out at me to show me he’d really eaten it.

Of course they found my uncle guilty of murder. He was always saying he was innocent, that someone framed him, even suggested that my dad set him up so he’d get the whole company, but nobody bought it. We knew he was guilty because that’s the kind of guy my uncle was. Always smacking the shit out of his wife, so that my mom would have to take her to the hospital and let her stay at our house until the two of them finally made up again. My uncle would show up with jewelry or a new car and she’d eat it up. And once or twice my uncle turned to me and whispered some dark shit like, “You see, mi amor, all women are whores for money.”

My mom really hated my uncle. She said I wasn’t allowed to be in a room alone with him. I said, “Mom, if he ever hits me I’ll stab him.” She said it wasn’t him hitting me that she was afraid of.

Now it was the business of the sentencing. Life or death. We’re Catholic and officially against the death penalty, but I won’t lie: I think we all knew we’d be better off with my uncle underground. The next step was that he was going to be sued by his dead wife’s family for every penny he had, which was actually every penny my dad had, due to their
shared business interests. Mami was freaking. She knew Papi was going to be paying off that murder for the rest of his life, and then she started cursing Papi, saying how she always told him going into business with my uncle was a big mistake.

I was telling all this to Lucho one day. We were sitting on the front steps of my house, me drinking a Coke and him smoking. My mom thought Lucho was sucio, but she was glad I had a friend, although she kept telling me not to let him kiss me, and I was embarrassed because my mom has this thing where she thinks every guy is trying to seduce you.

Then this car pulled up in front of my house and this skinny lady, with red hair and a blue linen dress that was so see-through in the sunlight that we could make out her lace panties and everything, came wobbling up the hill in her cheap heels. She stopped right in front of us and looked nervous. She was carrying a leather folder stuffed with papers, and she looked like she had a ton she was waiting to say.

She asked if this was the right house and Lucho said, “Who wants to know.”

“You must be Sabina?” She looked like she was trying hard to be warm. “I’m a friend of your uncle’s. I’m writing a book about his struggle with the legal system and his unlawful incarceration.”

Oh, no. Not one of those locas my uncle manages to screw and brainwash to become his crusaders. He’s got this
talent for converting any kind of woman, be it one of his female lawyers or his former cleaning lady, making her fall in love with him and be willing to give her whole life away just so she can give him blowjobs in the visitors’ room at the jail and write letters to the governor on his behalf. I know the part about the blowjobs because I heard my mom telling her sister in Colombia about it with major disgust one day.

“You know there’s like five other chicks writing books already,” I told her. “You better think of something new to say.”

She looked hurt and I almost felt bad for her. I always feel bad for dumb women. Don’t ask me why.

“He’s a wife beater, not a serial killer. Pretty fuckin’ simple. Asshole killer. Period.” That was Lucho talking. He was a really good wingman.

“So how do you know my uncle?” I asked her, suddenly trying to be sort of nice because, really, I don’t want anyone saying I have bad manners.

She wouldn’t say. She started fumbling with her folder, took out a pen, and said she wanted to ask me some questions, that she knew me from when I was little and she and my uncle were friends for a long time.

“No way,” I told her.

“She’s not answering shit without her lawyer present.” Again, that was Lucho.

The lady looked amused. “He your boyfriend?”

“I’m the watchdog, bitch. Now get off this property before we call the cops on your slut ass and give you a real fuckin’ reason to write a book.” Lucho didn’t even raise his voice. He said it cool, calm, like he was ordering a pizza, and the lady in the see-through dress looked like she was going to have a heart attack. She started walking off on her rickety legs, almost tripping on the stone path back to her car.

You know, I was kind of a late bloomer. I was playing with Barbies till I was thirteen, way later than normal, and believe me, it was hard to give them up, because I loved the freedom of the Barbie world, making up stories for their skinny bodies. I never really got into liking boys much, even when girls my age were getting boyfriends and going to the movies with them and stuff. Boys didn’t like me much either. Lucho was cute, though, and I started to think I might like him in that way, but every time I started to think about what it would be like to kiss him, I got nervous around him, and I hated that feeling, so I pushed it all out of my mind.

One day he said I was pretty but shouldn’t act pretty because that’s not attractive at all. I knew he had a thing going on with this eleventh-grade girl named Courtney whose mom sold us our house and whose dad owned the
car dealership in town. Courtney was blonde and blow-dried her hair for no reason. She got manicures and wore makeup that never melted, even in gym class, which we had at the same time. She had an official boyfriend, who played lacrosse and was a senior on his way to Lehigh like everyone else in this town, but she and Lucho snuck around the graveyard together, and he told me that she even laid her naked boobs down on the headstone of some Dutch settler and then laughed like a madwoman.

BOOK: Vida
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