The following is an excerpt from the short story collection FUNCTIONAL FAMILIES by long-time Good Men Project contributor Taylor García.
Agony in the Garden
Edgar’s Mexican music blares when the generator rattles to a stop, and all I can think about is how stupid I was to forget my earbuds today. This day, of all days. These guys can’t stop dancing and wailing to their music. Something about diablito. The little devil.
“Oye, Mini-Mikey.” Edgar flashes his big white-and-silver smile. “Daddy coming to let us out early today, ¿o qué? Es New Year’s, ¡ése!”
I know it’s New Year’s. Eve. Don’t remind me. And quit calling me Mini-Mikey. They used to call me güerro but stopped when they found out I got Desiree pregnant. Like they think one day I’m going to take over Bradford Construction just because I got his only daughter pregnant. I haven’t married her. Not yet.
She’s been calling and texting all day. My pocket buzzes again. Call me now.
“Well?” Edgar says.
I put my drill down, find a spot away from the music. I dial my voicemail, but Desiree calls in.
“Baby still crying?” Mary Jane wailing in the background answers my question.
“Yes. How soon can you get here?” Desiree says.
“Not until your dad shows up. Did you call the doctor?”
“They said it’s probably colic. She won’t eat. She won’t sleep. I’m miserable.”
“Well, just wait. I’ll be home.”
But it’s not home. Not our home. It’s Mike and Aurora’s home. They installed me earlier this year when I broke the news of our baby on the way—at Olive Garden, like a dumbass. Desiree kicked me under the table, and Aurora almost puked in between her Spanish prayers. I thought Mike was going to right hook me, but he threw a dollar on the table and said, “I’m going to end you,” and walked out, pulling Aurora with him. Desiree cried and said she had a plan. Still haven’t heard what it is.
“It’s just—my mom thinks—”
I don’t want to know what her mom thinks. Aurora spends all day at Our Lady of Perpetual Whatever doing what she calls the Lord’s work, but she’s really just filling Desiree’s head up with religious horseshit, calling her all day.
“What, what is it?”
“Sister Francisca’s coming over.” “When?”
“Now,” she says.
Goddamn it, we should have left that night I almost convinced Desiree. We were going to drop out of our senior year at Granite Hills High (I didn’t give a rip about school anyway), and my aunt was going to let us stay in her empty rental in Riverside. It was the best I could come up with.
“No. We’re leaving. Pack up. Pack up Mary Jane. We have to go, Dez.”
“No. Just come home. Please. My mom said—”
“No—wait, hold on—”
Mike’s driving up to the jobsite. You can hear his hair band music a mile away. Sounds like a bad ’80s concert rolling down the street. Never blasts that when he rolls up at home.
“I have to go. Your dad’s here.”
Back at my sheetrock, Mike clangs in with his steel toes and snug Bradford Co. T-shirt hugging his gut. Not the denim button-down he left in this morning. Guy’s had a few and is probably going back for more before he has to head home. I would if I could, this close to Pacific Beach and all those bars. Use that fake ID that’s been gathering dust in my wallet.
Mike shouts some Spanglish. “No trabajo mañana. Holiday. Off. Proximo día.”
He turns to me. “You better get your ass home.”
Edgar smiles at me and shakes his hand like he burned it something.
I wave him off, and before I turn back to Mike, the site’s practically cleared out.
Mike pops a mint and heads back to his truck. Engine revved and music up, he speeds out.
INTERSTATE 8 EAST to El Cajon is jammed. Worse tonight with everybody headed home so they can get ready and go right back west to get torn down and say good-bye to this year. Chuck calls and I almost let it go to voicemail. Chuck, my last link to the good old days.
“Levi, bro, what’s up?” he says. “Countdown’s on.”
“Already getting started?” I’m stopped at the I-5 interchange. An endless row of red lights stretch out in front of me.
“You’re damn skippy,” he says. “So what’s the word? You partying tonight?”
Dickbrain still forgets I have a three-month-old. Thinks we can just pick up at the last six-pack or bong hit, or to his apartment last New Year’s Eve when he let Desiree and I use his room to conduct our business.
“Hey, you there?” he says.
“Yeah, I’m here.” Cars move forward. I inch ahead.
“So what are you doing then?” he says. “Clock’s ticking.”
Music and laughing come from his side of the phone. Now would be the time. I could exit and head to Ocean Beach. Get messed up with those guys.
“No, I’m shitting you, man.” He laughs. “I know you got to get home and practice your Hail Marys.”
“Fuck off. I have to go.”
“Later.” Chuck coughs his good-bye. So easy for that guy. Has no freaking idea.
THE CHRISTMAS LIGHTS and the plastic manger scene on the lawn—the ones I put up alone—are on and it’s not even dark yet. Aurora’s Taurus sits in the driveway, and behind it is another basic Ford.
I park and wait. Do I call Desiree? Have her run out? Throw Mary Jane to me?
Mike creeps up from behind, his work truck calm and quiet, nothing like earlier. And how in the hell did he get here so fast? All timed by Aurora, I’m sure.
Open the front door and Mary Jane’s crying. All those candles Aurora never lit are burning. The place feels like a sauna. She sits on the couch with Desiree and this little dark speck of a nun. I’ve heard all about Sister Francisca—how she came over to counsel Mike and Aurora when they were having problems, or how she came over and gave Desiree the chastity talk—but I’ve never seen her. She looks like a skinny old grandma about ready to blow away.
Aurora, in her long, dark skirt and festive turtleneck, leaps up and locks the door behind Mike and me. I used to think she was attractive, something Desiree might look like when she got older, but the longer I stay, the less good-looking she becomes. She hugs Mike and kisses his cheek. He nods at the nun. “Sister,” he says, swallowing down a hiccup.
“Desiree, hand the baby to Levi,” Aurora says.
Desiree, red-faced and teary, hands me Mary Jane. My little girl stops crying the second she touches my dusty green flannel.
“Now hand her back to Desiree,” Aurora says. Mary Jane starts up again.
“And now to your father,” Aurora says.
Mary Jane keeps at it.
“Back to Levi.”
“¿Es mal de ojo, no, hermana?” Aurora says.
“What’s that?” I bounce Mary Jane tight in my arms.
“Evil eye,” Desiree says. “Mom says you gave it to her.”
“That’s not true. Come on, Desiree.” The door is right there.
The little nun comes up to me, gets on her tiptoes, and makes a cross with her bony thumb on my forehead. “Stay,” she says. “Por favor.”
“No. This isn’t necessary. The baby’s fine.”
“Andalé,” she says, and pushes me gently toward Desiree’s room at the foot of the stairs. I know andalé means get on with it. Edgar and the guys at work say it to me all the time.
“¿Están listas?” The nun turns to Aurora.
Every night in my room upstairs, next door to Mike and Aurora’s bedroom, before I sneak downstairs to spend the quiet hours with Desiree and Mary Jane, I stare at this painting on the wall of Jesus praying really hard. Agony in the garden, Desiree called it. The guy looks so desperate. So wanting something more. I know the feeling. All I want is to get out of here with my family.
Desiree’s bedroom is hot and glowing, with the setting sun spilling into the open blinds. All around, lit colored candles flicker: a red one on the dresser, blue ones in jars with the Virgin Mary on the nightstands, a white one with Jesus showing a burning heart on his chest by Mary Jane’s changing table, and small yellow ones in saucers everywhere else.
Desiree files in with her head down. Why the guilt has kicked in so hard, I don’t know. I wish she was the girl I used to sneak out of this house and have sex with in the bed of my pickup after we put away a bottle of Bacardi. I wish she was the girl who, last New Year’s Eve, told me to keep going when I didn’t have a condom on.
The nun pulls me into the bedroom. Mike’s right behind her. Aurora sides up to me and takes Mary Jane. Aurora hugs her tight, her cheek to Mary Jane’s, and whispers, “Tranquilo, tranquilo.” Aurora puts her down on Desiree’s bed and wraps her up in a white cloth. Mary Jane screams.
“That’s too tight.” I reach for her, and a bony hand grips my forearm. The nun pulls me to sit on the bed. I shake my head. Desiree says, between sobs, “Please, Levi.”
Mike, Aurora, and Desiree’s shadows start to grow in the hot room. On Desiree’s dresser, near a cluster of candles, is a glass of water and an egg. The nun starts to pray, mumbling Spanish from her dry lips.
The nun puts my hand on Mary Jane’s forehead, nods at Desiree, and points to the egg. Desiree brings it to her, her chin quivering, with tears running down her face. Mary Jane howls away. We weren’t ready for any of this.
“Kneel,” the nun says. Mike and Aurora get on their knees and Desiree follows. Desiree looks at me and she’s crying hard, right along with Mary Jane.
The nun unwraps Mary Jane and undresses her down to her diaper. My little girl kicks and screams, and the nun knows I want to scoop her up because she grabs my wrist, holding me to the bed. With her other hand, she rolls the egg all over Mary Jane.
“Dez, what’s wrong?” I ask her.
The nun’s prayers speed up and get louder. Mary Jane’s cries turn into a moan.
“You’re more in love with the baby than you are with me,” Desiree says.
Aurora rocks back and forth on her knees, hands clasped. “You see,” she says, “I told you. He gave her the ojo.”
“Give the damn kid a break,” Mike says to Aurora.
“So you’re on his side now?” Aurora scowls.
I turn to Mike. Finally.
“Look here, you little shit,” he says. “I screwed up just like you, but I did the right thing. I joined the church and married this woman. Before God.”
“Am I your screwup?” Aurora drops her head and sobs.
“Is that true, Dad?” Desiree turns away and looks like she’s going to puke.
“Everyone in this goddamned house is a sinner,” Mike says, not holding back his burp.
Desiree looks over and I say, “What do you mean I don’t love you? We’re a family now.”
“I was going to get an abortion. But then you had to open your big mouth and tell the whole world.”
“¡Santo dios, no me digas, Desiree!” Aurora wails.
The nun stops rolling the egg and gets the glass of water. In one shot, she cracks the egg on the rim and the yolk plunks down into it. She keeps praying.
“And all this,” Desiree says, “to make you happy, Mom.”
Aurora doubles over, choking in tears. The dark bun at the back of her head falls forward. Mike looks like he’s about to rip the carpet with his bare hands. The nun holds up the glass and studies the floating egg.
“Silencio. Todos,” she says.
Mary Jane has stopped crying. Desiree stands and picks her up off the bed. I’m trembling, and I don’t do that for just anything. Aurora stays on the floor, tucked into herself, crying, Mike beside her, shaking his head.
The nun walks me outside of the bedroom. We stand in the entryway. The kitchen clock ticks so loud I can hear time marching on. Outside the frosted glass of the front door, the sky is now dark. The nun holds both of my hands in hers and squints up at me. Her beady, dark eyes lock on me, and I swear she gives me the tiniest wink with her right eye.
“You can go now,” she says.
Desiree walks out of the bedroom—her eyes tired, but softer. She holds Mary Jane in her arms and looks down at her in a way I haven’t seen in a while. The nun tightens her leathery hands on mine, but I let go and reach for Mary Jane. She’s alert: her blue eyes, like mine, sparkle up at me. How could I give this angel the evil eye? She’s my daughter. I take her and fix my eyes on Desiree. I open the front door. Laughter echoes up and down Figueroa Street. Cars start up. The night is just getting started. Desiree takes my hand, and I pull her over the threshold.
Fiction. ISBN: 9781950730872
Publisher: Unsolicited Press (November 2, 2021)
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This post is brought to you by Taylor Garcia.
The post ‘Functional Families’ Featured Story: Agony in the Garden appeared first on The Good Men Project.