When Elidio’s cousin once removed on his mother’s side called to say she needed a place to stay, Elidio couldn’t refuse. But after he hung up the phone, Elidio wondered where he would put her. The one-bedroom apartment Elidio rented on Martin Luther King, Jr. Boulevard was already filled to the brim with family. Elidio had his wife Ana Maria, their three young children, his sister Alma and her son, and various cousins coming and going, and an uncle or two, staying for differing lengths of time.
Two days later, there was a knock on the door. Right before Elidio opened the door, he suddenly smelled gardenias.
“Are you cousin Elidio?” the unfamiliar looking woman asked when Elidio opened the door.
“Yes,” he said, his voice quivering.
Elidio’s heart started pumping hard, as he breathed in the nearly overpowering aroma of gardenias. Was this cousin Amelia?
“I’m your cousin Amelia.”
She reached her arms out for a hug. Her breasts pressed against Elidio’s chest. His face grew warm.
Cousin Amelia towered above Elidio. He dropped his gaze and immediately understood why. Her ankle-length black boots had heels at least five inches high. Those heels were barely longer than the black leather-look micro skirt Amelia had on, the material ending high up on her thighs. Amelia was wearing a sweater as skimpy as the skirt. Bright red, the thin polyester clung to his cousin’s high round breasts, like a layer of skin.
When Elidio recovered from the confusion that the sight and smell of his cousin had caused, he invited Amelia in. Across the threshold, she dragged an oversized navy blue suitcase on wheels, with a pale blue duffle bag balanced on top. Over her right shoulder hung a bright red plastic bag.
Her hips swayed in that short tight skirt from side to side. Elidio scolded himself to lift his eyes. He surprised himself when the words suddenly flew out of his mouth.
“Dios mio, my God.”
Cousin Amelia turned around and smiled.
All that Elidio managed to get out of Amelia about her unexpected appearance was that she’d had to leave South Texas in a hurry.
“I will ask my boss if they could use another housekeeper at the hotel,” Ana Maria told Amelia, after offering her a cup of coffee and a slice of buttered toast. “Do you have any experience cleaning rooms?”
Amelia shook her head. Two large silver hoop earrings slapped the sides of her face.
“I am not going to clean toilets,” Amelia said, patting her thick black hair which was clipped and pinned atop her head in a complicated style.
A few minutes after ten o’clock, Ana Maria showed Amelia a blow-up mattress in the corner of the living room where she could retire. Right after that, Amelia announced, “I am going out.”
“Going out?” Elidio asked her. “Where?”
“It’s dangerous out there,” Elidio warned.
“I will be fine,” Amelia assured him, as she stepped out the door.
As hard as he tried, Elidio couldn’t sleep. Even though cousin Amelia was a relative stranger to him, he felt responsible for her now. Elidio had friends who’d gotten mugged walking home at night, forced to turn over their wallets, along with watches, rings and cell phones.
He heard a key turn in the lock and checked the time. It was three o’clock. The front door opened with a soft whine. The lock turned, followed by the deadbolt. Silence followed. Then Elidio heard the sound of stocking feet padding across the wood floor.
Amelia was asleep the next morning when Elidio and Ana Maria ate breakfast with the children. She did not wake up before they left the apartment to drop the two oldest children off at school and the youngest to daycare, and then hurried to their jobs at the hotel.
By the time Elidio, Ana Maria and the kids arrived home that night, Amelia was gone. The scent of her perfume lingered.
Sometime after midnight, Elidio managed to doze off. He’d told himself not to worry about his cousin but he couldn’t stop. He was sleeping soundly, even snoring, when he suddenly woke up.
He heard the front door whine. Right after that, he was startled to hear whispering.
Even from the bedroom, he recognized the sounds. His face grew warm. The sounds of lovemaking from the living room made his own desire blossom. He thought of his cousin in that low-cut blouse, as the groans got louder and faster.
Ashamed of his thoughts, Elidio scolded himself. The sounds from the living room were coming faster now.
A final groan and cry, then silence fell over the apartment. Elidio realized he’d hunched up his shoulders and clutched his hands in tight fists. He tried breathing slowly, unclenching his hands and lowering his shoulders. That’s when the obvious question appeared. Who was in the living room with cousin Amelia?
A second question followed. How did Amelia meet a man so fast, a man she felt familiar enough with to take into her bed? Elidio next asked himself how Amelia had the nerve to bring a strange man into his home and have sex with him in a room crowded with other adults and children.
Elidio lay awake for hours, trying to decide what action to take. He knew this couldn’t go on. He was only relieved that Ana Maria hadn’t woken up.
It never occurred to him that Amelia might be meeting men and trading sex for money. It also didn’t occur to Elidio to wonder why Amelia had to leave South Texas so fast.
Elidio finally fell asleep, vowing to confront Amelia later that morning.
After using the bathroom, brushing his teeth and splashing cold water on his face, Elidio stepped into the living room. He shot his gaze over to where cousin Amelia still slept. From where he stood, it looked as if cousin Amelia lay on the blow-up mattress by herself.
He picked his way across the bodies of his sister, her son, and an uncle and one cousin. Standing next to Amelia, Elidio confirmed that his cousin slept there alone.
Had he just imagined the previous night’s sounds?
Elidio picked his way to the kitchen alcove and began to make coffee. When Ana Maria joined him next to the stove, he asked, “Did you sleep okay last night?”
“Yes,” she said, giving him a quick kiss on his lips. “And you?”
“No. I was awake for a while. You didn’t wake up?”
“Not at all. I think I slept straight through.”
Now, Elidio felt less certain that he’d heard those noises coming from Amelia’s mattress. Had he dreamed it? He was tired, which must mean he’d been awake for hours.
But he also hadn’t heard the man leave the apartment.
After they dropped the children off at school, Elidio said to Ana Maria, “I’m thinking that I will tell Amelia she needs to find another place.”
“But she just got here, Elidio. And she has no work. How will she possibly get an apartment?”
This was all Elidio needed to make him feel guilty about throwing Amelia out. Yet he didn’t want to tell Ana Maria what he thought he’d heard the previous night. What if he’d only dreamt those sounds? Wouldn’t that reveal to Ana Maria that he’d been lusting after cousin Amelia?
“Well, I think I’ll at least have a talk with her, tell her she needs to find a job.”
“That sounds like a good idea,” Ana Maria said and squeezed her husband’s hand and smiled.
There was one problem Elidio faced in having a talk with Amelia. When he and Ana Maria got back to the apartment that night, cousin Amelia was gone. Right off, Elidio started to worry. Would there be a repeat of last night?
By eleven, Elidio could barely keep his eyes open. Ana Maria snored quietly in the bed, on his left side. Elidio opened his eyes wide, only to have his lids drop down.
He woke up long enough to turn off the nightstand lamp to his right. He checked the large red numbers on the clock. It was five minutes shy of midnight.
The whine of the front door startled Elidio awake. He heard a woman giggle and a deep male voice after that. The woman said, “Shoosh,” in a loud whisper. It was three o’clock in the morning.
Elidio got up, pulled on a pair of gray sweatpants, slid his feet into thin rubber thongs, grabbed a small black flashlight and tiptoed out to the living room. He heard more whispering and giggles, along with snores. The streetlight lit the room enough for Elidio to see two people standing in the far corner. He wanted to flick on his flashlight, as he watched cousin Amelia pull a sweater over her head. At that moment, the man cupped his hands under her breasts and Elidio felt himself flood with desire.
Cousin Amelia giggled and reached her arms behind her back. She dropped her bra to the floor, freeing her naked breasts. The man bent down and took one of cousin Amelia’s nipples in his mouth. Elidio suddenly found the air hard to breathe, as he reached down under the waistband of his sweatpants and began to stroke.
As soon as Elidio finished washing up in the bathroom the next morning, he walked out to the living room and made his way to the far corner. Cousin Amelia lay there on the blow-up mattress alone. Elidio felt his face go warm when he thought about the night before and that his shameful desire hadn’t let him confront Amelia and her lover.
He picked his way back across the room to the kitchen alcove. As he scooped coffee into the paper filter, he suddenly understood. Whether he liked it or not, cousin Amelia had cast a spell over him.
The only cure for a spell, Elidio had learned in his Mexican village, was to go see a curandera, a healer. He had heard that a curandera lived only three blocks from his apartment, in an old house off Martin Luther King, Jr. Boulevard.
The next morning, Elidio’s one day off, he decided to pay the curandera a visit. Ana Maria asked Elidio where he was going, and he replied that he needed to visit an old friend who had recently arrived from his village.
When Elidio stepped out of the building, rain was coming down hard. He pulled the hood of his nylon jacket up over his head. As he waited at the corner for the light to change, a gust of wind tossed the rain sideways, soaking Elidio’s jacket and pants.
Elidio climbed the wooden steps to the curandera’s house. In places, the wood was cracked and so thin, he feared his foot would go right through, but it didn’t. When he reached the front door, a small overhang gave him shelter from the downpour. He searched for the doorbell but not finding one, proceeded to knock.
After knocking twice, he waited, wondering what to do next. Just as he was about to knock a third time, the door opened.
The woman who stood there was barely five feet tall and frail. In that weather, Elidio felt certain the tiny woman could easily get knocked down to the pavement, if she left her house.
“Si?” the woman asked Elidio, her hand clutching the barely-opened door.
“Are you Doña Clara?” Elidio asked, leaning down as he spoke to get closer to the old woman.
“Si,” she said. “I am Doña Clara.”
“I have a problem and I need your help. May I come inside?”
The old woman nodded and pulled the door open wide. Elidio stepped into a small alcove where he faced a glass-paned door in front of him and another on the right.
The old woman opened the door in front and Elidio followed. She was wearing a long dark-colored skirt and a navy blue sweater. Over the sweater, she had on a burgundy shawl, the fringed end of which was tossed over her left shoulder and hung down her back.
They stepped into a living room cluttered with furniture. The old woman wove her way through the room, holding onto the backs of chairs as she walked. She led Elidio past the dining room table into the kitchen. When she reached the small wooden table set at the far end next to the window, Doña Clara gestured for Elidio to sit down.
He took a seat on the opposite side from the wall. Everywhere his eyes fell, he saw things hanging. There were strings of garlic bulbs over the back door; pans of all shapes and sizes above the range; gray, white, black and pale blue feathers; sun-bleached bones; and strings of shells.
“What kind of help do you need?” the old woman asked, pulling Elidio’s attention back to why he had come.
That night when Elidio turned off the lamp, the red numbers on the clock told him it was five minutes before twelve o’clock. He hoped the spell he’d paid Doña Clara to cast would keep cousin Amelia from bringing another man home to the apartment but he worried nonetheless. He had been living in this country for ten years and his belief in magic and the power of curanderas had lessened some. Elidio couldn’t remember the last time he’d witnessed anything remotely resembling a miracle.
In fact, Elidio wondered if miracles and the healing powers that had seemed so potent in his small rural village could exist in a big city, and especially on Martin Luther King, Junior Boulevard. Perhaps, Elidio thought now, spirits needed vast open spaces to thrive. The night silence and the early morning sounds of birds and roosters and pigs were absent here and the spirits must have missed them, just as Elidio did.
Even with his doubts, Elidio clung to hope. One day, he told himself, he, Ana Maria and their three children would move to a little house on the outskirts of the city, where trees and flowers grew. He hoped to have a small yard, where he could sit outside on warm, dry August nights and gaze at the stars. He even dreamed that someday after their kids were grown, he and Ana Maria would return to Mexico.
The clock ticked past midnight, while Elidio thought about his hopes. He forgot about cousin Amelia and the spell for a time. Instead, he returned to the village where he’d been born in his mind. He sat on the porch of the house he would one day build and breathed in the sweet damp air. He ignored the endless sirens wailing up and down MLK Boulevard and the pop-pop-pop-pop of gunfire outside. He failed to notice the thrum of the base humming from passing cars.
Sometime after two, Elidio drifted off. An hour later, he woke up and looked at the clock. The bright red numbers told him it was three o’clock.
He steeled himself for the sound of a key in the lock and the whine of the front door. But as he listened, all he heard was silence. He listened some more, expecting to hear cousin Amelia giggle followed by a man’s voice, but the only sound was that of the refrigerator’s hum.
Another half-hour went by as Elidio paid attention to the sounds coming from the crowded apartment. He noticed that the alarm clock made a slight buzzing sound. Every so often, his wife snored softly and then stopped. For about fifteen minutes, his uncle in the living room snored loud enough to rattle the walls.
At four o’clock, Elidio sat on the left side of the bed and slid his feet into a pair of worn black slippers sitting on the floor. He quietly shuffled the short distance to the living room. Once there, he picked his way across the room, using the streetlight coming in the window as a guide.
When he got to the far corner, he looked down. In the semi-darkness, the blue blow-up mattress appeared black.
He stared at the mattress, surprised to discover a complicated mix of emotions racing through him. Yes, he felt relieved that no one was lying there. But a part of him felt disappointed. The excitement that had suddenly entered his life was gone.
The following day, Ana Maria asked, “Do you know what happened to your cousin,” and Elidio shook his head. He and Ana Maria looked around the apartment and saw that Amelia’s luggage and clothes were gone.
Three months passed without a word from cousin Amelia. By then, Ana Maria had stopped bringing her name up.
By the end of that year, when Elidio was finally able to move his family to a small house on the outskirts of the city, he only wondered what had happened to Amelia from time to time. Many years later, though, after his children had grown and Elidio returned with Ana Maria to their village in Mexico, the memory of cousin Amelia came up.
A few days after returning, Elidio ran into his cousin Oscar. He hadn’t seen Oscar for decades, since before leaving Mexico to live in the United States. Like Elidio, Oscar had grown old. His once thick black hair was now thin and white.
Slowly, Oscar filled Elidio in on the various aunts and uncles, all of whom had died, and the village comings and goings. After Oscar had been talking for quite a while, Elidio realized that his cousin had failed to mention his sister, Amelia.
Elidio cleared his throat. He moved his gaze away from Oscar’s face to a distant spot, across the fields next to Oscar’s house.
“Yes,” Elidio said. “Many people have left and gone to the other side, the United States.”
Oscar agreed. “Como no, of course. Here, it is impossible to survive, so people go where there is work.”
Elidio waited a moment, trying to calm himself, before asking the question that was weighing on his mind
“So,” he began. “Do you know what happened to your sister, Amelia?”
“Amelia?” Oscar said. He did not say anything else but pulled a cigarette from the pack sitting in the front pocket of his worn shirt. Oscar slid the cigarette between his lips, lit the end, took in a long slow drag and blew out the smoke.
“Yes, Amelia,” Elidio said, suddenly aware that the fingers of his right hand were thrumming against his thigh.
“Oh, that is a bad story,” Oscar said now.
“A bad story?”
“Yes. We do not like to speak about that.”
At first, Elidio thought it best to forget about cousin Amelia. Whatever had happened was in the past. As he had learned, the past could not be relived, no matter what regrets a person might later have.
Still, his curiosity about the girl wouldn’t let him be. That got him wondering if Oscar liked to drink.
To find out, he carried a bottle of whiskey to Oscar’s house, a week later on a warm humid night. When Elidio arrived, he found Oscar sitting on the porch, in an old wooden rocker.
“Care for a drink, cousin Oscar?” Elidio asked, holding up the bottle for Oscar to see the label.
Oscar’s face lit up.
“Oh, I wouldn’t mind a taste,” Oscar said.
Oscar retrieved two glasses from the house and brought them out to the porch. Elidio filled one glass to the top and handed it to his cousin. The second glass he filled only an inch or so. That one he held onto.
“Salud,” Elidio said, and watched Oscar tip his head back and finish the glass’s contents in two quick gulps.
Over and over again, Elidio filled Oscar’s glass, while he barely sipped from his. To get to the story he wanted to hear, Elidio talked about his time in the United States.
“It was very hard, the life there,” Elidio began. “Here, before you go, everyone tells you that el Otro Lado, the other side, is like heaven. You will make your fortune there, they say. There are so many things no one tells you. How hard you must work. That you must always be vigilant, so you don’t get caught by la Migra and end up deported back to Mexico. Also, you must watch out on the streets, so you don’t get robbed or shot by young thugs driving by in a car. No, they don’t tell you any of this.”
“Ah, yes,” Oscar said. “That is so.”
“Have you heard these things?” Elidio asked, hoping to get Oscar to open up about Amelia.
“Como no, of course,” Oscar said.
Elidio leaned over and refilled Oscar’s glass.
“So you have known people who had bad things happen to them in the United States?”
“Yes, yes. And many come back to Mexico.”
Oscar shook his head, sighed and sat back, then gulped down the remaining whiskey in his glass.
“My sister Amelia,” he began.
Elidio’s heart started to race. He silently scolded himself to calm down.
“She got caught up in bad things. Things she couldn’t get out of.”
Elidio waited in silence. When Oscar didn’t go on, Elidio asked, “What sorts of bad things?”
“It was almost like she’d been taken over by a spell,” Oscar said. “She wanted so badly to go to the United States.”
Oscar paused, wetting his lips with whiskey. After several minutes, he launched back into the tale.
“Even when she was a young girl, Amelia dreamed of a different life. I remember her dressing up in my mother’s clothes, putting on lipstick and rouge, and prancing around the house. My mother used to say to her, ‘You live in a fairytale world. You must stop that, Amelia, and learn to live in this world.’”
Oscar cleared his throat and dabbed his eyes. Elidio realized that Oscar was drunk and he’d started crying. Now, Elidio worried. Perhaps he’d gotten Oscar too drunk to finish the story.
But Oscar went on.
“One day, Amelia disappeared. She was sixteen at the time. My mother worried that she had been kidnapped and we waited for the ransom demand to arrive. But none came and we began to believe that Amelia had just run off.”
Oscar reached out his glass and Elidio poured in the last of the whiskey.
“So did you hear from her again?”
“We did,” Oscar said, shaking his head back and forth. “It turns out that she had fallen for a man, a bad man, who promised to marry her. Of course, he had no good intentions toward her. She ended up in a town near the border. Selling herself.”
Oscar shook his head again and wiped his eyes.
“My mother’s heart was broken. She begged me to go find Amelia and bring her home. I knew this would be dangerous. I had a pretty good idea that one of the gangs had taken her but I didn’t want my mother to know this. So, I went to look for my sister and try to bring her home.”
Oscar gulped the last of his whiskey and wiped the tears from his face.
“By the time I reached that town in the north, my sister was gone,” Oscar said. “I couldn’t find anyone who knew where she was. But finally, someone directed me to a coyote, who people paid to take them across the border to the United States. He told me that’s where she had gone.”
Oscar stopped talking now and started to sob.
“The next thing we knew, my little sister Amelia was dead.”
“Dead?” Elidio said, his heart suddenly beating too fast and his throat dry.
Bent at the waist, Oscar let the sorrow have its way with him. Elidio dragged his chair closer to Oscar’s and patted his cousin on the back, whispering words of consolation Oscar was crying too loudly to hear.
Oscar cried for a good ten minutes or so, then pulled an off-white rag from his back pocket and proceeded to blow his nose. This went on another five minutes until, at last, he wiped his eyes with the rag, sat back in his chair and sighed.
“I still feel like it is my fault that Amelia died,” Oscar said.
“How could it be your fault? Didn’t you say Amelia wanted to go to the United States?”
“Yes, she did. But I should have talked her out of it.”
Oscar sat back now and closed his eyes. Elidio was anxious to find out how Amelia had died but didn’t want to cause Oscar more pain than he already had.
After several minutes, Elidio asked, “How did you learn of Amelia’s death? And what was the cause?”
Oscar opened his eyes, took a deep breath and slowly let it out.
“She was living with a man,” Oscar said, “and he beat her up. So she left him. But he found out where she was living and followed her home one night. That’s when he shot her. By the time the ambulance got there, she had died.
“They sent her body back to us and we buried her here in the cemetery.” Oscar pointed up the hill from his house. “I visit her grave once a week and leave flowers.”
Elidio stayed another few minutes more and then bade Oscar good night, thanking him for sharing the story about Amelia and expressing his sorrow and condolences. Before heading home, though, Elidio walked up the hill. He entered the cemetery and wandered around, looking at the crosses and markers.
Eventually, he found Amelia’s grave. The flowers lying on the ground there had dried up, the colors faded.
The following afternoon, Elidio told Ana Maria he was going for a walk. His wife nodded her head and smiled. The previous year while still in the United States, Elidio’s heart had been opened up. After the surgery, the doctor advised Elidio to take daily walks. Up until now, Elidio had ignored the doctor’s advice.
The short climb up the hill made Elidio’s heart pump faster and his breath come short. On the way up, he picked blue cornflowers growing wild to the left and right of the path. He tried not to think about how luscious Amelia had looked the day she arrived at his apartment. He also told himself that the spell he’d asked the curandera to cast had nothing to do with Amelia’s death. Why, she was already headed toward that terrible end long before she arrived at Elidio’s door.
Nevertheless, when he reached his cousin’s grave, he placed the flowers on the dry dirt, fell to his knees and prayed. In the midst of his prayer, he asked God to forgive him, for his terrible lust and where it had taken him.
Elidio waited quietly for God to answer. But all Elidio heard was the distant sound of chickens clucking in some village yards.
In time, Elidio’s memory grew frail. He forgot what he was planning to do when he walked into a room and even lost his train of thought in the middle of a sentence.
So it’s no surprise that he forgot the way Amelia looked in her short tight skirt and low-cut top. He also didn’t recall visiting the curandera and couldn’t fathom why he blamed himself for cousin Amelia’s dying.
Nevertheless, he had a daily habit of slowly climbing the dirt path up the hill, until it ended at the cemetery. Once there, Elidio quietly made his way to Amelia’s grave.
He asked God to forgive him nearly every day. And then he listened to the grating but familiar sound of the chickens clucking in an untold number of the village’s back yards.
Patty Somlo has received four Pushcart Prize nominations and has been nominated for storySouth’s Million Writers Award. Her essay “If We Took a Deep Breath” was selected as a Notable Essay of 2013 for Best American Essays 2014. Author of From Here to There and Other Stories, her second book, Hairway to Heaven Stories, is forthcoming from Cherry Castle Publishing in January 2017. Her work has appeared in numerous journals, including the Los Angeles Review, the Santa Clara Review, Under the Sun, Guernica, The Flagler Review, and WomenArts Quarterly, among others, and in sixteen anthologies.