*Please forgive the temporary hiatus, I’m out with the flu 😦 But I do hope you enjoy the next 3 chapters of The Things They Didn’t Bury.
Liliana let the journal fall open against her knees, the wind blowing off of the ocean sending the pages fluttering before finally fanning them apart. Though she knew Nita would have wanted to see it, she was her mother too, Liliana’s first instinct hadn’t been to share it with her but to run—to carry her mother’s journal as far from the house as possible. She knew she was being selfish but it was her who had always been the one to sit wondering for hours what Isabella was like—not just who was she, but who had she wanted to be, who had she wanted Liliana to be. Nita was so young when she died, and Liliana hated to say it, but the loss wasn’t as great, the wound not as deep. As she sat there, fingers pressed to the raised ink of her mother’s pen, she thought that just for a little while she wanted it to be just the two of them. As if Isabella was sitting right next to her, whispering a lifetime’s worth of secrets into her ear.
She scanned a few of the pages, not reading them yet, not focusing on the words but on the deep impressions made by the pen. She circled the swirling f’s and a’s and traced her fingers over every indention, feeling the words with her eyes closed as if she were reading brail, feeling the words as if they were actual things—her mother’s things. She lifted her hands and the wind caught the pages. Then she pressed them down gently with her thumbs and began to read.
…was lit up by the headlights for only a second and then the tires rolled across his flesh sending the dark man and the woman jolting headfirst into the roof of the cab. The truck swerved and almost rolled into the ditch, but the wheels clawed themselves back onto the road and a few moments later it was gone. The next day someone found him. It was probably Trini’s neighbor Mr. Paz. He’s half blind but he knows that old dirt road like the back of his hand and since being half blind never stopped him from driving, the moment his truck rolled over the body he knew something was wrong.
Liliana flipped back to the next page but all of the ink had bled into tiny streams flowing off the edges of the paper. She flipped forward and scanned the sentences.
Mr. Paz drove into town and straight to the police station. Apparently patrol took their time getting out there. Everybody knew Trini’s stepfather was a worthless drunk and it wasn’t the first time someone had found him lying unconscious in the middle of the road. Trini called me ten times that morning and as the patrol car was making its way up the road she was gripping the phone and whispering into the receiver, telling me who was there, what they were doing, dissecting every nuance of their body language. Every now and then I would hear a gulp and then a moment of silence before she broke into tears. I could even hear her teeth chattering on the other end of the phone as she tried to contain her guilt. At first I tried to soothe her. I stayed calm hoping she would hear it in my voice, sense my confidence, and absorb it somehow. I told her we did the right thing and I knew she believed me. It’s all over now, I told her and I heard her exhale a deep sigh.
Liliana flipped back another page and her eyes caught the frayed ribbing in the center of the spine. Pages had been ripped out. She searched the stiff folds of pages she had yet to turn and the thin leather pocket cut into the back cover. She flipped the pages over her knees, letting them fan out but nothing shook loose. Then she remembered the pages she had left in a dry crumpling pile at the bottom of the box and she clutched the notebook against her right forearm before taking off toward the house. Her bare toes leapt from the sand, springing across the hot soil of the vineyard before padding up the cool wooden stairs to her room where she landed on her knees in front of the box.
Trini’s purple flesh turned blue in the moonlight. I could see her trying not to wince every time she moved. He smelled like ass and alcohol and my hands were losing their grip on his sweat soaked shirt. Trini was trembling as we pulled him out onto the dirt road in front of their house. Fucking get it together Trini, I told her. She burst into tears and I pushed her out of the way, taking her place at his feet. I grabbed both ankles and swung them around so that his entire body was lying diagonally across the road. Trini grabbed my wrist and started to pull me toward the house as two tiny spotlights were dancing up the road. I gave him one last kick in the stomach and we ran toward the house. Trini was ahead of me. I heard the engine of the truck coming closer and something pulled me back. I ran and crouched in the ditch and watched as the truck started to speed up. The windows were down and I could see a dark man dangling an aluminum can out of the window and the small blonde head of a woman was bobbing up and down like a fishing cork within the frame of the driver’s side window. The body of Trini’s stepfather
Liliana stuck the loose sheet into the crease and re-read the next page, her eyes plucking each inspired word from the veined bound leaflets of her mother’s journal as if they were gold flickering beneath a shallow tide, as if they were stars lighting a way through her dark memory. And suddenly that relentless need for words, the one that had plagued Liliana in school and sent her unraveling every time she stepped foot in a library, that need for devouring them and stringing them together until something beautiful sprang forth didn’t feel so foreign anymore.
“Dinner.” Ana’s dry voice flew up the stairs.
Liliana heard Nita’s footsteps coming down the hall and she stood up, spinning in a circle and scanning the room. Nita stopped at the top of the stairs and Liliana tossed the journal under the bed.
“You coming?” Nita asked poking her head around the corner.
“Uh, yeah,” Liliana sighed as she pulled the door closed behind her.
Their father was sitting at the kitchen table holding a sheet of paper up to the light and staring at it through his reading glasses. There were more papers on his lap, a stack of them piled on top of a yellow folder. Liliana could see some kind of seal at the top of the page he was holding, the shadow of it outlined beneath the light.
“What are those?” Nita asked.
“It’s an application.”
“University. They’re for Liliana.” Their father set the sheet of paper on the top of his pile, gripped the stack with both hands, and lifted them in the air. “You’re uncle had them sent over,” he said as he slid them over to her. “He set up a meeting for you tomorrow morning.”
Liliana pressed her finger against the shiny foil seal. It was silver and showed the imprint of a woman, her face in her hand, leaning her arms on a table, and looking into the sun. She quickly flipped through the pages but stopped when she saw a sheet titled Social Communication Degree Plan. She held it up to her face.
Her father pulled on his glasses and motioned for her to flip the page.
“Raul asked what you might like to study.”
“The program was just reinstated.” The guide seemed to be trying to keep her voice low. “But they just gave us a new wing of the Communications building. Here, we can take the elevator.”
The four of them, the guide, Liliana, Nita and her father all squeezed into the small brown elevator. It smelled like dog shampoo and Liliana tried to hold her breath. The steel cables grinded to a halt and the doors slid open. Students wearing t-shirts that read in big block letters, la voz, the voice, were sliding paint rollers over the walls, pinning up posters, and carrying boxes. They sidestepped their way through paint cans and power tools and turned down a narrow hallway.
There were students in small classrooms huddled around computers and professors with long hair and hanging beards, their wrinkled shirts un-tucked, leaning against dry erase boards. The hallway opened into a giant computer lab with floor to ceiling windows allowing the sun to cover everything in a yellow dust of light. There were a few students working, the only sound escaping from their cubicles the drum of their fingers bouncing off the keys.
“This is the newsroom. We just got everything settled in here.”
The guide stepped over to some of the covered windows and threw back the blinds. Liliana followed her and stepped right up to the glass. She looked down over the campus—at the red benches lining the concrete walkways, the first leaves of fall gold and sputtering along the ground, and at the horde of backpacks shuffling from one doorway to the next beneath a graying canopy of rosewood trees.
“You can see the entire campus from up here,” Liliana said to her father.
“That’s why it’s the perfect spot for a newsroom. You can see everything from up here.” The guide led them back into the hall and they winded their way back through the students who were working.
It was already past noon and Liliana could sense Nita starting to fidget behind her, her father as well, whose hand was subconsciously hovering over his growling stomach. Even the guide had seemed to sense that they were a little behind schedule but Liliana hadn’t noticed. She was taking in every inch of the place, storing the colors and the faces in her memory to sift through later because the truth was she couldn’t stop thinking about her mother and about Trini and about the man lying dead in the road.
“The main dining area is in the student activities center. That’s where we’ll have lunch.”
The guide’s voice cut in and Liliana suddenly realized they were outside. Wide concrete paths spread over the campus like dark veins. It was quiet. Even the hordes of students rushing to their next class seemed to be moving in slow motion, making their way in silence. Even though it was almost fall the cold seemed to have come early and a chill wind set the leaves and Liliana shivering as they made their way inside the center. On their way in they passed a large cement wall, awkward and daunting as it stuck out in the room, the harsh sulfur smell still lingering as if it had just been put up yesterday.
While the rest of her group was busy eating Liliana made her way to the coffee area. She saw one of the students from the Communications building stirring some creamer into her cup—she was wearing one of those shirts that said la voz.
“Didn’t I see you earlier?” the girl said, eyes still on her stirring.
“Yeah, I’m taking a tour.”
“Where are you from?”
“California, well, I mean here.”
“I was about to say, you don’t look American.”
“We moved there when I was a kid,” Liliana said.
“Oh, an expat.” The girl smirked. “How old were you?”
The girl looked up at Liliana through narrowed eyes and then back down at her coffee. “You thinking of doing journalism?” she asked.
“Thinking about it, yeah.”
“Don’t tell me that’s why you came back here, to go to school.”
“Well, not exactly.”
“Good, because the journalism program here, it’s…” She paused and bit the tip of her thumbnail. “It’s still recovering. But we just moved into that new building. It’s smaller but it’s better than nothing I guess.”
“Where were you all before?”
The girl looked up, shook her head slightly, and then looked back down. “In a basement in the flatlands.”
The girl narrowed her eyes and then stepped closer to Liliana. “You don’t know what it was like do you?”
Liliana shook her head. “We left before…”
“Figures,” she huffed.
Liliana looked down at her coffee.
“Sorry. Listen, the journalism students, we’ve got sort of a project we’re working on and if you want to get involved, we could really use the help.”
“Oh.” Liliana was struck by the girl’s big blue eyes, glistening, pleading. “Sure,” she said.
“Good. Really, we can use as much help as we can get. Give me your hand.”
Liliana held it out. The girl pulled a red pen from her back pocket, bit off the cap, and started writing down a series of numbers.
“Just…” She paused and lowered her voice. “Don’t mention it to anyone, not here anyway.” When she was finished she traced back over the ink before lightly blowing it dry. “Now it won’t smudge,” she said.
“What is it?”
“My phone number. Call me tomorrow and I’ll give you the directions. By the way my name’s Jordan but you can call me Jo.”
The girl grabbed her coffee, heading for the door and Liliana’s eyes trailed after her until she could no longer make out the letters on her shirt. She noticed her father on the other side of the dining hall staring at her, and Nita too, fidgeting again. She snapped a lid on her cup and went back to the table.
They ended the tour in the center of the campus next to a giant fountain, water rushing down from a pair of clasped marble hands. There was something almost sacred about it and it looked more like it belonged in a church than in the middle of a University campus. When the guide left, the three of them decided to sit and rest their feet. They had been walking all morning and Nita, most of all, was exhausted almost to the point of tears. They sat there, quiet for a long time, just watching the students file by, each one disappearing into a different newly renovated building.
“She was here,” Liliana’s father said.
“Who?” Nita said frowning.
Manuel took a hand and placed it on Nita’s head. “You’re mother,” he said staring off to where the sidewalk disappeared beneath a cluster of trees.
“She went to school here?” Liliana said.
Her father nodded. “For a little while,” he said, “before they closed them down.”
“What did she study?”
Manuel’s shoulders began to tense and he suddenly stood, as if he were physically recoiling from the question. “She was…always changing her mind,” he finally said.
Nita widened her eyes at Liliana from behind their father’s back. It was rare that their father shared anything about their mother and pushing him for more always killed the conversation. Asking about their mother had always made him uncomfortable and Liliana, too, seemed to be an expert at that. It was an impulse she had refused to indulge almost her entire life—asking questions about her, about the seemingly one-dimensional character who only existed in the infancy of their memories. But with her mother’s words still subduing all other thought, just the mention of her had elicited a reflex she couldn’t control. As much as she wanted to press him for more she knew it would only too quickly terminate the normalcy of the moment, of all three of them being there together, which wasn’t going to be happening that often with their father taking over their uncle’s business. So instead she stayed silent, her lips only working to quickly mouth a ‘sorry’ to Nita who just rolled her eyes.
The paint fell away willingly as Diego slid the blade over the window frame. He had already stripped all of the columns bare and his forearms burned as he worked his way to the front of the house. His father had chosen to start on the opposite side, in the back of the house where he could be sheltered by the shade. He had been drinking and the sun always gave him headaches. Even Ana had been scraping the fading paint alongside them for a few hours before her soap operas had come on.
Diego had started to hum to himself, a melody buzzing between his teeth he thought he had forgotten. It was a song his parents had written, meant to be their new finale song and one they had only performed a handful of times before his mother left. It was a deep and sorrowful thing, every note trapped in the low-end. A cante jondo, the Gypsies called it, every Tocaor had one. But it was less of a song and more of a haunting—something dark and phantasmal with a sound more powerful than if all of the hearts on earth spontaneously began to beat at once. And it felt odd to be thinking of it there, to be humming it while preparing a house for fresh paint because that song and the man who dared sing it belonged at the edge of the world, at the end of everything.
Suddenly the front door swung open and the girl rushed out, clutching something to her chest. She barely stopped to look at Diego, turning her face to him for just a second before skipping down the porch steps.
Ana’s voice called after her. “Stop right there,” she yelled. “You’re working for your dinner tonight.” She reached the screen door and pushed it open. “Come on,” she said, “help the boy with scraping.”
The girl just stood there, slowly trying to hide the notebook behind her back.
“Well don’t just stand there. You don’t want him thinking you’re slow, do you?”
“Yeah, sorry,” the girl said as she knelt down next to the toolbox.
Ana disappeared inside and the screen door slammed shut. The girl stared at the notebook for a while, balancing it on her knees, before finally sliding it between the box and the wall. She picked up a hand scraper and moved to the opposite window.
“You’ve done a lot,” she said, looking over the adjacent wall.
Her Spanish fell with a flatness as if she were having to sift through sand for each word but as her shoulders began to relax, and her jaw began to slacken a bit, the words began to spill out with more resolve.
“It already looks better,” she added.
Diego nodded and wiped his brow with the hem of his shirt. The girl let the tool hang by her side as her eyes moved from the bare walls and columns of the house passed the vineyard and the trees surrounding it, passed the beach and the waves. She stood there like that until the sound of Diego’s steady scraping infiltrated her daze. She looked at him.
“We haven’t met,” she said, something like surprise in her voice.
The sun crept up over the trees as she leaned against one of the clean columns and used a hand to shade her eyes.
“Liliana,” she said.
“Liliana,” he repeated, the l’s, rolling and savory on his tongue.
She finally moved back to the wall and began freeing the wooden house from the fading paint. They worked in a slow rhythm, Liliana stopping every now and then to sit on the porch steps or just to stare down at the vineyard. It was quiet, except for the gulls out fishing, and as if in response to the silence, Liliana took a step toward Diego.
“What was that song?” she said.
“The one you were humming.”
More than an hour had gone by since Diego had been alone save for his memories of his mother. Had she been wondering about it all that time? He shook his head.
“Oh, yeah. I don’t know.”
“It was pretty,” she said.
He smiled and quickly bent down to reach for a paintbrush before she could see. He handed it to her.
“This side’s ready,” he said. “If you’re tired of scraping, we can trade.”
“Thanks,” she said stepping past him, “for doing all of this. I can’t remember what the house used to look like. I wish I could have seen it. Did you? I mean, have you been here a long time?”
“I never saw it either. I didn’t come ‘til I was fourteen.”
“Did you like it here?” she said, a sad quake in her voice. “Do you?”
He had never thought about it, about the vineyard being a place that made him happy, about it really being his home rather than just the place where he worked. He always thought more about the things that made him unhappy—his father being a drunk, his mother being a whore, his father’s ban on Flamenco, the war and all it had taken from him and from his people. But looking at Liliana, at this girl who was a stranger, and the way the sun had strewn freckles up the bridge of her nose, the way her irises seemed to flux when she smiled, and the way she filled that bare graying wall, end to end with light, he said, “Yeah, I do like it here.”