Mother’s Children

by John J. McLaughlin

Elsa smoothed icing on the cake, white and neat, and set it on the kitchen table. She stepped to the window and looked into the street. Angélica, her eldest daughter, a silky reed of a girl with a soft step and long braids of ink-black hair, was still at the store, buying ice cream and filling the family’s jugs of water. She had been sent because Elsa would not see her lie in bed any longer, because the girl would not heed the advice of then curandera on her own. The healer had told Elsa that after three days Angélica’s mourning should end, and that she should assume her role in the family once again. Elsa’s other children, two boys and a girl, all much younger than Angélica, played in front. They moved freely, laughing and shouting with the neighbors’ children as they kicked the soccer ball up and down the street.

She and her husband, Romario, had lived in this house in an East Los Angeles neighborhood since they married twenty years ago. For many years, until Romario became full-time at the mechanic’s garage, Angélica lived alone in the large second bedroom. Elsa said his promotion was a blessing from God, a divine kiss upon their marriage. She told her neighbors that it was a sign—a reward for her husband’s patience—and that further good fortune would follow. One week later she sat her husband and daughter down at the kitchen table, and, beaming and clutching her medallion, announced to them that it had. She kissed both of them and held Angélica’s hands to her stomach, and each year for three years she gave her a new sibling, sorry that her room had been so lonely for so long.

Elsa opened the window above the table and drew the curtains. They fluttered quietly. Romario, broad-shouldered and a full foot taller than Elsa, entered the kitchen. “Has she returned?”

Elsa shook her head. She set four glasses at the table.

“You have talked to her today?” he said. Elsa nodded. “How is she?”

“Better,” Elsa said, filling the sink with water, beginning to soak the mixing bowls. “Still sitting in her bed most of the day, though.”

Romario nodded. “Think about how we worried a week ago, everything coming up so quickly.” He took Elsa’s hand, touched her fingers to his lips.

They heard a knock at the front door. Romario peered around the kitchen corner. “Come in, Gabriel.”

A lanky boy of twenty entered, his fresh face not quite handsome behind his glasses, kinky black hair recently wet down. He lived three miles south, in El Hoyo barrio, in an apartment with his older brother. Nine months ago, he and Angélica had met, standing in line for burritos at the St. Vincent parish fiesta. Five months later, after they had been seeing each other steadily, she told him that she was pregnant. He took her straight to her parents’ house, dropped down on his knees in front of them, and asked for her hand in marriage. There was no choice, for any of them: A child born without the church’s blessing, it was known, was no better than a dog. And the parents of such a child would be outcasts.

Elsa had persuaded her husband to invite Gabriel to dessert this evening. She had reached her decision about their daughter, and she had convinced Romario that she was right. Now that Angélica’s mourning had ended, the time had come for her to cleanse herself. As of this evening, she would have nothing to do with this boy. She would see, as Elsa had, that her suffering these three days had been a portent, and she would understand, as both her parents had, that the only escape from such fate was to dissolve the relationship. Elsa and Romario anticipated that Angélica would not take this news well this evening—given her fragile state—but they were also confident that she would eventually see their wisdom. Gabriel, they knew, was less predictable. Romario had agreed to the dessert reluctantly, and stressed to Elsa the importance of making the boy comfortable, of trying to be patient with him.

Elsa worked steadily at the sink as Gabriel came through the small living room. She added soap to the water and raised her head slightly in acknowledgment as he entered the kitchen.

Romario smiled and invited him to sit. “How are your parents, Gabriel?” he said, seating himself across from the boy. “You must have spoken with them recently.”

“No, not this week,” Gabriel said. “I mailed a letter today, though. You know it’s so expensive to call.”

Elsa shut off the water. She snatched a towel and dried her hands with a few brisk strokes as she approached the table. She stood between them and folded the towel neatly in half. “You’ve told them, haven’t you?” she said.

The front door swung open, and Angélica brought the ice cream and water to the kitchen. She moved quietly, slowly. Gabriel started up, to kiss her, but Elsa held up a hand. “Let her finish.”

Angélica sat opposite her mother, between Gabriel and her father. Gabriel leaned and kissed her softly on the cheek. “How are you this evening?” he asked, smiling slightly.

“She is strong, very strong,” Elsa said, pouring water into each glass.

“Yes, I’m fine,” Angélica said to Gabriel. “It’s a lovely cake, Mother.”

Elsa nodded and set down the water. She stood in front of the cake, a long knife now in her hand. “Everyone would like a big piece?”

“Oh yes,” Romario grinned, holding up his plate. He looked across at Gabriel, changed his expression. “Surely your parents will be sad when they read the letter. But perhaps all this is for the best.”

Gabriel nodded and grasped Angélica’s hand. “God has given us a challenge.”

Elsa slid the knife through the cake, cutting four large wedges. Tiny crumbs fell neatly around the edge of the plate. “It is Angélica who is challenged,” she said, focusing on the knife, watching the icing slowly build toward the handle. “And her father and I. Not you.”

“But as her husband, her pain will be mine,” Gabriel said.

“You will not be her husband.” Elsa pointed at Angélica’s hand, folded in Gabriel’s. “I have decided that tonight, she will give you back your ring.”

“Mother!” Angélica squeezed Gabriel. “The wedding is next week! Gabriel’s family has already arranged to come up—”

“He will call them and tell them to stay home. This marriage is cursed.”

“That’s ridiculous. You’re still upset.”

“What’s ridiculous is that you made a child with this cholo before either of you could support it,” Elsa said. “What if your father and I had done such a thing? You know nothing of responsibility, you are not fit to live on your own.”

Gabriel spoke. “It’s no one’s fault she lost the baby,” he said. “We can have another after we are married.”

Elsa raised the knife, slicked with thin white icing and traces of yellow custard, pointing it at Gabriel. “You will do nothing. I should have cut your balls off the day I met you.”

“Elsa, please,” Romario said, shifting.

“Her pain will be his!” Elsa huffed, reddening. “What does he know of her pain? What can any man know? Was he here to pray for her as she wept?”

“I was working,” Gabriel said.

“Yes, yes, working,” Elsa said, making two fists in front of her chest. “Pushing lawn mowers all the day, you and all the Tijuaneros who have hopped the fence and need money for drinking. Have you done anything for her?”

“What did you do, bring in a priest? And that curandera, that gypsy-freak?”

“That woman helped me take the sheets from the bed,” Elsa said firmly. “She saw into Angélica’s soul. You are lucky she was not here to look at you.”

Angélica put her head down, muffling small sobs.

“Give him the ring, Angélica,” Elsa said.

“My wife has assured me that this is a sign, Gabriel,” Romario said. “God could not give you the child. He has other things planned for our daughter.”

Gabriel stood. He placed his hand softly on Angélica’s shoulder, and eyed Elsa intently.

“Please sit, both of you,” Romario said.

Elsa’s knuckles whitened around the knife. She ignored her husband. This boy before her had shamed her family, taken her daughter’s innocence without planning, without a thought of how he would support Angélica and a child. The night Gabriel had proposed, Elsa dreamt fitfully: She saw her daughter, heavy with the baby, stepping into Gabriel’s car, headed for his parents’ home in Guadalupe. She saw the child with thin dark hair outside a small shack, eating insects from the ground while Gabriel and Angélica passed a jug of tequila back and forth. She should have trusted that vision, she told herself over and over these past four months, she should have called everything off immediately. Gabriel was a boy, nothing more. To think that he had wanted to take Angélica to live with him right away, before they even were married—Elsa had been determined never to agree to that, and proud that Romario had supported her. But the dream recurred, and Elsa became convinced that God was pushing her to another decision. Only when Angélica lost the child, however, did Elsa believe she had persuaded Romario of the same.

“Come, Angélica,” Gabriel said, his face still and expressionless.

“She will stay,” Elsa said quickly. “And you will leave our house with your ring.”

Romario raised his voice. “Elsa, put the knife down. There is no reason for you to threaten Gabriel. We can talk sensibly now.”

“Don’t let her worry you,” Angélica said to Gabriel. She had stopped crying.

“Sensibly!” Elsa shouted. Her cheeks flushed full again, and she jammed the knife down into the cake. The plate beneath it split cleanly and the knife stood straight up, its tip stuck in the wooden table top. “You do not see the sense in any of this. If you did you would not allow him to marry her.”

“I have allowed him into our house, as you wanted,” Romario said. “That is all. And now because he shows us that he loves our daughter you put a knife to his throat.”

“You’re embarrassing everyone, Mother,” Angélica said, eyes down on the table.

Elsa ignored her, and continued at her husband. “Children have no idea what love means.

Our own daughter has lost her baby because she does not know!” She turned to Angélica. “If you had kept off of your back—”

“The child is dead,” Romario said shortly. An evening breeze moved through the windows, and again the curtains ruffled softly. Romario looked at the boy and the girl. “But we have two children here in front of us, and more outside, Elsa. They are all alive, they are all beautiful creatures. Why do you want to keep killing this baby that has already died?”

“We are leaving,” Gabriel said to Elsa. “She is my wife and she will live with me now. You are a crazy old woman who wants to push your troubles down everyone else’s throat until they are sick and throw up. Only a deaf man could bear to listen to you.” He stepped away from the table, pulling Angélica with him.

Elsa spat at him as he brushed past her. “It’s no wonder your parents never climbed out of that filth hole in Guadalupe. Look how they have raised their son.”

“Go to hell,” Gabriel said, wiping his cheek. He stormed toward the door with Angélica.

“Romario!” Elsa said. She shot a finger at the boy and her daughter. “He will not take her!”

“Please, Gabriel,” Romario said. He stood up slowly to his full height. He walked to the kitchen doorway and his wide shoulders nearly filled it. “Stay, and we’ll talk about this like adults.”

“No,” Gabriel said. He turned quickly and opened the front door.

“Perhaps my wife and I are wrong,” Romario said, holding his hand up, hoping to hold Gabriel inside. “Perhaps we did not see this fire.”

“You cannot see me at all,” Gabriel said. “You cannot see anything but your fat wife telling you what to do, and all she sees are her neighbors looking out their windows to check if she’s counting her beads.” He pulled Angélica outside with him, and slammed the screen door.

Elsa rushed to the doorstep but did not follow the children. “Romario, you must get them.” She turned quickly to her husband. “Now, before anyone sees.”

Romario stepped quickly down the front steps. Outside, his younger children continued to play in the street, up and down, running and kicking a ball. The afternoon haze had been carried away by a swift evening breeze, and the blue sky was crisp and darkening. Romario grabbed Angélica’s hand as she and Gabriel headed to his car, an old silver Catalina with balding tires and a loose muffler. The three of them stood in the small, yellowing lawn.

Gabriel glared at Romario. “Don’t touch her.”

“Come inside, eat your cake,” Romario said calmly, gesturing toward the house.

“She is mine now. She carried my child.”

“Perhaps you are right.”

Gabriel paused, and furrowed his brow. “Perhaps I am right?”

Romario tugged his daughter, standing quietly between the two men. “Go to your mother, m’ija. Help her set out the cake and ice cream.” He stood calmly, looking at Gabriel, fixing on the boy’s soft brown eyes behind his glasses. Angélica unlocked her hand from Gabriel’s and moved away.

“Angélica, let’s go—”

“It’s all right,” she said, and pushed back his hand. Then she leaned into him, quickly kissed his cheek, and whispered. “I’ll get my things. Wait.”

Gabriel looked at her. The children screamed playfully in the street.

Angélica smiled and turned back toward the house. “He’s just a boy, father,” she said, looking past Romario to Elsa, who had stepped out onto the front stoop. “Don’t hurt him.”

She walked slowly up the steps, past her mother, into the house.

Romario looked again at Gabriel. “Do you think that’s what I want to do?”

“That’s what a father will do for his daughter.”

“But I think you may make a good husband,” Romario said.

Gabriel colored. “Inside you wanted to cut my balls off. Now you change your mind.”

“It was my wife who said those things.”

Elsa stood at the bottom of the steps. Gabriel glanced quickly at her and then back at Romario. He folded his arms tightly across his chest. “A woman controls you?”

Romario smiled and laughed. Behind Gabriel he could see the sun’s glow shrinking on the horizon. Palm trees ruffled in the breeze, women pushed baby carriages along the sidewalk, and shadows stretched out on the street. Romario heard the bright, brassy strains of Tejano rising from a VW Beetle as it turned the corner and headed quickly past them.

“No,” he said. “But she is my wife, and I listen.”

Gabriel stepped to Romario, close enough to feel his breath. He jabbed two fingers into the older man’s chest. “You are nothing. She kicks you like her dog.”

Romario grabbed the boy by his shirt collar. As he did, Elsa approached from the steps, holding her hands up to stop them. “The neighbors, Romario!” she hissed. “Take him inside.”

Gabriel steeled his gaze at Romario. “Her little puppy dog,” he said slowly. “Maybe when I take Angélica home with me the old lady can take you for a walk.”

“If she were not here I would throw you out in the street,” Romario said, shaking Gabriel once and pushing him away.

“If she were not here you would not know what to do,” the boy said, smoothing his shirt. “You would not even be able to speak.”

Elsa rushed between the two men. Her pocked, coppery face was glowing and flushed, and she stood a moment catching her breath. Her silvering hair was pulled back under her kerchief; long loose strands that had slipped out stood up in the breeze. “Come back inside, Romario,” she said. “We will have some cake with our daughter.” She tightened her apron, and moved toward the boy. “Take this cockroach to some barrio family,” she said, flicking her arm toward Gabriel’s car, parked in the street. “We are a decent church-going family, and my husband and I have worked hard for our children. You want a woman for your apartment?” she said, raising her finger in front of his face. “Drive down to Guadalupe and pick yourself out a whore. Leave my daughter alone.”

“Enough, Elsa,” Romario said. “We’ve all heard enough.”

Elsa took a few quick steps toward the house, her head down. Then she stopped, pivoted, and glared at her husband and the boy. “What have you heard?” she shouted. “An old woman crying?”

“I thought you didn’t want the neighbors to know,” Romario said, motioning to the houses across the street.

“They can go to hell,” Elsa said. “Let them talk about me, the woman who let this cholo bring a curse on her daughter. And they will laugh at you too, Romario.”

“That is not my concern, Elsa.” He turned to the boy. “Go, Gabriel. Leave us now.”

“Of course not!” Elsa said. “You have never been concerned with anything. Not even your own daughter’s pain.”

Romario looked at the sky and shook his head. He sighed and mumbled to himself.

“Just like a man,” Elsa said quickly. “Look at you—both of you. Have you done anything for Angélica? She has lost the soul of her child and you stand here and fight like boys.”

“One of us is a man,” Gabriel said, tapping a finger to his chest. He lifted his chin and called loudly to the house. “We are going, Angélica. Forget your things and come.”

Elsa stepped quickly toward the boy again and swung at him. Gabriel dodged her easily and backpedaled to the edge of the grass, almost to the car, as Romario wrapped Elsa from behind, pinning her arms. Elsa struggled, her eyes locked on Gabriel. The children in the street went quiet.

Behind them, spring hinges shrilled as the screen door smacked closed. Angélica slowly sharp snap she flicked the clumped icing to the ground. She stood quietly, a few feet behind them. “Father, let her go,” she said.

Romario did not look. Elsa continued to wrestle in his arms. “Get the door open, Angélica,” he huffed, struggling to contain his wife. He turned with her toward the house, and faced Angélica, who stood with the knife in front of her.

Elsa jerked forward, and Romario released her. “For the love of God,” she said. “Put that thing away.”

“Shut up, Mother,” Angélica said.

Elsa straightened. “What?”

“Shut up and go back inside. I will talk with Gabriel, alone.”

“Do you hear her, Romario? For days she has wept and said nothing. Now she speaks as if God Himself has given her a command.” Elsa dropped to the grass, snatched her husband’s hand, and tugged. “Come, let us kneel before her—la Santísima Madre de Dios.” She threw her head back and put her hand to her breast. “Perhaps she can heal a heart broken by devilish children.”

Angélica looked at her mother, her thick and wrinkled face upturned, her stubby fingers folded in front of her bosom. This was how Elsa had knelt by Angélica’s bed the morning she lost the child, this was how Elsa had prayed when they went to church the next day and every day since, how she had stood behind the priest or the curandera in the girl’s room. Whispering to the ceiling, tightly clutching her beads or her medallion.

Angélica’s knuckles whitened, her fist trembled, as she squeezed the handle. She stomped a foot on the ground and stammered, about to speak, as Gabriel interrupted her.

“She is a mad old dog,” he said loudly, opening the passenger door of his car. “Leave her, Angélica. Soon her mouth will foam.”

Gabriel waited on the grass, in front of his car, holding the door open. Angélica looked once more at her mother, said nothing, and walked quickly to the curb. “Listen to her, moaning like a stuck pig,” Gabriel huffed, lifting his chin toward Elsa, who was turning toward them on her knees. He put his hand on the small of Angélica’s back and persuaded her toward the front seat.

Angélica slapped him cleanly across the face, the sound quick and fresh on his skin. Gabriel recoiled and backed himself against the car as Angélica flashed the knife with her other hand and edged it to his chin. “You don’t want these children to see me cut your tongue out,” she said, her lips tightening, her eyes darting to the street before focusing again on Gabriel. Her chest swelled with sharp breaths.

Still on her knees, Elsa squeezed her medallion. Her eyes swept over the street, the same street where she herself had grown up, become a woman. The houses stood fenced in, holding tiny plots of dirt and grass spotted with old tricycles, lopsided soccer balls, and one or two white plastic chairs. Windows glowed from television sets. Large domestic cars sat in front of some yards, and clear beer bottles littered the curb in between. Elsa watched her daughter back Gabriel against his car, heard the boy plead with her. Finally, she had stood up to him. Finally, she would make him share some of her pain, lying alone in her bed these three days with the memory of her sheets beneath her. But she was still alone, still in many ways a girl. She did not truly know how to make a man suffer.

Before Romario could pull her back, Elsa ran at the car. Rushing behind Angélica, she clapped one hand on the girl’s right shoulder and locked the other onto her wrist, squeezing it until the knife dropped softly into the grass. Angélica and Gabriel said nothing as Elsa crouched and then shot back up, waving it between them.

“Tell me why I should not bury this in his chest,” she said, turning to Gabriel. He did not move.

“Because he cannot bring the baby back,” Angélica said.

“Your child is God’s now,” Elsa said swiftly. “But you are still mine, and he cannot have you. He is not worthy of you—listen to the way he speaks.”

“The baby was his too, Mother. And neither of us understand why it is gone.” Angélica reached for Elsa’s hand. “Let him go home tonight. He will apologize to all of us tomorrow.”

“Look at this,” Elsa said. She moved beside Gabriel—pointing the tip at him—and pounded her fist on the hood of the car. “This is a garbage can, made for drugs and beers and whores. This cannot hold a family.”

Gabriel looked intently at Romario, who had stepped behind his daughter. Romario remained expressionless. “Elsa, you are an embarrassment,” he said evenly. “The boy is not a criminal. Let go of that thing and come with me.”

“So! Everyone is against me,” Elsa said. “Then all of you can push this elephant back to the barrio!”

She spun toward the car and plunged the knife at the front tire. She swept it fiercely, arcing it down, her thumb topping the handle. The tip snapped instantly and the shaft ricocheted off the tire, but Elsa’s grip held fast as the broken blade raked over her thigh.

She did not clasp her hands to her leg to try to close the wound. She did not cry for her husband or Angélica or her other children, who were all now rushing toward her. She quietly lifted the knife, looked at her blood thinned over smudges of icing, and slumped onto the hood of the car. Her thin skirt and apron clung to her leg and quickly colored.

Angélica caught her mother under the arms, sliding off the hood to the grass. Gabriel backed away as Romario lunged to help his daughter. They eased Elsa to the grass and ordered the boy to bring ice from inside. Elsa’s apron tore easily, and Romario wrapped it firmly around her leg.

When Gabriel returned with the ice, Romario pressed it gently to the wound. Elsa’s face stiffened. She shut her eyes, then reached out with each hand, grasping Romario’s wrist above the ice, bringing Angélica’s fingers to her cheek. She felt dizzy and began to mumble prayers. Romario smoothed his other hand over her hair, and she looked at him and pursed her lips in a tiny kiss.

“We must get her to the doctors,” Romario said. He looked up at Gabriel. “Help us put her in the car.”

My car?”

“Yes, you will drive.” Romario nodded at the ice. “This will not stop the bleeding. Quickly, take her feet—carefully.”

Gabriel stood.

“Do what he says!” Angélica said, holding Elsa’s shoulders, waiting.

“I am just the cholo from—”

“Are you part of this family?” Angélica shouted. She struggled, bolstering her mother’s weight against her chest. Her eyes narrowed as she continued to look at Gabriel. “Her feet. Now.”

Gabriel bent and slid his arms under Elsa’s legs, just below her calves. He looked up at the woman and she met his eyes for a moment before nodding, signaling that she was ready. They lifted her short, heavy body. Angélica backed carefully into the rear seat and Romario guided her, supporting Elsa’s thighs and back. Gabriel helped them lay the woman across their laps, then fastened himself in the front seat and drove.

Elsa felt the numbness in her thigh, and saw the blood that had crept to the edges of her apron under the ice pack. She looked up at Romario, focused intently on the ice, adjusting it slightly now and then to try to cover the full length of the wound. Behind him, streetlights, then freeway lamps, ticked by, hazy yellow glows against the darkening sky.

She rested her head in her daughter’s lap. Angélica’s legs were slender, perhaps a bit thin for a girl her age, Elsa thought, but the firm pressure of her daughter’s bones against her own put her at ease. Angélica’s fingers grazed softly back and forth over her cheek. The girl continued as Elsa turned her head to look to the front of the car. The vinyl that stretched across the seat back seemed uncracked and clean. She caught a scent of jalapeños lingering in the car, along with hot spices she used in her own cooking, that her mother had taught her to use, that she said all good families used. She could see the back of his head, his wet-clean, dark curly hair, his smooth hairless neck warming for brief moments in the light cast from the street.

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