Angel Silvio Rotbaum de Morales was on the roof. Again. His father sent him there. He was tired of Angel’s misbehavior and shenanigans.
“Angel,” his father said, pointing a finger inches from his middle child’s nose, “I’m tired of your misbehaving and shenanigans.”
Angel looked at his father’s finger. There was a hair on it.
His father continued, “What were you doing in your grandmother’s room?”
Angel didn’t say anything. The hair was grey.
“You know you aren’t allowed in there. I don’t care. But you know your grandmother will flip if she catches you. And she’ll never come out, and your mother will lose faith. Is that what you want?”
Angel nodded, agreeing that’s what would happen, and then shook his head, indicating it was not what he wanted.
“Remember last time? You put turtles—I don’t know where you found turtles, this is why we have no pets —in her bathtub, and she thought they were a message from the Cartel. Why they’d communicate using turtles, I don’t know. She tried to flush them down the toilet, and we had to call the plumber, and every time anyone turned on water it smelled like a swamp! Your mother had a hell of a time with that one. She definitely lost faith.”
Angel grimaced at the thought of his spotted box turtles being shoved down the toilet. His grandmother had no mind for nature’s beauty. Or science. All she thought about was church and the Cartels. And making his mother lose faith.
“And then,” Angel’s father continued, “as if that smell wasn’t bad enough, that woman started waving incense and it was like going to Mass at Church. You know how much I hate going to Mass at church.”
Angel nodded. He understood, as did the entire family, how much his father hated going to Mass at church, something none of them had done until his grandmother showed up six months ago and demanded they go, “for their souls.” They went, once. “For your mother,” his dad had said. But when they exited church, his father and his grandmother got into a big fight, his father yelling, “I’m Jewish,” and his grandmother yelling in Spanish. That was the only time his father went to Mass at church.
His mother still went on Sundays for her faith. And his sister, Rachel Mary, went—also on Sundays—“because her soul needed saving as she wasn’t baptized,” announced their grandmother. Angel’s brother Dov didn’t have to go; he was 11 and, like their father, Jewish.
His dad continued “If I wanted to smell like incense, I’d quit being Jewish, join the Catholic Church, and go with your mother every Sunday when she spends three hours at Mass and comes home smelling like a brothel full of angels. Is that what you want me to do?” His father was now waiving his hairy finger in the air.
Angel considered that the possibility of both parents gone on Sundays would mean three hours of unsupervised hunting and collecting, but if his dad quit being Jewish, Angel would also have to quit being Jewish and then he wouldn’t get the shiny chocolate at Christmas. Angel shook his head. No, he definitely didn’t want his dad to quit being Jewish.
“Good. All right then. To the roof.” His father pointed up in case Angel had forgotten where the roof was, and headed back downstairs to read his magazines, which had arrived that week and been placed, by Mrs. Rotbaum, on the corner of the kitchen table.
Angel walked towards the attic. He passed his brother’s room and watched Dov Antonio Rotbaum de Morales shout letters to a mirror. Angel looked right and saw his younger sister, Rachel Mary (or Mary Rachel, as their grandmother called her) Rotbaum de Morales, sitting on the floor in the bedroom they shared, folding one of his mom’s dusting clothes into a triangle before tying it around the end of her favorite pillow, Pee-O.
“Well, I’m up again,” he said to her. Rachel Mary held out her diapered pillow. Angel shook his head “No thanks. You keep Pee-O. I’ll see you in a bit.” She nodded. “You’ll want a pin for that—mom has some in the desk. Don’t hurt yourself.” She nodded again and went back to work.
Angel dragged the step stool from under the bathroom sink to the middle of the upstairs hall, jumped up to pull down the ladder, climbed up, stepped carefully past Dov’s old toys and clothes—which were now Angel’s old toys and clothes—and climbed out onto the roof.
Mr. Rotbaum entered the well-lit kitchen where his wife was making dinner.
“Well, I sent him up again. He needs to learn. No more shenanigans.” Mr. Rotbaum grabbed his pile of magazines from the table and sat down, flipping the pages quickly. “Do we need all these lights on?”
His wife ignored him. “Poor Angel. He is always on the roof.” Mrs. Rotbaum was preparing the family’s Friday-night dinner. A regular tradition that combined their somewhat distinct Mexican and Jewish cultures into one night of festivities. She had brined the brisket overnight with onions, oranges and bay leaves to soften the connective tissue. Now she was rinsing it off and putting it into a pan to cook before she covered it with her own mole recipe.
Dov came into the kitchen and stood in front of his father. “Dad,” he said, “I studied 1,000 words. I know all of them.”
“You know 1,000 words, huh?” said Mr. Rotbaum.
“I know all of the ones from A through M.”
His mother turned around. “What about N through Z?”
“Dear. The District Spelling Bee Tournament for Grades 6–8 isn’t until noon. I’ll get Dov up at seven, and we’ll practice, and he’ll get the words memorized in no time. We’ll be expedient. Isn’t that right, son?”
“Expedient. E-X-P-E-D-I-E-N-T. Expedient.”
“See!” His father smiled proudly. “You’ll win for sure. Then in two weeks, Regionals.” He slapped the table with his rolled-up magazine.
Meanwhile, in a fit of premature triumph, Dov skipped around the kitchen spelling R-E-G-I-O-N-A-L-S, C-H-A-M-P-I-O-N, D-I-S-H-W-A-S-H-E-R, M-I-C-R-O-W-A-V-E, and a few more multi-syllable words until he got stuck on whether there was a D in refrigerator. He couldn’t find his way out of the word, and then, so as not to let the appliance dampen his mood, he grabbed his mother’s hand and tried to swirl her around. But his mother had just finished rinsing the brisket and still had the large, yet thoroughly tender, hunk of meat in her hand. When her son grabbed it, she pulled away and swung around wildly, releasing the brisket and sending it flying across the kitchen until it hit the opposite wall with a dull thud. It was suspended for half a second, just enough time for the family to process what had happened, and then they watched in horror as the large, yet thoroughly tender, piece of meat slid slowly down the wall and lay slouched on the floor. A deep silence came over the kitchen as the situation of their dinner hit them.
“Ahhhhhhhhhh!!” His mom screamed. “Look! Our dinner! The floor!”
“Well, at least it’s tender. Look how it’s slumping. That’ll be good brisket.”
“Joshua!” Mrs. Rotbaum shouted at her husband.
“What were you doing holding it? Were you rinsing it again? You do not have to rinse brisket—you brine it and cook it with marinade. I’ve told you that a million times. And by the way, Jews eat things over than brisket. Could you change it up every now and then?”
“Jews.’ So what do YOU Jews eat? Rye bread? Bagels? You want I cook bagels?”
“Yeah, now that you mention it, I do like bagels. But you can’t get any good ones here, which is another thing wrong with living in the Midwest—”
“Basta! Enough! The brisket is too salty It tastes better when I rinse it.”
“It’s SUPPOSED to be salty. That’s the point. You don’t RINSE BRISKET!”
“Well, I have to now! Now it is on the floor!” She pointed to the brisket lying there, helpless, tender, salty. They looked at it. It did look tender. Mrs. Rotbaum rushed over and gently picked it up and put it in her apron. She returned it to the sink, turned the water on it, and spun around wagging her finger. “We do NOT tell Mama. She gets home soon. She will cross herself and go to her room and moan about Cartels all night. I rinse it, and she will never know. Swear. Both of you.”
“I swear I won’t tell Grandma her food was on the ground,” said Dov, starting to smile.
“Fine,” said his father. “Or we could tell her, and then she’d stay in her room all night,” he added under his breath. Dov laughed and was shooed out of the kitchen. He skipped back upstairs, singing “Brisket. B – R –I – S – K – E – T. Brisket!”
On the wall, where the unfortunate brisket had made contact, there was a smudge that looked a bit like the Virgin Mary—or at least a blob with a shawl around it. “Huh,” said Mr. Rotbaum as he sat at the table, his wife crouching, cleaning up the mess on the floor. “Huh.”
“What now?” She ran out the towel at the sink and soaped her hands.
“Oh . . . nothing. It’s nothing.” He returned to his magazine.
Up on the roof, Angel lay back on the warm shingles and put his arms behind his head.
He was trying to empty his mind by talking to the clouds, but all he could think about was his grandmother’s windowsill. I need to get down to her room, he thought. A very important scientific thing is happening, and I might miss it. On the sunny sill were four small and delicate monarch butterfly cocoons that Angel had found on a milkweed plant in the nearby lot where he played hunter/gatherer. He had walked through the lot by accident when his brother wanted to take a shortcut to school. Angel, because he was good at noticing things, had noticed a lot of things to hunt and gather and had returned on their walk home.
“Come on!” yelled Dov over his shoulder. Angel hopped around, picking up anything he could find and shoving it into his pockets.
When they got home, Angel flew up to his room and unloaded his findings onto his sleeping bag. He had found 1) a small bunch of grass that looked like a nest, 2) seed pods, which were clearly infected with smallpox, 3) several pieces of broken glass which might have been a vase or bowl, and 4) a bit of rusty, shiny metal that could be a bar of silver.
He touched each one, turned them over, looked at them closely, held each up to his ear, decided against tasting them—especially the seed pod—and picked up his pencil. He made scientific notes in a small flip-top notebook with Garfield on the cover saying “Take note!” He then carefully put everything into a small shoe box, which had “Hush Puppies” written on the side and “Angel’s Treasures” on the top. He slid the box under his sister’s bed behind the purple harbor seal named Badger, who had large black eyes and always looked sad, even though he was purple and his name was Badger—a fortunate circumstance for any animal.
The lot was the best place to hunt and gather that Angel had ever found. Today, on his way home, he hit the jackpot. On a milkweed plant, which he had approached wanting to gather some puffy pouches filled with silky seeds, he found four monarch butterfly cocoons quietly relaxing and ripening in the sun.
Angel gently gathered them, careful not to wake them, and carried them home even more carefully on the palm of his hand. When he got home, he realized they couldn’t go into his box, they needed sun. He walked carefully around the house to find a spot but the trees were bushy and the driveway wasn’t safe. The only place they could rest was on his grandmother’s windowsill. His old room.
Angel went into his old room while his grandmother was at Mass. He lifted the window, laid them out gently, and closed the thin inner curtains, so his grandmother wouldn’t be tempted to flush them down the toilet. He had managed not to be seen until his father caught him sneaking out.
Angel closed his eyes and felt the sun. He heard faint snores coming from the side of the house his grandmother’s room was on, which meant she must be home and her window open. He felt pleased that the cocoons were unharmed and ripening. I have to get those cocoons. His grandmother was an old lady, but she had the destructive force of God.
“I have to get them to safety,” Angel said to the clouds. The clouds floated by in agreement.
In the room she shared with Angel, Rachel Mary had just finished diapering her and Angel’s bed pillows when she heard a quick “crack” against her window. She sat up quickly, then remembered Angel was on the roof. She heard the “crack” again and saw a large stick poking the glass.
She nodded to no one in particular, stood up, walked to the door, and looked both ways in the hall. She could hear her grandmother snoring and Dov talking to himself, but did not see her parents. She walked to the attic ladder. She grabbed the first rung, then thought of something, let go, and returned quickly to her room. She snatched Pee-O from his comfortable position on the floor. She tried to climb the ladder with Pee-O in her right hand, but she couldn’t. Then her left hand, and couldn’t. Then in her mouth, but she kept stepping on him.
Flustered, Rachel Mary returned to her room with Pee-O, set him on the floor, told him to stay put and promised to come back for him. Pee-O seemed genuinely pleased at the turn of events. Rachel Mary carefully climbed the ladder, like Angel had showed her—hand, hand, foot, foot—and popped out onto the roof where she saw her brother holding a large stick.
“You made it. Good.”
She nodded. “Angel, I have to tell you something.”
“What is it?”
“I left Pee-O. He couldn’t fit.”
Angel nodded. He knew that this operation was no place for a pillow, even one with a diaper. “Yes, that is OK. He can coordinate from the ground.” Rachel Mary nodded again.
Angel continued “OK. Here’s what I need you to do. Go downstairs into Grandma’s room.” Rachel Mary’s eyes widened. “She’s sleeping, it’s fine. By her window, the open one, there are cocoons there. Do you remember what a cocoon is? From the book?”
She nodded. Their mother had bought them a book about monarch butterflies in Mexico, and Angel read it to his sister, pointing out the places the butterflies went in Mexico—where their mother was from—and in the U.S.—where their dad was from.
“It’s a butterfly egg.”
“Yes. Butterfly eggs. There are four on Grandma’s window. Go get them.”
“To get them,” Rachel Mary repeated.
“Yes, get them and move them to safety.”
“Where is safety?”
“Away from Grandma.”
“Away from Grandma.”
“Yes. Grandma will flush them down the toilet. She’ll kill them.”
“Kill them, Angel?” Rachel Mary whispered.
“Get them and put them in my Treasure Box.” Normally, she wasn’t allowed to touch, let alone open, Angel’s Treasure Box. Her eyes widened more.
“Angel, your Treasure Box!”
“Yes. Behind Badger”
“Badger looks sad.”
“Badger is not sad. He just looks sad to confuse the bad guys.”
“Like the Cartels?”
“Yes, like the Cartels. Badger looks sad to confuse the Cartels. He is very scary. But only against the bad guys.”
“Angel, is Grandma a bad guy?”
“No. But we can’t be sure when it comes to scientific experiments. Because she doesn’t believe in science—remember, Dad said?”
“OK. Because she’s Katolik.”
“Catholic. Yes. Can you do this?”
She nodded vigorously.
“Good. Don’t tell. Afterwards I’ll read you the butterfly book. Go! Hurry!”
Rachel Mary headed back to the attic window and climbed in. Then she leaned out and asked, “Angel?”
“I have to tell you something.”
“What is it?”
“Can I tell Pee-O?”
“Can he keep a secret?”
“Yes, he can keep a secret, Angel.”
“OK. Go!” Angel turned back to the clouds and folded his hands across his chest and let out a long breath. It would be OK.
Rachel Mary carefully stepped down the ladder—hand, hand, foot, foot—until she was on the carpet. Then she ran into her room to find Pee -0 and wrapped him in his favorite blanket, for the adventure.
Mr. Rotbaum had finished his magazines and wandered back upstairs to find his son. He passed his mother-in-law’s room and heard snoring.
He walked past his daughter’s room and saw her playing on the floor with her pillow.
“Everything OK, Rachel Mary?”
“Did you do your shapes today?” His daughter nodded. Mr. Rotbaum nodded and ducked into his oldest son’s room to help him study for tomorrow’s District Spelling Bee Tournament for Grades 6–8.
Rachel Mary listened to her brother shout out letters, but she quickly grew disinterested and went into the hall towards her grandmother’s room where she heard snores. She slowly pushed open the door.
Around 7 p.m. there was a sharp call from the kitchen.
“Mama! Mama, dinner! Dov! Rachel Mary!” Mrs. Rotbaum de Morales shouted up to her family as she lit the candles in the dining room. The brisket, tender and soft, was bubbling in the oven, and the potatoes and vegetables were on the oven covered in foil. She surveyed the room and, satisfied it was proper and beautiful, removed her apron and started pouring water into glasses.
The first to arrive was Mr. Rotbaum, who was hotly trailed by Dov, complaining loudly.
“Dad, that’s not fair!”
“I just think there are kids there who won’t make that mistake. Eighth graders, seasoned eighth graders. You have to be prepared. You didn’t know loquacious. You need to know the words, like loquacious.”
“Loquacious. L – O – Q – U – A – C – I – O – U – S. Loquacious.”
“Well, sure, you know it now, after I told you, but a few minutes ago you couldn’t say it without a pause. Pauses aren’t good, son, they aren’t good. First you pause, then you stutter, then the buzzer sounds, and you get disqualified. If I’ve seen it once, I’ve seen it a million times.”
“Basta! Dinner is ready. Sit!” Mrs. Rotbaum passed her husband the water jug to keep refilling, and placed the napkins at each of the settings.
“Mom, Dad said that I am going to lose the District Spelling Bee Tournament for Grades 6–8 tomorrow!”
“Calmate, nino, He’s teasing, Joshua be kind.”.
“All I said was if he pauses and doesn’t know words like loquacious, then he had better be prepared for an eighth grader to walk away with the District Spelling Bee Tournament for Grades 6–8 Trophy.” Mr. Rotbaum shrugged.
“Dad! That’s so unfair! You’re so unfair!”
“Sit! Dov—sit! He’s teasing. Rachel Mary! Where is that child? What is she doing? Mi amour, go get her, bring her down.”
“Bring her down? She’s almost five—if she can’t walk down on her own by now. . . What is it with kids in this family? Can’t walk, sneaking in to their Grandmother’s room-”
“My room? What about my room? Who was in my room?”
Grandma entered the dining room. Her face was covered in fresh, pasty make-up, but a seam from her pillow was visible down her left cheek. Her hair was combed and shiny.
“Nothing, Mama, nothing. Were you napping all afternoon? Did you not go to Mass?”
“No. I was for long siesta.”
“Do you feel OK?”
“I feel fine! I don’t want people going into my room! Everyone is sneaking into my room. What is for dinner? Brisket? This awful meat. Angelita, why you no make el huachinango ni los chiles rellenos like I taught you? You turn your back on your Mexico.”
“You didn’t teach her to cook, her nanny did,” Mr. Rotbaum said under his breath to his mother-in-law, who started to yell in Spanish until her daughter intervened.
“Enough! Dov, go get your sister. And brother. He’s on the roof.” Mrs. Rotbaum ignored her mother and husband and instructed her son as she carried the brisket to the table.
“Why do I have to? What am I a servant?”
“Dov!” his mother snapped.
“Dov Antonio!” both parents snapped, and Dov threw down his napkin, marched out of the dining room, stomped back upstairs to his room where he grabbed a sweater, and climbed up the ladder to the roof to sulk..
Angel stirred and shivered. The sun was sinking and it was growing chilly. He wondered where his sister was. He wondered if he’d be out all night. He wondered about the cocoons. He wondered what’s for dinner. Then he remembered it was Friday. He remembered the brisket.
“Angel” a voice hissed. It was Rachel Mary, climbing out onto the roof—this time wearing her school backpack with both a pillow and a book sticking out of it.
“I brought Pee-O.”
“Did you do other thing?”
“Yes.” She crawled up to where he was sitting and took off her pack, pulling out her faithful companion and their favorite book.
“But the eggs weren’t on the window like you said.”
“They weren’t on the window?”
“They were on the table. Near the window.” She scrunched Pee-O behind her and opened the book to her favorite page, one at the end that showed a swarm of the butterflies leaving Mexico and flying north.
Angel shrugged, “There were four of them?”
“And you put them in the Treasure box?”
“I did. And Angel?” She looked at him.
“Can you read this to me?”
He took the book, flipped back to the front, and began reading. Not a moment later, their brother popped his head out of the attic and told them he was coming out too and they had better make room.
Mr. Rotbaum wasn’t especially close to his mother-in-law, but he tried to be convivial because he loved his wife and she loved her mother. His mother-in-law had moved in six months ago when she became weary of the violence in Veracruz and decided to leave Mexico before she was kidnapped or worse.
She had announced her arrival with a note to her daughter on perfumed mauve monogram stationery:
I am leaving Veracruz before I am kidnapped or worse. I will come to live with you. I know I am such a burden, I know I would do anything for my children. All my friends say, Santa Elena, no hay nada que no puede hacer para tus bebes . . . The sacrifices I have made, losing you to the United States and then to a Jewish husband—ah Dios Mio, what I have endured. And now, these Cartels. I pray to God. I pray every night. Gracias a Dios that they have not poisoned me in my sleep. They will come for me. The Cartels will come. . .
The letter continued with a few more lines about her sacrifices and some other gossip about the Cartels and closed with her signature—large, flowery, and taking up half the page. “Like she’s signing the Constitution or something,” Mr. Rotbaum always said.
“Who on earth would kidnap her?” he asked of his wife after she told him that her mother was coming to the U.S. “Incompetent criminals. That’s who. She doesn’t have any money! We don’t have any. I can’t believe she put that in about ‘Jewish husband.’ She’s unbelievable.”
“Shhh, Joshua.” His wife put down the letter and sank into a kitchen chair. “Madre de Dios,” she muttered. “What are we going to do?”
“We’ll get her in a home,” Joshua said. “She’s not staying here.”
“She has to stay here until we find a home. She’s already sold her house!”
“No, dear. The bank repossessed her house because she spent whatever was left of your family money on a piece of wall from a local swimming pool that had a water stain—probably a urine stain—that vaguely resembled the Virgin Mary and then donated it to the Catholic Church! Cartels, please. She’s broke. She’s coming to live with us, so she can break us too.”
“She is family. You do these things for family.”
“Fine. We can put her in the garage.”
“Mi madre no va a dormir con los autos!” Mrs. Morales said angrily, and although her husband didn’t really understand Spanish, he understood his wife’s tone.
“No, I mean above the garage. It’d make a nice bedroom. Put stairs on the outside. I’ll finish it up, boys’ll help. We’ll make it nice. Crucifixes and Holy Water. You know, kosher.” He laughed.
Mrs. Rotbaum ignored her husband and left for church—for the first time since Rachel Mary was born—to pray to God that her mother wouldn’t be kidnapped by Cartels and that her husband would be—but only long enough to teach him a lesson.
Five months later, the garage remained unfinished, Angel moved in with his sister, and Grandma took his room. Mr. Rotbaum had put up a few menorahs around the house in response to the growing number of crucifixes that had appeared days after his mother-in-law’s ascension.
When they faced each other this Friday across the dining room table, they began with their usual greetings.
“So how are the Cartels these days?”
Grandma took a potato from the serving plate. “Mi amiga, Juana, says that her dog was kidnapped last week, and now she pays.”
“Her dog. Cartels are going after the dogs? Why would people pay money to get their dogs back?”
“My friend pay for the dog.”
“Well, when people flash their wealth, and treat their dogs better than they do their servants, then they can expect to be robbed by those who have been left out of the society they’ve created.”
“Tu sabes nada de Mexico.” Her volume rising.
Mrs. Rotbaum came in the room, putting the remaining food on the table. “Mama, do you have your pills? Necesitas mas agua?”
“I have water.” She looked around her place. “Where are my pills? I left them upstairs.” She looked at her son-in-law but he wasn’t looking at her. “Angelita?”
“Joshua, go get Mama her pills.”
“Send one of the kids. Where are the kids?”
“Angel is on the roof.”
“There is an angel on the roof?” Grandmother looked up, eyes wide.
“No, Mama, Angel, mi Angel, tu sabes—you know.”
Mr. Rotbaum muttered, “Why did you want to donate the entire roof to the Catholic Church? There wouldn’t be confusion if he had a normal name. Whoever heard of a Jewish kid named Angel?”
“Who heard of Mexican named ‘Dov?’” responded Grandma loudly.
“He’s not Mexican. He’s American!”
“Enough! Joshua—pills!” His wife hit him with a napkin, and Mr. Rotbaum stood up, pushed out his chair abruptly, and marched upstairs. A second later he called down, “Hey—where are they?”
“Next to my bed,” his mother-in-law said quietly.
“Next to her bed!” shouted Mrs. Rotbaum.
Mr. Rotbaum returned with four pills and put them in front of his mother-in-law. She tossed them into her mouth two at a time and washed them down with water, all while delivering a withering stare at her son-in-law, who was cutting the brisket and serving her a piece.
“We eat together tonight—Jewish, Mexican, American, Catholic. Where are the kids?” Said Mr. Rotbaum as he handed his mother-in-law her plate.
The three Rotbaum de Morales children contemplated the sky.
“Did you know the highest clouds are called cirrus?” said Angel.
“Cirrus. C – I – R – R – U – S. Cirrus,” said Dov.
“Cir-cus,” whispered Rachel Mary quietly, clutching Pee- O and leaning on her backpack.
“They are made of ice. Because it is so cold,” continued Angel.
“If they are made of ice, why don’t they fall? Ice is heavy? Haven’t you ever heard of gravity? G – R – A – V – I – T – Y. Gravity?” asked Dov.
“Maybe sometimes they do fall,” said Angel.
“Then, how can we still see them if they have fallen?”
“Maybe they are near the angels, and the angels have them on their backs, and they hold them up!” said Rachel Mary.
“Angels. A – N – G – L – E – S. Angles,” said Dov. Then they were all quiet as the sky gently shifted.
“Hey, that’s not how you spell it!” shouted Angel at his brother, who was laughing.
“Took you long enough! You don’t know how to spell your name!” Dov giggled, and then Angel giggled, and then they were all giggling.
Downstairs, Mr. Rotbaum was about to leave once again to get his children when his mother-in-law started coughing. She coughed once and pounded her chest. He stared at her, not sure what to do. He refilled her water and handed it to her.
“Here, drink this.”
“Mama?” Mrs. Rotbaum looked at her mother.
Grandmother held up her hand and pounded her chest with the other. She kept coughing.
“What did you give her?”
“Nothing! She just took a bite of brisket and started coughing. I didn’t do anything!”
“Mama? Agua? Are you OK? Mama?” Panic flew over her face, and she turned to her husband.
Then, as suddenly as the coughing began, it stopped. Grandma shrugged, “God punishes for not going to Mass today,” and took another bite of brisket. No sooner had she put it in her mouth did her face twist up like a balloon had trapped in her esophagus and was slowly extending up to her throat, her chin, her cheeks, and even to the loose skin around her ears.
“Mama?” said Mrs. Rotbaum.
“Elena?” said Mr. Rotbaum.
The flames on the candles flicked, and the windows rattled. Then the room was silent.
Grandma looked down at her plate, Mr. and Mrs. Rotbaum looked at each other. No one said anything.
“B-L-L-L-L-L-E-E-E-E-E-E-E-C-C-H-H-H-H-H-H!” Grandma clutched her mouth, her eyes wide and shocked by the sound that had emanated from her deep recesses.
Dona Elena Maria Morales Championes was a fragile but proud woman. She had a large bosom and small eyes. She loved her daughters and her home country. And liked to play bridge and took pills for her blood pressure. And in all her life, she had never once, not once, belched. Not in public, not in private, not ever. The shock of this washed over her as whatever was in her system was prepared its next assault.
“MAMA!?” They shared glances and then directed their gaze to the slab of meat sitting on the table in front of their gastric-challenged relative, a slice missing.
Mr. Rotbaum acted. “I’ll just get this out of here.” He picked up the plate in front of his mother-in-law, rushed back to the kitchen, and dumped it in the trash. “Shit,” he said to himself.
A steady chorus of “H-I-C, H-I-C, H-I-C, H-I-C” floated from the dining room. His wife came into the kitchen and whispered, “She probably just ate too much. We give her water, she’ll be fine?” But she was uneasy. She had never seen her mother in this state.
And then they smelled it. Coming from the dining room. Something horrible, earthy, and ripe.
“This horrib—HIC—le taste, what—HIC—is it? It—HIC—‘s poison! POI—hic—SON! H-I-C Cart—H-I-C—ells!!”
“No, mama! Not poison!” Mrs. Rotbaum assured her mother. But neither she nor her husband could deny the foul smell coming from her mother.
Mr. Rotbaum covered his nose with a napkin.
Her mother’s face was red, and her eyes bloodshot. “The meat, wha—HIC—t was in the meat? A hor—HIC—rible taste. A hor—HIC—rible, poison—HIC—taste!”
“Nothing was in the meat,” said Mrs. Rotbaum hurriedly. “Just brisket. Mole. Like every Friday.” But her mother wasn’t listening. Having figured out how to talk and hiccup at the same time, she started shouting about Cartels and assassinations.
“Joshua, we have to tell her. We must tell her,” Mrs. Rotbaum said over the noise. “She thinks she is being poisoned.”
Mr. Rotbaum shrugged. “Your mother.” But he took a step back.
“Mama, there is no poison! There are no Cartels. The meat . . . the meat, there wasn’t anything wrong with it, but—well—the meat fell on the floor. Just for a second, though.“
“WHAT!—HIC—You give me —HIC—meat fro—HIC—om the floor—HIC—?” She stood up, pressing down on the table and pulling the tablecloth towards her under the pressure. The action accelerated her hiccups. “Fo—HIC—od—HIC—from—HIC—the FL—HIC—OOR—HIC!?”
“Mama! It’s a clean floor! I just cleaned it! It fell, there was a commotion—it wasn’t there for more than a second, was it, Joshua?”
“Well . . . not more than five.” His wife punched him in the ribs, and he turned around to suppress a smile.
Grandma glared at them with the weight of all of her ancestors and all of their ancestors—and the Virgin Mary and the Baby Jesus and every prayer she had, she said: “I go—HIC.”
“Mama, adonde vas? Where will you go? Eat something. The meat is fine. Or bread?”
“No. I GO.” She made a cutting noise with her hand across her throat and pointed out, to the outside. “I go. To Octavia.” The emphatic nature of her decision seemed to compose her body.
“Who is Octavia? Is that a saint? Is she saying she’s going to kill herself?” Mr. Rotbaum whispered to his wife.
“No,” his wife whispered back. “Her friend from Veracruz. In Naperville. Big house. Lots of money, space. Left Mexico because of the Cartels, but she is going traveling for a month, so the house will be empty. Except for her staff.”
“Your mother has a rich friend from Veracruz over in Naperville who has a big, empty house full of staff, and she’s still here?!” He raised his voice at his wife, who looked at her husband in the eyes, long and hard. She touched his arm and then seemed to grab onto it, squeezing it to such an extent that it seemed that holding on to her husband’s arm was all that was keeping her on her feet. She searched his face, and he leaned in to kiss her forehead.
“Come on, Abuela. Let’s get you upstairs. You have a nice siesta, and in the morning I’ll drive you to Octavia’s house. No need to worry about your things, we’ll get them to you. We’ll hire professional movers. Catholic ones, who know how to move crucifixes,” promised Mr. Rotbaum. He gently supported his mother-in-law’s arm up the stairs as she stopped to hiccup every three steps and curse the Cartels.
Mrs. Rotbaum, alone in the dining room, felt a growing feeling that her house might again be her own again. She felt a tickling sensation near her mouth and flinched in response. Then she put her hand up quickly to her face and covered a smile. Pretty soon, she was smiling beyond her hand. Then she was giggling. Then laughing. After a few minutes of pure soul-cleansing laughter, Mrs. Rotbaum got up, threw down her napkin, took a long drink of wine, and crossed herself.
Mr. Rotbaum came back after a few minutes and said, “She’s fine. Just fine. I’ll take her in the morning. We’ll get the garage done while she’s gone, and then we can move her and all of her stuff there.”
His wife smiled at him. “You sure she’s OK? That smell, though, what was that?”
“No idea. She’s burning incense. I never thought I’d appreciate incense, but it’s better than whatever the hell that was. Holy God that was vile!”
Mrs. Rotbaum went upstairs to say good night to her mother but noticed she was snoring, the curtain next to the bed blowing slightly in the night breeze. She thought about shutting the window but thought it wasn’t too cold, and the air needed to circulate. She kissed her mother’s cheek and closed the door softly behind her.
She saw the ladder to the attic and climbed up.
On the slightly sloping shingles, she saw her children. All lying on their backs in a row, looking up at the sky. She could hear their voices, excited, laughing, the occasional raised voice of one of the boys. They’d have fun fixing up the garage with their dad. A nice summer project. She climbed back down, went into her bedroom, pulled off the bedspread, and dragged it back up the ladder.
Dov sat up when he heard his mom climb through the window. “Oh, hi Mom!” The other children sat up and noticed her, and then squealed when they saw her pull the large comforter through the small window.
“Can we sleep up here? Mom, please? Mom!?” they cried over each other.
“We can stay up for a bit, not all night. I thought you might be cold.” She lay down between Rachel Mary and Angel and spread the comforter over all of them.
“Mom, can I tell you something?” Rachel Mary asked.
“Si, carino, what is it?”
“Me too. We’ll ask your Dad to bring up sandwiches when he finds us. Right now he’s probably cleaning up.”
“Mom, will he find us?”
“He will. I left a sentinel.”
“Yeah, Pee-O II is down there guarding the ladder He’ll tell your father to come up.” Rachel Mary was satisfied.
“Mom! Sentinel S-E-N-T-I-N-E-L!”
“Lovely Dov. Good work,” she said confidently. “Angel, you must be tired. Did you think we forgot you?”
Angel shrugged, “It’s ok. I was taking to the clouds. But I’m hungry too.”
She hugged her son and they all took turns thinking of words for Dov to spell.
About 15 minutes later, their father poked his head through the window. “Dad! Dad! Did Pee-O II tell you where we were? Did you bring sandwiches? Can you bring sandwiches? Make sure Grandma doesn’t come up.”
Mrs. Rotbaum looked at her husband. His shirt was wet right above his waistline. She smiled and said, “Thank you for doing the dishes. Come on out.”
“Yeah, Dad, come out!” the kids shouted together.
“Yeah, yeah. First, I have to go downstairs and clean The Virgin Mary off the wall in the kitchen.”
They all looked at him, silently, they couldn’t tell if this was one of his jokes.
“The brisket . . . no, never mind. It’s nothing.” He left the window and went back downstairs.
There was a break in the conversation, and they heard grandma snore. They all giggled, burying their faces in the comforter.
A few months later, by the end of August, the garage was done and ready for grandma. Mr. Rotbaum had installed a bathroom as well as a small kitchen. The boys had helped—even Rachel Mary had picked up nails dropped in the grass and returned them to the nail pail. But then it turned out that their grandmother wasn’t ready to move back in yet—she and Octavia were going on a trip to the Costa del Sol. She said maybe in the spring, maybe, she’d move back. They saw her occasionally, and she gave them dulces and spoke Spanish with them to feel better about not spending more time in their company.
The garage apartment became a playroom for Rachel Mary and Angel, who now had more than enough space to conduct scientific experiments. Which was important because their collection of natural items was increasing owing to their many trips to the lot.
To their disappointment, however, the cocoons never hatched. Angel watched them closely but they just kept getting harder and whiter until they made a “ping” when Rachel Mary dropped one on the bathroom tile. Angel knew something was wrong. They looked in the butterfly book, but it said nothing about hard and white oval eggs that made “ping” when dropped on bathroom tile.
Angel knew they were dead. He gently told his sister.
“Rachel Mary.” He handed her Pee-O, which she took. “I think the cocoons are dead.” She nodded, taking this in.
“Angel, I have to tell you something.”
“What is it?”
“They are with angels.”
“Yeah, I think they are.” She seemed happy, so Angel was happy. The next day, Angel took her to the lot, and she found berries that Angel said they could use as dye to make a pink bandanna for Pee-O. They smushed the berries on one of their mom’s dust clothes and Pee-o was pleased with his new attire.
That night Angel helped Rachel Mary read the words to their new favorite book, Polar Bears in the Arctic, Dov practiced more letters in front of the mirror, and Mr. and Mrs. Rotbaum lay next to each other up on the roof, hands connected. on the still-warm shingles, watching the late evening sky.
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