Jennifer Maritza McCauley is a freelance writer and graduate of the University of Pittsburgh. She is presently working toward an MFA as a Knight Fellow in Fiction at Florida International University. She has won FIU’s Graduate Literary Award for creative non-fiction and earned an honorable mention in Glimmer Train’s Short Story Contest for New Writers. She has contributed to The Florida Book Review, Miami’s WLRN.org, Gulf Stream Magazine and Daily Love.com. Her most recent work will appear in First Inkling Magazine. McCauley currently works as an intern for The Florida Center for the Literary Arts.
Three days after my eighteenth birthday, Horacio Costa returned to my mother Ida in a dream. My grandfather haunted the Costa family, sometimes. Horacio’s ghost would return on the holidays—perhaps a Three Kings Day or Easter Eve– and snatch open Aunt Nela’s pantry door. He slept, wheezing, beside my mother’s footboard until her wedding day. On some choice nights, Horacio would press his blood-wet forehead against Abuela’s lips and whisper, “Te culpo. Te amo.” The Costas don’t sniff at his spirit.
The morning after the dream, Mom slogged down the stairs, murmured slivers of sentences, and joined me at the breakfast table. I didn’t notice her immediately. I was preoccupied with the pleasantness of the May morning. Sweet, sun-dusted winds shuffled in through the window above the sink. White-yellow light soaked the kitchen, brightening the caramel of our cabinet doors. I layered the belly of my biscuit with butter and flipped through a Time magazine. I swallowed a tongueful of hibiscus tea and peered up at my mother.
Her eyes were China doll-wide, her mouth wrenched down. Her ink-black hair was uncombed and wooly at the ends. I watched her dip two onion-colored fingers into a Vaseline container. She slathered the jelly on her chin, her forehead, the space below her eyes.
“Are you all right?” I asked. “You seem off. A lot.”
Mom twisted her body to the left, checking for my father. She turned back to me. “I need to go back to New Britain. Will you book the trip for me?”
“Are you… serious?” I nearly knocked over my mug in surprise. “Why now?”
My mother’s eyes flashed. The truth came next. She hadn’t slept well, she said. She dreamed her father was a shadow-man. He skittered about through the streets of New Britain, without ankles, without his rosy-brown feet. He wept, called out to my mother in Spanish. Idie, do you still love your Papi? Regresa a mi, mija. (Come back to me, my daughter).The dream repeated again three times that night. A terrible sign, Mom claimed.
“I haven’t had these dreams since I was in college.” My mother continued, “Your grandma saw something too, last week. My father’s ghost snuck up on her while she was reading and said, ‘I’ll see you soon.’”
My mother wasn’t a superstitious woman; I never thought she’d take a dream so seriously. I assumed all the ghost-talk of the last few years was just old Santeria beliefs re-emerging.
“Jennie, will you come with me?”
Of course, I would join her. I’d heard wonderful stories of New Britain throughout my childhood, but I’d never flown up to the Connecticut town. Although most of my mother’s family still leased apartments in New Britain, Mom rarely visited. My mother left New Britain at seventeen, the year she graduated from high school, the year Horacio’s skull cracked open. When she returned home for college breaks, Ida was greeted with her mother’s growing insanity. Grandma Elisa would slam loaded guns on the table after supper and scream, “Remember your father!” She ripped apart my mother’s graduate school papers and slit the soft throat of Mom’s pet rabbit. She threatened to disown my mother for dating my father, a black medical student. Grandma sobbed, “If you stay with that negro, you’ll lose us! We won’t forgive you!” During these summers, Grandma insisted my mother sleep beside her in the same bed Grandma shared with Horacio. The two Puerto Rican women would lie sweaty and awake, listening to Horacio ruffle the curtains until sunrise.
After my mother married, she cut herself off from New Britain. She grew weary of Elisa’s venom, the prying neighbors, and the mournful wails of ghosts in the walls. Even her most joyful teenage memories of the town were overshadowed by one, powerful event. In my mother’s eyes, the town was drenched in Horacio Costa’s blood.
“Well…I mean, when do you want to go?” I managed to say.
“Are you free next weekend?”
Ida and Jennie, Costa-McCauley Family! Bienvenidos (Welcome)!
A cardboard sign with our names jerked up and down over a tide of multi-colored heads.
“Hey, Mom. One of your relatives has a sign for us!” I yelled behind me, butting shoulders with another happy patron of the Bradley International Airport.
Mami grabbed my arm and shouted back, “That’s Eto! He’s one of your relatives too, Jennifer! My aunt’s son!”
My mother and I weaved through the airport crowd: teenagers with circus-ring earrings, Latino men with blonde suits and toothpicks betwixt their teeth, white women with piled-high coifs.
My grand-aunt’s son, Eloy or “Eto” awaited us at baggage claim, jigging his hips and waving the neon sign. He looked thirty-ish, his skin the color of burned flatbread, his tight curls greased flat on his scalp. A too-large Nike jersey engulfed his long frame and a faux gold bracelet gripped his wrist. One earbud protruded from his left ear, reggaeton music dribbling from the speaker. He glanced up and noticed my mother.
“Ida!” He flung the sign to the floor, rushing forward and embracing Mom. He lifted her up in the air, rocked her back, and forth. She howled, “Eto!” and giggled like a little girl. When he released her, her face was hot-red, aglow.
“Eloy, Eloy! You’re a man! When did I see you last? What happened to my little Eto?”
Eloy laughed. “Ay, time and food got to me. It’s wonderful to see you, Senora.” He kissed her cheek and glimpsed back at me. “That’s the daughter, eh?”
He approached me for a hug, and I tensed my biceps. I wasn’t good with introductions, as usual. In addition, this bronzed man greeted me as family, but he didn’t feel like family. His facial features were wider, plumper than my mother’s, his skin four shades lighter than my father’s. He spoke with a clipped drawl, a diluted street accent. Eto didn’t remind me of anybody I knew. I forgot to extend my arms at the proper time and Eto ended up embracing my shoulders, awkwardly. “Nice to meet you.” I mumbled, blushing. Eloy stepped back and punched my shoulder. “Look at you, girl. All nervous. How old are you, nena? Fourteen? Fifteen?” I didn’t respond. I was eighteen, but too embarrassed to correct him.
Eloy turned to my mother, “All right. You guys should get some food. My mom and Grandma Elisa might have some leftovers. They made ceviche last night.” He fluttered his fingers at me. “Does this little gringa know what ceviche is?”
I answered for myself, “I mean I do…when I was in Puerto Rico I-.”
“No. We didn’t eat it there.” My mom cut me off me, chuckling. “Our Jennie’s very American.”
I shrugged off her comment. When we visited Puerto Rico two years before, my American-ness was apparent, blinding. My draw to New Britain was in part to support my mother, in part to study her natural environment.
Eloy pumped his fist. “Okay, my little ladies. Vacation time!”
My mother’s narrowed her eyes, grimly. “No. It’s not a vacation for me, Etocito.”
Eto packed us into his old ‘98 Honda and roared down I-91, south of the airport. Mom sat next to me in the backseat, her shoulder pressed closed to mine.
“Thirty minutes to go.” Eto said brightly, “The distance from Hartford to New Britian is like thirty minutes, tops. You guys excited?”
“I am, definitely,” I said, glancing at my mother. She didn’t respond to Eto. She gripped my fingers tightly. I squeezed her hand.
I was anxious. To help Mom through her process, however, I masked my feelings with big-toothed smiles and an “I got this” tone. I knew I was in the mother-role for this trip. Mom was weaker in her thinking now, and she looked to me for support, for a steady hand. I reassured her throughout the plane ride, “You’ll be fine. This is good for you.” She said, “Yes, yes”, and swallowed a butter cracker whole. Still, as Eto’s Honda cleared the Waterbury exit, a bolt of fear sizzled through my wrists. My mother was in New Britain to say goodbye to a ghost.
I leaned against the headrest and fell asleep to the sound of Eto’s high, sing-song voice. When we reached New Britain, my mother slapped my shoulder.
“We just passed the welcome sign. We’re entering downtown,” She said hoarsely.
I turned to the town. Sunlight splattered through the open car window, staining our jeans, our blouses. We passed Cape Cod-style homes with steep, amber roofs. One-floor cottages sat snuggly next to saltbox-style homes, homes made of bleached wood. Eto swerved by City Hall, a Venetian, brick, and brownstone building. Down N.E. Street stood the Anvil bank, a Romanesque limestone structure with brass quatrefoils and gothic two-bay windows. My mother ignored the historical buildings. She pointed to the ITT tech headquarters, the Bank of America tower, the McDonalds.
“Jesus. What happened here?” Mom said, “It’s ruined.”
I didn’t think the area was ‘ruined’. While Pittsburgh was blackened with soot, iron-dust and bold industrialism, New Britain seemed fresh, quaint, picturesque. To me, the corporate buildings were like friendly visitors, not trespassers at all.
Eto slowed down as he navigated his way through downtown. The main square was flanked by winterberry bushes, a rough-cut granite church and the New Britain Public Library.
“Ah, Jennie! This was my place!” My mother pressed her nose to the glass. The Library was a modest, gray structure, with rope moldings twisting around arched windows. I tried to imagine my mother as a child, skipping up the short flight of steps, pausing between the library’s long, fluted columns. I couldn’t. For so long I thought, irrationally, selfishly, that my mother’s life began when I was born.
“Can we take the Lafayette way to the house? I want to show Jennie the Puerto Rican street.”
Eloy cocked an eyebrow and twisted his mouth. “You sure you want to start the trip off that way?”
“Ay, come on! Let’s go, let’s go, Etocito!”
Eto obeyed. He took a left on N.E. 7th street to Lafayette. The atmosphere shifted dramatically. We were two streets away from downtown and the historical, carefully-crafted structures had already vanished. The New England-style homes were replaced with dirt-spotted Chinese buffets, a Dollar Mart with barred windows, and a check cashing store with graffiti scrawled across the glass doors. The streets were vacant, save for two jibaros (Puerto Rican country people) smoking and guffawing, and a young Latina proudly combing her cherry weave. In the alley between a store labeled MATTRESS and another labeled Rainbow, a man lay across the top of an old gray Chevy. He wore no shirt, his spongy belly exposed and sucking in sun. When the Latina passed, he wrenched his neck up, following her with dark, watchful eyes. He mouthed, “Ai, puta (bitch)! Give me some of you!”
We passed an alley, and I immediately smelled the dense piquancy of pot. My mother’s face darkened. I rolled up the window, embarrassed for her.
Mom sighed through her nose. “All the Puerto Ricans used to be down here. It was wonderful when I was younger. We had lovely shops, so many bodegas. This is the street where my father owned his restaurant. Palomos. They’d turn it into a nightclub on Fridays and Saturdays. Everybody would go to Palomos for his sancocho (traditional Latino soup with meat) on Tuesday night. Seeing the way this all looks now, it’s disheartening.”
I agreed. As a child, my mother would tell me only good things about Lafayette. The dancing, the cuisine, the panderias, and poker matches. I always imagined Lafayette as a Puerto Rican magic land, like the neighborhoods from The Wonderful Ice Cream-Suit. I opened my mouth to comfort my mother, but I couldn’t think of anything useful to say.
“The Mexicans came in and fucked up everything.” Eto said apologetically, as if the Mexicans alone could be blamed for my grandfather’s death, and the deterioration of the street. “There are turf wars. People are selling hard drugs, soft drugs. Man, I got in a fight with this one cholo cat, damn, I’ll tell you. Made up some lies ‘bout me. ” My cousin told a brief story about a Mexican man who betrayed him, who told the cops he sold bad weed. “This is a small town, so any little crime makes the paper. They had my face on the front page of the Times. My mom was really ashamed.”
“That’s terrible.” My mother shook her head. She sympathized with Eto, but from her expression I could tell her mind was swimming about in the 1960s. She was trotting down Lafayette in canary lace. Mothers were greeting mothers as they bustled home with bagfuls of batatas (sweet potatoes) and plantains. An old man with bent knees and baby-soft hair hollered at a teenage boy, “Oye! A lo meno tu eres joven!” (“At least you’re young!”). She was skipping into her father’s restaurant, the air thick with the scent of brining chicken and peppery hot pork. Her father bellowed into the smoke, “Ay! Idie! When you settle in, get table four, eh?” He always played the same song on his jukebox at 4pm. Some Guayanilla countryman crooned, “Un cigarillo y un café ‘; para olividar a mi amor.” (“A cigarette and a coffee to forget my love.”)
“Can we stop here?” Mom asked. We’d reached the end of Park Street, two lights down from Lafayette. Eto, our ever complaint tour guide, slid to a stop.
“Ay Maria!” He laughed, “Aren’t you guys hungry? Everyone’s waiting for you.”
“Eh, Eloy, Etocito just give me a second…” My mom grunted. “Stop here.”
Eto pulled over in front of a four story, red-brick tenement. My mother remained in the car for a few moments, holding her breath. She said:
“This is the last place my family lived before I went to college.” The translation: This is exactly where my father died.
My mother pushed open the Honda door, and I followed her outside. Eto stayed behind, sensing he wasn’t required for this part of the trip. My mother and I lingered on the sidewalk, gazing up at the building as if it were some Baroque painting. An iron, once-white fence hugged the structure. The windows on the topmost floor were drenched in black paint. A lawn with anorexic, yellowed blades of grass cowered miserably behind the fence.
“I don’t think we can get in.” I said, “Pretty sure the place is locked.”
“Oh I know…” My mother led me by the wrist into an alley adjacent to the building. I craned my neck to make sure Eto was watching us. He was. At this point, I was sort-of certain Eto could “go thug” if need be. My mother paused at the mouth of the alley and smiled. “We used to hang our clothes outside, here. They had lines out set up then.” She stretched her neck up and scanned the left face of the apartment complex. Dark, engorged vines twisted up the crimson wall, curling around the window frames.
“The third window from the left. That was our living room. Your grandmother says Papi’s spirit returns to that room sometimes.”
She’d never called him Papi around me before. I looked back at my mother, ugly, jagged feelings rattling about in my body. Her face was plaintive yet angelic, her mouth still. Was it blasphemous to think, for a moment, that my grandfather was a demon, not just a ghost? Only a spirit from hell could damage my mother so terribly. What father would haunt and ruin his own soft-hearted daughter? Was I selfish to want my mother to remember me more than him?
I know how my grandfather died.
Horacio Costa’s skull split in his living room, thirty-four years ago. He passed on a Sunday evening, on his favorite day of the week. Each Sunday the Costas would host a gathering for neighborhood friends and family members. Horacio would cook up large pots of asapo de pollo, of funche, and sticky mofongo (fried plantain-based dish from Puerto Rico), perhaps a sugar-dusted loaf of pan de aqua (water bread) if he were in the mood. New Britain Boriquas (Puerto Ricans) would saunter about the living room, standing with their plates, picking at rice, waving forks as they choked out the gossip of the week. My mother usually stayed in the kitchen, to tend to the food. Now that her brother was off to college, and her sister’s belly expanded, Mom’s job was to sweep up the floors and scrub down the plates. On that particular night, my grandfather was trading stories with Ricardo, a young policeman with a brusque voice and a shadow of a mustache. Horacio leaned back into the recliner, sitting a skinny man’s sit, with his legs open and hips angled sideways. He shook his head, tugged his lips downward. He was routinely unhappy, Mom told me. Horacio stuffed his darkness underneath wide grins and warm, savory food.
Sometimes my grandparents fought.
Horacio’s wife Elisa stood in the corner, her arms folded. My grandmother mouthed “look at you, perezoso (Lazy). Lazy ass!” to her husband, and then repeated the phrase for friends to hear. Apparently, Horacio hadn’t given Elisa enough attention at another gathering the night before, and she felt embarrassed. Horacio ignored his wife. He pointed at the gun fastened to the young man’s holster.
“Ay, is that loaded?”
“Nah, man.” Ricardo smiled. He puffed out his thin chest-bones. “But I mean, I’ve used it. Obviously.”
“No shit…” Horacio said, impressed. Ricardo beamed. He lifted the Ruger single-six and handed the gun to my grandfather. Ricardo said, “I know you’ve been looking at it. I saw you.”
Horacio whistled, weighing the weapon with his hands. “Jesus.”
My grandmother called out, too loudly, over the music, “Horacio! Looks like Ricardo’s giving you an idea!”
My grandfather glowered at Elisa, a dark line creasing his forehead. He lifted the single-six and pressed the chilly steel to his temple. “Oh, like this you mean? You think this is a good idea?”
A few family members clapped and whistled. My seventeen year old mother appeared in the doorway, a plate of biscuits in her hands. She wandered over to Elisa.
“Why is Papi playing around like that?” She turned to her father, “Oye! Papi! You’re not funny. I’m not laughing.”
Her father smirked. “Hey, your Mami wants me gone. Whatever she wants goes, eh? You want me gone too, Idie? You want me to pull the trigger?”
My mother bit her lip and said, “Whatever. You wouldn’t do it, Papi.”
“Let him do it!” My grandmother said, “One less bastard in the world!”
Horacio’s head exploded. Bits of brain and blood splattered on my mother’s shoes, a chunk of cranium smacked against the wall behind Horacio with a wet thud.
Ricardo was wrong. The gun was loaded, had one bullet left.
Everyone screeched then vacated. Ricardo too. He fled, to report the incident to the police and save his ass. Elisa ran too, somewhere, in fear.
My mother remained, clutching the biscuit tray.
I learned the truth about my grandfather two years before our trip to New Britain. The story came randomly, organically, while my father was away on business. I remember not speaking after my mother finished; I remember wrapping my arms around her. I remember feeling, selfishly, that this woman was an imposter. A woman with this sort of history was a miserable, dreary person. Not my mother.
After Papi died, I always felt un-whole. Mom told me, Like I couldn’t love the whole way. Your father always said I was a dark woman on the inside. I tried to fight that darkness, for you, if anything. I didn’t want you to see me miserable.
On that May evening, I watched my mother. Her eyelids fell halfway, she lowered her head. Where was she? Was she reliving that day…should she? Panic pricked my throat and I swallowed it down. At that moment, the fiery Ida Costa Barry transformed into a damaged girl from New Britain, a girl who spent her entire life pushing down her past. I feared Horacio’s ghost.
Was his spirit circling us now? What could I do, if anything? Would he take away my lovely mother, my mother?
We skipped dinner to see the gravestone. Mom wanted to speak to my grandfather first, before she visited my grandmother and cousins. “I want to get the hard part over,” she explained, as Eto rumbled up Walnut Hill. We passed a forest of coppice drenched in mist; we inhaled the honey perfume and apricot blossoms of the Walnut Hill flower garden. The sun crumbled behind a coral-colored skyline.
Eto waited by the gates of St. Mary’s Cemetery. My mother and I thanked him, exited the car, and padded across patches of sweating grass, up a slope of upright headstones.
My grandfather didn’t have a headstone. His memory was immortalized by a foot-length “flat” near the back of the graveyard, one white square amongst hundreds of others.
My mother kneeled to the ground and tucked her legs underneath her behind. She brushed the filth from the stone, tenderly.
She said, “Hey, Papi.” Mom closed her eyes and mumbled in Spanish, too quickly. I couldn’t understand her.
I stepped back and wiped my face. I didn’t belong here. I didn’t know Horacio. To me, he was decayed bone, fistfuls of dirt underneath a stone.
I kneeled down a respectable distance away from my mother. I faced Horacio’s grave and prayed.
Bless you, Abuelo. Give my mother happiness. Remember, she’s not just your daughter. She’s mine too.
When I looked up, my mother was staring at my nose. She rose to her feet, dusted off her knees. “I have to get some flowers. Bring them here tomorrow.”
I stayed on the ground, searching her face.
“Did…” I licked my lips. “Do you feel any better? Do you feel like his… spirit…I don’t know…” I couldn’t finish the sentence. I felt sacrilegious speaking about spirits in front of Horacio’s grave. I felt foolish speaking about ghosts at all.
My mother smiled and shrugged one shoulder. “A parent never leaves you. Good or bad, ghost or not. But you asked if I feel better?”
I nodded, slowly.
She leaned forward and kissed my forehead.
“I don’t know. I think so.”
She helped me to my feet, my mother again.