The phone calls from my grandfather began after Charlie Palmieri died. Grief-stricken, my grandfather called each time one of his favorite musicians passed away. Delicately, he announced the passing as if it were that of a family member or someone we had actually known. The calls had little to do with any ability on my part to appreciate the musicians he revered. He turned to me by default; none of his children shared his interest in the music. My mother and uncles eschewed all things Puerto Rican, and his second set of children shunned his tastes, preferring hip-hop and Top 40 tunes. Though not the aficionado he was, I had spent my summer vacation humoring him, and now he treated me like a fellow enthusiast, viewing me as a sympathetic comrade, a person who shared his first family’s blood but not its resentment.
The first call came on a weekday evening in mid-September. Summer wouldn’t officially end for another week, but I had already started school. I was back in Brooklyn, completing my new junior high school homework at the kitchen table, when he called.
“Nena,” he said. “I’m glad it’s you. I have very bad news. Charlie has died.”
“Charlie Palmieri,” he said impatiently. “Remember I played ‘Porque me Engañas’ for you? That’s his song.”
“I’m sorry to hear that,” I said, baffled by his ability to grieve for a stranger.
“Yes, me too,” he said. “Such a surprise. A tragedy. Nobody could expect it.”
Silence stretched between us, but my grandfather stayed on the line. So I asked, “How did he die?”
“The heart, nena,” he said. “It was his poor heart.”
In the living room, my grandmother, mother, and two uncles huddled around the tv watching news of Hurricane Gilbert, the tropical storm that had been whipping Jamaica for the past two days and was rumored to be headed our way in New York. I turned away from the footage of Gilbert’s wreckage—destroyed crops, homes, buildings, and aircraft—to look down at my books open on the kitchen table, at my pencils next to the roll of paper towels and the canister of salt.
“He’s in a better place now. Better the next world than this one,” I said, repeating words of comfort I’d once overheard my grandmother give.
There was an intake of breath on my grandfather’s end. “So true,” he said. “Thank you, nena.”
“Do you want to speak to anyone?” I asked. “They’re all here.” “Maybe another time,” he said. Then he disconnected the call.
They had made a gift of me, sending me to him the summer I was twelve. Three days after my sixth-grade graduation, I’d boarded a plane for Puerto Rico, traveling with my grandfather’s sister, Titi Inez. For me, it was a summer of firsts. I had never met my grandfather and I had never been on a plane. Between the two, meeting my grandfather frightened me most. The little I knew of flying had come from watching Airplane!, so I expected it would be all in good fun and—secretly—I hoped for a seat beside Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. My family tried to prepare me for the journey, but my mother and uncles had been on a plane only once themselves, flying as young children to make a similar trip across the Atlantic to see the father who had neither loved nor wanted them enough to stay.
I had hoped never to meet him. He was the husband my grandmother had chosen not to remember, the father my mother and uncles refused to claim, the grandfather I knew only through pictures. I didn’t want to spend a month of my summer with him, but I was to be a peace offering, an olive branch extended between families, sent across the ocean to knit back wounds whose ragged edges had grown frayed with each passing year. Too bad I knew nothing about peace or diplomacy. Why my grandmother wanted me to visit was a mystery to me; she could hardly expect me to love a man who had caused her so much pain. “Give him a chance,” was all she’d said. “Let him tell you his side of the story himself.” I’d lived with one side of the story my whole life—the true side. Living in a house filled with his absence, I had no desire to meet a man who was unconcerned with what his desertion had done to all of us. My mother and uncles had grown up without him. While he had been beginning anew in a warm and sunny climate, his abandoned family had struggled just to get by. I’d watched my mother and my uncles nurture a self-wounding hatred for him. Denying his existence wasn’t easy. After all, he had left the three of them with his face. He was there in the reddish undertones of their skin, in the deep hollows of their cheeks, in the broad noses and the thin upper lips so unlike that of their mother. They could not discard him as easily as he could them. And, too, there was Titi Inez, his sister who still loved us as an aunt. She brought us stories of his doings. It was she who had told us when he moved from Bayamon to San Juan, when he bought a second car for his second wife. We couldn’t shake stories of him. Even in his absence he was there, a mocking presence.
He’d been waiting outside the San Juan airport in a dusty green station wagon. As soon as he and Titi Inez saw each other they hugged and lapsed into Spanish, completely ignoring me, uncaring that I couldn’t understand a word they said. I watched him while he ignored me, taking him in. The man I had pictured failed to merge with the flesh-and-blood one before me. His kinky hair, gnarled close to his head, was more gray than black, he was not as tall as my tallest uncle, and his face—plain, broad, and scowling—was red from overexposure to the sun. His ugliness was a disappointment. I’d assumed that a man
capable of devastating one family, then picking up and jumping into another woman’s arms without so much as a by-your-leave would be unbearably handsome, but my grandfather was not such a man. Perhaps he had been in 1952 when my poor, foolish grandmother had agreed to marry him, but he was no longer.
After I got in the car, he tossed our luggage into the backseat beside me and took off, driving faster than anyone I’d ever seen drive before, heedless of other drivers. Neither he nor Titi Inez wore seatbelts, but I strapped myself in. The entire car was hot. When I scooted across the seat the leather burned the backs of my legs, and when I reached for the seatbelt its fibers and metal clasp were hot to my touch. I fidgeted, wedging my hands beneath my thighs to block the heat.
He watched me in his rearview mirror. “What’s wrong with her?”
he asked my aunt in English. “Does she have to go?” Answering for myself, I said, “I’m hot.”
“You’re on an island,” he said, as if he were talking to an imbecile. “Puerto Rico is an island.”
“So is Manhattan,” I fired back. “It’s not this hot there.”
“So is Manhattan!” he repeated, laughing. He met my gaze in his rearview mirror, smiling approval at my cheeky comeback. “Yes, they did say you were smart. There, on the left. Roll down your window. You’ll be cooler.”
I rolled my window down, which only made the heat worse. The air came in a hot slap. My eyes felt suddenly dry. I rolled the window halfway back up and huddled away from it and the sultry air.
Titi Inez left the next day for Santurce, leaving me to a house full of relatives and strangers. My grandfather’s children, Chalí and Cristina, took turns entertaining me. On the weekends they took me to Luquillo Beach, to Old San Juan, to El Morro, and to the movies to see Big and Who Framed Roger Rabbit? On weekdays they invited over Isi, a plump girl who knew no English but came with dolls and spoke the language of Barbie. Weekday evenings, they turned me over to my grandfather. Each evening I kept him company as he ate in front of the t v in the living room and watched baseball. After the game he played records, drilling song after song into me along with the names of musicians—Blades, Colon, Lavoe, Nieves, Palmieri, Puente—who meant nothing to me. He identified instruments: guiro, timbales, trumpet, bongos, cowbells, congas. I couldn’t tell any of them apart. I was unused to hearing bands and orchestras. Occasionally my mother played Earth, Wind & Fire records, but most of the music I listened to at home was synthesized. Back at home, I had a Casio keyboard and at the press of a button I could have a host of instruments and prerecorded beats. I believed that you needed only an emcee, a deejay, two turntables, and speakers to make music. I had no experience with songs that required some ten or twenty people to make them a success.
These evenings, he offered no explanations for himself, unaware that I expected them. For him, I was something like Switzerland, a neutral entity, but one he hoped could be swayed. I went along with everything but laid in wait for him to reveal his true colors. I considered myself a spy in his house, a mole planted there to uncover his wickedness. Loyalty pushed my anger; love fueled my mistrust. At night, after everyone was asleep, I reconnoitered, walking barefoot through the one-level home, marveling at the ever-circling ceiling fan, the glass tables, the fat couches, the cool floor, the two cars parked by the side of the house, and the yard behind it overhung with coconut trees, wondering who my mother and uncles might have been if they’d lived in such a home raised amidst such privilege.
When the records failed to bring me over to his side, he drove us to Bayamon to see Héctor Lavoe sing live in concert.
Seeing the singer required our patience. We arrived only to wait in a disappointingly empty open-air arena. On all sides of me people spoke in Spanish. The audience thinned after the first hour, while we stayed and waited. As we waited, the people around us chanted the singer’s name, demanding his presence. Dressed simply in a square- shouldered cotton shirt with vertical lace patterns down the front and tan slacks, my grandfather sat with his hands beating a pattern upon his knees, patient and excited. He cared nothing for the wait. Of all the musicians he made me listen to, this tardy man was his favorite. If we had to wait until morning for him to appear, we would.
I began to fidget. To keep me distracted, my grandfather had plied me with a piragua, but after I’d scooped the shaved ice into my mouth and sucked the cherry flavor out, I was bored once more. Finally, I asked, “Why is he so late?”
My grandfather placed a restraining hand on my knee and said, “He’s worth it.”
When I was about to argue the point, he cut me off, saying, “We have to forgive him, nena. He carries ghosts with him. Demons. He’s a tormented man.”
“Can’t he get rid of them?” I asked.
“Nobody can escape them. You just have to stay out of their reach for as long as you can.” My grandfather looked down at me then, catching sight of my fear. “Don’t worry, nena,” he said. “Just do like Héctor.”
“Give them one hell of a chase.”
Sitting there in the open arena with the air close and hot, yet comforting, I asked what I wanted to know. Lowering my head, I focused on picking at the strings of my cutoff shorts and asked what happened between him and my grandmother.
“Your grandmother didn’t work. She was lazy,” he said. “My wife now works all of the time and she still had time to take care of the children.” It was an unfair comparison. His wife now was healthy, but my grandmother had been sick her whole life long. Two ectopic pregnancies in between the three children she’d delivered had ravaged her body, weakening her already ill frame. His wife now had the benefit of living near her family and could rely upon help with her children, whereas he’d dragged my grandmother away from Brooklyn and across multiple states where she knew no one, had no help, and had to do everything alone. In a time before daycare centers, my grandmother had been burdened and overwhelmed. His abandonment had impoverished us. Thirty years old with failing health and three children under the age of ten, my grandmother had been no match for the life to which he’d left her. Abandoned in an unfamiliar city with no support system and no income, she had been forced to wait until her mother and sisters could save up enough to send for her and her children. She’d returned to Brooklyn defeated and disheartened. By the time I knew her, she was old and weary. I wanted to point these things out to him, to let him know what he’d done to us, but instead, when I lifted my chin to answer, I asked, “Didn’t you ever love her?”
“Shh,” he said. “Héctor is coming to the stage.”
AMINA GAUTIER is the author of the short story collection Now We Will Be Happy (University of Nebraska Press, 2014), which won the Prairie Schooner Book Prize and of the short story collection At-Risk (University of Georgia Press, 2011), which won the Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction. Her short stories appear in Best African American Fiction, Glimmer Train, Iowa Review, Kenyon Review, and Southern Review among other places. Find her at http://aminagautier.wordpress.com/
Excerpted from Now We Will Be Happy by Amina Gautier by permission of the University of Nebraska Press. © 2014 by Amina Gautier. Available wherever books are sold or from University of Nebraska Press 800-848-6224 and at nebraskapress.unl.edu.