Manuel cancelled our meetings the next few days with embarrassed apologies, as if because of a colleague’s negligence and not his granddaughter’s birth on the sofa in the presence of a hung-over consultant come down from America on the heels of a broken engagement. He gave me suggestions for where I could go to keep from feeling cooped up in The Hotel California, and over the next few days, I followed his advice. I took cabs into town and walked streets near the city center, watching street vendors sell pickled pigs’ lips, ten year olds hawk neon-colored candy while playing reggaeton on a boom box at their feet, and elderly women walk stooped over with shawls over their heads. Was this was the life Mercedes and her newborn daughter were destined for? Until recently, I hadn’t been accustomed to churning over family issues. That very week, back in Denver, an advocate I’d hired had sent off legal documents to open my adoption file, and to think of it then made me wonder: this child’s father supposedly roaming out in the Western distance, Mercedes on a sofa with Tita—this was something like how I might have gotten my start.
The third day after the birth, I had lunch by myself at a café next to a diminished fountain that gurgled water into a pool overrun with near-naked boys. Across a walkway from that scene, I sat beneath a covered patio with a fan overmatched by the heat, and the brightness of the sun kept me from looking too closely at passersby. When my meal came I ate it slowly, happy to have the day to myself and nowhere to be. As I waited for the server to clear the table and bring me coffee, the sky around the square darkened, and in the faltering glare I could make out the faces of the boys in the fountain more clearly. They splashed water on each other’s brown bodies, their tender feet oblivious to the hard brick edges of the pool. Colors sharpened. As the waiter set my coffee down in front of me, I saw a young woman humming, carrying an infant in a sheet fashioned into a sling. I could hear her beneath the shrieks of the boys, whose mothers called out for them to leave the fountain for the threat of lightning. A fork of lightning split the sky. Everyone flinched except the mother. She wore sandals that flopped softly with her tiny steps and a loose dress that hid her form. She kept the rhythm of her mumbled song as she walked. She was gorgeous and she looked so kind that I forgot for a moment why I’d come to Poza Rica in the first place. When thunder boomed a few seconds later, she turned her face toward me to look up at the sky, and only then did I see that it was Mercedes with Tita. My heart leapt. Something about her posture and the desolation of the square recalled scenes on the plain with Marilyn Monroe in The Misfits. I longed for them to join me, and then realized stupidly that I should ask them to. I called out to her, and she turned. It took her a moment to recognize me. I saw the relief in her face and it made me wish for an instant that I were Tita’s father. I motioned for her to join me.
“Thank you,” she said as she sat down. Tita slept on her chest in the sling.
“Do you want a break?” I asked.
She didn’t understand.
“May I?” I said. I extended my arms toward Tita.
She said something curt, trying, it seemed, to be polite. I let my steaming coffee sit on the tabletop. For a few moments we watched the storm. The rain fell in sheets and the square emptied. The temperature dropped. I covered my arms and made a shivering noise. Mercedes smiled at that, and I smiled back. The waiter came and asked her if she wanted anything. She shook her head no, but I interjected. “Please,” I said. The server turned toward her, waiting. She relented, rattled off a quick order, and the boy bowed and walked away.
“Thank you,” she said again.
Another thunderclap hit. Tita squirmed in her arms. Mercedes tried to shush her, and for the moment it worked. Still, she seemed awkward holding the baby as she did, the weight borne more by her arms than the sling. An older woman came to the table. She bowed in apology to me for the interruption, and then turned to gush at Tita. Mercedes took the compliment with a nod and forced a smile. I wished I could interrupt but I didn’t know enough to say anything. The older woman asked a question and extended her arms toward Tita. Mercedes tightened her shoulders and considered whether to acquiesce. Hesitantly, she offered her child to the stranger. The old woman took a moment to coo over the baby and then sat down next to me. She positioned the baby in her lap with Tita’s head facing up and began to explain. Mercedes listened with a chiseled smile. Tita squirmed and eventually burst into a full infant tantrum.
“Oooooh,” the woman sighed. She made a pouty face and pinched Tita’s cheek. Tita cried louder, and the woman put her hands to her heart in apology. Mercedes tried half-heartedly to reassure her. The exchange stretched on painfully before the woman returned Tita to Mercedes and backed away, acknowledging the scene she’d caused. Unconvincingly, Mercedes assured the woman that it was all right. When the woman left, Mercedes turned to me and rolled her eyes.
Enough is enough, I thought. I got up to sit where the old woman had. “Here,” I said. I reached my hands out to her lap. Mercedes didn’t stop me. In my arms, Tita’s cries intensified. I held her up to my shoulder and whispered into her ear. “Little girl, what’s wrong?” I said. Mercedes hawked me, just as she had the old woman. I rocked Tita on my shoulder but it didn’t help. I started to sing the lyrics to “Hush Little Baby,” but a few lines in, I realized I didn’t know the next one. When I stopped, she cried louder than ever. Mercedes looked me in the eye and shook her head in exasperation. Nervously, I laughed in return. Maybe it had to do with how my body vibrated through the laugh, or maybe she’d already begun to cry herself out, but Tita’s cries began to soften. As they did, Mercedes gaped. I kept chuckling to encourage the quiet. I struggled to sustain the sincerity of the laugh, and at some point, a note of falseness entered into it. Tita’s whine revved up again. Mercedes laughed, and so did I. The pattern continued until Tita had cried herself out and fallen back asleep, and the waiter had returned with a plate of beans and rice for Mercedes. The scene attracted the stares of other diners. They smiled the universal smile of approval at the sight of a father forging a rapport with his infant child. Tita’s eyes stayed closed, and I bent my head down to her tiny face so I could avoid the sight of so many witnesses. The moment passed. I felt eyes lifting off me. When I looked back up, Mercedes and I sat unwatched with the child. Mercedes chowed down on her beans and rice, apologizing in gestures for her hunger. I waved it away and urged her to continue. She leaned back, put her hands over her belly, and sighed. I noticed her swollen fingers, her dirty dress, her tiny body folded in the embrace of the wicker. “Thank you,” she said, for the third time. From her purse she pulled out a wallet-sized card and put it on the table, a punch card for a coffee shop in New Orleans. She gestured for me to take it. I realized then that she’d expected to pay for her meal. I waved her offer away but she insisted, and so I nodded and picked up the card. Satisfied, she reached out for Tita. We stood up to exchange her. I crouched my shoulder down to her level, and as I did, I smelled the earthiness of her hair, felt her breath on my neck. I could feel myself getting an erection. Tita felt weightless as I transferred her off my shoulder and onto Mercedes. The baby secure, she sat back down in her chair. I followed suit quickly to hide myself. I scratched the whiskers on my face and looked out to the desolate square, where she’d appeared just before the rain.
“Do you know Marilyn Monroe?” I asked.
“Marilyn Monroe?” she echoed. To show she understood, she made a coy face, pinky to lip and eyes raised, then laughed at her own performance.
“I liked her in The Misfits. Do you know that one?”
“Misfits? Yes yes yes!” she exclaimed. She began to sing the lyrics to “Die, Die My Darling” in an accented English that melted me. Really, it should’ve been just a funny misunderstanding, but in a whisper she sang: Come crying to me now, baby. Your future’s in an oblong box. To the child, her meager voice became a lullaby. To me, a summons. My heart was a murmuring father telling a story, a story of what I’d be when I grew up. On the table, my coffee sat untouched in my cup, tepid from the passage of time.
-- In addition to attending Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference this August on a work-study scholarship, Manuel Sanz had stories appear in Puerto del Sol, Fifth Wednesday Journal, Chariton Review, Xavier Review, RE:AL, and other literary magazines. Sanz teaches writing at the University of Denver.