Edited by Andrea Spofford | Barry Kitterman | Amy Wright
My mother grew up in a small town called El Pilar, where her father was the pharmacist, which back then made him a public figure, like the mayor or the priest. She was a country girl. “Boy, did he love it!” she used to say, about her father. One year, he organized one big, town-wide raffle and dance to collect money to build an old folks’ home. Until the day he retired, he kept a ceramic statue of little Saint Tarcisius on his glass counter, and people deposited the change they got from the purchase of medicines in the coffer the boy held in his hands. Everything that went in the coffer, my grandfather would bring to the home. My mother used to tell me, not only did the home still stand, but her father’s name greeted anyone who entered. My mother and my Aunt Eva used to talk with such longing about the grandfather I never met, and about the town, that I started longing for it all, too, but when I asked if we could visit El Pilar and see the home and the old pharmacy, my mom’s eyes got so narrow that I could only see the irises, and she would say that all she wanted in life was peace, and that was why she had left the town. She would lose every little bit of it she had managed to gather if she went back.
She valued her peace perhaps as much as she valued me, and when she sensed something that threatened it, she said and did the most disconcerting things. When I told her I was dropping out of college, she locked herself up in her room and started wailing like an animal. After she finished, she sat next to me in the dining room and called Aunt Eva to tell her the news, using every variation of the word “crazy” she could think of. The day she found out she had about a month left to live, she started to rant about how “this country goes crazy at the end of the year. All those fairs and festivals and parties. People drinking on the streets at all hours of the day. At least I’ll be gone before I have to go through one more Christmas full of depravity.”
Nothing threatened her peace more than any mention of my father. When I was fifteen, I came home from school one afternoon to my mother and Aunt Eva whispering to each other in the kitchen about someone seeing Morocho in downtown Medellín, walking down the Junín passage without a care in the world, and how they couldn’t believe he was still alive and out of El Pilar. When they saw me, their eyes grew the size of Spanish limes. Then my aunt started asking how my day was and if I had any boyfriends and when I was going to get a haircut because I would look so much prettier.
When she left, my mother started grinding corn for the empanadas she sold to our neighbors on the weekends.
“So you know where my dad is?” I asked. “Can I talk to him?”
She stopped cranking the grinder, took two steps toward me, and slapped me. Later I stood in front of the mirror, removing yellow corn guts from my cheek and smiling. My mom liked to make a big scandal, but she rarely hit me. So my father and El Pilar were related. So whatever this thing about him was, it made her lose every bit of her precious peace. Now I knew something concrete, something beyond her usual accusations against him.
I kept pushing her after that, but she’d had years to prepare, and she wasn’t giving anything away. Pushing her buttons grew tiring. In my late adolescence, among the clumsiness of dating, secondary school graduation, dropping out of college, and getting a job, I forgot all about it.
As she lay in bed, a couple of days from reaching her final peace, she reminded me of what I’d forgotten. She looked thinner than even before she had me and spent her time in and out of a dazed consciousness. Lucidity visited her only a few times toward the end, and during one of those times, she asked me not to look for my father.
“He’s not a good man,” she said, trying to squeeze my arm with her bony fingers. “He isn’t, he isn’t. You know.”
I stared at the yellow, shiny hollowness of her face and at her powder-blue nightgown. I knew nothing. Everything—that a woman like her would even allow cancer to take over her body, the words coming out of her mouth, the way I so easily filled in the word “Morocho” when she said “he”—felt like part of the cruelest, most elaborate lesson she had prepared for me. Even in her most erratic moments, I couldn’t have imagined this would be what she would choose to say when words became so precious. The sudden way she grabbed my arm as I sat on the bed, causing me to drop the prayer book I read to her sometimes, and sank her fingers, like pigeon claws, into my flesh, startled me. When she tried to raise her face to mine, so that she could look me in the eyes as she gave me her final order, I felt the questions and the anger from the fights of my teenage years. I wasn’t a teenager anymore, but I thought maybe I wasn’t too old for a final, definite fight, either.
“What did Morocho do to me, Mama?” At the mention of his nickname, lines I had never seen before appeared across her forehead.
“He abandoned you,” she said. What left her throat felt like whistling wind on a stormy day and impending death. “That should be enough. But if you want more, he chose a gun over you. He chose to be a terror to the place where he was born, where we conceived you. He chose that over you.”
“What terror?” I asked, knowing she was too agitated and that she might drift off again, maybe forever.
“Terror. Terror. Thoughtless, savage. A criminal.”
My cheeks grew hot. I felt furious for letting her trick me into caring again, only to give me the same old answers. I tore her hand off and stood up. Now my voice bounced off the pale walls against my mother’s bed, her chiffonier, and the pictures of saints and pill bottles on the nightstand. Now I remembered those secondary school days, when I told myself I would look for him as soon as I left her house, when we got into arguments our upstairs neighbors could hear, and when, for days after a fight, she set plates on the table, but didn’t call me to eat, and didn’t sanctify me before bed.
“If he’s looking for me, you might as well tell me because I will find out,” I said. “I will ask everyone I can think of, and I will find him.”
“I was the one waiting for you…three in the morning,” she said. Her face took on the color of an old newspaper. “My heart broke when you dropped out. I would have been the one…giving you away at your wedding. Not him. My daughter.”
“What wedding? How do you know there’ll be a wedding?”
“If you try to find him—” she said and trailed off to focus on her breathing.
I saw in her eyes what she was saying, though. If I tried to find him, I was his and only his.
I rode home from my mother’s burial in my cousin Juan José’s Twingo. He kept turning his head toward me, like he wanted to tell me something. Aunt Eva wept in the back seat. Her crying came in waves, at first like a succession of sighs and then growing into wails like the noise of a passing ambulance.
Juan José and I were close as children. Aunt Eva used to take care of me when my mother worked, and he took me out for bike rides or to play hide-and-seek with his friends. When I no longer needed someone to watch me, we grew apart. I didn’t see him much since he had started studying law, until my mother came home from the hospital and she needed someone with her at all times. He started to show up at our house every evening and sat with her for hours while he studied. He was very much the kind of child I should have been to my mother.
Sometimes I joined them. I asked him how he could spend so much time with her, and he said he didn’t sleep anyway. We talked about how much I used to love his lime green bike and how some day we would like to visit the place where our mothers grew up.
Now the car got stuck in traffic by the old Alpujarra train station. Cars in front and next to us stopped and started and stopped again, heaving. Drivers sat inside with half-closed eyes. The rosaries hanging from their rear view mirrors swayed, as if God were rocking everybody to sleep. Aunt Eva blew her nose and sighed the way the buses sighed when their drivers hit the brakes, the clutch, the brakes.
“Now we’re alone, Sara,” she said, putting her pudgy hand on my shoulder. I turned and watched her crooked lips and the eyes that looked at me with the same pity of all the people who had come to the funeral, and I did feel truly alone.
“You have Juan José,” I said.
“God knows he’s the reason for my happiness. But now I have no husband and no sister. To be the last when it seemed like we had so many more years to go. What sadness!”
She began to sob again. Juan José tried to soothe her with words I didn’t listen to. She said we were alone, but Juan José would continue to console her until she stopped grieving. My mother would have been the one to do that for me. I thought of the people at the wake and the burial, looking for men I didn’t know who looked like thugs.
“Aunt, do you know where my dad is?”
“Your mama was right,” she said and blew her nose. She looked like a puffer fish. “The last days she kept telling me she was convinced you still wanted to find him.”
I laughed. My aunt’s eyes narrowed into two dark slots. It was no use explaining that, had my mother not mentioned Morocho, I wouldn’t have gotten curious about him again. Juan José watched me. He had put gel in his fine black hair for the occasion, and it made him look like he had just stepped out of the shower. His mouth hung open like a fish’s.
“It drove her to despair, Sara,” my aunt said. “What an insolent child.”
“Ma, not you too,” Juan José said. “It’s not the time. And honestly, I hope Aunt Emilia rests in peace, but she even drove me crazy with this crap. Believe me, I would have told her to shut up if she hadn’t been sick.”
His only rest the past few weeks must have come in the hours he spent on campus, away from his mother and my mother and me, and I could see how weary he felt.
“Does she know where he is, Juanjo?” I asked.
“I don’t know,” he said.
“I think you know, Aunt. She trained you well.”
“Did the three of you drink the same crazy juice?” Juan José said. “I went with Aunt Emilia’s nonsense because she was suffering so much, but what’s your excuse?”
Twenty minutes later, I opened the door to a house without my mother. Juan José followed me. My aunt waited in the car, blowing her nose as loudly as she could. I passed the closed door to my mother’s bedroom and entered mine. After I kicked off my heels and lay on my bed, I noticed Juan José standing in the threshold.
“You know where the bathroom is,” I said.
“Dude, I suggest that you take a very long nap and when you wake up, you ask yourself if you really want to find this guy. Or keep being a dick and wasting your time trying to get back at a dead person.”
I walked to her bedroom. The cool tile through my pantyhose became the only lovely thing I had felt in days. I opened the door.
“I’m going to pack up this stuff. If Aunt wants it, you can come pick it up tomorrow. If you don’t come, I’ll get rid of it.”
“Okay, okay, I get we’re all feeling a little off, but don’t fucking tell me you don’t want to keep anything of hers. That’s bullshit,” he said, shrugging off his father’s oversized blazer, and he left.
About a week before she died, she asked me to find a brown folder in her chiffonier. I opened it and found my old vaccination cards, a notebook sheet with a list of phone numbers, our house lease, and a savings account book. The account had over seven million pesos. It was in both our names, and it had been opened on April 12, 1981, a month after I was born.
“I didn’t want you to miss out on your education because we didn’t have enough money. I never imagined you would reject this gift. I don’t know what I did wrong. If my dad had given it to me, I would have never said no.”
She still left me the money because, as she put it, she didn’t know how I would fend for myself after she was gone.
I had shut her bedroom door right after the funeral home people picked up her body. Now, less than two whole days later, the waft of her old flowery lotions and rotten cells kept me from moving beyond the threshold. I slid to the floor and sat for a long time, never quite drifting to sleep. Then I stood up and found her old suitcase and some cardboard boxes, and started to pack her things. I didn’t look through them—she had made sure to leave exactly what she wanted to leave me before she took her last breath.
El Pilar looked like an accidental town. Its location, halfway down a here-naked, there-verdant, mountain called Piedra Verde made it look like it had once sat at the top, and an earthquake, or some other decree of divine fury, had tumbled it down to the place where it sat on the day I arrived. The town itself was a patchwork of colonial structures, like the blinding, limpid white church, and new, sanitized, streamlined buildings, like the police station, which I later found out had been erected after a rebel attack destroyed the old one.
I also learned my grandfather’s pharmacy became part of the second category around the time my mother and I started to wage the war of my teenage years. On the corner where once stood the tall building on whose façade he had painted a sign advertising bee glue and sarsaparilla and pot marigold and cat’s claw, now stood a sober, white building with fluorescent lights and the orange and navy sign of a well known chain. When I stepped inside, a boy wearing a huge lab coat asked what he could help me with. I traced the length of the glass counter with my eyes. It was shiny and spotless, and on top of it sat the cash register, not a statue of a boy in a light brown vestment holding a collection box.
“Do you know the family who used to own this pharmacy?” I asked.
He didn’t know, of course. He called me Madam. I didn’t bother to ask about Morocho.
I walked the town center several times and stepped into restaurants and bars, where old men in felt hats ogled me as I asked the bartenders if they knew my grandfather or Morocho. Some of them remembered my grandfather as the pharmacy man with the house on the corner and the two girls who sometimes invited them over to play chemist with the sets he had brought them from Medellín. At their tables, on top of which stood dozens of brown bottles of beer, they told me about my grandmother, who gave them green apples and bananas as snacks, when all they wanted was some deep-fried yellow potatoes sprinkled with salt. When I asked one of them about the retirement home, his face lit up for a second. He said he remembered, but I should ask father Otálvaro.
When I asked about Morocho, their pale faces fell. They said they didn’t know anyone by that name and asked why a nice girl like me was going around town by herself asking those kinds of questions. Then they went back to their sweaty beers or shots of aguardiente. That became my cue to leave.
The next day marked one month since my mother’s death. I attended mass and put five thousand pesos from her account in the collection basket. I asked God what I was doing. I asked Him to tell me if this gnawing I felt really was rebellion because if it was, my mother should know, wherever she was, that she hadn’t been right in calling me a rebellious child, until now.
After mass, I visited Father Otálvaro at the rectory. He had short-cropped, schoolboy hair, thick horn rimmed glasses, and a jowl that jiggled when he spoke. He smiled and embraced me when I said I was Uriel Pabón’s granddaughter. He said he’d anticipated my birth with joy, that he knew my mother well and that, before she moved to Medellín, they often met in the office where we sat now. I asked what he and my mother talked about.
“I don’t think I can tell you that,” he said, smiling, “but she was looking for guidance in troubled times. An ordinary thing in this town. She spoke passionately, sometimes verging on the vulgar, and those were the only times I had to reprimand her. Your aunt was much more delicate.”
My aunt and I argued the day before I left for El Pilar. She opened the door and, and upon seeing me, walked to the back of the house without inviting me inside. I followed her, passing the bedroom her husband used as an office when he was alive. It contained the boxes full of my mother’s things. In the patio, I watched her water her plants for a while, and glimmers of my mother started to fill my head. I saw her in the way my aunt held the hose, almost like a golf club, and in the dark, angular eyebrows, and the thin nose that pointed down to the tip of her upper lip. I recognized none of these features on myself. My skin wasn’t the creamy color of my mother’s or my aunt’s. My eyes didn’t disappear when I grew upset.
Aunt Eva started speaking, and though the strongest thing she called me was disobedient, I told her I was leaving to find Morocho.
“Can you tell me where her house used to be?” I asked Father Otálvaro.
“I can show you—there’s an apartment building there now. And I’ll show you the retirement home, though that has seen better days.”
“Did she have a lot of boyfriends?”
Father Otálvaro’s face became rounder and whiter, like a melon.
“Now why would you ask me that question?” he said.
“Can you tell me something about my dad?”
“But she said he’s from here, too. You must know things about him.”
He straightened in his chair.
“As a child, he was a small plague. He could never sit still and even when he kept moving he looked bored,” he said. He stayed quiet for a moment and stood up.
“If you would be so kind, I have an appointment. I wish you a safe trip back to Medellín and rest assured I will keep Emilia’s soul in my prayers.”
I walked up the street that led to Mount Piedra Verde. When the street started to flow into the mountain, I found a giant green house. Part of my grandfather’s hand-painted name had peeled off the façade. The house sat right next to a ravine with overgrown grass and a collection of half-open trash bags. It might have been the structure itself or the way my vision blurred as my heart beat faster, but the house seemed to lean, to slowly slide down the mountain. I turned around and walked back down the street, back to the town square. The hostel attendant handed me a note from the priest. It said I should go home before I lost my peace of mind. After I read it, I paid the attendant for another two weeks in my room.
December, the month my mother felt glad not to live through again, turned out to be quiet in El Pilar. On the first day, I had a sweet corn arepa and a glass of chilled Milo for breakfast at the church bakery. I continued to repeat the ritual every morning, sitting at an outside table. Sometimes the sweet guitar of a Christmas party song floated out the open windows of a passing car, but mostly the days stayed quiet and slow, as if the townspeople had already heard all the noise they wanted for a lifetime.
I only saw reckless joy and celebration during the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, when the whole town flocked into church for mass and then filled the square with lit candles and lanterns. Parents chatted and drank, while kids built spheres out of the wax from dying candles. I watched them be merry and talk about Christmas, and I forgot I was looking for something. I hoped El Pilar would absorb me, and its people would forget I continued to spend my days among them.
On the first day of the novena, the only day I saw fireworks go off in a distant patch of sky, two men, one about my age, the other in his fifties, sat on the bench from which I watched the Christmas lights that framed windows and doors around the square.
“Good evening, Miss,” the older man said. He was very tall, with thick arms the color of rotisserie chicken and a small tattoo on his bicep that said “Yurleidy” in sloppy cursive.
I motioned to stand up and the younger one, who wore tight red jeans and spotless white sneakers, touched my hand and said I shouldn’t worry, they just wanted to talk, but I should sit back down if I knew what was best for me.
“You’re not from here,” he said, smiling.
“We know everybody,” the older one said. “Where are you from?”
“Medellín,” I said, wringing the napkin I had used to hold a long-before eaten empanada.
“Yeah, you look like a city girl. Your name?”
I looked around. The people coming out of the novena had gathered around the popcorn vendor or marched back home. The ones sitting on benches talked with their heads together and averted their eyes, making it clear they knew who these men were.
“Sara,” I said. No point in lying. I felt certain they knew already. The young one talked about a Sara he had known in Medellín who wouldn’t give him the time of day. “Maybe you’re related,” he said and laughed a deep, loud, dopey laugh.
“So why are you asking around about Morocho? Is he here? Is he coming here?” the older one said.
“I don’t know if he’s coming. I came because I want to ask him something, but no one here wants to tell me anything about him.”
“But you knew to ask about him here.”
I told him the only thing I knew about Morocho was that he lived in El Pilar for a long time. “And that he’s a criminal. And that he’s my dad.”
The young one laughed and shook one hand in an accusatory way, while repeating the word “dad.”
“Of course,” the older one said. “You’re like the young, pretty version of that mess. So, Morocho’s Daughter, if you don’t know if he’s coming to El Pilar, why are you still here?”
“Are you telling us the truth?” the young one said. “If you’re waiting to meet up with him, we will find out, and you have to know that makes you a collaborator.”
Now the older one laughed.
“Listen to me, girl,” he said. “Your dad is scum. Guerrilla scum, which is the worst kind, the kind that killed a lot of our people and made a lot of them leave.”
He said last he’d heard Morocho was in prison, but since I’d come to town asking about him, he thought maybe he’d escaped and come back. “What a Christmas gift from the baby Jesus!” he said. If I did find him, I should tell him not to ever come back to El Pilar.
“Tonight we’ll have a party at Luis’ farm and you can come. There’s going to be lots of aguardiente, rum, and other things,” the young one said.
I stood up and walked away, as the young one yelled for me to remember Luis’ farm.
I crossed the square, unable to look at anything other than the cluster of red public phones that stood on the corner outside the pharmacy. I circled the phones. If I were to pick up the receiver and dial, no one would answer at home.
I could accept my mother was right. Did I want to be a criminal’s daughter? Did I want to find that part of me? How was it that I couldn’t pick up the phone and call my mother, so she could give me her answer to this question again?
I walked back to the hostel. The moment I stepped inside my hot, stale, messy room, I lay on the bed and cried. Over the following days, I grieved. I walked all over town and sat in the church and was followed by the boy in the tight jeans, not caring if he wanted to hurt me, until that Christmas Eve morning, walking up the path to the old folks’ home, I turned around to see if he was trailing me, and instead found Juan José trotting up to me with his mouth open, about to say my name.
“You didn’t look through her stuff,” Juan José said, putting one of my mother’s boxes on his dad’s desk.
Outside, the block party had begun. When Juan José and I got out of his car, one of the neighbors asked if he could park it at the end of the street to keep other cars from driving through. The block was lined with golden garlands, and green-and-red tissue-paper lanterns hung from light posts. A cumbia blared from a stereo outside the man’s house. Neighbors had placed their dining room chairs and end tables on the street. After the passing of the law, no pig would die on this street for anyone’s feast. Still, they would be eating and dancing.
I didn’t answer Juan José. I looked out the window, wishing I could join the revelers, receive a present at midnight, burn fireworks, and dance and drink until I felt like I would float off the earth. My aunt and cousin watched me with the same parted-lip expression.
“What for?” I finally said. My aunt handed me a newspaper clipping.
The short article talked about two rebels who were convicted after being captured trying to collect money from a group of farmers in El Pilar. One of the convicted was a man and the other a woman. The man’s name was Sergio “Morocho” Medina, and his capture had been possible thanks to positive I.D. from a number of townspeople who had known of his dealings for many years. He was in prison in Medellín.
“Okay, dude,” Juan José said. “I’m only going show you this stuff if you still want to find this little jewel of a man.”
“You shouldn’t do it,” Aunt Eva said, but her eyes didn’t narrow. She wasn’t mad anymore, just tired. I wished my mother had been capable of getting to such a point.
I read the article again before I set it on the desk. It read so insipidly, and the paper looked so yellow and dusty that, even if I had gone through my mother’s things, I might have thought it was just another useless souvenir. My mother, always with the upper hand. A vallenato boomed outside. Fireworks went off in my chest.
Juan José handed me a black-and-white picture of a man in his forties, looking directly at the camera, with the plainest of white walls behind him. Morocho’s hair looked dark, like my mother’s, but unlike hers, it was wispy and sat messily on top of his head, as if he had just come inside to get out of a gale. He had big, young eyes with two thick eyebrows, but all their exuberance got lost in the way his cheeks sagged, like a bulldog’s, and dragged his whole face to an expression of discontent.
I clung to his eyes, partly because they were an apparition and partly because they were mine. This lust, this alertness that was mine and his, how could it be for harm? But then, my aunt’s words, the quiet fear that covered El Pilar like sunshine, the men on the square, and my mother. My mother whom he had abandoned, whose heart he had broken.
“If you want to visit him, we have to go to court to get a permit,” Juan José said.
Still my mother, who to me was a blanket, a clever comeback, a cold shower, a raincoat, a late-night prayer, a pebble in my shoe, an undeserved insult. My mother, who had abandoned me too soon—it was too soon.
“Come, sit down, My Love,” my aunt said. She held my hand and dragged me to the living room, which didn’t contain a Christmas tree or a nativity scene or garlands, but still felt full of light and rejoicing when she sat me down on her couch, put her hand on my thigh, and told Juan José to bring me a tinto with one sugar, something nice and small that I liked.
I arrived at the prison at nine o’clock at night, and there was a line. The first fifty or so women sat in white plastic chairs, wrapped in blankets, clenching bags full of Sunday’s lunch between their legs. Where the chairs ended, people sat on the floor, corralled by metal barriers, and where the barriers ended, the line spilled onto the sidewalk and became noisier. I took my place and clutched the bag of pandequesos I had bought.
On the way there, I had passed streets full of people in farmer hats, who laughed and poured aguardiente into shot glasses that hung from strings around their necks. On the day before New Year’s Eve, they gathered outside their houses to make scalding sancochos or fragrant, sweet natillas. I had seen a man with white hair light the rocket in his hand with the cigarette that hung from his lips. As the cab drove away, I heard the rasp of the rocket taking off and the pop pop pop of burning powder. It was Saturday night.
“Remember where you are,” Juan José had said, after I insisted on coming alone, “and that you don’t know him, and that you will be in his territory. You don’t know him, Sarita. These guys don’t fuck around. Be very careful with what you say to him.”
I looked at the prison’s façade—cinder block with a metal gate in the middle. Outside stood a female guard, watching. On the left side of the gate greeted us a hand-painted message saying, Our human dignity is inviolable.
The woman in front of me, with a toddler clinging wistfully to her legs, pointed at my shoes and said, “You haven’t been here before.” Curly, thick, dark bangs partly covered her eyes and a few bright pink pimples sprinkled her cheeks.
“You can’t go in wearing those. You should go down to that kiosk and rent a pair of sneakers. I’ll save your place.”
I rented a pair of ratty Ked knock-offs for five thousand pesos and the pair I had come with.
She said her name was María. She asked my name and whom I was visiting. When I told her I didn’t know Morocho and all I had to recognize him was the memory of the only photograph I had seen of him, she gasped and with a husky voice said I was ballsy like the female guards. Over the next few hours, I told her every detail I could think of, starting with my grandfather, and she looked more and more amazed, as if whatever brought her here every Saturday night could be less than remarkable. We talked until hardly any fireworks exploded in the sky.
After two in the morning, a guard walked down the line to verify everyone’s permit and assign entrance tickets. When I showed him my permit and I.D., he said if I had any money, I would have to leave it at the gate, and I could get it back on my way out. He wrote a long number on my forearm with black marker. The name Montoya was embroidered onto a patch on the left side of his chest. He looked no older than twenty.
María rocked her sleeping son in her arms for a while and asked, “What are you going to tell him?”
I didn’t know. Before I knew what he looked like, I used to picture him at the age when he and my mother were together. Sometimes he was tall and thin and black, and other times obese, like my childhood friends’ fathers, or he had the muscles of a wrestler and blond hair, or a cigarette in his mouth. Sometimes he wore a gun in a holster around his waist. Now that I knew what he looked like, and I was about to face him, all the questions I used to come up with as a teenager—Why didn’t you want me? Why did you abandon us?—felt silly. Now I didn’t even know if I would call him Morocho or Sergio. Probably not Papá.
María laughed, handed me one of her blankets, and said good night. I tried to lie on the sidewalk, like everyone else, but after a few minutes, I got a headache. I sat up and rested my head on my knees, until a guard pushed his sniffing German shepherd between my legs. From that moment, I couldn’t sleep, and every time anyone walked by, my heart beat fast and felt hot in my chest.
Around four in the morning, women and children slowly stirred out of sleep and packed up their blankets. Their murmur turned into a clamor.
I passed the gate and surrendered my money. I waited in a cage. The other three women locked up with me in there called it “the basket.” Then a guard patted me down so I couldn’t help wanting to cry by the end. I walked over to one side, where another guard, sitting behind a table, opened my bag and took out its contents. I stepped through the metal detector, praying it wouldn’t beep. Finally, a guard asked me to show him my forearm and told me where Morocho’s yard was.
He sat alone in a plastic chair under a basketball hoop, reading a small book. There was no mistaking him. He seemed unaware of the noise of the families that reunited around him and the day breaking above the yard. Some gray colored his hair and eyebrows, and he wore glasses. The big cheeks still drooped and made him look like he was always waiting for something better to come along. As I approached him, I grew aware of the way I grasped my bag, as a bride would her bouquet. I let go with the right, preparing to shake his hand, if that was what he wanted.
He looked up with the same expression he gave the book and glared at me for a while.
“Yes,” he said, taking off his glasses.
“I’m Sara Pabón. Did you know I was coming?”
“Yes, you’re Sara. Yes, I knew you were coming.” His voice cracked, as if he didn’t use it very much. He put the book in his lap and smoothed the chest pocket of his plaid shirt several times.
“This was the best shirt I could get,” he said.
He dragged another chair that was behind him, so that I would be at his side. I set the bag on the floor in the space between us, not wanting him to hear the plastic rattling in my trembling hand.
“I brought you pandequesos,” I said.
He picked up the bag and looked inside.
“Thank you,” he said, arching his eyebrows.
“Do you like them?”
I asked if he was sure. He looked in the bag again and nodded. We said nothing for a while.
“Right before I got caught,” he said, “some guy came into a tavern I was at for an errand downtown and wouldn’t leave me alone. He had all this stuff in a box—pandequesos, arepas, bread—and he was begging me to buy it. He said he was in rehab and he and the other patients baked them. He begged and begged me and he left everyone else alone. I think it was the way I was dressed—back then I had these really nice silk shirts and jackets I wore when I was in the city. I told him I was going to kick his ass if he didn’t leave me alone.”
I couldn’t speak. Had he ever hit my mother?
“I mean, what did he want from me?” he said. “How much fucking bread can I eat?”
His cheeks perked up somewhat when he smiled. His teeth looked like eggshells. I wondered what his smile would turn into when he didn’t like something I said. He was the one behind bars, but he had the power to harm me. And all the sleepless hours, and all the prodding, delivered me to him more vulnerable than ever. Perhaps, if I made him angry, he would slap me or shove me to the ground. Maybe he had a knife. What were the rules in this prison?
He looked up and his eyes grew wide when he realized something in my expression. The smile drained from his lips. I looked for something in common besides the same big, scared eyes that related us so clearly.
“When was the last time you talked to my mom?” I asked.
“I don’t remember. How is she?”
“She died last month.”
Morocho glanced at the book. It was some religious volume, with an illustration of Jesus preaching on the cover.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “Was she sick?”
“Cancer.” The word sucked all the air out my lungs. He stared at the open-armed Jesus.
“Quick,” I said. “She went quick. Aunt Eva and I took care of her. And her son, Juan José. I don’t know if you remember him.”
I should have let Juan José come with me.
“I don’t. How old are you now? Twenty four, twenty five?”
I thought he was going to say something more about my mother, but he just looked at the book or at the other inmates who sat with their girlfriends and wives. He had to wonder why I was there, but why didn’t he ask? Why was he asking how old I was? Now I could think of so many things I wanted to say, and it was difficult to start with just one. I wanted to know if he’d ever called or written, what his story with my mother was, why he left. If he had really chosen to be a criminal over us. I wanted to know if he had ever hit my mother and if he had ever killed somebody. If he would just ask what I wanted, I wouldn’t have time to think about what to say first.
“Why didn’t you visit me before you got arrested? You said you were in Medellín around that time.”
“Visit you?” he said, chuckling. “What, like, going to your house and being seen around with you? Even back when I thought I was hot shit I knew that was a bad idea. I had some common sense. Listen, do you need money? God knows at this point I don’t have any.”
I grabbed the armrests of my chair with such force that I felt electricity shoot up to my elbows.
“You think I’m here for money?”
“You just said Emilia died. She wasn’t a rich woman. I know because she didn’t want my money when I did have it. Plus, how am I supposed to know what she told you or didn’t tell you about me?”
“I’m sure you know she detested you.”
“I know that! I got her pregnant when she was nineteen and then left. Doesn’t take a genius. Listen, do you need a favor? I have very little to do with those people anymore. I don’t have any influence here. I’m always the last in line, and do you know how long the line is?”
He grew quiet when a guard walked by. I wondered if this was what my mother wanted to protect me from, more than his rejection—his indifference.
“What do you want?” he said.
“I don’t even know who ‘those people’ you mentioned are. That’s why I’m here. I don’t know what you did to be here.”
“Your mom said she would die before letting you see me. She said that before I left and when I tried to give you things. What was the point of trying to keep in touch with you? I knew how serious she was because I grew up with her and her fucking temper. Honestly, I didn’t care all that much. Look, you have no idea how lucky you are to find me now and not before I landed here. I thought everything was great because I was going all over the place and picking up all this money and storing it. I could hang around El Pilar sometimes and see my parents and I didn’t even have to be in the jungle that much. I had clothes and women, and I couldn’t believe how hot I was. I wasn’t going to let you or Emilia stop that. Once your mom told me that those guys would kill me. That someone was going to kill me eventually and she would be glad. And guess what? She was right! They tried, at least. You want me to be sorry? I’m sorry for a lot of things. Do you want me to say I’ve missed you every day since I left? It’s not true. I thought about you sometimes, but I didn’t want to get in touch with you.”
“I don’t know what I want,” I said, looking at the numbers on my arm, “but you are why she could never stop being so bitter and why every time I disappointed her I felt like she thought no matter what she did for me, I was still your daughter in the end.”
“She had a temper, always did. All I can tell you is I hurt her a lot, but I was young and cocky. There was nothing more important than making it to the top.”
I felt airless, but no longer afraid. I felt the defeat of a war I wasn’t meant to win, no matter if I was fighting it with my mother or Morocho. The lack of sleep of the night before spread from somewhere deep in my brain and suddenly every part of my body throbbed with an old, dull pain. I looked at the inmates holding their children. Their jaws clenched as they shared words of affection or thought about the fact that in a few hours they would be lonely again, surrounded by too many sour men. I stood up to leave, and Morocho grabbed my arm.
“Don’t go yet,” he said. “And come back to visit, if you can. I know it’s a hassle, though.”
His hand felt oddly soft and warm. I thought this calm I felt must be false, and in a couple of minutes I would turn back to anger, but I said yes when he offered to show me his cell.
We walked down crowded corridors whose walls were plastered with posters of naked women. Men lay next to those walls on makeshift mattresses and rested their heads on sacks full of their belongings. Morocho’s cell was a tiny room with two bunk beds and a mattress on the floor. A picture of a saint I didn’t recognize was taped to the wall next to the bottom bunk, which he said was his. One of his cellmates sat inside, eating rice with two young women. They didn’t speak. I smelled trapped heat and clothes that have been wet for too long.
“Pardon me,” Morocho said. “I didn’t want to lie to you. I’m not that stupid anymore, but I also know I can’t give you what you want.”
The three strangers stared at me, as if I were a character on a soap opera whose next line they anticipated. I told Morocho I’d think about visiting or writing to him.
“Happy Year,” he said, as I walked away.
Once, when I was a teenager, I sat on the stoop of our rented house for hours after arguing with my mother about Morocho. I felt so angry that I yelled, slammed the door, and stayed outside, not wanting to knock so she could let me back inside. I raved in my head, thinking she didn’t tell me things because she hated me and had never wanted me. She came out when the sun was starting to set and sat next to me.
“I’m selfish,” she said. “You’re all I have, and you have to understand I do everything for you. I will die for you.”
I thought of that fight as a taxi drove me from the prison to my aunt’s house. My mother was stubborn to her last breath. I was, after all, her daughter. The car rolled down the mountain, past sleepy streets strewn with the ravages of a month’s worth of partying—ash from old fires, empty bottles of aguardiente. On a sidewalk sat an Old Year doll, loaded with fireworks, looking like a passed-out drunk and waiting for its demise at midnight.
“You got someone in there?” the driver said, and it took me a second to understand he meant the prison. I smiled and nodded and turned my head to the doll with its farmer hat and poncho. I could almost see it on fire, with rockets shooting out of its head, and I could smell powder burning in the air. Had my mother been alive, she would have given me a quick hug before midnight and gone inside to rant about the noise and the dangerous fireworks. I started to compose my first letter to Morocho in my head.