The Minstrel

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Carmen was busy washing her husband when she heard the news on the radio.

There was the girl, the rich one, wearing a fur coat and chic sunglasses, talking into the camera. She looked like a movie star. Carmen found it hard to believe someone like that had ever been homeless. But she said she had, and almost everyone seemed inclined to believe her. Someone that beautiful could say they were a space alien and would be believed.

And so now, because of that, three months of chasing after Raul was over. He was free now, at least as far as the authorities were concerned. The girl said he’d saved her life. So now he was a folk hero. When he’d healed a pregnant Puerto Rican girl, that hadn’t counted. Neither had this girl, white as she was, until they discovered she was an heiress to a million dollars. It was all so sick. She cursed, and quickly prayed to the Virgin to ask God for forgiveness.

This had been happening to her a lot. Her nerves had been on the verge of snapping ever since she had last spoken to Jonathan Pfeifer about Raul.

Carlos watched the TV with her in the silent state he usually held now, except Carmen saw tears form in his eyes. She quietly dabbed at them without comment, thought it was her eyes that were watering now. Carlos said that he would like to see Raul again before he died. Every day, Carlos had been getting weaker and weaker. Carmen found herself not knowing where to place her mind. Everywhere there seemed to be anxiety and uncertainty. There seemed to be no escape.

At ten-thirty that night, the phone jarred her out of a sound sleep. Carlos cursed. Carmen blinked her eyes open, shutting off the TV which had been left one when she drifted off. Again, alarm. No one called here that late unless it was an emergency, especially since their kids moved out and lovelorn beaus with them. She wondered what could be wrong now. She wondered if Raul was dead.

It was Jonathan Pfeifer. He had found Raul. Yes, he was fine. They were staying at a farm in Connecticut. He asked her if she wanted to come and see him, or would it be better if Raul came to them.

Carmen thought for a moment. More than anything she wanted to get the hell out of the Bronx. A trip to a remote farm sounded delightful. Carlos would have to swallow his pride and let her drive.

So yes, she excitedly told Jonathan. Yes, she and Carlos would be there. They would leave tomorrow. Thanksgiving was just three days away. Oscar and Camille were planning on dinner for them, but Carmen knew that Camille would want to see her Uncle Raul. She felt such joy that she wanted to leave right away. It was all she could do to make herself try to lie in bed and relax with herself.

It was impossible for her to get a decent amount of sleep that night. If Carlos was well, she would have shaken him awake with the news. He would have lifted her in the air and hugged and kissed her. She knew that tomorrow when she told him the news, he would smile, he would hold her hand, knowing that the journey had finally closed.

But there would be joy to celebrate. Finally, the lost pieces of their life would be found and put in their rightful place. She felt oddly out of place as well as elated.

She talked to Lupe. The priest had told her that Lupe was in a place where she couldn’t hear her, but Carmen felt better when she talked to her. She was sure that Lupe heard her in some way, even if it was God Himself relaying the message. Carmen was sure that God would do that. He was the only One who truly knew what her pain had been for so many years.

She shared her excitement with Lupe. She felt a sense of Lupe sharing her joy. Carmen thanked her for keeping an eye on Raul. She was sure that Lupe had spent a lot of her time bugging God to keep Raul safe. That was what Lupe was like. She fought like a demon for whatever she thought was important. Even as an angel, Carmen was sure it was still true.

She woke up to Carlos wanting breakfast. At first, she felt the sensation of excitement without remembering why. Then, it came back. She made the announcement to Carlos that they were leaving for Connecticut today, because, she said quickly as Carlos’ face darkened, Raul was there.

Carlos almost got another heart attack, he jumped up so high from excitement. He grabbed her and kissed her like she was his bride once more. They both cried and talked at the same time, not knowing what they were saying but understanding they joy they both felt.

They were on the road less than an hour later, their daughter and granddaughters stuffed in the Rabbit along with three suitcases and two dogs. Shayna, the youngest, was excited to meet her great-uncle. Sonja was silent, but Carmen could see the smile on her face even as she stared out the window.

She was nervous the whole time driving there. What would she say to him after all this time? Would he even remember her? Obviously he hadn’t recognized her at the hospital. To Carlos, she reminisced about the days when they all lived together as a happy family. Carlos and Raul would bet on boxing, except whoever lost got to fix the light bulb. Carlos became quite an expert changing light bulbs and fixing sinks.

Andi talked about how Raul taught her chess. They used to use chocolate and vanilla wafers for pieces, and whoever won got to eat the other’s king. Andi said after three or four games, Raul used to pretend he had a stomach ache, then they used to eat up all the other pieces. Eventually, a few months later, she started winning stomach aches. She never felt proud of stomach aches in all her life.

They picked up the boys by the Bruckner Parkway. They looked like Cub Scouts on their first camping trip. When they got in, they started singing songs Raul taught them. Carmen thought she’d forgotten them, but she remembered. Deep in her soul they had remained. But their soul was not to be abandoned. They remained alive and well, only hidden in the darkness. She sang too, and forgot her worries, just like it had always been.

The snow began just as they crossed the border to Connecticut. It was white and soft. Carmen had never quite remembered it being so pure. The houses were bigger, the yards wider. She tried not to feel anger that it always seemed the rich were treated to beauty, and worse, forgot to be grateful for it after awhile. She heard the laughter of her family behind her, and was reminded that she was rich in many other ways. She wondered how many of the rich people here could hear the laughter of children. They were too far away from each other. Maybe all they heard was the stony silence of their own rich prison.

Carlos and she fought over directions once they left the interstate, which always happened when she was driving. Make left here; no, I can’t, that’s a Burger King; make the left anyway; then she would pull over, grab the paper, he would jam his foot onto an imaginary brake, bracing himself for the accident that never happened and the tirade she would leash afterwards.

But today, she said nothing. She just took the sheet and read. Sonja offered to read it. And Carmen gave it to her. There was no argument about the subject, and the singing resumed. Today, nothing could shatter the joy.

It was one o’clock when they entered the road. By then, the snow was almost blinding. But no one, not even Carlos told her to stop. Carmen doubted she’d have listened if they had. She felt removed from the bickering that constantly lived in her home, and the misery and drudgery that went with it. That seemed unreal and foreign. What lay ahead, only that seemed real.

There it was, the red number looming bright red in the white winter shadows. It stood out like a beacon from the Lord. Tony told jokes, but Carmen could not answer him or laugh. All she could focus on the sign.

The long windy road seemed like it would never end. Carmen nearly wanted to scream with anticipation. She did not listen to Carlos’ backseat driving. She talked to Lupe instead, and told her of her fears. She talked until she somehow got the car parked alongside what seemed like a huge mansion, and only then she felt better. The cheers coming from the youngest ones shattered her own thoughts. Somehow, she felt as though nothing unusual was happening at all.

She was startled by the abrupt approach of a man, who turned out to be Jonathan. He greeted her with a big hug and kiss on the cheek, and bravely shook Carlos’ hand afterwards, despite the evil glare that Carlos wore.

“How are you? I was worried about you guys driving. The snow was a surprise to everyone.”

“My wife can drive fine,” Carlos defended righteously. Carmen had to laugh.

“Let me help you guys with your stuff. And who are these fine people?”

Carmen introduced their family, only to be cut off by Carlos. “This is all nice. But we can do this later. Where is my cousin?”

Carmen looked at her husband. The whole ride, he’d showed little emotion. Though she knew him well enough to know he hid almost everything inside, she was still startled to witness it. His emotion jarred her out of her plaintive state, and once more she was overcome by the emotion she’d been so much trying to hide. She felt her blood churning and her heart pumping within her throat. She, too, wanted to see Raul as soon as possible, if only to rid herself of the horrible emotion she felt inside. “Besides,” her husband was continuing, “I’m freezing my ass off. I’m a sick man, you know, but what do you care. Let’s all have a family reunion in Alaska instead.”

“All right dad, I’ll get you inside,” Dominick put a reassuring arm around his father, guiding him to a house and gave what seemed like a wink back to everyone else. The snow was too blinding and Carmen was too nervous to pay any attention, least of all to her husband’s incessant complaints to which she turned a deaf ear most times over the years.

“Come. Let’s go, Raul is inside,” Jonathan touched her shoulder, leading her and the rest of the entourage into the house.

“How is he doing?” Anna asked.

“All right. He just came back from a walk.” Jonathan, who sounded reassuring in his lawyer’s voice to the others, rang doubtful in Carmen’s ears. She knew him well enough to hear the hollowness.

“In this weather? He must be nuts,” Shayna exclaimed.

“He’s lived outside for a long time. And be nice. He’s our uncle,” Sonja instructed.

“You’ll love him, too,” their mother, Maria said. “He was my favorite uncle.”

“Why?” Shayna asked.

“He was like a big grown up kid with a big wise heart,” Maria explained, “and he was the best cook, too.”

“Hey,” Carmen interjected, smiling.

“Well, next to your grandmother, of course.”

“Can he make good dessert?”

“Ay, ay. You haven’t even eaten lunch yet. Shut your mouth about dessert until you have some decent food in you.”

“Mama, I’m cold.”

“Yeah, Mama, so’s Papa.”

“Ay,” Maria exclaimed. “Let me go ahead of you,” she said to Carmen, “if you don’t mind. This crowd will dive me crazy otherwise.”

“No, go ahead,” Carmen insisted. “I want to talk to Jonathan for a few minutes, anyway.”

She watched the brood scamper toward the house. The snow had abated to some random flurries. It almost seemed cheerful to be outside right then.

“You’ve raised a wonderful crew,” Jonathan asserted.

“Ah, wasn’t my doing. Must have been the good Lord.”

“Oh come now, take some credit.”

“Okay fine. They’re great people. All my doing with a lot of butt-breaking effort.” She smiled at Jonathan. “Happy now?”

Jonathan returned the smile. “Very.” They started walking toward the door. “Your husband didn’t seem very thrilled by me.”

“Don’t mind him. He’s just a typical possessive Puerto Rican. I can say that.”

Jonathan laughed. “Do you want to talk on the patio? It’s heated and enclosed. Probably warmer.”

“Don’t worry about me. I’m so cold that I can’t even feel my hands anymore. It doesn’t make a difference to me. I just want to talk to you about Raul before I see him.”

“Mm-hmm.” Jonathan said, or at least Carmen though he said. The wind howled. Carmen was in another world. The wind was more of a nuisance than cold producing for her.

They walked around the house in silence. Carmen felt that the gray wood-shingled house would go on forever. She wondered how a farmer could afford a house like that when she’d been struggling so hard just to keep an apartment. Her irritation was making her cynical even at the very man housing and keeping someone she’d thought long dead. God help her.

The porch was nondescript, with worn down screen protected by glass. Inside were three wicker chairs and an old chaise lounge. It smelled like mold and mothballs. Carmen found herself thinking of the cooking smells that constantly pervaded her home, and how happy her home could be when it was full. This room felt lonely and cold. She longed for the bright colors of home. Maybe the Bronx was gray, but the people made it colorful, in more ways than one.

“How long has Raul been here?” she asked as she sat down.

“For about two weeks,” Jonathan said. “Al Greenwood was Raul’s employer. I found out about him by chance.”

God works in mysterious ways, Carmen wondered. “How did he find Raul?”

“Among the illegals. Al Greenwood likes paying in cash, and he doesn’t have enough of that to give to an American, especially full-time employment. So he goes and finds an illegal.”

“But Raul isn’t illegal. He’s Puerto Rican.”

Jonathan shrugged. “Who’s going to know? It isn’t like they check for identification to get workers.”

“How much does this Greenwood person give?” Carmen found herself getting indignant.

“Better than most. Fifty a day, two days a week, meals and room included. But a hundred a week isn’t enough for most Americans, especially with no benefits, so he just gives to who’s willing.”

“Why didn’t this man find a home for Raul? Who would allow someone they knew to walk the streets?”

“He tried,” Jonathan explained with a shrug, “but you can’t force someone to do something they don’t want to.”

Carmen was horrified. “Raul is a family man. He’s not some kind of hippie nomad. What is this man talking about?”

“He said he needed to find his family.”

And Carmen remembered the Raul who demanded where his wife and daughter were, and how not long after that dreadful night, he left the confines of the hospital in search of the family he lost. And reluctantly, she understood.

“I’d say Al Greenwood kept good tabs on Raul, considering,” Jonathan said in a quiet but definite way.

“Why did something like this have to happen to a man like Raul?” Carmen said angrily. “He was more than a good man. He tried to save people from a life on the streets. Then his family is killed right in front of him, and he spends his life like one of them. Why the fuck did it have to be like that?” She almost swallowed her tongue at the rare expletive, but not with the sudden rush of anger she felt. She didn’t care of her Christian virtue.

Jonathan sighed. “I have no answers,” he said after a time. “Why is the mother of my child locked up in a nuthouse? She was fierce, hardworking, and incredibly kind. What did she do to end up like that? One night of quaaludes and whiskey? Worse people have gotten away with more. A lot more. So why her? Why Raul? I have no idea.” He was silent for awhile. “I suppose one day we’ll just have to wait for God to explain. After all, He has all the answers, right?”

“He damn well has explaining to do,” Carmen said with more vehemence than she intended.

Jonathan shrugged. “Maybe he has nothing to do with it. Maybe there is evil so we can know the good. Maybe there’s an evil force trying to get us to blame God so we hate Him and become evil, too. Maybe God is what brings out of the situation and makes us stronger.”

“I don’t know,” Carmen said, suddenly irritable. She decided to change the subject. “How long have you and Raven been here?”

“Since last Thursday night. She’s been having trouble the last week or so in school, so I decided to take her out for this week. They have off for Thanksgiving this week, so she won’t miss that much. We’ll go back after the holiday.”

“She seems like a very smart girl,” Carmen said.

“Too smart.” He paused for a moment. “This is what I wanted to talk to you about. If you hadn’t grabbed me, I would have grabbed you.”

“I had a feeling you wanted to talk to me,” Carmen put in.

“Raven didn’t realize that Raul has amnesia. And even if she did, smart as she is, I don’t think she’d fully understand what it means. So what happened is, as she was talking to him, she told him that Lupe and Raulita were dead.”

“She knows Spanish? He seemed stuck in Spanish at the hospital.” Jonathan hesitated. “Somehow they were able to understand each other’s language. I’m not sure how that happened.”

The Holy Spirit will give gifts, Carmen remembered a voice in her mind. Sometimes gifts of tongues, sometimes one of teaching, sometimes of healing. Sometimes for interpreting. Carmen began to feel uncomfortable. A feeling of what was not quite eeriness and not quite awe washed over Carmen. For a moment she sat in a flabbergasted, unthinking state, then turned to look at Jonathan. He was rocking in his chair, staring out onto the snowscape. She sighed.

“Is Raul all right?” she asked.

Jonathan smiled a smile that was weary and sheepish. “He’s in mourning.”

Carmen smiled. “I wonder if he’ll remember me now.”

“I don’t think anyone ever told him that his family was dead, at least before my daughter did.”

“He never got to see the bodies,” Carmen recalled. “By the time he woke up, they were waked and buried.”

“So he never buried them.”

Carmen shook her head. “No.”

They were silent for awhile. Carmen felt herself once more engulfed in the pang of grief that never quite seemed to go away. She tried to swallow it down; what kind of comfort or inspiration could she be to Raul when she couldn’t overcome her own sorrow? She almost could feel herself laugh. She stifled that, too.

She jumped at the sound of Jonathan getting up. “Well, are you ready to see your cousin?” he said, offering his hand.

“Yes. I’d better go inside anyway. Carlos is going to think we ran off and got eloped,” she managed an attempt at humor. Jonathan smiled in deference as he led her inside on his arm.

Carmen hadn’t known what to expect when she saw her husband’s cousin, whether he’d be sitting broken in a chair with sorrow, or somehow dumb to the world in his innocence. Instead, he was talking amiably to Carlos while surrounded by the children. A young girl she’d never seen was sitting on his lap. She could see the brightness of the girl’s eyes. For a moment, she felt as though she’d gone back in time, that Raulita was sitting on her father’s lap once more. But then she remembered, and instantly began to cry, and it was Raul who was comforting her. Gone were her plans to be the comforter, for her tears had won. She felt his sobs with her. They were crying together. She was unaware for a long time of anyone else with them. The long silence reminded her. She looked up to see six pairs of eyes upon them, Jonathan looking sadly out the window. The six pairs were glassy with their own tears. Jonathan’s were filled with a sadness which seemed to fill him, pregnant with pain but refusing to leave its host.

Then he held her out from him.

“Carmen,” he said. “It is good to remember old friends.”

She smiled, wanted to cry again. So many emotions. He was here. She had been recognized. So many thoughts. Too many at one time.

“Carlos, my cousin,” he embraced her husband. He looked at Carmen. There was fire in his eyes. “It is good to have my family. Even if some are in heaven right now.”

There was water where the fire once was.

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