After twenty-nine years of marriage, Beto hated to look at his wife’s hands. They disgusted him, all old and callused and manly. He could remember a time before the babies, before the blood, before the ugliness – a time when Isela was the most beautiful woman he’d ever seen. That is when her eyes would dance their black dance, inviting him in for a hip-hugging cumbia and with only a wink, a promise of a long night ahead. And he would love her passionately – like a man should – and whisper, “Te amo, mi querida,” and she would fall asleep in his arms. Back then, he loved to hold her hands; now he couldn’t stand the sight of them.
Beto fumbled his was into the kitchen until he found the light switch. The light switch in the kitchen always irritated him. It was behind the refrigerator and although they’d lived in this house for the better part of twenty years, the light switch still managed to elude him. Beto sat at the small kitchen table and picked up an apple. He looked up at the clock and realized it was earlier than he thought. Usually, he woke up around 5.30 or 6.00, but now the clock read 3.10. He turned the apple over and over in his hand. Beto reached for a knife and absently, but swiftly, like an artist painting on a canvas, he skinned the apple until one long coil was left on the table. Beto sat the apple down and picked up the skin. He straightened it between his fingers and remembered.
It was early August and too hot even for Monrovia. The smell of citrus from the lemon and orange trees out back wafted its way through the back door like a young mother singing a lullaby. Beto could hear the kids getting the piñata ready for Carlitos’ third birthday. His little Carlitos; so much like him, but beautiful like his mother. Beto walked to the window and watched his son roll around in the grass with his birthday present; a new puppy. Isela had fought Beto hard on this one, but Beto refused to give in.
“You stubborn fool,” Isela hissed her fiery words at him, but he only smiled. “Just something else for me to take care of. Six kids before this one and this is the one you want to raise.” Beto grabbed Isela around the waist and swung her around the kitchen. When he finally put her down, amidst all her screams, he began to kiss her neck. Slyly, Isela let her head fall to the side.
“So, I’m stubborn, huh?” Beto grumbled between kisses.
“Stubborn and hard as a rock,” Isela whispered, as she slid her hand between his legs. Beto covered her soft hand with his to guide it to where he wanted it. “Not this time, baby. It’s my turn,” Isela said, pulling away from Beto, and leading him to the bedroom.
“Okay,” Beto shrugged and waited, his palms up as if asking a question. And before Isela could say anything, Beto continued, “but Carlitos keeps the dog.”
Beto watched Carlitos outside. He was wearing his blue suit-the one with the shorts and the bow-tie. Pieces of grass peeked out of his hair, and dark green stains covered his knees and elbows. All the cousins were over; little Raymundo and Triana. The older cousins, too, like Mauricio and Chango.
Roberto, Beto’s oldest son, was trying to string the rope of the piñata up over the roof, so he could maneuver the clown away from the children and tease them with the thrill of falling candy. Beto gazed outside and saw Isela pick up little Carlitos and clean him off. She scolded him for the stains on his knees, but Carlitos only laughed and ran off. Beto looked at his two older sons, Roberto and Mikey, now 17 and 15, and became washed in pride. The pride he felt for his children at that point filled him so much on the inside that he thought he would burst.
“Ready, Carlitos? Swing!” his older Mikey yelled.
Carlitos swung the heavy wooden baseball bat toward the clown, but the weight of the bat threw the three year old off balance. Beto watched as the determined little boy tried to right himself again. A small breeze caught Carlitos’ hair and pushed it away from his face. Beto could see the resolve in his son’s eye, and he thought, just like me.
“Quiero candy!” Carlitos yelled as he fiercely swung the bat and hit the clowns yellow foot.
“Time for others to have a turn, Carlitos,” Mikey told him.
“No! Es mio! Mio, mio, mio!”
Beto saw a tantrum coming on, so he whisked his youngest child up in the air until the child giggled and then Beto said, “Vamanos, mijo. Come sit with me. It will be your turn soon enough.”
Carlitos frowned at his father, but even at three, he knew better than to argue. They watched the younger kids swing the bat at the clown and miss and miss and miss. The older kids were becoming restless, so Willie from down the street pulled the blue bandanna out of his pocket and tied it around his eyes.
“My turn!” he cried.
Robert laughed form his seat on top of the roof. “Try it, penejo! You’ll never hit it while I’m up here!”
Willie took his stance in front of the piñata. He looked like a professional baseball player – his butt in the air, the bat behind his right ear. “Bring it on, man. I’m ready!”
Isela and her sister, Rosa walked out to Willie. Isela said, “Un momento tonto.” Rosa began to turn him around and around until Willie had no idea where he stood on the green lawn.
Carlitos sat entranced, and yelled, “I do it!”
Beto laughed and held Carlitos tightly to him. “In a minute, mijo. You’ll have your turn again.”
Willie took his stance and swung powerfully at nothing but air. He landed on the ground. With laughter all around him, Willie got up and hit the bat on the ground as though were home plate.
“Turn! Turn! Turn! It’s my turn!” Carlitos demanded.
Somehow, in the eternity of an instant, Carlitos managed to wiggle free, just as Willie swung the bat. Beto heard the dull thwack of wood against baby flesh.
“I got it!” Willie yelled.
“Mijo!” Beto and Isela screamed in unison.
Carlitos lay on the ground, his right eye already swollen shut, and a thin bloody teardrop running down his temple.
Isela picked him up and rocked him back and forth, holding her little boy like a newborn. “My baby. My baby,” she wailed.
Beto could see her hands wound in Carlitos’ hair. Small blades of grass played hide-and-seek in his curly locks. She held him close and moaned as though the baseball bat had struck her womb. The clown swung slightly from its noose, the purple smile on its face pasted and veiny. The red, turquoise, yellow and green streamers rattled in the breeze.
Beto could not take his eyes off his wife’s hands.
Beto looked down at the bruised skin of the apple. He dropped it on the table and put his palms to his eyes. He rubbed them, hoping to rub the memories away. He heard a whine and looked down. He saw Sombra grumble onto the kitchen floor and nearer to where Beto was sitting. Beto rubbed behind the dog’s ears and felt the old dog nuzzle his hand. Sombra cried a little, as if remembering too.
“Que tienes, perro?”
Isela then came into the kitchen, Beto could see she was worried. The line across her forehead gave her away.
“What’s the matter, Roberto? Why are you here? What’s wrong with Sombra?”
“I was just hungry,” Beto lied. “I think he wants to go out.”
Isela looked at her husband suspiciously and opened the back door. Sombra sat there and cried louder. Beto looked back at his wife and saw her rocking on the lawn, back and forth, the blood just beginning to cover her hands…