1. Ugly UGLY
It was Aunt Celia who got us into the whole mess. The entire Palacios family thrust smack into the middle of a crime ring because of Aunt Celia and her financial wizardry. What a circus. And after everything we did to get out of that socialist cesspit and make a better life in this cracked and broken Promised Land—Trinidad.
Take it from me: greener grass is always a mirage.
Lucky for Aunt Celia, she was dead by the time the shit hit the fan. Or I guess the shit only hit the fan because she was dead. Don’t get me wrong—that miserable bitch Aunt Celia was hands-down my favorite relative. My favorite person, even. In the many weeks since she’d dropped dead of a heart attack, a day hadn’t gone by that I didn’t miss her acid humor and mordant insights, her cocaine-dazzled disco tales of the eighties. Her wit was lethal as a syringe of cyanide. No one could ever replace her. But in the present moment, shivering with cold sweat under a stark Trinidadian sun while some lunatic held us all to ransom, well, there was only one person to blame for it.
Crank the clock back only fifteen minutes or so and we’d been enjoying our first Palacios Sunday barbecue since Aunt Celia died. Things were feeling almost back to normal after the shock of that late-night phone call when Mauricio, Aunt Celia’s ex-husband-cum-common-law-partner, told us he’d found her white-lipped and cold on the kitchen floor. We felt it in our bones, the insidious guilt of regularity creeping in. And saw it in the weather—at the time of Aunt Celia’s death the rainy season had soaked the earth, driving the violently vivid green of new life to spread across hills and coastlines and sprout from gutters and pavement cracks like an untameable verdant pestilence, while our own deluge of grief had forced new emotion to sprout from unexpected places in us. Vines of regret, blossoms of nostalgia. But now the rainy season was over. Ours and the island’s. The downpours had dried up, and all that aggressive green overgrowing everything was drawing back from the landscape like the sea pulling back from the shoreline. We were drying out too. The fauna of grief was withering up in us, had stopped suffocating us like parasitic strangleweeds. Life was rolling ahead, as it does, and there we were at Aunt Celia’s house—Mauricio’s house—drinking and barbecuing like any old Sunday. Even Aunt Celia’s daughters, Ava and Alejandra, were back to wearing their beauty-pageant makeup and gossiping over boys and tawdry tabloid magazines. They were Irish twins—seventeen and eighteen—but everyone thought of them as actual twins since they were so identically big-breasted, wide-hipped, and large-assed, with the same swishy black hair down to their teeny-weeny waists. I watched them flicking their Princess Jasmine manes, cooing over their half brother Fidel, a rosy-cheeked one-year-old. My younger sister Zulema tittered and cooed with them, poking Fidel’s round belly. Zulema was twenty-two, but huddled up with the twins, they could easily pass for triplets. Same high-pitched squeals, same cleavage, same air of a Miss Universe hopeful.
My brother Sancho jabbed my arm with the meat prongs, pulling my attention back to the smoking barbecue pit.
“¿Qué te pasa?” I rubbed the spot where he’d poked me. “What’s your problem?”
“Mmmo barb… cue sau.”
Christ, slurring already. I’d noticed the glassy eyes, the dark curls plastered to his forehead with liquor sweats—but hadn’t realized we’d already got to slurring. Sancho moved quick.
“Do you mean more barbecue sauce?”
I squirted sauce over the rows of patties, trying to think of a way to get Sancho to relinquish barbecuing duty before he burned the meat or blew up the gas grill or accidentally impaled himself on the prongs.
While I slathered the burgers, Sancho slung an arm around my shoulder. Here we go.
“You ’member Uncle Rubio, Yola? You ’member his barbecues back in Caracas? Verga, Uncle Rubio knew how to party. You ’member?”
Sancho, like most people after they’ve had a few, loved to whip out tales of all our dead relatives, especially his two personal favorites: Uncle Rubio and Uncle Ignacio, legendary for their drinking prowess, imperviousness to hangovers, and acts of unparalleled inebriated lunacy. Sancho thought of them like a blushing young novice thinks of Mother Teresa: with pure doe-eyed aspiration. I thought of them like what they were: a couple of alcoholic pricks.
“Yeah, yeah,” I said. “Like the time Uncle Rubio thought it would be a riot to shoot Aunt Milagros’s parrot and stick it on the grill? Like that family barbecue?”
“Ha!” Sancho doubled over to smack his knees. I winced, half-expecting the prongs to drive into his femur. “That was a barbecue for the books! Pedro the Parrot—tasted like chicken!”
“Yeah. Hilarious. Listen, let me watch the burgers. You go drink some water, go eat a hot dog or something.”
“Know what was so great about Uncle Ignacio and Uncle Rubio, Yola?”
“They knew how to party.”
“Yeah, they partied themselves right off a cliff.”
This was true. Uncles Ignacio and Rubio’s spectacular double demise had been the culmination of an all-night drunken bender with Rubio at the wheel. I pictured them sailing over the edge of that cliff like Thelma and Louise, hands clasped, their matching gold chains rippling in the slipstream while they slurped the final dregs of rum from their flasks.
“They knew it’s better to leave the party early than hang around until the end when you’re cagando in your pants and pissing in a bag!” He was properly shouting now, beer bottle aloft like a torch. “Aunt Celia knew it too. I’m telling you, better to get out early while the party’s still pumping!”
“Sancho, shut up and go drink some water.”
“Don’t think I dunno what you’re tryna do, Yola.”
“I’m not trying to do anything. It’s hot and you’ve been out here at the grill for hours, you need to hydrate.…”
And then a moment like when you’re shouting into your friend’s ear at a club and the music suddenly cuts off. The whole backyard, full of the cacophony of an extended Venezuelan family only a second before, went abruptly silent. Sancho was squinting over my head toward the house. I turned to follow his gaze. A skinny man with a chinstrap beard was standing at the far end of the yard just in front of the back porch, wearing this bizarre getup—white patent cowboy boots, snug snakeskin trousers, and a billowing purple-and-black striped silk shirt. All he needed was a lick of eyeliner and some mousse and he’d fit right in with an eighties rock band. Had he been anywhere else but standing oh-so-casually in my family barbecue, I’d have laughed. But there was something about the casualness that was far from reassuring. He had a right to be there, that’s what his stance said. Just you try to kick my ass out. That, the way he looked around with an oil-slick glint in his eye, not moving, not explaining himself—it all made me uneasy. Gave me that sick stomach flip like when you see a man walking toward you on a dark, lonely street. You tell yourself it’s just a man walking on a street, nothing to be afraid of. But that visceral instinct warns you anyhow: this could be trouble.
Then I saw the gun in his hand.
I took a step backward, the urge to run immediately kicking in, even with my family all around me. Another step back and I knocked into my father without meaning to. I hadn’t even realized he’d been walking up behind me. He kept going, brushing past me. As I looked back, my eyes fell on the picnic table. Zulema and the twins were like mannequins, staring goggle-eyed at the intruder. But where was Fidel? My heart skipped. I scanned the yard behind me, all the empty arms. Who had the baby?
The same way that silence had thudded onto us like a cartoon anvil, a sudden whooshing intake of breath from everyone at the exact same second made me spin around to see what the hell had happened.
While we’d all been distracted by this David Bowie–inspired stranger in our midst, Fidel had barreled across the yard with all the amphetamine-grade energy of a toddler newly confident on his feet, and had launched himself at the man’s snakeskin-clad legs. It was your proverbial slow car crash, watching Fidel tug at the edge of those patent boots to get the man’s attention. And before anyone could move to stop it, Fidel was in the man’s arms, propped on his hip. Gun in one hand, baby in the other.
Fidel had only been in our lives a few weeks, a cherubic worm that wriggled out of the woodwork after Aunt Celia died. A Filipina servant for an affluent Syrian family had shown up looking for Mauricio to babysit because her employers said they were paying her to watch their kids, not her own. (We didn’t doubt the kid was Mauricio’s. Only a real political genius like him, with his Communist sympathies despite everything we’d been through in Caracas, would name his kid after Fidel Castro.)
Watching the man holding our newly discovered family baby, it was like gravity had gotten stronger. My limbs just couldn’t move. I waited for flight or fight to kick in, for some base instinct to carry me blazing across the yard in a Lara Croft–inspired burst of badassery to wrestle Fidel off this armed stranger’s hip. But nothing happened. No one moved a fucking muscle. We were pillars of salt.
Thankfully my father’s made of sturdier stuff than most and my brother is perpetually brimming with drunken fighting gusto. So while the man bounced a giggling Fidel on his hip like a kindly uncle, my father crossed the yard in indignant strides, shoulders thrown back, while Sancho followed (only swaying very slightly) to stand at Papá’s side, gripping the meat prongs. Now, my father has the gentle heart of whatever Taino blood still lingers in his DNA, but the height and wiry brawn of a genocidal Castilian conquistador. Sancho—even drunk—has the same thing going for him, except what he lacks in muscularity he makes up for in soft yet intimidating beefiness. But they might as well have been a couple of ballerinas twirling across the lawn in pink tutus—the guy didn’t look ruffled by the pair of them in the least. In fact, he looked downright amused as he watched them approaching. He was having the time of his life, slowly corkscrewing fear into us.
A wordless standoff ensued, the kind where Clint Eastwood would be standing there squinting hard, chewing intimidatingly on a toothpick. A dusty tumbleweed rolling by wouldn’t have looked out of place as we all watched on, breathless, the stranger’s lupine grin stretching wider as the tension curdled. In my periphery I saw my mother, normally poised, graceful, and emotionless as a ceramic figurine, digging her French-manicured nails into my sister’s arm. Her hand was trembling. This alarmed me almost as much as the stranger’s gun.
Finally my father broke the standoff. He took a step forward. “Brother man, give me the child,” he said, arms outstretched. “Best you explain what you doing at my brother-in-law house, man, before crapaud smoke your pipe.”
(As a school driver for the two years we’d been in Trinidad, Papá listened to Trini talk radio for hours on the road and had picked up more local proverbs and creole dialect than the rest of us. He always whipped it out at inappropriate times, like some absurd nervous tic.)
The man threw his head back and gave such a vaudevillian ha-ha-ha of a laugh that it made little Fidel jump and whimper. “You talk like a real Trini, man! Better than Celia. Celia never knew no Trini lingo at all.”
My father’s arms dropped to his sides. This guy knew Aunt Celia? That one had shocked Papá just as much as me. But he caught himself quick. “How you know my sister?”
The man scratched the side of his head with the gun barrel as though pondering the question, then gave an exaggerated shrug.
“Give me the baby,” Papá repeated.
The man continued ignoring him, smiling down at Fidel, whose plump, pink lower lip was quivering, about to break into a wail.
Papá was begging now: “Please, what you doing this for, man? Take anything you want. Don’t hurt the child.”
Just then, Mauricio walked out into the yard from the house. Approaching the stranger from behind, he paused in his stride to belch and give the man’s snakeskin-and-silk getup a derisive once-over. “Who’s this maricón—Boy George?”
The man swung around to grin at Mauricio. At the portrait of man, gun, and baby, Mauricio let out a string of vergas and stuck his hands up—as if the man would give a shit whether Mauricio was armed or not. He had a baby and a gun. What threat could middle-aged, slack-bellied Mauricio possibly pose?
“Ah, Mauricio! Is you self I waiting on!”
Fidel reached his arms out toward Mauricio, babbling at him.
“Mauricio, Mauricio,” the man continued. “Celia tell me so much about you that I recognize you easy. Maybe I even know your face already from a passport photo. Yes, man, heard a lot about you. And I can’t lie—not all good! But you know Celia a’ready. She was like Angostura—bitters! I take everything she say about you with a pinch of salt, don’t worry, man.”
Mauricio hadn’t moved. Fresh sweat shone on his forehead.
The man gestured with his gun for Mauricio to stand beside my father, which he did, hands still in the air. Then the man surveyed the yard, his gaze steamrolling us all. When his eyes landed on me, he said my name—“Yo-la”—slow and sensuous, like it was a truffle he was rolling around on his tongue. My eyes stayed downcast as I heard him identify the twins, my sister, my mother, and my father’s youngest sister, Aunt Milagros, with the same lecherous precision.
“Now that I see everybody here,” he said, “I would like to introduce myself. My name is Ugly. You know—Feo? Some people call me Mr. Ugly, but seeing as how me and Celia was good friends before she die, all-you could call me Ugly.”
Fidel was crying now, wriggling in Ugly’s arms, grasping at the air for Mauricio with sausagey little fingers. Ugly bounced him on his hip. “What happen, small man? Eh? What you crying for?” He sucked his teeth. “Look, go by your damn father.”
He motioned Mauricio over with the gun. Mauricio didn’t move. “Come nah, man, Mauricio, I said take this blasted chile! Slobbering all over me.” He wiped the gun barrel across a stream of dribble on Fidel’s chin, but Mauricio still didn’t move, hands raised like he was in a stickup, mouth hanging open. That’s Mauricio for you, the classic chauvinist—always running his mouth about how women “should stay on their backs in the bedroom and on their feet in the kitchen and leave the rest of it to the men,” but those big bulging machista balls are the first to shrivel at any sign of trouble.
Clocking Mauricio’s uselessness, my father took a few slow steps forward to take Fidel from Ugly. The second Papá had the baby, Ugly took two quick strides to place the gun at the center of Mauricio’s forehead. Mauricio blinked—once, twice—as the metal made contact, like he’d been jarred out of a daydream.
“Mauricio, you going to join me inside for a chat. Celia had a few outstanding business affairs with me when she die. We going to see how we could rectify that. Sound good?”
Mauricio just stared up at the gun barrel, going cross-eyed. When he still hadn’t said anything, Ugly lowered the gun. For a split second I was lured into relief, until Ugly struck Mauricio a blow to the jaw. Whimpering, Mauricio cupped his mouth. Thick blood dribbled through his fingers.
“I said—Sound good? People answer me when I ask a question, Mauricio, even people who so ignorant they think a man with style look like Boy George.”
Then Mauricio was nodding quick and frightened. “Sound good,” he said. The words were a gurgle. Blood ran down his chin. He spat weakly onto the grass.
“Nice, man. Let we go inside.”
Ugly threw an arm around his shoulders, laughing with all the cheer of a homicidal Santa Claus. Mauricio jumped as the arm clamped around him. His skin was gray, bloodless as Aunt Celia’s had been in the coffin. Something about the way Ugly then guided loping, tongue-tied Mauricio toward the house with the gun aimed at his ribs made me think of a circus ringleader cajoling a ketamine-doped gorilla into its cage.
“Hector!” Ugly called over his shoulder. “You come too. Leave that chile.”
My father handed the baby to my brother. Drawn to his full six feet, he looked every bit the dignified alpha male. This wasn’t a comfort. I didn’t want my father in there puffing his chest out, facing off with some psychopath. Let Mauricio deal with it! Let Mauricio get a bullet in the head! My mother shared my sentiments. As Papá began following Mauricio and Ugly, she ran across the yard to clutch the back of my father’s shirt. “Hector!” She couldn’t get anything more out than that. Ugly stopped to waggle the gun at her.
“Señora Palacios, I recommend you don’t mix up yourself in my business. I need to speak with Mauricio and Hector.” He lifted his chin toward the barbecue pit. “Best you go flip them burgers like a good little señorita. They smelling burnt.”
My father gently twisted himself out of Mamá’s grip, kissed the top of her head. “No te preocupes. I’ll be fine.”
At the porch door, Ugly turned once more. “No policía, people! Any policía and there go be two sets of brains splattered on the wall in there. If I so much as hear a fucking siren or see a car pull into that driveway, I ain’t asking questions first. Understand? Bang uno and bang dos.” He pointed the gun back and forth from Mauricio to my father.
Then they went into the house and all we could do was wait.
When Papá and Mauricio eventually came out again, my father wore a curious expression, like he was trying to work out a particularly difficult math equation. Still ashen, Mauricio was running a hand over his stubbled chin, murmuring to himself. Ugly emerged from the house behind them, stopping to stand on the porch, a finger running along the gun barrel until we’d all turned, a captive audience in the most literal sense, to face him. When he saw he had our full attention, he waved brightly.
“Nice to meet all you Palacios in the flesh! I go be seeing you again very soon. That a promise from me to you.” He flashed sterling teeth. “And I does never break a promise.”