Marisol's stepfather, Frank (Francisco Hernandez Bernal), arrived home to find everyone in the kitchen. His wife, Susanna, was there with Marisol and the twins, Sergio and Karen. Lupe's eldest daughter sat in Frank's chair. Nohemi stood in a corner, on her dumbPhone. She nodded at him quickly, then turned her back.
"Papi!" Sergio called out before Frank had a chance to put down the mail.
"You're home!" Susanna called.
The kids were running at him. Sergio jumped at him so hard he dropped the mail--coupon leaflets from Vons and Super King, a Fire Department bill for inspecting his back yard for brush hazards--now there was an irony! An overdue bill from the veterinarian. And a thick envelope for Marisol, addressed in a cryptic-looking scrawl. Even Marisol's friends were weird, Frank thought. It was what she attracted: Emo's from Mexico, goth kids. His wife was pleased Marisol was taking calls from the little cheerleader cousin with the big tits and fat fingers. What that girl saw in Marisol he couldn't begin to imagine.
"Careful, little dude!" he told Sergio.
"You made him drop the mail!" Karen whined.
"Marisol saw some people up on Eugenio's land. They told her they bought it," Karen said, emerging from the laundry room with a green plastic basket full of pink clothing.
"Ooh, she went up there!" Karen said. "She wasn't supposed to."
Frank considered for a long moment, staring at the pink clothing. Maybe true, maybe false, he thought.
"It was going to happen sooner or later," he said finally. "It was just a matter of time."
"He'll get it back. If I know Eugenio."
"With whose money?"
"He always did before."
"But you said it was sold?"
"Well, who knows, maybe those people Mari saw, maybe they're full of shit."
"He was gonna lose it, like I said. That's the way this was always going to turn out. I told you." He turned to his family, with his impervious face, "I don't want any of you gossiping about this. It has nothing to do with us. This is Eugenio's business." He paused. "And Melody's."
"I ain't telling her," Susanna said.
"She's your sister."
Perhaps he could have kept that remark to himself. Susanna's face tightened and the glittering light that both embarrassed and frightened him came into her eyes. He had prolonged the conversation. She'd pick it up again later when he wanted to sleep. For now, she walked out--to the driveway probably. He could smell the grill. He'd eaten some Nayarit-style tacos in Highland Park on his way home--he loved seafood--and the smell of chicken roasting did not appeal to him. But he was going to have to eat, or she'd be wondering where he'd been.
Frank stood in place, clutching the mail he'd picked up off the floor. Sergio was clinging to his foot now and everyone else had drifted away. So the Cossack finally lost that property. At least he'd stop teasing Frank's kids with bullshit about how he was going to build them all new houses, and anyone who didn't join a gang was going to get their own little adobe with a mimosa tree out front. The pendejo. The Cossack never had joined the gang, it was true. But it was the gangbangers who'd primed the market for him, sold his goods, provided security. He had bought his property, as well as the house he lived in, with dirty money. Heroin money. The Cossack was scum, and Frank couldn't understand how so many people loved him - his sisters loved him, his wife never left, he still had his buddies from Vietnam. They were losers, but they loved the Cossack. And why? There were neighborhood kids who had perished under the tutelage of The Cossack, with his Harley, his mustache, his worldliness he'd earned, or at least paid for, in My Lai.
Much had been made of Eugenio Lares - the Cossack, of all people - owning so much land in the middle of the city. It had meant something to everyone in Frank's house - a house Frank had earned with real work - to be connected to those unbuildable lots. It undergirded a sense of worth, made them a kind of royalty among the losers of Ashton Park. In a neighborhood where most of the people rented, it gave the Coassack and his relatives stature: fifteen acres! It built hopes of building more and owning. Of building a future in this country. On air.
He picked up Sergio and whirled him. "You my tough dude? Huh?"
"You're stepping all over my homework!" Karen's protest drowned by Sergio's giggles, which were getting tighter and more squealy.
"Careful, Frank!" His wife now. "He'll puke."
Even spinning his son, with his daughter's protests swirling around the room, he couldn't stop thinking about it. The Cossack was Frank's wife's sister's husband. These days, of course, he was Eugenio again. He made his money repairing PCs, helping people set up, loaning money for the purchase of a computer, which he would buy for them at discount rates and then charge full market price--and more if he offered financing, which he did, somehow. So the fucker finally lost the lots at a tax sale, instead of selling them when he still had the chance. Idiot! Idiot! Frank had been pissed when he heard Eugenio bought the lots. Until then, he had hoped Eugenio and his wife would move away. He was not a fit relative for Frank's children. He was not a fit brother-in-law for Frank's wife. And now--to pay cash for a property, to buy it outright, and then lose it, with no compensation, a loss that couldn't even be written off! (Dear County of Los Angeles, I will be taking a deduction for the property you seized due to my failure to pay the nominal property taxes you assigned. Thank you very much!) The idiocy made Frank want to yell at everyone to fucking get out, go in the kitchen. (Never mind that it was only his son now and his daughter who were in the room with him.) Because he knew Susanna's family: They would blame the buyers, they would say they somehow stole poor Eugenio's property, took advantage of a loophole in the system. They had that mentality.
He'd once refused his wife's request to loan Eugenio money. It was about five years ago, and it--the refusal of the loan--had caused trouble, in quiet ways. Nominally, Susanna was forced to side with him. But the sisters had grown closer since then. He could feel so many new ways he'd been shut out.
Frank took a breath. He'd put Sergio down, and now Sergio was clinging to his lower leg again. And now Karen was trying to show him some scritchy-scratch she'd put on paper. He considered the upside of Eugenio's unburdening. At least Eugenio's wife, Melody, had a secretary-type job with the school district. There was a source of income, and benefits--there was a respectable job in the household. And now Melody and Eugenio would be relieved of paying taxes on a property they didn't have the resources to develop: no more hinting for loans, just for this once (even if it had been five or six years since the last hint). Because who would invest money with the Cossack? Not any bank.
The downside was that Eugenio would lose face. And that could throw him back on his family. It wasn't as though The Cossack had ever done anyone any real favors around here. He'd never coached a little league team or a soccer club. He was not greeted warmly down at Vega's carniceria or the gas station, anywhere, really. Not anymore. Almost anyone who counted as an old friend was dead, in prison, or in Camarillo, the state bin. That left family.
"And how did you get this news?" he called down the hallway, to Marisol.
"Are you asking me?" She risked her head through the doorway to her room. (She had her own bedroom. Not one other single person in this home had a bedroom to themselves.)
"I'm asking you."
"At Uncle Eugenio's hill I was sitting in the big tree, and this man and his wife came--"
"Who went with you?"
"I told you never to go up there by yourself. Do you remember I told you about a hundred times?" It was for the sake of his children that he had to yell at her. The others had to know he was serious. And now the girl's lip was quivering, and she was hating him with her eyes.
"Every day," he said, "every day we get calls to go out and risk our asses to try to save the dumbasses who go to places like that--to prove to their friends how bad they are, trying to get into trouble. And I have to go and get them. And you know what? Sometimes they are dead."
"I was just sitting in the tree! It was my own property."
"Not anymore. You just said."
He went to the refrigerator and grabbed a carton, which poured out only half a glass of milk. He took that and drank it, while Karen, Sergio, and Susanna watched him in silence, sulking en-masse, and then he went to the living room. The Lakers were up by four in third quarter. This was the kind of emergency that suited him at this hour (he'd bet $100 on the game, just enough to ruin his evening).
He sat in his chair and rubbed his temples.
It had been an easy day. His crew transported two injuries caused by trees falling from low-flying helicopters, one of which shattered a truck's windshield, shooting glass into a man's eye and mouth; the guy was a bloody mess, and thought he was dying. Maybe he was. It could be tricky judging an injury on the scene. Sometimes they didn't look like much. But he'd left his mind at the scene: It was one of those freaks of mother nature that didn't call on reserves, didn't touch a nerve. It was politics. Next, they had been called for a baby with a high fever. The baby would be fine; her parents had insurance. After the baby call, the company went to an elementary school to receive a gift--two benches the fifth graders had made for them out of paper machier--and let the kids climb all over the truck, until the rain started. It was that kind of day, the kind that made him dig his fingernails into his palms, where the sight of an advertisement for a new cable show on the side of a bus made him want to go into a bar by himself and drink.
And now the forecast said rain all week. Coming after weeks of downpour, more rain meant mudslide rescues and flooding in the flats. Then later in spring it meant too much growth, with high grasses and native shrubs that would grow lush now and then dry over the summer, and burn in the late summer and fall. It meant an explosion of rats and bugs. It meant people drowning in the Los Angeles River, getting their cars stuck in deep water at underpasses, Frank's crew on standby as the swift-water rescue teams pulled a drowned body out of the cement riverbed. It meant mandatory overtime. But now, when it mattered most, in the near days to come, the rain meant car crashes and, again, mandatory overtime: He would not be able to spend much time with Sara, who lived in El Sereno.
Tonight Sara had gone to have dinner her mother.
"Mira!" He heard his wife calling. "Who's setting the table?"
From Marisol's room: silence.
Then, suddenly, the pounding of rain on the canopy over the grill, smoke mixing with rain-smell. Smoke and rain, they mean get ready.