The fathers died one after another. One had colon cancer, one diabetes and emphysema, another’s liver was crumbling and another had already had two strokes. Still, the daughters were overcome with surprise at the news. Each believing her own father would never die, for better or for worse.
The daughters were grown women. Some of them were married and were mothers themselves, making relatively timely payments on their houses and cars, showing up most days of the week for work. Two had lost their mothers earlier in their lives. Even so, they all believed their fathers would continue, would always continue, as if fashioned from something else entirely and not from blood and bone.
There was no reason why all four of the daughters were named Maria and all lived on the same short street—Calle Blanco—except that it was New Mexico and their mothers believed. Their mothers believed. And. Maria was just another way of saying the one who is not male , of saying girl , of saying special girl , of saying special girl we thank the mother of god for you .
The youngest Maria was thirty-nine ; the eldest Maria fifty-two. From the east end of Calle Blanco to the west, on the same north side of the street, with the mountains loitering behind them : Maria Luz in 950, Maria Conchita in 946, Maria Dolores in 942, and Maria Carmen in 938.
Two of the Marias—Maria Luz and Maria Conchita—were friends, but the other two Marias were not aware of the multiplicity of their names in the neighboring houses. Maria Dolores escaped her front door before the sun split the horizon, and returned with the stars. Maria Carmen seemed to never leave her house. Instead, she sat in her window like a cactus and watched the borrachos on their way to the liquor store from the arroyo, singing Ave Maria. The vatos in their low-riders inching by, day and night, night and day. Plumes of marijuana smoke feathering from open windows, stereo speakers vibrating, specialized mufflers ripping the air.
The year the fathers died, the daughters became confused each in their own way. They wondered at normal and asked if it would ever remember them. It did not answer. Instead, it groaned. Yawned as if bored. When the daughters weren’t wanting to be held tightly, pinned down, they wanted to cover territory as if they had four legs. Mesa, valley, and arroyo gritting between their toes. When they weren’t longing to forget how to remember; they longed to remember how to forget. They no longer prayed.
Maria Luz: Our Lady of Light
Since her father’s death the week before, Maria Luz had had trouble seeing. She saw things that weren’t there. Spiders in multiples, in her bedroom, marching across the floor, down the walls. Sometimes one large spider, with fur, large as her husband’s hand, on its route beneath the couch or into an open cupboard. She’d see it out of the corner of her eye, its legs fingering its body along until it was gone from view. At dinner, tumbleweeds appeared on her son’s plates, obscuring enchiladas. Still they continued eating. Her boys, five and eight years old, transformed into stray dogs, wagging tails that shot up from their hind ends. The pink toothbrush from her youth, tucked behind her husband’s ear. Pounds of calabacitas in the bathtub. A prickly pear heavy with red fruit in the passenger seat of her car. Without a moment’s notice, anyone could have an additional head. She’d look away and when she looked again all would have returned to what it should have been. Her eyes insulted her. It was easy to see what wasn’t there. She believed it every time.
Maria Luz had been born into a privileged position : her father’s only daughter. Five children and she was the only girl. His reina. Nothing she could do would ever change her status as his queen. Not even when her neglected mother would say, exasperated, “Excuse me. There is another woman in this house.” To which her father would later say to Maria Luz, stroking the sides of her head, his wife out of view, his daughter on the throne of his lap, “Solo tú. Solo tú. Solo tú.”
At the credit union, she perched at her station and counted money, cashed checks, entered the steady march of numbers written on deposit slips. Smiled at the customers whether they had two heads or one. On her first day back, when her coworkers asked how she was doing and how the service went, Maria Luz pretended she didn’t hear. During the break her manager asked the same question. Maria Luz took more time than necessary to chew the pretzel in her mouth. The crumbs like dirt in her teeth.
“Were you pleased with the funeral?” he said. He black shoes shined at her. He waited.
Maria Luz played with her barrettes. One on the left, one on the right, near her temples. She hadn’t worn barrettes since she’d had sex for the first time at fourteen with José Apodaca, parked by the rock cliffs on the south side, where petroglyphs graffitied the ridge.
“The service,” he said. “How did it go?”
In the matter of a few moments, the manager’s skin had rusted out before her. Six cigars saluted from his mouth, erect as vigas.
“Fine,” she said. “The service was fine.” Someone had put the wrong shade of lipstick on her father. It was too pink for his skin tone. Pink wax lips from a plastic wrapper at the five and dime. Lips that children consumed, that turned to bubble gum. She’d wanted to rub it off when she’d stood beside him. She’d even touched her finger to his lips, but they weren’t his lips anymore. Once everyone had gone, she told her husband to take a picture of them. She leaned into the casket, getting as close as she possibly could. Where did you go? she thought as the flash snapped.
“No need to lose heart,” her manager said. “He’s with God now.”
“Who?” Maria Luz said. The pretzels in her hand were branches, skeletons of tiny things.
“When my father died,” the manager said. He crumpled in his suit. He was a pile of laundry.
Maria ate her pretzels. Looked into her palms. The lines crossing them were thick with worn-out roads. Her father stood at each intersection, singing to her: “Solo tú, solo tú, solo tú.”
The manager nodded longer than was appropriate, as if carrying on a conversation with himself. Maria pulled her hair, adjusting her barrettes. Her father’s voice in her ears. The manager’s patience expired. His black shoes shining even from the back as he walked away.
That evening, when she parked her car next to her husband’s, she could see inside the house. All the lights were bright. A boy flanked each side of his father. Their hair was all cut the same. Too short to turn curly, and they each wore navy blue hoodies. A string of men, as if cut from the same fabric her brothers were cut from, the same as her father. It made her throat tight. Suddenly, her husband had another head, a pink toothbrush behind each ear. The boys turned furry, triangle ears pointing, and teeth fanged over their lips. She looked again and all returned to what it should have been.
Maria Conchita: Our Lady of Understanding
Two days after her father died and four days before the funeral, Maria Conchita bent over the bathtub, stirring the water. First it was too cold and then it was too hot. She was naked, her body a mass of post pregnancy. Orbiting Maria was her seven-month-old daughter on her hands and knees.
It wasn’t even noon on Monday and Maria was already fatherless.
In the circular tub, Maria Conchita did not use soap. She was not dirty. She simply wanted to be submerged. Buried by water in the desert. Windows surrounding the tub looked out onto Russian olive and elm trees in the backyard. Leaves unfisted themselves.
“How is it you will never know my father?” Maria Conchita said. Her daughter sat on the floor, fringed by toys. She clapped her hands. As if she could speak, her daughter opened her mouth. Her voice a fountain of noise ; she, too, had something to say about the grandfather she would never know.
Maria Conchita held her breath, dunked her head. Her husband was far away. Her father was far away. They were not the same thing. Her husband was a soldier as her father had been a soldier. Her husband was in another desert, with other mountains, and other sand dunes, and other surprises of green, including trees and thin, shallow rivers, and other tribal people who were now horseless and haunted.
After the bath, she set her daughter on the carpet in the living room. Her daughter crawled as if automated. Rotated sideways, crablike, then back again.
The front door was open. In cartwheeled the air of April. Maria Conchita could hear transplant gringos sneezing as they filtered by her walk—allergic to the juniper and cottonwood rubbing pollen into the air. Her daughter completed a successful journey across the length of the room, backwards.
Maria Luz stepped in through the open doorway cradling a chocolate cake. It looked like a top hat, taller than it was wide.
“Any occasion for cake,” Maria Luz said, placing it on the table. It was decorated with pansies and lemon mint. She watched as her neighbor’s daughter crawled backwards across the room. “Does she know she’s supposed to go forward?” Maria Luz said.
“What’s the difference?” Maria Conchita said.
Maria Luz sat at the table. Fluttered then closed her eyes.
Maria Conchita remembered when her father taught her to drive on dirt hills in Trupadero. The old farm truck’s gearshift rose up out of the floor like sin and was just as hard. It constantly jammed in reverse. She had been ready to quit when her father convinced her that practice was practice and motion was motion so she drove around backwards all afternoon. When the jam finally released and she could go forward again, she’d been disoriented.
“I put a lot of layers in it,” Maria Luz said about the cake. “I didn’t want it falling down on you.”
Chocolate cake was her father’s favorite and her husband’s favorite. Chocolate cake owned every birthday either of them had ever celebrated. It squatted on the plate, on the table, dark, too sweet and whole.
Maria Dolores: Our Lady of Pain
Three months after her father died, Maria Dolores finally returned her sister’s phone call.
“Why didn’t you come?” her sister said.
Maria Dolores could hear her brother-in-law singing in the background. This was the question she had been avoiding. She stood on one six-inch heel and one stocking foot, considered what it would feel like to gain some height.
Her parrot, Larry Lopez, mumbled to himself in his cage. Something Maria Dolores figured he picked up from the TV she left on all day; she was not in the habit of conversing with him. In fact, she’d never so much as said hello to Larry Lopez, or goodbye, for that matter.
“Really?” Maria Dolores said, stepping down from the high heel. She opened the door to Larry’s cage. It was almost midnight and, while it had been hours since the late afternoon monsoon rain, Maria Dolores could still smell wet dirt drifting in from her open windows. “You really thought I would come?”
“His other kids were there, too,” her sister said. “Nothing to be afraid of anymore. He couldn’t get up. You know, being dead and all.”
Maria Dolores hadn’t spoken to her father in eight years. She last spent time with him when he was on a visit from Las Cruces. He’d brought Larry as a gift, along with all of Larry’s accessories. He’d sat in front of Larry the entire time, nursing a bottomless jelly jar of mescal, telling Larry his life story. Once he’d reach the present day, he’d start again. “My father didn’t want me and neither did my mother. But the one thing my mother did want was whatever my father didn’t, so she fought to keep me.” He punctuated his story by saying, “If you can even believe it.” He had a revolver tucked into his waist, a fitted band of Wrangler and Fruit of the Loom. Maria Dolores had asked him to leave it in his car, along with bullets. “It’s my birthright,” he’d told her, the jelly jar glued to the skin of his left palm.
He’d wanted her to dance with him. He’d wanted her to be her mother, his first love. He’d wanted her to be his own mother. He’d wanted her to feed him from her body, witness his stories, absolve him. He’d been consumed with want. But instead he’d fixed himself to her furniture, drank, watched TV while she worked her three jobs, like always , t hen before bed smoked her second cigarette of the day, locked her door while her father shouted at Larry Lopez incoherent details and the rhetorical refrain, “If you can even believe it.”
“Men die every day,” Maria Dolores told her sister. “A lot of them are fathers.” She was thinking of the news, but then she realized that since New Year’s, eight months earlier, she’d heard of nearly a dozen fathers dying. Her friends and friends of her friends. It was no longer a surprise after the initial three. She’d cried for her friends in the beginning. They had lost something significant, but then it became too common to be the cause of crying. By the time her own father died, there was no shock at all. It was as if she was twelve again and had bled for the first time. Expectation canceled surprise.
“These things happen,” her father had said to her, blood on his fingers. Then left her alone.
She cut her hair. Ten inches, and no one suspected it was grieving. It was too stylish. She thought of him when the scissors bore down on her neck, and of his mother, the Zapatista with her Mayan blanket of hair, singing her own strange mix of incantations.
“When are you gonna forgive him?” her sister said.
Maria Dolores stepped into the other heel. Rolled her jeans up to her knees. She knew she would master them in time, be taller than any legend any man could ever tell.
Larry Lopez strutted across the kitchen floor, greener than a promise, saying, “And then I had to leave, if you can even believe it, after all that.”
With her new height, she opened the cupboard above the fridge. Reached for her father’s gun. He’d forgotten it when he left. She found it under one of the couch pillows, a love note. She switched off the safety, following Larry Lopez down the hall. As he repeated himself, “All my life, all my life, all my life,” she pulled the trigger, not expecting it to feel like forgiveness. But it did.
Maria Carmen: Our Lady of Song
On Calle Blanco, in early October, when the New Mexican skies were a shock of purple, nine months after Maria Carmen lost her father to a stroke, her mother froze over the kitchen sink while washing her hands. The water trickling for nearly an hour before Maria Carmen discovered her. Maria Carmen tipped her mother back onto her heels and dragged her across the kitchen tile, across the living room rug, and onto the couch. Her mother lay breathing steadily, with unblinking eyes. Wet hands still stiff in front of her belly, soap bubbles dripping from her pinkies.
“Ma,” she said.
Her mother remained frozen.
Maria Carmen had just made a joke to her mother about her father’s final stroke. “Third times a charm,” she’d said. Figuring they were to the part now where they could laugh about it, at least a little bit. Her mother was visiting for the week, and had been washing her hands, after sucking the juice from a lemon. Maria Carmen delivered her one-liner and left the room laughing. She headed to her roost, a chair in front of the window. Now you see him, now you don’t , she thought. Another potential one-liner. When she returned to the kitchen for a Coca-Cola, there was her mother, the water going.
“Ma, what happened?” Maria Carmen said. He’s the one who’s dead , she thought of saying, not you . Maria Carmen watched her mother’s hands dry. Her mother’s eyes fixed to the ceiling, her mother’s mouth ever so slightly parted. Outside, the drunks carried on as they shuffled past the house. The night before, Maria Carmen’s mother confessed she no longer remembered the way her husband smelled, nor the way his handwriting looked. Maria Carmen thought this was a good sign and told her mother so. “Let him be dead,” she’d told her mother. “What do we need him for anyway?”
The sight of her mother appearing dead except for her pulse, made Maria Carmen consider what she did not remember about her father. Her memory shifted like gravel, and then everything shook loose. She did not remember his fat ass, the block of it, flat and square in his painter’s pants. She did not remember how he blamed her mother for everything he lost. She did not remember his voice calling out, “Mujer! Where did you put my . . . ” She did not remember his scraps of notes, his diagonal handwriting like a third-grade boy. She did not remember how many times he came home smelling like the tangy trap of another woman. She did not remember how many times he apologized.
“Ma,” she tried again, then slapped her mother with such intensity that her mother wailed as if she were a baby responding to the shock of a new world.
The Marias kept pretending they could be normal for years to come. But it never felt right. Nothing ever felt right again. In November of the unforgettable year, the year the fathers died, two of the Marias put out altars for Dia de los Muertos. They invited their fathers from unseen realms to sip and taste their favorites one last time, and, again, one last time each following year on the third of November. Littering the surface of the altars were tufts of orange marigolds, clay pots overflowing, more than enough food to eat, more than enough to drink, black-and-white smears of photographs crisped yellow at the edges, and candy skulls with their little wicked grins. The fine dust of Palo Santo ash.
One Maria would never cry for her father or mention his name again, as if she had been born from her mother alone. Another Maria cursed him continuously and without fail, as if he were the one thing that would never die for as long as she lived.
More baby girls were born and named Maria, because Maria was just another way of saying the one who is not male , of saying girl , of saying special girl , of saying special girl we thank the mother of god for you .
Two Marias moved out of their homes on Calle Blanco and six more Marias moved in, if you counted the cats named Maria and the cars named Maria. More if you counted the prayers, and the songs of Ave Maria the barrachos sang on their way to the liquor store from the arroyo, and the memories of the Marias. If you counted the memories of fathers belonging to all the Marias on Calle Blanco, you would make yourself dizzy. So dizzy the Marias would multiply, and the memories of the Marias would multiply as well, until all the streets were lined with Marias clutching visions of their dead fathers to their chests. Rows and rows of Marias with their red hearts aflame, pulsing like neon. On and off. Off and on.