When the police came, Frank was out making a soda run. He had already added seating to the living room, hung streamers and launched a giant bagful of Party City balloons in white and lilac—Isabelle’s colors—plus two big Mylars by the dining room table that said “World’s Best Granddaughter!” and “Happy 15th Birthday!” Rosa wanted to do the finishing touches herself—assembling the beef kebabs and putting out the carrot sticks and Doritos and Hi-C—so Frank was taking his time.
The guests—mostly Rosa’s family—were told to come by 2:00, an hour earlier than Izzy, but when Frank left, not even Pepe, the grill master, had shown—all of them guilty of being on Peruvian time. Frank hoped at least a few would arrive in time to jump out and shout “Surprise!”
He wasn’t actually sure where Izzy was. She wasn’t home when he got in last night and, honestly, the way she’d been acting, he hadn’t wanted to ask. All he knew was someone was bringing her home in time for today’s surprise party.
When he got to the ShopRite, the stock boy gave him a familiar nod and went on unboxing Poland Spring. Frank had just been in with Rosa, but, as usual, they’d forgotten things. Or maybe he deliberately wasn’t paying attention so he could make this second trip alone for time away to think.
He couldn’t say the past few months had been easy. Carmen had moved in last summer, bringing her three young children; the oldest, Izzy. He and Rosa didn’t use this house at 27 Meadow Lane during the week anyway—they commuted to the Garment District from Staten Island. But they did come Friday nights to unwind; on Saturdays, they’d go to the Price Club; on Sundays, barbecue on the patio when the weather was nice like it was today. A family of deer lived in the grove behind the house and around this time of spring, the leaves on the stately oaks began camouflaging distant Route 9. The view out front was almost as serene. Hal Bernice, some NFL hotshot they’d seen interviewed on TV, had a spectacular marble driveway; George Edelstein made enough to do an exquisite Japanese-style garden stocked with koi. It had taken Frank over twenty years of working his way up to middle management at J & T Dresses, an extended bachelorhood living with his widowed mother, five years of living in a cramped apartment with Rosa to be able to afford a house like this.
He’d known that having Carmen live here would destroy the peace, but what choice was there? She’d been thrown out of her place in Harrison last summer, and Rosa begged. That was just after making him macaroni with meatballs and gravy that rivaled his mother’s. Even without the coaxing, Frank would have said yes. Carmen was sick. Hers was a rare case of Parkinson’s hitting someone young—she couldn’t have been more than twenty-five. And the theory was she’d gotten it from getting roughed up too many times. Kind of like Ali after all his boxing. Frank still remembered Carmen healthy. At his wedding, everyone stopped eating their chicken Marsala to watch her dance salsa, her glossy black hair flying as she twirled. She chased after Isabelle—a younger, chubbier version of herself skating in frilly socks with the other kids across the parquet floor. Now the tremors prevented her from reaching the mailbox at the end of the driveway without help—though she could get around inside by grabbing furniture. Frank’s own mother, who he cared for until the end, had come down with Parkinson’s late in life, so he was all too familiar with its toll. He and an aide used to team up to get his mother and her wheelchair down three flights. At night, after work, he rubbed the stiff joints of her hands, put Brahms on the stereo, fixed her cocoa, and never brought headaches home. It didn’t take a genius to know that a sick person had to be kept away from stress.
Rosa hadn’t needed to spell out why Carmen would be better off in this quiet town of tree farms than in a new place in Harrison. It wasn’t that Harrison was a bad town. It was just an immigrant town, no different from the Staten Island where he grew up, except that Harrison was Jersey. On Easter—and all the big holidays – the town had a parade down Main Street. There was a Little Peru, where a lot of Rosa’s family lived. But Carmen wanted a fresh start.
That was probably exactly what she wanted by moving to Harrison in the first place. Frank hadn’t heard that awful story from Rosa, who wanted to protect him from the burden of hearing and knowing these things. But he’d overheard it from Carmen. He came into the kitchen for a beer, and she was matter-of-factly telling Pepe’s wife that Hector attacked her in her kitchen in the Bronx. With a baseball bat. To get him to stop swinging, Izzy kept banging her own head against the cabinet, until blacking out. “That’s why I left. For Izzy’s sake.”
Lee, a slight strawberry blonde, turned to make eye contact with Frank. Her face was white.
In Harrison, Carmen found herself and Isabelle a nice refuge. He and Rosa visited many times, Frank huffing and puffing up the four flights. A few years later, Carmen met Angel, and he moved in. Before long, Carmen noticed she was having trouble writing checks at work. She went from doctor to doctor trying to get a diagnosis, and when she finally did, Rosa refused to believe that repeated beatings equaled Parkinson’s. She insisted she’d spent her entire first marriage hiding her swollen shut eyes behind sunglasses, and she didn’t shake like Carmen.
Frank told them whatever the cause, Carmen had what she had, and they’d all be better off if the two of them quit arguing and concentrated on Carmen’s health. And so they did. Angel too. He held Carmen close and declared that no matter how sick she got he’d never leave. Without listening to the doctors, who warned her not to have more children because she was going to have a hard enough time caring for the one she already had, she had Chelsea then Samantha, back to back. She said two more children would give her two more reasons to fight the disease. Frank thought she was nuts.
At Rosa’s urging, Carmen married Angel. They had a nice ceremony in the backyard here with a white tent and fancy paper plates. Angel seemed better than Hector. He was good with Izzy. Took her fishing. Brought her a hamster he found abandoned on a customer’s driveway during a paint job. Smart, too. At dinner at Frank’s, after grace, they’d tease Angel about being an atheist and he always had something to say, knew all about the world’s religions, just like Pepe did. He told them stories about his job. The time the paint splattered on an expensive long-haired cat, how they tried turpentine to get it off, and the cat keeled over. The owner, how mad she got.
But then Angel stopped visiting and Frank heard from Rosa he was back in Paraguay. A few months later, he popped up with his daughter by a first marriage—a little doll in a frilly provincial dress, bobby socks and ivory patent leather Mary Janes. Frank remembered his surprise the first time she showed up one weekend with the rest of Carmen’s family, her heels tapping across the hall. And Carmen, by now in bad shape, was supposed to take care of this fourth kid. In time, Frank heard the girl was gone, Angel too.
The landlord kicked Carmen and her kids out when Sam’s constant crying from Carmen’s milk drying up was too much. It was probably just as well because it must have been rough on Carmen climbing forty eight steps—Frank counted them on the day he took many trips up and down moving her out. The new place was half the steps—a room on the second floor of an old row house owned by her father Lucho, who kept the lights on by selling used furniture and antiques out of the parlor. From what Frank gathered, the man was glad to let his daughter and granddaughters live there cheaply for as long as needed. Though Frank exchanged no more than a nod with him, he thought the man might regret how he had treated Rosa. He had to understand that he had shown Carmen the kind of treatment she would, as a wife, one day deserve. That this mindset could have led her to Hector and getting sick. Maybe helping her now was a way to make peace with himself.
Carmen fixed her family’s room up nicely, borrowing some of Lucho’s sale items to decorate, and make it cozy, and soon Angel was back. But pretty soon Angel started throwing stuff at her—Lucho’s brass candlesticks, his prized Tiffany lamp. Carmen threw stuff back. Lucho called the cops.
Frank came with a rented U-Haul, fetching Carmen and her tired children from the Harrison police station. When Carmen climbed in, she said she had taken the opportunity to get a restraining order.
None of it made sense. Frank still remembered seeing baby-faced Angel in a tux, arm-in-arm with Carmen, on the back lawn at their wedding here at 27 Meadow Lane. The rabbits had just come out in the dusk. He remembered the time he’d seen Angel carry Carmen up the four flights of steps at their first place. And now this had ended badly.
As they pulled away, Carmen told Isabelle she’d been stupid with Izzy’s father, she wasn’t going to be stupid with Chelsea and Samantha’s. That’s why she had gotten the restraining order. “Nobody should take abuse. That’s what the law is for. To protect you. Never be afraid to talk to the police if anybody is messing with you. Promise me you’ll remember that.”
“Yes, Mami. I won’t forget,” Izzy had said.
Standing on line at ShopRite, waiting to purchase the three big bottles of Coke and two of Diet in his basket, Frank was grateful for something to do. It kept him from thinking of the problems at home. Ever since starting at the new high school, Izzy had been failing nearly every subject. All she wanted to do was go to the Bronx to hang with her father, who, happily remarried, was a changed man. Carmen wouldn’t let her go. Not until her grades improved. Isabelle was bitter.
Frank could see things sometimes from Izzy’s point of view, despite what she eventually did. He believed in hard work for children—he’d done his share, from helping his father, an iceman, on his route until after dark, to tilling the soil in his mother’s victory garden on scorching August days. But some of his best memories were of leisure. The joys of playing stick ball in the street or walking to the pool, his trunks rolled in a towel tucked under his arm. It was his opinion that Isabelle wasn’t having a normal life. Some days Carmen was too sick to leave bed. Isabelle had to dress her sisters, feed them, walk Chel out to the school bus before getting on her own. She did all the cooking and cleaning during the week. It was not a small house.
Isabelle used to do it without complaining. Now she hated it. At some point, she stopped caring.
Honestly, he wished he never learned the details. As if he didn’t already have enough pressure at work—a few weeks ago, two of his best pattern makers quit, and he needed to get the new line into production by this Tuesday or he could lose his job. But a couple of weekends ago, when Rosa was out, Carmen told him.
Isabelle had gotten suspended for spitting at the World Studies teacher. Twice, the police were at the house. (Frank’s house—with Hal and George and their wives peering between velour blinds, he imagined, at the patrol car in the driveway.) Carmen called 911 because Isabelle pushed her. The first time, she fell in the kitchen on the tile. The second, in the garage, on the cement. Both times, the police let Izzy off with a warning. But that didn’t prevent Izzy the following night from screaming at Carmen for three hours straight. To make her stop, Carmen kicked her.
“I’m calling DYFS on you!” Isabelle shouted, waving the phone.
“Don’t you dare,” Carmen said.
Isabelle backed down. But the next day at school she told the principal her mother kicked her, and it hurt. The principal made the call.
Now DYFUS had opened an investigation into Carmen’s alleged abuse of her teenaged daughter.
“Everyone talks about child abuse. But there ought to be hotlines for abused parents,” Carmen told Frank.
By last weekend, Isabelle got what she wanted. Frank came home exhausted after working another full day on Saturday—a 60-hour week. The Turnpike was backed up for over an hour rubbernecking at a car fire. All he saw was the charred remains of a hatchback. When he finally pulled into his driveway; the idea of having a brandy, going upstairs and napping sounded pretty good. He let himself in, and even before seeing anything, heard Rosa sobbing. Carmen was on the living room rug, on her back, arms and legs thrashing.
“She’ll be okay. Get some rest,” Rosa said, motioning him upstairs.
Carmen kept repeating a word. He stayed kneeling over her, wanting to make out this single word. At last he had it. “Affidavit?”
He turned, puzzled, to Rosa. “By who?”
“Help me move her.”
Just then, Chel and Sam came running down the stairs, scared and crying. Rosa sent them back up. Together, he and Rosa lifted and carried Carmen across the hall to the study with the cozy couch Carmen liked. Carrying her wasn’t that difficult. She was already petite and had gotten thinner from the problems with Isabelle. Probably not a hundred pounds.
“What’s going on?” he asked Rosa.
His back hurt more than he expected. He stood and stretched until it felt better.
Rosa kept stroking her daughter’s forehead as if to calm herself. Eventually, Carmen’s hands and legs steadied enough for Rosa to speak.
“Mija, I’m getting Daddy a drink. Keep quiet. Don’t burden him with your problems. Understand!”
Carmen didn’t answer.
“Hear me? Mouth shut.”
But the minute Rosa left, Carmen said, “Hector’s suing me for custody.”
Rosa came back with the snifter, and Frank gratefully drank.
“Mama! Show Daddy the papers!”
“Didn’t I tell you not to talk? Let Daddy have some peace.”
Before Carmen could insist any more, Rosa was walking her away, and up the stairs.
In protest, Carmen began to keen. It echoed off every wall. It was unlike anything Frank had heard from her, or anyone, before. He felt it in the small of his back as he knocked back the drink. Soon, the girls came rushing down, sent away by Rosa wanting Carmen to rest.
Nothing felt more important than protecting the girls from the keening, so he took them outside to the swings. Neither wanted to play. Frank didn’t blame them. It was getting dark out and chilly. Sam kept wriggling when Frank tried to hold her, screaming, “Mami!” by which she meant Rosa.
Chel was calmer. She took her sister by the shoulders. “They’re busy. Mami is. Carmen is. Keep quiet. For Carmen’s sake.”
She occupied Sam by playing with her on the slide, then after a while, returned to where Frank stood with shoulders slumped. She looked up at him, eyes wide in the patio light. “Did Carmen show you the papers?”
Ever since Isabelle started rebelling, Chel had stepped up to the plate and become a real mother’s helper—making sure Sam was dressed and giving Carmen her medicine.
Frank shook his head.
“It’s all lies. It says Carmen treats her like a slave.”
As if that wasn’t bad enough, Frank learned later that Isabelle was accusing his wife of the same: on weekends Isabelle was made to cook from morning to night, get down on her knees and scrub the toilet for Rosa. Aunts, uncles, cousins—all of whom came only on occasions like today—appeared weekly to add to Isabelle’s servitude.
That night and the next day, Frank tried to block everything from his mind by doing jigsaw puzzles with Sam or eating pints of caramel and chocolate frozen yogurt and watching horror movies that made his own life seem quiet. But on each night since, Rosa had gone to bed early in tears. Sometimes he thought, How much more am I going to be able to take?
Frank loaded the bags with the soda into the trunk and then, lucky enough not to hit any lights, turned onto Meadow Lane. As he neared the house he deliberately drove past it, keeping his attention on parking a few doors down to keep the surprise. Backtracking by foot to the house, he spotted his stepson’s scuffed-up white Honda Civic; behind it, a blue Dodge belonging to Rosa’s nephew Rafael. Across the street, were a couple of other old clunkers that certainly weren’t the neighbors’. He checked his watch: 2:52. At least there’d be a crowd to shout “Surprise!”
At the house, he had to clutch the grocery bags to keep them from dropping from his arms: a police car was in the driveway.
The loud repetitive beat of merengue poured outdoors from the house. If Hal or George had gotten fed up and phoned in a noise complaint, the music would be turned down already. It had to be something else. He let himself in.
He didn’t see a police officer. Pepe came to greet him; then Rafael and his dark, almond-eyed wife and their three tall girls. A barrage of kisses, slaps on the back and handshakes by them and each and every one of the other partygoers filling the beautifully decorated living room. They had helped themselves to plates of Doritos and carrot sticks and bottles of Dos Equis; the kids were already with Hi-C mustaches since the Coke hadn’t arrived. He did not see Rosa.
In the study, across from the party area, he found a huddle of women. He couldn’t hear anything over the merengue but as he pressed his way through, he found Carmen sitting on the couch flanked by Lee and Rosa. The police officer was there. He was standing over Carmen, taking notes on a clipboard. He looked too young to wear a uniform. Hoping to hear himself think, Frank turned down the music. It was now quiet enough to make out what the officer was asking Carmen: how long had Isabelle been missing?
Confused, Frank was glad to see Chel beside him. “Why’re the police here?”
He hugged the bags to his chest. He’d never put the soda out.
“Carmen called them.”
“Isabelle’s not coming back. She just called.”
“Christ,” he said, then checked himself in the young girl’s presence. “She’s got a party for her here!” He glanced at his watch: 2:58. “She’s supposed to walk in any minute and be surprised.”
“I doubt she knows.”
Frank let out a huff. Whose stupid idea was it to have a party for an ungrateful kid like her anyway?
It was Carmen’s. If only Isabelle felt as much loved here as at Hector’s, everything could change, she believed. For Christmas, he and his new wife gave Izzy a $260 gold nameplate necklace and trendy sneakers. Carmen, Isabelle claimed, never gave her a thing.
Frank looked over at Chel. “Where’s Izzy now?”
“In the Bronx. With Hector. She’s staying.”
“She can’t do that. She’s still in Carmen’s custody.”
“She doesn’t care whose custody she’s in, she’s not coming back.”
“Oh for crying out loud! What’s she doing there anyway? Why’d your mother let her go?”
Chel shrugged. “She left yesterday afternoon. Her stepmom took her.”
“He was in the car.”
“Carmen said she couldn’t go, then—because Isabelle was pushing her hard and she was scared, she said, ‘Go.’ But Carmen told the lady Isabelle did not have permission to stay over night.”
“But she did.”
“Right. And now it’s 24 hours since she left —“
Frank counted back in his mind to yesterday this time. When Izzy was leaving, he was at the office on the phone with a zipper supplier.
“— and if Carmen doesn’t report her missing and something happens to her, Carmen, as the parent, can get put in jail.”
The doorbell rang. He looked at Chel with excitement, thinking maybe that was Izzy’s stepmom, returning her after all. He hurried to the hall. The guests in the living room stopped chatting and drinking and turned to look at him. If that was Izzy at the door, what he really wanted to do was slug her.
“Okay, everyone hide!”
He had them go behind the two living room sofas, or into the hall closet or laundry room. He let Rosa be in the study with the other women and Carmen and the officer, closing the door to that room. Then, with “Surprise!” whooping out behind him, he opened the door.
Four Harrison cousins with bright bows in their hair stood there. Trotting up the path to join them were two equally sweet-faced girls Isabelle’s age from down Meadow Lane.
Frank ushered them in.
He put the Cokes on the dining room table by the half-empty pitcher of Hi-C and the sheet cake that was elaborately decorated with real satin lilac ribbons to match the balloons, a few of which had sunk to the floor. Several women from the study had drifted back to the party, rejoining their husbands. The news about Isabelle was about to get around.
Pepe carried over the platter of kebabs, grilled and neatly stacked. He shook his head. “She was always complaining my mom never made her what she liked.” He raised his voice and mimicked Izzy’s signature whine. “You alway make chicken because that’s what Chel and Sam like. You never make beef.” He let his lower lip pulse with displeasure. The imitation was so perfect, Frank nearly cracked a smile. He helped Pepe make room for the platter on the table.
It’s not the end of the world, he told himself. And yet, it felt like it. For Carmen. And himself. It wasn’t every day you lost family. He felt the pressure build in his throat.
Pepe swung an arm around his shoulder and gave it a squeeze. “Listen, boss, it’s for the best. She’s got to let that kid go. Use whatever strength she has left to raise Chel and Sam.”
Frank was fighting to pull himself together, and was about to excuse himself to go lie down, when Rafael’s wife came over. She helped herself to a kebab, tearing into the beef and chewing with the kind of simple joy Frank knew he’d never experience again.
“Que rico!” she said with a red-lipstick smile. And then she handed Frank a kebab of his own.