Overwhelmed by the shame of having a juvenile delinquent for a daughter, Héctor could almost forget that he himself was a convicted criminal and the subject of an investigation by the Immigration and Borders division of the Department of Homeland Security.
The entire business had been a father’s worst nightmare, as well as a major multicultural scandal. The Southwestern media, like ravens on the city dump, had been all over the story of how the daughter of an illegal Hispanic immigrant politician had offered deliberate gratuitous insult to Islam and to Muslims the world over. Al Jazeera picked up the incident for a broadcast, so that, for weeks after, Héctor lived in terror of hearing that a fatwa had been issued against Contracepción. (In the event, his plan had been to flee with the family into Mexico, where he counted on the reputation enjoyed by the Federales to deter even the toughest Al Qaeda hit team.) The Valencia County News-Bulletin and the Albuquerque Journal ran front-page stories featuring Contracepción’s photograph and drawing death threats from the Muslim community and proposals of marriage (among other things) from the Hispanic one. The school canceled Héctor’s computer-repair contract, and the superintendent addressed a specially convened student assembly to reiterate that the Belen Consolidated School District expected its students to “deal effectively with change, value diversity, become life-long learners, and develop into responsible citizens who will have a positive effect on their community, country, and world.” Most paining of all was a letter from the White House, reminding the Hon. Héctor Villa that a good Republican speaks ill neither of another Republican nor of the Prophet Muhammad, founder of a religion of love and peace, and signed “W.” Excepting Jesús “Eddie” Juárez, who loathed Middle Easterners almost as much as he despised Anglos, the only quarter from which the Villas received support was their church, First Assembly of God, where Bro. Billy Joe preached a fiery sermon attacking Mohammedans and papists as Jesus bashers and invited Contracepción to stand and be acknowledged by the enthusiastic congregation.
Having been suspended from school for the remainder of the semester, Contracepción was also under sentence by the juvenile court to perform six months of community service with a faith-based outreach program run by the shiny new mosque founded in Belen the year before, a ruling that confined her to New Mexico until the following spring. What to do with their daughter after that was a matter of constant discussion for her parents. Héctor argued for sending the child to her grandparents in Namiquipa, where she could learn discipline at home and at school. But AveMaría steadfastly refused to hear of such a thing, insisting that Contracep learn responsibility by staying home and helping with the care of Dubya. Secretly, she’d determined that what the girl really needed to teach her maturity was a boyfriend. In Mexico, thirteen was regarded as being about the appropriate age; in America, it was apparently even lower. Only recently, a neighborhood friend had been boasting about her daughter, aged eight, who’d just found a new boyfriend, a kid of nine. “Oh,” the proud mother had assured her, “he’s hot!” In fact, AveMaría had someone in mind: Mañuel Orozco, fourteen years old, the son of an immigrant family from Ciudad Chihuahua who also attended Bro. Billy Joe’s church. Maybe by summer, she thought, with Contracep on the verge of turning fourteen herself, Héctor would be agreeable to the suggestion—or perhaps the girl would have discovered romance on her own.
Besides Contracepción, the Villas were preoccupied by much else in late fall, so that time passed quickly. AveMaría, in addition to her other responsibilities, had Contracepción to chauffeur to and from the mosque, while Héctor was preoccupied with his business troubles and the bureaucratic inquiries and forms arriving almost daily from the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, all of them needing to be filled out in excruciating detail. Though he’d understood early on that USCIS was simply going through the motions, the process occupied much of his valuable time, while creating in his own mind the humiliating illusion of being some kind of petty criminal, well beneath the attention of (for example) the IRS. What with one thing and another, it seemed no time at all before the ristras were up, the candelarias glowing in rows along the flat roofs of the faux-adobe houses, and the Visa and MasterCard billing statements ran three- and four-pages long.
Owing partly to Bro. Billy Joe, Héctor continued to be oppressed by worry in respect of Contracepción. The preacher had been outraged by the juvenile court’s action in forcing the girl to work for a mosque, which was tantamount to slaving for Satan himself. He became obsessed with the court’s sentence, and it really seemed at times to Héctor that Billy Joe considered the father morally culpable by acquiescing in the penalty—as though, he reflected indignantly, a common American citizen such as himself had any recourse in the matter. “You can’t fight City Hall!” was a mantra Héctor had taken to repeating over and over to himself, in self-justification. Though sharing the preacher’s distaste for the enemies of God and of the United States, he took comfort, as the weeks passed, from his daughter’s increased good spirits. And Contracep had made friends at the mosque: Almost every afternoon lately, she’d found a ride home from work.
One evening after supper, when Héctor was putting the Christmas tree up in the living room, Jesús “Eddie” telephoned from the Taberna Aztlán with an invitation to join him for “a coupla drinks.” Jesús “Eddie” sounded unmistakably tipsy, and Héctor had succeeded at last in positioning the tree almost exactly as he wanted it in the stand when, perceiving urgency in Jesús “Eddie’s” voice as well as befuddlement, he agreed to drive to the taberna. There he discovered his friend seated on his favorite stool before the wide-screen TV with his back to the main entrance.
“¿Compadrito, che pasa?” Héctor asked, clapping Jesús “Eddie” on the shoulder. Though he did his best to sound jovial, the smell of stale beer and the scattering of crushed popcorn over the worn carpet depressed him. Héctor was beginning to wish he’d stayed at home to finish up with the tree.
“Not good, amigo—not good at all,” Jesús “Eddie” replied. He sounded like a water buffalo expiring in a tar pit. “How does a friend give a friend bad news, compañero? I think I begin by buying you a drink, first—that you may have tripas corazón to hear it.”
“Of what are you speaking, hombre? You have bad news—for me?”
Jesús “Eddie” looked tragic. “I could not give it to you at home, in the presence of your wife. AveMaría is a wonderful woman, amigo.”
“Sí, sí, lo sabe—Go on, I’m waiting.”
Jesús “Eddie” nodded. “OK then, as you wish. Bad news first. Drink after.”
“Contracepción—your daughter—has a boyfriend!”
Héctor felt flabbergasted, then confused. The girl was thirteen, after all. But why had AveMaría said nothing to him about it?
“Pues bien; ¿pues?”
“The kid is a raghead, hombre—from the mosque!”
His drink came just then, and Héctor downed it in a swallow. The tequila hit his stomach before his brain could register the news. “How do you know this?” he demanded.
Jesús “Eddie” did not meet his eye. The truth was, he’d been stalking Contracepción, off and on, for months.
“I happened to see him driving her around in his car this afternoon,” Jesús “Eddie” said at last.
Héctor was not by nature a violent man. Therefore, he did not immediately recognize rage—the towering, blinding, disintegrative rage of his ancestor and namesake—in the emotion that exploded like a firebomb within his brain. In that instant, he could have killed the anonymous young man with all the cruel, fierce, rebarbative relish of his distant ancestors, of Rudolfo Fierro, or Pancho Villa himself. Without knowing what he was doing, he seated himself, very deliberately, on a stool beside Jesús “Eddie” and ordered a second drink from the bartender. By the time it arrived, Héctor had recovered himself somewhat. Accepting a ride from a boy with a car wasn’t the worst thing a healthy thirteen-year-old girl could do, he reflected—not by a long shot. He was aware of a sudden and bitter resentment against his friend. What had Jesús “Eddie” meant by exploiting his parental emotions with so trivial an alarm? He was on the point of saying as much when Jesús spoke again.
“She was settin’ snuggled against him there on the front seat and the sumbitch had his arm round her, drivin’ with one hand like he thought he was Elvis, or somebody.” He said it with a snarl, and the hatred in his voice surprised even Héctor. “I hate the f–kin’ A-rabs,” Jesús added, with equal feeling. “Times, I think they’re worse than the goddamn An-glos, even.”
Before he’d finished the second drink, Héctor was in full control of himself and determined not to discuss the intimacies of family life further with Jesús “Eddie.” Something, he felt, was amiss with this business. Certainly, his friend’s excitement concerning Contracepción’s new friend was very strange, even when you took into account the many beers he’d drunk. On the other hand, it seemed odd that Contracep, ordinarily an open and confiding girl, had said nothing of her first serious crush to her mother, and that AveMaría had thought it unnecessary to mention it to him. Héctor resolved, therefore, to adopt a casually uncommunicative attitude toward Jesús “Eddie” for the rest of the evening and take the subject of Contracepción and her Muslim boyfriend up with his wife in a serious way when he got home. He stayed for one more drink and left, after making a point of paying his share of the tab, plus a handsome tip for the barman. A light snow was falling, leaving the roads slick, and Héctor was detained briefly on Highway 47 by a wreck involving a van full of suspicious-looking Mexicans and a Cadillac carrying a party of elderly Anglos from the Belen Country Club home to their gated community north of town.
Dubya, after having been put down for the night a couple of hours before, was up again and refusing to return to bed when Héctor reached home. As he passed by her room, he could hear Contracepción chatting in a low and confidential voice on the phone behind the closed door she had recently begun taking the precaution of locking from the inside. Héctor went on to the master bedroom, undressed, and lay down in bed to watch the ten o’clock news and await his wife. Tonight, as on other occasions, he found himself wishing AveMaría were a bit more of a disciplinarian, but then, American kids never responded to disciplinary measures the way he recalled Mexican ones doing.
It was a quarter to eleven before AveMaría got Dubya down for good and came to bed herself. She was surprised to find her husband asleep with the bedside light on, the TV muted, and the remote resting in his hand on top of the blanket. Intending to undress in the dark so as not to waken him, she reached across the bed for the light-switch and saw that he was already awake and looking at her.
“Panchito, are you all right? Why didn’t you turn the light out?”
“I’m not tired, I’m worried. María, I have something to tell you.”
Concerned, she bent for a closer look at his face and recoiled from what she saw there.
“¡Santa María! Is someone dead?”
Héctor was resolved not to beat about the bush. “Contracepción has a boyfriend—a Muslim she met working at the mosque.”
AveMaría clutched at her throat and collapsed on the bed.
“A Muslim? O Jesus Mary and Joseph!”
“So you didn’t know, after all? I was thinking maybe you did.”
“You suppose I wouldn’t have told you if I knew? How did you find this out, anyhow?”
“Jesús ‘Eddie’ told me tonight. He saw her with the kid in his car this afternoon.”
“But what about Manuel Orozco?” his wife wailed.
“You know, from church. I’ve been thinking, he’d be just the boy for Contracep. She’ll be fourteen next summer, it’s time, and she’d be starting right at the top. It’s what the girl needs to keep her out of trouble, Panchito.”
Keep her out of trouble, Héctor thought. Good God in Heaven. And women were supposed to know all about such matters. He hadn’t understood until now how assimilated AveMaría was becoming, how thoroughly Americanized. In Mexico, things tended to happen to girls of Contracepción’s age. That was something else entirely than arranging for them to happen, as it seemed parents did in America. Was it really possible to have too much of a good thing when it came to this business of assimilation?
“We can discuss it all tomorrow,” he said wearily. “Right now, I am going to sleep.”