Teresa called Chuy at work and asked him to stop by the house and watch the boy. Her call was what he’d wanted, a sign she was cooling off, but Chuy couldn’t relax as he sat in his old living room and watched TV. He couldn’t take the noise as he flipped through the channels; the yelling of judge and preacher shows used to make him laugh, but now Chuy felt like the dummy defendant getting abused by the judge, the embarrassed pendejo standing next to a preacher in a slick three-piece suit suddenly in need of saving. Teresa had lost her mind over the affair, taking things too far by tossing him out. She was right to be sangrona, he knew, but Chuy also knew his going had nothing to do with another woman. The trouble was Oscar, their eleven-year-old son.
“Put it on cartoons,” Oscar said, sitting in front of the television. He’d been talking about some goofy show, one with wizards and dragons and things that would get the boy labeled a total weirdo. Teresa had dressed him in high-water slacks and a button-up she fastened to the top, his head sticking out like a bubble. His boy should be dressed right, looking sharp in a Dallas Cowboy jersey, maybe some Dodger Blue. As a kid Chuy had imagined himself as the Dodger’s closer, cutting fastballs to close out big games, and though he’d only once been to the stadium, the green flat-topped grass and plucking organ music filled him up. Now the memories of his family-cooking out on the Fourth of July and lighting Black Cats, dogs howling from the noise and smell of burnt paper-gave him the same full feeling on lonely nights in his apartment.
“Does this mean you’re coming back, you being here?” Oscar asked, still watching the television. The boy never looked him in the eye, and Chuy didn’t know if he was acting afraid or malcriado.
“Soon,” he said.”Your má needs some time, so she says, but yeah, I’ll be back. You want that, Oscar? Want your apá home?”
“Yeah,” Oscar said, stealing a glance at Chuy.
Chuy thought Oscar was soft because he carried a layer of fat around his waist and face, because he was a crybaby. Teresa tried to convince him that there was nothing wrong with their son; the extra weight would shed away during puberty, and he was sensitive, that’s all. She scolded Chuy for forcing Oscar to join Little League even though the boy blew it off, getting stuck in right field and refusing to take his turns at bat, the ball too scary for him. Chuy went to all the games, yelling through the loose chain link fence for Oscar to get in the game and show some heart, but Oscar never did, not like when Chuy pitched the hard and inside stuff to finish off opposing teams in high school. The boy only did what Teresa wanted him to.
“Can you please put it on cartoons?”
Chuy switched the television to the all-cartoon channel. A photograph of Teresa and Oscar eating in the park hung on the wall. They smiled from behind the glass. Plastic roses sprouted from vases on the coffee and mismatched end tables, a puffy slip-cover on the sofa. The room looked nice, “pretty,” and Chuy had to look hard for signs he’d once lived there. Sloppy patches in the drywall, a cigarette burn on the carpet, the ceramic horses he’d bought Teresa on her thirty-first birthday were the only bits left.
“Má said you were supposed to heat up dinner,” Oscar said. “I could do it myself, but she doesn’t trust me with the oven.”
“Your má don’t trust no one,” Chuy said, remembering the night she booted him. The lines on her face had creased around her eyes and mouth like cracks on a slab of concrete. She’d been pissed, and he’d felt bad for Teresa, her turning old like that.
“Who don’t I trust?”
Chuy turned and saw Teresa standing in the living room wearing her shapeless blue dress and pointy low-heeled shoes, her old church clothes. Oscar ran to Teresa and wrapped himself around her leg. She eyeballed Chuy. He wore his normal work clothes, a dusty pair of coveralls splattered with paint and plaster, crusted concrete along the bottoms.
“Mamá, I’m hungry,” Oscar said. “Apá didn’t heat the food.”
“Chuy, how could you forget dinner?
“N’hombre, I didn’t know what time you were getting back. I’ll do it next time.”
“Don’t be so sure about next time.”
“I said I was sorry.”
“You’re always saying sorry. Just do things right for once.”
Chuy knew this would turn bad if he kept talking. Teresa had landed a job answering phones for some doctor, probably thought she was big stuff being so independent, but he was glad she’d taken the jale. Teresa needed to see how things went outside the house. The world could wear a man down if he hadn’t learned to be tougher than the job he was stuck working, but Chuy also needed to prove he could watch Oscar while Teresa learned this. Then maybe she would let him raise Oscar como hombre.
“If I moved back, I could watch him better. You know, get back in the flow of things.”
“I don’t want to talk about it.”
“I could sleep on the sofa.”
Teresa turned away, and Chuy knew their conversation was over. She had a way of putting an end to things, but their marriage wasn’t something she could do that to. She would always be that Catholic girl, for real about forgiveness and second comings.
“Go and get ready,” Teresa said to Oscar.
“We’ll pick up something after we see the new neighbors.” Oscar sighed and shuffled to his room.
“What neighbors?” Chuy asked.
“A woman and her daughter.”
“No husband, huh?” Chuy wondered if she were making them up.
“Maybe they like it better that way,” Teresa said, eyeballing him again.
Chuy wanted to say something but all he did was shrug. He could never talk quick like her, be the first to say something smart. Teresa told him about the new neighbors. They were faith healers from somewhere in California and had moved into the empty Tellez house. The woman’s name was María, her daughter, Angélica.
“I could go with you guys, take a look around. Maybe I could help out with some repairs on that old dump, welcome her right.” Chuy said, seeing his chance to show Teresa he was trying to be better.
Teresa studied him, her eyes distant headlights. Chuy remembered how fine she used to be-her thin nose barely holding her glasses and slightly crooked teeth that flashed when she smiled. She was once all he wanted, and he couldn’t believe how messed up everything had gotten.
“If you want,” she finally said.
The old Tellez house wasn’t in bad shape, at least not from the outside. Chuy stood on the porch with Teresa and Oscar, the fall evening growing darker from behind the clouds. The swelling heat of the afternoon had slipped away, left the air thin and cold, rainy. Chuy wiped yellow grass and soggy leaves from under his feet. He liked this time of year, things shutting down and taking a break from all the drama.
The house had been abandoned for the past six months, after the Tellez couple died inside-their swamp cooler quit one morning and turned the brick home into an oven, cooked them up. Chuy knew Teresa loved the idea of one day being an old-bird couple like them, but he hated picturing it. On his wedding day, when Padre Maldonado asked if he would take Teresa for as long as he lived, he imagined Teresa looking like her mother, squat and round like a bucket, walking with a limp. That was the last thing he wanted, but he said yes and knew she would give him the son already poking through her wedding dress. Chuy thought he could make things good for the boy, but Oscar didn’t do his part.
A woman appeared at the door, a too happy smile on her face. She looked to be in her forties, older than Chuy and Teresa, but dressed younger, sexier. She invited them in like camaradas.
“¡Hola!” María said. “It is nice to see such a good looking family.”
María and Teresa hugged. The living room was cluttered with unpacked boxes and trash bags stuffed with clothes. The walls had a fresh coat of pink paint-a shitty splatter job-and was lined with saints: La Virgen de Guadalupe, San Judas, Martín de Porress, Martín de Caballero, Juan Diego, Santo Niño de Atocha. María walked over to Oscar and squeezed his cheeks, her voice squealing as the boy turned red. She reminded Chuy of a telenovela, good in all the bad ways.
María took Chuy’s hand and introduced herself, her fingernails glossy and curved, tickling the outside of his palm. Chuy’s affair had been with a customer, an old girlfriend who still looked good and promised that he did, too. Chuy shoved his hand in his pocket not wanting Teresa thinking the wrong thing.
“You do handy work,” María said. “I can tell a man by his hands.”
“Mostly tile,” Chuy said. “When I can find the work.”
“¡Ay! I must keep you from my kitchen. The floor is bad, and I’ll get embarrassed.” María touched his shoulder. Chuy was sure all Teresa had heard was man and hands. His coming had turned out to be a stupid idea. How could he fix things by putting himself in the same trouble as before? He was blowing it.
María led them through the living room with its boxes, the dining room with the puke green carpet, her empty bedroom with all the crosses. Chuy kept his distance from María, staying close to Teresa and the boy, listening as they made small talk. He reminded himself of a stray dog hoping to be taken home. The tour ended in the kitchen and Chuy glanced at the floor. There were gouges in the laminate-some all the way to the slab. Everyone was quiet, and Chuy knew they were waiting for him to say something.
“I thought you had a daughter?” Oscar asked, breaking the silence. “Mamá said she was sick. Did she die?”
“Cállate,” Chuy said, grabbing Oscar’s arm. Teresa sighed, like he was the embarrassing one. Chuy let go. Teresa had never mentioned anything about a sick or dying girl. He wondered what else Teresa had kept from him; what did Oscar know that he didn’t? That’s the way things always were between those two, them trading secrets all the time.
“It’s okay,” María said, squatting in front of the boy. “Would you like to meet Angélica? I don’t let pilgrims see her this late-she needs her rest, but for you, I’ll make the exception.” She stood. “For all of you.”
Chuy didn’t believe in miracles. As a boy he prayed Our Fathers and Hail Mary’s all the time, even did Novenas in his bedroom-his má watching to make sure he got the words right, but he never felt what he was supposed to, no swelling in his chest to let him know his dreams would come true. All he got from praying was sore-as-hell knees.
“Say yes if you want to,” Teresa said. They stayed in the kitchen, like strangers waiting for the bus, until Oscar finally nodded his head.
María led them to a room at the back of the house. It was dark inside, only the moon lighting the figure beneath a window. The figure was a young girl, her eyes halfway open, stuck someplace between awake and asleep. Chuy felt connected to her, knew exactly where that place was. Angélica’s thick black hair spread over her pillow and dropped onto the floor. The room smelled like melting wax, and he felt like he was standing in a church, except he didn’t want to leave.
“Is she okay? Chuy asked, surprised by his own voice.
“The way God wants her to be,” María said. “The only way she can do His work.”
Chuy moved closer, leaving Teresa and Oscar standing with María. Chuy wanted to say something, explain how he was feeling, but Teresa and Oscar wouldn’t hear him right. Teresa bowed her head, and Oscar copied her. Chuy thought about his má, a woman who never went a day without praying but still died slowly and without her memory. The girl made Chuy want to believe in miracles.
Oscar had kept quiet after Chuy picked him up, and Chuy decided to give the boy time to get comfortable. It hadn’t been easy to get Teresa to go along with bringing the boy-he’d promised to keep close, take breaks and not let Oscar saw anything. Teresa always worried about Oscar getting hurt, spending too much time on things that wouldn’t put him in college. That’s our job as parents, she’d always tell him. The boy needed to know that life wasn’t in books. Life got made with strong hands, and only a father could teach that.
Chuy drove through his old neighborhood, past Our Lady of Guadalupe and the Hilltop Barbershop where Old Tony still gave haircuts for seven bucks. He loved the place, especially in the early morning when nobody was around to see the night thin and the sun over the mountains. He pulled up at María’s and looked over at Oscar; he was asleep, his eyes pinched shut. It had taken Oscar twenty-two months to learn how to walk but only four to say mamá. Teresa had been so proud, telling Chuy how smart the boy was, gifted. Chuy left Oscar inside the truck, walked to the house and rang the bell.
“I didn’t think you’d be here so early,” María said, opening the door. “We’re not ready.” María didn’t look glamorous this time, the skin on her face tugging down like sheets on a clothesline. He wondered if he’d woken up Angélica, if that were something she could do. He remembered her arms knotted above her chest like mesquite branches, her frozen face. She’d freaked him out, but he wanted to see her again, found himself thinking about cancers being cured, old ladies in wheelchairs standing and walking around, money found buried in backyards.
“I only got one day with my helper,” Chuy said, nodding his head at Oscar. “Gotta finish everything today.”
“Entonces,” María said, opening the door. “It’s good to see a boy learning from his father. That is the most important thing.”
Chuy and Oscar cleared the kitchen and scrubbed the linoleum with soapy water. When the floor dried Chuy handed Oscar the end of a chalk line and stretched it across the length of the room. A plume of blue dust puffed in the air as he snapped it against the laminate. Oscar surprised Chuy by moving when he did, figuring out where he needed to be and looking for what to do next. “Now the real work starts,” Chuy said, cutting open a box of tiles leftover from a job he’d done on the Westside, some gringo’s rec-room that had pictures of his sons hanging on the walls. They smiled in their Coronado T-Bird uniforms and held trophies with little brass baseball dudes on them — trophies lined the wall, too. Chuy remembered thinking how that gringo had it all: money, a good house, a pair of sons who would do him right.
Chuy handed Oscar a tile.”First, you have to check each one for cracks before you set it. Even a small one will bust it apart when the thinset dries.” Oscar nodded, and Chuy wondered if he should explain what thinset did, how it hardened and turned little cracks into big ones, but Oscar seemed to understand as much as he needed to.
The sun came up and Chuy stopped to watch the orange light cut through the window. The house didn’t have the same hopeful feeling it had had before. This felt like just another job, and he wondered what the hell he’d been thinking. Miracles. How stupid could he be? Oscar sat and checked the tiles for cracks, a pile of empty boxes behind him and a stack of good tiles in front. Chuy never actually checked them. He liked to work fast and most of the time spotted a bad one before setting it — though he sometimes missed and had to fix the mess afterward, but Oscar seemed happy, like he was playing one of his weird games, so Chuy left him to it.
Chuy went to the porch and poured the thinset into a bucket. His knees and back hurt like always, and Chuy felt glad that Oscar was smart and would never have to work like this. But it was the kind of glad that turned rotten by thinking about it; part of him wanted Oscar to end up at a job like his, to show Teresa that nobody’s dreams are better because nobody’s come true. Chuy added water from the hose and mixed everything until it was thick like peanut butter, lugged it back to the kitchen where he found Oscar standing over the sink.
“It was an accident,” Oscar said, pouring water on his hand. “One of the tiles was broken.”
“I told you to be careful,” Chuy said. Chuy dropped the bucket and grabbed Oscar’s hand. A busted tile had gashed him across the palm, and Chuy pressed hard and waited to see if the blood would thin. He heard Teresa’s voice in his head: I can’t trust you por nada. One day and you cut his hand off.
Oscar stared at his hand and whimpered.
“Don’t cry,” Chuy said while squeezing, the thin bones poking against his fingers. “Don’t make it worse.”
Chuy opened Oscar’s hand to see how deep the cut went, and Oscar cried. Chuy thought of hugging the boy the way Teresa did when he was hurt, but he kept squeezing, knowing it wouldn’t stop the blood from coming.
“What’s wrong, Oscarcito?” María asked, rushing into the room. She wrapped her arms around the boy.
“I wasn’t messing around. I promise,” Oscar said between chokes of air.
“Of course you weren’t,” María said. She calmed Oscar, and Chuy was both jealous and relieved. He’d wanted to tell Oscar that everyone got hurt on the job; his hand would scar and that scar would stay with him forever. It was something he could look back on and remember, better than a picture because mistakes were real. María went to the cupboard and grabbed a bag of flour, dropped a lump in Oscar’s palm and watched as it globbed into a reddish ball.
“Make a fist and hold it tight,” she said and wrapped his hand in a kitchen towel. “Let me get some orange peels for you to chew on, to stop the bleeding.” María disappeared into the dining room.
“Here,” Chuy said wrapping the towel tighter around Oscar’s fist. “Do you want to call má? I won’t get mad.”
“No,” he said, turning away. “I want to stay with you and finish the job. I don’t want you to go again.” Teresa would blame Chuy for the hand, say he never looked out for their son. She always told Chuy how Oscar deserved the chance for a better life-the chance they never got, but Chuy knew what Teresa really meant: He deserved better than you.
Chuy wrapped Oscar’s hand with a roll of electrical tape he found at the bottom of his tool bag, going over the kitchen towel until Oscar’s hand looked like a black flipper. Teresa would eventually stop by to check on Chuy, overreact and take Oscar away when she saw the hand-probably for good this time. Chuy had flunked her little test and felt bad for thinking about it that way-him losing, them winning, every-thing fading like old paint.
Chuy crouched on the floor and spread a glob of thinset with the notched end of his trowel, making even rows across the linoleum. He set the first tile and pressed down, collapsing pockets of air in the thick adhesive. Oscar sat beside him, passing tiles with his good hand and chewing orange peels. María had gone, saying she needed to get Angélica ready for visitors.The house was quiet, and Chuy wondered how Angélica got ready or helped pilgrims. She was barely alive.
Oscar passed another tile without saying a word. The boy sat still, and for the first time Chuy recognized himself in his son. He had the same slightly open mouth and hard eyes he recognized from the mirror. When Oscar was a baby he’d cried all the time-his lungs like balloons filled with air and then deflating in long shrieks, but that noise had given Chuy hope for the future. Maybe the boy would be one of those marathon runners, gliding across giant cities and never losing a breath. Chuy had wanted Oscar to be an athlete, a vato who had people looking up to him. A man with respect.
Chuy and Oscar stopped for a break and sat in the living room eating tortillas con jámon. It was noon and the tiles were setting, a few more cuts and they’d be done.
Father and son had worked all morning and mostly without talking. Chuy could tell Oscar was nervous about saying the wrong thing, about asking him why he’d gone away and if he was ever coming back. Chuy would have tried to answer, but he didn’t know why, at least not the kind of why that would make sense.
The woman’s name was Yvette, and Chuy had known her from high school. She was still fine, but that’s not why Chuy did what he did. Things between him and Teresa were chingada, and in a way Oscar had made them that way-their fighting for who the boy should be was never ending. With Yvette, Chuy had wanted another chance, another son. He pictured this boy playing in the park, not thinking about colleges and futures, about all the dumb things he could do to mess his life up. Yvette called Teresa when she’d found out Chuy was married and told her everything.
A car pulled into the driveway, a brown tin can with bubbled tint and smoky exhaust. A man and woman climbed out, some old timers Chuy didn’t recognize. They walked with a boy. He was too skinny to be healthy, his shoulders popping out from under his ashy skin, his head swiveling on his neck. Oscar had always been healthy, so healthy Chuy had never noticed. Chuy went to the porch.
“¿Es la casa de Angélica?” The woman asked, her voice tired. The man, who looked even older up close, his hair like the white wisps of a viejo cactus, kept his head down.
“Está adentro, señora,” Chuy answered and held the door. He could tell this was the last chance for them, that they’d tried it all and were ready to leave their hopes to María and the miracle girl. Oscar stood up when María appeared from Angélica’s room, like he knew something was about to happen-Oscar had always been good at that. María met the family at the door and was glamorous all over again.
“Ayúdeme con él,” the man said to Chuy. Chuy went over to the boy, leaving Oscar alone. Chuy cradled the sick boy in his arms, and even though he was older than Oscar — his eyes yellow and his skin both thin and rough like tamale husks-he weighed nothing. Chuy felt responsible for him, like holding on would keep them both from floating away. Oscar eyeballed Chuy-giving him that Teresa look-and he realized he hadn’t held Oscar since he was a baby. Chuy wondered if there was something broken inside of him, something wrong with the way he loved. Chuy reached down and tried to grab Oscar’s hand, but he pulled away, hiding the taped mess behind his back.
María led everyone to Angélica’s room and told them her story. Angélica had been swimming at a city pool when she slipped and hit her head, drowned in front of everybody. At the hospital Angélica was put on machines, and doctors told María her daughter would die as soon as they were turned off. So María prayed for a miracle-Ave Marías, Novenas, everything she could think of-and when the hospital decided to shut her down, because it was too expensive and too late anyways, Angélica kept breathing, living.
María took her to church that day, right to the altar where a Mass was going and a priest giving Communion. She demanded he give to Angélica, one body to help the other, but before the cura put the wafer in the frozen girl’s mouth, it transformed. The Host softened into a miniature beating heart, a ring of thorns gashing the sides, and it burst as soon as it touched the surface of Angélica’s dry tongue. From then on María said she could see the Holy Spirit glowing in her daughter’s eyes. Angélica had cured the priest’s diabetes, or so María had said.
María went on to explain the rules. They could pray and ask Angélica to speak to God. They could light candles and touch her, but only on the arms. No pictures. Donations at the end. Chuy imagined the sick boy touching Angélica and then coming to life, like a dry sponge soaking up water. Maybe that’s how it worked, Angélica’s body sucking tumors and bad blood and bad hearts and trading it with the life she couldn’t use. Chuy hoped Oscar would touch her, and if not he’d put the sick boy down and make him. Angélica could fix his hand. Fix everything.
The room looked different than it had that first night. The moonlight had been replaced by the sun, making the room hot and real. Ceramic statues of San Judas and La Virgen de Guadalupe were in the corners of the room. Prayer candles of every kind of saint-San Cayetano, Agustín, Pascual Bailón, Lorenzo, and Santa Bárbara-flickered. Angélica lay in the middle of the room, wearing a pink dress with lacy trim. She breathed with the help of a machine, made a slow sucking noise. A purple blanket with small metal hearts and prayer cards, with fading photographs of sick nanas and tatas and niños at hospitals, of families smiling-memories of the good times-and little kid drawings with blue skies and frowning faces were pinned to it and pulled to her waist. The doorbell rang.
Chuy carried the sick boy closer to Angélica. Oscar stayed back. The old man motioned for Chuy to put his son down, and he did, though he’d wanted to hold on longer. Chuy wanted to be part of any miracle Angélica could make. Chuy watched as the mother placed her son’s bony hand inside the miracle girl’s, could hear Teresa calling for Oscar from the front door. The mother of the sick boy cried, the corners of her mouth lined with spit. María lit incense and made the air thick and cloudy, a bad dream about to end. Chuy knew Teresa would eventually let herself in the house.
María sprinkled the sick boy with holy water and huddled everyone around Angélica. Chuy grabbed Oscar and took him to her, deciding he needed something to hope for, too. They stood next to the sick boy, and Chuy took Oscar’s taped hand and placed it on the miracle girl. A layer of black hair covered Angélica’s cheeks and above her lip. An oily patch of acne around her nose. Chuy felt pinche for noticing, for butting in, for letting things get bad enough for miracles in the first place.
“Pray,” Chuy said to Oscar but more to himself. Chuy hadn’t prayed in years, thought asking for help never worked, but as he closed his eyes and squeezed Oscar’s hand, he surprised himself. He asked for whoever was listening to make things right for the boy±for Oscar to be what he was supposed to and not anything else. Chuy opened his eyes and turned around, saw Teresa in the doorway.
“Oscar,” Teresa said, waving him over.
“Má,” Oscar said, suddenly breaking from Chuy and running toward her. Chuy backed away from Angélica. The family hadn’t noticed them, like they were all frozen in some terrible moment: the sick boy’s parents with heavy heads, María’s clenched face, the sick boy and Angélica lost.
Teresa looked over Oscar’s hand on the porch. They were out of place by the scraps of tile and empty bags of thinset and grout, the tossed around tools. Teresa peeled off the tape. The kitchen towel was soaked with blood, and the adhesive left a grayish gum on the outside of Oscar’s wrist. His hand was still clenched in a fist.
“What happened?” Teresa asked.
“It was my fault,” Chuy said, meeting them outside. “A tile cut him when I wasn’t looking.” Oscar tried to hide the hand, but Teresa grabbed it.
“Look at his hand, Chuy.” Drops of blood fell to the ground. “Ábrate la mano, Oscar.” Oscar didn’t move, and Teresa pulled his fingers open. Clumps of red flour caked the rim of his wound, fresh blood in the middle. It ran down Oscar’s arm as Teresa lifted it to show Chuy. It looked worse than before. How could he not have known how bad the injury was, that the boy needed to be looked out for? “This needs a doctor, Chuy. Why didn’t you call me?”
“I told him to tough it out,” Chuy lied. “That we had a job to finish.” Chuy didn’t want Teresa to know Oscar had wanted to stay, to have her feel like she needed to keep fighting. Chuy knew Teresa would give the boy what he couldn’t, would do the things that had always been hard for him.
Chuy thought of Angélica, of the small twitching heart pulsing and flexing on the surface of the miracle girl’s cracked tongue. Her body would keep living, spreading until her pink dress got too small and she became a burden to anyone who loved her. Chuy didn’t know if Angélica had ever cured cancer or anything else. Her life was a silent and stuck way to be. A life Chuy knew.
“I can’t believe you,” Teresa said, rewrapping Oscar’s hand.
Teresa picked up their son. He was too big for her, but she lugged him to her car, his feet dragging on the ground as he slipped from her arms. Teresa belted Oscar in the back seat, looked ahead as she cranked the engine and drove off. Oscar turned to watch his father, and Chuy, knowing better than to turn away, waved goodbye.
Matt Mendez’s stories have appeared in Cutthroat, Huizache, [PANK], The Literary Review and other journals. He was the winner of Alligator Juniper’s National Fiction Contest and a finalist for The Ohio State University Prize in Short Fiction. Matt is a three-time Pushcart Prize nominee and regularly reviews books for the El Paso Times. Twitching Heart is his first book.
“Twitching Heart” was originally published in Manifest Destiny (TLR Summer 2009)