ONE

I WALKED INTO THE EMPTY old house in Tampa, and the phone was ringing. Who could it be? No one knew I had left New York. Peace, peace in my old age—that’s all I wanted.

It was my cousin Tom-tom. He said, “What are you doing here?”

“Why are you calling here?” I said, hectoring like a Tampa Latin (we never called ourselves Hispanics) as if I hadn’t lived my whole adult life away from that tacky, inquisitive town and family, and long ago turned into a real American, which is worse.

He made a temporizing, grumbling noise into the phone.

“You know Celia and Cuco have been dead four months,” I said.

“I was at the funeral,” he said. “Where were you?”

“There’s nobody here now,” I said, still taking his tack.

“That’s why,” he said softly, changing course on me. “I don’t like to think of Aunt Mama’s house all quiet and lonely. I call ‘cause that way at least the phone rings.”

“You’re crazy,” I said and chuckled a bit, for the first time in months.

Tom-tom laughed along for a second, and then slowly, but gathering momentum, he composed an eulogy of Aunt Mama, my mother, dead twelve years at least. He ended it with the same statement he made at every last encounter in our lives, a kind of unanswerable explanation for their closeness: “Aunt Mama and I were born the same day, November 29, you know.”

“Twenty years apart,” I said, denying him his claim, bastard that I am.

-1-

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