Getting back to Santa Cecilia was the easy part. It was just a matter of finding the right bus, getting on, and paying the fare. It was going to the zapateria to face Imelda's family which was hard. Let's just say that I am not a very welcome face over there. Don Ramon said so. And nobody goes against Don Ramon, no matter what. Except me, of course. And of course I never intended to go against Don Ramon in the first place. But Imelda and I did something stupid without thinking of the consequences, as young people often do, and while the results of our youthful "adventure" was our beloved Coco, our actions did not endear me to Don Ramon at all. In fact, he made it clear that he wanted to see neither hide nor hair of me for as long as he lived. And me, in my youthful arrogance, declared that I didn't need his help or his money to raise my family anyway.
As you can tell, that didn't work out too well for me. Not only did my musical career fail to take off like I had imagined it would, my best friend also decided to abandon me and pursue his own career on his own, and he even took my songs while he was at it. These were pretty desperate times for me. So I did what I never thought I would ever do, swallow my pride and come back to Santa Cecilia and admit that I was wrong. You should have seen it when I literally crawled back to the zapateria and, on my hands and knees, begged Don Ramon Rivera for his forgiveness, as well as told him my willingness to do anything and everything that I could to get that forgiveness short of being his personal slave. It was a scene straight out of a telenovela, I tell , maybe I was willing to go down to becoming Don Ramon's slave, but thankfully Doña Manuela, Don Ramon's wife and Imelda's mother, talked Don Ramon out of it. But I still had to take out the trash from the zapateria's factory floor, the place where they make all the shoes.
That's where I made my start with the Rivera Shoe Company of Santa Cecilia, a cleaner of the factory floor. Don Ramon gave me that title, but my job description is basically janitor and garbage-man all rolled into one, meaning I collected all of the leather scraps, swept up the loose nails before they stuck themselves into someone's foot and caused a tetanus infection, and I was also the one who went to the tanning stations outside of town and swept up any dung that had spilled out of their tanks and onto the ground. Yes, apparently the secret to Rivera shoes being so fine is the fact that they still use dung to soften or tan the leather or whatever it is that tanners do to the leather with dung. It's all technical, and I never stay around long enough to ask.
I think I must have been the zapateria's cleaner for an entire year before Don Ramon finally gave me a "promotion" to apprentice shoemaker. Later I would learn that that was only because Doña Manuela had talked him into promoting me, but personally I didn't mind. Cleaning up the factory floor was all right with me; it was the constant trips to the tanners that nearly drove me out of my mind. I tell you, as I write this I can imagine the smell of the feces stewing in the tanners' tanks wafting back to my nostrils. The smell of the dung actually clung to my clothes, and Imelda would not let me anywhere near her or Coco for three days every time I went back from the tanners. She even threatened to burn all of my clothes if I didn't find a way to get the stench out. And with Imelda, you just know that when she says something, she means it. If she could ban music for it ruining my life then she would.
But anyway, I got through the year without Imelda burning any article of my clothing (and only because my mother taught me how to remove the smell of shit from clothing in only three washings) and soon I began to learn the trade of the Riveras. They started me off with the really basic stuff like attaching the soles to the shaped leather, and then I moved on to making the soles themselves before I completed my training by learning how to cut and sew the sheets of leather into shoes, "The softest and sturdiest shoes in Oaxaca!", the advertisements would have you believe. If I'm being completely honest, I feel that I may have tarnished Zapatos de Rivera's reputation a little bit with my output. Still, I did well enough to get my own station on the factory floor along with all the other shoemakers.
And then I broke my leg.
You see, that's actually kind of a funny story. Of course, my wife didn't see the humor in that situation at all, and she still doesn't see it to this day, but personally, after I've gotten over all of the pain and even some of the humiliation, I think it's a funny story. So this is how it goes. Here in Mexico, almost every town has its own football team. Some of these teams, like Cruz Azul, Chivas, Tigres, Pachuca, and the like, you've probably already heard of. Other teams, like Santa Cecilia's own team, are a bit more obscure. I'm pretty sure that before today, you've probably never heard of Santa Cecilia's football team. You probably don't even know that we have one. But we do, and even though the team hasn't been doing very well in the past couple of years, the whole town is proud of it.
The town elders disagree when the first football game was played in Santa Cecilia. Some say it was back in the thirties; others say that it was during the fifties. Certainly by the sixties there was already a football city calling Santa Cecilia its home, but it wouldn't get its current name until a certain Señor Ramon Rivera, who had established a shoe shop in town and eventually grew it into the biggest shoe producer in the state of Oaxaca, bought the club and renamed it Zapateros de Santa Cecilia Fútbol Club, reflecting the business that had put him and the town on the map. Don Ramon also paid for the construction of a new and modern 2,000-seater stadium to serve as Los Zapateros' new home and replace the school field where the team used to play. The old school field had served the team well, but it had been worn down due to overuse and there were patches of bare earth on the pitch of the old field where the grass no longer grew, so the move to the new stadium was a welcome one.
Anyway, the story about how I broke my leg started when news started spreading around the zapateria that Chicharrón, one of the team's defenders, had been knocked over by a motorcycle on the way to the zapateria. He was okay, but he had sprained his elbow (or broken his arm; I couldn't get a consensus from the others during that time) and therefore could not play in the Copa de Oaxaca game against Porfirio Díaz (the team from Miahuatlán, not the former president and dictator of Mexico) later that day. The team, which was made up mostly of the shoemakers and other employees of the zapateria, needed someone on short notice to put on the bench and make the team hit the minimum match day squad number required (eleven starters, three substitutes, and one backup goalkeeper), and then all eyes turned on me. Now I admit that football is my passion (after music, of course), and everyone in the zapateria knew that, but like most other people (that I know of), I'm more interested in watching the game than actually playing it. Of course I know the rules, and I know how to play, but I also knew my limitations. I knew that I was never going to be like Hugo Sánchez or Rafael Márquez, but I wasn't sure if I could even keep up with the others for this one game. I've barely picked up a ball since marrying Imelda, so I knew that I was going to be rusty. But what the heck. It was just one game, right?
So I was put on the bench for the afternoon game, and after about seventy minutes or so the game was still scoreless. One of our midfielders was getting tired under the afternoon heat so our coach subbed him off and put me on. Immediately I was bombarded with orders from both of Imelda's brothers, Oscar and Felipe, telling me to get the ball. The only problem was that I didn't know where the ball was. Then I saw the shadow of something flying towards me. I looked up, and saw the ball, nearly hidden by the afternoon sun, arcing right to the middle of the field. Instinct took over; I just knew what I had to do. I jumped up, dimly aware that another man in a red-and-white striped shirt was jumping alongside me. I hit the ball with my forehead, bounced it down towards a player in the brown shirt of a Zapatero, and then I landed on my right leg. That was my last memory of that afternoon.
When I woke up again, I was on a hospital bed, with Imelda and a doctor on one side and Oscar and Felipe on the other. My right knee was covered in a cast and was hanging from the ceiling of the room. After reassuring everyone that I was okay, the doctor told me that I had managed to break both the anterior and medial cruciate ligaments of my right knee. The doctor was actually astonished that I had managed to do that. He said that never seen either an ACL or MCL tear in his career since arriving at Santa Cecilia and now here I was.
"So… what happened?" I asked.
"Well, ACL tears usually happen when you jump and land wrong," the doctor explained, "or when you twist and turn suddenly like in basketball. And MCL tears happen when something hits the side of your knee—"
"No, not that," I said. "The match," I added, turning to Oscar and Felipe. "What happened to the game? Did we win?"
Oscar–or maybe it was Felipe, I never really could tell, not like Imelda—shook his head sadly and put a hand on his head. "I'm sorry, Hector," he said. "We didn't. We lost 3-0. They scored right after you were carted off. And then they scored two more."
"Yeah, I kind of know how they could have gotten three goals, thanks," I said sarcastically.
"Hey, Felipe's just telling you the story," Oscar—so that was Felipe whom I was talking to earlier—said to me. "No need to get angry on him."
"If there's someone you should be angry about, it should be that Porfiriato culero," Felipe added, referring to the player from Porfirio Díaz. "That asshole, when he saw you had won the ball, just kicked out at you once you landed. I heard the pop right where I was. You fell over unconscious, and then the referee just showed the pendejo a yellow card. He was also the first one who scored from them too. He shouldn't have been on the field after that tackle he did on you. That's just unbelievable. These referees are biased, I'm telling you."
"So we're out of the cup?" I asked.
"Yes, we are," Oscar nodded.
I suddenly felt like a balloon being deflated. I sunk back into the bed and groaned. "Jesucristo, this is all my fault," I muttered. "If I hadn't gotten out there, if I hadn't been tackled by that guy… This wouldn't have happened. All this."
"Hey, hey, don't blame yourself for this, all right, Hector?" Felipe said. "Okay, maybe some of the other guys do, but we don't. I don't. You don't blame him for the loss, right Oscar?" he asked, slapping his brother's ribcage.
"Sí, sí, I don't blame you, man," Oscar agreed somewhat halfheartedly.
"So, Doctor, what's next?" I asked. "What's going to happen to me? How long will the recovery take?"
"There will be operations," the doctor replied. "We'll need to reconstruct both ligaments. But we can't do that here. We'll need to go to Mexico City for that. After that, recovery will take a year at the very least. Also, I'm sorry to tell you this, señor, but after this kind of injury, playing football is only going to aggravate it and make it recur. If you want to keep walking, Señor Rivera, you are going to have to give up football."
"Well, I've always thought about hanging up my boots this afternoon anyway," I joked.
"Actually, it's been three days since the match," Oscar said. "You've been out for that long."
"Really? No shit!" I said.
"Hector! You watch your mouth!" Imelda immediately accosted me. "Just because you're now a disabled person doesn't mean you can now say whatever you want! Coco is going to come visit you later, and I don't want you running off at the mouth with whatever unpleasant things I'm sure are in your mind right now! I swear, Hector, if you so much as slip up and swear in front of your daughter I will personally break your other knee! Let's see you deal with that!"
"Yes, ma'am," I nodded meekly. Everybody knows to take an oath made by Imelda Rivera very seriously.
That was six months ago. I'd finally been released from the hospital just about a week ago, and I was still getting used to the sedentary lifestyle of a man who had just experienced a career-ending injury. Not that my footballing career had been something to write about; really, despite all of the ups and downs that I have experienced as a musician, that part of my life was still much more memorable than the one time that I had turned out as an emergency football player for the local team.
Getting out of bed with one of your legs unable to bend because of the cast around your knee was a pain in the backside. Thankfully the house was single-story; everything was just on one floor so I didn't have much trouble with stairs. That didn't mean I didn't have difficulty moving around. Turns out it was actually very hard to navigate around even a simple house on crutches.
It was already ten o'clock in the morning when I had woken up. Imelda was already gone from beside me and off to work; she had said something about now needing to work twice as hard because she now had two babies to take care of. She's still working at the bus depot though. As much as my current situation has put a financial strain on us, Imelda still refuses to come back to the zapateria despite her own mother's assurances that she would be welcomed back with open arms. She's a proud woman, Imelda. She knows exactly what she's going to stand up for, but sometimes her pride does get the better of her, like now. I know for a fact that what she's going to get working in the zapateria is much more than what she's earning at the depot right now, but Imelda doesn't want to come back crawling to her father like I did. But that's exactly what I love about her anyway.
Getting out of bed took another five minutes because of how slowly I had to move in order not to aggravate my knee. The doctor had told me that continued practice would eventually make this second nature to me, but for the moment I'm still struggling. I hobbled out of the bedroom and over to the kitchen where I began to look around for something to eat. I was conflicted about that one, actually. My half-awake brain wanted coffee while my stomach cried out for something more substantial. For some reason my thoughts turned to an English breakfast, but that was obviously out of the question. Coffee would have to do, even if it would leave me with a bit of acid reflux.
My next destination was the living room. The TV was on, and Coco was sitting in front watching MTV. It was a Saturday so this was a perfectly normal sight in the Rivera household, although this was the first time that I had seen Coco watching MTV. "Hey there," I said, sitting, or more accurately plopping down beside her. "What are you watching?"
"Papa, did you know? Tio Ernesto is on the TV!" Coco replied excitedly.
"Oh, really? And what was Tio Ernesto doing on the TV?" I asked.
"I was looking for the cartoons, Papa, and then I saw Tio Ernesto, and he was singing one of your songs, and then the lady on the television said that there's more to come!" Coco said. Imelda and I had agreed not to tell Coco about the real reason why Ernesto and I had broken up our duo. The kid loved her Tio Ernesto the way only a child could. Ernesto had been in her life for as long as she remembers; he was even one of Coco's godfathers at her baptism. Imelda and I had agreed (a rare thing in and of itself) that now was not the time to tell Coco that her favorite uncle had left her father behind to rot in a jail cell in order to pursue a career of his own.
"Really?" I said. "Do you have any idea when Tio Ernesto is going to be back?"
"I don't know, Papa," Coco shrugged. "The lady just said that she'll be back after these messages."
Right on cue, the last commercial ended, and the woman VJ that Coco was talking about came back. She replayed the previous Top 20 hits from number 20 to number 2 and then she said, "And now taking up our top spot, it is once again the one and only Ernesto de la Cruz with his latest single, and also the most requested music video of the week. It is of course 'Remember Me,' from the album of the same name. It's been released only three days ago and yet it's already on its way to gold status. Some are even saying that Remember Me could even make platinum within the week! Anyway, here is our number one hit of the week, 'Remember Me' by Ernesto de la Cruz!"
"Hey, Papa!" Coco said. "Isn't that the song you love to sing to me?"
"Yeah, I'm not so sure about that, Coco," I said. "Maybe the titles are the same but I'm pretty sure it's not the same song. Definitely nothing like my song to you."
The music video started with a shot of the Zócalo at night before zooming in on the Metropolitan Cathedral. A bunch of cars drove by a man dressed in a white mariachi suit and carrying a familiar white guitar. Another zoom in proved my hunch; the man was none other than Ernesto himself, and in the years in between our parting it seems that he had managed to find—or probably more accurately have someone make for him—a copy of my own guitar. The man really has taken as much as he can from me, and when he couldn't get my guitar (for some reason; he really could have claimed it as his own while I was in the can. Maybe there's some decency still left in him) he just made a copy.
A guitar solo began to play, and the camera zoomed in on Ernesto, specifically his hands as "he" started to strum the strings seemingly to the beat of the solo. But I knew better. Ernesto may have had a great singing voice but he couldn't play the guitar worth a damn. Maybe that was why he kept me around for so long before deciding to go his own way. Slowly, quietly, I started to laugh to myself. All the money and fame in the world can't buy you the talent to play the guitar, Ernesto, I thought mockingly.
And then my internal laughter died down as soon as Ernesto began to sing. "Remember me, though I have to say goodbye…" In the name of Christ Almighty, Ernesto really did have the gall to take my songs and make them his. My songs!
"Papa! See, Papa?" Coco tugged at my shirt sleeve. "I told you it was the same song you sing to me!"
What in the world have you done, Ernesto? I wanted to shout at the TV. "Remember Me" was never meant to be a song for the public; it was my song to Coco, to my daughter and to my daughter alone. And now that culero Ernesto was about to bastardize my song on national television.
"Papa, what's a culero?" Coco suddenly asked.
"What!?" I stammered. I must have been speaking out loud if Coco heard me cursing my former best friend. "It's nothing. It means nothing. It's not important. Don't tell your mother you heard me saying that, okay?" I asked in a lower voice.
"Okay," Coco replied, smiling in such a way that I knew, just knew that she was either going to ask Imelda about the meaning of the word culero or she was going to say the word itself, drop it like a bombshell during dinner most likely. I just shook my head and continued to watch.
I don't know how I manage to sit through the next four minutes of Ernesto making a mockery out of my secret song for Coco. The culero danced around the set like he was Ricky Martin in a mariachi suit, accompanied by women both in traditional and modern clothing. Ernesto then walked up to these women seemingly in random and danced with them while singing, acting like he was their pimp daddy and utterly destroying the whole meaning of "Remember Me". It's a wonder that I didn't physically throw up at any point while watching his music video. Relief finally came when Ernesto belted out the final note of the song, "…until you are in my arms again, remember meeeeeee!" (for all his faults, Ernesto really does have a big pair of lungs in him) while standing underneath a bell tower, and the force of his voice shook the bell from its mounts and caused it to drop on him, ending the song itself but not the music video. The camera lingered on the fallen bell for a few seconds before the video finally faded to black.
I remember my mouth hanging open in surprise at what I had just seen. The VJ reappeared on the screen, but her words did not stick at all to my dumbstruck mind. I have no words. I was literally shocked speechless. But not Coco. As soon as the music video ended, she was full of questions. "Papa, why did Tio Ernesto sing my song like that? Why was he dancing with all those women? Why did the bell fall on him? Is Tio Ernesto okay? Is he all right? Papa?"
"What? What was that?" I blubbered, secretly thankful that my daughter had brought me back to my senses. "Oh, no. I'm sure Tio Ernesto's fine," I said. "I'm sure that if the bell had really fallen on him, it would be all over the news. And you haven't heard anything about Tio Ernesto on the news or anywhere else before now, right? He's fine, Coco. He's a big boy; he can handle himself. Now," I turned to face Coco, "don't you have some homework to do?"
"But Papa, it's Saturday!" Coco protested. "And it's not even lunchtime yet!"
"Well, better early than late, I always say! Come on!" I said, gently pushing Coco off the sofa. "It's Papa's turn on the TV now!"
"I'm telling Mama!" Coco cried out, but she was laughing through the whole thing. I laughed back at her, picked up the remote, and changed channels. Maybe I would be able to catch a replay of the Tigres–Pumas game from yesterday evening.
A/N: As always, feel free to leave a review or comment of what you think of this chapter or my story in general. It only takes a few minutes of your time and lets me know what my readers like or not about my story. All feedback is greatly appreciated. Thank you. – GR