"Evangelina Concepcion" by Ani Sison Cooney
by Ani Sison Cooney
You pulled your mother’s clothes inside out and wrote Evangelina Concepcion with a capital ‘E’ and a capital ‘C,’ respectively. In black ink, you wrote behind the wide belt loops, round and round the broad belt loops, until Concepcion, the last name, met Evangelina, and they read in infinity. You wrote the name on the fat waistline and inseams until it reached the leg openings. On the back and front pockets. Evangelina. Behind the zipper of the fly. Concepcion. Then you pulled the clothes back outside in, folded them, and placed them in a large box that you labeled ‘Ma.’
You would find new owners for your mother’s clothes. They would find movement again in a large body the size of your mother’s. ‘Wouldn’t that be nice,’ you thought as you pushed the box in the closet. Her clothes fitted around someone else’s jiggle.
Two weeks had already passed and you were coping. Your mother prepared you for a time like this after all.
Two years ago or so, when you were only thirteen, Ma gave you orders while she was driving: “You will be like steel. You can cry the first few days, but after the fifth day, I expect you to get up and help your father.” You nodded your head. “He is quite the sensitive one,” she said to you. She was driving east of Wilshire Boulevard after cleaning a house in Santa Monica.
You colored your fingernails black and red while you listened closely to her scenarios. In one scenario, your father was the one who died and your Ma was so debilitated that she became a child in a big woman’s body. “This happens, Lila. I have seen it. I have seen women in their sixties and seventies lie and cry on the floor like they’ve been deboned or something. Crying like fat and slippery babies. Don’t let me look like a wet baby!” she said.
You remembered that Ma gripped the steering wheel so tight her knuckles were white under thick mahogany skin. “If that ever happens, I give you the permission to throw cold water on me. Anything to wake me up, mija.”
Your family’s accident made the news. It was quite unceremonious: the sharp t-bone occurred around eleven at night, reported in the Los Angeles Times, and broadcast in the early morning. You, your brother, and Ma were not named even though you were all in the van. Your Ma only reported as the “mother of two driving the silver vehicle.”
There was an online article too, and you read the condolences of strangers. One person wrote: “I know why they didn’t name the mother. I bet you she doesn’t have any papers.” You were pissed off by this troll. You typed a response: “Your mother doesn’t have papers. You asshole.”
The news reported that the man who drove the BMW was going sixty miles per hour drunk when he hit the van. A witness described the sound as a loud boom that shook the buckets of sweet beef in his Korean barbecue restaurant. Lastly, a pedestrian was struck as the BMW zoomed into your family’s car.
You slept for a long time after reading the article, and when you woke up, what you remembered most clearly was the pedestrian. Her name was Ashley Smith.
She was a volunteer football coach for underserved children in Echo Park and was heading home with a bag of oranges that night. She was a flight attendant who loved to travel and see the world. She was a good young woman said the people who knew her well. Her favorite city was Paris.
You stared at Ashley Smith’s round face and imagined that if the picture were in color, there would be pink highlights in her blonde hair, just like the ones you wanted but in red and maybe dark purple. The subtle kind your mother disapproved of because your black hair set different rules. She didn’t want you looking like you worked the streets of Hollywood.
You kept a copy of the newspaper article between your SAT prep books. There were a few times you reread the gist of Ashley’s life, rehashing it over and over again. It was just so striking in description that you couldn’t forget Ashley’s face. You really wondered what it was like to be on a plane that much and what kind of things she did in Paris.
On a hot Friday night, over three bowls of chicken teriyaki from Panda Express, you heard your five-year old brother, Carlos, connect the dots in a strange way. He pointed at you, at himself, and then your father. “We’re a triangle now,” he whispered to you as if it was a secret.
“You don’t need to whisper, Carlos,” you said to him. “Say it louder.” You were very firm in tone. You didn’t want to baby him too much. Carlos whispered because there was a “small telephone” ringing in his ear. The doctor said that he could be suffering from mild tinnitus.
To your father, your words had quite a bite to them. Maybe it was because he had been lacking in energy the past few days and had declined construction projects up in Los Feliz, but mostly it was because you felt like you were taking care of two children. One not yet capable of understanding loss, the other impaired by the meaning of it. You heard your father say, “I’m going to nap” a lot.
The night Carlos learned of your family’s new shape, your father kissed him on the forehead and said goodnight. Then you said with real bite, “Ma did not die with pearls around her neck, you know?”
“I’ll get back to work soon. Don’t worry,” he said. He didn’t bat a sleepy eye at how cold your words were.
You did not believe him.
You let your brother watch his pastel-colored superhero cartoons for the rest of the night, his pinky finger in his right ear. He loved Sue and Johnny so much, those yellow-haired superheroes, Sue with the invisible forcefields, Johnny with the fire.
You memorized some SAT words.
You read the LA Times article again, never really reading the end.
You ignored your friend Katya’s text messages about almost losing her virginity to that nerdy meathead who got accepted early by USC. You hoped that her mother would catch her.
It was ten-thirty when Carlos walked towards you in the living room while you studied. He scratched his greasy head, put his salty fingers in his mouth, and asked, “I’m sleepy. Will mami shower me tonight or will you?”
The friends of your mother drove from the east, the south, and over the valley to make sure your family was well-fed during this difficult time. You said thank you and embraced the mothers who delivered the carne asada the next Monday, the pot of chicken and tomato soup on Wednesday, and the bowl of spaghetti with meatballs the night after even though it gave everyone in the house a bit of gas.
The mothers whispered advice to you. They told you not to be so hard on your father. He had the nervios, they added. They knew men and women in their families who took medication for this overwhelming sadness while most learned how to live with it. They praised your lack of frailty.
“When do you go back to school, Lila?” Josie, your mother’s closest friend, asked while she washed a Tupperware and covered the big bowl of spaghetti with saran wrap.
“If you need help getting school materials call me, and I’ll take you with my boy,” Josie said. “Just let me know.” Then she proceeded to wash the dirty dishes that lay crusty near the sink.
Rosalina, one of your mother’s friends and also one of the old gossips across the street, came by a few minutes later with a container of food. You hated it when she came unannounced. Your parents tolerated her because she was harmless and well into her sixties, but she annoyed you. She was always up in your business, like an auntie.
She held you close and said, “It was a beautiful funeral, Lila. Just beautiful. I attend funerals almost every year and this one is by far the nicest one I’ve been to. I especially liked the white doves you all released in the end.” You smelled dishwashing soap on her skin, the artificial lemon kind, and you walked away.
In the kitchen, you dropped off the warm Tupperware that Rosalina brought, while she hugged your little brother and talked to your father who sat quietly in the living room.
“She’s batshit,” you said to Josie. “She’s always happy and smiling. There’s something wrong with people like that, right?”
Josie stared at you, and she looked liked she was about to tell you off, but she didn’t. “I don’t think so, Lila. Some people are just lucky,” she said. There was no judgment in her response. “It’s a perspective. Let’s not be cruel.”
Rosalina walked towards you and Josie in the kitchen. “Lila. Lila. Lila. Throughout this difficult time, look at what you’ve gained! You’ve gained five more mothers! Sisters! Brothers! Isn’t it amazing how life works?” the old woman said. Josie looked at you and laughed a little. When everybody left, you poured the stinky black beans that Rosalina delivered down the drain.
Carlos couldn’t stop sobbing that night because the ringing in his ear was loud. You shared a bedroom with him, and you told him to be quiet but he bawled anyway, his mouth open and really gummy. His breath smelled of milk and garlic. “It’s in my ear, Lila. You want to listen?” You put your ear close to your brother’s and, of course, you heard nothing. You carried him over and let him sleep next to you even though it was a warm night.
When he didn’t stop crying, you pulled out a shirt from the boxes with your mother’s clothes and old notebooks and perfume and you let him smell it again. It calmed him. You both fell back to sleep.
You dreamed that your mother held the bag of oranges for the children who played football in Echo Park. She carried it with one hand and walked with the cockiness of a large person down the street where Ashley Smith was struck.
In your dream, the Los Angeles Times wrote your mother’s name instead of Ashley Smith’s. Evangelina Concepcion this! Evangelina Concepcion that! She was a meticulous professional, according to her friends and employers. You mother’s favorite city, according to the article, was Los Angeles—it was the first city where she learned how to drive, where you and Carlos were born, where she planned to build a modest home with a small vegetable garden. No cilantro: she wasn’t fond of the smell.
You woke up from the dream with her shirt over your face. Carlos was asleep. In the summer moonlight, you saw the scribbles of name that you wrote in the clothes and that was when you decided that the box of clothes had to go.
You walked past unlicensed street vendors who occupied the surrounding streets of MacArthur Park on a hot Saturday afternoon. Some men sold shiny utensils and dented woks. Some women sold blankets, children’s clothes, and sundresses. Somewhere in the park, you saw an older woman hidden between two leafy trees, her bacon-wrapped hotdogs, onions, and bell peppers frying. The smoke from the grill became one with the park’s permanent fountain mist. You knew why that tiny woman hid between the trees. She was considered a health and a fire hazard.
You laid out your mother’s clothes on a layer of newspapers next to a man who had a pile of used shoes on the ground. You arranged the clothes in color code, the names you wrote unseen. As a caveat, you placed a handwritten sign—“Absolutely no returns! No refunds!”—in the middle of the pile.
Two older women, one about the size and height of your mother, stopped by and browsed your selection. The one who resembled your mother in height and weight looked formidable. She held up the maroon sundress your Ma loved to wear during the summer and asked, “How much is this?” You felt guilty putting a price out loud on your mother’s clothes, so you wrote the number twenty on a piece of paper and held it for the woman to see. “It’s a little expensive for a dress that no longer fits you, no? Give us a discount,” the woman said while she and her friend continued to look through the clothes.
“Actually, they were my mother’s.”
“She must have lost a lot of weight. These clothes are big!”
“We’ll have to tighten them a bit on the waist,” said the other woman. “Actually, my mother passed away.” The older women apologized to you and walked away.
The sun softened the sticky bubble gum specks on the street where you stood. It seared your skin while you smiled at people who stopped to browse then walked along when they found the clothes an improper fit.
Someone waved at you from across the street directly from the park’s fountain. It was Rosalina.
“These clothes are still good!” She said as she stood next to you panting from her walk. “Your mother had a lot of practical clothing.”
“Nobody has bought anything yet.”
“Have you been telling people they were your mother’s?”
“And that she’s passed?”
“Well, don’t do that!” she snapped. “The clothes of the deceased, even with any discount, are easy to resist, my dear,” Rosalina said. “I’ve sold second-hand clothes on these streets, and buyers don’t like to know that these things belonged to people who don’t walk the streets anymore.”
She didn’t have any family that you knew of who had passed. In fact, you knew that she didn’t have any family in Los Angeles at all because your Ma once told you that Rosalina had always been alone.
You thanked Rosalina. You looked at your watch and said to her, “My dad and Carlos will be home soon from the ear doctor, so I better go,” and you put the clothes back in the box while Rosalina watched over you, waving at a vendor here and there.
“I’ll take the bus with you,” she said after you finished packing.
Rosalina was short of change, so you paid for her fare. You didn’t feel like leaving a sixty year old under the heat. You asked her whose stuff she’d sold on the streets. You wanted to know who in her life had died without directly asking.
Rosalina shared with you that she had a friend who worked in a Boyle Heights cemetery who gave her the clothes of the deceased after their cremation. The bodies were left unclaimed by their family, if they had any at all. Rosalina received cotton baby clothes, sometimes wool with some permanent light brown stains. She received Adidas and Nike running shoes that she’d sold for quite a lot. Polo shirts, flannel shirts, jeans and dresses, blankets and hats—she acquired the clothes that the deceased had owned after their bodies were stripped, cremated, and then placed in a grave with nothing but a number over their allotted land. Rosalina told you that she kept a silky shawl once. “It was just too nice to be sold on the streets.” She told you that the burial was once a year and she took the bus all the way to Boyle Heights to stand with strangers who drove from all over the city to listen to Christian, Islamic, and Jewish prayers. “To be honest,” Rosalina whispered, “it’s all very melodramatic—I think the Jewish prayer is a bit much.” She told you that an old acquaintance was buried there years ago. “We weren’t lovers, but he often took me out to Denny’s which I always appreciated.” Rosalina took a deep breath. The heat had exhausted her.
“That’s a very sad story,” you said to her.
“What was that, my dear? I couldn’t hear you.”
“I said that’s a very sad . . .”
“Not at all! Those people are very lucky to even have a burial, you know.” You kept quiet for the rest of the ride, but Rosalina kept on babbling like she knew she’d be starved of a conversation once you both reached your destination.
Your father held one of your mother’s notebooks where she wrote the names and addresses of the homes she cleaned. A few sticky notes stuck out like orange tongues from the notebook as he flipped through the pages. He had answered a few phone calls on your mother’s cellphone the day before. They were from people your mother had worked for who did not know what had happened to her. “We are so shocked and sorry to hear,” they said to your father. “Let us know if there is anything we can do.”
There were a couple of house owners who only knew her by a schedule, coming in at nine in the morning on a Tuesday or a Wednesday once every two or three weeks. They didn’t even bother responding to your father’s text messages or voicemail.
Your father had been so preoccupied that he didn’t even ask you about the box of clothes in the living room that you tried to sell a couple of days ago.
“Thank you for your prayers, Mrs. Simpson. I am sorry I didn’t tell you sooner,” he said over the phone.
When he was off the phone, you told him to stop. “Papi, please don’t apologize for anything! Why do you do that?
“I’m being courteous, Lila.”
“Ma wouldn’t be apologizing if it happened the other way around. We say sorry too much.” Your father looked at you, his droopy eyelids and face unsettled by what you just said to him.
The next day your friend Katya knocked unannounced at your door. Her strawberry red hair looked choppy and oily. You didn’t talk about your mother because she knew what not to ask. You allowed her to talk briefly about her USC boyfriend but told her to stop when she got into the details.
In your bedroom, you flipped through magazines and read about celebrities, their boyfriends and girlfriends and their moms and dads and the secrets that they kept. Katya told you, “I still have some red in my place. We should dye your hair before the summer ends,” and you agreed.
Your hair didn’t look like the picture on the box after you washed and dried it. Instead of amber red, your hair was the shade of a bruised and rotting beet. “It does not look bad at all,” Katya said, holding up a mirror so that you could see the back.
“Fuck you, Katya,” you said to her, and you both sat on the bathroom floor, laughing. “My Ma was kind of right. This color makes me look like I work the streets. My hair really does set different rules,” and you remembered your mother for a little bit amidst the smell of ammonia in the bathroom. Katya hugged you and you hugged her back. Before you walked home, she showed you a half-naked picture of her boyfriend, and you wished her mother would catch her.
When you got back in the apartment, you found your father cooking and Carlos in front of the TV, a piece of cotton in his right ear. Josie, her husband Teddy, and Rosalina sat near the kitchen table with beers in hand. They said your hair looked kinda cool, but that was it. Your scalp itched and stung a little, but you were glad to see your father looking a little happier, a little lighter on the face while he was cooking.
Your brother said, “I like the red color.” He jumped next to you on the couch. “You look just like Johnny when he’s on fire in the cartoons.” The apartment smelled of greasy food, and it made you feel normal for a bit. On top of your mother’s notebook, you heard your father’s cellphone ring and you picked up.
It was a man named Gary. He owned a house that your mother had cleaned since Carlos was born. He was a nice older gentleman in his seventies, and you knew that he was softer than your father.
“Is this Lila? I recognize the voice,” he said.
“Yes, this is Lila.”
He told you that he received your father’s message earlier. “I am heartbroken. Truly,” he said to you. “Your mother had always been very kind to me and to my cats.” You heard him begin to cry.
“It’s okay, Mr. Gary. We are doing okay. Please don’t cry.”
“It’s just very heartbreaking that’s all.”
Your father asked who it was and you waved your hand at him. You walked to your bedroom to hear Gary better.
“And how is your father and your little brother?” he continued.
“They are alright, Mr. Gary.”
“Golly. It breaks my heart,” he continued, “I want to help. I will take care of you and your brother and your father for the rest of my life. Help as much as I can. It’s the least that I can do . . .”
You almost chuckled at his offer but you didn’t. You wanted to ask, “Why does it break your heart?” but instead you said goodbye and thank you to the old man. He said that he would be in touch with your father next week. You sat at the foot of your bed, and thought how easy it was for that man to offer help, how easy it was for him to cry over the phone for someone who cleaned his house.
In the kitchen, your father set up the table and everyone sat around ready to eat. Carlos was jumpy and talkative because there was company. Josie’s husband had multiple construction projects coming up in the next few weeks, and he invited your father to be a part of his small team. Your father was happy to accept. He joked that he’d been sleeping for a long time. This was a good time to work, you said to your father. You were very happy for him. You sat next to Carlos and cut up the meat on his plate. You chewed your greasy food with delight.
“That was Gary on the phone,” you said to everyone around the table. “He was crying like a baby . . .” Josie looked at her husband and then at Rosalina with concern. “I couldn’t understand what else he was saying because he was crying! Like, really loudly on the phone. Like he’s lost everything.” You felt your face smiling. “He said something real funny. He said he wanted to take care of me, Carlos, and Pa for the rest of his life.” You looked at your father and your visitors. Your eyes were wide. “Isn’t that funny?!” You began giggling at first and then you laughed deeper, fork and spoon in your hands. You laughed while nobody else did. When you stopped for a deep breath, you looked at your father and your visitors. Rosalina and everyone else were staring at their plates. Your father looked you straight in the eyes. “It would be funny if you heard it. It was just the way he sounded.” You turned to your side and looked at your little brother. He didn’t have a clue what you found so funny.
It was a week before school started, and you were ready for it all to begin again. You sat on a bus heading home with a stack of notebooks, pencils, and blank paper in a plastic bag. Your dark roots were starting to grow back, and you cut the beet-red split-ends when you needed to.
The bus drove by your high school and you saw that the announcement billboard had not been updated yet. In orange pixels, the names of students who graduated and were accepted by colleges entered the screen from right to left. The mothers and fathers of those students must be so proud, you thought, to see their long, bright, full names like that for all to see.
The bus drove by MacArthur Park and you saw the men and women on the streets selling used items. You were glad that you didn’t have to do that for your mother’s clothes again after the first time. You pressed your face on the window and watched the women walking up and down the streets, hoping you would recognize someone.
A few days after Rosalina, Josie, and her husband’s visit, your father told you, “Lila, I’ve given away your mother’s clothes and shoes.” He kissed you on the forehead. “I am sorry you had to take on that. It wasn’t yours to do.”
He wept while looking straight at you, but you let him. There was a firmness and resolve on his face that you wanted to respect. You didn’t cry with him. You just stared at how big his teardrops were.
You said to your father, “Oh. Thank you for doing that, I guess,” then you went to your bedroom and felt really hollow, just like the first few days after the car accident. But there was also a gradual cool all over your body, a soothing after a deep sting as you sat there for a couple of hours pretending to sleep.
Your brother walked in through the bedroom door and sat by your feet.
“Are you awake?” he asked, and you opened your eyes. He told you that Rosalina dropped by earlier that day with a bowl of food, and that she was nice, that she pinched his cheeks and it hurt a little because her fingers were so rough, and that she took the box with Ma’s clothes in it. “Even that shirt with the real nice smell,” he said.
You stayed quiet, then you asked your brother, “Did you try the food she brought? I bet she cooked it good.”
You guessed that Rosalina sold or gave your mother’s clothes away. Rosalina never told you. You kept hoping you would find someone in your neighborhood or on the bus or in the streets or in the park who wore your mother’s clothes.
You stepped off the bus and walked home. Your brother greeted you at the door and invited you to play. “How about I’ll be Johnny and you be Sue like the cartoons?” You told him maybe in a little while and that you were a little tired. You kissed your father on the forehead as he sat on the couch watching the evening news.
In your bedroom, you organized your new school materials near your SAT prep books. You opened those books and found the newspaper article that reported the accident. It was funny, you remembered, how you just reread those parts about Ashley Smith, never reading the end of the article. Sorrow bent you in an odd way your Ma could never have prepared you for.
So you read again from the beginning. The facts and the reportage. The “mother of two driving the silver vehicle.” The superlatives for Ashley Smith.
Then you read the end where you and your brother were mentioned. “The condition of the woman’s two children was not immediately known,” the report said. You read that sentence again and again and again before putting the article back in your book.
You agreed with a full heart.
You found no cruelty in those final lines.
Ani Sison Cooney is a writer based in Los Angeles. He is a graduate of UCLA where he studied literature and creative writing. A VONA / Voices alum, he is the recipient of a Manuel G. Flores Prize from the Philippine American Writers and Artists, Inc. (PAWA). He is currently working on a collection of short stories. This is his first publication.
(MacArthur Park image source: ETSY)