Liliana peered out into the night from her upstairs bedroom window, waiting for her father to get home so they could celebrate her eighth birthday.
The rest of the family had given up waiting on him, but she just couldn’t have her birthday cake without Papa being here.
Liliana’s eyes searched the dark for a glimpse of him.
It was much later and her eyes were beginning to close when Liliana heard Papa long before she could see him. He was singing Cielito Lindo like it wasn’t the middle of the night and like the neighbors weren’t already sleeping. Papa’s voice was sloppy, his words running into one another but still in tune.
She watched him sashay onto their block, under the streetlight, his steps keeping time with his song. Papa danced toward her, danced in his shiny wingtip shoes, his Sunday shoes, only it wasn’t Sunday, just her eighth birthday he forgot. Those shiny shoes stumbled into the bushes, the trees, the garbage cans with a clatter that interrupted his song for barely a second before he took it up again and their neighbor Doña Ibel raised her window to yell out words Liliana wasn’t allowed to hear.
Papa tipped his hat toward Doña Ibel and raised the volume of his voice like Liliana raised the volume on the radio when she wanted to make her Mamá pay attention.
The old dog next door took up Papa’s song and all the neighborhood dogs joined in. By the time he got to their yard, staggered through the gate, and trampled over the blue forget-me-nots Mamá watered every day, Liliana noticed lights flashing on, all up and down the block.
Not that Papa noticed. He didn’t even notice Liliana hanging out the upstairs window.
Liliana inspected Papa from above, looking for a ribbon or a gift in his jacket pockets, looking for any sign Papa had remembered her birthday.
She didn’t get long to look because as soon as Papa was inside the gate, he headed straight to one of his “hiding spots” in the yard where he kept his botellitas of refreshment because when he tried to hide his special bottles inside, Mamá emptied them all out in the sink, and boy did he get loud then.
Liliana didn’t know about the bottle he was pulling out from under the funny-shaped stone by the rose bush, but she bet Mamá did. Mamá knew all his secrets.
Papa held the bottle like a baby and wiped the dirt off and Liliana spotted the gold crown on the label – Ron Rico. Papa said Ron Rico refreshments were the best, only Mamá said he always had money for el Ron when he should be spending more of it on his family and they always got loud after that.
Papa held the bottle up high and the moon made the liquid inside shine gold, and maybe it was magic like Papa said, because anytime he drank it he got so happy and smiley and just laughed and laughed, and it was fun being with him. Sometimes he talked Mamá into having some, and she’d sip or tip some into a plant, and she’d start smiling too.
So when Papa tipped the bottle back and took a long swallow, Liliana expected more of the same: the smiles, then the laughs. Papa could be so funny.
Instead he spit the liquid onto the ground, smashed the bottle on the stone, and started to shout so loud her hair stood up and Liliana covered her ears with both hands.
He yelled for Mamá. Ran to the front door, rattled the door knob, tried to open it and couldn’t. He roared for Mamá again, louder.
In the hallway outside her bedroom, Liliana heard Mamá laugh and then Mamá rushed into Liliana’s room and screamed out the window to Papa.
“You want to drink? Drink that!” Mamá laughed in a hard way, looking down with eyes so thin Liliana thought she didn’t much want to see Papa.
Liliana’s baby brother Tito and her little sister Teresa ran into her room, fresh from sleep, all big eyes and wild hair.
Downstairs, Papa pounded the front door, demanding to be let in.
Mamá ran down the stairs and Liliana followed her, Tito and Teresa trailing right behind.
Liliana hesitated on the steps as Mamá ran into the dark front hall and stood shouting at Papa through the closed door.
Everything that came out of her mother’s mouth was fresh, Liliana thought, fresh like she was always telling Liliana not to be when she talked back. For anything Papa yelled at her mother, Mamá had a smart answer ready.
“You’re going to pay, woman!” yelled Papa.
“Drinking piss is too good for you, old man!” Mamá was pleased at her own cleverness in substituting the golden rum with a golden stream of her own.
“Hijo! Open the door!” Liliana thought Papa sounded tired.
“Why should I?” Mamá paced in front of the door, motioning the kids back up the stairs.
Papa shouted, “Open this door right now or I’m not responsible!”
Mamá shouted right back, “Not responsible! Of course you’re not!” Mamá laughed but to Liliana, the laugh sounded scary.
Papa would not be laughed at, and he hit the door again. Sitting on the stairs, Liliana, Teresa and Tito jumped. Liliana felt Teresa’s hand slip into hers and then Tito’s, and they all held hands, eyes on their mother, quiet. Papa pounded and punched the door so hard it shook and Liliana was afraid it would fall in. He pounded till the walls rattled and the Sacred Heart of Jesus statue tumbled from its shelf on the wall and crashed into pieces on the floor. Jesus’ upraised arm flew into a corner and his head slid across the tiles and landed at Mamá’s feet.
Mamá stopped laughing. Words seemed to have left her. Liliana knew the statue came from Mamá’s mother, who’d gone to meet the angels last year.
Mamá’s hands trembled as she reached out to gather the pieces together, trying to make the statue whole again but she soon gave up and shook her head, hopeless. Mamá cradled the largest piece, the one with the sacred heart on it, and sat on the floor looking at it, ignoring the pounding on the door, her tears running silver in the half-light from the kitchen.
Mamá looked up and noticed Liliana, Tito and Teresa sitting on the stairs watching her. Liliana had never seen her mother cry and it scared her.
Mamá stood up swiftly, wiped her eyes.
She banged on the door to get Papa’s attention.
“You act like an animal, then sleep with the animals! Go! Lie down with the dogs!”
Papa yelled a response, but it was late and he was tired, Liliana thought, because soon he stopped shouting and the dogs stopped barking.
Outside, the neighbors’ house lights turned off, one by one, all up and down the block.
Inside, Liliana, Tito and Teresa held hands as they sat on the stairs with only the light from the kitchen spilling into the dark hallway.
Liliana’s mother looked at her three children, sitting silently on the shadowy stairs, and she motioned them down and into the kitchen.
They sat around the table that held Liliana’s birthday cake and Mamá lit the candles one by one and Liliana and Teresa and Tito counted them off as she lit them, all the way up to eight. Then she turned off the kitchen light and the glow of the candles lit their faces.
Mamá brushed the hair back from Liliana’s face and kissed her on both cheeks and whispered, “Make a wish, Liliana.”
Liliana didn’t really think wishes came true. But she hoped. Wishes were magic, right? Liliana closed her eyes and wished as hard as she knew how that Papa could be with them and that it was all good between him and Mamá and that it would stay good, like when Papa had his refreshments.
She opened her eyes and above the circle of candles, Liliana saw Mamá’s face, and Teresa’s and Tito’s, all smiling at her. She took a big breath and blew all eight of those red candles out and they were left sitting in the dark with only a finger of moonlight lighting the room and the white coconut cake.
Tito and Teresa clapped and Mamá said she got them all in one breath – her wish would certainly come true.
But Liliana didn’t believe her any more. Hadn’t she said Papa would be home for her birthday dinner? Hadn’t Papa said he’d be there? Liliana reminded herself wishes were for children and hadn’t Mamá said just this morning she was a big girl now? Liliana blinked fast. Her throat hurt and her heart thumped her chest so hard she could feel each beat.
Mamá got up and lit a tall candle to Saint Jude, and by candlelight Mamá cut each of them fat slices of coconut cake and poured cold milk into the fancy wine glasses she and Papa kept for company. She made a toast to Liliana and they all clinked their glasses together and ate cake and drank milk and talked in whispers while outside the door, Papa slept with only the dogs and the moon.
Carmen Carrión Edwards’ fiction has previously been published in CALYX literary journal, The Caribbean Writer, and The Acentos Review, among others.