Tio Leo's Livery Service
A Short Story
by Lori Heine
Leo Esquivel cranked down the driver’s side window, motioning over a little girl. He hoped nobody thought he was a pervert. “Excuse me,” he said in Spanish, “where is Susan Fashion?”
The pigtailed sugarplum recoiled. No real man asked to find such a place, but at least she knew his next question wouldn’t be how much she cost. “It’s in the Kress Building.” Warily, she pointed down the street. “Keep going, and it will be on the left.”
Yes, you dirty old man, keep going. Leo thanked the girl and drove on, flushing to the roots of his thinning hair as her little friends gathered around her and tittered at his retreating vehicle. An old guy, driving an older hearse. Scary stuff.
The Kress Building was easy enough to find; it said KRESS on the store’s facade. SUSAN FASHION was on the sign beneath the grim upstairs windows, and IN MART on an awning right below that. Leo recalled his sister-in-law mentioning something about a Woolworth’s, and there was an equally-ancient one next door. Standing in a studied casual pose, against the plate-glass window, was Leo’s nephew Reyes.
At least the boy followed instructions and dressed in his Sunday best. Though maybe he dressed that way all the time. Leo hadn’t seen Reyes for twelve years, but he would know him anywhere. At twenty-three he was still slight and balletic, a Latin Peter Pan, and of course he knew his uncle’s hearse. In one graceful bound, Reyes was inside next to Leo.
“Hello, hijo.” Leo endured a kiss on the cheek. Humiliation on top of humiliation. “I’m happy to see you again. You must ride in the back.”
They waited ‘til they were in the desert. With understandable hesitancy, the young man walked around the hearse’s long, black body to its rear doors. “I’m sorry.” Leo glanced around to make sure that, on that lonely gravel trail, they were unobserved. “This is the best way to bring you into Arizona.”
“Nothing wrong with making such an entrance,” Reyes sighed, taking it like a trooper as he scrambled inside, set aside the pile of white fabric carnations and lifted the coffin’s burnished mahogany lid. “Isn’t it how we all make our exit?”
Never for money would Leo do this, he reminded himself as he settled the boy inside the silk sarcophagus. Only as a favor for family or friends. Reyes settled his head back against the dainty white pillow, stained with the perspiration of a hundred living heads. Leo used his hearse in a dozen ways. Over the years, it had served most often as a taxi.
His car wash business made enough that Leo didn’t need to do this for a living. Which was an excellent thing, since none of those for whom he performed his livery service could ever afford to pay for it. He checked once more to make sure the breathing-holes cut discreetly in the coffin’s sides were unobstructed. This was, he swore to himself as he returned to the driver’s seat, the last time he would brave the border.
Leo had had many adventures taking people across. He’d even ferried a variety of animals. Once he’d gotten a rare South American parrot drunk on tequila, keeping it happily subdued all the way. But the border officials were becoming warier, and their rules kept multiplying. Now merely trying to remember them all made Leo want to get drunk.
“Hey, dude.” This guard looked like a surfer. “So you’re, what…like…an undertaker?”
“I’m like an undertaker.” It was a hundred and ten degrees outside. Why the hell else would Leo be dressed up in this monkey suit?
As Surfer Boy rifled through his fake papers, Leo sweated cats and dogs. The kid scowled, walking a few paces behind and checking out the historic plates. The hearse had been used in actual funeral business, when Leo’s uncle Pedro owned it. Pedro had been his favorite uncle; after his father’s death, the man practically raised him. Leo prayed to the Holy Mother that he could repay Tio Pedro’s kindness, performing this favor for a nephew of his own.
“Okay, papa.” The kid didn’t pronounce it in the Spanish way; he said it like a Hungarian. He shoved the papers back through the window at Leo. “I won’t ask if the stiff is legal. At this stage of the game, who cares?”
He probably wasn’t supposed to let Leo through that easily. Indeed, he made it sound as if he were doing Leo a huge favor. The guards weren’t all bad people; it struck Leo that some actually wanted to be helpful. They dealt with many of the same people every day, so they couldn’t avoid getting friendly.
But the authorities were cracking down. Leo nodded his thanks to this one, then cruised through, with a sigh of relief, from East Berlin to West. Through the desert, he made good time. He dared not let Reyes into the front seat until they were past Tucson.
“Ay, caramba!” the boy exhaled, slipping off his bow tie. He then switched to English, as if that were expected. “Did it get hot back in that candy box! I am getting hot, Tio. But I can tell you, it’s for more than one reason.”
Leo stonily drove on. He’d ignore that. At the wedding, he would get good and drunk, but at the moment, danger lurked everywhere. He couldn’t be sure his nephew had any wits, so Leo would guard his wits for them both.
When, at last, Leo pulled into the driveway of Freddy’s house, he and Reyes got a hero’s welcome. “Oh, Rey, Rey,” whimpered the boy’s mother as she clasped him close. “I never thought I’d see you again!”
Leo’s wife, Estella, hung onto Leo until Lupe was done hugging the stuffing out of her son and relinquished the boy to his aunt. “Rey, Rey,” Estella murmured, rocking him in her arms as if he were her own child.
As families naturally do, they gravitated into the kitchen. A gigantic pot of menudo simmered on the stove. Reyes ran down the hall to shower and change into cooler clothes. Standing around in the kitchen taking up space were two of the boy’s friends: Juan Amador, an absurdly handsome man in his late thirties, and Warren Monroe, distinguished-looking and middle-aged, who walked with a cane.
Leo just nodded to them. He wouldn’t ask how they knew each other. “Valentino and Colonel Peacock,” Estella chuckled when she and Leo drifted into the living room. Nor would Leo ask who she meant. She watched too much television.
“I get closer to Sheriff Joe’s jail every day,” he complained to Estella. “If I don’t shut down Leo’s Livery, I’ll be doomed to pink underwear and green baloney. I love Tio Pedro’s old wagon, but I better sell it before it sinks me.”
Lupe hurried in from the kitchen, wiping her hands on her apron and flushing with maternal joy. “God will thank you! You’re breaking man’s law, but obeying His.”
Leo scowled through the arched doorway, where Valentino and Colonel Peacock were chatting cozily. “I’m not so sure about that.”
His sister-in-law hugged him, landing a peck on his cheek. She smelled of onions, garlic and chili powder, like his own mother so many years ago. “Trust God,” she urged him. “Never trust in men.”
“To that, I say A-men!” Valentino raised a bottle of Corona in assent.
Leo just grunted and turned away. It would do no good to say so, but he had to agree some men could never be trusted. Estella followed Lupe back into the kitchen and returned with a cold Corona, which she stuck into Leo’s hand. He must have looked like he needed it.
After a couple of hefty swigs, Leo began to feel a little more himself. Though his tension was replaced by annoyance. The whole situation was a farce. “Where is the…what is he, the groom or the bride?”
This earned him one of Estella’s corrective frowns. “His name is Douglas Bowersock, and he’s very nice.”
Leo shook his head. “I risked my skin to sneak my nephew into this country so he could marry a gringo. And not just any gringo, but another man. The whole world’s turning into Sodom and Gomorrah.”
Outside, a car door slammed. Estella smiled. “I’m guessing that’s Douglas, but I won’t look outside. I might turn into a pillar of salt.”
In the front door burst a hulk of a man with a spiky blond buzz-cut, his mountainous arms bare in a muscle shirt. All he needed was a studded leather collar. He was very sunburned, simultaneously ugly and ruggedly handsome. “Douglas!” Lupe ran into his arms, leaping up on tiptoe and ruffling his hair.
Leo tried not to gape. He’d expected an even match for Reyes: another scrawny pixie. “At least,” he murmured to Estella, “we know which one’s the groom.”
As Reyes dashed out of the hallway to be engulfed in Douglas’s arms, Estella punched Leo in the kidney. She was grinning. “Be glad that wasn’t a bower sock.”
Leo was proud of himself. He didn’t throw up. Freddy, his only brother, had succumbed to cancer five years before. Regardless of how Leo felt about this charade of a wedding, he was duty-bound to take care of Freddy’s son.
“I guess you’re looking down, hermano,” Leo silently told him. “Heaven knows what you think of this.” It bothered him that he so often broke the law. But both he and Freddy could take some consolation from the fact that this wedding would not be legal. “Maybe I love my family too much.”
Maybe love was not always a good thing. Perhaps it was possible to have too much of it. Too much, at any rate, of the wrong kind. As Douglas Bowersock thundered ebulliently over and grappled him into a head-crushing hug, Leo was practically sure of that.
Things proceeded rapidly from there. The following afternoon, all the Esquivels who condoned what Reyes was doing – surprising to Leo, more than half of them – gathered for his wedding. This meant the little “gay” church in downtown Phoenix was packed. The marquee sign in front of the pretty white sanctuary said “SACRED LOVE COMMUNITY CHURCH,” and under that, “Come One, Come All.” Leo could only hope that during the ceremony, the lightning storm developing over the mountains didn’t roll over and zap them.
“Rey’s got to be nervous. Go back there and check on him!” Estella pushed Leo toward the choir room, where Reyes was dressing.
Knowing it would do no good to argue, Leo sighed, squeezed past his wife and their seven children and headed off to his duty. Already lurking at the altar, alongside an extra- dandified Valentino, was the groom. Douglas Bowersock’s Herculean frame threatened to burst the seams of his tux. Would Leo find his nephew in a gauzy white gown?
To Leo’s relief, Reyes also wore a tux. One of his church friends, with the impossible name of Bettysue Cruz-Fritz, was fussing over his carnation boutonniere. “Glad you’re here,” she told Leo. “Help me keep our boy from having a heart attack.”
Leo perched on a metal chair, watching because he didn’t know what else to do. He tried to imagine Estella, twenty-seven years ago, getting into her gown. And he could easily recall himself, as Freddy put the finishing touches on his tux.
Reyes swatted Bettysue when she stuck him in the chest. “Tio, were you a nutcase like this?”
It all came back to Leo now: that boiling thunder-cloud of emotions. The electric weight of the steps he’d be taking down that aisle. His Estella, her black eyes flashing behind the veil. Her tongue was quick, her wits so much sharper than his. He’d worried if he’d be a match for her.
“I knew I couldn’t live without your Tia.” He sighed. “She was going to run my life, and I needed to let her. She barks a lot, but she laughs a lot more. That laughter keeps me alive.”
Reyes smiled serenely. He was calming down. “Doug is a strong man. And I need that.”
Leo couldn’t help but frown. “He is a big one, that’s for sure. Listen, don’t you let him push you around.”
Reyes turned to his uncle, barely able to move his neck because of that tie. “What makes you think he’d do that?”
“Well, he’s such a giant. So much bigger than you. Don’t let him bully you. Don’t let him sit on your head and give you orders.”
Leo was always bigger than Freddy. He’d sat on his little brother’s head many times. Reyes was Freddy’s son. An uncle had to worry.
Out in the sanctuary, the organ began to play. “That’s your cue,” Bettysue told Reyes, giving him one last, delicate squeeze.
On their way out, Leo grabbed his nephew’s hand. “Do you want me to…give you away?”
Reyes grinned. “No, thanks, Tio. We’re giving ourselves away.”
The boy left Leo there, behind the procession. What sort of a business was this, anyway? Feeling unnecessary, he stole back around the far side of the assembly to his own pew.
Up at the front, a proudly-beaming Douglas Bowersock awaited with his best man, Juan Valentino, and the pastor, a mustachioed fellow named Frank. The ceremony went forward, it appeared to Leo, without a stumble. It sounded very much like any other nuptial ritual.
That was, until Juan reached into his pocket for the ring and let out a gasp. He glanced beseechingly at Captain Warren Peacock, who lurched forward bearing the ring. Reaching out for the handoff, Warren lost his balance and tumbled flat on his face.
An “Ooooh!” arose from the congregation. Tenderly, Juan knelt beside Warren and helped him to his feet. Leo held his breath, having been told that Warren was recovering from a severe stroke. Between the two husbands there passed a current of love so powerful Leo felt it to the tips of his toes.
He forgot to worry whether the cops would burst in any minute. He forgot everything, except the undeniable holiness of what unfolded before him. God was there, he could be sure, not as a Judge, but as a blessing Father. And Leo knew love was never the wrong kind.
After the reception in the adjacent social hall, in a deluge of monsoon rain, Leo pulled up to the front of the church. Groom and groom burst forth in a shower of rice, piling into the hearse to be taken off for their honeymoon. They were only going as far as Prescott, because they dared not take a plane anywhere. As they bade the newlyweds goodbye, Lupe was crying, very likely, for more reasons than one. Like Freddy and their children, she had never become a United States citizen.
Would the authorities see fit to leave this young couple alone? Freddy had flown under the radar all his life, and they never bothered with Lupe. Reyes and Douglas, however, were problematic in any number of ways. Leo could only wonder if they would fare so well. And, of course, he could pray.
Before the wedding, he would not have imagined prayer might do any good. Now, he actually dared to hope it would make all the difference. They needed to appeal to God. Appealing to Man could make no difference but a bad one.
Six months passed by happily. Leo gave away his third daughter, Christina, in marriage to a fine boy. He coached a soccer team on which both a nephew and a niece played. Once he would have strenuously objected to mixing the sexes on an athletic team, but now, even when the sexes married without mixing, they did so with his blessing. Leo was a new man.
Then, one evening at dinnertime, there was a pounding at the door. “Oh by all means, let me,” Estella told Leo tartly when he didn’t budge.
Leo didn’t like interruptions at dinner. They were almost always trouble. When Estella rushed back into the house ahead of Reyes and Douglas, he let out a sigh of vindication. “Put him in this chair,” Leo heard his wife say in the living room. “I’ll get him some aspirin.”
Leo ambled in to see what was the matter. Not really wanting to know, but figuring that he’d find out anyway. “He needs more than aspirin,” Douglas said, kneeling beside the chair where Reyes slumped, ghastly pale. “He needs to go to a hospital right away.”
“No hospital.” Reyes groaned. “I have no papers.”
Douglas put a hand to Reyes’s forehead. “He’s bloated, and he’s thrown up like five times in a couple of hours. He’s in a hell of a lot of pain.”
Estella knelt beside Douglas. “Where is this pain?”
“On my right side, mostly.” Reyes tried to raise his hand but couldn’t. “That’s where it’s real sharp.”
Estella and Leo looked at each other. “Aspirin will certainly do no good,” Estella said. “That sounds like his appendix!”
“Oh, no!” Reyes thrashed in the chair. “Give me the aspirin…we’ll let it pass.”
“Hijo, if your appendix is inflamed, it won’t pass.” Estella stood up. “It will rupture, and you might die.”
Leo already had his car keys out. “We’re going to the hospital this minute.”
“No!” Reyes shouted. “No papers! They’ll send me back!”
“We’ll deal with that if it happens.” Such a frightened-little-boy tone sounded strange, coming from a man as strapping and strong as Douglas. “I should’ve brought him here hours ago. He’s been fighting me the whole time.”
Not that Leo could blame Douglas. Fright rose inside of Leo, too, like steam in a kettle. “Come on!” He grabbed his nephew under one arm, nodding for Douglas to take the other. “Time is crucial.”
Though Reyes tried to resist them all the way, uncle and husband dragged him out to the hearse and stretched him flat in the otherwise-empty back. “I don’t understand why you waited so long,” Leo told Douglas.
The young man’s sky-blue eyes were electric with terror. “He didn’t tell me! I mean, he didn’t say a thing! Now he tells me he’s been getting stomach pains for two days, and throwing up almost that long. When I felt that he had a fever, all he’d say was that he had a cold.”
As he and Estella pulled a blanket snugly over him, Leo looked at his nephew with reproach. “Really, hijo! You couldn’t even tell Douglas?”
The young man had gone from ashy-white to purple. He convulsed, gritting his teeth. Foam oozed from the corners of his mouth. “No…papers...”
Leo dashed up to the driver’s seat. Douglas and Estella stayed with the patient in the back. They’d gone as far as the end of the block when Reyes let out a toe-curling scream. “What’s happening?” Leo demanded, stepping on the gas.
“His eyes are rolled back!” Estella shouted.
Douglas burst into sobs. “He’s not breathing!”
They raced on, as Douglas and Estella begged Reyes to breathe again. Leo had always felt safe, living so near John C. Lincoln Hospital. Now, it might as well have been a million miles away. “How’s he doing?” Leo demanded, after a silence that felt like it lasted an hour.
Nothing from the back but desperate male and female sobbing and Douglas choking “Rey, Rey” again and again. Almost of its own accord, the vehicle slowed to a crawl. In the windshield mirror, nothing was visible but the tops of Douglas and Estella’s heads, bowed in prayer. Or in resignation.
“Well?!” Leo had to know what was going on.
“It’s…too late.” Douglas’s voice seemed to come from under the earth.
Not knowing what he was doing, Leo first sped up, then stopped right in the middle of traffic. “Wait ‘til he breathes again,” he admonished.
“He won’t breathe again,” Estella said dully.
Now Leo pulled into a bus stop alcove. He clamored through the vehicle into the back. And there, lying peacefully at last, lay his nephew. Douglas was crumpled over him, too overcome to respond to Estella’s ministrations. He was, with Reyes, beyond hope.
There was no sense in taking the boy to the hospital now. Questions would be asked, and Douglas would be in trouble. Douglas already had enough trouble. Because he had no notion what else to do, Leo simply turned around and headed back home.
For such a secretive and impromptu ceremony, Reyes’s funeral was packed. As Juan Valentino and five other men from Sacred Love Community Church slid the mahogany coffin into the back of the hearse, Pastor Frank pulled Leo back for one final word. “Mr. Esquivel, this is not a good idea.”
“The whole world belongs to God,” Leo asserted. “What’s wrong with taking a small plot in the desert as my nephew’s place of rest?”
They would bury him discreetly, just after sunset. Leo would keep the coffin; Reyes would go into the ground wrapped in a sheet. He’d be with the owls and the rabbits and the snakes. In time, the wilderness would take him. Just as importantly, the authorities wouldn’t.
The pastor gave Leo a pained smile. “Morally, I don’t think you’re doing anything wrong. But…well, it simply isn’t legal.”
“Father, much that is moral is not legal. And what the law requires is often wrong. If we did this by the book, many questions would be asked. My nephew is what some would call ‘an illegal alien.’ As you performed both his marriage and his funeral, you must know that you would get in trouble.”
Frank shook his head. “You’re right, of course, and I…I can’t tell you what to do. The seminary didn’t teach anything about situations like this.” He squeezed Leo’s shoulder. “Just please, sir…be very careful.”
Leo thanked the pastor once more, then he, Estella and Douglas got into the hearse and drove away. They had a long drive ahead of them. They needed to journey far enough out into nowhere to bury Reyes were no human would unearth him. Then they needed to dig deep enough so no animal would, either.
“It’s not going to be a pleasant job.” Leo cast a solicitous eye in the windshield mirror at Douglas, sitting drained and rigid in the backseat at Estella’s side. “We can’t mark the spot, so we’ll never find it again. But I keep my Bible in the glove box. I will say a few words over him before we go.”
What Leo wouldn’t tell either of them was that he had done this before. Other grief-stricken families, from time to time, needed burials performed away from prying eyes. This was just another of the many services offered by Tio Leo, but it would not comfort either Douglas or Estella to hear about that. They huddled together, not even looking out the windows, clearly beyond taking comfort in anything.
“The fewer words the better,” Estella said. “Let’s just get this over with.”
Glendale Avenue became Lincoln Drive. Leo thought the far edge of the East Valley would be nice. When Douglas suddenly said, “Right along here,” Leo stared in the mirror, unable to fathom what he meant.
“This is Paradise Valley.” The young man was a recent transplant from California. Reyes had, evidently, never totally shown him the lay of the land.
Douglas looked firm. Stronger than he’d been since Reyes’s death. “That’s right. I want to bury him right here.”
Leo slowed, exchanging puzzled glances with Estella. “Son, lots of rich people live here…” Reading the flash in the young man’s eyes, he didn’t finish. Wasn’t Reyes as good as anybody – alive or dead? “Well,” Leo said in resignation, “he is moving into a very nice neighborhood.”
They journeyed through one swanky subdivision after another. Having no idea where he was going, Leo drove past some of the same houses two or three times. People came outside and stared. What – they had to be thinking – was that old hearse, driven by a “Mexican,” doing around there? Leo was relieved when he found an unpaved trail leading away from civilization out into nowhere.
They settled on a small, red, erosion-pocked mountain around which nothing had yet been built. Leo pulled off the trail. “We don’t even need to dig a hole,” Douglas said as they got out of the hearse. “The native peoples buried their loved ones in caves like these. He’ll become an archaeological artifact.” Though Douglas’s tone was bitter, he had clearly thought this through.
As Leo and Douglas extracted Reyes from the coffin – gently, even gingerly – Estella stood by holding the Bible. The men carried the sheet-shrouded form up the side of the big rock. The sun was almost completely down. Following, Estella hugged herself and shuddered against the winter wind.
“Nobody would want us here,” she warned bleakly.
“Mi querida, nobody expects us to be here. Which is exactly why nobody will catch us.”
They were almost to the entrance of the cave they’d chosen when, suddenly, they went blind. A flash of light froze them. “All right!” bellowed a man’s voice, through what sounded like a bullhorn. “All three of you…put down that body and gets those hands in the air!”
One of the nosy neighbors must have called the sheriff, because in that flash, deputies were everywhere. Of course he, Douglas and Estella looked like murderers disposing of their victim, Leo thought wildly as a deputy straddled him. The goon shoved him face-down into the iron-smelling red dirt and cuffed his hands behind his back. He could hear Estella weeping, the Bible crushed beneath her, but Douglas stayed stoically silent. He had wept enough.
Once the cops performed an autopsy, they’d find the burst appendix and learn the cause of Reyes’s death. That was the easy part. What Leo and his “accomplices” would be charged with was harder to say. Reyes would be sent back to Mexico for burial there. Leo knew better than to think the powers-that-be would permit him to perform that one, last duty.
Shut up in the back of a patrol car, Leo watched his hearse grow smaller and fade into the dark as they left it behind. It would be impounded; maybe he’d get it back and maybe he wouldn’t. He did know he’d waited too long to retire. One way or another, the decision was now out of his hands. Tio Leo’s Livery Service was officially out of business.
© 2017 Lori Heine
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