When Rachel Harris's mother runs off to Spain with the super of their New York City apartment building, Rachel's life takes a bizarre turn. Her eccentric father becomes obsessed with George Vasquez, the man who stole his wife: He wears George's clothes, he shaves with his razor, and, to top it off, he moves George's family into their apartment. The poignant and often funny journey Rachel and her father take to Madrid to hunt down her mother further cements her desire to shake her more than unusual family situation and find a new identity.
And who has a more perfect life than Olivio and Edwin Butler? So gorgeous and popular, they don't really have friends, just hangers-on. And though Rachel doesn't remember ever having spoken a word to them, her resolve becomes clear. She must find a way into the Butlers' home and into their family.
In this marvelously compassionate first novel, Penny Jackson deftly depicts a young girl's search for family - and her discovery that family is a state of mind.
“Come, come,” Luisa wailed from the doorway. My father had forgotten about her, and followed the little girl to her family’s apartment behind the basement boiler. Luisa kicked at the door with her sneaker, and then pushed my father inside. He found himself in the cramped and hot kitchen, where the sharp scent of boiling onions brought tears to his eyes. He had never been inside the super’s apartment, and was astounded by the smallness of it. The living room had three mattresses on the floor and there was a crib in the bedroom. In the corner was a legless bathtub draped with wet socks. A series of plastic crucifixes the color of bubble gum, arranged in ascending sizes, decorated the walls. George Jr., crouched in a corner, his knees to his chest, watched a black-and-white TV no bigger than his hand. Someone was shouting soccer scores. Baby Gloria stood in her crib and sucked on a shiny Miss Piggy rattle. Luisa went up to her mother, who clutched a quilted potholder to her swollen red eyes.
“No, no, no…,” Mrs. Vasquez cried, shaking her head so that her dangling earrings slapped against her neck.
Pilar Vasquez, who was almost fifteen, sat cross-legged beneath the orange plastic kitchen table. An algebra book was on her lap, her mouth filled with two pencils. Long, stringy black hair covered most of her face, and her glasses, which were too big and made her eyes look amphibian, kept sliding down her nose.
“Oh hi, Mr. Harris,” Pilar began slowly, chewing on her pencil as if my father’s name was part of the algebra equation. “I told Luisa to find you. I hope that was okay.”
“Is anything wrong?” my father asked.
“Yes,” she began resolutely. “Definitely yes.”
“Well, if I can help, please let me know,” James answered. He felt as if he was slowly suffocating in that tiny windowless kitchen. Sweat ran down his back, and he wished someone would offer him a glass of water. The baby began howling, her face twisted up like a fist. George Jr. yelled at her to shut up, and kicked at something white which jumped up with a yelp and ran between my father’s legs. On the stove, a pot of lima beans sizzled.
“Mr. Harris,” Pilar began, twisting her legs from under her until she was lying supine on the floor. As she spoke her eyes flickered back and forth, following a crack across the ceiling.
“Mr. Harris,” she repeated, “I’m the only one who can tell you this since my mother doesn’t speak English and my brother and sister are too young to understand. See, my father, your wife…”
Her voice faltered, and she bit her thumbnail. “They have left. Together,” Pilar said rapidly. “This morning. That’s all I know. My mother tried to cut her wrists with the butter knife. Then a razor. I stopped her. But she’s already dead.”
“I don’t understand,” my father began.
“Neither do I. Please go, Mr. Harris. If I don’t finish my Bio paper the Nuns are going to kill me.”
“Wait one minute, young lady,” my father said sternly, as if he were addressing one of his pupils. “Do you mean to tell me that my wife has run off with your father—George—the super?”
“He wrote a note. Here,” she said, digging out a creased piece of paper from her pants pocket. “It’s in Spanish, but I’ll translate: ‘My dear family. I am in love with Elizabeth Harris. She’s in love with me. We left last night for Madrid, where I’ll be a great painter. God bless all of you.’”
My father said he thanked Pilar and then ran out the door, suddenly nauseous from the smell of all those boiling onions. What happened next is still hazy. My father doesn’t remember if he went to a bar, or just drank a bottle of vodka by himself in the apartment. Somewhere along the way he picked up a woman’s black beaded purse and a Miles Davis album. He lost his Swiss Army knife, ripped his tie, and somehow smeared his shirt collar with mustard. At seven p.m., as the Vasquez family sat down to dinner, he stumbled into the basement and knocked on their door.
“Let me in, goddamnit,” he shouted.
Pilar opened the door and James tumbled in.
“It was incredible, Rachel,” James told me, his voice filled with wonder. “Since George took Elizabeth, I had to take something from George. I went into the bathroom and not only did I brush my teeth with George’s blue toothbrush, I also washed my face with George’s soap, shaved with George’s razor and George’s shaving cream, then dried my face with George’s towel. Then I went into the bedroom, found George’s closet and began trying on his clothes. I had to hold my breath in order to fit George’s belt around my waist, and I couldn’t quite jam my heels into his shoes. His sweaters were the only things that fit me. Then I opened another door and saw this crazy man who looked like a scarecrow. It took about a minute before I realized I was staring into a mirror.”
My father then quickly changed back into his shirt and pants, splashed water on his face, and rejoined the Vasquezes. The family stared at him in silence. Even the baby stood as stiffly as a prisoner behind the bars of her crib. Mrs. Vasquez began to sob. My father knelt before her, and took a creased tissue from his back pocket.
“Here, you don’t have to use that nice potholder,” he said as Mrs. Vasquez wiped her eyes. “We’ll get them back. I promise you I’ll find them. I’ll even go to Spain.”
“She can’t understand you,” Pilar interrupted.
“Can you please translate?”
Pilar spoke to her mother in rapid Spanish. Mrs. Vasquez nodded her head and stood up.
“What is she saying?” my father asked Pilar after Mrs. Vasquez whispered something into her daughter’s ear.
“She wants you to join us for dinner.”
“Join you for dinner?”
James, astounded at Mrs. Vasquez’s generosity, was for once speechless. He sat down, placed his napkin on his lap, and watched George’s abandoned wife fill his plate with chicken and beans. Then, after the meal, he went upstairs, and for the first time in his married life, fell asleep in the middle of his bed.