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Short Story
3434 words
SHJ Issue 10
Fall 2014

The Call

by Barbara Mujica

Every time Cándida López saw a strange car in the street, she reviewed in her mind the most efficient ways to commit suicide. If Riqui were dead, two Marines would knock on her door and recite some canned speech, the same speech they always gave when they told a mother her child had made “the ultimate sacrifice.” Then they’d go out and have a beer. And what about the mother? Pills, thought Cándida. Just drop off to sleep and never wake up. Or carbon monoxide. “Too bad I don’t know how to use a gun,” she said out loud.

But what if Riqui were injured? There would be a call, probably from some hospital in Baghdad or the medical center in Landstuhl. A lot of the guys airlifted to Landstuhl never made it home alive. Or else they came back too battered to lead normal lives. She’d read all about it in La Opinión.

The doctor had told her to stop reading the news, stop watching Univisión, stop listening to the radio, but she was addicted. She checked the Net ten, maybe twelve times a day. Whenever a bomb went off or a plane went down, she got down on her knees and prayed. “Please, Holy Virgin, don’t let it be Riqui.”

“What’s the point of checking the news?” her friend Carolyn chided. “All it does is upset you.”

“I know,” sighed Cándida. She felt chained in a prison of helplessness.

“I heard about a grandmother who joined the Army,” she told Riqui before he left. “She went over to Iraq to cook for the troops to be near her grandson. What if I did that?”

“Forget it, Mom!”

“Riqui...” Cándida felt as though a rough-edged stone were lodged in her throat. “You’re my only son, my only child...”

“Everything will be fine, Mom. The guys all protect each other.”

“Dios te oiga, hijo. I hope God is listening.”

The phone rang. Cándida flinched. She stood there staring at the black object hanging on the wall as though it were a dead rat.

Finally, she picked up the receiver. “Hello?” she said.

“Hey, Cándida. It’s Carolyn. You okay?”

Cándida exhaled in relief.


When she’d left El Salvador in 1985, the civil war was raging. The FMLA was ambushing anyone with a cow or a radio and putting a gun to his head. Private property was evil, they said. Whatever you had belonged to the revolution.

“We don’t have to worry,” insisted Cándida’s husband Ricardo. “We don’t have anything they want.” But he was wrong.

One night, as Cándida was putting the children to bed, she felt strangely uneasy. Suddenly, an explosion sent her reeling. There were only two rooms in the miniscule house, the bedroom and an all-purpose room for cooking, eating, and everything else. That’s the room that had a door, and someone had shot it open.

“Hide!” she ordered.

Riqui, then three, dove under the cot, but it was too late for eleven-year-old Nélida. The soldiers—a gang of ragtag thugs who called themselves guerrillas—were already in the room. One of them grabbed the girl and pulled off her dress, while the others threw Cándida to the floor. Then they undid their pants and took turns.

When Ricardo got back from his Uncle Raúl’s house, the first thing he noticed was that the chicken coop was empty. He stopped in his tracks and scrutinized the yard. Feathers and eggshells and human feces were strewn everywhere. Ricardo’s temples started to throb and his fingers turned icy. The door to the house had been blasted to pieces. The pots and pans that normally hung on the wall were missing.

He found his wife hysterical and writhing with pain. His inert daughter was sprawled in a pool of blood. Cándida was babbling something—boys, rape, Virgen María. He couldn’t make out the words, but he’d already grasped what had happened. Next to Nélida lay a shattered, bloodied statue of the Holy Mother. It had been the only object of beauty in the house. They’d smashed it over Neli’s head, probably to silence her, or maybe just for fun.

Ricardo crumpled. Their beautiful child—her wide, tiger eyes; her smooth brown skin; her full lips and budding body.

They buried her in the village cemetery. Ricardo held little Riqui in his arms and watched his uncles and cousins lower the casket into the ground. He was a poor, insignificant man, but he wasn’t going to let those brutes get away with this crime.

“I’m going to join the army,” he vowed. “I’ll take care of them.”

“The government soldiers are just as brutal as the guerrillas,” countered his cousin Juan. “What you need to do is get out of here. Find a coyote who’ll sneak you through Mexico and over the U.S. border.”

“Who has money for a coyote?”

“We could pool our resources.”

“How much could all of us put together? Coyotes charge three or four hundred dollars a head.” Ricardo inhaled on his foul-smelling cigarette.

“At least enough for Cándida and Riqui,” said Uncle Raúl. “Or if not, you can borrow money from Tello. He’s financed a lot of people. They pay him back once they get there. I hear you can make forty or fifty dollars a day in the U.S. A day! Imagine! You’ll be able to pay Tello back in a couple of months.”

Tello was the owner of the only store in the village of San Teófanes. He sold everything from chicken feed to beer to ladies’ panties.

Uncle Raúl lit a cigarette with trembling hands. His skin was as fragile and crinkled as a used paper bag and his fingers, as knotted as ropes. But his mind was sharp. Ricardo was listening.

“You owe it to your son. You have to get him out of here.”

“What if they get caught?”

“The coyotes know all the secret routes. After Cándida gets settled, you can follow.”

“Holy Virgin,” moaned Cándida. But she knew Uncle Raúl was right.


She crossed the border stuffed into the hidden compartment of a truck, her son tucked under her. The driver put them on a bus to Los Angeles, where a Salvadoran woman named Vilma, who routinely scoured the station for newcomers, offered them a room for $100 a month.

“I don’t have that kind of money,” Cándida told her.

“You will,” said Vilma.

The barrio streets were strewn with garbage, and the walls covered with lurid graffiti. Everywhere men who reminded her of the hooligans who had raped her and Neli hung around smoking and spewing obscenities. They made her shudder.

Vilma got her a job in a restaurant washing dishes. Riqui went too, because she had nowhere to leave him. At night, she attended English classes at the local church. That’s where she met an Ethiopian woman named Aisha who told her about a family in Beverly Hills that was looking for a live-in nanny.

“Get out of this neighborhood before it’s too late,” said Aisha. “Before the gangs get to your boy.”

“He’s just a baby.”

“Exactly. There’s still time.”

Cándida had just escaped from a war zone, but the barrio was a war zone too. She took the nanny job.

“Stay in touch!” said Vilma when Cándida moved out. “Come eat tamales and pupusas with me on Sundays.”

“I will,” Cándida assured her.

And she did. She wasn’t in the least homesick for San Teófanes, but she loved the familiar aromas of Vilma’s kitchen. She loved hearing her local dialect and catching up on news. Vilma’s little group gave her a sense of community in this new and alien country.

Beverly Hills was like some sort of fantasy—blocks and blocks of manicured lawns, soaring palm trees and crimson oleanders, driveways with exotic automobiles. Janine McGovern, Cándida’s employer, was an attorney with too much to do, so it was up to Cándida to get the children off to school and care for the house. She and Riqui had their own room with a bathroom and a toilet that flushed. Before long, Riqui was in a neighborhood school free of marauding gangs. Everything would be fine, thought Cándida, as long as she could stay out of sight of the immigration authorities—la migra—and didn’t do something stupid like apply for refugee status. Mrs. McGovern had told her that less than three percent of the Central Americans who applied got it. By applying, you only attracted attention to yourself.

“Sorry,” she said. “Even though I’m a lawyer, I can’t help.”

In two years Cándida had learned passable English. She took a second job in a little beauty shop on Beverly Boulevard, shampooing the heads of elegant ladies on Saturdays. She was saving up to bring Ricardo to Los Angeles. It was at the beauty shop that she met Carolyn, a beautician with frizzy blond hair and a heart of gold beating under an enormous bosom.

Every month, Cándida sent a money order to Tello to pay off her debt, and another one to Uncle Raúl to ease his burdens. Uncle Raúl couldn’t write, but Tello occasionally sent a note with news from the community. Juan’s wife had just had a baby girl. Raúl had bought a cow and two goats, which he watched like toddlers. Ricardo had joined the army, and no one had seen him in months. Cándida went to church and lit a candle for her husband.

Virgen,” she prayed, “even though they abused you in our house, please don’t abandon us.”

Eventually the letters stopped coming. By now Cándida had paid off the debt to Tello, but she was still sending money orders for Uncle Raúl. She tried to call—telephone service was now available in San Teófanes—but no one ever answered.

She explained the problem to Vilma, who promised to ask around.

It took a few weeks, during which Cándida prayed a lot and cried a lot. When the answer finally came, it was devastating. Government troops had overrun San Teófanes, ransacked Tello’s store, stolen Raúl’s animals, and shot everyone but the few folks who had managed to flee. Now there were phones, but no one to answer them.

“And Ricardo?”

“Nothing about Ricardo.”

“He might be dead.”

“He might be,” said Vilma matter-of-factly. “After all, it’s a war.”

“I will never, ever let my son go to war,” said Cándida.


By 1992 the conflict in El Salvador was over. Thousands of Salvadorans headed back home, but Cándida decided to stay put. She’d left Mrs. McGovern a couple of years before. Carolyn had convinced her to study for her high school equivalency diploma and a beautician’s license. Standing over fussy ladies for hours at a time, mixing dye, combing curls, remembering who had just gotten a divorce and who’d vacationed on the Riviera was exhausting, but Cándida didn’t complain. She had a little apartment in Santa Monica and a used Toyota. If only it weren’t for la migra, she could relax. But la migra was a constant worry. What if they popped into the beauty shop and dragged off all the illegals? It would be a nightmare for her, of course, but also for the owner, who had been kind to her. And what about Riqui, now in fifth grade and more gringo than guanaco?

One day in 1997, Mrs. McGovern called her. There had been a terrible earthquake in Central America, and the U.S. government had passed a relief act allowing undocumented Nicaraguans and Salvadorans to stay in the country.

“Now I can get you a green card,” said Mrs. McGovern.

“Well,” said Cándida to herself, “I’ve been through my own personal earthquake, so maybe I qualify.”

“Any news about Ricardo?” added Mrs. McGovern.

“No, ma’am. Nothing.”


Cándida had just gotten up and turned on the radio when the blaring voice of the newscaster announced that a plane had rammed into the World Trade Center in New York. Cándida assumed some amateur pilot had swiped the wall. “Idiota!” she said out loud.

She switched to the music station, where they were playing “Ni tú ni nadie.” Cándida hummed along, lost in her calculations of Riqui’s school expenses—he had just begun classes at Santa Monica College. Suddenly, an announcer interrupted. A second plane had flown into one of the towers, he said, and a third was headed for Washington, D.C.

Cándida felt her stomach tighten. She remembered things. A presentiment of danger. An explosion. Guerrilla thugs stomping through the house. Neli’s screams. The statue of the Virgin crashing to the floor. “No,” she whispered. “No.”

A few months later she returned to the apartment to find Riqui in the living room with a Marine Corps recruiter. “Oh, God,” moaned Cándida. “¿Qué es esto?”

Riqui had grown into a handsome boy. He’d have been tall in El Salvador, but here he was average height, about 5 feet 10 inches. He had the same tiger eyes as his sister, the same wide brow and smooth brown skin. His black hair draped over his forehead seductively. He grabbed a shock of hair in his hand and smiled broadly at his mother.

“Take a good look, Mom, ’cause the next time you see me, I’ll have a buzz cut!”

“You just started college, Riqui.” She was struggling to stay calm.

“This country gave us a home, Mom. And now we’re at war.”

Cándida started to sob. “But we’re not citizens,” she said finally.

The recruiter, a tall black man with a no-nonsense demeanor, gazed over her head. “He’s nineteen years old and a legal resident, ma’am. He can sign up.”

The recruiter left. Riqui sat on the table, legs wide, eyes twinkling, already with that cocky Marine grin.

She had to admit she was proud. But she was also scared, so scared she felt nauseous.

“Listen, Mom,” said Riqui, suddenly serious, “a long time ago...back protected me. I couldn’t defend you...or my sister.” His voice was gentle. “But I’m never going to let anything bad happen to you again.”

Cándida was still sobbing and shivering.

“Look,” said Riqui. “I’m going to show you something.”

He went into his room and came back with a paper. Under the image of an eagle with outstretched wings were the words “U.S. Citizenship and Naturalization Services.” He pointed to the text he had highlighted in yellow: “Special provisions of the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA) authorize U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) to expedite the application and naturalization process for current members of the U.S. armed forces and recently discharged members.”

“You see, Mom? If I serve, we can become citizens. No more worrying about la migra or renewing green cards.”

“Don’t do it for me, Riqui. I’d rather live in the shadows forever.”

Days later the phone rang. When she thought about it afterward, it felt as though the whole scene had taken place in slow motion. It was the call she’d been expecting—and dreading. An official was calling from San Salvador. Ricardo was dead, he said. No details.

Cándida steadied herself against the wall. Now her son was going off to war. Would there someday be another call? She had already lost her daughter and her husband. “Oh, Holy Virgin,” she prayed, “watch over him.”

The sleeplessness started even before Riqui left for boot camp. During the day, Cándida dozed on her feet. At night, she lay awake for hours, calculating Riqui’s chances for survival. So far, only thirty-seven U.S. soldiers had died in Afghanistan. A tiny number. But if it was your kid who got hit... She started taking Excedrin PM—first one, then two, three, four. When she did fall into a fitful sleep, she dreamed of bombs and burning tanks. During the day, she contemplated suicide.

“Honey,” said Carolyn, squeezing Candida’s shoulders, “you have to get some help.” Furrows had formed over Carolyn’s brow. Her chin had grown spongy. But her hair was still blond—she knew how to apply hair color, after all—and she was still as kind and caring as ever. Cándida thought she was lucky to have her for a friend.

The doctor wrote a prescription for Ambien, but it didn’t help. In March 2003, the United States invaded Iraq, and in August, Riqui announced that he was being deployed. He was full of bravado. Lots of loud music and talk of kicking ass.

Cándida became morose and obsessed with the news. She began to suffer from shortness of breath. She prayed, but found no relief. Gloom followed her around like an ugly black dog. Strangely, at the salon, no one but Carolyn knew anything was wrong. Cándida somehow kept up appearances, even though she felt as though she were suffocating.

Every day, she e-mailed Riqui. Weeks went by without a response.

“Sorry, Mom, I’ve been working,” he explained when he finally called her. He made it sound as though he were shuffling papers at an insurance office.

It was late January 2004, and she hadn’t heard from him since Christmas.

“They’ll notify you right away if I’m dead,” Riqui had joked. “If you don’t get a call or a visit, don’t worry.”

Every time she heard about the death of an American soldier, she felt guilty because she felt relieved. It was a relief that it wasn’t Riqui, but awful that some other woman just like her would be mourning.

She felt guilty about other things as well. Riqui had put his life at risk to protect her. To get her citizenship, so she’d never have to worry again about la migra or the green card. “Don’t bother about me, Riqui,” she whispered into the shadows. “Just stay alive.”

One night she took more Ambien than she was supposed to, and then lay in bed staring into the dark.

The jangle of the telephone jolted her upright. A call in the middle of the night! She gasped for breath and clutched at the receiver.


There was no one.


Still, no one.

Cándida sat in the dark, hyperventilating. The digital clock with the bright green numbers read 1:32. Finally, she hung up.

She spent the rest of the night waiting for the phone to ring. “They’ll call back,” she told herself. But they didn’t. The same feeling came over her as the day Vilma had told her that Ricardo was probably dead. She was certain that this would end the same way.

But then, after a month, Riqui called.

“Are you okay?” Cándida asked breathlessly. “The phone rang one night...I thought...something might have happened.”

“No, nothing has happened.” His voice sounded decisive.

They chatted a few minutes about nothing, and then Riqui asked suddenly, “When did you receive that call?”

“ must have been around the twenty-fifth. It was 1:32 in the morning. I’m certain about the hour.”



“No, nothing.” He said good-bye and told her not to worry, the way he always did.

But Riqui knew what had happened on January 25. It was a day he would never forget. Lieutenant Metzer had sent him to a town outside of Ramadi rumored to be harboring an al-Qaeda operative. His instructions were to observe what he could. He was to carry a military-issue cell phone with him to keep Metzer informed. He and four other Marines started out early in the morning, but right before they arrived, Riqui realized he didn’t have the phone. He tried to remember where he’d left it. He thought back over the last few hours and recalled giving it to one of the Iraqi interpreters to make an authorized call. He thought the man had given it back, but now he wasn’t sure.

At 11:32 a.m.—1:32 a.m. in Los Angeles—Riqui López’s phone set off a bomb in Ramadi that killed one Marine and left three critically injured. Riqui would have been a casualty too, if Metzer hadn’t sent him on a mission. Riqui should have died that day. Somehow, the phone called his mother. How it happened, Riqui couldn’t explain.

When Riqui left the Marines in 2006, the first thing he did was apply for U.S. citizenship. As soon as he got it, he could sponsor Cándida. One night, he took his mom out to dinner and told her the story about the phone.

Cándida felt as though the hand of God were stroking her cheek. “It was the Virgin calling to let me know you were okay,” she said. “Only I didn’t know how to interpret the message.”

“Yeah, Mom,” Riqui said. “I’m sure that’s it.”


SHJ Issue 10
Fall 2014

Barbara Mujica

is a novelist, short-story writer, scholar, and theater director. Her latest novel, I Am Venus (Overlook, 2013) explores the identity of the model for the famous Rokeby Venus, the only extant nude by seventeenth-Spanish painter Diego de Velázquez. The novel was a winner of the 2012 Maryland Writers’ Association fiction competition in the category, “Historical Fiction.”

Mujica’s critically acclaimed novel Sister Teresa (Overlook, 2007; paperback: Penguin, 2008) depicts the life of Teresa de Avila. A play based on the novel premiered in Los Angeles in November, 2013.

Mujica’s novel Frida (Overlook, 2001; paperback: Plume, 2002) was an international bestseller that has appeared in seventeen languages. Based on the tumultuous relationship between Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera, Friday was a Book-of-the-Month Club alternate.

Mujica has won several prizes for her writing: the Trailblazers Award from Dialogue on Diversity, the Theodore Christian Hoepfner Award, the Pangolin Prize, and the E. L. Doctorow International Fiction Competition. She is also a two-time nominee for the Pushcart Prize for Fiction.

“...we have been born here to witness and celebrate. We wonder at our purpose for living. Our purpose
is to perceive the fantastic. Why have a universe if there is no audience?” — Ray Bradbury