By conservative estimates, there are currently enough wrongfully convicted people in prison in the United States to fill a football stadium.
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It is the summer of 2011, and while every news station across the United States is reporting on the trial of Casey Anthony, a Florida woman accused of murdering her two-year-old daughter, my grandmother Mercy commits suicide. I’m living in central Florida and haven’t seen Mercy in more than seven years. Only once in all that time has Mercy called to see how I’m doing. That was three weeks ago. She was sixty-nine years old.
It’s my cousin Bobby who phones me with the news. They found five empty bottles of sleeping pills on the floor next to Mercy’s bed. They also found a gift she’d left for my little cousin Lia: a necklace with an angel pendant. And they found a suicide note.
I ask if my mother knows yet. She is Mercy’s oldest daughter.
“No one’s heard from her all day,” Bobby says.
This is typical of my mother. I haven’t seen her in seven years either, though she does call on rare occasions to ask me for money. She lives alone in a tiny efficiency in Miami Beach a few blocks from Mercy. Because my brother, Levy, works in Miami Beach, he sometimes (reluctantly) takes care of our mother — as much as you can take care of someone like her.
For many years my mother and Mercy, both addicts, kept each other company. Mercy took pills mostly: Xanax, Ativan, oxycodone. My mother prefers crack, cocaine, meth. Both women have been prescribed powerful antipsychotic medications for paranoid schizophrenia. They saw each other every day, bailing one another out, sometimes living on the streets together, loving and hating each other the way addicts do.
I ask Bobby what the suicide note says, not sure if I’m ready to hear the answer.
He exhales loudly. “You don’t want to know.”
I ask about my mother’s sisters in Virginia and Puerto Rico. Do they know?
“You’re the first person I called,” he says, and then he starts sobbing. He says he always imagined that when she died he wouldn’t care, wouldn’t cry, wouldn’t feel a thing.
“I’m sorry,” I say, as if she weren’t my grandmother, too, as if this were something that has happened only to him and not to me.
Later I will call my aunts in Virginia, and they will wail. I will listen to their ragged breathing and imagine what the news will do to my mother. “I’m sorry,” I will say. “I’m so, so sorry.”
In 1985, the summer I turned six, Mercy decided I needed a haircut so that I’d look like a decent young lady and not a street urchin. I had a tangle of coarse, frizzy curls, like my father. “Bad hair,” Mercy called it. “Look at you,” she often said. “You look like you belong to a clan of gypsy bandoleros.” And she knew hair, because she’d gone to cosmetology school. She’d also gone to school to become a phlebotomist and an EKG technician. Mercy was a collector. She collected certifications but never had a job. She collected other things, too: unemployment, food stamps, disability, welfare, Social Security, settlements from multiple slip-and-fall lawsuits. She collected eviction notices, moving twelve times in ten years. She collected husbands and daughters (seven daughters and twice as many husbands). The husbands all left, and she sent the daughters away to be raised by someone else in the family.
The day before my sixth birthday, Mercy sat me down in my mother’s kitchen and spread her beauty supplies on the table: combs and hair clips and scissors and hand mirrors and a hair pick like the one my father used to groom his Afro. She draped a towel over my shoulders the way the beautician did at the salon, spritzed my hair with water, and went to work. I flinched each time she yanked my curls and cried out when the comb got tangled in them. She smacked the top of my head with the comb and told me to stop complaining. It wasn’t her fault I took after my father’s side of the family.
Mercy never wasted a chance to complain about “those people.” Her worst nightmare, she’d say, had been that her white daughters would end up marrying negros. So, of course, what had my blond-haired, green-eyed mother done? She’d shacked up with one.
After my wet hair was detangled, Mercy started cutting, back to front. The strands tickled my neck as they fell. She talked and snipped, and I sat quietly so I wouldn’t get whacked again.
“Your brother got lucky,” she said. “He turned out like me.”
Levy had blue-green eyes, fair skin, golden hair.
After more than an hour of combing and cutting, Mercy pulled the towel from my shoulders with a dramatic swoop and announced that she was done. I looked down at all the brown hair at my feet. She took my chin in her hand, lifted my face, and examined me. Then she handed me a mirror.
My hair was gone. She’d cut off all my curls, leaving me with a close-cropped Afro like my father’s. I ran a hand over my head, tears starting to form in my eyes. I was hideous.
It wasn’t the haircut, she said, chuckling; it was my “bad hair.”
I closed my eyes, unable to speak. I would never look like my mother or Mercy, and she would never let me forget it.
Over the next few years Mercy would cut my hair short many times, as if trying to teach me something about who I was, or who I was supposed to be. Levy would tease me by introducing me to his friends: “Have you met my brother? His name is Jaquir-o!”
Other girls wore their hair in ponytails and pigtails and braids or let it fall loose so the wind could sweep it in front of their faces. I hated those girls. I often thought about how good it would feel to cut off one of their pigtails, just one. Sometimes girls would come up to me and ask, “Why do you look like a boy?” I tried to ignore them until one day in the cafeteria, Tammy — who had long blond hair and perfect bangs — called me a boy, and I punched her in the gut and said the worst thing I could think to say, something I’d seen scrawled on the window of my school bus: “Fuck you, bitch.”
But really I blamed my father, because I was brown like him, with his dark eyes and bushy eyebrows and wide nose and full lips and bad hair.
As soon as I get off the phone with Bobby, I sit down on the love seat in the family room. I think maybe I should be crying, but I’m not. I want to ask my husband, Cheito, if it’s OK that I’m not crying. Cheito knows me better than anyone else — we’ve been together since high school. But he’s in the shower. Our two boxers, Taína and Chapo, hop onto the love seat with me. Taína puts her head on my lap, and Chapo licks my face. They do this when I’m sad, so I know I must be sad.
The Casey Anthony murder trial is on TV without any sound. I must’ve muted it when the phone rang. I turn the volume up. Casey Anthony’s mother is on the stand, and I think, That poor woman. Oh, God, that poor woman.
My grandmother has just killed herself, and I’m feeling sorry for a murder suspect’s mother.
Three weeks ago Mercy called me unexpectedly. She was living with Titi, her youngest daughter. My mother was at the house, too, but it was Mercy who had dialed my number. She wanted to see how I was, she said. She asked how many years Cheito and I had been together.
“Too many,” I said, and we both laughed.
Mercy and I talked about the Casey Anthony trial, which was about to begin.
“What kind of woman loses a baby and never calls the police?” she asked.
“A guilty one,” I replied.
I asked if she remembered the baby boy who’d been left beneath some bushes in Miami Beach when I was a girl.
Yes, she remembered. It was his mother and her lesbian lover who’d done it, she said.
I waited for Mercy to say more, braced myself for a hateful homophobic rant. Ten years earlier, after my sister, Illy, had come out as a lesbian, my mother had called me to ask if it was true, and the whole time I’d heard Mercy yelling in the background about how my sister was dead to her and she didn’t want any fucking patas in her family.
But instead of unleashing hateful slurs on the phone, Mercy took a deep breath and said, “That was, like, twenty years ago,” her voice heavy, as if she was exhausted. I assumed it was all the medications she took: anxiety pills, antipsychotics, antidepressants.
Sitting on the couch now, I wonder: Was she high during that conversation? Was it the pills that made her call me, or was it something else?
This is not how it normally feels to lose a grandmother. I know, because when my father’s mother, Abuela, died two years ago, I felt a deep, insurmountable grief. But this — I don’t know what this is.
I jump off the love seat and run to our bathroom, where Cheito is still in the shower. I sit on top of the toilet and stare at the waffle-weave shower curtain. It all seems so pointless now: this overpriced shower curtain from some catalog, our oversized four-bedroom house, the flat-screen TVs, the expensive furniture, the two-car garage with our two cars in it and Cheito’s motorcycle. We bought this house five years ago — a debt we couldn’t afford, even with our two salaries — and I filled it with meaningless junk, as if trying to compensate for my unhappy childhood. Here I am living in this house with more rooms than I even know what to do with, and my mother is living on the streets half the time and doesn’t even have a phone.
“My grandmother is dead,” I say to Cheito through the curtain.
He doesn’t say anything, and I realize it’s because he thinks I’m talking about Abuela. Every time in the past two years I’ve said those words to him — My grandmother is dead — it’s been the beginning of a new wave of grief, followed by several days in bed. How long has it been since I’ve referred to Mercy as “my grandmother” or even mentioned her?
“I mean Mercy,” I say. “She took a bunch of pills.”
When I was nine, after one of the many times my mother got evicted, she took Illy and me to stay with Mercy. We showed up at her one-bedroom apartment on a Saturday afternoon, all our clothes and shoes spilling out of black garbage bags. Our parents had split up by then. Illy and I hadn’t had anything to eat since lunch at school the day before. Mercy opened the door, and my mother explained that we needed a place to stay for a while.
Mercy asked why our father wasn’t taking care of us. Didn’t he know that his children were in the streets? My mother should call the police, have him thrown in jail.
I was furious — at Mercy for threatening to throw Papi in jail, and at my mother for getting us evicted.
My mother dropped her bags on the floor. “He doesn’t care if his kids starve,” she said. “He spends all his money on women.”
“That’s a lie!” I said. “Papi brings us money every week.” Then I revealed my mother’s secrets: how my father paid her child support, but she spent it all on cocaine and beer; how we never had food in the house unless my father bought us groceries; how Illy and I had to hide money from our mother so we could buy hot dogs at the 7-Eleven around the corner; how she’d lied and told Papi that someone had broken into our apartment and stolen the rent money, when in fact she’d spent it on a three-day crack binge.
My mother slapped me in the face and told me to stop lying.
Illy got between me and our mother. She always defended me, even if it meant that our mother would slap her, too.
Mercy didn’t pay me or Illy any mind. She should’ve been mad at my mother — should have threatened to have her thrown in jail — but instead she said we needed to be out in a week. “And I’m not taking care of any kids. I already raised my kids.”
My face hurt. I was so angry, I was on fire. I hated my mother and Mercy both, and I wanted to punish them.
I looked my grandmother in the eye. “Don’t make me laugh,” I said. “You didn’t raise your kids. You gave them away.”
And then Mercy slapped me, too.
Mercy had become a mother at fifteen, a grandmother at thirty-two. In her youth she was known for brawling in the street with other women and even beating up grown men. She never, ever backed down from a fight, no matter who threatened her. Once, Illy and I watched her attack a neighbor outside a drugstore because the woman had called Mercy crazy. Mercy knocked her down and started kicking her.
She was fierce and unforgiving and seemed to remember every person who’d ever wronged her. She loved to tell stories of how she’d gotten people back. The woman who’d cut in front of her in line at the supermarket? She’d purposely bumped into her and told her to fuck off. The guy on a bike who’d looked at her wrong? She’d slashed his tires later. The boy who’d beaten up one of her daughters? The next morning she’d gone to his sister’s workplace and slapped her. Mercy once got arrested for hitting the cashier at Kentucky Fried Chicken.
One afternoon, after an argument with my uncle Junior, Mercy sliced his face with a straight razor. He got about a dozen stiches and ended up with a V-shaped scar above his eyebrow. That’s how she was, always ready to cut someone, to give them agallas — gills — like a fish.
I was seven the first time my father left my mother. Mercy was livid. The only reason a man leaves the mother of his children is another woman, she said. Together she and my mother concocted a plan to get him back: I was to listen to all my father’s telephone conversations and find out the woman’s name. Then they’d scare her into staying away from him. And if that didn’t work, they’d drag her out of her house and kick her ass in the street. Mercy would use her straight razor and carve my mother’s initials into the woman’s face.
Instead of spying on my father, I told him about their plan, and Mercy called me a snitch and said I was dead to her for helping my father cheat on my own mother.
Years later, when I was thirteen, I got into a nasty fight with an ex-boyfriend and threatened to carve my initials into his face.
Growing up, I thought my aunts who live in Virginia and Puerto Rico were lucky. Their mothers, the women who’d actually raised them, were loving and self-sacrificing. It’s true that Abuela was the same way for me, but I spent my childhood bouncing from her house to wherever my mother or Mercy lived and back again.
Abuela died the week of Mother’s Day. Ever since, I’ve thought of myself as motherless. Maybe that’s not fair to my mother, maybe it’s even cruel, but it’s the truth. On Mother’s Day I go from drugstore to drugstore looking at cards. I buy one and leave it sitting out for weeks, then store it in a shoe box in my closet.
This year’s card is still on the kitchen counter, next to the glass bowl where we keep our car keys. Staring at it, I wonder what will happen to my mother now that Mercy is gone. Who will keep her company? Who will make her morning coffee? Who will be there late at night when she comes home wasted?
I am suddenly overcome with a desire to see my mother.
“I need to see my mom,” I tell Cheito.
He doesn’t try to change my mind. We pack our bags, hustle our two dogs into the car, and start out on the 220-mile drive south to Miami Beach. I listen to the radio and stare out the window while Cheito drives.
In Clewiston we stop at a Burger King to use the bathroom. I wash my face in the sink and study myself in the mirror. A year ago, when I was in Washington, D.C., I stopped by my aunt Pily’s house. I hadn’t seen her since I was fifteen. When I got there, she took my face in her hands and said, “My God, Jaqui. You look just like your mother.”
I didn’t believe her, but when I got home a few days later, I searched through old photo albums and found a picture of my mother at twenty-one, her blond hair cut in a short bob, and for the first time I realized that I had her round face, her cheeks, her smile.
Now, staring at myself in the Burger King bathroom mirror, I don’t see any resemblance. I don’t know why.
Back on the road, my cellphone won’t stop ringing. A cousin calls. My father calls. My sister calls. My aunt Sandi calls. Sandi says the paramedics came and went from Mercy’s apartment, and now the cops have arrived. People keep walking in and out of the bedroom while the body is just lying there. It’s been hours. Sandi still can’t find my mother.
I turn off the phone because the battery is dying and I forgot to bring the charger. From the driver’s seat Cheito takes my hand in his. I’m glad he’s not the type of guy who says things like “She’s in a better place,” or “You have to remember the good times.” Two years ago, when people at Abuela’s funeral kept saying that as if it would make me feel better, it infuriated me. And yet now I find myself doing exactly that — trying to remember something good about Mercy.
There is this: she told me stories. When I was a kid, she told me about her first love — my grandfather — a man she’d met in New York City. She was just a teenager, and he was much older and married, but she loved him anyway. She told me about all the men she’d loved, about her baby brother who’d died, about her supernatural experiences: She’d once lived in a haunted house and seen the ghost of a woman who’d died by drowning. She’d been bitten by a poisonous alacrán — a scorpion — but survived through the power of prayer. She’d witnessed an entire pot of rice just throw itself across the room. It seemed such things happened to Mercy all the time: Chairs would move on their own. Empty glasses would fill with water. Cars would flip over seventeen times, and she’d make it out without a scratch. Dead birds would be resurrected in her hands when she prayed over them. And once in a while she’d run into someone she had known in another life.
It was when she told me these stories that I knew I loved her, but I was never sure if she loved me — or any of her grandchildren and daughters, for that matter. She was physically and emotionally abusive. She never hugged us or kissed us. She withheld food as punishment. She had nasty nicknames for everyone: Pimple Face, the Alcoholic, the Anorexic, the Slut, the Fat One, the Bastard. She regularly threw us out on the street and called the cops on us and even threatened to kill a few of us.
And then there is this: she always threatened to kill herself. She threatened to jump in front of a bus and leave behind a flattened corpse, to climb to the fifteenth floor of our apartment building and fling herself from the balcony, to take a straight razor to her wrists, to swallow three hundred sleeping pills. And when we found her dead body, she said, we would regret all that we’d done to her. Oh, how sorry we would be.
It’s Memorial Day weekend, and traffic is at a standstill on the MacArthur Causeway. Sweaty and silent, Cheito and I watch a bright-red sky turn dark. We’ve barely moved in almost an hour.
I stare out the open window at the Venetian Islands — royal palms and mansions with wraparound balconies and Spanish-style homes with elaborate tile roofs. When I was a kid, I used to gaze at these houses from the bus on my way to downtown Miami. I’d imagine myself in one of those beautiful homes, only I’d be a different girl, with a different family. This fantasy never got old, no matter how many times I rode the same bus and looked out the same window.
Miami Beach is overcrowded with tourists, partygoers, and club-hoppers. Parking is impossible. By the time we pull up to the building, Mercy’s body has been taken to the medical examiner’s office. We double-park with the flashers on and get out to walk our dogs, Taína and Chapo. Cheito, always supportive, volunteers to stay with the car and the dogs while I go upstairs and visit with my family, but the last thing I want is to go inside my aunt Titi’s apartment, the place Mercy called home, and stand in the room where she took her own life.
We wait on the sidewalk as family members arrive teary-eyed and exhausted: three of my aunts and their husbands and kids. Cheito and I hug them one by one, the dogs wagging their nubby tails and letting the children play with them. Everybody talks about how friendly and well-behaved Taína and Chapo are. No one says a word about Mercy.
Titi’s children, my cousins Lia and Jayden, don’t know me. We’re meeting for the first time. They eye me warily, then go back to playing with the dogs. Lia, the older one, stops abruptly and stands with her arms crossed and her head down. Then it hits me: just an hour ago Lia and Jayden were in the same room with our grandmother’s body. I wonder if they loved her. But what am I thinking? Of course they loved her.
Up the street a scraggly old woman shuffles toward us in worn Converse sneakers. She has on a dingy black sweater and tattered jeans with holes in them, and she wears her hair in a buzz cut. Coming closer, she smiles at me and Cheito. She looks homeless. I steel myself — she’s going to ask for spare change, a cigarette, something. Cheito must be thinking the same thing, because he starts digging in his pockets and pulls out a fistful of coins. I reach for his hand, sending nickels and pennies flying to the concrete. I’m still holding on to him when the woman wraps her arms around me, and I feel her bones, sharp and fragile. She kisses my cheek, this woman with no teeth, this small, shattered creature who smells like dirty laundry and cat piss and cigarettes, this stranger. Then she pulls back, and this is how it happens. In the middle of everything — the cars blocking the intersection, the tourists headed this way and that, my family gathered on the sidewalk, the dogs barking and sniffing, my husband holding my hand — I see her striking green eyes, and I know: I am seeing my mother for the first time in seven years.
When I was a kid, my mother often showed up unannounced wherever I was, sometimes with Mercy in tow. They’d walk all over Miami Beach looking for me. They’d show up at my friends’ houses, demand to see me, and drag me outside because I hadn’t asked permission to be there. They’d show up at the movies, open the door to the packed theater, and call my name in the darkness. They’d show up at the skating rink, the public pool, the basketball courts of three different parks. Sometimes, if I was staying at my father’s house, my mother would get there early in the morning and insist on walking me to school. I’d be terrified that the other kids might see us together and find out she was my mother. Eventually they did. They called her “homeless lady” and “crazy lady” and, as I got older, “crackhead” and “scutterhead” and “junkie.”
My mother is nearly unrecognizable. She looks ancient. I remember a while back she called to tell me that she’d had most of her teeth removed and needed money to fix the few she had left. My brother told me the next day she hadn’t had them “removed”; they’d fallen out.
My mother has meth mouth. I’ve known this for years. Still, the knowledge did not prepare me for the sight of it. Cheito squeezes my hand, but it makes me feel worse, maybe because he has a mother who’s not an addict, two grandmothers who adore him, even a doting stepmom who considers him her own son.
My mother hugs me again and says, “She didn’t look dead. She looked like she was just sleeping.” I realize she must have seen Mercy’s body earlier, before it was taken away.
I hug her back, but not too tight. I’m afraid I might break her, that her collarbone will fracture, that her ribs will crack, that I will crush her with my need to put her back together again.
She pulls away and asks my aunt for a cigarette. I experience a confusing mix of emotions: Anger at my mother for doing this to herself. Relief that she’s alive. Guilt for letting her get this bad, for not visiting her enough, for trusting my brother and Mercy to handle her affairs, for being a terrible daughter. I’m also angry at Mercy — for killing herself despite what it would do to my mother. How will she care for herself? Where will she spend her days? Mercy helped look after my mother and defended her no matter how wrong she was.
I sit on the curb and wipe the sweat from my upper lip with the back of my hand. Bobby sits next to me. He, too, seems to have aged since I last saw him, just a few months ago. I ask if he read the note. He says they all did, even my little cousin Lia.
“Lia! Oh, my God. Why would Titi let her read that?”
He says it was Lia who found the note. It was Lia who found Mercy.
Lia and her brother, Jayden, are still playing with the dogs. Bobby calls her over, and she sits on the curb with us. She’s small, with dark skin and dark hair and dark eyes. I wonder how Mercy felt about that.
Lia tells us how she likes to read, how she reads to her little brother at night, how she wants to be a marine biologist.
“Wow,” I say. “What do marine biologists do?”
“They study sharks.” She tells me all about the great white shark and the hammerhead and the tiger shark. She tells me that she’ll be graduating from the fourth grade this week, and that Mimi won’t be there.
“Who’s Mimi?” I ask.
“My grandmother,” she says. “She died today.”
I listen as my ten-year-old cousin tells me about the woman she called Mimi, who lived with her and her brother and her mom; a woman who went to church every day, who made her breakfast in the mornings and walked her to school afterward. Mimi taught her passages from the Bible, brushed her hair, sang songs to her about Jesus, told her she loved her.
This Mimi is not the grandmother I know.
Lia shows me the angel pendant she wears on a silver chain around her neck. She says Mimi left it for her when she died.
Bobby takes her hand. He has tears in his eyes, and suddenly he looks like the boy he used to be.
“She was my grandmother, too,” I say.
Lia looks at me curiously, crinkling her brow. “Really?”
I explain how our moms are sisters, so that makes us cousins.
“But you’re old,” she says.
Bobby and I both laugh, and then I tell her that I know Mimi loved her.
“I miss her,” Lia says, caressing the angel pendant with her fingertips.
“I miss her, too,” I say.
“I know,” she says, as if no other possibility could ever occur to her.
Three weeks before she died, my grandmother called me. She told me she was living with Titi and the kids, that she was in a wheelchair now because she’d slipped in the bathroom and broken both her legs. She’d sued her landlord over the fall, said some water from a leaky pipe had caused her to slip. I was skeptical about the details, but I figured the less I knew, the better. She told me a nurse came to care for her once in a while. She talked about her favorite granddaughter, Lia: how big she was, and how smart, and how Lia’s brother, Jayden, was three years old and had a foul mouth, just like his mother. We both laughed at this.
She told me about some of her friends who had died recently. She said she was getting old, and that most of the people she loved were dying off. She named a few who had died of cancer or overdoses and one who’d died of a heart attack.
“I’m the last one left,” she said. “The last one.”
I reminded her that she still had her family. She said she missed my sister and me, that she wanted to see us. It had been so long.
We talked for almost two hours, the way we hadn’t done in years, probably in my whole life.
I keep returning to that last phone call. Had Mercy already thought of killing herself? Was she reaching out to me? I sometimes think about what it means to want to die so badly. I wonder if she felt alone, if she was scared or tired or bitter. Was it an act of revenge, or despair? I wonder if she thought about my mother, whom she’d given birth to at the age of fifteen. I imagine Mercy looking at her green-eyed baby and feeling as if she were looking into the center of the universe: the whole world in her arms, and the whole world terrifying. How hard it must have been for her to see my mother deteriorate over the years, to enable her, to try to rescue her but fail again and again. I wonder if my grandmother in her wheelchair, both legs broken, could no longer live with that.
After we get back from Miami Beach, I will watch almost every hour of the Casey Anthony murder trial. When the jury comes back with a not-guilty verdict, I will have the overwhelming urge to call Mercy and tell her.