The Realm of Hungry Spirits


By Lorraine López

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The award-winning author of The Gifted Gabaldón Sisters returns with a new novel about a woman who craves solitude, only to find family more fulfilling.

In Buddhism, there is a place where hungry souls gather between lives awaiting rebirth so they can finally satisfy the desires that haunt them.

In the San Fernando Valley, that place is Marina Lucero's house.

The Realm of Hungry Spirits

For Marina Lucero, whose father transformed his life through meditation and whose mother gave hers to a Carmelite convent, spirituality should come easily. It doesn't. After a devastating relationship leaves her feeling lost and alone, she opens her home to a collection of wayward souls– the abused woman next door and her alcoholic sister, her aimless nephew and his broken-hearted best friend. Her house now full but her heart still empty, Marina then turns to the wisdom of Gandhi, the Dalai Lama, even a Santeria priest who wants to cleanse her home.

As Marina struggles to balance the disappointments and delights of daily life, she'll learn that, when it comes to inner peace and those we love, a little chaos can lead to a lot of happiness.


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Chapter One

First thing this morning, the phone's screaming its head off, and I can't find the stupid thing anywhere, so I'm wandering around in my empire-waist, lime nightgown, still half in a dream, like some dazed Josephine, minus her Napoleon. Has my nephew Kiko fallen asleep with it on the couch again? I flip a small plaid blanket off his lumpish, snoring form. Nope, not there. Kiko wrenches the flannel throw over his shoulder and flops on his side, turning his immense back to me. At least he's cut out the snoring. But the kid suffers from this sleep apnea thing. He ceases breathing every so often, like just now, and it's spooky. What if he croaks, right here? On my sectional sofa? Then he sucks in a wet, rattling breath, and I'm relieved, but kind of let down, too, in a weird way. I mean, at twenty-three, Kiko's only ten years younger than me. He still has a ways to go. Does he plan to spend the next fifty or sixty years of his life sleeping on my couch?

I glance at my kid sister's ex-boyfriend Reggie, passed out on the nearby love seat. Maybe he left the phone in the kitchen, which would be convenient. I could stand a cup of coffee. As I'm gristing the beans for a stiff espresso, a-ha! I notice one of the blackened bananas in the bowl on top of the fridge is actually the receiver. Of course, by now it's stopped ringing: my goal all along. I have no more desire to find out who's pestering me this early than I'd want to coochy-coo the rooster next door—a one-legged veterano rescued from the cockfights—that started shrieking just before five, driving me to wad my pillow into my ears.

I'm up for good now, and kind of enjoying the warmth of the linoleum on my bare feet. Summer mornings, this little rental house in Sylmar almost feels like a living body, pulsing with mild heat, expanding and contracting with the sleepy breathing of its occupants. But by afternoon, forget it, it's hotter here than inside a casket hurtling deep into the caverns of hell. Luckily, my backyard abuts the Angeles National Forest and corners of it, shaded by citrus trees and deep in the shadows of the pine and fir trees covering the foothills, stay as dark and cool as it is inside a well.

I'm humming to myself, dribbling water onto the potted cactus and aloe plants, wiping the ceramic Buddhas, and straightening a framed snapshot of Gandhi on the windowsill, when the phone starts in again. I clear my throat and snatch the receiver from the banana bowl. "What's up?"

"Marina? Marina, is that you?" a sort of familiar male voice says.

"Yeah, who's this?"

"It's Nestor, Nestor Pérez, Rudy's friend."

Ah, yes, Nestor, my ex-boyfriend's old buddy, a Cubano, some kind of Santeria priest, a babalawo, who moved to Florida a few years ago. But he must be seriously out of touch with the orishas if he thinks he can find Rudy at my house these days. "Rudy's not here. We broke up about five months ago, back in February." I spoon ground coffee into the filter and fill the chamber from the tap. "Are you in LA?"

"Nah, I'm in Miami, and I ain't looking for Rudy. I want to talk to you."

"Yeah?" I press the on button on the espresso machine and make my way back into the living room. The machine clamors like a diesel engine once it gets going, making it impossible to hear a thing in the kitchen. It's only slightly less deafening in the living room, too, though this hardly wakes Kiko and Reggie.

No question Nestor hears the thing. He starts shouting into the phone, "I want to do you a limpieza, you know, clean the evil spirits out of tu casa!"

Now, I've heard about this kind of thing before, so I'm wondering if he's lost his mind. The ceremony involves some kind of domesticated animal sacrifice. I picture goat blood pooling on my linty green carpet. And don't limpiezas cost a fortune? Nestor used to brag about what he charges, and I remember thinking it'd be cheaper (and more worthwhile) to have the house painted professionally. "No thanks. Don't need one," I say. He must have fallen on real hard times, if he's telemarketing his buddies' ex-girlfriends.

"Nah, man, listen, everybody needs a limpieza, or the evil spirits just keep on accumulating and bringing all kinds of harm and shit."

I glance from Kiko, stop-and-start snoring on one couch, to Reggie, sprawled on the love seat with his thin, hairy legs dangling over the armrest like some lifeless insect's appendages. My nephew Kiko moved in when my older sister and her live-in boyfriend "tough-loved" him out of their house, and Reggie, his best friend, started staying over here after my youngest sister broke off their engagement, and he lost his job, car, apartment, the works. At the time, I was sorry for both of them, and feeling the sharp edge of breakup loneliness myself, I let them stay, thinking it would be at most a few days. But months have passed. And last week my neighbor Carlotta, who has run away from her bruto of a husband and three ignoramus teenage sons, moved into my guest room, after her baby—the thirteen-year-old—gave her a black eye.

"To be honest with you," I tell Nestor now, thinking evil spirits are not what I need cleared out of my house, "that kind of thing's not part of my culture, and no way do I have the money for it."

Carlotta's coppery curls emerge from the hallway, followed by her girlish form, clad in a yellow nightie. She's lugging a basket of laundry, but she sees me on the phone and freezes, her hazel eyes wide and unblinking.

"Absolutely free. You understand?" Nestor says, sounding like one of those radio announcers offering deep discounts on "pre-owned" vehicles. "I'm not going to charge you nothing."

I shake my head to clear my ears. Maybe I'm not hearing too well. "Let me get this straight—you want to do it for no money. I don't pay a penny."

"You got it."

"Why?" Knowing Nestor as I do, or any of Rudy's scheming friends for that matter, I have no doubt there's a catch of some kind.

"Es que, I had this dream about you, mujer, a nightmare with fiery lizards and poison toads. I can't tell it all. Me dió tanto susto that I woke up with two white hairs in my moustache. I could see, in this dream, that you're facing una tragedia, a terrible loss and a tremendous challenge, una lucha tan larga, that I says to myself, Nestor, you got to do something. I tossed the cowries, and you don't even want to know what I—"

"You can do a limpieza long distance from Miami?"

"Nah, man, I'll fly out there, and I ain't going to charge the airfare neither 'cause I'm heading out tomorrow for my cousin's wedding on Saturday, plan to spend a couple weeks in LA, so it's totally free."

"Who is it?" Carlotta whispers.

I cup the mouthpiece as Nestor explains all he plans to do in order to perform my limpieza, punctuating every sentence with "free of charge." "It's Nestor, Rudy's friend, the babalawo," I tell her. "He wants to do a limpieza here at the house."

Carlotta's face relaxes, but then she curls her upper lip. "Ugh—goat blood." She hefts the basket into the kitchen, where I keep the washer.

"Look, Nestor," I say when he finally pauses for breath. "I don't want a limpieza, not even a free one. I'm good the way things are." In truth, I'm not too worried about evil-spirit buildup. At least these dark forces keep quiet. They don't break up with people on Valentine's Day or lose their jobs and come running to my house to stay for months. They never smell like foot funk or leave deep body impressions on my sectional cushions. I can't accuse them of smearing hair gel on my throw pillows. They have yet to use up all the hot water or borrow any of my major appliances, and they have not once disturbed my deep, delicious sleep. Even the wickedest of evil spirits would be a huge improvement over the neighbors' rooster.

Nestor assures me I will change my mind, and I tell him that I have to get ready for work.

"I thought you teachers were off in the summer."

"Ever hear of summer school?" I say, vaguely wondering how Nestor knows I'm a teacher now. He probably called Rudy earlier, made him the first offer of a free limpieza. To be polite, I cast about in my memory for Nestor's wife's name and reel up a possibility. "Hey, how's Dixie doing? And the kids?"

"You mean Daisy? Ah, you know women. They see someone has something, and they want it. She's bugging to get a job now, put the baby in preschool. She got all these gabacha ideas from her stupid friends."

"There are worse ideas to get," I say, thinking of my ex-boyfriend Rudy's former wife, Dolores, whose body was found right around Christmastime some years back, slumped on a bench in Echo Park, both arms so riddled with needle marks she looked like she had a flesh-eating disease. "Listen, I've got to go, or I'll be late."

"A'ight, that's cool. I'm going to give you my cell number, so call me when you change your mind. Just remember, this offer expires in a few days."

"I doubt I'll change my mind."

"Write it down anyway, okay? And I'm going to give you my website, too. You should check it out."

Amazed that Nestor has a website, I pretend to write everything down and finally hang up, replacing the phone, for once, in its cradle, which sits on a wooden bookcase near the love seat. The books are dust-furred, and the plum-colored love seat looks faded under a fine sifting of grit. Carlotta rattles the dishes piled in the sink, no doubt searching for a coffee cup to rinse out. Far be it from her to fill the basin with hot water, squirt in some dish soap, and actually wash a few plates. If Nestor could do a true limpieza in this house—one that involved pine-scented disinfectant, scouring powder, and furniture polish—then, no problem, I'd certainly be down for that. I would even pay.

At Olive Branch Middle School, I teach English as a Second Language to eighth graders on an emergency teaching credential, which means I finished my bachelor of arts degree, but not the certification program yet. Since the district is so hard up for Chicana teachers, they went ahead and hired me anyway. Before last year, I worked in an insurance office, processing claims by day and taking courses at night to finish my degree. I was the bona fide vieja in all of my classes, the one-and-only over thirty. I'd hunch over my desk in the back, sweating pupusas, trying to write down everything the professor said, and pretending not to notice the cutting looks from stringy nineteen-year-old girls in low-rise skinny jeans and the snickering of bullet-headed punks with their 'chones hanging halfway out their pants. It was all worth it, more than worth it, not to face another day in my fluorescent tomb of a cubicle, not to deal with the liars, lunatics, hypochondriacs, and assorted nitwit opportunists who view a crumpled fender as a winning lottery ticket. People are not at their best, usually, just after car theft or collision. They can be pretty frazzled, irritated, shocked, or depressed. But more and more these days, they're gleeful, nearly smacking their lips with greed. And seeing this kind of thing daily creates a low-down and guilty feeling in a person, just by association.

At Olive Branch, these people, my students, are at their best, likely the best they'll ever be. They're fresh-faced, strong, healthy, hopeful, and eager—even the overweight and pimply kids have such promise. I want to take each one aside and say, Stop a minute and enjoy this before it's too late. You will never feel so good in your lives. It is total bullshit about life experience and wisdom making up for what you will lose from here on out. Of course, they'd never buy it. No one wants to believe that kind of thing. So I have to content myself with enjoying their great good fortune, however brief it is, in a secondhand way, while I'm at the middle school.

This summer, I'm teaching two reading classes—one beginning and the other advanced—on weekday mornings. For the beginners, I basically teach these fairy tales that are written in very simple English. For the advanced class, I picked out a book I thought would appeal to the students, a slender novel called The Incredible Journey. It has a picture of two dogs with a cat on the cover, and how could I resist? I figured, hey, kids like animals, especially dogs, so I ordered a set, not realizing how tough the thing would be. The vocabulary is what's really incredible about this book. I'm lunging for the dictionary at least half a dozen times with each chapter. Words like sybaritic, somnolent, and hermetic are all over the place. I guess my vocabulary's improving, and that's something, but in the meantime, I'm sweating all over again, just like in college, trying to rewrite the book, so I can crack the code for the middle schoolers and translate the words into plain English.

Today, after wrestling the high diction all morning and getting my butt whipped, I slink over to the office to pick up my mail and messages before heading home. I'm planning to cruise by Stop & Shop for a six-pack of beer. I'm craving some Kirin or Asahi, one of those clean, potent Japanese beers, with my nice solitary lunch of leftover grilled salmon out in the backyard. But there's a yellow slip in my cubby hole—until now I hadn't even noticed that I must have left my cell phone at home or else it's been swallowed up into the recesses of my trickster of a purse—a phone message from Leticia, my ex-boyfriend's daughter. Come to the hospital right away, someone, likely a student assistant, has scrawled in the message box. Oh, shit, I say, but silently because I'm in the office, and now that I'm a teacher, I have to cut back on the audible cursing while on school grounds. Wish I could moan it out loud though.

Just over six months ago, Letty and her husband, Miguel, had a baby boy, but he was born with a congenital disease, hypoparathyroidism, the doctors at Manzanita Vista Hospital said, after weeks of poking and prodding and testing. I know what this is now because I wrote the word down in a spiral-bound tablet I carry with me, so I could look it up on one of the school computers in the media center. But back then, when the baby was born, nobody knew a thing. We all thought he was fine. Rudy and I were together at the time, and I was even in the delivery room with Letty and Miguel when the baby popped out, though I hate the sight of blood and gore, slimy placentas and whatnot. It was a long, gross labor and delivery, but the baby seemed fine when he finally slithered out, a wet, rubbery thing with two lungs full of attitude. All of us sobbed. Even the midwife and nurse got a little damp eyed. Then I had to rush out and find Rudy, who was puffing Marlboros in the parking lot, to give him the good news. The baby looked to be in great shape: eight pounds, twenty-two inches long, red-faced, strong, and vocal. Rudy was especially proud because Letty and Miguel decided—after some heavy-duty campaigning on Rudy's part—to name their boy Rodolfo, after his abuelo.

But after six weeks, the little guy wasn't gaining much weight. It's shitty to say, but I secretly questioned Letty's decision to return to work, managing the food counter at Kmart, too soon and leaving him with Rosaura, Miguel's cranky old mother, without a second thought. Failure to thrive, the doctor said at the twelve-week visit. The bruja probably kept him locked in a closet all day, I thought, but I was also noticing his crooked crying, the left side of his lip dipping down, like it was being yanked by some unseen hook, and he cried all the time. Back and forth to the clinic and then to the hospital they went—usually hauling me along to talk to the doctors, translate the medical jargon into words they could understand. Again, I was sweating, papayas this time, and trying to copy everything down. Cystic fibrosis, they first said, then, after the salt test, no, not cystic fibrosis, but hypocalcemia, diabetes mellitus, renal insufficiency, neurodegeneration. In the media center, I looked each word up twice—Google and then Yahoo, though they led to the same websites. Despite this, I kept hoping to come up with different explanations or newer articles with groundbreaking discoveries. Nothing I found changed what I've known for weeks, which is what the doctors know and what Letty, Miguel, and even Rudy—wherever he is now—don't want to face at all.

At the hospital, I find Letty at the nurses' station, tapping her car keys on the counter. She keeps saying, "Can't you do something?" The nurses shuffle about uneasily, shifting file sleeves around and trading glances. It's impossible to find my bright and beautiful Letty, the eager-faced little girl I helped raise from the time she was nine years old, in this thin, tense young woman, tapping at the counter. With her unwashed hair and dark-ringed eyes, she looks more like an escapee from an institution for the criminally insane than the warm, funny girl I like to pretend is my own daughter. "He's all bloated," she says now to the nurses, her voice high and strained. "He can't even move his head. There's got to be something you can do to drain him out."

I call her name, and she rushes at me, nearly knocking me over.

Her thin arms encircle my ribcage, squeezing me so tightly it's hard to breathe. "He looks awful, Marina," she says in my ear, her breath hot and stale. "I can't stand to see him like this." Letty pulls away and searches my face, her fingers now digging painfully into my upper arms. "You have to help me!"

With these words, I remember the time I had to drive to the courthouse in San Fernando to pay Letty's bail after she was caught shoplifting a silk blouse from Neiman Marcus. She'd just turned seventeen and she was terrified her father would find out, so I was the one she called. "You have to help me!" I thought it was one of the worst things we'd ever face. Until now, I had no idea how easy it was to stroll into the courtroom, slap a serious look on my face, listen to the judge, and afterward, calmly write out a check. I actually could help my girl. But that was nothing compared to this.

"Okay, m'ija. It's okay. I'm here," I say, knowing full well there's little, if anything, I can do to help her now. "Let's go see the baby, all right?"

Before we leave the nurses' station, I give them a look, draw out my tablet, and say, "Please call the doctor." I'm gratified when the pudgy one at the desk lifts a receiver. I wish I'd known about the power of the writing pad when I had my miscarriages, that horrible time not two years ago.

Manzanita Vista Hospital is kind of a dump since the last earthquake. Overhead, you can see aluminum ducts, wires, and pink tufts of fiberglass insulation where the plaster has fallen out in chunks, but at least the children's wing is repaired and freshly painted with bright murals of circus scenes. Dancing elephants, balloon-bearing clowns, and flying trapeze artists scroll past as we make our way to little Rudy. The baby shares an aquamarine room with a six-year-old girl who has leukemia and a big family of mustachioed men and plump women who crowd around her bed, talking quietly whenever I come to visit. I imagine they are always there, eternally ringed around that bald kid, speaking in hushed tones like they're in church.

Poor baby Rudy has to take what he can get, visitor-wise, as Letty continues to work, though she's cut back on her hours. Miguel has a full-time job laying and repairing pipe for the city, and he's doubled up on his Narcotics Anonymous meetings in his free time. And my ex—the namesake—forget about it. That useless fool can't be bothered with anything the slightest bit difficult or unpleasant. He hopped a plane to Santo Domingo as soon as we knew the baby's condition was serious. No one knows when or even if he'll be back.

"Buenos dias," I say to the quiet folks and the dying girl.

"Buenos," they murmur in unison without lifting their eyes to meet mine.

"Look at him." Letty points to the baby flat on his back in the hospital crib. "He can't even move."

Edema, I remember this from my previous notes, fluid retention. His stunted body looks inflated, like some grotesque balloon, the hospital band biting into his swollen wrist, but he's not crying. His face is calm, his puffy eyelids fluttering, as though he's lofting about in some gentle dream. "He looks peaceful." I touch his bunched and mottled fist, silky and warm as a puppy's belly.

"Don't say that." Letty wheels on me, her sour-smelling hair whipping her cheeks. "That's what they say at funerals."

The door swings open, and I'm impressed with the power of my writing tablet, but it's just Rudy, deeply tanned from the island, even wearing new sunglasses. I haven't seen him for months. My heart pitches against my ribs like some trapped, panicky bird. Arrhythmia? Immediately, I regret the loose blue blouse I threw on over black slacks that morning and bunching my long hair into a plastic clip. Rudy used to complain that baggy clothes made me look too skinny, and he liked me to wear my long hair down, so he could comb fingers through the soft brown tresses. But what does that matter now? I fold and then refold the extra crib blankets, not daring to look up.

"Where the hell have you been?" Letty asks him.

"How is he?" Rudy says. His husky, accented voice whooshes me back, over a decade ago, when he first told me, deep in the shaded dell of my backyard, that he couldn't stop thinking about me, and he asked me, real quietly, if he could kiss me. Con permiso, he'd said, and my eyes traveled to his lips, ripe as persimmons—full and sweet and sun-warmed. I lifted my face to his for a taste.

"Look, look at him," Letty says, now, hands on her hips. "What do you think?"

He stoops over the crib. "Hi, buddy," he says in that high, reedy voice people use when they have no idea how to talk to babies. "You get big and strong, so we can play some baseball, a'ight?"

Letty cuts me a look. "Like he ever played anything with me."

"Why don't you take a break, honey," I tell her. "Now that we're here, you can go downstairs, grab something to eat or freshen up, if you have to." The toilet in this room has been plugged for over a week, an out-of-service sign hangs on the doorknob.

"I guess I could go to the bathroom. I've only had to pee for like three hours," she says, loudly, and the family nearby glances over. She glares back, grabs her backpack—they don't carry purses anymore, these girls—and stalks out like an offended queen.

As soon as she's gone, I'm wishing I wasn't alone with Rudy. Rudy and the Quiet Family, that is. What can we say to each other? Sounds corny as something straight out of a telenovela, I know, but what is there left to say?

Rudy lifts his shades, clears his throat. "I hear you got a call from Nestor."

"Yeah, what about it?"

"He's offered to do a limpieza for you, and you said no."

I shrug. "What do I want with a limpieza?"

Rudy waves a hand over the crib. "Don't you think it would help?"

"Help what?"

"What is this, if not evil? How else can this happen to an innocent, little baby? The limpieza will expel the evil causing this harm."

I remember, again, why we broke up: Rudy is an idiot. "Are you out of your mind?" I ask rhetorically. "The baby has a congenital condition, meaning he was born with it. Will a limpieza in my house, of all places, reverse time, cram him back in the womb, so he can be reborn without this thing?"

"You know what, forget it," Rudy says. "You're so cold you won't do nothing to help no one. I should know by now." He pretends to shiver. "Fría, fría, tan fría."

"Have him do a limpieza here in the hospital or at your house, if you want it so bad. That's closer to the source," I say.

"He didn't offer us."

"Why not?"

He shakes his head. "Because we don't carry no weight."

"What do you mean?"

"Pues, I ain't even got my GED, but you, you're a teacher. You know children, what's best for them. A judge will listen to you, pay attention to what you say."

"Judge? What judge? What are you talking about?"

"The divorce, mensa. Nestor is divorcing Daisy. She's acting all gabacha now, wants a car, wants to work, everything. She don't care about him, so he's cutting her loose, but he wants to keep the kids."

Gooseflesh rises on my arms like I've experienced this precise moment before, but from another angle. The odious truth sinks in, what I have suspected in some dark corner of consciousness and must now embrace like a long-lost psychotic relative who's too eerily familiar to deny. I know exactly what I'm going to say and how Rudy will answer. "Let me guess, Nestor met someone else, and he's in love."

Rudy nods. "Real nice girl, just come from the island.She understands him."


On Sale
May 2, 2011
Page Count
352 pages

Lorraine López

About the Author

Lorraine López is a Professor of English in the Creative Writing Program at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee. She won the 2003 Independent Publishers Book Award for Multicultural Fiction, awarded by the Jenkins Group, for Soy la Avon Lady and other Stories. The same work also won the 2003 Latino Book Award for Short Stories, awarded by the Latino Literary Hall of Fame. In 2001, López was awarded the Inaugural Miguel Marmol Prize for Fiction, selected by Sandra Cisneros and awarded by Curbstone Press, for a first book-length work of fiction of a Latino writer.

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