Although the rePertoire was limited, he was a prodigious storyteller. A natural entertainer, some said. “Do you believe in ghosts?” my father often started. The family was all together, a grandchild on his lap, everyone around the Formica table, content after the plentiful meal my mother had prepared. Each time we shook our heads, glad to hear the story again. “Neither do I,” he’d start, “but one time I had an experience . . .”
As a young man, Raymundo, “Mundo,” hit Route 66 to Mexico with a few pals. It was the early sixties. They were an inseparable five who had grown up together on DeKoven Street. In their twenties, the guys put a band together. Mundo was The Heartbreakers’ drummer. He said he learned to pound out a beat at the suitcase factory where he worked for a while. The leader, the band’s singer and self-appointed manager, was a cool guy named Chuck. They played mostly mambos—huge fans of Pérez Prado—but Chuck’s vocals also lent themselves to sensual ballads. “He thinks he’s Sinatra,” the crooner’s younger brother and the band’s bass player, Franky, used to crack. Sibling rivalry between the brothers was constant, but as the other guys saw it, regardless, either would have laid his life down for the other.
It was Chuck’s idea that The Heartbreakers try their luck in Mexico. He had a contact at RCA Records who said he might get them in the studio in Mexico City, or at least that’s what they told everybody. It was never clear whether The Heartbreakers got to record, but what was a fact was that they stayed in Mexico for six months. The band rented a villa in Cuernavaca just outside the capital, and the word got back that they were living the high life.
The colonial city of Cuernavaca was once home to Maximiliano, emperor of Mexico crowned by Napoleon, and to Carlota, the wife who went mad. Just outside Mexico City with year-round temperate weather, it was a popular getaway. In the early 1960s, Hollywood stars like Elizabeth Taylor and Eddie Fisher made Acapulco their playground, but private folks with means preferred charming Cuernavaca. Some had second homes, families went on weekends, and couples rendezvoused. Landlocked, the city had swimming pools throughout. The villa my father and friends leased had one. Family in Chicago resided in rented flats. The idea of a private pool was grandiose.
The Heartbreakers also had a full-time housekeeper, a girl from a village by the name of María. They were guys used to doting mothers and traditional wives picking up after them, doing laundry and cooking, so a full-time housekeeper—while also in the realm of grandiose back home—made sense there.
My parents were courting at the time. There were a few letters exchanged between them, marking that period when my mother said she called off their engagement more than once. Back then, phoning long distance was expensive and complicated. You could go weeks without hearing from someone far away, and it wasn’t a big deal. Mundo’s lady, my future mom, was too practical to look for him, but she mentioned he did call a couple of times—collect.
As Dad told it, a story repeated to the same captive audience over the years, that evening he and the guys were hanging out in the living room, enjoying cocktails and listening to the hi-fi stereo. Mundo made no mention of female guests, but later, in my grown-up mind, I figured them in, svelte in tight-fitting satin dresses or with cropped hair and in go-go boots. I imagined the girls doing the cha-cha solo while sipping martinis. As the night wore on, everyone got soused.
That night, someone in the group suddenly stopped and became fixated in the direction of the kitchen entrance. His face having gone pale, they all turned to see. A nude woman emerged with a glazed expression. She moved slowly, although it didn’t seem she was taking steps. “It was like she was gliding above the floor,” my dad said, as his gaze in the distance returned him to Cuernavaca. It seemed a faint wave of hesitation ran over his face. The figure didn’t appear to be aware of anyone but continued toward the spiral travertine stairs with wrought iron banisters. She ascended not by taking steps up but floating “like an angel,” Mundo recalled. Once she reached the top landing, she was out of sight.
One of the guys hurried to the landing, eyes popping and looking up, and called out, “She’s not there!” She must’ve gone into one of the bedrooms, they all surmised. But no one volunteered to go up and check. Instead, my dad and a couple of others hurried to the kitchen. How had she gotten into the house? The back door was locked, as were the windows. The shutters were bolted from the inside.
Even as years passed, my father never failed to add one other detail, so indelibly engraved on his mind. As the mysterious lady moved from the kitchen to the staircase and ascended, each of the witnesses swore she became transparent. “I don’t believe in ghosts,” Dad repeated at the end of the account. “But that is what we saw.”
One of us would never fail to inquire, maybe it was me, initially the smallest and youngest member of the family and most willing to show gullibility, “Did anyone ever see the lady again?” Each time my father seemed reluctant to answer, and each time the reply was the same: “Yes.”
Chuck wasn’t in on the evening of the apparition. When he returned, he found the story incredulous. Surely the guys had made it up as an excuse to head home. His brother, Franky, had a wife to get back to, and another worried about the job he’d taken leave from not waiting for him. Chuck didn’t go as far as to call them liars but said they must have mistaken the young housekeeper for a phantom. María had come out of the kitchen and gone upstairs quietly so as not to disrupt the party. The explanation was that simple.
It was settled until something happened on another night when Chuck came home and the guys were either out or sleeping in their rooms. It was dark and quiet. The sound of cicadas and the perfume of gardenias came through the open patio doors. Chuck said he’d gone over to slide the glass doors shut when his eye caught a feminine figure coming out of the pool. He stepped outside. “Hey, who’s there?” he shouted in Spanish.
“The weird thing was,” Chuck told the guys over breakfast the next morning, “she didn’t run off when I called out but . . .” He made a gliding motion with his hand. “She just vanished, disappeared.” My father was always meticulous about his dress even in the morning: I pictured him in one of his Italian knit shirts.
“What do you mean, ‘disappeared’?” Mundo asked.
“Disappeared . . .” Chuck repeated and snapped his fingers. “Poof!” The other guys winced. Whether it was the idea that the villa was haunted or a general consensus was reached, a week later the guys packed up the Cadillac and wound their way to El Norte.
My father never tired of telling the story about the phantom, and all my life I never tired of hearing it. He recalled the time he spent in Mexico so nostalgically that when, in my late thirties, I spent a summer at the villa of some friends in Cuernavaca, his stories stayed with me. For whatever reason, as if it were my own souvenir of the place, I’d brought along a postcard he’d sent to my mother. It included the address and phone number of where The Heartbreakers were staying. “Wish you were here,” he added, but nothing else.
My hosts, Diego and Carolina, like me, were architects. We met at a convention in Chicago. I showed them around my hometown, and they extended an invitation to visit over the summer. They’d just redone the estate Diego inherited. He and his wife added a heated pool, tennis and basketball courts, and a beautiful art studio that nobody used, as no one in the family was an artist. We enjoyed many splendid times during that summer when I stayed in the guesthouse.
My friends often entertained. There were long formal dinners at the marble table outside in one of the gardens, and pool parties with excellent appetizers and drinks served by the full-time staff. Petra cooked and kept house; her husband, Fernando, maintained the grounds. There was a chauffeur who drove the children, dropped Diego at his office, and took Carolina on errands. The nanny was always with the children at their various activities, which were never-ending.
Just as often, my hosts had friends who dropped by casually. One frequent visitor was Enzo. He’d come from Rome years before to visit Mexico and stayed. One balmy evening, Diego was working late, as was often the case, so it was Carolina, Enzo, and me relaxing in the vast living room.
Petra and Fernando brought us gin and tonics on trays and sopes made with beans and shredded chicken and topped with fresh salsa. It might easily have been like the nights my father described of his extended stay there so long ago.
There was no stereo sounding out mambos, but Enzo and Carolina played a duet on the piano. It was hearing Enzo’s sensitive performance that night that made me reconsider the vapid impression I’d had of him, a quickly-approaching-over-the-hill playboy.
The soft music, aromatic breeze coming in through the open windows—it was a sublime moment for me, the kind you tell yourself you’ll never forget, when quickly it slipped into something else. The small talk had stopped and the only sounds in the large room were the staff ’s movements and the ice clinking in the tall glasses of our tart beverages with floating slivers of Mexican limes. Sensing the hour had come to say good night, Enzo took a deep swallow to finish his drink and set the glass down on the wide square coffee table.
Carolina, who always spoke with the smile of a gracious hostess, didn’t ask him to stay but said, “Do drive carefully, cariño.”
“Yes, yes, of course,” Enzo said, clasping his hands together as if to indicate he was wrapping things up. The lanky Roman who’d picked up his Spanish in Mexico smiled and said, “I’ll be fine. Don’t worry yourself, bella.” Then he did a little twist: “Maybe I’ll go dancing.”
“Ha,” Carolina said, raising her glass. If her husband had been home, they might have come along, she added.
“Yes,” Enzo said. “It is too bad. A pity your husband works much too much.” He gave me a furtive glance, which I didn’t appreciate for its implication.
Carolina brushed off any insinuation about Diego’s long absences or an “us” and instead said, “Watch out that you don’t run into the man with the sombrero!”
I’d never heard of the man with the sombrero. “Who is that?” I asked. Petra and Fernando both stopped their tidying up. It was like that game of Statues that I played with the kids from the block as a child. You move about until someone calls, “Statue!” You have to freeze; if you stir, you’re out. The two stopped for an instant before resuming their chores and then quickly exited.
“You’ve never heard of the man with the sombrero?” Carolina asked, as if the thought of my ignorance on the subject was ludicrous. She gave a little laugh. Carolina’s laugh sounded like what a purple hyacinth looked like, rows of fragrant little bells on a stem. It was disarming, and I immediately forgave her poking fun at me. Enzo didn’t have a sombrero on hand to perfectly illustrate but used his panama. Leaning against the wall, he imitated a drunk you might spot on the street. Thinking the man with the sombrero was meant to be a buffoon, I laughed.
Carolina’s expression turned serious. “They say you run into him,” she said, “when you’re rolling home from a night of carousing.” Enzo leaned against a wall, his back toward me but facing our hostess, hat tilted. “As you go past him, he’ll call out, something like: ‘Amigo, you got a cigarette?’” At this point, Enzo brought his hand up to his mouth, taking a puff from his own cigarette. “The glow shows his face,” Carolina said. I started feeling tense, whether from the story they were both enjoying or Enzo’s disconcerting features in the amber light cast by the wall sconces.
“That’s when you see who the man in the sombrero is,” Enzo said, turning and looking at me over his shoulder.
“Well, who is he?” I asked, doing my best not to get rattled. The pitcher of gin and tonics that we’d finished, however, had heightened my senses rather than dulling them. I was already thinking of the walk back to the guesthouse. There was a pathway through the gardens, flagstone steps up to a picturesque small bridge over the rippling pond Carolina had installed. Usually, the stroll was enchanting. Suddenly, I wasn’t looking forward to it.
“They say his face is a skull,” Enzo said, looking directly at me with dark eyes made darker by the night. “Others say it’s half bone and half rotted flesh.”
“Oh no, I hope never to run into the man with the sombrero,” Carolina said, making a shuddering gesture. Her silk shawl fell over bare shoulders. There were women born to be the muse of a great and certainly tormented artist or poet. Carolina was one. That night, in a simple embroidered dress, she looked like she was sitting for a portrait to be rendered in chiaroscuro.
I shrugged, not about to let on that the pair left me unnerved. They exited through the open French doors. Carolina said she was walking Enzo to his vehicle, but I knew they were going to smoke a joint. I wasn’t into weed, so they didn’t invite me. I’d learned in my college years that marijuana mostly caused me paranoia. Left alone, uneasy. The Schweighofer that Carolina’s father-in-law had brought from Vienna decades before now seemed like it was about to start playing on its own. I wished my friends had asked me along, even if just to take in fresh air.
Excerpted from Dona Cleanwell Leaves Home. Reprinted with the permission of the publisher HarperVia, an imprint of HarperCollins. Copyright © 2023 by Ana Castillo