The phone rang 10 minutes before his alarm was scheduled to go off, followed shortly by Blanco the rooster’s energetic crowing.
Perfecto Jones groaned, pushed the button on his battery-powered alarm clock to the off position, and tried to shield his bleary eyes from the brilliant blue sky that shone through what was left of his roof overhead. Somewhere in the back of his still waking mind it occurred to him that the tarp he’d previously covered his roof with must have shifted or blown away during the night.
Jones carefully adjusted his weight on the hammock that he used as his bed and ran his fingers along the floor until his hand closed on his phone. He groaned again after he’d brought the phone to his face and saw who it was that had called him. It was the captain.
“Hello?” Jones said after pressing the answer button. He was wide awake now.
“Jones!” The captain’s voice practically exploded from the cell phone’s tiny speaker.
Jones winced and held the phone a little farther from his ear. It was obvious that the concept of an indoor voice eluded the captain. Blanco the rooster treated him to a hostile glare before hopping off the waterlogged nightstand and wandering off to another part of the ruined home to continue his crowing undisturbed.
“Jones! Are you there?” The captain yelled again.
“Yes sir,” Perfecto replied, trying to keep the annoyance out of his voice. “I’m here.”
“Good, that’s good,” the captain stated in a much more modulated tone of voice. “I need you to go down to Cabo Rojo, there’s been a murder.”
Perfecto Jones, homicide detective with the Puerto Rico police department, showered and dressed in record time (a task easier said than done since his indoor plumbing had slowed to a frustrating trickle since the hurricane). He tapped the location the captain had given him into his GPS, and drove at near reckless speeds to the crime scene, avoiding fallen boulders, trees, broken asphalt, and other debris that had been recklessly deposited onto the roads by the hurricane.
When Jones arrived, the local cops had already cordoned off the area and were holding the crowd of locals and tourists at bay. Thankfully, there were no reporters in sight, probably because they were all still reporting on the hurricane’s recent devastation.
Jones, who was now walking past the ubiquitous yellow crime scene tape after having parked his vehicle well away from the crime scene, turned towards the voice that was hailing him and spotted a rotund officer from the local police trudging in his direction.
“Sergeant Acosta,” the officer introduced himself as he shook the detective’s hand. “Your captain called and told us to expect you.”
Jones nodded towards the crime scene, “Were you the first officer on the scene?” He asked.
“Oh no,” Acosta replied. “That would be Officer Rivera. He’s back there still working on his report.”
“Any other witnesses?”
Sergeant Acosta shook his head, “Just the two surfers that first discovered the body,” he said. “They’re the ones who reported it to Rivera. We already have their statements, and no one else has been allowed near the crime scene.”
“Good job,” Jones acknowledged, relieved to know that no one had tampered with the crime scene. “Have you had much experience with homicides, Sergeant?”
“Not really,” Sergeant Acosta answered breathlessly as he and the detective ducked under the crime scene tape. “I’m actually with the Stolen Vehicles Division.”
Jones wasn’t surprised. The chaos created by Hurricane Maria forced a lot of cops (him included) to go home, if home was more or less still standing, in order to take care of their family and property. Some went so far as to abandon what was left of their home to get their family to the relative safety of the mainland U.S.A. So vital services, including law enforcement, were scarce on the island right now.
Jones squatted carefully by the body, shooed away the flies, and took a look at the corpse. The most obvious thing about it was that its head was missing. Behind him, the sergeant made the sign of the cross and muttered a quick prayer.
Detective Jones ignored him and continued his cursory examination of the body.
“The victim appears to have been a pretty big guy,” he said. “So I’m guessing that the killer or killers either caught him by surprise, or were at least as big and powerful as the victim.”
Sergeant Acosta nodded, and covered his nose and mouth with a handkerchief. Jones noticed that the Sergeant’s complexion had paled somewhat. Then the sergeant mumbled something into his handkerchief.
“I couldn’t understand you with your face covered like that,” Jones said as he stood up. “What did you say?”
Acosta removed the handkerchief from his face and repeated what he’d said, “I said that it looks like the gargoyle got him.”
Jones gave the sergeant a look that started out as incredulous, but that then quickly changed to annoyance.
“A gargoyle? Next you’ll be blaming it on a chupacabra,” he said. “Try to remember that you’re a police officer Sergeant, we don’t have time to waste on superstitions.”
“Yes sir,” the sergeant said, sounding chastened but not totally convinced. “But ever since the hurricane, people say that they have seen a gargoyle flying around at night.”
“People say a lot of things,” Jones said. “Has the Medical Examiner been notified?”
“There is no Medical Examiner,” Acosta replied. “His home and his lab were destroyed during the hurricane, so he relocated with his family to the U.S. mainland.”
“Damn,” Jones said as he searched his brain for a solution. After a moment he turned back to the sergeant. “Get a doctor, any doctor,” he said. “He’ll have to be our temporary M.E.”
Sergeant Acosta nodded from behind his handkerchief.
“And find a refrigerator truck, commandeer it if you have to,” Jones continued. “We’ll load the body into the truck and park it somewhere with a big generator—like a hotel parking lot, or a hospital, whatever.”
The sergeant nodded again and, once reasonably sure that no other orders were forthcoming, hurried away to carry out the ones he’d been given.
Jones stood there with his hands on his hips, backlit by a beautiful blue sky that merged almost seamlessly with the sea. A sailboat serenely plied the distant waves, while even farther out, a charter fishing boat ferried tourists out for a day of deep-sea fishing. It all seems so beautiful, so peaceful, Jones thought as he let his eyes follow the gulls and terns that wheeled about over the azure waters. In the distance stood the reddish cliffs and salt flats that gave Cabo Rojo its name. Yet, even here, violence and death seemed to intrude with impunity.
“First the hurricane, and now this,” Jones sighed. Maybe he should forget about what was left of his house and belongings, pack up his family, and head to Florida…or New York.
A faint smell of death and decay broke into his reverie, and he immediately blamed the body at his feet as being the culprit. He dismissed that idea as he realized that he had not smelled that level of putrefaction while he was kneeling closer to the body, and so even in the subtropical heat and humidity, the body in question had apparently not reached the extent of decay that would have been responsible for the acrid smell that had just assailed his nostrils.
Jones turned back towards the beach—a breeze from that direction usually carries the salty tang of the sea. A Capitán bird, its yellow epaulets contrasting sharply with the glossy black feathers on the rest of its body, flashed by, reminding Jones of the proximity of the wildlife refuge. He looked now at the greenish line of trees and other shrub-like vegetation a little over 100 yards away that marked the entrance to the area’s lowland forest. Another faint breeze from that direction, a breeze that would normally carry with it the scents of bougainvillea, hibiscus, and green, growing things, instead accosted his senses yet again with the smell of death…and rot. With one last look in the direction in which Sergeant Acosta disappeared, Jones headed towards the forest.
Detective Jones trudged up the slight incline that led to the forest, his shoes gouging deep prints in the sandy soil. He was almost at the forest’s edge when he noticed other tracks in the dirt. He stopped and looked back in the direction he’d just come from, taking note that those other tracks seemed to diminish before abruptly disappearing entirely about 10 yards away. It seemed to Jones that someone may have tried to hide their tracks.
Jones turned back towards the forest and crouched down, brushing dead leaves and other debris from a spot where the ground appeared recently disturbed. He could make out what may have been a handprint, but otherwise there were no discernable foot or shoe prints. It might be nothing, but he used his phone to take several photos from several different angles anyway.
Then—there it was again—that smell of rot and decay…
Jones stood up, brushed off his hands, and looked around. The hairs on his arms and on the back of his neck were standing on end. Slowly, almost without realizing it, he brought his hand to his gun. He felt as if he were being watched—it was the same feeling that had saved his life more than once in Afghanistan, only it was different this time…this time it was not just a feeling of being observed, but also an unmistakable feeling of malevolence, of pure hatred, that also carried with it an otherworldly sense of sadness, loss, and madness.
The cascade of emotions almost overwhelmed the detective, and he staggered slightly as he shook them off. Jones then unholstered his weapon, and walked into the forest. Jones noticed almost immediately that the air in the forest was hotter and dryer than it was closer to the beach, with cacti and several species of succulents growing at its fringes. The hurricane had stripped away most of the forest’s canopy, and the unfiltered sun glared unrelentingly at the detritus of its passing. Broken tree limbs, fencing, wooden boards, roofing tiles, plastic bottles, and a multitude of other odds and ends littered the area and blocked his path.
As he detoured around a battered washing machine that was lying on its side, a wad of colorful clothing spilling from the shattered glass of its door, the stench of decomposition hit him again, this time accompanied by the loud buzzing of flies. For a brief moment he’d almost convinced himself that the smell and the flies were the result of livestock or pets that had been killed by the storm. Then he saw them…arms akimbo, legs twisted in broken, unnatural positions, they were tangled up in the brush as if tossed angrily or carelessly away. More bodies.
Jones turned away as his stomach violently emptied itself of his breakfast.
Later that day the bodies were removed and meticulously placed in a refrigerated truck provided by Sergeant Acosta. The truck was then driven to the parking lot of a nearby hotel where it was hooked up to one of their two working generators and isolated from the other vehicles in the parking lot by a perimeter of traffic cones and police tape. Sergeant Acosta acted as security after being temporarily reassigned by the superintendent himself at Detective Jones’ request.
The next day, Doctor Carmen Rivera, a pediatrician from the nearby town of San Germán, was the only doctor they could find that was willing and able to perform emergency autopsies on the bodies. Unfortunately, many other doctors, including those certified as medical examiners, had either fled the island or were overwhelmed with the task of caring for the thousands of victims of Hurricane Maria.
Now, with the autopsies over, Detective Jones, Sergeant Acosta, Captain Fuentes (Homicide), Superintendent Ramirez (Major Crimes), and representatives from the mayor’s and governor’s offices sat in a conference room of the hotel and listened as the doctor divulged the results of her autopsies.
“Four of the victims were male and one female,” the doctor said. “They all appeared to have been in general good health prior to their demise and in the case of the female victim there was no indication of sexual assault.”
“Please hurry this along,” the representative from the governor’s office interrupted while looking at his watch. “I still have a lot of work to do related to this hurricane and the recovery efforts…for all we know these so-called ‘murder’ victims are simply just more victims of the hurricane!”
The mayor’s representative, as well as the other people in the room, glared at the man from the governor’s office before turning back and looking at the doctor expectantly. “Well,” Doctor Rivera said while straightening her glasses. “All of the bodies exhibited varying degrees of blunt force trauma, some of which could certainly be attributed to the hurricane, but I’m not an expert…”
The governor’s representative threw his hands up in the air in a dramatic show of exasperation, “That’s the problem right there—she’s not even an expert!”
Dr. Rivera straightened her glasses again, and continued. “I may be a doctor, but forensics is not my area of expertise,” she said, a hint of anger adding an edge to her voice.
“We understand, Doctor,” the superintendent said diplomatically, “And we appreciate your assistance during these very trying times. Please continue.”
“Very well,” the doctor said. “Even though all of the bodies suffered some sort of trauma, my opinion is that the massive soft-tissue damage incurred is consistent with the victims having suffered a particularly savage beating prior to their deaths, rather than just having suffered the kinds of injuries consistent with damage caused by the hurricane.”
“I –I’m confused,” the mayor’s representative spoke out. “A beating? Are you saying that these poor people were attacked by some sort of gang?”
“There is no way for me to ascertain the number of assailants involved,” Dr. Rivera answered. “However, some of the bruises do appear to have been caused by a fist or fists, but due to lividity issues, and the various stages of decomposition, not to mention the lack of proper equipment…it’s impossible for me to be sure. As it is, I’ve taken photographs, along with calibrated measurements, and forwarded them to the F.B.I. field office here in Puerto Rico.”
Jones, having already read this in the preliminary reports, waited to see the reactions of everyone else in the room when they heard what the doctor had to say next. “And then there is the matter of their heads,” the doctor finally said. “They’re missing.”
The majority of those gathered in the room immediately erupted with shouted questions and accusations. Perfecto Jones and Dr. Rivera, already aware of the headless condition of the corpses were the only ones that remained relatively unfazed. The governor’s representative jumped to his feet and pointed an accusatory finger at the doctor, “I am tired of your unprofessional theatrics!” He yelled. “You’re no doctor, you’re a charlatan!”
The shouting continued unabated until Jones slammed his hand down on the conference room table. The resultant sound was as loud as a gunshot, and had the desired effect of shocking everyone into quiet.
“I think it would be prudent of us to listen to what this kind doctor, who has done us a great favor during this very trying time of tragedy and uncertainty, has to say,” he said evenly. Then after looking around the room, he gave Dr. Rivera a nod. “Please continue, Doctor,” he said.
The doctor, somewhat flustered, nevertheless cleared her throat and after readjusting her glasses, continued.
“As well as the trauma inflicted on each of the patients, uh, victims,” she said. “Each of the victims had also been decapitated.”
A collective gasp went around the room.
“So we’re basically looking for a deranged man armed with a machete,” Captain Fuentes said, turning in his chair so that he could address Perfecto Jones directly. “Has a murder weapon been found?” He asked.
“No sir,” Jones answered. “After the bodies were removed there was a thorough search of the area, but no murder weapon was found—nor any of the missing heads.” “My God,” the mayor’s representative said quietly.
“I don’t think you’ll find a murder weapon,” Dr. Rivera said, capturing everyone’s attention again. “At least not in the sense that you’re thinking, the victim’s heads were not cut off…they were literally torn off their bodies.”
The room threatened to erupt into pandemonium again until Jones held up a hand and called for quiet. Although he had read the preliminary reports, he had been under the impression that the heads had been cut from the victim’s bodies.
“Torn off?” He asked. “How is that possible?”
Dr. Rivera nervously adjusted her glasses again. “It should be impossible,” she said. “As far as I know, it is beyond the physical ability of anyone to forcibly remove someone’s head without the use of some kind of tool. It’s simply not human.”
“Oh my God—the gargoyle!” Sergeant Acosta blurted out as he made the sign of the cross.
Jones was surprised to see several others in the room follow suit in making the sign of the cross. He shook his head slowly, “Well,” he said. “I don’t have the luxury of believing in gargoyles, or any other myths or superstitions. I have a killer or killers to catch.”
After the meeting, Dr. Rivera approached Jones so she could speak to him alone. “Detective Jones,” she said. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to imply that there was anything supernatural going on. It’s just…well, you saw the bodies.”
Jones dismissed her concerns with a wave of his hand. “Don’t worry about it, Doctor,” he said. “And you’re right, I did see the bodies, but I assumed that the heads had been hacked off of those unfortunate folks—probably with a machete like the captain said earlier – but now this is something completely different.”
“I imagine that it must be,” the doctor agreed quietly.
“Dr. Rivera,” Jones said. “You’ve done a fine job; in fact you’ve done us all here a great service, especially in light of this national emergency. Thank you. Thank you very much.”
“I wish that I could more,” she said sincerely.
Jones thought for a moment. “Actually, there is something more that may help my investigation,” he said. “Earlier, you mentioned that a person lacks the physical strength needed to have torn those people’s heads from their bodies. You said that it isn’t humanly possible, right?”
“Right,” the doctor agreed.
“So could maybe a tiger or a lion have the power to do something like that?”
The doctor thought it over. “In the sense of raw power, I suppose so,” the doctor replied cautiously. “But there were no claw or bite marks on the bodies…and why remove the heads?”
Jones tossed these questions around in his head for a moment before answering. “I’m not sure,” he said. “I’m not an expert, but I know where I can find some.”
The next morning, Blanco the rooster woke him up bright and early with several rounds of overly exuberant crowing. Jones groaned, shut off his now unnecessary alarm, and dialed his wife at the hotel room where his family had taken refuge after the storm had nearly demolished their home. After a few minutes of small talk, he gave the boys his blessings, and got ready for work.
The otherwise uneventful drive to the town of Mayagüez was complicated by a huge sinkhole that had opened up in the highway, causing traffic to slow down to a crawl. Luckily, cleaning crews had cleared away much of the debris that had been deposited on the road by the hurricane.
Perfecto Jones pulled into the nearly empty parking lot, where a lone security guard informed him in bored tones that the zoo was closed. Jones flashed his shield, and the security guard directed him to the main building and gave him the name of the person he should see.
As Jones walked to the main building, he noticed that all of the animal enclosures he passed were empty except for a few stray strands of hay. The main building was dim and cool inside, and he suddenly realized that despite being born and raised in Puerto Rico, he’d never been to the zoo before.
“Hello?” He called out, his voice echoing slightly in the cavernous room.
Jones was startled by the sudden appearance of an overly cheerful young lady in the uniform of a zoo employee.
“My name is Carmen! Welcome to El Parque Nacional Zoológico de Puerto Rico,” she continued effervescently. “May I help you?”
Jones quickly regained his composure and looked around in an attempt to figure out where she’d come from.
“Unfortunately we’re closed right now,” Carmen said jubilantly. “But if there’s anything I can do…?”
“Uh, yes,” Jones replied, producing his shield again. “I’m detective Jones, and I’d like to speak to the person in charge please.”
“Of course!” Carmen chirped happily. “That would be our general manager, Adriana Ruiz-Cordero. Follow me please!”
Carmen then led the detective to a nearby door and knocked twice before opening it just wide enough to stick her head through.
“The police are here to talk to you Adriana,” she said cheerfully, before ushering Jones inside and shutting the door behind him.
General Manager Ruiz-Cordero sat goggle-eyed behind a modest desk cluttered with books, papers, pens, pencils, coffee mugs, animal figurines, and an open laptop computer.
“The police!” She said.
“Yes, indeed,” Jones acknowledged with a flourish of his badge. “Detective Jones of the Homicide Division.”
Ruiz-Cordero paled. “Oh my God! Homicide! Was someone hurt? Is everyone okay?” Jones gestured for her to stay calm. “No, no—I mean yes! But as far as I know, nothing has happened to anyone at the zoo.”
“Then why are the police here? What’s wrong?”
“May I sit down?” Jones asked, motioning to one of the chairs positioned across the desk from Ruiz-Cordero; who nodded her consent.
Jones sat down, took out his notepad and pen. “I’m going to take notes,” he said. “Nothing to worry about.”
Again, Ruiz-Cordero nodded her head.
“I’m investigating several deaths that may have been caused by a large animal,” he said.
“But you said that you’re a Homicide detective,” Ruiz-Cordero said.
“Yes, well, this is an unusual case,” Jones admitted. “I noticed on my way here that there are no animals in the enclosures. Did any of your large animals, like tigers or lions, escape from the zoo during the hurricane?”
The zookeeper shook her head. “No, none at all,” she said. “In fact, due to budgetary reasons, the zoo had already donated all of its large animals to other zoos or institutions. The hurricane destroyed the aviary, so all we currently have left are some small to medium-sized animals, and the butterfly exhibit.”
Jones leaned back in his chair and snapped his notepad shut in disappointment. This had turned out to be a dead end.
“Okay, well,” he said. “I’m not accusing you or this organization of not being truthful, but I’d like a list of the animals you donated and where they were sent.”
“Of course,” Ruiz-Cordero said as she got up and walked over to one of several file cabinets. “At one point things got so bad that we could barely feed the animals,” she said as she rummaged through the files. “There were unflattering articles in the newspapers and even protests! At first that’s what I thought you were here about.” Ruiz-Cordero retrieved a file and brought it back to detective Jones. “You know,” she said reflectively as she returned to her seat. “We did have one unusual case—a chimpanzee.”
“A chimpanzee?” Jones asked doubtfully. “Yes. He was donated to the zoo after being rescued from a lab. He was already an adult when we got him, and quite belligerent—even dangerous. We tried everything we could to rehabilitate him, but his condition was made even worse by all of the drugs and chemicals flowing throughout his bloodstream. Finally, for the safety of our employees and of the chimpanzee himself, we in turn donated him to the primate research station at Cayo Santiago--Monkey Island.”
End Part I
Arnaldo Lopez Jr. was born of Puerto Rican parents, and raised in Brooklyn, NY. He’s sold articles to Railway Age magazine, The Daily News magazine, Homeland Defense Journal, and Reptile & Amphibian magazine; scripts to Little Archie and Personality Comics; and short stories to Neo-Opsis magazine, Lost Souls e-zine, Nth Online magazine, Blood Moon magazine, The Acentos Review magazine, Feed Your Monster e-zine, Fangs and Broken Bones horror anthology, Swallowed by the Beast horror anthology, Trembling with Fear horror anthology, Monsters Attack horror anthology, Mythic horror & Sci-fi anthology, and the A reflection of Me: An AAMBC Anthology. He was also editor of Offworld, a small science fiction magazine that was once chosen as a "Best Bet" by Sci-Fi television. His first novel, Chickenhawk, is the winner of two International Latino Book awards.
Cumbia Therapy is an intergenerational story told in three distinct sections, each exploring intimate relationships and la maldición put on four generations of women and meant to undo those relationships. Part I, Alzira, tells the story of Elena, a Mexican-American woman in her early twenties, and her Brazilian girlfriend, Alzira, as they meet in Italy, travel through Spain and Morocco and live for a time in Seattle in the mid-1990s. Part II, The Curse, explains the origins of la maldición, starting with Adela in revolutionary México and continuing in New Mexico. Part III, El Camino, explores how each generation of women questions the validity of the curse and deals with it in her own way. Cumbia Therapy has received an Illinois Art Council Fellowship. “Better a Bridesmaid” is an excerpt.
“Better a bridesmaid”
When Tío Freddy finally married Natalia, my sister Sofía and I had to be bridesmaids. We’d never been in a wedding and, as I had no interest in them generally and didn’t want to have one personally, I was not looking forward to all the hype. It didn’t help that Cristina, Natalia’s best friend and maid of honor, wasn’t thrilled about our inclusion and wanted to argue over every chingadita, including the scriptures Natalia had chosen for us to read at the cathedral.
Cristina barked at me, “El pasaje tuyo is longer and more dramatic.”
“Has leído El Anarchist Cookbook?” I asked. “If you want dramático, maybe slip in a paragraph or two from that.”
She moved on to the dresses. “Este no me queda bien. These dresses aren’t suited for a mature figure.”
Sofía said, “Ay, por favor. You’re just jealous because our figures are fifteen years younger.”
Cristina stopped speaking to her and that meant she wouldn’t stop chatting me up. In truth, I hated the teal taffeta dresses and thought they suited Cristina much better. With the exception of a few hours on Sunday that included Mass, she wore miniskirts and midriffs everywhere and, after getting her chichis done, she liked showing off her cleavage—which the dress definitely did.
By the second fitting I was tired of looking at dresses and hearing about Cristina’s date for the boda: a paleta man from Potosí. So, I decided to convince her to let me feel her chichis. The fitting area of Betty’s Bodas was crowded and stuffy and I whispered to her that we should step outside for some air. Then I slid around the corner, to the quieter side street, and as innocently as possible, said, “All this looking at women in dresses made me curious about your operation, Cristina. And I was wondering if I can touch them.”
She stared at me a moment. “If you give me one good reason for wanting to, I’ll let you.”
“I’ll give you two. First, I’ve never felt chichis other than my own. Second, I’ve never seen falsas.”
“They’re not falsas,” she sniffed. “They just needed a little lift.”
“Why not just get a good bra?”
“You’ll understand someday.”
I doubted it, but when she straightened her back and said, “Ándale,” I reached out and touched them. They felt like plastic baggies filled with Jell-o.
Cristina lifted her shirt and bra and quickly showed me the scars. “¿Qué piensas?” she asked.
“Pues...in my humble chichi opinion, the scars look painful, pero las chicas look nice and lifted.”
The day of the gran ceremonia toda la familia met at mi abuelita’s to pick up boutonnieres and corsages. Mi Tía Gisela had a summer cold, but she didn’t let it stop her from walking around snapping fotos of everyone. Her fotos always came out blurry, off centered and with our heads chopped off, so no one bothered to pose.
Abuelita was following Freddy around the house trying to convince him “to groom himself.” His reddish-brown hair fell to his shoulders in waves and he brushed it frequently and was careful about what he put in it. Women loved it, pero abuelita thought it made him look uncouth and insisted he tie it back, at least for Mass.
“Do it for me, hijo,” she pleaded as he went from room to room, inspecting himself in every mirror.
“Pero, mami, Natalia won’t recognize me.”
“Then, por lo menos, shave your face. Natalia should see what you really look like.”
“Oh, she’s seen me...”
“No quiero saber, Freddy. Listen to me, please. You’ll thank me years from now.”
We were just about out of time when abuelita and Freddy went into the blue baño and closed the door. When he emerged with his hair in a ponytail, without his mustache and forked-beard, we couldn’t believe it. Abuelita beamed and Freddy walked out of the house like a chamaquito forced to attend his big brother’s wedding.
We got to the church and smashed into the back room where everyone congratulated each other on how lovely they looked. Cristina was wearing a pair of aqua-colored contacts that matched her dress. Abuelita took one look at those eyes and said, “¡Ay, Cristina, qué susto!”
When the first few notes from the organ flooded the cathedral, I joked, “No turning back now,” and Natalia burst into tears. Sofía and I shared a we’ll laugh about this later look, then we grabbed our partners—Natalia’s cousins, shy as feral cats—and we headed up the aisle. After taking our places in the pews, we watched Natalia in her weeping moment of glory. When she got close enough to see Freddy’s face, she did a double take and Tía Gisela’s flash went off.
As soon as everyone settled into the hard creaky benches, the priest began the old New Mexican tradition of roping the novios together with a large wooden rosary that resembled a lasso.
I whispered to Sofía, “Ya vez, that’s what marriage is.”
When the novios knelt, we saw someone had taken Kiwi’s white shoe polish to the bottom of Freddy’s shiny rental shoes. The left said Help and the right said Me. While the congregation attempted to stifle their laughter, Gisela started a stream of squeaky sneezes. Her gringo-date kept passing her tissues as if they were love notes, not snot catchers. The novios got to their feet and the sin vergüenza Cristina began motioning for Natalia to look at the bottom of Freddy’s shoes. Instead, Natalia snuck a peek at her own and, finding no chicle or puppy poop, shot Cristina a watchale! look.
It didn’t take long for the ceremonia to lag. Prayers, preaching, promises to do this and not do that. I was ready for the fiesta. We’d already had a few, including an underwear party where we bought Natalia new chones, ate taquitos and played silly games for silly prizes. I knew that, in the hall adjacent to the church, kegs were being tapped, wine uncorked and champagne chilled. It was easy to imagine la cocina full of aromas and comadres arguing over who put too much salt in the frijoles and how picante the chile should be.
The wedding finally concluded with a big beso where Freddy bent Natalia back like they were doing the quebradita. Then we marched into the hall that Natalia’s friends had decorated with blue-green streamers and purple paper flowers. Tío Freddy let down his hair and I traded my heels for Vans.
The mariachis started with “Un rinconcito en el cielo.” They invited abuelita to sing a few songs with them and, after applauding louder than anyone, Sofía and I tried sneaking a beer to the bathroom. Tía Gisela, who should have been paying attention to her gringo-date, intercepted us.
I said, “It’s for Carolina.”
Our older cousin never drank, but Gisela just said, “In the baño?”
“Yeah, she doesn’t want anyone to see her taking a swig.”
I looked at Sofía and followed her eyes to Carolina, who was in a bright red dress talking to a group of people not far from us.
“Hand it over,” Gisela said, holding out her germy hand.
“¿Qué te importa?” I snipped.
“¿A ti te importa if I tell your mamá?”
We handed it over.
After dinner the novios knelt again for La Entrega, which must have been uncomfortable con panza llena. It’s supposed to release the newlyweds to their new life and, though some people stage it at end of the night, my familia does it right before the dance, to release the novios to their fiesta. As the band tuned up, los compadres roped Freddy and Natalia together with a sandalwood rosary and gave them la long bendición while people tossed money onto Natalia’s long white train. Con el último amen Gisela tossed a dirty green bill that slid down Natalia’s silky back.
As soon as the money was scooped up the band began to play. They waited about an hour for people to start feeling buzzed and generous before they started The Dollar Dance. I paid $4 to dance with Natalia and $3 to dance with Tío Freddy. He told me he liked my Vans, then he picked me up and spun me around. Sofía said it was dumb for me to dance with Natalia and I said what was dumb was her pinche statement. Natalia looked so stunning with her heavily outlined eyes and her blue-black hair pinned up that some men paid twice to dance with her, making The Dollar Dance nearly as long as the wedding.
Freddy’s best man pinned dollars on my tío’s tux, but everyone in Natalia’s line pinned the bills on her themselves. When her train was covered men began carefully pinning money on the front of her dress. It made Natalia’s mother nerviosísima and she told the band, “Wrap it up, chicos!” She probably cost the novios fifty bucks.
After all the bills were unpinned, one by one, Natalia danced with Freddy a couple of times before Gisela singlehandedly “stole the bride.”
To no one in particular, her gringo-date said, “Is that a Mexican tradition?”
I was standing next to him and answered, “No, it’s more of a Southwestern scheme to get more loot. One that happens to imitate the kidnappings latinos have become infamous for.”
He stared at me and excused himself to get a drink.
Gisela led Natalia to a coatroom at the back of the hall where she would voluntarily stay sequestered. Knowing everyone would just be removing more money from purses, pockets and wallets, when Cristina followed, I went too. It didn’t take long for Gisela to pop open a $200 bottle of champagne intended for the newlyweds’ private party and, while flattering Natalia and filling her glass, she snapped fotos.
In between songs we could hear the bandleader: “Oye, the bride is still missing! Come and make a contribution to Comadre Yolanda so we can raise enough ransom to bring Natalia back!”
The coatroom hosted more fotos, more drinks and, at last, the band announced, “Ya está. Tenemos el dinero suficiente and the novios are $453 richer!”
By the time Yolanda tiptoed into the room in impossibly high heels, Natalia couldn’t have subtracted five from ten and she just hiccupped uncontrollably when Yolanda handed her a wad of cash. She passed it Cristina, who started counting.
“What’d you do to her, Gisela?” Yolanda asked, nodding at Natalia.
“¿Yo?’ Gisela sniffled, ‘pues, nada...”
They argued, Natalia hiccuped and Cristina, who’d counted the money twice, asked, “What’d you do, Yolanda? Slip a fiver in your bolsa?”
“How dare you!” Yolanda glared at Cristina as if she were a cucaracha.
“We all heard the band say the crowd raised $453.”
“You don’t know what you’re talking about,” Yolanda scoffed. “I needed to make change.”
A new argument ensued that Natalia interrupted with her silence. Everyone stared at her.
“Hiccups are gone,” she giggled.
Cristina and Yolanda shuffled her back to the dance and the band said, “Let’s welcome the bride back! Let’s hear it for Natalia.”
The crowd cheered. But Natalia’s mamá took one look at her daughter and cried, “¡Válgame dios! Natalia missed half the dance and, look at her, she’s as clumsy as a cow!”
Natalia probably should have sat down and had some water, pero she fell into Freddy’s arms, in the middle of a Cumbia, and away she went. He had no idea his wife’s head was spinning like a top when, holding her hand above her head, he spun her halfway around so they both faced the same direction. He held her tightly for a few pulses, her back against his chest and his hand on her stomach. Then he gave her a media vuelta so she faced him again. Finally, he twirled her three hundred and sixty degrees with the left hand, a quick one eighty with the right, another with the left and, with two hundred eyes upon her, Natalia puked like a cat.
I turned to Cristina and said, “¿Sabes qué? Forget the dinero—better to be a bridesmaid.”
Marcy Rae Henry es una latina chingona de Los Borderlands. She’s lived in India, Nepal and Andalucía and now walks her rescue dog by the Chicago River. Her writing has been longlisted, shortlisted, honorably mentioned and nominated for the Pushcart Prize and appears or is forthcoming in The Columbia Review, PANK, Epiphany, carte blanche, The Southern Review and The Brooklyn Review, among others. She has received a Chicago Community Arts Assistance Grant and an Illinois Arts Council Fellowship. DoubleCross Press will publish a chapbook of her recent poems.
FlowerSong Press in McAllen, Texas, recently published Sonia Gutiérrez's novel, Dreaming with Mariposas, winner of the Tomás Rivera Book Award 2021. Read an excerpt below. Order a copy from FlowerSong Press.
Our Doctor Who Lived in Another Country
Whenever Paloma, Crucito, and I got so sick Mom couldn’t heal us with her herb-filled cabinets, an egg, or Vaporú, we had to wait for the week to hurry up, so Dad could take us on a trip to visit our doctor who lived in another country. We crossed the border to a familiar place called Tijuana, Baja California, México. Estados Unidos Mexicanos—the United Mexican States—said the large shiny Mexican pesos in Spanish. With her miracle stethoscope, our doctor’s Superwoman eyes and Jesus hands always found where the illness hid.
As our father drove into Tijuana, the city looked like an expensive box of crayons. Fuchsia and lime green colors hugged buildings. Dad parked our shiny Monte Carlo the color of caramelo on the third floor of a yellow parking facility, and we walked down a cement staircase and crossed onto Avenida Niños Héroes. Then, we went up peach marble stairs and entered our doctor’s waiting room.
On the weekends, patients from faraway cities like Los Ángeles and San Bernardino came to see La Doctora. Judging from the looks of some of the patients’ faces, they were there to see the doctor’s husband, who was a dentist. They made the perfect couple—the doctor and the dentist—for both their Mexican and American patients. The doctor, a tall woman with smoky eye shadow, looked directly into her patients’ eyes when she spoke. Not like some American doctors in the U.S. who didn’t look at Mom because she only spoke Spanish.
On one of those doctor visits, I heard the dentist, a tall, burly man with a mustache that looked like a broom, speak English on the telephone with a patient. “John, you need to come in, so I can take a look at your tooth.”
Another time I saw an elderly gringo, waiting for his wife, seeking the dentist’s services. That’s when I realized the other side was expensive for them too.
When we were done at the doctor’s office, our next stop was El Mercadito on the other side of the block on Calle Benito Juárez. Churros sprinkled with sugar and cinnamon in metal washtubs rested on the shoulders of vendors. Fruit cocktail and corn carts were closer to the sidelines of streets, so passersby could make full stops and buy their favorite pleasure bombs to the taste buds.
During summer visits to Tijuana, Paloma ate as much mango as she wanted because fruit was affordable in México. My weakness was corn. And even if I felt sick, I always looked forward to eating a cup of corn topped with butter, grated cheese, lemon, chili powder, and salt. Mexican corn didn’t taste like the sweet corn kernels from a tin can—Mexican corn tasted like elote.
Approaching El Mercadito, dazed bees were everywhere. Mother warned us about not harassing bees. Because according to Mom, bees were like us—like butterflies. “Without bees, our world would not be as beautiful and delicious. Bees are sacred, and without them, we wouldn’t exist. Paloma and Chofi, please don’t ever hurt bees,” Mom said as we walked by our fuzzy relatives and nodded in agreement.
The smell of camote, cilacayote, cajeta, and cocadas added to the blend of enticing smells at the open market, where we roamed with buzzing bees peacefully. Colorful star piñatas and piñata dolls of El Chavo, La Chilindrina, and Spiderman hung along the tall ceiling, and the familiar smell of queso seco filled the air heavy with delight. Wooden spoons, cazos made of copper, molcajetes, loterias, pinto beans, Peruvian beans, and tamarindo provided such a wide selection of merchandise vendors didn’t have to fight over customers. Politely, they asked, “What can I give you?” or “How much can I give you?” as we walked by.
In Tijuana, street vendors sold homemade remedies for just about anything imaginable. “This cream here will alleviate the itch that doesn’t let your feet rest,” and “For a urine infection, drink this tea,” vendors hollered. And then there were the funny concoctions, for which even I, a girl my age, didn’t believe their miracle powers: “For the loss of hair, use this cream that comes all the way from the Amazon Islands.”
Hand in hand with our familia, Paloma and I walked the streets of Tijuana with our sandwich bag full of pennies and nickels. We gave our change to children who extended their little palms up in the air. Mom would take a bag full of clothing and find someone to give it to, which I never understood, because most people on the streets dressed just like us, from the pharmacists to children wearing school uniforms.
Once, when we were walking in Tijuana, Paloma and I saw a man with no legs riding what looked like a man-made skateboard instead of a wheelchair. Our eyes agreed; the man needed the rest of our change.
Besides the rumors about Tijuana being a dangerous place, nothing ever happened to our car or Mom’s purse. In Tijuana, doctors had saved Crucito’s life because my parents knew, if they took Crucito to a hospital in the U.S., he might not come out alive because American doctors wouldn’t try hard enough for a little brown baby like my little brother. In Tijuana, our parents spoiled us with goodies and haircuts at the beauty salon. And I felt bad for Americans who couldn’t afford a doctor and didn’t have a good doctor or a dentist like ours in El Otro Lado—on the Mexican side. Pobrecitos gringos.
“. . . Girls--to do the dishes Girls--to clean up my room Girls--to do the laundry Girls--and in the bathroom . . .” —The Beastie Boys, “Girls”
Because we couldn’t afford a fancy steam iron, Mom was very practical. Instead of using a plastic spray bottle, she sprayed Dad’s dress shirts, including other garments with her mouth. She gracefully spat on each garment lying on el burro.
Ironing was always an all-nighter that seemed endless and agonizing. I hated ironing Dad’s Sunday dress shirts—or anything, requiring special care and Mom’s supervisory instructions.
There were two chores I hated most about being a girl: ironing and washing someone else’s clothes.
The piles and piles of Dad and Mom’s dress clothes on top of our clothes seemed endless. (Thank God Father worked in construction or else long sleeve dress shirts would have added more to the pile). As soon as Mom started setting up el burro—the ironing board—in what should have been half a dining room, but instead we used as a bedroom, I began my whining.
“Mom, but why do Paloma and I have to iron Dad’s clothes?”
“¡Ay Sofia! You’re so lazy!”
“It’s just that I don’t understand. I don’t wear Dad’s clothes. Why us?”
“Sofia, are you going to start? That mouth! ¡No seas tan preguntona! You always ask too many questions! You always talk back! That tongue of yours. Where did you learn those ways‽”
When I nagged, my mother’s facial gestures expressed her disappointment, and she turned her face away from me. What had she done to deserve such a lazy daughter like myself? With a cold bitter laugh, Mom responded, “Because he’s your father,” which I never understood.
Having to live in apartments also meant we needed to fight over laundromat visitation rights. If anybody left their clothing unattended and the dryer or washer cycle ended, Paloma had to spy to check if anyone was coming, and I’d quickly take out the clothing and place it on a folding table. I’d throw our clothes inside the washer or dryer, and then we’d run to our apartment; otherwise, we’d be washing and drying all day.
When we moved from Vista to San Marcos, that’s when I noticed chores strategically favored the man in our family. For instance, we girls never carried out the trash like Dad—just heavy laundry baskets mounted with dirty clothes. To me, mowing the lawn didn’t look difficult at all. It looked super easy and fun.
How to Mow the Long Green Grass By Chofi Martinez 1) Check the lawn for Crucito’s toys, Dad’s nails, and any other sharp objects, including rocks. 2) Add gasoline. 3) Turn the lawn mower’s switch ON. 4) Press on the red jelly like button several times. 5) Pull the starter a couple of times. 6) Push the lawn mower with all your human strength.
If I could mow the lawn like a boy, at least I could be outside and listen to the singsong of finches, watch white butterflies flutter through the garden, greet and wave at neighbors passing by, and stare at the endless blue sky. But instead of Paloma and me mowing the lawn, Dad dropped us off at the laundromat on Mission Avenue next to the dairy to wash and fold everything from heavy king-sized Korean blankets to Dad’s dirty and not so white underwear. Bras and underwear were the most embarrassing garments to dry, especially when red stained or not so new underwear fell to the ground, while we checked the clothes in the dryer. If an undergarment accidentally fell, it’s not like we could ignore it and just leave it there when it was clear we were watching each other. For us, if someone looked at our bra or underwear, it was as if they were looking at our naked bodies. It was equivalent to watching feminine hygiene commercials in front of boys or even worse—Dad. Oh my God! ¡Trágame tierra!
Sometimes, when we barely had enough quarters and single dollar bills to spare in our imitation Ziploc bag, I’d window shop at the vending machine with its snacks and cigarettes then stare and admire the package labels with the bright oranges and mustardy yellows.
While we waited for the washer to end, we sat on the orange laundromat chairs (bolted to the ground in case anyone tried to steal them, I figured). My eyes wandered—at the graffiti, the announcements, the tile floor that needed a broom and a mop, the Spanish newspapers with the sexy ladies with their back to the readers wearing a two piece—a thong and high heels and the constant drop off and pick up of wives and daughters.
Swinging my feet back and forth out of boredom, I stared at the dryer’s circular-glass door with the thick-black trim, where garments would slowly go round and round and round and round, painting a picture of a vanilla and chocolate ice cream swirl, which was like meditating in front of a TV screen. Another dryer gave form to a motley of colors from the palette of Matisse’s bright yellows, blacks, oranges and greens Ms. Watson, my art teacher, had lectured on. And then, the dryer came to a full stop, and the colors—the burgundy red and thorny pink roses and the stoic lion—on heavy blankets took their true forms in need of folding.
Our Dream Home
Mom and Dad were always working for our dream house. In his early twenties, dressed in slacks and a tie, José Armando, our real estate agent, came to our apartment and talked to my parents about becoming homeowners. He sat patiently for what felt like hours translating endless paperwork. José Armando, Tijuana born with Sinaloa roots, grew up in Carlsbad, “Carlos Malos.” He smelled like a professional, and the heaviness of his cologne and starchy clothes filled our small kitchen and living room long after he was gone. Our real estate agent felt like familia.
“Helena and Francisco, the contract states that if you complete all the renovations within a year, the bank will approve the loan. You can move in now, but the house is not in living conditions.”
“But Jose Armando, I’m sure you’ve heard stories--what if the gringo doesn’t keep his promise?” Mom asked our real estate agent.
“Helena, please trust me. Mr. Stoddard is a good man and will not back out of the deal because he signed the contract,” José Armando assured Mom the owner would follow through. “You know Francisco more than I do. Your husband is going to make the house look like a palace—like your dream home. Helena, the property even has a water well. You can add the roses, calla lilies, and fruit trees you’re looking for in a property. And, most importantly, you won’t have to commute from Vista to San Marcos anymore.”
Where Dad and Mom came from, waiting periods to build a house didn’t exist; people didn’t need permits to build a home made from adobe or blocks. In the U.S., however, my parents had to settle for a fixer-upper Dad could mend in no time with the help of family and friends.
When José Armando finally struck a deal with the owner, it took Dad a whole year to claim the house on 368 West San Marcos Boulevard as our own. After Dad came home from working construction all day, he’d work at home. Mom must have had sleepless nights when Father agreed to buy our first house. That’s because Mother didn’t see what Father saw. We would have a street number to ourselves, 368.
The first days at 368, Mom refused to eat in the kitchen, and how could she eat in there? How could her children eat in that thing Dad called kitchen? Yes, the house included a small stove, but cockroaches were baking their own feasts in the oven. Dad imagined a swing set for Crucito in the backyard’s green lawn. But Mother had heard the neighbors walking by say the backyard turned into a swamp during the rainy seasons. Dad imagined a one-foot swallow lined with miniature plants that would keep the water moving to the large apartment complex next door. But Mom saw the swamp at our feet. Dad imagined the pantry and mom’s new wooden cupboards. But Mom saw mice and cockroaches. Lots of cockroaches. Mom saw the faded dilapidated and peeling mint green paint. Dad saw a new wooden exterior and a fresh coat of paint.
Our new but old kitchen was infested with silky brown cockroaches—the thin kind that matched the plywood. Underneath the crawl space lived the critters, and at night, big roaches squeezed and welcomed themselves in through both the front and back door to drink water and eat crumbs. Paloma and I, in our superhero capes, made from black trash bags, became Las Cucaracha Warriors de la Noche and ran after the cucaracha bandits. We routinely turned off the lights, and then at about ten o’clockish, Mom turned on the kitchen lights, and Paloma and I charged at them. While they scattered everywhere, we all took our turns killing the horde of nightly visitors. The pest problem at 368 went away with endless nights of Raid attacks and hot water splashing. Paloma and I even conquered our cockroach phobia and squished cockroaches with our very own index fingers.
The master bedroom had seven layers of dusty carpets pancaked on top of each other. The wooden floor in our living room held itself together miraculously—we were always careful to wear shoes to prevent any splinters from pricking our bare feet.
When we finally settled into our new home, one Saturday morning Paloma and I still in our pajamas were arguing over who would have to sweep and mop before our parents got home from work when suddenly we found ourselves shoving and wrestling each other. And then with a big push, the unexpected happened. I flew through the wall.
“Oh my God, Chofi! Look what you did!”
“Look what I did? You pushed me, Mensa!”
Paloma and I had to reconcile immediately to cover up the crime scene.
When Dad got home later that afternoon and walked through the hallway to inspect our chores, he demanded an explanation, “¿Y este pinche sofá? ¿Qué está haciendo aquí?” Chanfles, we thought as our eyes placed the blame on each other. Dad gave us the mean Martinez Castillo stare with the white of his eyes showing that always worked, shook his head, and stormed out of the house because Dad knew he had to replace all the house’s old plywood with new drywall.
Our idea of placing a love seat in front of the hole to cover it up didn’t work. Our fear for our father’s punishment turned into giggles and then uncontrollable laughter. Poking at each other’s ribs and yelling at each other, “It’s your fault!” and “No, it’s your fault!” we almost peed our underwear. We laughed at the hole in the wall, the sofa that barely fit in the hallway that must have looked ridiculously out of place in our father’s eyes, and at our new but old house facing the boulevard.
Strangers driving by honked or waved and gave Dad a thumbs up when he worked on our house on the weekends. We were living in Father’s dream home, and we were happy. José Armando, our real estate agent, was right—Dad fixed our house, and Mother created her garden of dreams, where Dad and Mom planted hierbas santas. Orange, avocado, peach, cherimoya, guava, and purple fig trees. And native yellow-orange, deep-purple, and rose-colored milkweeds for our butterfly relatives who passed by and travelled south to Michoacán, our parents’ homeland. One day we would follow them if Mom and Dad worked hard and saved enough money. One day.
The Guayaba Tree
In San Marcos, our backyard smelled like Idaho. The familiar smell of manure from the Hollandia Dairy on Mission Avenue lingered in our backyard. Months before the guava tree joined us at San Marcos Boulevard, Mom took free manure from the dairy for our garden and prepared the earth with water. Even if we already had a few trees, Dad and Mom talked about the trees and plants with special powers that would join our family. Next to the guayaba tree’s new home, the apricot tree had already joined us, and now it was the guava tree’s turn to step out of its black plastic container and to spread its roots and branches. At the end of the week with their Friday paycheck, Mom and Dad’s eyes were set on an árbol de guayaba.
Right after work Dad drove us to the northside of San Marcos on the winding road to Los Arboleros, the tree growers’ ranch on East Twin Oaks Valley Road, to buy the perfect tree for our backyard. As we approached a dirt road leading to the Santiago property, Don José in his sombrero and red and yellow Mexican bandana tied around his neck waved at us. At his side, two large Mexican wolfdogs with imposing orange eyes barked at us as we approached the nursery next to their house.
“Paloma and Chofi, be careful with Don Jose’s dogs.”
“Okay Ma,” we answered in unison.
“Buenas tardes, Francisco and Helena. Don’t worry, Señora Helena. My calupohs don’t bite unless they smell evil. They scare off the coyotes that want to get into the chicken coop. Last week a red-shouldered hawk snatched one of my María’s chickens in broad daylight.” Don José’s dogs, Yolotl and Yolotzin, sniffed our stiff bodies while I prayed to San Jorge Bendito: “San Jorge Bendito, amarra tus animalitos . . . .” Yolonzin sniffed and licked my hand. Thankfully, Don José’s calupohs remembered us; we were in the clear. “If you need anything, holler at me. I’m going to water the foxtail palm trees on the other side.”
At Don José and Doña María de la Luz Santiago’s small ranch, Paloma and I were careful not to step on rattlesnakes. We walked through the rows of small trees in 15″ containers and played with sticks next to a large flat boulder with smooth holes. I filled the holes with dead leaves and dirt and mixed it with a stick. “Paloma, let’s ask Don Jose about the holes on this large boulder. How do you think these holes got here?” Paloma shrugged her shoulders and signaled with her head to get back. With the calupohs following us, we found Mom and Dad still deciding on a tree and a crimson red climbing rose bush.
“But Pancho, look how green the leaves look on this one!”
“Yes, Helena, but look at this one. It has a strong tree trunk.”
“Pancho, this one has ripe fruit! Smell it, Pancho. With time, this one will be strong too.”
“You’re right, Helena. We can take the one you want. Let’s pay Don Jose and get going before it gets too dark, so we can plant our tree today.”
“Yes, Pancho, it’s a full moon!”
“Paloma and Chofi, I’m glad you’re both back. Go look for Don Jose, and tell him we’re ready to pay.”
Paloma and I ran to look for Don José. On our way to find him, I remembered we needed to ask him about the holes on the boulder.
“Hola Don Jose. My mom and dad are ready to pay.”
“Let’s go then.”
“Don Jose, we have a question for you. We saw a big flat rock on your property, and we’re wondering how the holes got there.”
Don José cleaned his sweat with his bandana and gave us a pensive look.
“Those holes. Well, Chofi, as you may know, this land you see here from Oceanside all the way to Palomar Mountain and beyond was inhabited by Native people. Women sat and pounded acorns on metates like the one you saw and made soup and other foods. You can only imagine how many years it took for those indentations to leave their mark and to withstand time. Those women, Chofi and Paloma, left their mark.”
“Oh, wow, Don Jose. That’s why the road is called Twin Oaks Valley Road? It’s a reference to Native people’s trees, who lived in this area?”
“Yes, Chofi and Paloma. Native people still live on these lands—in Escondido, San Marcos, Valley Center, Fallbrook, Pala, and Pauma Valley and beyond. Ask your U.S. history teacher about the people who inhabited these lands. I’m sure they can tell you more.”
“Thank you, Don Jose. I’ll ask.”
Dad and Mom paid Don José, and off we went to plant our guayaba tree. With our guava tree sticking out of the window in the Monte Carlo and lying on Paloma, Crucito, and me in the back seat, Mom was all smiles and kept glancing back.
“Pancho, please drive slowly and turn on your emergency lights. Children, hold onto our tree carefully.”
“Don’t worry Helena. Two more stop lights, and we’re almost home.”
Dad agreed to Mom’s pick because he knew she loved guayabas—all kinds. This time they chose the one with the two guayabas with pink insides, which wasn’t too sweet and just about my height. I preferred the bigger trees at Los Arboleros. Why couldn’t we get bigger trees? Mom and Dad always chose the smaller trees because those were the ones we could afford, and plus we didn’t have a truck like our neighbor Don Cipriano’s, but maybe we could borrow it next time.
As soon as we arrived home, Dad cut the container down the middle with a switchblade, and Mom pushed the shovel down with her right foot and split the earth.
“¡Ay, ay! ¡Ay Pancho! Be careful with the tree’s roots. Here, grab the shovel. Let me hold onto the arbolito.”
Dad dug the hole, exposing the dark brown of the earth as two pink worms shied away from the light.
“Dad, can Crucito and me get the worms, pleaseee?”
“Hurry up Chofi and Cruz. Go ahead. Your mom and I want to plant the tree today.”
While I carefully took the worms from their home, Mom held the guava tree as if she held a wounded soldier and whispered to the tree, “Arbolito, don’t worry. You’re going to be safe here. I’m going to water you when you get thirsty and take care of you—we all will.”
“Pancho, one day we’re going to make agua de guayaba.”
“Sí, Helena, we’re going to make guayabate like the one my mom used to make. It was so good!”
“I bet it was, Pancho. To prevent a bad cough, my mom used to give us guava tea to fight off the flu.”
“Helena, did you know guava leaves are also good for hangovers?”
“Ay Pancho. ¿Qué cosas dices? Let’s get this tree planted.”
From the dried-up manure pile, Dad mixed the native soil and compost and pulled the weeds. As Mom placed the rootball above the hole, they both looked for the guava tree’s face and centered the tree on top of the hole. With the shovel, Dad poured the dirt around the tree. Mom took the shovel from Dad and pounded softly on the dirt surrounding the guava tree, making sure they left the edge below the surface.
Next to the apricot tree with a woody surface, the small guava tree with tough dark green leaves would be heavy with fruit one day for our family, our neighbors, and friends. Dad went looking for a canopy for the young guava tree to protect her from winter’s threatening frostbite, and mom stood in the garden, admiring our new family member.
It was time to return the worms to the earth; they were so tender but so strong. I made a little hole with my hand, placed the worms inside, said thank you to the worms, and covered them with dirt. The guayaba tree would make a perfect home.
Sonia Gutiérrez is the author of Spider Woman / La Mujer Araña (Olmeca Press, 2013) and the co-editor for The Writer’s Response (Cengage Learning, 2016). She teaches critical thinking and writing, and women’s, gender, and sexuality studies. FlowerSong Press in McAllen, Texas, recently published her novel, Dreaming with Mariposas, winner of the Tomás Rivera Book Award 2021. Her bilingual poetry collection, Paper Birds / Pájaros de papel, is forthcoming in 2022. Presently, she is returning to her manuscript, Sana Sana Colita de Rana, working on her first picture book, The Adventures of a Burrito Flying Saucer, moderating Facebook’s Poets Responding, and teaching in cyberland.
A chapter from the upcoming book Three Batos And One Chavala by Tommy Villalobos
Somos en escrito welcomes back Tommy Villalobos, one of the first budding novelists drawn to our cyberpages. After a long hiatus in a hideout in the High Sierra, he reappears with this chapter excerpted from a coming novel, full of broad swaths of barrio life and inimitable characters. Here's a quick glimpse, introduced in the writer's own words: “I’d like to give you a quick background of my story. It’s a novel, or novella, called Three Batos And One Chavala. It’s about a train trip from L.A. to San Francisco set in the 1930’s. I did research for that time period, including trains, terminology, dress, music, locations and geography. Three guys (los batos) compete for one Chicana beauty (the chavala) on the train ride. The story starts out in the East L.A. of that period and ends up in San Fran and Watsonville, with side trips back to L.A.. There’s a dominant tía involved, protectress of the girl, Samuela, who tries to trip up all suitors of her sobrina.”
Sandra made a twisted face because the encounter had ruffled her feathers and caused her great distraction, an interference of her concentration required to speak about meters and penta-meters in contemporary poetry. She sat down to review her lecture notes. The door opened yet again and Alicia popped in again.
“Señora, llegó otro.”
“This is outrageous!” wailed Sandra. “Hope you told him to go find another house.”
“No, también lo tire en la sala.”
“Is he a poetry critic from a magazine?”
“Not even close, Señora. He has shiny shoes, suit, tie and slick-back hair. He says his name is Alberto Pistillo.”
“Yes. He showed me something with his name, I guess, but I couldn’t read it since I left my lentes in the kitchen where I was cleaning the frijoles.”
Sandra walked to the door with the ugliest face she could imagine making, stopping at a wall mirror to look at herself. Satisfied, she continued on. Like she had just announced, this was outrageous to her. She recalled this apestoso, Alberto Pistillo. He was the hijo of Fred Pistillo, the one who was helping Joe Milago in trying to snag her little house overlooking the Pacific. He lived somewhere around here. This unwelcome visit could only have one purpose and that would be to talk about her house. She headed toward the living room determined to stomp out the Pistillo familia from her life once and for all.
Alberto Pistillo was skinny, appearing hungry for both food and love. He had dark, beady eyes and a pug nose, giving him the appearance of a desperate Pug Dog. In fact, he looked more like a Pug Dog than a Pug Dog did. He shocked diners in restaurants when he sat eating spaghetti and cream carrots. It seemed to them that he would prefer a small steak bone chased with a dog biscuit.
“Buenas días, Señora Westo.”
“Sit,” she said, keeping with the Pug theme.
Alberto sat even though he looked as if he would rather be petted. His beady eyes scanned the room, a wry smile on his mug, if I can use that word given his canine appearance.
“Señora, I need to talk with you alone.”
“You are talking to me,” said Sandra, waving around the room. “And as you can see, we are alone.”
“Where do I start?”
“I’ll tell you. No. The answer is No.”
Alberto shook visibly.
“Then you know?”
“That is all I know since I ran into Mr. Milago. He can talk about nothing but my humble casita. Your father talks about nothing else. And now,” Sandra raised the volume several decibels, “you show up to hammer my head some more. One more time, nothing doing. There isn’t enough money in circulation to let someone live in my home by the sea.”
“Then you don’t know why I am here?”
“You didn’t come to talk about my casita by el mar?”
“No, I didn’t come about that.”
“¿Entonces, por que diantre estás aquí?”
Alberto shifted his feet nervously. He moved his body as if were trying to get out of it.
“I like to mind my own business.”
“Really?” she said, to get him started again.
“I don’t carry chismes with just anyone.”
“I don’t make…”
Sandra was never a patient person. Or poet.
“Just let us accept all your character traits, and let us take it from there,” she said bluntly. “I am dead sure there are all kinds of things you don’t do. Let’s talk about what you can do about where you are now. What do you want to talk about, if I can make such a shocking demand upon you?”
“Your niece’s marriage.”
“My sobrina is not married.”
“No, but she is going to be. At The Little Chapel of Hope in Gardena.”
“I’m not happy either,” said Alberto. “I’ll tell you, and speaking for myself, I’m in love with her, too.”
“Nonsense as far as you’re concerned. But who is this other drip?”
“Felt that way for years. I’m one of those silent types, hiding in the shadows, liking a woman but never telling her or showing her my feelings…”
“Who is the snake who has ambushed my sobrina?”
“I have always been a man to…”
“Mr. Pistillo! Let’s also assume you have some good qualities. Tell you what, let’s not even talk about you anymore. You barge in here with a crazy story…”
“Not crazy. Facts. I heard it from a primo, who heard it from a prima, who heard it from an abuela, who heard it…”
“Will you tell me who the alley cat is who has tricked my niece or do I choke it out of you?”
“I agree that she is muddled, alright,” said Alberto, jumping at the opportunity to be agreeable, “and I think she should be marrying me. She is a fine catch. We practically grew up together and I loved her then and love her now. I’m sure she knows. But things sometimes don’t go the way you want them to. I saw a chance last summer but I lost my nerve. I am not a smooth and flashy man with a great line. I can’t…”
“Stop now!” said Sandra. “Hold your self-analysis for friends and family who would be somewhat interested. I want to hear the name of the worm my niece is NOT going to marry.”
“I thought I told you,” said Alberto, surprised. “Extraño. Guess I haven’t! Funny how you feel you’ve said something and haven’t. People know me as…”
“Whatever is the fool’s name?”
“Milago? Trimino Milago? The wild-haired son of Joe Milago I met at your father’s casa?”
“You have it. What a guess. You should stop it before it happens.” “Watch me.”
Tommy Villalobos, in his own words: “I am living a contemplative life in suburbia, which itself is something of a feat. Talk about an oxymoron. I am writing my silly novels and short stories about my working gente (and some who kinda work), and their sometimes entertaining attempts at love and living in our bicultural experience going way back before La Llorona, El Cucuy and them. I hope to make friends so I can steal more historias and chismes for my stories. I was born and raised in East Los, but I have wandered aimlessly since. I presently live near Sacramento in an undisclosed location known only to who knows who.”
Excerpt from Not Your Abuelita's Folktales By Maria J. Estrada
She smiled coquettishly at the baker’s son. Rosa Maria couldn’t remember his name, but she lingered on his gaze. He blushed, and she swung her hips one last time as she entered the local mill. The smell of corn filled her lungs; she wasn’t partial to that odor. Still, her smile widened, when she spied Mr. Sanchez working alone. He was sweating profusely, his simple shirt clinging to his thick muscles.
He was young, maybe five years older than Rosa Maria, and he had inherited his father’s maize mill at the young age of 23. He averted her gaze.
“How many kilos?” he mumbled.
She paused, forcing him to look up. “Five, please.” She handed the large bowl over, which he filled expertly with a mixture ground maize, lime, and water.
She cocked her head and asked sweetly, “Don’t you need to use the scale?”
He grew irritated his upper lip curling upward. “You doubt me, señorita?”
He grabbed the bowl and dumped the meal into the scale. It read five kilos exactly. He put the mixture back into her bowl and handed it to her, pushing her away in the process.
“Thank you so very much.” She said, “I pray for you and your family every day, for the repose of your dear father.”
He turned his back and added more water to the corn as he began to grind another large batch. She turned walking provocatively, until her neighbor Elena marched in with a large bucket.
“Hello, Rosa Maria.” She smiled. Rosa Maria tried not to grimace. The old woman’s two front teeth were missing. Rosa wondered why in God’s name the woman just didn’t go to a dentist in Durango. After all, in 1960, there were plenty of medical advances, or so she thought. Still, she prayed with all of her might not to look that awful when she grew old. In fact, she would give anything to never grow old.
Just then, the shop windows opened letting in a rush of air. The old woman crossed herself and advised, “Get home. The wind is picking up, and you don’t want to catch a cold.”
On a search for sweets, Rosa Maria walked to the local shop. Ricardo was working there, and he always gave her a few hard candies for a kiss on the cheek. She continued home, hoping to catch another young man’s attention. Instead she spied a beggar on the street, an abandoned old man most people ignored. She handed him a couple of candies and one last peso she hid in her cleavage.
He smiled at her and gave her a heartfelt blessing, “May the hand of God rest on you.”
Rosa Maria squeezed his shoulders and wished she owned the means to find him shelter.
On the way down the cobbled street, the hairs on the back of her neck stood. Someone was admiring her rear end. She looked back towards the mill, which was just a couple of blocks away. But it was not Mr. Sanchez.
His loss, she thought.
FROM THE ROOFTOP, he looked down at her. She was an exquisite specimen, his Rosa Maria. Her impertinence and arrogance were especially alluring. He loved how she swayed her hips and turned her neck, just so, to catch the weak men’s adoration in her small town of Las Nueces, Durango. Las Nueces was a sleepy little town where most people worked hard, but there was always a gem to be acquired, just like her.
Today, she wore a red bow in her hair and a pretty white lace dress, too fancy for common chores. From a distance, he thought he could smell her scent. He smiled as she flirted with a man carrying Coke bottles. He stumbled when she said hello, the poor man dropping half of his wares.
The stranger chuckled and slicked his own hair back. For good measure, he shined his shoes one more time. Tonight, he would introduce himself at the town dance, and he had no doubt that she would dance with him. And only him.
BY THE TIME SHE GOT HOME, her mother was nagging her.
“What took you so long? Your uncle will be here soon!”
Her mother wore a black skirt and dark buttoned blouse. She glanced at her daughter who dropped the bowl on the table. She scowled. “What are you wearing?”
Rosa Maria smirked. “It is so hot, and this is the only thin dress I own.”
“Take that off and put some decent clothes on!” said her mother as she chopped a carrot, almost nicking her index finger.
She did as commanded, only because she wanted to wear the dress later that night. She changed into a thin cotton housedress that clung to her body. Rosa Maria admired her long hair in the mirror and loved the flush of her cheeks. Her curves were the envy of most women, and she cherished her small waist.
She would never have children and ruin her figure. That was for certain.
The banging in the kitchen mirrored her mother’s stress, which pulled her out of her reverie. Rosa Maria regretted not having any lipstick because her mother said only whores wore lipstick. She longed for nail polish and mascara. She was about to curl her hair, when her mother bellowed her name. Last time her mother had gotten so angry at her, she had burned Rosa Maria’s best dress because some nosy neighbor lady said she thought she had seen Rosa Maria at the dance, unchaperoned. She went back to the kitchen.
“Start mixing,” her mother commanded.
Rosa Maria scoffed, but her mother was in no mood. The girl took what she thought was a decent amount of salt, a large handful, and mixed. She worried about her nails and winced at the next part. She grabbed a handful of the disgusting mess and was about to add lard, when her mother slapped her hand.
Rosa Maria did. “It’s too salty.”
Her mother rolled her eyes and pulled out some cornmeal from the cupboard. It was just enough to make the tortillas acceptable. “We have to impress your uncle.” Her mother frowned at the amount of lard.
Her mother said, “You don’t need that. You’re making tortillas, not tamales.”
Rosa Maria scowled as she put half of the lard back in the container. Her greasy fingers repulsed her. “Come on,” her mother said.
“What’s the point?” Rosa Maria asked and swayed her body.
“I will marry a rich man and have maids. I’ll never have to cook a day in my life.”
Her mother laughed and watched as Rosa Maria struggled with a basic task. “If I ever die, you’re going to starve.”
Her mother added warm water and nodded, approving of the job. “Go wash your hands and get me some mint from the garden.”
“I need to curl my hair!”
Ross Maria left in a huff.
Out in the small garden, she looked at the plants and had to smell them before she found the mint. She plucked what she thought was an acceptable amount, and then she spotted him.
He wore a dark suit made of shiny material and beneath his fine jacket he wore a trendy white silk shirt. Rosa Maria had never seen such a refined gentleman. What could he be doing here? she wondered.
He rode a black horse and tipped his hat at her, giving her a warm smile. Rosa Maria licked her own lips as she stared at his perfect white teeth. His skin was sublime, even better than hers.
She tried to pretend not to be interested, but she couldn’t help but search his eyes.
This is the man I’m going to marry, she thought. In that instant, that was all it took to fall in love. He grew near her and was just a few feet away. He looked beyond to the horizon, and Rosa Maria was perplexed that he would not speak to her.
On impulse she said, “How are you this fine morning?”
He rode away without saying a word to her. Men didn’t usually ignore her. She stared at his back longer than she should have. Rosa Maria crushed the mint plants in her hand and went back to her mother.
Her mother took the leaves and put some in the stew.
She said, “Go sweep the floors.”
Rosa Maria raised her hands and spat back, “I am not doing more work. The floor looks fine, and I have to go curl my hair!”
Quickly, Rosa Maria left to her room. She had a brand-new curling iron that plugged into the wall. It had been a present from one of her admirers who owned the local furniture store and had been to the States in Mississippi. He had bought it for his wife and then on a whim, gave it to her. The gift caused divisions in his marriage, but Rosa Maria hadn’t promised him anything in return.
She was sure it cost a fortune. It was better than the iron rods people used which often singed her girlfriends’ hair.
Rosa Maria curled each ringlet perfectly. When she was done, she pinned the upper left and right corners like she had seen in the American movie. She put on a decent blue dress and went to the living room. She had spent a good forty minutes curling her hair, but her uncle was still not there.
Without thinking, she grabbed the broom and quickly swept the small house. She sneezed at the cloud of dust, and then yelped as a small scorpion ran from under a chair. She killed is swiftly and did a better job of sweeping under all the sofas. She swept the dirt out of the front door and put the broom away.
Her mother finished setting the table and kept staring out the window.
Riding the old mare her father had given him, Uncle Thomas arrived soon after. He was a brusque man and offered a gruff greeting. She went to him and gave him a kiss on the cheek. He reeked of cows and noticed that he still wore his work clothes.
Rosa Maria smiled and had him sit at the head of the table.
Her mother served him, while they exchanged pleasantries.
Her uncle was a man of few words; but he mostly answered her mother’s questions. After he was finished eating, her mother waited expectantly. Rosa Maria was certain she was asking for another loan. Since her father died a year ago, she struggled to make ends meet as a seamstress. And though Rosa Maria finished high school, she was not the brightest student. There was no work she could do and wanted to be taken care of as she deserved.
He looked at Rosa Maria and at her mother. “Well, it’s settled.”
Her mother clasped her hands. “Praise the Lord!”
“What is settled?” asked Rosa Maria.
Uncle Thomas gave her a side glance and explained, “Don Sebastian’s oldest son saw you at the plaza a few Sundays ago. He wants to marry you.”
Rosa Maria sat dumbfounded. Yes, she was eighteen years old and needed a steady suitor, but she had heard rumors of this eldest son. He was well to do, the son of a rancher a few towns over, but he had been burned in a fire recently. She also recalled he was an avid gambler and drinker. She had no idea what he looked like, and she would be damned if she married an ugly man with bad habits. She was about to object, but her mother gave her a stern look.
“He will come to meet you this Sunday, after church,” he concluded and said his goodbyes. He was about to leave and added, “Look, I hear the rumors. Be on your best behavior when he visits, Rosa Maria.”
“Oh, Uncle,” she said unabashedly, “I haven’t even kissed a boy yet.” Of course, that was not true. She had kissed plenty of men, but she hadn’t been stupid enough to do more than that. Even when the mill’s dead owner tried to put his hands up her skirt in exchange for a few kilos of maize.
He went to leave as her mother gave him a sack full of gifts for his wife and three daughters. All of whom were goody two shoes.
No doubt she’s giving them each an ugly dress fit for a nun, Rosa Maria thought.
When her uncle left, she ranted about not wanting to marry the Sebastian boy. “I can have any boy I want! Why am I going to marry some rancher’s son?”
Her mother slapped her and said, “I barely make enough for us to live on. You’re a fool if you think anyone decent in the village is going to want to marry you! You think I don’t hear the stories? What were you doing with that idiot who runs the local shop last week?”
Rosa Maria smiled and was about to get another one, when her mother admonished, “And don’t even think about going to the dance tonight!”
It was Friday night, and her village held a dance every month. Rosa Maria often snuck out and managed to make it back before midnight but always made sure a couple of her trusted friends walked her home. After all, it was one thing to kiss boys and quite another to have rumors of her being a slut—which she wasn’t. Not really.
IT WAS 9:00 P.M. AND LIKE CLOCKWORK, her mother fell asleep at the chair doing some extra sewing. Rosa Maria quickly touched up her hair a bit and put on her lace dress. She wore simple flats her father bought in Texas. One last gift for his princess. Of course, she wanted high heels.
She had no red lipstick but managed to put on some white powder. She looked virginal, her upturned nose delicate. Her face was Hollywood perfect—light-skinned and the envy of most girls. She admired her full lips, but wished her eyes were blue.
They were honey brown.
Rosa Maria took a black shawl and snuck out of the house. She walked speedily to the town hall, and outside was her best friend, Tila.
“Just look at you!” Tila was nineteen years old. Tonight, she wore an orange dress that covered most of her curves and showed no cleavage. She also had a crush on Mr. Sanchez, the mill owner. But he married her cousin a couple of months ago. No one could tell if he was happy or not.
When they entered the dance, it was already full of people dancing a fast-paced dance. She went with Tila to grab a drink.
Heads turned towards them. A young man just turned seventeen was going to ask her to dance, but she averted him, putting Tila between them. They grabbed their drinks and sat at the table. Rosa Maria gave her a glum look.
“What is it?” asked Tila loudly.
The song changed to a slow waltz, so they lowered their voices. Three people asked her out to dance, but she declined politely saying her stomach hurt. Rosa Maria explained her predicament, and her friend squealed with delight!
“A son of Don Sebastian!”
Rosa Maria shushed her as a few girls turned to look at them. “Be quiet!” She leaned in close.
“I heard his face is badly burned,” Rosa Maria continued.
Tila shook her head. “Nonsense—”
The music stopped as he walked into the hall. He was wearing the same clothes as before, but Rosa Maria’s heart stopped along with every girl of marriageable age and even some married ones. Tila also held her breath then exhaled. “Who is that?”
The stranger held her gaze and walked towards her table, as people parted the way. He extended a hand without even asking.
It was a magical moment. She breathed in his scent as another melancholy waltz began. It was Pedro Infante‘s “The Nights of October”, a song Rosa Maria wanted played as her wedding song.
She looked deeply into his eyes as he spun her around effortlessly. Rosa Maria thought they were made for each other. He had light skin and dark curls. What struck her the most were his blue eyes. Every time he smiled at her, she wanted to swoon, but she was too strong for that.
“What’s your name?” she finally asked.
“Nicholas,” he answered and added no other details. Other men glared at the stranger, but none dared to cut in. They danced for over an hour, but Rosa Maria was so enveloped in him she did not notice the passing of time. Round and round they went without taking a break. She was delighted at his grace. He never missed a step and knew how to dance the twist on down to a ranchera without sweating all over her. He was a man of few words, but she didn’t care as long as she was his universe.
Near midnight he asked, “Do you want to go for a ride?”
The question of course was complex. Leaving with him would cause the town to buzz with rumors of a love affair, and she wasn’t sure if he would steal her away to some remote location and deflower her. Rosa Maria thought about her uncle and her mother.
Then, she scrutinized his left hand. He had no wedding band, but on his pinky was a gorgeous gold ring with a large emerald.
“Are you married?” she asked point blank.
Without skipping a beat, he answered, “No.”
Rosa Maria calculated. He could be lying of course, but he did not seem to be conniving. Nicholas was suave and graceful, but he wasn’t a liar. She could usually tell when someone was lying to her, as she was an avid conniver, when she needed to be.
She looked towards Tila who gave her a worried look as she walked to get her shawl.
“Don’t,” Tila said grabbing Rosa Maria’s arm, but she shook it off and went with him anyway.
Nicholas was an absolute gentleman. He sat her on the back of the horse behind him, as a lady should ride. She had ridden like that many times before with her father, and she was not afraid of horses. They rode past the mill towards the river.
“Where are we going?” she asked but got no answer.
The horse began to pick up speed. The wind was blowing through her hair, and she found it exhilarating. He curved past the river and sped away down a rocky path. She had to grip his back, and almost fell off. He took a sharp turn, and she lost her shawl.
The horse rode faster than any beast should. She turned back. The town was too far away for the minutes they had been together.
Nicholas then raced up to a strange place filled with thorns and brambles.
The horse was just as nimble when raced.
She cried, “Can you please stop?”
The horse raced up a steep mountain Rosa Maria had never been to before. The horse sped up an impossible vertical incline. She clung for dear life, and then, they entered a large cave. It was pitch dark.
Rosa Maria was relieved when the horse finally stopped.
Through the darkness, the horse continued down a series of tunnels descending downwards. They stopped finally at a level place. Nicholas dismounted and grabbed her and threw her down on the ground. The fall knocked the wind out of her, but she fought striking at emptiness.
He gripped her wrists and tied them painfully. He lifted her up brusquely. Her feet trailed, dancing above the ground. She was suspended high, unable to wrest free.
SHE STRUGGLED until she fell asleep from exhaustion. He traced his fingers down the curve of her neck. In her sleep, she gave a small cry. Nicholas turned her back towards him and began.
First, his nails extended themselves into flawless instruments, exactly one inch each. He stroked her back, all the way down to her perfect waist. He raked his nails down her back enjoying every second.
THE BURNING PAIN in her back awoke her. She screamed as he raked his fingers down her back again, from the nape of her neck to her buttocks. He spun her around and kissed her. Rosa Maria felt like coal entered her mouth. The pain was excruciating—radiating through her whole mouth—outside and inside.
Even as she was tortured, she was worried that her mouth would be permanently scarred and that the blood would stain her shoes. She wondered if her mother could sew the dress back or cut the back out, somehow.
As if he was reading her mind he said, “I can offer more than rags.”
She whispered, “I don’t want anything from you, you piece of filth.”
He smirked and was about to kiss her face, but he stopped.
“I’m not touching your pretty face. I’m not supposed to leave any area unscathed, but your face is so lovely.”
Bile rose from her throat, and the pain grew worse. He took a dirty finger and ran it around her lips soothing them. Then, he stuck his thumb in her mouth. No man had ever done that to her. It was sensuous, but repulsive. She wanted to gag, and at the same time moan in contentment. The pain lessened.
Five surrounding torches lit simultaneously. She spat at him and when it landed on his face, it sizzled.
“Who are you?” she cried, but deep down, she knew who he was.
WHO WAS HE? The truth is he didn’t know anymore. Centuries ago, he had been a devoted father, but small pox killed his wife and five children. He had been tempted, as he was tempting Rosa Maria now, but he chose poorly. She was strong. Perhaps stronger than he had been, even though she was so young. He smiled at her. She cringed. He kissed her again, this time doing so gently without heat.
She bit his tongue, drawing blood, and his laughter echoed through the cave. He brought a tin of water, and she drank against her better judgement. She wanted to spit it in his face but was too parched. He caressed her cheek and was pleased to see she did not flinch.
“I do care about you,” he said softly and meant it. He unhooked her and lay her down on the dirt. She fell asleep in due time, and he went to get some dry jerky. He turned his back and reached for his satchel. Suddenly a sharp pain on the back of his head made him yelp as Rosa Maria kicked him and ran down a dark passage.
“Clever girl,” he said rubbing the injury. He marveled that she outwitted him, if for a short spell. He walked listening. He couldn’t let her get too far, or she might be killed. He found her a few minutes later, crawling on her hands and knees.
Nicholas picked her up and threw her over his shoulder. She fought and scratched and pulled his hair. He tied her hands and feet and placed her in the exact spot. She screamed, and he jammed the jerky in her mouth. She wanted to curse, but instead chewed methodically. Rosa Maria was plotting, he was certain. He bent over and kissed her forehead which raised a tirade of insults. She fell asleep after a time, as he watched over her, making sure nothing disturbed her peace.
WHEN SHE WOKE, she was hanging on the hook again. This time, he scratched her arms and legs, always being careful not to touch her face. He looked pained every time he clawed her. The pain was unbearable, but her rage was stronger.
Suddenly, he stopped, and like magic, he soothed every wound. He worried she would scar.
Why did he care so much? he asked himself.
Thirteen hours had passed, and she was still awake. She glared at him and tried to spit, but her mouth was dry.
He flinched, when she sneered at him. At first, he couldn’t understand what she said. He grew closer.
“So, you weren’t man enough to get a woman, so you have to steal stupid girls away.”
She kicked and impacted his penis. He bent over as she laughed for the first time in a long time since her father died.
“Wretched girl!” he howled, and she fainted in terror. The transformation had been a reflex. First, his eyes went back from a glowing amber to a sky blue. His fangs receded, but his pointed ears were stubborn.
It took thirty minutes for him to go back to normal. He caressed the curve of her neck. She was truly beautiful. She woke with a start and began to fight.
He sat there watching her until she calmed down. Normally, he would wait another day, but her stubbornness was unlike any he had seen in centuries.
Out of nowhere, two tables appeared. One of them was laden with jewelry and a rich red dress, like the one she always wanted. At the center was a set of high heels. They were a fantasy come true.
To the right were ordinary rags. A metal basin with a washboard and a coarse apron.
“You can have a life of luxury,” he said pointing to the table with elegant articles. “You can stay young forever. Have any man you want.”
He saw the light in her eyes as she stared at the shoes. He knew she would love them but realized the adoration in her eyes ran deep.
“Or.” He paused gesturing towards the other table. “You can have a life of drudgery. You will marry a simple man, but never be rich. Ever.”
THE SHOES SHIMMERED in the fire light. They were exquisitely curved and the heels the perfect height. The dress was the material of dreams. She stared at the alluring table, then the drab table.
“Well,” he asked again and added, “As soon as you make your choice. This ends.”
She would not choose. Most people would have been screaming one way or the other, but she was weighing her options. He smiled. “If you choose this life,” he continued pointing at the life of boredom, “You will always have to be obedient, always do good.”
“Or what?” she asked.
“Or this will seem like child’s play.” He ran his fingers against a wall making a grating noise.
“If you choose the other life,” he said, “you will never want or suffer. You will never grow old.”
There was no way she could be obedient forever, and she dreaded the thought of growing old like her neighbor. She looked down. By now, her dress was rags, and she hung, naked, but he never touched her. Not there.
Rosa Maria thought long about what she wanted. She screamed as a burning pain ran up her left thigh. It was his hands that were burning her. He was no magician. In fact, she had figured out who he was. He ran his hand down her right thigh. That same look of pain on his face made her shout.
“You don’t want to do this! Stop.”
He hesitated but spun her around and proceeded to burn her back, then traced his fingers all around her.
This went on for what seemed like an eternity, but then, she thought about her father and how much he loved her. She thought about how much her mother struggled. Surely, no one would want her now, but the promise of youth. That made her pause.
“Stop!” she said finally, “Stop, devil.”
She looked at him, as a small smile curved his lips. He grabbed her by the hips, this time without burning her. He grew close to her face, so he could hear and breathed in her scent of sweat and pain, as she whispered into his ear.
HE LEFT HER in the middle of the desert. It was Sunday morning, and he knew they were near. Then, he spied them, a group of five men. Her choice had surprised him, no doubt, but he was secretly glad of it.
He saw as a young man on a chestnut horse pick her up gently. They rode away, and Nicholas gave her one last longing look. He would never see Rosa Maria again.
THE NEXT DAY, she walked in the plaza arm in arm with Sebastian.
Two months had gone by, and she was still wearing long-sleeved clothes and a long skirt to cover her scratches and burns. She looked at his straight brown hair. He would steal a glance every now and then and smile. Nicholas had lied to her; he was not a plain man. There were burn marks on his neck that his collar could not hide, but that didn’t matter to her anymore.
He sat on the bench with her and asked her if she wanted something from the vendor. She shook her head. The last few weeks she had slimmed down. The doctor said she was dehydrated and had suffered a shock. The day she was returned, her mother brought the priest, but all she said to him was that she had been punished.
Now, as she sat by her suitor, she admired his strong hands.
“They weren’t always like that,” he said.
“I used to be a gambler and alcoholic,” he said. “I don’t remember everything that happened, like you can’t remember everything. I still have nightmares. I guess you don’t really forget.
For me, it was a gorgeous woman named Isabella. She offered me a career in the states away from all of this boredom, but then. . . .” He pointed at his back.
Her mouth dropped.
“I made the right choice, as you did,” he said, “You know what saved me?”
She shook her head.
“The image of my mother crying over my absence. I couldn’t break her heart.”
Rosa Maria breathed in and confessed, “For me it was my father. He loved me so much. I also thought about my mother who works so hard. I think he, Nicholas, promised me youth and riches, but I don’t recall exactly. Just that the temptation was awesome.”
He laughed. “Ah yes. Well, I can’t give you youth.” He kissed her hand, and she blushed.
He added. “You will never want for anything.”
She laughed, which perplexed him. “He lied to me.” Rosa Maria looked down, appreciated how shined and clean his boots were.
“I’m a terrible cook,” she admitted.
“Your mother told me,” he said and smiled. “I have my flaws. I can’t stand disorder, and I struggle with anger.” She flinched.
“I won’t ever hurt you,” he stammered. “It’s just my cross to bear.”
She turned to him and asked, “Why me?”
“You are very pretty, to be sure,” he said, “but that is not why I noticed you.”
Sebastian explained that when he saw her in the plaza, she had given the local beggar her last change. It wasn’t the first time he had seen her. That was the third time.
Another time, he spied her giving nuts to a little girl and another seen her give a mangy dog some tortillas. Sebastian saw what few people rarely saw in her, kindness and compassion.
“Besides,” he said, “I have no room to judge. It took me a while to figure out how to plant corn. Horses, no problem, but when it came to actual hard work, I was a joke. You will figure it out, and my mother and sisters will help you. I will as well.”
A life of drudgery, she thought.
“Besides, I was thinking our village needed a new dress shop. Your mother could help you,” he said. “I’ve seen her handiwork.” He pointed to his elaborate shirt.
Nicholas had been lying as had all the town gossips.
Sebastian was offering her a dream she had never thought of and her mother a means to live.
In the end, she accepted not for the riches he offered. She accepted because he shared her pain and was more than she could imagine in a husband. He saw the best in her and didn’t judge her.
Since she had returned, most of the men in the village said she had been raped and that she deserved it. A lot of women agreed. For the rest of her life, she would always wonder what life would have been like had she chosen youth and riches, but deep down, she knew she made the right choice.
MARIA J. ESTRADA is an English college professor of Composition, Literature, and her favorite, Creative Writing. She also runs her union chapter with amorand pride. She grew up in the desert outside of Yuma, Arizona in the real Barrio de Los Locos, a barrio comprised of new Mexican immigrants and first-generation Chicanos. Drawing from this setting and experiences, she writes like a loca every minute she can—all while magically balancing her work and union and family obligations. She lives in Chicago’s south side with her wonderfully supportive husband, two remarkable children, and two mischievous cats—one of whom has killed at least one laptop. You can learn more about her writing happenings and favorite books on her YouTube channel Radical Books and Politics.
As Rogelio woke that December morning, Grandpa Ludovico hobbled through the door. He removed his grime-stained mask and wiped the sweat from his brow. His shoulders hunched forward as he sniffled and wiped snot from his nose. He’d returned home early from his shift at the saw mill. He moaned and slogged his way toward the dining table, his eyes accumulating a thin layer of moisture like a child about to cry.
“Good morning, Mijo,” he said, nestling into his seat. He rubbed his eyes and let out a deep sigh.
“Good morning, Abuelito,” Rogelio said smiling. He approached the table and sat beside his grandfather. The man smelled of sweat, coffee, sawdust, and all the scents that came with manhood. “How was work today?”
“Besides having this lingering flu, it was fine,” he said. “I just hope it’s not La Corona.”
Grandpa Ludovico looked outside the window, gazing upon the town as it began to stir awake. People scrubbing clothes and hanging them on clotheslines. Children without masks chasing hens in the narrow alleys.
“We cleared a few more acres from the forest,” he said. “And we were able to finally scatter that tribe from their grounds. They’d been holding up production for months. We had no choice. You know how bad the gringos want our lumber. You remember all the wildfires in Australia? Or in the United States this summer? They have no more wood!” He shook his head. “Anyway, the foreman says at the rate we’re clearing the trees, we’re sure to make our bonuses by the end of the year.” His grandfather rubbed his thumb and index finger together as he smiled and said, “Más lana. More money.” “Oh, how wonderful,” Grandma Clara said coming out of the kitchen holding a tray containing two bowls of chicken soup. “I’m so happy. Finally, some good news this year.”
Grandpa Ludovico nodded. “It’s been a dreadful year, yes. As soon as this flu goes away, I’ll be back on those bulldozers in no time instead of barking at those new kids we hired. They couldn’t fell a tree if—” Suddenly, the old man’s face contorted while he fought off an oncoming sneeze. Grandma Clara set down the steaming bowls of soup beside Ludovico and squeezed her husband’s shoulder, rocking it gently like a cradle.
“Ludovico, try to hold it in,” Grandma Clara pleaded. She gripped her rosary, bowed her head, and uttered a prayer under her breath.
“I can’t fight it anymore,” Ludovico said, worry in his tone. He shut his eyes and tilted his head back.
“What is it, Grandpa?” Rogelio asked jumping out of his chair.
“Mijo,” Grandpa said, crinkling his nose, his lips quivering, “it’s time you knew the truth. Every time we sneeze, we create an entire universe. Every speck of spit and snot houses a galaxy, and in seconds, entire life cycles go by, until the mist dissipates, and then—”
“Achooo!” Ludovico sneezed, shooting a violent spray of moisture and phlegm into the air like a geyser.
“Look, Mijo,” he said pointing at the cluster of haze spiraling over the table. The mist swirled and expanded. The specks of moisture hung on a beam of sunlight emanating from the kitchen window. “That’s a whole world you’re witnessing. You see, time is relative to everything. Even now as we speak life has probably evolved somewhere in here. Perhaps they are working out the basis of civilization at this very moment.” He pointed to a speck lingering in the air. “Somewhere in there people may be marching for their rights as they learn to coexist with one another. Maybe they even have their own plague to deal with. And now,” he said with a bit of excitement, “some species may very well be travelling along the drops, exploring the entirety of their creation. Isn’t it wonderful?”
The cluster began to slow its expansion. The droplets scattered in the wind and settled gently on the table and floor. A few droplets landed on Grandpa Ludovico’s arm and evaporated instantly on his wrinkled skin.
“We get older and sicker,” Ludovico said solemnly at the dissolving mist. He hung his head and removed his hardhat, placing it over his heart. “I’ve destroyed so very much over the years. How many civilizations have I annihilated? Impossible to say.”
Rogelio didn’t know what to say or do to comfort his grandfather. It was all so much information to take in. He felt like he’d stumbled upon some ancient truth kept secret from mortal ears. It was both wonderful, and terrifying. “Bless you, Abuelito,” he said warmly at last, resting a hand on the man’s shoulder and squeezing it as his grandmother had. It was all he could offer his grandfather and he hoped it would be enough.
“Thank you,” said Ludovico with a warm smile. Then his brows furrowed as he regarded the moisture on the table with eyes of contempt. “Now get me a handkerchief. What a damn mess.” As Rogelio turned to reach for a box of tissue, the wallpaper began to peel into tiny flakes as they scattered in the air like ashes. Next, the wood on the wall dissolved in a storm of millions of individual particles. Then, came the roof, and the floor, and his hands, and his grandparents, until darkness at last settled neatly into all the empty spaces that had been their world.
Originally from Los Angeles, Pedro Iniguez is a Mexican-American author now living in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. He spends most of his time reading, writing, and painting, which stems from his childhood love of Science-Fiction, Horror, and comic books. His work can be found in various magazines and anthologies such as: Space and Time Magazine, Crossed Genres, Dig Two Graves, Writers of Mystery and Imagination, Deserts of Fire, and Altered States II. His cyberpunk novel Control Theory, and his 10-year collection Synthetic Dawns & Crimson Dusks can be found online. Currently, he is working on his second novel. He can be found online at pedroiniguezauthor.com.
Rinconcito is a special little corner in Somos en escrito for short writings: a single poem, a short story, a memoir, flash fiction, and the like.
Surco por surco Por Eleazar Zúñiga
Al timbre del teléfono saltó América de su silla dejando su cena a medias. —Bueno, ¿y esta huerca que tiene? — dijo su padre Artemio mientras tomaba una tortilla del canasto. —Déjala viejo, ¿no ves que ya trae novio? —Nunca le debí dar permiso, nos va a salir con su regalito — levantó un bocado de su cena —sí ya vi a ese peladito, pinche cholo. ¿Tú lo conoces? —No dad. Pasó el bocado con un trago de cerveza y volteó a ver a su hijo menor, Jacinto, —Pela bien el ojo. Si sale mal tu hermana tú la vas a mantener. En eso, América regresó a su asiento diciéndole a Jacinto, —Era el Chevín. —¿What he want? Su padre los interrumpió, —Eit, aquí se habla español, nada de inglés. Pa’ eso está la escuela. ¿O qué, no te enseñan nada allá? — Volteó a ver a su esposa Clara, —Te dije que nos quedáramos en McAllen, aquí es puro vago. Mira tu hija, de seguro va a salir panzona y éste ya hasta la oreja trae con agujero. Pero no, querías tener tu propio solar, ya no querías rentar. ¿Y tú adónde vas? —Le va a llamar a su novio, — dijo América burlándose. —Shut up you idiot. Jacinto se sentó en un sillón viejo al lado de la mesa de madera donde se encontraba el teléfono. Los resortes rechinaron y el polvo de los cojines se esparció. Tomó el teléfono y marcó. Al primer timbre contestó su amigo. —La migra se llevó a Juan. —¡No! ¿How? ¿Qué pasó? —Se le puso roñoso el viejo de la labor y aquél no se quedó calló. Sabía que Juan es mojarrita y pues, he called them. Handcuffed y todo — terminó de hablar el Chevín mientras Jacinto pensaba en lo que estaría pasando Juan en esos momentos. La voz de su amigo lo trajo de vuelta a la realidad, —Hey, ¿you there man? —Yeah. —Vamos a chingar a ese gabacho. Tonight. El temperamento del Chevín siempre lo ponía en situaciones de peligro. Nunca acudía a sus clases porque se la pasaba en el cuarto de ISS con los demás muchachos problemáticos. Aun así, nunca reprobaba el año porque los maestros tenían orden de darle el mínimo grado para que pasara de año y pudieran deshacerse de él. Se dedicaba a vender narcóticos junto con sus hermanos. Jacinto lo conoció en el autobús escolar y aunque sus padres nunca aprobaron al Chevín, éste siempre lo protegió de los demás. —¿You in Jack? ¿O vas a culear? Jacinto sabía que no tenía opción. No acompañar a su amigo era una traición, más aún porque lo tenía que ver todos los días. —¿A qué horas? —¡Eso cabrón! —Jacinto escuchó la risotada de su amigo y al momento se arrepintió de su respuesta, —A las nine, ahí ‘onde siempre. Jacinto colgó y se dirigió a la cocina. Sabía que pedir permiso sería una alegata con su padre, pero tenía que convencerlo porque prefería eso a que el Chevín viniera a buscarlo a su casa. Al sentarse vió que su padre se retiraba molesto. En cambio, su hermana se quedó enraizada a su silla con lágrimas en los ojos mientras que su madre alisaba su cabello. —No le hagas caso a tu padre mi’ja. Él que va a saber — sus manos seguían acariciando la cabellera de la muchacha quien hizo por tomar una tortilla —no hija, nada de tortilla. ¿Quieres engordar? Así estás bien, delgadita y muy bonita. Pa’ que te busques un muchacho guapo de buena vida. Su hija retiró su mano mientras su madre recogía su plato aun con comida. Jacinto miró que una lágrima rodó por la mejilla de su hermana y sintió lástima. —Búscate un muchacho bueno mi’ja, que tenga buen trabajo. Para que no vivas al día. No seas bruta como yo. América se levantó del comedor dirigiéndose a su recámara y cerró la puerta. A los pocos minutos se escuchó el golpe de la música contra las paredes de la vieja casa móvil. Jacinto vio su oportunidad para salir. —Voy con el Chevín ma’. —‘Ta bien mi’jo. No vengas tarde. Salió Jacinto y vió la farola encendida y en el cielo podía ver las últimas huellas del sol mientras las primeras estrellas se dibujaban en el firmamento. Pensó en no ir a ver a su amigo pero sabía que vendría por él, tenía un mal presentimiento. Se dirigió hacia una labor de sorgo que estaba detrás de su casa, pasando el bordo de irrigación, vió las compuertas del canal de riego. Inmediatamente sintió el olor de la marihuana revolverse con los olores de la hierba y los nogales saturados de nueces frescas. —Pensé que te habías rajado — estaba el Chevin recargado sobre el tubo de cemento que resguardaba la compuerta, —éntrale. —Nah man. —Pues a llegarle bro — tiró el cigarrillo y cogió un bate de aluminio. — ¿Qué trajiste? —Nada güey, ni dijiste que íbamos a hacer. —We’re gonna fuck that guy up. Por mamón. Caminaron a lo largo del canal hasta llegar a una casa blanca de madera. En el segundo piso se podía divisar un televisor encendido mientras las demás ventanas mostraban oscuridad. Callados y cuidadosamente se dirigieron hacia la puerta de atrás. El pánico invadió a Jacinto al ver que su amigo sacó una navaja de su bolsillo y le dió el bate. Sintió que sus rodillas se aflojaban mientras su pulso se aceleró. Dió un paso atrás cuando el marco de madera explotó en miles de astillas. Los dos corrieron, pero Jacinto no supo cuando se separaron. Corrió hasta que sus pulmones ardieron. El sonido del disparo aún hacía eco en sus oídos. Sin aliento llegó a los escalones de su hogar y entró cayéndose. Ya adentro, se sentó en la tina de baño mientras sus manos temblaban incontrolablemente. Abrió la regadera e intentó hacer razón de lo ocurrido. Horas después, acostado en su cama escuchó a su madre tocar la puerta. Entrando le preguntó—¿Dónde andabas? —al no contestar Jacinto, añadió, —me acaba de contar la vecina que mataron a alguien en la labor. ¿Escuchaste los disparos? Jacinto ocultando su llanto bajo la oscuridad de la litera, se quedó callado. —Pórtate bien mi’jo. No te juntes con esos vagos, ya vez como terminan. En ese momento América entró y al subir por la escalera a su cama dijo, —Hasta mañana mamá. —Hasta mañana mi’ja. Hasta mañana mi’jo. Descansen. Entre el ruido del abanico cuadrado que sostenía la ventana escuchó a su hermana decirle, —De seguro fueron ustedes. Jacinto no contestó, solo se volteó boca abajo. Un escalofrío recorrió su espalda al sentir el aire fresco sobre su nuca sudada. Pensó en rezar un padre nuestro, pero no estaba seguro de las palabras. —Goodnight little brother, — dijo América. —Yeah, good night.
Eleazar Zúñiga, a native of Donna, Texas, recently received his MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley. He teaches English Literature at Donna North High School. Eleazar has lived his life, he tells us, divided by the Rio Grande River where he coexists with countless other individuals of dual culture. This hybrid culture has enveloped his life and is reflected in the colorful language of his characters with which he expresses the life of those whose voices get lost in the multitude.
Excerpt from La Quinceañera, latest book from Carmen Baca
La Corona (The Crown)
“I love it!” Conchita cried when she placed la corona on her head. “I feel like royalty. Someday, Marguerite, someday, I’ll wear a real one with genuine diamonds, and everyone will wait on me hand and foot,” she added, turning from the mirror to hug her prima Marguerite on the day before she joined the convent. She secretly wanted to jump for joy. She had coveted that crown the entire night her cousin had worn it. She loved Marguerite genuinely, and she would never have asked for the prized jewels herself, but she was ecstatic when her cousin decided to give it to her.
“You know what they say,” Marguerite replied, quiet and serious in her demeanor. “Be careful what you wish for. You might just get your heart’s desire, but it will come with a price. If you don’t believe that, think of me and what my vanity brought. It will serve as a reminder to keep you humble.”
“Oh, Marguerite,” Conchita cried. “Don’t think like that, you—”
Marguerite shushed her prima, adding, “Hey, let’s not part arguing. If I know you, you’ll make your wish come true and wear a crown of real jewels one day if that’s what you want. And you’ll get it through pure determination.”
After her cousin left, Conchita turned to the mirror to admire her new possession. The jewels were fake, of course, but that didn’t matter. The paste diamonds still shone as brightly as any real ones, especially in the light. The tiara was small enough that it didn’t look pretentious but beautiful enough that she could wear it to dances and other events as an accessory without feeling self-conscious. Too bad she couldn’t wear it to work, she thought. It would make what she did more enjoyable at least.
Employed by a wealthy businessman’s wife as housekeeper, Conchita was forced to wear a uniform which included a cap on her head. At work, she kept her hair in a neat bun at the nape of her neck. But she hated having to confine her waist-long wavy brown hair which was her pride and joy, and she wore it down when she wasn’t at work.
She could tell her boss, la Señora Benson, was envious of her hair and of her young, lithe body. Hell, the woman coveted her youth, period, Conchita thought. She was twenty-one, just beginning to live, saving every penny she didn’t spend on clothes so she could move to the big city when she turned twenty-five. That was her plan, anyway. Either Albuquerque or Denver, maybe even El Paso, she didn’t know yet. All she knew was she had to get out of the small town of Pajarillo, or she’d die an old maid here, alone and stifled. She spent her weekend evenings out with Sally and Patricia and the rest of the gang. She used to go out with Marguerite and Viola, but the first was already committed to the cloister and the latter was so smitten with her new boyfriend, Allen, she rarely went out with them unless he came, too. Though Conchita was in no hurry to become involved, she would’ve liked to have more variety of male companions and escorts to go out with on real dates.
The problem with Conchita was her taste, which ran to men who could eventually become husband material. Her choices were limited in the places she frequented. The guys at the area’s night spots were either laborers or college students. She had no desire to become involved with a laborer; she wanted a man who would keep her in the riches and luxury she didn’t have. The college boys were no better, still sowing their oats and wanting female companions for partying and a good time, not potential sweethearts and wives. So even though she went out on weekends with the gang, it was more for the purpose of having a great time with her buddies and to show off her beautiful hair and clothes. She knew she wouldn’t find a man until she moved away. # “Un peso por tus pensamientos,” Diego almost shouted, tapping her temple twice with his forefinger. The music at El Cantinero was so loud they could barely hear each other speak though they were seated across the dance floor from the band.
“Ha,” Enrique scoffed. “You don’t have a dollar to your name, fool. How are you going pay her for her thoughts?”
“I do too have a dollar, more than a dollar. Today was payday at the ice plant.”
“Oh, good, you can pay for the next round then,” Enrique proposed, motioning to the waitress from the booth where the three sat.
“I’m thinking that if I didn’t come out on the weekends with the two of you and the others sometimes, I’d have no fun in my life at all.”
“That’s true,ˮ Enrique laughed. “Sad, but true.”
She punched him and Diego did the same on the other side. “I can’t wait until I move away from here, you know? I feel like I’m just existing from day to day, not living. I want to live!”
“Well, come on then! Let us live!” Enrique pulled her out and up onto the dance floor and swung her every which way to the beat of the salsa number until she was dizzy. She ended up accepting dance offers from a number of young men after that, and the night turned into a fun one once Conchita quit allowing herself to think depressing thoughts.
She chastised herself for her selfishness and remembered the fun-loving Gloria. Life was too short to spend on “what if” or “I wish” thinking. She crossed herself and blessed Gloria, and that night she made a pact with herself to think only positive thoughts, even at work. She began to imagine that the three story house was her own, and she began to take pride in each task. She couldn’t wait to have a home like her employer’s for herself, but she could use it as practice for how she would keep her own sparkling and clean and make her future husband proud.
Living in a five room casita on the wrong side of the tracks with her parents, Rubel and Josie Paiz, and her four siblings, Conchita was tired of her older sister’s and her friends’ hand-me-downs and tired, too, of scrounging for everything. Making seventy-five cents an hour and giving almost half of her earnings weekly to her mother for groceries, Conchita knew moving out wasn’t in her immediate future. But as long as she kept up her positivity, she also knew the opportunity would be hers for the taking before too long.
“Don’t forget to scrub the oven today, Conchita,” Mrs. Benson started with the list of what she wanted done while she was out at her morning charity meeting, luncheon with the library association, and afternoon tennis lesson and cocktails at the club afterward. Between washing the downstairs windows inside and out, polishing the silver, and about seven other chores the woman had already gone over with her, Conchita knew she wouldn’t have a moment to spare, earning her daily pay with chafed hands and sore muscles. Tomorrow she’d have another lengthy list to complete, and the day after that, and… She stopped herself and entered her world of pretend where everything in the house belonged to her and she took pride in keeping it spotless.
Before, she had felt like a Hispanic Cenicienta, the Cinderella from the fairy tale. But for her there was no fairy godmother to take her away from it all. She had only herself to rely on to make enough dinero and get the heck out of town as soon as she was able. So she cleaned and kept up her daydreams, the hours passed, and before Conchita knew it, the lady of the house returned and brought reality with her.
She went over every inch of what Conchita had done. The windows were spotless, the silverware gleamed, the linens and carpets smelled fresh and new—every detail of every job she performed that day she did to the best of her ability. Mrs. Benson took note as she usually did and nodded her approval as she handed over her payment for the day.
The singular concession the woman made to Conchita when she hired her was that she pay cash at the end of the day; Conchita had insisted just in case the día came when she had enough. When she had first taken the job, she was afraid she wouldn’t be able to contain herself with her servile employment or her employer. She expected the occasion would arise when she would tell the woman to stuff her hoity toity attitude up her very long narizota since she held it up in the air so high. Conchita was five, two, but the older middle-aged woman was five, seven, so when Conchita had to stand before her for her instructions or for her wages, the dark, elongated nostrils were about the only thing she saw from her vantage point. But the woman wasn’t that bad, after all. Yes, she considered herself above Conchita and people she considered servants, but she was fair and kind. And she always paid what she promised.
For the next few months after Marguerite had given Conchita the crown, she wore it the moment she got home and visualized a future where she would have a real one and be waited on by others. One morning as she got ready, she put her tiara on as she did her make-up and talked herself into wearing it at work. She tucked it into her purse and caught a ride with her father to the rich part of town where her employer lived. After Mrs. Benson left for the day, Conchita donned her crown and set off to do the laundry.
She remembered the first time her employer had taken her to the mudroom and shown her the bright, white washer. Conchita had never used one before and studied the knobs on top and looked inside with both awe and confusion. Mrs. Benson explained how to use it, and now Conchita looked forward to laundry days since all she had to do was hang the clothes outside in the back yard when the machine had finished the heavy work. She had told her mamá about the wondrous machine, and Josie began saving two dollars a week to get one of her own. The wringer washer on the back porch lost its reputation as a modern convenience the day she heard about the new appliance at the casa of la ricacha, the rich one.
Conchita was scrubbing the downstairs wood floors when the back door opened and her employer walked in. “Hi, there, Conchita. The city council meeting ended early, and I didn’t have any plans, so I thought I’d…”
Conchita had sat back on her haunches and looked up at the woman in surprise. Too late, she realized she was wearing the crown. She yanked it off and tried to hide it beneath her hands and felt her face reddening with embarrassment.
“May I see it?”
Conchita handed it over without saying anything. What could she say? I’m over twenty but I still play pretend? Working for you makes me feel like Cinderella? She waited with her eyes focused on the hangnail she was trying to yank off. Knowing the soapy water would sting when she continued her scrubbing, she figured it was a small penance she deserved for trying to be something she was not.
Mrs. Benson handed the tiara back. “It’s lovely, I remember I had one similar when I was about your age.”
Yeah, but yours was probably real, Conchita thought but said nothing.
“I remember I was so happy when my mother presented it to me,” the woman added. “But I found out a few days later it was fake when she yanked it from my head and threw it out my upstairs bedroom window. I saved the shattered pieces in my jewelry box for years to remind myself of…of certain things,” she finished with a small smile. “Go ahead, put it back on. Lord knows it looks so much lovelier on you than mine ever did on me. I’m going up to my room. Would you let me know when you’ve finished the floors?”
She left and Conchita tried to tuck the tiara into the pocket of her apron, but it didnʼt fit. She ended up putting the thing back on for expediency and continued her work, wondering why the beautiful, rich Mrs. Benson had said her own tiara hadn’t looked good on her. She began to think there was something more about her employer she didn’t know, something which made her sad sometimes even with all she had.
Conchita knocked on Mrs. Benson’s door when she had finished for the day. The woman answered and went downstairs to check on Conchita’s work, approving everything before pulling the dollar bills from her slacks pocket and bidding her good afternoon.
The following morning when Conchita arrived, Mrs. Benson told her she had something she needed help with in the attic. She led the way and pointed to a corner. “There are many outfits in these three trunks over here,” she continued, “designer clothes, all the accessories—hats, gloves, shoes, and even jewelry, I believe. I will not kid myself any longer. I will never be a petite again, and I refuse to allow such beautiful garments to mold away when someone could be enjoying them. I want you to go through each one and take whatever you want from these trunks. Perhaps you’ll find some for your mother and sister, too.”
For a moment—just a tiny second of a moment—Conchita felt a twinge of anger. She had never accepted charity (her friends’ contributions to her wardrobe didn’t count) and didn’t know how to feel about the rich woman’s proposition. But she looked into la señora’s eyes and saw a sincerity there. “I was so vain in my youth, Conchita,” she admitted. “I thought I would be young forever and my good looks would also last forever. Do you know that’s the reason I never had children? I never wanted to lose my tiny waistline, isn’t that just stupid?”
Conchita saw tears forming in the woman’s eyes, and she sprang to action on impulse. She went to the closest trunk and pulled out a lovely silk scarf and a handbag of the same shade of lavender. “There are many things in here you can still use or wear, Señora.” And she brazenly but gently wrapped the scarf around the woman’s neck. “See?” This sets off your complexion beautifully. We should see what there is you can still wear before I take anything. If you’re anything like me, I know what’s in these trunks were probably some of your favorites.”
There was a hint of wistfulness in Mrs. Benson’s expression, and so Conchita pulled up a stool, wiped the dust from it, and settled the woman down. Pulling out one garment after another, she struck up outlandish poses and crossed her eyes or stuck her tongue out the side of her mouth. Conchita had Mrs. Benson laughing so hard a few times she almost fell from the small stool. Conchita found a bureau mirror against one wall and pulled it forward so they could see themselves as they donned more outfits over their clothes.
“Look at this lace wrap, Mrs. B,” Conchita gushed over the shiny gossamer material that glowed in golden shades. She placed it on her employer’s shoulders and turned her to the mirror. “It’s perfect on you.”
“I think you’re right, Conchita,” the woman smiled at her in the mirror. “Mrs. B, huh?” “Oh, forgive me for being forward…”
“No, don’t apologize, I rather like it.” She adjusted the wrap and turned left and right as she kept talking. “No one has ever had a nickname for me—ever, not even as a child. My mother always called me Elizabeth, never Liz, never Beth or Betty or Betsy, always Elizabeth, so formal. And when she was angry, which was often, she called me Elizabeth Monique Davinia Jones, as if I needed to be reminded who I was. The woman had no love for me, I don’t think.”
Conchita turned introspective. She thought of her relationship with her own mother. By the time Conchita was born, her mother had been in her thirties. They had more of a formal relationship than one of friend or confidant though there was love between them, and her mother didn’t treat her coldly as Mrs. B’s had seemed to. However, there were just some things she could never talk about with her mother.
Take her menstrual cycle. Her mother had tried to talk to her about it before the event came, but she stumbled over words and faltered in details so much she called Conchita’s older sister, Lourdes, to explain. So, on the night when Auntie Flo came visiting, Lourdes was the one who told their father to run to the store and bring home some feminine napkins.
“¡Qué ’stas pendeja o qué, napkins a la fregada!” Señor Paiz had protested. His grumbling over Lourdes being stupid enough to think he would go and buy such a product made her laugh all the way to the bathroom where she’d left Conchita stranded. Their mamá had to accompany him, never mind that she left the ropa in the washer waiting for the wringer just to be the one to buy the feminine products her father wouldn’t. When Conchita got her first French kiss and panicked it would make her pregnant, Lourdes was again the one she ran to, confessing tearfully and fearing her parents would throw her out of the house. Lourdes had laughed even louder and longer about that and educated Conchita about the truth of male-female relationships.
On a hunch, she told Mrs. B about these memories, and they shared a good laugh and shared even more. A camaraderie was created between the two that day, one which saved Conchita’s life in the years to come. The two women spent the entire morning up in that attic, trying on each garment they pulled from the three trunks and separating them into piles while they shared more cuentos from their pasts.
“Oh my heavens,” Mrs. Benson cried when the clock downstairs announced that it was noon. “We’ve spent the entire morning up here, girl! What say we go make some sandwiches. You can use that luggage over there by the back wall to pack the clothes you liked, and I’ll give you a ride home. We shall declare today a personal holiday. Tomorrow is soon enough for you to do what I wanted done today.”
And so they did. Conchita felt like royalty indeed in the woman’s shiny, new sedan. Again, a twinge of shame hit her in the chest when they passed the main street and entered the poor side of town. But when she pointed out her modest house to the wealthy woman, she raised her head defiantly and realized that indeed she was proud of their little adobe casita. Her father had repaired the plaster and made them paint it each year, and he taught her brothers to fix the picket fence. Her mother guided them all in planting fresh flowers each spring. The windows gleamed, and the entire façade presented comfort. Theirs might not be a mansion, but it was a home, one which they all worked toward presenting a welcoming exterior so people would see there was love on the inside.
“Would you like to come in?” Conchita asked. “Meet my mother?”
Mrs. Benson looked at the house for a long minute, taking in every detail, Conchita was certain. But she wasn’t sure what the woman thought or whether she’d accept her invitation.
“Of course,” the tall, refined señora replied with a smile. “I’d love to meet your mother.”
They pulled two large valises from the trunk and struggled to carry them through the little gate. By the time Conchita opened the front door, they were laughing at their awkwardness in carrying such heavy luggage and banging their shins with each step they took.
They found Conchita’s mother Josie in the living room where she had been ironing in front of the TV tuned to a daytime soap opera she had become addicted to. The look of horror she gave her daughter showed Conchita her mother was mortified. To have been discovered doing a household chore in the living room was bad enough, but to be caught with her braid falling down with her exertion and to be seen sweating in an old housedress was sacrilege.
Too late, Conchita realized she should have called ahead. Rather than watch her mother suffer, she plunged on in with both feet. She was already going to be told off anyway, might as well go full hog. “Mom, this is my employer, Mrs. Benson. Mrs. B, this is my mother, Josie Paiz. I am so sorry I didn’t warn my mother we were coming. The woman cleans twenty-four hours a day. The house can be spotless, but she always finds something to do.” She knew she was scrambling to say something, anything to make her mother feel at ease and vice versa.
For a moment the two women looked at one another in awkward silence. But then Josie spoke up after wiping her brow on her apron and wiping her hands as well. “Welcome to our home, Señora,” she said, putting her hand out to shake Mrs. Benson’s. With seriousness, she added, “I couldn’t decide whether I wanted to watch TV or do the ironing, so I chose to do both to save time. I’m glad you didn’t stop by yesterday when I was doing the dishes on the coffee table.”
The moment of silence passed when the two women burst into laughter at the same time, and Conchita sighed in satisfaction. She should’ve known her mother would save her own day. No longer embarrassed, she motioned for Mrs. Benson to take a seat on the sofa and bade Conchita to go bring them some glasses of tea. By the time she got back, Mrs. Benson had opened the suitcases, and the two women were pulling out all the dresses so Josie could put them up to her chest to “try them on.” She oohed and aahed over the jewelry and then kicked off her house shoes to try on a pair of red dressy heels, posing her legs one way and then the other while the señora whistled her approval.
By the time Mrs. Benson left, Josie had agreed to accompany her to her charity luncheon the following day so she could introduce her to her closest friends. “Wear that blue dress, Josie,” she pointed at the frock lying on the arm of the couch. “That will look so great with your black hair. I’ll pick you up at eleven. Conchita, come walk me to my car.” When they reached the sidewalk, the woman turned and caught Conchita up in a hug so abruptly she almost didn’t hug back. “Wear your crown proudly, my young friend,” she whispered into Conchita’s hair. “In fact, I insist you wear it at work every day to remind yourself what a priceless gift you are to me.” She stepped back, gave Conchita’s arms a last squeeze, climbed into her car and left.
Closing her mouth when a fly hit her cheek head on caused Conchita to register the words that had left her employer's mouth and into her ears…“wear your crown proudly…a priceless gift you are...” She brushed away the tears with the heels of her hands and went back to the house. Her mother stood over the mess of clothing and accessories everywhere as though a whirlwind had just come into the living room and thrown beautiful garments willy-nilly and left without damaging a thing. Conchita waited for the telling off that never came.
“She’s something else, your boss.”
“Yes, she is.”
“I thought I was going to die of embarrassment when she walked in, but she’s alright. Down to earth, that one.”
“I didn’t see that side of her till today.” And so Conchita proceeded to tell her mother how Mrs. B and she had spent the morning as they grabbed hangers for the dresses and gathered everything else to find places to put it all.
The next day Josie and her new friend attended the charity luncheon, and Conchita went back to work, but instead of being dissatisfied with her lot, she felt a new pride in her duties. She caught a glimpse of herself in her crown in the hall mirror and laughed out loud with a new happiness, a new self-satisfaction she’d never felt before. She embraced a new desire to do her best for the woman who had given her a job when she could find no other, the woman who had befriended her mother moments after they met.
The months flew since the relationship between the wealthy señora and Conchita had changed. The woman even began calling Conchita the daughter she never had, the sister she always dreamed of, the confidant she wanted for so much of her lonely life. Conchita, her mother, and Mrs. B even began shopping together so each could try on outfits, make up, and all the accessories their new clothes needed to get the others’ opinions on the spot. Life was good, and the three were happy with their newfound friendship.
For the first time in her adult life, Conchita was content with what she had even though she still wanted better for her future. From time to time as she worked, she thought of Marguerite and all that she gave up to become a nun. Invariably, Nicola and Gloria came into her thoughts, too, and Conchita offered a prayer for her primita and her friend and reminded herself what had happened to them. This never failed to keep her humble and thankful for the life she did have. This was what she was thinking of that afternoon when she was walking from the rich side of town to the poor, a forty-five minute walk through the heat of summer and the cold of winter and every type of weather that came with the seasons.
She had forgotten to take off her tiara and strolled content and happy with the day’s work and with her new relationship with her employer and her mother. It was still warm on this spring afternoon, the sun beginning to go down. It was that hour of the day when anyone driving toward the sunlight was blinded if they didn’t raise an arm or lower a visor to shade their eyes. So when the noise came up behind her, she was knocked forward so violently she had no idea what hit her. She felt pain so severe that after a moment her body numbed with the intensity. The last thing she saw was her shiny tiara flying in front of her and rolling like a wheel down the side of the street. It disappeared into a storm drain, and that was all she remembered until she awoke in the hospital weeks afterward.
The hit-and-run driver still had not been identified, much less apprehended, by the time Conchita came to and was told what had happened to her. Considering it had happened on a main residential avenue with at least twelve side streets branching off of it, no one had seen a thing. The loud commotion sent people to their windows and screen doors, and several had reported seeing a dark vehicle speeding off on one of the side streets. But no one caught any clear details, not a description of the driver and not a single number off the license plate, nada.
Another few weeks and more sad news greeted her when she awoke from a mid-morning nap. The doctors didn’t think she would ever walk again. The tears shed by family, friends, and even Mrs. Benson could have washed the entire town of Pajarillo clean, they fell for so long and so hard from the eyes of everyone who loved her. But they were nothing compared to the crying she did for herself in the state of self-pity into which she plunged after that last announcement. There would be no moving away for her, no attracting any future husband, no large house or beautiful clothes, no social occasions or children later in her life—the life she had come to live gratefully was over. Replaced by a crude and unwelcome wheelchair, the indignities of being handicapped, the pitying looks from strangers—that was the life she now had to look forward to.
She was released from the hospital and welcomed by the entire neighborhood when she arrived home. Her father and brothers had made ramps to accommodate her, and her mother and sister were prepared to take care of her for the rest of her life. Once her oldest brother positioned her chair in the living room, her mother presented her with a new tiara, this one more elaborate and more bejeweled than the last. For her part, Conchita tried to be cheerful when she was with others, sinking into the depths of her despair when she was alone. Everyone was careful not to leave her to herself for long, but the late hours of the night and the early ones in the mornings drained her of life little by little as she focused on the bleak future ahead. She lost her appetite, lost her will to fight with her family and friends when they tried either sympathy or anger to get her out of her doldrums, lost her love of life. They feared she wouldn’t last much longer, and no one could figure out how to change what they knew would come true. Señora Benson came to the rescue shortly after Conchita’s family tried and failed to get her to want to continue. After an evening of consultation with her parents, the señora came for Conchita the next morning in her car, accompanied by a driver this time. Her mother and sister had bathed Conchita, styled her hair, applied her make-up, and practically forced her into a presentable dress before sitting her back into her chair and then placing her new crown on her head. Conchita gazed at her reflection in the mirror and smiled faintly. Like the corona of the Virgin Mother, she thought, that’s what it looks like. She prayed a “Hail Mary” for the Mother to take her to eternal sleep soon. She prayed to Gloria, too, asking if she had any influence in heaven to use it, please. She did not want to go on anymore, not without a future to look forward to.
When the señora arrived, she said she had a surprise, and she wouldn’t take no for an answer, but they were going for a ride. When the sedan left the town behind, the sound of the tires on the pavement lulled Conchita into a deep sleep, and she remained asleep for the almost three hours it took to get to their destination.
She awoke when the vehicle began slowing and looked up to see a small airplane right in front of them. “Good morning, sleepyhead,” Mrs. B smiled. “Let’s go for a ride, hmmm?”
“Would I be so cruel?”
Conchita knew the answer and did what she could to assist the driver in putting her into her wheelchair. Then he drove it up the ramp, unloaded her gently, and then fastened her into a seat in the aircraft. The plane taxied and took off with Conchita clutching the arms of the seat but with her nose pasted to the small round window. She watched as the earth receded beneath and behind her, the houses and cars getting smaller, the people turning into the size of insects from her vantage point, until moments later they were in the sky with clouds beneath them.
Oh, the ironies of life, Conchita thought. She had envisioned marrying a wealthy man who would fly her to exotic places, yet here she was, flying to…to…
“Where are we going?” she blurted to her companion.
Mrs. B laughed. “I was waiting for your curiosity to be too much for you.” And she talked for the next half hour, filling Conchita in about her plans for her future, with or without her consent. “So you see, sweetheart, everything’s been taken care of. All you have to do is will yourself to make this work. You and your powerful crown will make you a queen after all, mark my words.” A year later… The tiara Conchita wore on her wedding day glittered in the candle lights of the cathedral in Santa Fe where her fiancé had brought her back to make her his bride. Dr. Richard Stewart had been her doctor for the year since her benefactor, Mrs. Benson, had taken her on her first flight. He was her nephew, a specialist in spinal injuries. He had taken Conchita as his patient at his very own clinic in New York City, vowing to do everything he could to make her see that she could still have a quality-filled life even from a wheelchair. The physical therapy combined with medication, psychiatric support and life skills instruction. They worked in tandem until Conchita accepted her condition and learned to live with it. Dr. Richard didn't intend to fall in love with the tiara-wearing beauty, and Conchita never in her wildest dreams saw herself as a bride to the man who had saved her from herself. Indeed, she had to travel across the country to find her Prince Charming. And so here they were, him standing at the altar beaming with pride. And her, holding her bouquet, being guided to meet him by her father on one side and her mother on the other. He smiled and everyone assembled could see the love in his eyes he never took off her as she came closer. And Conchita, with her own eyes locked on his, lifted her head proudly, her crown catching the light and sparkling with all the colors of a prism. Her dream had come true. She felt like royalty and she would be waited on just as she would wait upon the man who had captured her heart.
Carmen Bacataught a variety of English and history courses, mostly at the high school and college levels in northern New Mexico where she lives, over the course of 36 years before retiring in 2014. She published her first novel in May 2017, El Hermano, a historical fiction based on herfather’s induction into the Penitente society and rise to El Hermano Mayor. The book is available from online booksellers. She has also published eight short pieces in online literary magazines and women’s blogs.
Of the 2019 contest's two honorary mentions, the judge Ernest Hogan said:
"My Many Faces by Venetia Sjogren provides a snapshot of a Latinx identity crisis, and Nous Somme Dans Une Texte by David Vela presents a Latinx in Paris, a fish out of water, as are we all. The both deserve their honorable mentions."
I have many faces. Some I hide and keep stuffed way, way down. Sometimes, I remove the civilized veneer and let them all hang-out, when I have stopped caring. At times they stage a revolution, hijack my keyboard, and type god-awful crap.
Varda Chaya- she is the Jewish apostate who mocks all religions, all belief systems, indeed all tribal affiliations. Descended from Swedish berserkers, African slaves, native American savages, and the conquistadores, she is fatigued by all of the global tribal violence that has been part and parcel, of human history. She wishes that people would just "get over it". She wants the Palestinians to "get over it". The Israelis to "get over it". The Africans to "get over it". Native Americans to "get over it". Whatever people are claiming "it" is that prevents them from moving past their tribal loyalties, Varda Chaya wants them to "get over it". She would like the world to focus instead on preserving the species before humans end up extinct, like the dinosaurs. She would like to prevent the rats, roaches and paramecium from inheriting the world and their future scientist from digging through midden heaps to reconstruct humans past and discover how we fucked up. Varda Chaya wants the world to focus on global warming, health care, education, and non-violence. She wants the world to get their shit together. Varda Chaya wants a better world for all.
Vic - he is the eternal rocker. The one who invested mucho dinero on sound equipment, speakers, microphones and Fender Strats. The one who found peace and a slice of heaven in power chords, Carlos Santana and ganja. He was the one who was so laid-back-mellow that his heart beat was barely measurable. He viewed the world through rock and roll and playing elusive, death defying chords. Vic had a "live and let live" kinda attitude. He felt that if everyone lit up a doobie, they would stop wasting their time, trying to kill folks that were different. His main goal in life was seeking that elusive combination of chords that would lift a song from mediocre to the sublime. Too bad that a 9 - 5er was required in order to provide his kids with such mundane things as food, clothing and shelter. After-all, children can survive without such things. Right? Vic now sits in the back of Vee's head, a cheapo Bic lighter eternally lit, nodding off to Bon Jovi, Metallica and Heart, while smoking a little mary-jane. Incidentally, Vic discovered that mary-jane is good for Vee's multiple sclerosis pain. Too bad the drug companies managed to strong-arm the feds into keeping it away, from folks suffering chronic pain. Imagine not having to spend hundreds of dollars on vicodin, fentanyl, other addictive opiates and growing what you need, on your window sill...
Venice - is Vic's twin. Like Vic, she found her peace in music, dressing the part in Stevie Nicks-like lacy blouses and maxi skirts, with long flowing tresses. She strummed her lute, acoustic and rhythm guitars, while relocating from one-to-city to another, with Vic. But unlike Vic, who loved Fenders, she had a fondness for Gibson guitars. She wrote sonnets, composed lovey-dovey songs similar to "We are the World" and "Blowin in the Wind', painted beautiful sunsets and bowls of fruit, while dreaming dreamy thoughts while high on Quaaludes and other mood enhancing drugs. Venice never gave up her artistic endeavors as she aged and when multiple sclerosis crippled Vee's fingers, voice and eyes, she switched to writing poetry and blogging. Our Venice is always optimistic. There is always a silver lining in the clouds. Of course, to her, tornado, earthquakes and hurricanes are beautiful also.
Victoria - she is the good child, the obedient child, eternally trapped prepubescent girl; at times quiet and withdrawn. Victoria is the face of a bourgeoisie, indulged and beloved child. Ostensibly living and reaping the benefits of the “good life”. She is the recipient of private schools, and epicurean cuisine. She has the "right" kind of friends, the "right" stylish clothes, parrots the "right" conserative, vanilla politics and listens only to the “right” kind music such as opera, classical and religious compositions. Victoria is amused (in a bleak sort of way) that her friends envy her life. They are unaware that she had been abandoned by family and friends to reside in a world, where daddy snuck in her room at night. Where Step-Mommy pounded her body and psyche (for being the other woman when she caught her husband molesting Victoria). She has earned to hate her body and her beauty. She has learned how to temporarily, disassociate herself from pain. She has learned how people can murder, without spilling a drop of blood. And finally, she has learned that love is just another word and an excuse to justify the evil things, one inflicts on a child. Vee built a room around Victoria and threw away the key but Victoria's silent screaming always unlocks the enclosure. This silence is LOUD. It is explosive. It is filled with murderous rage. Frequently, Victoria and Venice collaborate and write poetry but Victoria in her quiet, unassuming manner is too powerful. Her voiceless screams always grasps control of all their endeavors. The resultant poetry ends up being bleak and black, and Venice is left in a corner, wringing her ineffectual hands, while whining that she wanted to write about beauty and flowers, not pain and suffering. Victoria always ends up telling Venice to be quiet and "get real". Politely, of course.
Venom - is the bitch. She wishes everyone would just shut the fuck up. Or get the fuck outa her face. What she really want is for everyone to leave her the fuck alone. She loves the "F" word. She finds that it is the best all-around word to describe every situation. Unlike Varda Chaya (who she regards as being a confused mongrel) and Vic and Venice (who she regards as being totally useless) Venom considers human beings to be a blight on Mother Terra. She knows that the world is fucked up and would be a better place sans man. Victoria, at times, agrees with her. Vic, Venice and Varda Chaya are appalled so they keep her sedated. In fact, Venom is suicidal and has almost succeeded in killing herself but for some fucked up reason, doctors have managed to save her life, each time. Vic, Victoria and Venice secretly wish that she had succeeded.
Cassandra Rodriguez - likes to be called Cha Cha and is quite frankly rather free with her body. She has sex with anyone. Nubile boys and very attractive women. Old rich men. Anyone. She enjoys thinking that she is a genius and is always trying to create get rich schemes. Cha Cha believes immediately a man desires her if he simply says “hello” and has convinced herself that she is irresistible. She is morbidly obese, dresses in clothes that are both too tight and meant for teenage girls. She has a Marilyn Monroe, fake-like manner of speaking (she think that she sounds sexy and provocative) and has bleached her hair white, wears blue contacts and teeter-totters on four inch high heels. Even to go to the market. The neighbors enjoy talking about her and frequently mock Cha Cha. Even to her face. However, she believes that she is well-liked. She leaves her children at home to get by as best as they can but considers herself a “good and loving mommy”. Her eldest daughter, has been raising the three younger children, since she was 14 years-old. Cha Cha goes out clubbing and drinking every night, buys clothes for herself, while her children are dressed in clothing from second-hand stores or donated to her by neighbors. Her ex-husband sends child support faithfully, but Cha Cha spends the money foolishly.
Vincenzo Miquel de la Cruz - for the sake of brevity, let's call him Vinnie. He is the ultimate Western patriot. The epitome of cultured conservatism.The gentleman warrior. He was raised to believe in god, country and flag. He was raised to believe in freedom, democracy and bringing these values to the little brown, yellow and red peoples of the world as they labor on concentration camps also known as plantations, factories and warehouses, while manufacturing televisions, computers, radios and other assorted goodies. Vinnie also believes in preserving and protecting the borders of his country, by building walls. Building very big walls. Patrolled by gringo men, with big guns to keep out all the dirty little campesinos. Vinnie however, does not understand why these little brown, yellow and red men do not love and embrace him and his values. Varda Chaya, Venice and Vic despise him but are also frightened by him. Victoria understands him, since she understands hate, very well. Venom hates him, but then again, she hates everyone. Vee has succeeded him subduing him (most of the time). But like a badly tarnished penny, he returns when one least expects him, when issues like illegal immigration and slave reparations are discussed. Vincenzo really does not give a shit what Vee, Vic, Victoria, Venice and Varda Chaya thinks of him. In fact, he would like to stick them on one of his cocoa plantations or sneaker manufacturing plants. Venom amuses him.
Vee - then we have Vee. Abuelita, mother, human, poet, musician, artist and former Catholic, and apostate Jew. She says her favorite religion/fable is Judaism. Sick and in constant pain. Life has been kicking her in the ass, for a long damn time. She feels tired and old. Tired of pain. Tired of medicines. Tired of tests and needles. Tired of doctors. Just plain ole tired.
when dreams die a sordid death darkness banishes all light Orpheus can be heard snickering softly stage left as Thanatos crooks his fingers and beckons she lays defeated in Elysium fields fields salted by white coated stalwart soldiers and their caduceus weaponry
it is an ignoble death by millimeters of thinly, sharpened swords and measured drops of blood
These many faces are all aspects of Vee although the doctors tell her that they are just a figment of her imagination. She always responds, “tell that to Varda Chaya, Venom, Venice, Victoria, Cha Cha and Vinnie, as a written prescription for citalopram with a diagnosis of Dissociative Identity Disorder (formerly known as multiple personality disorder) is handed to her.
Nous sommes dans une tête, Sam
I understand now. Yes, I understand. But what is it to understand? Is it to comprehend? Does that come after apprehension? At what point is knowledge apprehended, and when is one responsible for it? That is my question to you.
Faustino walked through the belly of Paris. From the metro station at the top of the stairs, behind the kiosk where the wide surly smelly man in suspenders sells newspapers, down the stairs and passing through the path that bisects the planters of fragrant pink and white roses on the left, the green glass and steel apartments on the right (don’t mind the competing rotting piss-smell), then past the two cafes at the rue Rambuteau, the lesser one on the left — THE JET LAG, on past the better one on the righthandside, (it has no name) for and with views all the better for watching women arrive and descend, up and down that strip of sitting, moving, laughing, drinking, eating, and kissing life.
Onto the street of life, la rue Montorgueil, the Barbapapa store on the right, the Italian icecreamery (cream too rich) on the left, and the bobbles boutique aimed at young women on the left. Further up a few paces, still on the left the store that sells organic bread and pills with whale sperm and spinach and marrow and crushed pumpkin seeds, onward, on the right at the creperie stand where the pretty blonde curlyhaired girl with lovely naked limbs pours chocolate on your waffle, or fills it with sweet cream, that young woman always eye-catching with her tight bright blonde curls, a hawk-like nose such as her mother has, sad brown Phoenician eyes, high cheek bones, broad shoulders, long tan arms, a tapering waist, long thighbones, and long thin ivory calves, most of all, as she turns around, you see a high tight round rump, shapely is she whom I avoid looking at directly because she is flirted with, looked at all day, sniffed at all day . . . Oh then, yes the smell of the food wafting down this street, la rue Montorgueil, lubricating libidos, more smells, the smell of her and her daddy’s and her mother’s waffle crepes, toppings smells, fresh fruit, creams, chocolate. Her smells, yes, and fresh bread smells, and fresh fragrant and pungent cheese scents, and odors of spilled red wine on wood, and burnt sugar smells, cooked poulet, roasted rabbit, lamb and bisteak, the smells of oysters, snails, mussels and farine, sweet smells, womansmells, mensmells –ah, then you go on, past the small restaurant where we ate with Stuart and we met a frecklefaced, polite Scottish girl and a sassy dirtyblonde Londoner and a nutbrownhaired-sweet Northern Irish girl, all of them bright and kind and bubbly and eager to taste Paris; the food mediocre by Paris standards, but cheap; yes, we went onward, on past the righthandside, past the fromagerie Montorgueil, oh, yes the best for fresh savory creamy cheeses, crottin de chevre, picandou frais, creamyness rolled cylindrical de Ayveron, a savage brie and thin slices of ham from Spain— on past that, passing the inscribed Place de la Reine de Hongrie (‘did you notice that,’ asks Ed? Yes, now I do, as well did he notice the curlyblondecheveux girl with the nice calves and the sloe eyes) onward, past her place, thinking of that other her, in front and below the Morroccan grocer’s orange oranges, yellow bananas, green apples, and hanging decorated, tasseled, punched tin lamps, and almonds, and walnuts — look above to that loft I always wanted to ascend — to make love to her in her bed, stroke her black hair, kiss her beautiful almond-shaped eyes, lick her voice, throaty then girlish, womanly then giggling, yes that voice, mature, yes that one, earnest, that woman, British and English and African and Indian, that girl, a shapely, soft, blackhaired beauty whom I never tired of looking at. I never tired of her voice calling, pulling, beckoning me forward, that voice of a woman, something that goes down to the womb of her, that voice, yes, deep into her womb, past the limbs and the lips and the dark hair above them, deep into the soul of her body. . . . Walking onward past the Moroccan grocer’s store, and on the right the Italian sandwiches — past la rue Mauconseil (bad counsel indeed to do that then), past the large golden snail where we had delicious escargots (three kinds, in butter, in white wine and butter, and roasted in rosemary, and you Stewart were so happy that we chose the brass, dark wood and leather appointed, chandeliered eighteenth-century restaurant, after we drank our fruit-smelling white Bordeaux at the Lezard Café), crossing finally rue Etienne Marcel, past the man from the Maghreb who sells newspapers whom I buy from parce qu’il est gentil, et il m’a dit, merci, bonjour, et il a toujours les journals que je cherche, both in English and in French, and in Spanish, no attitude from him, he is just polite.
You have come from the metro Chatelet, springing up on your thick, shapely calves, up at the newsstand and the green Guimard awning. You pass past the postcards stand of posters and cards and pictures of Che in various poses, sitting on a steed, standing on a pile of boxes, sweaty, dirty stinky, and he proud of himself - ‘el chancho’ - he smoking his cigar, his brilliant brown Irish eyes lit up and smiling, the everpresent fatigues and white t-shirt, tightly-muscled Che. You pass past the clothing stores, Kookai, because you know this about you, Je ne suis pas jolie, je suis pire: I am not pretty: I am worse, past the banana café with the rainbow flags and the airbrushed palmtrees, and the oversize phallically erect bananas, swaying in the light wind, first bent, then erect, yellow and happy, the smiling boys in muscleshirts outside smiling at you and me, past the shoe stores, Arcus and others, then walking under the arch where right before it a king was killed in his carriage, stabbed well enough to leave him leaving off this life — off then past the bookstore, another one, Mona Lisait, on your left, and on the right a 16th century fountain, elegant and stately, working most of the time, now marred with red graffiti: Israël: Assassins, and the Africans, North, Central and West, and the youth on bicycles, and girls in short plaid skirts — what lovely legs! — and trim blue police on rollerblades, and a fast-food store selling American food not Hallal right on your right.
Make a left through Les Halles: originally not a French, but a German word (do you hear that, Sam?) — and so therefore not elided. (The word follows the reality, but what if it were man-made? And what of that Cemetery of Innocents, and why did they move them into the 14th Arrondisement, underground? All those bones, heads, shoulders, femurs, wrists, feet, metacarpals, phalanges, sternums, what? Where was our grandmother Delamain, our cousin Bequet, and our cousins Dulanay? Have we come so far to move so close to be so far again, Sam?
What of your Irish people in Paris? In France? And what did you bring that others did not? What in common with the prelates, the theologians, the philosophers, the soldiers and the scribblers?
Ah, yes. The back-and-forth across the water. (Who makes that water recede?) Leave that for another day. — For now we are in a tête, seulement.)
Les Halles: The green awnings and the arches and the metalworks, the allées, and then you pass the area where the merrygoround goes round and round, and the homeless piss and spit and shit and curse and live and dwell and cry and smile. All of that aboveground, above the metro and the Réseau Express Régional that rumbles below above the stores such as the F.N.A.C., where we bought so many of your books, Samuel, above that labyrinth of hairclip, shoe, compact disc, book, suit, dress, underwear, toy and lamp, fixture, television, radio, blender, plastic-hangar and otherwise other stores that are filled with bee and antlike people burrowing, buying, descending and ascending. Constantly.
Oh yes, and the theatres, and the swimming pool below the trees and the pink, purple, red and white and yellow-flowered plants off the cross of the allé Louis Aragon above, coming from the West; a pyramidal glass ceiling one can look through or up through from below at the end of the underground rapid express train, below Aragon’s walk, and the eateries, and the snack stores and poster-shops and the foot-traffic eternal below; such as such only hell and purgatory would have us in, and walking, all the walking – people walking at us all the time, crossing, smelling, passing and us seeing or not seeing one another. Yes. A big green awning above an Irish Pub: McGreevey’s. Right off the rue Coquillière, on to the rue du Jour.
It is there that I wanted to kiss you, outside of the entrance to Saint-Eustache; there I wanted to smell your shoulder-length hair; you came dressed in a jumper, and we waited for you, Carlos and John and I, drinking Beamish. McGreevey’s: I waited for you again and again, waiting in the rain, once, and then at night, waited for your light spring step and your dark almond-shaped eyes, your soft black hair. Waited for that voice I both wanted to kiss and to hear.
You, arriving, walking along the area past the Citadines backside, making a right onto the poets’ allées, Saint-John Perse to Federico Garcia Lorca and André Breton together at a nexus, after the water non-potable, and the water one can drink, Saint Eustache looming left, so beautiful and large and majestic, that church, where Mozart’s mother made peace and prayed her rosary, where a bust to Liszt lies, and where Keith Haring’s sculpture sits below a 17th century oil-painting — that church of incense and prayer and song.
In front of the church, children playing, couples kissing, and the sculpture of the headinthehand smiling at all who take it in, a tilted African forehead with Asian eyes, that head, symbol of the people from French colonies, in front of that majestic, Colonial church, a female beggar at the door, while the workmen make white the ornate stone saints, and rose and starfaced façade, all of that, there all at once.
He is now walking toward you, after a day of anticipation, of waiting to meet you, waiting and imagining.
(To brush my lips on your lovely neck, to smell that honeysucklesmell in your inkblack hair; to be lost in that pungent scent your body pushes upward from your womb, emanating from your lips; there at the slope of your shoulder is where I should lay my head, and right behind the ear is where I wish to kiss you, bite you . . .)
Coming from the Jardin du Palais Royal, where he was reading Proust and Three Dialogues with George Duthuit, walking under the canopy of trees, onto the gravel and sand, out onto the Pavillons, under the arches and up the stairs, past the magazinerie, crossing over to the Galerie Vivienne sidewalk, rue Radziwil on your right, and on your left, LeGrand Filles et Fils wine from Corsica in the window, the oldest bookstore in Paris still selling, I walk, he walks, you walk down through the open space of the Placedes Victoires, saluting the Virgin mother in blue and white tunic, her Basilica on the left, a 17th century blandness outside, gorgeous and golden, blue and silver and ornate, dark, and resplendent and reverent on the inside, on down past the Mexican Consulate’s flag on the left, past the peagreen Art nouveau nouille façade of the only other boulangerie you would buy bread at, Au Panetier, the light peagreen corner building of the breadmaker on your right. Around the corner, Louis Quatorze au cheval, gloriously mounted, his head turned left, surveying the scene, a parallel to the Virgin’s building, a counterweight and complement to Her monument and basilica, you choose to walk down the Rue du Mail, a route you often walked, quietly. There are so many carpet shops and laborers, young people walking and talking, book-publishers snotty and sniffy, who won’t make way for you on the sidewalk – you should push her – that one — with your shoulder, get it square under her chin, and up the head, a chucked elbow to the latissimus of the man who nearly runs you over, (a biography of Leopold Sedar Senghor, I remember is in the window as we pass by that couple). On that street, our preferred grocer where we buy the best Dutch cookies, the better blonde Belgian beers, and the richer, darker, sweeter chocolates, fresh meat and cheese, other than what we bought more freshly caught or what was recently made on the rue Montorgueil. (Yes, of course, you can’t buy better than Stohrer’s and Alaïn Brulé!) — I was just in such a hurry to see you, smell you, kiss you, bury my face in your ink-black hair.
I walk down the rue d’Aboukir. Down to the rue Montmartre at the first corner brasserie where a socialist met his end – not before he finished his pint! — on the right-hand the traffic is coming, on the lefthandside people are walking, then there is a descent to the rue Montorgueil perpendicular to my destination; again, on the righthandside is a pub and an eatery with metro paraphernalia and bobbleheads, and good beer, light, French, Belgian, blonde, crisp, tasty, savory golden liquid, and meals of beans soup with strips of red meat served with spinach and butter and bread. A grumpy, greyhaired wild-eyed bartender in striped pants on his long lean legs is kind enough to ask you if you want to come in. (He turned his grumpiness off.) Further.
I walk down to the transverse rue Bauchamont, past what was once a ballroom, once North African and Arab, then, a Laundromat; then an arcade and green plants and small trees (arbustes) growing upward in a perpetual shade. You see the carved lion’s head, then the plaque in Arabic, then Alain Mikli’s many eyes looking at you.
Waiting for your thirst on the right are the bottles of waters, sodawater, sparkling water, but no one there to serve or buy them from, et puis, l’Arbres á letters on the left, a red sign hung vertically, a white facade, black lettering on the sign, a bookstore, yes, what you love there, books, and a tall thin sad-eyed blonde, lithe and graceful. She’s a delightfully young woman. The smells of both, books and the young woman, the feel of both, the look and weight and promise of both! There where that blondie (dirty brown streaks down the middle of that fallen angel’s head) oh, a vixen she is, dressed in a red springtime dress with white polka dots dotting all over her. It’s a lovely dress on a lovely woman, emphasizing her tapered waist, revealing enough of her thin white legs to admire them, and so much of her back because the dress scoops to the middle of her back. You see her lovely arms as she steps on the ladder to place books on the higher shelves. Sadeyed. That’s how I’d describe her face. She with the marred left arm, a scar the shape of a benthandled hammer ready to come down upon something (Upon what, my heart?) She attends to her browsing customers. She feigns indifference with just enough of a sideward look to pull me forward. (What cool and sparkling light green eyes I see when she turns around, her body on tiptoe, reaching for a book; I see white arms and hands and fingers, and long thin shapely nails – her bottom up and up and upturned, back on her heels, head turned in a backward leftside glance to me momentarily: those eyes. Oh.) I have to leave.
You were returning home to visit, to eat with him (with me), to dine at our favorite place: Papa’s, earlier named Julian’s, previously known as La Blondie’s. If you must know its name: the Aux Crus de Bourgogne, where I met the exiled Mexican elites, Bernardo, in particular, (not really his name) in a truth-telling mood, savoring beef Savoyard, tasting burgundy, and beginning and ending with champagne and Beckett, but interrupted by Octavio Paz’s poems – El Amarillo se desliza al rosa, / se insinúa la noche en el violeta — I had no business being there, but there I was.
Bernardo, resident of the Tour Montparnasse told me Tour Montparnasse’s history and how many Mexican exiles – elites – lived there, how many left the country for good after sacking the treasuries. How many worked in administrations that took as much as they could from the humble and the poor and the middle class. Ah, yes, he was in a truthtelling mood, of course, in his 90’s, told me I could find him there every Thursday . . .
Back to you, my dear, back to you. I desired you, pursued you, was on my way to you. So, I walked down the rue Montorgueil past the elongated hanging roasting ducks on a spit, past the browned roasted chicken and tasty seasoned pork, and the darkmeat, dressed dinde (didn’t know they liked that so much; didn’t know dinde would be so savory, but of course they don’t have the same relationship to Indians and to turkeys that we do, do they?), past the celebrated Stohrer’s Patisserie, past the beloved AlainBrulé boulangerie and patisserie on the lefthand side where Nathalie works and the breads are fresh, and smell like your soft warm thighs on a summer night, on, on toward the past, and past the Café Sega and the Centre Ville on the lefthandside still, I am walking, he is walking, in a u-turn now, back then down to the rue Bauchamont where I — he makes a lefthand turn.
It was there that I saw her in all of her sad and serious beauty, the sloe-eyed, green-eyed, stately womangirl, a girl in a floral red and white dress, the scar on her left arm, a depression into the skin, the elegance of her limbs, her long, thin, white calves. Yes. Blonde. Handling the books the way I’d like her to handle mine. Mine what? Wouldn’t you like to feel and know what her long thin shapely fingers know when they touch and trace and pull the strap of her bra tighter at the shoulder, see her turn her head toward you, those sad grey-green eyes, that elegant quash-shaped head, the long blonde tresses falling over her back, ah yes women do have backs here, and fronts, and legs.
She’s a distraction.
I walk over. — He sniffs, smells, looks, waits, browses, then picks them up, each volume, its heft and smoothness all of a weight, like her, as she is when she sits on his lap and crosses her legs, lacing her arms around the back while nuzzling around his neck, French lips parting and kissing, wet smack wet.
After piling book upon book, then placing them under my arm, and being careful not to confuse her that my book, Nouvelles et Textes Pour Rien, was not for nothing under the other arm to demonstrate what was mine was in fact not hers. I did look, was looking at her jolie jupe rouge, the elegance of her long thin, shapely ivorywhite (now I see, freckled) calves. I know French women are used to taking looking, so I make myself discreet, making my way to the bookshelves in the righthand corner diagonal from the entrance after selecting O.V. de L. Milosz’s Poésies II: Les Éléments, Autres Poèmes, Symphonies, Nihumm, Adramandoni, La Confession de Lemuel, and finally Derniers Poèmes; then Balzac’s, Nouvelles; also, Villiers de l’Isle-Adam’s, Contes Cruels; Voltaire’s, Dictionnaire philosophique; and finally, Corneille’s, La Place Royale.
And so we eat; and we eat so well together. Five hours and counting, stuffing our mouths (yours made of perfect lips, a lovely tongue, and straight white teeth) eating, drinking, tasting, first duck paté, our aperitif, un kir, then salad for you and for you and me a kiss of red wine from the Southwest, Auvergne, then thin strips of maigret de canard for me, and for you lamb like your thighs, lamb like your eyes, my Maghrebian Mamasita, then another bottle of red, this one Fitou; next a delicious meatpie slipped in for savoring together, then yes, we have more of the desserts coming, Blondie brings them, a drunk purple, half-pear, whipped cream on the side, yours some dark chocolate (like you, like your bum) cake, sweet, layered, lingering the taste. (Yes. Yes, I want you all of you, you all of you, my dessert.) Then the coffee, small, just right. Finally a spirit to spirit us away, some eau de vie, life-giving, life-taking if you take too much of it, but just enough to make us happy, just enough to make you blush.
If I could then have taken you home to make you mine one night, a night I would have made with you, night I would have forgotten not ever. But, we did not, we did not, we did.
From the Vaudeville, past the Bourse, down the rue Réamur to the top of Montorgueil. She comes. Brown. Dark-eyed. Arched-eyebrows. Nice plump arms; rounded, you are, my dear. Yes, and that clipped English accent, those thin sensuous magenta lips. You must have drunk all of the best coffee in the world to have those eyes, shaped like almonds, and what pretty white teeth. Yes, your Arab, Indian, English bloodlines are apparent in those eyes, in those deliciously large plump full hips, in your full, shapely cans. Yes, I shall call them that, cans, long, full, pointed, wanting for all of my mouth to suck them, I know. Call it whatever drive you like. I haven’t any restraint in my mind when I see, smell and sense you dear, so close, my dear, so close to me, my dove.
We did not.
We did not,
Venetia Sjogren is a 61-year-old disabled homo sapien, fem, grandmother, a proud Latina of mixed cultural heritage, a borderline atheist and humanist. Back in 2005, she fled New Jersey, for the gentle mists of Seattle only to return to New Jersey, when her grandson was born. However, she considers herself a Seattle refugee hoping to return there, one day. Some of her publication credits include The Farmhouse Magazine, Jersey Works, and Howard University’s The Amistad, The Cristell Writing Contests - The Book Lovers Haven, and Wordgathering.
David Vela is a professor of English at Diablo Valley College, in Pleasant Hill, California, where he is also an advisor to veterans and an instructor and mentor in the Puente Project.
Tania Romero's "Lazarus Effect" is the third place winner of our 2019 Extra-fiction contest of which the Judge, Ernest Hogan said, "promises to go on to some interesting places. I’d like to read the novel when it’s finished." To read the judge's thoughts on the winning entrees, head over to our friends at La Bloga to Hogan's Chicanonautica, his column on all things Latinoid and unusual (some would say all things extra).
Stay tuned to Somos en escrito for the Honorary Mention stories.
Photo of Rio Grande by Scott Duncan-Fernandez
"Lazarus Effect" excerpt from When Corn People Wage War by Tania Romero
El Paso, Texas July 20th, 2018
The old man’s hands were crippled, calloused from the ware-and-tear labor in the cornfields. He studied the bridging lines of his muddy open palms, tracing them back to Piedras Negras, Mexico a lifetime ago. He tugged at the metal handcuffs around his wrists, anchoring him to the leg of the wooden chair in the small interrogation room. Inside his mouth, a dry sandstorm was forming. He refused to drink the water in the styrofoam cup on the table, no matter how much the plain white walls around him moved. He focused on syncopating his blinking to the light flashing red from the surveillance camera above him.
With his right index finger and his thumb, he dug the blue-green residue underneath his fingernails on the other hand. He gently rubbed his feet together, scrapping the dry mud nestled between his bare toes. The clusters of mud brought back a distant childhood memory, when Abue Alda would churn the masa between her fingers while making corn tortillas by hand. The clumpy masa naturally sunk back into her skin, and only rinsed off with water from the nearby water well. She was after all, like her Mayan ancestors: made of corn. His clothes were torn, as if he had fought his way out of the underworld Xibalba, the ‘place of fear.’ But only the deep wrinkles on his forehead paved way to his untold story.
Border patrol officer Rodriguez sat across from the old man, watching him tug as his peeling flesh. A slight stench of death was beginning to fill the room; the kind of smell that was all too familiar to her. It reminded her of the time she fainted at the sight of the first cadaver she ever saw during a required training in the morgue. But now, after two years as a border patrol agent on the Texas-Mexico border, death was just an everyday occurrence in her line of work.
She fixated on the man’s shoulders. He barely moved to breathe. Did he have a pulse? Surely he must be breathing if he was sitting in front of her, she thought. But she couldn’t be quite certain with a body so stiff. Other than his hands and feet, he barely moved his body at all. He didn’t struggle with his handcuffs like the recent wave of Central American criminals who tried to sell another asylum story, or U.S. citizens trying to explain contraband items in their cars. She wondered why the styrofoam cup remained untouched. Why didn’t he want to drink? His chapped lips were pealing from enduring a long period of sun exposure in the desert heat. His black hair appeared to have been falling out for years, evidence of long bouts of alopecia. His eye sockets were deep, dark, and the whiteness of his eyeballs had a tint of yellowish-decay.
“How do you know my name?” she broke the silence.
The man traced his sunken eyes past her. She felt his glare pierce every cell in her body. But instead of just holding his look in her direction, he focused on the stern CBP officer behind officer Rodriguez, who eagerly hovered the gun on his holster with his hand. The old man turned toward his own reflection on the two-way mirror to his right, as if he was staring at a twin image.
Taking a deep breath, she pulled out a folded piece of notebook paper with the name “BP Ada Rodriguez” written on it.
“Mi nombre,” she placed the paper on the table and forcefully tapped her index finger on it. “How do you know my name?” she insisted. The man turned his body slightly to face her again, without a response. Instead, he chuckled at the sight of how her hair-tie barely tamed her unruly curly black hair. She was a light-skin morena and her olive-green uniform was too big for her small frame. It was unnatural for a woman her size to be wearing ‘manly attire,’ he thought. He could tell the stress of her job was getting to her because her weight loss had gone unperceived. She didn’t have a wedding ring on her finger, or evidence of ever wearing one. But he was sure of one thing: She had her father’s light brown eyes.
“Mendez?” she turned to the CBP officer behind her. “Can you translate?”
“I don’t speak fluent Spanish,” Officer Mendez replied. She bit her tongue for as long as she could. “Why the hell did they send you in with me?”
He shifted his gun and shrugged.
“We’re gonna need a translator. I’ll call the medical examiner again. I want to understand how this DOA illegal came back to life and knows my name.”
Oaxaca, Mexico July 20th, 1953
Under his lucky weather-stricken torn sombrero, Elpidio de los Santos was still physically strong for a man who had just turned thirty. In his younger days, he was known as el potro de acero among the other boys in town. With his dexterity for carpentry and the ability to move anything around him with pure brute strength, he never worried about finding work. He was also an enthusiastic herbalist, just like his grandmother Abue Alda.
Despite the circumstances growing up, Elpidio was an avid go-getter. His mother, Maria, died during childbirth and his father left long before the first birthing pains. Elpidio always imagined that his father died a patriotic hero during the Mexican revolution, taking his last breath in the Chihuahuan hills while protecting Pancho Villa in the last ambush. He arrived at this conclusion because his birthday also coincided with the assassination of Pancho Villa: July 20th, 1923.
Raised with the iron first from his maternal grandmother, Alda Eloisa de los Santos, Elpidio learned to never ask for anything. Abue Alda was a renown curandera and maintained that Elpidio’s father, un bueno para nada, had run off with a city prostitute who left him dead on the side of the road after stealing his money. She purified Elpidio’s spirit with weekly limpias espirituales to keep away the curse of mal aire that his father left behind, lighting copal smoke and swaying a raw egg in the secret pattern over his body and cracking it over a class of water to reaffirm his strong energy. Occasionally, she would cover his left hand with a small manta during the ritual, an attempt to cure his ambidexterity, which if left untreated, could leave Elpidio with the inability to tell right from wrong. She refused to speak his father’s name in the Mayan tradition of forgetting by silence, and that is how Elpidio eventually deduced that his father had probably lived in the same town. He once suspected that Abue Alda cursed his father for planting a dying seed in her daughter’s womb, but one does not question the reasons behind the mal de ojo from a curandera.
For most of his adolescent life, Elpidio assisted Abue Alda in various rituals and became a knowledgeable healer himself. Every morning he collected the necessary ingredients for various elixirs, gathered the eggs from the chickens, and brewed plant leaves to treat disorders, placing them in their respective receptacles for Abue Alda to use. With his gifted hands, he also built Abue Alda a private makeshift temazcal in the backyard, so she could conduct purification ceremonies without any distractions from onlookers.
It was an unusual cloudy Sunday morning when the town’s store owner Don Arcario Morales brought his ill teenage daughter Casilda to see Abue Alda. Don Arcario was a stern businessman and Casilda was his greatest investment. She was twelve at the time, with delicate hands covered in hives and a quiet smile despite a mysterious malady that began that morning. Casilda’s long braid adorned with ribbons, tamed her wild curly black hair; she had a womanly charm that could entice any potential suitor in the next year or so. Even in her illness, she was the most beautiful thing Elpidio ever saw.
“Doña Alda, mi hija se bebió un vaso de agua esta mañana, y mire como tiene la piel. Puras ronchas. Haga algo,” Don Arcario pleaded. Abue Alda glanced over Casilda from head to toe. She was covered in red hives and wheezed when she breathed. She directed Don Arcario and Casilda to the backyard, and invited Casilda into the temazcal to do an initial cleansing. Elpidio and Don Arcario waited quietly outside. She asked Casilda to lay face down on the floor, as she lit copal smoke to clear the air. She pulled Casilda’s arms back, lifting her fragile upper body and bending her legs back and forth. She lifted Casilda’s dress and rubbed witch hazel leafs mixed with sabila on her legs to soothe the itch. The young woman still in pain, drank the hot green elixir Abue Alda prepared. After a few minutes, when the hives began to disappear, Abue Alda traced a raw egg in a circular pattern over Casilda’s body, and finally in the shape of an eagle feather over her womb. When she cracked the egg inside a glass of water, the yolk of the egg was surrounded by blood clots. Abue Alda gave Don Arcario the verdict: Casilda, who had began menstruating that morning, was also highly allergic to water.
Despite the grim prognosis, Elpidio was thrilled that Casilda made regular monthly visits to Abue Alda for cleansing rituals in the temazcal. She smiled as she walked past him, but he tamed his lust for her with only a silent nod. A year passed before he gathered the courage to ask Don Arcario for Casilda’s hand. They were both the marrying age: She was thirteen and he was twenty. Elpidio convinced Don Arcario that by marrying Casilda, she would be taken care of living in Abue Alda’s house, where she wouldn’t have to travel, specially during inclement weather days when rain was expected.
Abue Alda warned Elpidio that if he married Casilda, their children would be cursed; a woman allergic to a naturally occurring element was bad luck, she explained. She could not be cleansed by the rain water from the sky, and she could not purify her body by consuming water from the earth. She was a dry Yax Che, a dry ceiba tree that would make everything die in the rainforest. She carried a dead universe in her womb, where nothing sacred could grow. How could she ever truly honor Huracan, creator of great floods?
Elpidio’s growing will and excited heart were stronger than any potion or ritual that Abue Alda could deliver to prevent the wedding. So he went ahead despite the warnings. As a last attempt to impede any offspring between them, on Elpidio and Casilda’s first night together, Abue Alda laid down in the next room on her favorite manta, lit some copal around her, and drank a secret concoction that only she knew the ingredients of. She closed her eyes and never woke up.
It was painful for Elpidio to accept Abue Alda’s passing in the middle of the night. But despite not having her blessing, over their ten years of marriage, Casilda and Elpidio had a total of six children together. The first pregnancy, which occurred a few months after Abue Alda’s death, was stillborn twins. Casilda had difficulty conceiving after that, the result of a stressed womb. Elpidio knew this was a message from Abue Alda to remind him that even the Hero Twins, Hunahpu and Xbalanque, asked permission from their grandparents before creating humans. In a desperate attempt to cleanse their spirits of any wrongdoing, Casilda and Elpidio asked for forgiveness in one last ritual in the temazcal before leaving town to start a new life in Piedras Negras.
When Casilda became pregnant for a second time, Elpidio felt Abue Alda’s forgiveness in the expansion of her belly. They named the child Caridad. Soon after, three more pregnancies followed: Teresa, Rosario, and Elpidio Jr. But the three young daughters were plagued with maladies, just like their mother. Caridad, suffered from various illnesses, starting with a terrible case of respiratory diphtheria before the age of eight, which left her borderline asthmatic for the rest of her life. Polio had stripped away Teresa’s ability to walk and speak coherently, and Rosario had persistent bouts of gastritis. The slight presence of any spice in Rosario’s food would make her bed-ridden for days.
Unlike his sisters, Elpidio Jr. was already showing signs of improved health. He had symmetrical big hands and feet like his father, a full head of black curly hair, and his pink cheeks stretched wide when he smiled. His porcelain light skin was even-toned and radiant. His light brown eyes were open to the world, absorbing as much light as they could. Elpidio, who never asked for anything, found himself placing a raw egg wrapped in straw on the windowsill of the house. Every morning, he would crack it open in a clear glass of water, to make sure he prevented the mal de ojo against Elpidio Jr. from his unhealthy older sisters. But unfortunately, Elpidio knew that his son had inherited the same ambidexterity that Abue Alda had attempted to eradicate in him, and it was likely that Elpidio Jr. would pass this trait to his own children one day.
Las Cruces, New Mexico July 21st, 2018
The white Chevi border patrol van crossed the treacherous dirt path terrain into an area twenty minutes from the outskirts of Las Cruces. Officer Ada Rodriguez swerved back and forth trying to avoid any holes on the road. She could feel the gravel below them. Her window was rolled down and she sensed the earthy smell of the desert heat. Her heightened senses were distracting that morning. Officer Mendez sat on the passenger side, also slightly jolting because of the rough terrain.
“This must be it,” Mendez pointed at an open area straight ahead. He looked at his GPS monitor and signaled Rodriguez to stop.
“Chingao, it’s hotter out here than El Paso,” he looked at the thermometer on the rearview mirror. It read 103 degrees Fahrenheit.
Mendez stepped out of the van first. Rodriguez stayed in the van a little longer. She could still see Mexico in the distance. When she began to walk around the area, she could tell the direct sunlight alone could scorch the skin within a few minutes of exposure, as there were no trees around, only the occasional shade from large boulders. She walked toward a small dirt ravine where the old man had been found. She knelt down and picked up chunks of dry blue-green clay in her hand, foreign to an area like that. She wondered what it was like for that old man, to lay there for hours until he finally died. Or pass out long enough without a pulse for CBP to find him the day before and believe he was dead.
There was a soothing calmness however, and she imagined that if she could ever select a location to die, this would be the spot. Alone, smoking a cigarette in peace. Perhaps in the quiet of the night, laying on her back waiting to be reborn among the stars. She would tame her face into a serene expression so when her body was found, anyone would know she went fearlessly as she faded into darkness.
“I don’t get it,” Mendez interrupted Rodriguez envisioning her own death. “Just look. Mexico is just right there. He was less than an hour away from Las Cruces. He could have easily made it without getting caught.” Exactly, Rodriguez thought.
“It’s way off the path to the border too. It’s like he went in a circle until someone found him.”
“Maybe he wasn’t trying to cross to our side,” Rodriguez replied.
“You mean, he was trying to cross back to Mexico? He could have just crossed the bridge back. Why the hell would an illegal want to do this?” Rodriguez looked into the clear blue horizon across the distant Mexican lands, lost in thought again.
El Paso, Texas July 22nd, 2018
In her cubicle, Rodriguez re-examined the contents of the manila folder labeled ‘J. Doe – 10389.’ In a sealed bag designated to hold the old man’s belongings, there were several handcrafted pendants, some with animal bones attached and some with intricate patterns of blue-green jade commonly worn in the shamanist tradition. She studied the coroner’s report, photos of the old man, laying on his back in the exact spot where her and Mendez had stood the day before. His face was pale, and dust had settled on his eyelids and hair. He had obviously been out there for days before the border agents found him. His hands were chalky and stiff. His feet had a blue-green mud between them. He must have been out there alone for days trying to find his way. But his way to where? Why was he headed back to Mexico? She thought.
She wondered why the coyotes didn’t get to him first. In fact, according to the report, he was left undisturbed by any desert animal. His necrobiomes which usually determine the stage of decomposition a body, were inconclusive. To the officers who found him, he was visibly a corpse with no pulse, and that is why they zipped him up into a black body bag. She would have done the same. By any medical report, the old man was dead, and now he was inexplicably alive.
The old man briefly sat alone in the interrogation room, handcuff to the leg of the chair this time. He studied the cup of water on the table, just like before. But this time, he wore navy blue scrubs and plastic crocs with socks, as the officers made him take a shower and wash away all the mud on his body. All that sacred mud that protected his skin, se fue con el agua, he thought.
Officer Rodriguez opened the door to the room. Office Mendez and a translator, Officer Blanco followed. Officer Blanco sat across the old man, Mendez and Rodriguez stood behind him.
“Me llamo Omar Blanco” Officer Blanco began. “Soy agente federal de migracion. Ellos tambien, el agente Mendez y agente Rodriguez,” he pointed at each. He placed the piece of paper with the inscription “BP Ada Rodriguez” on the table.
“Queremos saber de donde viene y como se llama.”
The old man’s eyes were fixated on Officer Rodriguez. His eyes weighed heavy on her.
“Elpidio” the old man finally spoke. “I speak English, but I will only talk to her,” he pointed at Officer Rodriguez.
All eyes were on her, and she felt a piercing pain in her stomach. Officer Blanco stood up and let Officer Rodriguez take the chair. She reluctantly sat down, taming her reckless nerves in front of all the men in the room.
“How do you know my name?” she asked the old man.
“I have a message from your father, Elpidio.”
“How do you know my father?”
"You have his eyes. He had a stroke recently and passed, didn’t he?”
Officer Rodriguez sat back in her chair. She had a habit of not sharing her family business in the office. As the only female border patrol on her floor, she didn’t want to seem incapable of ‘hanging tough with the boys,’ and learned to speak only about impersonal topics. No one, including Officer Mendez, knew her father had passed the month prior.
“I haven’t spoken to him in years. I wouldn’t know,” she replied.
“He sent me. I am here to fix that problem you have with your hands.”
"Since you were a child, you could use both. Just like your father and your sister. But unlike your sister, you never learned how to choose right from wrong.”
“How did you know…”
“And you have chosen wrong without knowing it, even forgetting our language,” he glared at the Border Patrol insignia on her uniform. “You incarcerate our own people.”
“Our people? I detain criminals before they go beyond the border. I maintain the law in this country.”
“Those were your last words before you hung up on your father the last time you spoke. He kept calling but you never answered. It broke his heart.”
“Who the hell are you?” she stood up from the chair. She glanced at the piece of paper on the table with her name. “Who sent you here?”
“Nos perteneces, Ada. You are one of us. His spirit cannot pass until you choose us again.”
“You know how hard it was to get here? This is my path because I worked hard for it. Which one of my aunts put you up to this? Did Alda tell you to come here?”
“Your sister Alda did not send me, but she misses you. You haven’t spoken to your family in years. Ya es hora de subirte en las raices del ceiba, a buscar a tu familia denuevo.”
Officer Rodriguez froze. She felt a cold breeze surround her body and the plain white walls in the room began to shift on their own. She glanced at the styrofoam cup on the table; the yellow yolk of a raw egg had turned white and floated to the top. Her feet could no longer hold her weight and she collapsed on the floor of the interrogation room.
El Paso Today
You wake up in a hospital bed and your eyelids are heavy as they open. You see a familiar womanly figure approaching from across the room. It is your twin sister Alda, who you haven’t seen or spoken to in two years since you diverted professional paths; she graduated law school to practice immigration law and you applied to become a border patrol officer. Despite the differences in careers, she is your mirror-image.
“Nos distes un gran susto, Ada,” you hear her say as she embraces you.
“Que te pasó?”
“No sé,” you reply as if Spanish is the only language you speak; a language you feel like you tried to forget in a past life. “De repente, me desmallé.”
You see a styrofoam cup near a plastic pitcher full of water. It sits on a portable tray table.
“Le dije a la enfermera que tenemos alergia al algua. Aun asi, nos trajo un pichel.” Despite your allergies to water, you still try to reach for the cup because you realize your left arm is paralyzed. Alda watches you struggle.
“No te desesperes. El neurologo nos dijo que a lo mejor vas a perder sensación en un lado del cuerpo, a causa del derrame.”
“Derrame?” you ask as you try to move your toes under the sheets. They feel heavy as if you were standing knee-deep in mud. You notice Alda has paired her lawyer pantsuit look with a jade pendant around her neck. You recognize it for reasons unknown. You want to speak in English, because you remember speaking it, but you cannot recall a single word. You cannot claim it as your language anymore. The only phrase resonating from the recent past is: Ya es hora de subirte en las raices del ceiba, a buscar a tu familia denuevo. Y por fin entiendes, por que estas en este presente.
Tania Romero, born and raised in Nicaragua, is a poet, filmmaker, and digital media instructor who currently resides in Texas. Her award-winning short documentary, “Hasta con las Uñas,” featured interviews with Nicaraguan women filmmakers. Recently she published a free-form poem titled El Paso Pasó Por mi Corazón in the Sin Fronteras journal, and her photography will be featured in an anthology of Latino writers titled, Latina Outsiders (Routledge). Her short story, “Una Cuadra Al Lago de Silencio,” was published in Somos en Escrito and The Rio Grande Review, and her short story, “Mas Doraditos” was published in La Ceiba Journal. She is working toward an MFA in Creative Writing from UT El Paso.