Mamá is ripping weeds from vegetable beds, her focus deep between the stalks of the tomato plants—her trance, as Pablo calls it. I monitor her from the side of my vision, knowing better than to look at her directly, but she knows I am watching, perhaps because my hands do not move as quickly as hers do, not as deftly. I work faster to compensate, and not just because her brown eyes flash for a moment over mine in silent command; it is summer and every hour the jungle encroaches on our clearing, sending its tendrils into the garden, the wood pile, between the very boards of the house if it could. Mamá has completed her side of the patch and turns her attention to the soil in front of her while she waits for me to finish.
The dirt rises in mounds between her palms, and I don’t need to watch to know what she is making. She continues as I yank at weeds, the small stingers of the melon vines sinking into my fingers as they accidentally collide with one another in my haste. Mamá pinches the soil between her fingers, attaching a smaller mound and four appendages to each of the twin mounds. She pats their surfaces, smooths them.
“In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth,” she begins, and my mouth forms around the next verses while I work. We recite it together, our voices barely above a hush.
“So God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them,” she says, then rests her knees in the dirt. She doesn’t need to finish the story; we both know how it finishes. And we both know how she will finish it.
“God gave us a second chance,” she concludes, looking down at her creations. “He gave us a second chance.”
She smiles out at the line where the bare dirt succumbs to a wall of green, of fronds and vines and leaves alive with the hum of insects, of birds calling to one another through the gloom.
“And why you and Papá called me Edén,” I add for her.
“That’s right,” she chuckles, nodding. “That’s right.”
I have been expecting this ritual since just before dawn, when Mamá’s groans woke Pablo and me and stirred the younger children, and Papá had to shake her awake, rocking her in his arms.
“You’re safe, woman, you’re safe,” he whispers, and I can hear her sharp breaths ease into sobs. “We made it.”
“We made it,” she repeats.
“We crossed the wilderness,” he says.
“We crossed the wilderness,” she says.
“We crossed the sea,” he says.
“We crossed the sea,” she says.
“And we arrived in the promised land. We are in the promised land.”
Her voice is calm again. “We are in the promised land.”
Pablo and I see the whites of Papá’s eyes through the twilight as he returns our stares, and without a word we push the blankets off us, dress ourselves, and go outside to ready the firepit. He lights the lamps and the fire, and I fumble in the darkness to hang the pot over the burgeoning flames. Pablo’s eyes roll toward mine, and mine to his. And I think of Mamá’s cracked hands and dirtied nails, fashioning the soil after her own image.
These fits come like freak storms, but I learned early that they almost always come when I ask questions, when I invite the past to come creeping in from its hiding place just beyond the tree line. Suddenly, my vision fills with white light and I am small again, not much older than the twins, the top of my head just barely reaching Mamá’s hip. She has given up on coaxing me to help her shell the peas and instead smiles, allowing me to embrace and kiss her swollen womb. Juana. Pablo plays with something on the floor, barely able to walk.
“Mamá, do you got a mamá?”
“I told you: In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth…”
“But that was Adán and Eva. And they had to leave the Garden. And they had Caín and Abel, but Caín killed Abel, and then he and his family wandered the earth.”
She says nothing, her smile unwinding at the edges.
“How’d we get back?”
“Why you ask so many questions?” She’s trying to be playful, but there is a command behind her question.
“Are we the only ones here?”
“Go play with the doll Papá made for you,” she says as she gestures to the wooden doll on the floor with her knife.
That was the first time I remember her screaming in the night, Papá cradling her, chin atop her head.
The next morning, Mamá perches me in a chair beside her at the table and makes me watch while she makes bread with the flour she bought from the trader. She pulls at the dough, rolls and unrolls and rolls it again into a perfect orb. Finally, tearing off a handful, and then another, she makes two human forms on the table in front of us.
“In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth,” she begins.
I don’t understand, and wait for her to continue.
“Say it with me. ‘In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth…’”
“‘In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth…’”
We recite it all the way to when God sent Adán and Eva from the Garden, and cursed Eva with the pains of childbirth, my eyes roving over Mamá’s distended belly.
“We got back. And that’s all that matters. You understand?”
“Everything that happened before—it doesn’t matter.”
But still I find ways to ask my questions in the years that follow, sprinkle them in among the scratch while I help her feed the chickens, drop them into the holes she makes in the soil with her fingers when we plant for the new season.
“Mamá, why you and Papá got brown eyes, but I got green ones?”
“Mamá, why is Papá’s skin darker than ours?”
“Mamá, where does the trader get all our flour and seeds and…”
Mamá grunts and holds her back. She leans back onto her haunches. At this point Juana is about five, and her successor, Diego, four, and Mamá has begun to show again, her belly like a squash growing on the vine. I count out on my fingers like Mamá taught me: There are one-two-three-four of us, and this one will make five. Mamá blows air through her lips, but then leans forward again and returns to gardening.
“Is the baby coming?”
“No, it’s too soon. My back must just be cramping.”
But she wakes early in the night, in the grips of one of her bad dreams, and Papá carries out their ritual. But this time, it is not enough; her breaths continue fast and sharp in the back of her throat. Papá rises and dresses, then plops me into the bed next to her.
“I gotta go get help for your mother,” he informs me, “take care of her while I’m gone.”
Mamá pulls me into her, takes my hand into hers, but it is hot, sweaty. Pablo watches from our bed, his eyes shiny in the candlelight, and she opens her other arm in invitation to him too. We sit on either side of her, but soon she breaks free from us, screaming. Papá returns with the woman who delivered us. She strokes my cheek in recognition before handing me to my father, who returns Pablo and me to our own bed. But we do not sleep, cannot sleep over Mamá’s agony. By sunup, Papá orders us to feed the animals, and we do it in a rush so that we can return to our vigil. But he tells us to stay outside, shuffles Juana and Diego out with us. We sit on a cluster of stumps not far away, swinging and hitting their bark with our heels, stomachs empty and livid. Finally, the commotion in the shack subsides, and the silence is filled with the sound of insects. No one opens the door for a long time.
When Papá lets us back in, Mamá is sleeping while the woman still tends to her. Papá summons us around the table. A wadded rag is the only thing on top of it, wetted with what looks like dried water and blood. He removes a corner so that we can see the face, its unformed features.
“This was your sister,” he tells us. “We’re gonna give her a name before we put her to rest.”
“What about Mamá?” I ask. “She gonna make it?”
Papá looks at the woman, who glances back at him and nods. He relays her nod to us.
We named her Petra. Papá digs the hole extra deep so the animals cannot get to her and carefully places her inside. We place stones over the scar in the earth as we pray. I feel a hot tear wind down my cheek.
Mamá’s womb remained empty for years after that, but when it was ready to accept life again it was blessed twofold. Aurelia and Pía. It is slaughter season, and Pablo and I shadow Papá as he kills, drains, and cleans the pigs. Juana and Diego, still too young to help, play in the clearing. Papá disappears around the back of the shack to find something.
“Edén,” Diego calls out to me.
“What?” I reply.
“Why does Papá walk like that?”
“Walk like what?” I know what he means, but hope he will catch my disinterest.
“Like he’s hurt.”
Pablo’s eyes roll toward the shack, where Mamá is working, seemingly every part of her swollen with the new lives she is about to bring forth, then meet mine. I stomp toward the two of them and cover his mouth with my hand.
“Don’t ask questions like that.”
“Let me go!”
“You’ll upset Mamá.”
He bites my hand, and I send him backward into the dust. He cries, holding his bottom, and tears off toward the shack.
I think Mamá’s latest nightmare has something to do with the visit from the trader the day before.
He and Papá are standing outside the shack, arms folded across their chests and their voices low, as I bring in the water. Both regard me for a moment and stop talking as I make my way toward the front steps; for a moment, I note their curious differences. They share the same dark hair and dark skin, and yet Papá’s features are softer, his hair a net of curls while the trader’s sticks out in straight, jagged tufts from under his hat. I noticed the same differences between Mamá and the woman who delivered us, who is the trader’s sister or cousin or some other relation, her sheets of hair always wrapped round and round into a knot at the back of her head. I hasten up the steps.
The murmurs begin again as the door closes behind me. Mamá has propped open the flap of wood that serves as our only window, and stray words leak in. “War.” “English.” “San Agustín.” “Cuba.” I recognize only the first, think about Jericho and Josué and his trumpets. A sound disrupts my sprawling thoughts. It is a sigh, almost a whimper, and I turn to find its source. Mamá has been sitting at the table, taking a break from her work, and she stares at the wall—in her trance—as if she is looking through it, to the trees just beyond it.
Tonight, I think I have seen a spirit. It was only for a moment, before it turned away and slipped between the trees, but it was a man, his skin pale and translucent. But he looks like no man I have ever seen, that is, he looks nothing like Papá or the trader or the other men Papá says are the trader’s kin, who I see hunting from time to time in the forest. Papá and Mamá have taught me that spirits are as much a part of the landscape as the creatures who dwell in the forest and in the swamp that rings our patch of land, though this is my first time seeing one. They are from the time before we returned to Edén, they explain, people who never accepted God or who were condemned to purgatory for their sins. My heart thumping, I scurry up toward the path to the shack before the sun goes down for good.
The fire is still going, though dinner was more than an hour ago. Mamá sits off to the side, the flames illuminating her face. Papá is silhouetted, his back to Mamá and the fire, and he glowers out on the trees. He does not look at me as I approach.
“Go find your siblings and get them ready for bed,” he commands.
“I saw a spirit,” I mention, my excitement somewhat diminished by the shortness in his tone. His eyes drop to the ground, but he says nothing, does not move. He and Mamá remain outside some time; their whispers awaken me as they grope through the darkness toward their own bed, some hours after the girls and I fell asleep in a tangle on our mattress, Pablo and Diego on theirs. I smell the smoke on their clothes as they pass.
I lay awake afterward, too hot and my mind too restless. Papá has left the flap open to allow in the fresh air, but it is just as stifling and heavy as that inside the shack. It is furious with the sounds of frogs and insects. Twigs snap as something moves through the trees at the edge of the clearing. Perhaps it is a deer or some sort of scavenger, or maybe even a puma attracted to the smell of the animals tucked safely away in their huts. The ruckus continues, and I roll to my side, trying to bury one ear into the pillow, press my fingers over the other. I hear Mamá or Papá turn over in their own bed as well.
My body lurches upward, and I realize I had drifted off, for how long I do not know. Papá and Pablo are sitting up too, and Mamá grasps onto Papá’s elbow, asking him what is wrong.
“I heard a voice,” I whisper to them.
“Me too,” Pablo says back.
“Stay where you are,” Papá orders as he tosses off the thin blanket covering him. Mamá remains paralyzed in her spot on the bed.
Papá prepares a lamp and edges toward the flap. He lets the orange ring of light spill onto the ground just outside the shack, moves it from left to right, opens the flap as far as it will go to gaze further into the darkness. Suddenly, he startles and drops the lamp, breaking it. The flap slaps shut.
“What is it?” Mamá hisses. “What did you see?”
“Boy, grab a knife,” he barks at Pablo, who complies. He selects one of the machetes hanging near the door, next to where Papá keeps the knives he uses to kill the pigs.
“What is it?” Mamá repeats.
“It’s them,” Papá utters, and there is panic in his voice. “They found us.”
My mouth is agape, wondering who he means, but Mamá must know for she hurries to the knives and selects her own. The younger children are awake now and squeak like baby birds over having been woken, asking their own questions about what is happening, but Mamá shushes them and herds them into her and Papá’s bed. I at last rise to my feet and grab my own knife, one of the ones I’ve seen Papá use to cut through bone, and shuffle back toward the other children, feeling stupid and helpless as I hover next to the bed, not quite sure how to wield my new weapon.
We hear it again, a voice, but this time there is another, and another, and still yet another—a whole chorus. Suddenly, all four walls of the shack begin to clatter with the sounds of fists and rocks and sticks against the boards. It stops just as abruptly. Laughter. I can hear them talking to one another, but I cannot understand them.
A high-pitched whoop pierces the thick air. One of them calls out in a strange chant, one that sounds like when Papá summons the pigs to their slop. The banging and cackling begin again, until I think the shack will come down. Mamá is praying under her breath, the knife clutched between her palms. Papá and Pablo have barricaded the door with the table and chairs, and hold them in place as the boards rattle around us. Papá glances back at Mamá, who opens her eyes and stares back at him. It is like they are communicating.
“Come on, now,” Mamá says, and she starts pulling boards from their place in the floor, as if by some god-like strength. Papá nods at Pablo and he joins her. Finally, when they have removed about half a dozen boards or so, she gathers all of us around her.
“Pablo, Edén—take your brother and sisters and follow the swamp south. Just stick to the water, and you’ll find Cesar’s village,” she tells us, referring to the trader.
She pushes Pablo through the hole and under the house first, then me. Papá has built the shack up so high on its stilts in case of a flood that I can almost stand my full height under there. Mamá begins to toss the smaller children to us, who lay down in the dirt on their stomachs and wait for directions. I can feel spider webs on my skin and I am certain that their occupants have crawled into my hair and clothes. My skin begins to itch. All six of us in the hole now, we look through the panels; torchlight seeps from the front of the shack, and all of the commotion now seems gathered around the door. I crawl over and peer between the panels: there are one-two-three-four-five-six figures hovering just behind the torches. Their skin is illuminated, pale—spirits. I gasp.
Pablo carefully removes a panel on the furthest most corner from the noise and ushers us through it, and we run into the darkness. We stumble through the forest toward the swamp, tripping on roots and fallen branches and bushes, until we can hear the voices no more.
We drift so far into the forest that not even the slightest of light can pierce through the canopy, and we must wait until dawn before we can continue. The younger children sleep in the branches of a drooping old oak. Eventually, we follow the blue haze of twilight toward the water. My head floats with hunger. The sun has reached its highest point when we find a gathering of shelters near the marsh, and filled with a newfound panic, we shout and run toward them. Their inhabitants meet us as we approach, bewildered. We collapse at their feet, panting and sobbing and still shouting.
“Cesar,” I say again and again, hoping that we have found the right place.
It is some time before I see him rushing toward us, some of the other villagers having gone to fetch him. Some of the women have managed to calm us and now sit with the twins in their laps, holding food for them as they eat. The rest of us sit in the dirt, still shaking, partaking in our own meals. We tell him what happened, and he wipes a hand over his face.
Cesar invites us into his family’s home, and it is days before I am able to rise. Later, Cesar’s wife will tell me that I slept for some three days. Diego and the twins soon develop fevers, and they remain that way nearly a month, as the first illness begets another.
Some of the men, led by Cesar, go to look for Papá and Mamá. But the shack has been burned, the animals run off, our parents vanished.
A couple weeks after we fled, Cesar summons Pablo and me to his boat, but offers no explanation as he pushes off from the shore. Some half-hour into our journey, more shacks rise from the marshes, and surprise and dismay and even a sense of betrayal wash over me. The inhabitants look like us, and a few wave to Cesar as we pass. We disembark and he takes us to a home near the center of the settlement, where a man stands outside waiting for us, arms crossed. Cesar introduces him as Señor Padilla.
“Come on,” Padilla says, “We got a lot to talk about.”
Padilla invites us to sit on a couple of logs he has converted into seats around his family’s firepit, then takes his own. His wife pushes a couple of clay bowls into our hands, fills it with some sort of rice dish.
“I knew your father,” he tells us. “We served together, over in San Agustín.” He reviews the blank expressions on our faces. “But I gather he never told you about any of that.
“He still came here, once in a while. I told him he should move here with the rest of us, that it would be safer, that we could protect one another, but he refused. He and your mother thought they knew a better way to protect you.”
“From what?” Pablo asks.
“The truth,” Padilla snorts, “the past. Their past. I thought they were crazy.” For a moment, I remember Mamá and her dolls made from dough.
His eyes pass from my face to Pablo’s. They are sharp, impatient, yet read of pity.
“Look, I don’t know what all your parents told you, but we—all of us,” he gestures to the other shacks, “We were born into bondage. Up in South Carolina. That’s a colony up north, belongs to the King of England.”
I think about Hagar and Moses and the exodus and the destruction of Jerusalem and the re-enslavement of the Israelites…
“But the King of Spain, he said that if we ran away here to Florida, we’d be free, so long as we became Catholic and served in his military. That’s how I met your father—doing my military service, over in San Agustín. It was our job to defend the city against the English. He got hurt, during one skirmish. I’m sure you saw how he walked. But we did our job, and then we were free. And most of us, we came and settled out here, but your parents, they went out even further. They didn’t want anything to remind them of what they left, didn’t want you to know about a time we were anything but free. Not til you were older, anyway.”
He trails off, taken over by his thoughts. We continue to eat. Finally, he takes a deep breath, as though he’s been holding it this whole time, and shifts in his seat.
“The English. That’s probably who attacked you all. They made an agreement with the king: they get San Agustín, he gets Cuba. I’ve seen a few of them the last couple of weeks, sneaking around the marshes. Probably fixing to take us back up to South Carolina or Georgia. We don’t intend to stay to find out. We’re going down to Cuba. All of us. I think you all should come with us.”
Pablo finishes his meal and sets the bowl down beside him, and leaning forward, he looks into Padilla’s eyes as if it hurts him, as if he is starting into the sun. “Our people—we got any people here?”
Padilla pauses. “Not that I know of. Your father, he made the journey by himself. I don’t know much about your mother, except that she came here from South Carolina, too. They met at church, there in San Agustín.” He stretches his legs out in front of him, inspects his boots. “But we’d look after you. Make sure you all have what you need.”
I am hollow as Cesar takes us back to his village. I mull Padilla’s revelations. Renacido—that is our family name, we learned, one Papá gave himself after he crossed into Florida. And I think about Padilla’s proposal, about Cuba. Maybe Mamá and Papá escaped and are already headed there.
Or maybe they are out wandering in the forest, like Adán and Eva, exiled from their beloved garden. Maybe they have been taken back to South Carolina, like Padilla said would happen to us. Or maybe they are dead. And maybe the way to honor them is to return to their land, land they owned, and rebuild the shack and pens and gardens, or if not there, then in the jungle that surrounded it, feral. Or maybe it really is to go to Cuba, to tend our parents’ legacy like an ember until its flames are full. To not merely survive. I close my eyes, and I see Mamá’s hands forming figures in the soil. “God gave us a second chance.”
C.L. Martín is a descendant of farm laborers who first arrived in the United States from Mexico in the 1920s. During the Great Depression, her Arizona-born grandparents were forced to settle in Mexico as part of the so-called “repatriation” of more than one million people of Mexican descent, sixty-percent of whom are believed to have been American citizens. They permanently resettled in California in 1961, where Martín was born and raised. She went on to receive a bachelor’s degree in English and History, with a focus in creative writing, from Mills College. She currently lives in Washington, D.C., where she works as an attorney and continues to write short fiction. This is her first time getting published.
An excerpt of Manuel Ramos' latest detective novel, Angels in the Wind: A Mile High Noir
Felon turned private eye Gus Corral isn’t doing too well after getting whacked in the head with a baseball bat following his last big case. He was unconscious for a couple of days and still can’t see right. Plagued by headaches, there are days he can’t think straight. Tired, sore and disoriented, he takes his sister’s advice to get out of Denver and help their cousins in Eastern Colorado.
George Montoya’s son, Matías or Mat, has run off again. The seventeen-year-old has run away before, but he always came back. This time, his dad and Aunt Essie know there’s something wrong. As Gus begins to talk to the boy’s family and friends, a picture emerges of a smart kid with strong opinions who fought a lot with his dad.
Did he run away because of his father? Or did he leave because his girlfriend broke up with him? Her father, the town doctor, definitely didn’t want his daughter dating a Mexican. But when Gus tracks the missing boy to a shelter for runaways in Pueblo, the ailing investigator discovers something much more sinister. The boy was helping victims of human trafficking. Could the criminals have caught on to him? All too soon, men with guns are threatening Gus, warning him to get out of town, or else!
Click below to read the first chapter of Angels in the Wind.
Manuel Ramos is the recipient of several literary awards and the author of numerous books, including The Golden Havana Dream: A Sherlock Homie Mystery (Arte Público Press, 2018), My Bad: A Mile High Noir (Arte Público Press, 2016), Desperado: A Mile High Noir (Arte Público Press, 2013), The Skull of Pancho Villa and Other Stories (Arte Público Press, 2015), Brown-on-Brown: A Luis Móntez Mystery (University of New Mexico Press, 2003) and The Ballad of Rocky Ruiz (St. Martin’s Press, 1993; Northwestern University Press, 2004), an Edgar Award finalist. He lives and works in Denver, Colorado.
The man who had just introduced himself sat in a motorized wheelchair, his index finger rested on the small joystick near his right hand. His large dark eyes and dark hair were in stark contrast to his pinched, pale features. He wore a lab coat, and was covered from the waist down by a thin, white blanket. White gloves covered his hands, and a white scarf was wrapped around his neck.
“It’s good to finally meet you, Professor,” Jones said, extending his right hand. “And it’s Detective Jones by the way.”
Lamboi glared at the proffered hand until Jones put it away. “I wish that I could say the same,” he said. “I’m not used to the police barging into my facility and questioning my employees.”
Lamboi turned his formidable glare on his assistant before whipping his chair around and soundlessly scooting away. “Follow me,” he said as he rolled down one of the corridors.
Annoyed, Jones hurried to catch up. “I didn’t just barge into your facility,” he said once he’d caught up to the professor and his chair. “I’m here on official police business.
Lamboi ignored him and continued past the doors of what were obviously offices and meeting rooms.
“Why don’t we just stop at one of these offices?” Jones asked. “What I need to ask should only take a few minutes. And, by the way, I have to admit that I’m impressed at how quiet that chair is, it makes absolutely no noise.”
“The offices are the domain of my assistant and the other drones,” Lamboi answered dismissively. “I prefer to conduct my business in the labs.”
Lamboi ignored the detective’s observation about the chair.
They passed through two sets of double-doors that opened automatically into what the professor described as the main lab. Then he spun the chair around so that he now faced Jones.
“So what business is it that brings the police to my facility unannounced and unwelcome?” Lamboi asked.
Jones hid his annoyance and sighed inwardly. “I apologize for the intrusion, Professor,” he said. “But I’m here investigating a series of murders…”
“And what does that have to do with me?” the professor asked shortly.
“Have you heard about the recent killings that have taken place right here in Cabo Rojo?” Jones asked.
“I’m a very busy man, I don’t have time for television or newspapers,” Lamboi sneered, “Or the garish goings-on of the internet.”
“I understand,” Jones said as he glanced around at the rows of stainless steel and plastic contraptions that filled the enormous lab. “Well it appears that these killings may have been committed by a very powerful creature—an ape in fact.”
Lamboi rolled his eyes, “There are no apes here,” he said.
Jones took out his notepad and flipped through the pages. “According to a Mr. Benitez, your facility received a donation of a large, adult chimpanzee…”
“Oh yes, that creature,” Lamboi sniffed. “I accepted that animal mostly as a favor to the desperate young man that runs that particular facility, but once I’d received it—and after a thorough examination—I’d concluded that the creature was far too damaged to be of any use to me.”
“So where is it now?” Jones asked.
Lamboi smirked. “Follow me,” he said as he spun his chair around and headed to the far end of the lab.
Lamboi stopped his chair in front of a bank of stainless steel racks filled with glass containers of various sizes. “There’s your ape,” he said, indicating one of the large containers with a thrust of his chin.
Jones looked and was immediately repulsed and sickened. Floating in the fluid that filled one of the larger jars was an ape’s head, its face frozen in a perpetual scream.
“What happened to it?” Jones asked once he’d composed himself.
“I euthanized it, of course,” Lamboi said matter-of-factly. “As I said, it was far too damaged for it to be of any use to me.”
“Where’s the rest of it?”
“What’s left of its body is a pile of ashes in our on-site crematorium,” Lamboi said. Then he added with another smirk, “Feel free to take its head with you if it will help with your investigation.”
“No thanks,” Jones said, irritated with the professor’s condescending attitude.
“Very well then,” Lamboi said as he spun away and headed towards the doors through which they’d entered the lab. “In that case, I assume that our business here is finished.”
“Yeah, I guess it is,” Jones said as he snapped his notepad shut and put it away.
Lamboi led Jones back to the lobby where he and his personal assistant, Anna Vasquez, watched Jones exit through the front door and go out to the parking lot. Lamboi then turned his chair towards Anna Vasquez, his face twisted in rage.
Detective Perfecto Jones stepped out into the parking lot and walked the short distance to his car. The day had become overcast and Jones could hear the boom of thunder in the distance. The incoming weather matched his mood—this path of his investigation had basically come to an end—his theory, as crazy as it was, of a rogue ape being somehow involved in the killings in Cabo Rojo had ended in a pile of ashes, and a pickled head in a jar…
Suddenly a terrified scream came from inside the facility, followed closely by a loud thud and an even louder inhuman shriek that made the hairs on the back of Jones’ neck stand on end.
Jones yanked his pistol from its holster and ran back into the lobby of the facility…and into a nightmare!
Anna Vasquez’s body lay on the tiled floor in a rapidly spreading pool of her own blood. Her head was missing. Crouched over her, his gloved hands covered in blood, stood Professor Lamboi—his wheelchair lay on its side.
“Hold it right there, Professor!" Jones yelled. “Don’t move!”
Lamboi slowly turned his head, looking first at Jones’ raised gun, and then directly into Jones’ eyes. He smiled. “It was your fault, you know,” he said calmly. “She knew how I value my privacy. She knew better than to allow the police to come nosing around in my business.”
Outside, thunder rumbled and announced the approaching rainstorm with a dramatic series of bass drumrolls. Inside, the two men ignored it and kept their eyes locked together.
“It was only a matter of time before you were caught, Professor,” Jones said evenly.
“Don’t you want to know why? Or how?” Lamboi asked.
“I can find all of that out once I have you cuffed and in a cell,” Jones answered. “Right now what I want is for you to lay face down on the floor right there.”
Professor Lamboi glanced down at the slowly congealing pool of Anna Vasquez’s blood. “That can be quite messy,” he said.
Jones quickly took a glance at the blood too, just as a sharp crack of thunder exploded outside.
Lamboi leapt at the detective, reaching for the pistol in Jones’ hand. Jones squeezed the trigger but at this close range he couldn’t tell if he’d hit Lamboi or not. As the two men struggled over the gun, Jones was able to fire off two more shots but they went wide; the bullets burying themselves in the fancy receptionist’s desk. Lamboi then succeeded in knocking the gun out of Jones’ hand, nearly breaking the detective’s wrist in the process.
The thunder, now accompanied by brilliant flashes of lightning and the staccato sound of rain, continued to boom outside even as the two men inside savagely fought for the upper hand.
Jones, although he was larger than the professor and trained in hand-to-hand combat by the military, could tell, to his horror, that he was losing the fight. He latched onto the professor in a futile bid to wrestle him to the ground, but Lamboi managed to knock his hands away and shove him back. Jones sprawled onto his back, tearing away the professor’s blood-spattered lab coat as he fell.
Jones quickly raised himself up onto his elbows; the lab coat still clenched tightly in his hand, and looked around wildly for the professor.
At first, Jones’ mind was incapable of processing what he was seeing, and he just sat there propped up on his elbows trying to will his eyes to see reason. But his eyes betrayed him, because what they insisted on seeing was the professor’s head attached to the thickly muscled body of an ape!
“Like it?” Professor Lamboi asked, puffing out his chest and standing a little straighter. “Quite by accident I found that the amalgamation of chemicals in the ape’s body not only negated its natural ability to reject foreign tissue while maintaining a more or less uncompromised immune system, but the ape’s physiology was such that it seemed to welcome and even embrace multi-tissue interfaces while still remaining capable of fighting off the typical microbial invaders that cause infection. I considered it a miracle that this animal found its way to my facility. Due to my unfortunate disability, I’d already conducted a massive amount of research on the probability of performing a successful head transplant, and after that it was a matter of programming my surgical robots to perform the surgery.”
Jones stood up on legs that felt like rubber, and tried to keep his hands from shaking. “I have no idea what you just told me,” he said. “But is all that the reason you killed those people—for some kind of research?” Jones inched his way to the door as he spoke.
“Oh no,” Lamboi said. His eyes, feverish and shiny, followed Jones’ every move. “Even though the surgery was a complete success, I’d made one slight miscalculation…I had opted to keep the ape’s brain stem intact, it’s the reptilian part of the brain that controls base functions such as breathing. Unfortunately this eventually had the effect of somehow transferring the creature’s substantial, and for the most part, uncontrollable rage to me. In essence, its madness became my madness.”
Jones could make out a viscous line of drool leaking from the professor’s mouth and making its way down to his chin. When he looked back up to the professor’s eyes, all he could see were the dizzying depths of his insanity. In desperation Jones threw the lab coat at Lamboi and ran out into the storm.
The wind and rain lashed at his face, blinding him. He fumbled for his car keys, but his trembling hands wouldn’t cooperate and he dropped them on the ground. Jones heard the building’s door open behind him, and he turned to see the monster that used to be Professor Lamboi framed in the open doorway. Lamboi tore the gloves from his hands and flexed his powerful fingers.
“Your head will make a fine addition to my collection, Detective!” Lamboi called out before bursting into maniacal laughter that ended in a series of ape-like hoots and shrieks.
“My God no!” Jones gasped before turning and running across the parking lot and out through the still open gate.
At first Jones ran along the road, but then he heard the beast that had been Professor Lamboi gibbering and shrieking insanely behind him, and he plunged into the darkening forest in a panic.
Jones soon lost his bearing as he crashed through the trees and underbrush, his breath coming in ragged gasps. He had hoped to somehow get to the lighthouse, with its promise of shelter and people, but now he had no idea where he was going and he was too afraid to care. All he knew was that every instinct, every sense, indeed every fiber of his being screamed at him to get away!
Another flash of lightning lit up the sky, burning the image of the forest into monochromatic relief before his eyes, and revealing the glint of water in its strobe. Jones stumbled towards it.
He’d almost made it when he was forced to stop short. He thought that he had been headed towards a beach and the possibility of more people, but instead he now found himself standing on a muddy knoll that abruptly ended right in front of him. The hurricane must have washed away a chunk of the land here, and created a ragged outcropping that jutted out about ten feet above the water.
Jones searched the immediate area desperately as he tried to figure out which way to go, but it was no use—he was trapped.
Jones turned towards a blood-curdling shriek that came from the forest behind him just as a bolt of lightning silhouetted the nightmarish figure of the professor hurtling towards him!
Professor Lamboi barreled into the detective, wrapping his long, powerful arms around his torso as both men flew off the knoll and into the water ten-feet below.
The shock of hitting the cold water caused Lamboi to loosen his grip on the detective who, despite having the wind knocked out of him, managed to kick and flail his arms until he found himself free and swimming towards the surface.
Once he’d broken through to the surface and had filled his lungs with air, Jones nervously scanned the surrounding water for any sign of Lamboi.
A few moments later, sputtering and coughing, the professor surfaced about three feet away from where Jones was effortlessly treading water. The detective could see that Lamboi was having trouble staying afloat.
“Help me you fool! Help me!” The professor coughed.
Jones could only stare.
Professor Lamboi let out a terrible shriek and reached out with one of his long, monstrous arms in an effort to grab Jones, but the sudden movement only caused him to momentarily sink beneath the water. He soon returned to the surface again, his dark eyes wide with fear. “What’s wrong?” He asked. “I can’t stay afloat!”
“An ape’s muscle-mass is too dense for it to swim,” Jones recited, remembering being told this earlier in his investigation. “It would just sink.”
“No!” Professor Lamboi spluttered past a mouthful of seawater, his arms beating frantically at the water around him. “Save me! You must save me-e-e…” And then he sank beneath the waves one last time, his pale face still visible for several feet under the sea’s covering before disappearing into the depths.
Jones looked away, noticing for the first time that the storm had passed. He saw lights and heard distant music coming from a strip of beach about 50 yards away and tiredly made his way in that direction. Back to the world of comparative normalcy, and away from the final watery resting place of the Beast of Cabo Rojo.
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.
Jones set out for Monkey Island the next morning. Cayo Santiago was located off Puerto Rico’s east coast and was accessible only by boat or helicopter. He’d called ahead and was told that a boat would be waiting to take him there.
The boat, operated by a young college intern, took him to a battered dock attached to a small “r” shaped island. He was met at the dock by a trim, studious-looking young man who introduced himself as Andres Benitez; a primatologist.
“Do you mind if we stay out here by the dock?” Benitez asked. “We have several scientists involved in a number of very sensitive studies right now, and it would help if we kept the human presence down to a minimum.”
Jones nodded as he produced his notepad and pen. “Sure, no problem,” he said. “This shouldn’t take long.”
“Great,” Benitez responded enthusiastically. “What little we had in the way of shelter or meeting space was blown out to sea by the hurricane. We have no permanent structures on the island since no one is allowed to stay overnight anyway.”
“And I imagine that’s also to minimize the human footprint here,” Jones said, while writing in his notepad.
“Exactly,” Benitez agreed. “Now, how may I help you officer?”
“Detective, actually,” Jones corrected. “I’m looking for a chimpanzee that I was told was donated to your facility. This was before the hurricane struck.”
“Oh yes, I remember that entire episode quite clearly,” Benitez said, a note of sadness creeping into his voice. “At the time we considered it to be a rescue type of thing.”
“What do you mean?”
“Well the zoo had literally run out of money, and so was rapidly trying to divest itself of all of its large animals,” Benitez explained. “The last of these was a very large adult chimpanzee that they had acquired as a donation from a lab.”
“So then you guys decided to take the chimpanzee in,” Jones said.
Benitez nodded. “It was a mistake,” he admitted. “The poor ape was severely traumatized and, even though you couldn’t initially tell by looking at him, his overall health had to have been compromised by all of the chemicals and drugs that were coursing through his bloodstream.”
“So where is the chimp now?” Jones asked.
Benitez sighed. “Look, you have to understand,” he said emphatically. “No other facility would take him in. We were hoping to temporarily house him in one of the large steel cages that some of our scientists eat their meals in while observing the monkeys, but he was too big and powerful. He destroyed two of the cages before we were able to sedate him. And even sedation was tricky since he didn’t react as expected, again, probably due to all of the chemicals already in his system.”
“Just how did he react?”
“The normal dose of sedative for an ape his size had no effect on him rather than causing him to become increasingly agitated and belligerent. The doses had to be increased to dangerous levels just to put him out.”
“So where’s the chimpanzee now?” Jones asked again.
“Wait, let me finish,” Benitez said. “The longer the chimpanzee stayed here, the angrier it became, with the vocalizations of the island’s resident monkeys seeming to irritate it. In turn its own screeches and its pounding on the floor and bars of the cages disturbed the monkeys to the point of ruining at least several months’ worth of scientific observation, entries, theories…
“I’m responsible for the 1,000 Rhesus Macaque monkeys that reside here, as well as for the students and scientists that study them.”
“Did the chimpanzee ever hurt any of the people here?” Jones asked. “Did it escape during or after the hurricane? Is it possible that it got out of its cage and swam back to Puerto Rico? Is that what you’re trying to hide here?”
“What? No!” Benitez insisted, before taking out his handkerchief and wiping his face. It had grown much warmer since their meeting started, and standing out in the open didn’t help things. “A chimpanzee’s muscle density would cause it to sink like a stone—it would have drowned.”
“So then where is it now?” Jones insisted.
Benitez sighed. “I gave it to a research lab back in Puerto Rico,” he stated dejectedly.
“I have no idea what happened to him after that, and I didn’t want to know.”
“Give me the name and address of that lab,” Jones insisted, writing it down in his notepad as quickly as Benitez recited it. His heart almost skipped a beat when Benitez told him that the lab was located in Cabo Rojo.
“A few more things,” Jones said still writing in his notepad. “Is a chimpanzee smart enough to erase its footprints from a crime scene? Can it be taught to do that? Can it be kept as a pet and taught to kill people?”
Benitez looked confused for a moment, but then answered the questions. “A chimpanzee is indeed smart enough to cover its tracks, but to answer your second question as well, it wouldn’t normally see the benefits of doing something like that, and so it would have to be trained to do so.”
“And the last question?”
“This reminds me of an Edgar Allen Poe story that I once read in high school, ‘The Murders in the Rue Morgue,’ where an ape that was being kept as a pet commits murder…”
“So it is possible?” Jones pressed.
“Well, that was a work of fiction of course, but chimpanzees are often kept as pets,” Benitez said. “Unfortunately their owners soon find out that once a chimpanzee reaches adulthood, it becomes too unpredictable and dangerous to be safely kept as a pet any longer. As far as being taught to kill, I honestly don’t know. But a full-grown chimpanzee, and in my opinion especially the chimpanzee in question, is physically more than capable of killing a human being with its bare hands.”
After the short return trip from Monkey Island to the main island of Puerto Rico, Jones received a call from his captain: another headless body had been found in Cabo Rojo.
As soon as Jones pulled up to the crime scene, he was met there by a nearly frantic Sergeant Acosta.
“You seem to be spending more time working homicide scenes than recovering stolen vehicles,” Jones called out as he exited his vehicle.
Sergeant Acosta nodded and wiped his sweaty face with a handkerchief. “Yes,” he acknowledged. “The hurricane has pushed many of us out of our comfort zones.”
Jones clapped the Sergeant on his broad back good-naturedly. “Very true,” he agreed.
Acosta led him to the part of the forest that faced the grounds of the Los Morillos lighthouse; known simply as El Faro to the locals. The usually well-kept grounds of the lighthouse were littered with debris left behind by the hurricane. Volunteers armed with little more than hand tools toiled under the hot sun in an effort to clear away the mess. It was one of these volunteers, Sergeant Acosta explained, that had found the body partially hidden under an unruly pile of twigs and branches.
“It is like the others,” Acosta pointed out once they’d reached the body. “It has no head.”
Jones nodded absently as he searched the area near the body for clues—especially footprints.
“Perhaps the gargoyle has taken it?” Sergeant Acosta asked nervously.
Jones sighed. “If you want to remain a part of this investigation, Sergeant, then I suggest that you stop the superstitious nonsense.”
“Yes sir,” the Sergeant answered dejectedly.
Jones pointed at the area around the body. “No clear footprints,” he said. “Just like at the other crime scene, it looks as if they’ve been brushed away.”
Sergeant Acosta took a quick glance around and nodded in agreement.
“Apparently an ape would have no reason to do that on its own,” Jones added quietly as if in afterthought.
“Huh? I didn’t hear you, detective,” Acosta said.
“Never mind,” Jones said. “Arrange for this body to join the others in the refrigerator truck, and see if you can get Dr. Rivera to perform the autopsy.”
“Yes, sir,” the Sergeant said as Jones started walking back to his car. “Where can I say you’ll be if anyone asks?”
“Tell them that I’m with my wife and kids,” Jones said before driving away.
At the hotel where his family had taken refuge after the hurricane, Detective Jones sat on the room’s king-sized bed and used the remote to mute the sound on the television.
“The boys are finally asleep,” Jones’ wife Marisol said as she entered the room. “I wish I had half their energy!”
They laughed quietly as she climbed onto the bed and sat next to him. Jones rubbed her back, and she wiggled her toes in pleasure.
“How’s the house holding up?” She asked.
“About the same,” Jones answered. “I just had to take a break from that hammock!”
Marisol laughed again, “I can imagine,” she said. “Well at least tonight you can get a decent night’s sleep.”
Jones straightened up and put his hands in his lap. “I’m not sure I can sleep anyway,” he said. “This case I’m working on doesn’t make any sense.”
“You mean the gargoyle?” Marisol asked playfully.
Jones groaned and rolled his eyes, and then he sighed. “I hate to say this,” he said. “But I’m starting to wonder whether it is a gargoyle after all.”
Marisol laughed lightly, her eyes sparkling in the dim light. “I was only kidding, Perfe,” she said, using his nickname.
Jones sighed again. “I know,” he said. Then he told her about his search for an elusive chimpanzee that may also be a killer.
“I was so sure about the chimpanzee,” Jones said. “But at both crime scenes it looked like someone had deliberately tried to cover up the footprints there, and I was told that chimpanzees wouldn’t normally do anything like that, they would have to be taught to do that.”
Marisol bit her bottom lip as she processed the information that her husband had just told her. “Is it possible that someone is helping the chimpanzee hide its tracks?”
“I considered that,” Jones said. “But apparently this particular chimpanzee is too aggressive and dangerous to be led around on a leash or trained to do anything.”
Jones rubbed his suddenly cold hands together, “And I kept getting this feeling that I was being watched.”
Marisol placed her hand over both of his. “Like you told me happened to you sometimes during the war?”
Jones shook his head. “No, no. Not like that exactly,” he explained. “It wasn’t just a feeling of being watched—I could feel a terrible anger coming from whoever was watching me from the shadows. I can barely explain it. Actually the feeling may have been closer to hate than anger…it may have even been evil. Look, the hairs on my arms are standing straight up while I’m thinking about it.”
Marisol reached out and gently smoothed the hairs on one of his arms. “You’re tired, Perfe,” she said. “Looking after the house, sleeping on a hammock, this crazy case…you’ll figure it all out soon, you always do. All you need now is a good night’s sleep.”
Then, what started out as a goodnight kiss, ended in sweet lovemaking, and afterward he did have a good night’s sleep.
In the morning, Jones found himself on the road to Cabo Rojo before the sun had fully risen. He drove with the windows open, the air redolent with the astringent scent of the sea. In the distance roosters crowed while the distinct two-tone call of the Coqui tree frogs competed with the trilling singsong of the birds just waking from their nocturnal slumbers.
The drive down to Cabo Rojo was relatively uneventful. Jones nodded appreciatively at the road crews and volunteers still removing debris from the roads or directing traffic around the detours.
The drive through the forest to get to where the lab was located was a different matter altogether. The paved road soon disappeared, replaced by a pitted and rutted disaster that in some places was choked with near impenetrable barriers of hurricane engendered junk and debris. Jones had to backtrack and/or go off-road several times before coming to a well-maintained turn-off that led to a tall chain-link fence topped with razor wire.
Jones continued along the road running alongside the fence until he reached a small, circular clearing and a gate with a callbox mounted next to it.
Jones climbed stiffly from the confines of his vehicle and stretched the kinks out of his back and joints. As he was stretching, he looked around and took stock of his surroundings. The clearing and the entire area as far as his eyes could see, was surrounded by thick forest. Whereas earlier Jones had been able to smell the sea and had been serenaded by birds and frogs, the deep, jungle-like foliage that now surrounded him seemed to have the effect of dampening sound and blocking whatever breeze could have refreshed him, so that it seemed that in this place the day suddenly grew hot, humid and unnaturally quiet.
Jones then peered through the fence at the strange dome-like buildings beyond. The sight was surreal—three large dome-shaped buildings connected by what appeared to be external passageways. At one end of the compound stood what looked like a huge microwave antenna, pointed accusingly at the perfectly azure sky. If it wasn’t for the perfectly normal looking parking lot, the whole thing would have looked like something out of a science-fiction movie.
Perfecto Jones pressed the sole button on the callbox, and after a moment, a woman’s voice answered.
Jones identified himself and then added, “I believe someone from my office may have called you last night to let you know that I was coming?”
Several more moments passed, and just when Jones was about to press the button again, the voice returned.
“Yes, and I remember telling that person that the professor is not accepting visitors at the moment.”
“This isn’t a ‘visit’, Jones insisted. “And if the professor prefers, I can go back and get a warrant that would then involve more officers and which would also then be much more intrusive, I assure you.”
After a few more moments, the voice came through again. “Please drive up to the main building.”
This last direction was followed by a loud click, and a whirr as the gate retracted. Jones climbed back into his car, drove past the gate, and into the parking lot, where he parked next to the only other vehicle there.
As he exited his car again, Jones was met by a sharply dressed woman carrying a clipboard. “Detective Jones,” he introduced himself with his hand outstretched.
The woman, Jones assumed that she was the same person that he’d spoken with through the callbox, looked at his hand and avoided shaking it by gripping her clipboard even tighter. “Follow me,” she said curtly before turning around and disappearing through the doorway of the building.
Jones lowered his hand, shrugged, and followed her inside.
The inside of the building was much cooler than Jones expected, but it wasn’t uncomfortable. As the woman with the clipboard led him towards a semi-circular receptionist’s desk, Jones looked around at the ultra-modern, almost futuristic, décor.
“How long has this place been here?” Jones asked once they’d stopped at the receptionist’s desk.
The woman that had led him into the building took a seat behind the desk, and placed her clipboard carefully on top of it before answering. “The main building, this one that we’re in, was built six years ago. The other two, and the rest of the compound, were added later on, so the entire complex is relatively new.”
Jones gave a low whistle. “Six years? I never knew that this place existed until recently.”
“The professor values his privacy.”
“I guess so,” Jones said as he pulled out his notepad and referred to the notes he’d taken down during his research earlier. “And that would be Dr. Gustavo Lamboi?”
“Yes. He owns and runs this facility.”
“I see,” Jones said, tapping his pen on the notepad. “And who are you?”
“My name is Anna Vasquez,” she answered. “I’m Professor Lamboi’s personal assistant.”
Jones took a quick look around, “I’d like to speak to Dr. Lamboi,” he said.
“He knows that you’re waiting,” Vasquez said. “He will be joining us momentarily.”
“And he prefers to go by the title of professor,” she added.
“Professor of what?” Jones asked.
“Before his accident, he was a professor of spinal trauma and surgery at the medical college,” she answered. “His research led the way to making great gains in the areas of robotic and laser surgeries, not to mention his groundbreaking work in the areas of stem cell implementation, immunology, and micro-surgery.”
Jones stopped writing in his notepad and looked at her. “You really admire the, uh, professor,” he said.
A blush stole its way quickly over face and neck. “Of course I admire him,” Anna said. “He is a great man; a genius! I was his student at the college, and that’s where he first hired me as his research assistant. Once he received the grant to build this facility, he brought me onboard as his personal assistant.”
“That’s a lot of assisting,” Jones said, shutting his notepad and trying to keep the sarcasm out of his voice.
Anna Vasquez skewered him with a sharp glance. “What are you implying?” She asked sharply.
“Nothing,” he said casually. “Nothing at all. I, uh, did notice the unique shape of the buildings here…”
“The dome shape of the buildings make them virtually hurricane-proof,” Vasquez explained. “The high winds have nothing to grab onto, and so ensure that damage is kept at a minimum. Each building and exterior passageway also utilizes a mostly gravity-based drainage system that automatically funnels potential flood-water away from the structures and out into the nearby mangroves…”
“Mangrove trees are notorious for their ability to tolerate flooding and even the occasional saturation of seawater, Mr. Jones.”
Surprised, Jones abruptly turned around to see who had just spoken to him.
“I am Professor Lamboi, owner and administrator of this facility.”
End Part II Keep a look out for the conclusion in Part III.
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.
Maceo Montoya is an author, artist, and educator who has published books in a variety of genres, including four works of fiction: The Scoundrel and the Optimist, The Deportation of Wopper Barraza,You Must Fight Them: A Novella and Stories, and Preparatory Notes for Future Masterpieces. Montoya has also published two works of nonfiction: Letters to the Poet from His Brother, a hybrid book combining images, prose poems, and essays, and Chicano Movement for Beginners, which he both wrote and illustrated. Montoya’s paintings, drawings, and prints have been featured in exhibitions and publications throughout the country as well as internationally. He has collaborated with other writers on visual-textual projects, including Laurie Ann Guerrero’s A Crown for Gumecindo, Arturo Mantecon’s translation of Mexican poet Mario Santiago Papasquiaro’s Poetry Comes Out of My Mouth, and most recently, David Campos’s American Quasars. Montoya is an associate professor in the Chicana/o Studies Department at UC Davis where he teaches courses on Chicanx culture and literature.
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.”
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.