A short story
María and I sit on my bed playing Barbies.
As the afternoon storm gathers, we hear my brother riding his bicycle outside on the sidewalk. We look at each other. She makes a face as if she is eating a lime and I laugh. My brother, who is three years older but was born on my same day, the 10th, never plays with me. He says he cannot play with me because I am a niña and he makes the same sucking lime face when he says “niña,” as if his teeth hurt.
It has started lightning outside and my grandmother screams “¡María! Los espejos.” María says she’ll be back later. She has to cover all the mirrors with sheets because of the lightning.
When it starts raining, mother screams at my brother to come inside. He comes in, rolling his eyes, mouth twisted in a scowl, sits cross legged on the floor of the room we share.
I ask him if he wants to play Barbies with me.
“No. Eres una niña.”
I show him the new Ken doll that I got on January 6 for Día de los reyes magos and the pink car that came with Ken.
“No. Eres una niña.”
Later in the day he looks out the window at the steady rain and without looking at me says, “Just this once and don’t tell anyone.”
We play that Ken and Barbie are married and have two children, a boy and a girl, and Ken drives his car across the border to work every day and says “American” at the border in order to cross into the United States where he works. He comes home at the end of the day and Barbie makes red enchiladas and refried beans for dinner. Sometimes Ken comes home very late on Fridays and has been drinking tequila and sometimes the car has a dent in it like it has crashed and Barbie’s makeup runs because she cries late into the night. The children wake up as the sun is almost rising and go listen to the mariachis in Barbie and Ken’s bedroom and when the mariachis sing “María Bonita” Barbie stops crying and the music makes their love good again. They are all crowded in the bed and mother Barbie takes father Ken’s cowboy boots off because he is flopped snoring on the bed with his boots still on.
As my brother and I play I hear the front screen door open and shut and my cousin Toño comes running into the house wet like a dog. I hear my grandmother screaming “¡María!” to get the mop.
When my brother hears my cousin, he stops pushing Ken’s car across the floor and grabs hold of my Barbie and makes Ken hit Barbie, making noises like “Bam!” and “Pow!” just like on the Batman television show we watch Saturday mornings.
Just then Toño comes in the room and looks at my brother first and then at the dolls, his eyes wide, eyebrows arched. My brother tells him Ken is beating up on Barbie because she cries and my brother laughs and his laughter hangs in the air. All I hear in my head is the rain steady outside, and the drip drip of rain on the pots and pans in the house where water leaks.
Then my cousin laughs too. I start to cry and then my brother calls me a niña and he and Toño leave and I am alone with my stupid dolls. I am crying, snot running down my nose, and then María comes into my room out of nowhere and tells me not to cry.
“No llores,” she says. She tells me that boys are “pinches pendejos.” She hugs me and I smell the heat and the dust from her. I stop crying. I feel better and she leaves to do her work.
As the rain lessens, I go and sit in our small, warm kitchen, awash in the light reflected off the neon yellow walls, smell of pinto beans cooking as they gurgle on the stove in my grandmother’s old earthen pot.
I stare at our Jesús clock on the wall. The downcast eyes of Jesús stare back at me from underneath his bloody crown.
I look away.
I am not good at telling time. Even so, the crucified Jesús face kitchen clock my grandmother bought at the mercado is broken, and even when it worked, I had trouble telling if the time was for us in Juárez or for my father working across the border. Border people say “tiempo de Juárez” or “tiempo de El Paso” to clarify. But it does not clarify for me. Plus, Jesús’ sad face bloodied from the crown of thorns staring back at me scares me. As if he is judging me for not being able to tell time. I play the staring game with him sometimes, but I always look away. Jesús always wins.
I sit and listen as the beans cook, the clock ticks. I have not heard my father’s car, him parking it out on the street under the old and dying sycamore tree on the side of the house, him whistling as he walks into the house and calling “¡Ya llegué!” as he goes into the kitchen. But it’s Friday and on Fridays he comes home late. “Viernes Santo” he says the next day and laughs. I laugh too but I don’t really know why I laugh.
And even though I can’t tell time, it is late and I know night is coming.
I like the night and I know it is getting night by the way the shadows from the house across the street get longer on the street outside when I look out the kitchen window. I get up and walk to my bedroom. I hear Maria’s chanclas on the cement floor as she nears my bedroom and then she asks “¿Se puede?” and I say “Sí” and she opens the sheet we use as a curtain that leads into the bedroom I share with my brother. She peeks in and says “Hola Niña” and then comes into my room. She and I sit on my bed and play with my Barbie dolls. I smile at her and she smiles back, her teeth white against her dark skin.
María has been with us for two years. She knows how to sew and iron and she made a dress for my Barbie with one of her old dresses that she no longer used because we gave her some of my old clothes. My grandmother tells her to use her dress for rags, that her old clothes are only good for rags. “Trapos,” she says and María looks down at the floor when she hears that word.
She is older than me but not by much, yet she knows how to count to one hundred and she knows all the letters of the alphabet though my mother tells me she stopped going to school in fourth grade to work for us. I do not understand why she cannot go to school and why she has to work. I wonder about María’s mother and if she lets her work and I ask my mother one day “¿Y su mamá?” and my mother says “Está muerta.”
That’s when she came to work at our house.
“Está muerta” rattles in my head.
The day after mamá tells me this I find María washing in the back room, standing on a little wooden stool so she can reach over the sink. I walk up to her and hug her and she asks “¿Estás bien?” as if something is wrong with me but I say I am fine and that I am sorry about her mother. Her eyes water and she brushes the tears back with her hands full of suds and she hugs me tight and says “Gracias Niña.” I can smell her. My grandmother tells her she needs to take a bath and when she says this María looks down at the floor as if she is looking for a safety pin and she does not say anything. María smells of burnt corn tortillas, the heat of the iron, sweat, and broom dust. I don’t mind how she smells though. She smells of María. I know her smell.
Almost every day, as soon as she is done sweeping and mopping and sewing and ironing clothes, she plays with me. Tonight we play Barbies on my bed and wait.
At night all the comadres in the neighborhood bring out their little wooden stools and sit outside. The coolness of the night calls to them and they walk out from their hot houses, all the women drying their hands on their aprons as they walk out. They say “Buenas noches” to each other and sit on the sidewalk outside our door, the bare bulb outside our house giving off a wan light. My mother and grandmother join them. Señora Herrera is the best cook and tells them how she makes her flour tortillas. The ladies listen. Señora Balderrama always has some neighborhood gossip to share and the other ladies ooh and ahh as she tells them about what really goes on in Doña Elvira’s house after dark. María and I listen through my window and vow never to go to Señora Elvira’s house again.
That’s when I ask my mother through my bedroom window, “¿Puedo salir a jugar?” and wait to see if she will let me go outside and play.
I can see my cousin Mayela out my bedroom window as I stand on my bed on my tiptoes. When she sees me, Mayela motions to me to come out and play and she mouths the words “Ven a jugar.”
María stands next to me on my bed. She jumps up and down a little bit on my bed and covers her mouth with her hands. We wait.
Then my grandmother asks María through the window if she has finished her work and she says “Sí señora” and I see my grandmother nods at my mother and my mother says we can come out to play, “Salgan.”
I look at María and she is smiling big and she hugs me and I let out a little squeal of excitement and run outside and look back as María walks outside and says a proper “Buenas noches señoras” to all of the comadres and then as soon as she rounds the corner of my house she sprints after me, the sound of her chanclas bouncing off the street and off the walls in the dark of the night.
We play tag and hide and seek with my cousin and her new friend Angelina who has just moved into the neighborhood and with the two sisters who live up the block. They are twins and I never know their names and we all just call them “Las Cuatas,” as if they are one and the same and always together, and they are, though one is skinnier than the other and so we call one Cuata Gorda and the other Cuata Flaca.
When we play tag I always hide behind the sycamore tree but María comes and grabs me by the hand and whispers “Ven” and we hold hands as we run and hide behind the garage door of our neighbor, in a cranny just big enough for the two of us. We hold hands and are quiet and I can feel our hearts beating to the point of wanting to scream but María whispers to me to be quiet and I listen to her. The other girls never find us there and we win.
We play mamaleche we have drawn in chalk on the sidewalk, María always the first to hop from 1 to 10 and win. We play la tiendita and trade bits of yarn and jacks and old playing cards and soda pop caps.
Time seems eternal, but I know it is getting late when I hear the comadres saying “Buenas noches.” I glance at them and they are picking up their little stools. I know what is coming even though I try not to hear and sure enough my mother says “Paulina. ¡Ya!”
I look at my cousin and her friend and at Las Cuatas and shrug my shoulders and say to María that we have to go inside. “Adentro,” I say as if it is the end of time.
When we go inside my grandmother tells María to make me dinner. She stands on her toes to reach the stove and warms up beans and tortillas. I look at her and ask her if the fire burns her fingers when she turns the tortillas with her hand but she says no and that she is used to it. I tell María I wish I could be like her and she says I am silly and not to wish such things.
She and I eat sloppily and I get full fast and do not finish my beans but María uses her tortilla to clean the plate so clean I think she does not have to wash it, but she does have to wash it. My grandmother makes sure. María tells me in a whisper how sometimes she just washes the dirty side of the plate, and not the back and somehow that makes me laugh so hard I almost fall off the kitchen bench, my arms flailing backwards until María catches me. She wipes her eyes with her apron she is laughing so hard also.
When we are done eating, my grandmother tells María to help me get ready for bed and I get my pajamas and brush my teeth and offer María my toothbrush to use because she says she uses her finger and just water but my mother hears me from her bedroom and says “¡No!” Then my mother comes into my room and kisses me goodnight and calls me “angelito” and makes me say my angel de la guarda prayer so nothing happens to me at night. I teach María the part of the prayer I know because she says she does not know it and her mother is not there to teach her. I teach her. “Ángel de la Guarda, dulce compañía, no me desampares ni de noche ni de día.” And I tell her that the prayer will keep her safe all day and all night. When I say this, she is very quiet and I ask her if anything is wrong and she says no and she is crying and I hug her and she stops crying when my mother comes into the room.
My mother takes out some peso coins from her little plastic change purse and gives them to María and says she should hurry and go home. María gets her little bag with some clothes we gave her and day-old corn tortillas. She walks out the door and into the night. When she is outside, she comes by my window and calls quietly to me and I stand on my bed and see her outside my window. She thanks me for teaching her the prayer and says “Buenas noches” to me and I say “Buenas noches.” I see her as she crosses the street and waits at the corner for the van that takes her home.
I see the van that has the sign on it with the name of her barrio, Colonia Azteca, as it pulls up and she gets in. I can see her in the van when the light turns on inside. There are other people in the van, men and women, all of them staring out the windows of the van. She waves to me as the van pulls away and I wave too and then the van light turns off and I cannot see her but I look at the van still as it drives off and then I can only see darkness. Mamá tells me to go to sleep and I go to bed and fall asleep.
That night I dream that someone is chasing me. I don’t remember the details of the dream but I know someone is chasing me and I know I am afraid and I run very fast and when a man is about to catch me, I startle awake. I call María’s name in the dream and say “María” quietly when I wake.
María does not come to our house on Saturday. Not on Sunday either. She never comes on those days. But she will come on Monday and I cannot wait to tell her about my dream.
But on Monday when I ask at lunchtime, my grandmother tells me that María is not coming today either.
I miss María all day and at night after dinner my father comes into my room and he sits me on the bed and strokes my hair and he says that María is not coming anymore. I don’t know why but I start to cry and he hugs me and says he is sorry and then I am confused. I do not know why he is sorry.
I ask “¿Mañana?”
He says “No, mijita.”
He tells me that something happened to María on her way home Friday night as she was walking home after the van dropped her off in the dark, on the dirt road that led to her house. Someone in the van saw a car pull up next to her as some men got out of the car and took her. I ask my father where they took her and then he says she was found the next day in a ditch by the old mercado.
“¿Está bien?” I ask.
I can see his mouth moving and he must have said many words but the only words I hear are “Está muerta.”
That night I cry so much my eyes cannot see. I get my Barbie doll and I bring her to bed with me and I rename her María and when my grandmother tells me I cannot sleep with the doll my father says it is okay and I hug María tight to me. I say my prayer as I hug María close to me, her smell still strong reminding me of her: “Ángel de la Guarda, dulce compañía, no me desampares ni de noche ni de día.”
I can smell María and, in my mind, I can see her waving to me from the van and smiling at me, telling me over and over, “No llores Niña, no llores.”
© Jaime Herrera
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Kimberly has been fortunate to travel to half the Spanish-speaking countries in the world by the time she was forty. As a traveler into different cultures, she has learned to listen ask questions, and seek points of connections. This page is meant to offer different points of connections between writers, words, ideas, languages, and imaginations. Thank you for visiting.