By Judy Dykstra-Brown
Luckily, my husband had been made weak by his mother and so had little interest in what I was doing or how I had obtained the money to do so. He sat in the shade as he has sat for all of the years we have been married and occasionally observed what I did to make a life. He smoked a cigarette and when the other men collected after work, he produced a bottle of tequila or they produced a carton of beer and they all talked the old sun down before falling each to his own reverie.
After dark, wife after wife would appear to walk them home. We would talk a bit as each arrived, every mouth adding a different story to the rich stew of this end of day’s labors: how Luz had a new man, how Sofia was keeping the baby and moving to San Marcos to live with her sister, how the new store had papayas that were fresh and ripe and not too expensive.
Our eyes, however, all told the same story. I, like you, am married to a worthless man. He is a figurehead who keeps me virtuous and respected in the community, for I still after all these years accept just one man to my bed, lazy as he may be. I keep him clothed and fed. I used him to produce fine children and grandchildren and some of those grandchildren are coming of age to produce more. Those of us married to these men are sisters as surely as those united as the brides of Christ. We are the strong women who hide weak men.
I Iive in a small town on the coast of México. This town is below the coastline they now call Picadura de Alacrán—the place where the soldiers came in trucks in the middle of the night to drive everyone out of their homes––to throw their televisions and their clothes out the windows and to carry the people away with nothing but the clothes on their backs. They had us watch as they burned and razed the buildings so we would know that there was nothing on the beach to return to but ashes and rubble, even if we had been allowed to. Restaurants, homes, small shops––all were gone. Only the large homes of the gringos had been allowed to remain, but they, too, had been confiscated.
The judge who had been paid off to allow this to happen built a very nice big house in Obregón a year later. The rich landowner who claimed that we had been squatting on his family’s land for 50 years or more never built the large harbor and docks he had planned to build. And we who had been born and lived there all our lives moved elsewhere. My husband, some of my children and I moved to this village of San Gabriel into the house of my husband’s family. My young daughter went to live with my sister in Chicago in el norte. I put up with the abuses of my mother-in-law for many long years before her death and then, the day of her burial in the pantheon with grieving granddaughters and old women in black dresses, I came home and removed the big trunk from under her bed.
In the trunk were beautiful clothes from her more slender youth, old photos, religious pictures now crumbling away to flakes, and in the very bottom, that black metal box I had seen her remove and open so many nights when she thought we all were sleeping. Well, she was right––all were asleep except for her oldest son’s wife––the quiet one who obeyed without objection and who did every deed asked––who seemed not to mind the abuse piled upon her by a sour old lady whose husband had died quickly to avoid more years of her vitriol and who had no other pleasure in life other than to rule.
This same old lady, nightly feigning sleep until midnight, when all but the unruliest grandsons were home and in bed. Knowing these “wildest ones” would not be home until dawn, she then arose and withdrew her secret from beneath the bed. I had been wondering for twelve long years what was in that box, and now, in this house never before completely empty of people, I was alone to answer that long question. I opened the box easily with a small knife as well as a hairpin I took from my hair. Inside was the very old photograph of a young man I didn’t recognize, a handkerchief wrinkled and yellowed with a black stain on it, and pile after pile of 500 peso notes.
I felt no guilt in removing this small black box and burying it in a corner under a loose tile. This place had been my own hiding place for all these years. I had equally no guilt in hiring the contractor to build an addition to this house that had gone unchanged for the many years the old woman had been living here with her accumulated brood.
With no land left to build on, we built up—a fine palapa restaurant with open sides and a small bar. As I explained in the beginning, my husband expressed no curiosity about where I found the money to build the addition and he then carried his lack of curiosity so far as to neglect to remain alive long enough to see its completion. My daughter came home from America for his funeral, bringing a Puerto Rican husband and a new recipe for pulled pork on plantain shingles that is crisp and soft, sweet and sour. That recipe is everything in the world––with rice balls of firm clotted rice and fine black beans with a flavor new to us all that makes us feel as though we should have known it from our births.
Now that the old lady has died, everything comes together and my family, including me, is happy. My daughter and her family decide to remain in Mexico. We open the restaurant just two nights a week, which insures a full house and no time spent waiting for customers who never come.
For those nights, our rooftop hums with activity and the sweet smells of chiles en nogada fill our neighborhood. My nephew makes cucumber/mint agua fresca and strawberry margaritas of mounded ice, the way the gringa taught him to do. In a large cage in the very center of the one large room that is our restaurant, our parrot watches the stream of Mexicans, Canadians and Americanos who keep our tables filled.
People move from table to table, greeting friends and meeting new ones, and my rooftop becomes a pueblo of its own—a friendly place with no old woman telling us what to do. This place we have created, my daughter and I, stays busy for the seven long months when the gringos flood into our town to enjoy our beach and the experience they imagine as living in an authentic Mexican environment. We are like that place I hear of all the time from everyone who goes to el norte––that Disneyland, where it is like going to another country but one that is only a slightly real country with all of the problems removed. This is the place these gringos see here in Mexico.
Yes, sometimes they are robbed and sometimes they have illness, but these drawbacks are all soon abolished by a trip to Puerto Vallarta to a doctor or to Costco to buy a new TV. They have no real problems that cannot be solved by a pocket book or a trip to find another appliance. Even their husbands they replace readily. One old man dies and another pops readily into his place. They find them in bars or on the beach or on the Internet. They seem always anxious to replace them, no matter how bandy-legged or useless the husband might be. They need them to dance around with in the bars or to fill out the extra chair at their dinner parties.
I required no replacement. When my husband died, I moved to the middle of the bed and luxuriated. Then I continued building my palapa. This is very many words leading up to my story, which is happening right now.
I stand in the kitchen making chiles rellenos—smothering them with the rich mole that no one else makes in this pueblo. My daughter moves her slight frame around the restaurant, delivering bowls of hot chicken soup to all who enter, taking orders. She speaks English like an Americano due to her early life in Chicago, and she understands these gringos––making light chatter when she has the time.
She tells them the recipes when they ask, but not all the secrets––just enough to make them try the recipes themselves and fail. They would come here anyway, even if they succeeded, for they do not come to Mexico to work. To be fair, most of them have worked all their lives and now seek to be waited on. To do so gives us jobs and we do not mind. Most of them are nice. The woman sitting at the nearest table is the one who taught us the recipes for cucumber water and margaritas made of strawberries that all the gringos love so. She also gave us her fine parrot that has become a member of our family as he once was a member of hers. This gringa rents her house out when she goes northwards for the six months she must live there to keep her health insurance.
Once, before she gave the bird to us, she came home to find him traumatized. This parrot did not like to be touched and what the renters did to him she didn’t know, but the parrot, once tranquil, had become wild in behavior—squawking and moving to the corner of the cage as she approached. For five months, she worked to calm this parrot, and he grew better but never regained his old demeanor.
That is why she gave him to us––for stability. She comes to visit him often when she is here in her house in the pueblo. She has come to be a little bit Mexican—learning Spanish of a sort and coming to gossip with the other women on days when we play Lotteria and drink the sweet Jamaica hibiscustea laced with a little bit of rum. Shhhhh. The men do not know and neither do the children, or they would tell the men.
This gringa, Shirlee, likes the rum and was the first to lace our Jamaica with it. Now we all wonder why we did not think to do this before. It makes us understand more our husbands sitting outside our doors each night drinking beer or tequila. These spirits must help their words to come. They do for us, even though we have never needed much help in making words come. We need more help in stopping them––something I have learned to do now that I finally have a restaurant of my own again—all these long years since my microwave went sailing through the window at Picadura de Alacrán.
Right now I am holding my tongue. In a restaurant full of gringos, there are two tables of Mexicans. One is a nice elderly couple who enjoy their food and do not talk much. The other is a man I recognize. He was a young lieutenant when they came to throw and pull us out of our beach homes and businesses. I remember that he seemed to love the breaking sound of glass and the crackling of the flames as they lit our palapa. When he pulled my oldest daughter from the house, his hand closed around her breast, his other hand gripped her between her legs, and he carried her like this to the truck as he laughed and she screamed. This man I have been seeing around town for years. I saw him flirting with the young girl who became his wife.
She sits at that table now, laughing with him as their small son shakes the cage of the parrot. Again and again, he shakes the cage and flips the latch. It clangs and clangs. The parrot moves to the center cage and sways on his perch. He does not squawk, but I know he remembers something. This parrot does not talk and even if he did, he would not tell us of past horrors. I, who am used to watching, know. I wait for the parents to collect their son. When their meals come, they do, but he doesn’t like my food and soon slips down and toddles over to the cage again. Flip flip flip flip. He does this over and over again for minutes, for an hour.
I am busy during this time as the tables have filled up. When my daughter is not working, she stops to talk. This is part of the success of our business, I know. She is pleasant. The old woman with the sour heart is kept safe in the kitchen away from any harm she might otherwise do.
I am not a mean lady nor unkind. I love my family and especially my sweet daughter who came home from the America she loves to help me build this business. But even those to whom I speak kindly can sense this bitterness within me. One justified, they know, so they never mention it or even seem to hold it against me. By my age, we all have some bitterness, no matter how well we seek to hide it.
Again and again, that man’s son flips the lock on the cage. He has not figured out how to pull it horizontal and to open the door. If he did, I have no doubt that he would climb into the cage to seize the parrot. This young man, still a baby, is not accustomed to the word “No!” His parents sit blindly by three feet away from the cage. Their eyes have not strayed away from each other all night long except for once when their meals came and the lieutenant—perhaps a captain by now—came to place his son into the chair.
The parrot, I know, will not be the same tomorrow. It will take weeks of soothing to restore him again to that hard-won confidence earned from being safe in this home with the same family for years.
If you are not from Mexico, perhaps you are unaccustomed to a place where authority goes unchallenged. When I worked in my mother-in-law’s fruit stand, when the policia came by and took an apple, it was not questioned. When I worked in my sister-in-law’s taco stand during her childbirth time, when the soldiers came to eat tacos, they never paid. No one would have dared to ask for payment. If they had, retribution would have followed: the slow response to a frenzied call, a stalled car on a dangerous road passed by, a son jailed too quickly for public drunkenness. Public officials would extract their pay one way or another.
This is why I did not stop that baby sooner. Even with kind words, to discipline the son would have been to censure the father. This son was being trained for his rightful place and that place was above us all––me, this restaurant, these gringos and even the green parrot swaying in his cell. If this baby needed a plaything and the parrot was the plaything, who was I to seize it from him? I remained in the kitchen.
My daughter brings another order for the pulled pork sandwich. I have told you how I loved this dish from the first, but I must admit that I was reluctant to add a foreign dish to our menu. “Mama, we must learn some new ways. Keep our tradition, but add to it. This is how the world has grown, Mama,” she said to me.
I am not an empress like my mother-in-law was. I try to listen to my children and I have listened to my gringa friend Shirlee. I put cucumbers in the water and I lessen the chile in my mole to please the foreigners who are my main customers. I do things in this special way dictated to me by my family’s next generation and I see that they are right.
I slide the chiles en nogada onto the plate I have warmed in the way my daughter dictates I should do. I take another sip of the cucumber water she has placed beside the stove. It is cool and soothing and I must admit I like it now better than Jamaica.
Clang clang. The baby grows more insistent in his efforts to extract my parrot from its cage.
I untie my apron. I lift the barrier that keeps me a prisoner in my kitchen. I walk the few steps to the parrot cage.
“Young man,” I say, “Niño. This parrot is not your toy!” I pick him up gently and place him on his chair.
“Your son,” I tell his parents, “Needs to learn some manners. Needs to eat his food.”
They say nothing as I walk away. The parrot stays safe in the middle of his cage. I go back to my kitchen, close the gate that signals this is my domain. My daughter brings another order and I move to fill it, but first I have a sip of cool water of cucumber. On the shelf over the stove is a bottle of rum. I remove the top, splash a bit into my agua fresca. Have another little sip.