Today I come home and Mr. Milner is leaving his wife, and MariFer who’s really Maria Fernanda abbreviated, is watching the ruckus from her chair on the roof. Mrs. Milner is screaming in her nightdress on the sidewalk, “There must be something to save!” Then she steps in some of MariFer’s puppy’s porqueria that peppers the sidewalk, ruining her melodramatics.
“Ay, MariFer, tu y tu pinche Chihuahua! I’m gonna call the manager, you’ll see.” But I know she is just threatening because she has two cats and a dog of her own, plus her three kids who are crying right now in her two-bedroom apartment and that’s two pets and one kid too many.
“Y que harán?” MariFer stands up and leans with one hip against the railing. “What will they do?” she repeats. “‘Sides, you got other things to think about,” she says, and looks at the car screeching out of the parking lot.
MariFer is right, I know. Mrs. Milner had better be thinking about the rent check that just drove away in the blue Ford.
“Y tu?” Mrs. Milner yells at me, but I’m just standing there on the front steps with the grocery bag wearing into my fingertips staring at her face, which looks like a colorized film, black on the left side of her chin, still swollen and yellowing around her right eye, and gray everywhere else. Her long hair is falling out of its bun, hanging on her nape. “What are you looking at college girl? I could’ve gone to school.” Only when she says it comes out “I cudave go into skoal.”
“But no,” she is walking up the steps in her platform house shoes until she’s so close that I can see the line between her pupils and black irises. “I got kids! I got kids and what am I gonna do now?” then her colorized face crumbles, her wide nose turning redder until it is darker than her tuna-colored skin. She pushes me down on the steps and crawls over me to get into the building.
When I see something like that I’m glad I don’t have to marry to stay, glad my Mamá is Unidense, glad to be sure I am better off with my cats. I see clearly that the true punishment of the vibora was to have its replica hanging useless between the legs of a man. That I can do without. Then I watch some silly telenovela with three romantic subtexts to the main plot of treachery and start to cry at nothing in particular.
The year I was born Carter was president, and my family moved from the desert of Texas back to the desert of northern Mexico. To the people my father worked with it was all one piece, but split too, like a painting of a tiger on a mirror divided over three frames. I remember my father slicing that glass with an exacto knife to hang it in the kitchen; he was covering the place where his fist went through the wall. That was the night he left alone, asking me to come with him. I refused because my mother was too pale to care for herself; she is even too pale to get in the sun for some color.
But Papi came back and as far as I know he left only because he’d lost his job and hated his wife working. He moved us all to Mexico and my mother got a maid and never again worked like the dog she always said she was treated like. From then on Papi treated her like she was made of ivory, his bella angela huera.
I want to fall in love, but the first of three affairs broke my heart, as did the next two. I know now when I take to crying uncontrollably that it is time to say good-bye. It’s lonely. But when his voice gets quiet and he says he can’t take the emotional weight either he is just tired of me or he’s already screwing around. Worse is when he doesn’t say anything. Sometimes I know I’ll never find someone.
Not that I want a Mr. Milner. No one is definitely preferable.
MariFer comes down and helps me pick up the groceries: smashed cigarettes, milk, bruised tomatillos, a dented can of pintos, tortillas and cheese all covered with egg whites that oozed from the broken carton when the Sra. knocked me over. MariFer is seventeen almost, even younger than me to be out on her own. She lives across from me on the top floor. She and I both have bigger apartments than Sra. Milner’s, because we are on the top floor, where there is an overhang with seats in the windows.
Building 1014 is gray stucco with purple doorjambs. Across the street is an overgrown park that is safe during daylight. We are at the back of the development, which is fine because there are fewer car thefts and break-ins. The parking lot is filled with fancy cars, cars with alarms that go off at dusk because the kids play hide and seek near them. Only they don’t play hide and seek, they see how close they can get to the cars without setting off the alarms. The kids always scream when they set one off, running away before the owner peeks through the curtains to spot them. Some of them can run very fast, and I think that if they don’t become sprinters they will be very fine runners.
“I don’t understand why she cares if her husband left -- she’s been married for a decade or more.” What MariFer means is that Sra. Milner must’ve got her green card years ago, and doesn’t have to be like all mis tias who married to stay.
But MariFer doesn’t know what it’s like to be alone. She went from her mom’s house to here with Carlos. When Carlos isn’t home to look deep into her green Spanish eyes she has Sparky the Chihuahua to keep her company. MariFer keeps talking to me while she hoses down the walk. I swear that dog shits more that the husky in building one-twenty-two.
“I guess she gets lonely.” I say, trying to arrange what’s left of the food in the torn bag.
“Maybe, but she’s got a good job.” MariFer throws her hair out of her eyes.
Sra. Milner’s got a job at the good bank that gives accounts even to Chicanas like her and Mestizas like me, the one bank that doesn’t care what color your skin is, even if it’s multi-color from beatings, as long as your money is green and you’re putting it in, not trying to borrow it out. So her kids are okay, they’ve got lunch boxes with pretty cartoons on the side and real food in them, and shoes without holes in the heels.
“So she’s got a good job, what does she care if her husband leaves and takes the ratty Ford and his fists with him?” MariFer says; she pulls her lower lip down and creases her forehead, squinting up at the summer sun.
In the evening the women come one by one down to Sra. Milner’s apartment. They bring food because that is what Latinas do when there’s trouble. This is no death, so the food is simpler. No sweets or Jell-O molds are allowed. Still welcome are Mrs. Wells’ tamales that she rolls herself for extra money when her husband is out getting drunk on the unemployment. Sister Juana Inez who left the convent but still wears her wimple with her black sweater and skirt brings bread, a big Italian loaf with little seeds on top. I wander in with a pint of Jack in a brown bag, because I know that is what the Sra. wants the most.
The Sra. sits on her couch, baby Eddie in her lap. She smiles at me as I come in and motions me toward her. She leans close to say “Jack, right?” She doesn’t mention running me over outside. I take the bottle to the kitchen and put it on the counter behind the tamales and the frijoles refritos and the tortas.
The women in the kitchen are smoking long cigarettes and complaining about men. Cuban Clara , the skinny woman from 3B who wears too much makeup and always dresses in tight black or maroon pants with cotton tops and heels, even to go to the market, holds a cigarette between the fingers of the same hand in which she cradles a rum and Coke. Crazy Clara , the other women call her, or Crazy Clara the Cuban if they want to be specific. If they’re talking to a complete stranger who has never seen Clara they’ll use all of her given names: Crazy Clara the Cuban slut who sells the Mary Kay. That one, who’s talking to deaf Sra. Torres from 1D.
“Pinche men, all they good for is to give you babies and a smack on the ass as they walk out the door, I swear. I never marry. I know better. Pinche men.”
Sra. Torres looks pleasant, unable to hear what Clara is saying. Even so, she excuses herself because she knows what Clara really does for a living. Sra. Torres looks at me as she walks by and says “Some women are only good for one thing.”
Sometimes Sra. Torres forgets that everyone isn’t as deaf as she is. “And what was you good for, eh?” Clara says loud enough for even Sra. Torres to hear. Clara drags on her cigarette and fluffs her curled hair. To me she says “She got seven brats. She never work a job. What she good for ‘cept seven fucks?” Clara smashes her cigarette out in the sink and says “Sun’s gone. I gotta go work now.”
She pecks me on the cheek, smoothes my hair away from my face. “Jou come up soon, college girl,” she puts her arm around me and leads me back into the living room; “I make you over so those college boys, Ay they no can keep hands offa you. That Mary Kay, she gonna buy me a Caddie, I’m so good. Jou see.”
She shoves her drink at me and I gulp it because my head hurts and the drink might help. Clara slides by Fatima la india, squat and rat-ish in her pink prints and owl glasses. “Oye, ‘Ima, jou come see me soon! Reaaal soon!” Clara laughs loudly, slaps Fatima’s back hard enough to send her over the couch.
While Fatima feels in the cushions for her glasses, the other women hang around and I watch them, these Hispanas with their husbands and kids standing invisibly behind them, not really there but there in the words women whisper and in the creases of their foreheads. If you look closely you can count the kids screaming and the boyfriends and the lopsided arguments by the lines in their hands. I pour myself another drink and notice that they are all starting to look like the white tropical fish that washed up on the Gulf shore when I was little. All these women, they look dead. My father says the fish died because they were warm-water fish caught in a cold-water current. I think we are like that -- Hispanas en America -- warm-water fish caught in a cold tide.
I worry about MariFer. Last week when Sra. Milner was in a good mood and her husband was still home she read MariFer’s Tarot. The Sra. clucked her tongue, then sucked her teeth and told MariFer she was pregnant without even looking up. Usually the Sra. is not so direct but MariFer is three months along and the whole building knew by then. “Tiene que decidir, and she has to have some time for that,” Sra. Milner says. “Por lo menos she has that option here.”
I know what she means but I don’t say so. My friend Bella-Linda aborted at fifteen and she cried for three months after. Cried without stopping. Cried on the bus to school and in Homeroom. Her tears filled the corners of her eyes and swelled down her face, dropped off her chin into her lunch. She dried up for phys. ed. because Mrs. Lobos the Dike yelled at girls if they whimpered. During that time BeLinda’s grandmother washed her clothes separately from the rest of the family’s, saying only that salt bleaches the colors. Belinda’s grandmother stood over the washbasin, her knotted-knuckles scrubbing in the water, clucking away about arthritic hands and unwanted babies not having a choice.
MariFer has no choice either, like Sra. Milner and her white husband, or Clara’s cheap boyfriends. Plus MariFer has to put up with Carlos, who is twenty and I don’t know where he buys the beer to get drunk off of. Probably the same place he got the fancy car.
It’s been three days since Mr. Milner left, and I hope he has come back, because Sra. Milner is screaming in High-C again and the raggedy bump-bam that I know is a hollow brass headboard bump-baming against the wall. If Mr. Milner comes back and finds someone else there, again, I know this time for sure he’ll kill her. So I get out of bed to look out the window wondering how in hell her baby Eduardito sleeps through this. The Ford is outside, and I know the Milner’s must be very much in love again.
If I can hear them I know everyone else can, too. All the windows in the building are open because even though it’s June already the super hasn’t flipped over to air conditioning. So I’ll hear Mr. Milner moan in a minute, call her his sol, his cielo, then I can go to sleep again. I light a cigarette and wait, flip on the bedside lamp and start reading the poetry book I left on my night table, which is really an unfinished pine plant stand. Bump-bam, bump-bam. It’s almost a pentameter beat. Bump-bam, bump-bam. The cats, whose names this week are Rey and Tonatiuh, stir and stretch on the windowseat. Bump-bam, bump-bam. I close the book and try my biology text, Chapter Four: Human Genetics, thinking that may bore me to sleep. Bump-bam, bump-bam. A loud bump. “Ay! Mi cielo!.”
“Ay, nada, Milner.” It’s Clara at her window. “Callate ya! Pinche hombre. Can’t you fuck quiet like other anglo cabrones?”
Today the Sra. calls me to come and sit for her brats because I never go out, she knows, and I can use the money. “You gotta buy books, college girl.” She says before she clicks off.
When I come down around nine Mr. Milner is gone, another business trip, the Sra says. She puts on one of the dresses she used to wear for him, the ones I’ve seen in the back of her closet covered by the dry cleaner’s saran. The one’s she wore when they first moved in she tells me, but that was years before I got here. She goes out late, around ten, after reading my cards and turning up the Sun in its perpetually penultimate position. “Perfect joy is always in your future. But mira aquí Octavia, here is the Eight of Wands: Watch and Wait.” She rolls the cards up in tattered black cloth along with the clear crystal “for purity.”
She takes the dime-size rollers out of her hair, letting it run over her shoulders in tiny curls. Her hair is thick but india straight and it barely takes a curl when she perms it. She says that I have the hair of las Árabes, which must be true because I have Lebanese blood and mine curls even from mist in the morning.
“Será bien humedo hoy de noche,” she tells me, “Your hair is like curled copper wire.” Then she pulls on a black beaded shawl, leaves me with her kids to order pizza for dinner.
Sometimes MariFer comes by to spilt the pizza and breadsticks. Tonight she brings her guitar and sings the kids to sleep, which makes my job so much easier that I don't point out she ate four slices and half the breadsticks. She still hasn’t gotten over the American food and eats burgers and fries everyday for lunch. She’s only been here a couple of months, and I think she must be eating a lot more Cinnabons lately at her job because she is getting rounder every day. We pass the evening platicando, talking about men. She tells me she wants to learn to sew, maybe start with something small, like doll dresses. I wonder if maybe she means baby clothes.
The next day I am in my kitchen singing along with the oldies station and I think I hear someone screaming. Maybe it’s the kids playing hide and seek behind the fancy cars. That always surprises me, to see new people moving in with stick furniture, fewer chairs than kids, but they drive luxury cars with alarms. Only in the States.
Carlitos drives a Lexus, which should have clued MariFer in because he is supposed to be a house painter. That and the fact that he leaves for work at four in the afternoon and comes back at dawn, though he does leave in paint-splotched white coveralls that remind me of BeLinda’s salty clothes.
Still MariFer must have been surprised when she found his baggies with the yellow-and-blue-turn-green seals, the same type the Sra. uses for her kids’ sandwiches. Surprised enough to call the police, which is why he is throwing her around in the hallway this afternoon and she’s screaming like a kid playing around the cars. I peek through the hole in the door, the one I poked through with a drill; a man with his back to me is struggling with a blonde who can only be the Spaniard MariFer. I unlatch the bolt and chain, open the door to yell at Carlitos -- just his name -- because he has her on the ground slapping her and the whole building knows she is pregnant.
“Carlitos!” I yell with the authority of Mrs. Lobos the Dike yelling at the half-naked girls in the locker room. “Carlitos!” hoping I am old enough to use his Christian name. Her lets go of her arms to slap her. Her nose is bleeding. “Carlitos!”
I must sound like his mother finally because he lets her go, looks at me and says “Al infierno contigo, Octavia!”
“Llama la policia!” MariFer screams at me, “He’s beating me!” I can see her nose is broken and she’s holding the back of her head. My phone is back inside and when I start to go after it she screams again. “Don’t just leave me here with him!” I don’t know where to move. I look from her with her bloody nose to him shaking and sweating. His fists are purple with the blood rushing into them and his knuckles are cut as if from scrubbing clothes on a washboard. The rings around his eyes darken as he raises his balled fingers and I’m thinking that tomorrow I’ll know what a black-and-blue-turn-yellow face feels like. But he just shakes his red fist at me and sweat beads fall on my face like tears in a school lunch. Before he slams the door in her face, he calls MariFer a bitch and tells her she’d better “run back to her Mami,” Which is exactly what she should have done and exactly what she did. But not before kicking in the front fender of his sky-blue Lexus with the high heel of her boot.
Today Sra. Milner showed up at my door wearing no makeup and a long black dress I’d never seen before. She even had on the black lace gloves of mourning, but no veil. I looked into her large india eyes and started to invite her in, but she raised one hand palm out, the one with the hanky in it, and I stopped without speaking. She gave me a press clipping circled in red and left without saying a word. My mouth was still hanging open, half from the words I didn’t say, half with shock that she didn’t just breeze into my place chattering away like she usually does. I didn’t have to read the article, just the headline. But I read it all anyway.
Immigrants Killed in Shoot-out With Police
Laredo -- Carlos Gutierrez, 19, of 1014 Castle Boulevard, was shot to death last night after pulling his gun on an undercover policeman. Mr. Gutierrez, originally of El Salvador, was suspected of attempting to procure or sell illegal substances.
Mr. Gutierrez was standing on the corner of Hope and Sixteenth Streets when approached by Officer Brannig of the Laredo police force. After a brief conversation with Mr. Gutierrez, Officer Brannig says that the suspect reached into his jacket. The police veteran says he then told the suspect to put his hands up, and Mr. Gutierrez attempted to flee. Officer Brannig fired two warning shots, one of which hit the suspect in the back of the head.
A bystander, Mr. Alejandro Souza, 15, of 2108 Frank St., originally of El Salvador, was also shot and killed by officer Brannig when he ran toward Mr. Gutierrez’s body. “I felt sure they were together,” Officer Brannig said in an interview yesterday.
“This younger kid was screaming at me, and he was over the body of a known drug dealer. It was likely that they both had guns,” the officer said.
The search for Mr. Gutierrez began late yesterday afternoon following an anonymous tip from a resident at the Castle Boulevard development where Mr. Gutierrez resided. Neither suspect was carrying a gun. No drugs were recovered.
Of course not. MariFer had flushed them all.