By Roxanna Piedrafuette
This story contains profanity in Spanish and the content is not suitable for children under 12 years old./Este cuento contiene malas palabras en Español y el contenido no es apropiado para niños menores de 12 años.
I was eleven years old the first time I did laundry by myself. It was a Saturday morning at the end of May, and the air was full of children’s voices and neighborhood’s sounds.
It was the week after the end of the spring semester. We children had spent the last few days wild with the freedom of the tropical summer that started for us with the last day of class. We ran everywhere; we climbed over fallen logs and debris, fences, chicken coops, trees, up the ladder into my grandmother’s roof from which we terrorized the housewives in our side of the barrio. We got into fights, made up, and went to jump into the soft mud at the bottom of the ravine from which we crawled out infinitely filthy and ravenous from all the jumping. I told stories of space or the jungles of Borneo to the other children while we raided the fruit trees in my aunt’s garden. I hung upside down from the high branches of the guava bush, drafted with seashells, the outlines of imaginary cities and farmland that enclosed plastic animals, and sang in my room romantic songs the meaning of which I did not really understand.
I guess that is why Mami decided that I was old enough to do something useful.
My mom had started a load of clothes earlier that morning, and I was watching it as it swiped side to side with the motion of the washer’s blades. I found the movement hypnotic and lost myself on it without a clear sense of the passage of time. The creamy yellow sun was warm on my neck, and the breeze carried the smell of laundry detergent.
“Lita!,” I heard Mami scream. “¿Estás sorda?” She must have called me two or three times already. I hurried towards the back door where she was standing, her arms full of dirty clothes, impatience etched on her face.
Her brown hair was short, lanky; it almost disappeared into the scrunchy she wore to keep it out of her forehead. She had on a cotton dress of a faded yellow hue with a tiny, blue-flowers pattern. Una bata, she called it; shapeless, it reached down to just below her knees. On her feet, she wore a pair of black sandals.
“Here, take these,” she said, handing me down a bundle of clothes. I extended my hands up; for less than a second we were—she bending down, I reaching up—negative images of each other.
I wanted to be like my mom, and in some ways I was. Her brown eyes, her eyebrows, the general plan of her face, all me. But in the things that people noticed first we are not alike. She is brown as burnt caramel; I, pale and kind of pink. My hair, curly; hers flat. Her nose, straight, proud; mine round and a somewhat ashamed of itself. The pile of clothes Mami handed to me was almost too big, but I managed to carry it to the washing machine. She climbed down and walked towards it.
We never had a laundry room in our house; laundry was always done outdoors in a big wringer wash machine that looked like a metal tub con patas and made a noise like a distressed air conditioner. There were no electrical outlets nearby; the closest one was in my brother’s bedroom. We had to run an extension cable from the machine, about twelve feet away from the back of the house, and pass it through a half-opened window to be able to plug it in the only outlet in Papo’s room. When it rained my mother unplugged the machine and covered it up with a plastic tarp; when it was time to do laundry she swiped dead leaves and detritus from the tarp and took it off. We filled it with a garden hose and when we were done emptied it into a trench that spilled into a nearby ravine.
I put the bundle of clothes down beside the washing machine, on the plastic tarp that was now resting on top of a pair of old chairs. Mami moved the switch to the middle position and the washer stopped paddling, but she did not allow me to unhook the plastic sidearm to empty the machine.
“No la botes, todavía está limpia.” she said. The water could still be used for the next load. And probably the next two also. My mom didn’t believe in waste, and to her, wasting water was a particularly shameful sin. That was something that I couldn’t understand; didn’t water come from the sky through the tap?
“Here,” Mami said and fished out a t-shirt, “put it through the wringer.” I happily did as I was told; those squeezing, beige roll-pins were even more fascinating than all the other parts of the washer.
“Be careful with your hands,” she said when I let my fingers stray too close to the wringer’s maw. I obeyed.
We spent the next half hour together; she, pulling wet pieces of clothing from the machine, wringing them by hand, and then handing them to me so I could give them a more thorough squeeze through the wringer. The used suds felled back in the washer’s bowl. Water was everywhere. She sang.
We had all kinds of fruit trees in our garden; mango, orange, guava, banana, acerola shrubs, and even some sugar cane but our favorite was the big mango tree on the front of the house.
Have you ever seen an old mango tree grown quasi-wild? Nothing to do with those puny greenhouse hybrids that people grow in sub-divisions. An untamed mango tree is a big tree, a strong tree, generous, solid; for us children, ours was good for everything and anything. Excellent as a tree house with invisible rooms wide open to the wind, even better as an airplane; Tarzan’s house in the jungle with all of us jumping from branch to branch like monkeys or scurrying down its trunk wriggling like lagartijos.
My favorite game was the airplane. We climbed the tree together and whoever made it to the top branch first was the captain; boy or girl, it didn’t matter, the captain was always the one child, the lizard-monkey more agile and determined than the others. Whoever hung in the lower branches had to be the flight attendant, and if it was a boy, we made merciless fun of him. For a while I was the undisputed champion of that game, not once did I sit on a low branch. My other girl cousins didn’t mind though; at that time, only women were flight attendants, and they were always glamorously tall, beautiful in their pencil skirts and makeup. All the girls I knew wanted to grow up to be either a teacher or a flight attendant. I wanted to be an anthropologist; in the meantime, I preferred to be captain.
That Saturday morning my brother Papo and a few other boys were running around the garden screaming and chasing each other. There were no other girls around, and a cluster of dirty boy’s shoes was scattered around the base of our tree. For these games children were always barefoot. Who can climb a tree with shoes on, anyway? You need all extremities if you don’t want to slide off the trunk.
Once, when I was six years old, I tried to do a flip over wearing a Sunday dress and sandals. My shoes slipped on the bark just as I was trying to push against it; I landed on my head, there was a soft thud when I hit the grown. I heard the laughter of my cousins far away, felt the sting of humiliation, dry leaves, dirt, and sticks were stuck all over my body, and one strap of my pretty yellow dress was torn. I limped home slithering sideways because I couldn’t straighten my head and spent the next two days with my face turned awkwardly left. On the third day, they took me to my grandparent’s house and my father went to fetch the santigüero. In came a skinny old man who smelled of menthol and looked a little like my grandfather, wearing a faded but clean guayabera, with a bunch plastic rosaries and saint’s escapularios hanging around his neck. Mami told me this man would pray for me to heal; as I sat on her lap, the santigüero put a big dollop of a smelly, greasy ointment on my neck and rubbed it in while chanting about the merciful intercession of the Virgin Mary and all the saints. His voice was as skinny as himself, droning on and on in a circular chant. I dozed off…
Crack! “¡Ay!” My head was pointing in the right direction again.
That was the biggest accident I ever had in my tree-climbing days. Sure, there were some minor scrapes, some torn clothes, but much more important were the exhilaration and the incredible sense of freedom.
The first load of clothes was almost dried and it flapped in the breeze when I saw again the silhouettes of running boys darting around the yard; Mami had gone back inside the house to make lunch leaving me in charge of finishing the laundry. For a moment I felt like dropping all the clothes and running after them. One foot was already tapping, itching to join whatever it was that they were up to even if it was no good. But I smelled lunch being prepared and I heard Mami singing in the kitchen. Nah, not worth it. It will be some little animal or other that they were searching for. Maybe worms? They are so awesomely-repulsive-squishy when you dig them out of the dirt and put them in a tin to go fishing as they do in American movies.—Except that we never went fishing and Mami screamed every time she found a can of dead worms under our beds.—I heard the boys laughing, a bird screeching, the neighbor’s dog barking, the sound of other voices in the distance and the flap of a t-shirt I had just hung to dry.
“There!,” my brother Papo screamed. “There is a big one!” The swish-swish of trampled grass and sticks came closer. I hung the last of my brother’s white calzonsillos to dry and paused a moment to watch the noisy gaggle of boys. There were five of them in total, my brother, three of my cousins, and that weird kid from the neighbors.
My brother was ten years old at that time, and that day he was gaggle-leader. He was taller and stronger than most of the other boys except for a weird, pale kid who used to hang around with us sometimes. Papo had dark curly hair and chubby cheeks of a whitish pink somewhat like mine, but there ended the resemblance. He looked more like a mini-version of our father complete with a proud Spanish nose and the barrel-shaped body of those people who are never fat yet never slim. His passions were Hot Wheels toy cars—carritos—marbles, and the Beatles. Sometimes he liked to scream like Tarzan. As a younger brother, he was alright.
Weird Tony was blond, skinny, and red as if he was permanently sunburned. He had big eyes of a yellowish brown that looked almost transparent under the sun. All the girls thought that he was the cutest boy in the neighborhood. I did too, until that time when I saw him bitting off the head of a lagartijo.
It happened one day when we were playing explorers in my grandmother’s yard; our supplies were an assortment of fruits gathered from the garden, packets of sunflower seeds and Cornnuts from my grandfather’s tienda, and we had a bunch of unlighted sticks as our “campfire”. We sat around it talking about cartoons and telling stories.
“In the army,” Tony said, when we started to eat, “you have to eat rats and lizards for training.” We made faces, his eyes glittered. He was always talking about how he would join the army when he grew up so he could have a big gun and kill people.
“No way”, someone said.
“You don’t believe me?”
“That is gross,” I said.
“No, it’s not,” Tony said, “it’s survival.”
“It is still gross,” I said and changed the conversation to tell a story about a golden talking fish. We forgot about Tony and his deliriums with the army until a while later, when he came back to camp with a live, green lagartijo.
“See what I’ve got?, he said, “I’m gonna eat it.”
“No way!”, we all protested almost in unison. “That is the grossest thing….”, somebody else said. Then Tony brought the lagartijo to his mouth and bit on its neck; there was a crunching sound, the small lizard’s legs jerked for a second, my cousin Christian retched. I watched the whole thing as if in slow-motion, my heart was loud in my ears; one, two, three heartbeats. I jumped from the floor and ran and did not stop until I was alone in my bedroom. Something was wrong, sad, but I couldn’t cry.
“I don’t want to go to the army!”, I wailed to my dolls. I turned on my stereo and sang along with a singer that had a whinny, melancholic voice, a song about a broken heart crying rivers of blood for a cruel betrayal.
My mom did not know about this episode until years later, but instinctively, she mistrusted Tony. She did not single him out because she did not want to have trouble with the neighbors, but when he came to our house to play, she would send everybody home early just to get rid of him.
After the “survival” incident we shunned Tony for a few days; however, he had a strategy for winning back his place in the gaggle: he told us dirty jokes and taught us to curse. I did not understand the jokes very well; they gave me an uneasy feeling; cursing was another matter. Occasionally, I had heard my mother and aunts discussing divorced women, whom they called putas, or some distant male relative whom they scorned and pitied at the same time for being un pobre cabrón.
“Mami, ¿qué es una puta?” somebody would ask. If the child were small enough she would be dispatched with a “Shush, don’t ask such things. Go along and play”. Sometimes a child could get much worse for parroting adults, and we took care of never speaking like that in front of our parents and relatives. Of course, every so often, things wouldn’t go as planned.
I remember this day that Papo and I were arguing because he wouldn’t let me play with his toy cars.
“Oh, come on!”, I whined.
“Carritos are not for girls,” he said.
“But Mami drives a car. How come I cannot play with carritos?”
“Well,” he hesitated, “because you can’t. Because they are mine. I never play with your dolls.”
“Yes, you do!”
“No, I don’t.”
“Then, where is my Malibu Barbie?”
“Wherever you put it, you brat!”.
“You killed her, and now you lie!”, I screamed and lunged across the floor to grab a Hot Wheels which he snatched away just as I got a hold of it.
“¡Déjalo!” he shouted.
“Selfish!” I said and tried another grab. He pushed me; I pushed back.
“Eaah!“, he yelled putting his tongue out, “¡Vete pa’l carajo!”
“¡Vete tú! ¡Pendejo!”
I had not finished shouting when a thin sound followed by a “thuck” and a “platt” made us jump. I felt a burning sensation on my right arm where something plastic had hit me; the other projectile lay on the floor amid the toy cars in the spot where Papo had sat two seconds ago.
Mami stood in the hallway barefooted and glowering; she had scored on me with one of her chancletas. After the initial shock, Papo had run away; I was too slow to react. That sluggishness earned me a few more hits of the flip-flop and a lecture on the wickedness of teaching malas palabras to my younger brother.
“But he started it!”, I cried. “Thuck,” “platt,” Mami was not interested in hearing my side of the story. I did not know whether I was more broken-hearted or angry at the injustice of it all, but I knew who was responsible for my troubles; I didn’t talk to that weird kid Tony again until high school. Cursing also lost most of its charm although eventually, I learned what a puta and a cabrón were. At school.
The other three boys of the Saturday gaggle were my cousins Luis, Pepe, and Christian.
Luis was chubby and lightly tanned. He ate with religious dedication and seemed to be always digging for something in his nose. For a while, we used to call him moquito and he would fly into a rage. Then he would chase us around the garden as angry as a baited bull; fortunately, he was the slowest of us and never quiet managed to catch anybody before he ran out of steam. As he got older, he didn’t take the bait anymore so we stopped calling him moquito. For a while.
Pepe, Luis’s younger brother, had coffee-colored skin, straight hair, dark eyes and very white, perfect teeth. He looked a little like my mom, his aunt, and had the habit of continually snorting and spitting. Pepe was second in command to my brother; he could run fast, was always the first one to get into fights, a brave and reckless boy-warrior who was afraid of nothing. Except for cockroaches. Once he jumped out of a tree because we put a dry leave in his head and told him it was a cockroach. Boy, he could run fast!
Tagging along halfheartedly was Christian who was seven years old and the youngest of all the cousins. He was an olive-skinned, weepy little pest. Somedays Christian would follow Papo around because he wanted to be like him when he grew up. Most of the time Papo ignored him; not out of meanness, but just because, to my brother, Christian was uninteresting to the point of invisibility. Some other times, my cousin’s obsession took a different, more annoying turn.
When he started first grade Christian proposed marriage to me. Eew! In school, during lunch break, in front of everybody. The bigger kids organized an impromptu wedding and one of the girls was the priest. You can imagine my embarrassment! I told them to bugger-off and pushed my way through the kid’s crowd that somehow kept growing. Somebody started humming “Here comes the bride”, tan-tan, ta-dan, tan-tan, ta-dan, others picked it up, and I went to hide in the girls’ bathroom until the noon bell rang and it was time to go back to class. When I came out of the bathroom, Christian was still sitting outside with his eyes red and a bunch of chamomile flowers. I looked at him, he looked at me and then we both bawled in desperate disappointment. I promised to marry him when I turned fifty and he calmed down—I think he understood fifteen; for a long time the kids at school kept calling me “the snotty bride”.
That Saturday morning Christian had gone back to his habit of following Papo around and I was able to do the laundry in peace.
After I hung up the last towel and went back to the laundry machine, the last load of the morning was almost ready to rinse. Mami was singing in the kitchen while she cooked lunch. Every so often the boys sauntered by pretending to be hunters. The game of the moment was catching the biggest, meanest-looking lagartijos to wear as living earings.
I looked at the clothes being battered this way and that by the paddles of the machine, left, right, left, right. I heard Mami singing The battle hymn of the republic, her “gloria, gloria, aleluya” raspy and slightly out of tune. Her voice dissipated over the accents of splashing water, the wind whispers of leaves, the hum of the engine in the washer until it was no more than a formless string in a place full of sounds.
While she sang, Mami mashed down fresh garlic, chopped onions, and recao in a medium-sized wooden pilón, this time Santa María del Camino, asking the holy virgin Mary to come and walk with us.
“Ven con nosotros a caminaaaaaar, santa María, veeeeeen.“, she sang and punctuated santa with the bang of the pestle in the wooden bowl of the mortar.
The smell of fresh garlic and the bitter smell of recao escaped through the windows to join other cooking smells in the neighborhood. In the back of the house, with the breeze sweeping across the ravine, I got the occasional fleeting whiff of arroz y habichuelas, of fried cube steak and onions in a thick tomato sauce, while the washer’s wringer rolled and the growl of my stomach distracted me.
The boys had quieted down and separated around the yard; some sort of stealth was necessary if they wanted to catch lagartijos. These little lizards are not particularly skittish, but they could jump and wriggle away if they were disturbed. Lagartijos spend most of the day just hanging around in some chosen spot where the mosquito catch is good. If you would sit down quietly in a tree, they might even use your head as a sort of shortcut to jump between branches. We use to catch them out of instinct more than anything else; it was like sports fishing, catch and release.
Somewhere around the yard, Papo crept cautiously under a banana leave. In his left hand, he carried a bunch of makeshift lassoes made with the stalks of garden grasses. Two brown lagartijos hung from these lassoes tied around their necks. The lagartijos were small, perhaps ten centimeters from head to the tips of their tails. One was light brown, the other was darker, with a yellow stripe on each side of its chest, their pale bellies rose up and down with their breathing, and they had stopped struggling a while ago. They were perfectly good lagartijos to wear but too small to impress the other boys.
In his right hand, Papo had an opened grass lasso that trembled in the breeze as he stalked his next catch, a big, green lagartijo almost double the size of the two he had already caught. The grass lassoes needed to be tied so that they would slide closed, but the grass stems had the consistency of human hair. The knots were not stable, many times allowing the lagartijos a chance to escape.
The reptile was eyeing the boy and his grass stem indifferently; its watery marble of an eye seemed faster than the rest of its body. Slowly, Papo passed the opened grass ring around its neck and pulled. The lagartijo pulled back and struggled, wriggling is body and tail side to side, but once it lost its hold on the banana leaf it was caught. Papo laughed examining this latest trophy before exchanging it for an empty lasso; he was flushed with excitement as he moved away looking for other interesting lizards to catch.
In the meantime, the brothers Pepe and Luis had teamed up to catch lagartijos in the front yard. Luis climbed the mango tree and caught the lizards while Pepe waited at the foot of the tree to keep their combined catch and hand-up empty lassoes. Luis wore a ragged red t-shirt that read “¡Fuego popular!” just above the drum-like swell of his belly. Every so often, he paused on his hunting efforts to scratch the inside of his nose. Pepe already had four lagartijos, enough to complete the set of earrings for the two of them, but Luis wanted one more for a nose ring to scare his sister when he made it back to his house for lunch.
“Hurry up!”, Pepe urged his brother and scratched his head.
About fifteen or so feets away weird Tony watched their efforts. He had hung his catch from the link-chain fence, two small brown lizards; as they dangled from stems of grass, they looked like hanged men though they were still breathing. He bent down to pick up a stone; swift, in a blur, he threw it and hit the mango tree just a couple of centimeters above Pepe’s head.
“Hey!”, Pepe said as Tony skipped towards him.
Nearby, Christian sat rummaging through a mound of construction materials. He did not like to trap little animals; he was repulsed by their appearance and a bit afraid of being bitten. He also felt sorry for them.
When the hunt started, he had followed the older boys in the hollering and running around, went out to wander by himself as the others prepared their lassoes for the hunt. Then an old cement slab, splotched with lichens, caught Christian’s attention. In was sitting half-buried in a pile of old pieces of wood, dirt, gravel, old plastic stuff that looked like discarded toys. It was irresistible! Rummaging through it, my cousin found a big glass marble, chipped on one side and covered in dirt, several assorted pieces of rotting wood with cochineals, termites and rusty nails, one empty plastic can, broken and discolored, the head of a doll—My missing Barbie doll!—He found other things too, a few garden snails and an old hammer with the haft broken. He had been examining that when my brother approached him.
Papo was dirty, scratched, and sweaty; he had two big lagartijos, one hanging from each earlobe like some pissed-off living earrings. His fair face full of self-satisfaction, in his right hand he carried five or six more trapped lizards.
“Look how many I’ve got,” Papo said and laughed.
Christian looked at him slowly, distractedly, more interested in his mound of treasure that in his cousin’s quarry.
“I’ve got the biggest one, too. See?”, He said shaking the bunch of unhappy captives in Christian’s face. Christian’s eyes widened a bit; reflexively, he inched backward on his rump. Papo leaned slightly forward.
“You didn’t catch any?”, he said. “Don’t worry; you can have some of mine.”
“No, I don’t like them,” Christian said, uncomfortable. “I don’t know what to do with them.”
“Ah! Come on! It’s easy. See?”, Papo said taking a squirming brown lizard from his catch. “You take it by the head and when it opens its mouth to bite you put it at your ear. See?” Papo demonstrated, now he had two lagartijos in one ear. Christian shook himself off and gripped the broken hammerhead tighter; he felt a prickly feeling in the base of his neck, his eyeballs hurt as if he was going to cry. Papo took off the smaller lizard from his ear and leaned over to Christian.
“No. ¡Deja!“, said my little cousin, as my brother waved the lagartijo closer and closer to his face.
At the same time, I was in the backyard rinsing the last load of the day, the dark clothes. The hem of my t-shirt was wet and my arms were tired, but I felt really important, like a grown up. I was even not annoyed anymore that the boys went hunting lagartijos without me. I was sure I could have caught the biggest ones.
“Anyway,” I thought, “I don’t really like it when they bite your ears,” and put a pair of black shorts through the wringer.
Lunch was finally ready. Mami checked that the rice was nice and fluffy, the beans tender and plump, the cubed stake perfectly cooked on its thick sauce. She had stopped singing, and in the semi-quiet of the kitchen, the first screams registered immediately with her. “Now what?”, She thought. She was hungry and tired and was not in the mood for children’s fights. She let the first screams pass unheeded hoping that whatever it was would resolve itself without her.
Louder, more insistent, the second bunch of screams made Mamy sigh and cover the bean’s pot, but it was the third scream, shrill like the half-bark half-whine a dog makes when hit by a car, which finally got her moving.
I heard that scream and all the hairs on my body shoot straight out. I dropped the clean shorts as I ran around the house, my heart pumping madly, and arrived on the other side just as Mami was coming out of the front door.
For less than a second, all was confusion and I could not see nor understand what was going on. There were more screams, loud sobs, the shrill, persistent whinnying. I looked at Mami, Mami looked at me, we both looked as weird Tony ran to the street, his blond hair in disarray and something that look like a bunch of dangling weeds in one of his hands. Pepe and Luis were in pursuit. My cousins looked almost hysterical with fury. Pepe’s hair was standing on end like a cat’s, and you could see the color on his cheeks through his dark chocolate complexion. Luis’s belly had escaped his red t-shirt entirely and giggled as he ran behind his brother Pepe after the thief that had snatched their lagartijos.
I laughed out loud; then I looked at Mami again, her face was pale. She had located the source of the sobs and was walking towards the pile of construction materials. Amidst the rubbish, Christian and Papo sat across from each other.
Papo, sobbing and wailing, sat curling unto himself holding his head with both hands. Blood ran over his fingers; flowing from somewhere among his curly hair, it dripped over his hands to stain his jeans.
Christian shook his head from side to side as if possessed repeating over and over “¡Quítamelo! ¡Quítamelo!”
Mami reached the boys in three long steps. My head pivoted as my sight followed her movement but the rest of my body felt as sluggish as if I was dreaming. She kneeled down surrounding Papo with her body and her arms, making a sort of mother cocoon, while she examined his head. When she took her hands off Papo’s wound, I thought his brain would spill out like the intestines of those squished frogs you see on the roads at night. My eyes were wide, distended, ready to pop out of my head as I watched.
“¡Lita, vete y busca tu pai a la tienda!” Mami said without looking at me.
In the rush and the nervous excitement, I ran without being fully conscious that I did. My grandfather’s shop was around the corner, slightly uphill, just a few minutes away from our house. One instant I was at home, a blur and a whoosh afterward I slammed my torso against the shop’s counter screaming.
“¡Papi! ¡Papi! Hurry! Papo’s going to die!”
Papo survived with six stitches and a bald patch at the top of his head that, to this day, he still has. I was sorrier for Christian. After Mami removed the lagartijo from his earlobe and sent him home, his parents found out how he had hit Papo, and lashed him purple with a belt. For more than a week Christian’s olive skin was splotched with bruises.
Eventually, everybody recovered. A few weeks after the “hammer incident” we were playing in the garden together again. I did not feel like joining in these games as much. I still climbed the mango tree but somehow hunting lagartijos was not as much fun as before. The games went on with or without me, all the cousins and some neighborhood kids were always coming around the house during the week or on the weekends. That is, all but weird Tony, whom, after the beating he took from Luis and Pepe, avoided my cousins like the plague.