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The Holy Tortilla and a Pot of Beans
A Feast of Short Fiction
By Carmen Tafolla
Wings Press Copyright © 2008 Carmen Tafolla
All rights reserved.
It all began when Chencho's cow kicked over a pot of beans. The very pot of beans that Chencho had so painstakingly prepared the night before for the Amados' baby's celebration. He'd selected the beans with care, cooked them on a low fire for hours, added salt, chile, and bacon, then put in the tomate, cilantro, onions, and more bacon near the end. Then, of course, the crowning touch a can of beer to make them frijoles borrachos, little drunk beans that he would ladle up into small cups. People downed them like chocolate syrup, only better, not leaving even a teaspoonful of juice at the bottom, and always going back for more.
It was a special occasion. Elena and Javier Amado had given birth to a round-cheeked boy whom they named Carlos Javier, after both their fathers; and Chencho, their neighbor, was invited to the gathering at the house after the baptism. In fact, he was on his way to the party with the aromatic pot of beans cradled in potholders when he heard the cow "moo" loudly and decided to make certain she still had enough water to last until he returned.
It was for being in a rush (as problems usually are) that he laid the pot down so close to her, thinking just to run the hose a minute and continue on his way. But the smell of those delicious drunk beans must have made the cow more energetic than usual, and when Chencho turned around to pick up the hose, she followed him, kicking over the beans and all their jugo onto the thirsty dirt.
Chencho found himself in a true quandary. He wanted to go to the party, but he wanted to take a pot of beans with him. He thought about making up some quick papa con huevo, or squeezing some juice for aguas frescas into a large, galóAn bottle, but that wasn't what he wanted to take. He wanted to take a pot of beans. Worse than that (and the truth had to be told), he wanted to take that pot of beans the very pot he had made with young Carlos Javier Amado in mind, and that now lay flavoring the red, sandy dirt.
He stared at it, he wished it back into the pot, he even thought about scooping up what he could, but one look at the cow (and one smell) changed his mind. There was simply nothing that could be done.
The party was as pleasurable as imagined. The townspeople were happy to congratulate (and toast) the young child. Everyone understood about the beans, and they all agreed with Chencho that it was a terrible shame. Chencho took his accordion and played for the party, and even promised the young couple a replacement pot of beans for the next Sunday round of visitors. Everyone went home feeling good. Everyone except Chencho.
Every day for a week, he would go out into the barn and stare at the floor, jealously remembering that pot of beans. It got to the point where he began to neglect his fields, and one day, he even shouted angrily at his cow. He apologized to her, but still it bothered him it even bothered him that it bothered him.
One morning, as Chencho was standing in the barn heaving one of his now-customary sighs, someone said, "It doesn't have to happen that way, y'know." Behind him stood an avena-faced Anglo, a man dressed formally and all in black, like one of those Protestante ministers, hat coolly in hand. The man pointed to where Chencho's beans had by now (Chencho was sure) fertilized and strengthened the ground with their nutrients. "Such a waste and all for no necessary reason," said the stranger.
Chencho was startled a bit and also a little embarrassed, as if someone had caught him without his clothes on. "My beans?" Chencho verified, his discomfort not permitting any more eloquent a response than that. "Mm-hm," the stranger nodded, and looked coolly at the rim of his hat.
"You heard about my beans?" Chencho asked.
A moment of silence passed between them, their wandering eyes missing each other's intentionally.
"Hate to see you feelin' so bad, m'friend."
Funny the way the gringos, especially this kind that traveled through and appeared from nowhere, leaving also into nowhere, liked to call you "my friend," though they had never laid eyes on you before and didn't even know your name. He felt so irritated and embarrassed that this stranger should know so much about him. He tried to retract from that intimacy, awkwardly, but in a definite retreat.
"I'm alright." His embarrassment and the mutual silence belied his attempt. Chencho took a few steps to the side, and then thinking better to the front. The gringo looked away politely.
"It's just that they were for a very special fiesta ... in the home of my young neighbors ... the baby boy was named after his two grandfathers very fine men, very well-respected. ... I'd wanted to give them...." Chencho realized he was rambling and stopped.
"Sure, nothin' the matter with that. Just bein' proper. Anyone could understand that." Chencho relaxed. The man continued, cautiously. "All the same, it do prove a bother, given everythin'." Chencho's brows came together as he studied the talkative gringo. "An' the most bothersome part comes down to just one thing "Chencho was caught. No one had talked to him about it with such concern since the day after the party, as if everyone else had forgotten or worn out the interesting part of it, and Chencho had only himself to talk it over with. "Just one thing, m'friend, at the root of it all causing you this heartache...." The gringo held the moment, letting Chencho hunger for an answer. "Passion! Jus' plain passion!"
¡!Gringo entremetido! Chencho thought. I knew he was sticking too far into my private feelings!
"Now don't go backin' off, m'friend. This is a problem common to the majority of human bein's that inhabit this planet! An' to darn near all of the animals! Why that cow of yours just got so excited by the smell o' those beans that she jus' had to kick up her heels an' dance across the floor behind you, kickin' over those special beans o'yours. You'd a thought she would've stepped over logically, or waited till you got the water filled an' was out o'the way, but she jus' got so filled up with passion." Chencho was listening again. "Passion's what did it! Why, people go near all their lives getting' their feelings hurt or broodin' over things, cause o' the trouble that passion causes 'em...."
* * *
By the time he cleared the dishes off the lunch table, Chencho was feelin' pretty good. The gringo had brought in a couple of bottles of elixir from behind the panels of his truck (to cleanse the body after eating, he said) and Chencho was feeling more relaxed than he'd been in a week, with the drone of the gringo's voice putting him just a little (but not too much) to sleep. It never occurred to him to ask what could be done about it; it just somehow made more sense for this whole incident to have had some reason. But the gringo was on his way to some special road. "If only they didn't have their hearts gettin' in the way all o' the time, so much could be accomplished...."
* * *
Chencho didn't remember having really thought about it a lot. In fact, he didn't really remember how it all happened. But his cow seemed to be doing fine, and the gringo reassured him that she was actually doing better than she ever had before. Even the scar where her heart had been taken out didn't seem to bother her. And the gringo was sure to point out that she would never again moo at him crossly when Chencho was late to feed or milk her. In fact, she would never again moo at him at all. There was simply no reason to do so.
There was still the matter of Chencho staring at the spot in the barn and savoring not only the memory of the beans, but of the whole celebracióAn as he had envisioned it, but the gringo had an idea that he said would take care of that, too. It wasn't that Chencho had so much confidence in the gringo he was a curious sort that did too much talking and not enough waiting but it was just that the man had a way of getting him to agree without asking his opinion.
"Passion! M'friend, without our hearts, we could get so much more done, and with so much less pain. Now, I wouldn't recommend this to ya' if I didn't happen to have seen it work so many times. If we weren't so emotional, we'd have lots more space for being logical. Why the proof o' that's women, ain't it? Get so emotional they don't have an ounce o' logic in'm. Now that's one that a good man like you can really understand, can't ya'?" he said, laughing and elbowing Chencho. Chenco didn't, but he laughed anyway, from the mouth outwards, as they say in Spanish, but enough to keep from looking too unmasculine to the gringo.
* * *
This time, Chencho insisted on taking the night to think about it. He would have put if off much longer, but the gringo said he had appointments to keep in another town and would have to leave this town "sooner that I'd like, m'friend." Chencho talked about it plenty with his neighbors, and some of the things his cousin Nilo said got him so upset that he spent the whole night struggling with his pillow, and by morning was ready to give it a try, just to rid himself of this problem. He went out to the barn where the cow was standing, looking very peaceful and unconcerned.
"You'd be considered quite a man to have that kind of calm and strength in every situation."
Chencho turned to look at the gringo, and something about the man's absoluteness, stark black and white against the brown of the barn, made Chencho want to trust him, want to really make his "m'friend" expression a reality. He was a little nervous about the cutting part, but the gringo explained that the reason the wound had healed so rapidly on the cow (in fact, it was not even like a wound at all) was that nothing really biological had been removed, only the emotional mass, the heart itself. And without the bother of this too-emotional muscle in its chest, the body could proceed with even greater health, allowing the brain to take over the functions previously so poorly supervised by the heart.
* * *
Maybe it was Marta's grandfather, the one with the weak heart, that did it first, after Chencho. Or maybe it was la rica, the one who was always so scared of someone stealing the blue tile birdbath that she'd bought in Mexico and placed so precisely in the perfect shady spot in her garden. No one seemed to remember how it had all happened, but they did recall that there were long lines in front of Chencho's house and that everyone went in very envious and excited, admiring how well Chencho was doing. And when they came out, they looked very happy, or maybe it was strong, or in control, they weren't certain which. At any rate, by the time three suns had set, there wasn't a normal-brained person over the age of ten that hadn't had their heart removed by the kind gringo who brought them the science of "depassionization," as he called it. Chencho's mother had been one of the last to agree. For three days she ranted and raved (quite passionately, proving the gringo's point) against the whole idea. She said that if God had meant people not to struggle for anything, he would have given women "labor thoughts" instead of labor pains. The strangest thing of all was that the reason she probably gave in and had it done was because of passion itself! She just couldn't stand to see everyone else in such a predicament and her not right in there with them, with her hands in the masa, so to speak.
Chencho's mother had made certain, however, before placing herself defiantly in that line, that her retarded niece, Eva, would not be touched. The gringo agreed emphatically, stating that it really wouldn't work well on the mentally unfit or on children under ten because, with as little as they'd accumulated up top, they wouldn't have anything left to lean on.
It wasn't until weeks after the gringo left that they realized something was missing. At first, they thought they were just forgetting things, making a mistake or two, or having a dull day. But the pattern was noticeably repeated. Their thinking no longer seemed as sharp, and the reasons for thinking things out were not known. Many things left a taste of not having been tasted. Chencho discovered that he no longer remembered how to make beans. This was the case with numerous things: they had to look elsewhere to find what had once been inside of them.
Chencho contacted a cousin in a neighboring city and made clear the level of his need. The necessary papers were sent promptly. Chencho would focus all of his attention, following the directions with great care. Each step was outlined elaborately. Cleaning the beans required spreading them on the table, removing the stones, removing the beans that were shriveled and dried up, eliminating those that had an unnatural dark color that looked burnt and hardened, while leaving those that were dark in the same shade as the dark spots on the light beans. It seemed so complex. He had first learned to clean the beans as a child, but he had not learned with his head. He had learned with his heart, while watching his grandmother do that which had later become integrated into his view of life. Now, it was integrated into nothing more than the piece of paper he studied so thoroughly, stumbling through the applications.
"Wrinkles that come with life, wrinkles from rubbing against other beans, wrinkles from wilting under the sun all right. Wrinkles of petrified stone no." He worked at it repeatedly, adding precisely measured amounts of ingredients at precisely timed stages. Chencho found that every time he cooked beans, he needed to follow the written instructions again. It was as if there was some ingredient missing, but he had no idea what to add.
Chencho and the others would sit in the evenings, trying to piece together those things that their hearts could no longer provide. Eva, the retarded thirty-five-year-old, began to play a special role. She was the one they turned to for lessons in how to cuddle babies and how to help the children play. They listened carefully as she and the little children laughed, trying to imitate the sound.
They tried to make lists of what it was they had lost, had had, and had said in those days of the gringo's visit. They tried to piece together old conversations, but, somehow, every conversation had something important missing between the lines. The eight- and nine-year olds were brought in to listen and respond, but even their responses were difficult to comprehend. The teenagers just took notes. Chencho's mother proposed they go over every event and every conversation from the day of the gringo's arrival to the day of his departure. Chencho remembered him climbing into the truck with some salutation, what was it? The children offered possible expressions until the right one was found. "Goodbye, my friend," the gringo had said, as he shoved the roll of worn dollar bills into his pocket. "And then what?" asked Jorge, as the Amados' baby began to cry and the adults turned to stare at him. "The baby wants his bottle," said a bright-eyed seven-year-old.
Chencho thought carefully, and found the information as best he could through his passionless brain. "And then he told me how fortunate we would be to be able to work longer days in the sun, without feeling upset, and to bring home paychecks of any amount at all, without wanting to cry."
"What?" asked Elena, thoroughly confused, "Without wanting to cry?"
"Yes, that's what he said."
"Is that all?" asked his mother, whom people somehow sensed should be regarded as a leader, although they were not certain why.
"No," said Chencho slowly, "There was something more ... something he did ... like that, like what that child just did."
"He laughed?" asked the seven-year-old.
"Yes, that was it. He laughed. He laughed," Chencho verified, "And then he drove off."
In the distance, Chencho's cow could be heard moving around the barn, her bell dangling against the trough as she searched for food, but everyone knew that she would never again bother to moo.CHAPTER 2
La Santísima María Pilar, the Queen of Mean
MaríAa Pilar wasn't the meanest character I ever met. But that's just because the devil made regular appearances in our part of town. I dunno. I tried real hard all through junior high and even ninth grade to be a good Christian. You know, "Do what Christ would do. Feel love in your heart for everyone. We're all brothers." But if María Pilar had been MY brother, I'd have run away from home. There was no feeling in my heart for María Pilar that even LOOKED like love.
I don't know why a person can get that mean. Maybe her name had something to do with it. The María Pilar part was okay. Everybody in my neighborhood was María something María Luisa, María EncarnacióAn, María Elena. And when a girl's first name wasn't MaríAa, it was stuck in someplace else, like in the middle, like AnamaríAa or RosamaríAa. Even one or two of the guys were called JoséA y María or María Guadalupe. MaríAa's a pretty popular name where I come from. But it was when her mom got carried away and stuck in the "Holy of Holies" part, La Santísima, that fate must have taken its turn. Or maybe she was just born mean already when she got into this world, so her mom took one look at her and got so scared she tried to wipe away all the meanness with the holiest name she could think of. Whatever. It didn't work.
Excerpted from The Holy Tortilla and a Pot of Beans by Carmen Tafolla. Copyright © 2008 Carmen Tafolla. Excerpted by permission of Wings Press.
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