Señora Rodríguez dips into her purse and there’s no telling what she’ll come up with—a sticky lollipop, a phone bill, or a rosary; a reminder of daily life, a bit of family history, a personal talisman, or . . . who knows? . . . a token into another world altogether. Such are the surprises and possibilities, the unpredictability and warm familiarity of Martha Cerda’s magical novel. Señora Rodriguez and her family are placed shoulder-to-shoulder and page-to-page with strangers, acquaintances, and a host of importune, if not impertinent, stories: the profound distortions wrought in a woman’s life by the oppressive presence of her maid; the furor caused by a premenstrual pimple; the flashbacks and chaotic grief Judas Iscariot experiences at the moment of his death; the disruption surrounding the appearance of a supposed member of the Los Angeles Dodgers.
A bestselling writer widely celebrated in her native Mexico, Martha Cerda defines her own turn along the path of Latin American magical realism. In this novel the feminine, the practical, and the earthy blend with the fantastic and phantasmagoric. Tragedy and playfulness, sophistication and naiveté mingle. What is at once a comedy of manners, a delightful collection of loosely related anecdotes, stories, sketches, and epiphanies, is also an artful entree into several literary and philosophical questions—the relationship between language and reality and the power of one to create and alter the other; the link between chaos and different forms of organization that pass for order.
About the Author
Martha Cerda, born in 1945 in Guadalajara, Mexico, is the author of four distinguished and award-winning books. She is the founder and Director of the Sociedad General de Escritores Mexicanos and the President of P.E.N. International in Guadalajara. Señora Rodríguez and Other Worlds, a bestseller in Mexico in 1990, is Cerda’s first novel to be published in English.
Read an Excerpt
Señora Rodríguez and Other Worlds
By Martha Cerda, Sylvia Jiménez-Andersen
Duke University PressCopyright © 1997 Duke University Press
All rights reserved.
Señora Rodríguez reached into her purse with her left hand searching for a Kleenex and grabbed a half-licked lollipop. "The drops!" she shouted, "I forgot to give Carlitos his drops," and, sighing, she clasped her hands together before reaching into her purse again, this time with her right hand, and took out a comb, which reminded Señora Rodríguez that she had to dye her hair because she was going to have a party the following Saturday. "How time flies, it seems like only yesterday my niece Laurita was born, and now she's about to turn fifteen. It's too bad her mother died and that shameless brother of mine went, in less than a year, and remarried, that ..." And saying this, she went back to groping through her purse without any luck. Something became entangled in her fingers, and she pulled out the sandalwood rosary that her mother-in-law had brought her from Rome, with a papal blessing. "What could the good lady, may she rest in peace, have been thinking – but she did not like me at all, as if her son were going to be her mama's boy forever. And me so foolish: Yes ma'am, no ma'am, while she told me what her son should eat, what time he should go to bed, and I don't know how many other things." Señora Rodríguez put her rosary away and pulled out a crumpled paper. "The phone bill!" Señora Rodríguez shouted and ran to her car and headed for the nearest phone company office. "That's all I need, to have my phone disconnected and be cut off from the world; I hope I get there on time. It's my only source of pleasure besides TV," groaned Señora Rodríguez while she parked her car in a no-parking space. She was about to get out of the car when she heard, "Your license, please." Señora Rodríguez plunged her hand into her purse once again and after taking out some matches, a lipstick, a recipe for bread pudding, a pen without ink and some ancho chiles, she finally found the Kleenex and blew her nose with a loud blast. "Your license, please," repeated the officer. Señora Rodríguez put her dirty Kleenex away and continued searching; her fingers stuck to Susanita's gum. "It's just too much that this kid is so sloppy," Señora Rodríguez complained. "When will she learn not to leave her gum in my purse, what's the officer going to say?" After many tries, Señora Rodríguez was able to pull out Carlitos's report card full of Fs, the rubber bands for Susanita's ponytail and a ten-thousand-peso bill, with which the officer was satisfied. Then Señora Rodríguez remembered that she didn't have a license because she had not passed her driver's exam. When she took the exam she couldn't find her glasses. Naturally, she was carrying the same purse, a gift for her thirtieth birthday from her mother-in-law.
The day I turned one year old, I woke up wet. In their bedroom my parents were snoring after a night of partying three houses down from city hall, where Don Manuel was discussing the new economic program, not with his ministers, but with Columba, his wife, who listened to him, thinking to herself that in a few months she would no longer be the first lady and probably not even a lady, which tormented her, even though deep inside she thanked God, something she had not been able to do in public since Don Manuel had become president. At the stroke of six o'clock in the morning I let out my first scream, feeling abandoned in that house in the same neighborhood in the same city where we all live. The light shone on me from my mama's nightstand. I knew that from that point it would be at least fifteen minutes until I was taken out of my crib, during which time my dad would growl, pulling the blanket up to his eyes and Mama would yawn without waking up completely and Don Manuel would put on a robe to go to the bathroom and Doña Columba would not do anything except dream, probably about her new life. When Mama arrived with my nice dry diapers and my warm bottle and, before changing my diapers, gave me a kiss that tickled my nose, Don Manuel was already phoning his secretary and Doña Columba and Papa were turning over in their respective beds in the same city. However, in London, where it was seven hours later, the queen was peering out discreetly from a balcony in Buckingham Palace and watching an old man off in the distance who wasn't an old man but a disguised guard making his daily rounds as always.
Just like every night, Papa and Mama shook the bed and sighed for a while until they fell asleep, just like Don Manuel and Doña Columba and also the queen and the prince consort. My parents, however, had my sister, who took over my crib, but I, fortunately, could already get out by myself and climb on the bed in another room in the same house in the same city that my sister and I began our lives in and where Don Manuel was finishing his term many kilometers outside of London, where the queen didn't begin or finish anything, since her reign was for life. Therefore, now that I am about to turn twenty, the queen continues to be the queen even though all the rest have changed, for although Papa and Mama continue to sigh during the night, each one does it on their own, just like Don Manuel and his wife: he in Paris and she in London, where the same queen peers out from the same balcony and sees the same old man who no longer needs to dye his hair gray but continues to guard the same queen that Doña Columba admires while she looks at pictures from twenty years ago, when I was a baby and she was the first lady and met the same queen who now doesn't know her because she is no longer the first lady and certainly not the last, because since the term ended she decided to literally unmask herself and, after having surgery by the best plastic surgeon, she told Don Manuel: "Thanks for everything" and she hit the road and that's what she's still doing.
Also in London, but at number 76 in the Roman District of Mexico City, my grandparents live, my Mama's parents, and in the Naples District my Papa's parents do not live because they're dead, but that's where they lived when I was in the crib, wet, and Don Manuel was in power and Mama woke up at six in the morning to give me my bottle and at the corner of our house there was corn on the cob being sold from a little cart. At that same corner the Rosas used to live, who were five in all: the papa, the mama, Memo, Paty, and Petra, except Petra lived in the service room and would come down daily to clean and buy groceries and meet with José, our gardener, and then would spend her time talking with him, and Memo's and Paty's mama would scold her because she would show up without the bread or tortillas or anything since she would forget what she went for because she was with José, but that she did not forget; until one fine day they took off, and we never again heard the Pedro Infante songs that Petra used to play at full volume beginning at seven in the morning. Memo and Paty continue to live there and they grew up just as we did, except they did so without Petra and we did so without José. Paty and my sister are the same age and Memo and I are not, but in any case we still get along very well, except when we go to the movies and I want to sit with Paty and he with my sister, because we both know why we go. And because of that, we got into a fight once and each of us felt that the world turned with us and with our houses and with the queen of England and with Petra and with our grandparents, the ones who are still alive and the ones who are dead, and Papa and Mama, carrying all the world's burdens. And at that time we realized that the world would continue to turn with our cribs and our beds and our graves, with our grandparents and our parents and our sons and daughters and also with our presidents and our kings and queens and our gardeners. And that Petra would continue to run away with José every day and the queen look through the same window and Pedro Infante sing the same songs in the same service room of the same house in the same city in the same world, which would continue to turn just as we were taught in school.CHAPTER 2
Señora Rodríguez received a purse from her mother-in-law, a gift for her birthday. Señora Rodríguez turned thirty years of age and two of marriage, which made her deserving of Señor Rodríguez's mother's recognition, who, until now, could not resign herself to this undeniable fact: she was not the only Señora Rodríguez in the family. Her idiot of a son duplicated her by marrying her daughter-in-law, thus granting her the same title. However, for the purpose of the present book we shall consider "Señora Rodríguez" the daughter-in-law and not the mother-in-law, if she'll excuse us.
Well then, Señora Rodríguez was touched and took the purse (bought on sale at the Puerto de Liverpool department store) and put her keys, her coin purse, some mint lozenges, and her marriage certificate inside, just in case. She put the latter inside the zippered compartment that most purses usually have. "One never knows," sighed Señora Rodríguez, enumerating all the possibilities that she might have to use the document in order to prove her legitimacy to those who would dare doubt her. "One never knows," Señora Rodríguez sighed again, taking the purse by the handle, passing it up her arm until it rested on her shoulder; the normal position (of the purse), from that day forward, on Señora Rodríguez's physiognomy. There are those who say they would not recognize her without it.
After the Canaries
It's not that I don't want to see you, it's that I can't. Ever since Adela began watching me I close my eyes to hide myself. Adela, with her coarse, shaggy hair, like a crown of thorns, training her eyes on me from the moment I asked her: "How old are you?" and she responded, "Forty." And I could never get away from her again. "Forty?" I would repeat to myself, as I watched her dragging herself through the house, without a sound. Or when I wasn't watching her and she abruptly surprised me when I was naked in my bathroom. "What are you doing there, Adela?" I yelled at her, and she responded: "Nothing, ma'am." And, in fact, she wasn't doing anything. "It's incredible that at your age you are so clumsy, Adela," I scolded her constantly, after she broke a glass or dropped a vase or broke some appliance. She would agree with two words: "Yes, ma'am," accentuating the "yes" with her look.
The tone of my insults gradually increased, without any protest from her. "You are an idiot, Adela, I've never met anyone as stupid as you," until, at the height of my exasperation, I slapped her. She did not react. With my hand still shaking I continued: "See what you've made me do, Adela? Please, leave." Adela didn't move.
The next morning I could no longer reprimand her, nor the next, nor the next. I didn't feel like ordering her around. Nevertheless, everything in the house was in order, thanks to her and in spite of her sunken eyes and her sneering expression and her dark voice – just like her dresses.
"Breakfast is ready," she announced when she saw me in the kitchen about to prepare it. I barely sat down when my coffee was served, and before I finished the last sip, she had my bath ready. I couldn't open a drawer without finding Adela's presence in my things: the clothes were always clean and so meticulously arranged that I didn't dare touch them. The living room, impeccable, was no longer the place where I could sit and listen serenely to music, for fear of messing it up and Adela noticing it. If Adela entered through one door, I exited through another, pushed away by her breath. Then Adela began to make insinuations: "Do you feel ill, ma'am?"; "You look pale today, get some rest"; "You are losing a lot of weight, eat well." And I began to follow her around without her seeing me. When I realized it, we were back where we had started.
Adela woke up at five o'clock every morning, and I could no longer sleep, sensing her footsteps, which sometimes stopped very near my bedroom and other times would fade away until they disappeared in the dawn, forcing me to get up right after her and exclaim, "Adela, Adela," then I felt ridiculous, yet at the same time calmed by her voice behind me, which made me stutter, "Well, has the bread arrived yet, Adela?" She turned away, and I went back down the same hall as always to bed.
Other times, on waking up, the first thing that I recognized was her outline vanishing behind the window and reappearing in the doorway: "Did you sleep well?" she interrogated me, poking in her shallow face like a warning....
"Yes, Adela, thank you, and you?"
She looked over my shoulder, as if she had discovered that as a child I wore dirty underwear and twisted socks, and she would not reply.
Then things began to turn up missing. First it was the milk, and Adela said, after a prolonged "Ma'am," which made me think she would say no more, "they stole the milk."
"Who?" I asked, surprised.
"Someone who is not afraid of God," she said in judgment, terminating her explanation.
Later the plants dried up one by one, and in the end the cat ran away after killing the canaries. Adela and I are the only ones left in the house. Adela hardly eats anything, but she prepares my favorite dishes for me and brings them to my bed, for I am so weak that I no longer get up. Adela doesn't let anyone bother me, not even the doctor. On her own she prepares some herbal brews which she uses to bathe me at midnight every time there is a new moon, and right away she bolts the doors so that the evil spirits can't come in. And it's not that Adela is crazy, I assure you, it's just that she doesn't like to go out except on Sundays, to go to church. It's the only time that she leaves me free, and I am using it to write and ask you to forgive me for not visiting you. I can't, really. You don't know what it's like for me to be sitting in my own urine, waiting for Adela to come and change me. But the poor girl has a right to go to mass; if it weren't for her ...
CH3 Señora Rodríguez visited the dentist, who, after checking her from head to toe, congratulated her: she was pregnant. Señora Rodríguez didn't know what to say and said nothing. She put her dental X rays in her purse and left. "I had a feeling," she mumbled between her teeth, "that toothache always hit me at the precise moment, I don't know why I listened to my husband; have that molar pulled out, can't you see that it gets in the way of my inspiration? But, it's the wisdom tooth ..." And the consequences weren't long in coming. Most assuredly, it had happened when she fell in the water tank and he took off his clothes to rescue her because she couldn't swim. Or when they climbed the orange tree and between one orange and another ..., Señora Rodríguez turned pale. What excuse would they give her mother-in-law? She wasn't going to like it, how was she going to accept her son's going around and impregnating a woman? It was inconceivable since she had brought him up so well. It would be shameful.
With guilt written on her face Señora Rodríguez got on a bus and didn't get off until it reached the end of the line, where she took another bus back. Señora Rodríguez spent all afternoon going back and forth, until she found the solution: artificial insemination. That's it, she'd swear to her mother-in-law that it was the result of artificial insemination, and her husband would be free from sin.
Señora Rodríguez's mother-in-law screamed, cried, fainted, and, when she regained consciousness, ordered: "Don't let it happen again." That's how Susanita entered the world.
A Happy Family
Papa had done with us what no one had done with him: loved us, pampered us, played on the bed, splashed in the garden fountain, gave us money, and made each one of us feel that we could not live without him. So now after forty years we are still by his side, letting him love us, pamper us, play with us, give us money, and make us feel that we cannot live alone.
Mama, on the contrary, did exactly what had been done to her: overprotected us, corrected us, and imposed her will on us, making us feel that she couldn't live without us, which was the same thing that Papa did, but with other words. In short, the "not able to live without ..." gradually enveloped us; some of us revolved around the others, attracting each other, loving each other, irritating each other, more and more intensely, until the day Mama died. She left our lives to the astonishment of all, and we watched her go, sent away by the centrifugal force we had generated in that dizzying revolution. When we lost sight of her we realized that, just as she had foreseen, we could not live without her and that is when we began to die. This has been going on for five years. All of a sudden we felt more childlike, and before doing anything we would wonder what Mama would say. It never occurred to us to wonder what we would say, as that would mean offending her. Her clothes were still untouched in the closet, and we were still untouched, watching over each other as she used to do.
Excerpted from Señora Rodríguez and Other Worlds by Martha Cerda, Sylvia Jiménez-Andersen. Copyright © 1997 Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission of Duke University Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
2 After the Canaries,
3 A Happy Family,
4 Good Habits,
5 The First Time,
6 The City of Children,
7 In The Dream Clock,
8 Last Night at Night,
10 The Best Night,
11 No One Knows for Whom One Works,
12 Blue in the Family,
13 German Dolls,
14 Between the Lines,
15 With Respect to the Sky,
16 Without Knowing That It Is You,
17 Office Machine,
18 Geography Lesson,
19 The Congregation in the Park,
21 And the Crows Cawed,
22 Heard in Passing,
23 The Same Stock,
24 At the Baptismal Font,
25 A Time of Mourning,
26 Last Night, Mariana,
27 It's Their Fault,
28 Right Place, Wrong Time,
29 Blame It on Hormones,
30 Amanda's Motives,