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Winter 2005, Volume 22.2

Fiction

 

Will MicheletPhoto of Will Michelet.

The Price of Preservas Prohibidas

 

Will Michelet is an employment lawyer in Flagstaff, Arizona, and a Master's candidate in Creative Writing at Northern Arizona University. He received a BA from Ripon College and his JD from Harvard University. He has published in the Oyez Review, The Brigham Young Law Review, The New Hampshire Law Journal, and The Antigonish Review.

 

Eh, Augustino, ven," Fidencio called to his stepfather, who was seated under a shade tree in the backyard next door. "Tenemos `atómica' muy buena. Ven. No podemos beber solo!"

Tall, gangly Augustino, who rested peacefully under the old oak when the world was too frenetic (especially the world inside the small red house near the street in front of his tree), did not jump up immediately. His little, dark, almost delicate-looking stepson, who had come out to pick up the evening paper off the grass, continued to coax his stepfather to join him. "Come on, Augustino. Don Juanito's here. I've just given him a glass, and this is the best batch of beer I've ever made."

He turned to go back into his home, which was just beyond the wire fence he'd been calling over. "Come on over, Dad. You look like you could use one."

Augustino could. His wife Florencia was in one of her moods again. Ever since he had come home from work, she had been after him. The loose board on the front porch, the garbage the dogs had strewn over the front yard before the city truck had gotten there, the doorbell which wasn't working…and I've done everything she's asked. I've done everything she's asked without a complaint even though I was dead tired after today at the mine, and I was really hungry. I hoped she'd give me a good dinner, maybe even open a can of those special preserves she keeps under the floor, but no, all she gave me, as usual, was some old, hard beans and tortillas she made a couple of days ago. She protects those preserves like they were buried treasure.

He looked at the tree on the side of the house. It's picked clean. She must have done it today when I was at work, and not even a basket inside with a couple of those beautiful red fruit inside. She must have hidden them or given them to Bud for his kids up the street. Not even a salad. Or an apple.

Those grandkids couldn't get enough from her. Nothing was too good for her older son Bud—Fidencio, her other boy, had given him that name when he was learning to speak English. Now everyone called him "Bud." It was a good name for Luis. Impersonal just the way Luis was. But Fidé, he was something else again. Much smaller in size, and he could be mean (especially when they were mean to him). But he had a big heart. And fun, por Dios, that Fidé liked to have fun.

Augustino got up and began walking to exit the back gate of his yard. Yeah, I might as well go over there, he said to himself. This way she won't see me leaving. I might as well have some fun. Maybe we'll sing some songs. Fidé plays the guitar, and his father-in-law Don Juanito loves to sing…

Augustino slipped quickly next door. By the time he got to Fidencio's front yard, the laughter coming out of the house already made him glad he had come.

"Ah, Augustino, entra," the diminutive Don Juanito called, seeing him at the door. "Come on in and have a beer." He lifted a dark quart bottle. "This is the best batch Fidé's ever made. Está bien delicioso!"

"Yeah, Dad," Fidencio said, getting up and pulling out a simple wooden chair from the corner for him. "It's the end of the week. Descansa. You've been working hard. You deserve to relax." He started toward the back room as Augustino took the chair. "Estás listo?"

"Sí, como no! Tengo sed," Augustino answered. "I'm thirsty. Besides, your mama's on the warpath again." He smiled, lifting his eyes in the direction of his house next door. "I might as well do something to get in trouble!"

They laughed.

"Huaracha," Fidencio called into the kitchen, "Dad's here. Can you get him una botella de cerveza? You know, one of the special ones under the bed. Mi atómica." He laughed and came back in the front room to take his seat.

"What's wrong with Florencia?" Don Juanito asked from the old, grey easy chair where he was perched. "She have a hangover again?"

"No, it's not that," Augustino replied. "It's the way she is. You know, women." He shrugged. "You can't win. `You can't live with `em, and you can't live without `em.'"

"You got that right, Dad." Fidencio laughed, taking the brown bottle his wife Locaria had brought him and passing it over to his stepfather. "Thanks, Locaria," he said to the comely young woman with flowing mahogany hair. Then, as she was turning to resume her work in the back of the house, he asked "You want one too, Huar?" When she didn't answer right away, he added, "Why don't you have one with us?"

"Pues," she said, turning back and dropping her eyes, "Why not? I could use one too. It was so busy at the pump factory today. And so hot." She wiped her brow. "And these kids," she said, looking darkly at the kitchen door through which a squeal came from amidst children's cavorting, "they eat more every day." She moved toward that door and "yes, I'll have one" trailed behind as she disappeared through it.

"Why do you put up with that stuff from Mom, Dad?" Fidencio turned to Augustino. "You're the one who's bringing home the bacon, aren't you?"

Fidencio liked Augustino better than his mother, who had never been very nice to him. He could remember back when he was a kid and had just started school, and his mother refused to get him a new pair of shoes when his toes had grown through his old ones as winter was coming on. And it wasn't like I hadn't contributed anything to the house. Mom had me out doing chores around the neighborhood since I was six, and she never let me keep a cent of the money. Until one time I held a nickel back for some candy, and she beat me so badly she finally felt sorry for me and let me keep it.

"Yeah, Augustino," Fidé's father-in-law chimed in. "It isn't as though you haven't been pretty good to Florencia. And it isn't as though she had it so good before you came around," Don Juanito added as he drained his bottle. He thought back to when Florencia had shown up in Prescott from Mexico. With her two sons, Luis, a big lout already at three years old, and Fidencio, just a baby, the cutest little thing. And Luis, "Bud," he could do nothing wrong, while Fidé could do nothing right. I can remember when Florencia would go down to the creek to do her washing. She'd take Bud with her and leave Fidencio all alone, even when he was a baby. And the little fellow would cry all day till she got back and she whipped him quiet.

Don Juanito's daughter Locaria came back in the room with her beer and three other bottles and set them down on the little table in the center of the chairs. "I thought you guys might be ready," she said, smiling in explanation as her father gave her a puzzled look. She loved to see him get a little tipsy. He can be so much fun. Oh, it's gonna be a little risky if I sit down with them. My viejo Fidencio can get mean if he has too much. But if I can get them singing, it'll be fun, and there won't be any problems.

"Well, that's a good idea, Locaria," Augustino said, finishing the last of his quart, putting it on the table, and reaching for the "church key" and another bottle. "I wish I was as lucky as Fidencio, having a woman like you."

Fidencio's chest puffed out. He knew his dad really liked Locaria. "Yeah, salud, Dad," he held up his bottle to Augustino. "Bebe! Salud!" He loved to see his dad get drunk too. He's so loco, and it really shows when he gets borracho. But Mom is as mean to Dad as she used to be to me. And Dad works so hard.

"How about you, Don Juanito?" Fidé pushed one of the full bottles to his father-in-law. "You want another, don't ya?"

"I don't know, Fidencio," Don Juanito smiled and said. "Rosita's expecting me home and—"

"Oh, you can have one more, Dad," Locaria interrupted. "Fidencio, why don't you get out your guitar?" she said, turning to her husband. "Play `Flor Morena' for Dad. You know how he loves it."

"Yeah, Fidé," Don Juanito agreed as he took the church key from his old friend Augustino after he'd opened his own bottle. "I'll stay for one more if you play that song." Locaria has a fine voice, and Fidé is good on the guitar. He's been playing since he was just a little fellow, when he learned from that uncle of his.

Fidencio didn't need a second invitation. He loved music, and he reached behind his chair to pull out his guitar from the corner. "Well, okay." He laughed. "If you insist," and he began tuning the finely-crafted instrument.

Augustino loved to sing too, and it wasn't long before some pretty good harmonies were drifting out of the house onto Meany Street. And Fidencio had made not only his best but also his biggest batch of homebrew ever. And like he said, it was all natural, no quimicales. It made you happy and didn't even give you a hangover, didn't even make you crudo

 

By midnight, they were so loud that Florencia, who had come home from visiting Bud up the street a little while before, was furious when Augustino wasn't home. She couldn't sleep because of the noise, and she had a good idea where her husband was.

She stormed over to Fidencio's house, her ample bosom heaving. "Augustino!" she shouted out from the front yard, her hands on her even broader hips. "Get out here!" She stamped her foot in the dust.

The revelers inside hardly missed a beat and continued on with "Camarón."

"Augustino, get out here!" Florencia screamed again. "You better get home, pendejo, if you know what's good for you!"

This time the guitar stopped at the end of a verse, though the singing continued. Augustino, skinny as he was, was easily the loudest, although Locaria harmonized beautifully with him in her mezzo pitch, and Don Juanito added plenty of body to the ensemble.

Fidencio, still singing, staggered to the door to confront his mother. "C'mon Mom. Let him be. Dad's worked hard, and he's not hurting anybody."

"Shut up, cabrón!" Florencia snapped at her son. "And you know he's not your Dad. Your Dad wasn't a bum like him. He was a rich man, you know. He owned the best restaurant in Irapuato."

"Sure, Mom," Fidencio shouted, slurring his "r." A fire lit in his stomach. "Why didn't you stay there, then, if he was so great?"

"Because of you!" his mother yelled back, remembering the handsome young Zapatista she had met in the early days of the Revolution back in Mexico. "If I hadn't had you, I'd still be there." Her husband had thrown her out after she had gotten pregnant by the soldier, but no one this side of the border knew anything about it.

Fidencio had heard all this abuse before, and it made him see red. And in some ways the adrenalin sobered him up. He opened the front door and took a step toward his mother. "You shut up or…"

Florencia backed up. "You're gonna be sorry, you no good—"

"Oh, get on home yourself, you bruja!" Fidencio took another step toward her.

Florencia turned and hurried back onto Meany Street. "You wait, you son-of-a-bitch!" She headed toward her house. "You wait. I'll leave everything I have to Bud when I die."

Fidencio watched her climb the steps to open the door to her house. "You wait, I won't leave you a damn—" and the door slammed shut.

Fidencio smiled to himself as he turned to reenter his home. "Hey, you guys. You know `Chubasco'?" he asked as he picked up the guitar again.

"Sure," Augustino bellowed and began belting out the words.

"What's got her so upset?" Locaria asked her husband, nodding toward the house next door. "We weren't that loud, were we?"

"You know the way she is," Fidencio replied. "Forget about her." He hit a chord. "Let's sing."

Don Juanito overheard their quiet exchange. "Yeah, that Florencia'll never change. She's as mean as the day she brought you boys over here." Then he turned to his old friend. "How'd you ever get mixed up with her anyway, Augustino?"

His friend took a deep draw from the bottle in his hand. "She keeps me warm, ya know," Augustino said, blushing. "Besides she's a good cook, amigo. You know she makes better beans and tortillas than anyone in the world." He clinked about four of the other bottles in front of him on the doily covering the old, oblong coffee table as he found a place to set his last one down.

"Yeah, but the poor man's gotta be sick of beans and tortillas by now," Locaria piped in to her husband and father. She hated her mother-in-law for all the trouble she used to give Fidencio and her when they first got married. "That's all she ever makes `im, beans and tortillas. Once a week and that's all. Every Monday morning." Besides, I'm not so bad on the beans and tortillas I make now myself. The kids say they're better than that mean old Florencia's any day. "They must have been moldy by tonight, huh, Augustino?"

Augustino's stomach growled again. "Yeah, they weren't too good," he admitted.

"And her with all that canned fruit underneath the floor," Locaria added. Florencia's preserves were famous. Everyone knew about them, and when work (and, therefore, food) around the neighborhood was in short supply, they all dreamed about the savory contents of those mason jars. "Is she still so stingy with `em?" Locaria asked her father-in-law, though she certainly knew the answer.

"Of course she is," Augustino snapped. "The last time—"

"When is the last time she opened a jar for you, amigo?" Don Juanito interrupted.

"The last time she opened one," Augustino remembered and said, "was Christmas. And she didn't offer me any." His chest got a little tight as he recalled the scene at least half a year ago. "I only got some because Bud and Carlotta and the kids were over, and she opened a jar for them!"

Fidencio drooled, remembering how his mother would promise
him some preserves when she'd make him skip school to go out and watch Mr. Monnette's sheep. So I'd think about those preserves constantly while I was out there in the hills, and when I'd finally get back, she would take all my pay; and as often as not, she wouldn't open a single jar till I went out with the sheep again. It was like she totally forgot. "You know what we oughta' do," he announced to the gathering. "We oughta' go get some jars for Augustino tonight."

Locaria laughed, and her father joined in. "Es una buena idea, Fidencio," Don Juanito said, up at the ready. "Let's go get some of those apricot preserves."

"And she has plums too," Augustino said, joining in. "Red ones. You `member that crop on the tree down by the creek last fall?" he added, finishing the last of his bottle.

"Let's go." Fidencio was already at the door. He moved faster than the older men, but they weren't far behind when he clambered up his mother's steps, opened the screen, and banged loudly on the door. "Open up, Mom!" He knew there was only a flimsy latch holding it shut. "Open up or we're coming in anyway!"

Florencia opened the door into a very bright night. The moon was full and seemed to give a point of glow to every dark leaf on the full cottonwood tree in her front yard. Fidencio rushed past her, leading the boys into the kitchen where the secret was located under the table. Locaria laughed from next door as she saw the light come on and heard the boards bang on the table legs and the heavy clang of the mason jars as they hit one another in the lifting.

Florencia was furious. "You'll be sorry, Augustino!" she screamed. "You didn't live through the Revolución! You don't know what it's like to have nothing to eat for days on end." Her words resonated into the street.

"Cállate, cabróna," Augustino retorted to the background of Fidencio and Don Juanito giggling.

In no time, all three men were comfortably seated on the front porch of the little red house, digging into the apricot and the peach and the plum preserves. Soon Augustino fell back into a delicious reverie, and Fidencio and Don Juanito quietly staggered off to their homes in the moonlight…

 

In the tiny hours of the next morning, Locaria was awakened by a brief bout of shouting and banging next door. She got up and, holding her head, slowly went out the side of her house to see what was going on.

Not a thing was moving in the morning light which was gently creeping into the neighborhood. The only sounds were the first birds,
yawning and stretching their wings in the cottonwoods and the apple tree and old oak next door. Then she heard a low moan and saw Augustino sitting on the wall of the well under the oak's gnarled boughs, where he always went when he was in the doghouse. He held a well-used icepack to his head.

"What's the matter, Augustino?" she whispered out to him, laughing. "Estás bastante crudo? You got a hangover?"

"Y más Locaria," Augustino said, removing the pack with his thin arm to reveal one hell of a shiner. "Y estoy muy crudo también. I don't know if I'll make it through the day."

Locaria chuckled to herself as she headed back to her front door. "Fidencio, do you think we got too loud last night?" Then as she opened the screen and disappeared within the freshly-painted white house, her voice could still be heard, "And when're you gonna fix the squeak in this door…"

 

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