An original short story set in Mexico
The previous night Michael had started carrying María Elena’s big metal pot of atole to the plaza as she walked beside him carrying her steamer of tamales. What a rich drink, he thought, made of that same corn dough they called masa and also of those curious little cones of piloncillo, a raw sugar, and of course the cinnamon and vanilla. As they walked together, the villagers would wave to them from windows and doorways or greet them on the street, softly saying “Buenas tardes,” and after the sun had gone down, “Buenas noches.” More and more villagers now said, “¿Cómo estás, Miguel?” instead of the more formal “¿Sr. Beauregard, cómo está?”
Even in summer, some nights were cool in the tropical mountains and Michael usually found himself on the plaza sipping a cup of warm atole as he ate his tamales and talked to the villagers. He then returned alone to wait, almost anxiously he realized, for two or three hours before he would go to help María Elena carry her load, now much lighter, toward their little house, painted burnt orange, and to the ancient door carved with flowers and leaves.
As Michael climbed to his room, he heard her calling up to him.
“Michael, do you really like my tamales?”
“I love them.”
“I saved you three more. I’ll bring them up. With some atole.”
Sitting at his table with María Elena opposite him, Michael, almost ceremoniously, held the unwrapped tamal like a wine glass, and then he bit into the soft and deliciously flavored texture and said, “Now we know what the angels eat.”
“Michael,” she said, thoughtfully, “each day I feel closer and closer to you.”
“María Elena,” he said, contemplating his own reflection in her dark eyes, “each night I feel closer and closer to you.”
They both giggled, comfortable with the intimacy.
“Michael, because of this I need to tell you a story. Something that happened to me. It was not a good thing.”
Michael reached over the table and touched her hand.
“Two winters ago my father, who was a lot older than my mother, passed away from pneumonia. A man named Jorge, whom most of the village avoided, thought I was weak and available because of my foot and because my father was now dead. Jorge was working in Texas in the oil fields, but he always returned a couple of times a year, and last year he came back for most of December. The other single women would have nothing to do with him because he was a bully, arrogant and rude. But nevertheless, at night Jorge liked to leave his mother’s house and drift over to the plaza to buy tamales and atole, and so I talked to him as I would to any other customer.
“A couple of nights before Christmas Eve, Jorge was a little drunk and acting like a big shot. He pulled out his wallet, stuffed with Texas oil-field money, and he bought every tamal I had, just as it had gotten dark. He passed out those tamales to all of the children in the plaza, three or four tamales each, and then he began pouring paper cups of atole for everyone, paying me for that as well. All the time he was laughing, but acting strange, like he was in a hurry.”
María Elena stopped for a moment and looked up at the sky, as if wondering whether to continue.
“It’s all right,” Michael said, again touching her hand.
“Then, Jorge picked up both pots and began to walk toward Miguel Blanco. As you know, our little street is really dark at night, and just as we arrived at the turn, Jorge veered off toward the even darker path that leads to some fields behind, still carrying my pots.
‘Por favor, Jorge!’ I shouted, ‘I want my pots!’
‘Come and get them,’ he said, and in the dim light I saw him daring me as he set them under some scrub mesquite. Dumb but stubborn, I wanted my pots, and I wanted to show him he wasn’t my boss.
“Jorge was much bigger than I was and I could never run very fast and so he pulled me down, rolled me into the dark, clamped one hand over my mouth, and with the other he pulled up my skirt and ripped at my panties.
‘So you saved the last tamal for me,” he said, again laughing.
“Up until then I had been a virgin, saving it for the man I would love, at least a little, and now I was bleeding and it hurt like the devil, and I hated the man who did it to me.
‘Now you know what a real man is like,’ Jorge said as he zipped up his pants.
‘No, I don’t’ I said.
‘What did you say, Cripple?’
‘No, Jorge, I don’t know what a real man is like.’
“He was still wearing his boots and he kicked out hard at my twisted foot, almost breaking my ankle, and then he picked up each pot and kicked it as hard and as far as he could before he headed back to the village. I laid there for a long time crying. I finally got up and slowly walked back home, still bleeding a lot. It was late and no one was around to help me. Then I saw my mother standing at our door looking down the street for me. When she saw me she rushed to me and helped me back to the house. We don’t have a doctor in the village but mother sent for a couple of her friends to come help her. I never left the house until Jorge left for Guadalajara to fly back to Houston.”
“What about the police?”
“Jorge likes to brag his best drinking buddies are the police.”
“What about the villagers?”
“Word got around, and had Jorge stayed much longer he might have stayed here permanently, in a deep hole at the back edge of that corn field. Several of the old men who liked me and who liked to hang around the plaza took up a collection. A few days later they showed up at our home with a sparkling new pot for atole and a sparkling new steamer for tamales.”
“After Jorge left, you were all right?”
“Yes, more or less. But that five minutes was my one and only sexual experience.
“You can’t call that kind of brutality a ‘sexual experience,'” Michael said. “You really are still a virgin.”
Her soft brown eyes studied his face. “Thank you Miguel. But tonight I do not want to be ‘still a virgin.'”
Michael stood up, put on his most romantic music, turned to face María Elena, and offered her his hand.
“María Elena, may I have this dance?”
“Señor, it will make me very happy to dance with you.”
María Elena loved the way Michael spun her around so gracefully, again and again pivoting her on her best foot. When the music finally ended, Michael kissed her deeply and then ran his tongue along each side of her neck and down the soft skin of her throat through the tiny beads of sweat that were gathering between her breasts. As she held his head against her with one hand, with the other she unbuttoned her blouse. Then standing on her best foot she lifted up her left leg and curled it around him. Her twisted foot was a perfect fit in the small of his back, Michael thought, as she pulled him tightly against herself. They fell asleep shortly before the roosters began to rise.
Late morning they woke deeply content. When María Elena saw his eyes were open looking at her, she spoke softly.
“Michael, you have taught me to love making love.”
“María Elena, the way you make love, you have taught me to love.”
As the golden light of the morning sun filled the little room, Michael thought that, indeed, this lovely woman and this little village were his destiny; and even though he had known some wonderful women, he felt that kissing María Elena was like kissing a woman for the first time, and making love with her was like making love with a woman for the first time.
“Those were certainly the best three tamales I ever had.”
“Those tamales were only for you.”
As Michael leaned forward to kiss her lips, still slightly swollen after a night of love, he hesitated, thinking about her mother below.
“Will your mother be angry?”
“Michael, I do not think so. I have been talking about this possibility with her for several weeks. She knows I have fallen in love with you. She has always wanted me to fall in love.” María Elena stood up and pounded her best foot against the floor. It was a signal, Michael realized.
A voice rose up from below.
“Michael, María Elena, if you are now ready for your breakfast I will make it and bring it up to you. Eggs and chorizo sausage in beans and orange juice and tortillas. Will that be fine?
“Yes, Mother, that will be fine.”
“Miguel, will that be fine for you?”
“Yes, Señora García, that will be very fine.”
María Elena whispered to him, “She is no longer Señora García.”
“Yes, Mother, that will be fine.” Michael’s voice sounded strange to him.
The daughter above and the mother below were both laughing. Michael laughed as well.
The weeks went by and then months, and Michael fell more and more in love with María Elena. He no longer knew where her fragrance stopped and the fragrance of the night-blooming jasmine just outside on their balcony began. He loved the distinctive sound of her walk. He no longer worried much about Jorge because Jorge’s mother had moved to Chapala to live with her sister and Jorge would undoubtedly head there on holidays instead of to Refugio de María.
Although he was not a Catholic, Michael decided he would propose to María Elena on Christmas day. They would do what they needed to do to become officially married and married in the eyes of the village as well. Perhaps he could find in Guadalajara a fancy new pair of boxing gloves and use those to bribe Padre Paco.
But the day after the Fiesta of Guadalupe, in mid-December, there was a heavy knock on the door and a large man, loud, drunk, and laughing, shouted, “Hey crippled girl, I’m back!”
The widow García shouted, “There aren’t any crippled girls who live here.”
“I want my little tamal,” he shouted.
Michael jumped up from his metal cot, tucked in his shirt and – driven by love but not knowing what to do – he rushed down the stairs as Jorge, uninvited, pushed open the door. Indeed a large, mean looking and very macho man stood there.
“Well look here, a new tenant for the lady with my tamal and her mother.”
“You must be Jorge,” Michael said, not extending his hand.
“And you must be the Michael I heard about. Michael, you can call me George. I do not like the way you say ‘Jorge.’ I prefer that you call me George, not Jorge.” His voice was irritating, threatening, challenging.
“I prefer that you call me Miguel,” Michael said.
“Miguel? Now that’s a good one!” Jorge said.
Jorge, his face reddening, threw back his head and laughed.
“You don’t look much like a Miguel!” Jorge scoffed.
“Jorge, stop it!” interrupted María Elena.
“You don’t look much like a George,” Michael said.
Jorge stepped toward Michael who had never been in a fight in his life.
“Jorge! Get out of my house!” shouted the widow García, her hand resting on the tile counter near her carving knife. Michael looked through the door at the new black Ford Lobo truck with the custom orange and red flames, like the Devil’s own tongue licking along the side.
Jorge stared at the three angry people and then slowly backed out the door. “María Elena, you be careful when you walk alone at night. And Michael, you be careful when you walk alone at night.” He winked at María Elena and left.
Two nights later as they were walking back from the plaza. Michael saw several men of the village watching them at some distance. As María Elena and Michael turned on to Miguel Blanco, Jorge jumped out of the shadows, spread his arms wide, and shouted, “Buenas Noches María Elena!” He was very drunk. “It’s time for the gringo to go home, isn’t it?” He pointed into the darkness. “Remember that tree over there, sweetheart?”
Michael stepped between María Elena and Jorge. Jorge staggered another step toward Michael who, even though he was smaller than Jorge and not aggressive by nature, nevertheless refused to move.
“C’mon Michael, it’s my turn tonight with the tamal, isn’t it?”
“It never has been your turn,” Michael said.
“Hey Michael, you like the way her crippled foot kicks at you sideways when you’re on top of her?”
“She’s not the crippled one, Jorge, you are,” Michael said.
“Jorge,” María Elena said, “Go back to Houston, go back to where you belong.”
“She’s right, George,” Michael said, “Go back to Texas, where you belong.”
“Where I belong? What about him?”
“Do you mean Miguel? He belongs here, with us, in Refugio de María.”
As Jorge reached for María Elena, Michael blocked him with his body. Jorge grabbed two handfuls of Michael’s denim shirt and swung him hard. Michael fell on the cobblestones.
“Now where do I belong, Gringo!”
“In Texas,” Michael said as he turned to push himself up.
Jorge swung his heavy black boot, catching Michael in his left knee.
“Michael!” María Elena screamed as she dropped beside him, and at the same time she saw the townspeople racing toward them. Old Tomás carried a new machete with a bright orange handle; Abram, the butcher, carried a carving knife; Padre Paco of course had his heavy metal cross, which he swung like a sickle as he walked toward Jorge; the widow García stood at the edge of the circle with her No. 10 cast iron skillet; and even Ignacio, the man who was slow of speech and slow of thought and always smiling was no longer smiling.
As Jorge poised his body for a second kick at the prostrate Michael, it was this very Ignacio who looked at María Elena and then twisted his left foot inward as much as could. In this strange posture he leaped in front of Jorge. With his closed fists shaking, Ignacio stretched himself to his modest full height and spoke: “Jorrrrge, go, go, baaaack, go, go, baaaack, to Texasss, to Texasss.” The circle of villagers tightened.
As María Elena and her mother tried to help Michael to his feet, María realized that from the moment they left the plaza, the worried villagers had been watching over them. Michael could put no weight on his knee but so much adrenalin was pumping through him that he hardly felt the pain. María Elena put her right arm around his waist and together they began limping over the stones back toward their home. Her mother joined the others, skillet still in hand, as part of the circle around Jorge.
Finally Padre Paco spoke, more firmly than anyone had ever heard him speak: “Jorge, you must leave this town and never return. If you come back and you are killed, I will not pray over you, and in fact your body will never be found. You now have one chance to live, and that is to leave this very minute.” The tight circle began moving Jorge toward the plaza, toward his black truck. Other villagers had gathered around Jorge’s truck. Rocks and knives and keys and coins had scraped and scarred the shiny new paint and the four side windows had been shattered.
As Jorge started to open his mouth to curse them all, he saw the shiny new machete with the orange handle raised high. Old Tomás warned him, “I may be old, but my machete is young!” As Jorge climbed into his truck and started the engine, Padre Paco raised the cross over him and shouted, “Jorge, Go with God,” and mumbling added, “You son of a bitch.” As Jorge drove off into the night, relief spread through the normally gentle crowd.
In his rooms on Miguel Blanco, María Elena had wrapped ice packs around Michael’s swollen knee and had tied them on with white ribbons. After three shots of blue agave, Michael could move it a little, but he knew that he would be limping a long time. Perhaps he also could learn to limp with grace. In fact, he thought, he and María Elena would be limping together as they walked through the village after their wedding. Between them they had “two best feet,” enough for a good marriage to stand on. Padre Paco had already agreed to the ceremony under the condition that Michael come to the little church, “Our Lady of Guadalupe,” for a few conversations, perhaps some simple and useful instructions in the faith. Nothing very complicated.
Now as he lay on the old cot, exhausted, he felt like saying, “Gracias a la vida, gracias a la vida.” He opened his eyes to ask María Elena to sing it, but she had slipped away. Through the open doors of the balcony, Michael could hear her lovely voice on the street below. He heard María Elena tell Ignacio that he was her hero and then he listened to the villagers clapping. He heard his proud mother say “Ignacio, my son, my son.” He heard María Elena’s mother retell her role and what she had intended to do, apparently demonstrating by holding the heavy skillet high above her head and swinging it down leaving do doubt as to what would have happened had God not intervened. In fact, she said, God was using all the strength He had to hold her back.
As Michael lay in his bed listening to his neighbors below, he realized, in spite of the pain in his knee, he was happy in this little village of María de Refugio.
There was a light knock on the door.
“Come in,” Michael said.
It was María Elena.
“Three tamales for the Señor.”