I hate lectures. My ears are still ringing with the one that I got from Cal. I don’t understand what the flaming big deal is. It isn’t my fault that he didn’t call last night to let me know he was coming. Nor is it my fault that cell phones were out most of the day. I swear he treats me like I am Feena’s age sometimes. If he wasn’t Daniel’s cousin and about the only family that I can beg a favor from every now and again when I need some muscles I wouldn’t put up with it.
Yesterday instead of going straight to the stores like I had planned I went blueberry picking at the u-pick farms. I got everything I could but I want to go back again tomorrow … assuming his royal crankiness doesn’t have any objections, and even if he does, so there. If he is so sure that everyone and their mother is out to rape and pillage then he can get his sorry butt out of bed and come with me and protect me … and carry the buckets.
I stopped at the gas station closest to the house right before first light. The sleepy clerk was more than happy to take the two tens and the four fives that I handed him as he would need them to make change as soon as rush hour started picking up. I learned the best advantage you can have while shopping is to keep plenty of small bills in your purse and to know where you can spend the larger bills without making the management squawk. And cashiers like it when you have correct change, they like it a lot.
With a cooler of water and bottles tucked in my trunk I pulled into the u-pick farm that had the best reviews at the best prices when I asked around. I wasn’t the first one there that morning but I was close. I was half way finished filling my second bucket when I realized the old woman two rows over was Senora Escudero, the wife of my produce vendor friend.
She is this really tiny woman and if it wasn’t for the fact that her hair is as white as cotton and the deep crinkles around her eyes I’m sure most people would think she was a child. I can’t understand a word she says half the time. She was hurt in the Guatemalan Civil War as a young woman and it did something to her voice. She also speaks Spanish like a mestizo which means that it is almost a completely different language from what I grew up hearing in my home.
“Ola Senora Escudero!” I called. I couldn’t ignore her, that wouldn’t have been polite.
I had startled her and it wasn’t until she put the glasses on that hung from a chain around her neck that her face split in a huge grin. Her impossibly white and straight teeth reminded me of my own false ivories and I got a glimpse of what I would look like when I was older … like someone’s beagle had a pair of those chattering teeth in their mouth. I never got braces as a kid despite my teeth looking like an old picket fence and to look in the mirror and see straight teeth now is bizarre.
Today was a good day, she must have used plenty of glue on her dentures because I could understand almost everything that she said. And the way she talks with her hands is like watching a verbal ballet.
“Aaaahhhh, Aria y Josefina! ¿Dios nos ha dado una hermosa mañana de él no ha?”
“Si Senora. Es un hermoso día para recoger arándanos.”
“Si, si. Es una bendición en escritura. Mi marido estaba diciendo sólo que deseó que supo llegar a usted. Le gustaría entrar en el mercado tan pronto como sea posible. Él tiene algo de que quiere hablar con usted acerca. ¿Puede venir esta tarde?”
“Por supuesto, vengo esta tarde tan pronto como mis recados terminadas así puedo darle toda mi atención.”
“Buena. Buena. Tendremos té y marranitos.”
Basically she told me that Mr. Escudero wanted to see me and that I’d told her that I’d be by that afternoon and then she said she would have tea and gingerbread piglets for us. No, that last isn’t a mistranslation. Marranitos are these little gingerbread cakes that are shaped like pigs. I hadn’t had one since I was a little girl and when I made such a fuss over them the first time I saw them in their bakery case she always made sure there was at least one left over for me on Sunday afternoon.
When I left the u-pick farm I stopped at another gas station and got another forty dollars of gas and went home to unload … the fruit and the gas from my tank. I’m not sure what stunk worse, syphoning the fuel or Feena’s overdue diaper.
I replaced the empty space where the buckets of fruit had been with large empty coolers then closed my trunk. Then I refilled the water bottles and baby bottles and with grocery store ads in hand took off. On the way I stopped at a large Race Trak gas station with no lines, handed forty dollars cash to an irritable clerk and then skedaddled to pump and go.
Save A Lot, Aldi, Winn Dixie, and last but not least Super Walmart. I hate going to wally world, not because it is a bad place but because I always come out with at least one or two items that aren’t on the list I walk in with. Temptations lurk around every corner waiting to trip the unwary shopper. Those goofy yellow smiley faces might as well be vampires the way they try to drain my wallet. The problem is it is the only place I know where you can buy Seafoam fuel additive, Arm and Hammer washing soda, weed eater string, a good but inexpensive support bra, and frozen vegetables all under the same roof. Sadly I also succumbed to a pair of $15 plastic garden clogs and a couple of $5 DVD movies that I’d never seen but always wanted to.
With one cooler maxed out with frozen veggies it was time to run to the carneceria to see if my meat order was ready. It was but it wound up being more expensive and larger than I had expected because to get the sales deals I wanted I had to buy another package that wasn’t on sale. It was no one’s fault but my own that I hadn’t read the fine print. I wasn’t going to make a fuss though because I saw they gave me a lot of boneless cuts and trimmed the fat really well. That meant I was paying for meat and not bone and gristle.
I nearly ran my bounty home but it was too close to tea time so I threw some ice in both coolers, prayed over them that God would keep everything nicely chilled, and headed to my last stop.
I’m devastated. The Escuderos are closing their produce stand down. Not because they want to but because the US Department of Agriculture and IRS have teamed up and it is going to make it impossible for a lot of small vendors to continue doing business. In order to file federal taxes as an agricultural business you will now have to have some kind of quarterly inspection and federal license. If you don’t then the IRS won’t recognize you as a business so you’ll have to report your income but you can’t claim any business related expenses.
The Escuderos are old and they don’t feel like jumping through all of the hoops to get that federal license. They are leaving and going back to Guatemala and are going to give up their US citizenship. But before they do, they want to get rid of everything that the government might try and tax at the now standard 50% exit rate.
They didn’t say for certain – and I don’t blame them – but I think the Escuderos have an exit strategy and have moved their money out of the country already. Now they are just trying to get rid of what remains.
“I will miss watching little Josefina grow up but I am anxious to see some of my grandchildren that I have never met,” Mr. Escudero said with tears in his eyes. “But you have always been such a good girl. I wish for you to let us help you one last time. It is not much but we have already seen to our other friends and now we wish to see to you who have been like a granddaughter to us.”
I didn’t know what to say when I looked over and saw their nephew’s son Estuardo attaching a small trailer to the hitch on my car. Inside the trailer was cases of fresh fruits and vegetables but tied on the very top of the pile was a cage with six chickens and one rooster.
I didn’t even have time to object or bring the trailer back because they were leaving that evening to visit family in Miami before boarding another family member’s fishing boat that would transport all that were leaving the states along with their belongings. There were tears a plenty but then they insisted that I had to go and get everything put away before the heat got it worse than it already had. In truth I think it was just a polite way of saying, “Scoot, we need to finish packing.”
In deference to the additions to my zoo and the way my car was loaded down I had to drive slower. I had wanted to stop and get more gas but I didn’t dare try it with what I was pulling. Already I was getting some pretty funny looks.
It took me forever to get the car and trailer emptied. You’d think the chickens would have been my biggest problem but all I actually did was put them in the old dog run where Papa used to keep his hunting dogs before they all died of old age just like he had.
It took me forever to take the trailer off. I bet I was an hour trying to figure out why the thing wouldn’t come off until I realized you had to pull back the little locking mechanism before you started to turn the crank or it couldn’t release all the way and decouple from the ball of the hitch. It is easy once you know the trick, much harder to figure out the trick with no advice on how to do it.
Feena is usually happy to watch my goings on from her vantage in the sling but honest to pete she would pick that day to decide she wasn’t going to be satisfied with anything less than the world bowing subserviently at her feet. By the time I was finally able to drag my sorry behind into the air conditioning I was ready to give Feena a close run for the title of loudest cry in the universe. Lucky for the universe a shower and dinner made us both feel better.
Feena babbled to her imaginary subjects from the relative safety of her playpen and I got started on putting everything away … or at least as away as it was going to get last night. I loaded the dehydrator with blueberries. Put some blueberries in plastic pint containers and squeezed them into the little bit of space in the stand-up freezer that wasn’t packed with the meat from the carneceria. Squeezed what I could into the frig and then just generally tried to clean things up so that it didn’t look like a Tienda had thrown up all over my kitchen.
Then I got a glass of ice and filled it full of the apple soda I should not have splurged on when I knew the sugar would have me climbing the walls after two sips, grabbed a tablet of paper and pencil and started walking around the house. While I put the toilet paper away in the linen closet I noted that if I wanted fresh and minty breath and to keep my ivories from looking like the shutters on a haunted house I would need to pick up some toothpaste and mouth wash poste haste.
On the paper I drew three vertical lines that made each sheet of paper into four columns. In the first column was the name of an item. The next column was how much I already had. The column after that was how much I thought I needed and the last column would be for tally marks to tell me how close I was to my goal. I’ll eventually put this list on the computer but right now it is simply too difficult to carry my laptop with me as I work.
Feminine hygiene products came after mouthwash. My period was still a little wonky but at twenty-two it’s not like I’m going to be getting rid of that particular little human female quirk any time soon. I was ready to scream if they were rationing feminine hygiene products the way they were diapers. Everywhere I looked there was something I needed, or something I could use more of if prices were going to continue to go up. Feena and I collapsed in our beds about one in the morning, not because I had finished my list making but because I had run out of paper and eraser head.
There was a jack hammer in my head this morning and the only thing that soothed it was a cup of coffee that practically had the consistency of tar it was so strong. I nearly started the day in tears when I realized there was only dust in the bottom of the Exedrin bottle. I added it to my list, fed Feena while I inhaled a bowl of oatmeal with blueberries, took one last, desperate and irritated look at the length of my list and locked the front door.
Gas. Feed store. Three yard sales. Mercado. Picnic lunch at the park. JoAnn Fabrics. Library. Then a stop at a little Spanish market I had never seen before that had a small handwritten sign that it was going out of business. They weren’t sure what to make of me until I asked in Spanish if they carried linden leaves.
Did they carry linden leaves? You betcha. I also cleaned them out of every other package of spices and flavorings. A whole box of packages of various dried peppers from ancho to guajillo to puyas to red chilis. Cans of jalapenos. Sriracha, mojo, naranja agria, lemon juice. I have enough pine nuts and pumpkin seeds to send a troupe of starving squirrels into a blissful catatonic state. I have almost thirty pounds of piloncillo cones that I can use in place of granulated sugar if I need to. I have two gallon jugs of Honduran vanilla. Dried hibiscus flowers, annatto seed, capers, pink peppercorns, dried shrimp, tamarind pods. They didn’t have any coffee but I got teas like cat’s claw, chamomile, linden leaves, mint, star anise, and yerba mate.
The list doesn’t stop there but my fingers do. I’m tired. And irritable. And I’d still like to march out to the travel trailer and give Cal a piece of my mind. It’s not like I don’t understand why he is so foul but having him foul at me … OK, now I’ll be honest though I could never say this to Cal’s face. It was like having Daniel shouting at me even though it wasn’t my fault he was hurting. I know if I tell him that Cal won’t know which way to look, maybe he’ll stop being my friend, and I don’t want that. Maybe this is my chance to pay him back for all the help he and Lily gave me when I needed them. I knew finding a way to pay him back in the same coin wouldn’t be easy … I just didn’t expect it to be this hard either.
After the little store I stopped at yet another gas station before going home. I was getting to know every gas station in this part of the county but what I found out during that last stop blew me away.
“What do you mean unless I buy twenty dollar’s worth of merchandise from the minute market you won’t sell me any gas?”
“Ya got wax in your ears Princess Wet Back? You don’t buy twenty bucks of stuff you don’t buy no gas. Now scram. You’re stinking up my store. Don’t you people ever use deodorant? You smell like the porch monkeys do.”
Ignoring the man’s obvious superior upbringing and intelligence I asked why.
“Oh, so you want some free education just like you get free everything else while we real Americans gotta work to pay for it.”
I was ready to blow my stack and if Feena hadn’t been with me I would likely have hurdled over the counter and done my best to gouge out the eyes of that misogynist bigot. I was still considering it when I heard a surprised yelp, “Aria?! Oh my God! It IS you! Mom told me that she thought she saw you … oh.” She finally got a good look at my face and at the smirk on the face of the man – using the term loosely of course – that stood behind the register. “Not again Uncle Darryl. Dad has told you and told you that you can’t talk like that around here.”
“Now listen here Little Britches, my sister’s husband might not be willing to state the truth but I’m not afraid to.”
“Uncle Darryl you haven’t got a clue. Aria and her family have been in the United States since it was nothing but a cluster of colonies. She’s got the proof too with old documents and stuff like that. For Pete sake her grandfather was an elder at our church until he died. You remember Papa Corces right? The man who cracked you on the butt with his cane when he caught you trying to peak into the girls’ bathroom when you were teenagers?” At the dawning look on his face she said, “Yeah, that Papa Corces. And when Dad finds out you are out … of … here. Thank God.”
Turning to me she pulled me over to the little deli area and asked, “Was he real nasty?”
Carefully I answered, “I don’t want to cause trouble in the family Dorrie.”
“I’ll take that as a definite yes.” She gave me a hug and Feena squawk drawing her attention. “Ooooo, isn’t she precious. Oh, can I hold her? Pleeeeease?”
You just don’t tell Dorrie no, if felt like pulling the wings off of a butterfly if you did. While she made a fuss over Feena we did a quick catch up. “We didn’t hear about the funeral until it was too late Aria or we would have come. Before that I tried to stop by the hospital a couple of times but you weren’t allowed to have visitors. I don’t suppose you remember getting my card?”
“I’m sorry Dorrie, I was pretty out of it for a long time. And when I was finally getting out it was so crazy that all I could do was box up what my in-laws hadn’t put in storage and then … you know what happened. I’ve been going ninety to nothing ever since trying to keep mine and Feena’s heads above water – dealing with the aftermath – and to be honest I … I haven’t been able to bring myself to go through everything yet.”
“Oh no kidding. Look, I didn’t mean to bring anything bad up, I just wanted you to know … you know?”
I smiled. “Yeah. You and your parents were always really nice to remember me even after Papa died.” Looking around I added, “But I don’t remember you all owning a gas station.”
“We don’t, my mom’s step dad does, but Dad is managing it for him while he recovers from a stroke. It works out great because Dad lost his job at the phosphate plant and we all have moved into Gran’s great big house and share expenses. I’m a CNA and take care of Gerald … that’s Gran’s husband … and have a couple of other regular clients as well that need in home care. When I’m not doing that I’m here.”
“What happened to Todd?” I asked.
“Marybeth Weaver and a holy condemn is what happened to Todd.”
I sat there with my mouth hanging open because Todd was the preacher’s son then we both tried not to laugh and wound up giggling into napkins we have pressed into our mouths. The preacher’s son wearing a “Holy condum” … leave it to Dorrie.
“God it is so good to see you Aria. Come to church this Sunday, everyone will love to see you.”
“I … I’d love to Dorrie. I just don’t know if I’m ready for all the looks and questions … or everyone trying to be nice and not ask questions.”
“Honey, everybody already knows. It was plastered all over the TV for almost two weeks … twice.”
I winced. “Great.”
“Seriously, you should come.”
I’m considering it and told her so. “Good. Now what was it you came in here for anyway?”
“Hmmm … ran into the new rule of you gotta buy twenty from the store to buy forty at the pump?”
She snorted. “It’s the government price controls that went into effect at lunch. Didn’t you hear the president’s speech?”
I shook my head. “I had my head submerged in a couple of bargain barrels.”
She shrugged fatalistically. “We can’t sell the gas for what it is costing us. The only way to make it work is if people buy stuff from the store or deli to make up the difference. Dad only did it because the three other closest stations have started doing it. We can’t wait for the government to get their heads out of theIR butts, we have to do something now to help ourselves.” Thoughtfully she said, “Hey … you know Gerald owns the liquor store next door … I bet if you buy something there Dad will let it count toward the twenty bucks.”
“For you I’ll do it. For your uncle? Not if he was the last man on earth and the squirrels of doom were about to sacrifice me on the altar of old man gator.”
She laughed and said, “God do I know the feeling.”
I wound up spending way more than twenty bucks but liquor will do that to you every time … rum, vodka, brandy, whiskey, beer, and a few other things. The beer was for Cal and his buddies next time they came out and gave me a hand. The other stuff was for a special project that I have started to think about.
The look ol’ Darryl gave me when he saw the receipt from the liquor store was something to behold. But that look was nothing compared to the black cloud that was sitting on the porch stabbing viciously at what turned out to be his cell phone.
“Where the sam hill have you been all day?!”
Cal was in rare form and I was hot, tired, and completely overwrought at all the money I had spent … again … and no sooner had his growl stopped echoing around the yard than I burst into tears and told him to go take a flying leap off the end of the dock … preferably head first into the shallows.
Well that was a load of smelly socks to get settled down. I hadn’t meant to worry him and he hadn’t meant to yell at me … at least not that loud. I felt bad when I heard how his last couple of days had gone and he felt bad when he heard about mine.
He helped me to unload the coolers in the trunk and we both carried everything else in and I nearly kicked Cal in the shins because he got so cross eyed he almost fell off the porch when he saw what all I had brought home and what all was packed into the house.
My sinuses were still stuffy from crying despite having blown them enough times to make things raw and my dignity came out sounding like I’d stuffed a cupful of peas up each nostril. “I don’t need any comments Cal. I didn’t break the bank and none of this will go to waste. I know what I’m doing.”
In a rather subdued voice he said, “Apparently more than I gave you credit for. At least you have plenty of room in the pantry for this stuff. There’s not a thing in there.”
“It’s not in there … it’s upstairs in the spare room. There’s something wrong with the floor in the pantry and I don’t want to risk making it worse by putting too much weight on it.”
“What?!” Out came the growl again. This time I just whapped him in the face accidentally on purpose with a bunch of fresh cilantro and he shut up pretty fast.
When he crawled out from under the house I handed him a beer I had stuck in the freezer when I realized he was going to be here a while. He took it from me and then looked at me and asked, “You drinking now?”
I rolled my eyes, “Oh please, you know me better than that. You and your buddies always have a few when you are cleaning the fish so I figured maybe you’d want one now.”
“Oh.” I felt like hitting him with the cilantro again but I didn’t want bruising … the cilantro, not Cal.
I looked at the back porch and asked, “What’s the deal with the chest freezer?”
“I’m going to buy a cow.”
“I assume you mean a dead one?”
“Smart aleck. Yes, a dead one. Dead and butchered. It’s cheaper that way.”
“And what if the power goes out?”
“I hope it won’t before I can figure things out.”
Looking at him I said bashfully, “Jerky and canning.”
I didn’t have to explain what I meant which was a relief. “You can do that?”
I didn’t just say yes I showed him by taking him up to the spare room. “I figure that some quart jars and a little propane will be cheaper than a noisy generator and the fuel to keep it running.”
He looked at my canning jars and then around at the rest of the stuff in the bedroom and said, “What prompted you to do this?”
“Promise not to laugh?”
I sighed. “I went to the grocery store.” He parked one of his eyebrows up in the stubble on his head and I explained the progression of my anxiety. “And if it wasn’t for that pharmacist I might not have gotten …”
I opened the closet door and Cal completely spazzed. “My God Aria! Who knows about this? I can’t believe you just have it shoved in an unlocked closet. You …”
“Oh for … it’s formula not Fort freaking Knox!”
“What hole have you been living in girl?! We get reports every night of violent break ins where people are only looking for formula and diapers! Have … you … lost … your … mind?!”
“No! Have you lost yours?! What did you think Feena was eating? Steak and baked potato?!”
He opened his mouth and then had the gall to start laughing. “Lord … I’d forgotten that being around you and Daniel had been like being around Laurel and Hardy or Abbott and Costello. Who’s on first?”
He bent over laughing and I was sooooo tempted to kick him in the behind. He sat on the floor and leaned against the wall. “Seriously Aria … we need to get this stuff secured. Does anyone know about it?”
“Fine … but since you’re so smart you can help me figure out how. As for the other? Like who would know? It’s not like I have a sign stuck down by the river or taken an ad out in the Observer. I haven’t even had anyone but you and Mack and your friends over to the house.”
“No one? Not even a date?”
I shut down and walked out of the room. “Hey … Hey Aria!” he called after me. When he caught up he said, “That guy back there? He’s my idiot clone. I’m trying to get rid of him but he keeps showing back up at the worst possible moments.”
As an apology it sucked but as an attempt to make me smile it wasn’t too bad. “Fine. But tell your … your idiot clone that that part of my life is solidly over with and if he brings it up again … I … I might ask him to leave.”
“I’ll … relay that message.” He looked at me and then asked, “We square?”
“Yeah,” I told him quietly. “Look, you want something to eat? I either cook now while Feena is down for a nap or it’s gonna take twice as long. How about yellow rice and black beans?”
A little hesitantly he asked, “Could you make one of them chorizo omelets like you made last time Josh and I were up here?”
“Sure, why not. Want biscuits?”
“Homemade?” he asked hopefully.
“Are there any other kind?” He grinned and then went to go take his stuff into the travel trailer.
Personnel is making him use his vacation days even though Lily changed plans on him. They were supposed to go away together, kind of a second honeymoon. Instead at the last minute he found out that she invited her parents to come down for two weeks and asked him to take a friend and go without her. Nice.
He was able to get a refund on his deposit for the cruise he had booked for them but he didn’t tell her that. The money is now in his emergency fund in the cash vault he has buried under this house. He told me no money in the beginning but I don’t hold the change against him. Sorry for the bad pun.
I know he is still trying to work things out with Lily but it seems that she cooperates right up until she has to make good on her promises and then she always has some excuse or other. Trish says she’s pretty sure they aren’t sleeping in the same room anymore though she only knows because Amaris surprised Cal and Lily last time she was in town and just dropped by to introduce them to her fiancé. On the way to the bathroom Amaris noticed that Cal’s stuff was in the bedroom … and it wasn’t the master bedroom.
I’m trying not to take sides or be judgmental yet still be supportive. I needed that when things were going so wrong with Daniel. Cal and Lily gave me that. But they aren’t making it easy for me to give them the same thing. Geez Louise. I want to tell Lily she is a complete idiot, unappreciative of what she could lose. Being lonely sucks. I want to throw something at Cal for not standing up for himself more, like he’s so afraid of doing the wrong thing, or doing something that gets Lily’s rich parents involved, that they’re both going to live in limboland forever.
I’m one to talk though. I didn’t even know one of my best friends had stopped by when I was in the hospital because I am too much of a coward to go through the papers left over from that time in my life. How impossibly stupid is that?