The phone rang about four times before Sergio decided to pick it up. It was 9:30 and his wife was out, picking up their exchange student at the airport, otherwise he probably would have let it ring. Maybe the plane was late. He was in the middle of watching a movie he had rented at Blockbuster that afternoon and Bruce Willis was just dispatching another mono-browed bad guy by ripping off his arm with a telephone cord; unlikely, but what did you expect from a gringada called Die Hard III, he thought.
He picked up the phone. “Bueno?”
A calm but somewhat urgent voice of a man on the other end informed him that he was calling on behalf of Juanita Morantes, who had apparently had a nearly fatal encounter with a package of cookies and that he had found her on the sidewalk outside her house. She was alright, said the caller, who gave his name as Marco, but was still a little shaken and since he had asked if there was someone to call, she had given him Sergios number.
Sergio listened while the stranger explained that the police paramedics had come and gone and had pronounced her fine, before muttering a “gracias” and then adding “y ella quiere que la vaya a ver?” Marco replied that it was probably a good idea, just to make sure she would be alright and that he really had to be going. “Esta bien” said Sergio before again thanking the stranger and hanging up, a resigned and slightly annoyed expression crossing his face. Whoever heard of someone choking on cookies?
Sergio had not seen his sister Juany in some time, since the last family Christmas dinner when they had had a rather forced encounter over a large, dry turkey and sandwichon dinner. Rebeca, his wife, had been slightly depressed as her parents were not coming from the DF that holiday season due to a last minute Mexicana Airlines strike and Juanita had been as pedantic as ever, complaining about her various ailments and the fact that the house – their parents house, she had reminded everyone – was falling to pieces around her. While pushing aside the romeritos that Rebeca had painstakingly made as part of her Christmas season dinner tradition, Juanita picked at her piece of turkey meat and went on and on about the plumbing, the electricity and the fact that her phone service had been cut due to the fact that she could no longer afford it. When tears came to her eyes during this litany of complaints, Sergio had finally had enough and had stood and gone to the kitchen to fix himself a stiff drink. When he returned to the table sipping his Buchanans he had found Juanita’s chair empty. “Y mi hermana?” he had asked. Rebeca shrugged her shoulders in a resigned way and replied “dijo que se iba a su casa“.
He found her on the street, just down the block from the house, walking to the avenida to catch a bus and asked her if she wouldn’t rather have him drive her home. He did not ask why she had left or insist on her returning to his house to finish dinner. She simply looked at him for a moment with those sad, bovine eyes and replied “No, gracias, anda con tu familia” before turning and continuing her solitary walk on the deserted street. Sergio wasn’t even sure that the buses were running that night, but before long a noisy green Minis 2000 squealed to a halt, cumbia music oozing through open windows and the door. Juanita made her way up the vehicles stairs, the bus lurching forward even as she was still depositing some coins into the drivers fare-box.
Sergio had walked back to the house, both angry and relieved, passing the inflatable Frosty the Snowman his wife had bought at Costco weeks before, and had gone inside. He shook his head. Why had she even bothered to come if all she was going to do was be miserable?
Since then, there had been no news from his sister. Until now.
His sister had always been resentful of the fact that he and his brother had gotten away from the old house after their mother got sick, had gone to study and make something of themselves and had married and were doing well. He did not understand why she did not do the same, preferring to remain in that old dump of a house when she could easily have sold it years ago and taken the money to get a small house in one of the new developments around the city. He had even offered to help her with the Infonavit and get a low interest social housing loan but Juany had refused. “En manos de quien voy a dejar esta casa? La casa de Papa y Mama?” she had asked him.
He slipped out of his house slippers and into his street shoes, buttoning up his shirt as he looked for his car keys and cell phone. Bruce Willis will have to wait, he thought as he dialed Rebeca’s number and closed the door behind him. “Bueno?” he heard Rebeca’s chilanga accent in his ear. In spite of them having been married and living in the Yucatan for years now, she had not lost her sing-song way of speaking, probably due to the fact that she mostly socialized with other wachas who, as a group, felt somewhat ostracized by their Yucatecan counterparts; a certain polite distance was always kept between the ladies who claimed true Yucatecan heritage and the new arrivals from the rest of the country, especially those from Mexico City, el D.F.
“Tengo que ir a ver a Juanita” he explained to Rebeca “se cayó afuera de su casa y me habló un tipo para decirme que la vaya a ver“. He could imagine Rebeca frowning as she heard this but she simply said “está bien” She added that she, Rebequita and Annie had just passed a police checkpoint near the airport, that the plane had arrived on time and they would be home soon.
He arrived at Juanita’s house 15 minutes later, traffic having been mercifully light at this time of the night. After driving around the block he found a place to park, cursing the fact that he had to leave the BMW on the street in the middle of the night for God only knew how long. Who knew what kinds of delinquents and prostitutes were around in the ‘centro historico‘ – he smirked at the thought – once the shops closed and the sun went down. What a pain.
Juanita came to the door a few minutes after he had knocked loudly on the once-grand wooden door that reminded him of his childhood, its blue paint cracked and peeling like a dry lake-bed.
“Pasa” she said and he followed her inside, being careful not to touch anything in case it broke.
The house was a mess, it really was falling apart. Sergio wondered for a moment if this whole incident had not been an excuse to get him to actually come and see for himself what the house looked like; that he would feel some sort of pity or something and offer to help pay for some repairs or whatnot. He had no intention of sinking one single peso into this lost cause of a building, he thought to himself.
“Como estas? Que te pasó?” he asked his sister.
Juanita gave a tired little sigh, and he braced himself for the usual bout of complaining and self pity.
But none came. Juanita simply told him what had happened, that she had gotten a piece of cookie stuck in her throat and had gone outside for help and a man had helped her and she was really quite fine now, thank you very much.
They looked at each other for a moment, then Sergio looked away.
“Pues, si estas bien, te dejo – tengo que regresar porque hoy llega la niña de intercambio de Estados Unidos” he said “quieres venir a pasar la noche con nosotros?” he added, knowing that she would not come yet feeling that he should ask, to be polite.
“No, no no, estoy bien, gracias por venir” replied Juanita and walked him to the door. He gave her a half-hearted peck on the cheek which she returned with an equal lack of enthusiasm. “Cualquier cosa… me hablas, oiste?” he said before turning away. Juanita nodded and went back inside, closing the old door, both aware that Juanita did not have a phone available to her at that time of the night.
The BMW was still there, having survived it’s short stay in el centro apparently unscathed and Sergio got in, buckled up and drove home as quickly as he could, away from this part of the city that was now foreign and completely unappealing to him.