The plastic Coca Cola-red chair scraped along the colorful tile floor as Doña Juany dragged it through the sala and out the front door, setting it down on the sidewalk just outside the entrance to her old house. She glanced back inside for a moment, making sure she had turned off any lights she wasn’t using and then sat, wearily, in the cool, late afternoon air.
It had been a long day, washing day that it was, and she had spent an inordinate amount of time washing the clothes as she had always washed them – by hand – in the large batea behind her kitchen. Of course now with her mother and father gone, there was not much to wash except for her underclothes and some house dresses she wore around the house and to the market when she went to buy the day’s provisions and yet, it had still taken what seemed to be longer than usual. Then she had painstakingly pinned the washed clothing to the lines strung criss-cross just beyond the batea only to have to rush out an hour later when it started to rain. It rained long enough to get all the clothing wet and of course everything had to be rinsed again to prevent it from smelling bad when it finally dried. The clothes were now hanging in one of the empty bedrooms, drying slowly on nylon lines tied to hammock hooks.
All this washing and hanging, combined with a three-block walk to the corner grocery store and back to buy some detergente and a jar of instant Nescafe for her morning coffee, had left her tired. She recalled Maria Ines, the owner of the shop, mentioning something about the weather and how the rainy season had finally come and what a relief it was, especially for the campesinos who were waiting to plant their corn as this year the dry season had lasted so long and what if the rains didn’t come and the seeds would dry and so they were waiting expectantly and… Maria Ines talked a lot, and this morning Doña Juany had not felt like engaging in much conversation, so she just nodded or shook her head depending on what Maria Ines was saying. Finally she managed to pay and left, leaving Maria Ines talking to another, more interested customer who had just walked into the store. He was one of those older gringos that had recently moved in, spent what must have been a fortune on renovating an old house and now spent his days strolling the streets smiling at everyone and drawling out “buenos dias” in a thick American accent without a care in the world.
“How do they do it?” she thought “they just start speaking Spanish without knowing even basic grammar or tense and they could care less how it sounds”
Doña Juany, when she was much younger, had met some American exchange students who were studying at the Rogers Hall school under the supervision of those crazy American nuns – they wore shorts for their sports classes; what kind of nuns did that – and when an opportunity had presented itself to talk to them, Juany had remained silent, afraid to utter anything in English because she was positive her pronunciation was so bad that she would not be understood or worse, laughed at. The girls were nice and had spoken to her in Spanish – such as it was – and she would answer them in Spanish, yearning for the courage to try out her English but that courage never presented itself and the opportunity was lost. Since then she had forgotten most of it and had only recently started to think about English when the neighborhood began to repopulate with the recently arrived Americans.
Across the street, Doña Juany could see Arsenio, the neighbor with the bad leg, moving about inside his living room. His windows onto the street were open to take advantage of the cool air and she could make out a television in the corner of the room. It looked like some sort of telenovela was on and Arsenio was settling down in a rocking chair in front of the TV to watch it.
Besides her neighbor Doña Betty who seemed to live alone with her adopted malix, there was another house a few doors down that had been fixed up and was now owned by two men who spent a lot of time away from Merida. They would be gone for weeks and then, suddenly, be back and then there would be dinner parties with lots of other gringos. Unlike the typical Mexican party, however, Doña Juany noticed that these parties usually started – and ended – early and by midnight the whole affair would be over. One of them was called George, or Jorge as he like to call himself, who seemed friendly enough on the few occasions she had crossed paths with him but the other one she didn’t know because he didn’t seem to get out much. She suspected they were gay. Why else would two grown men live together without any women around? Around the corner was another couple, probably in their 50’s and she had heard they were from Washington but these people did not throw parties or go out late. They mostly stayed home venturing out only to visit el mercado on Thursday mornings when it seemed they did all their grocery shopping for the week. Normally they left on foot, but most times returned by taxi on account of their many sabucanes full of fruits and vegetables.
A few other houses in the area had “Se Vende” or “Se Renta” signs on them with local phone numbers and foreign sounding names and occasionally a gringo in one of those fancy cars would pull up in front of them, step out onto the sidewalk along with a foreign couple – the wife emerging from the back seat, husband from the passenger front – and they would go inside. After a while they would come back out, get into the fancy car and drive away. So far, no one had bought anything for some time. This was another reason D0ña Juany was convinced that her house would never be sold. If those places, many of which were still in decent shape were not selling, there was really no hope for the crumbling family home that she had taken care of all these years.
With a sigh of resignation, Doña Juany got up and took the red plastic chair back into the house, closing the door to the street behind her. An hour or more had passed and it was time for her novela. She didn’t much care for the earlier soap opera, the one that Arsenio was watching across the street, it was just too melodramatic and the protagonist was far too old for the part of the galan. The actress playing the part of the novia could have been his daughter for crying out loud.
She turned on a table lamp and the television and found the right channel. Then she went to the kitchen to prepare a cup of te de manzanilla and found a package of Canelitas cinnamon cookies and returned to the sala with her cookies and tea to watch her novela.
As the violins and crashingly symphonic music started, accompanied by flowery script and images of flowing haired actresses atop shining horses and men with creased foreheads turning dramatically towards the camera, Doña Juany sipped her tea and swallowed a bite of cookie.
She swallowed again, but somehow the cookie was not moving. Another swallow, nothing. She suddenly felt the urge to take a deep breath and knew she couldn’t because her windpipe was blocked. Thunderous orchestral music came from the television as Doña Juany dropped her cup of tea on the tile floor – it smashed into a thousand porcelain pieces – and the package of Canelitas slipped from her lap as she made an effort to get up, clutching at her throat. She made a croaking sound as she tried to cry for help staggering towards the front door. Flinging it open she felt herself becoming dizzy, sparkling lights in her peripheral vision and she sank to her knees and onto the sidewalk.
Behind her on the small television in the dimly lit sala of the tired old house, a sensual female voice was announcing an exciting new body spray.
Everything went suddenly very black.