|Janet Arelis Quezada||
The lanterns on the ground lit the faces of Los Linares as they told jokes and stories. They sat on overturned crates and old cane-bottom chairs. It was hot and shirtsleeves were rolled back, some feet were bare. They had eaten already, and the relaxation of their mouths slack from chewing the good food allowed the stories to flow freely.
The three wooden structures on the lot were filled with people and candles too, but most of the celebration was taking place outside. The two rooms behind the storefront that faced the road that went by were small and warm. During the rest of the year Doña Tomasa and Teresa, her eldest daughter by her first husband Dagoberto, slept in one and Amalia and Yuni slept in the other. The two houses, no more than rooms really, were separated by a patch of land and some grass and tonight had been taken over by two hostile groups. One held the young crowd that wanted to hear music other than that of the merengue trio that had been hired for the night. The other held the strained, earnest voices of a choir singing about the Son of God.
The younger cousins went in and out of the store to borrow some sodas for the party, avoiding the entrances to both small houses and trying not let the store proprietor notice their bottles of malta. Tio Yuni had stopped deducting the amount from his inventory as soon as he had sat down in front of Alberto, Danny, and Chepo for a serious game of dominoes. On the ground around the lanterns sat most of Saturninos' and Tomasas' children. The six boys that had grown beards and mustaches in the same places and four of the six girls that were thin and bony, covering their smiles behind their hands as they listened to the picardia of their brothers. Older grandchildren and many friends of the family sat there too. Tato, who had been raised with the Linares boys, was the best and loudest storyteller among them.
Mama Tomasa sat in her rocking chair, a little bit removed from the group with Teresa, talking to some of the wives of her sons and directing all the action around her. She was gray haired and wrinkled but with a tall spine and a firm way of carrying herself. She searched the faces of her family looking for anything that she needed to attend to and then dispatched someone to come bring that person to her so she could advise, admonish, or animar.
Dulce tried to keep out of the elders' sight. She stayed around the circle of people watching the dominoes game, her body reacting appropriately to the drama of the match while her eyes and mind focused on Amalia. She watched Yuni slam down one of the ivory rectangles onto the table. "Asi es que se juega, carajo." He was excited and a little bit touched by rum, but not too much out of respect. Everyone at the party glanced over at Doña Tomasa throughout the night to make sure that nothing that had been said had offended her. In moments of uncertainty and deep tension; when someone had tipped over a bottle, or told a really dirty joke, or two people had begun to argue, she would say calmly to the crowd "Esta es mi fiesta, y quiero que la disfruten, pero con mucho cuidao. ¿Que no se me alboroten mucho, me entienden?"
Dulce tried to be calm. Eso de no alborotarse mucho was difficult for her. Especially now in the middle of this party at this old house. She had grown up here, practically, just like Tato only much later. She felt comfortable moving about the genial women and men of this family. She felt comfortable pulling the ears of the many children that were running about if they were giving too much lata. But, she could not keep her feelings still. They moved con picante like the music that was coming out of the accordion, the tambor and the guiro. She had a place here among these people; "Esa siempre esta alli arrimadita con los hombres, tu sabe, pero no te apures; es bien tranquila." It was okay for her, here, to sit with the men and play poker or to sip a little beer. She wore her big bowler hat that she had bought from one of the New York cousins last year and watched Amalia, hoping, just hoping.
"Porque tiene la cara tan seria, esa?"
Amalia closed her eyes and let her hips go into a trance, pulled by the music of the trio. She closed her eyes and shook her shoulders, letting all those New York cousins notice the way a real merenguera danced to the sound of tamboras. She was proud of the eyes she knew were looking her way.
Dulce watched the shadows around the trees that the lanterns made. Some of them flickered with the movement of dancers and others hovered in place. She wondered if she could pick out the shadow that belonged to Amalia. She knew that she could not look at Amalia's face. The music quickened her pulse, almost knocking her down. She watched one of the shadows, now sure that she had found Amalia's form; the rest of the shadows were parejas; this one whirled alone. Mesmerized by the movements, she imagined that slowly the shadow was taking on flesh.
The song was over and the band took a break. Ramonita la Flaca
went over to the pile of soda bottles and popped one open. She
smiled at Doña Tomasa, but was not ready to go over and
congratulate her on reaching another year in her life. She was
not ready to look into those eyes, yet. But she was more than
willing to go back to her spot and play and sing for her.
She had been staring at Amalia throughout the whole song. Now that the music was over, though, her eyes seemed to lock into that space where she had been. She could still hear the merengue inside her ears and inside her heart she could still see Amalia dancing like she had that day in the back room of the store by the light of a small lantern. Her hips moving through the air weaving together the responses to the call of the music; dancing, teaching her to dance:
"Come on Dulce; it's easy and you dont have to be
shy. No one is here."
The flimsy table almost fell over as Yunj slammed down a domino. Dulce had missed the final moments of the game. Around the table men laughed and cheered. Danny shook Chepo's hand and Tico clapped Yuni's back. The crowd around him launched into debates about the past game, about the obvious mistake and the moment in which the others had all lost to Yuni's luck. Yuni leaned back in his chair not saying anything for a while and then began to barajear the dominoes in front of him.
Chepo, who had been the second highest scorer, moved away from the group and sat down opposite Yuni. He settled into the serious mood of the game again. They needed two new competitors to continue with their tournament. William got up from the circle of laughter where the stories were gathering spit in people's mouths and tears in their eyes. He and came over to the table. The only bachelor out of the Linares boys; he lived alone in Santiago and drove a big camion across the country for one of the few market chains. He played tough, but was really quiet, unlike the other men in his family. He had been the last to move away from the house, because his mother would not let him go without a wife. She had been afraid that he wouldn't be able to take care of himself. And he did look skinny and worn these last few years. He turned the chair around and sat down with the heaviness of a bigger man. He smiled at Yuni and shook Chepo's hand. One of the neighbors joined them. A new game began.
Dulce looked over at the trio. Ramonita and the two men were back in place and the music started again. Amalia danced. Dulce saw Amalia's feet, bare, striking at the dirt. She watched Amalia's skirt flouncing from one side to the other. She saw Amalia's shoulders dip and her hair run after her laughing face. Her feet began to tap on the floor at first to the sound of the tambor and then in a beat of their own, trying to send Amalia a message to look over her way.
Some of the people sitting around the circle thought of getting up to dance. The music had been bright and flashy, but not tempting at all as they sat there laughing and letting the food course slowly through their bodies. Pero ya se habian bajado los tostones, el arroz, el pollo asao. Legs stretched, knees cracked and the palms of hands found laps, the backs of chairs or each other to echo the compas of this fast merengue.
Beatriz, sitting with her brothers and sisters, felt the restlessness of the gathered circle. She had listened to the stories that they told without allowing the words to hook into her mind and take her away from what she always thought about. She looked at the lanterns glow and began to speak in her low voice. Everyone around the circle moved closer and stilled themselves. Beatriz didn't speak often. This story was not going to be one of the verde tales that her brothers loved to laugh about. Beatriz was going to tell them about the family. Doña Tomasa moved her chair into the circle. Even the domino players quieted down. The only ones who did not join the hushed group were Ramonita, her trio, and Amalia, who were in the middle of a fast groove.
"Iris desde pequeqa habia trabajado con sus manos. She would build cities made of mud, or as she grew older sew enormous quilts. Hers was a gift that the people recognized around these parts for miles. They would come to ask for shawls and baby clothes for baptisms and communions. Nonin and Paul were congratulated on Iris' gift by their neighbors. Nonin imagined though that everyone was laughing at her fortune, not really envying it."
Amalia and Ramonita were in conversation. Ramonita ripped through scales with her accordion and Amalia shook her waist in answer. Amalia opened her eyes and looked into the singers' muddy brown eyes.
Immediately Ramonita flourished a caress. She was excited by this beautiful young woman in front of her who moved directed by her fingers. She let out a small growl in the middle of the song's phrase, sure that the family was not listening to the music at that moment. Amalia continued to dance but slowly backed away from the intensity of Ramonita's voice. She danced but slowly turned to look in the direction of the domino game. She moved her shoulders, but let her eyes stop briefly at Yuni's face concentrating on the patterns made by the black dots on the white frames. She moved her feet from side to side, but sus ojos saltaron to Dulce's face. Dulce's eyes caught inside of hers pooled with tenderness.
Dulce took a half step in Amalia's direction, but stopped herself. She took off her hat and fanned her face. She sipped a little bit of beer and tried not to run over to where the music was blaring, fighting for the attention of Amalia, the lone dancer. She saw that most of the family was gathered around Beatriz now and that the music held only those strongly enchanted in its circle.
It stopped. Ramonita took another break. Amalia came over to sit by her abuela and listen to her tia.
Dulce went over to see which dominos William held in his hands. She tried to catch Amalia's face again, now almost directly opposite her.
Amalia concentrated on the light, letting her heartbeat become soft and low like the light. She decided that she would not move from her abuelas side for the rest of the night.
"She was a blessed child, but Nonin did not see the blessing. Her daughter could not answer her questions, could not hear her orders. She did things well enough once taught, but you had to stand in front of her to get her attention. And there were times that teje que teje she would not notice anyone standing in front of her for hours. Iris made beautiful shapes, intricate and colorful, but she refused to say a word all throughout her childhood."
Ramonita stopped to listen to Beatriz while she ate some queso frito and mangu. She decided she could take a longer break this time. Amalia did not look like she would get up anytime soon and the rest of the dancers were tired out. She eyed one of the faded hammocks hanging between two trees at the edge of the circle of lights that the lanterns gave. She nodded over at her boys as they headed towards the game. Piling on a second plate of mangu she headed over to the trees.
Amalia watched the large shadow of La Flaca disappear into the darkness. She couldn't concentrate on the story. Her blood had slowed but her mind was entranced by the shadows that leapt around her. Everywhere she looked people's faces grew deep recesses or were hollowed out by the night that was coming for its visit. She looked over at the game. Tio William's bent head made her think of prayer and funerals. His eyes had deep shadowy rivers under them. She crossed herself. Her eyes attempted the climb upwards from his head towards the serious face under the bowler hat; she knew that Dulce was trying to ignore her eyes; that the music had excited her, too; that it had made her remember, but she couldn't see those eyes under the hat's brim.
Dulce flicked her hands, trying not to hear the laughter of that afternoon in the supply room. She pulled her hat lower and thought about what she had just seen. Ramonita and Amalia had turned that public roaring merengue into something intimate and private. But, Amalia had left the area in front of the band quickly. There was no reason for her to be upset; she looked down at Wiliam's hand hesitating over a two/five and looked over at the four ends of the worldly cross that lay on the dented table. Fives and twos on all sides. She thought about what she would do with the domino; where would she place it.
The ropes that held the hammock were frayed and Ramonita groaned as she bent to arrange herself on it while balancing the two plates. Next week she would be in the capital signing the final contracts with the hotels there to play for the tourists for the New Year's celebration. She settled fully on the low hammock and went over her calculations. It had been a long time since she could think out her future like this. The past few years had been non-stop family celebrations; weddings, confirmations, birthday parties. Once she had found two men who were steady and understood that she wasn't looking for advances, that she just wanted to play the music, it had been hard for her to have time to herself. All the local families in the province wanted her to come and play for them. It was true that she would have to stop doing this; in fact she only played this one because it was for Doña Linares.
When Virginia had kicked her out of the house in Higuey, she had wandered all over the roads in La Romana eating hierba and beginning to talk to herself. Because she had come from Virginia's house no one opened their doors to her. She couldn't even explain to them that she hadn't been a puta. That she lived in the house but did not take part of the trade. Because she couldn't explain Virginia. Not even to herself. Doña Tomasa was tending to the store that day, years back. She was already too old to be working at that kind of job, but she was stubborn. People said that the Linares mom did not want any of her boys stepping into that store and dying like her husband, Saturnino had. When Ramonita asked for una limosna, Doña Tomasa spit by her feet and Ramonita began to turn away. But the old woman had said wait and handed her a broom. That was a beginning and the only reason she had moved away was because Virginia had started coming around again.
Tomasa leaned into her chair, enjoying the sound of Beatrizs voice. She thought of her mother, not able to call her Iris in her mind even now when she felt that she was so close to seeing her. Ay, Mama. I worry so much. How can I leave them now when so many of them need me. Divorces, mama and other things that I know you never knew of. And William, he's going to go before I get there, Mama, I can see it. Eso no es justo. She rubbed her eyes and immediately Bernabe's wife asked if there was something wrong, Teresa handed her a paquelo with agua florida, Ermelinda, Jose and Ana's daughter asked if she could get her some water. She took a deep breath and accepted the tin cup. She leaned back and forced herself to look calm. This is all she could do for them.
"Nonin felt that Iris obstinately refused to talk. El Padre Mikael y los vecinos argued that the child could not have such an intention. But, Nonin was convinced that Iris could talk if she wanted. She would mutter to her all day while she cleaned the house, trying to shame her into speaking, into giving up this game. When Iris was in her twenties, her mother decided to marry her to Cangrejo. No one had ever taken that man seriously. He had more money than the district judge, it's true, but he was always gruff, ever ready to curse, or spit rather than talk or smile. He was also sixty and had never been married. Nonin told Iris that if she wasn't going to open her mouth then she would have to satisfy herself with Cangrejo for a husband, because no one else would take her no matter how beautifully she crocheted."
Amalia sighed heavily and looked back over at Yuni. This time
she kept her eyes on his frame. Watched him hunched over the
game, that awful vein of his popping at his neck. How many fights
had they had since the wedding; quiet, whispered arguments, but
pretty soon she felt he would not hold himself back, not even
for abuela. He bragged about the store. He gritted his teeth
and hissed that "was the only good thing" he had gotten
out of the wedding. She listened to the story of her bisabuela
her eyes no longer looking at the shadows or searching for Dulce's
The wedding took place without a word of protest from Iris. She nodded when the priest asked her the question and with that nod, the marriage was done. During the first month the neighbors came by to visit. They saw Iris sweeping the only concrete floor for miles around; they saw her washing clothes in an aluminum tub; they saw her feeding the chickens and pigs in the mornings. She still did not talk.
Cangrejo was never there. The older women tried to talk to her con confianza about the problems that a new wife may have, but Iris showed no signs that she knew what they were hinting at. Nonin came after a few months to quiet the talk of the other women. She had done her duty as a mother, more than that, because she had been able to get her a husband, but the metidos wouldnt be satisfied until she visited her newly wed daughter. The day she came by her daughter spoke for the first time.
Ramonita coughed to dislodge the lump of platano she felt in her throat. She thought about what it had been like to work and be accepted here with Doña Tomasa after those awful days on the road and after those awful years with Virginia. She hadn't told la seqora anything about her past. For a while she had been able to push it far enough away from her consciousness that when Virginia actually showed up at the store, she had a moment of disconnection.
"You're not going to act like you don't know me." But Virginia easily, harshly brought her back to her senses. The broom in her hands had felt like a tree. The small square room with its shelves of cartons and cans expanded. Her tongue a dead animal, she pointed to the door, but Virginia laughed. "You're not going to get rid of me. Remember, you always invite me in. You need me. You cannot make it on your own."
She heard Doña Tomasa moving around in the room behind the store. She was not supposed to wait on customers, that was still the responsibility of la seqora and Ramonita was afraid that she would hear Virginia's laughter and think she was a customer. Virginia knocked some of the cartons of the nearest shelf. "You're clumsy remember. You need some training in grace and manners. I want you to succeed, don't get me wrong. I'm only looking out for your best. No one will want you around if you don't learn these things." Ramonita rushed to pick up the cartons and put them back on the shelf. She forgot the broom and jumped when she heard the crash. "You misunderstood what I told you. I didn't want you to leave. I wouldn't allow a defenseless woman like you to fend for herself out there. Let me help you; come with me." "Ramonita, que pasa? Me necesitas?" She could hear Doña Tomasa washing her hands with the watering can she kept at the door to the supply room. Soon she would tie on the delantar and wipe her hands. Then she would head out to the store front in case customers came by. "No, seqora." "You wont last here with that old lady. She'll see how you are. You'll do something wrong and offend her."
Ramonita had to tell her that she would come back. Doña Tomasa made it to the store room before Virginia left, though. Virginia made a show of buying some items keeping her eyes on Doña Tomasa and smiling. There had been a couple of visits like that one throughout the months she spent with the Linares. Ramonita leaned back into the hammock, letting the empty plastic plates slip to the ground. She knew, now, that she didn,t need Virginia to teach her how to act. She had been invited to many homes to sing and play. Behind her accordion, no one questioned her past, or the way she behaved. She was allowed many liberties as a merenguera. Sometimes she had to earn her respect the hard way, but she was dependent on no-one but herself. Soon her life would be different; she would reach a higher scale and be farther from Virginia and the people who had turned their backs on her. Solita. Asi iba a llegar. She knew how to be careful. She could twist her emotions into the purest notes of fast, hard music and share with other people without them even noticing how much they too had given.
Ramonita's snore interrupted the quiet anticipation around Beatriz. Everyone laughed, their bodies loose and open to the delight of release. Tato blurted out the opening lines of his story about the loudest snores he had ever heard and heads turned toward him happy to continue this mood. Doña Tomasa intervened, though. Coughing, she asked Beatriz what Iris had said to her mother; "what were that child's first words?" "He's dead." Iris got up from her chair and put away her needles. She walked over to the bedroom and opened the door. Nonin made it to the door through a fog of shock and fear. Lying on the bed was the old man, Cangrejo. Iris continued to speak in a rush of words that sounded foreign to Nonin who was looking at her daughter with wide open eyes. Iris continued to speak throughout the preparation for Cangrejos funeral. She told the women and the men gathered in the house about her wedding night while her mother prayed in silent tears. Iris also talked about the growing baby inside her stomach. The neighbors covered their ears, trying not let all of those words tangle inside their heads. Iris spoke about the way her tongue had dislodged and unfurled from her mouth in her first words. She explained to everyone that she had sat in the chair and gone about her chores trying to quiet the restlessness of the freed muscle inside her mouth. She told them that she hadn't known how to control it or if it would make any sense once sounds came out, that's why she hadn't shared her news earlier. Nonin stared through the entierro not even mumbling the words of prayer that would lay the old man to rest."
Amalia sighed and walked over to the room she slept in. She had to pass the domino game and couldn't help looking over. Yuni was there still. There had been another change of partners during the story and now William and two other men sat at the table while Chepo looked on behind them. Dulce was standing among that crowd. Amalia looked at Yuni; he was strong and healthy, just a little over his weight, but fit for his 45 years. She didn't bother looking over at Dulce.
Dulce tensed while Amalia glanced over at the game. Then she saw her walk into one of the houses behind the store. She tried to focus on the game again, but the dots came together in front of her without making sense. She left the game.
Amalia's room vibrated with the sound of whispered prayers. Tia Olivera, la unica hija de Doña Tomasa presente durante la fiesta que no estaba en el circulo de cuentos, led some of her nieces and friends in a prayer for lost souls. None of them moved as Amalia walked in the room. They did not greet Dulce when she too entered. There were candles all over the room and the heaviness of the shadows slumped Amalia's shoulders. She looked at the wall. The shadows were all half her size, kneeling in reverent prayer. She noticed Dulce's shadow, tall and still by the door. She knew Dulce wouldn't come in but she wished that somehow, she could. She didn't know how to continue her wish, so she stared at the shadows.
Startled from her sleep, Ramonita jumped up to her feet and signaled to the two men in her band. She shouldn't have let herself get so comfortable. Cochina, she mumbled to herself as she picked up the two greasy plates from the ground. She must have made a sight to the family here with her babas falling all over her chin and probably roncando. Like Virginia said, she wasn't fit for company. This is not what she was hired for.
The music started again. Dulce's shadow began to pulse to the sounds that seemed to come from so far away. Amalia thought of Iris' awful husband dead on their wedding night and shuddered. She watched Dulce's shadow put her arms around her shadow's shoulders. She felt comforted. She watched Dulce and Amalia on the wall sway slowly as if the candlelight were conducting them instead of the music. Ramonita's voice flared out with its fiery force. She watched the shadows speed up their pasos. Ramonita played with anger, but the music sounded joyous and passionate. In the room with the shadows the prayers increased in volume.
"And then she built first one wooden room behind the old concrete house. Then another. I was born in the first one. Mama converted the room into a store. She sold her crocheted quilts, clothes, manteles, savanas. When I married your father," here Doña Tomasa looked at Teresa, "he insisted on her retiring. He took over and sold the usual supplies of the bodegas. Mamm went to sleep in the second room that he built so she wouldn't be bothered by the noise of people coming in to buy, trade or gossip. Then Dagoberto died and I married your father," here she looked around at the grown children in front of her, "Saturnino closed the store and worked the land that we have all around us. It is small, but bountiful. When you were born," she looked at Ana who was nursing her smallest child, "your Abuela died and your Papa decided to take the store over. He thought he would be making her spirit happy, but he died. That is why I let none of you open that store again."
"Doña Tomasa, es su fiesta, no es tiempo de lloriquear
"Aunque sea, hice lo que pude por ella." Doña Tomasa said leaned back in her chair. She rubbed the shawl her mother had made her that she wore now around her shoulders with her wrinkled fingers.
"My mother's work is on exhibit here at this gallery."
The centerpiece was a figurine of two shadows dancing. You could hear the fast riff of a merengue in the way the hips were placed. You could see the love in the placement of the hands and the care that the artist had taken to paint them. The title of the piece was "Dulce and Amalia."