I’m a minister’s daughter. The fact slips out, you’ll note, before my name, but, being a woman, what’s in a name? Where there’s life there’s marriage, truly made in heaven whether or not it works out hereabouts.
I went to a church school, of which my father was a trustee, at half price, and got almost through my first full year, general culture with Bible and Lutheran history thrown in, when I stayed out all night in a car with a fellow named Adam (a name lost, for some reason, on my father).
My father resigned his trusteeship, and I, home in disgrace, missed two periods.
I shall never be able to hold my head up again, Aunt Trudy said when I began to get noisily sick after each day’s orange juice and corn flakes and my morning cigarette, smoked conveniently in the bathroom.
You will be quite proud taking your nephew or niece out for an airing, my father assured her. When the time comes.
Suffer the little children. They never had to, and the time never came. The third full moon, all was as usual. But you can see from the foregoing that my aunt is all practical sense and worldly wisdom and my father well and truly gone in Christian charity. How his sad ladies, who came to him to assuage their outraged souls, could have anguished over him. I can see Mrs. Peale, who had never in her whole life allowed her hair to be cut (and did have a bat caught in it once) washing his feet and drying them with her bat-black hair.
For a whole year I played our piano four-six-eight hours a day. I once showed promise as a pianist; should anyone think, however, to turn this to practical or salvational use, let him be warned that my touch on a church organ opens a vision of chaos before the Lord sorted it out and gave us melody. No, I was sent off to become a music teacher, but I share a faith in providence with my father, though more contained, and never believed that plan would come to anything either. And so, for a year while the minister’s daughter played away on the Baldwin upright, I went from Carnegie Hall to an intimate little supper club, from Casablanca and the last plane out to a low joint on a waterfront, and then on to the big time and the big love, always one and the same in the end.
No word from that fellow Adam, owner of the car, setting for my fall from grace. He was merely a deus ex machina, a title it gives me pleasure to bestow when somebody asks for it.
You find me at 20 still going to Firemen’s Carnivals for my summertime recreation. Sometimes with Mary Ella, sometimes with Charles Reese. If Mary Ella is my best friend, we call Charlie the boy friend. They are birds in hand, there are no bushes around. Furthermore, a minister’s daughter besmirched may, in the abstract, have a melancholy appeal; but I, during my recent trouble, had gained 30 unabstract pounds. I was in no shape to beat bushes, even if there’d been some.
Firemen have carnivals to raise money to buy new fire-trucks. Hartfield had one truck, but would have been better able to deal with, say, arson—a rash of arson, fires set in all four corners of the town—with a second truck. When Taggart’s furniture factory went up in smoke and the Monsie paint works let out a roar, Hartfield could offer only one truck. Most of the volunteers, who had not only to risk their lives but supply their own transportation, hitched rides in Summers’s granite and marble truck,
This digression is not to draw attention away from myself— a minister’s daughter expelled from a church school cannot, no matter how self-effacing, hope for that—but to suggest how supporting a cause, and harmless diversion, can be combined. A church bazaar may seem a modest example, but it will serve to show how far-reaching the consequences may be when you get to work making money in a good cause. Sell kisses in exchange for war savings stamps, and you have Milton Frontz helping himself to the bank uniform fund to buy up all the kissing Ida Weaver could muster. Robbing Peter to pay Paul, and from her he went on to Leah Toole and Shirley Trout; and had to give up a promising career teaching instrumental music in the public schools to marry a girl from Sonestown and go to work in her father’s seed and grain store. When next you mouth that bit about charity beginning at home, spare a thought for how you plan to confine it, should the need arise.
Twenty years old, looping the loop with Charlie Reese. Don’t pity me, ladies of the Ladies’ Aid or ladies of the Ladies’ Auxiliary or ladies of the Altar Guild. Or you, Mary Ella, in hot pursuit of your Bachelor of Arts. From the top of the ferris wheel swinging back and forth until Charlie says he won’t ever again get up on one of those things with me, you all look like wind-up dolls, pin-headed, flounced, legless. I shout at you: there’s far better coming my way than any of you would dare dream of. To which Charlie says: everybody’s looking at us. And nothing could better please me.
In my 20th year I’m about to make a real splash, no figure of speech: public notice given and taken that I am a minister’s daughter par excellence (one year of Missionary School French, cut short by a month), an example, a bay tree in a field of laboring lilies, gluttonous prodigal and the foolish lieabed unvirgin.
The carnival runs all week, and I am prone to faithfulness, but on Thursday I think I won’t go. Charlie, who’s in business with his father (farm insurance) has to go over the books; Mary Ella has a date with some person from Monsie, who goes to Yale. But by nine-thirty (the parsonage is a mere two blocks away from the firemen’s lot) the music gets to me. How many times can you listen to Tales from the Vienna Woods and not hope that this time somebody will ask you to waltz?
And so on July 19—a Thursday—four years after the end of a war that made every female imagine herself capable of infinite physical endurance (even under torture I would never, nor would you, give away the whereabouts of the partisans) and all men imminently mortal, thus heroes, I achieved fate. Fate is not something that overtakes you, nor do you slide on it like a banana peel; no, you see, looking back over your shoulder, that you have after all not wasted a minute.
As fate would have it, I was in prime condition that evening. I’d slept till noon, then had a three-egged omelet chock full of leftover ham bits, toast, a whole canteloupe, followed by three hours’ strenuous exercise on the piano, a long bath, a short nap, two cokes while my hair dried in pincurls, and a wholesome dinner. I had no clean underwear, so quite practically thought to put on my new bathing suit under my blue peasant blouse and broom-stick skirt. My new suit was a deep plum colour which set off my absolutely white arms, legs, thighs, back and face—I was never up early enough to get touched by the sun—and when my hair was dry I fluffed it out, pinned up the sides so that the gold loop earrings would show. And topped it off with a silk gardenia that I’d picked up in the odds-and-ends barrel at the Christmas bazaar,
Common, said Aunt Trudy.
I don’t smoke in public, I reassured her.
You don’t smoke at all, my father said, and smiled.
I accepted his smile as his blessing and went off tranquil in spirit.
I had the ferris wheel to myself. So, when I bought a ticket for a second go-around I said to the fellow who was collecting them and pulling the switch, When I get to the top, let me sit there a minute. To get my bearings.
He said: Sure.
Business not so good tonight, I added graciously as he put the bar across to hold me in my seat.
Midweek, he agreed. But the weather’s with us this time.
Last week over to Clarkstown, four nights of rain. Listen, he said peering closer, You just want to sit up there don’t you? Just for the view. You aren’t planning any funny business.
What kind of funny business would I plan alone, I asked him.
Well, he told me, there’s a first time. It’s never happened to me of course. And it’d be worse in a small town like this.
I agreed that most things were.
In Chicago, he told me, where it happened—the one incident I know about for sure—the police just took charge. The body wasn’t even claimed so no questions asked. People jump in rivers and in front of buses, in cities you get used to that sort of thing. But in the little places somebody’d be sure to ask, didn’t you notice nothing strange?
There’s nothing strange about me, I said. Then, because everybody’s got a right to his own opinion: Is there?
He looked me over and thought for a minute and finally said, I guess not.
What’s your name, I asked him, and he told me: Mick.
He didn’t ask for my name. But he did let me sit in peace and quiet at the top for a while, and brought me back to earth nice and easy. But up there in the sky I reviewed the scene below, and my situation, and came to a conclusion: life is a carnival (set that beside my father’s favorite idea of life as a tightrope, God’s love the net underneath just in case), and I wanted my part in it.
I bought a hot dog and wandered over to the Dunker. This game had been the high school gym teacher’s idea, a generous offer of the cheerleaders plus any other females willing to be, not kissed, but dunked. A simple setup, involving little expense: water storage drum (left over from wartime dreams of incendiary attacks), water of course, a board extended out over same, netting around the whole business, and a large sheet with a doughnut painted on it. The hole, of course, cut out. The point, as you may have guessed, was to pitch a baseball through that hole, at which very instant the dunker (Harvey Poust, well padded against misfired balls and hidden by the sheet) simply tipped the board forward, dumping the mermaid into the pool. Magic and wishful thinking: unrequited lust in the heart of the pitcher, placated vanity for the females in their sleek molded swim suits, another quarter for the firetruck.
Unastonished, I calmly accepted the fact as something I’d known from the half hour I’d spent in the tub that very afternoon, that every cheerleader and other volunteer female save one—Lana Long, thin but tough from driving a tractor days, calling at square dances nights—had come down with summer colds. There were four dunkers lined up waiting a turn and one dunkee, and she was losing pep fast. Also, who wants to see the same splash over and over; even for a quarter you want a little bit of choice.
I went up to Morris Dewire, just two years older than me but already a teller at the Grange Bank, and said: You could use some help.
We sure could, he said. Guess we’ll close this thing up for the night. Some of the mothers are pretty sore about all those girls catching cold in mid-July.
I’m here to offer my services, I said. And, to set his mind at rest: I don’t take cold easily.
We’re closing up, he said, and started towards the four hopefuls to give them their quarters back.
I thought fast. Pulled up my skirt to show I’d come prepared, and said to him that I really meant it, I wanted to do my part for the new firetruck. Adding, I can swim.
Water’s only three feet deep, he said.
I said, Let’s not waste time arguing, and peeled off blouse and skirt to show I meant business. Hand it to the gentlemen waiting, they applauded and whistled and added their pleas to mine: Let her do it, Morry, come on Morry, let her do it.
And I did. There I was, down straight from the top of the ferris wheel to the spotlighted diving board. Don’t think success is always up.
And further down I went, and the water was really four feet deep. Enough to paddle around in. It came over me, under me, through the wet and the spotlight that seemed to have dropped right in with me to the bottom of the pool, that these people—gentlemen all—were owed something more than a quick splash. I began to swim around, a rendition of Esther Williams (remember that silk gardenia I’d stuck to the top of my head, and the loopy earrings), and then barked like a seal and clapped my hands and arms like fins.
Throw her a fish, somebody yelled. They got the point, and the crowd was growing. It was my night. Nobody cared anymore about how soon I’d get out, to be dunked again. Nobody but Lana who was standing by the board, wrapped in a towel, arms folded, lips blue. Come on in, I yelled to her generously, and she just turned and walked away. Out of sight, out of mind: nobody called to her to come back.
Till eleven or thereabouts I was dunked or did my act— sank at one point to the bottom, holding my breath so long that the crowd got a little quiet, nervous maybe, maybe at last I’d gone too far—but I surfaced like a geyser, blew water and kisses left and right to more and louder shouts and whistles.
Morris made me quit finally. I could see he had at the very least mixed feelings about all this, but said okay I could come back the next night.
You need some warming up.
It was not my inner voice, it was an outer one coming at me from a face I’d seen three nights running at the cotton candy concession. Hair black, eyes blacker, taller than me but thin, he looked about as much at home twirling that pink spun sugar around a paper cone as—it hit me, the accord between us, which was the vast discrepancy between our fact or content and our circumstances or form—I did sitting on that board in a bathing suit.
Wrap me up in cotton candy, I told him.
I’m gonna warm you inside first, he said.
I thought he probably meant coffee, maybe buy me a cup at one of the stands. People were by now homeward bound, except for those who were playing bingo in the big tent. But he moved me past the places of public refreshment, in the direction of the section of the firemen’s lot where the trailers were parked. There were four or five of them; the fellows who put up and take down the rides and their families, if they have any, live in them. It used to be, before the days of homes-on-wheels, that people like that stayed at one of the three boarding houses in town. These days they carry their houses on their backs.
This is mine, he said. I’ve got something on the stove warm you up fast.
I’d always wanted to see the inside of one of those things, but my one chance, it would seem, and I didn’t look, Or didn’t see what I was looking at. It was small and there was one of everything—a comment on the redundancy of your average house furnishings where, except in the private sector, bath and kitchen, things tend to run, at a minimum, in pairs, But this place had one chair, one couch, one table, one lamp and so on. Still, I noted, me on the couch, wrapped in an Indian blanket, him on the chair at the table, each with a bowl of chili, enough to go around.
And I was on fire. I breathed heavily, gasped, opened my mouth wide to let in more cool air, let out more heat. I expected to see, where once before water had spouted forth, flames. A case of arson right in my own throat, the arsonist sitting across from me eating away—though stuffing his mouth between bites with something that looked like yellowing cardboard, after the next bite taking a long swig of beer,
He noticed my distress and put his own glass to my lips.
You don’t eat hot chili like it was ice cream, he told me, a fact I shall evermore remember.
I can’t taste anything, I said. My mouth’s burned to a crisp, I can’t even feel my tongue or my lips.
He examined both thoughtfully. He then put his lips on mine, then his tongue pushed right through and rested on my tongue. It cooled me, love comes with cold not heat, passion a refreshing blizzard in a desert.
When I got the chance, I told him forthrightly: I can’t feel a thing.
He gave me a glass of beer of my own. Inside the blanket I was getting warmer, though not yet so warm as my mouth. He promised: you’ll be okay in an hour.
In 15 minutes I was half asleep, with the swimming and the warming and the beer and the nice blanket that had a peculiar but not unpleasant odor.
He’s called Johnny Parrot. His real name is Juan Manuel Villa Pancho Cortez Perez. You think that has the ring of malarkey? For me sheer poetry: I choose to believe, and call it truth.
He shows me a picture of his mother, dark hair piled high, a fancy comb holding the lace mantilla in place. Her eyes look sadly into mine, but her head is held at a high proud angle. I look sadly and proudly back. He sees at once a certain resemblance:
She was a great lady, you know, like a member of an important family. Rich, too. You remind me of her.
Struck to the heart by that, I murmur: of noble birth.
That’s it, he says. But she married my father, and he was poor and not in a class with her. So her family wouldn’t have nothing to do with her after that. Even after my father went off to fight and got killed, and she died from the shock.
Which war was that, I wonder, and he tells me that in Mexico there’s always a war somewhere, nobody bothers to name them. And kids, too, he says. In my family there was sometimes ten or eleven of ‘em. The aunt and uncle who raised me couldn’t hardly keep count, let alone feed us.
Drowsy I can’t take enough of this in to ask certain questions: name of aunt and uncle maybe; or that ten or eleven. Which was it? Sometimes? A sense of random coming and going intrudes but I want to keep a certain grasp on us, a context for us; you can appreciate that a minister’s daughter reclining on a studio couch in a cotton-candy maker’s trailer is at best in a rather tentative social situation. I ask him about Mexico. What is it like, those nameless wars aside?
Actually, he grew up in Texas. And worked, 16 hours a day. He shows me his hands: delicate, long-fingered, burned brown through, I think, to the bone. It is the rough palms he wants me to notice.
His story drives on. So I joined the carnival and worked up through the north and then, when the old lady died—she was married to the guy who really owns the rides—I asked for the candy-cotton machine. Bought it outright. To make ends meet I help the other guys with the rides too, but I own a piece of all this, see. I’m paying off on this here trailer too.
He is a man of enterprise and property. And dreams.
But I’m not stopping here, he says, I’m onto something, listen to this (as though I could stop), I can cook, right? A chili stand. And then a restaurant in a nice town, maybe like this one, only a little bigger, and then another one and another one. All my brothers can cook, we now all got jobs, right. All across the country, north-south, east-west. During the war, you know, them soldiers in San Antone, in this place where my aunt cooks, they love the stuff, especially the guys from Milwaukee. Because they say there they only got sour cabbage and beer, and chili they say goes better with beer. That’s what they say, no joke. So then at last I’m the Chili King,
Now I was sitting quietly through all this, and when he came to that last part he leaps into the air and claps his hands and clicks his heels, as I’ve seen them do at bullfights (in movies, of course).
And throws himself upon me. Drowsing away, next thing I know the wet suit is off and through chapped lips I’m saying, hey, hey, Johnny, Juan. And he’s telling me I’m a milky Venus—he insists I pay attention long enough to see the miraculous contrasts between my stomach and his, my attention too elsewhere to contemplate the aesthetics of contrast: bone against flesh, hair matched to smooth, concave and convex. Toes and fingers only do we seem to have in common: we lace those.
Whatever magic then takes place, blinds his eyes but casts all motes from mine, I look and look, wondering over the fine detail of hair design, the delicate variations of skin tone, the extraordinary variations of thinness—you say thin and think of straight and narrow, but this thinness has hollows, juttings, depths and shadows. He opens his eyes and my careful study pleases him.
The queen of Spain, he tells me. You make a new continent to discover,
And you, I cry, rising to his heights, are the Chili King. King Chili Cortez. Conquistador.
I am as amazed at the things we manage to say as at the things we seem to have done.
Briskly he helps me dress and tells me that he’ll watch my act every night, every night he’ll warm me, inside and out, and before I can gather my facts—we have only two more nights, for instance, and how do you make chili—he sends me on my way.
I continue my side of the conversation, though it falls on deaf ears, the town has en masse gone to sleep, all the way
home, through the front door, past Aunt Trudy, who, I dimly realize, looks suitably concerned, and go up to my room. Within a minute, still dressed, the brain shuts down for the night, and I have slid to my well-deserved rest.
I slept till noon the next day and awoke puzzled. A foreign spirit, you might say, had invaded me. Mexico. To digress briefly, I have heard other people say—Mary Ella, to be precise—that the surest sign of love is a sudden unquenchable interest in a subject heretofore entirely remote, if not just plain dull. As a budding writer (my father’s gentle term for Mary Ella), she has also since informed me that love and novel writing have this propensity in common: you will spend a great deal of time in a library or calling up mere acquaintances or clipping things out of newspapers all in order to saturate your mind with facts once of a tedious irrelevance but now of obsessive concern. Her subject, to give an example, was once greyhound racing. There is not a race track or greyhound (excluding the bus stop in Millersport) within 200 miles of us. But she’d met a man at a party, love at first sight, and he told her he had once—once, not even his present occupation—raised greyhounds, Love did not flourish, but she did once use a few facts in a story about a girl who dreams she is a French princess in the 16th century, when greyhounds were, apparently, used for hunting. Think of everything as material, she finished, offering a philosophical stay against random lunacy.
For me it was Mexico. I’d had two years of Spanish in high school but could recall nothing whatever about wars, Mexican or otherwise. Cortez conquered Mexico after a fight with Montezuma of Marine Corps fame. I went to the public library, one room in back of the firehall, and looked at the two books listed in the catalog under Mexico.
One was the reminiscences of a lady, written in 1880; aside from the difficulties of getting her linen sheets laundered and keeping her maid in line, only one public incident involved her: she was robbed by banditos. They—banditos—seemed rather prevalent, always a subject of speculation and terror, but the drama of her one brief encounter was rather undercut by the lady’s falling at once into a faint.
The other book mentioned revolutions, of which there seemed a recurring number without anything much coming of them. Pancho Villa was a hero—at least to Mexicans of certain political feelings I gathered—and the arrival of a group of American soldiers, while adding to the general confusion, seemed to have made little difference in the way things kept going on.
My obsession was perhaps, at least in part, the cause of my feeling that night that my performance did not live up to my early promise. I felt it even if my expanding audience (big crowd on Friday) didn’t. Two of the cheerleaders plus Lana were back. They were dunked by turns, after posing, hands on hips, legs crossed at knees, bright smile in place, rah-rah-rah—and politely applauded. But I was still the pièce de rèsistance, a phrase more sinned against than sinning, and I could still, as Morris put it, pull ‘em in. Who’s the fish, who the fisherman?
My pleasure was elsewhere. What I imagined doing with arms and legs, the grace of falling, submerging, rising, cavorting, displaying, was now—in my imagination—carried on in another element, Water had ceased to be my natural, my only, ally: I was conscious of being both cold and wet, and my audience no longer seemed filled with astonishment and delight, but were mere gawkers, clamoring for what they didn’t have the refinement to appreciate. What did they see, after all? Not Venus rising, foamy white, nor a queen of anything: just a minister’s daughter sporting about like a seal.
I told Morris at nine-thirty, this is it, absolutely my last time. I have to be home early, I say, tomorrow’s Saturday, the day before Sunday, which is my father’s day to shine. He accepts this, and I make my final dive, my swan song, so noisy and voracious that I think I may have put my back out and seriously strained my lungs. I believe in going a little too far, especially at the last minute. It’s a way to show yourself you’re acting in good faith.
My noble lover, disguised as a cotton candy twirler, the discoverer and conqueror of my lost continent and heir to the empire of cayenne and tortillas, is waiting with my Indian blanket. Don’t think Mrs. Peale and her sister Mrs. Fry, who had heard about my art nouveau, aren’t there, and don’t think they aren’t watching me being lovingly swaddled and, furthermore, don’t think this fact is going to stop with them.
Now he calls me his little love, his cold little fish (never mind the unhappy cold fish, the diminutive gives the phrase a place in love speech). I am cold and wet and tell him so. I take care of that, he says.
Drenched in longing, I am even ready to brave the burning chili for the sake of the thrill of the chill from his beer-cooled mouth.
Inside the trailer, I head for the studio couch and he serves up the chili, plenty of beer and tortillas—you know how to eat it now, right?—and sits in his usual chair. I say usual because we’re getting the ritual worked out, a nice familiar sense of place, where things, animate and otherwise, belong, Still there’s the air of possibilities abounding, foreign territory to be traversed, by word and mouth and anything that comes to hand.
Your father wasn’t a bandido, I say, he was a soldier.
That’s right, he agrees. Dead soldier.
A revolutionary, I say. He fought for the liberation of his people.
I can see this strikes a new note. And that he likes it. He smiles. And nods. For his country, he says.
For his people, I inform him. To free his people from oppression.
That’s right, he agrees.
That’s heroic, I say. Your father died a hero’s death. Your mother was of noble birth.
True, he says. You got it right, just right. I like that.
And many Mexicans, I add, had to flee their country. Settle in Texas. Where they were exploited.
He looks puzzled and I tell him, they had to work too long for too little money.
Right, he says. But if I owned my own business, I wouldn’t work too long. What’s too long when it’s for yourself?
And I see we’re two of a kind. What do I do, after all, but work for myself. For 20 years I’ve worked for myself, and it turns out, for Johnny-Juan too. Every mouthful of food, every piano key struck, every idle phrase—English, Spanish, Bible, French—even the extra poundage and the all-night car sit, it all adds up. Where would I be without it? Not here.
Listen, I say, I told you the story of your life, now here’s mine. You make a little sense of it for my sake (aside to myself: that’s love really and truly, you make a little sense of my life, I’ll put yours together in a telling way). My mother, who is purported to have been a school teacher but with musical interests, died a few weeks after I was born, which may be a lie. My father is a minister, Not on a level with a revolutionist, but he had his moment. He was just a kid, twelve years old, and he was walking down a road with his grandmother. A very devout woman, you see. Anyway, there was a storm coming, and right ahead of them there was this chicken. Walking down the middle of the road like they were. It was struck by lightning. Killed.
My lover looks sorry. My grandmother said: God has spared you to serve him.
My lover nods. This makes sense to him, it seems.
I think I may be an orphan, it would be like my father, find a bundle on the doorstep—people leave them in churches, too, sometimes—and lay claim, And his sister arrives pronto— that’s a Spanish word, right—and raises me. As best she can, grant her that. You’d think I’d feel grateful at least. I don’t. Do you know about the ugly duckling, of course you do, who doesn’t. But you can see quite clearly it’s merely because I am in fact a swan. I can play the piano, No, I mean it, really play, better than anyone in this town, or most towns this size. Should I take up teaching piano? (He shakes his head, he’s in tune).
Learn to cook? He guesses after I’ve waited a fair amount of time for his offer,
I shake my head. Guess again.
You don’t look like a swan, he says next. I don’t like their long necks. You don’t want to be a swan.
Is my love feeble-minded? I decide on the spot that I do not care. Juan, I tell him, you are of noble birth, at least partially. And who knows who I am, except a minister’s daughter, which may not be true, after all. So who am I? Who are you?
You are not a duck, he says. I don’t think you look like a swan either. You’re my little fish, okay.
I’m the Queen of Spain, I correct him. He nods, smiling.
That’s true too, he agrees.
And you’re the King of Chili, I say, and we both laugh. Royalty, I tell him. The one and only original royal family.
He bounds out of his chair, bows, stands up, and salutes. Anything you say, he says, and begins unwrapping me.
For half an hour I didn’t worry about who I was. But then, as he seemed about to drift off into sleep and I was athirst for more of what I was beginning to dimly conceive of as our life, shall I call it, I recollected the remark about my learning to cook.
How do you make chili, I asked him.
Oh, he mumbled, you get a little beef, beans, cayenne pepper, whatever. It comes to you as you go along, do you need it a little hotter this time maybe. You know. Or you can bake it with corn meal maybe, or add a tomato. You know,
No, I don’t, I said, and sat up. You got a pencil and paper? I want to write this down exactly.
You can’t write it down exactly, he told me. You just do it, okay.
Okay for you, I said, but not enough for me to go by.
I don’t carry around paper and pencil, why should I?
I’ll bring some tomorrow. Listen, Juan, I’m not going to be dunked tomorrow night. I quit.
How come, he said. They like you. I like you.
It’ll give us more time to think, I told him. You can close up the cotton stand and we can sit here and talk things over.
Not on Saturday, he said. Not on your life. My best night, my money for a week shot in the ass if I don’t work Saturdays.
I can see his point. If my father were given to seeing his work in this light, he’d have to say the same thing about Sunday.
Then I’ll work with you, I promised. We’ll sell twice as much. Then we can think.
What is it you think about, he asked. We do fine, what is this thinking we got to do all of a sudden?
Plans, I told him. Cooking. How you make chili. And there must be things besides chili you can make. Things I can learn to make. For the restaurant.
That restaurant, I made it up, he told me. Listen, I don’t know about restaurants. I get to talking sometimes, like how it would be nice if things were different. I know how to make chili because my mother taught me,
Your aunt, I corrected, sticking to his story. You meant you planned to have a restaurant. But listen, in the meantime you could make chili and sell it instead of cotton candy. You could use the trailer as a kitchen. Make more money and it would be something different for people. And save money for the restaurant.
You’re a crazy girl, he said. This is what you mean about thinking?
I nodded, I’ll do lots of thinking, I promised.
Okay, okay. You think then.
It is clear from the way he wraps his arms around himself and closes his eyes that he is prepared to sleep and that I may as well go do my thinking elsewhere. Some people might have been, in the circumstances, offended by his behavior. But I have usually got my wits about me—no time for hurt feelings, which get you absolutely nowhere—and I took myself home on the double.
On Saturday morning I was up early and packing, behind closed doors, needless to say. I stopped now and then to compose a note to my father, then one to my aunt to break it gently to my father, then one to both of them.
I can no longer accept your charity. I must make my own way in this world. Teaching piano is out of the question, I haven’t the patience. I am going to learn to cook and support myself that way.
Your loving daughter
P. S. I expect to marry soon.
Dear Aunt Trudy,
I can trust you to persuade Father that my leaving is the best thing. I do not wish to bring more disgrace on either of you. My life’s work is cut out for me elsewhere. Your cooking has been a great inspiration,
Your grateful niece
Dear Father and Aunt Trudy,
You cannot expect a person of 20 to feel her life is over. I cannot live on your bounty and blasted hopes forever. I am strong and healthy and not entirely without ambition and forethought no matter what my past life may have led all of us to believe. I have come to my senses, and you are not to worry. I will keep in touch, and if all goes well, will be back next July with a nappy surprise for you both.
This last note I didn’t sign. When the time came, I couldn’t choose from among them, so left all three. While Aunt Trudy napped and my father meditated (dozed), I carried the suitcases, bought two years before for my hopeful trip to school, to the garage. I ate my last plain American style supper, put my napkin into its ring—a poignant moment, I imagined it remaining there forever as a memorial to my departed appetite—and offered to wash the dishes. My aunt looked surprised and I felt that perhaps I had given the game away, but she let me do the job and went out to sit on the porch where she was soon joined by Mrs. Peale and Mrs. Fry.
So I went to my father’s study and, just sticking my head around the door, told him I was going to the movies. Though he himself has been to only two, The Life of Christ and The Wizard of Oz (the last for my sake), he said he hoped I would enjoy myself, what was playing? Thinking fast, I told him Gone with the Wind, four hours long, don’t wait up for me.
And went out the back door, and up the alley to Academy Street, where I could cut through the school playground to the carnival lot.
Are you surprised that the candy-cotton stand was closed up? That the trailer was empty? That my royal lover, my discoverer, the entrepreneur of hearts and chili, had lit out, week’s salary still owed him (to show what an effect I’d had), and that I charged around that carnival lot like a maddened bull—where are you, you picador, you torreador, you matador, conquistador, bandido—and learn at last from Mick that Johnny Parrot had indeed flown his perch, never owned his perch to start with, left no word—adios, amiga? can’t you even spare that—and no, he will not let me go up on the ferris wheel to reproduce the Chicago incident. And I rush then to the dunking pool, push my way through, knock Lana to the side, and make my lover’s leap, fully clothed, head first, into four feet of water. Mild concussion.
Of course I’m rescued. Carried home stunned but conscious that Morry has me under the arms and a fireman named Figels by the legs—and put to bed, first derobed by Aunt Trudy, who has quickly read and just as quickly destroyed my three notes, Has also discovered empty closet and bureau drawers and, learning from my delirium where the suitcases are hidden, has lugged both upstairs and unpacked them. Call her my guardian angel, if you will.
How did such a thing happen at the movies, my father does wonder.
I remain in bed a week, am confined to the limits of the porch for a second week. Concussion wears off gradually but inexorably, like the common cold. Don’t hope to die from it or even bear a scar.
This story—just another story about an abandoned woman you fear, how many more times and with what minor variations will she play this tune, a dreary sense of dèjà vu overtakes you?—does not end here. The foregoing is merely the prelude.
Within two months, I realize I have quite a lot to show for it. But even before that amount of time elapses, the memory of chili mixed with desire has sent me into my aunt’s kitchen. And if the local library cannot come up with anything reliable about Mexico, the county library in Millersport is a treasury of unread books. Travelers in Mexico eat, not just worry about laundry and banditos, and food takes one’s mind off the latter, in my own case as well as theirs. I hear about tamales and frijoles and red peppers: ancho, mulato, pasilla, chipotle, morita. The green have softer names: serrano, jalapeno, poblano, quero, valenciano. Then there are exotic matters involving the avocado (never one seen in Hartfield) and your common pumpkin. Add to that the refinements on your run-of-the-yard chicken. Early explorers (what dinner parties Montezuma must have given, though not enough to appease the appetite of a Cortez perhaps) run on for pages about the food; when once your course is set, there’s no skipping it.
I discovered a small grocery store in the alley behind the Millersport court house. The Fernandez family ran it, and though they had to supply their usual customers with Campbell’s soup and Heinz’s beans, they had their own way of getting certain necessary and validating ingredients for the food they themselves ate. I spent hours with Mrs. Fernandez, followed by hours in my aunt’s kitchen. Mrs. Fernandez let me in on a big secret: in genuine Mexican chili, no beans and no tomatoes. On the other hand, the vulgar way of identifying the extremity of your response to chili goes in a nice progression: four alarm, five alarm, six alarm—beyond is total conflagration, you don’t live to speak of it.
After the initial shock—heartburn, acute indigestion, incipient ulcer—both aunt and father began to enjoy my exciting, savory, startling, and unpredictable repertoire (so long as there was plenty of iced tea and mashed potatoes). I soared to new heights, hit the high note with a chicken dish— chocolate sauce on chicken, cried my aunt—moule sauce, I murmured. And gave up the piano for the kitchen, the practicing of scales for grinding, pounding, pestling.
Appropriately, it was Mrs. Fernandez who proclaimed the annunciation, Too occupied to notice, eating too regularly (noble Mexican families eat five meals a day, I was living up to my title) to worry about increasing girth, I confess to some surprise when she said one cool November afternoon over the chocolate (not cocoa, you understand, but the royal drink of pre-Columbian times, sweetened with honey and beaten frothy) that I was doing well, and patted my high round stomach.
Six months she guessed. And I began to count backwards swiftly and had to say closer to four actually. You may think my response rather casual; remember my past experience.
Then twins maybe, she said. I took that home to mull over.
Strange that mere cornflakes would make me ill the first and false time. Now the true and irreversible effect of cause merely increased appetite, energy, and cheer. Never had I so relentlessly poked cloves into apples and oranges for the Christmas Bazaar; and volunteered to cook a special Mexican lunch, make a pinata, teach the junior choir a Mexican carol. And be Mary in the pageant? You imagine they would see the inevitability right before their eyes? Oh ye of little faith. No, a high school senior, slim and pale and virginal, no fruit of the womb to startle or confound, as usual laid the babe swaddled in old Mrs. Figels’s cradle.
The week before Christmas I had got round to visiting Dr. Zell. While not willing to support unequivocally Mrs. Fernandez’s prediction of ultra-fruitfulness, he did agree that this time the bay indeed flourished: expect the fruit in May.
I decided to keep the matter to myself (after contemplating the appropriateness of announcing the event on Christmas Eve), There had been no comment so far on my weight—my cooking had offered an explanation should one be required— and the household had abandoned itself to a certain easy rhythm. Aunt Trudy, too, was putting some flesh on her bones and offering now and then to help out in the kitchen: chopping peppers and onions. Breakfast was the only meal she any longer took sole responsibility for.
Maria Fernandez, aside from Dr. Zell, was my only confidante. I’d eventually told her the story of Johnny-Juan Parrot-Perez. It shamed her, she said, his want of courage, still he’d been raised in Texas. She was full of advice, having eight children of her own, and still longing. Strange the more children you have the more you seem to want. She would be godmother in the absence of a genuine grandmother—I did not perceive Aunt Trudy in any role save the one she had served in for 53 years—and would be with me, she promised, when the time came. I didn’t ask Dr. Zell how this might be arranged; as it turned out there was no need to.
Meanwhile, I kept, strict as a scientist, all the ingredients and proportions, times and temperatures, and general outcomes of my experiments in a notebook. Grandly, I labelled this Secrets from a Spanish Queen’s Kitchen and made a note in the front that should anything happen to me this manuscript was to be published posthumously-anonymously, dedicated to the King of Chili and Maria Fernandez; my discoverer in the first instance, my guide in the second. A free copy to be given to the local library,
By February even my virtuoso cooking could not, except in the eyes of Aunt Trudy and Father, account for the exceeding largesse of my body. I had grown out of all proportion to any known diet; there was something in my size and its ripening form that went beyond the intake of mere calories. But moted are the eyes of the determined innocents; like children refusing to recognize their father behind the Santa Claus mask, believing that nature peculiarly reverses all laws once a year and allows rabbits to lay colored eggs carelessly about, these two kept their eyes firmly above my waist, then my neck, until the miracle should occur in its own sweet time, my days and theirs accomplished.
And so we proceeded to the warm middle of April, Maundy Thursday as it turned out. I was sitting with Mrs. Fernandez sorting peppers when a sudden grip took hold of me round the middle, proceeded across the back and down into the thighs. I gasped, she nodded and took the clock off the shelf. It happened much the same five minutes later.
You’ll be quick at it, she said, smiling and patting. We wait for two more, then upstairs with you.
Upstairs she laid newspapers on the bed and put me into one of her large cotton nightdresses. By turns she cheered me on and consoled, wiped my wet forehead, and gave me the end of a towel to grasp, tying the other end to the bedpost. Ah, how the fall of Atlanta and poor hollow-eyed Melanie Wilkes came back to haunt me. The little Fernandez children waited in the hall, taking peeks when Mrs. Fernandez was too busy to keep them out. The first, a girl, was born at three-thirty; the second, a boy, ten minutes later: one for each arm and breast, neither they nor I deprived.
When it was over, she called my aunt, Within the hour, my aunt, my father, and Dr. Zell had arrived and packed me off to the hospital, Hermano, I said, and Hermana, For you, I told my father the Reverend Herman Highrider; and you too, I added to my aunt. It means brother and sister in Spanish.
From earlier practice (they had after all received me back under the family roof once in disgrace, once in concussion), they accepted my extraordinary accomplishment with neither congratulations nor recriminations.
Two, I said gently to my father, to make up for the last disappointment.
He did not respond to this, but Aunt Trudy immediately made the requisite story public. Mrs. Perez was the name given in the hospital and it followed me home. From living as she had been forced to do in a small town, and coming into a knowledge of the world that she might have been spared had my mother lived, Aunt Trudy had learned something of the manner of derailing forthright questions by forthright statements.
I had been secretly married. Neither she nor my father could condone such conduct, and had such grave misgivings about the man that under their astute questioning he had broken down and agreed to an annulment. As had I, seeing the folly of a momentary affection. Later, discovering that the marriage had not been in name only, they had, of course, agreed to recognize the child—children—as legitimate, and they would be raised, as I had been, in a good Christian home, properly baptized, clothed, and fed.
The Ladies’ Aid gave me one of those strollers specially constructed for two. Ladies of the church came through with layettes, cribs, toys, potty chairs, high chairs, diapers, bottle sterilizers. I was installed in my father’s room, the largest one upstairs, while he retired to the study to sleep as well as study. Ladies came and went continually between ten and twelve in the morning, three and five in the afternoon. My aunt grew thin again from rushing up and down the stairs and eating her own cooking, while I nursed, burped, bathed, and slept.
I thought about what we call returning to the bosom of the family as Hermano and Hermana returned every few hours to mine. Looking at their clenched eyelids and grasping hands and clutching mouths, I spared a thought for the absent father of this litter of light.
On a Saturday in June, Charlie Reese came to call. He brought two rattles and admired the quantity of black hair curling already on my progeny’s heads.
Red-haired Charlie then and there suggested marriage. As an eventuality, oh in a very roundabout way, but it had caught his fancy, a ready-made family and me cooking Mexican. He grew more excited and pleased with his notion till I finally said that the marriage had not actually been annulled. That had been told to my aunt to calm her. He looked for a moment sorrowful but then said with warm generosity that he would always be my friend. The time would come when I might want life insurance, he said as he left, and I promised I would call on him when the time came.
I had a feeling my life insurance was going to come back in July. I am seldom wrong about that kind of premonition.
On a Monday night, Hermana and Hermano dressed to the gums in pink and blue, gorged on milk and sweetly dribbling, lie in their twin-stroller with me in attendance at the corner of Academy and South Main and watch the pet parade. Afterwards, we walk with purposeful dignity to the firemen’s lot, and I say to my angels:
You are about to meet your father, a son of a noble mother and a brave revolutionary, a liar and a cheat but beautiful and agile as a matador. You get your looks from him and, where I can help it, your character from me. Between us we have given you the world, make the most of it.
And to him—don’t I tremble and shake when I see him, or seize him by the throat, or scream, this is the father of my ruin and of these innocent babes—I say: no cotton candy for your son and daughter. They are being raised on the finest Mexican cuisine which, in case you did not know it, has nothing whatsoever to do with chili. Not your chili at least, I could serve you a meal that would set you afire for days. I can conjugate red chiles, green chiles, sweet chiles and cast sauces like spells on chicken, pork, duck, beef. I can prepare five meals a day for a month and never repeat myself. Along with your food I can serve you the history of your country—I don’t mean Texas—and speak Spanish in the accents of the nobility.
My little fish, he says. His eyes are first bright, then tear-filled, then full of joy. Mine? he says. These are mine?
Do not attempt to deny it, I say. All yours. How can you stand that stuff, I add looking at the fraying pink sugar. Put it away. The King of Chili begins here and now.
This is Mr. Perez, I say to Aunt Trudy, who is sitting on the porch with Mrs. Peale. The father of Hermana and Hermano, I say to Mrs. Peale, who says back, I think I can see the resemblance.
To my father I say: this is your son-in-law to be. For the moment consider the deed as well as done.
The twins have waked up thoroughly, and I take them and Juan (no more Johnny Parrot around me) upstairs. I put them to nurse, and he watches with a look of such pure wonder that I have a perfect and clear foolproof vision of what is to happen next.
When the twins are bedded down, we go back to the kitchen and for two hours I feed him. And then, after a formal goodnight to the loitering father and aunt, we go back upstairs where he asserts his royalty.
I do not believe in delay. Within a week, I have borrowed the necessary funds from Aunt Trudy to buy out Ted Kaiser’s luncheonette. Within a month, we are open for business, with the help of Mrs. Fernandez, People will try anything once; I’m good enough to be given a second chance.Casita Perez,how do you like that? We begin with things that look almost familiar and slowly raise the expectations of our customers.
In a year we have a second place in Millersport. For the city crowd I can go a little further—a little hotter, a little more out-of-the-way, daring—and now all the Fernandez children who are old enough are working for us.
For Juan I do very special things. Gradually, I am raising him to my own refinement and sophistication. He adores me, why not? And works hard, 16 hours a day, and calls me Rosita (which I have exchanged for Rhoda, worlds won and lost in a name.) I am Rosita Maria (for Mrs. Fernandez) Perez, who carries her head high and wears a Spanish comb and makes all the sauces herself. My patrons in Millersport call me Senora, and I look it, every inch of it. If I’m still the minister’s daughter behind my back in Hartfield, they at least have the courtesy to address me as Mrs. Perez in my own restaurant. Hermana and Hermano have been joined by Miguel and Luisa; having babies has never interfered with my work. To them, and all who come after, Juan and I shall leave an empire.