Today, Grandmother says, you’re going to witness an atrocity. And you won’t be able to do a thing about it. You understand?
I nod. She sits in front of a large cross and an image of the Virgin Mary and a worn, black and white photograph of her late husband. Moments ago, before I interrupted, she had been praying. She now stands, straightening herself. A long floral dress hangs off her body. The flowers are soft shades of emerald green and nude floating in chestnut space. She is adorned with gold earrings, a gold necklace, and her fingers are covered in gold too. Her hand, with faint elegant liver spots, firmly holds a brown-leathered clutch. She is resplendent.
There’s a faint smell of talcum powder, too. Growing up, Grandmother kept a large brush on her vanity. As a kid, I would often go into her room and brush the fine powder on myself; I found the smell addictive. One day, she caught me. She was horrified. She had to explain to me that she uses that specific brush to powder her privates. It is odd now, carrying this intimacy with me as I embrace the air around her. But I don’t think she minds that I remember, that I am aware of where exactly the talcum odor comes from. She smiles, knowing very well how I still find the smell of talcum enchanting after all.
Underneath the talcum stands another scent, also faint. It is her Agua de Florida, I know. The sweet citrus, bursts of orange and lemon, with a hint of a spicier undertone, is dizzying. I feel momentarily ashamed for the scents I carry: Old Spice sloppily painted over with the aroma of scalp still hovering underneath. Depression smell, the scent of one who cannot be bothered with a shower. I am embarrassed. I want to be emptied of it, my odor turned vacuous—I do not wish to overpower Grandmother’s perfected spell. Then, she adjusts her necklace, shoots me a smile, and says, Vamonos.
We come out into the warm, bright sunshine, with loose jacaranda petals spritzing the air. Everyone we pass on the street greets Grandmother, and she returns the greetings warmly, quietly, and with a smile in her eyes.
Near the bank, we slow down and approach an older man wearing a straw hat, a tank top, and a face that says he has seen better days. He fans himself using the day’s newspaper on the sidewalk. This time, Grandmother greets him first, coolly. The man looks up. Their movements remain charged, and neither of them loosens to the interaction.
Then, movement in the man’s mouth. He leans back, swaying almost, opens his mouth, and sprays Grandmother in spit. She was braced for this, however. Her eyes are closed, her face still, frozen and twisted in disgust. The man returns to fanning himself.
Grandmother retrieves her handkerchief, swipes it across her face, and returns to the road. We walk to the bank in silence.
There, everyone again greets Grandmother, and she greets them back, using their first names. The security guards, bank tellers, managers. They all speak to her warmly, with respect. They smile at me amiably as well. I simply stand behind her, like her bodyguard, and they do not question my presence. The town is so small, perhaps they even knew who I am already, the unplanned visit of her American grandson, the victim of a nervous breakdown. And in the warmth of the bank, it is as if the events of before hadn’t even occurred in the first place. That is, until a bank teller asks, Viste a Diego?
Before Grandmother responds, the teller is patting the side of her face with tissue paper.
There, all done, she says.
We walk back home, again in silence, watching the dust of the horizon settle. The sky is no longer naked, but strips of cloud inch across, and the air remains warm and still. Grandmother stops at a food cart, and buys a bag packed with a green fruit, and salt and lemon that is drizzled over. She eats one with vigor, and her face flushes with pleasure. She gives me one and I am less impressed.
I know what they are. Semillas de paterna. Men, often drunks, are paid to chew into these large fruits in order to get to the heart, which is what I am eating. They are paid the way apple pickers are paid, but instead of picking they are chewing. These have been in someone’s mouth already, I consider. Though, I also know the seed is then placed in boiling water for hours, until it is soft enough to eat.
Does that happen every day, I finally ask her.
Once a week, she says. When I go to the bank.
Why do you let him, I ask.
He’s family, she says. What am I supposed to do?
Then: It’s just spit, she says. Her eyes focus on the green fruit, and I nod my head.
It’s just spit, I repeat. We round the corner of Grandmother’s house and the same tree shoots jacaranda petals, showering us in its pink mist. Beyond the tree, the sky also carries a pink blush, with reds that will soon be bleeding through.
That was probably in Diego’s mouth, too, she now says. Beyond what I send him every month, I am not so sure how else he would make money.
He’s family, I repeat.
One day, he’ll forgive me, she says.
For faring better in life, she says.
Josh Vigil is a writer living in New York. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in blush, Expat Press, Full Stop, Neutral Spaces, Rejection Letters, and elsewhere.