There are man aloes and woman aloes. The ones with the tough, olive skin and lots of teeth are the man aloes, and the woman aloes are pale green, with thinner blades and pronounced white spots. If you plant a man aloe and a woman aloe in the same pot, it is good luck. La Señora Catalina de Silva taught me that, as she cleaned the spider webs from the corners of her concrete-coated walls. Her little cat wore a red felt coat and her own heart was spangled with blue and gold stars. She was cheerful back then, before she lost a little one who was named Antonio. To lose a child, one's own blood! No wonder she changed.
She didn't have any children then, when she taught me about the aloes. She and her husband, José, they were young, practically newlyweds. When one is young the heart is big and the world is small. Love hides the world's harshness, just as the sun hides from us the dark emptiness of space. But night comes, and the sun seems like a dream. Where is the heart of blood like the sun? Poor Señora Catalina, she was in a dream back then. Her face was like a calla, her hands like gentle doves.
I loved it when La Señora Catalina hugged me. I loved the smell of coffee and wintergreen. We were related in some unsolvable agnatic way, so that I didn't know if she was aunt or cousin or something more illegitimate. Her husband, José, worked in clay. He had learned the trade from his father, a hearty old man who always smelled of the mesquite charcoal they would use to fire the kilns. I was only seven. A blessed age. Catalina told me a story as she served me chocolate and sweet bread.
There was a woman in Teocaltiche who had a cat named Pipí. She loved him very much, but alas, Pipí had many loves. As a matter of fact, he was chasing after one of them when a cart ran him over. The woman was heartbroken. She had a tiny coffin made for him out of ironwood, with carvings of fish and mice on it. His catafalque was covered with a cloth dyed in cochineal and embroidered by the nuns of San Cristóbal. Surrounded by her friends, and accompanied by a brass band dressed in somber blue livery, she had him carried in great state to the churchyard, where she encountered the dusty old caretaker with his rusty shovel.
"What is the meaning of this? A cat cannot rest in consecrated ground!"
"But he was very beloved."
"And he wanted you to have his silver water bowl, and his golden plate from which he ate his fish, and not just on Friday."
"As I was saying: how dare you suggest that the good Señor Pipí be buried in the churchyard, when it is drier and much more comfortable in our new mausoleum of marble!"
We would laugh together at her naughty stories, back when she was young.
Despite the man aloe and woman aloe living in the same pot, there was very little luck to be seen in Señor José and La Señora Catalina's lives. As the years passed, I became a man and they grew older, and the spangles faded in the Señora's heart, and little Tonito died and was buried in a tiny coffin like Señor Pipí. My visits to their home in Tonalá became less and less frequent, and when I did visit, there was always the picture of Antonio surrounded by dried laurel leaves, his little shoes on the family altar, and under the glass that covered the kitchen table, a funeral card. José made less and less money selling his ceramics, especially after the violence started scaring tourists away. Many of the shops on the border that had sold his goods for years were forced to close. Catalina and José's surviving son moved to the other side of Guadalajara, out by San Juan Ocotán, in one of those crowded, industrial neighborhoods. He had married at sixteen, and worked very hard to support his own growing family, so he only saw his parents on Independence Day and Diá de la Virgen and Christmas and the Day of the Kings.
My home was now Texas, and I was down on my luck and needed to get away. I had bench warrants for unpaid traffic fines, and didn't have the money to pay them as the fines became more and more inflated. The knock at the door, the handcuffs, abusive treatment at the hands of the sheriff's deputies, and a stint in jail awaited me. I missed the smell of coffee and wintergreen, the tales of Señor Pipí, and Catalina's smile. Outside my apartment window the sounds of tomcats skirmishing for territory kept me awake. I shivered in the winter air that streamed through a broken window; feverish, fearful, descending into despair. A heap of magazines, newspapers and mail-order catalogs lay by the bed. I would read anything, anything, to keep the darkness away. A sharp, metallic smell was choking me.
Jupiter, of light, was in conjunction with the luxuriant moon that looked like a big river stone. The hairy stars were blurry, as if they were made of spun glass. Even the hairless stars appeared lightning-struck. With so much astrological fortune, why were there no beneficent influences in my life? The cold winter storm was thrashing me like a silver pine tree. The distant "concrete Hilton" with its tiny windows beckoned. In that house of fear and madness the lights burned relentlessly. Inmates walked like ants inside a red line painted on the floor that left them only a narrow path along the grimy walls. They wore colors according to their classification: city, county, or federal. The scratched metal doors on the cells had double-paned windows shattered with spider web patterns. And the lights burned, intolerably, day and night.
I would flee south, to Mexico, to the sunny suburb of Guadalajara I had visited so often as a child. I would be welcome in the home of José and Catalina.
Bells on the wind. The smell of breakfast served by La Señora Catalina on green pressed-glass plates, eggs with bits of calves' liver and onion and blond chili peppers. Chocolate atole, like Christmas. And cake, white and sugary. I was barely awake, in the sunlit kitchen with its walls painted the color of sunflower petals. There, over the divan in the adjoining sala, was the picture of Tonito, painted by a priest who had learned oils in the seminary, its frame surrounded by long-dry laurel leaves and little birds made of woven palm fronds.
José asked me if I wanted to come to the workshop with him. I gladly assented, but he wasn't yet ready to leave. He had to finish his coffee and put on his lucky suspenders. José had gotten fat, and the suspenders made him look like a walking spherical astrolabe.
I asked La Señora to tell me a story. This is what she said.
Kittens kept appearing in the neighborhood where Señora M. lived in Teocaltiche, kittens that strongly resembled none other than her pet cat Pipí. They had his dazzling green eyes and ginger-striped coat, as well as his deceptively charming personality.
"Pipí," Señora M. would say to him, "you're a disgrace. Look at all these little bastards you've created."
Rather than showing embarrassment, Pipí beamed with pride. "You may be ashamed of me," he said to her, "but the butcher remembers to thank me to the heavens every time you buy his carnitas."
José and I groaned and laughed at the same time. Catalina laughed with us, like in the old days. Her face was glowing. For a moment, the blue and yellow stars were again shining in her heart. Even her flowered housecoat that had faded from the continuous tears for little Tonito seemed brighter. Yes, those tears, a mother's tears, had dimmed her eyes and faded her world. I knew of a woman who had killed her own child by feeding him too much chocolate. She cried so greatly for his death that the constant salt water bath eventually transformed her into a mermaid. She lives in a sunken pirate ship near San Blas, and you can see her lantern moving under the waves on moonless nights.
"Tell me another story," I begged, but Catalina was no longer in the mood. As she sat there at the breakfast table, she sang a lullaby about wanting a blanket of stars woven from the wool of Compostela, and a bird accompanied by a spindle, for the Rey de Galilea. It ends with the verse:
A la rurru, rurru, rurru, rurru, niño,
Victorioso en la lid.
Papalote del amanecer, sol del día,
Señor Jesus, el ramo de David.
Even heaven can't resist a mother's lullaby, so for the duration of her song little Tonito lay in her arms. When the song ended in stifled tears, Catalina's infant returned on golden wings to his place in heaven.
"Where can I go," I asked out loud. "I have become my own twin, lost, with somebody else's face that only resembles my own."
Catalina held me, just as she had held her own son, in that sunlit kitchen of a humble, tragic home; the second child.
I helped José in his pottery shop, applying ochre slip to the molded sun faces and water pots. When they were baked, the slip would turn a "wondrous rosy hue," as the Jacobean poet said. I wrapped little figurines in newspaper and packed them in cartons for shipping. Sitting in the modest cinderblock workshop, with the rain pounding down on the sheet metal roof, the kilns making a mirthful hissing sound, I felt that I had finally received protective medicine. But I also knew that I was abusing Catalina and José's hospitality.
On the night before my departure from their home, as I prepared to return to the States, La Señora Catalina and I sat in her kitchen and talked about the old days. José, exhausted from his trade, was already sleeping with the milky nocturnal angels. "Let him sleep, he knows the times are bad. You can see it in his anxious eyes." The good Catalina reminded me about the man and woman aloes, and that their sharing of a pot brought the household good fortune, and she presented me with a plastic bag containing two green rosettes, their bare roots wrapped in wet newspaper.
"When you get home you must plant them in a pot. Do not feed them fertilizer or water them too much. They get by with very little. But they give us luck in return."
"Tell me a story," I said, as I sipped her good coffee and ate her white cake.
Pipí the tomcat went to the market to steal a fish. As he snatched at one, the fish-seller grabbed his paw.
"Why are you trying to steal my fish?"
"That's not my pata. My pata quacks."
"Alright, wise guy. I'll give you a fish if you can give me some good advice."
"Okay. If you eat a rat, don't swallow the bones."
"That doesn't help me. I don't eat rats."
"Okay. If you get in a fight, use your claws."
"I don't have claws. Give me some advice that I, a fish-seller, can really use."
Pipí proceeded to eat the largest sea bass in the merchant's stand.
"Never trust a hungry cat. There—paid in full."
I loved that Pipí. If only I had his wits. Catalina cut pineapple slices with a serrated steel knife to serve with the cake. The tart, acid smell was like a riverbank; its freshness washed the years away.
"When I was a child," I said, "you always made me so happy. I went to sleep at night with your cat in his red coat curled up next to my head, and your lullabies in my ears."
"When you're no longer with us, the angels will still sing to you. And that scalawag Pipí will curl up in your head if you let him."
"I'm scared; I'm scared of growing up."
"But you're already grown."
I looked forward to having a greasy hamburger and greasy French fries at the grill in the bus station. There was little else I could be pleased about as I contemplated the trip that would take me home. I did not know if I would see José and the dear Señora Catalina again. The streets of Tonalá had become crowded and violent. Tonalá, fig of the sun, how did you become like the man wrapped in bloody rags that the Samaritan found in a ditch? The devil spits at us.
How thin Catalina had become, so pale and exhausted. Her hair of charcoal had turned the color of rain clouds, and her fine, firm skin had become wilted and weathered. But her voice never wavered, and her thoughts were like teeth.
"When I lived in San Blas as a little girl, a hurricane—the one they called the Great Blood Hurricane—hit our shores. After the wind, the rain, the flooding, and the rotting seaweed, we found a man upside-down in an ancient guava tree that had withstood the devastation. He was a little bruised and had a broken arm, but after they brought him down from that tree he healed up fine, except for a little deafness. I have heard that he's over ninety and still alive to this day."
"Have I ever lied to you?"
"Well, there's Señor Pipí…"
"Don't say anything against Don Pipí."
"Tell me, did Señor Pipí ever go to jail?"
"Unfortunately—and it pains me to say this—he visited the ‘poor man's hotel' more than once."
The police arrived at Señora M.'s house in Teocaltiche and dragged her cat Pipí off to jail for stealing eggs. He went before the judge, who was already in a bad mood because the birds had left droppings all over his new car.
"You look positively celestial, Your Honor. Could it be that the Good Lord has already welcomed you, still in the flesh, to join the ranks of His Thrones and Archangels?"
"What have you done now, you devious feline?" the judge said, glowering at Pipí, who wore his striped jail suit and a sailor's cap he had won in a card game during his incarceration.
Pipí saw that the judge was out of sorts, so he tried to soften him up.
"What's the matter, Honorable Sir? Your noble heart is troubled, is it not?"
"Well, as a matter of fact, the birds have made shit all over my shiny new car."
"Birds? Birds! They have no respect for Your Honor. In fact, I am so sick of their lack of respect that I went and took their eggs and ate them—yes I did, I ate them, and all to prevent any more birds from being born."
"You did that for me, Pipí?"
"Of course. Your Honor has always showed me mercy. It's the least I could do."
"Thank you, Pipí. You're a credit to society. Case dismissed."
They make the best hamburgers in the world at the bus station in Guadalajara. Customs agents bribe their superiors just to get assigned there. The pigeons who live in the rafters stab each other with their quills (not that I blame them) over the smallest left-over crumbs. When a woman from Guadalajara won the Miss Universe pageant, she refused to fly on any of her goodwill missions, demanding instead that they let her take the bus so she could break her starvation diet at the station grill.
It was my last pleasure before leaving the city and its environs behind. I would face those warrants upon my homecoming, as I went back to the sullen northern winter. I didn't look forward to jail, but I knew that I wouldn't mind seeing the sharply-defined adolescent features of the young kids who were about the age that Tonito would have been had he lived, youths who looked to us veterans of the system for comfort, and to learn from us all sorts of things that would drive the jailers crazy. They respected us, and trusted us to help them out. On those long, lonely nights, I would tell them about Pipí and his adventures, and the laugher would echo raucously through the cages, in that desolate, forsaken, and still alien land to which I was returning.
Title graphic: "Aloe" Copyright © The Summerset Review 2010.