Vignettes from Strawberry Fields
Joaquin walked sheepishly from the dark hallway into the kitchen, rubbing his eyes. The coffee pot was boiling and sputtering.
“Ay m’ijo (oh, son), go back to sleep. Did the coffee pot wake you?” Manda’s wooden rolling pin rhythmically flattened out a flour tortilla. Cluck, cluck, cluck, cluck. Her forward roll extended the flattened tortilla dough. Cluck. She rolled the pin back toward her. Cluck.
Joaquin did not answer. He glanced at his father sitting at the table and tried to blink away the sleepiness.
“Mamá, what was the all the singing and shouting about last night?”
Benancio almost spit out his coffee as he rushed to answer Joaquin. “It reminded me of the village band we had back in Linares, Nuevo Leon, mi’jo. Every musician played his own melody, way off key. Ha, ha, ha.”
Manda stood by the stove turning the tortillas de harina (flour tortillas), maintaining a steady supply for papá.
“Don’t pay attention to your father, mi’ jo, le trajeron serenata a Juanita y a su mama (Juanita and her mother were serenaded last night). And don’t repeat your father’s profanities either. Estos Norteños (these Northerners, referring to people of Northern Mexico) always distinguish themselves through their profanity.”
Benancio reacted with a grunt.
“What’s a serenade?” Joaquin asked, half-interested and half-asleep as he sat by Benancio. He dropped his head on his arms, which he had stretched on the red and white checkered vinyl table cloth.
Manda admonished him from her post at the stove, “the table is not for sleeping, mi’jo. Please sit up straight.” In a softer voice, she told him, swaying in a waltz-mimic, “the serenade is a gentleman singing love songs to his lady.”
Joaquin grinned at her sight, and she grinned back at him. Benancio grunted to himself, “Hmph! How old is that kid anyway? (referring to Juanita) Sixteen, at the most. And she’s married to that chamaco mocoso. [immature; snot nosed boy] He parades around the neighborhood in a pair of Levi jeans from which he has removed all the belt loops with a two-edged Gillette blade. Imagine… he has the time for that kind of tónterias.”
“He’s got a tattoo, papá,” Joaquin chimed in, “right here on his arm. It says ‘Janie’.” He imagined Janie’s skin—a waxen light brown that reminded him of the creamy almond ice cream in chocolate dipped bars. Her scent, he imagined, was sweet and erotic, just like Ms. Johnson’s, his second-grade teacher.
Joaquin’s thoughts turned to what Manda had said: Gentleman? Lady? In his mind’s eye, he imagined the characters from the only reference he could conjure up: la chalupa, the Mexican Bingo. There were no numbers to be had on la chalupa, just colorful caricatures on the cards, including the “gentleman” and the “lady.” There was a certain comforting familiarity in that: el catrin [the dandy]; la dama [the lady], the frog, the spider, and the sun and the moon. Dressed in a black and white formal, el Catrin was the dandy gentleman with his overindulging etiquette. La dama was an equally virtuous, upright lady. The lady wore a green olive business suit and a fashionable lady’s hat, like something from the Roaring Twenties.
The rolling pin distracted Joaquin’s thoughts. Cluck, cluck.
“My favorite serenade is Despierta (Awaken),” Manda continued, acting out a sigh, “as sung by Pedro Infante. I just love his movies, especially when he plays a singing cowboy.”
Manda’s voice was a soft, soothing velvet as she sang to Joaquin, lullabying him from her post by the stove.
Despierta… Dulce amor de mi vida (Awaken… Sweet love of my life)
Despierta….Si te encuentras dormida (Awaken… If you’re in slumber)
Escucha mi voz vibrar bajo tu ventana (Hear my voice resonate beneath your window)
En esta canción te vengo a entregar el alma (With this song my soul I’ll deliver)
Perdona… que interrumpa tu sueño (Forgive me… for interrupting your slumber)
Pero no pude más (But I could not help myself)
Y esta noche te vine a decir, te quiero (And this night I have come to say that I love you.)
The cluck was made when the pin rolled over the end of the tortilla dough and onto the uneven wooden rolling board: every morning’s serenade—cluck, cluck. The cluck-cluck metronome. The first cluck was a middle-C cluck; the second was four notes lower, a G-cluck, created by the uneven board as the rolling pin struck it. Cluck, cluck every morning—a two-note serenade.
Joaquin peered up at his mother’s warm grin. She grinned back at him (having disregarded her order that he not rest his arms on the table). Ignoring her altogether, Benancio parted a flour tortilla in two, Bedouin-style, and used the two halves to stir and mix his breakfast of eggs and beans. He then scooped up a healthy portion of the mixture on the piece of the tortilla he held in his right hand, helped along with the portion of the tortilla he held in his left hand. This liquid amalgamation he now forced into his mouth so that he could barely chew and wiped the corners of his mouth with the back of his thumb.
“That’s in the movies,” Benancio retorted in a serious tone, as he shifted the egg and bean golf ball to one side of his mouth so that he could talk.
Joaquin turned his head to look up at his father. “In real life, a serenata is just a bunch of drunks who’ve been kicked out of the cantina [saloon)], and they spend their last dime bringing the equally-drunk musicians home with them.” Benancio laughed heartily.
A smile began to break on Joaquin’s face, and he turned in his mother’s direction unconsciously, as if seeking some cue from her. Manda focused intently on her tortillas.
Joaquin straightened his back against the chair and stared straight ahead. His father reminded him so much of the brusque mustached Mexican men of the Mexican movies who spoke with so much male confidence. What they spoke could not be challenged.
Manda remained at attention at the stove.
Benancio nodded and concluded, “They play along with the serenata as if it were something meaningful, but it’s just a farcical testament for the whole world to witness.”
Joaquin knew his father could not stand for hypocrisy. Every act and every utterance, he psychoanalyzed. Niceties, pleasantries, and apologies were meaningless expressions. For him, a warm salutation was issued by someone making a play on you, who either wanted something from you or was overly pretentious. In either case, Benancio could see right through you.
“Ay, Diocito mio [Oh, my gentle God].” Manda reacted in a half-serious, half-humorous mood. She looked to the heavens and held her outstretched arms, palms open upward, as if imploring to the heavens for understanding, “You see what I have to put up with?”
Joaquin settled back a little, realizing that Manda was not taking Benancio seriously.
Troubling Joaquin as he began to fiddle with it was the retractable drill, bit-like, what-cha-ma-call-it that was attached to the can opener. Everyone in San Felipe had the same manual can opener, but no one had ever told him what the retractable what-cha-ma-call-it in the middle was for. Joaquin was convinced it was not for picking your teeth, which was the use Benancio was now making of it.
And also rattling in Joaquin’s brain, and surfacing was the “Easter Bonnet” song from music class that had kept harassing him the past week. The gramophone mechanical lyrics played neurotically over and over in his brain:
“In your Easter bonnet, with all its frills upon it… the photographers will snap us, and you’ll find that you’re in the rotogravure.”
What is a rotogravure? Could someone explain that, please? Please! Joaquin’s brain could find no niche in which to file this thought away.
“… and you’ll find that you’re in the rotogravure.”
The file was incomplete, and his brain kept scrolling for some file to close before it could disengage.
Benancio was right after all, once Joaquin got to thinking about it. In San Felipe, men did not love women; they couldn’t—it would be a sign of such utter weakness. A man never hugged his wife. There was need for distance between a man and his wife, distance between a man and his children. And he knew that lovers could never be entirely trusted. Wouldn’t they eventually puncture your heart with dull daggers and then spit in your wounds? Weekend lyrics sung at El Salon (dance hall) next door taught him as much. The wailings of the trios and the conjuntos through their ballads and corridos left him no doubt that underneath it all, women could be treacherous beings—dagger-wielding, false-promising, heartbreaking, drinking-causing wretches. Watch out for them.
But there were occasions, he was learning, when women were thought worthy of admiration. This was when they were still pure, naïve and malleable, like his neighbor, Janie. But they were also admirable in their old age, like Janie’s mother, when, as mothers of sons, they remarkably gained Madonna-like qualities. That’s when they deserved to be serenaded by a band of off-beat, drunken musicians.
“Que bonito. Le trajeron serenata. (How lovely. She was serenaded).”
And drunk was precisely when the men of San Felipe were allowed to share their embellished and exaggerated love-offering.
Joaquin smiled with cautious uncertainty.
These thoughts, including the dandy beau and the lady, the what-cha-ma-call-it and the rotogravure ventured in and out of Joaquin’s mind as Benancio parted tortillas in two and Manda played her every morning serenade. Joaquin glanced over to Manda by the stove.
Still humming her serenade, Manda turned to catch Joaquin’s gaze. Her face was radiant.
Benancio parted another tortilla in two and wiped his plate clean.
For book reviews of Strawberry Fields, see the January 2021 Edition of IberoAztlan.