BROWN ROUND TURNIP
A short story by (excerpt)
Deborah A. Torraine
Jose had spared no money when laying Gladys out. Even her dress was new. He had selected a powder blue chiffon gown patterned with royal blue saucer round roses; each large enough in which to set a cup of tea. He loved the way Gladys had fixed tea-- just for him; a simply perfect choice. Lipton's with a touch of honey; not too sweet. This carefulness she did only for him. Jose felt the least he could do to show his love was lay Gladys out in grand style; showing her off to her few friends and his many compiaroes. Something he didn't do while she lived.
A casket of high-gloss rosewood Formica, trimmed inside with a soft cream satin reflected halo rays about her head. Jose couldn't stop crying.
"You would have thought he lost his best friend." Whispered a brown skinned lady in a pants suit with a white rose on her lapel. She was speaking to her friend seated to her left.
"He has." The Latino man seated on the other side of her piped in. "You must be a friend of Jose's." Replied the woman. "We're close friends of Gladys. I'm Cheryl and this is Deloris. "
"I'm pleased to meet you. I'm Carlos, yes, a good friend of Jose's." He extended his hand with pleasure. "He really loved her you know."
"I only met Jose a few times. They preferred to keep their relationship private." Cheryl added, brushing invisible lint from her waist coat. "And private it was."
"I had the pleasure only once." Carlos blotted his forehead with a handkerchief. "Gladys came to a party for Jose's daughter. See there. She is seated just there between two of her sons." Carlos continued.
Cheryl pulled her lips together into a tight down turned pout. Something she did when a thing displeased her. That was her. The daughter who caused so much trouble. The one who needed a mother and green card and babysitter and extra money to raise her 3 children without a father. There sat the daughter Gladys refused to be a mother to and had told Jose so, one hot summer afternoon. Cheryl glowered towards Jose's daughter recalling the day that broke Gladys' Latin fever.
It began innocently enough. Gladys had set a plate of Sunday dinner in front of Jose. "Have a good week?" It was a ritual they did every Sunday. She enjoyed cooking for Jose. Being needed made her feel special.
"Si. Is a good week?" Jose spoke with his mouth full.
Being needed did make her feel special. But, that late afternoon Sunday supper (spiced with her sweat) would scorch their memories..
Gladys had said: "I never had children of my own and I don't expect to be raising no body else's. She's a grown woman. Grown enough to keep having babies by a no good man. Plenty good men around would have her."
Jose hunched over a piece of corn bread and chewed in silence.
Just the other day Gladys had rehearsed this same tantrum to her
friend Cheryl. Who, excited by the riff, anxiously entered into agreement conspiring against a forbidden enemy. It was one of the few things she and Gladys agreed upon when it came to Jose. Gladys could always count on Cheryl to inspire the most delicious reprimand. Most of the time they simply did not speak of the affair.
"No, she gotta go scrape the bottom of the barrel," Gladys had continued. "Catholic or no Catholic, she should be using birth control." Jose had heard this all before.
"All she do is spread her legs for that no good son of a--!"
"Enough!" Jose had shouted. His mouth filled with a spoonfull of beans, rice, pork and collard greens. He had learned to eat and enjoy collard greens since he met Gladys. It kept him healthy and regular. Gladys turned back to the stove mumbling under her breath. Sometimes audibly; sometimes not.
Jose loved eating in that kitchen; watching Gladys' wide bottom, framed with bow tied apron strings dangling as she swayed between stove and sink. What possessed her to stop what she was doing to get right up into the man's face, spitting one of a handful of Spanish words she could remember -- no one will ever know. "That girl ain't nothing but a puta!" After she said it her molded gelatin face, now pouting, was only inches away from Jose's. She had called his only beloved child a 'puta' -- a whore.
He slapped her, then grabbed his hand -- his scorching hand.
What else could he do? She had no right to speak like that against his only child, the child he raised--his mother raised, while he sweated in sweat shops and crawled across borders to get the money to buy the right to live in the land of opportunities. He glared at her, frightened and angry.
"You don't know. You don't know nothing. They are my only heirs." He told her, needing her to understand. "Who will keep your name upon this earth when you die!" He shouted at her. No one was left except him, his daughter with her three sons. His heirs. Why should he continue to belabor this burden of truth? Why? Instead, it was the power of his passion, the spite of his anger, that struck the face of his beloved, his black earthen Madonna. His brown round turnip. Shocked, frightened, gripping his jacket, he ran out the door. A scorching hand and a mouth full of beans.
It was a hard slap, which had risen from his sleepy gut just as he was about to yawn down a second bite of cornbread. It was a thoughtless slap heard echoing off the kitchen walls. Sliding down into the kitchen sink. Sliding into his heart. Pushing blood to his ears. On this last day by her casket, feeling the scorching of his hand -- again; he was trying to make up for it. Tears simmering behind his short straight lashes. Damn, they would not hold the flood of what could have been.
"That slap knocked some sense into you, did it?" Cheryl had said when Gladys told her what had happened. "Warned you about those Latin men. They got tempers. Find yourself up here dead cut into a million pieces one day. There's more to life than the tango!" It wasn't the Tango. That was Argentina. Jose was Nicaraguan. The dance was different. So was the food.
Things changed. The fever was broken. Gladys became cool, down right chilly. Snapping at her students. Terse with the checkout clerk. One day she caught her cat Spooky licking water from the kitchen faucet. "Didn't I tell you…?" she scolded, snatching Spooky up by her tuff, "… to stay the hell away from my sink?!?" Then she hurled poor Spooky across the kitchen. Spooky scrambled for balance; claws tap dancing across the wood floors. Shocked and hurt, Spooky hid from the Ice Queen for hours. Gladys, alone, buried her head into the folds of her arms and cried.
One day Jose arrived unannounced, as was his custom. Almost two long weeks had passed since one had spoken to the other. It had been as hard on him as it was on her. Jose would say it was harder on him because he had to choose between two women he loved. He stood at the answered door. "You must forgive me," He cautiously demanded, in a warm flavored accent.
Gladys stood quietly in shock.
"You know I love you." Jose appeared as a sixty year old child.
Gladys stared, agape and anxious. Shifting her weight to her right hip, placing her balled fist upon it.
Jose tried again. "Gladys…you know I need you in my life." He waited.
She pondered against the pounding of her arteries and moved aside for him to enter. "Come on in while I think things through," she said. Head half cocked to one side checking out his sagging belt. Even within her cool blocks of ice, it was good to see him. Spooky purred in relief.
The hurt was still there deep down. She could not afford to let that go. A woman had to keep something for herself. So things changed. "You hit me Jose, " she began, "And that changes everything."
Jose accepted that. There would just be the two of them…whenever he could make it. Gladys could stop caring about what he needed to bring him joy. Things changed. She told herself that she could stop caring about if or when he would call. That's what she needed to do.
He didn't care. He only needed to be in the presence of his Madonna.
"I hope you can forgive me. I could not hold my rage at you. I am so very sorry. It will never happen again. Just…just let me be here with you…some of the time." Gladys took a deep breath.
"You need someone." He reached out for her hand then decided against it. He did not need to touch her; only to have her care. "You are my friend. You are my woman." That was love to him. Only to care for her.
This brought life to Gladys. A simple request of companionship.
She only made love to him when he asked (which was seldom) and fed him when he was hungry (which was always). Sometimes she would read to him from the Sunday paper until he fell asleep on the sofa. She would allow him to be in her presence but she would no longer support his dreams. That was the balance of their affair for the last five years of her life. A life avoiding human intimacy. Cool and accepting.
He still watched her swaying behind under full skirts tied with apron strings. She still hummed at the sink while he watched Sunday evening television. He felt at home but he could not touch her. He was afraid of his passion; ashamed of his anger. Jose felt he owed her these Sundays for as long as she was willing
In a while she began to warm to him again with reservation. The joking and laughter returned with a new respect. Although reserved. "I forgive you Jose," Gladys finally said one day. "But if you ever lay a finger on me again…in anger, or anything else, it will be your last."
Jose accepted forgiveness like a thirsty man come in from the desert. "Comprende. So I can put fingers on you again? Anywhere I like? Anywhere you like?" The laughter tendered her reserve, a little more. That was the fight that was.