The old lady next door is having a birthday and she thinks I should come to the party at the Community Center. That’s what they call the gymnasium at Coma Park now. It still smells like a gym to me. That old lady is turning seventy-five, and I guess that she thinks I should forgive and forget because she’s now old and venerable. That was the word her friend the priest, Amadeo, used to describe her when he invited all parishioners to her birthday party: “a venerable member of our congregation.” Socorro said she puffed up like a bird on a cold morning when the priest said that. What I say is that Anita Espinosa has been a cabróna for a lot longer than she has been old, and I would know. She’s been my neighbor for almost fifty years. She is three years younger than I am, but she’s always been older. When she and her husband, Lorenzo, moved next door, she and my wife, Josie, got to be friends, and I liked Lorenzo. I knew him better than his own wife did, and I still liked him. Lorenzo was a paving contractor and to get the city jobs he also had to pave the way with the politicians. He knew a lot of bartenders and whores, but he usually made it to Mass on Sunday and that was enough for Anita. She was religious, and Lorenzo pretended to be, so she thought they were happy until he died.
Josefina died long before Lorenzo did. A couple of years after Josie died, I remembered I was a man and I brought some girlfriends home and that was when Anita started causing me trouble. The old ladies at Cristo Rey started giving me the mal ojo and even at Las Quince Letras I heard about the chisme she was spreading about me. Then that Filipino priest, Amadeo, came up to me after Mass, right in front of everybody like I had asked for his help. He said he hadn’t seen me at church lately. I told him maybe he hadn’t been looking hard enough and then he asked me if I was experiencing doubts about my faith. I said, doubts? He said, yes, doubts about faith and life and was I in need of counsel. I said, no, not at all. I said that every day I thanked the God who had provided me with the fruit of the vine and the joys of women, which made him blush, so I knew for sure where that question had come from.
I talked to Lorenzo about it and he said he would talk to Anita but he never did or she didn’t listen, so our friendship dried up. The bad news she spread about me kept reaching my ears so I stopped going to church and planted a Eugenia hedge between our houses and let it grow up.
When Lorenzo died and they read the will it turned out he left some money to educate a couple of kids that Anita didn’t know about. She made some novenas and ignored her own greedy children who wanted to contest the will and then she joined the church full-time. It was sad. She was only in her fifties and still a good-looking woman, but she put on the black rebozo and mantilla and started to shrink. You could see the hump grow on her back, and her shoulders reaching up for her ears. I still said hello to her when I saw her at Lupe’s store or on the street, and I was always polite and friendly right up until the time she was going off to Mass about six in the morning and she saw my friend Socorro leaving my house on her way to work. Socorro is a good woman and a hardworking woman. She tends bar at Las Quince Letras and works the morning shift at IHOP because she’s a widow and has three kids, and sometimes out of kindness she also tends to me and that was her mistake according to Anita. Socorro nodded and said, “Buenos dias,” and Anita hissed and said, “Sinvergüenza!” That was like calling her a whore. I stopped being polite after that. I wouldn’t talk to her and I fertilized and watered the hell out of that Eugenia hedge.
The comforts of the Church for old women like Anita will carry them a long way, as long as they are healthy. But sometimes, the promise of heaven isn’t enough to overcome the pain of this earth. Anita started to feel a lot of pain in her bones and in her joints. I could see that pain when she hobbled down the sidewalk. I know that walk. I walk the same way. When the pain of the arthritis got too bad and the Church’s comfort wasn’t enough, she remembered what her mother and her grandmother had done and started brewing yerba buena and marijuana tea. I knew that because I saw the marijuana growing up in the middle of her corn. When she started brewing that tea, Anita almost became a real person again. She would smile once in a while and tap her feet to music and not go to church every day and she started to cook again.
That was the one thing she did better than anyone in Shaky Town, even better than Josefina, who was a great cook. She had a touch with tamales that couldn’t be explained. She did two kinds, pork in a red sauce with citron, and chicken with green chile and Oaxacan cheese and herbs, and both of them would float off the plate and into your mouth, they were so light and flavorful.
She started cooking them for the church and they would sell out so fast that Amadeo raised the price on them from two to an unheard of three dollars. They still sold out and fistfights started in the waiting lines, and then Jacob Silverman, the food guy for the L.A. Times, wrote about them. Anita got to be respected for those tamales and what I said to anyone who would listen was, good for her. Shaky Town didn’t need any extra prayers from old ladies, the ones we already got haven’t done much, but those tamales made a difference. Anita made them for the church still, but she did some catering, too, to save up money for her big birthday. I wasn’t going to church anymore but my niece, Dulcie, would buy tamales for me after Mass. Anita knew somehow. Maybe she looked through my trash out at the curb and saw her knot on the corn husks, or smelled them on my breath when I walked by her house, or someone from Kelsoe’s Roundhouse or Las Quince Letras repeated what I said about those tamales, but she knew and she started to tell Dulcie that Don Emiliano didn’t have to buy his tamales at the church, if he wanted some just to leave a note in her mailbox and she would leave them on the porch on Sunday. Because even if I hadn’t talked to her except to say buenos dias or buenas tardes in quite a while, I had been a good neighbor and a good friend to her Lorenzo.