The women came first. Through the open kitchen window, Mister heard the clatter of their heels as they crossed Milagro Creek on the rickety aluminum bridge joining Abuela’s yard to the Mondragón property. The metal bridge was even shakier than the wooden one it had replaced five years ago. Click-clack, click-clack, went the señoras — their neighbor Ramona Mondragón; Ernesto’s wife, Zarita; and poor Dolores Cisneros — all wearing up-dos from Zarita’s hair salon, Shear Beauty, and carrying flowers and food as if they were coming to a party.
In the unswept dirt yard, the ladies in their black dresses settled like a flock of crows to take in the disaster that followed the wake of Abuela’s death. The house, a squat adobe with thick mud walls, was still standing, but the garden sat vacant, and the empty clothesline drooped between two trees. Sometime during Abuela’s illness, Mister had carried her good chair outside and set it in front of his televisions — the smaller one was stacked on top of the larger, broken one. Already, the chair’s red velvet had begun to fade to a mottled pink.
“What a dompe!” said Zarita, shaking her head. “Look at all this yonque in the yard.” With the toe of her patent-leather pump, she nudged an empty beer can under the chair.
“Abuela was like a mother to Mister,” said Dolores. “He’s dying of a broken heart.”
“You know that in the end she lost her bowel function,” said Ramona. “He had to hold her up on the seat.”
“That ALS is bad,” said Zarita. “It’s like a curse, you know.”
Dolores glanced suspiciously at the shuttered house and then asked in a low whisper, “Do you think it was that witch, Jorupa?”
Zarita laughed loudly.
“No,” said Ramona. “It was Jorupa’s basilisk. You know, that creature with the body of a chicken and the head of a lizard?”
“I think it’s the other way around,” said Zarita. “Body of a lizard and head of a chicken.”
“Well, anyway, if you look it in the eye, you turn to stone.”
“She was paralyzed all right,” said Ramona. “I came over here one day and found her flat on her belly, inching her way to the door. She had fallen out of her chair, and Mister was off somewhere.”
“My brother-in-law had a basilisk in his basement,” said Dolores. “It ate all the potatoes.”
“Someone needs to knock on the door,” said Zarita.
They lingered for a few minutes in a nervous huddle, but then Mister stepped out on the porch, and they went to him.
Once inside the casa, the women got down to business. They unpacked their baskets: a chipped dish with bubbling enchiladas seeping around the tinfoil, fresh tamales wrapped in paper towels, a platter of foot-long tortas. Someone brought the traditional chilorio dish: red chile sauce with potatoes, pork, and garlic. They unloaded liter bottles of soda, bags of cookies and chips, paper napkins. Dolores carried a jumbo package of toilet paper into the bathroom.
“Muchas gracias,” said Mister. His own hands hung loosely by his sides, and when he spoke, his voice sounded thick and strange to his ears, but the women stepped around him as if he were a small child. “Where do you want this potted geranium, hijito?” asked Ramona. She smelled of wine and onions. “I’m going to mopear the floor. Listen to my feet stick to it.”
The women filled the narrow rooms, trapping Mister between their swaying hips, pressing him against fleshy bosoms, talking with wide, painted mouths. The smell of their mingled perfumes filled his nostrils until he could taste the sweet, heavy scent on the back of his tongue. Already, the house was losing the clean, hard scent of Abuela. He went to his room and lay on the cot so they wouldn’t try to strip the sheets that smelled of lye and sage.
Through the closed door he listened to the rise and fall of their voices, the click of their heels on the tile floors — living room, bedroom, bathroom, kitchen. When Abuela washed the dishes, she only used trickles of water, but Dolores opened the faucet and let the water rush on and on, like a long sob. On the other side of his wall, Ramona swished the toilet, and in the living room, Zarita swung her broom against the cobwebs that hung in the heavy wooden vigas of the low ceiling.
When they spoke of Abuela, they lowered their voices. In a hoarse whisper, Ramona asked Zarita if she had put shoes on the corpse. “I guess it wouldn’t matter since they shut the bottom half of the casket,” she said.
“I was going to use an old pair of Lucinda’s,” Zarita confessed. “But she pitched a fit, that little pendejo. So I bought a pair at Second Chances. You wait, she’ll come by the shop next week and want me to do her hair for her. Those shoes were two sizes too small and worn at the heel. She said, “Mamá, I don’t want a skeleton to wear my shoes!”
Beneath his pillow, Mister felt the hard lumps of two handguns — identical 9mm Glocks. He’d been hanging around the police station since he was a kid, and yesterday he’d found Ernesto’s key under the stack of Playboys in his bottom desk drawer — where it had always been. The guns were already loaded, fifteen rounds apiece.
“Mister!” called Dolores, rapping softly on his closed bedroom door. “Vamos. We want to say good-bye.” He opened the door and stood before her, a head taller, shuffling his feet like a child. “Poor boy,” she moaned as she reached up to press her damp face against his cheek and hold him in her soft arms while he stood wooden. The others crowded in the doorway, murmuring sympathies as they squeezed him and brushed their waxy lips against his cheeks.
“Remember: you reheat the enchiladas at three hundred and fifty . . .”
“She’s gone to a better place.”
“Keep the foil on or the cheese will burn.”
“If you feel solo . . .”
“You want your hair cut, come by the shop . . .”
“. . . praying for you.”
“Me gusta su ponytail.”
“I didn’t say I didn’t like it. I said I would give him a free haircut.”
“I put the mop on the porch to let it dry.”
Then they were gone.