Exegesis

by Daniel Chacón

One morning, as he was sitting on his oversized armchair reading a novel, the too-loud doorbell pulled him away from the dream. He stood up, took the book with him to the living room, and when he opened the door, Preciosa Sánchez stood on the porch in a bright red business suit, holding a big black purse.

"It looks really good!" she said. She sounded so excited, her big brown eyes looking around the house and the yard. "Estoy bien surprised."

The reader, discombobulated, half expected to see cobblestone streets of the old city, but it was the desert city in which he lived, and it was so windy that morning that he could barely see through the brown air to the foot of the mountain across the street from his house. Preciosa held her hands over her eyes to protect them from the sting of hot dust, and she yelled through the wind, "Now I see what you mean!"

A Mexican alder, not much taller than the house, slapped its branches against the wall as if manic to get in. He told Preciosa to come inside, and once he closed the door, the gust of hot wind that followed her in died out, and the remaining sand fell to the floor like glittery mites. She walked across the room, and the clothes on her body strained to keep her in.

"This is a different place," she said. "When did you do all this?"

She walked past him to peek into the hallway, and he could smell her bath soap, clean, fresh like a schoolgirl. She walked down the hallway, so awed by what she saw that she put her hands over her mouth. He followed behind her and could see her figure reflected in the hardwood floors, could smell the trail of shampoo in her hair, thick, black, and still slightly wet. This was her first appointment of the day. She walked into the library, which had built-in bookshelves and plantation shutters and the leather armchair where he had been reading the novel. "¡Dios mío! This is muy linda!"

He was going to put the novel down on the small table next to the chair, but there was something about its heaviness in his hands that he liked to feel, that he felt he needed to feel, as if the weight of an anchor, all that kept him from floating off the floor until his body pressed against the ceiling. He followed her through the house, into a circle of doors from room to room to room.

When she stepped out to the backyard, she walked into his garden, around which he had built a stone wall, and she let out an excited gasp. The wisps of wind swirled around the top of the tall walls like notes of a cello, trying to enter the garden.

In the kitchen, they sat down and had coffee, under the cold air of the new air conditioner. "I think we can sell esta casa," she said. "I might tell my tía about this. Le gustaría I'm sure. She lives in Jarritos, ¿lo cononces? That's what we call Juárez. All those murders everyday and bodies piled up in mass graves, it's not safe no more. Despues de tantos años, she's agreed to come to El Paso. I could see her living here in this house."

The reader looked around the shine and wood of his house.

"Se llama Juana. My aunt? She never goes nowhere, de veras, pero está vieja and no puede cuirdarse su mismo, by herself. ¿Entiendes? She gets to where she talks to herself like she was talking to invisible people."

Something moved in the other room, and he looked through the doorway and saw the leather armchair by the window, the shadow of the Mexican alder moving in the wind.

"One time, she got up in the middle of the night and started making tamales! I mean, she had all the stuff out there and she starts making hundreds of tamales like there was going to be a wedding or a big party."

The reader held the book close to his chest. He wondered why the aunt had the ingredients in her house to make hundreds of tamales.

"No lo sé. Está loca. She started cooking at three in the morning. She worked all night long, boiling the pork, spreading the masa on the leaves, making the salsa, so that by morning time, the smell of tamales filled the barrio and people woke up smelling them. They smelled so good. ¡Ay! La vecina—her name is Meche—we call her la metiche—you know what that means, ¿qué no?—it's like some who always butts in—well, Meche la metiche went over to find out what was going on, and my tía gave her a dozen tamales. Meche said they were the best she ever tasted in her whole entire life. But the weird thing is. . ."

Preciosa leaned across the table to get closer. She whispered, "The weird thing is that once the tamales were gone, Meche wanted more. She couldn't think of anything else but getting more. She said that each bite was like a fantasy. That's how she said it. A fantasy. That's weird, ¿qué no? Fantasy Tamales.

"And this woman está muy vieja, y flaquita flaquita. I ask you, who could she have been making all those tamales for? Who? What fantasy world was she in?"

He was enjoying the story, and he wanted to picture the aunt as beautiful.

Was she a beautiful woman?

"My tía beautiful? !No, es muy fea! She looks like a frog. Why do you ask?

"Anyway, Meche went back to check on her, you know, and she tells us that my aunt was setting up tables, as if there would be a big party, and she was dressed all nice too, like it was Easter. Meche asked my aunt if her family was coming to visit her from El Paso, but my aunt just gave her another dozen tamales—like to shut her up, no? And then she sent a boy to the store for her, and he brought back a bunch of bottles of wine, a whole bunch, and she had everything ready for a big fiesta. But she forgot to invite the people! There were all these tables set up inside her house, una pachanga de verdad, but it was for people who didn't exist.

"Anyhow, we think she should live near la familia, you know? I think she would like it here in this house. Pero I don't know. Conflict of interest and all, pero, necesitamos hacer algo. Pobre mujer. El otro día la vecina—you know, Meche?—she saw my aunt walking around the streets with a cloth bag—it had the image of la virgin—she was collecting rocks. She examined them, rock by rock, looking for something in the core of each rock. Some she took, and others she left there on the street, right where she picked them up."

Preciosa took a drink of her coffee, made a face because it was cold by now, and she put down her cup but didn't let it go. She had chubby cheeks, and her perpetual dimples made it seem like she was still smiling.

"She would like it here, en esta casa, pero that might be conflict of interest, ¿verdad?"

She shrugged her shoulders.

"No, no," she said, looking inside her cup, as if reading the coming of sadness in the swirl of coffee grains.



Daniel Chacón's story, "Exegesis," is from his newest collection, Hotel Júarez. He has also published two other story collections, Chicano Chicanery and Unending Rooms, the latter of which won the 2008 Hudson Prize. His novel, and the shadows took him, was published by Simon and Schuster. He teaches at the University of Texas, El Paso, on the border of Mexico, in the only bilingual MFA program in the US.