Talk of the Town
Short Story by Sage Vogel
“Pick up your feet, Elique,” Guadalupe told her son, pulling him by the hand. “I don’t want your shoes to ger covered in dust. You have to look presentable.”
“Ay mamá, I won’t get them dirty. Let me go. Leave me alone.”
“If you don’t start behaving I’m going to have you spend another Saturday with Father Pablo.”
“No, no, no! I’ll be good. I promise.”
“Leave the boy alone, Lupe,” Guadalupe’s husband Ramón told her, his tone leaving no room for debate. She let go of her son, who promptly ran off, kicking up as much dust as he could as he went. Ramón had been walking a few steps ahead of them, observing the townsfolk as they made their way towards the church’s open doors. His eyes swept back and forth, eyeing each and every churchgoer.
The sounds of a welcoming hymn, with a guitar, double bass and organ accompaniment, were wafting out from the interior of the church. Father Pablo stood outside the entrance, fat, bald and smiling, nodding to every single member of his congregation and shaking hands with the men as they made their way inside.
“Look, Lupe,” Ramón suddenly hissed at his wife, reaching back to take her arm and pull her closer. “There’s that gringo that’s been buying up all those plots in the cañon.”
“How do you know that’s him? That could just be another tourist.”
“No, I saw him up there the other day, he had a crew, he’s building a house right off the river, a big, ugly thing.”
Lupe nodded, then tilted her head and squinted at her husband.
“What were you doing up there?”
Ramón let go of his wife’s arm and began walking towards the church again.
“Hurry up, we’re going to be late. Where’s Elique? I told you to watch him.”
Lupe glared at her husband’s back for a moment before spotting one of her peers, María Rosabel, and morphing her face into a huge, toothy smile.
“Rosabelita! ¿Como estás?” she said with exaggerated enthusiasm, earning a similar response.
“¡Bien, bien, Lupita! Ven, let’s find a pew near the front and sit together.”
Soon the congregation was all gathered inside. The doors were shut and mass began. From outside, the muffled sounds of music, prayer and sermon were mostly unintelligible, aside from the occasional collective ‘amen.’ A lone figure remained outside, Premitivo Baca, slumped in the shade of an old tree, a brown bottle in one of his hands. Once again deemed too drunk to be allowed inside, he was obligated to attend the service from a distance.
Premitivo did his best to say ‘amen’ in time with the others, but after about fifteen minutes he fell asleep and had to commune directly with God in his dreams instead. A mockingbird roosting in the canopy above his head began to mimic the sound of his snoring.
When mass had concluded and the congregation had exited the church, the next phase of their Sunday ritual began: La comunión del chisme, The Communion of Gossip.
Some of the observers of this ritual returned to their homes to partake in private, while others found it more convenient, and productive, to loiter near the church in small, semi-isolated huddles. Ramón and Guadalupe were of this latter group, and this week they’d found a most advantageous spot. They were near the tree where Premitivo still slept, for just around the corner was the home of Alcarita Romero, known by many to be the matriarch and most-esteemed elder of this time-honored, talk-of-the-town tradition.
Every Sunday after mass Alcarita would hurry inside her home and take her customary position leaning out of the only southern window. There, in her makeshift oratory, she awaited her communicants. Her most pious devotee, Oralia López, was almost always the first to approach. This week Oralia came bearing a particularly scandalous offering.
“I saw a man sneaking by my house on Thursday night. It was very late, I couldn’t sleep because of my knee, you know,” Oralia began.
“I know, pobrecita,” Alcarita sympathized.
“And I saw him from my window, all hunched over, like a little coyote. I was afraid for my life. So, very quietly, I went out on my porch to get a better look.”
“Who was it?”
“I can’t be sure, he was wearing a big hat. He was a strange-looking man, with narrow shoulders and an odd way of walking, I can’t think of who it might be.”
Alcarita hummed, clearly disappointed.
“But he didn’t go far, he went to the old Gallegos place that they had to sell-“
“For a quarter of what it’s worth, that’s what I heard,” Alcarita interjected.
“Maybe even less.”
“Anyway, I saw very clearly who he came to meet, because they didn’t go inside, they met right there on the side of the house, desgraciados. I could see them clearly because I went and hid in my garden.”
“Who did he meet?”
Oralia inhaled to generate some suspense. Then,
Around the corner, Ramón had to cover Guadalupe’s mouth to stifle an involuntary gasp.
“Cornelio and Catarina’s youngest,” Alcarita verified.
“That’s the one. Alcarita, you won’t believe this.”
“Oh, it’s disgraceful.”
“Don’t worry, Oralia, I won’t tell a soul.”
Oralia genuflected before she continued.
“I saw them… kissing.”
“Oh, Alcarita, it felt so strange to watch, but I was in shock and could not look away, of course.”
“Well… They began to… Molest one another.”
“¡Que vergüenza! Did he undress her and have his way with her?”
Oralia began fanning herself with her hands, beads of sweat popping up on her forehead.
“No, not completely, he lifted her dress and he- he touched her, and he- oh, it was so horrible, he defiled her, con la boca, Alcarita. God forgive me for saying such things.”
“He does, Oralia. God forgives you. You’ve done nothing wrong.”
“Ay, no sé. And it went on for such a long time, I couldn’t believe it.”
The women paused for a moment to reflect and recover. Two of Alcarita’s chickens wandered over, clucking to one another about similarly private affairs.
Just on the other side of the house, Ramón and Guadalupe were having a hushed but intense conversation.
“Rosabel is seeing a man in secret!” Guadalupe said, not even believing herself as she said it. “And sinning with him!”
Ramón shook his head, his face a mask of prideful contempt.
“I never would have thought that Rosabel was una hombrera,” Guadalupe said truthfully. “I can’t believe she didn’t tell me, we are such good friends,” she lied.
“Rosabel’s a what?” Elique asked loudly as he walked up to his parents.
“Shhh!” They hissed at him in unison, worried that Oralia and Alcarita might hear them.
“Shoo, Elique, your father and I are speaking about something important,” Guadalupe said, waving her son away.
Elique shrugged and turned around, spotting Premitivo in the shade of the old tree nearby. A devilish smile swept over his young, innocent-looking face. Ramón and Guadalupe continued.
“I could have told you that,” Ramón boasted. “All women have this potential to sin inside of them, it’s in the Bible, it started with Eve.”
Guadalupe’s expression switched in an instant from disbelief to anger.
“Oh, sí? Eve or Evelinda, Ramón?”
Ramón sneered. “What are you talking about?”
Guadalupe poked her husband in the chest and took a step closer to him.
“You know what I mean. Pendejo.”
“I really don’t, Lupita,” he said, holding his hands up and taking a step back.
“Then why were you up in the cañon, mentiroso? Let me guess, you were picking flowers?”
“Lupita, please, you’re acting crazy.”
She took another step forward and gave him another poke in the chest, making him take another step back.
“What’s crazy is that I’m still married to you, after all you’ve put me through,” Guadalupe’s voice rose. “You think you’re so sneaky, running around with that mancornadora, well I’m sick of it,” she poked him again. “You sinvergüenzo, vicioso” poke. “No vale verga,” poke. “Borracho, malcria’o, mujeriego,” this time she pushed him with both hands. “¡Hijo de puta!”
For a moment there was silence. Ramón and Guadalupe realized at the same time that they had strayed from their hiding place around the corner and were suddenly in full view of Alcarita and Oralia. They froze in place as they processed the inevitable consequences of having a marital quarrel witnessed by the village’s biggest gossips. Oralia had turned to stare at them, her eyes wide and her mouth open. Alcarita had a sly smile on her face, though she had hidden it behind her hand. Then the silence was broken. A new voice shouted from back around the corner.
“Stop it! ¡Maldito mocoso! What is wrong with you?”
Ramón and Guadalupe turned to see Elique being scolded by Esposa Lucero, an unmarried young woman whom they had often gossiped about themselves. Esposa had grabbed Elique by the wrist and was pulling him away from Premitivo, who was awake but still sitting on the ground, brushing dirt off of his pants.
“Let me go!” Elique shouted, struggling to break free from Esposa’s grasp.
Guadalupe seized the opportunity to escape her own problematic predicament and rushed over to defend her son. Ramón, red-faced and ashamed, tipped his hat to Alcarita and Oralia before following behind his wife.
“What’s going on?” Guadalupe demanded.
“Your son here was just poking el señor with a stick and kicking dirt on him,” Esposa snapped back.
Elique finally pulled free, ran back a few steps and then turned to yell at Esposa.
“¡Machona!” he spat, his voice cracking, “¡Machona!”
“Elique!” Guadalupe gasped, shocked at her son’s rudeness. “Where did you hear that word? I’m so sorry, Esposa.”
Esposa scowled at the boy, who had turned to look at his mother with an incredulous expression.
“From you,” Elique said. “You say she is too machona to ever get married.”
Guadalupe, already embarrassed, became mortified. She grabbed Elique’s arm and dragged him away without saying another word. Ramón followed, this time pulling his hat low down over his brow instead of tipping it. Esposa, Premitivo, Alcarita, Oralia, the chickens and the mockingbird watched the family flee the scene. Premitivo was the first to speak once they had gone.
“Of course, Don Premitivo,” she replied. “Are you hungry? Ten.” She handed him an apple.
“You are so very kind, Esposa,” Premitivo said, accepting the fruit. “Do not listen to that boy and his mother.”
“I don’t. He is a horrible little boy, isn’t he?”
Premitivo had taken a huge bite out of the apple and couldn’t speak so he just shook his head. A few moments later he clarified.
“No, no. He is just a boy. And he has had his own problems, Esposa.”
Esposa laughed. “Oh really? Like what?”
Premitivo took another bite of the apple and pointed his chin towards the church.
“When his mother feels he must be disciplined she brings him to see Father Pablo,” he said, still chewing. “The punishment he receives in there is far worse than what he deserves, creéme.”
Esposa’s anger and annoyance evaporated.
“Oh,” was all she could say.
Premitivo finished his apple and threw the core aside. Then he pointed up into the tree’s canopy, showing Esposa where the mockingbird was still perched. Then he said:
Lo que te dice el chinchonte, desatiende
Porque lo que dice, no lo entiende
Trust not in the mockingbird,
It misrepeats what it’s misheard
Esposa laughed and nodded.
“‘Ueno, Don Premitivo. You’re right,” she said. “He is not to blame. It’s those parents of his, always gossiping, always judging people, always-”
“Ya, ya, ya,” Premitivo interrupted. “Escúchame otra vez, I would give this advice to them, but they would never listen, so I will tell you instead:
Si juzgas a la gente,
de ella no esperes diferente
If others you condemn,
Expect the same from them
“Y además, amiga, you are better than all of this. Don’t be like them.”
Esposa nodded, deep in thought.
“Gracias,” she said.
“De nada, now help me up, por favor.”
Esposa helped Premitivo to his feet and then bid him farewell. She headed home, pondering his wisdom.
Premitivo stretched, yawned, and whistled to the mockingbird. It responded in kind, making him smile. Then, still whistling as he went, Premitivo, meandered around the corner.
Alcarita was still leaning out of her window, though Oralia had disappeared, likely to scratch at the dusty streets elsewhere, foraging for salacious sustenance.
“Buenas tardes, estimada señora,” Premitivo said to Alcarita as he walked by. She didn’t look at him and stuck her nose up in the air. He smiled and kept walking. Once he’d passed, Alcarita looked in every direction around her. When she was sure the coast was clear she let out a ‘psst!’ in Premitivo’s direction. He turned back to look at her and she beckoned him.
“Is there anything left in that bottle?” she whispered to him, winking.
He looked down and gave the bottle a little shake.
“Oh, yes,” he said, looking back to her. “For you, there’s always a little left.”
Alcarita looked around again. There was no one in sight.
“Come inside, rápido, I’ve missed you, hurry, hurry,” she said, retreating back from the window and closing it behind her, pulling the curtains shut as well.
Premitivo chuckled and quickly stepped through her arched portal, into her garden and then into her home.
Moments later Oralia’s round face popped around the opposite corner of Alcarita’s house, her eyes flashing behind her glasses. Then she was gone again.
Now, only the two hens remained outside the house. They clucked to one another, sharing secrets. Hidden nearby, high in the old tree’s canopy, the mockingbird