Chapter 2. In the Kitchen

Marlie Mendíval disengaged a mug from the precarious tower of dishes piled beside the stained porcelain sink. Her granddaughter Samantha might be a mediocre dishwasher, but the child stacked dishes with an arch-builder’s skill. Marlie placed a filter cone on the mug—on which was printed “Well-behaved women seldom make history” beside a picture of Rosie the Riveter—and with careful concentration trickled steaming water onto the coffee grounds, watching them sink like fragrant black earth into the center of the cone.
She was procrastinating. No, she was grounding herself. “The groundskeeper grounds herself in coffee grounds,” she said aloud.
She carried the mug over to the kitchen table, sat down, and took a sip, breathing in the rich aroma as she gazed out at the crimson leaves of the maple outside the window. “You won’t see fall colors like that in Mexico, chica,” Marlie told herself. “Be glad you’re in Maryland.” Though she’d lived in the States since she was a young child, this longing for her native country often pounced on her, especially in moments of self-doubt. “Mexico is nowhere to be,” she declared to the empty room, “when your problem is dinero.”
A breeze on her neck made her shiver. Her gaze shifted to the window over the sink, where the ancient wooden sash at the bottom was disintegrating despite the putty she had pressed into the widening gaps. A whole new crack had opened up, she saw, giving ever freer access to the November chill. Marlie sighed. Despite her constant guerrilla war against entropy, Rainwood House was slowly being absorbed back into the earth.
Marlie stuck her chilly hands into the sleeves of the rosa mexicana sweatshirt she wore under the loose embroidered huipil purchased years before at the Mercado de Artesanías in Mexico City. She looked down at the little paper castle Samantha had constructed that morning out of the mail—all bills and credit card offers—which had piled up for weeks. Inflating her lungs, she blew out an explosive huff and toppled the envelopes onto the table in a white splash. “Sorry, amor,” she remarked, then picked up one of the envelopes and ripped it open. It was a letter from Pepco threatening to cut off her lights if she didn’t send them $168.43 by November 16, 2006. This coming Tuesday, she noted, glancing at the Peace Calendar hanging over the bookshelf. She and Samantha turned off lights and used fluorescents, and anyway most of Rainwood House’s rooms had no working electricity, but after several months even a modest bill mounted up.
The next envelope sported a jaunty red stripe. “Verizon,” Marlie pronounced with distaste. “Disgusting name.” She pictured the telephone company CEOs’ faces full of verugas—warts. “Payment of $397.23 due immediately,” the letter scolded. “Union-busting bastards,” she muttered, stuffing the single sheet back in the envelope.
She grabbed another envelope and frowned. “Retriever Masters,” read the return address. Had Samantha ordered a puppy? A precocious nine-year-old who often watched while Marlie downloaded music, Samantha would have had little trouble opening the computer file where her grandmother kept all her passwords and account numbers—it was labeled “SEC” for SECRET—and placing an internet order. Marlie pictured a voracious big-footed hairball bouncing out of a UPS box. Pursing her lips, which made her mouth turn down severely at the corners, she tore open the envelope and was relieved, relatively speaking, to note that it was merely a collection agency with a cute name dogging her for payment of $47.58 to Ranger Rick. Marlie had sacrificed her subscriptions to The Nation, Color Lines, and La Jornada, but she couldn’t bring herself to stop Samantha’s beloved animal magazine.
Gritting her teeth, she opened the dreaded blue envelope, the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission quarterly bill, and forced herself to look. Five-hundred-seventy dollars! For water that leaked right out of Rainwood House’s miles of rusty pipes.
She glared out at the mass of red maple leaves filling the window. Working in the Grounds Department at the University of Maryland was a decent job, with benefits. The pay was modest, but until now she had managed to cover the basics for herself and Samantha and, somehow, keep Rainwood House from falling down around them. But last month’s clutch repair on her old Civic—over six-hundred dollars!—had hit her just after she splurged on a new laptop (its fuchsia color had been irresistible, and her old one had been such a dinosaurio). And then she’d bought the gorgeous four-foot tall Bird-of-Paradise in the beautiful Puebla ceramic pot on sale at Flora’s Flowers, a bargain at ninety-seven dollars. Marlie swiveled in her chair to admire the magnificent plant, but it could not distract her from the credit card bill she’d glimpsed in the pile, its usurious interest rate gnawing constantly at her mind and bank account, not to mention her credit rating.
She turned back to the table, scooped up a handful of envelopes and tossed them in the air. “Money! Get away!” she sang. “Get a good job with good pay and you’re okay!” She scatted a few bars of the guitar riff, then broke off and addressed the snake plant atop the bookcase. “Maybe in the seventies, but not nowadays. Not with a kid and an old car and a huge, ancient, drafty, leaky house. No offense,” she added, glancing up at the discolored plaster of the kitchen ceiling. She performed an air-guitar flourish and belted out, “Money, so they say, is the root of all evil today!”
The breeze rustled in the potted herbs on the ledge of the rotten window, and in the leaves of the kangaroo vine and monkey plant hanging above it, sounding like polite applause. Marlie made the plants an ironic bow. “Face facts,” she told them firmly. “We’ve got to rent rooms.” She enunciated these words slowly, first in English and then in Spanish. “I mean, we’ll start a casa colectiva.” That sounded better.
Marlie stepped nearer the window and inhaled a deep breath of the autumn air seeping through the rotten sash. The scent conjured up fire-singed corn husks and brilliant gold-orange zempatzuchitl flowers from her earliest days. She felt her mother’s hand pulling her through the crowds in the market on the Día de los Muertos, then home through Santa María la Ribera, the old Mexico City neighborhood where she was born, full of children running in and out of the crumbling stucco vecindad where they lived. On her face she felt the touch of soft petals and the pungent scent of the marigolds her mother handed her to place on the little courtyard altar by the concrete washing sinks. And then, the sudden cool dimness when her mother opened the apartment door so Marlie could run in and do a flying leap onto the big bed where they all slept together.
She had loved their tiny vivienda, but was happy enough to move, along with her mother and baby brother, upstairs to her abuelos’ two-room flat, which had windows. The bad thing was that her papi was gone. She often remembered his serious black eyes and soft voice explaining to her, just before he left, how he wanted his union to be democrática for all the electrical workers. “De-mo-crá-tica,” four-year-old Marlie had repeated solemnly. “But a fat fish named Rodríguez Alcaine hates la democracia,” her father said, “He won’t let my friends and me work anymore.” With an angry snort he’d added, “Somebody kills Kennedy, but no one touches that evil pez gordo.” Marlie had seen on the cousins’ TV some confusing pictures of gray, sad people, and a slow-moving lump they said was a dead Kennedy. She didn’t like her papi going to a place where that bad thing had just happened, but he told her not to worry, that up in El Norte he wasn’t important enough for anybody to shoot him.
Marlie was nearly eight by the time her papi got enough money to bring her, along with her mother, brother and grandmother (her grandfather had died the year before) on a long, long trip ending at a faded white house in Riverdale, Maryland. When Marlie asked her papi to show her the democracia he’d found there, he had blown out a breath and rolled his eyes. The strange new streets had no tienditas or fruit stands or flocks of children, but Marlie had felt reassured inside the little house because it was full of a familiar press of people who all looked and talked like her relatives and neighbors back in Mexico.
After six years, by working five jobs between them, her parents finally earned enough to stop sharing the house. “Finalmente, we have space!” her mother had exulted, but Marlie had wished the rooms still contained people instead of only furniture, echoes, and her annoying little brother.
When Marlie went back to Mexico at nineteen to study anthropology, she was overjoyed to live once again in her crowded childhood vecindad, sharing her abuelos’ old apartment with several cousins, and even happier to move to a microscopic place closer to her school—the Escuela Nacional de Antropología e Historia—with four or five fellow students. Standing now in the enormous kitchen of Rainwood House, Marlie smiled at memories of the philosophical discussions, revolutionary music and poetry, gossip, and laughter that had filled the miniscule apartment until all hours.
Another sip of coffee, however, reminded her of the roommate who drank up every pot and never replenished it. And the one who burned the food; and the other whose dramas drove everyone nuts. And the upstairs neighbor who had threatened to sic the police on them if they didn’t shut up with all the late night noise. “Don’t romanticize collective living,” Marlie cautioned herself, and thought, with an unpleasant tightening in her stomach, of how badly the earlier Rainwood House collective—if it could be called that—had ended.
Marlie surveyed the leafy inhabitants of her kitchen. Plants had their challenges, but they were easier housemates than people.
The back door slammed. A lanky child in a baggy orange sweatshirt bounded into the kitchen and threw herself into one of the rickety chairs. In a practiced move, she flipped off muddy cleats without using her hands. “¡Hola, Abue!” she cried. “I bounced the ball on my knees without dropping it six thousand times!” The girl lifted each of her dirty knees as evidence. She ran a muddy hand through her tangle of dark red hair, which was gathered into several messy ponytails, one tied with a thin string from which hung a wilted yellow balloon.
“Excelente, amor,” Marlie replied, picking up the mud-caked shoes. “You’ll be the next Jess.” Bend It Like Beckham was one of their favorite videos. “Put these on the doormat and then wash your hands.”
The girl hooked a sneaker on each fist and opened her arms wide. As she prepared to fly out to the mudroom her glance fell on the envelope-strewn table. “Abue, you ruined my house!”
“Sorry, chulita,” Marlie replied. “Unfortunately, the building material was bills.”
“Hey, it was a bill-ding!” Samantha chortled as she flew out to the mudroom, dropped her shoes, and dashed back into the kitchen in her socks. Seeing her Abue smiling her upside-down smile made Samantha feel happy, because she didn’t get to see it that often. Samantha loved her Abue’s smile, but also all kinds of upside-down-ness, which was why she adored bats and sloths, and also hanging upside down from her Rainwood House’s porch, even though the across-the-street neighbor always scolded her about it.
“Chulita,” her Abue said, “we are lacking mucho dinero.” She rubbed her thumb and forefinger together in the Mexican sign for money.
“Get some from the capitalistas,” Samantha suggested briskly. That was obvious—they had all the money. She opened the tap. A brassy note like an elephant’s trumpeting blared from the faucet. Samantha joined in with her own bugle call.
Marlie covered her ears. “Basta, chicas!” she called out. “You and the plumbing both need music lessons! Unfortunately, chulita,” she went on, “capitalists are rich because they don’t share.” She sat down at the table and stared morosely at the bills.
Samantha shut the tap and took a big drink, watching her Abue’s face over the rim of her cup. Black curls with a few glints of silver fluttered around her Abue’s cheeks, with their high, round cheekbones which reminded Samantha of the brown hills of California where her mami Vivi lived. Clunking her cup down on the table, she asked, “So are we in a depression, Abue?”
“Not quite yet, amor.”
“Well, if we get in a depression and jump out a window we probably won’t die since we don’t live in a skyscraper. But we might break some bones,” Samantha added thoughtfully.
“No one is jumping out of windows around here, and I mean it.” Marlie fixed the child in a stern gaze. “Besides,” she added, “we have a solution. We are going to become a collective household.” She felt an unexpected puff of excitement in her stomach.
Samantha looked blank.
“We’ll rent rooms,” Marlie clarified unwillingly.
The girl clapped her hands. “Yay! A boarding house! Me and Detective Drunella will solve all the mysteries that happen to the boarders!” Detective Drunella was Samantha’s invisible friend.
“Believe it or not, chulita, boarding houses are not very exciting.” Marlie knew Samantha was thinking of the Kit books, set during the Great Depression, and ten-year-old Kit’s sleuthing adventures among the lodgers who board with her family after the father loses his job. “Anyway, this won’t be a boarding house but a collective. And we’ll start with one person at a time,” Marlie said firmly, “unless they come together.”
“You mean, like, a family, with kids?” asked Samantha eagerly.
Marlie nodded, but frowned. Families were so undemocratic.
Samantha jumped up and began twirling across the worn linoleum tiles of the kitchen floor in her stocking feet. “I’ll do like Kit did, dust by skating down the halls in socks.” She performed swiping motions across the floor in her mud-spattered socks (one was orange and the other red-and-yellow striped). “And I’ll build a tree house to sleep in, so people can stay in my room…” She took a running start and slid several feet before bumping into the table.
“Okay, but wait ‘til summer, mi amor.” Marlie walked to the ancient floppy-handled refrigerator and began absently rummaging for edibles, feeling encouraged by Samantha’s enthusiasm. Two populations in the area who commonly rented rooms were Latin American workers and University of Maryland grad students. Normally, they lived in parallel universes, the workers (including herself) plodding unnoticed among the students, cleaning their buildings, tending their lawns, serving their food. What if she brought workers and students together in Rainwood House on an equal footing? She could study the resulting micro-culture, possibly leading to a renewal of her anthropology studies, which she had abandoned just before her last semester when her ex, Blake, had persuaded her to leave Mexico to come to DC in 1981.
Then again, she mused, careless, self-centered students were the last people she wanted in her house. And university workers were always stressed out. Maybe there were people out there who were progressive and collective-oriented, but also sane and cheerful.
Marlie took a small plate of leftover lentils out of the fridge and popped it in the microwave, staring moodily at Sourpuss, her blue complaint clock with the ticking tail and rolling eyes.
When the bell dinged she set the lentils in front of Samantha. “Gracias, Abue,” the child said, studying the brown lumpy mass. “Hey, guess what this looks like!” She bent down and sniffed. “Okay, it’s not.” She lowered her face to the food and began nibbling like a dog.
Marlie rolled her eyes in an unconscious imitation of Sourpuss. “Want orange juice?”
Samantha shook her head. Grabbing her mug, she bounced over to the sink and opened the faucet, which let out another bleat. Samantha joined in, braying, “Waltzing Matilda, waltzing Matilda, we’ll go a-waltzing Matilda for free!”

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