Toni Margarita Plummer
Featured Image: Red Sofa 2 © David e. Bell 2017
Before her son-of-a-bitch son-in-law took off and left her with four kids to raise, after she’d raised four of her own gracias very much, Yolanda Sommer, called “Yiyo” both in Santiago, Chile and in Jackson Heights, Queens, lived with a woman named Marta De Luca. Despite being from Argentina, Marta kept a mostly clean and tastefully decorated apartment on 82nd Street, where Yiyo rented a small room with a twin bed and dresser. It was 1976, just a few years after that fateful one when all went to shit in Chile. Yiyo had slipped out before La Moneda went up in smoke to follow her maricón brother who’d got an engineering job in “America.” As if Los Estados was the only America around. The neighborhood was shitty, full of drugs and all kinds of bad things. But if José could live there, Yiyo could live there. She was over fifty now but she could still turn heads, and she figured there was less chance she’d be raped in a neighborhood full of gays.
José had wanted his own place and she couldn’t blame him. The man had lived his entire life with their mother, up until she died, when he felt it was finally permissible for him to leave. But he came to Yiyo’s apartment every week and gave her money. She would make him empanadas de queso and they’d drink the Chilean vino rojo he picked up at the liquor store around the corner. José would rave about Pinochet and what good things he was doing for Chile, for the economy. Her brother, the maricón lover-of-dictators. When Yiyo didn’t join in on his Pinochet worship, he’d wave her off and call her una communista. Well, so what? She didn’t like the look of that pompous asshole.
But worse than carrying bags full of groceries past hungry junkies and José swooning over Pinochet like he was his fucking boyfriend every fucking time she saw him was Marta the Argentine. Not surprisingly, Marta thought very highly of herself. Every morning at eight, she’d put Italian opera on the record player and attempt to sing along. The woman thought she was a first soprano, but Yiyo had heard dying dogs that sounded better. At dinner she’d talk about how when she was young in Buenos Aires, handsome, rich men would take her to El Teatro Colon and to gourmet meals in La Recoleta. As if Yiyo wanted to hear this. As if it wouldn’t take more than a little imagination to see this fat, sweaty woman, who couldn’t even fry an egg or do her hair properly, mind you, as once being a sophisticated beauty. How she ended up in this run-down Queens neighborhood or what became of those men, Marta never said. And Yiyo never asked. She just waited until la gorda finished talking and hoped this wasn’t one of those times when she’d go off about being una estudiante de los artes bellas.
The apartment was filled with endless battles. Chilean poetry versus Argentine. Chilean soccer versus Argentine. Chilean wine versus Argentine.
And then there were the manjar versus maté mornings. Marta would sit at the kitchen table, sucking out of that stupid gourd with her “bombilla” like some overweight Indian, and Yiyo would sit with her toast and manjar, that sweet, smooth goodness filling her, calling to mind the home she left behind.
Marta would ask for the hundredth time, “What do you call that again? I always forget.”
No shit, Yiyo would think. But out loud, because Marta would complain about her bad language, she would say, “Manjar.”
“I thought it was dulce de leche.”
“But it says right there on the jar—”
“It’s called manjar!”
Was it Yiyo’s fault they couldn’t label things properly here? The jar did say “dulce de leche” and that it was an Uruguayan product. Who knew anything about Uruguay? And who had ever met a person from Uruguay? Not Yiyo. And did she want to? No gracias. All she knew was that this creamy concoction had the taste and consistency of manjar, the nectar of her life. She would know it anywhere.
It was because of these painful mornings that Yiyo finally began spooning the manjar out of the plastic containers and putting it into a washed-out glass mayonnaise jar she kept especially for this purpose. Marta kept asking her stupid questions but at least she couldn’t point her fat finger at the label anymore.
Yiyo would always offer some to Marta to taste, and Marta would pretend to consider, but she would always say no. “It must be very fattening,” she would add, as if she didn’t consume twenty bonbons a day. Then she would offer Yiyo a sip of her maté, and Yiyo would pretend to consider, but she would always say no. “I don’t think it’s polite to share drinks,” she would say, and Marta’s chubby face would redden and she’d tighten her grip on the metal straw.
Probably the one thing that helped Yiyo keep her sanity sharing an apartment the size of three bathtubs with this woman were the Friday nights when she and Marta would “entertain,” as Marta said, a few ladies from the neighborhood. Every Friday night at 8 the women would ring the doorbell and walk up the three flights of stairs to the tumultuous apartment. There was the Irish viejita Mary, la Colombiana Marisol, and la negra Margo.
Marta and Yiyo would busy themselves pushing as many of their country’s products on the women as possible. Marta would make a big show of bringing out a thermos to refill the gourd of maté. What did she think they were doing, camping? When everyone had come dangerously close to getting sick, between Marisol’s homemade cookies, the Chilean wine, and that bitter, horrid maté (Yiyo had tried some once when Marta wasn’t looking), they’d play gin rummy at the kitchen table with the window open so Marisol could smoke. Except for these nights, Yiyo was never allowed to smoke inside the apartment. She had to freeze her ass off on the fire escape. But Marta wouldn’t have dared tell Marisol to go out on the fire escape. Marisol was only forty and the strongest of all of them. Plus, she had two sons in the local gang. No one messed with her. She’d feathered and dyed her hair blond last year and one woman at the beauty parlor had made a joke. The next day that woman fell down the subway stairs. Was it an accident? The woman wouldn’t say. But Marta, in an unusual display of common sense, wasn’t taking any chances. Marta must have figured Marisol could kick her fat ass.
Marisol was nice enough. She was also the only one having any sex, and she wasn’t shy about it. So that counted for something. Marisol seemed to like hanging out with them too, even Mary. But you would have been crazy not to. That old bag was the biggest riot ever. She’d dance her way to the bathroom and pose like she was Marilyn Monroe, arching one eyebrow and puckering her shriveled lips. Yiyo was willing to bet a case of manjar that this woman had more grace and personality at eighty than Marta had ever had. No, Marisol and Mary were both good. Margo was another story.
It’s not that she was black as night, or that her family was from one of those islands you can never keep straight—what did Yiyo care? What really annoyed Yiyo was that Margo had taken to eyeing the apartment like a stray dog who’d found a home. What a nice place! Where did you get that rug? I love the color scheme in here. Like she’d just seen it for the first time. Every. Fucking. Friday. The way she talked someone would think they lived in a mansion. A mansion on 82nd Street with roaches in the kitchen and drunks cursing on the street below.
Of course Marta ate up every word. “Oh yes, I decorated it all by myself. The sink doesn’t work, I snap my fingers, and poof the landlord comes. And handsome too!” Handsome, Yiyo’s ass. That bald pervert. One good thing about Margo was that she gave Marta someone to talk to.
It was Friday, just a few days before Christmas, and the odd threesome were making their way up the stairs once again. Yiyo could hear them as she brushed out her hair in her room. She had been afraid they might not come at all. The snow was coming down hard. They were supposed to get six inches tonight. Mary couldn’t walk so far, but bless her viejita heart, these nights must have been like red-hot dates for her.
“Bienvenidos, fine ladies!” That was Marta. “What we playing tonight, goils? I say two pennies to start.” That was Mary. “I just sucked the biggest dick I’ve ever seen! At least on a Mexican.” That was Marisol. “Such pretty curtains!” That was Margo.
The women had come bearing gifts, which they left on the sofa. Once all the coats and scarves and hats were put away, they set up the game in the kitchen. There were only three chairs, so Yiyo usually stood and leaned on the stove. This meant that she could usually see some cards, but she figured she deserved the views given that she had to stand. Marta sat on the stepstool, appearing shorter than everyone.
They’d been playing and drinking the eggnog that Margo brought for over two hours when Marisol brought up the story.
“You’ve never heard the story of Reynalda Flores?” Marisol asked. She lit up another cigarette and Marta got up once again to fetch the ashtray she’d put away, her not-so-subtle hints to Marisol failing miserably.
“Oh, not that, it’s so scary,” Margo said.
“I haven’t heard the story,” Yiyo said, hoping Marisol would continue.
“It happened at Christmastime. She used to live right across the street from you.”
“I don’t remember anyone named Reynalda Flores,” Marta said, setting the ashtray back and awkwardly lowering herself onto her stool.
“She found out her husband was cheating on her. And so one day she was making him pozole.”
“What’s pozole?” Mary asked.
“It’s a Mexican dish, a soup,” Marisol said with some authority. “She made the pozole and she put some poison in it.”
“What kind of poison?” Marta asked, shocked.
“How should I know?”
No one said that Marisol should have known, as she was the one telling the story.
“Anyways, she serves it to her husband and he eats it. She waits for him to keel over but he just says thank you, puts on his hat and leaves for work. She thinks maybe she didn’t put enough poison in or maybe he’ll die later. He doesn’t come back at night. But there he is the next morning. So she serves him again and this time she adds more poison. But the man still doesn’t die. This goes on for days. He’s always there in the morning to eat his pozole. No matter how much she poisons him.
“Well, Christmas day the police come knocking on her door. A dead man was found in an alley a few days ago, stabbed and robbed, and they’ve just now identified him as her husband Eduardo!”
Marta gasped so loudly that Yiyo had to laugh. “You think we believe that?” Yiyo asked.
“I’m not finished!” Marisol exclaimed. “Reynalda goes into the kitchen the next morning, and there her husband is as always, sitting at the table waiting for breakfast. She goes to the stove to prepare the pozole and sets it before him. He tastes the soup, frowns, and tells her, ‘The pozole tastes funny. Did you do something different?’ And Reynalda says, ‘Just eat it you son-of-a-bitch. If you think I’m giving you my good chiles now that you’re dead, you’re loco.’” Marisol burst out laughing.
“You’re the one who’s loca!” Yiyo groaned, but she was smiling. “You got us all worked up.”
“It’s a true story!” Marisol insisted.
“Bullshit! Where is this Reynalda so we can ask her if it’s true?” Yiyo asked.
“That’s the thing. After the funeral, no one saw her again. The women say because of her hard heart and because she denied her dead husband his favorite dish, she was put into a trance and died, and now walks the earth forever hungry for her precious chiles.”
“And you say they lived in this neighborhood?” Marta asked. That seemed to be the part about the dead-man-eating-poisoned-pozole story that she was most concerned with.
Marisol blew out a ring of smoke. “On this very street.”
The women didn’t leave until well after midnight. It had stopped snowing, and Yiyo and Marta watched from the window as the three trudged through the snow. Yiyo said goodnight and Marta said goodnight and they each went to their rooms, silently agreeing they’d clean up the mess in the morning.
Yiyo tossed and turned and couldn’t sleep. She kept having nightmares of being lost in the desert. She finally got up to get a glass of water. The white Christmas lights were still on in the kitchen. When she flipped on the switch she saw a figure at the table.
“Marta! You scared the shit out of me!” Yiyo screamed.
“I’m sorry. I couldn’t sleep. I’m boiling water if you want tea.”
“Ay, mujer. Okay.” Yiyo rubbed her face and sat down at the table. “I’m so tired.”
“Did that story scare you?” Marta asked, fidgeting.
“Of course not. It wasn’t real.”
“Yes, I mean it probably wasn’t. I just kept thinking about my ex-husband and, I mean, if he had died, I probably wouldn’t even know it.”
Yiyo looked up at Marta—she looked more worried than she’d ever seen her. “I haven’t spoken to my husband in years,” she said quietly.
“I didn’t know you were married,” Marta said.
“Well, I don’t like to talk about it. I left him in Chile.”
Marta got up and opened the refrigerator door. “If a ghost came, we would have nothing to feed him.”
“Can you imagine having to feed your husband in the eternity?” Yiyo asked. If her husband ever came here as a ghost he’d demand a churrasco with lots of mayonnaise. Yiyo thought of the mayonnaise jar in the refrigerator. She imagined slathering manjar on his meat sandwich and she laughed.
“What’s so funny?” Marta asked.
“Oh, just thinking of Luis. He always had to have his sandwich just so.”
“You know, I still make sandwiches without the crust. And Benjamin is the one who would eat them that way, not me. I just got used to it.”
“I wondered why you did that,” Yiyo said. “I thought you were just picky.”
“No, it was him.”
Yiyo nodded. “Well, I guess we don’t have to do things the same way anymore, do we?”
They stayed up all night, sitting at the kitchen table, sharing toast with manjar and a gourd of maté, which Yiyo drank without making a face. They waited until Christmas to open their gifts—from Margo, a vase that suited the apartment perfectly, from Mary, the new Cher album, and from Marisol, an extra large ceramic ashtray that said Atlantic City! José her brother gave them a Christmas card addressed to “My two favorite ladies,” and Yiyo didn’t even think once about slapping him.
Toni Margarita Plummer is the author of a story collection, The Bolero of Andi Rowe, and a winner of the Miguel Mármol Prize. She earned a Master of Professional Writing from the University of Southern California and is a Macondo Fellow. A freelance editor who has worked in the publishing industry for over ten years, Plummer lives in the Mid-Hudson Valley.
David e Bell
is a wordsmith, photographer, engineer, and sailor. His home port is Nyack, New York, on the great Hudson River, just below Hook Mountain.