Frijoles y leña. Photo by author.
Carmelita Tastes an Old Recipe for a New World
September 30, 1983, 8:08 AM MST
By the time Carmelita pulled into the office parking lot, the rain was falling in loud, hurried splatters across her windshield. It had been raining on and off all week, but the clouds that had blown in this morning seemed to arrive with newfound urgency. Realizing she’d forgotten her umbrella, Carmelita tore off the plastic garment cover from her dry cleaning hanging in the back of her car. She fashioned the plastic into a flimsy poncho over her head.
Before she opened the car door, she removed her right shoe and shook it out. The whole drive Carmelita had felt the irritating presence of a pebble digging into her foot. Nothing there. She ran a finger around the leather interior and peered into the shoe. Nada.
Carmelita rubbed her right foot and inspected the skin through her sheer pantyhose. There was a purplish discoloration at the ball of her foot and a slight protrusion just beneath the surface of the skin. She pushed at it. It was painful.
Santa María Madre de Dios! What was THAT? A blister? A splinter that’d become infected?
She clenched her teeth and dropped her forehead onto the steering wheel. First a phantom pot of frijoles and now some kind of growth on my foot.
“Siento que algiuén me está castigando!” she cried aloud.
She looked around, the rain pelting her car from every direction. She half expected to see a disapproving gaggle of spirits and santitos shaking their heads and wagging their fingers at her.
Only the rain.
She sighed, letting the sound of the storm drown out her thoughts.
She drifted back to the moment.
Chingado! The time!
She grabbed her purse and held the plastic over her head. She dashed across the parking lot and burst through the office door. Despite her efforts, she was completely soaked.
On cue, Mr. Perkins emerged from behind his office door, moving calmly and deliberately toward Carmelita’s desk in the reception area.
“It is eight after the hour, Miss Lopez.” He glanced dramatically at the old grandfather clock standing in the back corner.
“Yes, sir. I’m sorry, sir. The rain took me by surprise, and I forgot my umbrella…”
Carmelita trailed off as she dropped her purse at her desk and ripped off her makeshift, plastic poncho. She made an attempt at smoothing out her wet hair and stood awkwardly at attention, wincing as she put weight on her right foot.
Mr. Perkins closed his eyes and traced the pencil-thin line of his mustache with the tip of his index finger. He was especially fond of prolonged pauses when he felt the need to instruct Carmelita in the ways of proper office comportment. She dug her fingernails into her right palm, trying to quell the urge to roll her eyes.
He cleared his throat.
“Miss Lopez, our clients look to us for guidance in times of sudden change—security in the midst of calamity. We aren’t just in the so-called insurance business. We provide a service of constancy and stability…”
Carmelita nodded, wishing that just this once he would keep it short and simply tell her to be on time. He rambled on, getting a far-away look in his eyes.
For 27 years, she had been listening to these lectures. All for your edification, Miss Lopez. In truth there had been a time when Carmelita had hung on this man’s every word. She had arrived on his doorstep as a 22-year-old fresh out of the nuns’ secretarial school in Nogales. She didn’t have a penny to her name and was still living out of the car she’d technically stolen from her mother. But Carmelita had impressed Mr. Perkins with her exceptionally fast typing and shorthand. Most importantly, this tightly wound man had recognized that she was moldable. All those years ago, with a finger on his chin, he had given her the nod of approval. She would do.
Now Carmelita studied herself in the ornate mirror that hung on the reception wall. Her hair was frizzy from the rain. She noticed how much grayer she’d grown. She had once been a skinny kid with striking cheekbones, and now her face was round and full. Her eyes settled on the silky knot tied at her throat. Every year, Mr. Perkins would issue her a wardrobe stipend at about the time the Fall catalog for Levy’s department store came out. He’d leave the catalog on her desk with his favorites from the new season line-up circled in red ink. He always picked the silk blouses with ties. For over two decades he had been picking out her clothes.
She grimaced at her reflection in the mirror. She’d always begrudgingly assumed that she’d age into the spitting image of her mother. But Carmelita did not recognize the woman who stared back at her. She felt her brow moisten, her neck flushed with heat. Quién es esta vieja en el espejo? Who have I become?
Carmelita suddenly realized that Mr. Perkins had stopped talking. He looked bothered.
“Sir, is there something the matter?”
“There’s a smell in the air.”
She breathed in.
“I don’t smell anything, sir.”
Mr. Perkins started toward his office, scanning and breathing the air in deeply as he walked. For a moment, Carmelita pictured him like an old bloodhound. She stifled a chuckle.
“Check all the trash bins. Maybe the janitors missed something.”
He paused, sniffing again. He added:
“It’s probably your lunch. That’s what it is. Put it in the kitchen. This office smells like a two-bit Mexican restaurant.”
Carmelita began to explain, “I didn’t bring my…”
The realization struck her with sharp, decisive fangs. She was immobilized.
The smell. It was real.
She waited for Mr. Perkins to reach his office and close the door. Her right foot still aching, Carmelita limped down the hall and locked herself in the bathroom.
She kicked off her shoes and stood in front of the sink. She pumped the pink soap from the dispenser and scrubbed her hands and face.
It’s okay. There HAS to be a reasonable explanation for this. Mr. Perkins can smell it too. I’m not making it up.
Carmelita felt sweat trickling down her neck and back. She undid the silk bow and unfastened the top three buttons on her blouse. As she did, a puff of steam rose up and enveloped her—just as if she had lifted the lid from a simmering pot.
Frijoles de la olla.
Years later, Carmelita would describe the moment that followed as the experience of feeling the heavens and the earth come together. The experience of being at a crossroads in time.
Everything behind the locked bathroom door grew still. Carmelita’s breath and pulse settled. Her thoughts gathered and then cleared, as if being swept up into a dustpan and set aside.
There, in that bathroom, Carmelita saw a man. He was dressed elegantly—a black, three-piece suit, with a high white collar and silk tie neatly tucked into his vest. His skin glistened like the dark, rich depths of mole negro. He wore his greying hair very short, a straight part down the center. The man seemed almost comically out of place, as he stood in front of a fire stirring the bubbling contents of a cast iron pot with a wooden spoon. He paused, leaned over, and slurped up a taste.
“Listo! Esta es la receta de tu abuelita. Nunca la conociste.” he proclaimed.
Carmelita was so surprised to hear the Spanish coming from his mouth that she barely even registered the meaning of his words. She remained silent, suddenly unsure whether the man was speaking to her.
He laughed, then turned and held the spoon up to Carmelita’s mouth.
“Yes, I’m speaking to you. Have a taste,” he said in English.
Carmelita leaned into the spoon without a second thought. She opened her mouth to a creamy bite of beans. The taste was comforting and familiar, yet there was also something unusual about the flavor.
The man locked his gaze to Carmelita’s. His eyes danced like the sparkle of creek waters on a sunny day.
“Acuérdate de ese saborcito. That flavor you can’t recognize is no accident. At the birth of a new world, you start cooking at a higher octave,” he whispered.
He winked at her.
The man’s words jumbled Carmelita’s mind.
“Qué?” Carmelita asked.
But the man had turned away. Just before he and his pot of beans had receded completely into the invisible creases between worlds, he called back to Carmelita.
“And darlin’, you’d better tend to that foot of yours. Wouldn’t you know it? You have been cast in the likeness of your grandmother—all the way down to her blessed feet.”