La olla sagrada. Photo by author.
Carmelita Wakes up to the Smell of Frijoles
September 30, 1983, 6:30 AM MST
Carmelita awoke to a familiar smell in the air. Still groggy, she yawned and breathed in deeply.
“Mamá está cociendo frijoles,” she muttered aloud to herself, instantly recognizing the aroma that filled her bedroom.
Beans could only start smelling this good after they’d been simmering a good four hours or so. Carmelita silently wondered exactly how early Mamá had gotten up for the beans to be so close to ready. Her mind conjured up the image of the old pot bubbling on the gas stove. Any moment now, Mamá would add the salt and start checking the skins for doneness.
She gave herself a few more luxurious moments in bed, the smells and images warming her body against the chill of the late September morning. As Carmelita’s mouth began to water, she told herself she’d have to sneak in a bowl of frijoles before work, even if it made her late.
Carmelita gasped. She bolted up in bed, disoriented. What day was it? Where was she? Was Mamá even here? Why were there beans on the stove?
Feeling slightly dizzy, Carmelita slowly surveyed the room around her. As her senses registered the surroundings, she let out a long sigh. She was in her home in Tucson. Everything was in order. Her work clothes were laid out neatly on her armchair, where she’d arranged them the night before. Her tattered blue robe hung from a hook on the back of the bedroom door. Her rosary, reading glasses, and wristwatch stared back at her from the bedside table.
A flush of relief spread across her chest.
“I must’ve been dreaming,” she laughed, touching her bare feet to the cold tile floor.
As she put on her robe, she rolled her eyes, continuing to talk to herself. “Who ever heard of dreaming about beans? There’s gotta be something better to…”
She stopped cold as she opened the bedroom door into the hallway. The smell overtook her like a tidal wave. This time her mouth didn’t water.
“Hay alguien aquí? Mamá? Who’s here?” she yelled out.
Carmelita’s thoughts spun furiously. Am I still dreaming? Did I not wake up? That smell. No one makes frijoles like Mamá. Did she sneak into the house overnight? How did she drive the 65 miles? Maybe there’s someone else in the house.
She caught herself and shook off the thoughts. Pursing her lips, she stomped loudly down the hall and pushed open the swinging door to the kitchen.
Carmelita flipped on the wall switch and blinked back the shock of light. The air was still. The stove was cool and quiet. Nothing was disturbed. She heard only the sound of her own pulse throbbing in her ears. She sniffed the air with a feral urgency and paused.
“I think it’s gone,” she whispered.
She began to cross the kitchen when it hit her again. Wafting around her, a visitation of molecular trickery. The smells of her childhood. Ajo y cebolla. Semillas de cilantro y comino, crushed just enough to release the oils. Una hoja de laurel. Granos de pimienta negra. And her mother’s secret—una bolita de pimienta gorda. The spices fried in leftover grease before adding the beans and water. All simmering in an old pot marked by decades of cooking with caliche-rich water. Waiting for hours until that moment when the plumped pinto beans split their skins. Sal al gusto.
Carmelita lunged at the percolator she’d filled with coffee and water the night before. She desperately plugged it in and then sat and waited at the kitchen table covered tidily with an old Mexican oilcloth. Holding her head in her hands, she half-cursed, half-prayed.
“Ay Tatita Dios! De dónde vienen estos fantasmas de olores!”
The percolator hissed and spat. This could be guilt, she mused. Guilt over just having told Mamá a few days ago that she would not be taking her to Magdalena for the Fiestas de San Francisco. Guilt, in fact, for not having seen Mamá since Mother’s Day. Guilt for not calling her more often. Guilt for the knot of resentment that hung heavy in her stomach every time she thought about her mother. Guilt because it had never been easy between them.
She was gradually roused by the scent of the brewing coffee. She had added bits of crushed canela to the grounds and now welcomed, like never before, the sweet bitterness that filled the room. She sprang to her feet and served herself a cup—black—savoring the feeling of solidity that slowly returned to her body with each sip.
Not wanting to jinx her relief, Carmelita raced to the bathroom. In spite of the chilly morning, she showered in cold water to ensure wakefulness. She worked the Dove bar between her hands until the lather was thick and fragrant. She scrubbed every inch of her body, shampooing her hair twice until she was confident she could counter any phantom aroma with her own clean smell.
She dressed quickly and rushed out the door. The briskness of the fall air momentarily stopped her in her tracks. The sky was dark with gathering clouds, and the wind carried the smell of rain. She doubled over taking in gulps of fresh air.
“Carmelita!” her neighbor Fidencio called from across the street. “Estás bien mi’ja? Qué te pasa?”
She looked up, almost surprised to remember there were other people in the world outside.
“Sí, sí, sí, Don Fidencio,” she waved him off. “No más son unos ejercicios para la respiración.”
She laughed nervously. Yes, that was it. Breathing exercises.
“Ahhh,” he chuckled. “Bueno pues. Cuídate mi’ja. Dicen que viene una tormenta del Pacífico.”
She smiled and nodded at the old man, hearing but not registering his words.
As she unlocked the car door, she glanced over her right shoulder at her house. The madness of the last hour was beginning to fade into a welcome haze. She rolled down the car window and started the engine. As she drove away, Carmelita momentarily realized that she was running away from the smell of a pot of frijoles just as frantically as she’d run away from home some three decades ago. She quickly banished the thought and tuned out any remaining worries with the tireless chatter of the morning radio.