Author: Joe Basile
Around a slow, crackling, campfire, sat the likes of Enrique; Jack, and the one they would call, “Mama Rita”.
After a run-in with the law, Enrique found sanctuary in a community living under an overpass. At first, he felt his presence to be a temporary arrangement.
But, after feeling the warmth; love, and charitable kindness from “Mama Rita”, he felt inclined to stay. And Mama Rita couldn’t ever take “no” for an answer.
He missed his hometown and family, back in Chiuaha, Mexico, but had to make due with the circumstances given.
The only way he could reconcile with his Madr’e and Poppa now, would be to reminisce about their cooking,
whenever Mama Rita lit up a fire and threw on whatever happened to be her “catch of the day”. Tonight, it was squirrel.
If he twisted his squirrel on a stick, just right, he could detect hints of charred Poblano peppers.
When he tore off its flesh, he could savor the taste of slow-roasted goat, if he closed his eyes hard enough.
The only thing missing from his homelife fantasy, was some of his Grandma’s classic salsa verd’e. He just couldn’t seem to replicate that taste, no matter how hard he tried.
Enrique leaned over to Jack and offered him a piece. Wondering if maybe somebody else could taste his homeland.
“You want some, senor’?” His words were muffled by half macerated squirrel and broken English.
“Ain’t ya learnt how ta talk yet there, sonny? I couldn’t hear a damn thing ya said.” Jack whacked Enriques shin with his cane, more-so aiming for his knee.
Jack was a mean old drunk, with some left-over racist tendencies, back before karma inflicted him with a cataract disease.
Now he had to rely hand-and-foot on people of color, to bring him, what an old; blind, decaying, man, could no longer provide for himself. “Here, eat”.
Enrique brought the hunk of squirrel closer to Jacks nose. Jack fumbled his shaking hand toward the smell and popped it into his mouth. A rare grin crept up to Jacks lips.
“Say there, Mama Rita. That’s the best dang squirrel roast yet.” Mama Rita responded with a “mhmm”, in response to Jack. As if announcing her cooking was good was like announcing water was wet.
Then, she picked up a pot and waddled over to the river. Setting it down on the shore-line to gather up large sticks. “Say, Enrique, could ya help me out real quick.
An’ boil up this pot a wata?” Enrique swallowed his dinner and wiped the grease away from his light 5’oclock shaddow. Rubbing his hands on his tattered dark blue Levi’s.
“Si’, Madre Rita!” He ran over to help her.
Enrique took the pot of water, but Mama Rita held on. Not letting go at first. “No honey, it’s MA-MA Rita, child. Say it wit me.
” Enriques light green eyes peered up at Mama Rita, as he lipped out the word “Mama”, sounding it out with her. “I reckon he’d drop that Mexican shit by now, tell ya what.
” Jacks aging vocal chords just barely registered over the roar of the river.
Hip raised; eyes daggered, sticks dropped, Jack caught the wrath of a full-attentioned Mama Rita lashing. “At least he learnin’, ya ain’t learnt how to do a damn thang but be a grumpy old coot.
You bout as helpful as wata on a grease fire. Shoot.”
Nearby community dwellers laughed as they hung up their laundry. Throwing their garments over a fish-line, connected by two adjacent trees. Jack sat quiet and toothpicked out some squirrel meat.
Enrique built the fire back up to a roaring flame and heaved a rusted out BBQ grate on top. Then, placed the pot of water on the grate and waited for the bubbles to pop up.
Mama Rita waddled her wide frame back from the river, wincing as she stepped over the sharp rocks. She plopped herself down on a log next to Enrique, letting out a sigh of labored breathing.
“Oh lawt almighty. This fanny is fat and these bones is old.” Mama Rita placed her feet on Enriques lap, letting him work his “latino magic” as she put it.
Jack tried sneaking a swig out of his flask. Mama Rita's head snapped back up. “Nuh-uh Mr. Jack! You best put that poison down, right now! Ya know betta.
” Jack capped his flask and placed it back in his tattered sock. Complaining under his breath.
“Jack, honey, make yaself useful and widdle more sticks. They to your right, on the ground.” Jack felt around for the sticks and picked up the largest one.
He then cracked open his Swiss Army knife and began whittling a spear with expert level precision. Enrique looked at Mama Rita and pointed up, then down, indicating nightfall.
He became good at his own made-up version of sign language. A skill he attained while too busy on the road.
Way too busy to sit down and learn a fucked up language such as American English, in its entirety.
Mama Rita adjusted her robust behind over her log and poked the fire with a stick. Manipulating the tree branches so they’d burn more effectively.
“Yeah, I know, I know… but we ain’t got no clean drinkin’ water. Once this batch is done we’ll wrap it up fo’ the night. Alright, honey?” Enrique nodded.
Now having taken Enrique under her wing, Mama Rita became more paranoid over what she called “the invaders”. Enrique never quite understood what she meant by “invaders”.
But then again, most of the language around him consisted of merely sounds and noises he never understood. He learned a few common greetings.
After his 8th winning-streak knock out, from his days as a touring fighter, he also learned how to count up to 10 in English.
After a few months of living with Rita and her “family”, he learned her commands.
But mostly, he just went along with whatever was going on at the time, without fully understanding what it was they were doing before they did it.
The fire had to be stomped out before dark. Lanterns and flashlights were to be shut off. Everyone had to remain quiet until sunrise.
A quota of whittled spears and traps were to be made, every day.
Whenever Mama Rita would yell the word “invaders”, everyone laid down flat from wherever they were, and remained quiet until Mama Rita announced it was clear.
It’s just what they did, and Enrique went along with it. As long as he wasn’t in jail and had a meal to look forward to, he was happy.
Night had fallen and it was finally time to fill everyone's canteens. Enrique ran the cooled water through a tea cloth as all of the community dwellers lined up around the fire.
He gave everyone their portion of water, as Mama Rita wrapped everyone in a blanket and walked them back to their tents.
Jack showed up last after whittling nearly twenty spears. His body shivered against the chill of the pacific northwest breeze. Something Enrique himself was still trying to get used to.
“More-o, water-o, alright sonny? Did ya git that?” Enrique squinted his eyes. He had no idea what Jack said, but knew it had to be negative.
Both of them had been at each others necks for no good reason ever since Mama Rita brought Enrique to their community.
“Agua, el’ pour-o, more.” Enrique squinted with even more confusion. “More ya dang wetback”, Jack impatiently barked out, as his cane whacked against Enriques shin.
Wetback, was definitely a word Enrique had known. He remembered hearing it from a gringo tourist back in his country. And a few other times from when he was fighting in the ring.
Heaps of popcorn and flying water bottles usually followed the word as it was yelled out from the crowd.
On top of that, he understood getting hit with a cane, as violence was a universal language. Instinctively, Enrique snatched Jacks cane and threw it in the river.
He then yanked Jack by his red flannel and punched his eyebrow with a swift left hook.
Enrique slipped a little on the forest debris as he swung, making his left hook not quite the devastating knockout blow it used to be. Still, Jacks frail bones dropped to the ground.
“Don’t...hit! Old man…” Enrique pointed his finger at Jack, just like his Mom used to do to him and his brothers back home. Jacks voice grew increasingly worried as he fumbled for his cane.
”Now… why’d ya go and do that… I… can’t… I… need that, sonny…” Enrique quickly regretted what he did.
Hitting an old man was one thing, but ripping away Jacks cane was like poking out somebody’s eyes. Enrique looked at the river, but saw no sign of the cane.
The tide was just strong enough and the river was just deep enough, to snatch any loose object off and into oblivion.