Before Rodney Carpenter can say, “Que tenga buen dia,” Señora Garcia rushes out of the apartment and slams the door behind her.
“That bitch is a bitch,” detective Tony Guadalupe says emphatically. He turns his head to look at the door, then takes a sip of tea and uses the edge of his fork to cut another piece of apple pie from the slice on his plate.
“That she is,” Rodney says, nodding in agreement.
“Is she always like that, your neighbor?”
“Only when I make pie. A good pie needs heat. It has to bake in a 450 degrees oven more than forty-five minutes before it’s done. Then it has to cool.”
“Well, she ought to cool down, too.”
“This is an old building. My oven is above her cold water pipe. When I heat up the oven, I also heat up her water. You’d think she’d like the warm water for her bath, but nope. She comes up here, bangs on my door, and says she wants a cold drink and that I’m ruining her life with my pie making.”
“Looks to me like her bitchiness has already ruined it.”
“She’s fine, just lonely, like a lot of old folks around here. You know how it is with some people, they want the bed warm but the pillow cold.
“You do make a killer pie,” the detective adds, with his mouth full. “You gay guys know how to cook.”
“Bake, detective. It’s bake a pie. There’s a difference between cooking and baking.”
“I have to get this recipe for my wife.”
“It’s not hard. Just tell her to use fresh fruit. I add some pears to the apples, too. That’s what gives the pie a pleasant tang. But be careful with the pears. They’re slippery once pealed.”
“OK, now tell me. Yesterday, when all this shit came down, what did you see?”
“I told you. I didn’t see anything. I only heard two ‘bangs’ that sounded like gunshots. It sounded like they came from the apartment across the courtyard.”
“Gun shots. How would you know if they were gun shots?”
“The army taught me to shoot. I know the difference between a gunshot and a car backfiring.”
“You were in the army?”
Rodney pours the detective more tea. The amber liquid fills the porcelain teacup with a laughing sound like the sound of a miniature fountain.
“More pie?” Rodney asks.
When Rodney makes a pie, he prefers to buy fresh fruit instead of canned pie filling. Sometimes he’ll mix apples and pears and add a handful of raisins, too. Rodney will tell anyone who asks that shopping for apples to make a good pie is not as easy as you might think.
Rodney will also tell you that where he lives in Chicago used to be a nice neighborhood until the Mexicans and the drug gangs moved in. Everyday now brings with it new trouble.
He can hear the police and fire sirens almost every hour now, as they race to a new shooting or altercation. He used to be able to write in peace and quiet, but not anymore. The sirens wake him up at night. It’s especially bad on weekends.
Rodney likes Mexican food and some Mexican art, but mostly he tries to avoid the rest of what the illegal immigrants bring. Don’t talk to him about Mexican culture, either. He will tell you, “What culture! Mexican culture is an accordion trying to be a violin,” he will say to whomever asks.
Many of Rodney friends don’t understand what he’s talking about when he uses his made up metaphors. Accordions, violins, what do they have to do with international relation? Few know that Rodney collects accordion jokes. He will tell you that for some reason there are hardly any accordion jokes in English.
Jokes aside, his perspective on the Mexico/US border doesn’t mean he has no sympathy for his neighbor, Angelita Maria. She’s a beautiful, young woman, with a face like the sweet face of the Virgin Mary you’d see in a painting in some dimly lit Mexican cathedral. Rodney feels sorry for her. She tries to be faithful, with two young boys and her husband gone, but Rodney knows she can do better than being strapped to the cabrón she was forced to marry while still a girl.
Now that Rodney is retired, he spends his morning writing, and then has tea around 1 o’clock. After that, he goes for a walk around the neighborhood, down to the lakeshore, and finishes the afternoon with a trip to the supermarket.
Rodney is looking for some firm Granny Smith and Red Delicious apples for his next pie. He is surprised to see Angelita Maria at Aldi’s, as he picks through the apples. After what had happened to her brother, you’d think she’d stay home until the police had finished their report.
Angelita Maria is with her two boys by the tomatoes. Her beauty seems to Rodney out of place in this bright, florescent arcade. Her beauty is the kind an Aztec warrior would risk his life to save from the jaws of a bloodthirsty jaguar.
“Buenos dias, Angelita Maria.”
“Señor Carpenter! Buenos dias,” Angelita Maria says with a voice that sings.
The two boys smile when they see Rodney. They like him. Years from now, if you asked the older boy about Rodney, he might say that back then he had wished Rodney were the father he seldom saw. For now, the boys just stand there under the bright supermarket lights. They are hardly tall enough to see above the bins piled high with apples, but they can see how their mother smiles when she talks with Rodney.
“You don’t like Mexicans, do you?” detective Guadalupe asks, trying to be diplomatic, but not quite succeeding.
“It’s not that,” Rodney answers. “I worked for the US government in Mexico after my stint in the army. The US and Mexico are two different worlds.”
“Watch Univisíon TV. You’ll see. I watch their news at 4 o’clock. Every woman in Mexico under 30, dresses like a whore. Every woman in Mexico over 30, dresses like a worn-out whore. That’s the difference between the US and Mexico.”
“Straight guys like to look at women who dress like whores,” detective Guadalupe says, smiling.
“OK. But how can you keep your mind on the news when your mind is on tits?” Rodney asks.
“So? Those chicas who report the news on Primer Impacto are hot.”
“Well, I don’t trust the talking heads on CBS and NBC, either,” Rodney adds. “Their teeth are too white. Never trust anyone whose teeth are too white. It’s a sign of latent aggression.”
“There’s a lot of aggression going ‘round, latent or otherwise.”
“Once, my job was to mediate between borders, to translate between worlds. I’m too old, now, for the new world order, a world without borders, all this multicultural crap. That’s up to you guys to figure out.”
“Bad men are the same wherever you find them, Señor Carpenter.”
“Besides, there are no good pies in Mexico,” Rodney adds. “Pie is an American thing.”
“You sure are a gringo puro,” detective Guadalupe says laughing.
Detective Guadalupe takes out his notebook and flips it open. “Let’s go over a few points you mentioned the other day.”
Rodney likes to watch a pie bake in the oven. From time to time he looks through the window in the oven door to see how the crust looks. It’s like looking into the cauldron where the Greeks made their bronze. You can tell when the pie is almost done. Juices begin to bubble up around the edge of the crust. Then, in Rodney’s world, Señora Garcia is yelling about hot water and banging on his door.
It’s a wonder how heat turns the piecrust from a pale bone color to golden brown. It happens slowly but surely, the way a few days in April will make the trees go from naked to being clothed in a wash of fresh green.
It’s the slow baking that turns a boy into a man, good or bad, too. Funny, but before you bake a pie you have to add a pinch of salt to the apples. The salt brings out their natural sweetness.
Write about what you know. That’s the advice Rodney remembers as he looks at the poem he wants to finish, but tonight he doesn’t know how to take that advice. He pours another drink of vodka and orange, Fanta soda. In his own time Rodney realized that a poem is like an apple pie. A poem needs time to bake, too. Not just 45 minutes, but sometimes 45 years.
It’s getting late. Rodney can’t sleep. Nevertheless, he likes this silent time of deep night. He hears a late L rattle down the Red Line to the Loop. It’s still cold out, but winter is giving way to spring. The city is waking from an urban hibernation. Rodney regrets this annual return of youth. Winter is the best time to make pies.
No more drinking, Rodney says to himself. Detective Guadalupe will be coming by again tomorrow afternoon with more questions. Rodney has to make another apple pie. That’s a hell of a lot easier than finishing his poem, or bringing back what his government service took away. There’s only one thing harder than being in love. That’s writing about love.
“I talked with Rosa, Angelita Maria’s cousin the other day, and now I want to hear your side of the incident, again,” detective Guadalupe says shifting his weight in the armchair. You can tell his sidearm is uncomfortable and poking him in the back.
”What did Rosa tell you?” Rodney asks detective Guadalupe.
“It went down like this,” detective Guadalupe says with a tone of the ordinary in his voice. “Angelita Maria and her brother Esteban were sitting around the kitchen table.”
“That’s the brother who was selling drugs?” Rodney asks.
“We think so. But instead of giving the money to his supplier, he was pocketing some.”
“Not too bright an idea.”
“He supposedly was helping Angelita Maria with some of her bills. Little Pepito needs to see a dentist.”
“Solis bursts in to Angelita Maria’s apartment. He looks at Esteban. He tells Angelita Maria, ‘Keep your mouth shut, puta.’ Solis then takes out a 9 mm and shoots Esteban point blank in the heart. Double tap.
“Así son los narco traficos.”
“He’s a cold dude,” detective Guadalupe adds. “He just picked up the brass and left.”
“Amature.” Rodney says with a tone of disgust.
“He was a fuckin’ amature. I would have used a wheel gun. In and out. No wasting time to stop and pick up the brass,”
“You know more than you let on, don’t you.”
“That’s why I heard two shots,” Rodney says shaking his head. “What’s next for Solis? Do you have a warrant for his arrest?”
“Nope. Angelita Maria ain’t gonna testify in court, no matter what. She’s got those two kids to think about. The whole barrio knows the truth, but nobody’s gonna talk. That’s just the way it is here.”
“He hightailed it back to Mexico.”
“What did I tell you? Two cultures. Two worlds,” Rodney says pointing his finger at detective Guadalupe to make his point.
“Apple pie versus enchiladas.”
A silence settles on the front room. Detective Guadalupe looks out the window, over the treetops to the apartments across the courtyard. He wonders if he can do anything about evil in the world except document it.
“Poor Angelita Maria. She deserves better,” Rodney interrupts.
“Her kids do, too.”
“I told her I would take her kids to the zoo Monday while she looks for a job.”
“She trusts you with the boys?” detective Guadalupe wonders.
“They’re eight and nine, for chrissake. A little too young, don’t you think?”
“Let’s hope so.”
“Not to worry, I will be the perfect gentleman. You know what a gentleman is, don’t you detective?”
“A gentleman is someone who can play the accordion, but doesn’t”
“So you are a closeted musician, too.”
“You know, detective, some Mexicans don’t fuck with old maricones. They think we have some kind of special power.”
“What kinda special powers you got, old man?”
Rodney bends over and rolls up his right pants leg. He points to a red scar the size of a nickel on his calf. “I was shot once in Colombia because I hesitated,” Rodney says. “I lost my partner. I don’t hesitate anymore. That’s my special power.”
“I’m sorry. But now you make a killer pie.”
“And I have to warm up the oven, because you just ate the last piece and I promised Angelita Maria I would bake her a pie.”
Detective Guadalupe looks down at his empty plate and takes a sip of the tea that by now has gone cold. Then, he looks up wide-eyed like a child at the blue bowl of apples and pears on the kitchen counter bright as jewels.
“Can I watch?”
“You can watch. But you have to help peel the apples.”
Robert Klein Engler lives in Omaha, Nebraska and sometimes New Orleans. Many of Robert’s poems and stories are set in the Crescent City. His long poem, The Accomplishment of Metaphor and the Necessity of Suffering, which is set partially in New Orleans, was published by Headwaters Press, Medusa, New York, 2004. He has received an Illinois Arts Council award for his “Three Poems for Kabbalah.” If you google his name, then you may find his work on the Internet. Some of his books are available at Lulu.com. Visit him on the web at RobertKleinEngler.com.
THROW ME SOMETHIN’, MISTER: http://borderhopping.net/writing/throwmesomethinmister.html
Jane Crown Radio Interview: