Just a Cupful
In a rare moment of quiet, Carmita settles into Dr. Malcom’s recliner. She should be sweeping up the crumbs from lunch and emptying the dishwasher, preparing Mrs. Malcom’s evening meds. Dr. Malcolm will be home soon, and he’ll have a few more things for Carmita to do before she and Manny can go home. But Manny and Mrs. Malcolm never sleep at the same time like this, and the quiet is palatial, only the sounds of the two invalids breathing and the wind’s bright whistles against the adobe. Carmita stares out the window to where the horses chomp the dry tufts of grass and imagines the wind on her like hands.
Wind like this is unusual for this time of year. It should be that May is when winter is long-gone but the heat hasn’t yet come, the month when Carmita wants to push open the windows to let fresh air roll through the shut-up house, over the sofa and Manny, into Mrs. Malcolm’s just-combed hair. But lately the wind is so bad it knocks stuff over, like the flowerpots in the Malcoms’ garden, so the windows stay closed. There is something a little sinister about the weather but Carmita won’t admit this to her mother, who’s full of ideas about the astrological significance of every little thing.
The Malcoms’ house looks over the low belt of escarpment into the shallow valley. Beyond it is the toothy grin of the mountains and the open mouth of New Mexican sky. The flowers chuckle up from the overturned pots, the cacti spout their funny little blooms. The Malcolms aren’t from here, but they call it home. The horses and the cacti and the monstrous blue is like a movie backdrop that the Malcolms pulled into their life and left there.
“Shoulda gotten rid of those horses,” Ray always says. It’s playing through her mind now like a mean jingle as she watches them in their dry pasture. Eight years ago, Dr. Malcolm bought a new horse for Mrs. Malcolm’s birthday, imported from another country. There are pictures of her laughing after she rips off her blindfold to find the horse tied in a silky bow. “She rode him and rode him,” Dr. Malcolm told Carmita, but not long after, it spooked at a rattler and dumped her on her head. Since then she’s brain damaged. Mrs. Malcolm’s body, unlike the horses’, Carmita’s, even Manny’s, is no longer hers.
Ray’s a little right, Carmita thinks: there is something sick about it, the way Mrs. Malcolm looks down all day on them running around or just standing there eating without needing any help, flicking their manes like quick little brags. He says, “If one did you like they did her, I’d shoot him and feed him to the dogs.” He likes to say rough-nice things like this then run his hands over Carmita’s tits and squeeze.
But Dr. Malcolm doesn’t shoot the horses, he just continues to train and run them as if, Carmita’s thought before, he can work them hard enough that everything flips backward in time.
“Riding was her big love,” he says, shaking his head. “It’s good for her to still have the horses nearby. Brings the life back to her.” Well, thinks Carmita. But it’s none of her business. She and Dr. Malcolm are a good team—staying out of each other’s way and feeling their own brand of badly for one another. No one wishes a retarded kid or a brain-damaged wife on someone else. Dr. Malcolm spends all day out seeing patients, making house calls, filling up his calendar with more things to do for tomorrow, and cutting Carmita her weekly check.
Manny wakes up and starts socking himself. He folds his fingers halfway down and pummels his cheek, his forehead. He does this every now and again. Doctors say it’s to experiment with his physical sensations. He whacks hard, then harder.
“Manito,” she says softly. “Don’t do that, baby.” She’s said it one hundred thousand times, just like that. Mrs. Malcolm doesn’t stir, only bobs a little as she breathes in and out while Carmita, break over, gets up to sweep the floor, rub down the counters, clank the dishes back where they belong.
When Dr. Malcolm pulls in the driveway, a little bump bump happens in Carmita’s stomach. She scans the house to make sure things are in place. She says, “Someone’s home, Mrs. Malcolm!” in a songy voice. This always makes Mrs. Malcolm pull her head up straight and smile her half-faced grin. Manny goes “Aaaaaeeeeee!” long and high.
The car door slams and Dr. Malcolm lets that crazy dog of his run in ahead of him, collar jangling, drool slinging everywhere. The dog darts around like he’s on some kind of merry-go-round, tracking in a mess and slapping things with his tail. The cat scampers out of sight and Manny groans. “Unnnnnggghhhhh!” he says. The dog doesn’t know any better than to not sniff all over Mrs. Malcom. Dr. Malcolm doesn’t stop her.
“Good for her,” he says, “To have all that puppy-dawg energy! Itn’t that right, girl! Itn’t that right!” he says to both Mrs. Malcolm and the dog at the same time. Mrs. Malcolm smiles, avoiding the dog as much as she can, and watches her husband as he takes off his coat, runs a hand through his whitened hair.
If you only saw Mrs. Malcolm when her husband was home, you’d think she was one thousand percent better than she is. She sits with her head up on her own, her eyes flash like they’re alive, she even talks in sentences.
“Thanks, Carmita,” says Dr. Malcolm.
“Yes, taaannnnk you!” whines out Mrs. Malcolm in her shapeless language. She loves to play hostess when her husband is home.
“Love you, honey, see you tomorrow!” Carmita calls. Dr. Malcolm walks her to the door.
Today he says, “What would we do without you?” He shakes his head and turns around to get on with the evening.
“I don’t like the way he looks at you,” says Ray sometimes, even though he’s only met him twice. Ray doesn’t like the way anyone looks at her—not the Malcolms, not the man who pumps her gas, not her mom, not even Manny, though he’s nice to her son. Others haven’t been.
“Goodnight, Manny!” calls Dr. Malcolm from the study. Carmita loads him up in the car and drives thankfully home.
“Inside she’s herself,” said the speech therapist at the beginning. “Inside, she is who she is. It’s just that she can’t be that way on the outside. Our job is to help her make the match.”
Mrs. Malcom has the kind of brain injury where you know what’s happening around you, but you can’t make your body do what you want it to. In the county hospital, Carmita worked with people like her—only it was sadder, for the patients and for Carmita: stuck in those mean rooms, everyone wearing uniforms like they weren’t really people but just playing the part. She so prefers working at the Malcolm’s, a real home with bathrooms and a kitchen and small knickknacks to dust and move slightly this way or that. Plus, she gets to bring Manny.
The speech therapist has taught Carmita how to coach Mrs. Malcolm on her talking exercises. “Repetition is key,” she says. “Say the same thing over and over again, encourage Mrs. Malcolm as the sounds come out her mouth.”
Mrs. Malcolm has made real progress in the past couple of years. Carmita’s proud of her and proud of herself.
“Lunch,” says Carmita.
“Llunnssshhhh,” repeats Mrs. Malcolm.
“Que bien,” Carmita says, “You’re doing so good.”
“I’m hungry,” says Carmita.
“Huunnnnggy,” repeats Mrs. Malcolm.
The speech therapist wants Carmita to practice the daily needs. “Every human being needs to know how to ask for what they want,” she says.
“Somebody’s gotta help that poor lady,” says Carmita’s mother. She means Carmita. As if Carmita isn’t doing all she can. Her mother thinks of both Manny’s Downs and Mrs. Malcolm’s condition as realities that can somehow be changed.
“These things are spiritual, not physical!” her mother likes to say. Mami is her own blend of New Mexican Catholic and new-age—this combo of hers involves church going, crystals, crucifixes, homemade remedies and knowing better. She and Carmita always, always disagree. Her mother’s point of view is that as long as you work at it, you can be healed. She tries it on Manny, taking him up to the Chimayo Church a couple of times a year for the benediction, stabbing her hands into that hole of holy dirt.
Somehow Chimayo got the reputation of being a supreme healing site, and Mama’s a devotee. She goes there whenever she can get a hold of a truck that will make it up those bumpity roads. In the back chapel is a small hole in the ground full of dirt that, they say, is blessed. Old people, young people drive to the shit nothing town to line up through the chapel with their bags and bottles and buckets, ready to be filled.
Carmita’s mother mixes her dirt with wax and honey and olive oil and the herbs she grows on her windowsill. She pours this clotted potion into tins. After Carmita’s father got sick, Mama would drag them all up there to pray and pray. Carmita hasn’t been since she was a teenager. No thanks. Her mother used to mix the dirt into her dying husband’s food, used to rub her salve over his feet and into his temples. Nothing. He died anyway, screaming.
But Mami’s still convinced. She sends Manny’s latest picture to the Señor every Christmas and they paste it up on the wall in the side room with so many of the world’s wayward and ill. When Carmita isn’t around, she strips Manny naked in the backyard and rubs him red-raw with dirt.
When Carmita gets home, her mother’s car is in the driveway. She’s tinkering with things in the kitchen, throwing rotting food out from the fridge.
“It’s a mess in here!” she says. “Clean house, clean mind, clean heart.” She hugs Manny. “You look terrible!” she says to Carmita. Carmita ignores her and begins to chop some things for dinner.
“I’m headed up to Chimayo on Wednesday,” says Mami. “Care to join?” She already knows the answer. All those thick-fingered Cristos in the chapel, their wide, lidless eyes.
“No thanks, Mami.”
“How’s Ray?” she asks. She doesn’t like Ray.
“Same.” Carmita shrugs. Carmita does like Ray, but not so much that it matters.
“And work?” Mami asks.
“It’s okay. It’s good.”
“That doctor pays me, I’ll take his wife up to Chimayo and see the Señor. Save him thousands on medical bills. I could use the cash. Why you never ask him for me?”
This, again. “It’s just a pile of dirt, Mami!” She shouts. “It’s nothing but shoveled-up sand. Look at Manny,” Carmita motions toward her son. “All your lotions and potions and he’s the same simple retard as he was born. You
haven’t helped him one bit.”
The mother slaps Carmita across her face. It burns on Carmita’s skin and she fights the instinct to smack her back. Maybe she deserved it. Manny stares at the two women in his usual way—nothing is ordinary or outside of it for him, everything the same kind of no big deal miracle. Mami looks at Manny and hangs her head, poking the rosary into herself. Carmita wipes her cheek with her shoulder.
“I’m sorry,” she says to Mami. “You help him. You help us both a lot.” She looks at Manny. “Sweet lucky bastard,” she says. “My sweet baby boy.” Manny smiles and groans bubbles out his shining red mouth.
“Bastard is right,” her mother says. But at the same time, she never blames the unwed Carmita for Manny’s problems. There is something that everyone can agree on: Carmita’s a good mother and Manny’s condition is nobody’s fault. Somehow the two women are reminded that they share this feeling in common, as though the thought is circulating through the room like a smoke, and it calms them.
“Ask the Dueño,” says Mama quietly. “I’ll take her cheap. It will help her—you’ll see.”
“Ask him,” she says again after some cricket-riddled quiet. “Just ask.” Because Mrs. Malcolm is a different story—that’s got to be somebody’s fault. The horses’. Dr. Malcolm’s. God’s.
The next day, Mami’s slap is just a sparkling memory on Carmita’s cheek. She buckles up Manny and heads out earlier than usual toward the Malcolms’ in Galisteo. Where they live is all wealthy wannabe rancheros like Dr. Malcolm and shit-poor Hispanics and Latinos that live in the small whack-em-ups behind lines of mailboxes askew on their hitches.
“Is it big?” Mami asked when she first got the job.
“It’s big, Mami.”
“How many acres?”
“It’s big, Mami!” But she was insatiable. How many horses? What kind of things do they grow in that yard, what do they have hanging on the walls?
“You don’t sleep with that man,” Mami finally warned.
As she pulls into Galisteo this thin, bright morning on the road alone with Manny, she thinks to herself how maybe she is built like a desert: rocks, quills, sand, scales, always feeling thirsty. The spiny chola catch the early light and glow. She used to make mobiles out of them when she was little and get them stuck in her hands. Even then she understood the unlikelihood of all the things that poke out of this dry soil, the conditions we’re all—plants, animals, people—expected to survive. Morning in the desert has a softness to it and reveals more colors. The only time she’s ever woken up in Galisteo was that terrible night when Dr. Malcolm had a kidney stone and asked her to stay over. In the early morning the whole sky was pink, the wide valley a purple-gray and Dr. Malcolm had stopped howling.
She’ll never ask Dr. Malcolm about Chimayo. She’ll tell Mami she did, but she won’t. Leave him alone, Carmita thinks. The man’s a doctor. He’s got enough to worry over. Carmita has to heave her body into the car door to open it against the wind.
At the end of the day, Dr. Malcolm comes home in his usual rush. The door opens and in he comes, in comes the dog, in comes the wind with the smells of the outside world. The mail blows off the entryway table and scatters on the floor. Mrs. Malcolm perks up and starts saying the things she and Carmita have practiced. Welcome home, dear. How was your day, my love? She draws out all the words like they are made of thick, sticky slime in her mouth, smiling at herself once she’s done.
Dr. Malcolm responds as if she’s a child. “My day was great, dear! She’s making such good progress,” he says to Carmita.
As Dr. Malcolm unpacks his things and pours the dog’s food, Carmita finishes dinner, setting small covered plates on the counter. She’s about to wake Manny and quietly take her leave. Mrs. Malcolm, with her husband out of the room, has fallen asleep in spite of herself. Carmita gave her her meds a bit late today. The pills make her sleepy. She and Manny are asleep at the same time, again. That’s a reasonable kind of miracle, she wants to tell her mother, that’s the kind of thing she can wish for. Dr. Malcolm returns to the living room, surveys the scene of sleeping patients, then looks out the window.
“Got to run the horses,” he says. It’s been such a busy week for him that the animals have hung more or less still in their pens. “Care to join me?”
Carmita is caught off guard. “I have to get home.”
He shrugs, pointing to her sleeping son. “Just twenty minutes? I’d love the company. Bet you could use the break.”
“I’m not great with horses,” she says. She’s thinking of Mrs. Malcolm, of course.
“Come for a ride,” he says. “Be my guest.” Well, she thinks. Manny and Mrs. Malcolm would be fine. They creep out softly and walk down to the darkening fields.
“You don’t know how much you have helped me,” he says. “You just don’t know.”
“It’s my job,” she says.
“More than that,” he says. “Much, much more.” Carmita drags this over and over the tired ridges of her mind.
He opens the corral and helps her saddle up Bullseye, the muscley thoroughbred. She’s grateful she’s not riding Yucca, the one that bucked Mrs. Malcolm off his back and out of her own life forever. Yucca stands still in the shadowy end of the corral. Dr. Malcolm fixes the saddle and helps Carmita up on the horse.
“Just a little ride,” he says. She presses her heel into Bullseye’s hard sides, and he begins to canter, then run. She’s got him out of the corral and over the fields. It’s been ages since she rode a horse. The house is lit up and she sees Mrs. Malcolm’s wheelchair silhouette from its place at the window. She thinks of Manny, of Mrs. Malcolm, and then she doesn’t. She smells night and kicked-up dirt without them, air in her hair, the thin skin of near-darkness all over her. For throbbing elastic minutes that feel more like months or years, the wind and the cicadas tickle through her like medicine.
“I should go,” she finally calls to Dr. Malcolm. He nods.
“Thank you,” he says as they dismount and let the horses back into the pen. “It’s always nice to have a little company,” and pulls her toward him in a way that would only ever be possible in this safe cover of dusk, the thicket of wind. She is slack in his arms for a moment and then—because it’s almost dark and she feels the earth’s unending heartbeat thumping, more, more, so much more—she pushes her pelvis into his. She’s ahead of herself, thinking already of unbuckling his belt and pulling off her shirt for the horses and the night and Dr. Malcolm. He breathes into her ear.
“Oh, oh,” he says. “Life is really something,” and holds her close.
A horse whinnies at the edge of the corral. The wind eases up. They pull apart because, regardless of who knew first, they both understand that those circular moments have now flattened back straight.
“Goodnight,” she makes sure to say first.
“Goodnight,” he replies, and squeezes her hand. “Have a good day off tomorrow. Get some rest.”
All the things that didn’t happen are a sharp and hooded shadow along the ground as Carmita walks up the darkening path back toward the house and that “really something” life of hers. Inside, thank goodness, Manny is still sleeping. But Mrs. Malcolm is up. She looks at Carmita like a thousand stinging bees. Carmita understands that she had been watching them.
“Good night, amor!” she calls to her. Mrs. Malcolm says nothing in return. “See you Wednesday, Mrs. Malcolm!” she says, scooping Manny’s hot heavy body against her own. Mrs. Malcolm turns her eyes back down again toward where her husband remains, running horses.
At home, the porch light comes on automatically. Ray’s rigged this up for her after months of asking. The moths taking shelter in the entry flicker around the bulb at the doorway. On any other night, she’d call Ray and have him come over for a long night of thank you. She tucks Manny into bed. What she really wants now is for her mother to stroke her hair, even rub one of those good-for-nothing salves onto her pittering heart.
The phone rings. It’s her mother.
“It’s late, Ma,” says Carmita.
“I borrowed a truck tomorrow. Heading up to the church. I thought maybe you’d like to join me after all?”
Somehow, that crazy mother of hers always knows.
At Chimayo, the parishioners line up outside the church under the wicked sun. They bring umbrellas to shade themselves, old bottles and bags to fill with the gritty magic. Their hands strung with rosaries and fake strings of flowers. There is no wind here. The town’s air is completely still. Vendors quietly man their Cimayo-themed wares: rosaries, alters, pre-bagged sand. Carmita now wishes she hadn’t come.
As if she’d heard her thoughts, her mother says, “Just relax, baby. Just open your heart for a moment, huh?”
So Carmita closes her eyes, takes a breath and says, “Okay.”
The line has moved out of the sun and into the chapel, now, with so many paintings of Christ holding out his hands as though saying, “Come one, come all!” or maybe, “Look, look—don’t you people see what you have done?” Despite the heat the church smells cold and tinny, like that chalice full of wine.
When she reaches the dark alcove, she leaves Manny with her mother and goes in alone. The hole is nearly empty. Some lackey will have to fill it up soon with fresh nonsense, she thinks, then feels guilty for thinking this so close to God. She scoops her jar into the dirt. It scrapes against the stony sides. The dirt looks like any other dirt. Brown, dirty. Behind her come light footsteps. She looks up: it’s the Señor.
“May the Lord be With You,” he says, and presses his hand to her head. She doesn’t reply. She feels woozy so she doesn’t take another scoop. The Señor nods, and she walks out of the alcove through the line of swaying people and toward the back door, past the endless rows of thrown-away crutches, the cut-off plasticine casts, the photos that believers have sent in of dying children and missing children and adults with a