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My friend’s grandmother Anita, a hunched woman with broad hips and hair dyed the color of bread crusts, is sweeping tiles as faded as her hummed refrain. Her left eye, clouded by cataract, betrays nothing, but her right sparkles with a distant memory that ebbs and flows with each pass of her broom. She shuffles and flicks her way to the front patio clucking disapproval as the green plastic bristles trail strands of long, raven hair.
I lift my feet, reaching carefully for the tiny teacup with the broken handle Carmen proffers on a plastic tray. I smile, sipping gingerly at the sweet liquid that catches at the back of my throat. Like the smell rippling off the Río Almendares at dusk, Cuban ration card coffee is earthy and sharp, more chaff than bean and cut liberally with sugar. Carmen shoots me a wink and confides, “Grammy doesn’t like me combing my hair in the sala. She hates sweeping it up.”
Out of earshot now, Anita works around the heavy wooden rockers the handsome compañero neighbor carefully arranged against the front wall. Strains of her melody reach the street as she tries for the upper register. The noonday sun burns high and hot beyond the Ionic columns of her stately home. It’s really too torrid to be out here, even in the patio’s deep shade, but Anita is determined to fight the dirt that blows off 23rd Street, covering her crotons and ferns with what looks like human cremains. She sweeps more urgently, wishing she were rocking in one of those chairs right this minute, sipping a lemonade swimming with mint.
“¡Oye Mima!” shouts Yanesi, her neighbor from two doors down. She’s the pretty one with the santero husband who read the divining shells for Anita after the doctor found the lump in her breast. The priest’s divination had proven spot on so she consulted him again when her daughter got in on the bombo, the lottery for a visa to emigrate to Miami. The Santería holy man had heard the orishas right: Nelly didn’t get the visa. What he failed to hear – or what the saints failed to convey – was that she would leave on a raft six months later.
“You shouldn’t be working in this heat abuelita. How are you feeling?” Yanesi asks the old lady after pecking her on the cheek and taking her hand, roughened and deeply lined on the palm side but buttery soft on top.
“Still here, thank God. I don’t like this heat, but it’s better than that horrible cold when el mono está chiflando. Last week my arthritis was…” she trails off with a whistle through false teeth.
“God was it cold! My aunt Lydia, my dad’s sister – you know the one, with the son on the volleyball team? – she has terrible asthma. How she suffers! ”
“No es fácil.”
“No it isn’t easy. Here, take some oranges,” Yanesi insists, reaching into her bag, the plastic wrinkled from being washed and line dried so many times. “They’re sweet,” she says of the greenish fruits.
“Gracias, my child,” the old lady says taking them and laying them on the windowsill. She picks up her broom and her forgotten melody, wondering why they’re called oranges when they’re green.
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