Fiction

It’s You, Not Me

by Mikel Miller

The tomato plant looked like it needed attention—still in its little plastic container; root bound, spindly with withered leaves, not even twenty inches tall. It had one marble-sized tomato, one pea-sized, and half a dozen tiny yellow blossoms.

She brought it with her when she moved into the apartment next to me. We transplanted it to a big clay pot on the balcony, with potting soil and good drainage, giving it room for roots to take hold in its new home.

“Maybe it’ll like it here,” she said, helping me drag the heavy pot to a spot in the full sun. “If we take good care of it, maybe it’ll bear fruit someday.”

I was cutting off some of the shoots between the branches and the trunk the next day when she interrupted me.
“What are you doing?”

“Getting rid of the suckers,” I said. “They won’t bear fruit, and all they do is suck energy from the rest of the plant.”

“I never heard of that. Are you sure?”

“Yeah. My mom used to do it back on the farm.”

Some leaves were still withered after a couple more days, so I cut off some of the lower branches and trimmed others to get rid of the curled leaves.

“What are you doing now, farm boy?” she asked.

“Pruning,” I said. “It’ll help the healthy branches grow.”

“Your mama teach you that too?”

“No; just figured it out on my own.”

“Well, Mr. Horticulture, my mama’s tomato plants had lots of branches and shoots and leaves, none of them withered. She used Miracle-Gro®. I think I have some for flowers.”

She found a pouch of timed-release Miracle-Gro® in a box of her garden stuff, the kind for potted houseplants. I jammed two of the thimble-sized suppositories into the tomato pot. With water in the morning and water in the afternoon, and sun most of the time, the plant showed signs of new life in a few days. Droopy branches showed strength, with more yellow blossoms. I got two more thimbles from the pouch under the balcony sink.

“How many of those are you plan to use?” she asked, interrupting me.

“As many as it takes,” I said. “It’s like the electric paddles paramedics use to shock a patient’s heart and get it beating again. Stand back, woman.”

“Did you read the instructions?” she asked. “Maybe it says how many to use and how often.”

“Duh, we’re in Mexico—the instructions are in Spanish,” I said, jamming the suppositories into the soil.
Within a couple of weeks, the original marble-size tomato was almost the size of a golf ball. More pea-sized tomatoes appeared on the top two branches, along with more blossoms.

“Some of the leaves are still curled, and the stalk looks weak, like it’s going to fall over,” she said, frowning. “Maybe you should Google tomato plants and see what it needs.”

“Google probably uses teenagers in India—what do they know about tomatoes in Mexico?” I said. “But I’ll get some Miracle-Gro® just for tomatoes, with instructions in English. And a cage to hold it up.”

Home Depot had the right stuff, in English, the kind you mix with water, for $5.28. The only wire cages were four rings tall—another $3.78.

“Don’t you have anything smaller?” I asked the clerk. “This cage is ‘way too big for my plant. Besides, nearly ten bucks to grow a few tomatoes seems expensive.”

“One size fits all,” the clerk said. “Besides, some plants grow big and bushy, four feet tall or more, with lots of tomatoes.”

Chemicals and cage in hand, I returned home and installed the cage in the pot. It was top-heavy and leaned to one side.

“Didn’t they have anything smaller?” she asked. “It’s ‘way too big, especially since you cut off the bottom branches and ripped off the little suckers on the others.”

“Do we have a problem”? I asked. “Seems like you always criticize what I’m doing with the tomato plant, no matter how hard I try. Is something wrong?”

“Nothing wrong with me,” she said. “If anybody has a problem, it’s you, not me.”

I found some wire pliers and cut more than twelve inches off the cage prongs below the bottom ring. The cage didn’t lean as much but was still two rings higher than the plant. A dose of the new chemicals seemed urgent, so I mixed a batch.

Neighbors came for dinner on the weekend, and we sat under an umbrella, sipping drinks at the table on the balcony. It was hard to overlook the scrawny plant nearby.

“What kind of tomato plant is it?” one asked. “I’ve never seen one that looks like topiary, with branches cut back and only a few leaves. Is it going to be all right?”

“I don’t know what kind,” she told them. “It had a lot more branches and leaves when I moved here. He’s trying hard, but I don’t know if it’s going to work out.”

My routine of watering, watching, waiting, and weekly doses of chemicals seemed to pay off. More blossoms appeared. More blossoms became pea tomatoes. More pea tomatoes became marble tomatoes. The plant had seventeen potential tomatoes, counting all stages, but marble size tomatoes didn’t seem to get bigger than golf balls.

“You want to see what a tomato plant is supposed to look like?” she asked about a week later in frustration, leading me to the community garden. A dozen or more tomato plants flourished on one side of the small plot—short bushy plants, lots of leaves, and none of them curled. Some long branches were like vines almost touching the ground.

After another week, our plant had new blossoms and more golf balls. I gave it another dose of chemicals. It grew taller, reaching for the third ring up, with sprawling branches we had to bend and tuck inside the cage. The soil turned dry in the warm summer sun, and some of the leaves had ends that turned brown, so I used coffee grounds to mulch the soil.

“What are you doing?” she asked, seeing me dump the morning grounds a couple of days later. “No wonder the pot and the balcony are crawling with ants—they love coffee grounds.” I got a spoon and dug out as much of the grounds as possible.

“Put some dried bay leaves in there—ants stay away from them sometimes,” she said. “And use a shredded coconut husk for mulch.” I covered the soil with bay leaves, covered them with coconut husk, and poured on a pitcher of water.

“I think one tomato will be ready soon,” I said a week or so later. I pointed to it, almost the size of a racquetball, turning from green to yellow. Over a week or so we watched it turn from yellow to orange, and then to red. After a couple more days, I couldn’t wait any longer, and I wanted to pick it.

“I’m not sure it’s ready,” she said.

We picked it anyway. She opened her mouth wide when I offered her a taste, savoring the meaty fullness and juiciness.

“That was good,” she said. “Is there more?”

We shared several more tomatoes, experimenting by adding a dash of olive oil and a bit of soft cheese topped with fresh basil sprigs. She offered some parting advice before leaving on a two-week trip back home.

“Just wait for the rest of the tomatoes to ripen before you try to pick them. And watch out for tomato worms.”

By the time she returned, one worm had arrived, about an inch long, skinny and bright green, humping its way along a leaf. I captured it and tossed it over the balcony. The Internet was minimal help in identifying the creature; it showed pictures of larger tomato worms, fat and dark green, with little horns on their heads. A few days later we noticed an invasion of tiny white bugs–aphids, maybe, or tiny flies just hatching–all over the undersides of the leaves. Wanting to avoid pesticides, I sprayed them with dishwashing detergent. It didn’t work.

“Maybe there’s something more effective, and still an eco-friendly solution,” she said.

Searching the Internet for eco-this and green-that, I found a few options from the Google guys in whatever country. None of those options were available at Home Depot in Mexico, so I bought the non-eco stuff. It produced results within a day: tiny white carcasses like ash littered the balcony tiles under the plant.

I continued watering the plant, and the plants in the community garden too as a Plan B. It grew beyond the top rung of the metal cage, long branches sticking out the sides, loaded with ripening tomatoes. To keep the cage from tipping over, I had to fasten it to the balcony railing with a bungee cord. More tomatoes grew bigger in early August, shining in the sun on the balcony, big enough for neighbors to notice during walks.

While I was back in the USA for a quick trip, we texted almost daily about nurturing the plant and dealing with more aphids. “I’m trying to fight them off,” she said. “But they just keep coming.”

When I returned after Labor Day, we ate a few more of the red ones, but she was never really sure they were ready to pick.

A month later, she decided to move to another place, with only a few tears about leaving. Just packed up her stuff one afternoon, piled everything into her car, and drove away. I don’t remember if she waved goodbye.

Maybe she was right. Maybe it was me.

* * * * * * * * * * * *

I’m never certain what to say about myself in an author bio. Here it is in less than twenty words: I’ve always enjoyed reading and writing, decided in college to become a journalist, and now I’m an “indie” author. (My college English professors would cringe at using three verb tenses in one sentence.)

I also manage book projects at EgretBooks.com, a small independent publisher that specializes in publishing eBooks for out-of-print literary fiction. Two of our projects have won prestigious national awards in the USA from the Independent Book Publishers Association. For both, I was the managing editor from start to finish.

After helping launch EgretBooks.com in Mexico in 2012, I moved from the Baja to Guadalajara–the country’s second-largest metropolitan area–with its European cultural heritage, robust modern economy, and one of the largest book festivals in the world. In 2014, I became an administrator for the Facebook group Mexico Writers, which spotlights books by authors who live and write in Mexico.

As a member of Publishers and Writers San Diego, and the Ajijic Writers’ Group at Lake Chapala, I divide my time between the United States and Mexico.

When I’m not writing, I’m available for hire to help authors with the nitty-gritty of editing and self-publishing books. If you’re interested in help with your book, just send an email to mikel.miller09@yahoo.com.
¡Viva Mexico!

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Sally11

Lakeside Lounge

photo by Sally Davies

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Fiction

Xochimilco’s Frozen Assets

by William Snyder

“BEEP…BEEP…SCREECH.” A beat-up VW passed on the right as a twenty-something blond stepped into the intersection; Holly scrambled back to the sidewalk. The air quality had improved but traffic was the same since her last visit to Mexico City. Put a powerless citizen in a car you better watch out. On the streets the ordinary Mexican was powerless but behind the wheel they had a chance to show their frustration with political corruption and unlivable wages. Although she wasn’t into religion Holly found herself furtively making the Sign of the Cross and muttering under her breath ‘vaya con dios’ as she hailed a cab to the museum.

She navigated the peacocks and Xoloitzcuintles in the garden without further mishap. The Dolores Olmedo Museum was built in a unique spirit of Mexican eclecticism. It included folk art and archeological finds along with the finest collection of Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo paintings in the world. Dolores Olmedo had been Diego’s model and one of his lovers in the 20’s before he hooked up with Frida. When Frida died Diego and Dolores resumed their romance almost 30 years later. Romance may be the wrong word to use for any relationship Diego had with a woman but his relationship with Frida was closer to romance than any other. He made Dolores promise to display Frida’s work with his own after he died. Dolores agreed to do it because she loved Diego and his paintings but the same couldn’t be said about her feelings for Frida or her work. The museum was an anomaly born from love and hate. The combination of style and subject matter added to the experience; Diego’s work was of his people; Frida’s was of her pain.

The last 10 minutes in the museum Holly spent surveying Frozen Assets. The Depression, skyscrapers, homeless men stacked like cadavers and Rockefeller waiting for his money were Rivera’s cryogenic vision of New York City. The Big Apple may be a metaphor for the fruit of the Garden of Eden but it can be hell on earth when tasted. Holly thought to herself Diego got it right; NYC was full of frozen assets. She favored the painting because it spoke to her of the past and the family she left behind in Long Island.

Frozen-Assets-by-Diego-Rivera

Frozen Assets by Diego Rivera

Their hotel was a five minute walk from the museum. She was surprised that Carlos was agitated when she arrived.

“I asked you to be back by 2.”

“It’s only ten after.”

“I’m meeting Miguel before he gets on the bus.”

“Sorry. I didn’t know.”

“I’ll be back by 5. Diego didn’t sleep, he needs his nap. We can catch one of the boats on the waterway when I get back. You love it there, right?”

“OK. Hurry back. You’re right I do love Xochimilco’s waterway.”

Five years before she had met Carlos Sanchez in Cancun on her last spring break from Stanford. He was a computer whiz from the Yucatan blessed with the Maya math gene. They spent more than a year flying back and forth between LA and Merida before he took a job as a website designer at an Orange County start-up where the venture capital firm she worked for provided the funding. Now he was a Program Manager with lots of stock to cash after the IPO happened next quarter.

Initially the wedding plan was to have the ceremony at the family estate in the Hamptons, but Carlos preferred the West Coast so that more of his family could attend. Holly liked the idea, especially since Carlos’ brother, Miguel, said he would be Best Man. She lined up several dates for Miguel with friends from LA’s Westside and Santa Monica but none of them were kept after Vicky caught his eye at an East LA dance club. Love and more than a little bit of passion took over and soon Vicky was expecting his baby. Miguel got a job working construction in LA so the baby would have a father and be born a US citizen. His brother was already a citizen by marriage and that could grease the skids for Miguel’s green card.

Vicky was from a Roma family well known in the world of flamenco dancing. Ostracized by them for hooking up with a man outside the gypsy world, she felt it was a blessing in disguise that she was welcome in a world where women had rights. With their different backgrounds – East Coast establishment money and Roma heritage – it was a stretch but Vicky and Holly became BFF’s. The two couples became inseparable with social lives that ran the gamut from Boyle Heights taco stands to a performance at the Walt Disney Center of Ballet Flamenco Sara Baras. When Vicky and Miguel bought a fixer-upper house they moved in with Holly and Carlos until everything was ready. While they waited for the baby Holly and Vicky became as close as sisters. The joy Maria gave Vicky and Miguel brought a renaissance to Holly’s belief in family so that not long after she was expecting herself.

Miguel should have gotten his green card before he was stopped for a non-working taillight on the 405, but with Maria’s birth and Holly’s pregnancy it had been a back-burner item on his to-do list. He made 3 times working for Mara Salvatrucha in Merida than what he made in the US but he would never leave Vicky and the baby to go back to work in Mexico. Mara Salvatrucha was dangerous when they were crossed but there was no cell in Merida. Miguel worked alone for them as a middle man distributing drugs to Belize sent from Chiapas, Mexico. He was beaten up by LAPD for the 13-7 V on his bicep – the good luck – bad luck tattoo mistaken for a gang member’s tat. Miguel had actually gotten 13-7 V after he met Vicky to show her and his brother he had left La Mara and found good luck.

LAPD handed Miguel over to Homeland Security who put him in a group to be flown from El Paso to Mexico City. It was part of the $1.4B of taxpayer money the US government spent on the Merida Initiative as part of the War on Drugs. Instead of returning illegals to Mexico at the border where it would be easier for them to re-enter, the USA government flew them into Mexico City and Mexico paid their bus fare home with money provided by the US.

Ironically, LA was the origin of the Mara Salvatrucha. Formed originally by Salvadorans to take care of their Salvadoran brothers found homeless on the streets of LA, La Mara eventually became Central America’s most dangerous gang. Now they were criminals and drug dealers with a code of honor based on loyalty rooted in the Latino family value of taking care of your own. Miguel met Smiley in a Merida bar one night. They hung a couple of nights before Smiley recruited him. It was a no-brainer; the money was 10 times more than he was making as a reporter for a local newspaper. Miguel knew nothing about La Mara’s origin when he took the 13 second beating from fellow members, Smiley included, that served as his initiation in Chiapas before he started selling drugs for them in Merida. His boss, El Sol, was pissed at him when he didn’t come back from the wedding but he let him go because there was no cell in Merida and no one in Chiapas would question El Sol.

Holly and Carlos were to fly the next day from Mexico City to Merida for Diego’s baptism – the perfect occasion for a Sanchez family reunion, the introduction of its newest member and making plans for reuniting Miguel with Vicky and Maria. Holly was accustomed to ignoring Carlos when it came to the baby, so she strapped Diego on her back and headed for the embarcadero leaving a note:
See you at the boat dock.

Xochimilco is like Venice to some and a cesspool to others. The smell of the waterway takes some time to get used to, but as long as Gabriel Marquez Valdez wrote and lived there, Holly was inclined to think of Mexico City as a harbor for artistic endeavor. She couldn’t say it was a safe harbor with all the violent crimes, but the city does have 20 million people and with that size shit happens. The hippy ambience of the ‘flower field’ – the meaning of Xochimilco in Nahuatl – was intensified by the colors of the boats parked along the docks. Boats don’t travel in flocks but the waterway was gridlocked by a flock of trajineras painted in the same brilliant colors as Frida Kahlo’s parrots.

An artist was painting a portrait of a wedding couple sitting in the Aztecan version of a Venetian gondola. The embarcadero was filled with people enjoying the Mexico City sun on Sunday. A crowd began to gather next to a monument in the park. Holly was curious and took a spot at the outer edge while Diego slept. Everyone’s attention seemed to focus on a limo encircled by a host of armed guards. A bus pulled in behind the limo. A group of young men began filing out. Some of the crowd waved. A small podium was set up by a guard. The flags of Mexico and the USA were stuck in the ground by another guard next to the monument. With the American consul at his side a Mexican government official spoke at the podium:

“Sunday at Xochimilco. What better day for the first day of American-Mexican cooperation in bringing our family members back to their…

“BLAM!……BLAM! BLAM!”

The American consul went writhing to the ground. People began shouting and running in all directions. Guards ran toward the smoke spiraling above the trajinera where the bride lay in shock on the boat deck. The bridegroom was on his knees consoling her. He gave thumbs up to the guards to show she was OK and waved his arm to indicate that they should continue to run after the unseen gunman in the direction they were already running. When the guards passed the bride and groom scampered off the trajinera.

Holly cowered under a bench protecting Diego. A man walked toward her on the embarcadero. Paint box in hand, he pulled her out from under the bench.

“Come with me, Holly.” She recognized Carlos’ father and nodded.

In the mercado across the street they were joined by two guys in hoodies.

“What are you doing here?” Carlos lifted the hoodie from his face.

“Have you gone insane?” Holly hugged Diego closer to her breasts.

“Nice shot, Papa.” Miguel in the other hoodie hugged his father.

“Nice shot? Sight was messed up at first. Had to adjust after that first shot. I was afraid I hit somebody in the crowd. Don’t know why I went for his leg, should have killed him but El Sol said no because he didn’t want to piss the Mexican government off. Don’t know why killing an American should piss them off. I have a passport and ticket to Seattle for you. Somebody will be waiting for you there. Vicky and Maria will be there next weekend. Compliments of La Mara. All is forgiven as long as you do what you’re told from here on out. Carlos, take care of your family. See you at the airport tomorrow. You weren’t supposed to know about this, Holly. I hope the baby slept through it. He’s beautiful. Diego, our gift from God. A wonderful name. Time to go.”

Carlos’ father patted the baby’s head. He and Miguel embraced Carlos before walking into the street. Carlos and Holly started back toward the hotel. An ambulance siren drowned out the yelling from the crowd.

“I told you to wait in the hotel. My dad called Mara Salvatrucha in LA. Vicky’s going to live with Miguel in Seattle. Miguel doesn’t want to get back into the business but it’s how he’s getting back to the States and he’s legal this time. The paperwork’s all done.”

“Here take him. I have to sit.”

Holly struggled to a bench. Carlos took the baby; Diego’s blanket was staunched with blood.

“My God! Did you know this?”

He quickly stripped the blanket looking for a wound.

“It’s not him.”

Holly slumped and slid to the ground. Carlos ran toward the ambulance pointing back to the bench.

“My wife’s been shot! Help me!”

One of the medics ran to the sprawled body. Carlos stood over him as he checked for vital signs. Carlos knew without hearing the words.

Diego was cared for by a nurse in the hospital’s pediatric ward while Carlos was informed of what had to happen before the body could be taken home. He was surprised that after the autopsy the body would be frozen for the trip back to the States. When all the details had been worked out Carlos went back to the hotel and wept through the night with Diego in his arms. Miguel, Vicky and Maria, were ‘family’ in her own words. Then this baby in his arms came – his son the gift from God. Now Diego’s mother was gone. The family was gone. If only she had listened to him and stayed at the hotel she wouldn’t be frozen like the people in the painting she loved so much.
The wait seemed endless until the flight left for Merida. Carlos’ mother and father stood side-by-side baffled by Carlos’ glazed stare as he walked toward the baggage carousel in the airport. Carlos put Diego in his grandmother’s arms. His father asked…

“Where’s Holly?”

* * * * * * * * * * * *

William Snyder is sweating out the winter of his life in the capitol of the Yucatan state in Merida with Vicky Carrasco-Silva, the love of his life, and his dog Chino. His travels have taken him to Europe, Ireland, South America, and most of the USA. He has lived in Philadelphia, Dallas, Atlanta, San Francisco, Oakland and Los Angeles. Prior to becoming a writer in Mexico he has been a teacher, consultant, manager, technician and business owner dealing with application software and computer technology. His writings have been published by Merida English Library, Queen City Crier, Inotherwordsmerida.Com, The Merida Review, Merida’s Night Writer, The Yucatan Times, GE Magazine, and Knowledgeware Users Conference. He is the father of 2 sons and 2 granddaughters.

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Angie5

photo by Angela M Campbell

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