From behind the crooked mesquite tree, I heard my mother humming along with music filtering through the screen-mesh of the kitchen window. Buzzing bumblebees which landed and danced along the tiny wire squares accompanied her song. They were drawn there to the sweet aroma of Mother’s pumpkin empanadas baked earlier before going outside to wash clothes. Mother was hunched over a cauldron, stirring the first load. I sat on a barren patch of dirt, building stick-houses and forts out of mesquite beans.
A Mexican ranchera was blaring from the radio placed near the open window. Mother had moved it there from its regular spot atop the refrigerator, so she could listen to the Spanish radio station while doing the laundry. She often said that listening to rancheras boosted her energy and made the day seem shorter. Washing clothes for a family of eight was no easy task. It took most of the day.
My mother, a petite yet strong woman, worked hard to take good care of her family. She loved the outdoors, but she risked an allergic reaction if she touched the weeds that festooned, even towered, over the dried St. Augustine grass and the large patches of dirt that speckled the backyard. So my mother was guaranteed much itching and scratching every laundry day. She couldn’t help but touch the weeds surrounding the woodpile at one corner of the yard, next to the shallow fire-pit. She pulled the wood from the pile and lit a small fire under the paila, a huge, charred cauldron filled with water used to soak and wash the clothes in. The paila was clean and shiny on the inside from years of stirring the clothes con el palo. The old broom-handle had turned smooth and white, sanitized by many years of being dipped into the hot, soapy water.
Finding it difficult to build a stick-house with the crooked mesquite beans, I began to throw them at the bumblebees. This earned a rebuke from mother.
“¡Apacíguate! ¡No le estés tirando piedras a la ventana!”
“No son piedras, Mami. Son fríjoles de mezquite. See?” Mother thought I was throwing rocks at the window, so I threw a handful of beans toward her. A few of them bounced off the cauldron and into the fire. They sizzled in their bitter-sweet sap, never to become crooked trees.
“¡Payaso!” She laughed. Mother almost always laughed at the things I did or said, and she never failed to call me a clown.
Using the palo to pluck the clothes from the cauldron, my mother placed them to cool in an empty washtub. She wiped a trickle of sweat zigzagging its way down the side of her brow, as she walked over to sit in the metal chair she kept under the crooked mesquite tree. She sought respite from the rising steam of the hellish boil. The tree provided little shade but was the largest one in the yard. Thankfully, it was also the farthest away from the fire pit. During the short reprieve, Mother glanced at the new washing machine Papi had bought her months ago. It sat on a small concrete pad outside the back door; there was no room for it in the kitchen. Mother called it “esa mugre fregada.”
Calling it that darn thing was easier than learning how to use it.
“Mami. Why do you always call me payaso?” I asked from behind the tree.
“Porque you’re funny. You make er’body laugh.”
“That’s good, huh?”
“I’n gonna be a clown when I grow up. I know it.”
Mother stood up, and then walked over to a potted aloe vera plant kept under the water spigot. She broke off one of the octopus-like stems just like she had done each laundry day and rubbed its oozing, viscous jelly along each arm. The coolness of it soothed the spreading rash.
“Yesterday you wanted to be a Marine like your Uncle Luis,” she said.
“Yeah, I want to be a Marine! I want to chute a gun. And I want to ride a jeep. And I want to ride a tank. And I want to wear a helmet like the guys in the comics. Oh, no, no, no, never mind. I want to be a clown.”
“Un día de estos, Mijo. One of these days you’ll grow up to be a Marine like Uncle Luis.” Mother marched back to the fire-pit.