Translated by JENNIFER ACKER
The three of them play cards in the dining room. This is the story. Nothing else. Collectively, they’re almost three hundred years old. They drink juice and laugh. Now one of them turns on a small radio, which plays “Autumn Leaves.”
“C’mon. Play your cards, Carmensa.”
“Don’t you rush me, señorita. We have all the time in the world.”
Two hours ago the situation was different, the scenes distinct. Carmen—the oldest of them—was in her house, in the back room, inside the shower, keeping still while the water fell around her. The cold gave her goosebumps, which she tried to avoid looking at. At her age, seeing her body made her feel weak. Norka was shopping in the supermarket near her apartment. On her way home, she found herself walking alongside a stranger, discussing the quality of the bread. Normally she doesn’t strike up random conversations with strangers, but sometimes she feels the need. Sometimes, too, she talks with the dogs and cats she meets along the way: Snowball, Max, León, Almond.
Noe was talking with her daughter on the phone. She listened to accounts of autumn in Europe. From a distance, and with some difficulty, she struggled to imagine the poplars that her daughter described, which overwhelm the street where she’s lived for a few weeks, in some vague spot in Madrid. Before the silence that ends the call, there’s a murmur from the other end of the line that’s interspersed with news of her granddaughter’s health. “Okay, no, no, okay. No.” Through the gauze of distance, they both look for a place to hold their gazes. Here in Santiago, it’s the kitchen that shines blurrily in Noe’s eyes.
“Wait a minute. I used to sing that song when I was little girl. The one by—what’s her name?—by Piaf.”
“Oh, come on. What you gonna sing if your voice is more out of tune than the devil?”
“This is Piaf singing, but it’s not her song, Carmensa.”
Today there’s a TV show that the three of them want to see. They have agreed on this.
The juice, the cards, the music are the excuse that keeps them from feeling they are waiting. Later Norka will serve licor de flores and Noe will go out to the balcony to smoke. She will blow the smoke upward, away from the plants, far away. She’ll watch it disperse into the vastness of the night and she’ll think it’s good to have them nearby. To have each other. But this is later. Meanwhile, they play.
“You remember that time I arrived at our uncle’s house with a little medal? It was because I imitated Piaf and they gave me a medal. A little more respect, señora.”
“Carmensa, we’re not getting any younger. Let’s play. I could die waiting for your card.”
“Should I get more juice?”
Norka and Carmen are cousins. Since they were girls, they’ve spent a lot of time together. They know each other well. They get each other. They spent the happiest years of their lives in the beach house of their Tía Chita. Years that have endured the weathering of a life together. Whenever they think of that time, they rescue some fragment, some anecdote, or they invent a joke. Their only fight occurred in that house, because neither of them wanted to clean a huge lamp full of glass teardrops. Carmen pushed her cousin. At the high point of Norka’s temple, a small scar still shines.
“Finally, old lady. And you took so long for that?”
“You’re such a pain, Norki. Just play. Weren’t you in a hurry?”
“You girls never stop fighting. You fight like cats and dogs. Pour you some more?”
The juice they share doesn’t have added sugar. It’s prohibited for Noe, for her health. Her friends, in tacit agreement, have decided to modify their own diets. Noe, however, smokes. Less now, but still. Lucky Strike. If she remembers, she buys the smallest packs, the ones with half the amount. This way she saves money and rests her cough in the mornings. It’s the only time she can. The death rattles of a lifetime of smoking renew every night. Sometimes it sounds as if a pack of starving, sluggish dogs were devouring her from the inside. It’s hard to find a photo of her without a cigarette hanging from her lips. Especially in those from la Unidad Popular.
Norka was the first to meet Noe, then Carmen. Noe worked with Norka at the telephone company for forty years. FOR-TY years, they say if someone asks, with the pride of a round number. Thirty-nine wouldn’t be the same. They’ve been neighbors for fourteen and have shared contiguous apartments. They survived Pinochet. They survived forty years.
The radio broadcasts ads. Carmen changes the station. At a certain age, music is more important. Sometimes they think about putting small radios—turned on, of course—inside their coffins. At their age, they are painfully aware that someday there will be a music that they won’t hear.
Norka and Noe bought their apartments together when their pensions were the same. But five years ago Noe secured another retirement plan, and since then they take two-thirds of what she’s owed. She was warned about this, but she made the change anyway. Now she regrets it, chastises herself, mostly because she can’t afford to help her daughter on the other side of the world, to take care of her granddaughter María José’s illness.
“You’re freaking lucky, Norki. And to think you whined so much.”
“When are you going to lose, Norkita? You left me with a lot of points.”
“Whatever. Shut up. Now you losers shuffle. Or you, Carmensa. I have licor de flores—you want some?”
The program is about to start. Carmen turns off the radio and goes to find glasses. The glass trembles a little in her knotted hands. Norka uncorks the licor de flores. She calls it flower liqueur even though it’s just chamomile, and saves it for occasions like this one. She quickly pours three small cups and heads to the bathroom.
Noe pulls her lighter from the pack and walks toward the balcony. One hand runs against the glass door, the other pulls close the flame. Immediately she feels the inward burn of the pack. She releases the smoke upwards, far from the plants, far away. She watches it disperse into the vastness of the night and thinks how good it is to have them close. To have each other. Through the glass she hears their laughter quiet down and the murmur of the television. In front of her, outlined against the sky, are the mountains, and below and farther away a stack of orange circles illuminates the foothills.
“C’mon, Noe, hurry up—it’s about to start,” she hears them shout. She smiles. She thinks of the program they’re about to watch together and what she’ll do when it’s over. She doesn’t want it to ever end, nor the cigarette. She would prefer not to return to her own apartment. Cigarette between her lips, she rejects the idea of silence. She knows, rehearses in her mind, that when the commercials start, in a courageous rapture she will ask Norka to sleep over.
Christian Ibarra is a writer and journalist born in Puerto Rico in 1987. He studied Hispanic literature at the University of Puerto Rico and social communication at Chile University. He’s also the author of La Vida a Ratos and Ventanas. As a reporter, he worked at Diálogo, GFR Media, Metro, and Univision.
Jennifer Acker is founder and editor-in-chief of The Common. Her short stories, essays, translations, and reviews have appeared in LitHub, The Washington Post, n+1, Harper’s, and Ploughshares, among other places. She has an MFA in fiction and literature from the Bennington Writing Seminars and teaches literature and editing at Amherst College. Her debut novel, The Limits of the World, will be published in 2019.