Jorge Courtade


It’s a cloudy day like all the rest of them. The weather is mild and a slight ocean breeze reminds everyone of their proximity to the Pacific Ocean. Milo’s mom prepares for the worst, as mothers often do. She tells her son to wash up and brush his teeth while she packs a jacket, some underwear, a couple of t-shirts and a pair of socks.

Milo is in no rush. He drags his feet across their brown, shaggy carpet and stares in the mirror with a toothbrush tucked along the side of his cheek.

Ya! Apurate, nino!

Still staring in the mirror, he rolls his eyes - something he learned from his teenage sister. He pouts to himself, spits out the toothpaste and wipes his mouth with his sleeve.

He steps into the living room where his mother is standing, one leg out further than the other. It’s a mother’s stance.

She checks her slim leather watch and tries to fake a smile when Milo emerges from the bathroom.

Gracias, Milo. Let’s go.

Milo’s mom’s hair is curly and she’s in a modest black dress with lace around the shoulders. She’s beautiful and her perfume smells like every woman Milo will fall in love with for the rest of his life.

She hands him some things to carry and they leave the apartment, walk to her designated parking space and load up the white Acura Integra.

Milo falls asleep on the short drive over to his Abuelita’s house and he pretends to still be asleep when they get there. His mom picks him up but he’s bigger now and so, after picking him up and carrying him a few steps, she struggles.

Milo feels a tinge of guilt so he wakes himself up from his non-sleep and stands on his own two feet. He rubs his eyes and yawns before reaching for his mom’s hand.

She is going to a wedding and, a few hours ago, he was in no mood to be her date. He looks up at her as they walk up the stairs to Abuelita’s apartment. Milo’s mom left the car unlocked in the driveway so she’s in a rush to get back down. Milo taps at his Abuelita’s screen door before reaching up to ring the doorbell. His mother scolds him for making so much noise.

Abuelita opens the wooden door before unlocking the screen door. Milo can tell she has dyed her hair a chestnut brown because her gray hairs are nowhere to be found. He wants to say something but he holds his tongue.

His mother and Abuelita embrace, kissing each other on the cheek before waving goodbye. Milo hugs his Abuelita’s hips and turns around to see his mother waving and blowing kisses. He holds his Abuelita tighter to show his mom he will be okay without her, that she shouldn’t leave him for too long or he might get used to being without her. She blows one last kiss and walks down the stairs and pulls out of the driveway.

Milo wishes he went with her. He gulps.

When he first got the news, Milo ran to pack a little backpack with his Gameboy and his Pokemon games and a change of clothes. He was happy to be with his Abuelita.

Maybe he’d get to sleep over the whole weekend. He packed like it, at least.

His Abuelita went to sleep early and he would be free to play his games all night. An entire weekend undisturbed from Pokemon battles sounded great. Now, carrying the bag his mother packed with essentials and the bag he packed with entertainment, he feels weighed down by both.

Once he’s inside Abuelita’s small cozy apartment, he drops both bags by the door and wonders about lunch.

He always has a good time at Abuelita’s apartment. His Tia Marina and cousin Jamie live there and they always make jokes about the neighbors – either that or ask him if he has a girlfriend. He blushes when they ask but he laughs with them because he doesn’t know what else to do. They aren’t home today though, they’ve gone to see a family friend.

Abuelita cooks dishes he doesn’t know the names of, dishes made in her tiny kitchen that rival any renowned chef’s best work – all while watching el noticiero on a black-and-white television set and talking on the phone to relatives in Tegucigalpa. 

She is an orphan and maybe that explains why she had nine kids – it is a family to call her own, all her own. There was always someone to help, some new gossip, someone to talk to.

She tells Milo she’s making one of her favorite dishes, the one her adopted mother used to make for her when she was a little girl. Milo trusts her cooking more than he trusts himself to wake up in the morning so he nods his head in an instance of blind enthusiasm. He waits in the kitchen, watching her. She tells him to sit and they talk as she goes through the cupboards and readies the ingredients.

For an abuela, her hands are quick and all-knowing and forceful. Her fingers, tired from years as a seamstress, are still delicate and precise. They tell stories of struggle, migration, and manual labor.  They have run pieces of fabric through sewing machines and they have packaged cans of Campbell chicken noodle soup for mass consumption. They also once held plane tickets to the United States inside of a Honduran airport, the one the pilots say is the biggest challenge, the most difficult. Now those fingers serve popcorn to teenaged Filipinos in a Daly City movie theater.

Milo watches her fingers as she grabs spices from here, the chicken from there, the verduras, the pots and pans. It’s all ready in a flash. He smells the spices in the air, a reminder he hasn’t eaten yet. He tugs at the white tablecloth that could’ve doubled as a blanket. The plastic on his seat sticks to his pants if he doesn’t move around enough.

Abuelita seems to have everything but Milo recognizes the look on her face. She turns the TV down and checks the cupboards again. The little parakeet outside gawks and yells from the white cage on the tiny balcony outside – the balcony connected to the kitchen by a sliding glass door.

Milo is surprised by the noise. He forgot Loro was the most loyal resident of the home. A family fixture.

From the balcony you can see the backyards of the surrounding houses and apartment complexes and the railroad tracks and, if you squint your eyes, you can see the San Francisco International Airport off in the distance.

This balcony is where Milo’s Abuelita, Tia and cousin hang their clothes to dry. It’s also where they go at night to stare at the stars and remember Tegucigalpa as they watch the airplanes fly off to places like Denver, Chicago and Houston.

Abuelita looks around the kitchen, then back at Milo. The little parakeet, Loro, makes a racket and Abuelita snaps at him in disapproval.

Ya! Ya, Lorito! Calmate.

The little green bird squawks back like a rebellious teenager. He looks at Abuelita, his green wings flare out when he gets worked up. They are in dialogue. The red spots on his left wing and chest give him a distinctly tropical look.

The little loro reminds Abuelita of home, especially now when it won’t shut up. Sometimes it takes a few thousand miles to make someone miss the simple squalor of the slums. Now she’s in a different slum. One where people look and talk like her but also one where people come from all over the world and speak different languages and don’t pray to the same patron saints. Some don’t pray at all.

She stands quiet for a second then takes her apron off. The meal will have to wait. She tells Milo to put his jacket back on and they set off for the Mexican market. They walk down the same flight of steps Milo’s mom walked down not even an hour ago. This time, instead of his mom helping him walk up the steps, he helps his Abuelita down the steps, lending his little hand to her as she walks down the steps gingerly.

They walk a few blocks, up near some railroad tracks before reaching the road that leads up to the city’s center. A man selling paletas walks past them and tips his hat while ringing the little bells that usually tip off the kids when high fructose corn syrup is on its way. The man smiles at Abuelita without showing his teeth. Milo is too young to recognize the nervous smile the man gives his Abuela. It’s the same kind of nervous smile he smiles around Nina – the pretty Jewish girl with curly brown hair in his second grade class.

The sun starts to creep in through the clouds and the resulting humidity takes a toll on them. It’s not a long walk from her apartment to the market but the heat is sudden and their hands and foreheads start to gather sweat.

Teenagers piled up in a dark Chevy sedan ride by with their windows down, music blasting. Milo and Abuelita stare at them. To the child and the elderly mother of nine, the teenagers look free. To the teenagers, the child and elderly mother of nine are their pasts and the futures. They turn stoic before turning the music down, partly out of respect. They turn it back up further down the block.

They reach the shopping district. It is hardly a district, truth be told, more like a long stretch of locally-owned shops. Milo holds onto Abuelita’s hand while she picks out fruit and vegetables from the Mexican market in San Bruno’s little downtown district. Abuelita’s knees make a cracking sound after every few steps. He worries about his own knees cracking one day. He tugs at his pant leg and imagines the cracking sound following him everywhere he goes.

Abuelita finds the ingredients she needs. By now the sun has gone back to wherever it was hiding before it peeked its head through the pewter clouds. The wind has picked up, a chilly ocean breeze. Milo holds a gallon of milk with both hands while Abuelita holds a paper bag full of spices, vegetables and meats from Central America. Milo doubts she needs all of this to complete the meal and he wonders if fast food just makes more sense, all things being equal.

Abuelita, on the other hand, is too old and too wise to waste a supermarket run.

With the wind at their backs they set off for her apartment.

Milo and Abuelita walk up the stairs leading up to her apartment one more time. Her knees crack every few steps. She closes the screen door behind them and locks the big wooden door after they step inside. Loro welcomes them back with a few more choice words.

Abuelita unpacks the contents of the bag, finding space in the cupboards and the refrigerator and the freezer. Milo has worked up an appetite but he knows better than to rush his Abuelita and risk the scolding of a lifetime. He walks out onto the balcony where clothes hang from a tight, emerald green string. Milo sees no beginning or end to the string. It just exists.

The neighbors are playing loud music. From one house, where the cholos live, rap can be heard whenever the sliding glass door slides open. The residents are having a barbeque - carne asada, 49ers jerseys and Too $hort. From the adjacent apartment, salsa and merengue and banda can be heard, at varying volumes, from the little windows all around.  

No seas malcreado, Milo.

Milo didn’t expect a voice. It whips his head around. It’s a boy’s voice, a boy about his age. He looks around and sees no one. He wonders if it’s someone downstairs or nearby, watching him. His second grade class just had a whole day devoted to ‘stranger danger’ and his paranoia, if juvenile, feels warranted. He makes eye contact with one of the cholos below. The cholo tilts his head and waves at him with a hotdog in his hand. Milo waves then backs away from the railing.

Milo, it’s me. Loro.

Milo looks at the bird. The sliding glass door is closed shut and Abuelita is throwing elotes into a large stew. Milo isn’t afraid of the bird. In fact, he curses himself for not realizing sooner. He comes closer, his height placing them at eye level with each other.

Milo, be nice to your abuelita.

I am nice to her.

Milo says that last bit with some doubt, like it is a question. He thinks of all transgressions, of all the times he has disappointed her – like when he promised he’d finish first grade at the top of his class but finished third instead or when he refused to pray with her, making a scene at the church.

The bird stays quiet and Milo wonders if he has imagined the whole thing. The bird picks at the little bird feeder, stupidly. Abuelita is at the glass door and she slides it to her right and peaks her head out onto the balcony.

Ya solo faltan unos minutos. Just a few more minutes, Milo, the food is almost ready.

Ok, Abuelita.

Milo watches the door close. He doesn’t want to bring up the talking bird to his Abuelita.  It’s more fun if it’s a secret. It’s a game. It’s a friend. It’s kind of hard to explain, too.

Have you always been able to talk?

The bird keeps pecking at its food. It hops around on the wooden peg running from one side of the white cage to the other. It tilts its head to the side, at an angle.

Have you always walked around with your fly open?

Milo looks down and, sure enough, the zipper on his navy blue shorts is unzipped three quarters of the way down. He adjusts and his cheeks flush red. He stutters but then he remembers he is talking to a bird in a cage. The absurdity of it all allows him to gather himself.

I meant… I mean, how do you talk?

How should I know, Milo? You think someone just came down here and explained it to me?

Milo peeks back inside. Abuelita has her back towards him but he can sense she will be coming out soon. He wonders why he doesn’t want her to see him talking to the bird. Loro hops a little closer to the edge of his cage and bends his neck until his beak creeps through the skinny white bars that enclose him.

You are the only person who has heard me so far. Then again, I don’t really get to see too many people. I’m in a cage, after all.

Abuelita walks towards the glass door. In such a small kitchen, all it takes is a few steps to get there from the stove. She catches Milo off guard and he jumps back a few inches.

Are you talking to Loro? He’s a good listener when he isn’t yapping and yapping and yapping.

Yes, Abuelita. We were talking. Loro is a pretty bird. How long have you --

Loro hops up a little when he hears Milo describe him as pretty. He stretches his wings out and flaps them. His brilliant green feathers have been dulled by inactivity but, right now, they have their shine again, even if just for the moment.

Oh look at him! Ay, Loro, tan dramatico.

Abuelita is complaining in the way abuelita’s do, but the pride in her voice runs deep and she is happy to see her Loro perk up. He always reminds her of a different time in her life but right now his energy and spirit remind her of the tenth child, the one no one knows about - the first one, really, with a different man. The son she lost to the slums all those years ago.

Come to think of it, their similarities are striking. Always talking, always acting up. Never with mal intent but always looking to grab her attention. Little rebels at heart, hearts made of gold nonetheless.

Go inside and wash up, Milito, the food is ready.





© The Acentos Review 2016