We lived on the cusp of lower-middle class and the poor side of town. The border dividing us was the alley in between. Even as young as I was, I understood this. A few cousins lived on the other side, so once in a while when my mom and I visited the primos, I saw for myself how they lived. We may not have been well off, but we had beds, not army cots to sleep on. We had doors between rooms, not bedsheets on strings. We had indoor plumbing and electricity for cooking and heating. They had neither. They lived in small houses which looked more like sheds, little more than one room divided into kitchen and bedroom, all with outhouses in back.
It was winter, but there hadn’t been any snow in two weeks. I was reading on my bed, listening to music when a knock on my window interrupted me. It was my best friend and neighbor, Rickie.
“Wanna light some firecrackers?” he asked when I raised the pane a couple of inches.
“Maybe just a couple,” I agreed. “Be there in a sec.”
Since my birthday fell between Christmas and New Year’s, it was like having a triple holiday before returning to school in January. We had saved up some Fourth of July firecrackers and sparklers for the three occasions. We had enough to spare a few. Just to make sure they worked, I told myself as I joined Rickie in my backyard. The afternoon was crisp but sunny. We went behind the garage which stood a few yards from the alley, no fence on our side. A field fence, one of those square-holed metal ones, stood about five feet high between us and the next block.
The first match went out with a slight breeze. We moved closer to the back of the garage, standing over the 50-gallon drum we used for trash. Rickie cupped his hands over mine as I struck the next fósforo. It flared up faster than I thought it would, and I dropped it into the drum when it burned my skin.
“Sss,” I hissed, putting my fingertip in my mouth.
“Here,” Rickie commanded, holding a hand out, palm up. “Gimme that.”
I handed him the matchbox and stood ready with the sparklers. On his first attempt, the match lit and he touched the tip to the firework. It blazed and flickered and ignited just as we’d hoped. I lit a sparkler for him, and we had a short, blazing sword fight before tossing the rods into the trash.
“Wanna light another one?” Rickie asked.
“Do we wanna waste them all before Christmas?”
I knew he caught my sarcasm since he shoved me before sticking his hands in his pockets. “Guess not. What now?”
I had no ideas. It was too cold to go to the swings and slides at the park a block away. We’d already grown tired of board games and marbles, I knew I couldn’t talk him into playing jacks, so I waited to see what he came up with. That was when I smelled something that made my heart pound and my eyes widen.
“D’you smell that?” I swiveled slowly and saw smoke rising from the trash can. I ran to it and then peered down at the bottom where the match had ignited some newspaper and other debris, including leaves, a lot of dry leaves.
“Oh, shit,” Rickie had joined me. “Quick, grab some dirt. We throw tierra on the lumbre when we go camping.”
It would’ve been a great idea if the ground hadn’t been frozen from the cold spell. The last snow had melted, too. We needed water.
“No good,” Rickie admitted when a flat rock he tried using as a scraper didn’t loosen much dirt. “You need to go get the hose or a bucket from your kitchen or something.”
“Oh, yeah, right,” I glared at him. “I go in there and my mom wants to know why and I’m screwed. And the hose is locked in the garage.”
“You’re screwed if you burn down your dad’s garage with his prize ’57 Chevy inside.”
With a pop, a blaze shot up from the drum, and sparks flew everywhere, dropping onto the dried weeds around us.
“Shit, shit, shit,” Rickie repeated.
“Damn, damn, damn,” I joined in as we stomped on every tuft, smothering the glowing embers before they could spread. Meanwhile, the flames grew over the top of the drum.
“Oyen,” someone called.
We turned, and there across the alley stood a tiny old woman with a bucket she held up and over the fence. She wore a bonnet over her head, but silver curls coiled above her eyes. Her back was covered in a woolen shawl, and she wore an apron over a faded gray dress. Button-top shoes like my grandma used were on her feet. I looked back up at her face. I’d never seen such an expression of amusement and concern on anyone before. Her eyes kind of glinted, and when she smiled, her cheeks plumped up. She could’ve been anyone’s abuelita.
“Gracias, Señora,” Rickie told her as he’d snapped to and run to retrieve the bucket. I’d frozen in my assessment of a vecina who looked vaguely familiar but who I also knew I’d never met before. I watched as Rickie poured water onto the fire.
We all gasped, even the viejita—audibly—when the whoosh of the flare-up made the flames rise about two feet high out of the drum. Rickie stumbled back, shaking his head, and mumbled, “The bucket was only half full.”
“Well, look at her,” I whispered back. “She’s even smaller than I am.”
“Plebe,” the woman called. We turned and saw she had another bucket. Rickie ran and exchanged the empty one for the one she handed over. She didn’t hesitate but hurried to wherever she was getting the water from while Rickie made a concentrated effort to drizzle the liquid over the fire. Between her handing over the buckets and us emptying them over the drum, we made progress after a while. But the smoke rising over the roof of the garage worried me. If the neighbors across the road from us saw it, someone would raise the alarm. More worrisome was that my mom or Rickie’s would see and come investigate.
“La tapa,” the woman called a third time.
“¿Qué tapa?” Rickie moved closer to the trash can and found what the lady had seen. The tapadera, the lid to the drum, had been leaning up against the garage almost out of sight. He grabbed it and then banged it down on the smoking debris, and we all breathed a sigh of relief.
We joined the woman at the fence, handing over the buckets and thanking her for her help. The woman shook a finger at us, and a faint scent of lilac mixed with wood smoke wafted over me.
“What were you chavalos thinking? Haciendo lumbre tan cerca de casas.”
Neither Rickie nor I could look her in the eye, so we stood there with our heads down. I, for one, had no excuse for my stupidity. She was right—we had no business playing with fire, to begin with, much less so close to houses. It was one of those moments when I knew I’d messed up more than usual. I wondered how much trouble I was in with my parents.
When I finally looked at her, the viejita added, “Besides your padre’s carro, I’ll bet he has gas, oil—what other flammable items can you think of in there with the car, eh?”
I pictured the interior with the wooden shelves filled with paint, tools, oily rags, cardboard boxes of old Reader’s Digests, Progressive Farmers, and wood crates of whatever else my dad had.
“You two have learned an important lesson today ¿qué no?”
“I did,” I nodded.
“So did I,” Rickie added.
“If you hadn’t come when you did, this could’ve been so much worse,” I told her. “Thank you again.”
Rickie chimed in, “If there’s anything we can do for you—do you need leña, Señora? Anything, anything at all we can help you with, tell us, por favor.”
“Yes,” I agreed, “I owe you so much, Señora…” I realized we hadn’t introduced ourselves, so I added, “Me llamo Betty; mi amigo es Ricardo.”
“Gusto de conocerlos,” she smiled but waved instead of shaking the hand I held out to her. I found that odd since every older person I’d met would’ve expected a handshake from us youngsters. But I backed away from the fence instead.
When she said nothing more and the silence got awkward, I blurted, “You’re right about what my dad has in the garage. It would have gone up in a blaze so fast…my parents would’ve been so mad.”
“I think disappointed is more like it,” she replied. Her next words penetrated my very soul when she spoke again. “You have to tell them. ¿Sabes?”
I blinked. Did the Señora know my mom? My mother didn’t abide liars, even by omission. So when this woman reached into my conscience through her gaze and her words, I knew I didn’t have a choice. I had to tell my parents what we did. Even if Rickie got into trouble, too.
“Yo se,” I told her.
“Muy bien,” the Señora looked first at Rickie and then at me, nodded, and turned away. She disappeared with her buckets around the corner of the nearest shed. Rickie and I walked back to the garage. He lifted the lid of the can a bit and when no smoke emerged, he took it off to peer inside. The fire was out, but the metal was black with soot. The boards of the garage nearest the drum had also darkened with the smoke, so the evidence would’ve made my dad question me anyway.
“You can’t just let your dad think maybe a pachuco throwing a bacha into the trash started the fire?”
I weighed the consequences of keeping my mouth shut. Letting my dad think the blame fell on one of the neighborhood boys for tossing a cigarette butt would’ve been easy, but the Señora’s voice echoed in my head, Tienes que decir la verdad. I groaned. I remembered the time I was four or five and had taken a pack of gum from the grocery counter. The noise the wrapper made when I opened the first stick had my mother reaching into the backseat and snatching my prize out of my hands. She made my dad turn the car around and stood behind me as I apologized to the store manager. There had been a couple of other instances where I had had to fess up to my “crimes.” My mom had some kind of ESP or something. Besides, Rickie and I attended catechism and would be making our holy communion soon, so the guilt would’ve eaten me alive. Him too, though he’d be the last to admit it.
We heard my dad pull into the driveway and a moment after, his dad drove up into theirs. We exchanged a look and a nod. Postponing it would make us both feel worse, so we went around the corner of the garage.
“Hey,” my dad called out, “where did you two come from?”
Rickie had gone over to the short fence dividing their place from ours and beckoned his dad over. Señor Alvarado hopped over and joined us; Rickie and I led them over to the drum and told our story. Yeah, the disappointment their eyes conveyed hurt so much worse than if they’d both flung off the fajas holding up their work pants and given our backsides 30 lashes. I think I’d have preferred that physical pain to the internal one they meted out so well without a word.
Neither said much at all, really. Neither gave us any further punishment either. Shamefaced, we went home, leaving our fathers standing there in conversation. I went straight to confess to my mother, and afterward, Rickie told me he’d done the same.
My mom only said maybe we should take the Señora some cookies the following day as a thank you. “Too bad you didn’t get her name,” she added from where she stood at the stove, stirring the boiling caldo of green chile.
“I know,” I agreed. “Rickie and I introduced ourselves, but she never did.” When I described her attire and her stature, my mom did a little double take and frowned, but she shook whatever had come over her off and told me to set the table.
“Tomorrow we’ll find her, eh?”
The next day, Christmas Eve, after a couple of hours of cooking, we found a nice candy tin my mom had saved from a previous Christmas and we filled it with biscochitos, tied a ribbon around it, and walked down the sidewalk to the next block. We knocked on several of the doors to homes of people my mother didn’t know, but there was no small elderly resident in any of them.
We left the cookies with the last man we’d questioned, wished him a Merry Christmas, and went home. My mom had settled on the couch and picked up her embroidery when I walked into the living room with a book. I sat down in my dad’s rocker, put my feet up on his ottoman, and prepared to read.
“Describe the Señora again,” my mom asked, setting her needlework on her lap and looking at me. I repeated what I’d told her, from the bonnet on the woman’s head to the button-up shoes on her feet.
I remembered the scent of her then. “The lady smelled like smoke. I didn’t think anything of it since my friends’ clothes smell like humo from their wood heaters and stoves. But she also smelled like flowers, like maybe she wore lilac perfume.”
My mother gasped, staring at me with a look of confusion. Shaking her head, she set her sewing aside. She went into her room, and I heard drawers banging shut, her armoire door squeaking open and then shut, her muttering, “Where is it, where did I put it,” before she came into the combination dining/living room and opened the drawers of her buffet. “Ah, here it is,” she came back with a gray-covered ledger and sat flipping through pages until she found what she wanted. She unfolded what looked like a newspaper article, yellowed with age and soft to the touch. I went to sit next to her, and she handed the paper to me.
“It’s her—it’s the Señora from across the alley. How did you know?”
“The lilac,” she said bluntly. “She made her own scent and a rose perfume for my grandmother.”
“You know her then?”
“Knew,” she nodded at the paper. “Read.”
I looked back at the article. The Señora looked at me from a black and white headshot with those twinkling eyes and that gentle smile I’d seen the day before. “Mrs. Angel Torrez succumbed to her injuries today,” I read. The details revealed she had been burned badly in a fire when a wood stove ignited the wall behind it. She had saved two nieces and a nephew before the tiny house went up in a blaze. As the fire department arrived, the houses on either side burned down, too. The building materials were little more than cardboard, plywood, and tin. The accident had sparked the ongoing argument that the city fathers didn’t do enough to provide the elderly or the impoverished with government housing. Since the article was over ten years old and since hovels across the alley still housed the elderly and the poor, I shook my head that not much had changed. I looked at the date on the paper: December 24, 1951.
“How can this…”
“I don’t know,” she interrupted. She sat back with a deep sigh that trembled when her shoulders shook. “Escalofrío,” she wrapped her arms around her body. I grabbed the ever-present crochet throw from the back of the couch and wrapped it around us. I, too, had the chills. A woman long dead, my great-aunt, actually, had come from wherever she’d been spending eternity to save me from myself. Granted, I don’t think the small fire we started would’ve turned into an inferno, but I would never know. Tía Angel intervened; maybe she had seen something dire and returned to prevent it. Seeing her at all was a miracle; who was I to question what the spirits knew or didn’t know?
“How sad,” I sighed, “and she died on Christmas Eve, too.” I looked at my mom through tears and saw hers already falling from her eyes.
“She was my grandmother’s sister,” my mom said after a while. She folded the article and put it back in her ledger. “She always looked out for us kids, I remember. She never had any of her own, so she used to say we were all her niños and she would take care of us forever. I guess she still is.”
“Our very own guardian angel,” I murmured.
“Our Christmas miracle,” she replied.
DECEMBER 2021 AUTHOR OF THE MONTH at Spillwords.com
Carmen Baca taught high school and college English for thirty-six years before retiring in 2014. A native New Mexico Norteña and regionalistic author, she incorporates elements of her regional Spanish culture into most of what she writes. She is the author of 6 books and over 70 short publications to date.