“Are you a hundred?”
The boy stood at the open gate and rocked back on cowboy boots that were shiny chestnut, the pointed toes catching hold of the late afternoon sun. Feathery blond tufts jutted from beneath his cocked hat, and the two bougainvillea baskets that she tended to so well swayed over his shoulders, cascades of pink stars spilling from the edges and flickering in the lazy breeze.
The old woman held a tremor as she cupped her hand to her forehead. She leaned on her chair and squinted down at him, turning her head until the hand shadow fell over her eyes. He was small, too small to be so far from his parents, those loud gringos who carried on down at the road like gringos always do—fat, angry bees hovering over a mud-splattered truck. A steam cloud leaked from beneath the open hood. Behind them, the curtain of ash and candlewood trees provided a merciful shade, a gift that they likely didn’t even notice. From her spot on her porch, she could see clearly the distant black peaks of the Sierra de las Minas as they reached into the clouds like the crowns of kings.
“Why do you say that?” she asked. She leaned forward, her elbows pressing into the tender spots on her knees. It had been years since she had even practiced English, much less attempted conversation. When had the last missionaries come through Chilasco, not counting the Mormons? She spoke slowly and intentionally, in order that even such a young child could understand her.
“Do I look 100 to you?”
“My dad said all the ladies in this village live to be a hundred years old.” He squinted up at the flower baskets and pushed the underside of his hat with his forefinger. “My nana’s 83. You look older than her.”
The old woman pinched her lips over her teeth, still strong and still many, and looked toward the couple again. The mother had taken her seat on the rear bumper of the truck and was tapping her finger at the small telephone she held close to her flour-sack breasts. At the other end, the man leaned against the fender with his back. He was smiling up at the two of them on the porch.
“Hola, señora!” he called, raising a hand to her. He said this with a thick tongue, like a two-year-old just learning to speak. The woman on the bumper glanced up as well, but only for a moment.
“Good afternoon,” the old woman answered, waving a hand at him.
“Thank goodness, you speak English.” The man pushed off from the truck and took a few steps into the road. He was white and skinny, and the baseball cap he wore sat on his head like a dirty rag. “Toby, come on back over here and don’t bother the nice lady.”
“He is no bother,” she said. “He can sit here with me, and you can fix your car.” She heaved herself from her rocker and went to the other end of the porch, where she retrieved a small folding chair. “Come and sit with me, boy,” she said. “You can cool in the shade. And if it begins to rain, you will not be wet.”
She set the chair next to hers and went into the house, letting the screen door fall hard against the frame behind her. It was cooler inside, but she didn’t want the boy in her house. She instead took a bottle of Orangina from her cooler and brought it out to him, taking his hand and placing it in his grip. He was still standing on her porch.
“Sit here in the chair,” she said, motioning to it. “It won’t break under you.”
He took the seat and thanked her for the soda, and then they sat together for some minutes without talking, the boy perched on the edge of the seat, tipping the bottle to his mouth, legs swinging under himself as he took in the view that spread itself out from her little stucco house on the grassy slope. Every now and then he would look up at her and tip his hat back on his head, and canvass her face with his eyes. Then he’d slide the rim back over his bangs and look back out at the mountains.
“How old are you, boy?” the woman said finally.
“Seven.” He took off his hat and set it down gently at his feet. “I had a birthday already, or else I would be only six.”
“That is how birthdays are.”
Down the steps at the street, the man was leaning into the engine compartment now, pounding against something with a metal tool. The racket echoed down the hillside into the valley below, where the shops and the school and the open market spread to the edges of the low forest. They would be coming out from their stalls, some of them, to look up the hill toward the truck. To see if it was anyone they knew.
“You are here to see the waterfall,” she said.
“How’d you know that?”
She pushed a breath of air between her teeth. “Everyone comes to see the waterfall,” she said. “They come from the city so they can drive for one hour in the mud, just to see the falling water. Then they eat snacks and drink Coca-Cola. Leave it all on the ground before they turn around to go home.”
“I live in Idaho,” the boy said. “That’s in America. It’s Christmas vacation.”
The woman pulled her chin to her chest and cleared her throat. “Little boys should have toys for Christmas, not an old, dirty waterfall.”
“It’s OK,” he said. His voice was pitched and reassuring. “Santa’s still coming to our house. But we won’t be there.”
She nodded and reached out a hand. “Let me see that hat.”
He leaned down over his knees and picked it up, and placed it in her outstretched fingers. They closed on the brim like the jaws of an insect. She lifted it to her face and studied it, turning it over in her hands and picking at the paper label on the inside.
“So, you must be one of those American cowboys. Shooting guns and stealing horses like they do.”
“You are not a cowboy?”
“I don’t steal stuff. And I don’t have a gun, not a real one.”
“Oh,” she said. “Then you are more like a Guatemalan cowboy. You like to stand in shiny boots and look handsome for the ladies.”
The boy cupped his hand to his mouth and held a muffled laugh. He hunched over and pressed his elbows to his knees. After a few moments he drew in a deep breath and sighed. “There’s a girl in my school named Vivian,” he said. “She kissed five boys already this year.”
“Five?” The old woman’s eyebrows sprung upward, her forehead breaking into a field of crevasses. “She is a busy girl. Are you one of those five?”
“No!” The boy threw his head back and laughed, full, from deep within his belly. Down at the street, the mother looked up from her phone, a smile spread over her face.
“Well,” the old woman said, her own smile forcing its way through, “Vivian is having a big start then. She has matched me already.”
“You kissed five boys?”
“I have kissed five boys,” she said. “But not all in the same year. Goodness no. I have lived much longer than Vivian.”
“A hundred years?”
The boy watched her as she thumbed the brim of his hat, seemingly forgotten as it rested on her skirted lap. Her fingers were a tangle of twigs, complicated and fragile, knuckles like knots under weathered, tanned hide.
“How come your hands are like that?” He reached over and took her thumb in his fingers, and rubbed the loose skin over the hard marble of her knuckle. “Does it hurt?”
“Sometimes. It’s just old. When you get close to 100, your body gets old and a little bit tired. Like that truck down there.”
“When I was four I used to play in the creek by our house,” he said. “It’s too cold for me now.”
“Then you are getting old, too.”
He held his hands in front of his face. He opened and closed them, making fists, opening them again, studying the movement as the knuckles worked back and forth like hinges on a door.
“Do you remember what it was like when you were a young girl?” he asked.
“Oh yes. I remember it very well.”
“What do you remember?”
A smile broke over her face, setting her cheeks into a wondrous array of lines. Her eyes glistened, and she put a hand to her head and smoothed her gray hair from her forehead.
“Well,” she said. “When I was a girl, but a little bit older than you, I worked in the market down the hill. I was a teenager then, and I used to make tortillas for the workers. They would come to my table in the early morning to buy tortillas on their way to the mines, and sometimes they would come back in the middle of the day. And always they would be there in the evening, to bring tortillas home for the families. My hands were treasures then, everyone said so.” She looked over at him to be sure he was still listening.
“They even had a contest in the village,” she said. “To see who could make the most tortillas in 30 minutes. The most and the best. And I won.”
“Did you get a prize?”
“I did get a prize,” she said. She pushed herself from her chair and whispered, “You wait here.”
In a few minutes she came back through the door, the screen slamming against the frame as she sat back in her rocker. Her fingers held up a tiny trophy, almost small enough to disappear in the space of two clasped hands.
“La reina de las tortillas,” she beamed, touching the engraving at the base. “The Queen of the Tortillas.”
A giant grin stretched over the boy’s face, a single missing tooth breaking an otherwise perfect grin. “I never met a queen before,” he said. “You must be famous.”
“Well, yes. For a time, everyone in the village knew my name.” The corners of her eyes fell slightly, and her lips drew down at the edges. “Some of the other ladies in the village did not speak to me for many weeks, though. But the boys did.” She smiled again. “I had two kisses that summer.”
“Two out of five,” the boy said.
“Two out of five.”
A sharp growl came from the truck, as if someone were sawing the edge of a tin roof. The man was sitting in the driver’s seat now, one foot scraping against the dirt as the engine continued to grind. Suddenly there was a deep roar, and a cloud of black smoke spat from the rear of the truck, sending the woman scrambling from the bumper into the roadway. The man gave a loud whoop, and stood from the seat.
“Hey Buddy, let’s go see the waterfall!” he shouted, waving at the porch. “Muchas gracias, señora!”
The boy stood from his chair and picked up his hat. “I have to go now,” he said. “Thank you for the soda. And I hope you live to a hundred.”
“I am almost there,” she said. “I’m 99 already.”
The boy walked to the edge of the porch, then stopped at the top step, his toes hanging slightly over the edge. At the last minute, he turned and walked back to the old woman. His small hands on her bony knees, he leaned into her face and kissed her on the cheek.
“Now you have six,” he said. “You have more than Vivian.”
“So I have,” she said through a wide grin. “So I have.”