Wednesday, February 10, 2010


Pearl lived on the fourth floor.

She was just one character among a stack of characters piled atop one another like theatrical cordwood. They were far more interesting than their medical diagnoses.

Frankie Bustamonte’s “dolls,” which leapt into life when you opened his door (James Brown, Rodney Dangerfield, Dean Martin), were infinitely more entertaining than his ulcers that wept like Italian fountains. Angel Martinez’s kitchen chair, which exploded in a cloud of nesting roaches when I knocked it over, was far more heart stopping than his diabetes. The little “casitas” that Jorge Pimental built, shrines to the Blessed Mother wired with blinking lights, far outshone the troubles he had managing his cardiac medications. And the three-story speakers that Julian Johnson had hooked up to his TV (I always arranged my visits around Soul Train) rattled my gut much more dramatically that Julian’s super-pubic catheter ever did.

But I remember Pearl more for her stories, and for that one sentence she said to me one day. And maybe for her wigs. They were fabulous.

I was dressing the wounds to her right foot. The apartment smelled of cake baking in the oven. This foot was very important to Pearl, because, well, because it was the only one she had. The other had been unceremoniously sawed off a number of years ago. A fine scar ran from in between her toes and along the top of her foot.

“How’d you get that Pearl,” I asked, as I began to wrap her foot in white gauze.

“Oh baby, that happened a long time ago, but I’ll never forget it as long as I live,” Pearl said, leaning back in her chair.

“My brother was chopping wood and he went inside for something. When he walked past me he said, ‘Girl, don’t you go touching that axe.’”

“Now that was all he had to say to me, because then that axe was the onliest thing I could see in the whole yard. So I went up to it, took a big swing like I seen him doin’, and put that thing right into my foot.”

Pearl laughed a big hearty laugh and looked at me to make sure I was engaged.

“Well then my father, who knew a lot about healin’ things, took me on down to the river, washed it out, covered it in clay, and then wrapped it in some cloth. Look at how beautiful it healed. Ain’t that something.’”

As I was packing up my bag, Pearl went into the kitchen and came back with a big cake wrapped in aluminum foil.

“Take this with you now.”

We danced around for a second with the “No, I couldn’t,” and the “Yes, I want you to,” and the “I shouldn’t,” and then she sealed the deal with the sentence.

“Now girl you got to take this cake because the cake I make is so good it’ll make you want to slap yo mamma.”

I began to laugh as she put the big cake into my hands.

“Slap your mamma?” I said, practically choking on the words, “What’s that mean?”

“It’s just something we say,” Pearl said. “It means it’s real good.”

The cake was warm in my hands, and the smell rose into my face like wonderful memory.

It was fabulous.

If you don’t believe me...

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