Pet’s Condensed Milk
Her eyes were a flame and that’s what struck me when I opened the front door of our brand new home. Our brand new home in Havana, in the brand new neighborhood of Nuevo Vedado, somewhere between its hilly slopes and the riverbed of el Rio Almedares. Somewhere between middle and upper-middle class.
I was six, maybe seven.
She stood in anesthetized stillness, save for clipped bursts of breath that lifted the clavicle of her chest. The woman had just climbed three flights of stairs to get to our home, its entrance an accordion of concrete steps with pretty swirls of snapped-off seashells. It was a mezzanine of sorts, these steps; a prelude. They led to stairs that looked as if they were suspended in air, just one concrete beam down the middle supporting the entire structure.
In her arms, the woman held a baby. She held it at her hip, not at her chest. She held it as if the weight of the child would have her drop it any minute.
Now she moved. She shifted her weight slightly, tightened one arm around the child, swung out the other and in silence, opened a pink-white palm to me.
I called out over my shoulder, my eyes not leaving the woman’s face. “¡Mami!” Clicketty-click my mother’s stilettos on our mirrory terrazzo floor.
Mami stopped when she saw it was just the beggar woman. “Just a minute,” her voice large from the other end of the living room.
A look of hope lifted the woman’s face, a face of ashen brown grimed with streaks of dirt. Years later, I would see a picture of a copper-faced woman on the cover of National Geographic with the same burning eyes and that’s what I would remember, the beggar woman standing silent before me on our front porch.
The woman moved the baby to her other hip. It was then that I saw it, arms like sticks, stomach as big and round as the head. And not a baby, not a baby at all. Not like the Thumbelina baby that looked like a real baby Santa Claus—Santi Clo—brought to my sister and me and our amiguitas up the hill; not like the Tiny Tears baby that shed tears when you squeezed its stomach that the Three Wise Men would bring in a few days, the 6th of January, the Day of Epiphany, celebrating the showing of Baby Jesus to the Three Wise Men.
And that was the thing about living in Nuevo Vedado and having friends like Susy and Anita up the hill and attending The Philips School where the first half of the school day you spoke only English. You were Americanized. And that was a good thing, to be Americanized, because Santa’s flying reindeers stopped at your house and the Magi’s camels climbed up your front steps to bring you Niagara bicycles and hula hoops and Sears portable record players that opened and closed like a suitcase and played Take Me Out To the Ballgame.
And now, a disquieting silence. Something in the woman’s eyes consumed me. It wasn’t that they were aflame in anger. Not exactly. It was some sort of impatience. Hunger, maybe. Yes, that was it. Hunger.
My mother clickety-clicked back to us. The woman’s face opened up again. I stood back and watched as my mother laid a can of condensed milk on the pink-white of the woman’s palm. It’s too heavy, Mami, I said, but not aloud, for the woman to carry a can of milk and the child, too.
The woman wedged the can in the curve of her armpit, but the can fell to the floor, its dented Pet’s Milk sad-cow label rolling down the incline of our porch, Kla-klá, Kla-klá, Ka-klá, like the yaw of a limping man, Kla-klá, Kla-klá, Kla-klá.
I thought of Sunday. I thought of every Sunday when my father made us go to church with him. Our Lady of Perpetual Help Church (really, Father Juan’s Church). My father didn’t much like it when Mami wouldn’t go, which was often. “Instead of practicing all that brujería,
all that tribal primitive nonsense” ¾he’d look down the length of her¾“go to church with me and your daughters. You live in Nuevo Vedado now, not Punta Brava.” The small town on the outskirts of Havana where Mami grew up.
I thought of Sundays when Father Juan shoved a round wicker basket on a long wooden stick at us and if someone didn’t toss American dollars into the wicker basket he’d hold the basket in front until they did. “It’s for the Catholic Church,” Father Juan would say, standing high on the white-marbled altar with the big brown crucifix. “The Catholic Church that will give to the poor.”
And I thought of my second-grade teacher at The Philips School who said we shouldn’t even have any poor. She said she would quote a great man: “Give a man a fish and he will eat for a day.” Or something like that. “Teach a man to fish and he will eat for life.”
And now the beggar woman pivoted half a turn and retreated like a wounded animal with no fish but with a dented can of Pet’s Condensed Milk. She began the descent through the three flights of stairs leading to our home, one arm clutching the handrail, the other holding the baby against her chest, the dented can of condensed milk creviced under her chin.
Wait! I wanted to call out to her, but I didn’t. I ran to the edge of the balcony, took a little jump, squeezing my stomach over the black wrought-iron rail, squeezing it hard till it hurt. My eyes followed the woman as she shambled down the hill, her figure becoming smaller, my chance to do right becoming smaller with each of her steps.
“¡Niña!” Mami said. “Don’t lean over like that. La cabeza pesa mas que el cuerpo.” The head, it weighs more than the body.