Half a block from George Gershwin Junior High School, Marisol scanned Sunset Boulevard. At 2:45 traffic was fairly light--there was open space between cars. You could watch a car coming, then watch it pass, and then watch it go in one smooth turn of the head. The city bus was just finally rolling into view, seven minutes late, when Lourdes ran across from Fountain Boulevard, trying to catch up to Marisol, her backpack flapping around behind her, too light to be necessary--there were hardly ever any books in it.
"Why you're out here so early?!" She waved her student pass at the driver and then dropped her body like an unwanted sack into the seat next to Marisol.
"Do you have that book they gave us--the one about making houses out of plastic bottles?"
"I have mine, yeah."
"I can come to your house then?"
Marisol turned her head to look out of the window.
"You didn't answer me, gurrl. I can come to your house?"
"I can't today."
"What?! You have plans or something?"
Marisol considered. "Here," she pulled the book out of her own backpack. "You can take it, but give it back to me tomorrow."
Lourdes hesitated. "Why you're giving this to me? We do it together. You know, study butty!" She waited for Marisol to laugh.
"I already did the assignment."
"No you didn't."
"You should have way-ted!" Lourdes always spoke emphatically and loudly. She came from a household where no one got any attention unless they shouted. You'd be sitting right next to her on the bus and she's still yelling as if you couldn't hear her.
"We had study hall, cause Mrs. Lewis was out and the sub didn't show up. So I already wrote my essay."
"You still could have way-ted! Why'd you leave school so quick? What you got to do?"
"Where you going?"
Marisol considered her answer. Then she decided not to offer one because for every word she uttered there would be five questions. And nestled inside each question there would lay an accusation that she wasn't loyal. Loyalty was the major value for Lourdes.
The bus pulled up in front of the Cache mural, which showed round cartoon chickens blasting off into space. The next stop would be theirs.
"What is wrong with you today?"
Marisol knew that if she didn't reach out there'd be a problem tomorrow. When Lourdes had her feelings hurt she brooded. And then she'd feed her hurt as if it were a hungry dog.
"I'll tell you later. I promise. Cross my heart promise. I have to stay on the bus, I'll call you later."
Lourdes rose, dropping Marisol's textbook on the seat, and hurried off the front door of the bus, without looking back, her expression halfway between tears and pure rage. She started walking away, ahead of the bus, then stopped, as if Marisol had called out to her, and faced the bus, staring it down. Marisol looked away from her. Tomorrow, she would placate her friend. She reassured herself: Lourdes needed her for school at least.
At Douglas, Marisol got down and headed toward Allison Street, her heavy backpack slung over her shoulder. She walked past the brown brick storefronts--one of them was Neuroticos Anonimos; another was an iron works shop, where they made fancy gates and security bars for windows; another was a marijuana dispensary--and the courtyard apartment complexes that worked their way up the hillsides, with a central staircase and apartments on either side, their front doors facing directly onto the cement steps. Their stairs served as a plaza on hot nights.
At the botanica, she shifted her pack to the other shoulder, hesitated in front of the door and then pulled it toward her, and heard the clink of goats' bells announcing her coming across the threshold.
She had visited the shop one time before--with her aunt Nohemi and her mother, when her aunt No-ey wanted to have a baby. Ordinarily, Marisol's brothers came when they made special trips somewhere--even her older brother sometimes. But this was a trip for girls. They all went to a back room and sat on a vinyl couch and on the chairs. There was incense. The old lady left them alone in the room for a long time, and while she was gone they had spoken in whispers, her mother admonishing Marisol to stay in her seat when the little girl wanted to get up. When the old lady returned, she had a tray with small bowls filled with hierbas and amphoras of oil. She showed each one to Nohemi. Then she sat and ground some of the herbs up in oil with a mortar, the odd, musty aromas getting stronger as she ground them. Then she pointed to the vinyl couch, and Nohemi lay on it.
"I told you to wear a skirt," she said in heavily accented Spanish, an accent Marisol had never heard before. One of the Mexican Indian accents, Mayan perhaps, or Nahuatl.
Nohemi gasped. "I forgot," she said.
"Take off your pants then."
She did, and Marisol couldn't help staring at her aunt's milky white thighs, the skin so much lighter than her mother's. Nohemi had been married and divorced before, and now had a second husband.
The old woman started rubbing the oily mash onto Nohemi's abdomen, getting some on her aunt's expensive shirt. She rubbed and rubbed, not even slowing down when Nohemi cried out that it hurt. Marisol and her mother stared as the old woman dug her thumbs into flesh, Nohemi's face squeezing shut with pain.
"Next time, a skirt," the woman said as they left. Nohemi, whose mascara had bled onto her upper eyelid and just below her eyes, too, carried a brown bag filled with medicinal tea. She had agreed to bathe with a specially blessed candle lighted next to the tub. There was a candle for the marital bedside, too.
Ten months later, Nohemi delivered a healthy baby girl, who was now about to have her first birthday.
Marisol entered the shop, approaching the counter slowly, though no one stood behind it.
She looked first at the things she had expected to find in the botanica, the things she remembered: the votive candles and the glass jars filled with brown hierbas, the framed newspaper stories in Spanish, yellowing though laminated, about a Mexican Wrestler called The Monk. Amulets under glass. Candles. Some silver jewelry that looked out of place. Tiny skulls tipped in silver, along with some ugly rings, and dozens of rosaries.
"Hola?" she cried.
"Vengo." It was the same old woman. Marisol had hoped someone else would wait on her. She could have chosen a different botanica. There is no shortage of them in Los Angeles. But she didn't know one.
The old woman, who wasn't as old as Marisol had remembered didn't recognize her. She took her position behind the counter and waited for Marisol to speak. Just as she had done with Nohemi, on her first visit.
Marisol froze. The woman turned around and grabbed a small green glass bottle with liquid in it and a label that was covered in tiny print.
"Try this," she said. "It will make the boys ... notice." She opened the cap, mimed dabbing it on her chest, between her breasts.
"Oh, no, that's not what--"
"You want the Santa, then? The red one, Santa de Muerte. She will bring you love."
"It's not about a boy."
The woman looked at Marisol with a careful expression. She clucked.
Marisol had to think for a moment. "Yes," she said after the pause. "It's my uncle. They took his land."
Now she had an audience.
"He didn't have money to pay his taxes on time, and now there's this lady and her husband who came up there and they told me they own it."
"I see." The woman's eyes softened.
Marisol felt a tear wetting the outer corner of her eye. She rubbed it away.
"It's my uncle Eugenio. He bought that land with the money he got in Vietnam. He said we were going to build houses there for my family. It's where we buried cousin's ashes. My stepfather doesn't like him..." She went on talking, talking. Why was she telling so much? This was more than the old woman needed to know. But there was something about her that opened you up, wide open.
"This is about your cousin really, his ashes," she said in English. "Tell me about your cousin now."
"He was good to me. He used to tell me you're smart, you're gonna go to college and be a lawyer like your tia. I said who says I want to be a lawyer? We smoked weed together, and sat in this big tree on my uncle's property."
"Was it los desagrecidos who killed him?"
"Yeah, they were from another neighborhood. They shot him in his front yard, underneath the lemon tree. He wasn't even in the gang."
"Estupidos. They will suffer."
"I want to protect him, my cousin. I want everything to stay the same up there on my uncle's land."
"Mi angelita, what would you like to do?"
"We put a curse on it a few weeks ago. It's a curse where anyone who messes with Chris's ashes, they will have bad luck for ten years."
"So, you have taken action already."
"It's not good enough. I want them to bleed."
"You mean, unless they sell it back to your uncle?"
"If someone disturbs the ashes. It has to be for all time."
"Of course it does."
Marisol nodded. Now tears started for real, big drops pooling in the corners of her eyes. She hadn't expected to be understood.
While the old woman was gone, Marisol dried her eyes and looked around the storefront. On a shelf at the back of the room, there were books that had not been dusted in years. Behind the display case was a shelf with candles of so many kinds: votive, elegiac, some were a foot high encased in glass, the kind you find at shrines when someone has been killed. There were jars filled with roots and dry plants and flowers. Outside, Sunset Boulevard was now jammed with traffic. A bus slowed in front of the shop, it's breaks sighing as though a great beast had been kicked in the belly. It's a separate misfortune to attract harm to other people, and Marisol knew it, but she had made her decision.
After a while, the old woman came back into the room.
"Angelita!" She called Marisol to the counter and leaned toward her. "I ask for $20. It is less than my usual fee."
Marisol gave her a single bill soft from handling--the old woman took a few extra moments to inspect it before handing Marisol a large brown glass bottle filled with liquid. And a smaller green bottle also filled with a thick liquid. And a book of matches from the Super Eight motel down the street.
"Pour this around the place where your Chris is resting. Big, wide circle, you hear?" She pushed the green bottle forward. "Do it tomorrow morning before the sun is"--she indicated a height at her own shoulder. "And you light a candle." She pulled a small one in a glass cup out of a drawer. "Free for you." She continued with her instructions, holding Marisol's eyes with her own, but otherwise sounding like a dentist offering instructions on a different way to brush her teeth.
"And this one?" Marisol tipped her chin toward the larger bottle.
"You'll make a bigger circle with that one later. When you need to. Don't forget to pray to the saints."