rochelle staab
rochelle staab
rochelle staab

Bruja Brouhaha

Chapter One

Nick Garfield, my boyfriend and college professor of mainstream, arcane, and bizarre forms of religion, took four chunks of unshelled coconut from the Santeria altar and set them in my hand. "Your turn to ask a question, Liz. Obi cannot lie."

Nick's interest in the supernatural was academic; my interest in the supernatural was zero. But I didn't want to insult our elderly hosts, Paco and Lucia Rojas, both devout Santeria practitioners. And after six months of dating him, Nick's playful, gold-flecked brown eyes could get me to do pretty much anything. What harm could a little Saturday-night fortune-telling game among good friends be?

We were gathered for a triple celebration dinner in the Rojases' apartment above their botanica near MacArthur Park. Celebration Number One: Paco and Lucia's sixtieth wedding anniversary.

The Rojases' living room, aged with use and seasoned by six decades of marriage, felt as comfortable as a grandmother's hug. An old television Paco called his "front seat for Dodger games" sat on a metal cart in the corner behind two rose jacquard armchairs. The scent from the fresh gardenias on the mahogany dining table circled around worn furniture, over the candlelit altar in front of the window, and across to the mahogany desk where a yellowing photo of a slender, handsome Paco in a black suit with the ravishing young Lucia in a tight-waist, satin wedding dress was prominently displayed.

The other two guests—the midsixties, vibrant, and brilliant Dr. Carmen Perez; and her business partner, the dignified, white-haired Dr. Victor Morales—had performed the coconut shell ritual with Nick while I prepped dinner with Lucia in the kitchen. Celebration Number Two: Lucia taught nondomestic me how to make homemade tamales. We were gathered to feast on the results.

I juggled the coconut between my palms. "Some background on this Obi person? Just so I know what to ask him?"

It was like I handed Nick a microphone. He squared his shoulders and pulled at the cuffs of his tweed sport coat. "Obi is the mouthpiece of the orishas who manifest Olodumare, the omniscient high-being in Santeria and other Yoruba religions. The shells are the voice Obi employs to foretell the future. A divination tool."

He lost me after the second O deity but I got the gist. I said, "Let's see how tactful Obi is. Will my first lesson at cooking tamales be a culinary success?" I tossed the coconut onto the white lace coverlet on the altar. The four shells fell brown skin up.

Carmen arched a brow. Nick shifted his stance. Victor pressed his lips together, looking as clueless as I felt.

Paco, whose robust girth was a testament to Lucia's excellent cooking, swept up the coconut with a rough hand and dropped the pieces into the bowl of water on the altar. "You didn't teach Liz the incantation. The answer means nothing. Obi is teasing her."

Before I could ask why Obi teased me, petite Lucia scurried out of the kitchen and set a salad bowl the size of a bicycle tire on the dining table. Her dyed strawberry red hair was rolled into a bun at the nape of her neck; wisps of white roots haloed her hairline. "Liz, bring out your tamales. Paco, open the wine. Everyone else, sit down. It's time to eat."

I pulled Nick into the kitchen with me and took a bright yellow platter from the cupboard. As I stacked the tamales onto the plate I said, "Okay, Professor, explain. What did the four brown sides up mean?"

"Nothing. Not relevant. You didn't ask the right question."

"Liar. You didn't say anything about right or wrong questions," I said.

He put his arm around my shoulder. "Sorry. There are only four answers and none of them have to do with food."

"You egged me on to ask a question. Now I want to know the answer," I said.

"You rolled Oyekun. Death."

"Death? For dinner?" I laughed. "I know my cooking isn't that bad."

We sat at the round dining table set with silver, crystal wineglasses, and green, blue, white, and yellow Talavera dinnerware. The scent of garlic and onions drifted off the steaming plate of tamales in the middle. A romantic Mexican ballad played from the turntable in the corner.

Paco filled our wineglasses from a bottle of Monte Xanic Cabernet Sauvignon, and then raised his glass in a toast. His wide, toothy smile lifted his wiry silver mustache and crinkled his dark brown eyes. "To Liz and my Lucia for this wonderful dinner."

"To Liz and Lucia." We clinked our glasses together and drank.

Victor said, "To Paco and Lucia. Happy sixtieth anniversary."

"To Paco and Lucia," we echoed.

"You know how to stay happy with a woman for sixty years, Nick?" Paco said.

Nick scratched his chin. "Don't get married?"

I glanced sideways at my bachelor boyfriend.

"No," Paco said. "You listen to her. Let her know you'll be there for her."

"He's right." Carmen pointed at herself. "I was happily married for forty years."

I chuckled. "To four different husbands: Uncle Bill, Uncle Jim, Uncle—"

"They weren't your uncles, sweetie, and I was happy with each and every one of them. Happy to be with them and happy to divorce them," Carmen said.

Carmen and I weren't related by blood but she was family. In the sixties she and my mother became best friends as members of the Cherry Twists—six go-go dancers on Hollywood Hop, a Los Angeles TV dance show. All of the Cherries were at the hospital the day I was born, and they were a constant presence in my parents' home as my older brother Dave and I grew up.

Hollywood Hop helped pay Carmen's way through medical school. She dedicated her general practice to the Latino community, and ten years ago she founded the Park Clinic, a small multicultural outpatient clinic she and Victor ran across the street from Botanica Rojas.

The Cherries provided our reason for Celebration Number Three: in ten days my mother and her friends would host a gala to raise money for Park Clinic's plumbing upgrade, including the installation of public-access showers for the homeless in the area.

I raised my glass. "I'd like to offer a toast to Carmen, Victor, and Park Clinic. May your fund-raiser be a huge success."

"To hot showers," Carmen said.

"And copper plumbing," Victor added as we drank.

We passed the plate of homemade tamales and the bowl of Lucia's tangerine and jicama salad around the table. I unwrapped a corn husk and took a bite of its steaming contents, savoring the taste of sweet cornmeal and tender meats seasoned with onions, garlic, and a kick of chile. Another quick bite, then I dared to check the faces of my victims, er, fellow diners. Nick and Victor chewed with nods of happy approval. Paco gave me a thumbs-up.

Carmen let out a moan, her eyes closed. "Divine."

"All the credit goes to Lucia, my excellent teacher." I smiled across the table. Lucia beamed back with pride.

Victor finished two tamales, asked for a third, and then said, "What happened to the lock in the hall downstairs, Paco? Why the slide bolt?"

"Damn, smart-ass, punk gang members broke the lock a few nights ago," Paco said. "Locksmith won't have the replacement parts until Monday. The slide bolt works good."

"Except you have to run up and down the steps to lock and unlock it every time someone comes or goes," Lucia said, reaching for another tamale.

"What do you want me to do, mi belleza? I won't leave the door open."

"How do you know the vandals were gang members?" Nick said.

Paco stabbed his fork into his salad. "Who else?"

"We have an alarm on the botanica door loud enough to summon Santa Muerte," Lucia said.

"If we remember to set it," Paco said.

Nick wiped his mouth with a napkin. "How is business, Paco?"

"We cut back the hours." Paco relaxed in his chair. "I don't want Lucia working so hard anymore. She likes to keep the shop open for the neighbors, but we do most of our trade selling herbs in bulk to the other botanicas in town. I get a lot of offers from real estate agents who want us to sell the building, but we won't." He pointed at Lucia. "She won't allow it."

"And neither will you," Lucia said. "This is our home. Those people would tear our building down like they tore down the rest of the buildings on this block. You want to move away and leave our customers to shop with the gangsters at Oscar Estevez's botanica?"

"I don't want to talk about Oscar at the dinner table. I handle gangsters like him my own way," Paco said.

Victor arched his brows. "Does that mean you decided to run for neighborhood council, Paco? People would listen to you."

"At my age?" Paco's laugh shook his shoulders. "Never. I like being the loudmouthed codger at council meetings. If the councilmen want to shut me up, they can move the gangs out of Westlake. Throw them in jail where they belong. And take Oscar Estevez, too."

"I wish they would." Lucia gazed wistfully toward the windows behind the altar. The pink glare of streetlights shone through the white lace curtains. "Westlake was safe and so beautiful when Paco and I met. We could sit outside on the stoop at night. Nobody locked their doors. When the gangs took over and brought in the prostitutes and drug dealers, people got scared and stayed inside. Our sidewalks are deserted at night now. Tourists stopped visiting the park."

"The city works hard to make the streets and MacArthur Park safe," Carmen said. "Victor and I wouldn't be renovating the clinic if we didn't believe in this neighborhood. The Metro station brought some of the tourists back." She turned to me. "Liz, you're getting to know some of the local women in your sessions at the clinic. What do you think of them so far, sweetie?"

My Saturday Wellness Group—weekly group therapy sessions to counsel women through stress—was Carmen's brainchild. She approached me in March to start the group and I agreed without hesitation, enthused to expand my practice into community service and work with her.

"The women are wonderful. Lively. Interesting. We had three more sign-ups last week. The group dynamic has good energy," I said.

"You bring good energy with you," Victor said.

I grinned at Victor, my prediction to become Carmen's hubby number five. An easy guess on my part: at my mother's holiday party in December, the two longtime friends kissed, not so platonically, under the mistletoe where Nick and I spent most of the evening.

Paco passed me the platter of tamales. "Liz, are you going to Mexico with Nick this summer to visit my friends in the mountains? The guesthouse is next to their ceremonial fire pit. I hope the late-night moaning doesn't keep you up."

"We eventually fall asleep." Nick winked at me.

"Mexico?" I said, cheeks burning with embarrassment.

"Paco put me in touch with a group of brujos—Mexican witches—in Catemaco in the Tuxtlas mountain region. I thought you might like to take a research trip there with me in July. It was going to be a surprise." Nick grinned. "Surprise."

"How romantic," Carmen said. "A getaway in the tropics hosted by witches. Oh." She suppressed a belch. "Excuse me."

"Your stomach?" Victor touched her arm.

I stopped chewing and winced. Damn, those coconut shells better not be right.

Carmen waved Victor away then turned to me. "Not the food, sweetie. My gallbladder is acting up. Your delicious tamales were worth a little agitation. I'll just take an antacid."

"You promised to get an ultrasound at the hospital on Monday," Victor said.

"Yes, Doctor. I'll be there. Thank you for reminding me and announcing it to our friends, Doctor," Carmen said with sarcasm.

Victor mimicked her. "And I'm going with you, Doctor."

Carmen touched her finger to his lips. "Shush. Enough about my health. Tonight we dance. Paco promised to teach Liz the salsa."

We cleared the table and moved the furniture against the wall, creating a small dance floor. Lucia selected a vinyl album from her collection beneath the turntable, put the black disc in place, and dropped the needle on a raucous Mexcian number. Paco and Lucia demonstrated the salsa cheek to cheek, breaking apart only to twirl under each other's arms. Carmen swayed to the beat with Victor. When the next song began, Paco pulled me onto the floor.

"Wiggle your hips, Liz. The salsa comes from here." Paco pounded his heart. "And from there." He smacked my behind. "Follow me. Quick-quick-slow, and five-six-seven, and . . ." He gripped my right hand and guided me across the floor. His forehead glistened under wisps of white hair as we moved together.

Nick and Lucia clapped to the rhythm, calling out, "Salsa!"

I loosened my body to fall into the beat, laughing as Paco guided me back and forth and then turned me under his arm. In the middle of the song, a buzzer sounded near the door.

Paco bowed then passed my hand to Nick. He went to the intercom and pressed the button. "Hola."

A hearty female voice sounded through the speaker. "Paco, it's Teresa. I'm outside. Will you unlatch the door?"

"Coming down," Paco said.

As he left the apartment, Lucia called behind him, "Tell Teresa we saved tamales for her dinner."

Nick slipped his hand around my waist and pulled me close while the music played. He touched his forehead to mine. We swayed, our bodies pressed together. He whispered in my ear, "Do you know how sexy you are?"

The sound of a distant gun blast outside echoed through the doorway.

Then a scream.

©Rochelle Staab