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Siña María
Edgardo A. Alvarado-Vázquez
To Lynne Smith, EIC


Mrs. Arteaga was poised at her usual table, all made up and dressed, as she was every day at nine in the morning. Today though, she was busy writing, seated straight up because she always said that age is not an excuse to lose your good posture. The sleeves on her dress were fluttering above the paper; the printed lilacs were pouring their purple dye all over the table. They were taking over the table, the writing, the air. Their perfume took over. Occasionally, she paused, gathered her thoughts, and judged the overall effect, always proud of her penmanship and ability to communicate precisely in writing what she wanted. She paused again, scrutinized the paper, almost like talking to it. She caught herself almost thinking out loud, looked around to make sure nobody was aware of her, of her note, smiled impishly, like a child caught with her hands in the cookie jar, and continued.

Across the room, the orderly, fussing with a wheelchair and positioning it so that Mrs. Bauza, another resident, could face the morning sun under the royal Poinciana asked, "Dear, what are you writing so thoughtfully?"

"Just a note to someone," there is something different about today, she thought, as she was inhaling the morning. The walk was going to be long, but she was ready for it.

Before the orderly figured out that he was missing a resident; a few hours later, Mrs. Arteaga had already shown up at the Salvation Army. She was tired but exhilarated.

She picked out a pair of ragged jeans, a flowery shirt, a wide-brimmed hat and a pair of beat-up sneakers and asked the attendant if she could wear her new ensemble out of the store. Even though this was not the first time the attendant had heard the request, he squirmed a bit and said, "Don’t you want to wash it first?"

For just one second, it all came back, her perfectly white little hand, no wrinkles, no blemishes, not a pore out of place on her face; then a gesture like swatting away a fly put it all back in its place. The reply came fast: "No, I am quite content with it. I am just going to put my dress and my shoes in a bag, if you don’t mind." The note flawlessly folded in a parchment envelope was peeking out of the front pocket of the dress.

"Suit yourself, Ma’am."

The air hit her again as she left the store. It was crisp; she remembered the perfume of the lilacs in the dress, now neatly folded in the bag she was holding. She remembered the first time she wore it, to the winter picnic at the house of a friend of her son, on Whitehead Street, was her name Connie? Anne? Sheri? She couldn’t remember, and the air had smelled just like today. The tables had been set in the small, pleasantly untended garden. She had looked across the street to one of the stately manicured white mansions and thought that everything was in its place. The crisp air hit her again; she paused and looked at the trashcan beside her. The thought was alarming, joyous. She felt the bag as if to say goodbye, her fingers stroking the thin plastic. She smelled the lilacs and their perfume, and felt the pocket with the note, sighed, and just kept walking.

She wanted to sing but, not wanting to attract attention, she walked on silently. The sun felt good on her skin; she even smiled at the thought of getting browned by the sun. Her new self didn’t care about the warnings of the UV rays anymore; she kept walking. This, of course, would not have crossed her mind a few years ago, a few days ago, a few hours ago. Her spine tingled. Her whole body tingled. The sun browning her skin, the song in her head -it almost got out this time but she caught it. She focused carefully on what she was doing, her thoughts so different from a few hours ago. Her feet inside her sneakers, her own sneakers. She smiled. Why didn’t I wear these before? The thought of her black sensible pumps trapped in the plastic bag with the lilacs gave her great pleasure.

Her feet brought her to the vicinity of St. Mary’s. Her new thoughts made her pull away from the place as if it were condemned, but there was a sudden impulse that compelled her to the grotto. It was such a warm afternoon. She looked at it for the first time in all those years. She looked at the grotto again and notice the edges, felt the edges; she never touched them before. She went around to the back of it and felt it, finally at ease. She felt the bag for the last time, smelled the lilacs from the dress. It was ok. On its way inside the bag her hand looked a bit different, it wasn’t perfect anymore, and she liked it better. She glanced at it for a second and went directly to the pocket, pulled out the note and placed it in her new flowery pocket. It felt safe there, and she put the bag on the floor. So far, so good.

When she saw a group of people gathering and moving toward the familiar kitchen, she fell in line with them and soon her turn came. Today there were more people than usual. The volunteers seemed a bit more stressed. Someone shoved a cardboard tray with a plate in it into her hands. She welcomed it. The mashed potatoes arrived first, unannounced, on the right side of the plate. With a quick and clean swipe, some rice and beans to the left, a piece of chicken to the front, neatly arranged. She knew the maneuver quite well, had performed it quite a few times herself, proudly so. Today, it didn’t matter which side of the tables she was. When she raised her eyes, her cheeks almost flushed as she glimpsed Marta Ramirez’s round face. She had forgotten that the wide brim of the hat shadowed her features. Anyway Martita, as she used to call her with affection, didn’t have time to look at her. There weren’t enough volunteers, but there were plenty of people needing a meal. She was very fond of her, of Martita; she knew that she wasn’t happy with her place in this life. She tried so many times to comfort her pain, but the trappings of her life kept Marta tightly in place. She felt the pain again in Martita’s precious face. She called her Martita because she never had a daughter, not because she hadn’t wanted one; it just hadn’t happened, and she never questioned it. Today she wanted to question it; she started to raise her hand to touch Martita one more time, to comfort her. She looked at her hand. She retrieved it, took hold of herself; the fact that Martita might recognize the hand or the gesture threw her into a panic. She almost screamed, but the line kept moving, and Martita didn’t give any hint of recognition. She had blended completely with the town.



It was all in the headline: "Resident disappears from Seashore Manor." The police were stymied and Raymond’s reaction was quick.

"What, do you mean, you can’t find her? Excuse me, how big is this island. How come you can’t track her down?"

He separated the phone from his ear and mouthed to Scott his assistant, "Can you believe this shit?"

"No, no, you don’t understand, we are talking about my mother here. That picture that I gave you was taken only two months ago. She should stick out like a big sore thumb in this town." He was thinking of her features, her milky white skin. She always envied his, which was darker. When she met his father, she loved his wavy jet black hair and his olive skin. Ray wasn’t thinking about the sun changing his mother’s skin. That wasn’t possible in Mrs. Arteaga’s family mind set years ago. To her family, it didn’t matter that Mr. Arteaga was in a better economical position than theirs was; he was darker, that was bad but she was in love.

"When will you call back? Ok, I’ll wait then." He handed over the cordless to his assistant.

Raymond’s thoughts were diverted to the task at hand, the planning of the Sixth Annual Black and Blue Ball at the secluded estate of a gay couple in Von Phister Street. A few years before, he worked with a catering and fundraising organization called Bon Fetes. Not because he needed to work; he had money of his own. The owners, who were starting the business were his good friends; still are, and he was connected to some important and interesting people. After a few months he decided to stay because he had always liked to boss people around. He discovered that he enjoyed the business very much and learned the craft. So well had he learned it, in fact, that he decided to go out on his own. His contacts, which had grown exponentially since then, and his reputation for success, were the catalysts of this decision. He called his company Circus Maximus. It took him almost a year to put the business together. He took a long time in getting things just the right way. The way his mother has taught him. He was proud of this fact. He put together a small office that was tastefully decorated without being overdone with Mission or Shaker style furniture. "Nothing beats the clean and simple lines of it," he said always; ecru walls. "Eggshell always bothered me," he assured everyone. He had some pieces of art, "but not overloaded." His favorite was a Cuban painting, which he knew his father liked. "Nothing particularly important about it, maybe the colors," he said the last time he tried to describe it to anyone. It was some kind of an abstract with several fish that looked like cucumbers in it. The head of a bald woman with big red lips was in the upper right side corner. The moon or the sun was in the top center. "I always thought it was the moon; the moon governing the tides and water movements makes more sense than the sun," he observed once. The waist and the butt of the woman were on the left center side. "The same one?" He used to ask, as if trying to make a joke that never worked. Around the center were lemons, roses or tulips, and one breast. "Where’s the other?" He quipped, trying the joke again, unsuccessfully. The teeth of the fish were in the bottom right corner of the painting. He attempted describing the picture, jokes and all, several times without success.

The affair at the Von Phister Estate was the first fundraising event Circus Maximus was organizing. The pressure was on and he knew it. "I can’t screw up this one," he said out loud.


She had been gone for two weeks now. He couldn’t really sort his emotions. Was he happy? Was he sad? All those years of living together had pre-empted his feelings toward her. She was close to eighty; she was in good health. I haven’t talked to her in such a long time, he thought. There were all those years of politely living with each other, stealing little secrets and silences from their daily routine. She had stopped loving dad, but she stuck by him from the time when he became sick until he died. He had been too young to die. It happened so fast, and caring for him was her duty. She shielded me, her only son, from that ugliness. That was her duty too. "Yeah, she loved him once," he said out loud.

I did, too, but I couldn’t talk to him, tell him what was eating me inside. I couldn’t, did he ever suspect my secret? Probably. I was just a kid, but I knew about love and beauty and he was so gorgeous. Every time we touched, my hands, my heart hurt. I could have made… He shook his head, trying to dispel his thoughts. He thought of Toby his collie of 11 years. The one thing around the house he wouldn’t let the help take care was bathing Toby. And every time after the bath, the dog shook his head to get dry. He thought of the image of shaking these unpleasant thoughts, like his dog, and he half-smiled. He thought about his mother again, all those years, sacrificing their lives so they wouldn’t step on each other’s toes. His skin was as silky as his mother’s, though tanned as his dad’s has been. He was well built though not muscular. He didn’t like gyms; he didn’t have time. He had her features and his father’s wavy hair. Don Ramón Arteaga died such a long time ago. After he died, he left them everything; he repeated himself and figured that he was thinking out loud. "We were well off."

It wasn’t lack of love. She knew I loved her. We didn’t have to say much to each other. That’s it. They will find her. How can they lose her on a two-by-four-mile Island? Nah, he thought looking down at his desk. The paperwork in front of him was calling loudly; he brushed it aside. The phone rang. He rushed to it, expecting it to be the lieutenant.

"What?" It was the restaurant that usually helped him with some cooking. He especially liked to serve some of their desserts. With less than two weeks to the ball, they wanted to cancel the order for dessert. "I’m sorry but you promised, and I have to hold you to that promise. You can’t back track now… You know that I talk to a lot of people..." He paused, collected his thoughts for a second, and said: "I’m pretty sure you can fix this conflict that you have."

He was in mid sentence when he noticed the assistant coming, cordless phone in hand. "Can you hold on for a minute?" he said and without waiting for an answer before he hit the red hold button on the machine.

"Do you know what the lieutenant is going to say?" Nod from Scott. "Have they found her?" Negative sign from the assistant. "I can’t talk to him. He gestured with his hand and pushed the hold button again.


Another week went by with no sign from the police or Mrs. Arteaga. Raymond had undertaken other aspects of the Von Phister project. That was the way he liked to work, putting his fingers into various cooking pots at the same time. He equated himself to a chef preparing several dishes. He wanted to create as much noise and chaos around himself as possible, to drown his thoughts, his feelings. He wanted to quiet his mind; he wanted to silence his heart. They were both screaming at the same time: They haven’t found her. Don’t you care to know where she is right now?

His various pots were all boiling. Sometimes when he was stressed out he felt these little centers of pain in his chest. It was as if someone were sticking pins through his skin. He usually stopped whatever he was doing for just a second, put his thumbs on his temples, pushed hard on them, and it went away.

He couldn’t control it this time. "Get out of my freaking mind!" He said out loud, looking down with a gaze that transcended the paperwork, the desk, and the floor itself. He was going through the earth looking for hell or heaven. He didn’t want to think anymore. He wanted everything to stop and everything to move in fast forward. Scott moved in his chair noisily to let Raymond know that he wasn’t alone.

"Oh, I’m sorry," Raymond said. "Look, I’m not feeling well. Why don’t you go ahead and leave for tonight? I’ll catch up on some of this paperwork and maybe call the lieutenant to see if they have done anything at all."

Saying the usual comforting words, the assistant left. Raymond was left alone in the small office.


Another week passed. The police were dumbfounded. They couldn’t find her. The lieutenant wasn’t giving excuses anymore. This exasperated Raymond. But he didn’t have time to deal with it. "A fine freaking time you have chosen to do this to me," he shouted to his mother, to the air, or to whoever wanted to hear him. The assistant, who was getting close to the door, cordless phone in hand, heard the now-usual outburst. Without flinching, Scott said, "Mr. Arteaga is unavailable to take your call right now, may I take a message?" He automatically turned and went to his post.

All of Ray’s workers knew about his imperious attitude and behavior. Some of them even liked them. His behavior had turned sour in the last month. His frustration at the police ineffectiveness about his mother’s case and the pressure that he had put himself under were too much to handle. Still, amidst all the chaos, the preparations for the ball had gone forward. Some edges were smoothed, some needed work. For the sake of the business, he was willing to do it.

The night before the ball, the search for Mrs. Arteaga was going to enter its second month. After his usual afternoon shouting match with whoever was chosen by the police lieutenant to endure the diatribe, Raymond had two piles of papers in front of him. The left one was a pile of police reports and notes on the search. The attorney’s papers and bills regarding the lawsuit against Seashore Manor and the city were also in that pile. The right pile was the paperwork for the ball, almost finished.

He wasn’t feeling well, really; the fish started swimming out of the painting, their colors spilling all over the place as their scales fell on the Italian, light colored, tiles. The eye of the bald orange woman looked at him ominously from the top right corner of the picture, like he was a Martian or an apparition. She seemed to be running away into that corner, her big red lips quivering with fright. He felt the first pin go through his chest, and then next, and the next. He stopped what he was doing, put his hand on his temples, pushed hard as he tried to sooth his own pain, but the red-lipped woman’s presence was all-engrossing, the problem demanded attention and action ¿Sabes dónde ella está? "Do you know where she is?" She said, over and over. He started to reach out for the phone to call the lieutenant. As he was extending his hand darkness took over the room.

As it turned out, he wasn’t able to finish the preparations for the ball. He was found the next morning at his desk, slumped over his notes and numbers for the party. A massive aneurysm had inconveniently interrupted his work. One hand was resting on his lap, palm up, as if he had tried to undo his silk tie or maybe the buttons on the shirt. The other was on top of the desk. The movement of the arm was clear. It had glided across the papers, knocked out the ink well for his Montblanc pen. His mother has always told him that good penmanship and a good pen are the accouterments of a gentleman. The ink had run opposite to the hand movement, had flowed towards his head. It had fussed with Raymond’s dark wavy hair, giving it the highlights of the blue that would melt the most ice-steeled look of any woman, or man for that matter, around. But the ink had run under his hair to the side of his face, blemishing that extraordinary olive silky skin his mother had envied so much. It also created a great deal of trouble for the funeral parlor’s cosmetician. She managed to hide the stain as best as she could.

The gay paper published a few lines accompanied by a picture that Ray didn’t like in its next issue:

Mr. Raymond Arteaga Zúñiga, a very quiet soul according to all who knew him, shunned the spotlight. He was the power behind the throne of Key West charity society. After working for a few years at Bon Fetes where every event that he touched was blessed, he started his own company, Circus Maximus.

That was as much as anybody knew, and knows, about him. If you got him even to consider the subject of his persona, he would brush it off with the usual "I’m a very small fish in a very small pond" remark. He neither denied nor admitted his beginnings in this town. He always laughed when the question arose and said that maybe he was from Charlottesville -- it sounded classier to him than the hospital on Stock Island -- he wasn’t sure. !!!

He had spent a lot of money on Seashore Manor, an assisted care facility for the elderly, until his mother disappeared from it without trace.



Key West, Florida

Feb. 10

Dear Ray:

I have thought long about this letter. I don’t want to start off on the wrong foot. Lately, we have not been speaking to each other. We have not been doing anything at all. I guess that if I disappear you will feel better. There is nothing wrong with you; there is nothing wrong with me. Maybe we have been together for a long time and you still have not figured out that like you, I was once a very sheltered individual. Position and money controlled my life. I want to change this. There is somenting inside me that compels me to go through with my plans. I have to figure it out on my own without that shelter that has become my shroud. Am I scared about changing my life so radically at my age? No. You are still young. Your father would have been so proud of what you have done with your life. But I have the feeling that when you grow as old as I am now, you will feel the same burden. We’re so much alike. You are part of my past now, my bid is done. Go now; let me be with my future.

Yes, I have thought about what others might think. Oh, you little devil you, … you were the one who told me not to think about what others might think, … but you are the one who does. You were the one who told me to live the moment because it might fade way… I am going to take your word for it. You warned me about this, you warned me about that, you have sanitized your life so well that I don’t fit in it anymore. Thinking about it, maybe I don’t want to fit in it anymore.

I now have something to give. I have recently discovered that, selfishly, I always wanted what was yours. But in the last few days I have discovered that it wasn’t yours either. I want what isn’t mine. I have always had an excuse to keep you and to love you. And now, I don’t need one to give you up and to keep you away.



Mrs. Arteaga took the letter out of her pocket. She hadn’t read it since the day she wrote it. She had been so busy with her new life that some days she forgot it. She folded the paper carefully and searched the other pocket in her blouse, taking out a small picture of a child, the one that was no longer hers. She ironed it out on the opposite side so her hand wouldn’t touch the glossy side. She kissed the picture and gingerly put it on top of the letter, and placed them both with the utmost care in a parchment envelope that she had gotten from the post office, and tossed the original one out. It was the most beautiful envelope she could manage at this point in her life. Not having everything at the tip of her fingers felt good. It makes everything precious. Like the fake cheap parchment that the post office uses for its stamps’ envelopes.

Who knew I would treasure something like that, she said to herself. She looked around and focused on her cart.

Yes, I have a cart now, and I stole it from Kmart. Does that makes me a felon? The question popped up in her mind out of nowhere. She hadn’t felt this childish in a while. Her laugh made others aware of her. She didn’t like that, so she turned inwards again. Remember, never to attract attention to yourself, she told herself, making sure that the notation that she made the morning she disappeared, hadn’t been and wouldn’t be forgotten. She looked around again, consciously following the task that she sidetracked a few minutes ago. She took a big banana leaf she had gotten off the curb. A building was being demolished for a parking lot, so all the shrubbery was laid on the sidewalk. Lovingly, she tied the only ribbon she possessed around it, an almost clean purple one she had dug out of the garbage in the store behind the Carter’s family compound on Southard Street. She sighed in relief, knowing that her most treasured possession was safe for now. She stuffed it between her newspapers. Who would think about looking among newsprint? she thought.

She put the whole bundle under her head, waved goodnight to a couple of passers-by, snuggled up, and settled in for the night.

A homeless man came around and respectfully asked her if she had any food. They all knew who she was. They called her Siña María, "siña" short for the old Spanish title Señora, lady of the house; if they only knew she had been the lady of a house once. They all respected her. There was a wall of respect around her. None of the homeless, whom she fed out of her cart with whatever she could get her hands on, ever mistreated her. Not the drunks; she scolded them, softly. Not the prostitutes whom she befriended by hearing their stories patiently and giving the best advice she could. Not even the slow ones for whom she had a warm spot in her heart. Even the one that they all called Juan Diego. Siña María took special care of him. Nobody knew how old he was; he just acted like a teen. The police considered him harmless and steered him away from trouble when they could. When the police had to intervene with Juan Diego, they took him to their facilities in Stock Island, but they never booked him. Once the officers figured out that this old lady was taking the load off their shoulders, they were relieved and made sure of her and Juan Diego’s safety. If anybody had looked at the way she treated him, they would have thought she had known him since he was born. But they all knew who she was. She was Siña María.

"Ay m’hijo no me queda na’ coge este peso y vete a La Dichosa en la calle White, Don Paco te dará un café." There was no translation needed. He understood perfectly that she was giving him the only dollar she had to go to White Street to La Dichosa bakery where don Paco will give him some café con leche, and maybe some bread if he mentioned that Siña María sent him. But that was the part of the deal that she knew nothing about. They all knew that a penny given to them by Siña María wasn’t going to be spent in booze or drugs. Some of them did it anyway, the ones that didn’t know, the ones that she would take special care of, until they figured it out. She always took care of everybody and someone always watched over her.



Ray's funeral was one of the city’s best shows in years. Not since the Archer’s (you know, the family that has the school, the firehouse, the baseball park, and the street near a major avenue all named for them) had the town so completely shut down to mourn, to sightsee and to gawk. It was phenomenal. He was such a big figure in the community. Yet, he never wanted to be.

Wilhelmina Harvey, mayor emeritus, not sure whether Ray was born in the island or whether she had "conched" him before, tried to make him an honorary conch at the wake. Ray wouldn’t have cared one way or the other. The "Colorful Commish" took pictures of himself beside the coffin to be placed in his next article in "Paradise," that insert that they put in the local paper on Thursdays. Ray wouldn’t care for that either. The "Blue Paper" (not that shade of blue!) wrote an article about him. He wouldn’t care for it either but might enjoy the fact that its editor, who didn’t know who Ray really was but felt that he had to write something; misquoted him, and had his age and last name wrong. Even the editor of Solares Hill wrote an editorial about him. Ray didn’t know this editor either, nor he cared about been editorialized.

The city commissioners met that week. Commissioner Spear, lacking the ammo to shock and wake Commissioner Napps out of her stupor, proposed naming the corner of Boulevard and First Street for Raymond Arteaga Zúñiga. It was such a prominent corner. The debate became spirited. At the end they agreed on principle and decided to revisit the issue in the next meeting for a final vote. And there was Mr. Swift.

Mr. Swift was the founder and owner of Sight Tours of America. Many times he had said; "we are not in the business of history; we are in the entertainment business." It was an opportunity too good to pass. He wanted to show what he called his innovative leadership. Because history was as malleable as clay, he made the drivers of the trolleys and the conch trains change their routes and their speeches-to-be-dispensed-to-the-tourists to accommodate the new comer exhibit. For lack of what to say, Mr. Swift cited Ray’s lineage, tracing it to the Spanish origins of the Island. This action had re-written what Ray’s father tried so hard to erase- the "mancha de plátano" that plantain stain that denotes the Hispanic origins of the family by giving his son a gringo’s name and baptizing him at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church. This was done against his wife’s open and outspoken disapproval. Thus, swiftly, Ray became part of the founding fathers of the island. He wasn’t remotely related to the founding Indians and he probably wouldn’t have cared to be.

The crowd was packing into St. Paul’s Church, spilling into the street. Someone saw an old lady pushing a cart among the crowd. She had become a "well-unknown." Everybody recognized her but no one knew much about her. Some knew that she loaded up her shopping cart at the soup kitchen in St. Mary’s and distributed meals to the homeless and the drunks on her way around the island. She was the only one not taking part in the show. It was part of her route. She stopped for a brief moment and figured out that it was a funeral. She didn’t know whose it was but, as it was her custom, she mumbled in Spanish, "Dios te haya cogido confesao." The old ladies in the corner of Eaton and Duval knew what she said, "I hope that you were in the grace of God when death came." And at the same time they all crossed themselves, an old Catholic custom. She pushed her cart forward making sure she wasn’t trampling anybody.

The next few days the papers were full of it, the opulent funeral and the details, or lack of them for that matter, of the will of Raymond Arteaga Zúñiga, read a few days later. Siña María kept her route and chores for one more month, pushed her shopping cart around the island feeding people and talking to anybody who wanted to listen to her. She was found dead a few days after the commissioners had agreed to name the corner of First Street and the Boulevard after Ray.

None of papers could agree on her story, but all of them tried. Even Peter Anderson, the Prime Minister of the Conch Republic, who was retiring as a writer for the local newspaper, gave her a few paragraphs in his farewell column that week. Of course, he didn’t know who she was, but he had heard of her deeds. !!!

Siña María, one of those well-known colorful characters of Key West, was found dead on her favorite corner, Ramón Arteaga’s Blvd, and First Street. The police interviewed a few of the homeless people but received no leads. Everyone spoke highly of her, and none could think of anybody that wanted to harm Siña María. One of the homeless, the one that they call Juan Diego, testified that Siña María was once a rich and very nice lady who helped his family. The police dismissed this testimony on account of Juan Diego’s mental disability.

The coroner determined there was no foul play. After the preliminary investigation was finished, the body was moved to the Alvaro-Obregón Funeral Home, which donated its services.

The investigators are not discussing the contents of her shopping cart. The chief of the police is withholding this information pending an inquiry about a letter found in the cart addressed to Raymond Arteaga Zúñiga.


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