New Mexico Noir: After Church Pastries

“Well, look what the cat dragged in.”

I whirled around at the sound of the familiar voice.  “Granny Helen!  What are you doing?  You weren’t at mass this morning.”

The old woman was short and spry.  She stood with her arms akimbo and looked up at me.  “And when’s the last time you were at early mass on a Sunday morning, Ella?”

“A long time, but you’re always there.”

“I decided to go the Calvary Chapel with my friend, Cathy.  Have to try something new, or I’ll shrivel up and lose my brain like everybody else my age.  I always wanted to know what really happens when people speak in tongues.”

“So, what happens?” Angelica asked.

“Nothing, I guess.  It’s just a form of praying from what I can see.  You ladies need some coffee, don’t you?  I think I might have some cinnamon rolls, too, if they’re not stale.  Why don’t you come in, instead of standing on the porch all day?  I never lock my doors, you know.”

“Still?  In this neighborhood?”  I was only a little surprised.  She was old enough to be beyond changing her life patterns.  The Calvary Chapel did seem an odd choice when I thought about it that way.

“I figure if someone needs something badly enough to break in, they’re welcome to it.  I’d rather they asked, but some people don’t know any better.”

“Has anybody ever stolen from you?” Angelica asked, as we followed Helen into her kitchen.

“No, I don’t think so.  That’s not true.  My nephew stole my jars of spare cash, but that was twenty years ago now.  I heard he moved to L.A., where he’s in prison, for all I know.”

“Did he need the money?” I asked.

She frowned and looked thoughtful.  “I think he did, Ella.  For better or worse, I think he did.  And he was far too frightened to ask for it.”

“Do you need help with the coffee?” I asked.

“Oh, no.  You young working ladies are always worn out.  You have a seat.”

I obeyed her, but both Angelica and I had to remove the clutter from off the kitchen chairs in order to sit.  I removed a stack of circulars and a JC Penney’s catalog.  Underneath the mess, it was the same old pea green and chrome dinette set my brother and I had used as children for our after school snacks.

Grandma Steadman used to live in an immaculately neat and efficiently run environment that now appeared to be coming apart at the seams.  The floor was sticky wherever I placed my shoes, and a layer of dust covered the table.  I did notice that a new, clean highchair had replaced any older, dilapidated models, and that there was a stack of freshly washed toddler plates and cups in the dish drainer.

“My brother says you’re caring for Caitlyn.”

“I’ve never been able to say ‘no’ to Matthew.  And I’m not going to now, not as long as I can manage.”   

“Are you sure you don’t need help?” I asked her.

“No, of course not.”  She was bustling around the kitchen, apparently looking for things she couldn’t find.  She did manage to cover a tray of bakery cinnamon rolls with plastic wrap and spin them in the microwave for a few minutes.

Angelica put down the Macys ad she was looking at, full of sales on fall wear, which was not attractive when it was still over ninety degrees in the afternoon.  “We really don’t need to eat anything.  I don’t want you to go to any trouble.”

“What you need is a cinnamon roll and coffee,” she firmly said.  “Then you can tell me why you came by to visit me.”

We accepted her hospitality, which consisted of stale, but warmed-over pastries covered with chunks of rancid butter, served with pale coffee and slightly sour milk.

“The only reason we came by,” I said, while choking down the last crumb of roll, “was to see if you had any contact information for my parents.”

“Yes, your mother left me with an address to give you in case of emergency.”

“That’s such a relief.  I need to ask my mom so many questions.  You’re a lifesaver.”

“Ella, I feel I should warn you that your parents needed to get away for their own reasons.  You don’t need to concern yourself with their problems.”

“From what I can tell, their problems have intruded in my life.  I admit, I’m the first one to claim complete ignorance, but there’s something I really need to ask my mom about.  If you could just give me a number where I can call her, I could get this off my chest.”

“The problem is, I don’t have a number, just an address.”

“Anything’s better than nothing.  An address is more than I have right now.”  I would just have to wait longer for a reply.  Or, as a last resort, I would drive up to Colorado.

“Let me see.  I think I put it in my business drawer.”

Angelica and I watched wide-eyed while Grandma Steadman pulled piles of jumbled papers out of a kitchen drawer–the junk drawer, most people would call it.  Her reading glasses hung from a chain around her neck, and she placed them on her nose and slowly began to scrutinize each and every scrap of paper.

An hour and a half later, after Angelica and I had drunk the whole pot of pale coffee, she found the address.  Sadly, it was only a P.O. Box with a Creede, CO address.  Where Creede, CO was, I had no idea.

“You don’t know Anthony Carrillo’s family, do you, Granny Helen?”

“I knew his grandmother, Marie Carrillo, before she moved in with her daughter.  I haven’t seen her for months.  How is Anthony?”

“He lives in her house,” I said.  “I’m helping him fix it up.”

“You and Anthony can come over here after you’re done with her house.  Mine could use a little fixing up, too.  Don’t look worried, Ella.  That was a joke.”

“My boys could come do your yard work,” Angelica offered.

She patted Angelica’s hand and pulled off her glasses.  “No, that’s not necessary.  My son sends somebody every few months.  You better just copy that address down, Ella, so I still have a copy.  That’s what your mom wanted.”

“Of course. You don’t have a key to mom and dad’s house, do you?”

“No.  I have a defunct key to their old house, but not their new one.  You should ask Matthew.”

“Yes, I should.”  I hadn’t thought to ask Matthew yesterday, which was a little silly.  I was only the secretary, though, and not the investigator.  I was the housekeeper, too, and the woman whose own domicile was a wreck.. 

That was not to mention that I was the daughter of a painter, one who had, in her prime, painted several large canvases with ruby-colored butterflies.  I remembered them, but only as faint images in my mind.  I wondered, suddenly, where my mom stored her old paintings.

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