The mobile made of armadillo bones rattled in the stiff cold breeze at the window. Bettina looked past it to the dirt hills dotted with sage brush, silver with frost. Cold morning outside, but hot in here, even with the window partly open, the mesquite logs in the small fireplace filling the whole house with their sweet warmth.
“In English, Meyma,” Bettina said again, careful not to sound impudent. This was her mother, after all. “Please say in English.”
Her mother lay pale and listless on her narrow bed, sighed and said, “For Chico sake, don’t mind the vet.”
Bettina moved her chair closer to the bed and felt her mother’s brow. “Meyma, what you — what do you mean, ‘Don’t mind the vet’?”
Chico the Chihuahua watched Bettina from his spot atop Meyma’s stomach. Meyma stroked his little black ears with her thumb and finger and shook her head. “Eku nu eku nu.”
“You know I don’t speak old words anymore. English, Meyma. English.”
Meyma turned her face away from Bettina, a gesture that meant the words would pain her to say. Bettina sat up straight in her little chair, extra alert.
“The eyes see what they see,” Meyma said. “Don’t mind the vet. Nothing more to say.”
Meyma talking in riddles, the way she had always done, like everyone here in town did. Not saying anything point blank, not like in San Antonio, where Bettina lived now, and had lived for many years. In San Antonio, if you said, “I’ll have the lemon-butter grilled salmon and a glass of Pinot Noir,” that is what you meant, and that is what you got.
“Fine. Fine. I won’t mind the vet,” Bettina said and then muttered, before she could stop herself, “not even if he puts a goat in my attic.” Meyma smiled at her use of the old phrase, but Bettina pretended not to notice. “But it’s you who should see the doctor, not this dog. He’s just sick because you don’t feel good.” Chico looked up at her with sad kind eyes and Bettina softened her tone. “Or maybe you’re just not feeding him right.” This morning he had spit up ugly chunks of brown and red all over the straw rug.
Meyma shook her head. “I sick because he sick. Once he better, I be. How it works.”
“Fine.” Bettina checked her watch and got up to leave.
“You not wearing that?” Meyma said, her black eyes big and round. Scared.
Bettina looked down at her long-sleeved shirt, her slacks and boots. “Yes, why not?”
Meyma turned her face away. “Too much. Too much. Wear the blue blouse. In the closet.”
Blue brought health, Bettina knew that. Or that is what Meyma believed, anyway. “It’s too cold to wear that,” she said and then added, when Meyma still looked perplexed, “I’m wearing a blue bra. Don’t worry.”
She bundled up the dog in an old weaved blanket and walked down the hard-dirt road toward the vet’s office. The sooner Meyma got to feeling better, the sooner Bettina could go home. Back to San Antonio. Away from this cold dust hole 500 miles from anywhere. Back to her real life, back to her friends — the ones who glittered sharp and brilliant and piercing, like the bleached bones the townspeople here hung in windows to ward off evil. If getting back home meant taking Chico to the vet, then she would do it.
In the vet’s waiting room, a nurse with a long white braid sat reading a paperback . She took notice of Bettina and pointed her to an empty seat and went back to her reading.
Chico snuggled into the crook of Bettina’s arm and peeked out at the other women filling the room, coddling their dogs and their cats. All women, Bettina noticed. No men. Women she had seen throughout her growing-up years, coming down from the hills for the bonfires and the festivals. All women here, and all wearing such low-cut blouses. “Ay ko!” Poppy would have said, back in the day, for he had always admired the feminine form. None of them younger than 60, as far as Bettina could tell, and all showing their cleavage. Wearing blouses like she had found hanging in her mother’s closet. Like the blue one Meyma had wanted her to wear.
Bettina ran her fingers up the long line of buttons on her long-sleeved shirt. Even the top one was buttoned. Her friends in San Antonio wore shirts like this. Stiff and starched, like something a man might wear.
The woman sitting next to Bettina had a broad brown face and long gray-black hair and held a despondent Pomeranian on her lap. “You’re Evie’s daughter,” she said and grinned, revealing a mouth of silver teeth (“Such a mouth means luck and wisdom” — another thing Poppy would have said). “How she be?”
“Not as well as can be.” An expression Bettina hadn’t used in years, and yet it fell easily from her lips, like fluff from a cottonwood.
“And little dog worries about her,” the woman said. “Poor little dog. Your meyma’s best friend all these years, since your poppy passed.” The woman kissed the tips of fingers when she said it. Bettina nearly performed the ritual, too, but held herself in check.
“She tell you about the vet?” The woman inclined her head toward the closed door of the examination room.
“She told me not to mind the vet. What she — what did she mean?”
The woman smiled knowingly. “Ay keke. Let’s say he not look you in the eye.” She readjusted the neckline of her blouse, revealing a worn and wrinkled cleavage.
Bettina noticed again all the low-cut blouses in the room and felt a pang of panic. Her hand went up to the buttons at the top of her neck. “You mean …”
“Just let him look.” The woman readjusted her neckline again. “He a miracle worker. He need inspiration. Everyone know that.” She nodded to the other woman in the waiting room and they responded in kind. “So don’t mind the vet. For little dog sake. And your meyma.”
Not mind? Bettina didn’t know how she could not mind. And her friends back in the city — how disgusted they would be! Just like when Bettina told them about the wintertime bonfire, and how the snakes sizzled on the fire. “Sounds ghastly,” they said, their voices clinking like champagne glasses, and after that she didn’t talk about home. Not even her favorite things. The flower parade. The salamander dance.
If she listened hard, she could just make out what the vet said to each woman who entered the exam room. “They are as shy as two bunnies,” she heard him say, and later, “They remind me of flying ducks.” With each pronouncement, Bettina’s hand flew to the buttons at her throat. More than once she got up to leave but sat right back down again, for Meyma’s sake. Word would get back to Meyma that she had left without seeing the vet, and Meyma would cry. Not get angry, but cry. And that was worse.
But that was not the only reason Bettina stayed. Maybe, she thought, the vet really could cure the dog. She had seen such things before, on her very own body. The warts that fell off like scabs. The earaches and stomachaches, gone in a flash. All from the touch of sacred hands. If the vet could heal Chico, then Meyma would get better. And Bettina could go home.
The door to the exam room opened, and the nurse pointed Bettina to go in. The woman with the silver teeth smiled encouragingly as Bettina crept toward the open door.
The vet was short and thin, brown and sun-parched, just like the desert sages who wandered into town on occasion, singing praises to the Old Mother. He looked at Bettina’s buttoned-up shirt as she set the dog down on the examination table. His small brown eyes held a warmth and a depth Bettina had not seen in many years, and she felt safe with him, like she did with the old priest who had taught her the old prayers, even though the vet would not take his eyes from her chest. Chico looked up at her, pleading with her not to mind, while back at home, Bettina knew, her mother lay on the couch, awaiting good news.
“This is my mother’s dog,” she said and then quickly added, “I don’t live here.”
Chico looked from the vet to Bettina. The vet looked briefly at the dog and then stared again at Bettina’s covered-up chest. Stared at the long column of buttons, each one tight in place. He frowned slightly and his shoulders seemed to sag.
“I don’t live here,” she said again.
They stood there for a long silent moment, the vet staring at her chest and the dog looking from one to the other. The dog finally put his head down on his front paws and heaved a big sad sigh. “No can help the little dog,” the vet said, still staring at her chest, and he seemed like he would cry as he put his gnarled hand on the doorknob to let her out.
“Wait.” Bettina looked deep into the dog’s scared wet eyes and sighed. She undid the top button. And the next. And the next until they were all undone. And when the vet kept his hand on the doorknob, she undid the clasp of her little blue bra and pulled it down.
“They are like two healthy guinea pigs,” he said, eyeing her breasts happily, unashamed, and he put a healing hand on the dog’s stomach. And back at home, Bettina saw it clear as day, Meyma got up to make a stew.
Published in Blotterature, 2015