Eleanor Adams's character tells of the bitter power of her friend Carmen who dabbles with the black arts.
Most find it easy to be nice to Carmen, who's always smiling even when angry.
Children love her because she's their second mom, giving them homemade cookies while
asking about their families. Adults find her to be a talky friend who after prying a painful
secret out of them, leans in and says in flowery Spanish or halting English, "Come see
me. I fix. Bring eggs, OK? I need."
A few months ago nosy neighbors would visit the ones Carmen had spent time talking to and tell them what she was. The ones who got scared ran if Carmen tried to talk to them while the other ones stonily watched her if she came to them. Most people were in between, too afraid to believe and too desperate not to. After time and fear went away they would be the ones who would go see Carmen, bringing eggs, butter or whatever she needed.
Carmen became la bruja, the witch, because of her husband Hector. Two months
before I graduated high school, I was sitting next to her in River Park. She was high
fiving me but suddenly she started to cry. She told me Hector said he got used to her not
being pretty but it gave him a wandering eye.
I thought a wandering eye was the same as a lazy one. My cousin Anita has that. You
could threaten to beat that girl down if she didn't look at you with both eyes but she
couldn't because her left eye always looked to the side. Later that night, Mom told me a
wandering eye made you wish for what you don't have instead of blessing what you got.
Slamming a bowl of mash potatoes on the table, she said that's why Poppa can't live with
us no more.
Hector telling Carmen about his eye made her cry for days. I could hear her through the
wall and sometimes when Carmen went outside, with her face in her hand, she cried so
hard she walked right through the playground without bothering to dodge the basketballs, hula
hoops and yo-yos that were always flying from somebody's hands.
To make Carmen feel better Hector threw a big party for her on Saturday night.
Everybody was having fun, dancing to "Shop Around," "Oye Como Va," and eating
pigs' feet, cornbread, arroz con pollo, calzones and moussaka. Mom even let me taste
Things stopped when Aida came in. A fleshy woman, Aida also had long black curly
hair, round lips and a lime colored blouse whose top button wouldn't stay closed.
Aida wiggled and giggled. Carrying a large square stowaway bag, she wouldn't put it
down or give to anyone. At ten o'clock, something in it started to gurgle. She took out a
blue bundle and said the baby's name is Rafael. He had her lips and his hair stood up.
When someone said he looked like Hector, Aida said all boys look like their dads. Loud
shhs and glances began as Carmen started to laugh.
"She's taking it well," Mom whispered, while pushing me toward our apartment door
but I thought it strange because Carmen's laughter had no pleasure in it and her eyes were
Starting Sunday, Carmen started coming to our apartment to use our phone. She was
talking to her Aunt Esperanza in Puerto Rico. Mom did nothing but worry about money
but the silver lines of worn quarters covering the kitchen table made her silent. Gingerly
Carmen stroked our phone but after listening to her auntie, she started to shriek. I couldn't
catch one word in Spanish or English.
I've been inside Carmen's apartment a couple of times and couldn't understand how all
three of her phones got broke.
"They all right," Mom said, "She's using our phone because Hector can't know about
"Why?" I asked.
Mom, a tenth grade dropout with a smart mind but too many bad choices in her past
gently answered, "Best Hector don't know that the hand that washed and fed him is
turning into a fist." Shoving a crucifix on my neck Mom said, "Tell Carmen you're a
Now I respect Mom but I started to laugh because I don't go to church except Christmas
and Easter. Tweaking my nose got me quiet. "Can't stop you from seeing Carmen," she
said, "but let her know her words aren't the only thing you listen to."
I was so busy watching and wondering about Carmen, it took me awhile to notice Mom
was changing. In the morning we used to meet by the bathroom door and have a friendly
tussle about who would go in first. Now when I get up, Mom is staring out of the living
room window mumbling a prayer.
Seeing me, she said Carmen leaves her apartment to take moonlit walks around the
neighborhood. "Picking up grass, stunted flowers, flat pebbles and dirt," breathless Mom
stumbled on, "then she rips threads from the old clothes Mount Lebanon Baptist leaves for
bums and picks pieces from the new trees they're planting on Lewis. Best stay away from
her." I gave Mom a smile and started to unbraid my hair. I wasn't going to do that.
Carmen's my friend.
Now Carmen played up, maybe too much, her large magnetic eyes. Thick black lines
coat them so you can't help but stare into them. You get a funny feeling from them, like
they're trying to make you say something you want to keep secret. Her hair went from a
short dark mass of curls to a long wavy pageboy. It became lighter too and it shocked me
to see her pointy face surrounded by hair the color of blood. And before, she never wore
jewelry, not even a wedding ring, but now several rings were on her hands, all antique looking. They're pretty but sometimes when looking at them, you get the same feeling you get when looking at her eyes.
One day at her place, I met Matilda, a too smart cat. Strutting out of Carmen's bedroom, the
cat started following me, stopping only after Carmen called out, "She's a friend." Remembering
my mother's words I said, "I earned this," while showing Carmen my crucifix. Her laughter
sounded like a hissing snake but I wasn't put off. I also told her the church sister lie. Carmen
looked the other way and Matilda opened her mouth like she was hearing something funny.
During a Mets baseball game, Carmen kept getting up to open the front door though no one
knocked. Keeping it open she started cooking some weird stuff that smelled nasty.
A little after that, a smiling Aida came in asking Carmen to babysit Rafael because, "I want to spend time with our man," she said.
Matilda jumped on the kitchen counter while Carmen looked up from the stinky liquid she was stirring and picked up a knife. I kept thinking Carmen was going to snip a dangling thread from Aida's blouse, but instead Carmen quickly cut off a small ringlet of Aida's hair. Aida didn't
shame Carmen by saying anything. Giving her hair a long loving stroke Aida left Rafael on the
sofa. Carmen dropped the hair in the mess she was cooking. On that day I guess I didn't drink
enough water like my mom kept saying to do. The stove's heat was making me woozy because
I swear Matilda winked at me.
Within two months Aida's hair went gray and her scalp flaky. When patches of her hair fell out, Lupe, Aida's aunt who could read signs told her to apologize to Carmen and run. Aida did that but before she left, Carmen told her to arrange Rafael's things in her spare bedroom because, Carmen told me, Rafael belonged to her now.
"Forgive me," Hector begged when he went with Carmen who sometimes took me on her
shopping trips. Carmen made Hector buy flowers, candy and strange powders from redheaded
women who spoke a language he didn't seem to know while they hid their smiles behind
"Anyone can make a mistake," Carmen said while showing me how to diaper Rafael.
"Rafael likes his formula and the toys I make, but he needs a daddy. It's too much work to break
another man in."
A month later, Carmen, Rafael and I were sitting in the park when Kewan Johnson came near. Speaking loudly, he said, "Senora. Senora Rodriguez. Hola."
Carmen reined in her smile while glancing at Kewan's unlined skin and bright eyes. Kewan's a dealer who makes druggies lick his spit from the ground. And once, all right, twice, Kewan and I shared a reefer. I didn't dare tell Mom but I told Carmen who kept yelling at him.
Nodding Carmen murmured, "Senor."
"Whose kids are these?" Kewan asked.
Patting Rafael Carmen said, "This is my son." Passing her hand over my puzzled expression, Carmen continued, "And my daughter."
"How you get them, huh? Who's Aida?"
Just like magic, Aida, her hair and part of her forehead covered by a cap, appeared near
Kewan. She remained silent and shook her fist.
Carmen got up from the bench. Kewan called out, "I won't be denied, Carmen. Give the boy
back to my girl. I'm not afraid of you. You're nothing. Nada. Comprende?"
Kewan was screaming. That and his quickly moving hands attracted a crowd, especially when
mud from last night's rain got on Carmen's dress which was strange because the wind wasn't
It didn't take long before the whole neighborhood knew what Kewan said and Carmen's non
action. Doubts began on what Carmen could actually do and that was an irritation to her.
Maybe she was catching the wandering eye from Hector because Carmen couldn't seem to
bless what she did have. Instead she began cursing the non-believers and saying they were hair
in her eyes.
"I show you," Carmen said to the air while stalking the streets, "I go murder. Making me so
angry I kill." Hearing about that, Kewan took time to stand in front of Carmen laughing as Aida
smiled and stood behind him. Those who believed in her started treating Carmen more kindly.
Those who didn't believe stayed out of her way.
Kewan was found on a Sunday morning in a circle of thick orange candles whose smoke was
red. Since his body blocked a street, the police got called. When it was found out he was a
police informant, a whole bunch of cops invaded the neighborhood. The Chinese who kept to
themselves withdrew even more. The Haitians hid behind Creole. "No se," became the answer
of the Spanish. Those who only knew English pretended to be deaf.
After that unsolved crime, no one questioned Carmen's power. Once in a while Aida came
by, spending hours staring at Carmen's windows. She would ask about Rafael but no one
answered. No one dared.
Without invitation, Carmen always moved to the head of any line. What she needed she got,
and her wishes obeyed.
Now many girls are walking with Carmen at night, picking up strange things. I'm one of them and it's getting hard to hide that from Mom.
During the day Carmen spends her time combing her scarlet hair and arranging
numerous rings on her thin fingers. While sitting on one of the benches under the numerous oak
trees, Carmen sings slow old fashioned songs of romance. She has a terrible voice raspy
and shrill, but no one ever told her to stop.