Monday, January 05, 2009

A Little Bit of Noir

I was chatting online the other day with Denise Hamilton, the Queen of Los Angeles Noir. Hamilton is a former Los Angeles Times journalist who is the author of five Eva Diamond novels, editor of Los Angeles Noir (Akashic Books), and author of last year's thriller, The Last Embrace (Scribner). The Chicago Sun Times says of Denise: "One of the brightest new talents to enter crime fiction over the last few years." In any event, this conversation reminded me that I've written my share of noir short fiction...perhaps it's in L.A.'s water, who knows. But, for something a little different, I'm reprinting one of my murderous stories, "Juana," which first appeared in PALABRA: A Magazine of Chicano & Latino Literary Art (Issue 2, spring/summer 2007), edited by the multi-talented elena minor. Enjoy.


By Daniel Olivas

Juana told me to meet her at El Museo de Arte Moderno. Right by “The Two Fridas” at noon she said. Juana knew that I despised Frida Kahlo’s obsession with herself and that it would have been just as easy for us to get together at the Colón Misión Reforma where she’s staying. And she also knew that she would arouse my suspicions by keeping me away from her hotel. But she always liked to tweak me, get my goat as they say in the United States. I couldn’t refuse Juana, of course. And she knew that, too.

It’d rained all morning but mercifully it stopped just before I went out to flag a taxi. The sky remained gray and oppressive as honking cars and buses strangled the slick streets. I’ve found that my ability to remain calm in Mexico City’s traffic, especially when it rained, has seeped away with each year so that I’d rather spend a few pesos for someone else to sweat through it for me. Though I’d left plenty of time, it took too long to get there. I gave my driver a generous tip and then I remembered that I’d have to pay the museum’s admission fee which annoyed me further. It figured that there’d be a charge to see Juana.

After buying a ticket, I entered the museum and approached the information desk to ask where I would find “The Two Fridas.” The woman offered a smile that let me know two things. First, she didn’t mind the way I looked in my dark, blue suit. Second, she was proud to direct me to one of the museum’s most appreciated pieces. I nodded my thanks and returned her smile. If things didn’t work out with Juana, I figured I could pay another visit to the information desk.

I got to the painting but Juana wasn’t there. I glanced at my watch. I was no more than five minutes late. But certainly even Juana wouldn’t force someone, especially her ex-husband, to meet her at a museum and then leave because of a mere five minutes. A tour of about seven Americans stood too close to the Kahlo painting as the guide explained each symbolic element. He called the canvas a masterpiece of self-awareness. I call it nothing more than solipsism.

“Magnificent, isn’t it?”

I turned. Juana stood not more than a foot behind me, arms crossed, head cocked to the right pretending to admire the painting.

“Un pedazo de mierda,” I said even though Juana had made her pronouncement in English.

The tour guide stopped in mid-sentence. Luckily the Americans didn’t seem to understand what I’d said. I turned to the guide, offered an apologetic shrug, and tried to lead Juana away. She wouldn’t move.

“Not even a kiss hello?” she asked still speaking in English.

She wanted to annoy me as much as possible but I wouldn’t let her win. My English was as good as hers so I jumped right in.

“But of course,” I said as I leaned in and kissed her cheek. She smelled of cigarettes, perspiration and a perfume she’d never worn while we were married.

“Much better,” Juana whispered. “Where can we talk?”

I scanned the area and spied a free bench by a large Rufino Tamayo canvas. We made our way to it and sat. We looked at each other for a minute or so in silence. I figured Juana should begin since she was the one who had flown to Mexico City to see me.

“I need help,” she finally said.

“I figured as much.”

Juana snorted and turned away from me. Her eyes rested on the Tamayo. I looked at her left hand and I grew excited. Her ring finger sported nothing more than a pale line. Could she have left Reynaldo already? Sure. Why not? I never expected them to last. Two ex-husbands before Juana reached twenty-five.

“Did I waste my time coming home?” she said keeping her eyes from mine.

“I thought San Diego was home now.”

Juana turned to me. I tried to read her eyes the way I used to but I couldn’t. As my curiosity started to swirl and gain momentum, Juana touched my hand. Actually, not quite a touch. She put her hand just above mine so that I could feel the heat from her palm. But she never really made contact with my skin.

“Let’s go,” she said. “Vamos al hotel.”

* * *

As I lay in bed, I rested my eyes on the large and sole window in Juana’s hotel room. It’d started raining again on the way here but the sun was now beginning to peek out from behind the clouds. My stomach rumbled because Juana preferred to make love rather than eat lunch. While we were married, she often made me delay my meals on the theory that a hungry body could feel more sensation. I never believed it. And now as she snored softly next to me, I could only fantasize about gorging myself on succulent carnitas and steaming corn tortillas washed down with cup after cup of hot, black coffee. Juana stirred and before I knew it, her eyes were wide open, staring at me. I reached over and touched her face. She didn’t respond.

“Él está muerto,” she announced without a flinch.

I sat up, confused. “Who’s dead?”



Juana got out of bed. She wore only a large t-shirt that made her look even tinier than she was. She folded her arms and paced back and forth on the red, shag carpet. This room had been elegant once but now it looked a bit frayed at the edges, unstylish, out of a different era.

“I had left him a few months ago,” she began keeping her eyes on her feet as they moved. “But he wanted to see me, to talk.”

I nodded, understanding what Reynaldo had felt.


“And so he cooked dinner for me,” said Juana. “Halibut.”

I didn’t need to know what they ate. But I let her continue.

“We were having a good time, really. It was fine to talk. And then it happened.”


Juana stopped pacing, dropped her arms and stared at me. “Reynaldo started choking, on a bone.”

Ah, that’s why she mentioned the halibut. But I was still confused.

“So they couldn’t save him from a fish bone?”

Her left eye twitched. And then I understood what she was trying to say.

“You didn’t call for help, did you?” I said.

Juana didn’t answer but she didn’t have to.

“When was the funeral?”

She shook her head.

“Juana,” I said. “When was the funeral?”

She walked to the bed, lifted the covers and snuggled next to me. I sank into the mattress and pulled her close.

“He’s still there,” said Juana. “In his house.”

At that moment, I probably should have jumped out of bed to get away from her. But I didn’t. Instead, I pulled Juana closer.

“When did it happen?” I asked using a tone that would’ve been appropriate at ask a young child where she had lost her favorite doll. Juana didn’t answer as if she had to think about it.

“What day is it?” she finally asked me.




Juana exhaled loudly through her mouth. I felt a hot tear fall onto my chest.

“Monday,” she said.

I turned away and looked at the window. The sky grew brighter as the clouds continued to dissipate. Juana’s breathing grew heavy.

“Mi amor,” I said softly.

She didn’t answer. Within a few moments, she snored softly into my chest. I kissed her hair and thought for a moment. I then carefully extricated myself from her body and dressed as quietly as I could. Before I left, I kissed Juana’s forehead and touched her hair. As I reached the street, the sun shone brightly without obstruction for the first time all day. I signaled for a taxi and got in.

“El Museo de Arte Moderno,” I said before I realized it.

The driver nodded and eased his car into traffic.

“Finally, some sun,” he said as he caught my eye in the rearview mirror.

“Yes,” I answered with a smile. “Finally.”


Pat Mora's House of Houses (University of Arizona Press)

From the publisher: Combining poetic language and the traditions of magic realism to paint a vivid portrait of her family, Pat Mora’s House of Houses is an unconventional memoir that reads as if every member, death notwithstanding, is in one room talking, laughing, and crying. In a salute to the Day of the Dead, the story begins with a visit to the cemetery in which all of her deceased relatives come alive to share stories of the family, literally bringing the food to their own funerals. From there the book covers a year in the life of her clan, revealing the personalities and events that Mora herself so desperately yearns to know and understand.

“Poet Mora’s complex and dramatic family history comprises more than personal reminiscences: it also embraces resonant aspects of Mexican American history. Mora recounts her family’s traumatic exodus from Mexico to escape the violence of Pancho Villa and his forces and their struggles to begin new lives in another country. To anchor her psychologically rich, dramatic, sometimes funny, often touching multigenerational tale, Mora uses the image of a house—the house of houses—during a single year, a fruitful metaphor that allows her to dwell on the bright beauty of flowers, birds, and trees, emblems of the loving legacy of her nurturing family.”—Booklist

“Mora has created an ingenious structure for these recollections of her extended family, of their lives and the tales they share about the family’s history. Woven in with these memories are recipes, fragments of songs and poetry, folk remedies, and jokes, all of the small matters that most reveal a family’s identity. In a language deftly mingling the natural cadences of speech and precise, poetic imagery, Mora believably summons up both a group of tough, loving, idiosyncratic survivors and a vivid, detailed portrait of life in the Southwest in [the last] century.” —Kirkus Reviews

◘ The new issue of Somos Primos which, as La Bloga readers know, is "Dedicated to Hispanic Heritage and Diversity Issues" and produced by the Society of Hispanic Historical and Ancestral Research. If you want to jump immediately to the literature section of Somos Primos, go here.

◙ That’s all for this week. So, in the meantime, enjoy the intervening posts from mis compadres y comadres here on La Bloga. And remember: ¡Lea un libro!

1 comment:

Manuel Ramos said...

Quite an intriguing story. Two Fridas, indeed.