The house rang to the songs of Vicente Fernandez. The aroma of beef, pork, chicken, and mixed spices, circled inside the house like a happy ghost roaming freely like it owned the two-story cozy home. The corn husk’s wrapped around the pork, like a wrestler pinning his opponent.
Another stockpot began to slowly boil releasing scents of tamarind, peaches, guava, prunes, hibiscus, sugarcane, and cinnamon with a touch a piloncillo, declaring a scent-war on the tamales steaming next to it, fighting like bitter rivals to see who could take over the home first.
Maria and her mother had stayed up until past midnight the day before mixing spices, dicing fruit, boiling meat, and rearranging the fridge to make room for all the different pies that would soon be stacked, one on top of the other.
“All your Uncles and Aunts are coming,” Maria’s mother said nervously. “We have to make sure we have enough food, we don’t want to run out of food like last year, you remember what happened last year don’t you?”
Maria didn’t want to remember.
Every year it was the same. Her mom would lose a couple years of her life stressing over making enough food. Cousins would huddle in the living room like the Dallas Cowboys locker room, gossiping meanwhile one or two of them went live on social media platforms showing the world how drunk they were.
Her father, Jose, had two 65 inch Yeti coolers overfilled with every brand of Mexican beer available at Sam’s Club. Modelo, Red Bull, Corona, Cranberry juice, Squirt, and five tall brown bottles of Don Julio 1942 aged two and a half years. You could get drunk just by opening the ice-filled cooler. A couple of her uncles would also contribute, each one would arrive with a 24 pack, ‘ just in case,’ they would always say with a hint of a smile.
No matter how much they drank, it always ended the same. First, they would talk about construction projects and brag about how difficult the projects were to solve. Then the conversation would migrate to politics and how they could solve the nation’s problems. The alcohol would work its way into the bloodstream like a magic potion numbing everything in its path. The euphoric effect would give everyone chills and the dopamine rush flooded the brain, drowning all the calamities of the year. Their eyes would get droopy and, it seemed like they had a speech impediment as children because everyone seemed to stammer and stutter. Vicente Fernandez would always play in the background up until somebody would begin to mutter along.
“T-t-turn it up.” Another Uncle would respond lifting his arm in approval. Before you knew it, everyone had musical talent and the garage morphed itself into a Broadway musical.
But then there was Uncle Juan. He had a special talent. His body had developed some kind of special ability that Maria often times wondered if perhaps he was a mutant and belonged in Professor Charles Xavier’s school for the gifted. Uncle Juan could hold his alcohol. One time he had been pulled over drunk as a skunk and passed every test the Police Officer requested. “I even said the ABC’s backward!” He would brag.
Often times Maria’s mom would send her to check up on the men, and when she stepped into the garage it was like the Battle of Gettysburg. Dozens of cans spread out across the garage floor like a minefield. Four or five bodies slouched or passed out on the ground that Maria wasn’t sure if they were unconscious, asleep, or alive. But not her Uncle Juan. He stood still, like General George Meade, proud-like that he had not fallen to General Don Julio and his armies of modelo, corona, dos Equis and all their allies who joined Don Julio to see him fall. It was an honor for him to be the last man standing. Not something to be proud of, but he was always boasting his supernatural ability to hold alcohol.
Sometimes Maria would try to explain the devasting effects of alcohol, but it was useless. Uncle Juan would go on a rant swearing that his grandfather drank every day since the age of 6 and had lived to be 100.
That was last year. This year Maria wasn’t going to have any of it. She was tired of her aunt’s gossiping around the table while the men poisoned themselves.
This year she was going to lock herself upstairs and eat by herself. Nobody would ever note her absence.
For a few hours, the house was silent. Only the aroma of tamales, ponche, pozole, hot cocoa circled inside the home like fog on a cold morning.
Her parents were almost ready for the New Year Party. Her father wore a pair of black wrangler jeans that were so tight for a second Maria thought those were her leggings. A silky long sleeve shirt, with the top three buttons un-used, exposing his hairy chest and two or three gold necklaces. His left wrist wore a gold watch that was too big for him and looked like it was purchased from the convenience store at the end of the block. A gold ring on each finger and a gold bracelet on his right hand.
He rubbed some lotion on his cheeks, around his nose and forehead ending with his bushy wire-brush mustache. He reached into the closet and pulled out a pointy taco-shaped cowboy hat that could possibly be used as a shovel. Taking one final good look in the mirror, admiring how well his pickaxed style boots matched the snakeskin belt. He topped it all off with two sprays of MUSK on his wrist, two more on each side of his neck, two on each side of his chest, and the last one in his special area. In case his wife had extra energy after the party was over.
“Your brother Juan is backing up into the driveway.” His wife grunted as she peeked out the window and pulled on her bright red dress. “Make sure you turn down the flame on the stove Jose.” She heard the bedroom door close and the clacking sound of her husband’s boots going down the stairs.
“Little brother!” Jose exclaimed, reaching out to shake Juan’s hand before he climbed off his truck. “So good to have you again this year!”
“I brought some deserts, gifts for the nieces and nephews,” he replied trying to break his brother’s gorilla lock handshake. “Your gift is right there.” He said grinning, signaling with his chin towards the Coleman ice chest in the bed of the pickup.
Maria was still slouched on the brown leather couch when she heard the muffled rumble of the pickup outside and, the clacking sound of boots coming down wood stairs. “Hurry up and get dressed, your Uncle Juan is already here.” Her father said zooming past her towards the garage.
She pretended not to hear, laying there with as much energy as her iPhone which was already on 5%. She imagined having Morty’s universal remote and, fast-forwarding two or three days after New Year’s when everyone had left, father was back at work and the house was clean.
Her Uncle nearly tripping as he entered the living area with both hands holding two skyscrapers of every pie you could find at Wal-Mart, seemed to give her enough energy to head upstairs and get dressed. “Hi, Uncle!” Maria said as she stood up.
Uncle Juan couldn’t see where the gentle voice came from. He opened his arms just enough to glimpse between the pies. “Hey, sweetie! let me unload this in the kitchen, you know your aunt. She buys enough pies to feed the entire neighborhood!” He chuckled, making his way towards the kitchen.
“It’s ok Uncle,” Maria said softly, “I’m going up to get ready, see you in a bit.” She started walking towards the stairs. The last thing she saw was her Uncle pouring what looked like the clearest water she had ever seen into the ponche.
It seemed like a couple minutes since Maria stepped in and out of the shower but more than one hour had already flown by. For a second Maria thought she was at her high school’s pep rally. Little groups of family spread out throughout the home. Laughter, and the spoons clattering as they scooped up the hot soup. Others were taking selfies and waiting for a chance to sneak into the garage and steal a couple cans of booze.
Most of the men huddled at the dinner table everyone’s attention focused on Jose as he told a story about the time that his younger brother Abraham had got caught inside his father-in-law’s house and ran out the back door in tighty whities.
“He calls me while I’m at work and says; It’s an emergency, come fast! I’m hiding beside the dumpster!” Jose said trying his best to hold in the laughter. “It’s cold! Hurry up before someone sees me!” The entire table roared in laughter. “You should have left him there!” Someone added.
Maria didn’t want to get in the way of her mother who was scrambling back and forth between the dinner table, the refrigerator, and the kitchen. She picked up the ladle next to the ponche and reached for the bottom of the pot like an excavator. She wanted to scoop up as many bits of sugarcane, peach, and guava. The first sip she had to be careful. The ponche was hotter than fresh coffee, she was careful not to burn her tongue. Wow she thought, I forgot it was this good! Another small sip. Then another. Her cup was now empty except for the fruit laying at the bottom. The second cup was not as hot as the first one. Each sip was better than the last one. Her mood began to take a turn. It seemed like the distaste for a noisy home began to fade away as if aspirin had made her headache go vanish. Well, that’s odd she thought smiling to herself.
The next morning Maria’s mother woke up early and made her way downstairs to preheat the leftovers from the night before. The sofas had people sleeping in awkward positions. She opened the garage, peeked in, and gasped.
There laid Maria. Fallen hero-like with her father and her uncles. They had fought well, with honor, in the Battle of Gettysburg.
“Happy New Year’s Maria.” She said softly.