Rosa expertly folded the shiny dark-wash jeans before slipping them into the jumbo Ziplock bag, Macy’s tag up.  A red blouse was just as carefully packaged, followed by a white silk scarf with a Zara tag.  The display of attentive good taste was especially excruciating for Andrea to watch because she hadn’t gotten around to getting gifts yet and had a feeling hers wouldn’t be as fabulous.

Her mother-in-law’s strong arms packed a total of five Ziplock bags into the red-striped tote, too many for the zipper to close.

“There.  For Consuelo.  Give her the tote too,” Rosa said, placing the straps into Andrea’s two hands with a demeanor of accomplishment.

Squatting down and squeezing the sides shut with her knees, Andrea got the zipper to cooperate.  The optimistic tote bore Rosa’s strong Calvin Klein scent.  

“I’ll put it in my suitcase.  I’ll make it fit.”

Fat chance.  An extra suitcase was needed.  Rosa’s tote of gifts ended up following Andrea and her family up to the Andes and through the rest of their first and only trip to Peru.  At the end of their touring, Andrea couldn’t wait to get to Consuelo’s and be rid of it.

Orlando’s people lived near the airport, in a part of Lima she was eager to see because tourists did not go there. Mutts – an odd few with doggie coats – ran wild in the park. Tall barbed wire covered the second floors of the houses surrounding the park.  Andrea, Orlando and their two pre-teen children were greeted in front of an austere yellow house by an unknown child. It was around four thirty in the afternoon.

The steep cement flight led head-on to a room with a small refrigerator, then came a hallway off of which waited a tiny bedroom for the storage of their two large suitcases and miscellaneous baggage.  The child, a boy, stepped through a doorway at the opposite end of the bedroom.  They followed.

Consuelo was flanked by her two middle-aged daughters on one of the two couches at right angles in view of a small empty kitchen table.  Orlando had last seen them ten years ago when he’d come alone to bury his father.  Given the reunion, Andrea braced herself for hugs and tears but there were none.  The women did not rise from the couch or extend their arms.  Following Orlando’s lead, Andrea and the children pecked Consuelo on both cheeks then did the same to his older aunt, then to the younger one before taking seats on the other couch.  There were no decorations on the walls, no natural light. The kitchen was dark.

“Give them something to drink,” the old woman ordered the younger aunt.

The old woman was blind in one eye. The eye was shut so you could not tell that it had been removed due to infection. The aunt rose and went to the sink.

“We’re fine, tia. We ate already,” Orlando said, causing an awkward knot to form in  Andrea’s stomach.  The offer was for a drink. Not a meal.  Even if it was nearly suppertime.

Andrea waited for one of the women to insist they stay to eat.  Which had happened to her sister-in-law’s family when they visited a few years ago.  Hearing the story had left a warm impression on Andrea.  She was surprised, then, to observe the aunt walking past their couch, empty-handed.  

“We brought you some things,” Orlando said enthusiastically.

The old woman sat up straighter.  She was silently crying, shedding tears onto her pale housedress.  With a passed handkerchief Consuelo blotted her good eye, then her bad one. “Ay, it’s been so many years. How the time passes!”

Sí Abuelita,” Orlando said. “It’s a long way from New Jersey.”

He turned to Andrea. “The presents?”

She went to the bedroom, to the extra suitcase.  It was black, nondescript except for a piece of thick red yarn around the handle from a craft project when she was pregnant with her daughter.  As she unzipped the suitcase she became aware that someone was peeking into the room, observing her.  It was the boy.  He might be eight or nine.  She smiled at him, then went back to what she was doing.  She took out Rosa’s tote and a blue plastic duffel that Andrea herself had filled with gifts.  She was quite ashamed of the motley collection.

She had asked Orlando for some direction.

-What should we get them?  

-Don’t buy anything!

He was his usual stingy self.  But she, for once, agreed with the frugality order; the airfare alone – there were four of them! – had wiped their savings out.  So she had decided to gather some unwanted gifts in the attic, and now was going to experience the misery of watching this shameful hodgepodge assessed.

The boy was still observing as she closed the empty suitcase.  Then he ran away, and she braved a return to the kitchen.  

The two aunts and the old woman – five eyes – watched her as she set down the big striped tote and the smaller blue duffel.  Orlando signaled to her and she offered the blue duffel first.  The only thing she was proud of was the white tissue paper she’d taken time to wrap each gift in.

“Thank you,” Consuelo said receiving the duffel on her lap.  Each gift was in its crisp white tissue paper.  Consuelo skillfully unwrapped each, and when the object emerged – a small, awkwardly shaped leather pocketbook, then a miniature Coca-Cola-shaped pencil and eraser set, followed by a bright yellow Health United yo-yo – she made a surly expression then handed it off to one aunt, who made a similar expression and handed it to the other aunt, who did the same.  

“How nice!” Consuelo said and then the other two repeated those words after examining each of the objects.

“For the boy,” Orlando said, pantomiming the use of a yo-yo.   His ingratiating laugh was met by silence from all three.

The younger aunt rose and returned the duffle.  But seeing her unsatisfied expression, Andrea was seized with the desire to please her. She also realized that since Rosa would be throwing the tote in, Andrea was going to appear stingy by comparison.  So she handed the duffel back to the aunt to keep.  

When the woman didn’t understand, Andrea had Orlando explain, “It’s part of the gift,” but hearing him say it, and watching the duffel pass out of her possession, made Andrea feel like a hand had grabbed her by the throat.  She loved that little blue duffel! It had been with her on many a trip and seen her children grow into their current selves.  Orlando looked pleased by her spontaneity, by her generosity, but she regretted succumbing to the aunt’s unpleasant look.

The aunt took the duffle and showed it to the old woman.  

With a firm nod, Consuelo said, “That’s a good bag for trips.”  She set it by her side possessively.

“There’s more!” Orlando said brightly.

On cue, needing both hands, Andrea presented the striped tote, whose Calvin Klein scent seemed to announce Rosa’s entrance to the room.  Awkwardly realizing the tote was too heavy for the old woman, Andrea set it down on the couch in the space between Consuelo and the aunt that Consuelo energetically patted.

“From my mother,” Orlando said.

“Ah, from Rosa,” the old woman said with no emotion.  She did not look at Orlando.  Or any of them.  She observed the tote and sniffed the air twice, sharply.

After the nearest aunt unzipped the tote, Consuelo’s wrinkled old hand retrieved the first jumbo Ziplock bag.  She glided it open and removed the new jeans, which she draped over her legs.  Then she pulled out the red flowered blouse, placing it over her torso, and the white scarf, wrapping it about her neck, and the soft white hat, putting it on her gray head with the mirrored aviator sunglasses on her face.

 “How nice!” the aunts said.

Consuelo removed the sunglasses so she could see again.  She clutched the striped tote, concluding that this was hers too.

“My mother has good taste,” Orlando said grinning.  The smile was unnecessarily wide and seemed to be held in hope that Consuelo, or one of the aunts, would then ask after Rosa.  After maybe thirty seconds he got tired of holding it.

“How is Juny?” Consuelo asked.


“How is his wife?  Vanessa, isn’t that it?”


The conversation went on for a bit. Andrea thought she might have missed something so she leaned into her husband.  “Did they ask after your mom?”

He shook his head.

“That’s extraordinary.”  She had just figured something out – a missing piece of the puzzle. His father had been legendary for his rudeness. Now she knew where it came from!

The children went out to the park to play soccer with the children who lived in the house, who were down there already.  Orlando used the bathroom.  Andrea was left alone with Consuelo and the aunts.

“This is good – we can talk to you! The last gringa spoke no Spanish,” the eldest aunt said of Andrea’s sister-in-law Vanessa who probably spoke better than Andrea did.  

Andrea struggled to keep up.  Aware of the problem, the aunts spoke in unison, a team effort to make themselves understood. “He’s lost weight,” they said of her husband, their accusing gazes shaking her by the arms. “When we saw him last he was heftier.”

“It’s age,” she said crossly.  “We’re all getting old.  How old is Abuelita?”

“Ninety-two,” the aunts said with pride.

“She looks great,” Andrea said, trying to make nice again.

The skin on the old woman’s face was smooth, the short lengths of iron-gray hair that fell past the edge of the oversized bucket hat were neatly combed. The shut eye seemed out of place.

“It’s the loving attention.  And the food!” The aunts laughed with satisfaction.

Andrea joined in the laughter but thought, The house doesnt smell of food. And its almost suppertime.

How strange to come all this way and have no offer to stay for supper!  She had expected them to be hospitable people.  Then, all of a sudden, she remembered more of Vanessa’s story. Their family had been shown up to the roof where several adorable rabbits were well fed and in cages, only to see one fat white rabbit scooped up.  When Vanessa jumped back, Juny had her take the children downstairs.  A terrible noise ensued and then a dead rabbit was carried down the steps.  

It was a good thing there had been no invitation.

“Give them your tea bags,” Orlando instructed. “They won’t make it through Customs anyway.”

“Is this a shakedown?” Andrea frowned, still lamenting the lost duffel bag.  Despite her opposition, she found her suitcase in the bedroom and removed a collection of complimentary tea bags from the hotels. She had been looking forward to enjoying the tea at home and reminiscing.  She handed the tea over to one aunt.

“Ask if she wants a cup of that,” Consuelo told the aunt, who asked Andrea.

She glanced at Orlando because she had no idea if the offer was meant for her to accept.  He gave a nod.

“Sure, thank you.”

“And you, mi nieto?” Consuelo said.

“No thank you, Abuelita,” Orlando said, probably to save her the teabag.

“Coffee?  You like that, right?”  Without waiting for an answer the old woman had the aunt bring a cup of hot water and a small jar of instant coffee with a spoon. No milk or sugar was served, though he always took both.  He sipped it appreciatively, as Andrea did her tea.  

There was the sound of hurried feet.  Youthful voices.  Their daughter, coming from the park, leaned into Andrea’s ear, asking if she could have a cup of coffee too.

“There’s no milk,” Andrea whispered back.

Her daughter’s eyes widened.  “Oh okay.”

“And don’t ask for water. I’m not sure there is.  Not clean anyway.  You’ll have to wait.”

“Is there juice?” her son said into her opposite ear, breathing fast from soccer.  “I’m really thirsty.”

The old woman and aunts watched.

Wait,” Andrea said.

Orlando lifted his cup and grinned at his grandmother.  “Such good coffee!”

The conversation turned to the rich and their big problems.  “Look at Lindsey Lohan.  Addiction, rehabilitation,” Orlando said, picking a random headline from the local tabloid they’d seen at the last newsstand.  The aunts readily agreed. They talked about how family was more important than anything and said they hoped to see them again soon.  Then one aunt began collecting all the gifts, sloppily jamming them into the tote, before putting them in another room.  When she appeared again she waited for goodbyes to be exchanged, had them retrieve all their luggage and walked them out.

Eventually a taxi appeared, stopping.  The children got in.  Andrea was about to join them but the aunt, standing at the house, seemed to be waiting for something.

“Orlando, I think she wants more,” Andrea whispered.

“You have change, don’t you?”

“For the taxi, yeah sure.”

He jutted his head at the house. “No, for them.”

Andrea dug into her pockets and handed him the coins she’d planned to save as souvenirs.  Orlando gave them to the aunt and returned to the taxi.  With a severe expression on her face, the aunt trailed him to where Andrea stood beside the open trunk.  All the luggage was piled in.

The aunt nodded at the suitcase with the thick red yarn, which she had singled out.

“Orlando, she wants our suitcase,” Andrea whispered.


“I think the boy saw it was empty. And told them.  He was watching me.”

“Okay, then.  Come on,” Orlando said impatiently, gesturing for her to take it out.

But she liked the suitcase!  Even more than the little blue duffel.  She’d had it even longer and it had served her loyally.  Its old, anyway, she tried to tell herself to make the parting easier as she plucked it out and handed it to Orlando.

He gave it to his aunt, who rolled it to the house, then he joined Andrea and the kids in the taxi.

“What a shakedown,” Andrea said.

“What’s a shakedown?” the kids asked.

“Did you give her the tote?” Rosa asked once Andrea, back in New Jersey, went to visit.

“She liked it, and all the beautiful gifts.”  

“I wanted to do the right thing.”

“Oh, o-kay.” For the life of her, she couldn’t figure out why Rosa had knocked herself out.

“I used to live with her — when I was married to that man,” Rosa said, meaning Orlando’s unnamable father.  “Whenever he beat me up, she used to yell, ’Harder, harder!’”

“So whyd you bring her gifts?”

“Well, what did she know?  She thought she was helping him.  The man of the house was supposed to do that.”

Andrea winced.  “If I were you, that tote would have been filled with stones.”

Rosa cackled.  Andrea smiled, she suddenly felt happy about the crappy gifts.  They could now be construed as symbols of solidarity. Then she remembered the beloved blue duffel.  And the suitcase.  And the distinctive teabags and foreign coins.  The real losses.

“What did you think of the house?” Rosa said in a tone that encouraged a compliment.

“Uhh, nice I guess?”

“Well, did you know it was built with my money?  That man came here to this country to work and send money home.  The money was supposed to be for me and Orlando and Juny. But Consuelo pretended he didn’t send nada.  Those years were full of suffering for me and Orlando and Juny.  I cooked for all of us but we ate watered-down soup and our bellies were empty because she hoarded the money.  She built that house and put her daughters there.  What a mother-in-law!”

“So whyd you give her those gifts?”  She remembered the old woman’s wrinkled hand greedily pulling out the new jeans and draping the fashionable clothes over herself.  

Rosa beat her fist against her chest. “I did it not for her.  For me.”

“You’re a better person than I am.  If you were ever did that to me, stones wouldn’t have been good enough.”

Her mother-in-law laughed even louder, making Andrea crack up.  “Honestly, Rosa, in the end, she got what she deserved.”

Rosa leaned closer. “Did she?  Tell me. How is she living?”

“It’s a sad house.”

Rosa took this in, her bright eyes widening with great satisfaction.

Andrea looked at her own mother-in-law’s surroundings – the tall ceiling, the light walls, the sun pouring in from many windows.  “You won.”

Pressing her lips together, Rosa considered this. “Did she ask about me?”

Andrea hesitated.

“She didn’t, did she?”

Andrea shook her head.  

“I didn’t expect her to.”  She went silent. “But she remembered me, no?”

“When I gave her the tote, Orlando said, ‘From my mother’ and Consuelo said, ‘Ah, from Rosa.’”  Andrea paused.  “That was it.”

“Well, that’s enough.”

“You shouldn’t have gone to the trouble of shopping.  All that time wasted for what?”

Rosa gave her a sly look.  “I’ll tell you a secret.”


“No, you’ll think less of me.”

“No I won’t, what?”

“I can’t tell you.”

“Rosa, tell me.”

“Where do you think I got those gifts?”

“The mall.  I saw a Macy’s tag on one.  The scarf was from Zara.”

“No.” She pointed upstairs.  

“The attic?”  

Andrea reflected back on the odd sight of Consuelo in the aviator glasses and the hat, draped in the red blouse and jeans – of all things.

“That’s right.  Leftovers from Christmas.  Do you think I’d buy mirrored sunglasses for a ninety year old?”

Karen Regen Tuero

Karen Regen Tuero

Karen Regen Tuero's stories have been published in Glimmer Train, North American Review, Lunch Ticket, New World Writing, The Potomac Review, and elsewhere. She is finishing up a novel. Reach her at karen.regen1@gmail.

Karen Regen Tuero's stories have been published in Glimmer Train, North American Review, Lunch Ticket, New World Writing, The Potomac Review, and elsewhere. She is finishing up a novel. Reach her at karen.regen1@gmail.

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