It’s a clean, warm morning in Cuernavaca, Mexico. The air is cool and fragrant, smelling of flowers and bread baking. After the clouds float off, the day will grow hot. But a breeze blows gently through the palms that wave their fronds near the large leafy bushes. It rustles the little leaves of the bougainvillea and poinsettias. Among the morning sounds you can hear a car or two, dogs barking, roosters, birds, people talking, and one or the other of Maria’s housemates yelling, “BEE-LEE, BEE-LEE, NO!” as the gringo freeloader races for the bathroom and locks the door.
There are seven people living in this old colonial style Spanish-looking house, and Billy isn’t one of them. In fact, with the exception of Paul, everyone is Mexican. Someone knew someone who invited Billy to a party here, and he continues to just show up fairly regularly at dinner and at shower time. The dinner mooching is one thing because when they don’t have enough, they just serve up in a tight circle in the kitchen by the old wood stove, and leave just a tad for him when they allow the circle to be broken. Normally, the routine would be everybody makes one thing and puts it out on the table at eight. But the shower thing is the major transgression of the little society, and could end in Billy’s beheading.
A shower is costly, and unlike food, it is not one of the shared communal expenses of ‘la familia.’ Everyone wants to be clean, but realized long ago the impossibility of equilibrating shower lengths between those of short hair and those of long hair.
“Andale, andale,” they’d bang on the bathroom door and yell to those who were still rinsing shampoo.
The problem is that the shower has no hot water. It can be made to have hot water, but only through an elaborate ritual of careful coaxing, praying, racing, and timing. It is the ritual of the combustibles, pronounced ‘comb-bus-tee-blays’ in Spanish.
La iglesia (church) has her little candles to light the ceremony of the spirit, and in la casa are the little combustibles to light the ritual of the shower that cleanses the body and the soul. Like the candles, these little items have to be purchased: down the hill at the charcoal/wood shop. The size and shape of bricks are just smashed together wads of shredded newspaper. You purchase as many as the shower length desired, then hike back up the hill which keeps turning into a growing mountain. It is suddenly much steeper, and the combustibles do get to feeling like bricks.
These rectangular paper wads will warm the water by burning in the chamber surrounding the water tank in the kitchen. And there, William, ‘there’s the rub:’ it’s in the KITCHEN. You must prepare for the shower first. Get into your robe or towel, gather soap, shampoo, etc. and put them in the bathtub area. Then you coax others to use the toilet now or wait until the steam flows out the door as you emerge like magic, refreshed and renewed. Meanwhile, as you pray that no one ignores this ritual wait, you run quickly into the kitchen with ‘combusteeblays’ in hand. After loading them into the chamber, you light them and run back to the bathroom to receive the blessing of the hot water. Dios mio, ahhhhh.
Timing is critical, as too early a departure after the fire gets going may result in burn-stall, and then the devotee must run back from the bathroom, down the hall dripping wet, to restart the fire, praying all the while that in this interval no one is feeling their bowels call to them in a ‘I will not be ignored’ kind of voice.
Delay in this case, or in the case of tending the fire for too long results in the dissipation of heat throughout the tank, through the walls and lid of the tank, and back from whence it came from the gods of the air throughout the kitchen, the living room, and the entire town. In other words, one may lose their hot water through delay, and often this means Beelee. But in Billy’s case it is a calculated observation of ceremony, manipulated to best dissipate the heat of the water onto his own body for free.
“Beelee, No! Chingada!”
The morning sounds sing, and once again Billy has shown up early and undetected, and has locked the bathroom door behind him. Manuel has just closed the chamber in the kitchen tank, walks down the hall and hears the shower running behind the locked door. No one has seen Manuel this angry, ever. Cumulative rage at Billy’s many successful shower heists.
Maria feels sorry for him. A firelight bulb turns on in her brain: a People’s Cooperative Combustible Protection Team! Stand guard for each other against Billy! I scratch your back (but not in the shower), you scratch mine; I light your combustibles, you light mine; come on baby light my shower!
At the moment, however, Manuel is more interested in breaking down the bathroom door. He can easily afford more combustibles, but he is not going to reschedule his intended shower again because of a dirty gringo (even after he becomes a clean one).
That was Billy’s last shower en la casa, and Maria’s idea sparked her roomies to chip in for an extra brick for her, the first showerer under the new regime.
L.E. Duchin lives in the Pacific Northwest and writes fiction and creative non-fiction about her travel experiences.