|Story of the Month|
by Miguel Antonio Ortiz
The Vagueness of the Tropics
and Other Stories
Miguel Antonio Ortiz
Copyright © 2016
Miguel Antonio Ortiz
Cover Design by Adalberto Ortiz
The Vagueness of the Tropics
At the Movies
Chain of Luck
Birds of One Kind or Another
At the Shamrock
At the Country House
A Valley of Tears
A Colorless Decision
At the Strand
The Mother Tongue
Lunch in San Juan
AND HARRY had arranged to meet in the sculpture garden at the Museum of Modern
Art, and sitting in the terrace, they observed a photographer and a model using
the stone artwork as background for a series of photos. Walking briskly, the model approached three
slabs of polished stone that protruded diagonally from the terrace floor. She then turned her head abruptly as if
suddenly arrested by the glistening black surfaces of the three symmetrical
shapes. The procedure was repeated
several times while the photographer, with a flick of his finger, fixed the
passing image into permanence.
“What have you been up to,” Marie asked.
“I’ve been loafing,” Harry answered, his face
beaming, as if, under the circumstances, that was a witty response. He was reluctant to give an account of his
futile attempts to render time unimportant.
A soft blue sky jutted out from behind the
tall buildings that surrounded the garden.
Looking up they both observed the contrast of styles that hemmed them
in. The glass facades reflected multiple
shades of subtle hues, while brick and masonry, casting hard shadows, formed
intricate geometrical patterns.
“For the first time I’m completely free,” he
“Are you?” she skeptically questioned.
“Yes, I don’t owe anybody anything.” He paused, and then added, “Well, almost, I
work for my father, if one can call that work.”
“What else can you call it?”
“I haven’t decided. I’m not quite sure what he expects. Ivan Cosme and Son, Civil Engineers, he gets
a kick out of that.”
“I have no certainties either. That’s being too free.”
It would have been useless, he assumed, to
suggest ways for her to acquire responsibilities, except that of rescuing him
from his predicament. But that was out
of the question, something that would both shock her and put him in the
ungraceful position of a suppliant.
Besides, if she were seeking his help, as he suspected, it would be a
betrayal to dwell on his own quandary.
Betrayal of whom or what—he was uncertain. There was an imprecise connection between his
interests and hers. Above all he did not
wish anything awkward to occur. He
prized style, the art of seeming naturalness, and he preferred to wait for the
appropriate moment, the mark of what he considered good taste. That approach, he was convinced, provided
It had been so when they first met in
college. He recalled waiting for
something to happen, waiting for her to become real. He had memories of her gracefulness, of
whispers, of grey tones accentuated here and there by the dark woodwork of the
student lounge where the moment had occurred.
Everything was vague except the impression that something special had
happened, something that made them less than strangers, though it was long
after they had first met. He did not
remember what they had been talking about, but he had the distinct impression
that something had taken place.
A mist enveloped everything that preceded
that moment, and disconnected scenes were the most he discerned of previous
years. He recalled the plump girl, in
the blue serape and net stockings, who had introduced them. In the morning sunlight, the three of them
stood by a window in the hallway of the student center. Marie’s wide forehead and soft brown eyes
riveted him. The plump girl in the
serape chatted about the psychology of rats.
Marie turned her head to gaze at the trees in the courtyard, the
branches covered with tender shoots that would soon burst into full bloom; on
the ground, those that had been blown down by the wind formed a sparse green
carpet. “Yes, but what off…” he was
saying to the girl in blue, while he listened to laughing voices receding down
the hallway. His eyes followed the
contour of Marie’s profile. Then he too
gazed at the trees in the courtyard.
The summer after graduation she left for
Europe and did not return in the fall.
Eventually self-doubt tinted his memory.
He wondered whether he had merely observed a mask of youth. Still, everything need not have been
lost. One morning, at sunrise, in a
motel at Old Orchard Beach in Maine, he left his traveling companion in bed and
took a walk along the water. The sight
of tumultuous clouds hanging over a horizon of limitless ocean awoke in him a
feeling of astonishment, as if that vast panorama existed within him, and he
was for the first time gazing upon himself.
He wanted her there then. He
listened to the shrieks of the sea gulls and the hoarse murmuring of the surf
and wished that he might decipher their message. Three years later, running
into her in the street, he was immediately taken by the change. He saw right away that she too was aware of
Now, in the garden, she had an enigmatic
smile, as if she were amused by a subtle pain.
“Why did you not follow me to Europe?” she asked.
The question seemed a displaced concept, a
stranger in his universe. “Why didn’t I
follow you?” he repeated astounded.
“I never quite understood your reason for
He saw a glimmer of her former self. She was perfectly serious, but he felt like
the object of a practical joke. He did
not recall having been presented with the option, and he had failed to provide
it on his own.
“You might have returned at the end of the
summer. I might have come back with
The orderly layout of the garden began to
oppress him. The rectilinear motif was
too controlled, the gurgling in the rectangular fountain too gentle, and the
trees and shrubs too flimsy. The
regulated effect was at odds with the tumult within him. The thundering of imagined surf drowned the
rustling of the leaves. The spinning in
his head rendered insignificant the swaying of the sculpture that towered over
“You might have helped me,” she continued.
“I would have only stood in your way,” he
said without believing his own words.
“I did the same over there as I was doing
here. I couldn’t extricate myself.”
Unprepared to see tears streak down her
cheeks, he merely observed in silence.
“I was sliding from one day to the next
without purpose. I thought a change of
scene would help, would make me different.”
He sensed a door opening for him—a chance to
make amends. But he merely asked. “What
“I’m going to Costa Rica. There…”
“Why would Costa Rica succeed where Europe
“It’s different down there. There I may encounter the primitive.”
“For that there are better places …”
“Costa Rica appeals to me.”
A host of platitudes came to mind, but he
dismissed them. He felt an inner
disturbance, as if she had casually thrown a pebble into a still pool where the
unwelcomed ripples would soon subside.
“Come with me,” she added.
“To Costa Rica?”
“Yes, to Costa Rica, with me.”
Salvation beckoned him, but he felt caught in
a dream where his feet moved without propelling him. He wanted to lunge forward, to accept, but
instead he asked, “When are you leaving?”
“I don’t know,” he said.
“You can think it over.”
“I may not be able to settle my affairs in so
short a time.”
“You can meet me there later.”
“I’ll think about it.”
He had obligations. He had a career that had not really been his
choice, but what would he get for abandoning it?
“Think it over,” she repeated.
“I will,” he vaguely rejoined as he imagined
her disappearing into the vagueness of the tropics.
ON A SATURDAY AFTERNOON, my Jewish wife and I, a goy, went to the
cinema. After we had found seats, she
decided to make a pit stop. I stayed in
my seat and overheard a conversation between a man and a woman sitting behind
me. The man was going to get married
soon, and he was telling a woman friend about the development.
“It’s interesting,” she responded, “how you
knew right off that she was going to be the one. I too immediately sensed that she was the one
“She and I see eye-to-eye on so many
things. Sometimes we don’t even have to
talk to know what the other is thinking.”
“Have you decided where you’re going to
“We haven’t formally discussed it,” he
said. “I assume that at first we’ll stay
in my apartment, though we’ll eventually move to the suburbs. I don’t want to raise children in the
city.” After a pause, he followed with,
“She wants to keep a kosher home, and I said to her, ‘Then, I won’t be able to
make my paella.’”
“Ah, and you make such good paella,” said his
“But we worked out a solution,” he said. “I can still make paella, but we’ll eat it on
“Oh, is that allowed?”
“Sure,” said the man. “My mother kept a kosher home, and when we
ordered pizza or Chinese food, we ate on paper plates.”
At that point, my wife returned and began to
talk to me. Her voice drowned out the
conversation behind us.
“YOU KNOW,” BELLA said, “it’s not a step to be taken lightly. Nowadays people think it’s such an easy thing
to get a divorce that getting married in haste doesn’t matter. It’s done or undone so easily, but it
shouldn’t be like that.”
“It’s a crying shame,” Maryellen agreed as
she limped across the kitchen carrying the tray of silver she meant to polish
that day. She wore a loose cotton
dress. Her white hair came down just
above her shoulders. Her face was
relatively smooth for someone her age.
Her blue eyes were clear and devoid of mystery. As if she had had an uneventful life, nothing
of momentous consequence showed on her face. “Young people don’t understand,”
Maryellen said. “It’s nothing to them.”
“If one could only pass one’s experience on
to one’s children,” Bella lamented.
“That would be a feat,” Maryellen said. “That would be better than leaving them
money. But you can’t mix experience in
with their food, and whatever you say goes in one ear and out the other. That’s the truth. It’s the same as when we were young. We didn’t listen to our parents either, did
we? We knew everything back then. It took us a while to find out how much we
didn’t know. It would have gone so much
easier if we had listened.”
“Maybe for some,” Bella said skeptically,
“but that wasn’t the case with me.” She
sipped her coffee while silently debating whether she wanted to have this
conversation with Maryellen, who was, after all, merely her employee. She had learned as a child that the servants
did not eat at the same table as their employers, else what was the sense of
having servants. Bella believed that she
had outgrown that. Why should she spend
her time polishing the silver, when she could pay someone else to do it. It was simply that and nothing else, she told
herself, not about feeling superior because she could pay, as had been the
implication from her elders. There was
no sense either, she thought, in going to the other extreme—of not having any
servants at all because it was not right to have other people pick up after
one. That was a point of view, absurd as
it sounded, of some people nowadays. There was still the question of keeping
one’s distance. But that was altogether
a different matter. That had only to do
with making life easier, not just for herself but for Maryellen also, or for anybody in a similar situation.
“I was married to Henry Thompson for thirty-five years,” she said
deciding against caution. What could she
reveal to Maryellen that she had not already surmised? Pretense was all that might be lost, and at
this stage, that was expendable.
Maryellen continued to polish the silver without giving any indication
of whether she was aware of the crossing of any Rubicon on Bella’s part. Bella was grateful for that nicety whether it
was intentional or not.
“Thirty-five years is a good chunk of time,” Maryellen said in a
“What could I have done differently?”
Bella asked as if the fact formulated in that way were an indictment of
Maryellen looked up from her task, startled for a moment. She searched Bella’s face for some indication
that the question was rhetorical, but finding none, she chose to ignore
it. It was the best she could do in good
conscience, since she had no way of arriving at a rational answer.
Indeed, there was nothing that Bella could have done differently then,
so it seemed to her now. She would have
had to have been a different person than she was then. She would have had to have been at the very
least the person whom she now was, or very nearly so in spirit. This was an essential problem of hindsight, a
pitfall: the belief that looking back one saw oneself, when in fact what one
saw was a distant, predecessor of the entity one had become. So now Bella looked back to a time when she
had been but a girl under the influence a smothering family. The person she had
been then was but the seed, the potentiality, of the person she was now. She recalled one spring evening walking hand
in hand with a boy down the park path through the blossoming cherry trees. She remembered the boy with curly black hair
and intense eyes who begged her to consider his affection.
“I doubted myself,” Bella said, “and the result was thirty-five years of
a miserable marriage.”
“Was it bad at the beginning?” Maryellen asked.
“It was bad from day one. It was
bad even from before that.”
“There was no love, then?” Maryellen asked.
It was not an easy question for Bella to answer, though the answer was
apparent. It was difficult to accept the
facts as she perceived them—to own up to them so unequivocally. The questions, like a spot light aimed at a
dark corner full of forms vague enough to allow for interpretation, suddenly
revealed objects in full detail. Memory
is replete with such nooks that allow selective illumination to mitigate the
discomfort of unpleasant recollections.
“I was in love once,” she said, “but not with Henry.”
She remembered the boy with intense eyes and curly black hair under the
cherry blossoms in the park. She remembered
his face close to hers, and how she closed her eyes when their lips met. She did not now remember the smell of him,
after so many years, but she remembered remembering that it had had an
extraordinary effect on her, and for a long time after, the remembrance of the
texture of his lips and the smell of him so intoxicated her that she was afraid
that she would unintentionally betray herself.
She was never again able to achieve that feeling, with Henry or with anybody else. She could not even remember the feeling now,
but only that she had cherished it. It
was but a memory of a memory, the shadow of a shadow.
“It might have been different had I married him,” she said. Indeed it might have been different, it would
have been different, but what the difference would have been was too great to
comprehend. There was the pain, of
course, to use as a reference. She had
lived with it for so long not knowing what it was, not knowing even that it
existed. It had revealed itself to her
by its effects. She had discovered it
like an astronomer might discover an unseen astral phenomenon, some black hole
that defies detection by light oriented instruments, or a planet always
presenting its dark side, but never-the-less bending objects to it
gravitational force. So now she tried to
imagine what life would have been without it, without the burden, the effects
of so massive an object in the universe of emotions. Imagination failed her. Though she was now in some sense free of the
oppressive body, it had for so long dominated every aspect of her life that she
could not reconstruct what the past might have been but in the most general
“Why didn’t you?” Maryellen asked in absentminded relentlessness.
Bella drew a deep breath, as if the answer to that question lay at the
bottom of a deep lagoon into which she was prepared to dive to retrieve
it. “To put it simply,” she said, “he
was my cousin.” She was too soon up to
have plumbed the depth of the matter.
“I see,” Maryellen said almost carelessly. “One doesn’t want those kinds of problems.”
“No, one doesn’t,” Bella agreed, “but I didn’t care, you see. It wasn’t a concern to me.”
“You didn’t plan to have children?”
“I didn’t plan anything,” she said, “One doesn’t plan at times like
“I suppose not,” Maryellen conceded.
She was for the moment left dangling, but she was now aware that Bella
was out to make a point, that she would do it whether prodded or not, and in
all probability better if she were left to her own cadence.
“It was my mother,” Bella said, “who opposed it most vehemently.” She paused for a moment, then added, “I have
always thought she meant well.”
The “always” struck Maryellen as excessive, but it was not her place to
contradict. It was not, after all,
refinement of her style that Bella was looking for, if she was looking for
anything at all. Where Bella was going
had become a question for Maryellen, and she took it on as a responsibility to
assist Bella in finding her way there.
That would have presupposed that Maryellen knew where “there” was, but
that was not the case. What she knew was
that Bella was bent on going, rather on getting there, for she had already
gone, that is, had started out for some destination without having, Maryellen
suspected, any clear idea of how to get there.
“It was a concern to your parents,” Maryellen said.
“And to his,” Bella added with some emphasis. “They were all arrayed against us.” It had been overwhelming the “all”—a solid
marshalling of family against the two youths.
She recalled the despair of having no one in authority to turn to, no
one to take their side, to render aid or comfort—like facing a precipice with
foothold difficult to find. The task was
“And so you married Mr. Thompson instead.”
“That’s the long and short of it,” she said. “He was the darling of everyone. How could I resist?”
“Your life would have been different with your cousin,” Maryellen said,
“but not necessarily better.”
“I’ll never know, will I?”
“No, you’ll never know.”
“The problem is,” Bella explained.
“I can’t imagine a different bad life, only the opposite of what I had.”
“Well, what became of your cousin? Did he marry?”
“Yes, he married eventually I heard.
He’s a veterinarian in Montana, or he was. Perhaps he’s retired by now.”
“Is that a life you would have wanted?”
“He loved horses.”
“What about you.”
“I loved him,” she said simply as if that encompassed all possibilities.
“I was married too,” Maryellen said.
“Long ago, almost too long to remember,” Maryellen said. “But my case was quite different from yours,
not in outcome, in its beginning. I
married whom I wanted, and he turned out to be a bum. I got rid of him quick enough, and it cured
me of ever wanting to be married again.”
“It was fortunate, then, that you came to your senses when you were
still young. You didn’t have any
children, did you?”
“That’s my one regret.”
“Don’t regret. You escaped a lot
“I had heartache aplenty, just not about children.”
“Nothing compares to your own children for giving you heartache,” Bella
said, at last approaching the destination for which she had set out. The tension drained from her face as if
saying that relieved her of a burden, but the change was only momentary. The hard lines soon began to reappear as she
contemplated the conundrum created by her own daughter’s desire to marry. She caught herself short, knowing that the
marrying was not the problem, but rather marrying the wrong person. Still, that was not it. She was moving in concentric circles to the
heart of the matter. “How does one know
what right is?” she asked out loud, not really addressing the question to her
Maryellen never-the-less picked up.
“Oh, I knew what wrong was after six months. Rather that’s when I decided there was no
hope. I can see him now sneaking into
the bedroom at two o’clock in the morning.
He had his cap in his hand, and he tip-toed in looking towards the bed
where he hoped I was fast asleep. I can
still see the cherubic face with the thin moustache over out over her
face. The “seeing” of a problem was,
after all, the beginning of arriving at a solution, and the fact that Maryellen
could see, admitted that she saw, was a sign that the matter was not hopeless.
“Well,” Maryellen continued, “must you do anything?”
“I can let her do whatever she wants, which is what I always do. But then what becomes of my obligation as a
“I know she’s making a mistake.”
“I can feel it in my bones.”
“It’s her mistake to make.”
“Yes, but it’s my duty to warn her.”
“That shouldn’t be too difficult.”
“On the contrary. It’s the most
difficult thing to do, just because it does seem so simple. She will ignore the simple. She will have anticipated it and already
discarded it. The trick is to warn her
in a way she is not expecting. It has to
be creative and subtle. Oh how I hate
that word, `creative.’ It’s not simple
“It certainly isn’t,” Maryellen said.
She put down the knife she had just finished polishing and picked up
Bella waited for Maryellen to continue.
Now that they had established that something different was in order,
Bella hoped that her employee would come up with a useful suggestion. It was only a hope, but as the seconds
progressed, it very dangerously approached expectation. It was perhaps a sign of desperation that the
lady was casting about in areas of the stream she would have normally
considered unpromising, as if the sun being low in the sky, the angler having
to face the necessity of soon calling it day, and not yet having anything to
show for the long hours of casting into the still and shaded pools near the
shore, was now moving out to where the water ran faster in the desperate hope
that perversity in this case would pay off as the exception that proves the
Maryellen, however, was silent, and Bella was left to wonder what had
caused her to draw back when moments before she had seemed on the brink of
providing so much of the longed for aid.
“I have no idea, you know, where to go from here,” Bella said, words
that were as much of a direct appeal as she could muster. The fact that she would venture even that was
a surprise to Maryellen, on whom the significance of the plea was not lost,
although she did not immediately make any perceptible acknowledgement of
“The idea, you know,” Maryellen said finally, “is not for you to go
anywhere, but to let her come to you.”
“Yes, but how on earth is one to manage that?”
“That’s just it,” Maryellen said, “you don’t manage. The whole matter will manage itself. All you have to do is wait.”
“I suppose I have no choice,” Bella said.
“Of course you do,” Maryellen replied.
“The whole point is that you do choose.
You choose to wait. If you don’t
choose it, then you’re not waiting.”
“What them am I doing?” Bella asked.
“I don’t know, but not waiting.
At least not the kind of waiting that’s required. You must wait with a purpose.”
Bella took that in, but tried as she would to process what Maryellen was
trying to convey, she could not. Like
making gelatin in a refrigerator that was not cold enough, the liquid would not
congeal. “I don’t know, Maryellen,”
Bella said, “I don’t see it the way you do.”
“It takes some getting used to,” Maryellen said. “Maybe you need to sleep on it.”
“Maybe I do,” Bella said, “Maybe I do.”
Looking down into her cup of coffee, she saw that it was empty.
FIRST TIME he wasn’t sure of what he saw.
They were quite a distance away, and he relied mainly on their outline
and on what he thought was their distinctive gait. They were gone by the time he reached a spot
close enough to make a definite identification.
He couldn’t call it a betrayal, because no one had given him a pledge,
and neither had he made one. He tried to
be rational. After all, Bryan did not know how he felt about Anna. In front of his friends, he had treated her
always with the utmost casualness.
He had assumed, however, she was aware of all the nuances of the
situation. Yet that too was unfair,
since he had not offered her anything.
He had only given her the space she required, but he had done that not
just for her benefit but for his also.
He had been well aware of what he was doing, and he had assumed that she
too was aware, but now that belief became questionable. If she knew what she meant to him, she would
not be so insensitive as to pick up with his close friend.
“Jesus Christ, look at you,” his cousin, Johanna, said, “You’re falling
“I’m alright,” he said.
“No, you’re not,” she said. “You
have to do something.”
“There’s nothing I can do.”
“You have to tell Bryan what the situation is.”
“I can’t do that,” he said. “It
wouldn’t be fair.”
“What the hell does that mean?”
“That would create a dilemma for him.”
“It wouldn’t be right.”
“It just wouldn’t.”
“He’d put you on the spot?”
“He wouldn’t. He wouldn’t have
“So you have to play by his rules?
This is some kind of a macho thing isn’t it?”
“I don’t know what that means.”
“You have to tell Anna then.”
“She’s entitled to what she wants.”
“What about you? What are you
Without an answer to that question, he stared at her blankly.
“And anyway how do you know what she wants, if you don’t give her an
option? Maybe this isn’t about what she
wants; this is about what you want. You
have to talk to her. Then she can
“You don’t understand,” he said.
“I understand that you’re stuck on some weird set of rules that don’t
make any sense,” she said.
He could not find the words to express the dilemma that confronted both
Anna and him─each trying to make an escape that might be hindered by the
other. Only someone in a similar
situation would understand. Anna would
know immediately what he was feeling, just as he knew her predicament and her
fear. He was trying to get to the other
side of a river, while swimming against the current. It wasn’t the fault of the river. The current bore him no malice. It was flowing down to the sea just like
every river currents does. If his
destination was upstream, it was nobody’s fault. It was just the way things were. By a quirk of fate, he had arrived at the
river downstream from his goal.
“I’m afraid,” he said, “that if I hook up with Anna I will be doing what
I’m expected to do. I will be flowing
with the current and I’ll end up where I don’t want to be.”
“You want to be with her, don’t you?”
“Yes, with her, but there’s more to her than her person. I’m sure that she feels the same way about
me. It would be too easy for each of us
to conform to the expectations of our families if we are together. My mother and hers would become friends and
team up against us.”
“Your mother is a saint, and she wouldn’t do anything against you.”
“She is, but saints have their own agendas. My mother wants only good for me, but her
vision of what’s good is limited by her own experience. I will never be able to explain to her what
I’m doing, and where I want to go.”
“You’re selling her short.”
“Maybe I am, but can I afford to take a chance?”
“If this struggle of yours is so difficult don’t you think you could use
an ally, someone who understands it as well as you do? Anna is the ideal person. She would be a help rather than a hindrance. Since you’re both in the same predicament,
she would work with you on the problem.”
He had already considered that possibility. He wished that it were only so—that he could
wallow in the comfort of having her.
She understood his dreams and fears—the fears that came to him just before
sleep every night. In childhood, he had
been able to ward them off with prayers.
They were different fears now, no less terrifying, but he no longer had
the talisman of prayer. The fear was an
overwhelming loneliness, dark, pervasive, impervious to reality. The fear took no notice of the many people he
consorted with all day long. It didn’t
care about his cafeteria friends, or about his family. They don’t exist, the fear told him. They
don’t exist in your soul.
Enrique looked for his soul and he could not find it. How could that be? Wasn’t it like his shadow—something that
could not be misplaced? He desperately
needed help in finding it. The image of
Anna insinuated itself into his dreams as he retreated into sleep. The jingle of his spurs rang loudly as he
walked towards the cabin at the bottom of the hill. Wisps of smoke drifted skyward from the
tubular chimney with a conical top.
Someone was surely in there, and the sound of the spurs was sure to warn
them of the approaching figure dressed all in black with silver trimming—the
gun slung low on his right side, his arm relax, his fingers limber and ready to
spring into action. The noise of the
spurs did not alarm him. He wanted his
enemies to hear him approach. The sound
of his footsteps would instill fear in their hearts. Fear was his ally. The Kid paused before the grey weather beaten
door. He could turn around and walk away
and spare himself the trouble of killing his enemies, but it would only be a
postponement. Sooner or later he would
have to face them. There was no way to
avoid the inevitable. The enmity between
the Kid and his opponents could not be ignored.
They were relentless and implacable.
Best to walk in right away and get it over with. The Kid felt only a slight quickening of his
heart as he swung the door open with the tip of his boot. There was no flash of gunfire—only the
darkness of the inner cabin as his eyes adjusted to the absence of sunlight.
“You have come at last,” a voice addressed him from a corner of the dark
room. The Kid was surprised by its
sweetness. He turned, all the time ready
to draw his six-shooter, but there was no need.
It was only Anna.
He remembered his dream with longing, and he said to Joanna, “You’re
right. I must tell her.”
But his resolve failed him. A
week later nothing had changed.
Everything was proceeding according to the usual script. Bryan had invited Anna for the weekend to his
parent’s house in the country.
“So did you tell her?” Johanna asked.
“I didn’t have the nerve,” he said.
“You don’t know what it’s like,” he said to Joanna. “I wait every day by
Finnley Hall hoping to run into her between classes. I pretend to be just hanging out or just sitting around trying to do my homework
on the steps. All that happens is that
I look at the text and remember nothing. From a long way off I recognize her. I
know her posture and her gait, so I know it’s her long before I see her
face. Every day I intend to confront
her, but every day I keep my nose in the book as she passes by. If I raise my eyes to meet hers, she waves to
me, but I do nothing. On Thursday it was
raining. The dampness threatened to seep through my jacket even after I
retreated to the library portico. She scurried by under a dark umbrella, but I
didn’t follow her as I had intended.
There was no huddling under the umbrella in tearful revelations, no damp
embrace that would make the coldness of the rain irrelevant. It’s no use.”
“Yes, you’re hopeless. What
stopped you? What have you got to lose?”
“I have her to lose,” he said.
His own words startled him, because she was not his to lose, or so it
seemed at the moment. He was compelled
look more closely, but what he saw was not altogether clear. He had a claim of some kind, but he could not
define it in absolute terms. It was
something he felt, but that was not enough.
He had too long been immersed in an objectivist world, so that he had
almost lost touch with another and just as useful way perceiving. It was a dangerous way that required more
skill and more discipline to employ successfully. It was necessary and not to be replaced by
“You have to protect her from your predatory friend,” Joanna said.
“Is that all? It has to be more than that.”
“Yes, so go with it,” she admonished.
“I never felt the need to protect anybody else from him.”
“Precisely, so now is your chance to make amends.”
“But isn’t it up to the buyer to beware? If women don’t see beyond his
superficial charm, it’s because they don’t want to. What they get is exactly what he offers,
charm and a good time. Ultimately
that’s not enough, but it’s a lesson to
be learned just as much as the causes of the Civil War or the conditions
leading to Reformation. It’s not for me
to teach the lesson—not even to Anna. If
I try, I don’t think she will listen? I
hoped that she was different, and maybe she is. She may have a reason of her
own to ignore a warning. It might be
that she knows exactly what she is getting into—that she has prepared the
lesson for herself, and it is something other than what I imagined.”
“Well, is up to you, and if you want let him go unchallenged, there’s
nothing more I can say.”
That conclusion was no comfort to him.
He slept badly that Friday night.
Getting through Saturday and Sunday would be the hardest part. He would be all right on Monday, he told
I WENT TO
THE JEWELRY district to buy a silver chain for my wife. I had bought her one the year before, but she
had recently lost it. The loss upset
her. I figured replacing the chain would
make a good Christmas present, a nice chain at a reasonable price. I would go back to the place where I had
bought the original one, but I couldn’t exactly remember which vendor had sold
it to me. I recalled that it was at the
back of one of the large exchanges on the south side of 47th Street, a very
brightly lit booth with a great deal of glass, and a column going right through
the counter. I figured that, if I
scouted the larger places I was bound to find it.
The first three places I went into had no booths that resembled the one
I was looking for. I spotted a booth with
a Black man behind the counter, an unusual sight in the jewelry district, where
most vendors are White and Jewish. I
asked him about silver chains, and he directed me to the next booth. The woman there smiled.
“I’m looking for a silver chain about thirty inches long,” I said.
“For a man or woman?”
“For my wife.”
The saleswoman brought out several chains. I examined them, trying to compare each to my
memory of the lost one. The ones I
picked up all seemed to weigh less than the one I remembered. “Do you have any that are heavier?” I asked.
She brought out a heavier one, but it wasn’t as nice as the ones already
on display. “The thinner ones are nicer
for a lady,” she said.
“How much is this one?” I asked choosing the one I thought was most like
the lost one.
The saleswoman measured the chain and weighed it. “Forty-five dollars,” she said.
That was twenty dollars more than I had paid for the original. I pretended to consider it, then asked for
her card and left. Out on the street I
walked to the next building. It was a
smaller exchange. I walked straight to
the back, and lo and behold, there it was, the very booth I had been looking
for. I went straight to the spot where I
had stood the first time. The proprietor
was talking to another man, but this time there was a young woman there also,
and she immediately came over to help me.
She had a distinct non-European look, but I couldn’t determine any
particular racial or national origin.
“I’m interested in a thirty inch silver chain,” I said.
She brought out a greater variety of chains that I had been shown at the
other place, including one exactly like the one for which I had been quoted a
price. There was a more elaborate chain,
which I also liked, but I thought my wife might think it too ornate. She had said she wanted a simple chain. I asked the price of the one that looked the
same as the one I had seen at the other place.
The young woman weighed the chain and said, “Twenty-four dollars.”
“I’ll take it,” I said. I gave
her a twenty-dollar bill and a five. She
obtained change from the proprietor, and she handed me the dollar.
“Would you like a box?”
“Yes, please,” I said.
She put the chain in a little box and the box into a bag, and handed it
“Have a very good day,” she said.
“Thank you, you have a good day also,” I said.
I was having a very good day. On
my way back to the office, I tried to figure out why the first woman had tried
to over charge me. Did I look like a
sucker? Had I behaved in a way that
said, “Please fleece me”? I think the
key was having asked for a heavier chain.
At that point she must have figured that I wanted to spend more, and
that if she tried to sell me a chain for only twenty-four dollars, I would
think it was not substantial enough and would not buy it. She gambled that I did not know the price of
silver, but luckily that was my second time buying a silver chain.
I was reminded of the time I had bought my wife a gold chain also on
47th Street. At the counter, the
saleswoman showed me a very unusual gold chain.
“Made in Italy,” she said, “all our jewelry comes from Italy.”
I was delighted that the gold chain was only three hundred and fifty
dollars. While the salesperson was
wrapping it up another woman, who was visibly older, spoke to her in a language
I did not understand, not Italian. The
conversation was obviously about the transaction. The older woman became upset. I deduced from the tone of her voice that the
price was in dispute. The younger woman
had sold it for too little. Not that
they were taking a loss, but that the older more experienced woman had judged,
correctly, that I would have paid more for the chain, but it was too late
then. Luck had been with me that day
LUNCH, WE were still sitting at El Gallito, when a young man walked directly to our
“Ah, Hambresino,” Rick exclaimed.
Obviously, they had met before.
“Meet my friends,” Rick continued, “Everyone, this is Hambresino Agusto.” And
he proceeded to introduce everyone to Hambresino, who continued to stand while
Rick kept talking.
“Pull up a chair,” Stephen said.
“At this table there’s always room for one more.”
“Ah, yes, of course,” Rick said.
No one objecting, Hambresino retrieved a chair from another table and
“Just order anything you want,” Rick said, “on me.”
Hambresino proceed to order a meal worthy of his name.
“Hambresino is going to show us the interesting side of town,” Rick
“I will take you to something you have never seen before,” Hambresino
“And what might that be?” Martin asked.
“A cockfight, just down the road, not too far.”
“Sounds great,” Margaret said.
“I don’t know,” Laura said.
“No ladies,” Hambresino said. “It
is not customary.”
Laura looked relieved.
“That’s not right,” Margaret said.
Hambresino was adamant.
“I’d rather go shopping,” Laura said.
“It’s not a good idea to buck local custom,” Martin pontificated.
“All right,” Margaret said. “I wouldn’t want to irreparably damage local
culture, if that’s what you want to call this barbaric pastime.”
“I don’t call it anything,” Martin said.
“All right, it’s settled, Laura and I will go shopping.”
“Well, in that case, I’ll stay with the ladies,” Stephen said.
“Let’s go then,” Rick said.
“Not yet señores, cockfights not till three o’clock.”
“I don’t think I want to go to a
cockfight anyway,” I said.
“Don’t be hasty. We have time yet
to decide,” Martin said. “It may prove
Hambresino had some errands to attend to, but he promised to return on
time. True to his word, he showed up at half past two. The women had taken Stephen off to explore
the downtown shops.
“How far is this place?” I asked, looking for a possible way out.
“Not too far,” Hambresino said.
“Maybe twenty minutes to get there.”
“No sweat,” Rick said. “Well, a
little sweat, maybe,” he added. “Let’s
“What the hell,” I said.
A passenger car took us to the outskirts of town, then we followed Hambresino
down a trail leading away from the road.
We walked through a clump of trees that stood listless in the heat of
the afternoon, then out across some fields that lay fallow.
“Over the next hill there will be houses,” Hambresino said.
“Houses I don’t care about,’ Martin said. “What about the fighting birds?”
“The birds will be there too,” Hambresino said.
“I’m thirsty,” I said.
“There is a well there too, very good water,” Hambresino said.
“I wouldn’t advise drinking the water from a well,” Martin said.
“The water is good,” Hambresino said, “but you can buy Pepsi-Cola and
also beer. The water is free.”
“Thank you very much,” Martin said.
As Hambresino had promised, from the top of the hill we spied several
shacks, the largest demarcated as a general store by the Pepsi-Cola sign out
front. We followed Hambresino down to
the place. Behind the general store a
crowd of men gathered about a round enclosure of wooden slats. No action yet in the pit, the men discussed
the relative merit of each of the birds that would be fighting. The handlers stayed close to their birds that
in bright plumage stood imperiously in their wooden cages oblivious to their
“I will introduce you to Enrique Jimenez, the most celebrated bird
handler in all of Sonora,” Hambresino said.
The most famous bird handler in all of Sonora, a diminutive old man who
kept his distance from the crowd, squatted in the dust making scribbles in the
sand with a twig, all the while a smile fixed on his face. He looked up but did not speak as Hambresino
led us to him. Although in a still
position, the old man seemed full of energy.
He resembled one of the birds, his wiry body about to spring like a
“Don Jimenez, these are my three friends from the North,” Hambresino
said in Spanish.
Don Jimenez did not get up. He
did not say anything, but only chuckled as if Hambresino had said something
amusing. Martin, Rick and I looked at
each other. I shrugged.
“He seems off his rocker,” Martin said under his breath, not knowing
whether Jimenez understood English.
“No señores that is not the case,” Hambresino said.
“You must not make hasty judgment.
Don Jimenez is the best.”
“Sometimes to be the best you have to have a loose screw,” Rick said.
“You don’t understand, Señor, but you will. You will see.”
“I’m still thirsty,” I said.
“Okay, Pepsis all around,” Martin said.
“What about Don Jimenez will he drink a Pepsi with us?”
“No, he drinks only water,” Hambresino said.
“He’s used to it, I suppose,” Martin said, and he went into the general
store to get the drinks.
A fat man, perhaps the owner of the store, an entrepreneurial air about
him, seemed to be in charge of the event.
He announced that the proceedings were about to begin. He took out a little notebook from his breast
pocket and read from it the names of the birds to be matched and that of their
handlers, ten matches in all. Don
Jimenez had birds in four of them. The
announcement merely a formality since everyone there seemed already well
informed and had been making wagers all along.
The fat man seemed to be the main bookie, and he now called for last
minute bets on the first match.
“The birds must be weighed,” a thin young man petulantly demanded, and
after a few moments several other men joined to support his demand.
“Of course the birds will be weighed.
Compadres, that goes without saying.
We run an orderly establishment,” the fat man said.
Hambresino had taken us back to Don Jimenez now affixing the spurs on
one of his birds. The hollow part of the
steel spurs fit over the cock’s own natural spurs, which had been cut back to
allow a proper fit. The round and smooth
steel spurs came in various sizes. Don
Jimenez preferred the short spurs, more deadly in close combat.
“Jesus, this is barbaric,” I said.
“Half of all these beautiful birds will die today.”
“Everything dies, sooner or later,” Don Jimenez spoke for the first
“Yes, but this is for nothing, for sport.”
“And when you die, will you die for something?”
I had no intention of dying, so I had no answer to the question. The fat man called for the first two birds to
be put into the pit. “I don’t know if I
can watch this,” I said.
“I never knew you to be so squeamish,” Martin observed.
I had no answer to that either, the anticipated gore was not what
disturbed me. In fact, I was curious to
find out what my own reaction would be to the violence. The two birds in the pit made a few sallies
at each other but produced no damage.
They circled, each looking to give the opponent a deadly blow. Their crests and wattles removed to make them
lighter, they wove and bobbed their heads.
Both birds of a dark variety, red, black and brown feathers
predominated. Handsome and proud birds
but the grand spectacle of their beauty and their pride was leading to their
undoing. The battle heated up
considerably, but the crowd seemed to be disappointed. Neither bird had a flamboyant style. Don Jimenez’s however seemed to be getting
the worse of the fight, which did not bode well for Hambresino who had placed a
bet on that bird.
“Well, you can’t win them all,” Rick said to the boy patting him on the
“Do not worry señores, the fight is not over,” he replied.
“Hope springs eternal,” Martin said.
The heretofore-hapless bird must have been heartened by those words,
because it suddenly exhibited a surge of energy. It spread out its flight wings, which had
been trimmed for the fight and made a leap over its opponent that, unable to
duck fast enough, received a spur to its left eye. The blow, less than fatal but damaging,
brought a cheer from the crowd. Hambresino
smiled as if to say he knew it all the time.
The hurt cock on its side apparently unable to stand, Don Jimenez’s bird
decided to be sporting and refrained from pressing his advantage. The hurt bird’s handler entered the pit.
“Will they stop the fight now?” I asked.
“No, it’s to the death,” Hambresino said, annoyed at the mere suggestion
that he might be robbed of a complete and decisive victory.
The handler set the injured bird on its feet with his good eye in
position to see the enemy, who, like true warrior incensed at the sight of
blood, resumed the attack with double vigor.
The injured cock had plenty of heart, and it did not give ground, but
its wound kept it from gaining advantage.
Both cocks tiring, Don Jimenez’s bird now made another flying attack on
his opponent’s blind side. This time the
spur cleaved the head. The fight over, Hambresino
went off to collect his winnings.
“This is too brutal for me,” I said.
“It is kind of barbaric,” Rick said, “but after all, civilization is
only a mere patina on all of us. We’re a
lot happier when we face that fact.”
“You’re so goddamn smug; you’re insufferable,” Martin said.
Rick had not expected Martin’s outburst.
“Maybe you’re right,” Rick said.
“I’ve had enough,” I said. “I’m
“I’ll go with you,” Martin offered.
“You don’t have to,” I answered.
“Are you sure?”
“I know my way,” I said.
“Are you sure?” Rick echoed.
But I had already commenced my retreat and didn’t bother to answer.
ASTRONOMY CLASS, Mario headed back to the South Campus.
“Hey! Mario old man, how are
you?” It was Sam Bauer hailing him.
Mario had known Sam in junior high, but they had gone on to different
high schools and had only recently discovered each other at the college.
“Let’s go for a beer,” Sam said.
Mario’s first impulse was to decline.
He found Sam’s company distasteful.
Sam was sort of a madman. His
mouth seemed always on the verge of an epileptic convulsion. Yet behind the wild eyes, Mario discerned the
wreck of a nice human being. Mario found
himself walking down Amsterdam Avenue to the Shamrock Bar on 129th Street.
“You hate my guts, don’t you?” Sam unexpectedly said.
Though taken aback by the statement, Mario remained composed. Distaste was not the same as hate, even if he
had failed to sufficiently disguise his aversion to his companion. “No,
certainly not, what do you mean?” he managed to stammer all the while wishing
he had refused the excursion to the pub.
“You put me in the same category with the rest of them—with Norman and
Marvin and them. I know you do.”
“What makes you think that I disliked them?”
“How could you not? They’re real
“It was a long time ago. We were
children then. What does it matter now?”
“Childhood is an important time.
Do you know that one’s whole character is determined by the age of
Mario remained silent as if he were considering the implications of that
fact. If indeed it was a fact, it seemed
an irrelevant one. He saw no need to
“You can hate me if you want. I
deserve it,” Sam said.
The Shamrock Bar on Amsterdam Avenue was the last remaining White bar in
the neighborhood. A few students
wandered in now and then, but it was mostly patronized by White working class
men who lived between the college and the Hudson. The Ballad of the Green Berets was playing on
the juke box. Sam and Mario ordered beer
and sat at a booth.
“You have to admit they were real pigs.
Right? I mean you can say it
Mario’s resentment of his junior high classmates had taken a while to
surface. But still, he mistrusted Sam’s
confirmation. “They were your friends,”
Mario said. “Why are you so down on them
“Friends? Do you really think
they were my friends? Do you really
“That’s what I remember,” Mario said.
He remembered more. He had never
hated Sam the way he hated the others.
Sam had some redeeming quality—his madness perhaps. Sam had been a sort of holy fool, though he
was far from stupid; on the contrary, he was rather brilliant and yet he played
the buffoon, the victim. He was the one
the tough boys picked on for fun. They
loved to see him cringe and beg for mercy.
Sam’s lack of dignity and pride embarrassed Mario as he watched Sam give
in to fear that the toughies would carry out their threats. Had Sam merely stood up to them they would
have ceased to persecute him. Mario was
certain that the bullies were only interested in the spectacle of Sam’s
“Stand up to them, man. Stand up
to them!” Mario had shouted in
“They’ll hurt me.”
“Nonsense, they’re just having fun with you because you let them.”
“I don’t want to get hurt! I
don’t want to get hurt!”
Mario was baffled. Wasn’t there
something more important than physical safety?
How could anyone live without pride?
“You’re not afraid of them, because they’re Puerto Ricans, like you,”
Mario wanted to get rid of the implication of complicity, but there was
no way to escape the feeling of shared responsibility for the violence, though
it was no more sinister than the psychological violence that Sam’s friends
engaged in. Their venom was rarely
directed at Mario, but the fear emerged nevertheless and transformed into
After they ordered their second beer at the Shamrock, Sam brought the
conversation around to civil rights and the plight of Blacks, though he was
neither poor nor Black. He punctuated
every statement with the question, “Don’t you agree?” Rhetorical of course, he rarely waited for a
response. “If a Black man demanded my
seat in the subway, I would get up and let him sit. He’s entitled to it,” he proclaimed.
“And what would that achieve?” Mario asked.
“Only justice,” Sam answered.
“Don’t you believe in justice?” he asked in an accusatory tone. “Black women are beautiful,” Sam declared
abruptly, switching the focus of the conversation. “Don’t you think so? Black women are the most beautiful women in
the world. They’re more beautiful than
White women. I would never love a White
woman. I would feel disgust to make love
to a White woman. Tell me, don’t you
think Black women are superior?”
“Black or White doesn’t make any difference to me when it comes to
women” Mario said.
“No sir,” Sam replied, “Black women are incomparable.”
Mario kept quiet. Sam continued
to rant about the superiority of Black women.
Mario wondered whether his companion kept company with Black people at
“I have a Black girlfriend,” Sam said.
Mario gulped down the last of his beer.
“What about Laura?” he wanted to say.
Laura, a member of the poetry workshop class, had revealed to the group
that she had had a fling with Sam, but she had failed to tell him that she was
married. He had assumed that she was an
undergraduate like the rest of that group but she was really a graduate student
hanging out with younger folk. Mario
stifled the question, and instead said, “I’m heading back to campus.”
“Get yourself a Black woman,” Sam said.
“It’ll do wonders for you.”
“Thanks,” Mario said and got up to leave.
“I’m having another beer,” Sam said.
“See you around.”
Once outside, Mario looked back and saw Sam walk up to one of the
regulars at the bar. “He’s going to get
hurt,” Mario said to himself, then turned and headed back to Finley Hall.
“IT’S WONDERFUL TO have a place you can always
go to get away,” Brian said. “It’s good
to have money as long as you don’t become a slave to it. I know how to enjoy money. The rest of my family doesn’t. They’re always worrying about it. Me, I just enjoy it. That’s the way to be. Don’t you think so, Mario?”
“I guess so,” Mario said.
In his VW, Brian was driving some of his fellow students up to his
family’s county house, a two-hour ride from the city. Nancy sat up-front next to him.
Mario rode in the backseat with
Margaret. Not too long before, while sitting on the parapet in front of the
Morris Cohn Library, she had been very forthcoming. Wearing a very short skirt
that exposed a good portion of her thighs, she had beckoned him when she saw
him walking toward 135th Street. As he
approached her, he tried to keep his eyes on her face though the lower part of
her body was difficult to ignore. Her
smile, an automatic reflex, resembled a permanent injury incurred in an
accident. She seemed to be trying to
disguise a painful emotion. Her features
projected an attractive but weathered appearance making her look older than her
years. Her very short haircut, just
coming into fashion, still looked very odd on a woman. They greeted each other,
and she confessed to a splitting headache.
She was waiting there for Rick.
“I just left him in the cafeteria,” Mario informed her. “Maybe he forgot
he was supposed to meet me here,” she said.
“We were going to discuss this problem I have. You want to hear it?”
“Shoot,” Mario said.
“Are you sure?” she asked. “I
don’t want to burden you with my problems.
I hate people who do that, you know, always talking about how depressed
they are. They depress everybody else.”
“Don’t worry, depression is not my thing,” he said.
“Well, you see, out West this summer I met someone. I went down to Mexico, and then I traveled up
the West Coast to Oregon. I met Bob in
Mexico, but he’s from Oregon, so that’s where I went. He said he would marry me, and now he’s
coming to New York to see me. I wrote to
him and told him not to come. I changed
my mind about getting married. I don’t
even love him. Now I’m in love with
Rick. But Bob wrote back saying he would
“That’s really a problem,” Mario said.
He sat down next her, and as she looked straight ahead scrutinizing the
library facade, Mario’s eyes insisted on roaming over her body and down to her
“Rick says he left his wife for me.
I didn’t ask him to do that. Now
I feel terrible,” she said. “It’s not my
fault, is it? I didn’t ask him leave
“Nah, it’s not your fault,” Mario said.
“You’re just his excuse. He
wouldn’t have left her if he didn’t want to anyway.”
Mario tried to reassure her although he didn’t think she was completely
blameless. He saw no advantage in
revealing what he really thought, so he concealed his perplexity about the
matter. He left Margaret on the parapet
the same way he had found her. Perhaps a
little more at ease about the demise of a marriage, but he didn’t think the
mood would last. She wanted to feel
blameworthy. Perhaps he had ingratiated
himself a little more with her, but he saw no foreseeable dividend in
that. She was physically attractive, but
he otherwise found her dull. She
affected being a scatterbrain, and sometimes she convinced herself. In any case, as long as she and Rick still
had something going, he wasn’t going to touch her.
Now she was sitting next to him in the back seat of Brian’s VW. Looking at the autumn foliage as it flitted
by, Mario paid scarce attention to what the others were saying. He’d heard it before. He remained uncertain of what his own
attitude would be in the unlikely event of acquiring a great deal of money, or
to be more accurate, on his coming by it, because he didn’t contemplate
acquiring it. Acquiring implied a
calculated pursuit, and he had eliminated money from the goals to which he
would apply pursuit. He didn’t know
exactly when he had made that decision.
He had made it a long time before, in childhood—or he had started the
process then, the decision having to be made repeatedly, over and over until it
became irreversible. He didn’t want to
think about the matter now as he sat in the car riding to the country house of
his friend’s family. Brian treated his
family’s wealth as a glass eye, with a polite pretense that it was natural.
“I wouldn’t dedicate my life to getting money,” Brian said. “That’s not my thing, but for some people
that’s what they enjoy. And that’s all
right, the game of it, you know? When it
stops being a game, that’s when it gets bad.”
“Yeah, I guess so,” Mario said.
“I think I would agree with that,” Margaret put in.
“Everyone is so agreeable. How
wonderful!” Nancy chimed. She was in a
good mood sitting up front with Brian.
“Are you being sarcastic?”
“No, I mean it, really. I’m so
happy. Are we almost there?”
“Almost,” Brian assured her.
Dark by the time they arrived, the house downhill from the driveway,
Brian went ahead to turn on the lights.
“Well, make yourselves at home,” he said. The fatuous tone of his voice
became more pronounced. “I think a fire
is in order.”
“Yes, it’s chilly in here. I
could go for some coffee,” Nancy said.
“The kitchen is that way,” Brian said as he pointed.
He stacked some wood in the fireplace and tried to light it, but the
fire wouldn’t start.
“These fucking logs are too big.
We’re going to have to split them.”
“Oh, I’m good at that,” Margaret said.
“Are you?” Brian smirked as he looked up at her. “This is man’s work.”
“Oh, come on, I want to try,” she said.
“It’s okay with me, if it’s okay with Mario.”
“It’s all right with me. I’m just
going to sit here and pretend the fire is already roaring.”
Margaret and Brian went outside to split the logs. Mario listened for the sound of the axe
striking the wood, but it didn’t come.
“Is this the way?” he heard Margaret ask.
“Yeah, that’s perfect,” Brian answered.
Nancy came back from the kitchen.
“Everyone is out splitting wood,” he said. After a short pause, he added, “Anyway,
that’s what they said they were going to do.”
“What do you mean by that?”
“I don’t hear the axe.”
Red blotches spotted Nancy’s face.
The corner of her eyes became moist.
“What do you think they’re doing out there?”
“I don’t know,” he said. “They’re
not splitting wood.”
“If you think they’re doing something out there, why don’t you come
right out and say it?” she snapped at him simultaneously trying to repress
Mario picked himself up from his sprawl on the couch. Nancy disgusted him at the moment—her
weakness, her blindness, her lack of dignity, her frail appearance, the sickly
quiver of her lips. He wanted to shout at her, “They’re feeling each other
up. That’s what they’re doing. And do you know what Brian really thinks of
you? He thinks you’re the silliest,
sorriest woman he’s ever met.” Unable to
react, he kept quiet. He didn’t think
enough of her to get worked up; perhaps he merely pitied her and saw no reason
to hurt her further.
She’d been confiding in him during the past few weeks. She thought herself in love with Brian; sure
that he desired her. He had tried to
warn her tactfully without betraying Brian’s confidence, but she wouldn’t
listen. She embraced her fantasy, and
Brian enjoyed exploiting it.
“She thinks you’re in love with her,” Mario had said to Brian. “I’m sure she doesn’t think that,” Brian
replied with obvious delight. “Why would
she think that? It’s a preposterous
notion.” Not anyone’s guardian, Mario
had retreated to his post of observer.
“Don’t be angry at me,” he lashed back at Nancy. “Whatever they do is not my business.”
“There’s the axe. I hear it now.”
“I hear it too,” he said.
“They’re just splitting wood. You
shouldn’t imply things about people.”
“No, I shouldn’t,” he said.
Margaret and Brian came back into the house, Margaret’s face flushed,
Brian carrying the wood.
“This sure is hard work,” she said.
Nancy scrutinized Margaret’s face and then went back to the kitchen to
check on the coffee. The fire going,
they all sat by the fireplace. Nancy sat
next to Brian on the couch.
“I wonder what Rick is doing right now?” Nancy said. “I wish he had come.”
“I invited him,” Brian said.
“Rick can be such a drag sometimes,” Margaret said.
“He’s nice, but when he goes into one of his moods, he’s hard to
take. And he gets into them so often.”
“He’s morose,” Brian said.
“Moroseness has to be done away with.”
“Still, I think he’s a fine person, and he loves you, Margaret. When a man is in love with me, I try to
understand him,” Nancy pontificated.
“Let’s not talk about love,” Margaret suggested. “Let’s talk about something more cheerful.”
“I heard Sam Bauer got thrown
down a flight of stairs,” Mario said.
A burst of laughter emanated from Brian.
Nancy tried to make herself smaller and blend into the couch.
“Thrown, did you say?” Brian asked in between guffaws. “Who threw him?”
“I don’t know,” Mario said. “I
was wondering whether any of you knew more about it.”
“Do you know anything, Nancy?” Margaret asked not missing a chance at
getting her licks.
Nancy, for a moment uncertain of what stance to take, decided to laugh
it off. “It was Jay,” she said. “Sam came to the house to see me, and Jay
threw him down the stairs.”
She had told Sam that Jay, her husband, was her brother. Jay didn’t really mind her having a lover,
but he nevertheless found Sam obnoxious.
Brian laughed even more on hearing this explanation. In contrast to his
stocky body, he had a thin high-pitched laughter, .
“I think we’re ready for some of this stuff,” Brian said as he pulled
out a little pouch. “I was keeping this
a secret to surprise you all.” From the
pocket of his shirt he produced a small red and blue box of cigarette paper. He proceeded to roll a joint, and after
taking the first drag he passed it to Mario, who wondered why Brian hadn’t
passed it to Margaret or Nancy first, but what the hell, that was Brian. The mood set for the evening, from then on
everyone giggled at the slightest prompt.
Brian brought out a copy of Portrait of the Artist as a Young Dog, and
between fits of laughter they took turns reading.
After the uncontrolled mirth had exhausted them, Brian said, “We have to
divvy up the beds.”
The house had three bedrooms. The
one with two beds, Brian shared with his brother when his whole family came up
to the country. The attic served as the
guest bedroom. The two women were to
sleep in the bedroom that had the two beds, and Mario in the attic. Brian decided to sleep in the living room.
“Why don’t you sleep in the master bedroom?” Margaret asked.
“That’s my parent’s bed. I don’t
ever sleep there.”
“They wouldn’t know,” she said.
“I’d know,” he rejoined.
Next morning the mood was less than cheerful. Three of then sat at the breakfast
“Where’s Nancy?” Brian asked after breakfast. Nancy had yet to join them.
“I think she went for a walk,” Mario said.
“I don’t think she should be by herself,” Margaret said. “Why did you let her go?”
“I’m not her keeper,” Mario said.
“We better find her.”
“I’ll look down by the lake,” Mario said. “I’ve been meaning to take a walk down there
“Let’s search by the road,” Brian suggested to Margaret.
No boats on the water at the moment, the dark water of the lake
stretched calmly for miles. Trying to
figure out which way Nancy might have gone, Mario slowly walked down to the
dock. He stood for a while listening to
the water lap against the pier. Around
the lake, the trees had burst into yellow, orange, and purple hues. Shortly, he spied Nancy perched on a boulder
that jutted out over the water. Posing
for the search party, she sat looking into the distance, her knees tucked under
her chin. As he approached, she turned
and gasped in studied surprise. Her face
displayed the disappointment that Mario, and not Brian, had found her.
“We’ve been worried about you,” he said.
“I’ll bet they’ve been worried.
I’ll bet! How could they do this
to me? The two of them, I thought they
were my friends.”
“They’re not doing anything,” he said, trying to keep her calm, although
he had been up early and hearing voices downstairs had looked down from the
attic to see Margaret and Brian on the couch together.
“She must have thought I was still sleeping, but I heard her get up,”
“Did you?” he said rather than asked.
“I’ve been thinking that I could jump into this lake and drown myself.”
Tired of her melodramatic stances, he tried to maintain some concern in
his voice. “That’s a little drastic,
don’t you think?”
“I was going to jump in, but then I thought, ‘They’re not worth it.’”
“You’re right about that,” he said.
She sulked the rest of the day and all the way back to the city. A few days later, Mario heard that Rick had
given Margaret her walking papers.
TO THE HOTEL, Laura and I came upon Don Gregorio, his English more fluid than I
had surmised, expostulating to Martin, who in turn quietly and
uncharacteristically listened to the story of Pedro Humacao. Don Gregorio claimed that Pedro Humacao had
been a rare personage, indeed the sort of man encountered in literature or
mythology, but rarely in the flesh, though Don Gregorio assured us, more than
once, that Pedro Humacao had been a true and honest person whom he had
personally known, and the veracity of whose exploits he was willing to vouch
for. Don Gregorio’s earnestness in this
matter surprised me. My first
impression of him dissipated, and he now had the look of a grocer who would
keep his thumb on the scale when weighing something for a customer.
“Era una época
terrible y extraordinaria,” he said turning to me. “But
extraordinary times breed extraordinary men.
Or rather ordinary men find themselves called to behave in most unusual
ways. Had it not been a time of turmoil
and revolution who is to say that Don Pedro would not have been just another campesino tilling his fields, had there been any
fields to till around here.” He
teetered after that last remark as if it had been an exemplary witticism.
“Well? And what was he like, this
Pedro Humacao?” Martin asked, making a sly face, of uncertain meaning. I couldn’t tell whether he knew quite well
that we were about to be treated to a tall tale to be taken with a grain of
salt, or whether he was pointing out another instance of authentic lore for
savvy travelers to appreciate.
Don Gregorio continued in the most serious vein. “A simple man, but sometimes not very
prudent. His will strong, he thought in
his own way about many things, disregarding at his own peril, as he found out,
the common wisdom that had been accumulated by his people over thousands of
years. I say his people because he was
an Indian and I am not, as you may have already guessed.” Another of his witticisms, I noted.
“He got into a feud with a brujo. You
know what that is, no, a medicine man, a man of power. Now this quarrel resulted from something
insignificant, so insignificant that no one remembers for sure what it was, who
knows, an imaginary affront, but Don Pedro took it to heart. His honor at stake, he would not listen to
reason. His wife frantically begged him
to drop the matter, to apologize to Don Paco, the brujo. But
there was no moving Don Pedro. He did
not believe in mumbo-jumbo, and if Don Paco could come up with any magic, it
could not be anything Don Pedro himself could not also perform. Of course, everyone thought him quite out of
his senses. His mother, an old woman,
walked all the way from Cuernavaca, to try to dissuade him, her effort to no
avail. If you had only seen the tears of
that old woman! They could have melted a
stone, but they did not move him.
“And you did see them?”
“In truth? No, I did not, but I
heard a firsthand account of the matter as told to my mother by Don Pedro’s
“I see,” Martin skeptically commented.
“Don Pedro kept a few chickens,” Don Gregorio continued, “as many people
do, and all of a sudden his chickens began to die. One by one they were found dead in the yard
with no sign of external injury. Don
Paco’s doing, no doubt about it. Still,
Don Pedro was not convinced, so he took one of the chickens to Dr. Gutierrez,
at that time the only veterinarian in these parts. Dr. Gutierrez cut up the chicken and examined
it, just like doing an autopsy in a murder investigation. He found nothing wrong with the chicken.”
“Other than it was dead,” I said.
“Yes of course, other than it was dead.
But he found no sign of foul play or disease. The chicken just died without apparent
cause. To everyone that was obviously
ridiculous. You must agree that that is
not an acceptable conclusion. One
chicken one can ignore, but ten causes wonder.
But one had not far to go in search of an explanation, everyone certain
of Don Paco’s involvement.
“Don Paco did not claim responsibility, but neither did he deny it. Of course, that was part of his method. Many unexplainable events were ascribed to
the machinations of Don Paco only to be discovered, sometimes years later, that
he had nothing to do with the matter.
But at the time of the chicken incident everyone ascribed responsibility
to Don Paco. The imagination of his
neighbors supplied him with more power than he could ever hope to acquire by
any other means, so he went along letting them think whatever they wanted.
“And though not particularly eager to arouse Don Pedro’s ire, neither
did he rush to quell the rumor. Perhaps
he did not count on Don Pedro being so pigheaded. Anyone else would have found a way to mend
things with Don Paco, regardless of who was at fault, the prudent course of
action to prevent further unexplainable misfortune. Don Pedro, however, decided to take the bit
in his teeth, or in other words, take the bull by the horns. He gave Don Paco an ultimatum: ‘Restore the
chickens in three days or else.’ What he
meant by the ‘or else’ not quite clear.
At that point, all who knew him ceased to consider him rational and,
that being the case, the possibility of violence loomed.
“Don Pedro had not the power of the occult with which to confront Don
Paco on an equal footing. No one could
guess what he had in mind; for if he intended to exact retribution, by common
wisdom he should have tried to catch the wizard by surprise instead of a
head-on confrontation. Well, the three
days went by and of course Don Pedro did not have his chickens back, the expected
outcome. After all, one cannot bring
chickens back from the dead any more than one can bring men.”
“Well, Don Gregorio, don’t you think he expected his chickens to be
replaced, not brought back to life?”
“Quite so, quite so, but let’s remember that we’re dealing here with a brujo and a situation that already smacked of the
supernatural. No one would have thought
it beyond belief had the same chickens come back to life with the exception, of
course, of the one that had been dissected by Dr. Gutierrez. The restoration of that one, everyone agreed,
would require divine intervention, and it would be blasphemous to think that
God would concern himself with such an inconsequential matter.”
“So, what happened at the end of three days?”
“Listen to this,” he said leaning forward and lowering his voice as if
there were an interdiction against mentioning what he was about to relate, and
he was risking life and limb in revealing the outcome. “More dead chickens,” he said in a whisper
that came out more like a hiss.
“But,” I protested, “I thought all of Don Pedro’s chickens were already
“Ah, yes, but these were Don Paco’s chickens. Well, you can imagine the anxiety that
rippled through the neighborhood. No one
had ever before dared to cross Don Paco so directly without suffering dreadful
consequences. I haven’t told you the
strangest part yet, which is this: Don Pedro claimed to be as surprised as
everyone else. He had nothing to do with
Don Paco’s chickens, he insisted, though, at this point who could believe
him? These chickens seemed to have died
in the same manner as the first batch, no physical evidence of foul play. Don Paco not to be outdone by Don Pedro took
one of his chickens to Dr. Gutierrez, the vet, who proceeded to cut this one
open also, but not before proclaiming this to be the last time he would be
involved in this quarrel in any way, for this cutting up of dead animals was of
dubious value to his reputation, as he was not a butcher but a doctor. So he cut up Don Paco’s chicken with the same
results, no sign of an unnatural cause of death. The kicker, of course one might say, an
indication of a supernatural agent at work.
Who would have thought Don Pedro to have such resources at his
disposal? This added a further mystery
to the situation. Either Don Pedro had
enlisted the aid of another brujo or he was a brujo
himself. Either one of these
explanations would have entailed a great deal of secrecy on Don Pedro’s
part. No one doubted that Don Pedro
could keep a secret if he so wished, but this would have required that his
family be quiet also, a wonder in itself.
“The neighborhood braced itself for trouble, or more accurately, it
waited for Don Paco and Don Pedro to trounce each other, though most people
still expected Don Paco to be the one dishing it out. There are, of course, in any community those
who will always play the long shot. The
gamblers put their money on Don Pedro.
But no one expected what actually happened.”
He paused and looked across the courtyard with vacant eyes, giving us a
chance to digest the story. After a few
moments we were ready for Don Gregorio to resume his narrative, but he
continued to look around as if he had forgotten the story.
“What did happen?” I queried by way of urging him on.
Don Gregorio’s lips curled up into an unnatural smile and an
uncharacteristic cackle escaped from his throat, “Every chicken in the vicinity
dropped dead, every single one, just like the others.” Those words were followed by a long silence
while Don Gregorio gazed at some distant imaginary object.
FELT CONSPICUOUS as he walked from his car to his mother’s place. As usual, he had not been able to find a spot
on the same block. She lived close to a shopping street that drew much traffic. He was not averse to walking, but he would
have preferred a spot closer to the building because he did not like to prolong
the sense of being out of place.
Although he had grown up on these streets, he could not escape the
feeling that he was in a foreign country whose customs though familiar, where
alien, and though he spoke the language he would never be able to make himself
He could not pinpoint the time when the sidewalks in disrepair became
noticeable, when the grass spilling over from an empty lot and growing through
the cracks in the broken slabs became as disturbing as the rampant litter and
the unheeded garbage. Those conditions
had once been for him the norm, not to be noticed because they were always
there. He went pass the bodegas where
groups of men sat in their undershirts drinking beer and playing dominoes. He could not understand how they could play
that game for hours as if there were nothing in the world more satisfying. There was something marvelous about it, a
quaint simplicity he reluctantly admired.
He looked at them as he imagined Adam might have looked back at the
Garden, with longing and with the fear that he might be recognized as one who
had been cast out.
Long ago he had abandoned these streets.
He had slowly grown away from them, though while it was happening he had
thought that it was he who was being abandoned.
Now he was not sure. Perhaps it
was both. He was often faced with the
conundrum of whether he had a choice, of whether circumstances dictate his
choices, and if so, were they choices at all?
Are we managed by fate the way we manage a child when we say “Do you
want to drink your milk sitting in this chair or that chair,” and so involved
in choosing between chairs he does not consider that he might want to stand or
run or jump. It may be that if we had
enough information about the past we would be able to foretell the future. What then is free will but an illusion
created by our ignorance? This was a
logical enough conclusion, but one difficult to accept.
He saw that many of the psychological discomforts of life stemmed from
the inability to reconcile conflicting truths and perceptions, for all truths
are necessarily consistent, and he had to fall back on his ignorance to account
for disparities. Enrique rued the fact
that he was not ignorant enough to have remained in a state of bliss, that as a
mortal he was condemned to never arrive at the other side, never attain
knowledge equivalent to a state of grace.
He had no hope of attaining it, nor did he wish to, through the
conventional means of religion. To him
faith was no substitute for knowledge, though he saw the value of that quality
possessed by the truly religious, and also by the truly mad, of simultaneously
believing in contradictory ideas. Such
states are, after all, natural in some part of the mind. In dreams a person may be in two places at
the same time, simultaneously dead and alive.
Often in the past, those who could bridge the gap between the physical
world and the dream world were looked upon as holy people, saints. At present however Joan of Arc would merely
be considered a deranged person in need of medical care. He recalled seeing a painting of Joan of Arc
in a text book as an illustration of a disease of which hallucinations are a
common symptom. With this advance in
knowledge how many great exploits have been prevented, how many saints have
Invariably, when he visited his mother, his mind turned to
religion. It was both a bond and a rift
between them. The discarded religious
education of her son was one of the many disappointments of her life. It was not in her nature, however, to
despair, and she did not give up hope that he would eventually return to the
fold. She would often say to him, “I
never stop praying to the Lord for your return to the Church. You were so devout when you were a little
boy, and you will be again someday. God
will hear my prayers.”
He never took her words as chiding or her prayers as reproaches. “I haven’t strayed as far as you think,” he
said to allay her fears. He thought it
beyond her understanding to grasp how far he had reached on a course from which
there was no turning back.
He did not know what he would say to her today to calm fears, for today
they were not about his relation to the Church. That was an old concern that
had started when he was younger. They had now grown accustomed to each other’s
position, and though they were each aware of the issue, they were content to
leave it in the background. She had
summoned him to discuss something, if not more urgent, at least more
immediate. This time he did not have
reason on his side.
He reminded himself that he was an adult. He did not have to answer to his mother the
way he did as a child, but the surroundings conspired against him. The smells from the cooking going on in the
various apartments pervaded the stairwell. It reminded him of the days when he
had run up and down the stairs do errands, to take out garbage, or just to play
with the other children in the street. He had thought that he had left all that
behind, and he was now surprised at how it all easily came back threatening to
The necessity to ring the doorbell at the moment reprieved him, and as
he focused his total attention on pressing the button his panic subsided. He waited to hear the footsteps on the other
side, a familiar and comforting activity when facing that door. He recalled as a child learning to distinguish
whose footsteps they were merely by the sound. That accomplishment had been a
source of pleasure.
Enrique kissed his mother on the cheek and followed her down the long
corridor pass the bedrooms on the right, one she kept for guests, anyone in
need who applied to her for a temporary place to stay; then past her own, with
the big bed on which she had slept alone now for many years. At the end of the corridor, they entered a
small foyer, to the right the bathroom and the kitchen, to the left, the dining
room and the living room. Through the
windows, light flooded the living room.
It was unusual for the two of them to be there alone. They saw each other mostly when the whole
family gathered, but this time she had asked to see him alone.
She did not often request anything of him, and he did not refuse her
anything that did not conflict with his convictions. This time, he dreaded the encounter because
he expected her to ask for an explanation, and he had no comfortable one to
offer. He had looked in a mirror once
and had been startled by the image of his father looking back at him. It had been a discomforting experience, but
he had calmed himself with the thought that the resemblance was only
physical. He was afraid now that his
mother would hold up a different kind of mirror, and he would see another resemblance
to his father that he would not be able to brush aside so easily.
Doña Ramona brought out coffee, and she put the two cups on the dining
room table. Before sitting down she
remembered that he was fond of tea biscuits and she went back to the kitchen to
fetch them. On returning she sat down.
The coffee comforted him as he waited for her to bring up the subject she
wanted to discuss.
“I had a talk with Anna,” Doña Ramona said.
“Ah,” he said, as if to indicate that he understood all the
ramifications of the statement, and he did not need to talk about it any
further, but that he would if she insisted.
He knew that to get away with so simple a statement was too much to
She was not in a hurry. She sat a
few moments without saying anything as if his one word was a pictogram from the
I Ching and she was contemplating all its possible meanings. If she found his response insufficient, she
did not reveal it.
“She’s not happy,” Doña Ramona said.
“No, she’s not happy,” Enrique echoed.
It seemed to him that the understated remark had a physical effect on
the room, consuming the available oxygen faster than it could be replenished,
and soon there would not be enough for him to breathe. He looked for signs of similar distress in
his mother, but he detected none. There
was no question that she had more fortitude than he, but he had not imagined
that he would be put to a test.
“The earth is a valley of tears,” he said in response to her remark
about Anna. He wasn’t sure whether he
was trying to elicit sympathy by choosing a tenet of the Church or whether he
was merely being facetious.
“Tears of our own making,” she said.
There was no way for him to take that but as a reproach.
“Do you think I set out to make her unhappy?”
“Only you and God know that,” she said.
He would prefer to leave God out of it, but he knew that she would not,
that she could not.
“You want to tell me what’s going on?” she continued.
“I wish I knew,” he said.
“You must know something,” she said. “Everyone else does.”
“I know everything is out of control,” he said.
“You expected control,” she said.
It was not a question.
He looked straight into her soft eyes, and he realized that it was
statement of surprise. She had expected
more from him.
“I can’t say that I consciously had expectations,” he said. “I didn’t expect Anna to be unhappy.”
“You expected her to turn a blind eye?”
“I didn’t intend for her to find out is what I mean.”
“That’s expecting control,” she said.
“And you think that’s unreasonable?”
“I don’t know,” she said, “Are impossible and unreasonable the same
He had not expected her to take that tack, and he was confused and
embarrassed. He felt himself slipping
into a childish mode. He blurted what
first came to mind, “Are you angry at me?”
“No,” she said, “I’m only sad. I
thought you would escape this curse. I
don’t know why I thought that. It’s in
the blood. I thought the same about your father. I thought he would be different, but I was
“It’s not the same,” he said, “It’s not the same at all.”
It was her turn to respond with the enigmatic, “Ah.”
“It’s completely different,” he repeated.
“You don’t want to divorce Anna?”
“Of course I don’t,” he blurted before carefully weighing his
He had previously decided not to lie to his mother, and now he was not
sure that he was keeping to his resolve.
But perhaps his unconsidered answer was the best gauge of the
truth. It was at least spontaneous,
uncontaminated by thought, and that’s what, in most instances, he trusted to be his genuine feelings. But spontaneous reactions that emanated from
fear were often regrettable, and at the moment, he was uncertain whether he was
acting out of fear of disapproval, or worse yet, out of fear that he was
lurching uncontrollably towards resembling his father more than physically. His mother might be right, that it was in the
blood; not literally, the way she meant it, but metaphorically, inevitably and
beyond his control.
“I want to make it up to her,” he said.
“How do you make up for something like that?” she asked.
He saw her point. He had meant to
say that he wanted to make up with her, but the phrase had come out wrong, or
perhaps it had come out right, because what he really needed to do was to make
it up. And yet he saw that his mother
was right. There was no retracting of what he had done. He understood that from all outward signs,
though he did not truly feel remorse about a common transgression. That was the worse excuse in the world, but
it was, after all, true.
“Your father was always trying to make it up to me,” she said, “but he
never did what would have done it. He
never stopped, and that’s what it takes.”
“I know that,” he said, because he thought that was what he should
say. “I know what I have to do.”
“Knowing what you have to do and doing it are two different things,” she
“I don’t want to lose Anna,” he said, “but maybe it’s too late.”
“I don’t think you can let yourself off the hook so easily,” she
said. “You can’t put the blame on her,
not without even trying to make it right.”
“I don’t know how I got into this predicament. Sometimes you stop to look around and you
have no idea where you are and how you got there. That’s how I feel.”
“You let go of your moorings, and
you threw away your compass.”
“Don’t start in about the Church,” he said. “That’s not the issue. I have to find my own way,” he said. “Everyone can’t go down the same road.”
“You’re right about that,” she replied.
“Same destination, different paths, I understand that.”
He wondered whether she really did understand, whether she knew how
different the paths were, or whether it was he who was deceived about the
complexity of the situation. He found
himself in the anomalous position of having his whole life reduced to just
that, a situation, and perhaps one not as complex as he had imagined. It was not the elaborateness of the trappings
that made for complexity.
That too, he knew well enough.
MID-DECEMBER ARTURO was called for jury duty.
In the central jury room, he met a woman who told him she would rather
be home cooking. She was a short blond
with wrinkles around her eyes and a frightened look, like a child in an
unfamiliar place suddenly having the need to hold on to a parent’s hand.
“In our Christmas celebration there are twelve dishes and some of them
are very elaborate and take a great deal of preparation,” she said in a very
thick Eastern European accent.
Arturo nodded as if he knew what she was talking about. Perhaps she was referring to some Polish
custom. He had nothing on which to base
this assumption. He was merely
guessing. She obviously wanted to talk,
but at that moment he was satisfied with his guess.
“The last two days I got my husband to help,” she said, almost
chuckling, as if she had put something over on her husband.
“Yes, there’s a lot to be done before Christmas,” Arturo agreed. “My wife has been baking and freezing
things. We’re having a Christmas party
on Sunday. We’ll decorate the tree.”
“Oh, you did that already. That’s
“No,” he explained, “we’re doing it this coming Sunday. It’s a tree trimming party.”
“What a great idea,” she said.
“Do you use a real tree or an artificial one?”
“A real tree,” he said.
“How do you get it to last?” she asked.
“We got a real tree one year and in a few days the branches had all
“I just put sugar water in the base.
Some people add an aspirin. I
don’t do that, but people say it works.”
“Do you know what the fine is for not showing up for jury duty?” she
asked, going back to what was on her mind.
“No, I don’t,” he said.
“It used to be two hundred dollars, but I don’t know what it is
now. I know a guy who just tore up the
summons, and nothing happened to him.
They didn’t go after him.”
Arturo saw in her eyes that she had seriously contemplated not showing
up, and she was still wondering whether she had made the right decision. “They randomly choose who they’re going to go
after,” he said. “It’s too expensive to
go after everyone.” He didn’t really
know whether that was true or not, but he felt he should say something that
didn’t encourage breaking the law.
“I didn’t see any restaurants around here,” she said. “Do you suppose there are any?”
“Sure,” he said, “if you walk down Cadman Plaza, a few blocks west you
come to Montague Street. There’re lots
of restaurants on Montague.”
“You seem to know downtown Brooklyn.”
“I live nearby,” he said. “And
“Flushing,” she answered.
“So you got here on the F train?”
“So you know your trains too. I
have to take two buses just to get to the subway. Then it’s a walk from the subway to the
courthouse, not an easy trip,” she said.
Later, they were possible jurors for the same case, and she sat next to
At the trial, the arresting officer, Henry Hogan, was called to the
stand and took the oath.
“Will you please describe to the court how you came to arrest the
defendant,” the assistant district attorney, Mr. Stolley, said to the officer.
“On routine patrol of the park, I noticed the defendant and another
person, a woman, sitting in a car smoking and passing the object back and
forth, so my partner and I approached. I
asked the defendant to step out. At
first he refused, but on my insistence, he got out of the car. I asked him to turn around and put his hands
on the car. He began to do so, but
before completing the move, he bolted and ran towards the concession
stand. As he ran he kept his right hand
at his waist. I followed him into the
building. There was another man at the
sink washing his hands. The defendant
had entered one of the stalls. I ordered
him to step out. I heard a metallic
object hit the floor, and then the defendant came out. He attempted to walk by me, but I restrained
him. By that time my partner had arrived
at the scene. I looked in the stall and
saw the gun on the floor.”
“Did you subsequently check whether the gun is licensed to the
“The serial number on the gun had been filled off.”
“Thank you, Officer Hogan.”
The defense attorney approached the witness stand.
“At any time, did you see the defendant holding the gun?”
“No, I did not.”
“Were the defendant’s finger prints found on the gun?”
“No, they were not.”
The prosecutor then called an FBI finger print expert to the stand.
“What is the general outcome of finger print analysis on hand guns?”
“The lack of finger prints on such a weapon is usual. The gun surface is not conducive to retaining
finger prints, so only on twenty-five percent of cases are they successfully
That was all the available testimony, and the jury was secluded for
Five members of the jury were Black, five White, one Asian and one,
Arturo, Hispanic. On the first ballot
three voted for guilty, three for innocent and six undecided. On the second vote, seven went for guilty and
five for innocent. All five votes for acquittal came from black jurors. Only one of the Black jurors was open to
persuasion, but she was not going to change her vote as long as the other
Blacks held firm.
“The facts of the case are clear,” Arturo argued. “The verdict has to be guilty.”
“I just want you all to know
that race has nothing to do with my vote.
The fact that I’m Black and he’s Black is not a factor in my decision,”
one of the Black women said.
“Same with me,” said another. “I
would vote the same way if he were White.”
Arturo was sure that they believed what they said at that moment, but he
was also sure that it was not a true statement.
“The evidence is very strong,” the youngest of the Black women said,
“but it’s only circumstantial. The gun
was not actually seen in his hand. I can’t take a chance of voting guilty if
Martha Stolley, the oldest of the three Black women, was short and
stout, and throughout the proceedings she kept a severe and angry
countenance. “The policeman was foolish
to chase a man with a gun without waiting for backup or drawing his own
“Well, he didn’t suspect the guy had a gun.”
“He should have suspected when he saw the guy was running with his hand
to his waist.”
“Obviously this cop is not the brightest man in the world, but the evidence
is clear, and it points to the guy having a gun. The cop didn’t immediately think so; he had
fixated on drugs, his mind ran along that one track, and he probably thought
the defendant was only holding on to a greater stash than he had at first
“But he should have known,” she insisted. “He’s trained to know these things.”
“I was trained to do my job also, but how many times do I make mistakes
and overlook things that I shouldn’t?
Granted that the cop was foolish in not suspecting a gun earlier, but
that doesn’t lessen the guilt of the defendant,” Arturo argued.
“He had a bad attitude,” she said
about the defendant, “but that doesn’t mean he had a gun.”
The third woman on the jury focused on the other man who had been in the
restroom when the cop arrived. This man
according to be policeman was standing by the washbasins washing his hands.
“Why couldn’t it have been his gun?” she asked.
“Because the gun was in the stall from which the defendant emerged
twelve feet away.”
“Yes,” said the man to the right of Arturo, a White juror, “why would
that man have left the gun in the stall for no apparent reason.”
“Maybe the defendant told him about the cop on his tail, so the man by
the sink decided to get rid of the gun.”
“There was not enough time for all that.
He would have had to take out the gun slide it across the floor to the
last stall, and resume washing his hands.
That would have been too risky.
If it was his gun, his best bet was to keep it hidden and walk out and
disappear as he did. If the gun were
his, he would have taken it with him.”
“Well, it’s a public park. A lot
of people go there. Anybody could have
left the gun there.”
“In all the years that I have used public restrooms I never saw a gun in
one of them. Have you?” Arturo asked.
“It’s different in Brooklyn,” she said.
“Yes, that sort of thing happens in Brooklyn,” the one Black male juror
said. His brother, his nephew and a
cousin were policemen.
“I’ve lived in Brooklyn for twenty-five years,” Arturo said. “I never saw a gun in a public restroom. Did any of you ever find a gun in a public
No one had.
“Do you know anybody who found a gun a public restroom?”
Negative again, but all five insisted that that was the sort of thing
that happens in Brooklyn with some regularity.
“A gun like the one in evidence is an expensive item. It’s worth a few hundred dollars. Why would anybody just leave it in a restroom
unless, like the defendant, he was trying to avoid arrest?”
“No one saw him holding the gun, so it’s possible that it’s not his
“It’s possible, but not probable,” Arturo said.
“I can’t vote guilty unless I’m absolutely sure.”
“Does that mean you’re not willing to accept circumstantial evidence?”
“I suppose that’s what it means.”
“The charge from the judge was that circumstantial evidence must have
the same weight as direct evidence.”
“Be that as it may,” she said, “my vote is not guilty.” That was that. There was no moving her from that position.
The young man to Arturo’s right, Andrew Dossing, on the breaks, was
reading the Wall Street Journal. After
perusing the stock quotes he looked up and said, “I’m losing money every day.”
“You’re losing money in a surging market?”
“I had very bad picks this year,” he said, as if annually he picked a
whole new set of stocks.
“Look up Apogee,” Arturo said. He
sometimes traded that stock. He hadn’t,
however, held it for a while.
The young man looked it up. “It’s
9½ up ¼,” he said. “The high was 22 and
the low 7.”
“Yes, that’s what it does. It
fluctuates between 7 and 22,” Arturo said.
“I’ve been watching it for some years.”
“It’s a good buy, then, at 9½.”
“Yes it is,” Arturo said.
“How long have you been following it?”
“About five years,” Arturo said, though really closer to ten.
“What do they make?” he asked.
“Glass for skyscraper windows and for cars.”
He circled the stock in the paper.
“I’ll have to research this,” the young man said.
On the second ballot Arturo voted guilty and stuck to it. To his right sat another young man, rather
cheerful and outgoing. He had
volunteered to be the foreman. He too
voted guilty on the second ballot. On
the third, he voted not guilty. He later
explained that it was to see whether it would have any effect on the adamant
ladies. He figured he could change his vote back to guilty if there was any
possibility of getting a conviction.
These two young men on Arturo’s right were, like him, computer
programmers. Another man on the jury had
a happy face—thin with a twinkle in his eyes that revealed a quiet
amusement. Always alert and smiling, he
didn’t do much talking. He wore an
earring in his left ear, but he was not flamboyant or odd in any other
way. He looked totally comfortable.
The line was drawn and everyone stuck to his or her vote, a hung
jury. After the defendant was dismissed
the judge asked the jurors to remain in the room for a discussion. He and the attorneys each spoke to the
jurors, trying to reassure them that arriving at no consensus was alright, part
of the system, and they shouldn’t be disillusioned, it did indeed work. Arturo wanted to ask whether preventing
social unrest was more important than upholding the law. But he kept his mouth shut and went home to
think about it
WOMEN AT the Strand book store approached one of the bargain book tables. As they perused the display, the first woman
said in a thick Russian accent, “The book was here the other day. I know you’ll like it.” Soon enough she spied what she was searching
for. “Here it is,” she exclaimed,
reaching for Like Water for Chocolate.
“It’s like a Mexican soap opera,” she gleefully explained, as she handed
the book to her companion.
Her friend perused the book, and then passed it back. “No,” she said in her heavy accent, “I think
I would get bored with it.”
A look of disappointment invaded the first woman’s face, and silently,
she put the book down.
PARISHIONERS LIVED on the mountainside, and Father Rodrigo, in the zealous
performance of his apostolic duties, often traveled tending to his scattered
flock. On this occasion, having been
caught in a rainstorm, he was forced to spend the night away from town at the
home of Lorenzo Palofuerte, a typical man of the parish. He
worked for wages in the tobacco fields and cultivated his own land on which he
grew vegetables for his household. He
doted on his young wife, Maria, who had recently become a mother.
Lorenzo’s father was also staying the night. The old man had eyes that twinkled
constantly, as if he knew a joke no one else had heard. There was calmness behind the glitter. The priest was often intimidated by this
merriment, by the sureness of it, a quality he longed for and was disappointed
in not having found in the bosom of the church.
The old man had a playful maliciousness against which the priest felt
defenseless. Deep within, he resented
that investiture had not provided him with a charm against the impishness of
this old man.
“Witches were here last night, Father,” said the old man. “They won’t come back tonight though, with
“Stop kidding,” admonished Maria as she went around the table scooping
rice into each plate. She was mockingly
stern with her father-in-law. Although
she felt constrained to respect the priestly garb of the younger man, she
enjoyed arguments between the two.
“Maria burned the shit they left in the yard. Keeps them away. Gives then a terrible pain in the ass,” the
old man winked at Maria. She tossed her
head slightly back suppressing a smile.
Father Rodrigo did not know whether to take the words humorously or, on
behalf of the church, to take offence.
He assumed a bland expression as he said, “That’s preposterous.”
“But it always works,” Maria retorted with an urgency that revealed that
the incident had in fact occurred.
“Witches do not exist,” Father Rodrigo continued trying to weal
authority, but his demeanor was a detriment.
He was of slight build, and though his face was beginning to show the
wear of thirty-seven years, there lingered a smidgeon reminder of adolescence.
“Don’t you believe in the devil, Father?” the old man facetiously asked.
“There are forces of evil.”
“There you have it. It’s this
way: saints have direct contact with God, and witches with the devil. You can’t believe in one without the
other. Don’t you sell medals in church,
charms against meeting up with Satan?”
“To encounter the devil is a figure of speech. It doesn’t mean you meet up with a flesh and
“Of course it’s not flesh and blood; it’s a spirit.”
“I think I saw my mother’s spirit once,” interjected Maria, adding a
twist to the conversation.
“Did you?” asked the priest a little bewildered.
“It was right after her death,” Maria went on, “during the vigil. I looked out the window, and there she was
peering from behind the latrine.”
The old man proceeded before the priest could recover. “Alfonso, who lived in the parish before you
came, had a house about a mile up from here.”
The dim lighting from the kerosene lamp on the table accentuated the
affected gravity of the old man. Every
word was dramatic. “Once, as he was
riding home, he was almost thrown from his horse. He quieted the animal and noticed a strong
smell of magnolias though the flower grew nowhere near. He reached home to find that his wife had
died. To his astonishment, by her side
lay a bunch of magnolias.”
“The front door shook hard when we were saying the rosary for her,” said
Lorenzo. “To this day we don’t know
whether someone was joking.” He cut a
piece of avocado, poured a little milk in his plate mashing the fruit in with
the rice, and continued to eat in silence.
“Might have been Alejandra,” Maria put in. “She’s just the sort to do a thing like
that. She’s a little cracked, just the
sort to go rattling doors in the middle of the night. Remember her, Father? She’s in the woods all the time, collecting
herbs just like a witch. It’s not
natural for an old woman to be living all alone in an out of the way place, as
if she had no relatives. The other day
she was hovering around here, trying to put the evil-eye on the baby.”
The lack of headway in his campaign to eradicate superstition disturbed
Father Rodrigo. When he had first
arrived at Rio Alto he had been dismayed.
The town was smaller than he had imagined. Situated on the side of a hill, the poorer
section, shacks with roofs of tarpaper
or galvanized tin, looked as if it were about to slide down on the rest of the
town. The church, at the bottom of the
hill, seemed in a geologically precarious position which the priest translated
into a spiritual one. Once the idea had
entered his mind, he was on a constant lookout for sources of danger. He soon discovered that he was surrounded by
popular superstitions, and he obsessively feared that his spiritual health was
being assailed. His reaction to the
folklore of the neighborhood was so dominated by violent emotions that the
parishioners considered that aspect of his character a quirk. What seemed peculiar was not that he
disbelieved any one story—no story was believed by everyone—but that he flatly
denied the possibility of the whole category of phenomena. He did not offer disproof, nor did he even
show skeptical curiosity. He merely
considered the existence of witches, spirits and demons an idea to be fought. But his method was too simple; it consisted
only of vehement denial. At the root of
his attitude lay a great fear, as if a hideous insect had already laid eggs in
his soul; the larva had gnawed at it, and the chrysalis were waiting to spew
forth the black winged ravagers as soon as he weakened. They would devour the living remnant. Then all that would be left would be the
empty shell of his body in which the beating of innumerable black wings would
be heard churning the putrid air. The
image horrified him.
The next morning before his departure, Maria brought her baby for Father
Rodrigo to bless. He knew that the
mother had the evil eye in mind, and that she thought of this blessing as
protection against it. Resignedly he
blessed the child and departed. On his
way home, the mortification caused by the previous evening was intensified by
the condition of the road. He had
traveled but a short distance before his shoes were completely caked with
mud. Occasionally, a breeze shaking the
leaves above sprinkled him with an unwelcome baptism, so that as he made his
way down the mountain, he became less than dry.
From certain parts of the road the town far below was visible. On bright days the sun beat down on the tin
roofs making them sparkle, but the sunlight was at the moment obstructed by
clouds; and Father Rodrigo, wet and troubled by the memory of the evil eye, was
beset by the image of Christ on a mountain, prophesying the fall of
Enthralled by these thoughts, he arrived at a ravine through which
flowed a river spanned by a wooden bridge.
The night’s rain had caused the water to rise, and it was now flowing
over the bridge. Some logs had been
pried loose. His feet already wet,
Father Rodrigo saw no reason for hesitating, and holding on to the railing
began to cross. Looking into the
turbulent and muddy water, which rushing by buffeted his ankles, he could not
help but think of the demons that were reputed to live in the whirlpools of the
river. Half way across he slipped, and as he grasped the rail with both hands,
he caught sight of a figure behind him.
Father Rodrigo continued across, and when he reached the bank, an owl-like
dog continually growling and showing its teeth confronted him. The stranger, of medium height and very
sturdy appearance, his dark eyes accentuated by bushy brows, caught up and stepped
between the priest and the dog. “I’m Justo Granudo,” he said in an unexpectedly
The two men proceeded along the same road. The dog, of which Father Rodrigo assumed
Justo was the master, ragged and dirty, showed no sign of having reaped the
benefits of domestication. Its following
at Justo’s heels was the only indication that it was a tamed animal. There was no visible leash, but the
impression that man and beast were tugging at each other was inescapable. The animal’s growl was constant—rich and
awesome in its implications. A horror
coupled to inexhaustible vigor, the sound elicited a fear of an unfathomable
darkness so replete with life that excess had gone beyond the curious to become
grotesque. Chaos lurked in that
sound—jealous, resentful, desiring to reclaim a domain that had been
stolen. Yet the priest was aware of
resonant tones hinting at bright emptiness, like the light filled spaces of a
The sun came out and was shone through the leaves causing erratic
patterns of light and shade. Father
Rodrigo felt uneasy as he walked with the stranger. Conversation proved futile. Being asked where he came from, Justo Granudo
made a gesture which the priest took to mean the other side of the ridge. Despite this taciturnity, and contributing to
the discomfort, Father Rodrigo was convinced that silence was not habitual with
Justo Granudo. Repeatedly the priest
turned his head to gaze at his companion.
For some reason he was unable to remember Justo’s face, and had to
continually check to make certain of its details. The thought that each time he looked he saw
something different took root in the soil of his anxious imagination, and like
lush vegetation in a tropical forest, began an uncontrollable growth. The priest began to suspect that that this
stranger might be some desperate sinner, the state of whose soul was the cause
of the unpleasantness. He had nothing
substantial on which to base this assumption, yet the certainty that the
stranger was a criminal was preferable to the possibility that he might be
Suddenly, the dog leaped forward sinking its teeth into Justo Granudo’s
leg. Justo’s face became contorted in
pain as he uttered a long piercing shriek.
Blood gushed from the wound.
Father Rodrigo picked up a stick and tried to drive the animal away from
the man, but no sooner had he stepped between the two that Justo Granudo burst
out laughing. The laugh reverberated in
the ears of the stunned priest, for now Justo Granudo began to dance around in
a circle, while playing on a small wooden flute that he had pulled from within
his shirt. The dog also was scampering
about and leaping up into the air as if playing with its master. There was no indication of an injury. The priest was almost convinced that his eyes
had deceived him or that it had been a performance put on by man and dog.
Suddenly, the animal again, as unexpectedly as before, leaped at Justo. This time it bit into the neck. Man and animal rolled on the muddy
ground. Father Rodrigo saw the flesh
being torn. The initial shock lasted but
a second. The priest commenced savagely
beating the dog away from the victim.
Whimpering, the animal cowered away.
The priest having worked himself into a frenzy did not stop until he
heard a note from the flute. Turning, he
saw Justo standing and once again playing the instrument.
“Who are you?” the priest shouted, confused and overwhelmed by fear.
Justo did not answer but kept playing the flute.
The priest shouted the question again, his voice cracking.
Justo Granudo looked up with a pained expression. “You don’t trust me,” he said.
The priest immediately felt that he had given offence. Justo, a cruel look on his face, stepped
menacingly forward. Father Rodrigo
turned and ran all the while hearing the man and the dog running after
him. Everything reeled. He felt his fingers grasping the mud. There was a taste of earth and blood in his
mouth. His head stung.
When he came to, he was aware of a mild ache all over his body. He lay on the ground a while as if
resting. Remembering what had happened,
he quickly got up, looked around, and seeing nothing out of the ordinary, he
hurried home, and getting there, he locked himself in. The next day he wrote a letter to the bishop,
and shortly thereafter he was relieved of his duties at Rio Alto.
HOMELESS MAN HANGS out on Forty-Seventh Street between Madison and Park. I see him there every morning as I walk from
the subway on Sixth Avenue to my office on Lexington. He is there all year around. I wonder how in the winter he can stand the
cold. He’s relatively well kept and
seems to have a placid personality. His
face is round and pudgy, and always he bears a calm expression. He has several duffle bags stacked one on top
of the other and covered with cardboard boxes to protect them from the
elements. Sometimes, he talks to
himself. Often, without him asking,
people give him money or cigarettes.
There is something about him that does not repel the public as is
usually the case with other homeless persons.
There is something childlike about him that disarms the passer-by.
At lunchtime I sometimes see him by Forty-seventh and Third where there
are benches. He sits writing in a
notebook, the type that has the black and white squiggles on the stiff
cover. He writes diligently. It makes me think that he is educated. Perhaps he is keeping a diary of his life in
the street, or maybe he is writing a novel.
His life must be hard and yet it must have some advantages. He has no one to answer to, no boss to
harangue or intimidate him, no fear of unemployment, no one depending on him
for sustenance. He has no responsibility
but to keep himself alive, and he seems to have no anxiety about that, or about
anything else. Perhaps he never did, and
that’s how he ended up in the street.
Anxiety spurs us on to fulfill our responsibilities however we envision
them. Maybe we are born with an anxiety
gene, and if it is missing or shuts off, then we lack a necessary component to
function as expected in society.
Who is to say that our man on Forty-Seventh Street is not successful
enough? In the years that I have
observed him, he hasn’t starved. He is
always clean and his clothes look presentable enough. Where does he bathe and shave? He obviously has a haircut regularly. All of this does not happen out on the
street. He must have a whole other life
about which I know nothing.
STARTED OUT to visit my place of birth, I did not expect anything extraordinary
to happen. In fact, when I spoke to
anyone about how wonderful my childhood memories were and how I remembered the
grandiose landscape and the little towns tucked away in the central mountains,
everyone warned me that I would be disappointed, not because the island didn’t
have its wondrous and beautiful settings, but because memory tends to conspire
with imagination to create quite fantastical things out of the past. “Besides,” everyone said, “things have
changed. Twenty years is a long time,
and the world doesn’t stand still. Most
of what you remember probably doesn’t exist anymore.”
I somewhat agreed. I tried to
prepare myself for the tricks or memory.
I examined my recollections for the slightest tinges of Romanticism, and
I discounted the suspects. I stuck to
what I thought was harsh reality. Still,
twenty years of memory is a long distance for reality to travel.
Yes, twenty years ago my family moved to New York. My father came here to escape his creditors,
or if not, at least a poverty that would have destroyed him, and perhaps, in
one way or another, the whole family, though now when anyone mentions it, he
assumes a look that says “maybe that was the reason and maybe not.” Life in New York was not an immediate
improvement. In fact, in many ways it
was worse. We arrived in the autumn. We
had never before experienced cold weather.
My mother suffered the most. She
did not like living in an apartment, cloistered, and having to keep the door
always locked. The fact that she did not
speak English was a great discomfort to her—a woman who was used to being
heard. She had enjoyed haggling with
shopkeepers at the markets, but now she could not even speak to them.
My father’s hometown, Rio Alto, is nestled in a valley in the middle of
the maintain range that runs from one end of the island to the other. The town was so small that it had only two
streets, and some paths and alleyways on a steep hill—the poorer section, which
looked as if it was about to slide down on the rest of the town. We had relatives in town, but most lived up
the mountain. Back then, as soon as we
got off the public car, I was eager to start on the path up the side of the
slope to my grandfather’s house. In my
memory, that house was more like a castle from where my grandfather, a powerful
sorcerer, ruled a vast and magical domain.
The house, an impressive wooden structure, was like the great hall of
ancient lord, with the kitchen at one end and sleeping quarters on the
other. It had no modern conveniences—no
electricity, no running water. Cooking
was done over an open fire on a sand table.
In the morning the smoke rose, curled about the kitchen rafters and
formed into the ephemeral shapes of beasts and demons. Outside someone fed the geese, the chickens
and watered the flowers while I romped until breakfast was ready. One time, after breakfast my grandfather
showed me how to get resin glue by slashing the bark of a tree, and we used the
glue to construct a toy cart. Sometimes
we walked along the mountain path from where we could see the town in the
distance below, the tin roofs of the houses shinning in the sun, like jewels
encrusted in the green landscape. In the
woods, he lifted me off the ground to look into a birds nest with two little
speckled eggs in it. Then home we
walked, as he told me stories of haunted places in the forest.
These memories emerged when after a twenty years absence, I was about to
visit my homeland. I looked forward to the Romanticism of childhood that
awaited me at the other end of that plane trip.
“Please, calm yourself. You’re
bound to be disappointed,” my wife said to me.
“You’ve worked yourself up to expect too much.”
“I’m perfectly aware of that danger,” I assured her. “I’ve prepared myself.”
Cousin Tito greeted us at the airport.
Once we had the baggage, he whisked us to his car, and I was off on my
journey into the past. Thinking that I
would be disappointed, my wife maintained a worried look.
“Is the hospital still where it used to be?” I asked as we rode.
“Where my father used to work?”
“No, there’s a housing development there now. They moved the hospital to a larger building
“Oh,” I said. My wife flinched.
“I think I’ll drive up to Rio Alto tomorrow,” I continued cautiously.
“You’ll be able to drive up the mountain. They built a road where the path used to be.”
“That’s nice,” I said.
“And now that there’s electricity and everything, lots of people have
vacation homes up there.”
I was quiet and just looked out the window. I did not recognize anything. As we entered Baronin I was absolutely
resigned. The town seemed to have been
completely rebuilt, and it was now so much more bustling than I had dreamt
The next day I felt better, having determined that I would not let that
silly obsession of finding my childhood prevent me from enjoying myself. We rented a car and after carefully studying
a road map we set out for Rio Alto. On
the road things looked much better than they had the day before. Getting into the rural parts of the island
revealed the greenness that I remembered.
The road curved and twisted along the top of the ravines at the bottom
of which coursed sparkling streams. Yes,
it was still here. My wife touched my
“What is it?” I asked.
“You’re stepping on the gas a little too hard,” she said.
I was excited. All the resolve I
had in the morning melted away, and I was again trying to reach into the
past. I was not as disappointed with Rio
Alto as I had been with Baronin. There
was nothing there that I recognized either, but at least the town had not grown
into a metropolis. We parked the car and
“There are more sidewalks, and the church is a lot smaller than I
thought,” I said to my wife.
“We shouldn’t have come here,” she said, “Now you’ll be depressed the
rest of the day. Let’s not drive up the mountain.”
I agreed, and we went to visit some people who had been my mother’s
friends. They asked us to stay the
night. After dinner, I decided to take a
walk through the town again. My wife was
too tired to accompany me, so I left her with our hosts, and I set out
alone. Before long I was heading toward
the edge of town and up the mountain road.
“I’ll just go a short way,” I said to myself. Night was coming on, and I heard the crickets
in the grass by the side of the road.
Fireflies flew around me in erratic patterns. Was this the way it was long ago? I lost myself in reverie trying to correlate
what I was experiencing with what I remembered.
I do not know how long I walked before I noticed the lights of the town
below me. I was about to turn back when
I saw, on the other side of the road and across a small field, the ruins of a
house. I debated whether I had enough
time to look it over. I didn’t want to
walk back to town in pitch darkness.
A figure seemed to emerge from the ruin and beckoned to me. The man was short and rather stocky, streaks
of grey in his abundant hair, dark eyes under bushy eyebrows. “Ignore him,”
flashed through my mind, but a dog trotted up and began to bark as if it
recognized me. That caught my interest.
“I was about to give up waiting,” he said.
He addressed me in a familiar tone.
That, and his words, surprised me, since I did not know who he was. Besides, no one knew I would be walking up
“Waiting for what?”
The man did no answer. The dog
licked my hand.
“If you’re waiting for someone, I’m the wrong person,” I said.
“You’re Mencio’s boy,” the man said.
“No,” I said stunned. Mencio was
my grandfather’s name.
The man ignored the answer and kept talking. “I do what I have to, and so I waited for
I was about to protest again but the continued, “Here’s the house. Come!”
He led the way as we entered what had once been a house. He took out a bamboo flute from inside his
shirt and began to play. The dog moved
around him as if it were dancing.
“That’s a well-trained dog you have,” I said.
“You trained him,” the man said.
“I don’t know what you mean,” I answered. “I never saw you or that dog before.”
I must have stumbled on the neighborhood lunatic or else on a practical
joker. Either way I was uneasy. What would he get into his head next? I was relieved when he said, “I must leave
you now. I’ll take care of the dog until
“I’m not returning,” I said sardonically to myself.
“Until you return to stay,” he continued, “this belongs to you.”
He bent down and from behind a pile of wood he produced a toy cart like
the one my grandfather had once made for me.
My wife must have hired this man, I thought indignantly turning around
and walking away from him. But she did not
know I would be walking up there. When
would she have had time to do it? I had
been with her all day. I turned around
to ask him. He was gone, nowhere to be
Back in town I recounted the story.
My wife disclaimed all responsibility.
My host and hostess said that they did not know anyone that fit the
description I gave them. I was
mystified. The next day we went around
town inquiring about the man and the dog.
No one knew anything. Finally, we
gave up, and we spent the rest of our vacation in places I had never been to before.
BROWN WORKED as an interviewer at one of the Employment Service offices in the
Bronx. She was a blond and blue eyed young woman, born and raised in Virginia.
In college she had majored in Spanish and was fluent in the language. After
graduation, she moved to New York. She
was single, and everyone in the office tried to introduce her to prospective
partners. She never had a second date,
giving rise to the consensus that she suffered from frigidity.
“That’s not an insurmountable problem,” Lydia once said when, in
Rebecca’s absence, some of the staff discussed the matter.
“I agree,” Antonio said. “The
right man would get her going.”
“And you’re volunteering?”
“She’s not my type,” he emphatically announced to make clear that he was
beyond dealing with damaged goods.
“Well, maybe you’re not her type either,” Lydia continued. “She’s not someone you can push around to
your heart’s content.”
“I think she has a soft spot for Mario,” Antonio said.
“I’m taken,” Mario said.
“Margarita is not available,” Antonio chimed in. For some reason, he was obsessed with
commenting on Mario’s attraction to the receptionist.
“That’s a matter of opinion,” Lydia said.
“I’m referring to Isabel,” Mario emphasized.
Mario did find Rebecca physically attractive, but something about her
made him wary. His reserve had nothing
to do with the rumor of her having a sexual problem, which in those days he
viewed as a malady that had a simple remedy.
Something else about Rebecca disturbed him. The exact nature of the problem, difficult to
pinpoint, had something to do with her attachment to the Spanish language. Her speaking the language fluently, at first
perceived as a positive attribute, soon revealed an enigmatic side of her, an
obsession. She often insisted on using
Spanish when everyone else was speaking English. Mario suspected that her attraction to him
stemmed from that fixation, and a more intimate relationship with her would
hinge on constantly speaking in his native tongue and not in hers.
“What does that matter?” Antonio said when Mario confided his
observation of this quirk in her character.
“So you speak to her in Spanish while you hump. What’s the big deal?”
“I want women to love me, not the language I speak.”
“Joe Schmo,” Antonio retorted.
“I’m not saying you should marry her.
She just needs to get laid.”
“I’ll pass on this one. Besides I
have Isabel to think about.”
“I’m telling you,” his colleague continued. “You’ll be sorry.”
In appearance, Rebecca was unquestionably a beautiful woman. Back when they were first hired, during
orientation week, another rookie made his attraction to her very obvious. He
constantly made comments about her good looks, compliments she found annoying
coming from a clown. Obviously, he
lacked self-control, unable to repress the words that everyone else held like
dogs on a tight leash. Mario, too, that
first week noted Rebecca’s good looks, and he might have chased after her, had
he not already fixated on Isabel.
Rebecca’s oddity, unlike her physical beauty, which was visible across the
room, was much less obvious. On closer examination, her personal quirks become
evident except to those with their own loose screw. Initially, Mario sensed something strange
about her, but he could not pinpoint exactly what.
Antonio kept pointing out to Mario her obvious interest in him. “You’re blind,” Antonio repeated to his
friend, but Mario found Antonio’s observation unverifiable. “I’m telling you, she has the hots for you,”
became Antonio’s refrain. “And nothing
makes it more obvious than her flop in the restaurant.”
He was referring to the time when the staff had arranged to go out to
lunch, and Isabel, Mario’s interest at the time, at the last moment, decided to
join them, intending afterwards to continue to Kingsbridge to visit her mother. Seeing Isabel in the restaurant startled
Rebecca, and as if she were a competitive ice skater attempting to learn a new
routine, the distraction caused her to slip and hit the floor. No one else had a problem with the texture of
the floor, and anything amiss with Rebecca’s shoes was unverifiable. Even she
did not bother to blame her shoes.
Totally disoriented, she remained the focus of attention, a role Isabel
usually played without effort or intention.
A year later, Mario left the Employment Service, and he didn’t see
Rebecca again for some time.
Isabel departed on a trip to California to visit her sister. So one evening without a companion, he found
himself at the 92nd Street Y attending a reading by a Latin American poet.
Once he was seated, he looked to his right and spied Rebecca down the
aisle from him. He looked straight at
her and their eyes met. He waved to her. She turned her head and pretended not to have
He had failed to wave in Spanish.
STREETS town was snugly nestled at the foot of the mountain. The main street ran through the middle of the
conglomeration of houses, and the other wound along the river and merged with
the longer one halfway through town. The
sun beat down on the tin roofs of the huddled houses that seemed to be
whispering to each other. As a child, I
had an intense dislike for the town with its rundown structures and squalid
alleys where, in the rain, half naked children played in the mud.
Visiting relatives who lived on the mountain was an irksome duty, so
when my parents took me there, I was always eager to leave town and start up
the trail to Grandfather’s house, where I was sometimes left when my parents
needed time for themselves. Each stay in
that house was an adventure for me; it was so austere that my imagination was
free to embellish it at will. From the
inside, the bare beams and rafters made its strength clearly visible. In the morning, I would lie on my bed looking
at the wisps of smoke from the kitchen curl about the rafters and form into
nebulous shapes that would seep out through the thatched roof to disappear
forever. I was fascinated by the free
and uncontrollable nature of that smoke, more intractable and transparent than
the clouds in the sky, which my imagination often forced into recognizable
My grandfather was like the house, impressive and austere in
appearance. In spite his age, he was
slim and strong, and his bronzed countenance bore a look of unshakable
determination, as if it were carved from some stone that would forever resist
the assault of time and weather. He
projected his authority with a glance, so that when anyone in the household
committed any peccadillo the perpetrator tried to disappear for a while, hoping
that Grandfather would accumulate more pressing matters to attend to. The old man seldom lost his temper, but
everyone feared the devastating look that implanted guilt and remorse. I sometimes had the impression that I detected
the same quality in my father and hoped that it was a hereditary trait that
would eventually be manifested in me, but I have long since concluded that the
characteristic must be acquired through long experience in the world.
On a horse Grandfather cut a dashing figure. Watching him ride out to inspect the tobacco
fields, I saw the movement generated by the bones and sinews of the animal
mysteriously transferred to the man. Like
an electrical cell storing power, he retained within him the energy generated
by the animal. He was a man easily
idolized by those who knew him only casually.
He was what scores of women wished their husbands were and their sons
would become. In his younger days many
of them had succumbed to his forceful character, a fact attested to by several
illegitimate scions, all with different mothers. This behavior was thought scandalous by the
rest of the family, but there was no one to stand up to him. Everyone settled for gossiping behind his
My grandmother, as I gathered from snatches of overheard furtive
whispers, suffered everything with remarkable resignation. Even the last know incident, which provoked
from everyone more than the usual consternation, was weathered by my grandmother
with remarkable equanimity. The furor
arose from the unfortunate fact that the young woman involved committed
suicide. As rumor had it, Grandfather
got his favorite horse from the mayor of the town on a bet. He had long admired the animal, but the mayor
had refused to sell it, and to still Grandfather’s persistent queries had
proposed an infamous wager. To earn the
horse Grandfather had but to work his charm on Maria Chavez, a young lady
renowned for her beauty and notorious for her chastity, the stipulation being
that if he failed he was to stop importuning the mayor to sell the horse.
The scandalous talk began when Maria took her own life a few days after
Grandfather was seen proudly riding home on the mayor’s horse. That worthy official, of course, went up and
down the town heatedly denying his complicity thus giving credence to the
gossip. Grandfather behaved as if the
talk were about someone else, never condescending to show whether he was giving
the matter any thought. He was so
nonchalant about it that eventually people began to doubt that he was guilty,
and soon they conveniently forgot about the incident. Through all this, Grandmother impassively
went about the household tasks and every Sunday, under the gaze of pitying
neighbors, walking, rosary in hand, down the mountain trail to the parish
Though everyone believed that now the old man was ready to settle for
simple domesticity, I occasionally heard my mother comment on those “shameless
women” who came to the doors and windows of their houses to gaze at Grandfather
ride by. In my childhood, all this talk
was incomprehensible. To me, he was part
of the land, like the hills and the trees, only more so. He had the power to move others, yet he was
himself immovable. The trees were
felled, and the land plowed. Rows of tobacco
disfigured the sides of the hills. The
town spread like a cancerous growth on the land, but the old man remained
unchangeable and unperturbed.
Occasionally, my parents took me along to visit friends or relatives who
lived further up the mountain. Coming
back along the ridge after dark, I marveled at the patterns of light that
glowed against the velvet night from distant places that had already acquired
electricity. When we got home, there
would be a pot of chocolate on the fire and buxom young woman standing in the
kitchen ready to serve it. She was my
aunt, but being young and good-natured, she did not demand from me the rigid
conventions of respect that commonly go with that relationship. She told me jokes and played games with me,
or she just told me stories while I gazed at the fire.
At dawn, looking into the distance, I saw the mist undulating along the
contour of the land and covering the vegetation that clung to the earth like
green fur on the limbs of a great beast.
The mist disappeared each morning only to come back the next day; so
that after a while, I gave up wondering where it came from and took it for a
mystery like the Holy Trinity or the transmutation of bread and wine. When the mist cleared, the surface details of
the country could be discerned more precisely, but for me it remained
mysterious under its green wrap, my eyes traveling over the surface but never
penetrating into the heart of the hills.
Because I was yet too young, those hills refrained from revealing to me
some marvels that lurked on them, but at the time I only felt excluded as a
stranger. Sometimes the women went into the forest to gather wood, and I stayed
by the house waiting for the bent figures to return under enormous piles of
dead branches. And when they talked of
where they had been, I was filled with longing to see the places where the wood
was gathered, but I was too young to carry anything and would only be in the
way, besides I was a visitor, as if from another country, and everyone was
convinced that given the slightest opportunity, I would get lost in the woods.
Yet the lure of the forest and of the unknown country appealed to all
the senses and was not to be ignored.
Every day I wandered a little further from the house. Dew everywhere, my shoes became soaked as I
tramped through the forest, the ground spongy from dead vegetation. Water sprinkled my face as I brushed through
the shrubs. On some trees the bark had
peeled to display random design made brilliant by the moisture. I sought then out right after rain or early
in the morning before the dew evaporated.
I would return from these excursions soaking wet, and everyone in the
house would look at me and wonder at the strange obsession of walking through the
There was a spot I avoided, an old fallen tree whose twisted trunk made
it appear to be in violent contortion.
Its unusual form and the golden brown color of the rotting wood, here
and there covered with bright green moss, first attracted me. I walked around the tree examining it,
running the tip of my fingers over it surface.
The wood was brittle from age, and chunks of it chipped off at a
touch. Suddenly, I was seized by a
desire to see what was under it, though I had no reason to suppose there was
anything unusual. I put all my efforts
into rolling it over, and when I succeeded, I immediately recoiled in
disgust. Hundreds of small worms writhed
on the underside of the log and on the ground that it had covered. Their exposure to the light seemed to make
them writhe more violently. Quickly I
rolled the log back and hurried away from the spot.
Not too far into the forest there was a stream that cascaded down a
natural inclination. Tiny fish, no bigger than half an index finger, their
bodies composed of a clear gelatinous substance that revealed a bright red
internal streak, swam about in the pool at the bottom of the fall. The little creatures looked like they were
made of supple glass. I watched them
swim around the stones covered with bright green algae. Going there often compensated for the
unpleasant memory of discovering the secret of the log.
Sitting in the shade of the bamboo rushes on one side of the pool, I
began to suspect that I was not the only one that frequented the place. On arrival, I had noticed that the sand in
the pool had been disturbed and was in the process of once again settling to
the bottom. The pool was not on
Grandfather’s property, and I doubted that anyone else from the house would
stray that far for no apparent reason.
Neither was there a trail leading to the place. The nearest house was that of licenciado Lopez, our wealthy neighbor, but he and his
daughter did not spend much time there, so I had never met them, though I had
heard mush about the licenciado.
I was unwilling to give up the spot, and since after a while I noticed
that little alteration resulted from sharing it with someone else, I decided to
ignore the existence of the intruder.
Occasionally, I noticed the grass bent where someone had stepped or lain
on it, but it would always spring back.
I had nearly forgotten about my fellow visitor, when one day on my way
to the pool, I found a bird’s nest on a low branch of a sapling. There were two eggs in the nest, and I was
contemplating their spotted gray shells when I heard a voice behind me.
“Don’t touch then or the mother birds won’t come back to hatch them.”
I turned around to behold a young woman smiling at me. She had been bathing in the pool, her hair
wet and hanging down in thick strands over her plain brown dress. Her complexion was fresh and radiant, making
me wonder whether she was human or some supernatural being, like the ones in
the stories told to me at bedtime. She
did not say another word but went on her way disappearing as if magically into
She continued going to the pool, and several times we ran into each
other in the forest. On those occasions
she invariably flashed a charming smile, but we seldom exchanged words. Only once, when she came upon me while I was
examining some moss that grew at the base of a tree, did she speak at
length. She knelt down beside me and
began to tell me the names of the plants around us. Her voice had a musical quality, and I became
engrossed in the sound of it and did not catch the meaning of her words. I only thought of how strange and beautiful
she was. Back in the house, the return
of our neighbor and his daughter from a trip abroad was discussed in vague
terms, but I sensed an unusual sense of hostility. Intuitively, I knew to keep quiet about
seeing her on my excursions.
One day on arriving at the waterfall, I stood within the bamboo
grove. I was sure that she could not see
me through the foliage, bud she looked in my direction with her usual
smile. My carefully wrought conscience
capitulated without a struggle, and did not have the slightest compunction at
staying to watch her take off her clothes.
I thought of the tiny fish fleeing in all directions then stopping and
from a safe distance tolerate the intrusion.
The sun rays penetrated the foliage to illuminate her bare body. Her dark hair hung over her shoulder and
some, reflecting the sunlight, resembled golden strands. She walked into the water shadowed by the
bamboo thicket, the agitated sand at her feet rising in turmoil and settling
down again. The backdrop of silence was
torn by the cascading water and now and again was pierced by the hollow shriek
of an indifferent bird. Her body deflected spray across patches of light that
penetrated the foliage causing the colors of the rainbow appear.
Hearing a rustling of leaves behind me, I turned and saw Grandfather’s
startled expression gradually turn into one of disappointment, then into
rage. His angry face revealed a man
deprived of pleasure he felt he earned through the anguish of
anticipation. What right had a child to
be concealed in the bamboo grove to deprive an old man of remnants of a
miserable existence? He saw a conspiracy
of fate, of time, of death creeping up to mock him. He dragged me away. How grotesque he seemed then—this old man
venting his rage on life! In a moment of
terror my eyes lost the power to see colors, and the old man became a frail
shadow amid the towering monstrosities of the forest. He released me and, hoping to catch another
glimpse of the young woman, he slinked back to the bamboo grove.
When I calmed down, I looked up at the sky to see the clouds transform
into imaginary figures.
ADEMÁS SAT in the front seat of the Chevrolet as it moved slowly through the
outskirts of San Juan towards the center of the city. In the morning he had taken a shower, washed
his hair before applying the brilliantine that allowed him to shape it and
enhance his masculine look. In his youth
he had worked in the fields, had worn a straw hat until he discovered that showing
off his hair combed in a particular way made women take a second look. He had been only a teenager then, but the
habit of plastering his hair with the shiny substance persisted. After he married, he felt he needed the look
to keep his wife happy and to remind her that other women looked at him
The morning that he was to ride into San Juan, his wife served him
breakfast as usual. She had buttered the
bread for him and had placed it on the left side of the plate that held the two
eggs fried “bombita en cima.” The cup next to the plate contained half milk
half coffee. He sat at the table to eat
even though the smell of the food made him nauseous. He had not slept well, but that seemed to be
having a result adverse to the usual.
“Eat your breakfast,” she said.
“I’ll throw up,” he answered.
“Don’t go today,” she said.
The hesitancy in her voice proved to him that she really wanted him to
go. He would make his mark on the world
that day. His name would appear in the
history books, but more importantly he would prove to her that he was a man
beyond the ordinary.
“You don’t have to prove anything,” she said.
“You read my thoughts?”
“It’s simple enough to read what you put on your face.”
“Everything will be all right,”
“I know,” she answered.
He heard the sound of motor vehicles pulling up in front of the house,
and he gazed at the briefcase on the floor next to the book cabinet; on the top
shelf rested the RCA radio through which surely she would hear the news. The briefcase held the army pistol he had
acquired at a very good price. Getting
weapons was simple enough. Rifles could
be ordered through the Sears Roebuck catalogue, although that was not how he had
obtained the pistol. He had bought it
from someone who worked in the Santurce American army base. That was ironic. They would be struck with their own weapons,
although a real American was not this time the target.
The two cars had stopped in front of his house, but no one emerged to
knock on the door. They waited for him
to come out on his own. He kissed his
wife on the forehead, a gesture, as if in a soap opera with him the romantic
hero and she the heroine for whom a man would do anything. Yes, he would do anything for her, and
although what he was doing now was for everyone, he knew that she appreciated
his role. All of her life she had been a
supporter of independence. Her father
had believed in it, and she had followed without question, sometimes even more
emotional about it than the old man had ever been. Her mother said little but always did her
duty supporting the husband’s point of view.
Migdalia had her own stance and she would not change it for any
man. It was often the same as her father’s,
but she claimed that to be incidental.
He just happened to be right.
Once in the car, Tomas was thankful for the short distance from Rio Piedras to San Juan.
On route there was nothing really to talk about. All the planning had been done and everyone
understood the danger of the enterprise.
Only distraction was necessary to keep fear at bay. Raimundo, in the front seat with the driver,
did most of the talking. Once in a while
he turned his head back to glance at Tomas.
“This is our moment of glory,” he said, winking at Tomas, “So put a
smile on your face.”
At the dock, Don Fernando bought the ferry tickets. As they walked up the gangplank, the boy,
holding on to his father’s hand, gazed down into the green water. At the edge of the dock, boys in shorts,
their wet hair plastered to their foreheads, enticed by coins thrown by the
ferry passengers, waited to dive again.
Grinning, their teeth shinning, they dove and emerged holding up the
“Here, throw in a nickel,” Don Fernando said to his son.
The boy pondered to which of divers he should throw the nickel, while
they loudly urged him to throw it in. Giving up trying to decide which one
should get it, he closed his eyes and threw it up in the air to let chance
decide. Two of the boys dove once they
determined where the coin might hit the water, the others stayed in place to
await the next toss. Almost immediately,
the two who had dived resurfaced, one holding the coin up to show his success.
A peanut vendor walked by the isle crying out, “Mani, maní asado!”
Again, Don Fernando put his hand in his pocket to pull out a coin. He
passed it to the vendor who handed over a small bag of roasted peanuts. “Here, you hold the bag,” Don Fernando said
to his son. “I’ll crack them for you.”
“All right,” the boy said, handing a peanut up to his father.
Father and son stood by the side rail to watch the dock attendants lift
the heavy-rope loops from the mooring.
From the boat, another attendant pulled up the ropes winding them on the
“Now we’re going,” Don Fernando said.
As the boat backed away from the dock, the boys in the water swam after
it hoping more coins would be thrown in, but most passengers had moved away
from the railings to find seats in the cabin.
The boy and his father moved up to the front to watch the bow plow
through the water creating froth as it went.
The boat moved further from the shore, and after a short distance the
color of the water darkened.
“Look over there,” Don Fernando said pointing to birds that flew low
over the waves. Suddenly one dove and
emerged with a still flipping fish firmly in its beak. The boy was astounded as another bird dove
and also came up with a fish.
“What do they do with the fish?”
“They eat it. It’s their lunch.”
“Guts and all?” The boy inquired, remembering his mother in the kitchen
cleaning out the insides of a fish before frying.
“Of course,” the father said.
On arriving at the other side of
the bay, the boat slowly approached the dock.
The attendant hoisted the docking rope and threw it out to a fellow
worker on shore who placed the loop over the mooring post. After performing that at the bow, they moved
to the stern at a quick pace to repeat the process there. The gangplank went
down with a clank as the passengers lined up to disembark.
The boy firmly held on to his father’s hand. His heart beat faster. The view of the world momentarily curtailed
was soon restored as the passengers’ descent to the dock dissolved the fear of
“Here we are,” Don Fernando said. “This is the big town.”
The houses leading up to the
docks had no space between them, each touching the other. Seeing the two story structures for the first
time, the boy was astounded, and even more so when he gazed up at a three story
one, but as if height was not enough to marvel, some of the facades were
covered halfway up with brightly colored tiles.
“Tall house,” the boy said.
“You think so?” In New York there
are buildings that touch the sky.”
The boy heard his father’s words, but he failed to let them evoke an
image. The buildings in front of him
now, in the narrow stone paved streets, were enough to occupy his
imagination. They walked through a small
park that featured a little animal caged in an enclosure built around the trunk
of a tree. “That’s a squirrel,” Don
Fernando said to the boy. “There are
many of those in America, but that’s the only one here.”
The boy stared at the bushy tailed creature that now and again scurried
up the tree and on reaching the top of the enclosure and finding no place else
to go, scurried down again. Father and
son walked across and out of the small park, down a narrow street into the
business part of the city.
They stopped at a corner restaurant.
“Here we can have some American food,” Don Fernando said.
They sat at a table and Don Fernando spoke to the young waiter who
smiled down at the boy who, except for cornflakes, had never eaten American
“Oh, you’ll like American cheese,” he said to the boy who wondered what
could possibly make cheese American. He
knew white cheese, which was watery and eaten at Christmas with guava, and
there was the hard round cheese eaten at all other times. As far as he knew only those two kinds of
cheeses existed in his world that consisted of only three places: this island
where he lived; Spain, from where Columbus had sailed to discover the island;
and America, to where people now went never to be seen again.
The waiter returned with the order.
“Cheese sandwich for you,” he said to the boy, who stared at the strange
forms on the plate. He had never seen
that kind of bread before, white, flat, and evenly grained. In between the bread slices, diagonally cut
into two triangles, protruded an ornate toothpick that looked like of a banderilla stuck on a bull in the arena.
“Go ahead and taste it,” his father said.
The combination of the white bread and dark yellow cheese had a novel
taste, pleasant enough though not something he would look forward to having
again the way he longed for those yellow rolls of bread the priest had given
out in school one day. The boy had loved
that bread, but there was no place in town to buy it, and he could not figure
out how Father Alfonso had obtained it.
“Now that’s an American sandwich,” Don Fernando said, winking at his
In an attempt to prevent nausea from overcoming him, Tomas looked
straight ahead through the front window as if he were driving the auto. Today he had been nauseous even before
getting into the car, one of the reasons why he had refused to eat, though he
had failed to explain that to Migdalia: without breakfast he would have nothing
to throw up. But now he thought that if
there was no food just bodily bile would emerge and that was equally
“There’s nothing to worry about,” Raimundo said, “We’ll be in and out in
no time at all. Think of it as your
Tomas thought about what luck might mean. The first part was to hit the target. The Governor’s Palace was a huge place. How would they know what room he was in? While planning, they had assumed that he
would be in his office, but there was no way to assure that. He might be, on their arrival, in the men’s
room. If there was more than one near
his office, which one did he use? Would
the location of a private one be apparent?
Tomas imagined the governor in the bathroom emptying his bladder. In that pose he was a man just like anyone
else. What right had anyone to kill
him? Had God delegated the right to take
a life without the permission of the state or the church? The state was in enemy hands, so then only
the Pope could approve such an act, and there was no such approval. Don Pedro was a devout Catholic, but he had
no document from the Pope authorizing the liquidation of anybody. If he had, he
had failed show it or even mentioned it.
To kill was a mortal sin, and yet to kill the enemy was a
necessity. The nausea brought up the
dilemma: too late to change his mind even if he had a change of heart. But the discomfort of traveling in a car, the
nausea, caused by moving faster than was natural for a human, might be really
the problem, having nothing to do with the mission that was, after all, meant
in good will as a gift to the people.
That too had a moral sustenance.
God had made us a people, and we had the right to keep God’s will from
On reaching the city, they drove along la Avenida de Cristobal Colon. The day suddenly took on a brightness Tomas
had not expected, as if he had never before been through these streets. The sunlight revealed to him details which he
had ignored until that moment, when he lacked the leisure to take a closer look
at what had been there all of his life.
Yellow seemed to be the dominant color, giving the city a golden hue, as
they moved into the old section that had been there for several centuries. An internal voice urged Tomas to close his
eyes. Everything he saw was an urge
against what he was about to do. If he
closed his eyes he would keep the reflection of the sun on the historic stones
from altering his purpose.
“What if the gates are closed?” Raimundo asked Enrique, the driver, as
if the thought had just entered his mind and the subject had not been discussed
before. Indeed it had, and it had been
decided that if that were the case, Pepe, who was riding in the lead car, was
to rush the gate and force it open after shooting the guards.
“It’ll be open,” Enrique said.
That quieted Raimundo. The car turned into Calle Fortaleza, and the gate came into view.
“We’ll take a walk down to the Governor’s Palace,” Don Fernando said to
the boy as they emerged from the restaurant.
“El Morro?” the boy asked.
“No, that’s an old fort. In the
old days it kept away the pirates. Now
it’s just a sight for the tourists.”
“Are we tourists?”
Don Fernando laughed. “We’re
citizens, so we’ll visit the governor.”
As father and son approached the corner of Fortaleza and San Jose two
autos were slowly progressing down the narrow street.
“We’ll just follow those cars taking important people to meet with the
“We’ll he see us?”
“Sure, he will. I voted for him,
and you’ll vote for him when your turn comes.”
“All right,” the boy said.
Walking down Fortaleza, Don Fernando observed that one of the
automobiles stopped, and one of its riders stepped out to look at the right
rear wheel. “It looks fine,” the man
said. “Check the other side,” the driver instructed. The checker walked behind the vehicle to
inspect the tire on the left side. He
gazed at it intently to assure that he was making an accurate observation. “We haven’t got all day,” the driver shouted
as Don Fernando and his son passed by.
The driver looked up, and he turned his face away in annoyance as if he
were in danger of losing a race to the palace and would lose his turn to see
“We’ll get there first,” Don Fernando said to the boy, who remained
unaware of what his father meant.
The gate was indeed closed.
Raimundo exclaimed as if he had expected an easy entrance.
“Calm down, Pepe will take care of it,” Enrique assured him as the auto
came to a halt.
A few seconds elapsed before they realized that the second car was not
immediately behind them.
he’s not here,” Raimundo said. He opened
the car door and stepped out before Enrique could stop him. Raimundo kept the sub-machine gun lowered as
he walked to the other side of the car, but once there he lifted it and fired
at the lock.
“He’s insane,” Enrique said also stepping out, weapon in hand.
Two guards had immediately responded from the gate but one had
fallen. Now there was gunfire coming
from the second story of the palace.
Just as the second car pulled up, Tomas, on the side away from the
building, emerged from the auto. He
turned to see Raimundo fall, the force of the bullets pushing his body backward
causing him to fall face up gazing at the sky.
Enrique too was hit and expletives emerged from his mouth as he kept
firing. Tomas considered throwing down
his gun and putting up his hands, but fire was still coming from the second car
and surely they must have noticed that he had not yet fired a single shot. They would tell Migdalia that he had done
nothing, and her disdain would render his death meaningless. The second car, instead of backing up and
taking flight, was still there, and Tomas took that as a sign of their
courage. In reality, the driver had been
hit, and his body lay over the steering wheel making it impossible, under the
circumstances, to regain control of the automobile.
Tomas raised his weapon and was about to turn and fire when he noticed
the man and the boy stunned into paralysis by the action in front of them. “Lie down, you fools!” he shouted at them, forgetting
for an instant that the danger he was pointing out to them was a threat to him
also. He moved from behind the auto
towards the unexpected viewers, but suddenly remembering where he was, he
turned to fire. He was startled by the strange
effect of his action. On hearing the
sound caused by the explosion that propelled the bullet, he was suddenly
confronted with a view of the sky, across which a solitary bird seemed to be
progressing toward an eternal destination.