Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Last Call to Carlos

          Carlos wished the English voice on the phone would shout and curse at him like his mother’s voice shouted and cursed at him. He understood her language even when she did not speak. Her eyes made him physically guilty. The guilt spread up and down his body like a widespread contagion. It made him want to cover up and hide himself in a darkened closet corner. She gave ample cues for him to figure out what she was thinking. He knew the significance of her tone and the twitch of her lips. His life with her was a round by round bout of blessing and cursing.            

           He had appeased his women too often, he thought. He had broken the code. He did not feel like her child anymore although she made him feel guilty if he failed to return to her the respect that was her right. Even against her tirades, when she tried to move him to action, he remained unmoved. She still had dignity and would to the end abide by the community standard. A man who has no woman must return to his mother, to his origins, and it was Carlos’ mother who had made the man just as her mother had made her brothers. This is part of the code and why the men were served first at the table.

            Carlos had returned and this gave his mother an opportunity to gauge him. Marisol had gone and now, Carlos had no clean socks and he could not find his belt. He had slept in a sweat and his bed was wet. He was not hungry and if he were hungry, he could not taste. He could not muster any spit of his own.  He could not curse or bless. He needed to fix himself, shave, and be out on the mountain with his mother’s chickens.

     "¡Bago puto!" she called him. He was still in bed and half asleep. He had not gotten up before she put his medicine on the kitchen table. He was not expecting her. He had missed the morning call of his famous gallo. His gallo strutted about his quarter in even and deliberate steps watching over his hens. He was a reliable bird and the hens knew his call. He was the first to eat when Carlos threw out the grit.

            Carlos’ day would be long now and he would need beer or someone to ask him for a favor to set the day right. He never tired of doing favors. He knew his people. He knew that favors turned to expectation in Mata de Caña. Things were expected of him and this gave him reason to get out of bed. If he could, he would sleep his day away in the long dark shadows of his cool cement house with screens until five o’clock when he would start his walk to the colmado. It was his right. He collected social security but still, there were those expectations.

            His mother stood at the doorway to his bedroom. He was ready for her to judge him as was her right since she had given him light, birthed him. And because he had no woman and he had a house, it was her right to clean his clothes, cook for him, and judge him. It was his fault. It was what had been expected and he must live up to the expectations of a man and it was his mother’s calling and the calling of her mother and her mother's mother before her. This was the code of the mountains. The code defined a man’s and a woman’s role and unless you left the mountains for the lowlands along the coast and watched tourists or spent time in the United States where taboos were forgotten, it was reliable and safe. There was a code too for fixing mistakes. This morning he wondered about his father who his mother cursed and in his old age had become unreliable.

            His father had a bad liver but he still painted his hair and still took the opportunity to chase middle-aged women. He was living with Carlos’ half-sister in Toa Alta who was happy to have him because he collected social security. Carlos had not seen his father for a long time and doubted if he would even recognize him. Carlos got to know his father briefly in between his two stepfathers. It was said that his father had made seventeen children and that it was a shame that his oldest son, Carlos, was not as reliable. In the mountains, a man had a right to as much land and to as many women that he could attend to. When Carlos’ mother was young, she was a much wanted woman who deserved reliable men who could attend to her.

     “¿Como?” Carlos said caught halfway between dreaming and waking. He turned in his sheet and buried his aching head in his flat pillow. He had drunk too much beer and cañita in the colmado last night. The beer was cold and the cañita sweet. Between his mother’s ranting and the sound of clattering metal in the kitchen, Carlos had caught glimpses of the dream about the pig he had roasted. Marisol had named her Cassandra after a Dominican friend she had known in college who was round and full like a sow and had stolen her purse and social security card. Carlos' two boys had fed the sow in her pen behind Doña Monim’s house. The pig was important. She gave more pigs. She and her children sanctified births, quinceañeras, weddings, holidays, and deaths. She meant everybody would eat.

            When she became old and could make no more children, Carlos had slaughtered her for all of the residents of Mata de Caña. People from the town of Orocovis who had expected beer had heard of the pig roast and walked the hard, slow distance up the mountain to take their share. It was their right. It was expected. The killing of the sow was symbolic; it was the reason the people called old women jamona, ham, when they had no man and could give no more children.

     In the dream, he was standing with Cassandra on an iron grate somewhere on a street in an English-speaking city. Maybe it was New York, Philadelphia, or Hartford, Connecticut. The pig was sitting on her hind legs and she was laughing. Carlos was standing at her side while urinating into the grate. They both watched the traffic on the street and the people entering and leaving stores. It could have been Christmas because the people were wearing coats and scarves and steam rose from the grate.

            He had butchered Cassandra. Her meat was good and everybody ate well including the children who had to wait for their mothers to serve them. No one thanked Carlos because it was expected. Carlos had very little meat to save because the women of Orocovis brought their empty tin cans of Campbell’s Soup and filled them to take home. Even though the pig's butchering was his by right, he did not own her. He had not labored to fatten her and that was his right, too. He had not attended to her well just as he had not attended well to Marisol. Doña Monim had cleaned her pen and his two boys had slopped her.

            “¿Como que?” his mother said.

            “Aprende el café," Carlos said. 

            She obliged him. She acquiesced to what little manhood he had left. She disappeared around the corner. She would be gone quickly this morning, reprieving him from her bad mouth and constant reminders that he had no woman.

     Carlos' mother was disgusted with her oldest son because he lost his woman and now for the past three years, she had to find a way up the mountain from Orocovis to bring him food and clean his clothes. It was his right to mourn her loss and be offended for a time, maybe, for a week, but that was three years ago. Carlos had become unreliable like an old gallo that was ready for the asopao. Since his woman left, he had aged much. This morning, his mother had left him enough rice and beans to eat all day. There was no chicken in the rice because he had not cleaned one for her to cook yesterday and since his refrigerator did not work; his government cheese would not keep very long. She covered the plate of rice and beans with the white, dirty dishtowel she used to dry the dishes to keep off the flies.

            The screen door squeaked open and banged shut. She picked up a silver pitcher of milk on a plastic chair and chased away the flies. She had milked the goat before waking Carlos. The goat was tied with a frayed rope on a rusty pipe under a mamón tree that dropped quenepas that the goat ate that caused it to have diarrhea. As she passed the goat, she slapped it on its head for luck.

            I wish my son was as reliable as this goat, she thought. She walked down the sloping hill, careful not to slip on the quenepas, to the road to wait for a car, truck, or cart to give her a ride back down the mountain to Orocovis. She was feeling the fatigue and would stop at the clinic and talk to the doctor about her unreliable son who had made her ill.

            Doña Monim, Carlos’ neighbor, shouted from her kitchen window asking if Carlos was up yet. Carlos' mother shook her head no, waved, set the pitcher of milk next to Doña Monim's mailbox, and looked around to find something to cover the pitcher.

     "¿Que busca'?"  asked the man who lived up the road in the yellow house. She had not noticed him sitting across the road. He had been hiding from his wife behind a group of burned trees on the side of the mountain that the men had started to clear last year and forgotten. The man had broken his promise to his wife and would not work today.

     "Algo," Carlos' mother said. She picked up a dried plantain leaf that a banana truck had flattened, placed it on top of the pitcher, and walked down the road passed the hiding man who smiled.

     "Maricon," Carlos' mother muttered. The hiding man heard her and smiled revealing a missing front tooth.

     Carlos’ mother got all the daily news about her son from Doña Monim. Her other sons were doing very well and had many children and many women for Doña Monim to talk about. Her sons had all stayed close to her in the mountain town of Orocovis. She could rely on them.

            She lived with her youngest son and his wife in Botijas 1, a barriada of Orocovis. Her youngest son worked for the electric company and had two children, one to his wife who was expecting, and another to a woman who moved to the United States and did not want him to follow. Her other sons never went to America or wasted their time fighting for America in any of their wars as Carlos had done. The war had made Carlos unreliable. All of the people she knew still received government cheese and none of them fought in America's wars. It was not worth the pain, she thought.

     She prayed to the Virgin that Carlos would find another woman. She was plotting with Doña Monim to get him together with the woman up the hill in the yellow house who needed screens in her windows. Carlos had plenty of money for screens and could afford the woman and her one child. Carlos' mother thought the woman's husband was weak and silly and either liked boys or was a little retarded. He never hit his wife and because he did not, she thought that his wife could not rely on him. If a man did not attend to his woman well, he had no right to her. The man walked a little bent over, never raising his head, but he always seemed to have a smile on his face.

     He was not of Orocovis. She was sure he was from Villalba because she knew there were many queers there. Carlos' mother and Doña Monim figured that the woman who lived in the yellow house must be discontent since she could not make her husband jealous. They did not really like the man's wife either. She wasn't from Orocovis. She was from Naranjito, a town on the other side of the mountain known as the town of crows. It was known that the people there had bad hair. She was twenty-three and had married late and married a weak, unreliable man and because of that, they thought she might have been a loose woman in Naranjito, a puta, but at least someone wanted her and that was better than being a woman who still lived with her mother or jamona. That must be why she moved to the other side of the mountain they thought; to get away from her mother.

     Carlos smelled the coffee and another pungent, acrid smell, The smells came together at the back of his throat and burned. As he got up, he felt the dampness on the mattress. He had wet himself during his dream about Cassandra. He got up and dropped his wet boxer shorts on the floor, and lit a Winston. He turned the mattress over. Beneath the mattress was a bundle of newspaper wrapped in twine. He took the bundle, his cup, and his toothbrush and went into the bathroom. He washed with cold water, and got dressed. He put the bundle of yellowed newspapers on the kitchen table and turned on the radio. He was sitting at the kitchen table when the phone rang. He shared phone service on a party line with Doña Monim. Doña Monim had told him that if the phone rang more than three times, she would not answer. He let it ring. He could not imagine who it might be since it was so early, then remembering that the call might be from Esteban, quickly picked up the phone. Esteban owed him money for a favor.

     "Hello. Hello Carlos?" the voice said. "Carlos. Is that you?" It was an English voice.

     "Si. Si. Is Carlos," Carlos said smelling his fingers.

     “It’s Bill Gordon, Carlos. Abogado. Abogado. Lawyer, Carlos,” the English voice said.

     “Si. Misser Gordon,” Carlos said. Carlos had not heard from the lawyer for months but he knew what he wanted. Somewhere in the house were the divorce papers that the lawyer wanted him to sign.

     "Carlos. Turn down the radio, please. I can hardly hear you," the English voice said.

            Carlos was listening to the agricultural report from San Juan. No rain today so the women of Mata de Caña would expect their men to work and would bother them if they didn’t. He got up and slowly walked to the kitchen counter and shut off the radio. He looked out the kitchen window and saw Doña Monim in her patio. She would not listen on the phone. On the way back to the table, he opened the warm refrigerator and took out a plastic bottle of ketchup. There was a half-empty can of beer in the refrigerator. He touched the can of beer. It was still cool and he thought, he must have come home very late last night and missed the call of his gallo.

     Carlos drank some beer, set the can of beer on the table, sat down, and picked up the phone. He wondered if Doña Monim was listening and take the news back to his mother. His legs were too tired and his pants were falling down because he had no belt. He closed his fist and pulled it to his forehead. His head ached. He pushed back a wide strand of long black hairs that had fallen across his brow held together in a pencil-like wisp by a homemade pomade of pearl ash and coconut oil, wiped his nose with his wrist, and finished the beer. His narrow, unshaven face contorted, making his high cheekbones appear even more protruded. He was wearing a white long sleeve shirt. The collar was frayed and gray. The shirt was unbuttoned and a size or two too large and he folded the sleeves to his elbows. His gray, polyester pants were too short for him. He liked them that way and always bought his pants two inches shorter. He obsessed about it. He could not stand the feel of wet pants around his ankles because it reminded him of Vietnam. His feet were always wet there. He could not find his belt that made him hold his pants up at the hip. He had put on his black dress shoes this morning but he wore no socks. They will bury me in these shoes, he thought.

     The abraded cuts on Carlos' knuckles burned. They had scabbed over during the night. He had washed the cuts clean during his morning's wash and they were seeping. He had abraded his fingers doing a favor for Esteban. Esteban's car had broken down at the colmado. It had been parked in front of the colmado for a week. The car had irritated the owner of the colmado who was very possessive and cheated the men of Mata de Caña when they were too drunk to count their change.

            Carlos put the black phone down on the red wooden kitchen table while the English voice on the phone continued to talk. He uncovered the plate and squeezed the plastic bottle of ketchup over the rice and beans. It was almost empty. He kissed the gold wedding band on his thin brown fingers, smudged gray from grease, and blessed himself, thanking Jesus and the Virgin for his food. He did not mention his mother in his benediction. His fingers were sticky from the bottle of ketchup and he was not hungry. Carlos covered the rice and beans with the dirty white towel. The ketchup soaked through the towel making it appear like a round wound. He rubbed his hands on his pants to be rid of the stickiness and picked up the phone.

            Mr. Gordon did not talk like a man at least not like any of the men Carlos knew in the little barriada of Orocovis called Mata de Caña except maybe for the man who lived up the hill in the yellow house who was always very nice and made Carlos uncomfortable. If it had been a woman's voice, he would have interpreted it as a voice coaxing his affections. All English voices made him feel that way. This voice was deep, smooth, and slow and the anomaly of tone and intonation made him shiver as if scratching fingernails on slate. All English voices had a logic about them that read and measured him. He was helpless against the voice because it forbade him to use the grammar of his machismo. It was an American voice and very correct and proper: a voice that did not understand the rightful place of a man.

     Carlos knew what Mr. Gordon wanted. That did not bother him. The tone bothered him. He felt that the tone of the voice was lowering him down; down farther than even his mother’s tone could lower him. Down farther than even the English army voices had lowered him. Down so far to a point that he could not reach and remain Carlos, the cuckold of Mata de Caña. Marisol was fulfilling the code she had learned from her mother with the man who had made him a cuckold. Carlos was afraid that the boys in the barriada would mock him using their fingers to make horns on their heads, and afraid that his sons would never visit him so he could teach them their manhood lessons.

            It was proper for him to sign the divorce papers, to cut Marisol from himself. A better man than he would not do so. After all, she might want to return to him, he thought, after the reliable gringo rejected her baby for its color. Carlos had counted on this calculation and whether or not his calculation was correct, the inequality would always remain a logarithm of his colonial worldview. He feared this dark lowliness because there was nothing to grab around the neck and pummel. His medication did not stop the downward pull and his mother did not leave him the money she had promised him for detergent to hand wash his sheets. He would trick her and get his revenge by buying beer with the money. Ever since Marisol left, his mother attended to his money and he believed she had been giving it away to his brothers' women.

     The fresh, cool morning was disappearing into a pool of silver and green sunlight that reflected through the broad, green foliage of the uncleared quarter of land that bordered Doña Monim’s property on to the east side of Carlos' white cement block house. The broad foliage and vines would be half-way across the open space alongside of his house by three o’clock. By tomorrow, the vines would entangle the chicken coop if he did not take his machete to them. His mother had cut back the uncleared quarter the last time but she warned him that she was not his woman and that she would not clear it again.

            A green and brown lizard that had mustered all of its reptile energy had left the uncleared quarter early to bathe in the sunlight on the edge of Carlos' roof. It had been awake all night and awake when Carlos' rooster called before he came home. It was an old lizard and ignoring the wisdom of its years had risked it all to cross the dangerous open space that Carlos was supposed to keep clear for his mother's chickens. This time, it had avoided the feral cats that ran loose and scavenged in Mata de Caña. His hunger had trumped his wisdom. The lizard had been unsuccessful hunting during the night because it was old and slow and needed a little luck. It was hoping for an easy kill on Carlos' roof.

     "Carlos? Carlos. Are you there?" the voice said.

     "Si. Yes," Carlos said.

     "You have the papers? Carlos, you have the papers, yes?” the voice said.

     "No es mi culpa," Carlos said. He rubbed the phone into the side of his head and if he positioned it just right, it cooled the blood from flowing into a throbbing vein that was causing his headache. Carlos wandered where his mother had put his medication.

            “Carlos? Carlos?” the voice said.

            It was Mr. Gordon’s voice. Gordon had tried several times to coax Carlos to sign the divorce papers. Gordon was a lawyer. He had been raised in Interboro, was smart enough to get a draft deferment to attend Temple, and got a law degree at Widener. He never returned to Interboro and told people he was from Paoli which was close enough to Philadelphia's Main Line to give him a pedigree. He had made it out and was the first man in his family of grinders and welders to escape the Philadelphia Naval Yard.

             Sunlight had begun to come through Carlos’ windows as the sun rose higher and circled around to the edge of the uncleared quarter that marked the border between Carlos' property and Doña Monim's. Carlos reached his long thin arm behind himself without looking to turn off the light on the corner table. The room became brighter when Carlos found the switch and shut off the light. The old faded white lampshade had given the room a dull yellow, almost amber hue when the light was on. It was Marisol's light and her mother's light before it was hers and she had left it with him. It was the light Marisol left on for Carlos when he was late coming home so he would not fall or knock something over just as Marisol's mother had left the light on for her father so he would not fall or knock something over after returning from a colmado or after returning from one of his women. Carlos had knocked it over and fixed it many times but he never came home from another woman. Carlos had come to depend on Marisol too much and that made him unreliable and it forced Marisol to distance herself from him. A man was not his wife’s friend and Marisol had become Carlos’ best friend. Marisol's mother had left her a large iron cooking pot, too, but Marisol had dropped or thrown it years ago and cracked it. Carlos used the large, cracked pot for goat food.

     "No.... It... is...not... your...fault," the lawyer said pausing after each word to make sure Carlos understood. He wondered if he had conceded too much. The lawyer had learned from the corner boys of Interboro who used to tease him because he was overweight and not good at sports never to concede to weakness. When he heard Carlos' crying, in lawyer-like fashion, he knew he had gained an advantage. The lawyer understood some Spanish but he had to think to speak it. He remembered some Latin. He had received the sacrament in Latin in church when he was a boy from Father Ranson who liked him because he sang well and because he was so round. He filled out his vestments as an altar boy.

            "Mea culpa,“ the lawyer smiled and drew a line across the yellow legal pad dividing the page in half. Tom, Marisol’s lover, did not understand. He shifted forward in his chair. The lawyer promised himself that when he filled half the page with notes, he would end the session whether Carlos signed the papers or not. He wondered how long this call would last before they lost the connection.

     "Marisol, she contenta?" Carlos asked.

     "She is very contenta, Carlos. She is being well taken care of. You need not worry. What's the word for worry?" the lawyer asked Marisol reaching behind him to cover the speakerphone on his desk with his hand.

     "Preocupado," Marisol said.

     "It is best for everybody," the lawyer said. "Carlos, you need to get along with your life, too." Carlos misunderstood what the lawyer meant by get along. Carlos thought that the lawyer meant that he should be cooperative and sign the divorce papers. Carlos had not gotten along with anybody for the last twenty years ever since he returned from Vietnam, but he had a knack for fixing things like lawn mower motors and toasters and because of that, he had earned the nickname, Cubano.

            Marisol sat close to Tom with her long legs crossed and hands folded in her lap. Her elbows rested on the arms of the chair. She wore a long black skirt with a slit that revealed the bottom of her flank. She wore a yellow turtleneck. Yellow was her favorite color and when she was with Carlos, when the Naranjito woman moved next door to her, she encouraged the Naranjito woman to get Carlos to paint her house yellow. Marisol had hoped Carlos would befriend the Naranjito woman. She hoped that Carlos might begin treating her more like a wife. Carlos already had two sons by another woman and Marisol thought that if Carlos made a baby for the Naranjito woman, the people of Mata de Cana would have more respect for him and think him more reliable. She knew Carlos had become too dependent upon her, made her a friend and not a wife, and for this reason she had to leave. She was too young to accept a weak and unreliable man who needed her more than he wanted her. Carlos’ mother knew that Marisol had tried her best and because she lived by the code of the mountains still had a right to respect.

             “Por favor. May I have a cup of coffee?” Marisol asked the lawyer.

            “Sure. Monica.” Mr. Gordon said. The secretary got up from the desk and came into the office.

            “Yes, Mr. Gordon,” the secretary said.

            “Monica. Is there any coffee left?” the lawyer asked.

            “Yes, but I’ll make new if you’d like,” the secretary said.

            “No. That’s all right. I take old. Old is good,” Marisol said. Marisol got up to walk out with Monica to get the coffee.

            “That’s all right. I’ll make new,” the secretary said.

            “I go with you, OK?” Marisol asked.

            “OK, come on,” the secretary said. Marisol and Monica walked toward the secretary’s desk and smiled at one another. Marisol thought that Monica was pretty and that she would do well in Orocovis.  Many men would want to attend to her if only she spoke Spanish.  The way Monica walked in her tight clothes reminded her of the older women of Orocovis who after having enough children tried to get younger men to attend to them.

            “How long have you known Tom?” Monica asked.

            “Almos’ three year,” Marisol said. “I meet him when I left my husband.”

            “Is he a good lover,” Monica whispered.

            “Yes, two or three time every night,” Marisol said making sure Monica could measure how much Tom attended to her and how much he wanted her.

            "And da girl, mi hija? She happy?" Carlos asked. Even though Marisol's daughter was not Carlos' biological daughter, he still called her his daughter because he was the only father she had known.

     The lawyer looked at Marisol as she returned to the office with coffee. Marisol nodded and with a hand gestured motioned to the lawyer to ignore the question but Mr. Gordon thought he should grasp this opportunity to leverage the child to get Carlos to move on the papers.

     "Yes. Yes. Everybody is happy, Carlos. We want you to be happy, too." the lawyer said. “The papers Carlos. Do you still have the papers?”

            Marisol did not feel sorry for Carlos. She had been a good mother to his two sons, and had promised him babies but he failed. That had been part of their arrangement, but Carlos had been unreliable and this made Marisol look bad to the other women of Orocovis. Marisol had often intervened between Carlos and the boys when Carlos was not on his medication. She had spoken with them a week before she left and they had kept her secret from their father. They knew she had to leave, that she had a right to have more babies, and they knew that she had given Carlos enough time. They were with him because of Marisol and they would return to their mothers, just as their father had returned to his mother, after she had gone.

     "No preocupado. No preocupado," the lawyer said into the phone.

     "I wan' to give her some money," Carlos said.

     The lawyer turned to Tom and Marisol. Both shook their heads no but the lawyer sensing an easy kill would not let go.

     "What would you like to do, Carlos?" the lawyer said.

     "I give to her fifty dollar a month," Carlos said.

     "OK, Carlos but that's not necessary, you know," the lawyer said. “If you want to give your daughter money, you have to sign, Carlos. You have to sign the papers and mail them to us. OK?  I’ll do the paperwork to take money from your government check.”

     The lawyer's office door was open to the small anteroom where the lawyer's secretary sat at her desk next to the door. She was wearing a short, tight blue skirt, matching jacket, and a white blouse with a large white bow tied tightly at the neck. The skirt complimented her narrow hips. If she had been wearing knickers, she would have passed for Gainsborough’s Blue Boy against the dark wood and layers of brown covered books that surrounded the lawyer’s windowless office. The lawyer had to be in court after lunch and the secretary wondered if he would have the time to choose his pleasure before his appetite today.

     The secretary gave herself willingly to the lawyer like she had given herself willingly to the boys who made big promises to her in the old Interboro neighborhood. She had a high school diploma, was unskilled, and expected to have to perform beyond the job description. She had guessed that at her interview. The lawyer told her there were many more women more qualified and experienced who had applied for the job. She, too, was anxious to finish her work in Center City, put something on the table for her husband in Upper Darby, and take her ten year old daughter, her only child, to the dance studio in Newtown Square.

            She had dreams of moving to the suburbs, perhaps even as far as West Chester, where her daughter would lose her bad friends; a place where she would have a little open space and a patio to learn how to grow tomatoes and sunflowers. She was in a hurry. She and her husband had moved from Interboro to Upper Darby because she had heard the Irish were keeping the Blacks out of there. However, they were unable to stop the Asians mostly Vietnamese who had been victims of an unpopular war not of a popular culture. They were more determined, much quieter, and had yet to experience the broken promise of the American dream. A Mexican family had also moved to her street and she knew she must save her money quickly. One of the boys in the Mexican family was her daughter's age and friendly, and she was worried that the value of her home might fall. She knew that she would get to the suburbs someday if the lawyer kept their secret and her husband kept his promise to drink only one day a week with his friends. They were banking her monthly check and never drew on her account except for emergencies.

     Tom was anxious to leave the lawyer’s office. He had missed breakfast and had broken his promise to Marisol to have breakfast with her at the Melrose Diner before meeting the lawyer. He had called her to warn her that he was going to be late this morning because he was launching a new crew of Mexican workers. He had bought his third truck and had promised his best foreman, a Mexican who took care of his tools and never missed work, a raise so that he would train the new crew.   Marisol was not used to a man making excuses. The men Marisol had known were deliberate. Tom would not work today but instead spend the time, before picking up Marisol’s daughter at school, with Marisol. He had not attended to her for two days and was worried for the first time in his life that his business might be getting more attention than it deserved. Tom wanted to be with Marisol and thought that he might be in love, but having never been in love before, he wasn't sure. Maybe, he wanted someone with whom he could share his life and that it was time to do so before he, like Marisol said, would have to paint his hair to find a young woman.

     Tom had paid the lawyer more than he deserved to secure Marisol's divorce almost twice as much as his usual fee. There would be extra work for the lawyer's secretary. There would be extra costs, too, for the subcontracted work of translating documents in writing into Spanish and postage. There would be the cost of long-distance phone calls, too. He had picked one the most prominent and political law firms in the city to handle the divorce. He had done tree work for one of the firm’s partners on the Main Line but the lawyer who took Tom's case was not a partner and considering his age and antsy demeanor was well past his prime and probably never would be a partner.

     Tom's business had just begun to take on a life of its own. He no longer needed to seek out customers having secured his first city contract to trim and down trees along Roosevelt Boulevard. He had also secured a city contract to plow snow from city garages and stadium parking lots during the winter when his workers returned home and there was no tree work except for storm damage which he preferred to handle himself because of the guaranteed lucrative insurance claims. He could afford to wait two days to return phone calls and select the best jobs by over-estimating a bid if he didn't want the job and under-estimating the competition if he wanted it. Tom was glad he had chosen to work for himself and to have no partners. The only partners he needed were his workers who always came back to him from the south when the weather became warmer in the Spring.

     Tom sympathized with his lawyer and figured that if he could solve a problem with money and maintain his anonymity and discretion, he was very lucky. He thought it just another business expense like securing green cards for his workers. It was all part of the job, Tom thought, and one more step for the lawyer to become a partner in his firm, become an important Philadelphia lawyer with his own office with a window on Spruce Street, or perhaps a judge in the court of common pleas. It was all part of doing business in the city Tom thought and he didn't mind paying the lawyer more than he deserved as long as he got a return for his investment. The lawyer had to make sure his wife was happy, too, and that his kids had a well-insured father in case he were to drop dead when he finally accepted that he would never become a partner.

     Tom had won Marisol, won her completely from another man, and taken her from her brother who lived on Rising Sun Avenue. She was not like the wives of his other Hispanic workers. Her large black eyes were calm and discerning. Her flowing black hair touched the middle of her back but she did not carry it pretentiously. She wore it up most of the time giving her a professional look. She was confident and direct when she spoke imperfect English. She had lived in Manhattan and attended PS 220 as a teenager. Marisol was twenty-nine and did not walk as if hobbled from holding too many children on her side. Tom was not her first or second lover, but he was sure that whoever had been her lovers, it had been Marisol who had chosen them because she wanted them, not because she needed them.

            Tom's business grew because of his ability to intuit how much a customer would pay for a job. Tom sensed that Marisol like him had this kind of intuition to estimate value. He could out-estimate even the most experienced tree men. His estimates were not always the lowest, though, and this earned him the respect of the competition and a footnote in Philadelphia Magazine. He did not advertise but relied on word-of-mouth to sustain and augment his clientele.

     Carlos' cement block house kept him cool on the days he could not find money to drink beer in the colmado down the mountain on the narrow road with bad curves that crossed the bridge into the town of Orocovis. He could already hear the empty banana trucks with their bad drivers grinding gears and cursing, slowly moving up the mountain with their cargo of sleepy macheteros. Carlos had enough money when Marisol was with him. He had put screens in his windows and paid for a phone that he shared on a party-line with his neighbor Doña Monim. Soon after they were married, Marisol had persuaded the municipality of Orocovis to send an underground pipe up the mountain so that they had plumbing and didn't have to cistern water from the rainspouts or use the outdoor latrine hidden in the uncleared quarter of Carlos' property.

     Carlos did not have to cut bananas or cane or travel to America to pick mushrooms. He could afford these fine things because he was a veteran and had benefits and a Purple Heart that he hung with masking tape on his bedroom wall. He received his monthly social security check, too, because he could not work without his medication that Marisol would have to always remind him to take. He had such a poor memory and everybody agreed, even the Office of Veterans Affairs agreed, that it must be due to Agent Orange since he had made the claim when it was popular to do so. When it was time to renew the claim, Marisol would lift up Carlos’ guayabera and explain in nurse talk to the processor the deep scar that tore across Carlos’ belly from his ribs to the top of his hairline. It was ugly and Marisol was convincing.

     Carlos had just turned forty and felt he had done enough with his life. He knew there were many women with many children in Orocovis who wanted him because he had so much. Women whose husbands had left to make more children with other women. He once had a refrigerator, too, but now it did not work because he kicked it when he found out that Marisol and her young daughter had left. He put a big dent in it after he returned one morning from the colmado and called out to Marisol thinking that she was up already hanging wash or feeding his mother's chickens. The broken refrigerator, he could replace. He blamed the broken refrigerator on Marisol for leaving and the manager of the Sears store in Alto Rey. He was sure the man had sold him a returned refrigerator and no matter how hard Marisol had tried to convince him that it wasn’t so, he didn’t believe her. He kept calling the man and threatening him until one day the municipal police of Orocovis came to the house to warn Carlos that they would cut his phone line if they had to come up the mountain again. Marisol stopped threatening to leave and Carlos stopped making the calls.

     Carlos never imagined that things would change. Marisol was a practical woman, he thought, and she had it much better than the other women did in Mata de Caña. He never hit her, but if he did hit her it was by accident and he never hit her in the face because she had beautiful teeth. But now, Carlos was close to some kind of cold flame that he could never have imagined a few months earlier before Marisol secretly took a plane to Philadelphia. He missed Marisol because she always had money that she hid from him when out of compliance he behaved badly. He would pretend to take his medication on some days and instead drink beer. On these days Marisol had to be on full alert. She along with Carlos’ two sons and her daughter would have to track him down all over the mountain at late hours in the night. Carlos liked to take off his clothes and go to the uncleared quarter of his property that reminded him of Vietnam. One night she found him under a Flamboyán tree and another night down in the valley by the river Loiza. No one in Mata de Caña reported him to the authorities because he was a little crazy when he didn't take his medication and it was Marisol’s fault, they thought, if he didn’t take it.

     Carlos had felt the cold flame when as a young boy. He ran errands for pennies for men who mocked him when they were drinking and touched him when they got drunk when there were no Dominican women in the colmado. He had forgotten how they treated him like a girl. He buried those memories. His skin was smooth when he was a boy and the women of Orocovis would often compliment his mother on how beautiful he was, almost girlish. He could not withdraw from the cold flame. The moral imperative of his machismo, the right to be measured bold and to trample and disarrange those who loved him, called to him. The old men had taught him to think that way by ignoring their wives who stood outside the colmados with their babies in their arms waiting to be given money to pay for their husbands’ promises. The men expected their food to be prepared when they had finished drinking and after they had left their perversities on the linoleum colmado floor. His mother had taught him to think that way, too, and all the other women had enabled him to think that way because that was his right and their obligation to suffer for their men.

     Marisol was different. Marisol had disheveled his rights and even though he wanted her more than ever after he had lost her, he could not bring himself to tell her or to admit it to his friends in the colmado or to his mother whose rice and beans were almost as good as Marisol's. He had no choice but to follow the voice inside him that he thought was God's will and the Madonna's blessing on men. He had left his life to God's will in Viet Nam and that had made him a good soldier. He could not surrender to the cold flame and go to his friends drinking beer at the colmado down the dusty road. He was embarrassed that he had lost her. It lessened him to lose a woman to another man especially an American man just as he had been embarrassed for leading his patrol into an ambush the night he was walking point. He earned his Purple Heart for his mistake. His stubbornness would not allow surrender. He had to ignore what he loved. He imagined horns growing from every pulsing vein in his aching head and thought himself the grandest cabron in Orocovis.

     Carlos thought himself aboriginal, child-like wrapped in soft cotton, and metallic all at once as he struggled to understand the reason for his tears. Tracers and flairs appeared in the tropical sky. The last time he had cried like this was the day they choppered him out of the A Shau Valley along with the dead marine who he had led into an ambush. He had led the patrol back to get his body. He had recovered the dead. Memories, images, snapshots flashed before him but he could not arrange them to make a complete story. The images floated in and out. He was not able to get close to himself.

            They were his friends because he bought them beer and they tolerated him drinking their afternoons away in the colmado. They were there, weren’t they? He wanted to go there and be with them like he wanted to return to the A Shau Valley with the 7th Marines and be with his dead comrade in the chopper as it rose above the jungle tree line, but he would not surrender to the voices of kindness over the phone that came to him fifteen hundred miles away. He wanted to put the phone in his mouth and devour the tender voices like he wanted to devour the tender voice of the medic who put the morphine needle in his arm, who insisted he not die, the day three rounds from an AK-47 took out a rib and part of his stomach. He tried to gather himself, to fix himself, but he was too far away. He was self-delineated and could not connect the lines that would unify the picture of who he should be. Vietnam was in his picture and so were his wounds, his condition, his mother, his mother's chickens, the uncleared quarter, the newspaper bundle, his rice and beans, and his window screens; but Marisol wasn’t there and this made the picture of himself incomplete. Where had he gone wrong? The face of the boy who trusted him appeared in front of him. The boy who had followed him and believed in him because he had taken the same trail into the jungle twice before and it was safe. He understood the code of combat.  Leave no one behind. He was a man above all else who could not keep a woman; a man who by his choosing had to give a woman her space; and it was within this space that his women maneuvered to leave him. It was in the A Shau Valley, he thought, where he had been weakened where he had abandoned the code of his machismo. It was in this alone, and this only, that he ever regretted not listening to his mother.

     Carlos was eleven years older than Marisol. He had two children before Marisol, two boys from other women but they left to be with their mothers after Marisol left with her daughter to be with her brother. Marisol's daughter was not Carlos' but Carlos had agreed to marry her so that she could rebuild her reputation among the women of Mata de Caña. Marisol was twenty-two and educated when she married Carlos and this set her apart from the other women in Mata de Caña who married much earlier and abided by the rituals of self-deprecation. She had a two-year degree in nursing and promised to stay with Carlos and cook and clean and take care of his condition. After seven years of attending to Carlos, Marisol decided that she had paid her debt to the women of Mata de Caña and to Carlos for marrying her, and took a plane to Philadelphia to be with her brother and sister. Marisol stayed with her brother who like Carlos had no woman. After a month, she met Tom, an arborist, who had a small but stable business. Tom was thirty-three and had never married. Tom thought it was time for him to have a woman now that he was making enough money to hire other men to do the dangerous work of climbing trees. Marisol's brother worked for Tom as a ground man. Marisol's brother was angry when she left his apartment to be with his boss because he would have no woman to cook and clean for him and Tom was not Puerto Rican. He felt Marisol had married down, betrayed the race, and broken the code handed down from their mother who had bled to death at home having her seventeenth child. He quit soon after Marisol went with Tom but Marisol's sister was happy and liked Philadelphia.

     In the lawyer's office, Tom moved his finger up and back on the smooth reflective conference table clicking his clean fingernail in rhythm with Carlos' diminution. He calculated each impulse that traveled through the open phone receiver. And even though they were separated by fifteen hundred miles, a language, and a culture, Tom felt closer to Carlos than he had ever felt with any man before. Click, click. I must usher my brother forward, Tom thought and he undid the top button on his shirt and loosened his tie as if getting down to work. Tom was not accustomed to wearing ties but knew he had to since his business had become so successful. He had to fight himself to stay out of the field and in the office. That too Tom estimated as the price of success.

     Carlos moved the spoon and plate of rice and beans across the table and Marisol put her hand over Tom's hand, "Por favor," she said, to stop his tapping fingernail. The sound of the plate moving across the table bristled static over the speaker phone. The lawyer asked Carlos what the sound was and hoped that he wasn’t losing the connection again between Philadelphia and Puerto Rico.

     "Mi rice and bean," Carlos answered. Carlos wasn't hungry but he knew he should eat his rice and beans covered in ketchup that his mother had left for him before she left to visit her sister in Toa Baja. She would not return today but she would be back tomorrow and she would yell at him if he forgot to take his machete to the uncleared quarter because her chickens might roost there and like the cats go wild. My mother's rice and beans will make me strong he thought. The lawyer apologized for interrupting his supper and thought it strange that somebody would eat that way in the morning. He wondered if the time was different in Puerto Rico.

     Tears flowed down each side of Carlos' face and he trembled but he did not notice. Carlos reached for the bundle of wrapped newspaper that set beyond his plate that he had kept under his mattress. Only Marisol and he knew of it. He remembered how he told Marisol to keep it a secret. Even when he became angry because he did not take his medication, he still did not touch it out of respect for Marisol and out of fear that he might use it. He had been to the A Shau Valley and knew how to aim a gun. He had killed and having killed set him apart from the rest of his friends down the road at the colmado who only killed chickens and sick dogs. A dull piece of metal had torn through the paper and protruded from one side. Shrapnel, Carlos thought. Carlos heard voices outside. Esteban, whose car Carlos had helped fix, and another man he did not know, were walking together and arguing about who should pay Carlos for the car parts he had replaced in the motor. Carlos thought that Esteban might be selling the car and was irritated that he had not told him.

     Carlos unwrapped the bundle. He took the gun in one hand and held the phone to his ear with the other. He aimed the gun at the two men and hoped that they had his money and that Esteban might give him some money if he sold the car to the man. He thought he should shoot the whole town of Orocovis or at least Esteban who owed him money but he would wait until Esteban reached the colmado and had had his morning beer. Carlos thought the two men would soon reconcile the difference with one another after their beers down at the colmado and that it was not fair for Esteban to die before three o'clock because it might rain again and give him a reason to tell his wife why he hadn't worked that day. Changing his aim, he moved the gun from the window to the kitchen cabinet. A small nail held the divorce papers on a kitchen cabinet door. Carlos got up with the gun in his hand, removed the nail, and took the papers to the table.

            In the lawyer's office, they could hear the unraveling of the old newspaper over the speakerphone.

     "Let go," Tom said. It was the first time Tom had ever told Marisol to do anything. He had always asked before and he made both of them finally feel secure with one another.

     Tom took his hand from Marisol and continued his fingernail tapping. Click, click. Tom was not naive about women nor did he hold any resentment toward any woman for some past betrayal. He had had lovers, but not many, at least not as many as his friends had told him they had. He just didn’t have much time for them until he met Marisol. He spent his years after high school building his business. He didn’t have time for school either having been lied to in school about women. Tom had been taught that women were equal to men. He thought it might be so. He had learned on the playground that girls could run and jump and climb the monkey bars just as well as the boys, but the older he became the more he realized it was a lie. Perhaps, it was this lie, more than the lies his friends told him or his parents’ lies, that kept him from trusting in education. He made the decision early to work for a living and not be schooled in any more lies. His parents had lied to him too. They made promises to him they didn’t keep but he thought himself lucky that they had broken their promises to him early in his life. This made him self-reliant and resilient when others, who believed in what their teachers, their friends, or their parents said were disillusioned and unforgiving, and dependent upon the approval of others.

     He wanted to make sure Marisol knew he could be as defiant and heroic to her as Carlos had been but Marisol thought Tom was just a little childish because Tom was not Puerto Rican. I will reassure him later, Marisol thought. Carlos got up from his table to look for a pen. Finding one, he sat down at his table and cleaned off the table top with his forearm to make sure no ketchup would blotch the stapled pile of unread documents. He clicked the pen open, drew the documents closer and scrawled his name across the every yellow highlighted line on each page. Click, click. He laid the pen down. Carlos put the rusty barrel into his mouth and thought it tasted like old refried beans. Click, click. Tom looked around the room thinking that he had heard the sound of clashing metal and wondered if somebody had sideswiped his truck parked on Spruce Street. Mr. Gordon wondered if his secretary was angry about something and had slammed shut her desk drawer. Marisol took Tom's hand and placed it on her lap to begin to reassure him. The sound of the chopper blades accelerated and then slowed to a drone before Carlos melted into the cool, smooth linoleum floor. There was a lone red spot below Carlos' name on the first page of the documents that look like fresh ketchup. The vein on the side of his head stopped throbbing. His mother's rice and beans had not moved and the ketchup had hardened into a red crust that looked like a dome.

     "Is everybody okay in there," the lawyer's secretary said turning in her chair toward the open conference room door. She had heard the noise and thought it was a far way plea from the lawyer who might have let out his frustration like he had done before on some object in his office. Marisol was surprised at how much authority the secretary had attained in the office. Marisol thought she might make friends with the secretary by sharing a recipe. Marisol had discovered a new culture for women and she liked it. The noise had distracted the secretary from cutting and pasting. She held a pair of red scissors in her hand. She thought she should remind the lawyer of a lie he had once told her to move his clients along and out of his sight but the phone rang and it distracted her, too. She fumbled with the scissors trying to remove them from her thumb. She spread her legs and leaned forward to brace herself in her swivel chair. She pulled the scissors from her thumb and shook her hand.

     "Ouch," she said. She picked up the phone and Marisol looked at Tom. Marisol was comforted that he had attended to the secretary's round thighs as they molded together on the black leather chair below the fold of her short blue skirt and knew that she had made a good choice to come to America.

     "Carlos must have dropped his beans," the lawyer said.

     Esteban and the other man who had been arguing had passed Carlos' house and were standing in front Doña Monim's house who had tired of listening on the phone and had come out into her patio to trim her off her dead roses. They stopped but didn't speak to her because she did not like Esteban because he never did anything for her or for her son. They all turned to locate the sound. It did not surprise them. One of the men thought that some woman dropped a pan. Loud noises from nowhere were a daily happenstance and their women were known to throw things like large iron pots in the kitchen.

            No one was sure if Carlos called out to his mother, Marisol, or the Madonna. The lawyer jotted a note on the yellow paper and tore it from the legal pad. His work was finished and he had to be in court after lunch. Mr. Gordon wasn't sure what happened but he was sure somebody would find the divorce papers and if they didn't death was just as good. He was concerned that his secretary had not reminded him. He did not want her to forget their secret. He would remind her because she was so distracted. Carlos had given him more time. It was only a quarter to eleven and he didn't have to be in court until one-thirty. He wanted to thank Carlos but somehow they had been disconnected. He had to decide. Should I have lunch, he asked himself, my secretary, or review my notes for the civil trial at one-thirty? He knew what he wanted for lunch and the civil trial was uncomplicated and would be decided by the judge anyway. You can't argue with facts, he thoughts. He decided to let his secretary decide what he wanted. She knew the routine and relied on her to keep him on schedule.

     "What time is it in Puerto Rico?" the lawyer asked getting up. He picked up his briefcase from the floor and forced the legal pad through frayed edged white papers. "Monica. File this please.”  Monica came into the conference room teetering in her high heels and pulling her tight blue short skirt down on one side. She took the yellow paper and smiled at Tom. Marisol felt important, and had second thoughts about sharing a recipe with the secretary.

     "Tiempo muerto," Marisol said. The lawyer shook Tom's hand before Tom had a chance to ask Marisol to translate the irony and allusion. On the way out, Tom noticed the secretary filing the lawyer's notes in the bottom drawer of the filing cabinet but her legs were toward the cabinet so Tom took Marisol by the hand and kissed her.

            "It's almost over," Tom said. Marisol was moved by Tom's public display of emotion but knew she would have her work cut out for her to stop Tom's childish tapping to win her attention.

     The blue jungle drifted on warm breezes that lifted large black birds from the humid lowlands. They liked to perch in the trees on the edge of the mountain that the Naranjito woman's goats had girdled and killed. There was a lone telephone pole with a transformer in front of the yellow house across the road and up the hill from Carlos’ house that the electric company used to feed a line to the yellow house, Carlos' house, and Doña Monim's house. Some older, larger black birds sat on the crossbar of the pole. None of the birds made any sound and they bothered no one and only moved to dry their wings after it rained or when somebody killed a chicken, a sick dog, or a pig and tossed what they didn’t need down the steep mountain slope.

            The half-green, half-brown lizard that had been sunning itself scurried down the rainspout on to Carlos' window screen to see what the noise was. The lizard's round black eyes darted from one side of the half-lit room to the other. Carlos' eyes were still and gray. The lizard climbed back up the spout to watch over what remained of the dead insects that the morning's rain had washed from the roof to the gutter. The lizard would eat well today. He was lucky. Soon, he would be strong enough, while the cats attended to the rooster, to make the dangerous crossing through the new growth cover back to the safety of Carlos' uncleared quarter. The red dirt around Carlos' house had dried and the day was no longer cool. His mother's chickens had left their coop and were parading toward the open space expecting to eat. Behind the chicken coop, a feral cat held Carlos' rooster at the neck while a thinner cat watched and waited for his turn. The rooster accepted the cat, knew it was his fate, and stopped flapping its wings. It appeared as if they embraced in a kind of ritualistic and dark copulation. The rooster had attended well to the hens of Carlos' mother. Esteban and the other man who had heard the noise stopped, turned around, and then continued walking toward the colmado. They were almost there and did not want to go back up the hill until later after they decided whether to pay Carlos for the car parts or avoid him until he had forgotten that he had fixed the car.

     Doña Monim walked toward Carlos' house to ask him if she could buy the Sears refrigerator for her son who was good at fixing things. If she remembered, she would remind her son that the woman in the yellow house needed screens. Perhaps, he could find used ones and make a few extra dollars installing them. On second thought, Doña Monim thought, I will visit the woman from Naranjito myself and ask her how she is feeling. We can talk about her baby and her husband who didn’t seem very reliable, Doña thought. Across the road in the bright yellow house, the Naranjito woman’s child let out a loud cry, awakened by the sound of a truck full of bananas coming down the mountain with a cargo of men desperately clinging to its sides, holding on to their hats, and cursing the driver.

"Coño cabron," one of the men shouted to the driver who downshifted to slow the truck because it had no brakes.

     "Condenao!" the Naranjito woman shouted from an unscreened window scaring some of the large black birds from their perches in the trees. The wiser and older birds that had perched on the cross beam of the telephone pole were still. She watched the old truck through the brown and red dust bounce over the knoll; its wooden flatbed sides tilt, and veer right.

            She was sure her husband was on the truck because he said that he would go to work today. He had left early, before light, and she thought he went to catch the truck at the bottom of the mountain. During the night, he had promised her screens for the windows if she would do everything possible to make him want her. Her husband had taken off his shirt to flag the truck but the driver did not notice him on the side of the road.

            She was sure that she had seen her husband on the side of the truck and hoped that he would fall off or at least lose his hat and give her an excuse to fetch it for him. She would stand outside the colmado with her child in her arms and his hat in her hand and if she got there in time before he drank too much, she would embarrass him so he would not spend the money for her screens.

            Today was payday. The men would get their twelve dollars. They will all know I am the woman from Naranjito who lives in the yellow house, she thought. They will all know whose child I hold, she thought, and even though she wasn't sure, at least the men would be. They will know us by the hat I hold, she thought, because nobody wears the same kind of hat that my husband wears.

       The woman turned toward her kitchen to change the child and prepare for their walk down the mountain to find her husband. She pulled out a kitchen chair that had been pushed under the table. Her husband's hat was on the chair. She picked up the hat and placed it over her child's face to shade it from the sun and left the house. It was a short walk to Carlos' house. Finally, I will get my screens, she thought. Finally, I will get the respect I deserve. The woman from Naranjito met Doña Monim in the middle of the road. Doña Monim told her that Carlos' mother said that she could have Carlos' screens because he had no woman.  She said that all she needed was a screwdriver to take them out and a reliable man to put them in her windows.  The Naranjito woman asked her if she knew of anyone and Doña Monim said that her son would be happy to attend to the matter after he fixed Carlos’ refrigerator maybe today or tomorrow.


1 comment:

  1. Dear Richard

    This story has been my bedtime reading for the last three evenings - I'm a slow reader. Each night I couldn't wait to get back to it. A beautifully paced narrative that tells a very sad, but compelling story. Every detail has been wonderfully crafted. A fine story and a generous gift.

    Thank you.