The day the Italian cook started at the hotel, Porfirio felt lucky. His mother got through the night without one of her augury dreams. She woke singing about lost sheep and seeing Jesus. Ña Violeta was blind, so any mention of vision meant optimism, and when it came to his mother optimism was rare. Then, while he was shaving in the yard, a bendito sea landed on the fence and looked him in the eye. The old people believed it was a bird that brought a blessing, often as not. And sure enough he caught a ride to work from a trucker, saving the bus fare. Signor Ferrari, that was the Italian’s name. Studying him when he strode into the kitchen at the Guaraní Palace in his cool black suit, Porfirio knew he’d been wrong about the day’s luck.
The Italian was a handsome man in his thirties, on the smaller side but elegant, with curly black hair he kept short, and a body like the Olympic tumblers’ Porfirio had once seen on television.
“Good morning, everyone,” the Italian announced. Then, “Listen carefully.”
He knew how to boss people around and had the voice for it, although you had to pay attention: his Spanish was mixed with Italian. He took off his suit jacket, hung it on a hanger, and launched into a speech about what he expected from the staff. That was acceptable, it was proper. A head cook was a head cook, an important job at the Guaraní Palace because the Brazilians who stayed there had high expectations for the food you put in front of them. What wasn’t okay was the way Alatea looked at the new chef. Alatea worked cleaning guest rooms, so she shouldn’t have been in the kitchen in the first place. But word of the handsome Italian zipped around the hotel and everybody wanted a look.
Late that morning Porfirio sneaked out of the kitchen when he knew Alatea would be in the break room, drinking tereré with her friends. Watching her suck on the metal straw, drawing up the icy tea from the polished cowhorn her fingers curled around, aroused him. But Porfirio had great self-control. He had discipline. There would come a time to suck on straws.
She agreed to step outside where he told her, “There’s a dance on Saturday. In my barrio. You should go.”
“They hired a band that plays Paraguayan music, not Brazilian.”
“I should go because there’s a band?” She tapped the side of her head.
“There’s a band in here, Porfirio. It’s free, and it plays when I want.”
Beautiful women were highhanded. It was their birthright. And Alatea was a queen, as tall as he. With hair like a cascading black waterfall, green eyes that would startle a dead man, and skin the color of coffee with a lot of milk in it, she was far too good-looking for a room cleaner in an expensive hotel. It was dangerous for a poor woman to be beautiful. That was something Ña Violeta said, and for once Porfirio agreed with his mother.
They had developed the useful custom of blunt speaking. “I would like you to go to the dance because I am going.”
“Your barrio is ugly. It’s dirty.”
“The whole city is ugly and dirty.”
The newspapers said Ciudad del Este was the ugliest city in Paraguay, not to mention dangerous. It drew criminals and riffraff not just from Argentina and Brazil but as far away as Arabia. Anything that could be contraband was. Drugs and guns, whiskey and women, plastic toys and monstrous big televisions; anything. Porfirio’s mother prophesied judgment on the wicked city. A terrible day would dawn when nobody saw the sun come up, everybody struck as blackly blind as she was, God punishing the greed of their eyes. Porfirio gave real thought to the matter. How could he not, year in and year out sharing the same roof with his mother, absorb her dark predictions? But his conclusion was at odds with his mother’s faith. He believed the wickedness of their city would endure. He also believed a man with self-control and discipline, constant in his affections, might survive—even prosper—in such a city.
“I can’t go with you on Saturday,” Alatea said. “Rocky invited me to Los Leones.”
“That’s his name.”
Los Leones was a dance club, expensively above Porfirio’s possibilities. He knew that it wasn’t true, and that she wanted it to be true. That made his kitchen day grim. Starting as a dishwasher, he had worked his way up to sous-chef, so he had more contact with the Italian than he cared to have. Signor Ferrari, that was how he insisted everybody address him. Everybody but Alatea. And for some reason Signor Ferrari took a dislike to Porfirio from the first day he commanded the kitchen. He had a knack for reading people. Fixing on the sous-chef as a sober person, the Italian called him el Cura. The Priest. Hey, Cura, who taught you to dice onions? You better call him up and tell him you want your money back, the lesson didn’t take.
On Saturday Porfirio worked half a shift so was able to give six hours to his side job. His hands were born knowing what tools were supposed to accomplish, and he got all the work he had time for, hiring out to a builder who was throwing up apartments around the city. He put the construction money aside, never even tempted to touch it. In another year, he estimated, or a year and a half, if he could divert a little more of his hotel salary to the account he would have enough to set up a store in Mainumby, his ugly barrio, where he could make the kind of money required to make Alatea a happy wife.
It was not a plan, it was his destiny.
The apartment the builder was currently putting up was on the opposite side of the city from Mainumby. The bus Porfirio took home had a flat tire. Then he had to clean up, while his mother ironed his shirt, all of which made him late to the dance. But it was worth it because Alatea was there with three girl friends, and she danced with him and let him buy her a glass of beer. The band was unusual. They played traditional Paraguayan music, the same old songs you took in with your mother’s milk. But they did something different to it so the music sounded new and was always surprising you.
The dance was held in a field where farmers brought pigs to sell, and a porky smell pervaded everything. But the organizers had strung colored lights on poles and along the fence line, the warm October evening smelled like jasmine, and in tight jeans and a white blouse and very high blue heels like daggers Alatea looked like somebody you’d see in a movie.
After a dance that left him crazy with desire Porfirio asked her, “What happened to the Italian? I thought he was taking you to Los Leones.”
Another prerogative of beautiful women was laughing at people, something Alatea did all the time. This time it wasn’t mean so much as her way of enjoying the evening. “Rocky had to stay home and practice.”
“His Spanish, so when he asks me to marry him it comes out right.”
That was okay, that was Alatea. Porfirio believed he understood her. Later, one of her girl friends took him by the arm and led him to the edge of the pig field, away from the crowd. Gloria was also a room cleaner at the Palace. She was an appealing woman, short and round and shining, who looked less only when standing next to Alatea. It was one of those wake-you-up moments, the bass thunking, the harp ringing, the guitar showing off, the whole place and everybody in it coated in a sheen of sweat and alcohol, sex and possibility.
“A man like you,” said Gloria. She put her hand on his belt. She kissed him, tasting of beer. “You work hard, you save your money, you are respectful of people and take care of your mother. Tall, good looking, clean eyes.”
“There aren’t many men like you in Ciudad del Este, Pilo.”
“You think all those good qualities will make a woman as beautiful as Alatea love you?”
It was a fair question and he answered it. “Yes.”
Gloria shook her head. “Never.”
She took his hand and guided it to her breast. It felt good. It felt very good not just to his hand but to his whole being, inside and out. His mouth watered. She brushed his penis lightly with her free hand, advertising future delight. She kissed him again and told him, “When you figure out the truth, remember me, okay?”
Then she was gone. After midnight, Porfirio danced once with Gloria, then one last time with Alatea. The feel of hovering possibility that had charmed him was beginning to drain away and later, walking home, he built a small house of fantasy with Gloria in the front room. Children and good-news birds enlivened the patio, and every evening when he came home Gloria demonstrated her appreciation of his steadfastness. But he had drunk four beers, enough to throw off his equilibrium, and he lay down on his bed discouraged. In the other room Ña Violeta was snoring loud enough to keep away wild beasts. In self-defense he put a pillow over his head and imagined a river. At the end of the river came a turbulent black cascade of Alatea’s hair. He went over it and down with a feeling of resignation that was the opposite of light.
* * *
Sunday was worse. The beer did him no good, waking up. And his mother decided the pain she felt was the harbinger of cancer, a doomsday bird singing in her gut.
“I’m a shameless sinner,” she muttered, serving him mate in a gourd, staring with her hollow blind eyes at heaven, or hell. “I’m a vile worm. Why shouldn’t God punish me with cancer?”
On his way to the bus Porfirio stopped at the house of a woman who knew about nursing and asked her to take his mother something for a stomachache and tell her she didn’t have cancer. A solution: good. But then at work in one of the storerooms he ran into the Italian cook telling Alatea about Lake Lugano, which was evidently the most romantic place on the planet. Their bodies weren’t touching but they might as well have been.
“Good morning, Porfirio,” Alatea said, sounding as though she didn’t really know him, he was just a guy who worked in the kitchen under the thumb of the brilliant new head chef.
“Buenos dias,” he mumbled to neither of them, exactly, reaching for a sack of flour.
Mumbling was a mistake. It put him in a hole he was unable to climb out of over the next couple of weeks. How could he? Signor Ferrari was paying serious attention to Alatea and she was eating it up. She found any excuse to be in the kitchen. He didn’t need an excuse to be in the break room when she was there, he just went. Once, leaving the Palace by the employees’ exit, Porfirio caught sight of a dark angel on an invisible cloud, carrying an armful of fresh flowers. When she turned to see who was running after her the expression on her face said, Do I know you? But she recovered and held up the flowers. “Aren’t they beautiful? Rocky gave them to me.”
“They’re flowers,” he conceded.
“Did you hear about the cooking class?”
It was something new for the hotel. Signor Ferrari was offering cooking lessons to guests who would pay an unbelievable sum of money for the privilege of chopping up food items and putting them in pans at his direction. “Discover Your Inner Gourmet” was how they advertised the new service.
“He wants me to work with him.”
“That part is not worked out yet, he’s talking to Mercedes.”
Mercedes was the head of housekeeping. A sick foreboding ate Porfirio up the rest of the day. When all was said and done he was his mother’s son, and the intuition of disaster came naturally to him. Ña Violeta knew something was up. That evening she was peeling sticks of mandioca, as deft with the knife as if she saw the tubers with her eyes instead of her hands. She spoke to him in Guaraní because that was the language of her prophecy dreams.
“Nothing means something. It’s that woman. The tall one with green eyes.”
“What do you know about green eyes?”
“I know they can destroy a man.”
“One day Alatea will call you Mother. She will do the cooking and sweep your patio. She will give you grandchildren.”
Ña Violeta snorted, wagging a stick of mandioca at him. “One day that woman will pick up a knife and drive it into the heart of my only son.”
Over the next weeks his mother’s prediction seemed more likely to come true than his. The gourmet cooking classes were a hit, making Signor Ferrari an instant star. Newspaper people showed up, but he would not be photographed for their article. It’s about the guests, he insisted, not the chef. Everyone applauded his modesty. Worse, Alatea got a promotion. She left off cleaning rooms and started in full time as an assistant to Signor Ferrari. The hotel put her in stylish dresses, and she learned to greet the guests as they arrived for their lesson, to chat about the dishes they were going to prepare, to serve them a glass of fino while smiling at their little jokes. Signor Ferrari arranged for the hotel to pay for her Portuguese lessons.
Porfirio stood by, helplessly watching the sophisticated and sexy new woman emerge from the shell of a maid who knew how to run a vacuum and clean a toilet, slap clean sheets on a bed.
He invited her out on a night he knew they were both free. It turned out that the Italian really was taking her to the dance club. But she was generous in her miraculous social rise, and there was nothing unkind in the way she told him,
“It won’t work. You and me. I’m changing.”
He told her stubbornly, “I am too.”
They were outside the hotel, behind which an enclosed field of stunted banana trees and bitter oranges made a scenic tangle that management was talking about cutting down, making a park. Alatea smiled and put a hand on his arm. In the druggy heat of afternoon, her touch blinded him.
“People say I am beautiful.”
“Because you are.”
“I am using my looks. What else do I have? I want a good life, Pilo. I want nice things.”
“I’ll give you a good life. I’ll give you nice things.”
“Gloria will marry you tomorrow, or she will go live with you and your mother, you decide which.”
If there had been anything cruel in that, he might have learned to hate her, an effort well worth making. But she was frank and friendly and, that night, while she danced with the Italian cook at Los Leones, Porfirio sat in the patio looking at stars and tossing pebbles into the well to hear them plop. Inside, Ña Violeta did her noisy best to scare off the beasts.
Alatea must have said something to Gloria because two days later, as the sun was going down, Gloria showed up at the house and took over the evening meal. She made Ña Violeta laugh, something few could do, and entertained her with acceptable gossip. Gauging what was acceptable to the touchy old lady took talent, as well as a kind of judgment Porfirio put serious stock in. Later, when she was leaving, he walked her across the patio to the gate. She waited to be kissed and he kissed her. It was November now, the day’s heat hanging on. Even in an ugly barrio like Mainumby the bushes could not help being fragrant, giving up their best to the summer night.
She said, “I saw this movie where the woman said to the man, ‘Mi cuerpo te apetece.’ My body is hungry for you.”
With respectful desire they touched each other’s secret parts, exploring. He kissed her neck. After a while she told him, “Too much discipline is bad.” She lay down in the grass, tugged his hand pulling him down with her. “I can hear your mother snoring.”
“It keeps away bears.”
“There are no bears in Paraguay.”
“She snores loud.”
Porfirio’s house sat at the high end of a grass path on the west edge of Mainumby. The closest neighbor was far enough away not to matter. Gloria wriggled out of her jeans and panties. Here was the sad swaddling mystery of it all, him entering her, her nails joyously scraping his back, both of them knowing he wasn’t going to invite her to live with him. She wanted something he could not give, he wanted something she did not have. Saying goodbye, she sucked tenderly on his earlobe then whispered, “When I am home in my own bed I will cry.”
As Porfirio walked back across the patio, Ña Violeta’s relentless snoring made him angry, and going inside he shook her until she sat up in terror.
“What is it, son? What is it?”
“Tell me.” He grasped her shoulders and shook just a little harder than any son had a right to do.
“Dios mio, tell you what?”
“What’s going to happen?”
But Ña Violeta was not skilled at the kind of prophecy he required, and feeling bad he soothed her back to sleep.
* * *
Two ominous events darkened the next day’s sky. Alatea did not show up for work. And Signor Ferrari did.
The Italian was irritable through the shift, barking at everybody and making unreasonable demands. Porfirio was a favored target. But he wasn’t going to find a second job as sous-chef in Ciudad del Este any time soon. He kept his head down and his mouth shut.
The next day nothing had changed. There was no sign of Alatea, and Gloria convinced Porfirio she knew nothing. The Italian chef made the staff miserable for another ten long hours. Getting through the shift cost Porfirio all the self-control he had. When it was over, he took a bus to Campo Ocho, where Alatea’s family lived. It was a long way from Mainumby so he would not get home before his mother went to bed. That was bad but unavoidable.
The Vargas household was full of girls almost as beautiful as Alatea, and the mother who welcomed Porfirio gave him a pretty good idea of what the woman he loved would look like at forty-five, her sexuality gone sideways. Alatea’s father sat drinking tereré under a lemon tree, out of the way. He had nothing to say, nothing to say, nothing.
They talked in the patio where a red cock chased a white hen with a broken tail, Porfirio imagining he could hear the silent high hilarity of their reenactment, made audible just for him as a reward for his constancy, or punishment.
Alatea’s mother said bitterly, “She hasn’t come home, the past two nights. And now you’re saying she’s not at work.”
Under the lemon tree, the father spat in the dirt.
“You’re a good man, Pilo,” said her mother. “You’re so steady. That’s what Alatea needs. I’ve told her a hundred times she should marry a man like you and be happy.”
Porfirio chose to say nothing of the Italian cook. Alatea’s mother was strong and could take anything, but the heart of the barefoot man spitting in the dirt under the lemon tree was already cracked, and the least thing Porfirio said might cause a fatal split.
That night, lying in bed, Porfirio heard a commotion in the stars, a high-pitched whirling similar to the sound he had imagined between the cock and the hen. This was what love did to you, it exposed you to queer singing. Yet somehow the sound reassured him, told him what he needed to know, which was that Alatea would be at work in the morning.
She was. She had done a good job covering up the bruises. Long sleeves and too much makeup. Porfirio followed her into the room that was set up to give the guests their cooking lessons. She had to make sure each workstation had all the ingredients and the utensils the paying customers needed.
“Don’t say anything,” she warned him, counting forks. “It’s just a game he likes to play.”
“Hurting you? That’s a game?”
“You wouldn’t understand. I’m changing, Pilo.”
“Your parents are worried.”
That was all the excuse she needed to blow up at him. He had no right to go to her house and talk to her family. Porfirio understood that she wanted to avoid his questions. He left her mounding vegetables on white plates. Saying something smart right now would be dumb.
That evening, Gloria brought mbeju to the house, knowing Pilo’s mother would appreciate the old-fashioned food nobody took the trouble to make anymore. It was good, and Gloria told a story about how a wildcat had attacked her grandfather in the Chaco Desert, way back when. She knew how to tell a story, and how to put Ña Violeta at ease. When the old woman went to bed Porfirio saw what was going to happen before it began. This wasn’t second sight—it was too thick and sluggish for that—it was time moving in a corkscrew.
Gloria went into the dark patio. She put her hands under her shirt and unhooked her bra but left the blouse on. Making a platter of her hands she handed him the bra. “Keep it, it’s a souvenir.”
He did not know what to do with it so hung it over a chair back. He put his hands under her blouse and found her breasts.
“Not tonight, Pilo.”
“Alatea,” she said. “Did you see she’s hurt?”
“It makes you want to save her from that Italian, doesn’t it?”
He shrugged. She insisted.
“There’s nothing you can do. He has money. He’s good-looking. And she likes...things about him.”
“So, since you won’t ask yourself, I’ll ask you: are you going to waste your whole life because you can’t have the tall, beautiful woman you want?”
She was right, but he had no answer. She let his hands rest on her breasts again but had her own kind of discipline. Taste and wait: it was part of her strategy, and she walked away to catch a late bus leaving him the souvenir and the question. He plugged his ears to block the queer music of the clashing stars.
* * *
“I’m getting a passport.”
“What do you need a passport for?”
“Rocky is taking me to Europe.”
That was pure fantasy; it had to be. But Porfirio could not be sure. Things seemed to be better for Alatea lately. No more bruises, and she showed up at work when she was supposed to. She seemed lighter, as though a burden had been lifted, and in the kitchen Ferrari was less of a tyrant. Gloria, watching everything, tracked Porfirio to the freezer and in the frosty air stretched to kiss his eyelids tenderly.
“Let her go, Pilo. She’s a bird. Birds fly.”
Maybe he could have done that, or tried. But Alatea made a mistake and it got Porfirio’s back up. She wouldn’t admit it to him, but she told the Italian about his long-running devotion. A man like Ferrari could not resist an easy target, and he made Porfirio’s life miserable, talking about Alatea, about the nasty kind of sex he enjoyed, about anything that could wound the Paraguayan sous-chef who worked for him.
Porfirio could not stop himself from getting angry. But he could keep it under control. Beating his enemy to a pulp would only bring out Alatea’s mothering instinct. She would nurse her battered lover ‘round the clock, a vision that turned Porfirio’s stomach. And of course he needed his job. Assaulting the head chef was the best way he knew to lose it.
Steadfastness. He called on all he had, especially the day Alatea showed him her new passport. Unable to hide her triumph, she put it into his hand like a gift. He gave it back without cracking the cover.
One warm evening he timed his exit from work to coincide with hers. They walked to the bus parada together like comrades, their feet kicking up little clouds of dust from the sandy street, the riled dust sticking to their pantlegs. A hundred horns honked, and somebody in a smooth black car with smoked windows was blasting Brazilian hip-hop. The sun looked flat, and somehow content with itself, sinking in a pool of runny gold on top of which deep purple clouds were stacking up.
“It’s pretty,” said Alatea.
“He’s using you.”
“Who, Rocky? I’m using him, more like.”
“He’ll dump you.”
“Anything is possible,” she said, but did not mean it.
“Did he stop hurting you?”
She looked at him to see if she could trust him. “I told him I didn’t like the game.”
“And he stopped.”
“Yes. He stopped. Don’t you see, Pilo? Rocky loves me. He’d do anything for me. It’s because he thinks I’m sexy, sure, but it’s not just that. It’s me, the person I am, that he loves.”
She pulled out a wad of reales. “He gave me this. I’m supposed to buy clothes, and a suitcase. He’s been offered a job. Head chef at a five-star hotel. In Prague.”
“I never heard anything about him leaving the Palace.”
“He can’t say anything, Pilo, and you can’t, either. There are reasons.”
“What reasons? How come he’s not giving notice?”
She shook her head. “Gloria is giving me a going-away party. Will you come?”
“Of course you will. And tomorrow you’ll go shopping with me. You’ll help me pick things out. Gloria says that’s cruel, making you go with me. But I never told you I loved you, Pilo, I only said you were my best friend. I looked at pictures of Prague on Rocky’s computer. Compared to this...” She swept her hand across their disfigured city. “It’s the difference between heaven and hell.”
Porfirio was not patient with his mother that night when she told him about her dream. Even though it was not an annihilation dream, it irked him. In it, Ña Violeta was sitting on a rock, knitting.
“I could see the wool, the needles, the river where the rock was located. Everything. It was a miracle. Gloria was sitting nearby. The funniest thing, though. She was wearing no brassiere. She’s a good-looking woman, isn’t she?”
Porfirio had forgotten to hide the bra. He said, “Be still, Mother, I don’t want to hear any more.”
“In the dream Gloria was telling me something, I don’t remember what, but it made me laugh. And then all of a sudden a pitogüe lands on the grass. Now I know what yellow looks like. I know what black is. I was so happy, Pilito, so very happy.”
Lighting by a woman of the right age, the bird was supposed to herald a pregnancy. Damn the dream, and the souvenir. Gloria wasn’t pregnant. She had sworn to him she was safe, and knew better than to lie. He went to bed but had a hard time sleeping, wondering whether he could say no to Alatea, refuse to go shopping for getaway outfits.
The answer to the question was no. Gloria had a hangdog face all day at work, nothing like the way she had looked in Ña Violeta’s happy dream. Signor Ferrari was nervous, and distracted. A guilty conscience for quitting without notice, Porfirio figured. And Alatea was keyed up. She could hardly wait. At one o’clock she came to Porfirio.
“Come on, we’re going. Rocky doesn’t care if you take a couple hours off, as long as you’re back for the dinner rush. He knows you’re shopping with me. He’s funny today. I think it bothers him not to let them know he’s leaving. He’s a fair man, and he should have told them.”
“She has to get ready for the despedida. It’s tonight. You’re coming, right?”
Beautiful women had rights. Maybe it shouldn’t be like that, but it was. Alatea exercised hers, taking him by the arm and obliging him to express an opinion on every dress she tried on. She bubbled. Prague Prague Prague, Rocky Rocky Rocky. Prague, Rocky.
She spent the last of the money on a knockoff suitcase that looked like the fake it was, then carefully packed her new dresses in it. To save time they took a taxi back to the Palace, where Gloria was on the lookout for them. Taking her by the arm she swept Alatea into the shade of the acacias out back. Porfirio followed, wondering what new thing had gone wrong.
“You can’t go in,” Gloria said. Excitement made her breathless, and she squeaked.
“There’s a detective. He knows about you and Rocky.”
Alatea stamped her foot. She had no patience for riddles, or her friend’s flustered drama. Gloria pulled herself together and told them the story efficiently.
The detective came from Italy, accompanied by a big shot from the Paraguayan police. They were going to arrest Rocky for murder. He had killed a rich old lady in a place called Fiesole.
“I don’t believe it,” Alatea muttered. She was smoldering.
“Fernandito was watering the flowers out front when they came. The police driver told him it’s true.”
“Where is Rocky?”
Gloria wrinkled her nose, then tapped it significantly with a forefinger.
“Your boyfriend is very good at sniffing out trouble. I got a note and went to the freezer. He was inside, shivering. From the cold, I think, only from the cold. ‘You’re her friend,’ he said. ‘Help me.’”
“And did you?”
Alatea was too upset to sidestep the daggers cast by Gloria’s angry eyes.
“I have to finish my shift,” Gloria told her. “Go to my house.”
Gloria’s parents were poor. They lived a long way out. Anxiety put Alatea in a frenzy and she wanted to go alone, but Porfirio insisted on taking the bus with her. At the end of the route, they had to hike a kilometer to a settlement being thrown up by very poor people escaping country life. Yhu meant Black Water, and there was plenty of it lying in low spots in the ground anywhere you put your foot down. Gloria’s family lived in a shack of two rooms that was surrounded on all sides by a field of mandioca. Skinny cats were chasing skinny hens between the rows, and the leafy heads of the plants nodded as if they understood; they understood everything.
The place had a forlorn feel, like nobody ever lived there, and there was no sign of Gloria’s parents. But inside, in the murky dark of the shack, they found Rocky hugging himself on an upturned apple crate. He looked miserable in his black suit, his fine black shoes caked with mud.
Alatea meant business. She put her suitcase down on the floor and made a beeline for her lover. She hauled him to his feet. “Tell me it’s not true.”
“It’s not true.”
“Then say what happened.”
Porfirio could see him calculating. A brazen lie might have consequences down the road, if she stuck with him. It was better to tell her something she might possibly believe.
“It was an accident, sweet one. A misunderstanding. The situation went out of control.”
“Gloria said you stabbed a rich old woman with a letter opener and stole her pearls.”
He stiffened, managing to look as if she had slapped him. “It was nothing like that, nothing at all.”
There was a pause before she said, “What are we going to do, Rocky?”
Her plaintive whine touched Porfirio. He wished it didn’t. It was hard, standing there as her uncomfortable witness. The sound touched Rocky, too. He came to himself and took charge of the situation.
“We’ll spend the night here. Did you bring your passport?”
“Good. I’ve got some cash. Tomorrow morning we make a contribution to the border police recreation fund, and we cross. In Brazil, we turn invisible.”It wasn’t much of a plan, but Alatea thought it was brilliant. Porfirio couldn’t stand to hear any more, so he went out in the yard and sat on a three-legged stool. He watched the cats and the hens, which seemed to be losing their enthusiasm for the chase. Eventually, as the sun was going down, Gloria showed up. She looked worn out, like a person who had worked hard all day and made the long trek home and now had to think about putting on supper, getting some sleep, waking early, heading back to work. Her life.
“I’m keeping my parents away. I’ll give Rocky tonight, for Ala’s sake. But that’s it.”
“They’re going to Brazil in the morning.”
She squinted at him. Sitting there looking up, Porfirio was aware of something. He was not sure what it was but it had to do with the way Gloria knew certain things about him, or maybe about men and women in general. From two meters away he smelled something on her that was female and reassuring.
It was a miserable evening, but Porfirio could not tear himself away to go home, never mind his mother. If Alatea was leaving Paraguay, the pessimist in him needed to see her depart, to take the full force of the blow. Once, he came close to losing his temper. After they ate, Gloria produced a couple of bottles of wine. Rocky studied the label with condescension but drank at least his share, and as the alcohol percolated through him it fueled suspicion. What was to stop Porfirio from sneaking off to the cops? If Rocky was arrested, the way to Alatea’s heart might open up. It offended Porfirio that the Italian could think he would consider putting Ala in harm’s way, going to the police. He balled and unballed his fists. Gloria saw what was happening and distracted everyone with a joke they had to explain three times to Rocky before he got it. Paraguayan jokes were nothing like Italian jokes. What finally put an end to Rocky’s suspicion—Pilo could see it in his face—was his inability to imagine him as a rival.
Porfirio could not abide staying in the house while Ala and Rocky lay down together, and being around Gloria seemed like a bad idea. When the wine was gone and the moon rolled over the horizon he went outside to a hammock strung between banana trees. Mosquitoes plagued him until a breeze came through, and he was finally able to sleep.
Later, Ala coming to him with the moon on her shoulders could have been a dream but wasn’t. She put a hand on his lips to shush him. “He’s drunk asleep.”
Porfirio watched with delight as she spread a blanket in the grass, then shucked her blouse, her skirt, her underwear. Moonlight dripped from her breasts, trickling down her abdomen to the V between her legs where it sparkled darkly.
He climbed out of the hammock, and the one thing he wanted as a man with a hole in his heart came about. They were quiet because they had to be. That was okay with Pilo; he was a quiet lover anyway. After they climaxed, she rolled him onto his back, brushed the hair of his chest with her hand, and spoke into his ear.
“If I’d stayed, I would have let you down.”
That was true, and he knew it, but he was not going to admit it out loud.
She told him, “I’m going away, Pilo, because I can’t live my life in a dirty place like this. You understand, I know you do.”
“His name isn’t really Rocky.”
“I know, but I will always call him that.”
It was her way of admitting her weakness. She was a person who insisted on doing the wrong thing. He kept still, knowing she had more to say. It came when she figured it out.
“I need you to think I am wonderful.”
No answer from Porfirio, which threw her. “I just gave you the best of me, Pilo. Tell me it was what you wanted.”
“Yes, I wanted you.”
“Tell me it was amazing.”
Well, it was, and she was, and he told her so. What she really wanted was for him to tell her how generous she was. He resisted, and when she told him she had to go back inside he did not stop her or want, much, to stop her. He fell back to sleep on the blanket, waking when the breeze licked his naked back. As the sky paled low in the east at treetop level, he pulled on his jeans and lay listening to them stirring inside the shack.
Alatea and Rocky went fast, not waiting for mate or anything to eat. Hugging Porfirio goodbye, Ala sobbed a little, and he could see she was as scared as she was exhilarated. She was on the verge of accomplishing her dream–in the company of a murderer. Rocky looked down at his spoiled shoes and then over at Pilo, blaming him. They left quickly, and he and Gloria watched them out of sight, Rocky carrying Ala’s new suitcase, stepping carefully to avoid putting his good shoes in black water.
“Your mother will worry,” said Gloria when they were out of sight.
She was standing there barefoot in a loose T-shirt that bagged over her hips, in a pair of Brazilian jeans. The purple paint on her toenails was starting to chip. She lifted one foot to scratch a bug bite on the other leg. “You want something to eat?”
“Weren’t you going to show me something?”
“What was that?”
She nodded and slowly stripped, not so much making a show of it as acknowledging the two-way pull. He had to see her like that, naked and rounded, her soft brown skin shimmering in the soft white light of early morning, to know his hunch was right.
She looked at him, squinting again. Maybe she needed glasses. She let him see what he wanted to see, and then reached for her shirt. He saw the hurt moving through her as she methodically put her clothes back on. That was natural. There was hurt, and a pride that would make his fingers sizzle if he reached out and touched it. A cock crowed from the far end of the mandioca garden, and one of the thin cats stirred. Porfirio knew the essential thing was up to him.
Everything that had happened turned out to be what it took. He went into the shack. She followed, watching him rummage through her parents’ things until he came up with a burlap sack. She asked him what he was doing. No answer. He collected her clothes and folded them item by item into the sack as neatly as he knew how. He gathered up everything of hers he saw. There wasn’t much. Shoes and makeup, a radio. There was a framed mirror he knew she was fond of, too big to fit into the sack. He clamped it under one arm and threw the sack over his back.
“What will your mother say?”
“Let’s go,” he told her.
It didn’t matter what his mother said. They picked their way across the fields side by side. Gloria did not look back. Once, she said something to him, but he couldn’t make out the words. It was the roaring in the air. He had never heard it quite so boisterous. This was new knowledge for Pilo, and a surprise. How differently the sky sang when you started loving the right woman.
A former U.S. Foreign Service officer, MARK JACOBS has published more than 100 stories in magazines including The Atlantic, The Southern Humanities Review, The Idaho Review, The Southern Review, and The Kenyon Review. His story “How Birds Communicate” won The Iowa Review fiction prize. His five books include A Handful of Kings, published by Simon and Shuster, and Stone Cowboy, by Soho Press, which won the Maria Thomas Award. His website can be found at http://www.markjacobsauthor.com.