At 3 p.m. one Wednesday during the first week of July someone pulled the string on the brass bell outside Isabel’s gate. I punched the ‘save’ key on my keyboard, walked across the terrace and followed the footpath to the gate.
“Quien es?” I called out.
A voice from across the wall answered, “Memo”, the nickname for William.
“Memo?” I knew roughly eighteen “Memos.”
“El Correo.” Oh, Memo from the post office. I stepped through the knot of dogs that patrolled the garden and tentatively opened the door.
There stood the Ajijic postman holding a heavy, buff-colored envelope. It had been addressed by an angular, inky, and foreign hand. I searched my pocket, handed over a few pesos and offered Memo water. He declined and I looked at the empty basket on his bicycle and guessed he was anxious to get home. This part of his job required real stamina. Packages addressed to villagers usually towered over his postal scale before he loaded them onto his bike and carried them throughout the village. Isabel’s house was a good two kilometer ride over cobblestones and rutted dirt roads. While buying stamps I’d seen packages with delivery instructions as vague as ‘the adobe with the blue door by the tree in the arroyo‘. He must have covered a lot of territory today. His hair was wet and the bottoms of his trousers were caked with mud.
I read the address on the package and saw that the sender had simply written Sra. Isabel Fuente, La Canacinta. I looked over at the oval plaque mounted on her garden wall that read ‘La Quimera’, and noticed for the first time since I’d lived there that the house had no number. I’d always fantasized about living in an unmarked house; a place where I could come and go like a stranger, unobserved and out of the reach of people I knew. There must be some flaw in my character, I worried, to want something so peculiar. But, the reason lay in the type of work I’d chosen. I needed seclusion and long open blocks of time. Too much of anything wore me out. With the envelope in my hand, I walked up and down the length of the wall and searched for a number beneath the greenery. I found a lizard, a briar of scarlet bougainvillea and a machete Beto had left wedged between two stones.
I carried the envelope back to the house and placed it on top of the piano, a place Isabel and I left messages for one another. The return address read Aviles, Asturias, Spain. “M. Fuente Perez” appeared above the address. So, I thought, Martin, the cousin with whom she’d shared the mystery of the thunderbolt had come out of his silence at last.
Just as I was walking out the door to my car the phone rang. Isabel was calling from Guadalajara to say she wouldn’t be home until Friday, four days away. She’d spent the day buying airline tickets and making arrangements for a tour she was guiding in September. She’d be spending the weekend at her mother’s home, she said, and would I call the iron man to check on the gates she’d ordered for the terrace? The first person in five years to pass the state tourism exam on the first try, she made her living guiding groups to unusual places in Mexico. She spoke English and French as well as she spoke Spanish, creating friendships that spanned Europe and the Americas. Distracted by making a note of the iron man’s cellphone number, I forgot to tell her about the package from Spain.
After hanging up I again headed toward my car. As I moved through the laundry I heard a yelling and slapping commotion coming from the gardener’s bodega. I looked closer and saw Beto through the latticework of the door, whacking flies with a cheap, short-handled fly swatter imported, no doubt, from China. Since the rains in June, we’d been battling flies and other insects who had vigorously initiated their life cycles by hatching in the moist ground. They now drove us crazy by bumping incessantly against our lighted bulbs at night, flying up our noses, and into our clothes and hair. Slow moving black flies bothered me the most, bedeviling me at the computer and landing on my glass as I tried to relax on the terrace at night. The dogs growled and snapped as mosquitoes whined past their ears and flew into their eyes. I’d slapped apart one swatter and had gone shopping for another. A wine glass, an earthenware pot, and a framed photograph of my sister had all fallen prey to my blows. I rationalized to friends who witnessed my sprees that ‘insects had broken some covenant with nature.’ It was high-handed baloney, of course, but I felt compelled to say something as I swung my swatter and hunted each invader with a ferocity I reserved only for the weeks after the rains.
As I peered through the bodega door I could hardly believe my eyes. The dull-witted, laconic boy we grownups knew, had been transformed into one of the wildly popular superheroes all the kids worshipped in the comic books. Up flew his leg in a karate kick and down came the cheap swatter on his prey. I stepped away from the door and hunkered down by the gardening shelves and watched. Beto was a virtuoso. He slammed his victims with a precision that startled me and made me gasp with admiration. He had a backhanded, over-the-shoulder move that took my breath away. He swatted with one hand and caught others in mid-flight with the other. His casualties littered the floor of the bodega, speckling the blades of the push mower and bags of fertilizer. After every five moves or so he whacked again at their carcasses rendering a symphony of splats, whacks and highly convincing karate yells. He was completely unaware of my presence and more than anything, I wanted to keep it that way. I duckwalked backwards through the hedgerow, along the wall and then trudged, with my head low, the thirty meters to the gate. Away from the scrutiny of adults, Beto, the recalcitrant employee and obstinate son, was a heroic boy of promise.
That evening after Beto’s performance in the bodega I ventured out to a traveling tent show set up in Ajijic’s rodeo ring. The ring doubled as a soccer field, fairgrounds, music arena, and bullring. I’d waited until 10 p.m. knowing that the best entertainment always started well after nightfall. As I drove our lane my headlights flashed on the ejido lot that intersected the road. Fenced, with a tiny house, flatbed truck, milk cow, and rows of geraniums in cans, the lot belonged to Chuya. A stone’s throw from Isabel’s house, Chuya’s proximity was a major advantage of her employment. It came in handy when friends stopped to pick up keys, the dogs went missing, and unexpected callers needed to leave word of their visits. As my headlights swept the windows of Chuya’s house I saw her, with her hair down and her arms wrapped around her husband, dancing in the dark of her kitchen. In the space of a moment I saw Chuya as a woman and a wife, knowing in the second that I’d seen her that I’d always remember her closed eyes and serene smile as she rocked back and forth with her lover. Twice in one day, I’d been allowed into the lives of the people who worked within our walls. The orbit of my world skipped its groove and moved a little closer to theirs.
By the time I reached the rodeo ring, the traveling tent show was in full swing. A trailer parked crossways to the entrance served as the ticket booth. A woman holding a baby took my pesos and handed me three tickets to the show, one for each performance. It was a short walk from there to the tent. Inside, a stage had been erected in front of rows of benches set up for the audience. Two teenaged girls sold sweets, candied apples, and soft drinks along one side of the seating area. By the time I took my seat at the back, the room was two-thirds full. A comedy act of two singing cowboys had the crowd in stitches as they pratfalled their way through their routine. They were surprisingly good and I laughed out loud as they mugged their surprise at their sagging accordion and collapsable guitar. The next act surprised me, especially because of the number of children in the audience. Men, female impersonators actually, held microphones to their painted faces and lip synched popular tunes for the crowd. No one seemed to object in the least. In fact, the crowd whistled and catcalled during their performances with an enthusiasm that was as innocent as anything I’d ever witnessed. An elderly woman sitting on the bench next to me held her hand demurely in front of her mouth and laughed the raucous laugh of a sailor.
A twenty-minute break followed the female impersonation show. The lights remained dim in the tent while music blared over the speakers. The funny cowboy duo walked up and down the aisles hawking candied apples and joking with the crowd. I bought one and so did the woman next to me. We bit into our apples at the same moment, looked at each other and shrugged “Why not?”, then beamed each other with sticky grins.
Finally the show’s star attraction was announced. Señor Silva, the World’s Most Famous Hypnotist, proceeded to take the stage. The first ten minutes of his performance was devoted to coaxing teenagers to take a seat in one of the folding chairs behind him. His measured, seductive voice lured sixteen of them. Most of them were boys with oversized feet, rumpled pants and goofy grins. A few were girls, 14 or 15 years old, wearing skimpy tops and skintight jeans. They perched stiffly in their chairs with their arms and legs crossed, protecting their dignity, and scowled.
It didn’t take long for the first set of kids to be eliminated. The girls went first as did six of the boys. They’d failed as subjects and were escorted down to the floor by an assistant. Señor Silva began the next round of suggestions in his careful, beguiling voice. Without warning, three of the boys dropped their chins on their chests and went slack in their chairs. The crowd noticed and grew quiet, watching the hypnotist carefully hone in on the boys who were going to earn him his paycheck for the night. The remaining kids were led from the stage. The crowd teased them with a few minutes of friendly booing before they settled down again to watch the boys who’d succumbed to Silva’s spell.
Turning his back to the stage, Silva swept the crowd with his eyes and bragged to us about his ability to persuade. Then he turned around, stood in front of one of the boys, clucked his tongue and whispered something in his ear. Without a moment’s hesitation, the boy sprang from his chair, jumped onto a nearby stool and crowed like a rooster—long and hard and with utter conviction. The crowd, taken completely by surprise, exploded. Fathers, kids, moms and grandmothers screamed and then proceeded to roll in their chairs, hooting and shrieking at the tops of their lungs. The boy jumped from the stool onto the stage, wedged his hands beneath his armpits and began to strut, peck, scratch and cackle as if he’d been sprung from an egg himself. The crowd grew absolutely hysterical with laughter. Men standing in the back of the tent, contracted their midsections, gripped their knees tightly, hung their heads and howled. The woman next to me mopped the tears on her face and sucked air, exposing her toothless gums. I did a double take and wondered how she’d been able to eat the candied apple she’d purchased during the break. I found the apple, gripped by a pair of dentures, lying on the bench between us.
The next morning I walked along the Lake with the dogs and marveled as they chased the birds and swam. They leaped with a grace they never displayed loafing in the garden at home and as I watched them I took a measure of my happiness. In the past month I’d let go of some of the sadness around my sister’s death. The shock seemed muffled and a little further away. Good moments came more frequently than bad ones and I’d remembered now and then how to laugh. I’d learned how to manage the aches in my bones with pills, and had placed myself on a regime of walking, wheat grass and herbal potions. My vision of myself as an invalid seemed more than just a little foolish.
In the kitchen after the walk I poured myself a cup of coffee and sat down at the table. I saw that the message light was blinking on the answering machine by the phone. Someone had called while I’d been out. I touched the button and heard the voice of my oldest friend, Barbara, talking to me from the United States. “Call me,” she said. “It’s Jack.” The instant the machine clicked off the air in the room lurched violently to a halt. From the laundry Chuya yelled something to me about hangars. It was ironing day and I’d failed to bring empties from my closet. An explosion rocked me somewhere in the center of my chest. I watched myself lose control of my hands and drop the coffee cup I held onto the floor. Terrible news had arrived. Two people I called family were in trouble.
Isabel came home on Thursday, a day early. I met her in the kitchen and for a long moment neither of us said anything. Her face, normally animated, wore a stricken look I’d never seen.
“Pues…” She shook her head, unable to say it.
“My mother,” she whispered. “She says her life is over. She wants me to put her in a nursing home and for us, that is a horrible thing,” she said as a tear rolled down her face, “She wants to die alone.”
Isabel had a respectful, if complicated, relationship with her mother. At 82, Rafaela Fuente was a stunningly handsome woman who looked and moved years younger than her age. She took no prisoners in her private life and never had. Twice she’d bawled me out on the phone for not recognizing her voice when she called. She had been the wild girl from Chihuahua who’d snagged Isabel’s playboy father by fabricating a spectacular lie. A mountain girl from an enormous family, she told Alberto Fuente that she was an orphan and that his duties would entail supporting only her. Not raised with the formality of Jaliciense manners, she could never be accused of two-faced hypocrisy. She always said what she thought and unknowingly commanded the family with an iron hand. Her wish to die alone was a subtle criticism of her grown children. Isabel had been the first to receive the news.
“Do you think she means it?” I asked. Isabel just shook her head, too adrift in disbelief to say more. I linked my arm with hers and we walked out onto the terrace. I told her about the phone call I’d received the day before that informed me my friend Jack was dying. In the space of 48 hours we’d both been shaken with hard news. We knew that each of us was standing at the beginning of events that would destroy another chunk of our innocence, a part of us that would never be restored. We stood there for a while, comrades in sorrow, until the sun blinked and dipped below the trees.
On Friday Isabel discovered the package from Spain, along with a receipt from the iron man on the piano where I’d left it. She stood with a pounding heart, she told me later, wondering what kind of news it would reveal. She pierced the sticky flap with a knife and said beneath her breath to no one, “Let this be good.”
Inside the envelope she found a book about her father’s town that made mention of his family and the early beginnings of Casa Herminio, their department store. Inside its front cover was a cryptic note from Martin written on handmade paper with a tiny leaf pressed into the fibers. It thanked her for her visit. “Seeing you,” it read, “made me remember something I’d forgotten a long time ago. Be well, dear Cousin. Martin.” Lodged in the center of the book was a sepia portrait of her father’s family dated 1913. “Thank you,” she whispered to Martin. “Thank you.”
On Saturday morning I smelled coffee in the coffeemaker a half hour earlier than usual. Isabel must be awake already, I thought, as I wrapped my robe around me and headed for the kitchen.
“Good morning, Teresa, how are you?”
“Better.” We looked at each other for a moment and then got on with the business of pouring coffee and toasting bread.
Isabel’s excited about something, I thought suddenly, as I pulled the milk out of the refrigerator. I turned around and looked directly at her.
“You found it. The package. You found it?”
“Sí! They sent me a package! Mira, they sent me a book, and a letter and this.”
The photograph she held in her hand was exquisite. From it, a face so much like Isabel’s that it made me gasp, stared out from the body of a young woman, Martin’s long dead aunt, Maria Theresa.
© 2003 T. Adams