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First Visit, Last Farewell, continued

 

The third day we drove to Panchimalco and found a girl hidden coyly in the trees. She wore a clean white dress and dirty feet, and she was singing to herself while she pumped into the air on a makeshift ropy swing, and then all of a sudden she was singing to her brother, who had materialized, as if out of nowhere, from behind the trees. In Panchimalco there was a boy who gave his sister a bath while her underpants bleached whiter on a line above their heads, and there was another boy, dressed in a school uniform, sitting priestly and contemplative by the cathedral’s locked-shut door. Jeremy rode high on his father’s shoulders in Panchimalco and on his uncle’s shoulders, too, as Bill and Rodi walked side by side and I walked in their shadows. I reached up. I held my child’s hand. I listened to the Spanish that was kinship between brothers.

What are you talking about?

I’ll tell you later.

What are you thinking?

How pretty it is here.

On the fourth day we went to the farm. Went up there to have a party, and everybody came. Salvadoran weather is calming in February. The coffee cherries are gone; there is something of a breeze. We ate lunch on the porch of Don Alberto’s brick house.

Afterwards the women formed a circle and they talked, trading recent cease-fire horrors for entertainment, hitting their thighs with their manicured hands as they exclaimed and sighed and goaded one another on. Adela, sitting beside me, directed the traffic of their talk, putting her hand up frequently to stop the noisy flow so that she could turn and make it English, make it make sense for me.

“They stopped me at the stop sign and then they jumped into my car,” one said.

“They put a gun up to my face and tore the gold cross from my neck,” said another.

“I was going to a party, see? They stole everything, including—hands up—the rings right off my fingers.”

“No.”

“I was afraid to leave the house.”

“It was so frightening.”

“I was afraid to drive my car.”

“As was I; I hardly drove.”

“I didn’t have a choice. I went to the bank. I got the money for my workers. But they waited until my purse was full, and they got me from behind, and then they banged me on the head. Ay, my head. Ay. Ay. My head.”

“Do you like my little country?” Adela turned at last and said. I shook my head one way and then the other. Adela laughed. The others laughed, too. Someone went to get more rum. Nora opined that it was time for a siesta.

The next day was the final day, and there was another party planned. This one would take place at Nora’s city house, and everyone had dressed the part. Rafael’s children and Chepe’s children and Jamie’s children, and the mothers and the aunts and the grandmothers: they wore their tailored clothes, their maid-pressed linens, the hair that had been coifed for the purpose of the party earlier on. They wore their best clothes, and they smashed a stick against a swinging, bruised piŅata, and they divided into even teams to play a drawbridge game. The oldest of them all was Don Alberto’s widow, Tere. Still thin and still quite elegant, her white hair tending, in a certain light, toward quiet hints of blue. She wore a pearl-colored blouse with gold stitching at its collar, and it seemed to me, as I studied her, that she wore a fallen crown. Once, Bill told me. Once. They found a trunk full of letters Don Alberto wrote her. Love letters. Very romantic. Once, Bill told me. Once. My grandfather and my grandmother were very much in love. Can you tell, looking at her now, how beautiful she was?

“What do you think of my little country?” Adela came to where I was sitting and asked, her cigarette cocked away from her smile. “What do you think of our parties?”

“Bueno.”

“SĢ. Ay, Beth. Listen to you.”

“What?”

“Listen to you, speaking our Spanish.”

The kids were singing a Spanished “London Bridge Is Falling Down.” They were hammering the piŅata, and offering Jeremy the stick. And then all of a sudden they were singing “Happy Birthday” to my son, who was still months away from being five. He looked at me. I looked, smiling, back. Adela, pretty as a movie star, exhaled a plume of smoke and sighed.

“What do you remember about that first trip to Dad’s country?” I ask Jeremy now, when it’s just the two of us, the two of us and all these pictures on the floor.

“I remember the party best,” he says, after thinking for a while.

“Which one?”

“The party that they threw me.”

“You mean the piŅata party? At Nora’s Santa Tecla house?”

“Yeah. That one. When it was me and all those second cousins and they sang me ‘Happy Birthday.’”

“What do you remember best about it?”

“Nothing really. Nothing much.”

“Then why do you think you remember it?”

“Because everyone had come.”

 

Departure
They came for Don Alberto’s dying, too—the entire town, Bill says, all the campesinos from the farm. This is the story that he doesn’t like to tell. This is the end, and words can’t change it. This is the sickness no one could ever cure.

“He was traveling in Europe,” Bill will tell me when I ask, a quiet voice, all gravity. The eyes turned away, toward the past, the country that still lies between us.

“Alone?” I speak as softly as I can.

“With Nora and Rodi. With Adela’s daughter, Beca.”

“When?” A whisper in his ear. A kiss.

“August. 1976.”

“What was the first sign?”

“He was tired.”

“What were the other signs?”

“He’d grown much too thin too quickly.”

“What did they do?”

“They flew him to Miami. For tests.”

“Then?”

“They flew him to New Orleans. More tests.”

“What happened afterwards?”

“They flew him to El Salvador.”

“They knew he was dying?”

“Yes.”

“It was stomach cancer?”

“Yes.”

“What did you do?”

“I stayed home.”

By which Bill means that he got on a plane and flew to the States, where he was scheduled to start his sophomore year, and withdrew from all his classes. Returned to the airport, took the next flight home, hardly left the side of the man he’d loved so fiercely his life long, loved as he loves his son today, with that much force and passion.

 

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