THE SEÑOR’S CORPSE
The stain was in the middle of the bed, but Señora Molina never slept in the middle of the bed. Even when alone, which was much of the time. Paloma was sure of that. She took care of the linens. Now, all that was there on the sheets was the maroon stain and slants of shuttered light from the louvered blinds of the window opposite. It was almost noon, long after the hour Paloma would usually clean the room.
She was staring at the bed when Caetana walked in, shrugged, and said, “Could be wine. Or shit.”
They both knew it was neither.
“Tana,” Paloma chided. Paloma, the under housekeeper, was thirty years younger than her colleague. She was nineteen when they met, when they were both hired—the Molinas were new to the harbor district, and Paloma was new to this kind of work, while Caetana had decades of experience. Now, Paloma was twenty-two. “Tana, please.”
“Don’t Tana me.”
Paloma touched the bed sheet. “Where is Mani?”
“Where do you think?” She clucked her tongue. Her face was large and round and tanned from a distant childhood spent outside and inland. “I shouldn’t have to bring him here. He’s only five.”
But her grandson was here—this crime scene. Paloma said, “He’s very mature for five.”
“He’s a pineapple. Like my daughter. And me, too, I should say.” Caetana sat on the bed as if it didn’t matter, as if it was just a bed and not a history written in stains of sweat and other fluids. “Mani. He’ll only grow up more like his mother. Like me. Pulled from preschool already when we need to work more than ever.” Caetana gravitated to a dramatic vision of the future: Mani, no longer young, working even worse jobs than her, getting fat from beer, pale with poor health, losing a day’s wage playing dominoes, his heart slowly ticking towards a rather undramatic end, seizing in the doorway of some shanty house.
“I’ll check on him,” Paloma said, but she was distracted, gazing at the beige wall around the window. A tarantula had been there not long before.
“He’s out front with Manuel. The boy is probably hungry. He usually is.”
“Manuel is here?” The Molinas’ chauffeur.
Caetana nodded. “And see to the pot of coffee, too.”
Downstairs, all the doors were still open, even the French doors that led to the veranda. The curtains waved in the breeze. The Caribbean was on that breeze, dissolving into the antiseptic smell that lingered through the halls.
Out front on the gravel drive, Mani and Manuel sat on the hood of a boat-sized Cadillac—the Señor’s car. Manuel smoked a cigarette. He was a few years younger than the Molinas, but his slicked back hair was already gray.
“Mani, don’t lean on that,” Paloma said from the doorway of the villa. “Come inside. Let’s have a snack.”
Mani waddled over. He was a plump little boy with a black fringe nearly covering his eyes. Before he passed Paloma, he turned back to Manuel. “What do I have?”
Manuel cocked his mouth to the side. A piece of ash fell from the tip of the cigarette and landed on his linen shirt. Manuel wasn’t wearing his double-breasted jacket today, or his plain black cap. “You have a cheese sandwich. And the biggest cookie you can find.”
The first time Caetana brought Mani to the villa—before she and her daughter pooled their money to pay for preschool—the boy met Manuel. Since they had the same name, Manuel told the boy a story that he was him—Mani—from the future. That he’d come back to give Mani life advice and to bet on some football matches, too. Mani smiled and hurried inside.
Paloma made her way across the gravel. “What did you tell him?” she asked.
Manuel’s smile turned grim and faded. “Same as I always say to the boy.”
“You shouldn’t play head games with a child.”
“How many Manuels do you know? How many can you find on this island? You suppose the boy really believes everyone who shares his name is himself?” Manuel offered her a smoke. “It encourages him to think he’ll be good looking someday. Lose the baby fat.”
She shook her head and instead asked if he told Mani anything about the Molinas.
“What do you think? Like you said, he is a child.”
Paloma nodded and asked for a cigarette. Manuel took a silver lighter from his pocket and lit it for her.
“Where’d you get that?” she asked. Paloma wore no jewelry, but had some kept away in a wooden box under her bed back in her apartment. If she had to, she thought, she could sell the pieces. A pair of earrings she’d found on the ground of her old schoolhouse. A gold-colored bracelet she’d bought two years before, but never wore, and didn’t know was worth nothing.
“A gift.” Manuel exhaled twin streams of blue smoke from his nose and put the lighter back into his pocket. “From a ghost.”
“Caetana is not happy.”
“She’s lost her job. Her recommenders.” Manuel tilted his head up and released a long draw from between his teeth. It was as if somewhere inside his skull was a little fire. “Her source of entertainment.”
The sky was blue, but thunderheads loomed out west over the patch of Caribbean Sea visible between other homes and rooftops lower on the hill. Paloma started, “Señora Molina…”
“What good can she do?” Manuel asked. “You’re as stuck as the rest of us, you know.”
“What can we all do? Go on house making, changing the sheets? And you—drive a ghost around?”
“Caetana is mad at you—I’m not.”
Paloma coughed smoke. “Caetana helps pay for his preschool. Now she’ll have to look after Mani herself.”
“You think I don’t know that?” Manuel and Caetana, both being veteran houseworkers, shared more with each other than with Paloma. He went on, “See? She’s not pissed for Mani’s sake but her own.”
Paloma thought that maybe she should be angry, too, but she was only confused. She said, “You’re calm.”
Manuel waited a long while before speaking again. “This is not calm.”
Paloma checked the coffee in the kitchen—a gleaming, stainless steel space. Caetana had put a whole pot on the stove with a stocking filled with coffee grounds in the traditional way. Mani sat on a stool around the kitchen island with two plates before him, two cheese sandwiches.
“I made you one,” he said.
Paloma took the plate but didn’t sit. “You’re too good.”
“There were no cookies.”
“That’s okay.” She smiled. “Maybe you will have a cookie tomorrow.”
“Señor Molina and Señora Molina are gone,” Mani said.
Paloma took a bite of the sandwich. He had used the good cheese.
Mani quickly added, “He only told me because I asked.”
“It’s okay. Yes, they’ve gone.”
“Where have they gone?”
The boy frowned.
Paloma went to get herself a glass of milk, hesitating before the cabinet. When had she ever taken from one of the Molinas’ crystals? Caetana would use their glasses, but Paloma had never. Now, she asked if Mani would like one as well. He said yes and asked, “Did they move inland?”
“Well, no.” Paloma set the two glasses of milk down on the counter. “You know how Señor Molina works with planes?” She stopped.
Mani chugged down his milk. Little white drops caught on his upper lip. “I know planes. So they live in a plane now? In the sky?”
“Can we see them if we go outside?”
Paloma winced. She had not considered there could be any further questions if she said they were a thousand miles up in the air. “Maybe,” was all Paloma could answer.
Mani slid off his stool and waddled out of the kitchen. Paloma didn’t know what else to do so she followed.
Past the veranda, the villa had a small backyard. Big enough for a child to kick a football, not that the Molinas had any children. But if they weren’t home and Mani was, he would play out there. There was a garden, too, with hyacinths and tulips and a few low sabal palms. Mani took a seat in the grass and looked up at the sky.
Paloma asked herself why she was here. Caetana lived in the villa, in servants’ quarters—when no one was home, she walked around like it was her own—but Paloma could leave, couldn’t she? Start looking for another job. She and Caetana didn’t need to pack away the Molinas’ things, and it was clear Caetana wouldn’t mind her being gone forever. If anyone else was really coming, what did that have to do with herself, or Tana? Or Manuel, for that matter? Paloma had no desire to talk to the municipal police again. She’d talked enough. She’d told her story. There was nothing else to say. She waited not knowing for what.
Paloma was born on the eastern side of the island, where the holiday resorts towered over the coastline. She had no father, but her abuela helped raise her till she was four. Then her abuela died. She went to live with her mother in a cramped housing complex instead. Her mother was a maid in a luxury hotel, and on weekends, when school was out, she would take Paloma to work with her. While she scrubbed toilets, emptied waste bins, and turned down bedding, young Paloma would sit on identical balconies, with identical views of the sea, the beach, the distant scene of women and men and children sprawled out in lounge chairs, under tiny umbrellas. Paloma would make up stories for the people she saw below her. The western side of the hotel had no balconies, just windows to the inland hills scrubbed brown from heat. When in these rooms, Paloma would watch telenovelas.
She was a good student, and as a teenager went on to secondary school. In her third year, she could finally choose whatever classes she wanted. All she really wanted was to leave the island, so it didn’t matter what she took, she figured, and chose classes that interested her despite their irrelevancy. She took a creative writing course, and, for one assignment, wrote a poem. In her poem there was a man stumbling through a department store, the kind you’d find in the harbor district out west, not the touristy areas of the east coast, or to the north and south where new construction was just beginning. Most certainly not inland. The man wore a gray jumpsuit like someone from the future and his face was on fire. He was looking for someone, it was never stated who, and walked through the perfume section, picking up sample diffuser bottles and spritzing, causing little flares to erupt around him. The burning man went up an escalator searching for someone—a woman, it was intimated. He peeked around a sunglass kiosk, got on his hands and knees to look underneath racks of clothing and dress shoes. Then he stood. Then he arched his arms as if around an invisible other and started to dance the merengue, swinging his hips, gyrating his shoulders. In the end, he unzips his jumpsuit and reveals: nothing. No penis at all. Paloma’s teacher asked where she got the idea for the poem and Paloma, rather than saying that she sat down and thought it up, told a lie—that she got the idea from something she’d seen on television.
At school, the uniforms changed every semester. Even if it was just the color of the plaid skirt that turned from red to ochre, she was required to purchase a new one. This was common practice at secondary schools, to push out the kids who couldn’t afford the uniform changes. After the third year, Paloma was one of them. She dropped out and looked for work, interviewed to be an under housekeeper for the Molinas, and moved to a small dormitory-style apartment on the western coast of the island. It was the farthest away she could get.
Three years later, Paloma woke to her alarm clock like she would on any morning, got out of her cot, and walked to the kitchenette. She put a percolator on the hotplate and heated up old rice with milk and a pinch of cinnamon and sugar. After eating, drinking her coffee, showering in the shared bathroom, picking a blouse, first a blue one, and then white—both of which had once been a part of her school uniform—Paloma took the bus to the harbor district. It was early. The sun was only yellow fuzz out east, and to the west the sky ruffled into the dark sea water.
When Paloma came in, she came in as usual—behind where Manuel would have parked the Cadillac, through the service entrance, a door in the back of the house to the pantry, which led directly to the kitchen. She wasn’t yet past the shelves of spices and dried beans when she heard someone muttering swear words. In the kitchen, Señora Molina stood over her husband’s body. Paloma didn’t scream when she walked into the doorway and saw what was happening, but she did stiffen and feel her vision suddenly pull into a tight circle. Señor Molina was lying on his back, stretched out over the marble island, surrounded by an aureole of dark brown-red. But his head was unattached and on the floor, double wrapped in white plastic waste bags. The bloody bags—the head and gaping holes in the face half-visible—looked like a misshapen pillow. Next to the bags was an open suitcase and inside the suitcase were his arms. The hands were attached to these arms, but the fingers were not. Señora Molina stood at his feet, where his legs were splayed out and kept aloft by the marble island. He was wearing pajama pants, but no shirt or shoes. His belly swelled just slightly over the elastic waistband of his pajama bottoms. On the edge of the countertop was a machete and, in her hands, Señora Molina held a large pair of shears—the shears that Manuel would use for the garden. No one asked Manuel to do so, but he tended to the flowers anyway. Now, a part of Paloma’s mind registered surprise that the Señora had even known where the shears were kept.
Some of the Señor’s toes were missing. Señora Molina took the shears to the next one, his left foot’s big toe, and squeezed hard, twisting the shears around the pale gray skin of the toe until it snapped off. No blood gushed, but the room smelled strongly of iron. All the blood inside and out was already drying. Señora Molina picked the toe up from where it bounced to the floor and tossed it into a shopping bag that stood next to the suitcase. Paloma retched. Señora Molina looked up straight at Paloma. But Paloma felt as if her employer was seeing nothing, no one. That she was no one to her, that Señora Molina was only seeing what she’d done, whatever it was, what she was doing. What she was doing was tearing Señor Molina to pieces.
“I’m sorry,” Señora Molina said, “that you came all this way. Please, take the day off.”
Paloma didn’t breathe as she reversed. She didn’t go home, though, and instead, after taking a moment to put her hands on her knees and dry heave, she walked around the harbor district in a daze. The pastel shops were still closed. The sea churned and shushed. Paloma sat on a bench by the pier as the sun raised itself behind her, warming her back as it topped the inland hills and set the dockworkers working, the streets filling with bicycles and a few cars, people all dressed in bright linen, all strolling at leisurely paces.
She didn’t know where to go, but needed to go somewhere, so she walked into a bookstore and bought a book, then found a café. The cafés around her apartment were not like this—where young men in polo shirts brought you a cortado, a cookie on the house. Paloma sat in a plush chair out on the patio, but she was the only one who read. The other patrons chatted in polite, smiling voices. Some didn’t even finish their coffees. Paloma drank two cortados in the hours she spent there. She ate two free cookies, an egg salad sandwich and a small house salad. She spent as much money as she’d make in a day. She pretended nothing would change and read almost half her book, but couldn’t say she followed the story. Señora Molina’s words repeated in her head like a low gong. After the café, Paloma went to a park and watched people play with their dogs. A man came up to her and asked which was hers.
“Oh,” she said and faltered a smile. “I don’t know.”
“Have you lost yours?” the man asked.
“I mean—I don’t have one.”
The man gave her a funny look.
“But I would like one.” And she would, if she had a larger apartment, and more free time.
“You’re funny,” he said and smiled confidently. The man asked if she was from around here, if she was a schoolgirl. Paloma said no and that she had to be going soon.
At the end of the day, when the sky was red, she walked into the harbor district’s municipal police station. The harbor district, where she imagined there was never any unnecessary blood lost. She walked in and explained what she’d seen.
The next morning, Paloma took the bus once again to the harbor district. She walked to the villa and peered over the outer wall into the gravel drive, to the front door. All was quiet. She didn’t know what else to do, even though she knew everything would now be different. The Señora would be gone. The Señor’s Cadillac was missing, too. When Paloma let herself in, only Caetana was home. In the kitchen.
“You like sour pineapple?” Caetana asked. She leaned her elbows on the kitchen island, smoking, letting her cigarette ash fall and scatter on the otherwise polished marble top. The hot red end of the cigarette was the only real light in the room, but the sky outside the windows was starting to pale. Without even having to think, Caetana swept the ash up and tossed it into the sink.”
An envelope sat atop a pile of yesterday’s papers and mail. “We’re paid through the end of the week,” she said, taking a wad of cash from the manila fold of paper. “So you can go now? You don’t have to live here still.”
Paloma just stood there.
“You want to work? Clean clean clean, good little girl?” Caetana’s lips lifted, baring yellow teeth. “Do you suppose the inspectors will come back later today? After they’ve had their eggs and coffee? Mangu, of course.” There was almost a rush to the way she spoke. An excitement. “Maybe they’ll rifle through the Señora’s things. Maybe mine, too.”
The sun rose and filled the backyard—the kitchen, the whole villa—with a kodachrome vibrancy, but Paloma still didn’t know what to do. She wanted to go down by the harbor again or to the park, but then, if she left, there would be no coming back. As the day continued, the villa grew warm, but she didn’t turn the air on. Instead, Paloma opened all the windows, letting the breeze bend through doorways and curtains and around the halls. She sat in every chair on the ground floor except the stools around the kitchen island. Caetana alternated between glancing out to the driveway and sitting in the living room to watch television, a telenovela, En la Tela de Araña.
Nine o’clock came, but Manuel did not. Paloma watched the telenovela for a while, too, but would find her attention pulling back to the things that she would normally be doing: polishing the dishes, maybe clearing the coffee table, dusting the shelves, their ornaments, little statues of elephants and fish and miniature men made of terracotta and ivory. All things that would outlast the Molinas, but none of the trinkets Paloma grew up around—faceless dolls, football pennants, wooden cutlery. At ten, Caetana made a bean sandwich from leftovers in the fridge and took her plate to her quarters on the other side of the villa.
Paloma didn’t eat. She raised the volume on the television. The wind was strong outside and blew some palm fronds in through the back door. They lay there for a few minutes before she collected them into a waste bag and wondered: What will I do next? The phone rang a single time. Caetana must have answered, or whomever it was had hung up.
She would have to move back east, probably, where it was easier to get a job, especially without recommendations. But there were hotels blotting out the sun to the north and south, too. Just outside the harbor district new cranes spiked up every day.
Eventually, Caetana came down with a cleared plate and said she had to go get Mani from preschool.
“The boy’s fool mother has pulled him already,” she said. “She’s going to try to get the deposit back—my deposit. Over my dead body.”
Alone, Paloma walked the upstairs of the villa. The place was like a museum. Everything preserved. The study door was open. There weren’t that many books inside, but photographs hung on the walls. Photographs of the Molinas standing in front of pieces of art, Renaissance paintings, marble sculptures. Or posing on glass balconies before orange skies. There was one of Señora Molina in the street of a huge city, designer stores on every side of her, overstuffed shopping bags in both hands, but she didn’t smile. If this were a museum, Paloma thought, there would be little placards next to everything—not just the pictures. Chair, card table, writing desk, mandala rug, moorish lamp, armoire, ottomans. Next to a wax statue of herself it would say: Under Housekeeper. Or maybe just: Maid.
The Molinas’ bedroom was out of sorts, in a state it would never be by this time of the afternoon. Paloma always dutifully kept the bedding straightened. But here, before the rumpled sheets, a stain in the middle, it was as if the Señora should still be home. In bed. Finally in the middle. If it hadn’t been for me, Paloma thought, the Señora still could be.
Paloma heard a car pull up to the gate, through the gravel drive, and then faint voices. Feeling like a spy in a movie, she sidled against the wall of the bedroom and opened the window without revealing herself. More voices. It was Manuel, with Caetana and Mani, too.
“Do you think they’re here already?” Manuel asked.
Caetana, now. “Only that girl. More fools to come. Inside, Mani.”
“Can you fault her, Tana? She wanted to do what was right. There’s a difference between doing what’s right and doing your job.”
“You did more than yours.” Caetana laughed, a single, barking sound. “She has no reason to be here. I still have to live here. And you… So why, hm? Why did she come back? Waiting for more money? To steal the Señora’s jewelry? The girl is as dumb as my daughter.”
Paloma didn’t flinch at the criticism but inched her brow further to the edge of the window.
Gently, Manuel said, “Please. I know you’re angry now…”
“And you aren’t angry?”
“I’m everything. Angry, sad. And free.”
Caetana snorted. “I should feel free, too, no? So where should I go?”
Manuel sighed. “Maybe—”
Just then, Paloma noticed a tarantula crawling above her face. It startled her, being so close. She could see all eight of its glassy eyes. The spider’s body was no more than a few inches wide, but with its long, stilted legs, it came to the size of her hand. She wasn’t going to waste time trying to find something appropriate to smash it with—there were spiders in the house all the time—but in the moment it took Paloma to dart to the other side of the window, she missed some of what Manuel said.
Caetana clucked. “The carrots are cooked. That’s why I called you after the police called here—the Señora confessed to everything.”
“They will be back for you.”
Manuel said that was okay. None of this was unexpected. “I’ll stay here,” he said. “If you want to call them again.”
“They’ll be here soon enough. How many do you think? God knows,” Caetana said. “I should put a pot of coffee on. Stay here, enjoy the fresh air. I’ll send Mani back out to keep you company. Or maybe that will give the wrong impression, you with a boy?” She laughed again.
The conversation outside ended and then there were noises in the kitchen, wood on metal, a cabinet opening. Paloma lowered the louvered shutters as footsteps climbed the stairs. She turned back toward the bed, the stain
A moment later, Caetana shrugged into the room and stood beside her. “Could be wine,” she said. “Or shit.”
A half-hour later, Paloma was back outside, back with Mani in the garden. She’d left for only a moment to pull the sock of coffee grounds from the pot. Now, though, Mani was pointing upward.
“Look!” he said.
And there it was: a plane, sliding like a paper cutout across the sky. It flew out to the sea, toward a mass of thunderheads.
Paloma touched the boy’s shoulder.
“Think that’s them?” Mani suddenly turned to go inside. “I have to tell him!”
“Wait,” Paloma called but the boy was already rushing into the kitchen and out to the driveway. “Mani, wait!” She followed.
Mani froze halfway across the gravel. “But,” Mani started, “but he said he hoped they were okay. I wanted to tell him—”
“It’s okay.” Paloma steadied herself in the front doorway as the boy about-faced and, after a moment of dejected hesitation, returned inside. All the while, Manuel still sat on the hood of the Cadillac and smoked one cigarette after the other.
Once the boy was gone, Manuel said, “You shouldn’t try to pretend. He’s going to ask where I went.”
“I don’t understand,” she said.
“He’s going to ask where he’s going, too, I suppose. And I’ll have to go soon.”
“So I’ll tell him you live in the sky now, too.” Paloma snapped, realizing halfway through the sentence that Manuel couldn’t have known what she meant.
He nodded all the same. “Can I tell you a story?”
Paloma crossed her arms. A small pebble had gotten into her flats, between the sole and the skin of her foot. She did nothing about it but stood and waited.
“When I was a child, I lived along the eastern coast. Before you were born. Long before. And before the high-rises. A village along the beach.” Manuel didn’t smoke now, just held a cigarette loosely between his fingers. “When I turned thirteen, my family moved inland, and my father sent me to this side of the island to work. Not the harbor district, but this large property, this villa in the Acantilados region. For a year, I worked in their garden. Watering hydrangeas and hyacinths. Tulips. But all I wanted was to be inside. It was always hot and their house was always cool.”
Manuel didn’t finish his story. Before he could go on, a car pulled through the open gate and into the circular drive. A municipal car, an inspector.
Manuel trailed off as the car crunched the gravel and came to a stop. He dropped his cigarette and rubbed it into the ground with the toe of his work oxfords and said, “I should at least be back before the Señora.”
Paloma asked what was happening. What if they took her, too? Then, at least, she’d know where she was going.
“It’s not your fault.” He walked to the car as the inspector exited and handcuffed him. Manuel got into the backseat. Before the inspector left, he approached Paloma.
The man had bushy hair and needed a shave. He said something like thank you, but Paloma could hardly tell. Manuel didn’t blame her, but why not? Why?
“Caetana,” Paloma started, “she made a pot of coffee. She thought—I don’t know, more of you would be here. I don’t know.”
“As I told her, we have a full confession.” The inspector smiled briefly but his eyes didn’t change. “Lucky it’s just me again and not some of the other boys.”
“But what did Manuel do?”
“He is the driver, correct? He drove Señora Molina. Nothing terrible. Slight accessory. People get off with much worse. But I’ll tell you, a faggot isn’t going to have an easy time of it anywhere.”
Paloma froze. She almost asked what he meant, but she knew, even though this wasn’t the story that she’d been telling herself. When she squeezed her eyes shut, she saw the black Cadillac not just loaded with trunks and bags full of the Señor’s corpse, but all their bodies, trundling off over a dirt road through the Acantilados region into a canyon at sundown.
The inspector shrugged. He said nothing else before returning to his car and leaving. The clouds were closer now, eating away at the sky.
Without being conscious of moving her feet, she found herself back in the kitchen with Mani, who was holding a slice of toast. He had drizzled honey on the bread in circles. Not a spiral, but circles, four of them, each consecutive one smaller and enclosed by another. He wasn’t eating, or looking at his food. He wasn’t looking at anything. The boy was plump, but he would not be plump for long. His years would turn, and the fat would either swell to something harder and heavier or fall away. After a certain point in time, only his bones, his skeleton, would stay the same.
“Where is your abuela?” Paloma asked.
Mani continued to ignore the slice of sweet toast and, without looking, pointed outside to the backyard, the garden.
Caetana was sitting in the grass, her long skirt bunched around her thighs. The skin there was pale, lumpy and shot with little blue veins. “Only one,” Caetana said to herself. “What a joke.”
Paloma stood behind her and said that Manuel was gone. As she spoke, she imagined viewing the two of them, Paloma and Caetana, from the front—as if in a photograph, a piece of history to be hung in their exhibit: the backdrop of the villa, its beige mortar side muted now in the darkening light. Caetana with her knees hoisting her chin, a fifty-year-old woman in the pose of a teenager. And herself, standing, confused, alone and a few feet behind.
“He told me he’ll be back,” Paloma said, “before the Señora.”
Caetana didn’t stand or turn when she spoke. “I thought they’d send more. How long do you think he’ll do? A few years? Oh, he’ll get, I don’t know, clubbed…a barbell. A toothbrush knife.”
“What are you talking about?” Paloma said.
“He was better than the telenovelas.” Caetana sighed and walked back inside.
Paloma followed into the kitchen, where Mani still sat.
“Manuel always told me about his affairs with the Señor.” Caetana flipped her hand nonchalantly. “He came to me because he wondered if what was going on was wrong.”
“None of it, I told him. I’m not a Catholic.”
Paloma said she didn’t understand.
“These past few months the Señor has made Manuel drive him around much more, no?”
“Should we go back outside? To the garden?”
Caetana ignored the question. “That’s why he helped her. He wanted to say goodbye.”
But that wasn’t true at all. When the Señora asked Manuel to go with her, to help bury the body, he said yes because only now did he fully realize how if you stripped them both of their clothes, shaved away their hair and financial history, if all that was left of them were their twitching hearts, and dendritic trees of neurons flaring with each piano note of want and disappointment, they were not too different. To the Señor, they were both just holes.
Caetana walked out the front door. Paloma trailed behind to the gate where Caetana finally stopped, turned, and said, “The Señora had no reason. Oh, there were reasons, obviously, but none of them were why she did it. She told me yesterday, after Manuel drove her home. She told me everything. They’d buried the body. You were long gone by then, probably on the phone with the municipal police, getting ready to put an end to this story.”
“I had to, didn’t I?” Paloma’s voice was small.
“The Señora said she didn’t feel anything. She talked about black holes. At first how she wanted to get away with it, but now that the body was gone, she didn’t care. I wasn’t afraid of her. She was just tired. Her stomach hurt. She lay down, I brought a cup of chamomile tea, and that was it. I was cleaning the kitchen—not of blood, the Señora had done that herself, and a decent job of it, too. I was just cleaning the grease from the stove hood. Then they came.” Caetana rapped her old knuckles twice on the stone wall that surrounded the front yard. “Two officers and that one lousy inspector. They asked me where the Señora was. I told them she hadn’t been feeling well, that she’d gone to bed early. But it was late.”
She paused and pressed her palm against the stone. The gate was still open. “The officers stayed with me. Just the inspector went up to bring her down. Not long. Not long enough to do anything. He walked her down, half asleep. She’d already left the money, but I thought she’d leave more. She’d said she didn’t feel anything. Can you believe that?”
Paloma didn’t have a chance to reply before Caetana turned and stepped away, suddenly much older than she’d ever been. Through the gate, down the cobbled street, she passed the walls of more villas, neighbors none of them ever knew, before finally rounding the corner. Paloma called after her but didn’t follow. She couldn’t leave Mani there alone.
Back inside, Mani had finished his toast.
“Is Mama going to pick me up?” he asked.
Paloma took a paper towel and wiped down the countertop. “I don’t know.”
“Did Abuela go out? Did Abuela go out to get something?”
“I don’t know that. Let’s close up, okay?” Paloma could smell the impending rain on the air.
She closed the gate, locked the front and French doors, but left the service entrance unbolted. Mani waddled around with her before she directed the boy to Caetana’s quarters. Paloma found a bag of knucklebones for him—one that the Molinas kept for whenever he was over. She told him to play in there, to play for a while.
“It won’t be long.” But long before what, she couldn’t say.
Another frown dragged his round face down in the moment it took for her to close the door. Paloma returned to the Molinas’ bedroom. The sheets were as they’d been that morning when the sun was bright and yellow and hot. But everything was cool now, the breeze through the open window was cool, the view almost uniformly neutral: the slate tops of villas, the low sheet of clouds. A wedge of visible sea and the outskirts of the district at the horizon. Construction continued. High rises erected. The stain was duller than it had been that morning. The Señora’s period must have come right before the police.
Paloma thought about the last years, how the Señora always grew so calm when her period came. The blood was there. Brown like rust, small and misshapen like the island, their island, which was shrinking to nothing more than a black dot on the sea. She undid the bedding. Taps of rain came. Before heading downstairs to the laundry closet, Paloma glanced out the window. The rain fell like long threads straight down from the sky, and everything changed to gray, everything but the red booms of cranes that marched along the edge of the harbor like elephantine spiders.
Tabs open on your screen right now: Several different websites I write for, a draft of my novel manuscript, Slack, Spotify, and this game called Disco Elysium.
Your writer crush: Elif Batuman. And Alex Garland. I’d very much like to have lunch with both of them, but probably not at the same time.
Best book nobody talks about: A True Novel by Minae Mizumura. It’s kind of a remix of Wuthering Heights, but better, and more people should read it.
Character (TV, book, movie) you most identify with: Maybe Strether from Henry James’s The Ambassadors. He’s a bit of an idiot, isn’t he?