The wedding was held at the Rancho del Cortes and Eva was one of twelve bridesmaids. The bride was the daughter of a wealthy benefactress of the women’s clinic Eva’s mother ran in Mexico and, for unknown reasons, Eva was asked to participate. It was a great honour, they were ‘society’, and it would have been rude to say no as Eva was dying to do. Being rude to a wealthy benefactress of her mother would have let her in for a world of hurt. The clinic was providing services sorely needed. Even in a superficially idyllic tourist-haven town like Cuernavaca, there were women seeking shelter or just basic healthcare. It was Eva’s mother’s baby, but Eva would do whatever she could to keep it up and running – for the women who needed it if no one else.
The dress she wore was lavender, tight, and gathered at the left side with a bunch of silk flowers. Eva looked hideous in lavender. Her fairly long hair was looped up in curls and ringlets and secured with painful, hooked bobby pins. More of the silk flowers were attached to the right side of her head with what felt like staples. The matching lavender mules pinched tightly as she wandered around the reception in a daze of pain. She wasn’t accustomed to so much skin showing, that type of slick, clingy fabric, or the high-heeled shoes that forced her into a provocative, hip-swinging walk. What if she should need to run? Why should she need to run, though? Relax, Eva told herself. Be cool, the shoes only have to be worn for a short time and then into the donation barrel they go. Collect yourself, Eva. This is a safe place.
Holding her champagne glass and a plate of tres leches cake, Eva approached an almost empty table and sat down next to a blond man, seemingly the only gringo at the party. He wore the stunned look of a person who is unable to understand the language or the situation he has found himself in. He nodded hello cautiously as Eva sat down and ate her cake. The internal dialogue started again: What are you doing? Get away from him! Are you tempting fate? Playing chicken with destiny’s oncoming train? Eva almost laughed. Maybe. Yes, she told herself. Toughen up. You’re fine.
The bride’s homely cousin walked up to Eva’s tablemate and asked him to dance. He looked flummoxed. Eva translated her request and a brief expression of something like surprise lit his features. He held up a walking cane and shrugged apologetically.
‘Could you tell her that I am honoured, but my wounded leg forbids dancing?’
‘No puede,’ Eva told the cousin.
‘A very succinct language, Spanish,’ he said as the cousin walked away.
‘You don’t want to be too nice with that one,’ Eva said. ‘Watch her try and kill everyone when it’s time to catch the bouquet.’
‘In that case, I thank you.’ He inclined his head.
‘No problem.’ Eva swigged the last of her champagne and left the plate with the rest of the cake on the table. It was too rich. ‘I will be sneaking out now. Goodbye.’
‘Um, yes. Is it an appropriate time to do that? I mean, no one will be offended if we leave?’
‘No,’ Eva said while inwardly wondering at the ‘we’. ‘I’ve left a gift, posed for photographs, and danced the required dance. I have no intention of having my nose broken in the fight for the bouquet. No one will notice if I leave.’
Eva watched him stand up with no trouble to either leg, but then remembered the language barrier. ‘Would you like help getting a taxi? Or are you staying here at the Rancho?’
‘Yes, I am staying here, but I think I’d like to get away until the party is over.’ He checked his pockets absently before grabbing a nearby hat. ‘Would you care to share a taxi?’
‘I was planning to walk to the bus stop and get the bus home.’
‘I like a good walk.’ He showed every indication of joining her. Now she was flummoxed.
‘Oh, well then. You can walk me to the bus stop,’ Eva said. She tried not to show her burgeoning suspicion. ‘Maybe we should introduce ourselves, too.’
‘Surely,’ he said. He gave her an absent-minded smile and ignored the second part of her suggestion. Eva did not take his offered arm.
As they made their way out of the hotel and down the residential street, Eva plotted methods of ditching his company. She decided to suggest sightseeing.
‘Have you seen Cortes’s other Cuernavaca property, El Palacio de Cortes?’ Eva said. ‘Did you know that Cuernavaca has been a vacation destination since Pre-Conquest days? Aztec emperors had weekend homes here. “Land of Eternal Spring” and all that?’ Why was she talking so much – to a strange gringo, no less? Shut up, Eva!
‘No. I arrived yesterday morning and spent my time thus far having Moctezuma’s revenge.’ He said this apologetically, either with regret over the grossness of the topic or his remissness at missing the sights, and not knowing the touristy details.
‘Did they give you some Yakult at the hotel? It tastes foul, but it helps.’
‘Yes. The staff has been most helpful…’
There was a break in the conversation when they arrived at the bus stop to find the bus rapidly approaching. Before she could say or do anything, he was getting on the bus with her, as if this were perfectly normal. Eva allowed him to pay her fare, helping him to pick out the proper coins, because she had forgotten to break the paper money she always carried in her bra into usable change. The gringo made her more nervous than she realised, than she’d like him to realise. The less he knew about her the better.
The bus was crowded for a Sunday, full of women with bright plastic shopping bags and men dressed in their churchgoing best, some slightly drunk. Someone offered the gringo a seat when his cane was noticed, but Eva refused on his behalf. The cane was purely an American affectation, she told the bus’s occupants. They mustn’t pander to his idiocy. He was offered a few sly smiles and nodded genially in reply, apparently completely uninterested in the refusal Eva had given. Besides, Eva thought, if she could stand in her torturous shoes, he could as well.
Conversation was impossible in the tilting, speeding bus. Eva was grateful for the extra time to plot ways of ditching this inconvenient stranger: she did not bring people home unannounced. It was not a Mexican custom, and the peculiarities of their maid, Altagracia, made it a stressful endeavour. She needed advance notice (preferably a week’s) to resign herself to having strangers in her space, eating her food. A sick stranger would send her right off her rocker.
If Eva couldn’t ditch him, she would need a means of getting him into the house without Altagracia having a full freak attack. Oh shit, oh shit. What the hell was she doing? Was she bored? Having a psychotic break? Why this man? Why now? Really, he wasn’t that attractive and the personality he’d revealed thus far was as bland as mashed potatoes. She must have been having an out-of-body experience. It was the only explanation. She wasn’t really doing this, someone else was in control of her body – this was all just a plotless movie.
The stranger didn’t seem to mind the silence. Occasionally, Eva caught a few bars of whatever ditty he was humming. The bus roared into a new colonia and she began to resign herself to her fate. There was no escape. Eva thought her sigh was inaudible, but the gringo smiled. ‘So, what’s the verdict?’
‘You’ve obviously been ruminating on various exit plans,’ he said. ‘So, what decision have you reached?’
And just like that, she reached one. Eva was not accustomed to people reading her or her aura or whatever it was that this man had picked up on. Even on Eva’s good days, her own mother referred to her as distant and inscrutable. It had been a while since she had met anyone willing to follow her around a city after exchanging a few sentences. The stranger bore more study. She was doing this for the family’s own good, frankly. This man couldn’t be as bland as he seemed. He must be up to shenanigans. Altagracia was going to have to stuff it.
‘We get off at the next stop,’ Eva said.
The bus stopped near a busy intersection and they hopped down. The unneeded cane was still bugging Eva. Wordlessly, she directed her guest up the proper street and then down what she knew appeared to be an alley in the eyes of a gringo. Both sides were lined with huge old trees towering above the twelve-foot walls. Eva broke into speech, startling both of them.
‘Our house is down the next street,’ she said. ‘I know they look like alleys to a grin… norteamericano, but they’re streets. They have walls like this for privacy and protection.’
‘I’ve seen similar in other countries.’ He nodded, seeming to want her to continue the lecture.
‘Probably places with great disparity in wealth and “class”.’ Eva put verbal quotations around the word.
‘Yes,’ he nodded again. ‘Hence the glass on top?’
‘Hence the glass,’ Eva agreed as they passed a wall with wicked chunks of glass embedded in its concrete top.
She needed to broach the topic of Altagracia. They turned down her street and Eva said, ‘Our house came with a maid…’
‘Built-in maid,’ he murmured. Despite her inner turmoil, she smiled.
‘More than you know,’ she said. ‘Altagracia worked for the previous owners and their parents before them. Her mother was the maid here, so Altagracia grew up in the house. She might have been born in the house for all I know.’
He briefly glanced at Eva, as if to judge whether she was coming to a point any time soon. There wasn’t one really. ‘She’s kinda odd,’ Eva finished.
‘In what way? Different people find different things odd.’ He explained this to her as if their entire conversation, this situation, was utterly everyday normal. They could be discussing the weather on his granny’s front porch in Georgia – not that Eva had even been to Georgia, and nor had he, judging by his flat California vowels. He did sound like home to Eva, she acknowledged.
‘Altagracia is agoraphobic,’ she said. ‘As long as I’ve lived here, she has never left the house. She only comes out of her room if no one else is home. She is almost nocturnal, and a very good cook.’
Eva gave this little speech standing in front of the gate in the wall surrounding her house. ‘I think she might also be obsessive-compulsive, but I don’t know her well enough to be sure.’ She nervously rang the bell, three long peals, before using her key to let them in.
‘How long have you lived here?’
‘Huh,’ he said.
‘What?’ Eva shifted from foot to foot, shoes pinching.
‘I’m trying to remember if I’ve ever heard a more depressing life story than Altagracia’s.’
They were silent as they made their way to the house through the garden. People always commented that Eva’s mother was such a good administrator at the women’s clinic; they didn’t know how she found the time to garden as well, gardening being such a time-consuming hobby. The truth was that to Eva’s mother the women’s clinic was the hobby and the garden was her passion. All her life she had struggled to grow things in harsh environments – Californian deserts or Idaho winters – dreaming of a place where seeds spit on the ground would produce vibrant plants in a matter of days. Eva and her companion pushed their way through the foliage towards the house.
The door Eva led him to entered the kitchen. It was a charming room, her second favourite in the house. Tiled floors, old brick fireplace, herbs in pots on the windowsill, painted sink; all next to a modern stove capable of any meal Altagracia could imagine. She’d left tear-streaks of joy on it the night after it was delivered. The following week, Eva had gained five pounds.
Once inside she kicked off her shoes while pulling the silk flowers out of her hair. These she flung into the junk drawer. ‘¡Altagracia!’ she yelled up the back stairs. ‘¡Tengo un huésped!’
Upstairs a door banged loudly. Eva looked at the visitor, who appeared completely at ease and even offered a faint smile. Now that he was there, what on earth was she going to do with him? Was she even safe? Once again, he sensed her conundrum.
‘Perhaps a tour?’ he suggested, standing with his hands behind his back.
‘Oh sure,’ Eva said. ‘Would you like something to drink?’
‘Maybe later.’ He wandered over to read the titles of the cookbooks in the corner bookshelf. She wondered at the ‘later’. Just how long was he planning to stay? She put the kettle on to buy some time. When she passed the counter, she noticed a grocery list taped to the coffee maker.
‘My mother hasn’t been home yet. I’ll have to run to the market later if we’re to get any dinner.’ She muttered this mostly to herself, realising a market visit would be the perfect time to get the stranger (still nameless, no less!) out of her house.
‘Is there no store of food here, then?’ He seemed genuinely interested, the weirdo. Who is he? Eva asked herself again. Why have you let him in?
‘Well, sure,’ Eva replied. ‘Staples, bulk items. But fresh produce we get at the open-air market, and tortillas at the grocery store. I don’t even know your name.’ She admired her smoothness at working that in. ‘You wouldn’t tell me earlier, remember?’
‘Oh, call me James.’ He was peeking around the doorjamb into the dining room.
I guess he isn’t interested in my name, jeez – Eva continued her inner conversation – but truly, the less he knows the better.
‘On to the tour then?’ Eva led him into the dining room. It was pretty small and didn’t stand out at all. ‘We never use this room, so it has that neglected look. My mother and I eat in the kitchen.’
From the dining room they turned left to the front of the house, where normal people would bring or receive guests. Pushing open the double doors, Eva preceded him into the library. She relaxed, and as he entered and the smell of old books hit them, she saw his interest quicken. ‘This is my favourite room.’
‘Mine too,’ he said. Presumptuous much?
The velvet psychiatrist sofa was still made up with sheets and blankets from her hurried departure that morning. Seeing as guests (usually) never arrived without advance notice, Eva had become rather careless about hiding the fact that she slept in here. ‘Uh, well,’ she began to explain to this complete stranger, ‘I’ve taken to sleeping in here. I think my room upstairs is haunted. I mostly use it as a closet.’
‘Mm,’ he murmured, running his fingers over a book he’d picked up from beside the sofa. ‘I just assumed you were a big reader.’
‘Well, yeah, that too.’ Eva lingered at the door, not wishing to join him in the room. ‘Let me show you the rest and then I’ll get you a drink that you can enjoy while I change out of this horror show.’ She swept a hand down her body, then cringed inwardly. Why did she do that? Bringing attention to your body is dangerous, dangerous.
She picked up her kicked-off shoes while heading up the tiled stairs to the second floor. He followed, but still held the book in his hand. Maybe he planned to read it while she changed? Eva had finished it that morning, making herself a little late in the process, so he could keep it for all she cared. It wasn’t one of the best she’d ever read.
Eva’s room was to the left and she pushed open the door. Aside from the large amounts of clothing and shoes spilling out of the armoire, it looked like a normal bedroom. The sunlight streaming in through the window made her claim of it being haunted seem a little kooky, she could hear him thinking. Couldn’t she? Was that his thought or hers?
‘This is my room. It looks fine and dandy in the day, but at night I feel something climb in bed with me.’
‘Can you blame them?’ Was this a compliment or a pass? She was not very adept at this sort of banter. But oddly her skin didn’t crawl like usual. She was just annoyed.
‘Well, yes. Actually, I can blame them. It is pretty disturbing to have an invisible entity jump in bed with you in the dark of night.’ James was going through her closet as if that was acceptable behaviour for a male guest. ‘My mother’s room is across the hall and a bathroom is beyond if you need that. There is a flight of stairs at the end of the hall. Please don’t go up them or Altagracia will have a nervous breakdown.’
‘Okay. I think I will use the facilities.’
‘Sure. Maybe you could help yourself to a beverage in the kitchen? You don’t seem to have a problem exploring on your own.’ Her snippiness slid off his placid exterior.
He left and she locked the bedroom door. With the haste brought on by having an unwelcome guest wandering around, she stripped off the hideous lavender dress and pulled on a more comfortable cotton one that buttoned modestly up the front. She ripped the offending pins out of her hair and gathered it into a ponytail. Finding a pair of white Ked sneakers took longer than putting them on, and then she raced out of the room and down the stairs. Her guest was sitting at the kitchen table, drinking lime-aid and reading the purloined book.
Eva gave him a polite, if distracted, smile as she walked into the pantry. She located the canvas shopping bag and her purse, left the pantry and ripped the list off the coffee maker. James stood as she lingered in anticipation of leaving. ‘Would you care to join me in doing the shopping?’ Eva asked. ‘If so, we need to hurry or dinner will be late, and tardiness is something Altagracia cannot tolerate.’
He stood as well, did that thing where he checked his pockets, and headed out the door with her. The phone rang from the wall inside and Eva stuck her head back through the doorway to listen to the message. Her mother was going to be late because she was meeting her ‘amigo’ Antonio for coffee after work. She might bring him home for dinner.
Eva heaved a sigh of relief: if all else failed, she could have Antonio graciously throw James out the door. Naturally it would be done with charm and hospitality, but Eva was glad Antonio was coming and not one of Mother’s smaller ‘amigos’.
‘My mother and her “friend” will be joining us for dinner. We really need to scoot.’ Eva started off at a brisk pace through the garden and out the gate.
James followed at a leisurely speed, still asking questions. ‘I hear quotation marks. Is it a boyfriend?’
‘My mother says she is too mature to have boyfriends. Probably in the states you would say gentleman friends, here she just calls them her “amigos”.’ She took his arm to hurry him along as she saw the bus for the Zócalo tearing up to the bus stop. He was not easy to speed. He was one of the strolling types.
A miracle occurred and the bus waited for them; no doubt the driver was simply stunned into shock by seeing Eva arm in arm with a man. After three years of acquaintance, people had a tendency to think her ready to dress saints, although her lack of Catholicism gave them pause. Feeling as if she was dragging a large tortoise onto a bus, Eva thanked the driver for waiting and gave him a little tip. He shut his open mouth before screeching off in a burst of unnecessary speed to show them how tardy they’d made him.
We haven’t always been like this, Eva remembered. This wasn’t the life she had been born into. Once they were the normal North American family with jobs, a dog, and a minivan. Eva’s mother was the average mom; widowed earlier than most, sure, but nothing if not ordinary. Eva was just a girl. There were the teen years, college, dating and a half-assed career. Unfortunately, she had regrettable taste in men, and when she’d met Archie and married him (against even her own best judgement) – well, that’s when things had started to go south. Literally. And Eva liked her life here in Cuernavaca. Well, usually. Until James had showed up and ruined it by reminding her of, well, everything. Everything she’d left behind.
There were no seats on the bus once again, and this time no one offered the gringo theirs. Eva saw the driver watching them in the rear-view mirror, much to the detriment of the other traffic on the road, and she studied her grocery list in order to ignore her companion. Aside from the corn tortillas, everything on the list should be attainable at the mercado. There were many touristy bars in that area; maybe James was a drinker? Eva could only hope that he would find more entertainment in a bottle than he had in her company so far.
The bus lurched around the central fountain at a speed that would get a norteamericano bus driver cited at the very least, slamming to a stop so that the driver could collect his ticket showing what time he’d arrived. Hurriedly yanking the bell-strap, Eva grabbed James’s arm and pulled him out the rear door. Since this was not actually a stop, the driver and the ticket holder next to the fountain protested. Eva threw the ticket kid a coin, waved appreciatively to the driver, and dragged James across the street before the traffic resumed.
‘Sorry about the mad dash.’ Eva was panting. He was really difficult to manoeuvre. ‘I suddenly remembered a famous bar that tourists like to visit. It’s right around here.’
‘I don’t drink,’ James said.
Eva said a very bad word quietly. Unfortunately, it wasn’t quiet enough.
‘I do do that.’ He smiled.
‘Well, I don’t.’ Although Eva was not smiling, her tone was perfectly polite. From experience she knew to keep calm and collected, show no fear or nervousness, until it was time to run like hell. ‘Just to be honest and open and whatever, nice widows in this part of the world don’t do that. We’re not even supposed to say it, but I didn’t always live here and sometimes things slip out.’
By now Eva had him strolling in the direction of the market, arm in arm like a newly married couple. Her hand in the crook of his elbow was an emotional weather gauge – his muscles never tensed during her speech. He was a calm gringo, she’d give him that. Eva supposed she should resign herself to her slow new friend, but she’d forever had problems with resignation. Oddly, James had yet to offer his condolences or ask any questions about her bereavement. Eva appreciated this unusual discretion even as she questioned its veracity. They finished the walk in silence.
Late in the day, the market was tranquil and rather empty of wares. Eva rounded up the vegetables, fruit, and lettuce for the nightly salad, picked out some pastries for dessert, and bought ices to enjoy on the way home. James had wandered off, but kept close enough to watch her. In case she made a run for it? When he joined her again, he was holding a bag of small black avocados, a cone of brown sugar, and a plastic bag of tiny red bugs scrabbling furiously to escape.
‘I didn’t want to buy these,’ he said, shaking the bag an arm’s length away. ‘I merely asked what they were for and I guess I pointed in a possessive way.’
‘It’s the end of the day, people don’t want to pack anything they don’t have to,’ Eva replied. ‘I’m sure she understood you, she just took advantage of your ignorance. You could give them to Altagracia if you don’t want them. She makes some kind of taco sauce with them.’
‘One eats these?’ He was faintly disbelieving.
‘Yes. Jumiles. People eat them.’ Eva smiled maliciously. He placed the jiggling bag in her full canvas carrier as if to disassociate himself from it. ‘I hope they have enough air to make it home,’ she said. Eva saw him shudder, and she grinned. He did not.
They made their way out of the market. The evening rush hour had commenced and the bus stops were crowded with people hungry to get home. Eva persuaded James to pay for a taxi, telling him she’d teach him how to bargain with the driver. Unfortunately, the driver knew Eva and refused to play along. In English he charged James a flat ten dollars. James handed it over readily, happy to speak his mother tongue with another man.
They reluctantly broke off some sports-related conversation when the car reached Eva’s gate. Taking advantage of the opportunity, she made a break for it. James tried to take her bag, hold open the gate, and apologise for some perceived slight at the same time. Eva ignored the apology, held on to the bag, and passed by him through the gate. The smell of roasting chicken wafted through the garden and Eva realised she’d forgotten to inform Altagracia of their arrival. On her instructions, James rang the bell several times. A sound midway between Aii and Eip was heard from the kitchen. By the time they entered the room, it was empty of any cook.
Eva slung the bag on the table and removed the vegetables. As she washed and prepared them, James poured them both a glass of lime-aid, sat back down, and continued his (her) book. The silence was an easy one until Eva remembered she had only met the man a few hours before and didn’t know his last name or his intentions, and the hair stood up on the back of her neck. Perhaps some animal instinct also spoke to him because he went into the dining room, looked around, and returned.
‘I wanted to offer to set the table, but it’s been done,’ he said.
‘Altagracia is as efficient as she is sneaky.’ Eva moved on to preparing the salad.
The pressure in the room shifted as the door opened. With much laughter and talk, Eva’s mother and her ‘amigo’ entered. Somehow introductions were made, though they lacked the knowledge of surnames and how Eva had met this stranger, and why after all these years of cautious living she had suddenly suppressed her habitual suspicion and brought a gringo into their home. Eva’s mother and Antonio were very friendly people, so aside from a few glances to make sure Eva was not being held at gunpoint, they managed to convey that the whole situation was perfectly normal.
Over dinner, a candlelit dinner no less, things got a little messy once more. James discovered Antonio was a taxi driver and told him about the trip home from the market with his new friend. Antonio knew the man, of course; they belonged to the same union, drank at the same bar, and rooted for the same teams. Sports occupied much of the men’s minds for the next minutes and Eva’s mother felt safe in conversing with her.
‘How was the wedding?’
‘Worse than I thought it would be. You owe me one just for having to wear those shoes for five hours.’ Her mother nodded in sympathy, but Eva noticed a smile lurking. ‘I had to save James from that niece of MariElena’s.’
‘The nose breaker?’
‘That one. She was putting the moves on him, but he wasn’t up to the challenge, what with the language barrier and having civilised manners and scruples.’ Antonio and James stopped talking in order to hear the story of James’s sexual harassment. Eva inwardly cursed her tendency to exaggerate for effect.
‘Oh, you met at the wedding!’ Her mother pretended to belatedly understand. ‘Are you a friend of the bride or the groom?’
Under the table Eva patted her mother’s knee in encouragement and appreciation. In return, Lenore smacked the back of Eva’s hand, hard.
‘I knew the groom in college in Los Angeles.’ James was extremely busy cutting up his chicken – or so he’d have them believe.
Antonio and Lenore were silently exchanging information, with facial gestures that baffled Eva and made them look like they had itches in unmentionable places. James chose this moment to go on the attack.
‘How did your husband die?’ he asked, as if this was polite.
Eva’s mother pretended the question was meant for her. ‘He was a lot older than me and his heart just gave out.’
‘Oh, you are a widow as well?’
‘For some years now. Would you care for more chicken? There is quite a bit of white meat left.’ She heaped his plate with roasted fowl while she and Antonio embarked on a lengthy discussion of the merits of dark meat versus white. Eva didn’t bother to hide her yawns; they ate late in Mexico.
Antonio helped Eva’s mother clear the table as James was still valiantly trying to eat his plate of chicken. Eva took pity on him.
‘You don’t have to eat everything to get dessert. We have pretty lax rules around here.’
‘How did your husband die?’ he softly persisted.
‘What does it matter to you?’ Eva just as softly shot back.
‘It seems like something no one wants to discuss. I just think there has to be a reason it makes everyone uncomfortable.’
‘Death makes everyone uncomfortable, haven’t you noticed?’ Eva was gathering the dishes to take to the kitchen, hoping to escape.
‘I read that here in Mexico death is celebrated as part of life.’
‘Yeah, it is, but that doesn’t mean I want to discuss my husband’s death with some man I met a few hours ago!’ Eva was still speaking quietly, but starting to wonder why.
‘What killed him?’
‘He had an accident!’ No longer was she either soft or quiet. Mother and Antonio came into the room. Antonio had, inexplicably, grown in size. He looked like an angry tomcat. Everyone had their suspicions about James.
‘Antonio is heading towards El Rancho and thought you’d like a ride,’ Mother said. ‘He has an early pick-up so he needs to be leaving soon. Don’t worry about the dishes, we’ll take care of it.’
James was semi-graciously kicked out, as Eva had earlier foreseen. There were no further exchanges besides thank yous and goodbyes. She helped carry the dishes to the kitchen, store leftovers, and wash up. At first the work was done in silence.
‘How did this happen?’ Mother questioned Eva, genuinely confused, but no more than Eva. ‘How did he talk you into bringing him home?’
‘I’m not sure, except that he was persistent and non-threatening, and I felt sorry for him. He was all stranger-in-a-strange-place, at first.’ Eva couldn’t meet her mother’s eyes, but concentrated on the bowl in her hands. ‘Then he seemed to know me, or “get” me. Ick. I hate words like that.’
‘I thought he was just some tourist, and he latched onto me because he didn’t speak the language.’
‘Maybe that is the explanation. Maybe everything is fine and we were just rude to a dinner guest.’ Lenore was one of those positive people that normal people usually find annoying. Eva just wished she could be more like her.
The phone rang and Lenore answered it quickly. The calls were for her more often than not, but she seemed to be expecting this one. She spoke briefly, listened for a moment longer, murmured goodbye, and hung up. ‘Antonio doesn’t think we were rude to our guest. He talked to the groom’s father…’
‘Those people really throw a wedding.’
‘Now is not the time. The groom didn’t go to school in Los Angeles.’ She paused. ‘I think I knew that.’ Mother looked at Eva to make sure she understood. As if this wasn’t Eva’s choice, as if this wasn’t all her fault. Then they stopped cleaning and made for the stairs.
‘Antonio will be back with the van,’ was all Mother said. Eva had always suspected that he was her mother’s favourite ‘amigo’.
They went to their rooms and packed suitcases. Having learned from mistakes she’d made three years ago, Eva packed only a few necessities and all the hidden cash went into her purse. After heaving her suitcase down the stairs, she ran back to hurry her mother’s packing. Mother would have argued over leaving so much behind, but the van had begun to honk outside. Eva yelled upstairs for Altagracia.
It wasn’t until they were outside the city that the word James had used caught in her mind and rattled around. What killed her husband? Why such an active verb? Why not, how did your husband die? ‘Are we jumping to conclusions?’
‘No,’ said Altagracia’s deep voice from the spot hidden at the back of the van. ‘We are taking precautions.’
Not accustomed to hearing Altagracia speak, they listened when she did. The rest of the ride that night was made in silence.
The story ended, as no doubt dozens of such stories have ended in Mexico, in a café on a cobbled street in Taxco, a silver town high in the Sierra Madre Mountains. He just appeared, the cane not looking absurd for once as he manoeuvred the treacherous cobbles on the tilted street in the sloping town, walking under the awning and sitting uninvited in the empty chair at Eva’s table.
‘You do know bounty hunting is illegal in Mexico, right?’ Eva slid a glass of Perrier over to him. The evening was humid and he looked hot and tired. ‘What’s that expression about the bad penny?’
‘Do I look like a bounty hunter to you?’ He was patting his pockets in that absent-minded manner, but this time he pulled out a flamboyant handkerchief to blot the sweat from his brow. He saw her studying the handkerchief and opened it for her perusal. ‘Souvenir of Mexico.’
Eva smiled. She couldn’t help it. What a dork. ‘I’ve never seen a bounty hunter. How should I know what one looks like?’
‘Have you ever seen an insurance fraud investigator?’ The waiter stopped by, but James only tapped the empty Perrier bottle and held up two fingers. The waiter left again.
‘Not that I’m aware of,’ Eva said when she had his attention once again. ‘I sent the police report and death certificate to the address the lady on the phone gave me. I waited until the cheque arrived, and then I hightailed it out of there.’
‘You can see why that struck some people as guilty, though, right?’ His water arrived and he politely filled her glass before his own.
‘Have you met my in-laws?’ Eva was beginning to get irritated, despite the sultriness of the evening, the beautiful view, and her complete dedication to the ideal of not running anymore. ‘And guilty how, exactly? Do I look like I know how to drive a train?’
He laughed. Eva guessed she didn’t look like she knew how to drive a train. ‘No one thinks you were driving the train. Just that you left the car on the tracks.’
‘Did you read the autopsy report with his blood alcohol level? Did you interview the patrons of the bar where he’d been refused service earlier? Did you notice that I was living in an undisclosed location one town away, trying to figure out how to start divorce proceedings without him finding and killing me?’
‘Well, yes.’ He opened the menu and perused it. ‘How are the salads here?’
‘Terrible. Try the empanadas.’
‘Sweet or savoury?’
‘Seriously?’ Eva grabbed the menu out of his hand. ‘I didn’t kill my husband, but I didn’t mourn his passing either. And I deserved that money. I earned it over and over again.’
‘How many empanadas to a serving? Because maybe I want both. I don’t imagine things keep well in this weather, and my hotel room doesn’t have a refrigerator.’ He looked up from the menu as if expecting advice.
‘Who are you?’ Eva ignored his gastronomical dilemma. ‘Why are you here? Why have you followed me?’
With a sigh of resignation, he closed his menu, laid it down flat with precise movements, and rubbed his eyes. ‘You are a very persistent woman. If your life on the run isn’t to your liking, you might consider a career in insurance fraud investigation.’
‘I’m not on the run,’ she said. ‘I was living the tranquil life of an expatriate when you showed up, stalked me, and scared the living crap out of my maid.’
The sultry night broke open and rain poured down from the heated sky. Night, full dark starless night, had fallen as they’d sat not eating, and the rain glinted and glistened in the light from the candles on the table, the electric lights of the café, and the glow of the fireflies fleeing in confusion to somewhere drier. James moved his chair further under the awning, away from the backsplash of the rain as it hit the cobbles. Coincidentally or not, he moved closer to Eva; their elbows would have touched if she let them.
‘About that maid…’
‘What about her? My god.’ Eva couldn’t keep up with his thought processes.
‘Was that story true? About her being raised in the house and her agoraphobia?’
‘Yes, it’s all true. Everything I’ve told you is true. I don’t know you well enough to lie to you.’ Lightning was igniting the sky over the none-too-distant mountains. The rain was falling so violently that a stream came rushing down the sloping cobblestoned street; any chairs not occupied were being swept away in the torrent. The night held the kind of heart-cutting beauty that makes sensible men and women into fools. Nights like these cause people like them to forget themselves, their duties, and their previous mistakes. Nights like this stormy, wet, firefly-lit one tempt men and women to make new mistakes.
‘How did you get her to leave, then?’
‘Love made Altagracia leave her home. Love for us. And love for Altagracia made my mother return to that home with her.’ The waiter deposited a plate of empanadas, unordered, and a bowl of honey on the table between their drinks and their hands.
The rushing creek where the street used to be forbade them from leaving; they might as well eat. They ripped the hot doughy deliciousness open and dipped the steaming mouths into the honey. It was a messy business, but they were already damp from the rain sneaking in under the awning, splashing up from the curb, and creeping down the walls. A little stickiness would hardly be noticed.
‘But you didn’t return,’ James said around a mouthful. ‘No love for Altagracia?’
‘I was tired,’ Eva said. ‘And I wanted to see what you would do.’
‘There was an accusation three years ago. The company was legally obligated to follow up, but you disappeared. Then someone tipped us off that you were living in Mexico, and again, legally obligated. And really, if you hadn’t fled – twice – the company wouldn’t have investigated at all. You have only yourself to blame.’ He shoved more empanadas into his mouth.
‘That’s true of everyone,’ Eva said. ‘About everything.’
He thought about this for a moment, swallowed, and then shrugged. Was he conceding her point?
‘So why are you still following me?’
‘Maybe you’re being presumptuous. Maybe I’m on vacation. Maybe I felt bad and wanted to let you know that you had nothing to flee from, least of all me. Maybe I just wanted to try the empanadas.’ He finished chewing the last one.
‘Why the cane? Is there a sword hidden inside?’
He smiled widely. ‘I wish I’d thought of that, but pretty sure that would be illegal. I broke my ankle last year, sometimes it locks up.’
‘So that’s it? That’s the whole story? There’s nothing left to the great mystery? I’ve been running from nothing?’ The rain was slackening; the street current was no longer strong enough to carry off chairs or small dogs or men with recently developed limps. They could leave if they wanted. ‘I’m kind of depressed now.’
‘Mm, well. It’s not the most depressing story I’ve heard, I must tell you. Not even close. But that of Altagracia…’
‘I know,’ Eva said, signalling to the waiter. ‘That is the last most depressing story until now.’
He didn’t respond, but instead turned back to the view of the lightning-struck mountains. The rain stopped. The flash-flood waters slowed, and then stopped abruptly. Across the plaza a band began to play. People ventured forth and some happy souls started to dance. They sat for a while and watched them. There was no hurry; the streets were still too wet to walk.
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