Marsella is a terraced town on the Cuaca River. Bodies float to shore. Headless, armless, decomposing bodies. Sometimes the air is full of the scent of wild iris and bougainvillea. It is like a miracle. For a moment, Ana Garcia sniffs the air as it wafts over her newly hung wash. Manuel Varela rests beside his shovel. The graveyard digger is tired. He stands above the cemetery, wondering about God’s big plan. And about humans. He—God, that is—made human beings, Manuel believes. And He must have made them with arms and legs and a head precisely so they could be taken apart. Because up the Cuaca River, one man plucks the eyes out of another man, rips his arms off, maybe the legs too, and finishes the job by hacking off the head. A day’s work done quickly, quietly. A job well done. Then the man dumps the useless torso into the river. Flings the limbs towards the other side. Heaves the head into the center of the Cuaca where it sinks immediately—a weight severed from its tether. No one will know the identity of the bulbous torso when it bumps up onto shore in Marsella. No one can tell who it belonged to, not with the head somewhere face down on the river bottom. Not with the hands chopped off and left to rot in the dirt. No one will know just exactly who did this. No one, that is, but God.
Estrella Vespertina has been around forever. Actually, she is older than God. I think they’re related because she sure knows how to take a life and crack it open. Except with her, putrid crud seeps in instead of holy light. By the time you realize you got a leak it’s too late. Your whole soul stinks and everyone blames you. That’s what she did to me.
No sooner did I enter her house then she started harping on me like Mother’s parrot, tapping on my sternum with her huge finger bent into a Z from arthritis.
“Pheel, you don’t liiiisten. Pheel, you too stoo-pid. I dunno why I bother. No! I do know. Yes. Only for your mama I try to help you. Pobrecita! Tu madre tiene una vida dificile.”
“Gee, Estrella. You’re really hurting my feelings. I might get so sad I’ll just run away from home.”
“Like you run away from Cuaca River, Pheel?” Her eyes clicked in their sockets.
“No. Like the way I hauled myself out of there before the stench alone did me in.”
I would have blown smoke in her face but my cigar was still in my coat pocket. And my coat was in the closet back at my place. So she blew smoke in my face instead. I plucked the cigarette from her fingers.
“You know I hate filthy things.”
“Si, Pheel. So do I. That’s why I blow it in your face.”
She laughed as I tore the stick of nicotine into three even pieces.
“Pheel, the business is not done.”
I placed the cigarette pieces on the coffee table so they formed an H.
“Oh but yes, Estrella. As in mais oui. Si, si. Comprende?”
“Pheel, you so tough. A big man. But you don’t finish the business. I tell you.”
“No swearing in mi casa!”
“Sorry.” I moved the H around to make an E.
“You wanna drink?”
“Sure. Must be the cocktail hour somewhere in the world now.”
The monkey clock on the wall had nothing to say I didn’t already know. Too late for just about everything. The monkey’s tail ticked off the seconds with remarkable indifference.
As Estrella gyrated into the kitchen, parts of her enormous body seemed to be attacking other parts. I rearranged the torn cigarette into an L. Simple pleasures have always been my weakness.
Estrella blubbered back with my whiskey and her usual tequila in a tall glass. She stopped and pushed my three pieces of cigarette into a P.
“I see everything you do, Pheel.”
The liquor lapped warmly over my upper lip. “Do they still make alphabet soup?”
“Pheel, you a big baby.”
“Yeah, and this is mother’s milk.” Me and Old Overholt were old friends.
Estrella’s drink was long gone. She could have tossed it over her shoulder for all I knew.
That’s how fast it disappeared. I pushed the sticks of cigarette into a white triangle. One thing I knew for sure. I’d never make a circle out of it. Circles are hard to make. Especially freehand. Look at those old Japanese guys. They devoted years—entire lives, for chrissakes—just to get the circle down. One hand, one brush, one dip into the ink. And only one stroke. Whoosh. Nah, sorry pal, not quite right. Oh well, there goes another year of practice. And the killer is, some eventually do get it. And when that happens, they’re outta here. Free. Free from this messy world and its roadside business, big business, monkey business.
But that won’t happen to me. Circles aren’t my karma, as Estrella would say. I’m Philemon Steed, offshoot of Rhoda Steed, who prides herself on being a Daughter of the American Revolution. And I’m standing here in my worn levis without any underwear because I tossed them. My ricardo kept falling through the hole in the crotch. And I don’t like that. Holes, I mean. Round holes. Circles. Seems so simple but I can’t draw one. All this American boy can accomplish is a piddly ass triangle out of a nicotine stick. Remind me to kill myself. No, never mind. It ain’t the Steed style. We’d rather join revolutions and let the enemy do it for us.
“Pheel, why you leave before Cuaca all clean?”
“What am I? A janitor?”
“We pay you to do the job.”
“One I never wanted in the first place.”
“No matter. Felipe tells me you chicken.”
“Takes one to know one.”
“Felipe say you don’t even try.”
“How the hell does he know? He wasn’t even there.”
“Wrong, Pheel. You so stoo-pid.”
“You know something, Estrella? I’m getting tired of being called stupid.”
“Si. And I am even more tired of you being stoo-pid.”
Her chest was heaving, the massive bosoms rising like bread dough up and out of her low-cut dress. Estrella had the kind of cleavage I’d rather not look at. But somehow I couldn’t take my eyes off that swelling mass of mammary flesh. She lit another cigarette and let me look at her real good. My first thought was to pop her one. She was so damn sure of herself. But the last time I tried that she broke one of my ribs. So instead I picked up the three cigarette pieces and, one by one, stuffed them down between her breasts until they disappeared.
“Be careful, Pheel. In this life, whatever you put in, you gonna get back out sooner or later.”
“I’ll need more whiskey for that.”
“Sure, Pheel, why not. I give you all my money. Now you drink all my leeker.”
“Yeah, right. How long have we been doing business, Big E? And how many times have you said that to me? Jeezus. Your money and your liquor is like your—“
“Watch it, Pheel,” she threatened.
“Let’s just say everything about you seems to increase on a daily basis.”
She laughed. As usual. “How about stuffing something in me besides your stoo-pid cigarettes, big man?”
“I’m too tired. Last time I couldn’t find my way with both hands and a flashlight.”
“I don’t know why, Pheel. You been there so many times before.”
“Don’t remind me. I’d almost rather talk about the Cuaca River.”
Her crystal orbs clicked in their sockets.
“I said almost, Estrella.”
She shrugged and waddled off to the kitchen for more booze.
To be continued….