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Years and years ago when my father, Onofre Moreno, was a child, nine, maybe ten years old, perhaps his favorite thing in the world was his father’s motorcycle. This was in Ecuador, in Guayaquil, on Second Street where they lived, when everybody still called him Nofrito except his little gang of neighborhood kids made up of some older cousins, his brother, and two or three friends from the private school, who all called him Choco, for his dark skin. Their house, built up with cement bricks, was blue, light blue, the color of the sky in a good mood, and the windows were framed in purple, a rich man’s color, and the roof was dark gray. It was two stories high, rare in those days, and it stood out among the houses of Second Street which were wooden and rotting. The wall around the house and yard, eight feet high, also was made of cement bricks, and it too was light blue, painted in a hurry, the stripes from the brushes still visible years later. On top of the wall, sticking up from a very thin layer of mortar, were the many scattered pieces of broken bottles, green, blue, clear, orange, brown, to keep out thieves and other criminals. Onofre Moreno, Sr., the father of little Nofrito, bought the house before the births of his sons with money he had inherited upon the death of his own father. This, Nofrito’s family, was not a wealthy family, but they were wealthy enough: Sr. Moreno was not a laborer at the harbor; he went to do his job in an office that overlooked it, and he wore a white man’s clothes, white shirts with buttons, a tie, dark pants, black shoes, his hair combed into place with shiny sticky grease, his skin smelling of the grease and cologne, at all times with the look of a serious man upon his face. Sr. Moreno, proud, his face like dried clay, rode his motorcycle on all days of the week, but it was on Sundays, and only on Sundays, that he gathered his family, his wife, Concha, his oldest, illegitimate son, Nelson, little Nofrito, and their youngest, a little girl, Anita, and they all rode together on the motorcycle, even though they owned a car, to arrive at the restaurant near the harbor, to visit with the older sister of Onofre Moreno, Sr., Patricia, who lived alone.

This is how they rode the motorcycle. Onofre, Sr., with his legs over both sides, started the motor and held it steady while Concha, holding Anita in one arm, slid behind her husband, into her place on the passenger’s seat. Both of her legs came down on one side, for she wore dresses, and she braced herself by sliding the heels of her shoes into a space between two metal pipes below her, saying a short prayer under her breath and crossing herself and closing her eyes. Nelson, older than Nofrito by a couple of months and the bigger of the two boys, climbed in between Concha and his father, holding onto his father’s waist. Finally, little Nofrito, admiring the shine of the metal before him, sat in front of his father, who, in between shifting gears and the sharper turns, sometimes held onto him with one arm over his chest.

The city of Guayaquil was laid out before them like water from the bucket which has spilled out onto the sidewalk, reaching as far as its momentum will take it, until its trickle no longer makes anything else wet. They rode in and out of neighborhoods, up and down the streets, all throughout the city. The motorcycle made all the noises a motorcycle can make, announcing their presence before they arrived and staying around long after they’d left. They rode out from Miraflores, the tiny neighborhood where they lived, to the new highway. They rode down through the tunnel that spit you out onto Malecón, in the shadow of the old hill where hundreds of years ago the people built their houses, on the lookout for the ships of pirates or Spaniards—both intent to burn the place down. Once, it is said, the ghost of St. Augustine spared the lives of everyone of Guayaquil, by appearing in a great cloud to the Spaniards, scaring them off, a sword in one hand and the Word of God in the other.

They passed through a small square where there stood a large statue of a man covered in pigeon shit, looking up and pointing to the sky, who had been a relative of the Morenos, the former president who had legalized divorce in Ecuador and who, it is told, had been killed by a group of angry devoted Catholics after they, on that very spot, had poured gasoline over his body and lit a match. The family rode down one long road made of dirt, around the statue, and back again along the road paved some years before. This was, Nofrito imagined, a parade of some kind, a show for the people of Guayaquil, a moment of pride for the Moreno family.

The buildings everywhere were made of clay or cinderblock, one or the other; their merchants, who were too poor to purchase real signs, merely painted on their outer walls the names of each business, CEVICHE Y PESCADO Y CHANCHO, or JOYERÍA, or EL UNIVERSO, in tall, wide, clumsy letters. Everything was brightly colored, greens, yellows, reds, blues, pinks—these were everywhere, covering all buildings. All kinds of street merchants, too, filled the streets and sidewalks, trying to make deals with you as you walked by or stopped at the traffic lights. Here came the boys into the street to juggle or do handstands while you waited for the light to change, in hopes that you would give them a sucre or two before the green light came on. There was the ice cream man from Cuenca, a poor man who wore a Panama hat, carrying that barrel across his back and shoulders, selling ice cream to everyone who needed to calm the sun’s heat. And here came the wooden-legged man with the little good-luck monkey—who for a sucre would give you a piece of paper, which was your fortune, wishing you hope and goodwill. He walked up and down the sidewalks, the sound of his wood-tipped leg thumping on the concrete—carrying his little organ and monkey and giving happiness to the people who believed in faith. The solderer, the man to fix anything made of metal, pans, pots, pipes, walked up and down the neighborhoods, and all day long he yelled for everyone to hear, Anything for welding! Anything for welding! There was a man who carried his baskets full of fruit, screaming out, They are all avocados! Here on the streets of Guayaquil was everybody, everybody, as beautiful as the morning. The love of God and the prayers of the saints, Nofrito liked to imagine, filled the hearts of them all.

They turned up the long street called el 9 de Octubre, passing the Seminary of the Iguanas, whose little park out front—the reason for its name—was filled with iguanas who let people come up to them, to feed or touch them. While he drove the motorcycle, Sr. Moreno always remained quiet, with a firmness in his mouth and forehead, and Anita was terrified of the motorcycle’s noise and speed and so she kept her face hidden in Concha’s breast who herself had not opened her eyes. Nelson, always quiet and waiting and angry and shy, said nothing, but looked into his father’s back, his black curly hair flying everywhere in the wind. Nofrito, who had been waiting anxiously for Sunday to come—and for the motorcycle ride it would afford him—pretended to be James Dean or some other American hero whose movies he had been told not to see. He leaned forward, or looked into the side-view mirrors, or brought his hands to the handlebars over his father’s hands. The sound of the motorcycle and its feel beneath him were one and the same, in the way the smell and taste of a thing are one. Their bodies on the motorcycle shook, and Nofrito liked to feel his stomach and legs move without meaning to, and to hear the shake and rumble of his own voice as he rode. It was in this way that Nofrito spent late mornings on Sunday, riding on his father’s motorcycle, with nothing in front of him but the wind. His face squinted when it hit his eyes, and his lips became long and thin, squeezed shut, as though he had tasted something bitter.

Around the corner and just down the way was the restaurant which sat on bank of the River Guayas, near the harbor, four or five kilometers upriver from the Pacific Ocean. All around them were the sounds and smells of their city, this beautiful place which was at once tiny and enormous, at once dangerous and lovely, where on your motorcycle you could pass by seminarians and beggars and the statues of martyrs, and feel your chest fill up with wonder.

When finally they arrived to the restaurant, they stepped down off the motorcycle as carefully as they had climbed up onto it, Concha and Anita first, Concha leaning forward to set down the little girl. Then Concha sat up and removed her shoes’ heels from between the metal pipes, and she fixed her hair with her hand, and she set her feet upon the dry dirt, taking the girl’s hand and heading for the front doorway. The boys jumped down easily and waited for Sr. Moreno to kick down the stand and remove the key from its hole, then all three strode together, the boys one step behind their father, slowly, their chins raised up, Nofrito hoping no one would say anything while he stuck out his chest. They came into the courtyard where during the week a radio played, but on Sundays there was live music, three guitars and a singer, no microphone, just the naked lovely sounds they made playing all the traditional folk songs. In the restaurant, which was separated from the water in the harbor only by a parking lot, stood long wooden picnic tables painted dark red, the lengths of four or five men, arranged as though this were an enormous outdoor school cafeteria, with an aisle down the center of the rows the waitresses could walk down. All kinds of people—large families, usually—came for food and drinks and happier times, the smell of ocean filling the noses of them all. Sr. Moreno ordered crabs and shrimp and chancho and lamb stew and seco de pollo and French fries and ceviche and chivo and octopus soup and squid and lobster and shark, enough to feed a dozen hungry people, and the adults drank beer or wine or brandy, and the children drank Tropicál, which fizzed in their mouths and tasted of strawberry. This was a big place, a place filled with the hard work and laughter of many men and their families, where the rich and the poor ate together, at the same long red wooden tables, and where perhaps a man would see Patricia, ignoring that half of her face was covered by a birthmark, purple, thick, wet-looking, like the liver of a cow, and, walking over to their table, would make the proper inquiries, court her, and take her into his family and his home.

___

Nofrito knew that Patricia, whom the children called Tía Pati, was ugly, that her face was awful to look at, that she was fat, that her face and body acted together to disgust him. He felt his stomach growl with discomfort whenever he looked at her, that purple splotch sticking to her face, the dark hairs that grew in thick long strands out of her cheek and neck, her glasses and dark woman’s mustache only making things worse. She had short hair on top of her head, a little longer than a man’s, not bothering to let it grow beautifully and shining. Her arms were freckled and her breasts, even though she was fat, were small. She never arrived to the restaurant before the rest of the Moreno family, which, Nofrito used to believe, was to avoid being seen alone in a crowded place, her face marked as it was. It was agreed between Tía Pati and the Morenos that they would arrive at eleven in the morning, but that is a loose time in Guayaquil, a time of laziness on Sundays, so the Morenos on their motorcycle came by at around eleven-thirty. Tía Pati always came at noon. She came into the courtyard with her head up, knowing where to look in order to see the faces she knew, always in the far corner, nearest the water of the harbor to show Anita the boats. Nelson and Nofrito ran around under the tables, or walked on the tabletops and benches in order to avoid imaginary lava flowing beneath them, pretending to be pirates or criminals on the run, and Sr. Moreno, having already ordered food for everyone, would rest with his wife and daughter, pointing at the boats or reading a newspaper while they waited for their order to be served. Tía Pati would arrive at around the same time the food did.

But, for all her ugliness, and though she always came later than everybody else, Tía Pati seemed never to take notice of herself, which was a small wonder to Nofrito. She told stories with a woman’s voice, with a woman’s laugh, and with a woman’s movements. She touched her brother’s arm, or batted her hand in a pretty way, as though the mark on her face were a sign on her back, something she remained unaware of: this is to say that the shame of her face did not show upon it. There had been a time—Nofrito was much younger then, maybe three or four years old—when he first noticed, or first began to think about, women having breasts, that out from their chests came what looked like enormous drops of rain. He remembered wondering whether anyone else had noticed them—or had he imagined them into being?—and why, if people noticed these things, did no one talk about them? Why did no one mention what hung from his mother’s, or on any other woman’s, front? This was an early memory, a small memory, but one which nonetheless caused him great shame, for he had wanted to know about what no one else would mention, and so he remained silent about them, about these breasts; in a similar way, he remained silent about his tía’s birthmark, and felt great shame for having noticed it, for looking, for staring, for having an interest, for feeling something she apparently did not feel at all.

And so Tía Pati on Sundays, over lamb stew and yellow rice with onions and three or four or five glasses of beer, told stories, and beautifully, never covering her face, never looking down. Always in her stories amazing things happened, unbelievable things, but things nonetheless that might possibly occur, a fat man who cried on a staircase because he’d forgotten the name of a beloved pet from years ago, or a child in the street whom she had seen preaching the kingdom of God, or, while she was out taking a swim, a hundred smiling dolphins all around her, jumping into the air, touching her as they swam by, as though this were a dance, or a blessing, or magic. She made the adults and the children laugh at the same time, at the same things, and she was the only one whom Nofrito had ever seen do that. But there it was, all the time, that ugly purple something on her face. He did not understand how she lived so happily. And he never asked, for there was shame in that for him.

Still, she was his favorite aunt, the one who sent him letters and money and candy in the mail or at school, for she worked as one of the secretaries in the administrative office, and she was the one who, despite her looks, had a pretty laugh, and the one who kept his secrets, the one who, lying, in order to save him from his father’s drunken fists one night, took the blame for a kitchen window left open and drops of milk spilled on the counter. She, her voice raising, screamed to her brother as he walked heavily at the boy, as he clutched the boy’s shirt in his hand, as he lifted up the boy and threw him down, No, you asshole, you pendejo, no, it was me, it was me, I spilled the milk, I opened the window for some air, I am sorry, will you hit a woman’s face, will you deform her even more, if you hit anyone tonight it will be me. Then his wrath was calmed, and he brought down his fists, lowering his arms, and Tía Pati, standing behind her brother, looked steadily at Nofrito who—crouched on the floor, still waiting to receive what had been about to come—began to understand true sacrifice. She put herself between them, she with a woman’s body and a woman’s softness and a woman’s persuasion despite her ugliness, and she kissed her brother’s lips and told him to go to bed. She whispered something into his ear, then, stepping away from him, for all to hear, she apologized for the mess with the promise to clean things up.

It was true: Sr. Moreno beat them miserably—Nofrito, Nelson, even Concha—all of them except Anita. These are the kinds of stories no one wants to hear, and yet everyone has heard them. Sr. Moreno, as other men, drank after his shifts in the office, paydays especially. This was not uncommon. They drank along La Diez y Ocho, 18th Street, where the hookers worked, and sometimes found themselves in the arms and legs of a prostitute, who, on occasion, gave them the clap, for which the hookers themselves sometimes were severely beaten, for in addition to the sting and pus, the men who brought home diseases were chased by their wives with brooms or cooking pans. All of this, though, was like a comedy, a routine, an act, a put-on, loud and ridiculous, and could, mostly, be laughed away. Wives did not pick fights that could not be finished by their husbands: yes, they cried; yes, they screamed; but they did not make threats. And this, too, was the case in the home of Onofre Moreno, Sr.: his difficulties were settled in the taverns, and if they could not be settled there they were beaten into his wife and sons, a flaw perhaps beyond compassion for some, but this story cannot be told far enough into history that everyone can be loved. If it is impossible to love Sr. Moreno beyond his fists, or his drinks, or his women, then do not think of them. Think instead of a motorcycle built for two people, and on this motorcycle a man and his family ride on Sundays to visit his ugly sister, whom he loves and protects and obeys, and think of the eyes of his son, of Nofrito, of the eyes this boy has for him, of the love and honor and waiting naturally built into a boy for his father; wonder at that love between these people, this family on the motorcycle, these people who hold onto each other, and watch as the motorcycle rides and makes its noise, as the family arrives to eat, to laugh, to listen to the music, and to the stories of Tía Pati, who, in her ugliness, hides many secrets.

Chapter 1
Chapter 2
Chapter 3
Chapter 4
Chapter 5
Chapter 6
Chapter 7
Chapter 8
Chapter 9
Chapter 10
Chapter 11
Chapter 12
Chapter 13
Chapter 14
Chapter 15
Full Text

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