4

Miraflores was the name of that small neighborhood in Guayaquil where my father lived with his family. It spanned the distance of seven streets by seven avenues, named for numbers and flowers, and my father lived on Second Street, halfway between avenidas Calceolaria and Heliconia. The entire neighborhood was bordered on the north by the new highway, and on the south by one of the many little rivers—un de los dedos del rio, one of the river’s toes—which joined itself to the main waterway, the River Guayas, a few kilometers down. The River’s Toe did not have an official name but it was called by the children El Callejón Besarón, Kissing Alley—or simply El Callejón—for all those secrets the children enjoyed along its banks, hidden as they were by the tall and leafy trees and bushes. Everything was clean back then, the water safe to enter into, for paddling and for swimming. Some of the boys made rafts of dead wood and rope—or, if their parents were rich enough, they purchased canoes—and they rowed along the waters after school or on the weekends. They made small cages of paper cups and string, poking many tiny holes into the bottoms of the cups, big enough only for water to escape. They passed the string through the bottom of the cup—tying it securely with knots on either side, and they tied a stone to the bottom end of the string. Then they made bait of small bits of chicken or bacon, tying the bait to the inside of the cup. Once the contraption was baited, they let the cup fill with water, following the stone to the bottom of the river, dangling the string from their fingers. Inevitably, some baby crab or crayfish would smell the bait and crawl into the cup, thinking himself lucky for the feast before him. When this happened, the boys lifted the cup out of the water and it drained immediately, leaving only the crayfish—powerless now to climb out to freedom. Some of the braver boys built fires to cook their catch, showing off, but most of them—after poking at it for a while—returned the animals to the water, having grown bored once the chase had ended, saving them to be caught again tomorrow.

In truth, yes, Miraflores was a small neighborhood, just a few streets long and a few streets wide, its people, their faces, familiar to one another. But to a boy of ten, like my father at the time, it was world enough—enormous, important—and all along those streets was territory to be claimed, and wilderness for exploration, honor and reputation to be built up, and curiosity to be satisfied. Therefore, no, there was not enough time in the day for his adventures, for his wonder to be tamed: because a boy needed time, very much time, to poke sticks at bee hives, to throw pebbles at birds, to catch crabs in El Callejón, to make races of swimming to and from the opposite bank, to fight his enemies, and to do it right; he needed time to climb trees in search of birds’ eggs, and to throw them at the girls—as he hid, out of view; he must have time to devote to his games of fútbol in the street, played within lines drawn by chalk on the paved streets, or by markers of shoes and shirts on the streets of dirt, since each street—First, Second, Third, up through Seventh—had its team of boys to represent it, and at any given time of day, especially Saturdays and Sundays, you could watch two or three games at a time, and you could hear the yells to pass or shoot, and arguments over a hand-ball, or the celebrations over a goal, up and down the blocks of streets.

As a result, then, adventure was not to be had merely in the day, but also at night, in secret, in the safety of the darkness of midnight, when, after dinner, after bedtime, some boys gathered at El Callejón to make plans for mischief, to play cards, or to smoke cigarettes, or to drink liquor, or to fight, or to meet girls.

In order to escape their house without first being noticed, so they might join their little gang of friends and cousins, Nofrito and Nelson, after being sent off to bed—then after complaining that they were too old to be put to bed so early, a game they played now and then, intended to cover any bad intention they might have had—managed to learn how to climb down the side of their house. They ducked out their open window and used the concrete house like the side of a mountain, stepping down to and from windowsills and other jutting bricks. This was dangerous, but over the years they grew better at it, following a predetermined route down the wall. Finally, as they lowered themselves, they found a place to set their feet—on the wall separating their backyard from the neighbor’s. Here they had to be careful, since bits of broken glass covered the wall, so they were sure always to wear their shoes. From here it would have been only a short walk to open ground, and an easy jump down, one that would not make their feet sting as they landed, but there was always this one difficulty: the neighbor next door had filled his backyard with ducks, dozens of them, for eggs and meat, perhaps a hundred; they slept soundly, thank God, every night; still, on the occasion that one of the ducks would wake and begin to make its noises, only to wake up the others, which in turn would have stirred the entire neighborhood, one of the boys, Nofrito or Nelson, as they walked along the wall over the broken glass, threw a handful of breadcrumbs, emptying his pockets, and this shut them up quickly enough—and long enough, too, for the boys to jump down off the fence to the grass below, and then to make a run for it.

A few years later, I am told, when the novelty of their boys’ games had worn thin, and when the novelty of another game—chasing girls—had begun to grow, my father made a game of wooing the housekeepers of the neighborhood. Now the housekeepers of Miraflores—with some exceptions, of course, though few—were girls, teenagers most of them, in between the years of school and marriage. These girls, after leaving school, seemed only to be waiting around for a wedding, and so they came and went, year after year. Always was there somewhere in Miraflores some new girl hired, for a couple of years at least, and this was how they spent those years: lonely, quietly, humbly, cleaning, folding, dusting—wife practice, they called it— living in a maid’s quarters, usually a small shack in the backyard, in a room connected to the tool shed or laundry room, or, if they were lucky, in a small bedroom in their employer’s house. All kinds of housekeepers worked in the neighborhood, employed by those who could afford it, anyway. None, however, was ever employed by the Moreno family. The official reason for this, given to anyone who asked, was that in the face of so much hardship—of having lost so much in pregnancy—Concha had to fill her day with distractions, and her housework acted as such; but there were whispers in Miraflores that the employment of a young woman—and at that to allow her to stay in the house—should never happen. It was Concha’s one objection, they said, for everyone knew what would happen if Sr. Moreno, overcome by temptation, had only to walk down the hallway for satisfaction. This, of course, was a rumor, one which Nofrito had spent much energy, in fights around Miraflores, putting to rest.

And so, perhaps because in his own house there was no young woman to look at and admire, in those days when chasing women became a thing to fill his time, my father climbed down from his window, sometimes to meet with, and other times only to spy on, the different young housekeepers in the neighborhood. He filled his pockets with breadcrumbs and made his way past the ducks of his neighbor. Once he was in the street, he hummed quietly to himself the love songs from Nat “King” Cole, Español, which, though Cole sang with a gringo’s accent, were nonetheless the romantic croonings of a master. Nofrito thought that to sing those songs, these classic love songs Cole sang in Spanish, might impress his girl—so my father practiced, quietly and to himself, trying to mimic the American. He brought gifts at times, a flower, a stuffed bear, but the majority of times he brought only his desire. By the time he was sixteen, like the bee that flies from flower to flower, my father had been with, or had seen the body of, nearly every housekeeper in Miraflores.

But I have jumped ahead in time, and I have skipped most of the story. Here, let us return to the days when my father, little Nofrito, was only ten years old, when you could still be a pirate and a boxer and a fisherman and a champion fútbol player all in the same day, when to be dismissed from school meant hours of play ahead of you—when girls were still the throwing targets of your handfuls of birds’ eggs.

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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