Authors: Leonard Foglia,David Richards
Sally knew it would be a quiet day. Whenever one of those oversized brown envelopes arrived in the mail, Miz O would ask for privacy and the door to her room would stay closed all day long. There was no point preparing lunch. Experience told Sally that the brown envelope took precedence over food. Maybe Miz O would request some tea, but that wouldn’t be until later in the day. That left Sally free to do a little light housekeeping – very little – and devote the day to watching television.
It was always with a mixture of excitement and dread that Miz O received one of the brown envelopes. Bills were allowed to pile up around the house for months. Magazines and catalogues went unread. But the brown envelope was attended to immediately. “You can leave me now,” was what the old woman said each time. “Personal business.” A simple enough explanation, but the faraway glaze in her eyes when she said it struck Sally as downright spooky. The rest of the world seemed to fade away. Sally herself ceased to exist. The brown envelope commanded all Miz O’s attention.
Sally usually made it a policy of not getting involved in the personal lives of her clients, other than providing a sympathetic ear now and again and clucking knowingly “Ain’t it the truth!” a phrase that seemed to cover most occasions. But the envelopes had begun to pique her curiosity. She felt they had some connection with Miz O’s view of herself as a mighty sinner. Clearly Miz O was not your average senior citizen. But what terrible things she had done, Sally was at a loss to say. She tried to talk about it with her son, but he said she was just fantasizing to make up for a boring job.
“I tell you. Something ain’t right with that woman.”
“She’s old, mama!” he answered. “Old as dirt. You really should get yourself another job, because this one is getting on your nerves.”
It was true. Sally found herself more and more obsessed by the mystery behind this frail woman, wasting away in a bed over looking a tree-lined street in Lowell. Miz O had even begun showing up in her dreams, along with the devils she was always talking about. Sally didn’t know if she believed in devils or not, but they turned up just the same. It was as if they’d been sent purposefully by Miz O to torment her. The dreams were getting wilder, too, as if they were building to some gruesome and inevitable conclusion.
In last night’s dream, a host of devils had actually lifted Miz O out of her bed and carried her body out of the window of the house in Lowell all the way to Framingham, where Sally lived. The old lady’s bed sheets hung about her like filthy robes, her eyes blazed with fury, and the devils magically kept her aloft by delicately caressing the soiled fabric, like the cherubs that always attended to the Virgin Mary’s majestic attire in antique paintings. Miz O was even more wizened in the dream than in life, and Sally had the impression the devils were her bridal attendants.
She had awoken with a start. The dream had been so real she felt compelled to go to the window and look up and down the street just to make sure there was nobody or nothing outside. The street was empty, of course, but the moon and the clouds made odd, dancing patterns on the pavement. That was enough to prompt Sally to draw the curtains tight, before going back to bed. She didn’t sleep the rest of the night and thought it best not to share the dream with her son at breakfast.
Now, today of all days, another package had arrived. Her curiosity whetted by the dream, Sally tiptoed up the hall stairs and put her ear to Miz O’s bedroom door. The old woman was talking to herself. There was nothing new about that. After a while Sally began to make out the words.
“No, no, no,” the old woman was whimpering. “It mustn’t be allowed to happen. The hard work can wait no longer. It is God’s will and it has to be obeyed. I should be the one to do it, not you, but the devil has cursed me by chaining me to this bed. So you will have to take my place.”
If Sally hadn’t known better, she would have sworn another person was in the room with Miz O.
“I have always known this could be the case. But our purpose is the same. You and I are one. You are my right hand, my sweetheart, my angel. What you do, I do. And what a glorious task it will be. How fortunate I am to have you. How fortunate is the world.”
Then there was – or a least Sally thought there was – a beep, like the sound of a phone being clicked off. Was it possible Miz O was talking to someone? If so, it was a first. But whom would she be saying such wild things to?
A rustling of papers followed, then more mumbling. Sally stepped back from the door and retreated down the stairway. There was no telling how long the old woman’s ranting would continue. It seemed particularly intense today. Miz O was slipping. Maybe her son was right: it was time to look for another job.
“Sally! Come up here. Now!” The old woman’s voice cut short any further musings.
“Can I get you anything?” Sally asked, as she entered the bedroom. “You must be hungry. It’s nigh on to three o’clock.”
“I don’t have any appetite,” said the old woman. All the strength seemed to have drained out of her. Her head lay limply on the pillow and the rumpled bed covers testified to a great struggle. “I’d just like you to take care of this.” She gestured to the brown envelope by her side, then removed a chain with a key on it from around her neck. “You know where it goes.”
“Yes, m’am.” Sally took the key and opened the wooden chest at the foot of the bed. It already contained several dozen envelopes like the one Sally lay dutifully on top. What was in them, she wondered, that provoked such a strong reaction from the old woman? As she closed the lid, curiosity got the better of her. On an impulse, she rattled the key in the lock to give the impression it was securely shut, before handing the key back to Miz O. Sally didn’t know how she’d ever manage to examine the contents of the trunk, but theoretically they were at least accessible for the time being.
“If you don’t mind opening the window to let in some fresh air, then you can leave me alone. I think I’ll take a little nap. I’ll see you tomorrow.”
Maria arrived a little after six p.m., as was her routine.
“Miz O’s sleeping,” Sally said. “She had a pretty rough day.”
“What do you mean ‘rough?’ Did something happen?”
“No, she’s fine. Just…a little more agitated than usual. But she’s tuckered out now, so she shouldn’t be much bother tonight.”
“Thank goodness for small favors.”
Sally put on her coat and left by the front door. The evening was calm. She stood on the sidewalk for a minute and glanced up at the bedroom window, where Miz O slept. All at once, the curtains began to swirl furiously, as if whipped by a fierce wind. Yet elsewhere the street was still and Sally could feel no breeze. Only the curtains billowed and swelled. They reminded Sally of the robes that Miz O wore in the dream, the swirling robes carried by the long fingers of a dozen devils. She wondered what her son would say if she told him about the unlocked trunk and all the envelopes inside. “What are you sticking your nose in some crazy lady’s business for!” is what he’d say. So she wouldn’t tell him.
Then suddenly, the window slammed shut.
Sally walked briskly to the bus stop.
Upon leaving the Meson Santa Rosa, the young man turned left and took a series of side streets that led him the Avenida Corregiadora. Dodging groups of schoolchildren and mothers with clusters of babies, he made his way, past the roasted chicken stands, the one-counter specialty stores that sold light bulbs or blue jeans, leather cleaners or computer components - in defiance of the large supermarkets on the outskirts of town where one could buy all that and more under the same roof - past the luncheonettes and cheap jewelry emporiums, until he finally reached the Alameda. All the while, he tried to keep his mind clear, concentrating only on avoiding the pedestrians who, like squawking fowl on a country road, seemed unaware until the last minute that anyone or anything was coming toward them. It was all part of the eternal hurly-burly of Mexico; somewhere there was order under the disorder, awareness behind the apparent obliviousness, although to the uneducated eye, it all read as chaos.
The comments had begun as far back as he could remember. Strangers noting how different he looked from his parents. Or his siblings. Lots of children looked nothing like their parents, but he seemed to come from different stock altogether. His Mideastern cast warred with their American wholesomeness. They were open-featured; he was closed and mysterious. “Either he’s a throwback to the black sheep of the family or he’s adopted,” he’d heard one of his father’s friends say once. His father had pointedly ignored the remark. Like every child, he’d actually entertained the notion for a while that he was adopted before dismissing it as an adolescent fantasy. Instead of trying to explain the differences, he had come to accept them, as his parents accepted them. He was, as they put it, his own person, and they encouraged him to take pride in it. But Dr. Johanson had complicated the picture, muddied it, as if he were not a throwback or an exception, but a … a … an
He had been engineered somehow. He wasn’t just different, he was a freak.
There! He’d said it - the word that had terrified him all his adult life.
In booths at the entrance of the Alameda, black marketers sold everything from the latest Hollywood movie to fake Vuitton bags for a fraction of the price of the real thing. Business was brisk. He broke free of the ambling shoppers and entered the park, immaculately groomed and inexplicably empty of people. He’d never understood why. This was one of the greenest corners of Querétaro, a shady refuge with wide paths and generous vistas. But other than the occasional pair of lovers, people stayed away. Maybe the Mexican soul needed the milling animation of the plazas and zocolos, he thought. The Alameda with its cool tranquility, invited an introspection that was not part of the Mexican temperament. But his own thoughts had been profoundly stirred by Dr. Johanson, and this was where he wanted to be for now.
He took a place on his favorite bench, opposite a concrete turtle pond, and gave himself up to the reflections he had tried unsuccessfully to suppress during the quick walk. The sense of apartness had been with him for as long as he could remember. Not because he felt superior or stronger or taller than his peers. But simply because he found so few similarities with them and took little comfort in their company. He played their games and talked their language, and in a pick-up soccer match, he was one of the first to be chosen. But it was always as if he were the outsider, being momentarily let in.
He was - Dr. Johanson had confirmed it – of different provenance.
There was nothing normal about him, other than his parents’ dogged insistence on treating him normally. For the rest of the world – those who’d seen him pulled from a lethal mudslide or those seated around the table at the Meson Santa Rosa – he was a creature apart. To be reverenced, perhaps, but not to be clapped on the shoulder or invited to share a beer or even kissed by a girl. Suddenly, he felt irremediably alone, and possessed by an overwhelming need to mourn his solitude. He leaned back his head and closed his eyes. The sunlight filtering through the trees registered on the inside of his eyelids as dappled green shapes that formed, then broke apart, then recombined again like restless microbes in a Petri dish. How long he sat there, he could not say.
When he finally stood up, the light in the Alameda seemed white. Momentarily blinded, he found he had to grab the back of the bench to steady himself.
As he waited for the dizziness to pass, he saw an old peasant lady in the distance coming toward him. Her skin was dark brown, her black hair in braids, and on her back she carried a child swaddled in an orange shawl. Her head bowed, she appeared to be scouring the ground for something dropped or lost – a peso or a key or even part of a discarded sandwich. They were the only people in the park. When she reached the bench, she lifted her head. Her eyes were milky and lacked focus. How much could she see, he wondered.
?” she asked pitifully. “Alms? For the love of God. Please senor, help with a small gift.”
“I have no money,” he mumbled apologetically and started toward the exit. But the woman was undeterred. Following him, she kept up her supplications. “My son has not eaten all day. If not for me,
por favor, una caridad
for him. So I can buy him milk. Have pity senor.”
Was this what the world wanted from him? He thought angrily of the visionary words of Dr. Johanson and his cohort of devotees. They talked better than the woman with the milky eyes, they were better dressed, but they were all the same. They, too, were beggars in their fashion, wanting something from him, feeding on the fact that his eyes were not pale blue like his sister’s, and his hair was not blond like Little Jimmy’s and he was not openly gregarious like his father, but
different from them all
Their neediness overwhelmed him. He had nothing to give them. He had nothing to give anyone.
Behind him he heard the crunch of gravel and turned to see that the woman had fallen to her knees. The child on her back was crying. “Please, Señor, charity in the name of God,” she continued to wail, her voice a nasty whine that rattled his nerves. “Have pity on us. At least, have pity on my child. Help us!” Then with a claw-like hand, she reached up, grabbed the tail of his shirt and yanked it, as if it were a lifeline. As he twisted instinctively to shake free of her clutches, the cloth ripped across his back, exposing his lean shoulders to the late afternoon sun.
“Help yourselves!” He spat out the words in disgust.
Undiscouraged, she reached up again, this time her dirty fingernails piercing his flesh and tracing blood-red furrows down his back. They looked like the mark of the lash.