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Wilderness

By James Thompson

On a cold December night when news briefs showed missiles bursting in night-vision green, Maristela de Paiva Oliveira Nelson put the TV on mute, answered the phone, and heard about the upcoming death of her father. Snowflakes floated outside the flat black square of the window, taped over with plastic. She hugged a comforter, secured the phone between shoulder and ear, and searched for words. A part of her fell away as her sister told her the news, like the slide of a wedge of glacier into the ocean, leaving her blank and shaken.

She sat on the edge of the sofa, staring at something in black and white on the television at three in the morning with Mark perched on the edge of the cushions, kissing her. His breath was sour with smoke and beer.

“It’s hell out there, Mari,” he said as she watched past him.

“So cold,” she said. She did not want to get him started, did not, in the end, care.

“Well, you’ve more than made up for it on the Thermostat, by God. This is not a sauna, Mari. Put on a sweater. Hey, we’ve been through this.” Maristela eyed him leaning over her. He had shrunk since they met, had become bony-fingered, unkempt Mark who spent long hours in beery rehearsals and left wet soapy clots of hair in the drain.

“Okay,” said Mark. “We’ve been there already. Listen, the gig went great. We did Getz, Jobim and even a Tim Maia number, and everybody loved it.”

He stood up and walked to the mantelpiece and picked up a carved box. He opened the lid and dumped in cash, and said, “Another hundred and fifty toward Carnaval next year, Turtledove.”

“Good.”

“Come on,” Mark said, shoving his icy hands into the comforter, “let’s go to bed.”

“My father, he will die,” said Maristela.

“What?”

“I don’t know how to say.”

“Well, say it in Portuguese.”

“The man is stubborn and a fool, who refused to consult a doctor for a persistent cough and now there is no point in chemotherapy nor surgery. The doctor prescribed pills for what will be increasing pain, and an oxygen mask, and sent him home to die.”

Que pena,” said Mark. What a shame. In English, he added, “But I know you never got along with your father, right? Maybe you are both stubborn. There are a lot of things I wish I had said to my father, you know? Like how much I respected him. How much wiser he seems with every year that passes. But, hey. I know you don’t like your father very well, so what good can come of it? Your sisters are there.”

“True. But I will travel to see him before he dies. He is my father.”

“Hey! I got the whole thing! Listen, I’m sorry. But, listen, here’s another factor. We don’t have that kind of money, Turtledove. How long has he got? Do you think he can make it until Carnaval? You’re talking, like, fifteen hundred dollars for each of us. This is high season for the airlines. It’ll cost a fortune. That would pay for a lot of phone calls.”

Maristela listened to Mark talk so rationally, so economically.

“I know,” Mark continued. “Call him. Let him know you care. Explain it, he’ll understand.” Mark fired up a cigarette and inhaled. “Hey, I’ll get the guys to work up a sertaneja medley in memory of your father for next Wednesday at the Broadway. What did he like?”

***

Maristela brushed her hair in the mirror while Mark sat on the sofa, doubtlessly still holding that bottle of wine onto which she had affixed a red bow. She could hear a television voice announcing a game. “We’ve got to go, Mari,” he called in again, for the third or fourth time, over the voice. Her skin had been morena brown, like cinnamon, but appeared nearly yellow under the bare light over the mirror. She looked into her eyes, ebony and deep-set like her father’s. She studied her nose, which, like his, began right up between her eyes and slid down nearly to the crest of her upper lip. She was as Indian as he, as Indian as any Lanomani from a schoolbook picture. Where was her mother’s Portuguese? A blank look on her face. She tried a smile for the mirror. It didn’t work. She put both hands upon the sink and leaned into the mirror, looking into the image as if looking into the eyes of some strange woman who had entered the bathroom to regard her.

“Come on, Mari,” she heard Mark call again from the sofa. “What are you building a house in there?”

***

She made the effort to not grab the door handle when the car slid on a slick spot on Kinghighway after Mark hit the brake. “What’s up with you, Mari?” he said. “What’s going on? Are you frustrated about work? English classes? I want you back to being happy.”

Estou perdida,” Maristela said. I am lost.

“Oh, it’s your father,” Mark said. “Listen, I know that can be bad. It was really difficult for me. I was in Champaign at the time, working my tits off on Advanced Orchestration, and it was really just not a good time.” He took a moment, seemed indulged in his own thoughts, and then said, “Man was it not a good time. Ma was a mess and Josh wasn’t about to help out. But, you know, every time I smell ‘Lectric Shave.” Mark smiled and drove.

Maristela held her coat close, crossed her arms to try to hold at least some heat close. She watched the crisp red and yellow and blue and white and green backlight signs of strip mall shops pass outside the dark window. A store that sold wind chimes. Another for greeting cards. Jewelry. Big sizes. Factory outlet. Golf supplies. Antique weapons. Pet food. Vinyl records.

When the car stopped, she jerked the door open carrying the wine bottle and thrust her feet into snow covered with a sheen of ice which crunched, caved, and collapsed under each step, filling the tops of her boots with snow. At the front door of the house, dominated by double garage doors, Eduardo and several other Brazil Club members greeted her with embraces, rubbed her hands vigorously. Christmas songs in English played on the stereo, White Christmas and Here Comes Santa Claus.

She stood shaking, holding herself in the vestibule, and watched gawky Mark bump his chin on Karina-from-Salvador’s head kissing cheeks. He was all elbows and knees. His hair began startlingly far back on his scalp, though it was curly and red and thick where it did grow.

“How is your music going?” She heard Karina ask him in Portuguese. “What have you been doing lately?”

Tudo bem?” Mark said to her in response. “How’s it going?” Then he smiled and strode away. Maristela wondered if she came off so foolish when she spoke English. Was she as unconnected with those around her: Was it her fault she was forever repeating herself, sometimes giving up, angry with store clerks and customers at the shop and waitresses who could not even understand the phrase orange juice if the accent was accidentally put on the wrong syllable? If she made the mistake of saying orANGE juice or orange jue-EESS, nobody got it at all. Not even a trace of recognition nor the least attempt to work it out.

***

Mark was clearing the spit valves of a trumpet. “Turtledove,” he said, “I think you’ve got to let it drop now. I wish we did, but we just don’t have the money to send you to Brazil. Listen, what if we think about going at Carnaval? You can take a side trip to Pirajuba and see your family.” He shook spit from a valve.

“I will see him alive.”

Mark shook his head, tisked over his instrument. “Mari. I want to do so much for you. I want to have the money to send you to see your father. But I just don’t. Do you see how this makes me feel as a man?”

“Return to me my money from work.”

“It’s not that easy. There’s the light bill. The gas.”

“It is my money.”

Querida, it is our money. You eat from my money. You buy shoes from my money. It’s all one money. Like air. There’s only one air, no matter how you might try to subdivide it.”

Maristela looked at this man, blowing spit from a trumpet. She watched him from the doorway. She wondered whom, exactly, he was. In Portuguese, she said, “In Brazil I loved you. When you played and marched with Mangueira, and arrived second in the scoring. I was proud of you, believed you to be artistic and intelligent above the normal. A musician.”

“I got most of that, Mari. Sounds like it was all in the past tense.”

“Yes, and therein lies the problem. You have brought me to a cold place—no, I have come to this cold place, where I am an adjunct, an adornment. People ask you questions about me while standing right before me, as if I were absent or an animal. Does she like it here? What does she think about the food? And there is nothing here that is mine. And I have no faith that you love me. Me, who I am, not the woman you show to your audiences to prove your authenticity. Me.”

“I’m not quite following here—“

“Learn my language. When are you going to learn my language?”

“Look, I got to go. There’s ice out there and I’ve got twenty-five minutes to pick up Syl and get to Harrah’s, which is over the bridge. I want to take this up later, but I’ll leave you with the fact, Turtledove, that you’re living in the United States, and that the language we speak here is English. Maybe you ought to think again about who needs to learn whose language.”

After Mark left, Maristela walked about the apartment. The chest of drawers, the table, the instant food in the cupboards, the cat, all belonged to Mark Nelson the musician. There was a berimbau hanging on the wall, with the words Lembrança de Recife burned into the bell.

***

Maristela called Senhora Célia ’s number. “I am calling from the United States,” she said.

“Oh, my dear, do you find yourself in great danger from all the bombs?”

“Bombs, Senhora Célia ?”

“The war, dearest.”

“But the war is many thousands of kilometers from here. The bombs are in Iraq.”

Ave Maria. We pray for you.”

“In kindness, could you bring my father to the phone?”

“It’s very quiet next door. I do not think anybody is there.”

“If it is not great trouble, could you do me the kindness of going over to look?”

Maristela waited a long moment, wondering what it cost. “Papai,” she said when she heard his breathless hello.

“I cannot hear you. Call back again. Who is this?”

“It is Maristela, Papai. I am calling from the United States. I am coming to see you.”

***

“You didn’t get paid again?” Mark said, drinking a beer, looking up from basketball when she got home.

Maristela said she didn’t, and went in to wash dishes. Mark followed her.

“I want you to quit this job,” he said, leaning against the doorframe while she ran water. “They’re treating you like an illegal alien or something. You can’t just not pay people. You’re not like some wetback. You have a Green Card.”

“Maybe people think I am,” Maristela said. She squeezed dishwashing detergent from the bottle onto a plate iced with white grease. Then the phone range and it was Cleide from the Brazil Club wanting to talk about who would make coxinhas for the Ethnic Festival and whether Regina was wrong to start calling herself Jenny and dying her hair that blondish sort of color. Mark hovered about her for a moment and then disappeared to the TV when the crowd cheered over something.

That night she awoke, pulled from a dream, to Mark’s beery kisses. She had a bad taste in her mouth and a vague urge to pee, and she waited for him to finish. He pounded upon her like a machine and bit her ear, leaving it wet. “I love you, I love you,” he said when it was over.

***

At Christmas, Maristela called Senhora Célia again and asked her to walk next door to see if her father was there, as though he could just get up and go places. Neide came to the phone and said the table was laid over with walnuts, cake, crispy pasteis and Sonho de Valsa candies. Pop music sounded in the background, and Neide said, “You remember Relâmpago and how he learned the way home?”

“Yes.”

“The gates! That horse could even open the gates! Papai only awoke when Relâmpago stopped at the door.”

“Yes, I remember. You and I had no shoes but Papai had cachaça.”

“You have run so far away,” said Neide. “You are rich in America. You have already forgotten how difficult every single thing is here.”

“No,” said Maristela. “I merely recall how unnecessarily difficult our father made every single thing. Do tell Papai I am coming to see him. I spoke with him but I do not believe he listened.”

Maristela met Mark for lunch and said she would be gone for a while. She watched him put his double hamburger down onto his plate, lean forward, hands clasped at the end of the long stalks of his forearms, and rest his chin upon the nest he had created. He appeared calm.

“You are going to Brazil, then, despite what I said?”

“Yes.”

“I thought I told you we don’t have the money.”

“I used my money.” Maristela drank of her iced tea.

“But, see, there is no ‘my money’. This is a marriage, Turtledove. Do I hold back the money I make?”

“Yes. You drink beer when is over your sets. That is our money.” Maristela thought, this has turned out to be your marriage, not ours.

Mark’s eyes looked violent for an instant, and then calmness descended upon them. He chuckled.

“Yes but a few beers versus your lie. The Nu Peru was paying you all this time, then, wasn’t it? You lied to me. What am I supposed to do now? I have never lied to you.”

She ate fries, watched him chew, this man. He drew from his beer, took a breath. “You’re going, then, aren’t you? Well don’t bother coming back. You got what you wanted, a Green Card. Why the hell stay?” He set his beer onto the table and leaned back in the booth.

She stopped chewing, opened her purse and located her Green Card. She placed it on the table, next to his plate. Then she tucked a twenty-dollar bill under the plate and said, “This is for the lunch.” She slid out of the booth and stood, turned and left, heading back into Union Station and toward the Nu Peru. On the way, she felt a hand on her shoulder and turned around to see Mark, his lips pressed together. He shoved the Green Card at her.

“Here,” he said. “You’ll need this to come back.” She watched him stride away into the crowd of shoppers.

***

Maristela stopped at Boots ‘n’ All, and picked out a straw Stetson cowboy hat, size seven, in a box. When the clerk rang it up and told her the cost, she gasped. The clerk laughed as though Maristela were joking.

***

A flight attendant offered her yesterday’s São Paulo newspaper and three infants shrieked somewhere behind her. The man next to her snorted and swallowed his way through a cold, and the box with the Stetson hat would not fit into the overhead bin so she could not quite find a place to put her feet. She took a shuttle to the bus station where families slept on the floor, surrounded by boxes of belongings. She bought a Nova magazine and waited, flipping through the pages. She looked at the women in the ads, all done up and absolutely static. She eyed her watch and saw she had only fifteen minutes before the bus to Pirajuba would leave.

***

At the door of the big box of a house her father had built, right on Avenida Getúlio Vargas, Neide stood back and took sight of Maristela before recognition dropped upon her.

“Maristela!” she said.

“You are surprised but I told you I would return to see Papai.”

“Come in, lost one.”

***

Her father, thin as a toothpick, sat on a molded plastic chair in the back of the house, a cigarette in one hard horny hand and an oxygen mask in the other. He had lost weight if that were possible, so that his nose soared forth, a promontory above the umber facets of his face. But it was the watery and vague look about his eyes that made Maristela pause.

“Papai, I am here,” she said, kissing him around the paraphernalia of his breathing apparatus.

Filha,” he said, hollow-breathed. Several of Maristela’s aunts sat about fanning themselves, in shapeless print dresses and sandals, varicose ankles crossed. Maristela turned from her father and kissed each one down the line upon their fat brown cheeks, saying their names in turn. In the corner of her eye, she could see her father breathing from the oxygen mask as she asked after cousins.

Eduardo, back from the cane fields, served goat from the grill and somebody had put on Bahian pop music.

“He does not know he is terminal,” whispered Aunt Cecí, her hair tied in that severe bun. “He believes it is pneumonia. Why dishearten him? Is he not, after all, a happy man?”

“I know we are not telling him,” answered Maristela. “But I know he knows.”

Maristela stood and presented her father with the box she had brought. He opened it with aunts hovering to help him and withdrew the Stetson hat, and the vagueness left his face, which crinkled into a smile. Propping the hat upon his fingertips, he lowered it onto his head and everyone applauded.

***

In the dark, in the old room she had shared with so many sisters, she could hear her father climbing the stairs to see her. He wheezed and coughed, and sat as light as a bird upon the bed.

“You should not have come up the stairs,” she said to him. “You have pneumonia.”

“Yes. I will not survive it.”

“You will.”

In the dark, she could sense him looking at her. “Yes,” he said. “Of course.”

“I love you, Papai,” she said, stuck for better words, feeling like an idiot.

“Of course,” he said in a moment, catching his breath. He fired up a cigarette and the flame illuminated his face, throwing the recesses and wrinkles into shadow so that he looked like a death’s head floating in the dark. Then he snapped the metal lid of the lighter with finality. His face disappeared, then, into the dark. Only the orange tip of his cigarette was visible, trembling about in the dark, intensifying with his inhales.

“I always wanted more boys,” he said. His breath, she noticed, was harsh with cachaça. “I would have liked more boys. I produced so many girls to take care of.”

Maristela sank back into the hot sheets. “I know,” she said. “I so often wished to be a boy for you.”

“Such a crazy thing, is it not? Wishing for boys. A silly thing.”

She put her hands upon his thin arms, felt an absurd urge to cry but shut it off. “A crazy thing perhaps, but you are a farmer,” she said. “You wanted strong arms.”

A moment passed.

“It is very cold there, no?” her father said.

“Yes. Very cold.”

“Is that boy taking care of you? Are they sending him off to that war?”

“Mark? Yes, he is. And I do not know anybody fighting that war, which is very far away. They do not even call it a war there, and they speak of it as though it were something far away. Which it is, I suppose.”

“Well, that is enough, then.”

Papai,” she said, preparing to tell him everything she could think of. But then she stopped, for how could she say it, all the anger provoked by his drunken distance? All the eagerness for even his smallest word, smoking a hand-rolled cigarette, watching the peons load cattle into trucks as the sun painted the sky aching pinks and oranges behind the silhouettes of palm trees at the edges of the fields? The desperation of hiding in the back of the truck, rumbling down Avenida Getúlio Vargas, dressed for Saturday night and covered with a talcum of red dust from the roads? So she said nothing more, just brushed the thin skin stretched over the gnarly bones of his hand.

She listened as her father worked his way through the dark out of the room, followed the glow of his cigarette. He seemed to lean in the doorway. “The hat is good, daughter,” he said.

She wondered if she would still be here at his funeral.

***

Maristela washed dishes with Neide at the old kitchen sink with the clay water reservoir.

“You are doing well, Stela, não?” said Neide with cut hair and a big shirt over jeans.

“Everything is convenient. But it is very cold and I have no friends.”

“But you have a car, you said.”

“Yes, a car,” Maristela said.

“A car. And a stereo. And you go out to dinner.”

“Yes.”

Neide turned. “How much do you make?”

Maristela scrubbed burned rice from the bottom of a misshapen pot. “About fifteen reais per hour. The minimum wage.”

“I make twenty reais per day,” said Neide. “You made a good bargain, Stela.”

“What are you saying? No insinuations. Say what you wish, and say it directly.” Maristela set the sponge aside, looked her sister in the eye.

“Insinuations? Your time in the United States has made you temperamental. I am saying you made a smart decision marrying that branco.”

There was a sound at the door, and Larissa came rushing into the kitchen saying Senhora Célia was here, that there was a phone call in a foreign language. Maristela tried not to run as she went next door to get it.

Senhora Célia offered her some cheese bread but Maristela refused with sufficient formality and attended the phone.

Alo?” Mark said.

“Hi,” said Maristela. “How you found this number?”

“Um. I went through your address book. I’ve called maybe eight people who freaked out before I called this number. Nobody understood a word I said. They just said, “Quem? O que?”

Maristela laughed.

“You’re going to have to do a lot of repair work with the people in your address book when you get back. Sorry.”

“You found me.”

“Mari, I want to come down but I can’t come down. I am not trying to be a jerk here. We don’t have it. I don’t even know how I’m going to make the car payment and you know what the gigs are paying. But I can tell you, it’s lonely here without you. When are you coming back?”

“I don’t know. Why you ask?”

“Because I miss you.”

“I may be here for a while. My father is sick.”

“I need you to come back now, Turtledove. I mean it.”

Maristela hung up and felt her sorrow evaporate when her nieces, in swimsuits and towels, came pouring into Senhora Célia ’s doorway to hug her.

***

Maristela sat next to her father behind the house, under his Stetson hat, listening to Leandro & Leonardo on an ancient hi-fi her brother had hooked up with an extension cord that ran through the kitchen window.

“Are you doing well, daughter?” he said between repeats of the same chorus they had listened to all afternoon. The sun shone hard upon the chickens pecking about the weeds in the back. “When will you have babies?”

“You mean did I marry well? Am I making money in the United States?”

He breathed, removed the mask. “No, I am sure you are making money. But what about the family? Will you raise children here or over there? Will they be Catholic?”

Maristela was unsure of how to answer, for the question from her father was unexpected, unlike any question he had ever asked her before. So she said, “Of course, yes, children,” and launched into the chorus when Eduardo put the needle back on that same song.

She looked up to see Senhora Célia again, standing over her.

“It is that Englishman,” she said. “He called collect.”

Maristela hurried to the phone next door. “I am happy you call,” she said. “But it is late in Saint Louis. You have no gig?”

“I canceled my gigs,” said Mark. “I am calling from a pay phone here at the Pirajuba bus station. How the hell do I get to your house? Mari, I don’t like it without you. I’ll do anything you want.”

“Do not say this,” said Maristela. And then, in Portuguese, “You are a selfish and difficult man, and I doubt myself for marrying a man such as you. Such mockery only reveals my doubts are founded.”

“Well, I think I got that, but I—“

Maristela hung up and returned to her father’s side and opened a beer. She sang more choruses and looked upon his face for the first time from a distance, noting the odd placing of the squint lines, which left his cheeks looking like a well-folded piece of leather. She looked upon the white Stetson hat atop his old head, how big it looked propped there.

On maybe the fifth replay of Tapas e beijos there was a knock at the door, and the nieces scrambled from jump rope to the front door. They returned giggling and eyeing one another in the company of Mark, who stood in the back doorway under a backpack while Maristela stared, uncomprehending.

O que você está fazendo aqui?” was all she could say. What are you doing here?

“Mari, I told you I was here. Look, I brought my guitar because I know your old man likes sing-alongs. What does he want? Ask him. Martinho da Vila? Gonzaga? Janis Joplin? I’ll do it.”

Maristela’s father stood to greet Mark, half again his height.

“It’s a pleasure, Senhor Antônio,” said Mark in something like Portuguese, and she looked upon him winking at her as he plowed through it. “I’ve been practicing that one,” he said to Maristela.

Neide brought the oxygen tank.

Maristela’s father stood half way from his plastic chair and took Mark’s hand as feebly as a cat pawing at a bird.

Maristela said to Mark, “You have never given me a present such as this.”

“I know. I am sorry, okay? I surrender. I need you to love me.” Then he turned to Maristela’s father and asked him to take him to shoot snooker somewhere, and the two were gone. Mark secured Maristela’s father’s arm as they moved from the back area to the street.

Bonitão,” said Neide to Maristela after the two left. Handsome. “And so considerate. He came all this distance to see Papai. And such a surprise that he appeared.”

“Yes,” said Maristela, distracted. “Why do you suppose I married him?”

 

James Thompson lives in Brazil and works in public relations with his wife. His short fiction has appeared in Critical Quarterly, and, at university, he earned the Quinn Fellowship for Achievement in the Writing of Fiction.

James's stories Torture and Pool Sharp also are available at VerbSap.

Photo "Enigma" courtesy of Charles Machado, Santa Luzia, Brazil.

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