“All this time and he was right here under our nose,” the detective shrugs. “And you know, we had him in our files since the beginning and didn’t even realize it. Can you imagine? Report number eight. But the birthdate was entered in reverse. Not 1854 but 1845. That’s how we missed him.”
José Antonio remembers the file from the very first group. He even asked Menendez to take another look; it seemed a close match, number eight. But no, the detective had assured him at their next meeting, number eight could not be his father. And then there were so many others to look at, the ex-convict had explained. He had a lead on a fellow in the south who met the description almost perfectly. It would cost a bit more to check it out, he had admitted, but he felt certain this was the Juan Lopez they were seeking. When the fellow in the south turned out to be left-handed, Menendez had seemed even more disappointed than José Antonio.
“So how did you find your mistake?”
“Fate, Señor Lopez, divine intervention. I was boxing up the files after you told me to shut down the search, and the contents of number eight somehow slipped from my hand to the floor. There, next to each other on the tiles, were the copy of the subject’s birth certificate and the page of my notebook where I had recopied the date. Somehow, my eyes fell upon the discrepancy.”
José Antonio studies Menendez. “You’ve checked it all out?”
“You won’t believe this. Your father is in an apartment, not ten blocks from here. He goes by another name—Juan Sanchez he calls himself—but that’s just his mother’s name he uses. It’s there on the birth certificate, the maiden name.”
“The whole time he was right here? In this neighborhood?”
“I tell you, señor, the world is a handkerchief,” the detective sighs. “He was clever, though. It was simple to go from Juan Lopez y Sanchez to just Juan Sanchez. Nothing fancy, just a small thing, but now no one in this whole city knows who he really is. No one but you and me,” the detective smiles, permitting himself a professional’s pride in the job he has done. “I guess he must have been ashamed of abandoning his wife and child.”
As Menendez passes his client the file, he lays a final reckoning on top of the manila folder. “The last reimbursements,” he explains. Then he clears his throat. “And, of course, I’ve added the bonus you promised in the beginning for actually finding your father.”
José Antonio suddenly understands the detective’s scheme with the disgust of a man who, emerging from the waist-deep muck of a swamp, discovers a swollen leech battening on his thigh. Menendez has bled him dry. And he is absolutely certain the former policeman has known all along where the old man could be found.
“You’ll get what I owe you,” José Antonio promises, examining the bill, “when you take me to my father.”
The detective hesitates.
“Tonight at nine. Where shall we meet? The fountain at the great plaza?”
Menendez, unhappy but anxious not to jeopardize the last of the money, repeats, “Tonight at nine, at the fountain.”
“Yes, my friend, tonight,” José Antonio assures him, ushering the man out of the house.
When Alma and her boarders sit down to their Sunday dinner an hour later, José Antonio watches the woman laughing at a joke. He regrets that today is the Sabbath. Though the household will retire to their rooms for a siesta after the big meal, Alma will not slip into his bed while the others sleep this afternoon. She is ashamed to lie with him on a Sunday.
Alone in his room, having burned his father’s file in the little fireplace, José Antonio slowly draws his knife across the small whetstone, over and over again, as he loses himself in memories, some more recent than others.
Just before nine o’clock, the sheath of the knife invisible beneath his old shirt from Bejucal, Juan Lopez’s son follows a flowered path to the great fountain at the center of the Plaza of the Peace of December the Third. As he approaches, rain that has threatened all day begins to fall, chasing the young couples, followed by stern old aunts, from the stone benches of the plaza to the cafés beneath the porticoes of the buildings surrounding the square. The drops, clapping like tiny hands against the water in the vast stone pool, remind José Antonio of home. He puts on the straw hat that hangs from a cord round his neck.
Menendez is not late. “I almost didn’t recognize you, dressed like this. You look like one of those peones from the country.”
“It’s for my father. This is how he remembers me.”
The detective shrugs and leads his client down a quiet side street away from the plaza. The houses they pass have walls burnished with the brown clay of the earliest architecture of the capital. It is a kind of slum, this neighborhood people call the “old city.” The rain picks up.
Menendez turns his collar against the shower. “Tell me, señor, why was it so important, finding the old man?”
“I promised my mother,” José Antonio explains, “never to forget my father.”
“A good woman,” the detective nods. Then he points. “There, across the street.”
The two men hurry into the hallway of the shabby building. The front door is jammed open with a wooden shim.
“These people,” Menendez complains, shaking his head. “Too stupid to close a door even in the rain.” Then he realizes whom they are visiting. “I didn’t mean your father. I meant the old bitch, the one who lives down here.” He points to the door beside the mailboxes to their right.
José Antonio notes to himself that Menendez has been here before.
They climb the stairs to the second landing. The detective knocks roughly at a scarred door.
“Who’s there?” The voice is reedy. Even through the wood, José Antonio can hear the wheeze between each word.
“The police, Señor Sanchez.” Menendez winks at his client. “We’ve found something that belongs to you.”
“It’s unlocked,” the voice manages between wracking coughs.
“You’re about to meet your father,” the detective whispers, turning the knob.
The door swings open on the room, its walls shuddering with candlelight.
Juan Lopez lies in his bed. He is a small man, nothing like his son. The voice rattles before it speaks. “What have you got of mine?”
The body in the bed is wasted; the face, sunken. Consumption, José Antonio realizes, remembering the wretched death of a consumptive Dr. Hidalgo described one evening.
The old man wheezes, waiting for Menendez’s answer.
The detective puts a hand on his client’s shoulder. “Your son, Señor Lopez.”
Menendez pauses, like a boxer who has just landed an unexpected punch, but the old man does not flinch. “I don’t have a son,” Lopez growls between breaths.
“Papá? It’s me, Papá, José Antonio.”
José Antonio nods. “My mother sent me.”
“That whore—” But the word turns into a cough he can’t stop.
“Choke on your insult, you murderer.”
Lopez recovers his breath, little by little. “Water,” he begs. “For the love of Christ, a glass of water.”
Ignoring the trembling hand stretched out to him, José Antonio walks around to the other side of the bed, so Menendez fills a glass from the pitcher on the nightstand.
As his father laps it up, rattling breaths between sips, José Antonio leans over and barely utters, “You are going to die, Papá.”
A cough—no, a laugh—bursts from Lopez’s lips, spewing water over his covers. The old man peels the damp sheet from his chest. Stains of yellow sputum blotch the undershirt he wears. “Of course I’m going to die,” he manages between breaths. “And stop calling me ‘Papá.’ I’m not your father.”
“You are Juan Lopez, no? The husband of Elena Altierrez?”
“Oh, yes, all that. But not the father of José Antonio Lopez. He is a bastard, that boy.”
José Antonio wavers. “Then who is my father?”
The old man tries to shrug but starts coughing again. “Some Indian,” he chokes out, then calms himself with deep breaths. “Why do you think a man kills his wife? He looks at his boy and sees nothing of himself. And his woman, the bitch, she mocks him with it.” He laughs to himself. “Of course he takes a knife to her.”
“Gentlemen, please,” Menendez interrupts, “I can see you have things to discuss. I should go.” But the ex-convict stands there, waiting. José Antonio looks up from the bedridden old man. “There’s just the matter, señor, of the final reckoning . . .”
“Oh, yes, forgive me. I still owe you something, don’t I?”
The detective nods as his client comes around the bed.
José Antonio knows how things kill only in the jungle. No slow toxin drips from the fangs of a jungle snake; already the mouse is being digested before it is even swallowed. And the monkey, pricked by a dart, plummets dead from its branch to the damp leaves matted about the trunk of the tree. So when he draws the knife from behind his back and drives it, all in one motion, into the heart of the man who has cheated him of nearly all his lottery winnings, the fat body slumps across the bed without a moan of protest.
José Antonio turns back to his father.
“I can’t move,” Lopez coughs. The heavy corpse has pinned his withered legs to the mattress. Then, grasping the situation, he sneers, “Go ahead. Kill me, you son of a whore.”
But José Antonio takes his father’s skeletal hand and wraps it around the hilt of the knife still buried in Menendez’s chest. The old man struggles to extricate his bloody hand from beneath the body pressing against his own.
“They’ll come in the morning, won’t they, someone, the old lady downstairs, with your breakfast?” José Antonio explains as he wipes his hand on the blanket. “And what will you tell them, Señor Sanchez, about this former police officer murdered in your room with your own knife? It is yours, you know. It’s the knife I pulled from my mother’s belly.”
The old man is defiant. “I’ll tell them about you, you bastard.”
“You’ll tell them you are Juan Lopez, the murderer of Elena Altierrez? Killing a young mother—that’s even worse than this. Would you rather be executed for her murder? Either way, it’s justice, isn’t it?” José Antonio leans over and blows out the candle on the nightstand. “You think about it, Papá. You think about it all night until they come for you in the morning.”
“You can’t leave me like this,” the voice wheezes pitifully in the dark.
“Isn’t this how you left me?” the dark answers.
Sometimes in the jungle, surrounded by vegetation higher than the eyes, one nonetheless senses the path home. It requires no compass, no landmarks, only an ear to listen to what one already knows.
Monday at two o’clock, Alma climbs the stairs to José Antonio’s room, taps twice, and softly opens the door, expecting to find her lover awaiting her afternoon visit. Though he has missed breakfast before, out early on one of his walks, he has always come home for their siesta.
But on the bed, his city clothes are laid out like a corpse on its bier. Above the linen pants, within the linen coat, the collared shirt is drawn closed with the tie she once taught the man to knot. As she bends to touch the cloth, Alma sees the tie has been threaded through a diamond wedding ring and the shirt pocket is stuffed with hundred-peso notes bound by a letter she will stain with her tears.
Already the steamer on which José Antonio has booked passage inland is leaving behind the smoking plains on the outskirts of Puerto Túrbido. As he sits in the bow on the case of whiskey he has bought for the fiesta with the last of his winnings, it salves his heart to see the brown brush unwither into green jungle.
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