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from the March 2014 issue

Ancient Plumbing

On the islands of the Caribbean, the afternoons are long and silent. The little islands, where no one speaks Spanish and which don’t look like countries, either. Just islands. Patches of earth wreathed in sunlight.

A few years ago, residing in one of these places, could be found Ana Cristina Arzolain, celebrated in certain circles in Caracas for having refused to take part in the Miss Venezuela contest, despite the main organizer’s assurances that the crown was hers and that all she had to do was model a gauze dress. Her mother had notoriously interrupted the messenger in the middle of his sentence and, without raising her voice, dispatched him from her big rambling house with several stories in Altamira.

This afternoon, the sun was beating down on the world so fiercely that the leaves on the trees looked as if they’d just been dipped in liquid gold. The difference in temperature between the outside and the inside of the premises of the luxury store where Ana Cristina was the manager might easily have been 20 degrees. Sheer madness. The interior assistant, as the shop’s only employee was curiously known (perhaps to indicate that his responsibilities did not include conveying packages to customers’ vehicles, something he did, in any case, do), was making the most of the lack of customers to take from his pocket a woolen cloth, much like a rag that had been washed many times, and carefully polish the edges of the alcoves in which, locked away like relics, the most opulent items of stock were arranged. This week the new collection of bags and purses had arrived from the parent company in Europe, articles whose distinguishing feature was the—as it were—equine tone of their design. The men’s wallets as well as the women’s purses and the overnight bags all had the imposing look of leatherwork typical of a stable; straps everywhere, long strips of fabric to be worn across the chest, bronze rivets, dark leather that looked as if it had been liberally bathed in the foamy sweat of beasts.

In the glass display cabinet at the back of the store were the sunglasses; veritable jewels, almost all of them incrusted with precious stones. Each pair rested on a kind of mirrored tray raised up on a pedestal, so that the spectacles looked like the appurtenances of saints. Purses, cases, and glasses were all surrounded by a series of tiny lamps, whose light was reflected in the metallic details and many faces of the gemstones. Otherwise, the shop’s illumination tended toward semi-darkness, a circumstance favorable to Ana Cristina, the sight of whose faded beauty testified to the clumsy advances of a wicked man and several periods of exile.

The interior assistant was a young fair-haired man. He had been on the Cuban fencing team until he’d defected during his first trip abroad. One afternoon he slipped away from the group of athletes and amused himself by looking in the window of the shop run by Ana Cristina. His mother had told him about such wonders in their house in Vedado, but he had never before seen anything like them The objects were beyond compare, but what made him catch his breath was the image of Ana Cristina, standing out against a mustard-colored valise, seated at her fine wooden desk, and gazing into the middle distance, as if quizzing fate about why she had failed to defy her mother and become a beauty queen. Why her father’s fortune had been frittered away, and why her ex-husband had played such an enthusiastic part in such devastation. The lack of expression freed her face from its usual beauty. Her hair fell to her shoulders, vying with the magnificent purses. Her pale complexion, the lashes like silken spears that fell languidly over the dark shadows beneath her eyes; her eyes themselves, of an indeterminate color between olive green and Carúpano rum, and her neck sprinkled with tiny moles; it all announced the presence of a great lady who—God knows how—had arrived on this little island where apparently no one appreciated the splendor of solitude. If he was going to be a castaway, he would be so in the shadow of this woman. He went in. He introduced himself. He asked for work. He made it clear that he would never go back to Cuba, or to his previous life. Moreover, he would not go back to life, period, after hearing her upper-class Caracas accent (like that of little girls determined to be so for ever). His name was Saúl Espí and he would occupy the establishment’s only vacant position, that of interior assistant, filled until now by women; American women, to be precise, and all rather fond of gin, which was what had led to their successive dismissals. And so when Saúl Espí introduced himself as an athlete, Señora Arzolain hired him on the spot, figuring that at least she wouldn’t have to deal with any more hangovers. Another factor in his recruitment was the Cuban’s way of moving and his precise way of handling things. The shop needed someone like that.

Noon was not far off. It was Friday and the month also ended this weekend. Ana Cristina looked toward the door of the shop as she ran a finger up and down the small groove connecting her nose to her upper lip. She still hadn’t closed the deal she’d spent several days preparing the ground for. Outside, the sidewalk and the big square in front of the shop’s façade shimmered in the heat. She thought no one was going to venture out here in such conditions. At that moment, the telephone rang, with a buzzing sound directed more toward the carpet, which would quickly absorb it, than at the irritable ears of the clientele. It was a ringing designed to complete the sensation of luxury by creating the ambience of a voyage: it had something of a distant, transatlantic feel to it, at once marine and remote.

“No, Mamá,” Ana Cristina murmured. “As soon as I have the money, which will be very soon, I’ll deposit it and I’ll call you.”

“. . . ”

“That can’t be right. What did the men say to you?”

“. . .”

“That repair’s still under warranty. Call them, please. Complain. I paid them a fortune only the other day. Do you have a number for these people? No? Mamá, for God’s sake. Get Obdulia on the phone.”

“. . .’”

“Hey, Obdu, what’s wrong?”

“. . .”

“Did you have time to get all the carpets up?”

“. . .”

“Did you at least manage to take the paintings down?”

“. . .”

“Why didn’t you call Cristóbal? OK, well open the windows. And you could also take the pedestal fans upstairs and leave them switched on until Monday.”

“. . .”

“Upstairs? My God, Obdu. Stay with Mamá on the first floor. Make up the guest bedroom and stay in there with her. Give the phone to my mother, please.”

“. . ."

“Mamá, Obdulia says the lights on the second floor were giving off sparks when you tried to turn them on. Honey, what on earth? There could have been a dreadful fire.”

“. . .”

“Don’t worry. We can fix all that.”

“. . .”

“No, Mamá. That’s not going to happen, I promise.”

“. . .”

“Don’t cry, please. It’ll all be OK, you’ll see. Did you take the clothes out? Don’t forget all our documents are in the same box.”

“. . .”

“You see? Not everything’s been ruined. We’ll sort it out, just you wait and see.”

“. . .”

“I’ll call you in a bit.”

Saúl, who had kept his back turned while Ana Cristina spoke in a barely audible voice on the telephone, turned around now and looked at her, his chin almost touching his chest, his eyebrows raised: the shop bell had sounded, activated by the official. She was back. Ana Cristina pressed the button that released the latch on the door. The woman entered, followed by two bodyguards dressed identically (camouflage pants and red jackets with the Venezuelan flag embroidered on the back), with two cell phones, one in each hand like the infamous gunslinger Juan Charrasqueado. Ana Cristina was about to stand up to go and serve her, but the new arrival made a brisk movement with her hand to detain her.

“How are you, Saulito?” she said.

“Very well, thank you, Ma’am,” Saúl replied, approaching her, his trousers barely rustling.

For the first time ever, she was accompanied. On the first occasion, Ana Cristina had not even moved from her seat, letting Saúl take care of what she thought would be a surgical strike, as the two employees called it in their secret jargon: when someone entered the shop then left straight away. The manager took pride in being able to tell with just a glance who were the potential customers and who had merely come to ogle. If the latter insisted on asking questions, pointlessly taking up her time, the solution was to reply, “too much . . .” when they asked how much something cost. One had to intone the phrase just so, leaving the tail end of the sentence “for you” hanging in the air. But the message had to be clear: “it’s too much for people like you.” And this is what Ana Cristina had said to this woman, still without rising from her chair, the first time she had come into the shop. Very soon she would realize that the woman’s finances were not as precarious as one might deduce from her manners and appearance, nor as buoyant as the official herself had come to believe in light of the sudden increase in her income, which grew almost at the pace she signed her name on more documents. “It’s a lot of money,” Ana Cristina had chosen, that first time, to inform her, walking catlike over to the little clutch bag the official was examining greedily. “It costs five thousand five hundred dollars.”

It was, in truth, too much. Even so, the woman came back. And she looked at everything again, at great length, without asking the cost. She was spellbound by the shop, by all the treasures that could be hers. So much so that she had returned a third time.

The junior minister walked decisively over to a set of suitcases that went with the purse displayed in a privileged position in the shop window. With evil sensuality, Espí set to unzipping the largest case and holding it open in front of the official’s eyes so that she could see the compartments, the pockets, the secret sections, the linings of varying thicknesses . . . He put on a pair of woolen gloves to remove a snakeskin purse from its case and show it to her without sullying it with his fingerprints. He showed her all of the sunglasses, letting her try them on and listening to her daydream about the possibility—oh!—of buying a few little tokens for the people who had helped her get where she was. The bodyguards traipsed around the shop, peering outside lethargically every now and then, their gaze catching on the polished edges of the display cases where they observed each other out of the corners of their eyes. Ana Cristina was fascinated by the woman’s hair, dyed a burgundy color with flashes of tobacco, something she had only ever seen before in a French wine her father had been saving for a special occasion and which, when it was uncorked on the day of her engagement, had turned out to be completely ruined. But the color was unique. A bit like oxidized blood in a test tube. Exactly the same tone as the junior minister’s hair.

“Son of a gun!” howled one of the bodyguards, “look at this!”

The woman turned her head, but only long enough to make clear the disdain she felt for her subordinates and, at the same time, her irritation at having been bothered.

From her desk, Ana Cristina followed the choreography of the two restless bodyguards, whose familiarity with their boss baffled her. A second ring at the door shook her from her thoughts. There she was again. The one they’d all been waiting for.

On the sidewalk outside, a woman was wiping the sweat from her face. And pressing the doorbell insistently. Her Lycra leggings looked as if they’d been galvanized onto her thighs by the sun’s blowtorch. She pushed the door open the second she heard the click as it was unlocked from inside.

“Hello, darling,” she shouted from the threshold in Ana Cristina’s direction.

“How are you?” the manager sighed, placing herself a thousand miles away from the woman, whose hair was three quarters blonde and one quarter—the one attached to her skull—black.

At that moment the telephone began to ring again, as if a tiny submarine were plying the depths of the carpet. With a swift movement, Ana Cristina raised the handset.

“Mamá, I can’t talk now.”

The two visitors froze on the spot and spun around toward the manager to listen to her conversation. Ana Cristina turned her back and lowered her voice still further.

“Tell Obdulia to shut off the stopcock,” she murmured.

“. . .”

“Mamá, a bed can’t float away. Let me speak to Obdulia, please.”

Taking three strides in her cork clogs, the woman in Lycra placed herself beside the junior minister, who greeted her as if they were good friends. They were not. Their dealings with each other were restricted to three previous encounters: two in the shop, and one in the café with little tables in the square outside.

“What’s wrong now, Obdu?”

“. . .”

“Did you cover it with newspaper?”

“. . .”

“OK, let me think . . . put the tablecloths down. And get the sheets out and lay them on the floor. Let me speak to my mother again.”

“. . .”

“Mamá, just let Obdulia do what I’ve told her. On Monday we’ll start doing the repairs. Trust me.”

“. . .”

“Nobody was going to use that christening robe.”

“. . .”

“Take them out of the album and put them in the sun. They’ll be fine, you’ll see.”

“. . .”

“It’s not going to fall down, Mamá. I promise. That’s what pipes always sound like when they’re old.”

“. . .”

“Antique, you’re right. So, just remember, you’re not to start pushing the bed, because you’re . . .”

“. . .”

“Not a recent operation, no, but you’re still frail.”

“. . .”

“Move into the next room.”

“. . .”

“OK, Mamá, well move into Obdulia’s room, then.”

“. . .”

“What’s wrong with it? Please . . . You’re driving me crazy. Does she have scabies or something? Honey, well you’re not exactly . . . Hello . . . Mamá? Hello?’

Saúl watched her from one end of the shop, waiting for her authorization. The woman in Lycra was whispering to the junior minister and now the latter was requesting they open the door to the alcove which housed the Pegasus, probably the most beautiful purse that had ever landed in the Caribbean.

A faint, ingratiating smile appeared on Ana Cristina’s face, and she nodded slightly. Saúl put his hand into the pocket of his vest and took out a little gold key. The glass door with its bronze frame was opened and the junior minister removed the Pegasus with a ceremony reserved for a sacred chalice. The bodyguards approached as if drawn by a secret palpitation (that of the horse’s heart encased within this undeniably exceptional object).

“What a beautiful thing,” the junior minister murmured.

“It is very special,” conceded Ana Cristina, looking down at the tips of her shoes.

“Take a look at this,” the woman in Lycra yelled suddenly, grabbing the Pegasus from the vice-minister’s hands and turning it over to point out a stamp almost hidden in a fold of the leather. Her nails were decorated with tiny little stickers made to look like frost. She used them to drum on the bottom of the purse, then put it back in its place. Then she began to chew her gum again with renewed vigor. It was futile, both the shop’s staff knew, to mention the ban on chewing gum in the establishment.

The Pegasus had returned to the hands of the official, who was swinging it with the gentle lilt used when one dances to San Benito. Saúl waited patiently. The woman in Lycra was strolling round the shop, her charm bracelet jangling noisily.

The telephone rang again, giving the impression of a tiny whale courting its partner underneath the shop floor. Ana Cristina tensed. The junior minister tried to look at the desk where the telephone was, the manager of the shop standing beside it, but she couldn’t take her eyes off the Pegasus, by that point back in its case. Saúl looked at Ana Cristina and winked ever so slightly, a sign that the Pegasus had found an owner.

Ana Cristina picked up the phone and, with rare good humor, began telling her mother to hold on just a little longer, that by next week she would have excellent news. But at that moment she fell silent. She had seen the woman in Lycra whispering in the official’s ear, and the latter seemed impressed . . .

“Shall we wrap it for you?” Ana Cristina said, rubbing her hands together halfheartedly, addressing the vice-minister.

The junior minister looked at the Pegasus. She stroked the glass with the tips of her fingers as if it were an animal’s neck. She took a deep breath. And she headed for the door, followed by the woman in Lycra. She didn’t even reply.

A few minutes later, the telephone chimed once again. Ana Cristina let it ring and signaled to Saúl not to bother. She walked over to the desk, but only to pick up her purse. She went out in the direction of the square and headed for the last table of the café, from where she could watch what was going on in a store of some size that sold embroidered tablecloths, lighters, pens, watches, glasses, purses, and suitcases, all designer labels. All fake. The woman in the Lycra moved through the overcrowded space, absolutely in her element. And, flocking around her, a look of bemusement on their faces, were the junior minister and the two bodyguards. They had lost the reverent air of a little earlier, and were passing each other things as if they were melons on their way from farm to truck.

From her table, Ana Cristina could clearly see the ostentatious display being put on by the woman in Lycra to get the potential customers from the “standard showroom” into the one “reserved for special customers,” a tiny space with a glass wall that looked out onto the square, and in which were displayed almost all the same things as in the rest of the store, but at five times the price. A little room, incidentally, where nearly all the exclusive objects from her shop were replicated. A vile offense capable of deceiving anyone not a true connoisseur of the work of the master craftsmen devoted to the best European traditions. The woman in Lycra turned a bag upside down, evidently with the intention of pointing out a stamp “identical” to the one on the original Pegasus. One of the bodyguards removed his red jacket. It was as if the monstrous impending purchase had raised his temperature. He was sweating. He’d get something out of such a prodigious frenzy of acquisitions. Ana Cristina had had enough. She left a bill on the table and walked away.

The taxi dropped her off in front of the Indian restaurant, its quality unnoticed by the tourists. Perhaps it didn’t appeal due to the rundown area it was in, far from anywhere approaching sophistication and from all the urban clean-up initiatives. Nor was it near any of the sites frequented by foreigners. During the taxi ride, Saúl had called her cell phone to give her the details. Her compatriots, the junior minister and the bodyguards, had made several trips to the official car to transport the outrageous number of purchases they had made. The woman in Lycra had blown them kisses from the door of the store, and then danced her way inside. “Reggaeton, to be precise.”

The waiter took the woman from Caracas’ order: two baingan bhartas. And a whisky on the rocks, for now. Ana Cristina was sucking her ice cubes noisily, something she let herself do when she was alone, when the person she was waiting for arrived. She signaled to the waiter to bring a beer over, and leaned back in her chair as her guest sat down in the chair across from her. They looked at each other for a moment. And then, with a melancholy smile, Ana Cristina began to laugh, too, just as the woman in Lycra had started to do the minute she’d flopped onto her seat as if exhausted after a long battle with a solar storm.

"Tuberías Vencidas" © Milagros Socorro. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2014 by Rosalind Harvey. All rights reserved.

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