After a long night of drinking, Miguel Avila awoke to find his house floating down the street.
The storm that flooded the town and ripped the house from its foundations had been promoted on the radio all week with the breathless enthusiasm of a crosstown soccer match. The weatherman had said folks, for once in your life believe me.
Avila trusted weathermen implicitly—who else spent that kind of time thinking about the future?—and so spent his Saturday mired in preparation. He tacked plywood to the windows, then he dressed the trouble on the roof with a tarpaulin, which meant hoisting himself through the attic skylight with the blue canvas lashed to his belt. Tying the tarpaulin to his belt with fishing line, Avila caught sight of himself in a dusty attic mirror. He was dismayed by what he saw, at the change that had unfolded upon him over the course of his reclusion. His eyes were sunken treasures. His hair had grown wild, cactaceous. He’d put on weight. His skin, once as rich as caramel, had blanched to the color of pulque. Even his hands had seemed to lose their shape, to become something else. But he couldn’t spend the whole day criticising his features. He finished threading the line through the eyelets of the tarpaulin and knotted the thread to his belt. Strange, he thought, I look like a parachuter after landfall. How the earthbound parachuter must feel so graceless, suddenly bereft of flight.
Avila hoisted himself through the open skylight.
His childhood home was a dilapidated Victorian that topped one of the city’s seven hills. You could see out beyond the fortifying walls from the home’s shingled, slanted roof. It was early enough that the sun still shone brightly and the wind was yet calm. Avila made circles of his hands and stacked them against his right eye. Through his makeshift spyglass, he surveyed the landscape. His glass traced the winding road down the hill. Bright red and purple flags hung limp as pelts from juliette balconies. Weeping willows sat shiva around the lake. The morning’s only movements belonged to the mangy orange cats that darted from shadows in the narrow streets. The cats had claimed the city long before anybody could remember otherwise, and Avila wondered briefly how they would survive the flood, though he was sure they would.
When he could no longer bear not to, Avila trained his spyglass on the window of his lover, Lizmeth Perez. Her curtains were drawn, just as they’d been for the last hundred days. Was it still fair to think of Lizmeth as his lover? She had relayed neither word nor letter since the afternoon her husband, the colonel Javier Perez, had chanced upon them soaking in her bathtub.
Avila recalled for the thousandth time that fateful afternoon. Lizmeth’s legs arched at the knee and interlocked with his. Her head thrown back in laughter that echoed off the marble. The fading warmth of the water. She’d filled the tub to its lip, the waterline holding at the space between Lizmeth’s breasts. Twin moles punctuated each nipple from above, like the eyes of a moth. When the water cooled, Lizmeth turned the spout back on and hot water flowed over the tub, spilling onto the tile. They passed a bottle of wine back and forth. They arched their backs to kiss, making a heart of their bodies. The bathwater was running when the colonel Perez walked into the room. He looked like a dog, drunk. Avila was the first of the lovers to see him, braced against the doorway. Lizmeth made a joke that received no response, and so followed Avila’s dumbstruck gaze to the doorway and gasped. Slowly, she turned the chrome handle and shut off the water. But for three tremendous heartbeats and the last drops from the faucet, the room was still. Then Perez’ thin mustache careened upwards at the left end, a hooked fish, and the colonel drew his saber and charged.
Halfway to the tub Perez’ boot met the overflow of bathwater and he fell, one leg skyward, so that he landed in a twist on the chrome tip of his scabbard, which punctured his famous hernia. Perez screamed and in the scream Avila heard the many octaves of pain expressed.
Perez was always going on about the hernia. Whenever you passed him in the street he’d start up about it without so much as a salutation. “The pink bastard is on fire today, Miguel,” he’d say, clutching his ass. “My God, mine is a hell of a life!”
Doubly unfortunate for Perez, the hernia had served Avila well in his courtship with Lizmeth. Every afternoon he’d visit the flower shop and ply her for updates. “How is the pink bastard today, Lizmeth? Is the shade more like this rose, or this tulip? Did it poke you in the night, beautiful? Did you get the wrong impression?”
The lancing of the hernia by the chrome scabbard tip saved Avila’s life, or at least postponed its conclusion. Avila said a prayer for the hernia every morning since.
While Perez writhed on the bathroom tile, Avila clambered out of the tub, snatched a towel, and exited the apartment through the same curtained window he gazed upon now.
Lizmeth’s flower shop closed for eight weeks while she attended to her husband’s convalescence. All her flowers wilted. Avila wilted, too, locked up in his childhood home, unwilling to go into town for fear of an encounter with a recovered Perez or one of his brothers in arms and another flashing espada ancha. Instead of his customary morning stroll to the market, he’d begun to phone for deliveries from Julian Castillo, the grocer’s son. Instead of an evening constitutional to watch the soccer games, he paced the haunted rooms of his childhood house.
By early Saturday afternoon, Avila was satisfied with his preparations. The sky had turned the color of elephants. He retreated inside and phoned the market.
“Que tal, Julian,” he said. “Fetch me some beers, will you? Two cases of your worst. On top of that, a pound of flank steak, an onion, and a variety of peppers, whichever look good to you. Don’t forget a pint of cinnamon ice cream and a fifth of Gordon’s vodka. That should see me through this long night, ha.”
“Mr. Avila, I’m afraid it’s impossible,” Julian yelled. Avila could hardly hear him over the shouting in the background. “No deliveries today, Mother has been very clear on that point. The store’s overrun with shoppers, like you wouldn’t believe it. They’re afraid of the storm. Mother is, too. Earlier I saw her praying over the cantaloupe.”
“Preposterous,” Avila yelled back. He slipped a length of the phone’s cord into his mouth and nibbled on it, a nervous habit that resurfaced whenever a phone call wasn’t going his way. “Just make it snappy. She’ll never know you’re gone. Forget the ice cream, if that’s what it takes.”
“It’s not so simple,” Julian said. “I was caught last night. Smoking behind the store with Priscilla Castrejon, the fishmonger’s daughter. Today she has eyes on me like a hawk. I haven’t even received my punishment yet. I am in such suspense!”
“Julian, you bad boy, listen to me now. Forget the food. Bring the beer and the Gordon’s to the top of the hill. Make an excuse. Whatever you said yesterday when she caught you, but even better. It won’t take twenty minutes. You know well enough that I have inescapable difficulties.”
“As do I, Avila!” Julian exclaimed.
“No, Julian, you have no difficulties. You have a girlfriend who smells twice of perch and a domineering mother. Your case would be thrown out in the courtroom of heaven. You’d never see a trial. Bring me my order.”
“Avila, it’s not in the cards, as they say,” Julian said. “Perhaps you’ll come down to the store yourself.”
Avila ground the phone cord between his molars. “Have you seen the colonel Javier Perez?”
“Yes, he is a large and boisterous man,” Julian said.
“Have you seen him today, Julian?” Avila asked impatiently. “At the store.”
“No, not today.”
“What of his wife, Lizmeth?”
“She came in the day before.”
“And how did she look?” Avila asked, the words spilling out.
“Come again, Avila?”
“How did she seem, I mean?”
“I suppose she seemed occupied,” Julian said. “Well, she was grocery shopping.”
“And what of her loveliness?”
“Avila, as a store employee I cannot comment on the subject.”
Avila sawed the plastic casing of the cord until metal wire bit him back. He hung up the phone.
The only stares Avila encountered on his walk down the hill were from the jaundiced eyes of mangy orange cats. He took a page from their ancient book, taking his quick steps in the shadows and back alleys, darting across the street when his route obligated him. From a block away he saw how the inside of the grocery bustled with shoppers. He paused to pull the bucket hat he’d dredged up from the attic further over his eyes. Then he reentered his world for the first time in one hundred days.