October was a difficult month for Roberto. The sunlight was losing its heat, and the dark angel of procrastination which sat on his shoulder convinced him that watching baseball games was more important than sleeping this year. “The games they’re playing right now are shaping the national consciousness,” she whispered. “If you want to be a successful businessman, if you want to be a fully functioning member of humanity, you’ll watch these games so you can laugh with your clients about it for years to come.” Roberto suspected that staying awake in class would give him even better prospects for the future, but he’d been in love with the hit and run and the double switch since the day he was born. The game reminded him of his youth and of America’s, and he could only repay his debt by sacrificing his body to the pennant races every fall.
The most difficult day of the month was Saturday the 13th. Sunday, el cumpleaños de su abuela, did not belong to him; 12 hours of it were destined for the black hole of extended family functions. What he didn’t finish on Saturday would be resumed on midnight of Monday morning after the baseball game. He would nibble a refrigerated tortilla and become hypnotized by the beautiful blue aura of the computer screen and then pound his head furiously because finishing that lab report was a matter of life and death. The stoners would rumble outside over drugs and knock over all the trashcans, then diffuse into the honeycombed apartments without a word or a resolution. He hated these nights. Saturday was important.
That morning, Roberto showered and dressed, shaved and brushed his teeth and even fed the dog. His father had taken the car to work, and his mother was doing the dishes and whistling “Habañera.” If he ducked into his room long enough, he could avoid chores. It was 1:12 PM, and he was ready to work. He reached into his backpack for his algebra book. It wasn’t there. He looked on the dressers, in the closet, and next to the computer.
“Mom, have you seen my math book?” he asked as if his job were to keep track of her things.
“No, I haven’t, hijo,” she humored him. “Have you looked in the closet?”
“Oh, well…” She faded back into her world of stainless steel and dishwasher fluid.
Roberto, ten minutes poorer, grimaced and shuffled back into his room. He noticed a corner of the book poking out from under the bed. He was happy that he’d found it but frustrated that he hadn’t looked there first.
“It’s always in the last place you look because once you find it, you stop looking.” He shook his head.
He lay down on the floor, pulled the book into his arms, and then noticed something else. He knew he’d seen it before but couldn’t remember where. He tossed the book on top of the bed and reached for the new thing. It was wooden and pear-shaped and had eleven catgut strings. His stomach sunk, and a hundred sights and feelings attacked him at once. It was his old girlfriend’s guitar.
“Not a guitar,” she tittered at him from across time and space. He remembered standing on her porch and receiving it so long ago. “It’s not, not, not a guitar, and don’t let anyone tell you it is. It’s a lute. My father bought it from an old man on the streets of Caracas. This is what the bards played in the Middle Ages, before the Reconquista, to romance their fair maidens. You men have destroyed God and chivalry and romance, but that only makes the instrument more beautiful and interesting. You’ll have to learn japonés somewhere else, but I do know about this. Treat it well.”
It had been a long, long time since he’d seen the lute. It was plain and plump but charming. The body had a light brown color and smooth texture; the finger board was a beautiful dark brown. Because the pegboard bent backwards, the instrument looked like it was perpetually leaning its head back and laughing (or moaning with pleasure, depending on how one played it). There was a purple stain near the bridge that smelled like cheap wine, and its bottom was well-worn from children dragging it around. It didn’t look young, and this attracted him.
Roberto strummed the lute; it wailed at him for neglecting it for so long. He apologized to it and caressed its sides. He hastily tuned it and hoped he was correct; the notes were a bit flat but passable. He kissed its side and strummed it again.
The sound was timeless. It spoke to him of the Arabian Desert and the Catalan and maidens rewarding their heroes with kerchiefs and brooches. He plucked at the strings in intervals, fumbling like a small child through the frets in hopes of discovering the perfect chord. The longer he played, the more confident he became. He imagined flamenco dancers and their stewards, the guitarristas, playing in dank, smoky bars in the old country. The girls with the tambourines moved as if their souls were too light to feel the pull of gravity. The most stunning of them all was the girl in front. She wore a white dress with red and green embroidery that billowed in the wind. She did not just follow the beat; she emitted it from every part of her body. The blue and gold and red candlelight seemed to bend towards her. She cut through the cigarette smoke with her lithe body and stamped the beat with her sculpted legs. Her hair fell as a veil around her, swimming into her eyes and mouth until she could no longer stand it and tied it into a ponytail. She now stepped off the stage and moved closer and closer to Roberto. The guitar pick slipped out of his hands, and he cut his fingertips on the strings. She sat on his lap, pulled on his collar, and drew close to his face. She smelled like strawberries and incense. The odor suffocated him. He recognized it all too well.
The lute fell out of his hands. He leaned backwards on his bed and wiped his face off with his shirt. He looked up again, and the bar, women, and scent were gone. He was inside his room, and it was an Indian summer. He wanted to douse his face with water.
He returned five minutes later, hydrated and refreshed. The lute lay on its stomach, its head curled up and peering at him with feigned interest. He stood over it, hands in his pockets, and let his eye wander to its backside. There was a tattoo there that he had not seen before.
Las forzas de hado me empalan.
The forces of destiny impale me.
“Tell me why.”
The lute rolled around in Roberto’s hands and faced him. He tickled the strings with his fingers, and as the instrument loosened up, it showed Roberto its vision. Measure by measure came the little stucco houses, vegetable gardens, and lilting trees. Carts slogged through the streets and spilled seeds into the dirt where they commingled with the manure and suffocated under the stamping hooves of horse upon horse. Dogs lazed in the filth, and fleas feasted on their sides. Science had not visited the town in a century.
Though the seeds of change had not yet sprouted here, they were bearing their first fruits in the capital to the north. The citadels of government and business were annually sweeping farther into the suburbs and higher into the sky. The tiny oil refineries were just beginning to spit chunks of smoke in the air. The hums of automobiles and electric lights were stretching the day and encroaching upon the night. The American merchants settled in the city and brought their theatre, their music, and their women with them, injecting unknown elements into the culture that the citizens both welcomed and despised.
Sitting on the beach, crafting sand castles, totally ignorant of the rising tide that would soon swallow him was Miguel López de Rodriguez. From this little house, a few miles from the capital city, he served as provider and protector of his family. He carried stains on his clothes and wrinkled on his face that had been accumulating for many years and the handle-bar mustache that he’d always wanted in his younger days. He had the body of an ox, but his manual dexterity was unmatched in this part of the country. He was a classic artisan, and he was the twenty-third Rodriguez to ply his trade: music-making.
On this night, he was polishing his newest creation, a lute commissioned by the plantation owner Obregón. He made the body a light brown and the neck a dark brown; the contrast appealed to him. He was in a blissful reverie of work when he heard the door knock and remembered who was coming: the gentleman caller. He frantically wiped his hands off on an old towel and hurried to the door. Señora Rodriguez tossed her dusting rag into a corner and proudly stood at her husband’s left hand to meet the young couple.
Rodriguez swung open the door. His daughter was smiling and did not have any bruises. The boy was young and handsome and well-built, but the father felt he was clever enough to best this suitor in a fight.
“¡Buenas noches!” exclaimed Rodriguez with interest. “We finally meet.” The opposing parties exchanged kisses. The boy did not smell like alcohol, he noted. They walked inside.
The women made the conversation with the boy a lively one, giving Rodriguez an opportunity to size him up. His hair was short, his arms looked strong, and his posture was perfect. He had a round jaw and looked more like an Indian than a Spaniard. His clothes were not impressive, but he dressed well. He had good table manners and charm. He seemed moderately intelligent, and his daughter smiled and nodded whenever he spoke. He knew about a wide range of subjects but never mentioned his occupation. This perplexed Rodriguez so he decided to pursue the subject over a plate of paella.
“I like you, ah…”
“Ricardo Gonzales, sir.”
“Yes, Rico. I’m glad you’re interested in my daughter, but I am also wondering what else would bring you to a rustic villa such as this.”
“Oh, it’s a great place, sir. I grew up a town like this, and so I’m fond for this life.”
“And do you plan to live in a town like this, yourself?”
“Umm, actually, sir, I would love to raise a family here, but I also want to see what it is like in the city.”
“The city?” The old man leaned forward. “What could there be for you in the city?”
“Why, sir, it’s not that bad. The more business we can bring to the nation, the better off it will be. We will become great like America.”
“I see…yes…great like America. How will you contribute to this revolution?”
The boy seemed to look for something above Rodriguez’s head for a moment and then returned to reality. “I, err…”
“He’s a soldier, Daddy!” His daughter smiled and hugged Rico’s arm. Rodriguez felt an axe of grief hack into his side.
“A soldier, you say.” His face fell behind impenetrable clouds. A thousand permutations ran through his head. The boy winced and wished he could start this conversation over.
“He didn’t start with much, but he’s moving up,” Rico’s intercessor chimed, tossing peso upon peso into the abyss. “He’s meeting lots of wonderful people, and he’s going to make a great life for us, and…”
“Tell me, Maria, how he can make your life wonderful when he is bleeding on the streets! Tell me, Rico, where are the enemies that you will fight?” Rodriguez stabbed his food in several places with his knife. The boy shivered and did not answer until Rodriguez cleaved his chicken in two and glared at him, implying that he would like to do the same.
“Er, um, there are no national enemies in the country, but there are political dissidents. There are those who would try to repudiate everything El BenEmerito has done. These rioters would take up arms against us and stand against everything Venezuelans hold dear.” The boy stood up and shouted: “Liberty! Equality! Wealth!”
“IDIOCY!” bellowed Rodriguez. He slammed his hand on the table and made the dishes shake. “You are destroying what we have worked so hard to create! Since the time of Simon Bolivar, all we’ve had is scheming! We have forgotten everything that makes us a people! We have tossed aside the old ways and made ourselves whores to the American imperialists, and now we plunder our land for its very lifeblood and repay it by spewing garbage into the air!”
“Wake up, padre! We have to do this to make ourselves great!” the boy returned.
“Great? How can we be great if we forget where we came from? You call him ‘the meritorious.’ I say he is El Bagre, and he and his fellow catfish can jump in the sea and swim to America if they like. I do not want to work in a factory. I want to make lutes. You do not want to make them and don’t even care if they exist. I am ashamed of you.” He wished his son were still alive.
The boy spat on the ground, then sat down and shoved paella into his mouth. Some of it dribbled onto his chin. Rodriguez recognized him now; he saw the pigs in their uniforms eating at a trough of dollar bills and rolling in the garbage behind the White House. They pumped black blood from the earth and drowned the matadors and the bulls in it. He pushed his plate away, disgusted, and retreated to his workshop. The remaining three finished their dinner and drank their wine in silence. Having had his fill, Ricardo got up to leave.
“Thank you, Señora, for inviting me, to your home,” he said slowly and magnanimously. He smelled of sweat and sherry.
“Thank you, Ricardo,” the mother returned, looking down on the ground. “I am sorry about my husband. He is a fool.” Maria wept at her side.
“I won’t, be coming back here, I think. But, I would still like, to see you again, Maria, Maria.”
The Señora turned away. “That is enough. Please go.”
“Yes, thank you, Mother.” He kissed Maria’s hand and wiped away her tears. He slunk off their doorstep towards the soft glow of the city.
Night smothered Rodriguez’s world, and he cursed it. He did not need much vision, but he had to at least see what was in directly front of him to finish his work. From a back cabinet he fetched the matches and candles. He placed the lights all around him and bent over the altar where he had sacrificed the last thirty years of his life. He cut eleven strings of varying width, attached them to the bridge, and tied them around the pegboard; he smiled because it bent back at the perfect angle.
Slowly, he set about the business of tuning the instrument. He expected perfection from each of the eleven strings; if any of them were out of tune, the dissonance racked his entire body. The memory of the boy leaked out of him as the lute became more and more perfect. He tested every combination of notes with the exacting judgment that can only be achieved by the master of a craft. He was not satisfied until the sun peeked over the horizon.
A new day was born, a day with a thousand births and deaths and loves and losses. The elites, perched on Mount Olympus high above the clouds, would write, “Nothing much of importance happened today.” To the small men and women who give the world its texture, though, this day, like every other, could mean everything. There were a million conflicts and a million resolutions, and no matter what would happen, in a few hours the sun would rise again.
On this day which meant nothing and everything, the lute entered the world. Rodriguez laughed and cried. He remembered the imbroglio of the night before but thought nothing of it. He had brought the world another instrument for joy. He sat and cuddled it. He plucked its strings and was happy.
He played the lute a month later when he visited Obregón’s plantation, and a government official answered the door and told him that the man and his oppression were no more. Half a year later, Maria eloped with the young soldier, and he played on. He played it at her funeral when she and her stillborn son passed into the earth, and he played it as he wondered what happened to Ricardo, the young soldier who was aging fast. Time slipped through his fingers like soil washing into the rivers after a flood. Gómez, who had given Venezuela a strong body while taking away its spirit, passed away. The city expanded outwards and around Rodriguez’s tiny village; he spent his days building six-strings for the young officers but returned to his first love every night and to dream about the past.
Finally, his wife passed away, and Rodriguez looked at the other side of the bed and realized the lute was the only friend he had left. He was lost and despondent. His magnificent black hair had turned gray and wispy, and he hunched over whenever he walked. Though time had ravaged his body, his companion looked the same as it always did. He wanted it to carry a scar, too. He found a knife in his tool closet and set about his bloody work.
“Las forzas de hado me empalan.”
“Now you, too, will remember my pain. May no man live as I did.” He hobbled to his room, set the knife on a table there, and went to bed. In those dark days, he was always tired.
The next morning, a group of hungry young soldiers flattened Rodriguez’s door and looted his house. The ancient heard the sound, brandished his weapon, and hobbled into his kitchen. The promising young men panicked and shot him to death. The diseased old willow twisted and crashed to the ground. The men grabbed their loot and scurried away.
His neighbors, los Ceres, ventured into the house a few hours later and tripped over his dead body. They had little means, but they loved the man and his music very much. Señor and his young son cleaned the body and carried it to the graveyard, and Señora gathered flowers. He received a simple burial in the pauper’s lot; Señor could not remember where his wife lied but hoped she was close.
As Rodriguez had aged, the town around him had transformed from a poor outlying village to a very poor borough of a sprawling city. Since he had no family, the neighbors gathered the next day to distribute what was left of his things.
Ceres found the lute on its workbench waiting for its master. “This was his favorite,” he said to his son. “You ought to have it. If you play well enough, you can earn some money with it.” He smiled in an attempt to hide his tears. His son nodded and thanked his father. The boy tucked the gift under his arm; the father took from the pantries what his family needed. Before they left, Ceres consecrated the bridge of the last surviving member of the house with wine.
“Alabaré, abuelo. Alabaré.”
He snapped the bottle shut, and father and son walked into the night together.
The lute fell silent.
Roberto tore at it with the pick, wishing with all his heart that he could break it. He heaved and coughed and thrust himself upon it again and again. He slapped the sides with his hand and grunted at it; his sweat soaked through his shirt and made him shiver. The screams of the strings caromed off the walls. He hated this ending. He hated the lute.
“Is that your story? Why? Why the hell did you tell me that? Don’t you think I’ve had enough heartbreak?”
He saw himself panting in the grass with Juana, putting flowers in her hair and kissing her stomach and carrying her in his arms. He felt hot and sweaty and more alive than he’d ever been. In her arms, he felt strong and manly and compassionate. There he was a good man; there he meant something.
Then came the chill of their winter. He remembered the arguments about nothing, her accusations that he didn’t care and that he didn’t want her. She wasn’t too far from the truth, and he was glad of it then. She scared him. She was vicious and cruel to the people she took for granted; she said bad things about his family, and he hated her for it. He walked out on her during dinner at her house to play baseball with Pedro. She told him he was the worst man she had ever met and that all his pretenses of goodness were lies. He did not cry when he left her. He knew then that it would never work between them. Still, her presence haunted him every night. It was as if she never left.
The door opened. Roberto gasped and shuddered and wondered what his mother would say.
“Are you trying to make rock music?” She peered at him through her thick-rimmed blue glasses. “Well, lunch is ready.”
He collapsed on the floor in a heap. He thought of Juana, and he thought of the old man. He was confused and hungry, so he followed his mother to the kitchen.
The ravioli was delicious.
“Will you stay and clean up?” his mother asked.
“Not now, mamá.”
“Claro que no. Men never clean up their messes.”
Offended, he stabbed at his ravioli with a fork and cleaved a square in half. He glared at his mother’s back and muttered about American imperialism.
His eyes dilated. He was out of the house within a minute.
The walk to her apartment was half a mile. There were no other people between them, only nature. The trail was all too familiar to him now; he’d run it many times. He did not run today. The load he carried was too heavy.
The lute bumped against his hip as he walked, making weak noises in protest. The sunlight was colorless now. He loathed this part of the afternoon when everything stood still.
On the left was the large field of grass. He remembered playing baseball with Pablo in the evening and putting flowers in her hair at night. To his right were the woods where he’d kissed her; to his left was the lake where she pushed him in. He could not escape the memories. He’d come so far, but he hadn’t moved at all.
He arrived at her doorstep. He wondered what he was holding and remembered that it was the lute. He took it in both hands and realized its beauty. He didn’t want to ring the bell. He didn’t want to give this treasure back. He wanted to keep it with him forever and let it sit under his bed and remind him that he had loved once, that there still might be a chance, and that as long as he had it he’d have to see her again. After bearing him a dozen children, she would be old and pear-shaped herself. He’d loved her once. He’d believed that she meant for him. That was how it was meant to be, right? Was he making the wrong decision by closing the door now? Was he ruining his life? Could it work again?
The lute felt very heavy in his hand.
He rang the doorbell. He imagined her opening the door, putting a pistol on his face, and blowing his brains out. He decided he’d have to jump to his right to make a clean getaway.
She opened the door and, like any normal person, said hello. She was not angry or happy; she did not seem to have any emotions at all. He muttered something stupid, and she said she was just fine. He noticed the length of the shadows. Daylight was fading fast.
“Here it is,” he said. “Thanks for letting me borrow it.”
She took it with two hands, set it down behind her, and turned back towards him. Her hair fell into her eyes and mouth; she brushed it away with her hand. She looked at the trees behind him. “Good. Thanks for bringing it back. I was going to call you about it.”
He waited for her to say something else. She didn’t.
“Well, see you later.”
Roberto did not want to leave, but before he knew it, he was lying on his bed and looking inside his math book. After refreshing himself about what all the symbols meant and what the purpose of mathematics was, he set to work. The material was far easier then he’d thought. He finished the homework in twenty minutes.
The equations were balanced now. He understood everything. The ghosts in his room were gone. He was free to live again, and in time, he would love again.
But that did not stop the tears.