I saw Ronald Reagan curing bad knees in El Salvador. There was this one man my family knew, Berto, who was from a family of bricklayers. Berto’s knees were so bad that one day he went to church and went down to pray and then found out he couldn’t get back up; well, a lot of us thought it was some kind of sign. But Reagan came and patched Berto right up. Berto stood up and never went to church again. Believe that; I saw it.
Ronald went around rubbing chests with aloe and honey, tightening hinges on squeaking doors, repainting the town halls and repaving the streets; he mixed the cement himself for the statues that line the park in the sqaure; he hauled fat sacks of lime and clay up and down the ferry, and after it was done mixing and had settled, he let Antonio Gomez-Viola, an unknown at that time but with wicked natural talent, take a hand at the sculpting and all. Yes, Ronald was very nice. He let Gomez-Viola build statues of a crowd of peasants holding up the world: Men and Women Working The Atlas Shift was its title.
After the long days of work, we would all gather by the town square for his show. The trucks always came on time, right before sunset. The back of the trucks slid up and open and there was lamb, beef, pork — all wrapped in red and white paper and resting, bound with rubberbands to large blocks of steaming ice. The drivers stayed in the trucks, smoking their cigarettes, while Ronald handed out the cuts of meat, which travelled down hands and hands of the people until someone found what they want and held it close to their chest. It was all fine, however, as later on many of the people would set up shop around the square, yesterday’s dough in their hands and their hands above the flames that licked the bottom of pans black. They sold pupusas, or tamales, or sometimes just braising the cuts of meat with the broken sauces of family recipes passed down like heirlooms, which meant they could not be found anywhere else — Nina Lachica’s chile-char comes to mind, that one was a weapon, was a knife, could cut a tongue.
There was a little fountain in the middle of the square, and we had tied strings from the roofs of the houses and ran them all the way to the stem of the fountain, and these strings we tied little dolls and shapes of design to, so that if you were drunk or just dizzy from laughing, and you looked up, you would see a sky filled with little angels and devils and stars and flags of all the nations we could remember.
We ate and drank, laughed about things that used to make us angry, cried about things that couldn’t make us laugh anymore, watching the sun set and the moon rise. At the height of the evening Ronald would finally come out, a guitar slung on his back, and surrounded by some of the choirboys who helped him sing; we all helped him sing. His fingers went up and down the guitar like spiderlegs. At the end of one song, the choirboys stopped singing and Ronald closed his eyes as he scaled up and down an octave in a sweet way. “His fingers are going up and down like spiderlegs,” I said, a little out loud, to no one in particular, and Ronald opened his eyes.
I was walking around him later that night, through the crowd that always surrounded him after a show. Sex didn’t matter; old men wanted to shake his hand, young girls wanted to yank on his shirt’s collar, and men his age just kind of stared at him wondering what it was all about, what kind of hair wax they needed to use to figure it out.
I didn’t want to do what everyone else did, though. I wanted to say sorry. I had interrupted something, clearly, when I spoke, and I wanted to let him know that I meant spiderlegs as a compliment.
“He smells,” a young bald man said in a young woman’s ear.
“He smells good,” she said.
“I’m the one that smells good; I’m the one standing next to you.”
I pushed my way to the front through elbows. Ronald slid a tiny can of Aquanet out from his bluejeans pocket and shot a spray at his head, new drops glittering his head and hair. He flicked the can out into the crowd and the crowd heaved to catch it. Ronald saw them all scrambling for the can down at their feet — all of them except for me. He saw me. He saw me and didn’t smile but he twiddled his hand at me like come here.
His white shirt sagged with sweat and he scratched the inside of his thigh, raising his bluejean’s cuff nover his white socks and sneakers. He said, “What’s your name?” and I said, “Dolores.”
Ronald looked over his shoulder and snapped his fingers without making a sound and men in black shirts got up from the wooden chairs nearby and began speaking broken Spanish, telling the crowd a la jaula — to the cage / to your cage / to the cages / to your cages — but in Spanish it is much nicer-sounding; it is what we say.
Ronald had me by the hand and we were walking towards the shore. He asked if I was the girl in the crowd that said his guitar-playing sounded like a spider playing. I laughed and corrected myself: his fingers moved like spiderlegs, sharp and slow.
“Sharp and slow,” he said, “sharp and slow.” He was amused.
Some of the women stared at me; whether it was bad or good I couldn’t tell. Mrs Lia smiled at us like we were candlesmoke, pleasant but passing. Mr Villareal looked disgusted.
Ronald didn’t notice. “Dolores,” he said. “Good name. Means pain, yeah?”
“Yes,” I said.
“I knew a girl back home named Dolores too.” His hands were in his pockets and he was smiling at the sky.
“Salvadorean?” I asked.
“No no,” he said, “she was from Florida; or maybe, you know, I think her mother was from Mexico, actually.”
“Mexicans hate us,” I said, not knowing where that was going.
“And her mother was in labor for nineteen hours — nineteen hours, you know. Jeezlouise. So her mother named her Dolores because of that. Pain, you know.”
“Yeah.” We were walking down the wrecked road, getting closer to the new paved ones that led to the factories by the docks. The ocean was calm and you couldn’t tell where sky started.
“Have you ever read Othello, Dolores? The one about the Moor?”
Before I could answer he began reciting:
“‘Sharks wrangle the fish / fishermen wrangle the sharks / and wrangle I the fishermen.’”
“Wow,” I said. “That was so amazing, it was like Hellcats. I’ve never read it though.”
“I didn’t like that one, Hellcats, terrible film,” he said. “And no, I’m rewriting Othello, so you don’t have to know the original anyways. Watch out here, the pavement is new.” The new roads were so wide. They were for cars and trucks instead of people.
“Look,” Ronald said and bent down. “Road’s wet still.” He dug a knuckle into the pavement and yanked it out; there was a little imprint. “Write something, Dolores.”
I got closer and pressed my shoe into the road and it gave a little. “I don’t know what.”
“You know sometimes some celebrities in Hollywood — sometimes they put their feet, or their shoes, I mean, in the cement.”
“Beats me, Dolores. Why don’t you try it to figure it out.”
I hadn’t noticed how far we were from the town square; I could barely hear voices and meat sizzling and guitars getting plucked shitty, trying to sound like Ronald. I looked a little past him, and saw the men in black shirts were just a few paces away: one of them was crouching, fiddling around with the petals of a flower, and the other one was standing with his hands in his pockets and his shoulders hunched like he was cold.
“Your friend is cold, I think,” I whispered to Ronald. He turned and saw and laughed.
He stopped laughing. “He’s anemic,” he said. “It’s why I brought him down here. Warm air.”
I smiled and nodded. “Good choice,” I said. I crouched down and stuck my fingers in the cement.
You hear about things in El Salvador from back in the 80s. Blood things. Bullet things. Heavy boots plunging in mud, heavy muddy boots stomping in door, stomping in ribcages things. Guerillas in pickups talking about how their cousin is a Sandinista and that, their cousin, they stole Somoza’s locket right from his neck and inside there was a picture of a man. Things. None of them are true. But this is true.
I got sick after the night I spent with Ronny. His place was warm but it was raining outside and the roof leaked. He said his place back home didn’t have mistakes in the roofs. His place back home was Gothic. The beauty of a Gothic house, he said, is all in the roof. He made a steeple with his hand. Directions to heaven, guiding a spirit. He laughed and said he must sound crazy. I said he did, he was and is. It was warm inside and it rained outside. The roof leaked. There were mistakes; worlds of mistakes that spun slow and hot, full of pink density. The drops landed on me: on my forehead and breasts and stomach. Hot inside and wet outside. The roof leaked.
Ronny kind of disappeared after a week or so. There was a note left on my door saying he’d be back and he would bring his friends so I could meet them, and that was all.
“I don’t know what you expected,” said my mother.
“She expects what they all expect,” my step-father said.
“What do they all expect?” my little sister said.
“Maybe one day you’ll know; maybe you won’t.” My step-father left his bread in his coffee for too long and it fell apart. He scraped the cup away.
I covered my mouth and coughed.
“You should see someone about that,” my mother said. She finally sat down at the table and picked at the soggy bread in my step-father’s cup. “It sounds wet.”
I left to go to work at the clinic. People gathered at the town square were looking around, lost and confused: Ronny was supposed to come that day to help them repave the walkways around town. A man scratched at the scruff on his neck and talked without talking to the others.
“What happened?” I asked but no one answered.
The only roads that were repaved were the ones that led from factory to factory.
I walked by. There were women — wives — at the windows of the second-floors, the living quarters above storefronts: they parted drapes and looked at the men, at the sky, and then anywhere else but the men again.
I was working at the clinic from 10 to 5, until we closed. It was busier than usual; mostly, it was people who had gotten red and plump rashes on their chests. Ms Muria scratched at her bosom while I wrote her name and form of payment all down. Mr Helega didn’t even wear a shirt; he said the cotton was too thick and irritated it even more. I told him he had to come back wearing a shirt.
“Just leaving everyone to die, huh,” he said.
“I just said to go get a shirt — you can come back,” I said.
He left without a sound.
After everyone with the rash left with ointment and a lard-orange rub, Dr Irmo came out, peeling off his gloves and scrunching his nose to push his glasses a little higher up.
“It’s some kind of bug or parasite,” he said. He threw the gloves away and washed his hands at the little sink.
“In the chest?” I said.
“Your boyfriend’s problem. He slapped them all with honey to cure the cough that was going around. And I don’t know what happened but some bug must’ve sniffed it out.”
I was quiet.
Dr Irmo kept talking. “I lanced one of them and there were little eggs inside.”
My skin creeped.
“Nasty nasty,” he said. He dried his hands. It was already 4:47. Near enough to closing so I could ask.
“Hey, Mr Irmo, I have a cough and I was wondering…” I started but he was already waving me into his office, squeezing a smile that looked like he didn’t mind. What else was he there for.
His office was furnished with wood and linoleum and tile and plastic. It needed to be washed easy but Dr Irmo was also a man who had taste, an image to uphold; his family was a lineage of healthworkers in the broadest sense: witches and surgeons, curses and stitches.
“Okay. A cough,” he said.
I nodded. “It started two weeks ago.”
He raised his eyebrows. “Okay. Was your boyfriend sick?” He smiled, still looking at his clipboard.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” I said.
“Is there phlegm?” he asked, finally looking back up at me. “A little.”
“More yellow than white, I think.”
“Does it hurt when you cough?”
He yanked a wooden thing out of his shirt pocket. “Ahh.” He pressed it on my tongue and looked down my throat.
“Hm,” was all he said. “Did you use protection?”
“Of what? with what?”
Dr Irmo looked at me, blinked slowly and licked his lips and drank from a can of soda-water he had on the shelf.
“He pulled out,” I said. “Before he finished.”
Dr Irmo nodded. “Use protection next time.”
“What is it?” I asked.
“Bronchitis,” he said, his voice back to normal. “Is what I’m thinking at least. We were supposed to get the x-rays last week, but,” he quieted down and shrugged. “For now, I’ll get you some medicine and I want you to cover your face when you sleep — tight tight with a blanket, okay?”
“With a blanket?”
“Yes. Cold air bruises the throat. With the blanket you’re just breathing your own warm air — the homeless for example: those fucking guerillas and the little monks with the church. They know. They cover their faces out in the street not because they’re ashamed, you know, but because they need to breathe that warm air.”
I nodded. He opened a cupboard and rolled a pillbottle in his palm, reading the label. “Take these,” he said, “but think serious about sleeping with a blanket over your face. And the protection thing, okay? But we can focus on that stuff after the cough is gone. Protect the lungs for now.”
You hear about things in El Salvador from back in the 80s. Blood things. Bullet things. Needle things. Heavy boots plunging in mud, heavy muddy boots stomping in door, stomping in ribcages things. Guerillas in pickups talking about how their cousin is a Sandinista and that, their cousin, they stole Somoza’s locket right from his neck and inside there was a picture of a man. Things. All false. None true. This is true.
I went back to the gate of the docks, to the pavement where me and Ronald were. Two little holes in the concrete. The sun shone like a person, like someone interested in what you had to say. The ocean is so blue sometimes. The factory whistled and churned. There were clouds just over where the sky and sea met. More rain. I’m still not sure what happens to fresh cement when it rains; if it crumbles or shrinks or something. Because when I crouched down to see the holes closer, to stick my fingers into them, I found that they could not fit.
Stanley Delgado currently lives in Southern California and works as a translator for medical journals. His writing has appeared in smaller prints such as Coriander’s, str8 & narrow, and elsewhere.