A Family’s Turn
We sat down in front of the campfire. Diego, my fellow traveler, was blind and had a penchant for smiling and telling stories. Face reddened by the flames, he fixed a blanket over the ice box and I knew he was getting ready to begin one of his yarns.
“Go ahead.” I encouraged.
“Very well, here it goes. Let’s say that even for people who lived in neighboring suburbs of Montevideo, San José de Carrasco was virtually unknown, and deservedly so. It didn’t have the personality of a regular town, no central square, no monuments, nothing. It was an arrangement of homes that joined or separated other suburban and similarly nondescript towns. They all faced the Coastal road that bordered the Atlantic Ocean. The beaches and the towns bore each other’s names.
“In terms of public places, San José de Carrasco had three distinct locations. By far the largest, in architectural terms, was the Club.” Diego actually pronounced it ‘cloob ‘. “Its real name forgotten, everyone knew it as just the Club. Its door facing the Coastal road and the beach, the Club was an ample building, proudly featuring the only indoor bocci-ball court on the coast. During weekends and evenings, there was always a tournament going on. At the front and to the right was the bar, next to it the only public phone cabin in San José, on top of which sat a black-and-white television set. An assorted number of chairs and sofas completed the room. The second edge of the town’s triad was ‘La Rana,’ meaning the frog. La Rana was two blocks from the Club and the beach. It boasted the name of Supermarket, which, in a small town in Uruguay, simply means that the merchandise is on display and the customer picks it up instead of asking the grocer to retrieve it from behind the counter. La Rana also sold lottery tickets and provided a forum for its patrons. To complete this triangle, half a block from La Rana was the Menendez fruit and vegetable stand, managed by Evelyn and Eusebio Menendez, the latter being the town’s UFO fanatic and owner of one of the few cars in San José.
“Now, I guess it’s time to mention the widow Galtieri, the rich woman in town. When she first came to San José de Carrasco, she and her husband owned two restaurants. She would tell everyone at La Rana about the horrors of raising children in a city like Montevideo.”
“I guess she would never have moved to Chicago then.”
“Exactly. Montevideo is so devoid of crime it’s ridiculous. She wanted to set the rules of her game absolutely. She wanted suburban safety and quiet. The son grew up to be a strong boy; he played on the beach most of the summer and went to a nearby private school. By then her husband had sold their Montevideo beach-front house, in one of the best and most expensive neighborhoods in all Uruguay, to a retired Englishman. With the proceeds, they bought two more restaurants, bringing the total to four.”
I added three pieces of wood and stirred the fire that had burned off the humidity from the branches and was crackling happily.
“The unexpected came in the tempting form of a woman. Her name was Rosario, or I think it was. People who met her said she had the body of Aphrodite and the face of an angel. She was from the North, from the border with Brazil, which made her a gaoosha, and she spoke a mixture of Spanish and Portuguese.”
“Is that different from a gaucho?”
“Gaucho is the Spanish pronunciation, while gaoosho is the Portuguese pronunciation which refers to both the region and the people.”
“Gaoosho.” I pronounced with relish.
“Anyway, Mr. Galtieri, with the idea or the pretext that she would attract business to his newest restaurant, hired her as a waitress. This impulsive act offended the waiters at the four restaurants more than his wife, who thought it was a good idea. All his employees wondered what kind of bug had stung Galtieri to hire a female waiter. There is no such thing, they would protest, there isn’t even a word in Spanish for such a contradiction. The other waiters shunned her, yet she brought a lot of customers to the restaurant, and Mr. Galtieri was soon making a lot of excuses to travel to Montevideo.
“As a matter of fact, even though most people refuse to believe it, they must have had an affair for Mr. Galtieri to be found naked, on her bed, with a knife through his heart. Apparently, the postal worker from the North who had been abandoned by the damsel, traveled to Montevideo in a fit of jealousy, making the six o’clock news and ending up in jail for the rest of his life. Uruguayans, in general, are not prone to fits of passion. As a matter of fact, most of us abhor it. So, in our best tradition, people talked in hushed tones when they referred to the story that made Mrs. Galtieri a widow. Some actually claimed that they saw the Aphrodite prancing down a certain avenue frequented by the ladies of the night; others said she hooked up with an Argentine racecar driver who took her away. I’ll never know where she ended up.
“The widow Galtieri took her mourning seriously; sold the restaurants, cashed the deceased’s insurance policy and invested the money in diversified concerns, which enabled her and her son to keep their lifestyle without having to devote time to working for a living. She dedicated herself to her son and, as happens many times with single mothers, she gave him too many responsibilities, making him the man of the house at twelve. That is probably why she couldn’t say no, when on his sixteenth birthday Julio, that was his name, decided to buy a motorcycle. The kid took his new Vespa for a spin that same evening and never returned to the house. The police, the press and the neighbors of San José de Carrasco, combed the area.”
“Was there any suspicion of abuse by the mother?”
“They loved each other, as far as the neighbors could tell. The search for Julio went countywide; it made the papers and the radio. Neither the boy nor his Vespa could be found anywhere. After a year of exhaustive searches the police closed the case, the press got distracted by other news, and the neighbors, in different degrees, forgot and went on with their lives. The widow Galtieri, of course, was devastated. She aged visibly and lost contact with the outside world. The few times someone caught sight of her were at early mass; they say she looked old and lost to the world.
“Routine and sameness have a way of collapsing time. The years went by and the people of San José de Carrasco put that tragedy in the back of their minds. But, one day at La Rana, a young man, in his early twenties, arrived. He stepped off a Vespa, walked up to the owner and told him he was lost. When Rodrigo, the store owner, asked him where he wanted to go, the young man, with a blank expression, told him that not only did he not know where he was going, but also he didn’t know where he was coming from. He didn’t know his own name; all he remembered was driving the Vespa on the Coastal road, stopping at and coming into the supermarket because it had looked vaguely familiar to him.
“Nobody knows today who brought it up first; was it Eulogio Menendez, the UFO fanatic, or was it Celia the midwife, or was it Washington the bartender slash ice-cream vendor? Someone came up with the idea that this lost young man must have been Julio. His features and bone structure could have been those of Julio and the old Vespa model he was driving clinched their conviction. Word spread quickly, so that evening at the club, ‘Julio’ – as everyone called him then – sat on a sofa surrounded by the nice people of San José.
“The military had taken the country over that year, so no one actually proposed that they would call the police. Everyone talked at the same time, everyone had a question for Julio, who couldn’t answer his own questions. It was quite the pandemonium. Then, like you see in the movies, everybody in the club stopped talking when the widow Galtieri opened the door tentatively and walked toward the lost man. Both the widow and the young man looked at each other, while the honest people of San José watched the pair as if it were a tennis match. At the end of that impromptu meeting, it was agreed by everyone that ‘Julio’ should move, temporarily, into the Galtieri’s guesthouse, which was located in the back of their huge beachfront chalet. This would give the young man time to recuperate his memory. I don’t know how their relationship developed, all I know is that the widow was radiant and she began to frequent the supermarket again. ‘Julio’ on the other hand, with nothing to do, set himself to really getting to know his neighbors. Because his apparent knowledge of the most basic things of life was nil, he always asked the most naive questions; all this accompanied by an innocent countenance and a pair of big eyes. My theory is that he became the town’s surrogate child; he conquered women’s and men’s hearts alike. Eligible women, young and old, came from all over the region, just to get a glimpse of this guy. He learned bocci-ball from the men, went through family albums with the women and night-fished with the families.
“One day, something odd happened. The Ramoses house was burglarized while they were playing bocci ball. More than burglarized, I should say emptied. All their furniture, clothing, even the posters tacked on the walls were gone. This was a first in San José. The police came, prancing about with their guns and their intimidating questions, most of which were about the political affiliation of the victims. Three days later, while the Menendez were at a fish cookout, their house suffered the same ignominious fate of the Ramoses. The Zinnis - a week later, the Irrazabals, the Rodriguez Beldañas, even the Crevatinis, who had a deaf child, got cleaned out. This was, without any doubt, San José de Carrasco’s biggest catastrophe.”
“Couldn’t the neighbors do something?”
“Well, yes. The last three or four burglaries weren’t even reported to the police. The neighbors organized both day and night patrols – the town’s four cars were volunteered for that purpose – and they organized a big meeting at the club to talk about strategy. Almost at the end of the town meeting, in came the widow Galtieri. Again, like the previous time, she made an entrance, everyone stopped talking at once. The neighbors noticed she was pale and shaky. She leaned on the telephone cabin and asked softly, ‘Do any of you know where Julio is? I haven’t seen him in two days.’ Not a word was said, but everyone understood silently. Soon, with Eusebio Menendez at the head of the parade, the citizenry of San José marched toward the widow Galtieri’s guesthouse. She handed Eusebio the key to the house and rested her weary body on the doorframe. Inside were all the furniture, clothing, and possessions of the nice people of San José. The lights in the house didn’t work, causing the neighbors to desperately inspect their possessions, piled on top of one another, in the dark.”
“Where was Julio?” I asked adding the last of the sticks to the fire.
“That’s the strangest part of the story. Right in the middle of the living room, a hole at least seven feet wide had been burned in the roof. We could see the moonlight coming through. The widow Galtieri collapsed on a couch.”
“So the guy burned a hole in the ceiling, disappeared, and left everything that was stolen in the guest house?”
“Everything, except for a couple of photographs and their negatives. Eusebio Menendez, the UFO maniac, looked for his favorite photographs everywhere in that guesthouse. He spent every evening for over a month, to no avail. He described to everyone the photo of the object over San José beach and that one of the fuzzy outline of a being walking on the dunes. Ordinarily, Eusebio was a personable fellow, but for a long time after that incident, he became quite the pest, since he was convinced that ‘They’ had sent someone to retrieve his photographs and he felt he had to tell the story to everyone. I don’t need to tell you that no one called the police or the press. The quiet people of San José talked about the unmentionable possibilities of Julio’s appearance and disappearance for years. The widow Galtieri withered even further. One day a few years later, the gardener found her dead, lying under the hole in the roof of the guesthouse; her opened eyes facing the stars. And that, my friend, is the story of the Galtieri’s turn on this planet.”
“She died looking for her son. Pretty creepy story.”
“But, wait! That’s it? The guy came to take the photographs and then disappeared?”
“All I can tell you is what I know, what I witnessed. You may architect some solution in your mind and then re-tell the story to someone else.”
“Listen, Diego, I’m fading fast here. Would you tell me if you hear anything out of the ordinary? I’m going to sleep.” I fussed with the fire for the last time, then wiggled myself inside the blankets and prepared myself to sleep.