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by Sandra Scofield
Description: This is a novel about Abilene Painter, a young woman with a drab Texas past whose fate leads her to Mexico. Here she becomes the mistress of a powerful bullfighter and rancher, Antonio Velez. Abilene is a study in the pathology of passivity, a woman who has never thought she's had real choices. She toys with risk, playing games with men who belong to Tonio. It is also 1968, a time of student uprisings and massive demonstrations in Mexico City. Abilene, seduced by the danger, walks a fine line.
eBook Publisher: E-Reads, 1989
eBookwise Release Date: June 2001
Available eBook Formats: OEBFF Format (IMP) [418 KB]
Reading time: 284-398 min.
Tonio said, "Remember I was going to show you some pictures?" They had been playing gin rummy. Abilene was putting away the cards. Tonio took an envelope out of his dresser and brought it over to the bed.
Out spilled photographs of something like a cave. A great black eye.
"It's the Swallow Pit. You remember we talked about it when the Swiss archeologist was here. I wanted him to go down in it with me, but he said he didn't have time.
"See? There's the cliff on the far side." She could tell he was excited. She leaned closer to see the picture better. She thought the blackness was like a great heart.
"Isn't it something to respect?" Tonio said. "And now they've finally gone into it this past winter. The Sierra Club. You Americans. It's a quarter of a mile deep."
She looked blankly at his pleasure, his excitement over a hole in the earth.
"That's like the Empire State Building upside down! And once you are down there, they say there are thousands of feet more of caves, and the open space is much greater than the mouth. You could see for yourself."
She blinked. "I could see!"
"Sure," he said, gathering up his pictures. When he found something new to explore, or own, he looked younger, with a boy's elation. He came out of the ring like that, after a kill, though in the ring he showed only his courage, and his respect for the bull.
"If you were braver," he said. "We could go down by rope and see it for ourselves. We could go in the fall, after the rains. But I must think how to train you! Maybe with weights." He reached over and squeezed her bicep. "You wouldn't want to dangle on these."
She was a skinny girl, with big feet for ballast. Her face and hands and arms looked washed with diluted freckles. There was a fragile quality about her, and, under that, a stringy hardness. Now he spanned her wrist with his thumb and finger. She couldn't have pulled away easily.
He loved to joke. She thought he might mean to tease her, with talk about a pit of swallows. "Do people fall in?" she asked.
He laughed at that. "I don't think so. Who would be so stupid? And those Indians up there, they're much more likely to hound someone until he jumps in on his own."
There was a bubble of fear in her throat. It was not such a terrible feeling. "I would like to see," she said. "I would like, at least, to look down. I would, if I didn't have to stand too close."
Tonio said, "As long as you are going in for that other thing you might as well have those little scars scraped off too." He was standing with a pile of boots at his feet. He had decided to have several new pairs made by the bootmaker in town, the son of the man who had made the fancy high-heeled boots that gave Tonio a little extra height.
A boot, propelled in a graceful arc by Tonio's toe, landed softly in a pile. "Too bad none of these boots fits you," he said.
Abilene thought he mentioned the boots as a kind of criticism that she was taller than he, though it was barely so. He was going to throw the boots away. They were beautifully tooled, glossy and rich-looking. He said they hadn't suited him. Though he wasn't particularly extravagant about his clothes, at least not at the ranch, Abilene had learned that it is nothing, if you are rich, to take everything out of your closets and start over, just because you feel like it.
"There must be someone around who could use them," she said. She remembered shopping for school clothes in Goodwill stores and church rummage sales.
"Not my boots." His look told her she should have known better. He kicked each unwanted boot aside as if the boot were culpable. There was something human and sad in the boots' ungainly sprawl, as if feet were still inside. Tonio's kick, though, was graceful. He was beautiful, and conscious of her watching him, though he was contemptuous of appraisal.
"I will call Reyles tomorrow," he said. "He can set it all up." Eduardo Reyles, brother of Tonio's good friend Felix, was a plastic surgeon in Mexico. Abilene had seen him once, with Felix, in a suburban restaurant where she had gone with Felix for pompano. Reyles was handsome, a smaller man than blocky Felix. He wore a tidy moustache and aviator's glasses. He had come for the fish, too, and for the company of his elegant mistress. After lunch, in the car, Abilene had asked Felix if many of his acquaintances had mistresses. She had not been in Mexico long then. "Most," he replied neutrally. "And do they all wear white?" she wanted to know. That question amused him. "Only in summer," he said.
It was like Tonio to avoid a precise term for something he disliked, despite his impeccable English. He could have found a word for her "other thing" but he did not. He didn't look at her, either, and she supposed he was put out with her for being careless. She was relieved that he did not appear to be angry. It hadn't seriously occurred to her that getting pregnant was not wholly her responsibility. As usual, she had done something at hand without thinking of the consequences. She had not even been sure it was something she had wanted to do.
She sat on Tonio's bed and watched him. He reached out for her. She recognized the gesture as summons and got up at once to go to him. He put his arm up across her shoulder, his hand in her hair, and pulled her close enough to speak quietly into her ear.
"I always thought I was sterile," he said. Her heart danced in her chest. "The only bull that ever gored me badly," he said -- he pulled her hair hard enough to hurt -- "got me in the balls."
She tried to face him, because there was no intonation, and therefore no clue, in his voice.
"One good thing," he said, putting his other hand down the front of her jeans. "We can't make it any worse."
Scraping was not a precise word, either. Scraping made her think of meat with molds.
Reyles showed her a small wire brush like the one he would use on her face. He showed her his Before and After nose photographs. They were pictures of young women in white dresses with black eyes, painted around the lashes, and elegant hair. In the middle of each face was a flat Indian nose. All the wealthy girls thought of themselves as Creoles, descendants of Spaniards. The noses gave some of them away, linked them to poor doomed girls who had their hearts tossed over the sides of pyramids. Reyles tidied the telltale noses so that, like the cones of rockets, they offered less resistance in movement.
He stroked Abilene's cheekbone. It was an important part of his practice to form a closeness with each patient, a bond to breach the pain and chagrin, a pledge of tenderness and discretion. Abilene looked at the brush in his hand. It was a furry steel wheel. There was still the gynecologist to see. "See you in white," she said to Reyles. He blinked at her from behind his aviator glasses.
The gynecologist's office was on the other side of the Zona Rosa, across the big Paseo de Reforma, past the great gold angel toward the governor's mansion, along familiar streets. The chatter of workmen's drills was everywhere; dust rose from broken buildings, old trolley tracks, cracked paving. The city was in a fever; the Olympics were only four months away.
The doctor was polite and gentle. Abilene thought to herself how perfect a profession gynecology is for a Mexican. As good as bullfighting. Whenever there were two men together in her presence, she became a backdrop. Always they talked about women. Round asses, wet cunts, the breasts of one's mother, and always, always, the welcome of women, their eagerness for these men--. It was a joke nobody seemed to get.
Tonio could probably have managed the abortion himself. If they had been alone on a boat in the ocean, or lost in the jungle, or trapped at the ranch by flood waters, and her appendix had burst, he would have been deft in its excision. But there is this about an appendix: Everyone has one. The incisions are neat against the whiteness of the belly. Only women have uteruses, babies, abortions. And all that hair and folded flesh.
"Might as well do the other," he had said.
She thought about her scars. All the times she had stood in front of mirrors brushing her hair, and never noticed them. They were old scars, and she had forgotten them. They were part of the past. It wasn't like her to dwell on old sad things, but that didn't mean they really went away. You could see a history of ugly sores, yellow pus, over and over again, in certain places. Just past the corner of her mouth, on one side, and along the side of her nose. Just beneath the jaws. How could she have forgotten that they were ugly? Tonio must have always seen them, and minded. Yet he had waited for the right moment and then had suggested surgery casually, as a friend picks lint off a coat.
One night, smoking with Tacho, she had got high and had wailed that she was ugly. (Why had she thought he would comfort her? He was one of Tonio's huge entourage, a banderillero and a hanger-on. He could never be a woman's friend.) Tacho got very gruff and called her a clod. He pulled up his shirt to show her his scars from the ring. He tapped his gold teeth so loudly it seemed they would dislodge. He waved his arms around. "In Mexico," he said, "everyone has scars." "Not Tonio," she sniffled. There was nothing he could say to that.
When the gynecologist's nurse gave her a packet of pills and an envelope with instructions written out for her, she took them gratefully. "Thank you, oh thank you," she gushed, and when the nurse took her hand, she clasped it for a long moment. The nurse was very kind, especially when you considered how repugnant Abilene must have been to her. Whatever they were calling it in order to make it legal, it was, still, a baby's murder.
Constanzia, the girl from Tonio's office, let them in the apartment. "Pretty snazzy," she said, or something like that, while Abilene walked around the apartment. They spoke in Spanish.
For Abilene, what other people said in that language was still only approximate. She lived in a constant state of estimating. She got along fine shopping, eating in cafes, getting around in taxis. She had a repertoire of retorts for the insults of street boys and drivers, but she had learned the effectiveness of staying silent. Tacho had taught her expletives and jokes and tender sayings. Mickey had taught her more elegant obscenities. The nuances of real conversation eluded her. Sometimes, if she was tired, the language dissolved into a scrambled code. Yet her own Spanish was very clear and exact.
"It's cold," she said with a shiver. She rubbed the gooseflesh of her upper arms like a spelunker in a new cave. Constanzia, whose own burnished shoulders were also bare, found the window cord and pulled it. Light struck Abilene, and then her eyes cleared and she saw that she faced the flat gray side of a building. She could see nothing of the street. The apartment, tucked into a narrow side street off a busy, chic avenue in the Zona Rosa, must have been very expensive. But it was ugly. The main room was entered abruptly through a heavy door with a jailer's lock -- double bolts on a metal frame -- and it was small and poorly furnished. The carpet, a dull slate color, was expensive and clean, but most of the room was empty. In the alcove by the window there were a few pillows propped against the white wall. In the middle of the room, under a fancy brass swag lamp, was a small round white formica table with three chairs. A radio sat on a shelf.
The kitchen, to the immediate right of the entrance, was a narrow room out of sight from the main room. It was like the galley of a boat. Stacked beside the refrigerator were cases of beer and orange soda.
"I'll want mineral water and Cokes," Abilene said to Constanzia. "And call Tonio's maid and tell her to come over and wipe everything off." She ran her finger along the shelf where the radio sat, to make her point. Constanzia said, "There are maids in the building. One goes with the apartment already." Abilene was embarrassed. "I'd rather it was someone I know!" she snapped, knowing what she said was ridiculous. She disliked the brash Constanzia, who now stood near the table with her purse held up against her chest. Constanzia acted superior because she was at home. It was her city, her language, her job. Abilene thought how rigid the pecking hierarchy was, how much pleasure each layer of authority had in ordering about the lower. She saw it all the time at the ranch. Even the very young maids, the bottom of the heap, hissed at the long-haired tom when it crossed their paths. (They dared not harass the hounds!) The system of authority was like the system of mordidas, bribes -- Tonio's friend Felix had explained it to her long ago. Each official took from those below and gave to those above; each made something on the system and therefore had reason to protect it. Only at the bottom was it all give. There, men could take only from one another. Yet everything was negotiable, except authority itself. All the rules, the laws, the greatness of the Revolution: all could be circumvented. It was as though bribery had been invented to make jobs. Only Tonio seemed unimpeachable, as though he were of the highest order, pure cacique.
Abilene walked over to the window again to look for sky. There was nothing to see. "I need something better to sit on," she said in a crisp voice she imagined sounded firm.
The girl yawned. Abilene's annoyance made her flush. She didn't want to lose her composure. If she snapped at the girl it would give the girl moral authority. Owners, patróns, officials -- they could bark and make you heel. But for most everyone in Mexico, everything had to be swathed in monstrous bandages of courtesy. To forget that was to be a fool.
"There are some large pillows at Tonio's apartment," Abilene began. She had no idea how to say what she wanted.
"Oh yes," the girl said, "I know them. Bean bags." She said the English phrase smugly. Didn't she work for a man famous not only in Mexico but in Spain and Portugal, too? She wore a hot pink blouse of shiny rayon, a bright green polyester skirt, and stiletto heels. She knew what was in Tonio's apartment.
And why not? It was only a short walk from the office. Abilene had seen him dictating, screaming orders as he lay propped against a dozen pillows on his bed. Dispensing instructions like that, in a quilted silk jacket like a Chinese potentate, he reminded everyone that his authority needed no more formality than his presence. As if anybody needed reminding. He was like the head of a government; wherever he was, he was everywhere.
He didn't have to be there at all.
The bedroom was filled almost to the walls by a king-sized bed covered with a beautiful down comforter of gray cotton and several pillows. At the foot of the bed, on a stand, there was a television, and beside that, ice buckets, glasses, and sterling silver stirrers. So. That was what the apartment was about. A trysting place. Felix's home away from Mama.
Abilene wondered about the women Felix brought here. Stewardesses from Dallas and L.A. Tonio's ex-mistresses. Maybe a high-class Mexican girl, though probably not. Virginity, or at least exquisite discretion, still belonged in the dowry.
Constanzia sat at the table reading a magazine she had brought with her. The fancy lamp gave off a poor light. "I'll need things to read," Abilene said. Constanzia, without looking up, said, "Oh yes."
"Where will you go?" Abilene asked.
"To Sanborn's, for magazines and the little American books. I'll go tomorrow."
"In English," Abilene said.
The girl smiled a quirky smile. "I said I'd get American books," she said. Abilene saw that her makeup was smeared. The dark shadows under her eyes looked like the pouches of an old woman. A Halloween face. A Day of the Dead face.
"Go away," Abilene said. "There's no reason for you to stay here." She wanted to be alone. Reyles said it would take three weeks to heal. She would stay inside, except when she went to see him.
She felt a wave of panic.
"Go on!" she said. "Go back to work!"
"The señor says to stay." Constanzia turned a page.
Abilene took her handbag into the bathroom and put her things away noisily. She carried a little paper sack of grass into the bedroom and put it under the mattress. There should have been another bag already here, brought over from Tonio's, with her nightclothes, robe, cardigan, a raincoat and rain hat. Her summer city clothes. And a bottle of brandy.
Without the bag, she had only her jeans and shirt. In the bedroom she found a shirt she supposed belonged to Felix. It was salmon-colored, with shiny silver threads running up and down it. She could sleep in it for the night. She called out to Constanzia, "I want my bag brought from Tonio's!" She wished she had called him el señor, or patrón. She detested the sense of familiarity she felt with the girl. She wondered if Tonio sometimes took her into his inner office. He would have her on her knees; there was no couch.
She had never considered, not for an instant, having a baby. She had not even thought of being pregnant in that way. It was like a toothache; you went to the dentist. She only minded that other people knew, and that she had been a problem for Tonio. She had lived for so long now in such a delicate state, asking for nothing, being there when he wanted her, staying an American girl, a Texan, but not being silly, not asking stupid questions or getting in the way.
She sat on the bed and ran her hand over the silky Chinese cotton and wondered how much she would bleed.
At seven the girl went out for food. She returned in an hour trailed by a waiter in a formal coat carrying a tray laden with platters. The girl had paid. The waiter, a handsome boy with limp hair and the puffed-out chest of a vain bird, acknowledged Abilene with exaggerated deference. He was Indian, but a light, yellowish color. His hair fell low on his forehead. He bulged against his shiny tight black pants. She wished for a moment she could send Constanzia away, that she could find a night's comfort with this boy whose name she didn't want to know. She knew he could see it: his black eyes gleamed. She had never been with an Indian boy. But he was a waiter in a good restaurant. He risked nothing. He laid out the food and heavy white napkins on the table. There was barely enough room. Once he was satisfied that the platters were settled, he made a sweeping gesture with the tray and tucked it under his arm. At the door he smiled and said to Constanzia, "Till tomorrow, then," playing with the soft /n/'s of mañana, his tongue in his teeth, his freshly licked lips shimmering as he spoke. "He will come for the dishes," Constanzia explained casually as she bolted the door. "I will have things to do here. He might as well come then." Abilene would be in the hospital. They would do the abortion in the afternoon, and if there were no complications, the dermabrasion the following morning. Abilene was not amused at Constanzia's plotting.
"I don't want anyone here when I'm not," she said.
"Oh, just to bring your magazines."
Abilene saw that at some time on her outing the girl had put on a vivid scarlet lipstick. It streaked the napkin like blood.
They both gave their attention to the food. "It's really good," Abilene conceded. She hadn't realized how hungry she was. She ate slowly, thinking of Jello and broths in the hospital. Her steak ran bloody on the platter. She felt suddenly that the girl had done her a good turn; she might have brought her something with tortillas, or awful hamburgers from Sanborn's. The girl finished eating quickly and then closed the drapes and began to stack dishes carelessly, so that she made a lot of noise. Abilene's friendly feelings evaporated. A ridge of lard had congealed along the potato. She pushed her plate to the center of the table.
Constanzia put a set of keys down beside Abilene's plate and looked at her watch. "I'll go now," she announced. At the door she paused to say good luck. Abilene said nothing. The heavy door made a thudding sound as it closed. She thought of prisons, crazy houses. She shivered again; this time she knew it was the cold. She found a thermostat, but nothing happened when she jiggled the mechanism. "Shit!" she said aloud. The sound of her voice was startling in the emptiness of the room. She listened to the evening roar of the city, the incessant honking of horns.
She crawled under the bedcovers in her clothes and shook with chill. I'm afraid, she thought. She wasn't afraid that she would die. She was afraid that everything would change.
She lay still and tried to single out the sounds of the city, the cars and jackhammers (even at night!), the cries and laughter of people, instead of the sounds of peacocks and dogs and rustling palms. She missed the Huasteca night. She drifted away from the city, into reverie:
The little cow speaks to her. It says, I'm going to hurt you. But why? she asks, though she knows. Because you are there. Because you are weak, says the cow. She sees the hair on the ridge of the cow's back when she passes it. She sees the place where its horns have broken the skin. The cow knows what to do and cannot help itself, nor can Abilene; she lets the cape drop. The cow, the girl: each waits.
She decided to take one of the sleeping pills from the doctor's office. She undressed to her panties and shirt and drank water from her hand, under the tap. If it made her sick -- what would they do at the hospital? Can you have an abortion if you are already sick with the turista?
The buzzer made her jump. It was Tacho. His voice over the intercom was thinned and peppered with static. She rang the buzzer to let him in from the street and then made him wait in the hall while she dressed. She took her time, pulled on shoes, brushed her hair, while he banged on the door with his fist and cursed her.
When she let him in, he said, "Tonio says to stay." He was burly and disheveled. He had been back from Portugal a year, and in that time he had gotten fleshy, his face jowly and slack. He needed to shave, and his hair had been badly cut. His sour mood was chronic.
"I don't need a babysitter," she said in English. He made an ugly gesture with his hand. "Bird-talk!" he said, angry because, despite all the Americans who had been around him for years, he had learned almost no English. She told him again in Spanish, except that she called him a watchdog. He shrugged. "There's a dinner party at the apartment," he said. "With caterers." So he would stay with Abilene, he said. He was to accompany her to the hospital in the morning.
There was no place for him to sleep. When she said so, he laughed and pulled a bottle of brandy out of her bag. He sat at the table with his legs open wide, one on each side of the chair, and he drank her brandy. She watched him, thinking of the people who would be at Tonio's, high-ranking people from the government, and actors and businessmen and bullfighters.
Suddenly she was flooded with nostalgia for the ranch, the Tecoluca, as if it was a place she had known long ago. She thought of a time when she drove with the archeologist Martin miles out from the airstrip, and she showed him a place where a wildcat had killed a steer, and a little farther on, the pond where she had fished (with Tacho) for flat bony fish of splendid flavor. She thought of herself with Tonio in the arbor between the gate and the house as people came up from the ferry for a holiday. "This is my Abby," he had said of her, over and over, all through that first year.
He had not called her that in a long time.
She thought of him on his bed in late afternoon, the hair on his chest spare and golden, his hips gilded by the sun coming in under bamboo shutters.
"My Tonio." Would any woman ever say that, except in self-mockery?
"I'm going to bed!" she shouted. Tacho grunted and then laughed out loud. His voice was still ringing in her ears as she plummeted into sleep.
Some time in the night he came to her bed. She struggled up from her drugged sleep to the smell of him before she felt his hands on her. She had been dreaming of him, dreaming of a time before he went to Portugal and threw away the golden ring, before he started passing on the kicks he thought the world had given him. Everyone around Tonio wanted to be more than they were, but nothing Tonio gave would be enough to change them. If they could be with Abilene at least they took a little more from the patrón. And there was pleasure in risk.
Tonio had sent Tacho to Portugal to fight, and Tacho had run away from it, to go with the gypsies. He had travelled with them across the borders of four countries. He had learned their songs. He had come home bitter, and he had looked at Abilene with loathing. He had never forgiven her for being there when he came skulking home.
"Why do they blame me, when it is Tonio they hate?" she once asked a friend, Isabel Ruiz. Isabel knew. "You are nobody, and a woman. What a perfect victim you are!"
Tacho smelled of brandy and smoke and rutting. She was weakened by the sedative, but she managed to give him a hard shove with her feet that sent him rolling onto the floor. He groaned and she held her breath. If he rose and came at her, she would have no more strength to fight him. He was too big, and he could hurt her.
It comes to this! she thought. But he lay still, his buttocks catching the barest strip of moonlight through the window blinds. She burrowed in the covers like an animal in a nest. Some time in the night Tacho woke her again, crying out. She thought he had said, "I am torero!" and then, "I am animal." Such mournful cries. To think she had once giggled against his shoulder; she had ridden the bus sixteen hours to be with him, when she had a plane ticket in her pocket all the time. She could not blame only him that it came to this. She hadn't thought of his heart. She had thought of him as an animal composite: fine-muscled like a horse, a curious sniffer like a boar, a silly threat like a goose, and sadly, dumbly noble, like the brave bulls at play in Tonio's greenest pasture. She had done what tourists do all the time, she had thought of him as a peasant. But she had thought he looked like Marcello Mastroianni. She had called him Marcello and he loved it.
She started to cry. Then, abruptly, she sat up in bed and wiped her cheeks with the sheet. Outside her a city was alive. She wanted nothing of remorse -- not Tacho's, not her own. In the Huasteca she could pass days and nights and never think about guilt or pity or shame.
She had dreamed his cries, as once she had dreamed his affection. She had invented lovers, because she could not invent Tonio.
She wanted no more lies. No more dreams. She wanted the blackness of sleep, a night without stars. Tomorrow the life in her would be sucked out, and she could not know what would be left instead.
Copyright © 1989 by Sandra Scofield