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Jan/Feb 2015 Fiction

All We Have Left

by Jonathan Starke

Image courtesty of the British Library's Photostream


Juliana Lima had stripped in front of a giant wooden statue of Jesus Christ in downtown Santa Cruz, Bolivia. She got down on her bare knees and prayed. The police detained her that evening and released her the next morning. That afternoon, she went downtown a second time, throwing her clothes into the street and praying in front of the same statue. This time, she caused a major traffic jam. Men stuck their heads out of taxicab windows and yelled obscenities at her. This second incident caused the police to deport her. When asked why she had done it, Juliana Lima said she had spent the last month looking for her 87-year-old father, who had gone missing, and she had run out of money. He was all she had left, and she wanted nothing more than to go home.

 

Marshall was standing in line at the post office in João Pessoa with an envelope in his hands. What he had put in it was simple, a tiny article he'd clipped out of the paper a week ago about a woman who had exposed herself while praying naked in Santa Cruz.

At first, after reading the snippet over his kitchen sink in Pasadena, he wasn't sure what to think of it. He kept going over it again and again. There was no photo of Juliana, and Marshall tried to picture her in his head, see her brown skin beneath the afternoon sun, her hands clasped together against her bare chest as the cement burned her at the toes and knees. He had put the newspaper down on the counter and walked to the living room of the small apartment he'd settled into after his divorce. Marshall looked out of the big window there and stood silent, watching two children riding their bikes in circles in the street, one chasing the other. He wondered if Juliana watched children in this way, if she ever wanted to start a family of her own, or if this search for her father, her only family, would consume her forever.

Marshall walked back to the kitchen and read over the article again, thinking of how lucky he was to have seen it in the first place as it was tucked away in one of the gray corners of the paper. He started to think this could somehow change his life, that he should do something about it. He reached down and pulled a pair of scissors out of a utility drawer. He cut out the article in three snips and left the rest of the paper. The next morning, he bought an airline ticket. Within a week, Marshall found himself stumbling around the hot, yellow streets of Brazil.

The man behind the register at the post office waved, and Marshall came forward, placing the envelope on the counter. He smoothed it over with his hands as he lay it down. The man held up the white envelope to the light and tried to look through it. He tapped it on the counter and ran a finger along the top of the envelope, where Marshall had placed three stamps. The man had a light brown piece of rubber over his finger, like a soft thimble. He said something Marshall didn't understand. Marshall knew only a little Portuguese and had left his pocket translator in the hotel room. He nodded and watched the man toss the letter into a bin without looking down after it.

Marshall walked into the tropical heat. It was weather he had only heard about but never felt before. Above him, everything was clear and blue.

Along the street, on the way to the hotel, he walked by young boys who held newspapers in their fingertips, shrieking, "Jornal! Jornal!" Walking alone and without direction, Marshall drew the attention of the peddlers. One of the young boys ran up to him with a stack of cards in his hand. He held one out to Marshall.

"Chamada," the boy said.

Marshall took the card. On the front was a photograph of a woman who was naked and covering herself with folded arms. Her hair stretched down the length of her back in waving braids, dark at the roots, flowing down to golden tips. Her skin was copper. She wore only dark high heels and had one leg propped up on a faded yellow stool. The woman cradled her breasts in her arm and was turned away enough that he could only see a little of the skin of her breast and the shade of a rounded buttock. He had expected her face to be looking at him directly, seducing him with her eyes, maybe wearing light blue eye shadow. Instead, she had her face turned toward a red wall and was stretching her arm up it, as if reaching for something far above her head.

Marshall had been so lost in the image, he hadn't noticed the boy poking at the back of the picture. Marshall turned it over, and the boy continued tapping it with his fingernail. "Chamada," the boy said. There was a phone number on the back of the card. "Chamada," the boy repeated.

"Call," Marshall said.

"Call," the boy said, nodding. With the light shining over his shoulder, Marshall could see through one side of the card to the other. When he turned it in the light, the woman and the phone number blurred together. He thought about Juliana Lima and what she might be doing then. He thought about his ex-wife.

Marshall walked along the Jaguaribe River, occasionally putting a hand into his pocket to pull out the card the boy had given him. He would flip it from one side to the other until he was satisfied and return it to his pocket. He looked out over the still, green water. In between himself and the river was a hundred feet of thick green marsh.

There were other people walking along the pavement, some looking out at the water, some in a rush, some holding each other's hands down at their hips. Marshall went up beside an old couple and stood there for a moment, trying to see the river as maybe they were seeing it. A shout broke out across the street.

Marshall turned and saw six men carrying a man above their shoulders, walking with him toward the river. The man was missing shoes and had one sock dangling at the end of a foot. His shirt was torn and hanging between the arms of the men who were carrying him. Marshall had expected his face to twist or his head to jerk and move about, his arms to flex and un-flex against the hands of the other men, but the man's face was somehow calm through all this, his long black hair falling toward the ground. Behind the six men there was a single man, carrying a suitcase on top of his head, holding it at the sides with both hands.

Marshall turned to the old couple next to him. "What? What are they saying?"

The old man let go of his wife, motioning for her not to go anywhere. She had her arms folded tight and was standing half-turned in the same manner Marshall had seen his ex-wife stand when frightened, cautious.

In the commotion, Marshall had walked right up to the edge of the marsh, so far that he had gotten the tops of his shoes wet. He took a couple steps back and looked over at the old man, who put his hand above his brow to shade the sun and looked at the gang of men, who were now crossing through the marsh. The lower halves of these men were green now to Marshall.

"Cheat," the old man said.

"What else?"

The old man paused. "Dog. Rotten dog," the old man said. "Woof, woof."

The men waded through the marsh to the river bank, counted down from three, and threw the man into the water. His splash was weak and uneventful, the water spraying out mostly to the sides as the man extended his arms during the fall. The man who was trailing removed the suitcase from his head and undid the latches. He raised it high and let one end fall open, spilling clothes into the river. Each of the men took turns spitting at the man in the water, yelling curses and shooting their arms into the air. Marshall turned to the old man. "Why?" he asked.

The old man looked at his wife and pointed to his watch. Then he gestured toward Marshall as if he were dealing cards from a deck. "Jogos de azar," he said, continuing to deal the phantom cards even after he said it, even after Marshall nodded in understanding. The old man walked away and put an arm around his wife. Marshall watched them walk a good distance down the pavement until they crossed the street and he couldn't see them anymore. He turned back to the river. The men were all gone now, finished humiliating the one they had thrown into the river. Marshall watched the upper half of the man in the river, the half he could see. The suitcase was open and floating on the water, and the man had one end of it, dragging it behind him. He was cutting through the water, following after his clothes, which had moved on down with the current. Marshall watched until the man was just a speck in the distance, so blurry and far down the river it was useless to look for him.

When Marshall got up to his room at the hotel, he sat down on the edge of the bed next to the phone. He took the card the young boy had given him from his pocket and set it down on the bureau next to his phone card. He pulled a small notepad and a pen from the top drawer of the bureau and began doodling wavy lines on the paper as he picked up the receiver and held it between his ear and shoulder. He dialed the number on his calling card. Marshall meant to call work. He had told himself on the way up the hotel staircase that the first thing he was going to do when he got into the room was call into the foundation and let one of his co-workers know how the whole trip was going.

As he pressed the final number on the keypad, Marshall realized he was calling his ex-wife. He had dialed their old phone number, one he had dialed so many hundred times from so many different phones, a number that belonged solely to Jane now. His doodles rolled out faster from the tip of the pen, and he felt heat in his forehead, like he might start sweating at any moment.

The answering machine came on, and Marshall listened to it, relieved. He hadn't heard his wife's voice in three years, not since the divorce was all the way through and Jane had retained the house and the mahogany patio furniture and a good part of Marshall's being.

"Hello?" Jane said. The recorded voice had been cut off and was replaced with Jane's true voice, her present voice. Marshall loosened his fingers and then tightened them on the receiver. "Hello? Spencer?" Marshall slid his hand down and cupped his fingers over the mouthpiece of the phone. He could hear it make a whoosh sound over the line. "I think there must be a bad connection. I'm bringing in the groceries. Call back in five." The line went dead. After a while, robot woman came on the line, but Marshall only heard her as white noise, a blur outside of his thoughts. He hung up. It was one of those older phones where the two teeth have to sink into the base before the line is fully dead.

Jane had left Marshall for Spencer. She never put it that way. She never said that was the reason for the decreased intimacy between them, for the dark nights with the bedroom window open when too much space rested between their bodies, for the time they spent apart when she left for a while to her "sisters' place," for the true separation and the divorce, when Marshall had to sign his name in black with a thick and heavy pen.

She and Spencer hadn't been intimate before the separation. That's how Jane had put it to Marshall over the phone during one of their last conversations, but he never believed that.

"Idiot," Marshall said aloud. He picked up the notepad and slapped it against the bureau. He thought of where she must have been standing in the kitchen. She was still living in the house, their house, and with a man who wasn't Marshall. He wanted her to believe he was all right with that. She would see it for herself, that he had gone off to Brazil to find a woman he had never met based on nothing but a feeling, something so sparked and sudden, where Jane had never given him credit for being able to do such a thing. If one day he ever had to, or needed to, he might tell Jane that he did it because of a sensation from the bottom of his stomach that grew up through him like the roots of a tree. And he tried to place Juliana in that kitchen, standing over the sink with the window open in front of her, a tomato in one hand and a knife in the other. It was her hands he could really imagine, freckles between the meat of the thumb and first finger.

Marshall stood and opened the second bureau drawer. Inside he had a small sheet of paper with three addresses written on it from when he had gone to the concierge's desk in the hotel lobby and looked through the phone book under "Lima, Juliana." Marshall put the sheet of paper with the addresses into his pocket and left the room.

The first address took Marshall's taxi down to a beach house overlooking the South Atlantic Ocean. There was grass growing out of the sand, so much so that it had a brown and green pattern all up and down the shore, where not a single spot was just bare with the white beaches he had expected.

"Please, wait," Marshall said, opening the door. The driver said something to him in Portuguese. Marshall went through the pocket translator and put his hand out flat with his palm toward the driver. "Espera por favor," Marshall said. The cab driver nodded, pulled the bill of his cap down over his eyes and leaned his seat back.

Marshall didn't figure this could be the right place as the newspaper clipping had said Juliana Lima had run out of money. Nobody living in a place like this could possibly run out of money, he thought. Marshall rang the doorbell. He heard each echo and chime repeat itself as he listened through the door. It sounded like a grandfather clock to him, like it had just struck noon all around Brazil. When nobody came to the door, Marshall took a few steps back and looked up at the second story windows. The curtains were pulled together. The blue shutters were halfway closed, as if someone had reached out and pulled them partly across the window and then thought better of it. Marshall stepped forward and knocked on the door this time, the white paint cool under his fist. When nobody came to the door, he walked up the driveway to the cab.

"No luck," Marshall said. He consulted his translation book. "Nenhuma... sorte."

"Ah," said the cab driver. He pulled off his hat and showed it to Marshall. He pointed at the marlin on the front of it. The marlin was jumping through the air with bits of water splashing off of his emerald body. "Minha sorte!" the man said. "Ah, minha sorte!"

The second address was located in the modern part of the city where buildings were tall and angular. The cab driver pulled up to triplet buildings, each made out of solid rows of glass. The driver pointed out the window at the building. The numbers matched up, but it was clear there were no apartments or rooms for rent. Marshall rolled down his window and stuck his head outside. The upper half of each of the three buildings was going through renovations. Men in helmets stood up high on scaffolding and threw debris into a blue tunnel chute that unloaded into a movable waste bin. Everything on the lower floors appeared to be nothing more than restaurants and office space.

"This is no good," Marshall said. "No good," he repeated after he brought his head back into the cab.

"No good," the cab driver mimicked. He pointed over the dashboard at the road as if to say onward. Marshall held the piece of paper with the addresses over the seat so the driver could have a look at the last one. "Nós vamos," the cab driver said. Marshall pulled away the paper and put on his safety belt.

Looking at the glass buildings had reminded Marshall of the few times after the divorce that he had driven over to the old house and parked on the opposite side of the street, far enough down that neither his ex-wife nor Spencer would notice him parked there, slumped in the driver's seat, hanging on to the steering wheel with one hand. Everything had seemed so strange to him then, the idea that he could look at the porch steps and know he had climbed them, but that his feet would never touch there again. He saw leaves poking out of the gutters, knowing he had once put on work gloves and climbed a ladder to scoop them out and drop them into a plastic bag. He thought of walking over the hardwood floor inside, the way the boards would squeak and bend to only a certain pressure. His wife had a way of walking lightly over them in her bare feet. She walked as if she might fall down at any time, and it was that fragility that he missed about her. He thought then of Juliana's bare feet, the dried blood from cuts, the rounded bruises and pink marks she must have sustained while handcuffed and walked across the dry, hot gravel of Santa Cruz.

Marshall had to go up four flights of twisting stairway to get to the flat at the last address. It was located in the colonial district of the city, where many of the houses retained the style and grace of hundreds of years of use and wear. Marshall took a moment to catch his breath as he stood at the door. He knocked a few times, and a man older than Marshall immediately answered. He was balding down the middle and only had a little black hair on the sides. The man held a bottle of beer against his round midsection. His eyes widened at the site of Marshall standing at his door, and the man took a drink from the bottle. He was careful to keep one hand at the top of the door so as to slam it if necessary.

"Juliana Lima? Is Juliana Lima here?"

The man nodded, though he looked confused.

"Uh... Juliana Lima..." Marshall turned the pages in his book. "...aqui?"

"Por que?" the man said, letting the door close a little between the two of them.

"Jornal," Marshall said. "I read about her in the newspaper." Marshall saw a newspaper scattered on the floor and pointed to it. The man nodded, opening the door slowly and waving Marshall in. There were two young girls sitting on the floor, playing with dolls in their hands, and a boy sitting on the couch with a binder open on his lap. One of the girls put a shirtless male doll into a car and drove around the female dolls. The other girl held a female doll in each hand and put up their arms to wave at the man driving circles around them in his plastic car. The man said something to the children, and they all looked up at Marshall.

"Olá," Marshall said with a wave.

The girls giggled and continued playing. The man pointed to the couch, and Marshall took a seat next to the boy. The boy was pulling baseball cards from plastic sheets that were divided into nine sections. Marshall thought he was arranging them by team at first, but then realized there were different uniforms. After a while of watching, Marshall couldn't make sense of how the boy was arranging things.

The man walked out of the kitchen and into the living room with corn cake on a plate and a metal tray in his hand. He unfolded the tray and set in front of Marshall and put the plate down on it. Then he went back into the kitchen and came out with two fresh beer bottles. He popped them open using the edge of the tray.

"Obrigado," Marshall said. The man nodded and took a drink of his beer. He pointed to the corn cake with the hand the beer was in. Marshall tore off a piece and bit into it. The man grinned and went into his room. He came back with a picture frame in his hands.

"Juliana Lima," he said. He crossed over his heart with the beer bottle. The photograph was an old black and white of a woman draped over a staircase banister. She had one arm on top of the other and her chin was digging into her top forearm. She smiled broadly, and her lips were very thick and dark with lipstick. The man held the frame at a slant so the ceiling light was caught inside the glass and stuck on the picture. Marshall pulled his translator out of his back pocket and looked up the word for sorry, for condolences, and said these to the man. The man smiled and pointed at his children. Marshall looked between the man and his children and drank from his beer.

Marshall and the man sat in silence for a while after that, the man occasionally saying something in Portuguese that Marshall would have to look up in his book and find a reply for. The man wanted to know why he was looking for his wife, and Marshall tried to explain that he had made some sort of mistake, that this wasn't where the young Juliana lived, the one he had thought so much about. He tried to tell the man that there was another Juliana Lima out there that he was trying to find.

"Por que?" the man said. Marshall flipped through the translation book again. After a while, he realized he didn't know what word he wanted to stop on, what phrase to put together to explain it to the man.

After the corn cake was finished the two men shook hands. Marshall started down the twisting staircase, and he could feel the man watching him go, all the way until he heard an echo in the stairwell from the man closing his door.

The night before Marshall was supposed to fly back home, he lay in bed and thought about Juliana Lima. He would never get the chance to ask her what had become of her father. Marshall wanted to know why her father had run off to Bolivia without her, what had caused such a rift between them that he would leave without whispering a word of where he was going. He wanted to know what it was like to be in front of such a statue of Jesus Christ, to be down on one's knees and praying in nothing more than our natural skin, even as others looked on and disapproved with their eyes and the moving of their mouths.

Marshall wondered how Jane's mouth might look opening the envelope. He hadn't put his name on the outside. He wondered what she would think of the article, standing in the kitchen they used to share as she read each word he had read. Would she understand where he had been, why he had made the journey in the first place? Marshall figured she might even flip it over and see he had signed it "With love," that he had thought twice about it, scratched it out with a pen after the first time and then wrote it again.

 

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