When his leg healed, he could no longer play soccer, but he was able to start working again. One day, while doing a job allá arriba in the mountains, he fell from a great height and hit his head, and had to be hospitalized. I don’t know if he fell from a tree or a ladder or a ladder leaning up against a tree. I only know that he was driven down the mountain in a cattle truck, bleeding all the way. He was hospitalized in Soná, then sent to Santiago to see a specialist, then sent all the way to Panama City for surgery. Chengo spent several afternoons racing up and down the street on his bicycle, stopping at friends’ houses to borrow money and collect on debts to pay for the bus fare and hospital bills. I paid three months rent in advance; I gave it to Rufa because I thought they might not find it if I put it on top of the refrigerator. In the end, they raised enough money for Rufa and Chengo to go to Panama City together, and they put their daughter Yody in charge of the house. They were gone for three days. When they came back, they brought Alvenis alive, with gauze wrapped around his head like a turban and a dark bloodstain on the left side. Throughout his recovery, I asked Yody how he was doing, and other people asked me how he was doing, and I told them in detail, even though he was always inside and I never actually spoke to him.
The other thing I knew about him was that one day he started building a house in the backyard. As soon as the frame was up, people started asking me if he was getting married. No one could think of any girl in La Soledad who had been seen with him. That meant that Alvenis was bringing in a girl from afuera. Gossip raged, with rumors ranging from the unlikely (that Alvenis had met a nurse in the hospital in Panama City during his head surgery) to the absurd (that he had been corresponding with a friend of mine from America and they’d fallen in love a través de las cartas.) When the palm roof was in place and there were three palm walls and one wall of corrugated zinc, Yody’s best friend came over from Soná, and she and Alvenis sat together in the hammock between the acacia trees, out in front of my house. Everyone knew that she was 15 and dropping out of high school. What concerned them more was if she knew how to sweep a floor, being from the pueblo and all. They were sure that Rufa would feed them until the girl learned how to cook, and that she’d probably wash their clothes as well, but everyone hoped that the girl would quickly learn to wash her own clothes because Rufa had enough work on her hands, with 5 men in the house and all named José.
After Alvenis came Bladi, short for Bladimir, his middle name. On the night I moved in, Bladi was a guerilla warrior with a camouflage bandana tied over his face so only his eyes showed. He hammered in nails for me to put curtains on, and stood on my bare mattress to hang my mosquito net from the wooden beams above. Early the next morning, he came over with a plate of patacones for breakfast and, still wearing the camouflage bandana, told me of an idea he had had the night before while he was falling asleep. He proceeded to move my light-switch to a place where I could reach it from my bed, so I wouldn’t have to turn out the light and then fumble my way to bed in the dark.
Nineteen year-old Bladi brought over a notebook and pencil one day and demanded I teach him all the open chords on the guitar. For the next few weeks he came over every evening to practice as soon as he’d showered and eaten after work. In exchange for the guitar lessons, we spent a day at my stove and he taught me to how make lentils, rice, and hojaldres, and how to fry an egg the Panamanian way (since I told him I already knew how to fry an egg.) He bragged that of all the Josés, he was the only one who could cook. The rice came out salty and the hojaldres never inflated, but we ate everything anyway. He helped me wash the dishes, and as he was leaving he turned and said, “Lorena, I am going to teach you many things.”
He brought over a tape and a black boom box that looked like it had been sanded down and left out in the rain.
“I hope this works,” he said, plugging it into the outlet that brought electricity illegally from his house to mine. “It’s Tano Mojica. Our vecino.” And he pointed with pursed lips out the door and across the field to the famous singer’s two-story house.
The music was warbled and hard for me to understand.
“What he’s saying is:
Morena, si Usted no me quiere,
A su casa no vuelvo mas nunca.
Morena, si Usted no me adora,
A su casa no vuelvo mas nunca.
(Darling, if you don’t love me,
To your house I will never return.
Darling, if you don’t adore me,
To your house I will never return.)”
During Carnavales in February, Bladi came over as I was cooking chili and I told him to stay to try some. He watched me stir the pot, and he said, “Lorena, I don’t know, but I think . . .”
“What?” I asked.
“I think . . . you would look prettier with earrings.”