I rolled my eyes at him and concentrated on the chili. He reached over and pushed my hair back from my ear so he could see it better, then squinted at me for a few moments.
“Yes,” he said. “You would look much prettier with earrings.”
“Well I don’t have pierced ears, so too bad,” I told him. “I guess I’ll never be pretty.” I spooned some chili into two bowls and brought them over to the table. He tasted his, and told me it was good. We ate in silence for a while, and then he started gazing at me.
“What?” I asked him. “Why are you looking at me like that?”
“Can’t I look at you?” he asked.
“But why are you looking at me así? Are you drunk?” Many of the men and boys used Carnavales as a 4-day drinking binge, so I did think, and still do think, that he was drunk that day. Even though he insisted he wasn’t.
“I just can’t stop looking at your eyes. They really grab my attention,” he said.
I made a face.
“Why don’t you let me compliment you?” he was speaking softly now. “If I complimented you in English would you like it? If I said, ‘You beautiful’? If I said, ‘Hello, baby, I love you’?”
“No, no,” I said.
“If I were a gringo?”
“I already have a boyfriend. Tú lo sabes.”
“Then why didn’t he come here with you?”
“Because he’s studying in the University.”
“So if I were rich?”
“No, it’s nothing like that.”
“If I were estudiado?”
“Then what? What do I have to do?”
“Nothing. There is nothing you can do.”
“¿Nada nada nada?”
“I’m your amiga and that’s it.”
“I’m your amiga,” he mimicked, in a high-pitched American accent. “That’s it.”
I paid him the courtesy of not looking at him. I stood up to clear away the dishes. Suddenly my guitar notebook flew off the table, and I turned to see the songs I had collected and organized over five years scattered all across the floor. He mumbled something as he was leaving, something that sounded like, “Se me cayó.”
“Next time you come over we can pretend this never happened,” I said brightly.
But he never came over again.
The third son was known as Chengito, and he was seventeen when I met him. He wore his hair longer than the others and used a lot more Friendly Fresh hair gel. He had a mustache that came and went.
Like many adolescent boys in Panama, Chengito liked to listen to reggae romántica. He and his friends would gather all the extension cords they could find and come to my house to use my outlet, and connect the cords in a chain all the way to the acacia trees and the hammocks made of fishing net. There, they would plug in the old, abused tape player and listen to Chengito’s tape, sitting in the hammocks or leaning against the trees until the ants started biting. The melodies wavered at maximum volume, the Caribbean beat bounced in and out of tempo, and a tone-deaf male falsetto whined and crooned as Chengito and his friends sang along to every word. They were a chorus of mournful, wounded puppies in sports jerseys, crouched under the trees outside my house.
Chengito was the one to whom Rufa and Yody were referring when they said, “the one who helped you kill the snake.” He didn’t help me kill it so much as just kill it himself, once I found it. It was lying under the cardboard cover to my box of Californian Red Worms, the composting experiment that I had been neglecting for several weeks. When I lifted the cardboard, I saw snuggled among the petrified chunks of horse manure a skinny red and black snake. Was it the poisonous red and black, or the red and black that only mimicked the poisonous one? I dropped the cover and ran next door, where I ran whenever I needed help, because someone was always around. This time, Chengito was home by himself, swinging in the indoor hammock and watching a novela on the black and white TV.
“Buenas,” I said. “Hay una culebra.”
He sprang up and grabbed his machete, and followed me over to the palm-thatched back part of my house.
“Under the cardboard,” I said. “Be careful!”
He held his machete ready in one hand as he lifted the cover with the other, slowly, slowly, until the cover was all the way off but there was no snake.
“It was just there a minute ago,” I mumbled.
Chengito prowled around the worm box and looked up and down the palm-thatched walls, not saying a word, but searching carefully, walking softly. No snake anywhere.
“I guess it went away,” I said. “Sorry to bother you.”
He went back to his novela, and I uneasily took another look around, but found no trace of the snake. Finally satisfied that it had slithered far away, I went inside the regular part of my house. I walked over to my food shelf to get some crackers. A rustling amid the plastic bags below the shelf caught my attention, and I looked down to see the snake wiggling around on the floor. Very quietly, I walked backwards. When I reached the doorway I turned and ran to the house next door, calling for Chengito as I ran.
He was ready with his machete. I led him into the house and this time the snake was still there, still amid the plastic bags on the floor under the shelf. Chengito crouched down and, with one quick and confident motion, smashed the snake’s head with the side of the machete. He then used the blade to lift the snake, now utterly limp, and carry it out.
“What are you going to do with it?” I asked.
“Throw it away,” he said.
And he walked into the fields behind the house to get rid of it.