A Writer Writes

Los 5 José

by Lauren Fitzgerald (Panama 2003–05)

    IN THE HOUSE NEXT DOOR there were five men, all named José Concepción. The first time I visited them, they offered me a pink plastic chair and took turns shaking my hand and introducing themselves. I expected them to tell me their apodos, their nicknames, how one might differentiate among them, but they never did. They left me to figure that out on my own. Their mother Rufina and sister Yaurisbeth were of little help, only referring to them as mi esposo, mijo, mi papá, or mi hermano. If I asked which son, or which brother, they said el grande or el chiquito or “the one who helped you kill the snake.” So I learned their apodos from the guys who came hollering from the road, on bicycles, or in packs, or stumbling drunk on a Sunday. They would call out a name I didn’t recognize, and I would scramble to my doorway and watch to see which one emerged. I recorded their nicknames on a page in my journal, but I hardly ever used them. I wasn’t sure if I was meant to.

    The father was called Chengo. I went to see him with his sister-in-law, Sara, because she told me he had a house to rent, and I needed a place to live. (Although Sara was assigned by the Peace Corps to be my community guide, she only introduced me to members of her family.) We walked next door and took a look around the wood and clay house; there were droppings and spider webs, and it was empty and very dark except for one naked light bulb hanging from the ceiling. I said I would like to rent it. After a long, tedious wait, during which Sara nagged Chengo to answer and Chengo stared catatonically at his own hands, he offered me the house for twenty dollars a month, plus thirty to fix it up initially. When I moved in, there was a table for my stove, a table to eat at, and three more tables to stack like shelves. There was a bookshelf with the word biblioteca written on it in black magic marker, and there was a well-crafted bed. There were also decorations on the wall for me. Graduation photos of one of their cousins, a string of pink plastic rosary beads hanging on a nail, and four paper maché cherries with letters spelling out L-O-V-E.
         For over a year, I shared the water tap, latrine, and bathing area with the 5 Josés and Yaurisbeth and Rufina (whom I learned to call Yody and Rufa.) I borrowed their broom and mop instead of buying my own, and used their slab of wood and brush for washing my clothes. I gave my rent money to Chengo for the first few months, but his silence and refusal to look me in the eye in those moments made me decide to simply leave it in an envelope on top of their refrigerator.
         The first time I tried to call Chengo by his nickname, I said chango, which, from everyone’s reactions, I gathered was some kind of orangutan who liked to play tricks on people. I apologized, and just called him José from then on. He was well known in surrounding communities, and everyone said he was buena gente. He was the president of the Fisherman’s Club, and also of the Club de Hornato, which was responsible for cutting the grass on the soccer field. For work, he dug drainage ditches on a sugarcane plantation. He left every morning on his bicycle just as the sun was rising, with the lonche that Rufa had made for him at 5 AM swinging from the handlebars in a round orange cooler.

    The eldest son went by Alvenis, which was his middle name. He was 22 when I met him, quiet, serious, and single — and on crutches. In all the time that I lived there, we had only one conversation, and I knew of only two things that happened to him.
         I learned of the first thing during that one conversation that occurred one evening sitting at my table, during my first week in the community, when I was tired and my Spanish was still más o menos. He sat with me in silence, probably, I thought, sent by his father to keep me company, as Chengo tended to either send one of his children or come over himself every evening after dinner. After much hand wringing and focusing on various points around the room to avoid looking at me, he suddenly launched into a long and excited tale about the legendary Coibita soccer team. I concentrated as hard as I could and understood that the team was undefeated for several seasons, and that he was an integral part of its success. Every time he related a happy memory, his voice rose and then fell as he patted his wrapped leg and said, “Not anymore.” He told of traveling all around the province for games, and of taking home trophies, and of beer drinking and fighting in cantinas with rival teams. He spoke very fast, and without looking at me, so when I started to glaze over, my capacity for Spanish comprehension exhausted for the day, he failed to notice, and continued his story for what had to be more than an hour before abruptly saying, “Hasta mañana,” and walking out.
         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.”

         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.

    The youngest José was twelve. He was skinny and dark with a great big smile exposing rows of bright white teeth. In Spanish, the suffix –in is added to boys’ names when they are young, or to differentiate them from an older family member with the same name. Thus, the youngest José was called Joseín.
         Nobody knows who started it, and no one remembers quite when, but at some point Joseín slipped into Hussein. Then Hussein became Sadaam. So when the neighborhood boys came around yelling, “Sadaam!” from their bicycles, “Ven acá!” they were really looking for the good-natured, unassuming boy who could make a kite from a cartucho and peel an orange so the peel remained in one piece.
         The barrel of water that we all used for bathing was enclosed by three palm-thatched walls that barely came up to my armpits. The open side faced the fields. There was once a thin, gauzy tablecloth hanging over the opening like a curtain, but the wind and rain and 5 men named José inflicted so much wear on the fabric that it was reduced to threads. I was bathing behind this ghost of a curtain when I heard Rufa yell for Sadaam to go cut a basketful of corn for chicheme. If Sadaam hadn’t been such an obedient child, if he had stalled or refused to go, or if Rufa had sent Chengito instead, I might have had time to wash the shampoo out of my hair and cover up with the towel I had hanging on a tree branch nearby, but Sadaam complied at once with his mother’s request and in an instant appeared, sliding under the barbed wire fence with his basket and machete.
         I stood still. Sadaam walked down a row of corn a few yards away from me and cut several ears off their stalks. I was afraid of making the slightest noise because he was close enough to hear and turn in my direction. My nakedness itself was loud, and my racing pulse was deafening. I crouched down and covered as much of myself as I could. He whistled as he filled his basket. I trembled. My calf muscles burned from squatting. I noticed clumps of my hair on the floor. I saw the boys’ shaving mirror tucked into the palm wall, a triangular shard of glass, and it glowed pink with the reflection of my flesh. I tried to breathe quietly. He was whistling a song I recognized from the reggae romántica tape.
         “¡Joseín! Hurry up!” called Rufa from the house.
                    “¡Ya voy!” he yelled.
         He lifted his basket and slung it over his chest. I breathed a sigh of relief that was just loud enough to make him swing his head around, which terrified me so much that I closed my eyes. When I opened them, he was gone.

    PEOPLE LIKED TO COMPARE the five Josés. In height order, from tallest to shortest, they were Chengito, Alvenis, Bladi, Chengo, and Sadaam. From darkest to lightest they were Sadaam, Bladi, Chengo, Alvenis, Chengito. And the most likely to succeed, that is, to become un profesional, was Sadaam, because he was still in school and still had time to make something of himself. Bladi could have been somebody, but he had failed English.
         “If only Lorena had come sooner,” said his mother, “Bladi could have gone to college.”
         Rufa told me what each José liked and didn’t like to eat (Bladi ate everything, and Sadaam was the pickiest), and all of their medical problems, like Chengo’s high blood pressure and Alvenis’ propensity to injure himself, which dated back to his birth. Yody told me their embarrassing secrets, like how Chengito kept a picture of a centerfold from the daily Critica in a book under his bed, and how Bladi wore a bandana over his face when he first met me in order to hide the horrible cold sore on his lip. Rufa told me that Chengo hit her once, when they were first starting out together, and she said, “I’m your wife, not your niña,” and he never did it again. One morning when I was up early, I saw Chengo pedal off on his bicycle, and heard Rufa’s voice cry out over the dawn, “¡Chengoooooooo!” He stopped and turned around, and she cried, “¡Tu pastilla!” He hurried back home to take his blood pressure pill, then pedaled off once more into the sunrise. 
         When I moved away, I left some things behind that I didn’t want to take with me. I left my machete with its brown leather sheath, and a pair of old running sneakers. I left some clothes, among them a stained orange T-shirt I had worn since the eighth grade. And I left a miniature pink gift bag with kittens on it that had come full of candy in a care package from my mother. As the bus waited, Rufa and Yody hugged me and cried. Chengo hugged me but didn’t cry. The other Josés stood around with their hands in their pockets, avoiding my eyes, until I looked back from the window of the bus and they waved. Not long after, I came back to visit and saw that the family had moved back into my house. The door was open and the black and white TV was on inside. Rufa was frying fish. Yody was washing clothes. Sadaam was wearing my sneakers. Chengito had on my shirt. And the little kitten gift bag was hanging on the wall, right next to the photos from their cousin’s graduation. 

    Lauren Fitzgerald graduated from the University Professors program at Boston University in 2003. She then worked for two years as an environmental conservation volunteer in rural Panama. Originally from Connecticut, she now lives in Portland, Oregon, and is currently writing a book of short stories that take place in Panama.