Lynne Smith, EIC|
Arteaga was poised at her usual table, all made up and dressed, as she was every
day at nine in the morning. Today though, she was busy writing, seated straight
up because she always said that age is not an excuse to lose your good posture.
The sleeves on her dress were fluttering above the paper; the printed lilacs were
pouring their purple dye all over the table. They were taking over the table,
the writing, the air. Their perfume took over. Occasionally, she paused, gathered
her thoughts, and judged the overall effect, always proud of her penmanship and
ability to communicate precisely in writing what she wanted. She paused again,
scrutinized the paper, almost like talking to it. She caught herself almost thinking
out loud, looked around to make sure nobody was aware of her, of her note, smiled
impishly, like a child caught with her hands in the cookie jar, and continued.
the room, the orderly, fussing with a wheelchair and positioning it so that Mrs.
Bauza, another resident, could face the morning sun under the royal Poinciana
asked, "Dear, what are you writing so thoughtfully?"
a note to someone," there is something different about today, she thought,
as she was inhaling the morning. The walk was going to be long, but she was ready
the orderly figured out that he was missing a resident; a few hours later, Mrs.
Arteaga had already shown up at the Salvation Army. She was tired but exhilarated.
picked out a pair of ragged jeans, a flowery shirt, a wide-brimmed hat and a pair
of beat-up sneakers and asked the attendant if she could wear her new ensemble
out of the store. Even though this was not the first time the attendant had heard
the request, he squirmed a bit and said, "Dont you want to wash it
just one second, it all came back, her perfectly white little hand, no wrinkles,
no blemishes, not a pore out of place on her face; then a gesture like swatting
away a fly put it all back in its place. The reply came fast: "No, I am quite
content with it. I am just going to put my dress and my shoes in a bag, if you
dont mind." The note flawlessly folded in a parchment envelope was
peeking out of the front pocket of the dress.
air hit her again as she left the store. It was crisp; she remembered the perfume
of the lilacs in the dress, now neatly folded in the bag she was holding. She
remembered the first time she wore it, to the winter picnic at the house of a
friend of her son, on Whitehead Street, was her name Connie? Anne? Sheri? She
couldnt remember, and the air had smelled just like today. The tables had
been set in the small, pleasantly untended garden. She had looked across the street
to one of the stately manicured white mansions and thought that everything was
in its place. The crisp air hit her again; she paused and looked at the trashcan
beside her. The thought was alarming, joyous. She felt the bag as if to say goodbye,
her fingers stroking the thin plastic. She smelled the lilacs and their perfume,
and felt the pocket with the note, sighed, and just kept walking.
wanted to sing but, not wanting to attract attention, she walked on silently.
The sun felt good on her skin; she even smiled at the thought of getting browned
by the sun. Her new self didnt care about the warnings of the UV rays anymore;
she kept walking. This, of course, would not have crossed her mind a few years
ago, a few days ago, a few hours ago. Her spine tingled. Her whole body tingled.
The sun browning her skin, the song in her head -it almost got out this time but
she caught it. She focused carefully on what she was doing, her thoughts so different
from a few hours ago. Her feet inside her sneakers, her own sneakers. She smiled.
Why didnt I wear these before? The thought of her black sensible pumps trapped
in the plastic bag with the lilacs gave her great pleasure.
feet brought her to the vicinity of St. Marys. Her new thoughts made her
pull away from the place as if it were condemned, but there was a sudden impulse
that compelled her to the grotto. It was such a warm afternoon. She looked at
it for the first time in all those years. She looked at the grotto again and notice
the edges, felt the edges; she never touched them before. She went around to the
back of it and felt it, finally at ease. She felt the bag for the last time, smelled
the lilacs from the dress. It was ok. On its way inside the bag her hand looked
a bit different, it wasnt perfect anymore, and she liked it better. She
glanced at it for a second and went directly to the pocket, pulled out the note
and placed it in her new flowery pocket. It felt safe there, and she put the bag
on the floor. So far, so good.
she saw a group of people gathering and moving toward the familiar kitchen, she
fell in line with them and soon her turn came. Today there were more people than
usual. The volunteers seemed a bit more stressed. Someone shoved a cardboard tray
with a plate in it into her hands. She welcomed it. The mashed potatoes arrived
first, unannounced, on the right side of the plate. With a quick and clean swipe,
some rice and beans to the left, a piece of chicken to the front, neatly arranged.
She knew the maneuver quite well, had performed it quite a few times herself,
proudly so. Today, it didnt matter which side of the tables she was. When
she raised her eyes, her cheeks almost flushed as she glimpsed Marta Ramirezs
round face. She had forgotten that the wide brim of the hat shadowed her features.
Anyway Martita, as she used to call her with affection, didnt have time
to look at her. There werent enough volunteers, but there were plenty of
people needing a meal. She was very fond of her, of Martita; she knew that she
wasnt happy with her place in this life. She tried so many times to comfort
her pain, but the trappings of her life kept Marta tightly in place. She felt
the pain again in Martitas precious face. She called her Martita because
she never had a daughter, not because she hadnt wanted one; it just hadnt
happened, and she never questioned it. Today she wanted to question it; she started
to raise her hand to touch Martita one more time, to comfort her. She looked at
her hand. She retrieved it, took hold of herself; the fact that Martita might
recognize the hand or the gesture threw her into a panic. She almost screamed,
but the line kept moving, and Martita didnt give any hint of recognition.
She had blended completely with the town.
was all in the headline: "Resident disappears from Seashore Manor."
The police were stymied and Raymonds reaction was quick.
do you mean, you cant find her? Excuse me, how big is this island. How come
you cant track her down?"
separated the phone from his ear and mouthed to Scott his assistant, "Can
you believe this shit?"
no, you dont understand, we are talking about my mother here. That picture
that I gave you was taken only two months ago. She should stick out like a big
sore thumb in this town." He was thinking of her features, her milky white
skin. She always envied his, which was darker. When she met his father, she loved
his wavy jet black hair and his olive skin. Ray wasnt thinking about the
sun changing his mothers skin. That wasnt possible in Mrs. Arteagas
family mind set years ago. To her family, it didnt matter that Mr. Arteaga
was in a better economical position than theirs was; he was darker, that was bad
but she was in love.
will you call back? Ok, Ill wait then." He handed over the cordless
to his assistant.
thoughts were diverted to the task at hand, the planning of the Sixth Annual Black
and Blue Ball at the secluded estate of a gay couple in Von Phister Street. A
few years before, he worked with a catering and fundraising organization called
Bon Fetes. Not because he needed to work; he had money of his own. The owners,
who were starting the business were his good friends; still are, and he was connected
to some important and interesting people. After a few months he decided to stay
because he had always liked to boss people around. He discovered that he enjoyed
the business very much and learned the craft. So well had he learned it, in fact,
that he decided to go out on his own. His contacts, which had grown exponentially
since then, and his reputation for success, were the catalysts of this decision.
He called his company Circus Maximus. It took him almost a year to put the business
together. He took a long time in getting things just the right way. The way his
mother has taught him. He was proud of this fact. He put together a small office
that was tastefully decorated without being overdone with Mission or Shaker style
furniture. "Nothing beats the clean and simple lines of it," he said
always; ecru walls. "Eggshell always bothered me," he assured everyone.
He had some pieces of art, "but not overloaded." His favorite was a
Cuban painting, which he knew his father liked. "Nothing particularly important
about it, maybe the colors," he said the last time he tried to describe it
to anyone. It was some kind of an abstract with several fish that looked like
cucumbers in it. The head of a bald woman with big red lips was in the upper right
side corner. The moon or the sun was in the top center. "I always thought
it was the moon; the moon governing the tides and water movements makes more sense
than the sun," he observed once. The waist and the butt of the woman were
on the left center side. "The same one?" He used to ask, as if trying
to make a joke that never worked. Around the center were lemons, roses or tulips,
and one breast. "Wheres the other?" He quipped, trying the joke
again, unsuccessfully. The teeth of the fish were in the bottom right corner of
the painting. He attempted describing the picture, jokes and all, several times
The affair at the Von Phister Estate was the first fundraising event Circus Maximus
was organizing. The pressure was on and he knew it. "I cant screw up
this one," he said out loud.
had been gone for two weeks now. He couldnt really sort his emotions. Was
he happy? Was he sad? All those years of living together had pre-empted his feelings
toward her. She was close to eighty; she was in good health. I havent talked
to her in such a long time, he thought. There were all those years of politely
living with each other, stealing little secrets and silences from their daily
routine. She had stopped loving dad, but she stuck by him from the time when he
became sick until he died. He had been too young to die. It happened so fast,
and caring for him was her duty. She shielded me, her only son, from that ugliness.
That was her duty too. "Yeah, she loved him once," he said out loud.
did, too, but I couldnt talk to him, tell him what was eating me inside.
I couldnt, did he ever suspect my secret? Probably. I was just a kid, but
I knew about love and beauty and he was so gorgeous. Every time we touched, my
hands, my heart hurt. I could have made
He shook his head, trying to dispel
his thoughts. He thought of Toby his collie of 11 years. The one thing around
the house he wouldnt let the help take care was bathing Toby. And every
time after the bath, the dog shook his head to get dry. He thought of the image
of shaking these unpleasant thoughts, like his dog, and he half-smiled. He thought
about his mother again, all those years, sacrificing their lives so they wouldnt
step on each others toes. His skin was as silky as his mothers, though
tanned as his dads has been. He was well built though not muscular. He didnt
like gyms; he didnt have time. He had her features and his fathers
wavy hair. Don Ramón Arteaga died such a long time ago. After he died, he
left them everything; he repeated himself and figured that he was thinking out
loud. "We were well off."
wasnt lack of love. She knew I loved her. We didnt have to say much
to each other. Thats it. They will find her. How can they lose her on a
two-by-four-mile Island? Nah, he thought looking down at his desk. The paperwork
in front of him was calling loudly; he brushed it aside. The phone rang. He rushed
to it, expecting it to be the lieutenant.
It was the restaurant that usually helped him with some cooking. He especially
liked to serve some of their desserts. With less than two weeks to the ball, they
wanted to cancel the order for dessert. "Im sorry but you promised,
and I have to hold you to that promise. You cant back track now
know that I talk to a lot of people..." He paused, collected his thoughts
for a second, and said: "Im pretty sure you can fix this conflict that
was in mid sentence when he noticed the assistant coming, cordless phone in hand.
"Can you hold on for a minute?" he said and without waiting for an answer
before he hit the red hold button on the machine.
you know what the lieutenant is going to say?" Nod from Scott. "Have
they found her?" Negative sign from the assistant. "I cant talk
to him. He gestured with his hand and pushed the hold button again.
week went by with no sign from the police or Mrs. Arteaga. Raymond had undertaken
other aspects of the Von Phister project. That was the way he liked to work, putting
his fingers into various cooking pots at the same time. He equated himself to
a chef preparing several dishes. He wanted to create as much noise and chaos around
himself as possible, to drown his thoughts, his feelings. He wanted to quiet his
mind; he wanted to silence his heart. They were both screaming at the same time:
They havent found her. Dont you care to know where she is right now?
various pots were all boiling. Sometimes when he was stressed out he felt these
little centers of pain in his chest. It was as if someone were sticking pins through
his skin. He usually stopped whatever he was doing for just a second, put his
thumbs on his temples, pushed hard on them, and it went away.
couldnt control it this time. "Get out of my freaking mind!" He
said out loud, looking down with a gaze that transcended the paperwork, the desk,
and the floor itself. He was going through the earth looking for hell or heaven.
He didnt want to think anymore. He wanted everything to stop and everything
to move in fast forward. Scott moved in his chair noisily to let Raymond know
that he wasnt alone.
Im sorry," Raymond said. "Look, Im not feeling well. Why
dont you go ahead and leave for tonight? Ill catch up on some of this
paperwork and maybe call the lieutenant to see if they have done anything at all."
the usual comforting words, the assistant left. Raymond was left alone in the
week passed. The police were dumbfounded. They couldnt find her. The lieutenant
wasnt giving excuses anymore. This exasperated Raymond. But he didnt
have time to deal with it. "A fine freaking time you have chosen to do this
to me," he shouted to his mother, to the air, or to whoever wanted to hear
him. The assistant, who was getting close to the door, cordless phone in hand,
heard the now-usual outburst. Without flinching, Scott said, "Mr. Arteaga
is unavailable to take your call right now, may I take a message?" He automatically
turned and went to his post.
of Rays workers knew about his imperious attitude and behavior. Some of
them even liked them. His behavior had turned sour in the last month. His frustration
at the police ineffectiveness about his mothers case and the pressure that
he had put himself under were too much to handle. Still, amidst all the chaos,
the preparations for the ball had gone forward. Some edges were smoothed, some
needed work. For the sake of the business, he was willing to do it.
night before the ball, the search for Mrs. Arteaga was going to enter its second
month. After his usual afternoon shouting match with whoever was chosen by the
police lieutenant to endure the diatribe, Raymond had two piles of papers in front
of him. The left one was a pile of police reports and notes on the search. The
attorneys papers and bills regarding the lawsuit against Seashore Manor
and the city were also in that pile. The right pile was the paperwork for the
ball, almost finished.
wasnt feeling well, really; the fish started swimming out of the painting,
their colors spilling all over the place as their scales fell on the Italian,
light colored, tiles. The eye of the bald orange woman looked at him ominously
from the top right corner of the picture, like he was a Martian or an apparition.
She seemed to be running away into that corner, her big red lips quivering with
fright. He felt the first pin go through his chest, and then next, and the next.
He stopped what he was doing, put his hand on his temples, pushed hard as he tried
to sooth his own pain, but the red-lipped womans presence was all-engrossing,
the problem demanded attention and action ¿Sabes dónde ella está?
"Do you know where she is?" She said, over and over. He started to reach
out for the phone to call the lieutenant. As he was extending his hand darkness
took over the room.
it turned out, he wasnt able to finish the preparations for the ball. He
was found the next morning at his desk, slumped over his notes and numbers for
the party. A massive aneurysm had inconveniently interrupted his work. One hand
was resting on his lap, palm up, as if he had tried to undo his silk tie or maybe
the buttons on the shirt. The other was on top of the desk. The movement of the
arm was clear. It had glided across the papers, knocked out the ink well for his
Montblanc pen. His mother has always told him that good penmanship and a good
pen are the accouterments of a gentleman. The ink had run opposite to the hand
movement, had flowed towards his head. It had fussed with Raymonds dark
wavy hair, giving it the highlights of the blue that would melt the most ice-steeled
look of any woman, or man for that matter, around. But the ink had run under his
hair to the side of his face, blemishing that extraordinary olive silky skin his
mother had envied so much. It also created a great deal of trouble for the funeral
parlors cosmetician. She managed to hide the stain as best as she could.
gay paper published a few lines accompanied by a picture that Ray didnt
like in its next issue:
Raymond Arteaga Zúñiga, a very quiet soul according to all who knew
him, shunned the spotlight. He was the power behind the throne of Key West charity
society. After working for a few years at Bon Fetes where every event that he
touched was blessed, he started his own company, Circus Maximus.
was as much as anybody knew, and knows, about him. If you got him even to consider
the subject of his persona, he would brush it off with the usual "Im
a very small fish in a very small pond" remark. He neither denied nor admitted
his beginnings in this town. He always laughed when the question arose and said
that maybe he was from Charlottesville -- it sounded classier to him than the
hospital on Stock Island -- he wasnt sure. !!!
had spent a lot of money on Seashore Manor, an assisted care facility for the
elderly, until his mother disappeared from it without trace.
I have thought
long about this letter. I dont want to start off on the wrong foot. Lately,
we have not been speaking to each other. We have not been doing anything at all.
I guess that if I disappear you will feel better. There is nothing wrong with
you; there is nothing wrong with me. Maybe we have been together for a long time
and you still have not figured out that like you, I was once a very sheltered
individual. Position and money controlled my life. I want to change this. There
is somenting inside me that compels me to go through with my plans. I have to
figure it out on my own without that shelter that has become my shroud. Am I scared
about changing my life so radically at my age? No. You are still young. Your father
would have been so proud of what you have done with your life. But I have the
feeling that when you grow as old as I am now, you will feel the same burden.
Were so much alike. You are part of my past now, my bid is done. Go now;
let me be with my future.
I have thought about what others might think. Oh, you little devil you,
you were the one who told me not to think about what others might think,
but you are the one who does. You were the one who told me to live the moment
because it might fade way
I am going to take your word for it. You warned
me about this, you warned me about that, you have sanitized your life so well
that I dont fit in it anymore. Thinking about it, maybe I dont want
to fit in it anymore.
now have something to give. I have recently discovered that, selfishly, I always
wanted what was yours. But in the last few days I have discovered that it wasnt
yours either. I want what isnt mine. I have always had an excuse to keep
you and to love you. And now, I dont need one to give you up and to keep
Arteaga took the letter out of her pocket. She hadnt read it since the day
she wrote it. She had been so busy with her new life that some days she forgot
it. She folded the paper carefully and searched the other pocket in her blouse,
taking out a small picture of a child, the one that was no longer hers. She ironed
it out on the opposite side so her hand wouldnt touch the glossy side. She
kissed the picture and gingerly put it on top of the letter, and placed them both
with the utmost care in a parchment envelope that she had gotten from the post
office, and tossed the original one out. It was the most beautiful envelope she
could manage at this point in her life. Not having everything at the tip of her
fingers felt good. It makes everything precious. Like the fake cheap parchment
that the post office uses for its stamps envelopes.
knew I would treasure something like that, she said to herself. She looked around
and focused on her cart.
I have a cart now, and I stole it from Kmart. Does that makes me a felon? The
question popped up in her mind out of nowhere. She hadnt felt this childish
in a while. Her laugh made others aware of her. She didnt like that, so
she turned inwards again. Remember, never to attract attention to yourself, she
told herself, making sure that the notation that she made the morning she disappeared,
hadnt been and wouldnt be forgotten. She looked around again, consciously
following the task that she sidetracked a few minutes ago. She took a big banana
leaf she had gotten off the curb. A building was being demolished for a parking
lot, so all the shrubbery was laid on the sidewalk. Lovingly, she tied the only
ribbon she possessed around it, an almost clean purple one she had dug out of
the garbage in the store behind the Carters family compound on Southard
Street. She sighed in relief, knowing that her most treasured possession was safe
for now. She stuffed it between her newspapers. Who would think about looking
among newsprint? she thought.
put the whole bundle under her head, waved goodnight to a couple of passers-by,
snuggled up, and settled in for the night.
homeless man came around and respectfully asked her if she had any food. They
all knew who she was. They called her Siña María, "siña"
short for the old Spanish title Señora, lady of the house; if they only
knew she had been the lady of a house once. They all respected her. There was
a wall of respect around her. None of the homeless, whom she fed out of her cart
with whatever she could get her hands on, ever mistreated her. Not the drunks;
she scolded them, softly. Not the prostitutes whom she befriended by hearing their
stories patiently and giving the best advice she could. Not even the slow ones
for whom she had a warm spot in her heart. Even the one that they all called Juan
Diego. Siña María took special care of him. Nobody knew how old he
was; he just acted like a teen. The police considered him harmless and steered
him away from trouble when they could. When the police had to intervene with Juan
Diego, they took him to their facilities in Stock Island, but they never booked
him. Once the officers figured out that this old lady was taking the load off
their shoulders, they were relieved and made sure of her and Juan Diegos
safety. If anybody had looked at the way she treated him, they would have thought
she had known him since he was born. But they all knew who she was. She was Siña
mhijo no me queda na coge este peso y vete a La Dichosa en la calle
White, Don Paco te dará un café." There was no translation needed.
He understood perfectly that she was giving him the only dollar she had to go
to White Street to La Dichosa bakery where don Paco will give him some café
con leche, and maybe some bread if he mentioned that Siña María sent
him. But that was the part of the deal that she knew nothing about. They all knew
that a penny given to them by Siña María wasnt going to be spent
in booze or drugs. Some of them did it anyway, the ones that didnt know,
the ones that she would take special care of, until they figured it out. She always
took care of everybody and someone always watched over her.
funeral was one of the citys best shows in years. Not since the Archers
(you know, the family that has the school, the firehouse, the baseball park, and
the street near a major avenue all named for them) had the town so completely
shut down to mourn, to sightsee and to gawk. It was phenomenal. He was such a
big figure in the community. Yet, he never wanted to be.
Harvey, mayor emeritus, not sure whether Ray was born in the island or whether
she had "conched" him before, tried to make him an honorary conch at
the wake. Ray wouldnt have cared one way or the other. The "Colorful
Commish" took pictures of himself beside the coffin to be placed in his next
article in "Paradise," that insert that they put in the local paper
on Thursdays. Ray wouldnt care for that either. The "Blue Paper"
(not that shade of blue!) wrote an article about him. He wouldnt care for
it either but might enjoy the fact that its editor, who didnt know who Ray
really was but felt that he had to write something; misquoted him, and had his
age and last name wrong. Even the editor of Solares Hill wrote an editorial about
him. Ray didnt know this editor either, nor he cared about been editorialized.
city commissioners met that week. Commissioner Spear, lacking the ammo to shock
and wake Commissioner Napps out of her stupor, proposed naming the corner of Boulevard
and First Street for Raymond Arteaga Zúñiga. It was such a prominent
corner. The debate became spirited. At the end they agreed on principle and decided
to revisit the issue in the next meeting for a final vote. And there was Mr. Swift.
Swift was the founder and owner of Sight Tours of America. Many times he had said;
"we are not in the business of history; we are in the entertainment business."
It was an opportunity too good to pass. He wanted to show what he called his innovative
leadership. Because history was as malleable as clay, he made the drivers of the
trolleys and the conch trains change their routes and their speeches-to-be-dispensed-to-the-tourists
to accommodate the new comer exhibit. For lack of what to say, Mr. Swift cited
Rays lineage, tracing it to the Spanish origins of the Island. This action
had re-written what Rays father tried so hard to erase- the "mancha
de plátano" that plantain stain that denotes the Hispanic origins of
the family by giving his son a gringos name and baptizing him at St. Pauls
Episcopal Church. This was done against his wifes open and outspoken disapproval.
Thus, swiftly, Ray became part of the founding fathers of the island. He wasnt
remotely related to the founding Indians and he probably wouldnt have cared
crowd was packing into St. Pauls Church, spilling into the street. Someone
saw an old lady pushing a cart among the crowd. She had become a "well-unknown."
Everybody recognized her but no one knew much about her. Some knew that she loaded
up her shopping cart at the soup kitchen in St. Marys and distributed meals
to the homeless and the drunks on her way around the island. She was the only
one not taking part in the show. It was part of her route. She stopped for a brief
moment and figured out that it was a funeral. She didnt know whose it was
but, as it was her custom, she mumbled in Spanish, "Dios te haya cogido confesao."
The old ladies in the corner of Eaton and Duval knew what she said, "I hope
that you were in the grace of God when death came." And at the same time
they all crossed themselves, an old Catholic custom. She pushed her cart forward
making sure she wasnt trampling anybody.
next few days the papers were full of it, the opulent funeral and the details,
or lack of them for that matter, of the will of Raymond Arteaga Zúñiga,
read a few days later. Siña María kept her route and chores for one
more month, pushed her shopping cart around the island feeding people and talking
to anybody who wanted to listen to her. She was found dead a few days after the
commissioners had agreed to name the corner of First Street and the Boulevard
of papers could agree on her story, but all of them tried. Even Peter Anderson,
the Prime Minister of the Conch Republic, who was retiring as a writer for the
local newspaper, gave her a few paragraphs in his farewell column that week. Of
course, he didnt know who she was, but he had heard of her deeds. !!!
María, one of those well-known colorful characters of Key West, was found
dead on her favorite corner, Ramón Arteagas Blvd, and First Street.
The police interviewed a few of the homeless people but received no leads. Everyone
spoke highly of her, and none could think of anybody that wanted to harm Siña
María. One of the homeless, the one that they call Juan Diego, testified
that Siña María was once a rich and very nice lady who helped his
family. The police dismissed this testimony on account of Juan Diegos mental
determined there was no foul play. After the preliminary investigation was finished,
the body was moved to the Alvaro-Obregón Funeral Home, which donated its
are not discussing the contents of her shopping cart. The chief of the police
is withholding this information pending an inquiry about a letter found in the
cart addressed to Raymond Arteaga Zúñiga.