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Heathens

by Alden Jones

(excerpt)

Molly, muñeca, my doll. I watch you flirting with Rudolfo, just across the road, and you pronounce his name the gringo way: Rude-all-foe. I’ve sent you over to the pulpería to buy me a gingerale but it was only an excuse to get you over to where Rudolfo was, and you knew it. I simply wanted to observe. You come back without my gingerale, all taken over with laughter because you don’t speak any Spanish, and he doesn’t speak any English, and all you’ve done is stand there smiling at each other like idiots. “He has lice,” I tell you. “Oh my God,” you say, face broken, and start raking your fingers through your hair. Rudolfo doesn’t have lice but for some reason you believe everything I say. Rudolfo’s over at the pulpería still periodically pursing his lips in your direction, but now you see him as nothing more than the peasant you first considered him to be.

“Do they all have lice?” you ask me.

“A lot of them do.”

“Have you gotten it yet?” You look under your nails for bugs.

“No, I keep my hair pulled back and I don’t get too close to them.” Maybe this will keep you from picking up the kids. Maybe you’ll tell the other gringos and they’ll all keep their distance now.

“I got lice one year at camp,” you say. “It was awful. My mother made me cut off all my hair.” Those golden locks. Slippery as silk from corn, or from the bowels of worms.

~

You’ve been here for a week now, living with the other gringos in the minister’s house. I don’t know why you came here; I don’t ask. I’m the one you all come running to for the answers, the gringa who actually, God forbid, lives here. You and the other girls came wearing long skirts and long sleeves and carrying Café Rica tote bags on your arms, designer coffee to bring home as a souvenir. One of the boys wore a t-shirt that said, “I’m so glad I voted for Bush!” I saw you as I was on my way to school, a clot of gringos in the middle of the road, as if you’d just descended from a tour bus in order to see some monument. But there’s no monument here, only a road, a school, a pulperÌa that serves Coca-Cola out of plastic bags. And of course a church, though the wrong kind for you. Your kind has no official house; the evangelicos here—their converts multiplying by the month—carry their cults from house to house each week, something certain Americans, your Americans, would like to see rectified.

I kept going, walking to school, hoping that none of you would see me. But you, Molly, saw me and thought I was a friend. Pale skin, blond hair, a dress from the bargain rack of Filene’s Basement—all things you recognized. You ran over and stuck out your hand and when you withdrew it, it went to the gold cross around your neck.

“I hope you don’t wear that while you’re in San José,” I told you.

“Why not?” you asked.

“It’ll get ripped right off your neck. By the chapulines.”

That, at least, was true. The chapulines rip gold necklaces off of people’s necks all the time, especially gringo necks. Some of the facts I pass to you are actually useful. And when you come running to me for knowledge, I give it to you. Don’t flush your toilet paper, it will clog the plumbing. Put it in the waste basket. Rice and beans are good for you and you will offend your hosts if you refuse it. Don’t flirt too much with the boys or you’ll be sorry.

~

As soon as I tell Jorge about you, he’s interested. “Another gringa in town? In our humble little town?”

He picks up the end of my braid and fondles it. I squirm in the heat. The sweat has dampened my dress and my legs seem glued to the vinyl couch.

“A whole lot of grin gas. But they’re all Evangelical.”

“Oh,” he says. He drops my braid, then picks it back up off my shoulder and yanks it hard.

“Ow, cabrón,” I say. He picks up my hand, kisses it, and afterwards, smiles.

Jorge’s mother comes over from the kitchen and sets down a plate of Bredy with thick slabs of white, salty cheese. I pick at the corner of one piece of bread to be polite. I’m more interested in the coffee she brings on her next trip—it’s purest black and as I swallow that first, bitter sip, the taste of it erases the smell of Jorge’s house from the back of my throat.

Jorge’s house always has this smell, the stench of mold and urine. I imagine the way your nose would wrinkle the moment you stepped through the door, Molly. You wouldn’t think of stopping yourself.

I drink the coffee and in the background I hear you and your friends start to sing. “Jesus loves me this I know . . .” You sing in English.

“That’s them,” I tell Jorge and his mother. They look interested, but they can’t understand the words you are singing. “For the Bible tells me so . . .”

“Oh, how pretty,” Jorge’s mother says. Then, “Teacher, do you like beef stew?”

“Ah, yes,” I say, careful not to be too enthusiastic, because I don’t want her to serve me any. Jorge’s mother, she’s like that. It’s not what you’re used to. No one makes it easy for you to say no.

“VES, Jorge?” she says, throwing up her arms. “Teacher likes beef stew! Listen, Teacher, I make beef stew for Jorge and he refuses to eat it. He says he doesn’t like it. But it’s good, right Teacher? Don’t you see, Jorge?”

“At my house,” I say, helping her to make her point, “it’s nothing but rice and beans, rice and beans, rice and beans.” I smile at Jorge. He scowls. He doesn’t like me siding with his mother, so he’ll punish me for it, give me the silent treatment for awhile. As if that will upset me like it upsets other girls.

“SEE? JORGE?” Jorge’s mother grunts loudly in annoyance, then mutters something to herself. She goes back to the stove to stir something. Beef stew, I presume.

~

Before I leave, Jorge stops scowling long enough to tell me he wants to meet you. He hasn’t laid eyes on you yet, so it has nothing to do with your beauty; he’s trying to piss me off, that’s the only reason he requests this introduction. He thinks he can make me jealous. Jorge hasn’t sensed my claustrophobia, the way I start to fidget when he suggests we go camp out in Jacó, just the two of us in a tent—he doesn’t know I’m glad he’ll have you to distract him from me.

I bring him with me the next day to the church you’re building. It’s down the road from Cristián’s house, at the very end, past the two new cement houses and the ten dilapidated shacks, the insides of which you will probably never see. Here’s what’s inside: living rooms, bedrooms, kitchens, bathrooms; families, churches, photographs. Not so different from your house, and maybe even cleaner. Have you seen the way the women wax their floors? They are obsessed.

When Jorge sees you, he’s impressed. You are prettier than I am. You know it, Molly. I’m not sad about that either; more catcalls for you, less for me. There is a balance in this town. Now you can be the beauty queen, and I’ll just be the Teacher. For that, I am grateful.

I beckon. I introduce you to him and him to you, a Spanish accent on his name, an English one on yours. Jorge puts on his suave act and I try not to laugh. Then I leave the two of you together. I’m not about to hang around and translate for you, and besides, I think it will be interesting to see what happens when you try to communicate in your high school Spanish, which is atrocious, and Jorge’s high school English, which is merely bad.

I turn to watch as I walk away and you seem to be doing just fine. Your chin is bending toward your shoulder already. He’s staring at your hair. As yellow as the sun and twice as bright. Hard to look away from.

~

Forty minutes later you run to the house where I live, and instead of knocking you shout “Upe!” You’ve learned! I’m so proud of you, Molly, that I feel the glow of pride come over me as I walk to the door. I feel like I do when one of my third-graders picks up an English word I haven’t taught yet, like when Andrés told me, “Teacher, I love you.”

Anita’s out of the house so we don’t have to go through introductions, coffee, crackers, and polite chatter. I let you in and your smile is so big I notice for the first time how absolutely straight and small your teeth are.

“Oh my God, oh my God, oh my God,” you say, the speed of your words reminding me how young you are: seventeen.

“Taking the Lord’s name in vain?” I tease, but I’m actually surprised.

Your lips pucker. A dimple appears, deep in your cheek. “I’m not like that, Lana. I’m not all religious; I just wanted a vacation and my church was going to Costa Rica.”

“And you heard it was beautiful?” You tell me yes, that’s what you had heard. That’s what people hear in the States, that Costa Rica is beautiful, and safe.

“So, do you think it’s beautiful here?” I ask, and you think for a second.

“Sort of.” Your eyes wander; you pick up a piece of hair and begin to twirl it around a finger. “I guess it’s not what I expected.” I ask you what you mean, I’m truly curious. A year before, when I’d arrived, it hadn’t been what I expected either. You say you expected the poverty and all, but why don’t they try to make things just a little prettier? Like, why do they have to throw all their trash on the street? And would it kill them to paint their houses, so they’re not all that same putty nothing color?

“Maybe they want to spend their money on something other than paint,” I suggest, but to be honest, I’ve sometimes wondered the same things. A little color wouldn’t hurt this town. And if I see a student throw a candy wrapper on the ground, I explode. I make the kid pick it up and put it in the trash can.

“Like food?” you ask, with pity in your eyes.

“No, like VCRs and coffee makers and washing machines.” I think about explaining this further, but can’t muster the effort, and so I go back to your subject. “So, you like Jorge?”

“He is so cute, Lana. He wants to take me to the Mirador in Juan Viñas.”
Jorge used to take me there; he would drink gingerale, I would drink Pilsen beer. “Are you going to go?”

“I’ll have to see what Ursula says.” Ursula is your monitor. You probably had to get permission from her to go as far as my house. She watches all of you, but mostly the girls, and especially you. She can smell it on you, Molly, just like I can. That dangerous curiosity. And that’s why Ursula and I are looking out for you.

~

You might wonder, then: If I seem to dislike you so much, why would I want to look out for you?

I would like to address this question in your presence, but I can’t. If you can look at me and think I am your friend, how can I explain to you that you are the enemy? How can you miss it, though, Molly—the look in my eyes when you say you feel sorry for the people here because they kill their own chickens? Your failed attempts at Spanish, and the way you roll your eyes, because you know you don’t have to learn it? And the way you flaunt your money, Molly. It’s simply obscene, taking cabs with your friends to Turrialba, when you could take the bus like everyone else.

It’s your church, your mission, your reason for being here, that bothers me more. You don’t question the fact that your church bribes people into converting, actually pays them money. You don’t see the irony when you come to my school, handing out bracelets and Superballs and stickers that say, “I love Jesus,” in English, to the kids that don’t know what that means, telling them they’re gifts from God. That’s how American you are—you express your faith materially.

I’m here to give you one last chance, Molly. You’re young enough for me to forgive you because I know you can change. I smell you Molly, I know you want more than what was spoon-fed to you. I see the way you look at the boys, the way you want to flirt with them. I know what you want from them, even if you don’t. When I hear those hymns floating towards me in the schoolyard, your voice stands out, I hear it and I think: That’s Molly. You are different from them, the ones who look at me with such shock when I tell them, “As far as I can see it, Jesus doesn’t love me. Jesus doesn’t even know me.”

You’re the only one who looks at me with eyes that sparkle.

But I can’t just tell you this. If I am going to get you before you’re gone, I can’t just reach into the water and pull you out—you’ll swim away. I have to bait you right, and I have to wait. This is all okay. I’ve learned, since I’ve been in Costa Rica, how to be very, very patient.

~

Your monitor won’t let you go to the Mirador with Jorge, so I go with him instead. He sits over his gingerale and sulks.

I sip at my Pilsen and say, “Don’t worry, Jorge. We’ll find a way.”

He’s taken off his school uniform and changed into jeans and a t-shirt. When I first met him, he lied to me and told me he was twenty. I wondered why he was still in high school, but a lot of kids repeat grades. I worried that he wasn’t very smart. But his little sister is one of my students, and she told me his real age: eighteen.

He dug his own hole with that one. You should never tell lies that are that easy to expose. Tico boys do it all the time, they lie without consequences. But Jorge learned a lesson; I told him that because he lied to me, I didn’t trust him anymore.

“You know why I did it, Lana,” he said, looking slightly outraged. “I knew you wouldn’t go out with me if you knew I was only eighteen.”

I told him, “I might have gone out with you if you were an eighteen-year-old who wasn’t a LIAR.”

They lie, Molly, even the good ones. They will lie to you and not even care if you know they are lying. The only way to punish them for this is to stand your ground.

I’ve stood my ground, but Jorge hasn’t given up. He finishes his gingerale, I finish my beer, and Jorge motions to the waiter for another round. He repeats for the tenth time today: “You know, Lana, that if you would be my girlfriend, I wouldn’t be interested in Molly.”

For the tenth time I say, “Salado.” If nothing else, Jorge’s constant hounding gives me ample opportunity to use this, my favorite tico expression. Too bad for you. The other one I like is “suave,” which means stop or slow down. If you ever took the bus, you’d hear that, Molly, and you’d smile like me at the cleverness of such a small, solitary word.

Jorge shrugs. “I’ll keep trying, Lana.”

“Okay,” I say. “Go ahead, Jorge; keep trying. I guess you’re not too concerned about how that would look, La Teacher going out with a high school boy.”

For a second he looks perturbed, and he says, “Lana, why are you talking paja. You’re not that much older than I am, and anyway, I like mature women.” It’s always about him, see.

“So why do you like Molly? She’s younger than you are, Jorge. She acts even younger than she is.”

Jorge smiles at me brazenly. “She has something. Un toque. I don’t know what it is.”

I promise Jorge that I will help him.

“What if you acted as her monitor?” he suggests. “Would Ursula trust you to look after Molly?”

“Maybe she would . . .” I touch my index finger to my forehead and press on my skull. Inside my skull, my brain is reeling. I’m reeling you in. “Maybe I could take her on a little day-trip,” I suggest.

Jorge and I come up with a plan. We are going to take you to San José, Molly. We’re going to get you there.

~

(end of excerpt)

 

Alden Jones's work has appeared recently in Iowa Review, Puerto del Sol, Barcelona Review, Rived, The Best American Travel Writing, and elsewhere. She teaches writing and literature at Emerson College and directs Excel in Cuba, an academic summer program in Havana. (2003)


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