Above the Alfama
"Plastic chairs?" she said.
"Every café has them. Wherever you go, there they are, and they all look the same. It's like Wal-Mart had a sale on stackable plastic chairs and the whole country showed up."
"That’s very amusing.”
"Just making an observation . . . taking it all in."
It was late morning and they were overlooking the city, having walked from the city’s main cathedral, the Sé, up through the steep, narrow streets of the Alfama district. The sky was white over the river and blue over the city. Down in the harbor the masts of a tethered tall ship thrust up behind red-shingled rooftops.
They were silent for a while and then he said, “I like strong coffee, as you know, but this is too strong.”
“You could ask the man to put more milk in it,” she said.
“Then it won’t be hot enough.”
“Do you really need it hot?”
“In this heat?”
“Just ask the guy. He’ll heat the milk for you.”
“It’s not worth it.” He took another sip. “What brand is this?”
“Never heard of it.”
She would have wanted to call him "crass" and perhaps "provincial," but because her mind could not find the words, she said nothing.
They were seated on a terrace above the Alfama. A small delivery truck had just parked nearby. The driver swung open the back doors of the truck and she could smell cinnamon and warm bread. On the other side of the street, four old men sat on stools, playing cards under a flower-draped wrought iron balcony.
“I do like the taxis,” he said.
“So you’re done complaining?”
“The cabbies are fast and crazy of course, but in sort of a calm, dignified way. Most of them look like your favorite uncle . . . and they all drive stick . . . and they know how to use their low gears . . . and they all drive Mercedes-Benz, and their cabs are spotless.”
“That’s it?” she asked. “Anything else?”
“I like the smell of your perfume,” he said.
“What kind is it?”
“I don’t remember,” she said. “It’s something I picked up in Évora.”
“Well, I like it.”
It had been hot. Driving their rented Opel up from the Algarve two days before, the temperature on the display panel had read 40° Celsius. She didn’t know how hot that was, exactly, but figured it meant the temperature was somewhere above 100° Fahrenheit. Even with all four windows rolled down, she sweat through her clothes into the cloth seats. The locals blamed it all on Spain. Normally the wind blew in off the Atlantic, keeping the coastal areas mild in early summer. But the wind had switched suddenly, and now the country was cursed by “the hot winds from Espanha.”
“I just have to say one more thing,” he said. “They’ve got to start shooting some of these pigeons.” He sipped his coffee again. “I guess I will have the guy put more milk in this.” He leaned forward, reached back into one of the back pockets of his khaki shorts and pulled out his Portuguese-English dictionary. He flipped through it for about a minute, stood up, and walked over to the dark green kiosk that served as the café bar.
When he returned she was facing out over the Alfama. He sat down and said, “It tastes better now.” She kept her eyes hidden behind her eyelids while her head turned, and, when she brought them out into the open air again, she cast them down into her tea. She stirred the tea with her spoon and then drifted her eyes up to some place behind him.
“Weren’t we having a good time last night?” he asked.
“I was tired,” she said.
“What is it?”
“What is what?”
“There’s nothing wrong.”
“Then what is it?”
“It’s not nothing. Ever since Évora and that bone chapel you’ve been . . .. You can’t get it out of your mind and that’s crazy. They’ve been dead for hundreds of years.”
“You acted like you were enjoying yourself in there,” she said, her eyes squarely on him now. “Not that you were laughing or anything, but you seemed a little too into it.”
“It was so wild,” he said, “hiding nothing, totally up front about how it really is. We’re all going to end up that way, which is the whole point of it.”
“And then you go and buy that postcard, a postcard filled with bones for God’s sake.”
“Where else can I get something like that?”
“Who are you going to send that to? And what are you going to write? ‘Having a great time here in Portugal. Wish you could be here with us amongst all the dead people.’”
“I thought we could put it in our scrapbook.”
“You are sick.”
It was the woman and child that tormented her most. Among the stacked human bones built up against the chapel’s inner walls — femurs, skulls, hip bones — a woman’s bones hung next to the bones of a child. Two full sets of bones hanging in a corner, one big, one small. Hanging with no description, no acknowledgment.
She had fled the Chapel of Bones after only a few minutes, and nothing had been right ever since. Twice she’d stumbled over dead pigeons in the streets of Lisbon. Then there was the one at the Igreja do Carmo: pressed into a corner below one of the gothic church’s skeletal arches, it was propped up on its back, pecking away at itself, trying to kill its mites. Seeing that — the gross, almost surreal shock of it — she could not breathe for a moment, and then she wanted to throw up.
When she shut her eyes now, she’d see human bones or dead pigeons. Or she’d see that pigeon on its back, head arched forward, desperately pecking away at its belly.
Coming up through the Alfama that morning, the cracked, dusty walls that towered over narrow streets seemed to crowd in on her, the bands of sky above narrowing into blue slits. The pale cobblestone below seemed to slide downhill as she trudged uphill, as if she were on a conveyor belt moving in the wrong direction. When she saw the pigeons she tried to ignore them, but their details jumped out at her: their dirty-gray bodies, their green-ringed necks glistening below pumping, probing heads, their reluctance to move away as if they owned the streets. There was not enough space in the Alfama to be confined with all those pigeons. She tried not to breathe when they were near.
“What are you thinking about?” he asked.
“Nothing’s easy anymore,” she said. “Then there’s you. It doesn’t matter where we are or what we’re doing, you’re always happy. Even complaining makes you happy.”
“I’m not always happy. I just keep most of it to myself.”
“How do you do it?”
“Delight in everything.”
“I don’t . . . not everything. What do you want me to do?”
“Be with me for once.”
“You don’t even know what I’m saying.”
“Yes I do. I’ll be more understanding.”
“That’d be a start.”
“Let’s get out of here and go up to the castle. They say the view’s great up there.”
“No, I want to go back to the hotel.”
He sipped his coffee. “I thought this trip was going to help,” he said, turning his face toward the river. “It was going to do both of us some good.”
“It’s been fine,” she said. “I’m tired and I just need to go back to the hotel right now. Can you understand that?”
A light tan Mercedes taxi pulled up on the other side of the street. The man jumped up to get the driver’s attention and startled a pigeon that had been flitting about behind him. It darted and flew into the air as a hot breeze blew through, ruffling the umbrellas on the terrace. The woman jumped out of her plastic chair, stepped back toward the kiosk and saw a feather flutter away from the bird. The feather floated softly over the table, over the railing, then out over the street below. And as steep as the climb had been up from the Sé, she imagined the feather flying farther and farther out over the Alfama, dropping down, down, lightly down over the bell towers of the Sé, fluttering softly down between the ship’s tall masts, before settling quietly on the slow waters of the Tagus River. It would float there for a few minutes, she thought, rising and falling on the crests and troughs of the ferryboats’ swells. Gradually, it would soak up water and sink to the bottom of the deep, wide river.
And it seemed to her that the mites, clinging to the stem and barbs of the feather, would not know the nature of their predicament until it was too late. They would not have time to make it to the surface. They would drown, and their little dead bodies would wash down river and out into the sea. She would be free to breathe again, and then she would feel just fine. Don’t force it, she thought; let it happen. Let it all wash away and you’ll begin to— A pigeon feather doesn’t really sink does it?
She saw him crossing the street. She heard the back doors of the truck slam shut and then its engine sputter, cough, as if in protest. The truck pulled away from the curb and grumbled down the street, taking with it the smells of warm bread and cinnamon. Across the street, under the balcony, four stools sat empty where the old men had been. Where she stood, in the shadowed lee of the kiosk, the hot air seemed to have fled the city, leaving behind a chill that bore deep inside her.
“Come on, the meter’s running!” he yelled to her.
“I’m coming,” she said in a voice too quiet for him to hear.
She shuffled to the table, clutched her purse with both hands before taking one last look down into the Alfama. Then she turned and saw him on the other side of the street, gesturing to the cab's open back door, smiling broadly, looking pleased and proud as if he'd tracked and captured some wild animal.
She looked at the ground and still she saw his face — its elated, too-wide grin below the hazy, distant eyes — flickering faintly through touchstone moments: riding with her atop that elephant in Thailand, holding her hand in the rain in front of the Eiffel Tower, cutting their wedding cake in Newport. She recalled the framed pictures his mother had kept at her bedside in those last dying days, pictures long since packed into boxes, crammed into the attic. “Take good care of each other,” Marge had said, and then, crinkling her brow, “You’re all that he has now.” As if staring into a Viewmaster, her mind constricted by a surrounding darkness, she saw him as a little child perched on Santa’s lap, a young boy fishing with his dad that last summer before he left them, a chubby teen in a tux on his way to his first prom, a young man in cap and gown accepting his diploma — grinning, always grinning, it seemed, in every picture.
And grinning, too, in the Chapel of Bones, staring at the mother and child. She lifted her head and imagined his smile, wide and ebullient, fixed at the center of the postcard, surrounded by bones. Why hadn’t he told her?
They were separate people. She'd been a fool.
"Come on, honey!" he yelled again.
Perhaps she could still live with him now that she understood. It was just another new task, another silly thing to occupy her mind, and her mind would adjust to the reality of their separate lives if she'd just let it rest, give it some time. . . .
And yet would it be so awful to leave? No worse than living their lives together — or apart, rather — these last few years. She’d at least have to consider that. And she’d have to decide soon, not drag it out. Perhaps a day alone in the hotel room is all she’d need. She'd be high above the pigeons there.
She walked past the kiosk, stepped out into the street and said, "Be patient, Stephen," loud enough to make him hear her this time.
Stephen turned toward the cab driver. She heard him say these words: "I love her more than anyone or anything in this world. Isn't she beautiful?"
The cab driver, staring at her with bright tired eyes, just smiled and nodded and said, "Sim."
The word meant yes.
Stephen turned back to face her as she approached, and his smile stretched wider. When she got close to him, he reached for her. His warm hand clenched her cold hand as she dropped down into the back of the cab, glimpsing in her revolving descent the café's empty tables and the river beyond.
He let go of her hand, ducked down and slumped onto the cab's firm leather seat. And still he held the smile. He thunked the door neatly shut with his left hand, producing that solid comforting sound, then — inhaling an air of leather, perfume and compliance — reached round with his right and tried to pull her close to him.