As Manuel begins high school in the fall, he meets Mr. Devlin, his eccentric new English teacher, who begins to shape Manuel's growing interest in Shakespeare and other literature, and eventually convinces Manuel to write a novel of his own. Manuel bases his novel around Madam Farfalla and writes the story of how a once-famous singer lost her husband. But not all is as it seems.
One day while Manuel is working on his paper route, he is introduced to a woman who tells him the truth behind Madam Farfalla's past, forcing him to reevaluate his relationship with the singer and everything he thought he knew. But after a serious confrontation and personal tragedy, Manuel will be forced to deal with the consequences and decide the facts for himself.
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Manuel and the Lady
By Pedro C. López
iUniverse, Inc.Copyright © 2011 Pedro C. López
All right reserved.
Chapter OneThe first glimpse of the apartment building appalled Manuel. The structure, at least on the outside, looked beat-up and dilapidated, almost as if a small tornado or a minor earthquake had hit it. Many of the wall shingles, of a sickly green color, hung loosely and askew; some had fallen off altogether, leaving empty black patches where the tarpaper showed.
"Don't be fooled by the building's appearance," Juan said cheerily, perhaps reading his half-brother's mind. He had a round chubby face with pink cheeks and very thin lips. His lips were so thin that they looked like a mere slit. Despite being only in his twenties, he was beginning to show thinning hair on the crown of his head. "The inside of our apartment is really quite nice."
Next to the apartment building to its right, there was a little yard surrounded by a five-foot wire fence. Manuel had gotten a glimpse of the yard, which seemed to mirror the unpleasant outward aspect of the building. The yard looked water-starved; only here and there sprouted tufts of withered grass. Furthermore, it had been overrun with rocks, sticks, discarded car tires, and disfigured toys. Garbage spilled partially from huge corroded black trash tanks.
When Manuel entered the apartment's gloomy passageway, a hellish pungent stench immediately gripped his nostrils. There was almost as much disorder inside as outside. Furthermore, the hallway contained so much junk it gave the impression the tenants had come to consider it a sort of public storage facility. Suddenly, Manuel felt so repelled by the unsavory smells and crude sights that he regretted for a moment having left a beautiful, sunny, warm, and well-kept Miami to move to this seemingly ugly, sordid, grey, chilly Lawrence in the state of Massachusetts. Obviously, Lawrence wasn't a tourist town like Miami and thus didn't have to stay spruced up and neat and sparkling all the time. The Miami apartment building he had lived in, while unpretentious, had definitely lacked the repellent, squalid qualities prevalent inside and around this one.
Pablo and Juan carried the Cruzes' four bulging suitcases up the creaking narrow staircase, one suitcase per hand. Several boxes full of Maria's household paraphernalia still remained in the luggage compartment of Juan and Pablo's car, a two-door Ford Fairlane sedan painted in two colors, black on the top two-thirds and white on the lower third. Manuel, however, had decided to carry, on his first climb up the infernal-looking place, only his well-worn copy of the Divine Comedy. It was one of his most treasured possessions, a memento, a gift from the Stricklands, the family that had taken him in as one of their own at their home in Winnetka, Illinois, a month after he had arrived, unaccompanied by any member of his real family, in the United States as part of the U.S. Government-sponsored Operation Peter Pan. On the Miami-Boston flight, he had taken the book with him and read from it, slowly and carefully, during most of the trip. Thanks to the Stricklands, especially Mrs. Strickland, he had acquired the habit of reading literature books from the great writers of the past.
As he reached the top landing, he heard sounds of instrumental music floating up to the third floor. From out of the gentle waves of wind and stringed instruments, a female voice rose and broke into a melancholic song. Suddenly, the soft gush of deep lament exploded into a thunderclap of shrill distortion.
"Maria Callas," Juan smiled, "from Madame Butterfly."
"The old Italian lady downstairs is off her rocker again," Pablo added critically, and shook his head while making a face. "When she's having a nervous breakdown, she turns on her record-player full blast and shakes up the whole world with her operas."
After they had entered Pablo and Juan's apartment, Maria suddenly ordered: "Manuel, do something. Don't just stand there holding a book!"
"Oh, we'll take care of everything, Maria," Juan said, grinning at Maria with his thin lips and perfect white teeth.
By "we" he meant himself and Pablo, Manuel intuited.
"Please relax, Maria," Pablo intervened. "Let us first show you our little apartment."
Manuel watched his mother smile back at her stepson's friend Pablo, who appeared to be about the same age as his half-brother. Manuel felt very glad that Pablo was much younger than Maria. It guaranteed a certain tranquility of mind for Manuel. Even more comforting was the fact that Pablo was no James Dean in terms of looks. Pablo was short and bowed-legged and had intensely wavy black hair and olive skin as well as a muscular frame and flat nose that did him no favor but instead gave him the appearance of a rough-looking pugilist with a losing record. Manuel's mother, on the other hand, was a beautiful tall woman with hazel eyes and very white skin. She had thick copious brown hair, a fine straight nose, and sensuous fleshy lips—features Manuel had inherited from her. When people saw his mother and him together, they often remarked about how much they looked alike.
"See what I told you about not minding the exterior," Juan remarked enthusiastically. "What a difference between what you saw outside and what you see in here, huh? We wallpapered the whole apartment and bought new furniture last month. It's our way of making your arrival more pleasant! We wanted to make sure you'd feel at home right away. Now isn't all this just nice and beautiful? Small but nice and beautiful. Our own cozy little nest!" he chirped, and threw an arm over his half-brother Esteban's shoulders.
Juan's words pleased Manuel. In fact, they seemed to touch a deep emotional chord inside the younger brother.
In Cuba, Manuel had somehow developed the idea that Juan resented him for his looking up to his father like some sort of idol or hero. Of course, it was true that he had always held, as far back as he could remember, a special place in his heart for his dad. Manuel had always been seized with an overwhelming sense of joy every time Manolo had returned home from one of his frequent long trips to other parts of the island or abroad, bringing Manuel and his younger son Esteban all kinds of presents along with warm hugs and kisses, kisses that tickled Manuel's cheek with his trim, spiky black moustache. On such occasions the mere sight of his dad made Manuel feel as if the very sun had just strutted in through the front door of their house in Caibarien, Las Villas.
Still Manuel had never been able to fathom a logical reason for Juan's show of resentment toward him just on account of his admiration for the father he and Juan shared. Often he would be struck with the suspicion that such feelings on the part of his half-brother rode on top of those of jealousy, jealousy over the thought that Manuel might be Manolo's favorite son or something along that line. With less frequency he would be invaded with the idea that Juan hated his father Manolo because Manolo was a philandering man and Juan disliked the thought that his father's sins might be passed down to one of the sons.
But now here in the United States, Manuel thought, the chemistry appeared to have begun to change for the better between the two half-brothers. Lawrence, Massachusetts, seemed to have made Juan more affable and fraternal.
"The apartment is not big but it'll be just perfect for the five of us," Juan presently said, and began conducting the tour of the place.
He showed the Cruzes the kitchen and dining room first. The dining table was impressively modern; it had a shiny glass top and thick metallic cylindrically-shaped column legs. He pointed out that the frames of the table and the chairs were made of brass.
"When we purchased the dining set, we made sure it was big enough to sit the whole family comfortably," Juan explained.
Manuel liked the sound of the word "family" and smiled at Juan.
"Yeah, that's exactly the reason we chose this set with six chairs," Pablo broke in. "Sufficient to have even a guest over for dinner. Who knows? Maybe Manolo will show up one of these days," he said, and winked at Maria.
"He can stay put in Miami with his whore," she quickly snapped, "for all I care.
Juan raised his eyebrows at her and tilted his head in the direction of Esteban. Manuel looked at Esteban and saw embarrassment and confusion in his younger brother's face. He had always felt very protective of Esteban, who, unfortunately, had not been awarded by nature the physical attributes he enjoyed. Just like his father Manolo, Esteban had a bony frame with thin legs. He was a candidate for future crooked adult teeth, unless some dental miracle was performed on him in the near future. His skin color was Mediterranean, just as his dad's. Furthermore, unlike Manuel, he had never distinguished himself in school, either academically or athletically. While it was generally said that Manuel looked like Maria, it was often commented that Esteban was the spitting image of Manolo.
"I was only teasing," Pablo apologized, and continued the tour of the apartment by passing on to one of the bedrooms, his and Juan's. The bedroom furniture there was brand-new and looked modern and stylish. It fit rather snugly inside the room. The platform bed was a queen size with an upholstered headboard.
"Top-grain leather," Pablo commented proudly, caressing the edge of the headboard with a hand.
"The whole set is made of teak wood," Juan added.
"Are they yours?" Manuel asked him, pointing at a couple of framed paintings hanging on one of the bedroom walls.
"Right," Juan beamed.
Each painting looked like a close replica of the other. Both showed a nest full of baby birds, their bills anxiously wide-open, about to be fed by an adult bird.
"See the binoculars on the dresser?" Pablo said. "They're part of his new hobby: bird-watching. But the birds he likes to watch are not only of the feathered type but of the non-feathered one, too," he grinned. "In the summer those field binoculars of his are his constant companion on a lake in New Hampshire, and I swear he could tell you the migratory pattern and the mating call of every bikini-clad chick that passes in front of him."
Manuel and his younger brother Esteban looked at each other and shook with laughter.
The other bedroom where Maria and Esteban would sleep contained a bedroom set with two twin beds, a dresser with a mirror, and two night stands. Although a bit plain-looking, the set had obviously also been recently purchased and smelled fresh.
A wooden crucifix had been affixed to a wall above and between the two beds.
Manuel was told he would sleep in the comfortable leather convertible sofa in the parlor. Pablo removed the sofa cushions and pulled out the bed part to show him how spacious and comfortable a bed the sofa quickly turned into. Manuel nodded happily in agreement, his nostrils full of the strong smell of new leather.
After the Cruzes were shown the bathroom, Juan announced he and Pablo would finish carting up the rest of the Cruzes' belongings from the car. While involved in the small tour of the house, everyone had seemed to become quite oblivious to the music that had continued to filter up the building's stairway. But when Juan opened the front door, a blast of operatic sounds in the form of a chorus blew into the apartment with gale-force winds.
Unperturbed, Juan poked his head farther into the hallway. "Turandot," he said thoughtfully. "She just loves Puccini." Then, turning around and smiling softly, he added: "I guess this is her way of saying, 'Welcome to Lawrence, Massachusetts!'"
Chapter TwoOnly a few weeks after the Cruzes arrived in Lawrence, Maria was hired as a machine stitcher at a clothing factory called Greco Brothers. She had never worked for a living before coming to the States; back in Cuba she had been a simple housewife and a mother. On setting foot in the U.S. and discovering her husband was living with a mistress, she was forced by life's circumstances to seek employment.
With watery eyes and a tremulous voice, she had asked her son Manuel to lend her the six-hundred dollars he had saved up (more on account of Mr. Strickland's insistence than out of his own free will) from his newspaper routes in Winnetka, Illinois. She had promised to start paying him back as soon as she started working and could save some cash.
Maria had answered an ad in the Miami Herald for machine stitchers in a clothing-manufacturing company in Opa-Locka. A picket line of striking men and women marching in front of the factory and bearing angry signs had hurled bitter insults at her in English and Spanish. Unflinchingly, she had braved the verbal barrage, broken through the line, and landed a job there. In just a few months, with the help of overtime work, she had paid her debt to Manuel in full. She had worked uninterruptedly at the Opa-Locka factory until coming to Lawrence. The management there had congratulated her for being an outstanding worker and had said that they would miss her.
It was in June that the Cruzes had arrived in Lawrence, but even though it was now only the middle of July, Maria asked Juan to help her find a Catholic school to enroll her sons in for the coming school year. Pablo and Juan first took the Cruzes to St. Mary's High School, where they were informed that, first of all, that particular institution had no grammar school and, secondly, it was an all-girls school run by nuns. Manuel had felt deeply embarrassed by the silly mistake. The Cruzes and Pablo left with the recommendation they should try Holy Rosary Grammar School.
An institution also managed by Catholic sisters, Holy Rosary Grammar School turned out to be what Maria wanted for her two young sons. Here a middle-aged nun greeted them with a courteous smile.
After introducing herself as Sister Georgina, principal of the school, she ushered them into a small office with a wooden desk and several uncomfortable chairs. For enrolling the boys in the school, she explained, she would need their vaccination papers and previous school records. Maria asked Manuel to tell the nun that it was no problem, that she had such documents. The nun went on to state what the tuition amounted to and how payments could be made.
Maria fell silent for a while, and during that time Manuel trembled inside, afraid his mother would unleash her haggling nature and demand a tuition reduction, citing that she was a poor Cuban refugee and a mother trying to raise two kids on her own. Manuel breathed more easily when he heard Maria say to him: "Ask her if she needs a deposit."
Manuel translated his mother's words from Spanish into English as quickly as possible, fearing his mother might change her mind all of a sudden.
"There is no need for that now," the nun answered. "She can give one if she wishes when she brings the documentation requested."
Just then a tall nun peeked into the principal's office. "Oh, I'm sorry," she said on seeing Sister Georgina had visitors. "It can wait. I'll come back later."
"No, it's fine, Sister Helen," the principal grinned. "You're not interrupting anything. Come in and meet one of your new students for the next school year: Manuel Cruz. He'll be in your eighth-grade English class."
Manuel stood up and shook Sister Helen's hand. Although she was tall and seemingly big-boned, her hand felt small and soft and delicate. He noticed her eyes were large and dark and beautiful. His heart fluttered for a moment.
"I hope you love to read," she said pleasantly with a smile that showed flawless white teeth. "I'm a very demanding English teacher." She winked mischievously at Maria and then gently ruffled Manuel's hair.
All of the sudden, some sort of volcano erupted inside Manuel and splashed burning lava all over his face and neck. He knew Sister Helen had seen the steaming blush, and the thought of this made him blush even more furiously.
"See you in September," she said gently, and swiftly walked away, her long, thick skirts rustling deliciously like autumn leaves.
The new academic year began and in school Manuel could not help feeling immensely alone, especially during recess, when his lack of friends became most evident. Instead of joining the other students in their silly games and idle chatter, he would often merely stray off to a desolate corner of the school yard and lean with his back against a wall of the two-storied red-brick school building. At such times he would feel upon himself the curious, probing eyes of almost all the eighth-grade boys and girls near him.
Excerpted from Manuel and the Lady by Pedro C. López Copyright © 2011 by Pedro C. López. Excerpted by permission of iUniverse, Inc.. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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