Josefina

We had a maid, Jorge said, her name was Josefina. She took care of us, she cooked, cleaned, and scrubbed the patio of our large house in Guayaquil. She also took care of my grandfather. He was 105 years old. Grandpa would lie in his twin size bed all day, the same bed my grandmother had died in and her parents as well. A laced cloth at the end of the bed kept his feet from touching the fresh linens. His bedroom was sparse with just his bed and a simple wooden nightstand. Grandpa’s legs were crooked from having worked hard all his life in a tile factory. His eyes were still bright but the rest of the body was rapidly ailing. My mother was particularly pleased that grandpa seemed happier ever since Josefina came to work for her.  She often wondered how Josefina managed to lighten his day, because he had become an ornery man.

Josefina never talked much and sweated profusely when doing her job.  She was in her early forties, a single mother with children of her own. Josefina grew up in Engaboa a poor fishing village not far away from Playas.  At thirteen she had been thin with full lips, inquiring eyes and with a swing in her walk, especially when she was wearing her bright beige shorts that made it look like she was not wearing anything.  A young boy, 15 years old, had noticed her and followed her for days when she would twist between the dust and the many pigs roaming the street, to get fresh fish from the beach at 4 pm when all the fishing boats came to shore. The boy’s name was Rico, he was tall, slender and he knew that he could have her if he wanted it.  It was a tradition in Engaboa, and apparently still is, that if you want a girl you take her to your parents’ house and lock yourself and the girl in your bedroom. The family would feed them while they stayed in the bedroom for days.  Rico did just that and feasted on Josefina for three days and nights until she produced blood and cried non-stop. He sent her home.  He was done and was looking for another girl he had seen before.  Josefina was pregnant and had a little girl named Maria at the age of 14.  Another boy stole her when she was 15 and lavished her with his sex and then discarded her. She ended up with two children, a boy and a girl, and according to tradition she was then marked as the slut of the town, even though she never had sex again and there were no more choices.  She became mostly mute and worked primarily for wealthy Ecuadorian families in Guayaquil riding the bus from Engabao for two hours coming and going every day.

Josefina had met Jorge in Engaboa. Jorge had bought a summer house there and came on the weekend with his young North American wife.  Josefina asked him for work. He said she could come and clean his mother’s house in Guayaquil. She had been working for us for half a year or so, he said, when one day my mother walked by my grandfather’s bedroom and saw that Josefina was sitting on the bed between grandpa’s legs, the lace cover disheveled on the floor.  What are you doing, she demanded.  Josefina did not answer and stared at grandpa. She is massaging my legs, grandpa said.  They are sore and she is moving the blood so I can stand and go to the bathroom by myself.  My mother thought about that and nodded, yes that was a good thing. Grandpa was skinny now, he only weighed 85 lbs but still it was a nuisance for my father to get up in the middle of the night, after drinking too much like usual.

My mother walked back to her bedroom and stretched out on her quilt my sister had bought for her many years ago at Sears Roebuck in Estados Unidos.  The quilt was getting old, frayed at the edges, like her back. Ever since the accident a few years ago, when a truck came barreling down the narrow road as she was crossing the street to go talk to her cousins to find out why her husband had not returned from work that evening.  She had been hit smack on and had to spend many months in bed for her spine to heal.  All she could do was embroider small towels with as many colors as she could hold in her hands, keeping the cotton towel tight on a bamboo frame that was hanging down from the ceiling. She would embroider birds, angels and flowers floating above her eyes.

My mother was lying there almost drifting off to sleep when she heard grandpa moan.  That was an odd sound. She reluctantly got up from the bed as she heard yet another moan.  She got to grandpa’s bedroom just in time to see Josefina cradling grandpa’s penis as it flopped down. She realized what Josefina had been doing all this time. Out, she yelled, out, and don’t come back. Josefina ran out the door and never returned to the house again. Jorge said, he did not understand his mother, now grandpa was even more ornery and the new maid did not clean his bathroom as well as Josefina had.

A year later to the day, there was a knock on the door of Jorge’s house in Engabao. There stood Josefina not saying a word, tears streaming down her face. What are you doing here, Jorge asked.  Please, she said, please, my brother died. Please help me. He needs to be buried.  We need a truck. Jorge took her in his big black Chevy truck to her family house and there was the brother wrapped inside a wooden coffin. It was heavy, the brother was fat, he liked to eat pig every day even though he was a fisherman and was out at sea from early in the morning until 4 pm ever since he was a child.  He was now 30 years old with strong stocky legs and a beer belly. He had gotten tangled inside a fishnet and drowned. His fishing partner had towed his body onto the beach and laid him out between a bright orange fishing boat and another brilliant turquoise one.  People took turns to look at him and then went on to do their business, offloading their catch of the day, corvinas, camerones, langostinos etc.  When they had dropped off the fish for the women folk to sell they sauntered back and again looked at the brother.  They gave him a little push with their bare feet to see if he was moving.  Satisfied he was dead, six of the men lifted him up and carried him to his family house, two at the shoulders, two in the middle and two at the knees. The brother’s body sagged, rigor mortise had not quite set in yet.

Already preparations were on the way, rice was being cooked, a pig was slaughtered and a primitive casket was measured and hammered together with old bent nails.  The women were crying and wiping their faces with dish cloths, men were standing around leaning against the wall, drinking large Pilseners. Josefina brought Jorge into the midst of it all. He shook hands, held faces, stroked hair, picked up babies because he did not know what else to do. Josefina led him by the hand to the casket and pointed.  Where do you want me to take him, Jorge asked?  There is a piece of land not far from here, it belongs to my uncle, one of the men said, tears running down his face as if he was in the middle of a shower.  You will bury him there?  But that is not legal, Jorge said. He knew the laws.  The man shrugged, it is for the family.  No one will notice.  Take him down the road, please, and you will see a man with a cap asking for money. He fills holes, he will take any platas you can give him, 25 cents or a dollar.  He will take you to the hole the cousins are digging already.  You do not have to do anything, just drive. Josefina will go with you. She will show you the way.

Josefina showed Jorge where the man with the cap was, asked for a dollar and tipped it inside the cap. The man stood aside as Jorge drove his fancy truck through the dry prickly grass circling around mangrove trees, around coastal saline ponds to an open area where three men were standing with pick axes and shovels surrounded by whale bones. A small shack stood further apart, the roof fallen in, door ajar, held open with the spinal bone of a whale. Apparently an archaeological dig many years ago had found a complete skeleton of a whale and laid it out in Jorge’s Engabao’s yard and had to leave the skeleton behind because their contract was revoked. Villagers had stolen many of the big bones and Jorge only had six or seven of them left in his yard. He had always wondered where the villagers had taken them and why.  He assumed it was to sell them.  The men shouldered the coffin and opened it. There was no brother, there was no body, only bones, whale bones.  He stared at Josefina. She quietly mouthed these bones are my brothers. My cousins will give them a proper burial.

Jorge, the superb story teller, was sitting on a small bench telling me all this. He laughed loudly, his head falling back as he tipped his cigarette ash inside a makeshift bamboo ashtray. As he twisted his body forward his foot caught the bamboo post. The ashtray rolled and clattered down the cement stairs.

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