Surprising encounters in lonely places
I had definitely arrived in Portugal, but most of me remained in the land of in-between, where morning and evening coexist, and South Carolina merges into Portugal, in some weird, yet (to me) real, geography.
And, at times one person here reminds me of one person there, as if they were parts of the same whole, particles waiting to be reunited.
One of these unlikely pairs came to my mind today as Ms. Maria pulled her cart full of vegetables to my gate. Possibly the last of her breed — the Portuguese peasant woman — Ms. Maria has been pulling this
cart through the streets of the small fishing village where I’ve lived (when I am in Portugal) for more than 30 years.
Ms. Maria makes the rounds twice a week, her thin, tiny body lunging forward in a perennial black skirt and shirt, and a black head scarf tied with two thick knots at the back of her neck. At 70 years old, or older (she is not quite sure), she still farms a small piece of land that yields the most delicious greens I have ever tasted — ever — anywhere.
“I’ve worn black since he’s gone,” she told me, years before I moved to the States, as she tied a bunch of turnips I had chosen from her cart. She has been widowed almost as long as she has been
doing these rounds.
“So, you’ve never worn any other color in 30 years?” I asked.
“Not once, but …” She looked me straight in the eyes, making sure I was paying attention “…the clothes I set aside for my funeral are lovely and colorful: white skirt and blue blouse, white shoes, and a blue and red scarf. I want to see him smile the moment he looks at me.”
I nodded and muttered something like, “I see.” I was interested but didn’t want to seem unduly curious. Then I gave in.
“He is waiting for you, then?”
I was glad I asked. She threw me a cunning smile.
“Oh yes, he misses me — and how! I miss him too. I won’t come to him dressed in black — no way! He loves me in colorful clothes. We’re going to be happy in the beyond, you know, as happy as we
were down here. I can’t wait.”
She pointed at the sea a few feet away from us and asked,”Don’t you miss this when you’re away?”
She had found my weak spot. “Yes, I do. I miss it very much.”
“So you understand, then; it’s like a hole inside; no peace; no peace till we’re together.”
This conversation marked the beginning of our summer talks. One day last July I asked her how it came to be that her turnips, carrots, kale, cauliflower, spinach, and whatever else she was selling on any
given day tasted so delicious.
“It’s the shit,” was her unhesitating answer. “Good shit from my sister’s cows.”
“Oh,” I uttered. “Great.”
And it was. No chemicals. All pure stuff.
“Why do you ask?” she said, straightening her back as if to look taller. “Is it the cucumbers? You should have tried them before. They were really good then. All the vegetables changed, but cucumbers
changed the most.”
“When?” I ventured.
“Before they went up there, of course.”
I was lost.
“Ms. Maria, who went where, when?”
“Ma’am!” She had never called me “Ma’am” before. “You’re an educated lady. You, of all people, should have heard of this. I’m an ignorant woman, but even I know what they did when they went up there. And you live in their country, too.” Her voice had climbed an octave or two.
“Do you mean, the Americans?”
“Like I should be telling you!” she protested. “They went up into space, right up to the stars, can you believe it, and turned the atmosphere upside down. That which was up, they brought down; what was down, they pushed up. Her hands went up and down as she spoke.
“That’s what they did. And my vegetables have never been the same since.”
The sea roared outside my window. Had she really said ‘atmosphere’?
“Who’d have thought that you didn’t know,” she sighed, sounding almost disappointed.
“I don’t know everything, Ms. Maria,” I said, apologetically. “I know nothing about cucumbers, for example.”
We both fell silent; then our thoughts seemed to fly in the same direction.
“Shall I come by next week?” she asked.
“I’m leaving this weekend. But I’ll be back by Christmas, ready for your vegetables.”
“We’ll see,” she replied, “I may be with my man by then.” She added softly, “Now that would be wonderful.”
But she isn’t, and I’m so glad.
Meeting Ms. Maria’s Twin
I am not sure why Ms. Maria came to my mind so clearly when I met her “twin” in South Carolina.
I guess it was her kindness and her age: her deeply wrinkled face, eyes hidden under folds of skin; the same look of someone who had led a hardworking life.
Our meeting was not carefree. I was wary and — why not say it? — afraid. I had left Rock Hill with a friend, headed to a place in the countryside I cannot find on the map, even now. Somewhere in The South, as people put it to me then. This sounded a little strange to my ears.
Weren’t we in the South already? Apparently not. As I would come to understand, the college town of Rock Hill is generally seen (mostly by its population, I imagine) as too campus-centered, too fond of “Earthfare” grocery stores to be The (real) South. It is also too close to Charlotte, a city so far from The South as to actually be situated in North Carolina.
I mean, Rock Hill is only 20 minutes away from something with the word “north” in it.
I was venturing into The South to take my dog to a summer camp where she would (I hoped) have a great time while I went home for a while, to a different South, this one in Europe (with, come to think of it, same north-south dynamics). My friend was coming with me to check out this place for her own dogs, ahead of her trip to California.
I was filled with a sense of excitement but also of apprehension, which increased rapidly as we drove farther and farther through a landscape bare of human presence. We saw no houses, barns, dogs, or cows — no cars, even — for miles and miles. I found myself wondering, Do I have my AAA card? Are our cell phones working?
On the radio, familiar sounds became less and less clear, and voices with hard-to-understand inflections took over. Then, everything began to slow down, as if life had gone into slow motion — only it wasn’t life, really, it was my car, slowing and rolling gently to a halt, so gently I was able to guide it almost off the road.
The Lonely Road
This was a very good thing, seeing as there were only two narrow lanes with neat white lines down the middle. And not a soul in sight. This could be very bad, of course; though, on the other hand, the sighting of a soul under these circumstances could be even worse.
My friend and I looked at my dog sleeping in the back seat. In American films, what happened to women stranded on a long, empty road? Not a single good thing came to mind.
We called roadside assistance and were relieved to talk to a human being, whose job it was to fix predicaments such as ours. She was matter-of-fact, in control, reassuring. We would be rescued without delay — or would we? “They’ll be there in three hours.”
Three hours? Did she just say “three hours?”
We looked around and again we saw fields and more fields. With less than two hours of daylight, dark versions of our imminent denouement filled our imagination, and it was then we spotted someone moving towards us, indistinct at first and then more clear, though for the longest time we could not tell whether man or woman, young or old.
Going back into the car was an option. But then, why do it? The car was not going anywhere; the windows were not bulletproof.
We continued to stare as if our lives depended on our ability to discern as much as possible about who was coming. Now we could see it was a woman, and that she was carrying something with both hands. What could it be?
A tray, we thought, and we were right. On the tray something sparkled in the evening light. A pitcher, it seemed. A little later the cups on the tray became visible, and then her voice traveled the remaining distance:
“Hi there! I fancied you could do with some homemade sweet iced tea.”
Minutes later she placed the tray on the car trunk and stirred the golden liquid with a large wooden spoon. We wanted to ask where she had come from, but were wary of the answer.
“Where do you come from, then?” she asked, wasting no time.
I began to explain but didn’t get far.
“You’re not from around here, right?” she said. “It wasn’t a question. “I bet you’re from fancy Rock Hill, hey?”
Fancy is not a word we associated with Rock Hill, but there was no time to think of a good answer, as she went straight to the next question, which was — guess what? “What do you do for a
Now, as easy as it should have been to say what we do for a living, it suddenly felt awkward to speak of research “and stuff like that,” as we put it, trying to sound unintellectual as possible. Part of me wondered why I was acting this way. It wasn’t long, though, before I felt the punch.
“I guess I made iced tea for two liberals, hey? A nest of liberals the place you work at is, I bet.”
There was no stopping her now.
“Colleges! I bet that’s where you work, right? I bet that’s why your car’s ready for the trash. Liberal and poor go together good, hey? Can’t afford the right kind of car.”
And with that she let out the biggest laugh, and we couldn’t help but laugh along with her. We laughed so hard I needed to visit nature’s rest room right there behind some bushes. When we could finally look at each other again, she said, wiping her eyes:
“That’s alright. You’re God’s creatures too. I bet you can do with some of this.”
She let the iced tea and cubes fall loudly into three large clear cups. She knew we’d be there a long time, and meant to keep us company.
We raised the cups to our lips and drank. This was The South, then: cool and sweet, strong, refreshing, with a sprinkle of humor. Just like Ms. Maria.
Maria Clara Paulino teaches contemporary art history and criticism at Winthrop University, and in 2010-2011 is a visiting professor at the University of Porto, Portugal. She speaks five languages, and has translated and interpreted for Salman Rushdie and Vito Acconci, as well as for the European Parliament and the U.S. Department of State.
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