Old Portuguese Men
Claudine and I had consumed a liter of wine and a platter of baçalau, followed by two rounds of port. The restaurant was now closing. Waiters were wiping the tables with rags, and the man who’d been carving meat from a cow’s leg—the hoof still attached—was packing up his utensils.
“Shouldn’t we ask them to call us a taxi?” I said.
“We’ll find one outside,” Claudine replied. “One more?”
I didn’t want another port—I was tired and eager to be back at the hostel, alone. But I said nothing as Claudine made the order, again in Spanish, even though this was Portugal. It was obnoxious, but then everything about Claudine was obnoxious: her sheepskin coat handmade by a Portuguese villager, her second-hand beaded child’s purse, her eyes smudged with kohl that she’d purchased at a market in Morocco. Everything Claudine owned was “authentic,” and I was supposed to be impressed. We were two women traveling alone, brought together only by convenience.
The waiter set down the glasses of port without a word. “What was I talking about?” Claudine said.
“Your father,” I said, yawning.
“That’s right. So I’m walking down the street to my apartment—this is in New York—and guess who I see?”
“Did I tell you that already? The bizarre part is, I haven’t seen him in eight years, and it turns out he lives across the street from me. In New York City. What are the chances?”
“Did he know you lived there?”
“That’s what I thought. Then one day I passed him on the street, and he looked right through me. How could he not have recognized me?”
“Maybe he wasn’t really looking.”
Claudine finished her port in one swallow. “What about your father? Are you close? Tell me everything.”
“There’s nothing to tell. He and my mom are still married. They live in the suburbs. He used to be a doctor, then last year he retired.”
“That’s so boring.”
“I told you. We should go.”
Outside the village was dark and deserted—even the streetlamps had been shut off. I pictured Claudine and I walking the six miles back to the hostel in the pitch black, our high heels sinking into the mud.
“We’ll find something. We just have to go into the center of town,” Claudine said.
“This is the center of town.”
Claudine called out to a lone passerby, a man in black jeans and a leather jacket. She explained in Spanish that we needed a taxi, could he help us?
The man responded in English, “No taxis now.”
“Are you sure?”
The man paused and looked us over. Then he said, “I know where one lives. I can show you.”
We followed the man into an alley. My heart was beating fast, but I was determined not to show any fear. Claudine wasn’t afraid, not at all. She was talking to the man about the collages she was making out of indigenous leaves.
“You’re an artist.” The man sounded impressed.
It was all I could do not to laugh. I’d seen pictures of Claudine’s art. For one project, she’d painted her naked body with henna and rolled around on a giant canvas.
The man stopped abruptly and hollered up to somebody’s apartment. The shutters of an upstairs window banged open and an old woman appeared. The man said something to her in Portuguese. I cringed when I heard the word “Americans.” After he finished talking, the woman began to yell.
I was horrified. “Let’s go,” I said.
“She says her son is asleep,” the man said.
“Ask her again,” Claudine said.
Instead he led us away. The old woman was still yelling, and windows all over the neighborhood were lighting up.
“I have another idea,” the man said. “I’ll take you to a bar where you can call the other driver on the telephone.”
It looked like the bar we had visited earlier in the afternoon, where we’d stood sipping wine alongside old Portuguese men in their woolen caps. The men had weathered faces and hands, but they drank wine out of dainty glass cups. They’d smiled at us and sent us a platter of bread topped with grilled pork. Claudine wanted to go talk to them, but I’d said no.
Inside this bar the men were younger and unsmiling. On the television a naked woman was stroking her own breasts. The bartender charged us two Euros to use the phone.
“No one’s answering,” said our friend in the leather jacket. “We’ll try the other number.”
“Two Euros again,” demanded the bartender.
I took another coin from my purse and handed it over. Claudine ordered us two glasses of wine.
“That’s Spanish. Here we say copo,” the bartender told her.
Claudine looked at him with a stupid grin on her face.
Eventually it was arranged that someone from the bar—an aloof, mustached man with acne scars on his cheeks—would give us a ride.
“That’s so nice of you, très gentil,” Claudine told him, but he still didn’t smile.
In silence we finished our wine. The man with the mustache waited for us in the doorway as I paid the bill. His eyes were locked to the television screen.
I felt a stab of panic. “We could find a hotel,” I whispered to Claudine.
“In this tiny village? There won’t be anything.”
Just then someone else appeared. For a moment I didn’t recognize him. Then I realized it was the man from the restaurant, the one who had carved meat from the cow’s leg. He was older, shorter, and stouter than the other men in the bar, with a close-clipped gray beard and an argyle sweater.
He took charge of things, ordering the other men to make a phone call, which we didn’t have to pay for, and to bring us water and wine. I was flooded with relief when, only ten minutes later, a taxi pulled up in front of the bar.
“Obrigado.” I was frustrated that I didn’t know enough Portuguese to thank him better.
“I am Inácio.” He tapped on his chest.
He took my hand and kissed it. He had a hangdog face with kind, droopy eyes. Without thinking, I hugged him. I smelled tobacco and felt the scratchiness of his sweater. I hadn’t hugged anyone in months, not since I’d graduated from college and started traveling, and I guess that’s why my eyes filled with tears.
“Good luck, miss.” He pronounced the words with precision, just as I’d been doing with my limited Portuguese.
The taxi driver already knew the way back to the hostel; probably it was not his first time rescuing tourists. “That was so fun,” Claudine said as we climbed out of the taxi. I said nothing. For some reason I was thinking about my father and trying to remember the last time he hugged me. Quite possibly he had never hugged me.
Claudine and I stood in the dark hallway holding our tarnished brass keys. The hostel was quiet except for the ticking of the old clock.
“You want some more port?”
All of the sudden I didn’t want to be alone. “One more,” I said.
In the tiny room Claudine lit candles and took out a bottle of port and a bowl of olives she’d bought at the farmer’s market. The olives tasted of almonds and salt and soil. They were Portuguese olives, small and green, so unlike the fat Greek olives that could be found in any American supermarket.
“I need to learn Portuguese so I can write that man a letter. To thank him,” I said.
“Who?” Claudine said.
“The man who helped us. With the silver beard.”
“Don’t you love old Portuguese men?” Claudine said. “The man I bought these olives from had no teeth. He scooped the olives out of a plastic bucket and weighed them in an old tin scale. I wonder if he would sell me one of those scales.”
“Where are all their wives?”
“I guess they died. Or maybe they’re keeping them in the cellar.”
We both giggled at this, and then we were silent.
I was thinking that Claudine had been right—we should’ve talked with the old men who’d sent us the pork. I said, “The man with the beard looked just like my father.” It wasn’t true, and I don’t know why I said it.
“Finally you say something interesting,” Claudine said, emptying the last of the port into our glasses.
Jennifer Hurley has published short fiction in Front Porch, The Mississippi Review, and The Arroyo Literary Review, among others. She is an alum of Boston University’s graduate creative writing program and currently works as an Associate Professor of English at Ohlone College in the San Francisco Bay Area. She lives in Alameda with her husband, four cats, a puppy, and innumerable books, and she can be found online at jen-hurley.com.