By Vinny Senguttuvan
Dugan poured himself another shot, filling tequila to the rim of the silver cup. Taking a long sniff at the sweet lime on his palm, he downed the drink, feeling the burn run down his throat and heat rising from inside him. When he lifted the bottle to the open window, a bit of tequila at the bottom caught the sun. Outside, a truck groaned and rattled down the street. Dugan put away the bottle with the last gulp of drink still inside, as was the custom – para el diablo. But where he was going today, he might as well drink it down.
He thought of Ella, how she sat on this very table years ago, shoulders stiff, and her hands resting on her pale knees. They had both stayed on their seats for long minutes, feeling their own uneven breathing, knowing what they surely would do, but yet lingering in that moment of anticipation.
Now, he slid his hand across the table, as he had done that day, feeling the old wood scrape the inside of his wrist. He let it lie, waiting, and remembered how Ella had sat there for minutes, head tilted to the side and eyes half closed, before slipping her fingers through his. The sun had come in from the window behind her and sifted through her brown hair, tinting it red.
Every time Dugan wrote to her, he would end saying, “Burn this, por favor.” Had he known, back then, that Ella kept them all, he would have broken it off. She had bundled the letters, tucked inside their envelopes, with a yellow ribbon. Now in spite of the trouble this was bringing him, a decade after the affair and years after her death, Dugan was glad Ella had preserved his letters. In a life of fading and loss, the saving of those folded papers warmed the inside of his stomach. Or maybe it was just the tequila finding its way down.
When it was time to go, he stood in front of the mirror in his fine suit, feeling the soft, light fabric as he smoothed down the sides. It still fit him as if it was cut yesterday. But he could smell the faint odor of mothballs rising up. He took his time, brushing his long graying hair and dabbing perfume at the inside of his wrists.
Stepping out the doorway, he felt the heat pushing him back in. Terracotta walls kept the inside cool, but here in the open, the red soil flogged by the sun all day was like an open flame. He turned to the car, but the old Caddy looked too much like a coffin. He wanted to feel alive today, not boxed in. If that meant walking for half an hour, across town, sweating, that’s what he would do.
Pavio lived on a hill, in his ancestral mansion. As a little boy, years before he knew Pavio, Dugan assumed this gothic gray-stone was a cathedral. High up, this building was bigger and more impressive than the church west of town that his mother chaperoned him and his seven siblings every Sunday. Cathedrals were the only thing greater than churches, his teacher had said. Dugan would have been shocked to learn that the building was a residence. And the facts – the residents had just one child and they never went to church – would have been incomprehensible.
Today, Dugan crunched up the shadeless gravel driveway and stopped to pant under a spindly oak next to the front porch. He stepped through the front door, like he did every week, careful not to trip on the protruding wood of the doorframe. A sky lit corridor, lined with black-and-white photographs and painted canvases, led him to Pavio’s study. When Dugan entered the darkened room, he felt blinded. As his eyes adjusted, he saw the glow behind the thick curtains, the large mahogany table at the middle of the room and Pavio sitting on the edge of the table, his long legs barely reaching the floor.
“Amigo,” Dugan said. And he put a leg forward as if to walk toward Pavio. But caught in Pavio’s stare, he stood still.
“You have betrayed me, my friend,” said Pavio, careful not to stress on the word friend.
It was a long time ago, Dugan wanted to say. But for Pavio, who had just discovered the letters, the affair was not at all old news. After Ella’s illness and death, Pavio kept his wife’s room untouched. It was off limits to the maid and even to his daughter Roanna. Pavio stood by Ella’s door every time he passed by it, head leaning against the doorframe. First a fine layer of red dust covered everything in the room and then cobwebs spread out. Termites are eating away the furniture, the maid complained constantly.
The day before, unable to bear the maid’s insistent warnings, Pavio had entered Ella’s room. The maid ran after him. Let me do it, senor, she said. I’ll take care of it. But Pavio wouldn’t listen. He stripped the bed off its sheets and then emptied the cabinet, shoving little trinkets and ornaments into a large leather bag. Then he tried to move the cabinet, but it wouldn’t budge. He called out to his daughter, and with him on one side and the maid and Roanna on the other, they pushed the cabinet forward. When it lost contact with the wall, the back panel collapsed and out fell a bundle of letters, tied together in a yellow ribbon. The maid didn’t have to wait for Pavio and his daughter to open the letters. She ran, and twenty minutes later, stood panting in Dugan’s kitchen.
“We have lived too long to take such an extreme stance, Pavio,” he said. “I’ve done things, yes.”
“You have done things.” Pavio nodded.
Dugan’s eyes fell on the large pistol, its handle encrusted in red ivory, on the table to the left of Pavio. He had been in that position many times in his life. Of course, with other men, not Pavio. Other men who were all dead. Usually at this point he would slip his hand into his coat pocket to feel the metal of his own revolver. And as the other reached for his weapon, Dugan would fire, twice. Though one bullet was all it took.
Very young, Dugan learned to shoot before being shot at. He was addicted to the rush, the pounding of blood over his ears. Pavio was different, son of a military general, he was raised to be impassionate. At army training, where the two met, Pavio out-shot Dugan four to one. But in the trenches, through smoke or fog, Dugan always hit his enemy first.
That was a long time ago. After the war, Pavio married young and took over his father’s mansion, while Dugan courted unavailable women and seemed to enjoy having guns pointed at his face. But every Sunday, after church, Dugan ate supper with Pavio, his wife and young daughter. Rodriguez, a local legend and Pavio’s favorite musician, sang on the gramophone. Sending the young girl to bed, they cleared the table for poker and tequila. Ella bet with blue beads from her jewelry box. The men started with a few pesos, but Dugan, soon empty handed, would put down his house and car on the table and lose those too, every single time.
“Tell me about Capanya, Dugan,” Ella would say, as she sliced the deck of cards into two, “And the city.” The way she listened, her long neck tilted, a smile spreading and eyes bulging at the right times, made Dugan never want to finish. He spoke of his travels around the country, as he did various odd jobs, moving with the changing seasons. Later he would write her letters from the road. But mostly he told stories of war – the trenches, snipers on treetops, and the broken bridges. Pavio, who never wished to speak of the war, took a long breath, turned away from his music, and said, “That’s not how it happened, mi amor.” Ella laughed and squeezed Pavio’s shoulder. “Sí, I know.”
Today, standing in front of Pavio and the large mahogany table with the red-handled pistol resting on it, Dugan felt naked. Dugan’s revolver was laying on his bed stand at home. He left it behind on purpose, and even now he didn’t desire to have it with him now, but Dugan missed its comforting weight in his coat. He was finished with that business though. This was Pavio he was standing in front of. Pavio, his friend. And Dugan felt tired, he felt old.
“You have done things,” Pavio said again, reaching for his gun.
The door opened, swinging to slam against the wall. Roanna, Pavio’s daughter, stood panting, her high cheeks red. She let her eyes rest on Dugan, and then she turned to her father. “Padre,” she said, swallowing hard, “Rodriguez is on the radio.”
She jumped over the coffee table, the hem of her skirt swooshing around her knees. Stopping in front of the wooden box on top of the mantle, she fiddled the dial and turned up the volume. Trumpets filled the air, and a guitar joined in. There was a wave to the music, the drone of the instruments taking over the room. Roanna clapped and weaved her way back to the center of the room.
“Isn’t this divine?” she said to her father. And turning to Dugan, she took his hands in hers. “Dance with me, querido Dugan.”
The two danced in circles, fingers interlocked and arms extended. She made him spin her a few times. In a minute, the song ended and a slow one began. Before Dugan could realize what had happened, Roanna had stepped close, his hand now resting on her back and her arm pressed against his shoulder.
The voice sang of lost love and a lifetime of melancholy. Roanna smelled of tortillas, and he got a whiff of her perspiration and a limey perfume, just like her mother’s. Years ago, he had chased Roanna around the yard, dangled her by her feet. Now she was a grown woman, taller than him. And beautiful. He was glad he was sharing his last dance with Roanna. It didn’t have to be his last dance, he knew that. It didn’t have to be. But that’s what he wanted.
While they danced, Dugan turned for a second to look at his friend. Pavio still sat on the table, silent, watching them, patient. He is a gentleman, Dugan thought – letting me dance with his daughter after what I did with his wife.
He thought of Ella, her long fingers slipping through his as they danced. “You won’t be young forever, Dugan,” Ella had said to him. “Living in the moment is wonderful, but think of the future. You don’t want a life of fading sweetness.” Dugan had smiled and said, “Let’s dance.” He only cared about the burn of tequila on his throat, a sweaty palm against his and the beat of music on his feet. But age caught up with him, and that’s what life had become, a fading sweetness, especially since Ella’s death.
As the song moved to the final chorus, Roanna’s grip on Dugan’s shoulder tightened. And he felt wetness on his neck, where her cheek pressed to him. But when the music stopped and she stepped back, her eyes had been wiped dry.
She tuned to Pavio. “Padre, por favor.”
Pavio shook his head, no. Dugan could see pain in Pavio’s raised brows and stooping mustache.
“But,” Roanna said, “Can’t he atone? Can’t he pay back in some other way?”
Pavio said nothing. He had turned off the radio and the sounds of the night began to creep in, crickets and the bellowing wind.
“We can take his house and farms,” Roanna pressed on.
“We are not like the people over there.” Pavio pointed north, and Dugan found himself nodding. “Money isn’t everything. Over here, things like honor still matter.” Pavio slammed his palm against the table, rattling everything on it, including the red-handled pistol. On the sight of the weapon, Roanna’s eyes bulged, and a fresh set of tears began to form.
“Come now, senorita,” Dugan says tugging her hand. “If not today, it’ll be another Tuesday. If not your father, it’ll be someone else. Look at my suit, look at the beautiful girl in front of me. It’s never going to be better.”
Pavio walked around his desk and pulled a drawer. “The night is still young,” he said, pulling out a bottle of tequila. “Let’s all have a drink. And there is no reason why I can’t squeeze some money out of you first.” He flashed a deck of playing cards, already shuffling the smooth cards between his fingers.
“Do you play poker?” Dugan asked Roanna, and she turned to her father, tilting her head to the side, not pleading but charming.
“Beads.” Pavio thrust his index finger at her. “We put pesos, you bid with beads. Understood?”
“And I get to keep my winnings, yes?”
They played round after round. Piles of money and clusters of colored beads rose and fell in front of the three players. Roanna held her own, with the flair of a seasoned player, holding the cards close to her breasts, laughing, charming. The drinks relaxed the men, and Pavio sat back twisting up the ends of his mustache. It could have been any other night, but for the pistol lying on the corner of the table. Its red handle so close, Dugan could have leaned forward to reach it. His finger twitched.
A soft rain had begun to fall, and the smell of the land – grass, animal piss and red peppers – filled the air. Dugan picked up the bottle and poured himself the last of the tequila, watching the final drops – the devil’s share – drip into his glass, one beautiful sphere after another.
Vinny Senguttuvan is writer, photographer and data scientist. His short stories have been published at many places including Emerson Review and Word Riot. He is currently finishing up a novel.
Artwork by Nathaniel Kressen.