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Lisbon story.

I opened the door to my father's apartment in the Campo de Ourique district of Lisbon--he'd sent me to sell it quickly before he died--and even before my eyes adjusted to the dark, I could feel that a stranger was lying in the bed. I froze in the hallway. He seemed thin and long but heaped, a tangle of cords more than a body. I jostled my suitcase, but he didn't stir. I inhaled the scent of what might be the corpse of a drug addict who'd wandered here from the Cais do Sodre station and persuaded the excruciatingly bribable porteira downstairs to let him expire in some warmth.

As always in Lisbon, my heart throbbed semaphores to summon Tonio. That's all it ever takes for him to gather that I'm in town, but I'd also taken the precaution of sending a letter asking him to try some advance work toward the sale. He's an orbiter, an arranger, a whisperer in kings' ears, though what he actually does for a living, like many of the refugees from Angola, is construction work. He'd written back that he'd tracked down a buyer ... though (ai, querida, you know the story here) there were a few complications, which he'd save for my arrival.

I touched my way into the small, narrow kitchen and snapped on the light. The tiled picture of a caravel was tilted; a knife black with jam was tipping the bark-canoe of a cheese rind on the cutting board. While I was grimacing at a cleaned-out tin of sausages, a young man wrapped in a sheet appeared in the doorway.

I shrieked--one of those girlish but full, rending affairs.

Inside the V where he clutched the bed sheet, his chest revealed enough of his ribs to suggest the inner planks of a one-man fishing boat. His eyes were clouded but bright, beaming a child's buoyancy toward sickness.

My brain switched to Portuguese; I stammered that he could call me Catarina, and I sketched the outline of why this place was getting hurried to market ... and was he perhaps a friend of Antonio Magalhaes? Was he the buyer for my father's apartment?

His name was Mateus Soares, and he spoke somewhat the English from watching many movie programs on the television set. He pointed a finger at me and said, "Bang, bang, especially your Westerns." Toninho was a friend, yes, but as for owning a genuine roof over his head, no, ha ha and again ha ha, he barely had money for a dinner of pork fat.

"Well, now," I said. "How about if you go into the other room and we can talk? You can explain where you belong, how's that sound?"

His answer was for his legs to buckle. He stayed kneeling, gripping the door frame. He was wearing my ex-husband's sweatpants. Water began to gush from his skull.

When I'd tucked him back in the gray wet bed, I whispered, "Tens SIDA, Mateus?" The room smelled of spilled intestines.

He nodded. His eyes flickered, as if fireflies had stepped in the quicksand of his irises and were pulsating ferociously before they went under.

What had possessed me long ago to paint the bedroom the shade of a toy pig? Now that it had faded to a hybrid rose, the furnishings--rickety iron bed, splintery armoire, beige hooked rug, and spindly dresser--suggested probing insects resting indefinitely inside a flower.

"Let's see what you've hidden in this mess to feast on," I said.

I'd come to esteem Lisbon as a refuge after college and still loved to escape here. I kept lots of provisions on hand so that I'd enter, after a lengthy absence, into a well-stocked home, but almost everything had been eaten. The cupboards, canary-yellow and apple-red, cheery plastics I'd installed in the post-revolutionary seventies, held a lone tin of tomato soup that I brought to lukewarm. The freezer was empty except for a heel of bread.

I sat on the edge of the bed to feed Mateus. I was wearing a black skirt, white blouse, and lilac pumps--only British tourists wore sensible shoes--that kicked at his splay of magazines on American basketball. The pages exposed unearthly jumps and skeins of muscle. The dryness of his hand scraping mine alarmed me: a husk of a dead starfish. He grabbed the spoon and, smiling, splashed at the red pool in the dish in mock-complaint and said, "You serve me the food of jails."

"My father was in a jail in this country, and trust me, he never got anything this good," I said.

"Your father is a criminal?" Thrilled, eager, he flopped toward me.

"No. No, you might say he's the opposite of a criminal." I eased backward.

"I don't understand, pretty little girl." Menina bonitinha.

"Don't call me that. I'm forty-five years old. Jesus."

We stared at the room's sole attempt at decoration, dad's framed map of Wales, my mother's birthplace. He'd been born in northern Portugal and met my mother after his release from prison. She'd been on holiday in Lisbon and found it touching that he acted unstrung while riding in the funicular. They'd bought this place to live in as newlyweds awaiting their immigration papers to California, and they'd kept the property but never returned. He asked me to leave the map on display, so that Mama's ghost could visit if she liked.

Came a small voice from the bed. "I meant you are pleasing with the dark hair and green eyes and your smallness."

"Don't say that either."

"My mother, she owns the green eyes." His voice spooled out the scratchy tape of his story. She was Lisboetan and his father was Mozambican, and they lived by the Museum of Costumes and did not approve of him. He was only thirty-three. His boyfriend had thrown him out when he got ill.

I murmured about his bad luck. I was sorry.

He quoted a Portuguese line about destiny: If shit were worth money, the poor wouldn't have assholes.

Mateus could easily be one of Tonio's lovers; he was forever breaking up with one man or another, though he'd sobbed terribly over a guitarist from Cabo Verde. Beyond the rattling pane, Lisbon was coming to, the trucks grinding and trolley wires singing that pitch best heard by animals, while the Christmas lights--in tints from eggshell to vanilla--buzzed in their sockets over the streets.

I repeated that my father was dying of stomach cancer in California, and letting go of this perch was his last unfinished business. He wanted to survive long enough to sell his spot here and divide the profit among his grandchildren, my brother David's three.

"I cannot buy nothing," said Mateus.

Right. Quite so. I'd help him get into a hospice that dealt with AIDS patients--wasn't it good to be in a country with socialized medicine?--because I had another sick man to put at peace.

"Ai, no," he said, turning over to face away from me. "My desire now is to die in a nice house. I am not going to no hospital."

Americans solve their problems by fleeing. From the hallway I left a message on Tonio's phone machine to meet me at once at the Santa Apolonia station. I trusted my voice to find him immediately and have him plain materialize. I abandoned my luggage and, without saying goodbye, raced the four flights down and stood on Rua Carlos da Maia to stare at the ground-floor windows and shut curtains of Deolinda Simoes, the porteira, the gorgon at the gate. My father never failed to mail her checks to watch his property, though we were sure she rented it out on her own and pocketed the cash and, up until now, managed to spirit her renters into some fissure if my brother or I planned to visit.

I bolted over the dragons'-tooth mosaic sidewalks, past the Chinese restaurant run by immigrants from Macau, and hurried to the taxi queue on the Rua Ferreira Borges. My cab driver inquired if I was about to become ill, did I need help? I was hoping I looked merely deep in prayer. My hands were sealed over my eyes as we climbed the Calcada da Estrela, where the cobalt and turquoise tiles gleamed on the shops stocked with King's cakes, glaceed citron, baskets spilling pineapples from Madeira, and port bottles with chalky stenciling to show their age. The cable on the Prazeres streetcar ahead of us fell from the overhead wires, and my driver, grizzled as scraped toast, slammed on the brakes but hummed a sweet, broken tune. When the streetcar jolted forward, its cable like a femur bouncing on the wire, we tore east along the waterfront and I almost catapulted through the windshield from the force of his stop at Santa Apolonia.

On a plate-glass window looking into the station's waiting room, my reflection was smeared, as if I'd thrown my face to splatter on a mirror. Ostensibly my father wished to spare me the trauma of prolonged deathbed scenes; he intended to go to his Maker in a pine-scoured room with trained caretakers. He'd been fond of his forty years as a nurse at Children's Hospital and regretted that he couldn't die with their teddy-bear wallpaper as a backdrop to David and me. But the other reason for packing me off to Lisbon was that the year before his cancer was diagnosed, I'd imploded into jigsaw pieces after my husband, Frank, blurted that I "represented confinement." I was, with unforgivable timing, my father's last nursing project; childless and solitary since my divorce, I was going to send him worrying into the other world.

I scanned the crowds, anxious for them to present me with Tonio. The Tejo across the road lapped against the hulls of boats, an incoherent lullaby. Toninho! There you are! Tonio Magalhaes! Grinning at me from the opposite side of the Marginal. Wearing broth-colored khakis and a blue-striped shirt, a vastly different get-up from the one he'd been sporting when we'd first met twenty years ago. I'd been walking down the Avenida da Liberdade when an African in a bell-bottomed, chartreuse tie-dyed pantsuit pinched the back of my calf and said, "You are the first white girl in this city I have made smile." He later denied that he ever wore such an outfit.

He tapped with a what-goes-on-in-that-mind-of-yours briskness at his temple to convey, You said the south side of the highway, minha sempre-perdida Catarina! He looked gaunt, but then he was lamppost-tall, and his habit of manifesting out of nowhere suggested the notion of the spectral.

I barely missed getting hit by a car as--horns blaring--I dashed through the traffic into his arms. "My God," he said, "you almost got yourself killed and I'd have to die too!" My hand on the giant rosary-bead decades of his spine. His scent was of Mustela oil, like a pressing of hazelnuts and musk, and we were of a perfect mismatch in height for him to settle his head on top of mine. Though we often sleep side by side, we'd never tangled in the ruinous desperation of love that leaves no one standing.

"Cat, I am so sick, oh my Lord, about your father."

The sun scorched off my corneas, broke the membrane sealing in the water, as if it were only simple, physical laws that had me crying.

"Ai, Catarina. Nao chores como chuva." He cradled my head against his chest. My father used to say that: don't cry like rain. When the sorrow bursts out of you as a visible storm.

"Honeypie," he said. Unny-pah. He'd picked the word up from the fifties sitcoms hailed down into his war-pounded Luanda. He tossed it at me often enough, but it never failed to crack me up.

"You need to tell me everything, Senhor T," I said.

"Honeypie, I must sit down. You want to sit down too, believe me, Catarina."

We found a green bench with a view of the dock. Discarded napkins from a stand selling lemon squash and coconut tarts scuttled like albino crabs around our ankles. He was mottled with sweat as he took my hand in his and said, "Your father is not the only one to possess that apartment, I am sorry."

"He's owned that place for sixty years. I sent you a copy of the deed."

"Honeypie, I discovered that after the revolution some grande queijo in the Communist Party said, 'OK, I am making a new deed, I own it, not some American who doesn't live here anymore, it's mine.'"

"If someone else stole it, why hasn't he ever tried to move in?"

"Because he died a few weeks after making the false deed. I found it when I was nosing around the Associacao Lisbonense de Proprietarios, and when I tried to track him down, I met his widow. She was in the dark about it. When I showed her your father's deed and said the place was for sale and I hoped she wouldn't try anything ridiculous, she said that she hated all Communists, including her dead husband, and she wants to buy an apartment for her granddaughter. She'll pay your asking price. Antonio Magalhaes forever at your service, Cat-Cat."

"So why do you look like you've swallowed a bucket of nails?"

Ah. Just one slight problem. Mateus.

"I was once insane about him, honeypie. We were never lovers. Even dying, the bastard knows I worshipped him and will do as he asks. I paid your porteira to let him stay. The one little catch is that the widow who wants to buy is superstitious; she refuses to make a transaction while a dead man is in residence. She thinks it is more with the grace to let my friend be there to his end before the sale begins, so that he does not feel rushed, with the roof being transferred from him, if that is his final wish with God."

"His wish? Mateus--I'm sorry for him, I am, but he can go to a hospital, and this woman can lose her voodoo hang-up and sign a check, and then I can go home to my father. Whose last wish includes cleaning up his affairs here. By me. For his grandchildren. This is absurd."

"Yes, of course it is. But you're here to sell it, querida, yes? You asked me to wave my magic wand and help. I thought you'd be glad for a buyer this fast. Fast ... with a small delay so that Mateus--"

"Mateus can go stay with you. Since you're so in lo-ove with him."

"He wishes to approach his death in a pleasant home. You are aware, honeypie, that my flat is a shithole. I am the wizard with arrangements for everyone but myself, as you have pointed out a few times. Also, and perhaps I am handing you the gun to shoot at me with, but his parents have said they will take him in, but they do not like him. His mother will read to him from the Bible with the parts underlined about the sodomy, and that is to go to the other world with a nightmare in the ear and in the eye and right up the ass. No good."

"You had no right to move your friend in. There's no time to fuck around."

"Your father can go to his rest, and may God bless him very much, knowing a finish to his business in Lisbon is near, while another dying man--"

He caught my arm as I seized my purse to leave. He'd used the words "father" and "dying" in the same sentence.

"Cat, I'm so sorry," he said, tightening his grip on me. "Please. Don't run away. We're fighting like tired married people. We get so much almost right."

Seagulls wheeled and cawed and plunged into the river. I collapsed back onto the bench and said, "T, tell me this isn't some assisted suicide thing."

"OK, he did ask me that. But baby, you know me, I told him I could not kill anyone. He agrees to stay until he is so bad he won't know where he is, and then I'll take him to the hospital. Don't you see, honeypie? It is a chance for me to tend the passage of someone in a good way. Plus the sale is for sure, God willing. Maybe God prefers that your father not watch his place in Lisbon go away in his lifetime."

"You're making me crazy, T."

He put his arm around me and said, "I forget your father is American and you people think that things get finished. I wanted to buy time and make everybody happy. But, OK, it is my job now to take care of you. I'll tell Mateus to go to his parents."

The roof of the daylight sky rippled early to let the sharp stars streak down as tinsel pooling around our feet. We were wading forward, with the world shrunk to an arcade with its top and walls draped with people and buildings and newsstands and here and there a fresco curve of sky. Sometimes a few flowers. Chatter and, from somewhere, a moan going toward diminuendo. We passed a contingent of young women wearing belts that wrapped around and stuck out the back loop of their trousers. Some American imports had once flooded in, and everyone figured this must be the style; who could have waists so large? A model was being photographed against a white stucco wall and I stepped into the road for a closer look: her skin and hair were damp and she seemed naked under a tease of lime-colored raincoat. I did not detect the Prazeres streetcar bearing down on me until Tonio threw me onto the sidewalk, and from there I saw the aghast face of the conductor gliding toward the cemetery at the end of the line, his hand still blasting the horn. Cemiterio dos Prazeres, the Cemetery of Pleasures. Did that mean that earthly pleasure was strong enough to continue past death? Or that death brought heavenly pleasure? "That streetcar almost killed you," said Tonio. "Jesus and MaDONna, Cat."

Tonio's arm stayed fixed around me as we barged into a piano melody filling my father's apartment. Rachmaninoff. Blaring.

Mateus was sitting in bed with the sheet tented over his knees and, in the way that presence speaks to presence, he sensed that Tonio had given him up. His wailing caused Tonio to cross the room, where Mateus clung to him like a frightened child, and drove me into the living room, where I picked up the plastic cassette holder. It belonged to Mateus; maybe he'd bought it from the transients who hawked music outside the train station. It certainly did not belong to my father or to me.

Tonio was chanting, No, it's not her fault. Pa, it's time to be a son again for your parents, you must tell them goodbye.

The living room was as motley as the rest of the place; it retained its original wallpaper with violet sprigs, an oratorio to Saint Anthony, and a cabinet my parents had filled to bursting with tableaux of miniatures, Russian dolls, toy soldiers, farm beasts, and enameled and ceramic figurines. I'd added a rug busy as a tapestry and an incongruous oak dining set. A nearly blind great-aunt had passed her gentle widowhood here, and I needed only to stroke the furniture to absorb the heat left behind by the wandering pads of her fingertips. I parked myself on the sofa, which was upholstered in a print of stylized compass roses that wear and blur had changed into blastulae.

Look, brother, I spoke out of turn, Catarina's here so end of story, OK, pa?... go home where they love you, of course they do, shh, pa ...

The piano music was helping drown out their voices, but it was also making me as queasy as it had my father. He'd spent a lifetime trying to hide this from me, but once, at the Guerreros' Christmas party, when I was ten, I watched him brace himself against a wall while someone thumped carols on the Steinway. I asked my mother why he'd gone home ahead of us, complaining of nausea.

It took another week before my mother broke her promise to my father never to tell me that when he'd been young in a village up north, he'd been required to play the piano loudly enough to cover the screams of the men being tortured in a makeshift jail during the fascist regime. Mother was big-boned, fair but jet-haired, a pragmatist; she'd been a vet's assistant in Wales and then in California, and dispensing the truth about animals had tempered her quiet tone into the straightforward.

My father's original career had been as a journalist. The trouble broke when he wrote a newspaper article scolding the government for not providing better medicine for the poor. On the same page as the editorial, some other newsman--or a shaving of metal fallen onto the printing press--had altered the line "Rare men run this country" to "Rat men turn this country." Ratos instead of Raros. (I learned on my own that rata was also slang for cunt.)

The editor was exiled to Galicia, no one confessed to the alteration, and my father was arrested in the house he shared with his elderly parents and brothers. The soldiers explained it was his job now to entertain them with his musical talent.

He was a decent player, nothing special. The piano was a moldering upright in a corner of a drafty edifice serving as a jail, and the screams from someone invisible in the depths pierced him. The notes he hit muffled the sounds before they swept down into the valley.

He quit playing.

They said, Keep going or we'll chop off a finger.

He did not attempt Debussy; too airy. Liszt would be better. Liszt ranges over the keyboard, gets showy, never settles down.

The bellowing escalated. A man emptying himself out.

My father dropped his hands into his lap, and a boy in a uniform several sizes too large raised a knife and, at a slant, sliced the fat pad off my dad's wedding-ring finger. The miniscule chopped part would heal, but it would remain a flat, dead spot.

He managed scales until his blood glazed the keys. The shrieks turned into primitive gasping, hitting a crescendo. Once again my father wrapped his notes around the noise. Then he took his hands off the keys yellowed as bad teeth and said, Cut off my head. Do it fast. I quit.

The unseen man was delivering staccato, roof-lifting, gut-contorting calls. Then the sound stopped cold. My father gaped through the window at the beige fields and waited for the torture of the man in the back room to continue, but there was only a quiet of epic, multiplying shape.

My mother said it was impossible to gauge whether the man had been killed, or dragged off, or--this was the guess she embedded in herself in order to convince my father--someone had been deliberately hollering to frighten him as his punishment before he got shipped out to a year of solitary confinement.

Mateus was lightening up on his infernal crying, subsiding into gulping and choking. I snapped off the music and pitched myself at the telephone.

I started out wanting merely to report that we'd found a buyer, but my dad snatched up his receiver before the end of the first ring as though he'd been waiting at the ready, and before I could speak, I heard, "Catarina, there are problems, naturally. Tell me." I didn't get far past explaining about Communist leaders and the superstitions of their widows and delays when I blurted about a man in the house. Sick. No, dying. AIDS. Displaced. African, sort of. Would my father please calm him down, since he had a lifetime of speaking to patients in their beds, persuade him that it was time to leave? He had parents willing to take him in, though he was estranged from them.

My father would be sitting in the velour chair worn down to its shining warp. Even at eighty-five, he looked remarkably like James Joyce, trim, nearsighted, and cerebral, and given to bowties. The carpeting was a cornflower tint, and geodes caught sunrays on a mantel that had been barnacled with them since my childhood. His feet would be on the footstool I'd done in needlepoint the summer my mother died of breast cancer; I'd stitched a pride of lions with manes of orange tendrils.

"Put him on." He sighed with enough force for his words to billow out of the phone as a mist that dampened my ear. I pictured the fog that continually wraps pieces of San Francisco as if they're ornaments to be swathed and shipped.

I signaled for Tonio to pick up the line in the bedroom while I unplugged the phone in the living room and found the jack in the hallway. When I sat on the bedroom floor to listen in, Mateus and my father, who'd lived in California for over half a century but remained instinctively Lusitanian, were fording that tributary-rich stream of politeness that must precede diving into business. Mateus, now dry-eyed, assumed the pose of a teenager set for a lengthy gossip, head propped on pillows ... if it might be acceptable to speak cordially with thou esteemed owner ... and before I might trouble you regarding my home, in which you are presently lodged, I should inquire as to your profession ...

"I used to be a fry-cook at Cafe Nicola," said Mateus. "It is an art of timing, pa."

"You are possibly aware, my friend, that the Japanese word 'tempura' comes from the Portuguese word for 'time,' and from the Portuguese teaching them about the right timing and degree of heat for frying." My father had a habit of figuring that exchanging colorful facts sufficed as intimacy with strangers.

"Imperialists, pa."

Tonio was on a chair by the bed; he bent in two, his elbows on his knees, and his head plummeted into his hands.

"Excuse me?"

"Missionary imperialists in Asia. In Africa. You white people should stay home, pa."

Senhor T's head sunk lower, as if something very interesting had materialized on the floor.

"Young man, that's a funny thing to say. Since right now, as I understand it, you're in my home."

"Dad?" I said. "Listen. I'll figure this out. I'm sorry I called."

"You're dead, I'm dead, it doesn't matter who goes first, pa."

"You keep calling me Father. As your father, more or less, I'm wondering if you might remove the rudeness from your tone."

"Father? You're not my father," said Mateus. "My father is a God-fearing son of a bitch who despises me. He is dead to me."

"Dad, he's not saying pai, he's saying pa."

"Pa. He's saying 'pa.' What does that mean?"

"Pal, man, guy. It's every other word here now."

"How delightful. My beautiful language mutilated. I'm not your 'pal.' You are in the place I plan to give to my grandchildren."

"Your imperialist grandchildren can go to the devil, pa."

Tonio stood and pressed a hand on Mateus's forehead, aiming to push the fury back inside him or at least pin it in one spot.

"CREDO." The word means "I believe," but when stretched to contain ten Es, it means I Do Not Believe This. My father was aiming for thirty Es.

I set the phone on the floor, where sound buzzed around the edges of the receiver. Mateus lapsed into a fast slang I couldn't follow. Tonio snapped on the small television on the dresser and returned to stroking Mateus's head until the venom seemed to retract. When I retrieved the phone, my father was sputtering.

"Catarina, what's that racket?"

"There's something called the Ducky Song that comes on the TV to send the children to bed. I guess it soothes him."

My father considered television a sinister drug. He hadn't been allowed to silence it in the large ward at Children's Hospital, so he'd set up a card table to show how to fold origami. One victorious night all the patients ignored the television to shape giraffes, pelicans, and many-sided stars.

Mateus slammed down his phone to attend to the ducks.

"I'm still here, Dad."

"They need ducks to tell them to go to bed. Don't children there ask their fathers for a night blessing anymore?"

"It's a catchy tune," I told him. "The cartoon ducks play xylophones. The problem is the music gets stuck in your head." I'd started despising his night blessing when I was fourteen. He'd make the sign of the cross over me and ask God in Portuguese to make me a big saint. When he'd borne enough of my complaining, he remarked that perhaps I'd become too mature for this kind of goodnight.

The cord was long enough for me to hide in the hallway. "Dad, Tonio is here too. He's trying to talk Mateus into going home. Then we can proceed. With the sale. It's all so ridiculous, but I don't think I can handle calling in the white coats to have him forcibly removed."

"No, no, don't do that to someone who's sick. No."

"I could find out who else is out there, on the market. I could find someone this afternoon. Or it could take months, Dad. Longer."

"I like that the buyer will be a woman putting her husband's theft to right. Erasing a sin is good, even if it isn't yours. Even if the harm never came into view. Listen. I'm proud of you."

"Goodnight, Dad. Daddy? I'll be home soon."

Tonio had finished delivering Mateus to his rest and was unrolling a sleeping bag for me in the living room. I climbed into it. He collapsed next to me on a nest of blankets.

"I'm such a coward, honeypie."

"You're not a coward. How are you a coward?"

He said that Mateus wanted to leave the earth pretending he lived in his own grown-up home. Perhaps he should have helped him die with that vision intact.

"Tonio, I've read those Hemlock Society things. You have to put a plastic bag over the person's head to make sure he's dead."

"This is about giving a man his last wish."

"I know," I said, sharply. "That's why I'm here, remember?"

In the cabinet filled with miniatures, ceramic bluebirds in a disheveled, merry row were playing ceramic instruments. I'd never noticed that in the dark the dots of violets on the wallpaper, and the amber drips from the sweating of the glue and aging of the print, formed a halo of quarter- and whole-notes around the outside of the cabinet. Tonio burrowed down so his head fit against my breast. I said, "I don't mean to bark at you, T. What did you love about him?"

"He was a genius of a cook. His timing, it's a gift. He snuck into the Nicola to cook a fish for himself and steal it. But he said he fell in love with standing there waiting for the fish to get done. I liked that. But the real reason I fell for him is his singing voice. He can go over high C. Can you believe it? A voice that deep. Where does it come from? It's like he doesn't produce it himself, he offers a place for a sound above high C to hide. But I could not bear waiting for him to be done with one person and then another, it was too much like watching myself, and I became the one he'd come crying to when something ended." He fidgeted on the floor, his elbow barely missing my face. "Honeypie, I cannot sleep with that looking at us." He got up and closed the little doors of the oratorio to Saint Anthony, my grandfather's wedding gift to my father and mother, on a lace runner on a side table. In the hollow in the chest of the wooden saint, under a thin glass shield, was a sliver of finger bone that was supposed to be from someone who'd touched the saint during his lifetime.

When Tonio flung himself back down onto his bedding, he hooked a leg over me, and I said, "If he's shut in his coffin, Senhor T, you're stuck protecting me from the ghosts with their daggers and the screaming scary stuff."

He said I shouldn't imagine otherwise. Hadn't he always kept me safe and sound?

I stroked his blanketed leg. "Yes," I said, and that was enough for him to drop into an instant slumber. He'd forgotten that in my family "safe" and "sound" had never quite fit together. My ear rested as a stethoscope where T's heart pressed up to send a pulse through the side of my face. This must have eased me into some kind of rest, because when whimpering filled the air, I bolted upright in my sleeping bag, unsure where I was. Tonio stretched half-awake and groaned, "I put him to bed, it's your turn."

With his head stuck below his pillow, Mateus looked like an ostrich, gawky. I removed the pillow. His hair looked singed, and I stroked the tufts of it and uttered that timeless night litany: Do you need water? A story? Where does it hurt? until I fathomed what he wanted: my hearing him calling out, my stroking his hair.

I'd slept in this room with Tonio our first night together, never undressing. It was more of a clutching, my astonished inspection of how thin he was, and his embrace of me at first was so ferocious I seemed to be underwater and breathing through a straw that pierced the surface. There was a package of condoms near expiration left over from a love affair, but when I mentioned them, Tonio said, I don't like you like that but, please, if you do not mind holding me. The war in Angola had left him an orphan adrift, one of the earth's totally fucked. I quit my usual anxious wondering what was supposed to happen next, until I had a sense of being pressed whole to the inside of him, and I left that print of myself there for him to carry around, and his physical weight sank inside my ribs, where it expanded so he'd stay trapped in the barred cage of my chest. But I was aware that my arms were mine and his were his, and my legs belonged to me and his--his were so long the muscles seemed a topography rolling away. The light from the streetlamp outside exploited a weak horizon in the blinds so that it seemed to have hurled a knife in to cut the throat of Wales, but out of the slit spilled a brilliance. The plastic over the framed map refracted this dazzling strip onto us, laying a cool cloth of light over both our foreheads.

I kissed Mateus's fevered temple. He had drifted away.

When I lay down next to Tonio, he lifted a lock of my hair to fit behind my ear and said, "I wish I could desire you, you need so much."

"Go to sleep," I said. "Stay with me, Tonio. I love you to pieces."

But my own sleep was so fitful you'd have imagined I was choreographing abandoned sex with someone the movie studio still needed to superimpose on the film. I got up and peered through the window every hour. Night in Lisbon speckles itself blue, tosses sapphires onto black cloth. The sapphires dissolve by daybreak, but the sky keeps the saturation of the gems of the night in the same way that clear water, amassed, holds blue.

I came to with a start to find Tonio missing. Late morning. The phone rang, and my father's panic trilled over the wire. "Catarina? I keep falling. This is going to be the first day I can't go see your mother." It was nighttime in California, pre-dawn.

"Dad? Is David there? Call David to come take care of you."

My father--even when he was ill--visited my mother daily in her cerulean vase in the Columbarium, a minute's stroll from the scene of their married life on Arguello Boulevard. She awaited him in the niche they'd tiled with azulejos as their final home. One evening, after he'd again put on his suit and tie to go calling on her, I'd said, "Daddy, isn't it time to move on?" He'd tried to check the disappointment in me that made him tilt his head, as if he couldn't possibly have heard me correctly. "I was faithful to your mother," he'd said. "Why shouldn't I stay like that, especially since she's in a weakened state?"

"I'm coming home, Dad. Enough already."

"No. Something good and without death will arrive so the sale can happen. I can't guess what but I have faith. I'm a week away from the hospital. You can visit me there. I couldn't stomach my daughter hovering, bracing herself about taking me to the bathroom."

"Call David."

"I couldn't bear him hovering either. Is our patient surviving over there? Allow me to chat with my fellow countryman. I have a joke for him."

"A joke."


Tonio came in, carrying groceries. He set bottles of Luso water and Sumol pineapple seltzer on the kitchen counter and lingered in the doorway, watching me. He'd brought in the scent of the ocean. Fish.

He assisted me in performing the same fandango with the telephone lines so that I could listen as my father said to Mateus, "Young man? Good morning. Is it morning? In Lisbon? When I was a boy in Portugal, my father inflicted a joke on me to start every day."

This was news. The sepia photos of my Vovo with his scrub-brush mustache and crazed leopard's squint didn't suggest a laugh riot.

"What happens when five Portuguese people argue politics?"

Tonio was leaning against the armoire. In its oval mirror, I could see the whorl at the back of his cropped hair, where the entirety of his body refused to vanish, despite being down his own drain.

Mateus said, "Wait, wait, wait. It's on the tip of my tongue."

The pregnant pause across the seas between Lisbon and San Francisco was interrupted by my father's ineptitude with comic timing. "They form seven political parties."

Mateus laughed. "That's it. Good one, pa. Are you buttering me up before you scream at me to leave?"

"I don't have the strength for the scream in me," said my father. "I was hoping you'd offer your personal assurance that the ginjinha shop is still open in the center of town. I've been wondering. My wife and I went there after we got married, to toast each other."

"You must not have had many friends, pa. It's the size of a closet."

"It was mostly the two of us, back then. Has it been torn down?"

I could have told him it was thriving, a pint-sized dispensary serving nothing but cherry liqueur on the Largo do Sao Domingos.

"It's always the same, pa," said Mateus. "Who knows how the owner survives."

My father said that the ache in him was awful. When he was much younger, he'd drink some ginjinha whenever his system was upset. He filled Mateus's ear and mine with the war story of Moncao: when the town was surrounded, a woman scraped together the last of the flour to make two buns to throw at the enemy. The invaders withdrew, unnerved at this display of plenty. He said he felt like that, under siege and pretending he wasn't starving.

"I can only swallow applesauce," he said. "Catarina, could I trouble you to stroll out for some ginjinha? It'll quiet me if you're drinking it. Buy some for our patient there too."

"Why, thank you," said Mateus. He said he'd been craving something without knowing what. Cherries in fire water. Yes, good.

"Call me back and describe it," said my father. "Please."

"I think I can manage that," I said. "Goodbye, Daddy."

Tonio picked up a towel lying on the floor, blue with nearly scrubbed-away roses, and wiped Mateus's face. He lifted the towel and stared at its underside, as if expecting his friend to leave a veronica imprinted on the cloth. Then he studied Mateus, as if by chance he'd find, instead, the faintest outline of the dissolving roses on his face.

"Pa," said Mateus, and he gripped Toninho's arm, "I'm not sure why I always seem to get my way but I've got nothing to show for it."

Toninho's face split open to spill out his radiance. "You fucking idiot," he said softly. "Nothing to show for it? You've got people here dancing for you, dancing around you, dancing--"

Mateus grinned. "OK, OK."

"Dancing off on an errand of mercy," I said from the doorway, trying to raise my tone into light animation. "Say thank you."

"Hurry back," he called out at me. I had to take him as boyish; ill or not, he didn't come across as a man in his thirties and surely never had. "Thank you for hurrying," he said. It was the first time we were both smiling at precisely the same moment.

Tonio said he would cook an early lunch for the Lord and Master. I walked past the Pingo Doce--the Sweet Drop--grocery store, where pigs' heads hung on hooks, to be stewed for sausage for the holidays. My father had refused to take us to the matancas in the valley, because he said the squeal of the pigs when the knife came down was unearthly and no one who heard it could ever get rid of the sound.

Angels, droll and flirty, were stenciled around the entranceway of the ginjinha shop. Shallow shelves housed the liqueur, the bottles glowing crimson, like the blood of Saint Gennaro ready to bubble alive. The cherries swelling in a vat on the counter looked like the eyeballs of cows or a hen's painful laying of eggs. The owner and I commenced an argument about why he could sell me liqueur but not glasses to carry it. I offered to pay lavishly. His glower suggested his disapproval of foreigners who thought they could march in and make demands. He wasn't in the business of selling glassware; obviously I had mistaken his humble but dignified establishment for a kitchen supply emporium. A fellow customer said, "She's the American girl who was on the television last year about her book. She's one of us, in a way." I'd taped a segment for my novel about a Portuguese nun. Television is one of the magic words of the universe. The owner frowned but gave me what I asked for.

I carried two glasses like chalices brimming garnet, toasting the streets. Here's to the gargoyles on cornices; here's to you, funiculars and iron Juliet balconies, and to you, azulejos--tiles of griffins, bears, and explorers in the hues of sky and ocean, cloud and whitecap.

The men were in the kitchen when I arrived, with the deep fryer on the stove. The fumes of the oil heating mixed with the boozy cherry aroma I brought in. Tonio was extracting carapaus, their eyes like cross-sections of marbles, from their waxy paper and dipping them in beaten egg and rolling them in cornmeal while Mateus was slumped on a chair, waiting for the oil to hit the proper temperature.

"Cheers," I said, handing a glass to Mateus, who downed it fast, and to Tonio, who snaked an arm through mine. From the center of the caduceus we made, he and I took turns drinking. T's Adam's apple pushed out and I brushed it with my fingertips and felt it jump as it got painted with alcohol.

"Stand back," said Mateus.

He got up from the chair and took one of the fish by its tail, studied the cauldron of oil, and plunged it mouth-first into its bath below a rolling boil. Waiting with the scoop made of metal netting, he looked like a marionette with the strings cut, a dry creature glued to sticks. But happy somehow. In the pose of his element. He looked away from the cauldron, at me, as if to show that he was not in a hurry.

He extracted the first carapau and Tonio said, "Perfect."

Mateus was elated. "Perfect to the end, pa."

The carapau looked as if it had tumbled in sand on the beach, and then it had flipped fore and aft in the sunlight until it was done. I said, "Unbelievable. Goodness." He nodded. A tremor almost dropped him to his knees, and I eased him into the chair near the stove. He needed to rest before doing the same for the other two fish.

I set the table in the living room with placemats from the Maritime Museum--prints of sea monsters on indigo--and found some pale orange tapers. Oscillating from the clotheslines of the buildings across the courtyard were vibrant linens, as if someone had savaged giant bouquets, the petals stuck and writhing. Mateus said he was getting wobbly and would eat on the sofa. Tonio sliced up a pineapple.

We didn't speak as we admired the fish and the fruit and the teardrops of fire quivering on top of the candles.

That pause of beholding it all was our grace.

The air was drinking the vapors of brine from the fish. It had been drinking up some salting of the air for so many years here. This place could have been mine. But I'd told my father back when final promises needed to be made to give it to David's children. I had many friends I could stay with in Lisbon.

Soon that widow and her granddaughter might be doing nothing more than strolling through this room, suddenly at a loss. They'd tear the engorged salted air and there'd be a storm of weeping and it might frighten them, their inability to say where it came from.

"Amen," said Toninho. "Get out the shovels and begin to dig."

We rattled our knives and banged our plates and lowered our heads and got to work.

Mateus said, "I believe someone is in need of calling the father, yes? Tell him the drink put a lamp in me." His hand rested on his gut.

I dialed California and said, "Dad? The cordial tastes like the inside of a cherry tree. Mateus says thanks. We're having a feast. Tonio cut up some pineapple. Mateus fried three carapaus."

"You can't find those here."

"I know." With Tonio pulling his ear lobe in that universal signal of This is so fine, I tucked the phone where I could speak and listen and took up my fish knife again. I take pride in my skill at filleting a fish so that head and spine stay intact, and the skin, skimmed off whole, stays a flap that can be folded back to re-cover the fleshless place.

"Tell him the pineapple looks especially well presented," said Tonio.

"Dad? Our pineapple is that good miniature kind, deep yellow."

"How about the coffee?" he asked. "When I first left with your mother, we searched for coffee like we had there."

"They import the coffee here from Brazil," I said.

"Africa," said Tonio.

"I miss the food," said my father.

"You're forgetting the people, Dad," I said.

"No, I haven't, not for a single minute. They're as gentle as God makes them."

Mateus leaned over and erupted in choking. His plate spilled off his lap and clattered onto the rug; his gnawed fish came to rest in a pear tree. His whooping noise settled into a gagging and he used up his strength to get to a sitting position, and Tonio leapt from his chair and pounded him on the back, but he couldn't fill his lungs. His eyes bulged at me. He raked his nails on a round ochre pillow.

"Dad, hold on, Mateus must have swallowed a fish bone."

With the phone pinned between my shoulder and ear, I got on one side of him and Toninho stayed on the other. Mateus's skinny arms were flailing; a curtain of scarlet rose below his skin.

"Catarina," said my father, composed. "I taught you the Heimlich. Put the phone down and try that."

Mateus was weightless enough for me to get behind him and brace my fists below his ribs while Tonio held him steady, and I banged upward. Nothing. I tried a few more times, my fists bashing so hard I was afraid of cracking something.

I grabbed the phone and yelled, "Dad? Dad? It's not working!"

"Be calm," he said. His words, as he spoke, had spaces between them. "Go into the kitchen and put on rubber gloves. Tonio's there?"

"Yes. Yes, yes."

"Put on your gloves, and have Tonio pry the patient's teeth apart and hold them open. Press his tongue down with a spoon. The bone's probably in his throat. Go on now."

I dashed into the kitchen and struggled as the gloves stuck and when my fingers were in them, Tonio yelled, "Christ!" because Mateus was going into spasms. The two men were wrapped up in a writhing way, with T's eyes lit as he looked at this convulsing kindling. I seized the phone and my dad said, "It's the last cat in the litter waiting to be born. Pull it out to save the mother. Go on."

I told T to pry open Mateus's teeth and keep them apart. Plying a fork because we hadn't put out spoons, I pressed the muscle of his tongue down with the tines. A pin-sized head that was white was down in his throat. I made a pass at pulling it out, but I only made him gag.

I snatched up the phone and shrieked, "Dad? Dad?"

And I went sheer blank for a second, the way we do when we wish ourselves far from where we are. Tonio came to my rescue by yanking the gloves off my hands hard enough for the phone with my father inside it to fall and hit my foot, a good rap that doubled me in two, so that, head lowered, I heard my father, as if he were shouting up from the earth, "Know you're going to save him! Now DO it!"

Tonio heard him as well. I tilted back Mateus's head. Toninho was already wielding the fork while reaching past the wet rim of the dying man's mouth. Saliva pooled into the cavity. My forehead was against Toninho's and a last exhalation left T's nostrils. I quit breathing too. The phone spun around on the floor, as if it were a little boat with my father in it in a tiny whirlpool.

Tonio reached in for that infinitesimal swelling, the claw of an almost-newborn cat reaching the hook of itself upward, and the plastic of the glove gave him traction, and he pulled, and the needle slid out, along with the sloshing return of the feast, the contents of Mateus's gut. He tipped forward and vomited onto the shoreline where the oak planks of the floor met the medieval rug with its fruit trees and birds, and Tonio dropped the fishbone and rested his head on Mateus's back.

The bone was shorter than the length of my ring finger, only the width of a wire.

Tonio held a palm to Mateus's forehead and muttered, "I'm here, pa. I'm right here. It's over now."

We stretched Mateus flat on the sofa, and I groped around shaking to retrieve my father and said, "Dad, are you still there? We've got to clean him up but he's fine. I mean he's breathing." The stench of stomach juices was of the slaughterhouse, a blast of a carnal odor I knew from my relatives who were ranchers in the San Joaquin Valley. The spores will always be lodged on the nerve endings in my nose.

Tonio got paper towels and a bucket and mop and began sponging the rug, my father said, "Shall I give the patient my goodnight blessing? It's early yet, but he should rest."

"My father wants to know if you'd like his goodnight blessing," I said to Mateus, whose eyes were shut. "Would you like that? Did your parents give you one when you were small?"

His head shook and I couldn't tell if he meant yes or no. I went through the exercise of transplanting one phone and propping the other at Mateus's ear. Tonio was running a faucet, rinsing the mop. Mateus curled on his side so he could listen without the exertion of holding the phone. A glycerin finish was brimming back onto his dull skin. In the name of the Father ...

I couldn't focus for a second. The room smelled like a person disemboweled, poured inside out, and I was sure I'd faint. I revived at ... Ghost. May God bless you and make you a biiiiiig saint ...

Had it been thirty years since I'd last heard that warbling play with muito grande until--I after I after I--it stretched accordion-wide?

Goodnight, sleep well, young man.

Mateus tried to speak but he was too hoarse. I told my father something to the effect that he was beyond words. Before I hung up the phone, I said, "Thank you, Dad. Goodnight. Goodnight."

Mateus passed out while I was helping Toninho re-swab the floors, filling the place with the pungent smell of a hospital. Already the remainder of our fried fish was looking like tarnishing bronze; the pineapple was exuding its wet insides. We hadn't eaten much, but we were no longer hungry. I blew out the candles and Tonio and I worked without speaking in the kitchen, washing plates, drying them. Of course Mateus would have the instincts of someone who shows up to offer help once the work is done, and the very second I was putting away the last plate, we heard him call out hoarsely, "Cat, the phone if you please!" He was languishing regally against the cushions. "I must thank your father, now that I have a voice."

"Big of you," said Tonio, bringing him the phone and setting me up with my connection, "since it's his bill in both directions, pa."

Mateus hauled my father out of his own nap; he was groggy.

"Senhor!" Mateus croaked. "You sound sleepy! Allow me to sing the Ducky Song to put you to rest."

"Heavens, won't that be soothing," said my father. "On one condition. You will tell me why you cannot speak to your parents."

"Ai, well," said Mateus, shifting around. "They have their religion, they push it down my throat, I choke on it, that's the story."

"Have you read Tolstoy? I've just re-read Anna Karenina."

"Who? No," said Mateus.

"I am at the part, near the end, where the fathers are speaking of the difficulty of creating children, saying that the struggle to train them is so endless that no one can think of bringing them up by his strength alone, and that is where religion comes in."

"Fathers drive their children away."

"Yes," said my father. "They send them off, it's true. They are frightened at how they want them near."

"If I go home," said Mateus, "I suppose my reward will be great in heaven, for putting up with their need to think they're good to me?"

"How should I know if there's a heaven? The reward will be on earth for you. That is the certainty. This is a chance for you to change your history. Sometimes grown-ups do what they should, not what they want."

"I don't see how this is any of your--"

"Let me put it to you another way."

I pressed the receiver closer to my ear.

"If you do not give the gift of yourself to your parents, if you miss this chance to be an adult, you will perish in my rooms as a homeless soul. I can't return to my country in this lifetime, so it will be up to my soul to go back where it belongs. But if you die there a wanderer, you will haunt my place."

Tonio arranged himself to sit behind me on the floor, his legs in a grasshopper-bent around my sides. His arm pinned me to the front of him.

Mateus said, "I'll think about it. Will that be sufficient?"

"Good," said my father. "Torment me now, patient dad that I am, with the Ducky Song."

Mateus didn't hit high C or his magical spot above it. The tune didn't require that, even if his throat could have managed it.
 All the little ducks have finished playing
 Finished playing ...
 It is the hour for them to go to sleep ...
 Go to sleep ... Turn out the light. Turn out the light.

But his singing vaulted during the phrase a-CAB-am de brincar and ricocheted into me, and the echo made by the impact chimed outward.

Tonio took the phone and said, "Senhor Jaime? I wish we had met. Cat and I, we are good friends. She is stubborn, as you know, but smart, and she will be able to take care of herself. I can promise you that, Senhor Jaime. Our patient here is fine, and thanks to your instructing me in saving him, I am fine also, very fine."

When I managed a goodbye to my father, he said, in parting, "No more fighting. Buy carnations for the dying young man. I can't fight anyone's need for peace."

I replied faintly that the corner market would be open.

The evening was glistening. Tonio and I set out; disinfectant coursed like liquid moon through the cracks in the sidewalk. I'd have thought that my father's years as a nurse would have put him off carnations--that pungent odor of the water they decay in!

We greeted Esteves, the owner of the Canto Belo, and brought him a dripping armful of carnations from the bucket set in front, under the awning, by the bins of dates and walnuts. From a spool of purple ribbon, he tied a bow around my carnations, and he rasped the blade of a scissors on the ribbon to curl it.

"Ah!" said Esteves. He had a gold molar and an immaculate apron and a pocked complexion, like the top of an overboiled custard, that spoke of a deathly shy adolescence. On display were girls' jewelry boxes like lid-back treasure chests--the ballerinas intact but the musical gears extracted--to exhibit the ground spices.

His shop wafted a perfume of cloves and ginger as I took Toninho's arm and stepped with my bouquet into the street, where we stood together, arrested.

Women were leaning over windowsills, looking altogether like open flaps in an Advent calendar.

A billboard was advertising the Lalique exhibit at the Gulbenkian Museum. The pictures of milk-colored cameos throbbed like pure light.

A hobbled man with a lion's head cane undertook the extreme exertion required to lift his homburg and wish us good evening. Out of his smoke-damaged throat issued, "I see that a flower is carrying flowers. You are a bride."

My father's plea for peace unlatched the lockbox in me where his old stories lay. In 1974 Lisboetans listened for a song on the radio as a signal to go into the streets when the dictatorship was teetering. A woman who had not sold her flowers that day began sticking carnations into the gun barrels of soldiers. Everyone followed suit, helping to speed to an end, with the force of flowers, a reign of oppression.

My father wasn't having me bring Mateus carnations because they were hospital flowers; they were signaling my father's surrender. Mateus could stay as long as he liked. He'd get to decide. It was a last pleasure for my father to converse on the level of deep history, native son to lateral native son, and a last pleasure for me, perhaps, that he trusted me to interpret his language. A beat or two late, but I'd gotten it. My father had not been present for the Carnation Revolution; he'd only watched the newsreels on the Luso channel at home--one of the rare occasions when he'd allowed himself to succumb to television.

If he protested when I showed up, I'd quote back to him his line about parents being too frightened to say they wanted their children near. That was how I would read the carnation story back to him. Peace had arrived when people declared: We will face what we must face, even if we all perish together.

As Toninho fit my key into the building's front door, I glimpsed between the parted drapes of the porteira and saw her in a torso-sheathing apron decorated with daisies. Rock-bodied, shelf-breasted, in her cat's-eye glasses, she was feeding a baby in a high chair. A woman slightly under my age was sitting pretzel-limbed on a stool: one leg spiraling around the other, arms that would complete a perfect strait-jacketed pose if she weren't puffing a cigarette. The unwed daughter. The two women caught me spying. I'd once come across Deolinda pawing through my trash to bolster her contempt for prodigal Americans, but her daughter pitched a friendly wink at us through the glass.

When I set the carnations in a vase on Mateus's night stand, he plucked out one and handed it back. He could comprehend how my father was talking to him. I said, "I'll leave in the morning. You'll need your rest."

"Tell your father they are my favorite plant," he said. "Goodnight, green-eyed lady. I'm going to die with your kindness on me."

I reserved, at a staggering cost, a seat on a morning plane. Tonio promised to stay with Mateus until there'd be no putting off the hospital. And he'd finish the sale of the apartment without me. I called my father to say I'd be racing home.

"That would be a good idea," he said. "I'd like that, Catarina."

"It's almost Christmas, Dad. I'm going to take care of you whether you like it or not." The cord of the phone swayed and quavered.

Toninho snored that night next to me while I stayed flat on my back. The hours dissolved without my knowing it. I woke up in the dark, when it's hard to guess the time. Tonio stirred gently as well. He sat up and scrubbed at his face with his hands as I went to the window and lifted the blinds. I suspected it was five in the morning, an hour I worship; the sky is still a single black pearl so generous that it lets all the white pearls crowd inside it until it bulges with them and lets the white gleam through.

And then its skin breaks.

Tonio joined me in regarding the sky. I clutched his hand as we stared straight ahead. "Honeypie, that nun you wrote about," he said, "I'm afraid she's you. I'm afraid you're turning into one of those pretty women who's sad, and you'll fold yourself up and up and I won't be able to find you anymore." He asked me if I was aware of the quote by Claude Levi-Strauss, I am the place in which something has occurred.

I said I was glad to learn it.

"Well, OK, Cat," he said, kissing my left palm. He got doubly gleeful whenever he landed on a bookish fact I didn't know. "I think I am the place in which someone has occurred. That is you."

I stretched my arms toward his neck to hold him and said he was my country too. I also noticed the mute alarm clock.

Time to leave.

When my flight was called, Tonio reached into his breast pocket to give me a comb as a gift. It had hammered gold oak leaves finely tooled with veins, arranged on the tortoiseshell spine so that, if I were standing outside, or at a window, the sunlight would snag on the edges of the leaves and drip its blood, and the back of my head would throw out spokes of autumn red. I threw myself onto the shoal of his neck as he started to wail. He understood it was likely to be an indefinite while before I returned in the flesh, that I was the type made comatose by events. He'd grasped long before me that grief begins as a crawling and wailing thing, and then it grows older. The second and endless half of grief is quiet, because the best part of you gets spirited away, and, rage extracted, undone, why--most people begin to figure from the calm of you that you're just about happy.

One month to the day before Mateus followed suit, my father died. Tonio reported that the date of my father's death coincided with Mateus asking to be taken to his parents. He stayed in his boyhood room and endured his mother's scoldings and his father's silence. He never made it to a hospital; he died at home, and Tonio was with him. I wish my father had known this before he passed away. Toninho thereafter concluded the apartment's sale to the widow of the Communist leader for her granddaughter. My niece and two nephews each have a modest sum that college will eat up.

But the granddaughter suffered a compound fracture soon after moving in and took it as an omen that she should be healed by moving to the sea. She negotiated with her grandmother to sell the place for a profit to her divorced cousin who happened to be the head chef at a three-star restaurant not far from the Castelo de Sao Jorge. Tonio was irked at a summons to show the apartment, but soon thereafter he moved in with the chef, Bartolomeu, who had custody of his ten-year-old son.

The house is crowded, querida, but I am glad. The porteira quit radiating disapproval, since Bartolomeu brought her cash but also trays of food, including a menagerie of creampuff animals under a spun-sugar cage.

Cat ... our home is really yours ... Come when you can! But also I carry you around wherever I go, you are so very light.--Your Senhor T.

I managed a final outing with my father, to the Japanese Tea Garden. It was one of those strange last days when he seemed on the mend. We ordered jasmine tea and fortune cookies and rested with the scent of the old redwood bridge still strong near the bamboo. He'd taught me how to paint bamboo on paper, with black ink, in segments made with single, firm gestures aiming to convey a lifetime of knowledge. Don't worry your lines. Just draw them, dear.

My fortune read, "You will meet a tall, dark stranger."

"I can't deal with this," I said. "This couldn't be for me." I handed him the slip of paper.

"Oh, yes." His grin was a marvel that drew in his whole face. "The busy gentleman with the scythe."

I grabbed the fortune from my dad's hand and put it in my teacup and dowsed it with the last of the lavender-tinged water.

Without moving his head, his vision went from the oleander and dragon statues and carried itself past where we were, into the far manzanita and vents in the desert, the screech of the steam spraying from the center of the earth.

"Dad?" I said. It was the first time in all our lives that I was bringing up the subject with him. "They were probably trying to frighten you by yelling in the back room. For writing about better medicine. That's what Mama said. But they didn't frighten you, not so much, did they?"

He finished his jasmine tea and studied the dregs of the leaves. "No, I'm afraid that's not the case," he said. "Look, promise me you won't let anyone hurt you. Because I love you like mad."

"Don't worry about me. I love you too."

"There's no mistaking that scream. It's too raw. It can't get faked. That high note. If you try intellectually to scream like that, you can't. It's the difference between what's real and genuine, and what you pretend might be real."

The pot of tea was finished, but I made the gesture of pouring.

"There's a sound all creatures make when they've been inflicted with a mortal wound. It goes into your head like an arrow and stays."

His stare left the far plains and came back, to be with me for a little while more.

I paid for my father to be transported to a private room at Children's Hospital. At first I thought it was my gift to him, but then I saw it was his gift to me, for him to be a child as I held the covered plastic glass of water with its straw for him to drink. I sat by his bedside, folding cranes. Stringing a thousand of them for a wedding is meant to call upon joy. It gave me something to do so I could bear the agony of his drugged breathing, his gaze until we both had to look away.

"Allow me, Catarina," he said, and I handed him a square of golden paper and his hands stopped shaking as he shaped the beak of a crane with a perfectly mitred point. I'd been folding in a hurry, but he moved slowly so the edges were exactly met. He was beaming as he handed his crane over to me.

He had stayed here overnight many times in his career. Once when an orphan named Eddie Martinez was dying, my father was with him in the final week, sleepless on a cot next to him, alert to the little boy's cries; on other occasions, he'd nap in the hallway and spring up when pain made the children bellow from a distant room.

But he would not cry out himself. He would not disturb the dozing of the night nurse.

"Papa," I said, smoothing his spare white hair out of his eyes. He looked straight into mine. "Deus o abencoe e o faca um santo muiiiiito grande. Boa noite, durma bem," I said.

God bless you and make you a biiiiiig saint. Goodnight, sleep well.

That was when I felt his spirit detaching from the loosening paste of his skin, to burrow inside and wrap his soul to carry him away. I knew he'd wait until I was gone to attend to the business of dying. David had come and gone, quickly, but that was how my father preferred it. He'd said earlier he would always be with me, it wouldn't matter where he was traveling now.

As I leaned down to kiss my father's forehead, he kissed my chin. That was how the night blessing was meant to play itself out. You asked for a kiss to take with you, especially since you or he might not wake; who knew what fate would bring? And then I said what the parent might utter in a still further closing to the child, the equivalent of how we wish someone sweet dreams, the thing he'd left off saying to me when I was fourteen: Sonhos cor-de-rosa.

Pink dreams. Go to the land where you dream in color.

I'd found him a set of pajamas covered with whales and dolphins, something sporty for a large teenager. I stood framed in the doorway to give him a last picture, and he turned his head to watch me leave. It is never too late to save someone, to grant him peace. It is never too late to save yourself by saving someone. I smiled and so did he, and then all that was left for me was to leave him and imagine his journey; it was beginning. The marine animals around his remains were floating at the ready to coast him that night across the sea, to wash up on the shore of his long lost earthly home, and from there to lift as fallen rain does in an exultation of quiet back to the wide blue sky.
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Author:Vaz, Katherine
Publication:Harvard Review
Article Type:Short story
Date:Jun 1, 2006
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Next Article:I Dwell Silently.

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