It was on the Fiesta de los Pelazónes;, the Feast Day of All Fools, back in 1997, that José Martinez Minera first won the heart of the lovely Maria de l'Incarnacion Guttierez Alvarado. The Feast of All Fools fell on the day after the Fiesta of the Little Virgin of Suyapa, and the day before the Fiesta of Pascal Abuaj. The priest in the church said that the Fiesta of Pascal Abuaj was a sin and a monstrosity, and even that the little black basalt idol of this supposed saint was nothing but the representation of a man's member. At which the Indian women from the hills all bowed their heads in their bright pink headscarves, and crossed themselves, and nodded that it was indeed a sin and a monstrosity. But then when Pascal Abuaj came around again, they all went along to where the little idol stood in his grove of ocote pines, and honoured him as before, throwing maize onto the fire in front of him, and putting a cigar in his mouth, and garlanding him with hibiscus and bougainvillea. For they felt it was better to be safe than sorry. And as for him being no more than the representation of a man's member, well, they said amongst themselves wryly, it was a member that had more power in it than that of many a husband on a Saturday night.
But to raise our thoughts from such unseemly things, and to talk of love.
José Martinez Minera was nineteen years of age, and Maria was sixteen, and he was utterly in thrall to her large, solemn eyes, the beautiful bow of her lips, the gentle swell of her breasts, and the girlish gravity of her demeanour. (I was not indifferent to her charms myself, if the truth be told, as I watched her in my turn from the bare and sorrowful little first-floor writer's room above Hector's Supermercado. But it is the height of bad manners and egotism for a writer to intrude into his own story. And so no more.) For many weeks now, José had spied on her avidly through the dusty windows of the Jesus Christ Is My Saviour Café, when she stepped delicately down from the old yellow bus each morning into the dusty streets of Trujillo in her long blue skirt and her immaculate white blouse, her long, raven black hair tied back in a glossy ponytail, with her white schoolgirl socks drawn up to mid-calf and her books tucked neatly away in her Minnie Mouse rucksack made in China. Then one morning, José knew that he must do more than just spy on her, like a disgusting old man. For one thing, the proprietor of the Jesus Christ Is My Saviour Café, Geraldo Mazariegos Castellanos, who had been converted to evangelical Christianity, so it was said, by some sinister American missionaries who had kidnapped him, full of slimy benignity, and held him in a cave, and taught him to scorn the saints and instead to read only the Bible and sing foolish, interminable and dispiritingly cheerful choruses along the lines of "Jesus ... Jesus ... Jesus es mi Salvador!" - this Geraldo Mazariegos Castellanos, as I say, was beginning to tire of José's presence, always occupying the seat in the window and never buying a coffee. And for another thing, José was now irrefutably and irrevocably in love. Until now, perhaps, he had only felt desire. But now it was unquestionably love.
He could identify the exact moment. It was the morning when Maria de l'Incarnacion stepped down from the bus, and with all her schoolmates, walked carefully round the prone body of the drunken Indian who still lay in the middle of the road from the night before. The sun was rising fast into the sky and it promised to be a scorching day. By noon the sun would be glaring down upon this poor unconscious fool with its full tropical force, for his hat had rolled away and sat forlorn and purposeless in the dust some paces from him. His brain inside his skull would start bubbling like a boiled egg inside its shell. And then Maria de l'Incarnacion, very quickly and unobtrusively so that no one would notice, turned aside from her chattering schoolmates and plucked up the little narrow-brimmed hat from where it lay in the dust and set it on the unconscious Indian's head to give him some much-needed shade. But one person noticed. José's heart, as kind if not as bold as hers, echoed with this act of kindness and charity, and he was lost to her forever.
But what hope did José, a poor shrimp-catcher, have of courting and marrying such a perfect girl? She was ambitious and hardworking. How could he hope to impress her? And even more, her stern family - her mother with her fashionable clothes and elaborate hairstyles, and her father who actually drove a Mercedes Benz?
In the corner of the Jesus Christ Is My Saviour Café sat José's fat friend Bernardo, "El Gordo", checking the lottery numbers in the Voice of the Nation with a podgy squint. El Gordo would never actually win the lottery because a) he was born unlucky, and b) he never bought a lottery ticket. But he liked to check his imaginary numbers anyway. It gave him a little space to dream.
"You must be a hero to her," El Gordo pronounced solemnly. "Women love a hero. You must melt her heart with your courage and manliness. You must defend her against the attacks of wild animals, of ladrones, of dangerous men."
Behind the counter, Gerardo had begun to sing one of his choruses, and so they went down to the beach to discuss this notion some more. And that was how the foolish plan was dreamed up: José must persuade Maria de l'Incarnacion at least to walk out with him one evening, and buy her a Coca-Cola. El Gordo and his great friend Pepito - an unlikely dangerous man, if truth be told, being about as tall as a large dog - would then attack them under the cover of the night in the guise of desperate ladrones. Jose would leap to the defence of his terrified and weeping beloved, and the thieves would flee empty-handed. Maria would never recognize who they were, and she would collapse fainting into his manly arms. They would be married within the month.
It was another five days before the plan could be put into effect. José had finally summoned up the courage and approached Maria de l'Incarnacion in the street and asked her if he could buy her a Coca-Cola, and she had smiled sweetly and said yes. Now it was Saturday, and the Feast of All Fools, not long after sunset, and the Islands in the Bay were still glowing over the calm silver sea. The day had been filled with drunken men trying to lift donkeys onto their shoulders, and colourful processions through the streets, and the dramatic hanging of a life-size straw manikin of Judas Iscariot, somewhat confusingly, but to general rejoicing and the detonation of numberless firecrackers. Now it was evening, and large numbers of men were sleeping peacefully in the streets, still clutching empty rum bottles in their hands. Out to sea the pelicans were heading homewards into the gloom, their silhouettes like pterodactyls skimming low over the water, and the parrots were squawking their ungainly lullabies in the palm trees. Sensible folk were making for home, for the ladrones would soon be out on the beach, drinking rum, taunting passers-by. Then the security services would come and do a round-up, and things would start getting really scary.
But for now there was still time for the two young people to walk down to the little beach bar thatched with banana leaves, owned by Henrietta Maria Enriquez, who also squawked like a parrot, but not from the branches of a palm tree. José bought Maria and himself a bottle of Coca-Cola each with straws in, dreadfully nervous on account of both the plan and the thought of the feeling of Maria's lips if he ever plucked up the courage to kiss her. They went and sat on the low wall looking out to sea. He ventured to hold her hand and she didn't protest. When they had finished their Coca-colas and tossed the bottles out as far as they could into the tiny lapping waves, he suggested they walk on a little, down towards Tornabé, the Garifuna village on stilts.
They had only gone a little way when out of the tropical gloom came lumbering El Gordo and his little friend Pepito, the latter carrying a winking knife, and both wearing dark cloths over their mouths and noses. El Gordo wheezed pitifully as he demanded they give him their money or it would be the worse for them. It was all very quick. José stepped towards them, as fearless as a lion, and flashed out a fist. The two boys stepped backwards. Pepito waved his knife around menacingly a couple of times, until José, shouting out "Shame on you!" planted his foot squarely in the little fellow's chest and Pepito sat down hard on his bottom in the sand. The next moment both of them were gone, and José's heart, beating with the excitement of combat, began to beat even more wildly as he felt Maria's lips touch his own...
The following day El Gordo came up to him in the market, sweating and full of apologies, mumbling that it must have been those tamales that he had eaten earlier in the day, he was very sorry, but they would do it again, it was still a good plan, he thought.
José looked bewildered. "What are you saying? What tamales? You attacked us last night. You were there!"
El Gordo shook his head. No, they weren't there. He was at home. Mostly sitting on the toilet, in fact.
They stared at each other.
"Dios mio," said José.
Now the Jesus Christ Is My Saviour Café has been proudly renamed the Jesus Christ Is My Saviour Internet Café, and El Gordo, still unmarried, spends long hours in there hunched over the bright screen. Sometimes he is checking his imaginary lottery numbers, of course, but José cannot help noticing that he always chooses to sit right in the corner, shielded from the gaze of anyone else in the café, and José fears that he actually spends most of his time looking at images of naked ladies, and losing himself in hopeless and unattainable dreams far more debilitating and regrettable than any dreams of the lottery. And for the cost of an hour or two in the Internet Café, he might go and visit Daisy Enamorado Poncez, born into a Guatemalan circus family, with her bright purple fingernails and her shocking pink toenails, the most obliging, smallest, fiercest, loudest woman in the town, whose weakness, she likes to sigh tragically as she tucks your twenty-lempira note into her brassière, has always been hombres. For this small amount, he might get to see her naked, and perhaps even more. But alas, poor El Gordo prefers the delights of imaginary numbers and imaginary ladies.
As for José, he remains a shrimp fisherman, although thanks to the gratitude and benevolence of his new father-in-law, he has the finest boat of any on that coast. In the little garden behind their beach-side wooden house, Maria grows the loveliest, sweetest pineapples in all of Trujillo, if not all of the country. The celebrated piña azucar of Central America, oh Sweet Waist of America! A pineapple so sweet and juicy that it cannot be exported, for it trembles and then goes rotten the moment it is loaded onto a ship or an aeroplane bound for gringoland. Doubtless the rich gringos would pay many dollars for even one such pineapple. But they will never taste such delight, unless they travel here in person, which they will not, on account of the drinking water, and the mosquitoes, and the ladrones. No doubt a subtler writer than I would find some profound metaphor here, but I am too lazy, and happy to let another do the hard work. Is there not dancing on the beach tonight, and a wicked-eyed lady called Cristina awaiting me in a red dress? A strange lot though, the gringos. They shit before bedtime.
Nevertheless it is a miracle that Maria finds time to tend her pineapples at all, what with Alejandro, Hector, Jaimé, Mario and little Incarnita to care for. The four boys always playing sword fights with the machete, and little Incarnita having a fondness for eating earth, excessive even by the usual standards of one-year-olds.
In the evening, José likes to sit out on his wooden verandah on the raggedy canvas chair that he rescued from the sea. It floated, he likes to believe, all the way across the Caribbean Sea from Florida, which is not, after all, so very far away. So far from God, so near the USA. And he thinks of his five children sleeping now, and he thinks of his wife, no longer at all the demure young schoolgirl but a woman of twenty-five, in a country where, they say, a woman is old at thirty. And then she catches him looking over at her as she hangs the washing out on the vines so that it will dry in the warm night and not bleach quite colourless in the fierce daytime sun. She pretends not to notice his gaze and hides behind the curtain of washing and smiles. At least she does not squawk at him like a parrot, he thinks, or not very often; and their lovemaking remains notable for its frequency and passion, considering they are parents of five. And he wonders again whether to confess to her how he won her heart by deception, by a foolish plan, on the Feast Day of All Fools. But he never does.