I'm replaying the ball games I've missed during my fishing trip, poring over boxscores in the old papers that always gravitate towards coffeehouses, when Adelia sits herself down in the empty chair across the table from me and begins talking.
"Did you see that thing on the television last night about Romania?"
The nasal wail of her voice, reminiscent of a kazoo, is accompanied by a sharp click from the metal clasp on her purse. Adelia's purses are a kind of personal trademark. Though they come in different colors, to clash with her various outfits, all are very shiny and as large as briefcases. After daubing her nose with the tissue paper she extracts from its cavernous interior, she snaps the mauve purse shut and continues.
"Isn't it simply terrible? I mean, how can they do that?"
While she's relating recent, lugubrious events in Romania, a couple with their arms round each other's waists, their faces twisted into blissful, almost ninnyish smiles, strolls in off the street. The sum of their ages would be just about four score and seven. They could be having an affair, but my guess is that that they're having a second honeymoon, with someone else, to forget the sobering Gettysburgs of their first nuptial campaigns.
The enamored pair steps up to the counter. He orders cappuccinos, then plants a wet kiss on her cheek. The milk froths in a gleaming steel cup. The first fat drops of the sunshine that has been threatening to break through the fog all morning splat against the windows of the coffeehouse. She nibbles his ear lobe.
"You know what I think? I don't think the Romanians are like us. I think the Romanians are aliens. I think the Romanians are really from somewhere in outer space."
Adelia fixes me with her eyes as she speaks. She wears more shadow, highlighter, liner and mascara than an entire chorus line, and her eyes flicker like candles at the end of long, gloomy tunnels. Once, some years ago, she asked me to go to Arizona with her. According to her, the doctors claimed that a vacation in the clear air would do wonders for her asthma. But she couldn't possibly drive such a long distance herself. Adelia needed a driver, someone to keep her company, and promised to pay me handsomely for the trip. Money was, as the wealthy are fond of announcing, no object. Adelia had been married to Augustinho Fernandes, one of the richest men in town.
The marriage was supposed to be a secret. Augustinho's mother, Maria, didn't approve of Adelia. Like many of the Portuguese in town, Maria had come from the Azores, and she was as tough, as unyielding, as that smatter of rocky islands lost in the gales of the Atlantic. Widowed at an early age, with three daughters and a son to feed, she took in laundry, raised chickens and worked a little patch of soil outside town. When times were tough at the lumber mill, the biggest employer in town, she piled her produce into a pushcart and wheeled it through the streets. She allowed the unemployed to purchase eggs and the provender from her kitchen garden on tick. Months might go by, years, till Maria showed up at a debtor's door, signed credit slips bristling in her hand, to demand payment. Her customers, nearly always short of cash, were relieved at Maria's apparently spontaneous suggestion that they discharge their long-overdue debts by signing over to her the deed for some useless, abandoned lot on Oak Street, a ramshackle cabin on the road to the harbor or a storefront housing a business about to plead bankruptcy.
Maria's wiliness and thrift built a real-estate empire, which she ruled with the ruthless finesse of a Mafia don. The same was true of her domestic arrangements. The widow doted on her beloved son. She scrimped and schemed for his future for years. And then he had the audacity, the ingratitude, to fall in love with Adelia. Over her dead body would Augustinho marry a saucy girl from a snooty mainland clan without a penny to its hoity-toity name. She forbid it. Not that Adelia, that puffed-up princess in rags. She would disinherit him if he dared. He should go to the Azores and bring back a simple, hardworking bride with common sense and no big ideas about herself.
And so, for more than a decade after his clandestine trip to the altar, Augustinho dined with his mother and his sisters every night. He went to his bedroom, closed the door, waited for the household to fall asleep, then slipped out the window to visit his wife in their little love-nest, a bungalow he'd purchased with money skimmed from the cash register in the family's hardware store. Before dawn, he'd be back in his bedroom, ready for the coffee Maria brought him every morning after banging on his door to wake him up.
"You know how sometimes they tell you in English what the people are saying when they're talking in their own language? How you can hear two at the same time? I heard them talking in Romanian."
There are those in town who insist that Maria wasn't in the least bit hoodwinked by Augustinho's antics. A clever woman like her, with her knack for knowing who owned what and exactly how much it was worth, would certainly know her son was married, and dipping into the till besides. Everyone knew. The cagey Maria only pretended to be ignorant of the truth in order to punish him in her own devious and exquisite fashion. She probably cackled with satisfaction each night as she heard his footsteps fading away on the gravel walk.
"The funny thing is that Romanian sounds a little bit like Portuguese. I could understand some of the words."
I suppose this is perfectly possible. Though located at opposite ends of the political colossus created by Julius Caesar and his ilk, Portugal and Romania do have a common linguistic heritage. While I pass on this morsel of information to Adelia, she squeezes her tissue paper into a ball and casts a sidelong glance in the direction of the graying puppy lovers, who are now feeding each other biscotti dipped in cappuccino.
There are old firs in our forests, widowmakers, that survive the most howling, rabid of our winter storms, only to succumb with a loud crash to a sweet summer breeze six months later. In an earlier epoch, galleons loaded with gold braved the vicissitudes of the open sea, only to spring a leak and founder in a protected harbor. So it was with Adelia and Augustinho. Not long after Maria passed away and the two of them could finally walk together hand-in-hand in public, they divorced. It was at about this time, when Augustinho had moved back into his bedroom and permanently slammed the window shut, that I declined Adelia's offer of a free vacation in Arizona.
"So what I'm wondering is, if I get abducted by aliens in a flying saucer, and I speak Portuguese, do you think they'll understand me?"