In the middle of her private turmoil, Ellen couldn’t avoid recalling the plot of The Cask of Amontillado which was the topic of her students’ next week quiz. An English professor, she breathed literature and sweated grammar. Or as her sister said, she defecated syntax patterns. Her colleagues at Santa Fe College could always count on Ellen to solve obscure linguistic issues. And yet, Ellen hated her language sensibility. When people around her used double negatives or spat ain’ts or referred to the liberry she would feel literally nauseated. “But nausea isn’t a problem when you sit on your fat butt all day, gulping down chocolates,” her malevolent sister pointed out.
Ellen had a fat butt and chocolate had burdened her with thunder thighs and love handles that Papichulo, her Cuban husband, disrespectfully called lonjas—slices of lard. There were few things that she enjoyed more than eating a dozen Godiva truffles while reading a hair-raising story. Particularly in the winter, when the proverbial wind blew outside and the proverbial cat purred at her feet and handsome Papichulo sat nearby, doing his ESL homework and often turning to her to solve the mystery of a prepositional phrase.
But Papichulo (whose real name was Santiago, but who preferred a nickname that, literally translated, meant daddy-pimp) wouldn’t sit by her anymore. Ellen wouldn’t help him polish his Cuban-accented, broken English again. After the discovery she had made the previous night, her life, and his, were bound to change. Inevitably and for the worse.
I must not only punish, but punish with impunity. A wrong is unredressed when retribution overtakes its redresser, had written Mr. Poe. Ellen knew she couldn’t run over Papichulo in her VW beetle, no matter how much she longed to do so. She would be the primary suspect because The Santa Fe Police Department would find out in one day what had taken her two years (and luck, if that should be called luck) to discover.
“What a cochino, what a Cuban pig!” Ellen said aloud, shaking her head. “After all I have done for him!”
Ellen met Papichulo in Cuba; she had travelled to the island with the only purpose of seeing the land where Che Guevara (whom she idolized) was buried. Papichulo was sauntering around Che’s mausoleum in Santa Clara, wearing a sleeveless t-shirt that showed his tattooed arms, when he offered to be her tourist guide. “Gratis for free,” he said with a sunny, mango-and-coconut smile. “Just because you are so beautiful, reinita.” They had kept in contact by mail and lengthy phone calls until she finally agreed to marry him and bring him to the United States. Once here, Ellen had supported him for over two years and sent money to his family. She hadn’t even asked him to work full-time, only to improve his English so he could get a well-paid job someday.
All that, however, hadn’t prevented him from betraying her. Her colleagues, and most likely her own students, knew all about the Papichulo’s affair. Everybody had known and laughed at her while she had had the pink blindfolds of denial and happiness fastened tight around her eyes.
The thousand injuries of Fortunato I had borne as I best could, but when he ventured upon insult, I vowed revenge.
Not only had Papichulo cheated on Ellen, but he had also said that a forklift—a forklift, for Apollo’s sake—was needed in order to lift her off the ground. Ellen knew she was roly-poly, but she wasn’t hopelessly overweight, at just two-hundred pounds. After all, she was five feet eight. And hadn’t Papichulo whispered in her ears, back in Cuba, how much he loved her ample, fleshy nalgas?
Truth had slapped Ellen in the face when she least expected it. It had snowed the day before and few students attended her evening class. She dismissed it earlier and floated on a cotton candy cloud all the way to the house. Papichulo would be enchanted to see her. He would pinch her ass and call her mi reinita. She would take him to his favorite place, a cozy New Mexican restaurant in San Francis Street…
The garage door was still half-open, as it had been for the last three days. When they tried to close it, it would come down at high speed and slam against the floor; then it went up again, in slow motion, and stayed mid-way. Ellen had asked Papichulo to find out what was wrong and try to fix it but el perezoso had been putting it off, just as he always conveniently forgot to mow the backyard lawn.
“No one would sleep with an open garage door in Cuba,” he said, “but here everything is different. People are so… so nice.”
“There are thieves here too, and we’re spending over two hundred dollars on electricity every month. Heating is expensive, Papichulo, and an open door isn’t going to help!”
She had felt so mean afterward, like a grudging old hag. She avoided talking about finances with her husband because his contribution to the family budget was practically cero.
That evening, Ellen had come in the dining room through the garage. The stereo was at full blast, as always when Papichulo had the house all for himself. (Later, of course, the neighbors complained to her.) A Cuban salsa song, which turned out to be prophetic, was playing: Se acabó el querer. Love is gone. Papichulo, sprawled on the sofa, had his back turned to Ellen. “Sure, Madeleine,” he said. “See you tomorrow in class.”
Ellen was going to call him, but a premonition stopped her, a chill that ran through her spine. Madeleine was a student at the language department, a tall, slender twenty-year-old New Mexican.
“No, I can’t make it before,” he went on. “The vieja has office hours until four and will be around. We have to be careful. What? Come on, chica, don’t be so silly. Are you going to be jealous of la gorda? A gal so fat one needs a montacargas to lift her off the ground!”
After living with Papichulo for two years and a half, Ellen had learned a few words in Spanish. Mi amorcito was my love, my little love. Vieja, old woman, was self explanatory. (The injustice, she sniffled. The exaggeration! She was only three years older than he.) La gorda, the fat one, didn’t leave much to the imagination, either. And a montacargas—she had to look that up in a dictionary—was a forklift.
Ellen tiptoed out of the house while Papichulo continued the conversation with his amorcito. She drove to the Chocolate Factory and went on a desperate, calorie-loaded shopping spree. Three hours later she returned home, feigned a headache and went to bed while Papichulo remained in the living room until midnight, watching Univisión.
In the morning Ellen smiled and prepared breakfast as usual, resisting the urge to sprinkle Papichulo’s ham-and-cheese omelet with Ajax. Neither by word nor deed had I given Fortunato cause to doubt my good will. She didn’t go to work. The headache was still bothering her, she explained.
“I’m so sorry, pobrecita,” Papichulo said, after kissing her on the forehead. Ellen felt like spitting on him.
When her husband left, a number of possible reprisals sprung up in her mind like grass in their neglected backyard. They ranged from a Shakespearean-style vengeance —burning up the house with Papichulo inside—to ridiculous retaliations like scrubbing the toilet with his toothbrush or pouring urine in his favorite wine. The first one was rejected as too risky and the other two because (a wrong) is equally unredressed when the avenger fails to make himself felt as such to him who has done the wrong.
Ellen looked at her watch. Papichulo would be leaving the campus now, unless he and his amorcito had decided to go out together. That day the fat vieja wasn’t around, Ellen told herself bitterly. They were free.
What a Caribbean jerk! Wait until he comes back. Just wait.
Ellen heard his car approaching. That is, her car; she had bought it. Papichulo couldn’t even afford a bicycle. She ran to the garage and Papichulo waved at her.
“You feeling better, amorcito?” he shouted from the driveway, lowering his window. “You okay now?”
“Are you feeling better?” Ellen corrected him. “Are you okay now? Mind your verbs!” And she blew him a kiss that faded on the chilly Santa Fe air.
“Ay, vieja…You can’t wait until I get home to start correcting me!”
He parked the car on the driveway and started to come in the garage. Ellen pressed the opener as he crossed the threshold. He yelled only once; she started laughing. Her chuckles sounded like the jingling of the bells on Fortunato’s cap.