It was mid-afternoon when Beatriz Miranda to all present, which included her four grandchildren and her husband Alessio, announced that dinner would be a little late, as she had encountered a minor unspecified problem in the kitchen. This was immediately followed by her directive that the children, including Alessio, should be patient and occupy themselves in the living room by “playing nice.” Beatriz then about-faced and strutted back to the kitchen all business.
The children all seemed at a loss, and looked at Alessio with askance as if for some sign, a tacit assurance they would not be left to the winds. He could see the next development would be very un-nice, they would begin teasing, and that would evolve into all sorts of physical retaliation. Tears would follow. And he would ultimately be blamed for the obvious paternal dereliction.
So, little Marco, the next to oldest, asked, “Okay Gramps, what do we do now, if we can’t hit anyone?”
Good question, Alessio thought. What possessed him to say the next thing he would never be able to explain except for the urgency of the situation. It seemed this would require the least collective effort, as he was not about to referee some ridiculous game that would degenerate into accusations, counter-accusations, and screaming, if not worse.
“I know. I’ll tell you a story. What kind of story would you like to hear? A fairy tale perhaps?”
“No, Grandpa. We’re too grown up for that,” Felicita pouted. She was the ambitious one. “Tell us something real…like how you met Grandma. What was it like?”
“Yes, yes,” little Marco and the others joined in. “Tell us about that.” And so Alessio fell into his own trap.
“Okay sit down and listen.”
He then began, “Many years ago before your parents were born, when I was a young grown man, I worked for a railroad company. We didn’t really run trains back and forth; we built railroad lines from one place to the next so freight trains could bring things like coffee or beef to people who needed such things. I worked with a crew of strong, robust men. That means we were ready to show you how strong we were if you doubted us. Brazil was still young then and mostly filled with green jungle, and that’s where we were sent to work.”
“Ooh, the jungle,” Jorge whispered loudly in a faux mysterious voice, wiggling his fingers next to his ears to impress you with the idea of creeping unknown danger.
“Shush!” Felicita ordered. “Listen!”
Jorge then kept quiet. And Alessio suffered no further interruptions from him.
“So the crew I worked with were sent to lay down track in the jungle northwest of Manaus, which was closer to Venezuela and Colombia than where we live today. A part of the jungle in that place had already been cleared for us and so we built a starting point near an inlet by the river and then began laying track. It was very hard work and we labored from morning to early afternoon, then break for an hour or so in the early afternoon when the sun was hottest and the humidity would drench us. We would have our lunch then and a nap. Then we returned to several more hours of work before early evening. We washed up when we finished the day’s work laying railroad ties and steel track. We were never really clean, but washing up made us feel clean.
“The evenings gave us some relief. They were often a little cooler. Marcello would play the bandaneon. It’s a concertina or small simple accordion. Most of what he played was sad and sounded like a lost puppy roaming the streets of a city, looking for its mother. It made us feel homesick. You see, most of us were from different parts of the world. Marcello from Italy, Winston from Jamaica, Armand from Haiti. Berto said he was from Portugal, but we knew from how he spelled his last name, D-a-S-a-n-t-i-a-g-o, his family was really from Spain. He preferred to be called Santiago unless you knew him well. Hector and Themi, who usually kept to themselves, were from the Eastern Mediterranean. Tano was from Cuba, his real name was Christiano, but you did not call him that unless you were spoiling for a fight. Max was from Sao Paulo; his ancestry was German and he was rumored to have killed a man in Africa, but no one knew for sure.”
The children seemed frozen at this last statement. Even their small incidental shifting stopped.
“Matheus and João were from a pair of small towns near Recife in the South. We were like the Foreign Legion. No one wanted us.”
“What’s the Foreign Legion?” little Marco asked.
“France had a lot of people she didn’t want living there. Criminals, unemployed soldiers, all kinds of people who she decided she would send overseas to fight for her.
“Oh, yes. There was Nestor from Argentina. In all a dozen of us.”
“Did they have any special name for you, Grandpa?” asked Herman who had been silent until now.
“Well, yes. Half the gang called me Alex while the other half called me Lessio. I would answer to either.”
“Cool!” little Marco exhaled.
“Anyway, life laboring in the jungle was hard and boring. And you should know it is not good for a man to be by himself, that is, without feminine companionship. Every month we would go down to Manaus by river, it was the biggest and liveliest town near us. We would dress up with clean, pressed pants and a clean shirt for a three-day weekend. Nestor would watch over our camp.
“In Manaus, there were bars and clubs, and women. We would have a good time. Drinking, a little gambling, carousing, and so forth.”
“And so forth,” interjected little Marco, while Felicita gazed around at everyone like poison.
“For a time this was enough for us, though we’d be very tired when we got back to camp late on Monday nights. It was not easy to get back to work the next morning. But one day, Nestor announced that he had gotten a directive from the field office that we were taking too much time off work and our progress on the rail line had not been good enough. From then on, we were not allowed to leave for Manaus more than once every three months.
“A deep gloom settled over the camp, and there was talk of quitting, but we wouldn’t be paid our full wages if we quit before the job was done. Then Berto came up with an idea, a wonderful life-changing terrific idea. He told us how he had learned about how you could mail order women to our work camp so we would have some companionship on weekends. As a member of the DaSantiago family, Berto told us he could set this up so that we could have these visits once a month. And on each third month we could still go into Manaus.
“There was one main problem. How could laborers like us attract these women so they would come in the first place and then stay for the weekend? We had nothing. We could not even lay out any money in advance. Then Winston suggested something crazy.
He told us that women loved dancers, that they found dancers irresistible. Nestor agreed, and added that there was a dance craze that had swept into Brazil from Argentina. The tango! If we could learn the tango, the women would stay with us.
“But who knew the tango? And who was available to teach it? We found out that Themi and Hector knew it. Finally, we had an idea of how they had spent some of their time alone. We asked, and they gave us a demonstration, with, of course, Marcello on the bandaneon to provide the musical accompaniment. It turned out the tango was not going to be an easy dance to learn, with its cross-overs, its forward and backward ochos, its giros, its pivots, and its quick-quick-slow changes of pace. Remember, these were men who found it a challenge to utter sentences longer than three of four words, who could barely read, and certainly not dance.
“Max, who knew about big-city life, convinced Berto to spare him for a couple of days so he could go to Manaus alone and get an album of photos of the women who would be
visiting. Nestor would have to cover for him. True to his word, Max returned in a couple of days with the album. A general excitement swept the camp. Some of the men, like Tano and Armand, on being told they would have to learn this difficult dance and practice it with other men as their dance partners, refused to even look at the album and swore they would never take part in such a shameful exercise. No, never. Not as long as they had breath in their body. But before long, the resistance began to crack when they were shown the photo album. Within a day Matheus wanted to see the album again, and so did Armand. Then Tano wanted to see the album. He had not seen it before. It wasn’t long before he claimed he had not seen all the photos and wanted to go through the album again. Once Tano and Armand fell in with us we knew it was time for Themi and Hector to get out their dancing shoes and start our lessons. Berto would send for leather shoes for all of us; he could get them cheap, used and still in good shape.
“The men had to be taught the spirit of tango first, that meant to walk and move gracefully, and how the leader had to control and his partner and give her enough space through the open embrace to change position and freely do her ochos and giros. In short, it meant working together and not just avoiding missteps. The men knew something about rhythm and teamwork from the way they drove spikes into the ground with alternating strikes when working in pairs. So they at least had that advantage.”
Herman asked, “What’s alternating strikes, Grandpa?”
“It’s when one strikes with a hammer, then the other, then the first man, and so on.”
“And so forth!” added little Marco.
“So we had to figure out what piece of music we would learn and practice our tango to. El Choclo and La Cumparsita were even then old standards, too heavy and dramatic
for beginners more used to moving railroad ties than ladies. We then hit on a new piece that was extremely popular as a song and a tango, Carlos Gardel’s Por Una Cabeza. Very light and sweet. Interesting, and not too complicated for a troupe of beginners.”
“So when do we get to Grandma?” Herman chirped, with grunts of approval from the rest, including Felicita.
“Soon, my little detectives, soon.” Alessio knew he had best pick up the pace.
“We had to pair up the men, where one would be leader or man, and the other would be the follower or the woman. All the men resisted this at first. But it had to be Themi and Hector who could start them out. We started two couples at a time, with the rest watching. The ‘man’ or leader would have to wear a hat. That was the only difference in dress. This made it easier for the rest of us watching to follow and see what the couples were doing right or wrong. In the beginning they were given very simple steps, mostly walking together elegantly without knocking into each other or losing their balance.
“Each time their interest fell and they started becoming rebellious, we showed them the photo album of the women who would be joining us. That renewed their interest and they paid more attention to their lessons. And their discipline improved with each lesson, where even the clumsiest moved like a ballet dancer.
“They also began to pay attention to their appearance. They even started shaving daily. Each man had at least a pair of pressed clean pants, a neat clean cut-away tee shirt, and a pair of suspenders. They didn’t have the money for anything fancy. Berto made sure each one got a used fedora hat to make them look both manly and cultured. Oh yes, they also had their used leather shoes so they could move as smoothly as skaters on the ground when dancing. Important!
“Finally, the day of the women’s arrival came. They motored up river in an old paddleboat that noisily took them to our inlet. It was Saturday afternoon, and the ladies seemed curious but tired. The weather was hot and sunny. Beatriz, your grandma, was their leader. She introduced each one as they stepped onto the landing. She finished with, ‘And I’m Beatriz. If you have any questions or problems, you can come to me.’ She finished with a curlicue wave in the air.”
“Whoa, Grandma was like the boss,” Jorge blurted out.
“Yep,” Alessio confessed, smiling but a bit embarrassed.
“What kind of dresses did she wear, did they all wear?” Felicita asked, her face quite serious.
“Hey, Triz! What were the dresses the women wore when we met?”
“Seriously? What kind of question—?”
“Oh,” and Beatriz’s tone changed to a much more accommodating mode, “Mid-calf length swing dresses and even a few flappers held on from the twenties. There was no money for special eveningwear. Also for dancing tango we had wear shoes with some heel as we had to be on our toes.”
“There you go,” Alessio smiled beatifically, glad he had tapped Beatriz and used all his resources.
“So it was surprising how quickly the men and women paired up. We sat down for a lunch Nestor had prepared of chicken and rice, plus a hot sofrito he learned from Tano. We had cool wine watered down so no one got too tipsy before the evening or ended up with a headache after the traditional nap. João, to everyone’s surprise, brought out his harmonica and was quite skillful in his playing. The men knew this meant he and Marcello could share providing the music. What they didn’t know was that Max had secretly bought a used wind-up gramophone in Manaus together with some popular tango recordings, with DaSantiago’s knowledge and approval.
“That left me and your grandmother facing each other on the landing with no one else. She looked me over like an inspector, started to walk around me but I kept turning, facing
her so she could not get around or behind me. ‘I suppose we are stuck with each other,’ she said slowly, ‘please, no insult intended.’”
“We came to a quiet truce when I said, ‘C’mon, let’s have lunch.’ And then walked together to the long table set out with our meal near the center of camp.”
“What did Grandma look like?” Felicita couldn’t help asking.
“Very pretty with long black hair,” Alessio replied instinctively. It was best not to wander into dangerous territory and to avoid details in features and proportions. He was relieved there were no further questions on this matter. Vagueness, subjectivity and conciseness were his three musketeers.
“After our late afternoon lunch, the women separated themselves for a nap in a shady sport under a large leafy tree at the edge of camp. None of the men was to bother them there. As the evening approached the men lit lanterns surrounding the open circle that was to be their dance floor. The couples found each other again under the lanterns. Five couples took their places on the dance space. The next five couples would dance the second tango. They were all to move counter-clockwise. This was to make sure there was enough room to move and no one would accidentally knock into someone else.”
“What’s counter-clockwise mean, Grandpa?” Herman asked.
“It means move around like the hands on the clock but in the opposite direction.”
With this, little Marco nodded as if his head had jerked up from slumber.
“Marcello now began with the sweet mousy tip-toe sound of Por Una Cabeza. Tano looked sweaty and nervous. But once they started to take their steps they all moved surprisingly well. Not anything fancy, but still pretty good. The women seemed very pleased with the men’s performance. This repeated itself with the second group of five, with João playing the harmonica. At least the second group had the advantage of watching the performance of the first.
“Once both groups had performed, both the men and women breathed much more easily.
All sensed there was actually enough room on the dance space for everyone to dance at the same time. That’s when Max brought out the wind-up phonograph with the musical discs. Most of the men had never seen anything like this machine. So they first just watched and listened without dancing. Themi and Hector, who had no interest in anyone besides themselves as a couple came out and laughed, ‘Well what are you waiting for? Get back on the dance floor. Go, go.’”
“Marcello and João were still called on a number of times to play their instruments. But the phonograph had become a favorite among many in the crowd. And as the evening wore one everyone relaxed and danced better. They didn’t feel they had to. This ended up with less couples dancing every dance, but more spectators who whooped and hollered their approval for those who remained or returned to the dance space.
“I danced with your grandma, a dozen times that night. She was very good at tango, and knew how to hold a man close and then let go to turn and reposition herself. It was very exciting, and I gave a good account of myself, even for someone doing the tango with a woman for the first time.”
“What happened then?” Felicita persisted more sharply than before.
“Well, we danced, we drank, and laughed, and so forth. It felt like we danced all night.”
All the boys echoed, “And so forth” in a gay cheer.
“The next day no one could be seen outside on the campgrounds. Everyone seemed to have magically disappeared. Triz came out first, and yelled, ‘Okay, girls let’s go! Sylvie, Marpessa, Isabel…’”
“It wasn’t long before all the women appeared and some of the men too, all as if from a stupor.”
“A stupor?” Herman looked at me suspiciously
“Like they were drunk,” Alessio retorted a bit of annoyed.
“They boarded the waiting paddleboat, and as it moved out to the river current,
your grandma and the rest of the women waved good-bye. Triz, shouted, ‘See you soon, dancing boys. You surprised us. We will be very excited to see your improvements next time we get together.’”
“And that was it.”
Alessio didn’t notice how long Beatriz had been listening. She smiled and announced “Dinner is now ready. Take your places, children.”
“But what happened to the railroad?” Jorge inquired.
Before Alessio could respond, Felicita piped up, “And what happened with the tango?”
“The rail line was abandoned by the railroad and reclaimed by the jungle. And the tango, well the tango remained like a happy infection.”
“Oh, dancing boy?” but Beatrice wasn’t really asking a question as she eyed her husband.
“Coming, my love.”
Gene Goldfarb lives on Long Island, travels, and does volunteer work these days. His poetry has appeared in the very small press, most recently SLANT, Black Fox, Heavy Feather, Green Briar and elsewhere. His short fiction has appeared in Bull & Cross and Twenty-Two Twenty-Eight.