For a long time
you used to ask me just what History was.
I couldn’t answer, I gave vague definitions.
I never dared give you a real answer.

—Heberto Padilla, “The Promise”

You think that Álvaro looks like a Salvadoran Woody Allen. You’ve seen him, probably hundreds of times, walking with a conscientious erect back, long legs clad in bell-bottoms of the palest blue polyester. You remember him. Upon his head a tweed cap, thick black-rimmed Walgreens glasses before narrowly bedded eyes. He has in each hand a plastic bag containing mussels, which he believes essential to his frugal regimen of longevity. The mussels are rumored, laughingly, to contribute to Álvaro’s late virility. He keeps his brain fit on several daily walks by reviewing compositions he has stored there for nearly a century. Bach’s Preludes and the Chaccone, everything that he composed at Juilliard—another lifetime—and in the San Francisco Olympic Club locker room, movements folded into monogrammed towels and wrung out with a mop. Some of his own works are mournful, though never melodramatic, he tells you.

Álvaro is old: at least ninety-four, by most authoritative estimates. But his arms: copping moves from the elderly Chinese tai chi practitioners stationed in Washington Square, rotating in successive Cervantes windmills, the mussels a perfect centrifugal machine. His smile: unequivocally bright. His manner: upright, arpeggiastic, economically measured. His skin: the exact color of a paper bag. Álvaro’s face is barely creased. His few wrinkles have the appearance of pillow marks left from the night before. And Cervantes is not mentioned carelessly. Perhaps Álvaro’s favorite line in all of literature is this one: “The reason for the unreason to which my reason turns so weakens my reason that with reason I complain of thy beauty.” He likes its metronome symmetry, its wry coda. And lamentable and lamenting and lamented are each of his romances.

This picture you have of him, his gangly late-morning shadow, down to the pastel flares of his trousers, has remained an unvaried constant for, at the very least, four decades. So they say. When he recognizes you on the street today, he pumps his head back and forth vigorously like a promenading rooster. “Very, very good to see you,” he says, and inquires about the music that your brother might be composing. He reaches into one of his plastic bags and displays an article on solfège written in his longhand Spanish. This morning he’s mailing it to a newspaper in San Salvador for publication. In approximately one-third of the incidences of meeting Álvaro on the street, he sings his latest or presently favorite composition to you. Today he sings. Only notes and the accentuated vibrato that is inside the throats of those who learn English after Spanish and French and music.

You think that Álvaro looks like a Salvadoran Woody Allen.

Your mom told you once that he has a thing for a woman’s bare elbows, particularly those with loose, chickeny flesh. Yours don’t have that, but you’re glad you’re covered up anyway when you see him. Álvaro bows, and you watch him walk up the hill against the sun.

And Álvaro likes you especially because of your skin, nice and blanquita. He uses the same word, blanquita, to describe this skin of yours that the part of your family who lives in the bright green concrete house in San Salvador uses. Blanquita: the Spanish-dominated soft gold hue of a descendent of a green-eyed Chief of State who briefly served as President-elect during that golden hour of the Federal Republic of Central America. It is the color of, if not one of the Fourteen Families, then a Fifteenth, or Sixteenth.

You know his name, Álvaro; well, it means “white prince.”

“You know,” Uncle Silvio says, “Only 2 percent of Salvadorans identify themselves as Indios.”

In your memory, you meet Álvaro for the first time when you are four, and you think of him then not as old, but as a Narnian faun, spry and light brown and musical. And you remember him because of this: he’s in your apartment, teaching your mom solfège, and your dad’s watching you, feeding you a carrot with greens on it for dinner. Álvaro wants one too, but he doesn’t say anything. Then, after the lesson, your dad winks at him and Álvaro takes one off the plate, chomps it down to the greens like Bugs Bunny, pockets the greens, and then walks out of your apartment wordlessly, and you don’t think you’ll ever stop laughing. You run to the window to watch what else he’ll do, and he’s jaywalking, his pastel flares kicking in the wind, in his arms a bag of groceries, belonging to the buxom woman walking ahead of him. This is only the first performance you will witness in the late lifetime of similarly outmoded gestures of chivalry. Chivalry. That’s the only word you have for those gestures for many years afterward, a word you learn when you are five, reading about knights plunging swords into each other’s guts in the name of a woman with whom neither of them have spoken.

It’s 1983, the year that Joan Didion’s terse little book Salvador comes out, full of her trademark lean, precise language. The New York Times writes, “No one has interpreted the place better.” You’ll read the book much later, and you’ll disagree, if respectfully.

At ten years old, you wait at a corner while your best friend steals smashed plum candies from a store, and you watch Álvaro as he throws down three precious sheets of the filthy newspapers he carries over a puddle. A lady in heels is hailing a cab. She doesn’t look down or even step over Álvaro’s gallant papers.

Another time Álvaro is standing outside the cafe where your mom serves coffee, waiting for her to bring him a bag of day-old croissants. You are fourteen, waiting for your mom to close. When the girl your mom has just hired, who’s a senior at your high school and wears her hair in one long braid draped over her shoulder and tied with a piece of leather, comes outside with the bag of croissants instead and hands them to the withered gentleman, a bewildered look on her face, Álvaro removes his tweed cap and executes a low bow at her feet. Will he kiss them? you wonder, covering your elbows out of habit.

Your parents tell you through the years that Álvaro lives amidst boxes full of paper, plastic bags of sheet music, tuning forks, and a Yamaha, and uses a pillowcase as a curtain, and has no sheets on the mattress. Your parents have sheet music, tuning forks, and a Yamaha for duets and reading practice, too, but they are ordered carefully in the dustless one-bedroom, no space wasted in irreverence. Álvaro’s filth is a disgrace. Before he met your mom your dad shared an apartment with Álvaro for a short period of time. Álvaro never bought toothpaste; he just used your dad’s. Álvaro never bought food; he just drank your dad’s coffee to fend off hunger and composed music in the margins of newsprint, or in a Filofax he had taken from the back of the print shop, cut out the measures with a paring knife and rearranged them on the floor. But your dad moved out after only a couple of months because of when he walked into the apartment and found Álvaro in reclined odalisque on the couch, singing a prelude, wearing only your dad’s towel snug around his hips.

“You know,” Uncle Silvio says, “Only 2 percent of Salvadorans identify themselves as Indios.”

“What do you tell a man like that, a man who went to elementary school with your father’s father?” your dad says. “What can you say?”

Álvaro takes off every morning at four. He walks down darkened sidewalks to Van Ness and takes the 47 to Market and walks to Union Square and moves underground through a serpentine series of corridors in the catacombs of America’s oldest athletic club, dedicated to the pursuit of cleaning the hair out of shower drains and fungus off the white towels and abandoned nutritional bars out of lockers for those privileged San Franciscans who have pursued Amateur Athletic Excellence since the institution’s establishment in 1860. Álvaro whistles and composes silent arias, uses his mind for staff paper, and bleaches the stalls.

In the afternoon Álvaro’s shift is over and he is composing an opera for the woman who works at the bookstore on Polk, because not only is she well proportioned, redolent, sensitive: she can sing. This makes her his.

And how do you know this? Everyone knows this. At El Zocalo the ladies who make pupusas with their hands, pat pat pat, and chop curtido with gloves on, “Pobrecito,” they click their tongues. “The old fool,” they tell you. You see Álvaro leaving the bookstore, but what can you do?

This woman, no different than the others, you surmise, never responds to the sheet music in Manila envelopes he leaves for her with the manager. It doesn’t matter. He pursues her workplace with cavalier affectation: a rose today, plucked out of a bucket of green carnations from a sidewalk stand. Tomorrow, a stale croissant from the day-old bag. Next week, a sonatina. You are humiliated at the thought that the woman in the bookstore might associate your family with Álvaro, but you are a teenager, and why on earth should you care?

The manager at the bookstore wears her hair in a high, tight bun and drapes her body in velvet caftans, a new metallic-flecked hue each time Álvaro visits. His lady love is always out, or in the restroom. Sometimes he waits, shuffling through the aisles, whistling low. On those days the manager follows him, an imperious priestess, until he shuffles out the door. Sometimes he lingers in music theory and she just rolls her eyes.

No one has interpreted this place better. And yet:

In my country, made for testing catapults and snares,
lives the chance of the woman I love.

—Roque Dalton, “Jubilant Poem”

But on a day that is raining on a week he has visited the bookstore four times already, the beloved is sure to be working. When he asks her if she received the envelope, she smiles not unkindly, with a soft open mouth, and shakes her head as if willing it away. “No, I didn’t.”

Or maybe she just told him to get the fuck out. Or she called her boyfriend, a man in a leather jacket, who jogged down through the rain and let the bookstore door slam behind him, sidled up to Álvaro and patted his bony shoulder, asked him, “Are you lost, old man?”

Maybe you imagine her more pliable than she is, because lecherous Álvaro is a man who could be your great-grandfather, someone you wish would just compose music and leave it at that. But, he takes with his eyes. You can’t say it aloud to anyone, but he’s a creep, pobrecito is imprecise, but the word everyone uses. Álvaro is the oldest man you’ve ever seen, definitely the oldest Salvadoran. A familiar miracle. He is the only one left of the ones that came over first. You aren’t related but he could be any number of ancient relatives who lived and died there, and even the few that came over and declared themselves businessmen and told no one at home that they worked the shipyards through the early part of the century in wind and fog that must never have stopped being strange to them. The ones who shivered through the strange thick fog and traveled each day to a hidden life, changed into the same cheap gray suit before hopping on the streetcar: their faces are in his. You’ve never met these people and you project them onto Álvaro’s walnut face: miserly Raúl, regal, scarlet-fingernailed Clara and her rooming house in the Avenues, Joaquin’s green eyes, the boy born with the birthmark like a scar.

One afternoon when Álvaro begins his shift at the Olympic Club, there’s thirty-seven dollars in a locker that’s been sitting there since at least the day before—he first noticed it the previous morning. What the hell? He pockets it.

“Come in here, my friend,” you picture Alvaro’s boss calling out to him. You imagine the man to be in his late thirties, with a heavy blond mustache, a thin gold chain around his neck, and forearms like the sausages hanging in Guerra’s Meats. Álvaro is in the showers, mopping before the after-work rush.

“Álvaro, get in here!” the blond mustache calls. Álvaro stands in the doorway, still, tall. “So, you got something to tell us?” his boss asks, glancing around the buzzing fluorescence even though he and Álvaro are alone in the subterranean office. Álvaro shakes his head, “No.” Because why should he? Who the hell is this blond with the mustache? Whatever he knows about the thirty-seven dollars, Álvaro doesn’t care. Álvaro thinks of the mussels he will buy. No, better: a book from his lady love’s shop. Álvaro will say nothing, admit nothing, as the minutes accrue.

“Are you sure, Álvaro?” The blond man with the mustache looks almost sad. “Come on, man. You’ve been with us a long time.”

Álvaro bats at the air between them with his old spotted hand.

“Bullshit,” Álvaro says, as if delivering an insult so supremely cutting, so final, it must only be whispered. The blond eyebrows jump.

“Take a seat, Álvaro. Let’s talk,” the boss says.

“You insult me with this plastic chair. You insult me with your accusation. There is nothing left to say to you,” Álvaro replies, after more stiff silence. Minutes later, in dignified crepuscular retreat, Álvaro rides the bus home, fired at eighty-nine. Or was he ninety-one then? It’s hard to say. Was he baited? According to legend, they hated him there, were sick of him. Álvaro took the money because a part of him needed it. They knew he would, and more importantly, that he wouldn’t admit it. Everyone has heard this story; everyone agrees. What the ladies at El Zocalo say, what your parents say with their friends, it all tends to carry the same melancholy mocking: Álvaro’s pride is his folly.

Your uncle: “He’ll be fine. You know, he’s really a very selfish man. My mother’s word for it—damn it, what was it? What I’m trying to say is, he doesn’t even have a bank account—he sews everything—can you imagine?—into the underside of his mattress. No new clothes, never married, goes through dumpsters to find paper for composing his music—his music, for Chrissakes.”

No one has interpreted this place better. And yet:

In spite of sun
the inquisitor continues
cultivating his roses
removing the underbrush
shrivelled roots
he turns them over on the earth
looks again
steps on us.

—Claribel Alegría, “Everything Is Normal in Our Courtyard”

• • •

When you visit the National Library of El Salvador you’re barely twenty years old. A guard stands in front eating an ice cream cone, his machine gun swinging in a small arc. You’ve read Joan Didion’s book by now and you’ve come here to interpret the place, better. The shelves in the library are gray metal constructions, mostly empty. Those relics, those rich hidden family secrets, those weathered parchments revealing the complicity of the political and the personal, they must all be here, waiting to be found, by you. In a cardboard carton that the librarian takes out of the coat closet behind her, you find an envelope covered in script. It’s empty inside. You find a list of births in longhand. A recent map of the Impossible National Park, written for an audience of Jehovah’s Witnesses from gringolandia. You’re not sure what it is you are looking for, but what’s here is yellowing, curling up at the edges, faded and torn. The woman behind the desk gestures at the empty gray metal shelves, tells you that they moved buildings not too long ago. You descend the escalator with a pair of what appear to be high school yearbooks in your arms, and the guard turns to you, ice cream on his lips. “UP! UP!” he shouts in English, fingers over his gun. Checkout is upstairs.

A month later, in Southern California, in another library, you learn that the archive has been destroyed. You have just read Borges for the first time, and here, now, at last, you’re onto something, and the alignment of history and literature pleases you too much, in a way that barely, and only later, reminds you of how far from home your big brains have taken you. You reread the article from a scholarly journal as sun pours through stained glass; you recall another library. The National Archive in San Salvador was destroyed (arson, mildew and disintegration, displacement of files) over a short period of time in the late 1930s.

You show a draft of the story to your father. Apparently you are conflating history with make-believe.

No one has interpreted this place better. And yet:

In the drunken city
the best ideas
turn into smoke.

—Tirso Canales, “City of San Salvador”

• • •

Álvaro’s voice is hoarse the last time you see him on the street outside your parents’ apartment. It’s been a long few years since you’ve seen him. You’re home again, in a neighborhood you barely recognize. You and your daughter Rain are staying with your parents while Rain’s dad sorts out his plan to abandon you both. But your parents don’t pay market rent, and maybe all four of you will be evicted, likely soon, if the landlord hears you’re there. The world feels smaller for having seen Álvaro’s face. Rain sits at your hip in curly pigtails (“¡Blanquita, pero blanquita!” Álvaro says). He looks bad, different, but still not truly old. He makes you nervous; he’s as unsurprising as the hill’s curvature on the sidewalk beneath your feet. You can’t talk long because you’re meeting Rain’s dad.

“Reyna,” Álvaro grins.

“Rain. Her name is Rain,” you say, making a one-handed gesture of precipitation, of falling.

“¡Una Reynita!” Álvaro insists.

You look at him and he can barely speak, but his whisper carries music. You hear his breath pushing through the bellows inside his chest. His cheeks are still high and wide and tanned smooth as leather. He’s still wearing those huge drugstore Woody Allen glasses that seem to be so popular these days. Carrying the mussels. Ninety-seven, ninety-eight, and still a faun. The cancer: rich in his throat, ravaging the storehouses of his music.

You have just read Borges for the first time, and here, now, at last, you’re onto something, and the alignment of history and literature pleases you too much.

Later when Álvaro is dying your father is in the room with him because there is no one else left. The underside of Álvaro’s mattress has been emptied into hospice care. The social worker needs to know where Álvaro will go. Your father says he’ll discuss it with Álvaro’s sister, and the next morning he presents the case for San Salvador to the doctor, the social worker, and to Álvaro, who can neither speak nor whistle nor move his head. You are in the room to translate, as your dad has his hands full with the social worker, and Álvaro’s decided by now to dispense with English altogether. You sit beside Álvaro’s bed. His eyes are pitted into his walnut face. Without the glasses or cap his head is startling, new, very small against the pillow, like a knot in the trunk of a tree. How strange that you are here, a relative stranger, drawing upon no deep well of tenderness, yet tender in this present, your daughter asleep on your lap, this old walnut’s long life hanging by a thread, your thickly mercurial life, its early mornings negotiating weaning and the potty, and later, insomnia on your parents’ couch, the jagged terror that the laconic, skinny guy who Rain calls Daddy will seize possession of her entirely; you sit beside Álvaro, quietly, patiently, polite, your unruly life tied by the thinnest thread to his.

Álvaro motions for some paper, and you tear a few pieces from the notebook in your bag and hand him a pen. He scratches at the paper with some effort and points at a nurse in the hallway. You oblige the old man, why not, carry the note he’s folded and hand it to a woman about your age. She’s wearing thick eyeliner and filling out her pink scrubs with remarkable curvature. She grins wide at you before even opening it.

On the way to the airport your father lifts Álvaro like a sleeping infant into the backseat, buckling him into his seatbelt. You fold the wheelchair. Your father sits in the back with Álvaro, even lets his friend’s gray hand stay on his knee when it falls there.

The flight is thirteen hours. For years afterward you will imagine the way Álvaro returns home. Álvaro awakes just before the plane touches down in San Salvador, watches palm trees grow larger and brighter. His only living sister, hale and plump at eighty-eight, embraces him in his wheelchair at the gate, pushing him outside to a morning without rain, where Álvaro was once a child. The neighborhood does not recognize his face. He had remembered a courtyard of bright birds, a marble fountain, but his sister, in the same old house, says it wasn’t so. In San Salvador, Álvaro lives a week.

No one has interpreted this place better. And yet:

I will die after years of loafing, without having finished these poems. Without having walked on foreign soil
or discovered the mystery of all things.
Before my death I make my bequest,
I leave you everything: debts and false names,
a few friendly letters,
a phrase invented in springtime.
I will die in the house that’s not mine, next to
the disorder of callously forgotten books
and the flowers my wife put on my desk.
I leave you everything: my common illness; these poems to
be understood, beyond death.

—Alfonso Quijada Urías, “Before Death”

• • •

All that’s left to do is manage Álvaro’s little darlings. You leave Rain with your parents and volunteer yourself. You are instructed to clear out the SRO. Álvaro’s newspaper clippings, yellowed under plastic sheets. His Juilliard diploma: 1924. A photograph of the composer as a young man, unrecognizable without the glasses. Álvaro’s sisters at their Confirmation, plump sepia twins. A box of photographs from the seventies. The flesh of an upper arm in soft foreground; only Álvaro (hair more black than gray, same glasses, powder-blue flares) in sharp focus behind. The family of a child who took piano lessons from him. They invited him to the boy’s birthday party at a pizza joint. Álvaro’s grinning at an anonymous rump. The boy in the picture probably looks older right now than Álvaro did right before he got sick. Inside a rusted trunk: love songs, dozens—no, hundreds—written in exquisite longhand on Filofax paper. You take the paper and the photographs, the love songs, and the diploma, and you put them in your bag.

El Salvador is a country the size of Rhode Island, all the scholars of a specific kind of violence say. San Francisco, you know, is only seven miles by seven miles. Really, though, a person could walk both, hundreds of times, over a lifetime, and hardly leave a trace.