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Excerpt From "Beautiful Maria of My Soul"

A novel by Oscar Hijuelos.

That worried her; travelers coming through her valle sometimes called it a city of liars and criminals, of people who take advantage. Still, she preferred to think of what her papito once told her about Havana where he'd lived for a time back in the 1920s when he was a travelling musician. Claimed it was as beautiful as any town he'd ever seen, with lovely parks and ornate stone buildings that would make her eyes pop out of her head. He would have stayed there if anybody had cared about the kind of country music his trio played—performing in those sidewalk cafes and for the tourists in the hotels was hard enough, but once that terrible thing happened—not just when sugar prices collapsed, but when the depression came along and not even the American tourists showed up as much as they used to—there had been no point to his staying there. And so it was back to the guajiro's life for him.

 That epoch of unfulfilled ambitions had made her papito sad and sometimes a little careless in his treatment of his family, even his lovely daughter, María, on whom, as the years had passed, he sometimes took out the shortcomings of his youth. That's why, whenever that driver Sixto abruptly reached over to crank the hand clutch forward, or swatted at a pesty fly buzzing the air, she'd flinch, as if she half expected him to slap her for no reason. He hardly noticed, however, no more than her papito did in the days of her own melancholy. 

"But I heard it's a nice city," she told  Sixto.

 "Coño, sí, if you have a good place to live and a good job, but," and he waved the thought off. "Ah, I'm sure you'll be all right. In fact," he went on smiling," I can help you maybe, huh?"

 He scratched his chin, smiled again.

"How so?"

 "I'm taking these pigs over to this slaughterhouse, it's run by a family called the Gallegos and I'm friendly enough with the son that he might agree to meet you…"

And so it went: once Sixto had dropped off the pigs, he could bring her into their office and then who knows what might happen. She had told him, after all, that she'd grown up in the countryside, and what girl from the countryside didn't know about skinning animals, and all the rest? But when María made a face, not managing as much as a smile the way she had over  just about everything else he said, he suggested that maybe she'd find a job in the front office doing whatever people in those offices do.

"Do you know how to read and write?"

The question embarrassed her.

"Only a few words," she finally told him. "I can write my name, though."

Seeing that he had made her uncomfortable with that question, he rapped her on the knee and said: "Well, don't feel bad, I can barely read and write myself. But whatever you do, don't worry—your new friend Sixto will help you out, I promise you that!"

She never became nervous riding with him, even when they had passed those stretches of the road where the workers stopped their labors in the fields to wave their hats at them, after which they didn't see a soul for miles, just endless acres of tobacco or sugar cane going on forever into the distance. It would have been so easy for him to pull over and take advantage of her: fortunately this Sixto wasn't that sort, even if María had spotted him glancing at her figure when he thought she wasn't looking. Bueno, what was she to do if even the plainest and most tattered of dresses still showed her off?

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