The Hero Speaks
A novel excerpt by Patry Francis
“Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life or, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show.”
After his mother’s death, Gus Silva didn’t speak a single word for eight and a half months. Finally, Aunt Fatima brought him to see Dr. Heliodoro Costa. Dr. Hal, as he was known, had delivered every Portuguese child born in P-town in the thirty years of his tenure. He also served as their pediatrician, and when their fishermen fathers or uncles were injured in their line of work, he treated them, too. In one case that was often repeated in the bars, he told a lonely divorcee with vague aches and pains of no discernible origin that maybe she needed to go down to the Old Colony and get laid.
Dr. Hal insisted on seeing the silent child alone in Aunt Fatima’s parlor, with her impressive collection of Virgin Mary statues in attendance.
“Morning, Little Voodoo,” he said, using the nickname that had affixed itself to Gus when he was three. That was when folks in town first noticed that his fluid black eyes had the power to charm any female who looked into them.
The doctor’s terse, unanswered greeting was the last thing the neighbors who had gathered in the back alley heard before the door slammed. Unlike the harried HMO-driven doctor who would follow him a generation later, Dr. Hal was noted for taking his time. Thus, no one was surprised when he didn’t emerge from the room in nearly two hours.
What did surprise them was that when they pressed their ears against the door they found the parlor utterly quiet. Uncle Manny speculated that Dr. Hal was ashamed to admit he’d met his first untreatable case, and had escaped out the seldom-used front door. Only the presence of the doctor’s battered Chevelle in the driveway prevented Gus’s distraught aunt from bursting in.
To their amazement, the first voice they heard emanating from the parlor was Gustavo’s.
“I’m hungry, Aunt Fatima,” he said. They were commonplace words, but to his family a miracle. A moment later the doctor emerged smiling and pronounced the boy cured.
“What did you do?” Aunt Fatima cried while the family clustered around, daubing their eyes, and speaking loudly.
“Did I ever tell you I was Veteran Memorial Elementary School’s all-time champion of the staring contest?” Dr. Hal said, deflecting the ten spot Uncle Manny was attempting to press into his palm. “Well, let’s just say I successfully defended my title.”
“You and Voodoo had a staring contest?” Aunt Fatima said.
“That’s what I said,” Dr. Hal said. “After two hours, Gustavo gave up, and asked me what was wrong. ‘Why are you looking at me like that, Dr Hal?’ were his words”
Only Gus knew that what had really cured him was not Dr. Hal’s staring, but the prescription that had followed: several afternoons with the doctor’s own precocious daughter. The very next day Hallie Costa appeared at the house asking for “the boy they call Voodoo.”
At ten, Hallie already was known as P-town’s very own girl genius. She was the only child of their generation who spoke Portuguese as fluently and flawlessly accented as those who had been born in the Azores. Her father bragged that she read the books her babysitter was assigned in her senior English class, and understood them better than most students in Provincetown High.
It was one of those books she had under her arm when she joined Gus in the parlor, where he sat before a plate of trutas and two glasses of milk. Since telling his aunt he was hungry the day before, Gus hadn’t spoken another word. But he nodded politely at his pretty classmate as she sat opposite him in the very same armchair that her father had occupied.
Hallie nodded back, and without further introduction, opened David Copperfield and began to read. At once, Gus was enamored—both of Hallie Costa and of the story that unfolded in his mind as her melodic voice filled the parlor. She returned punctually every day at three until she reached the midway point in the book. Then she slapped it on the table.
“If you’re interested, you’ll have to finish it yourself,” she said, her large black eyes bright with the challenge. Gus liked the way those eyes tilted upward at the corner. Like everything else about Hallie Costa, they announced a resolutely cheerful nature.
Gus followed her onto the narrow street. It was the first time that spring he had noticed the abundant flowers in the window boxes.
“I can’t read that book! It’s for grown ups!” he called to her disappearing form.
Hallie turned around, but continued walking backward as she spoke. “You can learn. And if you can’t—well then, I guess you’ll never know the end of the story.”
Hallie Costa turned a corner, leaving Gus with a final glimpse of curls that were not just blond, but the color of the sunshine and daffodils Gus had not allowed himself to see since his mother had died.
Back inside the house, Gus took the book to his room and strained his eyes over the small print and the oversized words for a page or two. Then he despaired and put the book under his bed. But every time he caught sight of Hallie’s springy yellow hair in school, or heard her exuberant whoops in the playground, he thought of the two unfinished stories she had left him: David Copperfield’s and his own.
The first words he used when he took up the struggle with the two stories he had abandoned were the curses he’d learned from the old fishermen on the pier. He called the author who had awakened him from the colorlessness and silence of his grief a panaleiro! Balalao! Puto! He yelled out in the bedroom he shared with his cousin Alvaro, as he struggled with the dictionary and Dickens’ winding sentence structures.
Though he didn’t know the meaning of the words, he pronounced them with gusto and a perfect Portuguese accent. Hearing him, Aunt Fatima marched upstairs and threatened to spank his cu if she ever heard such obscenities from his lips again. But then she confounded the message as she kissed the book and wept. “Who knew a book could do such a thing?”
From that day on, a framed portrait of Charles Dickens, hung on the wall in an honored place among the family pictures, and a painting of the current Pope. And whenever anyone asked who he was, Aunt Fatima would wink at Gus.
“That’s Voodoo’s great granddaddy on his mother’s side,” she’d say. In fact, the story was repeated so many times that it was hard to convince Gus as an adult that he was not related to Charles Dickens.
Patry Francis has been published in The Colorado Review, The Tampa Review, Antioch Review, and Ontario Review, among others. Her stories have been nominated for the Pushcart Prize three times and she has been awarded a grant from the Massachusetts Council for the Arts twice. The Hero Speaks is excerpted from her recently completed novel, RACE POINT. Patry's last contribution to VerbSap was The Year, The Day, The Hour. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Top photo courtesy of Freeimages.co.uk.
Bottom image, "Charles Dickens," courtesy of the NYPL Digital Gallery.
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