The Trumpet Lesson, opening pages

At the blast, Callie startled and looked up to see a puff of smoke high above her head. Then she looked over at the brightest of the stuccoed houses that stair-stepped up the opposite side of the ravine. The luminescent yellow one. Had Armando seen her jump?

She steadied herself. Soon another celebratory rocket would take off from the Señor del Buen Viaje chapel, whiz over her rooftop terrace, and explode above Guanajuato’s historic center. She imagined that rocket catching the sheet she was hanging, lifting it and her along with it. How she would soar through the sky! Exhilarating. She looked down to the floor of the main canyon hundreds of feet below where pedestrian plazas nestled among soft-hued colonial buildings. Exhilarating, yes. But a long way to fall.

No answer. Armando flipped his cell shut, paced back and forth across his studio, and then sat on the stone ledge of a tall, deep-set window. He tapped a salsa rhythm on his conga. Quick, quick, slow. Quick, quick, slow. No response. Not at all. He thumped the conga. First Claude and then Callie. But at least he knew where she was. He tapped a drum roll. Doing her laundry. Which she should be leaving to Doña Petra. Why have a cleaning woman, if she wouldn’t let her clean?

He gave the conga a final pat and turned to peer across the ravine’s patchwork of houses in every color of the rainbow. There she was on her rooftop stretching toward a billowing white sheet. It looked like she had a scarf tied around her curls. He leaned out the window. Could it be the silk one he had brought her from Paris? In pale green to match her eyes. And perfect against her hair the color of strawberries streaked with silver. He had told her that. Not that it made a difference. She never wore the scarf when they went out. He had even suggested that gentlemen might show her attention if she wore it. Not that they hadn’t checked her out before. Not surprising. She was nice to look at. And young looking. He turned to look at himself in the mirror. Well, not as young looking as he was. He leaned toward the mirror, fluffed his curls, and then stood back to look again. Of course he looked young. He pulled himself up to his full six feet. He was only thirty, and she was … goodness … maybe fifty! Anyway, he wouldn’t mind if she went out. Once in a while. Still, he hadn’t said anything about men paying her attention, until he had given her the scarf. The next time she met him for dinner, she had covered herself in beige, including a muffler wrapped around her throat and curls, as if she were a mummy. He shrugged. Ni modo. Never mind. So, she wore his gift to do the laundry. At least there on her rooftop she wasn’t afraid to live.

A rocket shot up from the chapel below Callie’s property. He watched her jump when it blasted. Then he turned to take in the poster over the foot of his daybed, the one of Claude bowing his cello. The sisters had said that rockets open the skies for prayers. He faced the niche with the statue of the Virgin de Guadalupe, crossed himself, and made a wish.

He heard another swoosh and turned to see Callie startle again at the blast. He shook his head. Five years in Guanajuato, and she still had not learned to note the telltale sound of an ascending rocket.

He dialed her number again and called across the canyon: “Contesta el teléfono, Calabacita.” Answer the phone, Little Squash.

Callie stood still a moment listening to the phone ring. And then she reached up to finish hanging a pillowcase, the last in a row of bed linens and towels as white as the clouds forming in the deep blue sky. The call would be Armando. He had already reached her twice. The first time, she had left a towel hanging from one clothespin in her rush to get across her rooftop terrace, down the exterior spiral stairs to the upstairs terrace, and then through the French doors into her dining area. She had paused before answering, her heart racing, though it wasn’t likely to be anyone but Armando. He would be calling to say she should leave her laundry to Doña Petra and get ready to look for Tavelé, that rascal street dog he had adopted who had, for the umpteenth time, run off.

Well, it had been Armando, complaining about his maldita answering machine garbling the message Claude had left the night before and then scolding her for hanging her laundry. It would make her late. She had plenty of time, she had told him, in spite of the laundry, to be ready by their planned meeting time. That is, she had said to herself when climbing back up the stairs, if she didn’t have to go looking for a towel that had blown away.

After putting the laundry basket in its place and wiping the washer, she went to the railing and looked again at the houses on the hillside where Armando lived. Glowing orange, radiant yellow, hot pink, fire engine red. A crazy blaze of color. Perfect, Armando would say, often in Spanish, English, and French, “Perfecto. Perfect. Parfait.” Her own house was stone in shades of gray and soft teal. Otherwise she would have had to paint it. Beige. What would Armando have said then?

Church bells rang. They had started early that morning. As had the drum and bugle bands. And the fireworks. The chapel down the hill was celebrating some saint’s day. She didn’t know which one. The only festival day she knew for sure was December 12, Guadalupe Day, when she would take time off to watch the children, the boys dressed in white and the girls in colorful skirts and embroidered blouses, walking hand in hand with their parents up the hill to the temple of Guadalupe, carrying baskets of fruit for the Mexican Virgin.

Armando’s second call had been to tease her about still jumping at blasts after having lived in Guanajuato five years. Would she ever learn to listen for the swish of the takeoff? She wasn’t losing her hearing, was she? OK, he would give her a couple of more years. Surely she would learn to listen by the 21st century. That’s why he called, he had said, and then, trying to make it sound like an afterthought, he had asked her, not for the first time, to call Paris hospitals. Claude must have slipped into the Seine. Or tumbled from la Tour Eiffel. Some awful accident. Oh, and yes it was likely. Hadn’t all twenty-six of her husbands died suddenly?

And all of them before giving her a child, now that he thought about it. Quel dommage. What a pity. No children. No grandchildren to play with. And now Claude gone, too. And Tavelé. It was just too much. “, Chou, oui” he had said. Yes, he knew those husbands and their accidents were fiction. No, no, she shouldn’t stop telling the stories. “J’adore tes maris,” he had said, switching into French, the way he did when he particularly wanted to impress something on her. He loved her husbands. Didn’t he pray for their souls? And, besides, it wasn’t her stories giving him ideas. Accidents happened all the time in real life, as she must know, given all the times she had warned him about what could happen to Tavelé, if he didn’t start keeping him on a leash. And Claude? Had he had an accident? Is that why he wasn’t answering the phone? Or was there another reason? Armando didn’t want to know. So he said. But he had wanted to know why it had taken her so long to answer. Wasn’t the phone he had had installed in her laundry room working? Well, he could have someone stop by and check it. She had no business rushing down a spiral stairway to the phone. She might fall, and there she would be, alone, crumpled on her terrace. How could she do that to him?

He had been tapping while he talked, not as erratically as at his most anxious, but still worrisome. “Talk to the Virgin,” she said. And he promised he would. She had learned early on that talking with the Virgin would calm him down. Any of the Blessed Virgins would do, but he preferred the Virgin of Guadalupe and would go out of his way to find her. She recalled the children hand in hand with their parents climbing the hill to the temple. As a little boy Armando must have celebrated Guadalupe Day, too. Someone at the orphanage would have dressed him in white and given him a basket of fruit for the Virgin. Even so, it was sad. Who would have held his hand? Still, like her aunt Ida said, there was no point in dwelling on the past.

Sites of upcoming scenes.

Plaza Mexiamora, where Callie tells Armando a darkly comic cautionary tale.

Plaza Baratillo, where Armando wonders why in the world shy and quiet Callie would ask for a trumpet lesson.

The University of Guanajuato library on Calle Truco, where Callie is headed until she sees a couple of Jehovah’s Witnesses coming toward her.

The Basilica, Plaza de la Paz, where Callie slips into a side entrance to avoid the Jehovah’s Witnesses

Callie plans to cross right through the Basilica until she notices an elderly woman kneeling at the confessional.

The Trumpet Lesson will be published September 24, 2019 by She Writes Press and will be available at bookstores and as an e-book. Visit  https://www.indiebound.org