by Vicente Rivera, Jr.
ONE evening in August 1941, I came out of a late movie to a silent, cold night. I shivered a little as I stood for a moment in the narrow street, looking up at the distant sky, alive with stars. I stood there, letting the night wind seep through me, and listening. The street was empty, the houses on the street dim—with the kind of ghostly dimness that seems to embrace sleeping houses. I had always liked empty streets in the night; I had always stopped for a while in these streets listening for something I did not quite know what. Perhaps for low, soft cries that empty streets and sleeping houses seem to share in the night. I lived in an old, nearly crumbling apartment house just across the street from the moviehouse. From the street, I could see into the open courtyard, around which rooms for the tenants, mostly a whole family to a single room, were ranged. My room, like all the other rooms on the groundfloor, opened on this court. Three other boys, my cousins, shared the room with me. As I turned into the courtyard from the street, I noticed that the light over our study-table, which stood on the corridor outside our room, was still burning. Earlier in the evening after supper, I had taken out my books to study, but I went to a movie instead. I must have forgotten to turn off the light; apparently, the boys had forgotten, too. I went around the low screen that partitioned off our “study” and there was a girl reading at the table. We looked at each other, startled. I had never seen her before. She was about eleven years old, and she wore a faded blue dress. She had long, straight hair falling to her shoulders. She was reading my copy of Greek Myths. The eyes she had turned to me were wide, darkened a little by apprehension. For a long time neither of us said anything. She was a delicately pretty girl with a fine, smooth. pale olive skin that shone richly in the yellow light. Her nose was straight, small and finely molded. Her lips, full and red, were fixed and tense. And there was something else about her. Something lonely? something lost? “I know,” I said, “I like stories, too. I read anything good I find lying around. Have you been reading long?” “Yes,” she said. not looking at me now. She got up slowly, closing the book. “I’m sorry.” “Don’t you want to read anymore? I asked her, trying to smile, trying to make her feel that everything was all right. “No.” she said, “thank you.”
“Oh, yes,” I said, picking up the book. “It’s late. You ought to be in bed. But, you can take this along.” She hesitated, hanging back, then shyly she took the book, brought it to her side. She looked down at her feet uncertain as to where to turn. “You live here?” I asked her.
She turned her face and nodded towards the far corner, across the courtyard, to a little room near the communal kitchen. It was the room occupied by the janitor: a small square room with no windows except for a transom above the door. “You live with Mang Lucio?”
“He’s my uncle.”
“How long have you been here? I haven’t seen you before, have I?” “I’ve always been here. I’ve seen you.”
“Oh. Well, good night—your name?”
“Good night, Maria.”
She turned quickly, ran across the courtyard, straight to her room, and closed the door without looking back. I undressed, turned off the light and lay in bed dreaming of far-away things. I was twenty-one and had a job for the first time. The salary was not much and I lived in a house that was slowly coming apart, but life seemed good. And in the evening when the noise of living had died down and you lay safe in bed, you could dream of better times, look back and ahead, and find that life could be gentle—even with the hardness. And afterwards, when the night had grown colder, and suddenly you felt alone in the world, adrift, caught in a current of mystery that came in the hour between sleep and waking, the vaguely frightening loneliness only brought you...