They returned to the store as darkness fell over the jungle, and the fat man arranged the watch.
Two men would stay awake, and would be relieved by the other two after four hours. He himself would sleep uninterruptedly until dawn.
Before going to sleep, they cooked rice and slices of banana, and after supper Antonio JosÚ BolÝvar cleaned his false teeth before wrapping them up in his handkerchief. His companions saw him hesitate for a moment, and, to their surprise, put the dentures back in.
Since he was on the first shift, the old man took the oil lamp. His companion on duty watched him, perplexed, as he ran his magnifying glass over the signs printed on the pages.
"Can you really read, my friend?"
"What's that you're reading?"
"A novel. But shush. When you speak, the flame flickers and the letters seem to dance."
The other man moved off so as not to disturb him, but the old man seemed so engrossed in the book that he couldn't keep away.
"What's it about?"
At the old man's reply, he moved closer, his interest renewed.
"No kidding? Hot, rich little numbers?"
The old man slammed the book shut with a snap that made the flame jump.
"No. It's the other kind of love. The painful kind."
The man was disappointed. He shrugged and moved away. Ostentatiously he poured a large glass of rum, lit a cigar, and started to sharpen the blade of his machete.
After he had used the stone, he spat on the metal, whetted it again, and tested the edge with his fingertip.
The old man had his nose in his book again, not allowing the rasping sound of stone against metal to bother him. He mumbled the words as if they were a prayer.
"Come on, read louder."
"Are you really interested?"
"Of course I am. I once went to the movies in Loja, and saw a Mexican love film. I don't know why I'm telling you, but I cried my heart out."
"In that case, I'll have to start at the beginning, so you can tell the good people from the bad."
Antonio JosÚ BolÝvar went back to the first page of the book. He'd reread it several times and knew it by heart.
"Paul kissed her ardently while the gondolier, accomplice in his friend's escapades, pretended to look the other way, and the gondola, lined with soft cushions, glided peacefully along the canals of Venice."
"Not so fast, please," said a voice.
The old man raised his eyes. Three men were crouched around him. The mayor was a little farther away, stretched out on a pile of sacks.
"There are words I don't understand," went on the man who had spoken.
"Do you understand them all yourself?" asked another.
The old man embarked on his own explanations of the unknown terms.
The business of the gondolier, the gondola, and all that ardent kissing became a little clearer after two hours of discussion spiced with juicy anecdotes. But the mysterious city where people had to move around in boats was beyond their understanding.
"I suppose they must get a lot of rain."
"Or the rivers are always flooding."
"They must be even wetter than we are."
"Just imagine. You have a few drinks, go out for a pee, and what do you see? Your fish-faced neighbors looking at you."
The men laughed, smoked, and drank. The mayor tossed uncomfortably on his bed.
"For your information, Venice is a city built on a lagoon. And it's in Italy," he bellowed from his restless corner.
"Really! So the houses float like rafts," someone commented. "If that's the case, why do they need boats? They can use their houses for traveling around," ventured another.
"You blockheads! They're fixed houses. There are even palaces, cathedrals, castles, bridges, streets for people. All the houses have stone foundations," the fat man declared.
"How do you know? Have you been there?" asked the old man.
"No. But I'm educated. That's also why I'm mayor.
The fat man's explanation complicated matters.
"If I've understood you correctly, excellency, these people have stones that float, like pumice. But if you build your house with pumice stone, it wouldn't float. I'm sure of that. They must put planks underneath."
The mayor held his head in his hands.
"God! How can people be so stupid! Think whatever you like. The jungle has affected your brains. Not even Christ can save you from your stupidity....
The fat man was about to add something, but a gesture from the old man stopped him. The men understood, picked up their guns, put out the lamp, and waited.
From outside they heard the soft sounds of a stealthily moving body...
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