Manolo Took My Phone by Mark Jacobs

Manolo Took My Phone

Mark Jacobs

Manolo took my phone. He waited ‘til I fell asleep. Then poof, se hizo humo. I want it back. I have this idea, or is it just a feeling, that no good thing will ever happen to me again if I don’t get my phone back. It’s not luck I’m thinking about, it’s destiny. Okay, I’ve been known to exaggerate. That doesn’t mean last night’s clouds were not crying for me when they let loose over San Toribio. For others, too, of course. Hard times are endemic in this pueblo. Look down any street and you’ll see heartache, acts one through three. When the accordions stop, you’ll hear hysterical silence. But for me? Yeah, definitely, the clouds were crying for me.

Here’s the complicated part: Manolo’s tenderness, before he took my phone, was totally real. He got down on the floor next to the pallet and rhythmically massaged my legs because they were aching so badly. When I told him about the fever, he went and got a basin of cool water from the widow. He wrung out a rag, laid it on my forehead, sweetly and quietly sang that lullaby about papito out in the woods rounding up the sheep.

La fiebre, I told him, me duele muchísimo. Eighteen months in San Toribio, and I’m still a complete sucker for the Spanish. I never get tired of learning new words.

Think color. Every lightless thing has its pastel compensation. Or so I choose to believe. For example. If I wasn’t flat-on-my-back sick I might not have noticed the spiders. Really noticed them, I mean. Three of the evil fat things. Their patience is anything but a virtue. They cling to their webs in the rafters, black bellies bloated with pestilence. One of the webs is affixed to the underside of a roof tile, a feat I call it of sticky engineering.

As I lay on the pallet the spiders made me think about catastrophe. Catastrophe is the explosion that blows a hole in the wall of your isolation. I’m all for that.

But first I need to get my phone back.

When the widow came in she was carrying a bowl of soup on a tray and had news. Drink this, dear sweet Freya, it will make you feel better. She propped up my head and spoonfed me, and the greasy soup slid down my sore throat. Her name is Inés. Some people say she’s not a real widow. I always only get part of the story, and often not the part that matters. She dyes her hair black. It looks like shoe polish. That suggests a kind of sadness, possibly inborn, of the kind you frequently see in people and the things they touch.

Here is the news Inés brought with the soup: her sister lives in the country. The sister has a daughter. The daughter is pregnant. She is coming to San Toribio and needs this room, my room, to stay until the delivery because they are worried about some medical condition, I didn’t catch the Spanish word for what she has, or what might happen.

It’s a small room, free-standing, at the back end of Inés’s patio. You get there on a cute little walkway of bricks so when it rains your feet stay dry or anyway not muddy. It used to be where she washed her clothes. She never dared charge me much for it. It was clear from the first spoonful of noodle soup that she hoped I’d leave on my own. She didn’t want to have to kick me out.

That was one reason I got up with the sun and left the widow’s, the other being my phone. The widow pretended not to notice me going out the gate into the street. I won’t call it pathetic on her part, but I do feel let down. Manolo says you learn nothing, you are all embryo, until you have been betrayed. He should know.

Calle Cabildo is dirt although there are also paved streets in San Toribio. The town is built on a hill that would like to be a mountain. In the very old days tribes lived up here because the heights were easy to defend. The bones and arrows of ancestors sometimes turn up in people’s gardens, or when they dig a well. It’s considered good luck to find them. If you do have good luck, you must throw a party for your neighbors.

I came here because I wanted to see something different up close. That part has worked out.

My idea was to go to Manolo’s mother’s house. Sometimes he stays there. I spend little time in her company because she thinks I’m a bad influence on her son. I believe that’s what people call projection. But she lives on the opposite side of town, at a considerable distance. Getting there means traversing many up and down streets. I didn’t have the strength for that. My legs were trembling, and when I closed my eyes I saw those fucking spiders.

I shambled downhill to the corner carrying a bag of my clothes and stuff and waved down a taxi. I told the driver I had no money but would teach him five English words. He didn’t care much about the words, but he liked my looks. I have these physical attributes: red hair, a lithe body with stand-up tits, lips that look like they will soon pronounce the very words you long to hear.

So it turned out easier than I thought, getting to Socorro’s. It’s one of those old-fashioned pueblo houses with low pillars, cement balustrades protecting the street-side porch, a hitching rail. The rail is where Manolo leans his moto, so I knew he wasn’t there. That would have been too simple.

Socorro is possibly the boniest woman I ever personally knew. Her face is as angular as you would expect, but the stress lines give her a distinguished aspect that causes you to look twice. Her mouth is always moving, and I don’t mean talking. It’s like she suffers from some kind of nervous compulsion that causes her jaw, her lips, her tongue to be constantly agitated. All the things that can’t be said, that’s what I think is behind the tic.

I found her in the back patio hunting eggs. She often has a taste for an omelet. The chickens in their muttering gave away nothing. She glanced into the basket on her arm, which contained one medium-sized light brown egg.

“He’s not here.”

“I can see that.”

“You should leave him alone.”

“I will. But first he has to give me back my phone.”

Even now, in pain and perplexity, I derived some satisfaction from holding my own in a Spanish conversation.

Manolo no tiene tu telefono.”

“Would you swear that to a priest on your deathbed?”

The people of San Toribio are known for their traditional Catholicism. Other towns, other cities, whole swaths of the country are praising Jesus and going over to the Evangelicals because of an emotional excitement involved in the conversion process, but here the old faith rules. There is decorum. I never gave much thought to decorum before coming here but find I like it.

She glowered at me. She certainly has the face for it.

“My son left town.”

“Where did he go?”

“Valle Coco.”

Coco Valley is green and dense and always hot. The Rio Caiman, which runs through the valley, is known for a species of fish with teeth, and alligators still glide in the water and clamber on its muddy banks. The population is sparse and carries knives, but there are some big plantations carved out of the jungle, and a few settlements that are mostly trading posts.


“Why what?”

“Why did Manolo go to Valle Coco?”

“He had a dream.”

“A dream about what?”

She shrugged. She had an inspiration, bent down and reached into an aluminum bucket in the high grass. She drew out an egg from a spot you would not think a laying chicken could reach. You can make an omelet with two eggs.

“My son’s dream was private. It told him he should go to Valle Coco.”

“Where in Valle Coco?”

She mumbled something, turned away. One more egg would be perfect. But I’m pretty good at insisting, and reluctantly she admitted he said something about Padre Pio. So I knew she wasn’t lying. Padre Pio is a Spanish missionary. He loves this country and was Manolo’s fútbol coach when he was a boy. Manolo looks up to him. He likes to lecture me, not all priests are pedophiles.

All this was more mystery than I had the brain power to deal with. What was the priest doing in Coco Valley? Why did Manolo’s dream tell him he should go there? I think I know why he took my phone. He is punishing me for sins he has committed, or thought about committing. I wanted to tell him how messed up that is, and of course I wanted the phone back.

Someone who matters might call me. The odds are against it, but still…

The thought of getting out of San Toribio and down to Valle Coco and discovering where Padre Pio is in that vast green wilderness was overwhelming, in my weakened state. Leaving Socorro’s I wanted to lie down and cry. I slowly walked two blocks to the plaza with the big church. The gate was open. Two cream-colored cows with expressive brown eyes were grazing among the graves, which I think is a sacrilege although it happens, it happens, similar things happen all the time and yet we think everything will be okay, we will not be smitten in our heedlessness.

There are a couple of benches there, in the shadow of the façade. I used my bag of belongings as a pillow and lay down on one of them but did not cry because it seemed like showing off. A fiery pain grabbed my gut and squeezed, and I came close to passing out. But didn’t. I thought about sex with Manolo. Sometimes it’s real good. I thought about the Widow Inés’s pregnant niece. The girl must be scared. I thought about Socorro in the kitchen making a two-egg omelet or a three-egg omelet. I have eaten her eggs, now and again. She puts too much salt in.

All of that was to avoid thinking about how I was getting to Valle Coco. But you know, I am often lucky with logistics, which is not as good as being lucky in love but still something. Flaco, a friend of Manolo’s, saw me in the churchyard. Flaco has high emotional intelligence and asked no probing questions. He drove me in his pickup to a Cruz Verde pharmacy and bought me a lemony powder he dissolved in water and had me drink. He was sure it would make me feel better. Then he took me to the bus station at the foot of the hill on which San Toribio is built.

From the Moriencia station you can get a bus anywhere in the country. It’s busy, and crowded, kind of humanly bubbly I think you could say, and normally I would have felt excited being there. This time pain outbid pleasure.

Flaco, always thoughtful, bought my ticket to Redondo, which is something of a valley capital, and waited until I boarded the bus. I think he knows Manolo is a shit boyfriend. He would have gone with me. I would not have minded the company but had no head for conversation so told him he had already done enough, which he had.

Four hours to Redondo. Because the road is bad. When it rains, they have to close it to vehicle traffic since otherwise the ruts become impassably deep. I dozed. Dozing helped, and possibly so did Flaco’s lemony powder. When I woke we were halfway there, and I felt a little better although not, as they say, in fighting trim.

More logistical luck: I overheard a woman two seats ahead of me talking to her seatmate about Padre Pio. Evidently he is building a church, a regular Catholic church, smack in the middle of all this wild green Evangelical territory. The woman talking about the Spanish priest said she thought he would wind up being canonized.

Canonizar, now there’s a word I did not expect to learn on a jouncing bus ride to an important valley town in a land that does not welcome me.

I fell asleep again, did not wake up until the bus braked to a stop in Redondo, which is composed mainly of rickety buildings strung out along red dirt streets. Everywhere you look you see black pigs, and chickens of various colors, and indigenous people going about their private business with what seems to be gravity but may be something else entirely for all I know.

Nobody wanted to tell me where Padre Pio’s church is going up. I’m not sure why unless it was my foreign looks, which I suppose is reason enough. I ate a cheese sandwich in a hole-in-the-wall restaurant, and drank a Coke. The sun was at its malevolent best, making life, plain daily life, intolerable to all warm-blooded creatures under its sway. I think I fell asleep sitting up in my chair.

When I came to myself I had this idea: go to a lumberyard, if I could find one, and ask where Padre Pio’s church-in-progress is. It worked. I hitched a ride with a driver taking a truckload of floor tiles out to the construction site, which is pretty far outside of town in a clearing surrounded by a plantation of those palm trees they cultivate for oil. Row upon row, acre after acre of identical trees. I think they’re spooky; it’s more than the idea of cultivating palms for their oil can bear.

Padre Pio has cleared land for the church, which has a noble look despite being unfinished. The walls are up, the roof is on, the spire is rising, but there are no windows or doors, and a massive bell rests on a pallet in the grass.

“You must be Freya,” was the first thing he said to me.

I don’t know how it works, but the Spanish missionary is one of those people whom age fortifies rather than tearing down. His silver hair and silver beard are impeccably trimmed. His dark eyes are fierce with God, who is also in his pants pockets, in the creases of his skin, in the air he exhales. Around us his future parishioners were busy unloading the floor tiles from the truck I came in on. The men were wearing matching T-shirts, and their sandals were Biblical. It would be dangerous for me to spend any amount of time here.

“Manolo took my phone,” I told the priest.

“You’re sick, aren’t you? It’s in your face, pobrecita. First things first. You must lie down and recover your strength.”

An old woman with Biblical sandals and one of those T-shirts – they all say Construyendo Nuestra Iglesia – led me to a kind of dormitory with bunks. She offered me sandals and a shirt like hers, but I turned her down. I did accept the roast chicken and boiled manioc she brought me. It was the first food I’ve been able to keep down since this whole thing began.

The food drugged me, and I slept through the night, peripherally aware of people coming into the dormitory making soft sounds like pigeons cooing as they return to their cotes at day’s end.

In the morning I woke early, still feeling like shit. I washed my face in a pale blue enamel palangana full of water someone had left on a wooden chair by my bunk. Outside, Padre Pio was reciting his morning prayers next to the bell on the pallet but stopped when I approached him in my crusty funk of a mood. He was wearing a black priestly shirt with a clerical color, which made me wonder how many people there are like him in today’s world. Not enough, is my guess.

The sun was not quite up yet. I could hear those hundreds of thousands of palm trees breathing lightly around us in every direction as far as the ear could reach. I want to believe that if they work together they can dream their own dream.

“Manolo took my phone,” I reminded him.

“Is that important to you?”

I’ve heard a few Spaniards speak before. It always sounds like they are pissed off, but it’s just the way they handle their own language. They are not as brusque as I first thought they all must be.

 “Yes. It’s important to me.”

He was silent for a moment, studying me without looking at me. God was doing somersaults in the air around him.

Manolo told me Padre Pio is a really good fútbol coach. That does not surprise me. He knows the game and knows people.

“Manolo is not here.”

“Where is he?”

“In the forest.”

“Why did he go to the forest?”

“It seemed like the best alternative, for now.”

“Which way?”

He shook his head. “You will be much better off with us, Freya. You can think about Manolo later, when you regain your health.”

“Which way?”

He couldn’t very well tie me down and put sandals on my unwilling feet, so eventually he caved and gave me the details I needed. There is a path, the way Manolo went. In moments of confusion I am to make sure I am moving north. The red fruits of the tree with spiky dark leaves are nutritious. The mosquitos in the air above stagnant pools will kill me if I let them. That kind of practical thing.

The old woman who had led me to bed the evening before gave me a sack with part of a chicken in it, and more sticks of boiled manioc. I gave her my bag of belongings, don’t ask me why. I let Padre Pio say a prayer for the traveler over my head. A courtesy on my part, but he deserved the respect.

I plunged into the forest, which was everywhere behind the plantation of oil palms. The trail was narrow but visible, and I moved along it wishing the pain that kept seizing my gut would just give up and go away. Hasn’t it done enough?

If I had my phone I would be able to keep track of the hours. On the other hand, maybe it’s better to let the time make its own distinctions, slice up the day in a manner of its own choosing. Because of the pain I make slow progress.

The first time the trail forked I was able to figure out which way was north by looking at where the sun was in the sky. That was encouraging.

Padre Pio implied there is an end point to the trail. I know his intentions are good, but I’m not convinced.

At one point I was exhausted and lay down by a creek over which dragonflies were skittering as if today were the only day that mattered. Libélula is what they are called in Spanish. It’s possible that Manolo taught me the word, right now I can’t remember.

I find myself thinking about Manolo more often than is strictly necessary. He was a virgin when he met me. He writes down his dreams. Once, he slapped my face. Once, I slapped his. He believes his ancestors were vegetarians and becomes seriously upset if I tell him they ate meat like everybody else’s ancestors. He is waiting for the day when all sins will be declared crimes. Not that he wants that to happen. He is sometimes afraid of the dark, and sometimes of the light.

The path went on and on. I did, too. The clingy wet heat of the afternoon in the forest beggars description, at least by me.

I kept looking for some of the nutritious red fruits but did not come across any of the trees that produce them. The story of my life, you might say.

I’m not getting any better. The big question is, am I getting worse?

Another creek. Más libélulas en el aire. Another fortifying snooze. When I woke I was hungry and opened the sack to find that ants had crawled in as I slept. There were so many of the damn things covering my food that I threw it away. It felt like a significant decision.

You lose the sun fast and early in Valle Coco. Blame it on the latitude.

Who’s to say, I’m thinking now, that Manolo has stopped moving? It’s not like he’s expecting me. I’m not sure he would wait if he knew I was coming. He might be going farther than is advisable. Hah! The more I think about it, the likelier that seems.

I stopped when my legs gave out. It grosses me out, thinking about sleeping on the forest floor tonight. Don’t really have a choice at this point. I’m a strong person, if that counts for something. It should.

I can feel the day’s heat leaking out of the air.

It’s a myth that you lose your appetite when you’re sick. At least in my case.

So many things I’ve wanted to see up close. Now I have, some of them.

I will get through this bad night, I will. Count on it, the way I’m counting on you to remind me when I need reminding that Manolo took my phone.

About the Author

Mark Jacobs has published more than 190 stories in magazines including The Hudson Review, The Atlantic, Playboy, and The Baffler. His sixth book, a novel set in the Congo, is forthcoming from Evergreen Review Books.