The Two Deaths of Senora Puccini

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9780140105674: The Two Deaths of Senora Puccini

A sinuous, strange and utterly beguiling novel of sexual obsession. Set in an opulent villa in the heart of a Latin American city in the throes of revolution, three boyhood friends, now middle-aged, including the narrator, Nicholas Battersby, gather at the home of Dr. Pacheco for a semi-annual dinner party, during the course of which they discover the long-harboured secrets of the house and Pacheco's obsessive imprisonment of the beautiful and enigmatic senora puccini, as well as secrets about their own complusions.

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About the Author:

Stephen Dobyns is the author of more than thirty novels and poetry collections, including The Church of Dead Girls, Cold Dog Soup, Cemetery Nights, and The Burn Palace. Among his many honors are a Melville Cane Award, Pushcart Prizes, a National Poetry Series prize, and three National Endowment for the Arts fellowships. His novels have been translated into twenty languages, and his poetry has appeared in the Best American Poems anthology. Dobyns teaches creative writing at Warren Wilson College and has taught at the University of Iowa, Sarah Lawrence College, and Syracuse University.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

For Isabel Bize

CHEAP VASE

Pursued by threat of war and violence in the streets,

we came to a friend’s house for dinner.

In the middle of the table was a dead body,

a naked man, not too young, not too old.

We did not know him. We ate and

passed the wine, trying not to look at the man,

trying to pretend he was not really there,

lying flat on his back on the white cloth.

We will make him disappear, we said,

that is not a man, those are flowers

in the middle of the table, yes, a large vase

of white flowers and on the vase itself

are pictures of people dancing and drinking wine.

You know, said one of the guests, when

old age wipes out our generation

that vase will remain behind surrounded

by other troubles than our own. You fool,

said another, what makes you think

any one of us will reach old age? And again

the dead man took his place among us.

One

Pursued by threat of war and violence in the streets, we came to a friend’s house for dinner. Nine of us were expected; I was first to arrive. Even though I live only a mile away, my cab was stopped twice by the police. On both occasions, as officers inspected my papers, young smooth-cheeked soldiers kept their weapons trained on the driver. They looked like country boys, suspicious of tall buildings and city-dwellers alike. In the distance, we heard the staccato clatter of automatic weapons punctuated by small arms fire. I asked what was happening but my questions were ignored. The late afternoon light was hazy with smoke and several times we had passed the burning remnants of automobiles. After seeing that my papers were in order, the officers waved us on without comment. Being a journalist helped, and certainly my name is not unknown in the city.

The dinner at Dr. Pacheco’s had been on my calendar for six months. In a way, it had been on my calendar for nine years, ever since the doctor moved back from the south and joined our group. After waiting nine years for this evening, was I to be stopped by military shenanigans? We are a number of men who were once in school together, and every six months one of us gives a dinner for the rest. For all I knew, the dinner was canceled since the phones at the newspaper had stopped working around four. Nor did the radio tell me much. At times of trouble the stations invariably play classical music. A general strike was scheduled for the day after tomorrow and word came up from the city room that several labor leaders had been arrested, but whether that was connected to the shooting and roadblocks, I could only guess.

The cab let me off in front of Dr. Pacheco’s house, which was the largest on an old cobblestone street—a few tall trees, plane trees mostly, but also some palms. The adjoining whitewashed fronts were pushed right up to the sidewalk. Many of the houses had small second-floor balconies, windows covered with black iron grates, and flower boxes with bright red and yellow flowers. It was the middle of the summer and the city was broiling. Even though I had gone home to shower and change my clothes, I could feel my shirt clinging damply to my back. I climbed the steps. The air smelt of burning tires. No one else was in sight and on many houses the shutters were closed.

The door was painted black and on the highly polished brass name plate I read the words: DR. DANIEL PACHECO. Beneath the name was a large brass knocker in the shape of a hand holding an apple. As I reached out to lift it, some object at my feet caught my attention. It appeared to be an untidy heap of gray feathers. I knelt down. It was a dead dove—no, a pigeon—which had presumably flown into the wall. A spot of blood stained the edge of its beak. I was struck by how calmly it returned my gaze. Standing up again, I touched the pigeon with the tip of my shoe. Then I nudged it off the step and it fell to the sidewalk with a soft plop. From somewhere down the block someone was practicing the scales on a badly tuned piano. Turning back to the door, I lifted the brass knocker and let it fall. I lifted it again. It was just six thirty.

My name is Nicolas Batterby, age forty-nine, a widower with no children. I am the associate book review editor of the city’s largest paper. I like to think of myself as an observer of life. Why else would I court danger by going to Dr. Pacheco’s for dinner? Surely I had every reason to cancel. But I had known Pacheco for forty years. At the same time, I didn’t know him at all, nor had I ever set foot inside his house, even though he was famous for his little dinners. Indeed, the food editor at the paper claimed he had the best cook and the finest wine cellar in the city. In addition to being a distinguished surgeon, Pacheco was said to have made love to a thousand women. Perhaps he raped them. Possibly they begged him for it.

The door was opened by a woman in a black dress who I assumed was a servant. What was my first impression? I’m not sure I had one. The gunshots seemed closer and my main wish was to get off the street. I was aware of a woman about forty-five, tall, thin with large breasts, thick black hair streaked with gray. Her face looked worn; not just middle-aged but worn, as if it had been used too much, too much emotion, too much crying. Am I telling the truth? I think I am a truthful man. From moment to moment I believe myself sincere, but sometimes looking back I can see I’ve been mistaken, even that I’ve lied. On this occasion I’m sure I did no more than glance at her. My mind registered a tall, dark, middle-aged shape. Certainly, had I thought her beautiful I would have looked more closely.

It was the hall that took my attention, not the woman. Once the heavy front door was closed, the only sound came from the splashing of water in the fountain in front of the great marble staircase. It was, in fact, two staircases—both covered with red runners—since one could ascend either side. They came together at the top at a small balcony with a marble balustrade. The double staircase was like a pair of symmetrical brackets and what it bracketed was the balcony and fountain.

Everything was marble: the walls, the floors—white marble with black veins. In the middle of the fountain was a life-sized marble statue of a girl balancing on one foot and holding a small pitcher out of which trickled a stream of water. She was naked, with small, emergent breasts. The water splashed into a pool with green lily pads and goldfish. It was very soothing and, after the heat of the city, almost cold.

The hall was a large, high-ceilinged room. Beneath each stairway was a door leading to the rear of the house, while several more doors stood to my left and right. Set into the walls were four small niches with classical busts: bald men in togas with damaged noses. I approached one and had the impression the statue was weeping. There appeared to be a splash of tears under one eye. Looking closer, I saw that what I thought were tears was in fact a little gray lizard, one of those tiny creatures that seek out cool places during the summer and fall. It was completely motionless, a small gray curve under the left eye. Staring at the lizard, I felt it bore no similarity to tears or weeping, and briefly I was embarrassed that my imagination had run away with me.

Perhaps as striking as the hall was a great tapestry that hung on the wall on my right. Although faded to browns and yellows, it clearly showed several centaurs pursuing a group of rather heavy-set women through the trees. The women were laughing and holding up their arms. There was a sense of carnal hysteria, too much to drink, and the sort of party that one regrets in the morning. Presumably it was valuable but even so, it seemed a strange thing to find in a surgeon’s entrance hall, and I imagined Pacheco bringing home young women and showing it to them before leading them into the den for drinks. Around the walls were arrangements of red flowers in silver contraptions that looked like champagne buckets with legs. The air was thick with their scent, a heavy smell reminding me of funerals more than dinner parties.

During this time the housekeeper continued to stand a few feet behind me. When I thought about it, I realized she was used to letting people in, then giving them a moment to be impressed. I glanced back and she walked toward one of the doors on the left, beckoning me to follow. She had not asked my name and I could only assume she knew who I was.

The room which we entered was a library. Books lined the dark shelves from floor to ceiling, while along one wall was a great stone fireplace. It was the sort of room I would have liked for myself: dark red leather chairs and sofa, a Persian carpet, three Piranesi prints of Roman ruins over the mantel. As in many of the city’s oldest houses, the room had a ceiling of white wooden slats, a concession to the earthquakes, which crumble anything made of plaster. Two leaded windows looked out on the street, but the street, from a room as peaceful as this, seemed very distant. I walked to the nearest. There was a window seat with a red cushion. It was hard to imagine that nearby men were shooting at each other. Listening carefully, I tried to make out the pop-pop of gunfire, but all I could hear was the soft whir of the overhead fan.

The housekeeper walked to a black lacquer cabinet with oriental pictures of fat naked gods on small pink clouds. She opened it to expose a row of bottles. “The doctor would like you to make yourself a drink,” she said. “He will be here shortly.” Her voice was low for a woman and entirely without warmth. Then she left the room, shutting the door quietly behind her.

I don’t know if others do this, but when I look into a man’s liquor cabinet a small cash register gets busy inside my brain. Is the Scotch Johnnie Walker Red or the more expensive Johnnie Walker Black? Is the brandy Regal or Remi, V.S. or V.S.O.P.? Here the Scotch, brandy, sherry, various whiskeys were the best available—I would have been disappointed otherwise. Unfortunately, I am diabetic, and having eaten little during the day, I was concerned about my blood sugar. Usually I have to carry with me small containers of peanut butter. That is how it is as one gets older; the little pleasures are replaced by the little pains: bad back, sore feet, dry skin. What is it Diogenes said? “One must learn the pleasure of despising pleasure.”

I poured out a tumbler of mineral water, promising myself a glass of wine with our meal. Then I began to investigate the books. I used to think you could know a man just by looking at his library. Now I no longer believe that, primarily because I myself have a few books which I keep in a back room away from the eyes of prying guests. Not sex books or anything questionable. Rather they are diet books, exercise books, a couple of excessively romantic novels, a few volumes of sentimental poetry—the sort of books one doesn’t care to defend oneself about.

So the question was whether the library represented Dr. Pacheco as he wanted to appear or as he was. But as I glanced over the shelves, I found myself experiencing the complicated envy I had experienced as an adolescent. In Pacheco’s library were the classics of literature as well as contemporary novels, ancient and modern history, all sorts of biography, scientific books, even poetry, even philosophy. I wandered around the room with my drink, stopping every so often to pull out one book or another. All appeared to have been read. They showed Pacheco to be intelligent, well-rounded, an obvious humanitarian, perhaps even a liberal, perhaps even a little mysterious. After all, wasn’t it out of the ordinary for a surgeon to read the letters of Madame de Staël, Baudelaire’s Petits poèmes en prose, essays by Simone Weil, and the latest novel by Vargas Llosa?

In our class of thirty boys, Daniel Pacheco had been the smartest. Some teachers said he was the smartest to come through the school in recent memory. He was also handsome, witty, popular, a superb athlete. If Pacheco had allowed it, we would have followed him anywhere. But he didn’t allow it. Quite early, he had reminded me of Kipling’s cat that walked by himself. Sometimes he went with us and sometimes he didn’t, but always it was by his own choice. Even at that age he was mysterious. At fourteen he had the reputation for wandering the city at all hours of the day and night. No one knew what he did but sometimes one of our fathers would spot him in a cafe near the docks or some house of questionable repute, and so the rumors would grow.

Much later I decided that Pacheco enjoyed being seen as mysterious and that he occasionally engaged in small deceptions which made us think him larger than life. He actually wanted us not to know him. But even when I believed this, I was still enchanted by the mystery. Nor could I determine how much was illusion and how much fact. Despite the love and admiration I felt for Pacheco, my envy, which I thought to be slight, kept me from being able to determine the truth of my friend’s life.

His mother had died in childbirth and as a boy Pacheco lived alone with his father and his father’s mistress: a detail that put his house out of bounds for those of us with solid middle-class parents. Still, on several occasions, I visited his attic room with its dormers and sloping ceilings. As an adolescent, Pacheco was dark and elvish, no more than five feet tall. It was only in the last year of high school that he gained his full height of six feet. He would balance precariously atop the back of a chair with his shoes on the cushion, watching me with a half smile as I prowled around the room, picking up one object after another—a seashell, an ivory-handled pocketknife, a single white carnation turning brown at the edges. Leaning against the night table was a wonderful black ebony sword cane which Pacheco swore he carried when he went out at night. One afternoon, he led me to the window, then drew the sword and pointed to a spot on the blade where some reddish substance had darkened and grown hard. “I suppose I don’t have to tell you what that is,” Pacheco said. I felt a thrill of excitement and tried to look wise. Later, I thought the stain might easily have been tomato sauce.

Because of Pacheco’s sense of privacy, I was surprised when he agreed to join our group. By then we had been meeting for eleven years and must have seemed quite established. The idea of the dinners had come up when we were all in our late twenties and drifting apart. There were twenty-two of us, not including Pacheco, and the plan was that each would be responsible for hosting a dinner either at his home or at a restaurant. Some of us had been close friends but even when we started I thought it was mostly in our imagination that we had ever formed a group. More likely we were afraid of letting our youth slip away without protest or remark.

Not that these evenings have made us more intimate. Even after twenty years of dinners, I hardly see my ex-classmates except on these biannual occasions. Sometimes I run into one of th...

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