Simon was a tall man, big-gutted against his white button-down and
jeans. Anny, his wife, was a smaller, thinner person who stood with her
shoulders rared back, her head ducked forward, wearing bright coordinates of purple and green. She had been gone for two weeks, and Simon
had just met her at the airport. On the bus into the city she had talked
of things she’d felt nostalgic for while she was gone. The olive-oil-fried
potato chips. The little friendly nuns at the convent who sold jams. She
seemed to want to say more but couldn’t come up with anything. She
grabbed Simon’s hand and held it with an unusual urgency as they
walked from the bus stop. When they met the Virgin, he had been saying, “I was asked to hold a suitcase for someone. So when you see it,
that’s why there’s an old suitcase in the living room.” Then he noticed
people stopping and standing aside.
The Virgin looked fairly lifelike but with skin white and glossy and
too perfect. She seemed enormously heavy: the men shouldering her
moved with small, shuffling steps that hissed in unison. When they had
passed, Anny tugged Simon onward. “One day you’re chuffed by god, so
you have his baby,” she said, “and two thousand years later they’re still
parading you around for it.” This was mischievousness. Her humor.
“Not just any baby, I suppose,” he said.
“You never do know how they’re going to turn out,” Anny said.
He pulled her bag on small wheels that clattered over the cobbles.
The handle wrenched itself back and forth in his hand. They crossed on
a slant through a plaza lined with trees filled with green oranges turning slowly orange. When ripe, they would be inedibly bitter but useful
for marmalade or perfume essences. In the center of the plaza a vendor
with a two-wheeled cart roasted chestnuts in a metal cylinder that threw
up enormous quantities of smoke and a thick odor. At the city hall, the
Sevillanos stood around the block with quiet and weirdly well-behaved
children waiting to see a crèche, which in Spanish was a belén. All over
the city were paper signs with arrows pointing toward this belén, that
belén, another belén, beléns in every church and civic structure.
Simon unlocked the lobby door. He grunted, lifting Anny’s bag to
the second floor. The key in the apartment door lock always required a
moment of jostling before it turned, and it bothered him that he couldn’t
figure out the particular mechanics of the problem: sometimes it seemed
to require turning while pushing up, and sometimes it seemed to require
turning with torque on an oblique axis. Inside, one large room contained
the kitchen, dining room and living space, with a French balcony at the