The Two Deaths Of Senora Puccini: A Novel

Paperback | August 4, 2015

byStephen Dobyns

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It is a night racked with violence in an unnamed Latin American country. Three men brave the war-ravaged streets to meet at the opulent home of a friend, the famed surgeon Daniel Pacheco, for their semiannual gathering. As a lavish meal is served by the sullen housekeeper, interest centers on the photograph of an intriguingly beautiful young woman. Spellbinding revelations of erotic obsession and betrayal unfold, interrupted by the increasing bloodshed that presses closer to Pacheco’s door.
Stephen Dobyns has written a provocative novel of desire, lust, depravity, and danger—a classic thriller that holds you tightly in its grasp until its shattering conclusion.

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It is a night racked with violence in an unnamed Latin American country. Three men brave the war-ravaged streets to meet at the opulent home of a friend, the famed surgeon Daniel Pacheco, for their semiannual gathering. As a lavish meal is served by the sullen housekeeper, interest centers on the photograph of an intriguingly beautiful...

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 h...

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Format:PaperbackDimensions:272 pages, 8 × 5.29 × 0.74 inPublished:August 4, 2015Publisher:Penguin Publishing GroupLanguage:English

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ISBN - 10:014310781X

ISBN - 13:9780143107811

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For Isabel BizeCHEAP VASEPursued 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 andpassed 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 flowersin the middle of the table, yes, a large vaseof white flowers and on the vase itselfare pictures of people dancing and drinking wine.You know, said one of the guests, whenold age wipes out our generationthat vase will remain behind surroundedby other troubles than our own. You fool,said another, what makes you thinkany one of us will reach old age? And againthe dead man took his place among us.OnePursued 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 the group on the street or have a quick drink with someone after work. Perhaps there are close friendships among the others. In the beginning we met to celebrate our past, but as we stand on the brink of fifty, it seems these dinners are mostly reminders of how we have aged, what our successes have been and, more often, our failures. Already there have been deaths among us and sometimes I see us continuing into old age, increasingly weighed down by our sense of failed promise, decay, and inevitable demise.Dr. Pacheco came back to the city having been gone for seventeen years. Several of us had attended his graduation from medical school, but then Pacheco had done his residency in a city far to the south. Afterward he elected to stay there. Two or three times he had made trips north and, more frequently, one of the group would have occasion to travel to the south and would return with stories about Pacheco’s success as a surgeon and his affairs with women. In one story a jealous husband had attacked him with a shovel. In another he had made love to the mayor’s wife in the men’s room of the City Hall. Obviously it was impossible to tell what was true and what was the gossip of a provincial town. About his success as a surgeon, however, there seemed no doubt, since when he returned to the capital it was to take up a position at the best hospital.When Pacheco joined our group, there was some discussion as to where he should go on the list. I had argued that Pacheco should give the next dinner—after all, each of us had already had a turn—but the majority decided that Pacheco should be added to the end, which put his turn some years in the future. But, of course, time has passed and what with deaths and various departures, Pacheco’s dinner has arrived earlier than anticipated. Now we are sixteen, but some are in Europe and others are scattered around the country. Even though tonight nine are expected, because of the troubles it seems doubtful that all will attend. This is a pity. Considering Pacheco’s wealth and success, the reputation of his cook and wine cellar, this should have been a dinner for all of us—all us boys grown old.—I had taken down a volume of Rilke’s poetry and was sitting in the red leather armchair in front of the fireplace. Despite the hot weather, several eucalyptus logs and kindling were piled on the andirons.Alle Blicke, die sie jemals trafen,scheint sie also an sich zu verhehlen,um daruber drohend und verdrossenzuzuschauern und damit zu schlafen.The poem was “Schwarze Katze” or “The Black Cat,” and the lines seemed to be about all glances being hidden in the cat’s eyes. Unfortunately, I have forgotten most of the German I once worked so hard to learn in the university, but the gist suggested concealment, a person whose face revealed nothing. The poem had attracted my attention because of the words “like her!” written in the margin with blue pencil. Just then the door opened and the housekeeper reappeared, followed by Carl Dalakis. I got to my feet as Dalakis hurried over to embrace me.“So you made it,” cried Dalakis, clapping me on the back and engulfing me in a hug that smelled of garlic and sweat. “What a day! My taxi was actually fired upon. Believe me, this dinner is the only thing that could have made me leave the house. What we won’t do for our friends!”The housekeeper had left the room so I made my way to the liquor cabinet to fix Dalakis a drink. “There’s a story at the paper,” I said, “that the air force wants to take control.” Pouring several ounces of Johnnie Walker Black into a glass, I added ice and handed it to my companion.“The army would never allow it. In any case, there’s no reason, the government’s sound.” Dalakis spoke almost aggressively, defying me to disagree.“Well, I expect we’ll know more in the morning,” I said, not wanting to argue. To tell the truth, I am not a political person and really I had very little sense of what was happening. Resuming my seat, I looked to see how Dalakis had fared during the last six months. He was a great bearlike man with long brown hair that was perpetually mussed and thick glasses which gave him an inquiring look, as if he were always on the point of asking a question. He wore a wrinkled brown suit and I could see food spots on the lapels.Dalakis has spent nearly thirty years working with the Park Service within the Ministry of the Interior. Now he’s in charge of the picnic areas at all the National Parks. It is he who replaces old swings and slides with new ones, who is in charge of picnic tables and grills and trash containers, who determines how the toilets are functioning and how much sand is needed for the sandboxes. Because he works for the government, he often imagines himself to be its spokesman, and although he was strongly against the military when it took power ten years ago, these days he tends to defend their actions.Dalakis stood a few feet in front of me sipping his drink and slowly shifting his weight from one foot to the other. He has great hairy hands with long blunt fingers and his glass was nearly hidden within his grip.“I must say the soldiers made me nervous. We even passed a corpse, a young fellow. I suppose you’re used to seeing corpses, what with working for the newspaper.”“We don’t see many at the book review.”“But years ago, when you were a regular reporter?”“Yes, of course, but that was different.” I wished Dalakis would sit down. I’ve never liked people standing directly over me. “So what do you think of the doctor’s house?”Dalakis looked around as if noticing it for the first time. His movements are slow, as is his speech. When we were adolescents someone was always shouting, “Hurry up, Carl!”“It seems large for one person,” said Dalakis.“Perhaps he entertains a lot.”“But how wonderful to have all these flowers. Do you think he grows them himself?”In the library too were vases of red flowers. I had hardly noticed them even though their smell filled the room.“I have no idea,” I answered.“Do you think he reads all these books?”“Probably. He was always a great reader.”“I don’t see where he finds the time.” Dalakis glanced at the books as if he found their presence burdensome.We were silent a moment. Sometimes it seems that we talk not to communicate but just so the other person won’t think any worse of us, so we at least stay the same in his eyes, that what we are really doing is waiting for his attention to be lifted from us.“So how have you been since I last saw you?” I asked. “Did your daughter get married?”“I’m afraid so. It’s been a great trial. Not the marriage, of course, but their move. Now she lives five hundred miles away and I haven’t known what to do with myself. I guess that partly explains my being here tonight. I would have crossed the entire city, I’m that bored.”Dalakis’s wife deserted him about seventeen years ago and he has had sole responsibility for the raising of their daughter, who lived with him into her late twenties.“Haven’t you been to visit her?” I asked.“Yes, twice. She’s pregnant, as a matter of fact. But I can’t just sit around their apartment and watch television. They think I should retire early and move up there, but I don’t know. I would feel a burden to them.”“You should get married again. Find a young wife to entertain you.”Dalakis laughed and sat down on the sofa. The leather made a squeaking noise. “I haven’t noticed you getting married, and you’ve been a widower for twenty years.”“Yes, but there are women I see.”“To tell the truth, I still miss my wife.”“Good grief, Carl, you’re supposed to get over that.”“Believe me, I’ve had all sorts of advice, but it doesn’t seem to work.”“Do you know anything about her?” I asked.“Not much. She’s living in another city. I went there years ago. I knew she was living with a man and I was going to confront him. I don’t know what I intended to say, just ‘Hey you’ or something like that. I saw her on the street wheeling a baby carriage.”“Was it her child?”Dalakis sat with his arms crossed and his hands tucked under the lapels of his brown suitcoat as he stared at the fireplace. “I assume so. That hardly mattered. What struck me was how happy she looked. You remember she had that bright blond hair? Her whole face shone. She didn’t see me and I did nothing to attract her attention. I watched for a while, then went away. I haven’t seen her since, although I believe my daughter has written her. Perhaps they’ll get to be friends.”Dalakis has always been a sentimental fellow and I was afraid he might shed a tear or two. It is hard to reconcile his strong feelings with his unprepossessing appearance. His ears, for instance, resemble large pieces of grapefruit rind fastened to the side of his head. Only the handsome or beautiful can afford feelings which are inherently foolish. But he is a good man, a good man, and I was sorry for his loneliness. Getting to my feet, I walked to the window. From somewhere came the high whine of a siren. I wondered about the others. They were supposed to arrive at six-thirty and it was nearly seven. In my imagination I saw Dalakis watching his wife wheeling a baby carriage. She’d been a pretty girl; perhaps that was part of the problem. I pictured Dalakis ducking down behind a parking meter and looking silly. It’s terrible how people we care about can cause us to lose our autonomy.“And how has your life been?” asked Dalakis. “Are you still working at the orphanage?”“Well, not working, exactly. I go there on Sundays.” For years I have visited an orphanage each Sunday where I try to make myself useful. Originally, I was supposed to play games with the children, but I’m not very good at games so now I read to them, or at least to those few who have any interest in hearing a middle-aged man read Grimm’s fairy tales or from an expurgated version of Cervantes. I also bring them books from the book review, although only the suitable ones, of course. But I don’t mean to speak disparagingly. I quite look forward to these Sunday visits.“And what about your novel,” asked Dalakis, “have you started that?”“I hope to start it sometime this fall,” I said, walking back to the sofa.“It’s been a long time. Can’t you get a leave of absence for a year?” Dalakis has a low bass voice that resonates sympathy no matter the subject.“I doubt it. Unfortunately, the book has required more preparation than I anticipated.” I couldn’t help but feel the irony of these remarks as I stood surrounded by the greatest works of Western literature. The best reason I had for not beginning my novel was that I didn’t know how to begin it; the worst was a fear of the blank page.“And the novel’s about a married couple? A divorce or something like that?”“Actually, I had hoped it to be an analysis of betrayal and the psychological effects of betrayal.” It seemed I had said this before, yet there was Dalakis’s interested face looking like a mound of bread dough rising out of a bowl. But then, because of his history, he had a special interest in betrayal.The door opened again and the housekeeper entered followed by Luis Malgiolio, looking eager and energetic. It amused me to see how Luis focused on the objects of the room before noticing the occupants. Then he saw us and gave a mock salute.“This is a great place, Nicky. I see why you wanted dinner here before. Nearly got killed on the way over but no matter. And Carl, how’re you doing? I feel like a drink. D’you know the taxi driver got a bullet hole in the trunk of his cab?” Malgiolio continued to talk as he inspected several different bottles of brandy. “They have tanks stationed downtown. The roads were blocked but I could see them in the distance, just sitting there like great metal toads.”Malgiolio laughed, a squawking noise that rang without humor. He had half-filled a brandy snifter and began inspecting the room, lifting one object after another—silver cigar lighter, a ship in a bottle, a small bronze statue of a naked woman—as if he intended to buy something but didn’t have much time. He was a short balding man, no more than five feet six, and overweight, so that when he moved quickly he appeared to roll rather than walk. He had a thick neck and wide face, and the combination has always reminded me of a thumb. It was a white, puffy face, as if he rarely went outside, and his nose looked haphazard, like a chunk of clay rolled into a ball and stuck into place. His blue eyes never seem to look straight ahead but always to the sides. Malgiolio was dressed in a well-brushed blue suit that had seen better days. Despite his looks, he carried himself with great authority. I remember him as an adolescent, given to writing bad poetry and having crushes on inappropriate women.Malgiolio was a fantastical figure for me. For more than twenty years he had worked for a big hotel, at last becoming assistant manager. Then, five years ago, he won a huge state lottery, over $300,000, and quit his job. He and his wife bought a large house, new cars, clothes, and lavishly entertained members of the upper middle class with whom they hoped to become intimate. But after thirteen months the money was gone. Malgiolio tried to find work but was unable to. The hotel refused to rehire him and no place else was interested. For a while he supported his wife and two teenage daughters by selling everything they had bought during that one rich year: cars, clothes and jewelry, the furniture, the house. When that was gone, they had moved in with his mother. Now his wife supported the family with various odd jobs: selling dishes and housewares, making and selling candles, cleaning houses, taking care of neighborhood children.Astonishingly, Malgiolio galloped through his $300,000 with nothing to show for it but a sort of conceit, as if he had sipped from the golden dish of life and still kept the taste in his mouth. Even though a pauper, he put himself forward as a man who knew the best wines, the best tailors, who had grown accustomed to driving Mercedes. Sad to say, Malgiolio’s turn to give a dinner came after he had lost his money. It had been a sorry affair at a Chinese restaurant. At the close of the evening, I had to lend him fifty dollars, although “give” would be the better word since I didn’t expect to see it again.I tended to view Malgiolio with scorn tempered by amazement. It didn’t surprise me that he’d squandered a fortune. I had known him for forty years as a man given to foolish gestures, who acted on impulse only to have the action turn out badly. What amazed me was Malgiolio’s lack of regret, that he never complained or seemed guilty, but rather thought it something to be proud of. He behaved as if squandering the money was a telling social criticism, even a form of protest.Malgiolio bore himself with absolute assurance, not as someone who had lost, but as someone who had triumphed. On the other hand, Carl Dalakis, who came from a wealthy family and held a good position in the civil service, looked, with his shambling manner and clothes stained with ashes and food, to be the economic disaster that Malgiolio in fact was.Malgiolio was still prowling the room, picking up one object after another, sometimes inspecting them or looking underneath as if for the price tag. Dalakis followed his movements with mild disapproval. “You sound happy about the fighting,” he said. “Doesn’t it matter that people are being killed?”Malgiolio stopped by the window. The lowering sun was behind him, putting his face in shadow. “It’s stirring up the pot,” he said. “If everything gets turned upside down, then there’ll be more chances for me. Who knows, Carl, if we get a new government, maybe you’ll be thrown out and I’ll have your job ordering toilet seats for a thousand bathrooms.”“Six hundred and twenty-two,” said Dalakis.“That will make the job all the easier. Or maybe I’ll get Batterby’s job scribbling book reviews or be hired as a surgeon at the hospital.” He waved one hand in the air as if he were writing or making an incision or even sewing up a patient.“I don’t find it a joking matter,” said Dalakis, smiling despite himself.“That’s because you already have a comfortable position, but for me whatever happens is a source of optimism. No offense, Batterby, but I think I’ll be a surgeon. Perhaps tomorrow this house will be mine. I can’t tell you how much I’d like to take over Pacheco’s life. Think of the women! How could one choose between them? But maybe I’ll pick that one,” said Malgiolio, pointing to a photograph on the mantel, “maybe that’s the one I’ll start with.”I walked over to the photograph which earlier I had hardly noticed, a large photograph in a plain silver frame. It showed the head and shoulders of a young woman in a white blouse leaning up against the trunk of a tree. Her fingers were linked behind her head so that her elbows stretched out on either side in a way that reminded me of Pacheco’s double staircase, that same bracket shape. She was about eighteen years old and very beautiful, with long black wavy hair and large, full lips, thick with a dark lipstick. Her eyes were somewhat feline and stared from the picture flirtatiously, even brazenly, yet also with innocence and fear. Dalakis had come over to look as well. I found the mixture of innocence and flirtatiousness extremely appealing. The tilt of her chin suggested confidence, as if she felt there was nothing she couldn’t do or control, while her large breasts were almost aggressive in the way they pushed themselves forward. Beneath the fabric of her blouse, I could see the outline of her brassiere.“What do you think,” asked Malgiolio, peering around my shoulder at the photograph, “do I have a chance?”Dalakis wrinkled his brow and looked disapproving. “Maybe she’s Pacheco’s niece, even his daughter.”“No,” said Malgiolio, growing serious, “I think I know who she is and it’s not a pretty story.”“Who is it?” I asked. I believed I could identify the girl, but I wanted to hear what Malgiolio would say.“She’s the daughter of Jorge Mendez. Do you know him? He taught in a suburban high school but also did a little writing for the paper, mostly on school affairs—what plays would be performed in the spring and who made the honor roll.”I looked again at the photograph, then sat down on the leather couch. The overhead fan was directly above me and I felt its breeze mussing my hair. “I met him years ago. Didn’t he die recently? A car accident or something like that?” I vaguely remembered a tall wispy man whose ambition was to become a professor at the Catholic university.Malgiolio leaned against the bookshelves, slowly swirling his brandy in a snifter. “His car went off a bridge into a river, but it’s only out of kindness that people called it an accident.”“I can’t believe she’s Mendez’s daughter,” said Dalakis. “Why should Pacheco keep her picture on his mantel?” He had returned to the armchair. Even when sitting, he appeared to slouch, as if his spine were fixed in a permanent quarter-circle. He had hardly touched his drink.“Because he loved her,” said Malgiolio. “Even though he killed her, he was still in love with her.”For a moment we were too surprised to respond. I found myself thinking that the very room was listening, as if all those thousands of books with their leather and paper and cardboard covers were ears bent to discover our purpose.“Really, Luis, how impossible you are!” cried Dalakis.I tried to show no surprise, if only because Malgiolio had wanted to shock us. “What happened?” I asked.Malgiolio walked back slowly toward the fireplace. What hair he had was arranged in thin black strands across his bald head and he had the habit of combing them with the fingernails of his thumb and middle finger, as if searching for lice. He did that now as he lifted the photograph and looked at it more closely. “She was still in high school, then in her last year she became sick. It turned out she had to have her spleen removed. Mendez called me. Pacheco had been recommended to him and he’d heard I knew him. What could I say but that Pacheco was known as a wonderful surgeon? The next thing I learned she’d had the operation. But Pacheco wasn’t satisfied with removing her spleen. I suppose he was struck by her beauty, just as we were.“Think of it, an innocent girl, still in high school. Pacheco saw her every day, ostensibly to follow up on her recovery. But actually he was drawing her to him, fascinating her with his presence—”“How can you possibly know this?” interrupted Dalakis. Normally his wide face appears impassive, but when he asks a question he begins to blink rapidly.“Pacheco has an office in the medical center next to the hospital. The receptionist and my wife are close friends. It was Pacheco’s nurse who told this story to the receptionist. You can imagine how little time Pacheco has with his patients. It takes weeks to get to see him, then you have to wait hours in his office. The nurse said that Pacheco would see the Mendez girl almost every afternoon. One day there was an emergency and she had to interrupt them. She went in and found Pacheco with his pants off. You’d think he’d be ashamed, but he just laughed. Of course he’s had her too, as well as the receptionist.”“How can you tell these stories?” cried Dalakis. He was standing now and acted as if Malgiolio’s words caused him physical pain. “Don’t you realize you’re a guest in his house?”“It’s true,” said Malgiolio calmly. “Do you want the name of the receptionist? She can tell you all sorts of dirt.”“What happened after that?” I asked. “Surely there’s more.” What amused me was the hushed tone Malgiolio had adopted for his tale, like the radio dramatizations of our youth.Malgiolio put the photograph back on the mantel, then took out a cigarette, lit it, and tossed the match into the fireplace. It was a colored cigarette, dark blue, and looked expensive. “Well,” he continued, “they kept meeting like that. She’d go to his office and he’d have his way with her. Maybe he even saw her outside the office, I don’t know. The nurse, of course, saw her all the time and so did the receptionist. Soon they knew something was wrong. She was pale and tired looking. It was the nurse who first realized the girl was pregnant. Her breasts got larger; she began wearing baggy clothes. It was almost summer. Shortly she would graduate from school. The nurse said she could hear the girl crying when she went in to see Pacheco. And he too seemed upset; you at least have to give him credit for that. Anyway, the next thing they knew the girl was dead.” Malgiolio paused to tap cigarette ash into the fireplace, then he glanced at Dalakis, who was staring furiously down at the carpet.I knew that Malgiolio was expecting us to ask the obvious question, but I kept silent. The story struck me as preposterous. I wondered where Pacheco was. It was nearly 7:15. I disliked talking scandal about a man in his own house.“Not only was she dead,” said Malgiolio, continuing despite our silence, “but she died under strange circumstances. She was the last patient to see Pacheco and when the nurse went home the girl was still there. The next day the nurse heard she had been rushed to the emergency room late that night with internal hemorrhaging. Pacheco was with her. Officially, the cause of death was tied to her operation. Can you believe it? Five months after the removal of her spleen and she has a relapse. But perhaps the explanation was more complicated. In any case, the facts are that she began hemorrhaging and died. To the nurse it seemed perfectly clear that the doctor had performed an illegal abortion that had gone wrong.”“Why didn’t she report him?” I asked.“What, and never work again? No, she knew better than to open her mouth. The doctor too was extremely upset. After all, it was his child and, as I say, he probably loved her. The father, Jorge Mendez, never recovered. You should see her tomb, an elaborate mountain of granite topped by an angel. A few days after it was in place, Mendez had his accident.”“I still don’t believe it,” said Dalakis, “and even if the story’s true, what makes you think the girl in the picture is Jorge Mendez’s daughter? Did you ever see her?”“Just once. She was with her father at the opera. But of course she’s also been described to me—those eyes, those high cheekbones, one wouldn’t forget them easily. Yes, that’s the girl all right: Cecilia Mendez.”Dalakis seemed torn between refuting Malgiolio and telling some story of his own which might betray a confidence. He took a sip of Scotch, then walked to the mantel and reached out for the picture. His hands were so big that I was afraid he might accidentally break the glass. As he looked at the picture, his anger disappeared and he began to look sad. He was easily eight inches taller than Malgiolio and standing together they appeared to be preparing a comic turn. It is odd the relationship you have with people you’ve known since childhood—not love, not hate. It’s more like they are of your own skin. Looking at Malgiolio and Dalakis, while musing on their comic potential, was like looking at myself.“You see,” said Dalakis after some moments, “I recognize the girl and her name isn’t Cecilia Mendez and Pacheco never made love to her. That’s his daughter, his illegitimate daughter, and the reason I know is because she was a close friend of my own daughter. Her name is Sarah something, I can’t remember her last name. She’s in school in Paris now.”“And I suppose you knew her personally,” said Malgiolio, his voice skirting the edge of mockery. Despite the mistakes in his life, he was not a man who felt much doubt.“She came to my house a few times several years ago. Pacheco had just brought her up from the south and enrolled her in the university. My daughter, you know, is an art teacher in a high school. This woman, Sarah, was also an art student, and she and my daughter were in three or four classes together.”Malgiolio raised his eyebrows and glanced at me as if seeking my agreement that Dalakis was mistaken. To tell the truth, I felt a little skeptical. I had my own idea who the woman was. “You mean he put her through the university?” I asked. “Did she live in this house as well?”Dalakis stood facing us with his back to the mantel. “No, she lived in the women’s dormitory. Actually, only a few people knew she was Pacheco’s daughter. It’s quite an odd story. He didn’t even know the girl existed until about seven years ago. Her mother was the wife of another doctor in the south, the doctor who took Pacheco into partnership after he finished his residency. He was an older man with a young wife. Well, you know Pacheco’s reputation with women. They had a brief affair. But when the child was born she swore it was her husband’s.“Anyway, they broke off and their lives drifted apart. Pacheco started his own practice. The old doctor and his wife were later divorced. She taught school for a while, then opened a tea shop. The old doctor saw the girl regularly. Then, about eight years ago, he died. The woman expected he’d leave the girl something in his will. She was seventeen and it was probably around then that the picture was taken. Well, the old doctor didn’t leave her a cent. Perhaps he knew the girl wasn’t his. The mother had little money but she wanted the girl to go to the university. She was a very talented artist and it seemed a pity for her to spend her life in some small town.“The upshot was that the woman contacted Pacheco and confessed that the girl was his daughter after all. Many men wouldn’t have believed her, but Pacheco believed her and, what’s more, he offered to support the girl and pay for her education while also promising not to divulge the secret of her parenthood.”Dalakis walked back to his chair and slowly lowered himself onto the leather cushion until his legs stretched straight out in front of him on the carpet. I noticed holes in the soles of his unpolished black shoes. Malgiolio stood by the bookshelves leafing through a book of photographs for no more reason, I’m sure, than to irritate Dalakis.“The girl came up here. Of course she had no idea that Pacheco was her father. They saw quite a lot of each other. He took her to dinner and the theater or they would meet and talk over a cup of coffee. She was a lively and attractive girl and Pacheco must have liked her. As you might imagine, the girl soon developed a crush on him. She saw him as a handsome man, a friend of her parents, who was going out of his way to help her get settled in a new city. She began to flirt with him, show him that she was available, but he ignored her. She began to doubt herself, to think, perhaps, she was even ugly. Truly, we only have to look at that photograph to see how foolish that was.

Editorial Reviews

“An allegory of corruption, stunningly told.” –Los Angeles Times   “The Two Deaths of Senora Puccini is wickedly good, combining a poet’s eye for the luminous detail with a thriller writer’s sense of narrative compulsion… It is a work of art.” –The Boston Globe   “[Dobyns’s] new book masterfully combines his gift for cliff-hanging narrative with his dark and meditative sensibility. Specifically, the muse of contemporary Latin American literature--the spirit of magic realism--glides through this fascinating tale of power and sexual obsession, self-deception and greed…. With its sinuous narrative and cool atmosphere of the fantastic, reminiscent of the haunting tales of Jorge Luis Borges, this novel is as spellbinding and resonant as an unsettling dream.” –Publishers weekly   “Stephen Dobyns is one of the most imaginative and fanciful authors of our time, and he once more demonstrates this in The Two Deaths of Senora Puccini.” –San Francisco Chronicle   “Gripping and theatrical.” –The New Yorker   “A ripe melodrama of erotic obsession, set somewhere in Latin America… Dobyns' spirited exercise in mystification has a rich, theatrical allure. –Kirkus   “A dark, existential thriller by the author of the Charlie Bradshaw mysteries. Highly recommended.” –Library Journal