The Long Vietnam of My Soul
This is the first chapter of a serialized novel that will appear every Friday on the Book Page.
(Editor’s note: A kernel of “The Long Vietnam of My Soul” recently won a short story contest by the journal Glimmer Train, which hosts monthly fiction contests with cash prizes.)
Nieves arrived in Baltimore from Spain over the summer of 1988, at the height of La Movida, the last good year of Grandpop's life.
She landed on Macon Street with one suitcase [cracked brown leather, held fast with a belt, some kind of steerage statement], a gift for Grandpop and a more-on-than-off heroin habit.
The gift for Grandpop—her great uncle, a man who had made the crossing when he was about her age some 60 years ago—occurred to Nieves as she waited for the bus to the airport, wondering if she’d ever see Galicia again.
Small and thoughtful, it moved through customs in the pocket of her jeans: a thimble’s worth of dirt from the family hamlet of Chapela in a miniature bottle of Anis del Mono, diamonds cut into the glass.
It made her wonder what else she might have walked on board with, which made her remember why she was running away in the first place. Nieves had left Iberia at one of the most stirring moments to be a young Spaniard since the days of the Second Republic.
Franco was dead for more than a decade and Almodovar had just released Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown (Nieves unaware that one of Pedro’s heroes lived and worked and would never leave the city where she would start anew.)
And in less than a month, a good-looking 24-year-old could have made enough money as a barmaid—with a favor or two here and there—to buy a one-way ticket to America.
Nieves was sick of watching her parents scream and cry; sick of going to doctors to appease them. After planning and saving and spending, [I’ll kick tomorrow], she left after her father locked her in the barn with the cow to shake out the last binge.
On the far side of the Atlantic awaited a new start with relatives she'd never met, no way of knowing that among American cities, Baltimore had been plagued with one of the worst "herr-ron" problems since a young Billie Holiday scrubbed marble steps for nickels.
Holiday was born in Baltimore in 1915. By the time of her 1959 death in New York City, no-longer-beautiful Billie been devoured by “the worms of every kind of excess.”
So said the obituary.
Said Holiday: "I hated those goddamn steps …”
Nieves told friends she was going to Baltimore to learn to paint from a cousin just a few years older than her.
When Basilio had been cornered into his own new beginning, he’d moved in with a grandfather who’d do anything for him but be his roommate, showing up unannounced on Macon Street after the mother of his young daughter said their lives were too crowded with pictures of other women.
She shouted: “I don’t care if you don’t know who they are.”
Loud enough for Grandpop to take a bead on Basilio a month later and say over a bowl of bacalao al pil-pil “I smell a rat …”
Since then, despite knocking heads with Grandpop ever day, Basilio believed he’d made some breakthroughs with shading and composition.
The luxury of such nuance went down the toilet the moment Nieves showed up with a dusty backpack, a cracked leather suitcase and a trail of fresh scabs over pinholes in both arms.
Read the Alvarez Book Page next Friday for Part 2.
Original artwork by Meg Dibley.