Hot shit splattered on Mayor Correa’s shoulder, as Professor Márquez escorted him to a waiting black Volkswagen. It incensed the mayor enough to threaten the professor with the loss of his post should he not resolve the town’s pigeon overpopulation.
It was May 15, 1962—a perfect eighty-five degree day in the Caribbean. It was the kind of day Professor Márquez would have enjoyed eating lunch at home followed by a nap on his favorite armchair, a copy of Gulliver’s Travels spread open on his chest. Instead, he was palavering with candidates from the liberation party, democratic bloc, revolutionist and reformist parties. Whoever won would hopefully remember funding for the school he’d taught at for thirty years.
The breeze carried the scent of garlic roasted chicken from Restaurante Alarcón right outside the university’s west entrance. As the professor endured a torrent of obscenities from the mayor, he looked up at the science building. Henry darted away from the window of Márquez’s office. Professor Márquez never noticed the flocks of pigeons pecking about the marble fountain in the courtyard. The fountain rose, triumphant, into a statue of Christopher Columbus—unaware of the crusted stains on his shoulders—gazing westward out to sea.
The professor opened the door of the idling car and reached in his pocket for a handkerchief. He offered it, along with a mumbled condolence for Mayor Correa’s fine shirt, keeping his eyes on the man’s black oxfords. The mayor heaved himself into the backseat and slammed the door. He left Márquez with the white handkerchief in hand. It billowed in the breeze like a flag of surrender.
The professor returned to his office. Henry bit his nails by the window—a juvenile habit Márquez had given up on telling his assistant to cure himself of.
“How did it go?”
Professor Márquez collected his briefcase and patted the young man on his angular shoulder. “The way it always does…more or less. Enjoy your summer, Henry.” He locked the laboratory on their way out and bid it goodbye until the fall. By then, Correa—if he was re-elected—would have forgotten the pigeons.
A phone call from the university president made it clear Mayor Correa did not intend to forget the pigeons’ effrontery. Opposed to killing the birds outright, Professor Márquez instead returned to work.
A few days later, the president interrupted Márquez in the middle of the day to ask—not without some alarm rising in his already high-pitched voice, “what’s this I’m hearing about bread? I’m told the science building smells like a bakery.”
“Not to worry. It wasn’t cost-effective. Too labor intensive to do the baking ourselves. I’m working with Panadería Rossana and obtaining their stale, burnt, or unsold bread.”
There was silence on the other end of the line.
Days later, the president disturbed the silence with such a violent knock on the laboratory door that Professor Márquez’s hand flew to this chest to stop his spirit from leaping out. Márquez was grateful Henry had voluntarily returned to work with the foresight to bring a bottle of aged añejo rum. The professor was more indebted for the means to mollify the president than himself. That evening, they sent the man home in a taxi, pacified.
Two days passed before the president begged Márquez to come through with something. Anything. “Márquez, you know the endowments aren’t enough and you remember the protests last time we raised tuition.”
The test pigeon strutted in a cage that sat over an old planter filled with soil. The professor had borrowed the planter from Nita, the head librarian at the university. The bird’s head bobbed back and forth rhythmically, stopping only when it lifted its tail feathers to relieve itself. When it did, a root system felt its way from the chalky white stain into the soil. A stem reached toward the light. Leaves sprouted. A blue ginger flowered. Márquez called out to Henry who abandoned the notebook he was hunched over. “It worked.”
“Thank God. I thought I would shit flowers before it did.”
They had tinkered with an agent that altered pigeon excrement. They slogged through trials of feces that evaporated but reappeared plastered against the ceiling. Defecations that oxidized whatever it touched. Now it metamorphosed into a flower upon contact with a surface. This was the least problematic of their results.
“I should take one for Nita.” The professor reached for one of the gingers.
Henry tilted his head.
Henry made an inarticulate sound that managed to communicate hesitation.
“You’re right. I’m tired. I’m not thinking. We need to observe them.” Professor Márquez also wasn’t sure if Nita would take offence to flowers borne of bird feces. Women were strange that way, plucking insults from thin air. Márquez opted to stop by the florist for a dozen roses.
It was Nita who had inspired him to make the pigeon’s waste produce something visually pleasing. After that first phone call from the university president left the professor too troubled to finish reading his newspaper or drinking his morning coffee, he returned to campus. On his way to the science building, a dagger of orange caught his attention. Márquez watched Nita watering the plants in the library and arranging vases of flowers. Between her short, spiky gray hair and the shade of orange on her blouse, she reminded the professor of a bird-of-paradise.
When Márquez began teaching, Nita had already been working in the library for ten years. At first, he sought her out for materials for his classes.
“Nita, can you get me a copy of this journal?” He would hand her a slip of paper.
Without looking up from her desk, “One of the girls can get it for you, Professor.”
As if on cue, one of her underlings dropped a book from a high shelf onto the waiting foot of the biology professor. “Don’t condemn me to one of the girls, Nita.”
With a suppressed smile, she would take the slip from him.
Then the professor’s short walks to refresh his eyes from hours of grading assignments always ended at the library. “Can you believe he asked me to do that?” One of Márquez’s colleagues always drove him to Nita to unburden himself. She was the only person who knew everyone at the university, but had nothing to gain or lose from their intrigues.
“Did he compliment the color of your shirt before he asked you?” Nita would sip her coffee, perched behind the information desk. It occurred to Márquez on more than one occasion that if he collected her cup every day, the imprint of her lipstick would form a rainbow.
“How did you know?”
“He always does that before asking for something that will inconvenience you.”
“Here I thought my sartorial choices were improving.”
“It’s a hideous shirt, Márquez. More coffee?”
Nita was the only one the professor allowed himself the guilty pleasure of being clueless in front of. Perhaps because she was his senior, but unlike his colleagues, a woman.
Of course Márquez had thought about Nita over the years, but she was married to an army captain who died a colonel only a year ago. Professor Márquez was not the type of man who invited the complexities of a married woman into his life. Nita had three children who now greeted the professor with introductions to spouses and children of their own when they returned home. There was no indication Nita’s marriage had been anything other than happy. As for Márquez, he married his professorship and the university. Anyone who came along was only a lover.
He smoothed the front of his guayabera before stepping into the library.
“Nita,” the professor approached the open window where she was working, “why do you fuss over flowers? They die so quickly.”
She paused with a red hibiscus in her hand to consider his question. Behind her pink framed glasses, her eyes roamed upward, until they retrieved a memory like an index card from the library’s catalog. “It was something I overheard my mother say when I was a little girl. A proverb. If you have two pennies left in the world, you should buy a loaf of bread with one and a lily with the other. What a balanced way to live, no?”
“Frivolous, if you ask me.”
“But I didn’t ask you, Márquez. You asked me.”
Nita’s laugh tinkled like empty milk bottles clinking against each other in a crate. While much had changed about her over the years—the lines that appeared around her mouth, the slackened skin of her neck, the squaring of her waistline—her laugh remained the same.
“Don’t have a big lunch, Márquez.” She asked him to join her for dinner that night.
After dinner—and two bottles of red wine—Nita invited the professor back to her house. He did not suggest keeping the lights on. Now he was like the women he bedded when he was younger who squirmed at the possibility of all their imperfections made stark in the light. The long minutes of licking and fondling Nita’s neck and breasts were not enough for Professor Márquez to be as erect as sex without apologies afterwards demanded. He should’ve brought his flask of mamajuana. He began to roll himself over her anyway when she pressed her palm against his shoulder. Márquez believed Nita—and was awash with relief—when she said, “this is perfectly fine.” She kissed him and turned onto her side, burrowing against his body. The professor slept as sound as in his own bed.
Mayor Correa was vociferous in his support of the professor’s solution to the pigeon problem. He pledged an exorbitant amount of pesos, while the holes in the elementary school’s plumbing outnumbered the potholes on the main highway. The urban beautification project he called it, at a press conference on the steps of City Hall. Afterwards, the mayor confided to Professor Márquez—with only Henry in earshot—“Repairs take time, but flowers people can see on their way to the voting booths.”
“Sir, I don’t know if it was…” the professor braved the mayor’s generous use of cologne to lean in closer and lowered his voice, “wise to go forth publicly, so soon.”
“Maestro, don’t you stand by your work?” Correa paused mid-stride in the direction of 27 de Febrero, his favorite lunch counter. He was a brisk walker for such a rotund man. He turned to Márquez’s wisp of an assistant. “Henry, your mentor would benefit from some of your youthful boldness. The biggest triumphs are enjoyed by men who are unafraid to push forward.”
“So are the worst failures.” Henry muttered into his palm, stroking the stubble that had bloomed in the last few days.
The mayor, euphoric on the rightness of his reasoning, rolled on. “What if...what if Copernicus had kept his theory of the Earth orbiting the Sun to himself?”
“Galileo might have fared better,” Henry said as an aside, before his thumb wandered to his teeth.
“I understand your...enthusiasm, Mayor,” Professor Márquez interrupted. “I’m not urging we shouldn’t continue, just some discretion. Science also takes time. We don’t know what the long-term effects of the agent will be. On people, on animals, on the land. Science can be similar to repair work. Repairs on the world.”
Correa roared with laughter until he had to bring his handkerchief, as purple as a red cabbage, to his eyes to wipe away tears. Over his shoulder, above the racket of church bells ringing, street vendors hawking, and car horns blaring, the mayor shouted, “Henry, please, I’m begging you. Tell the good professor to leave the similes to the School of Letters.”
The truth, Correa thought, as he sprang across Calle Madame Curie to the restaurant, was that if he arranged for the elementary school’s plumbing to be replaced, all he would hear from the teachers and parents was how it disrupted the school day or what an eyesore the pipes bunched in the hallways were. If he ordered the highway repairs, all the morning radio announcers would talk about was the traffic and delays caused by construction crews.
In his first and only election loss, Correa had run on a platform of bettering schools and the city’s infrastructure. The liberation party candidate had campaign trucks filled with chicken coops crisscrossing even the outskirts of the city. The mayor never forgot his opponent’s smug face plastered all over the trucks with some loon yelling over the loudspeakers about a chicken for every house’s cookfire. Correa never again underestimated the potency of ridiculousness.
Professor Márquez and Henry were liberal in their application of the agent to loaves upon loaves of bread. Municipal workers were tasked with feeding the city’s pigeons. In days, pink begonias, pentagonal ipomoeas, and violet bougainvilleas blanketed the city center.
Mayor Correa, with a purple orchid pinned to his lapel to match his pocket square, awarded the professor the city’s Medal of Merit. Nita accepted Márquez’s invitation to accompany him to the ceremony. On their drive to the mayor’s office, Nita pointed out each new flower that appeared: flame-colored amaryllises, demure white calla lilies, pink carnations. By the time they reached city hall, all she could do was survey the shrouded rooftops and window ledges in reverence, every few minutes repeating, “Beautiful. Absolutely beautiful.” She stroked the professor’s salt and pepper beard with a beatific smile before they stepped out of the car.
Henry laughed when he opened the door to his new office. A solid brass Copernican armillary sphere stood next to a floor-standing 65” telescope. Congratulatory gifts from Professor Márquez for Henry’s promotion to a full professorship.
On the way to an inauguration ceremony for the university’s newly endowed Chair of the Science College, Márquez glanced up at the statue of Columbus. The snapdragons that grew from Columbus’s head resembled a jester’s hat or perhaps a king’s crown. It was difficult to tell. Panadería Rossana’s front door now displayed a handmade sign proclaiming it to be a proud partner of the urban beautification project.
More lovers strolled down the central avenue. Parents scolded their children less, who in turn squabbled less. Inspired, retirees dusted off canvasses, journals, bicycles, and guitars abandoned in their youth. The city was a botanical garden that suffused a new levity into people’s lives.
Until the bees appeared. They settled on fences, in shrubs, utility boxes and under porches. Hives grew in rock crevices and trees. Swarms of twenty thousand bees flying from their original colonies to establish new hives were so incongruous old women crossed themselves.
Nita startled a skunk that was scratching a beehive in her garden and eating the guard bees that came out to investigate. She spent days miserably dousing herself in tomato sauce. Henry, along with most of the city, was driven mad with relentless sneezing, oppressive congestion, and watery eyes. The clinic waiting rooms overflowed. Road accidents occurred when a driver’s windshield was bombarded by shit and obscured by the hot pink rhododendrons that shot forth. Snapdragons cloaked the statue of Columbus into anonymity. The university president called to ask—between thunderous sneezes—what the professor’s plan was. Panadería Rossana hung a new sign in its window: “Closed due to epidemic.”
Professor Márquez arrived at his laboratory to find the test pigeon’s cage overgrown with white carnations and gladioli. Some blossoms were smashed against the wire. Others rose through gaps in the cage like victorious gladiators. Still others had missing petals or torn leaves, but they were alive. The scene had a grotesque feel. Here was life unashamed of its will to survive. But could there be glory in reducing oneself to acting out of survival?
Mayor Correa barged into the professor’s laboratory. He brandished a fistful of blue bell-shaped columbines and persimmon hued horseshoe geraniums with petals shaped like fan blades. He hurled them across a desk, overturning a cup of coffee. The professor sprinted to snatch up as many papers from the coffee’s path as he could. The mayor’s eyes were swollen almost shut by an allergic reaction to a bee sting. He resembled a pugilist after an overwhelming loss.
“The newspapers are counting down the days left in my term.” Correa towered over the professor’s massive desk which looked as if it had sat undisturbed since colonial times. “And do you know where these flowers came from? The office of the liberation party.”
After a dignified tenure, shepherding the nation’s best thinkers, devoting his life to it, here Márquez was, staring into Mayor Correa’s expectant face as it awaited another oblation. The professor was supposed to suggest adjusting the strength of the agent or propose another solution entirely. The mayor waited for him to lower his eyes to those black oxfords.
Instead, Professor Márquez lowered his eyes to the gardening scissors he’d set down. He picked them up, tightened and released his grip around the handles. The swishing sound of metal against metal filled the silence. He watched Correa stiffen and swallow hard.
“This is finished.” The professor adjusted his glasses to sit higher on the bridge of his nose.
“What do you mean? You can’t...”
“I can. I’m finished.”
“I will not lose this election.” The mayor’s tone was calm and deliberate. Warning, challenge, and outcome delivered simultaneously.
The professor turned his attention to the cage. He cut through stems, thick as ropes, with garden scissors to reach the asphyxiated body of the test pigeon.
Nita lay on her bed, the buttons of her blouse undone and a close-up view of the bald crown of Márquez’s head. She interrupted his methodical foreplay—he always took his time and lavished equal attention across her body’s line of symmetry, something she appreciated but also found laughable and somewhat repressed—to use the bathroom. Nita returned, cupping her breasts from his view under crossed arms. The only time they did not sag was when she lay on her back. She slipped into bed and started guiding Márquez’s mouth back to her breasts when he said, “I already did that.”
It was such an odd thing to say. She pictured his mind as a chalkboard and written on it a list of acts with check-boxes next to each. “Kiss lips,” “lick neck,” “touch nipple.” Nita felt something begin to slide into motion that if she allowed to lock into place, would function mechanically into perpetuity. Like marriage. She saw herself doing what she should have done in her previous life: hammer a wedge in between two gears to bring the whole machine to a halt.
“Is this an assignment for you?”
“What? No. It’s just...you’re being a little selfish.” Márquez lay on his back, waiting, an erection visible through his pants.
“Selfish...” Nita repeated the word as if she had never heard it.
She sat up and buttoned her blouse. After a deep exhale, she said, “Márquez, I think we work best as friends.” Nita did not look at his face when she excused herself to the bathroom. She sat on the toilet until she heard the clang of the iron front gate.
When she returned to bed, she imagined mouths that did not belong to Márquez. Hungry and expectant like flowers awaiting rain. She climaxed at the thought of satiating their thirst.
Professor Márquez used his free hand to shade his eyes from the mid-day sun and look up at the statue of Columbus. Not a spot of pigeon shit anywhere. A wild rainstorm the night before had washed away even the old stains. Columbus was as new as the day he was installed, except for some tenacious snapdragons growing from his ears. The hand not shading the professor’s eyes was cradling the last of his books from his office. Márquez had imagined himself feeling more at this moment.
The liberation party had almost devoured Mayor Correa whole, a cause Márquez wasn’t averse to helping by feeding them details about the pigeon project. After sweating through many of his tailored shirts, however, Correa won reelection by a narrow margin.
The aroma from Restaurante Alarcón made the professor’s stomach grumble. A good meal would do him well. He wished Nita was joining him, but he had been unable to face her since their last time together. That brought more of a lump to his throat than the end of his career. He had no regrets about his career.
The campus was quiet with most of the departments still enjoying their summer. Weathered copies of The Bible, Newton’s System of the World, Darwin’s Origin of Species, and Machiavelli’s The Prince were grainy with dust under Márquez’s grip. They’d been the first things he placed on his office bookshelf. Now, they were the last soldiers dragged off the battlefield.
That morning’s newspaper topped the stack of books. The front page photograph was of Mayor Correa delivering a statement to quell the public outcry. He was on the steps of his office, his face frozen at the moment of a sharp intake of breath before a sneeze. The color of his handkerchief reduced to nothing more than a shade of gray in the black and white photograph. The mayor called the professor’s retirement “bittersweet,” but announced Márquez’s young, brilliant replacement. Correa’s hand, big as a catcher’s mitt, dwarfed Henry’s shoulder. Henry wore a startled expression as if he was told about his appointment to Chair of the Science College right before the flash discharged. His first task, the article said, would be to continue the urban beautification project by resolving the bee infestation.