A Soul Wrapped in Cardboard

Annelise Wallie

© Copyright 2022 by Annelise Wallie

Photograph of Boquete, Panama by the author.
Photograph of Boquete, Panama by the author.

I never actually saw the object I will describe.

But that doesn’t mean I won’t do a good job. I have a solid idea of what it looks like, though I’ll never see it in person.

And it definitely won’t see me - it’s blind.

Boquete, Panama

The dry season started in December. Downtown Boquete bustles with preparations for the January flower festival.

Gardeners slip ice chips to the speckle-tongued orchids, push wheelbarrows, spread mulch around the tulips, petunias, impatiens.

La Feria de los Flores is a big deal, a week of local coffee handpicked by Gnabe, shawls, leather bracelets, Latin music, and wooden quetzal bowls; large enough to pull international tourists, hikers, sightseers, bikers. The town is spooned into the bowl of the valley, Bajo Boquete. (Bajo is Spanish for low.).

The neighborhood, his neighborhood, is one taxi mile south in Alto Boquete, to the left of el Texaco. (Tourists call it “el TEXaco” even after hearing the local pronunciation, “el TexACO.”)
A quiet sprawl of streets, encroaching like anthill trails. Sidewalks lined up to the small, Panamanian-style houses. Windows are barred, the concrete block walls splashed with paint.

House #49 has a statue of Buddha in the front yard. The family that rented the house for six months covered Buddha’s face with green plastic leaves from the dollar store.

Aria, across the street, waters her lilies with a green can.

The last road dead-ends at a fenced park. A woman in shorts, hair the color of spilled ink, pushes her baby toward the swings. A couple rests their bare arms against the metal fence. ("Fence" is cerca in Spanish; but cerca also means “near.”) They listen to the canyon roar.
The river has lessened now - in March, when the rains come, it will bubble angry as a steam engine over the rocks. Until then, it lingers through the canyon, a lazy leopard yawning in the heat.

His house is across from the park.

The cerca is black, the gate locked. Hedges screen the front door. The bamboo trees are round like coffee mugs, topped with yellowy-green spear leaves. I can't see the fountain, gurgling behind the rectangular shrub - but I know it is there.

As the evening dies, toads bump their heads from the splashes to burp. Moths scribble around the street lamps.

His house has a sloped red roof. A white building, hardly bigger than an outhouse, and flanked with windows, attaches to the garage. Flowers encircle his yard: candy-pink hibiscus, rhododendrons that la abuela planted, amaryllis, sansevieria like green-gold zebras, and one mango tree.

That mango tree, with a branch exactly the height of a man, is where Mateo does pull-ups.

That structure is Mateo’s studio.

The windows are paned in glass strips. Each pane unfolds like mantis wings when he cranks the lever.

I can describe, in detail, the inside of his studio. Long afternoons of pencil dust, stepping on beetle shells, layering paint into the textured canvas, and fingering acrylic out of brushes into the sink drain has seared the studio's personality behind my eyelids. I could return to the damp concrete in my dreams, if I wanted to.

Dreams don't need passports.

A wooden table sits ponderously in the center. Plastic cups sprawl with rulers and brushes: riggers, sables, flats. Papers scatter the table. Napkins sketched with scenes, ripped cardboard with a delicately-daubed beach scene, and the backs of envelopes filled with floral anatomy: stamens, pistils, petals, leaves.

A cracked vase stands in the center of the table.

The whorled blue glass mixes with green. One dead amaryllis hangs from the vase, the neck bent at a V. Months of sucking at the dusty vase, the stem is shriveled. Limp petals are darkened to the color of dried blood.

My watercolor painting is as fresh as the true flower is dead.

The table holds everything Mateo needs. His beach scenes, the commissioned magnolia blossom, a bird of paradise. His quetzales and his hummingbirds. The eyes glint beady enough to swoop off the canvas.

The pregnant table, in labor with twelve jammed drawers, is probably where he keeps it. The drawers smell of dust and cedar shavings. Watercolor paper, pastel sheets in gray and black, exacto knives, daubs of erasers, tubes, luscious oils and kinky watercolor - the drawers reach out wooden fingers and Mateo hands them paint tubes.

The last time those interlocking windows were cleaned - it must have been two years ago now.

I splashed them with soap from my bucket while Mateo vacuumed beetle shells off the concrete. Dust and fly wings sluiced off.
Gracias, jovencita,” Mateo winked at me when I emptied my bucket.

A snack of papaya from the kitchen, and a March breeze flurried a handful of sand against the newly-baptized glass.

The macaw painting is stashed behind his white cabinet. He never told me outright, but I guessed he painted it for an old girlfriend. Maybe two, three years before he met me? I never could wheedle the information out of him. The macaws have no wings - will they ever fly? - and on the opposite wall, a Gnabe girl in a blue dress stares off the canvas. Her dress used to be green - Mateo changed his mind. Beside her, a mare and colt gaze outward in exquisite airbrush.

I don’t know where Mateo stores it now. He's so private, I doubt he ever showed it to la abuela. He never needed to hide it from me, even when I popped over in the middle of his sketching.

He trusted me - I saw that trust soft in his eyes, every afternoon. Mateo knew, beyond the shadow of a duda, that he could flip his sketchpad shut and lay it down on the table. I would beg him to show me - but I would put my hand in gasoline before I would touch his sketchpad sin permiso.

The last time I saw it, the closed sketchpad was on his table.

Pastel paper - sturdy and durable - the sketchpad is bound with a wire spiral. Mateo used expensive chalk pencils - kilometers out of his meager budget, but softly sensuous against the toothy paper, in colors of succulent yellow, cerulean, the magenta of perfect lips.

The reference picture was on his iPhone. He would lay the iPhone there, pick up pencils, shading into the faint pencil guidelines.

I picture Mateo crouched on the broken stool, his jeans ripped where the cell phone pushed through his pocket. Tennis shoes resting on the table shelf, elbows propped on the table.

Toads chirp.

He plays Stuck On You from the iPad, wireless earbuds wedged in his ears as he colors. He smears the pastel into the pitted paper with a tapered index.

I remember those fingers, and how gently he cradled the dying tanager, smacked by the grill of his Honda. I suppose Mateo must remember the color of my eyes (he teased they were "golden"), my white skin after it developed a tan, or my faded pink shorts that ended awkwardly at my knees.

His own eyes are colored like Orion, wrinkled by crow’s feet - the only betrayal of his age. I used to think that's why I hurried, frantic, in everything from washing dishes to grocery shopping. I was running a marathon, but I could never catch up to him. A sixteen-year head start Mateo neither wanted, nor could do anything about.

Now the portrait. When he snapped the reference photo, I was scowling at one of his jokes. My arms are crossed. I’m slouched in a wicker chair that stabs a bone of bamboo into my appendix. My hair is swooped up, but the ponytail is helpless to control my platoon of frizz. My eyes are slitted - That isn’t funny - they say to the picture taker.

Mateo was wearing his basketball jersey that day. He missed basketball practice when I came over. (“Go play, it’s almost three,” I’d urged him. He had grinned, pretended to get up. "How could I play baloncesto when you're leaving in a month?")

I never saw the portrait, but I did see his reference picture. I’m wearing a clover green T-shirt with plastic drinking cups. The caption, Proceed to Party, is sprinkled with Saint Patrick clovers. It was my favorite T-shirt. My lips twist at the memory.

He would have done an excellent job on the drawing. Every confession I shared, he added details. Strokes for my flyaway frizz, shading my arms, softening skin, deepening the flesh tones. I picture his fingers smearing pastel in that precise shade of green for my shirt. Coloring each shamrock in mint, aqua, white, yellow. Shading the folds. Detailing my neckline, the sewed threads. Sculpting my cheekbones in light cream, my lips a faded sunset, my hair the color of baled hay.

"When you tell me the final piece of yourself," he said without looking up from his sketch. "I will finish the last detalle."

When I told him my brother slit his own throat, when I joked about having endless friends, when I whispered about the cat, when I choked and my lips died on the memories. My details became his. He sharpened his pencils and wiped his fingers on paper towels until the toads had stopped burping and the fountain hushed, when la abuela was already sleeping and the dogs only barked at the coatimundis.

You’ll have el retrato before you get on your plane.”

That was his promise.

I believed him - I stared into his eyes and knew if one man could sketch a soul, it would be Mateo. A man with his own soul cracked with eight different fissures, like mine.

But when I carried my luggage onto the bee-yellow Spirit plane, and pushed my backpack into the overhead compartment, it held only my crumpled clothes, my passport, and my watercolor pan set. When I scrubbed the tears off my face in the Florida airport with jazz belting from the speakers, my summer tan had already faded from bloodless cheeks. The eyes Mateo called "golden" stared back from the mirrors like dull sand.

I still remember the sunset when the plane took off: a glorious, sickening red.

The portrait still in his studio. Pencils scattered. Perhaps he stashed it in the table drawers, or nestled it in tissue paper, sandwiched in cardboard. I hope the edges don't curl with mold during the October rains.

I am not blind, but I never saw my soul.

The portrait, now, the portrait is blind.

Mateo never drew my eyes.

Annelise Wallie was born and raised in Northeast Ohio. She grew up journaling, reading every novel in the library, and entering poetry contests. At nineteen she flew to Boquete, Panama for six months. A year later she returned to Panama to sharpen her Spanish skills. Annelise  then moved to San Antonio, Texas to work for Pearson Accelerated Pathways. She currently lives in San Antonio with two sisters and a garden of sunflowers.  

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