The tuk-tuk spins around the corner of the centuries-old church, just missing a mother standing in the middle of the busy road, trying to get her miserable-looking teenagers to stand within spitting distance of each other, their father, and the stain-glassed building they walked three tension-laced miles to see.
Maria doesn’t flinch.
Her long, brown hair sails behind her as the little, red tuk-tuk jerks momentarily left, then hugs the turn and hums up the narrow street to a shady spot below a gnarly, old tree growing through a courtyard wall.
Daily spirited by the desire to pay off the money she borrowed to buy the three-wheeler she’d been driving for someone else long enough, Maria is out looking for fares each morning as soon as the day’s first voices rise to her third floor window from the narrow streets, cramped with crumbling, pastel-colored buildings.
And in a couple of hours, eager tourists.
“Such a hard worker,” the old ladies on the streets call to her each morning from different stoops and stories, where they hang their gossip and their laundry, and look to the cloudy skies with defiance.
“Such a lovely girl,” they laugh and shout down the narrow streets, good and loud, so Maria (already around the block) can still hear, “but too much putt-puttering and not any kissing!”
Setting off a chain reaction of neighboring howls coming from behind damp sheets and dangling undergarments.
Even the young men from the neighborhood stop what they were doing to watch her pass, as she doggedly criss-crosses the city in her shiny, red tuk-tuk.
And if they catch her eye and she smiles their way…
But Maria just sees her city.
And curious faces – of all shapes and sizes – in her tuk-tuk’s rear view mirror, swaying and smiling at each twist and turn, as she putt-putters up and down the city’s rolling hills; laying bare the love of her birthplace, with its pocked and weathered walls and bustling river banks.
The city’s recent reawakening fills Maria with such joy that she wears her smile like her old, lace-up sneakers – daily and for the same reason – from the moment she uncovers her bright red partner, until the deep dark of a new day drags weary sightseers indoors to rest their blistered feet, and Maria up the stairs.
Each exhausted, but eager for the morning.
Quieting in the wake of the high season, the young guide with the easy smile, decides to linger longer than usual in the shade of the churchyard tree and the stillness of the dead end.
Taking a rag from below her seat, she circles her tuk-tuk.
Proud of it – and herself.
But the tuk-tuk already sparkles in the filtered light of the autumn tree. So, she puts the rag beneath her seat and reaches into a striped, canvas bag next to it, lifting out an oval box with thick metal molding, pointed and curved, and crownlike.
Sitting with her feet on the dashboard and the box on her knees, Maria carefully examines it – the cold of its molding and warmth of its wood; its tiny lock, with its tiny key hanging from a string tied to the handle.
Which, as she’d promised on the day she received it, still hadn’t been used in the lock.
Nuno, the young man Maria knew from the bodega around the corner from where she parked the tuk-tuk, surprised her with it one day, coming out from behind the wide, low wooden counter.
She had never seen the dark-haired, dark-eyed, somber young man anywhere but behind the cash register, and he hadn’t spoken a word to her in two years, just a smile-less nod each day he handed her change.
His dark eyes looking straight into hers, but his face still and unrevealing, he walked straight at her with what looked like a small treasure chest in his hands.
The box she now held in her hands.
He thrust the it toward Maria with great urgency, causing her to stumble back and nearly topple a tower of tourist magnets. With barely a moment to right herself, Nuno was unapologetically upon her, with the box still clutched in his outstretched arms.
“I made this for you,” his words tumbled out.
Maria had just found her balance, when his words made her knees give way.
Bracing herself, she searched for something to say.
“That’s very sweet, Nuno, but I couldn’t take such a treasure from you.”
As she said it, the young clerk’s face dropped, as did his arms holding the handmade gift.
Maria lunged forward to save it from hitting the old, stone floor – catching the box by its thick, wire handle, finally leaning against the well-worn counter, finding her only comfort in its steadfast timbers.
“I’m so sorry, Nuno,” she smiled as she held the box up and began to admire its strength, warmth, uniqueness. “It is a lovely box, but why would you make me such a thing?”
“The gift is not the box,” he said, surprising Maria again. “The gift is inside.”
Maria turned the handsome, oval box.
If it held something inside, she said smiling and embarrassed as she gently shook it near her ear, it felt rather light.
“You’re teasing me,” she giggled, feeling her cheeks turned red.
“I promise,” Nuno insisted with such gravity that Maria’s heart jumped, “I am doing no such thing.”
Setting the gift on the counter, Maria reached for the key and slipped it into the tiny lock, but before she turned it, she found Nuno’s hand gently, but firmly, on top of hers.
“Please promise me you won’t open it… not yet.”
Maria removed her hands from his and looking into the eyes of the serious, young shopkeeper (even though the promise and its many unanswered questions made her uneasy), she accepted the gift.
Picking the box back up, she briefly hugged it to her chest with the promise, and thanked him.
“You’ll let me know when it’s time?” she smiled, as she turned toward the stain-glassed shop door, glowing red and blue in the waning sun.
“You’ll know,” replied Nuno, meeting her eyes for a moment, then disappearing to the back of the shop, behind the large wall of warped shelves, thick with as many layers of paint as the generations who piled them high with boxes of goods not paid for with promises.
Lost in thoughts of this very recent event, Maria didn’t notice the elderly American couple until they were at her side, holding hands and umbrellas, with tired feet and hopeful smiles below ever darkening skies.
Putting Nuno’s gift into its bag and grabbing her plastic-coated maps, the tuk-tuk is soon trailing behind the city tram, rattling along well-trodden tracks, passing wondrous, worn buildings covered in ceramics, still bold and bright and remarkable.
Uneasy thoughts of Nuno and his gift are replaced with the familiar smells and sights of her beloved city, its bustling centers filled with buses and tour guides and taxis, and tourists wanting to see it all in two and a half days.
Its ancient walls built upon ancient layers, held upright and together by scaffolding, hope and netting.
Like the graffiti cast over the city.
Powerful and profoundly beautiful.
Angry, ugly and rueful.
Telltale scars of its 20th century life.
Yet her city survives.
Battered, but proud.
Heart beating strong.
Maria senses it around every corner, in the stacks of salted cod on the shelves and fresh meats hanging from the windows; in the terraced, cobbled steps heavy with the scent of citrus trees; where residents sip dark amber wine and listen for the Fado singers to begin.
She hears it in the sounds of children laughing and screaming from the school’s rooftop garden and sees it in the dark, narrow shops piled high with dusty, unwanted goods; where crumpled, old shopkeepers (long past keeping shop), hover at the entrance, searching more for conversation than customers.
Parked in front of one of these old stores, Maria waits while the American couple explores the ruins of a Roman arena. Her thoughts again wander back to the box, to Nuno, and her promise – all of which had begun to weigh on her.
People in the neighborhood had even taken notice.
“She hasn’t smiled since she got that box from Nuno,” they’d whisper down the alleys as she slowly puttered past, wearing a distracted look like a pair of sunglasses.
“What has he done to our happy girl,” they’d moan like the start of a sad folk song. “He must let her see what’s in the box before it drives her mad.”
And that’s just how Maria was beginning to feel.
Each time she lifted it from its canvas bag to examine it and question it – which she did again and again and again – the box felt heavier.
And the heavier it got, the more compelled she was to carry it with her.
Before long, Maria could be seen toting the burden down the long, narrow stairs and alleys, straining and frowning, but keeping her promise of keeping it locked, until one day the box became almost too heavy for even her faithful, old, three-wheeled friend to carry up and down the hills of her treasured city.
She could take it no longer, and leaving the onerous box and the American couple in the tuk-tuk, she stomps toward Nuno’s shop, practicing aloud all of the questions that had been troubling her nights and her days.
Nuno sees her enter the shop out of the corner of his eye as he helps a young boy count his change to buy the very last pastry of the day. Only when the boy is out the door with a mouthful of custard and the tart half-eaten, does the young storeowner look toward Maria and nod.
“You must come and take your gift back,” she says loudly and abruptly.
The young man stands frozen and silent behind the counter.
“Please, Nuno,” she begs with tears already falling from her tired eyes, “It does not belong to me.”
The young man stares at her until she begins to question her decision.
Without a word, Nuno walks out of the store, passing so close to Maria she can smell his disappointment.
But not looking at her.
Maria follows him out onto the cobbled street, jogging to keep up with his long, determined strides.
Approaching the shiny, red tuk-tuk, riding even lower with the weight of its mysterious gift, Nuno searches for the familiar canvas bag and reaches inside, hesitating far too long before lifting the box out.
His head sunk low.
“Inside is my everything,” he groans and shakes, as he strains to lift his cumbersome gift.
Maria wants to reach out, but she can already feel the lightness the further away Nuno and the locked box get.
It’s days before she can drive past Nuno’s shop and is shocked to see the shudders on its windows and a sale sign hanging from the stained glass door.
Maria brings the tuk-tuk to a sudden stop in front of the shop and jumps out, looking both ways for nosy neighbors before peaking through a small pane of clear glass on the door.
Everything is gone.
The once, well-tended floors are now littered with newspaper and the shelves are barren and beaten. Maria’s eyes quickly find the only thing that remains – the box – sitting in the middle of the low, wooden counter at the back of the shop.
Maria’s insides twinge.
The box is closed, but the lock has been opened and is still latched, though its tiny key is no where to be seen.
She leans her head heavily against the door and sighs.
Reaching for the handle, but stops herself as soon as her fingers touch the cold brass.Stuffing her hands in the pockets of her jeans, Maria turns away from the shop with a sad smile, climbs into her shiny, red tuk-tuk, and put-putters away.