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Doors for Gringos

by Kari Nielsen Amlie


         Daniel had noticed that all the gringos built their houses in the wind—on top of hills, rather than tucked into hollows where wide necks, blanketed in rosa mosqueta, met shoulders and collarbone. They also ordered the same door, one by one, to be made by him.

         They called Daniel their favorite carpenter—favorito, with varying degrees of success tonguing the language. They said it even the first time they met him and before they saw his work. Each in time, they’d entered his workshop and described such and such a door. He’d draw it, assuming that each wanted a custom design. They’d say no, no, no, they wanted una puerta Chilena, autentica, like—well, like the one he’d done for their neighbor. Each one cited a different person, but since all the gringos had the same door, it didn’t matter who they referred to.

         What Daniel found most amusing was that the first door he’d sold was one he’d modeled off a picture online. He’d heard that a gringo had bought some land on the lake and was going to build a house. It was an experiment, just to see if he could craft an American-looking door. He never told the gringos that they could order a door from Lowe’s that looked just the same and for a fraction of what he learned to charge, including import tax.

         When the sleek, gray-haired gringa, Irene, wanted him to do more finishing carpentry on the trim and cabinets, he agreed and brought his little girl and wife with him to the worksite. It was a few kilometers up the road from town, and the little family would walk down the dirt highway together in the morning and evening.

         But the American couple didn’t pet his Nina or give her snacks or speak to her. They never asked to meet Laurena, who would play games with their daughter in the left-over dirt from the foundation. At night, Daniel joked about Laurena and Nina’s relative invisibility. Laurena laughed and offered that perhaps they were just figments of Daniel’s imagination.

         Nina was climbing up a dirt pile and sliding down. Laurena was laughing and catching her when Irene's husband, Robert, called out the window, “Por favor. Silencio, por favor. Soy trabajar. Distracto.” He’d taken off his circle-rimmed glasses to say so. Laurena looked at Daniel, who had stopped mid-pull of his saw, and scooped up Nina under the arms. The young couple mutually articulated their understanding without saying anything. It was as if they decided, together, “We don’t belong here anymore,” or maybe it was, “We no longer determine our lives.”

         Daniel silently returned to sawing and glanced up occasionally. His wife’s little waist swiveled up the driveway and, with Nina on her shoulders, progressively disappeared into a speck on the dirt highway. That night, Laurena cried in a way Daniel didn’t recognize. She apologized for being upset about something so trivial, and Daniel stroked her long black hair. Laurena and Nina stopped coming to work, and the gringos never mentioned it.

         Irene often changed her mind in rudimentary Spanish, and Daniel tripped over his English trying to explain that he’d have to undo a week’s worth of work to do what she wanted. But Irene could afford to pay him more, so she was at no loss to watch him do and then undo his work as she saw appropriate. On top of that, she’d sometimes ask him to sweep their stone walkway or to weed her flower garden. “Dinero,” she’d say. “I pay you.”

         Without Laurena and Nina with him, Daniel grew restless, and the work he had once loved he began to hate with his whole body. He drove the plane across the wood like it had struck him, and he had to start over when he took off too much wood or pushed so hard that it splintered. They shouldn’t have shamed her.

         He found revenge by looking at pictures of the most boring and generic cabinets and trims that he could find on the internet. He had to pick his times at the library computer just right, because so often it was occupied by one of the gringos for whom he'd crafted a door. He avoided being caught in awkwardly loud conversations in which the gringo would try to show off his developing Spanish while Daniel's friends and neighbors read and looked for books.

         Irene and Robert had many visitors through the summer, all from the U.S. Upon arrival, they joined Daniel at his workbench like he was a museum artifact. He worked with his head down until Robert gave his go-ahead. He'd say, "This is our most generous, skilled help," then announce in a big fake-gaucho voice, "Daniel."

         Daniel had come to realize that the gringas didn't like being kissed on the cheek. But he shook their hands and listened to their bad Spanish and pretend that he didn't understand their English so he wouldn't have to talk to them any longer than required.

         "What a beautiful man," the women said.

         And the men: "You'd never get this kind of work in the States."

         "He does it all by hand. A mano, right, Daniel?"

         Quiet, head down, "Si, Bobby." Robert liked when Daniel called him Bobby in front of other gringos.

         "Can you believe," Robert said, "that he's never even been out of this region?"

         "He's never seen the Torres?"

         "No, never. But he has a lovely wife and daughter to take care of, don't you, Daniel?" A slap to the back. Then again tonguing their names like they were a sweet dessert: "Nina y Laurena."

         The Americans really cherished the names in their harsh and directed mouths, enjoying the slowed pace of the enunciated words.

         "A grounded people."

         They sat outside and drank wine from Argentina and looked at the water while Daniel continued to work, but quietly, so he wouldn't bother, and to pick out words for which he could hate them.  

Originally from Montana, Kari Nielsen Amlie holds a BA from Middlebury College, where Kari received the Charles Baker Wright prize for excellence in English. She worked seasonally for six years as a guide, wilderness ranger, and land manager in Montana, Utah, Patagonia, and Alaska. Nielsen Amlie's work has been published in Waymaking, an anthology of women’s adventure writing. Now an MFA candidate in the University of Wyoming’s creative writing program, her current book project is about changing relationships to land in Chilean Patagonia.

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December 2018

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