He came every Tuesday to sell her a lottery ticket. He was approaching old age, but looked older. His teeth were yellow and he smelled like hogs. She always offered him a seat by the kitchen table, next to the tobacco, but today the seat was broken so he sat on a concrete slab by the door and leaned his back against the entryway.
"I have your numbers," he said.
"How good!" she replied, and walked to the kitchen.
The ice was frozen in long, cylindrical bags, and looked like giant clear hot dogs. She took one of these hot dogs from the freezer, ran it under water from a spigot, and cracked it in half on a wood table. She rolled back the plastic from each half, dumped the ice chunks in a plastic pitcher, and filled it with water.
"I have new yerba," she called into the dining room.
"How good!" he said.
The dining room had an unfinished look. The floor was a rough concrete pour. Large gravel pieces punctured the lime and sand, and a jagged crack ran from the outside entrance to small stairs leading to the kitchen. The floor in the rest of the house was tile.
"What kind?" he asked.
"Yerba ka'a," she said, as she came back to the dining room. She brought with her the plastic pitcher, a small cup hollowed from a bull's horn, and a metal straw with a bulbous end that was perforated with holes.
"How is your son?" he asked.
"He's a good boy," she said, "so good. He is helping so much now."
"When is the memorial service?"
She sat next to him on the concrete. Her small cup was filled with ground yerba and she pushed the bulbous end of the straw into it. Green dust blew out.
"He does not come to church anymore," she said.
"One day, he will forgive God," said the ticket seller.
She filled the cow horn with ice water from the pitcher, placed the small end of the metal straw between her teeth, and took a long sip. The water percolated through the yerba, picked up its flavors, and then ran up through the straw. The yerba stayed behind.
"Ah, Magdalena," said the ticket seller, "One day Stroessner will be gone. Dictators do not last forever."
Magdalena finished her sip and refilled the cow horn. She handed it to the ticket seller.
"Carlos," she said, "one day I will win the lottery."
Carlos came again on a different Tuesday. Some time had passed and he now had fewer teeth, but he still smelled like hogs. The chair had been repaired, and he now sat at the table with the tobacco. Magdalena once more prepared the pitcher and the cow horn in the kitchen and then returned to the dining room.
"I picked out good numbers for you," said Carlos.
"Then I am sure to win," said Magdalena, as she pulled up a chair. "Picking my own numbers was bad luck."
The tabletop was rough. At one end was a large pile of dried tobacco and at the other were crude cigars. In the middle were tobacco scraps and a large dollop of yellow paste. Magdalena took a handful of this tobacco, rolled it into a rough cylinder, and secured it with paste. Then she placed it in a pile with the others.
"Who will pour?" she asked.
"I will pour today," said Carlos. He filled the cow horn with ice water from the pitcher and handed it to Magdalena. She took a long sip.
"Someone in Jugua Naro won last week," said Carlos—"two million Guaranies."
"That's nice," said Magdalena. "If someone wins the government can't be taking everything." She handed Carlos the cow horn and began to roll another cigar.
"How much for a dozen?" he asked.
"Two hundred Guaranies," she said. "It doesn't go far."
Carlos refilled the cow horn with ice water and took a sip. Then he pushed the metal straw into the green shreds and moved it around.
"When are you going to buy some?" Magdalena asked, taking paste and smearing it on a roll of tobacco.
"Ah Magdalena," said Carlos. "You know I gave that up."
The old woman raised her head. Carlos avoided her gaze. He reached into his pocket and felt the lottery tickets and said nothing for a while. "Heart attacks are terrible things," he said, "though perhaps it wasn't a heart attack. They are never honest about the causes of death. Even so, I have quit."
She said nothing. Carlos played with the metal straw and shifted in his seat. Then he picked up one of the cigars. "I will buy a dozen, today," he said, "for a friend."
Magdalena stopped her work for a few moments, then smiled. "I think that some day you should try one of my cigars," she said. "They are quite good. One will not kill you."
"Very well," he said, "one day I will try one."
Magdalena smiled and reached across the table to take the cow horn. "When I win the lottery, we will share one," she said.
She took a sip and then handed the horn back Carlos, who took it and set it at the side of the table.
"What else will you do if you win?" he asked.
Magdalena leaned back in her chair and thought for a moment. She rubbed her bare feet on the rough concrete.
"I will finish the floor," she said.
"He is a drain on society," said her son, as he sipped his coffee. "He produces nothing."
The son wore a pressed uniform with a badge, a nameplate, and an insignia of rank. "Policí a Nacional" was blazed on the front of his jacket. His leather shoes were buffed and polished.
"Your friend creates nothing," continued the son. "He sells a worthless product."
Magdalena was quiet. Her hands were holding the tobacco, and she had begun to roll a cigar, but then stopped. Instead, she held a leaf to her nose, crushed it between her fingers, and inhaled.
"One day I will win," she said, quietly.
"You don't believe that," said her son. "I know you don't."
He finished the last of his coffee and placed it in the center of the table by some unrolled tobacco. "Our country is modernizing," he said. "When the road to town is paved, everyone will buy their lottery tickets at city hall. Your friend will have to find a new job."
"Not everyone will go to town to buy tickets," said Magdalena.
The son stood up and brushed bits of tobacco from his uniform. He scraped the sole of his right shoe over the floor. "You know I can give you money to fix this," he said, kicking the concrete.
"Mario," she said. "I don't want Stroessner's money."
After her son left, Magdalena walked out of the dining room. She passed through the kitchen, where the freezer hummed, walked through a narrow hall and then entered a small bedroom. Just inside the door was a wardrobe, and to its right stood small desk. At the far end of the room was a wooden chair and a bed.
Magdalena opened the wardrobe. Inside it, dresses and blouses were hung on hangars. A man's suit jacket was hung as well, along with a few ties. Magdalena brushed the shoulder of the jacket and then reached down and opened a small drawer that was partially hidden by the dresses. Taking out a few pictures, she sat on wood seat and spread them over the bed, touching them one by one.
They were starting to fade and the colors had yellowed. Magdalena saw herself in some of the prints. She was younger then, and her clothes were more colorful, and she was thinner. In many of the pictures, a man stood with her. This man was in other pictures as well—pictures where there were no women.
Magdalena leaned back in her chair. She brought her hands to her eyes and then removed them. Then she reached back across the bed and picked up one of the pictures. Its colors were no more faded than the others, but the backing had turned brown.
The man was with three others. They held a banner: "Ache Indians for Justice." Magdalena turned over the picture. The brown backing was covered in scribbles, and among them were these words: "Meet at noon, August 22, 1968." A tear fell on the stained cardboard. Magdalena wiped it away, but it smudged the writing, and she could no longer make out the date.
"Will Olimpia win tomorrow?" asked Carlos.
They were sitting at the tobacco table, drinking mate. Carlos was missing more teeth. Magdalena was tired.
"Of course, yes," she said. "I will always be Olimpista."
"And I, Cerrista," said Carlos. He took a long sip of mate and sat up in his chair. "Magdalena," he said, "I fear we will never be together if we route for opposing clubs."
Magdalena looked up from her work. The corners of Carlos' mouth inched up, and Magdalena's face broke into a smile.
"What if I route for Olimpia," said Carlos. "Would you take me then?"
"If I took you, would you smoke my cigars?"
"Ah, Magdalena, you ask too much of me," said the ticket seller, "but today I will buy a dozen, for a friend."
"You have many friends."
"Too many," said Carlos, "and they all want cigars!"
Magdalena smiled and kept at her work.
Carlos picked up one of the tobacco leaves and sniffed it. "Where do you buy your tobacco?" he asked.
"Señor Francisco sells me his best," said Magdalena.
Carlos took another sniff and then returned the leaf to the pile. He refilled the cow horn with ice water and then passed it to Magdalena, who took a sip.
"Tell me again," said Carlos, "where was your land?"
Magdalena worked the metal straw into the shredded green leaves. She lowered her head and drained the last of the water from the horn. "Our land is in a place called Ita Morotí Michí she said, "east of Mbaraeayu. We have two hundred acres next to small stream that flows into the Río Moreno. That river flows to the Río Parana."
"And who lives there now?"
"No one makes their home there," said Magdalena, quickly, "but I hear workers from Brazil set up tents during the harvest."
Carlos nodded and fingered his tickets. "Were you paid for it?" he asked.
Magdalena grabbed a handful of tobacco and rolled it on the table. "No one was paid," she said. "No one is ever paid."
Summer bled into fall. The radio brought news that a large dam was to be built close to City of Alfredo Stroessner, on the Parana. The Brazilians were paying for the construction, and Paraguay would receive cheap electricity. The government said it would be good for growth. The dam would be called Itaipu.
"How is your son?" Carlos asked.
They were sitting at the tobacco table. It was winter, and the pitcher of ice water was replaced by a thermos filled with hot milk and sugar. Carlos wore wool gloves.
"He is well," said. Magdalena. "He was promoted to sergeant."
"What does he do?" asked Carlos. He looked down and fingered his lottery tickets with his gloves.
Magdalena answered quickly. "He investigates traffic accidents," she said.
"Ah," said Carlos. "That is good." He took a long sip through the metal straw and sat for a while, swishing the green tea in his mouth.
"We need someone to investigate the accidents," said Magdalena, as she rolled a cigar.
"Of course, yes, " said Carlos, quietly. "We have more roads now." He began to refill the cow horn, but then stopped. "We should have people to investigate all the accidents," he said, and looked up.
Magdalena stopped rolling the tobacco. For a brief moment it looked as if she would raise her head and say something, but then she looked fixedly at the table and re-doubled her work. Carlos resumed filling the horn.
"What are my numbers, today?" she asked, after a few minutes.
Carlos smiled. "You will like these numbers," he said. "My nephew picked them."
Outside, there was a knock. Magdalena called for the visitor to enter, and a young woman came into the dining room. She was in her late teens and wore jeans and a red shirt. In her hands was a wicker basket covered with cloth.
"Good morning, Señ ora Bernal," she said.
"Good morning," said Magdalena.
"I am selling manioc pastries," said the girl. "They each cost one thousand Guaranies."
"Not today, dear," said Magdalena.
The girl tarried in the doorway and fingered her red shirt. "Are you going into town for the election?" she asked.
"No," said Magdalena. "There will be only one color in town."
"You won't support the party?"
Magdalena took her hands from the tobacco and made two fists. Then she smiled and shook her left hand in the cold air. "This is my party," she said—and she raised her right hand—"and this is my color."
One April, Magdalena's son invited her to stay at his house in City of Alfredo Stroessner, for Holy Week. Mario greeted her at the bus station. He was approaching thirty, now, and his uniform was still crisp. He helped his mother into a van with the word Itaipu written on its side and then drove her to his house. The house sat on the edge of town behind a large gate.
The next day, Mario left early to go to his work. Magdalena stayed in and watched her soap operas. Her hands would not be still. Her son returned after dark, and they drank cold mate and ate manioc bread. Then they both retired.
The next day was Saturday, and Magdalena wished to leave the house.
"I want to visit Ita Morotí Michí," she said.
"You know we can't go there," said her son, "but I can get you close."
They boarded the van and the son drove north of the city. The day was hot and a light breeze rustled palm trees. The dirt was not red, here, as in the land around the capital, but a sandy brown. Mario parked the van on overlook, above a bluff. Below was a brown lake choked with sediment. Trees stood before and beyond the shoreline.
They left the van and walked to the edge.
"It wasn't my choice," said Mario, softly, as he watched the rising waters.
Magdalena said nothing, but sat on the dirt and brought her hands to her eyes.
"How is your nephew?" asked Magdalena.
"He is well," said Carlos, "now that he is home."
They were sitting at the tobacco table, drinking mate. It was summer, and the table was covered with flies that landed briefly on the tobacco leaves and then stirred when Magdalena began a new cigar.
"They did not treat him well?" asked Magdalena.
"No," said Carlos. "The factory made him work seven days each week, but he was paid for only four."
"Ah," said Magdalena. "That is Paraguay."
"There is no good work in Paraguay," said Carlos, "except for the ticket sellers."
Carlos leaned back in his chair. Then He picked up the pitcher of ice and the cow horn and poured himself a drink.
Magdalena stopped rolling her cigar and waited for Carlos to finish his drink. "The thirty year memorial is this Saturday," she said, quietly.
"Has it been thirty years?"
Carlos refilled the horn and then handed it to her. He fingered his tickets for a few seconds, and then sat up in his chair. "Do you think they've forgotten about me?" he asked.
Magdalena brushed dirt off the table. "I hear that once you are on their list then you are always on their list," she said.
"All I do is sell the tickets," said Carlos. "This is all I can do now."
Magdalena took a sip of mate. "The memorial starts at three," she said. Then she paused and brushed more dirt from the table. "Will you lead the recitation of the rosary?" she asked.
"You never asked me this before," he said.
Six months later, on February 3, 1989, army troops under the command of General Andrés Rodriguez entered the capital and lay siege to the central police headquarters and the presidential palace. Within hours, army units throughout the country defected and swore allegiance to Rodriguez. In the morning, General Alfredo Stroessner formally resigned his position as President of Paraguay and leader of the Colorado political party. In return, he was given asylum in Brazil. After establishing control of the country, Rodriguez abolished the state of martial law and called for new elections for the coming May. Shortly thereafter, the Colorado Party unanimously voted for Rodriguez to be their nominee for president. In May of 1989, he was elected President or the Republic in a free and fair election.
"Everything has changed," said Mario. "Now we will have democracy. Paraguay will join the twentieth century."
He was with his mother in her kitchen. She was preparing a chicken for a stew, and he was chopping vegetables.
"Soon we will form a trade union with Argentina and Brazil," he said, "and we will make our economy legitimate. No more smuggling and corruption."
Magdalena continued to cut the chicken.
"At last, we will become a country that builds things," said her son. "We have resources—rivers and cheap electricity. Paraguay will become something."
"Would you like to prepare mate?" said Magdalena, quickly.
Mario looked up from his vegetables. "Where do you keep the pitcher?" he asked.
"In the drawer under the sink," she replied.
Mario slowly lowered himself to the floor and rooted around under the sink. He was approaching forty, now, and a few of his hairs had turned gray.
"And the mate is by the stove," said Magdalena.
Mario soon found everything and filled the pitcher with water from the sink. Then he went to the freezer and found the clear hot dogs, broke them on the table, and placed them in the pitcher.
"How long has it been since we've had mate together?" he asked, as he filled the cow horn with ice water.
"Years," said Magdalena, absently.
"Yes, it's true," said Mario. "I never drink it at home. There isn't time."
More years passed. Rodriguez resigned the presidency, and was succeeded by Juan Carlos Wasmosy, who was also a member of the Colorado Party. Paraguay formed a trade bloc with Uruguay, Brazil, and Argentina, but never became a manufacturing center. Instead, it continued to export commodities: cotton, sugarcane, and cattle. City of Alfredo Stroessner was renamed Ciudad del Este—"City of the East"—and continued as a hub for smuggling and counterfeiting. For years, the new city's most profitable counterfeit good was cigarettes.
"How is your health?" asked Carlos.
"I cannot complain," said Magdalena. "My arthritis is not bad, but my hands hurt sometimes, and I cannot roll as many as I used to."
They were at the tobacco table. Carlos held the pitcher and cow horn in his hands. Magdalena rested her arms on the table. A small pile of cigars lay nearby.
"And you, Carlos? How is your heart?"
The ticket seller leaned back in his chair. "My heart is tired," he said, "but I think it has some time left. It must. We must see you win the lottery."
Magdalena smiled. "Who picked out my numbers, today?" she asked.
"My niece," said Carlos. "Do you remember? She missed only two numbers the last time she picked."
"Yes," said Magdalena. "She always picks good numbers. One day she will pick the right numbers, and you will smoke a cigar with me."
Magdalena sat up and grabbed a handful of tobacco from the pile. Outside, the sun was beginning to set. Carlos was taking longer to walk his sales route every day, or he was beginning his days later. Magdalena was not sure.
"Carlos," she said. "Do you believe in the resurrection?"
"I am Catholic," he said. "Of course I believe."
"Yes," she said. "Christ was resurrected. The saints will be resurrected. But what about the Indians who were never part of the Church? What do you think will happen to them?"
Carlos poured ice water into the cow horn and stirred the mate with the metal straw. "I think they will be at peace," he said, "at peace with the saints."
"Yes," said Magdalena, "they are at peace."
The sun continued to set in the west and the flies began to retire. Outside, the street quieted. In the distance, a stereo played an old Guaraní polka.
Carlos finished the last of the mate and set the pitcher and horn on the ground. Then he leaned back in his chair and smiled. "Ah, Magdalena," he said, "if you win the lottery, will you marry me?"
The cigar maker's eyes were kind. "Carlos," she said, "if I win the lottery then I will buy some land for my tobacco."
"And I will grow it for you, and we will be married."
"And we will be married."
In April, Magdalena's son and his family came to her house for Holy Week. Mario had married two years after the coup d'état, and though he and his wife had no children, the house overflowed with nieces and nephews. The week was filled with sounds of children playing and stereos booming. There was dancing and drinking, and when the reveling was over everyone went to church to celebrate the resurrection.
After the Sunday mass, Magdalena approached her son in the dining room. He was seated at the tobacco table, filling a blender with the pulp of passion fruits.
"You will like this blender," said Mario. "The juice it makes will be good for you."
"I would like to go with you to Ciudad del Este," said Magdalena. "I want to visit Ita Morotí Michí."
Mario looked at the ground and shook his head. "You know we can't go there," he said.
"Then I want to go to the bluff," she said.
Mario gripped the tobacco table and scraped his shoes over the rough concrete floor. He said nothing for a long while. "Why don't you let me fix this floor?" he said, at last. "Stroessner is gone. You can't say it's his money, anymore."
"When I have the money I will fix it," said Magdalena.
"And when will that be?"
She said nothing.
"Ah, mother" he said, shaking his head, "you could have done something with your life. At the least, you could have saved what little you had. But you wasted it on lottery tickets. Forty years of lottery tickets, and what has it earned you?"
Something seemed to break inside the old woman. She bowed her head and placed a hand on the bare wall.
On August 16, 2006, Alfredo Stroessner suffered a stroke and died in Brazil. The Paraguayan government refused to honor him, and the news was reported without fanfare throughout the country.There were no memorials or celebrations in the streets. The late president had left power seventeen years before and there were many Paraguayans who did not remember his rule.
"Today, you must smoke one of my cigars," said Magdalena.
"Very well," said Carlos. "Today, I will have one."
Magdalena took a cigar from the table and handed it to Carlos. Then she walked into the kitchen.
"This is well made," said Carlos, as he fingered the rolled tobacco.
A moment later, Magdalena emerged with a box of matches. "Yes," she said. "A machine cannot roll them like I do."
Carlos held out his cigar, and Magdalena struck a match. She held it to the dried leaves, and they started to burn. She then lit her own cigar, sat in a chair next to Carlos, and the room filled with smoke.
"What do you think?" she asked.
"Ah, Magdalena, it is a good cigar," he said. "It burns slowly. That is the way all good cigars must burn."
They smoked in silence. Carlos' hair had turned white. His hands were gaunt and his skin looked like paper. Soon, the lit end of the cigar neared his fingers.
"I'm afraid I haven't much left," he said, quietly.
"Nor I," said Magdalena. She took one final puff and let the last of the tobacco leaves fall to the floor. There, they slowly smoldered and burned out. "Next Saturday is the forty year memorial," she said. "Will you come?"
"Yes," said Carlos, "I will come." He drew in a final breath of smoke and let his cigar fall to the floor with Magdalena's. Then he leaned back in his chair and let the air escape. Something caught in his throat, and he coughed for a little while, and when he had finished coughing he smiled.
"Magdalena," he said, "have we won?"
"Carlos, no one wins."
It was a short service. With each decade it had grown shorter. Those who were gathered said ten Our Fathers and ten Hail Marys. They crossed themselves each time. When they finished everyone ate manioc bread, laid flowers, and went their ways. But Magdalena lingered. She reached out her hands and touched the cold gravestone. "How can it be that you were younger than our son?" she asked. "What do you think of these hands? How they've changed. I fear you would no longer recognize me. Love, your pictures are fading."
David Lindstrom served as a rural health and sanitation volunteer with the United States Peace Corps, in Paraguay, from 2006 to 2008. He holds a BS in biochemistry and a BA in interdisciplinary studies with emphases in anthropology and English. He is currently pursuing a MFA in creative writing, at Florida international University.