Madonna in Red

On winter nights, the sodium street lamps cast gashing shadows.

They scribble on the cobblestones and walls through cables and wires that hang like abandoned nooses.

A few restaurants welcome guests but many of the cafes are shuttered. A mist settles on the plastic-framed menus hanging beside the doors. Looking through a window, two local couples each have a table, leaning across and into one and other. A man sits alone in the corner with a bottle of red wine. His phone buzzes. A Canadian businessman orders dinner for four colleagues.


A local lawyer reads the newspaper. The friend of the bartender who drives a bus eats a plate of free sardines. The chef’s son waits tables and flirts on his phone with his girlfriend who works at a nearby McDonalds.

At a junction of three alleys, a thick oak door is cast open. A man, wearing a black flat cap and a matching but soiled woolen waistcoat, stands, on the threshold, chatting with the barmaid who stands at the top of the steps that lead below. There is no sign above the door nor is there a damp menu to the side.

An Englishman leans against a wall across the way, looking at the door, the sole of one boot on the stones, the other, his leg bent, resting on the wall. He lights a cigarette, deciding if he should have one more drink before heading to his hotel. An electrician loads his van with wires and looks sideways and across at the man before slamming the back door shut.

The man blows smoke above his head, scattering the orange light in rounded shadows.

He steps toward the door, crushing his used-up cigarette as he goes.

The man at the door looks down as the foreigner passes. The lady follows and heads behind the bar. They share, maybe, 10 English and Portuguese words. He orders a beer that cost him five euros.

They are the only two inside. There is a posterboard with pictures of dancers and musicians playing. On Sundays, the man gathers, fado music is performed here though it is unclear to him how he came to understand that. She joined him at a table. It does not take much time to exhaust the combination of 10 words that they share.

She looks away, tired of the effort. And though friendly when he arrived, she now stares vacantly down the bar at a naked Madonna, draped in a red silk scarf.


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