Open Call 2019, Short Stories - Steve Carr



The Last Matador

By Steve Carr


The hotel was small and stood between two large apartment buildings as if it had been squeezed in as an afterthought. Its facade was painted a bright yellow that drew attention to it but the absence of a sign lured very few to enter through the glass door on the street level to inquire what the building was. The hotel had three floors. One of the rooms on every floor had a sliding glass door that faced the street.


There was a small balcony outside each of those doors that was enclosed by an intricately designed black wrought iron railing. The hotel had set up a small cafe table, a chair with a yellow cushion, and a potted cactus on each balcony. The balconies still gave no clue that the building was a hotel, but not many looked up at them anyway, as the street was busy and crowded mostly with tourists going to and from their more elaborate hotels who had little time for seeing what was above their heads.

On the third floor balcony, Adelaide Hurque sat at the table and turned the page of a novel that she had purchased at a used book store just before leaving her hometown of San Francisco. The pages of the novel were yellow from age and many were dogeared, and a few were torn, but she considered she was meant to read it, having kept her eyes closed when she reached into the overflowing bargain bin located on the sidewalk in front of the bookstore and pulled it out.


The hotel didn't have room service, but she had made an arrangement with Jorge, the day desk clerk, for him to bring her a coffee and a lemon flavored pan dulce each morning at nine in exchange for her spending fifteen minutes every day helping him improve his English. As she turned the pages of the novel she held the cup of coffee to her lips, inhaled the aroma of cinnamon that had been added to the coffee, and took small sips. She savored in equal measures the flavor of the coffee, the words in the book, and the lemony sweetness of the pan dulce that she bit into at the end of every five pages.

It was on her third day after arriving at the hotel, which had been recommended to her by a friend with similar tastes in travel and accommodations, that she finished her cup of coffee, ate the final crumbs of the pan dulce, and had read forty pages of the novel, when she arose from the chair, carried the book, cup and plate into her room and picked up the phone. “Hello, Jorge,” she said into it, “what do you recommend I do today?”

Adelaide generally preferred traveling to countries where the climate was more moderate. Her fair skin burned easily and she feared acquiring more freckles than what already speckled her face, a condition she likened to an affliction from an early age. Her sole reason for traveling to Cancun was that it was at the opposite end of the Yucatan peninsula across from the more historically interesting Merida, where she spent the first week of her vacation while also visiting Chichen Itza. Cancun was near to Tulum, which her friend had advised her to see, but didn't really interest her.

With a light blue parasol lined with white fringe raised above her head to shield her exposed skin from the glaring sunlight she garnered amused looks and a few snickers as she sat on a bench at the Gran Puerto Cancun ferry dock. The breeze blowing inland from the warm, torquoise water of the Bahio de Mujeres played with her floral patterned cotton skirt that extended down to her calves. She kept her knees pressed tightly together and the skirt tucked between them to keep the skirt from filling with air and ballooning out. As the ferry returning from Isla Mujeres pulled into its berth alongside the pier, a man with a green ball cap with the word Matador stitched on its bill sat down next to her.

“Discúlpeme, señora,” he said to her. “¿Habla usted español?”

She was uncertain she was being spoken to because strangers seldom spoke to her without her speaking to them first. Even though he was looking directly at her, she hesitated before replying. “Sí señor,” she replied in perfectly enunciated Spanish. Before the trip she took to Spain a few years before she had learned to speak fluent Spanish. Since that trip, in San Francisco she attended a weekly Bible study group where only Spanish was spoken, which kept her abreast of the modern moral applications of the scriptures as well as being able to practice speaking the language. The man appeared to be near her age of forty, with black hair and dark brown eyes. His naturally dark complexion showed the signs of a lifetime of exposure to the sun, with lines that formed deep crevices in his cheeks.
“Are you and your husband traveling to Isla Mujeres for the first time?” he asked her.

“Yes, this will be my first time visiting the island,” she replied, wary of telling him that she wasn't married and that she was traveling alone.

“I was born and grew up there,” he said. “Be sure to see the entire island and not just the markets. Isla Mujeres is magical but the magic isn't found in the shops that sell trinkets. ”

When the last of the passengers coming from Isla Mujeres stepped off of the ferry, it sounded a horn. The small crowd that had been waiting on the pier, began to board it. She stood up and smoothed the wrinkles from her skirt while also holding it down as the breeze whipped the folds of the material.

“Thank you for your courteous advice,” she said to him as she walked toward the boarding plank.

“But where is your husband?” he asked.

“I'm not married,” she answered.

Following close behind her, he said, “Neither am I. I'm going to have lunch with my parents who still live on the island. Perhaps you will allow me to show you the place of my birth?”

She stepped onto the ferry. “Perhaps,” she answered.

“My name is Juan-Miguel Estrada,” he said, stepping behind her onto the ferry.


Juan-Miguel's elderly parents were polite, but mostly quietly, looking from him to Adelaide as he asked Adelaide questions one after the other about her travels and San Francisco. The four of them had a lunch, that while normal in size for typical Mexicans, proved to be too much for Adelaide. By the time the main entree of roasted chicken was served, she was already satiated by the large bowl of lime soup that she had been given. She poked at the chicken, beans and rice on her plate with her fork while answering his questions and gazed about the dining room at the numerous pictures of the Madonna that hung on the walls. Adelaide approved of how Catholics revered the mother of Jesus, but felt it should be done in moderation. The young woman who was the cook and served the meal lifted Adelaide's mostly uneaten plate of food from the table just as Juan-Miguel asked Adelaide about the bullfights she had seen during her travels in Spain.

“I never went to a bullfight,” she said, happy to have the food taken away and out of sight.

A noticeable silence settled over the table as if a blanket had been thrown onto the proceedings.

“You didn't go to the Las Ventas in Madrid, or the Plaza de Toros de Ronda, or La Maestranza in Seville?” he asked with incredulity.

She took a sip of her iced tea. “No. I believe killing animals for fun is wrong.”

He removed his ball cap and held it up, displaying the word Matador. “I do not kill bulls for fun,” he said. “Bullfighting is a tradition, an honor, a profession that has been passed down many generations in my family. My father was a Matador and I am a Matador.”

Up to that moment Adelaide had been so charmed by the attention Juan-Miguel had paid to her, and by the sparkle in his eyes when he smiled, and the whiteness of his teeth, that she had forgotten to ask what he did, or even who he was beyond being a very desireable man. She thought the word Matador on his cap had the same significance as a fast food worker wearing a Yale t-shirt.

“I had no idea,” she stuttered, in English.


That evening while sitting on the balcony outside her bedroom window, Adelaide flipped through the brochure for the Plaza de Toros Cancun that Juan-Miguel had given to her as he walked her to the front door of the hotel. They had left his parents home after lunch and walked and took taxis from one end of the island to the other, which given that the Isla Mujeres was only about five miles long and not very wide, didn't take that long. At the south end of the island where a statue of Xchel, the Mexican fertility goddess, stood alongside a paved trail, he took her hand in his and gently kissed the back of it.

“Do me the honor of coming to the bullring to see me fight a bull tomorrow,” he said.

With the shaft of her parasol resting on her shoulder, she twirled it, just like she had always imagined she would do when being flirted with by a man like Juan-Miguel. “Is it important to you?” she asked, certain from the look of yearning on his face what his answer would be.

“Yes, tomorrow is my last bullfight,” he said. “I'm the last Matador of my family and my parents are too frail to come see me in my last fight. I will be fighting El Rey, a very mighty bull. It would bring me great pleasure to see you sitting in the stadium.”


At nine the following morning Jorge delivered a cup of coffee and a pan dulce to Adelaide.

“Have you heard of Juan-Miguel Estrada?” she asked him as he placed the things on the table. She felt haggard and worn after having an awful night's sleep with thoughts of Juan-Miguel being gored by a bull named The King.

His face lit up. “Oh yes, he is a very famous Matador.”

She sat in the chair and put a sugar cube in the coffee. “I'll be seeing him in his last bullfight this afternoon,” she said.

“I haven't been to a bullfight since I was a young boy,” he said. “It terrified me and I've never wanted to see another one although that makes me feel like I'm not a true Mexican.” He turned and left.

Adelaide bit into the pan dulce and grimmaced. It was coconut flavored. She didn't like coconut in any form, especially in a breakfast pastry, and definitley not on the morning she awoke after little sleep fully convinced she had fallen in love with a man she had just met. She had another fifteen years of employment as a dentist to look forward to before retiring, after which she planned to do nothing but take ocean cruises, but that morning she had the one repeated thought recycle through her brain. What does a Matador do after he retires?


A gust of hot wind hurled dirt into Adelaide's face as she stepped out of the taxi and onto the pavement in front of the entrance to the Plaza de Toros Cancun. Spitting grit from her mouth she looked up at the lackluster stadium as the taxi pulled away, carrying away her parasol laying in its back seat with it. Following the crowd, she purchased a ticket, was handed a flier, its message printed on white paper, and found a seat in the first row that overlooked the bullring. With the glare of the bright sunlight penetrating her expensive sun glasses – the ones she bought before her trip to see the glaciers in Alaska – she stared at the print on the flier.


There would be a show honoring Juan-Miguel's retirement before he engaged in the fight with El Rey, the final bullfight of the day. Not wanting to risk diminishing the thrill of seeing her newfound love in the only bullfight she had ever seen, and feeling the sun burning into her skin, she dreaded the thought of adding another freckle being added to her face and rose from her seat and went into the concessions area of the stadium where it was darker and somewhat cooler. The action happening in the arena could be heard broadcast through the speakers mounted on the walls. She bought a bottled water and while standing in a corner for the next hour and a half she listened to the details of the bullfights, the cheers of the crowd, took sips of water, and anxiously waited to hear the announcement of Juan-Miguel's entrance into the bullring.

At last hearing his name, she re-entered the seating area in time to see Juan-Miguel enter the arena carrying a small red cape and a long sword. With his head held high, he entered walking with a strut, displaying the graceful masculinity of his physique in his silver and black costume. She quickly scanned the arena and saw El Rey standing to one side. She had heard over the speakers that the banderilleros had weakened it with their darts, but the sight of the blood dripping down El Rey's sides horrified her – for a moment.


And then as Juan-Miguel taunted El Rey with the cape, waving it in dance-like fashion in front of the bull, she felt her cheeks grow hot and felt breathless exhilliration. When the bull charged and Juan-Miguel evaded El Rey's horns she jumped to her feet with the rest of the crowd and shouted Juan-Miguel's name. She waved her handkerchief and blew him kisses. This happened several times and finally when Juan-Miguel thrust his sword into El Rey's neck and the bull fell to the ground, dead, Adelaide fainted from orgasmic fervor.


On the flight back to San Francisco, Adelaide sat next to a pretty young woman with unblemished skin that glowed with a healthy new tan. She said she had gotten it by spending all of her time on the beach in the Hotel Zoneria. “What did you do in Cancun?” the girl asked.

Adelaide hesitated before answering. “I fell in love and saw a bullfight.”

The girl gasped. “How could you watch an animal be killed in such an inhumane way?” she asked, her voice full of righteous indignation.

Adelaide raised the wilted rose to her nose that Juan-Miguel had given her and inhaled what remained of its fragrance. “Yes, that part of it was horrific, but to tell you the truth, I mostly had my eyes on the Matador.”


Steve Carr, who lives in Richmond, Virginia, has had over 320 short stories published internationally in print and online magazines, literary journals and anthologies since June, 2016. Four collections of his short stories, Sand, Rain, Heat, and The Tales of Talker Knock, have been published. His plays have been produced in several states in the U.S. He has been nominated twice for the Pushcart Prize..


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