Flight Risk by Nadeem Zaman

Men conversed importantly about business deals and real estate. The women had their mysterious exchanges. Hassan wanted to stand before an open window and be carried off into the night – on a broom, a flying carpet, on moonbeams, anything. Anything that would extract him from his life, erase the last twenty-four months, clean the slate, and land him back on the right side of the law.

In the hall of the wedding reception, Hassan sat at a table near the door sipping scotch from a plastic cup. He’d brought the bottle with him and given it to a server to keep hidden. The reception, like the country, was non-alcoholic. Hassan had agreed to co-host his niece’s wedding with her parents. He wasn’t sure he could make it through the night without a drink.

The bride and groom on the makeshift stage were pictures of humility and restrained joy.

It was nine-thirty – an hour and a half from the time set down in the invitations – when the last guests made their entrance. At ten the hall was mad with noise.

“Why are you sitting around?” Habib bounded up to him like a misfired cannonball. His sherwani was half a size too small, or he’d gained more weight. The latter was likelier. Habib was a lifelong glutton. “Mingle, bhai. Keep the guests entertained.” He waddled away hurriedly content, as another guest called his name and congratulated him.

 

****

“Leave America,” Hassan’s lawyer told him. “It’s not a problem. A couple months. If you’re needed back earlier, I’ll find you.”

Hassan’s lawyer had spoken these words six months after the disaster. The small private investment company Hassan had started with three other colleagues from his first job out of graduate school had gone under. His partners were out on bail awaiting trial or a plea bargain, on charges of embezzlement, fraud, and money laundering, and one of them had a separate allegation of sexual misconduct.

It was, in fact, Carla, the new hire that Hassan’s associate had (allegedly) harassed that had blown the whistle. With an accounting degree from the University of Chicago she was fixed behind a desk with a computer, a telephone, and a headset with the sole duty of managing travel calendars, appointments, and social commitments of the four executives. It left her so much time that she volunteered for more responsibilities.

Shenice, the office manager, was too happy to oblige. An official accounting department was non-existent, and Shenice was overworked. Carla was a Godsend. Before Shenice was done making the suggestion, Carla had jumped at the prospect of doing the work of three people with disconcerting enthusiasm. Later, Carla would say that she would have said something whether the sexual harassment had occurred or not. She was ethically bound, she claimed, even though the work was outside her job description, to report what she had seen once she had seen it. She was sure, she added sanctimoniously, she could be criminally liable if she didn’t.

“You can’t waste time on those ‘What ifs’,” Hassan’s lawyer said when Hassan wondered out loud if they’d be in this shit if someone knew how to control his dick. “You came out the cleanest,” said the lawyer. “Use it. And I’ll put to use your clean nose to keep you out of jail.”

Plausible deniability, his lawyer reminded him, was what Hassan had the others didn’t. Hassan could, his lawyer also pointed out, have had his being not white on his side. But this was post-9/11, post-financial crisis America.

Hassan was never clear about how his lawyer had gotten around the issue of Hassan being a potential flight risk. As he clicked the two ends of the seat belt on board Turkish Airways flight 376, the catch of the mechanism of either end as synchronized as a kiss, he smiled uncaringly for the first time in months.

 

Hassan went by the bride and groom. The groom nodded politely, and the bride kept her eyes beholden to custom, cast down. Hassan couldn’t believe they still adhered to that dead ritual. Especially not a young woman like his niece, whom Hassan had heard cut down the shrewdest comments with the axe of her wit in public, openly and defiantly, not caring what her parents thought or what it did to their precious image in Dhaka society. Hassan was sure his niece had her eyes up just moments before he’d walked up.

At the table directly in front of the stage sat Samar, the bride’s mother, Hassan’s sister-in-law, with a coterie of family members from both sides. Hassan nodded their way. When his eyes met Samar’s, his spine filled with ice. From her, Hassan’s gaze drifted to Habib, on the far side of the room. He was nodding vigorously to something the man he was talking to was telling him.

Only the rudeness of time had dared trespass on Samar’s looks, leaving her once naturally glowing skin scrubbed with a rough brush, and the need for makeup heightened.

She didn’t have to hide what she was, Hassan thought. In fact, all that make-up made it worse. He wasn’t clueless as to how much Bengali women of a certain social standing worshipped fair skin. He was, however, always dumbfounded by the lengths to which they went to make it not fair, but white. Some added the extra touch of light-colored contacts. Samar’s use of makeup seemed still to be at a reasonable pitch.

The ear without the lobe struck him in the heart the same as it did a quarter century earlier.

 

They’d been married a year when Habib finally had the time for a proper honeymoon. He took Samar to America, with the first leg of the trip beginning in Chicago, where Hassan had recently finished his MBA and joined a prominent financial firm in the city. He’d missed the wedding and so was meeting his new sister-in-law for the first time.

Their plan was to stay two weeks, get around to all the tourist fare in the first, and spend time with Hassan for the remainder. Habib was surprised to see how much time his brother really had. He went to work most days at ten in the morning and was home by three-thirty.

They got to spend a lot of time with Hassan. Samar listened carefully when Hassan spoke, asked questions, and accepted his answers without qualms. Even when they were stories about their childhood involving Habib, and Habib had strong recollections of events, it was Hassan’s version that Samar listened to with the fascination of a child.

Hassan found his sister-in-law too eager, like the white liberal Americans he’d meet who were painstakingly and painfully attentive to every single reference to his immigrant life, and want more. They’d screw their eyebrows to emphasize their excruciating curiosity, and wait for some profound elaboration full of insights and anecdotes of surviving third world poverty.

 

Hassan wondered about them. Habib could be a monotonous bore. Even as a child he could drone on about a topic long after his point had been made. When he was younger it was adorable, and blessed for a sign of budding genius. As a teenager it made him a laughingstock among his peers and classmates. At university it earned him perfect grades. Habib was devoid of a sense of humor. After a joke he would need to be told to laugh. Samar laughed at most everything. Sometimes, while watching TV in between talking, she would let out a giggle at a commercial instead of the actual show, like someone had given her rib a sudden poke.

 

One morning, about ten days into their visit, still jetlagged and unable to sleep, Habib was sitting in the living room channel-surfing absentmindedly.

“That’s the true great American pastime,” Hassan said, startling him. “Flipping channels and finding nothing.”

Habib set down the remote. He yawned and rubbed his eyes. Three years younger than Hassan he looked at least five years older. He wasn’t yet thirty. Where once the fat colonized mostly his waist, arms, and legs, it had started laying strong claims to his face and neck. His eyes were perpetually drooped. His huge belly sat on his lap like a toddler. He gave off, at the moment, a smell of body odor and airplanes.

“I don’t know how it happened, bhai,” Habib said, as if suddenly waking from a dream.

“How what happened?”

“Don’t pretend with me, bhai. You don’t understand, right? how a woman like that,” he pointed toward the guestroom where Samar was asleep, “went for me?”

“You’re married,” Habib said. “You fell in love. She loves you, you love her.” Hassan rolled off one cliché after another, sounding like Habib on one of his monotony binges.

“If you believe that, okay,” said Habib. “But your face says something else.”

“My face is my face,” said Hassan, taking a sip of coffee. “You’re a good boy, Habib. You always have been. That’s why you found a good woman. And you’re going places in life.”

“But you know, bhai,” Habib stared blankly at the TV, “I don’t make her laugh. That is very bad news. It took you five minutes to make her laugh. She laughs here all the time. But not with me. She used to. Not anymore.”

Hassan checked his watch. He had plenty of time before he had to leave, but pushed hurriedly to his feet as if he was running late.

 

Later, that night, Hassan stopped by their door on the way to his room. Habib was talking. It was his signature monotone, which meant he was deep into some topic. Hassan imagined what Samar was doing. Reading, maybe. Or going through TV channels. As he turned toward his room, he nearly bumped into Samar. She had on a fitted t-shirt with BANGKOK written across the breast and loose-fitting yoga pants.

“I was out on the back balcony,” she said, matter-of-factly.

“Who is he talking to?” Hassan whispered.

“Himself. He does that.” Samar went past him and inside. Habib’s voice amplified for a few seconds when she opened the door, and he kept on going without missing a beat.

 

At the end of two weeks, while having dinner one evening Hassan invited them to stay longer. Samar was nodding vigorously before he was finished. Habib hemmed and hawed about needing to get to their next few destinations, and then back to Bangladesh.

“What sort of honeymoon is it if you need to get somewhere,” Samar laughed. “Sounds like we’re on a business tour.” She refilled her wine glass and topped off Hassan’s. Habib eyed how much of the bottle had gone into Samar alone and pointedly took a sip of water.

“She’s right you know,” said Hassan. “I don’t want to meddle, but it does sound like a pretty boring affair when you put it like that. If you decide to stay, this weekend I’ll take the two of you up to Lake Geneva, Wisconsin. It’s not much more than a tourist trap, but it has nice and peaceful corners. I’m sure you’ve seen what you came to see of Chicago.”

 

Hassan put the three of them up at the Tudor House Inn in Lake Geneva for the weekend. He shunned Habib’s offer to split the cost. It was a wedding and honeymoon gift from his older brother, Hassan declaimed with mock majesty. Habib would do as he was told. Samar laughed. Hassan didn’t miss the imperceptible expression of displeasure pass over his brother’s face.

They spent the first day walking around downtown, had lunch at an overpriced tourist spot, and stayed until they were politely told by their tired-looking young server that the restaurant was closing to prepare for dinner. Hassan was impressed by Samar’s tolerance. He could see Habib was not. As if to compensate for his lack of control over his wife, Habib insisted on paying the tab. Again, Hassan wouldn’t hear of it. When Samar went to use the bathroom, he patted Habib’s hand and said, “Stop with the paying, okay?”

 

“If Dhaka had about twelve million less people it would be a nice, clean town like this,” Samar said dreamily as they came out of the restaurant. The sun threw shards of twinkling golden glass on the late afternoon lake. A private jet whirred across the clear sky, its tail of vapor the only blemish against the clear light blue. People went in and out of the line of shops. Children giggled and shrieked.

“It’s going to take a lot more than that,” said Habib. “Look at how clean it is here. Can you imagine anywhere in Dhaka staying this clean for one day, one hour even? Unless you’re in Gulshan or Baridhara?”

“Whose fault is that, I wonder?” said Samar. “It’s people like us. We’re the ones living in Gulshan and Baridhara, keeping all the money and the resources there.”

“We can move to Old Dhaka,” Habib snickered. It came out more defensively than in jest. “Then I’ll give you five minutes before you’re screaming for Gulshan.”

“Listen to your brother, Hassan bhai,” said Samar. “He thinks I’m some spoilt brat.”

Hassan gave a perfunctory chuckle.

Fifty yards or so away was a rental dock. Samar wanted to go for a boat ride.

“Not me,” Habib held up his hands in surrender. “I need steady land under me after all that eating and drinking. And I’m still jetlagged, I think. I’d rather go for a long walk and back to the hotel.”

“Can we go?” she implored Hassan, batting her eyes like a coquettish heroine. When Hassan looked to him, Habib shrugged. Hassan had an idea how Habib expected him to respond, and so he said nothing. “Yes, we can go,” Samar answered herself.

 

A few other boats were scattered around the lake, and once they were out far enough, the water was calm and the only sound was of the gurgle and splash from the paddles.

“You’re very good,” said Samar. She was sitting in profile, facing the sun, her skin a rich, lustrous tan, glowing by its light. Her hair went just past her shoulder and was tucked behind her ears. The ear facing Hassan didn’t have a lobe.

“I used to come here with the last woman I dated, almost every weekend,” Hassan said. “It’s been about six months since the last time.”

“What happened?”

“Nothing happened.”

“You just ended things?”

“She just ended things, exactly because nothing was happening. I wasn’t ready.”

Samar laughed, shaking her head. “Hassan bhai, you’ve become very American. I’ve never met you before now, but that’s not the way Bengalis talk.”

Another boat passed by them. A young, college-age couple sat with their arms around each other letting the boat coast. The paddles lay against the gunwale like bored children staring at the sky and waiting for the ride to end. Far away a woman’s voice called a name, and a dog barked happily.

“Was she in love with you?” Samar asked.

Hassan found the way the question sounded peculiar. He would think she’d wonder about how he felt.

He said, “I know she was.”

“But you were not,” Samar said, as though the thought needed to be completed. “I’m sorry, Hassan bhai.”

“I’m the sorry one. You’re very beautiful. My brother is a lucky man.”

“So, she just broke it off?” Samar asked, as if the prospect was unimaginable, and, also, skillfully deflecting Hassan’s compliment.

“I work a lot,” said Hassan. “I know it doesn’t seem like it. I do. She felt neglected. Taken for granted.”

“She’s a woman. She should know what to expect from a man.” She added, “and what not to.”

“I don’t know. But that was it. I guess I didn’t pay her the attention she deserved.”

“I guess not.” The remark was more to herself, but Hassan felt the sting.

Samar turned her face to him. Until then he hadn’t really looked directly at her. Her eyes were squinting against the sun, but she found an elegant way of balancing appearance and comfort. She was a little too thin and small breasted. Her shirt flapped in the breeze like it sat on nothing but bones. Her neck looked soft enough to squeeze away, like a brick of butter that had sat in room temperature for an hour.

“How did you and Habib meet?”

“At university. We were the same batch. But I was in English, not finance. My friend’s brother is his friend. We went out together sometimes, the four of us, and soon, you know, your brother started paying me lots of attention.”

There was a note in her voice Hassan couldn’t quite describe.

 

Back at the hotel Hassan asked if Samar wanted to have more drinks. She was game, but winced with guilt at not being with her husband.

“I should at least go check on him,” she said.

She knocked on their door and let herself in. Habib was asleep spread-eagled diagonally, breathing in heavy bursts, his leg below the knees extending over the edge of the bed.

Hassan was at the bar drinking a scotch and water. Next to his glass stood a glass of red wine. Samar couldn’t help a smile at the thought that he knew she was coming back.

“I couldn’t wake him up if I blew up the room,” Samar said, sliding onto the stool next to him.

“We’ll drink his share, too,” Hassan chuckled.

Night fell outside and dinnertime guests filled up the dining tables behind them. A jazz trio set up and started playing at a low volume.

“You also look tired.”

“I am,” said Samar, “but I won’t be able to sleep. Not even after drinking for most of the day,” she laughed.

“I have to say, you are quite the expert.”

“Well, Hassan bhai, this isn’t my first time in America or my first daylong drinking binge. I went to Vassar for two years.”

“Just two years?”

“I didn’t like it. I liked Vassar. I didn’t like America.”

“Why?”

“Too much of this,” she swept her arm at the room.

“You don’t have to be part of…this if you don’t want.”

“It’s hard not to get taken by it.”

“And you actually wanted to go back to Dhaka?” Hassan asked with unfeigned surprise.

“Dhaka is home.”

Hassan had had many thoughts about home in the last year. He had applied for a Green Card through his job and, all going well, five years down the line would be taking his oath of citizenship. Then, America would be home. Yet still, the money, the haircut, the SUV, and the Lincoln Park condominium was as far into the club as he would be allowed. He would stick out, he would always stick out, and the first thought Americans would have about him would be where in the world he came from.

Soon the room was loud with dinner conversation, music, and children. Hassan ordered a bottle of Malbec and asked to have it sent up to his room.

 

“What was her name?” Samar asked, standing at the window looking out at the lake, the wine glass cradled between two fingers like a brandy snifter.

“Maricela,” Hassan replied from the bed. The room was dark, with the faint lights from the street two floors below delivering the only illumination.

Samar finished her wine. Her silhouette moved away from the window, and Hassan heard the tap of her glass touching the tabletop.

“Come here,” he said, before the intake of breath she’d taken became parting words.

“What happened?” he asked, as he left a trail of kisses from her collarbone up to her ear.

“I pierced my own ear when I was ten,” Samar whispered in puffs of breath that gave off empty stomach and undigested wine. “Got infected and had to be cut off.”

“Tell me something,” he said, touching her warmth. She emitted a gasp. “What do you fear?”

“Remembering this night.”

 

****

Hassan received postcards from Samar from each of the rest of their destinations. They contained short messages, always one of two kinds, either wishing him well or greeting him from whichever place they were at the time. One postcard was a picture of the two of them at the Grand Canyon. Samar was wearing sunglasses, her face pinched in mid-laugh, trying to keep her windblown hair out of her face. Habib stood next to her with one hand in a pocket hidden by his belly and the other behind his wife.

 

It was two months before Hassan heard from Samar again, after they’d returned to Bangladesh. The letter was long, almost ten pages, and jumped back and forth between rambling and regret. Hassan glanced through the pages till the last paragraph of the very last page.

Samar’s voice took on a confident, more assertive tone.

She wrote that night she was very drunk. She wasn’t in full control of her thoughts or her actions. She was tired. The wedding nonsense (her word) had lasted a month and left her drained. Habib, she went on, had become a different man almost from the day after the wedding. In one year of marriage, six months had passed with him working later and later and their relationship growing less and less intimate. She was vulnerable, she said, and that night was a result of her reaching her limit and breaking…of which Hassan took advantage.

Hassan read the last sentence over and over again. Advantage. That meant he had pushed himself on her against her will. It was an allegation. A serious one.

He spent days and nights consumed in panic. He sat down each night with pen and paper. He discarded sheets after writing one unsatisfactory line after another. Everything he wrote sounded defensive. They were the reactions of a guilty man. Guilty even before he’d been accused, guilty without trial. And if ever Samar did take him to court on charges of rape, just the sort of letter he was about to write in his defense would be his undoing.

He felt a wretched sensation in the pit of his stomach. He wanted to slap Samar. He wanted to hold her tight, fuck her again and hear her in his ear telling him how good he felt. He wasn’t that drunk. He remembered. She’d said it. He didn’t have to ask.

He was also getting too carried away. His mind had been too far-gone too long in legal – to use a word Samar had used – nonsense.

 

Then there was another letter from Samar. It was much shorter, about a page and a half. Her handwriting was less harried in this one, as was her tone. Hassan read each word like he was trying to decipher an ancient language. Codes could be embedded in them. But the letter was mostly apologies. It was her vulnerability that she felt he’d manhandled – she wrote the word in all capital letters. Everything else was the cause of both their actions, equally. And by not mentioning her husband once, Samar had written him out of the story.

 

Hassan waved over the server he’d put in charge of his bottle. The server returned with a refill, no ice. Hassan felt the burn of the liquid down his throat and the warmth spreading like wings in his stomach.

A boy of about ten or eleven stopped in front of him, dressed in an executive looking suit and tie combination, a stunted version of the grownup men around him. Hassan gave the boy a tight smile and looked past him at Samar. The boy turned his head following Hassan’s eyes, returned to Hassan again, and sauntered away. The children were bored. The adults were bored. The groom and bride looked bored. Habib was in another part of the hall now, nodding like a supplicant to someone else’s schooling. Samar, Hassan saw, was staring at Habib, too, in what Hassan could identify as unspeakable embarrassment.

There was also something else. Samar’s stare didn’t have the dead resentment with which Hassan had seen countless spouses eye each other. It happened, as it was now with Samar, when the other spouse was unaware of being watched. Samar was paying her husband attention. In return she wanted nothing. She had once told Hassan that Habib had given her the one thing that made him stand out: he’d paid attention. And Samar had spent the rest of her life giving it back to him.

 

The last of the guests left a little after one in the morning. They were the family members that had sat at Samar’s table. Left with Samar were the bride and groom. They were having a conversation that appeared to be happening without words. Hassan didn’t see Habib anywhere. He was good and drunk and craved air.

He waited a few minutes to see if he was needed for anything, and headed for the elevators.

“Wait,” he heard Samar just as he pressed the button. She came out into the hallway, waited for the door to close by itself behind her as if it was a person she was waiting to be out of earshot, and said, “are you leaving?”

“Just to get some air,” Hassan replied. “Where’s Habib?”

“Sometimes you two are so alike. Sometimes so not.”

She’d gained weight, which on her looked healthy. She’d filled out where she was lacking as a young woman, and it gave her the robust vitality of confidence. Hassan couldn’t keep his eyes off the ear.

“Is there anything you need?” Hassan asked, shuffling his feet.

“I’m not in fear. Not anymore. I haven’t been. For many years.” She broke each sentence up.

“Yes, that’s good,” said Hassan. “That’s very good.”

“What do you fear, Hassan bhai?”

“The older I get? Everything. Mostly, though, death.”

“Even more than prison?”

Hassan had had one conversation with Habib about his situation back in the States. Without getting into details, he’d given his brother a snapshot. In it Hassan had made himself the hapless victim, portraying his partners as calculating villains whose true nature he’d learned too late.

“I try not to think about things too far-fetched,” he said. The elevator had arrived once and gone back down.

“You didn’t think it far-fetched back then,” said Samar. “Your brother’s wife. Newlywed wife.”

“No. I didn’t.”

“Why not?”

“I guess because it got so close. I thought it was mine. Please. That was so long ago, Samar. You said it was both our fault.”

“Yes. Twenty-five years. I guess that is long.”

Samar made a perfect semi-circle standing in place, pushed open the door, and went back inside.

 

The air outside was brisk. A perfect December night in Dhaka. Hassan walked across the street to the park, took a left as soon as he was past the entrance, and continued walking.

He did a couple of fast laps. His heart was pounding and sweat tickled his scalp, making its way down his hairline and forehead. His panjabi was loose and spacious enough to allow good airflow. As soon as he slowed down he felt chilly. The sweat began drying immediately. The damp panjabi clung to his skin like a cold compress. He stopped for a cigarette.

He lit a second cigarette and followed his thoughts to the first seeds of a plan to return to America.

He heard a moan and loud sniffling, and then the person was crying. Hassan approached the figure, about ten feet away, in the farthest corner of the park. If Hassan hadn’t stopped where he had he’d never know there was a person there. He hadn’t heard anything during his laps.

“Habib?” Hassan paused. “What are you doing?”

“Bhai, why did you come here?” Habib wiped his face frantically.

“For a walk. But what are you doing here?”

“I’ve made a big blunder, bhai.”

“What are you talking about? How?”

“That bastard son of a bastard I just gave my daughter to.”

“I was surprised when you told me he was that criminal’s son,” said Hassan.

“Criminal, right,” Habib sighed. “Welcome home, bhai. You’ve been gone far too long. What does that make me?” He sniffled loudly. “My daughter chose him. Fell in love. This is a small city. He’s…not a bad boy.” He was losing control again.

“Habib, go back inside. They’re looking for you. It doesn’t look good.”

A choking sound issued out of Habib.

“So, why did you?” Hassan asked.

“Why did I what?” Habib fought waves of tears.

“Agree?”

“I have to survive here,” Habib sputtered. “You don’t live here, you don’t know. If I didn’t agree it would get out that I held some sort of judgment over the boy’s father, his family. You don’t live here anymore.”

“Don’t tell me about survival. I have a good idea how it is here. Don’t think it’s any different in most other places. You had to go tell your wife, didn’t you? I confided in you as my brother.”

Hassan couldn’t see his brother’s face but he could tell Habib was looking directly at him.

“I tell my wife everything,” he said. Hassan found his sincerity comical, and dangerous. “And she tells me everything. She has from the beginning.”

“Everything?”

“Yes.”

“That’s a good thing. Maybe. You’re a lucky man.”

“Am I, bhai?”

“Isn’t that what marriage is supposed to be? Honesty?”

Habib reached slowly into a pocket and delicately brought out a handkerchief. It had a silver sheen, which caught the floodlights of the park, making a small flash. He dabbed his face, blew his nose, folded the handkerchief, and as carefully as he had extracted it, slid it back into the pocket.

“There are things a man doesn’t wish to know,” he said.

“Like what?”

“Like…things that will never let him sleep at night again.”

“I have a good idea about that,” said Hassan, with the tightness in his head shifting to his heart.

“You have some idea, bhai,” Habib said, giving his eyes a final few swipes. “And there are ones you’ll never have. You’re right. I should go back.”

Hassan felt a tremor pass through him. He’d walked too fast. He hadn’t been on a treadmill or on the racquetball court since the troubles started. His diet had gone to hell. His drinking was, by most standards, at alcoholic levels. As Habib went past him he seemed to be gliding, the extra weight that had been his lifelong companion, handed off to Hassan – a reminder that they shared the same blood and DNA.

“One thing about that boy,” Habib stopped and half-turned. “He makes my daughter laugh. A lot. Real laugh. She sounds just like her mother, too. I’d forgotten how Samar sounded when she laughed.”

Hassan watched his brother walk unhurriedly, reach the entrance of the club, where the guard snapped him a salute and opened the door.

He wanted to walk a few more laps, jumpstart his lazy heart, take in more of the time of year he’d loved for the first quarter century of life. If he didn’t return to America within two weeks, his lawyer would panic. He would insist Hassan get on the next flight out. Was he out of his mind? his lawyer would demand, and then his lawyer would say he knew it was too good to be true to have the one client out of the lot that had a shot at getting off the hook.

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Nadeem Zaman was born in Dhaka, Bangladesh and grew up there and in Chicago. His fiction has been widely published worldwide and he is the author of the novel In the Time of the Others (Picador 2018).

China Harry’s Fish Buyer by Dave Barret

Chapter Twelve of “Gone Alaska”

    China Harry’s Fish Buyer

It was near midnight before Swanson announced we were done fishing that first day on the Esther Island grounds.

     The day had been a success: the biggest single-day catch we’d had yet.  The annual Esther Island King Salmon Run had occurred on the day predicted.  Our ice holds had become so filled that the last dozen salmon had to be left in the cooler above deck until we arrived at tonight’s fish-buyer.  Yet, as I staggered out of my four by three by two foot sunken box at the rear of the Western World, I couldn’t help feel indifferent towards it all.  Though I’d caught, cleaned and packed each one of these fish with my own hands, there had been something lacking in the way I’d gone about doing this.

      The afternoon run had gone smooth enough.  After the chaotic episodes of that morning, the numbing routine of the drag had been something of a comfort.  The act of bashing salmon brains had been a kind of release.  I’d been knocking them cold with one blow most the day, as opposed to the several clubbings it usually took. But, by late afternoon, even landing and killing the catch had lost its thrill.  By that point, the numbers of fish had begun to take their toll.  Like too much of a good thing, the salmon kept coming in without let-up.  One after another . . . until catching them became as engaging as drawing laundry from a clothesline.  Instead of anticipating the possibility of a star forty-pounder on the end of a tag-line, I found myself dreading the probability there was one.

     We were entering a small sheltered bay a few miles north of Esther Island.  After spending most the day on a pitching, rolling ocean, it was a comfort to see cliffs and mountains—actual land!—rising on three sides of us.  The sun had ducked behind the frozen peaks of Mt. Saint Elias only moments ago.  There was still enough light out that I could see a gang of sea otters perched atop a large floating log towards shore.  The otters had stopped their clowning to watch us drift by.

     Swanson called me to the wheel.

     “How’s the hand?” Swanson asked.

     I took my post at the wheel.

      “Stiff,” I said, showing how difficult it was to make a fist with my left hand.  “It keeps getting stiffer.  Like I got arthritis in it.”

     I remembered the surprise and shock I’d felt just a few hours ago when I’d unknowingly grabbed a Ling Cod around the gills while removing a troublesome hook.  The moment I’d performed this blunder poison had been injected into my palm from the spines hidden beneath the Ling Cod’s gills.  I could still feel the sting from the red spot in the middle of my palm where the spines had first pricked me.

     “Arthritis, huh?” Swanson grinned.  “Ah, well!”  He slapped me on the back.  “Stiffness don’t last long anyway.  Should be out come tomorrow morning.  Best thing you can do now is keep it moving.  Work it out.”

     I thought Swanson had winked at me, but couldn’t be sure.

     On the backside of this bay was a long flat-bottomed fish-buying scow we were to sell today’s catch.  I could read HARRY’S FISH-BUYER on a large red and white hand-painted sign on the scow’s rooftop.  Another trawler was pulled alongside the fish-buyer, preparing to leave.  The deckhand on this vessel had just untied his trawler and was recoiling the stay line on his back deck.  He was exchanging goodbyes with a little man smoking a pipe on the scow’s front porch.  I figured this man was the proprietor because of the excessive manner in which he nodded his head in agreement with what the other fellow was saying.  How many times had I seen my own father back home in Couer d’ Alene nod to customers at the hardware store in just such a manner!

     “Heads up!” Swanson shouted—so I jerked the wheel way over the right in my astonishment.  “Come on.  Straighten her out.  Let her down a gear.  See if we can’t coast in from here out. . .”

      Eventually, I got us back on course.  I was slaphappy at the wheel: smiling—even laughing—at the curt remarks Swanson made towards me.  I shook my head several times to get some of the tiredness out.  I felt oddly detached from what I was doing at the wheel.  It was as though I was translucent: my mind and body so worn out from work and lack of rest that the steering wheel felt like a toy under my work-numbed hands.  Maybe coffee would help?  But I’d already drunk so much I was beginning to wonder if hadn’t replaced the blood in my veins.

     And like the butt of a mercilessly repeated bad joke, Swanson was right on cue offering more NO-DOZE tablets:

     “Ah, come on,” Swanson said.  “It’ll give you a little pick-up.”

     Swanson dry-gulped two of the tablets himself.

      “Ah, yes!” he continued.  “That’s the ticket! Go ahead.  You’ll be thanking me by the time we’re through unloading that shit load out back.”

     Unload!  I thought.  Somehow, I’d imagined there’d be a crew to unload the catch for us like there had been in Pelican.

     “Yeah. . .” Swanson said, winking this time for sure.  “Just you and me and that big catch. . .”

     I took the caffeine tablets.

     The proprietor was through with his goodbyes to the other fisherman now.  He ducked through the large sliding door of the fish-buyer, then re-emerged wearing a yellow rain jacket and stuffing a fresh pinch of tobacco into his long wooden pipe.  He smiled and waved us forward, then commenced to lighting his pipe by running a match up the zipper of his rain jacket.

     “All right,” I heard Swanson call from somewhere on deck.  “Put her back in gear and creep up with her real soft.  When she gets alongside the scow slide her in reverse.  I’ll jump boat and signal you from the scow when to cut her off.  She’s all mine after that.”

     China Harry.

     We were unloading the catch Chinese Fire Drill style: I down in the holds tossing the ice-caked salmon up to Swanson on deck. . .who in turn tossed it to China Harry onboard the scow. . .who stacked them neatly in a roll-away cart.

     I’d forgotten the nickname Swanson had ascribed to the fish-buyer until Swanson referred to him as such while introducing us.

     “This here’s China Harry,” Swanson said.

     “How do you do, Adam?” said China Harry.

     “Fine.  Thanks,” I answered.

     I’d been briefed about China Harry.

     “We call him China Harry,” Swanson had explained.  “’Cuz he looks and acts like one of them Chinamen you see on TV and at the movies.  You know the type.  Always smiling and bobbing, bobbing and smiling.  Yes, sir.  No, sir.  Never talks back.  Lucky if you get two words out of him.  That sorta thing.”

     “Truth is,” Swanson had confessed.  “China Harry ain’t more Chinese than you or I.  He’s Tlingit—like Miss Sue Ann Bonnet.  Rumor has it he’s just as much a sucker for all that hocus-pocus horseshit as Sue Ann!  Lotta guys think he’s an old American Indian Movement activist from the 60’s.  They boycott his buyer ‘cuz of it. . .”

     “. . . but not me.  I don’t judge a man by the color of the flag he flies.  Besides, if you really want to hear it, China Harry’s just an old flake.  A fag.  ‘Course now that’s my opinion.  Thing is when it gets right down to it China Harry’s as good a man as any other.  Never cheats a fisherman at the scales.  Doesn’t give us a lot of lip like a lotta these new fish-buyers from the States do.  Always gives top dollar for a clean catch.  And that’s saying something out here, boy!  Believe me, that’s saying something.”

     China Harry was all and more than Swanson had forewarned.  He was a strangely effeminate little man.  His features were plainly Indian: the high, rather delicate cheekbones, the blunt nose, broad mouth and fleshy skin.  And his expressions, gestures, facial posturing were, indeed, of the Chinese stereotype he was trying to emulate.  If China Harry was a sign he would have read EXCUSE ME MAY I HELP YOU.  He was the last type of man I expected to encounter in so remote a part of the planet as this.

     Yet, in a funny way Swanson had failed to mention, there was also something similar about China Harry’s appearance to that of Philip Swanson’s.  Both were small, ageless looking men; both had the same beady set of eyes; and, most essentially, both had that puppet-like grotesqueness about their character: Swanson because of his crippled shoulder, China Harry because of his absurd efforts to appear an absurd Chinese stereotype.   They were flipsides of the same coin: Swanson the grotesque of the hard masculine man and China Harry that of the soft feminine one.  Yet this softness of China Harry’s was deceiving.  I learned this after shaking hands with the man and then, a few minutes later, observing how these same spongy soft hands had proved so apt at handling the catch.

     Tossing the last King salmon up to Swanson, I climbed out of the holds, and helped him and China Harry wheel the rollaway inside the fish-buyer.

     The chrome-plated scales were set in the middle of the large rectangular room.  There were three actual scales.  They reminded me of the ones in the produce section of the IGA store in Couer d’ Alene that my mother had scolded me and my brothers and sisters for pulling on when we were children.

     “China Harry,” Swanson said, as the first three salmon were laid on the scales.  “You sure you haven’t rigged this scale?  This one on the right looks a little off center to me.”  Swanson nudged me with an elbow.  “You wouldn’t be trying to pull a fast one on a couple of dumb, tired fishermen, would ‘ya?”

     China Harry smiled slyly back, his tobacco-stained teeth clenched down on the stem of his pipe.  He took his eyes away from the scales only to punch numbers on his adding machine.  He said nothing.

     “That’s what I thought!” Swanson joked, nudging me again.

     While Swanson and China Harry discussed the current market price for King and Coho salmon, I wandered to a far corner of the room where two large shelves of books reached towards the ceiling.  Beside the books was a padded rocking chair . . . beside the chair, a thermos of coffee and clean coffee mugs.

     There was a hand-written sign on the wall that read: THESE BOOKS ARE NOT FOR SALE . . . BUT FEEL FREE TO BROWSE IF YOU MUST.  I smiled at China Harry’s use of the phrase IF YOU MUST.

     There was a smattering of Louis L’Armour and Zane Grey westerns, some Tom Clancy and Ken Follet spy thrillers, but most of the books were of scholarly-type.  I’d read or heard of some of the titles: RICHARD II by Shakespeare . . . ORIGIN OF THE SPECIES and THE DESCENT OF MAN by Darwin.  But then there were others I hadn’t heard of: THE GOLDEN BOUGH by Sir James Frazier. . .DECLINE OF THE WEST by Oswald Spengler. . .ONE HUNDRED YEARS OF SOLITUDE. . .WAITING FOR GODOT. . .THE TIBETAN BOOK OF THE DEAD.  There were two full rows of Indian histories: NOW THAT THE BUFFALO’S GONE . . . BLACK ELK SPEAKS . . . BURY MY HEART AT WOUNDED KNEE.  Half the names of the funny foreign authors I couldn’t even pronounce: like THE TECHNOLOGICAL SOCIETY and PROPAGANDA: THE FORMATION OF MEN’S ATTITUDES by Jacques Ellul.  I laughed at the way my tongue kept tripping over the last name of this author.

     “Do you like books?” China Harry asked.

     “Yes,” I said, glancing back at the shelves.  “The little that I’ve read.”

     Actually, I love books and had declared English as my major at U of Idaho that coming fall.  But I was feeling a bit intimidated by the selections I saw on China Harry’s shelves.

     “Have you read all these yourself?” I asked.

     “Ninety-nine percent of them,” China Harry said, laying three new salmon on the scales.  “It gets very lonely here.  It’s nice to be able to read about faraway places and other peoples and other worlds.  Don’t you think so?”

      “No frigate like a book!” I said.

      “Oh!  Very good!” China Harry said.  “Emily Dickinson. . .”

     Then I said something that made China Harry stop smiling—for a moment.  Swanson had returned to the Western World for some reason, and I took advantage of the opportunity.

     “Harry,” I said.  “If the fishing’s really as bad as some people say it’s getting . . . how come we keep catching so many fish?”

     I was fully aware of the bluntness of my question.  But Swanson might return at any moment.

     China Harry hesitated, puffing on his pipe several times.  Then, in one word, he answered:

     “Canada.”

     My mind flashbacked to the conversation between the three fishermen in line behind me at the Elfin Grocer.  I remembered something about tolls and Mounties and dams on the Columbia River and no dams on the Fraser River.

     “You’re kidding!” I said.  “These are Fraser River salmon?”

     China Harry nodded.

     “Son of a bitch!” I said.  I felt like someone who has been searching for something only to find it right beneath his or her nose.  “That’s how we keep our numbers high—and beat the regulators!  By intercepting Canadian salmon—“

     “And the Canadians do the same!” China Harry replied.  “Both sides are fighting over what’s left in the barrel.  When this resource is exhausted, we’ll be fighting over another as yet un-named one!  It’s the human condition.  It’s how we are as a species.”

     I was overwhelmed.  All this . . . and China Harry with his same poker-face . . . was marking another fish’s weight down on his note pad.

     “But Harry. . .” I said.  “How can you know all this and still be part of it?”

     I realized the brashness of my question—not to mention its hypocritical nature—after the fact.  When I began to apologize, China Harry only smiled and said:

     “Remember, Adam . . . there are always three shells in a shell game.”

     Just then Swanson came clomping back on the scow, fooling with his fly.  When he saw me standing gape-mouthed by the books, he motioned me over.

     “What’s going on here?” Swanson joked.  “I expect you to keep an eye on the Chinaman while I’m away.  No telling what China Harry’s capable of!”

     We were towards the end of the catch now.  There was a little chute behind the scales leading down to the holds beneath the floor.  China Harry grabbed the three salmon he’d just weighed under the gills and sent them headfirst down the chute.  I wondered if Swanson had eavesdropped on our conversation.  I was more confused now than ever.  What had China Harry meant by three shells in a shell game?  Was he implying that the First Nations could regain control of their old salmon grounds after the U.S. and Canada were busy duking it out over what was left of the salmon pie?  And what if the First Nations could pull off this shell game?   What would they alone be able to do to save the salmon?

     The room was strangely quiet.  There was only the familiar pattern of the scale’s squeaking as new salmon were laid on them, then the sound of digits being punched  out on the adding machine, then the salmon being shot down the chute to the holds below.  Outside, the wind had stopped blowing and it was eerily still.  There was only the tinkled of bilge water being pumped out of the Western World’s bulwarks.

     To break the monotony—as well as cover-up the sentiments of my conversation with China Harry (in case Swanson HAD been eavesdropping)—I cleared my throat and joked:

     “Guess we pulled in quite a haul today—hey, Phil?”

     “Yeah. . .”Swanson said, after a pause.  “I suppose you could say that.”

     China Harry was having difficulty laying a larger-sized King on the scale properly.  Swanson had to reach over and hold the salmon by the tail while China Harry took the reading.

     “Oh, yeah,” I continued—since Swanson had nothing else to say.  “I’ve been meaning to ask what kind of percentage of the catch I’m getting.  I would have brought it up sooner—“

     “Hmm—“I heard Swanson grunt.

     Swanson seemed irritated about something.  I wasn’t sure if it was something I’d said or if it was the seeming trouble he and China Harry were having with another large salmon.

     “Excuse me,” I said.  “I suppose we can talk about this later—“

     “No-no,” Swanson interrupted, free to address me now that this salmon had been weighed.  “Now’s as good a time as any.  Funny we haven’t gotten round to it sooner.  Hmm, now?  Let’s see. . .”

     I reached over and held the tail of a large Coho while Swanson mulled over figures both aloud and in his head.

     “Yes. . .” China Harry said, almost to himself.  “You are new out here.”

     “How can you tell?” I said, trying to be a good sport.

     Smiling pleasantly, China Harry continued:

     “Well, among other things, by the way this catch has been cleaned.”

      “What?” I said, feeling betrayed.

      China Harry opened the slit belly of the salmon in his hands and ran one of his fingers along a section of meat I had cut against the grain on.  “But,” he finished, “not damaged so much as to devalue THIS fish.”

     I smiled back weakly.

     China Harry was definitely a player.

     “Harry?” Swanson asked.  “What’s the going price on Coho’s this week?”

     “Three twenty-five a pound, Philip.”

     “And Kings?”

     “Four-ten.”

     “Thanks,” said Swanson.

      At last, Swanson turned to me and concluded:

      “Ten percent of the catch is the going rate.  Including today—and those three good days we had before Pelican—I figure we’ve grossed somewhere in the neighborhood of three-thousand by this point.  Ten percent of three thousand is three hundred.  Roughly, three hundred dollars.”

     “Three hundred dollars?” I repeated.  I wondered if Swanson meant three-hundred for today and those three good days before Pelican exclusively.

     “Is that three hundred for the entire season?”

     “Yeah,” Swanson said.  “Unless,” he continued, smiling towards China Harry.  “Unless the Chinaman wants to give us a bonus for bringing in such a pretty catch!

What ya’ say, Harry?  Handing out any bonuses today?”

     China Harry smiled and shook his head.

     Swanson laughed out loud.

     “Three hundred dollars?” I repeated again.  I began to figure out how much that came out to per hour after all I’d worked these last two and a half weeks.

     “Of course,” Swanson added, as though an afterthought.  “I will have knock off for expenses and such . . . you understand.”

     I stopped figuring and looked at Swanson.  It crossed my mind he might be joking.  I tried smiling at him.  He did not smile back.

     “Yeah.  Expenses. . .” Swanson said.  With a grunt, he explained:  “Do I look like the Governor of Alaska to you?”

     When I didn’t reply, just continued to stare back in disbelief, Swanson continued:

     “Well, now. I‘ll have to knock off at least fifty food, another fifty for gear lost . . . little things. . like that brand new scrub brush you knocked overhead on opening day.  And then there was your fun at the Elbow Room and your little fling at Roxie’s. . .”  He winked devilishly at me.  “Heck!” Swanson concluded, grinning again.  “I guess that breaks us about even, don’t it?”

     I felt dizzy.  I couldn’t believe I was hearing this.  Even!  After all the work!  These long days!  No sleep!  It occurred to me that Swanson might even be screwing me over on the three-thousand dollar gross.  Intuitively, I knew the figure was more in the four thousand range.  But there was no way I could prove this.  I’d been so busy orienting myself to my new job and new surroundings that it had never occurred to me to keep any kind of record.  And, come to think of it, I’d never signed any kind of contract to work for Philip Swanson—never filled out a W-2 or passed along my social security number.  I was entirely beholden to Swanson’s judgment.  This seemed too terribly stupid to actually be happening!

     I turned towards China Harry, but his mask was firmly in place.  He’d finished weighing the last of the catch and was tapping out the bottom of his pipe. His wet red lips were puckered in a frown.  But I couldn’t tell if it was because of what he’d just witnessed or because of the trouble he was having cleaning the bowl of his pipe.

     “Even?” I said.  “How could that be?”

     There was a Styrofoam ice chest filled with packages of frozen herring at our feet.  Swanson was turning over one of these cellophane wrapped packages in his hands now.

     “Harry?” Swanson said, ignoring me. “These just come in today?”

     China Harry had cleared his pipe and was repacking the bowl with more of his cherry-flavored tobacco.

     “Yes,” China Harry said, lighting his pipe.  “Just this morning, Philip.  From Seattle.”

     “Seattle, huh?” Swanson said.  “All right, then.  I’ll talk six of these Puget Sound puppies.”

     China Harry punched out the cost of each herring packet individually.

     “Excuse me,” I said, stepping closer to Swanson.  “Excuse me.  I don’t understand.  I don’t get it.”

     “Goddamn it,” Swanson mumbled.  China Harry had handed him a clipboard with a bill of sale on it.  Swanson scribbled out his signature on the bottom line.  Then he tore out the carbon copy receipt of sale, folded it, and stuffed it in a breast pocket of his shirt.

     “Goddamn,” he repeated.  “I just told you why!  Expenses!”

     “Yeah. . .” I said.  “O.K.  But after all the hours I’ve worked—“

     “Hours?” Swanson interrupted.  “Hours, boy?  You are a green one, aren’t you?  Come on—get with it—man!  Everything’s based on percentages out here . . . like I been telling you since the start.  Percentages.  That’s why we work these long crazy hours.  I’m hoping things will pick up from here out.  If we can fill the holds in four hour’s time tomorrow—fine!  We’ll call it a day!  But if it takes until midnight, then we’ll be working till midnight.  That’s just the way things work out here.  Got to give up those old wage-slave ideas!”

     “And put my trust in you?”

     “That’s right,” said Swanson, unable to hold back a little smile.  “Put your trust in me.”

      Swanson paused to slide a pinch of chewing tobacco under his upper lip.  He offered me a pinch.  When I declined, he shook his head slowly and placed the lid in a rear pocket of his jeans.  After a long pause, he finished:

     “Now I wasn’t going to tell you this until the season ended . . . but . . . if things continue to work out . . . and you decide to stay on for sockeye season . . . I’ll be upping your percentage to 15%.  By that time I figure you’ll be worth the extra 5% to me.”

     Before I could respond, Swanson shuffled past me towards one of the open doors.

     Turning around, I saw that China Harry was already out of the porch in front of Swanson.  Both were waving hello as a new trawler, heavy with fish, came alongside the scow.

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Dave Barrett lives and writes out of Missoula, Montana. His fiction has appeared most recently in Potomac Review, Cowboy Jamboree and Midwestern Gothic. His story–EL PARADISIO–appears in the Spring 2018 issue of Quarter After Eight. He teaches writing at the Missoula College. His novel—GONE ALASKA—was accepted by Adelaide Books and will be published in August 2019.

La orquídea con espinas por Diego Zárate Montero

Para Thaís Rodríguez

En un bosque agreste, de noche tormentoso e inhóspito, florecía un delicado jardín bajo el cobijo ardiente de un sol tropical.

Cuando las montañas flotantes llegaron junto a un templado sol naciente que anunciaba un nuevo mundo, la plaga de ratas amenazó su vida endémica. Muchas especies se extinguieron, otras nuevas florecieron y las que sobrevivieron tuvieron que adaptarse. Ningún botánico daría crédito a las espinas que le brotaron a la Cattleya mossiae y cuyo filo de espada libertadora contagió a muchas otras, quienes para sacudirse de la peste se armaron con aguijones propios.

Con el águila calva vino la peste del pulgón verde, y como si la historia fuera una prueba despiadada de los dioses para seleccionar a sus favoritos, fue precisamente esta flor, la más hermosa de todas, la que llevó la peor parte. Otras orquídeas se acostumbraron a la plaga y la acogieron en su seno. La Cattleya trianae enquistó su tallos y flores con unas manchas como coágulos corpusculares; la Guarianthe skinneri renunció a su exuberante colorido y como congelada de temor se quedó morada; la Rhyncholaelia digbyana en su desesperado martirio arrojó muy lejos sus keikes, cual Stanhopea wardii con sus semillas.

Pero la flor de mayo decidió mantenerse digna ante los denuestos del cruel asedio. A su lado resistían la Hedychium coronarium, cuya blancura, aún con el tallo desvaneciente, seguía siendo cultivada por el poeta para sus amigos y enemigos; y la Plumeria rubra, a quien la peste verde había llegado como una primavera de ruina y fuego.

Las raíces de esta orquídea rebelde parecieron enfriarse y sus espinas perdieron vigor como deshidratadas. Su aroma, el mas dulce y seductor del jardín, entristeció como la risa de un niño hambriento, y la lluvia tórrida rebajó sus colores como al vestido raído de una humilde campesina.

Entonces, como venida de entre los muertos, floreció a su lado una tímida Cempoalxóchitl.

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Diego José Zárate Montero. Costa Rica. 9 de abril de 1990. Licenciado en economía por la Universidad Nacional de Costa Rica.  Estudiante del tercer semestre de la maestría en economía del Posgrado en Economía de la UNAM, en la sede el Instituto de Investigaciones Económicas, en el campo de conocimiento de economía política.

Estrella del rock por Tomás Sánchez Hidalgo

Estrella del rock

Una entrevista a una estrella del rock, paradigma mediático. Expresión facial traviesa y tímida de quien, con el aspecto del tipo divertido que más bien desconfía del extraño, de lo demás, del ager publicus, vivía parapetado en su mundo personal de referentes y relaciones, clichés propios. Acudió a la cita televisiva en pijama, un extracto de lo que escuché:

— ¿De qué vas disfrazado hoy?

— Voy disfrazado de mí mismo —llevaba un revólver, al lado del micrófono. Apuntaba de hecho hacia éste.

— ¿Un hobby?

— Logomaquia —además, estaba descalzo.

— ¿Otro hobby?

— Puterío selecto.

— ¿Un color?

— Cian.

— ¿Una comida?

— Sushi.

— ¿Una bebida?

— Absenta.

— ¿Un número?

— El final.

— ¿Un taco?

— Hostia.

— ¿Practicas algún deporte?

— Yo soy más de coger.

— ¿Un objetivo a corto plazo?

— Salir de aquí.

— ¿Un paraíso perdido?

—  Verano del 88, en algún lugar de Irlanda, irrepetible, con dieciséis años recién cumplidos: pecado cúbico.

— ¿Algo que detestes?

— Alabama, los palíndromos… Eso  es, sí, sin dudarlo… Los palíndromos…  Alabama y los palíndromos… Además, también detesto la cárcel catódica…   Bueno, y los casinos, las monarquías y los actos de fe.

— ¿Algo que temas?

— Temo al ostracismo a plazos. Temo poder llegar a ningunear en algún momento de mi vida mis propios objetivos vitales, mis principios. Temo llegar a esperar tiempos pasados, sudando años. Temo al embrutecimiento exponencial de la masa. Temo al petardo del fin del mundo.

— ¿Una palabra que te ponga nervioso?

— Matiz.

— ¿Te consideras un revolucionario?

— No, para nada, no soy revolucionario.

— ¿De veras? En ti suena raro.

— No, no lo soy, y es cosa lógica: en una revolución, las mujeres están todo el día cansadas, y además no hay buenos restaurantes.

— ¿Unas palabras para tus fans?

— Cadalso para todos.

— ¿Cuál es tu sueño inconfesado?

— Hacerlo, esposado, frente a un televisor en blanco y negro en el que pasan películas a cámara lenta, con imágenes muy cortantes. Hacerlo esposado, sí. También conocer a Bob Dylan.

— ¿No lo has conocido personalmente?

— No, personalmente no, lo cual resulta, cuanto menos, digamos que curioso.

·         — ¿Te gustaría conocerlo?

— Sí.

— ¿De qué hablaríais si os presentaran?

— Ah, pues, ni idea. ¿De muebles, quizás?

Silencio. Ahora de nuevo otra llamada, por el local en venta, que tampoco cogí.

— ¿Cuáles han sido tus principales influencias?

— Estoy hecho de muchas personas.

— ¿Un sinónimo de tu obra?

— Amalgama, o campo ecléctico.

— ¿Un poeta?

— Kavafis.

— ¿Un lema vital?

— Best is just to come.

— ¿Una marca de ropa?

— Paul Smith.

— ¿Qué fue de tu carrera taurina?

— Me sobraba valor, pero me faltaba talento… Yo no me quitaba de delante del toro, pero me quitaba el toro mismo.

— ¿Hay algo más transgresor que tu música?

— La Bauhaus.

— La vida te ha enseñado que…

— La letra, con teta entra.

— ¿Cuánto aspiras a ganar?

— Lo suficiente para gastármelo todo.

— ¿Te has sentido alguna vez un traidor?

— Enseguida se hace de noche.

— ¿Qué piensas de la copla?, hoy muchos intelectuales la reivindican.

— Pues que la reivindiquen, a mí me la suda.

— ¿Cuál es el último libro que has leído?

— Pues, ahora que lo preguntas… Precisamente éste, el que nos otorga efímera y circunstancial existencia a ambos.

— ¿Capital de Malí?

— Bamako.

— ¿Sabes pilotar un desierto?

— Puedo intentarlo.

— ¿Un psicotrópico?

— Pastillas para la fe.

— ¿Qué vas a hacer con tus Grammys?

— No lo sé.

— ¿Qué queda hoy del punk?

·         — Del punk no quedará nada.

Silencio.

— ¿Quién es tu ídolo?

— Aspiro a ser mi propio ídolo.

— ¿Quién es tu ídolo?

— Aspiro a ser mi propio ídolo.

— ¿Quién es tu ídolo?

— Aspiro a ser mi propio ídolo.

 

 

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TS Hidalgo (45) holds a BBA (Universidad Autónoma de Madrid), a MBA (IE Business School), a MA in Creative Writing (Hotel Kafka) and a Certificate in Management and the Arts (New York University). His works have been published in magazines in the USA, Canada, Mexico, Argentina, Chile, Venezuela, Germany, UK, Spain, Ireland, Portugal, Romania, Nigeria, South Africa, Zambia, Zimbabwe, Botswana, India, Singapore and Australia, and he has been the winner of prizes like the Criaturas feroces (Editorial Destino) in short story and a finalist at Festival Eñe in the novel category. He has currently developed his career in finance and stock-market.

Her Silent Man by Nadeem Zaman

Such a quiet boy could not be good. Zulekha saw him the first morning he was on duty, waiting for the girl that was to be his charge. She asked his name, and he ignored her. A snide remark about his being deaf and dumb didn’t make a difference. He went on cleaning the dashboard and only left her steaming even more. That first time Zulekha thought, there it was! Her mother’s warning in motion, that anyone that refused eye contact when speaking or spoken to was hiding something. They were not to be trusted. But even before trust came into play what should come to mind was to run, away, as far from them as possible. As she, Zulekha’s mother, hadn’t done; and Zulekha was not going to do.

On her tea and paan breaks, when the paranoid old widow she worked for allowed them, Zulekha maximized her time. She checked in with Rabiul, the older of the three night guards. He was the only one that didn’t fondle her with his eyes, and who, Zulekha was certain, preferred the plump rumps of young boys anyway. The new driver, however, had left everyone of the same mind as her with his deathly silence.

“He sits in the drivers’ room hour after hour not even once clearing his throat,” Rabiul told her. “The little girl, Miss Ruksana, she talks to him all the time. Nothing. He just says salaam to her once in the morning, once in the afternoon.”

“What is he hiding, Uncle?” Zulekha said.

“Probably from the likes of you, you sneaky husband hunter,” Rabiul teased. “Miss Ruksana calls him Dulal bhai. So, there, his name is Dulal.”

Zulekha rolled the name around inside her mouth. She let it spin and tumble in her head. The line of drivers and other male employees of the building that she had at her disposal at any time had the other maids of the building spitting curses at God for the injustice. They would titter with glee if they knew Zulekha had had the decency to choose the least desirable one of the lot. They’d think her a certifiable idiot. A waste of God-given beauty.

Unpopularity Zulekha couldn’t care less about. She was used to it. Being born in a slum with her looks life had already condemned her to an existence given more to antipathy than acceptance. Even the mistresses she’d worked for over the years eventually let their mental pustules of insecurity break open and run toward her to relieve her of her duties before their husbands left them for her.  Zulekha was not only young, well proportioned of body with that extra heft in her hips that no Bengali man would deride or reject, she was also fair-skinned – that Everest of complexion every woman in Bangladesh wanted to climb and achieve; and she was a virgin. Had she been born into a “good” household, one of the renowned Dhaka families with money and social standing, her parents’ doors would be knocked down day and night with proposals of marriage. She wouldn’t even need to be a virgin. Her looks and family name would be enough to start feuds for her hand.

At six-thirty in the morning, while the widow was still asleep, Zulekha went downstairs for tea. It was a ruse to watch Dulal prepare the car and wait for his little mistress. The amount of attention he paid that car was enough to make Zulekha dizzy with sweet turmoil. That brand new car didn’t need those lovely, long-fingered hands caressing it. She didn’t either, not as easily as the car, just there for the taking. And before any touching, she would absolutely have to know what lay underneath that silence.

“Girl, keep those eyes of yours in more control,” said Buri Bua, the widow’s long-time caretaker. Zulekha enjoyed listening to her morsels of wisdom from another era more for entertainment than practical application. “You think no one sees them roving and roaming. Others have eyes, too.”

And what about the hundred men every few feet whose eyes roved and roamed on her? They were accountable to no one. No old father figure would ever tell them to control their eyes.

Zulekha spent hours during her day, well into the night, wondering what Dulal said to himself in his own head. Among the storylines she imagined was the one where Dulal was married. The one Zulekha crushed with all her will when it cropped up. She told herself that he was too young to be married, that since he never said anything it could mean he had nothing major about his life to share. A wife and family would inevitably be the first thing a man talked about. If he didn’t mention them, Zulekha decided, they did not exist. Since he never talked at all, a world of possibility existed for her to help him make one.

One morning at the beginning of the December winter season, the widow finally announced her annual trip to her daughter’s place in Chittagong. Zulekha used to count the seconds leading to this moment that released her for two weeks to be with her family. This year she had different plans. She was not going home. Buri Amma, too, would be gone to be with her relatives in her village. Zulekha would be alone, with time and freedom to devote to the new driver.

She was confident that he would not get a holiday when his little mistress was on vacation from school because her parents maintained a busy social calendar. Zulekha felt sorry for the girl. She had no friends that Zulekha had seen, and on the slightest of excuses was packed into the car and sent off to the home of some relative or other. Building gossip about the activities of her parents made her hot with guilt and shame, and she kept her ears clear of them.

Rabiul was dozing in the tiny guard’s quarter one evening, shivering lightly. Zulekha brought him an old blanket from the widow’s enormous stash stowed away in the storage room next to the roof. She also bought him a cup of tea and a couple of buns from across the street.

“Daughter, I have no new information for you,” he chuckled. “You can bribe me all you want.” He draped the blanket tightly around his shoulders. “God bless you, child.”

Zulekha drank her tea.

“I’m just a foolish girl, kaka,” she said.

“Better than being a foolish old man,” said Rabiul. “At least I have a bright side to look ahead to. Death. You have only life for many more years.” He touched her head and muttered a prayer. “So, go find what you need to find. Those years won’t be kind, I’ll tell you. They’ll be selfish and demanding.”

The elevator doors opened and Dulal’s little mistress’ parents walked out. Rabiul jumped to his feet. The blanket slid off his shoulders. Zulekha went behind a parked car. As Rabiul opened the gate, the car that was devoted to the little girl’s use rolled out of its parking spot. Dulal stepped out of the driver’s seat held the door open for the girl’s parents. Zulekha had had no inkling he’d been there, the whole time, sitting in the darkness of the car.

“Hassan is a crook, and a lecher,” the wife was saying. “At least Habib has had the decency to be a good husband and father in public.” She disappeared into the back seat. The husband took a moment before entering. He looked around, as if seeking a friendly face, and found Zulekha’s peering out from behind the car she was using as a shield. He shook his head and got in. Dulal shut the door, climbed back into the driver’s seat, and put the car in gear. In her mind Zulekha dashed in front of the car, blocking its path, forcing Dulal to shout at her to move.

Zulekha stood outside their apartment with her finger poised to press the bell. She touched her ear to the door. There were no sounds, but she could tell the apartment was not empty. She knew the cook, another old soul like the night guard, and had brought Eid offerings from the widow in the past, so it wouldn’t be unusual to pay a visit. She rang.

The door opened. The young mistress, covered in a beautiful shawl a few sizes too big for her, stood looking older than her age.

“Apu, you know me, no?” said Zulekha. “From upstairs?”

The girl, keeping her eyes steady on Zulekha, rummaged through her memory banks.

“Is baburchi kaka here?” Zulekha asked.

The girl shook her head.

“He went out,” she said.

 “That is a gorgeous shawl,” said Zulekha. “Where did you get it? From your mother?”

“No,” said the girl. “What do you want?”

Zulekha was potentially asking for trouble if the girl reported her to her parents.

“I want a shawl just like that,” she said. “I’ve seen you in it before, and I wanted to ask where you got it.”

The girl’s face twisted in confusion.

“It was a gift, and you couldn’t have seen it because I’ve never worn it outside the apartment.”

“Is it from a boy?” Zulekha asked playfully.

“What if it is?” the girl said.

“My goodness, apu, you’re a feisty one.”

This made the girl smile. She touched the shawl proudly, almost flauntingly.

“He’s the quietest boy in the world,” she said. “Do you know how I can get him to say more.”

Zulekha said, “I know someone like that, too. But, apu, you are too young to have a boyfriend.”

“He’s not my boyfriend. He’s just a boy. A grown man. But I call him a boy. They’re all boys.”

“Well, my pretty little apu, when you see him again tell him he should say more. Otherwise us poor girls will never know their minds. Will you keep a request of mine?”

The girl waited, once again, absentmindedly this time, giving the shawl a tender caress.

“Don’t tell your mother and father I was here,” said Zulekha. “I wanted to tell you hello. I always see you. And now we have a secret in common, too, no?”

“I don’t have secrets from my parents,” said the girl.

“Do they know where that shawl came from?”

The girl bit her lower lip.

“Then you do have one secret,” said Zulekha. “One more won’t hurt. It will be between friends, me and you.”

The girl stared long and hard at Zulekha.

“Is that your real skin color?” she asked.

“Yes, apu.”

“You’re the fairest girl I’ve ever seen. My mother talks about having skin like yours, as does every one of her friends, and everyone else. I find makeup disgusting.”

“You’re a very pretty girl,” said Zulekha.

“I’m me. Okay, go now. I have to finish homework.”

Zulekha stood a few moments longer after the door was shut, listening to the silence inside.

It was a weekday, and in the morning Dulal didn’t bring out the car for the girl. The girl’s father had left for work in his car. The mother got picked up by a friend around lunchtime, and the girl went with her. Zulekha followed their cook up to the apartment when he returned from the market.

“What do you want?” the cook asked.

“You need some help?” Zulekha offered.

“You work for another home. Now, what do you want?”

Zulekha said she hadn’t seen the new driver and the girl hadn’t gone to school that morning. She tried sounding nonchalant.

“They want to send the little one to a different school,” the cook told her. “The Umrican one, I think. In Baridhara.”

 “Maybe she will be happier…” she said, trying for disinterest.

“Too much money on too many drivers,” the cook said. “New school will send a bus and drop her off in one. Shahib is in bad place with money.”

 “What about the new one?” she asked, as cautiously as possible.

“Last day was yesterday,” said the cook. He added, “He was a good boy. Didn’t talk, didn’t mix with others, didn’t have bad habits, just did his work.”

 “Where will he go?” she wondered aloud.

The cook poured her tea. “Drivers find work in minutes around here. He’ll be fine. Drink it. It has ginger. Your throat sounds a little raw.” He sat on a stool with half a dozen potatoes and a basket between his feet. “What is it, child? What has your eye swimming with sadness?” The smirk on his face smoothed its wrinkles in a way that seemed to Zulekha a snapshot of the man as a young boy. A mischievous boy whose heart had just broken at the sight of the longing in the eyes of the girl he liked for someone else.

“I’m not sad,” said Zulekha.

The cook’s rheumy laugh gurgled in his throat.

“He was a very likable boy,” he said. Coils of potato skin formed and twirled with finesse onto the basket, like beauty rejected. “A young girl liking him isn’t out of this world. Even our little mistress. Heartbroken, poor little thing. She cried all day yesterday. She doesn’t like anyone, not even her parents, but that boy, her face lit like a hundred light bulbs just at the thought of seeing him every day.” He dropped the peeled potatoes in the basket on top of their skin and set water to boil. “He even gave her that shawl. Shahib and mamshahib are so clueless about their child that anyone could hand her anything and they wouldn’t know.”

Zulekha found it so warming that the shawl was a gift from Dulal that she nearly blurted her feelings for him. And the little girl, cleverer than Zulekha could ever guess!

“So…where did he go?” she asked.

“How should I know,” said the cook, as though he’d been accused of something. He sunk the potatoes in the boiling water.

“No, I mean, where does he live?”

The cook fixed a stare on her for a few seconds too long. Zulekha set down her cup and made to leave.

“Hatirjheel,” said the cook. He sounded begrudging as a reluctant father at relenting on his daughter’s stubborn wish.

****

A young unmarried woman seeking out a young unmarried man in his place of residence would stoke gossip. Zulekha was bound by this taboo, and it was exactly the sort of nonsense she was tired of. Nothing could be done about anything. Everything worth doing was seen by society as moral turpitude or, God forbid, a sin. Haram, as the mullahs and their acolytes and their venomous coterie of apprentices liked to brand what didn’t adhere to their hypocritical view of the world – a world that they decried for its wrongs and called on to emulate them if it wanted eternal paradise in the afterlife. It was this life that Zulekha desired to live fully. And if she was going to spend it with someone then she was going to be the one to seek that someone out.

Over the next several days she chatted with the other drivers, to their delight that she was finally giving them the time of day, and found that many of them also lived in Hatirjheel. One of them mentioned having Dulal as a neighbor.

“Dulal?” Zulekha said, pretending to not know.

“Worked here for a short while. Drove around the little miss in C-2.”

“Oh. Where is he now?”

“Where he works I don’t know. But he lives in my building. He’s right next door to me. I think he’s a fruitcake, you know what I mean,” He grinned. “Do you want to see where I live?”

Any other time Zulekha would shut him down. She’d seen him hound the other maids of the building, and on the street. He was fat and had breath as foul as a gutter. He had a wife and children in his village, and Zulekha had overheard him speaking in the vilest terms about them to anyone willing to listen.

“Sometime, yes,” she said. “When?”

He had not expected her to say yes so easily, or at all. His eyes enlarged and he was momentarily speechless. The other drivers were watching from the drivers’ room behind the guard’s quarter. Whether she liked it or not the gossip would spark. Nothing in life came without a price.

“Day after tomorrow,” said the driver, almost frothy with excitement. “You can go with me when I’m done with duty.”

“No. Tomorrow,” Zulekha countered. “On one condition.”

The driver’s excitement paused.

“You give me the address and I will meet you there,” said Zulekha.

The next evening she stood outside the driver’s door. He’d given her his name. She couldn’t recall it. She was paying him less than half a mind when he was rattling through a thousand details about his life. His aspirations held little interest for Zulekha, more so because she knew he was baring all the details as a preface to even more mundane details. Zulekha gave her memory another knock and pull. It was Al-Amin.

She knocked.

Al-Amin was dressed in a starched white kurta and white pyjama, his hair slicked with coconut oil that Zulekha could smell from three feet away. He asked her to come in but she stood outside absentmindedly because she was wondering if Dulal was behind the door to her left or to her right.

“Girl, are you still asleep?” Al-Amin laughed. “Come inside and have a cup of tea.” He moved in closer. “Don’t worry about anything. You’re not the first young girl to visit a man here. No one cares. No one looks.” His breath choked Zulekha.

“Which one is the other driver’s home?” she asked.

“Other driver?” Al-Amin’s face contorted. “What other driver?”

“You know, the one that used to work for the little girl,” said Zulekha.

“Oh, that one. Why do you care about him? Don’t tell me. I’ve heard enough about that dumb lout.”

Suspicion clouded Al-Amin’s expression.

“Is that why you’re really here? To see that tongue-less halfwit? He’s a pansy, didn’t I tell you?”

“No…” Zulekha started.

“No what?” Al-Amin fumed, spewing blasts of hot fetid breath.

“I was just wondering…” said Zulekha.

“Talk to me, you bitch! I’ll smack the silence out of you in two minutes!”

“Why would I come to see him when I’m here with you?” said Zulekha. Men of unpredictable temperament like that got away with everything, always blaming their temper flares on the women after beating them.

 Al-Amin eyed her suspiciously.

“You’re not lying to me, are you?” he said.

“No,” Zulekha replied.

“Then say so,” said Al-Amin. “Inside, come.”

 “It’s such a nice day, let’s go for a walk by the water.”

Al-Amin frowned. He grew impatient. His fingers closed into a fist and opened repeatedly.

“Walk? I don’t like walking,” he said. “Don’t fool around with me, girl. I can see right through. You led me on and now you’re here outside my door, and you want me to believe you want to go for a walk by the water?”

“Brother – ”

“Don’t brother me! I’m not your brother!”

“Then I will go.”

He was trying to be intimidating, but all he was was a doddering drunk dissatisfied with his life, with only himself to blame for it. Zulekha even had the flicker of a desire to help him. But he was a rabid hound. Nothing she could do would make him react other than with defensive rage.

“Try and go, see what happens,” said Al-Amin. “I’ve had enough of sluts like you. All the same, every last one of you.” There was scant wind behind his words.

 “Go inside and get some sleep,” she told him. “You’re unwell.”

Al-Amin laughed.

Zulekha didn’t want to leave without knowing, maybe seeing, Dulal one more time. One more time was enough to let him know her feelings, even if he kept silent as a statue, or, if he did speak, he said something to break her heart.

“And I’ve seen enough tramps like you!” Al-Amin suddenly shouted. “Whores, manipulative bitches! All! You show one face to the world and carry around another!” He lunged at her. Zulekha made a quick move. Al-Amin stumbled past her and crashed against the railing. He caught the end of her dupatta and pulled her back. People saw what was happening, but paid it no mind. Zulekha saw faces taking note and then continuing with their business.

“You came here to see me and see me you will,” Al-Amin growled into Zulekha’s face. He shoved her toward his door by her neck. Zulekha braced herself against the doorframe, but his strength was impossible. He pushed her shoulders, jammed his elbow into her spine, and shoved his foot into her lower back.

She heard a choking gasp, and the weight of his vehemence lifted off her. She was free. Before she turned around she caught a glimpse of the inside of Al-Amin’s room. A dingy light bulb hung from a wire, barely illuminating a cramped space littered with old boxes of food, greasy clothes, and tattered posters of semi-nude white women on the scabby walls. Flies buzzed about. The whole place smelled like it was rotting from deep within.

Al-Amin was against the railing, gasping and sputtering. Between him and Zulekha stood Dulal, with his back to her, at the ready to take the other driver again if he charged.

“You dumb son of a cunt,” Al-Amin stammered. “You tried to strangle me. For that? That putty whore?”

Zulekha moved out of the doorway, and away from the two men. Al-Amin was bigger than Dulal. Next to him Dulal was laughably built, with extreme knock-kneed legs, spindly arms, and smooth glowing skin that would be the envy of any woman. He didn’t even have proper facial hair growth. Curly coils sprouted up and down the sides of his face and bloomed on his chin.

Dulal’s stood aside, opening the route to Al-Amin’s room. It was an option and a silent command in one. Al-Amin glared at Zulekha. A small crowd had gathered. He made no eye contact with them. He brushed past Dulal also without looking up at him. The disappointed crowd dispersed in seconds.

Dulal headed toward his room.

“Can I come in?” Zulekha tried to get between him and the door. “Please. One minute.”

Dulal moved her out of the way, gently. He led her to the stairs. At the top of the stairs he stopped. It was as far as he was going to escort her.

“Normal people talk, even once in a while, no matter how quiet they are. Otherwise they’re hiding something,” she said. She added when she saw that Dulal’s silence was bent upon being resilient as a fortress, “My mother told me.”

Zulekha thought she saw his chin twitch a few times, on the verge of saying something, and she too stayed where she was.

 “Just once,” she said. “Anything.”

She spied the beginning of a smile. Maybe it was her imagination, and if it was, she was fine with it, because imagination existed to make reality bearable.

This boy – this man – could not be bad. Her mother didn’t know everything. In recent years Zulekha had had growing doubts about the woman’s entire system of belief. They were little more than a collection of recriminations and regrets. She had no friends. No one in the village liked her. People went out of their way to avoid her. Zulekha had grown up influenced by the notion that every man and woman within spitting distance of her mother had it out for her, that her mother was forever the victim of others’ scorn. The truth was people had better things to do than connive against a woman whose war was with herself.

Zulekha’s mother, like Zulekha, was once a head-turning beauty that no one believed was full-blooded Bengali. With skin as fair as Zulekha’s – many would argue fairer – and eyes the grey of a cloudy dawn, she had to be of mixed breed. Rumors floated when she was a child that her mother, Zulekha’s grandmother, had seduced the Brit in whose house she worked as a maid, in the absence of the man’s wife.

Truth was, neither Zulekha’s grandmother or her mother knew the secrets or the answers or the final word on any one matter; they made them up, and when they could no longer bear their own fabrications they grew hostile. The hostility got passed down from one generation to the next. It now weighed down on Zulekha, and she knew she had to crack it open to expose its empty innards and throw it to the winds. If Dulal was bad, he was bad. That was how he was created. Just as Zulekha was created with the blood mixture of her foremothers.

Zulekha had been staring at Dulal so long that he waved a hand in front of her face to break her out of her reverie. She was thinking, and she had also been staring at the mark on his forehead of regular prayer. She didn’t pray. She never would. That much had to be clear, if she and Dulal were ever going to amount to something. Prayer was a good thing, but it didn’t automatically make people good.

“Okay then,” she said. “I will go now.”

Dulal touched her shoulder as she turned.

“It’s very nice to walk over there,” he spoke. His voice was rich as a milky-sweet cup of fresh-brewed tea. Early morning wood-smoke lingered beneath the words. His Bengali was not the crude Bengali of the Dhaka streets. There was finesse in it, even better than the movies, because it was real. No one was telling him to speak that way.

It wasn’t a direct invitation or a question. His hand remained on her shoulder. Zulekha felt eyes on her, on them. They could be imaginary, they could be real. It didn’t take long for people in this city to go from minding their affairs to investing in the business of others with more opinions and conviction than they ever gave their own. Swarms of them were out there to pounce hungrily on the spectacle of someone else’s troubles.

 “You should talk more with that voice of yours,” she said. “Also, you have a very good eye for a man. The young mistress, she loves your gift. I would, too.”

Dulal gently pushed her on, down the stairs. Zulekha saw familiar faces. Three other maids from her building, bosom-friends with imaginations as nefarious as their wagging tongues. They saw her, too. And they saw Dulal, starting with his hand on her shoulder.

If people were going to talk, they were going to talk. Given the opportunity they would malign God.

Zulekha took Dulal’s hand in hers and walked into the crowd.

Nadeem Zaman was born in Dhaka, Bangladesh and grew up there and in Chicago. His work has appeared in Roanoke Review, Cha: An Asian Literary Journal, WinningWriters.com, Open Road Review, The Milo Review, The East Bay Review, The Coppefield Review, China Grove, Eastlit, 94 Creations, Dhaka Tribune, and Salon.com. His novel ‘In the Time of the Others’ will be published by Picador/Pan Macmillan in July 2018, and his short story collection ‘Days and Nights in the City’ by Bengal Lights Books in November 2018.

 

One accord by Bill Carr

I should go to a hospital. Maybe I would go if I knew where one was—and I knew how I got here. Right now I’m relying on these images I experience to poke holes in the black curtain that’s blocking my memory.

Here’s my latest image: I see a guy who’s lost his short-term memory running through a parking lot. Another guy keeps popping up from behind parked cars. The first guy isn’t sure whether he’s the chaser or the chasee. A bullet ricochets off the side door of a car he’s running past. Now he’s pretty sure he’s the one being chased.

My memory loss is far worse than short-term. But the environment I find myself in is positively idyllic. There’s a string of bungalows forming a horseshoe around the grassy field in which I’m standing. To my right is a wooded area with other bungalows, set more closely together, and a larger building, which I believe the owner said was the dining hall. To my left is a wide-open field. In the distance, at the end of the field, there’s a bunch of kids playing punch ball.

There is a parking lot here, but it’s not at all threatening. It’s got a bunch of old cars in surprisingly good condition. The bad news is that my car isn’t there. Not that I can remember what kind of car I have. But I’ve got my car keys and my wallet, so whatever happened to me was not the result of a robbery. The keys are for a Volkswagen. There’s not a single VW in the lot.

The bright side is that I seem to be in good health, I can read, and my powers of reasoning appear to be intact. My best guess as to what happened is that I had a car accident that left me with this hopefully temporary amnesia. Looking for help, I stumbled down the road and came upon this rustic retreat for antique car owners.

It seems like a good place for self-healing, but not without problems. For one, the proprietor is not that hospitable. He’s short and pudgy, goes around in an undershirt and shorts, and wears horn-rimmed glasses. I spoke to him in that tiny combination rental office and general store just off the dirt road as you enter. The name of this place is One Accord. According to my driver’s license and badge ID, I live and work in Marietta, Georgia. The cars in the parking lot all have New York license plates.

The rates are dirt-cheap. I tried to pay with a credit card. He looked at me as if I were crazy.

“Cash only,” he said brusquely. “One week in advance.”

Fortunately, I’ve got plenty of cash.

He took the twenty I handed him and held it up to the light. What was wrong with this guy?

“It’s good, it’s good,” I said.

“Kind of narrow.”

I looked at him as if he were crazy.

He practically threw a key at me. “Take bungalow eight,” he said, and then muttered, “I don’t know why I always fall for things like this.”

For the next week, at least I’ve got a roof over my head—barely. The cabins are primitive. No air conditioner, television, or dishwasher. There’s an ancient refrigerator and gas stove. I can’t say the appliances are in the kitchen, because there is no kitchen. There are two small bedrooms, a tiny bathroom, and a combination living room, dining room, and kitchen. Aside from the stove and refrigerator against the left wall, this combination room has just a couch, easy chair, and kitchen table with four chairs.

The surroundings, however, are beautiful. Look, if the weather holds up, I’ll spend most of my time outdoors.

There’s a punch ball game going on in a field to the right of the cabins. Behind the right fielder of the punch ball game, there’s a skinny little kid batting around a white tennis ball with a wooden, junior-size tennis racquet. The kid looks like he’s around six years old.

Almost like I’ve fallen into a trance, I get another image. It’s an image of someone who looks like this kid.

He’s a little older, but just as skinny. He’s in a bedroom, talking to a woman. The woman is short and stocky. She has dark hair. Her face has very fine features. She speaks to him in a gentle voice.

It’s like I’m in the room observing them. There are two windows to my right, overlooking a back yard. Another two windows are on the far wall, facing the second floor of another house very close by. Like my cabin, there’s not a lot of furniture in this room—a single bed to my right, a child’s desk and chair straight ahead, and another single bed and chest of drawers to my left. There are some boxes in bright wrapping paper on the chest.

“Can I open my presents now?” the kid pleads.

The setup in the apartment is strange. There are two bedrooms in back. A hallway leads to a good-sized kitchen. But there’s a formal dining room, with doors on either end, that these people are using as a bedroom. I guess it’s not that bad an idea. A hallway goes around this bedroom to the living room.

The woman smiles. “Do you think that’s right? Your birthday isn’t until tomorrow.”

“Just one,” the kid bargains. “The one from Uncle Steve.”

“Well, Uncle Steve won’t be here tomorrow for your party, so I guess it’s all right. But remember—just one.”

The kid obviously adores her, and now does so even more than before. He reaches up and takes the smallest box from the chest. He rips into the wrapping paper, tears open the box, and extracts the contents. It’s a kid’s baseball glove. He looks puzzled.

“What’s this?”

“It’s a glove,” she says.

“Where’s the other one?”

She smiles. “It’s a baseball glove.” The smile relaxes. “Uncle Steve thinks you’re a ballplayer.”

She walks out of the room. The kid still looks puzzled. He looks like he might start to cry, but holds back the tears. He’s done something to displease her, but doesn’t know what. He just wants some time to figure it out.

* * *

The kid in the field picks up the tennis ball and decides to investigate the punch ball game. I follow behind him.

The punch ball players look like they’re between nine and eleven years old. There are two women on the sidelines. They both are wearing sundresses. One is coaching at third base. The other is by the first base line trying to keep three and four-year-olds from running on the field.

The kid with the tennis racquet studies what’s going on. “Hey,” the shortstop yells, “you guys need an extra guy. Let the little kid play.” He starts laughing and then covers his mouth with his hand.

The woman by the first base line leans over and talks to the kid with the racquet. “Do you want to play?” she asks.

The kid shakes his head no. “Come on,” she cajoles, handing him a pink Spaldeen. “It’s fun. You just go up to the plate there and punch the ball as hard as you can.”

Reluctantly, the kid takes the Spaldeen and walks toward home plate. The shortstop waves all the outfielders in.

The outfielders are now almost even with the infielders.

“How about letting him use that tennis racquet?” the woman shouts.

“All right,” the first baseman says. “Why not?”

The kid steps up to the plate and gives the Spaldeen a whack with the racquet. The ball soars over the left fielder’s head. The kid stands there, watching the flight of the ball.

Pandemonium breaks loose. “Run to first! Run to first!” his teammates shout. He starts running toward third. The left fielder is chasing the ball. The woman by the first base line grabs the kid and pushes him in the direction of first. He barely beats the relay throw from the shortstop.

The next batter lines what should be a double to left, but the little kid stops at second. The following batter punches the ball in the gap in right center. The third base coach pleads with the kid to run to third, and then sends him home, “where you started.” The kid jumps on home plate, closely followed by two of his teammates.

After the game, I decide to go back and see how bad my cabin really is. The kid is running behind me. There’s a man, about forty years old, walking toward me. He’s wearing a polo shirt with orange and blue vertical stripes, and gray shorts. He’s a good-looking man with a thin moustache. He’s smoking a pipe. Even though he’s heavy around the midsection, he has an athletic gait and that suggests he might have once been quite slender.

The kid runs right past me. “Daddy,” he shouts, “I hit a home run.”

The man stops right near me. “Did he really?” he asks, looking at me.

He’s about 5’5″, about six inches shorter than I am. “Well,” I say, “he really gave that ball a whack and scored a run. It might have been a home run if his teammates had told him how to run the bases.”

The man chuckles. “Look,” he says, “the kid’s only seven years old.”

“I’m going to tell Mom,” the kid says, and runs off toward the cabins.

“You new here?” the man asks.

“Just stumbled in this morning.”

“Name’s Abe,” he says, extending his hand.

“My name’s Jon. J-O-N.”

“Hah,” he says. “Big Jon, Little Jon.”

I have no idea what he’s talking about.

“Where are you from, Jon?”

“I live in Marietta, Georgia.” At least that’s what it says on my driver’s license.

“Wow. You’re a long way from home.”

This pretty much confirms what I thought.

“And what kind of work do you do?” Abe asks.

The badge ID that I keep in my wallet helps me out here. “I work for a computer company.”

He looks puzzled. “You mean calculators?”

“No, computers.”

Abe studies me. “Wait a minute,” he says. “I saw that term in an article I just read. There’s a guy at the University of Pennsylvania who’s building this huge calculator. Might be good for the war effort. It calculates the trajectories of artillery shells. Same first name as you. Your last name isn’t Mauchly, is it?”

“No,” I say, smiling. But I’ve heard that name before.

We approach the cabin area. “You play softball?” Abe asks. “We have a men’s softball game this afternoon.”

“I can’t remember the last time I played softball.”

“Good,” Abe says, smiling. “We’ve got some guys in that same category.”

He stops in front of Cabin 18. “This is my bungalow,” he says. “You having lunch in the dining hall?”

“I think I paid for that.”

“You’ll sit at our table,” Abe says. “I’ll save a seat for you.”

* * *

As I walk toward the dining hall, I suddenly find myself in a tunnel. It looks more like the catacombs. It’s an enclosed archway, completely lined, walls and ceiling, with glassy black vacuum tubes. The inside of this machine does not have the cramped feeling I expected. The floor is about four feet wide, and the apex of the ceiling is a good foot-and-a-half from my head. Univac I. I knew there could be a little man in these things—maybe several little men—feverishly doing the calculations.

My first job. I worked for a company that publishes a news report on business automation. There are so many new announcements that some companies in the trade press claim the free lunches as a job benefit. I never met John Mauchly. I did meet his partner, Pres Eckert—J. Presper Eckert makes the Univac III press announcement. After the luncheon, after the stroll through Univac I, I ask him a question. He’s short, balding, and wears a brown suit. It’s a basic, straightforward question, but he seems nervous. Maybe he knows the game is really over. IBM says virtually nothing, but the word is that they’re building and selling computers like mad. Remington Rand Univac has blown its huge lead. Somehow it all went wrong.

As soon as I enter the dining hall, it’s obvious that Abe is running the show. In fact, Abe is the show. The room is not that large. There’s a string of tables placed end-to-end, in banquet fashion, in the center of the room. At the far end, Abe sits at the head of the table. Like box seats, there are single tables along each of the sidewalls. The guests seated opposite the walls at these tables have turned their chairs toward the center to watch Abe perform.

His humor is a combination of gentle bantering, jokes, and reminisces of the immigrant past. It’s an inclusive type of humor. He draws in not only those at the banquet table, but those at the single tables as well.

“Here he is,” he announces as I walk toward his table. He’s saved a seat for me immediately to his left. “Our newest arrival. Folks, say hello to Jon. Just stumbled in here this morning. His own words.”

“Was he drunk?” someone calls out.

“Well, if he was,” Abe says, “he’s sobered up. He’s kind of mysterious about how he got here and what kind of work he does. He might work for the OSS or be on some other secret mission… ”

I both wave to everyone and shake my head no.

“Anyway,” Abe goes on, “don’t ply him with a lot of questions. Remember: ‘Loose Lips Sink Ships.’”

I sit down at the table. Abe goes on to another routine, but I don’t hear him. Opposite me is the same woman I saw in my vision of the apartment.

I try not to stare, but I’m sure it’s the same person. She seems shy, thoughtful, perhaps a little aloof from the others the table. She laughs heartily at all of Abe’s jokes.

To her right is a slender, balding, softspoken man about the same age as Abe. The adults here appear to be between thirty-five and fifty, with either young kids or preteens. The kid next to the slender man is a freckle-faced blond, about nine years old. To my left is a plump, blonde, serene-looking woman. Next to her are two little girls, maybe seven and six. The younger one has the blondest hair I’ve ever seen.

Abe is on to softball now. “As you know,” he says, “the men’s softball game is at two o’clock this afternoon. For most of us, the only time we play is when we’re right here. But we all played as kids. The house I grew up in was right near a sandlot. After school, of course, we were all playing ball. But after school you had to have Torah instruction. Right?”

The men at the table chime their assent.

“You didn’t have a Hebrew school like you have today,” Abe continues. “You were taught by a melamed who came to your house. What’s the English word for melamed?”

“Teacher,” someone shouts.

“Tutor,” someone else suggests.

“Right. Tutor,” Abe says. “He came to your house to teach. But at that time, I didn’t want to be taught. I wanted to play ball.

“‘Abie!’ the melamed calls from our front porch. ‘Come inside now. It’s time for your lesson.’

“It just so happens I’m at bat. ‘Just a minute,’ I call back.

“Well, the melamed knows that a minute can turn into an hour, so he comes out to get me. I line a base hit to right center. You know, as a kid I was a fast runner. I didn’t have this corporation then.” He pats himself on the stomach. “So I tried to stretch that single into a double. When I approached second base, guess who’s waiting to tag me out?”

“The shortstop!” the nine-year-old calls out.

“You’re right, Ronnie. It was the shortstop. But there was someone else there.”

“The second baseman!” the little blonde girl shouts.

“That’s a good guess, Carol,” Abe says. “But the second baseman was in right center to make the relay throw. It was the melamed!”

A wave of laughter sweeps across the room. “The shortstop was waiting with the ball,” Abe goes on, “and the melamed was waiting with the prayer book. I slide into second and they both fall on top of me.”

Abe waits for the laughter to subside. “‘Abie,’ the melamed says, opening the book, ‘I want you to read this passage for me.’”

Some guests along the side get up and start to leave. “Hey, folks, don’t forget the baseball game today.” He looks toward the slender man to his right. “Jon, this is my friend Dave, and this is his wife, Edie.”

Dave stands up and shakes my hand, and the woman to my left smiles a hello.

“Dave,” Abe says, “against my better judgment, I’m going to let Jon be on your team. After all, we beat you guys pretty badly last week.”

* * *

The ball field looks quite different from this morning. Some of the men are taking batting practice. Others, in the field, are shagging flies and fielding grounders. There are plenty of women and kids behind the first and third baselines and behind the backstop. The men look out of shape, but that can be misleading. Dave is in center field shagging flies. He does not look out of shape. A pitcher’s best friend: a center fielder who runs down everything.

Dave sees me by the first baseline and comes running toward the infield. “Glad you could make it,” he says. “What position do you play?”

The words come tumbling out almost automatically. “Well, I can’t judge fly balls, and my throws from the infield have a curve that drive first basemen nuts. So if you need a pitcher, I’ll give it a try.”

“You’ve got it,” Dave says, handing me a glove. The glove seems incredibly small. “Don’t take this too seriously,” he adds. “It’s just a fun game.”

The pitching mound feels surprisingly comfortable. Left toe at the back of the rubber, right heel in front. Rotate the hips and fire. I like to throw my fastball low at the knees. It’s hard to get a softball to curve, but mine breaks a little. My favorite pitch is a change-up that I grip like an old-fashioned knuckleball. I try to float it in letter-high. It doesn’t dance at all, but it doesn’t rotate either. The batters who are transfixed by a pitch that has absolutely no rotation usually pop it up. For those who are not impressed, it’s bye-bye baseball.

The comfort of the mound is offset by antagonism toward the batter. The batter is the enemy. The batter must be defeated. He must be overwhelmed or tricked.

Abe comes to the plate. He’s playing first base for the other team. As I face him and he studies me, there’s nothing comedic about him. And I realize that somehow I’ve got the book on him. He thrives on knee-high fastballs. I try a belt-high fastball, but it goes inside. A curve doesn’t break and stays inside. I try the change-up, but it sails high. There is no way I’m going to walk this guy. I throw a knee-high fastball and he lines a rope into right center for a double.

After the game the two teams shake hands by the pitcher’s mound and walk off the field. “Hey,” Abe says, putting his arm around my shoulder, “where’d you learn to pitch like that?” Before I can answer, he says, “I know. You have no idea.”

As we walk off the field, I begin to think that I could really get to like this life. But I have to leave sometime, and I have this dilemma. Where in hell is my car?

I turn toward Abe. “I wonder if you could do me a favor.”

“Sure,” he says.

“Could you drive me down 209 for a bit? I think I left my car by the side of the road.”

“Did the car break down?”

“I’m not sure. Maybe I just ran out of gas.”

“If that’s all it is,” Abe says, “we can take care of that. Dave keeps a gallon of gas in his Chevy. That will get you into town so you can get your tank filled up.”

“I’d really appreciate that.”

“Just as long as you have your ration stamps,” Abe says.

Ration stamps? What kind of rationing? I seem to remember long gas lines, but no rationing.

“What kind of car is it?” Abe asks.

“A VW.”

“What’s that?”

I suspect I didn’t speak clearly. “A Volkswagen,” I say, a little louder.

Abe looks puzzled. “Isn’t that a German car?”

“Sure,” I say. This place is remote, but not that remote.

“Dave,” Abe calls out, “we’ve got a problem.”

Dave is on his way back to the cabins. He turns around and joins us.

“Dave,” Abe says, “Jon’s car either broke down last night or ran out of gas. He left it by the side of the road on 209.”

“Not a problem,” Dave says. “I keep a gallon— ”

“He’s driving a German car. A Volkswagen”

“That’s a problem,” Dave says. “Is it an old car—like an antique?”

“I don’t think so,” I reply. I like efficiency in cars. I can’t understand what the difficulty is.

Dave puts his hand to his chin. “If the owner of this place finds out, he’ll toss him right out of here.” He turns toward me. “Where did you get this car—this Volkswagen?”

“They sell them all over the U.S.”

Dave laughs. “I don’t think so.”

“I feel sorry for guys who have German cars,” Abe says. “Like Mercedes-Benzes. They’re good cars.”

“They’re for rich people,” Dave says. “Look, here’s an idea. Abe and I are leaving tomorrow afternoon. Why don’t you two take a drive down 209 now and see exactly where the car is? Tomorrow I can go with Jon and take a look at it. If it’s just a minor repair, or if it ran out of gas, we can take care of that. Afterward, Jon, I suggest that you drive that car home and keep it in your garage until the war is over.”

“He’s right,” Abe says. “Look, you seem like a good kid. Just don’t go around driving a German car.”

* * *

Abe and I are driving down Route 209 in his black 1936 Dodge. This is one cool car. It’s in amazing shape for a ’36. It’s even got running boards.

“Nice car,” I say.

“Well, it’s going to have to last us for a long time.”

I’ve decided to stop referring to these cars as antique cars. Everyone either looks offended or thinks I’m making a joke.

“What do you think of the newer models?” I ask.

Abe laughs. “Right now there are no newer models,” he says. “All manufacturers stopped making new cars for the public this year.”

Now this car situation is leaving me more confused than ever. I decide to concentrate on finding my own. So far there is no VW by the side of the road. Only countryside. This area is really rural. There’s an occasional farmhouse and lots of cornfields.

“How far are we from the town?” I ask.

“Only about a mile.”

“Let’s go back,” I say. “I wouldn’t have walked this far.”

At the next dirt-road intersection, Abe makes a U-turn. “Did I tell you that back home we just moved to new neighborhood?” he says, as we start back. It’s kind of weird. Abe talks to me like we’ve known each other all our lives. “New college, new high school, real good public schools,” he goes on. “Everything within walking distance. We live on the second floor of a three-family house. The only problem is the rent is higher than what we’ve been paying.”

“And the kids? How do they like the new neighborhood?”

Abe smiles. “Mixed,” he says. “I don’t know if you’ve met my daughter. She’s nine now. Very smart. And very social. She was devastated by the move. Forced to say goodbye to all her friends. But the little guy didn’t care at all. He doesn’t seem to have any friends. To him, the move was a big adventure.”

“Just out of curiosity,” I say, “in your apartment, is the dining room used as a third bedroom?”

He looks at me, astounded. “You’ve been there?”

“Maybe.”

He shakes his head. “I don’t see how you knew that. We set it up that way because Miriam thought each of the kids should have his own room.”

“And your friend Dave? Does he live nearby?”

“Dave lives in an area that’s not quite as upscale, but he’s in the good school district.”

“Sounds like you made a good move.”

“Maybe we did,” Abe says, smiling. “But how about you? Are you living within your means? Down there in the Deep South?”

“Well, I’ll tell you, I suspect the cost of living is a lot cheaper where I am than in the city.”

“We’ll never leave the city,” Abe says. “The problem is where in the city we should live. We can make it where we are now. We’ve cut down on our vacation expense. I’m slowly building up my practice. The problem is the future. Miriam wants to buy.”

“The house you’re living in now?”

“No. That’s a three-family, each floor with its own kitchen and bathroom. She wants a one-family. There’s a gray, foreboding house on the next block that’s been vacant for two years. Two years! The neighbors there call it the haunted house. We can get it at a very good price. Dave has looked at it and says the house is structurally sound. Miriam says a complete coat of white paint on the outside will do wonders for that house. She figures out that our monthly payments will be only a few dollars more than what we’re paying in rent now. And part of that payment, she says, will be to ourselves.”

“That’s true. You build up equity by owning. It’s even better if the house appreciates in value.”

“The problem,” Abe says, “is that I’ve never owned a house. We’ve always rented. And I’m not handy with repairs like Dave is. I’m a lawyer. And besides, I worry that if the new coat of paint magically makes the house look great, the city will reassesses it, and the taxes go sky-high. Property taxes are already high in our area.”

“Owning is always a risk. But if you can get a good deal… ”

“I agree with you,” Abe says. “If buying that house were the only problem, I’d go ahead and do it.”

Abe pauses. “Tell me,” he says, “Am I bombarding you with too many problems?”

“Not at all. I’m very interested.”

“The big problem,” Abe says, “the problem Miriam and I argue about most these days, is summer camp for the kids.”

“Are there camps around here? I mean, it seems like just farms. And a few bungalow colonies.”

“There are a few closer to the city. But they’re very expensive. Miriam claims she’s found one in Connecticut that’s quite reasonable.”

“But what’s wrong with the bungalow colony? This is so cheap. And there are plenty of kids here.”

“I’m going to invite you to attend our next argument,” Abe says. “That’s exactly what I told Miriam. But she’s worried about the little guy. Unlike his sister, my son has no friends. Miriam feels that if he’s in a structured environment, with an emphasis on sports, his teammates will be his friends. I mean, it’s not a bad theory. But how are we going to afford that?”

“What does Miriam say?”

“She says she’ll go to work.”

“And is that such a bad idea?”

“It’s a terrible idea,” Abe says. “I don’t want my wife working. Her job is to run the house and bring up the kids. She wants to work during the summer. She says with the kids away, there’s no need for her to be at home. She is a very proficient legal secretary. But working in those hot, sweaty offices in July and August? I don’t like it one bit.”

Ahead is the sign for One Accord. Abe makes a left onto the dirt road.

“Did you say you’re here only for the weekend?” I ask.

“Yes. Dave and I go back late tomorrow afternoon.”

“Do you ever stay on? Take some vacation?”

“Not these days,” Abe says. “Dave and I have to be at work tomorrow night at the Brooklyn Navy Yard.”

“Didn’t you say you were a lawyer?”

Abe pulls into the parking lot. He turns toward me and holds up two fingers.

“Two jobs,” he says, smiling. “Days in the office, nights in a defense plant. Don’t you know there’s a war going on?”

* * *

In the darkness of my cabin I’m a little nervous about going to sleep. The combination of mystery and serenity surrounding this place makes me uneasy. Then again, the freshness of the air here should be very conducive to sleep.

Tennis is on the schedule for tomorrow morning. Abe and Miriam have a regularly-scheduled game at 9:00 a.m. against Dave and Edie. Abe said Miriam loves tennis. Edie, however, usually tires after one set, and they have to look for someone to take her place. If I’m interested, Abe said, come by the courts around ten.

Although I’m having a good time during this sojourn, I suspect I may be making a mistake trying to figure out by myself what’s going on. The date on my driver’s license is November 1973, so it’s at least that date. My birthdate is November, 1935. This is the summer, so I’m at least thirty-seven years old. There’s a war going on, which is probably the Vietnam War. There’s a gasoline shortage, which must be the result of an oil embargo. I remember gasoline lines, but not gasoline rationing. Of course, I don’t remember too much of anything.

I suppose I should find out exactly what year it is. Actually, it’s not that easy to ask what year it is. “By the way, do you know what the current year is?” For some reason, I’m under enough suspicion for the type of car I own. I know tomorrow is Sunday. Abe, Dave, and all the other men go back to the city on Sunday. Since it’s the summer, it’s probably July or August. Judging by the afternoon heat, it feels like August. The speculation tires me and I fall into a deep sleep.

I awake in the morning feeling quite refreshed. Too refreshed. It’s ten minutes to ten and I said I’d meet Abe at the tennis courts at ten. I quickly get dressed, have some orange juice and a bowl of cold cereal, and set out for the courts.

The two courts are red clay, with an eight-foot cyclone fence behind the baselines. Dressed completely in white, Dave and Edie are at a bench on the sidelines, placing their racquets in wooden presses. No one else is at the courts.

Dave looks up as I approach. “Abe and Miriam couldn’t make it this morning,” he says. “But I can hit with you for a while. Edie’s a little tired. You can use her racquet.”

“Is everyone feeling okay?”

“Oh, yes,” Dave says. “No one’s sick or anything. Abe just has to get back to the city a little early. He’s going to leave before lunch.”

“I think I’ll pass on the tennis,” I say. “Thanks anyway. I want to say goodbye to Abe before he leaves.”

The door to Abe’s cabin is open. Inside, I see Abe sitting in the easy chair. His son sits on the floor, facing him. The kid looks stoical, but there are tears running down his cheeks. Abe is holding the kid’s hand.

To my amazement, I find that when I close my eyes I see the same image.

“Look,” Abe is saying. “I’ll be back next Friday night. It’s only five days. Grownups have fights with each other. They don’t throw any punches at each other—at least not yet. But they do get mad, and say things they wish they hadn’t. But after a few days, it’s all forgotten. Everything is back to normal. You’ll see.”

I turn away. I feel like I’m spying on a very private family conversation. I’ll catch Abe later before he leaves.

As I walk toward my cabin, I can’t stop thinking about the scene I just saw. Abe and Miriam had a fight. Because of that, Abe is leaving early.

I feel terrible. Abe was said the main thing he and Miriam argue about is money-related. I remember weighing in with some suggestions. I shouldn’t have done that. One really should avoid getting involved in married folks’ disputes.

I walk toward the ballfield, trying to clear my mind. Look, Abe is leaving this morning, Dave this afternoon. What’s the purpose of my staying here? I really should be getting back home. Maybe I can get a lift to the city with Abe, and take a train home.

When I get to Abe’s cabin, no one is there.

* * *

Without Abe, the dining hall at lunchtime seems somber, almost funereal. I try to make a few jokes, but my sense of humor is quite different from Abe’s. People laugh, sometimes out of politeness, and then seem to have a flash of doubt, as if wondering, “Was that really funny?” Some of the other men also try some jokes with the same lack of success. Everyone, it seems, comes up to Miriam to ask where Abe is. She tells them politely but succinctly that Abe had return to the city early. One woman presses onward, wanting to know why he had to go back. “Don’t worry,” Miriam says, a bit coolly, “he’ll be back Friday night to liven things up again.”

* * *

Miriam stands by the railing of the porch of her cabin, looking out toward the mountains. The way she wears her dark hair, tied back in a bun, seems to accentuate the fineness of her features. She waves to me as I approach.

“I’m really glad you came by,” she says. “Abe told me to be sure to tell you he said goodbye.”

“I came back here about a half hour before lunch,” I reply. “I must have just missed him.”

“He really likes you, you know.”

“Yeah. He said I was a good kid.”

She laughs. “Good kid? I mean, you’re probably only a few years younger than he is.”

“I guess so.”

She looks straight ahead. “He left early because we had a fight.”

“I know.”

This upsets her. “You know? Do you think everyone in this place knows?”

“No, I don’t think so,” I reply hastily. “When I came to the cabin earlier, I saw Abe telling your son why he was leaving. I didn’t want to intrude, so I just took a walk to the ballfield.”

“I hope you’re the only one who knows,” Miriam says. “It’s none of anyone else’s business. That busybody Ethel tried to find out at lunchtime why Abe left early.”

“I saw that. I thought you handled that very diplomatically.”

“Most of the men leave in the afternoon anyway,” Miriam says. “But Abe mentioned you were planning to stay the week.”

“I was. But this morning I decided maybe I should be getting back home. I was going to ask Abe if he could give me a lift to the city.”

“Well, it’s too bad you missed him,” Miriam says. “See if you can catch Dave before he leaves. I’m sure he’ll give you a lift.”

“That’s a good idea. By the way, I’d like to keep in contact with Abe. How do you spell your last name?” I’d never even found out their last name.

“Danielson,” Miriam says. “D-A-N-I-E-L-S-O-N. Just the way it sounds.”

“Same as mine.”

“Really?”

“Yes. You know, I thought I might even be related to your family.”

Miriam seems curious. “Did Abe ever tell you what we always fight about?”

“Over money?”

“It goes deeper than that. Most married couples, when they start having a family, when their income starts increasing, move to better neighborhoods, better school districts. We’ve moved three times since our first apartment. Abe has resisted every move we’ve made.”

“But he’s gone along with each one of them.”

“Reluctantly,” Miriam says. “I know what the problem is. Abe needs to be a big fish in a small puddle. He wants to be the trusted neighborhood lawyer: the person who not only can handle your legal problems, but make you laugh along the way so they don’t seem that serious. And do you know something?” she says earnestly. “I could go along with that. The problem is we have two children.”

“I hear they’re smart kids—especially your daughter.”

“They need to be in an educational environment that challenges them. And my son has some additional problems.”

“I saw him playing in a punch ball game.”

“Well,” Miriam says, “you must be a good influence on him. He’s never played in a game like that before. He has no friends and no confidence in himself. He just goes around with that little tennis racquet we gave him, batting that ball around.”

“Kids can change, you know.”

“I want to make sure he does,” Miriam says. “You know, the argument Abe and I had this morning was ridiculous. It was about summer camp for the kids, not so much for my daughter, but for my son. But it’s an issue that’s not going to happen for a couple of years at least, and we’re arguing about it now.”

* * *

Wearing his dark brown overcoat, Abe sits crying noiselessly on the third step from the bottom of a staircase. His wine-colored cane is on the stairs beside him. The stairs end in a landing; five more steps lead down to the kitchen.

It’s a large, one-family house. The staircase goes up to a bedroom floor. There’s another staircase that leads to a three-room attic apartment.

I remove the cane and sit down beside him on the step. He stops crying and looks at me as if to say, “What are you doing here?”

“You know,” I tell him, “it wouldn’t be such a terrible thing if you didn’t go into the office for one day.”

He doesn’t even consider the suggestion. “Don’t you have a press conference today?” he asks.

“That’s not until one o’clock. Look, why don’t you just spend the day relaxing? Maybe this morning we could take a drive on the Belt, like we used to.”

He tenses both hands on the edge of the step. “I’ve got to get into work,” he says. “Help me up.”

I’ve done this many times before, so I know just how to do it. I put my right arm around his back, well beneath his bad shoulder.

“Hoist,” he says, smiling at me.

As I help him down the stairs, his spirits seem to revive. “Did I tell you,” he says, “I’m thinking of spending a few weeks in Arizona? A guy I know at work went there and said he felt much better. They say it’s the dry air.”

* * *

Recalling the morning’s argument seems to sadden Miriam. “Don’t you already live in a very good school district?” I ask.

“We do. But we’re renting now. It makes no sense to go on renting. When the war is over, rentals are going to skyrocket, as will the buying prices. We’ve really got to buy now.”

“That sounds smart,” I say. “I know you can get a good buy on that house on the next block. But don’t you think you might be able to get a better deal in another neighborhood—maybe like the one where Dave and Edie live? I believe you’d still be in that good school district.”

She ponders this. “I’d have to think about that,” she says.

“And this summer camp idea. Couldn’t you get almost the same benefit by sending the kids to a day camp? I mean, being able to sleep at home would be a lot less traumatic for them.”

She studies me. “You may have something there,” she says.

* * *

Dave and I are driving south on Route 209 toward the city. It’s a sunny afternoon. We have the highway to ourselves; there are no other cars in either direction.

Dave graciously offered to give me a lift to a subway station in northern Manhattan. I’ll take the subway to Grand Central, and from there, catch a train back home.

Earlier, we said our goodbyes to Miriam, Edie, and all the kids, and started out in Dave’s black Chevrolet. The car is a couple of years older than Abe’s, but in immaculate condition, inside and out. It’s about four o’clock in the afternoon. As I gaze out at the countryside, I feel more relaxed than at any time since I found myself in this area. Dave always seems relaxed.

“By the way,” Dave asks, “should we still be on the lookout for your car?”

“I’ve decided there’s a good chance I might find the car parked right in my driveway when I get home.”

“The odds definitely favor your being right.”

We pass by a huge stretch of cornfields. “What kind of work do you do, Dave?” I ask. My guess is a high-school guidance counselor. If he’s a friend of Abe’s, however, he may be a lawyer. Corporate lawyer, I would say.

“I’m a bookmaker,” he responds.

“An accountant?” I realize I’ve reacted too automatically—and too naively.

Dave smiles. “I accept wagers from people who want to place bets with me. It’s an honorable profession in England. The problem is, you don’t want to be in England at this time.”

So. Abe’s best friend is a bookie.

“If you’re wondering if Abe fritters away his money placing bets with me, forget it,” Dave says. “Abe and his brother-in-law lost their shirts in the stock-market crash of 1929. That cured him of any serious gambling tendencies. Sometimes, on a hunch, he’ll bet a couple of dollars with me on a horse. He’s actually been pretty lucky.”

I’m glad to hear this, but “Does Not Compute” alarm bells go off in my head. Abe can’t be more than four or five years older than me. According to my driver’s license, I was born in 1935. That means Abe was doing some prenatal wheeling and dealing.

“Don’t you mean that Abe’s father was the one who lost the money?”

This time Dave laughs. “I’m sorry,” he says. “Abe’s father died young. He did not have a good life when he came to the U.S. He had trouble putting food on the table for his family. I’m sure the furthest thing from his mind was investing in the stock market.”

I begin to feel uneasy again. “Do you think they’ll be okay?” I ask.

“Who?”

“Abe and Miriam. They had a fight, you know. That’s the reason Abe left early.”

“I know that,” Dave says. “Of course they’ll be okay. Married couples have these spats all the time. It doesn’t mean they don’t love each other. They work things out. Edie is constantly after me to find a better profession. My feeling is this is what I do, I’m honest at it, and I’m good at it. Deep down, she understands.”

“It may be okay for you. But I’m worried about Abe.”

“There is no need to worry,” Dave says. “Abe will lead a good life. He will outlive his father by at least twenty years. And his children will outlive him by at least twenty years.”

“I’m not talking life expectancy. I’m talking psychological stress.”

“Look,” Dave says consolingly, “what are the measures of a good life? The first is to be a moral person. Second is to provide a good environment for your family—better than the one you had. Third is to achieve some success in your chosen profession. And a distant fourth, perhaps, is to attain some material comforts. Abe will achieve all those things.”

“But at what cost?” I reply. “I mean, to accomplish those things, no one has to be sacrificed.”

Dave’s face tenses, but he quickly regains his composure. “No one is being sacrificed,” he says quietly.

Silence. We continue down the highway.

“I had a talk with Miriam before we left,” I say quietly.

“About what?”

“About the need to go slowly on these expensive life-style changes they’re planning.”

“Like what?” Dave asks. There’s a tinge of confrontation in his tone.

“Well, for one thing, about this house they’re planning to buy in the upscale neighborhood. I mean, it’s a good idea to buy rather than rent, but not to overextend yourself much. I suggested that they instead look at something in your neighborhood. It’s still in that good school district. And day camp for the kids would be a lot less expensive than the sleepaway camp she’s considering. I think I pretty much had her convinced.”

Dave suddenly pulls over onto a stretch of grass by the side of the road. “Why are you stopping?” I ask.

He faces me directly. “You’ve given very foolish advice,” he says angrily. “Miriam will not like my neighborhood. The crime rate is higher there than in the one she’s looking at. And my neighborhood is right on the boundary of the good school district. School boards have a habit of manipulating those boundaries.”

Dave’s vehemence unnerves me. “Well, I mean, it was just a suggestion.”

“This is very important,” Dave says earnestly. “Important enough that I don’t mind getting home late. You’re going to go back to One Accord and un-convince her.”

“What?”

“I’m going to turn around and we’re going back.”

“This is crazy!” I shout. “I’m not going back there.”

Dave calmly grasps the floor stick shift, puts the car in first, and eases back onto the highway.

This stretch of Route 209 is very flat and very straight. About a mile ahead, toward the center of the road, I see two blinking blue lights. There’s a long line of cars in front of the lights.

“Roadblock ahead,” Dave says, slowing down and shifting into second. “Could you reach into the glove compartment and hand me the registration?”

I easily find the registration, but I have to laugh. It’s an old one—really old. Single font, typewriter style. Expiration date: December 31, 1943.

“Is there another one in here?” I ask.

“No, that’s the one.”

I laugh again. “Dave, you can’t show them that. It’s an antique registration—for an antique car.”

“What are you talking about?” Dave says. “It’s completely up-to-date.”

“All right. What’s today’s date?”

“It’s August 15, 1943.”

1943, I remember. That was the year my family vacationed in this area.

I start to panic. There’s a sea of old cars lined up around us now—in front, in back, on the other side of the roadblock—Chevies, Buicks, Dodges, Fords, De Sotos. Even some Hudsons. And old-style pickup trucks.

I try to calm down. There are several possible explanations. One is I’ve gone completely nuts. Or it’s a scam—a scam by a small-time bookmaker. Or it’s a dream. If it’s a dream, I’d be waking up, bolting up in my bed, sweating profusely. Only I’m sweating profusely and not waking up. If it’s a scam, it’s an elaborate one. For what purpose? And I don’t feel like I’m crazy, but that could quickly change.

Or I’m a time traveler. Time travel is like a dream, but without the luxury of waking up when things get out of hand. I’ve always believed that time travel could occur, but if it did happen to me, I’d search for some way to disprove it. Right now it’s the only explanation that makes sense: the antique cars, war talk, gasoline rationing, anti-German sentiment, the completely rural nature of this area. There are also certain rules of the road for time travel: You can’t say or do anything that will alter the cause and effect continuum. It’s like being in a museum: You can look, but not touch.

As we inch forward, I see the source of the delay. It’s a goldenrod-colored van parked on a grassy shoulder of the road. I am totally familiar with that car. It symbolizes the transition in aspiration from luxury car to functionality and enjoyment. Volkswagen Microbus. Conversion for camping by Westphalia. The description races through my mind like a commercial. Bench seat folds down to sleep two. Table extends from the side. Roof pops up to create a bed. Canvas cot stretches across the front seat to form a child’s bed. Sixty-six horsepower pancake engine that somehow manages to push that car up mountains on two continents.

As we inch closer, my heart sinks. A towtruck with a winch comes into view. The van looks like it’s been dredged up from a lake. There’s water still dripping down the sides. The top and sides are covered with mud. There’s a bunch of stones on the roof.

Dave suddenly makes a right turn onto a dirt road. He drives about a hundred yards, stops, and turns toward me.

“At these roadblocks,” he says, “they check the identification of both the driver and all passengers.”

“And… ”

“You’ve run out of viable options. Believe me, when they find you’re the owner of a strange German car with an obviously phony registration, they’ll throw you in jail and ask questions later.”

“You don’t understand,” I say, my voice cracking. “He went to Arizona and he felt better. He wrote and said he was walking without a cane. But he ran out of money and had to come back. I did nothing. I just watched and did nothing.”

“Look,” he says, “I know how you feel. The end is difficult for everyone, no matter how good a life one’s led. I know you tried to give Miriam good advice, but sometimes doing what seems to be right can have terrible consequences.”

I stare straight ahead.

“We can’t go back to the highway now and go the other way,” Dave says. “It will look too suspicious. This dirt road, however, does lead to a back way to One Accord. You have to go back there.”

“There is no way I’m going back,” I say adamantly.

“You’re a damn fool,” Dave says grimly, making a U-turn and heading back toward the highway. “You turned out to be a damn fool.”

 

Bill Carr’s short story “Exquisite Hoax” was published in the Scholars And Rogues online literary journal. His short story “Execute Eric Smith” was published in the East Bay Review. His work has also appeared in Menda City Review and The Penmen Review. He has had several articles published relative to online education and the computer industry. He has taken various courses with internationally known Shakespeare scholar Professor Bernard Grebanier, as well as Professors Marion Starling and Seymour Reiter.

Many of his stories, including “Transcendental Tours”, published in Menda City Review, and “Exquisite Hoax,” are satiric; others contain athletic themes. He has been ranked statewide (North Carolina) and sectionally (Southern) in senior divisions of the United States Tennis Association. He played industrial-league basketball for thirty years, including three overseas.

Carr received his master’s degree in English from Brooklyn College, and he currently serves as chairperson of the North Carolina B’nai B’rith Institute of Judaism.

Anthem by J. Paul Ross

The screams come and go in this place. They drift from every shadowed corner and every tomb-sized cell, and they bounce and deform through metal bars and hallways of concrete and stone. They mingle with the echo of patrolling boots and the clash of tapping batons and they dance amid each imprisoned groan whispered in fractured anguish and muted panic. There is no escape from their guilt-ridden chorus and here behind these walls, I have listened to them erupt from the mouths of sleeping men and I have heard them drown in fading gurgles. I have waited for them to collapse in the disjointed span of a final gasp and I have seen them go on and on at the turn of a knob and the crack of a spark. I have become an expert of their wailing pitch, their shrieking volume and their howling length, and when I am at home in bed, they linger in my ears, blurred and indistinct, and they serenade my dreams in a melody, distant and elusive.

But as the climax of our himno nacional soars throughout the prison, the yelps and cries have all stopped. The extremists and subversives and terrorists are motionless and silent, and like me, every guard is at attention, chins lifted, arms frozen in a proud salute. It is the morning ritual here and while the recorded trumpets blaze from high speakers, I must stand and ignore the throb in my knee and the tremble of my leg. I must clench my jaw and make sure I do not shift, do not give in because this pain is a memento of my service to our gran república. It is how I show the animals and monsters around me that I will fall before I quit, will die before I quit. I will wait until the last note has vanished and I am still at attention when the anthem ends and a whimper makes me turn to the naked ricachón being dragged past the guardhouse door, his limbs twitching, his fat lips mewling, “¡Por favor-por favor-por favor!”

I sneer because from the moment he arrived, I knew he was pampered and soft, and my stomach turned at the mere sight of him. His begging sounded across the exercise yard even before they removed his hood and I could tell instantly he had lived ambivalent and unaffected while patriots have bled and sacrificed for this country. That alone made him guilty and sighing amid the blubbering refrain of his tears, I move to my seat and resume my watch. I trace the catcalls of his fellow prisoners, the greetings of his fellow traitors and I take a deep breath at the clank of shutting doors and the unsettling return of the empty quiet.

“¡A la gran puchica!” Arcelio says, entering the guardhouse. “The rich pisado started crying like a niñita the second we took his clothes and made him stand there with his arms out. We never had to touch him. Can you believe it?”

“So he talked?”

Arcelio fingers his polished leather belt. “Well . . . no. Not yet. For the first hour, he just whined about how we’d made a mistake: how he was a businessman and not a comunista — the usual bullshit. After another hour or two though, he claimed to have no idea where his daughter was. He says he hasn’t spoken to her in months but I could tell he was lying. And if they’d let us take him downstairs we could—”

“We have our orders.”

“Well, those orders are a waste of time if you ask me. I mean, who cares if he has friends in high places or if he knew the last presidente? A traitor is a traitor, v’a’? I say we take his fat ass to the basement and strap him to the chair. One look at our little machine and—”

“Orders,” I repeat. “And believe me, I’m not happy about it either but they were very specific: no extreme measures. We’re to use an informant — namely, the indio from Sayaxché.”

“You’re kidding. Didn’t he confess to . . . What was it? Sabotage?”

“Sedition.”

“Same thing. Why would—”

“The file says the ricachón’s family had property in Petén,” I interrupt. “Maybe they’ll share a fond memory or two of walking in the mud for hours and sweating their asses off — that’s what I did up there. Personally, I agree with you; it’s a waste of time because you can’t trust indios. All they know is lies and the only thing worse than trusting one is turning your back on one. Mierda, if I learned anything in the army, it was—”

“Ah, but you’re not in the army anymore, vos. Remember? Besides, they gave us twenty-four days so maybe it’ll work out.”

“It won’t. Trust me.”

“You’d know better than I would,” he states, nodding and stroking his moustache. “I just wish I could’ve been there when you turned this indio. How’d you do it, by the way? Was it a threat of castration or did you use the one about violating him with a Coca-Cola bottle?”

“Neither,” I reply. “I merely gave him a choice: help us or lose the bottoms of his feet.”

“¡Madre de Dios, vos! You didn’t really tell him that, did you?”

At my shrug, Arcelio chuckles.

“How these zoquetes can keep fighting with so many gullible fools on their side is beyond me,” he proclaims. “I still remember the look on that one campesino’s face when you said you’d break the bottle in his ass after you finished raping him with it. I swear I’ve never seen anyone so eager to sign a confession . . . But I don’t know about this. An informant will take months, v’a’?”

“If not longer.”

“So what do we do in twenty-four days when he doesn’t talk?”

Again, I shrug.

“Well,” he says, “if we don’t have to put in too many late nights, I suppose I don’t really care — I have a new caspiana, see, and she gets upset when I’m . . .”

I stop listening because he can babble for hours about his romantic conquests, never realizing how annoying it is, never realizing how much it makes me question his commitment. He has only been here a few months and I do not fully trust him yet; he seems ignorant and shallow and more interested in drinking and parties than his job. And yes, I try to remember he is young and those are the things young people do. I try to forgive him for those things, those faults but when I start, I find that I cannot remember what it was like to be young. I cannot remember flirting with girls or bragging over cervezas. I cannot remember going to movies or dancing in cantinas or what it was like to live without the sounds of trumpets and screams.

I can only remember all these years of war, of La Violencia and of this struggle we cannot, must not, lose.

***

The room smells of fear sweat and urine, and as the indio goes on, I scowl at his ruddy face and try to forget the guerrillero in the Selva Petén who ruined my leg so long ago. He too was dirty, conniving and disloyal, and he too stared at me with dark, inscrutable eyes. He begged for his life with the same puling, illiterate accent and, unable to stand it anymore, I hit the table with my palm and growl, “What makes you think I care about the ricachón’s granddaughter, you shumo aguambado?”

“Nothing, señor,” sputters the indio. “It’s just . . . when he mentioned she was starting primary school, I thought—”

“Did I ask what you thought?”

“No, señor, I—”

“Then why are you doing this? You’ve been with him for almost two weeks. Do you really expect us to believe he hasn’t said anything of value?”

“I’m sorry, señor. I’m doing everything you told me to. He just won’t—”

“Bullshit,” I mutter. “You’re lying. We both know it. And one of these days . . . Ah, enough of this. Arcelio! ¡Vonós! Help me take this pedazo de mierda back to his cell.”

My fellow guard steps from the corner and hauls the traitor to his feet and once again, I mumble how none of these indios can be trusted. Eventually, we will have to find another tactic to get what we want and as I follow them out, I squeeze the handle of my baton and pray we have not wasted too much time on this scheme. I pray my superiors will not regret using this criminal because in the end, it will be the innocent who suffer. It will be their bodies strewn across the calles, their blood drenching the avenidas. I know this because I was there on the fifth of September and I have seen firsthand the pain these terrorists cause and the disorder in which they thrive. I saw the car bombs detonate outside the Palacio Nacional and I watched the smoke plumes of oil and gasoline pour into the sky. I smelled the burning flesh and heard the wails of misery and for hour after endless hour, I stood helpless and impotent.

For most of my life, my nation had been fighting but to me, those years of conflict were nothing but images on a television screen. I was a student and a civilian then and I too was ignorant and ambivalent. My thoughts were the selfish ones of a child but amid the wreckage of that day, amid the blare of sirens and the stench of death, I saw our flag standing above the Plaza de la Constitución. It was covered in soot, its edges were tattered but under the flap of its soiled colors, I saw the truth and understood what had to be done, what sacrifices had to be made.

We advance past checkpoints and down corridors and I find an uneasy sense of disquiet growing within me. The air is thick, the light is dim and, confined by mute echoes, I feel the shadows pacing just beyond the edges of my vision like they once did in the jungle. Within the cells, bodies shamble in the darkness, conversations are mouthed unheard and I move up behind the indio as he attempts to make himself crumpled and small. He is trying to seem injured, to seem harmless. He thinks he is fooling us, thinks we are all naive and when we stop in front of his cell, he turns and looks at me. He nods and tries to smile and I picture him cheering before his television on that day in September. I imagine him dancing and laughing at the remains of shredded women and babies, and I squeeze the baton even tighter.

***

A winter storm has crossed the low mountains to the south and it pries into my bones and assaults my knee in dull, throbbing pulses. It came in with charcoal clouds and raking thunder and hammering torrents of rain, and here in the interrogation room, the monotonous dripping of water falls to the rhythm of a ticking clock. It splashes unseen and pervasive over mold-slicked corners and along with the pain, it resurrects memories of patrols and battles and times when we did not play games with our enemies, times when we solved problems with machetes and hammers, a match to a roof or an emptied ammunition clip. The stink of mildew and rot is everywhere and at any moment, I expect to hear the grunts of howler monkeys and the crack of falling branches. I can almost feel the crush of leaves under my boots and relive the dread of stepping in the wrong place or missing the sniper in the trees.

Up in the guardhouse, the thunder vibrated the coffee on my desk but in the basement where I am, a gnawing stillness lingers. It coils around the flesh and it maneuvers and constricts across my aching limbs. The room stinks of cigarettes and nervous perspiration, and Arcelio has been ranting about tying the ricachón’s hands behind his back, lifting him off his feet by the wrists and leaving him there until his shoulders tear from the sockets.

He does not know what he is talking about but things can turn dangerous when the silence becomes heavy and I am thankful we have been told to separate the indio and the ricachón for it gives us something to do. The command is another useless ploy for our nation could be attacked again at any moment and we do not have time to coddle irrelevancies or contemplate lies from traitors. But I cannot disobey. After all, our informant has had three weeks to accomplish his mission and he has failed — as I always knew he would — and at precisely nine o’clock, I gather the other guards to do what our superiors have ordered.

We mount stairs and pass empty rooms and it is difficult to hear anything besides the storm’s distant turmoil. We continue to march though and soon the walls resonate with the tap-tap-tapping of our batons and a frantic hush consumes everything before us. The murmurs that once bounced like ricocheting bullets stall and I picture the inmates scrambling to hide, their bodies trembling, their hearts roaring in panic. This too is a ritual and we want them to cower at the slightest reverberant noise, to pray to the fissure of soiled light streaming beneath their doors and we want them to experience the same terror they relish, the same fear they have caused.

The entire section must pay for the indio’s failure and at the creak of unlocking gates and the thud of our boots, appeals for mercy fill the air. We open their cells one by one and at every turn of a key, the forlorn supplications climb and seep into one another. The inmates squint into the hard glare of the light and attempt to cover their faces. They shrink and huddle under their bunks. They grovel in corners and they howl when they are dragged into the open. Within seconds, I am unable to separate the curt shrieks from the labored wails as they implore and promise in ever-rising desperation. They declare both their innocence and their guilt. They denounce each other and attempt to scamper away like frightened dogs. It does not matter, for none of them will escape and the batons swing until the impact of wood against flesh and the smack of tissue slammed into concrete devour the calls for mercy. It continues from one end of the hall to the other and once there is no one left conscious, no one left to sob, I tap on the indio’s door and whisper his name.

***

For eight hours, a crescendo of shrieks and groans has sung throughout the prison; and for eight hours, the ricachón has seen and wept and tried to turn away. Bruises cover the indio’s swollen face. His teeth litter the floor and cigarette burns in the pattern of our flag dot his back. I have lost count of the fist strikes and the choking gasps of water vomited from straining lungs but for eight hours, the rich man has stood and witnessed and told us nothing.

The ricachón watched us put the indio in the iron chair and attach wires to his camarada’s ears, his nipples and finally to his cojones. He uttered a soft “No” when our little machine came to life with a hard click. He flinched at the surge and the hiss of the clamps searing into flesh. He winced when his friend’s muscles and tendons contorted, and he gagged on the reek of singeing hair floating from the indio’s lap. With each symphonic click and pulse and screeching roar of anguish, I asked a single question but the ricachón has refused to answer. For eight hours, the only sounds he made were the mewling of his tears and his wasted pleas for us to stop.

***

The ricachón cringes in the late afternoon sun and squirms in Arcelio’s hands. The sky is cloudless and the day is bright and before he collapsed, the indio has managed to stagger three entire meters without the soles of his feet. He twists, he screams and he tries to halt the spurts of blood from his limbs but every time his broken fingers caress the bare muscles, his body jerks and another scream churns from his throat.

Meandering trails of crimson stain the gravel and sand, and I throw the knife into the ground and slowly walk toward our informant. This squealing cockroach has cost me fifty quetzales and, gazing at his capering form, I think about how this is the way we should deal with all of our enemies. Instead of wasted effort on clever plots, we should have started with this. We should have shown the rich man what happens to traitors and anyone helping them. We should have shown him our mettle the first day, the first hour, the first second he arrived. We should have proven to him that we will never allow these animals to be victorious, will never again let car bombs obliterate innocent children or stand idly by as our country is humiliated.

The ricachón clenches his jaw but does not say anything. He does however, turn to me and glare. The look is almost a fearless one and I am preparing to snap his nose with the barrel of my pistol when a car pulls into the yard. Its license plates have been removed, its windows are dirty and opaque, and when a member of the judiciales opens the back door and nods to me, I chamber a round in my pistol and shoot the worthless, unneeded indio.

First in the legs . . .

Then in the head.

***

“Did you get that?” I ask.

Arcelio glances up from the floor. “What?”

“Did you get that?”

He hesitates, grimacing and nibbling his lip. “Yes, señor,” he finally sputters. “The Vargas plantation outside Champerico. She’s been there for at least seven weeks.”

I can barely hear him over the sobs and I wave to the body on the bloodstained concrete.

“We’re done,” I say. “Take him to the guardhouse so he can sign the confession.”

Arcelio continues to stand there. He is pale and I sigh and pat his shoulder.

“Don’t let this bother you,” I tell him. “This was his choice. He could’ve talked earlier but he didn’t. How long have we been at this and how many different answers has he given? A dozen? Two dozen? No. This was the only way and you heard him; he admitted his daughter’s a terrorist and he’s a traitor. This had to be done and because of it, we’ve probably saved lives. These animals are relentless and merciless and they are absolutely committed to killing us. Me. You. Your parents. Your caspianas. Trust me; I know them. And up in Champerico, his daughter could be doing anything: planning a kidnaping or another attack, building a bomb or perhaps something worse.”

He nods slowly and, fumbling with the handcuffs, he begins to drag the old man from the room. The ricachón begs to stay however; he shouts and weeps and he tries to crawl to me with useless promises flowing from his lips. It is pathetic and Arcelio curses and strikes the fat, pampered body. He repeatedly swings his baton and he turns the pleas to groans and mingles the blubbering tears with dripping blood. He then hauls the criminal down the corridor and soon the only things left are the scrapes of dragging feet and the occasional grunt of a distant kick.

The noises are almost pleasant ones to me for they mean our young Arcelio is learning. He is learning how every terrorist and subversive must be punished. He is learning that treason and indifference are the same thing and he is learning that every citizen must be a patriot in order for our gran república to survive. There are no half-measures in this war and that is why I stand every day and wait for our himno nacional to ring throughout these halls of concrete and stone. I will always take a deep breath and clench my jaw, and I will always maintain my stance until the very last verse has ended, the very last note has faded into the air. The throbbing in my knee, the tremble of my leg, these are things that must be endured because our nation deserves — indeed, it requires — nothing less. And so I lift my chin and level my shoulders. I ignore the stench of burnt flesh and the blood and tears on my boots. I ignore the monotonous drip of water oozing from the shadowed corners and as our anthem’s proud call swallows her unconscious whimpers, I ignore the ricachón’s granddaughter in the iron chair and raise my hand in a crisp salute.

 

J. Paul Ross is a Phi Alpha Theta graduate of Metropolitan State University of Denver and a Pushcart Prize nominee. His fiction has appeared in Border Crossing, The MacGuffin and Serving House Journal. Currently, he is working on a novel set along the Pan-American Highway.

El contemplador por Iván Medina Castro

IMG_5726
Photo by Jury S. Judge

A Pamela Martínez Olvera

Lo que se hace por amor

se hace siempre más allá

del bien y del mal.

Friedrich Nietzsche

Después de unos años me atreví a regresar al jardincillo donde era su cuartel, su casa, su universo. Pero no estuvo allí. Lo hice así cada mañana de la siguiente semana, al igual que los posteriores siete días y nada; empero en ese último intento, me aproximé como nunca antes a la banca en donde lo observé por última vez para holgar un rato. No obstante, en el fondo, deseaba tener la oportunidad de sentirme pleno, de ser él. Ya ahí, miré alrededor. Todo era suciedad, la base de la banca parecía estar cimentada sobre torrentes de basura y se respiraba un hedor acumulado, magro y picante, como el percibido en el verano en la terminal Berri-UQAM a la hora pico, mezcla entre sudor de sobaco y perfum, aliento fétido y pasta dental, a pesticida. Me dio náuseas, pero sobre toda esa porquería, el vidrio de la ventana del único emplazamiento a través de donde él imaginaba contemplar la pintura anhelada con una serenidad inviolable, cual esfinge milenaria sintiendo en sus desgastados tabiques el paso de la vida, había sido cubierto con propaganda de una compañía telefónica. La cosa más kitsch; un perro faldero vestido con una playera del equipo menor de la liga de hockey, que mordisqueaba un teléfono móvil de color amarillo canario simulando una conversación. ¡Vaya mierda!

¿Qué habrá sido de Pitú? Quizá vino la muerte sin despertar sospecha alguna, o tal vez, abrumado por la desgracia, la locura de su descabellado amor lo envolvió con lentitud abriéndose paso por la piel, los huesos, el corazón hasta extraviarlo por completo. Ignoro qué haya sido de él, pero he de constatar que gracias a Pitú comprendí la existencia del amor por más extraño que éste simule ser.

Apoderado por una densa oscuridad que adherida a las paredes del cerebro hacía improductiva mi creatividad pictórica, llené el atelier de mediocres bocetos y acuarelas que de sólo verlas de reojo sentía pena de mí mismo. Por tanto, obsesionado erré por los más distantes barrios de la ciudad frecuentando cafés, casas de citas e incluso sinagogas con la finalidad de generar una explosión creativa capaz de despejar la niebla. Así vagué hasta que un soleado domingo di con quien la disipó. Pitú, migrante de piel morisca y suave fisonomía cual ser andrógino, que cambió mi destino al representar involuntariamente el motivo de mi cuadro titulado El contemplador. El hallazgo fue circunstancial, pues exhausto de andar por las calles del Quartier Latin, decidí descansar en un jardincillo situado de frente al Musée des Beaux-Arts, tan cómodo y agradable como parecía serlo, desierto de homeless pidiendo monedas por el simple hecho de hacer sonar un pandero. Al buscar un espacio adonde sentarme, me encontré con una persona desgarbada que no dejaba de mirar dirección a la ventana del museo. Me intrigó su entrega y hundido porte, así que decidí examinarlo por largo tiempo y desde diferentes ángulos. Era una escena increíble, su posición nunca varió, siempre reclinado, con la cabeza ladeada, en una postura ensimismada capaz de transmitir congoja. Regresé al día siguiente y allí estaba él, posaba idénticamente que al mediodía anterior como si representara el papel de una escultura humana. Intrigado en saber lo que inquirían aquellos avivados ojos de un extraño resplandor magenta, entré al museo y me dirigí directamente a donde daba la ventana observada. ¿Cuál sería mi sorpresa? La sugerente luz que transponía el ventanal, se posaba con increíble exactitud en el retrato de la disoluta Anita Berber. Nada adquiría sentido, así que, tratando de dar coherencia a toda esta farsa, me paré de bajo de la ventana en diferentes puntos, y en todos ellos el haz posado en el cuadro avivaba el fondo de tonalidades rojizas simulando un fuego perenne, condenando los excesos en vida de aquella libertina, influencia indudable de los drag queen que salieran a mi encuentro de sus lúgubres madrigueras en mi deambular a las dos de la tarde de regreso a casa, obsequiando a los transeúntes kits con gelée lubrifiante et un condom extralubricado, o esas perversas meretrices de culo espléndido para sacudir y extremidades amplias para que el semen resbale a placer halladas en los tugurios de la rue Sainte-Catherine, hechizado por la trepidante luz grana y añil de cientos de bujías de los espectaculares que arrastran hasta su cloaca al más católico; si aún queda alguno en esta provincia -Dios quiera que no tenga una enfermedad.

Semejante ridículo debí estar haciendo que el vigilante se acercó a mí y en tono burlón dijo con una mezcla entre inglés y francés: “No será usted otro lunático enamorado de la fea esa, verdad”. Seguí sin entender. Me quedé un momento en suspenso, e inmediatamente después le pedí al tipo aquel, con apariencia de arponero polinesio del Queequeg una explicación. El tipejo, sin emitir palabra alguna, sacó de la bolsa interior de su uniforme un periódico de esos carentes de información que se reparten de manera gratuita en el metro, lo abrió hasta dar con un artículo que indicó con su mugrosa y larga uña, dio media vuelta y desapareció de allí. Fue así como la incógnita se solucionó. Resulta, según se leía en el diario, que un residente del barrio de Hochelaga-Maisonneuve, esclavizado a sus costumbres, siempre visitaba el museo desde la apertura hasta el cierre para embelesarse con un cuadro del pintor Otto Dix, y en un ataque irracional, el joven de nombre Pitú, se deshizo de sus pantalones y presentando una prominente erección al contemplar a la modelo, se empezó a jalar el incircuncidado cuero de allá para acá y patín patatán…. -¿Habrá logrado eyacular?- fue lo único que pensé al terminar de leer la nota.

La tarde siguiente regresé al jardincillo y allí estaba él, como lo estaría los demás días al ir a pintarlo, congelado, incólume ante el viento, el sol, la lluvia y el polvo. Siempre mirando al Este, hacia su hurí, como un fiel dirigiendo sus plegarias a la Meca.

El primer intento en abordar a Pitú fue en vano y en momentos aterrador, cada línea plasmada en el lienzo parecía retener el aliento que él expelía. Su presencia melancólica, sus motivos incomprensibles, su estado petrificado me inhabilitaba pero aun así continué ensayando en bocetos con la desesperación de un minero por hallar la veta. De pronto, los sutiles trazos nacían hasta que el pincel adquirió vida propia. Al final, mis horas de esfuerzo se compensaron anteponiéndome a la tragedia de Pitú, si bien capté la mirada dulce, celestial en verdad, con un dejo de tristeza, su apariencia plegada, pensativa y sobre cualquier otra cosa esa ilusión de una juventud eterna e inquebrantable entregada a sus ideales de pleno amor, la verdadera persona, la parte humana, se achicaba de una manera continua y lenta. Ser testigo de su empequeñecimiento me cortó el resuello más de una ocasión, sin embargo, persistí ante el embate, y decidí sumergirme dentro del vértigo y el frenesí de semejante reto, pues al retratarlo al óleo, no sólo creí redimirlo, sino sentí liberar a la humanidad de su tragedia saturada de frustración, desastre, futilidad, vacío y mal humor. Todos muertos o a punto de morir.

El resultado del contemplador, con el tiempo, pasó a formar parte de la colección de obras permanentes del Museo de Bellas Artes. Y será cosa de la justicia divina, de Cupido o del más puro azar, pero la pintura se colocó justamente en el muro frontal en donde el cuadro de Dix descansa, de bajo de la ventana, para que así, Pitú siga contemplando a su único amor.


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Iván Medina Castro, nació en la Ciudad de México. Es Licenciatura en Relaciones Internacionales. Fue becario del Programa de Residencias Artísticas FONCA-CONACYT, fue Convocado por el Departamento de Literatura de la Universidad de Caldas, Colombia para participar en una ponencia sobre el proceso creativo en la literatura y en marzo del año 2013, fue Convocado por The Department of World Languages and Cultures de la Universidad Northeastern de Illinois para la lectura de su libro de cuentos “En cualquier lugar fuera de este mundo” Ed. Conaculta, colección El Guardagujas. Cursó la especialización en Literatura Mexicana del Siglo XX en la UAM.

Islandia por Dante Herrera

Photo by Danny Zawodny
Photo by Danny Zawodny

Aquella tarde, sentado en el café de la estación, la vi llegar cubierta por el lento sol del hemisferio. Entró agitada, libró su cabello de las trenzas de lana y ordenó una bebida caliente. Afuera nevaba. El vapor de las tazas adormecía la percepción de los objetos y provocaba la contemplación. Incitado por esa neblina y por el crujir de la madera, estuve a punto de resolver el enigma de un sueño antiguo y cerré los ojos, tratando de alcanzar con mi pensamiento el extremo de un  hilo que alguien parecía tirar más lejos de mí.

El frío era profundo, pero la nieve arrojaba a la vista una textura láctea que producía placer. La gente bajaba de los trenes y rápidamente buscaba refugio en el interior del establecimiento. Ella bebía. Sola en su mesa, su chaqueta roja recibía un manojo de su cabello escandinavo, que acariciaba suavemente. Puse a un lado el libro que traía conmigo, busqué en mis bolsillos una libreta y decidí escribir algo que también hubiese escrito veinte años atrás en la misma circunstancia. La miré una vez más; luego, mentalmente la sostuve en mi palma, como si posara para la mano de un artista. Escribí:

Unos días después, andando por la calle, se acercó. Tímidamente me preguntó por una dirección. Yo respondí que podía acompañarla pues iba al mismo lugar. Hablamos un poco; su voz era trémula, sus ojos, inciertos. Mi edad me sugirió que le agradaba. Entonces, luego de unos minutos,  arriesgué un movimiento que jamás había ejecutado con una mujer desconocida. Caminando juntos tomé su mano. Ella no se resistió, y en una fracción de segundo, se abrió un paisaje ante mis ojos: su cuerpo fragante, noches de ternura, promesas al pie de una ventana, flores intensas y flores frías.

Pasó poco tiempo desde aquella tarde en el café, cuando, asfixiado por el insomnio y la ansiedad, salí una mañana a comprar cigarrillos. Me dirigí por primera vez a una tienda a dos cuadras de mi casa, la cual había desdeñado siempre por su color estridente y ventanas escarlata. Aún entumecido por el frío polar me acerqué a caja para pagar por mis compras y ella me atendió. La reconocí sin dificultad. Desde una habitación menor una voz gruesa la llamó por su nombre, Liska, y respondió cariñosamente. Supe entonces cómo se llamaba y también que su corazón no era un astro inhabitado.

Un poco decepcionado me senté a contemplar la nieve detrás de mi ventana. Un niño caminaba solo por la calle golpeando con un palo los postes de luz. Recordé las anotaciones de mi libreta la tarde en que descubrí a Liska en la estación del tren. Leí la primera oración: “Unos días después, andando por la calle, se acercó”. Proseguí con el resto y al terminar, pensé en lo terrible de persistir, a mis casi cincuenta años, en las fantasías de la juventud.

Agotado por el frío y las extensas jornadas, una noche ausculté mis ahorros y descubrí que podía darle a mi rutina un pequeño descanso. Hablé por teléfono con un viejo amigo que vivía en Viena y le propuse visitarlo. Armando accedió de inmediato pues, según me contó, su madre había muerto hace poco y estaba muy deprimido.

Una semana más tarde llegué de madrugada luego de un vuelo corrompido por un sueño violento. Sin embargo, ya instalado en el apartamento de mi amigo, me sentí optimista otra vez. Ese mismo día salimos a caminar por las plazas donde, años atrás, siendo estudiantes, habíamos pasado horas considerando las semejanzas entre nuestros países, observando mujeres e improvisando poemas cuando alguna nos parecía excepcionalmente hermosa.

La ciudad no me era extraña, de modo que los días en que él tenía alguna obligación en la oficina, yo andaba a mi aire por las calles, entraba a los cafés, a las librerías, o asistía a algún concierto. El haber sido un solitario por tantos años me daba la dignidad de hacer aquello sin sentirme ridículo.

Una mañana en que Armando tuvo que ausentarse por dos días, desayuné tarde y salí después de las diez. Al cabo de una hora caminando por el centro una voz me preguntó por una dirección. Volteé para responder. Era Liska. Contuve mi sorpresa y asentí serenamente. Le dije que iba al mismo lugar y que podía acompañarla. Me pregunté qué haría ella en Viena, pero consideré averiguarlo más adelante.

Me miró con algo de intensidad pero también con tristeza. Su rostro parecía un paisaje nocturno en busca de luz. Inicié una conversación trivial mientras pensaba que aquellas líneas que había escrito en el café semanas atrás empezaban a materializarse. Ella se me había acercado, era cierto, y por qué no pensar que lo había hecho porque le agradaba.

Pocos minutos después sacó una mano de su abrigo para ajustarse las gafas y noté que tenía unos cortes. Le pregunté delicadamente si no querría pasar por una farmacia. Me dijo que ya los había curado, que estaban sanando. Pero al cabo de un segundo de responderme su rostro cambió; luego, se quebró. La sostuve del brazo y la llevé a sentarse en una banca. Tras un silencio profuso en lágrimas, me contó que eran rastros de una pelea conyugal, que se había defendido tenazmente y que su cuerpo tenía otras marcas, más íntimas, más vergonzantes.

Mi corazón palpitaba con fuerza y ella trataba de sosegar su propia agitación. Noté en sus ojos ya no tristeza sino rencor, y un color indescifrable que se abría paso en sus pupilas. Temblando un poco aún, alcancé a comprender que la realidad me cercaba para consumar la ficción. Entonces, con la seguridad de quien cumple una profecía, la tomé de la mano y la conduje por un pasaje hacia una fuente. Ya sereno, acaricié su cabello, hundí mis ojos en los suyos,  y  pensé que un beso era aquello que el universo me pedía.

Lo que pasó después no puedo explicarlo, ni menos comprenderlo. El horror y la vergüenza me amordazan. Pero dejo a la vista la nota que mi amigo -atónito ante la escena- leyó de regreso en su apartamento, aquella que no pude haber escrito, pero existe:

Probé sus labios a la sombra de un manzano. Luego decidimos estar a solas y caminamos al apartamento. Anochecía. Un ave fatal cantó tres veces mientras subíamos las escaleras. Cerré la puerta detrás de mí, y sentí que una fragancia oscura se esparcía por el aire. De pronto tuve miedo, pero ya era tarde cuando quise reaccionar: Liska había hundido una daga en mi abdomen.

Caí vencido por el dolor y el absurdo. Me arrastré hasta la habitación donde había dejado mis cuadernos mientras oía unos pasos alejarse. Hallé la página correcta y leí las primeras palabras que escribí sobre ella, cuando aún desconocía su nombre. La herida apretó su puño y no me dejó continuar. Tendido en el suelo, sangrante, pensé en la muerte, y mi pensamiento logró alcanzar el extremo de un hilo que conduce a la última respuesta.


Dante Herrera es un escritor y educador radicado en el Perú. Ha publicado dos libros de poemas y actualmente se encuentra escribiendo un libro de relatos.
Dante Herrera es un escritor y educador radicado en el Perú. Ha publicado dos libros de poemas y actualmente se encuentra escribiendo un libro de relatos.

El Maestro Liador por Christian Ekvall

Photo by Bernardo García
Photo by Bernardo García

Malmö, Suecia, 2006

Era solamente bueno para hacer dos cosas, decía. Liar porros y jugar al pinball. Cuando liaba, incluso los fumadores con más experiencia se sentaban con la boca abierta, haciendo un círculo alrededor de él. Ellos habían liado durante veinte años y nunca habían logrado una cosa parecida. No comprendían cómo era posible. Los porros de este hombre eran demasiado bellos par ser fumados. La gente se atrevía apenas a tenerlos en la mano. Tan bien formados, tan bien sellados. Pensaban que deberían más bien ser expuestos en una galería o algo por el estilo.

La técnica de los dedos era en sí algo inaudito. Te preguntabas si él habría sido marionetista en otra vida. Si alguien fumaba chocolate en una película, a él lo contrataban como doble para las manos. Es decir que él debía liar pero se filmaban solamente sus manos. A continuación se subía a la escena para hacer creer que se trataba de las manos del actor. Pero todos los que lo conocían habrían reconocido esas manos, incluso en la película independiente más granulada. Esas manos, las habíais observado atentamente tantas veces.

Si era el cumpleaños de alguien o si alguien obtuvo un nuevo puesto de trabajo, él sacaba sus hojas de lujo. Eran hojas largas, sólidas, color castaña, aquéllas que se utilizan para los puros, pero que tenían un delicioso perfume a chocolate. Si se sentía ese olor al entrar en el apartamento, se sabía que él estaba de buen humor. Lo mismo si se veía un paquete de zumo de mango alemán sobre la mesa.

Tenía una actitud extraña frente al dinero. Podía tener cuatro meses de retraso de alquiler, recibir un cheque de cuatro cientas coronas de la Oficina de los compositores suecos, e ir directamente a comprarse una escopeta de aire comprimido que había visto en una vitrina. Podía guardar sus últimas dos cientas coronas esperando febrilmente la más fina cosecha de té que venía de la China. Cuando él decía té, la gente primero pensaba que hablaba de hierba. Pero realmente hablaba de té.

Cuando llegaba a una fiesta, siempre era muy tarde. La mayoría de los invitados ya se habían ido. Él tenía la costumbre de traer una compilación de música en la que había trabajado toda la tarde y que contenía todo desde bandas de chicas desconocidas, a Howlin’ Wolf y Hawkwind. Cuando hablaba de algo que le gustaba, lo hacía rápidamente, sus ojos brillando intensamente y era imposible detenerlo. Una vez, lo viste hablar de este modo durante mucho tiempo sin darse cuenta de que la persona a quien le hablaba se había quedado dormida.

Antes, decía, tenía la costumbre de pelearse a puñetazos. Ahora se había calmado. Sobre su frigorífico, había un artículo de un periódico de Glasgow sobre “dos ladrones de terreno de golf” que habían robado un coche de golf dañando el terreno con las ruedas, para finalmente lanzar el coche por un precipicio. Nadie tuvo la necesidad de preguntarle por qué había recortado ese artículo.

Pero todavía se excedía de vez en cuando. Podía acusar violentamente a un desconocido de mirar pornografía o, lo peor, según él, de depositar dinero en fondos. Podía lanzar los discos “detestables” por la ventana, y no siempre eran los discos de otros. Podía “tomar prestada” una palmera de dos metros después de una fiesta, sólo para ver si el anfitrión se atrevería a acusarlo de ladrón cuando viera, más tarde, la misma palmera en su casa. También podía ponerse a llorar. En medio de una fiesta.

A veces pasaban cosas extrañas, por ejemplo que viniera a una fiesta con la chaqueta cubierta de excrementos, y seriamente enfadado con algún incidente que él nunca lograba contar de manera satisfactoria.

Vosotros, a quienes os gustaba fiestear con él, todos habéis escuchado de la boca de un asistente social que érais “cómplices”. Cuando más tarde estaba sobrio, intentábais reflexionar sobre eso, tomando una Coca-Cola igual que él para no parecer insensibles. Él pensaba que eso era ridículo de vuestra parte.

Se decía que trabajaba como asistente de ancianos. Que era muy querido por los viejos. Que había una viuda en alguna parte cuyo marido había sido un coleccionista de jazz, y que ellos solían escuchar sus discos cuando él venía a ayudarla con sus medicamentos y las gotas oftálmicas para la catarata. Según el rumor, se quedaba allí cada vez hasta más tarde. Ellos escuchaban a Coltrane y él tenía cada vez menos tiempo para los otros ancianos. Al final, se decía que él ya no se molestaba de verla más que ella, y que sigió yendo mucho después de haber sido despedido.

Lo que se decía de que sólo tenía dos talentos no era del todo cierto. Según algunas fuentes, habría sido bastante buen cocinero. Según otros él habría tocado en varios grupos de rock cuyos nombres conocías y que eran famosos internacionalmente, cuando aún era joven y vivía en Norrland. Todo el mundo estaba impresionado por su cocina. Algunos decían que era buen nadador. Quizás, como por casualidad, él pertenecía a la categoría de la gente que no sabe realizar sus talentos.

Tenía grandes complejos debido a su ortografía. Por esa razón, todavía llamaba por teléfono a pesar del hecho de que todos los demás habían pasado a los mensajes de texto. Las únicas veces que escribía mensajes de texto, era cuando alguien no respondía al móvil, generalmente porque la persona dormía mientras él estaba todavía en la ciudad, a las cinco de la mañana. En esos momentos, podía escribir cosas largas e incoherentes y de repente, ya no parecía preocuparse por las faltas de ortografía o por su gramática. Pero a todo el mundo le daba igual su ortografía. La gente lo quería. En realidad, no había nadie que no lo quisiera.

Tenía dos talentos, decía. Liaba los porros más bellos de Malmö. Pero si era bueno o no en el pinball, eso nadie lo sabía

Traducido por: Oskar Sévérac

 

Malmö, Sweden, 2006

He only had two talents, he said. Rolling joints and playing pinball. Whenever he was rolling, even the most experienced smokers would form a circle around him, staring. They had been rolling for twenty years and still had never seen anything like it. How was it possible? This guy’s joints were too beautiful to smoke. People barely dared to hold them. So well-crafted, so tight. Like they ought to be exhibited.

The finger work in itself was a sight to behold. It made you wonder if maybe he could have made it as a puppeteer. If someone was going to smoke weed in a film, he was hired as a hand-double. He was to roll the joint while they shot only his hands, and then the scene would be edited in a way so that it looked like his were the hands of the character. But anyone who knew him would recognize those hands even in the most granular indie flick. They had been stared at so many times.

If it was somebody’s birthday or if someone had just landed a new job, he would take out the “special” papers. They were those long, thick and brown ones also used for cigars – but flavoured with chocolate or something equally sweet. If you could smell that scent when you entered the apartment – or if you saw a half-full mango juice Tetra Pak standing around – you knew that he would be in a good mood.

With all the poor musicians and writers and artists you’ve known, you’ve seen many strange financial decisions being made. Like when the guitarist of your band received a royalty check of four hundred kronor and went straight to the op-shop to buy himself an air-gun. Now, this guy was stranger than that. He would save his last two hundred when he learned that the finest yield of tea was coming in from China. When he said tea, of course, people thought he was talking about weed. But he was really talking about tea.

He always arrived very late to parties. Most of the guests had already gone home. He would bring a mixed CD containing everything from obscure girl groups to Howlin’ Wolf and Hawkwind. When he talked about something he enjoyed, his eyes would sparkle intensely and he could not be silenced. Once, you saw him talk like this for some twenty minutes without ever noticing that the person next to him was asleep.

In the old days, he said, he would get into trouble. Now he had calmed down. On his refrigerator was a news item from a Glasgow paper telling the story about the two “golf course raiders” who had stolen a golf cart and run amok over the course, finally pushing it over the edge of a cliff. There was no need for anyone to ask why it sat on his fridge.

There were still moments when things would get out of hand. Sometimes he would violently start accusing a stranger of being obsessed with porn, or worse, holding an endowment assurance; both things, accidentally, having been said about the guy who had stolen his girlfriend. Sometimes he would start throwing “hideous” records out the window; often but not always his own records. Or he would “borrow” a two-meter palm tree when leaving a party, just to see if the host would dare to confront him the day he spotted the tree at his house. He would also sometimes start crying, suddenly and openly, in the middle of a party.

Even stranger things would happen. Once he arrived to a party with his jacket covered in feces, all pissed off over some incident on his way there that he never managed to recount in a satisfactory way.

You who enjoyed partying with him were occasionally told by some social worker that you were “enablers”. Later, when he got sober, you tried to keep this in mind and ordered a coke when he did in order to not be insensitive. He thought that was silly.

They said he worked in geriatric care. That the old people were very fond of him. That there was a widow somewhere whose husband had been a jazz collector and whose records they used to play when he came to help her with the medications and the eye drops for her cataract. Rumour had it that he kept staying longer and longer with her in the afternoons. They had been sitting there listening to Coltrane and his visits to the other old men and ladies had become less frequent every day. In the end, he couldn’t be bothered to visit anyone but her, and he kept doing that long after he got fired.

That thing about rolling joints and pinball being his only talents was not entirely true.  Some said he had once, as a young man up north, played in several groups that you knew by name and one of which had later become world known. Everyone was impressed with his cooking skills. Some said he was a fantastic swimmer.  Maybe he just happened to fall into that category of people who don’t know how to realise their talents.

He had a complex about his bad spelling. So he would always call when everybody else had moved on to text messages. The only time he texted was when someone didn’t answer the phone, normally because they were sleeping while he was out blind drunk at five in the morning. Then he would write something long and incoherent and suddenly didn’t seem to care at all about his bad spelling or grammar.  Who the hell cared if he could spell or not? People liked him. You can’t remember one person who said they didn’t like him.

He only had two talents, he said. His joints were the most beautiful in town. How good he was at pinball, no one knew.


Christian Ekvall (nacido en 1978) es un traductor, escritor y músico sueco que ha crecido en una pequeña isla del mar Báltico. En el año 1999, fundó el grupo de música psicodélica Octopus Ride, todavía activo. Seis años más tarde, concluyó sus estudios de maestría en Escritura Creativa en la Universidad de Lund, y luego se mudó temporalmente en la Argentina, donde comenzó a trabajar como traductor de ficción. Tradujo, entre otros, El gran Gatsby, de F. Scott Fitzgerald, obras de Djuna Barnes, Woody Allen, Lewis Carroll y la mayor parte de las novelas de Ernest Hemingway. Trabajos de su autoría fueron publicados en las prestigiosas revistas suecas Subaltern y Staden.
Christian Ekvall (nacido en 1978) es un traductor, escritor y músico sueco que ha crecido en una pequeña isla del mar Báltico. En el año 1999, fundó el grupo de música psicodélica Octopus Ride, todavía activo. Seis años más tarde, concluyó sus estudios de maestría en Escritura Creativa en la Universidad de Lund, y luego se mudó temporalmente en la Argentina, donde comenzó a trabajar como traductor de ficción. Tradujo, entre otros, El gran Gatsby, de F. Scott Fitzgerald, obras de Djuna Barnes, Woody Allen, Lewis Carroll y la mayor parte de las novelas de Ernest Hemingway. Trabajos de su autoría fueron publicados en las prestigiosas revistas suecas Subaltern y Staden.