Authors: Juan de Recacoechea
Critical Praise forAmerican Visa
“Dark and quirky, a revealing excursion to a place over which âthe gringos' to the north always loom.”
âNew York Times Book Review
“Harrowing and hilarious.”
“Beautifully written, atmospheric, and stylish in the manner of Chandler . . . a smart, exotic crime fiction offering.”
âGeorge Pelecanos, author ofThe Turnaround
“Near-broke, provincial, middle-aged Mario Alvarez seems a bit like an older, only slightly wiser, but oddly more likable Holden Caulfield . . . A serious novel made palatable by humor as dry as the Andean uplands in which it is set.”
“This is a thriller with a social conscience, a contemporary noir with lots of humor and flair. The streets of La Paz have never looked so alive. This is one of the best Latin American novels of the last fifteen years.”
âEdmundo Paz SoldÃ¡n, author ofTuring's Delirium
“A winning tale . . . Recacoechea makes Alvarez's crime less a puzzle than an intriguing window onto a society on the fringes of globalization.”
“Recacoechea's novel is set in La Paz, Bolivia but its black-humored lines . . . come straight from noirland.”
âWashington City Paper
“American Visais a stunning literary achievement. It is insightful and poignant, a book every thoughtful American should read, and once read, read again.”
âWilliam Heffernan, Edgar Awardâwinning author ofThe Corsican
“Recacoechea's tale of a down-on-his-luck everyman is certainly gritty, but it's enlivened with enough comedy to keep it from feeling hopeless.”
“De Recacoechea celebrates the hybrid in ethnicity and culture, and he does it without reverence or even respect, blending absurdity with harsh realism to tell a surprising story of roots and finding home.”
“Quite possibly Bolivia's baddest-ass book . . .American Visashows La Paz, despite its altitude, is no place for the light-headed, nor the easily swayed. It shows, too, that a place not our own need not be taken for granted.”
“Mario Alvarez is tremendous, an everyman desperate to escape Bolivia's despair who can't elude his own tricks of self-sabotage. At a time when the debate around U.S. immigration reduces many people around the world to caricatures, this singular and provocative portrait of the issue will connect with readers of all political stripes.”
âArthur Nersesian, author ofSuicide Casanova
“Recacoechea's first novel to be translated into English is filled with exciting events, colorful characters, and slapstick humor. Its fast pace will keep readers turning the pages.”
“That the below-the-belt blows of Recacoechea's punch-drunk classic are delivered only to prevent a downtrodden dreamer from making it to Miami bring the story that much closer to home.”
This is a work of fiction. All names, characters, places, and incidents are the product of the author's imagination. Any resemblance to real events or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.
Published by Akashic BooksÂ©2000, 2009 Juan de RecacoecheaEnglish translation Â©2009 Adrian Althoff
Originally published in Spanish under the titleAltiplano Expressin 2000 by Alfaguara
Map by Aaron Petrovich
ISBN-13: 978-1-933354-72-9eISBN: 978-1-617750-58-8Library of Congress Control Number: 2008937352All rights reserved
Akashic BooksPO Box 1456New York, NY 10009[email protected]www.akashicbooks.com
For my sister TetÃ©,my niece and nephews Susana, Enrique, and Eduardo,and my dear friend GermÃ¡n Blacut
Ricardo Beintigoitia remembered perfectlythat January morning in 1952. His best friend, Fat Fassell, had borrowed his father's black Chevrolet to take him to Central Station, where he would catch the train bound for Chile. The sun was shining and the sky was a deep blue, but you could still feel the morning chill. Fat Fassell opened the car's trunk, handed the suitcase to Ricardo, and lit an Astoria cigarette.
They entered the station and paused on the platform. Throngs of people were moving about: travelers, family members, newspaper and candy vendors, indigenous porters, policemen, and the odd vagrant who had come to watch the train pull away. Ricardo repeated the same ritual at the end of every school year. He had been traveling regularly to Arica since he was ten, usually in the company of his parents. This time, as Ricardo had just graduated from high school, his father had given him permission to enjoy a few days with his close friends, whom, after a few months' vacation, he might not see again for several years. Ricardo wanted to attend a university on the Old Continent. The previous night, members of his social club had organized a farewell party for him at the house of a wealthy friend, Judith, in Sopocachi. The boys drank until 3 in the morning and then hired a few taxis to take them to the Caiconi district. A gale-force wind pushed them toward a cluster of rustic bordellos and into the arms of call girls wasted from a long night of debauchery. At daybreak, accompanied by Fat Fassell, Ricardo headed to his house in San Jorge to pick up his luggage.
* * *
The locomotive sounded its first whistle, announcing that the slow, painful climb to El Alto would begin in twenty minutes. Fat Fassell exhaled a generous cloud of smoke from his Astoria, which had the effect of making everyone around him dizzy.
“I envy you, brother,” Fassell said. “I'd give anything to see the ocean again.”
“You'll be in Tubingen soon enough,” Ricardo reminded him.
Fassell took another deep puff and scanned the horizon with a look of resignation.
“My ancestors, the Germans, are a pain in the ass. I would love to be a Bolivian until the day I die. After that I can be a German.”
Fassell grabbed the suitcase and Ricardo followed him. The sleeping car was located at the very back of the train. A nervous-looking Indian boy, standing less than five feet tall and weighing no more than ninety pounds, approached and offered to help with the bag. The kid smiled, baring a set of teeth that resembled a weathered picket fence. After heaving the bag onto his back, he started jogging as if he were on a mountain trail. He stopped next to the car and placed the suitcase on the metal steps leading into the train.
A steward led the boys to the last cabin. He punched the ticket and asked, “Which one of you is traveling?”
“I am,” Ricardo said.
“They're separating us. They know I'm bad news, a German jokester,” Fassell said.
The steward declined Fassell's offer of an Astoria and explained that Ricardo would be sharing a cabin with a Franciscan priest. Sporting a gray uniform and a cap, his sterile appearance and diligent manner identified him as a prototypical Bolivian Railway employee. After knocking on the door to the cabin, the steward, apparently afraid of the priest, waited a few seconds before peering inside. With a seraphic smile, the priest let them in.
“SeÃ±or Beintigoitia will be joining you,” the steward announced.
“I'll take the bottom bunk, if you don't mind,” the priest said.
“It's all the same to me,” Ricardo replied, placing his suitcase on the upper bunk.
They returned to the hallway. The steward looked at Ricardo with solicitous eyes. Ricardo took twenty pesos out of his pants pocket and placed them in the palm of his hand.
“Salvador Aldaviri, at your service,” the man said. “The dining car will open as soon as we depart for El Alto.”
Ricardo and Fat Fassell headed back to the platform. A half-breed woman wrapped in a heap of flowing skirts was selling sweets, and a shoeshine boy, dressed La Pazâstyle in a short vest and a cap, started to polish one of Fassell's boots without even asking.
“If I had a chick who could rub my balls like that, I'd be the happiest Teuton alive,” Fassell said.
“I'll be back in two weeks,” Ricardo said, ignoring his friend's comment. “Let's make plans to meet up in Europe.”
“My dad wants to emigrate to Brazil,” Fassell said. “He doesn't like what's happening in Bolivia. If it turns into anything like Argentina, we're screwed. PerÃ³n's a fascist and a populist, and he's trying to help the MNR take power. My dad wants to buy a ranch in SÃ£o Paulo.”
Fassell hugged Ricardo emphatically and left. Ricardo followed him with his eyes; his corpulence stood out amid the bustling crowd of silent, diminutive people dressed in black.
Ricardo reboarded the train. In the dining car, the waiters were busy cleaning tables, setting out tablecloths and glasses, arranging flower vases, and cleaning the windows with soap and water. The cooks could be seen lighting chunks of charcoal in army-size stoves and rinsing out gigantic metal pots. Next to the dining car were the second-class cars, crammed with poor people, nearly all of whom were smuggling crates of beer into Chile. At one end of the second car, a guy who looked like trouble, leaning against a wooden stool, watched Ricardo as he passed by. He looked about thirty years old and half his face was wrapped in a black scarf, revealing only his eyes, which were framed by thick brows and drooping lashes. Ricardo noticed that the man was holding a painter's easel.
Ricardo stepped off the train and walked past the freight cars, which had large, steel-clad interiors. Sweating indigenous freight handlers shouted at each other as they heaved large sacks of flour. A little man caked in white powder ordered them around. Ricardo recognized the engineer of the solid and shining English locomotive, which exhaled steam out its sides like an enormous bull gearing up for battle. It was Macario Quispe. An old-timer from Oruro, he was a veteran of that route, which climbed into the clouds before descending to the coast. His face, worn by the wind and the high-altitude sun, was a mask of bronze. Ricardo greeted him and the engineer responded with a slight nod. A couple of young coal men fed the train's belly.
“This engine is a Garrat,” Ricardo said. “The English used them in India. No terrain is too much for them.”
“The English know what a good locomotive is worth,” Quispe responded.
Ricardo stroked the hot flank of the locomotive. He remembered the Uyuni train yard and the cold nights that he used to spend watching the trains coming and going. They hypnotized him and made him dream. They would transport him to distant, hostile lands, traversing snowy peaks perforated by countless tunnels in which magical colors suddenly appeared, making him tremble with delight. The vivid images from his childhood were so real he could almost touch them.
He retraced his steps and reentered the train. The late-arriving passengers boarded hastily, causing an uproar in the station. People could be heard shouting at the luggage boys to hurry up and nagging the indigenous porters, who were carrying gigantic loads on their backs and shoving them awkwardly through the windows. Ricardo glanced at the station clock: fifteen minutes until the train's departure. He recognized his uncle, Felipe TrÃ©llez, harassing a tiny porter who was flattened under the weight of a huge trunk, and called to him.
“Hello,” TrÃ©llez said. “Are you done celebrating?”
“You only graduate from high school once.”
“Which cabin are you in?”
“Number six. I'm sharing it with a Franciscan priest.”
With a studied movement, TrÃ©llez hopped onto the train. He was wearing a beige jacket, light gray pants, and, as usual, a felt hat. He was pushing forty, but looked younger. This may have been because he was thin and no more than 5'3", not to mention the splendid effect of the creams which softened his somewhat pale, wrinkle-free skin. His lean face and mocking expression made him look like a French colonist out of a Hollywood movie. A musketeer-style mustache lent him a frivolous air.
Moments later, Ricardo noticed the pompous figure of Alfredo Miranda, who was best known by his nickname, the Marquis. Miranda was the owner of the TabarÃs, a popular cabaret. He had introduced full nudity to La Paz's dull strip clubs, bringing him renown and a tidy fortune, which he invested in hiring new girls from Chile. His 1930s Don Juan silhouette was always on display at the TabarÃs amid clouds of smoke, leaning against the bar, keeping an eye on the drunks, greeting the distinguished politicians, signaling to the waiters with a raise of the eyebrows, and tracking the movements of the girls as they entertained the clients. He was a pimp sui generis, a cross between Buenos Aires sleaze and La Paz affectation. Likable and snooty, he was famous for bedding all of the hostesses who worked in his bar.
Upon seeing Ricardo, the Marquis furrowed his speckled eyebrows and tried to recall some nocturnal encounter. At his side, a female companion followed him obediently. Like most passengers in the sleeping car, she had hired an indigenous porter, who was carrying a pair of leather suitcases which looked like they had been purchased from the shop of Gringo Freudenthal, a Jew who had escaped the Nazis.
Ricardo moved along to the tail end of the train. Next to the station gate, an autumnal elegant lady stood gazing at the platform. Behind her, a young woman wearing a red and blue plaid skirt and a white wool sweater walked slowly and half-heartedly.
“Tell your husband to hurry up,” the older woman said loudly, putting exaggerated stress on the word “husband.”
“Okay, okay,” the young woman answered.
A dark-skinned, short-legged, paunchy man with graying hair blithely chased behind the young woman who was ordering her luggage boy to undo the rope that held together an impeccable set of American-style suitcases. Ricardo's eyes met those of the girl, his with a look of surprise and hers uneasy and embarrassed. The trio approached the sleeping car and ascended single file. Ricardo thought he had seen the young woman before, but he was unable to place her. As he transported himself to the past, someone raised the wooden blinds covering the window where he was standing. It was she, smiling at him uninhibitedly. When the dark-skinned man appeared at her side, her smile disappeared.
The final boarding call sounded and the second-class passengers made a mad dash for their respective cars. The train advanced a couple of yards and jerked abruptly, warning of its imminent departure.
Seconds later, the train began to roll. As Ricardo made his way back to his cabin, he saw a man rushing frantically, tripping over himself, struggling with a large bag. Curiously, the new arrival, although he was a relatively young fellow, was unable to grasp the handrail to climb up to the train. Ricado grabbed him by the arm and boosted him up the metal staircase in a swift motion. Panting, the man let the bag fall to the floor.
“You could have slipped and fallen under the wheels,” Ricardo said.
“Thanks,” the man replied. “The taxi I was riding in got a flat tire. I almost didn't make it.” He then pointed at Ricardo with his index finger. “I know you. You always travel at this time of year. My name is Lalo Ruiz.”
“Ruiz,” Ricardo repeated without conviction.
“The poker player.”
“Now I remember.”
“You've grown a lot,” Ruiz said.
“A few centimeters. Must be the swimming . . .”
Ruiz extended a sweaty hand. “Have you seen the other passengers?”
“Only a few of them. Why?”
“I'm looking for some fledglings to pluck. I'm not rich enough for vacations on the coast. I'm on this train to earn a few pesos.”
“You have a long ride ahead of you. You're sure to find someone.”
“Are you traveling with your parents?”
“No. They're waiting for me in Arica.”
“Who are you rooming with?”
“A Franciscan priest.”
“That's bad luck.”
“I think the owner of the TabarÃs is traveling with his wife.”
“Wife? That guy is single. His wife left him in ValparaÃso.”
“I hardly know him.”
“The Marquis is a nice guy but it's impossible to put one over on him. He's an old fox.” Ruiz smiled. His yellow teeth had the ochre hue of nicotine. His eyes were slightly bloodshot. “I'll buy you a beer as soon as they open the dining car.”
A steward led them down the corridor and knocked on the door of cabin two. A guy in short sleeves appeared. He was short and bald and his pants were held up with ratty suspenders. He was smoking a cigar.
“You are my roommate?” he asked.
Ruiz smirked, unamused by the encounter. He gave a miserly tip to the steward and said, “I'd like to introduce my friend Petko, a Russian loan shark who spends the entire day at the Club de La Paz cafÃ©.”
“Shit,” the man exclaimed. “Of all people, is you. If I know, I take other train.”
Ruiz fanned the cigar smoke with one hand and entered the cabin.
“I'm screwed,” he said. “I'm gonna choke from that damn smoke.”
“Tobacco, highest quality,” mumbled Petko through his teeth. “I am screwed to listen to talk of bitter poker player.”
Ruiz turned toward Ricardo. “What's your last name?”
“My friend, young Beintigoitia, whom I have had the pleasure of knowing for many years.”
“You teach him to play poker?”
“He's a good kid. Not a degenerate like you.”
Petko chewed on the end of his cigar with apparent satisfaction. Ricardo guessed that he was a little bit older than Ruiz. When he spoke Spanish, one could detect a marked Eastern European accent along with atrocious grammar. His facial features were not those of the typical Slavs whom Ricardo would see from time to time in Soviet films. He was beardless, he had no eyelashes or eyebrows, and his head was totally bald. He didn't seem to have ever possessed a single hair. He shone like a hardboiled egg coated with butter. Everything about him was small, except maybe his nose, which was not very big but stood out enough to lend his face a touch of extravagance.
“My name is Petko Danilov. I was born in city called Novgorod. Those communist bastards rename it Gorki. Do you know who is Gorki?”
“Boring novelist. Socialist realism. Writes about working class.”
“I don't know much about Soviet literature.”
“Good,” Petko said. “I am Jewish, you know. In Bolivia some people are anti-Semites.”
“I'm an anti-Semite,” Ruiz said.
“Bull! You are nothing. Unlucky poker player. And bad loser too. Remember last time we played at CÃrculo Italiano? You almost start to cry.”
Petko blew smoke in his face. Ruiz opened the window.
“I'll let you smoke until 5 in the afternoon. I don't want to die on the train.”
“You see,” Ruiz said, “your cigars are poisonous.”
“That rich miner got on train,” said Petko.
“He just married Carletti girl.”
“Nazario Alderete?” asked Ruiz.
“Yes, yes, who else?”
Ruiz rubbed his hands. “He cheated me in a card game and made off with a piece of land I used to own in Achachicala.”
“He is a card sharp,” Petko said. “Now you can get your revenge.”
Ricardo couldn't believe what he had just heard. He assumed it was a joke. After all, Jews were known for their sense of humor.
“That old guy I saw board the train is married to the girl with the plaid skirt?”
Petko sat down on the lower bunk. He took a handkerchief out of his pocket and wiped his forehead. “Heat in altitude unbearable,” he said. “Yes . . . girl, daughter of late Carletti. I knew her father. He played bocce at CÃrculo Italiano. He knew how to cook pasta. He died when he lost mine in PotosÃ. They say that bastard take his money.”
“How do you know all this?” Ruiz asked.
“At Club de La Paz you hear life and miracles of high society.”
“That guy isn't high society. He just has money,” Ruiz said.
“Money . . . and money rules.”
“Not with a girl like that,” Ricardo asserted.
“You are young; you do not know power of money.” Petko drew a figure in the air as if to suggest something, but it wasn't clear what.
Ruiz was dressed in black; he looked like an undertaker. He took off his jacket, white shirt, and black tie and remained standing in his undershirt. Ricardo said he'd see them later.
The train left the stationand climbed slowly through hills dotted with stands of eucalyptus en route to El Alto.
Back in his cabin, Ricardo watched the Franciscan unpack his scarce belongings. He was a bit surprised not to see, among his possessions, the traditional vestments used to celebrate Mass, such as the Holy Chasuble. The Franciscan placed on his bunk two shirts, a pair of pants, and a change of underwear. “My name is Daniel,” he announced. “Father Daniel Moreno.”
“Ricardo Beintigoitia. I just graduated from high school two weeks ago.”
“Ready to begin life's journey,” said Moreno.
Father Moreno didn't really look like a priest. He was too thickset and his mannerisms bore little resemblance to the simplicity and humility which characterized the followers of Saint Francis of Assisi.
“I wouldn't be able to sleep well on the top bunk. The slightest jolt and I could come falling down.”
“There are safety belts to keep that from happening,” said Ricardo.
“The English don't miss a thing. Bolivian Railwayâdoesn't it seem arrogant for a Bolivian company to have an English name, when the vast majority of people in this country are either indigenous or half-breeds like me?”
He was a man of medium height and had the build of a Turkish wrestler. His face, which was composed of unequal parts, nonetheless retained a certain harmony. His head was shaven except for a volcanic rim of hair, in the typical manner of the Chosen Ones.
“Do you snore?” the Reverend Father asked.
“Not that I know of.”
Father Daniel looked at him for the first time with a certain curiosity. “Have you been a good student?”
“More or less.”
“In the new Bolivia we're going to need talented and responsible people.”
“The new Bolivia? And where do we leave the old one?”
Solemnly, Father Moreno lifted his jaw like a haughty llama. “Good question,” he said.
Ricardo stepped out into the corridor. The train was continuing its climb through the trees. From time to time he glimpsed small dirt fields on which boys were playing soccer. Train-chasing dogs barked furiously at the passing locomotive. Before penetrating the tunnels which perforated the mountain, the engineer would yank a rope, unleashing a horn blast that broke the still air of that sunny morning.
The train's pace was lazy. The churning of the engine could be heard along with the sharp squeaking of the wheels as they snaked across the tracks. Suddenly, rounding a bend, a vista emerged of the city stretching down the valley toward the south. Clusters of shacks, forming the shantytowns, clung to the slopes of the mountain. It was an unusual spectacle that hypnotized the passengers. Ricardo, who traveled this route every year, took note of how La Paz was growing without order, skirting precipices, reaching for the mountain tops.
The girl he had seen earlier in the station hurried out of the cabin next to his and slammed the door. She seemed irritated. Her pearly cheeks were burning; she looked like she had just been subjected to a lava bath. She rested both hands on the windowsill and turned her uneasy gaze toward him.
“I think we know each other from somewhere,” Ricardo said.
“I have the same impression,” she replied.
“I'm Ricardo Beintigoitia.”
“Is it okay if I call youtÃº?”
“You're quite flushed. Is something wrong?”
“Nothing serious. Just a little dizzy.”
“A cup of coca tea would do the trick.”
The door to Carletti's cabin opened and the husband's insolent figure injected itself between them.
“I'll be damned, you already have company,” he said with sarcasm.
Gulietta threw a punch at him with her eyes.
“I want to speak with you for a moment,” the man said.
She had no choice but to obey him. Alderete looked Ricardo over from head to toe. His smile was hateful, like the sneer of a Gestapo guard.
Ricardo dodged his oversized buttocks and headed toward the dining car. It was nearly empty. The poker player had settled in at a table near the kitchen. When he saw Ricardo, he invited him to sit down. His hands, covered with moles and warts, were shuffling a deck of cards. He ordered a round of beers.
“Waiting for your first victim?”
“It's still very early. I'm just massaging them. It's a matter of friendship. Later, they'll respond to me.”
Lalo Ruiz made his living from poker. Railroad dining cars were his specialty. He traveled constantly, ripping off unwitting enthusiasts. He was an addict who needed not only to win, but to lose as well. The fun of it lay in that perpetual disequilibrium, in the day-to-day instability.
“How's the Reverend Father?”
“A bit of a curmudgeon.”
“It's not bad to have a friar at your side. Don't forget that we'll be reaching an elevation of around 16,000 feet.”
“I've known you ever since I could talk,” said Ricardo.
“That's true. I spend my life on trains. This dining car is a great place for trapping idiots.”
He was right. The dining car of the La PazâArica train was the perfect environment for confounding occasional gamblers. The roar of the train, the misery of the Altiplano, the desire to see the ocean: All of this produced an uncontrollable yearning for entertainment, and what better way to get it than playing cards with the conjurer of that journey through the clouds.
“The Marquis plays poker?” asked Ricardo.
“When he's got nothing else to do. He trades in dancers whom he brings from Chile, and I figure he's on his way to see the goods in person. He has a sharp eye. The woman traveling with him is Anita Romero, the most famous madam in the country. She's Chilean. She plays go-between; years ago, she ran a couple of brothels in Caiconi. Don't tell me you never went there.”
Ruiz wasn't impressed and continued: “There was no resisting it. Now she's old and retired from the business. As an advisor she's a gold mine.”
“I'd like you to play that Alderete guy and destroy him.”
“You don't like him?”
“If I'm not mistaken, the guy's an asshole.”
“You're not mistaken. He's the biggest asshole of them all.”
“Petko said you should ask him for a rematch.”
“I'll challenge him,” said Ruiz. “If he lets me, I promise you that he'll never forget this trip.”
Ruiz asked for something to snack on. The train entered a tunnel, causing the water to disappear in the darkness. The waiter returned with a plate of peanuts and French fries. Ruiz was in a good mood. An insouciant smile lit up his face, which looked like that of a bird of prey. Ricardo couldn't help but admire his simple happiness, unbounded by the inscrutable mysteries of life. The poker player was a born optimist, the kind whose enthusiasm is contagious.
“Here comes that Alderete's wife,” Ruiz said.
Gulietta settled into a table in the middle of the car. She was alone and she began to contemplate the landscape. Off in the distance, Mount Illimani's magnificence was on full display. Evanescent clouds adorned its snowy peaks. Ricardo thanked Ruiz for the beer and approached Gulietta.
“May I sit down?”
“Of course. Did my husband say anything to you?”
“He didn't have time,” Ricardo said. “Now I remember where we saw each other. In Buenos Aires, at my aunt Blanca Colorado's house.”
“It's possible,” Gulietta said. “I studied in Buenos Aires. I just graduated.”
“Me too,” Ricardo said. “From the Instituto Americano.”
“Blanca Colorado. Isn't she the poet?”
The irritated expression that Ricardo remembered from the corridor had vanished. Her face, though not beautiful, was attractive. Her eyes, which looked as if they had matured before her other features, gazed indolently at her surroundings with a bold sensuality. She summoned the waiter and asked for a cup of black coffee.
“I imagine you already know that I'm married to Alderete.”
“It surprised me,” Ricardo said, trying not to sound imprudent.
“Someday I'll explain it to you.”
The waiter placed the coffee on the table and walked away.
She took off her shoes, bending down without taking her eyes off Ricardo. He felt her foot brush against his ankle.
“I'd like to ask you to give me a foot massage, but that would be too forward.”
“In the end,” Ricardo said, “we're from the same generation and we play the same games.”
Gulietta caressed the sides of the cup. Her long, fine fingers wrapped around it in a tactile ceremony.
“I bet you're dying to know how a woman like me married an old half-breed like Alderete.”
“Maybe you're in love.”
“Don't be ridiculous. Love is blind, but even the blind have a sense of touch.”
“Then tell me.”
“You might misunderstand. It's a complicated story. Let's talk about you. When my mom saw you, she told me she's friendly with your parents. She also warned me that you would try to make a move on me.”
Ricardo smiled. “What else did she tell you?”
“That you're a goof-off. That you hang out with those boys from Saint George's.”
“They've been my buddies since grade school.”
“They drink a lot.”
“At the Chic cafÃ© on Rosendo GutiÃ©rrez.”
“How do you know so much?”
“La Paz is a small town. Who are you going out with?”
“I don't have a steady girlfriend.”
“How strange. There are lots of pretty girls.”
“Most of them are a little too old-fashioned.”
“And you don't like that?”
“Let's say that it makes me feel inhibited.”
“At the Instituto Americano they teach American Lit, I suppose.”
“No, that would have been great, but instead they overloaded us with grammar. Even so, that was my most interesting class . . . the teacher was pretty hot.”
“My mother's right. You're not a very serious person.” Gulietta drank the rest of her coffee, stood up, and looked around furtively at her surroundings. She walked away, swaying her compact, fluid hips.
The train was drawing close to the El Alto district. On the edge of the cliff, which marked the beginning of the endless plateau, the first shacks were discernible. A whistle announced that the train was reaching the end of its climb. The dining car emptied out, its passengers making way for the waiters setting tables for lunch, which would be served once the train left El Alto. The sun was shining gloriously. An expanse of trees, which had been planted recently to humidify the extremely dry air, moved to the rhythm of a dusty wind. The green patch tinged the pale mountain. The curves of the train tracks, which were cut into the mountainside and hung over the abyss like a series of balconies, disappeared as the land turned flat and the horizon became one with the sky.
On the platform of the El Alto station lay piles of bundled coca leaves. Ricardo spotted a few stragglers who had probably missed the train at Central Station in La Paz and hired a taxi to catch up in El Alto, which would be an easy feat, since it took the train an hour to reach its first stop whereas a taxi made the trip in thirty minutes.
A blond-haired man weighing well over two hundred pounds commanded a porter to load luggage into the sleeping car in a hurry. To Ricardo, the leather coat in which the man was wrapped evoked a German military officer from the Second World War. The man led a woman by the hand who was dressed completely in black and wore a hat that looked like a bullfighter's cap covered with fine gauze. The railway inspector approached the man and greeted him deferentially. He then greeted the woman and helped them both up onto the train. Ricardo noticed three eccentric-looking women holding their skirts as they battled the wind. The most attractive one, a contortionist for a Chilean circus troupe that often visited Bolivia, had a puppy on her lap. Next to her was a midget with an enormous head that looked as if it belonged in a pumpkin contest, laughing uncontrollably in concert with the third woman, who had the unmistakable look of a gypsy. She was wearing a red headscarf and a long skirt which brushed against the small cement platform. The contortionist tried going up the ramp with the puppy on her back until the inspector shouted, “No dogs allowed on board!”
“And where do you want me to put him?” the woman shot back.
“In the freight car,” the inspector said.
“If he can't travel, then I won't either.”
The gypsy and the midget joined in the ruckus. The Franciscan opened one of the train windows and the contortionist approached the car pouting, holding back tears. After they exchanged a few words, the priest promptly descended the walkway and planted himself in front of the inspector.
“The cold in CharaÃ±a will be too much for him. He'll die,” Father Moreno said.
“We can't break company rules,” the inspector replied emphatically.
Father Moreno adopted a monastic tone. The inspector, who had been raised in the English tradition, didn't budge.
“Saint Francis taught us to love animals,” Father Moreno said in a deliberate, artificial-sounding voice.
“I love dogs too, but I won't let one travel in a passenger car.”
“So what can I do?” the contortionist asked.
“Like I told you, you'll have to leave it in a freight car. You've got no other choice.”
“That's an absurd rule,” she said.
“That's just the way it is. I don't make the rules around here.”
“It's a puppy,” Father Moreno argued. “It's not a Saint Bernard.”
“A dog is a dog,” the man averred.
The gypsy stepped in. “You just don't listen. You're being stubborn.”
“And rude,” the midget added.
“Lower your voice!” demanded the inspector.
A crewman opened one of the freight cars and the contortionist deposited her dog.
“It's too hot in there,” Father Moreno said. “The dog's going to fry.”
“Which one is it going to be,” the inspector said, “death from cold or death from heat?”
“What a jerk!” the contortionist exclaimed.
“I suppose that once it gets dark, they could open the car and bring him a blanket,” Father Moreno suggested.
“We'll see,” the inspector answered.
As the train slowly pulled away from the station, the gypsy and the midget waved goodbye with their handkerchiefs. The contortionist settled into one of the second-class cars.
Alderete walked out into the corridor wearing an undershirt, his mud-colored torso looking as smooth as a newborn baby's. “What's going on?”
“Something about a dog,” the priest said.
Alderete scrutinized him like a policeman sizing up a crook. “Your face is familiar,” he said.
“We Franciscans look alike, maybe because of our modest appearance.”
Alderete frowned. “You look exactly like a rabble-rouser I know who's always inciting the mineworkers to rise up with the MNR*against the owners.”
Father Moreno turned slightly pale. “They say we all have a double somewhere,” he said, his voice trailing off.
*The leftist Movimiento Nacionalista Revolucionario (Nationalist Revolutionary Movement) spearheaded a popular revolution in Bolivia in 1952.
The train left the El Alto districtand traveled deep into the Andean plateau. Tiny mud and straw huts were scattered across the countryside, which grew increasingly barren as the city was left farther and farther behind. By the time Ricardo entered the dining car, nearly every table had been taken. The better-off second-class passengers congregated around the snack counter. In exchange for a few pesos, the waiter led Ricardo to a table with two chairs. Ricardo settled in, looked around, and noticed a table markedReservedin the middle of the car. It was probably for the Alderetes. Ricardo was intrigued and wanted to know more about Gulietta and her strange marriage. She had introduced him to her world and he wanted to be part of it, at least for the duration of the twenty-four-hour trip.
The remaining guests from the sleeping car continued to arrive. As was to be expected, they had changed clothes for the occasion. Ricardo's uncle, Pepe TrÃ©llez, was sporting a brown suit, white shirt, striped tie, and Panama hat. When he saw that Ricardo was alone, he went to join him.
“You're looking good,” TrÃ©llez said.
“It's the thought of traveling to the coast.”
“Did you pass with flying colors?”
“Well, what matters is that you passed.”
Pepe TrÃ©llez was wearing too much cologne. He reeked like a high-class chorus girl. Assessing his next move, like an actor before a mirror, he eyed the other passengers with an air of superiority. “There's nobody worth going for.”
“The Carletti girl,” Ricardo said.
TrÃ©llez smiled. His brown eyes, ever in search of surprises, looked amusedly at Ricardo. “Do you know the story?”
“No. But I can imagine.”
“It's no soap opera. It's more like one of those depressing Vargas Vila books.”
The Marquis was letting himself be seen with Anita. He had on a blue suit, a light blue shirt, and a wild green and yellowâsplashed tie that resembled a slice of the jungle. AnitaâLa Paz's most famous madamâwas wearing a girlish pink dress and looked like a doll out of a nightmare.
“The Marquis puts too much powder on his face. He thinks life is one long cabaret.”
“The poker player told me Anita is a madam.”
“She's the most experienced one,” TrÃ©llez said. “She was very beautiful until just a few years ago. She knows everyone in La Paz.”
A waiter cleared a table for four next to the kitchen where some railway employees had been sitting. He invited the Marquis to sit down.
“How have you been, Pepe?” the Marquis said in greeting.
“Worried,” TrÃ©llez replied.
“My Indian farmhands are getting riled up over all this Marxist bullshit.”
“Sell your land before the holocaust.”
The Marquis was waiting for the man and the woman Ricardo had seen on the El Alto station platform. As the couple entered the car, they recognized Pepe TrÃ©llez and waved. The man was wearing a light green tweed jacket, khaki pants, and boots.
“That's Ian Durbin, an Irishman who works for the Bolivian Railway. The quiet, sad-looking woman is his wife. She's from PotosÃ.”
“Durbin is huge,” Ricardo said.
“He weighs around 220 pounds. In his younger days in Dublin, I think he was a boxer. The guy is a serious drinker. He can finish off a bottle of whiskey in half an hour by himself.”
The waiter placed two bowls ofchairosoup on the table and asked: “Anything to drink?”
“A beer,” TrÃ©llez said. “Do they let you drink beer?”
“I'm eighteen,” Ricardo said.
“How time flies. I remember when you used to ride that tricycle around your house on Federico Zuazo.”
TrÃ©llez poured hot sauce into his soup. “Here comes Alderete. Poor girl. To have to put up with a pig like him.”
Alderete couldn't hide the angry grimace etched on his dark face.
“The one behind the girl is her mother,” TrÃ©llez explained. “DoÃ±a Clara is from La Paz's crÃ¨me de la crÃ¨me. She arranged the marriage.”
“Alderete cheated her late husband out of his mine. He was the guy's accountant.”
DoÃ±a Clara was the image of simplicity. Half her body was wrapped in a gray shawl. Gulietta was wearing a bluish skirt and a fine sweater of braided wool. She turned her gaze on Ricardo and caught him staring at her, spellbound.
“She's really beautiful,” Ricardo said.
“And they say she's smart. What do you think of the trio, nephew?”
“A permanent short circuit.”
“I've always admired brave women, like Isabella of Castile and the Coronilla heroines*,” TrÃ©llez said. “But anyone who can put up with that guy deserves to be canonized.”
“You don't seem to think much of him.”
“He's a son of a bitch,” TrÃ©llez said in English.
The languid whistle of the locomotive sounded, announcing its arrival at a tiny village near an ancient-looking farmhouse. Alderete's hoarse and heavy voice was the only other dissonant noise, aside from the cars' incessant swaying from side to side. The train stopped in front of a small stone house covered by a red corrugated-metal roof.
A thin, bony man rang a bell heralding the train's arrival. Behind the building, at the end of a windy path, there was a farmyard in which a group of skinny cows rested alongside a small bull swatting flies with its tail. A solitary dog barked half-heartedly.
Ricardo was surprised by the sight of the contortionist walking deliberately alongside the train, toward the car in which her dog had been confined. The railway inspector followed behind her, talking to the wind. The station manager joined them, apparently unaware of what was happening. The contortionist touched the side of the car with one hand and cried out in pain.
“It's an oven in there. My dog must be suffocating from the heat.”
The inspector released a heavy lock and slid open the iron gate. The contortionist called out to her dog, which was named Sulfo.
“This is the last time I'll open it before CharaÃ±a,” the inspector said.
Sulfo was alive, but dehydrated. The heat had weakened him so much that it was painful for him to bark.
“I'll complain to the authorities,” the contortionist said.
“We are the authorities,” the inspector replied. “Enough of your complaints.”
The station manager produced a bucket of water and the mutt drank until he was satisfied.
The rustic silhouette of Father Moreno soon appeared. It was not exactly a divine apparition; he looked more like a well-fed medieval cleric. He ambled along the dry, hard ground, patting his bulky paunch.
“Father, you seem to appear every time this lady is making a fuss,” the railway man said.
“I have a way of calming people down. How's the little dog, Carla Marlene?”
“How do you think he is!”
The engineer broke the high-mountain silence and the locomotive sent a shudder through the line of cars. The Andean plain provided the only stretch where the train could reach a velocity of more than fifty kilometers per hour. Here and there, haciendas surrounded by green fields and grazing cattle appeared. Peasant huts were scattered throughout the surrounding area. Train-chasing dogs were in abundance, and even tiny, fleet-footed pigs occasionally joined the pursuit. There could not have been a more auspicious beginning to the afternoon: a clear blue sky and, on the horizon, reddish mountains. The air was clean and the sun painted an amber hue across the empty steppe. Ricardo lit a cigarette and Pepe TrÃ©llez packed a pipe as they waited for their coffee.
“I don't see that Russian guy Petko around,” Ricardo said.
“He'll eat later. He doesn't like crowds.”
“He's a funny guy.”
“He's loaded,” TrÃ©llez said. “He's the banker for all the Jews in La Paz.”
“He told me Alderete's a crook.”
“He's right. Alderete screwed me over once and he's going to pay for it. I'm waiting for the right moment. I'm a civilized guy but I crack if anyone touches my womenfolk.”
“No . . . no . . . no one bothers Graciela, not even drunks.”
“Then who are you talking about?”
“You're a curious one, nephew. First let me tell you something about the Carletti family.”
Pepe TrÃ©llez's pipe was shaped like a seahorse. He lit it and watched the smoke rise to the ceiling.
“Alderete belongs to the PURS*. He's an active BalliviÃ¡n supporter, just like the other mine owners. Up until a few years ago, he was just an accountant at a tin mine owned by Rafael Carletti, Gulietta's father, a guy from Genoa who emigrated to Bolivia after the First World War. With his money from Italy, Carletti bought himself a mine in PotosÃ on the cheap from a Croat who had worked it unsuccessfully. It wasn't too large, but the mine was big enough to provide a good living. Alderete worked with him for a few years without a problem. Carletti was an elegant, sophisticated fellow. He was good-looking, and one fine day, at a ranch in RÃo Abajo, he met DoÃ±a Clara, who is from one of the best families in La Paz. They married a few months later. They had just one daughter and they named her Gulietta. They led a regular bourgeois life, owned a beautiful home in Sopocachi, and traveled every year to Buenos Aires. Society life in La Paz, if you have money, is not bad. It can be a very pleasant city; the people are civilized and they have an enviable sense of humor. Everything was going great until our Italian friend met a woman from PotosÃ, the daughter of an Austrian man and a woman from Chuqui-saca, during one of his nights on the town. He fell for her their first night together. People who knew the girlâher name was Tomasitaâsay that she sucked him dry like a stalk of sugar cane. She was a human sponge.
“Carletti stopped going to the mine,” TrÃ©llez continued, “and left everything in the hands of his accountant, Alderete. He dedicated himself to copulating as if his life depended on it. The half-breed girl drove him crazy. He bought her a house and a car. Since she didn't know how to drive, Carletti hired a chauffeur and the guy ended up bedding her. The two of them fled to Venezuela together. Carletti started drinking heavily, and by the time he bothered checking up on the mine again, it was about to be foreclosed. Alderete had forged Carletti's signature and taken out a million-dollar loan from the bank. Instead of using that credit to work the mine, the little accountant acquired property in La Paz in his cousin's name. On the verge of losing the mine, Carletti sold it for pennies to a guy who turned out to be a pawn of Alderete's. He went home to La Paz with little more than the shirt on his back.
“DoÃ±a Clara, who spent all her time back then playing rummy, listened to his entire confession one night and forgave him. Carletti forgot about Tomasa's thighs but he wasn't able to lay off the booze. He turned into a high-class vagrant and died of cirrhosis. Gulietta was at his side until the very end.”
While telling the story, TrÃ©llez didn't once take his eyes off Alderete, who was stuffing himself with peanuts.
“DoÃ±a Clarita went through difficult times at first, but she toughened up with the passing months. She had sworn to get revenge on Alderete, but didn't know how. The opportunity began to present itself when she bumped into him at the Max Bieber cafÃ©. Gulietta was with her. It was the fatal moment for Alderete. Just as the late Genovese guy had hitched up with the lady from PotosÃ, the social-climbing Alderete had fallen like a schoolboy for Gulietta's good looks. No one knows the details of how they arranged the marriage, but DoÃ±a Clara did benefit from it financially.”
“And Alderete didn't go to prison for forging the signature?” Ricardo asked.
“The Bolivian justice system is truly blind,” TrÃ©llez said.
“Alderete and Gulietta got a house in Obrajes and a pension for DoÃ±a Clara. They just got married. This is their honeymoon.”
“And why did they bring the old lady along?”
“She's not so old. A night with her wouldn't be such a sacrifice,”
TrÃ©llez said. “I imagine it's part of the arrangement; leaving Gulietta alone with that gargoyle would be dangerous.”
“I still don't understand how DoÃ±a Clara could sacrifice her daughter like that,” Ricardo said.
“You're too young to understand these things,” TrÃ©llez replied, signaling the end of the story.
The train slowed to a crawl; a pack of llamas was crossing the tracks. Despite the shouts of the peasant who was herding them, the animials blocked the train's path and paid no attention to the blaring horn. The train had to wait until the last llama had passed over the railroad tracks.
As the train resumed its forward march, the waiters began serving in the dining car. During lunch, Gulietta and Ricardo exchanged glances. Her glances were not casual ones; rather, they seemed to seek him out. Ricardo didn't know what to think. An erection that had begun as a light tickle was taking shape. Within minutes, he was at the mercy of the pole stuck inside his pants. Never before had a society girl turned him on like that with a simple stare. Using his left hand, he straightened out his “little friend” and trapped it with his belt.
“Is something wrong?” asked TrÃ©llez.
“It's nothing, uncle.”
“You look strange.”
“It's the altitude.”
“You think I'm stupid, don't you?”
“Not at all, uncle.”
“Some people think I'm absentminded, but I do notice details. It's the Carletti girl. She's getting to you, isn't she?”
“I can't hide anything from you.”
“I can hear your heart beating.”
“She's married and she's on her honeymoon.”
“Let's call it a total lunar eclipse. It's best not to see that guy at night.”
The waiter left the bill and smiled routinely.
“This one's on me,” TrÃ©llez said. “You'll buy me a cognac at the Hotel PacÃfico in Arica.” He then stood up and sauntered over to Alderete's table. Gulietta and DoÃ±a Clara looked up while the ex-accountant, who was drinking coffee, remained oblivious to Pepe TrÃ©llez's silent presence. He took off his hat, bowed Japanese-style, and said: “Gulietta, allow me to congratulate you on your marriage.”
DoÃ±a Clarita smiled uncomfortably. Gulietta simply looked away. Alderete had not seen a ghost from his past in a long time. Once he noticed TrÃ©llez, his mop of hair stiffened.
“I think you'd best be on your way, back to those French broads you love to pimp,” Alderete said.
Pepe TrÃ©llez was a gentleman raised in the age-old tradition of chivalry and good manners. Upon hearing these words, he went cold and turned pale. A few seconds passed in absolute silence. The waiters stopped making their rounds and the cooks ceased their pot banging. TrÃ©llez passed through every color in the rainbow before his skin turned a cherry hue. “How dare you speak to me like that; you're nothing but a prick who steals mines!”
Alderete abruptly stood up, but DoÃ±a Clara was seated between him and TrÃ©llez. He asked her permission to hit him. This pause would prove fatal. TrÃ©llez seized the moment and slapped Alderete twice in the face, leaving him speechless and overwhelmed by a strange inertia. A roar of laughter arose from the corner where Durbin, the Marquis, and the poker player were sitting.
“Sit down, don't pay any attention to him,” DoÃ±a Clara advised.
“He's embarrassed,” Alderete stammered. “Years ago, when he was the ambassador in Paris, he brought a French girl back with him and hid her in his pad on Seis de Agosto, near San Jorge. His wife caught them in the act.”
Alderete sat down. His initial bewilderment gave way to an expression of satisfied revenge. A forced smile deformed his swollen peasant face.
TrÃ©llez leaned over the table and muttered: “What your wife doesn't know is that once you realized you couldn't win over the French girl, even with all your stolen money, you sent a handwritten note to my wife telling her everything, including the address of the apartment.”
That was enough for Gulietta and DoÃ±a Clara. They stepped away from the scene of battle.
“Poor girl, so removed from reality,” Durbin said in English, in a voice like that of a Shakespearean actor.
The car emptied in no time at all. The passengers traveling second class surely thought it was a problem between “gentlemen” and headed for the exit. The laughter continued at Durbin's table as someone yelled, “Way to go, Don Pepe!”
Alderete's anger was building up like a boiler without a pressure valve. He felt a sharp pain in his stomach and an uncontainable rush of gases. He was on the verge of letting loose the loudest fart in the history of the La PazâArica train line; that would be his revenge. He stood up and pointed to his derriÃ¨re.
Standing in the center of the car with his arms crossed, TrÃ©llez smiled tauntingly. The gases played a mean trick on Alderete. Instead of exiting, they went straight up and pressed against a heart already tormented by rage. They imprisoned it like the tentacles of a giant octopus. He grew short of breath, and at that altitude, finding extra oxygen was highly unlikely. Gripping the seat backs, Alderete left the dining car and moved down the hallway to his cabin. He banged on the door repeatedly. Nobody answered.
“I'm choking,” he said. “Gulietta . . . where are you?”
The steward helped him inside. Alderete collapsed on top of his bunk. Several minutes later, Gulietta came by to see what was happening.
Alderete looked at her with his eyes wide open. He was breathing with difficulty through his mouth and he clutched her shoulder with one hand. “A glass of water,” he begged.
Gulietta took a pitcher from the counter and poured water into a glass.
“I have high blood pressure,” Alderete said. “I don't handle these blowups well.”
DoÃ±a Clara appeared, looking as calm as a nun strolling through a park.
“I'll tell Ricardo to look for a doctor in second class,” Gulietta said.
Alderete let out a groan. DoÃ±a Clara unbuttoned his shirt and put her ear to his chest.
* * *
There was a wide range of odors in second class despite the country air that penetrated the few open windows. Ricardo saw construction workers, contraband dealers, carpenters, and illegal immigrants, but a doctor was nowhere to be found. At the end of the second car, an apprentice nurse headed for Santiago turned up. She was seventeen years old and was only trained to give injections. Alderete would have to fend for himself.
Ricardo asked if anyone knew if they were near any big towns. He didn't recognize any of the names. Someone suggested a cup of coca tea and even a suppository. Ricardo looked around and saw a disheveled, bearded painter with the eyes of an insomniac. His face was brimming with annoyance. A greasy mane fell over his shoulders.
“Is he Chilean or Bolivian?” the man asked.
“The sick guy? What does it matter?”
The painter smirked.
On his way back through the dining car, Ricardo heard Durbin remark, “The guy's got nine lives, like a cat.”
“It takes something extra to kill someone like him,” TrÃ©llez said.
The sun was beating down hard. The Altiplano*looked like a desert on fire. The only shadows came from solitary trees rimming the walls of the peasant huts.
Ricardo found Gulietta in the dining car. “There's no doctor,” he said.
“He's already better. It's pure theater. He just wants to impress me.”
Ricardo touched her hand. Since she made no effort to pull away, he began caressing it, at first softly, and then he clasped both his hands around it.
“In Buenos Aires you could have asked me out to the movies,” Gulietta said.
“An animated film? We were too young back then.”
Gulietta stroked his chest. Ricardo was sporting a fashionable, loose-fitting New Yorkâstyle shirt. It was impossible to stay indifferent to her barely perceptible touch.
“I don't know what I'm going to do,” Gulietta said.
“He's my husband.”
“Why did you marry him?”
She was silent. She was caught in a whirlwind of emotion. Her beautiful brown eyes teared up. “Poverty scares me more than death,” she finally said.
“Some of the other travelers don't exactly respect your husband. TrÃ©llez says this trip is like your lunar eclipse.”
She laughed, which made her look even lovelier. She was a captivating girl. Her parents were European, but her genes seemed to have skipped a generation: She was dark-haired, of medium height, slender, and very feminine. Her skin was olive-toned, like that of an upper-class woman from India. Her body was harmonious; there was a delicate sensuality about her. Ricardo was under the impression that, up until then, her life had passed by as if it were a dream, like water flowing down a river without whirlpools or rocks to disturb its tranquility. But Gulietta had not recovered from the shock of her sudden impoverishment and her marriage to her father's ex-accountant, a man she disdained.
Ricardo wasn't sure her character was strong enough to put up with Alderete for long. The humiliation of being at the beck and call of the bean counter was probably an unbearable punishment.
“I have to go check on him,” Gulietta said. “I'll see you later.”
Ricardo liked the girl, but he knew that train romances nearly always ended abruptly and prematurely. This would be no exception; besides, Gulietta was traveling with her husband, who, having survived an acute episode of high blood pressure, was going to be just fine. In any event, part of the afternoon had already passed, then night would come, and the following day, in a matter of hours, they would be on the Chilean coast.
It wasn't like the Paris-Istanbul or the Trans-Siberian line, where the trip lasts nearly a week and relationships have time to begin, develop, and find reason for hope upon arriving at their destination. The affair between Captain Vronsky and Anna Karenina began on a train and continued until the curtain call in Moscow. If it had happened on the La PazâArica line, the game would have been over for Vronsky. Timing is everything. Ricardo was at the age where it made sense to either rush into a sexual adventureâa casual tryst that would just as soon be forgottenâor pursue the classic courtship of a girl of his social standing, which generally involved a degree of mutual attraction and the occasional absentminded caress, and no more.
He understood that it would be nearly impossible to make a move on her, even if the circumstances were favorable; furthermore, the naÃ¯ve bourgeois flirting game was absurd and would only end up frustrating him. Ricardo decided to let destiny play Cupid. He didn't hold out much hope, but his gut told him that something unexpected could occur.
*On May 27, 1812, a group of women and children mounted a last-ditch attempt to prevent the seizure of the city of Cochabamba, Bolivia by forces loyal to Spain on a hilltop called “La Coronilla.”
*Spanish initials for the Socialist Republican Union Party, a coalition of right-wing parties that supported a military takeover in 1951 under the rule of General Hugo BalliviÃ¡n.
*The high Andean plateau extending through portions of Bolivia, Peru, Chile, and Argentina.
Edmundo Rocha woke with a start,sweating. With his left hand, he reached for a flask ofpiscoon the floor and took a long swig. For years, he had done nothing but drinkpiscoand sometimes pure alcohol, the kind that's sold in cans and intended for hardcore vagrants. Despite an overwhelming desire to finish it off, he left the bottle on top of the chair next to his bed. He lit a cigarette and sat up. He was wearing striped underpants that had been cut out from an old pair of pajamas. The stump that was his left leg stuck out grotesquely, shamefully. Rocha stared at it for a good while. He was alone in the cabin; the upper bunk was undisturbed. He knew that nobody would occupy it because he had two tickets in his jacket pocket: He had bought an extra one so that nobody would bother him.
As usual, he had been dreaming and his dream had turned into a nightmare, the same one as always. It used to happen at night, but lately it had begun plaguing him during siestas and post-binge sleepiness. The visions had a spine-chilling clarity to them. They would start with the cursed scene of him descending into the mine shaft on the ore car and then continue as he penetrated deeper into the mine. The naked torsos of his fellow workers were mirrors in which his own anguished face, his mop of hair, and his long, disheveled beard were reflected. He wanted to get out of the car, as it increasingly became one with the darkness and the silence, but it was impossible to move. His legs didn't respond and when he tried to shout, his throat went dry like a desert sandpit. There was nothing to be done. An evil force was leading him to the thick rock, which he was supposed to blow up with dynamite. His sweaty hands grasped the dynamite stick while AlcÃ³n, his mine buddy, chipped away at the rock with a pick. AlcÃ³n was making strange noises that sounded like wails. When he determined that the dynamite had been inserted deep enough into the rocky wall, he lit a match and they both started to run. The nightmare would pause there, with him escaping in slow motion. Then the other nightmare would begin, the one Rocha would see while waking up. The subsoil was slippery, the sticky underbelly of a mountain suffering at the hands of men tearing apart its insides. Rocha was desperately stumbling and falling. He would try to pull himself up, but he had lost time. No sooner did he succeed in standing up, than he heard the boom of the explosion and the burning gust propelled him several yards forward. AlcÃ³n shouted and pointed to the arch above, which was coming undone in thick and rough sheets of rock that were crashing down on both his legs. He managed to save his right leg, but his left leg got jammed under an enormous rock, turning it into a gelatinous, irrecoverable mass.
It's all that asshole's fault. If he hadn't sent me into the mines, I'd still be standing on two legs.
Rocha placed the crutches under his armpits and started to move from one side of the cabin to the other. Someone knocked on the door. The slightest noise could provoke a certain desperation in him.
“Who is it?”
“I have your lunch.”
Rocha opened the door and let the waiter enter.
“Onechairosoup, one large plate of meat, and a cup of applesauce.”
“What time is it?”
“One o'clock, seÃ±or. You said you wanted the late lunch.”
“Right . . . right,” Rocha said, then handed the waiter a tip and closed the door.
He ate the soup and devoured the meat and accompanying French fries. As he savored the dessert, he thought again about his tragedy.
My nightmares end tonight. Once I take him out, I'll go back to sleeping like I used to. I'll sleep for hours and I'll dream about quiet lakes and beautiful eyes that love me. About the lush forests of Beni and rivers that look like the sea. All the things I lost because of that bastardâ
Moments later, another knock on the door. It was the waiter coming to retrieve the tray.
“Can I get you anything else?”
“No . . . nothing,” Rocha said. “I'm going to rest.”
“Are you all right?”
“I have a fever,” Rocha lied. “But I'm sure that tomorrow, on the coast, I'll feel better.”
“There's nothing like being on the coast,” the waiter said, and disappeared.
Rocha lay down. It was cold and his stump hurt. Sharp, stabbing pain shot up and down his leg. He rubbed the affected area with some ointment, then propped his head on a pillow and tried to picture Alderete, just as he was the day he went to visit the guy in the mining company office to ask him for a job. Alderete was his half-brother. They shared the same mother, an indigenous woman who had been the lover of Nazario's father. Edmundo's father was a carpenter from Oruro who died of a lung infection. Before succumbing to a terminal illness, his mother had advised Rocha to visit his half-brother, who seemed to have a good thing going in the mineral trade. He was an accountant and handled a lot of money. Rocha, who was going through hard times, had become little more than a drunken hobo who wandered from one place to another selling textiles and other odds and ends. He didn't think twice, and as soon as he had collected a few pesos, he headed for PotosÃ. Alderete worked in an office downtown in a well-preserved two-story building. At first he refused to see Rocha, claiming that he was too busy with work; however, several days later, upon noticing Rocha sitting in the lobby, he decided it would be better to attend to him once and for all and be done with it. Rocha showed him a letter from his mother and a few photographs of Nazario at the age of seven. Alderete read the missive and looked at him with a certain curiosity mixed with arrogance.
“So you're my half-brother. You look really bad.”
“Things are tough over in Caracoles.”
“I can imagine.”
“Our mother is very frail.”
“What's wrong with her?”
“A crippling arthritis. She can't get out of bed.”
“You don't help her at all? What do you do for a living?”
“I'm a street vendor.”
“You don't sell much and then you drink away the rest.”
“How do you know?”
“I can see it in your face. I don't like meeting with guys who have drinking problems.”
“I'm your brother.”
“That was just an accident of life. We don't choose our brothers.
What did you come here for?”
“I want to work so I can send a few pesos to our mother.”
“What can you do besides sell junk?”
“I could be your assistant.”
Alderete laughed and eyed him with disdain. Rocha began to hate him at that very moment.
“An assistant like you, maybe in a tavern.”
“You don't need to make fun of me,” Rocha said, half-swallowing his words. “I can do anything.”
“Desk work, not a chance. Why don't you start from the bottom? It'll take you awhile to rise, but it's the only way. I'm talking about the deep mine.”
“Inside the mine?”
“It's the only way.”
Rocha had no choice but to accept. He became a miner, and that's no small matter. Being a miner is like being a sailor on the high seas. If you're the former, you really have to like underground caves, and if you're the latter, it's the ocean. Two unmerciful passions. At first it was very tough. Rocha sometimes thought he was in hell. He rented a room in a pension where it was so cold that even the rats couldn't survive. It was colder inside than outside. He would hang out at miners' dives and once a week go up the hill to a brothel filled with half-breeds. He drank more and more to rid his mind of the underground agony. Becoming a human mole is part of a pact that man makes with the devil. By the end of three months, he had accepted his lot. He got himself a girlfriend who cooked for him and made love to him in sepulchral silence. When he asked her why she didn't moan, she said it was because she didn't want to startle him. Then came the accident, on a Monday, a month before Christmas. They amputated half his leg in the mine hospital. They sawed it off as if he were a soldier in the First World War.
Deciding he was worthless, Alderete gave him a compensation package that was barely enough to bury their mother. Rocha swore that he would get revenge, but the years took him down roads in which there was no time to remember anything, until one day, just about a week earlier, God had granted him a few happy hours in the midst of that bitter existence. It seemed like plenty to him.
He couldn't help himself and took a swig ofpisco. It made him feel brave.
Despite his limitations, he had managed to read a book:Treasure Islandby Stevenson. He thought about John Silver, the one-legged pirate, and at times he identified with him. After the rock destroyed part of Rocha's leg, from the knee down, everything had been a pure tragedy for him, with hardly a break to take a breath. A life mapped by a cruel fate, deprived of the slightest relief. Killing Alderete wouldn't be murder; it would be a settling of accounts. He began to sing:I'm waiting for you, Nazario; Rocha the cripple is going to do you in.The movements and vibrations of the train felt like the funereal gallop of a black colt, and he, Rocha, was the horseman. With the money that he would collect from this job, he would travel to Iquique, where a black Peruvian woman who had stopped over in La Paz a long time ago was waiting for him. She was a mediocre stage actress, but had been blessed with a pair of shapely thighs molded in Callao. Since the stage didn't yield much dough, she opted to offer her goods in a brothel in that sandy northern Chilean city. She knew about the accident and the stump.Love doesn't care if you walk like a lame rooster, she had written him. After all, the damage was only from the knee down; the rest of him was intact and she was happy with the whole package. For the first time in his life, Rocha had something to look forward to. He wouldn't become a millionaire, but there was a room waiting for him on the outskirts of Iquique. He could spend his last days as a doorman there, keeping an eye on the asses of the neighborhood prostitutes. Ending your life on the coast isn't bad; even with an uneasy conscience, time eventually fixes everything. If Alderete wasn't Lucifer's son, he was at least his nephew, and sending him to the eternal fires of hell was a humanitarian act. It would free the country of a snake that leeched off the happiness of others. Rocha thought he should be decorated for what he was about to do.
Suddenly, he heard commotion in the corridor. He picked out the loathsome voice of Alderete. The arrogant tone was still there, even more overbearing than before. Rocha had been advised not to leave his cabin at all, even to go to the bathroom, which is why he had to make do like when he was in the military. The person who hired him had told him that he would get a signal to go out and that he would have a few minutes in which to finish off Alderete. Time was the enemy; Rocha was a cripple on crutches, not an athlete. His hands, however, had acquired the strength that his legs had lost; they were like a pair of pliers, and when he used to choke people during bar fights, the victims would be unable to breathe for several minutes. Rocha studied the damp rag with which he would cut off Alderete's oxygen. He would have to act fast when he got the signal: three knocks on his door. He wasn't a first-class assassin but he was the only one available on the market. Now all he had to do was wait until dark.
Father Moreno was sitting up in beddrinking cinnamon tea. He had lowered the curtain and was dabbing his face with a damp cloth.
“I closed the curtain because of all the dust.”
“Good idea,” said Ricardo.
“At this altitude, what I eat doesn't go down well. Cinnamon tea helps my digestion. You're young, I imagine you don't have this problem. Youth takes care of everything. Is this your first trip to the coast?”
“My parents have brought me every summer since I was seven years old.”
“You're lucky. I've never seen the ocean.”
“It's an unforgettable experience.”
“Better late than never.”
Ricardo washed his face, then dried it with a towel which he'd placed next to the sink and climbed up to his bunk. He closed the curtain, turned on the light above him, and set about to read a chapter of Stendhal'sThe Red and the Black. The brisk swaying of the train and the heat of the cabin put him quickly to sleep. He was awakened by the murmur of a conversation.
“Are you crazy?” exclaimed Father Moreno. “That boy is on the top bunk!”
“So what? He's probably taking a siesta.”
“I didn't tell you to come!”
“I wanted to see you. In second class the heat is unbearable. Besides, I can't stand all the crying babies.”
“I'm a Franciscan, Carla Marlene! Have you forgotten that?”
Carla Marlene couldn't contain her laughter.
“What are you laughing at?”
“Sorry, I forgot.”
“Quiet, he might wake up!” Father Moreno rasped.
Carla Marlene ascended a couple of rungs on the ladder to the upper bunk. She raised the curtain slightly, but Ricardo pretended to be sleeping. She descended cautiously.
“There's nothing like a little nap on a train,” she said.
Ricardo held back for several moments and then, with great care, raised the curtain that covered his bunk. To his surprise, he saw Carla Marlene lifting the Franciscan's robe. She unbuckled his belt and pulled down his pants. Father Moreno lay back and closed his eyes. Carla Marlene slipped her head underneath his robe and her hands started to rub the Franciscan's calves. Ricardo could hear the contortionist whispering but couldn't make out the words.
Fantastic! She's giving him a blowjob!he thought.
Carla Marlene, partially covered by the robe, looked like a puppeteer at work. Ricardo was able to glimpse her legs and elbows, which stuck out like the claws of a crab trying to comb through a mound of sand. With the passing minutes, Moreno entered into ecstasy, and the mattress started to shake. He opened his eyes and his dilated pupils appeared to be gazing at heaven; he breathed heavily while grinding his teeth. He was transformed into an erotic chipmunk, while Carla Marlene stamped her feet like an aggrieved old maid.
A minute later, Father Moreno stood up as if he had received an electric shock. Carla Marlene exited the robe with the satisfaction of having done her duty.
“It's hot as hell in here!” she said.
“He didn't wake up?”
“Don't worry. If he wakes up, he'll think that I've had confession and am ready for Holy Communion.”
“Don't be blasphemous!”
“Will you take care of my doggy tonight?”
Father Moreno pulled on his pants. “Don't even think of me going with you to the freight car. It's not right for me to be seen with you. The inspector will suspect there's something odd about my concern for that dog.”
“Once we've crossed the border, will you take off your habit?”
“Not so loud!”
“Nobody on the train suspects anything.”
“How do you know?”
“I just know.”
Ricardo, who had calmly witnessed this scene of medieval fellatio, hadn't been mistaken in his suspicions about the priest fellow. From the beginning he seemed like no ordinary cleric. It wasn't only his resemblance to a retired wrestler; it was the way he talked. His speech wasn't resigned like that of the impoverished followers of Saint Francis.Who is this Moreno guy?Carla Marlene had sucked him off in a position that looked very uncomfortable. It was no problem for her; since she was a contortionist, she could probably have done it upside down, with the little dog resting under the soles of her feet.
“Don't let them see you leave.”
“They'll think I was messing around with the boy.” Carla Marlene unlatched the door and leaned out cautiously. “Bye bye,” she said, and disappeared.
Father Moreno lay back down. She had left him happy. He softly whistled a Cuban bolero and gradually fell asleep. His expression was beatific. His nap was well-earned.
Ricardo, for a moment, thought he might confess to him that he had seen everything, but Moreno had dressed up as a Franciscan for a reason, and uncovering this now was not advisable.
He decided to go along with the farce. It both amused and intrigued him.
Gulietta found her unfortunate husbandstill in bed, resting against a pair of pillows. He was doing his accounts in a leather-bound ledger. When he saw her come in, he asked her to sit next to him.
“There's no doctor on the train. Maybe in CharaÃ±a we can find a cardiologist.”
“Nothing's wrong with my heart. I'm healthier than that pimp TrÃ©llez. You were too young to understand what was happening. When he was ambassador in Paris, that wannabe Frenchman brought back a French girl, one of those department store salesgirls, without his wife knowing it. Of course, he paid for her trip across the ocean and rented her an apartment at the bottom of Seis de Agosto, near the gas station. The jerk visited her every day. The money came from his wife, who owns haciendas on the Altiplano and in the Yungas. He took money from his wife and gave it to the French girl.”
“And why did you care?”
“I didn't care.”
“So why did you tell her?”
“You believe that nonsense?”
“He told it to your face.”
“That moron is a liar.”
“He said the French girl didn't pay any attention to you, and that you ratted on him to get revenge.”
Alderete tossed the ledger aside, removed his reading glasses, and barked, “You're my wife, right?”
“What does that have to do with it?”
“You can't take that pimp's side. You should believeme.”
“All right, I believe you,” said Gulietta, sounding fatigued. She stood up and fixed her hair in front of the mirror.
“Imagine how pissed those useless society boys must be: a beautiful girl like you, married to me. They can't swallow it.”
“Mind if I smoke?” Gulietta asked.
“Of course not. You can do whatever you want. You have married a man who can never say no to you.”
Gulietta eyed him as if he were a piece of furniture. “You're looking better. You were very pale.”
“Sit here,” Alderete ordered.
Gulietta didn't have any choice. Alderete's hands went up her arm until they arrived at her neck. They stopped there and awaited a response. Gulietta remained motionless. Alderete's fingers felt rough and shaky to her.
“I want you so badly,” he said.
“We'll be going up to near 16,000 feet,” Gulietta remarked.
Gulietta smiled. It took great effort for her to treat him with affection. Her feeling of repulsion was stronger than her will. “So, you shouldn't get too aroused at that altitude.”
“That's my problem . . . Now turn this way.” He took off her sweater and rested a cheek against one of her well-rounded breasts. “Unbutton your bra,” he said imperiously.
Gulietta obeyed. She was naked from the waist up. Alderete's nostrils gave off steam like an angry buffalo.
“Your skin is incredible!” he stammered. His lips opened up to receive a drop of youth.
Gulietta could not take her eyes off his greasy mane. She felt one of her nipples being suctioned as if by a rubber doll, and wanted to laugh. Alderete went from one nipple to the other with the expression of a dying man. He continued back and forth for a few minutes, while Gulietta closed her eyes.
“Your skirt,” Alderete said. “Take it off.”
“It's almost tea time.”
“The hell with tea! Do what I say,” Alderete grunted.
Gulietta removed him from her naked bust. “After dinner, I'll do whatever you say. Besides, my mother will be here any minute.”
“It was stupid of me to bring her on this trip,” Alderete said. “I don't know how the old hag convinced me.”
“What old hag?”
“Sorry, I didn't mean to offend you.”
Gulietta said nothing and put her sweater back on.
“Are you mad at me?”
“My mother is not an old hag. She's a mature lady. Nobody forced you to bring her.”
“Yes, she forced me! She said it was part of the deal.”
“Well, part of my promise. She wants to see the United States.”
“She protects me. Don't forget that I just graduated from high school. I'm eighteen years old. I've never been with a man before, much less a man who's more than fifty years old. You're old enough to be my father.”
“But I'm not. I'm at an enviable age. Experienced but still potent.”
Gulietta needed to use the bathroom; she was going to retch. She covered her mouth and left. She crossed the corridor, entered the bathroom, and vomited.
Alderete thought that the girl would stop being difficult once she was on the boat.She's afraid and she's proud, just like her old man, may he rest in peace. Some of her gestures remind me of the Italian. They don't look alike, but there's an unmistakable family resemblance. The old man used to treat me that way, yet he came to regret it. He had a complex around me. He knew deep down that I was capable of more. It's a shame that he shacked up with that half-breed woman Tomasa; she was sluttier than a hen. This little society girl wants to do the same thing with me, but I'm sharper than her father was. That whole thing about virginity, I believe it and I don't believe it. In Buenos Aires, the gauchos don't put up with that stuff. I know all about that business of the lemon juice and howling with pain. The sister-in-law of that stupid Irishman who got on the train in El Alto tried to tell me that I was the only one. The only sucker.
Alderete gingerly walked up to the mirror. There wasn't a lot of light, just enough to see himself. Without pleasure, he peered at that face sculpted in mud, half-finished. The sculptor had forgotten to put it in the oven and the model remained formless. It looked like the slightest blow would leave a lifelong dent. His forehead, which was sunken, consumed half his face. His flaccid jowls sagged like those of a bulldog. His jaw was small, without personality. Behind Alderete's reading glasses, his intense eyes were perhaps the only feature worthy of note. His stiff, greasy hair could be mistaken for a fistful of damp hay.
What the hell does that little girl want? If she's not happy, I'm going to make her shape up, whatever the cost. I should never have brought her mother. She's like her mirror. The old lady hates me and tries to hide it. One month in the U.S. and I'll send her back. Nobody rains on my parade. If only my father could see me nowâat the pinnacle, damn it. I don't know a word of English, but when you're carrying lots of dollars, they translate for you immediately. I'll buy Gulietta clothes; the cost won't matter. And when I buy them for her, I'll order her not to wear panties in the apartment. That turns me on. I'll make her love me, otherwise I won't have peace.
Gulietta returned from the bathroom. She washed her face and, without a word, went back out.
Alderete found her in the corridor contemplating the landscape, which was signaling the approach of nightfall.
“Come into the cabin. It's cold out here.”
“I want to be alone for a moment.”
“I'm sorry for that bit about the old hag. I won't say that again.”
Gulietta didn't answer. The steward was sitting at the end of the corridor chewing coca. The train was moving slowly.
“Do you know where we are?” Alderete asked the steward.
“Near the Calacoto station.”
Gulietta entered her mother's cabin. Alderete smirked, opened the window, and breathed in the pure air of the Andean plateau.
“I'm a little dizzy,” he said to the steward.
“Happens to everybody.”
“What's at the border?”
“The Chileans have a barracks.”
“How many years have you been working for the railway?”
“It's time to retire.”
“I'll work just one more year. If the opposition wins, they'll nationalize the trains,” the steward said.
“That, and my balls.”
Alderete breathed calmly. He didn't need to retire. He had enough money to last him two hundred years. Old age was still remote. Death worried him only in his nightmares.
The dust eventually forced him out of the corridor and he returned to his cabin. DoÃ±a Clara had told him to change for dinner. She stressed that he would have to get used to the etiquette.
Now it's half-breed Alderete's turn to have a piece of that blue-blood girl, he said to himself.
In cabin number four, Gulietta paced back and forth in front of her mother, who sat with her arms crossed over her chest, examining her distraught face. Gulietta was pale.
“I can't stand him. When he touches me, I feel like throwing up.”
“We agreed that you would put up with him for at least a couple of months,” DoÃ±a Clara said.
“I made a mistake.”
“And what do you plan to do?”
“I don't know.”
“It will take a few more weeks for the deeds to the house in Obrajes and the other properties to get signed over to your name. You know how bureaucracy moves in our country. That old man could order his lawyer to annul everything. He knows what he's doing.”
“If he knows what he's doing, then why did you make a deal with him?”
“Let a couple weeks go by. He's crazy about you. In France they call that state of mind a mid-life crisis, when an older guy falls for a young girl. It's like an illness. You have to take advantage of it.”
Gulietta froze and glared at her mother. DoÃ±a Clara returned the look.
“That's easy for you to say,” Gulietta snapped. “You're not directly involved.”
“We made a pact. The idea was to avenge your father. We have to get the money back that Alderete stole.”
“That might take months, or years. I can't even stand him for a single night. You don't know what it's like to put up with a pig like him on top of me.”
“Did it happen . . . ?”
“Not yet. I'm as much of a virgin as Joan of Arc.”
“But you've been married for two days.”
“He passed out drunk after our wedding, and last night I put a sleeping pill in his drink.”
“I told you, he disgusts me. Don't you understand?”
DoÃ±a Clara stood up and kissed her on the forehead. The girl looked very fragile. Gulietta rested her head on her mother's shoulder.
“Don't cry, we'll think of something. I know: Tell him that sex at this altitude is risky because of his high blood pressure. What do you think?”
“The man acts like a beast. If I tell him that, he might try to do it by force, just to prove me wrong. And anyway, I already said something similar and he didn't care.”
“He can't force you.”
“He's my husband. He has the right.”
“Not with violence. If he wants to force you, call for me, I'm right here next door.”
Gulietta ran her fine fingers through her mother's hair. “It would've been better not to do this marriage experiment.”
“Oh, really? You'd rather be dirt poor?”
“You only think about yourself. You're being selfish. Don't you realize that?”
“I promise you it won't be for very long. You'll get a divorce as soon as we get what we want.”
Gulietta lit a cigarette and walked to the window. A few minutes passed in silence. The sun painted a yellow hue over the Altiplano. As small clouds moved across the sky, they would eventually fade away, leaving trails in their wake. Gulietta watched a herd of llamas fleeing across the countryside, frightened by the sound of the train's horn. A peasant boy melancholically observed the locomotive's passing. He was the only human being in all of that desolate space.
“He's looking bad,” said DoÃ±a Clara. “He has altitude sickness.”
“I don't plan on killing him with multiple orgasms. You can be sure of that.”
“But if you keep avoiding him, he'll get furious.”
“Let him think what he wants. His breathing makes a rattling sound like it's coming up from deep inside his evil soul.”
DoÃ±a Clara couldn't contain her laughter and sat down on the bed. “It's all my husband's fault.”
Gulietta sighed. The light of dusk brought out the best in her; her dark hair revealed silver highlights. “Why?”
“For getting together with that half-breed woman.”
“Come on, Mom. You know it's normal for society gentlemen to have lower-class lovers.”
“He had never done it before.”
“How do you know?”
“She was the first and the last. I know. My heart tells me so.”
Gulietta sat down beside her and caressed her hair once again.
“Anyway, it doesn't matter now. That Ricardo boyâdid you know him from before?”
“We saw him in Buenos Aires at the house of that poet, DoÃ±a Blanca Colorado.”
“I was thirteen.”
DoÃ±a Clara thought for a moment and said: “I remember his mother. But he looks so irresponsible.”
“I like him,” said Gulietta. “He just graduated from high school like me.”
“He has a mischievous face.”
“Ricardo isn't my problem right now. Alderete is.”
“I'll bet he thinks I'm a snake for making you marry that demon.”
“He didn't say anything.”
“Everyone thinks I'm a witch.”
“A lot of mothers marry off their daughters for money. It's normal.”
“But not to their husband's murderer . . .”
“The important thing is to get divorced as soon as possible. He won't know what hit him.”
“He's no idiot. First, he has to put some of his property in your name.”
“I'm under his skin. He's obsessed with me.”
“You can see that from a mile away.”
“I was a virgin when I married your father.”
“Don't make such awful comparisons.”
“Your father was a gentleman. I know.”
“How was your honeymoon?”
“Romantic and peaceful.”
“Where did you go?” Gulietta asked.
“To the Yura hot springs in Peru.”
“Working-class people are smarter. They live together before they get married. They call it thesirwiÃ±acu.”
“Just like the Swedes. And then people say Bolivia is backwards. Anyway, if it doesn't happen tonight with Alderete, he'll ask for it on the ship,” DoÃ±a Clara said.
“I'll be an undelivered postcard,” the daughter responded.
“You can pretend that you're making love to somebody else.”
“Somebody like Clark Gable.”
DoÃ±a Clara shook her head. She was getting nervous; she couldn't keep her hands still for a single moment. She recalled the bitterness that had led her to sacrifice her daughter, the kind of bitterness that can make you lose your sense of good and bad.
“It's my fault,” she said.
“It was your idea and I accepted it.”
“Well, at least you recognize that. What I want is for you not to suffer. And the problem is, how will that be possible? It's an almost unsolvable dilemma. Don't lose your cool around him. Don't forget that he has something to lose too. If you leave him, he'll panic. His biggest fear is looking like a fool. For him, getting laughed at is worse than a hundred lashes. If you handle the matter intelligently, your father will thank us from heaven.”
“You hate him as much as I do.”
“Like Iago and Othello.”
“I didn't know that you read Shakespeare.”
“I've never read him, but your father used to tell me that there was no greater hatred than that of Iago for Othello.”
“Shakespeare himself would have been inspired by this moving tragedy. And if he wrote this story, it would probably end with a crime.”
“Good God! That's taking it too far.”
“He caused my father to take his own life, which makes him the instigator of a suicide. Iago was the one who conspired, but Othello was the weapon.”
DoÃ±a Clarita frowned. She didn't have any more arguments for convincing Gulietta to go along with the plan. It was at once like a stupid joke and a tragedy. Her thirst for revenge had gone too far. She would've sacrificed herself if she could have, but Alderete wanted a young girl, not an old woman. She hadn't thought for a minute that her daughter would suffer so much.
“I don't know how to fix this,” said DoÃ±a Clara.
“If he gives me any trouble, I'll scratch his face.”
“Alderete has an inferiority complex. He would never dare to hit you.”
“You talk as if we're living a hundred years ago.”
“That's just the way it is.”
Gulietta smiled. Her mother was set in her waysâshe had been raised on notions of class that undergirded a decadent society, one that refused to accept that the country was changing.
“Where is that Alderete?” asked DoÃ±a Clara.
“Sleeping, I suppose.”
The afternoon was fading as the train came to a halt. The station had a corrugated-metal roof and was surrounded by flowers. It sat alone on the outskirts of a tiny mud and straw village. Next to the station stood a weeping willow with a couple of cats playing around it. In the distance there was a plaza rimmed by eucalyptus trees.
The sun, partially hidden behind the mountains, shone down on a small adobe church. The church's towers dominated the village. A man on a bicycle was circling the plaza. There was also a single store, in the doorway of which stood a woman staring out at the train. The Bolivian Railway inspector stepped down onto the station platform.
Gulietta was in the dining car drinking tea with lemon and smoking when Ricardo arrived. Her gaze abruptly ceased its wandering across the horizon.
“I'll have a coffee,” Ricardo told the waiter, then turned to Gulietta “Are you waiting for him?”
“For my prison guard? No way.”
“He might hit me.”
“He sleeps like a bear.”
“How long will you be staying in Arica?”
“One day. At night, we'll board one of theSantaships to New Orleans. I think it's theSanta Rita.It's a freighter with luxury cabins.”
“It'll be easier for you to put up with him. The comforts will helpâ the pool, the good food.”
“Don't be ridiculous. I don't even want to think about it. I might jump overboard.”
“Why don't you just throwhimoverboard?”
“He's too heavy. I'd need help.”
“There are always drunken sailors. The Yankees got their love of rum and violence from the Brits.”
“Ricardo . . .”
“Will the Franciscan stay in your cabin?”
“I don't know.”
“I . . . Could I go there in a few minutes?”
Ricardo fell silent. His eyes did the talking, then he said out loud, “Don't worry; I've got a good reason for him to take a walk.”
Ricardo called the waiter, paid, and headed for his cabin. The Franciscan was reading a newspaper. When he saw Ricardo come in, he produced a Bible from underneath his blanket.
“Father,” said Ricardo, “I'd like to be alone in the room for a while.”
“And you would like me to go out for a walk on the Altiplano.”
“You could go out for a cup of tea.”
“Young man, I think you're showing me a lack of respect.”
Ricardo moved up to within two hand lengths of his nose. The little priest stood up. He was eight inches shorter, but more than sixty pounds heavier.
“I saw you with Carla Marlene . . .”
Instead of standing taller, the Franciscan shrunk. He recoiled like a servant preparing to haul a cartful of mail.
“What are you saying?”
“Do I need to explain?”
“You mean you spiedâ”
“I saw everything.”
“So you weren't asleep?”
“I get the impression you are not a priest.”
Father Moreno smiled. “Have you seen me before?”
“I'm a leader of mine workers.”
“And why are you disguised?”
Father Moreno invited him to sit down. From a knapsack, he removed a clipping from the newspaperÃltima Hora. Ricardo slowly read the article explaining the lead role of a fellow named Ignacio Torres in hunger strikes, protest marches, and other rebellious acts in the Catavi and Siglo XX mines. Ricardo recognized Father Moreno in the photo in the center of the article; he had long hair and wore alluchuhat. He had a beard, and a mustache like that of a Mexican rancher.
“Are you on the run?”
“You don't need to be too smart to reach that conclusion. The mine bosses' political police have my number. If they catch me they'll take me straight to jail. I have to make it to Chile. I'll live in self-exile until things change. You don't know much about politics, do you?”
“I don't, unfortunately. I don't like politics.”
“Whether or not you like it isn't the point. It's part of your life. In Bolivia, anyone who stays out of politics is despicable.”
“If you say so.”
“Well . . . things can't go on like this. Or do you think we're in the best of worlds?”
“I don't know.”
“Later, when there's time, I'll tell you about the Bolivian left. But first you have to promise me that, to you, I am still Father Moreno. Otherwise, I'll consider you an informant. Not a word, please.”
“You don't need to get all worked up, Father. I'll still think of you as a poor friar, a follower of Saint Francis.”
“That's more like it. You and I will make a good team. I'll go to the dining car and have a cup of tea. Could you loan me ten pesos?”
Father Moreno stopped for a moment in the corridor and took in the natural environment outside. The sun now hid discreetly behind the mountains, caressing them, bidding farewell to the wild landscape.
As the sun receded further, it gave way to shadows announcing the hostile Altiplano night, accompanied by an anguished silence.
Ricardo paced nervouslyfrom one side of the cabin to the other. He turned on the light. The heat wasn't on yet and the temperature in the cabin was still pleasant. Fifteen minutes passed and Gulietta still hadn't shown up. Ricardo went from nervous hopefulness to disappointment.
He wondered about the true motive behind Gulietta's proposal. It wasn't to bother him with more about her husband; she could have done that in the dining car. The way she carried on had thrown Ricardo off. He realized perfectly well that he was going to be used. He was a kind of counterweight to Gulietta's emotional imbalance, providing potential relief for her sorrow. He didn't know her very well, but from their few conversations on the train, he concluded that she was going through tough times. Marrying a guy she hated, who'd had a lot to do with her father's death, had clearly been a mistake that was affecting her deeply. But what was done was done. Getting used wasn't a big deal. However, he had never found himself in this kind of situation with a girl who was his social equal. All things considered, he liked Gulietta and was willing to indulge her whims without worrying about the consequences.
Finally she arrived. She entered the cabin and took a deep breath.
“Nobody saw you?”
“The steward gave me a funny look. This must happen all the time on trains.”
The locomotive accelerated its pace. The cars appeared to be dancing between the sides of the rails. The train swerved and Gulietta ended up in Ricardo's arms. She didn't move. Ricardo held her and kissed her on the lips. When he placed his hands on her breasts, she let out a sigh of pleasure.
“My husband and I, we haven't even come close.”
“Is he impotent?”
“Then you didn't want to.”
“Let's just say that a mysterious force kept the marriage from being consummated.”
“And tonight? On trains it's impossible to resist temptation. Alderete won't forgive you.”
“You talk as if I were the slave of an Ottoman chief.”
“What can you do to resist him?”
“I don't know.”
She lay down to rest on the bed and Ricardo curled up at her side.
“You're trembling,” he said.
“Do you think I do this every day?”
She unbuttoned her blouse and removed her bra; her breasts were quivering. She closed her eyes and took Ricardo's hand between hers. He caressed her hesitant adolescent body like a starfish maneuvering around submerged rocks.
“I'm really scared the priest will show up,” said Gulietta.
At that moment, Ricardo was overcome by an uncontrollable passion, but it intimidated her and she stopped him cold. “Are you a virgin too?” she asked.
“Take it easy.”
“Aren't you turned on?”
“Yes, but I could use some more caressing.”
Ricardo tried to steady himself. He closed the curtain and saw that she was trembling, then they joined together in a long embrace. He could feel her heart pounding; her lips opened and closed nervously.
Without separating himself from her tremulous skin, Ricardo scooted down until he reached the top buttons of her skirt. With one hand he unbuttoned her skirt; with the other he scaled her warm thighs. The moment they felt his touch, they squeezed together, concealing her sex, a shadow covered by silk panties.
But then she raised her bottom, allowing Ricardo to remove the panties. The veering of the train was now accompanied by the sound of grinding metal, making it hard for him to concentrate.
“Has anybody seen my wife?”
It was the hoarse and congested voice of Alderete out in the corridor, presumably addressing the steward.
“Now of all times,” said Ricardo.
Gulietta pulled herself up, leaning against the head of the bed.
“He can't give me a moment of peace,” she said, starting to whimper.
“We can still do it,” said Ricardo, who felt that one of the best asses he had ever seen was slipping between his fingers.
“I can't. I'll go back to my cabin. We'll have to wait. We still have time.”
“Forget about him.”
“It's not that. I'm just not into it right now.”
“I'm into it enough for the both of us.”
“I'm sorry, Ricardo.”
“Will you go back on your promise?”
“Later. I swear.”
She slipped her panties back on and dried her tears. Smiling benevolently, she ran her fingers timidly through Ricardo's hair. He couldn't believe his bad luck.
Alderete's presence in the corridor had ruined their erotic prelude. Gulietta's amorous disposition had been replaced by a contained fury; hearing her husband's voice had brought her back to a reality she had hoped to escape from for at least half an hour. Alderete kept them hanging a few minutes, until he eventually decided to return to his cabin.
Gulietta stepped out into the corridor. The steward observed her sympathetically. Through the window, the landscape reinvented itself from moment to moment; it was like watching an endless movie, one without pauses or surprises. The Altiplano was a horizontal vertigo, as Drieu de la Rochelle once wrote about the Argentine pampas. Human life had vanished, giving way to a desolate moonscape. Gulietta contemplated the anguished scenery with a kind of juvenile sadness.
On his way back from the dining car, Father Moreno found the girl lost in thought, arms crossed and leaning against the windowsill. He didn't bother to interrupt her reverie, he simply knocked on his cabin door. Ricardo came out into the corridor.
“A penny for his thoughts,” said Gulietta in English when Moreno headed into the cabin.
“A half an hour; not a minute less, not a minute more,” said Ricardo.
Gulietta couldn't keep from laughing.
“These priests have a sixth sense,” said Gulietta. “I bet you he thinks I'm scandalous; just married and spotted in someone else's cabin.”
“He's going to start praying for your soul,” said Ricardo.
“Let's hope he gets an answer to his prayers and then tells me what it is.”
Alderete's generous silhouette suddenly appeared. He had a hard time concealing his emotions; he was nearly tongue-tied. “Are you going to the cabin?” he managed to stutter.
Gulietta brushed Ricardo's hand, signaling both goodbye and see-you-soon. She marched off, but instead of moving to her own cabin, she entered her mother's.
“Were you in the same class?” Alderete asked Ricardo.
“We both graduated from high school last year.”
“A very young woman with an older man. It must seem strange to you.”
“On the BBC from London I heard that an eighty-year-old guy married a twenty-two-year-old girl. They're crazy about each other.”
Alderete smiled flatly. His face had the impassivity of the Tiwanaku statues.
“Love is mainly spiritual,” said Ricardo. “What really matters in marriage is friendship, personal compatibility.”
Alderete tried to discern sarcasm in Ricardo's words, to no avail.
“What do eighteen-year-olds talk about?”
“I don't know . . . Bogart movies and Platters records.”
“Have you been to the United States?”
“We're going there. We'll be disembarking in New Orleans and from there to New York.”
“You're a lucky man. And I hear you're rich.”
“That's life for you.”
A moment later, Ruiz emerged from the dining car. He was wearing a frayed orange coat. “A cold night is upon us,” he said. “How's it going, Don Nazario?”
Alderete did not acknowledge the greeting. He had a way of ignoring people who were of no use to him, whether in business or in his social aspirations.
“Hi,” said Ricardo.
“Don Nazario, I'm here to invite you to an after-dinner card game,”
“Don't you know yet that it's nearly impossible to beat me at cards?”
“We'll take our chances.”
“The Marquis, Petko, Durbin, and me.”
“And that TrÃ©llez guy?”
“He doesn't play poker, he plays bridge.”
“Like all faggots.”
“He's not a faggot; womanizer would be more like it.”
“Invite him. If he goes, I'll go,” said Alderete.
“Got it,” said Ruiz.
“I'll put in a bottle of whiskey, you guys put in another one. What do you say?”
“Don't be so tight.”
“Fine.” Ruiz looked at him with a rancor that was difficult to hide.
Alderete was enjoying the moment. “You better not fix the cards.”
“You've got to be kidding, Don Nazario.”
“I'll whip you all,” Alderete said, then turned to Ricardo. “You don't play?”
“I play badly.”
“Ricardo's a good kid. We have to keep him away from cards,” said Ruiz.
Alderete smirked at Ruiz. “I've never seen a coat this color before.”
“I bought it from a Jewish friend of mine.”
“I can tell.” Alderete eyed Ruiz as he walked off.
“I won some land from him near the Soligno factory once. I screwed him over because he was out of line.”
“And nobody's screwed you over before?”
“I'm a born winner.”
“There's nothing wrong with losing every now and then.”
Alderete looked the young man over from head to toe. “You're a loser. I can see it in your face.”
“You don't know me.”
“You're an unlucky beginner.”
“Not in everything. Sometimes things go well for me. I'm lucky with women.”
“Gulietta's little ass is mine. Try imagining you're with her when you jerk off tonight.”
“Don't make me disrespect you.”
“You've been circling around her since the train left. Gulietta is my wife. Tomorrow we're taking one of theSantaships and that'll be it.”
“You're a sick man. You need a psychiatrist.”
“Sick or not, she's my wife.”
“Nobody denies that.”
“What do you want then?”
“Nothing. She's just a friend.”
“You won't see her for many years, maybe never again. An adventure on a train with a married womanâis that what's missing from your repertoire?”
“You've got quite an imagination, even though you're only an accountant.”
“If you keep bothering her, then I'll have to use my fists.”
“Why don't we get off at the next station? That way we can see what you can do with those fists.”
“Careful, pretty boy.”
“Better a pretty boy than someone who kisses pretty boys' asses.”
Alderete took a step forward. Ricardo stepped back, removed his jacket, and handed it to the steward, who was observing the drama unfold as if he were sitting in an armchair watching a magic show.
“I won't hit you because Gulietta would make a scene.”
“See? I'm a lucky kid.”
“Laugh all you want, but tonight I'll have her in my bed.”
Ricardo asked Alderete to move aside so he could get to the dining car. Alderete, in spite of himself, complied.
One of the waiters appeared right then, ringing a small bell and knocking on the cabin doors. “Time to sign up for dinner,” he called out.
Father Moreno stuck his impertinent stevedore's face out of his cabin door. Alderete frowned and the Franciscan vanished immediately.
“That little priest, I know him from somewhere. What's his last name?” Alderete asked the waiter.
The man flipped through a notebook. “Moreno. Daniel Moreno. He's a Franciscan.”
“I'm not very religious, but I'm sure I've seen that bastard before.”
“He's a Franciscan.”
“You already told me that. Do you think I'm deaf?” Alderete slowly retraced his steps, trying to remember where he could have seen that face.
Looking at her reflection in the mirror,Anita asked her cabin mate: “Do you think my outfit is too loud?”
Gulietta was smoking and she could still feel Ricardo's caresses on her body.
“Some people don't like red,” said DoÃ±a Clara.
“I've got a white one that I use when I go to the TabarÃs with the girls.”
“The nightclub hostesses . . .”
DoÃ±a Clara had never heard that term before. She went to the window. On the horizon, a ray of sunlight broke the opacity of twilight. She looked out on a row of mountains illuminated by the intense light.
“You must have an interesting life,” said DoÃ±a Clara.
“What did you use to work in?” asked Gulietta.
“Nothing but nightclubs, ever since I was seventeen years old in ValparaÃso. At twenty-five I came to Bolivia. Life is very hard over there in Chile. I retired just two years ago. You know, darling, for certain things, gentlemen prefer youth. Since I retired I've been managing several houses and recruiting girls for friends like the Marquis. I only work with serious people.”
DoÃ±a Clara stood there with her eyes wide open, not even blinking. “Of course . . .”
“I've known the Marquis since I managed my first house in Caiconi, over there above Miraflores. I also met his wife. Once in ValparaÃso, she invited me to her restaurant, which was popular with the chic crowd. Your husband . . .”
“Continue,” said Gulietta. “What happened with my husband?”
Anita blushed, something that didn't occur very often.
“Go on, Anita,” said DoÃ±a Clara.
“Nazario stole his wife.”
“You didn't know?”
“No,” said Gulietta. “How did it happen?”
“They were friends and Alderete was going through tough times. The Marquis let him live at his house out of the goodness of his heart. One day he came back early from soccer and found them in bed together. He wanted to kill him.”
“And why didn't he?”
“The thing is, Gulietta, the Marquis is a sentimental guy. Besides, his old lady started crying. The little bitch got the house and they split the restaurant. If your husband's not a saint, please don't be upset with me.”
“He's a bastard,” replied Gulietta.
“Don't swear,” snipped DoÃ±a Clara.
“Poor Marquis,” said Gulietta. “So he hates him.”
“He doesn't even want to see his face.”
Anita changed her outfit. She was a strong woman who exhibited a certain voluptuousness, though her white skin reflected the stress of hundreds of carnal encounters. Even so, her character was that of a high-society woman and it took a great deal of perceptiveness to divine her past. Over time, she had lost most of her Chilean accent, but traces of it remained. She was attentive, respectful, and a trustworthy friend. Her career as a hooker, and subsequently a madam, didn't stop her from being a sensible matron who adhered to certain rules of the game with respect to Bolivia's prevailing Victorian morality.
“I need air,” said Anita. “I'd rather fly a thousand times, even though it scares me to fly. How can you stand him, Gulietta?”
“I can't stand him. When he touches me, my hair stands on end.”
“That's really something, since his skin is smooth like a Chihuahua.”
DoÃ±a Clara couldn't keep from laughing. Gulietta coughed and then let out a guffaw that could be heard as far as the dining car.
“And you, Anita, how did you put up with them?”
“I stayed focused on the money that came in.”
“You were so brave!” said DoÃ±a Clara.
“It just takes time. Once I went to bed with a sailor they used to call Baby Seal. He didn't have legs or arms, just a torso. I picked him up and put him on top of me as if he were a doll and gave him the orgasm of his life.”
Gulietta and her mother collapsed into each other's arms laughing.
“Take it easy, my darling,” DoÃ±a Clara said. “You won't get anywhere by stirring up trouble.”
“Give him a tranquilizer tonight,” suggested Anita.
“I already gave him one yesterday.”
“Then there's no way around it.”
“No, there isn't, but he won't get a virgin.”
“What? And who . . . ?” asked DoÃ±a Clara.
“I've already planned it out.”
DoÃ±a Clara grabbed her by the shoulders. “Don't even think of it.”
“It's up to me,” said Gulietta. “Leave this to me at least.”
“Ricardo?” asked her mother.
“It's my revenge. My very personal revenge.”
Anita took a small mirror out of her purse and put on lipstick. Mother and daughter looked on in silence.
“Don't do anything stupid that you'll regret later. Alderete will make you pay.”
“And he's my father's murderer. Or did you forget?”
“I'll never forget.”
The train left the Altiplano and began climbing up a steep mountain pass. The locomotive, huffing and puffing, advanced laboriously. The engineer wiped his face, which was streaked with soot. One of the coal men handed him a shot ofpisco. Even though Quispe traversed this section a couple of times a week, each time felt just as exhilarating as the first.
“When do you think we'll be arriving in CharaÃ±a?” asked the coal worker.
“Midnight, as long as the engine doesn't break down,” said Quispe.
Night continued to fall as the train climbed toward the summit. The sun looked like a reddish moon on the horizon as the engine's churning echoed over the mountain.
“You say I play with that bastard?”Petko asked.
Ruiz combed back a clump of black hair sticking out over his forehead like an Apache warrior.
“He says he's going to whip us all,” said Ruiz.
“I not used to play with strangers and tricksters, but if he wants to play with Petko, I have no problem.”
“Let's not make him think we're afraid of him,” said Durbin.
The Irishman had been an employee of the Bolivian Railway for ten years and, after a period as a chief inspector, had retired with an excellent pension that paid him in British pounds. He was a big man, of the size and build one would expect to find in Canada guarding forests and hunting wolves. It was strange for an Irishman of pure stock to wind up in an English company, but his first father-in-law had been a Londoner and it was he who helped Durbin get the job. Durbin's English wife died of tuberculosis, so to help get his mind off his loss, he asked the company he was working with in Liverpool for an exotic assignment. They sent him to the Bolivian Railway, which was like posting him to Katmandu. He anchored his tormented soul in Uyuni, a major railway center with connections to Argentina and Chile. At first he suffered from the high altitude and the cold, but later he met Lourdes, a teacher overcome by solitude and seemingly destined for permanent spinsterhood. Lourdes wasn't pretty, but it was her luck that she fit the bill for Durbin. She was thin and pale, with dark eyes like those of a girl from India. He was the second man she had ever been with. The first was a medical student who emigrated to Brazil, and who, according to news reports, had been cut to pieces at a farm in Matto Grosso. She adopted the Irishman as if he was her own child. He gave her economic stability and she brought him that feminine touch which was missing from his disorderly existence; he drank like a Cossack, frequented sordid brothels, and fought every day with the Bolivian Railway employees, whom he considered lazy and irresponsible. His life slowly became organized. He stopped seeing whores, and even though Lourdes was no Marilyn Monroe, she put a lid on his sexual incontinence. An Irishman built like him needed an ardent woman, but she forced him to move at her pace: a traditional, academic-style sexual schedule: once at night and once in the morning. She wasn't sensual, but she didn't like her students to teach her class. In bed, she was both an educator and a wench. He slowly got used to freezing cold Uyuni. He continued drinking beer but moderated his Celtic violent streak. She took him to the movies every day and he became a dedicated film buff. He loved romantic movies and crime flicks in which black men and other people of color who resembled his fellow moviegoers had the daylights beaten out of them. They were childless and she assured him it was because of the altitude and the climate, even though Durbin never ceased to be amazed at how the miners, despite the squalor in which they lived, managed to have five kids per capita.
He knew the ex-accountant, Alderete. Lourdes's sister, a girl named InÃ©s, had been the man's lover for a good while in PotosÃ, where she lived with her parents. Back then, Alderete was Carletti's accountant in the Encantada mine. The girl had gotten pregnant, which didn't please her family or Alderete, who saw in his future descendant an obstacle to his career as an ambitious bureaucrat. InÃ©s, who was young, naÃ¯ve, and gullible, gave in to Nazario's repeated urgings and had an abortion at the hands of a half-breed midwife in Oruro. Sadly, InÃ©s did not survive. Lourdes had secretly sworn to kill Alderete without her husband's knowledge, yet after a while she dropped the idea and forgot her promise to herself. But when she saw him on the train, she remembered her sister and blood rushed to her face. Just being near him was enough to make her shudder.
“He made fun of my orange coat,” said Ruiz with the face of a hurt child.
“Is your fault, what you approach this bastard for?Khuya*. Do not think that bastards change with time. They stay that way until death,” said Petko.
“He doesn't like Jews,” said Ruiz, jabbing at Petko.
“I do not give shit what he says,” said Petko. “Tonight I sharpen my fingers to take all money he has.”
“Will you talk to Moses?” asked the Marquis.
“Moses lawmaker, Jehovah God. Do not be so ignorant, Marquis. You spent too much time at TabarÃs. Too many women mess up your head.”
TrÃ©llez preened in front of the mirror like a Rio de Janeiro dandy from the '40s. His face was certainly special; it looked like a Venetian carnival mask crafted by a madman.
“I assume you'll be staying at the Hotel PacÃfico, Petko?”
“Where else I stay? Other hotels are for low-class people.”
“I'm not low class,” the Marquis snapped. “But I'm staying at the Madrid.”
“Your case different. You have hostesses over; you cannot stay at Hotel PacÃfico. They do not let you in,” said Petko.
“It bothers you that I get to hook up with pretty Chilean girls, while you're stuck with yourself,” replied the Marquis.
“I go to rest and meditate,” said Petko.
“And think about all the money you're putting away,” added Ruiz.
“Petko put away money? I spend everything. My apartment at EMUSA building costs a ton, and then the suits, and nights out with friends . . .”
“Good thing that half-breed chick doesn't cost you anything,” said Durbin.
“I not drunk Irishman,” said Petko. “I not raise hell in Uyuni bars beating up half-breeds.”
Durbin started laughing, and the others followed suit.
Petko lit a cigar. “Each one costs nearly a dollar,” he said. “Straight from Cuba.”
“What are you going to do with all this money you're saving? Or can you use it in Jewish heaven?” asked Ruiz with a mischievous smile.
“Our heaven different. Abstract. No sexless little angels playing harps.”
Petko stood about 5'4". He had lived in Gorki during the difficult Stalinist period, when dear father Joseph started to eliminate intellectuals and Jewish bankers, accusing them of imperialist plots. He fled in trucks, concealed under sacks of potatoes, and on foot, through inhospitable land where any citizen could be a spy helping the local authorities with their witch hunts. After a few months, frozen and hungry, he arrived at the Hungarian border. From there he traveled to France, where a Jewish organization that assisted refugees helped him ship out to South America. He arrived in Bolivia with a few Argentine pesos in his pocket, but before long he became economically stable, and within a year had evolved into a kind of banker for the Jewish community. He was intelligent and wise, not very cultured but possessing an extraordinary business sense. He was a regular at the Club de La Paz cafÃ© and knew everybody. He was a hardened misogynist, but also outgoing and loquacious. Some people thought he was a nice guy; others considered him impertinent. He was on his way to Arica to pick up imported goods for a textile factory owned by one of his compatriots. Sometimes he would act as intermediary and charge a commission in dollars. Seizing the moment, Petko would stay in Arica for a few days taking in the sun and try to bring his elevated red blood cell countâcommon among people living in La Pazâdown to a reasonable level.
“Durbin talk about half-breed woman. I have half-breed woman and guarantee you is most exquisite thing. I cannot compare with TabarÃs girls or rich girls with fur coats, but guarantee you that this half-breed girl makes me happy. She tastes like the earth. She know everything naturally and do not have to take classes in Marquis apartment.”
“I met your French girl,” Marquis said to TrÃ©llez. “She was a real babe.”
“Alderete made her go back to France. He offered to buy her an apartment, but that son of Satan couldn't please her even with a million dollars.”
“I used to see her walking an enormous dog at the Plaza Avaroa,” remarked the Marquis.
“I bought it from Carlos VÃctor Aramayo, the tin baron,” said TrÃ©llez. “He sold it to me because it used to eat the plants at his house on Avenida Arce . . . She was a delicious girl,” he continued nostalgically. “I met her in Paris in the Lafayette department store. She was a saleswoman. Back then I was Bolivia's ambassador.”
“You couldn't resist,” said Durbin.
“An ambassador is an ambassador, despite the fact that our country isn't exactly a superpower. I miss her, even though it's been a few years since I last saw her.”
“Devil sent that Alderete bastard to earth to do evil bidding. Everything I hear about him involves dirty trick.”
“Did he do anything to you?” asked the Marquis.
“We do not run in same circles,” said Petko. “He lives in mining towns.”
“They tell me he could be named a minister in BalliviÃ¡n's next cabinet.”
“It wouldn't surprise me,” said the Marquis. “He has an impressive rÃ©sumÃ©.”
“Marquis,” said Petko, “you an MNR man. Your future is set.”
“They've been giving us a hard time lately. I'm just a businessman, a little sui generis, but a businessman in the end.”
“Girls to you like product: use and replace.”
“Don't be so blunt,” Ruiz said.
“The Marquis is like a father to these girls. Better that they fall into his hands than into the clutches of another,” Durbin asserted with a tone of benevolence.
“You should marry. Go from one girl to other, bad for your spirit. Lascivious.”
“Hey, we should be planning how to attack Alderete tonight,” suggested Ruiz.
“Want pull fast one?”
“It wouldn't be a bad idea,” said the Marquis.
“I not need tricks to bust that bastard,” said Petko.
“He stole my wife, which is worse than losing property,” said the Marquis.
“I used to think about building a house for my children. Now I rent a place. I was never able to buy myself another one,” said Ruiz.
“You're not old,” said Durbin. “You'll have another chance. There are thousands of properties, but not stolen wives. The Marquis has a dagger in his heart.”
“Property is bullshit,” said Petko. “Stir up trouble for piece of land not right for adult man. I not help with tricks, but sometimes I can wink an eye.”
“Thanks,” replied Ruiz. “Now I need a drink.”