AYAYAYAYAY! Mi hermana esta reading esto and she didn't even realize I was writing these incredibly witty introductory commuents. Auweiayay. Wie konnte sowas geschehn? Aaanyway, this is like the warm-up act. The great artist is about to come on stage and I have your attention for a few brief moments to impress you with my inimitable wit, grab my fifteen seconds' worth, get you on the mood and get the hell off. Without further ado, Ladies and Gentlemen, all the way from La Paz, Bolivia, the greatest (... fill in the blank ...) in the world.... MISTER.....BO......NESTOOOOOO! (wild tumultous, applause, please.)
Resulting in a bout of the flu, locally termed gripe and certainly I’m griping. Everything aches, even my hair. Asunta, delighted at having a bed-bound patient, brings platefuls of greasy eggs which will, at least, plug my bowels so I don’t have to crawl to the toilet.
This is no quiet refuge. Three mornings a week, evenings too, Ignatz broadcasts an hour of recorded bells, then breaks into his holy karaoke. I swear, the faster his flock abandons those candy-floss temples, the more strident he grows. And when Ignatz desists, the neighbours start on cumbias. To get silence, I have to keep my tapes playing.
Dylan drifts through tendrils of fever: ‘Someone says you’re in the wrong place my friend, you’ll have to leave.’ A message from my childhood, visions of rolling papers, sleeping bags and bodies, resurfacing now in this brick hole where nothing will occur until the end of time.
Asleep, I keep dreaming that I’ve woken.
Fever throbbing, lapse and relapse.
Asunta, feigning deafness and senility, potters off, piss-pot in hand. Oy, my spider appears to have disappeared. She swept it away, I know she did, though I’ve told her never to clean up here. And leave that towel! I may need to wank.
No excuses; this is my longest sexless spell since I was 14, when Joanne found Carol drinking slops in a pub (for the unitiated, that’s filling a pint-glass with leftover beers), and brought her to the nest. The range of migrant visitors was one advantage of our chaotic household. Not that Joanne procured me partners, but she often spent nights elsewhere and never asked questions. Mum’s the word.
Joanne slept with Carol a few times, but soon lost interest. I had to know about those adult bumpings and heavings in the night and Carol needed an aikido partner, her martial artistry leading inevitably to sex.
That I eventually rebelled against my upbringing infuriates Joanne. Her son in a boring job, contriving to be normal, leaving the commune in Bilbao, he buries his creativity in a classroom. “I point to distant horizons,” she complained, “and you swim to the nearest desert island.” Nice turn of phrase.
Aldous Huxley rightly dubbed Proust ‘the invalid in the bathtub’, wallowing in accumulated grime, sponging himself with the suds of all his previous washdays.
Memory, confusion, desire.
A week in bed and the silt does surface. Cum, scum.
Fade to Proustian echoes.
Convalescent sits near ex-garden. Hard labour has not transformed this yard into an oasis, though some weeds do manage to sprout through the cement pathway. Wrapped in a shawl, I’m reading “Chaos Theory; an Introduction”. Joanne’s huge collection of books and records, shoplifted or permanently borrowed from friends, served as refuge when weirdness intruded. Pick up a volume, pump up the volume, withdraw. The reading habit remains
I found this tome on the second-hand bookstalls in La Paz, somewhat heavy-going for an invalid, but fascinating nonetheless. Except that chaos, is the wrong word, implying disorder and disharmony, as in this house and yard, as in all my jobs or relationships. But the book is really about flow, currents, smoke, swarming insects, lichen on rocks, the breeze at play in a cornfield. Look at the scudding clouds; unpredictable and yet any child can draw a cloud shape.
And any child could predict stormy weather ahead. In my pocket, Pancho’s message beats, cryptic, latent. Should I burn it, eat it, shred it? Assuming the note’s his and not from Pamela. Ha! There’s a thought, but she’d never stray to badlands of la Garita.
Julio glides into the yard. He’s dragging his own cloud-cover, despite the brilliant light provided by a slanting sun. “I thought you’d look after your trees. Three of them outside have been snapped.” Don’t get mad at me, Julio. If only you knew how glad I am to see you. Spill out your toubles.
Oh! The office hass got to him. Thes state tevelision channel is beaming prime-time clips of the unruly peasants of Kolapata, while Channel 13 showcases the drunken sub-prefect. Edmundo storming, Osvaldo coldly flaying, mutual recrimination is rampant at Copcap headquarters. “Rumour has it, you’re conveniently suffering the longest hangover in history,” Julio taunts.
Then, relenting, he remarks, “You are very pale,” and massages my upper back, threading his thumbs over the nicotine-scarred lungs. Julio must feel the energy we generate at every touch, though I don’t know what it signifies to him. All Bolivian kids, walking the streets arm draped over shoulder, mere comrades apparently. Innocence or disguise? The other temptation is to tell him of Pancho’s note. Quick, think of a distraction.
On the miserable sum I pay her (less than a hundredth of my allowance), Asunta is founding a zoo, her substitute family. There’s a scruffy mongrel pup, Chappie, who’s excavated under the makeshift garden fence, allowing. the hen and chicks to scrabble among the remaining lettuces. Letting in the hen.
So I tell Julio, “Watch this”, and play Dylan’s ‘Lay Lady Lay’. The hen, attracted by the rabbinic whine, sways in front of the radio like a belly-dancer. But the joke’s in English and neither translates nor impresses.
After such an effort, I collapse and he bears me, stair by stair, up to the bedroom, wipes my forehead with the towel (the one that would prove incriminating if forensically tested), closes the curtains and casts this enigmatic comment at me. “You need a girlfriend,” which reverberates in the naked, darkening room. A warning to go straight? No, I interpret it as an invitation - with a girlfriend for cover, we are free.
In spite of the headache, I’ve decided to keep the appointment at la Garita. Soon my destiny will be forged, whether in the ense of shaping or counterfeiting, time will tell. In my weakened state, I’m content to stumble aboard the sun-drenched Especial. And soon I’m asleep.
Down already. My intention is to climb to today’s appointment, square by square. In a city without parks, parking lots and rubbish tips are the open spaces, and the one green areais the pitch of the football stadium. But these plazas have presence, though many are no more than traffic islands. People meet in the squares.
I’ll start at the shapeless Perez, the popular end of the city centre, take in the Alonso, a square square and then to the circular plaza Kennedy, which honours this popular Bolivian folk-figure with a statueless plinth, the result of a dynamite attack. From the Eguino I could walk straight up, but my batteries are fading.
I stagger onto an equally infirm bus that takes the slope at a wide angle, emerging on the great BA, la Avenida Buenos Aires, broad, busy, impersonal, fully meriting the status of avenue. And if a few more trees might add distinction, the telephone cables and bar-signs form an adequate canopy.
But, a short hop away, at La Garita, I feel uncomfortable in a way that I never have in the Alto. Dusk deepens, the yellow gleam of streetlamps accentuating the shadowplay and shady deals. An entirely suitable site for acts of political seduction.
A strange species of square this one, elliptical on an inclined plane and so steep that one climbs rather than crosses it. The steps join a central stairway, stained red from blood or paint, which an elderly man in overalls is tenaciously hosing. Still, the stench of urine is overpowering. At the top of the stairs, either side, bulk two cement tombs, one stencilled ‘Police Holding Cells #3’, the other ‘Neighbourhood Centre’.
I sit on a drying step. Next to me a tree droops, trapped behind railings so that it can’t escape. Roaring traffic circles, and once grand buildings (this was the main route to the Ceja until the motorway) now stare with indifference on the scene below, the wheels, the deals, the stealing and the teeming - chaos for beginners.
Headlights jitter and glare.
“Bien pues, you made it.” A phlegmy voice startles me out of my skin.
The thick glasses identify Mario in long overcoat, woollen scarf and angled hat.
“No hables, it’s not safe here. Just follow me. ” And he crosses in front of the police cells, over the road to the Ciné Monumental Roxy now showing ‘Way Out West - Part Two’ and ‘Golden Eye - Part One’. Shaky, weakened, I am monumentally unprepared for this encounter.
Couples and loners are queuing in a foyer of glorious decrepitude.. Mice scuttle between velvet drapes and columns of flaking gold paint. Chrome fittings dangle. This picture palace is disintegrating.
“Buy two tickets for the stalls,” Mario commands, no longer vague but myopically alert. The crisp banknote, recently issued and worth the paper it’s printed on these neo-liberal days, seems futuristic in this mildewed flea-pit.
To my surprise, a poster is advertising ‘Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid’, one of Joanne’s all-time favorites. She played the Dylan soundtrack so often that the album contained more scratches than music.
I walk over to the uniformed usher, point to the poster and ask for confirmation. Mario blinks disapprovingly, we are trying to stay inconspicuous. I get what deserve, a precise and baffling reply. “Si señor, es la misma pelicula con diferentes actores.” – yes sir, it’s the same movie with different actors. A scowling Mario nudges me through the dusty drapes.
We take a seat by a side door. Certainly a different movie, must have been the only Western poster they had. How disappointing. The day’s exertions tell and I’m soon asleep, waking somewhere in the next film, in time to see the husky enemy agent squeeze an admiral to death between her admirable thighs. Engrossing. She’s in a sauna, repeating the manoeuvre on Bond, when Mario suddenly hisses, “Vamonos.” Three of us vanish through the emergency exit.
I have no sense of direction, so doubling back along dim alleys to confuse me is quite pointless. Through mud and mire, pretending to cover a fair distance, before we approach a green door (why not?) and enter a cobbled yard. The sound of traffic nearby carries plainly.
The owner of the api joint, surely a comrade, transfers his customers to an outside kiosk and closes the wooden doors behind us. We are served the thick, hot, sweet, purple, cornmeal api drink, then mine host retires. Pancho removes the ski-mask that makes him look so clandestine and loosens his jacket.
The man’s a plain speaker, thank goodness, but it’s still like tuning into the middle of a three-hour talk. “There is an Andean pattern of trading. Foreign economic models won’t work for us.”
To test his temper, I mention my stroll around la Garita, all those Chinese pencils, saucepans, plates, clothes, microwaves, computers. Floated in container-ships over the Pacific, hardly Andean commerce. The people aren’t going to rise, not while they have a throwaway, consumer society to entertain them.
Politely, emphatically Pancho states, “We don’t reject property rights or commerce. Indigenenous structures will be modernised.” I’m wondering if he always talks like a pamphlet, when he taps a finger on the plastic tablecloth and hooks mmy attention: “We demand sovereignty. The altiolano is ours, you know The Alto is ours, too.”
Stillness, intensity, purpose. Steam rising from our glasses of api, the oil-lamps flickering. We could be travellers at a medieval tavern, but for the Saturday night traffic an adobe width away.
I light my Astoria. Polishing his spectacles, Mario begins telling the story of Ché’s last smoke. Pancho resumes; “The Alto is an extension of the countryside and these are our folk,” he says matter of fact. “We can take the city anytime.”
I’m striving to maintain a cynical distance from this monologue, but the probing brown eyes, compel. He hasn’t made an offer yet, simply that inclusive, seductive ‘we’.
Let’s get this straight; we, that is the Aymara, and the Quechua, and I........ “Pancho, if the uprising is indigenous, what’s my role? Che, the outsider didn’t exactly achieve anything.”
“Your support will be useful, of course it will.” Pancho nods to Mario.
“We’re going to block all access to the countryside, take the Alto and starve the city,” says the old-timer, froth forming on his lips, api spilling onto the plastic tablecloth. An oil-lamp splutters agreement. “Don’t forget, elecricity and water supplies pass through the Alto. And they’ve a million people to feed downtown.”
Sounds logical, crazy, doomed. But why are you telling me? Think I’m a paragon of trustworthiness?
Pancho raises a forefinger, his gaze stretching beyond this fetid room to prophetic infinities. “The airport’s the key. Once the bastards in the zona sur can’t fly away to Miami, they’re trapped.”
“But, Pancho,” I interrupt, “next to the airport is an air-force base and there are two other garrisons in the Alto.”
“The army conscripts are either countryfolk or alteños. They’ll change sides, the middle-level officers too when they see what’s happening. An alliance campesino-militar, that’s our goal.”
The braveheart syndrome, I suspect, one more heroic defeat to blur the line between hope and illusion. Locked in a cubby-hole, unable to show his face on the street, does Sr. Clandestino feel the pulse of the times or is he raving?
Pancho regards me coolly. “So, we can count on you?” My trembling could herald the return of the flu, or perhaps it simply reflects the absurdity/enormity of this moment. I sneeze into his handsome aquiline face. Seduced by the off-chance of a footnote in history, I’m drifting into conspiracy. Quiet and earnest, Pancho is arming a mad venture into which I will fit like a square peg in a black hole.
Surely now’s the time to say, I’m not a politico. I’m a dreamy onlooker who smokes dope.
“What do you want me to do?”
“Just carry on as you are. You may never know when or how you’ve helped us.” He rises, shakes my hand, Mario orders me to wait five minutes before leaving. They’re gone. I swill the dregs of my cold drink.
Pressing Engagements : part two
Mist has penetrated the city, rain threatens, the sour api aftertaste repeats in my throat, a fitting encore to that epic, corny scene. Saturday evening and I’m footloose and shackled, so I phone Tzipi but she’s out, probably holding court at El Lobo. However wobbly I feel, the need for a joint will pull me down there, if only to clear my head of the meeting.
On the Max Paredes street, the pavements are chock-a-block with seated, standing, strolling vendors. The crawling traffic belches and farts. A snatch of mystic doggerel pops into my head:
“In the bazaar they buy and sell.
Why they do it I cannot tell.
But since they persist,
They may as well.”
Sure, Pancho pins his hope on the Alto, but don’t give me that shit about Andean trading patterns. All markets are the same. And his fellow-Aymara down here in La Paz, are we going to starve them into joining the revolution?
I’m flattered that Pancho should offer me the cameo-role of concerned gringo in his B-movie, ‘Tupac Guevara Rides Again’. but he’s simplified the issues. For all the decent urban folk, it’s the rogues who prosper.
Witness: at this moment an anoraked thief is stalking the lines of stalled vehicles. There he strikes, hand poking through a bus window to snatch a bowler hat before scurrying into the sidestreet like a rat down a drain. The poor señora howls, as well she might. Those hats are expensive - and personal; the indignity of another woman wearing it.
I’m privileged. Simple for me to step from street-stress to el Lobo, where Bolivia, if it exists at all, is an exotic backdrop. Israeli travellers cram the café but Tzipi’s radar gaze fixes on me immediately. With a gesture, she parts the sea of bodies and saunters this way.
“So long I’m waiting for you.” A short squall of Hebrew persuades two compatriots, deep in conversation and a beer, to vacate their seats. Impressive.
“I want to hear all your news,” she demands.
Unwisely I reveal that I’ve just been meeting some friends and then get flustered when she asks who.
“Nevermind. We’ll have beer,” she says and with a flick of the wrist attracts the lone, harrassed waiter, reels him in across the room on an invisible line.
But the alcohol on top of the flu, the api, the monumental thrills of the day, sets my head spinning. I barely manage to reach the toilets and even then have to hammer on the door first and argue with some idiot inside, just to vomit acceptably near the bowl.
“C’mon, I’ll take you home, you’re a real mess.”
In a reversal of Julio’s heroics, she guides me down the stairs, halts a cab, bundles me in. The radio’s playing some forgotten song. I hang out of the window, spewing. Zippety-do-da, Tzipi today, my dream scenario and I’m miles away.
The little I see of the living room, before the next surge of gorge hits, confirms that the apartment remains a squalid mess, even without Yod and his Cuban side-kick Clothes and mugs and ashtrays and magazines litter the floor, two or three large cushions serving as stepping-stones. Mama Rosa would not approve of such housekeeping.
Tzipi leads me to bed in a dark, stagnant room (Carlo’s?), promising to return later with tea and a joint. It’s all I can do to undress and flop under the covers before blacking out. I assume it’s a feverish dream that she gives a blow-job during the night; for when I reach out, no naked form is curled beside me.
“If you want morning coffee, come and get it.”
In Yod’s room, the curtains drawn tight against the morning sun, Tzipi is seated at a computer. She smiles, motions me closer. She turns, offers her face for a kiss. I peck at her cheek, she switches to full lip contact. Squinting over her shoulder at the e-mails, this apology for a he-male blushes.
“Good, so you’re feeling a little better.” Slightly roused, and curious about last night, unwilling to enquire. “Yod is very concerned about your health.” Meaning, she’s in contact with him at his jungle eco-lodge, and he’s informed of my visit. High technology for a bunch of backpackers.
“I’m OK, thanks.”
“Good, because I really want to hear all about those mysterious friends you met last night,” she purrs like we’re sitting in an espresso bar discussing recent bar-mitzvahs. “I’ve finished here. Let’s have a joint over breakfast.”
She strides gracefully into the living room. Her pantaloons of blue parachute silk cling far too alluringly for this hour of the day, her sleeveless vest is short and tight. I sigh and follow obediently.
The floor has been partially cleared of refuse. Each to our cushion, cross-legged. I lean against the orange sofa, fondling a cup of excellent coffee. She’s rolling a joint, composed, ramrod stiff - I’m getting that way too. Her quizzical glances unnerve, so I whip out a cigarette and launch into Mario’s Astoria tale.
Che, wounded, captured, spent the last night of his life on the mud floor of schoolhouse in La Higuera village. The jubilant army officers retired to await orders and, leaving a conscript on guard duty. Che had finished or lost his tobacco and the soldier, who smoked Astoria, the cheapest and the best, gave his prisoner a handful of the cigarettes, which Ché crumpled, stuffing them into his pipe.
“So, Che’s last smoke was Astoria.”
“How very interesting that these friends of yours discuss Che in such detail.” Oops! She sucks on the joint as if it were that famous pipeful, meditates a while, hands it to me. “And strange that you don’t remember their names.”
“Well, I only just met them.” Silence.
“And what did you do with them last night?”
Talk, anything to divert this weird insistence. “We went to the movies.” I tell her about the confusion over the western and that spy film, the scissoring agent.
She interrupts me. “And how did this Bond girl grip?”
“Like we’re sitting - straight on.”
“Ah. That is not the way. Put your cup down. I will show you,” and before I can take evasive action, she’s beside me and has wrapped her legs around my stomach in a wrestler’s grip. Below soft skin, ridges of thigh muscle ripple and tense. The hold tightens.
“This is not the way either,” she explains.
“Really,” I gasp, quite proud that by holding my breath in, I can just resist.
“Yes, but here’s a trick. If I let go,” the air escapes involuntarily and before I can take another breath in she’s reapplied the pressure, harder, a cute form of suffocation. I’m blacking out.
“Yod would like to know who your friends are,” she says straddling me now, “And you’ll tell me, won’t you?”
Still imagining my latest pratfall is a lark, I try, “What a delicious torturer you are.” But whereas Carol’s displays of aikido were all balance and flow, Tzipi’s is not playful. She’s slid sideways on, her knees at one kidney tucked into the corner of the rib-cage. Meanwhile, my right arm is twisted and locked to the verge of pain.
“This is really the scissors,” she exclaims and squeezs those knees, “Now talk.”
When I regain consciousness, we’re both naked. She is riding the most prolonged, most exorbitant erection of my life. Who knows what secrets I have blurted out. My word is my bondage, I’ll be bound.
One last comment as she’s dressing. “It’s good you finally met Pancho.”
I really wish they wouldn’t keep saying that.
All Sorts’ Eve
“What a first degree wanker you are, Jim.”
Sandy has returned, hair cropped and streamlined, beaming energy after a successful guerilla bungee-jumping expedition. “Yeah, I found this bridge over an amazing canyon. But don’t sidetrack me now we’re discussing your male fantasies. And the worst part is how you enjoyed the whole episode.”
Upstairs at sunset hour, liberally sharing her grass and scorn, while the adobe turns orange, the brickwork bloody. “Your life has to change right now, and we’ll start with this damn bedroom. Go get lost for a while.”
I descend to Asunta’s new fiefdom of blaring tv and radio. Though she sleeps in the understairs cupboard, the old dear has claimed thewhole ground floor. She’s preparing an evening meal we won’t eat; Sandy’s vegetarian, I’m queasy. Glancing at the ceiling, Asunta enquires, “Tu amiga, what’s she up to?”
“Just rearranging my room.”
“Well, as long as nothing’s scratched. El licensiado would be most annoyed,” she comments (nothing upsets her more that the threat of Edmundo’s displeasure), then resumes charring onions in a gallon of fat.
When I venture up, Sandy’s transformed the bedroom by some sleight of feng-shui. Looks like she’s shifted the walls. Bedframe, desk and chair rug have vanished. The mattress is at an odd angle on the floor. “What splinters? Toughen up, Jim.” A blanket covers the window above which the spider once span. It’s going to be dark.
“Why look out if there’s no view?”
“Just that I could do with some daylight.”
“Fine. We’ll make another window up here, a circular one. Got a hammer and chisel?”
“Tomorrow, Sandy, please”
She leads me over the landing to her room. “This is your meditation space.” In the corner, on a batik scarf, rest an incense holder, a crystal, a mottled rock. She’s radiant, full lotus under the simple altar. “Faces east. Sit here fifteen minutes every morning to clear that crap from your head.”
“Let’s roll a spliff and you can hit me with more psychology.”
She laughs, “Hit’s the word, isn’t it Jim. You’re a masochist as well as supreme wanker. I wanna hear more about this Carol.”
“Well, I owe her a lot. I mean, she saved me from being a nerd. There I was in a backward mill-town, all clogs and booze, the hippy kid, a complete outsider. Imagine, I listened to Zappa and read books, apart from having this outrageous mum who collected weirdos. It kind of counted for something when I arrived at school reeking of sex.”
“I bet this is your safety-net, how you always tell the tale.”
“No, look, sure, perhaps I was a bit young, but Carol wasn’t much older. Talented too. She was writing a rock-opera on the Ancient Mariner. ‘We were the first that ever burst into that silent sea.’ That’s the chorus I remember. Never seen a production, mind you. Wonder what happened to it.”
“Don’t worry, you’re still wearing the albatross around your neck, pal. And all that aikido bit, seems to have left you twisted. That’s why you fell for the Israeli girl’s honeytrap. Strong women and weak males, you go for them. You’ve no willpower. They pull you in.”
“ Julio’s not weak..”
“Not physically. But you see him as inferior because he’s Bolivian. That’s your subtle racism, said yourself that his views are dumb. From a cool height you really look down on Bolivians, don’t you?” Not on Panch, I don’t. But I haven’t said a word to Sandy about him, though I almost trust her. It’s just hat such an intriguing story she’d have to spread along the gringo trail.
“And the gay trip?”
“Ah, that started with creepy Dennis, another of mum’s prize finds.”
We are getting closer to where maggots crawl, I’m sure we are, when there’s a commotion outside. Tyres skid, stones clatter against the metal street-door, and Chappie, apprentice guard-dog, howls warning and welcome.
“Odd - I almost never have callers.” But a fair crowd is now coughing and shuffling downstairs. Sandy shrugs, gestures me away. “Your scene. I’ll meditate till you return.”
Downstairs, Asunta has turned off the tv. This could be serious.
Luis, fulfilling his pledge to visit, introduces a familyful - his greyhound lean wife in pollera and bowler, a son, the son’s wife, their three children. He smiles widely, revealing isolated teeth. Asunta, expectant as a first-night audience, has changed into her vicuña shawl for the occasion. She’s knows what’s up.
As the visitors compose themselves and the sofa groans with delight, Luis’ smalltalk floats like rocks. What a nice house - wrong, but Sandy’s working on correcting the vibes. Unseasonably warm weather - wouldn’t know. The national soccer team lost again - so, losers lose, what’s new?
The son is a younger version of his father, soft and amorphous, same toady smile, though he has gold-edged teeth and an ample, dimpled wife. His kids, aged ten to three, sit squeezed, rigid and silent, on one armchair. They’re so frightened, not even their legs swing. Maybe they’ve been told, “If you don’t behave the gringo will sell you abroad,” a control ploy I often hear mothers use on the buses.
The minutes stretch excruciatingly. I light a cigarette to disguise the smell of grass wafting down the stairs, send Asunta to make tea (treating her at last as a servant), and wonder what this invasion portends.
Hands on knees, the adults stare at me, while the kids only dare concentrate on the floor. Finally, Luis clears his throat. “Querido Jaime,” he begins, “in consideration of the great respect in which I hold you, I have come to beg one small favour.” Doesn’t sound promising, might be money. Another gob of phlegm circlulates in his mouth. The Copcap designers forgot the spittoon.
“My son is getting married soon and we are searching for a padrino.” Godfather! Oh God, new territory.
“I’ve no idea what that entails, Luis.”
“Nothing to it. You simply have to be present.” Not so much a lie, more, partial truth. There’s a lot more to being a padrino, but I don’t know yet and Asunta, basking in the reflected spotlight like she’s met royalty, isn’t letting on.
Not to excuse my weakness, but you know how dope spreads sentimental manure by the truckload. Even as I mumble, “OK, I’ll do it,” Sandy’s verdict echoes, “Pull you in, they pull you in.”
The guests exhale collectively. Luis and son march out, and I think, well, that didn’t hurt too much. But soon they’ve returned hauling sacks of potatoes, peas, beans, corn. Then they lay the carcass of a gently bleeding sheep at my feet, and two crates of beer (that’s twenty-four bottles, ye gods). Asunta orchestrates fervent embraces, after which the another round of silence looms.
Luis manages “Bien, compadre,” and rubs his hands together speculatively. Etiquette probably requires I seal our new relationship with a similar comment, but, way too late, doubts are arising, cold feet march brainwards. Luis, unattached to the Copcap groups or management, expressing no opinion in the office or on the road, to whom I may have spoken thirty words in nearly these months, has coralled me into a false intimacy.
And as for the son, whose name I don’t recall despite being introduced fifteeen minutes ago (it’s something classical - Oedipus, Plato or Dionisio), how can he can be in urgent need of a wedding with those growing kids?
Sandy appears in shorts. The sound of beer bottles popping has vanquished that of one hand clapping. She whoops delightedly and is dragged centre-stage by Luis’s wife who’s marvelling at the sudden appearance of a godmother for the big day. Fortunately, Sandy doesn’t have enough Spanish to know what they’re planning, or she’d leave. That Aussie capacity to party anytime, anywhere, indefinitely, carries us into the night.
And for a while the booze does animate our company. Luis remembers his rural childhood, even converses in Aymara with Asunta, until his city-bred wife’s flat, bilious stare dissolves the sparkle. The son, a blob of scant intelligence, leers at Sandy’s bronzed legs.
I’m mightily tired of these guests long before they depart. At two of the morning, Asunta is huddled on the floor, blissfully asleep. The wives can handle their liquor, drinking from a calm, deep well and Sandy bubbles, an emeritus professor of fizzie-ology. But Luis is weeping and sweating, the man lacks teeth, and my new godson, Archimedes or whatever, is slurring idiocies in my face.
It’s the Parthian shot that defeats, always. As the family, carrying the kids, stagger to the car, Luis shouts back, “Don’t forget, compadre, you’ll need to take courses with Padre Ignacio.”
Hell’s bells! “When’s the wedding?”
“Not till next Saturday.”
By noon, realizing that Asunta isn’t going to furnish any practical information on the duties of a padrino, we decide to consult Doña Rosa. On the way, I again try to convince Sandy of the Alto’s marvellous, organic unity. “I once shot this slow-motion documentary of a life in a termite colony,” she replies. “Up to a point it was interesting, but no reason to become a termite.”
She’s only relents when a dozen big dogs trap us in a narrow street. “Rocky, Rocky, Rocky,” I intone, raising right hand high. The pack parts and lets us through. San Roque, patron saint of dogs, I explain. “Doña Rosa taught me the trick. I’m sure she’ll impress you.”
But we find her stooping to sweep the stoop, red-eyed as ourselves, though not from all-night dnnking. Rosa’s trembling, should send us packing, but her innate hospitality propels us inside, where kids are cowering and the teenagers scowl at smashed windows.
“You may as well know,” says Rosa, “Viviana’s pregnant. And this is her father’s response to the news.” She points to the wreckage. His wife, bathing her face under the standpipe, displays extensive bruising. Inside one of the rooms, a girl is wailing rhythmically, softly.
My pal, the nephew, comes reluctantly over to shake hands, in his belt a unsheathed commando knife. I introduce Sandy, explain the situation to her, watch her expression change from horror to outrage.
And it’s not just the edgy lull that’s making the yard unnaturally quiet. The dogs? “Goni and Bobby?” I ask, fearing the worse when the smaller kids start crying. “Thieves killed them last week, ” laments Rosa, “Threw poisoned meat over the wall before breaking in. We all slept through it.”
At least, we’ve avoided Diego on the rampage for his daughter’s honour. Drowning his sorrows in a bar probably, listening to cumbias that will convince him how women always destroy a man’s tranquility.
“I’d rather he was here,” roars Sandy. “I’d give him a piece of the action.” Rosa dismisses my translation with a shake of her head and invites us in for tea. As we enter her room, unknown faces peer from behind a door. “We’ve taken in lodgers,” she explains defensively. “Money’s tight.” Call it dope prescience, but I don’t dig these newcomers.
It’s hard communicating with Rosa today, like wading through thick fluid. When she notes how stoned we are, I explain our condition as chaki, a hangover from Luis’ visit and recount the deal. The clock ticks, Rosa tut-tuts, but his naming me padrino hardly surprise her.
“Lot of people in the mines used to do that. Pick foreign managers and engineers, thinking they’d get favours that way. Tempting but it’s the worst possible choice. Ser padrino, madrina, compadre, comadre es para la vida.” A lifelong link. “Couple of years and the foreigners have gone. You’ll do the same, Jaime.”
“OK, but what are my duties?”
“Not too much. The ring’s bought, the reception’s already arranged. You have to accompany the couple and greet the guests. You’re there for the future, to solve their problems.” Financial? “Not always.”
“And Ignacio’s courses?”
Shouts in the yard, a slamming of doors, exclamations, explanations, Ana marches in. “Don’t bother introducing me to your compañera,” she sneers, the choice of word implying sexual relations. She storms out. I’ve forgotten what jealousy does to a gal. Sandy, pure soul, registers nothing of the drama she’s caused, assuming that Ana’s reacted to Diego’s behaviour.
“Please excuse her,” says Rosa, “She’s upset. We all are,” and pours more tea. “The courses before the wedding are obligatory, Jaime You’ll have to attend them. But I can’t understand why Luis did this now. Tonight is Todos Santos and it’s the wrong time to conduct any personal business. He should have waited.”
“What’s she saying,” asks Sandy. I tell her. “Yeah? The day of the dead - all souls? Ask Rosa what goes on here.”
Rosa does better, takes us to the room she’s cleared for her aunt. “For three years after the death we prepare a meal on Todos Santos. The family welcomes the soul and serves it food and drink. The next day we’ll accompany her back to cemetery.” On the table, a black-bordered photo of a stern lady dominates the shrine. Piled around her are bread, pastries, fruit, alcohol, coca and cigarettes. Benches line three sides of the otherwise empty room. Rosa may have recently joined the adventists, but customs prevail.
“Freaky,” declares Sandy.
“You’re welcome to stay if you wish. We’ll be up all night.” Thank you, no; the scene is fraught, smouldering, lacks only Diego’s return to reignite. And if he doesn’t show, the women may well quarrel among themselves, if only to assure Auntie she’s back. One trusts Pancho has not based the rational, lofty, Andean republic on his family’s example.
Leaving the dearly departed, we depart.
Later, much later, Sandy insists on a walk. Drizzle strengthening to rain hasn’t deflected the dead, who guided by the uncanny flute music, home in. The darkness is filled with strangers in the night, spirits in the sky and, strangely, laughter in the rain.
“So much death within the last three years,” Sandy sighs, observing the kids move from house to house, filling their sacks with bread in return for prayers.
Doors stand open. We enter a few places, mumble our hare krishnas and hare potters before the shrine, chew coca and smoke a while, always welcomed, never staying long. The party atmosphere is studiously maintained by the living; they are not mourners but survivors, celebrating a visit from the deceased. What shocks us most are the photos of young adults and children.
“Shit,” says Sandy, “The spirits really are everywhere. Halloween without disguises and it’s giving me the goosebumps. You think they’re grateful for the summons?”
“Dunno about the grateful dead, but I hope no-one forgets to coax them back tomorrow. Fancy going to the boneyard?”
“I’m out of here first thing,” she says, resuming our intermittent argument. “These customs are quaint, I’ll give you that, but crowds and buildings bore me.”
“Well, what else do you expect of a city, Sandy?”
“I suppose I shouldn’t gripe. Three in the morning and the place is crawling with the living and the dead. But I’m soaked to the skin. Home, please, if we can find it.”
In the yard Chappie greets us whining, then bolts under the sofa since he can’t now get under my bed, anywhere away from the souls straying overhead. I carry tea upstairs to where Sandy is rolling the restorative joint.
“Everything’s messed up in your beloved Alto, Jim. That’s why you fit in so well. Take Rosa - I like her, but that household, really man.”
“Oh, that reminds me. She says, Luis should have chosen a couple. Would you consider accompanying me to the wedding?”
“Go to hell, you creep!” yells Sandy. “The way you allow things to happen is so bogus.” She grabs her sleeping-bag and escapes over the corridor to the meditation room. I lay on my mattress, listening to flutes wailing at the macabre banquets.
Coping With Crap
The atmosphere's changed since that anniversary. El directorio met last week, inviting no outsiders, issuing no statements. On the top floor, the bosses are isolated and scheming, while below clusters of socios mill. It’s the national mood; sporadic roadblocks, marches in the cities, stones, teargas, broken windows, cracked skulls, the odd death.
At this moment I’m attending a joint session of the Project and Social committees, but my thoughts are on the recent batch of letters from home. Sarah reports that she’s suffering. Geordie’s living upstairs with Leo and she doesn’t have to add a comment on who brought the boy to the house. C'mon Sarah, an artist can usually convert the pain into gain.
The other correspondent is Joanne, thanking me for such an amusing series of letters. You’ve quite sold Bolivia to me, she enthuses (funny, I thought there was nothing left to ransack after the privatisations), and now, dearest son, since you’re a millionaire in local currency, send me a ticket and I’ll come over. An unsettling prospect.
Foolish to daydream on commission time. Around the grand table, attention has focused on Ana and it’s getting personal. As a staff member, however low on the salary scale, she's open to accusations of earning at the socios’ expense. Even Elvira is under attack, and the treasurer only receives a viático, daily expenses. The two are parrying inquiries about their finances.
Our committee bays for blood, victims hunting culprits when the real issue is the projects. All at once the meeting turns its jaws towards me. “How much do you pocket, Jaime?” asks a squat city-woman dressed in mourning. Oops - my diplomatic immunity blown.
“Err - I don’t receive a wage. I’m a volunteer, remember?” That touch of aggresssion at the end results from embarrassment. I’ve no desire to admit before this comisión that my thousand dollar a month allowance, not counting health insurance, housing, travel, dope-fund, etc.
She’s persistent though, a regular pitbull. “The volunteer organization obviously pays you something.”
“Yes,” (thank you Joanne for this timely inspiration), “But I’m sending the money to my mother.” Ah, what a good boy!
And little Doña Amalia, head of this Project Committee, completes the rescue. “It’s none of our concern, Doña Berta. Whatever he’s paid is entirely independent of the Copcap budget. He’s not taking it off us.”
“But the rest of the staff are,” gnashes Berta, and two dozen committee members grunt approval. They are not being greedy; all around them, money grows on trees, out of reach, no ladders provided. The tv trumpets, ‘Bolivia, economic miracle, darling of the IMF ', so why are times hard? Of course these decent men and women are angry. They've wasted a day surveying the credits that have indebted them.
I attempt to sidetrack the aggro, reminding them of the evaluation team on the way. “We have to straighten out these projects before it arrives.”
“And what do they want with us?” grumbles Berta.
“Merely to see how their money’s been spent.”
An old timer in a shiny suit raises a grizzled hand. “La palabra. For our information, could you tell us where the money comes from?” Huh, sometimes only the bluntest of questions is sufficiently acute.
A list of donors, the Swedish Ecclesiastical Council, European Union, German Fair Trading Group, doesn’t satisfy him. “No, what I’m asking is, how did these people make that money?”
Good point. Can’t imagine the churches passing a bucket round their congregations for the half-kroners - has to be from property or investments. As for the EU, cash doesn’t exist in that figure-juggling euro-wonderland; their charity is discounted against rebates to the artichoke farmers of the Dordogne. And the Germans, well, they sell hand-knitted sweaters at luxury prices to assuage their endless guilt. It’s difficult to explain the set-up but I try.
“If that’s the case,” comments Elvira entering the debate at last, “I don’t see why they require us to balance our books at all. None of them produce a thing. They should just give us the money and let us use it as we see fit.” Applause, banging on table, whistles, order sheets thrown to the air - the usual democratic decorum.
“Fair enough,” I admit, “We'll make a list of our needs.” Interesting, for when one does abandon the repayment game, what emerges is the next generation - we want nurseries, a youth club, computer services and internet training. The rural groups add legal advice, land titles are hot. And everyone demands a mobile health programme to replace the degenerate Dr. Beto.
“Entonces, de acuerdo. Agreed. Jaime will take these proposals directly to the evaluators when they arrive,” commands Elvira, “and not a word to those upstairs,” which lands me in a conflict of interests. But duplicity suits the conspirator, doesn’t it? It's training.
“One more point,” says Amalia. “The directorio have entrusred us to correct the bad atmosphere in our association. As you may know, the first step is a Mass to be conducted by Padre Ignacio later today.” Wha-a-a-t! The crazed crooner in my own backyard? “But we must also decide between a coca-reading or a millucha.”
At this last word, the members grimace. “I propose that the coca is sufficient,” says Elvira, but she’s outvoted. Leyendo la coca is soothsaying on a par with consulting the I Ching (the leaves have light and dark green sides), yet the commision has opted for the other, far heavier ceremony, even I hesitate to name it twice in one page, that serves to fix blame and invoke punishment.
The craggy old-timer is a practitioner. He’ll undertake the ritual over the weekend, but first the building must be emptied of people and cleansed. He names a ridiculously high fee that no-one dares dispute (despite the financial quibbling of the last five hours). The meeting dissolves with a shudder.
Ana, determined to counterattack after the harrassment she’s endured, intercepts me before I can reach the stairs. Within general hearing, she hisses, “You should know that your new compadre Luis is a spy.” What a wonderful day this is turning into.
An hour to prepare for the conference upstairs and decide on tactics before facing Osvaldo, but I’d require more than a lifetime to reconcile the socios' demands with his designs. Maybe I should burst into his office and ask what this farcical association is meant to achieve, but he’ll just brush me aside with talk of alleviating poverty through credit and work opportunities, the usual fossilized dung, pure Copcap copro-crap.
When we do meet, he’s closer to delirium, rambling about peasant insurgencies, the crisis at this office (you’ve had a very negative effect here, young man), and the Director's high blood pressure. That one’s true; the last glimpse I caught of Edmundo, he was looking puffy.
Not that Osvaldo's so great himself. I wonder about the tightening of skin on his skull, and whether he’s acquired that nervous tic from the wall-clocks which have all recently stopped. When an orderly man cracks, mind the gaps.
“A quarter of a million dollars hangs on the evaluators' visit,” he whispers (wouldn't do for the plebs to overhear). “I’m relying on you to convince the groups not to complain.” Might as well ask me to empty the lake with a teaspoon. “The team's a Finnish couple who don’t speak any Spanish.” Fabulous, a pair of functionally illiterate snoopers parachuting in. “If you give a good impression, perhaps we’ll pull through,” he confides, no longer deeming my influence quite so negative. Then he twitches twice.
I excuse myself to mingle in the knots of socios. They talk to me, friendly enough yet guarded, returning to Aymara amongst themselves, a language at which I’ve made no progress.
Suddenly, the ground floor has emptied. In the yard, an indignant Ignatz is berating his flock. “Christ lies bleeding because you haven’t baptized your children or sanctified the union of man and woman. You wretches don’t even come to mass on Sundays.” He’s shouting at these hardened folk around whose susceptibilities even Edmundo and Osvaldo tiptoe. And the nonsense he’s spouting in no way relates to their problems.
Bossy, bullying Ignatz, taking advantage of the people’s deep spirituality. Fondling his guitar the way I’d treasure that first cigarette of the day, he begins the ritual. Illogically, they respond with respect, almost affection, chanting the responses.
I can guess why. According to Elvira, 20 years ago, this man stood against the dictator Garcia Meza’s police force. The Alto was desolate plain then. First settlers had built rude adobe walls, single rooms, no electricity or water. In all that emptiness, the police were instructed to snatch the land for their own families. And those days, challenging authority was tantamount to a single ticket to the torture cells.
“If you arrest them, you take me too,” Ignatz had said, so the police did. The next day he brought the settlers home, triumphant. He was a righter of wrongs then, now reduced to peddling mass, baptism and marriage - form without content.
Well, James. This is an opportunity to negotiate over those damned courses. If you can get dispensation from the man himself ................
“Excuse me, padre, I need to talk to you.”
“Yes, my son,” he archly responds, stamping hierarchy on our coversation.
“I’m going to be a padrino de matrimonio and these courses...........”
“Are absolutely necessary to comprehend the significance of holy matrimony.”
“I have studied religions, padre."
“But have you ever studied the truth?” Ever the Christian, he’s nailed me. I can’t recall encountering much truth.
“Come to the church on Friday night to prepare yourself.” Unnecessary, thanks, I’m an adept at blundering blind into situations. But the steel frames of his eyeglasses glint with a cold, merciless light. Divining some hesitation, he joins today’s queue to influence Jaime, switching to English for greater intimacy.
“Violence is coming and violence is wrong. I vant you to calm zese radical elements.” Since I don’t react, he perseveres. “Christ lived for love.”
“And died,” I reply.
“And vas riborn,” he counters.
“Yeah, padre, big changes do happen. Sometimes, they’re very necessary. Join us” I’ve trumped him, so he reverts to manic street blackmailer.
“You vill kum Friday or zat couple vill not be marry.”
His smug authority-trip rubs me the wrong way. I can’t head home; without Sandy, the place is unbearable. Furious at myself, furious at the priest, I storm along the main avenue like a contortionist on speed, anguishing over the skills I’m going to need to balance all these conflicting claims.
Hunk, honk. Hunk, honk. The asthmatic horn fails at first to engage my attention. “Oye, Jaime! Anyone home?” Dr. Beto waves from what might be an ancient taxi, except that he’s driving, erratically it has to be said. “Over here,” signals Vanesa from the passenger seat. “Come for a ride,” she says. “We’re going out to eat.”
They take me to a dingy restaurant near the Ceja that specializes in plates of sheep’s head and rice. The pair spoon out brains enthusiastically, urge an eyeball or two on me. Doc won't spoil the feast by discussing work. “Fine, fine, couldn’t be better.”
He’s unaware of Vanesa playing footsie under the narrow table. She's massaging my calf. By the time the poor sheep has been truly picked over and sucked clean, the crotch of her snug jeans is tight against my knee. What am I supposed to do - withdraw, shame her? She’d denounce me for harrassment. Our eyes meet. Shit, another invitation to a sexual encounter when what I really need is a relationship. Sandy’s gonna murder me.
Why don't they just stick an ad in the paper?
‘Organ grinder seeks monkey.’