Saturday, July 29, 2017

Every Hotel is Haunted by Something

I was never too clear about the ‘cultural exchange’ aspect of the fellowship. My counterpart was from Brunei and we were both in Thailand to teach English. We shared an office and lived in the same apartment building. We talked every day at work, between classes, but outside work, I never heard from her. Yet we were here together. That was part of the fellowship, but it seemed incidental to me that it should be this way and after the first month, I ceased to think much about why we were here together.

When Ramadan was ending, my counterpart mentioned an Eid celebration at the Bruneian Embassy in Bangkok. It sounded like an interesting experience and I told her I’d be interested in checking it out, although I wasn’t sure if she was inviting me or just telling me about it. She told me she’d let the Embassy know we were coming, Gina, too. I thanked her and went back to work.

Ramadan was during the summer break and, without classes, I didn’t see my counterpart much. The break passed and I went to Bangkok to go to the dentist. I didn’t think about going back and there was never any further mention of the dinner.

When we came back for the next semester. I asked how the break had been for her and if she’d made it up to Bangkok for the dinner. She told me that she had gone to Bangkok, but hadn’t gone to the Embassy because her family had come to visit at the same time. I told her I was still interested in going to the Bruneian Embassy if there was ever another event. She thought for a second and said that the sultan’s birthday would be next week; after that there probably wouldn’t be anything else until after we left. I felt conflicted hearing this. I had just volunteered to go to Bangkok to be on a panel for scholarship interviews for the weekend. This meant, I would have to turn around and go back the next weekend. With classes just starting, this meant a lot of strain around a time when I knew I’d prefer to be at home relaxing. I gave a vague answer and waited to see how things would work out, expecting that, again, the plans would just be an idea, nothing to be pursued.

The next Friday, immediately following classes, we were all together on a flight to Bangkok. The afternoon was rainy and the flight had been delayed. I knew the traffic in Bangkok would be bad and I wondered how we would have enough time to get in from the airport, check into the hotel, change and make it back across town. Bangkok traffic is like the traffic in LA. On Fridays, it’s especially bad: cars parked with their engines off, motorcycles trying to ease through any place they can, like water flowing around pebbles. The previous weekend, I’d sat in an Uber for nearly two hours. It had only taken 5 minutes to exhaust my minimal Thai with the driver and I’d stared out the window at nothing the entire trip as I was not familiar enough with Uber decorum to know if I could take out a book and read.

Our flight landed toward the back of the airport and had a long walk to get out. I didn’t know what had become of my counterpart, but she had another hotel to go to anyway. Gina and I trotted out of the airport, eyeing every clock we passed, like something that could potentially swoop down and attack.

We passed the desks where the ground transportation salesman lie in wait. As always, ignoring my brisk step and my confident, I-know-where-I’m-going air, a woman practically jumped out at me. “Hello! Where are you going?” I wasn’t sure if I should return the greeting, tell her where I was going or explain that I didn’t need to book a taxi that would just be stuck in traffic. I mumbled ‘no thanks’ and tried to smile, but I doubt it was very convincing. I felt like I’d been sort of rude, but then I had to remember that she’d been a little presumptuous to me, as well.

Since I’d left my apartment in Surat Thani, I’d been steeped in air conditioning.: air conditioning in the cab to the airport, in the airport, on the flight and in the terminal in Bangkok After hours of 62 degree air, going outside, felt like walking into something mid-convection, like an oven or a furnace. Only there was nothing. The heat was tumbling through the air like it’d recently blown through a structure fire and still had wisps of flame tucked among the currents like autumn leaves. Only my sweat prevented me from combustion.

The bus was packed and we had to stand. Luckily, years of experience have taught me to never bring any luggage anywhere for any reason and to second guess anything more than a change of underwear and a book (one usually tucked into the other and carried underarm). On my back I carried my suit, a few oranges, a book and my toothbrush. Everyone else on the bus had large hard-plastic rolling suitcases. Every time the bus braked, a silver suitcase about the size and weight of one of those hotel refrigerators, kept rolling over my foot and slamming against my leg. The suitcase’s owner was oblivious and didn’t even seem to be holding on to the suitcase’s handle despite the constant motion of the bus—probably confident that my foot would stop the suitcase before it got too far.

When we’d boarded the bus, part of a family had squeezed past us, while the other half had stayed near the front of the bus. At every stop they yelled “not here! don’t get off here!” to each other in a Chinese dialect. They continually passed their children through the cordon formed by Gina and I; this was accomplished by grabbing the child’s outstretched hand and pulling him or her through us, like we were a stubborn birth canal. Trying to get out of the way, I often only made it worse. The child would be pulled right into one side of my leg and the suitcase full of bowling balls would simultaneously bang into the other side. The family talked like they passed children, yelling at my head like it was a wall to be yelled through. I memorized their word for ‘don’t get off here!’ and considered preemptively yelling it at each stop, just to avoid having it blasted at the side of my head, but I was worried I’d get the tone wrong and curse someone’s grandma or something. Luckily, the bus only went three stops before it drained all it’s passengers into the complex Metro network. I didn’t stay to hear the family yell ‘Here! Get off here!’ but grabbed Gina’s hand and pulled her through the suitcases and passengers unsure of where to get off, trying out the birth canal trick myself. It actually worked very well.

The streets were gridlocked, smoldering with the embers of taillights. The exhaust had risen to the Skytrain platform where people tried to tunnel through the mass of humanity before them to reach a train or a ticket window. Tickets must be paid for in coins and without a hefty sack, there was no way I had enough change for Gina and I. I went to the window, waited in line and changed the largest bill I had. I came back, waited in line at the machine and when I reached it, began hurriedly dumping coins into the slot. One ticket popped out and I started in on the next one. Behind me, I could feel a line forming and simultaneously becoming impatient with my two-ticket purchase. I continued feeding the coins in. The hand I held them with was gradually rising with the reduction in weight correspondingly, the number of coins left to be inserted on the display dropped. I got to 10, to 5, to 4, 3, 2, and then there was nothing left. I still had a few coins but these were the worthless 2-baht coins which, for some reason, the machines hadn’t been calibrated to take. I could feel the breeze of the line’s collective sigh of impatience on my neck. It was fetid with office air conditioners and dental work. I swore and turned to the girl waiting behind me. Did she have a single baht coin? I would give her a 2-baht coin in exchange. She handed me a 5 and I dumped all my 2 coins into her hand despite her protests. The reluctant machine spat out the second ticket and we were on our way.

I thought I had the address of the hotel in an email, but I only knew the metro stop it was near. Coming down from the platform with only half an hour before we had to be at the Bruneian Embassy, I was beginning to feel frantic. Gina calmly suggested I should ask someone where the hotel was. I asked a motorcycle taxi driver and he shrugged. I used this as evidence that no one knew where the place was, so it was pointless to ask anyone else; the only way we’d find the hotel was by angrily ducking in and out of sidestreets and swearing. Gina wasn’t too interested in trying my method and suggested we ask a guard standing by a parking garage. He looked at the name of the hotel on my phone, shrugged and used his own phone to look it up on a map. We thanked him and, after assuring ourselves we were going in the right direction, we took off down the street, darting and swearing the whole way to make up for lost time.

The hotel was about three blocks down a long dead-ended side street. I practically jogged toward it continually swearing by this time, knowing we were already late, not knowing where my counterpart was and we were still in our sweaty airplane clothes. We had to change and find our way to the Embassy which was, with no traffic, would’ve been about 30 minutes away. On a night like this, an hour was probably a better estimate. The hotel loomed up. I was about to swear at it for being so far down the street, but it was so beautiful I had to stop and admire the entryway for a minute. The facade of the place looked like something out of the Great Gatsby and the foyer even further established this roaring 20s, art nouveau theme. It was authentic, too. The place was legitimately old enough to reasonably look this way. I glanced around the lobby with admiration but was soon back to swearing when I noticed there was no attendant around. We rang the bell and still no one came. I tried to use the time to collect myself; no one wants to be the harassed Arthur Miller character who comes into a hotel roaring about service, still glistening with sweat and frenzy. I tried to humble myself, but the swearing was coming out of my ears like steam escaping a kettle.

Someone finally came up and asked if we wanted to check in. He looked as harassed as I felt and made so bold as to glance at the clock with a disapproving look when I told him yes, we were hoping to check in. I felt like telling him I’d listed my check-in time as 6 pm when I’d made my reservation. Sure it was 8 now, but it’s not like I told them I would be there at noon. Some people you just can’t argue with. This guy looked way too disinterested in the world to bother arguing with. I held my tongue, but when he gave me a job application of a check-in form to fill out I wrote quickly and sloppily, without regard for the little boxes meant to contain my name, passport number, occupation and all kinds of other superfluous information. When I finished it, he looked at it, all but rolled his eyes, heaved a weighty sigh and then gave me the total. 1016 baht. I give him 1050, which seemed to greatly fluster him. As he struggled to count out the change, I told him I could give him four baht so he could give me an even 30 back. He looked up at me as if I were some familiar inanimate object that had suddenly learned the power of speech, a practiced look which combined disbelief with horror. Without saying a word (but never lowering his eyebrows) he continued fumbling around in his drawer for the exact change.

There was no elevator, which normally wouldn’t be a problem; the old wide and low staircase had a sort of Gothic appeal to it and if I’d had more time, I would’ve loved to climb it slowly imaging all kinds of things. It was the kind of staircase we should have been led up by a man in a cloak with a dripping candelabrum in his steady but wizened hand. The irritable and taciturn guy at the desk would fit the role perfectly. Our room was the standard box with a faded tile floor, a metal frame bed and an old fan to stir the mildewed air. Gina had gotten dressed in the lobby bathroom while I’d been checking in, but I still needed to change. She brushed her hair and put on lipstick while I jerked my sweaty clothes off only to put clean clothes over my damp skin. I knew I was just going to get sweaty again. There was neither time nor reason for a shower.

The hurried way we both tried to doll ourselves up in front of that old hotel mirror was like a scene out of a spy movie. I almost hoped someone could see us in order to wonder what sort of shady deal we were up to. Gina pursed her lips at the mirror; I tied my tie and blotted my forehead with a handkerchief, still swearing, but beginning to laugh at myself a little. In five minutes, we were running back down the stairs, trying to get the internet to come back on my phone so we could find the Embassy. “Forget it,” I said, after watching that ouroboros spin around for a minute with no change. “We don’t have time” and we ran back out into the night once again, not entirely sure where we were going.

The train wasn’t as crowded and we only had a few stops to go. In about 15 minutes, we were getting off at the Ekkamai station. Blindly, I chose a street, declared it to be the right one and began walking, taking those great lunging steps you see people making in the airport when they suddenly realize they might miss their flight, something like pulling yourself through the city on cross-country skis. Invariably, you look like such a jerk walking like this no one makes any effort to get out of your way.

Miraculously, I’d guessed the street correctly, a nearly impossible task along Sukhumvit where every direction looks like a mirrored reflection of the opposite way, which is due, mostly, to the ubiquity of 7-11s, which, in Southeast Asia, are much more aggressively marketed than their docile North American counterparts. I’ve seen as many as seven of them on a single block.

The Bruneian Embassy was down an alley and off a sidestreet. When we came powerwalking up, I expected the guard to draw his weapon or at least raise a forbidding palm to us and yell ‘halt!” like in the movies. He was well-disposed to us, however, and, through gestures, invited us in. I’d forgotten that I was wearing a jacket and tie and that Gina was in a dress with lipstick. Our spy camouflage was working very well. I called my counterpart, taking out my phone in that harassed way guys in ties and suit jackets always take out phones. I expected that she was already inside, but when she answered, I could tell from the disappointment in her voice that she was still in traffic somewhere. She told us she didn’t know when she’d make it, but that we should just go in. “Just go in?” I repeated, thinking ‘this isn’t my embassy; I don’t know any of these people, or expect them to know me. This is going to be really awkward.’ But I agreed and hung up. I nodded to the guard and he escorted us in. I had my passport out, ready to present it to someone, but no one else was there to ask for it. We crossed an open courtyard and were shown into a building. Through the glass, I could see what looked like a room of dining dignitaries. A small room. I’d been expecting something larger where we might have been able to sink into the background but there were only about four tables and, at the entry, I noticed no one was in western dress. The men wore white and golden shalwar kameezes; the women were all in brightly colored—usually floral patterned—abayas. Even if there’d been 1,000 people in the room, we would’ve stuck out like sore thumbs. We were now in that tense scene in the movie where the spies have been found out. On the threshold of the room, the conversation stopped, hung there like something raised just out of reach. “Salaam alaikum.” I tried. The room, in particular the male voices called out “wa alaikum salaam” in response and everyone went back to eating. We were safe.

The guard left us stranded in the doorway and a woman fluttered up to us. I expected her to give us a polite but firm ‘may I help you?’ through which it would be implicitly stated that we were in the wrong place, but she brought her hands together in a tent and then they leaped apart in apparent joy at our arrival. I glanced around the room to the expectant faces and made a few nods, not entirely sure what was called for when you show up late and sweaty to the Bruneian Embassy for the Sultan’s Birthday Dinner. I explained that my counterpart was stuck in traffic, but the woman who had welcomed us barely seemed concerned by this. I apologized that we were also late—but glancing at a clock I saw that we’d managed to get from the hotel to the Embassy in 30 minutes, which must’ve been some kind of record in a suit jacket. Even at night, the temperature in Bangkok is in the mid-80s and we’d probably walked a total of 12 blocks.

We were seated at an intimate table where the others all had their names and titles on little cards. I introduced myself and immediately, everyone began to ply me with questions. Where did I teach? How were my students? Had we lived abroad before this? Where? What did we think of Thailand? Of Surat Thani? I enjoy talking with diplomats; they’re usually adept at asking interesting questions and it’s easy to steer the conversation to geography. Soon we were talking about places they’d been posted in Canada and Malaysia. When I told them I was from Michigan, I was astounded to hear that the Bruneian Mission in Ottawa had asked the man across from me to drive around Detroit when he came into the states. He hadn’t been able to take the Ambassador Bridge because they were afraid something would happen to him entering the US in such a nefarious place. I had no idea what to say to that. I’d never considered the possibility that diplomats wouldn’t be allowed to travel to certain places in the States for safety reasons. I assured him it wasn’t as bad as he’d been led to think, but then I told that joke about the cops rear-ending an out-of-state car at a four-way stop in Detroit and yelling ‘what the hell you’d stop for?’ Everyone laughed, but it was the kind of laugh that comes when a danger has already passed and there’s still a faint note of nervousness.

I was hungrier than I’d realized and came back from the buffet with an awkwardly large pile of rice and vegetables. I tried to balance my eating with conversation. Each polite bite I meant to take turned into a frenzy of plate scraping and rice grains falling off my fork on the way to my mouth. Luckily, everyone was too polite to pay much attention, to the credit of my tablemates, it’s difficult not to at least glance out of the corner of your eye when you hear such uninhibited gobbling.

We talked and ate for about an hour before my counterpart arrived; by then, I felt totally comfortable with the people at the table and we were conversing like old friends. I had a third plate of food so my counterpart didn’t have to eat alone and the conversation steered toward Brunei and the culture around holidays. Although we were in the Embassy for the sultan’s birthday, his name was never mentioned. It wasn’t until the end, when we were taking pictures and someone insisted we stand underneath the portraits of the sultan and queen, that I remembered the occasion for the dinner.

Gina and I walked out of the Embassy with all the fuss that accompanies a departure from your grandmother’s house. People stood in the doorway, insisting on taxis or sharing rides which we all politely declined and walked back out through the gates framed in golden spotlights.

Back on the Bangkok streets, we carried the glow of people who have been somewhere important and are now returning home, tired, but more upright when they set out, ties flapping carelessly, handbags languorously held, carrying on a continual murmuring conversation about the events of the night and slouched down slightly in the empty train car watching the dark frames of the city tic past the windows.

Arriving back at the hotel, we found the place much more opulent, now that we had time to enjoy it. The climb to our room was long and tiresome, but in the old building, it was like roaming the hallways and staircases of a castle at night. I felt like I needed a sconce to light my way and that there should’ve been at least one of those portraits on the wall with the eyes that follow you. After we’d been down to the pool, returning to our room, midnight was striking and I continually expected to see some perennial apparition waltzing just above the marble floor, but there was no one but us. The place oozed quiet. The entire hotel seemed empty. Even the front desk in the lobby was continually unmanned. After showering and getting into bed, I could hear all the emptiness of the building rushing up and down the stairs and swelling in the rooms and I felt safe and comfortable in the turret above the rest of the empty castle. After all the noise and haste of the evening, it was the ideal place to be: a little portal into the 19th century and way up on the top floor, no one, not even the silent wispy ghosts of the place would find us. I lie there, looking at the patterns on the dark ceiling thinking:‘no one would think to look way up here.’ 

Saturday, July 22, 2017

Parking on an Empty Street

Mikey didn’t trust the Volvo to make it to Portland and back, so he left it parked in the Western Addition and took a Greyhound. “Use it if you want,” he told me and I hoped to. About a month before, I had been looking at grad schools and I found one way up north in a place called Arcata. The program looked good and I applied to it just before the deadline. It wouldn’t be long before I’d be hearing back and I wanted to see Arcata before I made a decision. I’d never been anywhere near that part of California.

Mikey’s Volvo was one of those cars you never expected to start, but it always did. The paint job was a Michigan gray, factory smoke on a cloudy winter day. The windows were filmy with neglect and residual cigarette smoke. The interior always seethed this cold morning fug which was strangely sweet and was like nothing I’d ever smelled, like fruit and wax and paint. A smell made up of natural and artificial components which fit together nicely. An odor that was nostalgic the first time it was smelled. There was a rack on the top, I kept this in mind ducking into the car late in the morning on my day off. I always hit my head on that rack. I threw a handful of cds in the passenger’s seat to listen to. Some of them roadtrip cds I hadn’t listened to in nearly a year.

I didn’t know where to take a left onto Van Ness, so I crossed into the Tenderloin and took a bunch of lefts so I didn’t have to do a U-turn. The traffic out of town and over the bridge was light. I looked over and saw Angel Island and Marin gloaming ahead like something I was going to run into. The bridge stabbed into the straw-colored bulk of Marin and the Volvo hit the rising road like a wall but kept moving. I had the window down and the eucalyptus and dried grass and sand were all blowing through the car, like a light current blowing through beds of kelp, my hair standing on end and swaying against the ceiling of the car. The warning light came on in the dash and I turned on the fan to pull the heat off the engine. The light went off. At the crest of the hill, the traffic and I went into that tunnel with the rainbow painted above it, in which at least one car always honks. It came from behind. A tentative beep from something like a Volkswagen, some personable and brightly-colored car.

After Marin, the 101 widens out through Santa Rosa and becomes like any great American highway; a gray ribbon incessantly tying stores, people, parking lots and the horizon together. It’s warmer up here, the coast moves out and the road drifts east into that strange desert of hills, cattle and chaparral that makes up the bulk of California. The heat, the dryness and the large reflective parking lots push the highway back west toward the water The towns get smaller until they’re insubstantial islands of gas stations and fast food places, just a few rooftops poking out from the jagged green horizon and a sign The temperate pine forests come down from the mountains and crowd the highway. The forest bends the highway into hairpin curves around tattered red tree trunks with the circumference of subway tunnels. The world tips on its side, the horizontal is framed by the vertical. All movement is upwards. It’s enough to carry you off. The car lumbers ahead, but it feels like your hair is on end and the blood is rushing to your head, vertiginously.

A space has been cleared, like a blight has attacked the forest. The gray light overhead is intense. The grass is wet, profuse and downtrodden. The gas stations that appear in these clearings look like humble franchises still owned by a local, someone living behind the place with a first name everyone knows, who sells the pies his neighbor bakes in chunky cling-wrapped slices next to the register. Even standing still, the redwoods dominate the landscape and drag the heavy light of the place back into the forest, exuding fog so thick it looks like suspended rain. The silence is intensified by the non-sound of falling pine needles everywhere and at once.

After crossing into Humboldt County, I stopped often. Despite the hour, the haze gave the place an early morning drive-to-work look and I needed a bad gas station coffee to go with the foggy drive for aesthetic purposes of imaging myself in an old pickup, metal lunch box in the seat next to me and a continuous flow of Maxwell House from a dented thermos. I still had the heat fan going in the car. It wasn’t cold, but I scooped up my beanie from the seat and screwed it on over my hair for effect.

The highway continued to twist in and out of the forest. The lanes peeled away until there were only two: wending their way between elephantine tree trunks, like alleys scuttling between skyscrapers. Every mile or so, there was another place to pull over. Frequently, these were occupied by a lone traveler, head craned 90-degrees back, looking for the tops of the endless trees, blinking against the falling drizzle. Tilted at an angle like that, your hat falls off your head. So you’re standing there, looking up, hat in hand, but looking more bewildered than deferential, squinting, mouth open, catching the rain in a smoky-mouthed howl.

Eureka is the first time you see water. Unlike the mist-drenched forest towns the 101 passes through, Eureka is a salt-scabbed port town. The water suspended in the air, is less diaphanous, milkier, reeks of kelp and dead shellfish and bumps through the seaside streets with the clang of buoys rocking in high tide. Shadows loom and disappear without connecting to form. Everything along the waterfront is warehoused and chainlinked. No windows. The neon sign of a bar drifts through the afternoon like stale cigarette smoke and gulls stab at sodden McDonald’s bags in empty parking lots.

I found the mystery of the town depressing. In the empty streets I felt like the archetypal stranger in a small town. I imagined blinds being lowered, shutters slammed shut, locks turning in doors, but everything was already closed. Each building was a painted children’s block, dropped down in a marsh, adorned with decorative doors and windows but, ultimately solid and sunken in its foundation. Only the highway passing through town seemed to carry any traffic, walking back in the neighborhoods, the movement of distant cars looked strangely furtive, like they were all sneaking away.

Outside Eureka, the bay opened up like a lake placed too close to the ocean and had drained into it. At low tide, it was a pan of cracked mud, miles wide. Disused railroad tracks ran its length like a frame.

North of the bay, Arcata had three or four exits on the highway. I got off at the first one, drove a few blocks west and, finding myself in a quiet neighborhood, pulled over and parked the car. I sat there for a minute with my hands still on the steering wheel, listening to the plinking sounds of the car settling after the long drive. I’d rolled the window up, but a wet, reedy smell permeated the car: the smell of the emptied bay, the smell of gulls digging up crabs in the mud: an evening smell. I opened the door and it came rushing into the car. The lonesome feeling it dredged up was so intense, a bright child’s toy rake abandoned on the sidewalk, persuaded me to move it into the grass. I did so reverently, with both hands.

I took my empty backpack out of the car, locked the door and tried to decide on a direction to walk. Every street had the same look, even when there porch lights on. Nothing enticed me forward. It had been years since I’d moved to a place where I didn’t know anyone and now, faced with the prospect of doing it again, here, there was only a dolorous resignation. I couldn’t imagine being able to fit a single component of my life into this place. In the hills behind the town, a milk-white mist was curdling above the redwoods and floating, like soap bubbles on water, down toward the ocean. I lit a cigarette and watched it for a while, leaning against the car, afraid to leave the familiarity of its warm hood behind.

When I finished smoking, I walked north, without knowing where I was going. The sidewalks were quiet. I didn’t see anyone out. Droplets of water were suspended in the air like dew strung along spiderwebs at dawn. My exhalations disturbed these droplets, flung them further across the wet medium of the twilit sky. I focused on the veil of wet, gray air like a veil before my eyes and avoided looking past it into the background of monotonous single family homes and the moldy, bumper-stickered vans on tires so flat they look melted. My footsteps echoed. There was no one around. The mist had come down from the mountains and claimed the town.

I crossed the highway, walking over a bridge toward a campus painted the color of American cheese which dominated the right bank of the town. The windows of the library shone dimly against the twilight, glistening orange-gray. The automatic doors slide open on a tableau of campus life: scattered backpacks and their backs, thermoses with university logos, abandoned piles of books, most people dressed like they’d just rolled out of bed and a non-student, in a nest of papers at one of the computer terminals, typing carefully with both index fingers like he was pointing out each letter to someone before typing it. I waded through the scene, thinking I would find something to read, but the ripe, vaguely vinegary smell of construction paper became more profound the further I walked into the library. Somehow the smell reinforced the unfamiliarity of the place. I knew I wouldn’t be able to concentrate on reading. It was getting late. I turned and went back out.

I considered walking around campus a little more, but there didn’t seem to be any point. In the falling darkness there wouldn’t be much left to see but the shape of the place, the buildings, the grid of the wet streets, solitary lampposts washing the curbs in light. A jogger passed me, leaving an audible trail of panting breaths. The bridge back over the highway, fenced and unlit, felt impossibly remote from the cars passing beneath, like the lights of San Francisco seen from Alcatraz, reflecting far enough into the water to almost touch the barred windows.

It took me a while to find the Volvo, tucked back as it was into a corner of the town. Since I’d left, someone had parked in front of me. There was so much room on the street, but this other car had sought out the companionship of mine. When I opened the door, I hit my head on the overhead rack. I dropped into the seat clutching the area just above my temple and clenching my teeth against the sudden pain, but the familiar sour smell of the car revived me. The car started, miraculously. I drove off and left the car that had joined mine alone.

I found the highway easily, it ran the length of the town. The temperature had dropped, but I kept the window rolled down so I could rest my elbow on the door. The ocean salts and the mountain pines both found neutral territory on the highway and the car filled and emptied like a sieve with a wild smell like something you’d notice in a burrow or a nest. The lights of Eureka melted into the bay, flooded, now, with high tide.

I only stopped once on the way home when I pulled over on the empty highway to pee after finishing the cold coffee in the thermos. Even with the car there idling next to me, the immense darkness of the place was overwhelming. The wavering starlight shone brightly on the wet highway, like the wake stirred up by a boat trolling the open ocean. I stood there in the dark, listening to the moisture bead and fall from the redwood needles, before nodding at the whole scene, getting back into the car and driving non-stop to the city.

Monday, July 10, 2017

Feast of the Epiphany

It was dark when we got in. We’d taken a bus from Skopje, but the border crossing was easy. In the dark we passed from one Macedonia to another. I must’ve been asleep. I remember all the other imposing borders with their massive awnings spread over the sky sheltering lambent coal beds of brakelights, ten lanes of traffic waiting to pass, but I don’t remember seeing anything like this coming into Greece. In my memory, we just continued down the road and one country became another as gently as a hill begins to level out and you suddenly find yourself in the shadow of the summit you’d only recently climbed.

In Thessaloniki, we took a bus through town, passing chunks of ruins in the moonlight like the melting remnants of ice age glaciers with only another day in the sun before they would be gone forever. I used the button to request a stop. Digital Greek characters flashed above the driver and we walked out onto a street the wispy Mediterranean trees had curled over, shutting out half of the streetlights. At a newsstand, I stopped to ask directions. The man took the scrap of paper from my hand and read the name written hastily in Roman script. I had a difficult time listening to his directions thinking how many American newselllers would be able to read something hastily penned in Greek. At least the numbers were the same.

We found the place and tried Nina’s apartment buzzer, but weren’t sure it was right. The name written under the number was blurred. The voice on the intercom sounded like someone was answering, from far away in the wind. I called into the speaker and my own ghostly voice came back—like it’d traveled up, through the building and, finding no recipient had fallen back, whispered and vague.

We walked around the corner to an idealized restaurant—like something projected straight from someone’s happy memory. It was small but warm, suffused with a golden light. Patrons were constantly getting up, holding on to their wine glasses like balloons, and moving to new seats, laughing and talking the whole way. Waiters drew themselves up in the jovial importance of the situation. Their job was not to deliver food, or even help with pairings, but to ensure the bright mood of the place. Each was an MC, a tamada of the Caucasus tradition, calling on speech makers and plopping wet glasses of raki or coffee in front of comfortable diners without spilling a drop on the cream-colored tablecloth.

Gina went in and got a wifi code from someone. I stayed on the sidewalk, afraid to walk into the scene and spoil it. It was almost better outside. It was cold. I could feel the frozen concrete through the soles of my boots. On the other side of the window, people had taken their jackets off. I watched Gina walk through the scene like she belonged in it: a comfortable person in a comfortable place. She came out with the code on a dense napkin, the ink had swollen around the letters and numbers. “They spoke some English,” she explained and began to dial Nina’s number.

Nina lived in an aerie on the roof, like something you’d house a large machine in, except it had a bathroom and a sink. We slept spooled in blankets on the tile floor at the foot of her twin bed, blocking the way to the bathroom; there was no where else. Nina got back into bed after letting us in and we talked in the darkness. I asked about Thessaloniki. “Oh, there are buildings, the sea, ruins” she told me from the sursurations of her blankets. The room was night-soaked, the color, the light, it was like sleeping on a forest floor with the cold stars guttering overhead. I didn’t sleep; I watched the inky darkness blanch, the night become morning in the ceiling.

It was freezing when I got up. I burned my fingers on the cold water in the sink making instant coffee. No one else wanted any. It was too strong. I forgot to warm the frozen cup and the coffee was immediately cooled into something unpalatable. Nina went to work and Gina and I went out.

There was no snow, but a jagged wind was blowing across a sky the color of late-winter ice. The cold night spent on the floor was in my nose and sinuses like a screwdriver. The more coffee I drank, the farther I seemed to jam it down into my throat.

It was the Feast of the Epiphany and everything was closed, but no one was out doing anything. We asked at a cafe. “Things are just closed,” the barista explained. We went down to the white marble docks on the sea and ran around trying to warm up. A man sold us something hot, thick and cinnamoned like oatmeal water.

In the center of town, a few places were open; we got a simit bread ring or its Greek equivalent at the train station and bought a ticket to Sofia for the next day.

It felt like it had been getting dark all day, so it was something of a relief when, around 4, the gray began to clot and spread in the clouds. Despite the holiday, I hadn’t heard any church bells, or maybe I’d confused them with the dull tocsin of the lighthouses.

We met Nina downtown and she took us to a squat that was clean and looked nothing like a squat except for the big squatters’ rights symbol hanging on the front of the place, painted on dropcloth. Inside, people were swing dancing around the creaky wooden floor of what had probably once been a living room. ‘The perfect communism,’ I thought. ‘Give us your homes so we can dance.’ I got a raki at the bar and sat down next to Gina and a pack of cards that I began to shuffle around. Nina sat down and explained why she was in Greece.

The boy had some abbreviated Greek name, like Nick or Theo. They’d spent a summer some place near a lake, meeting in dark, open places, nestled in reeds or field grass and talking.

Nina’s story had so much residual warmth in it, I moved closer, repeatedly kicking my frozen feet against the wooden floor. Listening more intently and swishing the raki around in my mouth.

At the end of the summer, Nick had gone back to Greece and Nina followed, but things weren’t going well. She was immured at night in her wind-stricken tower and during the day, she struggled to keep her English students from canceling classes. Mostly, she was alone. Nick wouldn’t even answer his phone if his mom was around. The mom was dominating and would have nothing less than a Greek Orthodox girl for her son. She couldn’t ever know about Nina. Nick’s dad was a metropolitan or something. Occasionally, Nick would come in the night, but he’d leave soon after without much reassurance that things were ever going to change.

I finished my raki and gave my opinion trying hard to look Nina honestly in the eyes. If it was only Nick that kept her here; she might consider going home. It couldn’t possibly be any colder in Poland, I joked.

“Yes it could,” she said. We left it at that and I went to buy rakis for everyone.

On the way home from the squat, we got lost looking for the aerie. I kept thinking I saw the ideal restaurant from the night before, but it turns out, all restaurants in Thessaloniki were like this, which was lovely, but made it very easy to get lost among them.

It took us so long to find our way back, we only had a couple hours of sleep before we had to catch our train. It didn’t matter, I couldn’t sleep in that apartment, anyway.

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Relics of Saint Lucy

I pretended to be asleep, but he was whispering loud enough to wake half the train. “Tell him it’s from me,” he whispered. “A little gift for him.” When I heard the door to the compartment close, I pried one eye open and asked the top of her head, specifically, the white line of her part: “Are you still mad at me?”

“I don’t know,” She muttered, holding something and looking down at it.

I rolled back over and thought about pulling the small blanket back up around my shoulders, but I swung my legs out and dropped down to the floor of the compartment. “That was Catania, right? We’ll be there in about an hour.” I looked around for something to pick up, but the compartment was clean.

Outside the window, clumps of cactus dragged by. They struggled against the wind blowing in from the sea. I tried to open the window to let the salty air in. “You tried that last night.” She said from behind her journal. “It doesn’t open.”

I went out in the corridor to watch the nacreous morning sea fight through the cactus. A man with a white mustache was brushing his teeth and looking out the window. He turned and smiled around his toothbrush. I smiled back and went back to the compartment, declaring: “The first time I came here, it was earlier in the morning and still dark.” She put her journal down and picked up my sentence, changing the pronoun:

“You walked across a square and saw a statue with no head. Then some girl called you. Here,” she said, pushing a wooden box at me, “that guy said to give this to you.” The box was lacquered and smelled like a new book. It was yellow and red and painted to look like it had a bow tied around it. “It’s empty,” I said looking at the flecked woodgrain inside. “Yeah, he tried to give me his travel pillow, too,” She said, shrugging. “I think he was just getting rid of all the things he wasn’t going to need anymore. Don’t try to make me take it; we’ve already got too much stuff.” I opened my bag and shoved the box down inside, then repositioned it so that it wouldn’t be against my back.

When the train pulled into the station, we tried to find a connection going west, but it was Sunday and there was nothing; only a few trains ending their Saturday nights. The station door was locked. We sat in a cafe across the street. There was a hotel half a block away. “I’ll go see how much it is,” I said.

A tired man showed me a room just back behind the desk. The door was heavy and the knob rattled and wouldn’t lock. I paid for the room, went out to the lobby, sat on a firm velvet couch and looked around at the empty bird cages and the faded portraits, imagining I was a traveling salesman.

We walked down the hill into the old town. There was an open market. Down an alley, a vendor was surrounded by five-gallon buckets of different olives mixed with lemon, chilies, bay leaves, cheese crumbles and anise seeds. The brine in the buckets was coated with oil. The green olive buckets had a pellucid gray oil floating on dirty aquarium brine. The Kalamatas were soaking in purple ink Only the ocular contours of the olives at the surface were discernible. Mint green olives stared out of their pits. Argent sardines half sunk in red pepper oil looked like evidence from some small crime. The smell was flat: an old fishing boat swabbed with thyme and marjoram, a sheep who had been in a rosemary thicket.

We bought four different bags and went down to the water where there were lines of a game painted on the concrete of a small park. We tried to guess the rules and jumped and counted, but nothing fit. We climbed over the low wall and went to sit on the broken concrete slabs of the jetty, opening each of the olive bags and sharing them out. The salty olive meat had to be chewed off the small wooden pits and came off in gouts. My tongue rolled up. My lips shriveled. The desire to eat another olive was not produced by hunger or thirst but a supplemental desire, like the craving for a cigarette. I bit into a pepper and felt the seeds fall between my cheek and gums and start to burn. I pushed them out with my tongue and swallowed them.

We ate all the olives chewing on each one like stomping out a fire with our teeth. Biting at the pit until it was just a rattling wooden husk. Even then, I spat them out with regret and wanted to chew the wood into pulp that would stick between my teeth. When we finished, there was lemon and chili in the sea air and I knew she wasn’t angry anymore. There was one olive left.”We’ll split it,” I said biting off a ragged half and handing the rest to her. She took it and as we got up, I could hear the wood of the pit crackling along her teeth as her tongue pushed it around. I breathed in the lemon-air of the sea in my nose, down around my eye teeth.

We got up, climbed up over a huge concrete block sunken into the water at an angle and looked down where the barnacles had attached themselves at the waterline. The waves were making loose chopping and slapping sounds in the hollows between the concrete blocks. The sounds of folding tables collapsing and grainy rasp of boxes being pulled through dusty streets came down the jetty from the market. A voice called out over a magaphone. We heard it say ‘Santa Lucia’ several times. We turned back and walked toward the voice.

The market had been disassembled. The cars had all been taken away and the cafes were closed. Down the street, bass drums had begun to boom and horns were plaintively leaning into certain notes and straining away from others. The sun began to set but there was no breeze. The sound of the parade sloshed against the sides of buildings.

The church yard was crowded with people. Some of them were well-dressed and others were wearing baseball caps and t-shirts. A few children sat up on shoulders, but there didn’t seem to be anything to see. I felt content just to stand around and be part of this particular crowd, waiting for this particular thing. She was better at waiting than me, seeing things: a child with a over-sized balloon, a marching band member that looked like a cousin. I just saw people. I got tired of being one of them and we sidestepped through them saying scusi every few steps.

We walked toward the ruins; the only part of town I remembered, but I was all mixed up. Nothing looked the same from years before; it could’ve been a different town. It was getting dark and there was nothing to see. The sidewalk ended, but we walked on and went up a hillside. Under the grass there were large bony chunks of old buildings. The land was all like that, broken by coral reefs of earth-eaten marble. We sat down. A moon like rock salt rose over the broken columns and cornerstones, far-off, the band had begun to march, belying the funereal air of the night ruins with crashing symbols. I finished my cigarette and stubbed it into the pebbly marble. “Sorry about last night.” I said, stood up and gave her my hand. She took it and nodded that it was alright.

We walked back to town and they were parading the bones of Santa Lucia through the streets. We walked alongside her for a while and then broke off from the parade route and went back up toward the train station where the lights were all out and only the cats looked out from the dark windows and doorways.     

Saturday, May 27, 2017

Santa Rocío

Stretched out over 3 de Febrero is a long banner the color of unbleached flour. The letters are black and professionally hand-written in the same ridiculously bold font as those signs at the supermarket announcing 99 cent prices on neon poster paper. Around the letters there are little colored squiggles and things that look like inflamed bellybuttons trailing dead, shriveled umbilical cords—the artist’s intention was to draw balloons. The letters bump into each other, most of them touch but a few are separate. There are three words.

In Asuncion, the banner is called a pasacalles because it hangs over the street where people can see it. The pasacalles is perforated with large holes so the wind can easily pass through, but the makers have taken care to cut the holes between the letters and in the gaps left by the ‘O’s, the ‘U’ and the “P’. On the surface, this pasacalles looks no different than the others much like it that have hung above the street. Sometimes they say FELICES FIESTAS or FERIA and a date. Once there was even a DESCULPAME, Ma FERNANDA! Which had everyone who drove or walked under it laughing or commiserating according to their whim.

Every one of the pasacalles stretched out over the streets of the city has some kind of story to it. They are like the comicstrip wordbubbles suspended over Asuncion betraying the thoughts, fears and hopes of the people. In Villa Morra, the wealthy stride under thoughts and statements boldly written in English and grammatically correct Spanish splashed across bright sailcloth. In Barrio R.L Pettit, the prayers of the old and poor hang tattered from the lightpoles, caught like butterflies in the immense net of the powerlines in the act of rising to heaven. The words ‘GRACIAS SAN EXPEDIDO’ are sewn up anywhere they’ll fit, hanging at crazy angles, the letters being not at all congruent.

The banner on 3 de Febrero is nothing special. Most Asunceños wouldn’t even remember having seen it. But the owner of the pasacalles business over on Ayala remembers the order very well. It was the only standing order he’d ever got.

Cada ano, el me dijo. Cada cumple, una pasacallles nueva.Y me paga tambien. Cincuenta años ‘En Asunción hay miles chicas se llaman Rocío,’ el me dijo. Ay Dios! Que locura!

Asuncion is an aristocratic city, but the aristocracy is old now. They stick to their ruinous homes and their important names and are content to let the city fall apart around them. They don’t live in the real world, they live in the social magazines where they publish pictures of extravagant quince parties and baby showers. They think their exhibitionist behavior is novel, without knowing that it’s now common to publicly post pictures of yourself doing mundane things. Democracy has come with social media and the aristocracy is left gliding around hotels at sad evening soirees, haunting what little is left of their world. They make almost no noise. Stop in the street and listen. There’s only a kind of murmuring, rustling sound which results from the plotting of unimportant things.

The aristocratic institutions are still there. The Belle Epoque buildings downtown, the squares around them like immense picnic blankets and the palatial homes, too large to be tenable. These landmarks of the wealthy are the bulwarks of Asuncion, like the gates of an ancient city.

The Rocíos are from the campo. Maybe not originally, every day many of them are born in Asuncion, but their names reflect the bucolic heritage of the people now living in the city. A people who want to wake up and see the dew still heavy on the grass. They name their daughters to remind themselves of the pueblitos they have left and even the hottest day is freshened by the name ‘Rocío’ being continually called out somewhere. It’s like an incantation, a command for the heat reflecting up from the pavements to soften.

Facundo knew about the Rocíos. His mother’s name was Rocío He was from Vista Alegre and half the girls he’d grown up with had been named Rocío; in turn they named their daughters Rocío until they were all like a gentle wave lapping at the shores of Avenida Esubio Ayala. Facundo’s life had been soaked with Rocíos. When he was seven, the first girl he had loved had been named Rocío Jazmín Ortigas y Buonessere. She was too quiet to love him back. She could only stare at him with her immense fawn’s eyes, so dark they had a violet shine. Every day on his way to school, Facundo picked pink and purple bougainvillea and shook the ants off before lying them across her doorway. Rocío’s grandmother would come out and yell at him from time to time, but it was a show and after retreating into the house, she smiled at the thought of the boy’s little hands picking the flowers and lying them across the doorway.

There was only one class per grade at the Canetti Primary School in Vista Alegre so, year after year, Facundo and Rocío spent 6 hours a day in the same small room, copying sums and their country’s particular version of history into slipshod notebooks. They never spoke but every day Facundo would look into Rocío’s dark brown hair as a man might look into rushing water and become hypnotized.

As they entered secondary school, Rocío Jazmin seemed to grow sadder. It was not the lachrymose behavior of a pubescent child who wants everyone to know they are sad. Rocío’s sadness was all turned in. She lost weight and her dark eyes swelled across her forehead and down her cheeks. She wore long dresses and large floppy sun hats, like she was afraid of the sun. She only talked to the other girls when they dropped something near her or she had to move around them. As her peers became bolder, when they began wearing perfume and eyeliner—subtly because it wasn’t allowed at school—Rocío retreated further into herself.

When he was 12, after they’d been in class together for four years, Facundo stopped leaving the flowers at Rocío’s door. One day, when he went to set the bougainvillea down, she’d come out of the house on her way to school. She didn’t seem to see him, but a fiery embarrassment raged up in him and he ran off. On the way to school, he reasoned that Rocío was too indifferent to the world to care about him. She wasn’t the type of girl to even notice boys, he thought. Who knew what she thought of most of the time.

Because his amorous exertions were known by his classmates, Facundo was considered more romantic than the other boys and soon after he stopped leaving flowers for Rocío, he found himself novio to a girl named Celeste Violeta Paloma y Álvaro.They went out for about two weeks before he was thrown over for a boy in an upper class; after that, Facundo paid less attention to girls, but he couldn’t help finding Rocío’s hair in the middle of a long afternoon, three seats ahead, always a salve to his newfound boredom with the world.

From year to year, the changes were so minuscule they made the minutiae seem extraordinarily important and, caught up with these tiny changes, life continued. There were fights and new teachers, relationships started and ended on a single day, but, through it all, the kids of Vista Alegre remained as they were, Facundo and Rocío were no exception.
One day, going home for lunch, when they were nearly 14, Rocío called to Facundo. Until that day, they had never spoken directly to each other. She asked him if he understood the math homework. He shrugged, not sure what the homework was, but wanting to make some kind of immediate answer. She laughed, something she didn’t do too often and told him how she thought geometry was too hard. They talked about school in an uncertain way, like they were both waiting for a chance to change the topic to something more personal. As they walked, Facundo stopped to kick rocks and Rocío watched each kick like it was a new idea, like it was something she’d never thought of. She had a very straight-forward way of walking and didn’t slow or stop the entire way home. Facundo talked in a disjointed way, constantly unsure of what the next word from his mouth would be, barely managing to string them together in time to finish a complete sentence.

When they crossed Avenida Médicos del Chaco into Vista Alegre and they were getting close to both of their homes, Facundo reached into a jasmine bush growing wild over a wall, plucked out a few of the small white flowers and handed them to Rocío, like he was passing her some coins. She accepted them with a small ‘gracias’ keeping them closed up in her hand. Neither one said anything for the last two blocks, and they walked alongside each other like two people who have been walking the same route together for a long time.

At Rocío’s door, she said “chau, Facundito” and gave a little wave before disappearing into the house. He gave a nod in her direction but she hadn’t seen it. She had gone straight into without turning around. He stood there looking at the doorway where he’d been lying flowers for years and considered going up and knocking, but he had no idea what else to say. He gave another little nod, like he was saying goodbye to the house, rather than anyone inside. Then, he turned on his heel, like a soldier in a military parade and marched off. It wasn’t a very funny thing to do, but he wanted to do something amusing in case she was watching from inside the house.

He didn’t see her again. The next day she wasn’t in class and because she had maintained almost perfect attendance for years, he knew she was gone. Facundo walked home the next day wondering about her intention. Did she walk with him on her last day out of a sense of duty? Did she feel like she owed him something or was she finally acting on an impulse she’d had for a long time—to be his friend?

For a while, everyone asked him about her. Even the teacher assumed he would know where she went. He shrugged his shoulders, making his answer intentionally vague, not wanting to admit the same impersonal lack of information. Nobody cared enough to press him further and took his shrug for some kind of cryptic answer to be deciphered. Only the teacher shook her head and muttered something after his shoulders dropped back into place.

The end of the semester got cold, which was novel enough to delight everyone at first. The favored classes up in Villa Morra all broke up the coats they’d bought for trips to Europe or the States. Coats like museum pieces taken out for a day; upper Avenida España reeked of naphthalene. The people who didn’t have the foolishness to buy winter coats, wore two sweaters. Some people found they owned nothing warm at all and had to go out and buy the first thing they saw to warm up their blue chests and arms. In this way, a lot of people were wearing the same cheap sweater from the Casa Parana department store, textured maroon and purple; downtown, it looked like the dictatorship had reached a new level of control, forcing everyone to wear the same lumpy sweater. One policeman, appreciating the order imposed by the ubiquitous garment even went up to a vendor in a white jacket and asked why the vendor didn’t wear the sweater and on Plaza Uruguaya one day, several squat and middle-aged women lined up after hearing a rumor that the government was going to give them away for free. When no one showed up, they gradually trickled away, unconcerned.

Despite the cold, the lapacho bloomed and the pomelos weighed down the branches. People walked around, enjoying the novelty of the crisp air and the smell of distant fire it brought with it.

When classes started again in the spring, it still hadn’t warmed up. By this time, more people had bought jackets, black satiny-looking things from China, almost guaranteed to provide zero warmth. On the first day of class, the students chattered in their seats; the girls, who’d washed and sprayed their hair, sported blueish earlobes and looked paler than ever. Their hands were pulled inside their sleeves, concealing blue fingernail beds.

Facundo’s class had been selected to work with a student from the Instituto Superior de Educación that semester. The university student was a Spanish Education major and had come to do her fourth year teaching practicum in Facundo’s class. Rocío Filomena Vargas y Santiago seemed to have a constant supply of teaching games as if that was all they taught in the University. She brought in bingo boards with verb conjugations and used pictures of pyramids and camels to explain Arabic etymologies. It was clear, she loved what she did and she was the first teacher Facundo ever had who showed it. Until this Rocío, there’d been a parade of teachers who sat at their desks, slapped rulers and wore disinterested expressions. They taught material it was clear they didn’t know much about and forbade questions that would expose their ignorance. He’d wondered what the point of school was when everyone involved seemed to hate it so much, but Rocío was different. She encouraged questions and if something stumped her she happily admitted it, vowing to find the solution and return with it the following day.

He learned the word lists and he memorized morphemes until he had this vocabulary he didn’t know what to do with. He started trying to use the words, he liked the way they sounded, but the impression they made on people was terrible. His interlocutors would wrinkle their faces up like the word was a lemon Facundo had forced into their mouth. He tried to explain the meaning, but it was no good. People couldn’t get past the idea that he used the word at all; they didn’t care what it meant. In their minds, talking like that could only mean showing off. Facundo’s mother who until then was always calling him ‘zopenco’ started calling him ‘el professor.’ He started to think about going to ISE when he finished school and studying Spanish Education as Rocío had done. He thought maybe then people would be more tolerant of his interest.

The brilliance of Rocío’s classes made the rest of the school day intolerable. The other classes, he discovered, were textbook chapters, delivered by rote without elucidation. Facundo began to understand the benefit of being a mediocre student when you have mediocre teachers. He sat in class every morning, willing the hours to pass until Rocío would come with her explanations and her excitement for life. While she taught he was engaged and wanted to learn—even if he didn’t know what to do with the knowledge. He was so fervent, the other students accused him of a crush. He didn’t deny it, but he knew his attention in Spanish class was something more than just an effort to have his affection returned, but what it was, he didn’t know.

A Saturday mid-way through the semester, Facundo was walking to Plaza Uruguay to sit by the train station and watch the trains come in from the campo, sometimes with the neatly dressed Germans on them. As he walked, he thought of the words in Spanish that started with Al— like, alfombra, almohada almuerzo, things of comfort which had come from the Moors. He wondered about these Arabs who he had seen depicted in Rocío’s purple mimeographs in loose fabric and sandals, standing next to sand dunes, they had looked content with what they had, like the heat of the desert didn’t bother them because they had alfombras to sit on.

He’d had a job working in his cousin’s electronics repair store afternoons and weekends; but his cousin was going to have another baby and it was understood he wouldn’t be able to pay Facundo anymore, so he spent his Saturday afternoons and Sundays in idleness, wandering around the leafy city, sitting in parks and plazas, talking with anyone who might sit down at his bench.

He stopped at a small dispensa on the way and bought a packet of Pájaro brand yerba and a bar of ice. He used a tap in the dispensa to fill his thermos with cold water, broke the bar of ice on the ground, poured it in from its plastic wrapper into the thermos and screwed the top down. He opened the packet of Pájaro which smelled like rich green loam, the smell of acacia in the sun and moist, dead tree bark coming off in clumps. It was the smell he associated with observing ants as a boy; the smell that came from close scrutiny of nature. He poured the woodchipped plant into his cup, added water from his thermos and was pleased to watch the mixture level out and bubble. The water maintained its steadfast cold color, suspending the yerba shreds and splinters without mixing, but if the color of the yerba hadn’t been absorbed, the flavor had. As he walked, Facundo sipped the smoky green beverage from his straw and, under the canopy of Asuncion’s trees, many of them in bloom, he found the drink neutral, a bit like drinking the air around you, only colder.

He walked down the slight slope into downtown, passed into the plaza and sat on a bench perpendicular to the train station. There was no train arriving for another hour so he took out the mimeographed sheet he had folded in his pocket and read. Next to him, two women spoke in the heavy Jopara of the suburb of Limpio, favoring the words in Guarani like a bird favors an uninjured wing and hobbles in circles. There was very little traffic around the plaza, occasionally a bus would roar past, grinding old gears. Facundo drank his tereré and watched the people walking by holding onto to children. Green parrots took over a tree overhead with their metallic squawking. He tried to remember if ‘loro’ had an Arabic etymology.

Staring into the space between the leaves, watching the dark shapes of birds flit from one branch to another, he took a drink of his tereré and rose into the cool green word of the leaves above the plaza. He closed his eyes and thought ‘azulejo, toronja, sandía, al sombra.’ All things of coolness, of loose comfortable clothes. He thought of Rocío, how she had mimeographed the sheet he was holding. He saw her spiraled hair and her loose t-shirts and the smile she had for him when he broke down the etymology of ‘playa’ (latín: plaga griego: plagos). Thinking of that smile, he added ‘almejia’ to his mental list of cool and comfortable Arabic things.

Soon after that day Facundo had spent on the plaza, Rocío’s term as a student teacher ended. She went back to ISE to finish her thesis. On her last day with his class, Facundo had picked some bougainvillea, but, an adult now, he was too embarrassed to give the flowers to her. He wanted to make something with words, but after spending hours trying to draw the words for apricot and basil (two of his favorites) together in a way to make a pyramid of green leaves, orange-yellow fruit and white flowers he gave up; every attempt looked terrible, like something a kid would’ve drawn. He felt so discouraged by her leaving and his failure to publicly recognize her as a great teacher, the moment she walked out the door, he immediately sank back into his role as a full-time apathetic student. He had no idea how to apply to the university and he figured it would be too hard for someone like him anyway. For the last three months of school, he constantly returned to the moment Rocío had left the class. It had been an awkward moment. The teacher had thanked her and given her a box of pens, but she gave the gift with an air of condescension, seeming to say, ‘vuelve a tu universidad; acá es el mundo real.’ Was it possible that the teacher didn’t realize how inferior her ability was to Rocío, who was only still a student? She was too conceited to even notice the greatness in others. The students, though they’d liked Rocío, had hardly even clapped when she left. Facundo had imagined himself giving her a standing ovation, but in the midst of such dispirited clapping, he knew his eagerness would look ridiculous. At home, at night, he thought about the way she’d walked out the door, jauntily, unconcerned and he understood that Rocío hadn’t been bothered by the weak send-off they’d given her; she was probably thinking about her own classes and her own teachers. 
She was probably thinking about the F-H shift between Latin and Spanish, trying to think which words exhibited this shift.

In the long afternoons of late spring, the equatorial sun moved down over Asuncion and began to cook the streets. The moist red earth baked like clay and the termite mounds in the empty lots petrified into snaggled, broken teeth. The fruit sellers on Mariscal Lopez wore floppy hats and towels on their necks or balaclavas. The heat loosened the macadam in the streets and it was pushed by the traffic into furrows until the shoulders of the street resembled a choppy black sea. The cars had to drive exactly in the middle of risk getting caught in the slurry of rock and tar. In the fourth municipal market, the vendors of dried pork intestine and hand-rolled cigars slept on their tables, next to their wares, their cracked and yellowed toenails out for inspection, the soles of their feet incredibly white. Birds which were already unusually noisy, made more noise than ever and Facundo finished school.

They had a big ceremony where he and his classmates walked across a stage while they called out their names. His mother had come and it clearly meant a lot to her, but he felt indifferent. He was happy to be finished, but he couldn’t understand what they accomplished. If he’d ever learned anything, he’d forgotten it by now. Even the things Rocío had taught him seemed irrelevant for someone who wasn’t going to college. He saw them as different people now. Rocío, he imagined, was in Spain, delivering academic papers with a Castilian accent. He was in Asuncion where the yellow mangoes, swollen with the heat of midday, fell and burst on the cobblestone streets over which passed carts pulled by horses and old men wore the straw hats of rustics without irony. He was here with no plans and no excitement about the future.

In the autumn, because there was still no work at the electronics repair shop, Facundo’s uncle got him a job on the back of a garbage truck.

Facundo liked working at night; he liked the silence of the city when it slept and standing on the back of the truck gave him plenty of time to observe the world around him, unnoticed. The work was tiring, jumping on and off the truck, running alongside it, lugging heavy refuse, some of it dripping, some of it flaking and most of it sublimating into that garbage fog that settled into his clothes, his hair and, eventually, his skin. During the day, he slept in an apartment he’d moved into after his mother went back to the campo to take care of her aging parents. With the money from the old house they sold, they’d been able to buy the apartment, plus have enough for his mom to live without working back in the campo where everything was cheaper. The apartment was sparse, but Facundo liked it that way. When he wasn’t sleeping, he spent hours in his kitchen drinking cocido at a little table and writing ideas on a notepad he kept there for that purpose.

Over the years, the cobblestoned roadlets of Asuncion bounced his bones around in their sockets until the cartilage wore away and the hard ends began to grind together painfully. Facundo shrunk down as his bones rubbed and bowed against each other. He wore the hirsute and blurred expression of a nocturnal person whose face has gone purple in the light of the moon. Sometimes he drank caña after work with his coworkers to soothe the pain in his joints a little. His hair thinned. His forehead creased and gradually he realized this was what his life would be. The thought didn’t scare him. Like everything else, it was just something else he observed. He felt removed even from his own life.

The job had one benefit, While Asuncion was sleeping he was able to look through the trash and determine if it held anything of value and he held ‘value’ to be a highly subjective term. The garbage was usually laid in the metal baskets about waist-high that kept food waste out of reach for the dogs. At this level, it was easy to rip open a bag and quickly drag your hand through the contents before you tossed it in the truck. You learned quickly which bags to open and which to leave alone and which houses never threw away anything but the rotten fruit that collected in their yard from trees too large for one or two people. In the fourth municipal market he’d once grabbed a bag full of a decomposing monkey and in Sajonia an old shirt he was putting on had 5,000 Guaranies in the pocket—back when that was still almost ten dollars. But all the stories they told, the bribe money paid to take dead bodies, the requisite visits to Strossner’s house in the middle of the night, workers falling to the maw of the truck, none of these things was true. The only thing the people said he could confirm was about the smell. It was true that the smell never left you, even after a shower and a haircut. There was always this sour, yeasty smell that stuffed up your pores. Facundo kept his fingernails cut to the quick but at the end of every night they still held black, slimy moons: the city’s offal, his living.

Facundo didn’t talk much at work, but he still had a collector’s mind. As he’d collected Arabic etymologies as a student, so now he collected prices of metals. Once or twice a week, in the morning after work, he’d go down to the scrap yard in Lambare and ask how much copper was per kilo and iron. Car batteries had a price for the lead they contained and every day these prices changed a little. At first, he didn’t bring anything in; they were supposed to throw everything in the hopper, but he knew guys kept all the porno comics they found and everyone had at last one outfit they’d picked out of the Villa Morra trash, a small tear or stain, but nothing to make it unwearable, especially for a garbage man. 

Facundo threw out a lot of scrap metal, but it was always in small pieces; even if he saved every piece from a night, it would hardly be worth his while. There was little spare room in the truck, but he kept an eye on the price at the scrap yard, thinking, if it goes up high enough, maybe then, I’ll start putting the stuff away.

It was a June night and cold. Everyone had sweaters on. The sweaters were the worst because they absorbed everything. By the end of the night, no matter how many times you rolled them up, the sleeves would be sodden with wet garbage, but no one liked to be cold, so they coped by complaining about the smell of their coworkers. Surprisingly, despite constant exposure to the noisome world of purifying trash, Facundo and his coworkers still complained about smells as much as anyone else, there was something too human in it. If they stopped talking about it, they knew it meant the death of something—what, precisely, they couldn’t say, but something important would be gone. They’d seen those who’d accepted the smell; they were like automatons swinging bags of trash and disappearing into the background. They called these men ‘los topos.’

The truck was tumbling down the uneven cobbles of Azucena, the men jumping from and whistling at the truck, moving down the road not by fits, but quickly. Facundo was running to the corner of 33 Orientales, thankful that so far he’d managed to keep the sleeves of his sweater dry. He was behind the truck which meant he had to move fast, but when the reached down for the trash, he saw something which made him stop. In the dark, next to the trash bag, something gleamed like the coals of a dying fire, but the anarchic order of the luster had been drawn into a smooth column. It was a spool of copper wire, still perfectly wound, unopened. He put his hand to the glowing wire and was surprised to find it so cool to the touch. Without any further hesitation, he grabbed the spool and ran after the truck.

It made the rest of the ride awkward, he had to put the spool of wire on the running board, threading out some of the wire to tie it down, but he got it to stay and each time he came running toward the truck, the spool was there like some kind of fiery prize. He knew his coworkers wouldn’t say anything, but when they got to the station, he had to get the thing off the truck before anyone else saw it. It was enough of a risk taking it all over town on the running board, even at night.

The rest of the route went easily that night. The only surprise was that someone in Seminario had cleaned out an old house and had left the broken tables and chairs stacked in a teetering way so that it was impossible to get more than a few pieces at once unless you wanted to bring the whole pile down on top of you—but this only set them back a few minutes and the crew returned to the truck bay early in the morning, before the bosses had come in. Facundo rolled the spool behind a building where there was a payphone and called his friend Mauricio who drove a taxi. Mauricio said he had to come from the bus terminal, so it would take a while. He started to complain about the smell of picking of a garbageman, but Facundo stopped him, intimating that he wasn’t the only one who had a bit of an odor. While he waited, Facundo went back into office to do the reports, and see if the shower water was on.

He left an hour later and Mauricio drove straight down to the scrap yard in Lambare. The spool, too large for the trunk, rode in the backseat, covered with black trashbags.
Voy a quedar me en mi taxi,” Mauricio said, as he always did, loathe to leave the confines of his little metered world.

Facundo was disappointed to see there was no one waiting at the counter. He wanted someone to see him drive up and take the bags off all this copper shining like blushing gold. He waited to unwrap it until a man, about the same size as Mauricio, a man who, like Facundo, had adapted to the environment of his job and had the look of someone constantly called on to lift heavy things. His name was Rodrigo.

La cobre hoy, cuanto sale?” Facundo asked.

Como ayer, cinco mil por kilo.”

Dale. Tengo 15 o 20 kilos. Compran?” Facundo said, starting to pull back the bags. 

Rodrigo walked around to see what kind of copper he had. He knew he couldn’t cheat Facundo who’d been coming for months and asking questions. He was too canny. Besides, he was a garbage man and the workers at the scrap yard felt a certain affinity with garbage collectors.

Abrirla” Rodrigo said, pulling at the top of the spool. Facundo helped him pull the top of the spool off and Rodrigo flipped it upside down over a hopper and shook the coils of wire free. When the wire was off the spool, Rodrigo reached down and picked up a strand, pulling it hand over hand like a galley chain. He examined the wire, letting it lie flat on the palm of one hand and pulling it slowly along with the other. The wire whispered over his oily skin as he pulled it. He looked up at Facundo. “Bueno,” he said. “Es bueno.” He dropped the wire, motioned for Facundo to help him and together they brought the hopper over to a scale. 15 kilos. Rodrigo reached down under his desk, opened a locked metal box, pulled out a sheaf of guarani notes, counted them and handed them to Facundo. It was more money than he made in two weeks.

He never found a spool of copper again, but Facundo began to collect other scrap metal he found on his nightly rounds. He gave the driver 2000 guaranies a week to let him use the cab of the garbage truck to keep what he found. When they returned to the truck bay in the morning, he took the metal out, tossing it into some high grass growing around a palo borracho tree that always seemed to be in bloom. He tried not to let the word spread knowing that all his bosses would want a little money if they found out.

But for Facundo, it wasn’t about money. The endeavor of finding scrap made his job new to him. He no longer minded much about the smells or the broken glass people threw away which, by now, had scarred the palms of his hands. These things had been major sources of irritation when they resulted from pursuit of a paycheck, but, in pursuit of treasure they were minor inconveniences. At night, running up and down Cerro Corá, instead of doing a municipal service, Facundo was running from trash to trash for his own reasons. This impetus lifted him and gave the job new meaning.

But Facundo didn’t get to pursue this trash chimera long. It was 1989, the year when old regimes all over the world were falling. After 35 years of rule, the people finally rose indefinitely up against la dictatdura and Stroessner was forced to flee to Brazil. Even after he left, everyone expected him to return—it seemed impossible that he wouldn’t find his way in again—but he had no way to wrest the power back. The Colorado Party was now against him. There was no support left for him. He sat in some villa in Brasilia, a guest of the government he’d done so much to support. Gradually his conspiring became the plodding of an old man and his power became inert and dragged behind him as he moved pointlessly from room to room.

Asuncion, freed from curfews and secret police was festive, then wild, then sullen. Crime began to rise when no one definitive stepped up to take control of the helm. The poorer areas seemed to look poorer and as Brazil, in payment for harboring the dictator, began to speculate on land in the east for soybeans, more and more farmers were coming into the city to live in shacks by the river. These neighborhoods agglutinated, held together only by the mud the floodwaters left behind and the bitterness of their residents who now realized what they’d been forced into selling had been more than land.

After the revolution, most aspects of civil society fell into some kind of disarray, not excepting trash pickup. One day the truck Facundo’s crew used had run out of fuel and they found the tank at the truck bay completely empty. They went to ask someone where to get more fuel and found there was no one to ask. Their boss had been fired a week earlier in a wake of post-Stroessner purges but no one had been sent to replace him. They found an old phone number list on the office wall and the only people they were able to get through to, clearly didn’t care about the grievances of garbage carriers. One man, whoever he was, even tried to lecture them about what had happened in the government. He tried to impress them with the scale of the total restructuring, but their question was simple. ‘Querés basura en las calles? Si no, necesitamos la bencina.’ The man on the other end of the phone was too educated to understand such simple questions, when he started getting into Machiavelli, they hung up on him, went to the dispensa down the road and got drunk.

Facundo still went down to the truck bay every day to see if the trucks were going to go out. He knew garbage pick up was one of the things a city can’t do without, like water, electricity, and hospitals. Soon, someone was going to have to sort the chaos out and when they did, he’d be hanging off the back of the first truck to pull out into the twilight mess of the city. All day he’d wander around the bay, drinking tereré and talking to the other workers who had also come to check out the situation.

After three weeks, some new bureaucrat showed up at the truck bay and immediately began to barricade himself in the office with long, expansive desks. He had the old stuff thrown out and his named painted on the door: Ocampos. Facundo was chosen along with a truck driver, Marcos, to go in and talk to the bureaucrat. They walked in just as he was hanging up the phone. Facundo noticed the man had a lit cigarette in his hand while another smoldered in the ashtray, only partially extinguished. “Jefe?” Marcos started, knowing that he was dealing with someone who obviously had a vain impression of himself. “Obrero,” the man said over his desk, settling into his seat and folding his hands like he expected to begin a long series of negotiations in which he had the upper hand. Facundo, not wanting to have to talk to this man longer than necessary cut to the point. “No hay bencina.” The man watched them for a while, saying nothing, letting his eggy eyes loll in their puffy sockets and then he abruptly dropped his hands on his stolen desk with finality. “Viernes,” he said and then seemed to nod at his own idea as if finding he agreed with himself before mashing his cigarette in the ashtray. Marcos and Facundo thanked the man and walked backward out of the office smiling and nodding as if they expected to be shot in the back on their way out.

A crowd of men was waiting for them outside the office. “Viernes,” they repeated to the crowd. There were no further questions. Everyone turned and went home.

The three days before viernes were the first three days Facundo had taken completely off in years. He walked around Asuncion and noticed how much things had changed. He went to Plaza Uruguaya and found it almost empty despite the warm, clear day. Many of the benches had been broken. He sat near the train station as he used to and heard no engines shunting along the tracks. He saw no Germans from San Bernadino and along the back of the station, a number of people were sleeping, rolled up in blankets or just lying on the tiles looking abruptly struck down by some profound exhaustion. He walked by them and saw the flies circling their feet and heard their ragged breathing.

He walked down Palma street where everyone used to go in the evenings for a paseo. On this gray afternoon, there was no one out and everything looked closed. He began to worry that marshal law had been imposed but there didn’t seem to be any police out either. Asuncion looked like it’d been turned upside down at night and emptied of all its people, like they’d been so many ants to shake off.

He walked over to the mammoth plaza in front of the Hotel Lapacho and found the bone-white baldosas of the place strewn around senselessly. Many of them had been cracked and broken, some were piled up. It looked like the plaza had revolted against its own shape and rearranged itself into something less congruent like a snowy yard after children have spent the afternoon molding it to their own ever-changing specifications. He walked over to a stack of baldosas and tried lifting one. It was heavy, as he’d expected. He wondered how anyone would ever do the job of putting them back. Maybe that was something else scheduled for viernes, he thought.

A man stepped out from the hotel door across the street wearing the obvious maroon and gold of a hotel porter. “Vete!” He yelled, gesturing wildly, flinging his hand toward Facundo. “Vete!” He shouted the word like he had a bad toothache and making this particular sound was his only means of relief. Facundo put two hands out toward the man trying to display his honorable intentions on the palms of his hands. “Policía,” the porter shouted from the steps. Facundo felt the word like a child feels a slap that has missed its mark, but knows another is coming, one that will connect and will connect harder for the first having missed. The porter at the hotel doors looked around and, realizing there were no police officers around, disappeared inside, presumably to call one. Facundo walked quickly away. Waiting to hear horse’s hooves, waiting for jail, isolation and deprivation. Under the dictadura, jail had been a terrifying place. He didn’t know what it would be like now, but he could only imagine—after seeing the plaza— that it had gotten worse. The place in his mind of metal tubs half-filled with blood-tinted water, electric prods, the image of a stray tooth on the painted concrete floor, filled him with a disgust stronger than fear. His lips pulled back unconsciously and he shivered. He looked back, but the street behind him was empty except for an old number 6 bus, painted with accents of red and green, chugging up the hill, grinding the worn clutch and billowing dark bluegray smoke. He raised his hand, waited for the bus to slow and jumped on.

As the bus slowly trundled along Lopez, Facundo constantly looked back expecting to see a police car overtaking them. The bus only had a few passengers, but Facundo couldn’t bring himself to sit down. He stood, constantly examining the street spooling out behind the bus. Nothing came. The streets were ghost-town empty again. No one on the bus said a word the entire journey. The only sound was the grinding of the bus’s gears as it labored up Lopez.

Facundo got off where the bus turned down Ayala from Kubitschek. He stopped into a dispensa and bought a green bottle of Tres Liones caña to calm himself. He could still hear that wild call of ‘policía!’ loud enough to make him continually want to stop and look around. He couldn’t shake the feeling of still being pursued and felt better only once he’d gotten into his apartment and sat with his back against a windowless wall facing the door. He sat there, on the floor, and drank the caña, until he went sluggish. As a precaution, he finished the bottle, even after he could barely raise it to his mouth. His head sank to the floor and his mind found its way into a broken sleep.

On the floor he dreamed he was sitting in a jail cell, the floors were all broken up and under a heap of broken concrete, jutting out at a slight angle, a man’s hand hung limply from his broken wrist. There was a large, vicious-looking spider sucking blood from this dead hand. His viewpoint changed from being a prisoner to being an omniscient observer. He saw his mother outside, trying to get in to save her son, but the police officer called her ‘puta’ and lifted his club. She walked off, quietly sobbing in a heartbreaking way, no one to comfort her. As Facundo struggled against the parameters of the dream to go to her, he found himself thrust back in the body of the prisoner, who was now himself facing a giant brown and translucent spider, the size of a small dog. He tried to kick at the loathsome thing, but the spider jumped on his leg and began to savagely chew on him, lapping wildly at the blood coursing down his leg. He woke up still trying to shake it off. It was dark. The hard floor had mashed all his bones into numbness. He felt his face and couldn’t tell if it was wet from sweat or tears.

He stayed indoors all day, not even wanting to go out for anything to eat. He ate the eggs left in his small refrigerator and sat drinking tereré feeling cramped and shaky. In the afternoon, he pulled his kitchen chair over to the door. He opened it and sat there in the door frame and spent six hours watching the sun move across the sky.

Viernes he went back to work and met another Rocío. This one was a new worker. Her family had come from the San Pedro department, but she’d been born in Asuncion. Her hair was dark brown and she had the full face of a Brazilian with eyes so dark there almost seemed to be no difference between iris and pupil. She came up and introduced herself in a scratchy voice, looking him full in the eyes and reaching out for his hand. It was obvious she didn’t think she’d be accepted as an equal on the team and was trying hard to ingratiate herself. Who knew how she’d gotten the job. It wasn’t a job anyone wanted, but it was a job in an uncertain time. Maybe she asked the wrong uncle, the one with no connections, for help finding something and now found herself here at the garbage truck bay taking in the permanent odor of the other men who worked here, knowing it would soon be her own odor. Facundo hoped her uncle wasn’t somewhere thinking himself magnanimous, patting himself on the back for getting her this job. He greeted Rocío and slunk away, still feeling weak from his drinking bout and the day spent sitting in the doorway.

He expected to feel elated when his truck rolled out that evening, but when the familiar pneumatic breaks squawked and he felt the engine rumbling through the running board, vibrating his feet into numbness, he was overwhelmed with boredom thinking that he was going to spend his life hanging from the back of this truck. His break had been long enough to allow him some time to think and after the incident in the square, his spirits were down. 
The truck bounced along, out of Barrio Obrero under all the pasacalles effusively thanking San Expedito for the favors received. Each one marked a boon in someone’s life. Where had the boon been in his? All he had was his small apartment and his job and even those things could be taken from him. He’d almost lost his job and he’d heard about people who’d been kicked out of their own homes given nothing in compensation. He owned nothing and was subject to the whims of others and strange whims they could be. Bouncing along on the back of the truck, Facundo no longer felt sure he could live a quiet life and be left alone. He had some money saved from recycling the metal, but he knew it wouldn’t be enough to do anything with, he’d buy some extra meat, have a barbecue, maybe even get some new clothes but it’d never be enough for real security.

They made their first stop and found the tied plastic bags to be covered over with rainswollen piles of white rice, gristle and the bottom of someone’s borí-borí pot which smelled terrible. Facundo cursed these people too lazy to do anything but dump their trash over the bags. The dogs had gotten into the mess and the people had stopped bothering to tie it up in bags. He grabbed at the bags under the mess and felt the dampness of the food sinking into his work gloves. He rubbed them against his pant legs. When he jumped back on the truck, his hand slipped on the metal bar he reached for and he almost fell under the wheels. He tried to tell himself he was just still nervous and working the caña out, but his anxiety was making it hard to draw a breath. The rotten borí-borí and the brush with death were too much for the first half an hour back on the job.

Very early in the morning, his truck pulled into the bay after stopping at the dump where he’d seen a few kids playing, like a scene from an apocalyptic movie: the children were playing in the firelight of a garbage dump in the middle of the night, their shadows stretched out over melon rinds and dog piss-soaked plastic bags. He noticed one of them wasn’t wearing shoes, but her young feet were already calloused enough to not be cut by the shards of broken garbage she walked on.

After work, everyone stayed to have some cocido and gossip. Facundo wanted to go home, but he was afraid of going back to his empty apartment. He fell into a chair where the workers were sitting and stared around the room like he was seeing it for the first time. Someone brought him a paper cup of cocido full of sugar and he thought about how he was becoming old—old enough to have people bring him things. He heard someone say his name and realized Zadkiel, one of the drivers, a big friendly guy, with hair all over his back and shoulders, was talking about him.

Facundito estuve buscando su cobre y yo con la planta con ramas tan largas así (stretching his hands out as far as they’d go) había un árbol, un lapacho creo, pero cortado, un montón de palos y hojas y vi un alacrán grande como un jaguareté, colorado. Oy dios, como un mono!”

This story was received with a grateful laughter, among the glottal sounds of men laughing, Facundo noticed Rocío’s voice, higher than anyone else’s, laughing. When the laughter had died down she asked Zadkiel why Facundo had been looking for copper, obviously not realizing he was in the room.

No sé.” He responded. “Facundito,” he roared. “Por qué cobre, ha? Por qué metal cuando hay muchos alacranes para tu colección?”

Everyone laughed. Even Facundo, chuckled a little. He took a noisy sip of his cocido and began to feel better.

The first week was busy; the crews had been slightly reduced—a few workers either hadn’t come back or hadn’t come back to a job— and everyone had to work longer hours to get all the extra trash off the streets. Facundo found a cache of car parts; he took the catalytic converter, surprised it was still there, but left the rest. When he brought the platinum into the recycling plant, the man at the desk chided him for not bringing in more.

Despues de la dictadura, es como una mina de oro allá.” He said, sweeping his hand north to the city. “Por qué no tenés mas?” Facundo just shrugged. He didn’t know why he’d stopped picking up scrap metal. There was a lot of it around. He worried a little about being stopped and questioned. He worried about losing his job if he were caught, but the real reason was some kind of apathy had gotten into his heart and he couldn’t see the point in straying from routine. The world outside felt dangerous to him; he didn’t like to have to interact with it anymore than he had to.

He saw the metal in clusters, in muffler knots on the side of the road, even lying on the sidewalks downtown. It looked like stuff had been ripped up everywhere and then carted around to no apparent purpose. The fourth municipal market was the worst. The whole place was becoming like a new dump. A lot of campesinos in from the east where Brazilians and the government were buying up their land were hauling all kinds of things down there, hoping to find someone who would want them, who would be willing to pay a little money for them. When they found no buyers, as they invariably didn’t, they just left the stuff there. Big piles of junk, gleaming in the light of the ever-setting sun.

One evening, as the truck rattled down Avenida Dr. Francia, Facundo noticed a woman ahead, walking with one hand outstretched to the street holding a bunch of horse bridles. She held most of the bits in her hand, but one was knocking down the street after her like small, lighthearted dog. The tanned and weathered leather splayed out over the street; the few cars driving past paid her very little attention. If anyone looked up at all it was out of naked curiosity, no more.

Facundo wasn’t particularly touched, but something about the scene bothered him. He was used to the Aché and other indios coming into the city to sell bows and arrows and things, but this woman, she was no different than his own parents who had come from the campo to Asuncion with next to nothing. He knew they’d once owned a horse; many people had. That used to mean something. He looked up the street and saw in the woman walking with her bridles: something that was already gone forever. He knew if he just went past without acknowledgment this thing wouldn’t only be gone, it would be like it never existed. Facundo was a quiet man; he seldom spoke and, other than occasionally bringing hunks of metal onto the truck, no one could remember when he’d ever done anything which occasioned any attention. As the truck went past the woman, he let out a shrill garbageman’s whistle. The truck stopped and he jumped down.

Everyone from the truck, which, as always, was behind schedule, watched muttering to themselves about sentimentality, but really they were all jealous they hadn’t been the ones to help the woman out, to show a little kindness of their own. When Facundo dug into his pocket and handed the woman some guaranies for the armload of bridles, at least two other people on the truck unconsciously patted their own pockets as if they were the ones handing the campesina the money. She handed him the tangle of bridles and continued on her way, somehow looking more burdened empty-handed than she had with the weight. Facundo handed the bridles up to the front window, Rocío, who was sitting up front, took them with a little smile of appreciation and set them on the floor.

It wasn’t until they were almost finished with Sajonia at the end of the night that Marcos called back to Facundo asking him if he needed a ride back to the bay or if he would be taking his horses. Everyone laughed at this, but Facundo’s answer was lost to the grinding of the gears as the truck lurched down Avenida Bogado toward the new sun rising over the small homes and dispensas.

When they arrived back at the bay, Rocío came down from the truck and handed Facundo his bridles.

Marcos dijo que los vendes,” she said watching him reel the leather straps in.
Estos, no. Metales, si; estos son...son—” he said, weighing the bits of metal and leather streamers in his hand—“son artefactos, como tesoro, creo. La historia del país.” He thought for a moment, then picked out one, the most antiquated and rust flecked and handed it to her. “Tu país,” he said. “La memoria de tu país.”

Sabes que,” she said, turning over the bridle in her hand, “hoy es mi cumple, lo podés creer?”

Facundo grinned. “Entonces feliz cumple, Rocío. Vos y todas Rocíos que viven acá; cada gota de rocío; mil veces, feliz cumple.”

The next day, the pasacalle went up over the street 3 de Febrero just outside the bay.


He never knew if she saw it because he didn’t go back to work. For a few days, Facundo sat around his apartment. He went down to the street when he felt the place closing in around him, but he didn’t go out and buy any caña. He walked down the cobblestone streets, back into neighborhoods he’d never been, admiring the smell of jasmine in the air and the mossy dilapidation of old brick walls. Every day, he seemed to find a new route; whether he was going uptown or downtown, there were little roads, some of them dead ends, but others connected to other little roads making them accidental thoroughfares of the city. Very few vehicles took advantage of these routes; the cobblestones were uneven enough to shake the bolts loose on most cars. On one street, he’d find avocados fallen from a feral tree, pulped and bug-swarmed on the ground. On the same block he’d find the pale green basketballs of pomelos in the gutter. Most of them still intact under their rubbery rind. 
Sometimes, he’d pick up the fruit on the ground and marvel at how intact and edible it was. Just like anything in the market.

Facundo enjoyed walking around the city; he hadn’t had a look at the place since he was a kid, and even then, he’d only really wandered around Vista Alegre, rarely crossing Avenida Ayala except to go downtown.

There were very few people out. He never saw anyone else walking back in the neighborhoods and he worried people might take him for a burglar, but no one paid him much attention. He read in the paper one morning that Stroessner was in Belo Horizonte now; another Paraguayan absorbed into the endless jungle anonymity of Brazil. Stroessner was just another bandit taking advantage of the contraband corridors he’d helped create, crossing his own open border into Brazil, disappearing into Mato Grosso in an old car with a trunk full of contraband: himself.

Facundo realized he didn’t need to work so much. Food and yerba were his only expenses and, despite rumors, mandioca was still cheap in the market. He liked to walk, so he didn’t spend his money on buses. He realized that his neighbors were probably starting to see him as a vagrant, but he knew he wasn’t the only one without a job and most people were probably too occupied with their own problems to notice what he did during the day.

He continued to notice metal lying around town. It bothered him, knowing that it was valuable, knowing that the people around him needed money and it was practically sitting in their front yards. But he wasn’t about to go tell the world; he knew the next day the whole town would be standing in the line down at the scrap yard with worthless oily clods of electric motors and ancient sewing machine parts. The value would fall until it would hardly be worth going down there with anything except gold ingots.

Facundo wasn’t the only one roaming the town. The chipa sellers had begun to peddle their yellow pastries from old cars; most of them just drove around yelling ‘chipa!’ out the window, but one guy had found a karaoke microphone and amp and hooked them up to his car battery. You could hear the guy coming for blocks away calling, in his feigned radio announcer voice: ‘rica!, caliente!’ and other adjectives he seemed to blurt out as they came to his mind. Facundo noticed whenever this vendor came down the street, most people came out of their homes and bought a bag of the hearty pastry—a meal in itself.

Back at home in the evenings, he thought about the Rocíos he had known: His mother, back in the campo now, the teacher who had taught him the Arabic etymology of Spanish, the little girl—little forever in his memory—who he had picked flowers for and the woman who’d taken one of the bridles he bought from history. He’d gotten old on the garbage truck, heaving bags and looking for metal; years had gone by and he’d hardly noticed. His hands were knotty with early arthritis; his dark hair was streaked with white in places like he’d been painting and it had dripped on him. The lines in his lean face were pleated, doubled and trebled in smaller lines of care and sun. The shape his face had taken on the back of the truck, scrunched to avoid the wind blowing off the trash, was now his permanent expression.There would be no more Rocíos, but when the thought came to him in the late night darkness of his apartment, rather than fight it, he accepted it and lay down to sleep, still enjoying the novelty of sleeping at night even though he usually didn’t get tired until after three. He enjoyed lying on his bed and thinking about the life he’d had which had never been too difficult or too beautiful. He was pained by no memories and happy with his anonymous station from which he could look out on the world with objectivity. He knew he could be something that way. If he’d had a more turbulent life, by now he’d be good for nothing except sitting around and talking about it, bragging to the other men, lecturing the boys, the type of character you found on every park bench in Asuncion. He had nothing to lecture about, no regrets, no memories to clutch desperately to. The moment passing was all he needed and he felt this at no time better than the night when the world was quiet and he thought of the Rocíos. He felt like he’d been given an advantage over other men which would’ve been shameful to waste. He could do something different that might leave a mark only because it would not be the work of a man who had loved and lost or a man who had become loveless and vengeful. He had no avarice, no desire to promote himself unjustly. He only wanted to act to see the result. Every day could stay the same; that would be fine. But Facundo knew he had a choice. It was possible for him to do something different and all his hope came to rest in that idea; that he would do something different and become different.

The next day he woke late in the morning, feeling like he’d slept for days. He turned on the electric kettle, made instant cocido, drank it slowly, staring through the window and at the bright, nearly mid-day, world. He finished his cocido, tossed the grainy dregs into the sink, picked his shirt off the chair where he’d left it and went out the door, walking south.

The border between Asuncion and the suburb of Lambare is the hilliest place in the area. For some reason, perhaps due to the closeness of heaven, these hills either inspired piety or a momento mori feeling in the city’s inhabitants because they were covered with cemeteries and mausoleums. On his way up and down the hills leading into Lambare, Facundo passed three cemeteries. The quiet rows of the dead blocked the streets with their high stone walls and had to be circumnavigated by the alleys that ran between them. The walls threw cool shadows into the street and the city, normally so wide open, felt labyrinthine and older here, like something Incan and ancestor-haunted.

The climb up to the cemeteries was gradual, but after Facundo passed the crumbling walls and the sun-tumbled mausoleums, the road fell away. The descent was at a steep angle and he felt ridiculous walking down it, leaning back like a man about to fall over, throwing his hands out to keep his balance, as his feet flopped down the steep street, down to the lush neighborhood below of homes concealed by yellow pau d’arco and pink lapacho. Walking in that precipitate way, it was as if he were no longer walking under his own volition, but being led.

He walked through the neighborhood of homes and flower gardens with cars parked in front of them. The homes of people favored by the current leadership. Not the anonymous homes and apartments of Vista Alegre gray and custard-colored and cobbled together to save as much room as possible. These homes had been built for space rather than in spite of it. 
They used it in their building plans like it was another room. To Facundo, passing the wide yards, the trees and the nodding flowers, that seemed the fundamental difference between rich and poor. He thought of the families that lived in his neighborhood, most of them sharing two rooms and a small bathroom, living right across a narrow alley from another family; another such construction above them; people crammed together from all sides. But, living like this, the poor learned to think of themselves as a part of something. There was still greed and selfishness, but when a poor person was called upon to help another, they went to it without thinking, knowing they could just as easily be the one suffering next time. Facundo doubted whether these rich down here, practically underneath the cemetery, even knew the names of their neighbors.

He passed a chirimoya tree, frail but covered with small fruit and stopped to eat one. As he ate, an old woman came out of the house and stood on the porch, watching him. He didn’t want to seem driven on by her presence, so he stood there, his back mostly to her, eating and trying to return to the thoughts he’d been entertaining earlier. He could hear the woman back there clearing her throat and shuffling around, obviously making up her mind about what right she had to yell at a man standing on the sidewalk. Facundo decided to grab another fruit and go. He plucked the snakeskinned thing from the tree and heard the woman audibly make her decision. “Ya basta,” she called out, unable to share the fruit that was nearly rotting on this tree because she perceived it as belonging to her. Facundo shrugged and walked on. When he was out of the old woman’s sight, he chucked the chirimoya down the street.

The street gradually gave way to more modest homes as it tumbled down to the river, beyond the homes, on the river bank, was a neighborhood of homes cobbled together which flooded a few times a year driving the inhabitants out to build even flimsier homes on higher, dry ground until the flood waters receded and they could go back to their previous homes now furred in black mold and swollen with mildew.

Facundo arrived at the scrapyard. Rodrigo was sitting at in front of a ledger drinking tereré, he nodded at Facundo, filled the metal cup and handed it to him, who, acting like a man observing a pious ritual, took the offered cup with a nod and drank the contents quickly through the metal straw. He handed the empty cup back and Rodrigo immediately began to fill it again.

No hay metales hoy?” Rodrigo asked.

Nada hoy. Puede ser mañana.”

Y por qué? Caminaste tanto para nada.”

Caminé para pedir un favor.”

Te escucho,” Rodrigo said, leaning back a little, enjoying the uncertainty of the conversation. He had the look of a man who hears the same things every day for years who is finally hearing something unexpected and greatly enjoying it.

Lo que tengo es una proposición. Rodrigo, dame una moto. Voy a hacer un carrito para transportar metales. Podría transportar metales de todos lados de la ciudad a vos. O, si necesitas cobre, podría buscarla. Tenés motos que no usas.” He said, looking down having made his point.

Rodrigo took a long drink from the metal straw. Filled the metal cup again and handed it back to Facundo.

Una moto, huh? No querés un camión?” For a moment Facundo thought maybe he should’ve asked for a truck, but he knew Rodrigo wouldn’t have really considered that.

Dale, Facundito. Tengo una moto, la verde, es tuya. Use que necesitas para hacer tu carrito acá.”

Facundo thanked Rodrigo and went out into the yard. He knew where the green motorcycle was because he’d often wondered if he’d come back some day and find it scrapped, but every day it was in the same place next to a barrel with a rain-rotted clear plastic tarp over it.
For weeks, Facundo was down at the scrapyard every day carefully stripping the motorcycle down and building it up into a different shape, a shape that looked like a crude prototype for a car without doors or a roof but with the same carrying capacity. When it was finished, he drove it to a friend that did fileteado art on buses. He asked his friend to christen the motorcycle cart ‘Rocío’ with shocks of blue and red ribbons unraveling from the name.

The first time Facundo took that cart out, he was a little uncertain. He didn’t know if he could expect anyone to bring anything, but when he started yelling “batería, hierro compro, cobre, metales compro” he hadn’t even gotten out of Vista Alegre before people were trotting after him. “Tengo unas baterías viejas,” they said. “Tenemos una máquina que no sirve,” they told him. He looked at these things and told them how much he’d give them. There wasn’t much value in what they had, but mostly they were happy to get rid of the old junk and Facundo liked taking it. Only a few were too suspicious. They reasoned if he wanted their old car batteries they must be worth a great deal. Facundo shrugged these guys off. “Bueno, vende tu batería propia; transportela a Lambare por mil guaranies,” he thought smiling and continued on his way.

It took a while to adjust to waking up in the morning and working during the day. Once Facundo had tried to go out in the evening to call for scrap, but people yelled at him to go home. Buying scrap wasn’t like picking up garbage; it wasn’t something people wanted you to do in the middle of the night. You had to interact with the people; they had to be talked to and occasionally coaxed, which was something Facundo, after all his years picking up trash in the middle of the night, found he enjoyed.

People around Asuncion got to know Facundo and expect his visits, driving by, yelling into his microphone attached to a karaoke speaker about batteries and copper. He gave little sums of money for what people thought of as junk. The Asunceños also learned that Facundo had a taste for buying things from the past; from life in the campo. Maybe he sold these things too, or maybe he just kept them, but the campesinos who were out of money were always happy when he came down the street knowing the things they sold to him would not disappear. It was even rumored that he would start a museum one day with all the things he’d picked up over the years.

It was Rocío who’d told him about this rumor. She was still working on the garbage truck and heard all kinds of rumors about Facundo. On the one-year anniversary of the day he bought the bridles and left his job, Facundo went back to the man who made the pasacalles on Ayala and asked for another banner for Rocío’s birthday. He asked for the same thing he’d asked for the year before to be hung in the same place. When the man asked him how long he wanted it to stay up Facundo asked for fifty years. He hadn’t been planning on it, but as soon as he said it he knew it was right. There was nothing better he could say to Asuncion than:


A city with thousands of girls and women who shared the same name and had birthdays every day of the year; why shouldn’t he buy a pasacalles for all of them? Why save the canvas and paint for prayers and advertisements? Why not string one salute, one greeting up there, between the streetlights for everyone –and for one person in particular— to see?
The next evening, before the garbage trucks left, Facundo drove his carrito, empty after his day’s work, over to the truck bay. He thought that Rocío may have missed the pasacalles, so, as he drove under it, he started to honk his horn. The garbagemen came out and called ‘Facundito!’ and waved. “Es tu pasacalle, verdad?” they asked as he came up, anxious to solve the mystery. “Sí. La vio, Rocío?” He asked. They pointed inside and Zadkiel said laughing: “ella tiene la vergüenza.” As their laughter was fading away, Rocío came out, she had a haughty look on her face which told Facundo he’d taken a liberty by having the pasacalle put up two years in a row. It wasn’t exactly a declaration of love, but it implied a familiarity which may have looked bad for her. Seeing her face, he suddenly remembered that the side of his carrito read ‘Rocío’ and he realized just how bold he looked, but rather than turn away from this boldness, he accepted it and pulled himself up a little.

The men stepped back and pretended to have their own conversation as Rocío came up to Facundo. “Significa,” he said pointing up at the sign, “ella que tiene gracia.”
Rocío said nothing and then pushed her hair back. “Entonces me recuerdes?”

Si, cierto, Rocío de la buganvilla, Rocío Jazmín Ortigas y Buonessere, mi amiga desde la primaria. Lo supe desde el momento en que te ví.”

Y porque no dijiste nada?”

Estoy diciendo algo ahora.”

Rocío thought about this a moment, nodded and said “bueno,” more to herself like she was deciding something.

Facundo came down from his carrito, he wanted to reach out and take her hands and then he did without thinking. Rocío leveled her violet eyes at him. Facundo took a breath and tumbling out behind it came words about bougainvillea, his parents, Paraguay, the Cypriot origin of the word ‘cobre.’ He talked like he was trying to try the ends of time together, from fourteen until now. She stopped him and pointed to the bougainvillea he had in his carrito. 

“Ya me traes buganvilla?”

Sin hormigas, como siempre.”

Rocío smiled and walked over to the cart. He took a cluster of the papery flowers and handed them to her. “Dale pues.” Rocío said and got in the cart, sliding over a muffler and an old fan blade to make room for herself.

The pasacalle still floats over the street 3 de Febrero, a word bubble over a city filled with Rocíos who pass by and wonder if, maybe, it was meant for them.