Everything was haunting me, the specters in my bedroom in the mornings. In sweats of fever, apparitions tapped my shoulder, dirty and destitute children, and I was certain— absolutely certain— that they were me, staring back at them.
The point is that I had to drive on because some of us inherit a war and the rest of us have to invent something personal. It’s a vile need for compensation, but in a way, so are most wars, and it’s an empty man that’s never tasted conquest, however intangible.
Walking along the dark street, I passed a boywaif sitting on a stoop with ripped oil-stained jeans bouncing his knees to that rhythm only a frenetic, strung-out junky can hear. Gray faded into black without hesitation in the recessed orbits where his eyes flamed hunger, a desolate fixation that tugged his torso rapidly forward and then withdrew and then dragged him forward again by some nature of hunger that—I imagined—filled his dirty, unrepentant days, so that he sat there with his knees bouncing and shifting back and forth like a puppet schizophrenic. This creature, this beast of the night was not someone I yearned to encounter. I’d have fled towards a posse of knife-wielding carteneros to avoid this tangible desperation, until anyhow, he said as I passed:
‘Tienes?’ I asked and he rose to his feet. He must have caught my accent because then he said:
‘Five blocks, come, let us go.’ His accent was a guttural Russian. ‘My name Josef,’ he said.
‘Listen Russo,’ I said, ‘You know these guys? How much is it?’ He walked even faster than he bounced his knees and it was impossible to keep pace in Haviannas. ‘Slow down, Russo, what’s the rush?’
‘Almost there. My name Josef,’ (which he pronounced, Yozif).
We arrived at a dark doorway where a splayed, supine old man on the sidewalk was still gripping the bottle that put him there, gripping with all the industry of blind and empty purpose. I kicked his stomach gently to see if he still had the wherewithal to guard his treasure. He didn’t move or make a sound so I pried the bottle of rum from his hand, finger by finger, and relished a few swills. I held the bottle out for Russo, but he just stared at me as if I might be worse than he. I pondered for a minute that he might be right, shrugged and took another gulp, and he just shook his head.
‘Let us go inside,’ Russo beckoned in a startlingly self-assured monotone, bereft of the impatience that dragged me to this den like a racehorse in flip-flops.
If I’d thought that latching up with Russo for this deal was a decision of specious virtues, the sight inside this rancid hovel was my first vicious pang that I might rue this night come daylight. The interior was a house stripped of even the most fundamental amenities: it was all cement: the floors, the ceilings, the walls, the steps. There was no paint, no chairs or tables, just an empty unlit gray cement cavern, and the ground steamed a putrid rank of last year’s festering waste, boiling blood and melting black plastic. Eight or ten men lingered in the front room and I easily filtered out the buyers from the sellers. The buyers were huddled in corners, twitching or asleep. A needle hung from the arm of a man prostrate and upside down on a cement staircase which seemed to lead to an Escher-esque nowhere. He was dead, perhaps. The sellers leaned against the walls with one foot up and shone Russo’s same hungry eyes. One of them, with arms akimbo, displayed the hilt of a pistol in the space between his shirt and waistband. A toddler waddled about wearing nothing but a clearly soiled diaper. No one took notice. The rum from outside was beginning its downward assault on my innards and I thought I could fix that if I could just have some more.
This scene was soaked in all the elements of a drug deal gone bad. I could feel my night of revelry and victimless mischief transporting rapidly into a finalé of violence and ominous confrontation. My suit jacket and designer jeans were no longer hip, if they ever were. Here, in this dark space, they were a vulgar ailment of a serious disease: I was a tourist. I knew it, they knew it, and I knew that they knew it. I tried to act cool, which was a role that I accepted with gravity because I felt certain that I was auditioning for my life. I removed my suit jacket, flung it over my shoulder and slowly lit a cigarette. I exhaled in exaggerated defiance of my dire incongruence. The baby seemed to be the only party to take notice, but I shuddered at the thought that this child might appear at my bedside in the morning. Was he even there? It was becoming clearer by the second that the curtain between my waking life and my nightmares was unravelling into nothing more than a thin bedsheet, which was wrapping itself around me and lending me a fierce case of the shakes.
‘Look Russo—’ I started.
‘Come. My name is Josef, come.’ He was still composed and patiently insistent.
If this was the first room, I could barely imagine the darkness and destitution beyond, but turning back is not an option on the battlefront. ‘Come, you must meet Martín,’ and so I followed, despite having no clue who Martín was or why I must meet him.
On my way out of the antechamber, I caught eyes with the man with the pistol, raised my brow, flared my nostrils, bent forward my head, and pointed with my forefinger at the hilt. If it was so important for him to show it, then it was my courteous duty to acknowledge it. He nodded his head indifferently and I passed out of the room with Russo.
‘What does Martín want?’ I asked Russo.
‘Martín want nothing,’ he said. ‘Listen, just listen.’
I grabbed Russo’s shoulders from behind and shook his frail frame a bit for the sake of a captive audience.
‘My name is Josef.’
‘Mira, whatever, I just want some coke… Entiendes?’
‘Martín have coke.’ I was buoyed by his return to a somewhat frantic impatience. ‘Come. Let us go.’
‘You said that already. I’d guess about a million times. “Come, let us go,”’ I imitated. ‘Drop the schtick Russo. What’s behind that door?’
This hallway was darker than the front room and I knew that opening the door to Martín was an unparalleled blunder. I knew that I had to turn face and flee or make armistice with my trepidation. The only light flowed from the rectangular border outlining the door to Martín. I thought that lightless hallway might stretch on forever, that that door might be the last stronghold between me and the gaseous center of a hideous unreality. I opined whether flight from this rocky circumstance would be cowardice or just simple prudence. No matter. I knew that where I’d gone there was no going back. We reached the door.
‘Wait here,’ Russo said. ‘Martín see you, wait here,’ and then he slipped behind the door. I looked down the hallway from where we came but its borders were blurring into nothing. An eerie feeling silently approached, that no antechamber, no street, and no city were anticipating my return. My paranoia was running victory laps.
Russo opened the door, I stepped in and looked around at an egregiously misplaced, bright and clean study. The light was refreshing. The gold foot and neck of a green-shaded banker’s lamp sat on a full-size, ornately decorated oak desk in the middle of the room. Floor to ceiling bookshelves towered on my left and right, full of hardbound editions behind clean glass doors. Two generous leather loungechairs faced the desk diagonally. Aside from the door where I had entered, another door was set beside the bookshelf to my left. I looked over at Russo, who appeared comfortable. The door on the left opened and a meticulously groomed, older porteño man in glasses and a tweed suit entered and closed the door.
‘Welcome, Mr. Zapff,’ he said, peeling his glasses off one ear at a time. His English was impeccable.
‘What the—How do you know my name!’
He chuckled lightly. ‘Josef, here, has sticky fingers. You may return his wallet now, Josef.’ Russo handed me my wallet and I started counting the cash.
‘I assure you, we have taken nothing from you Mr. Zapff. I took the liberty of making a photocopy of your driver’s license. I mean no harm; it is simply a precaution. You know where I am and I know who you are. Now we are even.’
All the money was there.
‘Sit down, Mr. Zapff.’ I sat down in a loungechair and Martín sat down behind the desk.
‘Look man, I just asked Russo for some coke. I mean, what the fuck?’
‘Yes, well. If you had fifty pesos in your wallet, you would have been sold some heavily cut cocaine for thirty pesos in the room where you first came in, and been sent on your way. As it is, you have over five hundred pesos in your wallet, so Josef correctly brought you to me so that I might ascertain your interest in other, more cultivated fare.’
‘Word, I see,’ I said, nodding and looking around at this bizarre atmosphere again. I slouched in my chair a bit. ‘Well… que tienes, old man?’
‘Anything you want, Nicholas. We have a wide variety of cocaine, heroin, opium, absinthe, speed, marijuana, and a few others. We can offer girls, or if your taste differs, guys, you can even have Josef here.’ I looked over at Russo who was staring at the floor. Martín continued. ‘You can take purchases with you, or enjoy them here, either in the lounge to my right, or we can provide a more intimate atmosphere. We also have children, but that is beyond your price point.’
At his last words, I puked a little in my mouth, and then I realized that this is what Martín offered in this office, what he sold. This was why the bookshelves, the soft voice and gentle manners. By these accoutrements, he offered to turn repulsions into enticements, to turn smut into candy, bloodlust into catharsis, money into tokens, darkness into light, and when it all spit you back out, you’d be forced to reckon alone with the damage you’d done. Just an hour or so ago, I’d thought about fleeing Russo, but now I wished I could have just bought some heavily cut coke from him on the street. All the same, I was not leaving without the coke. I threw two hundred pesos on the desk.
‘A little of the good coke and a bit of absinthe, please, sir,’ I said.
‘Very well, Mr. Zapff,’ Martín said, standing up.
When it was done, I walked back out, down the hallway, through the front room and I noticed that the prostrate man on the staircase was gone. I wondered where he could have gone, thinking I’d only just passed by a few minutes before. But maybe I’d been gone longer; the events within that study were already assuming enormous proportions and simultaneously losing all outline and shade. I wasn’t even out of the building yet, but the words we’d spoke inside were as irretrievable as the memory of my own birth.
I stepped out onto the street, tapped my jacket pocket to confirm the goods were still there and headed for some fresh air, to the closest park, at Parque General Las Heras.
This adventure only brings us up to two o’clock though, and there’s more to tell between that den and the Boutique del Libro on that sunny Sunday morning. Where had this pirate shirt come from?