After leaving behind Martín and that drug den, I walked north on Avenida Cnel. Diaz to Calle French and entered through the black wrought-iron gates of Parque General Las Heras.
I found a bench that was unoccupied by the vagrants who slept beneath layered rectangles of cardboard and commenced to sticking half of the bag of coke up my nose with the aid of a five centavo piece that I found in my pocket. Although I had been looking forward to the coke, its use, quite naturally, did not cast an effect of calm. All the same, I was comfortable on the bench and felt no impulse to move just yet.
Public parks in Buenos Aires have a way of attracting a cross-section of the city inside their green pastures and four corners. In the flinty sunlight of weekend afternoons, socialites and fashionistas stand on the same cobbled paths as the homeless and the cartoneros. The well-fed house dogs sniff and mingle with the street mutts. The improvised glee of children towing parents, the sage resignation of tidy old men gazing together silently on a bench, and the quick mirth and eager conversation of the homeless all weave together in the sunlight, creating a whole that transcends the attendance of this eclectic communion. On sunny weekend afternoons, the park becomes a carnival of the living. And in Parque General Las Heras, there is a carousel of garrishly overstated colors adding to the surreality of the scene.
In the quiet darkness of night however, when the well-to-do and the gambolling young have scattered to more private locales, the homeless, the downtrodden and the junkies expose their skeletal ranks, their wrathful eyes, and seasons of grime. A foul mist of despair and indignation follows you along the cobbled paths. The crooked backs and wilting years of the huddled ignominies adopts a life of their own, only much more sinister than in the daytime. It is a carnival of death, the carcass of hope, with no voice left, except the impulse to grasp out to briefly destroy that which it has already lost. The carousel multiplies your uneasiness. Even in the pitch of night, when the carousel has been suspended, the unreal notes still reverberate and you cannot escape the feeling that some horribly menacing clowns are at your heels.
A gaggle of co-eds in second skin jeans sat in the dim center of a field, passing around a bottle of Coca-Cola, perhaps with Fernet. Beyond them, to the left, three twenty-somethings passed a futbol around their triangle in an otherwise empty field. Despite it being Saturday night, the park was mostly barren. Where I sat, it was almost black, save for the streetlights on distant sidewalks and the indifferent, lanky lightposts along the paths through the park. I finished my cigarette and walked further into the center, entranced by the somber rhythm of my shadow growing and then fading behind me under each successive light.
As I passed a stout, old jacaranda with low-hung boughs and scattered violet bunches, an impatient voice caught my ear from the darkness beneath. “Eh, maestro! Maestro! Tienes un cigarillo, maestro?” Underneath the autumn canopy, I saw three homeless men, middle-aged, seated on overturned vegetable crates and logs, facing in a semi-circle towards their boxes of wine.
“Si,” I said.
When I crouched over and, walking under the circumferent leaves, handed the man in the middle a cigarette, the one on my left spoke.
“De donde sos?”
“Michigan.” I repeated the state twice before he got it.
The man in the middle spoke up again.
“This here,” speaking in Spanish and gesturing to his left, “is Teo. My name is Carlos, and,” gesturing to his right, “this is Jorge.”
They were clothed like men that carry their wardrobe on their bodies, weather be damned. Carlos had on a pair of canvas safari shorts over ripped jeans. Jorge wore a brown trenchcoat with the tail torn away below the waist on one side. Teo had layered sweatshirt upon sweatshirt. The turquoise one on top bore an AFL-CIO emblem above the phrase, Hard Work Conquers All, Oklahoma City. Most of their clothing was so muddied and tattered that the insignias, zippers, cuffs, buttons and patterns seemed to have forgotten their own purpose.
“My name is Nick,” I said.
“Un poco vino, Nick?” Jorge held out a box of wine.
I took the box and had a sip. It tasted like battery acid, but anything to temper the coke buzz was welcome.
“Tango un amigo de Oklahoma,” I said to Teo, but he stared back gaunt and quizzical.
“I used to play futbol,” Carlos announced in Spanish. “I was in a movie too. Big Hollywood movie where I was a futbol player in the states.”
“He was in a movie,” Teo repeated. “In the, the… the cinema.”
“No, si?” I offered.
“Puede ser,” Jorge said.
“Fuck you, puto,” Carlos turned to his right. “Some more vino, Nick?” He held out another box.
I took a sip, feeling guilty about accepting their generosity when I had absinthe in my pocket. My knees were bouncing now and I caught myself grinding my teeth. I lit another cigarette.
Carlos continued. “I was friends with the main actor, his name was David. You know anyone named David?”
I was not sure if he was asking me if I might know the actor. “Yeah,” I said, “but he’s never been in a movie.”
“The movie was called The Last Goal, you see,” Carlos went on, “because David was sick, David was going to die, he had the sickness, and his last goal was to make one last goal, which is how they ended the movie. I was David’s friend, brought in from a Mexican league, and I passed the futbol to him for his last goal. I made the assist, entiendes?”
“David was a very good guy,” Carlos said in spanish. “The director, he was a puto. He said my English was no good. He was a rotten bastard, my English was fine, but I forget it now. But the director wanted to replace me, but David, the star, a good guy, he said he would quit if they replaced me. Me and David, we liked working together, you see?”
“But I didn’t just do the movie, I played futbol too, for Argentina,” Carlos said.
“So he says,” said Jorge.
“Shut up, old man, you puto,” Carlos rejoinded. “Nick, Jorge went to school, so he thinks he’s better than us, but really, he’s just a homeless drunk with too many regrets.”
Jorge grinned and looked at me squarely. “That may be true too,” he said.
“Carlos was in a movie, and he played for Argentina, tambien,” Teo said.
“Muy bien,” I said.
“What are you doing in Buenos Aires, Nick?” asked Jorge.
“Nothing much,” I said.
“Idle hands do the devil’s work, Nick,” he said.
I thought about Russo for a moment.
“Y ustedes?” I asked.
“Touché,” he said.
“Listen to this guy,” Carlos said, “speaking in tongues.”
“How can you talk without a tongue?” Teo asked.
He looked at the other two and offered me some more vino, which I drank, feeling sort of bad for the guy.
“Teo was hit by a bus a few years back,” Jorge said. “He has not been the same since.”
“A big old bus, the 24,” Teo said. “Knocked me right down. Don’t remember nothing. People had to tell me what happened… Hey Nick,” he continued, “you got something on your nose.”
I knew what was on my nose. I tried to brush it off casually and change the subject.
“Are you all from Buenos Aires?” I asked.
“I saw that!” Carlos accused.
Jorge rolled his eyes.
“Yeah, me too,” Teo said. “What was on your nose anyway?”
“Cocaina, you puto,” Carlos said, slapping Teo.
“Yeah, cocaina,” Teo said.
“You have a little for us, maestro?” Carlos asked.
Then Jorge said, “Nick, you shouldn’t be stuffing your nose with that stuff anyway, but you’re not obliged to share it with these two. It’s the last thing they need.”
“Shut up, puto.”
I thought about lying. I thought about saying that I had none, or that I had finished it, or that I had just done some with a friend but had none of my own. But half the bag was still in my jacket and I was already plenty high. These guys had been nice and I had nowhere to go. I wanted to stay and I thought it would be a small price, a little generosity. They had given me wine they would have drank and enjoyed. I decided to share.
“That’s alright,” I said. “I have a little. Here,” I said, handing Carlos the bag and the centavo.
“Buenissimo, maestro,” he said. “For us? all of it?”
“Bien,” I acquiesced.
Carlos sniffed a bit and Jorge shook his head and then bowed it, resigned.
Teo reached for the bag, but Carlos pulled away.
“You don’t need any of this, Teo, you puto. You’re dumb anyway.”
“I want some,” Teo said. “Come on, he gave it to both of us, didn’t you Nick?”
I didn’t want to get in the middle; I just shrugged.
Carlos snorted some more.
Teo said, “Hey Carlos, give it here.”
“You should not have,” Jorge said to me.
Carlos and Teo argued for a while, Carlos slapping Teo away, snorting over and over, wiping his nose, blinking, getting aggressive.
“Carlos, why don’t you give Teo a bit,” I said finally.
“Yeah, Carlos, you heard him,” Teo said.
“Shut up Teo, shut up Nick, you puto. You gave it to me, it’s not yours anymore.” He disappeared another small pile and looked around blinking.
“You should go, Nick,” Jorge said.
I was done here. I did not want any more of this, and I was not upset about the coke. They could figure it out however they wanted. I stood up to go.
“Where the fuck are you going, Nick?” Carlos asked. He stood up headlong and stared at me, eyes like emergent shears. “What else you got on you, eh?”
He took a knife out of the pockets in his safari shorts and pointed it at me. I looked down at the convex blade, one side catching the moon’s nacre glow. It was a big knife.
“You’d better go, Nick,” Jorge said.
I looked around. The futbol players were gone, the co-eds were gone. The park was just a remote greenish mist outside the four of us.
Just then, Teo stood up and grabbed for what was left of the bag from Carlos’ other hand. Carlos resisted and the bag ripped and emptied on the wet dirt.
“You puto, you puto,” Carlos yelled at Teo. He spun around and stabbed Teo square in the gut.
“What’d you do that for?” Teo asked.
I could see the blood begin to collect around the wound. Teo moaned.
“It’s time for you to go, Nick,” Jorge said. “I think you had better go.”
“Get the fuck outta here, kid,” Carlos said. “You didn’t see nothing.”
Teo bent over and then sat back down, collecting a pool of blood in his cupped palm. He looked up at me as if in query. As if he did not know what to do, or if there was anything to do, whether he might die, and if he would, if he should be concerned. He looked up at me like a child. The corners of his mouth turned up a bit and his eyelids slit thinner.
I turned and walked away.
I surprised myself by not hurrying, just walking away at a natural pace. I looked at my watch. It was four in the morning. There were still four more hours before this nightmare ended. I needed something to take off the edge and so I took out the absinthe. Bottoms up.