Charly woke up before the rest of us woke up. Light was entering from the crack under the garage door. He elbowed me. I mumbled something and stirred, but did not wake up. I suppose I thought I was sleeping in my bed. Charly turned on the radio, but kept the volume low. No matter which station he selected on the radio, the announcement was the same. He found a station with a clear signal and turned up the volume so everyone in the car, including me, could hear. By then I had realized that I was not slepping in my bed. The military had lifted the curfew at 6:00 am, the radio said. For the remainder of the week, to safeguard the national patrimony and curb insurrectionist insurgencies it would be imposed again at 6:00 p.m.
“Turn on the light,” Armando ordered hoarsely. Charly complied without arguing. Armando looked at his watch. It was 6:20. “Let’s get out of here,” he said, “we’ve already wasted 20 minutes.”
The students in the back seat, they asked what was going on, yawning. Charly and Armando got out of the car without answering, so I explained to the three of them that there had been a military coup, that they had been captured and were now in jail, and that they would be tortured with acetylene torches at dawn. Shaking his head with disapproval, Armando groped in the darkness of the garage until he found the latch on the door. I asked him, in my own head, whether he preferred my anger or my sarcarm. Of course he did not reply, but he did give me a disapproving older brother look that I made sure had no effect on me.
Armando unlocked the garage door, and with Charly’s help, opened it. The light was sharp and blinding. Armando turned away and shielded his eyes, feeling the need for a cup of coffee and a cigarette, being the experienced university student that he was. Charly walked up the driveway a few steps, rubbing his wrists together to relieve the irritation of the handcuffs. He stood and squinted in the morning glare, looking up and down the street.
I forced myself to get out of the Cadillac and joined him on the driveway. “Looks pretty clear to me,” I said, and yawned. I put my hand on Charly’s shoulder, told him I was going back to bed, and returned to my place on the front seat. While I made myself comfortable, the students in the back seat got out, shut the back doors firmly, and walked unsteadily up the driveway, scratching themselves in all the usual places. Charly returned to the Cadillac. He sat down in the driver’s seat with the door open and one foot on the pavement. He hesitated for a moment. I assumed he was praying. Just in case, I prayed with him. He cranked the ignition. The Cadillac started immediately. Halleluyah.
Since we only had a few minutes before we were asfixiated by the exhaust fumes, Charly stuck his leg back in, closed the door, propped one manacled hand against the wheel and used the other to shift the transmission into Drive.
That still magnificent front end of the once magnificent Cadillac emerged slowly from the garage and poked its elegant nose into the street. Armando and the students piled back in and shut the doors. At the end of the driveway Charly took a second to think. “Which way,” he asked.
“The way we came,” suggested one of the students, pointing in that direction.
“What’s wrong?” Armando asked him, leaning around me.
“I am wondering,” Charly said slowly, “how six students in a car with bullet holes might look driving past the university.”
Everyone was quiet while they considered Charly’s question and its implications. “How do you know the soldiers are still there?” one of the students finally asked.
“Maybe they’re gone by now,” another one suggested.
“And what if they aren’t?” Armando asked, turning around in his seat and looking at him. “Are you willing to risk it?”
No one replied.
“And what would they think of a car driven by an escaped prisoner still wearing his handcuffs?” Armando added.
The morning no longer looked as bright. “Then what are we going to do?”
We spent a few minutes talking it over. We considered splitting up and walking out of the neighborhood alone or in pairs. Unfortunately, we would have to walk right past the university. Curfew or not, that was risky. What if we jumped a fence and ran through someone’s back yard? By the time the homeowners called the police, we would be long gone, sitting on a bus for home. Everybody liked that idea. After all, the boulevard was only a block or two away. On the boulevard there would be lots of buses to catch. Or would there?
“Of course the buses are running.”
“And what if they’re not?”
We groaned. We were back on square One. The six of us sat in silence, with only the sound of the engine running, not sure what to do next. “Maybe you should park,” one of them suggested to Charly, “This might look suspicious.” Charly nodded and pulled the car the rest of the way out of the driveway, then turned and drove slowly up the street. “Maybe there’s a way to drive the car through someone’s yard,” one of the students suggested brightly.
Armando laughed derisively.
“No, I’m serious. It’s a big car. And what if one of these houses has a long driveway? You know, from this street to the next one? After all, this is an old neighborhood.”
“Yes!” another student echoed. “Let’s look around! Stop the car!” Before Armando could discourage them, they got out of the car and began walking around the neighborhood, hopping up and down at each new house to look over the high garden walls. Charly pulled the Cadillac even with the curb but kept the engine running. Armando sighed. “How did these people ever get into my university?” he asked rhetorically. I, of course, remained firmly planted in the Cadillac’s deep cushions, content to let everyone else solve this one on their own.
“I don’t think they’ll find a way out,” Charly said.
Armando frowned, for once agreeing with Charly but unwilling to admit it. The two of them sat in the front seat in irritated silence until a sharp whistle made them turn around. One of the students was jumping up and down excitedly, signaling them to come over.
Charly used both hands to put the transmission into Park and got out with Armando. I stretched, spreading my legs as far as they would reach into the floor space vacated by Charly and Armando, then rested my head comfortably against the back of the seat, and shut my eyes.
The student who had called them over was standing against a plain brick wall, patting it. “Look over the top,” he said.
Charly reached up, grabbed the rim, and sprang up to the top, turning his hips and sitting on it like a girl sitting sideways on a horse. The wall enclosed a large empty lot between two houses, empty but for scattered rocks, chunks of cement discarded by the construction on either side, and a few starving weeds. On the other side of the lot, behind another brick wall, was a street full of shops and small businesses that clearly led out to the boulevard. Charly looked at the student. The student was smiling. “That’s our way out.”
Armando had to see for himself, so he sprang to the top of the wall and sat down next to Charly, dusting his hands off against his slacks. “But how do I get my car out,” Charly asked the student, glancing over at Armando.
The student patted the wall with his palm. “Right through here.”
Charly didn’t believe him.
“Come on, gringo,” he whined, “how strong do you think this wall is?”
Charly did not have a clue. He looked at Armando.
Armando shrugged at Charly, as if it might work, then got down from the wall. Charly remained where he was, wondering whether it was worth the risk. He looked down the length of the wall. It certainly was thin; only one brick wide, except at the columns, which were three bricks wide. Zoila’s Cadillac was heavy. As long as he avoided the columns, maybe it could knock down the wall.
Charly looked back over his shoulder at the Cadillac. The back fender was crushed, the right rear panel too, the rear windows were shattered, and he knew that the other side was riddled with bullet holes. He could see me sleeping in the front seat. “What if the wall is reinforced?” he asked the students from the top of the wall.
The students looked at each other.
“Steel rods,” Charly added.
“They never are,” Armando said. “These walls are only designed to keep the indians from squatting and claiming the lot. No one expects you to drive a Cadillac through them.”
Charly’s first attempt at breaching the wall was feeble. With all six of them piled into the car, he carefully backed the car’s rear tires up onto the sidewalk. Then he backed up slowly and lightly bumped the rear fender against the wall. He pressed the accelerator progressively harder, but the wall would not budge. Finally, the tires began to spin, and created such a loud squeal that the others told him to stop before he woke up the entire neighborhood.
“Hit it harder,” one of them suggested. So Charly moved the car as far away from the wall as he could without dropping the rear tires off the sidewalk, asked me to shift the transmission into Reverse for him, and accelerated. The car struck the wall with a dry thud, whipping everyone’s head backwards painfully.
The impact had not dislodged a single brick. All it had done was raise a little dust.
“I’ll go harder this time,” Charly said, and moved his manacled hands to the shift lever.
“Wait!” one of the students shouted. “I have an idea.”We all turned to look at him. He explained with generous hand motions and body English. “Drive on the sidewalk, you know, with only two tires on the street, get going real fast, then turn the wheel and smack into the wall.”
“I don’t know,” Charly said. “That may not generate enough force in the right direction.”
“Who knows?” Armando said, we might find a weak spot in the wall. We’ll stay in the car with you.”
A few seconds later, the Cadillac was roaring up the street, one side on the sidewalk and one side off, swerving into the wall over and over again, pounding and bending and nearly shredding the sheetmetal off the frame. After a few seconds of that, Charly stopped the car.
The punishment inflicted on the car’s sheetmetal finally woke me up. I had to see how bad it was, so I pushed Armando out, then got out myself. Subconsciously I put a hand to my mouth and shook my other hand rapidly, as if I were trying to shake water off it. I had to laugh. “Now that’s a scratch,” I said, and called Charly to come and look.
Charly could not. He dropped his forehead against the steering wheel. Maybe he should just abandon the car. It was destroyed anyway. He could jump over the wall with the rest of us and ride the bus home. Or walk home if there were no buses. He could tell Zoila that her Cadillac had been stolen during the coup. Except that he could not. He was wearing handcuffs. He would certainly get arrested if he were seen walking down the street. So he did all that remained for him to do: keep banging his head against the steering wheel.
As absorbed as we were by Charly’s display of despair, we all heard the commotion behind us at the same time. One of the neighbors had been awakened by the noise, and had come out of his house, still in his bathrobe. He was shouting at us. “What college prank were we pulling this time? Do you want me to call the police?” He crossed the street in his bedroom slippers and approached us with all the bravado of an outraged parent.
No, he did not need to call the police, we explained. We apologized for disturbing him and said we would leave right away. We were just a little worried about the coup and how to get home.
The man looked at us, then at the car, then at Charly, as if he were gazing upon utter insanity. Then he noticed Charly’s handcuffs. If he was developing any sympathy for our plight, the handcuffs put an end to it. He threatened us again in a loud voice, loud enough for the rest of the neighbors to hear. If the hoodlums did not leave his neighborhood immediately, he would have them all arrested by the military!
“Yes sir,” we answered, and walked in resignation toward the car.
It was time for action. I grabbed Armando’s elbow and nodded in the direction of the man’s yard. Armando looked, nodded to indicate that he understood, and approached the man to offer cover. “We are sorry sir,” he began politely. Behind him, I scurried across the street to the man’s yard. Armando drew out a profuse apology while I reached into the garden and pulled out two smooth river rocks that the man had been using as edging.
The neighbor saw me. “What’s he doing?” he shouted, looking around Armando. “What’s that boy doing?”
Armando turned around, making a show of being surprised that anyone behind him would be doing anything at all on such a nice morning. I ran across the street in a crouch, holding the rocks against my hips. I laid the rocks against the berm. Then I ran back for more.
“Please don’t worry, sir,” Armando continued explaining to the angry neighbor, “that’s my little brother and he’s just putting things back where he found them.”
“It doesn’t look like it to me!” the neighbor shouted, and began walking up to the car. “Those look like my rocks!”
Armando intercepted him, and put a hand on his shoulder. The man looked up at him angrily and shoved Armando’s arm aside. “Don’t try to fool me, young man. I have raised sons of my own. Now what is he doing? Tell him to stop.”
Armando turned around again. I had put two more river rocks against the berm, as far apart as a Cadillac’s tires, and was getting back in the car. A moment later Charly bounced the car off the sidewalk and brought it slowly around to where Armando and the neighbor were talking. He looked behind him to check his position relative to the river rocks. Then, with a nervous glance at the neighbor, he slowly drove the car across the street, up onto the opposite sidewalk, and onto the man’s lawn.
The man appeared to have become apoplectic. His mouth hung open, his eyes bulged out, and the veins in his throat were getting thicker. He moved his mouth, but no sound came out. Charly drove the car all the way to the edge of the man’s house, until its hood was brushing against the bushes covering the foundation. By then the man had found speech. He began to scream at the top of his lungs for the neighbors to call the police, to call the army, that the neighborhood was being overrun by communists.
Armando gave up. He turned and sprinted across the street toward the car. “Quickly!” I shouted at the other students, “Get in!”
All three shook their heads and did not budge.
I was not about to hesitate. I pushed Armando into the car, ducked inside and shut the door. “It’s just the three of us,” I said. “Let’s go!”
“Ready?” Charly asked us, ignoring the screams of the neighbor and the sound of other neighbors coming into the street. Armando helped Charly shift the transmission into Reverse, then once again slouched deep into the seat beside me. We braced our knees against the dashboard. Charly checked his aim in the side mirror and locked his elbows straight on the steering wheel. He gave the hysterical man a regretful look and stomped on the accelerator. The Cadillac’s rear tires tore a deep groove into the grass the entire length of the lawn, then squealed over the sidewalk and onto the street.
Its engine roaring, the heavy car accelerated across the street, bounced up and over the river rocks, and slammed into the brick wall. The impact sounded like an explosion. Bricks flew in all directions and raised a cloud of dust.
Charly slammed on the brakes. When the dust cleared, the students who had declined to ride in the car and the hysterical neighbor found themselves staring at a gaping hole in the brick wall. A second later the students cheered wildly and ran through the opening. Weaving their way through the smoke and laughing with delight, they approached the driver’s door to congratulate Charly. “That was great!”
“What an impact!”
“Beautiful! A work of art!”
Armando and I pulled ourselves up from our slouch and looked. We surveyed the scene around us, then looked wide-eyed at Charly. He looked stunned, and had to close his mouth so he could swallow.
“Quickly!” Armando shouted, “Clear a path to the other side.” The boys scrambled out and began removing rocks and debris from behind the Cadillac. Charly got out to inspect the damage, making sure to leave the engine running. The back of Zoila’s Cadillac was scraped and dented, and its rear window was shattered. Several bricks were lying in the back seat and on the rear shelf.
Then he realized he had to pee. He looked around to find a spot. Coincidentally, Armando, the students, and I had become aware of our own need to pee, and had stopped clearing debris to relieve ourselves against what was left of the brick wall. Charly reached for his zipper and joined us.
“What’s happening here?” someone shouted. It was not the voice of the hysterical neighbor. Charly whirled. Another man had walked through the opening in the wall, with the hysterical neighbor at his elbow. He gave Charly a cold stare. Charly looked at the boys who were still peeing. “I said, ‘what’s happening here?’” the man insisted forcefully.
“We’ve called the police already,” the hysterical man added, standing slightly behind the new neighbor. “They are on their way.” The opening in the wall now had several people peeking through it.
“Are you going to answer me?” the man said, walking toward the car. “I asked you what was going on here?”
Charly realized he had left the keys in the ignition. The man was now the same distance from the keys. He seemed to know it. Charly did not move.
“Señor,” Armando said, walking up from his corner, “we are sorry—”
“What kind of a hoodlum are you?” the man shouted at him.
“You don’t understand, señor,” I interrupted, walking up behind Armando, “we needed to pee. There was no bathroom in the street, so we had to make one. I hope you don’t mind the damage to the wall.” I shrugged once, then giggled hysterically, and shoved Armando into the front seat. “Let’s go!” I shouted at Charly.
When the man made his move for the keys, Charly flew at the front door. The man reached inside through the window, but Charly grabbed the edge of the open door with both palms and flung it against the man’s midsection, stunning him. Charly recovered his footing, gave the door one more shove, and sent the man sprawling backwards onto the ground.
“Communists!” the hysterical neighbor shouted, backing away warily. “Communists! Call the army! Call the army!” The people who had gathered around the opening in the wall began to retreat. Charly got inside and closed the door. While he tried to shift the gear lever back into Reverse, I hung out the passenger window and called the students back into the car.
The man Charly had knocked down would not stay down. He recovered his breath, stood up, and again reached inside the car. Charly pummeled the man’s arms with his fists, using the edges of the handcuffs to dig into his skin, while Armando wrestled with the man’s fingers to keep them away from the keys. The students rushed into the car and shut the doors. I reached across Armando, grabbed the shift lever, and dropped it into Reverse. Charly grabbed the wheel and hit the accelerator. The man, now running beside the accelerating car, made one last lunge for the keys, but Armando had covered them up with both hands, and the man had to let go or risk breaking his arms.
With the determined neighbor still chasing us, the car bumped up and down the uneven terrain of the empty lot, making it difficult for Charly to look through the bouncing rear-view mirror to keep the car moving in a straight line. He kept the accelerator pressed all the way to the floor and made constant steering corrections on the large steering wheel while we slouched in our seats, bracing ourselves against the impending impact.
The street on the other side of the wall was full of small shops and markets. Alerted by the commotion, and nervous because of the previous day’s trouble at the university, the merchants and their early morning customers had walked out of their shops to find out what was happening. Their curiosity was rewarded by the sight of a bullet-riddled, brick-filled, windowless Cadillac stuffed with panicked university students bursting backwards through what the people had once been convinced was a solid brick wall. Shedding fenders and chrome, the car seemed to fly through the air for seconds before it finally crashed onto the pavement, bounced a few times, scattering more chrome and glass, and spinning half way around before stopping. A second later its tires were squealing, pushing the car up the street. The last the shopkeepers and their customers saw of us was the battered rear of the Cadillac, its bumper dragging on the pavement and trailing sparks, speeding down the street in a cloud of smoke and dust.
The garage was half underground, with only one opening: the garage door. This was not strategically advantageous, but it was typical for that part of Lima. Peruvians did not store anything in the garage except a car, which was lucky for us, since it gave the homeowner only one reason to open his garage door. As long as he did not come home before curfew, we were safe.
During the last hour, army trucks and jeeps had passed in front of the house twice. A squad of soldiers had patrolled the street, and we heard their boots on the sidewalk as they strolled up the street and back. Twice. They were looking for us. We were able to find the lock in the dark garage and set it quietly.
Charly, he was happy to remain quiet in the dark. And I know why. While I had risked my life to save my brother’s, Charly had abandoned me inside the university walls to be pummeled to death by the rifle butts of the Armed Forces of Peru. It had been his defining moment. Until that time, he had been living under the pleasant delusion that he was wonderful because he was a great basketball player. It was easy to look like a hero when you were the best player on the court. But now he understood the real reason he spent all that time practicing. It was to avoid the danger of an actual contest whose outcome was uncertain. I had been right, after all. America had all the gold medals but no heroes. All those athletes who looked like heroes were just like Charly. Cowards who practiced every single moment of their lives to make sure they could avoid the risk of losing.
Perhaps Charly had not had the time to consciously calculate his options and, after careful consideration, decide to turn Right at the intersection, away from the University. But neither had he been in a panic. So you could say that he had reacted out of instinct. Ah, yes, but our instinct is shaped by our past decisions, no? By how we imagine we will behave when danger strikes. This is something all men do. We spend our idle moments imagining how we will behave when danger strikes. No, not imagine: decide. Therefore, at some point before today, Charly had thought about it, had consciously weighed the options, and had decided he would be the type of person who would let his friend die if that’s what it took to save his own skin.
Why would he decide this? Because he had spent a lifetime training in how to become a winner. Because he had convinced himself that the willingness to do whatever was necessary was a moral code. His moral code. He had chosen to become what was necessary to win. This is the decision of such a person: Instead of being who you were and living with the consequences, you developed the mental discipline to size up a situation, calculate the outcomes, and select the behavior most likely to make you come out on top. And that’s why the black boys on the playground said the white boys from the nice neighborhoods had no soul.
Of course, I did not know this at the time. No, of this great betrayal I was not yet aware.
“Do you think the homeowner will come home before the curfew?” one of the students whispered.
Armando looked at his watch. He couldn’t see a thing. “If the gringo will turn on the light for just one second I will be able to read my watch.”
Charly heard Armando, but said nothing.
Armando repeated the request, word for word.
I knew that would irritate Charly. Fine, since I didn’t understand you the first time, I’m the idiot. And you’re going to point it out to me by using the exact same words all over again. Me, I would have asked Armando to repeat himself yet again, only a little slower his time, and then falsely accuse him of asking me two different questions, and inquire, in a tone with an absolute lack of sincerity, which one of his questions he actually wanted me to answer.
Charly, he turned on the light.
“We have 30 minutes left,” Armando announced with satisfaction.
I turned my head and gave Armando a look of disbelief reserved only for the terminally stupid. “Would you like a megaphone?” I asked my brother. “Because I can get out and ask the soldiers if I can borrow theirs, you know, if you really need one that badly.”
Charly reached up and turned off the dome light.
“All we can do is pray to God that no one finds us,” one of the students whispered softly.
“There is no God,” Armando said. “We’re on our own.”
I looked over at him again, but could not see anything. So I returned to staring at the cracks of light seeping into the garage through the bottom and sides of the door. Sitting between Charly and Armando without much room to move, I began to feel like a block of cement. Cement arms, cement legs, cement neck. I flexed my hands to circulate some blood and rolled my head around to loosen the stiffness in my neck. I was so angry I was almost shaking. I had not been that angry since I had been a little boy, fighting off my older brother with little arms and little fists, not getting anywhere except closer to bawling. In spite of his excellent education and powerful intellect, my brother had behaved like a buffoon.
What had made the soldiers charge the students like that? It had been the officers, actually, who had shouted the order, but the soldiers seemed eager to hurt the students. What was that all about, ent-up class hatred? In Peru? Since when? Plenty of those students were as poor as the soldiers! Most of them, in fact. Maybe the soldiers were getting even now, while they could, because one day the students would make more money. What was happening to my country?
Maybe they were fed up with listening to the students shout and scream and complain about everything. The more you repeated those stupid ideas you came up with late at night in a smelly old café with your brain in a fog and your veins full of caffeine, the more you believed them, until you were certain you were right. Then nothing could change your mind, not even tanks.
How did I know Armando would be at the university? Armando was getting dumber every day. Tthat’s how I knew. I had risked my neck to save him, and Armando hadn’t even appreciated my efforts. That’s how certain Armando was getting about things. Certain that the gringos were the cause of all the trouble in the world, and oblivious to the fact that it was a gringo who had saved his hide. Or so I thought at the time.
It was the gringos, I still believed while hiding in that garage, who had the discipline to prepare for the tough battles, who were willing to hope and pray and invest the time in an all out effort to win, instead of just sitting around talking and then hoping for the best. Charly had been right. You could not just live for the moment. You had to prepare for the future. That’s what I would do from that moment on, prepare for the future. Not sit around with imbeciles who shouted and shook their fists at soldiers with guns and were shocked and incensed when the soldiers started shooting at them. No, I would strive and prepare and make myself strong, like my brave friend Charly. Nothing would have stopped Charly from getting me out of the university, I thought. Not if he had to break down the wall with his head. Not if he had to come through the gates swinging a tire iron. Not if he had to drive his grandmother’s Cadillac car straight into the tanks, his red hair sticking straight up, his teeth bared, the fearsome expression of a crazed warrior on his face! My friend, my Tocayo!
During the time I had been entertaining myself with my little fantasy, the light outside had started to fade. I turned to Charly and gently asked him to turn on the dome light again. Charly did. “What time is it now?” I asked Armando.
Armando uncrossed his arms and looked at his watch. “One minute past curfew,” he said with relief, but more quietly this time. “We’re in for a long night,” he said, and stretched as best he could in the front seat.
“Let’s hope so,” I added.
Everyone agreed and exhaled with relief. “When will curfew be lifted?” one of the students asked softly.
“I think 7 or 8 am,” Armando said, but we should listen to the radio to make sure.”
Charly clicked on the radio. Martial music. No one said anything. After the song ended and another like it began without any announcements, Charly turned it off.
“Keep it on,” Armando said.
“I uses up the battery,” Charly said.
“What’s the problem with your battery?” Armando asked, irritated.
“It’s a long story,” Charly said.
“Well,” Armando said after a sarcastic pause, “when I examine our situation carefully, it seems obvious that although we lack food, water, sanitary facilities, beds, a source of warmth, reading material, girlfriends, news from our families, and the assurance of a secure future, what we do have in abundance is time.” He looked past me at Charly, knowing that although neither of them could see the condescending expression on his face, both knew it was there.
“Excuse me,” I said, stuffing my oversized hands into my pants and leaning my shoulder into Armando for leverage, “I need to rearrange my balls. Do you mind giving me some room?”
Armando leaned away from me. “Why are you so proud of your balls?”
“Because I am still attached to them.”
“Well,” Armando had to admit, “you may have a point.”
“You are an imbecile,” I snapped.
“I know. You told me that already.”
“I knew you would come to the University. Why do you mess with the military? Don’t you realize they have guns?”
“We have principles.”
“Yeah, a lot of good a principle is going to do against a gun. Tell, me what caliber are your principles?”
“I hate them,” Armando muttered.
“We all hate them,” one of the students in the back said.
“How could you hate them?” I asked, “You’ve never even met a soldier before.”
“We know what they do.”
“Just look at what they did today,” another student in the back said. “Those were real bullets they were firing, you know.”
“Two muchachos fell before I jumped into the car.”
“Two?” someone asked sadly.
“Yeah, they got the boy in the blue sweater. What was his name?”
“Yeah, Raul. And a cholito. I don’t even think the cholito was with us. He was probably just walking down the street and got caught up in it.”
“Do you all know each other?” I asked them.
“Yes,” Armando replied, and introduced his cohorts in the back seat. “And this is my little brother,” he added, “sitting next to me.”
“You’re lucky to have such a brother,” one of the students said.
“I don’t usually think so,” Armando said, shaking his head.
“I never think so,” I added angrily, “I still can’t believe you held a demonstration. You call me reckless and irresponsible. What do you call trying to get yourself killed?”
I could sense Charly tensing beside me.
“I’ve never been shot at before,” I continued, getting angrier. “And you know what? I don’t like it!” I was getting louder, but I could not help it. No one moved. “Next time get shot by yourself!” I shouted, and struck Armando across the chest with the back of my forearm. The blow made a loud thud inside the Cadillac.
Charly turned in his seat, but the students in the back, alarmed by my outburst, tried to quiet me lest someone in the house hear us. Armando groaned loudly and coughed. I crossed my arms and nursed my anger.
“I suppose I owe you some thanks,” Armando mumbled, rubbing his chest.
“No, you owe me an apology. The person you owe some thanks to is my friend, here,” I said, tapping Charly in the ribs with my other elbow. “We all owe him some very big thanks.”
Charly tried to stop us, but he was drowned out by the students in the back seat, who thanked him profusely and promised to invite him to their homes, to meet their family and friends. And when this whole mess was over, he would be welcome to drop by the university anytime, he would be welcome as an honorary universitario, a man of the people, a Peruvian hero.
“My friend,” one of them said, “if the bullets hadn’t killed us, the rochabus would have peeled the skin away from our bones.”
“Yes, I am very grateful, too,” another student said. “The rochabus is terrible. I cannot imagine what our comrades must have endured. We are very fortunate. What’s your name?” he asked Charly, learning forward.
Charly remained silent.
“He’s a gringo,” Armando said.
“A gringo! What’s a gringo doing in the revolution?”
“Yes, he’s a gringo,” I said, glaring at Armando, “and you should be grateful for that, but his grandmother is Peruvian.”
“Well, if his grandmother is Peruvian, he is Peruvian,” a student said.
“Yes, a cholo just like us.”
“You are not a cholo,” Armando interrupted, “neither am I, and neither is the gringo.”
“That’s true,” one of the students added, “only cholos can truly be revolutionaries.”
“What nonsense,” Armando barked. “You do not have to be a cholo to be a revolutionary.”
“You don’t have to be brown to be a cholo,” another student added. “What is in your heart counts more than what is on your skin.”
“You are what you were born,” Armando argued, “and you can’t pretend to be something you aren’t. If you recognize that, you can serve the revolution well. If you don’t recognize that, you are playing make-believe in a fantasy world.”
“It does not matter,” another student chimed in, “the gringo is our friend now. Words mean nothing. Mao said, ‘Whoever sides with the revolutionary people in words only, but acts otherwise is a revolutionary in speech.’ The university is full of revolutionaries in speech. This is why we were here today. To be revolutionaries in deed. You, my friend,” he said leaning forward and putting his hand on Charly’s shoulder, “are a revolutionary in deed. You are one of us.”
“I for one will never forget seeing him come sliding around that corner,” I said, consumed by my delusion. “Never.” I turned to Charly and put my arm around his neck. “Gracias, compadre.”
“Si, gracias,” the guys in the back seat repeated gratefully. “You are a true compadre.”
“And a tremendous driving job you did, with those handcuffs on!”
“How did you get those, anyway?”
I volunteered to explain. “The soldiers found him this morning in the plaza. He was waiting for me like a true friend, to give me a ride home from the bus station, and when the soldiers found him, he put up such a fight that they had to put handcuffs on him. They were afraid he would start a revolution by himself.”
The college students loved hearing that, and asked me to tell them more. I obliged, telling them all about the morning’s events, including how Charly was brought into the bus terminal kicking and punching and swearing to kill every soldier he was able to lay his hands on. Had they ever seen him at a basketball game? No? Well they should have seen what he did to a boy who grabbed his ass. You know how they do that to get you thrown of out a game? Well, Charly taught them a lesson. Destroyed the boy’s face. He was going for the coach, too, but half a dozen people had to jump on top of him to keep him down. We call him The Cossack.
The students in the back seat loved that. They burst out laughing and slapped Charly on the back. It was a great omen. The spirit of the Cossacks had come to them through time to aid their brothers in their time of need. They made boastful promises of perpetual allegiance, and repeated over and over how happy they were to have him with them. It took them an unbearably long time to quiet down, and the longer they went on, the more I suspect Charly wanted to slide through the bottom of the Cadillac into the cement. Mercifully, they did eventually quiet down, and I took the opportunity to speak to Charly. “Too bad I didn’t get to show you downtown Lima today,” I said. “It’s beautiful.”
“Yes,” Armando added,” if you can overlook the carcass of a despicable colonialism that worked millions of indians to death and made itself rich by ruthlessly exploiting our natural resources, . . .”
“That’s true, brother,” I interrupted, “but if my compadre can overlook hideous distractions like those, as I make a practice of doing daily by virtue of living in the same house as you, he could really enjoy it.”
“My favorite part of Lima is the balconies,” one of the students said.
“You have to see them to appreciate them,” the student continued, “but they are beautifully carved, ornate wooden balconies that were designed to let the women see the street and get fresh air without letting the men in the street see them.
“I never understood that,” another student said.
“To give ugly girls a chance,” I explained. “They stood in those balconies all day and all night, the single women, and you had to sing to them from the street. They all talked sweetly to you, of course.”
“The rich ones hired servants to talk sweetly for them,” one of the students interjected.”
“Yes,” I continued, “So you proposed, got married, and when you took off the veil, found out you were married to a woman with the face of a pig.”
Everyone laughed except Armando and Charly.
“Maybe we should get some sleep,” Armando suggested.
Everyone agreed, and while some of us traded opinions about Lima’s best soccer teams, Alianza, Universitario, and baby-blue Crystal, the rest of us dozed. Over the course of the evening we adjusted our legs, necks, and arms, made ourselves as comfortable as possible in our cramped quarters, and one by one fell asleep for the night.
Charly the American, he was angry with me. Whether he was staring at the dashboard of Zoila’s Cadillac or hitting it with his head over and over again with the same rhythm as the big drum in a marching band, I do not know. Because I was on the other side of a very high wall from him. The wall was at least 6 meters high, and it probably had shards of glass cemented along the top. From an American point of view, he had many reasons to be angry with me. He had said “No” many times. He had said “Carlos, No!” even more often. I had disagreed. Actually, I had not disagreed. I had not even bothered to give him the impression that the matter was under discussion. Why? Because I could. In their wisdom, the legal representatives of the Armed Forces of Peru, my country, had restrained him as part of their efforts to protect the citizenry of Lima, my city. As a result of their foresight, I was free to do as I wished. So I did as I wished. I was, however, considerate enough to assure him that I would be right back and, as a thoughtful precaution, I left the engine running. While I went to look for my stupid older brother Armando. Who, at the time the Armed Forces of Peru had announced their intent to root out, ahem, “subversive elements among our academic institutions” had probably been wearing a Che Guevarra t-shirt with the flag of Communist China draped over his shoulders in a room full of registered Marxists, writing subversive poems with a big fat pen on any part of the wall that wasn’t covered with posters of Mao Tse Tung and and Tupac Amaru.
How did I know my brother was at Lima’s most politically charged university during a military coup? I did not know. But I wanted to find out. That way, if he was only sitting at home discussing politics with the furniture, I could scream at him, while Mamina was within earshot, “I risked my life looking for you!” Mamina would roll her eyes. She knew I just wanted to have stories to tell. Which is true. Who wants to be a bystander, no? Besides, I assumed everything would turn out OK. It always had before. While I was inside the university walls searching for my annoying brother Armando, Charly was leaning against the hood of Zoila’s Cadillac, with his handcuffed hands hidden under the tails of his shirt. The Cadillac, I had parked it half a block from the entrance to the university, which consisted of two enormous wooden doors through which I had disappeared earlier. Charly had grown tired of just sitting and waiting, so he had stepped out of Zoila’s Cadillac, stood around on the sidewalk for a few minutes, then walked around to the front of the car. Which is why he was leaning against it when the army trucks roared up the street. Only a moment before, Charly had been wondering whether it would be possible to drive Zoila’s Cadillac with handcuffs. He had looked down at his hands, and he had spread them apart to test the length of the cuffs. He thought he could drive slowly and just keep his hands along the bottom of the steering wheel. No one looking in from the outside would know. Thank goodness he made that decision when he did, because it only took a few moments for the trucks, which had stopped at the front gate, to unload dozens of soldiers wearing helmets and carrying rifles. They were quickly arranged into a column by their sergeants. A jeep pulled around the trucks and stopped in front of the gate. An officer jumped out. He began shouting at the men, and they cleaned up their formation and faced the gate.
Noticing this unfortunate but predictable development, Charly turned around as solapa as he could and walked to the driver’s side of Zoila’s Cadillac. Which I’d had the foresight to leave unlocked. No doubt Charly was relieved that I had. Moving both hands to the chromed handle in the least suspicious way possible, he held onto the handle for leverage and pressed on the button. The door opened. He stepped inside and put his hands on the bottom of the steering wheel to test his theory. But something was wrong. He looked to his right. He had left the passenger door open. Ahead, the officer was on the radio. Things had become deathly still, like the moment before an earthquake when even the insects hold their breath. Pop! Pop! Pop! Gun fire erupted inside the university walls and echoed around the neighborhood. At the front gate, the soldiers shouted and backed out in disarray. There were more shots. The lieutenant shouted an order. The soldiers regrouped and surged back in, rifles leveled. From behind Charly, another jeep appeared, its engine roaring. It stopped, loaded three soldiers who had been running up the street, and stormed through the gate. More soldiers arrived. A sergeant with a white armband began pointing to different locations on the street, no doubt trying to secure his perimeter. That’s when he spotted Charly. He pointed straight at him, put a whistle in his mouth, and blew it loudly. The other soldiers turned to look at the sergeant, then at the place where he was pointing. Which was Charly. Any cautious person would have raised his hands or stuck them out the window. Just to prove that he was not holding a gun or a molotov cocktail. But Charly couldn’t do that because they would see the handcuffs. He raised both hands to the transmission lever, pulled it toward him, and dropped it into Drive. Quickly, he moved his hands back to the bottom of the wheel, pressed hard with his palms, stomped on the accelerator, and turned the wheel all the way around to the left.
The engine roared and the car inched forward. Something was holding it back. Charly looked around at the dash, then under it. The parking brake was on! He looked up. The sergeant and the other two shoulders had started running toward him. Bending painfully around the steering wheel and under the instrument panel, Charly grabbed the parking brake with trembling hands and released it. A second later he had his hands back on the wheel. He looked up. The soldiers had covered half the distance. He slammed the accelerator into the floor. The car lunged forward and to the left into a ragged one-eighty. The passenger door yawned open, letting in the squeal of the tires and the terrifying sight of skin-ripping asphalt rushing by. Charly braced his right knee against the dash and gripped the wheel with all his might to keep from falling out. With a superhuman effort he wrenched himself against the centrifugal force of the turn and straightened out the wheel. The car accelerated erratically down the street, missing parked cars and lightposts, the heavy passenger door swinging open and closed as the car weaved left and right. He looked in the rearview mirror for the soldiers. They were still running after him up the street. Instinctively he turned Right when he reached the corner, palming the wheel into a wide, squealing turn. His body slammed against the door, pinning his left shoulder against the doorframe. He made it through the intersection and straightened out the car, but what he saw coming toward him raised the hair on the back of his neck. He jumped on the brakes with both feet, making the car swerve almost out of control until it stopped at an angle in the middle of the street, the passenger door springing off its hinges and hanging wide open, perpendicular to the car. Through the opening it left, Charly could see three giant half-truck, half-tank death machines rumbling up the street. They were painted gun-metal gray, were covered with riveted armor plating, had steel rods protruding along the bumpers and corners, and used narrow, sinister-looking slits for a windshield. They looked like cancerous fire engines, metastasizing into people-squashing monsters. They advanced with the methodical patience of an irresistible force. Staggered along the width of the street, they covered ground like combines harvesting a wheat field, and the water cannons mounted on their roofs shot powerful streams of water at anyone caught on the street. They were only a block away, but Charly could clearly hear the roar of the water and the screams of the victims.
Charly forced himself not to look at the broken door. Breathing so hard his throat had gone dry, he reached around the steering wheel again and awkwardly moved the lever into Reverse. As he turned the wheel, he felt his strength draining away. This is because he suddenly thought of me, and how he had turned Right, away from the University, instead of Left. But if he returned now, he was likely to run into the soldiers. He grit his teeth, shut his eyes, and hit the accelerator. The car wormed its way backwards and swerved into a parked car, smashing into it and sending Charly’s head flying backwards over the top of the seat, then bouncing forward painfully. The shift in momentum sprung the door loose, and it landed off-kilter against the frame. Ignoring the pain in his neck, he shifted into Drive, recovered his grip on the wheel, turned, and sped off in the other direction. He entered the intersection with the engine roaring, and looked left. The soldiers had stopped running and given up the chase when he had turned the corner, but now, standing only 30 meters away, they spotted him driving past. He did his best to push the accelerator clear through the floor. The soldiers gathered their wits and raised their rifles. Charly hung on to the wheel and ducked. A second later Zoila’s Cadillac was raked with bullets. The glass on the driver’s door exploded, and the metal body thumped loudly with the dull noise of bullets hitting it. An instant later the university’s massive wall cut off their angle of fire, shielding him. He kept the accelerator pressed to the floor, alternating between checking the rear view mirror for the soldiers and dodging parked cars. Holding the wheel tightly, he looked around the interior of the car and thanked God he wasn’t hit. “Think! Think! Think!” he shouted as he sped down the street. On his left was the huge wall of the university, on his right storefronts, the odd house, and the odd empty lot. Far behind him, receding in the rear-view mirror, he could see the hulking forms of the water-shooting contraptions, lumbering slowly toward the university, then the soldiers rounding the corner into the foreground. They slowed to a trot, though, then stopped and lowered their rifles. He was too far away.
He kept the accelerator flat on the floor and shot straight down the street with the engine screaming. The noise was too loud for the speed, he realized, then noticed that the transmission was only in second gear. He wrapped his hands around the right side of the wheel to correct it, temporarily losing control and almost hitting another car. He caught the wheel again, straightened the car out, and hit the accelerator. The car sped up evenly. About a block ahead, the university wall curved around a street to the left. A little farther down, the road curved to the right, and entered a tree-lined residential neighborhood. If I had any sense, which of course I did, I would have run away from the soldiers, he thought, out the other side of the University. Charly hit the brakes, then turned the wheel Left. He held on as the Cadillac squealed around the corner and around the walls of the University straight into a riot. He slammed on the brakes before he had straightened the wheel. Zoila’s Cadillac spun completely around, and wound up pointing in the direction he had come from, with the passenger door swung wide open and sprung from its hinges again. The strain on the engine was too much and it stalled. Charly stared in disbelief at the little red lights on his instrument panel. He turned around to look behind him and saw a wall-to-wall crowd of panicked students sprinting in his direction, trying desperately to stay ahead of rifle fire, explosions, smoke, and flying debris rolling forward behind them. He faced forward and cranked the engine. Nothing happened. It was in Drive! He pushed the lever back up to Park and cranked again, pressing his chest against the wheel for leverage. He was turning the key with all his might. While the engine coughed and sputtered, the fastest sprinters began to rush past him. One on the left. Another on the right. Two more. Then three. The students were running at full speed. Heads up, arms ripping through the air ahead of them. “Please, please,” he begged the engine. It would not start. It was flooded. He let go of the key. Should he run? No, the water cannons were coming from the other side. Think! Think! Think! What had the chauffeur told him? When something was flooded, clear its throat. That’s what he’d said. Almost out of his mind with fright, Charly stepped hard on the accelerator and turned the ignition key one more time. “Please,” he begged.
More students flew past the car. Three, four, a dozen ran by. Then one of them jumped in through the open passenger door, half panicked and out of breath. It was me, Carlos. “Gracias, compadre,” I sputtered, and turned around, looking for Armando. Armando slid with the leather soles of both shoes across the pavement straight into the open door, bounced back, hung on, and threw himself into the seat beside me. “Go! Go! Go!” He shouted at Charly, hearing the engine crank and sputter. He reached over, grabbed the door, and with a mighty pull forced the groaning metal to bend back over its hinges and settle crookedly against the frame. “They’re shooting at us!” he screamed at Charly, and punched down the door lock. The car whined and began stuttering back to life. The three of us stared at the dashboard, watching, silently counting the seconds until we had no choice but to jump out and run for it. Charly kept his foot down on the accelerator. A second later the engine roared to life. “Go! Go! Go!” Armando shouted, “Get out of here!” With the crowd thickening, Charly swung his arms around the steering wheel to move the lever back into Drive. Before the car began to move, a body came hurtling through the broken side window into the back seat. Armando and I snapped our heads around. It was a student, black hair, olive skin, and dressed in baggy olive pants and a ragged sweater like the rest of the students. An instant later, another flew in, landing on top of the first. They tumbled over other and, a moment, later with legs flailing, separated themselves. When Charly saw that they were OK, he stomped on the accelerator. A third student tried the same thing, but got stuck halfway out. Terrified, he hung on to the doorframe and pleaded for help. “Aguanta!” one of the students shouted, and Charly lifted his foot off the accelerator long enough for the other students to yank him inside. “Turn right!” Armando shouted.
“No!” Charly shouted back, and palmed the wheel left. “I just came from there,” he said hoarsely, straining against the car’s lateral acceleration. The neighborhood was his last hope. He had to risk it. With the boys bracing themselves against the car’s windows and ceiling, Charly sped out of the corner, down the street, and right, turning into the unknown neighborhood. He worked his way between cars as best he could with his handcuffs, and sped down the street, looking for a way through to the boulevard. There had to be a way through. The boulevard was so close. There had to be. Unfortunately, the street curved to the right, and when Charly squealed around the corner, he saw the dead end. It was a block away. They all saw it. “What do we do?” he said, slowing down. “Go back the way you came,” Armando shouted, “like I told you to!” “No. These big, gigantic buses are shooting water at people over there.” “Rochabus!” everyone shouted with terror. Charly stopped the car in the middle of the street. “What do I do?” “Borrow a garage,” I suggested. “What?” Armando and Charly asked simultaneously. Before I could explain what I meant, the students in the back seat opened the doors, jumped out, and began running toward houses, looking for a garage that had been left unlocked and might be empty. Charly followed them, driving slowly. They found one, and whistled loudly. Looking around to make sure no one was observing them, they opened it and guided Charly inside. He drove up, turned, and backed in Zoila’s Cadillac while the boys stood by the door. Once inside, he stopped the car and turned off the engine. Quickly, the boys scrambled into the garage with the rest of us, and closed the door behind us.
Did not the famous English writer William Shakespeare begin a play with those words?
He should have.
Yes, he should have. Because to pee, to relieve the pressure inside your body with a grand sigh of surrender, followed by a long and heavy torrent aimed straight at the porcelain far below, that was one of our Creator’s most precious gifts to man. And man should not take it lightly. Particularly when it was overdue. Such as after riding in a cold bus over the top of the Andes. And then made to wait by the Armed Forces of Peru. And even under less than ideal conditions, such as with a soldier looking over his shoulder to make sure he was not sending coded messages to communist insurgents hidden in the urinal. Why would the army choose the first hour of the morning to launch their revolution? Every man alive knew that when it came to taking a pee, the first hour of the morning was sacred. As far as I was concerned, the military had committed its first atrocity.
How was I going to get to a phone? A story about my sick mother might work. Even soldiers had to respect sick mothers, no? But what had made her sick? A previous death in the family? Sure, that would do. She had a broken heart because my older brother had recently been killed. How? Run over. Yes, by a truck. A military truck? No, no, no! By a speeding rich kid in a BMW. They would like to believe that. I would like to believe that, I admitted to myself, and giggled. An irresponsible spoiled rich kid who had never worked a day in his life had killed my mother’s self-sacrificing first born son, and he had died in her arms, apologizing that he would be unable to clean out the pigsty the next morning. I giggled again. I decided I’d better stop giggling before the guard started wondering what kind of weirdo was so entertained by the act of urinating. Yes, the accident had happened just last month, I explained to myself, zipping up. And now my mother, my sainted mother, was worrying herself to death about her only remaining son, me. How could they not let me call her?
“Aló,” Zoila’s maid said, answering the phone.
I asked to speak to La Señora.
The maid asked me to wait. I could hear animated conversation in the background. In Peru we say animated but we don’t mean cartoons. We mean something less than excited but more than engaging. Since Americans don’t talk as much as Peruvians, you probably don’t have a word for it. In any case, Zoila got on the phone and asked, in that tone of authority that only Peruvian women of good breeding had, “Who is this?”
I gulped. Now that’s an excellent word. Since Peruvians don’t spend as much time worrying as Americans do, we don’t have a good substitute. In fact, our only substitute is a metaphor that involves our balls, but that’s for another time. I gulped. But I kept my voice steady. “Mother, dear mother, it’s me, your son!”
I considered hanging up. I was afraid that if I said much more, Zoila would recognize me, but it was imperative that I maintain the fantasy I had concocted for the soldier. Perhaps I could lower my voice an octave or two. “This is your son, Mother. I’m alright. I’m calling to tell you not to be afraid.”
Zoila had had enough. “Who are you and where is my grandson,” she demanded.
“He’s here, with me,” I said, trying not to tremble.
“Where! You tell me right this instant where my grandson is!”
I sighed with relief. But it wouldn’t be long before she recognized me. “Mother, I’m sorry,” I said, interrupting her.
“You’re sorry? What are you sorry about?”
“Yes, mother,” I said a little loudly in a tone overflowing with anguish, “Of course I love you! And I am very aware that I’m the only son you have left.”
“Have you lost your mind!” Her last protest drifted out of the ear piece.
“I love you too,” I said, and put the handle back on the phone hook.
I turned my head and looked at the soldier. “She feels better, now. Thank you.”
The soldier nodded, uninterested.
So Charly wasn’t at home. Well then, where was he? I looked through the double set of opaque glass doors that led out of the bus station. They had vertical etchings on them, smart and modern, but this morning they resembled bars. Besides the telephone, those doors were the only contact I had with the outside world. I noticed the heavy chains looped through the door handles, secured with a heavy padlock. I could see the shadows of jeeps driving past and soldiers marching by. A pair of them stopped in front of the door, tried it, saw the chains, then tapped on the glass.
There was no one else around to open the door for them, so my soldier grabbed his prisoner –that would be me– by the arm and headed toward the door. A few feet from it he stopped and told me not to move. Then he walked up to the door, opened it the inch or two that the chains allowed, and spoke through the opening with the soldiers, letting in the rush of traffic. He turned around and hesitated, not sure what to do with me. “Stay here,” he ordered, shaking his rifle at me to emphasize the consequences of not staying here, then hurried off to get the key. I looked at the chain on the door. Then I looked through the doors at the shadow of the soldiers outside. I leaned against the wall and waited. Like an obedient prisoner.
The soldier returned, leading a servile bus station superintendent by the arm. When they got to the doors, the superintendent nervously pulled out a big key ring, selected a key, and inserted it into the padlock. Mercifully, it was the right key. The chain clacked loudly as it was unwound from the door handles. The doors opened and the soldiers walked in, escorting Charly in handcuffs.
“Cousin!” I shouted, surprised and relieved to see Charly, and satisfied with myself for being so quick on my feet. I took a step toward him.
“Stop!” Charly’s guard shouted at me. He looked like he might be the sergeant. When he was convinced that I had stopped whatever it was that I was supposed to stop doing, he turned and began to loop the chain through the door handles so the superintendent could padlock them again.
I turned to my guard. “This is my cousin,” I explained. “My cousin,” I reiterated to the members of Charly’s guard who were not involved with the padlocking procedure. They looked at me suspiciously and waited for their sergeant to finish with the door. The superintendent fastened the padlock and tugged on it to show the sergeant it was locked. When the sergeant nodded his OK, the little man hurried back to his tiny backroom office.
“The lieutenant said to bring him to the bus station,” the sergeant said to my guard. “He’s a little unstable,” he added, turning Charly around to show my guard the handcuffs. “Better leave these on.”
“Excuse me,” I interrupted, “but you can take those off him, now. He’s my cousin. I’ll make sure behaves himself.”
I spoke with such confidence that the guards stopped in their tracks. While having no intention whatsoever of removing the handcuffs from their prisoner, they examined each one of us. First me, black-haired and olive-skinned and then Charly, red-haired and ruddy. Then me. Then Charly.
“I assure you, that in spite of our different coloring, he is my cousin,” I assured them.
“You have a crazy cousin?” one of the guards asked me, grinning at his cleverness.
“He’s not crazy,” I said dismissively, “he’s half … Scottish.” I almost said Russian. That would have been the wrong nationality. The two of us, my cousin and I, we would have spent the rest of our lives in a prison in the Bolivian Puna. “And he hates Communists,” I added just in case. “They all hate Communists in Scotland, you know. Communists make them crazy, so they kill them on sight.” I nodded my head to emphasize the point.
“Ahh,” the soldiers nodded. That would explain the red hair and the crazy behavior. And we were both tall and lanky. Perhaps we were cousins, after all. “Maybe it’s best, then, that you two stay together.”
“Yes,” I sighed heavily, “I have to set him straight all the time. Leave him with me.”
The soldiers turned to their sergeant. “Can we leave him here with his cousin?”
“I’ll find out,” the sergeant said, and walked briskly toward the superintendent’s back room office.
Charly looked at me warily.
Trying to appear at ease, I sighed heavily. “I just spoke to my mother,” I said. “Your aunt.”
Charly continued to look at me, but his frown deepened.
“She’s at Grandma’s house, and they want us to drive home as soon as this is all over. My Mom is very sick, you know.”
“Sick,” he repeated, not sure yet, what I was up to.
The sergeant returned with the sticky step of rubber-soled boots on marble, his rifle and equipment belts jostling on his frame. He nodded at the other soldiers. “Put him over there,” he said, pointing to a group of benches.
The soldiers turned Charly around and began walking. I followed close behind. They sat Charly down on a bench, heaved a sigh of relief, and headed for the rear of the bus station.
“Wait a second,” I said to them. “Look, he can’t even sit down.”
They stopped and turned to look at Charly, who was sitting on the edge of the stiff wooden bench, staring straight ahead, unable to sit back because of his handcuffs.
“Can’t you take them off?”
The soldiers chuckled and resumed walking.
“At least move them to the front so he can sit, OK?”
The soldiers shook their heads and kept walking. I pleaded with the soldier who had been guarding him. “How’s he going to pee? Are you going to hold his dick while he pees? I’m not, cousin or no cousin.”
“Wait!” the soldier shouted at his comrades. They stopped and turned. “Do you have the key?” he asked them.
“Let’s at least put his hands in front. He’ll be allright. He looks pretty calm to me.”
“Allright,” one of them said, “but you’ll be responsible if he breaks anything.”
The soldier looked at me.
I looked at Charly. “Are you going to break anything?”
Charly looked up at me and shook his head softly.
“There you go,” I said, and walked over to help Charly stand up.
The soldiers walked back, put down their rifles, and approached Charly. One of them put him in a chokehold while the other gripped him painfully by the arms and changed the handcuffs to the front. Charly forced his body not to resist, but the strain on his self-respect showed on his face. When they finished, they let him go, picked up their rifles, and left. He sat down, breathing rapidly through his nose, the edges of his mouth involuntarily turned down and white. I sat down next to him and started staring at the walls. The soldier posted himself close to the doors and waited for further orders.
As the day passed, soldiers escorted passengers in ones and twos from the buses to the lounge and sat them in the benches around Charly and me. Every few hours they rotated guards, and by mid-afternoon, the number of people was so large that they posted two additional guards. With the extra guards, people could go to the drinking fountain and bathrooms easily. While the lounge around us filled up with people, I passed the time hatching one escape plot after another, from feigning terrible stomach aches that could only be caused by highly contagious diseases, to offering the soldiers huge bribes to be paid by my wealthy parents when I got home, to leading a protest for our civil rights, to several variations of throwing a bench through the doors and making a run for it. By early afternoon, after hours of enduring a rumbling stomach, my plots included subplots to get food. I even discussed some of them with Charly in low murmurs and surreptitious whispers. Charly did not appear interested. He seemed to be building up anger until the moment he would be able to get out of those handcuffs.
There were many ways to get those off, I assured him. The important thing was to find a way out of the bus station. Mamina was no longer my only concern. At the moment the soldiers were obeying strict discipline, but I did not want to be a prisoner in a bus station when the soldiers finally realized they were in control of everything. I asked Charly whether he still had the keys to the car.
“No, they are in the car,” Charly whispered, “unless the soldiers took them.”
Well, that complicated everything, I decided, and stood up to go to the bathroom. On the way back I noticed that none of the people sent to the lounge were Incas. A few of the passengers from my bus had shown up, but not the Inca boy who had ridden next to me. I asked a couple of people where they lived. Lima, they said. Immediately I thought about the Inca boy on the bus. I asked Charly if he thought we could help him escape.
“Are you crazy?” Charly was so angry his whisper came out like a hiss. “What we need to do is find a way home. Hopefully in the Cadillac. Why are you trying to create even more trouble?”
“Trouble is not the issue,” I said. “But you have to ask yourself whether you want to sit and watch this historic occasion pass you by, or whether you want to participate in it.”
Charly held up his hands. “I am participating in it.”
I sighed. Charly was right. Now there was nothing much left to do but wait. So I waited. And I waited some more. And suddenly, the tanks began to pull out of the plaza. The roar seemed even louder than when they had entered, and I felt the floor of the building vibrate under my feet. I stood up to get a better view of them through the front doors, but that made the guards nervous. “I just want to see,” I told them when they asked me to sit back down. They let me watch as several enormous, desert-colored tanks roared past the front door, then motioned for me to sit back down.
“Wow,” I said, sitting down again next to Charly, “I’d love to drive one of those. You know, down Avenida Arequipa? The radio on, full blast. Would people get out of your way or what! Or even better,” I added, slapping Charly on the arm,” through the front gate of the school. ‘Good morning Brother Rudy, can you tell me where I can park?’”
Charly looked at me, probably wondering how I could be so lighthearted when we were so close to death. I grinned at him, and when Charly turned away, I put my arm around Charly’s shoulders and shook him. “Ya, Tocayo, aren’t you tired of being worried?”
“No,” Charly muttered, and shrugged my arm off his shoulder.
“We’re not going to die,” I reassured him, putting my arm on the back of the chair behind Charly. “This is Peru. No one dies in Peru.” I felt a pang of regret after saying that, worried that it might not apply to the the Inca boy.
Our conversation was interrupted by an officer who walked up and addressed the lounge. “I’m colonel Garcia,” he began. “President Rizopatron Bucolini has resigned.” He looked around. Everyone was quiet and only some of the women expressed shock. “There is a curfew,” he continued. “There will be a curfew tomorrow and the rest of the week. If you violate the curfew, you will be detained and questioned.” Coming out of his mouth, followed by a pause that was just a little too lengthy, that word “questioned” sounded anything but innocent. He continued. “However, today’s curfew has been temporarily lifted until 7:00 p.m so that people in the airport, train stations, and bus stations can go home. It is now 4:15 p.m. I suggest you hurry.”
For an instant, the crowd remained motionless. Then it atomized into dozens of scurrying bodies, silently groping for their bags and bundles and heading for the front door. “It’s closed!” shouted the man who reached the door first. Everyone froze. Was this Auschwitz? They turned around, terrified.
The colonel barked an order. Somebody said “Yes, my Colonel,” and ran off. “It will be unlocked. Please wait,” the Colonel said, trying to look calm and uninterested.
“My handcuffs,” Charly said to me as I was hoisting my knapsack over my shoulder.
“Let’s ask the colonel to have them removed,” I said.
“No!” Charly whispered hoarsely. “What if they think I’m a prisoner and lock me up?”
I considered Charly’s point, then nodded. “You might be right,” I said.
Charly pulled his shirt out of his pants and snuk his hands under it. “Walk in front of me,” he said to me. It was an excellent idea. I was surprised. Making sure to appear disinterested, if not downright bored in the way that only teenage boys can, I obliged, and we attached ourselves to the back of the crowd.
When the superintendent unlocked the doors, everyone funneled through the opening and escaped with their lives into the plaza, including Charly and me. Taking halting, hurried little steps to stay close to my back, Charly directed me to Zoila’s Cadillac. The front doors were locked, but it hardly mattered since the rear windows were shattered. More importantly, the keys were still in the ignition. “Excellent!” I winced.
While Charly tried to look inconspicuous with his hands stuffed under his shirt, I opened the rear door on the driver’s side. Charly climbed quickly into the back seat. I unlocked the front door, shut the rear door, and climbed in behind the wheel.
I tried not to reveal my excitement to Charly. An American Cadillac! Ichecked the automatic transmission lever on the stalk, made sure it was in Park, looked around for parking brakes and things, then stopped.
“What’s wrong?” Charly said from the back seat, sitting forward.
“The radio is on.”
“Shit!” Charly hissed. The battery would be dead. “Shit!”
I turned off the radio, then put my hands carefully on the ignition key. It was still on Battery. I had to get it right the first time. “Tocayo,” I asked slowly, “do you pump the accelerator before you start the car?”
“Once,” Charly answered hopefully. “All the way. Push it all the way down and let it go. It always starts.”
I leaned over the steering wheel and ran my fingers gently over the ignition key. “Let’s go, you wonderful American car. If you start just this one time, I promise to park you behind a girl car next time. Bumper to bumper.” I pumped the accelerator to the floor and turned the key. The ignition cranked weakly. Once. Twice. I feathered the gas pedal. On the third crank the engine caught the spark and roared to life.
Charly fell back into the seat, immensely relieved. “Well done, compadre,” he sighed from the back seat. “From now on, you can drive the Cadillac anytime.”
“Magnifico!” I exclaimed, giggling. I put the car in reverse, turned around eagerly, and backed out of the parking spot into the plaza.
As the girls had promised, the roads were deserted. My Tocayo made it to the Plaza two hours before sunrise and found an empty parking spot facing the central fountain, on the opposite side of the presidential palace. He carefully parked Zoila’s Cadillac there.
The bus station where I would arrive was around the corner, just as I had explained to him, so he turned on the radio, rolled over the back of the front seat and flopped into the thickly padded leather of the back seat. He opened the window half way and pulled his sleeping bag over him, laying his head on his lumpy gym bag. Looking out at the darkened façade of Lima’s colonial Cathedral, he drifted off to the musical selections of the sleep-deprived jockey on the all-night station, and did not wake up until a squadron of French-built Mirage fighter jets belonging to the Peruvian Air Force shot straight across the plaza at roof-top level and headed for the presidential palace.
The sound they made was like tearing metal. Charly sat bolt upright and saw the jets flash across the windshield. They vanished behind the Presidential Palace, the sound of their engines echoing off the buildings. Dozens of tanks had entered the plaza and were now advancing toward the palace on either side of him, their engines roaring, their treads squeaking on the pavement.
Charly’s hand flew to the door handle, but what he saw made him stop. Jeeps and soldiers were tucked in between the tanks. He yanked his arm away and flattened out on the seat. Had they seen him? He rolled off the seat, landed on the floor, and covered himself with his sleeping bag.
Would they rush the car and yank open the doors? Or would they just riddle his car with bullets from the machine guns mounted on the rear of their jeeps? Did Peruvian soldiers have bazookas? Oh no, now he was imagining a tank sticking its barrel through the rear window, shattering the glass, and picking up Zoila’s Cadillac by the roof. His mind was flooded with images of tumbling madly inside a car that was dangling from a tank barrel that a sadistic tank commander was swinging left and right to entertain the men.
Me, I was looking around the inside of my bus, now with all the interior lights lit. The Incas had on their stoic faces. No one could ever tell what an Inca was thinking, so they suspected the worst.
The soldiers had stopped the bus after it had entered the station. Several other buses full of passengers ready to depart for points all across Peru had not been allowed to leave. The soldiers were not saying anything, but I knew what it was. A golpe. A swift uppercut to the president’s political jaw, only this time the blow was being delivered by the left-handed fighter that in America you call a southpaw.
A coup was standard operating procedure for a South American country whose president was losing his hold on the population. The military had no taste for disorder. After it stepped in, it adopted conservative fiscal policies, returned the country to where it had been when the president was first elected, and after another set of elections handed over the reins of government to the next president, so the cycle could begin anew. But this coup, it was different. In fact, there had never been a coup like it in all of South America, as you will see.
The historic coup was happening just outside the bus station, but I could not see a thing because no one had been allowed off the bus. I did not know whether Charly had made it to the plaza. I chuckled nervously, imagining Charly’s reaction to being detained. Then I began to worry. Would Charly have enough sense to shut up and do as he was told? He looked so strange they might mistake him for a foreign provocateur and shoot him.
Like they would probably shoot the Incas. When you’re not sure who to shoot, shoot the Inca. You could summarize Peruvian history that way. Would Salcedo agree? The Incas themselves always expected the worst. They had good reason to. I turned to look at the indian boy sitting beside me. He had also gone stoic. Staring straight ahead, looking at nothing. I put my knapsack on my lap, crossed my arms over it, and stared straight ahead, too. I couldn’t do anything for the young boy but hope, so we would wait beside each other like stone walls in an Andean field.
Unfortunately, stone walls in Andean fields did not have mothers who, during a coup, became extremely interested in the whereabouts of their granite-headed sons. I slouched. What lousy timing! If I was going to select a weekend to tell Mamina the biggest lie of my life, why did it have to be the same weekend that the Peruvian military picked to overthrow the president? I leaned forward and banged my head softly against the cold steel bar that ran along the top of the seat in front of me.
Charly heard a buzzing sound. The radio was on. The radio station had gone off the air sometime during the night. If it suddenly started broadcasting, it would make a racket. Carefully, Charly lifted his head and peeked out the window.
Though it was already dawn, the Presidential Palace was illuminated by floodlights from the military vehicles pointing their machine guns and cannons directly at the elegant white marble facade. Three dozen tanks had wheeled around the plaza and lined up in front of the ornate wrought iron gates. Behind the tanks, hundreds of infantrymen had poured out of canvas-covered trucks, and spread out along the cathedral steps and through the Spanish archways of the government buildings, tourist agencies, and travel offices that encircled the plaza. The roads surrounding the palace also filled with tanks, soldiers, and jeeps, securing the downtown government center and business district. If the president felt so inclined, he could verify that his navy was at sea. If his guards would let him out of the basement, he would be able to spot the squadron of jets still circling. The jets, the tanks, and the infantrymen were not there to destroy the palace or kill anyone. They were there to make the president’s decision easy.
Moving as slowly as he could, Charly put one knee on the cushion of the back seat and raised himself off the floor of the Cadillac. Then he lifted his leg over the back of the front seat, shifted his weight to that leg, and rolled over into the front seat. He landed and bounced, then lay still.
A minute later he realized he was facing the wrong way, so he sat up and fell over in the other direction. He grabbed the radio’s volume button and turned it down. He lay still and listened.
Inside the bus, the driver looked frightened. A sergeant and two soldiers had boarded. When they asked him some questions, the driver shook his head, then nodded, then shook his head, and nodded again. The Incas inside the bus watched impassively. The sergeant motioned for his men to proceed. Ducking under the low roof with rifles in hand, they slid past the sergeant into the cabin. Calmly, they asked the passengers to open their bags, purses, and sacks, and show them what was inside. With brightly polished army boots, jet black and tightly laced, they gently moved aside the clucking chickens that strayed out from under the seats.
I handed my knapsack to the soldier, but the soldier asked me to open it myself, so I did. “What’s the occasion, capitan?” I asked the soldier.
The soldier shook his head, warning me not to ask questions, and rummaged through my bag. Well, I thought, he certainly won’t find any communists in there. But I still had a couple of problems to solve. Most importantly, I had to get home without Mamina or Papito finding out that I’d been in the Andes. It would not matter to them that at the moment I left for the Andes without their permission, I did not know about the impending coup. They would still punish me for sneaking away to the Andes without their permission during, of all things, a military coup! And after a few months, the very important detail that I was not aware a coup was scheduled for that weekend would simply be ignored. Carlos, the boy who ran to the Andes during the coup.
The other problem was finding Charly the American. If I found him, I would have a ride back to the house. And during the ride we could invent a story about spending the night at a friend’s house and getting surprised by the coup, the same as everyone else. But at what point during the night had the Army shut down the streets in Lima? Had Charly made it home before the coup? Or was he stuck somewhere, like me?
I looked up at the sergeant standing in the front of the bus, holding onto the vertical bars like he had probably done a thousand times riding home. The sergeant stared back but said nothing.
In the plaza, a sergeant approached his lieutenant. “Sir, I believe I saw movement inside one of those cars.”
“What kind of movement?”
“Sir, I don’t know. It looked like someone jumping from the back seat into the front seat.”
The lieutenant shook his head. It was probably a bum sleeping in a car, but the captain would not enjoy hearing that the lieutenant had not searched a group of 20 cars sitting in the middle of the plaza, only a few meters from their command post. “Take two men and quietly search the cars,” he told the sergeant. “If you find anyone,” he added, grabbing the sergeant by the arm and speaking softly, “take them away from here. But quietly. Understand?”
The sergeant snapped to and saluted with some embarrassment.
The national anthem began to play on the radio. Charly adjusted the volume. When it was done he could hear the faint rasping of a needle rubbing against the edge of a phonograph record. Suddenly a stern voice announced boldly that this radio station, like all radio stations in Peru, had been commandeered by the armed forces of Peru, who, on this most patriotic of days, the 28th of July, had rescued the nation from a political situation that was nothing less than grave.
For a moment the radio was quiet. Then a man cleared his throat and continued.
“Today, general Gustavo Maldonado Alvarado and the generals of the Armed Forces, by forming a joint command, have taken decisive action to stop the hemorrhaging of our nation’s patrimony by communist insurgents in the countryside and subversive elements among our academic institutions, each of whom have been methodically spreading their poison throughout our beloved land for far too long to be tolerated. It is not the intent of the governing junta to displace the democratic institutions that have flourished so long in our beloved country, but to aid them, when it becomes necessary, in their battle against forces who would, by their zealous hatred of freedom, liberty, and God, in short time undermine them.
“Therefore, as of this morning, the governing junta has closed the senate and requested that President Fernando Rizopatron Bucolini step down and peacefully hand over the government to the patriotic leaders of our Armed Forces, who have sworn their lives to defend our country against its enemies.
“In the interim, to make the transition safer for the public, martial law has been established throughout the country. A curfew is in effect immediately. Until further notice, citizens found outside their homes will be detained and interrogated. Soldiers have orders to shoot those who establish a resistance. More announcements to follow.”
After the radio announcement, the soldiers surrounding the bus relaxed. The sergeant and soldiers had finished inspecting the bus, and were back outside. I took a deep breath. Now the most dangerous thing on the horizon was Mamina. I stood up and walked to the front of the bus, stopping next to the bus driver. “Compadre, how’s it looking out there?”
The bus driver stretched. “I guess it’s official now.”
“Do you think they will let me go to the bathroom?”
The driver shrugged.
“Why don’t you open the door?”
The driver shook his head. “No way. They said to stay put and they have the guns, so I plan to stay put.”
“Why don’t you ask them if you can open the door?”
The driver thought about it, then slid open his window. A soldier standing close looked up at him. “Sergeant, someone inside the bus wants to talk to you. Can I open the bus door and let him out?”
The sergeant shook his head, No. The driver turned to me. No, he indicated, shaking his head. I sighed and leaned against the pole. A moment later the sergeant appeared outside the bus door, and when the driver saw him, he opened it.
“What is it?” the sergeant asked me.
“Excuse me, sergeant,” I began humbly, “but I really need to use the bathroom. I’ve been on the bus all night.” I pinched up my face pitifully and crossed my legs in front of myself.
Carefully, the sergeant and the soldiers peered into all the cars parked in the center of the plaza, saving Charly’s car for last. Approaching from the rear windows, they spotted his long limbs under the sleeping bag and stopped. Using hand signals, the sergeant directed one soldier to each door. Once they were in position, they raised their rifles to their shoulders and aimed them at Charly. The sergeant turned his rifle around and approached the door next to Charly’s head. He looked at his men to make sure they were ready, then put his hand on the door handle and made sure he knew how to operate it. He looked inside and checked the position of the door locks. Then he took a deep breath and smashed his rifle butt into the window. “Stay where you are!” he shouted at Charly, and began to break off the remaining shards of glass from the edges of the window.
Charly burst out of his sleeping bag and headed for the other door. The soldiers at the other door took a step back and held their rifles steady. Charly saw them and stopped.
They looked at the sergeant. The sergeant unlocked the door, opened it, and stepped in to get Charly.
Charly spun, backed into the corner of the seat, and kicked at the sergeant’s hands. “I’m an American!” he shouted in English.
The sergeant hissed at Charly through clenched teeth to be quiet, but Charly could not hear him. The sergeant tried to get closer, but Charly’s kicks were powerful. The sergeant was losing his patience. He pulled back from the car and told the soldier on the other side to break the window and grab Charly.
Charly heard him and looked over his shoulder. To his horror, that soldier broke that window, too. Then he opened the door and lunged at Charly. Charly spun and began to kick him away, but the sergeant reached in and bear-hugged Charly from behind, for leverage pinning his skull against Charly’s.
Charly kept struggling and kicking, and tried to pry his arms loose, but the sergeant was strong. In fact, Charly was amazed by how strong all the soldiers were. He stopped kicking for a moment, and the soldier took advantage of the opportunity to grab him by the knees. Charly kicked again, and tried to push back the sergeant, but both men held him tight. Their unyielding strength stunned him. He felt like carrion. He stopped kicking. Calmer now, he was able to hear the sergeant growling in his left ear to be quiet, to calm down, to shut his mouth, to quit kicking, or he would get a rifle butt in the head. Charly gave in and let the air out of his lungs.
Not far from the principal residence of the hacienda was a small mound of dirt surrounded by flaming lanterns. Close to the mound were several long tables covered with white cotton tablecloths, freshly ironed by the servants, and neat stacks of white serving plates. Behind them, two dozen tables, each with eight folding chairs and a single candle flickering inside a glass vase. They had been carefully arranged around a large wooden dance floor with a raised stage. The stage and dance floor were sheltered from the night sky by a large blue awning with white fringe, and yellow lanterns had been hung from the poles that held it up. They cast a warm glow over the old floorboards.
Charly walked past the dance floor and stopped beside the mound of dirt. A thick-set cholo had been walking around it, carefully scraping off the dirt with a shovel. Under the dirt were layers upon layers of burlap sacks, cut open and spread out flat. He had put the shovel aside and was now lifting the sacks off one at a time and placing them around the edges of the pit, like an apron. As he got close to the bottom of the pile, big puffs of steam began to rise. He grabbed the last sacks quickly and tossed them aside, wincing. Charly bent down and held his hands close to them.
“They burn,” the man said with a smile. Still wincing from the heat, he removed the last of the burlap sacks. Beneath them were large green leaves, steaming heavily. A verdant aroma spread out from the pit and engulfed Charly. The man lifted the leaves by the stems and removed them from the pit, then whistled for someone to come help. His companion appeared with thick dishtowels to protect their hands, and together they lifted out a heavy iron crate filled with steaming food.
The smell of baked sweet potato filled the air, mingling with baked onions, corn, zucchini, potatoes, and different kinds of squashes. While the men carted the crate to the food tables, Charly smelled something even more delicious. He leaned over the pit and, careful not to displace any of the burlap sacks, looked inside. There was another rack, and its hearty and spicy aromas had replaced those of the vegetables. When the men returned, Charly stepped aside. One of the men looked at him with a twinkle in his eye, gathered the fingertips of one hand together and kissed them open with his lips. He bent over with his helper to pick up the next rack. They brought out two more racks filled with pork, chicken, and beef, cooked slowly over several hours to make the meat fell off the bone.
A bell was rung somewhere and people began to gather along both sides of the food tables. Charly joined in line and served himself a heaping plateful. He paused to look around, but he could not find Milagros, so he sat down by himself at an open table and began to eat. The food was delicious. So delicious that he returned to the serving line three times. A boy who plays basketball for Coach Phil Rink can eat a great deal, no? Each time he returned, more people were sitting at his table. He greeted them reluctantly, glad to have a plate in his hands so the whole thing could be accomplished with a nod and a mumble, but they seemed perfectly content to leave him alone with his food.
While the guests were busy feasting, talking, laughing, shouting to each other, and going back for extra helpings, three musicians carrying wooden guitars and wearing ponchos, bandannas, and straw hats walked slowly onto the stage. They sat on their stools and joked with each other quietly, arranging their microphones and tuning their guitars over the sound of dinner. Eventually the one in the middle began to pick a melody on his guitar. There had been no master of ceremonies with a booming introduction, no “testing-one-two-three-testing,” no throat clearing; nothing to get anyone’s attention but the sudden appearance of music, tender, sweet, and rich.
The other two players rested their guitars on their thighs and looked out over the empty dance floor. Eventually, everyone quieted down and listened. The guitar was gentle, but the picking was so melodic it commanded attention. When the two other guitarists joined in, a beat rose through the strumming and the picking. It had a 1-2-3, like the waltz from Europe, but it was quicker and choppy. The peasants had heard the aristocracy’s waltz made of silver and gold, and had made a copy for themselves out of wood and cloth.
One of the men leaned into the microphone to sing. His voice sounded like another string on his guitar. At the chorus, the other guitarists joined him in a three-part harmony. They played with their voices like they played with their guitars, passing sentences to each other in mid-verse and sending them back again. It was spellbinding. The song ended as gently as it had begun, and the people seated at the tables applauded warmly. The musicians bowed, and when the applause died down the lead man began to pick another melody.
An older couple, proud and fearless, strolled onto the dance floor. A guitarist shouted encouragement. They held each other close and bobbed gently to the beat. The longer they danced, the more adventurous they became, and soon the gray-haired gentleman was joyfully spinning his wife around the entire dance floor. Quick- stepping, proud, and lively, yet smooth as the ride on the Paso.
Charly stood up to get dessert. Half a dozen tables away the girls spotted him. They called his name and called him over.
Holding his empty plate with one hand, he pulled his sweater off the back of the chair and snaked around the tables until he reached them. They were glad to see him, and they introduced him to everyone he had not already met. Fernando, Eduardo, Soledad, Patricia, Roberto, Senor Diez Canseco, Senora Fernandini, Tito, Manuela, Isabel, Arturo. Charly’s head spun with all the names, but everyone realized it and laughed when it got ridiculous. Senor Fernandini pulled out a chair and invited him to sit. Just put the plate anywhere, he told him. Someone will pick it up. Charly did, and he draped his sweater over the back. Charly steeled himself to be grilled about where he was from and who his family was, and exactly what the nature of his interest was in the man’s precious daughters, like I had warned him would happen, but instead somebody’s mother told him to keep an eye on the stage. The tables had fallen silent.
The three guitarists had finished their song and were pausing to let other musicians mount the stage around them. A moment later a drum started beating. It had a flat tone, like the shouting of Coco Palotes during the trap. It started off-rhythm and seemed to catch up with itself. The guitarists joined in, picking strong low-string progressions, and soon the drum and guitars were weaving their sounds into an invigorating beat. The Peruvians around the tables had begun to clap and cheer, recognizing the beginning of one of their favorite marineras, and Charly felt welling up inside him a secret desire to move. Alarmed, he stiffened, praying none of the girls had noticed.
But they had noticed. As one they stood up. They tugged on his sleeve. He declined. He quibbled. He stalled. He claimed he was too full. He ended up on the dance floor.
“It’s the marinara,” they told him. “Take out your handkerchief and flirt!”
“Watch everyone else. It’s easy!”
Charly looked around. People danced and spun around each other, the men with one hand behind their backs, the women holding the hem of their skirts, both flicking the handkerchief gracefully around their wrists, smiling, their eyes sparkling at each other.
Feeling more reluctance than he felt before getting into the showers at Santa Maria, Charly tried to imitate them. The girls laughed, but encouraged him to continue. He did, but he was obviously in so much agony that they were soon giggling uncontrollably.
He threatened to stop, so they stopped laughing and promised to help him. One took turns trying to lead him while the other two paired up and showed him how he was supposed to do it. Charly tried, but when his partner bounced down, he bounced up. When she went right, he went left. When she moved forward toward him, he moved forward too, and slammed into her.
The girls didn’t give up, and Charly danced with them the rest of the evening, doing what he could to make his movements resemble a dance while the musicians sang stories of spurned lovers who cried beneath the moon, of broken hearts who prayed for one last kiss, of men with souls as lonely as the sea. Once in a while a father or a friend of the girls would relieve Charly, but the rest of the time they refused to release him.
By One a.m. he began to think about leaving, but the girls would not stand for it. “The band will play until 5:00 am,” they scolded him in that charming way Peruvian girls have of scolding you while making you love them even more, “How can you leave a minute sooner?”
“I have to be in downtown Lima by 5:00 am.”
“Downtown! Why would anybody go downtown during a holiday?
“To pick up a friend at the bus station.”
“What kind of a friend would arrive on the bus at five in the morning?”
“He’s coming down from the Andes.”
The girls were surprised. “You have a friend in the Andes? Why?”
“I don’t know,” Charly said, and shrugged.
“Don’t worry, he won’t mind if you’re late. Especially when you tell him you were dancing!”
“Besides, at this hour of the night, you’ll make it in an hour.”
“But I don’t know how to get there.”
“Then it will take you an hour and fifteen minutes.”
“At least stay till 4:00.”
“I don’t want to be late.”
“Haven’t you heard of Peruvian time?”
Charly was about to say he wasn’t Peruvian, but one of the girls interrupted him.
“It really is rude to arrive on time, you know. It makes people feel pressured.”
“And it makes you appear demanding.”
“One of those people who expect everything to work perfectly.”
But that’s how I am, Charly thought.
“Buses are always late, don’t worry. Stay until 3:30.”
“Two! That’s silly. What will we do with ourselves while you’re gone? 3:00.”
“Ay, how stubborn you are! Alright, 2:30, but not a minute sooner!”
Between eating and dancing, the time passed quickly. Around 2:00, the band took a break and people drifted off the dance floor and back to their tables. Charly wanted to sit down, too, but the girls grabbed his arm. “You promised not to leave yet,” they said. “If you sit down you’ll want to leave, and if you leave we’ll never believe anything you say ever again. Wait here.” They skipped off the dance floor.
Charly leaned against one of the poles holding up the tent and stared at the empty dance floor. Between the Cumbias and the conga line, the Brazilian potpourri and all the other dances they’d forced him to try, he’d gotten a good workout. He pulled out the handkerchief Zoila always made him carry in his pocket and dabbed the perspiration on his forehead, temples, and around his neck. On Wednesday, when Coach Phil Rink asked him whether he’d practiced over the break he would nod and walk away.
Inside the bus on the way to Ticlio, the infamous mountain pass west of Lima, I was shivering. The cold was too intense to endure. The bus must have been traveling at over 100 kilometers an hour, and since the window on my side was broken, the freezing wind was rushing into the bus against my thin jacket at the same speed. Someone had made a valiant effort to slow the wind by taping cardboard over the window, but it didn’t help. I could have moved to a seat near the heater, at the front of the bus, but the stench was impassable. Not bathing in the high mountains was understandable, and probably not unpleasant for farm people, until you got 30 of them stuck together in a bus with a powerful heater.
I preferred to freeze. It would only be four more hours. I could handle that amount of suffering. In fact, I was not suffering as bad as the teenage boy next to me, who took the brunt of the wind on a ragged woolen sweater stretched tight over his lanky frame. The boy, clearly on the way to becoming a genuine Inca, remained cheerful, grinning with amazement at the arduousness of his suffering.
I shouted at him. “I’m so cold I could shit!”
He almost choked. I hoped no one else had heard me over the roar of the unmuffled engine and rush of the wind. If the people in the row ahead had actually heard, they were ignoring me . To survive the cold, the uncomfortable seats, the stench, and the bumpy ride that didn’t let them fall asleep, they had probably worked themselves into a stupor and they weren’t about to let some foul-mouthed kid from Lima snap them out of it.
So I yelled it again. And again. It made me feel better. After several minutes, the boy worked up the courage to yell too, and we took turns cursing the cold, the driver’s mother, the bus company’s female lineage, the foul smell of the indians seated in front, and the damned, miserable cold.
The three guitarists who had begun the evening came back on stage, joined by a black woman with strong, masculine features and shiny, wavy black hair. After a few stanzas by the guitarists, she began to sing with a jewel voice. Halfway through the song she pulled out a handkerchief and dabbed at her brow. Just like Louis Armstrong. In fact, after he died Louis Armstrong had gone gone to heaven. God had sent him back to Earth, and this time, instead of a trumpet to play, God had given him a woman’s voice.
Charly, he put his arms behind the small of his back and leaned against the pole to listen. Warm applause followed her last melody, and without waiting for it to die down, she began her second song. With a gentle, tentative melody she began to tell the story of a man. Her voice and the words she sang were full of love and admiration.
Por una vereda viene
cabalgando José Antonio
Se viene desde Barranco
a ver la flor de Amancaes
Charly pushed himself away from the pole. It was the song! The song the girls had taught him! He dug into his pockets for the piece of paper and unfolded it.
The woman on stage sang the song like she had known the man personally, like she had seen him ride, and one day, when he didn’t come for her, had sat down and written the words. Holding her handkerchief tightly in her hand, she looked out into the distance and sang of the man’s beauty, the memory of his grace and elegance too sweet to ruin with bitterness.
“Recognize your song?” Milagros asked him.
Charly jumped. How was she able to appear out of nowhere like that?
“No one sings it the way she does,” Milagros said, nodding toward the singer.
“It’s a great song,” Charly said, one sentence behind in the conversation. He pointed to his piece of paper. “I have the words right here!”
“Yes, you do,” Milagros said. “I saw you write them.”
“Yes, you were there,” Charly said.
“Can I see?”
Charly straightened out the sheet and with trembling fingers held it out for her. She drew close, grabbed one edge to steady it, and followed along with him as the singer let her piercing sadness flow out over the audience.
“I like it,” Charly said quietly when she had finished. He let go of the paper.
“Here,” Milagros said, and gave it back to him.
“You should keep it.”
He nodded, and let his eyes wander toward hers. She glanced at him for a moment, then turned toward the stage. But she did not leave. When the music to the next song began he asked her to dance, as comfortably as if they had known each other a lifetime.
They walked a few steps toward the center of the dance floor. He put his right hand on the middle of her back, and took her right hand in his left. ”I don’t know how to dance,” he began to say, but stopped. She had put her hand on his shoulder.
As the music began its chop-step beat, he barely shuffled his feet, and practically swayed to a beat half the pace of the festive waltz. The two of them danced alone in the center of the dance floor to a song about a river, a bridge, and a walk, places in Old Lima where a man had courted love, and Charly found himself moving at a pace that was as unfamiliar to him as the land, the people, the language, and the customs of his grandmother’s country.
With a touch as delicate as a whisper, Milagros mirrored Charly’s rhythm, and over the course of the song, in imperceptible stages she drew closer to him, so that by the end her hair brushed lightly against his cheek. When the song ended, he stopped and stepped away from her, holding her hand for a lingering moment.
Her family called from the tables, breaking the spell. Her father was waving for her to come, and the rest of the group was gathering their coats and purses off the backs of their chairs in a big hurry. Is this what happens when a girl from a good Peruvian family dances with an American? Charly sighed. Milagros leaned toward him, raised herself onto her toes, and gave him a gentle kiss on the cheek. Then she left to join her family.
As suddenly as if someone had changed the channel, a dozen slaves ran out from behind the stage and assembled on the dance floor. Several more hopped onto the stage, carrying wildly painted drums. The men wore ragged white pants, torn near the bottom and held up with belts of coiled cloth. Each one held a candle in his hand. The women covered their heads with red or white bandanas, and wore short kitchen dresses with patterns of tiny, colorful flowers, and soft aprons with the strings hanging loose behind them. They stood around provocatively, wrists cocked on their hips or floating around their necks.
Something exciting was going to happen, and the performers seemed to anticipate it as much as the audience. Then the drums began beating. It was a euphoric beat, and as soon as it began the male dancers rushed around helping each other light candles. As each one got his candle lit, he began to chase a woman, trying to light her apron strings. The women shrieked with delight and danced alluringly around the dance floor, their apron strings fluttering behind their hips. The men pursued them enthusiastically, but always in rhythm. With the drums beating louder and louder, out of the chaos the pursuers and the pursued swirled into a bawdy dance of courtship. Bumping left, bumping right, the women’s hips flicked their apron strings away from the flame of the men’s candles. Weaving left and weaving right, the men snaked around trying to light those delicious apron strings without letting their flickering candles blow out.
The men were valiant, crafty, athletic, and persistent, but the girls were too shifty, too elusive for them to light up. Try as they may, not a single one could light an apron string. The crowd cheered on the men and groaned in disappointment when they failed, but Charly put his hands in his pockets and leaned back against the pole. Milagros, she had let Charly light her apron strings.
I began my walk to the bus station in earnest. Incas tended to say “just over the hill” when they meant just over the Andes. If you looked hard at an Inca’s face, you saw granite. You could replace his face with any of the rocks in the terraces of his mountain pasture, and his expression would not change. And yes, you could replace a rock in an Andean wall with an Inca’s head and it would remain sturdy. Sturdy and unfathomable. That’s what Incas were. I wondered whether I could be unfathomable. Carlos the Unfathomable. “What is he thinking?” people would say.
My walk took me out of the small town and into the green fields the farmers had carved out of the rocky soil. The land was pale green and comforting, and it slowed me down to the pace of the local people, who had an entire lifetime to get somewhere. I did not. I had to be in Lima by dawn the next morning. Charly would be waiting for me at the bus station, and after this wonderful vacation of taking life as it came to me, savoring each moment for what it was, I did not want to endure another lecture by a North American obsessed with bending everyone’s life to his will. I forced myself to walk faster.
Back at Arenas de Oro, Charly’s Paso returned him to the stables.
“We were wondering whether you had taken our horse back to North America with you,” one of the girls shouted up at him, pretending to be angry. The groom came out, took the reins from Charly without saying a word, and held the horse for him while he dismounted.
When the girls were satisfied that their guest had enjoyed his ride, they burst into expressions of horror at the state of his clothes and hair. They insisted he follow them to the ranch house. There he would clean up, sit by the fire, and learn the words to Jose Antonio, “the most beautiful song in Peru.”
Charly did as he was told. Which he never did when he was with me. After spending five minutes in an upstairs bathroom washing the trail dust and sweat off his head, neck, and hands, he walked back down and into the large parlor. The girls spotted him, told him he looked much better, and sat him down on the sofa. Then they sat beside him. Well, two of them did. The third knelt down opposite Charly and placed a pad of paper and pen on the coffee table between them. “Write,” she said, handing him the pen.
Charly scooted forward and looked at the blank piece of paper. “Write what?”
“The words to the song.”
“To learn them, of course!”
Charly stared at them.
The girls on the sofa rolled their eyes and slapped their thighs. “Ay, you are so pesado!”
Charly looked from one to the other.
“It means you are heavy,” one of them explained.
“Well, stubborn,” the other corrected. Because stubborn people are difficult to move, no? Like something heavy?”
“Yes, that’s correct. Stubborn. You are so stubborn!” Then the three of them laughed.
Charly picked up the pen. Taking turns, they dictated the words and made sure he spelled all of them correctly.
Por una vereda viene
cabalgando José Antonio
Se viene desde Barranco
a ver la flor de Amancaes
En un berevere criollo,
va a lo largo del camino
con jipi japa pañuelo
y poncho blanco de lino
Charly looked up at them. “What does it mean?”
“Keep writing,” they insisted. “We’ll explain everything later.”
Mientras corre la mañana,
su recuerdo juguetea
y con alegre retozo
el caballo pajarea
fina garúa de junio
le besa las dos mejillas
y cuatro cascos cantando
van camino de Amancaes
While Charly wrote the words they dictated, a boisterous crowd barged into the ranch house. The three girls shushed them and told them sternly not to disturb them, that they were teaching Jose Antonio to their friend from the United States.
“It’s not even in Spanish,” Charly muttered under his breath.
“It is very much in Spanish,” one of the girls scolded him.
“It will all make sense to you when you hear the chorus,” another girl explained.
“Yes, it comes after the other verses.”
“Which verses?” Charly asked.
“You’ll see,” they said. “Keep writing.”
Qué hermoso que es mi chalán
cuán elegante y garboso
sujeta la fina rienda de seda
que es blanca y roja
qué dulce gobierna el freno
con sólo cintas de seda
al dar un quiebro gracioso
al criollo berevere
One of the men in the crowd stepped closer to Charly and looked over his shoulder at the paper. “The chorus is left for the end because it’s the best part,” he said.
“No,” someone else objected, “It’s not the best part. This is the best part,” they said, pointing at the last verse Charly had written. “It’s the most lyrical, the most heartfelt. You can tell how much she loves him.”
“If it’s the best part,” the first man argued, “then why is the chorus the part that everyone knows?”
“Everybody knows the chorus,” the second man argued, “because the crowd lacks the capacity for ecstasy. The chorus is simply easy to remember.”
“So what is the chorus?” Charly asked.
“Why do you care so much about the chorus?”
Charly didn’t know. He shrugged.
“We’ll get to the chorus,” someone said, “but first you have to write the next verse. It’s my favorite.”
Charly leaned forward again and did as he was told. In no time, five different people were dictating the next verse to him, correcting each other, jockeying for position around him so he would write down their version of the words and not someone else’s. The room was soon engulfed in loud, contentious debate. The girls shouted at everyone to be quiet and let them handle it, but no one would listen. The noise grew and kept growing, and the more people tried to quiet each other, the louder they got. Nothing seemed capable of stopping the ruckus until Milagros let out an ear-splitting whistle that silenced the room.
I stopped at the intersection. I did not know which way to go. The warehouse owner had said nothing about an intersection. Fortunately, a man was standing across the street. “Oye! Which way to the next town?” I shouted at him.
“I don’t know, my friend,” the man shouted back, “but I will accompany you there.” He leaned forward and began to cross the street.
I watched him. He was pale and terribly thin, with a dark stubble around his chin, and eyes that were sunk deep into his head, like Professor Pezespada. Could he be a relative? Was this some sort of cosmic hoax? The man stopped next to me, turned, oblivious to my stare, and gazed across the street. I looked where he was looking and, suddenly, we were two friends passing time, waiting for one of us to make a decision.
As fascinating as our little social experiment was, I needed directions. So I pointed down the road and asked my newfound friend, “Over there, down that road, do you know what’s down there?”
“Yes, yes I do,” the man replied earnestly, staring in the direction I had indicated.
“Yes I do.”
“Well, what . . . ” I asked him, forcing myself to remain patient.
“The road,” the man said. “Just the road. Um-hm. To the top of the hill and back down the other side, ” he added, ” A long, calm, peaceful road. You would enjoy it.”
“And where does that long, peaceful road lead?”
I nodded as if I understood. “Oblivion.”
“Oblivion,” the man said.
I pointed in the other direction and asked the man what was over there.
The man sighed deeply. “A short road, but painful. The road to pain is all too brief.”
I wanted to laugh and cry at the same time. Talking to this loco had the makings of a memorable experience, particularly in the surreal landscape of the Andes, but I only had a few hours of light left, and up here a short walk in the afternoon could turn into a long walk in pitch black freezing darkness if you didn’t know where you were headed. I tried again, ” Tell me friend, why is that road so painful?”
“Because at the end of it are many people.”
“Ahhhh,” I said, nodding profoundly, “that sounds just like the road I need to take.” I thanked the man for his help and headed off along the road.
“I’m sorry,” Milagros said to everyone, “but you are as loud as a pack of donkeys!” She sat down on the arm of the sofa beside Charly. ”Go ahead and write down the chorus. You’ll never learn the song if you don’t know the chorus.”
Charly stared at her.
“Go on,” she insisted sweetly, “write the words.”
“It goes like this,” someone in the crowd said, and started singing. By the third line, everyone in the room had joined in.
José Antonio, José Antonio
por qué me dejaste aquí
cuando te vuelva a encontrar
que sea junio y garúe
me acurrucaré a tu espalda
bajo tu poncho de lino
y en la cinta del sombrero
quiero ver los amancaes,
que recojas para mí
cuando a la grupa me lleves,
de ese tu sueño dorado
de tu caballo de paso
aquel del paso peruano.
The crowd finished the verse with a boisterous crescendo and exploded into laughter, even while a few of them exclaimed that Charly had missed half the words. They began offering suggestions, filling in the words he had missed. He tried to write them down, but he could not concentrate. Milagros reached down and gently took the paper out of his hands. She straightened up, crossed her legs, and began to read what Charly had written. That wonderful bemused expression swept across her face again. She even giggled a couple of times at his mistakes. When she finished reading she gave him back the paper.
“I don’t know what half the words mean,” Charly said.
“I know what they mean,” someone in the crowd shouted, and in no time everyone was arguing with everyone else about the meaning of the words in the song. Charly, he turned to Milagros and asked her a question. But the noise was too loud.
“What did you say? “she asked him, laughing lightly.
Her laughter had the tone of a beautiful melody bounding gaily down the rocks in a stream.
“Where did you learn that song,” he said, even louder.
“Gosh, I don’t know,” she said a little nervously. “It’s practically the Peruvian national anthem.”
The girls who had been chaperoning Charly left the argument and joined Milagros. “Have you met our friend,” they asked her.
She looked at Charly as if they shared a secret. “My name is Milagros,” she said. “It’s a pleasure to finally meet you.”
Charly took her hand and held it.
“His name is Charly,” one of the girls interjected, “He’s North American.”
“My name is Charly,” he told Milagros.
“Yes, I know that now,” she said.
He smiled at her, and the girls exchanged looks between each other.
“I saw you play last week.”
He nodded, and looked away for a moment.
“You were a monster to my brother.”
“You didn’t have to be so mean to him, you know.”
Charly looked unsure of himself.
Milagros turned to the girls and explained. “This was Friday night, at Carmelitas. Your friend Charly was a monster to my brother Daniel. You remember Danny, don’t you?
“Oh yes!” the first one replied.
“He’s cute,” added the second.
“And he’s getting so tall!” said the third.
“Yes, well, just because Danny scored a basket at the beginning of the game, this boy,” she pointed to Charly and actually poked him in the shoulder, “this boy and his horrible, loud team mates treated him terribly and wouldn’t let him shoot anymore.”
“No!” The girls stared at Charly in abject disbelief.
“Had we known he was from Santa Maria, we would have never even spoken to him,” one of them said to Milagros, feigning regret.
“Yes, they are anything but gentlemen,” another added.
Charly looked from one girl to the other.
“We imported him from North America for precisely that reason,” Miguel said from behind the sofa in his Cary Grant voice,” to scare the other teams into losing before the game even starts.”
Charly spun around. Miguel was standing behind the sofa, holding Julieta’s hand. Charly collapsed in his seat and everyone laughed.
“We won’t tease you too much,” Milagros said. “I promise.” For just an instant, an instant too long, she let her eyes linger on his. Then she touched his arm and told him he was a lot of fun, and stood up.
“Where are you going,” Charly asked her.
“To check on the pig. I’m getting hungry.”
Walking along a dirt road at a brisk pace was a satisfying experience, I realized. The crunch-crunch of your steps created a rhythm that helped you maintain a constant pace. Why did someone have to go and invent cement? I wondered whether I could live in a primitive, pastoral environment. Without all the outside distractions of a city, what would I learn about myself? After a good kilometer of walking, something made me look behind me. There he was, about 30 meters back, walking at the same pace as me. I turned my body around and began walking backwards to get a better look at him. The loco was walking in a stoop, with his arms crossed behind his back, staring at the ground in front of him. Though his torso was slight, he had long legs and had no trouble keeping up with me. Out of curiosity, I stopped. The loco stopped. How interesting. I began to walk again. Sure enough, the loco started walking again, too.
I chuckled to myself. Steadying my knapsack with one hand, I cross-stepped sideways to the edge of the road and back, like in basketball practice, and stopped to see what the loco would do. The loco raised his head and looked at me. I did it again. The loco looked at the ground, at both sides of the road, then cross-stepped to one side and back. I laughed. On a whim, I hunched my shoulders and spread my wings wide, like an Andean condor, and with tiny little steps and wide flaps of my powerful wings, turned and flew 20 meters down the road. I perched on a rock by the side of the road to see what the loco would do. As you might expect, the loco could fly, too, and was already soaring hundreds of meters above the ground, letting his grotesque head and vicious beak hang down below his wings, scanning the landscape, searching for a carcass. He came within a couple meters of the Condor Carlos, squawked, raised his wings in alarm, and retreated to a safe distance. He found his perch on a rock on the other side of the road.
“I am a condor,” I shouted. “What are you?”
The man stared at me for a long moment before answering. “I am an elephant.”
I burst out laughing and got off my perch. “Since when do elephants fly?” I asked him, and started walking down the road again.
“I am an elephant pretending to fly!” the loco shouted, and jumped off his perch to follow me. Though he remained within earshot, he would not get closer than 10 meters.
“So tell me, flying elephant, where are we going?” I shouted behind me.
“‘We are not going anywhere. It is you who are going.”
“Oh, and what are you doing?”
“I am remaining.”
Well, what else are you going to do on an afternoon walk down an unknown road through the Andes, I thought, but have a senseless conversation with a lunatic walking 10 meters behind you? I turned around and walked backwards again, adjusting my pack. “You are remaining? How can you remain somewhere if you are walking along a road?”
“I remain on the road.”
I laughed. “I guess you’re right,” I admitted, then turned and continued walking. A little later the man appeared on my left, about 3 meters away. I looked at him, but the man would not look back. Side by side, silent, we continued walking.
Miguel and Julieta came around the sofa and began talking to Charly and the small group gathered there. People drifted in an out and finally, when it was just the girls and Charly again, one of them asked him whether he had a crush on Milagros.
He raised his eyebrows but admitted nothing. So they enumerated all his incriminating actions and teased him gently until they got a reluctant affirmation out of him. That was all they needed. They launched into their theories about what it took to court a girl, and what girls liked about boys, and how they acted around boys they liked, and how all that applied to Milagros, in particular. Charly had nothing to worry about. Milagros would never tease a boy she didn’t like. Boys she didn’t like, she ignored. Pretended they didn’t exist. Now, since she obviously did not ignore him, what was he going to do about it?
“I want to see the pig.”
“Well yes, of course,” one of the girls replied.
“No,” the other two disagreed. ”Let her wonder. Don’t be too anxious, you know. Lots of boys fall in love with her every day. Take your time. In fact, we’ll help you.”
Charly looked at them.
“When the dancing starts,” one began conspiratorially, “come dance with us. We’ll show you how to get her attention.”
“Dancing?” Charly asked.
“Oh yes, the band here plays beautiful music. Marineras, Cumbias, Waltzes…”
“Well yes, of course! The Peruvian Waltz. We’ll show you.”
“I don’t waltz.”
“We said we would show you! Don’t you boys ever listen?”
Charly sighed. “OK,” he said quietly.
The loco and I walked comfortably side by side for the next kilometer between rows of thinly leafed trees. Through the trees we could see pastures bordered by low rock walls, small rock huts, and in the distance, a steep valley cut by a river from somewhere high in the Andes. Above the mountains, the tops of puffy clouds rooted beyond the horizon were painted yellow by the late afternoon sun. The loco, moved by the scenery, sighed deeply every few minutes.
Over the next hour, as the sun dropped behind the mountains, we walked alone in silence, the gravel of the road still visible by the light reflecting off the sky and later, only by the alpenglow reflecting off the high ridges. I fought back my growing concern while my companion kicked small rocks out of our way. By the time we rounded the final bend and saw the lights of the town, the road was a faint smudge in the darkness. A sloppy row of dim lights never looked so good to me. Breathing a heavy sigh of relief, I slowed my gait and dropped my pack off my shoulder. I grabbed my companion by the arm and pulled him forward. “Come on, I’ll buy you an Inca Kola before the bus leaves.”
The loco resisted my grip and stopped.
“What’s wrong,” I asked, stopping next to him.
The man shook his head.
I looked at the town. “It’s just a little town.”
The man shook his head again, then turned around. Without saying another word he walked away, down the middle of the road into the darkness. I stared at his vanishing shadow, wondering what woman had done it to him. A sly, crafty prostitute, unaware that she was breaking the heart of an Andean Don Quixote? A vicious uncle who stole his inheritance? A professor who told him he was not as smart as he thought? How could I know? Life was thick with tragedies. I shrugged and walked into town. I bought a cold Inca Cola and a bus ticket at the little bodega, then boarded the bus, walked to the last row, and sat down beside the window.