Everyone’s saying that lightning struck the phone on Palm Sunday, Don Leopoldo. The one public phone near the Atarazana slums that didn’t filch your coins. At least not all of them. That soon after hordes were pilgrimaging to it and lining up to dial their departed. That the single witness of the fateful strike, the custodian at La Favorita—you know that park? The one by that gas station caught watering its diesel and dumping its burnt Pennzoil on the Salado river, imagine that, as if the Salado needed any more muck to foul it, a bit more and the stench won’t let us breathe, hopefully you don’t live by the Salado like I do, luckily Don Cordero’s in charge and he’ll send someone to clean it real soon. That’s why I voted for your jefe, Don Leopoldo, you know I’ve always voted for your jefe. So the custodian’s hearing thunder and seeing lightning and he’s spooked. Brimming with Patito, too. Apparently he’s as known as a drunk as a troubadour. Little Jaramillo they call him over in El Guasmo. Apparently he serenaded his first wife at La Favorita and still shoulders his guitar to serenade the domestics that stroll by La Favorita on Sundays. Cuando tu te hayas ido / me envolveran las sombras—you know that pasillo by Julio Jaramillo? My grandpa Lucho used to Pancho it for us while he fried his famous yapingachos. God keep him. He’ll never forget what you did for him. So while the rain’s pouring little Jaramillo’s running for cover with his guitar tucked inside his shirt, but of course its head’s still sticking out of his chest and scratching his scruff with its pegheads, although my sister’s neighbor says he was running because he had seen strange shadows after him, shadows seeking retribution for his insatiable womanizing, although my sister says her neighbor’s a prude old cow who’s probably inventing this part, on the rest everyone agrees on. That’s the neighbor I’ve been telling you about, Don Leopoldo. The one who thinks her jars have a different spirit than her cans. Everyone says that at night she Ouijas tin spirits with spoons. That her cabinets are like marimbas from ultratumba. Strange shadows or none, little Jaramillo is running for cover and then hears the loudest thunder he’s ever heard in his life. Under the ceibo by the phone he squats and falls and hopes lightning won’t strike him. If you ask him about it he’ll show you the mud-marks on his sailor pants. Even walk you to that shrivel of a tree and make you crouch. From here, he’ll tell you in that Polo Baquerizo screech of his, I saw a flash of lightning with twigs on it. Like a hand descending from the sky, just to hoist the hood off that phone. And afterwards, the torched hood is squirming like a frog on the mud but the damn phone is still working. I know because after the storm’s over the first thing I do is call Conchita to tell her of how the lightning nabbed the phone instead of me. The phone’s ringing and ringing because Conchita’s big on sleep, and when she finally picks up I’m reckoning the phone’s working on no coins so I’m like Conchita, I’m calling you on the free, finally we got us a real miracle, and before she can rooster me for waking her I’m hanging up and dialing my brother up in El Paso and the long distance call goes through and I’m jumping and screaming Jorgito, ñaño, you wouldn’t believe what just happened.
On the bus, Leopoldo does not yet think of calling his grandmother from the busted phone at La Favorita.
The phone’s still broken?
You’re not going to report it, Don Leopoldo?
Of course not, Pascacio. No.
Still busted. I’m heading there again tomorrow to call my cousin Luisa up in Jacksonville and my sister—you’ve met my little sister? She’s calling our aunt Rosalia up in Jersey. Both fled after the last Paquetazo. You probably have a call or two to make too, eh?
Leopoldo does. And yet, admitting to it would unnecessarily reveal that his family is also vulnerable to the periodic catch-ups between downturns and shocks. Therapies of shock that everyone calls Los Paquetazos.Thanks for the tip, Leopoldo says, finalizing their exchange as they reach the mayor’s office with the roll-top oak desk they’ve been pushing along the hallway. The one desk remaining on the third floor. Or on any of the five floors. A relic from the times when El Loco and his cohorts emptied the municipal palace of everything but the doorknobs.
After Pascacio picks up his bucket and mop, after he wishes Leopoldo a good night, after the metallic sound of his oscillating bucket fades down the stairs, Leopoldo checks his watch for scratches, though in the dark this is tough to do, the only lighted bulb is down the hall, on the lamppost out the window, which he’s approaching with an industrious trudge and a perched chest, ridiculing his daytime diligence, hearing the mottled collision of bugs outside, fireflies and moths and mayflies, those leeches of light, smashing themselves against the incandescence. Pascacio’s probably racking up favors by offering to help. Don Leopoldo at the registry they’re asking my sister for a bribe she can’t afford. Don Leopoldo at the social security they’ve pocketed my grandfather’s pension. With one call Leopoldo can fix these. He’s the mayor’s chief of staff. He has that kind of pull. And yet his pull is at odds with the digital watch he’s been sporting since high school, a gift from the times when his godfather scored his father a minor post in the prefecture, a clunker with short-legged buttons and a rubber strap, sure, but an advanced machine back then, before his father disappeared in the wake of an embezzlement scandal. No scratches. Good.
Though he’s exhausted he will not wait for the forty one bus at the stop nearby, where at this late hour Pascacio’s the only coworker who might spot him there, but instead he will take a left on Pedro Carbo, a right on Chimchipe, a left on Roldos, and at the crossing with Rumichaca he will catch and ride the forty one bus along Colon, Bolivar, Junin, past that gas station that used to dump its burnt Pennzoil on the Salado river, past Cristobal and Ignacio and up the slope on Bartolome, where the bus will downshift and rattle like a can in a trail of cans dragged across this canned city by the
(tonight Leopoldo’s dinner will consist of canned chili beans)
and along Bartolome the bus will collect thirteen splotched painters and their cans, eight domestics and their bundles, nine fruit peddlers and their makeshift stands, hop in, people, lots of room in the back, and their sweat will not drip on the tin-ridged floor but will be absorbed by thousands of pores that will regurgitate the smell of their daylong labors.
Leopoldo delays his bus ride by Tupa & Mera. In the window display, silvered arrows are pointing at televisions. On one television, a farmer is guiding his monster tractor with a remote control. On another, the interim president is praising the recent coup and announcing another package of tightening economic measures. On another, the arrival of a helicopter promises yet another triumphant return of El Loco. On another, the young and rich are behaving badly again, this time in Salinas Beach (isn’t that Torbay, his classmate from San Javier?). Meanwhile, unbeknown to Leopoldo, the watchman is sizing him up.
The watchman (his name’s Ivan Coyahuaso), new to his post, hasn’t seen this loiterer before. From the shuttered entrance, he glimpses a dark brown face; a beak with a bump atop; an indigenous chin; gnarled brown hair; a filing clerk at most. Ivan steps out onto the sidewalk and tries his most pugnacious glare on him.
Good evening, Leopoldo says.
The watchman does not answer Leopoldo’s greeting. Perhaps it’s too dark for him to notice Leopoldo’s Rinaldi suit pants; his embroidered Visconti tie; his gold cufflinks with the San Javier logo.
Salvador’s not on duty tonight?
The watchman shakes his head.
Tell him Leopoldo Hurtado said hello. I work over at the mayor’s office, by the way. Tupa Mera’s a friend. Not sure if you’ve met him. He’s the owner of this and five other electronics stores across town.
Leopoldo hands him his business card. The watchman holds it up with both hands, angling it, trying to lamp it with the TV screens. Now you can see? Leopoldo truncates the watchman’s apology by walking away.
On the bus, Leopoldo does not yet think of calling his grandmother from the busted phone at La Favorita. He does think of her though. Not as she is now, he wouldn’t know how she is now, three weeks after she emigrated to Sarasota because of the last Paquetazo, but as she remains in his memory, on her farm in the outskirts of Manabi. In that memory he’s ten and she’s teaching him how to drive her John Deere. He’s sitting on her lap and holding on to the giant steering wheel while her rubber boots ram the pedals and she’s saying that’s it, Leo, that’s my boy, drive it over those Jesuits if they give you trouble at San Javier, you hear? Drive it over your pansy classmates if they heckle you for being smarter than them, which of course he proves to be, seven years later he’s valedictorian, up in the podium of San Javier’s Coliseum he’s delivering his valedictorian speech, the one he’d endlessly rehearsed in Antonio’s living room, we are the future of our country, debating with Antonio the meditative pauses, the stormy passages, the unrestrained warnings they’d learned from father Villalba, how are we to be Christians in a world of destitution and injustice, and while he’s delivering his speech he sees his grandmother amidst the crowd of distinguished parents and knows she has said to them or will say to them that’s my boy, always the brightest one of them all, and he’ll go far, they’ll lie to her, he’ll go far.
By the busted phone there’s a long line, thirty people at least, he should’ve anticipated a line before jumping out, who knows how long before the forty one bus drives by again at this late hour. He’s definitely not waiting in line.
Leopoldo asks the bus driver to slow down. He’s getting out. The driver doesn’t hear him so everyone in the bus relays the message that one’s coming down, chofer, mount the brakes, chofer, free the hangar, chofer, and when Leopoldo finally reaches the exit he jumps and lands, a gallop landing, between the Salado and La Favorita.
By the busted phone there’s a long line, thirty people at least, he should’ve anticipated a line before jumping out, who knows how long before the forty one bus drives by again at this late hour. He’s definitely not waiting in line. Leopoldo proceeds toward the front of the line, unseen yet, not hearing the voices that are saying I haven’t talked to my father in two weeks, I haven’t talked to my sister in four, strangers sharing with each other stories about those family members who had to flee after the recent coup because the price of gas shot up, the price of butter, the price of rice, ladrones de mierda, because for the good of the economy the interim president tripled their bus fares, doubled their phone bills, because the Pichincha Bank shut its doors after its owners fled with the accumulated savings of those of us who didn’t have any government friends who could’ve tipped us ahead of time, que hijueputas, outside the bank my cousin and hundreds of others screamed at the guards, shaking and hanging from the metal bars of the bank’s entrance, not knowing the bank was empty, not knowing the bank had already been sacked, and as Leopoldo advances towards the front of the line, parallel to these voices, fast enough to parry what he already knows they’re saying, someone says hey, where do you think you’re going, oye, where to compañero, hey.
Leopoldo Aristides Hurtado, raising his wallet like a badge, addresses the crowd. My name is Leopoldo Aristides Hurtado and I’m with the office of Leon Martin Cordero. This telephone is in violation of code 4738 of the telephony guidelines established by the city’s council in 1979. This telephone is therefore deemed inoperative until it is compliant. Those who continue to operate it can be and will be prosecuted.
What he say?
Can’t use the phone.
Someone walks up to Leopoldo and squints at his raised wallet as if it were a plaque by a dumb sculpture, reading the laminated business card above a snapshot of Leopoldo and Leon.
He’s not kidding.
Doesn’t look from Leon’s office to me.
A young woman in line (her name’s Malena Juarez) decides to intervene. She unruffles the hemline of her polka dot dress, rubs off the mud from her high tops, curving her left one atop her right one, a swift canvas peck, and then tittups to Leon’s envoy. She recognizes his name. Her brother Pascacio has mentioned him before. She doesn’t want to implicate her brother so instead of dropping his name she smiles at him, a smile that her brother calls almost as comforting as the yapingachos of grandpa Lucho, a smile that the shin-tacklers who soccer on her street like to whistle at, Malenita, mi amor, where are you going with that sassy smile? She shows him the scribbled numbers on her lilac notepad. We’re all calling our families, she says. You know how impossible it is for us to afford these calls. Couldn’t you wait to issue your order just—a tiny little bit?
Leopoldo tries not to flinch. He pockets his wallet. No.
He’s not kidding, Malena informs the people in line, recklessly raising her voice so that Leopoldo can hear her saying that my brother Pascacio works nights at the municipality and has heaped praise on that piece of lastre.
Someone slip him a twenty, someone says. A man takes off his cap and hands it to his son, who begins to collect change from the people in line. Leopoldo did not expect this. In his mind this little caprice of his ended without resistance. With the crowd quickly vanishing from sight. The boy shambles toward Leopoldo and tries to hand him the coin-filled cap.
Please. Please don’t. No.
The boy runs back to his father after leaving the cap, asprawl, at Leopoldo’s feet. He could concede to the people in line. All right, he could say, just this one time. Go on and call your families. And yet Pascacio’s sister is here. And Pascacio’s a gossiper. And gossip spreads fast at the municipality. Leon, who does not tolerate abuse in his subordinates, could eventually hear of this. Unlikely. But perhaps not so unlikely. The country’s too unstable for him to allow even for the prospect of Leon hearing about it. He will have to cover himself. He will have to follow through tonight and report the busted telephone first thing tomorrow morning.
I don’t take bribes. Please vacate the premises before I summon the squadrons.
No one moves. In line someone shushes someone until everyone’s shushed. The crowd seems to be waiting for something to happen. For someone to appear and rectify.
Let’s get out of here, Malena finally says. We’ll find some other way to call our families.
A collective groan. Whistling. The crowd begins to disperse. On their way out some are muttering desgraciado, others are hollering descarado, mal paridos like him are what’s sinking this country, rata de pueblo, moreno de verga, just wait till El Loco returns.
No one’s left at La Favorita but him. From his wallet he tries to pull out his phone list, lodged inside a side pocket where his fingers fail him. He’s just tired, he tells himself. And his fingers are sweaty. His phone list includes his grandmother, Antonio, the business administration department at the University of Virginia. He pulls it out but drops it, swatting for it in vain. If you ask him about it he will not show you his muddied phone list. Or tell you he was surveilling the withered ceibos of La Favorita to check if little Jaramillo was lurking behind them, checking the sky for storms and lightning too, although this telephone, Leopoldo thinks, does not look as if it has been struck by lightning. Not that he would know what something struck by lightning looks like.
Leopoldo dials his grandmother.
No estoy, deje un mensaje, y si no hablan español me importa un pito, por su culpa mismo estoy aqui asi que no voy a aprender su inglish de mierda.
Leopoldo’s relieved that her answering machine picks up. He would have been embarrassed to talk to her. He hangs up without leaving a message. He has expelled those people for nothing. The mud beneath him reeks of piss. Did the mud already absorb little Jaramillo’s piss? Was the mud softened by it such that children could frolic among it? Make mud balls and snowmen benosed with carrots? The next number on the list is Antonio’s. They called him The Snivel, Gargamel, Baba, Saber Tooth. At San Javier Antonio’d been a tireless heckler whose luck ran out the day someone noticed that an incisor had amorphously surfaced above his crowded row of front teeth. That it had surfaced at the apex of Antonio’s piety augmented the pleasure of badgering him. Everyone would rip pages from their notebooks and twist them into sabers that would turn them into Walruses. The one-toothed kind. Leopoldo copied Antonio’s San Francisco number from the alumni magazine, just in case, not really planning to call him. Leopoldo hasn’t talked to him much since Antonio left to study abroad, a month after their high school graduation, almost ten years ago. At Stanford, Antonio was supposed to breeze through a double major in Public Policy and Economics and then return. At the Universidad Catolica, Leopoldo was supposed to enlist the luminaries of their generation and then run. Together they were supposed to do (what? what did you think you were you going to do, eh?) so much.
Leopoldo dials Antonio. Through the decrepit phone line Leopoldo hears the first ring, the fourth, and then an alien blare abrupts the sixth: banging on a piano, frantic strings, static as if on shortwave.
Barely hear you. Hello?
Why don’t you shut your vacuum? Unplug it, Leopoldo says, if that’s the less strenuous option.
Antonio yanks up the volume and holds the phone to the speaker. The birdsong of Meyer’s clarinet rises and trills, as if snubbing whoever’s interrupting Messiaen’s music. On its own, the quartet descends to barely audible. On the phone Antonio hears what sounds like murmurs of other phone conversations, phone lines probably crossing over with theirs somewhere along the Pacific coast.
The hell’s this? Hello?
This, Leopoldo boasts, is your father.
So a vacuum is your best metaphor for modern music, eh? Surely nonretrogradable rhythms haven’t reached your village yet. Rarely the term yet has been used so dubiously.
Pardon me for neglecting to profit by your remarks, Leopoldo says, dusting off a retort he would often direct at Antonio. Leopoldo hears Antonio laughing. He remembers. Of course, he remembers.
Oh Baba. Always shortchanging your kind. Is your window open?
Is his window open? Yes. Right. Leopoldo’s buying time to prepare a snappy comeback. A common tactic from Who’s Most Pedantic?, a game of theirs at San Javier. Leopoldo had initially invented it to pass the time amidst the other soccer rejects. Then a forward for Rocafuerte sidelined Antonio by striking his ankle and Leo’s game expanded. Soliloquies became disputes. During recess by Don Alban’s they began refuting each other about everything, spoofing the pompous language of demagogues, priests, themselves, digressing manically upon premises like compatriotas, let us applaud Leon’s proposal to privatize our toilets, compañeros, let us consider that when El Loco wins Facundo’s maid will lop his maidkiller in his sleep (if she can find it), although rules are rules, digressions earn you top points but they have to eventually boomerang to the original premise, which can be interrupted by the audience only to call out words for clarification: badinage!, what is?, sapidity!, what is?, and they’re halting their sciolisms and providing their crowd with definitions, magniloquent inventions, on the spot. Is his window open? Antonio chooses not to block Leopoldo’s question with a question.
Why yes, Antonio says, my window is indeed open.
You see my friend, well you don’t really see that’s why I’m about to inculcate you, your vacuum not only absorbs the detritus on your carpet but the particles that float through your window, particles that carry inside of them the alarm of ambulances, the clang of cans, the tenor of the toll collector, all your troglogradables, in short, are inside your artifact of vroom.
Chanfle. Do you own a vacuum?
Why yes. Indeed I do.
And you change its filter often?
Every two months.
You see my friend, well you don’t really see cause you’re as blind as a mic, I haven’t changed the filter of my Red Devil in years. Therefore, it has ceased to absorb anything. Neither detritus nor particles and absolutely no clang of cans. Oh Microphone Head: always faltering between the general and the specific. Do you know the one about Glenn Gould and the Hoover? Of course you don’t.
Leopoldo toys with his chin stubble as he would often do after Antonio spoke, pretending he was musing on Antonio’s premise, that sequence of weaklings, which he does not immediately rebut. Although of course, he could. On the Salado side of La Favorita a domestic is walking along Bolivar street, too far from the busted phone for Leopoldo to know if she’s one of the expelled. It is likely that more people will appear again soon. Their game had served them well. On the national academic contest broadcasted by channel 10, they had excelled in the debate section. And the Q&A section. They’d swept the city rounds and the interprovincial rounds and the finals against Espiritu Santo. At San Javier everyone recognized them. During recess the appeal of Who’s Most Pedantic? widened. Why I’m a better presidential candidate than you became a favorite premise.
You’ve been following the news? Leopoldo asks.
About the twilight of the IPOs?
About the recent coup.
There’s a rumor the interim president might be loosening the electoral requirements so El Loco can run.
El Loco’s returning again?
And the stronger candidates
Stronger? You mean burlier? Dollarized at the gut, if you will.
don’t want to run. They think the situation is unredeemable so what’s the point? They’ll get ousted anyway. Ever considered returning?
Absolutamente never. I’m too busy wading in stock options. Money? Paper, yes.
There’s massive protests all over the country.
The indignation of the people has reached its limit.
Now that definitely hasn’t happened before, eh?
Leopoldo doesn’t respond. Antonio interprets Leopoldo’s silence correctly. Leopoldo isn’t playing anymore. Antonio turns down Messiaen’s Abyss of the Birds.
And yet with the right strategy, Leopoldo says, someone
Juana we’re out of eggs.
You hear that?
an outsider could sweep the elections and effect real change
Juana I gave you enough change for eggs.
at last our chance to
Juana, carajo, quit eavesdropping on the politicians and go basket some eggs.
Mauro Javier Cardenas’s work has been published by the Antioch Review, the San Francisco Chronicle, and the Quarterly Conversation.
The Inquisitors’ Manual by Antonio Lobo Antunes: To me the release of The Inquisitor’s Manual felt like a lifeline. That first page. The freedom of those sentences. Their impulse and rhythm and length siring their own syntax as they advanced on what Antunes calls the immense present that engulfs everything. Thank you San Lobo.
By Night in Chile by Roberto Bolaño: Six years ago a generous writer listed his favorite contemporary Latin American novels in my sketchbook. Two of them were by Bolaño. Only Nocturno de Chile had been underlined. Much has already been written about it. For instance James Wood’s excellent parsing of one of its many long sentences. Sentences that after many re-readings feel like apparitions.
Artificial Respiration by Ricardo Piglia: An incredible novel made out of epistolary fragments, digressive monologues, narratives by not-Gombrowicz, parodies of gauchos and Bernhard, disquisitions on Arlt and Borges, cameos by Spanish Donkey I and II, Wittgenstein, and more.
Live In Greenwich Village: The Complete Impulse Recordings by Albert Ayler: At my most cynical, I’ve imagined injecting Ayler’s deranged hymnody into all the tidy novels I’ve ever read. And then there’s “Xenogenesis Suite,” a deranged tribal ritual by Nicole Mitchell’s Black Earth Ensemble.