Thursday, March 4, 2010

Barranquilla V: Detour

When the winds pick up and the traffic dies it is finally pleasant to be outside. Winter nights are delicious in this city. It was nearly midnight when I crossed a concrete slab that could have been an ancient sewer bed as well as a deserted thoroughfare running through this northwest quadrant of old Barranquilla. At any moment in the rainy season this roadway could become a turbulent river; tropical downpours have nowhere else to go but over these concrete channels. Everything not bolted to a foundation is sent whipping through brown rapids eventually into the river.

I hadn’t noticed the changes to what had been a vacant building on the corner of the intersection. Under the floodlights the white stucco and blue windows looked impossibly clean in this city of garbage and dust. This Greek villa was the only business still open on the block, and dozens of people were milling about on a porch raised to make a second embankment a couple of feet above the sidewalk.

“Beel! Beel! Beel!” came a shout from up on the porch. I recognized the voice, though it seemed impossible I could know anyone on this nameless block in a nowhere city. A short, balding fellow came running out the front door to greet me. It was Carlos, my first forgotten acquaintance from Barranquilla.

Carlos acted as if we were long lost friends and introduced me as such. In fact I had known him for less than 24 hours over a manic night and day last Carnival. He was the proprietor of a fly by night hostel in a building twenty blocks from here. He had rented a few apartments for the week and lined the floors almost wall to wall with mattresses. Either he didn’t remember our last interaction, or in the context of a week-long coke bender, the confrontation had not been a highlight. In any case, he hadn’t lost our passports in the streets of Carnival, and for a moment I played the role of his good friend from Tennessee.

Carlos was heavier, his face more bloated than I had remembered. At the same time he looked more healthy. His eyes weren’t bloodshot, and he didn’t seem amped on anything other than booze and the excitement of a chance encounter.

Carlos led me through a crowd to the back of the new restaurant. At the bar he introduced me to Nancy, a silvery blonde in her early to mid 60’s. She had the airs of the proprietress as she stood with an elbow propped on the bar.

“Do you like whiskey?” she asked.

“Yes, I like whiskey.”

She snapped orders to the bartender and gave me a long look over. She handed me a glass with an ice cube floating in six fingers of scotch.

I joined Carlos who was standing in a circle with Nancy’s two daughters, Irene and Natalie. Irene had hard lines on her face and a smoke cured voice. Her brusque manner fit her stocky build, her husky New Jersey accent and the large tattoo on her upper arm —Irene was clearly a woman not to be fucked with. Natalie was half her sister’s age, and a stone cold fox. She was well aware of the tight curves on her compact body. She looked everywhere but in my direction as she flicked strands of raven hair back to her shoulders. Her fierce black eyes hinted a temper a twitch away from combustion.

I couldn’t make out Diego, a metal thrasher type with dirty blonde hair longer than Natalie’s. He did not fit into context with this group. He was too young for the older daughter and too scruffy for the fox. His eyes were dead-red stoned beneath droopy lids; he did not engage in the conversation. When Nancy rejoined the circle she draped an arm across his shoulder. A third man introduced as Fernando the Doctor was in constant motion back and forth from the bar, attentive to his patients rum glasses.

It was past midnight when I joined the circle, within minutes Carlos invited me to go to the Meyers’ place in Prado Mar.

“Prado Mar?”

“Eats only twenty me nuts,” Carlos said. “Eats nice. Tomorrow we go on the bitch,” on the beach.

I was just one finger into my oversized whiskey as I mulled the invitation. Nancy had anticipated this. Before I could answer she motioned to the waiter and signaled for a go cup. I took a few long pulls on my drink so that the remainder would fit in the smaller plastic glass I was promptly issued. Nancy marshaled her crew out to the sidewalk.

Fernando the Doctor pulled up to the curb in a black Mercedes. He had not looked any more sober than anyone else staggering through the restaurant. I whispered to Carlos if he thought this was a good idea.

“Is ok, he's a doctor.”

Nancy grabbed Diego and stuffed him into the front seat with the doctor’s girlfriend while the others piled into the backseat. Maybe Prado Mar was only twenty minutes from here, maybe it was more. It was one of those split second calculations one has to make while on the road. A car full of drunks and a liquor prescribing doctor and I don’t even have a toothbrush. Here was the first group of interesting people I’d met in months who have invited me to something more than a seat at a table, and they were going somewhere I suspected I’d never see otherwise. The Doctor tapped on the horn, while Natalie, the last to climb into the crammed backseat, made the decision for me when she extended me her hand.

Natalie took my whiskey, then arched her back and stood up on the floorboard as I brushed under the perfect half moons of her bottom. I was just able to click the door shut as the girl on my lap took a long pull from my go cup. Diego, who I now decided must have been her boyfriend, was not paying the slightest attention. Maybe he was too stoned for machismo. I couldn’t guess what he was thinking as he groomed Nancy's blonde and silver in the front seat.

Presumably there was something in the Hippocratic oath about staying awake at the wheel. The streets were empty on the ride out of the city as the Mercedes swayed gently back and forth across the lanes. But it was a divided highway, and the motion was not out of time with the vallenato blaring through the speakers. Natalie and I took turns sipping the whiskey and Carlos next to us was prattling on about all the things we would do tomorrow on the bitch. Something about a hotel a friend of theirs owned and a pier which I had read about somewhere, either the longest or the oldest in South America.

Natalie leaned her head back and I tried to think of anything but the perfume on her neck and how well her body fit onto mine. I did not want my lap betraying how little luck I had been having with the cachonas of Barranquilla.

A bright moon illuminated our descent down to the Caribbean whose waters for months had been close but unseen. I wasn’t ready for the ride to be over when the Mercedes spun over the packed earth off of the Puerto Colombia road. We reached the alley that led to the Meyers’ place and slowly decompressed from the car. I followed the others into the dark alley that ran along a high stucco wall topped with broken bottles and chards of colored glass until we reached the chained double gate of the villa. Nancy rang the bell several times. No one answered. Someone grumbled that the night man was asleep. We sat on the stones outside the gate and the girls smoked and Irene tried to call the house. Finally a little girl, about seven or eight, emerged from the house cradling a stuffed horse and rubbing her eyes with the hand that held a large key.


Steven said...

Great story, with drama !! Hurry up and write your next posting so I can hear what happened at the "bitch."

Steven said...
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