Imagine that bus, a coffin on its roof. Its long shadow crossing the desert without witnesses, Pan-American Highway due south, coming from the Peruvian border. And here, in Pampa Hundida, we were waiting for it—with a mixture of fascination and morbid impatience to see how the whole thing would end. Still, sometimes, on glaring sunlit afternoons like this one, when the wind gusts and the dust of the pampas swirls up, I imagine that bus, and I still lose myself thinking about it on the highway, the coffin on the roof rack, as though it would never turn off toward our oasis, never reveal to us its irony.
Imagine the honorary Spanish consul in Pampa Hundida, Pío Barrales junior; the pharmacist who, along with his father´s pharmacy, on the westward sidewalk off the Matriz Square, also inherited those blue eyes, the circumflex frown, and the chronic sunburn of an exile who fled the deluges of Asturias only to die in the desert of Atacama. Shortly after being named honorary consul by a socialist government in far away Moncloa, Barrales junior insisted on burying an alleged fellow countryman.
He was an unknown man, gaunt and dressed in black, who arrived in the city having first crossed through the desert; he stayed in the Hotel del Peregrino. It isn´t clear for how long, maybe a week. Yes, it was probably a week while he visited local businesses, carrying a plastic briefcase, polishing his scuffed-up shoes by wiping the toe of each one against the back of the opposite pant leg, lisping out his introductions, that he represented I-don´t-know-what company that manufactured scales; although he never managed to sell any. He did this until, on one of those afternoons that extinguish all hope—a gusting, shimmering Saturday afternoon—the unknown man hanged himself in room 22. The next morning, when the door was eventually broken down, a damp shirt was found twirling on a clothing hanger over the sink, as though his anxiousness to hang himself had overcome him while he was scrubbing its frayed cuffs. On the nightstand was the unpaid hotel bill, inflated by the price of two bottles of Del Mono anisette and a telegram sent overseas. After checking with the company, it was revealed that the telegram had read: “I have gone too far.” The intended destination must have been still more cryptic than the message because it had been returned from the central post office in the Cibeles Plaza of Madrid with the message “address unknown.”
In the absence of a passport, this paper was enough for Barrales junior to deduce that the suicide victim was Spanish. A Spaniard lost in America. Like Barrales junior and his father, who had also gone, and lived, too far away and—maybe—too late.
While Judge Larsson ordered the corpse transferred to the hospital morgue for autopsy, the pharmacist made an appearance at the dining room of the Spanish Residents´ Association. Let´s say that it was a Sunday and that the members were finishing their long family lunches, amidst thick clouds of cigar smoke and expensive brandies. Barrales crossed the dining room without looking at anyone. He avoided especially the exiles or descendants of Republican exiles, like his father or like himself. But these people, unlike he and his father, had forgotten their pasts, had been assimilated, and they had long since associated with the economic émigrés who had gotten rich running mines. They had grown so chummy with these sorts that after the military coup they tolerated, and even celebrated, the portrait of the General that the others hung in the meeting room. After that Barrales senior made his family promise that they would never again set foot on the premises of the Residents´ Association, as long as they lived.
So that afternoon few could believe it when they saw Barrales junior walking toward the carving table in the center of the dining room and leaving there a big tin jar that looked like a container of powdered milk. The pharmacist had covered the tin with stationery from the consulate´s office which announced, in all capital letters, “Collecting donations to bury an unknown Spaniard with due dignity.”
You have to imagine him there, the honorary consul and socialist city counselor—flushed, scowling, haughty—waiting alongside the carved-up Serrano ham, without even a gesture, until the hall fell completely silent. A silence broken, finally, when he deigned to talk, although without looking at anybody, and despising everyone. He apologized for interrupting the digestion of the wafer swallowed at the noon mass and later the suckling pig devoured during the Sunday lunch. He was sorry, but it was his duty to communicate to the community that a compatriot had just been found hanging in his room at the Hotel del Peregrino. He could have spared them the details, but he preferred to share them: the long purple tongue,the stiff, dripping erection, the holes in his shoes, the empty pockets . . . He was convinced, certain, sure that these miseries would move the members as much as they had moved him. Barrales concluded, trusting in the proverbial charity of the association, that they could save their countryman a final indignity—“The burial shroud and the trowelful of lime, the unmarked grave. At least you, Spaniards, will see to it that he is buried like a Spaniard.”
And then the honorary consul stuffed a bill into the improvised alms cup before leaving without even a good-bye. You would have to imagine all that to suspect that Pío Barrales junior—son of the “commie Barrales,” as they called his father there—had made a bid to collect donations in the Spanish Residents´ Association, there of all places, because he was already counting on their greed. And on his revenge.
All seemed to be going as planned when, by the day´s end, the consulate´s seal on the alms cup was broken—before the tiresome formality of the notary Martínez—and a measly pile of change clankingly spilled out. Something like a thousand pesos in those days, and mostly in pennies and nickels. Alms insufficient to pay for a round of beer in that very dining room, let alone enough to pay for a burial. But it sufficed to communicate the bad blood of the tipsy association members, of their hefty wives, and of their blustery and furunculous offspring, who all entertained themselves by passing from table to table the alms cup that that insolent Barrales junior had had the audacity to leave for them on the carving board, filling it to the brim with the small change reserved for tips.
The rest will have gone like this, or else some other, similar way. But what is for sure is that the next day, Monday and at midday so that no one could fail to notice, the pharmacist strode across the Matriz Square with the heavy collections cup on conspicuous display in his hands. He went to the windows of the Belloni funeral parlor, pausing so his reflection could linger in the glass, a long moment no one would ever forget . . . And then, he was inside for a couple of hours trying to buy a casket, haggling for better prices, calculating the price and size of coffins “in the name of the Spanish residents.” He started with one of light mahogany, on which Belloni had placed the perpetual sign “reserved” (perhaps for himself). And he then proceeded to rule it out along with all the others, one at a time, for being too expensive. He cast them aside only after exploring the most abject possible discounts—“how much for this one, but what about without the cushion and the silk lining?”—not even leaving aside the plainest and the smallest ones, those white coffins made for children, in which case he asked if it could fit a grown man if he were folded over. He finished by pulling out and counting the change from the collections cup on the lid of the cheapest casket, one made of resinous pine, on which he erected little turrets of copper pennies. He lost count and started over, taking his time, making sure he could be seen through the windows of the Belloni mortuary, where he and the mortician, inaudible but in plain sight, bargained over a casket.
Belloni—he told me this himself, later on—was on the verge of giving it to him for free, if only so that he could lower the blinds and head off to lunch. But he changed his mind when Barrales junior inquired if it would be possible to carry the coffin to the cemetery upright in a wheelbarrow since there wasn´t enough money for a proper funeral car. The mortician later assured me that the notion, in addition to expending his patience, also stung his professional pride.
Without the casket, but with the alms cup displayed more prominently than a paten, Barrales junior left for the cemetery. In the dusty administrative office of the necropolis—besieged by nameless mausoleums, crooked crucifixes, washed-out tombstones—he was taking account of plots and holes in the ground. Visiting them and testing them out, he asked after the minimum dimensions for a man´s corpse, checking to see if the cheapest available ditch, one reserved for a five-year stint, could be rented for six months, since his compatriots´ donations could only cover that long. This last part, though, he didn´t say (he didn´t have to since at this point half the city was saying as much anyway).
The next maneuver he carried out right here, from a public telephone in the bar of this very hotel. With the door to the booth wide open—so that we would all hear and so that those of us playing cards could enjoy it—he called the consul of the Kingdom of Spain in Tacna, Peru. He shouted at his colleague to buy a “poor-man’s coffin” out there, where the perks of the exchange rate, from Chilean pesos to Peruvian soles, would mean that what was already cheap would turn out to be almost free. And he also told him to send it over, to charter its passage right away; but not by hearse, because “here compassion does not provide for that sort of thing,” rather, let´s see, send the coffin by bus, like a package, on the Morales Moralitos bus line; certainly, on account of the sad circumstances, they´ll agree to bring the casket free of charge. Because there they may be poorer, Barrales howled into the receiver at his counterpart, but they would always have space on the roof rack. “And in their hearts!” he concluded with a bellow. (It was then that the journey began, the bus with a coffin on its roof, which, in a way, hasn´t reached us yet.)
In the meantime, and so that they wouldn´t toss the countryman into an unmarked grave nor have to pay for more time at the morgue, Barrales made arrangements with the director of the town hospital, doctor Montañé, and got his permission to bring the rigid corpse to the pharmacy. We will never know, and this is another mystery of the story I’m telling you, why Montañé authorized this. They say that Barrales junior offered to discount certain opiate drugs for the treatment of terminally ill patients, making a reality one of the doctor´s philanthropic dreams. Others argue that Montañé, sarcastic and bored as he was, and a keen connoisseur of human trifles, was simply amusing himself. Whatever it was, the pharmacist got his authorization. And so Tuesday afternoon no one could fail to see the gurney wheeled out of the hospital with its funereal heap lying beneath a green sheet. No one could ignore that V of the stark white feet that came out first, with the tag that had the unconfirmed name of the unknown Spaniard tied to a big toe and dangling as though this were (and it may well have been) a body on sale.
In his pharmacy Barrales junior prepared a bed of dry ice for the body, which, after the autopsy, was disemboweled and injected with formaldehyde. And he kept it under the counter, right where he stored his medicinal herbs, something we all knew because, with or without pretext, Barrales invited each of his clients (and he had many in those days) to have a look below the table at the remains of the unknown Spaniard. Who among those who saw the body couldn´t remember that? The tobacco-stained teeth jutting out like a rabbit´s; the waxy nakedness, stitched up from the Adam´s apple to the pelvis; the neck, which was violet from the rope, the pharmacist invited us to touch with a finger. And as we did, he murmured: “here I have my poor countryman, waiting for the arrival of his Peruvian casket.”
How we all waited for it. Because, unsurprisingly, the image of the coffin traveling atop the roof rack of the bus, its oblong prow cutting through the dry desert air, became a townwide obsession. There was also the daily humiliation of the Spanish Association, which understood bit by bit the plan that the socialist pharmacist, esteemed son of that father the “commie,” had laid out for them. They understood, as well, the perfidy of bringing the coffin on the Morales Moralitos line, notorious for its slowness, lack of punctuality, and gruesome accidents. The delay, drawing out the wait, would only accentuate the infamy of their stinginess and would confirm that they were “tight like cunts,” in the sordid double meaning that the nickname coño takes on when uttered behind someone´s back.
Imagine a long week without news, dramatized further by the delightful rumor that the bus had broken down, as was its custom, in a deep ravine in Camarones, and that there it was awaiting the rounds of another bus that was to bring the needed crankshaft or coil spring. And Barrales junior, in the meantime, dispensing medical treatments over the counter, under which lay the suicide victim, as if there were nothing to it. He only asked now and again if we didn´t smell, perhaps, a “strange faint odor.” While he pretended to sniff—with the mischievous twitch of his nose and that white mustache—something unnamable wafted up from behind the aroma of sage and common rue.
There was nothing the discreet protests of the Spanish Association could do to prevail upon the health authorities or even Mayor Mamani (who had his own score to settle with them). Nor did their regret suffice to improve the situation; their delayed offer to put the unknown man in the Spanish Association´s section of the cemetery, “even though he may not have been Spanish,” was in vain. Barrales junior, son of that harsh father, indulging his spite, let it be known that the Association could rest assured, that he, as honorary consul, would ensure that the unknown Spaniard received “a dignified burial befitting of your charity.”
And imagine finally, before it gets dark and the worst of Sunday has passed, and before the two of us go our separate ways, you along on your journey and I to my house, imagine the final affront. The motley bus from the Morales Moralitos line, with its corroded chrome and its flower-print curtains fluttering in the windows, making its triumphant entrance into Pampa Hundida, coming to the square to leave us its tardy cargo in front of the Barrales pharmacy. Think about those morbid, crafty, vacant people offering to help lower from the roof—with ropes—the coffin of patchy and faded wood, bent by the withering rays endured on the journey. The poor-man´s coffin weighed so much it seemed already to be carrying a dead man inside.
Try to imagine, as well, the malicious humor of the rest of us, the most dignified and yet no less curious, in our small crowd gathered on the terrace of the Hotel Nacional, where we made sure, ever so discreetly, not to miss the spectacle of Barrales junior directing the lowering of the coffin, calling for the utmost carefulness. Only later for his gray hair to drip with sweat and for his face to flush in the sun like a tomato, while he loosened with a hammer the gnarled cover that splintered with a terrible groan—long and dry—that reverberated in the nerves of our teeth as it screeched through the square.
Try to listen, finally, for that suppressed guffaw, the continuous and snide gloating with which we saw, and now remember, the big fish they pulled out of the coffin. A dried-out swordfish, smoked, the crusty gold of its scales, the marble, wide-open eye, together with the chili peppers and seaweed garnish. All that was needed to prepare a cured jerky ceviche, of fish, the delight of the Tacnian coast; to cut it up and marinate it with lemons from our oasis, to organize a banquet for the public benefit in the middle of the square, where Barrales junior sold plates of ceviche and little cups of pisco sour by the hundreds. More than enough to pay for him, that Spaniard lost in America, and for what the charity of his countrymen had not permitted: a proper hearse and a permanent plot at the cemetery. And even a strident little band, still drunk from the night before, that accompanied the retinue of revelers to the cemetery.
They say, but this might just be a legend, that the sun was rising the next morning when certain drunken women were still laughing and shouting at the pharmacy, poking at the rigidity of the corpse; although these ladies, for their part, disagree and swear not to remember a thing. But what we all do remember is the elegant brooch with which Barrales junior confected his revenge. The corpse of the unknown man had barely been laid in its luxurious plot, from where it continues to reproach our Spanish community, when Barrales junior left for the Residents´ Association and handed an envelope over to the doorman. It contained the check from a bar and a note commemorating the fact that the tips gathered by the charity of our Spaniards had managed, although just barely, to cover the cost of a round of beers for the gravediggers.
(For Ricardo Cayuela Gally)
Translation of “Españoles perdido en América.” Copyright Carlos Franz. Translation copyright 2011 by Jonathan Blitzer. All rights reserved.