Diego Zúñiga’s Camanchaca, translated by Megan McDowell and out March 7 from Coffee House Press, follows a young man on a long, near-silent drive with his father across Chile’s Atacama Desert as he surveys the “worn-out puzzle” of his broken family.
My father’s first car was a 1971 Ford Fairlane, which my grandfather gave him when he turned fifteen.
His second was a 1985 Honda Accord, lead gray.
His third was a 1990 BMW 850i, navy blue, which he killed my Uncle Neno with.
His fourth is a Ford Ranger, smoke colored, which we are driving across the Atacama Desert.
My parents separated when I was four years old. I’m twenty now. I live with my mother in Santiago. My father stayed in Iquique with his new family. Sometimes we see each other when he travels for business. He takes me clothes shopping or asks me to go pick up some boxes with him and his new wife. I get into his truck, put my headphones on, turn on my music, and go with him.
Now he tells me we have to go to Tacna or I could lose my teeth—he knows a dentist who will help me save them. He explains this, and his ten-year-old son, who is riding in the backseat of the truck, bursts out laughing and says something I don’t catch. He laughs, and my father’s wife tells him, “Eddie, be quiet,” but he doesn’t stop laughing.
My mother lost all her teeth. She had to get a dental plate. Sometimes she goes to the kitchen and opens the drawer where she keeps the special cream, then she turns her back to me and adjusts the upper denture. I look at her face reflected in the kitchen window and say nothing. Then she turns back around, and there she is, her upper teeth in place. She doesn’t use the bottom part. She says it hurts, and she can’t sleep when she wears it.
My father’s wife is named Nancy. My mother says Nancy used to walk Thompson Street, and that’s where she met my father. Sometimes I get the urge to ask her. Right now, for example, as she’s offering me a cup of soda, I look at her in the rearview mirror and think about asking her if it’s true she worked Thompson Street. I look at her. She smiles at me. She flashes me her perfect smile, and I shake my head no. Then I put on my headphones and turn my eyes toward the highway.
Before we left for the trip, my mother gave me a list of things to buy: jacket, pants, tennis shoes, shirts, underwear, and socks. She told me to insist that my father buy me brand-name things so they’d last all year. She emphasized that part. And when I called her from Coquimbo, where we were spending the night, she reminded me again to tell him he had to buy me those things. And I said OK, picturing myself at the Iquique mall buying whatever I could find that fit, asking my father if I could have this hoodie, if I could have that shirt, and then hearing no, too expensive, pick something else. And me going into the dressing room and trying to fit into the sale shirts, figuring if I lost a few pounds when I got back to Santiago, I might be able to button those two-for-one pants.
My father’s son is named Elías. That’s how my grandmother introduced him to me, even though everyone calls him Eddie. He was born when I was ten years old. My mother says he’s not my father’s son, that the woman had an affair with another man. That’s what she heard, and she believes it because the kid doesn’t look anything like my father, my mother says, the kid only looks like the woman. And I look in the side mirror while he’s playing some kind of Game Boy my father gave him for Christmas, and I think yes, it’s true, he doesn’t look much like my dad.
My mother hasn’t worked since the day we arrived in Santiago. She stopped going out altogether, except when we do the grocery shopping the first week of each month. She always asks me to go with her. My grandfather sends her money, we go to the supermarket, and she buys food for the month. She also buys hair dye, but she never knows which one looks best on her, so she asks for my opinion.
I look at the boxes, and I don’t understand the difference between an ash blond and a matte blond. Still, I look at the woman on each box and then at my mother, and I give my opinion. Sometimes she takes my advice, but usually she doesn’t, and then she leaves the hair dye aisle and goes on with the month’s shopping.
My father says we’re close to Antofagasta. He explains that one must respect the desert and the highway, that not just anyone can drive there. I nod, taking my headphones off. I turn my head to look at him, and he says that someday he’ll teach me to drive, there’s nothing to it. And I nod again.
And then he puts his right hand on my thigh and says that I should lose a little weight, that if I don’t lose weight something could happen to me. And I nod and put my headphones back on.
My mother and I used to play a game where we told stories before bed. We’d turn off the TV, and we had to make them up in the dark. We just started doing it, it wasn’t planned, but we really enjoyed those moments. We would laugh in total darkness, in that double bed my grandfather had given us. When we came to Santiago, we decided we would sleep together. Although really, it was my mother who made the decision. She told me there was no money for gas, we couldn’t have a heater, and it would be best for us to sleep in the same bed, like when I was a kid and we still lived in Iquique. Of course I didn’t question it. I just grabbed a few things and moved into her room, our room.
My father beats his fingers on the steering wheel as if he’s playing the drums. The woman and her son are sleeping, but he doesn’t care. I turn down the volume on my MP3 player. He goes on pounding the wheel to the rhythm of drums and a guitar. It’s Pat Metheny. He looks at me, a smile on his face. I take off my headphones. He’s still smiling. He asks if I know this music. I nod. He drums harder on the steering wheel. When the song is over, he tells me about the time he saw Pat Metheny live at the Chile Stadium, when he took Nancy. Then he tells me that if Metheny ever comes back, he’ll take me. I don’t say anything. I look out the right-hand window. A man, walking in the desert. I watch him for a few seconds before we leave him behind and he vanishes among the hills. I see him and I imagine being him, crossing the desert, getting lost. An empampado: swallowed by the pampa. I like that word. Empampado. We leave him behind. Another Pat Metheny song comes on, and my father again starts drumming on the wheel.
It was one of those nights, in total darkness, when my mother told me what happened to my Uncle Neno. She said there was a lot I didn’t know, that it hadn’t been her idea to lie to me, but she’d made an agreement with my grandparents. And she told the story. In complete detail. Full of silences. A few days after that, we’d never mention Uncle Neno again. A few days after that, there’d be another story nobody would want to tell.
This excerpt is reprinted by permission from Camanchaca (Coffee House Press, 2017). © 2017 by Diego Zúñiga. English translation © 2017 by Megan McDowell.