In Gabriela Alemán’s Poso Wells, translated from the Spanish by Dick Cluster and forthcoming with City Lights Publishers, a journalist explores the disappearance of a leading presidential candidate following a macabre accident and uncovers the community’s violent, lawless underworld. The excerpt below is the novel’s opening chapter.
Poso Wells does not appear on any map. How could it? The last time anyone did a topographical survey, that enormous mass of mud dredged from the estuary was still part of the river. And water flows. It’s not subdivided into lots. But there lies Poso Wells, objections be damned. If you were to ask any of its residents for a precise description of its location, they might tell you it’s the most stinking, forgotten hole on this side of the Pacific. Kilometers and kilometers of houses built out of sticks and reeds held together by a mix of mud and stones, all resting on a suspension of sewage and moldy clay. Mangrove posts sunk into soft, unstable soil perforated by every tide or current that sweeps high-tonnage ships toward the port of Guayaquil. But if that answer didn’t satisfy you, and you were to press on with, “But what street do I take, what corner do I turn, from the Beltway do I head north or south?” then most likely you’d be told to go to hell, and your respondent might mutter under her breath that anyone’s idea of hell on a bad day would look a lot like Poso Wells. It’s in the mouth of the fucking devil, if you really want to know.
And yet, though no one who didn’t live there would venture within a hundred yards of that place, when campaign time rolls around it suddenly turns into an electoral battlefield—because there are hundreds of thousands of votes to be had. Every inhabitant needs something, and offers come raining down. Especially housing. Houses are promised in exchange for votes, as are construction materials and building loans. Stages are erected, loudspeakers are hung, and along come the girls, immodestly clothed teenagers who have to be escorted by bodyguards because everyone wants a piece of them. Hundreds of thousands of hands, like tentacles, try to touch them on their way in. But once on stage, that sensation of being mauled fades away. The plaza is electrifying. The girls quickly forget that without the bodyguards, if the stage were to collapse, none of them would survive. They’d be lost in the labyrinthine twist and turns of the barrio, destroyed, only bits and pieces of them to be found. But not this time. Every four years, or sometimes every two, television crews descend on the barrio. Trucks full of cables and satellite dishes arrive. An entire brigade of national police is deployed while a city tractor fixes the roads, or at least fills them with enough dirt from the nearby Santa Elena peninsula to allow the entry of the candidates and their vehicles full of boosters. In Poso Wells such gatherings always take place on a particular vacant lot, an enormous abandoned rectangle situated in the third phase of the Cooperative, the third part, historically speaking, to be occupied by a wave of settlers. Nobody, in twenty-some years of democracy enacted via repeated election campaigns, has stopped to ask why no houses have been built on this lot, why it doesn’t even serve as a sandlot for sports, while elsewhere in the barrio any vacant expanse is invaded by squatters, one lot after another, by settlers who risk their lives to build on top of garbage that still has only the flimsiest hold on the riverbed. Why, even though this lot is surrounded by the only lampposts in all of Poso Wells, does no one ever gather there except at campaign time?
The answer is not very interesting—and even less so for those who are charged with the task of covering the news. Those who live in the Cooperative know that something isn’t right, but they are not likely to explain. If forced to say what it is about this particular patch of sterile and cursed ground, they couldn’t. They simply know, everyone knows, that certain parcels must be avoided. Because all over the barrio, things disappear. A bunch of bananas can’t be left outside the door, because it will vanish. It has to be safeguarded inside the house, though padlocks are not much use either. Something crouches in the streets of Poso Wells, and it attacks the nerves like a persistent drumbeat. Whatever it is lurks in the residents’ dreams, pants in their faces, slobbers them with noxious saliva and septic-tank breath, leaving their bodies sticky and dirty when they wake up. This sensation of danger cannot be shaken off by a mere act of will. The residents live with it all day long. In the evening it just becomes more palpable, because what vanishes then is not just food. People disappear too.
At campaign time, the threat diminishes. There are too many electric wires, too many workers, too much equipment turning everything upside down. The music reverberates as the girls dance their way through choreographed moves again and again, though they’ve been selected for their looks, not their skill. They put on their best faces for the cameras and smile.
In 2006, the campaign has sharpened in Poso Wells. The first round is over and the winner, who has edged out his opponent by four percentage points, needs to make the next encounter with the electorate more spectacular than the one before. He arrives in a chartered helicopter under the last rays of the late-afternoon sun. The light is diaphanous, ethereal, seemingly infinite as it reflects off the shell of the craft. The occupant is as eye-catching as the machine that brings him: Chinese silk guayabera, creamy linen pants that flutter around his gym-toned legs, iguana-skin shoes custom-made in Italy. Long, curly hair falls to his shoulders and down his back, while prominent cheekbones accent his rugged face. His movements are graceful, in the way of those favored by divine providence or an overstuffed bank account. He isn’t tall, but on the stage he’ll look enormous. He’ll offer to fulfill desires and confer salvation. This time, like every time, he has ordered sacks of cornmeal and flour to be distributed, along with containers filled with lard. While he’s still hovering over the cityscape, his boosters distribute these gifts in the plaza. That’s why a crowd has piled into the space cleared for the helicopter to land, and now the pilot doesn’t know what to do. The candidate sweats, prodigiously, soaking his clothes, tracing a design of wispy wings down the back of his guayabera while he wipes his face with an impeccable handkerchief. In his rear trouser pocket he has six more of these in reserve. Before boarding the copter, he fortified himself with two large bottles of beer and five glasses of whiskey, one after another, at the headquarters of his party. Now he needs to urinate. Desperately. But, flying over the vast spread of the barrio, he tries to forbear.
“Motherfucking cunt, I can’t hold it any more. Get those people out of the way!”
“How?” the pilot asks.
“Get down lower and give it a try,” the candidate responds, barely moving his lips while sweat covers his eyes. “Where there’s a will, there’s a way.” He takes a deep breath and repeats the adage like a mantra—“Where there’s a will, there’s a way”—while the pilot nods and attacks the sea of bodies.
But try as he might, no one moves. What do they care if the rotor blades cut off their heads? In the whirlwind, matchbook houses tremble and threaten to fall. The blades cut through TV antennas and pirate electrical wires. On the fourth try, the pilot swoops down close to the designated rectangle while lowering an aluminum ladder, the only way to deposit the candidate on the ground. Under the continuous rush of wind, seven houses perched on rotten posts collapse, accompanied by the crying of children and the screams of women, while husbands and boyfriends try to pull themselves and the women and children out of the rubble. But all of this can barely be heard as the loudspeakers saturate the atmosphere with decibels of sound. It’s as if the doors of heaven had opened for celestial choirs and trumpet blasts, for all the angels of heaven to proclaim the second coming of the Lord. On stage, the girls shake their hips with frenetic, hypnotizing rhythm. The people shout, jump, sway, swing. No one can hear the protests of those who have just lost their homes. The candidate, his hands spread like a man on the cross, descends through space—the crush around him acts in his favor now—until he touches the earth where his waiting bodyguards surround him. From the viewpoint of the great mass of people, he seems to levitate as the bodyguards lift him bodily to the stage. That’s when he realizes he has no place to discharge his bladder in peace. He sweats and sweats, with few options left. He is going to pee, and he’s going to do it in front of the hundreds of inhabitants of Poso Wells. He’ll be discreet, he’ll allow a stream of urine to slide down his linen pants while he moves about the stage to avoid forming a puddle under his feet. In the heat, what his clothes absorb will evaporate quickly. The rest will slip though the gaps in the stage. While he struts about and waves to the acclaiming crowd, he puts this plan into action, until his boosters close around him in a great human chain and someone hands him a microphone. The electricity can be felt in the air. At this moment, he stops moving and the puddle at his feet takes on a certain depth. It wouldn’t bother him, no one would notice it, really, except that he is holding a cable connected directly to one of the high-voltage streetlights, and he’s standing in a pool of liquid.
Before the wires explode and the lights go out—the lights that the organizers of the event have stolen from the lampposts erected by the municipality a few months before—the people see the candidate rise above the stage, encircled by a celestial halo. The glow shoots like lightning through all of his entourage.
Really, it’s a sight to behold. Of a strange, extreme beauty. Extraordinarily so.
And then, a smell of meat on the grill. A stench of scorched flesh that permeates every square inch of the usually vacant lot.
And then, finally, pitch black.
Copyright © 2018 by Gabriela Alemán. Translation copyright © 2018 by Dick Cluster. Reprinted with permission of City Lights Publishers, San Francisco.