Stephen Baker

The Boost
Home - Viewing one post

Fiction: The Andean Correspondent

May 30, 2009Excerpts


THE ANDEAN CORRESPONDENT  
(fiction, from 1996)


     I'm on the lazy side, the first to admit it. If I don't have
to do a job, I'll sit around, page through a magazine, maybe
strum the guitar a little, and think about what I could
accomplish if somehow I were forced to work. I've always known
this about myself. So it was against my better judgment that I
drove my old Beetle one autumn afternoon from Boston to a small
town in New Hampshire, on the piney banks of Lake Winnepasaukee,
and applied for a fellowship that would allow me to do nothing
for two whole years, with the only proviso that I spend this idle
time in the Andean Region.
     "You mean I wouldn't have a syllabus or anything?" I asked
the foundation director.
     His name, in line with the sylvan setting, was Woody. We sat
together on a little pinewood deck, just a few feet from the
lapping waters of the lake. It was breezy, and he wrapped his
loose frame in a gray cardigan sweater, like the one President
Carter would soon don for his lecture on The Energy Crisis. Woody
wore his hair long, in the style of the late seventies, over his
ears and across his forehead, a ridge of it resting on the top of
his wire-rimmed glasses. I guessed from the gray strands that he
was about 35, which seemed depressingly old at the time. He
smiled at me, radiating wisdom. "Just to learn," he said. "That's
the mandate."
     "And how will you know if I'm learning?" I was eager for
some structure.
     "Do you like to write letters?"
     I told him I did. It's long been a favorite mode of
procrastination.
     "You just write us a letter once a month, and tell us what
you've learned."
     "And what would you want me to learn?"
     He laughed gently and explained that the Higgins Foundation
simply wanted to seed the globe with young curious Americans,
hoping that in a few years, these same Americans, older and more
influential, would provide the country with expertise in
strategically important regions. He said the foundation paid
$15,000 a year -- princely pay at the time -- plus travel
expenses.
     At that point in my life, I hadn't yet found real work.
Foolishly, coming out of college I'd set my sights on only one
job, as a Spanish teacher at a private school in Connecticut. I
had near perfect grades at Michigan, and my Spanish was fluent. I
didn't see how I could miss. But I did. So I settled for work at
Beacon Book Store. I think I was making $3.25 an hour. This is
all to say that two years lazing in the Andes, sending off an
occasional letter, would hardly disrupt my career.
     "Would it be OK if I went down there with my girlfriend?" I
asked.
     He looked up from the deck and ran his fingers through his
hair. "We don't encourage it," he said. "We'd rather you spent
more time with the locals."
     This meant I could break with Helen, who'd had followed me
from Ann Arbor to Boston in the vain hope that a change of locale
would alter my personality. We fought all the time.
In my quiet way, I've always been a sap for patriotism. I
get teary-eyed when I hear crackly recordings of Roosevelt's
first inaugural, or the I Have A Dream speech. I think people
with screwed-up families lean on their country a little more. I
know I did. The idea that some enlightened millionaire named
Higgins had hatched a plan to sprinkle people like me around the
world, and then wait 20 or 30 years for the investment to pay
dividends for humanity, it just seemed marvelous to me, and
quintessentially American. I admit, I was naive at the time. But
I remember driving back from New Hampshire, through a rain storm,
thinking that if I did get this fellowship, I'd work hard down in
the Andes, even without a mandate. I'd meet people, all kinds of
people, and I'd learn. Forgetting my laziness, I vowed to do
whatever I could to make Mr. Higgins proud of his investment in
me.
     A month later, I was sitting in Jim Rock's dark room in the
Gran Casino Hotel in Quito, Ecuador, smoking a joint and learning
an early lesson about the Andean Region: They grow some very
powerful drugs there.
     I met Jim Rock at the Quito airport. He was standing behind
me in the immigration line, as big and broadfaced as his name,
with sun-bleached hair trimmed over his ears. He asked if the
Miami Herald I'd brought with me had a sports section. I handed
it to him, and he was still studying it as they stamped our
passports, mine American, shiny and new, his Canadian, looking as
though it had gone through a couple cycles in a washing machine.
I still remember him looking up from the newspaper when the
officer asked for his visa.
     "Huh?"
     "Su visa, senor."
     "Oh, that," Jim said. Then he said "pagina veintiocho" with
a laughable accent, and pointed to the visa in his passport. I
used to tutor Spanish to football players at Michigan, to get
them past language pre-reqs. Most of them had bad accents. But
Jim, it was as if he was trying to speak miserable Spanish.
His face was tanned and he wore preppy clothes: khakis,
loafers, and a LaCoste shirt. This led me to wonder if he was a
traveling golfer, and I kicked myself for not bringing my clubs.
The weather in Quito, with temperatures getting into the 70s and
80s year-round, was perfect for golf, and I calculated the
9,000-foot altitude would add 30 or 40 yards to my drives. I
imagined my first letter to the Higgins Foundation: After some
trouble with water on the fourth and fifth holes, today I hooked
over the dogleg on six and chipped home for an eagle...
     As we waited for our luggage, Jim told me he was from
Vancouver. He was teaching some English, on and off, and
traveling around the Andes. It occurred to me as we talked that
he looked like a heavy, short-haired version of myself. He said
he'd just been down in Peru for a few days.
     "Macchu Picchu?" I asked.
     "Not far from there."
     I wondered why someone would travel all the way into the
Peruvian Andes and not visit Macchu Picchu. "Is there some golf
resort up there, or something?"
     Jim glanced sharply at me with bright blue eyes. "What's
that?"
     "Golf. I was wondering if you were playing golf down there."
I mentioned his tan and the golf shirt. He was studying me
as I said this, and I began to feel a little ridiculous.
     Then suddenly he broke into laughter. "That's a good one!
     What's your name again?"
     I hadn't told him yet. "Mike," I said. "Mike Bavard."
     "French, eh?"
     "Somewhere way back," I said.
     "Oh, blueblood, eh?"
     "Not exactly."
     "You know what, Mike?" he said, coming close to me as if he
were going to tell me a secret. "You look like a Smedley to me.
OK with you if I call you Smedley?"
     "Huh?"
     Before he could explain, our luggage arrived, my enormous
black trunk with chrome buckles, and his compact white-leather
suitcase.
     Jim seemed to know one of the customs officials, who whisked
us right through. As we walked outside, I got my first look at
Quito, its red-tile roofs climbing up the bases of steep green
mountains. I took a deep breath of the Andean air, and tasted
diesel exhaust. Jim asked where I was staying. I fumbled through
my Bible-sized South American Handbook and pointed to a hotel I'd
circled, the Falcon, or maybe the Halcon. Its appeal, I remember,
was that each room had a balcony. I imagined sitting on my
balcony, taking the brilliant mountain sun, and writing my
monthly epistle to Higgins.
     Jim laughed. "You don't want to stay there." He flagged down
a taxi and told me to join him. "Come on, Smed!" he said.
     A year or two after I got back from Quito, I saw the movie
Midnight Express. It's about an American who gets caught running
drugs in Turkey, and winds up in an Istanbul jail. That jail,
with its big sunny courtyard, and all the jaded hippies mingling
about in their dusty, Third-World get up, reminded me of the Gran
Casino. The hotel Jim Rock took me to was full of young people
from all over the world, and there was something a bit grim and
weary about them. These were not vacationers popping down for a
quick look at the Galapagos and Macchu Picchu. Those types stayed
in the modern side of town, in hotels with pools and nice
restaurants. No, the travelers at the Gran Casino were in for the
long haul. Most of the Americans and Canadians had come down
through Mexico and Central America, and from there to Colombia.
They traded stories about crimes and rip-offs, hellish bus rides
down Panama, the revolution in Nicaragua. Most of the Australians
and New Zealanders at the hotel were coming from the other
direction. They had hopped the Pacific, from the Easter Islands
to Chile, and then bussed north through the deserts of Peru. They
could tell the southbound travelers where to avoid pickpockets
and bedbugs, and undercover cops. And the Europeans? Some of them
never stopped traveling. They reminisced about the golden years
in India, in the late 60s, about Thailand and Burma. A few had
even done Africa. This is all to say that the Gran Casino was no
tourist hotel. People there were going about the business of
travel. It was a place to get over dysentery, or to wait for
friends coming in from Cuzco or the Amazon, to do laundry. As far
as I could tell, Jim Rock and I were the only two who arrived by
air.
     As we walked in, I saw why Jim laughed when I mentioned
golf. The clientele were lazing about in the courtyard, drinking
coffee and beer, reading novels, most of them wearing sandals and
native cotton pants with a rope around the waist. Hardly a golf
crowd. Jim showed me around. He introduced me to a couple of New
Zealand women he knew, Jan and Eunice, who had a hammock strung
up in their room. And he knocked on the door of two Italian
astrologers, Giulio and Massimo, or Max, who both reached out
with two hands to shake mine and nodded intently as Jim told them
that I was a Bostonian named Smedley.
     "Actually, the name's Mike," I hurried to say.
     "But they just smiled and nodded, apparently accustomed to
Jim Rock's name games.
     Later that night, as we smoked that first joint in his room, I asked him why he called me Smedley.
     He smiled. "I think of things, and people, in terms of
sports," he explained. When he was on the high school basketball
team, outside of Vancouver, they once played another team with a
burly power forward named George Smedley. For some reason, Rock
and a friend liked the name. It meant something to them, though
he wouldn't tell me what. This was probably to protect my
feelings, since I was already a Smedley. Jim Rock said he always
tried to keep at least one Smedley in his life. "It's the ying to
my yang," he said, his eyes dancing.
     I hated the name Smedley. I felt I was being used, and
ridiculed. So stayed away from Rock for a couple of days, letting
him know, for what it was worth, that he didn't have his Smedley
on call. In fact I didn't need him at all. I didn't like drugs
all that much. And even if I had, Jim Rock had no monopoly on
supply. A fog of marijuana hung in the hallways, pierced
occasionally by the pharmaceutical scent of cocaine, which back
then was still considered benign.
     I set up a table in my room and studied the South American
Handbook, trying to plan my next two years. I also toured
colonial Quito. I climbed the steps behind the hotel, to the top
of a green hill called El Panecillo, and took in the view of
Quito, the poor, colonial neighborhood below me, and the tacky
modern section in the distance. I visited the Jesuit cathedral,
La Compania. It dripped with gold and was surrounded by beggars.
I walked up and down the cobblestone merchant streets, looking at
the silverware and jewelry, the stands of fruits I hadn't yet
tasted, papayas and chirimoyas. I saw the caskets in the
carpenters' shops, some of them arranged in sidewalk displays.
The infant-sized models, in white and baby blue, caught my eye. I
noted that detail and planned to mention it in my first letter to
the foundation.
     I tried to make other friends at the Gran Casino. I remember
walking to a restaurant with the New Zealanders, Eunice and Jan.
Eunice, tall and thin, with frizzy hair, talked a lot, while the
beautiful Jan stared out a window. Guinea pigs, a national food
in Ecuador, scurried under our table, eating crumbs. Jan and
Eunice ordered guinea pig, reasoning that at least it would be
fresh; I opted for chicken. While we waited for the food, Eunice
told me she'd heard that robbers in Colombia, armed with very
sharp knives grabbed Gringos in the streets and slit their
thumbs. While the injured foreigners gaped at their wounds, she
said, the Colombians made off with their watches, wallets and
jewelry. I laughed and said it seemed like a round-about way of
doing business. "No," Jan said, looking at me for the first time.
"It's the truth."
     The Italian astrologers were well into their second decade
of Third-World wanderings, and they had their room hung with all
sorts of Asian and African fabrics. Giulio, a balding gnome with
a pony tail, was the guru. He didn't speak English or Spanish,
and sat smiling gently as Massimo, or Max, carried out business.
Max had soft features and curly black hair, and looked to me like
an Apollo, by Velazquez or Caravaggio. He said he'd learned most
of his English from Bob Dylan songs. He rolled a joint and asked
me what I was doing in Ecuador.
     "I guess I'll teach English," I said, wondering whether to
smoke when he passed the joint; it was barely breakfast time. As
it turned out, I didn't have to worry. He smoked it all himself,
speaking slower and slower as the drug settled in.
"But you arrived..." He was holding in the smoke, and
speaking in bursts. "By an airplane, no?"
     I nodded.
     "With the big box."
     I supposed he was wondering why someone with no firm plans
would fly to Quito with such an enormous trunk. At this point I
wasn't telling anyone about the foundation. I thought it would
raise too many questions. I also worried that once people knew I
had a steady income, they'd hit me up for loans. Money wasn't
something you bragged about at the Gran Casino.
     Yes, I said. I did come in an airplane with the trunk. Then
it was quiet. We sat there, the three of us, Max stoned, Giulio
apparently meditating, and me, determined not to break whatever
peace they were working on with some trivial question or remark.
Then, in a soft, lyrical Italian, Giulio finally murmured
something to Max.
     "He says you should probably go," Max said, his eyes half
shut. "Something about the vibes he doesn't... dig." Giulio
smiled at me and waved with his fingers as I got up and left.
     I bought the local paper every day from a little Indian boy
who stood at the street corner yelling, "El Comeeeeeeeercio!" It
was an excruciatingly boring paper. But I had a letter to write.
I sat at the table in my room, clipping out wire stories about
Peru and Bolivia, both run by military governments, and Colombia,
which appeared to be a democracy, at least in name. Ecuador's
military leaders were planning some sort of referendum on
democracy. I suspected it was a charade, but couldn't tell from
the pages and pages of gray coverage in El Comercio. At this
point, Mr. Higgins would probably have instructed me to go out
and talk to people.
     I talked to Jim Rock. I guess I should mention here that
ever since my days in Ann Arbor, and probably even before, I've
always preferred to be among the most liberal in a group, and
hated to be the most conservative. This wouldn't be a problem if
I were a Trotskiite or an Anarcho-syndicalist. But I'm just a
liberal Democrat. Back in Ann Arbor in the mid-'70s, those of us
who didn't object too much to the rule of law, who believed in
marriage and put up with the free market, we were viewed as
reactionaries. The politics were much the same at the Gran
Casino, where Fidel Castro probably would have emerged as a
centrist.
     The lone conservative was Jim Rock. He'd circulate among the
travelers at the Gran Casino cafe, looking like a frat boy in
Haight Ashbury. He'd sit down with the French and Germans,
sometimes using his ridiculous Spanish, and turn the conversation
gently into politics. Carter was a fool for giving away the
Panama Canal, he'd say. Since American presidents, by political
definition, were either fools or criminals, and usually both, the
Europeans figured Jim was toeing the line. But by attacking the
American president from the right, he blindsided them. It was fun
to watch. Within a few minutes, he'd be asking, earnestly, if the
old bridges over the Seine were wide enough for Soviet tanks.
Then, before a serious argument could start, Jim would laugh and
stand up, patting them on the back, shaking a hand or two, and
move on to another table. When he was done, he'd often sit down
with me. "It's you and me, Smed," he'd say, shaking his head.
More than once I insisted that I supported Carter's Panama
policy, and lots of other liberal causes too.
     He shrugged. "OK. So we have some policy differences..."
Still, as far as he could see, it was Jim Rock and his friend
Smedley against the world.
     "Drink up," he'd say, pointing to my coffee or my beer. "I
want to talk to you about something, in my room." But when we got
up there, he'd just horse around. He had a leather-bound
backgammon game we played, with Jim providing a comic
play-by-play in the voice of Don Corleone. And sometimes he'd do
Howard Cosell announcing the imminent fall of Europe, an
obsession of his. "Dandy, those are some very plucky Russian
tanks, which with their leaps and thrusts and manuevers as they
trample the vineyards of Burgundy, recall the inimitable Jim
Brown, the Cleveland crusher, in his prime..." It didn't matter
much that Jim Rock's imitations were as nearly as miserable as
his Spanish.
     I'm trying to remember exactly when and how I figured out
that Jim Rock ran drugs. Maybe I knew from the very start, from
the way he winked his way past the customs agent at the airport.
More likely though, it was an evolution in my mind. There was
hardly any difference, back then, between recreational drug
users, which included almost everyone, and people who might sell
a joint or two. That was just being friendly, or accomodating.
And once people started selling, some of them turned it into a
small business, which didn't exactly mean they were traffickers.
They just saw they could make more money that way than by
teaching English, which only paid about two dollars an hour. At
some point, I'm sure I realized that Jim's trips to Peru placed
him in a different league, closer to people who dealt drugs as a
career and carried guns.
     Still, this was before most of us had heard about the
Medellin and Cali cartels, indeed, before they existed. And from
the Gran Casino perspective, the villains in South America were
the dictators and death squads. We read about the various Dirty
Wars in dog-eared copies of Time and L'Express, which circulated
at the cafe. Even in Ecuador, such campaigns were easy enough to
imagine. It was just a matter of taking the helmeted 18-year-old
soldiers, who yanked us sleeping out of buses at highway check
points and waved machine guns at us, who pawed through our
luggage and demanded "taxes" for soft drinks, and letting them
pull the trigger, which is what they were aching to do anyway.
The narcos? They were friendly rebels providing a useful service.
For all we knew, they probably listened to good music and threw
great parties, way up there in the mountains. Most of us didn't
think about them much.
     Jim Rock would slip away occasionally, disappearing for
three or four days at a time. When he did, I felt at loose ends.
I'd wander around the hotel with my notebook or a novel, talk to
some Australians, maybe join up with the Italians, Max and
Giulio, if they'd have me, for a cup of coffee. Alone in my room,
I drank Chilean wine and worked on crossword puzzles. When Jim
Rock reappeared with his white suitcase, and circulated in the
cafe, shaking hands with newcomers, like a politician, patting
old acquaintances on the back, I felt -- and even now I feel a
little embarrassed to write it -- rescued. I'd wait for him,
nervously, to get to my table, and when he reached me, he'd
smile, point with his thumb toward his room, and say, "A bit of
backgammon?"
     I'd head up to his room determined to have a frank
discussion. I'd tell him about my fellowship and ask about his
business, point blank. It shouldn't be such a big deal, I'd
think. I had no reason to feel secretive about the Higgins money,
not with Jim. And so what if he was dealing drugs? I wasn't
judgmental. But the longer you put off big questions, the harder
it is to confront them. When I got up to his room, Jim would have
the backgammon board set up for play, and somehow I never got
around to broaching the subject. He deflected my little hints and
probes into his horn-like Howard Cosell imitation: "Giffer, at
game time today, the Smed appeared to be of an unusually
inquisitive mind, a burning curiosity which was only dampened by
the prompt application of a soporific substance, brought to his
lodging, at great risk, by his imitable Canadian friend..." And
as he talked, he'd pass me a joint.
     Nights I lay awake worrying about my first letter to the
Higgins Foundation. I had a notebook filled with random
observations and pieces of color. But I couldn't imagine
synthesizing it all into a letter, certainly not one worth two
thousand dollars -- my monthly cost to the foundation, as I
calculated it. For practice, I wrote letters to my mother, to a
couple of friends in Ann Arbor, and most of all, to Helen. Early
on, I used the letters to Helen as rough drafts for Mr. Higgins.
I wrote about infant mortality and the Ecuadoran referendum, and
added a sentence or two at the end about loving her, without
actually using that word. But by the third or fourth letter, I'd
abandoned my pride and was begging Helen to fly to Quito, the
sooner the better, to join me for a lovely bus ride through Peru
and Bolivia. The prospect of traveling through that bleak
Altiplano all by myself seemed too lonely and depressing for
words.
     One Sunday when Jim Rock was gone, the New Zealanders,
Eunice and Jan, returned from the Galapagos. They'd had plenty of
sun there. Eunice's long, plain face was blotched with freckles,
her nose one big scab. Standing next to her at the cafe, Jan
looked like a bronzed goddess. I was writing a letter to Helen at
the time. I put down my pen and asked them to join me for coffee.
As usual, Eunice did most of the talking. They'd had a
wonderful time, she said -- "jest spectacula." Jan agreed. Her
tan made her blue eyes shine, and when she opened her mouth, her
teeth looked dazzlingly white. Eunice told me about their plans.
They were heading up to the states. Eunice had a friend who
worked in a Howard Johnson's in Tampa, Florida, and they figured
they could make some money there for a few months. How about me?
I looked at Jan, and was glad to see she was paying attention. I
told them I was heading down to Peru and Bolivia in a few weeks,
on a bus, and I suggested that maybe they'd like to change their
plans and join me. My hope was that Eunice would fly off to
Tampa, leaving me alone with Jan.
     "You poor thing," Eunice laughed. "We just came from there."
She rolled her eyes, which made her face look even longer. "I
swear," she said, "if I had to see one more Peruvian soldier or
drink one more of those warm Inca Colas..." I looked over at Jan
and saw her nodding with her mouth shut. I wanted another look at
those teeth.
     They were heading north through Colombia, Eunice said, and
flying from Cartagena to Miami. It occurred to me then that
Colombia was an Andean country, fully part of my turf. There was
no reason I couldn't head north with them. "Colombia..." I said,
as if intrigued by the idea. "That's one place I'd love to see.
Are you going to spend much time there?"
     "Good heavens, no," Eunice said. They could only travel
through Colombia on transit visas, she explained, which meant
they had to hurtle across the entire country in a week.
     "Hmmm," I said, begging for an invitation. "So you'll be
taking a short trip in Colombia. That should be quite something."
     "Very short," said Eunice, clearly dreading 80 hours on a
bus in the country of the thumb-slitters.
     Then Jan piped up. "Would you like to join us?"
     In the next week, I hurried off my letter to the Higgins
Foundation. Now that I had other business on my mind, it
practically wrote itself. Then I went to the Colombian Consulate,
in the modern side of Quito, and applied for a transit visa. To
get one, I had to have an exit ticket. So I went over to the
Avianca offices and spent a good deal of Mr. Higgins' money on a
one-way fare from Cartagena to Quito.
     Meantime, I was getting to know my new traveling companions.
They were school teachers on sabbatical. Eunice taught third
grade and Jan, who rarely spoke, was in special ed. Desperate to
establish some common ground with her, I mentioned once that
teachers thought my brother was dyslexic for a while, until they
found out that he needed glasses.
     "Dyslexia," she said gravely. "Quite a thorny problem." Then
she picked up her fork backwards, in the European fashion, and
began cutting some tough Ecuadoran beef and dispatching it to her
mouth. Even when the conversations peetered out like this, I
loved to look at her, those jaw muscles working on the beef, and
passing it down to those silky neck muscles. Down I would look,
toward the two open buttons of her white cotton blouse. At about
this point, Eunice usually came up with something to say.
     They were headed down to Banos, a few hours south on bus, to
relax in the mineral baths for a couple days. Despite some
shameless begging on my part, they didn't invite me. But I did
come up with an idea for turning the Colombia trip into a more
manageable foursome. We were having lunch, the three of us, at a
cafe near the Colombian Consulate. Jan nibbled at a salad while
Eunice and I waited for chicken and gossiped about the cast of
characters at the Gran Casino. She mentioned with a giggle that
my friend Jim was "bloody cute."
     "Eunice..." Jan looked up from her salad sternly.
     "Well he is, Janny. It's a fact," Eunice said, adding to me:
"She doesn't like him. She fancies he's a mafioso."
     By the time Jim Rock returned to Quito, the New Zealanders
were in Banos. Over a game of backgammon, I told him casually
that I was thinking of taking a little tour through Colombia, and
that I might travel, at least for part of the trip, with the New
Zealanders. He seemed to perk up.
     "You know," I said, "I think Eunice has a crush on you."
     He puzzled for a moment. "Is that the horsey one?"
     Eunice and Jan, it turned out, couldn't leave Quito until
they received a check in the mail. That was a typical dilemma for
travelers at the Gran Casino. Some of them, with no money at all,
had to run a tab at the hotel, and beg for beer and food money.
But the New Zealanders had enough to take a trip to the jungle.
One frosty dawn I walked with them down to the bus station,
helping with the luggage. They bought tickets from the man
screaming "Amazoooooonas", and then we drank hot chocolate. There
wasn't much to say. I reminded them not to walk barefoot in the
jungle streams. They nodded. I asked if they had books for the
trip. They both did. So I said goodbye. Hoping to establish a
physical precedent, I reached toward Eunice and gave her a big
hug. She seemed a little startled, but happy enough, and even
clawed my back with her fingernails. Then I reached for Jan. She
stood there, shy, maybe a bit uncertain, like one of her special
ed students. Then she stood on tip-toes and spread her arms wide
and almost jumped into my arms, kissing the first thing she could
reach, which happened to be my neck. Then almost as quickly as
she jumped in, she pushed out, and hurried toward the bus,
lugging her backpack, followed by Eunice. I was left with her
fragrance, which reminded me of pine trees, and a moist spot just
below my ear.
     As Eunice might have said, I fancied I was in love. I'd
hardly exchanged ten words with Jan, of course. But as I walked
back from the bus station to the Gran Casino that cold morning,
as the first newboys started yelling, I was thinking about
marrying her, and imagining introducing her to my friends in
Boston. They'd be awed by her beauty; I'd explain that she wasn't
a big talker.
     Every day they were gone I'd check with the concierge at the
hotel, to see if the letter they were waiting for had arrived. I
was anxious to take off for Colombia with them; I spent hours
devising Eunice-diverting tactics, so that Jan and I could share
some time together on and off the bus. At the same time, with the
second Higgins letter coming due, I was counting on the Colombia
trip for more material. I couldn't imagine writing another letter
about Quito. Of course, if I went out and mingled in the city a
little bit, talked to Ecuadorans, it wouldn't have been so tough.
But as I've mentioned, I'm lazy about such things.
     It was during that week that Massimo started pressing me to
have my astrological chart done. He hardly ever talked to me in
the presence of Giulio, who continued to sense bad vibes coming
from my direction. But Massimo searched me out. In all of his
wanderings, he'd never made it to the United States -- the home
of his beloved Bob Dylan -- and he was fascinated by the most
mundane details of American life. I found myself telling him
about my family, how my only brother, Charles, who used to take
me camping, was now a lawyer in Minneapolis, and married. He sent
me Christmas cards. And I told him about my parents' divorce when
I was in 10th grade, how my Dad married this younger woman,
Dorothy, whom I never met, and moved to Jamaica, somewhere near
Ocho Rios.
     Max nodded when I told him these things. "You're still
searchin' for your brother," he said quietly. It sounded like a
line lifted from Blonde on Blonde.
     I confided that I was busier pursuing Jan.
     He snorted impatiently. "That's just for focking, man! Jack
up!"
     "Jack up?"
     He made a pumping gesture with his hands. "Do yourself, man.
That's just ... biologia."
     I tried to explain the difference between bare necessity and
fulfillment. But he interrupted me, reaching across the table and
grabbing my hand. It was the kind of gesture that astrologers,
especially Italian astrologers, could pull off. "Michael. Let's
do your chart. You need it, man."
     I told him I'd think about it.
     A day or two later, Jim Rock came back from his trip and
made his usual victory lap around the Gran Casino cafe. I was
glad to see him, but would have been much happier to see Jan and
Eunice. We played backgammon and smoked the usual joint. Jim had
been to Panama, he said, and he'd brought back a little cassette
player and some tapes. We listened to the Grateful Dead's Mars
Hotel album, which filled me with nostalgia for Ann Arbor.
"You're getting dreamy on me, Smed," Jim Rock said, as I
gazed out his window. I was remembering cramming for finals at
the library, with Helen.
     "What do you expect?" I said. "You smoke dope, you listen to
music, you get dreamy." I felt a little more assertive following
my talks with Max. "What were you doing in Panama?" I asked him.
He sat back a little in his chair. "Oh. Just, uh, the usual,
you know?"
     I pressed on with it, but he didn't tell me much. "You like
this machine?" he asked, gesturing toward the cassette player. I
nodded. "It's yours," he said. "I bought it for you."
     I started to shake my head and turn it down.
"You know I'm tone deaf," Jim Rock said grimly.
     It was a couple days later that Jan and Eunice returned. By
the time I saw them, they'd already learned that their check had
not arrived. They were in no mood for welcoming kisses and hugs.
Eunice looked as though she hadn't slept in a few days. Her curly
hair lay plastered against her forehead. Jan was tired, too, but
the dark circles under her eyes enhanced them, making her look
more sensuous. They could have been mascara stains after a
passionate night of sex. I gave each traveler a peck on the cheek
and asked them about their plans.
     "We're bleeding broke," Eunice said, struggling to get out
from under her knapsack.
     "We'll go out to dinner tonight," I said. "My treat."
     Bathed and napped, they were in better spirits by dinner
time. We started off in Jim Rock's room. I brought in the tape
player, and we listened to the Stones, Sticky Fingers, I think,
and drank Russian vodka Jim had brought from Panama. Jan and
Eunice both got giggly right away, and by her second glass of
vodka, Eunice was shrieking at Jim's Don Corleone imitation.
     Eventually, we made it out to dinner. Since I was paying, we
bypassed the usual guinea-pig joints and ate at an Italian place
in the new part of town. We sat in a booth and drank chianti. I
remember pushing closer and closer to Jan, rubbing my leg against
hers. As the dinner progressed, I reached under the table and
laid my hand on the inside of her thigh. She gave my hand a
squeeze, and then put her hand on my leg and slowly moved it up.
I felt my entire body quiver. Jim was telling jokes and we were
all laughing, especially Eunice, who looked much prettier than
usual. We ate linguini al Alfredo; Jim declared it tasteless and
piled on a few spoonfuls of the local hot sauce, aji. Meanwhile,
I pawed Jan under the table, overwhelmed by her beauty. I
remember thinking how Max, with his advice to "jack up," didn't
have a clue.
     We went back in a cab, Jim in the front seat, still telling
jokes. "And you know what Smedley asked me the first time we
met?" he said, turning around and looking at us wedged in the
back. "He wanted to know if I played golf! In Peru! Golf!" Eunice
laughed until she cried. Looking back, I still don't see what was
so funny about it. Was I supposed to assume from the start that
he was a drug trafficker? Apparently everyone else did.
     By the time we reached the Gran Casino, I was aching to take
Jan right to my bed. But Jim insisted on a nightcap. He took us
into his room, turned on the music again, and began chopping
cocaine on a mirror with a single-edged razor. I'd never tried
cocaine before, and neither had Jan and Eunice. We watched him
and then followed his lead with the rolled-up 20-sucre bill.
Within minutes we didn't feel drunk anymore. Now we were
marvelously witty and our insights, suddenly, were brilliant.
Even Jan was venturing some opinions. I began to think I should
get my notebook and jot down some of this rich material for my
next Higgins letter.
     "You like it, eh?" Jim said, placing another white chunk on
the mirror.
     "I don't feel a thing," Eunice said blankly. Jan agreed.
Jim started to chop again. But I looked at Jan and recalled
the path we'd been following on alcohol. I reached for her hand
and said good night to Jim and Eunice. Then I led Jan into my
bedroom. I shut the door and we promptly stripped off our clothes
and fell onto the bed. We made love literally all night, until
the dogs up the mountainside started barking and the boy out on
the corner yelled, "Comeeeercio!" Then, with her face glowing in
the soft morning light, her eyes ringed by spent mascara -- just
as I'd imagined -- Jan fell asleep. I looked at her and kissed
her for a while, on the brow, above the lips, on her jaw and down
to her shoulders, wishing I could save the kisses for later. Then
I slept too.
     We were awakened by a soft knocking on the door, and a voice
whispering, "Janny, Janny..." I opened the door and saw Eunice,
looking pallid. She was already dressed, in bluejeans and a plaid
cotton blouse, and what looked like a brand new pair of sandals.
She had her knapsack packed. "We're flying out in an hour and a
half," she said.
     Jim, she said, was lending them the money to fly directly to
Miami, on the Ecuatorian flight leaving that very afternoon. The
bus trip to Colombia was off. I looked back and took in one last
glimpse of Jan's body as she reached down and pulled on her pants
and then twisted her torso into her bra. "What time's the
flight," she asked, her back still turned.
     "An hour and a half, Janny. At two," Eunice said, sounding
stressed.
     That was the last I saw of them. I said goodbye to Jan and
we exchanged addresses, while Jim Rock and Eunice went through
the same dreary ritual. Then we walked them outside, where a taxi
was waiting. Jan gave me one last kiss, and put a hand on the
side of my face for a moment. "Ciao," she said as she ducked into
the cab. I didn't even get around to saying goodbye to Eunice.
"Well," Jim Rock said, as we walked back into the Gran
Casino. "It's you and me, Smed."
     I could have punched him.

     Jim left on another one of his trips the next day.
Depressed, I took an all-night bus to Esmeralda, on the coast. It
must have been all downhill. By daybreak, I had a crick in my
neck from sleeping against the window, and I was sweating up a
storm in my alpaca sweater. I was in banana country, the air
thick with steam. The cool Andes seemed like a distant planet.
The people were black instead of indian, and they spoke a
lightening fast Spanish, like Cubans.
     All I did there was drink. I took a taxi to a little beach
town called Atacames, and rented a hammock for a few sucres a
night. For four days I just sat in a shack on the beach with a
book in my hand, drinking beer and rum, and occasionally eating a
fish. When I sobered up, I told myself, I'd write my next Higgins
letter. That was the stated purpose of the trip. But I never
sobered up. I dreamed about Jan, and I cursed Jim Rock for
sending her away.
     One night I found myself in a metaphysical discussion with
some Ecuadoran students who had come up from Guayaquil. One of
them was religious, a Jehovah's Witness. He was saying everything
was predestined. I took issue with that. We went around and
around in a debate, both of us too drunk to win. Finally, I came
up with a trump. "Have you heard of black holes?" I asked him,
thinking of the star-sized vacuums into which all matter is
destined to disappear.
     He puzzled over it for a while, repeating the Spanish words,
"agujero negro, agujero negro..." Finally he looked up and asked,
"You wouldn't be referring to the anus, would you?"
     The next day I rode the bus back to Quito, dreading the
prospect of lazing about the Gran Casino for another week. When I
got there, the concierge seemed genuinely relieved to see me.
"Senor Rock," he said, "has been calling you for 10 hours
straight." As he said that, the phone rang, and I suddenly found
myself talking to Jim Rock.
     I had to do him a favor, he said. There was a package to
pick up and drop off. He'd explain it all later. He gave me an
address on the north side of Quito, the modern side, over past
the American Embassy.
     "Now?" I asked.
     "Now. Take a cab."
     "This isn't something..."
     "Don't worry about it, Smed."
     "But, I'm just wondering..."
     "Goddamn it! Do it for me... Please." His voice seemed to
break when he said "please," and as I took the cab to the first
address he gave me, I pictured Jim Rock sitting in a garage
someplace with a gun pointed at his head.
     We drove through a middle-class neighborhood, near the
language schools where lots of the Gringos taught English. I
tried to glimpse the small houses behind the tall concrete walls
bristling with colorful shards of broken bottles, the cast-iron
fences shaped into spears. We passed Libri Mundi, the bookstore
where I'd spent loads of Higgins' money on a shelf of Latin
American literature I had yet to read. I felt like asking the
cabbie to let me off there. I saw myself knocking on the door and
asking the owner, who looked like a poet, to give me shelter.
But we drove on. I finally had the driver drop me off a
block from my destination and I told him not to wait. Then I
walked toward the address. As I passed each house, big dogs
lunged at me barking, from behind the fences.
     Of course I was being incredibly stupid. I know it. But
practically everything I did back then was dumb. Imagine having
two years to travel around a dazzling region of the world, and
staying holed up for the first two months in a run-down hotel
like the Gran Casino -- a place that could double as a Turkish
jail! I suppose I stayed there because I was lonely. And I guess
I was picking up this package for Jim Rock because, no matter
what business he was involved in, he was my only friend. I
trusted him, to a degree, and felt sorry for him.
     I rang the buzzer. A window opened in the black metal door
and a man peered out. "Si?"
     I told him I was supposed to pick up something.
     "Su nombre?"
     "Mike. Mike Bavard."
     He shook his head and began to close the window.
     "Wait a minute," I said in Spanish. "Smedley, George
Smedley."
     "Ah." He opened the little window and passed me a small
package wrapped in brown paper and tied with twine. Then he told
me to hurry.
     You're probably expecting me now to say that I'm writing
this from some Ecuadoran prison, one that looks and feels much
like the Gran Casino. But that's not the case. I caught a cab and
made it to the second address, in a similar neighborhood. I rang.
Another small window opened up and a dark, Incan face simply
asked: "Mister Esmedley?" I nodded, shoved the package through
the window and caught another cab back to the hotel. The
concierge smiled at me. I waved at a few familiar faces in the
cafe, and then spotted Massimo. I sat down with him and ordered a
beer.
     He looked at me knowingly as I started to drink. "You are
taking that beer like medicine," he said.
     "I asked for Texas medicine," I said in my best Dylan voice,
"and they gave me railroad gin."
     Jim came back a day later with stories, wild stories from
Peru. As we played backgammon, he told me of guerrillas down
there, Maoists, all of them devoted to this professor named
Guzman. These Maoists, the Shining Path, planned to overthrow the
government through a campaign of terror. They would shoot mayors,
execute bourgeois sympathizers, hang dead dogs from lampposts.
"They're completely nuts, Smed," he said.
     They sounded that way to me. Little did I realize that Jim
Rock was laying out for me, in uncanny detail, the tragedy that
would nearly bury Peru in the '80s. I was far more interested to
learn about that package I delivered, and why Jim was crying as
he gave me those marching orders. "What's going on?" I asked.
     "Don't ask."
     "What do you mean, don't ask?" I knocked the backgammon off
the table, and the pieces rattled on the concrete floor. "When I
become part of it, I deserve to know what you're doing."
"Yeah, yeah, yeah." He had his head down, and looked
depressed. He turned on music, to drown out our talking. "Look at
it this way," he said. "I'm juggling, juggling like crazy. I have
thousands and thousands of dollars that I'm juggling, and none of
them belong to me." He looked at me, and I think it was the first
time I ever saw Jim Rock without even a trace of a smile. I saw a
broad young face, probably not much different than it looked when
he was twelve, or even eight.
     It was at that moment that I thought of a mother looking at
that face and seeing her son, and calling him Jim Rock. It didn't
sound right. And I knew then his name wasn't Jim Rock any more
than mine was George Smedley.
     His jaw was trembling a little. "If I drop it, just once,"
he whispered, "I'm fucked."
     I didn't know what to say. He left pretty soon after that,
to deal with whatever demons were waiting for him. Shaken, I
retreated to my room to write my Higgins letter. I wrote more
about Quito and the referendum. And to give them a sense that I
was traveling, I included some observations from my drunken
journey to the coast. I read over the letter and was not
impressed. So I bolstered it with a couple of paragraphs about
this new group of fanatics in Peru, the Shining Path.
I never saw Jim Rock again. He disappeared that night
without saying goodbye. The next day they rented out his room to
a French couple. I asked the concierge what he knew, and he
shrugged. "Nada, Senor."
     I decided to go to east, to the jungle. For two days, I
traveled around Quito buying the necessary equipment, the
mosquito netting, the snake-bite kit. I paid a dental assistant
to give me a gamma globulin shot. I was just about to check out
of the hotel and head for the bus station when the concierge told
me that someone was on the phone for me. "Un americano."
I expected Jim Rock. But it was Woody. "I have a bonus offer
for you," he said, explaining that the foundation would pay an
extra $3,000 for another letter on the Shining Path.
"But I told you everything I knew," I said.
     "Yes," said Woody. "But we were thinking you might be able
to find out more. It's splendid material. Just fascinating. To
think of it, the Gang of Four..."
     "It seems like you're moving away from the Higgins mandate,"
I said. "What, are you in the information-gathering business,
too?"
     He was quiet for a moment. "Certain types of information,"
he said.
     "And who's paying for it?"
     "Just do the reporting. Please." No longer the serene man I
remembered on the dock, he sounded like he wanted to throttle me.
I told him I'd see what I could do. Then I caught the bus to the
jungle. I got a fever down there, and spent the best part of a
week shivering in a hammock on the banks of the Napo River.
When I got back, there was a postcard for me from Cuzco,
Peru. It said simply: Smed, best wishes, Sasha.
     So he'd reemerged as Sasha. I sat down at the cafe and
ordered a chamomile tea, and I thought about Jim Rock. I wondered
if he was wooing another Smedley in Cuzco, and if he'd had others
elsewhere. Caracas, maybe? Or Bogota? This made me feel foolish.
But then I decided to view Jim Rock simply as an act that someone
was putting on, improvisational theater. Jim Rock was a character
in my life, just like Michael Corleone or Huckleberry Finn. Sure,
I'd been duped, and I'd told this Jim Rock character a lot about
myself, thinking he was somebody I knew... It was embarrassing, I
concluded, but not terribly important. But if he had to flee town
and change his name, it suddenly occurred to me, didn't that mean
he had enemies here, or creditors? And wouldn't that make me, his
well-known friend and one-time accomplice, Smedley, vulnerable? I
was growing worried, the postcard lying in front of me, when
Massimo pulled up a chair beside me.
     "Michael," he said somberly, "you're sailing a very long way
without a chart."
     I smiled. "You're right."
     He picked up the Cuzco postcard and read the back. "So he's
the Sasha-man of Cuzco," he said, knowingly. "I expected as
much."
     It turned out that a man named Sasha had directed a few
north-bound Americans to look up Massimo and Giulio in Quito. "We
did their charts," Max said, nodding slowly. "One's a triple
Scorpio. Someone you should meet, Michael."
     I was digesting this information when Max remembered a bit
of gossip he'd picked up from Sasha's friends. "You remember that
Australian woman you were so hungry to fock, Michael?"
I told him I did, without bothering to correct the
nationality.
     "A very funny story about them. Very funny." He went on to
tell me that Jim Rock had sent them to Miami wearing sandals
packed with cocaine. They didn't know it. The plan was simply for
Jim's contacts in Miami to meet Jan and Eunice after they cleared
customs, and to switch shoes with them. "And as they see them
coming through customs," Massimo said, laughing, "the tall one,
not so pretty, what's her name?"
     "Eunice," I said.
     "Vero. Eunice. She has her foot all white. It's white as a
... a fantasmo." Max by this point was laughing so hard he had
trouble talking. "And she was looking down at her foot, wondering
what is happening with her new shoes!"
     I wasn't laughing.
     "Don't you understand?" Max cried. "She goes through customs
with a white foot!"

     I flew to Florida the next day, the same flight that Jan and
Eunice took. On board I wrote my last Higgins letter. I wrote
about what I'd learned in Quito, about the Gran Casino and the
man called Jim Rock, or the Sasha-man of Cuzco. I theorized about
the nature of drug-trafficking in South America, and how the
narcos were forging links with left-wing guerrillas in Peru. I
wasn't sure about that. But how else would Jim Rock have met the
Maoists?
     When I reached Miami, I mailed the letter, along with a note
of resignation. I felt certain that my letter would land Jim Rock
in jail, or kill him.
     I vaguely remember renting a car and driving up to Tampa
Bay, visiting every orange-roofed Howard Johnson between Sarasota
and Dunedin. I found no sign of Jan and Eunice.
     I gave up. I was lost, as Massimo had warned, and I fell. I
won't bore you with the details, except to say that the recovery
process landed me in Minnesota and brought about a reunion, of
sorts, with my brother Charles. In fact, it was a hot summer
night there that Charles picked me up in his air-conditioned
Buick and took me for an excursion. We saw Midnight Express.
About halfway through, I couldn't handle it. I walked out to the
parking lot and swatted dive-bombing mosquitos, until Charles
emerged with the rest of the crowd and drove me back.
By the early '80s, when the Shining Path surfaced in the
news, hanging the dead dogs and blowing away mayors, I was back
in Boston, helping to manage a book store. Naturally, I wondered
about Jim Rock. And as I gained weight with the passing years,
and wore my hair shorter, I began to see his broad face smiling
at me from the mirror. Later in the decade, I read about an
island prison off the coast of Lima, which had turned into a
Maoist stronghold. Thousands of Shining Path fanatics ran the
place, forcing everyone, even the wardens, to attend ideology
classes and keep the place in ship shape. How sad, I thought, if
Jim Rock was missing North America's exuberant '80s, a decade
made for greedy scoundrels like him, and wasting away in a
lock-up with Maoists.
     I still have the tape player he gave me. It's battered now,
with gray duct-tape holding in the batteries. Sometimes I think
about his other Smedleys, and wonder what mementos they're left with.


Copyright 1996 Stephen Baker



add comment share:






©2017 Stephen Baker Media, All rights reserved.     Site by Infinet Design







Kirkus Reviews - https://www.kirkusreviews.com/book-reviews/stephen-baker/the-boost/

LibraryJournal - Library Journal

Booklist Reviews - David Pitt

Locus - Paul di Filippo

read more reviews



Prequel to The Boost: Dark Site
- December 3, 2014


The Boost: an excerpt
- April 15, 2014


My horrible Superbowl weekend, in perspective
- February 3, 2014


My coming novel: Boosting human cognition
- May 30, 2013


Why Nate Silver is never wrong
- November 8, 2012


The psychology behind bankers' hatred for Obama
- September 10, 2012


"Corporations are People": an op-ed
- August 16, 2011


Wall Street Journal excerpt: Final Jeopardy
- February 4, 2011


Why IBM's Watson is Smarter than Google
- January 9, 2011


Rethinking books
- October 3, 2010


The coming privacy boom
- August 17, 2010


The appeal of virtual
- May 18, 2010