Thursday, October 13, 2016
The year I fell for Alberta was the last one we would live on Blue Cedar Street. It was only a little street, narrow, no sidewalks, about a half-mile long. It dead-ended on an open field about a mile long and a quarter-mile wide that was an easement of some kind between the town limits and the railroad. My grandfather, who had once worked for the B&O Railway, referred to it as 'the right o' way'. So that's what we always called it in my family.
Blue Cedar wasn't a busy street at all. It had no cross streets, since the backyards of the opposite side to ours bordered on the Lincoln Consolidated Elementary School playground and on a big empty meadow. The ones on our side of the street bordered on some fields, scrub forest and swamp, all owned by a man called Botkist, who had sold my father our place and who planned eventually to drain the low areas and turn the whole thing into a cheap-housing development. But for now, our street was sort of residual, a little, perpendicular, upstart appendage to the long-established neighborhoods on the southern edge of town. It was a generally safe neighborhood for kids and once our parents considered us old enough, we all pretty much had the run of the whole street, taking each other's backyards as a kind of continuous playground that ran from one end of the street to the other on both sides. At our house "old enough" was eight, and that's how old I was that summer.
The only places strictly forbidden to us 'older kids' by our mothers were the swamp and the right o' way—the swamp because, as we were always reminded, "you can drown in six inches of water" (and also because there were snakes and quicksand and hornets' nests, among other dangers in that strange and eerie place that lived in a kind of permanent twilight), and the right o' way because it was a hangout for the rail bums who still hitchhiked on the B&O back then. So, of course, those were the places we reserved for our greatest adventures of all. Once a few of us even built a really great tree house in an old pinoak on the right o' way, but promptly abandoned it once we discovered unsavory evidence that a hobo had been sleeping in it.
We had moved there when I was five, but one late fall morning when the bathroom window swelled shut for the umpteenth time, unable to open it for his morning ablutions, Dad simply called up local realtor Harley Koenig and told him to put the house on the market. Dad had always hated the place and the neighborhood and couldn't, for the life of him, figure out what had possessed him to buy it in the first place. Possibly, however, the same kind of spur-of-the-moment impulse that led him to sell it—and to change jobs four times in six years.
But that summer, we still had no idea that we would be moving, and I fell in love—painfully, desperately—with Alberta. As I say, I was eight that summer. Alberta was thirty-one.
I loved Alberta from the first moment I saw her. I was fascinated by her willowy frame, her naturally curly, jet-black hair that already had a few dazzling strands of silver in it, her statue-like pallor and bright crimson bow of a mouth that contrasted so attractively with the quick, sharp black of her eyes. I was bewitched by her thin, strong hands with their slim restless fingers that ended in sculpted red nails that she regularly touched up and buffed to perfect crescent tips while she sat sipping a cool drink on her front porch. I was mesmerized by the large gold-loop earrings that dangled from the tender, pierced lobes of her ears, by the gold and pearl crucifix that she wore around her slender, tense neck, on a delicate thread of gold chain just long enough so that the cross lay lightly in the hollow of her throat, where, if I concentrated hard, I could see her heartbeat. I was hypnotized too by the almost wire-thin wedding band that hung so loose on her gaunt finger that I wondered why it didn't just slip right off. Sometimes she played with that little ring while we talked, slipping it up and down over her knuckle in between puffs on her ever-present cigarette. I loved to watch her smoke, a hand-to-mouth gesture, so elegant yet so anxious, almost starved she seemed for whatever it was that the smoke fed her. I was amazed at how the yellowed fingers, the hacking, mucousy cough and the nicotine stink of old Judge Kimble who lived across the alley from us could be so completely nauseating, while Alberta's clean and gentle pulls on her white-filtered Salems were utterly captivating. I thrilled to see how the smoke wafted from her nostrils and mouth whenever I climbed up onto her porch and she said, "Well, hi honey! How ya doin'? How's your mom?" Or how it burst from her tight-stretched lips in short, impatient blasts whenever she and her husband Cyrus were arguing about something.
Needless to say, I didn't like Cy much. He seemed to always be upsetting Alberta—whenever he was around, that is, which wasn't very often. He was the head bartender at the Nag's Head Bar & Grill. My father said Cy was more than a bartender, a kind of junior partner to the owner, Harmon Weiss, he said. Harmon was also Chairman of the Town Council and spent more time on his civic duties than at the bar. What that meant was that Cy worked some long hours. And when he wasn't working, he spent a lot of time with his pals from the Nag's Head, out squirrel, pheasant and rabbit-hunting in the fall, spin-fishing in the summer, ice-fishing in the winter and playing Merchant's League baseball in between.
Despite the fact that I always kind of hoped that Cy wouldn't come home ever, his absence seemed to make Alberta sad and upset and I hated to see her looking blue. I always knew what was bothering her, because she would say things like, "I was expecting Cy home two hours ago. I swear we'd both have been better off if he'd married Harmon Weiss." Imagining Cy and the paunchy, mustachioed Mr. Weiss as a married couple would send me into fits of giggling. And when I got tickled like that, Alberta would start laughing too, and I liked that a lot because her face was so beautiful when she laughed, like black-eyed sunshine, sort of.
Whenever my mother mentioned Alberta, like when she and her younger sister, my Aunt Janet, would sit at the kitchen table drinking coffee together, it was always, “poor Alberta”. From what I was able to gather, Alberta had been "the life of the party" when she was younger, and "the boys were always hot on her trail" back then. And Aunt Janet, who could always be counted on for a snide comment, would say, "From what I heard, she was never all that hard to catch.”
I didn't know exactly what they were talking about, but it always sounded derogatory and made me feel contempt for my aunt.
I once overhead my mother say that Alberta had married Cy when she was very young. "Couldn't have been more than seventeen," Mom said, "and Cy must have been a good twenty-nine or thirty."
Alberta had had a baby right away, a little boy, but he had died of polio when he was only seven. That had been years before, during the big polio epidemic, when I was just a baby myself. My mother said it was probably "a blessing in disguise, judging from the shape most of the surviving polio victims were in".
I wondered about that little boy. Wondered what Alberta would think if she’d overheard my mother say that. Wondered why kids died. Worried I might get sick and die. That should be something your parents could keep from happening, shouldn't it? I wondered how Alberta felt, not having been able to keep her little boy from dying.
Still, I could never quite imagine Alberta as somebody's mother. She was too slim and glamorous and gorgeous, too movie-star perfect to be worrying about diapers, or Gerber's baby food, or Carnation formula, or skinned knees and Merthiolate, or any of the other multiple, boring inanities of motherhood. I would have been content just to sit nearby and watch her all day. Just to see her pulse beating beneath that elegant crucifix, the delicate turn of her ankle beneath the strap of her sandal, the thin blue veins in the backs of her hands, the damp little curls that formed at the nape of her neck when she swept her hair up into a French roll on particularly hot, sultry days.
The flirtation began when I would ride my bike by her house on my way down Blue Cedar to my friend Kevin's. I would wave and holler, "Hi Alberta!" if she was out on the porch, which she often was in summer, like as if she got to feeling claustrophobic inside.
She would wave back and say, "Hi honey! Where ya rushin' off to?"
Sometimes I would see her again on my way back and when I waved, she would say, "You better get your little butt home, honey. Your mom must be worried about you."
Then one day when I was going by with nothing in particular to do, she said, "Hi honey. I just made some fresh lemonade. Want some?" And I went up and sat on her porch, just the two of us, she in a pretty cane chair that could have stood a coat of varnish, and I in the porch swing, where I rocked a little as I self-consciously sipped cold, sweet lemonade from a translucent-green plastic glass. Alberta seemed relaxed if a little sad. She drank her lemonade from a sweaty glass tumbler with a lot of ice and a bright green spearmint leaf in it. Her drink was a darker, tawnier hue than mine.
"What are you drinking?" I asked.
"A highball," she said.
"Something little boys can't have."
I flushed and must have scowled because she immediately changed gears and started asking me all of the usual questions: "How's your Mom? Your Dad still over at Superior Blade? Hey, how's that Aunt Janet of yours? Haven't seen her in ages. Real pretty Janet. You'll be in fourth grade next year, won't you honey? You're getting to be a big boy, aren't you?"
And I answered everything as politely and concisely as possible, a little shy in the actual presence of this beautiful woman that I had long admired from afar, or from behind my mother's skirt on the rare occasions when Alberta had come over for coffee and cake. So when she ran out of questions and I ran out of answers, we just sat there for a while in silence, with only the gentle squeak of the porch swing chain and the drone of a neighbor's lawn mower to break the silence.
"I'm gonna have some more!" she said suddenly and rather emphatically as she stood up. "How 'bout you, little man?" But I got the idea she really kind of wanted me to go and was just being polite. So I said, "No thanks. I better be going home." And after climbing down from the porch swing and handing her my empty glass, I said good-bye and left.
After that, however, I started dropping by every time I saw Alberta out on the porch, which was just about every day that summer, it seemed. And she would offer me lemonade or milk and Oreos and we would talk about whatever came up: how hot it had been, what new neighbor had moved in, when the county fair was going to begin, how my grandpa was a euchre partner of her father's, what pie was our favorite.
It eventually got so that if I told my mother that I was going to Alberta's, she would say, "Oh no you're not! You leave poor Alberta alone. You must be driving her nuts. Don't make a nuisance out of yourself." But Alberta always said I was welcome anytime. So sometimes I would tell Mom I was going to play at Kevin's, and I would even tell myself that I was, so I wouldn't feel like I was lying to my mother. But then I would sort of just naturally gravitate to Alberta's front porch.
Once when Alberta telephoned our house for some reason, I overheard my mother telling her not to encourage me because I was going to become a real pest. At that particular second I hated my mother for belittling me and making me sound like a bratty little kid. Alberta must have said that I was no trouble, because I heard Mom say, "Well maybe he isn't right now, but you'll play heck getting rid of him when he does get to be a pest, honey." Then my face burned with shame when I heard her add, "I think he's got a real crush on you."
For a couple of days after that, I avoided going by Alberta's house. How could I face her? But then Kevin called up and asked if I wanted to see the new Erector Set he had gotten for his birthday and on my way past Alberta's, I heard her sing out, "Hi honey! Just opened a package of Oreos. Want some?" So I knew right then that she didn't hate me for having a crush on her and I stopped for a while on her porch for a chat with Oreos and milk, while she sipped her usual lemonade highball.
"Hope I'm not being a pest," I said to my Redball Jet sneaker laces at the last second before I climbed down her steps to leave. In answer, Alberta sprang from her chair and rushed over to give me a hug and a kiss on the forehead. She said, "Oh honey, you could never be a pest. We're pals, okay? You're always welcome!"
But it was to be a long time before I stopped by again. For the next few days, I went by Alberta's house three or four times a day, hoping to see her out on the porch. But no such luck. Then, one day I heard Mom and Aunt Janet when they were having their mid-morning coffee at our kitchen table, saying, "…cut her wrists with a straight razor…" and "…just in time or she would have bled to death for sure…" and "…still in the psycho ward up at Saint Elizabeth's…" and "…poor Cy says it's emotional blackmail and he isn't putting up with any more of it—they haven't gotten along for years, you know."
"Poor Alberta," my mother sighed.
"Poor Alberta?" Aunt Janet snapped, "Poor Cy, the crap he's had to put up with from that bitch!"
"Janet, dear, aren't you getting awfully chummy with Cy?"
"Well, if it's any of your business, Sis, yes, I am. He deserves it, poor Cy. He deserves a break, deserves to have somebody listen to him for a change."
"Poor Cy nothing," I thought. "I hate him. I hate his guts! Alberta deserves better. She deserves somebody that'll really love her. She deserves me!"
It wasn't long after Cy moved into a room over the Nag's Head that Aunt Janet started going out with him regularly and publicly. He was estranged from his wife, she reasoned, and she was a divorcee, so what was the harm? Mom was a little upset about it at first. "What will poor Alberta think of you? And of me! Geez, Janet, try not to make a damned spectacle out of yourself, will you?" But eventually she lived with the idea. Cy and my Aunt Janet were an item. I loathed them both for it. But Mom said I could either be civil to my aunt or be grounded. It was up to me.
Summer was almost over, well into August, when Alberta finally came home. It embarrassed me that my aunt was gallivanting around in Cy's car with him while Alberta was still in the psychiatric ward at Saint Elizabeth's, but I was glad he was out of her life. I saw the ambulance go by our house and stop at hers the day she got back. I wanted to leave home, go live there, tell Alberta not to worry, that I would stay with her for as long as she needed, stay with her forever. As I ran a monolog over in my head, I saw myself as Glenn Ford or Gary Cooper, someone she would find credible and whose presence would make her feel safe and loved. But when I looked down at my skinned, grit-stained knees and worn Redball tennis shoes, I knew the truth—that I was just a little boy—and I longed to grow up overnight, or for Alberta to mark time and wait for me to catch up. I loved her almost more than I could stand.
So I did all I could do: pedaled Blue Cedar Street from end to end, over and over, in hopes of seeing her out on her front porch, trying but failing to work up the courage to march up there and ring her bell.
She didn't come out on the first day. Nor did she come out on the second. It wasn't until evening of the third day—a particularly muggy, sultry day—that she finally appeared. I had been patrolling the street on my bike all day long and had a feeling that today might be the day. When my mother called me in for supper, I shoveled down my food as quickly as possible and immediately asked to be excused.
"Where are you off to again so soon?" my mother asked, with a hint of suspicion in her voice.
“Kevin’s,” I said quickly.
"Okay, but just don't stay out until it's too dark," my mother called after me. "Night's coming earlier now and the cars can't see you in the twilight. Besides, it feels like a storm’s coming."
Mosquitoes were thick in the early evening air and not a leaf was stirring. There was a livid tint to the falling sun as columns of nimbus clouds crept swiftly up on the horizon and billowed there. Thunder rolled somewhere to the south, so distant that you had to be very still and listen closely to identify the sound. But a neighbor's dog knew it was coming and barked at the thunder and then howled, a sad, frightened howl that filled me with something like sorrow.
Alberta looked so gaunt and inconsistent and immobile sitting there in her cane chair on the porch the first time I coasted by on my bike that I wasn't even sure that I had actually seen her, almost as if she might have been a figment of my imagination. But when I did a roundabout at the right o' way and headed back, cruising slow, I saw that it was indeed Alberta. From the street, in the fading light of a stormy evening, I couldn't tell whether her eyes were open or closed. But I braked my bike at the edge of her lawn and stood astride the crossbar looking her way, until she finally righted her head and weakly raised a hand in greeting.
She was wearing a long-sleeved shirt, a flannel one, despite the heat, but I still caught a glimpse of the immaculate white cuff of bandage around her wrist. Her voice was weak and froggy, hard to hear at this range, when she said, "Hiya honey. Long time no see."
It was enough invitation for my eager heart. I leaned my bike against the old sugar maple in her front yard and made my way up the concrete steps to her front porch. Her eyes were puffy and bloodshot, her mouth slack and pale, her skin as white as erasable bond. Even her usually exquisite curly black hair seemed to droop sadly.
"Come give us a hug, honey," she said in a hoarse whisper. "I sure need one."
I couldn't think of a thing I would rather do. I breathed in the smoke-and-soapy fragrance of her as I put my arms around her neck and pressed my cheek to hers.
"Still buddies?" she whispered, and I nodded my head, nestled against her face, without breaking our hug. In fact, I hugged her tighter still in response.
Then I released her and when I glanced at her from where I stood, rather woodenly, beside her chair, I saw her brush tears from her cheeks with the backs of her hands, and once again I saw too the white cuffs of her bandages.
For the longest time, I just stood there beside and a little to the rear of her chair, with one hand straight down to my side, but with the other gently stroking her dark, curly hair, the way one might stroke a beloved cat—calmly, unhurriedly, repeatedly in a soothing, tranquil fashion. She just closed her eyes and sat there, still as could be, sniffling occasionally and brushing her cheeks with the backs of her hands.
We went on like that, the two of us, for the longest time, a magic moment, an interval of great intimacy between two people, age no longer an issue.
Then I said, "Don't worry, Alberta. It'll be okay."
She reached up, took my hand and held it with both of hers against her heart.
"I know it will, honey," she said, and then added, "as long as I've got you around, anyway."
We stayed like that for a while, she sitting, I standing, listening to the approaching thunder, knowing the storm was coming but not caring.
She said, "Honey, won't your Mom be worried about you?"
And just then, in the distance, over the gathering storm, we could hear my mother calling my name. "You're a real sweetie, honey," Alberta said, "but you'd better scoot. I don't want you to get into trouble."
On an impulse, I leaned over and kissed her on the forehead, a peck, a child's kiss. But then too, a kiss like one a father might place on his little daughter's fevered brow.
"I'll be back tomorrow," I promised, the kiss burning on my lips.
"I know you will." She patted my hand and let it go.
The wind was kicking up dust devils and the sky was turning black fast. Up the street my mother was still shouting my name, straining hard to be heard above the wind and thunder.
"Coooomiiiiing!" I shouted back.
A big cold drop of rain splatted on top of my head. Another one thumped me on the chest, narrowly missing my yearning heart. I turned toward the porch, where Alberta was still sitting in her cane chair—but sitting forward now, on the edge, as if she were contemplating getting up, going in, moving on.
I ran over to my bike and put up the kickstand. A sheet of rain was sweeping the fields over by the elementary school and heading our way fast.
On a whim I shouted over the wind, “Alberta!”
"Wait for me!"
"What?" she asked, cupping her ear.
"I said, wait for me!" I cried at the top of my lungs.
Alberta smiled from the porch and brushed her cheeks with the back of one hand. With the other, she waved as I rode off toward home and I heard her call, "I will, honey! I'll try!"
Tuesday, September 27, 2016
This is the first chapter of my as yet unpublished novel about the bloody clash between left and right-wing factions in Argentina in the 1970s as seen through the eyes of a young American drawn into the fray by his own ideals and a young woman's love. As this scene opens, after nearly 18 years of exile, iconic leader General Juan Domingo Perón is returning to Argentina for one last term as president, defying the military and on a wave of popular support that ranges from far left to far right. The comeback will be short-lived. He will die the following year, plunging the two factions into a veritable civil war that will eventually spark a military coup. And Argentina will be changed forever. But the writing is already on the wall even before the elderly general's plane lands in Buenos Aires.
"For a Peronist, there is nothing quite as good as another Peronist."
—Lt. General Juan Domingo Perón—
June 20, 1973 — Ezeiza International Airport, Argentina
"Fireworks," he thought when he first heard it. It was like the crackling sputter of a string of lady-fingers, followed by several deeper, duller pops, like M-80s going off.
He pictured a lesson in one of the texts they had used in Mrs. Garth's high school Spanish class—a lesson about celebrations which showed pictures of Roman candles bursting in the night-time sky over Mexico. His mind scanned the text for the Spanish term for fireworks, then he turned to Beto and tried it on him. "Fuegos artificiales," he heard himself say.
"¡Ojalá!" Beto muttered, which, Paul had recently learned, meant, "Let's hope so! Stick close to me, and if I say move, we move, okay?"
|Juan Domingo Perón|
"Sure," he said, but he thought ojalá was a funny thing for Beto to say. Paul would have known the sound of fireworks anywhere, and this was, after all, a big celebration, even if it wasn’t Mexico. Of course, the sound was, he had to admit, somewhat indistinct, and distant from the spot where they milled with the flow, shoulder deep in a heavy sea of Argentine humanity that had turned out to meet General Perón's plane, after his seventeen years in exile. The remoteness of the sound reminded Paul of the distance of his high school days and of everything familiar to him back then, including M-80s and lady-fingers. He didn't feel sad about being so far away, just strange somehow—out of his element, on foreign turf. Even though he was with his new and trusted friend, Beto, he felt a little uneasy in the swelling crowd. There was a tension, a mob-like fearsomeness in the air, despite the festive occasion, as if an ulterior motive underlay the festival-like patina.
The crowd was surging, like a single-minded, seething mass, toward the staging area for the welcome, where there was a reviewing stand from which Perón was to speak on arrival in Buenos Aires, and a platform below it, where the National Symphony Orchestra was set up to welcome the aging general with some musical selections, including the National Anthem. Paul didn't understand a great deal about what was going on in the crowd, except that on arrival he and Beto had hung around with groups made up mostly of what his friend had described as student organizations and intellectuals. As the growing crowd organized itself into a kind of loose honeycomb of political constituencies, a crossfire of collective chants had broken out between one section and another. The chanting had been spirited and aggressive and it was clear that the chants of some groups stirred up something more provocative than shared enthusiasm in others. The increasingly hostile tone reminded Paul of the taunting blood-and-guts bravado of the high-school and college football cheers that he had always despised, that false togetherness, that kind of you're-with-us-or-dead undertone that brewed beneath the surface of every Ohio State-Michigan game, for instance, when bullies who had never made anything but the beer-drinking team did the rounds of the bars trying to pick fights with the Michiganders in Columbus for the big game. But he found that kind of bloody-mindedness odd at a celebration where everyone present was theoretically Peronist.
He had asked Beto about this early on, right after a scuffle broke out between two rival cells and fists flew for a few minutes until calmer heads moved in to separate the scrapping opponents. Beto had explained that, to begin with, not everybody there was a Peronist. He, for instance, wasn't. He was a socialist. Many people, like him, were sticking close to the events from here on out to make sure that everybody that deserved it got a fair shake in the new democracy. People like him didn't want to see this turn out like Perón's old government that had gone from popular uprising to incipient democracy to iron-fisted dictatorship. But even among the majority here, who were indeed Peronists, one Peronist wasn't the same as the next. It was a very broad movement and there was much rivalry between the leftist and rightist extremes. The problem, said Beto, was that the old guard rightists didn't want to understand that Peronism was growing with the times. It could no longer be content to be a nationalist movement. It must seek to join the inexorable rise of international socialism, the development of a new world economic and social order, of greater equality in the distribution of the world's wealth. Perón understood this, Beto had assured Paul. It was obvious from his discourse from exile in Spain. He was up on what was happening. He hadn't wasted those seventeen years of exile. He knew what was coming off worldwide. The dinosaurs thought it was the same old Fascist Perón of the forties who was coming back. But no, this was 1973 and el Pocho was nobody's fool. He knew that without the nation's youth, without the pressure the students and intellectuals, and indeed the guerrillas had brought to bear on the milicos, Perón would have died in exile. Hadn't it been Perón himself who had preached la tercera posición, the third position, before anyone had ever thought of Third World unity and the rise of a new power to be reckoned with? No, the Fascist dinosaurs of old guard Peronism were finished. The news just hadn't been broken to them yet, but Beto figured that would be one of the first things Perón would do on his arrival. The movement needed new blood and Perón knew it. Youth and social justice would surely take its rightful place in Peronism.
Now, once again there was a volley of lady-finger crackle and several M-80-like pops, louder, much closer this time. And although it was a comfort to associate the sound with fireworks and joyful celebration, Paul was no longer as sure of what he was hearing as he had been before. The smell of gun-powder floated above their heads and mixed with the pall of smoke from the chorizo vendors' makeshift grills. Paul was just turning to Beto, in a gesture akin to whistling in the dark, to tell him about his wild days back in Ohio, when he heard Beto mutter, "¡La mierda, che! ¡Son tiros!”
"What's the matter?" he asked, noting Beto's pallor, but not catching what he'd said.
“Don't you hear it, amigo?"
"Fireworks, ¡las pelotas! Sounds more like shots to me."
"Shots?" said Paul only semi-credulously. He laughed a weak nervous laugh, not wanting to be caught out by a porteño-style joke, and certainly not wanting to believe the sound was gunfire. But Beto didn't laugh at him or with him, and now there were six pops in rapid succession very near them. Others around them screamed, cursed and jostled, trying to disband or at least to put some distance between themselves and the sound. A nearby chorizo vendor flattened his back to a big eucalyptus tree, made a rapid sign of the cross and touched his thumb and forefinger to his dry lips.
"Shots?" Paul heard himself say again, but this time there was a genuine and urgent query in his voice. A woman with a baby elbowed past him and got under the tree with the vendor, where the greasy criollo sausages continued to sizzle and hiss festively over the coals on a bedspring-grill, oblivious to the impending bedlam.
Beto grabbed Paul's arm and pulled him toward another small grove of trees a little further on. But it was impossible to move fast in the crush of the crowd and everyone was suddenly scrambling, trying to remain on a solid footing for fear of falling and getting trampled if panic broke out. And it did, when an older man just a few people away from them careened crazily into the arms of two adolescents behind him, shouting, "¡Ay, la puta madre! ¡Me han baleado!"
People screamed and swore and started to push, wanting to break and run in any direction but where they were. Paul hesitated as he saw the two youths kneel with the wounded man, whose white shirt and beige coat were fast turning scarlet. The man's eyes rolling back in his head, as the boys tried to ward off the careless feet of a mob in flight. "¡Cuidado! ¡Cuidado!” the boys cried, "We've got a wounded man here!"
In the mad rush that followed, the crowd surged mindlessly toward the action, rather than away from it. Paul and Beto were in sight of the blue and white-festooned stage and VIP reviewing stand that had been rigged up for the caudillo's arrival. Paul looked that way just in time to hear screams and see the musicians of the National Symphony Orchestra cradle their instruments and lurch forward out of their seats onto the wooden floor of the makeshift stage, as close-cropped men wearing suits, overcoats and sunglasses a tier above them produced machine pistols and 9mm semi-automatics and began to exchange fire with unseen armed opposition below, in the core of the violently jostling mass.
"Come on, gringo, come on!" shouted Beto over the tumult, jerking him sideways against the main flow of the mob. "We've got to get out of here. Move!"
Suddenly, the initial shock drained from Paul's head and survival took over. He moved in unison with Beto, placing himself in his friend's hands, side-stepping against the human wave, pushing, heaving, surging leftward, away from the staging area for Perón's welcome. Still Beto shouted, "Come on! Come on! Move! ¡Movéte, boludo, dále!"
Around them, some men's hands disappeared inside their winter coats and reappeared armed with pistols. A swarthy young man with a straggly beard, not an arm's length from Paul, hollered, "¿Donde están los hijos de puta? Do you see the sons of bitches?"
"Up there! On the right, Negro!" another man shouted, and Paul saw the young man take aim with a large-bore, long-barreled revolver." The gun exploded so near, that Paul felt the heat and his ears rang as if they'd been boxed. Beto yanked him leftward, as four more loud blasts, just ahead and to the right, answered the young man's shot.
Before he could secure a foothold, Paul felt himself being jerked violently to the ground on top of Beto, as if the two of them had been lassoed with a millstone. Seeing the kicking, digging feet all around him, Paul forced his body to spring upward and expected to see Beto jack-in-the-box up in front of him. But Beto didn't get up. Paul reached down through the crush of swirling bodies, as if shoving a hand into a deep gunny-sack of uncertain contents, and latched onto his friend's coat collar. He tried to pull Beto to his feet, but it was as if Beto's clothes had been poured full of inert sand, a deadweight too heavy to lift one-handed. Paul panicked and began to push and shove, at first as if against a sandbag levy. But then he started shouting, "Hey! Hey! Come on you bastards! Open it up! Open it up, here!" He shouted it in English, momentarily unable to think of a single word in Spanish. To his amazement, the people around him, surprised by the sound of a foreign tongue, made minimal space for him to kneel down in aid of his fallen friend.
But when he rolled Beto over, it was obvious it was too late for aid of any kind. Beto's right eye was staring sightlessly back at Paul. The left was dangling from the socket by a bluish-red mass of nerves and veins, like a macabre, novelty-store gag. The whole left side of the face was bathed in a thick sauce of blood and brain-matter.
"Beto?" he said in an oddly quiet voice, although he knew already that his friend was dead. In a stroke of efficiency, he pressed an ear to the blood-soaked chest of the corpse, listening for a heartbeat. Nothing. "Beto?" he said again and pressed two fingers to the gore-sullied throat. No response. Then he stood and looked dizzily around himself. Everyone was pushing and shoving, trying desperately to move out, as a Fourth-of-July barrage of gunfire ripped through the crowd. Things seemed somehow muffled and unreal. Only a terrified young woman, perhaps eighteen or twenty years old, was looking his way, staring first at him and then down at Beto's cadaver.
As Paul stood half-dazed, wondering what to do—an idiotically organized side of him pondering was how he would get Beto's body out of there, while another more practical part of him frantically asked how he himself would escape alive—he turned again toward the staging area. He was thinking that, perhaps, if Perón's plane indeed landed, things would calm down. But then, his practical side asked him, why would Perón's plane land in the midst of utter chaos? The tower must surely have radioed the plane by now to tell the pilot what was happening here. But then, if Perón was the iron-man they said he was, maybe he'd chance it. (Perón wasn't, of course, and didn't. He was flown to the safety of a nearby Air Force base and tried publicly to pretend the whole thing hadn't happened, the abortive welcome being a personal let-down for him, after so many years and so many miles).
High on the reviewing stand over the crowd, a half-dozen men—three in jackets and jeans, three in coats and ties—appeared to be calling orders down to comrades in the disbanding crowd. They pointed and gesticulated, letting the others know where the opposition shooters were. Their leader was a pear-shaped man in a tweed jacket, button-up sweater-vest, white shirt and tie. He was bald and wore glasses and a carefully trimmed mustache. Paul was thinking that if the man weren't now waving a semi-automatic carbine over his head to attract the attention of one of his men below, he would look very much like Mr. Jackson, the chief teller at the Feningsville National Bank. The thought struck him oddly funny and he started to laugh and then he began to sob. Mr. Jackson's look-alike aimed his carbine into the crowd below and fired four shots in rapid succession, lowered the weapon enough to assess the damage he had cause and then squeezed off four more rounds.
And then the crowd was tearing open like a thick sheet of wet paper, pealing into two flanks, as a score of fast-moving men in civilian clothes, carrying pump-action shotguns at port arms, drove a human wedge down through the middle, shouting as they went, "Get out of the way, carajo! Move! Let us through!" And as the crowd closed again like quicksand behind them, there was a sudden storm of small arms fire and then the deafening answer of twenty shotguns opening up against all resistance.
The terrifyingly explosive din scattered the crowd around Paul like shattered safety glass, and he suddenly found himself and the frightened young woman to whom he had spoken standing alone together in a clearing, under a blue haze of gunsmoke and barbecue. On an impulse, he grabbed her hand and tried to cut and run in the direction he intuitively sensed was safest. But she panicked and tore her hand from his.
"This way!" he yelled for no reason he was sure of, as if he had smelled danger in the other direction. But she paid him no heed. She had gone no more than ten terrified, reckless paces when he saw her pitch forward, face-first onto the ground, preceded by a pinkish shower of bone and blood that spewed onto the grass.
Paul felt his body heave involuntarily and his vomit blew onto the ground, his shoes and his pants legs. But the next wrenching spasm was cut short by a rocketing surge of adrenaline as a slug whistled past his left ear, and another tore bark off a tree to his right. He dived instinctively to the ground and low-crawled for the cover of a nearby official car. But he found the spot crammed with other cowering mortals. And now, he was back on his feet and running like he never had before—not even when he set the high school long-distance track record, what seemed like centuries and a million miles ago. And his feet didn't stop pounding the ground until he had reached a wooded area, somewhat removed from the main crowd and the epicenter of the fighting.
Though not the center of action, however, the woods was far from peaceful. He had been lucky, he could now see, to enter the tree-line from the far end of the dense grove of eucalyptus, away from the section that directly faced the reviewing stand and stage several hundred feet away. Now, as he embraced a tree and gulped air into his burning lungs, he could see clearly that had he run toward the middle of the woods, he would surely have been killed in a hail of crossfire. He was now looking that way from the cover of the large eucalyptus under which he was catching his breath. In that area, not fifty yards from him, there was an armed man behind nearly every tree, some with revolvers and pistols, others with shotguns and what looked like .22 carbines, a privileged few with machineguns. It was a disorganized array of mostly "domestic" weaponry, nothing at all like the neat Hollywood divisions of opposing bands, one group armed with brand new U.S.-made assault rifles, the other with brand new Soviet ones. But, he was thinking in his muddled, dream-like half-shock, that there was indeed something movie-like in all this. He watched the men in TV-learned poses, parapeted behind trees, returning fire from the staging area, probably—and fortunately, for the death toll—somewhat ineffectually out of range, given the civilian nature of most of the arms. Only the men with rifles on either side of the fighting were occasionally creating casualties.
What was obvious was that distribution was hardly even. The close-cropped men near the reviewing stand definitely had the better hardware and were whittling down the odds fast. Even as Paul watched the shooters behind the trees, a bullet slammed into one of them with such impact that it knocked him flat on his back. He immediately began to scream and curse that he was hit. Another man moved to his aid, but when he saw that it was only a shoulder wound he dragged his downed comrade to cover and returned to the firing line. Half-dazed, Paul leaned against the tree, slowly recovering his breath and watched the shooters in a kind of fascination, saw how their right shoulders bucked with each shot, followed the shockwaves through the backs of their denim, tweed and wool jackets, saw how they turned, backs to their cover, white-faced and a little queasy looking, as they dug for ammo in their pockets and shakily reloaded their overheated weapons. These were mostly young men, his age or a little older, a few in their thirties. Paul was thinking: "This is real! This isn't a nightmare! This isn't some newsreel of Beirut or Nam! Beto's dead and these guns are real!" And again the adrenaline filled his veins and he once more lit out in a mad dash through the trees.
It was the wounded man lying on the ground who saw Paul break from behind the tree.
"Hey! Hey! Who's that? Hey, get that sonuvabitch!" the man yelled.
Paul didn't turn back but he could hear more shouts behind him and then there were shots and bark skittered off a tree a few yards ahead of him. He zigzagged, running full out, limbs and brush snatching at him like enemy claws as he picked his way, full-speed, as best he could, through the wooded area.
A blow like a line-drive across the bridge of his nose dropped him on his back. He rolled, moaned and tried to sit up but fell back, blood gushing down his throat from his broken nose so that he had to swallow fast to keep from choking. He tried to roll to one side so that he could spit out the blood and breathe through his mouth, but a heavily shod foot kicked him over onto his back again. Then someone dropped down astride his chest, knees pinioning his biceps painfully to the ground. He heard the voices of others nearing fast from where he had fled—not many, two or three at most, but certainly armed and surely more than he could handle. The one who had hit him must have been up ahead, alerted to the situation and waiting in ambush behind a tree. He felt cold metal against his forehead, felt and heard the click and whir of a revolver being cocked and thought, "I'm finished." He heard the footfalls of the others as they arrived. Three of them, he figured. He braced himself for the blows he imagined were coming, but then, the man on his chest eased forward the hammer of his revolver and said, "Falsa alarma, muchachos."
"What do you mean, false alarm, Negro?"
"I think he's with us."
Paul opened his eyes and, through the tears of pain from his smashed nose, recognized the swarthy young man with the straggly beard and the long-barreled revolver who had been shooting from the crowd right next to him just before the barrage from the reviewing stand killed Beto.
"That's right, isn't it?" he said, sitting more or less comfortably astride Paul's chest, the barrel of his revolver now pointing at the sky. "You're one of ours. I saw you with Beto."
"Beto?" Paul said dumbly. "You know Beto?"
The man smiled at the others, who stood one at either of Paul's shoulders and out of his range of vision, except for their feet and the cuffs of their pants. The three of them laughed aloud.
"Yes, said the one sitting on his chest, "we know Beto."
"Beto's dead," Paul gurgled through blood and mucus and then a sob tore through his body and he began to weep, lying there on his back, the blood still running down his throat, but slower now, tears squeezing out the corners of his eyes and draining off into his hair.
The man on his chest grabbed Paul's chin firmly and spoke imperatively into his face in deliberate, foreign-accented English. "Look at me. Look at me, rubio!" Paul opened his eyes and looked the man on his chest directly in the face. "You are sure Beto is dead?" The young man's face was serious, hard and full of sorrow at the news. Paul nodded and began to cry again, his mouth wide open. but with nearly no sound coming out, except for an airy, wheezing moan."
"It was the hijo de puta with the carbina," the Negro said.
"El pelado, the bald one," Paul heard himself say accusingly through his tears.
"Yes," said the man against whose leg his pounding head was resting, the man the others called Negro. "Yes, that's the one. You know him?"
"No. I saw him. Up there on the reviewing stand. I saw him shooting into the crowd with his carbine."
"What you are doing here, yankee?" the Negro asked.
"I just came with Beto. I room with him."
"Vino a acompañarlo a Beto," the Negro explained in Spanish for the others' benefit. "He has nothing to do with anything."
"Un pobre boludo," one of the others said, referring to Paul as something akin to "just some poor asshole".
"I'm getting this one into an ambulance," said the Negro, "then I'm going to go kill that pelado hijo de puta with the carabina."
Paul moaned as the Negro eased off of his biceps and stood up. Then Paul himself sat up. Pain throbbed through his face, and his nose felt enormous and all-important. He wondered vaguely how boxers stood having their noses broken again and again, how they could continue to fight after such a painful blow. The blood began to flow again and he had to fight an urge to sneeze.
"I lament the breaking of your nose," said the Negro in English and with no real pity in his voice, presenting an apology that was little more than simple battlefield etiquette. This, he appeared to figure, was a fortune of war, after all. "A friend of Beto's is a friend of us," he offered, and then with a note of irony, he added, "Even a yankee imperialista. Keep your head back until the bleeding is stop."
"Where'd you learn your English?" Paul asked, seeking to calm his own nerves with a touch of sociability. But it came out sounding a touch sarcastic.
"Why? Because is so good or because is so bad?" the Negro said with a suddenly coy grin that made Paul feel less frightened of him for the first time.
"Neither. Just wondered."
"I live sometimes in the USA," he said it as a word, like oo-sah, instead of ewe-es-ay. "Also sometimes in England. Come, gringo, we put you in an ambulancia."
"I don't need an ambulance."
"Is the only way you get out of here okay."
There were renewed shouts from back the way they had come and the shooting was more sporadic and closer by, as if the men in the woods were being pushed back by their more heavily armed opponents located in the staging area.
"We must go pronto," said the Negro, and to the others he said, "¡Vayan, ya! They need help back there."
Paul was seeing the other three for the first time, now that he was on his feet. When he had been on the ground they had loomed large and frightening over him. When he had been running with them in hot pursuit, they had seemed like terrifying, invincible monsters, snapping at his heels. Now he noticed that they were barely beyond boyhood—youngsters, students with long greasy locks and incipient beards, college kids in unwashed jeans and denim jackets. One of them, with olive skin, dark, burning eyes and a sparse black beard, wore a jauntily placed beret to enhance a Che Guevara image. The others had to be content with who they were. They turned, on the Negro's orders, not without a touch of fear and reluctance in their eyes, and headed cautiously back in the direction of the shooting, two of them with .22 revolvers in their fists, the Che with a .22 carbine—a Marlin, like the one Paul's grandfather had given him on his fourteenth birthday.
"Come," the Negro ordered as he stuck his revolver in the waistband of his jeans, under his olive drab field jacket. "We go."
The Negro had the lay of the land, and they moved quickly away from the epi-center of the violence that raged on behind them. They made rapid headway through woods and fields onto a road beyond the airport. It was crammed with cars, buses and ambulances, caught in a snarl, the bigger vehicles unable to advance or retreat.
The ambulances that had managed to load up wounded from the staging area were making their way out of the airport complex off-road through the fields. Police units had sealed off the area to other vehicles. Now that he thought about it, Paul was surprised not to have seen more uniformed police inside after the shooting broke out, almost as if they had decided to sit back and let the two sides shoot it out. The Negro pulled him into the path of one of the retreating ambulances and waved it down. The medic on the passenger side rolled down his window. One of the rear windows had been pierced by a small-caliber bullet and two bigger slugs had torn holes in the right front fender of what Paul now saw was a Ford pick-up converted into an ambulance. Medic and driver were visibly shaken and short-tempered.
"What the hell do you want?" the one on the passenger's side snapped.
"What does it look like," the Negro snapped back. "I've got a wounded compañero here."
"No walking wounded," said the medic brusquely.
"He's a foreigner, a yankee" the Negro said, turning on the charm and smiling. "I want to get him out of here before he gets hurt worse."
"I've got critically wounded in the back and you're holding me up," the medic said and started to roll up his window, but the Negro was quicker. Suddenly the long-barreled revolver came into view and was against the medic's temple before he could react. The man immediately put his hands on the dash and began to tremble, saying, "Please don't shoot! ¡Tranquilo! ¡tranquilo!"
"I am tranquilo." the Negro said softly, "and that is how I want you to be, Sr. Doctor. " He flipped open a credential of some sort with his other hand, flashed it through the window and immediately stuck it back into his jacket pocket. "I am with police intelligence and this man is an undercover agent of the United States embassy. Now, Doctor, you can join the wounded in the back and let your driver take this man back to town or you can stay here with me under arrest. Which do you choose?"
"It's all right, agente," the medic said tremulously. "I didn't know who you were. Está bien. We will take the señor with us. There is room up front with us."
The Negro lowered his gun but didn't put it away. He glanced around to see if anyone had noticed what was going on. Apparently no one had, amidst the confusion. He kept the gun out of sight, now, down to his side. Even if the medic didn't believe the police story, he probably would ask no questions now. He was too frightened and would prefer to believe rather than question the Negro's word. The Negro stepped back and let the medic get out of the cab of the ambulance. Paul climbed in the middle, and the doctor climbed back in after him.
"You are muy amable, Doctor," said the Negro again with a smile. He touched his imaginary cap in a kind of salute and waved the ambulance on. He had already turned and was making his way back in the direction of the fighting when the ambulance, with Paul on board, pulled away.
The three of them, driver, doctor and Paul, sat stiffly, staring straight ahead until the ambulance was out of the fields and up on the highway headed into Buenos Aires. They had the siren blaring, and no one stopped them, the cops waving them through, even making way for them where they could. Once they were out of the immediate area of the airport and well on their way into Buenos Aires, the medic turned sideways in his seat, with a whistling sigh of relief, his back against the door, and faced Paul and the driver.
"This," he said past Paul's swollen profile to the driver, "is my last run. Let them kill each other. I'm not going back." The other man, frozen to the wheel, nodded stiffly, without a word. Then, almost tenderly, the doctor said to Paul, "Quiere que le examine la nariz, señor.”
"¿Como?" said Paul still dazed and too exhausted to think much in Spanish.
"The nose," said the doctor in English, demonstratively touching his own. "You want I look?"
Paul shrugged. The medic reached across and placed thumb and forefinger on the bridge of Paul's tender nose. Paul hissed through his teeth and sat stiffly as the medic gently felt the break. Then suddenly the medic's hand snapped, and Paul heard a crunch and saw stars.
"Shit!" he cried, feeling the blood flow freely again.
"More good now than when is already, how you say, set," said the medic softly.
They rode in relative silence. Only once did the medic make reference to the Negro's introduction, saying "You are with the North American embassy?" to which Paul shrugged and said, "Sort of."
He was thinking about having left his dead friend behind. Beto had never mentioned family. Paul didn't even know whom to notify. But there must be something he should be doing about it. He thought better of telling the doctor anything, however. If there was one thing he didn't want, it was to be held for questioning. And there was nothing to keep the medic from telling the police whatever Paul told him. In a way, it was Beto who told him not to say anymore. He checked himself because he remembered how twice when they were walking down the street together, they had passed policemen who were also on foot and once past, Beto had, on both occasions, hawkered up and spat on the street and then sworn under his breath, "Cana hijo de puta, sonuvabitch cop." The second time it happened, Paul said, "You know that guy?”
"What guy?" Beto had said.
Beto had burst into laughter. "Here," he said, "we call them cana. We also call them hijos de puta, because they are all sons-of-bitches.
"Well there must be some good cops," Paul had said with a laugh.
Beto had stopped walking and firmly grasped Paul's forearm. Speaking very seriously and looking Paul in the eye, he had said, "You remember this and you live longer: Here in Argentina, the only good cana is a dead cana. This is not Norteamérica, where we believe this about the policeman is your friend and all that. Here you go to the police station to ask for help and you end up in a cell. They arrest you for spitting on the street and you end up dead. You go into the comisaria because you have a traffic accident and maybe you never come out. Here the police is, as you North Americans say, bad news. "
No, he would say nothing to any stranger until somebody closer to him helped him decide what to do. But who?
They were doing maybe 90 miles and hour, with the siren screaming, fast approaching the Federal Capital. At one point the medic looked over the seat into the rear of the ambulance at the wounded man they were carrying. Paul looked too. The face of the grizzled older man strapped on the stretcher was grayish tallow. The eyes were open and staring sightlessly, the mouth lolling agape. Paul wasn't sure, but he thought it was the man who had been wounded near him when the shooting first started, the one that the adolescent boys had been trying to protect from the disbanding crowd.
"Excuse me," the doctor said, as he climbed over and around Paul into the rear of the ambulance. He checked the man's vital signs, which were apparently no longer vital and called in Spanish to the driver, "Che, Luis, you can slow down now, and don't bother turning off at the hospital exit. This one goes to the morgue."