The English Lesson

by Frank Thomas Smith




            The reason I accepted Larry Lawrence's offer to teach English to the Chief of Police was that I was broke. After a period of hyperinflation that toppled an honest but hopelessly inept President, the new one (not so honest but equally inept) appointed Harvard educated Carmine Caramelo to the economy portfolio. The first thing he did was peg the peso to the U.S. dollar at a one-to-one exchange rate -- for eternity according to him -- thus confounding my plans for a comfortable early retirement in a country where the dollar had been king since General San Martín crossed the Andes and the women were as lovely as a September morn. Hyper-inflation was licked, the dollar dethroned and, despite the Economy Minister's promises to the contrary, everyone except the rich woke up poorer, especially the poor. My purchasing power was reduced to roughly that of a peon's. No one, however, dared question the fixed exchange rate for fear of being thought unpatriotic and in favor of inflation.
          I became a management consultant, which went quite well until my clients went bankrupt. When they asked me why I gave them the usual Total Quality Control routine and thought, it's the exchange rate, stupid. Then I furiously wrote short stories--all rejected, a novel--unfinished. Finally English lessons, which didn't go badly because the new market economy had placed American English on the throne once occupied by the dollar and I presented myself as a native speaker with executive experience. But it was hard work involving long hours and low pay. When Larry called I was seriously considering going back to the States because of the fifty- percent lower cost of living.
          “I wouldn't entrust this job to anyone but you, Smithy," Larry said.
          "What job?"
          "I'll answer all your questions after mentioning one important detail about this project. Well, don't you want to hear it?"
          Larry Lawrence was a pillar of the English community (most of whom were fourth generation natives), a deacon of the Anglican Church and a ham actor with the Suburban Players. Fortunately for him he also owned an English Language Training school, "Toil and Trouble", that he'd inherited from his father. I'd worked as an English teacher in his school at slave wages, learned the ropes the hard way and finally cut myself free to sink on my own.
          "Listen carefully, old boy. Are you exactly swimming in pounds, greenbacks, pesos or any other currency?"
          "As you well know, no."
          "Right. Now hear this. Are you listening?"
          “I’ve got a contract in my pocket to teach the entire federal police force English."
          It took a while for this startling news to sink in. When it did I laughed and said, succinctly, "You're nuts, Larry."
          "You should be as nuts as me. I'm serious, Smithy, this is a million dollar deal. It's in my pocket."
          "Why do they want to learn English?"
          “They don’t.”
           "They don't?"
          "But el presidente-- of the bloody country -- wants them to learn it so they can better cooperate with Interpol, the CIA, FDA, FBI, M15, 16 or whatever it is, Mossad, et-cetera. You've heard of them, I assume."
          "The President doesn't speak English himself."
          "Not yet."
          "Larry, you're not--"
          "Like hell I'm not."
          "Do you seriously think he's up to learning English?"
          "Something he'll learn with my new Polly the Parrot method, according to which you learn to talk but not necessarily to understand. Get it?"
          "What good is that?"
          "He doesn't listen anyway, so what's the dif?"
          "Stop interrupting. I haven't told you the detail yet."
          "That's better. You get paid two thousand dollars a week."
          "A what?"
          "You heard right, you until-this-moment scruffy gringo -- two-thousand dollars, not pesos, although they're just as good now."
          "What do I have to do?" I said, feeling trapped by greed.
          "You're interrupting again. First of all, are you interested?"
          "Regardless of what I have to do?"
          "If you must put it in those terms, yes."
          "You know I'm an idealist. Yes, I'm interested."
          "I knew I could count on you, old boy."
          "May I ask you about a minor detail now, Larry?”
          "Now that I know where you stand, why not?"
          "What do I have to do?"
          "You teach the Chief of Police English. He's your only pupil."
          "That's great, Larry." By then nothing could surprise me. "Can you anticipate my next question?"
          "Why you?"
          "Yeah, why me?"
          "Well, old boy, I know you're hard up at the moment and--"
          "Cut the shit!"
          "That's it! You have that inimitable native-speaker flair. You're true-blue American and the Chief loves bloody Yanks."
          "The Chief is a bastard."
          Facundo Botche won fame in law enforcement when he was precinct captain in one of the capital's northern suburbs. His method was simplicity itself. Justice was slow and the jails were full so he refused the usual bribes and "disappeared" the criminals. The area became a sterile zone, the residents eulogized him, el presidente kissed him on both cheeks and he was appointed Federal Police Chief.
          "How many lessons a week?" I asked, wiping it all from my mind and thinking, shamelessly, of the money.
          "Whatever he can stand."
          "And all for three-thousand a week?"
          "You're a sod, Smithy, but I love you anyway. Three it is."
          "In advance."
          "Of course, as always."
          "Not as always. In advance."
          "No problem, son."
          "By the way, what does the Minister of Economy say about this raid on the treasury?"
          "Screw the Minister of Economy!" Larry yelled into the phone. "This is a presidential prerogative."
          "When do I start?"
          "Good sod. Immediately."
          "And my advance?"
          "A week, to be picked up in my office."
          "Now, damn it. This is serious."

          The Central Police Station was wrapped around a manicured courtyard replete with palm trees, blood-red poinsettias and nineteenth century park benches. The torture chambers were, I assumed, in the basement. A wrought-iron elevator-cage creaked up to the fourth floor, where I was ushered into an antechamber. I sat down on a high-backed brocaded chair and prepared to wait for Chief Botche to receive me.
          I wasn't waiting very long before a pretty young lady dressed in jeans, a plain cotton blouse and sandals emerged from the Chief's office. Her obese policewoman escort, who didn't seem to have much use for speech, pushed her into a chair and motioned with her head for me to enter. I stood, buttoned my suit jacket and patted the breast pocket where I'd put my passport, picked up my bulging briefcase and walked across the antechamber.
          "Big fucking deal," the young lady said as I walked past her.
          I stopped. "I beg your pardon."
          She smiled. "Oh, sorry, I didn't know you'd understand. I never say nasty things to people who understand them." An icebreaker if I ever heard one. But I didn't have time to chitchat with the Chief's door open and him glaring at me in the distance.
          "Very considerate of you," I said, turned away and entered the office, closed the door and walked about a mile to the Chief's desk. He stood up and held out his big hairy hand.
          "Buenos Días, Doctor.” I’m not a doctor of anything, but if Larry wanted it that way, so be it. I gave him my hand, expecting it to be crushed, but he barely touched it. The room had long since crossed the border from comfortable to tacky -- scratched floor and furniture, worn upholstery, peeling paint and drapes which were drawn closed over ceiling-to-floor windows.
          The Chief was an aquiline type. Hatchet head with an ear-to-ear mustache, long neck, trunk, and legs. A widow-peaked hairline extended almost to between his eyebrows. He was blonde and blue-eyed, characteristics probably inherited from the Teutonic ancestor who gave him his name.
          After some mildly obsequious bowing and scraping, I took out my portable tape recorder and New Wave I English lesson books and placed them on his desk. “Shall we start, Chief?
          He'd been smiling till then, but suddenly he frowned and his eyebrows converged on his nose. I was nervous, I admit.
          "I don't like books," he growled.
          "I see, well that's all right, I have everything we need here on tapes." I put the Lesson One tape into the recorder and pressed the play button: Hi, David. Hello, Martha. Where are you from? I'm from Chicago. Oh, I live in L.A. What hotel are you in?
          "I don't like it," Chief Botche boomed. I jammed the stop button so hard it sprained my finger. "Don't you have music?"
          "Yes, but unfortunately not with me."
          "I know a song in English."
          "Oh, which one?" This guy was definitely not what I'd expected.
          He spread out his long arms. "Yaysterday, ahl mi troblis seemid so faa aywaiii..." He stopped. "I don't know any more words." His tenor voice had an uncanny similarity to Paul McCartny's. I recalled the next couple of lines and sang them in my off-key baritone. He repeated them, in tune and quite well considering it was the first lesson. We worked on the song, I correcting his pronunciation and he trying to correct my tone deafness. He had the lines down pat in half an hour, which surprised me at first. But then I remembered that children learn languages quickly because their brains are unpolluted by thoughts, which may have been the secret of Chief Botche's ability to do the same. As I was about to promise to bring the rest of the text the next time, he said: "I know another English word, but I don't know what it means."
          "That's what I'm here for, Chief," I offered.
          He smiled benignly: "Muddafacka."
          My mind searched its files for the Spanish equivalent, but luckily didn't find it. I'm a bit weak on Spanish obscenities, you have to be a native speaker for that. I was about to translate it literally, but it sounded so vile to my mind's ear that I hesitated. Lowlife types are very sensitive to insults involving their mothers (the lower the life the more sensitive) and a literal translation is worse than the original, which loses its shock value through over-use.
          "Where did you learn that word, Chief?" I asked, stalling for time in the hope of inspiration.
          "The young lady waiting outside, a gringo like you, used it." He chuckled avuncularly. I chuckled back and shivered.
          "They told me she spoke Spanish but she doesn't. She said that word three times, first when she was brought in, once during the interrogation, which she lamentably didn't understand, and the last time when she left."
          Suddenly his eyes gleamed as inspiration struck. "You, Doctor, can act as interpreter when I continue the interrogation."
          "Of course, Chief," I said, understanding it for what it was -- an order. "But tell me, why is she here?"
          "Drugs." He frowned. "That's a very serious offense, you know. The American ambassador was here only yesterday and we discussed cooperation in the war against drugs. He speaks Spanish, but I want to be able to talk to him in English."
          In fact, I'd read in the paper that morning that our ambassador, who was often accused of being the government's eminence grise, which for all practical purposes he was, had visited the Chief of Police for just that purpose.
          "It's a pity that a pretty American girl like her should be mixed up in such things." He glared ferociously at me. "Don't you agree, Doctor?"
          "Yes, it's shocking."
          "I don’t know what to do about her yet. The judges here are corrupt queers, so I decide myself whether someone is guilty or innocent and I assure you there few of the latter. I either let them go or..." He shrugged.
          "It's effective, I suppose."
          "Very. What does it mean?"
          "Oh yes." Still stalling, I corrected his Th, which caused him considerable difficulty.
          "Now, he insisted, "Qué significa?”
          "It means...honorable sir." I knew as soon as the words left my mouth that it was a big mistake.
          He grunted and strummed his fingers on the desk, tapping out a military brumm, bum, bum. He picked up his phone. To me he said, "Perdón, muddafacka." Then he bawled into the phone: "El Embajador Americano!”
          I sprang to my feet and stuttered, panicky, "I..I'll wait outside while you're phoning."
          "It's all right, you can stay," he said, doubtlessly wishing me to share his linguistic triumph.
          " No...I have to go to the toilet."
          He waved me out. I left the books and my tape recorder on his desk, walked what felt like my last mile and opened the door. As I closed it I heard his delighted squawk: "Hello, muddaf--"
          The policewoman was alone in the antechamber, asleep with her head resting on her chest. I smiled at the two uniformed thugs posted at the outer door, forced myself not to run to the elevator, rode down in excruciating slow-motion and caught up with the girl meandering along the sunlit street as though she hadn't a care in the world. I grabbed her arm and we got into a taxi. I told the driver to just go.
          "Well hi, big deal," she said once we were rolling. "Where are we going?"
          "How did you get away?"
          "My guard fell asleep and began dripping snot into her mustache, which disgusted me, so I left."
          "Do you have your passport with you?"
          She patted a cloth shoulderbag. "Yes, the fat one was holding it for me and it fell off her lap so I took it with me when I left," she said in fluent Spanish and smiled coyly.
          "Credit card?"
          "Sure. Hey, what are you, a white slaver?"
          "I, my dear, am your savior."
          "Oh, goodie."
          "I just saved you from a fate worse than death."
          "Wow! I've never been saved before from a fate worse than death. In fact, I've never been saved from anything."
          "Al aeropuerto," I told the driver.
          "Hey, wait a minute."
          "We don't have a minute. Chief Botche is probably finding out right now what your favorite epithet means."
          "Oh, that. I figured that since he didn’t understand it wouldn’t bother him and I wanted to get it off my chest.” She rested her head on my shoulder and put her hand on my knee, probably yearning for a joint. "It's thrilling to have a Prince Charming and a Father Figure all rolled into one."

          Since then Ginger and I have been shacked up in Miami. In case you're wondering, money isn't a problem. I've become a successful investment counselor, saving millions for my clients by advising them not to invest a centavo in a certain Latin American country (anonymous for personal security reasons). When they ask why not I lean forward and say, "It's the exchange rate, (stupid)". Ginger has also found her caIling: Miami police, narcotics squad, where she’s doing a bang-up job as an undercover agent. It seems she has inside information concerning shipments from you know where. I haven’t heard from Larry Lawrence -- which doesn’t surprise me -- but I understand he’s toiling and troubling in Washington now, giving our own President a crash course in Español with a Southern Accent.


©2002 Frank Thomas Smith

Frank Thomas Smith is an American living in Argentina, where he edits and publishes The Southern Cross Review. He has, of course, never indulged in the sort of behavior described in this story, which is why he is still able to live in Argentina. Two of his e-books are available from Southern Cross Review. See our E-book Library
Email: [email protected]

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