by Frank Thomas Smith
Andrew Johnson is tired, surely, but not tired enough to ignore the young mini-skirted beauty seated at the table near the window who had glanced his way twice in the past few minutes. Andrew is waiting for a bus at the terminal in Córdoba, Argentina, after having flown in starting from Minneapolis to Miami, where he connected with another flight to Sao Paulo, Brazil, then another connection to Córdoba.
The terminal café looks like its counterpart in any South American provincial city: plastic tables and chairs, smoke-filled, unhurried middle-aged waiters in once white jackets and coffee stained black ties. Tired faces grimace as they sip muddy cafecitos or relax over cheap red wine. What makes this one distinctly Argentine is the photograph of Evita Perón on the mirror that hangs behind the bar.
There, she looked at him again and he thinks he detected a slight smile. How old? Eighteen at least, he thinks, no problem. He smiles at her. He has no illusions that she could be infatuated with his charm or good looks, although he isn’t a bad looking guy, even if he says so himself. Many patrons are smoking cigarettes, blissfully ignoring the smoking, no smoking area signs. He is the only one smoking a pipe, and when one is smoking a pipe it makes him look more important. He is tempted to stand up and look at himself in the mirror, but no – he smiles to himself – that won’t do.
She’s probably a hooker…but…why would a beautiful young girl like her be hanging out in a bus station, even if she is one? Surely there are easier, more lucrative, not to mention safer ways to practice her profession. Then again maybe she isn’t a whore after all. What then? Dorothy without Toto? Come on, Andrew, don’t kid yourself.
Andrew is an overworked, mildly alcoholic money bender in a New York bank, one of many so-called assistant managers auto-piloted to wither away from air conditioned boredom – except for his yearly jaunts to exotic places. He had been to Latin America the last three years because it’s cheap, interesting and he speaks the language, more or less, because of having spent a year in the bank’s Madrid branch setting up the computer system there. This is his first trip to Argentina.
He never goes to the capital city first. They’re too hectic just when he needs a rest and a change from all that. He leaves them to the end, after his batteries have been recharged. Rather a small provincial town with at least some amenities for tourists. He checked for such spots on the internet and came up with the Traslasierra Valley, mostly because he liked the name, which means “beyond the hills”, or something like that. So he is now waiting for the bus, El Petizo, whose name he also likes: the runt – which will deposit him there after a three-hour journey over and beyond the hills. He intends to stay a week, relaxing, then fly to Buenos Aires for some fun.
But that girl, really attractive, and well built though certainly not fat, dark skinned with high cheekbones and full lips. Probably a mixture of Spanish, Indian and Negro. As he watches her profile and waits for her to turn her head toward him again, his thoughts return to what he calls his “options”. He had just turned fifty-five, the minimum age for early retirement. He’s going nowhere in the bank, more likely the other way. The call word nowadays is “downsizing” and he, as a middle management slob, is perfectly positioned to be given what the higher executives call a golden handshake, but in his case more likely to be tarnished bronze. In fact, though, it’s what he has been waiting for. But now at his age they could force him to retire with no payoff. So what is he waiting for? Money, of course. The longer he works the higher the pension – and the older he gets. If he had only stayed in Spain when he had the opportunity his pension would be in euros, which have risen considerably against the dollar – but there’s no sense in crying over spilt gold. Things would be tight in the States, but in South America the dollar is still king and he would be sitting pretty here. His ex-wife earns more than he does and his children are grown. He’s still supporting his youngest in college, but what the hell, she could get a job as he did when he was a student. He needs a warm body in bed and someone to take care of him when he gets old, someone like that girl in fact, not necessarily her of course, but you get the idea.
Suddenly she is standing over him, smiling. “Excuse me,” she says. “May I sit with you for a moment?” Her Spanish sounds strange to him, probably because of a local intonation. He smiles back and nods. “I was waiting for someone but he didn’t show up. That makes me sad and I need someone to talk to. I saw that you are also alone and…am I disturbing you?” Her hair is chestnut brown and flows over her shoulders, accenting her large black eyes.
“No, please, no.” He stands and gestures to the seat opposite him at the tiny table.
Once seated she asks, “Are you waiting for someone too?”
“No, I am alone.”
“It is not good to be alone.”
“No, it isn’t. Would you like something to drink?”
“No, thank you. I already had three cafecitos – waiting.”
“Who are you waiting for?”
“No one – now. It was someone I thought loves me, but now I know it is not so.”
She smiles, showing large straight white teeth. “Thank you.” Then, when he only nods, “Are you waiting for a bus?”
“Yes, to Traslasierra.”
“Oh, they say it’s beautiful there. I wish I could go too.”
A cue if he ever heard one. He swallows nervously and says, “Would you like to come with me?”
Her eyes open even wider and she puts her hand over his. “Oh yes…but I can’t, today.” She waits.
“I must do something for my mother. She is sick and cannot do it herself.”
“But I can go tomorrow if you can wait until then.”
He nods thoughtfully. "I'm on vacation, no hurry."
“You are very kind,” she says, "and I love the aroma of your pipe."
The aroma of her perfume is strong and cheap, but that is easily remedied. “And you are very beautiful.”
“Oh no, I am not…but look, it’s still early. Let’s go somewhere else.”
She smiles wonderfully, invitingly: “You’ll see. Come. Shall we take a taxi? I always have to ride the bus, and it’s so slow.” She stands and when he also does the top of her head is a bit lower than his chin. She takes his hand. “Don’t forget your bag,” she says. He smiles. He’s so excited he might have forgotten it. He slings it over his left shoulder and follows her out of the terminal toward the taxi line.
The trip is short but with many turns, the fare is four pesos, a little more than a dollar. He gives the driver five pesos, who thanks him profusely. A far cry from Minneapolis. The neighbourhood could be described as rundown or lower middle class, depending on your humor. The girl takes a key from her shoulder bag and looks up at him innocently. “What is your name?”
“Ah, Andrés, a very nice name.”
“María.” She tosses her hair back and inserts the key in the lock of a door set in a one-story house badly in need of painting. Inside she flicks on a light, a bulb hanging from the middle of the ceiling. There is a window opening to the street, but it is shuttered. The room also needs painting, or more he realizes, noting the humidity-stained walls. An inside door is ajar and he sees that it opens to a small bathroom. A metal table and chair, both painted dark green and a bed, single but wide enough for its purpose, are all the furniture. The floor is of discolored tile squares. The walls are bare of ornament.
The girl places her knit purse on the chair after taking a cell phone from it and says, “I must call my mother.” She smiles at him, waiting for a reaction from the phone, then: “Hola, Mamá, I will be a little late, don’t worry…sí, sí…adiós:” Then she turns to him and says the obvious: “Now we are alone.” She sits on the bed, kicks off her shoes and unbuttons her blouse. “It’s so warm in here,” she says. He had already noticed that she wore nothing under the blouse and now, inevitably, he begins to have an erection. When she lifts her leg and places her right foot on the bed from a still sitting position and he sees that she isn’t wearing underpants either he sighs as the incipient erection flowers to maturity. She must be a whore after all, he thinks. Should he mention money now in order to avoid misunderstandings later? He always likes to have such mundane details clear. But now she lifts her left leg and the view, oh, the view! He approaches her with his fly at the level of her mouth. She kisses the hump in his pants and is about to lower the zipper when:
The door flies open, kicked from outside apparently, and two dark young men brandishing pistols rush into the room. María screams. “Shut up, puta!” one of them shouts. The other pushes him against the wall and slaps him across the mouth with the back of his hand. Then he turns him around and pulls his wallet from his back pocket and takes his watch from his left wrist. The other one takes his carry-on bag and María’s knit purse from the chair. The one who slapped him pushes him onto the bed and says,"Stay here for one hour. If you go out I will shoot you." They walk out and shut the door behind them.
“Stop, thieves!” María cries and runs out after them.
He leans against the wall, breathes deeply and licks some blood from his lips. His hands are shaking so he folds them as if in prayer. An hour. He had thought of asking them how he would know without his watch, but didn't have the nerve because it would probably have resulted in another slap or worse. After about ten minutes he walks into the street, looks up and down, not a soul. Of course, it’s siesta time. So what’s his situation? No money, the five-hundred plus dollars are all in his wallet, along with credit cards. His passport is in the carry-on. Shit, even his pipe and Dutch tobacco are in it. So he’s literally a man walking along a strange street in a foreign city with nothing but the clothes he’s wearing. No, wait, his suitcase is in the bus terminal baggage room, so he has that, but the ticket is in his carry-on. The thieves will find it and try to retrieve the bag – maybe. Certainly. He must get back to the bus terminal before they do. But he has no idea where it is. The shops are all closed for the siesta hours.
He starts walking in the direction he thinks they arrived from – one block, two. Finally a middle-aged woman emerges from one of the houses and walks toward him. “Excuse me,” he says in his best Castilian, “can you please tell me where the bus terminal is?”
She answers with the same local intonation as Maria’s, and points back the way he came: "Straight ahead five blocks, turn right one block and you’ll see it." She smiles. “Are you Spanish?”
“What? Oh, no, but I lived in Spain. Thank you very much.”
“For nothing. Adiós.”
He walked two blocks in the wrong direction, now he would have to hurry. He begins to trot. “Don’t worry,” the woman calls after him, “the buses are never on time.”
He enters the terminal panting and goes directly to the baggage checking room. An old gray faced man wearing a gray apron asks, “Señor?”
“My ticket was stolen, the bag is a blue Samsonite, it has my name on it.”
“Sam-so-nee-tee.” He looks over the old man’s shoulder. There are only a few bags there and none is his. The sinking feeling in his stomach sinks farther.
The old man frowns and pinches his nose. “Did it have an airline tag on it? Aerolíneas Argentinas?”
“Yes, that’s it.”
The old man reaches under the counter. “And is this your ticket?” He hands him a crumpled stub. “I don’t know, I…”
“Someone took that bag just a short while ago. She had the ticket.”
“A young girl?”
The old man grins toothlessly. “Yes, and pretty.”
He puts his hands on the counter to stop from falling. Beads of sweat pop out on his forehead.
“Are you all right, Señor?”
“No. Did you know the girl?”
“Never saw her before.”
“Maybe she’s the viuda negra.”
“What? What black widow?
“I’ve heard of her, lures hungry victims into her web, then…” He shrugs.
“She eats them,” the old man cackles.
“Where is the police station?” Andrew Johnson says, the blood pounding in his head. He says estación de policía knowing it’s wrong, but he can’t think of the right word.
"Yes, where is it please?"
“Over on Belgrano.”
“Where is that?”
“Sí, damn it, Belgrano.”
“It’s far from here, let me see…” he pinches his nose again…”about thirty blocks east.”
“Sure, east, certainly not west.”
Is the old man laughing at him? He doesn’t know. “Gracias, the police will be here soon.” He turns, leaves the terminal and walks away – east? What am I supposed to do, he thinks, take a bead on the sun to find east? Fuck the police. It’d be a waste of time. He’d sit around waiting, then some cop would two-finger-type out his complaint on an ancient typewriter and ask where it happened, what address, he doesn’t know and couldn’t find the place again. The cop’d say they’ll look into it. They probably get a cut, not probably, they do get one, the old man too, probably. And the taxi driver. She didn't give him an address, they just drove off. He thought it strange, but decided that he knew her. He was right.What an asshole I am, an incredibly stupid gringo asshole. Jesus! Is there an American consulate in Córdoba? Probably not, and fuck the consulate anyway, they’d only tell him to go to the police.
He stuffs his hands in his pockets and walks off in an unknown compass direction – north, east, south, west, he doesn’t know and doesn’t care. Then he realizes that he is fingering something in his right-hand pocket. He pulls it out: pesos! What’s left of the dollars he changed at the airport, two bills, a hundred and a twenty. He calculates their worth: about sixty dollars. He sighs with relief, almost happy. Thank God they didn’t search his side pockets. It would be enough for a bus ticket to Buenos Aires, not a plane ticket, but a bus ticket, yes. He could go to American Express there and get a new credit card. Visa too? That would take forever, so fuck Visa, but he should report both cards stolen right away. Amex probably has an 800 number, Visa who knows. He resolves not to renew his Visa card.
Suddenly exhaustion hits him like a hammer. To turn back to the bus terminal seems beyond the capacity of his will. He continues walking in the same direction and sees that he is heading to the downtown section of town. Good. A cheap hotel for now. The sun, although he can’t see it, is setting.
There: “Hotel Ambassador” on a sign jutting over the street, an old nondescript three storey building. He enters the tiny lobby consisting of a reception desk and three imitation leather armchairs surrounding a television set.
“Buenas tardes, Señor.”
“Buenas tardes. I’d like a room.”
“How many nights?”
“No, it was stolen.” Why did he say that? “No” would have been enough.
The clerk frowns. “Forty pesos – in advance.”
He fishes out the two bills. “Do you know how much a bus to Buenos Aires costs?”
The clerk pinches his nose. Is that a Córdoban tic? “The ejecutivo is very expensive,” he says. “I never took it so I don’t know. The others are cheaper, maybe twenty-five pesos, but they’re not express, stop all over the place.”
“I’ll take the room.” He hands the clerk the hundred peso bill.
“Don’t you have anything smaller,” the clerk says accusingly.
He shakes his head. The clerk examines the bill, holds it up to the light to see if it bears some long dead president as a water mark, finally sighs, puts it in a drawer and gives him sixty pesos change and a key. He doesn’t have to sign in. They probably avoid taxes that way. “Room 305, third floor,” the clerk says. He looks around for the non-existant elevator. The clerk points to the stairs.
As Andrew Johnson drags himself wearily up the three flights of stairs he feels that something fundamental has changed in his life. He doesn’t know what it is, only that it could be of great importance if only he can learn to ride with it.
© Frank Thomas Smith
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