Blood, Wine & the Body-Snatchers of Cartagena

El Bar del Sur


10.39° N, 75.48° W

What do creatures owe their creator, Isy asks. 

He’s dressed as if participating in collegiate intramural sports: sneakers, shorts, t-shirt of indistinguishable origin. His hair is organically tousled by salt water and wind in the way women love and simultaneously loath for its simplistic lack of effort. Isy looks younger than he is, yet his skull-meat is over-cured and salty as all hell. If you were to halve his head with an axe and count the tree rings, you’d be amazed, as he is aged even beyond the laps around the sun he’s took. Which begs the question, if age cannot be measured in years, how might it be quantified? By miles, whether the path be beaten or trail unblazed? By volume of tears, whether they be shed with joy or in agony? Or shall age be measured by how swollen the liver, or how smashed the genitals or how disjointed the spine? Time may be relative, Isy once said to a table of public house philosophers, but time is also irrelevant. What does time mean to the deep Scottish loch composed of both antediluvian glacier water and this morning’s dew? 

Hang with me a sec, Isy says to me now.  

We’ve crossed into tomorrow and the lights of the tavern’s fire-lit lamps play charades within the shadows, eclipsing our faces, enshrouding our fearful expressions as much as illuminating. Entering into this bar is to moonwalk into deep time; the skeletal structure is made of bones born prior to this age of consumption and post the discovery, exploration, mission and enslavement periods which precede us. The roof is patchwork and there are gaps in ceiling which exposes to us underneath the heavens above in the form of constellations common to this equatorial perspective. The cellar, beneath the stone at our feet, was once a dungeon of the Spanish Inquisition but today has an extensive array of wines which more than satiate the minimal needs we arrived with. 

What, Isy says, his eyes widening with possibilities. He carefully chooses his words. What obligation has the wolf to the god of wolves other than to be a wolf?

Well, uh… Jesus, dude, I say. What obligation does the egg have to the prince of omelets? If it is not clear, I am trending towards intoxication. 

Just saying, Isy just says, Captain Dick is going to be Captain Dick. Who are we to interfere? Are you Captain Dick? No. Am I Captain Dick? No. El Capitan does what El Capitan wants, he said so himself, eh?

Outside, in Plaza de Trinidad, the carnival continues. The nadaistas, the Colombian hippies, are drumming and dancing, fire-twirling, juggling, unicycling, profiteering, prophesying and proselytizing. Mixed within the crowd are students, prostitutes, artists; all of them are young and hopeful and local. We were with them, perspiring as much as our tall bottles of Aguila Cerveza, speaking Spanglish to those who were interested enough to listen and others who were not. Isy and I leaned against the ancient Spanish walls, laughing, dancing with women who took our hands, leading us into the street. We were there, occasionally ducking inside the bodega to purchase as many tall beers as we could carry for us and our new friends. It was frenzied, festive with collegial glee, chaotic only to the uninitiated, harmonious to the practiced. If only for the moment, it was societal bliss. 

Marco the cab driver and Vic

In the rear cavities of my head, a nagging thought pervaded the bliss, tugging at my sluggish, alcohol-sodden brain. Donde esta mi tio, my brain sang as if it were the refrain of an old song. Mi tio, Dick Neverman, aka Captain Dick, had been with us tonight, translating, directing traffic, introducing us falsely as “tres doctores de Miami”. Wait… where is my uncle? What happened to Captain Dick, I asked Isy when we were still outside with the nadaistas. I had to lightly slap him upside his face to gather attention away from his latest amor gyrating beside him. When’s the last you saw of Captain Dick, I asked Isy, pausing our procession within the carnival. Isy counted the fingers of one hand, not in the last five minutes, he told me. His other hand was occupied with a large bottle of beer. Maybe an hour ago. How long have we been here, I asked. Since the Fall of Adam, he said, give or take forty days. So not long at all, I conclude. 

I sought & found Marco, the cab driver who drove us here to Plaza de Trinidad from the beaches of Bocagrande. Donde esta mi tio, I asked Marco, donde esta el capitan? Marco thought it a joke until he realized it wasn’t. He asked a few of his friends, the bodega shop-keeper, the police, have you seen another American? I pitched in, guero gordo, I described my uncle as a large white man. Viejo verde, I said, describing him as an old man who liked younger women. Marco and the policeman chuckled, the shop-keeper shrugged, the young friends of Marco rolled their eyes; el capitan esta huyendo de los perros, Captain Dick is running from the dogs, they said, running from the whores: del putas. He maybe finds a prepago, a pre-paid woman he likes, Marco suggested, then Captain Dick leaves. I have my doubts. Captain Dick only appreciates prostitutes because you can flirt for free. He does well enough to not have to pay for sex, but even if he’d didn’t, he’s too cheap to hire a lady for the night. He certainly would not have deserted our company, leaving Isy and I high & dry at Plaza de Trinidad without notice.

Ya think? Isy believes otherwise. He and I have paused our search party and found comfort here in the confines of El Bar del Sur where ceiling fans – where there is a ceiling – keep the air circulating. Outside, in the old city of Cartagena, the night provides shade, but no relief from the humidity of the Caribbean coast. El Capitan goes, may I remind you, Isy reminds me, where El Capitan wants. Wasn’t it he who called us mutineers this afternoon? If he thinks the crew has taken control of the ship, why wouldn’t he row himself ashore. I just don’t see Captain Dick leaving us a forwarding address as he leaves to chase skirts in the outskirts of Cartagena. 

I should probably call the hotel, I suggest with a nod as I sniff the confines of my wine glass, finding oakiness, hints of black cherry and charred hair of stake-burnt infidel. Call the hotel, Isy laughs. Don’t kid yourself, he says, the first thing you are going to ask the hotel is if you have any messages from Isabel. Hmm, I humpf before admitting, I hadn’t thought of Isabel, but you are right, I say to Isy, feigning appreciation at his suggestion. I should definitely inquire after her… My mind leaves the bouquet of the Argentine wine from the Inquisition cellar, abandons the mystery of the missing uncle, all to focus thought on Bogota where I met Isabel. Her English and my Spanish were both limited, much of what we were able to communicate was done on the dance floor. She wore a cherry red dress which matched her lipstick. She was cold and goose-fleshed; the Caribbean heat does not rise to the Andes Mountains and Bogota had been enshrouded in cloud for a thousand years. I did my damnedest to warm her. The runs in her white nylons have my fingerprints all over them. Her eyes were chocolate, her skin porcelain and her lips made me think of the last time I killed myself. In a moment which reminded me we were far from home, Isabel nonchalantly placed her cold hands under my steaming armpits and, if I had my way, we would have remained forever embraced in this way and, perhaps, would have if Captain Dick hadn’t picked a fight with the barmen over the price of champagne. Vamanos! was the cry of our captain as he bulldozed through the crowd as a wrecking-ball would if said wrecking-ball was guided by the gravity of rum-drunk frugalness meeting overpriced flat champagne. Isabel, her wide-eyes worried at my departure, the brown of her irises glittering with the reflection of disco balls overheard, asked que que, but all I could do was drawl my itinerary on a vodka-soaked cocktail napkin, mapping my travels through Colombia to eventually arrive in Cartagena. I should have never left her, but I had to go. I held her hands and kissed her fragrant fingers — having forgotten where they were previously steamed — and I gave her the napkin of instructions on where to find me. Au revoir, I said, idiotically, as for all I knew she didn’t speak French, but it came easier than saying goodbye. Did I expect Isabel to leave her Andean home in chase of me as I wandered north to the Caribbean coast? I couldn’t. But the folded napkin she carefully placed betwixt her breasts was the only wad of hope I would see her again. 

Isy, Captain Dick, Vic

No offense, mon frère, but you’re not going to see Isabel again, Isy says. She’s a gold-digging capitalist who saw this American in fancy linen threads. You look like the accountant of a fruit company visiting a pineapple plantation in some Central American banana republic backwater. Unless you signed over some traveler’s checks to your girl and promised more where those came from, she ain’t skiing downhill after you. Not to be the turd in the punchbowl, but do you know what isn’t in the punchbowl, Isy asks. There’s no fucking punch, dude. Just a turd, but a turd looking out for your best interest. 

I scowl and turn away. It’s my bubble; he need not burst it. Besides, he is only being cruel because Isy wanted Isabel for himself and having seen her first has loved her five seconds longer than I have. What’s five seconds if time is irrelevant, I ask, but he’s no idea what I am on about because he hasn’t read my narrative of this story yet.

We order another round of wine from deeper in the dungeon.

So, Isy says, after the flood, Noah became so drunk on his own wine he passed-out naked, or, in the least, with his robe all akimbo. His son, Ham, came across Noah and saw his father’s exposed junk. This is true Bible shit, by the way, Isy clarifies. Ham, upon seeing his dad’s drunken cock & balls, becomes cursed. From then on, his name is associated with sandwiches Jews cannot eat.

Should we look for Captain Dick, I ask. 

Isy winces, maybe, kinda. All I can think of is Captain Dick saying “fea vida” as he walked around in his tighty-whitey underwear in our bachelor-pad villa. And he sink-washed his old underoos and left them hanging to dry throughout the hotel. Well, I counter, he said that was a mosquito deterrent. Isy shakes his head at the thought, as a biohazard, sure. I’m just saying Captain Dick is going to Captain Dick. And it’s not like he’s a babe in the woods. These streets are his old haunts. 

Vic in the back alleys of Cartagena

I get it, I got it. My uncle, Dick Neverman, was bilingual and familiar with the terrain. He was here in Columbia during the 1980s as a “sea shell smuggler”. He knew the dangers, the back alleys and the donkeys which kick-back. He would be an obvious asset to our trip. He came along, but he played by his schedule, sleeping through most of the day and, tonight, disappearing into the ether. 

Let’s keep some shit in mind, Isy puts on his Sherlock cap. You said he was mad. Yes, I admit, my uncle believes he is the reincarnation of Simon Bolivar. Isy nods, what’s to say after the last pull on the bottle of aguardiente, the captain didn’t go full bonch-brained to believe he’s become General Iron Ass… Isy raised his wine glass to salut, Simón Bolívar, the liberator of South America, who kept mistresses hidden throughout Colombia… Captain Dick is probably out there looking for an old girlfriend 150 years dead.

Look, man, I say to Isy, I am not expecting you to help me mount a search for Captain Dick, but I am concerned he’s been taken captive by someone who blew scopolamine dust in his face.

I wondered how quickly you might resort to the boogeyman, Isy says. So yes, there are femme fatales in Colombia who blow Devil’s Breath into the unwitting faces of tourists to turn them into unwitting zombies, sure… Isy pauses to savor his wine. It’s chewy, Isy says, the bouquet is musky like a fox. With a hint of genocide. I cannot disagree. Let us play out this hypo, eh? Let us hypothesize the good Captain Dick was so distracted by a sweet, sweaty lady’s wiles he didn’t notice when she took out her make-up kit and blew scopolamine into his face. If the dosage doesn’t kill him, Captain Dick becomes a dumb robot, a clay golem enslaved to the whim of his master. 

Scopolamine, harvested from the local borrachero tree (pointed out to us in Medellin by our survival guide, Oscar), was used during the Cold War in Yugoslavia as a truth serum. But the devilish dust does more than summon honesty, it renders the victim influenceable to command. 

Let’s consider the math, eh? Isy breaks it down, if Captain Dick was rendered into a zombie, a fifteen minute head start would be enough for the bodysnatcher to raid our hotel room and Captain Dick’s ATM and another fifteen minutes to cut out his kidneys, for whatever they are worth given the amount of aguardiente he has drunk, and then make a getaway. When was the last time we actually saw Captain Dick, Isy asks, already anticipating the answer. Three or four hours ago, I guess. It is near 1 am in Plaza de Trinidad and while things are quieting down outside, there is a thunder rumbling offshore. Exactly, Isy says. If the good captain had been taken mental hostage 3 hours ago, or even thirty minutes ago, we would already be too late to keep the thief from pilfering our hotel lockbox. Meaning what, I ask. Meaning there’s no need to panic, Isy says. What’s done is done. Salud!

Our conversation softens as the waiter returns for our empty glasses. Isy ask for a beer, a nice switch for the palate. I find the idea charming and order likewise. Our beers are served and we enjoy the refreshment quietly, nodding, returning our individual gazes to some distant points despite all points being claustrophobically close. I think we’re both thinking about Isabel, but neither wants to admit as much. My mind dances around the idea of bringing Isabel to the United States. Would she appreciate the ramshackle Chicago dives I reside within? She’d likely want to bring a beautiful sister or two. No harm in that. Perhaps a beautiful mother, or aunt, which could be troublesome. Isabel would expect clothes, jewels, babies, a country club, status, prestige, all of the things I disregard as unessential and, to be honest, cannot provide her without drastic sacrifice of my individual priorities of sleep and quiet leisure. Isy must be contemplating similar disharmonies as both of our brows are deepened with disappointment. 

We opt for lighter content…

What if this vanishing isn’t a trick, Isy asks. What if we do not see Captain Dick between now and our departure north? I shrug and say, we should return home as scheduled. I mean, I say to Isy, I half expected any one of us to die or become incapacitated during this trip. It is almost a demise fitting for Captain Dick. Certainly, the Neverman family would think so. 

What if Captain Dick’s corpse is waiting for us in the hotel room, Isy asks. Maybe some villainess blew too much scopolamine in his face, Isy suggests. Or maybe Dick got too yappy and she cut his throat, Colombia neck-tie style.  Or, perhaps, he found a nice local girl who accidentally fucked him to death. Would that be too hard to imagine, Isy asks. I mean, Captain Dick’s heart has a lot to process. If you take all the pan de bono sweet-bread and the quarts of aguardiente, perhaps there was not enough heart leftover to handle a little Colombian ass. 

We both laugh at the idea of “little Colombian ass”. Posterior augmentation is more popular in Colombia than orthodontics. This is a land of inflated ass and gapped teeth. Captain Dick said as much when he told us, if you want to be a gentleman in Colombia, you have to hold the door open a second or two longer.

Seriously, though, Isy says, what if we find his dead body when we get back to the hotel room? I would say we could move it, I propose, bury it on the beach, but, here’s the rub… we’ll have to displace a lot of earth and if anyone catches us trying to bury his body, the local police will want a significant payout. How much cash can you scrummage up in a hurry, I ask Isy. About thirty-three dollars, give or take a nickel, he guesses. 

The beers seem to evaporate within our hands. It is time to hail a cab back to our beach hotel. Let’s see what corpses are waiting for us and we will do the math then, I decide. If that’s all we have to look forward to, Isy propositions, perhaps we dance with local girls a little while longer. What the hell, I shrug. This might be our last hour of innocence.

  3 comments for “Blood, Wine & the Body-Snatchers of Cartagena

  1. David C Berguin
    September 27, 2021 at 9:26 am

    Well done


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