CARTAGENA de INDIAS, Colombia
10.39° N, 75.48° W
Mi Hombre, Isy says to the cab driver as we head west out of the ancient walled city of Cartagena. Mi hombre, he yells from the backseat, above the reggaeton blasting from the stereo. Can I bum uno cigaretto from you, por fav? Noice, Isy Badger rejoices at the cab driver’s generosity. Isy lights the cigarette and rolls down his window. Beyond the window, to the north, is the near edge of the continent where South America slips beneath the sea. Isy contemplates the void as he smokes. Oblivion beckons to few, he mentions. Oh? Gazing at the Caribbean, Isy impersonates oblivion when he says, come hither, fool. Oblivion doesn’t speak to all, Vic Neverman, Isy tells me, but for all, oblivion waits. For all, she waits… Isy draws from his cigarette and blows smoke out the window. He turns south across the backseat towards me, extending his cigarette, Vic? Smoke? I contemplate Isy, this scamp, this yesterday’s hipster with his lit cigarette. No, man, I tell Isy, I only smoke after having lain with a bad woman, or, I pause for dramatic effect, after having killed a good man. Isy Badger snorts a cloud of nicotine out of his nostrils. G’damn, Isy curses, coughs, choking on a laugh, Vic Neverman! Me thinks you need set more reasonable goals, he says. The taxi pulls to a stop as our most immediate goal of arriving at Hotel Desamor has been achieved. We’ve left the Old City to reach the beaches of Bocagrande. The night, gracefully, has come to a close.
What are the chances we find el Capitán passed out in our hotel room with a bottle of aguardiente resting on his belly, Isy asks as we enter into the lobby. The clerks behind the front desk are frantic with their gesticulations; come hither, fools, they beckon. There is desperation in their motions; stakes are raised. I cannot help but think Isabel has come down from Bogotá and there is some confusion in accommodating her. I lunge for the front desk, asking, que que? They are hysterical, tu tio se ha fugado! My grasp of the native tongue at this hour is toothless. My uncle, what? He is missing, says the junior clerk, regaining his English. He has went. With a woman! Aha, Isy Badger says unimpressed, Captain Dick found a friend. No, no, not a friend, the front desk clerk insists, near tears. Una mujer malvada, he says. Isy is smiling as he says to me, Captain Dick might be deserving a cigarette by the end of the night, eh Vic? Donde, I ask the front desk clerk. Where did la mujer malvada take mi tio, Capitán Dick? Oeste, he says, west.
My night, it seems, is far from over. Isy puts an elbow on the counter, donde might uno find uno-self some of these mujer malvadas? Asking for a friend, he suggests to the clerk. I shall head west, I announce, in search of my uncle. Whoa there, Vic Neverman, Isy says. Remember what Oscar said about surviving Colombia: never go anywhere alone. Are you volunteering to come along, I inquire. Oh no, you got this, bruh, Isy says. I’m just thinking I should probably find some company rather than head back to the hotel room alone. I don’t wanna let Oscar down, he says, turning back to the clerk to follow-up on the whereabouts of unsavory ladies. I grab his shoulder, Isy, if I do not return, I need you to send word to Isabel. I’ll deliver it in person, Isy says. Write a note, he says, and I’ll tie it around my ding-dong and say, Isabel, I have something you should look at. But what’s the word count, Isy asks, you’re trending longwinded, Vic Neverman, and I’ve limited billboard space. I say to him, tell Isabel I stepped into oblivion with her name on my breath. Isy nods, more like donkey-beef empanada on your breath, but sure. Godspeed, brother.
Exiting the air-conditioned purgatory of Hotel Desamor, the midnight Caribbean air is hellishly humid despite the sun being on the other side of the damn planet. I do not know where, specifically, I should go, but I’ll sniff it out on my prowl. To trace the steps of the captain, an opportunistic beast of carrion, I must adopt the mindset of a vulture and follow the methane. And I must exude an air of menace to mask my vulnerability, lest I be set upon by local jackals poised to pounce on meandering tourists. I assume the role of Colombian ruffian. Oh sure, I am too pale to pass for the local majority of mixed indigenous and African descent, but I do have generic pan-slavic features which blend well with the Hispanic diaspora wallpaper. And I’ve the beard stubble of a telenova heart-throb. For all intents and purposes, if you were to squint, you’d think I belonged to these streets. To my disguise, I add a rolling strut and a carnivorous snarl. Who would dare approach, let alone provoke, me?
Hi mister! Hi mister, a colombiana calls from a distance, giggling with her lady friend. They cross the street to step into my path. Hello Mister USA, she says to me. I slow my pace and shake my head, no comprendo, chica. I move to walk past her, but she steps in my path, placing herself directly under a street-light which casts her in an orange glow. She is disarmingly attractive. Her hair is cut short to counter against the tropical heat. Her cheekbone structure is enviable and her broad smile consists of innumerable teeth. Her t-shirt is loose-fitting, while the shorts are tight. I cannot speak for the girlfriend as I cannot seem to look past this woman before me. What are you doing, man, she asks me in Spanish Caribbean-accented English. You cannot be here with no one, she insists. No comprendo, chica, no sprechen zie english, I say. It is not safe, she says, you with no one. Sure, I give up and tell her in English, but I have no money to give you, no dinero. I move to walk around her and continue west. She skips ahead of me and walks backwards, turned towards me. You are not very smart, Mister USA, she says with a smile which is both ravenous and jovial, a lioness at the doofus buffet, scraping the pan for my crispy bits. I’m flattered, I tell her, but I have no money to give you. You have no money, she says, is good when they kill you they take from you nada. She and her girlfriend laugh at me. You are not safe in this place with no one. Where do you go, she asks, keeping pace with me while walking backwards. Her eyes are wide and clear as she watches over me as if I were pancake batter she waits to hungrily flip on the griddle. What are you wanting, she asks. You want party? I stop in my tracks and she does likewise. I do not want party, I tell her. I am on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. She laughs, you are funny. Now, I am flattered. My defenses melt, I smile. She flicks her eyes from mine to my mouth and back to my eyes again. I can’t help doing likewise, switching my gaze between her eyes and her lips. She introduces herself and I tell her, hello Angelita, I am Victor. You are a lost pilgrim, Mister Victor, she asks. No, I say, I know where I am. It is my uncle who is lost. Angelita’s smile fades and she becomes serious. Uncle? Is your uncle American, she asks the obvious. Well, yeah. Is he this tall, she holds out a hand near my scalp. He is. Angelita’s seriousness slips as her flirtatious smile returns. And is uncle very handsome? She tilts her head, waiting for my response. Well, I tell her, more prideful than smart, mi tio fashions himself as a chubby Clark Gable. Angelita nods, I know this man, I seen this man! You come with me, Mister Victor, she says, I will take you to Uncle Handsome. Yes, but, I tell her reluctantly, I do not have money to pay you. Angelita appears appalled at the notion. I have no want of money, Mister Victor! You can not be with no one en las calles de Bocagrande. You can be with me, she says, it is safety.
The girlfriend of Angelita begins complaining in quick creole Spanish I cannot understand. Angelita laughs at her friend and sends her away. Vamos, Mister Victor, she says. What happened to your amiga, I ask her. She is crazy, Angelita says. But she is alone, I say, and you said being alone is not good on these streets. No man, Angelita halts our progress and begins laughing, Mister Victor have no worry, okay. Consi is no problem with man, Angelita tells me. Consi is having dientes de tiburon in the pussy. Todos los hombres de Cartagena know Consuela is having dientes de tiburon in the pussy. She is safe, Angelita tells me and to then prove her point, she bites my shoulder. Hard. Oww! Okay, I get it. She nearly drew blood through my linen jacket. She’s laughing and pulling on the lapels of my coat, willing my lips closer to hers. I’m both terrified and the slightest bit smitten.
At Casino Sol de la Playa, Angelita and I trace my uncle’s possible steps past the blackjack and roulette tables, to the bar and then the dance floor. I believe I dance just fine for a North American, but Angelita cannot match my moves as she is too busy laughing. I order a gintónica; Angelita asks only for a guava juice. After finishing my cocktail, my eyes lift towards the bar por uno mas, but Angelita puts a hand on my chest, vámonos, Mister Victor. El Capitán is no here, she says, reminding me of my late night mission.
We leave the casino to continue our pilgrimage of the holy land. Angelita speaks to me of food, of cooking for me, she wants to make me arroz de coco y mariscos. Coconut rice is a newly discovered favorite delicacy of mine; I am excited. What sort of mariscos, I ask. She contemplates, before saying shrimps! Si, I tell her, camerónes are my favorite, except in America, we call them shrimp not shrimps. I immediately feel like an asshole. Angelita is as American as I am, even if she has never been further north than Barranquilla. And yet, she does not take offense, instead she repeatedly says to me, shrimp. Shrimp. I make you arroz con coco y shrimp-p-p-p, Mister Comedor de Shrimp. I’d like that, I say.
Her hands are wrapped around my arm. We glide together, our steps are leisurely, her hip pressed against my thigh under my hip as we walk the sidewalk west towards the lagoon. We’ve melded into a broom, sweeping the street in search of this dastardly uncle. I’ve lost track of time and purpose, focused instead on Angelita. Porque me ofreces gintónica, she asks at the next casino when I ask if she’d like a cocktail. If you drink, I tell her, you will find my jokes funnier. She laughs loudly and places a hand on my heart. She says, I laugh when Mister Victor is funny. Mister Victor is funny, siempre. When Mister Victor is no funny, he is más funny.
As we walk the world, she holds onto me as if she was clinging to a memory she does not want to forget. I daren’t think of a future along this beach which has no dawn, but I am certain there is nothing I’d want clung to my side more than Angelita. In my mindless absorption, I assume she will be forever affixed to my side, but this notion is challenged at the last stop along Bocagrande, Hotel Caribe. Angelita does not want to go within. Por qué? She shakes her head. Then fuck it, we won’t go inside the Hotel Caribe. No, she says, Victor, ve a buscar a tu tio. She insists. You’ll wait for me, I ask of her. She doesn’t respond. Angelita steps backwards into a grove of seagrape trees on the periphery of the hotel grounds. My heart yearns at her retreat; I’d cry if I were not so dehydrated. I turn towards Hotel Caribe and advance with hesitance.
Good evening sir, the man behind the front desk greets me. Apparently, the linen suit is a dead giveaway of my norteamericanos origins. The gin-soaked skull-sponge in my head is not processing the fact the dude is speaking English. My face contorts as I attempt to find the right words, Yo… tengo… basuco?, I say, startling him. No, not basuco, I shake my head (basuco is mas o menos a crack cocaine cigarette). No, yo tengo buscar. Si! Buscar. Yo tengo buscar para mi tío, I say. I understand, the front desk man says, you are looking for your uncle. Si, I say, nodding. Mi tío esta, uh, I say before the front desk man waves at me, maybe we speak English. Oh you speak English, I ask. Great. Yeah, I am searching for my lost uncle who’s gone missing. We are staying at Hotel Desamor a couple miles that way, I say, throwing a thumb over my shoulder to the east. Earlier in the night when I returned to the hotel from the Old City of Cartagena, they told me some old bruja had taken possession of my uncle and tried to get into our hotel room. The staff refused them entry and so my uncle and la hechicera walked out of the hotel in this direction, I tell him. I take out my phone to show the man behind the front desk a picture of Captain Dick, Isy Badger and myself from a Medellin overlook. This is the man who calls himself Skinny Shanks, the hotelier asks of the image. Yes, he believes he is Simon Bolivar born again. He has dreams of his mistress, Manuela, and his horse, Paloma Blanco. Captain Dick doesn’t sleep in the same bed two nights in a row, which is something he attributes to his past life as General Bolivar, who escaped assassination by never being in his own bed. Mmhmm, the hotelier says and picks up a phone. His Spanish is too fluent and quick for me to try to decipher. My ears do perk when I hear the man say Capitán Dick, o Vástagos Delgados. Eventually, though, the dude hangs-up the phone. Sir, I regretfully inform you there is no Capitán Dick here. Gracias, I say. Do you mind if I just look around, I ask, though I have already been spinning in circles, growing dizzier each time the hotelier blurs past me. I might just require a nap. Could I get a gin & tonic, I ask. Of course, sir.
There’s something about quinine which helps me think. I said as much to Angelita when we were at a casino up-beach from here, earlier tonight, no, earlier this morning, when I ordered a cocktail. She didn’t think I needed any more alcohol. She was probably right, but I was past a certain threshold of intoxication. Either I keep wandering into that dark night or I fall asleep or I do cocaine. And I do not do cocaine. Besides, I told Angelita as I sipped my gintónica through a straw, I can dance myself clean. She laughed and gulped her guava juice. And then we danced.
Thank you, I tell the hoteliers and depart Hotel Caribe in a crooked walk, diagonally this way then that, as if eluding slow-witted crocodiles. I stumble out of the hotel towards the distant seagrape trees. Angelita is gone. I jump and wave, but there is no response. The grove is dark, yet alive with dark breezes whispering evil secrets through its leaves. Come hither, fool.
I hail a taxi in French, Taxi. What the hell? Why I am speaking French all of a sudden? Taxi s’il vous plait, I yell. Inside the cab, I realize the watch my father gave me is missing from my wrist. It should be on this wrist. I look at the other wrist, but it’s not there either. I check my ankles. No watch. Damn it. Angelita must have stolen the watch off my arm. I pout, but quickly realize I am pleased she took the watch from me. I suspected there was something transactional in our relationship and now I could quantify it. She was no lover, only a common thief. I only wish I had more watches for Angelita to steal. I miss her.
I will never fall in love again, it is like having two souls at the same time.Simon Bolivar from Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s novel The General In His Labyrinth
Captain Dick is gone, I realize as I gaze north from the backseat of the taxi. Between the high rises, I can see the moon reflected off the Caribbean Sea. My father would be rolling in his grave if he knew I was risking my neck searching for his kid brother. Not that my father has a grave. His ashes were tossed into the sea on the other side of Cuba from here; perhaps those ashes have drifted their way to Bocagrande, crashing ashore in the moonlight. But the waves appear calm.
There is concern in Colombia over hechiceras, enchanting women who blow scopolamine, “Devil’s Breath”, into the face of unwitting Northern Hemispheric tourists, rendering the subject into a zombie state. We had thought these urban myths, but why else would Captain Dick have gone rogue if he wasn’t the unwitting puppet of la bruja de Bocagrande? What night there is ahead of me might hold little sleep. I will have to call the police at some point. Or feigning ignorance, returning to America alone and not accept any calls from Aunt Belinda, Captain Dick’s sister.
I pay the taxi driver and stand before my hotel as he drives off. How has the sun not found its way to this side of the world? It was impossibly late when I was here last, before my forty years in the wilderness with Angelita. And, yet, nothing seems changed. Other than I am missing a watch. I enter the hotel lobby to find the night manager disheveled and nearly asleep. He blinks at my arrival and snaps into action. His recognition of me and sense of alarm alerts me to something being amiss. Could there be messages from Isabel? Or, dare I dream, has Angelita found her way back to me? No, sir, he says. Shit. How can I go to bed as dawn arrives? How can I sleep knowing Angelita is out there, in a creepy seagrape grove? Have I been searching for the wrong person all along?
Sir, the disheveled clerk manning the hotel counter says, your uncle… Yes! Have you seen Captain Dick, I inquire. The hotelier points his finger over my shoulder. Tu tio vino con hechicera, pero no les permitimos la entrada. I turn around and find Captain Dick sitting wide-eyed on a hotel lobby sofa next to a particularly homely and pedestrian enchantress. Hey dude, I say to my uncle. Hi Vic, he says with eyes as round as cue balls. He is childlike and eerily calm; he’s out of his mind. She has to go, dude, I say to Captain Dick. She cannot come into our hotel room. Okay, Captain Dick says.
Shit is weird. La bruja has influence over Captain Dick, but my presence supersedes her witchcraft. I am unsure what devil’s breath was blown into his face, but the puppetry over the captain is overridden by the familiar voice of his nephew. Captain Dick sends away his friend and together he and I walk down the hall to our hotel room where Isy has long since been asleep.
Good night, Captain. Good night, Vic.
In my sleep, I dream of Angelita. When I wake, she’s been replaced in my arms with spare pillows. The alarm is going off. We’ll need to head to the airport soon. Captain Dick is no longer missing; he’s there with his night-breathing apparatus pumping air into his head. Isy wakes groggily and looks in the direction of my uncle. El Capitán is dead they say, viva el Capitán, Isy says sleepily. I’ve no time to describe the night’s events to Isy as we all have to pack. I open the hotel safe to grab my passport and there, beside it, is the watch my father gave me. It must have been in the safe all along.
We left that morning. Isy for the Pacific Northwest; Dick and me to Florida. In the three hour layover in Panama City, Captain Dick snored while laying on a busy airport thoroughfare. Had I not woken him, he would have slept a week. In the time since the events in this story, Dick still cannot piece together what occurred to him between his time with Isy & me in the Old City of Cartagena and where I eventually found him back in the hotel lounge eight hours later. And he used to live in Colombia; Dick Neverman is no novice to a night out in Cartagena. He guesses his first trip to Hotel Desamor, with whichever woman, was to procure the bottle of aguardiente we had there. He was broke and a bottle in the hand lasts longer than two drinks at the bar. What happened after being turned away by the front desk is still a mystery to him.
There is no proof of Captain Dick having Devil’s Breath, escopolamina, blown in his face, but there is no easier explanation for his behavior that night.
Angelita had walked the entirety of Bocagrande with me. And she did have the most beautiful smile. After she left my side, I did think she had stolen my watch, only to find it later. And if Angelita had not been at my side throughout the night, who knows what jackals would have descended upon me.
Read more of Isy and Vic in Cartagena here.