That was a person, right? That was a man.
Minka’s knee is already way too close to the steering wheel as she brakes hard. The car stops just short of a short tree. She knows that tree. Coca.
She looks forward, not into the rear-view, because behind her is the curve. There’s no seeing around curves.
She hears thumping, dull, rhythmic. It’s her right hand smacking the map next to her, again-again, crinkling all of Colombia down into the seat cushion.
When she kicks the door open, it flies back in on her, so she kicks the damn thing again to stand, peeling her skirt off the god-awful upholstery, foamy-felty stuff, sticky with synthetics, chevroned in bad royals, purple and blue, oiling its smell of windows rolled and air conditioning and hours of cigarettes into her dress.
After the hinge groan, the door slam, nothing. No birds.
Her sandals, perfect moiré, smoke with the dust they’ve stirred.
That was a man, right?
Minka follows her tracks back, wobbling. In gravel, stilettos aren’t good for jack. She thinks, Take the shoes off, but then she remembers she’s not home. This is literally foreign soil, so foreign things must live in it. Bugs. Germs.
Her mother grew up in Florida. She said she went barefoot her whole childhood. As a result, she got worms through the soles of her feet, eggs that bored their way up into her intestines and grew there into actual long, white worms that she had to expel. That was her mother’s word, “expel.” As in “shit.” As in worms in her shit.
The shoes stay on.
At the apex of the curve, Minka sees nothing in either direction. She totters across the trough where she swerved, then inches to the shoulder. The land drops off: scruff bushes, thick, in every direction, bits of gravel cupped in the leaves, blossoms here and there, clustered stamens, acid-yellow, vibrating against fuchsia petals. An arroyo of fresh mud runs from her feet, down, down, dead-straight, man-wide.
There’s a man at the end of it.
He’s on his back, eyes to the sky. He wears a pink polo, perhaps a girl’s. It’s American—she can tell by the alligator stitched over his heart. He looks clean, neat, as if someone has just ironed things, his dark skin glowing the way dark things can in the dark, the way the fuchsia flowers around him are glowing now. Strapped from neck to groin is a mesh bag. Snack packs announce themselves through the netting in shelf-like compartments: MADURITOS, metallic blue; MAIZ-ITOS, metallic green; TOSTACOS PICANTES, metallic orange. A sign lies askew over his genitals, a tired wedge of cardboard. BOCADILLOS, it says, hand-inked.
The man’s head points down the mountain. The eyes stay open. Around his body sticks radiate, each one foiled and twisted into a topnotch of mango or guava or cherry. She sees that they are lollypops, fallen as he fell, gaudy exclamation marks surrounding him like the aureole of Nuestra Señora de la Candelaria back in town who somehow, crossing the ocean from Spain to Colombia, went from a black virgin to an ivory one.
Her hands are shaking now. She rubs them over her hips.
Don’t touch anything, she thinks.
Then, Fuck banking.
She knew the whole thing stank. “You’re perfect for the job,” a Senior VP told her on the security floor with no elevator, just the walk up to his park-view corner office where she stood for the offer on his cashmere Kashmir because no one invited her to sit. Big money, yes, but she’d had a bad feeling from the get-go.
Stories page through her quickly now. Pitch herself off the cliff—a life for a life? Or push the car over—stage an accident?
Instead, she throws the shoes one at a time as high and as far as she can. They’re so much heavier than birds in the air, their silk winking, first scarlet, then light-white, then black silhouette, then gone. A silence. A far-away crash. So satisfying.
The gravel hurts as she picks her way back to the car.
If I get worms, she thinks, so be it.
But for the crunch of her footsteps, there is quiet.
The car starts right away. She has to point her toes to reach the pedal. Then the wheels find their purchase in reverse and she’s back on the road, speeding.
Fuck the curves.
“You drove the Cordilleras by yourself?” Diff catches her as she starts to tip. Her feet, gravel-cut, scream in her pumps, the sling-backs she always packs for dinners. She reaches for the bar.
“You got a death wish?”
“I got a drink wish.” She pulls her elbow out of his hand.
It’s Friday night. They’ve snagged the last two stools in Medellin. Diff leans in for her eyes, then tries for their reflection in the mirrored back-splash, but she pretends to fuss with her bag. Here comes the lipstick. She works on herself up-small in the mosaic, etching, reddening. The guys on the other stools—she’s the only girl—try to catch her gaze. That’s a non-starter.
She’s been here with Diff many times before. Not here-here, but in every other centro comercial. The hotel is always some 19th century Euro shell, its exterior preserved to trumpet Empire Vanquished, while inside everything’s sharp and shiny—moderno—the latest in Latin design. Columns of gold. Ballrooms chromed like luxury cars.
Here, the bar itself is a screen of booze, glasses stacked to form a three-story apse. Pin-spots burn into massive urns of sequined florals. Trays of citrus prep and soggy nuts sit waiting. It’s a hell of a display with a room full of drinkers, and yet no one shows up to pour or even cut or wipe. It’s like a bomb has gone off silent and scattered the staff.
“Anybody home?” Diff actually climbs onto his stool, looking over the urns for the help. He waves a napkin. There’s some laughter.
“These people don’t give a rat’s ass.” A guy at the far end is hoisting himself over the bar, his accent Boston. He wears his tie racked off his neck. The tie speaks volumes. This is someone who inks deals and has the wardrobe to prove it.
“Help yourself,” he says. “We all do. They may charge you, they may not.”
Diff jumps from his stool, does the Olympic Perfect-10 with his arms and there’s more laughter. Something’s loosened up. He heads around to the business side of the bar.
“What’ll you have, lady?” Now Diff’s the saloon-keeper in a Western, brandishing maraschinos. “Come on, make it hard on me.”
“Gimme a High-Handed Mickey,” she says, and he says, “Sure,” and right then, right there, she likes him for it, because, in fact, there is no such drink.
He pours this, that, adds rocks and shakes, then slides her some fizzy thing in a highball glass, purple with grenadine, a flat of kiwi floating on top making it tricky to sip.
“Wow, Diff,” she says, “That’s the best I’ve ever tasted.”
Now they’re on the same page.
“I hit a guy today.” She can’t stand anymore. There’s nowhere to sit on the hotel roof so she’s sunk to the stone itself, dress hitched, legs hanging through the balustrade. Way off she hears some bad meringue—in el parque no doubt—bait for los turistas.
Diff’s leaning over the railing, looking at her legs from above. “Take your shoes off. You could kill someone.”
“You’re not listening,” she says. “I hit a guy.”
“Not in the face.”
He pulls on his beer, thinks she’s waiting to speak. She’s not. She’s waiting for him. He gets this. Then he gets it.
“You mean, with the car?”
“The company car?”
“Holy shit. Was he hurt?”
He slows up. “Dead?”
“Wow.” The beer goes down. On the ground, down. He squats face-level with her.
“Minka, are you serious? How could you tell from the car? Where’s the car now? Wait, was this guy American?”
She waves her legs off the ledge like a girl on a swing. “Nope.”
“It was a guy, right?”
“Right.” She pulls her legs back in, slides the shoes off and sends her feet out bare into the air again.
“Shit,” Diff says. “You could get us all in trouble. Like international trouble. Did you tell anyone?”
She turns full on to him. “You.”
“What does that mean? I’m an accomplice?” He’s back up now pacing the line of the balcony. “Jesus. My wife said not to take this gig. She said there isn’t enough money in the world.”
Still sitting, Minka wiggles her skirt out from under her altogether. She wants to feel the marble on her ass. Her thong cuts. She doesn’t care. She smiles. She likes the sharp cold up her spine.
“I’m familiar with regret,” she says.
It’s way too long a drive, but you don’t say no to Ituango. Minka’s well aware that only the handful of Americans prepared to handle phantom cash are asked to visit, so it’s an honor. You lose your shot if you say no.
She’s carsick from the switchbacks, lousy on mountain roads when someone else is driving. Impromptu car rides never came up in the plan presented back at headquarters, but here in Colombia, she knows, it’s when-in-Rome time. She’s praying the apparently required walk around town will kill her nausea.
“Welcome to my world.” El Mapaná pivots up ahead, extending his arms, his English clipped. According to everybody who’s anybody, stateside and all sides, this man has earned his name: the Viper, with a little twist on the “the.” Normally it’s la mapaná, but there’s no way this snake is going feminine. He’s the honcho. Today he’s also the client—his turf, his agenda—which includes the hours-long climb up several thousand feet to the village of Ituango so that he can play tour-guide in his own peasant centro comercial, a quaint mercado at the heart of his ancestral home.
“Esta es mi tierra.” He speaks directly to Minka, emphasis on the “mi.”
The men around him—and there are plenty leading, following, trotting to catch up—wear plain T’s, most of them black, but this guy’s gone theatrical. His hat’s not the gangster’s but the vaquero’s, butter-cream, woven superfino, not a trace of sweat beneath its sweatband. His suit’s a full three-piece, his shirt, a shock of plum, his tie, brick, knotted tight, and his jacket, a goddamn miracle. How does linen come out of a jeep draping that way? It swings unbuttoned to reveal a vest whose gorge rides high and wide so that Minka’s eyes go straight to his pants line. They’re supposed to. To see the swath of plum blousing there between chest and trousers, announcing, proclaiming, “Aquí está mi centro comercial.”
Minka brings her eyes to his, flashing a smile, the one she’s paid and paid well to flash.
The man swings back smooth as a cutting horse working his heifer. Diff steps in to hang off his shoulder, listening, head cocked. They’re back to business. Minka can’t hear a thing because she’s several yards behind where the girl always walks in such company, pretending to shop, dawdling for show.
The market bustles around them, and yet they are the only shoppers, strolling between mesitas piled high with crafts. The vendors are swarthy women all, dark people of the mountains decked in indigenous weavery—skirts and shirts and shawls pieced with yarn. They stand beneath improvised tenting of the same skirts and shirts and shawls hoisted and tied off on umbrellas or carved sticks or whatever’s handy to create shade, protection.
Minka feels like an artifact flown in from the planet Dazzle. Her dress, a low-luster white, stretches short and tight because that’s what she’s been told the client likes. The merchants eye her as if she were the merchandise.
They do not answer back.
From time to time, the two men, still conferring, turn to check on her. That’s why she’s here. In the end, she’ll be the closer, but until then, it’s all about creamy, un-sunned legs and smooth hair zebra’ed countless shades of gold, her bob, shear-perfect even after the long car ride.
As the men watch, she holds up a necklace of barely-fired clay beads: Marvelous! she mouths. She shoots a smile their way. Now some embroidery: Wonderful! This time her smile goes to the merchant who looks on, attentive, bewildered.
Everywhere the vendors stand. Not one has a chair or crate. It’s as if they’d been swept up at the last minute from wherever they lived and told to make an appearance al mercado, to dress como una campesina.
The men resume their conference. Talking, listening, El Mapaná smokes, his cigarette palmed backward at her, ash-out.
It’s maddening trailing the men, waiting for a final handshake. Minka knows perfectly well what percentage will satisfy both parties in the deal, but given the pace at which they’re pacing, it looks like nothing’s going to gel here in Ituango and she’ll wind up hours, maybe even days later, still impersonating un turista with the gig off and the jig up. One call, she knows, and they could charter a chopper, skip the caravan and airlift straight to el aeropuerto, hop the next flight to the free or freer world. But it’s a call she’s not authorized to make.
Distracted, Minka drops a clutch of needleworked handkerchiefs onto one of the mesitas scattering bracelets in all directions. “Lo siento,” she says, but before she can even bend over, women are diving around her, scooping everything up to restore the display.
All is as before except, at the next table, a woman is crying. She wears one of the blouses she sells, sleeves ballooned, yarn-cinched at the elbow. Plastic beads fringe a hand-stitched yoke. She lifts the blouse to wipe her eyes, leaving an unattractive stain down the front of it.
She’s the wife, Minka thinks. This is the wife. Which is nuts, but suddenly all she can see is the dead man. Lollypops. BOCADILLOS.
The woman looks away, then back, trying to pull herself together to make a sale. Her eyes puddling, she smiles. There are no teeth on the upper right side. She lifts a fresh blouse from the table—“Señora! Señora!”
Minka knows she should take herself right out of there. She should run and huddle with the men no matter how unwelcome that might be. But they’re way ahead of her now, their heads so close together they look like a single, dark beast penetrating a forest of swag.
She stares at the weeping woman.
She has no intention of speaking.
“What happened?” Minka asks her. “Did somebody die?”
The woman waves two more blouses, shaking her head. It’s clear she knows no English.
“I saw it,” Minka tells her. “Near Abriojo. A bus hit him. Hit him and drove on.”
A woman two tables over is listening. “Are you speaking of Culo?” she asks in good English.
Minka panics. “I don’t know his name. I’m sorry. Tell the woman I am sorry.”
“Oh, she doesn’t know him. She’s crying over money. But we heard about it on the news. The Cordilleras near Abriojo. Were you there?”
“Yes?” The woman steps between tables. “How?”
“How were you there?”
Nothing separates them now, just the air of the market, the day’s heat rising between them.
“How were you there?” Her question comes more loudly.
Minka expects the woman to hike her skirt, to reach up under whatever is under there into some pantalettes, say, some baggy cotton diaper big enough to harbor a pouch, perhaps, a pocket slung between her legs to hold the evidence she’s either found or been given: a single, tell-tale, banged-up, red silk pump, its heel surely broken, dangling.
Minka sweeps the handbag off her shoulder, yanks it open. “It’s none of your business,” she says. “Do you understand what that means? None. Of. Your. Business.”
The woman doesn’t move. Her skirt hangs undisturbed. There’s no hidden pouch, no shoe, only an insolence there in the eye, a message.
Minka’s pulling money from her wallet now, dollars, U.S. dollars, ten one’s, another ten, then a twenty, two twenty’s. A small fortune in these parts. It’s meant to be.
She counts them out in the air inches from the woman’s face. “One. Two. Three. Four. Five. Six. Seven. Eight. Nine. Ten. Ten. Twenty. Twenty. Do you know how much this is?”
And she’s dancing past the frozen woman waving the money as if shaking maracas, her voice pitched sharply enough that Diff’s head comes around.
“Souvenirs!” she calls to him.
“Bravo,” El Mapaná calls back, clapping his hands. Showers of ash vaporize from his knuckles.
“Ayúdala,” he barks. Two in his entourage head her way.
“Take anything you see,” he calls again. “They will carry it for you until todo se completa.”
Meanwhile, Diff’s giving her his sign, a finger circling hip-height. They’re winding up.
Thank god, Minka thinks. He must have promised his first-born to seal the deal.
She stands before the weeping woman now, pitiful in her puffy peasant get-up. One by one, she lays the bills out on top of the merchandise, a row, neatly parallel. It’s a windless afternoon. The money lies where it’s laid.
Minka measures her words as if talking to a child, a learning-impaired child, a stupid child. “I cannot help you,” she says. “I am not from here.”
She grabs the top-most blouse. “Thank you.”
There is no thank you back.
Minka runs. She catches up with the men.
Banner photograph: By Nelly Motta Jorelo (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC BY-SA 4.0-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons (Park and church of Suratá, Santander, Colombia )