So the river’s down, the sun’s starting to blur, and I’m out on my stoop working a late cup of coffee and watching a bunch of the neighbor kids play Jaguars in the mud below. They bare their fangs and brandish their claws and run in and out through the posts that hold up the houses in our part of Belén. The bigger kids hunt down the smaller ones, pin them to the ground and pretend to rip out their jugulars.
I finish my coffee and toss the dregs over the side. Under a house not far away there’s an odd-shaped shadow that wasn’t there a minute ago; I watch it slip from one post to the next, and finally I get a good look—it’s Lorenzo, who used to be as nice a kid as you could hope to meet. Then one night a couple of years ago his oldest brother drowned in the lake at the zoo where they both worked, and after that Lorenzo took a nosedive.
I happen to know a little about high-speed descents, and I tried to give him a hand, got him a job sweeping up at the radio station, but he didn’t last long; he stole an equalizer and Beto almost fired me. These days he only comes over to ask for money, which I never give him, or food, which I usually do.
There’s a knock on the rail at the bottom of my stairs, some guy I’ve never seen before, and he asks if I’m the gringo carpenter. I tell him I am and wave him on up. Like most of the men in Iquitos he’s five feet tall and bad teeth; the women, though, are sex on a stick, and go figure.
I ask the guy what he wants and he asks if I can build him a bloodwood credenza with hand-cut dovetails on the drawers. That kind of thing is bigger money than I’ve ever seen, and I tell him I wouldn’t have the drawers any other way. I ask when he needs it, and he says two weeks, so I’ll have time to find out about dovetails—I’ve seen plenty on antiques but never done them myself, let alone by hand. He gives me a sketch, we talk detailing and finishes, and agree on a price so fat you just know he’s running coke. He counts out a ten percent deposit, which should be just enough to buy the kind of hardware a piece like this deserves; he shakes my hand, walks down the stairs and away.
The hardwoods here are spectacular—cumaru rich as oak and grained even prettier, redheart and andiroba, Santos mahogany. I don’t have a real workshop, just a bench and a tool rack in the back room; word-of-mouth brings a little business in though lately things have been slow, slow as in all my shirts are see-through but they didn’t start out that way, and maybe this credenza will help turn things around.
Belén is the part of Iquitos that the tourist brochures call the Amazonian Venice, but I doubt they’re fooling anyone. Five months a year the river comes right to your stoop, and it’s canoes or peque-peques to work or school or market, and that’s nice enough, but the rest of the time it’s trash and mud to your ankles, the floating houses sunk in the muck and the stilted ones stuck fifteen feet in the air for what looks like no reason at all.
How I ended up here, well, when even the fake gunfighters at the Calico Ghost Town Regional Park wouldn’t have me—the manager told me to come back when I’d learned how to fall down dead realistically—I sat in my trailer in Barstow for three days trying to choose between suicide and a long vacation. I finally started asking around, the farther away the better, and on the Internet I found an advertisement for the Quistococha Zoo. There was a big beautiful picture of a huge-ass parrot, and I thought, a jungle zoo right there in the jungle!
Iquitos isn’t much to look at, but they say it’s the biggest city in the world that can’t be reached by road—you want in, you come by boat or by airplane. I got a job spraying for bark beetles, did three months of junior college Spanish and booked a ticket out of LAX. On the last leg of the flight I couldn’t believe the clouds down below, so dense and bright, tufted like the top of a forest too good for this world. Coming off the plane, though, I got smacked in the face with this thick humid heat the zoo website never bothered to mention.
The sun’s down and the mosquitoes are starting to swarm. I go inside, and hunched on the kitchen counter is a capuchin named Assface—he must have come in through a window. When he first started hanging out at my house, I called him Silvio, but one night I brought a bar girl home from Arandú, and he took a dump on my bed and threw the turds against the wall. I swear to god, if he wasn’t so good at letting me know about snakes in the house, I’d borrow a shotgun and sell him for scrap meat at the market.
I start a pot of rice to make juanes for dinner, search the fridge for some chicken or fish to put in them, and of course the fridge is empty. I eat half the rice and scoop the rest onto a plate for the monkey. Without even tasting it he dumps it on the floor.
To which I say: Assface, Assface, Assface.
And he looks at me and eats a single grain and comes over to search my hair for nits, but it’s almost time for my show, so I tell him we’re cool, put on a cleaner shirt, and head for the station. English Hour is nothing special—daily news, local history, pop gossip—and no one understands a word, which is just as well since I make it all up on the spot. I’d put some research into it if the gig paid more bills than just propane and beer, and anyway, odds being what they are I suppose sooner or later I’ll get something right by accident.
In the Plaza de Armas there’s a bunch of tourists climbing out of vans, and the vans have signs that say Quistococha. I remember, that very same day I arrived in Iquitos, first thing I did was dump my stuff at some hostel and grab a motocar to the zoo. It was smack in the middle of the jungle as advertised, not even a fence around the outside, just kind of an edge where they decided to stop slashing vines. Standing barefoot at the entrance was this skinny ten-year-old. When I walked up he said that his name was Lorenzo, and for a small fee he would tell me about the animals. I waved my guidebook at him and said I had those bases covered, and he pretended he hadn’t heard, started playing out his memorized spiel with this singsong accent that I thought was something he’d been taught but turns out is just how they talk in this part of Peru.
We headed down the walkway, and the first thing you see is a bunch of murals about local legends; there’s a mermaid and a demon, a donkey and some kind of ghost-boat. We walked around the cages and pens, all of them half falling apart, and he kept talking, and from what I could tell he knew almost nothing about the animals, who were as sad and beautiful as zoo animals anywhere. There were kinkajous and spider monkeys, ocelots and tapirs and a jaguar, toucans and otters and a pond full of paiche, which is this armored fish maybe seven feet long, and later I ran into them a few times in restaurants, and I’m sorry but you’ve never had fish this good ever in your entire life.
The only point where Lorenzo came in handy was in the Snake House, which is just this open-air ring of glass cages under thatch. I was looking at a boa when he yelled, Snake! And I thought, No shit, kid, but then he yelled again and I looked and sure enough, not in a cage but on the ground, thin and black and mean-looking. I asked if it was poisonous and he said it was, and then he punted it clear over to the peccary pen where it got caught in the fence and the peccaries tore it apart and ate it.
He led me down to a little restaurant at the edge of the lake where his brother ended up drowning a couple of months later, and I bought him a Fanta and told him he should maybe buy some shoes if he was going to be kicking venomous reptiles. He said he would if he had the cash. I’d stocked up what I could for the trip, and after he decided he was going to be my official guide to everywhere for the duration of my stay, I bought him some nice leather sneakers.
He wore them constantly until the night his brother stole them, snuck out of the house to meet his friends, and when they pulled the body from the water the shoes were gone. By the time I got around to buying Lorenzo some new ones all I could afford were cheap canvas tennies. He wore them for a year and handed them down through the brothers he had left; his baby brother Alonso still wears them, shreds held together with duct tape and twine.
I get to the station and Beto tells me I’ve got a special guest. I tell him I don’t particularly need a special guest, and he says he knows but he’s hoping to get in her pants. Turns out she’s five-foot-ten and sweet in all directions, won’t tell me her name, says she’s the Poetess. She doesn’t speak English and there goes the show’s integrity, but I’m not caring much at this point even if she’s obviously one of those women who wants everything to mean something. She talks about her new feline series, how the jaguar is dark and bejeweled, which isn’t exactly how I’d put it, but what do I know from poetry. When the hour’s done I ask if she wants some coffee, thinking I’d cut in line a little since Beto owes me two months of back pay, but coffee is the dumbest of all ploys and she says she thinks maybe not, so I head home.
Belén is Spanish for Bethlehem, and Quistococha means Christ of the Lake, and knowing Peru those two things have nothing to do with each other. I’m scrubbing yams when Lorenzo shows up. He says he’s got this plan he can’t tell me about and all he needs is a little capital. I ask how much and he says five dollars. I ask why he wants American money instead of Peruvian—not that it matters since everybody here has both—and he says because dollars are better. His eyes are shot red and he’s slurring his words and what he really wants is for me to go look for my wallet so he can steal a can of Terocal off my workbench.
I tell him I can spot him the money in an hour or two, and of course that’s a lie but it will give me time to hide the glue and lock up my tools. He says okay and takes off, and all I can think is how much I wish he was still some stupid kid punting snakes in the Snake House.
* * *
In the morning I head into town to pick up materials and chat with Mateo, who used to be a carpenter but now does good business running jungle tours. He’s got three wives in three houses and one son by each: Mateo Junior, Mateo Segundo, and Mateo Tercero, his three assistant guides. That’s a pretty common deal around here—lots of guys have as many wives as they can afford houses for. In Spanish the word for wives is the same as the word for handcuffs, and you’d think there’d be a lesson there but I guess maybe not.
A bunch of Danes are standing in the doorway trying on rubber boots, and Mateo Segundo is telling them about piranhas, how the movies have it backwards, that people eat piranhas instead of the other way around, but I’ve sat by the fire at his base camp and belted back his rompecalzones and heard the truth about his cousin who’s missing a leg from the knee down. Turns out you do need to be a bit careful in summer, make sure you don’t go swimming in those little oxbow lakes that form when a river dries up in both directions—the piranhas stranded in there have already eaten everything else and are getting pretty desperate, but tell me humans aren’t just the same sometimes.
I ask Mateo Segundo where his dad is, and he says he’s in back getting provisions ready. I find him stretched out on a bunch of canvas bags that are spilling dried lentils. It looks like he’s sound asleep but as I sit down he opens one eye.
—What time is it?
—Okay. You need any lentils?
—What I need is to find out about hand-cut dovetails.
—They’re like hand-cut pigeontails only fancier.
It takes me a second to get that this is a joke. He stands up, dusts himself off, takes a look at the sketch. He doodles a little in the margins, layout and chiseling and dry-fitting, asks me what I’m making it from, tells me I’ll need to practice first on scrap. By this point he’s got me a little freaked, but then he says that even if the joints are bad they’ll be fine since the client has no idea either, probably.
I thank him, push through the Danes and head for the lumberyards. Halfway there, though, there’s this restaurant, and sitting at a sidewalk table is the Poetess, and she looks even better in the sunlight. I ask if I can sit down and she says sure as long as we don’t talk about her poems, so I’m guessing the muse is on vacation.
I order aguaje juice which I don’t even like but at least it’s something to talk about—the fruit are these little brown golf balls, almost all seed with a thin layer of sour yellow flesh covered by scales you have to strain with your teeth. The Poetess leans back, says I have interesting hands. I say that I sure do, and now stumbling up the street comes Lorenzo. I realize he didn’t come back last night, so things are worse than I thought, and sure enough there’s a dirty plastic bag sticking out of his pocket.
He staggers up to our table, asks the Poetess for spare change. At first he doesn’t even recognize me, and when he does he bumps up his request to the five dollars I said I’d give him. I tell him I’m a little short, give him the aguaje juice, tell him he needs a shower.
When he walks away the Poetess asks how I know him. I tell her and she nods.
—He lives on the street?
—You should do something to help him.
—I tried. It didn’t work out.
—I thought he was your friend.
—He’s this kid I know.
—He needs help.
—Him and all his pals and everybody else around here.
—How about you go help him yourself?
I stand up, pay for the juice, push in my chair and head off to find somebody who’s got dry bloodwood and still thinks my credit is good.
* * *
I wake up to find Assface sitting on my chest; he’s tugging softly on my eyebrows, which is one of the ways he lets me know he’s hungry. I shrug him off and tell him to keep his pants on and find my own pants and head out. It’s the first time I’ve left the house in ten days except to do English Hour, which itself has been a mess because Beto’s pissed that I cut in on his dance with the Poetess and keeps fooling with the soundboard while I’m making stuff up about Madonna being Elvis’s daughter and a sixty-foot anaconda discovered in Pucallpa and how the jaguar just escaped from the zoo.
Point being, it feels good to take a look around, and if Assface is in danger of starving to death he can always pick his own damn fruit from actual trees. I walk all the way up the waterfront—half the rubber-baron mansions falling apart, and half still as beautiful as they were a hundred years ago—and near the plaza there’s a bunch of Brazilians running in circles around the Eiffel House like they maybe just won something.
That’s all the sightseeing I’ve got time for. I loop back around, and the market’s got all your basic market stuff, kitchenware and candy and socks, plus a whole other section for the kind of things you’d expect from the Amazon, herbs and roots and vines, fish from other planets and meats you’d rather not know about. Even after five years here I still get a little queasy every time I see a turtle shell full of monster grubs writhing in that thick red aguaje sap. To collect the grubs you have to cut down the trees and let them rot—it’s the only way to get grubs to grow in a place where you can find them later on. They’re three inches long and two inches thick and if you grill them just right they supposedly taste like chestnuts.
I duck in and out through the awnings, push down to the fish section; paco is cheap today, and I pick up a string for lunch. Then the usual things, as much coffee and veggies and meat as I can afford. On my way out I stop by to say hello to Gloria, who’s maybe seventy and is here all day every day selling little bits of charcoal, and there’s a tourist trying to take a picture of her. I’m betting he thinks the cuts on her feet are picturesque, and just as he’s about to click the shutter I smack the back of his neck with the string of fish.
He turns and says something angry in probably German, and I take a paco in each hand, squeeze them so their teeth show, and do this puppet thing where the fish talk about how much I’d like to kick the German’s ass. It takes him a while but he gets it. Gloria thanks me and tries to give me some charcoal, but I tell her I’m doing good in that department and to have a nice day.
Back to the house, I roast half a sweet potato for Assface, which thank god he eats instead of throws. The credenza’s mostly done, the drawer joints just as dovelike as I can get them, and the finish work is going great: a little more sanding, a couple coats of lacquer, a long night of rubbing the top coat to high gloss and I’ll be ready to mount the hardware and call Mr. Smuggler with the good news. I’m already dreaming about the money, and of course there’s debts to pay and tools to buy but maybe there’ll be enough left over to rent a little space somewhere, set up a proper shop.
I sand for a few hours, fry up some plantains and salted pork for tacacho, sand for an hour more. Then there’s a knock, and it’s the Poetess on the stoop, and for the life of me I can’t think of anything non-stupid to say.
How did you know where I live? is what I finally come up with.
—Did you really think you’re all that hard to find?
Which, okay, so I invite her in and show her around. She runs her hand across the top of the credenza, compliments me on how smooth it is, and I say Just wait till it’s done.
—I’m sorry about that thing with Lorenzo.
—It’s all right. Do I get to know your name yet?
She laughs, says it’s Elena, and I’m about to offer some cold tacacho when I remember about Assface, and there’s no way he’s blowing this one for me so I tell her I’ll be right back. I scout through the house expecting to find him tearing my pillows apart or relieving a little tension in the cupboard, but I don’t see him anywhere. I come back into the living room, and Elena’s sitting on the sofa; Assface is hugging her leg and has his head on her knee, which is nice, but also a little creepy, so I ask if she wants to take a walk down to the river.
There are kids paddling canoes in circles, and a bunch of peque-peques taking tourists up to buy trinkets from half-naked Jíbaros. The water’s a bright metallic gray, and butterflies come to check out the colors of Elena’s shirt. She asks me the usual questions, why I came here and why I stayed, and I give the usual answers. I ask if she’s got a boyfriend and she says doesn’t everyone but then she smiles.
The sky clouds up and two minutes later it’s pouring, not as in raining hard in Hackensack but as in jungle rain, as in the whole sky is a single overturned barrel and you can barely even see where you’re going. The kids in the canoes are hiding under the blades of their paddles, and we take off running. Of course the rain stops the instant we get back to my house, and the first thing I think is, God I wish her shirt were as see-through as mine, and the second thing I think is, Where the fuck is the credenza?
I run out and down the steps and the neighbor kids are there rubbing mud in each other’s faces, but they don’t want to tell me. Miguelito’s the sweetest and dumbest, and I pick on him until he says it was Lorenzo and his friends. Elena asks if we can meet for drinks at Amauta later on, and she’s only saying it to calm me down, and I tell her that sounds good so she’ll go away.
The credenza weighs a ton and you just know Lorenzo and his buddies fucked up the finish trying to get the thing down the stairs. I run and run and run, checking everywhere I can think of—the alleys where the other glueheads hang out, the furniture stores where he’s maybe hoping to sell, the Plaza de Armas, the artisans’ market, even places he’d never go, like school.
Three hours of this, up and back and up and back, and by now he’s sold the piece for a tenth of what it’s worth, split the proceeds however many ways and inhaled his share, no doubt about it. I’ve got umpteen layers of dried sweat on my chest and stink like rotten onions. No one in town will give me more wood on credit, which means I’ll have to explain to Mr. Smuggler that his credenza isn’t going to happen and I can’t even return his deposit, and for all I know he’ll decide that’s worth a bullet in my head. And even if not, Iquitos is kind of like the opposite of New York in that Sinatra song—if you can’t make it here, you can’t make it anywhere.
One last swing along the waterfront, and no dice, but there’s Elena sitting just where she said. I’m out of other ideas so I sit down, and she asks if I want a beer. I say need is more like it, and she smiles, says the first one’s on her.
We sit there and drink and talk, and she’s smart enough not to ask about the credenza. There’s a nice little breeze, and the swallows are looping and flaring through the air, and by the fourth or fifth round I’m thinking, okay, so I’ll probably end up dead or selling charcoal and socks in the market, but at least right now I’m here at the river with Elena and no one can take that away.
Which of course is when Beto shows up. He sits down, pretends I’m not there, flashes a brown-gray smile at Elena. The situation’s maybe about to get interesting, but she doesn’t pay him much attention and after a few minutes he gives up or forgives me or both. He shoots me a wink and buys the next couple of rounds with my back pay.
I slip my hand under the table to Elena’s knee, and she doesn’t pull away, so I ask if anybody wants to head up to Noa-Noa, maybe shake our hips to some salsa. She doesn’t seem much into it, and Beto says, At least let’s finish our beers, and just then I see Mr. Smuggler himself standing on the sidewalk.
He cocks his head at me, and I lean back quick in my chair. He walks over, puts his hand on Elena’s shoulder.
—And how is my credenza?
And I look at him, and then at her. Then I take a long slow pull on my beer. I look at him again, and wonder if she’s told him the truth—he doesn’t seem angry, but it’s hard to tell. I look at her again, and wonder if checking up on furniture was the only reason she came to my house, and realize it doesn’t make any difference at all.
—It’s going pretty damn well, considering.
He nods at me, nods at Beto, tells us to enjoy our evening. Elena stands and gives me a tiny shrug. Then she takes his arm, and off they walk.
Beto pats me on the back, says easy come, easy go, and I’m about to crack his skull when Mateo Tercero comes running by, sees me and stops, says Lorenzo is beating at the door of the tour office with a stick and scaring all the Danes and could I please do something about it.
To which I say that thanks to Lorenzo I’ll be eating grubs for the rest of my life, and he can ram the stick up his ass for all I care.
Mateo Tercero stares at me. And Beto stares at me. And people I don’t even fucking know stare at me from nearby tables. So I stand up and sway a little and say, Well I guess I probably should, though the truth is I’m thinking that maybe Lorenzo will have a little of the money left, and that kicking his face in will do me good either way.
By the time I get there he’s gone, and Mateo Junior points me south on Grau. It’s ten blocks before I see him. I pick up the pace a little, and I’ve only got half a block to make up when a station wagon blows by me, and just then Lorenzo lurches off the sidewalk into the street; the station wagon screeches, and it doesn’t actually hit him but he falls down anyway.
I stop for a breather. The driver gets out to see if Lorenzo’s okay. Lorenzo gets to his feet, wavers a little, brains the driver with the stick, and it’s hard to tell for sure but I’m guessing it’s bloodwood.
Lorenzo slides behind the wheel and pulls away. I check on the driver and he’s bleeding but otherwise fine. I flag down a motocar, and up ahead the station wagon is weaving nice and slow from sidewalk to sidewalk. Five minutes later we’re headed out of town toward Quistococha, and fifteen minutes after that Lorenzo rolls up against a big palm right outside the zoo.
The air has sobered me a little, and it doesn’t look like the car’s beat up too bad. I pay the motocar guy and send him off, slap at mosquitoes for a second, and wonder if I’ve made a bad decision: Lorenzo’s still got the stick, and now he’s ranting, seriously out of his head and looking stouter than I remember.
Of course the zoo is closed, which would be a bigger deal if it had a gate instead of just a shack where you buy tickets. Lorenzo sets off down the walkway and I follow him close, but just as I pick my moment he trips and lands on his face.
He lies there a long time, finally gets up, wipes at the blood on his chin and before I can say anything he starts off again. As always in the jungle there’s stuff falling out of trees constantly, leaves and fruit and branches, and it all sounds way too much like footsteps; now I’m thinking about anacondas and panthers and tarantulas, not the ones in the cages but the ones that maybe come to visit. Lorenzo’s jabbering again and I can’t quite make it out, but when he stops in front of the ghost-boat mural it all comes clear: he’s reciting his guide-boy spiel from all those years ago.
I wait and watch and wonder if he’ll head down to the lake. Instead he walks to the jaguar cage. I circle around but can’t see the cat anywhere. Lorenzo rattles the bars with the stick and starts shouting, how long coatimundis live and what they eat. His facts are as bad as they ever were, and there’s a long low growl.
I slip in a little closer, and now he drops the stick, brings his face right up to the bars, screams that he wants his brother back and his leather sneakers too. He’s crying and there’s blood and snot smeared together all over his face. He starts wrenching at the door and if the cat comes for him he’ll never get back fast enough.
There’s another growl and it’s not so quiet this time. I’m only a few yards away when something creaks and something cracks. Lorenzo keeps tugging, and it’s hard to be sure in this light but the hinges look like they’re bending. There’s a roar and I jump up on Lorenzo’s back and we slide down the bars and roll away, but he’s way stronger than he should be and we end up rolling back against the cage. Another roar and holy shit and I’m up and dragging him away but he twists and slithers, turns and jumps me, beats at me like I’m everything that ever went wrong.
I smack him to one side and we circle each other, breathing hard. When he comes at me again I wrestle him down. He claws at my face until I grab a rock and thump him a couple of times. Finally his whole body goes slack.
I roll off of him, toss the rock into the brush. He sits up, looks at me, and I don’t say anything. He lies back and after a moment so do I. We take our time catching our breath. The stars are good and thick overhead. I hear a fish thunk out in the lake, and the whole place smells like the world’s biggest lawn somebody just cut, and maybe we’ll just sit here for a while.
© 2007 University of North Carolina Greensboro