Excerpt

77

Guillermo Saccomanno, translated by Andrea Labinger

The following is an exclusive excerpt from 77, the newly translated thriller by Guillermo Saccomanno, two-time winner of the Dashiell Hammett Prize. Set during Argentina’s Dirty War and narrated in dreamlike flashbacks, Gomez, a gay high school teacher is haunted by his feelings of complicity during an era of horrific state terrorism.

I’ve always resisted attributing prophetic qualities to dreams. And yet, if I poked around in the latest dreams that had made me sweat on my pillow, I ended up finding a key. Let’s put it this way: my dreams had preceded the events I’m telling about now. It’s true that if I dug through my yesterdays, I would also find, on a more realistic level, keys that struck me and explained these facts. When I say yesterday, I’m referring to ’55, but also the days when Esteban was kidnapped and what happened afterward. All of that is yesterday. And sometimes nothing is as remote as that yesterday.

I still hadn’t shaken off the flu, and my cold was getting worse. I shut myself in my apartment. I was losing my strength and my desire for night wandering. Even though a blow job, the aftertaste of cum in my mouth, might not have been such a bad idea, fatigue and indolence had weakened me. I was planning to get into bed with my Valium and a cup of tea.

One night, when I was already in bed, the downstairs buzzer sounded. I felt my heart bursting, a kick in my chest. I looked at the clock. After one-thirty. My tongue stuck to my palate. Maybe that’s what it was like to be tortured with an electric cattle prod. I put on my glasses and went out to the balcony. I could see two shadows on the sidewalk. One was Martín. The other, a girl. The fact that it was them, and not a police operation, brought me some relief, but only some. The street door required a key. I had to go downstairs to let them in. I pulled on my pants and shoes without socks. I went down with my coat over my sweater.

Martín was with a freckled redhead who couldn’t have been more than twenty. She was pregnant. Martín wore his sheepskin jacket and carried a bag, and she had on a trench coat. Her coat was open: impossible to button it over that baby bump. She held a hemp bag and a Pan Am duffel bag. They both smelled of the countryside.

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This is Red, Professor. My compañera.

He didn’t need to explain who she was. They didn’t even give me time to greet them properly. Martín looked to both sides, making sure, as usual, that they hadn’t been followed. Neither one asked permission to enter. They just did.

As the elevator rose, Martín switched off the light. We were three shadows: Martín, Red, and I. Three shadows rising in the elevator. The gears were noisier than ever. The elevator stopped two levels below the floor where my apartment was. Martín took out a 9 mm, opened the accordion door. Red took out a .22. Through the grating we watched Martín climb the stairs, step by step, gun in hand.

He didn’t need to explain who she was. They didn’t even give me time to greet them properly. Martín looked to both sides, making sure, as usual, that they hadn’t been followed. Neither one asked permission to enter. They just did.

Who are you people? I whispered. Bonnie and Clyde?

Red ignored me. We hung on the silence. Martín had been swallowed up by darkness. Time stretched out. Red and I remained in the elevator, silently, staring upward. We heard a brief whistle.

Decisively, Red closed the elevator door and pressed the button for my floor. Again, the gears. Again, we rose.

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***

Once we were back in the apartment, I noticed the floor. The linoleum and carpet bore traces of mud. They must have come from the provinces, from unpaved streets. From a place they could not return to.

I double-locked the Yale. Then I double-locked the Trabex. For good measure, I secured the chain. Martín and Red, standing motionless, looked around, studying the place. They both emitted the chill of the street.

Martín checked to see if the phone had a dial tone. Then he explored everything: the kitchen, the bathroom, the bedroom . . . He opened one of the balcony doors and stepped out into the night. A blast of cold, damp air stirred my papers. Martín closed the door again.

I couldn’t let you know sooner, Professor, he said. Nothing will happen.

I looked at her. Her breathing seemed labored. I helped her take off her trench coat, invited her to sit in the armchair, and offered her tea.

You’ll be okay here, Martín told her.

And to me he said:

Relax, Professor.

I nearly burned myself with the teakettle when I poured a cup for the girl. My pulse was racing. The tip of the china spout clinked against the edge of the cup.

She didn’t look quite so pale now. Color had returned to her face, and her freckles were more noticeable. But her smile faded as soon as she began stirring the tea, deep in thought. I could see that around her wrist she wore a little red ribbon with three knots in it. Red to combat the evil eye. Each knot, a wish. When the little ribbon wore out and fell off, her three wishes would be granted. Just one look at her expression was enough to understand that birds of ill omen flew among her thoughts.

In the silence, even the tiniest sound was an alarm. Then the three of us would look at one another, Martín at Red and at me, Red at Martín and at me, and I at those two desperate creatures who were struggling to stay calm. A simple screeching of brakes in the street below sufficed to make us shrink back. There was one moment: Red and Martín looked at each other and at me. I had the feeling they didn’t know what to do with me. I was an intellectual. And for the militants, intellectuals were wankers or chickenshits, incapable of taking action. Martín laid his automatic on top of the pages of my essay on Wilde. It seemed heavier and thicker than it was. A firearm. It seemed to be burning through the paper. No wonder people talked about packing heat. They were everywhere, even in poetry: a weapon loaded with future. Firearms as lyricism, those kids thought.

Martín embraced the girl.

How do you feel, he asked her.

She touched her belly.

It’s not kicking anymore.

You’ll be okay here, Martín repeated.

And Mara, she asked.

You ought to rest, Martín replied.

There’s the bedroom, I said. You can use my bed.

Red brushed her hand across her face, rubbed her eyes like a sleepy child, and allowed Martín to lead her away.

From here, from this living room, through the half-open bedroom door, I saw how Martín untied her boot laces, saw her bare feet. I could hear the murmur of a nervous, staccato conversation, mostly Martín’s voice, soothing her. Red was arguing in a quiet voice and Martín was soothing her. From the living room I could see Martín, from the back, sitting on the edge of the bed. I couldn’t see any part of Red except her legs, one of Martín’s hands gently touching her belly, as if taming an animal. Although I couldn’t see her, I knew she was crying. When the voices quieted and the silence was complete, Martín returned to the living room.

I need a shower, he said.

Typical of Martin, who never asked for or requested anything: he ordered.

I pointed to the bathroom.

He didn’t thank me, either. I went to the kitchen and made more tea. I heard the heater bellowing. It didn’t take long. Martín showered and shaved in minutes. And when he emerged, shaved and showered, he was a new person. He seemed much younger without his mustache. He was, in fact, young. Only I hadn’t realized exactly how young till that moment. The towel was around his waist, and he smelled of my cologne. But what really caught my attention, even more than the missing mustache, was the little chain with the crucifix.

I recalled a passage from his mother’s novel. The Indian raid attacks the fort. A lance kills the heroine’s military officer husband. An Indian grabs her and hoists her onto his horse. Kidnapped in the raid, having left civilization behind, and seduced by an escape that she had so often dreamed of, she isn’t the typical, weepy captive. As she gallops along, clutched by the Indian, she yanks off the crucifix and tosses it away. A real symbol, that act. As she rids herself of the crucifix, the protagonist repudiates not only her origins, but also her class and her faith. Of course I had noticed Martín’s crucifix. It surprised me even more than his compañera’s little red bracelet. I could really use something warm, he said.

And I served him a cup of tea.

Something strong, too, he said.

I took down the  bottle of whiskey from the shelf, removed two glasses from the cupboard.

By way of thanks, Martín said:

I needed that.

I didn’t say anything.

It’ll be only for three or four days, Martín said. It’s just that we’ve got no place to go, Professor. They ransacked the whole house. Luckily we weren’t there when the military showed up. There were documents there. Our compañeros are going to fall.

Do you believe in God? I asked him.

No, he said.

And that crucifix, boy? I asked.

It was my mother’s. What about it.

I felt like exploding with rage, but I contained myself. Martín realized I was pissed off. He went back to the bathroom, picked up his clothing, and got dressed.

I really apologize for coming, he said. It was the most convenient and safest thing.

Stop apologizing, I retorted. It’s not about what might happen to me. It’s about her, about the life she’s carrying.

The baby is the future, he said. And Red is my compañera.

Compañera, my balls, I said. You’re a manipulative piece of shit. You think I’m an idiot. Why didn’t you call me after Rosario, I challenged him. What happened with that Mara girl, I asked.

Don’t worry about her, Martín said. She’s all right.

I’m no purist, I said, but if you want to change this world, start by admitting you’re a scam artist, like everybody else. Don’t play the big shot with me, boy. Compañera here, New Man there, but you’ve got the double standard of the typical Argentine macho. Her with her little red bracelet and you with your crucifix. You people have an explanation for everything. What do you take me for.

I’m no purist, I said, but if you want to change this world, start by admitting you’re a scam artist, like everybody else. Don’t play the big shot with me, boy. Compañera here, New Man there, but you’ve got the double standard of the typical Argentine macho.

Martín downed his whiskey in one gulp.

You opened the letter, Martín said. You read it.

We were silent again. For a long time.

What happened to that girl, I insisted.

The way things are, Martín attempted to explain, I couldn’t ask anyone from the organization to take that letter to Mara. Besides, if Red finds out about Mara and reports her to the organization, they’ll demote me. Article 16. Mara is Red’s best friend. I’m responsible for her. Mara couldn’t make the appointment because she had to move out of a house. I can’t tell you anything else.

Martín walked toward the living room. He grabbed the 9 mm, stowed it, and before heading for the door, said:

If it’s me calling, I’ll hang up after three rings. Three rings and I hang up.

And if you don’t come back, I asked.

I’ll come back.

And if they come, I said.

Red knows what she has to do.

The cyanide, I asked.

Martín stuck out his hand. I didn’t respond to the gesture. Maybe I should’ve asked him for a pill for myself, too. It was more than likely I’d need one pretty soon. When he left, I turned both locks and fastened the chain. I heard the elevator descending, the front door opening, and, once more, silence.

In the living room, next to the armchair, lying on the carpet, was the hemp bag. I picked it up. It was heavy. It contained a grenade and a pistol. I grabbed the bag and went to the bedroom. The girl was sleeping. I laid the bag next to the bed.

Stealthily, taking care not to disturb her sleep, I pulled two blankets out of the wardrobe. I covered her with one of them. With the other, I returned to the living room, collapsed into the armchair, and curled up.

***

Red spent a few days in the apartment. She wouldn’t go out, she promised me. Martín had forbidden her to poke her head out into the street. It was wise advice. We had our first exchange when I saw her examining my library. From one end to the other. She came and went.

Lots of English, she said.

What do you have against the English? I countered.

You’re kind of a Sepoy.

I didn’t answer.

Why don’t you have a TV, she complained.

What’s your name? I demanded.

Why?

I may be a Sepoy but I’m no snitch, I said.

Red studied me.

So you met Martín when he was a kid, she said.

She looked pensive. And then:

Diana, she said. Let’s say my name is Diana.

The huntress.

More like the hunted, she corrected me.

Which one are you, then?

Both of them, she explained. The huntress and the hunted.

Diana, and from then on she would always be Diana, turned on the radio. She listened to the news stations. Rivadavia and Mitre: she went from one to the other. According to Muñoz, the entire country was getting ready for the 1978 World Cup, a huge deal. The World Cup captured everyone’s attention. She was obsessed with the news.

Diana asked me for newspapers, too—all the newspapers. She read them intently, with anguished interest. I could imagine what she was expecting to read.

Subversion has been put down, said the papers. The military reported that the voting urns were well guarded. But the politicians, as if nothing was amiss, kept on massaging the military’s back, hoping for a favor. Nobody paid too much attention to the internal struggle among the armed forces to see who would end up in control. According to the papers, the Junta was studying the possibility of the three branches of the armed forces handing over the presidency to a military officer chosen by mutual consent: the fourth man. A Human Rights functionary from North America had traveled through the country. The Yanquis, the driving force behind the coup and proponents of a swift extermination of the insurgency, as Kissinger had advised, now seemed annoyed by the Argentine military’s sloppy butchery. This dictatorship had become an international scandal. Now the Yanquis threatened to withdraw their support. The Communist Party denounced this North American interest in human rights. They criticized it and rejected it as just another imperialist intervention. The Bolshis’ betrayals were historical. At this point, they had good reason: the dictatorship was selling wheat to the Soviet Union. The only safe topic of conversation was soccer. All attention, as I said, was on the World Cup. We Argentines need this World Cup, said Muñoz. We were going to set an example for the world.

Diana didn’t need to tell me what piece of news she was looking for in the papers. Luckily she didn’t find it. She smoked and walked endlessly.

Don’t you have any mate? she asked.

I drink tea, I said.

How British, she teased me.

I may be a half-breed, I replied, but I’ve got class.

Oh so British, your thing: Wilde and tea.

If you’re granted political asylum at an embassy, you don’t question the flag.

Touché.

In the morning, when I went off to school, I felt unburdened. But later, as the hours went by, whenever I thought of Red, my fear grew. I returned to the apartment with my heart in my throat.

Her swollen ankles covered by a pair of wool socks, Diana paced back and forth. Then she would sit down and clutch her belly. Now I was the one pacing back and forth. And she followed me with her eyes. After a while, I would try to concentrate, read and write for a bit, but it was impossible. Now she was the one walking from one end of the apartment to the other. She moved the .22 from the nightstand to my desk, from the desk to the armchair, from the armchair to a kitchen shelf. Wherever she went, that firearm went with her. Even to the bathroom. Every so often she took the grenade out of the hemp bag, placed it on the coffee table, and put it away again.

Now she was the one walking from one end of the apartment to the other. She moved the .22 from the nightstand to my desk, from the desk to the armchair, from the armchair to a kitchen shelf. Wherever she went, that firearm went with her. Even to the bathroom.

Without cigarettes, Diana became unbearable. She constantly asked me to go downstairs to a kiosk, to bring her cigarettes. She smoked dark tobacco. Particulares, like Martín. I obeyed. If I brought her two packs, she smoked them right up. She smoked endlessly. I chided her:

Tobacco is terrible for you in your state, girl.

What state? she asked. A state of siege.

I pointed to the little red ribbon she wore on her wrist.

And that red? I asked. Bolshevik or Ecclesiastical?

Red for danger, she said.

Put out that cigarette, I challenged her. Diana was skinny, angular, and thick-lipped. She was attractive in an Anouk Aimée sort of way. As with Martín, I especially noticed her broad, bruised hands. Why had she gotten involved in this violence, I wondered. What the fuck business was it of mine, I reproached myself. Who did I think I was to go around sticking my nose in these kids’ lives? But, I asked myself, were they really kids? Why underestimate them? If there was one thing that couldn’t be denied, it was that they had rejected all guarantees of a warm, shiny future and chosen to risk their lives for a better world. Even if they were more like missionaries than militants, I couldn’t underestimate them. Who was I to question the girl’s reasons for teaching reading in a slum. I, too, had my populist heart when I taught my students Sarmiento from Hernández Arregui’s perspective. It made no sense to confront Diana with my weak, well-meaning, middle-class schoolteacher arguments. The fact was that these kids, by entering my life, had shaken my foundations. Maybe it was just that I, an immature old man, didn’t recognize the passage of time, and no matter how much I might have denied it, I was grateful that the young folks had restored my lost intensity. Dawn was breaking again. Diana had fallen asleep in the armchair with the radio on. I turned it off.

She woke up.

Just go about your normal life, she said.

What about you, I asked. Do your parents know?

Turn on the radio, she said. My parents know what I chose.

Do you want me to call them?

Their phone is probably tapped.

I looked into her eyes.

Put yourself in their shoes.

And who’s putting themselves in mine? she replied.

I shouldn’t have added:

And in the baby’s? Who?

But I said it.

I noticed her eyes were weepy. I found the handkerchief that my mother had given me, the one with my initials embroidered on it. Diana took it, dried her eyes, and returned it to me.

I know what I want, she said.

But she didn’t seem very convinced. No matter how many tears she swallowed, she didn’t seem convinced.

I’m going to buy you yerba, a mate and a bombilla.

I turned the radio back on. Even though I couldn’t stand any more commercials, I turned it on.

Diana seemed to read my thoughts.

It’s not a good idea for you to know a lot more about us, she cut me off. And it’s not good for us, either.

She said the same thing as Martín: Do your thing, Gómez. When we leave, don’t turn around. Look straight ahead and go about your normal life.

_________________________________

From 77. Used with the permission of the publisher, Open Letter. Copyright © 2019 by Guillermo Saccomanno. Translation copyright © 2019 by Andrea Labinger.




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